The campfire was almost depressingly cheerful as it flickered and leapt and hungrily ate the air. Tao sighed, rubbing tired eyes before re-reading the final runes for what seemed the hundredth time. There was no mistake, no matter how much of one he wanted there to be. They had definitely entered the final test but there was no real clue as to how they were to accomplish it. Or even, really, what it was. He knew there would be an unmistakable sign in the heavens, that darkness would fall unnaturally.

They needed the key that would unlock the Crystal Ark but didn't even know what shape it took. Tao highly doubted that it was an actual key, that would just be far too simple. A hand on his shoulder startled him and Tao looked up to find Dar staring down at him with a worried expression. He squeezed Dar's hand with a smile, and asked, "Everything all right?"

"I was just going to ask you that," Dar replied, sitting beside him.

Shrugging, Tao said, "I was just going over the runes again."

Half smiling, Dar observed, "You have them memorized, Tao. I don't think they're going to change overnight."

"One can only hope," Tao muttered.

Nudging Tao's shoulder with his own, Dar said complacently, "You'll figure it out."

"What if I don't?" Tao half-wailed.

"You will."

Faced with faith like that, Tao could only sigh again and wish his eyes were better suited to reading at night, by the dim light of the campfire. Before he could open the book again, Dar plucked it from his fingers and Tao exclaimed, "Hey!"

Serious, Dar said, "You need to sleep, Tao."

"I need to figure this out more," Tao countered flatly.

"I need you awake and alert. We have to go over the village perimeter tomorrow and it'll be your calculations to set the catapults," Dar pointed out.

After a few moments of silence, Tao admitted reluctantly, "I can't sleep. When I go to bed, I just have nightmares. It's better for me to just stay away, it's more restful."

"Why didn't you say anything?" Dar demanded, plainly upset this information had been kept from him.

"You need to sleep," Tao answered simply.

"And you don't?"

Shrugging, Tao replied, "I'm used to going without sleep. You always need a full night."

Shaking his head, Dar playfully shoved Tao down and crouched over him. Growling softly, he said, "If you don't start taking better care of yourself, I'm going to beat you up."

Laughing softly, relaxing at the familiar, light tone, Tao gave the standard response of, "You and what army?"

"I'll sick Kodo and Podo on you," Dar threatened with an evil cackle.

Cringing in mock horror, Tao exclaimed, "No! Anything but that! I'll be nibbled to death!"

Dar laughed and stood, pulling Tao to his feet and pushing the smaller man towards his cabin.

"Um, Dar?" Tao asked curiously.

"Yes, Tao?"

"Where're we going?"

"To sleep."

"My cabin's in the other direction."

"I know."

Arching an eyebrow at his friend, squirming a little in the firm but gentle grip, Tao asked, "Why are we going to your cabin?"

"Because you never have nightmares when you sleep with me," Dar answered simply. Grinning suddenly, he added mischievously, "Besides. This way, I can keep an eye on you. All we need is for you to start sleepwalking again and getting into more trouble."

"Oh, sure. Make fun of the sleepwalker," Tao groused good-naturedly, nudging Dar with his hip. Truthfully, he was relieved that Dar had taken matters into his own hands. A good night's sleep would help a lot and he did need to be clear for the following day. One wrong move and he would probably wind up with a rather large rock in place of his head.

* * * *

Tao lightly traced the vine with his foot, testing the tension carefully, but obviously not carefully enough. He felt more than heard Dar's aborted warning and threw himself to the side, out of the way of the stone hurtling towards him. Instead of being hit by the large rock, he slammed into a nearby tree and bounced back, into the ground, hard. Groaning, he stayed where he was, feeling the jolt from his tailbone, all the way up his spine, to his neck.

Dar's concerned face appeared above him and Tao managed a smile as he asked, "Ever wonder why it's called a tailbone? It's not like we have a tail there. Well, not anymore thankfully. I wouldn't want anything else I could potentially trip over."

Grinning softly, Dar held down a hand and helped Tao to his feet. "You all right?"

Rubbing his sore backside, Tao nodded and observed ruefully, "The catapult works."

Snorting, Dar agreed, "Definitely. Now we just need to set up the rest, in case Zad shows up."

Worried, Tao said, "You know that he's going to attack Eirocan. If only to make the point that he can hurt those who are under your protection."

With a sigh, Dar replied, "I know. I've been thinking about that."

"And?" Tao asked as they headed back to the catapult apparatus.

"The best way to make sure that no one is hurt, is to make sure that no one's there," Dar answered. He started pulling the catapult back into place, holding it firm until Tao dropped the spare rock into the leather strap, then he slid the pin in place.

"Evacuate the village?" Tao asked thoughtfully.

Dar nodded. "You're right. Sooner or later, Zad will attack. If I let people stay who can't defend themselves, their deaths would be on me."

Grasping his friend's shoulder, Tao shook his head. "That's not true. Those who live in Eirocan believe in what we fight for, even those who can't properly defend themselves. You can't make their decisions for them, Dar, and it's their decision to be where they are."

Lips tightening, Dar was about to reply negatively when a glint of metal caught his eyes. He tackled Tao to the ground just before a knife sailed over where they'd been and landed with a forceful quiver into a tree. He rolled to his feet, pulling out his sword in one movement and facing the attack. There were several soldiers coming at them and Tao's reassuring presence moved to his back. One of these days he really needed to teach Tao how to actually use a sword.

Forcing those thoughts aside, Dar leapt forward to meet the attack even as he heard Tao do the same. Arina was a good distance away checking the other traps, so they couldn't expect any help from her. Stupid of him to divide his strength like that!

He heard Tao grunt in pain and spared a precious second to look over his shoulder. Tao was futilely trying to break a choke-hold from a soldier. Dar slammed his sword hilt into the head of his attacker then jumped on Tao's attacker, pulling the man away bodily. Tao fell to his knees, gasping for air as Dar knocked the soldier out and turned to the rest. Fortunately, three of them stepped simultaneously into a trap and wound up swinging upside-down in the air. Another fell into a pit and the other two took a look at the dwindled odds, as well as Dar's furious expression, and turned and fled.

Turning instantly to Tao, Dar demanded, "Are you all right?"

Grinning up at him, accepting the help to stand, Tao complained, "I wish you didn't have to ask me that quite so often."

Echoing the grin back at his friend, Dar said, "You'd have gotten free on your own. I just sped things up a little."

Laughing outright at the comment, Tao shook his head and agreed, "Oh absolutely. C'mon. Let's make sure Arina hasn't run afoul of Zad's knights, too."

* * * *

Arina had indeed run afoul of several of Zad's knights, but had taken care of them in her usual, bloodthirsty fashion. Three lay dead on the forest floor and the other four were in various states of injury and unconsciousness. Looking around at the barely contained mayhem, Dar shook his head and asked wryly, "Did any of them get away?"

Smirking, Arina shook her head. "All present and accounted for."

"Not all of them."

The three friends turned towards the now-familiar voice of Dartanus. Sighing, Tao asked, "What do you want?"

With a smirk not unlike the one Arina had just worn, Dartanus countered, "What? Not happy to see me, Tao?"

Displaying a patently false smile, Tao answered, "About as happy as those poor souls over there were to meet up with Arina."

"Come now, Tao, I'm not that bad," Dartanus taunted mildly.

"Dartanus," Dar warned quietly.

Focusing his attention on the BeastMaster, Dartanus said bluntly, "You're running out of time."

"To find the key," Dar stated.

Nodding, Dartanus continued, "The final test has begun but you're here laying traps for Zad's knights. All the pits and snares in the world won't matter if Balcifer wins."

"What's the next step? Where do we look?" Tao demanded.

Sparing a look at Tao, Dartanus answered, "You have to go back to the beginning to get to the end."

"Would you stop with the riddles already!" Tao exclaimed angrily. "I swear, you're worse than the Ancient One! Why can't you just tell us what we have to do?"

Pursing his lips in amusement, Dartanus replied, "Because then Dar wouldn't have learned what he needs to know."

"Heaven forbid that you don't just tell him the answer. You know, lecturing is a valid method of teaching," Tao said pointedly. "Might actually save some time and pain."

Dar ran his hand lightly, soothingly, over Tao's back and questioned, "Back to the beginning of what?"

"Back to the beginning of the end," Dartanus answered.

Arina snorted and said, "Oh that's helpful."

But Dar had already latched onto where Dartanus was going with his puzzle. "You're talking about the final battle between my Father and Balcifer. The beginning of my life and the end of his."

Nodding seriously, his joking manner completely gone, Dartanus clarified, "It's there that you'll be led to his final resting place, to the key that will set your family free."

"As opposed to just telling us where the key is," Arina said flatly. "I with Tao on this one. You're less than helpful."

Shrugging expansively, Dartanus replied, "I do what I can."

"Uh huh," she muttered.

"Arina. Would you go back to the village and try to get those who can't defend themselves to leave?" Dar asked quietly. "We've done what we can here, but it won't stop an army if Zad decides to send one."

She nodded and admonished, "Be careful."

He half grinned at her in acknowledgment and turned to Dartanus. "Lead the way."

* * * *

"What do you see?"

Slythius didn't move from his position over the scrying bowl, ignoring Zad's demand in favor of the power emanating from the bowl. As ever, he had to be careful not to reveal too much of the truth to Zad. Mostly because he'd been seeing defeat for the ill-begotten king for the last few moon cycles. He had to lay enough truth in his readings that Zad couldn't sniff out the lies. He was astonishingly adept at knowing when he was being lied to.

Though perhaps, Zad being an exceptional liar himself, that particular talent shouldn't be a real surprise.

"Well?" Zad demanded impatiently.

"I only see what Balcifer reveals to me," Slythius tempered. When steely fingers gripped his neck painfully, he continued, "You must find the key before the BeastMaster or all is lost."

"I know that," Zad hissed. "Where is the blasted thing?"

"That has not been revealed to me," Slythius said truthfully.

Yanking Slythius towards him, Zad asked, "Then remind me...why do I bother keeping you around?"

"The magic of Eldar is powerful, even after all this time," Slythius exclaimed somewhat desperately. "But I am working to dispell it, my lord."

Scowling, Zad shoved him away forcefully. "Get on with it then. I need the location of that key!"

Slythius nodded and turned back to the bowl then froze at the soft calling of his name. Glancing over at the menacing king, he asked, "Yes?"

"If I am to be consigned to the fiery pits of Balcifer's hell, I fully intend to bring you with me."

The statement was all the more unnerving for its sincerity.

* * * *

Dartanus was in the lead, with Dar close behind. The trip had been silent and Tao had respected his friend's need to gather his thoughts. Seeing the place where his father had been killed would be upsetting, Tao knew that without a second's hesitation. He wished there were some way to make it all less painful for Dar, but it had to be faced.

The battlefield was eerily preserved. Though the corpses were merely bleached bones now, the armor and spell-blackened soil were disturbingly fresh. Tao moved closer to Dar as they entered the area as though the BeastMaster would be able to protect him from the evil that rested within the fouled ground. Tao had spent a lot of time since all this had started wondering just how Dar could fight Balcifer, considering that Dar was mortal and Balcifer, a God. The only conclusion he'd reached was that there was no explanation; it was something that had to be taken on faith.

Unfortunately, Tao was really bad at the whole concept of Faith. Though, if there were one thing he would take on faith, it was that Dar would somehow win out, even if the actual means of how remained unclear.

Nodding towards several shapeless, stone obelisks, Dar asked, "What are those?"

"They used to be your father's soldiers," Dartanus explained. "Balcifer turned them to stone."

"Wonderful," Tao muttered. Before Tao could say anything further, Dar froze, his eyes locking upwards in communication with Sharak. Tao waited until his friend returned to himself before asking, "What's wrong?"

Turning haunted eyes to Tao, Dar replied, "It's Eirocan. Zad's attacked."

* * * *

The attack wasn't unexpected. Arina, Dar and Tao had all gone through the village several times over the last moon cycle to make sure that everyone who was there understood the potential danger. And these weren't people who didn't think that nothing could happen to them because most had already lost family and friends to Zad and his armies. But when the attack came, it was brutal and directed, almost inhuman in its destructive intensity.

Fires had been set almost right away. Men and women alike were cut down without mercy. None of the soldiers took any time to loot or rape. It was an unusual discipline for the knights and Arina wasn't sure whether or not to be grateful for it. When she could think anything at all beyond the agonizing pains in her side and across her chest.

Her final fight had left her sprawled unconscious in some bushes and she figured that the group she'd been fighting thought her dead. When she'd woke again, unsure how much time had gone by, Arina knew that she'd lost a lot of blood, even if the wounds themselves weren't that dangerous. Well, the one on her chest felt shallow anyhow, she wasn't too sure about the side cut and she wasn't in any condition to check it out.

Vaguely, she heard someone calling her name but just couldn't summon the energy to answer. A waft of smoke settled over her and Arina vainly tried to stem the cough, knowing it would hurt like a bitch. When she was unsuccessful, Arina coughed painfully, clutching her stomach and side in an attempt to not lose anything that was supposed to stay inside.

Suddenly, gentle and strong hands surrounded her, lifting her and cradling her until she lay on something soft. When a water skin was pressed to her lips, Arina drank gratefully, the water a cool balm to her dry throat. Opening her eyes, she was unsurprised to find Dar and Tao kneeling beside her. There was a quietly frantic look on Tao's face as he sliced off her top to work on her injuries. "Al-always knew that you wanted to take a, a peek."

He grinned briefly and replied, "Had me pegged from day one, is that it?"

She grunted painfully when his hands pressed over her ribs.


Looking over at Dar, she said, "It's safe. They didn't even go looking for the Ark. J-Just tore into us. No mercy. We, ow! We, ah, managed to ev-vacuate a lot of the village but, there were so many of th-them. I um, I think Zad sent the whole army to, to wipe us out."

Mouth pressed tightly together in anger, Dar nonetheless kept his grip on her hand gentle. "You're going to be okay, Arina. Tao's going to fix you up."

"I don't think so," Arina gasped as a particularly painful throb went through her chest. She'd witnessed enough death to recognize the signs in herself: darkening vision, shortness of breath, pressure on her chest. Tightening her hand around Dar's, she demanded, "Bury me as my people would have. I die as a warrior, protecting those who, who couldn't defend themselves."

"Don't Arina, don't give up!" Dar urged.

"Promise me!" Arina demanded, hissing as another shot of pain hit her.

Reluctantly, Dar nodded and whispered, "I promise. You fought well, Arina, your people will be proud."

Smiling faintly, Arina reached up with her free hand to cup Tao's face. She was surrounded by friends, family really, at an honorable death. There wasn't anything else that she could wish for. This was a good way to die.

* * * *

"How is she?"

Tao rubbed his eyes tiredly as he sat beside Dar. "Not great. She lost a lot of blood and I'm worried about infection setting in, in the side gash, it's a pretty deep wound. But she's strong and a fighter, so there's hope."

Dar nodded, looking as relieved as he could under the circumstances. They'd had to risk moving Arina, unsure if Zad would send soldiers back to make sure there were no survivors. Dar had built a litter and they'd carefully moved her onto it then slowly headed towards the back-up camp where the rest of the survivors waited. The people of Eirocan were down by more than half and of those remaining, many were badly injured. Tao hadn't spent all day looking after Arina, not when there were so many who needed his healing skills.

"I've got someone watching her closely. They'll give her water and juice whenever she wakes to try and rebuild her," Tao continued. He leaned limply against Dar, resting his head on the other man's shoulder, and closed his eyes. "Just pray that there's no infection or fever, otherwise..."

Dar nodded silently and stared into the fire. He smiled when a soft snore escaped Tao even though the scholar was still sitting up. Reaching out with his foot, Dar grasped a blanket and pulled it over. He shifted and gently lay Tao on the blanket before wrapping it around his friend. He sighed, stretching muscles sore from being overworked. It had been so long since they'd had any time to just rest and Dar knew there would be no time for it in the near future.

"You know that the coming fight will be on your own."

Dar nodded at Dartanus' comment, not at all startled by the older warrior's sudden appearance. "It's the sword, isn't it? It's what will protect me from Balcifer's powers."

Dartanus shrugged as he sat across from the campfire. "The sword, your heritage, your destiny. Whatever the actual factors, the burden of defeating Balcifer is yours alone."

Meeting the other man's eyes, Dar said, "So you won't be by my side when it happens then."

"I will fight by your side for as long as I am able," Dartanus refuted quietly.

But he didn't expect to live long enough to fight by Dar's side when the actual battle with Balcifer happened. Dar could hear that unsaid in his voice. "What happened that day? In the battle between Balcifer and my father."

Tao shifted in his sleep and placed his head on Dar's thigh, curling closer as though for warmth. Dar smiled down at the tousled, dark head and rested his hand on the soft curls for reassurance; though who he was comforting was uncertain.

Dartanus' eyes took on a faraway expression as he began to recount the tale. "It was a sunny day, warm with spring and we were all eager to face and defeat the evil Balcifer embodied. Maybe that was our first mistake, being overconfident; because we never doubted that we would win. The armies on both sides were vast but where ours was organized and orderly, Zad's was rag-tag and chaotic. It didn't seem possible that he would even come close to winning, despite his numbers.

"I was by your father's side throughout the entire battle. I could see every problem, every failure, every setback, from the front lines. Eldar, like you, wasn't a man to wait behind when there was a fight to win. Like everything Balcifer touched, the battle was lost in small degrees, almost like we weren't losing at all until it was too late. Then he hit us with everything he had. Magical fire that didn't go out. Turning the soldiers to stone. Releasing a pox that stifled the air in the chest so the men couldn't draw breath. It was horror after horror until Eldar knew he couldn't win. That was when he decided to use the last of his magic to protect his family and try to save the world in the future since the present was lost."

Dartanus poked savagely at the fire with a stick before continuing. "Your father entrusted you to me, to my care, until you were old enough to fight Balcifer and stop his darkness from spreading over the world. After your mother was transformed into the Golden Orax, Eldar faced Balcifer alone.

"I deserted him when he needed me most, to my eternal shame and dishonor. I hid with you in my arms when Balcifer plunged his sword into your father's heart. He had no sword with which to defend himself because he'd given that to me as well. It was to be kept in trust for you, until you were old enough to use it properly. He might have won that day if he'd had the sword."

"Or he could have still failed and Balcifer would have his sword now, instead of me," Dar pointed out quietly.

Shrugging, Dartanus said, "We'll never know."

"Why do you think it dishonor when he asked you to care for me?" Dar asked.

"I was his man, Dar. It was my duty to die by his side, to protect him at the cost of my own. Instead, I have lived all this time waiting and hiding from Balcifer until you were old enough to defeat him and reclaim your throne," Dartanus explained.

"But you did as Eldar wanted. You protected me," Dar pointed out. "I see no dishonor in that, am grateful for it, for obvious reasons."

Dartanus half-smiled at the wry tone. "It's hard to explain because it's so very personal. I think the only way you could truly understand is if Tao forced you away, even if you were positive that you could save him from death."

Dar shivered at the words. His hand slid protectively from Tao's head, curving around a strong, reassuringly warm and uninjured, back. That wouldn't be dishonor, that would be...a living hell. He met Dartanus' eyes and saw his realization reflected there and confirmed in a short, abrupt nod from the other man. The difference was that he would never leave Tao's side, no matter what.

A bitter expression blossomed on Dartanus' face, the light from the fire casting sharp, shards of darkness on his angular features as he whispered, "That's what I swore as well. That I would never leave his side, except in death. Now you understand my dishonor, my shame."

To that, Dar had nothing to say.

* * * *

"My Lord of Darkness. What brings you here, again, to my humble castle?" Zad asked, struggling for meekness. From the disdained flaring of Balcifer's nostrils, Zad didn't think he quite managed it. The physical embodiment of Balcifer had appeared without fanfare on the throne a few moments before Zad had been planning to sit.

"I have come to be certain that you do not miss the final battle, wrapped up safely here in your humble castle," Balcifer informed him, his voice rough and deep with power.

"Final battle? I wasn't aware there had been any battles. We routed the village of Eirocan and one of the BeastMaster's strongest allies was destroyed," Zad proclaimed with a fierce smile. Arina had been a good warrior to have on his side, but once she'd actually started caring about things, well, that had definitely made her a liability. Perhaps, if there had been more time, he might have been able to lure her back.

Dark eyebrow raising, Balcifer leaned back in the throne. "Is that so?"

Zad suddenly had a bad feeling at the question. "Yes. That's so."

"You might wish to reconsider your definitions of 'rout' and 'destroyed' then," Balcifer mocked. "The village had many survivors and Arina was one of them. Even now they flout you, claiming victory against you."

Zad wanted to roar in disbelief but the silky menace in the God's voice wasn't something with which to trifle. He stifled the potentially deadly impulse and asked, "What does your Lordship wish of me?"

Leaning forward, Balcifer's dark blue eyes glinted as he hissed, "Get the key! Bring it and the Crystal Ark back here or I will burn you for the rest of eternity! And remember Zad...I will know if you fail."

Zad's stomach dropped with sickening intensity and darkness swirled around him. He found himself outside in the bright morning sun, with two dozen of his best warriors, in a vaguely familiar area. It took a few moments to realize that he was on the battlefield where he'd defeated Eldar.

Taking advantage of his men's confusion, he roared, "Don't just stand there! Search for the BeastMaster!"

* * * *

Groaning, Arina opened her eyes though it felt like someone had weighed them down with sandbags. Her body felt as though it had been dipped in fire and her chest hurt like the sword was still in it. Glaring at Tao ,who sat nearby with a far too-bright smile, she accused, "I'm still alive!"

"And your usual, charmingly grateful self," Tao agreed mildly. His hands moved quickly but softly over her forehead, testing for fever, then rested at the base of her throat to feel her pulse.

"Where's Dar?" Arina demanded.

Losing his relaxed manner, Tao answered, "He and Dartanus went looking for the key without me this morning. I woke up and he was gone."

"Damned fool!"

"You're a lot kinder to him than I was, when I realized what he'd done," Tao said darkly. "First I'm going to change your bandages and check your stitches. Then I am going to catch up with him. And when I do, I'm going to kill him."

* * * *

After spending the last three years with Dar, Tao had developed into a fairly decent tracker. But when it came to tracking Dar himself, there was no one better than Tao, unless they were on four feet. He knew exactly the kind of signs that Dar left behind, even when he was trying not to leave any sign at all. It helped that he was sure that they would head back to the scene of the battle. He simply looked for recent Dar-sign as he jogged over the flat land in that direction.

It took longer to follow the passing through the actual battlefield and he shivered, remembering Dartanus' tale that he'd pretended to sleep through. His hands rose to his throat as he imagined what it would be like to be unable to breathe on dry land. Sometimes he really hated having such an active imagination. Thankfully, he met no such plague as he swiftly crossed the area and came out on the other side into normal grassland with more signs of Dar's passing.

The trail led towards a forest of thin, bendable trees that were more like really big reeds than trees. He slipped into them, noticing right away when the two pairs of tracks stopped and showed only one. Dartanus had left Dar, then. Great. So Dar was all alone, facing who knew what. For someone with a supposed guilt complex, Dartanus sure had no problems leaving when he felt like it. Tao pushed back the anger, knowing it wouldn't solve anything.

Just as he was about to enter the strange forest, Dar came out of it. Tao matched the annoyed expression on his friend's face and raised it to an angry one. "You left me behind!"

"To keep you safe," Dar said flatly.

"Worked really well, didn't it?" Tao snapped.


Tao jabbed a finger into Dar's chest and exclaimed, "No! No excuses! We are in this together, Dar, and that's that. I don't care what happened in the past. I don't care what Dartanus did, or didn't do. We do this side-by-side and back-to-back, or not at all, got it?"

Dar stared at him for a long moment, a half-scowl on his face before reluctantly nodding.

"Good," Tao said firmly. He paused a moment then asked expectantly, "So?"

At his question, Dar's scowl faded into a smile. He held up a strange, oblong ring with Eldar's sigil etched into it. "I found it, along with some more fighters. The ones who guarded my father's tomb. They're on their way to the camp even now."

Smiling, Tao commented, "The more the merrier."

Tao saw Dar stiffen a split second before Zad's all-too-familiar voice agreed, "That's what I always say."

Tao spun to face him and wished that this time he'd thought to bring a weapon of some kind. The knights spread out and surrounded them. Twenty-five against two was terrible odds, even with Dar as one of the two. And there was no chance that Zad would suddenly have a change of heart, because as far as he could tell, Zad didn't have one. Squaring himself off against Dar's back, he waited for the fight to start.

* * * *

"Remember. Bring the BeastMaster in alive. The Eiron you can kill," Zad ordered as his men moved in.

The fight took a surprisingly long amount of time to conclude given the numbers. Zad was surprised to find that the healer had learned something in the way of fighting and seemed to have no problem using what he'd been taught. But he was weaponless, so it was only a matter of time before he fell.

Zad watched in pleasure when two sword points simultaneously entered the Eiron's body in deadly locations. The slight man dropped like a stone, his blood spilling out thick and hot onto the ground, leaving the BeastMaster's back unprotected. When Tao went down, the BeastMaster fought all the more fiercely but he was eventually overwhelmed. When his men had turned Dar so he could see clearly, Zad pointed at Tao's nearly lifeless body and said, "Looks like Dartanus isn't the only failure anymore."

"Zad, please, don't do this," Dar pleaded. "I saved your life, more than once!"

Smiling unpleasantly, Zad agreed, "You did, didn't you? I suppose I owe you something for that. Very well. It'll be a quick death instead of a long, painful one, how's that?"

"Zad no!"

Zad kicked Tao's head sharply and the crack of bone was plainly audible. Looking at Dar's stricken, numbed face, Zad moved close to the young man and whispered hotly in his ear, "There now, that wasn't so bad, was it? He's at peace now."

Dar struggled violently and almost broke free in his fury. Not wanting to take any chances, Zad took Eldar's sword and slammed it hilt first into the BeastMaster's head. The warrior sagged unconscious, into the soldiers' arms and Zad ordered, "Carry him. We have to get back to Xinca."

* * * *

"Come back, Tao. Now is not the time to be sleeping on the job. Wakey, wakey, it's time to get up, Tao. Dar needs your help and you know me, I can't really interfere, much as I would like to do so. Come on back to this world, little one, it's time to get moving."

Tao wanted nothing more than to drift back into the painless dark, but that voice was driving him crazy. It was insistent, irritating, provoking and simply would not let him sleep. After everything he'd gone through, hadn't he earned a rest? Aggravated, Tao opened his eyes and groaned when sunlight hit them. Closing them, Tao spent a moment absorbing the sight that he'd briefly seen: the Ancient One kneeling over him.

Great. So much for a peaceful afterlife.

"I resent that."

Groaning again, Tao cautiously opened his eyes and was relieved to find the pain had dropped to merely agonizing. "What happened?"

"Well, you were astonishingly close to death for a while there but I stepped in," the Ancient One replied. "Technically, I shouldn't have but then, when have I ever followed the rules?"

"I'm not healed," Tao said after a few more moments of carefully moving himself around.

Exasperated, the Ancient One snapped, "You're healed enough. Mortals! You intervene once and suddenly they expect miracles on a regular basis!"

"Being able to move without excruciating pain is hardly expecting a miracle," Tao countered.

"It is when you should be dead."

Put like that, Tao supposed he couldn't really argue. Forcing himself to move, Tao shakily got to his feet, hissing in pain at the sword wounds: one in his left shoulder, just above the heart and the other in his stomach, just aside his belly-button. He shuddered to think what had been pierced inside, remembering the sword sliding into him with painful ease. His head throbbed like an earthquake, too, and he vaguely remembered getting kicked there by Zad. Which reminded him of where Dar had been taken and he groaned again. "I'm never going to make it to Xinca like this."

"You have to," the Ancient One said simply.

He pointed up at the sky and Tao looked up. Though it was morning, the moon was still visible and suddenly he understood the final rune. 'When darkness covers the world, Balcifer's reign begins.' It was an eclipse and from the distance between the moon and sun, there was maybe a day until the conjoining of the heavenly bodies.

Sighing in resignation, he asked, "I don't suppose you've got my..."

Bemused, Tao took his bag from the Ancient One's hand and pulled out an energy potion that he used when he had to stay up for long periods of time. It wasn't good for his body but, since he felt like death warmed over anyhow, Tao supposed it didn't really matter. He drank down the bitter brew.

Shouldering his bag, Tao headed for Xinca, willing as much speed as possible into weak legs.

* * * *

"Aren't you going to kill him?" Zad asked, staring down at the heap of flesh and bones that made up the quiescent form of the BeastMaster. Funny how he didn't look nearly as threatening from this angle.

Balcifer shook his head. "Not until the proper time. When night becomes day forevermore, then I will slay Eldar's line and be free to rule the world."

"What should I do with him? He has this nasty habit of escaping," Zad pointed out.

Crouching down, Balicer laid a surprisingly tender hand on Dar, cupping the golden head with a large, strong hand. "He's not going to escape. He's lost the will, thanks to you. Finally, you've done something right."

Zad opened his mouth to protest the insult then thought better of it and snapped it shut again.

Looking up at him in amusement, Balcifer commented, "You just keep getting smarter, Zad. There may be hope for you yet."

Forcing a smile, he said, "Thank you, my lord."

Balcifer looked back at Dar and pressed both hands to the fallen warrior's head, closing his eyes with an expression of intense concentration. Dar moaned in agony as a reddish halo encompassed him. Balcifer looked up, eyes glowing as red as the aura around Dar's head, and ordered, "Get the Ark. It's hidden in the lee of an ancient oak on the east side of the ruined village. Ignore the peasants and rabble. Just get the Ark and bring it back here."

Zad nodded and exited the throne room, leaving the BeastMaster to Balcifer's non-existent mercy.

* * * *

Despite what Balcifer thought he knew, the BeastMaster wasn't as ready to give up as the evil one believed. The fire that burned within him was that of vengeance, not that of justice. He didn't know or care what happened to his body as long as he was able to kill Zad and wipe all traces of Balcifer from the earth. That careless certainty made the bearing of torture surprisingly easy. He felt the whip and the hot irons, but Dar just didn't care that they made him scream. He allowed his responses full, unashamed reign and eventually, Balcifer grew tired of toying with him.

Arina was lying near death because of Balcifer and Zad, had possibly already died. And Tao...Dar shook his thoughts free of the blackness that surrounded him at the thought of what had happened to Tao. He needed to be clear when the opportunity came. He needed to be able to seize whatever chance came his way, no matter the personal cost. He now intimately understood Dartanus' hell. The difference between them was that Dar was going to avenge Tao's death but he wasn't going to go on after. Once Zad and Balcifer were gone, Dar would follow.

As he had promised Tao, they would be side-by-side in both this world, and the next.

* * * *

By the time Tao reached the outskirts of Xinca, he was sure that he was still alive only because of the pain. Each step was an exercise in agony and he barely noticed anything except putting one foot in front of the other. The only thing that kept him going was knowing that everyone thought he was dead. He could use that to rescue Dar.


"You won't be able to rescue anyone in that condition."

Making a rude noise in his throat, Tao looked over at Dartanus and gasped, "Leave me alone."

"Let me help you, Tao. Please. I can heal the worst of your injuries."

The quiet desperation in the other man reached Tao as nothing else would have. The mysterious and aggravating warrior was gone and in his place was a man who needed to help. Unable to fully relinquish his suspicion, he demanded, "Why?"

"Because everything's gone wrong again," Dartanus answered. "Dar's going to try, and fail, to destroy Balcifer and it will be my fault. Again. I'll fail Eldar's son, as surely as I failed him. If he knows that you're alive, Dar will be able to do this right. Now his thoughts are so cloaked in darkness that I can barely sense him at all. Please. Let me help you."

Tao stared at the tall warrior for a few moments before nodding. He allowed Dartanus to put an arm around his waist and help him back into the cover of trees and leaned on the other man's strength, hobbling through the forest until they came to a small clearing. He rested against a tree until Dartanus set up camp and then stumbled to the bedroll, falling to the ground in a barely controlled tumble. He wondered inanely if he'd even be able to move come morning.

"I know several healing remedies that will help," Dartanus revealed quietly. "Trust me."

"Whatever you're going to do, just do it," Tao ordered, closing his eyes against the pain. Now that he wasn't moving, all of the myriad aches and pains from traveling hard the last couple of days were making themselves well known on top of his actual injuries.

Tao hardly noticed when Dartanus stripped him and started wrapping him in various poultices. His voice was surprisingly soft, roughened with age and emotion, and it cushioned Tao gently as he drifted on the waves of unconsciousness, succumbing to his body's demand for rest. He floated on crests of gray softness, heading towards something important. Tao could sense it, could sense the darkness and fury behind the cries of pain that came from an achingly familiar source.

"Dar. Dar, don't," he murmured feverishly. "It's all right. I'm okay. Look for me. I'll be there when you need me, I swear. Don't give in to the darkness, it's not what I want. Fight his spell, fight to live. Please, Dar, remember me, remember us. Don't give in, Dar, fight him!"

* * * *

Alone in the throne room, Dar sagged in his chains and whispered brokenly, "Tao. Help me, please!"

* * * *

It wasn't a big surprise when Tao woke alone the next morning. He hadn't really expected Dartanus to stick around, though he had, foolishly, hoped for it. What was a big surprise was the fact that he could move at all. While the pain was still very much present, it was manageable. He swallowed down most of the water left in the skin then quickly ate the leftover dried fruit. Tao pulled on the cloak and hunched over the crutch Dartanus had left as a disguise.

It didn't take much to fool the city guards but then, they weren't really on the alert for trouble. The BeastMaster was in custody and, supposedly, his allies scattered to the winds. Tao moved inside the city and headed towards the temple. He figured that whatever was going to happen, would be at the blood alter. It only made sense for Balcifer to use an icon already imbued with evil and death.

Tao had to assume the worst: that Balcifer had the key, Eldar's sword, and the Ark. He wasn't sure if he had dreamed that strange communion with Dar or not, but couldn't count on it being real. He had to assume that Dar was still in a very bad place and believed that he was dead. What would he do? Would Dar think him a hallucination or a spell from Balcifer? Not a pleasant thought because that meant he'd be fighting everyone, including Dar.

No. He would never fight Dar.

This part of the palace was deserted except for guards. Tao had a few disturbingly close calls where he barely found a place to hide when a patrol passed by. He did, unfortunately, know this part of Xinca extremely well and couldn't repress a shudder as he remembered being stretched out on the alter. He prayed that wasn't where he would find Dar, but had the sinking feeling that that was exactly where his friend would be.

Glancing up at the sky, another shiver went through him when Tao saw just how close the sun and moon were to joining. So little time left. Creeping up a back stairwell, Tao emerged onto the roof of the stone temple in a little used corner, exactly where he wanted to come out. Thank the Gods that his sense of direction hadn't fouled up this time!

Tao pulled off the cloak but kept the crutch as a potential weapon as he edged forward. Damn it! Dar was spread-eagle on the alter and looked in really bad shape. He wasn't struggling at all and even from this distance, Tao could see the angry, red whip-marks crisscrossed over Dar's chest. He nearly cried at the evidence of torture but forced himself to push the emotions aside and look for the rest of the pieces needed to finish this horror.

The Crystal Ark was placed on a nearby pedestal and he could clearly see the ring on Balcifer's finger. Looking around further, Tao found Eldar's sword in Zad's hands and swore silently. Now what was he supposed to do? A large, warm hand covered his mouth and Tao jumped in surprise before recognizing Dartanus. Glaring at the warrior, he exclaimed softly, "I wish you wouldn't do that!"

"I'm going to create a distraction," Dartanus murmured. "Get Dar free."

Tao nodded and reluctantly accepted the knife the warrior pressed into his hand.


Looking up into Dartanus' eyes, he found them warm and sparkling for the first time since they'd met. It was as though the other man had nothing left to hide and his true nature, that of a gentle prankster, showed through. "Yes?"

"Thank you."

"For what?"

"Helping me fulfill my destiny," Dartanus answered before standing and striding forward.

Tao flinched when the warrior openly called out to Balcifer in challenge. Taking a firmer grip on the knife, Tao inched towards the alter, determined to use the distraction to its fullest. If Dartanus was to be sacrificed, it would pay for Dar's freedom and Balcifer's destruction.

* * * *


Dar looked over at Dartanus' shout, shocked when the warrior strode forth as though he hadn't a care in the world. Glancing at Balcifer, Dar spied a wicked gleam in the God's eyes and shivered at the malevolent hatred therein.

"Dartanus. Looking for more punishment?" Balcifer mocked.

Grinning, the lanky warrior replied, "Always."

"Is that so?"

Unsheathing his sword, Dartanus cut the air with it as he nodded and confirmed fiercely, "That's so."

"I'm going to enjoy putting you down, once and for all," Balcifer hissed, pulling his sword free.

Dar was so wrapped up in the obviously unequal sword fight, that he didn't notice when his ankle clasps were undone. It wasn't until he strained his legs against them and found them gone that Dar saw Tao. Shock ripped through him and even if Tao hadn't motioned for silence with a quirky grin, Dar wouldn't have been able to say a word. So many emotions vied for dominance that he was frozen in place as Tao used a knife to pick the locks on his wrist clasps.

The first thing he did, despite the battle raging so closely, was to wrap his arms around Tao and run his hands over his friend, making certain that Tao was really real and not a ghost come back somehow to help. When he encountered warm flesh and blood, he squeezed tighter, ignoring his own injuries. He buried his face in the hollow of Tao's throat and shoulder to breathe in the slightly sour smell of his friend's sweat and that little imperfection reinforced the fact that Tao was truly alive.

Tao hissed in pain and Dar immediately let go, positive now that Tao was alive and there with him. He traced his fingers over Tao's smiling face for a moment before cutting the reunion short. "I'll get the sword. Try and take out those guards."

Tao nodded and handed him a knife before scooping up his crutch and heading for the guards who were completely engrossed in the sword fight. Dar watched him only for a few seconds before moving up silently behind Zad. Oh, was he going to enjoy this!

Flipping the knife in his hand, he brought the hilt down hard over Zad's unprotected head. Then he did it again, snarling silently, as he satisfied his craving for blood at how Tao had been hurt. Well, he wasn't really satisfied, but it would do until he could linger at the task. At the moment, Dartanus was in serious trouble and Tao was now fully engaged in a fight with the guards.

As he picked up his father's sword, Dar felt more than saw Balcifer become aware of the change in circumstance. Balcifer slammed his palm flat into Dartanus' chest and sent the older man flying through the air to crash into a stone wall. Dar ran and jumped, flipping through the air to land a few scant paces from Balcifer.

Mouth twisting savagely, Dar taunted, "So much for me giving up!"

Their swords came together with a shriek of metal and a glittering cascade of heated sparks. It felt as though Dar moved through mud, but he managed to deflect each blow aimed at him; barely, but he did it. Dar focused on nothing save anticipation of the next strike, his world reduced to the flash of metal and the painfully solid blows he stopped. Balcifer was the strongest opponent he'd ever faced and several times, Dar lost to flat out brute strength. No matter where he turned, Balcifer was there and he was forced to retreat towards the alter.

"I'm going to spill your life's blood and end Eldar's line on the very alter that murdered most of the Eiron's," Balcifer sneered. He thrust again at Dar's unprotected middle and this time, just barely missed. "I'm sure Tao will appreciate the irony. The death of the Eldar's son in the very city Eldar's family helped found. The death of his friend in the Eiron's home."

Dar jumped back to avoid a roundhouse kick and stumbled when he landed on loose rock. Though he automatically moved to block the driving follow through of Balcifer's sword, Dar knew he wasn't going to make it. Balcifer was just too fast. The sky was darkening as the moon inched in front of the sun and he knew that if a miracle didn't happen, they were going to lose.

Before the God's sword completed its fatal arc, Dartanus slammed into Dar, shoving him out of the way. Dar felt the thick wetness of blood as it splattered onto his back. Rolling to his feet, Dar roared in pained rage at the sight of Dartanus spitted on Balcifer's sword. Without thinking, Dar rushed forward, bringing his own sword down furiously. It sliced easily through the sword-arm and Balcifer fell back, shouting in pain even as his hand remained gripped around the dark hilt in a grotesque fashion.

Dartanus collapsed into Dar's arms, blood rapidly escaping the gaping hole in the older warrior's side. Reaching up a shaking hand to cup Dar's face, Dartanus whispered, "Thank you. I am...redeemed."

Dar felt the moment of Dartanus' passing in the sudden heaviness in his friend's body and the loss of light in his eyes. He gently closed the sightless eyes and set Dartanus on the ground. With disgust, he peeled the hand from the sword then pulled the ring from the hand before setting it on his own finger. With a sword in each hand, he advanced on Balcifer, the metal whirling through the air in circles, cutting through it with a biting whine as they danced together, dark and light; nemeses working together to eliminate the evil that had necessitated their creation.

If Dar had thought he'd witnessed hatred before, it was nothing compared to the waves of evil coming from Balcifer now.

"You think you've won? The darkness is here, BeastMaster! This world is mine!" Balcifer declared venomously, clutching his maimed arm to his chest.

Calmly, Dar replied, "Over my dead body."

With as much force as he could muster, Dar released the swords. They flew though the air and landed with meaty thuds in Balcifer's chest. Instinctively, Dar leapt away from the God and towards the Ark, stretching out the hand which held the ring. He was thrown back from the force of the explosion when the ring connected with the Ark and released the magic that held his family prisoner.

When he opened his eyes again, Dar saw the Ark had turned black and his family stood off to the side of the alter, talking and exclaiming all at once at being free. Balcifer had disappeared, presumably sealed inside the Ark. Dar just lay on the ground, feeling every bruise and ache that he'd accumulated over the last few days and each burning stripe the whip or iron had kissed into his flesh. He might feel like moving again sometime in another moon cycle.

A shadow blocked the returned sunlight and Dar opened his eyes to find his mother staring down at him with worry. He managed a tired wave and greeted, "Hello."

She smiled lovingly, the golden tattoos on her forehead crinkling as she replied, "Hello, Dar. Are you planning on staying down there the rest of the day?"

"I was thinking about it," he replied honestly, shifting gingerly and wincing at the pain in his leg. He must've pulled a muscle on that last roll. That was when he remembered Tao and shot to his feet, ignoring the pain as he searched for his friend.

Fear filled his heart when Dar spotted Tao lying comatose on the other side of the roof. To his shock, Zad way lying a short distance from Tao, also unconscious. What on earth had happened? Approaching hesitantly, he knelt beside the smaller man and brushed his fingers over blood-matted hair. Finally finding his tongue, he whispered, "Tao?"

There was no answer but he could see the faint rise and fall of the other man's chest which reassured him that his friend was still alive. Or was that alive again? Shaking the confusion from his mind, Dar repeated louder, "Tao!"

"Not so loud," Tao groaned, his eyes fluttering open in a painful squint.

Dar collapsed in relief, angling his fall so that he lay beside his friend and not on top of him. He didn't think either of them were in any condition to be used as pillows. "Thank the Gods that you're all right."

"Hey Dar?"

"Yes, Tao?"

"We won, right?"

"We won."

Tao nodded fractionally and heaved a deep sigh then winced. "Good. I think I'm just going to take a nap now."

"Probably shouldn't. You might have a concussion," Dar pointed out wearily. He saw his family approaching again but definitely didn't have the energy to deal with them.

"Ask me if I care."

"Do you care?"

A soft snore was Tao's only answer and Dar grinned softly before succumbing to his own body's needs.

* * * *

There was a hero's funeral a few days later for Dartanus and, at long last, the warrior was laid to rest. Dar had solemnly watched the funeral pyre with Tao and Arina at his side. He had said silent goodbyes to the man who had done his best to watch over him as a child and then guide him to his rightful destiny when he was a man. He'd had a brief, but far too intimate glimpse, into Dartanus' hell of the last twenty-odd years and prayed the warrior found peace and a place by Eldar's side.

Tao, Arina and Dar were mostly recovered from their individual ordeals, though they were all moving much slower than their usual wont. Tao's irritation at Arina even being vertical had led to a very loud and repeated listing of the woman's faults. Dar's aggravation at Tao being vertical had led to a pointed silence wherein the BeastMaster simply planted himself beside the Eiron in case Tao needed to be caught.

The people of Xinca had reverted surprisingly quickly to an Eiron form of council government, despite the lack of Eirons, once the remainder of Zad's knights had been ousted. Of course, they had Arina's timely arrival to thank for that, something that she wasn't going to let Tao forget any time soon. Zad, himself, had disappeared in the confusion, much to Dar's regret. He'd been looking forward to dispensing his own brand of justice to the scarred man for his part in Tao's near death.

Dar looked at the golden city in the clouds, the city of his birth, the city where he would rule as his father had intended. His brothers and sister were already there, waiting for him. His mother had stayed to wait with him while he healed and to preside over Dartanus' funeral, as was the warrior's due.

Part of Dar desperately wanted to go to that city, to be with his family and take his rightful place as King. But it was a small part, withal, because this was the life he knew, with the people he loved. There was still so much to do here that Dar just couldn't leave, despite what others thought his destiny entailed. After so long with Tao, Dar believed that destinies were what people believed and shaped them to be.

Both Zad and Voden were on the loose and he wouldn't put it past either to try and raise another army. Then too, there would be problems with the remainder of Zad's knights even if neither king collected them. An armed force that large on the loose was just asking for trouble. Not to mention his obligation to the animals who still needed him to protect and give voice to them. He couldn't just abandon them, not without betraying his vows to Curupira, which he wasn't willing to do.

Of all the reasons, though, it was the eyes staring at him now that were the most compelling. Tao and Arina were both trying to be very supportive of him leaving. So much so, that Dar was hard pressed not to play with them a little. Forcing the grin down, Dar turned solemnly to his friends and said, "You'll take care of each other, and the animals."

"Of course," Tao agreed instantly, though it looked like he was swallowing glass. "You don't have to worry about a thing."

"Yeah. We'll handle everything for you," Arina confirmed, her expression a bit more controlled.

Dar turned to his mother and hugged her tightly, whispering, "You understand why I have to stay?"

She looked up into his eyes and smiled sadly with a nod. She traced her fingers over his face and said, "You are so like your father, Dar. Be well and think of us kindly. And if you need anything, just ask."

"I will. I love you," he replied, hugging her tightly once more.

Confusion evident as he spoke, Tao asked, "Dar? What are you doing?"

Dar watched his mother's walking towards the golden city for a few moments longer, until she was swallowed up in the mist then turned to his friends. "You didn't really think that I would leave you behind, did you? I can barely trust you out of sight for ten minutes, never mind a lifetime. Think of the trouble you'd get into without me here to keep you safe."

"You dog!" Arina exclaimed, punching him in the shoulder hard enough to draw gasps of pain from them both. She shook out her hand with a wince, as he rubbed his shoulder, and continued, "You messed with us on purpose!"

Grinning, Dar said, "How else would I mess with you?"

Rolling her eyes, Arina said, "If you're done, I am going to take that inn keeper up on his offer of unlimited hot water. And then I'm going to sleep for a week!"

Her haughty exit would have been a lot more effective if she hadn't been limping and holding her side as she walked away.

Dar looked at Tao hesitantly, unsure of what he'd find there. To his relief, the only thing on Tao's face was pleased contentment. "You're all right with this?"

"That you gave up a kingship to stay here and muck through the Gods know what? Not really," Tao answered honestly. Then he shrugged with a grin and finished, "But that I get to keep you around a while longer? Absolutely."

Smiling, Dar slung his arm over Tao's shoulder carefully, mindful of both their sets of injuries. As they walked slowly back to Xinca, Dar said simply, "I'd rather be here, sweating and bleeding by your side, than living a life of ease and luxury anywhere else."

Hooking his arm around Dar's waist and leaning more fully on Dar's strength, Tao agreed, "Me too, Dar. Me, too."

They entered the freed city without words as no more were necessary between them. Sharak wheeled lazily overhead as Ruh padded silently beside the two men. The loud, admiring hails of the citizens they passed by marked them as heros.

Their slow, easy gait, arm-in-arm through the main street, marked them as men living their lives and making their own destinies.