"Though I Walk Tnrough the Valley" is an AU set after the end of the Beastmaster series. My timeline diverges right before "The Devil You Know" and goes off it its own direction. To be honest, I didn't like how the series ended. This is one way I would have liked to see it end.
My thanks to everyone who encouraged me in writing this story, and my apologies for taking so long. Feedback of any type is appreciated.
Though I Walk Through the Valley
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me . . . "
Tao awoke to the rocking of the small boat. His head hurt and his eyes stung from the gentle spray of sea water across his face. Lifting his head slightly, he looked over the side and studied the sunlight reflecting off the swell of the waves, his memory slowly returning. With a start he realized he was bound hand and foot, and then he heard the voices.
They filled the air with a low chant, deep voices that harmonized with a higher descant and twined around the sound of water lapping against the side of the boat. The sound was soothing, tugging away the memories he had almost reclaimed. He thought he should be worried, but couldn't quite remember why even when he shifted and felt the tug of ropes against his ankles. The voices carried him, and he simply drifted away.
Dar crouched at the edge of the stream. He cupped water in his hand and drank it absently, then rubbed his hand over his face. Kodo whined, so he slipped the ferrets' pouch over his head and opened it. Two furry bodies wiggled out and darted to the water's edge for a drink.
"Be quick," Dar said softly, his mind already across the stream and several hours up the trail. "We're behind enough as it is."
Podo figured that was Dar's fault, since he was the one with the tree-length legs and should have been able to move more quickly, but both ferrets understood his urgency. In their own self-centered, flitting way, they felt it too. They only took a few minutes to round up some stray berries that were sitting too temptingly under a nearby bush to be ignored, then made their way back to the pouch. Dar settled it back into place and stood. Ruh had crossed the stream earlier and wanted Dar to hurry up, his thoughts full of speculations on how Dar was getting fat and lazy after his stay in the city. Dar couldn't help but smile, and the movement felt strange on his face.
In spite of Ruh's urgings, he started out again at an easy pace. He had no idea how long he'd have to keep going. He didn't dare use up energy he might desperately need later. If he was on the right path, he'd catch up to Tao eventually; even when Tao was well, he'd never quite been able to keep up with Dar's normal speed. Dar had always had to slow down just a bit, wait until Tao picked himself up from the root he'd tripped over or stopped to examine because it was a type of plant he'd only heard about and it had wonderful medicinal properties, so couldn't they just stop long enough for Tao to cut off a small sample?
The trail he was following was a faint one, worn into the ground by years of deer making their way to the stream. It wasn't much, but it made his passage through the forest a little easier. Tao would know to follow it if he saw it.
It was that 'if' that kept Dar worried as he made his way down the trail. That, and the memory of Tao lying so still and covered in blood, dying on the stone streets of Xinca.
Battle was noisy. Swords clanged against metal, clashed into stone, thudded dully into flesh. Grunts, moans, and screams filled the air, mingling with Ruh's roar. Dar's arms ached. His heart ached, both for the men and women he killed and for those who fought beside him. There were too many dead already, yet Zad kept sending more, Balcifer-maddened townspeople mixed in with his Knights and all determined to fight to the death.
Lycia fought beside him, her movements bold and fierce as a tiger's. She shot him a grin as she blocked a sword swipe that nearly separated his arm from his shoulder. She'd proven herself a capable fighter and a brilliant strategist, his sister, and he hoped they'd both survive long enough to get to know each other.
"Behind you, brother!"
The shout came from above, where Sendar darted along the upper wall, fighting as nimbly in human form as he had moved in goat form. Dar whirled just in time to counter a spear-thrust from a young Knight. By the time Dar had disposed of the Knight, Sendar was gone and Lycia had gained half the plaza. Dar raced to catch up, and somehow they forced their way up into the inner sanctum of the temple where Zad and Callista, surrounded by their guards, had summoned Balcifer.
The battle outside had been nothing compared to the one in the temple. In the end, only Zad and Callista were left to face Dar and his family. An unnatural wind whipped around the sanctuary. Lightning exploded from Callista's fingers, and Balcifer roared in triumph from Zad's mouth.
But Dar had stood firm, his brothers and sister and mother around him, and as they'd all reached out and placed their hands on the Ark, a white light had infused the room. Dar could never quite explain what happened next. He'd felt a sense of oneness with his family, a bright surge as warm as a friend's smile, and then felt Balcifer's evil wrapping around the brightness and trying to swallow it whole. He pushed back, felt his brothers' strength, his sister's stubbornness, and his mother's love holding everything together.
He pushed, and heard Tao's voice softly in the back of his mind, "Maybe you can't fight the way he does, Dar. Maybe you've got to find another way."
And instead of pushing, instead of fighting, he'd opened himself wide, embracing the darkness and filling it with light.
Callista screamed. Zad roared. Balcifer made a sound like all the people of the world breathing their last breath at once. Dar held steady, and his family held with him.
Callista screamed again and dove at Dar's mother, knife in hand. Lycia stopped her easily with a blade in her heart. Zad shook his head, staring around as if he had no idea where he was, then grabbed for his sword as his eyes fell on Dar.
Dar saw Kira's face before him. Caro, hanging from the walls of Xinca with the brand of a spy burned into her forehead. Tao, hurt so many times that Dar would have lost count if each instance hadn't been burned into his memory. Lycia and Ruh both injured. More than half of the citizens of Xinca dead. So many others in so many places . . .
So much death and destruction. It had to end.
"Go," he said, his voice so hoarse he barely recognized it. "Go now, and I won't kill you."
Zad had never been stupid. With barely a glance at his sister, he turned and ducked through the curtains that obscured the back of the sanctuary.
"Are you sure that was wise, brother?" Lycia asked.
Dar never had a chance to answer her. He was too far away to hear Arina's scream with his own ears, but Ruh heard it. Arina had sworn to keep Tao in her sight, to make sure he didn't get in over his head. Arina screamed, a sound to Ruh's ears like rage and fear, not pain, and Dar was running before Ruh even had time to reach her and see what Dar already knew.
Dar didn't remember running through the streets of Xinca. He didn't consciously try to find his way, just ran to where he knew Ruh was. But he'd never forget the sight of Tao sprawled on the stone street in a pool of blood, with Ruh pacing beside him and Arina kneeling over him, pressing desperately at his wounded side to hold in the blood.
Dar shook off the memories. The distraction would only slow him down. He had to focus on the present, what was happening now, not the nightmares of the past.
"Everything happens for a reason," he reminded himself out loud, and kept walking. Not thinking about that day in Xinca.
It was after noon when Sharak told him of a small village ahead. He sped up a bit, daring to hope that Tao had stopped there to rest or at least had talked to someone who might remember him. Dar would feel better if he knew for sure this was the direction in which Tao was traveling. Or if Tao was back with them, safe and relatively sound, Sharak contributed a bit wryly. Dar grinned.
"That too, my friend."
When he reached the town, Dar looked around with an odd sense of wonder. It had been such a short time ago that Balcifer had come very close to destroying the entire world, and yet life went on here as if nothing had happened. Probably as far as these people were concerned, nothing had happened. A few days of bad summer storms, a strangely dark, cloud-covered sky, but not the near end of the world. Only the people closely involved had known how high the stakes truly were. Which, Dar would admit, was probably for the best. It was still strange to walk into a village like this and see people moving about their everyday tasks with no more cares than they'd known before Balcifer had made his play.
Ruh thought it proved that humans weren't nearly as observant as they should be, an opinion he'd held for years. Present company usually excepted. Dar just hoped these particular humans had been observant enough to spot a chatty Eiron in their midst and to see which way he'd gone if he'd left them already.
As he entered the village, he saw an old woman sitting outside the door of one of the nearby cottages. She was shelling peas with absent-minded methodicalness, her attention on a pair of young boys wrestling in the dirt a few feet away. She looked up as Dar approached, squinting impassively, neither suspicious nor trusting.
"Greetings, traveler," she called out when Dar drew close enough to make talking easy. "What brings you to these parts?"
The two boys, barely old enough to be out of swaddling clothes, stopped fighting and turned to stare at Dar with wide-eyed curiosity. The younger one stuck two fingers in his mouth.
"I'm just passing through," Dar answered, "looking for a friend of mine. Dark hair, talks a lot, wears a jade ring on one hand?"
The old woman frowned slightly. "A man with a ring and dark hair walked through yesterday. He didn't have much to say, though. Looked a little sickly, as a matter of fact."
Dar winced. "That's my friend. Do you know where he was going?"
The older of the two boys giggled suddenly. Dar felt a tugging at his side and looked down to see a furry head poking up out of his satchel.
"Rat," the younger one said around his fingers.
Dar smiled, pulling the satchel off and lowering it to the ground so that the ferrets could get out. "Kodo and Podo. They're my friends."
The older boy took a cautious step forward. "They bite?"
"Just food," Dar said, hoping Podo wouldn't indulge in any friendly nibbling.
"Rat," the younger one repeated. He squatted down and held out his free hand to the ferrets. "Two rats."
"Be gentle," the old woman admonished absently, tossing a handful of peas onto the ground near the ferrets. "I told him, your friend, I mean, I told him to take a different road. Karadi's a bad place to go, and that's the only place this road leads too. I told him, but he just smiled and said he was in a hurry and didn't have time to find another way."
"What's Karadi?" Dar asked, his stomach tightening in familiar fear. Trust Tao to find trouble if there were any around. "Why is it a bad place?"
"Karadi's a town on the edge of the Black Lake. Decent folk wouldn't live there anyway, but no one's saying Karadi folk are decent."
The older boy finally worked up the courage to pat Kodo's head. Podo wandered over to sniff at the younger one's toes, and the boy giggled and jumped backward. The old woman smiled at their antics, but Dar was focused only on her words.
"Why aren't they decent?"
"Why, because they're worshippers of the island ghosts, of course. I told your friend that anyone stupid enough to go into Karadi was likely to get sacrificed to the ghosts, but he wouldn't listen."
Tao awoke to the realization that something had changed. The slow, steady rocking of the boat had changed to a gentle bump, as if the boat had finally run aground. Tao lay still and listened to the sharp call of birds and the lapping of the water against the hull. Warm sun shone on his face. He was content.
Until a sudden jerk of the boat caused the familiar pain in his side to flare, and he remembered. Dar. Xinca. Balcifer. Caro. Zad. Arina. Dar.
Tao lay as still as he could, breathing deeply through the pain. He did not want Dar here. Dar was where he should be, at work becoming the king the land so desperately needed.
And Tao had ropes to free himself from.
"Better do it fast, too," he muttered out loud, "or it'll be night and I'll be dinner for whatever big, mean animals with long claws and sharp teeth they have around here."
He wiggled cautiously, testing the strength of his bonds. Either they hadn't been tied very tight, or else they'd worked themselves loose with the constant motion of the boat. It only took him a few minutes to get his hands free. The knot around his ankles was loose, as well, and he quickly untied it. Holding his side gingerly, he stood with all the grace of an old man, pausing to catch his breath before he even tried to step out of the boat.
He'd washed up on a beach. White sand covered the ground for several hundred yards, leading to a forest made up of palm trees and ferns. The beach was clean and empty of any signs of human life. Tao didn't trust that to mean there weren't any humans in the area, though. In his experience, appearances had often proven themselves deceiving.
He was contemplating whether he wanted to walk back toward the forest or further down the beach when a movement among the trees drew his attention. A small group of people were walking toward him. They were still too far away for him to tell if they looked friendly, but he hoped fervently that they were. He didn't have it in him to run from a turtle at the moment. He raised his hand in greeting, opening his mouth to call out to them, when a low, rhythmic chant reached his ears.
It was a beautiful sound, soothing, with a deep melody and a higher descant. Tao listened, entranced, and sighed softly as his memories faded away.
Dar approached Karadi with care. If Tao were in trouble, Dar wouldn't do him any good by rushing in blindly. He asked Sharak to see what he could spot from above. Ruh had chosen to stay back, not liking villages any more than most villagers liked him, but he intended to hunt for any signs that Tao had circled around the village and kept traveling.
Dar found a brush-covered spot on the side of a low rise above the village and crouched down behind a couple of half-dead bushes. Studying Karadi first through Sharak's eyes and then through his own, he saw nothing unusual. Almost nothing distinguished Karadi from the last village, other than its location on the shore of a large inland lake. Dar could see a dark mound in the middle of the lake that he assumed was the "haunted" island that the old woman had told him about. Sharak didn't think he could make the flight across the lake while the winds were blowing inland, but he was willing to try it after the winds had died down.
Dar sighed as he sat back on his heels to think. He was reluctant to go into Karadi, not only because of the time he'd waste if Tao hadn't passed through there, but also because he wasn't sure it would be smart to tip off the locals to his presence if they had taken Tao as a prisoner in order to sacrifice him, as the old woman had said.
And as much as he hated to admit it to himself, he was a little afraid to go into the village and find out the sacrifice had already been performed. Just going to the island to look for Tao without knowing for sure that he'd been sent over there would be stupid, though. Even if Dar could find a boat quickly, he still stood to fall as much as another day behind his friend if Tao had avoided the village or passed through without trouble.
"I guess the village is my only choice, then," Dar said out loud, as if that would somehow make him feel better about the decision. Sighing again, he rose smoothly to his feet.
And froze in place as he felt something sharp poke into his back and heard an unfamiliar voice.
A stone room, cooling as night sets in. The still figure of a man, curled on the floor in exhausted sleep. The low, steady chant of deep voices.
They are walking toward Xinca, Dar and Arina and him, through fields green and overgrown and filled with grass that nearly reach his hips. Caro has sent them word that she found something worth seeing, and his stomach flutters a bit at the thought of seeing her again.
And then they're almost at the city walls. They're walking more cautiously, Dar in front, then him, then Arina coming up behind. They stay low at first and let the grass hide them, but as they draw nearer, they straighten and walk normally. Dressed in old traveler's cloaks, they are less likely to be noticed if they walk as if they have business being on the road. He has his head down, watching the back of Dar's cloak and wondering what Caro will have to show them. He is happy today even though he knows they're walking into danger, because the sun is shining brightly and he'll see Caro again soon, and he has a good feeling that they won't run into trouble today.
Dar stops so suddenly that Tao almost falls into him. Dar turns and catches him, holding him by the shoulders and not letting go even when Tao has his balance back.
"Turn around," Dar says urgently, his eyes dark and wide and his face set in hard lines that leave Tao a little afraid. "Turn around, Tao. Don't look. Just go back, now."
Tao is always curious. Always. He starts to look past Dar's shoulder, but Dar grabs his face in a grip that hurts and keeps him looking at Dar.
"We're going back. Right now. Arina, we'd best lay a false trail in case we're followed. You want to lead the way?"
Arina's voice is strange as she agrees. Tao is terrified, but he doesn't know why except that Dar has never looked at him with that particular expression before.
And then he's free from Dar's hands, only not really because Dar is still gripping his shoulders tightly and trying to turn him away. And he's seeing her. And she's hanging. From Xinca's stone walls. And she's naked. And someone has taken a knife or a whip or something that cuts through flesh and left huge stripes of brownish-red on her body, and the brownish-red has run down the stone walls and stained them. And all he can think is that he's surprised anyone remembers the ancient blinded eye symbol for a spy that's been carved onto her forehead.
Dar walks close, leading him with a hand on his arm or his shoulder, both of them following the trail Arina has chosen. They stop a few times to rest. Dar doesn't let go. Arina rests a hand on his shoulder and squeezes gently before doubling back to check their trail. Dar stays silent, which is good because Tao has no words, only the picture in his mind of her dark hair fanned across her breasts and sticking in blood.
And then it's dark and crickets fill the air outside the hut. Dar is asleep on his pallet. He's not even an arm's length away, so Tao has to be very quiet. The moon is nearly full and the stars are bright tonight. He finds the trail easily. He wishes that he'd brought a blanket or something with him because he's shivering with cold even though it's nearly summer.
He's not really surprised when Ruh suddenly appears out of the brush to block his path, but he jumps anyway when he hears Dar's voice behind him.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Dar sounds angry. Furious, and as terrified as Tao had been earlier. Tao turns reluctantly. He can't deal with Dar's emotions right now. He can't even deal with his own, not until he's completed his task.
"She can't stay up there," he says reasonably, hoping to head off Dar's anger before it explodes all over him. "I have to get her down. She'll be cold."
Dar steps forward, close enough that Tao can see his face. Tao has seen this expression before, but only a few times, and before it had always made him feel warm. This time, he shivers harder.
"They'll catch you if you get that close. If she told them anything, they'll be waiting for us to come to the meeting. Even if she didn't tell them, they'll still have a guard on the walls." Dar is trying to match his reasonable tone but not quite succeeding.
"She'll be cold. And scared. I have to get her down." Doesn't Dar understand that?
Dar takes another step forward. He puts his hands on Tao's shoulders, his hands hot against Tao's neck, and his voice shakes as he says, "She's dead, Tao. She's gone. I'm not letting you risk your life for no reason."
Tao shakes his head. "I have to get her down, Dar. It won't take long. You can go back to bed, and we'll be home before you wake up."
His voice isn't calm anymore. Dar pulls him close, holding him so tightly he almost can't shiver anymore. He is surrounded by warmth, by almost burning heat, but there is a place inside him that is still ice cold..
The man on the floor whimpered, shifted around as if caught in bonds he couldn't break. He caught his breath, almost a sob, then subsided into a deeper sleep as the chanting grew louder.
Dar reached out just in time to catch the object Jeran tossed to him. He frowned, not quite ready to trust a man who had just recently stuck a make-shift spear into his back and threatened to run it through him if Dar didn't go with Jeran and listen to what Jeran had to say. Which, so far, hadn't been much. "Sit down," pointing at a stump in the middle of the clearing where Jeran and a rag-tag group had set up camp, and "here," right before throwing a--Dar paused to look at the thing in his hands--a blown-glass figure of a bird in flight. The glass was clear, with just a hint of blue at the ends of the outstretched wings, and the detail was exquisite.
"It's beautiful," Dar said. "But I really don't have time . . ."
"You know who made that?" Jeran interrupted. "A sixteen year-old Karadi girl. You know how long it took her to learn how to make it?"
Dar's frown deepened. He really wasn't seeing why he should care. "Listen, it's a true work of art, but I'm not here looking to buy anything. I'm looking for a friend."
"A week," Jeran continued as if Dar hadn't said anything. "It's a masterwork, and it took her a week from the time she first touched a blowing tube."
"She's very talented," Dar said, "but I'm really not . . ."
"She's not talented at all. She's possessed. The ghosts ride her, give her the knowledge and skill she needs without her having to work for it, and she--all her village--sacrifice people like your friend to pay them for their gifts."
Dar felt cold, his hand tightening around the figure until its wings cut into him. "Sacrifice?"
Jeran's look was probably intended to be understanding. "The ghosts feed off the sacrifices. They take the victims to the island and keep them there for weeks, sometimes months, and live off their energy until the victim finally dies."
Dar's hand unclenched slightly. "They don't kill them?"
The understanding look was gone, replaced with revulsion and anger. "Worse. The ghosts suck the very souls out of them and leave nothing but a shell." Jeran turned his face away, and when he looked back at Dar, his eyes were empty. "The stories are very clear on this. The only thing you can do is kill them, to set their souls free to move on to the land of the dead."
"No." Dar stood up.
The various people around the clearing all tensed, but no one made a threatening move toward him. Jeran held out a hand, not quite touching Dar's arm.
"There's got to be something else that can be done," Dar said. He wasn't losing Tao this way, not after all they'd been through. Not without knowing why Tao had left Xinca. "Some way to destroy the ghosts or free the victims without killing them."
"No one wishes that there were a different way more than I do," Jeran answered. "My daughter was sacrificed to the ghosts last year. Everyone here has lost someone they care about to the ghosts. If we knew of a way to get them back without killing them, don't you think we'd have done it already?"
Dar looked around the clearing. Each of the members of the group--maybe ten in all, unless there were some he wasn't seeing--had a look of grief and purpose in his or her eyes. They looked tired, dirty, worn with rough living, but each had a determination that spoke of belief. Either they were excellent actors, or they all believed Jeran's words.
"There has to be another way," he insisted, but somewhere deep inside him was a growing fear that he was wrong.
Jeran told him the tale that night as they sat around a small campfire. All around them, the members of Jeran's band took care of the small chores that came with setting up camp, leaving Jeran and Dar to talk.
The stories had it that the ghosts came from an old monastery on the island, a place of incredible learning and beauty. The monks spent their days learning and practicing their crafts, and they were known across the land for the beauty and quality of their work. No one remembers what god or demon they worshipped, but he was a hard taskmaster, demanding total devotion from his followers. It's said the monks never spoke, ate simply and sparingly, and never experienced even the simplest of pleasures. They devoted all their energy and concentration to obtaining perfection in their chosen craft, and lived out their lives in pursuit of that goal.
Karadi was an even smaller village in those days, mainly just a stopping place for traders who came to trade food and raw materials for the monks' finished works. The Karadi folk had as friendly a relationship with the monastery as they could, sending people over once a day with supplies and usually bringing something back that made their lives a little brighter or easier. But one day, the messenger to the monks came back with a white face and shaking limbs and couldn't speak of what he had seen. A few brave souls made the trip to the island and found a massacre, all the monks literally ripped to pieces and much of their work destroyed.
Not long after that, the Karadi folk started getting sick. It was a strange wasting sickness; victims grew slowly weaker, and as they worsened, they seemed to lose their ability to feel emotions or speak to their loved ones.
But the strangest part was that, the worse a victim grew physically, the better his ability grew to work a craft. He would drive himself day and night, not stopping to sleep or eat unless forced to, and would create works that were beyond his ability and knowledge before he became ill.
The Karadi figured it out before long. Soon the young people in the village were making pilgrimages to the old monastery, hunting for the ghost of a monk to possess them and allow them to make masterworks without the long training. Families grew rich, and Karadi became a hub of trading activity.
The only problem was that most of the folks who'd found a ghost to possess them ended up dying of it. Sometimes the ghosts left of their own accord, but even then, the person was never the same. And so somehow--the stories never said how, but they hinted at a terrible magic--the Karadi bound the ghosts, or maybe made a deal with them, so that the Karadi provided them with "food" in return for knowledge. Now a young Karadi boy or girl went to the island with a sacrifice, a stranger who happened to wonder into the town at the wrong time and didn't look rich enough or powerful enough to cause problems by disappearing. The ghost gave its knowledge to the supplicant and took the sacrifice as payment, and Karadi continued to grow.
"But why didn't the monks' spirits go to the land of the dead when they died?" Dar asked. "How are they able to stay in this realm, much less possess living people?"
Jeran shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe their god cursed them to roam the earth as payment for whatever their sin was. Maybe one of them created something so powerful that it was able to alter the laws of nature. The truth is, I don't much care anymore." He sighed, running a hand through his grey hair tiredly. "I was a trader once. Not a rich one or a powerful one, but I provided for my family. It used to interest me to learn the history of the places I visited, the objects I obtained. I'd tell the stories to my family whenever I returned home to them, and sometimes the knowledge came in handy when I was trying to drive a bargain. But then I took my oldest daughter with me on a trading trip. I wanted to start teaching her the business. Karadi was the last stop on our journey."
Jeran stared at the fire in silence for so long that Dar thought he was finished with his story. But then the older man rubbed his eyes and continued in a low voice, "I didn't find out until days later what had happened to her, and by then, it was too late. I imagine she's dead now. I've never heard of anyone living more than a few months after becoming a sacrifice. But other people came looking for their friends, their brothers and sisters and fathers and children, and I've slowly been building a force strong enough to end this abomination forever." He looked up at Dar. "I recognized the look as soon as I saw you. You were searching for someone, and they'd just sent a supplicant and sacrifice across the lake yesterday. You had the look of a warrior about you as well, and I hoped you'd join our cause."
"Just what is your cause? Are you planning on going to the island and killing everyone there?" Dar tried to keep his voice neutral, even though the thought made his stomach turn.
"It's the only way, Dar," Jeran said gently. "I know how much it pains you to think of killing your friend, but the truth is, he's already dead. The ghosts have already taken everything that makes him your friend, and all they're doing now is living off the remains. We're not truly killing them, just setting them free."
"But the ghosts will just get new victims," Dar said. If he focused on the practical, he keep his emotions out of it. He had to, or he'd lose any chance to help Tao. "Even if the Karadi don't bring them sacrifices, they'll just come and get them."
Jeran smiled. "That's where Naciala comes in." He pointed across the fire at an older woman with long grey hair that she wore braided and knotted with feathers and strips of cloth. She was staring into the fire with an expression that, to Dar, didn't look quite sane. "She's a powerful witch, and her sister was sacrificed to the ghosts not long after my daughter. She has a spell that will exorcise the ghosts from the island forever."
Scattered stars glowed in the night sky. Dar watched them and drifted, turning over Jeron's words in his mind in an attempt to find some way to fix them. Jeran was convinced that death was the only future for the people sacrificed to the ghosts at the monastery, but Dar couldn't accept that. Even if Tao hadn't been on the island, Dar wouldn't have been willing to kill the ghosts' victims unless he had no other choice. Strand them on the island, maybe. Find a way to free them, definitely, if such a way existed. Killing them when they'd had no say over the predicament they were in violated every belief Dar had ever held, and he couldn't even wrap his mind around the thought of killing Tao.
Dar sighed, reaching out absently to scratch the warm, furry ball of sleeping ferrets curled at his side. Kodo and Podo barely roused enough to notice it was him. Still, their vague, sleepy grumblings were enough to keep him from feeling quite so alone. He missed having Tao around to talk with, to work through the confusion of right and wrong.
He missed Tao.
Maybe he should feel guilty that the thought of having to kill Tao repelled him more than the thought of killing the other victims. If worse came to worst, if there were truly no help for the people who had been sacrificed, Dar thought he would have the strength to kill them. He didn't think he could harm Tao, though, not even if Tao were attacking him.
And if he's hurting? If the ghosts are destroying him and the only way to save him is to kill him? Dar pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, trying to block out the question, but it haunted him. Are you strong enough to take his life?
But if Jeran were wrong . . .
That was the hope Dar clung to. He didn't know how to answer the question, didn't know if he had the strength to save Tao by killing him, and he couldn't turn to Tao for help in finding the answer he needed. All he could do was hope that he never had to face that choice.
Which meant he had to get to the island first, before Jeran and his rag-tag band had a chance to show up and "free" the victims. Dar gave the ferrets a last pat and rolled to his feet. Ruh, dozing in the bushes nearby, rumbled a question.
"Stay here," Dar answered softly. "You can't swim the lake anyway. Keep an eye on Jeran for me, all right?"
Ruh stood anyway. He was intent on walking Dar to the beach, his trust for Jeran and his group in short supply. Dar didn't argue with him, nor with Kodo and Podo as they scrambled into their satchel and demanded he take them with him. He was glad of the company.
They made it to the beach without any trouble. Jeran had set a guard, but it was a simple matter to slip past, Dar as silent as Ruh in the darkness. Jeran had shown him around the camp before they'd eaten. He'd proudly pointed out the tiny fleet of canoes and rafts pulled up onto the beach. Dar had taken note of the surrounding bushes that grew close to the shoreline, thinking how easy it would be to slip down to the water's edge without anyone at the camp seeing.
And it was easy. Dar reached the first canoe without any problems, and quickly shoved it into the water. He did the same with two of the other three canoes and both rafts. It would be simple enough for Jeran and his followers to swim out and retrieve the crafts, but it would take them awhile, especially if the tide washed them out any distance at all. It might buy Dar enough time to get to the island, find Tao, and find a solution to all their problems before Jeran could arrive.
He'd just come back for the last canoe, intending to use it for himself, when he heard a voice behind him.
"What do you think you're doing?"
And for the second time that day, he felt a spear pressing into his back.
The monastery is weathered tan stone and covered in ivy on the outside, shadowy and cool on the inside. Small, bare cells encircle a line of rooms once intended for learning and creating. The air smells musty inside, even though doors leading to the outside are usually left open to the elements. When people walk through the halls, they move silently, unobtrusively, barely leaving a mark of their passage on the dirt floors. Silence pervades everything, except for a low, steady chanting.
During the day, Tao follows the others to the garden, where he digs and plants and weeds. He stops to drink when he's thirsty and to eat when he's hungry, but his needs are small. When the others rise and walk down to the beach, Tao goes with them. They check nets strung out into the water and collect a small catch of fish. Tao helps with the gutting and cleaning. After a time, the others return to the monastery, and Tao returns as well.
He doesn't think of his old life. He doesn't miss Dar or grieve for Caro. He doesn't imagine what Xinca would be like restored to its former glory. He doesn't wonder if Dar is king now, or if Ruh went to live with his family in the forest, or if Sharak returned to the Sorceress. He doesn't hope that Dar and Arina and all the people he came to view as friends are well and happy. He doesn't wish Dar were on the island with him.
He doesn't think much at all. Not about the relics that surround him, amazing even though most are broken or unfinished. Not about the people who surround him, silent and blank-eyed. Not about the chanting that invades every thought, every moment of the day and night. During the day, he is content. He is at peace.
At night, he dreams.
"My friend is on that island," Dar said quietly, reasonably, as he stepped away from the spear and turned to face Jeran. He could barely see the older man's expression in the dim light of the moon and the distant campfire, but Jeran didn't stand as if he were tensed to use the spear. Dar let himself hope he could talk his way out of the situation.
Jeran's voice held as much sorrow as it did anger. "He's not truly your friend anymore, Dar. I explained that to you already. The ghosts have taken everything that made him your friend. All that's left is a shell."
Dar shook his head. "I don't believe that." He couldn't. "Not unless I see it for myself."
"I can't let you warn them we're coming. I'm sorry, Dar, but they'll fight to defend themselves. The ghosts will make them." Jeran shook his head, sighing softly. "Do you want to turn this into a massacre? It's hard enough for all of us knowing we have to kill the ones we love. At least it can be painless, in their sleep, not butchery."
"What if they can be saved?" Dar asked, not so much because he wanted an answer as because he needed to stall for time. He had seen the quick-moving shape sliding through the shadows behind Jeran.
"It's not possible, Dar. Their only release is death. I know it's hard to accept, but it's the truth. That's why I can't let you warn them we're coming." Jeran gestured back toward the camp with his spear. "Go on back to the fire now."
"No." Dar took a step back toward the canoe. "I'm sorry, Jeran. I have to help my friend."
Jeran laughed. "Don't be foolish. I don't want to hurt you, but I will if you push me. Don't you see my weapon?"
Dar couldn't help but grin. "Don't you see my tiger?"
Ruh growled obligingly. Jeran turned, and Dar didn't need light to know he'd grown several shades paler. Ruh had that affect on people.
"As long as you stay still, he won't hurt you," Dar said reassuringly. He bent to shove the canoe into the water, then glanced back at Jeran. "Don't worry, he'll get hungry and go off to hunt eventually."
Jeran made a strangled sound, but didn't try to follow Dar. Sending mental thanks to Ruh, Dar stepped into the canoe, took off the ferrets' satchel and set it down, and shoved off with the paddle he'd found lying on the bottom.
He put Jeran out of his mind as he steered the canoe around so that it was headed in the direction he knew the island lay. As dark as it was, he couldn't see much, he figured the island was large enough it would be hard to miss as long as he was going in the right general direction. Getting there would be the easy part. He was more worried about what would happen once he found Tao and discovered whether there was anything left of his friend to rescue.
Dar put his back into the rowing, but the heavy pull of the water against his oars wasn't enough to occupy his mind. There wasn't anything he could do about Jeran's worries until he got to the island. It wouldn't help to dwell on what might be. He'd do himself more good by focusing on the rowing, on the wet, muddy smell of the lake water and the soft lap of waves against the canoe's hull, but pushing aside his fears for Tao now only left room for the thoughts that had been plaguing him since before the final battle with Balcifer.
Because Tao hadn't been right since Caro's death. He'd been hard, angry . . .
The sharp crack of wood on wood echoed through the clearing. Dar winced, as much from the impact of Tao's staff against his as from the sound. Tao swung again, shifting down from a head shot to aim for Dar's belly just like Dar had taught him, and Dar almost didn't block him in time.
"Break," Dar said, not quite breathless but closer than he usually got in these sparring practices.
Tao didn't hear, or didn't care. He twisted his staff downward, jabbing at Dar's knee. Dar twisted out of the way. Tao's eyes were flat and cold, stranger's eyes, and Dar barely stopped his staff as it flashed upward toward Dar's head.
"Tao, break," Dar snapped. "Back off and calm down."
Tao didn't. Dar spun his staff and knocked Tao's aside. He lunged forward, throwing his own staff aside to reach for Tao's. Tao tried to jerk it away, and the sudden movement threw them both to the ground.
"Tao." Dar abandoned the struggle for the staff and grabbed Tao's shoulders, pressing him to the ground in spite of his struggles. "Tao, calm down. Calm down."
Abruptly Tao went limp. "Dar?" He took a shaky breath as he blinked up at Dar confusedly. "What--"
"Take it easy." Dar eased his grip slightly, forcing a smile that he was pretty sure wasn't convincing. "You kind of went somewhere else there for a minute."
Tao closed his eyes. "I thought . . . I'm sorry, Dar. I'm really sorry." He looked at Dar, the concern in his eyes clouded with a worrisome bleakness. "Are you all right?"
Dar sat back, but kept one hand on Tao's arm. "I'm fine. You know, your fighting skills have gotten a lot better since we met."
He meant it as a gentle teasing, but Tao didn't smile. "I was thinking about one of Zad's Knights. For a moment, I felt like I was really fighting him." Tao looked away. "I wanted to kill him."
Dar sighed, patting Tao's arm absently as he tried to think of something to say that would pierce the darkness in his friend's heart. "You have reason to hate them, Tao. We both do. But you know the anger clouds your mind. It hurts you far more than it can ever hurt them."
Tao looked back at him, and once again Dar found himself gazing into the eyes of a stranger. "The anger keeps me sane, Dar. It's the only thing that keeps me going."
Dar's heart had grown cold at his friend's words, and the chill never quite faded. He'd had to shove his concern to the back of his mind in order to face Balcifer. He'd promised himself that he'd find a way to help Tao once the battle was over. He'd taken Arina aside and made her swear to keep Tao close and safe during the actual battle, terrified that Tao would ignore his own safety in his attempt to get revenge. He'd stayed as close to his friend as he could for as long as he could, until ultimately he'd had no choice but to go ahead to the confrontation with Balcifer.
When he'd knelt on the stones of Xinca and felt Tao's blood soaking his knees and the faltering rhythm of his friend's breath, he'd known he hadn't done enough.
A stone room, cooling as night sets in. The still figure of a man, curled on the floor in exhausted sleep. The low, steady chant of deep voices.
They slip into Xinca just after dawn, with the first of the farmers and traders who've come to sell at the marketplace. The sky is golden-grey, the air damp and still cool. Dar and his brothers and sister each lead a small band into Xinca. The plan is to enter by as many different gates as possible, to stay hidden until everyone is in place and the guards on the walls and around Zad's throne room have been taken out.
Tao follows Dar. Arina is a few steps behind them, trying to look as if she's not walking with them. Tao keeps his eyes on Dar's heels, the hood of his cloak pulled forward. He doesn't look at the walls, but he knows they're stained with rivers of dark brown. He has a sword hidden in his cloak, and for once he feels no fear at the thought of using it.
Tao follows Dar, and Dar leads him into battle. He fights. His sword clashes against other swords. Redness coats everything. He sees the Knights' armor and allows himself to see nothing else. He still doesn't look at the walls.
The sword that pierces his side stops time as well. He notices that the Knight's eyes are blue. The Knight pulls backward. Tao feels a warmth under his ribs, and when he looks down, the stones he's standing on are stained a dark red.
Arina screams. Tao is falling. Agony ignites and he tries to curl around it, but Arina is pressing against his side. She holds him to the stained stones. He struggles, breathless with pain, until his muscles turn to water. Arina yells something, but she's too far away for him to hear what she's saying.
It's cold, but it's quiet. Peaceful. He can't remember why he was so angry now that the pain is fading.
Heat burns his cheek. His eyes are so heavy, but something is calling him that he can't ignore. He forces his eyes open.
It's Dar's hand on his cheek, Dar kneeling over him with an expression of sheer terror on his face. Tao wants to calm him but has fallen too far to reach him. Tao is only just holding on, and it would be so easy to let go. So easy to fall just a little further, to be caught in the quiet and darkness and cradled there forever.
"Stay with me," Dar commands. "Tao. You're strong. You can do this. Stay with me."
Tao wants to, if only to take that expression off Dar's face. But he can't this time. It's too far and he's too tired. He can feel his grip loosening as his eyes start to close.
"Tao, please," Dar begs. "I need you. Please."
It's not the first time Dar has asked him to climb when it would be easier to fall. It seems impossible even to reach for the first handhold, but Dar needs him, and Tao can't refuse.
"Just hold on. Stay with me." Dar's voice is frantic. It lends him strength, enough that he can open his eyes. Tears run down Dar's cheeks.
Tao musters his strength and climbs. Every inch is agony. He can hear other voices, Arina's and Lycia's and others, but he listens only to Dar's. If he can reach Dar, he promises himself, then Dar will let him rest.
Then Dar's mother is kneeling beside him. Her eyes are as warm as her son's, and her smile reminds Tao of his own mother's when he'd return home from his lessons in the evening. She speaks. He doesn't understand her words, but he can feel the heat from her hands as she lays them on his wounded side. Warmth spreads through him.
And then Dar is right beside him, whispering to him that everything's all right, that he can sleep now. He closes his eyes. Dar's hand is still warm on his cheek as the world fades away.
The man on the floor whimpered, shifted around as if caught in bonds he couldn't break. He caught his breath, almost a sob, then subsided into a deeper sleep as the chanting grew louder.
By the time Dar reached the island, his shoulders ached from the strain of paddling. He dragged the canoe up onto the beach as far as the tree line, hiding it as best he could in the underbrush. Kodo and Podo were delighted with the new scents that bloomed around them. Dar had to remind them twice that they were trying to find Tao before they gave up on the idea of exploring the forest.
Once they put their minds to it, they could smell the faint scent of humans, as if people had passed through the underbrush in the last day or so. None of the scents were Tao's, but Kodo and Podo followed them eagerly enough. The game wasn't as interesting as one they'd make up themselves; still, there was a good chance that where the humans were, food would be also. They led the way through the shifting, still-warm sand. The beach seemed almost to glow from the light of the moon, while the forest showed nothing but varying shades of black. Bugs called to each other. The soft sound of the lake lapping against the shore blocked the sounds of the night animals Dar knew were out hunting for food, but the ferrets didn't smell anything big enough to be a threat.
The scent-trail led along the edge of the tree line for quite a while before turning abruptly to follow a well-worn path into the trees. Kodo and Podo paused for a moment, confused by the dizzying explosion of new human-scent. Then they chittered at Dar joyfully as they recognized Tao's smell among all the others. They didn't think the scent was too old, probably just since the last light.
Dar felt some of the tension in his shoulders ease. So much could still be wrong. Tao could be hurt, could have become sick again from his wound. If Jeran's tale was true, he could even have become some sort of soulless monster. But at least Dar could be reasonably sure Tao was alive.
The dirt path had been packed down harder than the sand on the beach. Kodo and Podo scampered ahead quickly, but Dar moved with caution. He hadn't run into any sentries yet, but if there were any, the logical place to find them would be close to where the humans were staying. He saw nothing, though, except a rather disgruntled mole who thought Dar should be at the bad stones with the other humans and not wandering around in her territory. When Dar asked, she didn't want to tell anymore about the bad stones. They smelled wrong and felt wrong. That was all she cared to know.
Dar thanked her and walked on. He didn't really like the sound of 'bad stones' or the feel of rotting things the mole associated with them. The stones had to be the monastery that Jeran had spoken of. He cautioned Kodo and Podo to be careful. Podo thought he was being foolish. Taoandfood were close. Why not go straight to them? It was a bad place, Dar told them. They needed to be careful. Podo laughed at him.
Then Kodo, who was a little ahead of Podo, caught scent of it and skidded to a halt. She didn't like it, didn't think any food from that place could be good to eat. If Tao were staying there, then he was being dreadfully foolish, and Dar needed to get him out immediately and scold him. And then feed him something healthy, that didn't smell of rot.
Dar couldn't smell anything unusual, but as he came to where the ferrets had huddled together, he felt something like a tingling under his skin. A wrongness so strong he knew it even before he was in sight of the monastery. He ran his hand over both ferrets' backs, reassuring himself as much as them. They were willing to go on, but they didn't like it. They weren't going to eat any food from the bad place. Not even, Podo added mournfully, if it was food that tasted very, very good.
Dar grinned and promised to find them both something to eat after they'd found Tao. They moved forward together, the ferrets hanging back slightly behind Dar's feet.
The path widened in front of them. Shadows danced like they had been thrown from flames. Dar began to hear something that wasn't normal forest sounds. It was low and sounded almost like human voices singing. He listened more closely, trying to pinpoint the direction the sound was coming from, but it seemed to be all around him. A low, steady sound, like a chant . . .
A stabbing pain scattered the fog in his mind. Dar shook his head, a bit dizzy. The chanting had stopped and his ankle throbbed, and he jerked his foot out of the way of Kodo's sharp teeth just in time.
"Once is enough," he told her firmly.
Her answering chitter was indignant.
"I'm sorry I almost stepped on you. That chanting made me . . . " Dar trailed off, not sure exactly how to describe the emptiness that had taken him over. Everything that made him himself had--not disappeared, exactly, but been pushed back so far that it almost ceased to exist.
Dar laughed. "No, I don't need you to bite me again. I was just thinking." He started up the path again. "Whatever just happened to me must have happened to Tao, too. Come on."
The path finally turned into a clearing that was almost as light as day. A stone building sat on the other side, glowing with the torches that lined the walls. Neither Dar nor the ferrets could spot a guard. From where Dar stood, it didn't even look as if there were any gates across the arched doorway that led into the monastery.
He sensed no hint of attack as he crossed the clearing. Kodo and Podo smelled many people, but none of them smelled particularly dangerous. They weren't reassured. Then Podo squealed in excitement as he caught a familiar scent.
"Go," Dar whispered. "Find him."
The ferrets ran into the monastery, their fear all but forgotten as they raced to locate Tao. Dar entered only a little more cautiously. He wasn't going to jump into anything without looking first, but he didn't intend to take any longer getting to his friend than he had to, either.
Candles glowed against the dark stone walls of the hall Dar had entered. A dank, smoky odor hovered in the air, but it wasn't strong enough to confuse the ferrets' keen noses. They darted down the corridor, confident now that they'd made it into the building and hadn't found anything waiting to eat them.
The corridor took a sharp turn. Dar paused and called Kodo and Podo back to him. The room ahead glowed an eery blue, and it felt . . . wrong. More wrong than outside. The hairs on his arms were standing up. A queasiness churned at his stomach. Kodo and Podo both whimpered. Neither one liked the room, but Kodo knew Tao was near and even Podo was willing to risk the strange room if Dar went first. Dar picked them both up and lowered them into their pouch, then stepped carefully into the room.
Oddly shaped objects stood in precise rows down the length of the long room. Along the walls, tables held smaller, equally strange contraptions. Shadows danced over the edges and crevices of each object, so that everything appeared to be just on the verge of moving. The blue glow emanated from something near the center of the room.
Curious, Dar picked his way among the clutter till he reached the glowing object. It was a mass of gold wires, twisted every which way on the base, then curving into an oval at the top. In the center of the circle, a jagged piece of glowing crystal hung suspended by two wires. Dar reached out a hand, but didn't quite touch it. The unnatural feeling that permeated the room seemed to be coming from the crystal.
It was a truly strange device, but Dar had more important things to worry about. Edging past the contraption, he moved on toward the far end of the room. As he reached the door, Kodo and Podo chittered to be let down. Dar set them on the ground. They scurried off as soon as their feet hit the floor. Dar almost had to run to keep up.
They stopped about halfway down the corridor at a dark doorway. Like most of the other openings they had passed, it had neither door nor blanket to cover it, but the darkness inside was so deep that Dar couldn't see more than a foot into the room. Kodo and Podo went in fearlessly. Dar pulled a candle out of a nearby sconce and followed.
The room was small, with stone walls and a dirt floor and no decoration aside from a sconce on the wall. Dar placed the candle in the holder and knelt beside the still figure of a man who lay curled on the floor in exhausted sleep. Kodo snuffled at his dark hair while Podo licked his hand. He looked, Dar noted sadly, much too thin; lines of pain marred his forehead even in sleep.
"Tao." Dar touched his shoulder. "Tao, wake up."
Tao shifted. Murmuring something that sounded like a protest, he opened his eyes and blinked against the light. When his gaze fell on Dar, his entire face lit up with a smile.
"Dar. When did you get here? How did you get here? I thought . . . "
Low chanting drowned out his voice. The smile faded from his lips, leaving behind only emptiness. Dar wanted to protest, but he couldn't pull his own thoughts together . . .
Tao slept, still and very pale on the bed. Sitting in a low chair beside him, Dar kept watch. The wound in Tao's side was as healed as if it had been a week instead of just a matter of hours, but all Dar's mother's magic couldn't replace the strength that had flowed out with Tao's blood.
He needed rest, but he'd be fine after a few days. Dar wouldn't believe anything else. Even so, Dar couldn't quite bring himself to leave. When Tao woke up, Dar didn't want him to be alone.
A sharp pain in his finger jerked Dar back to his senses. The night had gone silent again, and Podo was nuzzling his hand with an innocent expression.
"The chanting," Dar said. "It must make people fall asleep." He frowned at his finger. "And a sudden shock can make a person wake up." He glanced down at Tao, expecting his friend to give him a better theory, but Tao was asleep again.
Podo offered to bite Tao, as well. Dar considered it, but finally shook his head.
"Let's just get out of here. He's not in good shape. I can probably carry him faster than he could walk, and we need to leave before the chanting starts again."
Tao didn't awaken as Dar pulled him up and over his shoulder. In a flurry of tiny pinpricks and ticklish fur, the ferrets scrambled up his leg and into their satchel.
"Keep me awake, you two," Dar said softly. He shifted Tao to a more secure position and stepped out into the corridor.
He almost expected to find guards waiting for him, or a horde of angry ghosts barring his path. After all the time it had taken to find Tao, it seemed too easy just to be able to walk out of the monastery with no opposition. The corridor remained silent and empty as he made his way back to the room with the strange devices and unhealthy blue light. Nothing stopped him as he wended his way through the tables, balancing Tao carefully with his free hand and straining to hear any hint of danger. The ferrets shifted nervously, unable to decide exactly what had them uneasy, but sure something wasn't right.
Dar agreed with them. He saw nothing, heard nothing, yet he knew a threat existed. He felt it like eyes on his back, lurking just out of sight.
Once clear of the big room, he walked as quickly as he was able down the hall toward the front door. He'd feel better when they were far away from this place, out in the forest where he knew what hid in the shadows. He stepped through the door with a sigh of relief.
A low chanting started, steady and in harmony with a higher descant.
The weak whisper tore Dar from sleep as surely as a tiger's roar would have. He straightened up in his chair, rubbing his eyes as he turned toward the bed.
"Tao. You're awake." He grinned, thrilled in spite of the exhausted pain that lined Tao's face. He was awake. He'd be fine.
"Hurt . . ." Tao breathed, his hand closing spasmodically on the mattress. His eyes glittered under half-closed lids.
Dar swallowed hard. He rested his hand over Tao's, feeling cold skin begin to warm against his palm. "I know. Rest now, it'll be better soon."
Dar looked down at himself, realizing abruptly that he was still spattered in blood from the battle. Too much of it was Tao's.
"It's not mine." He smiled gently, noticing the heavy droop of Tao's eyelids. "Sleep, Tao. I'll be here."
Dar startled, feeling a sudden burn over his ribs. He realized he was on his knees in the dirt of the courtyard. Tao was starting to slide off his shoulder. Dar tightened his hold, hoping he hadn't done anything to make Tao's wound worse.
Kodo chittered, angry that he'd nearly dropped all of them. Why wouldn't Dar stay awake? Did he want to be eaten by the rotting thing in the stone building?
Dar sighed as he surged to his feet. For all that Tao had lost too much weight in the past weeks, he was still a grown man. It might just have been easier to let him walk after all.
The path leading to the beach seemed longer going down than it had coming up. Dar slowed as he came close to the mole's burrow. She was nearby, nosing at an old log, and sniffed at him suspiciously as he stopped beside her. She didn't like the taint of the stones that she smelled on him. She didn't think humans should be out at night. She wished he'd just leave her alone, but finally, grudgingly, she told him of a cave not too far away where someone as big and ungainly as a human might hide. She didn't like the cave much, but he'd probably appreciate it, given humans' bizarre preference for living inside stones instead of under the warm earth like sensible folk. Thanking her gravely, Dar continued on, angling off the path in the direction the mole had suggested.
Tao awoke. For the first time in quite a while, he actually felt aware of his surroundings. Aware of himself. His side ached and a rock dug into his back, and somewhere close by, a bird chirped. He wondered drowsily what it was saying. Dar would know. If Dar were here . . . Tao sighed. He didn't really wish Dar was here. Dar had a home, family, responsibilities. He belonged in Xinca now.
And Tao didn't. Not anymore.
Opening his eyes, he looked up at the stone--no, rock--ceiling. It didn't look familiar, but he only had a vague recollection of the time after he left Xinca. There was no more reason why he shouldn't wake up in a cave as in a palace.
The onslaught of relief that hit him was very nearly as strong as the surprise that came with it. He stared, mute, as Dar ducked into the cave and knelt beside him. Gentle hands slid Tao's shirt up and started to work on the knot holding his bandage on as Dar asked, "How do you feel?"
The question was too complicated. Tao closed his eyes, but he could still feel Dar's worried gaze, demanding an answer. "I'm all right."
He felt Dar's hand rest on his forehead, then slide back into his hair. His skin burned even after Dar returned to removing his bandage.
"Oh," Dar said softly. The cloth stuck to the wound, leaving a trail of cold fire as Dar eased it upward. "I thought this had healed more."
Abruptly, Tao felt ashamed. Lacking, although he didn't quite know why. He turned his face away and tried to stay still while Dar tied the bandage back.
"You just need some rest. It'll heal."
Dar's voice held a soothing confidence that Tao had missed. He wanted to believe it.
"I have some fruit and journeybread outside. Do you feel like coming out to eat some?"
Tao looked up at his friend. The look in Dar's eyes was so hopeful that he could only nod, even though what he really wanted was to go back to sleep. With Dar's help, he stood, and was surprised at how weak his legs felt.
The sun shone brightly enough to leech color from the forest surrounding them. Tao squinted, the light stabbing into his eyes and starting a dull ache. Slowly, he sat, Dar easing him down. Dar sat beside him and handed him an apple, and even it seemed to lack any luster.
"That monastery." Dar tore off a chunk of journeybread and tossed it in the direction of the ferrets' bag. A tiny nose poked out, twitching. "It didn't feel like a good place."
Tao studied his apple. "I don't remember." He thought he might be sick if he took a bite.
"Nothing?" Dar asked.
He looked more confused than disappointed, but Tao still felt a flash of shame. Twisting the apple's stem, he tried harder to call something out of the darkness that shrouded the past few days in his mind.
"Singing," he said finally. "People were singing." The stem popped loose. He rolled it between his fingers, watching it spin. "And I dreamed a lot."
Dar nodded. "The singing--it seemed like it cast a spell, didn't it? It put me to sleep every time I heard it, too."
If he moved the stem fast enough, it looked like it formed a solid ring. He watched it, mesmerized, until Dar's hand closed over his.
"Tao," Dar said, his voice so gentle it hurt. "Eat the apple."
He really didn't think he could. Just the thought of explaining exhausted him, though, so he tried a distraction. "How did you wake up?"
Dar grinned. "Kodo bit me. Apparently sudden pain brings you out of it. And it might be that you can just sleep it off, too. You woke up on your own."
Tao nodded. "I remember waking up sometimes when it was quiet. When the singing had stopped."
"So we should be able to wake the other people in the monastery up and get them out. We just need a way not to hear the singing ourselves."
Tao stared down at his apple, absently tracing a half-moon in the skin with his thumbnail. He didn't think Dar wanted to hear it, but he wasn't convinced that waking up was truly what the other people wanted to do. The dreams weren't good. They were like living through those last weeks in Xinca all over again. But he knew how they ended, knew exactly how much pain he'd have to endure. When he was awake, all he could see was the same, endless expanse of sorrow stretched before him, with no chance of relief. Maybe the dreams were a better choice.
Dar's hand touched his again, startling him out of his thoughts. Taking the apple, Dar cut it into eight pieces with a few deft slices of his bronze knife. He handed one section to Tao.
"At least eat that."
Sighing, Tao took the slice. It tasted bland, nearly flavorless, but as soon as it hit his stomach, he realized he was hungry for more. He took the rest of the apple and finished it, then started on the chunk of journeybread Dar set beside him. As he ate, Dar told him about the group he had run into on the mainland.
"They're going to kill their own kin?" Tao asked, a stir of horror breaking through the numbness that gripped him.
"They're convinced that whatever is in control of the monastery has destroyed their kinfolk's souls. They consider it a mercy killing."
Tao swallowed dryly, his stomach suddenly queasy again. "It's not true." He didn't want to look at Dar, didn't want to see doubt in his eyes.
"I know that," Dar said, his voice filled with a calm conviction. "But Jeran and his group don't. We need to get those people free before Jeran crosses the lake."
Tao nodded. He'd just barely had any awareness of the others' existence; he certainly hadn't gotten to know any of them. But he couldn't stand the thought of more slaughter, the stones of the monastery running as red as the walls of Xinca . . .
Tao startled, wincing as the movement pulled at his wound. From Dar's tone, he guessed that Dar had said his name more than once. "What?"
"I want to go back to the monastery to see if I can get an idea of how many people are there and what will be the best way to get them out. I want you to stay here and get some rest so you'll be ready if we have to run."
The queasiness grew. "What about the spell?"
Dar shrugged. "I'll take Kodo and leave Podo with you. Kodo can wake me if I need it."
For all the certainty in Dar's tone, Tao didn't feel reassured. Dar had been lucky to escape the spell the first time. They couldn't just leave those people at the monastery, but there had to be a safer way.
"What about ear plugs?" he asked suddenly. "Strips of cloth you could put in your ears, or maybe something soft, like candle wax or clay . . ."
"You want me to put mud in my ears?" Dar grinned, his eyes warm.
Tao found himself smiling back, but his mind had already raced ahead. "Not mud, clay. Something that will keep you from hearing anything but won't fall out." He glanced around the small clearing, hunting for inspiration. "Those leaves over there. The small, dark green ones on the vine at the base of the tree?"
He started to rise, intending to get some of the leaves he was talking about. Dar pressed him down with a hand on his shoulder and went to collect the leaves himself.
"Thanks," Tao said absently, stripping the leaves from the vine as he tried to figure out the best way to make the plugs. "These are nari leaves, very soft and pliable, but with a sticky juice when you crumble them up. Some people use them to pack wounds, since the juice has mild healing properties. I've also seen people use them to stick two ends of a parchment together. If I make a little ball out of the leaves, the juice should bind it together and keep it in your ear, even if you have to run."
He suited action to words, looking up at Dar as he rolled the leaves between his fingers. Dar was watching him with an odd expression, somehow both happy and sad at once.
"You don't like the idea?" Tao asked. "I can come up with something else."
Dar blinked, startled. "No, it's a great idea." He smiled, but a twist of sadness still lurked at the corner of his mouth. "I'm glad you thought of it."
Tao frowned. Dar wasn't telling the whole truth, but he abruptly felt too tired to push Dar into talking about whatever was bothering him. He looked down at the mess of leaves on his fingers. For the first time, he noticed that the juice from the leaves had a vague red tinge to it.
"Here." He wiped the mashed leaves onto Dar's hand and then scrubbed the remaining residue into the dirt at his feet. Podo wandered over to sniff at the spot.
Dar rolled the leaves into two balls and pressed them into his ears. Standing, he slung the ferrets' bag over his shoulder and leaned down to pick up Kodo. As he slid her into the satchel, he turned back to Tao.
"Get some rest," he said, a little too loudly. "I'll be back soon."
Tao nodded. "Be careful."
A faint grin touched Dar's lips. "I will."
Tao watched him go and tried not to be afraid.
The forest proved easier to navigate unburdened and in the daylight. Dar moved quickly, forcing himself to ignore the odd, muffled sounds that reached his ears through the earplugs. He was used to using his ears as much as his eyes to find his way. The inability to hear left him feeling almost crippled, but he had Kodo's ears to fall back on. It was certainly better than the alternative.
Putting his discomfort out of his mind, he let his thoughts drift back to the cave and to the man waiting there. At the very least, Tao had seemed no worse than he had been back in Xinca. Certainly he wasn't the soulless monster Jeran had claimed he would be. He also wasn't the happy, inquisitive man Dar had known for so long. The injury to his side hadn't healed; it looked like it hadn't been cared for at all since Tao left Xinca. Worse, the wound to his soul seemed, if anything, to have grown deeper. Seeing him excited over the ear plugs had only brought home to Dar how long it had been since he'd seen Tao happy.
Kodo thought maybe Dar just needed to find Tao something special to eat. She always felt better after a nice mouse or some of those grubs with the bristly skin that tickled her throat when she swallowed them. Preferably followed by a couple of grapes and a long nap. In fact . . .
"You just ate," Dar said absently. "And I don't think Tao's problems are going to be solved by eating supper."
Kodo didn't think it would hurt to try, but if Dar insisted on doing things the hard way, that was his decision. Dar was going to have to be the one to deal with Tao while he was hungry and grumpy, though.
Dar sighed. If Tao's only problem came from being a little out of sorts, Dar could have handled it easily. Easing Tao's grief wasn't proving as simple. Tao needed time, for sure, but he also needed something else. Something Dar hadn't figured out yet, because he'd been so focused on pressing forward to the battle with Balcifer that he'd let Tao fall behind.
They'd fix it. Somehow, once they'd managed to get the people in the monastery to safety, they'd find a way to fix whatever was wrong with Tao. Dar wasn't sure exactly how, but he refused to believe it wasn't possible.
But first things first. They were nearing the monastery. In the distance, a faint chanting could be heard, but the earplugs made it easy to ignore. Dar moved carefully in the direction the chant came from, keeping low in the undergrowth. He had no idea if the other people at the monastery might be violent or not. He'd rather not find out the hard way.
By Dar's best guess, they getting very close to the path leading to the monastery when Kodo warned him that humans were coming. Lots of them, and they smelled funny. Dar stopped. Crouching, he waited, wishing once again that he had the use of his ears as well as his eyes.
It wasn't long before the people Kodo had smelled reached his location. They walked in a straight line at a steady pace, at least twenty men and women of different ages, each with the same vacant stare on his or her face. The sight gave Dar chills.
Slowly, the line of people filed past. Dar remained still, even though he doubted he was in any danger of being seen. None of the marchers seemed aware of anything surrounding them. He'd rather not be reminded the hard way how deceiving appearances could be, though, so he waited silently for the passage of the last person, a middle-aged woman with long, black hair. As she walked past him, he rose silently. Snaking one hand around to cover her mouth, he dragged her backward into the brush. She didn't struggle.
When he was sure no one had seen them or was going to attempt a rescue, Dar let her go, turning her around to face him. She stared at him with empty eyes and showed no sign that she even knew he was there. If Tao was any example, he should be able to wake her up with a sharp slap or pinch. Kodo magnanimously offered to bite her even though she smelled strange.
Before Dar could take her up on the suggestion, the woman's lips moved. It looked for a second as if she were chewing on something, but then an odd, toneless, not quite female voice came out of her mouth.
Podo nosed under a fallen branch, sniffing in disgust when he didn't find any food. Tao, who knew that sound well, grinned faintly.
"Dar fed you, you little rat. You wouldn't need any more food if there were some under there."
Podo scolded him for a second, then turned away to clean his paws an air of injury.
"Oh, please. At the rate you're going, you're going to be twice as big as Kodo and Dar won't be able to lift you anymore."
Sniffing again, Podo stood and stalked off with as much dignity as a ferret could muster. Tao laughed. It surprised him a bit to find that he'd missed the little thieves. He hadn't thought that was possible.
With a sigh, Tao leaned back against the log behind him. He closed his eyes and turned his face up toward the sun, enjoying the warmth. It would be so easy just to fall asleep. The soft twittering of birds in the trees had become familiar in his time with Dar, and the fresh breeze seemed to be easing away the last of his tension. It was tempting to lie here and pretend that nothing had happened, that he had been traveling with Dar all day and was resting at their campsite while Dar hunted for some fruit or fetched some water or something equally harmless. For a time, he gave in to the temptation, drifting gently just on the edge of sleep.
Until something, or rather the lack of something, pulled him back to consciousness. He hadn't heard Podo in some time. Most likely he was just off in search of something to nibble at, but usually both the rats checked on their humans at short intervals, just in case anything interesting had happened. Sighing, Tao pushed himself to his feet. Podo couldn't be far. He'd just go check on and make sure nothing strange had happened to the little pest before trying to get back to sleep.
The cave he'd awoken in seemed like a logical place to look first. The cave was small; a quick glance around should tell him if Podo were hiding in there. Except when he stepped inside, he realized that he hadn't really looked closely earlier. What he had thought was the back wall of the cave was actually little more than a facade, with a clear opening that led deeper underground.
Podo, naturally, would have to explore anything so fascinating. With another sigh, Tao moved toward the opening. "Podo? Where are you, you little monster?"
Walking hurt, but it was only a dull ache as long as he moved slowly. The light from the entrance faded a few steps beyond the false wall, but he could see something ahead, a faint glow that might have been the sun. Cautiously, he walked toward the light. He felt a slight stirring of curiosity; even if Podo wasn't in the cave, he wanted to know what lay ahead.
A turn in the path brought him into a large cavern. Huge blue crystals lined the walls, giving off the dim light that had lured him forward. Tao hesitated at the opening to the cavern, the hair on his neck standing on end. Something about the room felt strange. He wasn't sure he wanted to go any further.
The voice was quiet and sweet and familiar. It broke his heart.
"Caro?" He looked around wildly, torn between the urge to escape and the urge to find her and . . . and nothing, because she was dead, he'd seen her dead and now he was losing his mind.
"Tao," she said again.
This time he saw her, standing near the blue crystals. She was dressed the way he remembered, in sensible homespun with her dark hair framing her face. She smiled the way he remembered, too, and he had to look away.
"Tao, I need you to listen to me. Things are terribly wrong here." Her voice softened. "Please listen, Tao."
He really didn't want to. He'd heard her voice too often, screaming in his dreams. It made his chest hurt until he almost couldn't breathe, until he wanted to run away as far and as fast as he could.
Taking a deep breath, he said, "I'm listening."
He looked back at her and had to force himself to see her healthy and whole, not hanging there, bleeding in slow rivulets down the wall. She took a step forward. Almost close enough to touch, yet the blue haze from the crystals made her seem intangible.
"This is a strange place," she said, looking around with an expression of mixed curiosity and repugnance. "The walls between the lands of the living and the dead are very thin here. The worlds are bleeding into each other. It's destroying everything, Tao, pulling the dead back to a place we no longer belong."
You do Tao thought, but didn't say it. He focused on her words with a feeling very close to relief. "How can the worlds be connecting? That's impossible."
"I don't know. Something terrible happened here. You can feel it in the rocks, the trees . . . even the air is tainted."
Tao shook his head. "I don't understand. What happened? Why is the wall between the worlds dissolving? Does it have something to do with the monastery? With the singing? What . . ."
"Tao." Caro smiled. "One question at a time."
Her voice held a fond amusement that Tao remembered well. Turning away, he snapped, "I'm just trying to understand what's going on." The sudden movement made his side throb.
"I would tell you if I could." She sounded hurt.
No, she sounded like she was in pain. Unwillingly, Tao looked. Blood ran from the cuts on her arms and legs, stained her dress, dripped from the symbol cut into her forehead. She reached out to him, and the look in her eyes wasn't agony. It was sorrow. For him.
He backed away, his heart pounding so loudly he almost couldn't hear her.
"I don't know what caused the destruction, Tao. The answer lies on your side of the walls, and I can't go there anymore. Whatever it is, you must find it and stop it, or it will throw the entire world out of balance."
"I don't know what to do," he whispered. "I don't know anything anymore, Caro. I'm sorry." For everything, he wanted to add, but couldn't. She might not forgive him. He was too much of a coward to find out.
"Tao." She touched his face, her hand warm but not quite solid. "Grief blinds you, love. It hides the answers that are right in front of you. You must allow yourself to see."
His throat ached. He wanted to pull away from her, but his body wouldn't obey. "Caro, please."
"I'm at peace, Tao. You have to let yourself be, too." She smiled again, her eyes gentle. "Remember the old proverb, 'Let the past bury the past'? That's what you must do, Tao. I don't have the answers to give you, but I know you can find them if you'll let yourself."
"I miss you." He closed his eyes against the tears that threatened. "I love you, Caro. I never got to tell you that."
"I know." Her hand pulled away, leaving his cheek cold. "I always knew."
Her voice was fading. He kept his eyes shut, not wanting to watch her go. He didn't open them again until he felt something warm and furry pressing against his foot.
Podo chittered at him curiously, as if wondering why he was standing around while there were interesting things to explore. Tao sighed and lowered himself to sit on the ground, holding his side carefully. Rubbing the top of Podo's head gently, he leaned his head back against the rock behind him.
"I don't know, Podo. I don't know what's wrong here, I don't know how to fix it, I don't even know how I got here."
Podo pushed his head upward, enjoying the attention.
"If the walls between the worlds are dissolving, it won't be enough to just get the other people off the island. Without those walls, who knows what could happen? No one will be safe."
Podo didn't seem too worried. He twisted his head sideways so that Tao could get the itchy places around his whiskers. Tao obliged, shifting to take the weight off his wound. He was so tired, but he had to figure out the answer. He couldn't deny Caro anything. Even if he'd wanted to, he owed her too much. And there was the small matter of the rest of the world becoming unbalanced and possibly being destroyed. There were days when he wasn't sure it would be much of a loss, yet it wasn't really his decision to make.
"The monastery must be involved, right? There are too many strange things happening there for it not to be." Then a frightening thought hit him. "And Dar's headed right to it."
"You are the one who came to save us." Staring straight ahead, the woman didn't seem aware of the strange voice coming out of her mouth.
The words were just loud enough that Dar could hear them through the plugs in his ears. Chills crept down his spine at the sound. Even muffled, it didn't sound completely human.
"I came to save my friend, and these people who are being held captive. Who are you?"
"I was a monk in the Order of Dassus. She doesn't ask much of her followers, merely that we use our gifts in the service of others. My brothers and I served Her by using our minds, inventing new tools and machines to help the farmers and craftsmen in the area. We made beautiful things, too, carvings and paintings and other works to bring joy to the viewer. It was a simple life, but good."
"What happened?" Dar asked.
"I thought I had discovered something greater than anything that had been discovered before. A way to look into the land of the dead, possibly even to commune with those who had passed over. I thought . . ." the voice faltered, although the woman's expression didn't change. "I thought I had created the ultimate service to Dassus. I was so proud."
Dar resisted the urge to shake her. He really didn't have time to wait for the bits and pieces of the tale to come out, but he didn't dare alienate this . . . person. Spirit. Whatever it was, it held the answers he needed.
"What went wrong?"
"Humans aren't meant to attempt such things. I built a machine, part mechanics and part magic, and I turned it on." For a moment, the woman's expression altered, and Dar thought he could see real grief shining through. "In that instant, we all died, myself and all my brothers. Dassus punished us all for my hubris. We died, but we remained trapped here forever, unable to pass on to the land of the dead."
Dar shuddered. There would be no rest for a dead soul trapped in the land of the living. "What about all these people? What happened to them?"
"We must have sustenance to survive on this side of the walls. We cling to these living ones, taking of their life energy, and in return, gifting those who ask with the skills we once had."
"But where does that leave these people?" Dar demanded. "In the same limbo where you exist, without life or death?"
Something flickered again in the woman's eyes. It might have been anger, or shame. "We have no choice. We cannot leave, and we cannot exist without life energy from some source. We have chosen the only way we can, and we do try to repay what we take."
Dar shook his head. There was no point in arguing; it only wasted time he didn't have. "And the singing?"
"It is our funeral lament."
"Why does it put people to sleep?"
"It is a prayer for peace, for an end to suffering. It takes away their cares and leaves them rested, with no knowledge of what we must do to them. We must use their energy, but we don't want them to suffer."
Dar thought back to his own sleep and to the dreams he had experienced under the influence of the singing. "They're not at peace. They dream, and their dreams are of pain and grief."
"No." The voice sounded horrified. "Dassus is not so cruel. She grants peace to those who ask. It has always been so."
"Then maybe whatever happened here changed things," Dar snapped. "And if we don't fix it soon, these people will all die. There's a force coming to the island to kill them, and they could be here at any moment."
"The only way to fix this is to destroy the machine."
"How do we do that?"
The voice was full of despair. "I don't know."
Tao couldn't run. He had tried, but the movement had sent stabs of hot agony through his wound. He walked as fast as he could manage, though, pressing against his side to keep from falling apart. Dar was heading into danger. He was sure of it. Somehow, Tao had to save him.
The undergrowth seemed harder than ever to get through. Podo bounded over roots and vines with annoying ease, quickly outdistancing Tao and scampering back periodically to scold him. Tao gritted his teeth and pushed on. And on, until the pain had crept up to steal his breath and burn behind his eyes. And on, because Dar was in danger. And on, because Dar was all he had left, and he'd rather die himself than lose Dar.
Then he ran into something and shrieked in spite of himself before he realized that whatever he'd run into was holding him up and repeating his name over and over.
"Take it easy. Breathe. What are you doing here?" Dar gripped his shoulders tightly. "I thought I told you to wait back at the cave."
"There's no time for that." Tao took a deep, ignoring the ache in his side. "There's something really bad at the monastery, Dar. I don't know what it is, but it's making the land of the dead spill over into our world. It could destroy everything."
"I know." Dar slid his arm up around Tao's shoulder and started walking back in the direction Tao had been running. As they walked, Dar told of his conversation with the dead monk's spirit.
"But how can you build a machine and not know how to shut it off?" Tao asked.
"I don't know. I was hoping you could figure that out," Dar answered. "I think I know where the machine is. I think I saw the room where it's kept when I was looking for you."
Tao suddenly felt cold. "I don't know. I can look at it, but I don't know if I can figure it out."
"At least if you try, we might get some ideas." Dar paused, lifting his head to search the sky through the trees. "Sharak's coming."
"Where has he been?"
"On the mainland. He couldn't make it across the water against the wind last night."
Sharak glided down through the branches, landing gracefully on a nearby tree limb. He gave Tao a sharp look. Tao wasn't sure if his sudden head shake was just a natural movement or a commentary on how Tao looked.
"Great." Dar sighed. "Sharak says Jeran and his people are on their way. We're out of time."
Dar paused at the tree line, surveying the peaceful scene on the beach. The people from the monastery had all gathered near the water to harvest their catch from several nets they had dragged up on the sand. They appeared to be industrious fisher folk, but something was obviously not right. No sound marred the calm aside from the wind, the waves, and an occasional bird cry. There should have been laughter, arguments, casual gossip. The people worked too hard, too single-mindedly. It was eerie.
At least the chanting had stopped just after Dar had talked to the monk's spirit. Dar was glad to be rid of the ear plugs and even happier that he didn't have to fear being put into a trance while he was running around trying to save the world. Now it was merely a matter of waking the people in front of him and making sure they were normal before Jeran arrived. And making sure Tao had gotten to the monastery without collapsing; Sharak had a point when he had said that Tao looked like something he would regurgitate from his crop.
Dar shook his head. Worrying about Tao would only distract him with the task before him. He started walking slowly down the beach, trying not to appear threatening. Maybe the people wouldn't be afraid of him. They might not even notice him. In case they did see him, he'd like to avoid chasing them all over the beach if he could.
"Hello," he said casually, kneeling down between a young woman and an older man.
No one looked up from the nets. Dar sighed. The direct approach was usually best . . . or at least, fastest. He reached out and dug his nails into the arm of the girl next to him.
Wincing, Dar tightened his grip. He thought he saw a flicker of something in her face, but she continued working methodically. Maybe he was going about it wrong? Tao had woken up on his own, but Dar had been awakened each time by a quick, sharp pain. Wishing he'd brought Kodo or Podo with him, he turned her face toward him and slapped her hard.
She fell back into the sand, blinking at him fearfully. "Wh-who are you?"
"Dar. I'm a friend."
She looked at him with no belief at all. Dar couldn't blame her.
Smiling at her gently, he said, "You've been under a spell for a long time. The only way to wake you up from it was to hit you. I'm sorry for that. But now we have to wake everyone else up, because there is a group of people coming here to intend to kill you all."
The girl blinked again. "I was just having a drink in a tavern. It was hot and I'd walked a long way, and I just wanted a drink." She looked around at the people still harvesting the catch. "I don't understand."
"I wish I had time to explain." Dar reached out his hand to her. "But right now, I need your help. We have to wake everyone up."
"By hitting them?" she asked doubtfully.
"It takes a sudden pain to wake them. Unless you want to bite them . . . "
A glint of humor showed in her eyes. "I don't think so." She took his hand and let him pull her up. "My name is Blaisa, and I do hope you'll take the time to explain all this later."
"It's a promise."
Blaisa took the women and Dar the men, but it didn't go as fast as Dar wanted. Each person had to get the same explanation, and most of them were so disoriented that they just sat staring blankly at the sand. Dar saw tears trailing down a few of their faces, but he didn't have time to stop and comfort anyone, or even to pay attention to who was the most upset.
But even so, he heard shouts as he was awakening the last man. Turning, he saw what he had dreaded. Jeran's canoes were pulling up on the beach and his ragtag troops were spilling out onto the sand.
"Wait!" Dar pushed his way through the milling people and placed himself between them and Jeran. "Jeran, no, you've got to stop."
Jeran drew himself up, holding a knife in one hand as his eyes jumped from one of the monastery people to the next. "I'm sorry, Dar. You know what I have to do."
"No, you don't. These people were under a spell. I've woken them up." Dar gestured around at the people who were beginning to gather behind him, huddling together as they saw the weapons being held by the newcomers. "Their souls are fine, Jeran. They just need to be taken home and cared for."
"You're deluding yourself, son," Jeran said. His voice shook, but he still held the knife firmly.
"Papa?" Blaisa pushed through to stand by Dar, her eyes wide.
Jeran stared at her. "Blaisa?"
"You're trying to kill us?" She wrapped her arms around herself, shaking her head. "I don't understand."
"Blaisa, the ghosts . . . "
"I don't know about ghosts," she interrupted. "All I know is that I woke up in this strange place with all these strange people that I had to hit and I don't understand why you're trying to kill me."
Jeran took a step forward, then another. Dar was just about to reach out and stop him when he dropped the knife.
"Blaisa, is that you?" he asked, his voice cracking.
Blaisa nodded slowly. Without another word, Jeran stepped forward and took her in his arms.
Tao didn't want to return to the monastery. He didn't have any memory of being there previously, but still the idea of going back gave him chills. Something bad was there. Something that terrified him. Something that Dar expected him to fix, but he didn't know if he could.
He had the ferrets with him, and Sharak flew somewhere overhead. That made him feel marginally better. At least if he heard the chanting again, he had someone to wake him up, hopefully before he had a chance to dream.
It seemed like he had been walking forever. He was tired. More than anything, he just wanted to lie down and sleep until everything--the danger, the pain, the grief, all the bad things that had happened--just went away. Except they never did.
Finally the path widened out. Kodo and Podo paused at the mouth of the clearing, obviously reluctant to go any further. Tao agreed with them completely.
"It's not like we've got much choice, though," he told them. "Well, I don't. I guess you two could stay here and wait for Dar."
In spite of his words, he was relieved when they followed him into the clearing.
And then the monastery loomed in front of him, a huge stone structure that didn't seem nearly as frightening as he had imagined. Mostly, it just looked empty. Abandoned. He wasn't reassured.
Inside, candles burned in sconces on the walls, their smoke tickling his throat. Kodo and Podo knew the way to the room that Dar had described as being filled with machines. Tao followed, pausing at the door not so much from fear as from shock. So many things, machines and gadgets and strange blobs of metal and wood and cloth that he couldn't even begin to guess the use for. And all lined neatly on rows of tables like they had been left on display . . . or, perhaps, like markers in a cemetery, a small voice murmured in the back of his mind. Shaking off the thought, he left the ferrets behind as he stepped into the room.
Cold. Invading him. He walked forward, but he wasn't alone in his body, and it wasn't his decision to move.
He wasn't not even sure it was his thought. His heart pounded with the struggle for control of his body, but it seemed to be a losing battle. No matter how he tried to fight, he continued forward, navigating the tables as if he knew where he were going.
*Don't fight me. I need your help.*
*Then let me go!*
He was almost certain the second thought was his, and the first wasn't. A strange separation was occurring in his mind; somehow, he was two people at the same time. It wasn't a good fit.
"Who are you?" Tao asked aloud. It seemed easier that way to know who he was.
*Once, I was called Brother Xan. I created this machine.*
At that moment, Tao's body stopped. He stood near the center of the room, in front of a table that stood apart from all the others. On the table, a strange collection of wires sat crowned by a jagged blue crystal.
"It doesn't look like it could cause that much trouble," Tao said doubtfully. Granted, it made the hair on the back of his neck stand up and gave him a queasy feeling in his stomach, but as far as destroyers of the world went, he'd seen more impressive things.
He got the distinct feeling that Brother Xan was offended. *It is powerful enough breach the walls between the lands of the living and the dead.*
"Which was such a good idea." Tao frowned at the machine. "How does it work?"
Instead of telling him, Brother Xan somehow moved closer. Tao felt the separation fade. Suddenly, he knew . . .
There were places where the barrier between the two worlds was very thin. Brother Xan had been fascinated by such places, particularly when he discovered that one existed on the very island where his monastery stood. The more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that he knew how to build a device that could pierce the walls. It would require an immense knowledge of mechanics and magic, but if he succeeded, it would allow people to see, perhaps even to speak with those they had thought lost forever. It would be the greatest achievement of anyone in the brotherhood.
He had studied and experimented, and eventually created a machine he was sure would work. The wires were formed from pure gold, with spells worked over the molds to strengthen the metal and to attune it to the land of the dead. Once ready, the wires were shaped into precise patterns reflecting the two worlds and a series of magical symbols representing the worlds and the opening of doors. Finally, a chunk of crystal was carved from the wall of the cave where the two worlds came near to meeting. It, too, had spells worked over it to make it a vessel for the energy needed to run the machine. Placed at the central point where all the wires culminated, the crystal was to become a focus, directing the magic toward the wall between the worlds.
Except when Brother Xan placed it at the top of the machine, the world shattered around him in a storm of white light. He felt his body melting away, heard the screams of his brother monks, and then all he had left was an insubstantial consciousness and a knowledge that he had doomed them all.
*Dassus will never forgive my temerity.*
The sadness in Brother Xan's statement made Tao's chest ache, and that brought him back to an awareness of himself as separate from the monk.
"But why didn't your souls just pass over, if you'd already opened a passage?" Tao asked.
The sense of Brother Xan's sadness grew stronger. *It's not a matter of doors being opened or closed. Dassus has denied us eternal rest as punishment for my crime.*
A hint of exasperation tinged Brother Xan's thoughts. *I dared interfere in the domain of the gods. No living human has the right to meddle with the land of the dead.*
Tao had a sudden memory of Dar doing just that, although he wasn't technically alive at the time. He still wondered if the monk were as correct as he thought he was. Still, that was a problem for another time. Right now, the important thing was the machine.
"So how do we shut it off?" he asked, knowing Brother Xan would follow his thoughts.
*If I knew, do you not think I would have done so already?*
"But there has to be a way." Tao frowned at the machine. "What about removing the crystal? You said it was the source of power, didn't you?"
*The machine maintains a delicate balance. I am afraid that disrupting that balance will only cause more damage.*
Tao heard fear in the monk's voice, more than seemed warranted even by his statement. "So you haven't even tried?"
*I do not wish to destroy the worlds entirely!*
"How do you know you will?" Tao asked. He studied the machine more closely, walking around the small table it sat on to see it from all angles. If it weren't for the feeling of wrongness coming from it, he wouldn't even have thought it was working. Curiously, he reached out a finger to touch the crystal.
An oddly familiar coldness seeped through him. It reminded him of the room with the blue crystal wall and the strange sensation he had felt there.
Brother Xan's consciousness overwhelmed him, jerking him away from the crystal so hard that he fell back onto the floor. Pain flared up from his side and burned his breath away. In the sudden blackness behind his eyes, he thought at first that he was seeing Caro. He wanted to turn away. He didn't need the reminder, not now when he needed his wits about him to figure out the machine.
Then he realized it wasn't Caro, though the figure had the same ephemeral glow. It was an older man, dressed in a simple homespun robe and looking frightened and very sad.
*You will destroy us all.* The man's mouth didn't move, but Tao knew the words came from him. *Have we not suffered enough? Would you destroy everything?*
Your grief blinds you. Caro's voice cut through the darkness. You must let yourself be at peace.
Tao didn't know if she truly spoke somehow from the land of the dead or if it were only a memory, but the words suddenly made things fit.
"No," he said gently. "I don't want to destroy you. I want to set you free."
He pushed himself up on shaky legs, keeping one hand pressed brutally into his side because the pain cleared his mind. With the other hand, he gently extracted the crystal from the wires. Brother Xan screamed inside his mind, but Tao could ignore him if he focused on the fire burning under his ribs.
"You've been wrong all this time," he said as he turned to walk back toward the entrance of the monastery. "You thought you were being punished and that the machine was keeping the walls between the worlds from closing."
He barely noticed when Kodo and Podo chittered at him as he passed them. "You couldn't understand because you felt too guilty. You thought the other monks' deaths were your fault, so your god must be punishing you by keeping you here instead of letting you rest. But that's not right. If the walls were dissolving, you'd find it easier to pass over, not harder. Even if your god was punishing you, she wouldn't have any reason to punish the other monks."
Outside the building it was even harder to breathe, but Tao had always found it easier to think things through when he said them aloud. "So maybe she isn't punishing you. Maybe," he paused for breath, and for a moment, Caro wavered in front of his eyes again, "maybe you're punishing yourself, holding yourself back from passing over because you don't think you deserve to be at peace."
He looked down at the crystal that still glowed with a faint blue light. "And by holding yourself here and blocking your brothers' passage, you keep open the door that you were supposed to pass through all those years ago."
There was no response from the monk. Tao could feel his presence still, angry and terrified, but it was a distant sense that barely filtered through the pain. Wearily, Tao pushed on. He was working on instinct and hunches now, but still he was sure he was right. The cave was the place of passage on the island, so it was the place he needed to be.
Finally, he arrived. The ferrets ran along behind him, scolding him soundly, but he ignored them. Holding onto the wall for support, he made his way back toward the room with the crystal wall.
He had half-hoped and half-feared he might see Caro there again, but the room was empty. Tao leaned against the crystal. It was blessedly cool against his forehead, the strange feeling of it familiar and almost comforting.
*You will destroy us.* The monk's words were barely a murmur in Tao's mind.
"No," Tao whispered back. "You can't punish yourself forever. It wasn't your fault the machine didn't work. It didn't ever work, Brother Xan. It killed you all, but that was an accident. It wasn't your fault."
*I built it. It trapped us here.*
"You trapped yourself. The crystal was meant to be a passage between the worlds, and you turned it into a prison." Tao sighed, exhausted by the need to explain something that was so clear in his mind. "You are what keep the world walls from closing, Brother Xan. You must let yourself pass over, or the worlds truly will be destroyed."
*You are wrong.* Brother Xan's voice was anguished. *Dassus is punishing me. I dared to believe I had the wisdom of a god, I killed my brothers, and she is punishing me. I deserve to be punished.*
Tao closed his eyes. The monk wouldn't believe him, and he didn't know what else to say. If only Dar were here, or Caro. They both were so much better at understanding people than he had ever been. Either one of them would have known what to say to Brother Xan. Sighing, he sank down to his knees to rest. Perhaps this was all part of his own penance.
"It hurts," he whispered. "When the people you love die, it hurts so much, whether you caused their deaths or just couldn't prevent them." He thought of the sadness in Dar's eyes whenever he looked at Tao. Of the wounds Tao's mind insisted that Caro still bore, though all should have been healed when she died. He shuddered. "But if you trap them inside your regret, they are never truly able to have peace. Brother Xan, you must forgive yourself if your brothers are ever to get the rest they deserve."
"You have to. For their sake."
The monk was silent. Tao slumped against the wall, drained. He had tried. It hadn't worked, but maybe he'd be lucky and die quickly when the world exploded.
Then he heard a low chant. It was soft and sad, one voice alone, but then more voices joined to create a descant that carried a promise of peace. A promise of rest. Even, perhaps, a promise of forgiveness.
And then a bright light shattered the world around him, and everything disappeared.
Dar was watching Jeran's tiny fleet fade into the distance when Sharak called to him. The eagle's eyes focused on the cave where they had spent the night before. Dar knew, because Sharak knew, that Tao was in there, but Dar wasn't sure why he'd be there instead of the monastery. He didn't have time to wonder long; as Sharak watched, a bright light shot out of the cave and illuminated the entire clearing.
He ran, only one thought pounding through his head with every step: not again.
He didn't pause to let his eyes adjust when he reached the cave and very nearly stepped on Kodo as he hurtled around the stone wall into the back room he'd discovered when he'd explored the cave that morning. Kodo called him a great clumsy oaf, but the insult had more worry than anger in it. He apologized absently as he dropped to his knees beside Tao's body.
Tao lay on his back, sprawled out as if he had been thrown to the ground by a strong force. The front of his tunic was once again covered in fresh blood, but it rose and fell with a slow regularity that let Dar breathe, too. Tenderly, Dar lifted his friend and cradled him as he walked back toward the mouth of the cave.
After a moment's silent debate, he took Tao outside and lay him down in the small clearing where they'd eaten that morning. Tao felt disturbingly cool; they'd need a fire that night, and there was no hint of rain in the air. Spreading one of the blankets they'd left in the clearing over Tao, Dar went quickly in search of fresh water and firewood.
When he had what he needed, he returned to the clearing and built a small fire. Heating some of the water over it, he cleaned Tao's wound with as much care as he could manage and bound it again with pieces of the second blanket. As the light faded into dusk, he sat and watched Tao sleep and thought about life without him.
Tao awoke reluctantly. As much as he was growing used to the pain, he still didn't like it. Was profoundly tired of it, as a matter of fact, and of pretty much everything else at the moment. He wanted to go back to sleep until it all went away, except he hurt so much that it was keeping him awake. He sighed.
"Tao? Are you awake?"
Dar's voice was a soft breath against his ear. Without too much surprise, he realized that the heat at his back was a solid weight. Cold nights had often found him sleeping beside Dar and often Ruh, sharing body heat and blankets. The gentle support eased some of the pull on his wound as well.
"Not really," Tao answered finally.
He could hear the grin in Dar's voice. "Can't even stop talking when you're asleep, can you?"
Tao grinned but didn't answer. Giving up on sleep at least for the time being, he opened his eyes. A small fire burned in front of him, but squinting past it, he could recognize the clearing outside the cave. He had a blanket covering him and Dar's warmth behind him, and if it weren't for the pain in his side and the overpowering weariness he couldn't remember not feeling, he would have been pretty comfortable.
But, he told himself firmly, things could be worse. He could be alone and dreaming in the monastery. Perhaps a little pain was worth it.
"Do you want something to eat? I've got some fruit, or more of the journeybread," Dar suggested.
The thought made Tao's stomach want to turn over. "No." Before Dar could protest, he asked, "What happened?"
Dar shifted slightly, moving one hand to rest on Tao's shoulder under the blanket. "I managed to convince Jeran to take the people back to the mainland and reunite them with their families. I don't know what happened with you, but there was some sort of explosion. It doesn't feel like the ghosts are still here."
Tao thought of the song he had heard right before he'd been knocked out. "They're not."
"You want to tell me how you managed that?"
Tao closed his eyes. "Not tonight."
The sympathy in Dar's voice made Tao want to scream, or maybe just cry. Why was he being so patient? He'd already had to chase Tao down after he'd run away from Xinca, saving Tao's life *again* in the process, and that wasn't even considering how Tao had acted in those days after Caro's death.
"Shouldn't you be in Xinca?" Tao asked suddenly. It wasn't really the question he wanted to ask, but it was as close as he could get at that point.
Dar was silent, his hand rubbing gently up and down Tao's arm. Tao knew, even without seeing him, that his eyes would be focused somewhere distant while he tried to think of an answer.
"I could ask you the same thing," Dar said finally.
His tone didn't make it an accusation, but Tao winced anyway.
"I came back from talking to my mother and you were gone. Your bed was empty, your pack had disappeared, and all I could think was that you were still too hurt to be out on your own. I was afraid, Tao, thinking something would happen to you before I could find you again." Dar laughed faintly, barely more than a breath against Tao's cheek. "And it looks like it did."
"I'm sorry." Tao felt like he should have been facing Dar to give him the apology he deserved, but he didn't have the energy to move. "I couldn't stay there, Dar. Kim, Caro, my parents . . . they all died there. All I could see wherever I looked was blood."
Dar's hand paused long enough to squeeze his shoulder before resuming the gentle strokes. "I know."
"I didn't want you to feel like you had to come with me. Your family is there, and everything you've worked for. I thought it would be better if I just left."
Dar was quiet for a long time. Tao opened his eyes, watching the firelight dance on the ground as he waited. He wasn't sure what he wanted from Dar. Forgiveness? Condemnation? Understanding? He wasn't sure he could bear to find out.
"Tao," Dar whispered finally. "How many people in this world do you love?"
Tao blinked. It hurt, the answer to that question, but he felt like it might be the least of what he owed Dar.
"In *this* world? You. Arina." Maybe the animals, but he wasn't admitting it in front of the rats.
"And if I were alone and hurt and grieving, wouldn't you drop everything, no matter how important, to come to me?"
Tao blinked again. His eyes burned. He couldn't quite remember how to breathe, and he had to match his breaths to the slow stroke of Dar's hand to keep from suffocating.
"I can't go back there," he gasped finally. "I'm sorry, Dar. I just can't."
"Hush. I know." Dar was quiet for a moment, his hand steady on Tao's arm. In a lighter voice, he asked, "Where would you go? If you could choose anywhere, where would it be?"
Tao tried to think. He knew Dar was just asking to calm him down, and he was more than willing to play along. Anything to make his lungs work again.
"There's always Arakann," Dar continued softly. "Or, you know, I don't think we ever did find the center of the earth."
Tao managed a deep breath and a faint smile, remembering the last night they'd spent in the Sanctuary before setting out for Xinca.
"You know where I'd really like to go?" he asked. "Someplace like the Mydlands, only without the Terrons. Someplace where the challenge is to live with nature, not to destroy evil or keep someone from taking over the world."
Dar laughed. "I don't know if there is such a place." Again he was quiet, this time for long enough that Tao was beginning to drift off when he spoke again. "Would you like to find it?"
That woke Tao up. "Dar, you can't. What about your destiny? You have to go back to Xinca."
"My destiny is whatever I choose it to be. Besides, can you imagine me living in a city for the rest of my life?"
Tao tried to picture that. Nothing good came to mind. But still . . . "You can't," he repeated.
"Why not? Xinca's just a city. She can be ruled by anyone, and there are many people more suited to the task than I am. My family . . . I want to know them, to love them as themselves and not just because they share my blood. But they'll be there, Tao. There's no rush."
"But . . . " Tao paused. The truth was, he wanted to. More than anything, he wanted to put all the pain and grief behind him, to leave the memories behind and start a new life. It was what he'd longed for when he fled Xinca, although at the time his only thought had been to get away. "Do you think we could? Find such a place, I mean?"
"I don't know. We might see some interesting things on the way, though."
Dar sounded happy. Tao hadn't heard that note in his voice in a long time, and he was surprised at how much it seemed to ease the weight on his own heart. Sighing, he closed his eyes. He'd need his sleep if they were going to travel the next day.
"We'll have to get Ruh first," he murmured, the last word almost obliterated by a yawn. "And some supplies. I don't have anything with me for a long journey."
Dar's voice had grown even softer. "Ruh'll be happy to see you. He's been worried."
"And a map. Are there maps of where we're going?" Tao asked around another yawn. He felt heavy, but in a pleasant way. Dar's hand on his arm seemed to be rubbing all his tension away, leaving him with a feeling he barely recognized. He thought it might be peace.
"I don't know. Maybe you can make one."
"'Kay," Tao whispered.
"Go to sleep, Tao."
Tao would have agreed again, but darkness claimed him before he could get the words out.