"It's going to rain soon," Dar announced, looking up at the sky.
Tao looked up as well and saw the clouds coming in, ushered by the same strong wind that moved their hair and clothing. "So I see. How long until it gets here?"
Frowning, Dar glanced over at his friend and said, "I'm not sure. Sharak says that it doesn't feel right. It's not a normal storm. He's gone to find shelter."
"Not a normal storm? How can he tell? Do his feathers ruffle differently?" Tao asked with a grin.
Smiling, Dar answered, "He just knows. We should find shelter as well if we don't want to get soaked. I think it's going to be a bad storm."
Lightening flashed as though to emphasize his words. Tao nodded and asked, "You said there were caves nearby?"
Dar nodded. "This way."
The pain he fought through was blinding and blanketing, covering his soul, as his physical body was no more. The blackness had long since seeped into him and taken over. His powers had kept the last little link of his mind and essence together through the long imprisonment. It had taken every bit of will he possessed to keep himself together when he had been shattered. He didn't know how much time had passed but it had been long enough for the Lord of Darkness to believe him well and truly annihilated. Long enough for him to slip his shackles and escape.
Long enough to plot revenge.
Tao watched the hail fall with a sickened fascination. He'd never seen it hail in the middle of summer before, not here in the Midlands at least. Thankfully, they had found shelter just as the large ice pellets began hitting the ground. Some were the size of his fists and he winced whenever he heard the cry of an animal in pain that hadn't found shelter in time. Dar was pacing the cave in frustration, wanting desperately to go out and help but knowing that he couldn't without injury to himself. Turning to his friend, Tao said, "It is an unnatural storm. You can apologize to Sharak for me."
A faint smile graced Dar's face but it was quickly gone. "I'll pass on the message."
"What do you think is causing it?"
Dar moved forward to stand beside him at the mouth of the cave. "I don't know but it can't be good."
"It has to be Balcifer somehow. Maybe Slythius?" Tao suggested.
"Could be. I don't think this is something that he would think of, but no one else has the power to do something like this," Dar agreed reluctantly.
Frowning thoughtfully, Tao said, "I thought Slythius could only scry the future. Do you suppose this means that Balcifer has granted him more powers?"
"I wish I knew." Dar sighed. "I think we're going to be here for a while. We might as well get comfortable."
Tao shivered a little. "Good idea. It's getting colder, too, can you feel it?"
Dar nodded and gave him a crooked smile. "At least we have a relatively dry place to rest."
Tao looked around the darkened cave and shivered again as the wind swept under his shirt. For a moment, he wished he had his old, green shirt; it was warmer than this one. Of course, he hadn't expected to need it as they moved further south in search of Dar's family. It was supposed to be getting warmer, not colder. "Do we have fuel for a fire?"
Shaking his head somewhat grimly, Dar answered, "It's pretty bare. I found some sticks towards the back but they won't last long. We should wait and see if it gets too cold before using them. I think with the blankets and body heat, we should be fine."
"Should be," Tao muttered.
Dar put an arm around Tao's shoulder. "Why don't we eat? That always cheers you up."
Snorting, Tao allowed himself to be led further into the cave and commented, "I'd be a lot more cheerful if it wasn't hailing in high-summer."
"So would I, Tao, so would I."
That voice sounded too familiar for comfort. Slythius froze in the act of undressing and looked carefully around his room. There was no one present and yet there was. It was someone of great, malevolent power and a slither of fear passed through him. "Who's there?"
"Just an old friend."
Still unable to place the voice, Slythius moved slowly towards his worktable, inching towards the wand of power that he'd been given. "Which old friend? I have...so many."
A cold chuckle filled the air. "If you do, they are quite well hidden. And don't bother looking for the wand, it's in my possession now."
The fear jumped up a notch. "What do you want?"
"Nothing. Yet. When I want something from you, believe me Slythius, you will know."
The sense of power and danger faded then vanished altogether and Slythius sank into the nearest chair. That had been far too close for comfort. Who was that? They had stolen the wand, that much was clear, but he thought there was something personal in the venom in the invisible being's voice. It had been a man's voice, which narrowed it down quite a bit since, strangely, most of his enemies of power were women.
There were few men of power these days and fewer still who opposed him as Balcifer's agent. The BeastMaster, of course, was at the top of the list. His friend the Eiron stood right beside him. They were equally dangerous to him, and to Balcifer, just in different ways. It hadn't been the voice of either man, however.
The only other man that he could conceive of as a threat was the Ancient One. But Balcifer had destroyed him utterly. Nothing remained of that menace. Pursing his lips thoughtfully, Slythius stood and went to his worktable. If he was going to determine the intruder's identity, he would have to start right away.
The hail kept going through the entire afternoon. When it finally died into a bitterly cold rain, night was falling. Dar was afraid for the animals outside the cave. He had invited as many of them inside the shelter as would comfortably fit. Tao was less than thrilled with sharing the small space with the monkeys, especially the one now sitting on his shoulder, grooming the dark hair. Dar managed to suppress a laugh at the image but couldn't stop the smile.
"You could help, you know," Tao said sourly.
"Oh I think he's doing a wonderful job, all on his own," Dar observed, rapidly losing the battle not to laugh.
"Very funny. Would you please get him off me?" Tao demanded.
Dar met the monkey's eyes and thought, "Very clean. Tao thanks you."
The monkey chittered back at him with images of Tao being looked after. Grinning broadly, Dar said aloud, "I think he likes you."
Staring at Dar suspiciously, Tao asked, "What do you mean by likes me?"
"Let's just say that if you were looking for a mate, he'd love to step in," Dar explained. As expected, Tao shot to his feet, dislodging the monkey who rushed to his friends, scolding Tao the entire time. Now helpless with laughter, Dar leaned weakly against the rough cave wall.
"That wasn't funny!" Tao exclaimed, pointing his finger at Dar.
Still chuckling softly, Dar answered easily, "Sure it was."
A reluctant smile surfaced and Tao began to chuckle at himself. "You're lucky that you're my best friend. I wouldn't let just anyone do that to me, you know."
Dar smiled and turned back towards the cave opening. "It's getting worse out there."
Walking up to him, Tao sighed and said, "I know. The temperature's still dropping which can't be good. The rain will freeze solid and people and animals will die if without shelter."
"Do you think...should we contact the Sorceress? Ask her to find out what's causing this?" Dar asked hesitantly. In the dark, Tao's eyes were barely visible. Dar knew that something had happened between Tao and the Sorceress while he'd been trying to rescue his sister from beyond the Veil of Death but Tao wouldn't talk about it. Dar himself was less than thrilled at her deal with Balcifer but right now she was the only person in a place of power that might help them.
Jaw tightening, Tao replied, "I don't want to no, but it's probably the only way to find out what's really going on."
Nodding, Dar called out loudly, "Sorceress! We need to speak with you!"
Eyebrows arching curiously, Tao asked, "Think that will do it?"
Dar shrugged. "We'll find out, won't we?"
"You two look awfully cozy."
Dar looked up at the feminine voice. "It's a little cold in here."
"So I noticed," Sorceress commented, waving her hand over the embers of the pitiful, dying fire. It grew by degrees and soon the area was lit with a golden glow.
Dar felt Tao shift in his arms as the sleeping man instinctively sought the heat. Releasing his friend, he affectionately settled Tao closer to the flames. Of them, Tao was far more susceptible to the cold. Dar had actually been perfectly warm just holding his friend as he slept. "Thank you."
She shrugged, blond hair spilling gracefully over her shoulders at the movement. "You called?"
"We wanted to know if you knew what was causing all this," Dar explained.
Pouting, Sorceress shook her head. "I don't. It's most annoying. Making far more work for me than you could imagine."
"Work?" Dar tried to keep the disbelief from his voice.
An amused smile crossed her face. "Yes, work. I may not be Kurupira but I do take an active interest in my surroundings, Dar."
Dar kept his thoughts about that to himself, instead asking, "Can you stop whatever this is?"
"Not yet. But I am working on it," she answered.
"What can we do?"
"For now? Nothing. Simply stay out of the way."
Before Dar could speak, she vanished. Snorting, Dar shook his head and went to curl up against Tao's back, pulling the blanket over the two of them. At least it was warmer in the cave. He hoped that she had spelled it to last the entire night.
Dar and Tao surveyed the ruin that had been a thriving jungle only the day before. Shards of ice still hung from leaves and branches. The grass had been pounded into a muddy nothingness. Morning sunlight sparkled on the remaining hail scattered throughout the area, looking almost like innocent jewels instead of destructive ice. Looking at the blond warrior, Tao said, "Dar, I can't believe the damage!"
Shaking his head, Dar replied, "This is going to take a long time to heal. The animals who didn't die from exposure won't have as much food as they would in a normal season. That might throw off the rutting season in the fall. Tao, we have to find a way to fix this."
Sympathetically, Tao grasped his friend's shoulder. "There isn't anything we can do. As unnatural as this storm was, we have no power to undo its wreckage."
Dar sighed. "I know. You're right. But all this destruction."
"Well, let's go see if there is something out there we can help," Tao said firmly, putting his bag over his shoulder.
They walked for most of the morning without coming across any animals or people. The further they went, the worse the devastation became. It was almost as though they were nearing a target of some kind, if a storm could be used as a weapon. Dar was relieved when they came across few dead animals and no dead people.
"It's almost as though the storm avoided hurting anything except the land," Tao commented curiously. He sat down on the only semi-dry patch of land in the area and pulled his bag off, setting it beside him.
Dar sat on a nearby rock, pulling his legs up as he responded, "A storm can't do that."
Shrugging, Tao pointed out, "This one has. We already know it wasn't a normal storm. Perhaps it was directed after all."
"If it were Slythius, he'd try to hurt us the most by hurting the animals, not avoiding them," Dar said.
"If it were Slythius," Tao agreed. He pulled out a melon and tossed it to Dar who caught it neatly in midair.
Pulling his dagger from his boot-sheathe, Dar cut the melon in half and then in quarters. He laid out one of the pieces for Kodo and Podo then hopped off the rock and brought the half piece over to Tao.
Dark eyebrow rising, Tao asked, "Not hungry?"
Dar shook his head absently. "There's too much chaos here for me to be hungry."
"You have to keep up your strength, Dar. Eat," Tao ordered, holding out a chunk of bread.
Smiling faintly, Dar took the bread and retreated to his rock. He knew better than to argue with that particular tone of voice and so began to eat the bread. Before he knew it, the fruit and bread were gone and he wordlessly accepted the cheese from his friend. Fortunately, Tao wasn't in a gloating mood. They finished eating in companionable silence.
A shriek sounded above them and Dar looked up at the familiar greeting. Sharak wheeled overhead, coasting on the crosswinds. Linking to the eagle, Dar asked, "How far is the damage?"
Through Sharak, Dar could see flattened land for many leagues in all directions. They were, in fact, near the center of the storm's radius. Strangely, there was a darkened center, almost as though fire had caught, though how in the freezing damp, Dar couldn't say. He broke contact with Sharak and turned to Tao. "There's a fire pit in the middle of all this. We should take a look."
Tao nodded, standing up and shouldering his bag. "Let's go."
It didn't take very long to find the area that Dar had seen from Sharak. There was actually a small crater in the center of the fire-darkened land. Something had struck the ground with great force but left no trace. Even this long after the event, the area was still warm. "What do you think happened?"
Moving forward cautiously, Tao knelt to touch the ground. "I don't know. Something hit here with great force. Maybe the storm wasn't the actual event. Maybe it was a side effect of this, whatever this is. Something materializing in our world? A battle between powerful wizards? Your guess is as good as mine."
Frowning, Dar looked around but could tell nothing of the cause. The storm had done its work, whatever that might be. "Perhaps the storm was a cover for what really happened."
"The truth is, we may never know," Tao said.
Dar nodded reluctantly in agreement.
"So what now?"
Dar looked at his friend and said, "Now we continue on to Jovan and help who we can on the way."
Tao smiled. "Sounds like a plan to me."
The devastation of the storm lasted for many leagues but they found few animals needing Tao's skills. Those who did, submitted almost meekly to his ministrations with little coaxing from Dar. That fact alone worried Dar; especially given that one of the animals was a tiger. Dar asked the beast what had happened but she couldn't answer. When she tried, her eyes rolled up and Tao ordered him to stop doing whatever it was he was doing.
Jovan was a mid-sized village who had so far resisted Zad's attempts to conquer it. Part of their success came from the natural barriers for their town and the other part to the fierceness of the people's fighting. They were making it far more costly to overrun them than the effort was worth.
To the back of the town was a huge rock formation that held tunnels and caves like rabbit warrens that could be used as an indefinite shelter. Inside the rock were pure underground streams and even a hot mineral spring. When Zad conquered Xinca, the Jovans prudently began storing food in the caves in anticipation of a siege. So far, it hadn't come to needing the caves but Dar had found the Jovans to be very pragmatic. If the village was overtaken, they would use the caves without hesitation.
The Jovans themselves had a fighting force to be reckoned with. Though small in numbers, in comparison to Zad's army, they were extremely skilled. Each Jovan could easily account for five or six of Zad's knights. Zad had first approached them as allies and offered them a place in his army. The Jovans had refused by sending his emissary back naked and painted black and red; the Jovan colors for battle.
They also had a wild sense of humor.
Walking towards the Jovan village, Dar smiled in relief at the normalcy they found. He could see the women going about their business while the children ran and played around them. The old men were sitting in front of their dwellings in small groups, talking and laughing. He assumed that most of the men were out hunting as the few visible were training or fortifying the large wooden wall that surrounded the town.
Tao groaned and Dar chuckled. Turning to his friend he murmured, "You're admirer returns."
Glaring at Dar, Tao muttered back, "If she tries to marry me again without me knowing about it, I'm going to strangle her on the honeymoon."
At that, Dar laughed outright and they faced the woman running towards them. Long black hair spread out behind her and her copper colored skin glowed in the sunlight. When she stopped in front of them, her dark eyes were glowing with happiness. "Tao! Dar! We didn't expect you back so soon!"
"Kisha, it's good to see you again," Dar greeted with a smile. He nudged Tao with his elbow.
"Yes, of course, it's great to see you again. Where's Lonan?" Tao asked hopefully.
"Lonan is out with the other warriors hunting. She'll be back at dusk," Kisha replied with a faint pout on her pretty face.
"How are the preparations for Zad's assault? Has he attacked again since we left?" Dar asked as they began walking inside the village.
"He hasn't attacked since then, no. And preparations are complete as far as I know," Kisha answered with a shrug. "I don't pay attention to it much. We can live in the caves for two years if it comes down to it, which it won't."
"I'm sure it won't. Your people have some very surprising strategies for fighting Zad's men. They never know what to expect," Tao commented.
Grinning, Kisha said, "I doubt he expected us to hide in the trees and swing down from behind last time."
"Or attack him with missiles of rotten fish," Dar agreed with a grin.
Kisha smiled. "The children do come up with interesting ideas, don't they?"
"I still find it fascinating how you listen to the children," Tao said.
"Why would we not? They are the reason for protecting the village. Without them, we would simply vanish into the trees and wait for Zad to grow tired of hunting us," Kisha dismissed.
"Most people don't listen to their children. They believe that the children don't know enough about life to have effective ideas," Tao explained.
"Children are closer to the Divine than we are. Of course they know more than we do," Kisha said simply.
Three of the children in question came running towards them, shouting Dar's name. Dar caught the little girl flying at him and swung her into the air. She shrieked with happiness then wrapped her legs around his waist. "Dar! You aren't supposed to be here until the full moon!"
Dar returned, "Where should I be then, Dala?"
"Oh you should be here. You just weren't supposed to be. This is much better," she said firmly, hands on his shoulders. "Mother will be very pleased that you have returned so quickly."
Ignoring Tao's soft chuckle, Dar replied, "I'm happy to hear that."
Looking down at the two boys, one of whom stood with his hands impatiently on his hips, Dar asked, "Yes, Ranan?"
"Kodo and Podo!" the boy demanded.
The other boy shoved him and ordered rudely, "Ask, don't tell!"
Ranan promptly jumped the older and taller boy and the adults moved quickly out of range. Dala shook her head and exclaimed knowingly, "Boys!"
Kisha laughed and said, "You are very right, Dala. Now why don't you go and finish your chores since I know you, Ranan and Storm have been playing all day."
After making a face, Dala kissed Dar's cheek and hopped down, running off in the other direction. Dar watched her go with an affectionate smile. "So things are all right then."
Kisha nodded. "Things are fine. I think Zad finally understood that we'd be much more difficult to conquer than he anticipated and simply weren't worth the effort."
"There's no dissension among the Jovan about not accepting Zad's offer?" Tao asked hesitantly.
Surprised, Kisha looked at him. "Why would there be?"
"He offered a lot of gold for you to fight for him as I understand it," Tao said. "Most people find that too tempting to resist."
"We have many such rocks in our caverns, why would we want more?" Kisha observed.
This time Tao and Dar were surprised. Tao asked, "You have gold in your caverns?"
"The golden rock, and some silver as well," Kisha replied. "We don't use them. Both are too soft for weapons and not very pretty."
Snorting, Tao replied, "I think you're probably the only ones who think that."
Dar caught Tao's eye as he asked Kisha, "Do outsiders know that you have these rocks?"
Kisha shrugged. "We make no secret of it but we haven't had strangers in our village for many, many years. Well, except for you and Tao. I would say no, no one knows of our rocks."
"Why don't you trade the rocks for things you need?" Tao asked curiously.
"What do we need? We have food, shelter, our children and our elders," Kisha answered. "And taking the rocks from the caverns would hurt the land. We ask the spirits for what we need and they have always given us what we truly need."
Shaking his head in admiration, Tao said, "The Jovan people are very wise."
Smiling suddenly, Kisha moved closer to Tao and said, "Wise enough to guide you when it comes to marriage, Tao."
Almost swallowing his own tongue at the blatant proposition, Tao looked frantically at Dar who was grinning unrepentantly, but couldn't think of a single thing to counter the woman.
"You are absolutely no help whatsoever," Tao complained, a few hours after the evening meal.
"She likes you. Who am I to interfere with true love?" Dar teased. He ducked the blanket Tao threw at him, but just barely. Tao's aim was definitely improved from when they first met.
Scowling, Tao sat on the pile of furs and blankets that he'd claimed for his bed. "Dar, be serious for a moment. She refuses to accept that I don't want her, let alone that I don't love her."
"But you do like her," Dar pointed out, sitting on his own set of furs.
"Of course I like her. She's smart, brave and has a wicked sense of humor. Who wouldn't like her? But I don't love her!" Tao exclaimed, growing angry at Dar's continued complicity. It was almost as though he was trying to get Tao to settle down and stay here. With either Kisha or Lonan. Frowning suspiciously, he asked, "What are you trying to do here, Dar?"
Dar lay down and closed his eyes. "Nothing."
"Yes, you are. Are you trying to leave me behind?" Tao demanded.
Dar didn't answer for a long time. When he finally did, it was in a whisper. "Zad tortured you for being with me, for what you know and wouldn't tell. He could have killed you so easily, Tao. Arina almost did kill you while under that demon's control. You would be safe here."
Of course. Tao should have known this would come up sooner or later. They hadn't talked about it once since his rescue, which was always a bad sign. Laying down, Tao sighed and said, "Dar, my place is with you. It is as much my fight as it is yours to protect our world."
Turning onto his side, Dar replied, "No it isn't. As you pointed out, this is my destiny, my fate. You don't have to be anywhere near me while I seek out my family."
Hurt, Tao replied, "I was trying to help you not to give up the battle altogether, Dar. I wasn't saying that you needed to do this alone. I also said, and I repeat, that Dartanus told us we were supposed to do this together."
"Dartanus has his own reasons for doing this and I don't always believe they are good ones," Dar said flatly. "I want you safe, Tao. I want you safe and happy and..."
"And?" Tao prompted.
"I want you safe and happy. You said yourself that the caverns hold much about the Jovan history. That they lived in and used them for many generations. The last time we were here, you told me that you wished you had years to study them and their culture. You could do that. You could marry, have a family and do your studies all at the same time. Live a good life."
Where was all this coming from? Tao wondered. He'd been in dangerous situations before but Dar had never tried to wrap him in cotton by hiding him away. Before he could ask, Dar answered his silent confusion.
"You mean too much to me, Tao. I don't know if I can put you in another situation where you could get killed."
"But you can Arina, is that it?" Tao demanded angrily. "You were willing to give up when you thought she was dead. Now that you know she isn't, you've turned your attention to me? The weakest link in your chain? I don't think you even realize how insulting that is."
Sitting up as Tao stood, Dar asked, "Where are you going?"
"I need some air," Tao answered shortly.
Tao ignored him and left before he said something they'd both regret.
The beginning was simple, as it inevitably was: a little seed of doubt here, a smidgen of anger there. To work the magic of betrayal took skill. Too much emotion too soon, and the players would know that something was wrong. Too little emotion too late meant that the plan didn't go off at all. It was difficult to tell just how much of each distrustful element to invoke at which time. That was the skill of a master. Knowing human nature in all its dark and bright glories was essential.
There were exceptions to each rule and the bonds between the BeastMaster and the Eiron were strong. It would take a deft hand to loosen those ties until they could knot painfully. There were other concerns aside from the normal challenges of destroying this friendship. It would be difficult to play them against each other and maintain anonymity, which was vital. If either man suspected a third party was involved, they would unite, stronger than before. It had happened before and could easily happen again.
If there were more time, victory would be assured. But the constraints were many and time was definitely a factor. Fortunately, as with most men, the easiest way to rupturing their friendship would be through a woman and there were three from which to choose.
When Dar woke the following morning, it was to an empty room. He could feel it without even turning over to check. Tao hadn't returned. Sighing heavily, Dar glanced over at the empty bed of furs and blankets. It wasn't as though he'd meant to insult Tao. He didn't want anyone else at his back. But if nothing else had been pounded into his head over the last few weeks, it was that life was fragile and precious; Tao's life even more so than most.
Seeing what Zad had done to Tao to gain knowledge of their quest had almost broken Dar's resolve. He'd wanted to rip Zad apart for even daring to lay hands on Tao, never mind hurting him as badly as he had. And then when Arina had plunged her sword into the scholar, Dar had almost lost it completely. There had been nothing he could do to stop it with so many swords at his own throat.
This was their life. It was filled with danger and death stalked them for sport. The night that he'd thought Arina was dead had driven him over the edge. Everyone he loved died because of his quest. Dar knew that he hurt Tao that night. Through all of Tao's calm reasoning, there was one thing that kept him firm to his relinquishing of his quest: that Tao would be killed next. He could bear anything but that. When morning came and Tao left without him to search for Arina, Dar knew that no matter what side the rock landed on, he had to follow. Where Tao went, Dar followed, if only to keep the other man as safe as possible.
Which was the whole problem. If Tao remained with Dar, he would be at constant risk. Tao was willing to take that chance but Dar no longer was. He had to find a way to keep Tao here, safe with the Jovan who would be thrilled to have the scholar. Their village healer had died of fever the previous year and her apprentice was far too young and unskilled to replace her, though the boy tried. Tao would be more than welcomed; he would be cared for and protected as an asset to the village.
Add to that the two women vying for his attention and Tao had the makings of a very good life. A life filled with love and caring and things for him to study. It was everything Tao had told Dar that he always wanted and nothing that he could have by staying with Dar. In order to have that life, Tao had to live here with the Jovan.
Dar desperately wanted to find a way that their friendship could survive his forcing Tao to stay with the Jovan but he didn't see it. The most permanent way to be certain that Tao would bide here was to break off their friendship altogether. He already had the makings of that fight. All he had to do was nurture the break and leave. Tao would remain and he would continue on the quest.
With a heavy heart, Dar stood and went in search of his friend.
The dawn was cool and fresh as Tao sat quietly by a large tree just outside the village. His eyes were gritty and hot and so were closed as he meditated. Throughout the long night, he hadn't been able to stop replaying his argument with Dar or the reasons behind it.
"You could get hurt just sitting there like that."
Startled out of his meditation, Tao's eyes opened and he exclaimed, "Arina! What are you doing here?"
Smiling, the tall woman replied, "Not happy to see me?"
"Of course I am," Tao said, standing and holding his arms open. They hugged briefly but tightly then stepped back. "That doesn't answer the question. Why are you here?"
"I need Dar's help," Arina explained.
Stiffening slightly, Tao said, "What for?"
Flushing a little, Arina said, "It's personal. I'm sorry, Tao."
Though thrown off by the response, Tao recovered quickly and said, "That's fine. I think he's still sleeping."
A wry grin crossed Arina's face as she said, "After dawn? And why are you up this early?"
Chuckling softly, Tao admitted, "I haven't been to sleep. We're going to be here for a few days, or at least we were, so I've been up all night going over the cave histories."
"I don't know what you find so interesting about dirt and rocks," Arina commented, shaking her head with a grin. She held up a hand to stop him and said, "And I don't have time right now to find out."
Echoing the grin, Tao said, "I'll save it for later. Why don't you go find Dar and I'll get us all some breakfast."
"That sounds great. I haven't eaten since yesterday morning," Arina said.
Frowning, Tao admonished, "You really need to take better care of yourself. Traveling is hard on your body and if it doesn't have enough food, you'll hurt yourself."
Mock-saluting, Arina said, "Yes, Tao!"
Snorting, Tao ordered, "Go on. I'll get some food and meet you back at the dwelling. Go down the center of the village and stop at the last one on the left. Dar should be there."
Tao watched her go with a frown. There was something strange going on but he didn't know what. Traitorous thoughts wondered if the personal reason for seeking out Dar was the same one that had Dar quitting his quest at her supposed death. Tao firmly shook the unkind thoughts away. They would tell him what was going on once they'd had time to talk things through. That was how it worked.
'How it used to work was you and Dar. Arina was on the outside and now you are.'
'Stop it! They are both my friends!'
'Used to be. Now it's Dar and Arina together as equals and you as deadweight that always needs rescuing.'
'No! That's not true!'
"Tao? Are you all right?"
Startled out of the vicious thoughts, Tao looked up at Lonan's approach. The slender, dark haired woman wore a simple green dress that replaced her warrior leathers. Eyes as dark as pitch smiled at him uncertainly. Schooling his features into a carefully pleasant expression, he nodded. "I'm fine, thank you. Just about to search out some breakfast."
"May I accompany you?" she asked.
Tao offered his arm, which she took, and said, "Of course."
Lonan was much quieter company than Kisha. She was warm and intelligent as well as brave. Exactly the kind of person Tao had always expected to end up with. Her interest in the learning arts wasn't as great as his but then, few people had that same drive. That she was genuinely curious about what he found fascinating was gratifying. Dar almost never showed that kind of interest in his work. He would simply sit nearby quietly, doing his own work as Tao did his.
"Who was that woman?"
Coming back to his surroundings from yet another internal tide, Tao replied, "Arina. She's a warrior friend of Dar's."
Curiously, Lonan asked, "But not yours?"
A slip of the tongue if ever Tao had heard one. "No, of course she's a friend of mine as well. She and Dar are just closer friends than she and I."
Frowning at the tone, Tao demanded, "What?"
"They are lovers, are they not?"
Tao shook his head. "No."
A dark eyebrow arched but Lonan refrained from further comment. They arrived at the large table where most of the village was already gathered for breakfast. Tao put together a tray of fruit and a large bowl of porridge to share with Dar and Arina. He smiled his good bye to Lonan and headed towards the guest home he was sharing with Dar.
Tao stopped short upon seeing Dar and Arina. They were embracing but it wasn't any kind of embrace that Tao had before witnessed between them. Arina's head was tucked into the hollow of Dar's neck and the warrior's hands rested low on Dar's backside. Dar's arms were wrapped around Arina's waist and he held tight to the woman. His eyes were closed in an almost peaceful expression that Tao had rarely seen. The last time it had been present was before Kyra's death.
Heart beating heavily in his chest, Tao tried to make his feet move but was rooted to the spot. They were lovers, just as Lonan had guessed. Why hadn't he seen this before? It made sense. Arina was strong, she was a warrior, like Dar. They fought side by side, sword to sword these days. Tao was nothing more than a hindrance to them.
The tray dropped from nerveless fingers as he realized why Arina was there. She was asking Dar to go with her. He didn't know why now, why she chose this time to ask, but Tao knew that expression on Dar's face. There was no way that the BeastMaster would refuse her. Horror flooded through him as he realized that this had all been planned. Probably since Arina's near-death in the river. Dar had returned here with him only to be sure that Tao had a place to live. That was why all the overt pushing into Kisha's charms the night before.
When the bowl hit the ground breaking into many pieces, Dar's head snapped towards the sound. The wide green-gold eyes locked onto Tao and even as the warrior drew breath to speak, Tao turned and ran. He couldn't face either of them and ran towards the person he knew would give him sanctuary.
"What's with Tao?" Arina asked curiously, stepping back from Dar.
'He knows that I'm leaving him behind,' Dar thought sadly. He knew that expression on Tao's face. It was the same devastated look that appeared whenever someone the healer cared for hurt him, intentionally or not. When his teacher, Zolan, had died. When his brother forced Tao to choose between them. When Dar had sacrificed himself to the rogue tiger, leaving Tao alone. It was a look that he'd prayed never to see again, let alone cause. Forcing himself to speak, Dar moved to pick up the broken bowl and replied, "It's nothing. You were saying?"
"Zad's army has cornered a small village not far from here. If we hurry, we can make it there in time to help them," Arina explained.
"And you're well enough to fight?" Dar asked, touching her shoulder.
Smiling, Arina nodded. "I'm fine. Back to normal."
It was perfect timing of course; almost too perfect. It felt as though the gods were telling him that this was the right thing to do. That they'd sent Arina to give him the excuse he needed to leave Tao. "Let me say good bye to Tao. I'll meet you out front."
"Good. I'm going to grab some breakfast on the way," Arina said, taking the tray from him.
"See you there," Dar agreed.
He walked towards Lonan's house, knowing that that was where Tao would go. Between the two women, Lonan was much more suited to Tao than Kisha. The tall warrior woman was standing out front of her own door, apparently waiting for him. Her expression did not bode well. "Can I see him?"
She shook her head. "I don't know what happened between you just now but he's very upset."
Dar nodded slowly, expecting that. "Take care of him for me."
Pursing her lips thoughtfully, Lonan stated, "You're not coming back."
"He has a place here."
"Yes. He does."
"Then that's all that matters," Dar said quietly. "When he's ready to hear it, tell him I'm sorry."
Lonan nodded and held out her arm in parting. "He will be honored and protected here, BeastMaster."
Dar clasped her arm tightly. "Thank you. I'm in your debt."
She stared at him a moment longer, a slightly sour look coming to her face as though tasting something bad, then withdrew her grip. "I would say that you're welcome back but that's not true any longer."
Dar had known that she would figure it out and grimaced faintly, nodding his acceptance. He turned and left without looking back. Ruh fell into step with him with an uneasy grumble and Sharak called out his position above. Kodo and Podo rode safely in his bag. Everyone was with him except the one person who mattered.
He didn't look back. Tao watched from the window but Dar didn't once turn around. Leaning his head against the windowpane, Tao felt old all of a sudden.
'What are we doing?' Tao wondered suddenly. This wasn't like them. No matter what was going on, they had always been able to talk through their problems. If nothing else, Tao didn't want to lose their friendship. Dar was far too precious to him to let hurt feelings or an argument to come between them like this. He tried to go after Dar but once again his feet wouldn't move. A wave of dizziness overcame him and for a moment, Tao felt as though something was in the room with him.
The dizziness passed and nothing was left except anger and hurt that Dar would leave him.
The trip to the village in trouble was a long one. Dar and Arina alternated running with a fast paced walk. By 'not far' from the Jovan, Arina had actually been talking about a full and hard day's travel. When they reached the village, Dar was nearing the end of his considerable strength. Throughout the silent journey, Dar was able not to think about Tao and what had happened. Concentrating on keeping his footing and maintaining his breathing helped center him solely on the physical.
When they arrived, however, the village was calm and showed no outward signs of being in imminent attack. They stopped just inside the treeline.
"I don't understand," Arina said. "The message said that Zad was practically camped outside their village and they were desperately in need of help."
"What message? You didn't actually talk with these people before coming for me?" Dar demanded.
Arina shook her head. "It was a message from a friend of mine who does as we do, travels the land helping out where she can."
"How do you know it was from her?" Dar pointed out, a sick feeling coming over him.
Shocked, Arina answered, "I never considered that it wouldn't be. It held a code phrase that we always use."
"Where was she last traveling?"
"North of here, near Xinca. You don't think Zad…?"
Grimly, Dar nodded. "It would be the perfect opportunity to get both of us out of the way to attack the Jovan."
"Let's check out the village first. It could just look normal, maybe it's a trap," Arina said hopefully.
Dar had never prayed for an ambush before but as they moved carefully around the outskirts of the village, it was evident that there was no attack coming. When Arina was satisfied that there was no trap, they entered the village openly to speak with the people. After talking with a few of them, Dar knew that this had been a feint to get them away from the Jovan. Turning to Arina he said, "We have to go back."
"Dar, we're both tired. Even if we made it back by dawn, which isn't likely given out state, we wouldn't be any good to them. If we rest here tonight then we'll be fresh in the morning and will arrive under cover of dusk," Arina pointed out.
Everything inside told Dar that he needed to leave right then. His instinct said that he had to get back to Tao as soon as he could. But Arina was right. They were both tired and that meant mistakes in judgement. After a long moment, he nodded abruptly and said, "We leave before dawn."
Dar pushed himself as hard as he could to get back to Tao, not caring if Arina kept up. He sent Sharak ahead to scout hoping that they were wrong. This one time he wanted to be panicking about Tao for no reason. Why did Tao attract trouble so easily? He ran through the underbrush, jumped over fallen trees and ditches. Each minute that passed told him that something was desperately wrong.
He knew the Jovan were capable fighters; they could more than hold their own against Zad. That was the purpose of leaving Tao there in the first place. But if treachery was in place to get him and Arina out of the way then Zad had a plan for infiltrating the Jovan, even if it meant going into the caves. He didn't know if Zad realized that Tao was there alone or not.
Stumbling to a halt, chest heaving as his battered lungs tried to draw in air, Dar leaned against a tree as Sharak linked with him. The Jovan village was a smoldering wreck and Zad's knights were crawling all over it, finishing off the job. Bodies of men and women littered the area but Sharak spied none of the smaller bodies that would indicate children. Dar could only hope that that meant they'd had enough time to escape into the caves.
Arina collapsed on the ground beside him, also breathing heavily. "What is it?"
"The village has been destroyed, many are dead," Dar reported, running his hands through sweat dampened hair. "Sharak doesn't see any children so some of them might have made it to the caves. Or maybe they escaped into the forest, I don't know."
Closing his eyes, Dar shook his head. "I don't know. Sharak can't risk getting close enough to see."
"Dar, I am so sorry about all of this," Arina apologized.
Helplessly, Dar replied, "You couldn't have known."
"Neither could you," Arina echoed. She stood and moved close to him, reaching out to squeeze his arm. "You can't blame yourself for this, no matter what we find."
With haunted eyes, Dar returned her look and said, "If Tao…if he's gone…"
Arina nodded mutely. "We'll find him. He's fine, you'll see."
Dar wished that he could be as certain.
It was only a couple of hours after Dar left that chaos erupted in the Jovan village. Out of nowhere, Zad's knights were not only coming in the front gate but out of the caves as well. Tao was talking with Lonan when it happened. She was trying to convince him to go after Dar, that things weren't as bad as he thought. When the shouts sounded from front and back, Lonan grabbed the nearest weapon, a large stick, and began running towards the fighting.
Tao stood there for a moment before realizing that the caves were no longer a safe retreat. He could see the knights pouring out of them and spared barely a second to wonder how they got there in the first place. Rushing towards the area where most of the children played, Tao picked Dala up on the way, pulling her into his arms as he ran. He reached the group and ordered calmly, "Come with me! It's all right, just follow me!"
The children were frightened but obeyed him instantly. He brought them to the west of the village where the fighting seemed the least heated and slowly inched through the spaces between the dwellings. He had most of the children, though not all of them, in tow and kept his eyes peeled for any of the others. Tao knew that the best way to get them safe was to reach the forest. From there, the Jovan children could probably hide him better than he could them.
They reached the nearest point to the gate with shelter and Tao paused. Fighting boiled around them, Jovan warriors taking out more knights than the other way around but the sheer number of Zad's men precluded a Jovan victory. Zad had done his planning well. It looked like there were about ten knights to every Jovan and more were pouring through the gates. He waited for what seemed an eternity but finally, no more knights came. Tao waited another few minutes to be certain then said to Storm, "Run as fast as you can through the gate. I don't think there are any more fighters coming."
"What about you?" the older boy asked, dark eyes wide.
"I'm going to stay here until I see you've made it. Run as fast as you can and don't let any of them fall behind. Once you get into the forest hide for everything you're worth. I'm counting on you to get the others safe, Storm," Tao said, resting his hand on the boy's shoulder. Tao swore that he saw the already serious boy age at least five years just then as he took on the responsibility. Looking every way to make certain, Tao nodded and said, "Go! Now!"
The children were most of the way through the gate when Tao saw a couple of Zad's knights rushing towards the ragged line. Shouting, Tao ran out from his hiding place and jumped, throwing himself on them with the full force of his momentum. All three went down in a heap and it was only moments later that Tao found himself on the receiving end of a kicking session. Curled up in a ball to protect as much of himself as possible, Tao saw Storm hesitating at the gate and shouted, "Get out of here!"
Mercifully the older boy obeyed just before one of the heavily shod boots struck Tao in the head and sent him into painful darkness.
"Tao. Tao please wake up."
The voice sounded very far away but the gentle taps to his face were definitely adding to the throbbing pain in his head. "Stop, please. Hurts."
"Tao! Oh, I'm so glad you're all right!"
Kisha's voice, Tao recognized at last. He took a moment to assess his own injuries and decided nothing was broken. Gingerly, Tao opened his eyes and winced as even the faint light hit them. "Where are we?"
"In the forest," Kisha answered.
Tao saw that she was bruised and bloody all over and started to sit up so he could check her over but thought better of it at a sharp pain in his side. Gasping, he fell back to the ground and groaned again. "How did we get here?"
"The warriors signaled a retreat. We picked up as many of the wounded as we could," Kisha explained.
"I don't know. She hasn't shown up yet."
Gritting his teeth at unexpected pain as he tried to move again, Tao asked, "Do they know what happened? How did Zad get into the caves? Who else is here?"
"Only about a quarter of the village made it out," Kisha answered tearfully. "The warriors fought to the last to get the rest of us safe. We don't know how Zad found the secret entrance to the cave. Someone has betrayed us."
Tao sighed as deeply as his hurt ribs would allow. "Are there any bandages? I need to set my ribs then I can tend to the others."
"We don't have anything," Kisha answered.
Of course not. They were lucky to have gotten out with their lives. "The children!"
"They're fine," Kisha soothed. "Met up with us shortly after we escaped. We're well hidden, Tao. No one will find us."
Tao breathed a little easier and forced himself to sit. Others needed to be looked at who were in worse condition than he was. It took a long time since he had to favor his ribs but eventually, Tao was able to treat most of the injuries. When he was finished, Tao carefully collapsed back onto the ground, wanting nothing more than to sleep for a week. His vision was blurry and his head was now throbbing in time to his ribs and back.
"Tao? Drink this, you need water," Kisha said, kneeling beside him.
Tao cracked an eyelid to see her holding a small waterskin. "I don't think I can even lift my head right now."
"Let me," she murmured. Scooting closer, she gently raised him onto her lap and held the waterskin to his lips.
Tao drank the cool liquid slowly but gratefully, feeling it go all the way down his throat to his stomach. When she pulled the skin away, he asked, "What now?"
"Now we rest here and regroup. Others will find their way here if they can. We'll spend the night and then leave in the morning if everyone is able to travel," Kisha informed him. She brushed hair from his forehead then rested her hands on his shoulders, massaging them lightly. "Sleep, Tao, you need to rest."
Feeling comfortable and almost not in pain, Tao relaxed into sleep.
"What do you mean he isn't here?" Zad roared. "Find him! The Eiron is to be brought to me alive, and in one piece, or you won't be by the time I'm finished with you!"
The soldier who'd risen to Kelb's rank after the other man's murder nodded shortly and bowed his way out of the camp. Watching him go, Zad wished that he hadn't been quite so hasty in his killing of Kelb. If nothing else, Kelb knew how to track the bumbling scholar. With the BeastMaster out of the way, it should have been an easy task to have Tao in his grasp.
Slythius had foreseen the victory with the BeastMaster gone and victory was indeed his. Most of the Jovan warriors were now corpses waiting to rot and completely unable to oppose him. The mines filled with gold and silver were in his possession. Everything had gone according to plan except for Tao. Whoever had sent the message about both the BeastMaster's departure and the secret cave entrance had done their work well.
Still, even if Tao somehow escaped him, which wasn't likely, the mines and the defeat of a skilled fighting force were almost enough to put him in a good mood. Having the Eiron would be a pleasant diversion, but not a necessary one. The note hadn't said much, just that the BeastMaster and the Eiron had parted ways. Parted ways. That had such a nice ring to it. He hadn't believed it possible but something had finally driven them apart.
"It's about bloody time," he muttered, pulling off his armor and moving towards the bed. His men might not sleep tonight with looking for Tao, but he certainly planned to. If the two men were well and truly parted then the biggest stumbling block to his complete dominion over the Midlands was gone. Yes, it was a good day indeed.
Tao woke in the middle of the night to the sound of a hushed argument. He listened while the rest of him remained still. He recognized Lonan's voice as one of the arguers and his spirits lifted instantly. As he took in the discussion, however, they plunged just as quickly.
"You're wrong, Lonan! Dar wouldn't do that to us!" Kisha whispered angrily.
"I'm telling you it had to be him! No one else even knows about the caves and who else could have told them about our defenses?" Lonan said flatly.
"What about that woman who was with him?" Kisha demanded. "We don't know her."
"She wasn't there long enough to know about the caves, though I suppose she could have told them about our defenses," Lonan agreed reluctantly. "It would make sense that they worked together then. Tao said she and Dar were close friends but I'm sure they were lovers. They had that look and why else would Dar leave Tao here?"
"Even if that were the case, which it could be, I don't know. Even so, why would he help Zad when Tao was with us? He would never risk Tao's life like that," Kisha pointed out firmly.
"Once I would have said the same but…Kisha…you weren't there. I know Dar was doing something dishonorable when he left. I know it in my bones. I just didn't think it would be this."
There was a long silence then Kisha said, "We can't tell Tao. It would hurt him so badly."
"I know. And the BeastMaster has hurt him quite enough."
Tao's thoughts whirled in confusion. It wasn't true. It couldn't be. They didn't know Dar as he did. Dar would never have betrayed them like this! It went against everything that Dar believed in to help Zad in any way, especially if innocent people would be hurt in the process.
'It also used to be against everything Dar believed to leave someone he cared about behind,' that niggling voice whispered.
'He still believes that!' Tao raged to himself.
'Then why are you here? He left you here to fend for yourself because he has Arina now. He never needed you, he tolerated you at best.'
'No! That's not true!'
"Tao? Are you all right?"
Opening his eyes at Lonan's voice, Tao looked up at her and said, "No. No, I don't think I'm going to be right again for a long time."
Sadness was etched deeply in the warrior's dirty face but it grew at his words. "You heard us."
"I did," Tao confirmed. Miserably he continued, "He wouldn't do that, Lonan. He wouldn't betray us like this."
"I'm sorry, Tao, but there's no one else who could have done so. No one but Dar even knows about the caves and what they contain, let alone how to get in them," Lonan said gently. Long fingers reached down to stroke his face. "Dar did this. He left you here, with us, to die."
One voice he could fight. But the voices were coming from within and without, as deadly an assault as the battle the day before, and it was driving Tao to the edge. He knew that Dar wouldn't have done it but every single point of evidence said that he had. The doubts within were worse than the accusations from without and, feeling shamed and hurt and confused, Tao closed his eyes, trying to slip into darkness to escape the maelstrom.
So close. Irrevocable was the aim. Irrevocably broken apart as glass shattered against stone. The balance of the world was as delicate as the balance of friendship between these two men. They were that important. A few more careful nudges and the Eiron would be pushed over the edge and not come back. The BeastMaster had somehow slipped his grasp but it took two for a friendship to work.
And so long as he held the Eiron within his power, that friendship was doomed.
The next time Tao woke it was full light out and the few warriors left to the Jovan were talking quietly, planning their next move. He was still sore and his body felt as though it had received a pummeling. Since that was exactly what had happened, Tao supposed that meant he was feeling all right. Getting slowly to his feet, Tao caught Kisha's attention and the slender woman rushed to him.
"You shouldn't be up until we have to leave," Kisha scolded. "Of us all, you were the most badly hurt."
Snorting painfully, Tao observed, "That doesn't surprise me. But I need to move around to loosen my muscles. Dar always says…"
Kisha gripped his arm sympathetically when his voice trailed off. "I don't know why he did this but he must have had his reasons, Tao."
So Kisha believed that Dar had betrayed them as well. Why shouldn't she since Tao was beginning to think the same? If Dar had returned in time to help them, if he hadn't left with Arina in the first place, there were so many ifs that would show Dar's innocence. Unfortunately, none of them applied. A bitter smile surfaced as Tao said, "If he did this, we don't want to know his reasons, Kisha. It would mean that somehow he has succumbed to Balcifer and is serving that darkness by aiding Zad."
"You sit here. I'm going to get you some fruit," Kisha ordered, helping him to a large, fallen tree.
Tao's gaze lifted to the sky at the familiar shriek of a hawk circling overhead. "Kisha."
She looked back at him.
"I think that's Sharak."
Kisha looked up as well then nodded. "I'll tell Lonan and the others that Dar is looking for us."
Tao nodded and rested on the tree. If it was Sharak than Dar wouldn't be far away. Was he coming to hunt them down or explain that he had nothing to do with the attack? If it were the latter, would the Jovan believe him?
'Would I?' Tao wondered wearily.
Dar and Arina arrived just before sunset and cautiously circled Zad's camp, searching for Tao and any other survivors. No one within the Jovan village moved unless they wore the armor of Zad's knights. Once making sure that there weren't any captives, especially not Tao, Dar told Arina to circle around towards the river while he searched the other side of the caves. He wanted to search the forest with Arina by him in case of traps.
It was full dark by the time they met up inside the trees and Dar knew that to search would be folly. Even if Ruh or the ferrets caught Tao's scent, finding them in the dark would be dangerous for all involved. Reluctantly, Dar agreed to wait the night and they found a safe campsite.
The night passed slowly and without a fire or conversation. Dar took first watch and stared up at the sky, praying that Tao was all right. It was the first chance that Dar really had to think about everything he'd done since setting foot within the Jovan village. How could he have been so stupid? Why had he ever thought that leaving Tao behind was the best possible thing to do?
After Arina's near death in the river, Dar had been thinking a lot about the course of his life. About the destiny that Tao had reminded him of during that long, dark night. His responsibility to the world was great and he would honor it not because he had the strength to do so but because Tao had the strength to do so. It was his friend's example that Dar followed and he would continue to respect it.
But without Tao by his side, Dar knew that he would be of no use to anyone once he defeated Balcifer.
'If I defeat Balcifer,' Dar amended wryly.
Dar knew now that no matter what the outcome of this, even if Tao never wanted to speak to him after, he had to explain all of this. He would make Tao listen to him for this one thing and Tao would either forgive him or…not. Dar was counting heavily on Tao's generous spirit to forgive his insane behavior but if that didn't happen, well, Dar would have to continue on as best he could.
"Do you really think that you can manage without him?"
Jumping to his feet even as he pulled out his sword, Dar faced the intruder. He knew that voice… "Ancient One?"
Stepping into the moonlight, the older man looked at him shrewdly. "I can see that this world has gone downhill a bit since I was last here."
"Where have you been? Sorceress said that you were destroyed by Balcifer," Dar said, relaxing as the wizard made no move to harm him. They'd been allies in the past, perhaps they were still.
"Yes, well, rumors of my destruction were, unfortunately, fairly accurate. It's taken a lot of time and patience to return to this wonderful world of ours but I have managed it," the Ancient One said. He moved to stand near Dar, his long robes rustling in the dark. "But it doesn't seem as though you've managed half so well as I, and yet, Balcifer has not attacked you directly."
"Balcifer hasn't attacked us at all except through Zad and his lackey Slythius," Dar replied, finally sheathing his sword when it appeared as though the Ancient One was there only to talk.
"Ah yes. Slythius. A dear, sweet man if you like the underhanded, back-stabbing sort," the Ancient One observed with an amused air. "I paid him a visit not too long ago and borrowed one of his toys. Handy little gadget that. It makes rematerialization so much easier. I am terribly sorry about the storm, by the way, but it was an unfortunate side effect of the spell I needed to begin my return to this plane of existence."
"So it was you."
"It was," Ancient One confirmed. "Tell me about the last few days. When you entered the Jovan village, I lost track of you. Did you and the little missus have a fight?"
Stiffly, Dar replied, "If you mean Tao and I, then yes."
"Come now, you can tell me all about it," Ancient One offered, his words sympathetic, if not his tone.
Dar shook his head. "I'd rather not."
A steely look entered the dark eyes as the wizard countered, "I'd rather so. This is important, BeastMaster."
Hesitating a moment longer, Dar gauged the wizard's resolve before beginning to speak. "I don't know how it started. I was thinking that Tao would be safe with the Jovan, that if he stayed with me he would get killed. I...I used his feelings for me to make a break in our friendship so that he would stay with them. I acted false to both of us and when I see him again, I'm going to tell him so and ask for his forgiveness. I only hope that he will give it to me."
A gray eyebrow arching in faint amusement, the Ancient One replied, "Oh I seriously doubt that he will. But you mustn't hold yourself completely responsible. Using doubts against one's enemies is an old ploy but not one with which you've had much experience."
"Are you saying someone used magic to split us apart?" Dar demanded.
"That's exactly what I'm saying."
Pacing away, Dar asked, "How do I fight something like that?"
Pointedly, the Ancient One informed him, "You don't. I do. Right now you need to get to Tao and pull him away from the Jovan as quickly as possible. Something is clouding him from me and it's not Slythius. Until you get him away from them, he'll remain under this spell and won't want to hear anything you have to say."
Dar nodded slowly. "I'll do that. What then?"
"Talk to him. I would hesitate to give you this advice, not being the motherly sort you understand, but if I were you, I would root out these problems regarding your friendship or things will just get worse, and quickly."
The look in the Ancient One's eyes was unmistakable and Dar flushed.
"The doubts came from somewhere, BeastMaster. Keep that in mind. If you don't address them, eventually magic won't be needed," the Ancient One said before disappearing.
"Ruh found Tao's scent!" Dar said, instantly shifting his course to head west for the tiger.
Arina nodded and fell into step with him. He had woken her shortly after the Ancient One disappeared and explained what was going on. They had gotten up in the pre-dawn to look for Tao and get him away from the Jovan. She was furious at how she'd been used and was looking forward to some serious alone time with whoever was responsible.
Dar followed Ruh's path as it led through the trees, away from the village. Sharak called from overhead and he looked up, linking to the eagle. A short distance away, Tao was sitting in a clearing and looking up at the bird. Relief flooded through Dar that his friend was all right but fast on its heels was wondering why Tao was just sitting there. "Sharak found Tao. He's okay."
Arina looked almost as relieved as he felt as she replied, "That's good. How far?"
"Not far at all but he's alone. It looks like he's waiting for me," Dar said with a frown.
Lips tightening, Arina said flatly, "It's a trap."
"Probably but I have to go."
"I'll trail you, keep an eye out," Arina promised.
Dar nodded. "Be careful. They're good fighters."
Grinning arrogantly, Arina countered, "I'm better."
Shaking his head in amusement Dar headed into the trees, towards Tao. He wasn't sure how he'd get Tao away from them, but he would find a way. He linked briefly with Ruh to send the tiger into hiding in case he needed help later. It didn't take long to reach the clearing and he entered it cautiously, looking for the trap to be sprung. Nothing happened as he approached the other man but he didn't relax. "Tao? Are you all right?"
Tao looked at him, his face tight with confusion. "Not really, Dar. Why'd you do it?"
Cautiously, Dar asked, "Do what?"
"Betray the Jovan. Betray me! I don't understand it. I could've been killed, Dar," Tao exclaimed angrily, hopping off the rock.
Shaking his head, Dar said, "I didn't do anything like that. It was a trap. Someone lured Arina and I away from the village so Zad could attack."
Obviously torn, Tao said, "I want to believe you."
Holding out a hand, Dar gazed steadily into his friend's dark eyes and said quietly, "Then believe me. Tao, there's a lot I have to talk to you about but not here."
Biting his lip indecisively, Tao stepped forward, his hand reaching out to take Dar's. From the side of the clearing, a shout sounded and both of them snapped to the sound. Tao backed away as he saw Arina burst through the trees fighting three of the remaining Jovan warriors.
Tao looked at him, shaking his head. "I don't know why you're doing this but it won't work. I won't let you take me to Zad."
"Tao, no! Wait!" Dar shouted, frustrated. He ran after the fleeing Eiron, determined to catch up and explain everything. Fortunately, Tao was running away from the Jovan, not towards them. At least Dar hoped so, there could be others waiting deeper in the forest but he couldn't think of that just now.
Tao was surprisingly fleet, dodging trees and jumping easily over exposed roots and rocks. Dar gained ground but it took a lot longer to grab Tao than he'd expected. His hand closed around the fabric of Tao's shirt and he yanked the other man to a halt. Tao went down and Dar followed, landing half on of the other man as the Eiron struggled to get free. Dar rolled on top of Tao, straddling him and pinning his arms to the side.
"Tao! Tao listen to me, stop fighting me!" Dar exclaimed as Tao bucked up against him, trying to get free. There was a wildness to the other man's eyes that made him afraid. Frantic, he tried to reassure Tao, saying whatever came into his mind, trying to soothe Tao with the sound of his voice as he would a frightened animal.
Something finally broke the fog around Tao's mind. Dar was on him and holding him down, yes, but that was it. His voice was filled with...anguish? Despair? As though Dar thought Tao was lost to him. Slowly he stopped struggling, stopped trying to get away. Raising his eyes to Dar's, he saw that Dar was close to an emotional break of some kind. Hesitantly he asked, "Dar?"
Relief spilled across Dar's face and the grip on Tao's arms loosened a little. "Tao? Are you all right?"
Confusion was still swamping his mind, making it difficult to think. "What happened?"
"You've been under a spell," Dar explained, leaning back and releasing Tao's arms.
Frowning, Tao asked, "A spell? I don't understand."
"The Ancient One said that someone has been using magic to use our fears and doubts against each other. They're trying to split us up, Tao," Dar whispered.
The Ancient One? Wasn't he dead? It was so hard to think. He didn't know what to believe. He was, however, suddenly and very clearly conscious of the fact that Dar was sitting on him. He could also plainly see the remnants of fear. Swallowing heavily, Tao reached out and twined his fingers with Dar's. "Never split us up, Dar, it'll never happen."
Sighing in relief, Dar rolled off him and onto his back to stare at the sky, their fingers still linked. His voice was a whispered, "Tao."
Squeezing Dar's hand, he said, "We've got to stop getting sucked into things like this."
A faint chuckle rumbled through Dar and he nodded.
Dar looked over at his question and replied, "Now we explain to the Jovan what really happened and try to get their home back."
"Oh I think not."
Dar was on his feet almost instantly at the sneering comment and Tao wasn't far behind. He didn't even need to look over Dar's shoulder to see who it was. He recognized the voice instantly but moved slowly forward to find his memory confirmed. It was Callista, Zad's sister, and the blond woman stood a short distance away, leaning elegantly against a tree. Her gown was royal blue and gold, accentuating her well-formed body with gaps revealing darkly golden skin.
He saw Dar's back tense even further as the warrior took in the sight of the woman who'd almost killed Ruh and had him tortured. Placing a restraining hand on his friend's back, Tao stepped out and asked, "Why are you doing this?"
A faint smile crossed her face. "Doesn't really matter now, does it? Power, revenge, or just because I feel like it. What matters is that I know how to get to you both now. I wasn't certain at first but this little experiment proved everything."
"We know what you're doing now. It won't work again," Dar said quietly.
She laughed, a surprisingly musical sound, and pushed off from the tree, walking towards them. "My darling man, you can't be on guard against your own doubts. You'll never know if it's me whispering to you or your darker self demanding to be heard. And rest assured, even you have your darkness, BeastMaster."
"Why Callista. How lovely to see you again."
All three turned towards the Ancient One's voice. The pleased look vanished from Callista's face as she spat, "Ancient One."
"In the flesh. So to speak," he confirmed, walking closer. "You've been a very naughty girl, Callista. I found that I just had to intervene, despite my general principals which usually forbid such a thing."
"Balcifer won't stand for this. He destroyed you once, he'll do it again," Callista vowed.
Smiling tightly, Ancient One corrected, "No, actually, he won't. The Sorceress, with Slythius' help, destroyed me for him and rest assured, I intend to have a stern chat with her about it. If I learned one thing about the invisible world that surrounds us, it was how to secure and hide my power base so that nothing like this happens again."
He waved a negligent hand in her direction and she gasped, clutching at her throat as though struggling to breathe. A forbidding expression came over him as he moved to stand directly in front of her, hissing, "Be sure to tell Balcifer that the BeastMaster is no longer alone in this. He has me and I...well...I have some new friends and we would all just love to meet him in the proper field of battle. Begone."
Callista's face was contorted with pain as she vanished from sight.
Tao realized that his hand was tensely gripping Dar's arm and released it, though Dar didn't seem to notice. The warrior's attention was completely focused on the Ancient One who had faced them after banishing Callista.
"I thought you weren't going to interfere," Dar observed.
The Ancient One shrugged, the crystals braided into his hair tinkling delicately. "Interfering. Advising. Delivering a warning. It's a line I've tread for a while now, BeastMaster, and one I shall continue to in the future, I'm sure."
"But now Balcifer knows that you're back and on our side," Tao blurted.
Dark eyes gazed at him in obvious amusement. "He already knew. Like me, however, Balcifer prefers to let others do his work for him. He took me by surprise last time, using the Sorceress as he did. It won't happen again."
"Don't be too hard on her. She helped us out while you were gone," Dar reported.
Pursing his lips thoughtfully, Ancient One said, "Has she? Well. Perhaps I'll give her the opportunity to explain herself then. Then again, perhaps not. We'll see what sort of mood I'm in when I catch up with her."
Seeing that the wizard was about to leave, Tao exclaimed, "Wait!"
"What is it, Tao?"
"Ah, I was just wondering what we should do now," Tao answered.
Shrugging, the Ancient One said, "What you've been doing. Dar has a quest and a destiny to fulfill after all."
"I think what Tao was asking was what about Callista? Are we free of her?" Dar clarified.
"For now. I doubt she'll get up the nerve to try anything for a while," Ancient One speculated. "Just be on your guard because she will try again. She's subtle and clever, very intelligent."
Frowning, Tao said, "It sounds as though you admire her."
Smiling suddenly, Ancient One replied, "If everyone were as inept as Slythius, where would the challenge be? Dar?"
"Don't forget what my advice." Before either Tao or Dar could say anything else, the Ancient One vanished.
Curious, Tao looked at his friend and asked, "What was that about?"
Clearing his throat, Dar answered, "Nothing. We'll talk about it later. Let's go see about the Jovan."
Tao smiled and slung an arm around Dar's shoulder as they began walking back to the others.