The rain soaked them both through, falling heavy and hard and constant. Tao couldn’t remember being so wet and cold and miserable before in his life. His legs ached from the strain of walking almost nonstop for two days at a hard pace. His twisted ankle throbbed with every step. His stomach felt plastered to his backbone from the lack of food. His arm had gone numb hours ago, despite being in a sling. Dar was dead on his feet and injured; blood caked along several slashes on his upper body. Tao wanted nothing more than to coax his friend into finding somewhere nice and dry and letting him take care of the warrior and then promptly collapse himself.
That wasn’t going to happen, though. They had the cure and were almost home free with it. It was another half-day’s travel to the edge of this particular jungle and then another few hours to the village that so desperately needed the herbs. Tao’s eyes centered on the pack strapped to Dar’s back with a mixture of relief and anger. They’d been through so much to get it, so many lives hung in the balance, and yet it might all be for naught. For all they knew, the villagers had already succumbed to the deadly disease.
Because his eyes weren’t on his feet even for just that brief moment, he slipped and went crashing down, face first. Tao shouted in pain as a sharp rock cut into his injured arm. Dar was there instantly, rolling him off his trapped limb. For a long moment, Tao hung limply in Dar’s arms, unable to do anything to combat the pain. He didn’t have any reserves left to fight.
“Tao, we have to keep going.”
Tao shook his head, eyes still closed with pain. “Dar, I can’t. I can’t make it. Just leave me here.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Dar said flatly. “Tao, look at me.”
Tao didn’t want to look at his friend. He knew that if he looked at Dar, somehow, somehow, the BeastMaster would convince him to keep going. And going on was the furthest thing from his mind right now. He had a recently dislocated arm, a sprained ankle, and a twisted back; he was hungry, cold and tired and just couldn’t do anything else. Despite Dar being bloodied, Tao was the worse injured of them, the reason the warrior carried their precious burden.
The quiet desperation in Dar’s voice reached him as nothing else could. Reluctantly, Tao opened his eyes and took in the silent pleading in his friend’s eyes. Groaning, knowing that he was doomed now that he had his eyes open and as unable to resist that look as a mouse could a serpent, Tao said faintly, “Help me up.”
A worried smile crossed Dar’s face as he helped Tao to stand. Apologetically, he reminded, “If I leave you behind, they’ll find you.”
“I know, I know. Just ignore the moment of weakness, okay?” Tao muttered, leaning on his friend for a long moment. It was bad enough to be injured and on a tight time-schedule but being hunted wasn’t helping any. If Dar said that he couldn’t be left behind, then he couldn’t be left behind.
“Just a little while longer,” Dar promised.
“Since when did you start lying?” Tao asked ironically.
A faint smile echoed his irony as Dar commented, “Since you started looking like death warmed over.”
Tao snorted. “Thanks.”
“All right now?”
Taking a deep breath, Tao soaked in his friend’s warmth and strength for a moment longer then nodded and stood upright on his own. His ankle and back protested violently but Tao ruthlessly ignored both complaints and started walking. It was his own fault, after all. He should know better than to tackle a sorcerer with nothing more than a big stick. The sorcerer had used his power to throw Tao through the air into a tree. He had slammed into one of the higher limbs then promptly dropped like a stone to the ground.
It had given Dar the time necessary to defeat the sorcerer, his distracting the man at a critical moment like that. Tao had blacked out so he’d missed the actual ending to the battle but when he’d awakened, the sorcerer’s head had not been attached to his shoulders. When he’d come to, Dar had already put the dislocated arm back into place and treated his other injuries as best he could. Tao had searched through the sorcerer’s things until finding the right herbs to counteract the disease about to run rampant in the village so far away.
‘What makes people so abuse their powers?’ Tao wondered tiredly. Doggedly putting one foot in front of the other, his world narrowed to the placement of his feet, keeping Dar in his peripheral vision and trying to not feel pain. Instead of using his powers to help others, the nameless sorcerer had instead forced others to obey him; those that didn’t, died of horrible diseases.
When they’d first gotten to the village, it had been to find a frightened but determined people ready to die rather than continue as slaves. Dar and Tao had promised to find and defeat the sorcerer even though the villagers had warned them against it. The elder had told them that it usually took a full ten days for the curse to wipe out a defiant village. When he and Dar had left, it had been with the sight of hopeless villagers watching them go.
The rain increased in force again, jolting Tao out of his thoughts as the bitterly cold spray bit into his exposed skin. Groaning, Tao stopped for a moment and leaned against a tree. He looked over at Dar who stopped as well, gazing at him with concern. “Fine. I’m fine. Just need to rest for a second.”
Dar nodded. “Only another couple of hours, Tao. We’re really almost there.”
Tao grinned, faintly surprised that he had the energy to do even that. “When we get there, I’m going to show them the herbs and then you don’t mind if I collapse, do you?”
Smiling openly, Dar shook his head. “Be my guest.”
Tao sighed and pushed off from the tree, nodding. Because he was looking at Dar as the warrior walked towards him, he saw the glint of lightening off metal and launched himself at his friend. He tackled Dar with as much force as he could muster and sent them both crashing to the ground. They landed, of course, with Dar half on him and crushing his injured arm so hard that Tao could only gasp in pain.
Dar was on his feet right away, shrugging off the pack and picking up his staff, looking around for the attack. Within moments, the remaining sorcerer’s guard came streaming out of the trees, weapons raised and screaming for vengeance. Tao crawled over to the pack and collapsed over it. If they wanted to get the herbs back, they’d just have to kill him because he wasn’t letting go.
He was too exhausted to follow the fight, barely had enough of his wits with him to keep his eyes open and roll himself and the pack out of the way when the pitched battle came too close. Dar was fighting off about five of the large men who were, naturally, wearing body armor where the BeastMaster had nothing of protection, save his staff of course.
Silence descended after too long and when Tao half turned to find his friend, it was to see Dar kneeling on the ground, holding his leg. They were both too far gone to keep on this way, Tao knew that, yet what choice did they really have? Tao called out hoarsely, “Dar.”
Dar groaned and looked over at him. “You all right?”
Of course Dar’s first thought was for him. “Fine. You?”
“I’ve been better,” Dar admitted.
Definitely not what Tao wanted to hear. Gathering what remained of his failing strength, Tao crawled passed the unconscious bodies on the ground and over to the unmoving warrior. He put his arm around Dar’s shoulders. Half leaning and half supporting, Tao asked quietly, “Where are you injured?”
“My thigh. I don’t think I can stand,” Dar answered, meeting his eyes.
Chuckling weakly, Tao said, “We’re a pair, aren’t we?”
Dar’s head rested on Tao’s shoulder, barely nodding. “Matched.”
Gently, pushing his friend onto the ground, Tao looked at the newest wound. It was a long, ragged gash and deep. “I need your knife.”
It spoke deeply of Dar’s trust that he just lay there and nodded. Tao slipped the knife from Dar’s boot and cut his shirt off. At the first sound of ripping fabric, Dar’s eyes jerked open and the warrior protested, “You can’t go without your shirt, Tao! You’ll get sick.”
“If you’re not dead yet from going without a shirt in all kinds of weather, I think I can manage it for the rest of the day,” Tao assured him. It hurt to pull off the shirt and a chill enveloped him as the rain hit his bare skin but Tao wouldn’t be deterred. He had to wrap the oozing cut on Dar’s thigh before his friend lost any more blood. It was extremely awkward and more than painful for them both at a few separate points, but at last the wound was bandaged.
When he looked down, Tao saw that Dar was completely out of it, eyes closed, face pale. Curling up against Dar, on his good side, Tao muttered, “We’ll just rest for a second.”
* * * *
When Dar woke, the rain had stopped and darkness had fallen. He felt warmer and almost rested. His thigh was sore and throbbed slowly with his heartbeat but otherwise, he felt strengthened. Something heavy was draped along his side and opening his eyes, he found Tao pressed against him. There were dark circles under the healer’s eyes and his cheeks looked hollowed out from exhaustion. Things had been hard on Tao through this whole thing and even though the Eiron hadn’t complained, Dar knew his friend was in pain.
Tao looked almost fragile in sleep and Dar was reluctant to wake him, knowing the other man needed to rest. Alarm filled him as he remembered the soldiers whom he’d disabled but not killed. Dar pulled out carefully from under Tao and stood, favoring his injured leg only slightly. Looking around, he found no trace of the men he’d defeated and frowned. Why would they have left when he and Tao were so vulnerable?
He heard a groan from Tao and returned to his friend’s side, kneeling beside the smaller man and resting a hand on a shoulder. Even in the dark, he could make out the lines of tension and pain returning to Tao’s face as he regained consciousness. “You all right?”
“I’ve been better,” Tao answered, struggling to sit up.
Dar put his arm under Tao’s shoulders to pull him into a sitting position. Worried when Tao froze, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
“My back. Oh Gods, it hurts,” Tao answered through gritted teeth. “It’s locked up. Remember? From before?”
“And you need the purple flowers. Tao, we won’t find any of those here,” Dar said.
“There are some in my bag…”
Tao’s eyes met his as his voice trailed off. Dar finished his thought, “Which is at the bottom of the river.”
Sighing, Tao held out a hand and said, “Help me stand.”
Wishing he could let Tao just rest, Dar took the hand and helped him up. They still had a few hours of traveling to do. The ten days would be up tomorrow and they had to reach the village before then. They couldn’t count on the sorcerer’s death to stop whatever spell he’d set in motion, though they’d be lucky if that happened. Slinging Tao’s good arm around his waist, Dar held onto his friend and said, “We’ll just have to lean on each other.”
“If you lean on me, I think we’ll both fall over,” Tao observed with dark humor.
“You’ve never let me down yet,” Dar countered with the hint of a smile. It must have been the right thing to say because Tao returned his smile and stood a little straighter. Dar scooped up the pack and shouldered it before they started walking again.
The moon and stars shone bright through the tree canopy, guiding their way almost as well as the sun but without the warmth that would have made it an easier journey. He and Tao were so close together that he felt and heard every gasp Tao tried not to make. When they were done with this, he was going to keep his friend in one place for as long as it took to heal, even if he had to sit on Tao to make sure that happened. Hopefully the villagers would be sufficiently grateful as to offer them a place to stay and rest.
Assuming the villagers lived through the next few days.
Shaking that thought from his head, Dar concentrated on their surroundings, knowing that Tao was in no shape to do so. He wished for Ruh or Sharak but that was just wasted energy. The others had left them a few days before reaching the village and didn’t even know they were in trouble. Ruh came and went as tigers did, without explanation. Sharak had given him a vision of some man but hadn’t been able to explain it fully. Contact with the once-human hawk was more difficult than with a normal animal.
Looking ahead, Dar thought he could see the edge of the jungle and rasped out, “Tao. We’re almost there.”
There was a mumble from the half-conscious man but nothing else. It seemed as though Tao were moving through will alone, that his mind was very thoroughly elsewhere. Dar tightened his grip around his friend’s waist and continued to propel them both forward. It wasn’t fair that he healed faster than Tao when, inevitably, it was Tao who was injured in whatever clash they entered into.
Time passed in a strange haze for Dar as they continued on to the village. It seemed as though visions and shadows gathered at the edge of his vision but whenever he turned to look, they were gone. Clouds gathered across the sky but thankfully, they were thin strips and not filled with rain. Finally, just when Dar thought his legs were going to give out, he saw the village. It was dark and there were no people about. He prayed that it was due to the late hour and not something more deadly.
Dar headed straight for the elder’s home. He carefully deposited Tao onto the ground and shrugged out of the pack before pounding on the wooden door. “Kani! It’s Dar!”
After a startled oath from within, the door was pulled open. Astonished dark eyes looked at him from under bushy white hair. “Dar! You made it! Where’s Tao?”
Dar gestured to his semi-conscious friend on the ground and said, “He’s been injured. We have the herbs that will protect your people. You must get them all together and dosed before anything happens.”
“Of course, of course, but what about Tao?” Kani asked, moving towards the Eiron with worry.
“I’ll take care of Tao.” The words came out sharper then he meant and Dar met startled eyes with a sigh. “I’m sorry. I’m very tired. Heal your people, Kani, I’ll worry about Tao.”
“Of course, of course,” Kani murmured. “Use my home, please, it’s the least I can do.”
“Thank you,” Dar murmured. He knelt and carefully pulled Tao into his arms. It was hard to do with Tao being both unconscious and injured but he cradled the smaller man to his chest and walked inside the warm cabin, heading for the bed on the far side of the room. He set Tao gently into the soft pallet and just knelt on the floor beside him for a long moment, his head against Tao’s side.
Getting to his feet, Dar looked around the room and found a basin filled with water. He set it on the floor by the bed then hunted for a clean cloth. He stirred up the fire while looking, adding some wood as well. Spying a cloth that looked fairly clean, he returned to Tao and started to gently clean the multiple scrapes, cuts and bruises adorning his friend’s body.
The arm was set already so that left the back and ankle. It would be very difficult to deal with Tao’s injured back because of his injured arm. Leaving that to think about later, he moved down to assess the ankle. It was swollen and had an ugly bruise just under the protruding bone. Dar washed the area then looked around the hut for something that would pass as a bandage for the ankle; it definitely needed to be strapped in place.
Kani returned just then and asked, “Do you need anything? I have my apprentices putting the cure together now.”
“I need a bandage for his ankle,” Dar said quietly.
Kani walked across the room and said, “Over here. I keep clean bandages ready in this basket.”
Dar took the cloths from him and returned to Tao. “Thank you.” As he worked, Dar felt Kani standing just behind him. The nearness of the elder made his skin crawl for some unknown reason but he ignored it, concentrating on his friend. It only took a few minutes to wrap the ankle up and then he sat back, exhaustion stripping him more and more quickly of his strength. Gazing back at the elder, he asked, “Do you know what to do for a back that has seized up?”
Kani nodded. “It is best to warm the muscles with stones in blankets and then massage them carefully with oils. I think with his arm, though, that does not seem a good idea.”
Dar rested his hand on Tao’s forehead, running his thumb over his friend’s soft hair. “Probably not. It will have to wait until he wakes then.”
“You need to rest as well, BeastMaster,” Kani said quietly.
“I will,” Dar promised. “I just want to watch him for a while longer, make sure that he’s all right.”
Kani nodded and said, “Of course, of course. I will leave you to rest, then. Sleep well, BeastMaster. And thank you, for everything.”
Dar managed a faint smile for the other man before refocusing his attention on Tao. In the firelight, the dusky skin still looked far too pale, the shadows and hollows too dark and the lines of pain too sharp. Dar almost felt as though if he closed his eyes, something might keep him from Tao or that Tao would somehow slip away from him.
Against his will, the warmth of the fire and the semi-comfortable position of leaning against the bed stole through his desire to keep watch on Tao and dragged him down into sleep.
* * * *
The first thing that Tao noticed was that he was no longer walking. The second thing was that he was warm and dry. The third was the weight of something across his lower stomach area. He felt sore and abused but just the fact that he was stationary was enough to make him sigh in relief. It meant that they had made it to the village in time even though he didn’t remember getting there.
Opening his eyes, Tao found Dar asleep against the bed, his arm thrown over Tao’s abdomen. The golden hair was tousled and there were circles under the closed eyes but for all that, Dar looked peaceful. He couldn’t be very comfortable, though, Tao thought ruefully. The warrior would probably wake up with a sore neck from sleeping in such an odd position. Tao reached over with his uninjured hand and gently shook his friend’s shoulder. “Dar. Dar, wake up.”
After a few moments, Dar’s eyes opened and met Tao’s and after a few more moments, Dar smiled but didn’t move. “Morning.”
Tao smiled in return. “Morning. How’s your neck?”
“Fine,” Dar answered, straightening up finally. “How are you feeling?”
“Sore. Really sore. But I’ll live,” Tao replied. “You?”
“I’m fine,” Dar repeated.
“I want to take care of those wounds before we do anything else,” Tao informed him, struggling to sit.
Helping his friend up, Dar said, “I’ll have Kani take care of them. They’re just flesh wounds.”
“If they aren’t treated properly, they could get infected,” Tao said firmly.
Just as firmly, Dar said, “You are going to rest, even if I have to tie you down. I will have Kani take care of these.”
Faced with the implacable manner that Dar used to subdue the wildest and most furious of animals, Tao could only give in. He knew that for sheer stubbornness, he was a close match to Dar but the BeastMaster would win any contest between them just because he didn’t know how to give up. Not that he particularly wanted to win this battle since even sitting up had tired him, but it still rankled. Grumbling, he observed, “Worse than Ruh with a bone.”
Unexpectedly, Dar chuckled, the sound warm and free. He reached over and ruffled Tao’s shortened hair. “Thank you. I’ll get Kani and breakfast.”
Tao watched him go with a half-smile, shaking his head. Some of the strangest things struck Dar as being funny; being compared to Ruh with a bone was, apparently, one of them. He took the moment alone to look around the small home of the elder. It was one main room with a table on the other side of the room by the fireplace, though there was a door on the wall behind the bed, possibly leading to a root or herb room.
The tall, thin elder returned with Dar just then, drawing his eyes to the front of the home. Sharp, dark eyes looked him over thoroughly and Tao had no doubt that Kani saw every bruise and scrape. Smiling reassuringly, Tao held out his good hand and greeted, “It’s good to see you again, Kani.”
Kani took his hand firmly, with a warm smile. “You as well, Tao, believe me. I did not think to be seeing you again.”
Grinning, Tao glanced briefly at Dar before saying, “We’re harder to kill than that.”
“Still, you were badly hurt on our behalf. I hope you will allow us to care for you while you are healing,” Kani requested.
“We would be grateful,” Dar said.
Tao knew his friend had answered quickly so that he couldn’t decline and his grin widened. “Yes, thank you, we would be honored to stay.”
“Good, good.” Kani beamed at them both, showing several missing teeth in his happiness. “If you will excuse me, I will go and arrange breakfast.”
“What’s the matter, Dar? Did you think I would say no to Kani after your offer of being tied down long enough to heal?” Tao teased.
A wry smile crossed Dar’s face. “It had crossed my mind.”
* * * *
“Are you all right?”
Dar looked up at Tao, startled that he hadn’t heard his friend’s approach. He was feeling sluggish and hot but answered, “I’m fine. Why?”
Tao sat awkwardly on the ground beside him, having difficulty in balancing with his arm still in a sling and said, “Because you’ve been staring at that tree for an hour now.”
Frowning, Dar said, “No I haven’t.”
“Yes Dar, you have. What’s going on?” Tao asked quietly.
They had been in Kani’s village for three days and the healthier Tao got, the worse Dar felt. He’d been able to hide it from everyone so far but had known that Tao would eventually pick up on it; he always did. Sighing heavily, Dar admitted, “I don’t feel well.”
Tao’s hand rested on Dar’s forehead, cooling his skin briefly before surprising him in the gentle way the fingers ran through his hair. “I thought not. You’ve been looking overly warm, moving a little slower than usual.”
Dar snorted. “I should have known you would know.”
His worried frown fading a little, Tao said, “I do try to pay attention.”
“What do you think? Infection?” Dar asked.
Tao nodded, pulling his hand away. “Most likely. You’ve got a fever, though thankfully not a bad one. I think you should just take it easy while we’re here, drink more water than you usually do because you’re burning it off.”
Wondering if he should tell Tao about the nightmares, Dar saw the worry in his friend’s eyes and decided against it.
* * * *
Tao looked over at Dar’s sleeping body with a frown, certain that he’d heard a noise coming from the pallet by the fire. Kani was still sleeping at his daughter’s home so he and Dar had the elder’s home to themselves. Tao had grown worried when Dar’s fever didn’t seem to abate over the last day even though he was making sure the warrior was resting and drinking plenty of water and juices.
Given that Dar hadn’t been sick once since they’d met, it was a cause for worry. Tao rolled carefully out of bed, favoring his arm, and walked over to Dar. Kneeling beside his friend, Tao pressed his hand to Dar’s forehead, not liking the beads of sweat that dampened the golden hair. He sighed as he watched over the other man and gave in to the impulse to gently knead the tense muscles in Dar’s shoulder.
Dar woke suddenly, eyes opening as he jerked upright into a sitting position.
Tao pulled back just quickly enough to avoid knocking heads with his friend. “Dar, it’s all right.”
“Vashen ku sna!” Dar spat, eyeing him warily.
Blinking in surprise, Tao asked, “Dar? Are you awake?”
“Vashen ku sna!” This time, Dar was plainly angry as he exclaimed the foreign words.
Hesitantly, Tao reached out, planning to shake his friend awake from whatever strange dream gripped him, even with his eyes wide open. Before his hand touched though, Dar grabbed it and twisted, causing Tao to cry out in pain as he was forced to his feet. “Dar! Dar please, wake up!”
Dar shouted in the unknown language, propelling Tao across the room and face-first into the rough, stone wall. “Iknashen ka sandru misahk Vashen ku sna!”
“Dar! You’re hurting me! Stop it!” Tao shouted, trying to break free of the iron-like hold. Dar continued to push his arm up behind his back, pain searing through him and he cried out, fearful that his arm was going to snap from the pressure. Dar was still shouting in tongues even as Tao repeated his friend’s name over and over, desperate to stop him.
The shouting didn’t stop but his arm was released suddenly and Tao fell to the floor, unable to move. Gentle hands turned him over and he found Kani staring at him with worry. “Tao! Tao are you all right? What’s going on?”
Looking over at where Dar was struggling madly against four rather large men, trying to get at Tao to commit further mayhem, Tao admitted, “I don’t know what happened. I heard a noise and went to check on him. He’s been fevered but nothing that ah, nothing that would cause this!”
Kani did something to Tao’s arm that returned the feeling there and, though it increased the pain for a few minutes, he was grateful to have the movement back. Staring at Dar, not knowing what could possibly being happening, Tao stood and moved hesitantly to his raving friend. The golden-green eyes were wide and feral, sweat glistened along every hardened muscle as the warrior tried to free himself and his hands were curled into talons ready to rend Tao into pieces. Just as suddenly as it had started, Dar’s eyes rolled back and he collapsed into the men’s arms unconscious.
“Quickly! Bind him!” Kani ordered as they lowered the BeastMaster to the floor.
“No, you don’t have to do that,” Tao protested.
“How can you be sure that he won’t wake up mad again?” Kani demanded.
Helplessly, Tao admitted, “I can’t.”
Softly, Kani said, “It’s for the best. When he wakes, we’ll see if he has his mind again and if we can release him. It’s just a precaution, Tao.”
Ignoring the throbbing ache in his arm, Tao knelt beside Dar and stoked the hair from his friend’s face. He sat there as Dar’s hands and feet were secured with heavy ropes, waiting tensely for the warrior to wake. As before, Dar jerked awake under his touch. Involuntarily, Tao fell backwards to avoid another encounter just as the other men reached out to hold Dar down.
Confused eyes looked at the men holding him and then centered on Tao. Weakly, Dar asked, “Tao? What happened to your face?”
Tao touched his cheek only just then realizing that it was throbbing with a bruise and probably cut up from hitting the rough wall a few times. Reluctantly, Tao said, “You, you had a fit of some kind. You attacked me.”
Eyes widening in disbelief, Dar shook his head, “No! I would never hurt you.”
Kani drew near and confirmed, “You did, BeastMaster. We entered the room to find you holding Tao against the wall and shouting near to raise the dead. You almost dislocated his other shoulder with the force of your attack and it took all four of these men to pull you off him.”
Obviously horrified, Dar glanced to Tao and he nodded as reluctantly as he’d spoken. Tao looked into his friend’s eyes and saw the guilt and horror at what he’d done as well as the bewilderment and snapped at the men, “Free him! He’s back to himself now!”
The men looked at Kani for confirmation and the elder nodded. Dar was loosed in a few short moments and everyone save Tao stood back. He used his relatively good arm to pull Dar to his feet. “Are you all right?”
Dar nodded and reached out uncertainly to touch Tao’s cheek. “I did that?”
Tao took Dar’s hand and squeezed it gently. “I’m fine, really. We need to figure out what caused this so it doesn’t happen again.”
Uncharacteristically quiet, Dar said, “I thought…I was dreaming. It was the sorcerer we defeated to save the village. He was coming after me and I couldn’t fight him. He was too strong. I could hear you but you were telling me to stop. Oh Gods, that really was you, wasn’t it? It wasn’t part of my dream, you were telling me to stop hurting you! I thought you were telling me to stop fighting the sorcerer!”
Keeping hold of Dar’s hand, Tao repeated, “I’m fine, Dar.”
Taking a deep breath, Dar looked at the wary men and thoughtful elder staring at them and shook his head. “I might have killed you.”
Trying to reassure his friend, Tao said, “But you didn’t.”
“But I could have. I was ready to kill the sorcerer in my dream only it was you in real life,” Dar said.
“Let’s not think about what might have happened, all right?” Tao asked in a forced, jovial tone. Dar’s eyes told him he wasn’t fooling anyone but he didn’t care. He had to lighten the atmosphere or one of the knives in the villager’s hands was likely to find a target in Dar. “Let’s figure out how to stop it from happening again.”
Dar agreed, “This can’t happen again.”
* * * *
Dar could hear Tao and Kani going back and forth about what had happened but couldn’t rouse himself enough to really listen to what they were saying. Even since he’d woken bound and held to the floor with Tao looking at him with a hint of fear, his world had felt upside-down. He would never hurt Tao and yet he had, without question. The jagged cut on Tao’s face was a stark reminder of that, as was the gingerly way Tao was using his free arm.
They were both lucky that he hadn’t killed Tao in his temporary madness. Which brought him to the whispering voices in his head that told him to leave Tao before he did just that. The voices that urged him to leave before it became too late.
Suddenly realizing that Tao had called his name a few times, Dar looked over and replied, “Yes?”
“Kani asked how you killed the sorcerer,” Tao repeated.
Standing and walking away from the fireplace to join his friend at the table, Dar leaned against the wall. “After you distracted him, I just, I beheaded him. I didn’t truly mean to, I was…angry and worried about you and acted without thinking.”
“You saved all our lives,” Kani said quietly. “If you hadn’t killed him then it would be us dead and he would still be ruling over the other villages.”
Dar shrugged. “Death is never something to be given without thought, no matter whose it is.”
“After that, you bandaged Tao up and headed straight back here, is that right?” Kani asked.
“Yes,” Dar confirmed.
“And nothing else happened on the way back?”
“Dar. What about the soldiers?” Tao said suddenly.
“Soldiers?” Kani repeated.
“Even though the sorcerer was dead, they continued to hunt us. They attacked almost at the border of the jungle,” Dar reported. “I was injured but beat them off. We collapsed there for a few hours and when I woke, it was dark and the soldiers were gone even though we could have been easily killed while unconscious.”
Kani frowned. “They just left you there with the herbs.”
“Do you think that’s important?” Tao demanded.
“Certainly out of the ordinary. Vashen demanded loyalty even beyond death from what I know,” Kani explained. “Even with him gone, they should have killed you in vengeance.”
Tao paled. “Vashen?”
“The sorcerer,” Kani explained.
“Tao, what’s wrong?” Dar asked quietly.
Looking at Dar with wide eyes, Tao answered, “That’s part of what you were shouting when you first woke up. I think you said, ‘Vashen ku sna!’ Yes, that’s what you said.”
“Could you repeat that?” Kani asked.
Tao did so slowly, pronouncing it as closely to what he remembered as possible. “What does it mean, do you know?”
“I think it means, Vashen has won, or Vashen will win, I’m not sure which,” Kani translated. “It’s an old dialect of our people, one that hasn’t been spoken since my grandfather’s time.”
Alarmed, Tao looked to Dar and exclaimed, “I don’t like the sound of that!”
Grimly, Dar agreed, “Neither do I.”
“Do you remember what else Dar said? Kani asked.
“After that, he was talking too fast for me to make anything out clearly and ah, I had my hands full at the time, so I wasn’t really paying attention,” Tao admitted.
A flash of guilt ran through Dar at the statement even though Tao obviously held him without fault for hurting him. Trying to keep his feelings at bay, Dar asked, “Kani, what do you think is going on?”
“I don’t know for sure,” Kani evaded.
His temper closer to the surface than normal, Dar repeated harshly, “What do you think is happening?”
“I think that somehow, when you killed Vashen, that he linked to you, to your soul and now he’s trying to take you over.” Kani said reluctantly. “If you were to do something that went completely against what you believe in, like killing Tao, then your soul would be tainted and it would be easier for him to gain control of.”
Tao’s wide eyes met Dar’s as the warrior took in Kani’s words. He recognized the fear buried in the brown-green eyes facing him and wondered if it reflected his own. He could feel the weakness that had seeped into him over the last few days, the strangeness he felt in his own body, as though it wasn’t quite all his to control. Now, by Kani’s words, it wasn’t. He was sharing it with the evil sorcerer Vashen. Jaw tightening, he asked, “How do we vanquish him?”
Helplessly, Kani shrugged. “We have some old texts that might be of help but I don’t know.”
Tao’s hand reached out to grasp Dar’s shoulder. “We’ll figure it out, Dar.”
That simple statement comforted Dar more than it should. He met Tao’s eyes again and asked, “Where do we start?”
* * * *
Tao looked over at his friend with a growing sense of dismay. Dar was sleeping, tied and under guard in case Vashen gained control of him again, in the bed. Tao had protested about the ropes but Dar had looked at him and said they might be necessary. Tao had watched as the ropes were secured around Dar’s wrists and ankles then as they lowered his friend into the bed. He had stood looking down at Dar for a long moment even though his friend’s eyes had already closed.
The texts that Kani brought were moldy and in bad shape. He had to turn the parchments very slowly and carefully and even with the candle right beside him, it was difficult to make out the faded inks. It was now two hours later and Tao was only a short way through them. So far he hadn’t found anything that would help them. Kani sat across from him, going through one of the other texts. Rubbing his eyes tiredly, Tao sat back and asked, “Anything?”
Kani looked up at him and shook his head. “Not so far.”
Tao was about to go back to his reading when Dar stirred, drawing his eyes. He watched his friend for a long moment but the warrior seemed to settle and fall into a deeper sleep. Tao sighed. What would they do if they couldn’t find a way to defeat the sorcerer? He refused to think that such a thing would come to pass. They had gone through too much for it to end this way.
“Tao! I found it!” Kani whispered excitedly.
Immediately rushing around the edge of the table to look over the elder’s shoulder, Tao squinted at the page Kani rested his fingers on.
“To rescue the soul of an innocent tainted by the spirit of evil, the shaman must battle in the spirit realm itself. Drinking the Soul’s Potion will thin the veil between worlds and strengthen the righteous shaman. A link between innocent and shaman must previously exist for the outcome to be favorable.”
“Soul’s Potion?” Tao murmured thoughtfully. “I think, wait, I saw that in the other book.”
He returned to the book he’d been reading and flipped carefully back through the pages until coming to the right page. Reading the ingredients, Tao frowned and said, “Most of these cause visions and loss of control over the mind.”
“Appropriate,” Kani observed.
Still frowning, Tao countered, “Not if I think I’m helping Dar but really just having a vision inside my own head. What is Whiteroot? I’ve never heard of it.”
“It slows the heartbeat almost unto stopping,” Kani replied. Frowning now himself, Kani continued, “What makes you believe you should do it? I’m the shaman of this tribe.”
“Dar isn’t of your tribe,” Tao answered shortly. “It says there needs to be a previous link and Dar and I…if anyone is to do this, it will be me.”
Kani looked at him thoughtfully a moment then nodded. “We should prepare you now. I don’t think the BeastMaster has a lot of time.”
That was when Tao noticed Dar moving restlessly on the bed. He stood and walked over to his friend, sitting on the edge of the bed. The sweat and flush were gone making Dar look pale beneath his usual healthy glow. Resting a hand on his friend’s shoulder, he murmured, “I’m going to fix this Dar, hold on.”
After another moment of watching his friend, Tao stood and faced Kani. “Let’s get started.”
* * * *
The soft, insistent beat of a drum filled the air, relaxing and focusing Tao at the same time. He and Dar lay side by side on the floor, fingers entwined as a physical link. He had taken the bitter Soul’s Potion several minutes before and could now feel the effects running through his body. Closing his eyes and listening to the drumbeat, Tao saw brilliant colors dancing behind his eyes. It was calm and soothing and he drifted in the luxurious feeling of warmth and contentment. There was something he needed to do but at the moment, he couldn’t remember what.
A sharp thud from the drum brought his mind back to the fingers in his. While Tao and Kani had prepared for the ritual, Dar had slipped into unconsciousness. Tao’s heart had almost stopped when they’d returned to find his chest barely moving with breath. He’d immediately placed his hand on the bare chest to feel the heartbeat beneath the clammy skin. That had told him that whatever they were going to do, it had to happen soon.
Mentally chanting the words that were supposed to bring him into a spirit realm to find and protect Dar from Vashen, Tao let the potion do its work and relaxed as much as possible. According to Kani, it was a matter of relaxing the body to such a degree that the soul could slip forth and travel at will through other realms. The words in his mind repeated into a steady cadence alongside the beat of the drum as the once vivid colors faded into a neutral gray and then darkened to black.
A chill shivered through him and Tao felt his first inkling that all was not right. He felt weightless, as though swimming in a very calm pool of water. Looking around, Tao remembered Kani’s instructions that all he had to do was think of something and it would appear for him if he had reached the spirit realm. Of course, he had to be very careful what he wished for here simply because of that.
After a moment’s delay, a torch appeared in his hand and he found himself in a familiar cave. Frowning, Tao looked around but didn’t recognize the surroundings right away. They’d been in a lot of caves over the last two years and most of them had been for unpleasant reasons. Moving forward, Tao held the flickering torch in front to light the way. Hesitantly, he called out, “Dar?”
Silence met his call so he continued to move through the stone passage even though he didn’t know if he was even going in the right direction. Kani’s words came to him then, reminding him what to do. ‘Use your bond with Dar to guide you. In the spirit realm it will be your most powerful weapon.’
Closing his eyes, Tao let his mind drift for a moment, searching for Dar. Nothing happened for a long while but then he heard the unhappy murmur of a tiger. His head snapped in that direction and Tao turned around, moving swiftly towards the great cat. Kani had warned him that Dar might revert to a different form in the spirit realm, one that made him feel more protected. Louder, he called out, “Dar! Dar answer me!”
No verbal response but Tao had the ‘scent’ of his friend now and there was no way he’d lose it, not even in these serpentine tunnels. That brought to mind where he was: the tunnels of Mydoro. Wondering why Dar had chosen this particular place to go for refuge, Tao recognized the corridors and strode forward knowing now where he was heading. Dar was probably in the crystal chamber, the healing chamber where they had cured Zolan.
He reached the antechamber with the great crystal slabs that held the ancient kings at rest and started to unlock the secret room when a voice stopped him.
“So Mydoro is more than a myth.”
Tao turned towards the voice to find the sorcerer looking at him curiously. The other man appeared to be in his late fifties but Tao knew it was an illusion. Kani said Vashen had come to power in his father’s time. Long dark hair streaked with white surrounded a surprisingly handsome face and blue eyes stared back at him.
“You’re younger than I thought,” Vashen commented.
Tao shrugged. “Old enough.”
The hint of a smile hovered over the shapely mouth. “I suppose so. Would you mind telling me something?”
Eyeing the sorcerer warily, Tao replied, “If I can.”
“Are the scrolls in the other room? The scrolls of knowledge about how to use the crystals?”
Somehow that hadn’t been what Tao was expecting. “Why do you care?”
Looking surprised, Vashen answered, “I was curious as to what they might say.”
“So you can expand your powers,” Tao said flatly.
Vashen shrugged. “Expanding knowledge has that benefit, yes.”
Still wary, Tao observed, “You’re a lot more, ah, reasonable than the last time we met.”
An eyebrow quirked humorously at him as Vashen replied, “You attacked me without provocation so of course I would respond with force. Not enough force, given that your friend decapitated me.”
“Without provocation?” Tao exclaimed. “You were getting ready to decimate a village for no other reason than that they didn’t want to live as your slaves any longer!”
The politely confused tone caused a feeling a dread in Tao’s stomach. Had they been lied to by Kani and the villagers? Was this sorcerer not the monster Kani had portrayed him to be? Oh Gods, if that were true then they had murdered this man. Doubt and confusion assailed him as he looked at the man on the other side of the room.
“I gather you ran into Kani,” Vashen continued. A wry smile took the place of the mild confusion on the sorcerer’s face as he explained, “Kani has been sending ‘champions’ after me for years, trying to gain my powers for his own. It’s unfortunate that this time he succeeded.”
“Why are you here? Why are you linked to Dar? Why did you try to kill me?” Tao asked, shoving aside his doubts for the moment.
“I linked to Dar automatically. I certainly didn’t intend to do it,” Vashen answered, faintly apologetic. “And I didn’t try to kill you, that was Dar thinking that you were me.”
Tao shook his head. “Dar would never harm me.”
Shrugging, Vashen said, “Not knowingly I should think. But then, he wasn’t exactly awake at the time, was he?”
Everything Vashen said was completely plausible, believable even. His manner showed nothing except distaste for the situation in general. There was no anger at his death nor any hint that he was anything other than a man in an unpleasant situation not of his choosing. Yet there was something Tao couldn’t place his finger on, something that told him all was not as it appeared.
“I see we’re at a stalemate.”
Vashen’s words roused Tao from his thoughts. Looking sharply at the sorcerer, Tao demanded, “Why do you say that?”
“Because you obviously don’t want to believe me even though I’m telling the truth. I don’t blame you, of course, I can see that you and Dar are good men. If you did believe me then you would have to admit that you committed murder.”
Again the words were reasonable and calm, as was the tone behind them. That’s what struck Tao as wrong, he realized suddenly. If someone had murdered him, he knew that he’d be reacting to it far more strongly than this. He’d be furious and lashing out at his murderer, trying to do everything in his power to avenge his death. An admiring smile crossed Tao’s face and he moved to the last crystal slab that would open the portal to where Dar was hiding.
He placed his hand firmly on the clear crystal in the center of the room and said to Vashen, “You’re very good you know. I almost believed you.”
A hard smile crossed Vashen’s face, the first ugly thing Tao had witnessed. “I should be after almost two hundred years.”
“Two hundred years? Maybe you’re not that good after all,” Tao taunted before spinning and diving towards the opening that appeared beside him. He slammed the gate closed on Vashen’s roar of fury. Sparks flew against the gate from Vashen’s attack. Tao ran through the passage to where Dar should be waiting, praying that his friend was still all right.
He found Dar curled up on the stone table on which Zolan had been cured. He was in tiger form, looked a great deal like Ruh actually, and large eyes stared at him without recognition. Approaching cautiously, Tao said, “Dar? It’s all right. You’re going to be safe, I promise. Vashen can only control you if you let him. I’m here to help you fight him. We’ll rid you of him but you have to trust me and come back to human form.”
For a long moment nothing happened. Then the tiger’s form began to blur and stretch and Dar’s body became visible from a white mist. Tao moved the rest of the way to the table and smiled down at Dar. “Welcome back.”
Dar sat up, smiling back, and said, “How did you find me?”
Awkwardly, Tao replied, “I’ll find you whenever you’re in trouble, Dar.”
Dar’s smile broadened and he asked, “What now?”
“Now we finish the job,” Tao answered grimly.
“You don’t really think you can stop me, do you pup?” Vashen demanded harshly.
Tao spun, stepping in front of Dar protectively. He was the shaman, it was really up to him, not Dar, to win this battle. It was a battle he had no intention of losing, despite the daunting nature of his enemy. “Why Dar?”
Vashen stared at him for a long moment then he shrugged. “For the same reasons that the boy-king wants him. Well, perhaps not all the same reasons. His powers will be mine. I’ve been guiding him to me for weeks now, planned everything so that you would not be able to resist the lure of helping an entire village of doomed people.”
Tao didn’t like the insinuation of Voden’s motives but set it aside, dealing with the more important things. “You set up your own death.”
“It was the only way to be certain I could take over his spirit,” Vashen agreed. “And now that I’ve got him, you can be certain I will not let him go.”
‘Death in the spirit realm means death in reality,’ Kani’s voice whispered to him. ‘Hurry Tao. Time is running out.’
Tao opened his mouth as though to speak again and instead launched himself at Vashen. He practically flew through the air to tackle the sorcerer and wrapped himself as tightly around the other man as he could. They rolled on the ground, each trying to seek dominance. Vashen’s hands glowed hot and burned into Tao everywhere they touched and he cried out in pain but didn’t release his hold.
‘Weapon, I need a weapon!’ he thought frantically. Light from the crystals around them glanced off his jade ring and he realized that he had a weapon. The symbols of knowledge and purity and honor were carved into the stone around his forefinger. Concentrating on that, Tao was surprised when the ring suddenly began to grow. It spread over his hand and wrist like a hard gauntlet and he heard Vashen cry out in surprise and pain.
Drawing his arm back, Tao slammed it into Vashen’s face as hard as he could, sending the other man sprawling. The sorcerer recovered quickly however, and he was on his feet just as fast as Tao. A black stone spear appeared in Vashen’s hand and touched Dar’s throat. Tao pulled up abruptly, falling over backwards in his haste to stop.
Breathing heavily, Vashen spat, “That’s better. This will work better with him trapped in his own mind but it will work just the same with his spirit dead.”
Tao got slowly to his feet and for an eternity, the two men faced off in silence, each gauging success and failure in a number of plans thought up and discarded. Tao’s fingers clenched and unclenched in their new gauntlet with surprising ease. It was amazing how good it felt, how reassuring and strong. He’d always taken comfort in the ideals of his people but this was the first time he’d taken protection from them as well.
Tao’s eyes flickered to Dar’s and he found his answer there, as he inevitably did. He blinked once in agreement and waited for Dar to move. As Dar’s hands came up to grasp the bladed end of the spear, Tao rushed in, wrapping his hands around Vashen’s throat and squeezing, the gauntlet lending him added strength. He drove the taller man to his knees just as Dar succeeded in pulling the spear from the sorcerer’s grasp.
Vashen grew hot under Tao’s touch, literally, and his uncovered hand began to burn painfully. Eyes tearing up, Tao refused to let go, focusing on the fact that if they didn’t end this now, Dar would never be free. Vashen gasped and the heat stopped abruptly. Tao looked into the shocked blue eyes slowly glazing over then glanced further down to see the spear protruding from the sorcerer’s chest. Dar had shoved the weapon through Vashen’s back.
As though he had never existed, Vashen’s body grew insubstantial beneath Tao’s hands and then disappeared altogether. Tao looked at Dar who was leaning against the stone table as though for support. Worried, Tao touched his friend’s shoulder and asked, “Are you all right?”
Smiling ruefully, Dar said, “We’ve been asking that of each other a lot lately, haven’t we?”
Chuckling weakly, Tao nodded. “Still a valid question though.”
“I think I want to sleep for a fortnight but otherwise, I’m fine. You took the brunt of his attack,” Dar answered. He looked curiously at Tao’s hand and asked, “Where did that come from?”
Tao looked at the gauntlet, the jade still protecting his hand, and said, “It was my weapon against Vashen.”
“How do we leave here?”
“Easy enough,” Tao answered. “Here, lie on this and close your eyes.”
Dar got back on the table and did as Tao instructed. Tao took the liberty of running his fingers gently through Dar’s hair, soothing them both with the action. In a soft voice, he ordered, “Relax and let sleep take over. Don’t think about anything, just listen to my voice and relax.”
It only took moments before Dar’s breathing slowed into that of true sleep. When that happened, Dar vanished, leaving Tao alone in the crystal chamber. He took one last look around, seeing the scrolls of knowledge resting in the slots in the walls and the crystal healing device. All of it was gone, lost to the world, and that left an empty feeling in Tao. He glanced down at the gauntlet, seeing the symbols carved there that matched several on the walls of Mydoro.
As he thought that perhaps not all was lost from Mydoro, the room disappeared.
* * * *
Dar woke with a groan from this latest adventure despite the fact that it had taken place within his own mind. There was a throbbing in one of his hands and he looked over to see it dripping with blood. Something else was wrapped tightly to his other hand and he looked over to find Tao’s fingers entwined with his. The Eiron was still unconscious but he was breathing steadily so Dar supposed his friend would wake shortly.
Kani’s hesitant voice brought his awareness to the elder standing a short distance away, along with his guard of several armed men. “It’s me, Kani. Vashen is gone.”
Kani breathed an obvious sigh of relief and waved the other men away. He brought over a basin of water and the basket of bandages and knelt beside Dar. He immediately began washing the deep gashes in Dar’s palm. “I am very glad to hear that, BeastMaster.”
Half-smiling, Dar said, “So am I.”
“Of course, of course,” Kani agreed. “What happened?”
“Tao found me, he and Vashen fought. Vashen was after my powers,” Dar answered.
“You won,” Kani ventured.
“We did,” Dar agreed. He flexed his hand under the bandage and remembered the strange gauntlet on Tao’s hand. It reminded him of the one he used to land Sharak on his forearm except that it had been made from Tao’s ring somehow. As if that thought had summoned him, Tao began to stir. “Tao?”
“My head hurts,” Tao muttered, leaning on his elbow to look at Dar.
Dar looked at their entwined hands and realized that they would have to let go if they were to rest properly. He pulled his hand from Tao’s and said, “It’s over with at least.”
Tao nodded and sat up the rest of the way, noticing Dar’s new bandage. Frowning, he looked at Kani and asked, “How did that happen?”
“The same way that your hand and chest were burned,” Kani replied. “What happens in the spirit realm translates into the physical world.”
“I knew there was a reason I didn’t want to know the answer to that,” Tao groaned, falling back.
Even though his hand throbbed from the cut of the spear and he was exhausted, Dar felt good for the first time since this whole thing had started. He and Tao were both safe and Kani’s people were free. Thinking back to the encounter in the Mydoro chamber, Dar knew there were a few things he needed to talk to Tao about but now at least there would be time to do so. He sank back down on the blanket and closed his eyes, falling asleep for real this time.