This story has been in the making since June of last year.

I don't even know what to say.

Warnings: Spoilers for final boss, death, grief, time skips.

Ladies and gents, the story that consumed my soul.


Meteorology

-

It began so simply, as most complex and troubling things do. When the caravanners of previous years had grown too old to continue their life's work, it fell to the young people of the village to take up the chalice and journey forth into the world.

The names of his fellow caravanners had been announced last night, yet as Surdather looked at their faces (all bright and eager to leave the cozy village of Tipa behind) the Yuke wasn't sure he could recall any of them. A Yuke devoted himself to his studies -- he had never seen fit to join the village children in their play. Why fight off an imaginary monster when his studies of magic could help real people fight the real evils out in the world?

His first impression of his team was not memorable. The Selkie girl was just as quiet, the Clavat boy gentler in the morning's light, the Lilty girl as arrogant as ever. There was no kinship between them. Though Roland warned them that they would live or die by the skills and courage of their fellows, not one of them took the village elder seriously, for they were young, and in the manner of the young immortal.

o-o-o

They chose by lottery, each eligible villager's name written on a scrap of parchment and tossed into a cooking pot. This year it had been the blacksmith's dubious honor to select the four who would make the Tipan caravan.

Tah Det, one of the fisherman's children. Beneath silver-blue hair and a steady gaze she was shrinking, quiet, and skittish. An antithesis of her people's stereotype, he sensed that this sheltered girl-child would not last.

Jake, the miller's boy. He bounced on the balls of his feet, eager and gamboling as a puppy. The Clavat's younger siblings clapped, all smiles and congratulations for this new honor. He was too reckless, unbounded by common sense or other such limitations.

Kareen, the blacksmith's own daughter, his only daughter. Her brash stance and bold stare were at odds with the ashen face and shaking hands of her father as he read aloud her fate. She seemed to challenge all before her, sharp tongue at the ready.

And himself, Surdather, son of the alchemists. There were no cheers or despair for him from his family. His usefulness as a scholar was now over, and in turn their association with him.

"Will you lead them?" Roland's voice quavered wonderfully beneath the supposed weight of his words. "Will you lead Tipa's caravan?" The honor was aimed at him, surprisingly enough. And yet the others seemed willing to yield…

"Yes." The answer did not seem quite enough for the hungry crowd. "I will," he added, and in the cheers that followed deemed it satisfactory. No need to add the "otherwise they'd be dead within the year." No need to add that his life might as well be over anyway.

o-o-o

The first year passed so quickly.

He hadn't expected them to survive, hadn't expected them to team up the way they did. Despite the hardships of life on the road, or the fear of the near pitch black parts of the Mines of Carthuriges, they had beaten the odds. Despite Tah Det's silence, Jake's idiocy, and Kareen's rebelliousness, they had gathered the myrrh. They were blooded.

And this year could only be better.

"Let's go," he said, and behind him the Tipa caravan rolled out for their second year.

o-o-o

In comparison to his massive paws, the hand the village elder offered him seemed so frail.

"Congratulations," the man was smiling. Smiling. Surdather quickly dropped the hand. Humanoid flesh felt strange to him; too delicate, the skin and bones and muscle too easily broken. He shuddered lightly at the warmth of the hand, too warm for the cold flesh of a Yuke. How had this fragile race of beings survived the millennia?

Small teeth flashed in the torchlight as the man turned back to the crowd. The hand reached out as if to grip his shoulder and he shuddered again, shifting away. He hated the touch of these people.

His eyes narrowed dangerously behind the visor, and he bared his teeth in silent agitation as Roland leaned closer, attempting to whisper in the ear of the Yuke. That the Yuke rested at least a head above him did not seem to faze the elder. "I… we were sorry to hear of what became of the others."

The visor hid the way his face twisted.

o-o-o

On the other side of the ocean lay another sea, one of heat and sand than watery depths. Another year, another set of myrrh drops to gather, another set of dungeons and areas to work through. It was hard to believe it had been six years.

He tore his thoughts back to the present, watching carefully as his comrades finished the casting. Once in the desert the mumblings of the eccentric swindler had actually come together, forming a sequential riddle. Unlike so many other things the caravan had discovered once out on the road, this was something logical.

Of course, perhaps only he understood the irony of casting Holy in a place that was hotter than hell.

With an expression that could almost be called awe, Jake placed the chalice on the pedestal that emerged from the flower. He could not see the point of such wonder -- all the world is science, even magic, even this mystical element. When he said so, Jake laughed.

Kareen tried to explain it to the offended Yuke, though the smile tugging at her lips was at odds with the kindness of her words. "The world is still a mystery for ones such as us," she said, "Remember that innocence, too, is precious."

He supposed he wouldn't know. Knowledge and innocence could not coexist.

o-o-o

With ten years of sorrow and despair behind his blows, the Meteor Parasite had not stood a chance. Exhaustion numbed his heart, an instinctive shield against the screams he felt building in his chest as he summoned spell after spell.

And when Raem came and shattered the world, he hadn't been able to bring himself to care. This was what it had all come to, Hurdy and the Black Knight and Tida and Tipa and his comrades and oh, oh, his comrades--

His knees were shaking, muscles strained. Weak with despair, the only reason he stood his ground was because somewhere deep in his conscious, Surdather recognized a reason to fight. If he made a stand here, if he held to his task, some young Yuke, Selkie, Clavat, or Lilty child might not have to suffer this same nightmare.

o-o-o

The Fields of Fum were notorious for both their produce and their cow races. Surdather could not understand why, when such a race was more of a grazing stroll, until he saw that a fermented version of the former was involved in the latter.

Jake quite enjoyed his time in his tribe's homeland. The contrast between the darkness of their night raid on Daemon's Court and the firelight of the torches proved to be too much for his headache, however. They gathered the myrrh without him, much to his sheepish chagrin when he finally recovered.

o-o-o

Though the man remained motionless, the tenseness in the way he balled his fists, the slight twitch as he clenched his jaw, the wild inhumanity in his eyes all screamed of the grief that he was too proud to show before the Yuke. Had Surdather not been standing before him, he might have believed that the words he spoke to the man before him had no effect.

With a steady hand, the man reached out and took the battered shield the Yuke proffered in his outstretched paws. Clenching tightly to his self-control, he managed not to show his distress as the hands brushed against him in order to take the relic.

A wail rang out from behind the man as a woman fell to her knees, covering her mouth and sobbing. He turned away as, in stumbling steps, the man moved to his wife and handed her their son's shield.

He pretended not to see the way the woman pressed her face to the shield, as if hoping to somehow reach the child she'd never clutch to her in that same way again. Instead he walked away. It was the appropriate thing to do, he supposed, ignoring the jolt of discomfort he felt at such humanity. Ignoring the jolt of discomfort he'd felt at seeing a remnant of Jake in his father's face.

o-o-o

Somehow he couldn't bring himself to be surprised that their journey had led them to Mount Vellenge, despite the others' shock. Of course they would eventually find themselves at the heart of the miasma.

He fought down the surge of nausea that roiled through his belly, sickened by the concentration of the poison here. He'd thought it to be bad at Tida, when tides of the insidious fog had rolled away from the chalice like so many waves, but here it was even worse. Here it penetrated the defenses of the chalice, here it was in every breath, in every monotone word he spoke.

Perhaps that was why it seemed that his voice was so dead that night, as he called them to the campfire. Perhaps that was why their faces seemed so pale and lifeless, shadows flickering and dancing over their lips and eyes and noses and mouths. Perhaps that was why, when-- when he'd looked into Kareen's unseeing eyes, when he'd taken the shield from Jake's lifeless hands, when Tah Det had smiled through the blood trickling out of her mouth-- they'd splintered, when they'd fallen, he hadn't felt surprised. They were too weak for the horrors of the abyss.

o-o-o

At some point, he'd grown used to his comrades. It was a gradual process, without leaps and bounds of progress or setbacks. But one day, after a run in with the Striped Brigands that had sent the moogle Artemicion flying, he'd found himself laughing along with the others at the antics of the hapless thieves. As Jake congratulated Tah Det for her genius and Kareen howled with laughter, he'd let out the low chuckle that had startled his teammates.

In silence they looked at him, and, uncomfortable at their piercing stares, he said, "Did you see the old man's face?"

That set off a new round of laughter, and as the warm hand of friendship closed around him, Surdather looked to the cloudless sky, surprised at the tight lump rising in his throat. He felt… happy. Loved.

The shock was enough to quiet him for days.

o-o-o

They should have known this wasn't some sort of lark. It was their fault; Jake and Tah Det and Kareen and even Roland's fault that none of them took this seriously. Well, judging by the grim expressions that now stared back at him they were taking this seriously now, now that they were scraped and bruised and bleeding and choking on the miasma that seemed to thicken around them by the minute.

Kareen touched the top of her head, wincing as her hand came away bloody. It had been sheer luck that she'd narrowly avoided being beheaded by the death knight, coming away missing the top knot that Lilties so proudly sported. The arrogance she'd so commonly displayed when it came to matters of the caravan had disappeared, and what could almost be called a haunted expression passed over her face. The others were shaken as well.

In the decade that they had spent together, they should have recognized by now that this was real.

They should have known that they might die.

And yet, as he stared at the white bandages wrapped around his comrade's head, he couldn't stop the slow shudder that began somewhere in his heart. Somehow, he, too, had come to think that they were all immortal.

o-o-o

Though at first her face had been growing ever stormier (along with the weather) the nearer they drew to Alfitaria, Jake finally said something to make the Selkie girl laugh. Though normally the laughter of others grated on his ears, being too high pitched for him to hear comfortably (and if laughing was bad, singing was far worse) the deep, throaty laugh made him look twice at the girl who had her back to him.

Peering through the slits of his visor, his eyes traveled across the shimmer of hair that hung down her back and then to the Clavat sitting in front of her, who met his gaze with a shrug of his own, both of them wondering in accord, Had she always been so adult?

Kareen, upon looking at him, followed his gaze to Tah Det and began to laugh. "There's no need to look so stunned, boys," she said with a light chuckle, drawing the embarrassed and confused looks of her fellow caravanners. "Everyone grows up eventually."

Jake laughed, "Nah, I'd noticed," and mussed Tah Det's silver blue hair with one of his large hands, and Surdather tried to mentally compare the size to his own paws. The difference was not so great anymore, and the low rumble of his amusement yet another pleasant surprise to add to the growing list. Kareen gave another bark of laughter -- her voice, at least, had always been lower-pitched than most females -- and shook her head. "Really Sur, one would think you'd never really looked at us before this."

His surprise must have still been evident to the Lilty, for she reached up and lightly rapped his visor. "You didn't, did you?"

When he didn't respond, she smiled crookedly. "It's all right. You're looking now," but it seemed to him that, as she turned away, it did matter, and he'd somehow failed his team.

o-o-o

Silver blue hair run more to gray reflected dull sunlight that tried to hide behind gathering clouds. The silent Selkie woman accepted the racket he handed her, running calloused and worn hands over the rawhide bindings. Bindings that had accumulated over the years; strips of leather tied on as the journeys wore on and the roads grew longer. And even though it had taken him five years to notice his teammates, he still knew the story behind each tie.

He didn't realize he was staring at the racket until the water that began to drip on it startled him. It was not raining. He looked up, only to see slow tears sliding down the Selkie woman's face. She exhaled, allowing her eyes to close, and then it seemed as if with that breath all life left her, for her shoulders slumped and she wilted before him.

What was the woman's name? Tah Det had never told him, he'd never asked, he didn't know why he cared but suddenly he wished he had before this, before this woman standing before him clutching a worn racket that her daughter had killed and died with.

He couldn't bring himself to step forward in an attempt to comfort-- the innate revulsion was too strong for that-- yet he couldn't quite bring himself to walk away either. The sound of footsteps galvanized him into action as two Selkie boys (so like her) pounded up the path, taking their mother in hand and leading her back to the ramshackle cabin, shooting glares over their shoulders at him the entire time. With a sigh he turned and left, wondering why the sky, like himself, was not crying.

o-o-o

He made his way through the miasma with an ease that should have frightened him, but didn't. Though the fog was poisonous, he did not feel its effects as the others did.

Strange, for only monsters and moogles were unaffected by the miasma.

He wouldn't call himself a moogle.

The chalice had been carried on ahead, carried by teammates obeying the dying wish of one of their own, and he raced to catch up to his comrades, the sound of metal clashing ringing through the winding canyons even at this distance. With that obvious of a fight, every fiend in range would be rushing to the area.

The dark crystals that stole the chalice's protection had not been expected even by him, he who tried to plan everything to the utmost detail. In his paw he clutched a glove, one that would never fit his massive appendage, one specially made for a delicate hand.

He leapt into the fray surrounding his teammates, the time for strategic spell casting over. The deceptively small muscles in his arms hid a frightening amount of strength, one he used now as he aided the remainder of the caravan in driving back the enemy. When the press of hostility lessened, he flung himself after the retreating enemy, the better to ignore the questioning gazes his comrades sent him, the gazes that would quickly turn to horror, given time.

The better to not remember.

Her eyes were blue and her smile crooked as she struggled to pull her gloves off, though she only had the strength to remove one. He'd never really considered beautiful as a way to describe the Lilty girl before, never considered her as anything more than Kareen, yet somehow there was no description more apt at this moment.

She'd been the first person to accept him as more than the Yuke, more than the leader. She'd been the first to see him as Sur.

He'd closed her eyelids with two gentle fingers, for once ignoring the surge of unpleasantness that screamed for him not to touch.

o-o-o

"So the princess of Alfitaria is only half Lilty?" He sighed, recognizing the teasing lilt of Jake's voice. The firelight flickered across their faces as they relaxed. The scent of food cooking mixed delightfully with the polish he used on their armor, a comforting combination.

Apparently he'd grown used to the routine of the road as well as adjusted to his comrades.

"Well, her mother is a Clavat," Kareen answered after a few moments, setting aside the torn shirt she'd been repairing. "The throne-right is passed through the father, though. Why?"

"It just seems strange that the queen will only be half Lilty." Jake stirred the pot of what appeared to be stew, then added a pinch of salt. "Actually, seems strange that there's still a king."

Tah Det glanced up from their weapons in interest, and even Surdather paid attention as Jake explained. "I mean, in the old days, a monarch worked. But how do they enforce their law now?"

"It's not a good system." For Kareen to admit it was an unexpected move. "We enforce the laws in our jurisdictions, and outside anyone who declares themselves loyal to Alfitaria is subject as well. We have to rely on the towns to enforce it." She sighed. "It's not enough, but it won't change until the king dies."

"Is it that the king is not an advocate for change or--oh." Jake closed his eyes and nodded slowly. "I see."

Tah Det glanced from Lilty to Clavat. "What?"

At Kareen's nod, Jake turned to the Selkie. "The princess is, excuse me, a half blood. And if the throne-right is passed through the father, the bloodline dies with her. They either pick a new King to succeed her or they abandon the monarchy. Both could turn problematic."

He found himself so stunned at Jake's analysis of the problem that he couldn't even bring his own knowledge into the conversation. Kareen's eyes danced with mirth; with a quick glance at the thunderstruck Yuke she turned to Jake. "Or they get over their prejudice against female rulers. But yes. If the Queen bears another son, the problem will be avoided, for now."

A soft voice, usually unheard in discussions, drew their gazes. Tah Det straightened slightly at the center of their attention. "She's the kind of ruler they need. They'll obey her because of the bloodline and love her for what she is."

Jake managed to change the topic after a moment of contemplation in his usual spectacularly non-sequitur manner. "Half Clavat and half Lilty? I had no idea it was possible."

Kareen slowly shook her head, rolling her eyes towards the heavens as if to ask some deity for patience. "Just because you hadn't thought of it doesn't mean it's not possible."

He wiggled his eyebrows salaciously. "Oh, trust me Kareen, I've thought about it. Want to take this behind the wagon and see how much I've thought about it?"

Laughter erupted from the Lilty in loud snorts, and setting aside the torn clothing she waved a hand at him. "Oh Jake, you and I are all wrong for each other, even without the tribe issue."

"Ah come on, if even the princess--"

"You'd be better off trying for Tah Det, honey." The wink Kareen shot the Selkie girl made her blush to the roots of her silver blue hair. "I have more of an eye for Sur than you."

Jake laughed, and Surdather was sure that the heat rising through his body must be palpable even to the Lilty girl sitting across the fire from him, for she sent him a wink this time.

Was it possible for a Yuke to spontaneously combust? He'd never considered it before.

o-o-o

It was sweltering beneath his helmet; and though cold blooded the Yuke felt overheated. The large crowd before him stared as if he were magnetic attraction for metal eyes. He frowned, glad that none could see the expression beneath his helmet. It wasn't what one would call befitting of a hero.

He could fool himself into thinking they were staring at the crystal (now unnecessary) or the chalice (soon to be useless) or even Roland (the most worthless of them all), who stood beside him, but that would be lying. He fought the urge to shudder at their closeness. He hated this. He hated having them all standing there staring. Didn't they have lives to attend to? Couldn't they see he was no kind of hero?

Of course they could see. Even from afar he could see the pity on their faces. The pity and regret and grief, because he was no kind of hero and everyone knows a hero returns with his comrades.

He fought the urge to step away from Roland, and as the man placed a comforting hand on the Yuke's shoulder as he spoke of the fallen, he fought to not move the offending hand away from him. Why was this man lauding him as a hero? Why did this man speak of his dead (his, and no one else's) as if he'd known them?

Yet Roland continued speaking, his voice filled with a quiet passion that reached every person in the crowd. He urged the crowd to move on with their lives, to remember the sacrifice as just that. A sacrifice. Surdather fought to keep still, ignoring the revulsion that seemed to creep through his veins.

Roland was the kind of man who sacrificed innocents for his causes. He'd once thought he wasn't like that, once thought he was a good man and leader.

Too often good leaders and good men were not the same thing.

He'd been a leader.

His helmet was too small. It was the only logical explanation for why he was having such a hard time breathing.

o-o-o

"Where is she?"

A moment's reprieve brought the question he feared most; he tensed, gripping the chalice with more force than was necessary.

"Sur, where's Kareen?" Jake's voice was pitched too high, cracked so far as to be broken. He flinched at the grating sound and did not answer.

But Tah Det, so innocent and naïve with her wide grey eyes, saw the truth. "She's dead, isn't she?"

If the whole world could stop, the moment between one breath in the next, everything hanging on the words he'd speak, it would have stopped at this moment. Before they learned. Before they knew. Before they shattered.

In the moment between one breath and the next, the world robbed him of his voice and he could only nod.

And it was so horribly, tragically funny that Jake, their grinning, happy-go-lucky young man, was the one to cry and Tah Det, so emotional and open, was the one to offer comfort. She gathered the sobbing boy into her arms, rocking him much like a child, whispering nonsense words into his ear. The Clavat clung to her as if she were driftwood in the ocean, as if he held to her tight enough he might be saved.

A curious thought struck Surdather then, staring at the two through a haze of odd, choked emotions. In some other less desperate world they could have been lovers. Maybe they had been, years before. Maybe they still were. He'd never thought to look, never thought to ask. He drew breath harshly through his nostrils, closing his mouth with a snap at his own foolishness. Beauty did not belong in places so ugly and broken.

Jake's sobs slowly died down, muffled in Tah Det's hair as her own eyes glazed over with unshed tears. The Yuke wondered, desperately holding his thoughts from escaping out the visor, if he too could seek redemption in the innocent's arms. The thought made him flinch. He hated the touch of these people, he reminded himself.

Besides, there was no way for him to do such a thing. He was too far gone.

o-o-o

A Yuke is wise first from the inside, then from the out. An old proverb, a mantra he would chant as he studied, a phrase on the lips of his mother, a reprimand from his father. Bring honor to our family. Make no war. Keep open ears and open eyes. Hold to the crystal. The laws of his family, handed down and enforced by the iron clad paw of his father.

Funny how, after all this time, he still held to his father's laws.

Be like the river; swift and deceptive. Show a calm surface to others, but carry your true current deep within.

Funny how, looking back, he wished he'd been born someone else.

Anyone else.

o-o-o

The Lilty man wouldn't look at him. Instead, he turned to the small boy clutching at his leg. "Fetch your mother, Roh."

"But Pa," came the irritating whine, but the Lilty raised one gloved hand, turning his face to stare somewhere out beyond the cliffs.

"Go, son. The gentleman and I have to talk."

The boy went, dragging his play-weapon in the dirt as he trudged, chin somewhere in the region of his chest, the utter picture of dejection. It struck him as so childlike and innocent at that moment and he was grateful that Kareen's father had the presence of mind to spare the boy.

"She's dead." The solemn words drew his hidden gaze toward the blue eyes he'd so desperately tried to avoid. Her eyes.

He could think of nothing else to say. "Yes." Behind the man the crystal flickered, a taunt of all that was and would never be again.

"I could hear Rah Sie's grief from the forge." Careful statements, crafted statements. Each afraid to break the other.

"Yes." He was a Yuke, he was eloquent, damn it all, not this monosyllabic simpleton! He could give this man better, this man deserved better, and he could feel the emotional barriers he'd so delicately placed slowly breaking.

"How did she die?"

Funny how all the others had asked this same question, and it had become harder and harder to answer with each retelling. The scholar side of him whispered that there was an equation to this, a mechanical explanation to remove himself from all this and just stop feeling, but he ignored it. He owed this man, this father, something he wasn't sure he could give.

"She was injured. Bleeding. We were… ambushed. Caught between a dark crystal and two death knights. We were choking on the miasma, it was hard to see, and she shouted for us to go. I… I threw the chalice at Jake and Tah Det, told them to run. I stayed with her, but it was too late by then."

He reached into his belt pouch and pulled out the glove, ignoring the innate voice that screamed at him for reaching toward another living being. "Here," he said, belatedly realizing when the man's eyes widened that Kareen's father had probably crafted the gloves for her, "She gave it to me."

"Then… then you keep it." The words held a final note to them.

He lowered his paw, still clutching the beautiful craft, and turned away. "My condolences." The slow shudder that ran through his body reminded him again of his own inhumanity.

And yet… and yet… he'd wanted to write an epic, a war song, a ballad, a love song, a lament, something eloquent and beautiful and heart stopping and deadly. He'd wanted to write her, every inch of her life, but all the education in the world hadn't given him the vocabulary to describe Kareen. He'd been so good at keeping his emotions in check, and now it wasn't enough.

"Can you hear me, girl?" the whisper came from behind him, and a glance over his shoulder showed the Lilty gazing at the heavy clouds. "Are you out there somewhere?"

Even if somewhere deep inside the idea repulsed him, he wanted someone to hold onto.

o-o-o

She was screaming something, hitting at him with her racket as he dragged her away from the scene. His arms burned with strain, the chalice poorly balanced in one and the other keeping a grip on her wrist. Her skin was no longer warm and he ignored the way the fragility of her bones made his skin crawl. So what if he could snap her wrist with nary a thought?

"Jake!" she shouted, half twisting in his grip in another attempt to get away. "Jake! Oh gods Sur, he needs our help!"

Her racket caught him at chink in the armor and he gasped, his grip loosening for an instant. She was halfway out of the crystal's circle before he caught her again. "No!" she screamed, her voice echoing off the narrow canyon walls. "Jake!"

They'd been setting up a combined casting to take out a tentacle when it happened. She'd been holding off a tonberry chef, dodging the knife blows that could have easily gutted her, when she tripped. Such an incredibly stupid thing to do, but the tonberry chef was on her and Jake broke the casting in his haste to get to her and--

None of them had heard the approach of the second tonberry chef. None of them.

He took the knife through his heart. There were no last words to take back to a grieving family.

There were no last words to take to a grieving Tah Det.

He yanked on her arm and, overbalanced, they tumbled into a puddle of brackish water. For a moment, she appeared as stunned as he felt.

And then the Selkie girl collapsed into sobs, and he could only pray that he'd wake up soon.

o-o-o

"Hey, you gonna dance or not?" The Clavat boy slid easily into the seat beside him, snatching a bit of food off his plate and chasing it down with a swig of the Yuke's drink. "Ah, you know Sur, that really hits the spot."

Though he knew Jake couldn't see the heated glare he shot him, the boy was very in tune with his comrades, immediately smiling his sheepish 'I'm guilty but you love me too much to be angry' grin. "Sorry."

The Yuke lifted a shoulder in reply and turned to watch the dancers. They whirled around the great crystal in increasingly intricate steps. He himself was not a dancer, but enjoyed the aesthetically pleasing sight.

Jake took another long pull at the bottle and he gave it up for a lost cause. Let the boy have it. Besides, everyone knew the strange liquid was highly intoxicating to anyone other than a Yuke. And Jake was a funny drunk for the most part.

"Y'know, Sur," the Clavat leaned too close to the Yuke for his own comfort, but he gritted his teeth and ignored it. "Tah Det and Kareen… they're really pretty."

Frowning out at the line of dancers, Surdather tried to spot the two but only managed to find Kareen. For a long moment he stared, mesmerized. She danced the way she lived, fighting through each step, concentrating through every move, pacing through the steps as deliberately as she fought.

A slight clunk alerted him to the fact that all was not well with his Clavat friend, but before he could turn a light voice spoke out from behind him.

"Stupid boys," said Tah Det, moving forward to Jake's side. From a Yuke's viewpoint, he could not see the girl's appeal. She was not bad to look at, true, but it seemed that he would have to find a way to view things from a Clavat's or Lilty's point of view. Apparently the Selkie girl was quite something.

"Well, I'll get him home," she said after a moment of examining the unconscious boy. "You take care, Sur, and don't stay up too late. Tenth year, starting tomorrow!"

The girl hefted the slumbering boy to his feet and draped him over her shoulder. Sur smiled as he watched the supposedly weak Tah Det drag him off into the darkness. Their tenth year? It didn't seem so long ago that they were off to the River Belle Path with hardly any idea of what a team meant.

o-o-o

His father had once said, long before a young Surdather had known anything about the way bones snapping beneath his paws felt or the way a rotting body squelched when hit with a racquet in the right place, that once something is gone it can never be reclaimed.

As a child he had not believed it. Though Father said many wise things, often confiding special knowledge in the boy, lost things were found all the time, from his mother's books to his sister's dolls. When he'd said this to his father, the elder had merely stared down into his son's eyes before shaking his head and walking away.

The feeling that he had failed his father had swamped him then, and ironically enough had shown him the truth. He never did regain his father's respect in the same way he'd once had it, which in the end he supposed proved his father's words far better than any pointless example ever could have.

o-o-o

She dashed the water out of her eyes, ignoring the way her hair dripped more into her face with each movement. "We have to finish this." The determination masked the grief, the utter collapse of a being. He inclined his head.

As she shook back the silver hair so prevalent amongst her tribe, the myrrh-like drops falling ever faster from her, he spoke. "When this is over, we will sing their laments to the skies." The words came strange from his mouth, but the fleeting smile that passed over her face was worth the effort it had taken to formulate them.

He stood, taking care to the way he moved. He was not unduly injured -- no broken bones or severe cuts -- but would certainly carry bruises for quite a few weeks. No point in using a cure stone for just bruises; the energy required would be a waste for such paltry hurts. He looked over Tah Det as he helped her from her crouch. Though she was bleeding and had a bit of a nasty cut on her shoulder, he decided that she, like him, was physically fine.

The chalice at their feet flickered in the dim, casting their shadows in eerie rendition against the walls of the passage. He bent, reaching for the base of it. A sigh of movement behind him was their only warning.

He threw himself forward, knocking Tah Det into the water again, quickly scrambling to his feet as the death knight swung his sword again. A death knight, here, this far down the passageways of the mountain?

As the knight chopped at his helm, a heavy blow that would split him from crown to groin, he sidestepped, raising his hammer to ward off the blow. Or rather, he tried.

Like so many of the other things at Mount Vellenge, he hadn't taken into account the slick limestone beneath his feet.

Had he seen any signs of a casting, it would have made what happened next easier to believe. But there was no circle, no focus, no hum of power in the air. Tah Det needed no Slow or Stop spell to leap in front of him and take the blow herself.

The dull thud of the sword striking her shoulder seemed to echo from the walls around them, as did her scream.

o-o-o

To a Yuke who had thought he'd known everything there was to know of the world, the carbuncle and his home had been a marvelous discovery. Once thought to be lost amidst the sands of time, the air of Mag Mell lay thick and heavy with time. Yet no miasma penetrated the blanket of clouds overhead, and no sun could be seen. What others might have called a perpetual sense of dawn seemed more to him a perpetual twilight.

When he'd looked at Mount Vellenge from the storybook setting of Mag Mell, the mountain had been just another piece of landscape, far away from him and his triumphs and tribulations.

Now, from the bowels of the mountain, the fairytale seemed like another lifetime.

o-o-o

His sister had cried the morning he had left for the caravan. Though desperate to comfort the small girl, he said nothing under the cold gaze of his father. Already he had lost his words.

The slam of the door behind him showed only his father's own mastery of his.

o-o-o

He was exhausted, every muscle in his body aching, yet the pure energy that rushed to life in his arteries gave him the strength to do what he did next.

The metal end of his war hammer slammed into the death knight's helm, hard enough not only to dent the protective covering but stun the creature as well. Surdather turned, lunging for the ragged heap that represented the last of his caravan. She should have been heavier to lift, but the energy left no room for pain as he hefted her to his shoulder, opposite the chalice, and launched himself into a sprint.

Ahead the cavernous walls of the passage curved inward and sloped, and the furious part of his brain that never slept lit with the idea of escape. The death knight was too large, both wide and tall, to fit in behind him. They could wait there, rest and recover.

Slick rock beneath his feet caused him to skid, he shifted Tah Det on his shoulder, cursing the passage, the mountain, the miasma, and everything else he could think of.

The narrower area was not quite what he had hoped for, it was even better. The crevice gave to a larger, chamber like cavern. Not only was it empty of enemies, it was dry. Had the dull ache of loss not already enveloped him, abandoning all emotion in its numbness, he could have wept with sheer relief. Even the disquieting smell of rot could no longer faze him. His normal attitude, his composure, had fallen apart. Just like his plan.

He collapsed against the wall, leaning against a large plant root. The chalice hit the dirt beneath them with a slight thud, tipping over onto its side. Though she whimpered in protest, he lowered Tah Det to sit before him so he could look at the injury.

Her collarbone was broken, of that there was no doubt. Beneath the bandolier of artifacts her shoulder hung limply. There was so much blood; her sleeve sopping wet to the touch, the stain spreading down her shirt, tiny rivulets coursing down her arm.

"I'm going to use Cure," he said, whispering in the stillness. She opened her eyes, the unfocused grey telling him all about her condition. The spell would help with the shock.

His casting was quick, both due to his tribal traits and his own personal skill. The pain of the spell resetting the bone did not seem to distract the Selkie girl from her sudden inspection of him.

"We're not going to make it out alive, are we?" Her murmur carried despite the exhaustion slurring her words. "Kareen and Jake, now you and I… none of us are going to make it." There was not enough strength left in her own body to completely heal the wound. He tugged her sleeve downward and pressed a bandage to the slice, the warmth strange and staining to his paws.

"We're going to make it," he found himself saying, not actually believing it himself. And Tah Det, the delicate flower, knew he was lying. She had always been the best at reading them all. The ironic expression that passed over her face made way for a more peaceful one.

"I'm so tired, Sur."

"I know." And though he hated touching, hated the feeling of having someone so close, he pulled the girl into an embrace. She was all he had left and he was cracking under that slow, implacable pressure. "I know."

"If I don't make it, tell my mother I love her." But not her father, not her brothers, not anyone or anything else in the world. He'd always suspected certain things about her family, this confirmation served only to vindicate the suspicions he'd held for long years.

His resting place suddenly felt uncomfortable. The root had given way slightly. "You can tell her yourself." He shifted against the root. It gave way again.

The hopeless grin she sent him was coupled by both the gush of more warm blood and the sudden chill that sank in as the root beside him moved for the third time. It was no root. No root could move on its own, could bend in half in an attempt to slam itself against its intended victim.

There was no time to dodge. The tentacle did not miss.

He could feel the way her bones snapped, caving beneath that massive blow, and he could hear the way the blood spurted from her mouth, exhaled from crushed lungs. From his place before her he could see the way the way her eyes turned dull and sightless beneath his own horrified gaze.

He would never hold anyone again.

o-o-o

"We can do it, Sur." The boyish enthusiasm had been exchanged for quiet assurance, his usual humor for serious discussion. "We're strong enough. If the stories are true, if the miasma originates from there, we can rid the world of miasma. And if it's not, then we can just collect our three drops of myrrh like the good little boys and girls we always are. But our time limit is no excuse for not acting on this."

"Think about it," and even Tah Det was speaking up voluntarily. "If we do this, never again will there be another caravan."

Though Kareen's expression twisted at the Selkie's words, she chimed in her own agreement. "Never again will a village suffer," she said, and they all knew she was thinking of Tida.

"That's all very well and good," he said, inexorably losing his patience against the onslaught, "But there's a reason no caravans go there, and it's not just the lack of a myrrh tree." The others stared at his sudden violent gesticulating. "Amidatty once told me that Vellenge is like a hammer, and it doesn't care who it smashes. There's a chance we might be injured, horrifically injured. There's a chance we might die."

"We've been taking those chances from the beginning," Jake said, and Sur was enraged at how calm he was being. It was easier to refute and refuse his every demand when he was being foolish. Now he was anything but the fool of a boy he had been a decade before. A man stood before him, and the Yuke selfishly wished for days long passed by. "We've always known the dangers."

"This is a chance we have to take." Certainty radiated from every pore on Tah Det's body and he wanted to shake sense into her. A glance at Kareen showed a passive face.

"And I suppose you agree with them?"

"There's no choice."

"There's always a choice," he snapped, yet the harsh tone did nothing to shake her calm. A long look at the caravan showed that each face around him was set in decision, and so he made the choice that would destroy them all.

o-o-o

He had not borne their bodies back to Tipa, had not had the strength to drag both himself and the others from that horrid place. Not even the chalice had returned with him, left somewhere in the deepest pits of the mountain beside the slowly rotting corpse of the parasite. Let some other fool find it. Let some other fool learn of sacrifice.

The rain was pinging off his helm now, little sporadic drops that did nothing to soothe him. Roland had ordered the grave marker made the moment Surdather had arrived, alone and exhausted beyond his years. A small blessing that the blacksmith had not had to carve his own daughter's name and epitaph. A small blessing smothered in a storm of loss.

Rain struck the earth around him as he knelt to look at the inscription. And it was ironic how the claim of how beloved and wonderful and missed each one of them would be seemed so false. The wood was soft, and the short knife he carried sharp. He carved.

Movement behind him; he spun, knife at the ready and teeth bared. It was only the little Lilty boy from before. Kareen's brother, Rob, or Ron. Why he didn't know these things only added to the guilt.

"What are you doing?" The boy's annunciation was clear, his words carefully proper. He clutched at his stick weapon, small and hunched in his fear of the crazy Yuke before him. Sur had to fight the urge to laugh - he looked insane enough without adding the sudden changes of mood.

"Writing," he said shortly, and returned to the sign. The blade dug deeper in some places than others, yet he smoothed out each tiny error with the precision of a true scholar.

"What are you writing?" Roh, Surdather suddenly remembered, stepped closer. For once he felt no discomfort at the boy's closeness. A sense of numbness had overridden all else.

"See for yourself." He rocked back onto his heels and then straightened, each inch making him loom over the boy like some sort of mythical monster.

Surdather the Yuke may have been a monster in the eyes of all who had loved those who had journeyed beside him, but he was no myth. No matter how he or anyone may have wished otherwise, it was all real. Horrifyingly, achingly real.

He left the boy to stare at the words he'd so painstakingly left behind, left the graves of his friends behind him. They were not there. In his memory, they lived on as they always had.

The alien anatomy of his tribe had not provided tear ducts or the necessary biological makeup for them. He would have to cry the way a Yuke did, in his heart.

It would have to be enough.

o-o-o

He opened his eyes to intense blue, the blue of deep ocean on a sunny day, the blue of the sky at false dawn, the blue of Kareen's eyes. He immediately shut his own. The better not to remember.

"My poor caravanner," the soft, musical contralto of the lady of dreams came from nowhere and everywhere in the peace around him, "Rest now. You have walked a hard road."

It was perhaps the simplest truth of his life.

o-o-o

The inscription, and perhaps the most complex of all of Surdather's truths, read:

In the end, I did love you all.

o-o-o

The blacksmith's son had watched the last of the Tipa caravan carve the words into the graves, and, as years went by, watched as the words wore away beneath rain and wind to nothing but a smooth surface.

Eventually the four from Tipa, like so many caravans gone before them, were only legends.

In time, they were not even that.


Finis