Okay! BeastMaster and all of its characters do not belong to me! I'm just borrowing them to write a story based on the TV series!
The moon, full and glorious, gave off a bright, shining luster, casting a beautiful and warm silvery glow upon the forest. Her light softened the look of the woods, giving the tall, thick oak trees as well as the leaves and brush on the forest floor, an air of enchantment. A nearby stream, shallow and clean, clearly presented the reflection of a starry sky that starry night. It was very beautiful, and throughout history such nights were remembered as quiet and peaceful. But on that night, everything in that forest changed climactically.
For on that night, the Nords came – a powerful and terribly disciplined army of warriors bent on subjugating everyone and everything in their path. Led by the young King Voden, the Nords were feared and despised by all in the Territories. But in this particular region, they were strangers, and unexpected by the peaceful people who lived there. As Voden led his army in an attack against the Leyarn people, he was also leading them in one of the greatest surprise attacks in history. The Leyarn were unprepared, and consequently, they were no match for the Nords.
And as they came to the beautiful, architecturally magnificent Ninika Temple, killing any who dared defy them – including women and children, Voden sat on a white gelding, basking in pleasure. This was what he felt compelled to do. Conquer. Conquer every inch of the world, allowing absolutely no one to stand in his way. The strong conquered or they were conquered. There was no exception, and that was, in Voden's philosophy, the true purpose of any human life.
It was all too easy, really. Voden found that all he needed to do was lead his gelding into the Temple courtyard. Once there, he could claim the Temple as his and add it to his collection. Already Voden's "collection" of conquered regions, fortresses, cities, forests, shires, and other such areas, far outweighed the so-called "collections" of any other conqueror. Even King Zad fell short. Voden already had control of more land than he could hope to rule alone. He was an inch away from ruling the world, with only a very few capable of standing in his path. Taking this forest inhabited by the Leyarn was more of a concentrated exercise than an actual challenge. Easy to conquer. Easy to destroy. Voden enjoyed every moment.
Arina, the beautiful dark haired dark skinned warrior who fought for Voden rode to his side on her brown mare. He could see the look of disturbance in her expression, and chose once again to ignore her obvious lack of enthusiasm.
"Look, Arina," he said instead, nodding towards the inspiring architecture of the Temple whose courtyard they had invaded. The Temple was more of a castle, tall and grand with beautifully designed stained-glass windows – a very rare extravagance in such a rural, primitive region. With vines growing along the surface of the Temple walls, with great arches and gargoyles and balconies, the building could easily have been the inspiration of a great many paintings depicting the palaces and fortresses of many myths and fairy tales. It was the most beautiful building he had ever gazed upon. "My newest castle, and the easiest for me to take. I feel I would rather like it here."
"It would make a suitable palace," Arina managed to agree. She glanced at him, trying to ignore the soldiers streaming around them, subduing the native people of the forest while going about various tasks to ensure their occupation at the Temple. "Are we going to stay here long?"
"Not forever," Voden snapped, though with a surprising gentleness. "Perhaps a few weeks. For rest and perhaps a bit of relaxation. It would do us all some good." Voden certainly needed a bit of that. Despite his continuous success in his campaign to conquer all, he found that there was one who refused to be subjugated. One who Voden had hoped to turn into a beneficial ally, but who now Voden only wanted to be rid of. One who constantly defied him and who, by now, had grown, in Voden's mind, to an annoyance that no longer offered entertainment. Voden resisted the urge to scowl angrily at the thought of the BeastMaster, his greatest opponent. "And then perhaps we can set about crushing the rest of our enemies."
The bitterness in his tone contrasted with his earlier gentleness. Arina continued to study the man she had offered her allegiance to, and not for the first time regretted her position in his army. She knew of whom he spoke. And she did not consider that particular enemy to be her own. In fact, she wished that the enemy of this enemy could be her enemy as well, instead of her king. She sighed.
At that moment, a piercing shriek caught the attention of Voden, Arina, and a dozen of Voden's men. They looked up towards a balcony on the second floor of the Temple in time to see a woman vault over it. Falling gracefully towards the ground, she managed to land squarely on her feet, crouched down near the tiled courtyard floor. She held a knife in each of her hands.
With speed and dangerous grace, she attacked the soldier who was closest to her. She rammed the knife into his stomach, pulled it quickly out, and spun around in time to block the attack of a second soldier. She tossed up her leg and kicked him in his stomach, forcing him away from her. She twirled to fight off the next soldier who threw himself at her.
Arina glanced quickly at Voden in concern, but he shared none of her worries. In fact, he was staring at the woman in sudden glee. Arina wished she knew why. She hated that look on Voden's face.
The woman fought long and hard and with a fierce, savage spirit that contrasted with the obvious pacifism of the other Leyarn. She knew what she was doing, and she put up a greater fight than the rest of her people combined. Arina had the distinct impression that she would die before surrendering herself and the Temple to the Nords. Voden must have gotten the same impression, for he quickly shouted a command ordering them to take the woman alive. And though the woman made it difficult for them, no one, not even the BeastMaster, could stand against Voden's army alone for very long.
Once she was subdued and her weapons confiscated, the three soldiers who held her down forced her onto her knees before Voden and Arina. Without bothering to dismount, the King studied his prisoner from his lofty perch on top of his horse. The woman was young – still just a girl. Nineteen at the oldest. Her skin was pale and her face pretty. Her hair was auburn and flowed to her slight waist. She wore black pants and a blue sleeveless tunic, and a thin brown string rested across her forehead. Her eyes were green and furious, offering Voden no sign of fear. Just resent.
"I recognize your style, Assassin," he told her calmly. "I was sure your tribe had died out by now."
Arina started and stared down at the girl in surprise. She knew very little of the tribe of Assassins, but had heard plenty of tales about them. They were dangerously deadly, and, as Voden had said, supposedly extinct. Looking at the girl, she could see only cold fury that revealed nothing.
"I am no Assassin," the girl spat angrily. "But the people here are peaceful and vulnerable, and you have shamed and dishonored yourself and your army by coming here like this. I would punish you as any Assassin would."
"That would prove difficult, seeing as how you are now my prisoner," Voden told her smoothly. He shook his head in mock disapproval. "What is it with the people of this world? One moment an entire tribe is extinct, and the next, the forest is full of their survivors. For even if you are not an Assassin, I suppose you were taught how to fight like one by somebody. And there would be my Assassin."
"It is unfortunate that he is not here tonight," the girl replied. "He would easily slit your throat."
Voden stared down at the girl and smirked. "He would not." He urged his gelding forward and rode in a circle around his prisoner. He watched her thoughtfully. "The Assassins do not teach their ways to just anyone. You must mean something to him. Myself? I could use the talents of an Assassin. What is your name?"
She glared at him in disgust. "Call me what you like." The insolence in her voice was admirable, Voden thought approvingly.
"You will make a wonderful pet," he promised her. "And wherever the Assassin is, if he cares for you, he will submit to me." Voden glanced at the soldiers restraining her. "Find as much gold as you possibly can and lock her in a room with all of it. Make sure she cannot escape."
The soldiers bowed their heads before dragging the girl towards the Temple entrance. Voden grinned before looking at Arina. She was looking back at him dully, obviously upset over something, though hiding it well. Voden sighed. "Try relaxing, Arina. Once the Assassin agrees to do my bidding, our problems will finally be solved."
Arina glanced at him and forced herself to smile and nod in agreement. Inside, however, she was afraid that the king might for once be right.
The morning air was crisp and cool; a refreshing change to the past summer's heat and humidity. Having awakened early, dew still soaked the ground, and beams of sunlight broke through the tree's leaves and branches like the long golden fingers of some unseen giant. Quiet, calm, with only the sounds and movements natural to the forest, it was promising to be a peaceful and beautiful morning.
Presently, the magnificently graceful form of the greatest of all cats moved through the trees. His coat was softer than silk, and shined with an elegant luster. Bright and orange, with long, black stripes painted down his back and sides, he was a creature to be praised and respected by all. His eyes, piercingly golden, took in the forest around him as he glided towards the wide, clear river. His gaze missed nothing, and nothing escaped his attention. Powerful and undeniably wild, this tiger practically symbolized the untamed might that all great cats possessed.
Turning his head, the large tiger caught sight of his greatest ally and one true friend in the form of a man. Tall, dark, and powerful in his own way, the BeastMaster did not rule the tiger, for no man on this world could rule a creature like him, but stood at his side fighting evil to protect all that is good.
Dar was crouched beside the water, looking over his shoulder at the approaching tiger with a smile. Ruh thought that if tigers could smile as men did, he would return such a simple expression to the friend and protector of the forest. As it were, Ruh settled with a deep but quiet purr as he approached the water for a morning drink.
"Hey Ruh," Dar whispered a greeting to the great cat. "Gotta be quiet, okay? Tao's still asleep." The powerful warrior turned towards the small camp he and Tao had set up the night before. The younger boy was resting peacefully on his side, oblivious to the world around him. And while he slept, Dar found that the kid would not be talking a mile a minute. And that left Dar with a comfortable silence.
He smiled as he watched Tao sleep and shook his head. He glanced back at Ruh in time to see two small ferrets trot over towards the tiger. Kodo and Podo. Ruh only had to raise a paw towards them to convince them to back off. Letting out indignant little chirps, the two turned and made for Tao.
"No, no, no, no!" Dar found himself turning towards them frantically and shaking his head. Neither ferret paid him any attention, and instead, Podo jumped onto Tao's leg while Kodo climbed up Tao's back and onto his side. The boy immediately jerked awake, and Dar sighed, closing his eyes in reluctant acceptance.
"Hey!" Tao let out a startled shout, before brushing the ferrets off his body. "What do you think you're doing? Get off!" Podo and Kodo squealed before racing towards Dar and darting around him as if searching for a place to hide.
"It's your own fault," Dar scolded them fondly. "You should know better by now. Let Tao sleep." They glared up at him unhappily.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Tao asked, frowning at Dar as he rubbed his eyes. "What time is it?"
"Early," Dar told him. "You could sleep for another hour or so without wasting any part of the day."
"That's okay," Tao shrugged. "I'm awake now. I can stay that way." Dar bit his lip and glanced at Ruh. The tiger looked back as if saying, 'yeah, I understand completely'.
"So where are we headed today?" Tao asked, never at a loss for words. He didn't even wait for Dar to respond. "I think we should follow the river a ways north. It looks like the soil near the water has deposits of Leyarn Dust. I hear the Leyarn use it in their Healing. I'm sure there'll be a decent amount farther north, and if I can find enough to study, I might figure out how the Leyarn use their gifts. If I could learn to do half the things they do, I'm sure I'll be the best Healer outside their tribe. Of course it would be easier if I could actually meet a Leyarn, but I doubt any live this far south."
"Actually, we aren't that far from a Leyarn Temple," Dar cut in quickly. Tao looked up in surprise, and Dar nodded. "The Ninika Temple. It's only about a day's walk."
Tao's eyes widened. "That's great! Could we go there? I can only imagine the kind of things they might be willing to share with me!"
Dar smiled and nodded agreeably. "Yes Tao. I don't see why we shouldn't. Now it's your turn to make breakfast, so if you're up, why don't you start with that?" Tao looked like he might object, stopped, and rolled his eyes while letting out a sigh. He nodded and reached for his bag. Dar grinned, trying not to chuckle, and stood up to walk towards his friend. It was definitely shaping up to be a beautiful day.
The Assassin moved through the woods at a hasty, purposeful stride. Nothing could convince him to slow down as he practically flew across the small region. He was on the last kind of mission he had ever thought to be on, and he just wanted to finish it as quickly as he possibly could. And as he went, he thought angrily of what had brought him to this.
He had left the Temple with a young Leyarn to help her collect Leyarn Dust, the powerful mineral that helped the peaceful Healers with their work. They hadn't even been gone a week, but when the Assassin returned, he found the Temple in the hands of the Nords.
Hiding the Leyarn girl in the forest, he had quickly set about to liberating the peaceful people by driving the Nords out of the Temple. The Temple that had accepted him for who he was when the rest of the world feared his kind. The Temple that had given him a home for the last six years. The Temple that was his home.
However, the Assassin had barely made it past the Temple gates when he was confronted with the man who had ordered all of this to occur. Voden. The king of the Nords. And standing behind him, in the arms of two powerfully built and strong men, was Fawn... his wife.
The Assassin had hesitated when he saw her there, and regardless of all his years of training and discipline, he felt fear for the woman he loved. And even more fear when he saw her adorned in golden jewelry like some foreign princess. The anger in her expression was outweighed by the fear in her eyes, and the Assassin knew then that he wouldn't be able to resist whatever the Nord King hoped to attempt with her there. Voden was smiling, believing he had already won. But silently the Assassin swore to make this arrogant boy king pay.
"I have given her a special room suitable for a woman of her grace and beauty," Voden spoke first, smoothly and mockingly. "It's filled floor to ceiling with pretty golden decoration. And, for her safety, I've even given her her own special private guards." His tone then darkened even as his light expression remained cheerful. "If you try anything less of what I command you, she will be killed."
The Assassin then realized that he was to be this man's slave. The thought enraged him, for he had spent much of his life searching for a way to escape that fate. And now, in a single moment, the legacy of his long dead tribe returned to consume him. And there was nothing the Assassin could do, for this foolish king had stolen Fawn and locked her in a room with who knew how much gold – the one metal in the world that Assassins could not go near. He would not be able to help her. Or at least in that moment, he could think of no way to help her. No way but to obey this king he had already grown to despise.
"What do you want?" the Assassin had asked quietly after his wife had been dragged away and was out of sight. All the while, he felt sick and hated himself for surrendering to this man.
"I want you to find the BeastMaster," Voden told him quickly, getting straight to the point. "I want him dead. You will kill him and bring me evidence of his defeat. Only then may you be reunited with the woman."
Holding that thought in his heart was all that truly kept the Assassin on his mission. He had no desire to hunt the BeastMaster, and even less of a desire to kill a man he had no quarrel with. But for his wife, to ensure her safety and to be together with her again, he would commit any crime.
Before leaving the Temple's proximity, the Assassin had gone to the Leyarn girl he had hidden earlier that morning. The girl's name was Kryanah, and the Assassin would not leave her near the Nords where she might be captured like the rest of her people. He led her deep into the forest where she might be safe, explaining to her what had happened. She had been horrified.
"Try not to fear," the Assassin had told her gently. "As soon as I find a way, I will drive the Nords out. But until then, you must hide where they cannot find you or hurt you."
"Please let me come with you," she had begged, with tears in her eyes. "I fear being alone."
"Shh," he tried soothing her. "I will return for you soon. I promise." With only a few more words, the Assassin left her hidden in a small, uninhabited cavern where she would be safe.
Now he made like the wind, using only the instincts of the Assassin as a guide. Such was the way of his kind. They hunted using primeval senses that the rest of mankind had long ago forgotten. Such senses always led them towards their prey, and had never failed the hunters. Those were the senses the Assassin instinctively followed as he made his way towards the BeastMaster as quickly as he could. He would find Voden's enemy and kill him so that he could protect Fawn.
For a single moment, the Assassin felt a wave of dread as he realized what he was about to do. Take another good man's life. He would be the one to end the good and purposeful existence of the BeastMaster, a man who, according to the legends, had done more good for this world than any other in this age. The BeastMaster did not deserve to die, and certainly not by this Assassin, who could not say such complimentary things about his own life.
I cannot hesitate, the Assassin thought to himself. I do this not for myself, but for Fawn. I cannot allow Voden to hurt her. When I find the BeastMaster, I will have to kill him quickly, or risk faltering and thus failing my wife. And she I cannot fail.
It would have to be done in only a few short moments. The Assassin would kill the BeastMaster as soon as he laid eyes on the warrior. And then… he would have to pray to every God in the sky for forgiveness.
Hidden away in a small cavern, a young woman huddled on the floor in tears. She was afraid. She wished Vikoro had not left her there alone… She felt so alone. She trembled as she remembered everything he had told her. Everything about the Nords, her people, her home, Fawn, and King Voden. How could this have happened? When and why? Why would Voden want to destroy such a peaceful people? How could any man feel such lust for destruction? And for what purpose did God or the fates or destiny itself allow her to find herself, if at least just for now, free and safe while her people were prisoners and facing who knew what kind of horror at the hands of Voden?
Kryanah was trying not cry. She would be of no use to anyone hysterical. But then again, hiding away in this cavern, of what use was she, really? She had been spared from capture by the Nords for some strange, unknown reason – the Leyarn were not a people who believed in pure luck or coincidence – and instead of using her freedom for the goodness of her people, she was hiding from it. She was still free because she had a purpose and a duty to her people that she could not ignore. In perhaps a moment of pure rashness, Kryanah decided that she would no longer hide.
"I have to help my people," she told herself, speaking out loud only to strengthen her resolve. "Why else would I still be free?"
She would find a way to help Vikoro. The Assassin had left saying the he would do a favor for Voden in exchange for Fawn's freedom. And then he would find a way to liberate her people. Though Vikoro had not told her what this 'favor' was, she got the impression that he did not like it a bit. He could use her help.
Cautiously making her way out of the cavern that had been her sanctuary, Kryanah carefully looked around. She saw no one and sensed nothing that might put her in danger. Reaching for a small pouch that hung on a string around her waist, she carefully took a small pinch of Leyarn Dust in her fingers. The mineral that seemed magical in many ways was used by the Leyarn to Heal. But the Dust had other qualities aside from healing that only the Leyarn knew of.
Carefully sprinkling the dust onto the ground, Kryanah spoke the words of the Ancient Ninika, a venerated party of pious Leyarn for whom her Temple had been named. They were the ones who had first learned the secrets of the Dust, and those secrets had been past down through the generations for thousands of years. And for the first time in her life, Kryanah found herself using those secrets in order to protect her people. Such a realization seemed unreal, and Kryanah felt like she was in a dream. Or a nightmare. She felt her body trembling.
The words spoken, the Dust on the forest floor, the spell was complete. A golden stream of light shot magically through the woods, to the south. Taking a deep, fearful breath, Kryanah began to follow the trail, knowing that eventually, it would lead her to Vikoro. And together, she was determined, they would drive the Nords out of her land.
It was nearing noon when Arina found herself walking through the large corridors of the Ninika Temple. Voden was somewhere outside with his men, leaving the Temple itself seemingly abandoned. The men, women, and children who usually filled the Temple were being kept prisoners in large makeshift bamboo cages outside – for in such a peaceful temple, there were no prison cells.
Instead, there were just long, wide corridors, large rooms of worship and sanctity, chambers for living, and a kitchen and dining room, the latter of which was large enough to seat half of Voden's army.
The architecture inside the Temple was as beautiful as it had been outside. Thresholds leading from one area of the Temple to the next were made in arches, and the walls were carved with marble angels and other creatures of the forests. The floor was tile, making it rather impossible for anyone to move through the Temple silently unless they were to go barefoot. But perhaps the most beautiful parts of this magnificent building were the windows. Each one had been made of stained glass. When the sun shined through, the walls were decorated with streams of rainbow light. It gave the Temple its magical, mythical feel more than anything else, and Arina truly felt that the Nords did not belong in such a place as this.
Carrying a tray with food on it, she came to a closed door that was being guarded by three of Voden's best soldiers. Two stood on either side of the door, and the third stood with his back to the other wall, facing it. If anyone were to try escaping, they would quickly find themselves surrounded and outnumbered. The men all stood at attention, strong, silent, and fierce, ready for anything. They each held a spear in their left hands, and their right hands rested on the hilts of their sheathed swords.
Arina held up her tray to the man who faced the door. "The girl needs food. King Voden does not want her to starve."
The soldier nodded and moved to the door. After knocking on it three times, he pulled out a set of keys from some hidden pocket and unlocked and opened the door. Inside, two more soldiers stood by the door, which proved to be the only entrance and exit to and from the room. They were keeping a careful eye on the woman they were holding prisoner.
Fawn, Arina had learned, was the wife of Vikoro, the Assassin. She sat on a large bed that looked comfortable enough for any Queen, but the expression on her face was not one to be found on any royal woman experiencing comfort. Voden had ordered her to be decorated in a beautiful satin dress that draped over her body but failed to cover her arms, both of which were adorned in golden bracelets. Barefoot, she also wore golden bands around her ankles, and golden necklaces, and even a small golden circlet resting on her head. The room itself housed more of the precious metal than Arina had ever seen in her life. Large golden vases sat on the floor, and golden goblets and plates were placed upon a table that helped furnish the beautifully decorated room. Arina couldn't even begin to guess where the gold had come from.
The warrior stopped short when she saw all this, unable to hide a look of pure shock that she knew Fawn would clearly see. The soldier who had opened the door quietly closed it for her, leaving her shut in this room with only two soldiers behind her as company.
Fawn, dressed up as a princess and shut in a room suitable for any such princess, looked angry, but also close to despair. Arina could see that she was trying not to cry. The warrior couldn't blame her, and knew she would think no less of this woman were she to do so. For all of Fawn's strength, she was still just a young girl who was being wronged by Voden in so many ways.
Arina took a deep breath and, with guilt building up inside her heart, threatening to spill out, she walked to the table and placed the tray on it. "I thought you might be hungry." She turned almost shyly to face Fawn once more.
"I couldn't eat anything," Fawn told her softly. Arina could see that the fight in this girl was slowly dying out. The fierce and savage warrior that had defended her Temple with such ferocity was now beginning to crumple into a lonely, frightened, and innocent girl. She was beginning to realize that no matter how she fought, she couldn't stand against Voden's will alone. No matter how many times she tore off the gold jewelry forced upon her, her captors just kept forcing each piece back on. It was pointless wasting her energy by fighting them over such a menial matter. But the gold felt like mud to her, making her feel sick and disgusted. It would keep Vikoro away from her, for no Assassin could go near the metal. Fawn was terrified that they would keep her like this, thus preventing her from ever seeing her husband's face again. She trembled at the thought, and grew very close to tears.
"You should try," Arina told her kindly. "Eating will keep you strong. You're a good fighter, and fighters need their strength."
"I need more than strength," Fawn whispered, closing her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, she looked straight at Arina. "Who are you?"
"My name's Arina," the warrior told her gently, offering her a kind smile. "And you're Fawn?"
"Yes, that's my name," the girl nodded softly. She studied Arina for a moment, thoughtful. "You're a warrior too. Maybe you would understand that I can't bear these clothes. I need mine. Please?"
Arina hesitated, longing to aid this girl in whatever way she could, but knowing what she asked would very likely be impossible. "Believe me, I understand. But there is nothing I can do about that."
"Because you serve him," Fawn spat the word out in disgust. "Why would a woman fight for a man who has obviously been poisoned by every devil in the world?"
"Because it's the only choice she has," Arina snapped back quickly, her voice suddenly bitter. Hearing a question she asked herself often enough spoken aloud by another woman hurt Arina, and she was quickly defensive. "Voden is my king as he is your captor."
Fawn stared at Arina as if she could stare right through the warrior. Her anger died even more as her despair built up inside of her. "Then you have my greatest sympathy, Arina."
The sun had almost reached the center of the sky; it was nearing noon. As Dar led Tao north with Kodo and Podo racing around their feet, the BeastMaster guessed that soon might be a good time to take a short break.
"And according to legend," Tao was still talking, having hardly stopped the entire morning. "The Ninika were the ones to establish the Leyarn way as Healers, using Dust to mend wounds and cure sickness. If this Temple we're going to is really the Ninika Temple, we'll be the guests of the greatest Healers possibly in the world." Tao hesitated a moment, thinking, then asked: "Do you think Leyarn Dust can really be used as magic? I mean, how much magic can men truly wield?"
"Men weren't meant to use real magic, Tao," Dar replied easily. "That's just for Sorceresses, Ancients, and other magical creatures. If magic is really part of the Leyarn's Healing, my guess would be the Dust is using the Healers, and not the other way around."
Tao's eyes widened at the thought. "But then the Dust would be some sort of living, thinking creature. And not just the mineral I've always thought of it as."
"Some people believe everything lives," Dar told him. "A tree can't walk or speak, but it is still a living plant." Dar stopped thoughtfully, then shrugged. "But then, it might be possible that the Dust is a living creature. Not one that I've ever heard of, but anything's possible."
"Wow," Tao whistled. "That's really incredible. And the Dust chooses to heal instead of harm. Perhaps they're like good spirits looking to protect humans. And they do that through the Leyarn, because the Leyarn are a peaceful people eager to help others, and that makes them worthy tools for the Dust. Can you imagine it, Dar? The Dust choosing men and women to help them work the magic that heals others? Do you have any idea how honored these people must be?"
"By the way you're talking, incredibly," Dar said lightly. He glanced over his shoulder towards his young companion. "I can easily see you with that honor, Tao."
"Oh yeah right," Tao spat sarcastically. "I can see it now. Dar the great BeastMaster traveling with Tao the great DustMaster. That'll strike fear into the hearts of our enemies."
Dar actually laughed. He stopped and turned to face his best friend. "Come on, Tao. You've done a lot of good with your medicines. I'd bet that if the Leyarn never found their Dust, you'd be a better Healer than all of them."
Tao shrugged. "Maybe. I don't know." The boy kept talking, but Dar no longer heard his words. Something else had caught the BeastMaster's attention. The sound of a string letting loose and sending something dangerous flying through the air.
"Get down!" Dar shouted, grabbing Tao and pushing him to the ground. Both landed on the soft earth and looked up to see an arrow protruding from the trunk of a tree. Had Dar not heard its coming, he would now be dead. Tossing his hair out of his face, Dar looked over his shoulder and immediately saw their attacker.
The man looked to be about Dar's age, maybe a little older. He was tall and broad shouldered, powerfully built. Dressed entirely in black, the man had the fierce look of a dangerous warrior determined to kill. His face was suntanned, his eyes, even from a distance, piercingly blue. His black hair fell to his shoulders and in his powerful hands he held a long bow with an easy grace and obvious proficiency. He was staring at Dar the way all hunters watched their prey.
"Stay down," Dar told Tao quickly. The hunter grabbed another arrow from his quiver and quickly set it in his bow. Dar was on his feet, immediately drawing the hunter's attention away from the younger boy. The hunter fired the arrow at Dar, who expertly caught it and tossed it to the ground before it could do any harm.
That took the hunter by surprise, and for a moment he just stared at Dar with new respect. The BeastMaster took that time to bolt towards his attacker. The man scowled and ducked out of the way of Dar's swift kick. He grabbed a broad sword from its sheath on his belt and swung it towards the unarmed BeastMaster. Dar easily avoided the blow and jumped back towards Tao.
The boy, eager to help in any way, glanced around until he saw Dar's white staff lying on the ground not far from him. He reached out and grabbed it. "Dar!" The BeastMaster spun around and Tao tossed him the staff.
The hunter swung at Dar's exposed back, but once again, the BeastMaster slipped out of his reach. The hunter stumbled, almost coming face to face with Tao. The man looked straight into Tao's eyes, as if reminding himself that the boy was there. Tao tensed, but the man quickly turned back towards Dar, apparently unconcerned with the BeastMaster's friend.
The hunter attacked once again. Dar dodged and swung his staff, easily clubbing the man's back and sending him crashing to the ground. Dar quickly made for the hunter's sword, forcing it away from its owner. Then he began to carefully back away from his unarmed prisoner, hoping that now he could try talking with his attacker. But for the first time in his life, Dar did not do so carefully enough.
Time seemed to move slowly for Tao as he watched the hunter gracefully lunge towards Dar with a very small knife the BeastMaster had failed to observe in his right hand. Before Dar could defend himself, his hunter plunged the blade into the BeastMaster's stomach.
"Dar!" Tao shouted in horror as the hunter released the blade and slowly moved away from his victim. Dar was looking down at the knife in his stomach in surprise. Finding it increasingly difficult to breathe, he landed on his knees, trying to fight the burning pain of steel mixing with his blood. He looked up at the darkly dressed hunter that now towered over him. As both men gazed into the eyes of the other, their expressions were almost identical. Hurt and sad. They were both in equal pain. But where the hunter also looked full of self-loathing, Dar just looked forgiving. That was what hurt Vikoro the most.
"Dar!" Tao raced towards the BeastMaster as Dar pulled the knife out of his body. Swinging his bag off of his back, Tao kneeled beside his best friend and grabbed the first piece of cloth that came to his hand. He pressed it against Dar's wound in a desperate attempt to stop the bleeding. But even as he did so, a foul smell caught his attention. It was not the smell of blood, but of something else. Tao turned to look at the bloody knife resting on the ground next to him and Dar. The smell came from its blade. The smell of a nameless poison lethal to the human body.
Tao choked on his own breath. Not only had Dar been stabbed, but he'd been stabbed by a poisoned blade! He glanced up at Vikoro in horror.
There was a loud and angry roar from behind them. Tao and Dar both looked over their shoulders in time to see Ruh angrily charging towards Vikoro. The hunter's expression did not change as he jumped away from the furious tiger. He retreated into the woods a bit, and Ruh followed.
"Ruh, don't," Dar's voice was weak and shook. Tao sat beside him and could still barely hear his words. He doubted very much that the tiger could hear them at all.
"It'll be okay, Dar," Tao tried assuring him, but couldn't even reassure himself. He reached inside his bag and grabbed a handful of pouches. They all had herbs and medicines that might or might not help Dar, but in his panic, Tao was struggling to remember where everything was. He looked up to see Ruh running towards Vikoro. Somewhere, the hunter had managed to get his hands on a spear. He had probably strategically placed it somewhere in the woods before attacking Dar. Now, as Ruh approached, Vikoro slipped out of the tiger's path and forced the bladed staff into the creature's side.
"Ruh!" Tao shrieked as the tiger cried out in pain. Ruh landed on his side, and though he tried to, he was unable to get back onto his feet. Dar always said that animals were not meant to be warriors. Maybe that was so, but as Tao stared at the fallen beast, suddenly stained in his own blood by a large spear that pierced his beautiful flank, the boy realized that no animal was meant to fight because no animal deserved to die like this.
Tao was having as much difficulty breathing as Dar was having. The tiger moaned but did not rise. Vikoro let out a disgusted breath before turning back towards Dar and Tao.
Dar weakly turned his head towards Kodo and Podo, using his gift to speak with them, telling them to leave. They retreated a short distance, then turned to watch without intervening. But neither ferret would abandon him any more than that, despite Dar's wish for them to do so.
Tao finally chose a pouch and pulled the cloth away from Dar's wound long enough to pour the contents onto it. As quickly as could, he placed the cloth back against Dar's stomach. He didn't know if the herbs would do anything for the BeastMaster, for he did not recognize the poison on the blade, but if anything, Tao knew the medicine would numb some of the pain and help the open wound.
"Tao, go," Dar tried pushing the boy away from him, but the warrior was already weaker than ever before, and Tao refused to move.
"You've been poisoned, Dar," Tao told him quickly, trying to keep fear and panic out of his voice. "I don't know how to treat this…"
Tao's attention was entirely on the wound, but Dar was staring at the approaching hunter in concern. He had seen what had happened to Ruh, and knew he wouldn't be able to bear it if anything happened to Tao as well. "Tao, get out of here now!"
"I'm not going to leave you!" the boy was close to shouting. He looked back at his belongings helplessly. "There has to be something here…" Looking up, he saw the hunter standing a few feet away, watching with a cold intensity. Tao was trembling. "Stay away!"
The man shook his head. "Voden will recognize you." He strode towards Tao and Dar purposefully.
"Voden?" Dar spoke the name in confusion. But that was instantly pushed aside as Vikoro reached for Tao. The boy struggled, trying to push the hunter away, but Vikoro was bigger and stronger than Tao and easily pulled the kid away from Dar. And the BeastMaster found himself too weak to jump to his best friend's aid. Instead, Dar found himself begging: "Please don't take him to Voden!"
There was something in Dar's desperate voice that caused Vikoro to hesitate and glance down at the BeastMaster. He could clearly see the fear in Dar's eyes. The fear was not of death, but of the thought of Tao being marched off towards the Nord King. Voden had wanted Dar dead. It made Vikoro wonder what might happen to Tao were the King to take him prisoner.
Vikoro glanced down at Tao, who he held firmly in his powerful hands. The boy was still staring at Dar's wound, at the blood already seeping through the cloth Dar held against his stomach. And Vikoro felt once again a wave of self-loathing and disgust at what he had done.
He glanced once again at Dar. "I can either take the boy or I can take your head. It is better this way."
"No," Dar shook his head weakly, too concerned about Tao to care about his own life. "Voden would… keep him away from Voden!" As Vikoro hesitated, considering this, his grip on Tao lessened.
"Dar!" the boy managed to break away, but instead of fleeing, he made towards his injured friend. Before he could reach the BeastMaster, however, Vikoro grabbed his waist and pulled him back. Tao struggled angrily, but to no avail. Images of leaving this boy with the headless body of his best friend sickened Vikoro immensely, and he quickly turned away from that idea.
"I'm sorry," Vikoro told Dar before turning and dragging Tao away with him, leaving the BeastMaster alone to die.
"Tao!" Dar forced himself off the ground and struggled to follow Vikoro. He did not make it two feet before he collapsed back onto the ground. In a last desperate attempt to protect his best friend, Dar turned his head towards the sky and used his gift to contact Sharak, the eagle who saw so much. As Sharak agreed to watch Tao and look for a way to protect the boy, exhaustion got the most of Dar, and he slipped away into unconsciousness.
Vikoro quickly grew tired of fighting with the struggling boy. By the time the Assassin reached the small clearing where he had left the few belongings he had brought with him before attacking the BeastMaster, Vikoro was ready for a break. He forced Tao onto the ground and reached for one of his bags. Inside was a large bundle of rope. Vikoro wasted no time in first binding Tao's wrists together and then in wrapping a rope around his upper body, pinning the boy's arms to his sides.
But even now that he could not use his arms, Tao continued to resist. Frustrated, Vikoro grabbed more rope and tied on end around Tao's neck. He tied the other end to a low tree branch to keep Tao from running off while they at least attempted to rest. "Just try to calm down."
Tao stared at him, close to hysteria. Vikoro had seen that expression before, and felt another pang of guilt in his heart. For all he knew, Tao could have been the BeastMaster's brother. And Vikoro had killed Dar before the boy's very eyes. And then he had killed the tiger, too. And now, he was dragging this innocent boy off towards Voden, the man who had ordered all of this in the first place. Tao was close to tears, and all that kept him from shedding those tears was his growing panic and despair. Vikoro felt sick. "I'm not going to hurt you."
Tao was trembling as he looked back at the rope that bound him to the tree branch like a leash. With his arms firmly tied to his sides, he was unable to remove such an effective leash and felt increasingly helpless. He looked back at Vikoro. "Why are you doing this?"
"Believe me, it's not what I want," Vikoro spoke in a gentle, soothing voice, trying to calm the boy as much as possible. "My name is Vikoro. A few nights ago my home was taken over by Voden. He took my wife. This is…" Vikoro glanced at the ground, feeling greatly ashamed. "The only way I can protect her."
"No," Tao shook his head, not accepting that. He didn't want to accept Dar's death to be because of a problem that he had not been given a chance to solve himself. "Dar could have helped you! He could have protected her for you!" Tao looked back in the direction they had come from, refusing to believe that Dar was dead. "He's strong. Maybe the poison won't kill him?"
"No," it was Vikoro's turn to shake his head, though he did so gently. "My knife did not pierce any of his vital organs, but the poison itself will kill him in a few hours, if the blood loss doesn't kill him first. If there was any chance for him to survive, I would have slit his throat."
Tao looked at Vikoro in cold despair. "And now you take me to Voden so that he can slit mine."
Vikoro gazed at his prisoner sadly. "Voden demanded I bring him proof of the BeastMaster's death. You can offer him that."
"I would really rather not," Tao told him angrily. He began pacing frantically like a tied up animal. As Vikoro watched him, he swore he would do whatever it took to protect the boy from Voden. He simply wouldn't be able to live with himself after any of this if he allowed the Nord to hurt Tao. Not after he had already inflicted so much pain upon the kid's heart.
Vikoro reached for his water skin and carefully approached the frightened boy. As he held it up for Tao to drink, the boy stared at him once again with more agony in his face than any boy his age should ever feel. "Dar could have saved your wife and your people if you had not killed him."
"If that were so," Vikoro told him softly and miserably. "Than I have committed a crime from which I will never be able to repent. And I don't know how to apologize enough to you."
Kryanah followed the golden trail until she came upon a wide river. As she followed the river south for a few more minutes, she came to a small break in the forest. The smell of death stank strongly here, and Kryanah almost choked on it. Tears stung in her eyes as she sensed the presence of pain and blood and violence.
Looking around, she caught sight of a large and magnificent creature lying on its side with a spear piercing its flank. Kryanah immediately recognized it to be the spear of an Assassin. Vikoro had done this!
Struggling to breathe, the young Leyarn raced towards the slain creature. She found that his eyes were open, and as he looked up at her weakly, his mouth opened partially. No sound came out of the dying creature, but Kryanah could feel his pain as if it were her own. The Leyarn were Healers. They never turned away from a suffering creature because Healing was a part of who they were.
Kryanah did not understand why Vikoro had done this. Perhaps it was the "favor" he had told her about. The "favor" that would protect Fawn. Kryanah shuddered before her gaze fell upon the form of a man, lying on the forest floor. He too had been injured by Vikoro, though Kryanah could see even from a distance the painful rise and fall of his chest. He was still alive. Close to death, but still alive.
Kryanah made her way past the creature and towards the man. Kneeling on the earth beside him, she saw the piece of cloth that he held to the wound even while unconscious. Kryanah touched his arm gently and forced herself to calm down. Healers could not use their gifts when frantic.
"I'm sorry, Vikoro," she whispered, only to take comfort in the sound of her voice. She absolutely hated it when she was left alone. "I cannot pass by two dying creatures for any reason at all. They must be healed." She reached for her pouch and pulled out some more Leyarn Dust, and slowly she initiated the process of the Healing.
The sun had set and the forest was slowly growing dark. Vikoro led his bound and blindfolded prisoner through the forest and towards the Temple. Tao's arms were still pinned to his sides, and he was being led by the same leash that had tied him to the tree. Tao himself had never used a leash on any animal, and knew he never would in the future, either. Being forced around by one was humiliating and degrading. It didn't help that he couldn't see a thing. Vikoro had blindfolded him believing that if Tao couldn't see, he would focus more on remaining on his two feet than on trying to escape. It was working, and Tao hated every minute of it.
Vikoro held the end of the leash in one hand and kept his other firmly placed on Tao's shoulder, carefully guiding him through the woods. "We're almost to the Temple." Tao did not reply. For the first time, he did not feel like talking.
But after a few more minutes of silence, Tao asked: "Could you take off the blindfold?"
"When you can see, you keep trying to escape," Vikoro reminded him, not without kindness.
"Wouldn't you?" Tao asked, knowing full well what the answer would be. Of course he would. Anyone would try to escape an encounter with King Voden. You'd have to be mad not to. But even still, Vikoro did not remove the blindfold.
A few minutes later, Tao could both hear and sense the presence of guards or sentries. One called out to another and Vikoro stopped walking, forcing Tao to halt as well.
"I'm here to speak with Voden!" Vikoro called out to the guards. "I've brought proof of the BeastMaster's death!"
Hearing it said like that out loud felt to Tao like being slammed onto the ground. He felt his body shake as once again realization of the death of his best friend struck his heart. Someone was walking towards them. Tao wished terribly that he could see. Being blind was about the last handicap he wanted in this particular situation.
"Bring him," a deep and rather heavy voice commanded. "And follow me." As Vikoro once again urged Tao forward, he felt a dreadful sense of helplessness. The time for escape had past. Dar could not come to get him out of this one. And as more and more men joined the group, eager to hear the news of the BeastMaster's death, Tao knew it would be impossible to escape, and he dreaded what lay ahead. He didn't want to imagine what Voden would do with him, now that, with Dar dead, he wasn't worth keeping as a hostage. And as much as Toa wanted to tear off his blindfold, he took some comfort in knowing that he wouldn't have to see Voden's expression when he realized who his newest prisoner was.
Vikoro also watched the growing crowd, apprehensively. Each man looked greatly pleased to hear of Dar's death. Vikoro suddenly decided he had been wrong to bring Tao here. If these men hated the BeastMaster so much, they would not feel any love at all for the BeastMaster's best friend. Vikoro was getting the impression that Tao may be in more danger than even Fawn was among these people. He should have let the boy stay with his dying friend.
The group reached the courtyard in time to see King Voden stride away from the Temple entrance while leading at least a dozen warriors, including the woman, Arina, towards the newcomers. Arina's gaze immediately landed on Tao, though at that moment, Voden's attention was entirely on Vikoro.
"My dear Assassin," Voden held his arms out in greeting, and Vikoro felt Tao tense and grow deathly still. "You have returned much sooner than I had expected. Tell me, the BeastMaster is dead?"
Tao felt sick and his stomach was both empty and heavy at the same time. Vikoro glared angrily at the Nord.
"I killed him myself," the Assassin assured the king. "Here's your proof." Vikoro forced himself to push Tao forward, all the while trying to ignore the sinking feeling in his heart. "I want my wife back."
Voden didn't hear the last part as his gaze landed on Tao. He had never seen the boy like this before. Tied up and blindfolded, helpless and without hope of the BeastMaster coming to rescue him. Wrapped up and presented to him like a long awaited prize. Voden couldn't help but smile, and suddenly, and with great excitement and anticipation, he found himself thinking up various ways he could play with his new, favorite, toy.
Tao shivered very slightly, hoping all the while that no one noticed. Blindfolded and at the center of everyone's attention, especially Voden's, he had never felt more exposed or more helpless. And never this alone. That was what was beginning to hurt the most. The loneliness. His best friend was dead.
Voden approached Tao at a leisurely pace. As Vikoro watched, his gaze flickered over to Arina. Her shoulders were drooped and she was the first person in Voden's army who actually looked upset. But before Vikoro could contemplate this, his gaze was drawn back to Voden and Tao.
Voden was staring at Tao with a cruel expression of sick sadistic pleasure. He slowly reached his hand up to touch the boy's face, as if to confirm Tao's presence and tangibility. Tao recoiled immediately as if the contact hurt, and he stumbled backwards with a slight whimper. Voden seemed to find it difficult not to laugh right out loud in triumphant mirth, while Vikoro was finding it extremely difficult not to jump to Tao's defense and slit the Nord King's throat.
Voden looked directly at the Assassin. "This is the evidence you bring? Am I to assume that you did not align yourself at the BeastMaster's side? And that this is not some sort of diversion to get your precious wife out of harm's way before the BeastMaster comes charging in to save the day?"
"What?" Vikoro glared at Voden, uncomprehending. "The BeastMaster is dead!" His voice was solid, steady, and cold.
"How am I to believe that?" Voden demanded, though not yet angrily. "If you want to see your wife, you will bring me his head!" Voden glanced back at Tao and forcibly removed the blindfold. Tao grimaced and shrank back even as his vision returned to him. Listening to Voden's voice had been bad enough, but now that Tao actually saw him, his fear elevated once again. The Nord King looked much more dangerous and much crueler when Tao couldn't expect Dar to show up at any moment to remind the King of his place. The sadistic gleam in the man's eyes, as well as the anticipation, frightened the young prisoner.
"The BeastMaster," Vikoro spoke slowly, trying to remain disciplined, "would not have allowed his friend to be brought here while he still lived. He is dead."
"Is he, Tao?" Voden asked, continuing to watch the boy. Tao grimaced and looked away from the Nord King, refusing to answer. He wasn't ready to say it himself. He wasn't sure if he'd ever be ready to say it. Dar was dead? He didn't want to believe it. Voden was smiling. "Tell me how he died."
"Leave him alone," Vikoro said roughly. "I did what you asked me to do. Now please let me see my wife."
"Not tonight," Voden told him slowly. He turned to face the Assassin. "Not ever if you do not bring me the head of the BeastMaster. I will not say it again."
"Fine!" Vikoro spat and reached for Tao. "But I'm taking him with me." Vikoro pulled Tao towards him and the boy did not resist. He would go with anyone to escape Voden.
"Wait, wait!" Voden calmly held up a single finger. He crossed his arms and stared at Vikoro and Tao thoughtfully. He shook his head. "No. The boy will remain here."
"What for?" Vikoro demanded angrily. His grip on Tao's arm tightened protectively. "The only reason I brought him here was to be the proof you asked for. If you find this evidence unsatisfactory, then I will remove him from your sight and bring you more suitable proof."
"I think you misunderstood me, Assassin," Voden cut in. "Having Tao here as my guest does not prove that the BeastMaster is dead. But he still makes a nice gift that I intend to keep."
Vikoro tensed at the tone in Voden's voice. He then remembered that afternoon, and the pleading, frightened look in Dar's eyes when Vikoro mention Voden's name. He should have listened to the BeastMaster. He should not have brought Tao to this King who would consider the boy to be his own personal prize. "Don't you have enough 'gifts' already?"
"Perhaps, but that is not the point," Voden shot back smoothly. "The point is that Tao is much more valuable to me than every Leyarn in this Temple put together. And you just led him in here on a leash. He might have made a good bargaining chip for you, Assassin. You missed out on your chance and I do not intend to do the same. Now leave and bring me the head of the BeastMaster. It shouldn't take you that long if he really is already dead."
"You're crazy if you think I'm just going to leave him here," Vikoro glared hatefully at the Nord King. "You're right, I did walk him in here and that makes me responsible for him. I'm not going to let you hurt him."
"I would never dream of that," Voden assured him, growing impatient. "But if you do not give him up this very instant, then I will order your wife dead here and now."
Vikoro opened his mouth to respond, but nothing came out. He felt that if his body were to grow any more tense, it might crack in half. Angry and frustrated, desperate to protect Fawn, Vikoro realized there was nothing he could do for Tao. He glanced down at the boy, who was looking back up at him pleadingly. Vikoro couldn't do this! Not if he remained gentle-hearted in any case. Assassins were not meant to be gentle-hearted in the first place.
"I'm sorry," Vikoro told him, it seemed, for the hundredth time. Tao couldn't think of anything to say. All he could think of was how he would give anything to be with Dar again. Until now, he hadn't quite yet realized how much his journeys with the BeastMaster had grown to be a part of him. And in a single moment, in a stupid, absurdly improbable second, everything had changed. It was beginning to feel like a dream – a nightmare. Tao still felt in shock. He couldn't think of how to respond to any of this. He just wanted things to go back.
Vikoro pushed Tao towards Voden. The Nord King easily caught the boy with a smile. After handing him to another nearby soldier, Voden turned back to Vikoro. "Now go and do not return without the head of the BeastMaster."
Vikoro glared angrily at Voden, glanced unhappily at Tao, then turned and made his way back towards the forest and towards Dar's by now lifeless body. Once the Assassin had disappeared into the darkness of the woods, Voden turned towards Tao with a cruel smile.
"When he returns with the BeastMaster's head," the Nord King told the young prisoner. "I will see you personally set it onto a pike for display." Tao cringed at the brutal promise and looked away. Voden let out a cold, dark laugh and turned to the guard holding the boy. "Lock him up."
The guard nodded and dragged Tao across the courtyard. On the other side, Tao was horrified to see dozens of large bamboo cages imprisoning countless men, women, and even children who could only be the Leyarn. They stared through the bars at Tao fearfully and sympathetically. They didn't know who he was, and they had no way of knowing what had happened to him, but he was still a prisoner, and that made him one of them. Tao felt cold and lifeless as the ropes were cut away from his body. Even after his arms were free and the leash removed, he was too exhausted to fight.
He was brought over to an empty bamboo cage that wasn't even a fourth of the size of the others. The cage had four walls, a ceiling, and a floor. They would be able to move the cage with a prisoner still inside. Tao felt sick as the guard opened the cage and forced him inside. Though Tao had much more room than he had first expected, he still couldn't stand up. As his hand delicately touched the bamboo that trapped him inside, Tao felt very much like a caged animal. And one with no possible way to escape.
"You've been poisoned, Dar. I don't know how to treat this."
"Tao, get out of here now!"
"I'm not going to leave you!"
"There has to be something here…"
"Voden will recognize you."
"Please don't take him to Voden!"
"It is better this way."
"Keep… Keep him away from Voden!"
"It is better this way…"
"Voden will recognize you…"
"Tao!" Dar jerked awake, only to feel his body lose control and fall. Water streamed onto his face as he submerged entirely into the river. Water poured into his mouth and Dar struggled with all of his might to regain control of his body. Forcing himself around, he splashed to the surface, spat the water out and gasped for air. "Tao!" He looked around wildly and panicked.
"It's okay!" A gentle voice caught Dar's attention and he spun around to see a young woman standing to her waist in water. She was wearing a white dress that did not cover her shoulders, and her black hair flowed down to the surface of the water. Her face was pretty and her eyes a deep green. She was smiling slightly and held a hand out to Dar. He frowned, staring at it thoughtfully, quickly regaining his composure. The woman's eyes sparkled encouragingly. "It's all right. I am a friend."
"What happened?" Dar asked, looking past the girl and noticing Ruh lying on the ground, his face regally turned to watch the scene in the water. He did not appear to be in any way hurt. In fact, Dar himself felt strong and healthy. Hadn't he been poisoned? Hadn't he died? As he regained a square footing, he realized that it was dark out, and that night had fallen long ago. By now, Tao could be anywhere.
"I found you and your friend both gravely wounded, and I was compelled to help you," the girl explained. "My name is Kryanah. I am Leyarn. A Healer."
"You saved our lives," Dar looked at her, somewhat surprised by his own luck. By all rights, both he and the tiger should be dead. "I am in your debt."
The woman closed her mouth and inclined her head. When she looked back up, she gestured to the water. "Forgive me for how you awoke. The water is a strong part of the Healing."
"That's okay," Dar assured her. He offered her a quick smile before moving past her and out of the water. She turned to watch curiously as he hastened to collect his few belongings.
"You shouldn't be moving," she told him. "The Healing has saved your life, but both and your friend are still very weak."
"I have many friends," Dar replied quickly. "And one is in great danger." He thought of Tao, being taken by the hunter to King Voden. If the Nord king believed that Dar was dead, the BeastMaster could not even begin imagining what the king would do with his best friend. If anything happened to Tao, Dar knew he would wish he really had died. "Tao…" he spoke the name under his breath.
"You will be no good to anyone unless you rest and regain your strength," Kryanah told him severely. "I am a Healer. I know such things. You should listen to me."
"I'd love to, but I have to find Tao," Dar told her as he reached for his staff. Not far away, Dar caught sight of the knife that had poisoned him. It still lay on the ground, stained in his own blood. Dar shuddered and reached for it. He moved back towards the water until he caught sight of a large rock. With as much strength as he could muster, Dar plowed the knife onto the stone, effectively snapping the blade from the handle. The knife would never be used again.
Dar jumped to his feet as Kryanah waded back onto dry land. He glanced quickly at Ruh, and the tiger immediately rose, ready to follow the BeastMaster to wherever Dar chose to go. Then Dar looked around for Kodo and Podo, but neither of the ferrets were anywhere to be seen. Kryanah walked up to the broken knife and carefully picked the pieces up in her hands, staring at them bitterly.
"I know the man who owns this knife," she told them softly. Dar spun around in surprise, caught completely off guard.
"The man who owns that knife tried to kill me," the BeastMaster told her. She nodded sadly.
"Yes, but he is not your enemy," she looked up at him desperately. He frowned staring at her in confusion as she walked up to him, looking almost afraid. "He only did what he did because the Nords are holding his wife prisoner. He only did what he thought he had to."
"That I can understand," Dar assured her, feeling more urgency as each moment past. "But he took my friend. Do you have any idea what Voden will do to him?"
"No," Kryanah shook her head, frightened and concerned. Dar nodded, knowingly.
"The thing is," he said after a short moment. "Neither do I." She looked down at the ground as Dar turned away. "If you're out here alone, you can come with me until we find someplace safe."
Kryanah looked up hopefully. "You won't leave me alone?" Dar frowned and looked over his shoulder at her.
"Of course not," he assured her. "If the Nords are in this forest, then it's dangerous for a woman to be alone."
Kryanah let out a deep breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, and she gazed at him gratefully. The thought of this man leaving her alone as Vikoro had done had frightened her. Now that he was allowing her to remain in his company, she wouldn't be alone and she would feel much safer. She smiled and nodded eagerly as another thought came to mind. "If Vikoro is truly taking your friend to King Voden, than I can take you to them."
Dar turned once again to stare at her in amazement. "You know where they are?" Kryanah nodded.
"My home is the Ninika Temple," she explained softly. "The Nords overran it a few days ago. I am positive that is where your friend will be." She smiled, slowly coming to realize that she had been right all along. She had been kept free from the Nords for a purpose, and that purpose was to help this strange man. And she would help him in whatever way she could.
Dar smiled. "My name is Dar. I am called the BeastMaster, and I would be forever grateful if you help me find my friend."
"The BeastMaster?" Kryanah stared at Dar in shock. Of course she had heard the legends. She simply could not believe that she was speaking to him right now, face to face. "My people need your help."
Dar nodded. "Then let us help each other."
The piercing cry of an eagle woke Tao later that night. The moon was round and already high up in the starry sky. Looking up at its brilliance, Tao found the moon difficult to admire from behind the bamboo bars of his small cage. He shivered slightly from the cold. That morning seemed like an eternity ago. That morning when he had been awoken by two mischievous ferrets crawling around his body. That morning when the chill had been refreshing after a hot summer. But now the cold was freezing, and Tao could see his breath when he breathed.
The boy started and glanced to his left in alarm. That alarm melted when he made out the slight but powerful form of the warrior Arina. He took a deep, calming breath, somewhat relieved. He admitted to himself that after everything that had happened, it was good to see a somewhat friendly face.
Arina knelt by the small cage and looked in with an expression of great sympathy. "Are you okay?"
"Honestly, I'm very cold," he told her, rubbing his arms close to his chest. He looked at her with lifeless eyes, which brought her a deep pain she never thought she would have felt for him.
"I'll see if I can find you a blanket," she promised him softly. She hesitated a moment, but quickly found her desperation to know was just too strong. "Tao, is Dar really dead?"
His expression darkened and he looked away from her. "I saw… the Assassin stabbed him with a poisoned blade. I didn't know what to use… I didn't know what the antidote was. He pierced Ruh with a spear and… he didn't get up. And then… he forced me here… before I could do anything for Dar. He said the poison would spread through Dar's body and kill him if the blood loss didn't first."
"Oh my god," Arina shook her head, fighting off the formation of tears in her eyes. She looked away from Tao, despairing the thought of a world in which the BeastMaster no longer protected the forests. Dar had been one of the few constants in her life over the last year. She couldn't imagine that this was it. That he was gone now, never to speak with her again. "I am so sorry."
"It happened so fast. One moment we were both talking and laughing, and the next… Too fast. It's so hard to believe. This is all… it's like a dream. Please, Arina," he looked back at her, daring to feel hope with her here. "Help me escape." Arina glanced at him sharply, her eyes wide and her face somewhat paler. Tao's hope turned into desperation. "Please. Just get me outside and I can go the rest of the way. I have so many friends, Arina, that I can hide from Voden for as long as I need to."
"Tao," her voice was colder, and she shook her head slightly, looking afraid. "You're asking me to betray Voden."
"What is he going to do to me if I don't get out of here?" Tao asked anxiously. "Dar can't… I…" Tao looked down, obviously in great pain. "Ever since I met Dar, I've never been alone like I am now. I still find it hard to believe. It just happened so quickly. And I can't fight Voden without him." Tao looked back up at her. "I am asking you to help me."
Arina stared down at Tao, torn. She had admired the BeastMaster greatly, and had respected him more than any other man. If she helped Tao, it would be her way to thank the BeastMaster, and it would allow her to come to terms with Dar's death and accept it without feeling guilt and shame for the rest of her life. But if she were found out… she didn't want to think of what Voden would do to her.
"Some things are worth the risk," Tao told her, as if he could read right into her mind. "Dar is dead. Are you going to go on serving Voden forever?"
Arina did not respond immediately, but instead rose and backed away from Tao's cage. "I will do only what I am capable of." She turned away.
"Arina," Tao called after her softly. The other prisoners stirred at the sound of his voice, and turned to stare, but none of Voden's guards seemed to have heard Tao's call. Arina stood still to listen, but did not turn around. Tao looked after her sadly. "Maybe I'm just being selfish. You need to do what's right for you. Just remember that darkness only needs good people to ignore what is wrong in the world for evil to truly succeed."
Arina sighed and closed her eyes. Tao was right. Everyone who knew the boy knew just how smart he was. But Arina could do nothing at that moment. She could only protect him as best as she could, though that would more than likely not be enough to protect him at all. Hating herself, she walked away from the prisoners, and did not look back.
Though the night was at its peak, hardly anyone at the Temple slept. Fires burned in the distance outside the Temple grounds, and torches burnt along the outer Temple walls. Voden was walking through the courtyard, which was streaming with his men going about their various activities, with Arina at his side. He did not seem even remotely tired as he spoke with the female warrior.
"And what exactly were you doing, Arina?" he asked in that calm voice of his that offered false generosity. He glanced at her, feeling somewhat amused. "Talking with him?" He shook his head in mock disapproval, making Arina wish she could roll her eyes at him and get away with it.
"He says that Dar is dead," Arina reminded the king. "Dar was his best friend. Almost his brother. And now he's our prisoner, he's shut in a small cage, and he's freezing cold." She stopped, and Voden impatiently stopped to turn and face her. His arms were crossed and he shrugged, unconcerned.
"So," Arina stared at him painfully. Even after all this time, his heartlessness sometimes surprised her still. "He's going to get sick. Is that what you want?"
"We have plenty of Leyarn as our prisoners, Arina," he reminded her carelessly. "They are Healers. It is not my intention to allow Tao to die. I am reluctant to believe that the BeastMaster died so easily, and if he does show up, I will need Tao alive to manage him."
Arina fought to keep from sighing, but found herself shifting her weight uncomfortably. "If no one can spare a single blanket, will you not allow me to give him mine?"
"Why?" Voden asked in a childish whine. "The BeastMaster has humiliated me time and time again. Why should I care about the comfort of his little friend?"
"Why do you care about his friend at all?" Arina demanded. She caught her tongue when his expression darkened, and continued on more carefully. "I mean no disrespect. But I spoke with Tao and I saw his face. Whether or not the BeastMaster is alive, Tao believes he is dead. And he would know better than anyone. What further use can he possibly be to you?"
"I assume that when you ask that, you hope that I will just decide to be merciful on the boy and let him walk away free," Voden guessed, watching Arina carefully. "But when he has no further use to me, I would sooner have him executed for constantly standing beside the BeastMaster in my path." Arina flinched and Voden nodded knowingly. "If you care about this prisoner in any way, Arina, than you had better hope that he has some use to me, and you had better not ask that question ever again."
Arina nodded and looked at the ground. "Forgive my insolence." Voden recognized the insolence in her tone even as she asked him to forgive her. However, he nodded, letting it slip for now.
"Come!" he said, rather cheerfully. "Let's go see about this prisoner." Arina hesitated, staring after him stunned while he turned, gesturing to small group of guards and started off towards the cages with those guards behind him. When she was able to walk again, she hurried after the Nords.
"What?" She caught up with the king, who did not slow his pace and hardly acknowledged her. "Why?"
"If the BeastMaster is still alive, then he might show up at any moment," he explained coolly. "I won't believe he is dead until I see the Assassin return with his head, and while there is even the slightest chance that Dar will come to rescue his friend, I intend to have as much fun with the boy as I can before it happens." Voden finally turned his head and looked her up and down, somewhat distastefully. "Why don't you go see to the Assassin's lovely wife and make sure she's comfortable?"
Arina stopped and watched as he kept walking towards the cages. His Nord followers past by her as well without even acknowledging her. She sighed, feeling increasingly downhearted. "If you say so, King Voden."
Tao could hear them approaching. He could hear the rough and cruel, joking voices as well as the laughter of Nord soldiers. He could hear the falling footsteps of the approaching men. The other prisoners, most of who were huddled on the ground, looked up in fear, having heard the same sounds as well. Tao, who had his arms wrapped around his legs and his head resting on his knees, glanced up and quickly caught of Voden coming with his men.
The Leyarn began fearfully whispering amongst themselves, though Tao had a sickening feeling that none of them would be the object of Voden's attention. He tensed and in the confines of that cage felt crowded and claustrophobic.
Voden came to a stop outside the small cage and stared in at his prisoner like a cruel predator. In his hand, Tao noticed he held a pretty decent sized stick. Tao tried not looking at it and stared up at Voden instead.
"Well, Tao," Voden spoke casually and with false concern. "I hear that you're a little cold. Is that true?"
Tao's eyes swept past Voden and he scanned the small group of Nords looking for Arina. She was not with them. Voden began to pace back and forth before the small cage.
"I'm getting the distinct feeling that something is really bothering you," the king said, still speaking calmly. "As I reflect on this night, I don't think I recall you speaking even a single word. And that's very out of character for you, Tao. It isn't as if you haven't been a prisoner before."
Tao looked back up at Voden, but was just too tired to think of anything witty or snide to say. Voden knelt down and stared into the cage on the boy's own level. His eyes were piercingly cruel, and Tao found himself shrinking slightly away from the Nord.
"You will talk with me, Tao," Voden told him firmly, but still gently. Tao didn't speak, and he hoped that the growing fear he felt in his stomach couldn't be seen on his face.
Arina once again found herself walking through the Temple corridors, this time holding a bundle of clothes to her chest. Now that the sun had set and torches on the walls lit the Temple, there were no rainbow lights reflecting off the walls from the windows. Instead, the Temple had summoned up a new, mystical and very eerie demeanor that made Arina rather uncomfortable. She would have rather been outside in the open and fresh air than here, where everything seemed covered in shadows. She wondered how the musty mood of the Temple after dark fit with the peaceful Leyarn who seemed to prefer the light over such shadows.
Soon she reached the three guards watching Fawn's prison. She glared at each of them, daring them to get in her way. "Let me in."
As the guard with the keys struggled to unlock the door, Arina reminded herself why she was doing what she was about to do. She hadn't been the BeastMaster's best friend. In fact, she had been more of an opponent to him than anything else. Tao had been his best friend. And now Tao was facing Voden's wrath and Dar could not help him. Arina knew she couldn't disobey Voden outright, but she could defy him just enough to draw his attention away from Tao for whatever amount of time. Sparing the boy, even if only for a little while longer, would be Arina's last act of service for Dar. He was dead, and she would honor him in whatever way she could. She owed the BeastMaster that much.
The door opened and Arina strode purposefully in. The two guards inside the room stared at her curiously while Fawn just turned away, still sitting upon her bed. Arina glared at each guard in turn.
"Voden wants the girl to be more comfortable," she told them fiercely. "She will be changing and I will not have any man watching. Get out."
The guards hesitated, and one began to object, but caught his tongue at her hostile expression.
"I can handle this girl myself," Arina told them. "And if she gets out of hand, you need only open the door. Do not defy King Voden."
The guards nodded their consent and left the room, shutting the door on their way out. Arina turned towards Fawn, who looked back at her in surprise. Arina quickly strode over to the young Leyarn and sat on the bed next to her, placing her bundle of clothing on the bedspread. Fawn looked down at the pile with a confused expression on her face.
"What are you doing?" she looked up at Arina, uncomprehendingly.
"I'm going to help you escape," Arina told the girl in a soft whisper. Fawn's eyes widened and Arina quickly reached over to take the girl's hands into her own. "But you have to do me a favor."
"What do you want?" Fawn asked, staring at Arina apprehensively, wondering what the price for her freedom might be – if this wasn't some sort of trick, that was. Arina took a deep breath before continuing.
"There is a boy," she finally told the Leyarn. "His name is Tao. Voden has locked him in a small cage by himself by the other cages holding your people prisoner. Tao is a friend of mine, and I can't help him as I am helping you. I'd never get away with it. If I help you escape, you have to promise to do whatever you can to look after him."
"You have friends among your King's enemies?" Fawn stared at Arina in open surprise, noting the genuine concern in the other woman's face. Arina nodded, dully, looking away for a moment.
"Actually, it wasn't Tao," Arina admitted. "It was the BeastMaster. He was my friend and Tao was his."
Fawn's mouth fell open at that revelation. "The BeastMaster's friend is being kept prisoner here? Then won't the BeastMaster come to save him and us?"
"No," Arina shook her head painfully and stared at Fawn sadly. "The BeastMaster is dead. There is no one who can protect Tao except for you. And he deserves protection. More than you or anyone else here."
Fawn felt her heart clench at the thought of the BeastMaster's death. She had heard the legends like every Leyarn. She wasn't sure if she could accept that the great protector had been killed.
"Will you help him?" Arina asked, watching Fawn steadily. The Leyarn did not need any time to consider it.
"Of course I will," she assured the warrior. "I will fight to protect anyone who is Voden's prisoner."
"And you promise not to leave this place without him?" Arina demanded. Fawn nodded gently.
"I promise," she told her.
"Okay," Arina's tone changed and became clearer and stronger. "Once you change into these clothes, you have to knock me unconscious. Outside, there are five guards waiting for you to try something. Don't kill them, but make sure they're all out of it like me. If you were to leave the Temple out the front entrance, the prisoners are being kept to your right at the far end of the courtyard. In the courtyard itself, there are many soldiers, and they all spill out into the forest. This place is surrounded, and it'll be very difficult escaping. You'll have to-"
"Arina," Fawn cut in, somewhat amused. She held up a finger to the warrior's lips. "Just help me change. I can take care of the rest."
"Of course," Arina nodded, smiling softly, but without feeling any joy. The only thing she felt at all was, surprisingly, a small bit of hope. Deep inside herself, she knew she was doing the right thing.
The guards outside the room were shifting their weight uncomfortably, wondering what was going on inside the room with Arina and their prisoner. Each felt that something wasn't right, but none were bold enough to risk angering the female warrior. Perhaps they weren't the strong, confident soldiers Voden thought them to be. Even five to one, they knew better than to try attacking Arina. She could be a vicious warrior when she wanted to be.
Suddenly, taking them all by surprise, the door flew open and it was not Arina that came charging out. It was the Leyarn girl, Fawn. She ducked under the two nearest guards and threw her fist into the face of another.
As the other four hastened to subdue her, the fifth guard peered into the room to see Arina lying on the floor unconscious. He caught his breath before turning to help his companions. They needed all the help they could get. But no help came to them. In a matter of minutes, Fawn had rendered all five of the soldiers unconscious. Such was the power of a woman who had been trained to fight by an Assassin.
"Talk to me, Tao," Voden ordered, circling the cage while using his right hand to hit his left hand with the stick he carried, as one might with a club. Tao tried keeping his body steady, but the cold mixed with his fear made it impossible to keep from shivering. Instead, he stared down at the ground before him, trying to ignore Voden as the king circled around him like a vulture.
"Is the BeastMaster still alive?" Voden demanded. Tao glanced up at the Nord, who still kept circling him with his cruel eyes focused on the boy. Voden must have seen the pain in his prisoner's eyes. He smiled. "I want you to describe to me how he was killed. You're very good at that. You're very descriptive. What weapon was used? How long did it take?"
"Why do you care?" Tao asked sharply, speaking for the first time since Arina had left him there. Voden stopped circling and faced Tao completely with an approving, triumphant grin.
"At last you speak!" Voden laughed, sounding sickly pleased. "I was beginning to fear that that Assassin had cut out your tongue. Which by the way," Voden crossed his arms thoughtfully, all the while tapping the stick against his side, "might not be that unentertaining." Voden motioned for a guard to come up to him, and when the guard did, the king took a small blade from the man. When Tao saw it, images of a blade very similar to that one flowed through his mind. He saw the knife once again plunge into Dar's stomach. Tao cringed, and closed his eyes, trying to block out the memory.
"I wonder," Voden said, studying the blade thoughtfully before looking down at the boy. "How many pieces of you body can I cut off before you die? I mean, look around." Voden gestured to the other prisoners who stood in their much larger cages watching the scene fearfully. "There are plenty of Leyarn here who would heal you in a moment! Who knows how long I could keep cutting you up."
"The Leyarn won't heal me," Tao spoke softly, but loudly enough for the other prisoners to hear him. He glanced towards them pleadingly. "The only reason they Heal is to help others weaker than them. It would not help me were they to Heal me so that you could hurt me even more."
"You see, you do make a good conversationalist when you put your mind to it," Voden said, nodding his head. "And it is so much more interesting when you do talk. Otherwise you just aren't the same Tao I've grown so fond of." Tao shuddered and looked at the ground. Voden kept nodding. "But I do see your point. No matter. There are other ways of hurting you that would not put your entire life in danger."
He nodded to another of his guards, and that man walked over to the cage and stuck a key in the small padlock that kept Tao confined inside the bamboo bars. Tao could only guess where this was going and suddenly felt that he would be safer inside the small cage. As the guard opened the door, Tao pushed his back against the far side of the cage, forcing the man to stick his own body inside to grab the prisoner and drag him out forcibly. Once outside, the guard roughly pushed Tao to his hands and knees.
Up in the sky, Tao once again heard the piercing shriek of an eagle. The sound of the cry was familiar to his ears, but no one else seemed to notice or care to pay attention.
Voden walked towards the boy and raised his stick into the air, ready to strike it down on him. Tao looked up and saw it, cringing. But then he saw something else swooping down from the sky at an amazing speed.
Several of the guards cried out in surprise, and Voden turned his head too late. A large, magnificent bird dove down from the air and clasped his strong talons around the stick. It snapped into several pieces, falling uselessly and harmlessly to the earth. Voden raised his other arm to protect his face while the eagle pushed himself back into the sky and out of the reach of man. As he went he let out another piercing cry that everyone seemed to hear.
"What was that?" Voden demanded, suddenly showing his anger. He turned towards Tao furiously.
"Sharak!" Tao stared after the eagle in pure astonishment. The eagle who so often acted as Dar's eyes had now come to protect him! Tao's gaze followed the magnificent winged creature as it soared through the sky, circling around the Temple.
"The BeastMaster's pet bird?" Voden glared at Tao angrily. He breathed through his teeth. "It must be comforting to know that even after the BeastMaster's death he still looks for ways to protect you!" He had spat the words out in fury, but they were the first that actually did bring Tao comfort. He wasn't alone after all. Though Dar and Ruh were gone, Sharak still lived, and so did Kodo and Podo. If Sharak had come to help Tao, than maybe the ferrets would, too, and maybe somehow he could make it away from the Nords and to freedom and safety after all. For the first time since Arina had left him, Tao dared feel hope.
Voden savagely kicked Tao in the side with ruthless ferocity he would not have expected from the Nord, causing him to double over in pain, gasping out loud. The king turned towards one of his guards. "Don't just lock him in that cage, but tie him in there as well. Let's not make whatever attempt he shall make towards escape any easier." Voden gestured to the rest of the guards and stormed off towards the courtyard with them in tow. Tao marveled at what a ruckus was made over the appearance of just one eagle.
The guard grabbed Tao and forced him back inside the small cage. After locking him in, the guard found some rope and walked around the cage. Reaching his arms through the bars, he forced Tao's left wrist up against a piece of bamboo and bound it there very tightly. He then moved to the other side of the cage and tied Tao's right wrist even more tightly to the bars on that side. Kneeling on the ground inside the cage with both wrists tied on either side, Tao found it difficult to move at all and rather uncomfortable. The guard glared at him for a moment before turning to follow Voden and the others towards the courtyard.
Tao knelt there in the darkness, struggling against the bindings for a moment, unsuccessfully. Glancing over his shoulder towards the other prisoners, Tao could quickly make out sympathy and support on their faces. They would be friends and allies to him, if he could just find a way out of the cage.
Tao glanced back up into the sky and could still see Sharak circling high up around the Temple. The eagle had climbed higher up into the heavens than Tao could ever imagine being, and was now in the darkness hardly anything more than a tiny speck. No arrow could reach him there, but Tao knew from everything that Dar had taught him that the eagle could see every movement and every object sharply even at night. And if something went wrong, Sharak would be able to cross the distance from the sky to the earth in a matter of seconds. With the eagle forever watching and circling, even tied to the cage that confined him, Tao felt safer than before. It was a feeling that he had sorely missed.
Vikoro swept through the woods, forcing himself to think about Fawn and only about Fawn. He had to forget about Tao and any feelings of responsibility he might have towards the boy. He owed absolutely nothing to anyone other than to his wife. He would find Dar's body and he would saw off the BeastMaster's head and carry it to Voden. Getting his wife back was the only thing that mattered.
Sensing someone or someones approaching, Vikoro climbed onto a tree branch to conceal himself in its shadows. He only wanted to finish this atrocity and get it over with. He did not want to be distracted by whoever was approaching. Once they had past by, he would continue on with this mission.
But as the Assassin watched three figures hiking through the forest, he could not help but feel distracted – at least distracted from the idea of sawing off a man's head. He stared at them in shock. It wasn't possible! But his eyes were not deceiving him. There they both were, walking confidently, determinedly, and very, very much alive.
"So you know where my Temple is?" Kryanah walked beside Dar and Ruh as they trekked across the forest to the north. She glanced at him curiously. "Then why did you ask me to help you?"
"I know where it is," Dar explained as he stepped around a piece of dying shrubbery. "But I'm not as familiar with this region as you are. I could always use added help." Something moved behind them, and Dar stopped, spinning around and raising his staff in alarm. Ruh growled softly and crept off to the left, prowling into the darkness but not too far out of sight. Kryanah also turned to watch as a single solitary form approached them from the shadows of the trees.
"Who's there?" Dar demanded. The Leyarn beside him tensed and stepped backwards.
"Kryanah?" the voice was eerily familiar, and Dar had to use his gift to remind Ruh not to initiate an attack. For out from the shadows came Vikoro, the Assassin that had killed the BeastMaster.
"Vikoro!" Kryanah rushed forward to stand in front of Dar. "What do you think you're doing?"
"You followed me," Vikoro softly reasoned, more to himself than to Kryanah and Dar. "I hid you where you would be safe and you followed me and Healed them."
"Yes I did," Kryanah admitted, unafraid of this man. "And I will not allow you to try killing them again."
"I wouldn't!" Vikoro's voice changed entirely. It was no longer dark or sinister or anything at all like it had been. Now it sounded horrified, but hopeful, woeful, but joyous. He strode up to Kryanah as though he had not seen her in years and grabbed her by the shoulders. Still she was not afraid, and Dar did not sense that he would hurt her. Instead, he gazed at her tenderly and she could see tears forming in his eyes. "Kryanah, I am!" He was practically choking on his words. He struggled to catch his breath. "You have done me a great service!" And then he embraced her, pulling the shocked Leyarn against him as if she were all that held him in this world.
"What service?" Dar asked when Vikoro released the girl. She took a step back from him, staring at him in shock as she waited for his answer.
Vikoro glanced at Dar through his tears. "She undid the great evil I had brought upon this world. She undid what I did to you. I've been given a second chance. I can…" he shook his head in pure joy before looking back at Kryanah. "I owe you more than I will ever be able to repay."
Kryanah stared at Vikoro, speechless, while Ruh returned to the group, calm but still watching the Assassin with careful, distrusting eyes.
"What about Tao?" Dar demanded, ready to forgive this man, but also anxious to rescue his best friend.
Vikoro looked at Dar, and the BeastMaster thought he saw the Assassin tremble. "He is with Voden. Voden promised he wouldn't harm him, but…" Vikoro shook his head unhappily. "I beg your forgiveness. I have done so much evil today. I only meant to protect my wife."
Dar held up his hand in reassurance. "It's alright. You only did what you had to. Will you now help me get my friend back?"
"Of course," Vikoro nodded immediately. "I will do whatever you ask of me, BeastMaster."
Dar nodded. "Good. And I'll help you get your wife back. I promise."
When Voden marched down the corridor of the Temple where he held Fawn, he felt rage burn through his mind and body as he saw the five guards on the floor unconscious. He hastened into the chamber to find Arina on the floor as well next to a pile of clothes and jewelry. Fawn had escaped!
Voden stopped in the doorway and forced himself to take a deep, calming breath. Once his composure returned, he entered the room, picking up two rather large golden bracelets off the floor and slipping them onto each of his wrists. He then turned towards the men behind him.
"Wake her and have her report to me outside," Voden commanded before leaving the room and taking off down the corridors. He was not about to let anything else go wrong.
Something big was happening, Fawn realized, as she slipped through the shadows behind courtyard statues near the outer wall of the Temple. Soldiers were scrambling back and forth, obviously expecting some sort of trouble, and as no one seemed to be looking for her, Fawn found it rather easy to move towards the far right side of the courtyard. Arina said that was where the prisoners were being held. So that was where Fawn would go first.
She could see the bamboo cages long before she reached them. There were plenty of them, all large and spacious, and each holding dozens of Leyarn within their confines. Her brothers and sisters were sitting huddled together, looking cold and terribly frightened. Fawn felt sick.
She bolted behind the cages where she might not be easily seen by the soldiers in the courtyard, but almost immediately drew the attention of the captive Leyarn.
"Please be silent," she whispered as they turned towards her in astonishment. "I don't want them to capture me again."
"Fawn!" an elderly Healer crawled towards her while the others whispered amongst themselves in sudden hope and courage. Fawn had always been able to inspire them with such. The elder took her in his gaze with pure joy. "How is this possible?"
"I shall tell you all about it once you are free," she whispered quickly and reassuringly. "But for now I must find a boy named Tao. He is a prisoner among you."
"The others have been talking about him," the Healer told her. "He is at the other end, closest to the courtyard."
"I must have past him without seeing him," Fawn reasoned. She reached through the bars to squeeze the elder's hand. "I will return for you all. Do not yet lose hope." He nodded, and Fawn snuck around the cages towards the courtyard.
After a few minutes of searching, Fawn's gaze finally fell upon the small cage imprisoning a young man who could only be Tao. He was sitting on his knees with each arm stretched out to the bars on either side of him. She quickly realized his wrists were tied to the bamboo.
"Tao?" Fawn crawled towards him and knelt beside the cage, hoping no guard would see her. Tao had jumped when he heard his name, and now he was watching her suspiciously. Fawn gazed into his eyes and could see both pain and fear engraved in them.
"Who are you?" he asked softly, glancing around to make sure for himself that no guards were near.
"My name is Fawn," she told him quickly. "I was being held prisoner elsewhere, but was given the chance to escape by the woman Arina." Tao's eyes widened in amazement, and Fawn nodded. "She told me I had to held you. That was why she was allowing me to go."
"Than maybe Dar really was right about her," Tao whispered in astonishment. "There's hope for her after all."
"You mean for a woman serving Voden?" Fawn nodded in agreement. "I think she'll be just fine." She pulled a small knife from her belt and began cutting away the rope binding Tao's wrist. Once it was free, she handed him the blade. "Cut yourself free, and then use the blade to break out of here. Then pass the knife to one of the men in the first cage you get to. Don't try freeing them yourself – they can get themselves out. If you head far enough that way," she pointed towards the far walls of the Temple behind her and far from the courtyard. "You'll find a statue of a standing bear. It marks a hidden entrance into the Temple. Go inside and find a place to hide where you'll be safe."
"For how long?" Tao asked, already cutting away the binding on his other wrist. Fawn shrugged.
"If I don't come for you, than for as long as you can," she advised. Tao nodded his understanding.
"What will you do?"
"See if I can figure out how to safely get past the guards and into the forest," she replied quickly. "Don't worry, I've been captured once and I won't allow that to happen again."
Tao stared at her in sudden realization. The haunted look that came over his face caused Fawn to stop short. She watched him in concern as he shrank away from her. "You're his wife…"
"Who's wife?" Fawn asked softly, feeling a sinking sensation in her gut. Something definitely was wrong.
"Vikoro's…" Tao spoke the name as if it hurt. And that was when Fawn realized what was going on. Suddenly she felt sick.
"Tao," her voice was kind, but also in pain. "My husband did what he did only to protect me. Do not hate him when it is I who am to blame for you friend's death. And believe me when I say that I am so sorry."
Tao stared at her with so much heartache and agony on his face. Fawn understood that it was because he had lost his best friend. She could only imagine what that must feel like. And for one horrifying second, she thought of what it would be like if she lost Vikoro. It would be a waking nightmare. A living hell. She trembled at the thought, and took a deep breath.
"We've no time to waste," she told him. "You have to get yourself to safety." Before Tao could respond, she moved back into the shadows and hurried away in the cover of darkness.
Having arrived finally outside the Temple, Vikoro and Dar returned to the cavern where Kryanah had originally hid. Leaving her there with Ruh, Dar instructed the tiger to wait until dawn before attempting anything else. The BeastMaster and the Assassin would be going to the Temple alone.
Sneaking through the woods, they each climbed into the trees and managed to remain unseen by the army of soldiers that overflowed into the woods outside the courtyard. There seemed to be an extreme amount of activity going on as the two new allies scoped out the area.
"What do you think?" Vikoro asked under his breath.
"Hold on," the BeastMaster replied, glancing through the trees into the sky. He quickly caught sight of Sharak, and used his gift to contact the eagle. Though genuinely surprised and terribly elated to discover Dar was still alive, Sharak wasted no time in presented the BeastMaster with the situation.
Voden suspected something was afoot. He was not convinced that Dar was dead, and therefore was tightening security around the Temple. It would be difficult getting in, fighting Voden off, and getting out alive. The Nord was growing tired of the BeastMaster's constant interference, and would not hesitate to kill him.
Using Sharak's eyes, Dar searched for Tao. He was pleased to see that somehow, the kid had gotten his hands on a knife and was now sawing his way through the bamboo cage he was trapped in. Still alive and unharmed. But still in danger. Dar thanked Sharak before returning to his own body. He glanced at an expectant Assassin.
"Tao's still alive," Dar told Vikoro. The other man breathed a sincerely relieved sigh.
"Good," the Assassin whispered. Dar nodded gravely, still concerned for the well being of his friend.
"Sharak is an eagle who's been watching Tao," Dar explained. "He says Voden is really angry and tightening security. When we do this, we'll have to do it right the first time. Nothing can go wrong."
"And I swear nothing will," Vikoro promised.
Fawn hid behind a statue in the courtyard. Voden was nearby. She could see him speaking calmly but also urgently with some of his men, but she could not make out what was being said. A moment later, they marched off and Fawn found herself staring towards the woods. There was no one between her and the safety of the trees. Looking around, Fawn saw that if she were quick and silent, she could get to the woods without being discovered. However, she didn't know how long the opportunity would last. So biting her lip in determination, she made a break for it.
Voden led his men quickly towards the prisoners. The bird flying around in the sky made him increasingly nervous, though he refused to show that to his men. Keeping his face relaxed and at ease, he nevertheless thought of all the different creatures the BeastMaster thought of as friends. Small animals like two certain ferrets might creep into the area and try helping the boy escape. It was not impossible. The woman, Fawn, had managed to escape and she had been under constant guard! But out of all his prisoners, Voden absolutely refused to lose Tao, who was easily his greatest prize. And he would be a prize Voden would kept close at all times. For Tao, there would be no escape.
It was very difficult sawing through the bamboo, but Tao kept at it with patient determination. The other prisoners watched eagerly as he worked, and Tao wasn't about to give up on them now that their hope was returning. In the sky, he heard Sharak let out another echoing shriek. A moment later, the bamboo bar broke, and Tao found himself able to squeeze through the bars and out of the cage.
Voden and his men had just reached the far side of the courtyard when Tao broke out. Voden caught his breath in both anger and surprise when he discovered Tao's cage was empty. The other prisoners were on their feet, shouting out warnings or just crying out in fear and despair. Tao himself was standing a few yards away, staring back at Voden and his men in horror.
"Bring him to me," Voden ordered stiffly. Three soldiers stepped past him and made for Tao, who immediately turned and bolted away like a frightened deer. The soldiers started running, and Voden watched without moving. Things were beginning to decline, but Voden hadn't lost a complete hold on his advantages. He intended to hold onto them as tightly as he could, and not let go for the BeastMaster to steal.
Tao didn't know where he was running to. He couldn't very well go to the secret entrance Fawn had spoke of, for then his pursuers would know of its existence. Instead, he was just fleeing blindly, seeking some way, any way, to escape. He risked glancing over his shoulder and saw that the soldiers were practically on his heels.
Using that to his advantage, Tao suddenly dropped to the ground and covered his head with his arms. Two men ran right past him and the third tripped over him. Tao quickly untangled himself from the fallen man and jumped to his feet, running in an entirely different direction. It worked and the soldiers quickly fell behind as Tao scrambled towards the trees.
There were shouts from behind him and when Tao looked back, he saw that more soldiers had joined in the chase. Tao looked back in front of him and saw Nord soldiers suddenly walking towards him from the woods. They must have been patrolling or camping out there or something, but the shouting had caught their attention, and now they were headed towards him, blocking off his escape.
Tao stopped and looked around wildly. There was practically no where to go. Soldiers were coming towards him from every direction. Tao closed his eyes and groaned in defeat. So much for that plan!
Voden was striding towards him quickly, but with an outwardly calm expression on his face. When he reached Tao, the boy saw that there was rope in the man's hands. The king roughly grabbed Tao's arms and began binding his wrists together. The knife Tao had been holding dropped uselessly to the ground.
Voden quickly regained his good humor once Tao's wrists were tied. Grabbing his shoulders, Voden aggressively shook Tao with that same look of sadistic pleasure the boy had seen before. Tao grimaced and somehow managed to pull away, but wasn't able to get very far before a soldier behind him caught him and held him in a painfully firm grasp.
Tao's eyes squeezed shut as he tried blocking out the pain of his aching body. When he opened them again, he stared at Voden dejectedly.
"You aren't being a very cooperative prisoner," Voden told him casually. Tao didn't reply, but watched as Voden bent down and picked up the knife that had been dropped. He studied it carefully. "This belongs to Arina." He looked at Tao, not seeming to care who the knife belonged to, despite his words. "Fawn must have stolen it from her and given it to you. Where is she?"
"I've no idea who you're talking about," Tao replied defiantly. Voden nodded slowly, having expected that answer. He suddenly reached out his hand and grabbed the back of Tao's neck, squeezing while he forced the boy close to him. Tao's knees buckled and his mouth opened in a silent cry of pain as his body fell forward. Voden was stronger than most people would guess, and he squeezed the pressure point without mercy. He caught Tao and kept him on his feet while he crushed the back of the boy's neck. Excitement coursed through him as he could practically taste Tao's pain. After a few more seconds, Voden released Tao, and the boy practically fell backwards in an attempt to distance himself from Voden. But once again, the soldier behind him stopped his retreat.
Voden stared at his prisoner in satisfaction as Tao glanced back miserably, all the while trying to ignore the pain. Voden took another step towards him and the boy shrank back as much as he could. Voden smiled only an inch away from Tao's face. "I wouldn't try that again. You belong to me now, and you will remain mine for the rest of your life. Try to accept that." Tao let out a short breath and glanced away from the king. The words echoed in his mind even as he struggled to convince himself that they weren't true. It was a struggle he found himself losing.
Fawn slipped through the woods quickly and silently, struggling to evade the Nord soldiers that haunted the forest while at the same time trying to remember where they seemed to position themselves. She wouldn't be able to sneak her people out of danger and into the safety of the forest if she didn't know where to expect guards and where not to.
She hadn't been at it for very long when suddenly two powerful arms wrapped around her waist and pulled her up into the trees. It took everything she had not to shout out in alarm, but she did not hesitate to strike back. But no matter how she fought, this man seemed to have a solid hold on her as he spun her around and pushed her back up against the tree.
"Shh!" he held up a finger to her mouth, urging her to be silent. Fawn would not have cooperated, and did so only when she saw that this man could not possibly have been a Nord soldier. For one thing, he was hardly dressed! Fawn immediately grew still and together, she and this stranger watched as two soldiers swept through the trees right where Fawn had been standing a moment before. She glanced at this strange and very handsome man in astonishment. He had kept her from being discovered! He glanced at her and once again gestured that she should be as quiet as possible.
"Who are you?" she demanded in a very soft whisper. "And what do you think you're doing?"
"My name's Dar," he told her in a voice equally as soft. "I'm a friend. I'm here to help you."
Motion to their left caught their attention, and they both turned to watch as Vikoro made his way over to them, climbing from the branches of one tree onto the branches of another.
"Vikoro!" Fawn stared at her husband in shock, and when he saw her there, his mouth fell open in amazement before turning into a wide smile.
"Fawn!" He raced towards her as she scrambled towards him. Dar watched as the two reached each other and tightly embraced with the affection reserved only for two lovers.
"Are you okay?" Vikoro demanded without letting her go. Instead he only pulled her closer to him. "Did they hurt you? How'd you escape? Oh, Fawn…"
"I love you," she told him under her breath. "I'll tell you all about it. I'm fine." She looked up at him and they shared an intimate kiss. Dar's eyes widened and he quickly looked away, allowing them a moment of privacy now that they were together again.
Looking for a way to make that moment pass quicker, Dar glanced up into the sky until he saw Sharak. He used his gift to connect with the eagle. Looking through Sharak's eyes, he watched the movements of the soldiers below. And then he saw Voden leading a group of soldiers towards the courtyard, all the while dragging Tao with them. Pure alarm for his friend caused Dar to break his connection with the eagle. He turned back towards Vikoro and Fawn.
"We have to go," he told them, interrupting their rather emotional reunion. They glanced at him, hearing the alarm in his voice. He quickly explained: "Tao tried escaping, but Voden caught him before he got very far. We need to help him."
Fawn's stared at him in confusion. "How could you possibly know that?" She looked back at Vikoro questioningly.
"He's the BeastMaster," the Assassin explained. "He has eyes all over the forest." Fawn stared at Vikoro in shock before gazing at Dar in amazement.
"I heard you were dead!" she told him frantically, but with a new hope. She looked back at Vikoro. "I heard you killed him."
"Kryanah found him and healed him," Vikoro quickly explained.
"Kryanah?" Fawn looked from one man to the other in confusion. "Where is she now?"
"Hidden, where she will be safe," Vikoro replied. "There is a tiger protecting her."
"Fawn, did you happen to see Tao?" Dar interrupted. Fawn glanced at him and nodded, suddenly looking upset.
"You may be alive, BeastMaster, but your friend doesn't know that," she told Dar quietly. "He thinks you are dead and it hurts him more than Voden will ever be able to."
Vikoro once again felt a wave of guilt flood his heart while Dar looked away. Tao was like a brother to the BeastMaster, and it hurt Dar to think about what his friend must be going through. He knew that if he ever lost Tao, the pain would be more than he could bear.
"I have to get to him," Dar looked back at Vikoro and Fawn gravely. "I have to let him know that I'm all right."
"How?" Fawn asked, pushing aside her feeling of despair as an even greater feeling of hope touched her heart.
Vikoro glanced from one to the other before breaking the silence that had followed Fawn's question. "I think I have an idea."
"You both know about the river that runs not far from the Temple," Vikoro whispered to both his wife and to the BeastMaster as he went about explaining what he had in mind. They nodded. Vikoro continued: "Well the river flows south from a region far to the north. When I first came to the Temple, I was younger and paranoid. I had run away from the legacy my people had left behind, and I feared that the more time past, the more likely it would be that my past would catch up with me. I have never truly enjoyed the fact that I am an Assassin, but nevertheless, I kept what had been taught to me by my father close to my heart my whole life. So I was always looking for ways to defend the Temple should the worst happen. I came up with various scenarios, all of which would have worked against Voden had he not held my wife against me."
Fawn glanced away, guiltily, but Vikoro reached out his hand to touch her in reassurance before he continued with his story. "One such scenario involved the river. You see, about three miles north of here, the river splits, and part of it pours into the side of a hill before continuing south in an underground stream. It flows into a chamber underneath the Temple. There are stairs leading from that chamber up into one of the Temple's hidden rooms. It's a perfect way to sneak in."
"How come you didn't use that entrance when you first tried fighting Voden?" Dar asked. Vikoro shrugged.
"As I have said, there were many different ways for me to defend the Temple," the Assassin explained. "That was just one possibility in a dozen of others. I just happened to choose a different path. It failed." He shrugged slightly. "This way, we can sneak inside the Temple. From there, we can have our pick of a dozen more possibilities. For example, Fawn can use that hidden door behind the Temple to free the other Leyarn. She can then guide them underground and lead them to safety."
"That could definitely work," Fawn agreed open-mindedly. In any case, it was a better plan than anything she could ever think up.
"The entrance to the cavern is very well hidden, despite the stream," Vikoro continued. "It could take an untrained man months to discover it, and even a trained man weeks. We could take shelter there from the Nords until we can come up with a way to escape them forever."
"Then let's go," Dar suggested. "We'll get Kryanah and Ruh. You guide us there now and we'll make more detailed plans after we arrive."
"Follow me," Vikoro commanded before heading back over the tree branches and deeper into the forest, holding his hand back only for Fawn to take. Hand in hand, they led the BeastMaster into the shadows.
It was still night. Arina half expected it to be morning when she woke in that gold-filled chamber. As she left the Temple with two soldiers behind her, under orders to report to King Voden, she felt dejected and her head burned with a pain she had not felt in a long while. Her reputation had probably fallen into an endless chasm, and she knew she would lose the respect of some of her comrades – not to mention Voden's good will! He would be furious with her, and Arina was already dreading their upcoming confrontation.
But despite any of that, Arina's heart was at peace. More so than it had ever been in the last year or so. She had given Fawn her freedom, and could only hope that the Leyarn would give Tao his. She had defied Voden for a cause greater than any of the Nords'. She had given her tribute to the BeastMaster and could now accept his death and continue on with her life. For the first time in so long, her conscience was clear and it brought her more peace than she ever imagined possible. She had forgotten what this had felt like. She had forgotten what it felt like to do good and she was enjoying the memory. Whatever came next, she could take, and would take willingly. Whatever her fate came to be, she knew she would deserve it. She was only grateful to have been given this opportunity to redeem herself. If Dar were still alive, she decided, he would probably be proud of her.
Arina smiled slightly as she gazed around the courtyard. Then that smile vanished as she recognized Voden walking towards her. Behind him were at least a dozen others… including Tao. It was all she could do to suppress a discouraged groan.
When Voden saw her, he immediately made for her, his men close behind. Arina glanced quickly at Tao and the boy looked back at her with mixed emotions in his eyes. She recognized the pain she had seen in him before, unchanged, as he mourned for Dar. She also thought she saw a hint of appreciation, as if he wanted her to know that he knew what she had done for him and was grateful. But what Arina saw more of than anything else was something she never would have thought to see on his face. Lifelessness. Hopelessness. As if Voden had managed to reach inside his very soul and crush his spirit. Tao was getting close to breaking. He was getting closer with each passing second. Voden was winning, and that troubled Arina more than anything else. The day a person with as much heart and life as Tao broke under a man of such tyranny as Voden would forever be a day consumed by evil. And Arina trembled.
"Arina," Voden smiled generously at her before holding up a knife she immediately recognized to be her own. "See what I have found? I wonder how it is you do not keep a closer eye on your weapons." His words were not asked questioningly, and Arina knew Voden was aware of her negligence – if not her entire betrayal.
"Forgive me, King Voden," Arina spoke, inclining her head before him. "I failed you and I will not do so again."
"We shall discuss it later," Voden told her in such a tone that no one could even think of doubting his intent to fulfill that promise. Tao silently hoped she didn't get in too much trouble for her actions. Voden gestured around the courtyard. "For now, Fawn has escaped and may yet find her Assassin friend. If they both return, they will be able to resist us, possibly even effectively. I will not allow them to challenge me, and therefore, we are preparing to defend this Temple to destroy both of them." Voden walked right up to Arina until he was a breath away from her face. She forced herself not to flinch even as instinct shouted at her to recoil. "You shall help only by taking up the duties fit for a woman by serving the men in my army. Do you understand, Arina?"
Arina glanced away and nodded. "I do." As disgusted and insulted as she was, she knew she was lucky not to have been ordered dead on the spot.
Voden nodded and continued on his way past her, his men following, forcing Tao along as well. As the prisoner passed Arina, the two once again made eye contact, and he inclined his head so slightly that only she noticed. But however small the gesture, it brought comfort to Arina and reinforced her belief that she had done the right thing.
"It's not far now," Vikoro assured the rest of his party, which included his wife, the BeastMaster, Kryanah, and Ruh. Though Dar had constantly kept his eyes out for the two ferrets, Kodo and Podo had not made an appearance since the Leyarn had healed him. Though Dar had little reason to be concerned over their wellbeing, he couldn't help but wonder what the two little companions were doing at that moment, and when he would see them next.
They had been walking up hill for awhile, following the river north when it finally began to descend. The climb down was much quicker and easier, which was good for Kryanah. Dar could sense that the young Leyarn was growing tired, and once they were inside the underground cavern Vikoro had spoken of, he intended on seeing to it that the girl get some rest.
Presently, they were listening to Fawn speak of her escape. Vikoro had been eager to hear of it, and Dar was naturally curious. But when Kryanah saw the older girl enter the cave she had been left in, her own determination to hear the story finally pressured Fawn into telling it. Her pestering had reminded Dar of Tao, as did the expression on her face when she saw Fawn. Her eyes had brightened and her face lit up in the same way Tao's often did. She reminded Dar so much of him… Dar couldn't begin to imagine what Tao was going through, but he was determined to get the boy out of danger. He had too because the more time that past, and the longer he traveled with Kryanah, he grew to miss his friend more and more. Tao was practically his brother, the only family he had left. Dar wasn't about to lose him now.
"In the end, I have to admit, I never would have escaped were it not for one of Voden's own warriors," Fawn admitted, catching Dar's attention right away. Everyone glanced at her in surprise, and she nodded solemnly.
"Who?" Dar asked, having a strange but pleasant feeling he already knew the answer to that question. Fawn glanced at him with an expression that told him he was right more than anything else would have.
"Arina," she stated simply, reminding Vikoro of the one woman who had not looked happy at the thought of the BeastMaster's death. Somehow, he was not surprised that she had turned around and betrayed her king.
"Did she get in trouble for it?" Dar asked, glad that she had done the right thing, but concerned about what the consequences would be for her. Everyone heard the concern in his voice, and Fawn smiled knowingly at him.
"Yes, she told me the two of you were friends," she said, nodding her head. "I find it ironic that the one competent soldier in Voden's army is actually a friend to his greatest enemy."
"She's not his only competent followers," Dar quickly cut in. "If you haven't seen any of the others, Voden probably has them off doing his work somewhere else."
"That's a shame," Fawn replied. "If they were here, we could get rid of them all at once. But to answer your question, BeastMaster, I am unaware of what Arina's punishment will be for losing me. I didn't stay long enough to find out. Take comfort in the fact that at least she is doing what is right."
"I do," Dar assured her. They came to the bottom of the hill and Dar noticed a small part of the river break off and flow inland as a small stream one could practically step over. It had a pretty, rustic look to it that would convince most men in the world that it went absolutely no where and held absolutely no significance. However, it did not fool Dar, and apparently, it had not fooled Vikoro either.
They followed it a ways until they could no longer see the river behind them. At that point, it subtly curved southward, and trickled towards the Temple until it seemed to end at the very foot of the hill. Vikoro walked right up to it, and Dar followed close behind while the two women and the tiger stood back to watch.
Dar did not know what it was about the stream ending at the bottom of the hill. It might have been the darkness of the night, illuminated only by the moon and stars. Or it could simply have been a trick of the angles, or it could have had some other scientific reason that Tao might have been able to interpret were he present. As far as Dar was concerned, it might have well been magic. For whatever reason, once Vikoro pointed it out, Dar could see a well-hidden opening leading deep into the earth. It took the Assassin a few moments of digging with the help of the BeastMaster before the opening was big enough for a full-grown man to fit through. Ruh, on the other hand, would find it difficult.
Dar glanced at the tiger, who wasted no time in telling him that he would rather remain above ground. Dar nodded, and Ruh turned gracefully and disappeared into the darkness of the night. Dar looked over at Kryanah and Fawn, who were both approaching nervously.
"I'll go in first," Vikoro told them quickly. "Kryanah next, then Fawn." He glanced over at Dar. "You last?"
"That's fine," Dar agreed, and a moment later the Assassin disappeared through a hole in the ground. He went in with such grace and speed that Dar was reminded of the many animals that made their homes in burrows beneath the earth. And amazingly, the small hole did not seem any more obvious on the ground in those woods. Even after Kryanah entered, and Fawn, it still remained hidden in the darkness. Dar slipped in after Fawn.
Though the hole had been small, the chamber leading deep inside the hill enlarged the farther in they went. Soon there was so much room that Dar grew convinced the entire hill was hollow.
As cold as it had been above ground, the dampness of the earth made this cavern even worse, as the stream continued flowing south underground. It echoed around the passages and chambers like a harp. Kryanah shivered and Vikoro hastened to remove his cloak and wrap it around her shoulders.
"Thank you," she whispered as they took in their surroundings. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all made of dirt and stone. Stalagmites gave the cavern a natural appearance, and Dar could feel the presence of bats living in the darkness. In this cavern, there was no moon or stars to light their way. As soon as they walked out of the light from the cave entrance, they would be walking into total blackness.
"Vikoro?" Fawn asked hesitantly. Her voice echoed around the cave and made Kryanah grimace.
"I left flint and steel over here," Vikoro said, searching through the darkness until he managed to find what he was looking for. He must have left other tools as well – namely wood, cloth, and alcohol, for within moments he had created a brilliant torch that burned bright enough to lead them through the cavern. He glanced at his companions as the light of the torch cast shadows upon his face. "You see?"
"You're just so prepared, aren't you?" Fawn teased and Vikoro shrugged, smiling. His spirit had grown by far lighter since he had been reunited with his love.
"Kryanah, you should rest," Dar told her softly, keeping his voice from echoing. "You're tired."
She looked at him in sudden fear. "No!" She shook her head, frightened. "I promise I won't slow you down. But I don't want to be left here alone."
"Are you sure?" Vikoro asked, glancing at the Leyarn girl in concern. "It is still a good walk."
"You can't leave me here," Kryanah told them stubbornly. "I would just follow. I can't stay here alone."
"It's alright," Fawn cut in smoothly. "We won't leave you here alone." She glanced at Dar and Vikoro. "We don't have time to argue. And we should remain together unseparated."
Dar and Vikoro glanced at each other, sharing in their hesitancy. But a moment later, they nodded, and Vikoro continued on leading them away from the cave entrance with Dar on his heels and Fawn and Kryanah close behind.
Earlier that night, Voden had claimed the greatest of the Temple's rooms to be his own. The floor was marble and the ceiling could not be seen at night, despite the tall, exquisite candelabrums that lit the chamber. Grand pillars lined three of the four walls, and high up on the fourth, a large, gorgeous rose window added beauty to the sanctuary. Statues of angels and animals, as well as an altar and pews, furnished the room, with an additional table placed there by Voden's men. In one corner, instruments rested, ignored, some of which Tao did not recognize and wasn't even completely sure were musical.
The prisoner sat silently on a pew bench with two men watching him closely while Voden stood by the table with some of his other warriors, deep in conversation. His wrists were still bound, and often Tao would look down at the ropes, marveling at how easy it was for them to completely take away a person's freedom. They were worse than cages and chains and dungeon cells because they were just so simple. Knots could be tied and untied with such ease that there was practically nothing to them. And yet despite that, they kept the wrists of prisoners bound together so tightly that without another's assistance, prisoners could be held captive perhaps indefinitely. Unless, of course, they were escape artists, but Tao couldn't claim that title, no matter how many times he had gotten himself out of danger. But even then, in some way, he had always counted on Dar's help…
Tao felt another wave of pain clench his heart as he tried banishing thoughts of the BeastMaster. He looked around the sanctuary and felt the same sense of mystery and eerie darkness that Arina had felt. This was a holy place not meant for the likes of Voden and his soldiers. Tao would not have been surprised if the statues suddenly came to life and devoured each present Nord. Then he wondered if, maybe, the statues devour him as well.
Tao glanced back at Voden, who was still speaking with his men. But as he spoke, Voden turned his gaze towards his prisoner and Tao immediately looked away. Yet even then, he thought he could feel Voden's gaze lingering on him like a child eagerly waiting to get back to his game. Tao shivered before hesitantly bringing himself to look back at the Nord. But by that moment, Voden was once again giving his attention to his men. Apparently they were all alarmed that Fawn would find Vikoro and that the Assassin might return to take back what he considered his. Voden no longer seemed to consider Dar a threat, finally accepting that maybe the BeastMaster really was dead. The real threat now lay in the Assassin and his wife. That brought no comfort to Tao, who, if honest with himself, would rather be in the Terrons' hands than in either Voden's or the man who killed Dar's.
Tao bit his lip and once again looked down at the ropes binding his wrists. He wondered how much longer this nightmare would last.
After a rather long walk, the cavern began to decline and kept declining until it seemed to Dar like he was farther underground than he had ever been in his life. The path they followed had been more or less straight, and Dar knew all four of them would be able to navigate back out without any problem. The only hindrance was the distance. It seemed to stretch for eternity.
But just when Dar was about convinced that this was true, Vikoro pointed out the small, steep, hidden staircase that led back up into the world above ground. The stairs seemed to have been carved out of granite, and up high above, Dar could barely make out a wooden trapdoor.
"It is a much more subtle entrance on the other side," Vikoro told Dar and the two women. "Hidden. You'll have to really look for it when you come back."
"I'm sure I'll be able to find it," Dar assured him. Vikoro nodded before handing the torch to Kryanah.
"Now you really must stay here," he told her gently. Fawn and Dar both glanced at her in time to see her look of fear, but this time, they did not jump to her side. Vikoro was right.
"We are going to be trying to rescue our people," Fawn told Kryanah. "If we succeed, we will be sending them down into this cave, and you must be here to meet them, and if necessary, to show them the way out."
"Voden and his people are dangerous," Dar explained gently. "You will be safer in this cave, and you won't be alone."
"I won't?" Kryanah asked, looking at him, somewhat surprised. Dar nodded and smiled before glancing into the darkness behind them. He used his gift to communicate with the bats that lived there. They spoke with him and agreed to protect Kryanah.
Dar glanced back at her a moment later. "There are animals living even in this cave. They will look after you as Ruh did. You'll be safe, I promise."
Kryanah hesitated, but a moment later she took a deep breath and nodded, though not without reluctance. "Go. Save Tao and my people."
"We'll be back soon," Dar promised as Vikoro and Fawn made their way up the steps towards the Temple above. Dar glanced once more at Kryanah and nodded encouragingly before following them. Kryanah stood silently holding the torch as she watched them go.
Arina sat out in the forest inside one of the larger tents that had been set up by some of Voden's men for the women. There was a campfire outside, and several men sat around it talking and laughing and joking. She could tell they were intoxicated, and knew that with everything going on concerning Fawn and Vikoro, if Voden saw them now, they would all be killed for their negligence.
Arina tried to ignore them as she scrubbed at a pile of dirty pots given to her by Herana, one of the older working maids among the Nords. The old crone kept a careful eye on her while the younger girls watched her curiously but with disdain as they whispered amongst themselves. It did not bother Arina, who had been used to such contempt for almost her entire life. Women who did not know her well often considered her, a woman who fought to be like a man, beneath them. But she had never cared about what they thought. She had only cared about the thoughts of people who actually mattered to her. Such as Dar…
Arina smiled as she thought about him. He may be gone now, but he lived on inside her. He never feared death, and had always been ready for it. He may be gone now, but his legacy would live on forever and Arina would remember the time she spent with him with joy. Even when everything else had been taken from her, she would hold his memories close to her heart for as long as the moon chased the sun across the sky. And those memories would bring her comfort, and she would not regret. He deserved to be remembered and honored by her thus.
Every woman in the tent glanced up in surprise as one man entered the tent. Arina glared at him in disgust when she saw all the signs of an incredibly drunken soldier. He stumbled his way towards her, gazing at her with bloodshot eyes that spoke of lust and near insanity. He was covered in sweat and grinning stupidly as Arina cautiously got to her feet.
"King Voden said you were to serve the men!" he practically shouted at her gleefully. He stumbled against a small pile of pots and crashed onto a table, which he then used as support to keep him on his feet. Several of the girls jumped to their feet and scrambled away from him in alarm. The soldier didn't seem to even notice they were there. "So why don't you come over here and show me a good time?"
"I will not associate with a fool who would be tortured and killed should Voden know that he couldn't even hold up a sword tonight when we need warriors and not drunkards," Arina snapped back even though she knew this man was already so far beyond reason.
"No," the man snapped angrily. "You will do as I say!" He charged towards her. Arina easily ducked away from him and quickly slipped towards the tent flap that would lead back outside. She turned to watch for the drunk, who spun around with much less grace and dignity. His eyes searched the tent for Arina, but stopped on the first girl he saw.
"Witch," he growled before stumbling towards her. The girl screamed when he grabbed her, not possessing the strength Arina did to defend herself. He forced himself on top of her as he dragged her to the ground.
Arina rushed to the girl's aid, forcibly pulling the drunk off of her. He slapped wildly at her, but Arina was able to handle him expertly. Once he was off the terrified girl, Arina slipped between the two and rammed her knee right where it would hurt him the most. He doubled over in shock and extreme pain.
Herana walked calmly over to the trembling girl who still lay on the ground and helped her rise while the man slowly managed to get back up onto his feet. Arina watched carefully as she bent down into a crouch and pulled out a knife hidden in a sheath in her boot. Should this man attack her or any of the girls again, she would not hesitate to kill him. There were some differences between her and Dar that she doubted would ever change. It was to her own disadvantage. Dar never killed. He tried to be better than that. Arina wished she could find some way to strive towards that end as well. If she could fight, but not kill, become like Dar, she would be happier than any other woman in the world.
The drunken man glared at her and she readied herself, ready to kill him, as he looked ready to kill her. She shook her head steadily. "Please don't make me do this…"
At that moment, he made his way towards her. Arina stood to meet him, but both were startled by two sudden shrieks. Everyone in the tent looked towards one of the few remaining unclean pots and watched as two small blurs raced out of the large kettle towards the drunk. He backed away as he watched them approach, too drunk to know what they were, just that two brown blurs were coming at him with amazing speed. They jumped on him, one landing on his chest, the other on his shoulder. He screamed and tried brushing them off, but they evaded his arms and hands with expert proficiency. He kept screaming until he ran out of the tent. The two small attackers jumped off of him before he left, but even after he was outside, he continued to scream insanely. Arina walked to the tent flap and saw several sentries looking at him in alarm, only to roll their eyes when they heard him scream: "Get them off me!" There was nothing on him to get off, and they figured he was obviously drunk.
Arina sighed in relief before turning back into the tent. Several of the girls were staring at the two creatures in open astonishment – and disgust. They were two ferrets, chirping as only ferrets could as they climbed over and on top of each other in what seemed to be to Arina a little triumphant dance. She smiled when she recognized them to be Kodo and Podo, Dar's friends.
They glanced at her and chirped some more before racing out of the tent and into the shadows. Arina closed her eyes and forced herself to relax.
Herana walked over to Arina and the female warrior opened her eyes again to catch the old woman's gaze. They stared at each other for a moment, neither blinking or backing away, and a moment later, Herana must have recognized something in Arina that she had never seen before. Suddenly the old woman seemed full of respect and approval. She nodded curtly.
"King Voden will surely hear of this," Herana told Arina. "He shall hear that you served him honorably and loyally, and that bloat will be punished for his transgression. As will the other men drinking out there." Her tone held only confidence and assurance. There was no room to doubt her. Arina smiled and bowed her head to the woman.
"Thank you," she whispered, finding herself unashamed at expressing her gratitude. Then Arina glanced towards the girl the drunk had attacked. The other girls in the tent were caring for her, but she glanced up at Arina as if having felt the warrior woman's gaze. There was only gratefulness in the girl's tear stained eyes, and she nodded to Arina before looking down at the ground, trying to regain her composure.
Arina looked away and glanced back at the tent flap where she had last seen Kodo and Podo. The BeastMaster's friends continued to congregate around the Temple. Though Arina believed that Dar was dead, she also grew to realize that what he had left behind in this world would last forever. Some things would never die. She smiled at the thought of two little ferrets causing trouble for Voden. Vikoro and Fawn may be returning to fight him, and they may succeed as Dar so often had. But thinking about the mischief Kodo and Podo would cause brought her more hope and encouragement than the Assassin and Leyarn would ever be able to bring. Vikoro and Fawn might be Voden's greatest threat, but thoughts of the BeastMaster and his animals motivated Arina more than anything else ever could. Nothing could replace Dar. Even after his death.
It was nearing dawn. Though the darkness of the night would last for at least another hour, dawn was approaching. High up in the sky, Sharak shrieked and glided through the air, watching the activities below him with a sharp eye. He sensed that something would soon happen. All this waiting and watching would end soon. The time was coming. The time was present…
Everything had grown tense since Fawn had last been here. She slipped out of the Temple through the hidden entrance by the standing bear's statue. No one was around, and in the cover of darkness, she made her way back to the bamboo cages holding her people. They watched her come silently, but the hope that lit up in their faces when they realized she had returned for them spoke louder than words ever could.
She snuck over to the first cage where the elder was waiting for her. He reached his hands through the bars and grasped hers warmly and with joy. "You have returned at last."
"I'm going to get you to safety," she promised. "But escape will be a slow and careful process. We have to avoid catching any one's attention." He nodded his understanding, as did the rest of the prisoners near enough to hear her words. Several of the others moved towards the other end of the cage to inform those prisoners in confines farther away.
"I am not alone," she told them as she pulled free a knife and began sawing away at the bamboo. "The BeastMaster is here with Vikoro and both are ready to help fight the Nords."
"Then we are blest," the elder whispered joyously. "Tonight will not be the night where Voden destroys our people."
"And that night will never come," Fawn agreed.
Tao was being held in a large, spectacular room with Voden and some of his men, Dar and Vikoro found out. It hadn't taken them long to make that discovery. After communicating with Sharak, Dar learned that Tao had been brought inside the Temple and hadn't left yet. After that, it had only taken Vikoro a few moments of thought to guess a man like Voden would chose the best chamber in the Temple to be his own. It appeared Vikoro had guessed correctly.
"We make a good team, BeastMaster," Vikoro whispered from their vantage point behind a statue in the corridor outside the sanctuary. The two large doors leading into the chamber had been left open, and from the corridor, they could see into the room rather well. There were plenty of soldiers in there with Voden, but the corridors themselves were mostly empty, and in the shadows behind the statue, the BeastMaster and Assassin were well hidden.
Dar sat in a crouch, leaning his back against the statue and facing the wall away from the sanctuary. He glanced at Vikoro, who stood facing the statue. The Assassin carefully peered around the marble to gaze once again into the large chamber.
Dar carefully looked up at one of the stained glass windows. Though it was still night out, the beautiful glass seemed to glow when the BeastMaster stared at it. But the light seemed more menacing to Dar than pure. He glanced at Vikoro. "For a Holy Temple of Healers, this place gets rather dismal at night."
"It isn't always like this," Vikoro replied softly, looking back at Dar. "You were Healed by the Dust. You know that it is magical. The Dust works through the Leyarn to do good as if it actually could think and feel. I myself am not a Leyarn, and the Dust has not chosen to work its magic through me, so I do not completely understand it. But I do know that the magic of the Dust went into building this Temple. It is a part of the walls here. A part of the windows and pillars and statues. It is the real foundation of all that the Ninika created. This Temple has more life and magic than any other building built by man in this world. That is why so many people are healed here. I'd imagine the Dust is furious with Voden and the Nords."
"The Dust gets furious?" Dar glanced at Vikoro, incredulous. "Is it a living creature that I could speak to?"
"As far as I know, it's just magic in a unique shape and form," Vikoro replied. "Wild magic, not ever to be wielded by sorcery."
Dar smiled. "When this is over, you have to tell Tao everything you know. Or get Kryanah to. He'd be fascinated."
Vikoro smiled. "I will be sure to do so." They both nodded companionably before returning their attention to those inside the sanctuary. It was time.
The bamboo broke. Fawn carefully pulled it away from the cage and made room for the first four prisoners to escape. She motioned for the rest in the cage to wait until she returned for them. She then led them carefully through the darkness until they reached the statue of the bear. She showed them where the entrance was and told them that once they were hidden inside, they must wait for her and the others. They agreed before disappearing inside the Temple. Fawn hastened to return to the cage where the rest of the prisoners were waiting patiently and faithfully. Moving with as much care as she could, Fawn continued the process of freeing her people.
Dar and Vikoro could hear someone approaching, but the sounds were small and not quite human. The BeastMaster and Assassin glanced at each other curiously for a moment, because the sounds were just too small and subtle to be anything but large rats. Yet by the look on Vikoro's face, Dar didn't believe for a second that the Temple had a problem with rodents.
Nevertheless, he used his gift to reach out and communicate with whatever animals there were – if that was in fact what they were. When he recognized the two approaching creatures, he grinned, pleased to hear from them at last.
It was time. Vikoro nodded at Dar before gliding out from behind the statue and boldly entering the sanctuary. He shouted for Voden, and everyone turned to watch him in surprise. When Tao saw him, he felt a wave of panic as he recognized the Assassin who had killed Dar. He trembled.
"Ah!" Voden smiled cruelly. "I had a feeling you might return, Assassin. But lacking the head of the BeastMaster, I see. I am disappointed."
"I will do your bidding no longer," Vikoro snarled hatefully. "I spoke with Fawn. She's free and now there is nothing you can hold against me."
"Then I will just have you killed," Voden replied calmly. He glanced at his men. "Do it now." They nodded and drew their swords. Vikoro drew his own and waited for them to charge.
Tao watched as the Nords ran towards the Assassin. He met them swiftly and confidently, and the ensuing battle was so extreme that Tao found no one was paying him the slightest attention. His guards had even stepped away from him, watching the Assassin fight with awe, focused entirely on the battle, probably forgetting that Tao was even there.
Something touched his leg. Tao jumped and looked down in surprise. Kodo! Tao's mouth practically fell open as Podo snuck up to join his friend. The two ferrets stared up at him with what must have been the closest thing to haughtiness written on their faces that a ferret could achieve. They were practically smirking at him! Tao rolled his eyes.
"Okay," he whispered so softly under his breath that he doubted even the ferrets could hear him. "I'm sorry I snapped at you two this morning." The ferrets immediately jumped onto his lap and quickly chewed through the ropes binding his wrists together. Once his hands were free, he glanced back up to see Vikoro still battling the Nord soldiers. From what Tao had seen of the Assassin's abilities that morning, he guessed that for some reason, Vikoro was holding back. He wasn't fighting with everything he had, which meant he was probably waiting for something.
Waiting for me to escape…? That made no sense. Would Kodo and Podo work with the man who had slain Dar? Would they work with any man other than Dar? Something wasn't right…
Kodo snapped at Tao before the two ferrets jumped away from him and hastened out of the sanctuary. The boy took a deep breath, realizing that this would be the best time for him to run. The ferrets obviously wanted him to.
So without wasting another moment, Tao jumped to his feet and bolted out of the pew. Voden saw and glanced in Tao's direction in surprise. The boy looked back at the king for a second, but no longer after that. He turned towards the large doors leading out into the corridor and ran.
"Stop him!" Voden shouted at his guards. The two men who had been watching Tao turned their heads to see the boy missing. They instantly spun around to look for him, and once they caught sight of the fugitive, they sprinted after him.
Tao made it into the corridor before the guards caught up with him. He shouted out angrily as four powerful arms caught and held him. He struggled and fought as best he could, his heart pounding so hard in his chest he thought it might burst out and die. He felt himself choking as once again freedom was being denied him.
But then something powerful sent Tao and his three captors crashing to the floor. A moment later, one guard was pulled away from Tao and sent flying practically headfirst into a pillar. He landed on the floor unconscious. The second crawled off Tao to meet this new threat, but he too landed on the floor, having been knocked out. Trembling, Tao glanced up, almost afraid to see who had saved him. If it had been Vikoro, he wouldn't be able to bear it.
But it was not Vikoro who had jumped to his aid. It was Dar. Tao choked as tears filled his eyes. For a second he wondered if this was a hallucination, a trick of the poor lighting. Dar was dead. But he was here. Maybe he was a ghost. Had Dar come back from the dead just to protect him?
Once Dar was sure the two Nord soldiers were out of the game, he turned his attention to Tao. The boy was huddled on the floor in tears, staring up at him in obvious disbelief. All of Dar's concern for his friend flooded through his heart and soul at once, threatening to overwhelm him. He could see that it was already overwhelming his best and dearest friend.
"Tao," Dar spoke softly as he knelt beside the closest thing he had to a brother. "Are you okay?"
"Dar?" Tao knew then that it was the BeastMaster. There was no mistaking him. Somehow, he was still alive. Tao threw his arms around Dar, who returned the embrace. "You're alive!"
"Yeah," Dar spoke softly as he held his friend. "I'm not going anywhere, Tao. Everything will be all right now." They held each other for a moment longer before Dar urged Tao to his feet. Together, they glanced inside the sanctuary. Voden was watching the fight in disgust as Vikoro easily held off his men.
"Vikoro!" Dar called for the Assassin. The fight paused for a moment as all eyes turned towards the BeastMaster.
"No!" Voden shouted when he recognized Dar. He then shouted at his men: "Leave the Assassin to me! Kill the BeastMaster and bring me back his friend!" As if to prove his own resolve, Voden drew his own sword and held it up to Vikoro.
The guards glanced uncertainly at Voden for a moment, but that was it. Vikoro would be willing to kill. Dar would not. And if they disobeyed orders, Voden would be willing to kill. They weren't completely stupid. They all made for Dar and Tao.
"Run!" Vikoro shouted. "Get Tao to safety!" The Assassin himself wasn't about to go anywhere now that Voden had challenged him. He was determined to carry out his promise to make the Nord King pay for invading the Temple and using Fawn against him.
Dar could sense this, but he could also sense Tao's fear, and knew the boy wouldn't want to lose sight of the BeastMaster. He had to protect Tao. Taking a deep breath, he made a choice to leave Voden behind with Vikoro, who would probably try to kill him.
"Let's go, Tao," Dar said before urging him down the corridor. They bolted away from the sanctuary side by side with Voden's men on their heels.
Vikoro watched them leave for a moment before turning to face Voden. They stared at each other. The King and the Assassin. Both eager to kill the other. Vikoro hesitated for a single second. He was the fighter. Voden, a King of such youth, could only be a man of intelligence. And yet, here he stood, holding up a sword, ready to challenge his newest enemy in a fight to the death. Something just wasn't right with this. Vikoro frowned, nevertheless holding up his own weapon.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Vikoro asked in a calm but hateful voice, watching the Nord carefully.
"I have been waiting for this Assassin," Voden replied. "For the punishment of defying me is death." His own calm certainty concerned Vikoro. But he was too eager to fight, too eager to kill. Feeling everything that Dar believed no good fighter should ever feel, Vikoro charged.
He did not sense the presence of gold until it was too late. Suddenly, Vikoro's legs collapsed from beneath him and his head exploded with pain. He screamed in agony as he dropped his sword and fell onto his hands and knees. Looking up, he saw Voden staring down at him in contempt. The Nord held up his wrists, and Vikoro saw two large golden bracelets fastened on them.
"Fool," Voden spat, kneeling down beside the fallen Assassin. He held his wrists closer to Vikoro, who screamed even louder as excruciating pain flowed through his entire body, torturing him. Never in his life had he ever felt anything like this before. Voden touched his face. "You should have known better than to defy me. No one goes unpunished when they try."
In a last effort to resist, Vikoro managed to whisper: "Dar does."
Voden scowled before pressing the surface of the gold against Vikoro's skin. The Assassin screamed as no one had ever screamed before. The sound of his cry echoed in the large chamber, and carried throughout the entire Temple.
Fawn was guiding the last of the prisoners safely inside the Temple when she heard the sound of a man screaming in pain. All the prisoners having gathered together in the hidden room looked around and whispered nervously amongst themselves. They did not know what was happening, but the scream could not have meant anything good. Something was wrong.
Suddenly Fawn could see Vikoro standing before her. He smiled at her softly, and whispered the three words that echoed in her heart. She shook her head as tears filled her eyes. The vision ended.
"Vikoro!" Fawn screamed in fear for her love. She bolted away from the crowd of freed Leyarn. She bolted towards the main corridors that would lead to the sanctuaries. She ran when she got there. Ran towards the sound of the screams. Ran towards her love, her husband, her Vikoro.
When Dar heard the screams, he immediately stopped fleeing and faced his pursuers. The Nords came at him ready to kill. Tao ran to watch from behind a statue as Dar fought off the soldiers. Around his feet, Kodo and Podo watched the fight as well. It only lasted a few moments. But as it lasted, so did the screams, and Tao found himself listening to them in horror. Someone was being tortured. Tao had a feeling it might be Vikoro. Surprisingly, it made him feel sick. Concern for the Assassin swept through the boy, and when Dar finally knocked out the soldiers, Tao was the first to head back to the sanctuary where Voden had held him prisoner.
Vikoro lay on his back on the floor, staring up towards the ceiling that could not be seen at night. Voden stood towering over him, satisfied with his work. The Assassin was in too much pain, he could barely move. It was time for Voden to finish this and leave the Temple to wake his army and see to it that the BeastMaster stayed dead once and for all.
He raised his sword and plunged it into Vikoro's heart. The Assassin gasped, choking in pain and despair. Voden pulled his sword free and watched as blood soaked the Temple floor.
He then walked towards the doors leading out into the corridor. Before he made it out, Fawn suddenly rounded the corner and almost collided with the Nord. Voden stopped short and stared at her with some alarm, but she gave him none of her attention. She saw the body of her husband lying behind him and cried out in horror.
"Vikoro!" She pushed past Voden and ran to his side. The Nord King watched for only a second before continuing out of the Temple, leaving Fawn to watch her lover die.
Dar and Tao ran together as fast as they could, but both sensed that they would probably be too late. As they ran, they past by the grand entrance of the Temple. Dar glanced towards it in time to see Voden heading outside, pausing only to glance over his shoulder to look at the BeastMaster.
Though Tao continued running towards the sanctuary, Dar paused to consider going after Voden. They stared at each other silently for a moment, until Dar made his decision to follow Tao. Vikoro would need his help. He could deal with Voden at another time.
Dar continued after Tao, racing towards the sanctuary and leaving Voden behind.
When Tao reached the sanctuary, he found Fawn sitting beside the motionless body of her husband. Vikoro's eyes were closed, his skin was covered in burns, his clothes were torn, and his chest was bleeding profusely. The smell of a dying man sickened Tao, who felt like vomiting at what he saw.
Fawn was in tears as she held Vikoro's body. She was trembling, and looked ready to die herself. Tao knew exactly how she felt. He raced to her side.
"He's gone," Fawn was crying. "He's gone! He's gone! Please! No!" She stared down at Vikoro in pure anguish.. "Please come back!"
"Can't you heal him?" Tao asked as he knelt down and felt Vikoro's neck for a pulse. There was none.
"Not without Dust," Fawn cried. Dar appeared in the sanctuary with Kodo and Podo. Fawn was shaking. "I don't have any!"
"Vikoro said there was Dust in the walls," Dar told them. He glanced at Fawn. "Is that true?"
Fawn stared up at him, practically convulsing. Her panic was preventing her from thinking clearly, and though she knew the stories, she could remember none of them. She shook her head. "I… don't know… Yes… But I can't…" Her sobbing got the better of her and she just broke down.
Dar hurried over to her and pulled her away from Vikoro's bleeding body. He held her close, trying to hold her still and keep her warm.
Tao looked pale as he remained at Vikoro's side, contemplating Dar's words. Dust in the walls of the Temple? He glanced around and could feel the eerie, menacing presence of the magical Dust. Was that why the Temple seemed so dark? Because the Dust was angry?
"But then the Dust would be some sort of living, thinking creature. And not just the mineral I've always thought of it as." Tao's own words echoed in his memory.
"Can you imagine it, Dar? The Dust choosing men and women to help them work the magic that heals others? Do you have any idea how honored these people must be?"
"I can easily see you with that honor, Tao." Was it possible? Tao trembled at the thought.
"Well if there is Dust here," he spoke to no one in particular, but the words came from his heart. "It can use me to Heal."
Light suddenly poured out from the rose window. Tao glanced up at it as Dar and Fawn spun around to look as well, taken completely by surprise. The light shone in every color imaginable. Gold, silver, purple, green, blue, violet, teal, orange, yellow, scarlet, pink, indigo, and countless others. The light was in its purest form, bright, and perfect. Its beauty was unspeakable, and as Dar gazed at it in wonder, he felt Fawn grow still in his arms as peace brought her strength and tranquility. Soon, the light bathed the entire chamber before spreading out to bath the entire Temple. It was pure, untainted magic.
Far away, in a cave deep in the forest, a beautiful woman turned her head to look north. She frowned as an elderly man magically appeared in the cave at her side. "Do you feel that?" The New Sorceress glanced at the Ancient One.
"Yes," he nodded his head solemnly. "Tonight will be a night remembered for a long time. A night when magic flows free and is not used by the likes of us."
The Sorceress gazed at him in wonder. "Is that even possible?" When the Ancient did not answer, she felt greatly intrigued by the whole affair. "How?"
"Ages ago, the Ninika set it free," he spoke simply and quietly. "And it will not be tamed." He glanced at her fondly. "But there is no cause for alarm. The Balance will remain."
"The magic," the Sorceress whispered. "It feels so… pure and good. I want to feel more of it."
"As do all," the Ancient replied. "Stay here and bask in it while it lasts, but once it is gone, accept it. That magic does not serve us and is out of our reach. Do not try touching it once it has left." With those words, he vanished, leaving the Sorceress in the cave to feel the power of the Dust.
Arina stepped out of the tent with Herana and the other girls behind her. Every Nord around her stood as she did, staring at the Temple in wonder. Through the stained glass windows, they could see the light reflecting from inside the building. The light was like nothing Arina had ever seen before, and held her transfixed. It was beautiful.
"What's happening?" Fawn whispered as the light practically consumed them. Dar could only shake his head in wonder. He had no idea.
"Tao?" he glanced towards his friend, who still sat by Vikoro's side. The boy did not answer.
Suddenly, Tao was on his feet and running towards the altar. Dar and Fawn watched through the magic light as Tao carefully picked up a basin that had been placed there. When Tao turned to face Vikoro, Dar saw his friend's eyes glowing silver. The BeastMaster grew terrified for his friend.
"Wait!" Fawn held Dar back when the BeastMaster would have run to the boy's side. He glanced at her in confusion and saw through her tears that there was now hope in her eyes. "The Dust is in Tao! It's going to use him to try Healing Vikoro!"
"Vikoro's dead," Dar objected, but Fawn ignored him and looked back towards Tao. The boy was carrying the basin that she knew to be filled with water over towards Vikoro.
Kneeling once again at his side, Tao poured the water onto the wound. After that, light seemed to flow into Vikoro's body. A moment later, he awoke gasping for air as the burns on his skin disappeared and the wound on his chest closed and healed. The light slowly poured back to its place in the rose window.
Vikoro coughed and stared at Tao in shock. The boy, whose eyes were back to normal, gazed at the Assassin while feeling a great deal of shock himself. What had happened?
"Vikoro!" Fawn pushed away from Dar and ran to her husband. He gazed at her in confusion, but accepted her into his arms when she reached him. In that moment, Dar was also at Tao's side, crouching down beside him and placing a hand on his shoulder. Tao glanced up at him, feeling weak and shaky, but otherwise his normal self. The Dust had Healed his pain as much as it had Healed Vikoro's wounds.
"Maybe I can be the DustMaster after all," Tao said lightly. Dar grinned and glanced at Vikoro and Fawn, who were still clinging to each other in a tight embrace.
"We should go," the BeastMaster told them. "Voden will be coming back to finish this."
"Ah, yeah," Tao cut in somewhat apprehensively. "Right now I don't think we need to worry about Voden."
Vikoro and Fawn pulled away from each other and stared at Tao in surprise. "What do you mean?"
"When the Dust was inside of me," Tao told them quickly. "It spoke to me. It told me so much, but spoke of ending this itself. We should go, but not because of Voden."
"I don't understand," Fawn said, but a moment later, they all understood all too well.
The Temple shook. Its walls trembled as the floor beneath them literally moved. Fawn screamed, clutching Vikoro as candelabrums crashed to the floor. As Dar steadied himself and Tao, they watched as a long crack formed in one of the walls. Another formed in a pillar.
"Dar!" Tao shouted in alarm. The BeastMaster forced Tao to his feet before he helped Vikoro stand.
"We need to go," he told them urgently. "Now!"
Fawn was shaking her head in horror. "My people are still in the Temple!" she cried out in fear. Dar glanced at her in concern.
"On the west side! The room is hidden. You won't be able to find them!" she was in tears again.
"Dar, if we don't get out of here soon, this place will fall on our heads!" Tao warned them all.
Kodo and Podo were shrieking wildly and Dar glanced at them. The gift connecting them set off, and the ferrets showed Dar how they had managed to sneak into the Temple in the first place. Dar thanked them before the connection broke. He turned towards Tao.
"Come here," he urged the boy. Tao did and Dar helped Vikoro place his weight on the boy. Fawn quickly came over to help support the Assassin as well.
"Where are you going?" Tao demanded. Fawn was trembling as she looked up at Dar in fear. Vikoro also gazed at the other man in concern.
"Kodo and Podo showed me where they are," he told them. "I'm going after them! You three get underground and find Kryanah. I'll be quicker if I go by myself."
"Be careful, Dar!" Tao commanded. The BeastMaster only nodded before once again glancing at the ferrets and urging them to remain with Tao. After that, he started off towards the west side of the Temple.
Tao glanced nervously at Vikoro and Fawn. The Assassin nodded, and his wife began guiding them back towards the hidden chamber that led to the cavern underground. The ferrets followed closely on their heels.
Outside, Voden and his men watched as the Temple started falling apart. Voden was furious. But seeing that there was nothing the Nords could do to prevent the Temple from complete destruction, they retreated into the forest.
Once they were a relatively safe distance away, Voden turned to watch the Temple implode. It was a loud process. Rocks and marble breaking apart and falling towards the earth, glass shattering, the ground itself trembling… It was difficult to hear anything but destruction.
"This is your doing, BeastMaster," Voden grumbled hatefully. "But don't think you have won."
He listened coldly and heartlessly to the sounds of the Nords surrounding him, all frantically trying to gather their belongings and flee. Though he fled with them, his only concern was that the BeastMaster had outmaneuvered him again. He thought about his last conversation with the Assassin. When he told Vikoro that no one went unpunished after defying him.
It was as simple as that. Voden continuously found himself failing against the BeastMaster. But it would not last forever.
Voden glanced over his shoulder one last time to watch the Temple's destruction. "You will not be punished for this, BeastMaster. You will be tortured."
Dar ran as fast as he could. The walls and ceiling was crashing all around him, but he managed to make his way at top speed and with no hesitation. The ground trembled, but Dar hardly stumbled once. He was like a blur, running faster than the wind, unaffected by the destruction around him.
The Leyarn stood together right where Fawn had left them. The Temple was crashing down around them, and they were paralyzed in their fear. Too afraid to leave through the secret door where the Nords would be outside waiting for them, and too afraid to venture deeper inside the Temple where they might be buried alive, instead they waited in terror.
But in a single moment, a man appeared through the threshold Fawn had bolted through when the screaming had begun. The Leyarn stared at the stranger in shock, barely able to identify him as a friend who could only be the BeastMaster.
"We have to hurry!" Dar shouted over the noise of vast destruction. "We need to get to a secret chamber leading underground. We'll be safe from the Nords there!"
"I know the way!" A man quickly bolted through the threshold and into the Temple. Just the appearance of someone like Dar who could take command and offer them a way out provided the Leyarn with motivation and courage. They were paralyzed no longer.
Several more seemed to know the way as well, and they all filed out at a fast sprint, desperate to get to safety outside the collapsing Temple. Dar watched them go and waited until they had all started ahead of him. Taking up the rear, he followed after the last man and kept an eye open to make sure they were all safe.
The trap door on the floor of the secret chamber Fawn had brought them to had actually looked like a piece of marble on the ground. Tao stared at it in open astonishment when Fawn showed him where it was. Now as they pried it open, Tao could see a steep set of stairs tunneling into a cave underground.
Carefully, Fawn and Tao helped Vikoro down the stairs. In the darkness at the bottom, they found Kryanah sitting against the cavern wall, holding a torch up and watching them in fear.
"What's going on?" she asked, her voice trembling slightly. She stood to better light the way for the three newcomers. "It sounds like the world is falling apart!"
"No, just the Temple," Fawn explained as they walked deeper into the cave before helping Vikoro lie down to rest. Kryanah was shaking.
"Where is Dar?" she asked fearfully.
"He went to get our people," Fawn said softly as she caressed her husband's face. He was covered in sweat. The Healing may have fixed his wounds, but it left him exhausted and weak as it did all men and women. In fact, the only man to not have suffered the aftereffects of a Healing had been Dar. It reminded Kryanah that Dar was the BeastMaster. He was not the average man.
"Don't worry," Tao told Kryanah gently as he came to stand beside her. "Dar will make it out. And so will your people."
Kryanah nodded. "I hope so."
The Temple shook violently. Dar almost lost his footing while half of the Leyarn actually did. They screamed and cried out in fear, but as soon as they could, they continued going. Dar followed close behind when his attention was caught by a middle-aged looking man. He was running back towards the BeastMaster, desperately searching for someone as he was calling out a name.
Dar bolted towards him and grabbed him by the shoulders. "Please, sir, you have to leave with the others."
"I can't find my daughter!" the man shouted frantically. "She was with me and then the Temple shook and she was gone!"
Dar felt a wave of panic sweep through him and he glanced around the Temple that was falling apart. He could not see any sign of a missing girl.
"Her name is Tyra, and I will die if anything happens to her!" the man wailed desperately. "She's only nine years old!"
"Nothing will happen to her!" Dar promised before urging the man back towards the others. "I will find her! You go!"
The man shook his head, looking desperate to stay and help, but two other, younger men had heard the exchange and came back to drag the father away with them. Dar nodded at them gratefully before turning around to look for a missing child.
Underground, the four companions and two ferrets could all hear the sounds of people approaching. They all glanced up in time to see a group of Leyarn men pouring into the cave. When they reached the bottom, they barely had time to acknowledge Tao and the others before turning to help guide even more Leyarn underground.
A few of the women saw Fawn and Vikoro, and raced to assist the Assassin. Kryanah stood to offer more light to the Leyarn flooding into the cave. Tao stood beside her, waiting for any sign of Dar's presence. But he found none.
"Tyra!" Dar shouted as he retraced his steps and searched in every corner for a lost little girl. But as the Temple continued to collapse around him, there was no sign of her anywhere.
The last of the Leyarn nearly fell into the underground cavern. Dar was not with them, and one of the men was sobbing hysterically.
"What's wrong?" Kryanah asked as she and Tao approached the two men supporting the frantic one.
"Where's Dar?" he asked, glancing from one to the other. They stared back at Tao and Kryanah solemnly.
"Tyra's missing," one finally told Kryanah. "The man who came for us went to find her."
Kryanah didn't know how to respond to that, and she glanced at Tao in deep concern. He glanced back, dejectedly, but not without hope. Though the Temple would be crashing down around him, Dar had survived worse in the past. He simply couldn't die from being buried alive!
Dar couldn't find her. He had no idea where she was. A bit of the ceiling broke off and plummeted to the ground. Dar barely had time to get out of the way. Looking around, he saw a pillar cracking in half. It suddenly collapsed, and was headed right towards the BeastMaster!
Dar pushed himself forward and rolled. He scrambled from left to right, avoiding pieces of the Temple as they fell around him. It grew increasingly difficult with each passing moment.
Suddenly he heard what he had been hoping to hear. Sounds of a crying child. Dar breathed in relief and followed the sounds. Almost immediately he found a sobbing young girl lying on the ground. Her right leg was bent out of shape, and Dar knew that it was broken. Large bits of rock and marble were surrounding her, hiding her from sight, and it was a wonder nothing had crushed her fragile body.
"Tyra!" Dar made his way over to her and she looked up at him in fear. Though she continued to cry, Dar wasted no time in scooping her up into his arms and making off with her towards the room with the trap door. All the while, the Temple crashed around him.
Underground, the Leyarn were running out of patience. Many of them began moving farther into the cavern, searching for better shelter. Two women helped Fawn move Vikoro, but no matter how many left, Kryanah stayed with the light, standing beside Tao and the man whose daughter was missing.
Finally, the two men who had dragged the father down into the cavern came for him, Tao, and Kryanah.
"It will be dangerous staying here any longer," one man told them. "We shall wait for the BeastMaster farther up in the cave."
"I have to wait for Tyra," the father objected. He looked frantic, still in the midst of a panic. "I have to… I can't… I… just want Tyra back!"
"You'll get her back," Tao assured him before looking back at the two Leyarn men. "I'm staying. I don't care if Kryanah goes with the light. I am going to wait for Dar."
"He should have been out by now," the other man spoke sadly. "If he were not dead…"
"He's not!" Tao said urgently. He had faith in Dar. He had just gotten him back! He wouldn't consider losing him again. "It'll take more than a Temple to kill Dar."
He was almost there. Dar ran as fast as possible holding this girl in his arms. As he tried not to injure her further, he also tried to avoid the falling pieces of a once beautiful building. As they continued crashing down, the girl continued to cry, and Dar forced himself to run faster. He couldn't fail to protect her. She was just too young. He had to get her to safety.
Up ahead, Dar could see a pillar falling. He wouldn't get past it in time. If he tried, it would crush him. Dar stopped short just as the pillar collided against the far wall. Stone and marble burst towards him in a shower of debris. Dar spun around and covered Tyra with his own body, trying to protect her. The Temple shook, and Dar feared he wouldn't make it out in time. The child in his arms kept crying as Dar tried to think of something. The pillar had blocked his path, and as all the pillars in that Temple were, it was just too huge. The width of that single pillar was greater than Dar's own height, and it was perfectly smooth. It would be impossible to climb over.
Dar glanced back at the large piece of marble. Despite its size, he realized he could get past it. He only wondered if he could get past it with Tyra in his arms. He looked down at her, aware of his limited options.
"Hold on!" He told her before turning and running back the way he had come. Once he was a good distance away, he turned once again. Facing the pillar, he quickly scanned his surroundings. The ceiling was falling down; the walls were bursting apart. He would have to time this perfectly.
Dar ran forward. Behind him, another pillar fell. To his right, a window shattered. Dar ignored the debris that landed only inches from his body as he bolted towards the pillar. He brought himself to jump.
Tyra screamed as the BeastMaster vaulted over the fallen pillar. It had to have been at least a six and a half-foot jump. In the air, Dar feared dropping the girl. But the fear only lasted as long as his flight had, for a moment later, he landed in a crouch safely on the other side. He continued sprinting towards the trapdoor.
Up ahead, he saw that the entrance into the secret chamber had been left open. Silently he thanked the last men through. He sprinted inside, found the trapdoor, and practically dove towards the stairs leading underground. Above him, everything fell apart.
"Dar!" Tao watched in relief as the BeastMaster somehow managed to fall gracefully down the steep set of stairs. The father beside him cried out in joy when he saw the small form in Dar's arms.
The sounds of destruction abruptly ended, and when Tao glanced up at the trapdoor, he found that there no longer was a trapdoor. It had been sealed off by dirt, stone, and marble. Had Dar been only a moment later, both he and the girl he carried would have died. And this time, it would have been for real.
Dar twisted his body to land on his back, hoping to protect Tyra from the fall. Her father raced to relieve her from the BeastMaster even as Tao went to help Dar stand. Kryanah stood back and continued to offer light.
The girl wrapped her arms around her father, even as Dar warned him to be careful with her leg.
"It's broken," Dar explained. "You'll need to Heal it, or get someone to Heal it for you."
The man nodded as he held his daughter tight. "Thank you. Thank you so much…"
Dar nodded before taking a moment to catch his breath. It had been a very long night.
"Are you okay?" Tao asked his friend. Dar glanced down at him and smiled and nodded. He wrapped an arm around Tao's shoulder.
"Come on," he suggested. "Let's get out of here."
The rest of the Leyarn were waiting not too far away. In the darkness of these caves, they wouldn't try their luck going far without Kryanah's light. And everyone was eager to celebrate when they saw that both Dar and Tyra were safe.
Vikoro, who was resting on the ground with his head in Fawn's lap, looked up when Dar, Tao, Kryanah, and Kodo and Podo all approached. He grinned when Dar knelt beside him.
"Glad to see you made it," the Assassin told the BeastMaster. "Now we can get some fresh air."
"How do you feel?" Dar asked in concern. "You actually were dead."
"Maybe, but I wasn't ready to move on," Vikoro shrugged. "Now, I'm just tired." He glanced up at Tao. "You Healed me. Even after what I did to you."
"Yeah," Tao smiled and shrugged. "You aren't an evil man, Vikoro. You didn't deserve to die like that. Nobody does."
"What about Voden?" Vikoro demanded.
"He made it out," Dar cut in swiftly. "I saw him leave the Temple. So he'll still be around, probably for awhile yet."
"But Dar will be around for a much longer while," Tao predicted optimistically. Dar and Vikoro both glanced at the boy, who grinned. "I mean, come on! Look at everything he's survived through today."
"And not just him," Fawn agreed. She gazed meaningfully at her husband. "But all of us."
The trek out of the cave did not seem as long as the first trek through the cave had. It seemed as though only seconds had gone by before the Leyarn and their friends were climbing out of cavern and back into the world above ground.
Dar was the last one to leave the world below. Ascending up into the fresh air that was – though still cold – undeniably warmer than the air below ground had been, he felt like he was ascending into some sort of heaven. It felt good to be outside in the forest again.
Kodo and Podo seemed to agree. They immediately shot deeper into the woods, jumping over roots and over each other, chirping excitedly all the way. In the sky, Dar could see Sharak soaring towards them. The eagle let out a pleased cry as he soared higher into the sky. In the distance, Dar could sense Ruh's presence. But with all the Leyarn present, the BeastMaster knew better than to expect an actual appearance from the tiger. But that didn't matter, for at the moment, everything in the forest and all the animals living there were at peace.
The Leyarn were celebrating. Even as they tended to the wounds of those who were injured, they talked and laughed in pure joy and relief. They had all made it out. They were all free.
Dar and Tao sat with Vikoro, Fawn, and Kryanah. The father sat with Tyra a few yards away, with several other Leyarn who had come to help Heal her injured leg. An elder of the Leyarn approached the small group and quickly sat with them. He was smiling brightly at Dar.
"You have done us a great service, BeastMaster," the elder said sincerely. "We are in your debt."
"No," Dar shook his head pleasantly. "I think all debts have been paid pretty fairly."
"Not all," Vikoro disagreed, glancing at Tao. "I don't know that I'll ever be able to pay for what I put you through. And then you saved my life. I can apologize and I can thank you, but I don't feel that that is enough."
"I don't ask for any more," Tao assure d him. He glanced at Kryanah. "I feel that I owe you for saving Dar's life."
"Okay, okay!" Fawn held up her hands. "While we're at it, why don't I just thank Voden for hiring Arina? She's the one who got me out of there in the first place."
Dar grinned and glanced back at the elder. "So what will you do now? Where will your people go?"
"North," the elder said. "There are other Leyarn tribes who will offer us shelter. And maybe together, we can find a way to defend our people from the Nords." He cocked his head slightly, looking from Dar to Tao. "You are both welcome among our people, should you ever need a place to stay." He smiled warmly at Tao. "You could learn more about the Dust you helped save Vikoro."
"Mm," Tao shook his head. "When the Dust chose me to Heal Vikoro, it was like the magic became a part of me. It was as if the Dust could think and share its thoughts with people. It shared its thoughts with me. Now that I try to recall what was said, I can't. I don't know what it told me, but I can still feel it. And I am content with that."
The elder smiled and inclined his head in understanding.
Tao glanced back at Dar. "I almost lost you today."
"But you didn't," Dar reminded him.
"I know," Tao agreed, smiling. "And I don't expect to any time soon."
Dar grinned and nodded. Turning his head to the east, he could see through the trees and the leaves the first few brilliant rays of the rising sun. It was going to be a beautiful day.