VALLEY OF SHADOWS
Dar didn't hurry back. He had left Arakann early that morning, following a doe that had come to him, frantic over her faun. The young one had gotten his hoof trapped in a crack between two rocks and was easy prey for any predator. After hurrying to free the faun, Dar wasn't in a rush to return. There was nothing pressing in the village that needed his attention, and it seemed like he hadn't had many chances lately to spend time in the wild without being on an urgent mission that left him no time to enjoy the world around him.
Today he wandered, following a wide-ranging path that led in the general direction of the village. A squirrel paused to brag about his horde; Dar couldn't help but grin at the pride the squirrel took in how well he'd hidden his stash.
"I'm sure no one will ever discover your hiding place." Dar kept his voice serious. Squirrels had a sense of humor, but not when it came to their hordes.
Overhead, Sharak called out, and the squirrel dove into a hollow in the trunk of the tree.
"He's a friend," Dar said, but the squirrel didn't intend to stick around and find out if he was right.
Sharak called again, his mind brushing against Dar's. Dar reached out mentally, letting his mind touch that of the eagle's.
///Arakann. The hut he shared with Tao, but not as he'd left it that morning. A shaft of darkness encased the hut, the people of the village standing in a half circle around the front.///
Smoke? Dar couldn't tell; Sharak's eyes made for honing in on prey, not for the broader vision needed to distinguish what that darkness had been. But Tao hadn't been in the crowd, that much had been easy to see.
It was reckless to move so quickly through the forest, paying only scant attention to the treacherous ground. Dar could only trust to his instincts to guide him. If the strange darkness around his hut hadn't been enough to tell him something was wrong, Sharak's sense of almost frantic urgency more than did the trick. There wasn't time to waste.
He had been about an hour's easy walk to the village if he didn't take time to explore. In less than half that time, he crossed the village boundaries and raced between the bamboo and thatch homes toward his hut.
Ellisar, a middle-aged man whose hut was near Dar and Tao's, came over to Dar, his bearded face wearing a worried expression as he grabbed Dar's arm.
"Where's Tao?" Dar asked, but the expression on Ellisar's face had already told him the answer.
"We can't get inside. Whatever that darkness is, it's strong enough to hold us back, even when more than one of us attack at once." Ellisar looked away. "Tao's inside, Dar."
Dar pulled free, pushing his way through to the front of the crowd. Up close, he could see that the black shaft was unnatural, nothing like smoke at all. If anything, it looked like a ray of sunlight had somehow turned to black and poured itself down only on his home. He could dimly see the hut through the darkness, just enough to make out the shape of the door and windows. He couldn't see anything moving inside.
Ellisar came up behind him. "We've tried everything. Running at it, throwing things, even held a torch up to it. It won't let anything pass."
Barely pausing, Dar pulled the two pieces of his staff from their slings and stuck them together with a sharp twist. "We'll see."
He braced himself as he extended the sharp end of his staff toward the darkness. He wasn't sure what he was expecting--anything from resistance to being knocked off his feet. Instead, the staff slipped through as easily as if nothing were there at all.
"It didn't do that before," Menia, one of Ellisar's daughters, said. "It was like touching a wall."
"It could be a trap," Ellisar added. "Maybe it's made to let only you in, Dar."
"Then I'd best see what's inside."
Dar stepped forward, keeping his staff in front of him as he walked toward the faint outline of the door. The darkness gave him no more resistance than air, but as soon as he stepped into it, he realized that it was more complete than it had appeared from the outside. He could see nothing, not even the white bone of his staff, and when he turned to look back, the outside world was gone. All that was left was a black wall that smelled faintly of something rotten.
That left him nothing to do but go forward. Using his staff to feel in front of him, he found the door and pushed it open cautiously. When nothing leaped out at him, he stepped over the threshold, listening for any hint of danger. Another step and his foot encountered something large and soft.
"Tao?" Dar reached down, relief shooting through him as he encountered a warm hand wearing a stone ring. "Tao, are you all right?"
There was no answer. Setting his staff on the ground, Dar traced Tao's arm, pressing his hand against his friend's chest for a moment. It rose and fell with reassuring steadiness, but Tao showed no sign that he was awake. Carefully, Dar slid his hand up to Tao's face and through his hair, then down his back toward his feet. He couldn't feel any injuries. He couldn't be certain, though, until he got Tao out into the light.
Dar eased Tao into a sitting position, steadying him as his body sagged bonelessly. "Come on, let's get out of here."
"Not so fast, Beastmaster."
The bright flash of fire hurt Dar's eyes. He jerked back, pulling Tao protectively close.
"Now isn't that sweet."
He knew the voice, and the red, glowing eyes of the dark figure that stood in the center of an almost banked fire.
"Apparition," Dar said coldly. "I thought you were gone."
"Merely . . . preoccupied with other matters."
There was a shadow movement of the Apparition's arm, and the hut was infused with a dull red glow. Easing Tao back to the ground, Dar grabbed his staff and stood.
"What do you want?"
As the Apparition smiled, her eyes faded back to their usual brown. "Straight to business. I like that, Beastmaster. I'm glad you realize there's not much time to waste." She glanced down at Tao, her lip curling into a sneer. "Not for him, anyway."
Anger twisted in Dar's stomach. "What did you do to him?"
"Nothing much. Just gave him a nice, cool drink. It's such a hot day, isn't it?" Smirking, the Apparition stepped out of the still glowing circle and knelt beside Tao's body. A black fingernail scraped lightly across Tao's cheek. "Pretty boy. It's a pity, really."
"Get away from him." With the sharp end of his staff, Dar slapped her hand away. "What did you do to him?"
"I gave him a little drink. A potion of my own devising." The Apparition stood, her expression hardening into one of hatred. "Nothing magical, of course. Thanks to you, the only magic I can use comes from cheap trinkets and amulets. But this potion is effective all the same, as you'll see in, oh, another day or so."
"So this is revenge?" Dar gripped his staff tighter, fighting the urge to ram it into the Apparition's face. "But why Tao? You lost your powers when the Lord of Darkness turned his back on you. If you're going to blame any of us for that, it should be me. Tao had nothing to do with it."
"I prefer to think if it as a bargain. Or incentive, perhaps." She nudged Tao's arm with the tip of her boot. "Let's get down to business. Time is short. Without the antidote to my potion, your pretty friend will be dead by sundown two days from now. More importantly, I have matters that need attending, and I can't see to them in my present state. I want to strike a deal, Beastmaster. There is a spell I can cast to return my powers to me, but I need a certain ingredient that I can't fetch myself. If you obtain it for me in time, I will give you the antidote your friend needs."
"You poisoned him." Dar was surprised his voice came out so calm when his entire body was tight with rage. "You think I'd help you after you poisoned him?"
"If you want him to live, you will. I created the potion. Only I know the antidote, which, incidentally, requires the same ingredient I need for my spell. Funny how that worked out, isn't it?"
He couldn't look at her and think clearly. He forced his eyes away, down to where Tao sprawled on the ground between them. The red glow was just bright enough for Dar to see his friend's face. Tao looked as relaxed as if he were sleeping naturally, with no sign on him that the Apparition had harmed him. It was possible she had lied, either about the poisoning itself or about possessing the only antidote. Dar didn't trust her for a second, but did he dare take the chance that she was being completely honest?
He sighed. It was Tao's life hanging in the balance. He couldn't afford not to take any chance presented to him.
"What is it you want from me?"
The Apparition smiled. "That's more like it, Beastmaster. I thought you might see things my way. The spell I intend to cast needs a great deal of magical energy to make it work. Normally, that would come from my own power. Since I am currently without any power, thanks in part to you, I need an alternate source. The blood of a magical creature, freely given while the creature is still alive, carries the purest form of magical energy in existence. What I want you to do is find me the most magical of creatures. Find me a dragon, Beastmaster, and request of it enough blood to fill this small vial. Two drops will go to complete the antidote, and the rest will fuel my spell."
The vial she handed him was made of a smooth, clear crystal, about the size of two fingers put together. It wouldn't hold enough blood to make a human uncomfortable from the loss, much less a creature as large as a dragon. Dar shook his head. It seemed too simple. The Apparition's magic was never this harmless.
"You don't want me to kill the dragon?" he asked skeptically. "If a vial of dragon's blood is powerful, then a barrel would only make your spells that much stronger."
Shaking her head, the Apparition gave him a contemptuous look. "You know nothing about magic, Beastmaster. For a dragon's blood to have any potency at all, it must be given freely by the dragon. To take it by force would destroy the power in the blood. That makes your ability to speak to animals very useful, as is this ridiculous attachment you have to the people around you. Now, do we have a bargain or not?"
Every instinct Dar had told him to say no. He was certain that there was more to what the Apparition wanted than she was saying, and he was certain he'd regret any bargain he might make with her. But letting Tao die without a fight wasn't an option at all.
"We have a bargain. Where do I find this dragon?"
"That mad fool the Ancient One hid them away long ago. But with your talents, I'm sure you'll find them in no time." With a parting smirk, the Apparition snapped her fingers and disappeared in a burst of flames that seemed to suck the darkness with it as it died.
Abruptly, light and sound from outside the hut returned. At almost the same moment, Tao moaned, and Dar knelt down beside him.
"Ugh." Tao rubbed clumsily at his face, wincing as he opened his eyes. "Dar? What happened?"
Dar put a steadying hand on his arm as he sat up. "How do you feel?"
"Like the Apparition just hit me over the head with a rock." Tao's eyes widened. "Dar, the Apparition, she was here, there was this black smoke--"
"I know." Dar hesitated, studying his friend carefully. Other than a slight pallor, he looked as healthy as when Dar had left that morning. "How do you feel?"
Tao gave him a quizzical look. "I'm okay. Dar, what's wrong?"
Before he could answer, Ellisar stuck his head in the door. "Is everyone all right?"
Dar nodded. "We just had an unexpected visitor. The danger's over, Ellisar. Would you make sure everyone knows that?"
Ellisar's expression showed very clearly that he wanted to ask more questions, but he shrugged and nodded. "I'll tell them. Tao, I'm glad you're all right."
Dar waited until Ellisar had ducked out before he turned back to Tao. The Eiron was watching him, frowning slightly.
"What did the Apparition want, Dar?"
"She said she made you drink a potion." Dar paused. He hadn't let himself feel more than anger when the Apparition stood before him, but now, looking at his friend, fear began to build. What if Tao had been poisoned and Dar couldn't get the antidote to him in time?
"But I don't remember--" Tao shook his head. "Thanks to the rock. My mouth does taste a little funny. Was it poison?"
Dar nodded. "She'll give us the antidote as soon as I find a dragon and bring her some of its blood." He rested a hand on Tao's shoulder, squeezing gently. "It'll be all right."
Smiling faintly, Tao reached up to squeeze his hand. "I know."
"You can't come."
Tao sighed. His head hurt, his mouth tasted like something died in it, he was most likely dying, and Dar was being stubborn. He was sure his day could get worse, but he'd hate to see how.
"I'm not sick yet, Dar. I may not even get sick. Besides, you might need my help."
Dar knelt at the edge of the stream that ran along the edge of Arakann, ignoring Tao as he filled his waterskin in preparation for the journey. Tao crossed his arms and frowned. Dar had that set look to his mouth that said he wasn't intending to change his mind. But Tao could be just as determined when he wanted to.
"What if the Apparition was lying? What if she didn't do anything to me, and you get her what she wants for nothing? The only way you'll know if I'm really poisoned is if I'm with you."
Dar corked the waterskin and stood, giving Tao a quick, searching look before walking back toward the village. It was the same inspection he'd been giving Tao off and on since Tao woke up. Looking for signs that the poison was working, Tao was sure. It was always something of a relief when Dar turned away. As long as Dar didn't see anything to be concerned about, Tao felt like he didn't have to worry over every little twinge and twitch his body made. In fact, he could avoid thinking about it all together, which was good because he didn't even know if he was poisoned, much less what the poison could be, and without knowing that, there was nothing he could do except wait to start dying.
That, or help Dar find the dragon. Jogging a little to catch up, Tao followed Dar into the hut.
"Besides," he said, taking up where he'd left off by the stream, "if I do get sick, wouldn't it be better to have me close when you get the antidote?"
At least Dar paused this time, but he was shaking his head. "You need to rest."
"I need to do something so I don't go crazy just sitting here."
Walking over to the small table near the wall, Dar picked up the cloth-wrapped package that held the journeybread Menia had brought over earlier. He tucked it into his satchel. "You're staying here."
"Dar." Tao grabbed his arm, forcing him to stop. "Dar, please."
"It's safer here. If you start to get sick . . . "
"I'd rather be sick and doing something about it than sick and waiting to die."
"You're not going to die."
Tao wanted to believe him. But Dar was afraid; Tao could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice. If Dar wasn't certain, then Tao couldn't be, either. It was all the more reason why he had to go along.
"Then let me come with you."
Dar glared at him for a long moment, then finally smiled. "All right. Get your pack."
Tao grinned as he grabbed his pack and bedroll, already prepared and waiting near the door. "So where do you think we'll find this dragon?"
Swinging his satchel over his shoulder, Dar stooped to pick up Kodo and Podo. "I don't know. The Apparition said that the Ancient One had hidden them away somewhere, but she didn't seem to know where."
"The Ancient One is gone, so we can't ask him." Tao followed Dar out the door. "But what about the Sorceress? She was his student; maybe she would know where he hid the dragons."
Dar nodded. "I hope so." He looked upward, searching, and his eyes got the distant look that came when he was speaking to one of the animals. "Sharak says he thinks he can find her. He said to go north until we meet her."
They set out on the trail, a familiar one from all the times they'd followed it toward Xinca. Tao couldn't help throwing a last glance over his shoulder at the village. It could be the last time he saw Arakann. The last time he set out on a journey with Dar.
Shaking his head, he hurried to catch up to his friend. Thinking like that wouldn't help anything. He still felt fine, except for the lingering headache from the Apparition's attack. Even if he did get sick, he had no intention of stopping until he found an antidote, whether it was the Apparition's or one he figured out himself. Dar wouldn't give up either. Between the two of them, he was practically guaranteed a cure.
Dar wasn't sure how Sharak would manage to communicate with the Sorceress, but he trusted that the eagle would find a way. Perhaps the bond of them once being lovers would help Sharak convey his message to her, or at least convince her to follow him. Sharak could be very resourceful when he needed to be.
In the meantime, Dar would just follow his instructions to "go north" and keep an eye on Tao. His friend was quiet, walking just behind Dar, and Dar kept having the urge to look over his shoulder to make sure Tao was there. Tao just wasn't naturally quiet.
"How are you feeling?" Dar looked back finally, unable to help himself.
"I'm all right." But Tao was frowning. "I was just thinking--have you ever seen a dragon?"
Dar shook his head. "No. I thought they had all died a long time ago."
"The elders used to tell stories about them when I was young. How they were bigger than any building in Xinca and their scales gleamed in the sunlight like rainbows. How their cries were loud enough to wake the dead, it seemed, and would cause even the fiercest warriors to huddle in fear. How they could destroy entire armies with one burst of their fiery breath. I always wanted to see one."
Dar couldn't help but grin. "Sounds like it might be a little dangerous."
"But incredible. It would be amazing to see an actual dragon." Tao matched Dar's grin. "From a distance, of course."
"It looks like you may be getting your wish."
Tao nodded, but didn't say anything further. They walked on in silence until a sharp call overhead announced Sharak's arrival. Dar greeted him, feeling a surge of relief as Sharak showed him ///the Sorceress, dressed in a glittering gown of sapphire blue, leaning casually against a large boulder that Dar recognized///.
Dar glanced back at Tao. "The Sorceress is just around the next bend."
Something in his friend's voice made Dar look at him closely. Was he paler than he had been before? Dar couldn't tell. He rested a hand on Tao's shoulder as they rounded the bend and came in sight of the Sorceress. She was beautiful as always, her long blonde hair falling in waves down her back. She raised one eyebrow as they drew near.
"You summoned me, Beastmaster?" she asked dryly.
"We need to find a dragon," Dar said. "We were hoping you might know where one was."
The second eyebrow rose to join the first. "A dragon? Whyever would you need a dragon?"
"The Apparition thinks she can regain her powers if she casts a spell using dragon's blood," Dar answered. "She wants us to find the dragon and bring her the blood."
"Helping the Apparition seems out of character for you, Beastmaster."
"She claims to have poisoned Tao. The antidote requires dragon's blood."
"Ah." The Sorceress tapped her lower lip with one long, crimson fingernail. "Claims?"
Tao shrugged. "She knocked me out. I don't remember if she gave me a potion or not."
"Give me your hand." The Sorceress held out her own hand and clasped Tao's fingers tightly. She drew her nail across the back of his hand, ignoring his gasp as redness welled in the wake of the scratch. Dipping the tip of her nail in the blood, she lifted her hand and licked delicately. "Yes. There is a . . . taint. I don't recognize it."
Tao sighed. Dar squeezed his shoulder, managing a smile when Tao looked up at him, eyes slightly frightened. An answering fear rose in Dar's chest, but he was determined not to let it show.
"Can you help him?" Dar asked.
The Sorceress shook her head. "If I knew the poison, then perhaps." Releasing Tao's hand, she stepped away from them, moving closer to the tree where Sharak had landed. "Most people think the dragons are gone forever. Why would you think I could help you find one?"
"The Apparition said that the Ancient One hid them somewhere. We were hoping you'd know where he put them," Dar replied.
Glancing back at them over her shoulder, the Sorceress frowned. "Perhaps. The Ancient One was not always forthcoming with his secrets. But even if I were to know the dragons' location, I'm not certain I want to assist you in helping my adversary regain her powers. In fact, I think I like her better as she is."
"If you have a way to cure Tao without the dragon's blood, then I'm willing to listen." Dar crossed his arms over his chest, not wanting her to see how tightly his fists were clenched. If she didn't help them, he didn't know how they'd find the dragons in time. "I don't want the Apparition to regain her powers any more than you do. I'll do anything I can to keep that from happening. But without the antidote, Tao's going to die."
"Dar." Tao's voice was calm, his hand steady on Dar's arm. But as Dar looked down at him, he couldn't help but notice that Tao was definitely paler than before, with tiny beads of sweat beginning to pop out on his forehead. "Dar, she's right. The Apparition is evil. We can't just give her the means to get her powers back. We'd be responsible for every horrible thing she did with them."
"I know. If we can, we'll get the antidote without letting her regain her powers. If not, we'll just find some other way to defeat her."
"My life isn't worth--"
"Yes. It is."
Tao frowned, his eyes troubled as he studied Dar's face. Dar didn't intend to back down. He'd lost too many of the people he loved as it was.
The Sorceress was watching them curiously, twisting a strand of hair gently between her fingertips. "Perhaps," she said slowly, "if you were to get the antidote and call me to you before she performed the spell, then I could keep her from ever regaining her powers. She should not be difficult to stop in her current state."
Dar sighed, his relief echoed in Tao's smile. "Then you'll help us find the dragons?"
"If I can." The Sorceress walked back to the boulder, waving her hand over the top in a graceful arc. "I remember the Ancient One talking to me once about balance. How the world sits on a fragile axis, easily tilted to one side or the other by any change. He said that Nature is constantly struggling to maintain the world's balance, rushing to fill in any space that might be left by the sudden absence of any living thing." As she spoke, the rock surface shimmered and almost seemed to melt, leaving a pool of clear water that reflected the deep blue sky and swaying leaves of the trees overhead. "When an ordinary species of plant or animal dies out, Nature finds another species to move in and take its place. This maintains the balance of the world. But there are some species that are out of Nature's control, magical things like the dragons. When they die out, Nature has no way of replacing them, and they create an imbalance that could, eventually, lead to the destruction of the entire world."
"But the dragons haven't died out, have they?" Tao asked.
The Sorceress made another gesture over the pool, and the water rippled and changed. Now, it seemed as if they were flying far above the ground, looking down on the trail where they stood. Dar could see the large stone buildings of Xinca to the north, and a little way off to the south, the part of the forest that held Arakann.
"No." The Sorceress smiled. "At least, I suspect they have not. The Ancient One never spoke of them directly, but he did tell me once of a valley, a magical place where he had placed the last few seeds of a type of flower that gave humans the power of prophecy for a time. He said this valley was home to all those living things that could no longer survive in the rest of the world, but without which, the world could no longer survive at all. If the dragons are anywhere, they will be in that valley."
"How do we find it?" Dar asked.
The Sorceress tapped the water with her fingernail. Ripples slid across the surface, changing the picture. The scene was moving, showing them a faintly glowing path that led toward the west. The terrain was slipping by too quickly for Dar to catch all the details, but every once in a while, the images seemed to pause, as if showing him a landmark. There was a gnarled tree with a lightning-struck limb, a cattail-covered riverbank, a narrow, rocky ledge, and a pair of hills with jutting outcroppings that looked like reaching hands.
"That's rough terrain." Dar glanced at Tao worriedly. "It'll take at least two days to get there. Tao, maybe--"
"Then we'd best get started," Tao said cheerfully.
Dar had known him long enough to recognize the look on his face. Arguing would be a waste of time. He might have tried anyway, but the same thought that has made him give in back at Arakann stopped him now: if the worst happened, Dar didn't want to be so far away that he couldn't reach Tao in time.
"All right," Dar said at last. Turning to the Sorceress, he added, "How do we call you when we're ready to give the dragon's blood to the Apparition?"
With one long fingernail, the Sorceress skimmed the surface of the pool. When she lifted her hand, a perfect ball of water sat on the tip of her finger. She held it out to Dar, and when it touched the palm of his hand, it felt as solid and heavy as if it were made of glass.
"Break that and say my name," she replied. "It will not shatter unless you are truly calling me. Good luck to you."
Before either of them could reply, she was gone. Dar slid the ball into his satchel and turned to Tao.
"Are you ready? Or do you want to rest before we start out?"
Tao shook his head. "We'd probably better get as far as we can before I start to feel the poison."
Dar suspected he was feeling it already, but he just nodded and set off in the direction the Sorceress had shown them.
Dar was setting a steady pace, fairly quick but no more so than on any other journey. Normally, Tao wouldn't have had any problem keeping up. Today it was a struggle, the pounding in his head joining with nausea and a new ache in his legs to make every step an effort. Tao knew Dar would slow down if he asked, but he didn't want to go through another argument about how he should have stayed behind.
The forest they were walking through was dense. Towering trees overhead gave way to a thick underbrush that was alive with the chatter of birds and other small creatures. After they had fought with the undergrowth for a while, Dar had located a narrow deer trail that was headed in the right direction. Tao was grateful. Vines and grass might look fragile and easily broken, but they took an amazing amount of energy to push through. Tao didn't have any to spare.
It was a strange feeling. Something inside his body was making him sick. Making him die. Making him into nothing more than a tool to force Dar to do the Apparition's bidding. The last part was somehow worse than the first. He didn't like having his life threatened, but even more than that he hated being used against his friends. His friendship with Dar was one of the most important things in his life. He was tired of people trying to exploit it.
"Need the Beastmaster for something? Just threaten the Eiron," he muttered.
He looked up to see Dar frowning at him from the path up ahead. "Nothing."
"How are you doing? Do you need a rest?"
"I'm all right." He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. If Dar were the one with poison working through his body, Tao would be just as worried--and probably a lot more vocal about it than Dar had been. "I was just thinking."
The corner of Dar's mouth curved up. "Why am I not surprised?"
Tao just gave him a little smirk as he drew even with Dar and they started down the trail again. "I don't like the Apparition manipulating us. The last thing the world needs is for her to regain her powers. I don't want to be responsible for that."
"I don't intend for her to get her powers back. All I'm interested in is the antidote."
"I am, too, believe me. But I don't want her to get away with doing this. I don't want her to win." As he put his feelings into words, the anger grew. "It's wrong, Dar. She shouldn't get to benefit from hurting people."
"You're right, she shouldn't."
Tao knew that he should have been happy that Dar was agreeing with him, but the serenity in his friend's voice only served to aggravate him more.
"Don't you think she should have to pay? She's evil, Dar. Poisoning me is not even the worst thing she's ever done. She deserves to suffer the same way she's made other people suffer."
Dar stopped, his expression serious as he gripped Tao's shoulder. "If you fight an enemy with anger--"
"You're defeated from the start. I know." Tao took a deep breath. Somehow Dar's touch soothed where his words hadn't; Tao was calmer as he spoke again. "My head knows that. My heart--my heart is afraid."
"So is mine." Dar squeezed his shoulder. "But I also know--with my heart and my head--that we will make this all work out. And that makes me a little less afraid."
Tao wasn't as confident as Dar, but he nodded anyway. "Come on, we've still got a long way to go."
It wasn't long before Tao was wishing he'd taken Dar up on the offer of a rest. Trying to take his mind off his growing discomfort, he studied the trail around him. He knew many of the plants in these parts and had used most of them for one reason or another. The tall, thin shoots of yellow-green grass that were growing in clumps along the trail were called broom-tail, and their roots were good for making a poultice to reduce swelling. The purple flowers hiding in the shade of several bushes along the way were nights-ease because they were supposed to keep away bad dreams if tucked under the dreamer's pillow, but they were also good for brewing into a relaxing tea. Tao let his eyes trail upward and smiled. The vine winding around the trunk of the oak tree was pentu vine, which was good for pain and nausea.
Without checking to see if Dar had heard him, Tao pushed his way through the tall grass to the oak. Pulling down a tendril of the vine, he used his knife to cut off a long section that was thick with dark green, triangular leaves.
"What are you doing?"
Tao held up his find so that Dar could see. "Pentu vine."
Dar raised an eyebrow, obviously not impressed.
"Chewing the leaves helps with pain or when your stomach is upset. Of course, it's more effective to crush the leaves and brew a tea, but we don't have time for that and the tea tends to make you sleepy anyway, which wouldn't be all that useful since we're traveling." Tao worked his way back to the path as he talked, only stopping when he realized Dar was frowning at him. "What?"
"How badly does it hurt?"
Tao could have kicked himself when he saw the stricken expression on Dar's face. He really needed to work on thinking before he spoke.
"It's not that bad. But we need to remember where these vines are. I haven't found that many near Arakann, and they're very useful. We should come back through here and harvest some of the leaves. Maybe I can even try to transplant a few closer to the village."
Dar looked at him searchingly for a moment, then sighed. "We should get going."
Tao nodded and waited until he had turned and started down the path again before sticking one of the leaves in his mouth.
The pentu leaves helped. It was easier to keep up with Dar, and Tao didn't feel like his stomach was trying to turn itself inside out anymore. Without them, he never would have been able to keep going through the long afternoon and well into dusk. When Dar finally suggested they make camp, it was almost too dark to find wood for the fire. Tao always carried a little bit of kindling bundled away in his pack, so he lit that and used the dim light to help him scrape together enough fallen wood to start the fire while Dar broke up a dead tree limb for more fuel. By the time Dar was finished and Tao had laid out some journeybread and fruit for their supper, he was almost too tired to eat anything.
Finally Dar dropped down on the ground beside Tao, taking a bite from his hunk of journeybread before tearing off a couple of bits to throw to the ferrets. Kodo and Podo had found their first course under the log Dar and Tao leaned against but were always willing to share whatever the humans were having as well. Tao watched through heavy eyes. As much as he needed to sleep, he couldn't help but think that this might be the last night they spent like this, he and Dar talking by the fire while the ferrets squabbled over a choice morsel and Sharak dozed on a limb above them. He wished suddenly that Ruh was with them, but the tiger had cubs to raise and hadn't been in Arakann for several days.
"You should eat," Dar said suddenly. "You'll need your strength for tomorrow."
Tao resisted the urge to point out that Dar wasn't eating much either and took a bite of his journeybread. The effect of the pentu leaves was wearing off, leaving him with a deep ache in his legs and lower back. At least the journeybread was helping settle his stomach, and some sleep would hopefully do for the rest of it.
"I could fix you some of that tea," Dar offered. "With the leaves you found."
Dar looked so hopeful that Tao nodded, even though he wasn't sure he'd be able to stay awake long enough to drink it. He knew what it felt like to feel so helpless. To need to do something, no matter how small, to help.
"The leaves are in my pack. Just crush them till they're pulpy, then boil them with water." He leaned back against the log, letting his eyes drift shut. "No more than ten leaves, and enough water to fill the pot."
He dozed as he listened to the sounds of Dar making the tea. From time to time, Dar murmured something, hopefully to Kodo and Podo since Tao wasn't really paying attention. He thought again how this could be the last time they made camp, and the sadness that rose up in him almost choked him. He didn't want to lose this, the quiet companionship after a day's travel. He didn't want to leave Dar to face his enemies alone. He didn't want to leave Xinca still occupied by King Zad or the Lord of Darkness still undefeated. He wasn't afraid of dying, but he wasn't done living yet.
He opened his eyes to see Dar kneeling next to him, holding out a gently steaming mug. Pushing himself up to take it, he ignored the sharp spike of pain that stabbed under his ribs.
"Thanks." He took a sip of the tea, studying his friend over the rim of the mug. Dar seemed lost in thought, frowning absently at Kodo and Podo's game of tag. It was too much effort to ask him what was bothering him. Tao drained the tea and set the cup down, sighing as warmth slid down toward his toes, taking the pain away as it spread.
"Tomorrow's when we'll hit the most difficult terrain," Dar said finally. "We'll have to cross the river, and the path after that looked pretty steep. I'd rather find another way, but I don't think we've got the time."
"Mmm-hmm," Tao managed, forcing his eyes wide in an effort to stay awake. The tea was taking effect, and coupled with the exhaustion he was already feeling, made it almost impossible not to drop off to sleep.
"You have to tell me if it's getting too much for you, all right? If you need to rest or need help or anything. Tao?"
"Mmm." Tao blinked, and his eyes didn't want to open again. He forced his eyelids up in time to see Dar shaking his head, an amused smile on his face.
"Get some sleep, my friend. We've got a long journey ahead tomorrow. You'll need all the rest you can get."
The words followed Tao down, spiraling into a comfortable darkness. He drifted there, content, for a long time. But slowly he realized that someone was watching him. Turning, he froze as he saw two red eyes glowing at him through the dark. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He tried to run and couldn't move. His heart pounded in his chest so hard it hurt.
Then a pale, black-nailed hand came toward him. As the fingers brushed over his face, snakes bloomed from their tips and slithered down toward his body and up into his hair. He couldn't scream. One snake slipped into his mouth, and as it slid down his throat, he couldn't breathe . . .
"Tao? It's just a nightmare. You're all right."
Gasping, Tao tried to break free from the hands holding him down, even as his brain finally caught up to the fact that it was Dar kneeling over him, cupping his face gently in one palm while the other rested on Tao's chest.
"Dar?" For some reason, it hurt to talk. Tao struggled to wake up, to figure out what was going on, to get away--anything but lie there choking.
"Hush. You were having a nightmare. Go back to sleep now. You're safe."
And with Dar's reassurance, it was surprisingly easy to obey.
Dar woke as the sun was clearing the tops of the trees. Though it had been too dark to see the night before, he recognized one of their landmarks not far from where they slept--a lightning-struck tree, its burnt branches pointing to the rising sun. Even though Dar had known they were on the right path, the sight was reassuring.
A few feet away, Tao still slept, the sound of his breath comfortingly regular. Dar studied him, noting the beads of sweat on his forehead even though he huddled under his blanket as if he was cold, the waxen look to his skin, the pained frown. The poison was progressing, slowly but steadily devouring Tao's health and vitality. It was an enemy Dar couldn't fight. All he could do was try to outrun it, but Tao was becoming less and less up to the race with every passing hour, and Dar wouldn't leave him behind.
With a sigh, Dar leaned over and shook Tao's shoulder. "Time to wake up. We can get an early start."
"Uh. Great." Tao rubbed his face blearily. "It's morning already?"
"Yes, it is." Dar grinned. "How are you feeling?"
Tao sat up, running his hands through his hair as he yawned. "Better than last night. I think the sleep did me good."
It wasn't as reassuring an answer as Dar wanted. There was nothing he could do about it, though, so he stood and held out his hand to Tao.
"You ready to get going?"
Tao took his hand and let himself be pulled up, leaning on Dar's arm a bit as he got his balance. Feeling the heat radiating off his skin, Dar started to say something, then stopped himself. Nothing to be done except find the dragon's blood and get the antidote. And then do everything in his power to make sure the Apparition never hurt any of his friends again.
By midmorning, they had left the forest behind and were traveling through a long stretch of grassland. Their progress wasn't as quick as he would have liked. They had stopped to rest several times already, and Tao just couldn't walk as fast as usual, even with Dar carrying his pack. He wasn't complaining--a fact that had Dar even more worried; Tao griped about minor pains constantly. When he fell silent, Dar knew things were bad. Even without him saying anything, Dar could see the strain in his eyes, hear the harshness in his breath, feel the trembling in his arms whenever he stumbled and Dar reached to catch him. Tao was doing the best he could, and still Dar was afraid they wouldn't get to the valley soon enough.
Reaching a small copse of alders, Dar called another halt. Tao eased himself down to lean against the trunk. His hand shook as he reached for the waterskin Dar held out to him.
"Sharak says that the river isn't far ahead," Dar said, breaking the silence that had lasted since the last time they stopped. "We should reach it by midday."
Tao just nodded, closing his eyes as he tilted his head back to rest on the tree. Dar snagged the waterskin before it could spill. He took a drink, then dug a shallow wooden bowl out of Tao's pack to give the ferrets some water as well. Podo wandered off to find a snack, Kodo following him with an air of disgruntlement. She'd wanted to climb back into the satchel and finish her nap, but the thought of Podo getting into an adventure without her was more than she could bear.
"I'm sorry," Tao said suddenly, his voice still hoarse from the nightmare-induced screams that had woken Dar in the middle of the night.
Dar frowned. "For what?"
"Slowing you down." Eyes still closed, Tao shrugged one shoulder. "If I'd stayed behind, you'd be there already."
"We're making good enough time." Dar reached over, gripping Tao's arm. "We'll make it."
"If we don't . . ."
Tao sighed. "All right." He opened his eyes, smiling faintly. "You ready?"
Dar stood, pulling Tao up with him, then slung his satchel and Tao's pack over his shoulder. Whistling for the ferrets, he matched his pace to his friend's as they set out again. Tao moved slowly, painfully. Dar wished he could do something, somehow shoulder Tao's pain the same way he carried his friend's pack. It seemed cruel to push on with Tao so obviously sick, but to leave him behind would be worse and giving up wasn't an option. All Dar could do was stay close and reach out a steadying hand whenever Tao stumbled.
Sharak's sudden cry jerked Dar's attention back to his surroundings. There were warriors coming ///four, mounted, wearing the bone and black leather of King Zad's Knights/// and Sharak didn't think they had time to hide.
"Trouble," Dar said to Tao. He dropped the satchel and pack, glancing around in the hopes that he'd spot something that would serve as a defensible position. There was nothing. The trees were too far back, and only grassland surrounded them. "Zad's Knights, four of them. Get behind me."
As Tao complied, the Knights rode into view. Dar had fought many of the Knights before, but he didn't recognize any of these. As he pulled out his staff and connected the two sections, he studied them for any hint of weakness that he might use to his advantage. The leader was a tall, blond man with a short beard and matching scars on either cheek. On his right, a man with skin darker than Tao's and long, braided black hair had already pulled out his sword. Both men rode confidently, as if they had fought many times before. The other two Knights were younger, the nervous expressions on their faces making it clear that they didn't have the experience of the riders in front of them.
There was no way that Dar could take them on all at once, not when he was trying to keep them away from Tao at the same time. With luck, he'd be able to deal with the two young ones quickly, but that would still leave the older ones. The more dangerous ones.
The four riders pulled up, close enough to talk but not so near that Dar could take a swing at any of them. The leader looked Dar up and down, sneering as he took in Dar's staff.
"I recognize you, Beastmaster. King Zad will be happy to hear that we've captured you at last."
Under other circumstances, the man's arrogance would have been amusing. Dar raised an eyebrow, holding his staff ready.
"I'm not quite captured yet."
"We'll have to take care of that, won't we?"
Without answering, Dar reached out mentally to the Knights' horses. It was a difficult request; horses had a herd mentality and didn't like to break away from the course set by whoever was dominant. But one of them had more of a sense of humor than the others, and she took a mischievous delight in shying suddenly. Her rider, the shorter of the two younger knights, tried to rein her in, but she was getting into the game. She gave a full-body shake, then reared up so abruptly that the Knight didn't stand a chance. He hit the ground with a stunned expression. Before he could regain his feet, the mare had trotted off in the direction they had come from. Cursing, the Knight started after her. He had barely taken three steps before Sharak was swooping down on him, forcing him to drop to the ground or risk losing an eye to Sharak's sharp claws.
With a snarl, the leader spurred his horse forward, followed closely by one of the younger Knights. They split to either side as they approached Dar. Taking down one of them wouldn't be that complicated, but both would require some fancy footwork. Particularly with Tao so vulnerable behind him.
Twirling his staff, Dar swung at the younger man first, feeling the solid thud of connection shiver through his arms. The Knight went flying off the back of his mount to sprawl gracelessly on the ground. Sparing only a glance to see that he was down for the count, Dar whirled to face the leader. He barely had time to duck as the horse galloped by, the leader's sword whistling over his head. Jamming his staff upward, he caught the rounded end in the crook of his opponent's arm and jerked.
With a startled yelp, the man flipped off his horse and landed on his back a few feet from Dar. Tao rushed forward, swinging a long stick at his ribs. Before Dar could close the distance between them, the leader had rolled away from Tao's blow and kicked out, sweeping Tao's feet from under him. Tao hit the ground hard and didn't get back up.
Fear made Dar rougher than he would normally be. He slammed the rounded end of his staff into the leader's back, then spun it around to catch him in the temple as he fell. One last blow to his belly guaranteed he wouldn't be moving again any time soon. Seeing him curled on the ground, Dar felt a satisfaction that he should have been ashamed of, except Tao still hadn't risen and Dar didn't find himself feeling sorry at all.
The last Knight was galloping toward him, not giving him any time to check on Tao or even find better position to deal with the oncoming attack. He braced himself, hoping to knock the dark-haired Knight off his horse as easily as he'd unseated the leader. But the Knight had obviously learned from his partner's experience. He tossed his sword down and launched himself from the back of his mount, hitting Dar with the full weight of his body.
Dar let the momentum send him backward. Rolling, he came to his feet again in time to see the Knight rise from the ground, sword in hand.
"You won't find me as easy an opponent, Beastmaster," the Knight said. "I've been waiting for this opportunity for a while. Everyone says you're such a fearsome fighter. Why don't you show me if they're right?"
"I don't have time for this." Dar started forward, his staff ready. "If you want to fight, shut up and fight."
The Knight grinned as he advanced. He held his sword easily, his body angled to present less of a target. Dar circled him cautiously. Tao couldn't afford for this fight to go on long. Dar needed to create an opening, a quick means to defeat the Knight so that they could get back to their journey. With that thought in mind, he lunged at the Knight. He felt the impact of the Knight's sword against his staff and twisted, but the Knight danced away. His second attack was swifter, and he managed to get in a blow to the Knight's ribs before he had to back off again.
"Is that all you've got, Beastmaster?" The Knight smirked.
"Come find out."
As the Knight moved forward, Dar grasped his staff in both hands and twisted, pulling it into two parts. Blocking the Knight's sword with the sharp end, he drove the rounded end into the Knight's stomach. The man doubled over and Dar brought his staff end up, hitting him on the chin. He followed it up with a strike to the Knight's temple.
Dar paused just long enough to make sure the Knight wasn't going to get up before turning to Tao. Sharak would keep watch over the Knights and warn Dar if any of them stirred. Shoving the two ends of his staff into their harness, he went to kneel beside his friend.
Tao had pulled his knees up to his chest, his arms wrapped tightly around his stomach. His breathing was harsh and painful-sounding. Dar, resting a hand on his back, winced at the tremors that were shaking him.
"Tao?" Dar could hear the fear in his own voice and took a deep breath. Panicking wouldn't help either of them. "Tao, what is it? Can you tell me what's wrong?"
For a moment, he thought Tao hadn't heard him. Only the hard, uneven gasps broke the silence. But finally, with effort, Tao managed, "Hurts. Everywhere."
The words stabbed through Dar, anger and sorrow an even mix. He closed his eyes, willing himself back under control. This wasn't the end. It couldn't be. Tao would get better, and to do that, he needed Dar calm.
Deliberately gentle, he slid his arms around his friend and pulled him up to where he could rest on Dar's knees. It seemed to help; Tao's breathing grew quieter, and he loosened one arm enough to grab onto Dar's wrist. His grip was reassuringly painful.
"It's going to be all right," Dar murmured. With his free hand, he rubbed Tao's back in slow circles. "This will pass. You'll be okay."
The few minutes that they sat there, with Tao fighting for air and Dar whispering promises he couldn't keep, seemed like an eternity. But eventually Tao began to relax, his muscles shaking even more as he released his rigid control. Dar simply tightened his hold and kept talking, never letting his voice stray from its soothing tone.
Finally Tao sighed and pushed himself away from Dar to sit on his own power.
"Better now?" Dar asked, keeping a steadying hand on Tao's shoulder.
Tao nodded, the shadow of a rueful grin touching his mouth. "I'm sorry. I wasn't much help, was I?"
Dar shrugged. "There were just four of them."
"Barely even exercise, right?" Tao's grin grew wider, then he looked past Dar and it slid to a frown. "Dar, I think they're waking up."
Dar turned. The first two Knights he had knocked out were stirring, and the one that Sharak had pinned to the ground had gotten up the courage to throw a couple of rocks at the eagle. His aim was terrible, but eventually, he'd either force Sharak to dodge far enough that he'd regain his feet, or one of the other Knights would come to his aid.
"I think it's time to leave," Dar agreed. But when he pulled Tao to his feet, the Eiron could barely stand on his own. He leaned against Dar, breathing shallowly, tremors once again shaking him. He obviously couldn't walk far, nor as fast as they needed to get away from the Knights.
Dar looked at the Knights' mounts. It went against his grain to ride any horse, knowing as he did that it put a burden on them that he could never entirely repay. If ever there was a time to ask for a favor, though, this was it.
"Do you think you can ride?" he asked Tao.
Without their riders to command them, the horses were more open to Dar's request. The mare who had thrown her Knight agreed readily to carrying one of them, and her sister was willing to come along. After he had helped Tao mount, Dar quickly stripped the tack off the other two, then sent them on their way with a suggestion that there was some nice grazing closer to the forest. Then he went over to the Knight that Sharak had attacked.
"If you stay still until we're gone, Sharak will let you up," Dar said. "We'll let the horses go once we're away from here. If they like you, they might even come back to you."
The Knight growled something inarticulate. Figuring that it probably wasn't worth asking the man to repeat himself, Dar went back to the horses and pulled himself into the saddle. The horses set an easy pace toward the river, and Dar allowed himself to hope that now they might be able to reach the valley in time.
Tao could think of whole lists of things he would rather do besides riding a horse. Horses were a long way from the ground, for one thing, and not exactly built for human comfort. Of course, Dar would probably point out that horses were designed perfectly for themselves and that human comfort had never been a factor. He would be right, but that didn't help the bruises that were growing where Tao's bones rattled against each other.
This ride was worse than any other he'd ever been on. It was all he could do to stay in the saddle; dizziness and cramps disturbed his balance and left him weak. The only thing he could say for it was that it was better than walking. Sort of. At least, they did make better time to the river than they would have on foot, and crossing the river was much simpler on horseback than it would have been otherwise. He really had no room to complain.
Except for the part where he was dying. Tao thought he probably had some justification for griping about that. Particularly since it wasn't the kind of dying he'd always hoped for, where he was old and surrounded by family, slipping away into a peaceful darkness. No, if they couldn't find the antidote, his death was going to be soon, and most likely very, very painful. But he couldn't quite bring himself to complain. Not with Dar shooting him looks filled with worry, reaching out to steady him each time the dizziness hit, trying so hard to act like everything was going to be fine. Lying on the ground earlier, unable to move for the pain wracking his body, Tao had lost his conviction that anything would be fine, but if Dar needed to believe that, Tao wasn't going to keep him from it by whining.
He still chewed pentu leaves, but they were barely enough now to dull the pain and did nothing to make it disappear. The tea would have helped more. But even if there had been time to stop and brew it, it would have made him too sleepy to sit on his horse. Still, the leaves were better than nothing, and he rationed them carefully to make sure they would last.
It was mid-afternoon when they finally reached the rocky stretch of hills that they had seen in the Sorceress's scrying pool. Dar called a rest and Tao dismounted gratefully. The biggest benefit to riding was that it had given his muscles some time to recover. He was sore, but he could walk on his own.
"We're closer," Dar said, eyeing the terrain ahead with a frown as he let the ferrets out to run around for a bit. "I don't think the horses are going to make it over those rocks, though, and from what the Sorceress showed us, it only gets steeper."
"I can manage," Tao said, and hoped he wasn't going to be proven a liar. It wasn't like he had much choice. "I may not be fast, but I'll make it."
Dar gave him a small smile. "We can take it as slow as you need to. The valley should be just beyond the hills, so we've made good time." He stood, studying Tao the same way he'd studied the terrain. "Why don't you rest for a bit. I'm going to unsaddle the horses and set them loose."
"Tell them thanks for me," Tao said, settling back against his pack. A rest, maybe even a brief nap, sounded wonderful.
Dar grinned. "I will."
It seemed like only a few minutes before Dar was kneeling beside him, shaking his arm gently.
"We need to get going."
Tao blinked, unsure for a moment where he was and why they had to go anywhere. Then memory returned and he sighed as he let Dar help him up. His nap didn't feel nearly long enough, but it had restored a little of his energy. Enough, at least, that the hills in front of him only looked steep, not insurmountable.
An hour later, he was ready to rethink his opinion. The hills were little more than one rock piled on the other, with gravel interspersed with moss to keep things interesting. It would have been treacherous at any time. Now, with every muscle aching and every breath a struggle, the added effort of keeping his footing was almost more than he could handle. Only stubbornness and Dar's quiet encouragement kept him moving.
He had slipped several times and fallen twice. Each time, Dar had been there, grabbing his arm or his hand and pulling him up, holding him steady until he had his balance. His world narrowed down to the path ahead of him and Dar behind him, so that when he heard the telltale rattle of gravel on rock, he reached back and grabbed without thinking.
It felt like something tearing deep inside him, but he didn't dare let go. They were on a narrow path around a boulder outcropping that sloped abruptly into a sheer drop. Somehow Dar had lost his footing and was dangling over the edge. Only Tao's hold kept him from falling to the rocks below.
Dar's eyes were wide with shock as he looked around, searching for a way back onto the path. Tao clenched his fingers around Dar's wrist, his other hand digging into the face of the boulder in front of him. It took all of his strength just to hold on. He had nothing left to pull Dar up. But Dar twisted and managed to get a foot on a jutting rock, taking some of his own weight. As the strain eased, Tao felt some of his strength return.
"On three," he gasped, trusting Dar to understand.
Dar nodded. "One, two, three."
Dar pushed off the rock as Tao pulled upward. In a shower of clattering gravel, Dar surged up onto the path again, catching Tao as momentum threatened to send him over the side. They collapsed against each other, Dar's arm pinning Tao to the rock. Breathing heavily, Tao slumped against Dar and thought about passing out.
"Are you all right?" Dar asked, his own voice breathless.
Tao nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He was alive, in one piece, and hadn't fainted yet. By that definition, at least, he was fine. The burning pain traveling from his chest to his belly wasn't that great, but it was better than being splattered on the rocks at the bottom of the drop.
"Are you?" he managed finally. He could feel a faint tremble in Dar's arm where it pressed against him.
"I'll be better when we get off this trail." Dar took a deep breath, visibly forcing himself to be calm. "Are you ready?"
Tao forced himself upright, but he couldn't quite stop a groan as the muscles in his chest clenched.
But it was hard to get his breath and the words made him cough, and then the pain was so bad he thought he was going to fall again. Dar braced him until the spell had passed, terror so evident in his eyes that Tao forced himself upright when all he really wanted to do was curl up on the ground and sleep the pain away. Except, he thought bleakly, it was his life that was more likely to leave him.
"We can wait. Rest a bit," Dar suggested.
"No. I can make it." Tao didn't want to add that they were running out of time, but he suspected from Dar's expression that he knew that anyway.
Holding onto Dar's arm for balance, he started forward again. As the pressure in his chest grew, his vision blurred, but he trusted Dar to keep him from straying off the path. The best he could give in return was to keep putting one foot in front of the other until Dar finally pulled him to a halt.
"We can rest here."
Tao leaned against Dar, blinking as he tried to clear his vision. It took him a few minutes to realize that dusk was causing part of the problem; the sun was dipping close to the horizon and barely illuminating the hills in front of them. They were on a plateau, caught between two looming rock formations. The hills in front of them seemed to form a wall, with a natural opening between them bracketed by outcroppings in the shape of reaching hands.
"The valley?" Tao asked.
Dar nodded. "We're nearly there. This is a good place to catch our breaths, and we can decide if we want to explore it tonight, or wait till the morning."
Tao could hear his unspoken question: could they afford to wait until morning? Truthfully, he didn't know. But he was certain he couldn't make it much further that night.
"Morning might be better," he said, and looked away from the jumble of fear and relief that played across Dar's face.
Keeping one hand on Tao's arm, Dar slid off the pack and eased Tao down to lean against it.
"Just rest," he said. "I'll find some wood to start a fire and make some tea."
Tao nodded, his eyes already sliding closed. He couldn't quite sleep; the pain had grown too strong for that. If he held very still, though, he could distance himself enough that the pain wasn't overwhelming and his thoughts grew quiet. He wondered vaguely if this was what it would be like in the realm of the dead. The Sorceress had said once that drinking the water of that realm made a person's memories disappear. Maybe it would feel like this, a drifting stillness free of any emotion. Dar might know. He had visited the realm of the dead once, trying to rescue his sister. He could probably tell Tao what it would be like.
In his mind, Tao had always pictured it as a peaceful place, with green fields and a sparkling river, much like the glimpse he had gotten into the place Ruh's mother had gone when she died. An eternity filled with tigers didn't sound too bad.
Dar's voice cut into his thoughts. Tao opened his eyes, smiling slightly when he saw the worry in Dar's expression. Dar returned his smile, but the worry didn't lessen.
"The tea should be ready soon. Would you like some fruit or bread with it?"
The thought of food was nauseating. Shaking his head, Tao answered, "Just tea."
"You should--" Dar stopped himself and sighed. "All right. I'm sure Podo will be happy to get your share."
Tao grinned. "Pretty soon he'll be too fat to fit in the satchel."
"Probably." Dar looked over at where the ferrets were investigating the underside of a rock. "I don't think that will stop him."
"I'm sure it won't." Tao shifted, trying to ease the pressure that was stealing his breath. Finding a better position, he continued, "You know, I was thinking . . ."
Dar's lips quirked, but he didn't say anything.
"The realm of the dead might not be such a bad place. I mean, it's not like you're going to get hungry or sick or have to worry about falling off a cliff while you're there, right?"
Dar stood up abruptly. "I'll check on the tea."
Tao sighed. "The only thing that bothers me is the part where you lose your memories. There's so much I've seen that I always meant to write down and never did. I don't want to forget you or Sharak or Ruh or even the little rats. And if I'm gone, no one will be left to remember my parents or my brother--not the private things that people outside my family never knew."
"Tao." Dar had his back turned so that Tao couldn't see his face, but his voice was ragged. "We'll find the antidote. We're almost there."
Tao wished he had the strength to go to his friend, but all he could manage was words. "Do you remember when Ruh's mother was dying? How she made her journey through the river and over the mountain, and spent one last night under the stars? And when the time came for her to cross over, she didn't fight it. She went willingly because it was her time."
"It's not yours," Dar said flatly. "It's not."
"But if it is," Tao said, as gently as he could, "I want to go like Tiala. Peacefully, with no regrets."
Dar grabbed a stick and jerked the pot off the fire, setting it down roughly on the ground before dipping one of the cups into the tea. Stalking over to Tao, he set the cup on the ground hard enough that liquid splashed out. Without a word, he turned and walked away.
Tao wanted to call him back. He would have come if Tao said his name, but something kept Tao from speaking. Having watched his brother die, having seen Dar come too near death on more than one occasion, Tao knew his friend's helplessness. Tao would have done anything in his power to ease it, but the only cure was for Tao to live, and he was growing less and less sure he had a choice in that matter.
Dar didn't return until after Tao had finished the last dregs of the tea. Pain dulled once more, Tao had lain down and was drowsily watching the fire when Dar came to sit beside him.
"You can't give up," Dar said, his voice soft but fierce. "I'll get the antidote. You just have to give me a little more time."
"I'm not giving up," Tao said quietly. "But I'm not afraid, either. Death is just another part of life, isn't it?"
Dar swallowed, looking away. "It's not death that scares me."
"Dar." Tao waited until Dar looked at him again. "I'm not giving up."
Dar's answering smile was tight with pain. Heart aching, Tao reached out to him. Dar took his hand in a grip that was warm and strong and steady. Tao had meant to comfort Dar, but somehow Dar's touch brought him a sense of peace as well. He sighed and closed his eyes.
When he awoke the next morning, Dar slept beside him, still holding his hand.
The valley was a place of brilliant color and abundant life. An open field of long green grass spread out before the entrance and was encircled by majestic trees. Wild flowers of every hue swayed in the breeze that drifted across the field, bringing with it the faint scent of water.
Dar stood at the entrance of the valley, supporting Tao as he surveyed the land before them. His thoughts were as much on his friend as on the layout of the valley, however. Tao had been in a lot of pain when he woke up, even if he'd refused to admit it. The fact that he'd needed Dar's help to walk the short distance through the rocks that surrounded the valley spoke for itself. His breath rattled in his lungs, his body shaking from the effort.
"It's beautiful," Tao murmured.
Dar glanced down at him, then back at the valley. "It is." Beautiful, but without any sign that dragons were near. Pushing aside his unease, Dar added, "Can you go a little farther? I smelled water. If there's a pond or stream, it might be a good place to camp."
Tao nodded, his eyes still on the scene before him. Dar set a slow pace, trying not to cause his friend any more pain than he had to. From the pallor of Tao's face and the sweat standing out on his brow, it was obvious that every step hurt. The high grass only made matters worse; Dar silently asked Sharak to scout ahead and find the easiest path to the water.
///The bare hint of a trail leading through the grass to their right, a blooming magnolia set among taller hardwoods, a pair of boulders sunk into the bank of a shaded spring///
It took Dar a few minutes to find the trail, a narrow path cut into the grass by the feet of passing animals. Ahead, the magnolia's pink blossoms stood out against the green of the other trees. It wasn't far, but with Tao so weak, it seemed to take an eternity.
As they drew close to the trees, Dar realized something wasn't right. The scent of water he had caught earlier was stronger, but it had an odd, musty tang to it that made him think of rotting things. Before he could identify it, though, Tao stumbled. Only Dar's arm around his waist kept him from falling completely, but he sagged against Dar and made no effort to pull himself up straight.
Heart pounding, Dar eased them both to the ground, cupping Tao's chin with one hand and turning his face toward Dar's. Tao's eyes were closed and his skin an unnatural gray.
Guiding his head to rest on Dar's shoulder, Dar patted his friend's cheek. "Tao. Come on, Tao. Wake up."
There was no response other than the harsh rasp of Tao's breathing. Dar closed his eyes for a moment, then shifted his hold so that he could slide an arm under Tao's legs.
"Just hold on, okay?" he whispered as he lifted his friend and started once more toward the trees. His mind raced, trying to form a plan. He had to find a place to leave Tao, somewhere safe. Then the dragons had to be found. Now, because he was out of time. Tao was out of time.
Dar quickly reached the spot Sharak had shown him. He lay Tao down as gently as he could next to the boulders, then turned to the spring, intending to get some cool water to bathe Tao's face. Immediately he knew where the musty odor had come from; the spring was nearly crusted over with a sickly looking gray-brown growth. All around the bank were tracks of animals, and the ground was pitted with roughly dug holes where the animals had apparently tried to find water when their spring went bad.
With a sigh, Dar untied his waterskin from Tao's pack and spilled a little water into his hand. They were running short; he had hoped the spring would give them a fresh supply. What water he had wasn't cold, but he smoothed it over Tao's cheeks and forehead anyway, hoping the sensation would rouse him. Tao stirred but didn't wake.
Sharak landed on the branch above Dar's head. He didn't like the sound of Tao's breathing.
"I know," Dar said. "He's getting worse. I have to find the dragons soon."
Sharak hadn't seen any dragons--or any other life--in his short flight over the valley, but it was a big place. He hadn't had time to explore the whole thing.
"They're here somewhere." Dar brushed Tao's hair out of his face, frowning as he realized how cool his friend's skin had grown. "They have to be."
Sharak would make another flight around the valley so that Dar could stay with Tao. If there was a dragon to be found, Sharak would find it.
Untying Tao's bedroll from the back, Dar spread it over him. Kodo padded over to sniff at Tao's face, chittering worriedly, but Dar didn't have any reassurances for her. She would know if he lied. Sighing, Dar sat back on the ground to keep watch. There was nothing else he could do, not until Sharak returned. Nothing but sit and watch his friend suffer, and hope for a miracle.
Softly, Tao moaned, and Dar rested a hand on his chest.
"It's all right, Tao. Take it easy."
Tao opened his eyes, blinking in confusion until he focused on Dar.
"What happened?" he asked hoarsely.
"You passed out. Sharak's out looking for signs of the dragons. It won't be much longer."
"Good." Tao licked his lips, wincing slightly. "Is there any water?"
Dar slipped an arm under his shoulders to help him sit, then held the waterskin for him. Tao drank thirstily, almost draining the waterskin. As Dar lowered him to the ground, he moaned, and the sound shot through Dar like an arrow.
"I'm sorry," Dar whispered, meaning not just for hurting him, but for ever letting the Apparition near him in the first place. For not finding the cure already. For not being the one who was dying.
Tao seemed to understand all of that, because he clasped Dar's wrist weakly in one cool hand. "Dar--"
Whatever he was going to say was cut off by a cough. He'd barely caught his breath before another one shook him and another, and even with Dar pulling him into a sitting position, it seemed forever before he was able to stop. When he finally did, blood flecked his lips and his face had almost no color at all. He leaned bonelessly against Dar, gasping, and when Dar gave him the last of the water, it seemed to take all his energy just to swallow it.
Even so, he took a shaky breath and tried again. "Dar."
"It's all right," Dar said, knowing it wasn't and hoping Tao, at least, wouldn't hear the lie in his voice.
Tao just looked at him, then smiled. "My brother," he whispered, then closed his eyes as if those two words had been everything he needed to say.
They terrified Dar. "Tao, please. Just a little longer. I need you to be strong for a little longer, okay?"
But Tao only sighed, already asleep or unconscious. Tenderly, Dar lay him back down. Standing carefully so that the movement didn't disturb his friend, he picked up the waterskin and walked over to the spring. There had to be some part of it, a side pool of some sort, that was still clean. Tao would need more water when he woke up. Some of the pentu leaf tea might help, as well, and Dar couldn't make it without water.
But there was nothing. The entire surface of the spring, approximately as wide across as two men lying head-to-foot, was covered in the brownish growth. Trees grew close to the bank for more than a third of the way around, and the open ground leading toward the field was too high to have caught any run-off. On the far side, a pile of water-stained rocks showed the likely source of the spring, and even it was covered in a gray-brown powder. Still Dar searched, leaving Kodo and Podo to watch for any changes in Tao's condition.
He hadn't yet admitted defeat when he heard, high above him, a terrible cry. It was loud and deep, the call of a predator declaring its dominance over its domain. Looking up, he saw what he had been searching for--a dragon, huge and glistening red, magnificent in its power as it flew overhead. The relief that washed through him was almost unbearable. He reached out with his mind, calling to the dragon, ready to beg or bargain for a small portion of the dragon's blood.
He was met with madness. Hunger, thirst, a desperate wanting, but no hint of reason. No intelligence to grant his request.
Dar refused to believe it. To have come so far, to have forced Tao to endure so much, and all for nothing--no. He tried again, and again, but each time it was the same. The dragon's mind was nothing more than a seething morass of need and desire.
Dar sank to the ground, staring up at the magnificent creature, as close as he'd ever been to hating an animal. Though it wasn't the dragon's fault that it was mad, Dar couldn't help but see it as the cause of his despair. Tao needed dragon's blood, freely given, in order to survive. Even if Dar could somehow gain some of the creature's blood, he couldn't gain its permission to use the blood. Tao's last hope was gone.
Wearily, Dar stood and walked back to the place where he'd left Tao and the ferrets. Tao's breathing seemed harsher, but all Dar could do for him was pull the blanket a bit higher in a pointless attempt at keeping him warm.
Tao opened his eyes at the touch, swallowing heavily. "Dar?"
Somehow Dar managed to smile. "I'll get you some. Just rest for a moment, all right?"
Tao sighed, his eyes closing, and Dar dropped his head to his knees. Even this simple request was beyond his power. But then he thought of the rocks where the spring seemed to have its source. Perhaps, if he dug down far enough, he could find at least a trickle.
Grabbing the waterskin, he circled the spring, wading down into the water to reach the rocks. They were piled together, some of them with raw edges as if a rockslide had shorn pieces off. As quickly as he could, Dar pulled off the top rocks, then went back to the bank for a long branch to lever off some of the more tightly packed ones.
At last, his efforts paid off. A tiny stream of fresh water bubbled up, giving off a subtle, clean scent. It spilled quickly down the side of the rocks, dissolving the gray powder, and then splashed into the spring itself. At the first touch of the clean water, the growth in the spring began to dissolve. As Dar watched, it all but melted back, leaving the water with no trace of contamination.
Cupping his hand, Dar caught some of the water and brought it to his mouth. It tasted clear and cold, and Dar felt stronger as soon as it touched his tongue. Frowning, he took another drink and had the same result--he definitely felt better, as if the water had some sort of magical properties. Maybe even healing properties.
It seemed to take forever to fill the waterskin, but once it was full and closed, Dar simply started back through the water toward the opposite bank. On the other side, he touched Tao's cheek with a still dripping hand.
"Tao? Here's some water."
Dar eased him up and held the waterskin to his mouth. Tao drank slowly, every swallow an effort, but after the first few sips, Dar could feel his strained breathing ease a bit. Watching anxiously, Dar hoped for more, but Tao's face remained pale and his muscles lax. Dar pushed aside his disappointment and mustered a smile when Tao opened his eyes.
"Is Sharak back?" Tao asked, his voice slightly stronger.
"Not yet." Dar hesitated, but he owed his friend the truth. "Tao, the dragon--"
As if called, the creature bellowed again. A dark shadow passed over them, then in a rush of wind and flapping wings, the dragon set down beside the spring. Dar hunched protectively over Tao as the ferrets scrambled behind him, but the dragon paid them no mind. It arched its long, serpentine neck toward the spring and drank, its tongue curling like a cat's. For several minutes it lapped at the water, breath coming in loud snorts that made Kodo and Podo jump every time. Dar and Tao just watched, Tao so entranced that he seemed to have forgotten his discomfort for a moment. Dar smiled when he saw the fascinated expression on Tao's face, but he had to look away as he was hit with a surge of grief. The world would be a much darker place without Tao in it.
Finally, the dragon raised its head, flexing huge claws into the ground as it scented the air. Its head swiveled toward the bank where Dar and Tao watched, great yellow eyes narrowing as it spotted them.
The water is good again.
The thought entered Dar's mind clearly, accompanied by a disoriented air, as if the speaker had just awoken from a long sleep. Heart pounding faster, Dar realized that the dragon was addressing him.
"The source was blocked," he said aloud. "I just cleared away the debris that was stopping it."
You speak to me. You are a Beastmaster?
The dragon blinked at him. When the Ancient One brought us here, he touched the spring and filled it with his magic. When one drinks the water, one can be filled with strength from the sun and the air. Flesh is no longer needed to sustain one's life. One is able then to live in peace, without doing or receiving harm. Without the water, my hunger was endless. There is not enough life in the valley to sustain one such as I. You have saved life, Beastmaster, and the lives of all the creatures upon which I, in my madness, would prey.
Dar took a deep breath. "May I ask a favor, then?"
The dragon stared at him for a long time. Ask, it replied finally.
"My friend is ill. He can only be cured by a potion made with dragon's blood. Would you allow me to take a small portion of your blood to save his life?"
The dragon reared back its head, nostrils flaring. You know not what you ask, Beastmaster.
"What's wrong?" Tao asked weakly.
"I don't know," Dar answered him, then looked back at the dragon. "The amount I need should cause you no harm."
A dragon's blood, freely given, binds the dragon into servitude. The dragon blew out a breath, its tail lashing hard enough to uproot the grass it lay on. Whoever holds the blood controls the dragon utterly. I will not bind myself that way.
For the second time that day, Dar knew despair. He turned away from the dragon, only to be confronted by Tao, who was watching him with tired curiosity. Dar tried to smile, but couldn't quite manage.
"The dragon said--" He stopped, taking a deep breath. How did he tell his friend there would be no cure?
Tao studied him for a moment, then caught his hand in a weak grasp. "Dar. It's okay."
"The dragon said that anyone who possessed its blood would control it completely."
"So that's why she wanted it." Tao frowned. "Dar, we can't give it to her."
Dar pictured the Apparition with a dragon under her control and shuddered. The damage she would create with such a weapon was terrifying to contemplate.
"We won't let her do anything with it but create the antidote," he said, but he didn't even sound convincing to himself.
"No." Tao tried to push himself up, but he didn't have the strength. "Dar, no. We can't take the chance."
Even though Dar knew he was right, even though he would have made the same decision, it was still the hardest thing he'd ever done to nod his head and say, "All right."
The dragon watched them, its tail slowing to a gentle swish. But still, a debt is owed. I acknowledge that, Beastmaster. I will repay it.
With a surge of powerful muscles, the dragon sprang into the air, its great wings beating mightily as it soared away.
Against Dar's side, Tao sighed, and his voice seemed distant as he said, "I always wanted to see a dragon."
Dar looked down at him. Though the water from the spring had eased some of his distress, he still looked weak and worn beyond endurance. The look he gave Dar was almost pleading.
"I'm tired," he said.
Dar closed his eyes for a minute, his hand tightening around Tao's. He wanted to say no, fight, don't give up. Don't leave me. He wanted to promise that everything would be fine, that Tao would be better soon.
Opening his eyes, he said instead, "Rest now. It's all right."
Tao's eyes slid closed. Dar shifted him slightly so that he rested against Dar's chest, then wrapped both arms around him and leaned back against the tree. Kodo and Podo burrowed close to his legs, but he didn't speak to them, or to Sharak when the eagle glided close to land on the limb above.
Every breath Tao took seemed weaker than the one before. Dar waited for each one, thankful that it wasn't the last. The sun was high in the sky, night a long time off, but for Dar, time seemed to be going to fast. The next day, Tao would be dead. Dar wanted the sun never to set.
But the shadow that interrupted his thoughts wasn't the sun going down. The dragon had returned, landing with a surprising grace.
Dar wished it would leave. He wanted this last time alone with his friend, with only the ferrets and Sharak to help keep watch. They, in their own way, mourned Tao too. The dragon didn't belong.
I owe you a debt. I cannot myself give you what you need to cure your friend, but I am not the only creature brought here by the Ancient One.
The dragon stepped aside. For a moment, Dar couldn't believe what he was seeing--two unicorns, their white coats gleaming in the sun, walking sedately toward him around the spring.
They remembered him and Tao as well, and remembered how he and Tao had helped them when the Terrons had tried to capture them. The female bent her head gracefully and rubbed her horn against Tao's forehead, then dragged it down, barely skimming the surface of his skin, all the way to his feet. As she stepped back, the male stepped forward, repeating the same motions as his mate.
Dar hardly dared to hope. Unicorns were supposed to be able to cure any illness, but he had known despair too many times that day. It wasn't until Tao took a deep breath and opened his eyes, until the color flooded back into his skin and the pain lines fled, that Dar began to believe all would be well.
"I thought," Tao said, pausing for a yawn because he still felt worn to the bone even though the poison was gone, "I thought the Sorceress turned the unicorns into stars in the sky to protect them."
Dar shrugged. "She did. The Ancient One must have moved them here like he did the dragon."
They were still camped by the spring. The stress Tao's body had gone through in fighting the poison remained even after the unicorns' ministrations. He had slept most of the afternoon after he had been healed, only rousing when Dar woke him to eat. But even though he was as tired and sore as if he'd put in a hard day's labor, he could feel the difference in his body. He was healthy again.
Dar hadn't stopped smiling since Tao woke up. Tao almost felt guilty for the strain and exhaustion that hadn't quite left his friend's face. Not that he could help having been sick, but he hated that Dar had suffered as well.
"However they got here, I'm glad they were around when we needed them," Tao said. He took the apple that Dar was holding out to him, biting into it hungrily. When he finished chewing, he continued, "But there's still the Apparition to deal with. I was thinking, we stopped her this time, but what if we're not around next time? Or what if she wins?"
Sighing, Dar held out a bit of journeybread to Podo. "She needs to be stopped for good. Even without her powers, she's dangerous. But short of killing her, I'm not sure how we're going to accomplish that."
Tao wasn't entirely sure he'd mind her being dead, not after she'd tried her hardest to kill him. He didn't really want to kill her, though. Just make sure she couldn't hurt anyone else, ever.
"Do you think the Sorceress would help us?"
Dar frowned, reaching over to feel around in his satchel. He pulled out the solidified water droplet that the Sorceress had given him, rolling it between his fingers.
"I don't know," he said finally. "You know how she is about interfering in human affairs."
"Yeah, she only does it when it suits her purposes."
Dar grinned. "That's true. But maybe, since the Apparition isn't exactly human--"
Abruptly, Tao yawned again. Dar shook his head.
"You should be resting," he said, tucking the droplet back into the satchel. "If you feel strong enough, we can start back in the morning. Once we're home, we'll worry about what to do with the Apparition."
Tao was tired enough that he didn't argue. He was asleep in minutes and didn't wake again until the sun was already up. Blinking slowly, he took stock--the ache in his muscles was mostly gone and he felt stronger than he had in days. He stood, and it didn't hurt at all when he stretched or when he walked the short distance to the bank where Dar crouched, looking into the water.
"Hey," Tao said softly, sitting down beside his friend. Dar's expression was uncommonly serious, almost sad.
Dar turned and looked him over carefully. "How are you feeling?"
"Almost good as new." Tao took a deep breath, enjoying the sensation. "How are you?"
Dar didn't answer immediately. He was methodically stripping the leaves from a twig; it was bare and torn into tiny pieces before he finally started speaking.
"Yesterday, before the unicorns came, I was trying to imagine what today would be like. If you were gone." He paused, carefully arranging the twig bits into a neat pile. "There was nothing. Just emptiness. My life is so much better with you in it, my friend. Thank you."
Unable to say anything, Tao simply reached over and clasped Dar's hand.
"Are you ready to go home?" Dar asked finally, breaking the silence.
"Whenever you are," Tao replied, and was glad to see Dar smile.
They gathered their belongings and ate some journeybread before setting out. Tao paused at the entrance to the valley, looking back at the place he had almost died. Dar's hand came to rest on his shoulder, and he smiled up at his friend as he turned to the path between the rocks.
The attack came without warning just as they cleared the outcroppings. Suddenly the Apparition was in front of them, shoving Tao up against the rock, a glistening bronze blade pointed at his throat.
"Let him go," Dar growled, as Sharak shrieked overhead.
"Where is my dragon's blood?" the Apparition demanded. "Did you think I wouldn't follow you to make sure you didn't double-cross me? I know you found a dragon. Now give me the blood."
"We don't have it," Tao said, eyeing the dagger nervously.
"Liar. If you hadn't received the antidote by now, you'd be dead. You must have used the blood to cure yourself. Now give me the rest."
Tao could see Dar reaching slowly into his satchel. The Apparition's eyes were darting back and forth between them, so he spoke quickly to distract her.
"The dragon refused. We know you wanted its blood to control it, but it refused to give us any. I was healed by a--"
A burst of smoke interrupted him and cleared quickly to reveal the Sorceress. She took in the situation quickly. Raising her hand, she made a throwing motion. The Apparition froze.
Or, Tao thought as he looked more closely, was frozen. She still breathed but seemed unable to move. Her eyes were hot with impotent fury as Tao slipped out of her grasp.
"Can you leave her like that?" he asked the Sorceress.
She smiled. "It is tempting, is it not? Unfortunately, that spell will not last long."
"She wanted the dragon's blood to control the dragon," Dar said. "Even without her powers, she's still able to do a lot of harm. We were hoping you might know of a way to stop her permanently."
"I hear beheading is quite permanent," the Sorceress said thoughtfully. "It wouldn't be much of a loss in her case, either."
Dar shook his head. "No killing."
"Whyever not?" The Sorceress sighed. "Oh, all right. I did learn an interesting spell just recently that might do the trick."
Tao moved quickly out of the way, stepping over to stand by Dar. The Sorceress raised her hand again, murmuring some words Tao couldn't understand. What appeared to be a yellow liquid spilled from her fingers and flowed over the Apparition, hardening as it fell to form an crystalline cocoon. In minutes, the Apparition was entirely encased.
"Amazing," Tao said. "Can she breathe in there?"
"Yes, unfortunately," the Sorceress replied. She looked at him more closely, one eyebrow arching. "You seem much better than the last time I saw you."
"The unicorns healed me."
The other eyebrow shot up. "Unicorns? Where?"
"In the valley," Dar replied. "We figured the Ancient One must have placed them there."
"That would be very much like him." The Sorceress frowned at the outcroppings. "I believe I will go see for myself what the old fool has done."
Smoke swirled upward from her feet, and in an instant, she was gone.
Tao looked back at the Apparition. "Do you think that hurts?"
"I hope not." Dar sighed. "At least, she should find it difficult to cause any more trouble."
Torn between relief and revulsion, Tao turned away. "She deserves it, but . . . "
"I know." Dar put a hand on his shoulder. "Let's go home."
Tao nodded, shifting his pack to a more comfortable position. Side by side, they set out for the hills that would lead them toward home.