They reached the edge of the forest around Forst Reach just after the air cooled with nightfall. The usual child wasn't there, oddly enough. Van frowned, even if the child couldn't have stayed out all day, they would have started shifts. How odd. He thought.

"Van, didn't you say they'd come to meet us...?" Stef asked, sounding nervous.

"I thought they would, they always have before." Van answered with a sigh. "I guess we'll go meet them. Maybe we came later than they thought, or they got the date wrong."

Still, he couldn't shake the sense that something was very, very wrong. Gods... what is it? All of my senses are going haywire.

As they broke through the last of the trees, Van felt something almost physically hit him- hard enough both he and 'Fandes reared backwards in surprise.

Shields? Van thought, shaking his head to clear it. 'Fandes didn't seem to notice anything wrong. Why are there shields on the village before Forst Reach? Did Father get a house mage? He didn't say anything. He frowned. Dammit, they're strong. I can't see through them. Where is everybody?"Stef, stick close to me." He said, scowling. "Something is really wrong here."

:I sense it too.: 'Fandes put in. :I'm worried.:

"Me too, 'Fandes." Van said out loud as Stef pulled Melody closer.

"Van, there's no one here." Stef said. "The houses- gods! Van, the houses have been destroyed!"

:What?: 'Fandes jerked her head around. :Van, they look normal to me.: She said. :I think there's an illusion.:

:Damn. Can I break it?:

:Probably, if I help you.:

:What? You would?:

:Of course, you idiot! This is much bigger than I'd expected!: She snapped, exasperation coloring her tone.

The white-blue energy of a Companion flowed into his mind. He searched the edges of the shield, Yfandes stopping short and holding steady underneath him. :Careful, Vanyel-love. You're still weary.:

Van didn't answer; he'd found the starter of the illusion, a small brick in a well just outside of the shield. He unraveled the energies, dissipating the illusion.

:Gods and goddesses!: Yfandes let out a loud, startled squeal. :Van- connect with me- you've got to see this!:He obediently opened his mind, and looked out through his Companion's eyes.

The village was completely destroyed. Ashes covered the ground inside the shields. The houses- mostly made of wood and stone had melted as well as burned. The ground was scorched black, all pants dead. Skeletons, human and animal, dotted the areas around the houses.

:Gods above!: Vanyel exclaimed. "Stef, we've got to get to the manor! Now!" He shouted.

Yfandes pivoted and started running.

:How did Stefen see through the illusion?: Van asked, hearing Stef and Melody

:It isn't keyed to anyone without active magic.: She answered. :The bastard who did this only expected you.:

:Damn- so someone struck out at me after all?:

:I'm not sure it's just at you...: Came her grim reply. :I think he's striking at Valdemar.:

They reached the manor ten minutes later. :Gods... Van, it's gone.: Yfandes whispered, as Stef let out a choked gasp of shock. Once again, she allowed him to look through her eyes.

Burnt, blackened bodies littered the ground. The manor was almost completely destroyed, with only a few walls left standing. The stench of burned flesh and loosened bowels hit him.

"No." Van whispered. "No, dammit, no, no, no, no, no." He dismounted, walking towards the manor. He stumbled over a body- too large to be Mekeal- father.

"FATHER!" He screamed, reaching blindly towards the burnt body of his father. "No, no, no!" He sobbed, breaking down as the pain shot through him. His family was gone.

Gone.

Gone.

Yfandes nuzzled his shoulder, opening her heart to him, letting comfort flow over him. :Van, Van, I'm so sorry.:

"They died because of me, didn't they?" Van asked, voice hoarse. "They died because I'm a Herald-Mage."

"No, Van." Stefen sat next to him, putting an arm around Van's shoulders. "Van, blaming yourself for the actions of others is stupid. Gods, Van..." Stefen choked. He pulled an unresisting Van over to him, holding Van close. "Go ahead and cry for them. They deserve to be mourned." He told Van.

Van had already been crying, but that opened the floodgates even wider.

He sobbed until he couldn't sob anymore, until he could just lay in Stef's arms, shivering, unable to even move.

"You're a mess, peacock." Stef murmured into Van's ear. "Do you have a handkerchief?"

Van started, surprised at the all-too familiar words. So like 'Lendel- He nodded. "Saddlebags." He murmured. Yfandes turned so Stef could reach them without dislodging Van.

The soft, cotton handkerchief touched his face, wiping away the tears. He held it out to Van, who took it and blew his nose before dropping it next to them.

"They killed my family." Van whispered, closing his eyes. "Gods... Father, mother, Mekeal, Radevel..." I'm alone, more alone than ever- Gods, so alone! The ice-dream must have been fore-sight too...

:No, Chosen.: Yfandes murmured. :No. I'm here, and Stef is here. Medren, Savil and all of your friends at the Palace are alive, and Melenna and Jervis and Tashir are alive, and there's Shavri and Jisa and Randale...: She babbled, her nose pressed into the back of his head.

Stef touched his face, gently.

Then Stefen kissed him.

It was a chaste kiss, meant to give comfort and love. And Vanyel accepted it, gladly.

Stefen broke away and pulled Van into a tight embrace. "We can't stay, Van." He murmured. "Whoever it was may have set a trap. I'm sorry, Van, but we've got to leave."

Van froze. Leave... damn, he' s right... but I want to bury them, at least. He bit his lip.

"Van, please." Stef murmured. "I can't risk losing you- hellfires, Van, it's not that long a trip to the Palace now, we can have them send people out to check everything-

:Van, please listen to him. Stand up.: Yfandes ordered.

Van blinked. He stood, carefully, limbs still shaking with grief and exhaustion.

He couldn't see, but he sensed Yfande's movement- and suddenly, Stef shouted. The shout cut off suddenly, and the sounds of hooves thudding into a skull echoed.

"STEF!" Van shouted, charging at Yfandes and trying to knock her away from the Bard.What- why the hell- Stef-

:Van! Calm down! Heal him, NOW!: She shouted.

Van froze. What? She attacked him, and now she wants me to Heal him?

:I'll help, now Heal him! Van, please listen to me- I'll explain everything once he's Healed!:

Van dropped to his knees next to the fallen Bard and let his small Healing Gift wash over the Bard's injury. Yfandes' power flowed through him, strengthening it until it was much stronger than Van would have thought possible. His channels strained, stretching to allow 'Fandes to get through-

Van entered Stef's mind almost unconsciously.

BY THE GODS!

Stef's magical potential had opened, blasted open like Van's had. His mind reeled, and he barely kept control over the Healing .She- how- how?

Consciousness flowed back into Stef's mind. Van quickly exited, not wanting to intrude on his thoughts.

Stef moaned in pain, curling into a little ball under Van's hands. Van redirected the power to his channels, trying to heal the frayed edges. He didn't know if it was possible, but if he could even help the pain he himself had felt-

Stef sighed with relief, dropping the tense pose. "What... happened?" He asked groggily.

"'Fandes attacked you and opened your latent powers." Van answered. "And I would like to know why." He pushed his grief, and his hatred, and everything into a corner of his mind. He didn't like bottling things up, but he had to- he had to protect Valdemar, and this was clearly a matter for the whole country. "Please explain, 'Fandes."

:Very well. Stefen is Tylendel.: Yfandes said bluntly, in open-mindspeech so Stefen could hear her too.

Van blinked. "What?" He and Stefen asked at the same time.

:Stefen is the reincarnation of your old lifebond, Van. Now, don't go considering him as Tylendel- he isn't, even if he has some memories as Tylendel. He's still a seventeen year old boy who doesn't quite know who he is yet. But you two are not just Herald Vanyel and Bard Stefen. You two have been in legends before, and they are trying to reenact now.:

Stefen gulped.

:You two are Sunsinger and Shadowdancer.:

"WHAT?" Van yelped. "You- what?"

:You are Shadowdancer, Van, and he's Sunsinger.:She shook her head. :And the Darklord in the songs has returned.:

"I know you. You- are Leareth. It means 'Darkness.'"

"Oh, hellfires." Van whispered. "Why did you tell me before?"

:I couldn't you idiot! The Gods don't allow us to just TELL you everything! The only reason I'm telling you this now is because the situation has become far more dire than before. This 'Leareth" isn't as strong as he once was, but he's stronger than you are- and better. You alone are nothing compared to him. But you and Stefen together might have a chance.: She continued.

Van shook his head. "'Fandes." He said weakly, "Couldn't you have disposed this information at a more convenient time?"

:There IS no more convenient time, stupid Herald!: She snapped. :Have you thought about how damn few Herald-Mages there are left? Normal Heralds cannot fight this bastard!:

Stef shivered. "But- I'm just a Bard!" He said desperately. "How am I supposed to do anything?"

:We need to train you as fast as possible.: Yfandes said brusquely. :And we need to take you somewhere SAFE to train, or the bastard might get you.:

"Why not Haven?" Van asked, frowning.

:Van... you were nearly assassinated there, remember? Do you want to place Stefen more insto harm's way?: Yfandes demanded.

"Then... k'Treva!" He sat bolt upright. "Do you think they'd let me?" He asked, uncertain.

:Hmm. Maybe, if you take Savil, too. I'm sure Brightstar would love to talk to you- and Featherfire would probably like to meet you.:

Van flushed. "Yeah..."

"Who are they?" Stefen asked, curious.

"Two of my children." Van answered.

"You have children?" Stef asked, sounding startled- and skeptical. "How many?"

"Four." He grinned sheepishly. "They were favors for friends like Lissa's- gods! Lissa!" He bit his lip. "Thank the Gods she wasn't here..."

:That doesn't necessarily mean Leareth didn't get her.: 'Fandes warned him. :But, Van, we need to get out of here- now. Can you build a Gate?:

Van winced. "I'm not sure, I'm rather drained."

'Fandes sighed. :Then take energy from Stefen; I'm out too.:

Van sighed. "'Fandes, you can only do that with a lifebond..." He protested.

:Idiot... Van, you and Stef are lifebonded!: She sighed. :Sorry how short I'm being, but having a God shouting in your head is probably one of the more painful experiences in life.:

Van shook his head, amazed. "Well, then. Stef, can you take me over to something resembling a door?" He asked. "I need a place to build the Gate."

"Yeah..." Stef answered, standing. He helped Van up and carefully led him around stinking, burnt bodies. Van was very grateful to his lack of sight, now- if he could have seen them, he wouldn't have been able to focus at all... The stench was bad enough. He frowned. But how is Stefen doing? He's never seen anything like this, but he's holding up surprisingly well. Why?

:Van, we need to wait a while. Stefen's Companion is on her way.: 'Fandes broke in.

"Huh?" He asked, startled. "Wait- Stef's going to be a Herald?"

"I what?" Stef asked, startled.

:Tylendel isn't the only one to return. Gala got a talking-to- her repudiation of Tylendel was not authorized- and got sent back down in case Stef ever needed to become a Herald again. She's one of the younger Companions, so she'll take a bit longer to get here. She's going as fast as possible, though. I'll give you and Stef some time alone- you're in one of the few hallways not totally destroyed.: With that, she cut off the connection and left.

Vanyel carefully sat down.

Stef settled in next to him. "I... heard what she said, Van. So... Tylendel's Companion... my Companion... gods..."

"Stef." Van said quietly. "You are not Tylendel."

"But Yfandes said-"

"Stef, you have been 'Stefen' for seventeen years. There is no need to have a crisis of 'who am I' anymore." Van sighed. "Why am I so calm about all this?" He shook his head wryly.

"I don't think anything's sunk in yet." Stef answered hoarsely. "Gods..."

Van sighed. "You're probably right."

:She's here!: Yfandes' head snapped up, dislodging Van's hand. Van blinked, turning his head in futility.

The sound of companion hooves on cobblestone touched Van' ears. This Companion is lighter than 'Fandes. Younger, or just smaller? Van wondered, curious. :'Fandes, can I look through your eyes?:

:Of course, Chosen.: A moment of disorientation, and Vanyel was looking through his Companion's eyes. Nausea hit him when he saw a body- a child's- lying only ten feet away. Gods- that's Mikal. He thought, gut twisting. The child's black hair- so like Van's- had been ripped off, leaving the child's skullexposed.

The Companion stepped inside, blocking his view. Stef stood up shakily next to him and walked into view, standing in front of the Companion.

:Oh, Stefen, I'm so sorry.: Van heard the Companion say, her voice resonating in Van's mind. :'Fandes, why can I hear her?: Van asked, startled. This wasn't right.

:Your bond. I suppose we'll be a bit of a four-way bond. Unusual, and not what I expected, but it should do wonders for our teamwork.: Yfandes told him.

"It- It's okay. I don't remember any of it, so I don't even know who was at fault- if anyone was." Stef answered, ducking his head, refusing to look at his Companion.

:Stef, please look at me?: Gaia requested.

"O-okay." He raised his head.

Love- peace- an entire myraid of wonderful emotions-

Van gasped, startled, as the emotions surged through their bond.

Stef threw himself at his Companion and sobbed, breaking down. Van stumbled to his feet, breaking the sight-spell he had used, and put his arms around Stef's shoulders. Gaia nuzzled his shoulder. :Van, 'Lendel's death was my fault.: She told him, subdued. :Please... don't blame yourself? And don't grieve?:

"I don't think I'll ever stop grieving for 'Lendel." Van answered out loud, which was still more natural than talking mind-to-mind. "But I think I can move on now." He felt a new core of strength settle in him, and his shoulders almost unconsciously straightened.

Stef writhed in Van's grip, startling him. The boy turned and buried his face in Van's shoulder. "Van..." He murmured, voice muffled by Van's civilian clothing.

"It's okay." Van murmured. "I need to contact Haven and explain the situation. Then- Stef, do you mind if I use your energy? I don't have enough to build a Gate to the Vale."

Stef shook his head. "Anything to get us away from here." He lifted his hand, touching Gaia's cheek.

Van closed his eyes. It didn't really do anything, but it somehow made it easier to concentrate. "How much am I allowed to tell them?" He asked.

:Just say that Stef is a mage, and you're taking him for emergency training, then you're going on a mission. Tell them if they need confirmation, ask their Companions.: Yfandes told him.

Van nodded. He extended his mind towards Haven, searching for someone to relay his message to.

:Van?: Savil asked, startled. :I sensed you. What's going on?:

:They're all dead.: Van told her. :And Stef's latent powers awakened. I'm taking him to the Tayledras to train. Then... we have a mission. I'm afraid I can't tell you any more.: He explained grimly.

:Wait- who's dead? You can't be saying-:

:Everyone who was at or around Forst Reach is dead, Savil-love. It's a strike at me- and, possibly, you. Be safe, Savil. Make sure your wards are tight. And take care of Medren, will you?:

:Van... what's going on? You sound like you expect to die. Withen's dead? Treesa?:

:I do.: He answered. :Savil-love, this is really bad. Worse than you'd expect. And yes. Father and Mother are dead. And Mekeal, and everyone... gods. I have to go, Savil-love.:

:What the hell is going on? Van-: Van dropped to his knees as the last of his energy ran out, cutting the connection.

He got to his feet shakily, propping himself up on Yfandes' shoulder. "Hellfires, maybe the Tayledras can help my eyes." He muttered. "Alright, Stef, go into trance." He told him. "And let's hope things don't go as badly as they did the last few times."

Stef started whistling a tune. Van smirked; Sun and Shadow worked a little too well considering their new... situation.

:He's already in trance. Amazing.: Gaia whispered into Van's mind. :Now.:

Van reached through a bond he hadn't known he had to Stef's mind. He slipped past Stef's unconscious barriers and touched Stef's energy, bringing it into himself.

Gods- this is better than node energy- what is this?

While node energy was like drinking rainbows, Stef's was pure light. It was like bathing in the sun. Gods, he's stronger than I am! He realized with a jolt of surprise. Stronger, and one day he'll be better.

He started forming the energy into the Gate, waiting for the pain to come.

It began, but it was muffled, buried under the magic Stef had given him. Building the Gate still hurt, but it was not very bad- closer to a thorn in the toe than the all-encompassing pain that usually came with a building of the Gate.

He imagined the k'Treva Vale, the flowers and the statues, the people, the hertasi and trees...

And he took Stef's hand and stepped through the Gate, their Companions following silently behind them.

The world dropped out from under them, and Van felt the sickening sense of falling. Then, they were through.

Stef gasped beside him, his hand tightening on Van's. The energy-transfer shattered, leaving only a faint glow in Van's channels. He corralled it into a small area in the back of his brain, saving it- he didn't know why.

"Vanyel!" A very familiar voice exclaimed.

"Moondance?" Van asked, opening his eyes. He almost expected to see again.

"I'm over here." Moondance said, sounding perplexed.

"Sorry, I can't see." Van explained. "Moondance- is Starwind around? We need to talk to you."

Stef stepped closer to him, obviously intimidated. Van suppressed a smile, remembering how he'd felt when he'd opened his eyes and found a Tayledras standing nearby.

"I am here." Starwind answered. "You- get hot tea. You, get a hertasi to take Lady Yfandes' burdens to an empty ekele. You, take Lady Yfandes and the other Companion somewhere they can rest. Hurry!"Starwind barked. Van blinked; he hadn't heard Starwind order anyone around like that since he'd started training under him.

Moondance's hand landed on his shoulder. "Now, Vanyel, and your... by the Star-eyed!" Moondance yelped. "You lifebonded again?"

"Not quite." Van sighed. "Stef, this is Moondance. He's a Tayledras. Don't worry, he won't bite you- and he knows some Valdemaran, so you will be able to communicate until you learn Tayledras. Moondance, Stef." Van explained in Valdemaran. "Starwind, Stef, likewise."

"A pleasure." Moondance said, in stilted Valdemaran.

"Agreed." Starwind said calmly. "Please come this way- we have much to ask you."


"...So we need a safe place for me to train Stef." Van finished,

Starwind was silent for a long moment. "Although what happens in Valdemar doesn't affect us directly, it does not sound like this Leareth will be satisfied with one country." He said at last. "So I agree, it is necessary for young Stefen to be trained. His name proves a vested interest in us. WE have a few extra ekele, and you are allowed to use the training room. We will assign a hertasi or two to show you two around, especially you, Van." Starwind told them.

"Thank you very much." Van said, dipping his head. "Anytime k'Treva needs assistance we can give, we will."

"Thank you. Katri, please show them to the ekele." Starwind said.

Stef jumped.

"Hello." The hertasi greeted in the slurred tones that all hertasi had when speaking out loud. "Please come with me."

Stef stuck close to Van the entire way to the ekele and didn't let go of his hand until Katri had left.

"Are you alright?" Van asked, frowning.

"...Dunno." Stef answered. "What about you? Your family..."

Van frowned. "I'm bottling it all away for now." He explained. "I don't like to, but it's clsoe to the only way I can function. Leareth knows me too well, but not well enough to make me unable to function. Of course, as soon as I feel safe I'll probably lose it."

Stef guided him over to one of the Tayledras couches, which were more comfortable than any Valdemaran couches Van had ever found. They sat, and Stef rested his head on Van's shoulder.

"It happened so fast." He murmured.

"It always does, doesn't it?" Van asked.

"Mm." He mumbled. Within moments, he was asleep.

Van sighed. Hellfires. I'll save my mental breakdown for tomorrow. Sleep sounds good.

A/N: Ooh, this took forever... I'm amazed I finished it at all... you know, once I post this I think I'll follow Van's example and go to sleep.


Bard Kayna: Thanks! Ha, you're not the only one who loves Van/Stef... though I've kinda always thought it'd really be Stef/Van. I'm glad you like it!