"Forget Me Not"

by Karen Stewart

Spoilers: Everything in Season 1, 2 and 3 are fair game.

Setting: After the Season 3 episode, "Choices"

Disclaimer: I don't own them. If I did, I would be renting them out to pay for my next vacation. All but Tao that is, he's coming with me!

As the sun slowly sank behind the mountains, Dar, taking pity on his exhausted traveling companion, began scouting for a suitable campsite. Finding one, he left in search of provisions for the night. Grateful for the rest, Tao sank to his knees in the spongy moss, weariness evident in his face and posture. They had traveled hard these last few days, combing the foothills for Dar's lost brother, who had been ensorcelled into a goat by their father, King Eldar.

Eyes closed and head bowed, Tao only heard the approaching footsteps. Believing it to be Dar, he suddenly tensed as in silence a strong hand clasped his shoulder.

"Don't do that!" the Eiron exclaimed until as his gaze locked with that of Dartanus, Dar's recently absent spirit guide. Noting his serious expression he panicked, "Is it Dar's family? The Ark? I'll go find Dar," Tao scrambled up on his feet.

Dartanus grabbed him by the arm and pulled him close, hissing, "Dar's family is safe. It is you I need to speak with." He motioned for Tao to take his seat and then sat opposite him. He began gravely, "This isn't going to be easy to hear, but it must be said."

Taking a deep breath, he looked Tao square in the eye and continued, "I know how close the two of you are, but the time for sacrifice has come. Dar cannot focus all his energy on the goal of reuniting his family, while at the same time watching out after you. He cannot protect you both at the same time. It is draining him."

Stung, Tao replied, "I have been trying to defend myself and be less of a burden to him."

"I know you have," Dartanus agreed, "but the fate of the world is at stake and his allegiance has been torn. Dar will have no hope of defeating Balcifer if his family is not reunited. The world will continue its plunge into darkness and chaos. Remember just a few weeks ago, Dar chose to save you and in doing so Callista almost destroyed the Ark? Now," Dartanus held up his hand forestalling Tao's argument, "I'm not saying he made the wrong choice; I am just saying if he had been alone, he wouldn't have had to make one at all. Not only that, but you can't seem to stay out of trouble, even when he asks you to. His quest would be so much easier if he didn't have you to worry about."

Tao sat there stunned, finally gathering his wits about him enough to reply, "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying," Dartanus replied gently, "that you need to leave Dar."

Dwelling on that thought momentarily, Tao answered, "Will he let me? I mean, I think he would be more worried if he wasn't there to protect me."

"I've taken that into consideration." Dartanus pulled a small leather flask from his hip pocket, "Have you ever heard of the Waters of Leithe?"

"Yes," Tao began cautiously, "there is a legend that the Waters will cause a person to forget their past life, allowing them to overcome memories that they have not been able to live with. But what possible good will it do for Dar to forget the past?"

"Not the past, " Dartanus corrected, "just you. I have some small ability that will allow me to change the properties of the water, so that Dar remembers everything and everyone in his past, except that is, for you."

"What about Ruh, Sharak, Arina…?" Tao queried, "They won't have forgotten me. Won't they be confused when they realize that Dar has? Won't they try to convince him to look for me or come looking themselves?"

"Yes," Dartanus admitted, "the animals and Arina will remember you, but Dar will be so single-minded in his quest that it will persuade them that you are no longer important to him."

Tao's tortured gaze fixed itself on his intertwined hands, "Would it be permanent?" he asked softly.

"No," the spirit guide denied, "After Dar defeats Balcifer, I can lift the veil of forgetfulness from his mind and you will be free to rejoin him. In fact, there are enough of the Waters that you too could share in its gift."

"Forget Dar?" the Eiron mused, savoring memories of a happier time, "No, I still want to help in his fight and anyway," he smiled to himself, "he wouldn't be that easy to forget."

Dartanus nodded in agreement, "I cannot bind this decision on you. It has to be yours and yours alone. I will leave you with the flask. Remember, one cup full will be enough and it will cause him to fall into a deep sleep. If you give it to him tonight, it will take effect at first light. Be sure you are gone by then, since to him, you will be a stranger." He arose, clasped arms with the confused scholar and began walking out of sight.

Taking several deep calming breaths, Tao didn't notice as Dar returned to camp, arms loaded with firewood. "I thought I heard voices," Dar questioned his too silent companion.

Tao looked up nervously, stammering, "No, no, I was talking to myself."

Dar frowned, not quite believing his friend, but unwilling to label him a liar. Starting a fire, he announced, "There's a stream nearby. You rest a while longer. I am going to catch us some dinner."

Tao struggled to maintain a composed face as he responded, "Great. I'll get tend the fire and then draw some more water for our waterskins."

Knowing that with Dar away, this was the perfect opportunity, Tao poured half of the Waters of Leithe into his waterskin, then hid the flask away in his pack. His tortured heart wanted nothing more than to pour the tainted water in the ground. His mind, however, realized the truth in Dartanus' words. That he was and had always been, a liability to Dar. He tried to reconcile the decision to himself. He knew Dar would be able to travel faster alone and would have not only the animals' help, but Arina's as well. How much help had he been? All he had done was to slow Dar down and cause him to split his attention, when the focus should've been solely on reuniting his family members. Letting Dar go was a small price to pay to secure a victory over Balcifer. Anyway, the sooner the battle was won, the sooner they would be reunited. That is, if Dar would even want to see him again.

With the fish fried up golden brown, the duo sat in silence, completing their meal. Dar's unease increased as his normally expressive friend had to be drawn out of his shell, almost refusing even to answer the simplest of questions. "What's wrong?" he finally asked, licking the remains of dinner from his fingers.

"Nothing," Tao answered, a fake smile plastered on his face, "I was just enjoying the meal. Let me refill your cup." He reached down, picking up the waterskin, and knelt by Dar, pouring the Waters into his cup.

"Thanks, fish always makes me very thirsty," he commented, draining the cup dry in two gulps.

Knowing the deed was done, Tao watched Dar by the glow of the dying embers. He had planned on sneaking out of camp just before dawn, but until then, he wanted to burn Dar's image into his mind. But first, he wanted just one last conversation, something to remember his friend by, until they could be reunited.

"Dar, have you ever thought what your life would be like if we had never met?" He felt free to pursue this line of questioning, knowing that even now the magical waters of forgetfulness were coursing through Dar's veins.

Dar's senses, already on alert, heightened with fear, but his voice held no trace of it as he answered jokingly, "Well, I'm sure it would've been quieter." He quickly abandoned his lighthearted tone, when he saw Tao's downcast expression and hurt flashing in his eyes.

He scooted over closer to Tao, projecting sincerity in his voice, "I couldn't even begin to imagine a life without you in it. You know how important you are to me."

"Too important," Tao retorted hotly, "There have been times when I wondered which was more important to you, me or the quest. I am beginning to think that I should've taken the Vella up on her offer to stay and study in her archives."

"No!" roared Dar, "Don't ever think that you are less important to me or that you should sacrifice yourself on behalf of this quest. I won't allow it. Knowing you has given meaning to my life and although I wouldn't stand in your way if I truly thought wanted to leave, but I would never let you leave me in a misguided attempt to protect me."

"Even if it meant your destiny could not be fulfilled, that Balcifer would control the world?" Tao's words came softly, knowing now in his heart that he had made the right decision. Dar would never willingly let him sacrifice their friendship, even for the good of the world.

"Tao, none of us can fully control our destiny. We are shaped not only by our actions, but the actions of those around us. Don't ever feel that you are less important than anyone. Your contribution to this fight is just as important as Ruh's, Arina's or mine." Dar clasped Tao on the shoulder and smiled, hoping he had calmed Tao's self doubts, "Now let's get some sleep. We have a lot of ground to cover tomorrow." He stretched himself out on the ground and was soon fast asleep.

Tao had always envied his friend's ability to surrender himself into the arms of Morpheus so quickly, but tonight he knew it was partly due to the magical Waters. Although he understood he too needed rest, he couldn't take the chance that he might oversleep and be the cause of an awkward scene in the morning. So he spent the whole night, cross-legged on the ground, meditating.

As dawn approached, Tao quietly gathered his things, including the flask of Water, leaving no trace that he had ever been there. Bending over his slumbering friend, he whispered, "Till we meet again," and walked out of Dar's life.

Dar awoke suddenly several hours later, an unexplained emptiness in his heart. He acknowledged to himself that this was just another morning in his lonely existence. He regretted that he had never found someone to completely share his journey with, although Arina, Ruh, Sharak and even the ferrets were good companions. He smiled ruefully to himself and wondered where his contemplative mood had come from. It wasn't like him to dwell on his emotional situation; his quest was too important.

After a few hours on the goat's trail, Dar was stopped by a sudden growl in the underbrush. "Ruh!" he exclaimed joyfully as knelt down and communicated with his oldest friend, 'How are your cubs? Yes, I know they won't be cubs much longer.'

Ruh sniffed around then communicated back to Dar in puzzlement, 'Where's Tao?' He flashed a picture of the Eiron into Dar's mind.

Then it was Dar's turn to look confused as he concentrated on the picture in his mind, 'I don't recognize him. I don't know anyone named Tao. Is he from one of the villages we passed through recently?'

Concern tinged Ruh's reply, 'No, he is our Eiron friend. The clumsy, talkative one who has been with us for over two years now.'

'I'm sorry, Ruh, I don't know who you are talking about. I think I would certainly remember if I had a clumsy, talkative friend',' Dar rose to his feet and started back along the path, calling out over his shoulder, " I'm glad to see you back, old friend. I may need your help in tracking my brother."

Worried, Ruh wanted to backtrack to see if he could pick up Tao's trail, but misunderstanding Dar's nonchalance about the matter, let it drop. He followed the Beastmaster as loyally as ever, but deep down hoped the young scholar was safe.

Back in Xinca, Dartanus appeared before an altar dedicated to Balcifer. Surrounded by the dark lord's minions, he proclaimed his undying allegiance as his visage changed from that of Dar's Spirit Guide to its true one, that of the Apparition of the Burning Forest.

"Lord Balcifer, I present my gift to you. I have broken the bonds of friendship between your sworn enemy, Dar, son of Eldar, and his companion, Tao the Eiron." The sky blackened and the wind howled in response as Balcifer's followers celebrated. Only Balcifer and the true Dartanus knew the importance of their friendship in the final battle, but the dark lord had promised great rewards to anyone who was able to separate them and the Apparition had an earlier failure to atone for. She laughed gleefully, believing she had thrown an obstacle in the way that would be impossible to overcome.

Tao continued to cheer himself up as he traveled back to the Vella's archives. He was glad she had given him an open invitation to return. The separation would've been more difficult if he had not had a destination already in mind when he left. Although he was eager to do research, in hopes of finding Dar some help in his fight against Balcifer, he knew dry tomes would be no comparison to the companionship of a true friend. Something he might have taken for granted these last few months as they continued to struggle with their quest. He envisioned Dar, with help from the animals, reuniting not only with his brother, but their mother as well.

Hopefully, he would hear of the successful outcome of the final battle. He only prayed that Dar would want to renew their friendship and would understand the sacrifice he had so willingly offered.

As the days went by, Dar began experiencing nightmares. A series of visions of the dark haired man called Tao: Tao unconscious, wounded, near death. Although supported emotionally by his animal companions, the Beastmaster nevertheless felt an emptiness that continued to drain his soul little by little.

Sharak returned from a visit to the Sorceress' lair and had questioned Dar about Tao's whereabouts. The eagle was shocked when he couldn't convince Dar of the need to search for their friend. Sharak knew this reeked of sorcery, but couldn't figure out its source. He made several reconnaissance flights, but was unable to find any sign of the Eiron.

Irritated at his own melancholy, Dar brightened at the thought of his upcoming reunion with Arina, who had been on reconnaissance for
several weeks. The Namib warrior was a good friend, his best human friend he supposed and if she couldn't counteract the loneliness, who could?

"Arina!" the Beastmaster called out in pure pleasure as she stepped unexpectedly into view. They shared a brief embrace as Arina began detailing her journey. She had run across several camps of Zad's knights on patrol, but there had been no sign of any other trouble.

Finishing her brief recitation, she looked around worriedly, "Dar, where's Tao?"

Dar sighed with exasperation, "That is the third time in two weeks that I have been asked that question."

Arina blanched as her mind latched onto his first few words, "Two weeks! You haven't seen Tao in two weeks? Come on, we need to
retrace your steps. He could be in trouble."

Dar nodded negatively, "Listen, I don't know anyone named Tao and I never have! If he's so important, why don't you go look for him?" he shot back over his shoulder as he began walking away.

"Dar," she called to his retreating back. He waved her off with an angry gesture and continued his trek through the brush.

"Yes, there is something seriously wrong here," a voice behind her agreed to her unspoken thoughts.

She whirled around, knife at the ready, "Who are you?" she asked warily to the seemingly unarmed middle-aged man who now stood before her.

"Dartanus," he replied grimly.

Arina nodded as she acknowledged him, "Dar's Spirit Guide."

"He's mentioned me?" Dartanus queried.

"Dar and I don't keep secrets from each other," she smiled, lost in her own memory, "Well, maybe one or two." She shook herself out of her reverie, "What are you doing here?"

"Something or someone has shifted the balance. I can only assume it is the work of Balcifer or one of his minions. We need to set it
right again to assure Dar the victory in the final battle." Dartanus' brows wrinkled, "Do you have any idea what could've happened?"

Arina looked thoughtful, "Well, I just arrived here myself, but there is something strange going on. Tao has been missing for two weeks
and Dar doesn't seem interested in finding him."

"Tao's missing?" the Spirit Guide almost paled, "Yes, that would definitely upset the balance. We need to speak with Dar."

Dar, having witnessed Dartanus' sudden appearance, had stopped along the trail and waited for he and Arina to join him. He hoped Dartanus would be able to explain his supposed loss of memory and the recurring visions that troubled his sleep.

Meanwhile, several miles away, Tao cursed his bad luck. Within a week of leaving Dar's protection, Tao had been unfortunate enough to run across several of Zad's knights out on patrol. Unbeknownst to him, the Apparition was taking no chances that he and Dar might be reunited and had tipped Zad off to the Eiron's whereabouts.

Tao was captured, knocked out and thrown into an empty hut, guarded day and night. He wasn't surprised by this turn of events, but was grateful that Dar, unknowing and even uncaring of his predicament, wouldn't have to be distracted by effecting a rescue. Unbound during meal times, he occasionally fingered the water flask, still half-filled with the Waters of Leithe, contemplating whether he could
knowingly obliterate Dar's memory from the very core of his being, even to save his own life.

As Dartanus and Dar greeted each other with a warrior's arm clasp, they were both startled at Kodo and Podo's reaction. Both ferrets
had been out foraging and were returning to Dar's awaiting pouch, when they spied the Spirit Guide. They began chattering loudly and
backing away.

Dar looked concerned as he picked them up and communicated with them, "They're scared of you," he told Dartanus in
confusion, "They're saying you sent Tao away and they think you have come back for them."

Dartanus replied grimly, "I haven't seen Tao since my last visit with you. Someone has used dark magic to separate the two of you. Dar, your memories have been tampered with. We need to remedy this immediately."

"Maybe so," Dar agreed, "but it doesn't matter. My destiny is to reunite my family and defeat Balcifer. No one individual's needs can
be placed above that. We will go looking for him after the final battle."

"Without him," Dartanus replied grimly, "your quest ends here."

"He's that important?" Dar frowned, not quite believing that anyone was more important to him than the defeat of Balcifer.

"Yes, he's part of the balance. Your friendship was predestined," Dartanus argued, trying to impress upon Dar the enormity of the

"If he's so important, than how come I can't remember him?" the Beastmaster retorted.

Seizing Dar by the neck, Dartanus stared deeply into his eyes, "I can only detect the faintest of magic surrounding you. The only natural
properties I know that can disturb memories are the Waters of Leithe. Someone must have tampered with them, causing only Tao's
memory to be wiped from your recollection."

Dar walked away, stunned. He was trying to believe them, that there was someone so important in his life that he had repeatedly chosen him over his destiny, someone brave enough to travel with him and ease his loneliness.

"Is there an antidote?" Arina asked worriedly, knowing that even though the gentle scholar's fighting skills had improved, that with
so many of Zad's patrols out, he was sure to get caught.

"No, not a physical cure," Dartanus answered sadly, "This will be a battle of the mind."

Several paces away, Dar turned towards them, "What about the visions I'm having at night?"

"What kind of visions?" Arina asked.

"Of Tao," Dar stumbled over the name, "hurt, maybe dying. They've been getting worse over the last week."

Dartanus replied, "If you are having nightmares, it means that in your heart you are acknowledging that Tao is in trouble. They will
only worsen until the two of you are safely reunited."

"But I don't even know him!" Dar cried out in anguish.

"Your mind may not remember him, but your heart does." Dartanus put his hand on the Beastmaster's shoulder, "Your bond of friendship is so deep that even now you are suffering from his loss. We need to restore your memory and find him quickly."

"And if he dies…?" Dar questioned, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"Then your nightmares will never end," Dartanus replied, "Your soul will cry out in its loss for all eternity."

Dar shuddered, his heart warring with his head. Part of him wanted to discount all that had been revealed to him and continue on with
his search for his brother. The other part of him whispered words of trust and comfort. He decided on his course of action and lowered
himself to the ground.

"Tell me what to do," he pleaded.

Kneeling down, Arina comforted him and they both looked to Dartanus for guidance. Sighing, he stooped down in front of Dar, "Dar, you will have to journey through the past. You need to acknowledge that you can't fulfill your destiny without Tao's help. Return Tao to his rightful place in your memories and overcome the barrier that has been erected in your mind. You have to cast aside all doubts, leave all cares and other concerns behind. You will have to be strong enough to overcome the voices in your head that tell you he is of no significance. You have to believe in us, in yourself and most importantly, in him."

Dar settled into the lotus position. His thoughts turned to the recent past. He could recall the last two weeks with ease, but the
times before that were cloudy, filled with shadows. He cast his mind back to his earliest memories.

He remembered his many years at Sanctuary, learning the ways of the warrior from his animal friends. Every memory from then on seemed to be incomplete. He smiled as he recalled his first love, Kyra, then felt the heartbreak of her rescue and untimely death at the hands of Qord. But who was that with him at her funeral pyre? Who warned him not to kill Qord? He couldn't see a face, but his heart knew that he had not been alone. Someone had supported him during his period of grief, but who?

The questions continued. Why had he left Sanctuary to travel to the "middle of the world"? He remembered his first meeting with
Arina. Voden and the Nords conquering Zad. His continued travels. Why did he feel such panic when he thought of Xinca and the red-robed Blood Priests? Who did he save from the sacrificial altar? Who saved his life at the cost of his own brother?

The closer he got to the truth, the more mental anguish he experienced. Breaching the walls of his memory would be painful, but
it would be nothing compared to his soul's anguish, if in conceding, he lost Tao for all eternity.

Arina and Dartanus sat nearby in silence throughout the rest of the afternoon into twilight. Dar hadn't moved a muscle since going into
his self-induced trance. Both worried about the outcome, knowing that if Dar's mind defeated his heart, he would never be whole again.

All these memories came easily, almost unbidden into Dar's mind, but although his heart recognized his companion, he still couldn't "see" him. His magic-fogged brain still resisted the fact that there was someone out there so important to him that he would risk fulfilling
his destiny to save him. He continued to confront his past memories, knowing they were the key.

Dar chipped away patiently at the mental block. Remembering when he first met Dartanus and his true history was revealed. Him, a king? He felt terror as he watched a soulless Arina, at a demon's request, pierce a body with her sword. Another stab of fear, when needing a sacrifice to free his family from their stone prison, a voice announced, "But I'm not (important). This is all my fault." The
relief he felt when Sharak offered his human life instead, knowing whose life would have been forfeit otherwise. He saw himself
threaten the Vella, offering himself in place of the one who had been taken. He felt relief when she returned knowledge to the vessel from which it had been taken.

He felt the barrier weakening and continued to probe for more memories, letting his heart lead the way. His mind, unwilling to
allow the victory, yielded one last obstruction. A voice cried out, reverberating through his consciousness, 'Dar, he chose this. Allow
his sacrifice to have some meaning.'

He watched in horror as a macabre scene played out in his head. He saw Tao's recent capture, Zad's knights torturing him for the
location of Dar's family, his strength in resistance, his hesitancy to drink from a small leather flask until his body had almost given
up, then continued torture for information he no longer knew. He saw Tao's death at sunrise, felt part of his soul rip away and knew there would be no salvation from this.

Arina blanched as Dar's physical body began seizing and an unearthly cry of denial came from his throat. She grabbed hold of him as he continued shuddering, his eyes open, but unseeing. She looked to Dartanus for support, but in his face she read the finality of it.
It was Dar's fight to win or lose. There was nothing she could do to help.

From the depths of his soul Dar screamed in defiance to his mind. He could no longer follow blindly as he had done for the past two weeks, but with a newfound determination, strove to recall the night the blindness began. He could feel not only Tao's, but his and perhaps the world's future depended upon this.

Dar felt the pain welling up as he continued to attack the barrier in his mind. He saw the campfire, could taste the fish, now if only he
could hear the conversation his heart knew was taking place there. He struggled to focus on the words he knew came from his mouth; words such as 'important', 'sacrifice' and 'destiny'.

What precipitated this discussion?' he asked himself in confusion. Slowing his breathing even more, he listened for the catalyst. He
wasn't surprised when at last Tao's words finally revealed themselves to him, "Dar, have you ever thought what your life would be like if we had never met?"

Holding those words as a talisman, he filled himself with every good memory from the past two years and used them to destroy every vestige of the block from his memory. The ache in his heart subsided as he could once again recall Tao's rightful place in his life.

Pushing his consciousness to the surface, he awoke in Arina's arms. A small fire lit the darkness that surrounded them. Dartanus was
nowhere to be found, so he roused the dozing Namib, anxious to be on his way.

"Dar!" Arina cried, a look of profound gladness on her face, "Are you all right?" she continued, seemingly embarrassed by her excessive show of emotion.

"Yes," he answered back quickly, as he reached for his staff, "Where's Dartanus?"

"I don't know," she replied, not liking the haunted look she saw in the Beastmaster's eyes. "After you had that attack, he looked at you,
said you would be fine, and left. Are you sure you are ok? Maybe you need to rest and we'll get started at first light."

"By dawn, Tao will be dead," Dar countered, "Zad's men have him and we need to reach him quickly. Tell me again where you saw their encampments."

Arina began listing the various campsites she had encountered during her journey. Dar mentally catalogued each one versus the site from his dream. When she finally described one with two temporary huts and a location that matched his vision, he sighed in relief, "How far?"

When Arina indicated it would take almost all night to reach it, he smiled wryly, "Let's go then. We have a lot of ground to cover." He
reached down and pulling Arina to her feet, they headed out.

Dar asked Sharak to scout ahead for them and to try and contact Tao, letting him know that help was on the way. He didn't even want to think what would happen if they were too late. Hadn't Tao said there was a "fate worse than death"? Would loss of part or all of his
memories be included in that?

Meanwhile, Tao's predicament had only grown worse. When he had been captured, a messenger had been sent to King Zad asking for
instructions. The soldier had just returned that very night with a command that Tao be tortured immediately for information on the
whereabouts of the Crystal Ark. Zad wanted his knights to get the location and secure the Ark as soon as possible. He wanted no
opportunity for the Beastmaster to rescue Tao while being escorted back to Xinca, so he decided to allow his soldiers the honor of
torturing the prisoner themselves at the campsite. His only request was to try to keep the Eiron alive, as he knew how valuable he could still be as a pawn against Dar.

With only rudimentary tools available, the soldiers removed Tao's shirt and vest. In the flickering torchlight, they threatened him
with a whipping, but failing to receive a response, encircled him and took turns beating him instead. After each soldier had their turn,
they dumped him back into the hut, while they discussed their other options.

Blood ran freely from Tao's nose and a cut on his forehead. There were bruises welling up all over his midsection and he was afraid he
might have a cracked rib. Groaning, Tao managed to crawl the few feet from the hut's entrance to his pack. Caressing the leather
flask, he slipped it into his pants pocket, wanting it accessible if he saw that the next round of torture might break him. He vowed
silently to protect Dar with the very last breath in his broken body.

Signs of the approaching dawn caused Dar to redouble his pace. Following him less easily now, Arina kept silent, knowing whatever
inner demons were terrorizing Dar could not been banished until Tao was safe under his watch and care. She couldn't even contemplate
the Beastmaster's state of mind, if after his long journey, both spiritual and physical, he found Tao dead, another casualty of the
quest. The scholar had told her in confidence that Dar threatened to give up the quest when he thought he had killed her. She knew if he
had come so close to quitting at her supposed death, then that of his best friend, would push him over the edge once and for all.

Hearing the crack of the whip, Tao blanched as two guardsmen jerked him to his feet and hauled his bruised body out of the hut. Just as they reached to tie his hands behind a large oak tree, he scrambled away, reaching down for the flask. As they grabbed for him, he
uncorked it, said a silent farewell to Dar and tipped the liquid towards his awaiting lips. As his parched throat eagerly awaited
those first few drops, an eagle's cry reverberated through the forest. All the guards froze at the sound.

Now only yards away from the camp, Dar watched through Sharak's eyes as two guards manhandled his obviously hurt friend out of the hut. Seeing the whip, he understood immediately the implication. His breath caught in his chest as he saw Tao scuttle to the side and
reach for his pocket. The flask! Dar broadcasted his fear to Sharak who immediately cawed the message to Tao that help was near.

The camp descended into chaos. Five guards took defensive positions, while their captain grabbed Tao from behind. Although he did not lose his grip on the flask, the injured man could barely breath and was unable to swallow any more than those first few drops.
Unconsciousness claimed him as he slipped the opened flask back into his pocket.

With Ruh coming in from one side and Arina from the other, Dar chose a frontal attack. As the horizon lightened, he intensified his
assault, desperate to reach Tao. Two of the knights ran off in fear of Ruh while Arina easily dispatched her two opponents. Dar finished off his first foe and turned, looking for another when he recognized a battered Tao being held in a chokehold by a muscle-bound soldier, a short sword in his free hand.

The soldier sneered at Dar, "Out of my way Beastmaster. King Zad will want to question this one further. If you value his life, you
will allow us to ride out of here. In fact," venom dripped from his voice, "why don't you come along and keep us company? I am sure my king would appreciate a visit from you. Any tricks and I will bury my sword in him."

Yielding, Dar dropped his sword and indicated for Arina to drop her weapon as well. Her gaze burned into Dar as she bowed to his will and surrendered. At the captain's order, an unhappy Ruh was banished into the forest.

Believing the Beastmaster was yielding, the knight's chokehold on Tao lessened. With his return to consciousness came the realization that Dar was offering himself as a prisoner and would travel to Xinca just to ensure his safety at the hands of Zad. 'This must mean that Arina was able to persuade Dar to come looking for me,' Tao reasoned to himself since there is no way for the spell on the Waters to have been broken. Tao almost wept as he grasped this. He could no more allow Dar to die for him now that they were strangers, than he could when they were best friends.

Thinking his prisoner was still unconscious, the soldier threw Tao onto the front of the horse and reaching to bind his hands, was
surprised when Tao kicked him in the nose and jumped off the other side, hitting the ground with a thud. Dar, seeing his chance, also
kicked out, doubling the guard over in pain. With Arina joining in, they made short work of the captain and tied his struggling form to a

As he had hit the ground, Tao remembered the flask and noticing the wet stain rapidly growing on his pants, pulled it out. He was
putting it up to his eye to see if the container was empty, when a figure came around the horse looking for him.

Dar's worst nightmare had seemingly come true as when he rounded the horse, he found Tao with his face tilted up to the mouth of the
offending flask. "Tao, please no," he moaned as the truth hit home. His friend hadn't trusted himself enough to resist any further
torture and hadn't trusted Dar enough to save him.

Looking up at Dar's face, Tao was devastated not only by the tone of his voice but by the shattered expression he found there. As the
Beastmaster turned away in sorrow, Tao threw the bottle aside in disgust, berating himself for even thinking of taking the coward's
way out.

A slight whimper escaped from his clenched lips as he tried to rise. A gentle hand was there to help him into a standing position. "Dar?"
he asked, searching his eyes for a knowledge he himself had purposefully obliterated. The care and concern he saw reflected
there more than convinced him that his friend had miraculously regained his memories.

At that very moment, Dar too was searching for a sign that Tao's own memories were still untouched. He stood still, easily supporting
most of the injured Eiron's weight himself. The sound of his name on Tao's lips chased the fear from his eyes and gave him a hope he had not felt in days. Tao responded in kind as hope flared from his heart as well.

Arina, hearing laughter, turned and smiled in relief as the two friends embraced. The joyful sound echoed in her ears as she went to
gather food and first-aid supplies for their trip back to the foothills.

Wanting them away from camp quickly, Dar asked if two of Zad's horses would volunteer to bear them back to the foothills. All the horses were honored to help him, knowing he would give them their freedom at the end of the journey.

Tao, meanwhile, brewed his own medicinal salve and managed with Dar's assistance to bandage himself. Arina saddled and mounted her horse while Dar helped Tao to the second horse. Recognizing his friend's pain, Dar had insisted Tao drink one of his own noxious smelling potions. Realizing Tao would be in no shape to ride alone, he picked the strongest of Zad's steeds to carry them both. He urged Tao to settle back and rest as they started the long ride back to the campsite where their adventure had started.

As twilight closed in on the travelers, Arina said her farewells and turned off towards one of her former campsites. She recognized that
Tao would need several days to heal and she wanted to continue to scout the area for trouble.

Half an hour later, Dar dismounted, tenderly cradling his sleeping friend. Laying him on the soft moss, Dar thanked the horse, and
cutting through the saddle straps, set him free. The war-horse neighed his thanks in return and galloped away.

The sudden noise startled the Eiron into wakefulness, "Dar?" His head was throbbing and he could only vaguely recall the past few
hours. The object of his query stepped into view as Dar knelt beside his semi-conscious friend.

Tao grimaced as Dar offered him a cup of water, "It's not ensorcelled is it?" Tao waited with baited breath for his friend's reply,
knowing he may have crossed the line and caused an irreparable breach to their friendship.

"No, it's from the stream," Dar answered tightly. During the ride Dar had plenty of time to think. He accepted the fact without
question that Tao wouldn't have knowingly given him tainted water. But to think that his friend had offered up their friendship and by
extension almost his life, as the price to try and ensure a possible victory over Balcifer was too much to consider.

Dar knew Tao deserved the truth and judging his pain abated and his head relatively clear, he asked, "Do you feel strong enough to talk about this now?"

Wanting no secrets between them, Tao nodded his ascension and Dar helped him to a seated position, resting against a tree. Dar started a small fire to ward off the chill and handed Tao some fruit.

As Tao began devouring a banana, Dar forced himself to take a deep breath and began, "Tao, where did you get the Waters of Leithe?"

Surprised that he knew its source, Tao stammered his answer, "From Dartanus."

"No, you didn't," Dar corrected gently. "That wasn't Dartanus. It was probably the Apparition or another sorcerer in Balcifer's employ."

Reading the truth in Dar's eyes, Tao blanched and his body began to sway as he realized what he had done. 'What if it had been poison?' his mind jeered at him.

Dar caught him just as he fell over sideways, "Tao!" he called urgently, seeing the Eiron's eyes roll into the back of his head.
Feeling a steady pulse, he stretched his friend down and cursed himself for not waiting until Tao was stronger.

As the morning light pierced his eyelids, Tao tried to roll over and moaned in pain. Dar was at his side with more of his foul-tasting brew. "Here, drink this," he offered as he helped Tao sit up.

Tao's pain befuddled mind still couldn't distinguish dreams from reality, but he accepted the drink gratefully and was glad when the throb in his ribs began to ease. Dar sat with him silently through the whole process. As he started to rise, Tao grabbed his wrist and with surprising strength, forced the Beastmaster back to the ground.

"The last day is somewhat of a blur to me," Tao started out hesitantly, "But correct me if I am wrong. You drank magical waters, given to me by a Dartanus' look-alike, who is actually working for Balcifer. I left, got captured and tortured by Zad's men, but you rescued me and brought me back here."

"That about summarizes it," Dar acknowledged.

"What were in those waters?" Tao asked, "They weren't poisonous, were they?" His head bowed as he prayed for a negative response.

"No," Dar answered, "they did exactly what I believe you were told they would do; blocked out every memory of you from my mind."

"Thank goodness," Tao breathed a sigh of relief, "When you mentioned Balcifer, I was afraid there was some type of slow acting-poison involved."

"Thank goodness?" Dar exploded, finally allowing his fear and anger to take reign, "You almost died! In fact, in my mind you did. I watched you die in my dreams and I will never forget that feeling as long as I live. You couldn't trust me to keep you safe and continue the quest too. You took the easy way out."

"Easy way!" Tao stood up, dashing tears of anger from his eyes, "Do you think living, knowing what I had done, was easy? I stripped you of every memory you had of me to protect You! I refused to drink the Waters because I didn't want to lose my memories of you unless there was no other choice. I wouldn't have drunk the Waters in hopes of saving myself. I would have only drank them if I thought I might betray you myself!"

Dar stood stunned as he watched his best friend bare his soul before him. He knew he could do nothing less.

"Tao," Dar's eyes were haunted as he reconnected with feelings he had hoped would remain buried, "those two weeks without you were the loneliest times of my life. Not even Ruh, Sharak and Arina together could fill the void in my soul that your loss created." Dar walked towards his friend and with a gentle hand tipped Tao's chin up, capturing his brooding gaze with a fervent one of his own, "Remember, Dartanus said our bond of friendship was destined. I don't think either one of us could have survived the separation. Dartanus told me my quest would be almost impossible without your help. Now if you still want to go…" Dar's voice trailed off, not even wanting to contemplate another loss.

Tao nodded as he recalled Dartanus' words. The Spirit Guide had even claimed he was watching out after Tao, even before the fateful day in which he and Dar met. Why else would he do that unless even then, their friendship had been destined? How could he have forgotten those words and allowed a false Dartanus to split apart what had been forged by powers greater than their own?

Ashamed, Tao tried to turn away, but Dar's gentle hands prevented it, continuing to stare into Tao's eyes. "No, we've both done enough running. You need to rest, but first I want your solemn promise that you will never ever decide what is best for me without asking me. I want and need you here beside me, not only on this quest, but also during the final battle. I don't want to worry that you have left me again for some 'noble' reason. My heart couldn't take another loss."

Touched beyond words, Tao nodded his affirmation, his eyes never straying from the Beastmaster's hypnotizing gaze. He vowed to continue to try to the best of his ability to protect Dar from Zad, the Apparition, even Balcifer, if he could. Tao only prayed for strength that he could protect his best friend from himself.

Calm at last, Dar allowed himself to unwind, watching his now dozing friend. He had extracted the promise he had wanted, but now silently added one of his own; to never take for granted this precious friendship he had been gifted with. With the knowledge that Ruh, Sharak and Arina were on patrol, he relaxed his body and let sleep claim him, free of his nightmares at last.