Chapter 1: Teaser
The darkness surrounded and held him. Within the darkness was a blood-chilling fear that fed off of his strength. Emotions he recognized called to him, and brushed his mind offering up their gifts of cruel memories.
Pain: experienced once again at the hands of men.
Terror: at the face of Death coming to claim him once more.
Sorrow: at the destruction of his sanctuary, his anchor.
Anger: at his own inadequacy and inability to escape, to fight.
Scorn: toward the ones who would destroy what they could not understand.
Rage: towards the man who held his life in careless hands.
A deep, burning hate like nothing he had ever felt before welled up within his heart. It twisted and churned, claiming him for itself. It took on a life of its own as it tried to change him, taking everything he believed in and turning it into ash. Hissing words of anger toward the men responsible for its creation, it grew, consuming ever memory and tinting them with the color of red hate and black anger. It almost succeeds, but at the last moment a gentle touch from a caring friend averts the disaster and, with a shiver of relief he awakens, knowing that though he has not surrendered to the hate, it has still claimed a part of his soul.
Chapter 2: Act 1
~ Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul. ~
Staring up at the dark night sky, Dar was dragged away from his thoughts by the restless sleep of his companion. Knowing that nightmares would plague Tao for several nights to come, Dar kept a watchful vigil while his thoughts slipped into the past and the events that had led them to this point.
* * * * * * *
Seeing how excited Tao was when he recognized his surroundings and began to lead him toward his home, Dar tried to keep his feeling of foreboding to himself. For a little while he was able to ignore his worry and enjoy the almost childish delight Tao was exhibiting at being able to show Dar his city. Xinca was a city overflowing with people, some of whom the likes of which he has never seen before. But he soon discovered that the good cheer of this city hid a greater danger than that found in a forest as red-robed priests began to chase them, separating him from Tao. Worried about him, but unable to save him, Dar was forced to flee for his own life leaving a defenseless Tao behind.
Tricking the priests was easy and stealing their robes, Caro and he had joined the Blood Priests at the altar. Before Maloc could plunge the knife into Tao’s chest, Dar moved and, while he fought the Blood Priest’s, Caro escaped with Tao. Fighting the Blood Priests, he was able to let go of some of the anger and fear he had been holding in so that by the time he joined the two Eirons outside of Xinca he had regained control of himself.
Standing beside them watching Tao struggle over the direction he should follow, Dar forced himself to relax and, though he told Tao to follow his heart, hoped that Tao would not leave him. Waiting for Tao’s decision, Dar realized that he depended on Tao’s presence and friendship in much the same manner as he depended on the animals. Fighting back fear, fear that Tao would chose his people over him, Dar waited for Tao’s decision.
Staring at the subdued Tao, Dar was reminded of the great loss his friend was feeling and knew from personal experience that the next days and nights would be hard for Tao. Promising himself that he would be there for his friend in the same way that Tao had been there for him after Kyra’s death, Dar followed after Tao as they headed away from Xinca knowing that when Tao returned he would be right there with him.
* * * * * * * *
As his thoughts came full circle, Dar turned and looked once more at the sleeping Tao. Watching his restless movements, Dar walked over and, kneeling down beside him touched his shoulder hoping that a gentle touch would sooth his dreams and let him sleep. After Tao had stilled, Dar returned to the fireside where he resumed his vigil and, unknown to him, Tao opened tear-filled eyes at his touch and stared unseeing into the surrounding forest.
Chapter 3: Act 2
~ In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed. ~
On the second night out of Xinca, only a few stars shone in the night sky. A sleepless Tao listened to a quietly sleeping Dar. Envious eyes closed as Tao tried to sleep but flashes of memory caused his eyelids to fly open and, resigned, he stared up at the sky. Mumbling under his breath, Tao attempted to name the few star constellations that were visible. Pausing at the constellation of twins, Tao remembered Nye and Gem with fondness as he thought back on the many adventures he had experienced at Dar’s side.
/ How ironic that the closest I’ve come to death since escaping the Terrons should be within the walls of my own home. /
Tao’s thoughts were once more filled with remembered fear and pain. Frowning up at the twins who smiled at each other, Tao finally admitted defeat and, silently rising from his bedroll, slipped into the surrounding forest. Following the sound of running water, he stopped at the side of the small stream they had discovered before setting up camp. Finding a dry spot, Tao sat down and stared at the flowing stream as he began to muse aloud.
"The stream has a set path much like I used to. And now…." Resting his head in his hands, he sighed. "I followed a path set before me by generations of fellow Eiron’s, but now that path is destroyed, taken away by the Blood Priests. What path can I follow now?"
Raising his head, he stared at the second, smaller fork of the stream as he continued his solitary discourse. Unknown to him, a worried Dar had followed him and stood, concealed behind a tree, listening to his ramblings.
"Two paths…?" The whispered question tumbled from his lips as Tao thought about the importance of the divergent path of the stream.
"On one side I have the option of attempting to rally my people to retake Xinca. With Dar’s help we could have an army of animals on our side and then nothing and no one, would be able to stand against us." Shaking his head at the impossibility of convincing Dar to command the animals in such a manner, Tao quickly discarded the idea. "On the other hand we could leave and start over once more. But to leave our city…."
Convinced that Tao was not going to do anything rash and respecting his need for privacy, Dar quietly made his way back to camp where he settled down to await his friend’s return.
Standing up restlessly, Tao slowly walked to the edge of the stream, cupped his hands and stuck them into the cool water to gather a drink. Satisfying his thirst, he looked up at the sky and smiled. A small cluster of stars winked back at him.
"My path is cloudy and the future dim. Wanderer that I am, I find my home no longer. Star above, star so bright, send a new path my way."
Whispering the words of an ancient plea passed down among his people; Tao stood from his position of kneeling supplication. Making his way back to the camp where Dar still "slept" Tao reached his bedroll and lay down with a voiceless sigh. He once again stared up into the night sky before closing his eyes and welcoming the embrace of the hitherto elusive sleep.
"Thank you, Dar." his whisper reached the ears of the Beastmaster who smiled before answering.
"You’re welcome, Tao."
Chapter 4: Act 3
~ Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid. ~
The next day dawns bright and beautiful and Dar listens with a smile as Tao begins to ramble on about a plan to retake Xinca. Dar welcomes the return of a talkative Tao and settles down to listen but is interrupted by Sharak. Seeing the image of a trapped tiger and the warriors surrounding it, Dar jumps to his feet and, with Tao following him, rushes through the forest.
Reaching the camp where the tiger is, Dar attempts to fight the Nord warriors but is finally overpowered when the warriors surround him and place their weapons at his throat. Unable to fight against their metal weapons, Dar is helpless. Searching around for a means of escape, Dar is horrified when Tao steps out of the forest, unarmed and alone. Seeing the fear that Tao is unable to hide, Dar tenses when the lead warrior orders the others to kill Tao. Prepared by the call from Ruh, Dar leapt to the side as Ruh rushes the warriors. Sparing a look over to Tao’s location, Dar is relieved when he sees no sign of him and, together with Ruh, causes the Nord warriors to flee. In the scuffle Ruh is injured.
Dar watches with worried eyes as Tao treats the injury and, while he checks the treated cut, he listens as Ruh asks him a favor. Telling Tao that Ruh had asked him to escort his mother, Tiara, to the Archway of the Spirits in his place, he shows Tao where it is located on the map. Dar watched worriedly as Tao began to stammer, fearful at the prospect of traveling near Xinca so soon after their forced departure. Wondering if he should ask him to stay behind instead of taking him, he decides to let him come when Tao follows after him.
During their journey, as they sit resting, Tao hesitantly tells Dar about his brother, a brother that Dar had not known about. Surprise warred with hurt, as Dar wondered why Tao had never mentioned this brother before. Listening to Tao talk, Dar tried to think back and see if he had ever questioned Tao concerning his family. Saddened when he could not think of a time, Dar promised himself that he would take part in the conversations more often. Returning his full attention to Tao, Dar answered the question of whether he had ever felt death coming with a no.
As they finished their conversation, Tiara stood and walked away from them, telling Dar something that caused him to laugh.
"What did she say?" curiosity filled Tao’s voice as he questioned Dar.
"She said that humans spend too much time talking and not enough knowing."
He listened with pleasure as Tao laughed at Tiara’s words.
Unable to cover ground quickly because of Tiara’s age, Dar was alarmed when Sharak showed him the figure of Arina and a Nord warrior tracking them. Reaching the side of the river, Dar crossed halfway with Tiara and they hid on a small grassy island in the middle of the river. Looking back, Dar barely managed to refrain from leaving his hiding spot when Tao, who had tripped and lost ground, reached the riverbank and was abruptly dragged back into a grassy patch beside the bank.
Watching carefully as Arina and the warrior passed their hiding place and reached the opposite bank, Dar hurried to the place he had last seen Tao. When he found Tao, he was relieved to see that Caro had been the one to pull him out of danger.
Continuing on their way they are interrupted when they meet three Blood Priests. After taking them out with ease, Dar finds a river for Tiara to cross and, on the other side, watches with wonder as Tiara sees something that reassures her. After traveling until they could no longer see, they make camp and Dar listens as Caro tells them what had happened in Xinca after they had left. Hearing that the Nords had taken over the city, Dar decides to visit Arina and find out what she wants with him.
Telling the two Eiron’s that he was going to make sure they were safe, Dar visited Arina. Talking with her, Dar extracts a promise from her and, though is unsure of how much he can trust her, returns to the camp where he had left Tao and Caro. Coming back to the camp, Dar realizes that something is bothering Tao but, unwilling to bring it up with Caro still here, promises himself to bring it up when they are once more alone.
The next day, Caro goes on alone to place messages for the hidden Eiron’s while Dar and Tao continue on their journey to the Archway. Following Tiara, Dar was pulled out of his thoughts when Tao, who was following him, began to talk.
"You know Dar, I’ve been thinking…."
Relieved that Tao was acting more like himself this close to Xinca, Dar decides to tease him a little.
"I’ll take that as a sign that you’re feeling better."
Tao laughs, "Yes, I am. Now that we have a plan."
Continues with what he had been saying.
"I’ve been thinking about an old saying: it doesn’t matter if a man falls, so long as he rises and goes on."
Dar listened in silence until Tao had finished and thought about what he had said.
"Hmm. I like that."
He could almost feel the pleasure Tao felt at his words.
After finding a mountain for Tiara to climb, Dar made sure that they had all rested before continuing their trip. Carefully choosing their path up the mountain, Dar had Tao go before him on their downward journey so that if he slipped he would be able to catch him but unfortunately for him, when Tao slipped he fell with him. Hanging onto the side of the cliff, Dar used his staff and, with Tao’s help put it together, wedged it into the cliff-side.
Using it for leverage, Dar climbed up onto a ledge and then reached down for Tao. For a moment, Dar was afraid that Tao would let his fear overwhelm him, but then Tao reached up and, with a sigh of relief, he pulled him onto the ledge beside him. Motioning for Tao to climb up ahead of him, Dar kept an even more careful eye on Tao. Looking up as Tao reached up and grasped the side of the cliff-edge, Dar felt a jolt of fear when someone grabbed Tao’s hand but, seeing the Eiron ring, he relaxed.
Joining the three Eirons on the cliff-edge, he followed them into the forest and leaving them, went to check on Tiara, who had accompanied them down the mountain. In the background he could hear the Eirons introduce themselves but, worried about Tiara, he tuned them out and focused on her. While he watched, Tiara saw something which reassured her and, unable to see what she had seen, he relaxed when she told him that she had passed the second test. His thoughts were drawn away from her when he heard the female Eiron talk about going to safety and, with Tiara, he walked after the woman who was pulling Tao along.
Coming up to the three Eirons, Dar knew that Tao had been asking about his family again and wished with all his heart that he would find them. Telling them that they would be camping under the stars, the man, Han, warned that it was too dangerous but Dar merely replied,
"I have no choice."
To his confused surprise, Tao neither agreed nor disagreed with him.
Dar spent the rest of the trip wondering what was going through his friend’s mind.
That night, camping under the stars, Dar watched with curiosity as Tao left the warmth of the fire and walked to his side. Reaching his side, Tao looked at Tiara who Dar had been talking to.
"Will she make it?" the undisguised worry in his voice warmed Dar.
"If she survives through the night." Petting her soothingly, Dar looked up at Tao as though to gauge his expression.
"You seem more concerned for her than your own family." The question in his voice called for a response and Tao gave it readily.
"I’d just like to know that one of them has a future." A hesitant pause followed and Dar focused on Tiara wondering what could make the normally talkative Eiron stop.
"With all the dangers, you never once wavered in your promise to Ruh. You give them a grace and an honor no other human has." Tao continued.
Dar listened self-consciously as Tao told him what Dar’s actions towards the tiger’s meant to him.
"… I’ve learned a lot this journey."
Without waiting for Dar to respond, Tao turned and returned to the fire leaving a deeply moved Dar behind. Still looking at the tiger he was petting his thoughts were no longer on the journey ahead but on how much his friend had changed through the course of their acquaintance.
Later that night, Dar was awakened by the sound of silence. Carefully moving away from the quietly resting Tiara, Dar stood in readiness for whatever was coming.
From out of the forest stepped the warrior that had been with Arina. Several others joined him. In the background, he saw Arina tied up, and unable to help. When one of the warriors pulled his bow taunt, Dar swirled his staff in readiness and deflected the arrow aiming for Tiara. The arrow hit the warrior in his knee and, as if that had been the signal, the other warriors attacked.
Out of the corner of his eye, Dar saw Tao join the fight and felt a surge of fear swell within him.
Dispatching the remaining warriors with ease, Dar noticed that Tao was in danger and, with a burst of speed, managed to take out the warrior before he could injure Tao. Leaving Tao to be helped by the Eirons, Dar returned to Tiara’s side. Knowing that her time was running out, he watched as she once again saw the sign that she could continue her journey.
"Has she passed the last test?" Tao asked quietly, coming up behind him.
"Yes. She’s done what was needed. Now let's get to the Archway."
Just then, Sharak’s cry tore the silence of the forest and Dar looked up and through his eyes. Seeing a band of warriors, a man seated on a white horse and Caro heading their way, Dar ordered Tao to take the Eiron couple back into the forest while he headed ahead with Tiara. Unsure of the Nord king’s plans, he was unwilling to delay the conclusion of their journey.
Chapter 5: Act 4
~ It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul. ~
For Tao, the day that had dawned so bright and beautiful had quickly become the beginning of a test of his own. He knew, intellectually, that accompanying Dar as he escorted Tiara to the Archway of the Spirits was the right thing to do, but he was still unsure of the safety in being so close to Xinca, especially without a plan. Helpless to stop the feeling that this journey was awakening within him, Tao attempted to distract himself with words, began asking Dar questions about the animals ability to sense death.
"They know it’s their time, don’t they? Why don’t we?" a feeling of despair welled within him as he consciously began speaking of death.
"Maybe we do but we just …chose not to admit it." The hesitation in Dar’s voice almost deterred him from his next question but the conversation was the only thing keeping his thoughts away from Xinca.
"Did you know it was coming for your tribe or for Kyra" hating himself and yet needing to know.
"No. If I had, I would have done something." The old pain in his voice made Tao feel guilty and he tried to find another, less painful, topic of discussion.
"I have a brother." Almost without his planning it the words flowed from his lips.
"Really?! It’s taken you this long to tell me?" the thread of hurt concealed so carefully within the surprise caused Tao to hurry to reassure Dar.
"No. It …never came up." Hoping that Dar would understand his hidden apology.
"What’s his name?" acceptance in his voice and Tao closed his eyes for a moment in thanks.
"Kim." A sideways glance to see the expression on Dar’s face but he only nodded. Bolstered by his friend’s readiness to listen, Tao continued.
"He left Xinca a year before I began my quest. I wish I knew where he was." Try as he would the self-pity crept into his voice and he waited for Dar to call him on it but instead Dar continued asking his own questions.
"Is he a thinker like you?" the curiosity in Dar’s voice caused him to smile. It was nice to see Dar interested in him for a change.
"No. He’s more like you, strong-willed and single-minded. He would have told those Priest’s…." no matter how he tried, his mind kept bringing back that feeling of utter helplessness in the face of Maloc’s hatred. Turning away from Dar, Tao laughed to cover his embarrassment but Dar only tried to help him.
"Tao, whatever happens…" knowing what was to follow, Tao interrupted Dar, "… happens for a reason. I know." Trying to sound as though he believed it.
"Good." Dar’s strong voice helped dispel some of the self-pity he had been indulging in and he managed a small smile. Tiara, who had been quenching her thirst, chose that moment to stand up and walk past them with a low growl. When Dar smiled, Tao knew that she had spoken to him.
"What’d she say?" curiosity, and a small touch of pique at being left out, colored Tao’s voice.
With a low laugh, Dar turned to him.
"She said that humans spend too much time talking and not enough time knowing."
Shock warred with laughter until the laughter won and Tao laughed whole-heartedly for the first time since fleeing Xinca. The joyous smile on Dar’s face made him realize that he had been worrying his friend and he promised himself that he would try not to any longer.
"Let’s go." With that their moment of relaxation was over and the two of them began their journey once more.
Nearing a river, Dar suddenly warned them about the trackers on their tail and Tao panicked. Freezing in indecision, Tao was left behind as Dar and Tiara hurried to the riverbank. Following after them, Tao tripped and fell but managed to regain his footing and reached the riverbank only to find no trace of Dar.
Looking back over his shoulder he could hear the sounds of their pursuers coming up behind him. Before he could jump into the river to swim across to the other side, a hand reached out and clasped his mouth while pulling him into the relative safety of the tall grass surrounding the riverbank. As Arina and the Nord warrior passed by, Tao turned his head to look into the eyes of his rescuer and recognized her.
Once they were safe, Tao turned to her and smiled.
"Once again I owe you my life." Exchanging a kiss in greeting, he smiles again when she turns to him in mock severity.
"Why are you so close to Xinca? Don’t you know how dangerous its become?" the laughter hidden in her voice called forth an answering laugh and he reached for her once more only to be interrupted by Dar.
Looking away from Caro self-consciously, he answered her question, "Danger isn’t high on Dar’s list of concerns right now." He couldn’t quite hide his disgruntlement at Dar’s presence.
"Shh. Come on, stay low. We need to get Tiara out of here before they return." At Dar’s words, Tao remembered why they were traveling so close to Xinca and felt a rush of embarrassment at forgetting Tiara.
Leaving the riverbank and heading for the river that Tiara needed to cross, the three of them bumped into the very people Tao had been hoping to avoid. Watching from the safety of a nearby bush as Dar fought the three Blood Priests, Tao felt once more that ever-present feeling of inadequacy he had begun feeling every since the start of their trip to Xinca.
/Why can’t I defend myself? Dar has had to rescue me so many times this trip… /
That night, camping in the forest, Caro told them about how the Boy King of the Nords had walked into Xinca and taken over without a fight. Catching a glimpse of the concentration on Dar’s face, Tao wasn’t too surprised when he stood up. Even when he announced he was going to check on their safety, Tao knew that he was going to visit Arina.
Not trusting the female warrior he nevertheless stayed by the fire when Dar left and began questioning Caro concerning the origins of the Blood Priests. Shock held him immovable when she told him that the Blood Priests were Eirons. Tao listened quietly as she told him how the once proud race of Eirons had been ensnared by the promise of pleasure and power and changed. Tao was hard pressed to reconcile the image of the peaceful people he had known with the power-hungry Priests he had faced in Xinca. That night, Tao slept fitfully as his mind dredged up the events that had occurred in Xinca.
Bidding Caro farewell the next day, Dar, Tao and Tiara continued their journey towards the Archway of the Spirits. Finding the mountain that Tiara would climb, they began their climb after resting. Everything was going good until Tao slipped and fell off the side of the mountain, ending up hanging on the side of the cliff with Dar, who had fallen with him. After a minute of two when Tao seriously doubted that they would survive, Dar came up with a plan and soon the two were heading for the cliff-edge. Reaching up, Tao was startled and dismayed when another hand reached down to help him up. Seeing the Eiron ring helped him relax and, when they reached the bottom of the mountain, he was introduced to Han and his wife Alau.
That night, camping under the stars, Tao approached Dar with trepidation.
"Will she make it?" eyeing the resting tiger with worry he waited for Dar’s response.
"If she survives through the night." Dar continued to pet Tiara soothingly and finally, as if coming to a resolution, looked up at him. Wondering what Dar could possibly be afraid of asking him, Tao waited patiently.
"You seem more concerned for her than your own family." The question-statement floated in the air between them and, with a mental shrug, Tao answered.
"I’d just like to know that one of them has a future." /Please don’t ask me what I mean, please don’t ask me… / his thoughts were chaotic as he waited for Dar to question his words.
When Dar said nothing but continued to pet Tiara, Tao drew a breath and said what he had come away from the fire to say.
"With all the dangers, you never once wavered in your promise to Ruh. You give them a grace and honor no other human has." /I envy them. /
Squaring his shoulders, Tao looked at the figure of his traveling companion and, dare he say, best friend.
"…I’ve learned a lot this journey." Sincere and heartfelt, Tao spoke the words that had been bottled up for so long. /Please understand me, its not only this journey that I speak of. /
With a last glance towards Dar, Tao turned and walked back to the warm fire where he sat and thought over the last year of his acquaintance with Dar.
The attacking Nord warriors disturbed the peaceful night and, after they had been taken care of, Dar saw a group of Nords coming towards them with Caro. Worry filled his heart and for a moment he considered disregarding Dar’s orders but common sense prevailed, and he escaped into the forest with the Eiron couple. In the forest, a sudden thought caused Tao to stop and Han looked at him worriedly.
"What is it?"
A smile that was pure Tao broke over his face as he answered Han.
"I know how to face their weapons."
"What are you talking about?" the skepticism in Han’s voice only served to fire Tao up.
"Watching Dar fight just now. So simple, you…you take your enemies strengths and you use it against them. That’s our answer too." Beaming with pride, Tao stared at the Eiron couple.
"I don’t understand." Alau’s confusion was palpable and Tao struggled to order his thoughts into a semblance of coherence so that he could explain his idea better.
"We can’t fight the Priests using weapons…we don’t know how but we can infiltrate them, use our knowledge to discover what their strengths are and turn it against them." Hoping that they would understand Tao put every
"That means going back to Xinca." The reluctance in Han’s voice sparked his ire and Tao answered back bitingly, "That means we stop living in fear and we stop being ghosts to one another."
Tao watched silently as what he had said finally penetrated Han’s fear-muddled mind.
"We’ll pass along the word to the others and get word to you." single-minded in his goal, Han headed away from Tao while his wife came up beside him and smiled at him.
"I knew you were our answer." With a farewell kiss, Alau joined her husband leaving Tao alone in the forest. Turning on his heel, Tao left to join Dar on their last leg of the journey.
Arriving at the Archway, Tao found that he was, oddly enough, not surprised to see Ruh waiting for them. Watching Ruh greet his mother, Tao wondered sadly whether he would be able to greet his own mother in a similar manner one day soon. The moment was abruptly disturbed by the loud cry that reverberated in the forest.
"Beastmaster! A word if you please. "
With a start, Tao remembered and turned to Dar.
He watched as Dar’s eyes widened and followed after his friend as they raced to the clearing where Nord warriors surrounded them. Scanning the clearing quickly, Tao focused on the sight of Caro in relief and quietly listened to the words of the Boy King.
"Put down your weapons." The oily voice commanded and Tao watched in disbelief as the warriors lowered their weapons. Casting a quick glance over to Dar, he was relieved to see that the Beastmaster was still holding his weapon at the ready.
"Rest easy, Beastmaster. I mean you no harm."
"Perhaps not today." Dar sounded skeptical and Tao looked at him in surprise.
/I’ve never heard Dar sound so… disbelieving. I wonder why? /
"Perhaps never." The small pause gave Tao the opportunity to look over at Caro. A feeling of relief coursed through him at the sight of her. Uncaring of his inner thoughts, the Boy King continued, " If you were to join me, it might make life easier for us both." The Nord king’s suggestion caused Tao to seriously wonder at the Nord king’s sanity.
With a theatrical gesture, the king motioned for Arina to bring Caro closer.
"You have loyal friends." Gesturing toward the bound woman. "This one did not betray you. Fortunately like you, I have…eyes everywhere."
Tao liked this king less and less and was having a hard time remembering that he wasn’t a warrior. /How dare he talk of Caro as if she was nothing more than a slave…. /
"What do you want?" Dar too was sounding fed up with the king.
"Your friendship…your help. I apologize for out intrusion."
The Nord king gestured again and the warriors surrounding them walked away from them.
Tao stared in disbelief as the warriors left their side. /What is he hoping to accomplish? /
The same thoughts seemed to have been going through Dar’s mind and, though he lowered his staff, he kept it at his side, ready for use.
"I don’t understand. You come here with warriors and then turn away. Why?"
Tao could almost see the king purring in pleasure as he rubbed his hands together.
"Because you have never met anyone like me before. I’m not a mindless brute like King Zad. I leave you with your tiger, your friends," Arina began loosening the ropes binding Caro’s wrists while Tao watched carefully, "your lives. Favors, which should, perhaps, be repaid. Come see me in Xinca."
The last command/request was more than Tao could let slide and he reacted.
"Your priest’s will kill us." Tensing his body he started toward the arrogant king but was stopped by dual voices. The first was Dar, who held him back with an arm across his chest, and quietly told him, "No."
The second was the Boy King.
"The priest’s will harm none of you. You have my word."
Narrowing his eyes at the smugness oozing from the king, Tao wondered, /Does he actually think that we are going to accept his word? He must think that we are fools. /
"Now, I believe you have a tiger waiting." Turning to Caro, the king grabbed her by the shoulder and half-pulled her before sending her towards them. "We’ll talk another time."
Tao held Caro close as he reassured himself that she was safe, unharmed, and alive. Ignoring the presence of the Nords and Dar for the moment, Tao convinced Caro to leave him and return to the safety of the forest. Tao watched as Caro ran into the forest and then his gaze swung around and met the Boy King’s watchful gaze.
Glaring at the king in defiance Tao wondered at the expression in the kings eye’s as he canted his head toward himself.
Carefully keeping an eye on the king, Tao waited for Dar’s move.
"Let’s go." At Dar’s quietly spoken words, Tao reluctantly turned away from the Nords and began heading for the glade where they had left the tigers.
Returning to the clearing where they had left the two tigers, Tao was surprised to see that Tiara was still there and was patiently staring into space.
"What is she doing?"
Tao asked Dar curiously all the while keeping his eyes on Tiara and Ruh.
"She’s asking for passage to the Forest Beyond." Dar’s answer made no sense until, with a ripple, a white tiger appeared out of nowhere.
At the sight of the white tiger, Tao opened his eyes wide with wonder.
"He’s come for her." A statement not a question.
"Yeah." Dar seemed to be as moved as he was and together they watched as Tiara followed her tiger guide and passed through an Archway. As she passed through, it was as though his eyes were opened and Tao stared with awe at the sight of the beautiful forest filled with white tigers.
"She’s home." A reverent whisper passed Tao’s lips causing Dar to turn and look at him incredulously.
"You can see?" The surprise and pleasure in Dar’s voice robbed him of his voice so he just nodded. Staring with wide eyes at the Forest Beyond where Tiara had gone, he basked in the feeling of awe and relief that even the attempt on Dar’s life and the subsequent death of the Nord warrior by Arina could not shake.
* * * * * * *
That night, laying by the fire and listening to the soothing sounds of the forest, Tao remembered a night not so long ago in which he had been unable to sleep because of the pain of losing his home and people. The feeling of lose he had experienced that night was no longer agony and he smiled as he realized what had changed.
/Thanks to Tiara and Dar, I have hope, hope that my people can cease being ghosts of the forest and one day retake what was once ours. /
Intellectually, Tao knew that Xinca would never again be the same city he had grown up in because of the Blood Priest’s atrocities and the Nords arrival but he had found a new path for himself, and his people. Closing his eyes and slipping into a deep and dreamless sleep, Tao’s last thoughts were filled with conviction.
/Whatever may come, Dar will be with me. /