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Disclaimer: *all together now* I don't own them, Alliance does; I'm poor and if someone sues me they end up having to feed my four dogs. One of whom sings. Loudly. All the time!.

Many thanks to Wendy and Lori for beta reading, hand-holding and plot-hole- stuffing. Any remaining mistakes--and I'm sure there are some--are my fault.

Notes: ~~~ denotes flashback or dream; * denotes italics; ' denotes thought; " denotes spoken dialogue.

All comments accepted cheerfully at sknkodiak@aol.com

 

A Choice Between

by Sue Kelley

 

Prologue:

(Immediately following the tag of the aired episode A Simple Truth)

~~~"Kyra! Kyra! NO!"

Tao raced through the underbrush toward the screams. His heart pounding erratically in his chest, he burst from the trees to find Dar on his knees next to the small lake. The Beastmaster's hands were on his knees; his head bent to the ground, shoulders shaking with sobs.

Tao looked around wildly. He couldn't see Kyra, but then, he couldn't see any signs of attack or danger, either. The clearing was calm. A slight breeze rippled the waters of the lake.

"Dar?" he whispered, falling to his knees beside his friend. "Dar? What's wrong? Where's Kyra?"

Dar lifted his head. Tao recoiled before the look on his friend's face--never had he seen such anguish. "She's gone," he whispered.

"Gone?"

"She was here." Dar gestured to the water. "I was coming to find you, then we were going to head up to the camp. She screamed, Tao, she screamed for me to help her. I turned and she was--there were these--ribbons of light--"

"What?" Tao asked, confused.

"Red ribbons of light.. They wrapped around her...and then she was just gone! I don't know where--I could see her, and then she was just gone, Tao! She's gone!

"I've lost her again..."~~~

 

 

(Several days after the conclusion of "Riddle of the Nymph")

"Kyra!"

Tao jerked awake at the anguished cry. Dar twisted in his sleep on the other side of the dying fire, sweat beading across his torso. Kodo and Podo, disturbed from their sleep on his chest, chattered together in confused whistles.

"Kyra! No!" Dar cried out again.

Tao scrambled to his friend's side and put a reassuring hand on his arm. "Shh. Dar, it's okay. It's just a dream. Go back to sleep."

For a few minutes, Dar's face twisted in pain; his body remained tense. But then, as he had the night before and the night before that, he relaxed at his friend's soothing touch. The harsh lines aging his face vanished. Tao stayed close by until Dar curled on his side and his breathing became deep and peaceful. The ferrets crawled back into the warm circle of his body and nestled together sleepily.

When he was sure Dar was asleep again, Tao moved back to his own blanket. The temperature had dropped sharply since sundown and he pulled two more blankets from his supply, draping one carefully over Dar before pulling the second around himself and edging closer to the fire. With a long stick he stirred the embers and then added fresh logs. Chin on his hands, he stared into the flames.

'He dreams of her every night.'

He didn't know if Dar remembered the dreams or not. The Beastmaster never mentioned them during the daylight hours and neither did Tao, sensing his friend would be embarrassed or maybe even ashamed at his nightly grief.

'Where are you, Kyra? Who spirited you away? The Sorceress? But why?'

A scream of some wild animal tore through the air. Tao instinctively looked around, even though he knew Ruh wouldn't be there. Night was the time for the tiger to hunt for food. But surprisingly, Ruh appeared, stepping daintily out from the heavy trees. The beast padded over to Dar's sleeping form, studying him for a minute before he swung back around and dropped to his haunches in front of Tao. His mouth open--breath frosting the air, he regarded the human steadily through iridescent green eyes.

"You want me to help him?" Tao asked quietly. "I wish I could. I wish I knew what to do." Tao went on, "He doesn't even want to talk about her when he's awake. I know he's hurting--worse than I can even imagine." He shifted to look at the tiger, trying to explain his feelings. "Do you know that wolves mate for life? Dar's tribe...there's some link there with wolves. When Kyra was running the wolves were helping her..." he trailed off, absently patting the tiger's head. Ruh purred and pounced on Tao's hand with one large paw, claws carefully sheathed. Dar muttered in his sleep, moving restlessly, and Tao turned to look at him, holding his breath until his friend was quiet again. He let the breath out in a long sigh. "I wish I knew what I could do."

He stared into the flames.

~~~Tao stumbled into the small clearing, falling to his knees and staring around in shock. The small, perfectly round hollow was thickly carpeted with blood-red flowers--growing so closely together the leaves couldn't be seen. In the center of each flower a piston reached to the sky, heavy with golden pollen. The sweet scent of the flowers overpowered the air.

A tiny spring bubbled crystal clear water at the very base of the hollow. His mouth dry as sand, Tao made his way down to it and knelt to drink. The water was cold and sweet and tasted better than any he had ever drank.

Thirst quenched, he sat back on his heels and looked around, bemused. "I've never seen flowers like these," he said aloud.

A woman's voice, light with laughter. "They're blood-lilies, of course."

Tao frowned. The name was vaguely familiar--evoking a memory from deep in his past--while the voice..."Muraki? Is that you?"

"Well, of course, silly."

Tao looked around, seeing only the flowers. "But...where are you?"

"I'm right here." The voice seemed to be right in front of him. He closed his eyes, then opened them again. She was there...but different, wavery and almost transparent.. "Muraki?" He reached out for her, half expecting his hand to pass right through, but he touched the cloth of her dress. "Why are you so...transparent?"

She ignored the question, picking one of the flowers and placing it in his open hand. "You know about blood-flowers. You do. Remember?"

He stared at the crimson blossom in his hand. "Blood flowers..." he repeated. "Blood flowers." He closed his eyes, trying to think. The heavy perfume of the flowers was addling his senses. "I think--" He opened his eyes. "Muraki?"

She wasn't there, he couldn't see her but he could hear her voice. "Tao? I'm right here! Tao--"~~~

"Tao?"

Tao jerked awake with a gasp as he felt the hand on his shoulder. "What?" He looked around, bleary-eyed. Early-morning sunlight streamed across the familiar sight of the camp. Dar crouched next to him, hand still extended. "Dar! What-?" Tao spun around again. No hollow, no spring, no carpet of red flowers. No Muraki. Just the familiar sights and smells of early morning. Ruh, blinking sleepily from the shadow of the overhanging cliff, regarded him steadily; the ferrets chattered as they crawled in his lap.

"I've never known you to sleep sitting up before," Dar commented.

"What?" Tao stared at him.

Dar's eyes narrowed. "Sitting up, Tao...you were sleeping just like that when I woke up." He gestured. "You should be careful--you were too close to the fire, you could have been burned."

Tao looked into the flames. "I thought--I didn't know...guess I was dreaming."

"About Muraki?" Dar bit into a juicy golden ripa-fruit. The juice ran over his chin and he wiped it off with his hand before tossing another fruit to Tao.

"Muraki? Umm, I guess. She was in the dream. Why did you ask about her?"

"You said her name, just before you woke up." Dar eyed him steadily.

"Oh." Tao ran shaking hands through his short hair, then looked at Dar carefully. It was on the tip of his tongue to bring up his friend's dreams, but before he could the other changed the subject.

"I'm going to the salt flats this morning--to check on the animals there. Are you coming along?" Dar grinned easily. "There are some herbs there you could add to your collection."

Tao hesitated, then returned the grin and nodded. "Maybe I can plant them here," he said teasingly.

"No gardens!" Dar teased, lightly cuffed his shoulder at their continuing debate. "Plants grow where they're supposed to grow."

Tao rolled his eyes. "Someday, you're going to stop fighting my garden and then you'll see how much easier your life can be!"

"Life isn't supposed--"

"--to be easy," Tao finished for him. He looked over at Ruh. "You ought to tell him. He doesn't listen to me!"

"Now why would Ruh want a garden?" Dar asked, hands on hips and a twinkle in his eyes.

"I could plant catnip!" Tao fired back.

Ruh purred.

"See! He likes the idea!"

Dar shook his head, his grin never changing. "Come on. It's a long walk. Finish your breakfast."

 

 

Dar had been telling truth: it *was* a long walk to the salt flats. The sun was high in the sky by the time they arrived. It was warmer here than in the mountains, but the air still had the faint first bite of winter. Once there, they split up, with Ruh padding behind Tao as he searched for new herbs and plants to add to his collection.

"Why do you scrabble for weeds like that, human?"

Tao jumped and whirled around to see Curupira standing on a rock behind him. "Do you *have* to sneak up on people?" he exploded, then held up a placating hand at her swift scowl. "I'm sorry, I apologize...and to answer your question, I like studying plants...learning about them, what they do."

The small demon frowned. "Why?" she asked again.

Tao thought about explaining, then discarded the idea. He knew from past conversations that nothing he could say would convince her of the need for study and learning. Instead, he asked a question of his own. "Curupira, have you ever heard of something called blood-lilies?"

"Of course I have," she replied crossly. "You aren't looking for those here, are you?"

"Why wouldn't I?" Tao answered cautiously.

"Well, they don't grow here. They grow only in the deepest, darkest part of the forest...where the light of the sun can't reach."

"Curupira!" Dar stood behind her. His face wore the usual concerned, wary expression he donned when Curupira exhibited interest in Tao.

"Hello, Beastmaster." Curupira grinned. Tao suppressed a shiver of discomfort at that predatory expression. The demon went on, "I've been looking for you."

"I am here."

Curupira started towards him, then paused and turned back to Tao. "Good luck in your hunt for weeds, human," she said, her polite tone belied by the mischievous look on her pert face. "Remember, what you seek is in the darkest part of the forest."

It was full dark by the time they'd returned to the camp at the plateau. Tao had collected several tubers during the day and he put these into the fire to roast. Dar sat cross-legged on the other side of the blaze and glanced at his friend. "What did Curapira mean, that which you seek is in the darkest part of the forest?"

Tao looked up from his intent study of the vegetables in the flames. "What--oh. I'm...looking for a certain flower. I asked her if she knew where it grew. That's all." He shrugged.

"You haven't asked me about any flower," Dar pointed out.

"I guess it slipped my mind."

"Something slipped your mind?" Dar asked sarcastically. He stopped suddenly, hearing in his tone the echo of another time. 'Finally! Something you don't know!' From the look on Tao's face, he knew the other was thinking of that time as well. Dar closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," he said sincerely. "I didn't mean that. It's just...Curupira isn't to be trusted, Tao. I'm not certain you realize just how dangerous she can be. All she cares about is the animals."

"Usually caring for animals is the sign of a very compassionate individual," Tao offered.

Dar looked up quickly, feeling cold chills chase each other down his back. "Don't make the mistake of attributing human feelings--human motivations--to Curupira. She's *not* human. Don't forget that."

He held Tao's gaze intently until the other nodded and looked away. Studying his face in the firelight, Dar was struck at the pallor, the lines of tension around the mouth and eyes. "Tao, what's bothering you?"

For a minute he actually thought Tao was going to tell him. Then the green eyes shuttered closed. "Nothing's wrong, with me." A pause. "Is there something *you* would like to talk about?"

Dar sighed. "Like what?"

The answer came swiftly. "Kyra."

Pain lanced through the Beastmaster's heart. The vision of his love--wrapped in the enveloping bands of red that had stolen her from him--rose before his eyes. He could hear her terrified screams.

Dar lurched to his feet, taking a step toward Tao. It was only when he saw his friend lurch backward that he realized he was still holding his staff. He froze, then with a long sigh dropped the weapon. "I'm going to walk," he announced, not meeting Tao's eyes. "I'll be back."

 

 

The moon had moved high in the sky before he returned. Tao was asleep in front of the fire, a blanket pulled tightly around himself. Dar thought about waking him. He was mortified that Tao had seemingly interpreted his moving toward him as a threat; plus he *knew* something was bothering his friend. But Tao looked so exhausted in his sleep and Dar was exhausted as well. Worn by the long day and the surge of emotion, he curled up for sleep himself. His last thought was that he hadn't learned the name of the plant Tao was seeking.

 

 

Tao wasn't really asleep when Dar returned. As soon as he was sure his friend was truly asleep he pulled himself to a sitting position and stared deeply into the flames.

'Well, what was the point of that conversation?' his little internal voice asked chidingly.

'Do you really think he's going to admit the truth to you? Why do you need him to say it, anyway? You know how it was between them. Gods, you could see it--that night they were together. True loves. Soulmates. Whatever. Destined to be together. You knew all of that before Kyra escaped.

'They were--they are--in love. They don't need a third party around. Especially not someone like you. 'Clumsy feet'. Helpless one. You should have just left that night instead of waiting for them to invite you to be a part of their family. What were you thinking? There was no place for you in their lives.

'And now she's gone. How is he supposed to feel about that? Spirited away--magic, sorcery. The things you are supposed to help him fight. And what have you done to get her back?

'What *can* I do?

The blood-lilies. Something about them....something. Why can't I remember?'

He stared into the flames.

 

 

Many leagues away, the Sorceress gazed down into the waters of her amethyst basin. Making a delicate gesture, a silvery powder drifted from her fingers, sprinkling on the figure sitting still by a fire.

 

 

~~~Tao blinked and looked around. He was back in the hollow surrounded by the blood-red flowers. "How did I get here?" he wondered aloud. "I was at the Sanctuary--it was night--"

It was gloomy in the heavy old forest, but it was the gloom of daytime, not the dense blackness of night.. Tao remembered Curupira's words--"That which you seek grows in the darkest part of the forest where the sun does not reach."

This place fit that description.

The heavy, sweet scent of the flowers threatened to overwhelm him. He gasped for air through his mouth, trying to fight down the roaring in his head. Plucking one of the blooms, he held it up. "So what is the secret of these flowers. Why do I keep dreaming of them?"

"Oh Tao. Who said you were dreaming?"

His head jerked up at the sound of her voice. "Muraki," he breathed. Then he frowned. "Wait a minute--if I'm dreaming, you're not really here, are you?"

She drifted through the flowers to sit lightly next to him. "Why do you think this is a dream?"

"Because I'm actually asleep back at Dar's Sanctuary, at night," he answered dryly. "I mean, I think I am--I don't understand what's going on!"

"Well, you're partially right. This isn't a dream, really; but we're not actually here, either."

"That makes it so much clearer," Tao retorted. He rolled his eyes. "I'm arguing with a figment of my imagination!"

"I'm here to unlock your memories. Your knowledge of the blood-lilies." She put delicate fingers to his face; Tao could almost feel her warmth. "Think back, Tao. To your village--the wise one, Torban."

"Old Torban?" Tao closed his eyes, visualizing the old man--a teller of tales, of legends and stories--he'd been very old when Tao was young and had died shortly before the boy's sixth year. Tao hadn't thought of him in a long time. But now, he could hear the man's voice in his head, telling a story. No, recounting a legend. A legend of a miraculous elixir that gave the drinker the ability to see that which he otherwise couldn't...an elixir that could open doors to the unknown. "The juice of the blood-lilies grants one the power to find that which is lost. But only if the drinker is prepared to open his heart and mind to what he will see."

Tao opened his eyes. "I remember," he said wonderingly. "Muraki! I remember what he said. So if I were to drink this elixir...I could possibly see Kyra? Maybe even a way to free her, to return her to Dar?"

"Are you prepared to pay the price?"

Tao frowned. "What price?"

"All knowledge comes with a price, Tao." Muraki eyed him steadily. Funny, she looked like Muraki as he had last seen her but her voice was different--older, more melodious. The voice was familiar but he couldn't seem to place it. He struggled to think, but the overwhelming, cloying scent of the blossoms surrounding him clouded his mind. He surrendered, letting the exotic scent carry him away. "For Dar--to reunite Dar and Kyra--I will pay any price for this knowledge."

Muraki nodded. "Then...in the morning...you must leave the place you call Sanctuary and come here. Gather the blossoms, and prepare the elixir."

"But I don't know where I am, or how to make it..."

"You will. This knowledge is in your memory--it will be revealed to you. Now that you have decided to open your mind to it". The voice--and Muraki--were growing fainter and farther away...~~~

Tao sat up with a gasp. He was in his accustomed sleeping place by the fire. A quick look to the left revealed Dar, curled up asleep on the other side of the fire.

'It was just another dream.'

He lay back down again, sitting up quickly as he felt something underneath his shoulder. Heart thudding in his ears, he reached with shaking fingers to pick up a wilted, blood-red lily trapped in the folds of his blanket.

'Maybe it wasn't a dream.'

He concentrated, and realized he could "see" the path to the dark forest and the hollow with the flowers in his mind. "West of the gray rocks," he muttered aloud, glancing quickly to make sure he hadn't disturbed Dar. "That's where it is."

He eased his tired body back down into the folds of the blanket. 'I'll go in the morning to gather the flowers and prepare the elixir. Then, tomorrow night--when the dreams come--If I can do it, if the elixir works--if I can see a clear path to Kyra...then she and Dar will be reunited at last. For good this time.'

'And what about you?' that annoying inner voice jeered.

'I don't matter. Dar saved my life. Kyra is *his* life. I'll do anything I can to return her to him. No matter what the cost to me.'

He closed his eyes and reached for sleep.

 

 

Luck--or the gods--was with him the next morning. Dar was already gone, although he'd left a pile of fresh fruit close beside Tao's sleeping area. Kodo and Podo were already eating.

"Hey, you two, save some for me," Tao admonished, grabbing an orange and peeling away the thick skin. The first explosion of juicy golden nectar in his mouth made him realize just how hungry he was, and in a matter of minutes he and the ferrets had decimated the pile of fruit.

Then Tao gathered some things he might need--a couple of bowls, a small cook-pot, his sharp knife, flint rock, a flask. He stuffed these into his satchel and slung it over his shoulder along with the water flask. He would fill the flask at the creek on his way down the mountain.

Kodo and Podo set up a clamor at his preparations. Kodo wrapped himself around Tao's ankle, chattering loudly.

"Ow! Let go, you little rodent!" Tao reached down to unwind the animal and it promptly wrapped itself around his wrist. Podo leapt up to balance on his satchel, adding his noise to that of his brother.

"Okay, okay...I get the idea you two want to come along?" Tao asked sarcastically. He looked around and spotted the soft carrysack Dar carried the ferrets in and shook it open invitingly. "Here you go. If you're going with me, you ride in here--I don't have time to chase you all over the Mydlands today. And not one word to Dar about this!" He rolled his eyes and hit his head with one fist. "I'm talking to rodents," he muttered. "This was *not* what the tribal elders meant when they sent me out to spread knowledge!"

 

 

It was a long walk. In some places the trail was so narrow he had to turn sideways to negotiate it. Tao had no idea how he knew the way; he just trusted the instinct that seemed to have taken him over.

The sun was high in a flawless blue sky as he carefully negotiated the steep track studded with irregular massive boulders that divided the Mydlands from the Old Forest. As he approached the heavy growth of trees, though, the sun seemed to dim, its brightness waning. A quick glance up reassured him the bright glowing orb still hung in its accustomed place--but towering trees were blocking the light.

Kodo and Podo shifted restlessly in their sack, making soft chirps of distress. "I know how you feel," Tao commented aloud. He eyed the narrow, twisting path leading deeper into the forest with disfavor. "The Old Forest is a place of fear, of magic..." he was half quoting from memory. Then he shook his head, disgusted at himself. "Science and logic are stronger friends than magic and superstition!" he announced ringingly. No one answered but the ferrets, who didn't seem impressed with his rhetoric.

Tao hesitated. Then a picture of Dar--as he had looked that day Kyra had been taken from him--rose up in his memory and he felt new resolution course through his veins. Taking a deep breath, he followed the path into the darkness.

 

 

Dar was surprised to find Tao and the ferrets gone when he returned to the camp. Quick communication with Ruh, dozing in the sunshine, and Sharak, soaring high overhead, revealed that neither of them knew where Tao had gone. The ferrets were missing as well. Looking around, Dar noticed Tao had taken the bag he used when collecting the herbs, roots and flowers he set such store by. "He must be out gathering," Dar announced to Ruh, who opened one sleepy eyelid in response.

Uneasily, Dar remembered Curupira's enigmatic words from the day before. "That part of the forest where the sun cannot reach." Then he dismissed the thought. Tao was intelligent. He was cautious. He wouldn't make such a journey without telling Dar, and he especially wouldn't take the ferrets someplace dangerous.

Still, Dar glanced up at Sharak again, freeing his mind to let the eagle take over his vision. No sign of his friend anywhere. Dar decided to hike down into the forest below the waterfall. 'Not that I'm checking on Tao or anything...but I really would like some wild mushrooms tonight and the best ones grow on the mossy floor of the forest.'

Pleased with the idea, he grabbed a carrysack and quickly left the camp.

 

 

Tao stumbled over a protruding root and fell to his knees. He stayed there for a second, gasping for breath. The air in the forest was heavy, dead. A bead of cold sweat trickled down his forehead and into his eyes. Inside their bag, Kodo and Podo chanted nervously.

"If you're saying this trip wasn't a good idea, I'm starting to agree with you," Tao muttered as he climbed heavily to his feet. He started forward again, moving carefully in the heavy gloom. "This is ridiculous!' he announced, more to hear a noise than anything. He had never been in a place so silent as this forest. Eerie silence. Even his feet seemed to make no noise on the path. "Could have used a little of this silent walking when I was on the Island," he said. He looked around. "Aren't there any birds or animals in this place? This is crazy anyway! I have *no* idea where I'm going--!"

The ground below his feet disappeared and he crashed far down into darkness.

 

 

Dar had collected enough wild mushrooms to feed himself, Tao and the ferrets for three days. Still, he kept finding excuses to linger in the cool heart of the forest, searching along the mossy riverbank and in the roots of trees so old they could have stood there when the world was created.

He saw no indications that Tao or the ferrets had been in this direction. Finally, worried by his friend's continuing absence, he turned and retraced his steps to the Sanctuary.

"Oooh."

Tao woke with a throbbing headache and the sensation that eyes were upon him. He slowly opened his eyes--to see a fuzzy face and beady eyes about two inches in front of his nose.

He screamed.

Then he realized it was Kodo. The ferret leapt backwards and tumbled to the ground. Rolling to his feet, he scolded Tao in ferret-chatter.

"Don't yell at me, little rat," Tao groaned, cradling his aching head in his hands. "Where's your cohort?"

Podo leapt from somewhere, landing on Tao's chest. Knocked backwards, Tao lay on his back while Kodo joined his brother and both chortled at him.

"Where are we, anyway?"

He flung his arms out, touching the silky softness of flowers. That fragrance--the overpowering sweet smell that had haunted both of his dreams. Forgetting his head, Tao sat up quickly, dislodging the ferrets again.

He was at the bottom of a perfectly round depression. The sides of the hollow were about ten feet high, and both they and the floor were thickly carpeted with the blood-red flowers he knew from his dreams.

"Well," Tao said, feeling the insane desire to laugh, "I guess there are *some* advantages to being clumsy! I seemingly have 'stumbled' right into the place I was looking for."

Neither ferret paid any attention to him. Both were busy exploring the thick grass and the pungent flowers. Kodo nibbled on one of the grayish-green leaves. The taste must have been pleasant because he nibbled more enthusiastically. Podo sniffed one of the blossoms cautiously before joining his brother in feasting on the leaves, although he seemed more interested in shredding them.

"Well." Tao said, still addressing the ignoring ferrets, "We're here, now what do we do?"

Neither ferret answered, not that Tao expected them to. He thought a minute, then crossed his legs and closed his eyes, letting his mind drift into a state of peaceful relaxation.

For long minutes he sat there, his mind empty. Then visions rose before him. Clearly, he could see the images from his dreams--see himself dropping the petals, one by one, into the small kettle of boiling water; the liquid turning deep crimson; his fingers stroking the pollen from the stamen of the flowers and adding it to the brew; the strange golden radiance that sparkled in the liquid as he poured it into a cup and drank.

He opened his eyes. One of the ferrets crawled in his lap and he petted it absently.

For just a moment he felt a real sense of unease about what he was going to do.

Then he thought of Dar's face when Kyra had been taken.

He started to build a fire.

 

 

In her cavern, the Sorceress watched him in her amethyst basin. A satisfied smile crossed her perfect features.

 

 

"Well, here you are," Dar greeted as Tao trudged wearily into camp and dropped down beside the fire. "I was starting to wonder. It's almost dark."

Tao squinted at his friend through tired eyes. "Sorry. Thought we'd be back sooner." Reminded by the "we", he upended the ferret's bag and let the creatures out. They both swarmed on Dar, chattering happily. Tao held his breath for a minute but apparently the little animals didn't impart anything to Dar to make him wonder where they'd been all day.

Dar looked up from his communion with the ferrets, started to say something, then frowned. "What happened to your hand?" he asked sharply.

"Oh," Tao looked down at the inflamed welt. "Umm, well, Kodo bit me." He went on hastily, "It was an accident, I think."

"He *bit* you?" Dar's voice was shocked. "Why?"

"Why don't you ask *him?*" Tar returned, his voice more snappish than he'd meant it to be. He closed his eyes. "Sorry," he said sincerely. "I have a bit of a headache."

Dar frowned at him, then picked up Kodo and stared at the ferret's face, his eyes narrowing. After a minute he sighed. "He seems to think he was trying to protect you from something," he said, watching Tao carefully. "So what were you doing that he thought was so dangerous?"

"Didn't the little rat tell you?" Tao temporized.

"Animals don't think the same way people do," Dar explained. "Ferrets live in the present. They don't remember exact details about the past--even the recent past. It's more--impressions. So, what happened, Tao?"

The tone of Dar's voice told Tao clearly as words he wanted an explanation. 'I don't want to tell him yet,' Tao thought hastily. 'If the elixir doesn't work--if it's only an old legend with no truth to it--he'll be so disappointed.'

From deep inside he summoned up a forced smile. "It was an accident. You know how clumsy I can be. I tripped and almost lurched into a bee-hive."

He was rather proud of the story--logical and likely, even if he had made it up on the spur of the moment--but Dar continued to frown. "So Kodo *bit* you because you were going to stumble into a bee-hive?"

Tao shrugged. "I suppose so. I mean, that was what was happening at the time he bit me." He kept his head down, hoping the shadows cast by the firelight would conceal his face. He hadn't been lying about the headache--his head was pounding as if someone was bashing him with an anvil.

For a minute, he was sure Dar was going to challenge him on the story. But he didn't, although he eyed Tao so steadily the Eiron was sure his friend was seeing right through his lies. Finally, though, Dar nodded. "You'd better clean that up. I'll put an herbal wrap on it--ferrets don't have the cleanest mouths." He changed the subject. "I gathered some wild mushrooms for tonight's meal."

"Oh," Tao said faintly. He loved mushrooms. But he didn't think he could eat a bite. His stomach rolled along with the pounding in his head. Desperate, he blurted out, "I'm not really hungry. Umm...we--the ferrets and I--ate on the way back. Fruit," he added hopefully.

"Really?" Dar questioned mildly. His eyes glittered in the firelight. "Kodo and Podo must have forgotten." He gestured at the ferrets, ravenously gorging on the mushrooms as if they hadn't seen food in a year.

"Well, you said they exist in the here-and-now," Tao offered weakly, praying that Dar would just let it drop. He didn't feel like arguing, or even much like talking. He just wanted to curl up and sleep until he woke feeling a lot better than he did right now.

He thought about the elixir he'd drunk earlier, and his dreams. 'Is it going to work? Will I be able to "see" where Kyra is? How to rescue her?' His heart started pounding loudly in his ears and--in spite of the fact the evening breeze was chilly--sweat broke out across his forehead.

Dar just kept looking at him. Tao thought dizzily that the Beastmaster was reading his mind with the same ease he communicated with the animals--knowing every thought in Tao's head. But, mercifully, Dar finally nodded his head and reached for a mushroom.

 

 

Worn out by the restless night before and by his journey, Tao was ready for sleep soon after the moon glimmered over the horizon. Dar seemed surprised when Tao wrapped himself in a blanket and curled up near the fire. "Headache worse?"

Tao nodded. "Long day, I guess."

"Where did you go?" Dar asked casually.

Tao hesitated. He might as well tell the truth, about his whereabouts at least--his head hurt too much to lie again. "Kodo and Podo and I went to the forest west of the gray rocks."

Dar sat up suddenly. "All the way there? Why?" He sucked in his breath sharply. "The deepest part of the forest, where the sun doesn't reach...what Curupira said. That is where you went, isn't it?"

Tao pulled the blanket closer about his shoulders. Odd, he couldn't seem to get warm. "I suppose," he answered evasively. His feet seemed to be encased in blocks of ice and the cold numbness was crawling up his legs. Reaching for his other blanket, he wrapped the heavy folds tightly around his legs. "It's really freezing tonight, isn't it?"

"No," Dar said quietly. "It's warmer than it was last night." Before Tao could react his friend had reached over and laid the back of his hand on his forehead. "You feel warm. Almost too warm. I think you have a fever."

Spasms of chills gripped Tao and he clenched his teeth together to keep them from chattering. The firelight suddenly seemed too bright--it hurt his eyes, stabbed into his skull. He had to close them against the white-hot glare. "I'm just tired," he managed. Something warm and furry--Kodo or Podo, he imagined--crawled up his arm and snuggled into the curve of his body. He welcomed the slight warmth of the living being. There was a roaring in his ears and he felt strange--dizzy and confused. He felt the soft blackness of sleep claiming him and with a sob of relief surrendered to it.

 

 

Dar frowned, his hand hovering over Tao's shoulder, ready to shake him awake. His senses were screaming something was wrong, but if Tao were sickening with something, surely rest would be the best thing for him. 'If he was injured somehow, he'd have told me,' the Beastmaster tried to assure himself, although he was quite aware that might not be true. Not now. Tao was keeping his thoughts to himself lately--which was most unlike him and surprisingly irritating.

Dar looked around for Kodo. Podo was already curled up with Tao, but his brother was still devouring a mushroom. Dar picked up the ferret, looking into his eyes intently, sending his thoughts into the animal's mind and opening his own mind to it.

Unfortunately, as he had told Tao, ferrets lived in the present. Kodo's thoughts were full of the mushrooms he had been eating and how much he loved being held by Dar. Trying to find out what he had done that day--or more to the point, what *Tao* had done all day--was a frustrating exercise in futility.

Dar gently put the animal down, watching absently as it curled up next to Tao. He watched his friend for a long time, alert for any sign of illness, but Tao slept peacefully enough. Finally, feeling fatigue pull at his bones and drag down his eyelids, he curled up for sleep himself.

His last drowsy thought was that tomorrow he'd find out exactly what was going on with his friend.

 

 

The same pounding headache and churning nausea that had sent Tao so eagerly embracing oblivion earlier cruelly yanked him back from it now. He still shook with chills but the blankets were stifling him. He tried to kick them away but only ended up tangling them more around his legs. Frustrated, Tao kicked out again.

Searing cramps tore through his leg, ripping into his body. Flames of agony knifed him, stealing his breath, sending his limbs helplessly twisting before the onslaught.

Disturbed by his contorting body, Kodo and Podo raised up, prattling in complaint. Their tone quickly changed to more concerned-sounding chortles. Podo leapt onto Dar, chattering frantically.

Another spasm ripped through Tao, tearing a strangled scream from his throat. He writhed helplessly before the agony, gasping for air.

Suddenly, a cool hand touched his burning forehead. Hands held his shoulders; a familiar voice spoke soothing words. Tao couldn't make them out but he clung to the voice anyway as a lifeline.

Then--as suddenly as it had begun--the pain vanished. Tao collapsed limply to the ground. Waves of peaceful black swirled around him and for the second time that night he gratefully surrendered to oblivion.

"Tao?" Dar leaned over the still form of his friend, shaking him gently. No response. He touched Tao's forehead, frowning at the heat. "Come on, Tao, wake up."

This time, Tao moaned slightly. After a few minutes, his eyes flickered open. "Dar?" he questioned. "What happened?" He raised a hand to his forehead. "I feel sick..."

"You *are* sick," Dar said gently. "You're burning up. Do you have any willow bark?"

"What?" Tao squinted at Dar as if he'd lost his mind.

Then, apparently remembering that willow bark tea was good for reducing fevers, he nodded. "Oh, I understand. Yes, I have some....I think. In the bag with my herbs."

Dar looked around until he spotted the bag in question. Rummaging through it, he found the willow-bark in a soft cloth pouch. His fingers touched something else that was cold and sticky. He pulled out a small flask, frowning. The cork was not tapped down tightly enough and the fluid in the flask had spilled. Tar sniffed, his nostrils curling at the too-sweet, heavy aroma. Something about the smell struck a chord in his mind. "Tao," he started to ask, then, with a rush like ice water, he recognized the smell.

'Blood-lilies.'

Curupira's voice echoed in his head. "That which grows in the darkest part of the forest where the sun cannot reach." 'Why didn't I realize that's what she was talking about?' He moved quickly back to Tao's side. "Tao!" he said insistently, holding up the flask. "Where did you get this?"

Tao didn't say anything, but the stricken, guilty look on his face cut to Dar's heart. Leaning over his friend, he shook him. "Did you drink it? Tao, answer me! Did you drink the elixir from the blood-lilies?"

Tao looked away. After a second, he nodded.

Dar felt a giant hand squeeze his heart. "Why?" he whispered.

Tao took a deep breath. "I wanted the visions," he said simply.

"The visions? Tao...you mean you..." Words failed Dar. He just stared at his friend. "The visions are only legend," he said numbly.

"Legends have basis in fact," Tao protested. He winced, putting a hand to his head. "Can we talk about this tomorrow, Dar? I really don't feel very well."

Dar simply stared at him. "You don't know?" he questioned.

Know what?"

Dar moistened his lips. His heart was pounding wildly in his ears as he said, "Tao. When you made the elixir--did you put the pollen in it?"

A look of confusion on his face, Tao nodded. Dar closed his eyes. "Tao...the visions are legend. But what is true is...that drink you made...that you drank...is poison." He felt his throat tighten and he didn't say the next words, although they rang loudly in his head. 'Deadly poison.'

 

 

Tao stared at him in horror. "Poison?" he repeated in a whisper.

"Didn't you know?"

"Of *course* I didn't know!" Tao returned fiercely. He softened at the look on Dar's face and leaned back, his strength rapidly ebbing. "I just...I just wanted the visions." He turned his head and looked into the fire, almost welcoming the pain as the flames stabbed hot knives of pain into his sensitive eyes. "What...I mean, how long...?"

Dar hesitated, then leaned forward and put a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry about it now," he said soothingly, although his eyes were worried.

"Just rest."

Tao closed his eyes, both because of the pain and because he couldn't stand to see the look on Dar's face. "I need to know, Dar."

After a long pause, Dar said quietly, "I'm not sure. Once when I was young in my village, someone drank the elixir of the blood-lilies. He--I heard my father and mother talking--it was a bad death." He gripped Tao's shoulder fiercely. "It won't happen to you, Tao."

Tao heard the fear in his voice give lie to his words but he nodded anyway. He brought his hand up to rub his forehead, trying to push the pain away.

"All knowledge must be paid for," he muttered.

"What?" Dar asked sharply.

"It's a saying among my people. All knowledge comes with a price, and sooner or later the price must be paid. I wanted knowledge--I must pay the price."

Dar rocked backward. His voice was shaking as he demanded, "And if this knowledge costs you your life?"

Tao thought about that for a long minute. He remembered Dar's anguished cries in the night as he mourned his loss; remembered his dreams of finding Kyra and returning her to Dar--a suitable gift to thank Dar for everything he'd done for Tao, starting with saving him from the Terrans. He knew better than to say it but his silence told Dar the truth.

"What knowledge could be so important that it is worth your life?" he demanded.

Tao closed his eyes against the pounding headache.

"Tao. Answer me," Dar demanded.

Tao managed to open his eyes again. The pounding in his head trebled. He couldn't even see Dar, really--just an orange blur where he knew the Beastmaster to be.

"Kyra," he whispered.

Then the cramps struck again, fiercely and violently as a wild cat leaping from the night onto its hapless prey. Tao stiffened. His very blood seemed to shriek in his veins. He heard a scream of mortal agony shredding the silent night--and only belatedly realized it had come from his own throat.

 

 

Dar gripped Tao's hand tightly, willing strength through their clasp. The anger--sparked by fear--that had been roiling in his chest disappeared as if it had never been before his friend's anguish. He felt wetness on his cheeks from tears of empathy and a horrible, gnawing fear.

Finally the paroxysm ceased. Tao's body relaxed, although his eyes didn't open. Dar realized that sometime during the seizure, his friend had mercifully succumbed to unconsciousness. Dar eased him gently back to the ground and covered him warmly with the blankets. Wringing out a cloth in cool water, he bathed Tao's hot forehead.

Then--not knowing what else to do--he settled next to Tao's side to keep vigil for what remained of the night.

 

 

Dar dozed a little in restless snatches, waking frequently to check on Tao. The Eiron slept heavily, barely moving, his fever mounting higher in spite of the willow-bark tea Dar managed to force down his throat and the repeated application of cool, wet rags to his face and neck.

Ruh returned from his nocturnal wanderings as the sky lightened with the promise of a new day. The tiger dropped to his haunches near the fire.

Trusting that Ruh would alert him if Tao needed him, Dar slipped away and down to the creek for fresh water and dead wood for the fire.

Hurrying back, he glanced over at the pool, steam rising from its spring-fed warmth to mist the early morning air. As always, he had a bittersweet memory of Kyra and he in the pool, the one night they had together before the Sorceress had stolen her away. 'Oh, Kyra...'

Kyra.

He stopped dead, remembering Tao's exhausted voice the night before, when Dar had demanded what knowledge was worth the price of his life. "Kyra," the other man had answered, just before the pain had torn through him again. Dar shivered. "Oh, no!" he whispered in horror. "He did it to find her. He drank that poison for me!"

 

 

The Sorceress had watched Dar and Tao through the night in her amethyst basin, eschewing sleep in her growing fascination with the scene being acted out before her. She shivered herself as she saw the devastated expression on the Beastmaster's face as he realized *why* his friend had gone in pursuit of the blood-lilies and their cursed gift.

"How amazingly perceptive of him," a sardonic voice drawled behind her.

The Sorceress jumped, startled, and then tried to cover her surprise as she turned to see the Ancient One observing her. "What do you mean?"

He raised an eyebrow, mocking her attempts to seem unconcerned. "Just what I said, of course. I am surprised he managed to figure it out. Unless, of course, *you* gave him a little...shall we say, insight?"

"I didn't do that," the Sorceress protested. "That would have been interfering. That would have ruined--" She fell silent before her mentor's gaze.

"That would have ruined your little game? My dear, you already *did* interfere! Or is it just a coincidence that your Beastmaster's inquisitive friend just *happened* to remember the legend of the blood-lilies?"

The Sorceress flushed but held her ground. "I sent him a reminder. He already knew the legend, he'd just forgotten it. I helped him remember it."

"Or part of it. You didn't remind him that he was drinking a deadly poison, did you?"

"The elixir isn't always fatal," the Sorceress protested.

"No. That's true, it isn't." The Ancient One stared at her coolly. "Why did you do it? Kyra is here," he touched the crystals in his forehead gently.

"Even if the elixir works and he sees her--he won't be able to retrieve her.

Why should you interfere?"

"I wanted--I wanted to see--" the Sorceress turned back to her basin. She could see the ill mortal was restless, tossing his head back and forth. Now the Beastmaster entered the scene again, kneeling beside his friend and speaking soothingly to him, one hand resting on his shoulder reassuringly.

"He cares so much for his friend," she murmured.

"Oh, so *that's* what this is about. Your enduring fascination in these pathetic human emotions."

She lifted her head from her scrutiny of the water and eyed him challengingly. "*Are* they so pathetic, so weak? It seems to be that's what makes them strong!"

She'd expected the Ancient One to be angry, but he surprised her. "Perhaps it does. But you won't know in this case. The real test, Sorceress, would have been if you had allowed young Tao there to remember the *entire* legend.

Then, if he chose to drink the elixir to find Kyra--fully knowing the price he might pay--*then* you might have learned something worth knowing."

 

 

Dar rested his hand worriedly on Tao's forehead. Was it his imagination, or was Tao's fever rising even further? He feared the latter was true. Tao had been asleep or unconscious--Dar wasn't sure which--for some time. He'd been restless at times but hadn't suffered any more of the agonizing attacks of pain. As Dar held his head and forced water between the cracked, dry lips, Tao stirred. A few minutes later he opened his eyes, blinking painfully in the sunlight. "Dar?" he whispered.

"Hi, there," Dar returned gently. "How do you feel?"

Tao made a face. "Like I've been trampled by a herd of elephants," he admitted, his voice weak. He shifted, and a grimace of pain crossed his face.

"What's wrong?" Dar asked sharply.

"My stomach hurts. Not like before, but it really burns," Tao confessed.

Dar hesitated, then reached for Tao's carry-sack. He rummaged around until he found the herbs he needed and wrapped them in a cloth, setting the bundle to steep in hot water. 'I hope this is the right thing to do,' he agonized, careful not to let any of his inward torment show on his face. When the tea was ready he helped Tao to sit up and supported him with an arm against his back. With the other hand he held the cup to his lips.

Tao sipped and made a dreadful face, but continued to drink until the cup was almost empty. Dar eased him back down again, pulling the blankets close around him. In spite of the warm sun Tao was shivering.

"You yelled at me," Tao said suddenly.

Surprised, Dar asked, "When?"

"Before," Tao answered. He opened exhausted, pain -glazed green eyes. "I'm sorry."

Dar rested a hand against his forehead. "Be quiet," he soothed. "You need to rest."

Tao ignored that. "You're angry because I took this poison."

"Tao, I--" Dar started. Then he sighed. "I know you didn't realize it was poison when you did it. I just--I don't understand *why*? Before you passed out, you said 'Kyra'. What about Kyra?" Dar feared he knew the truth--that Tao had risked his own life to try to find the Beastmaster's love--but he had to hear Tao say it.

 

 

Tao shifted, suddenly very aware of the burning pain in his belly. He looked up and met Dar's clear, compelling gaze. "Dar--" he started evasively. 'What am I doing? I may be dying. I can't *lie* to him. 'If I tell him the truth, he's going to blame himself.'

Surprised, he felt a firm pressure on his hand. Dar had covered his hand with his own. "Tao, please. Tell me. It's important that I know why you did this."

Tao sighed. He let his eyes drop closed, partly because it was easier than fighting to keep them open and partly so he wouldn't have to meet Dar's gaze.

"You have dreams...nightmares, I guess, about Kyra every night. About losing her."

"I do?" Dar's voice sounded surprised. "How do you know that?"

"I hear you. You say her name. You cry out for her. I know--now--how much you love her." Tao bit his lip as the pain threatened to overcome his self-control. "I remembered the legend of the blood lilies. I thought-- maybe--I could help you get Kyra back." Cold beads of sweat broke out on his forehead and he shifted again, bringing his knees up. "I owe you that much at least...oh gods!"

He twisted onto his side as the burning pain intensified, nausea tearing through him. Then his body completely betrayed him and he vomited into the dirt. The retching continued long after the scant contents of his stomach had been expelled, when there was nothing left to come up but bile. Even after that was gone he writhed helplessly, caught in the grip of vicious dry heaves.

Through it all, one part of his mind was aware of Dar leaning over him, speaking soothingly, bathing his face and neck with a cool, wet cloth. Finally the spasms eased. Tao limply rolled onto his back, shaking violently and drenched with sweat. A cup was pressed against his mouth and he shook his head, trying to turn away. "No..."

"Just rinse your mouth out," Dar encouraged.

Tao managed to find a last surge of energy to obey. Then he collapsed back again to the ground, unable to help and barely aware as Dar pulled him away from the mess, sponged the sickness and dirt from his face and chest and then wrapped blankets around him again.

When all that was done he held water to Tao's lips again and wouldn't let him refuse. "Just a little," Dar coaxed. "You have to have water, Tao. Your fever is too high, you'll burn up."

Tao knew that was true but he was terrified that anything in his stomach would start the heaving again. The burning hadn't disappeared, just eased a little. But he managed to force down a few sips. He immediately gagged and rolled to his side. Dar rubbed his back soothingly. "Hang on to it Tao...just keep it down."

Tao tried hard, biting his lip, but in the end he vomited again. Exhausted, he fell back, his head swirling and black circles encroaching on his vision.

He tried to take a breath.

His lungs wouldn't work. Tao gasped, struggling to breathe. His chest felt as if a huge mountain pressed upon it. From a long way away, he heard Dar's voice, sharp with anxiety. "Tao! What's wrong!"

Tao's hands flew to his throat. "I can't...Dar, help me! I--can't--breathe!"

Dar moved swiftly, pulling Tao into a sitting position and supporting him against his own chest. "You can breathe, Tao," he said, as calmly as he could manage, rubbing his friend's back in soothing circles. "You're trying too hard. Just relax."

His words didn't have any affect. Tao continued to struggle for air, his chest laboring, cords standing out in his neck with the effort. "Tao! Listen to me!" Dar commanded, squashing down panic ruthlessly. "Listen! Breathe with me. Match your breathing to mine." He could feel the tension in Tao's muscles relax just a fraction. "That's it...easy. Just relax."

It took a while, but gradually Tao's strained breathing evened out. He leaned against Dar's shoulder and the Beastmaster could feel him trembling uncontrollably. "Thanks," Tao whispered. And then, "I'm sorry."

Dar helped him to lie back down and pulled the blankets tightly around his shoulders. "Tao, this isn't your fault. If there's any fault at all, it's mine."

Tao's eyes, which had been closing sleepily, snapped open. "How do you come up with that?" he demanded. "It was my bright idea to find the blood-lilies."

"You did it for me," Dar pointed out quietly.

Tao closed his eyes again, the marks of pain etched clearly on his pale face.

"Dar--you saved my life. Not just when you got me out of the Terron camp but other times." He fell silent, obviously exhausted, but went on when Dar would have hushed him. "I don't regret anything...even if...well, if I don't--"

"Tao, you're going to be fine," Dar protested.

"I hope you're right." Tao managed a smile. "But if--well, if I'm not--I want you to remember, I don't regret doing this. I just wish it had worked. That would have made it worth it."

Dar shook his head, glad Tao's eyes were closed as he knew the look on his face spoke volumes. He had to clear his throat twice before he could say anything. "Tao--" his voice failed again. 'It wouldn't be worth it if you die,' he wanted to say, but he couldn't.

'I want Kyra back. I love her. I need her. But not at the cost of your life, my friend. Never that.. But how do I tell you your sacrifice is too much?' He hesitated, torn, but before he could decide what to say he realized Tao had slipped into oblivion again.

 

 

As the day wore on--with the sun rising high in the sky before it started its slow journey into the west-Tao's condition gradually worsened; the fever rising even higher and bouts of painful dry retching interspersed with spasms of sheer agony. Tao was weakening before Dar's very eyes.

He had fewer intervals of consciousness. Sometimes his eyes would open but Dar could tell he wasn't really seeing his surroundings. Caught in feverish dreams he'd mutter incoherently--the few words Dar could understand made no sense.

Dar did what little he could. He forced Tao to swallow water and the bitter willow-bark tea, praying to any gods that would listen that some of it would stay down. Time and time again he pulled back the blankets and sponged Tao's hot body with cool water.

Just before the sun dropped out of sight behind the mountain, Dar knew the time had come to take desperate measures. Tao's fever was dangerously high. It had to be brought down, and quickly.

Wrapping one blanket tightly around his friend's body and pulling the rest free, Dar lifted the still form easily and carried him down the steep path to the river. The pool in the sanctuary was heated from underground mineral springs; the water was much too warm for what he had in mind. Once at the river, Dar waded out until the water was well past his knees. He lowered Tao's still form into the water, firmly supporting his shoulders and keeping Tao's head well above the water. He hung on tightly, afraid Tao would panic if he awoke to find himself in the water, but there was no response from the still figure.

With his hands occupied supporting Tao, Dar couldn't tell if the Eiron's fever was relenting at all. He stayed in the water until his own hands grew cramped, then gently pulled Tao to shore and dried him off before wrapping him back in the blanket.

The fever hadn't broken, but had definitely relented. Tao seemed to be sleeping restfully. Dar sighed with relief and carried him back up to the plateau.

His own exhaustion was making itself known. He'd had no sleep since this whole ordeal had started and he knew he would have to rest soon, if only for a short while.

As purple shadows of approaching night crept over the sanctuary, the magnificent figure of a tiger glided closer to the fire. Ruh stood over Tao protectively, his yellow eyes unblinkingly fixed on Dar.

"You'll watch him?" Dar asked aloud--although he didn't need to. "Wake me if there's any trouble?"

Ruh regarded him steadily, his expression stating plainly that those were foolish questions--even for a being that walked on two legs instead of four.

Dar grinned a little, but surrendered and curled close to the fire.

He was asleep instantly.

 

 

~~This attack was different.

Dar knew it, even as he held Tao's writhing body and talked in his ear, low and soothing. "Just keep breathing, Tao. It will be over soon. Just hang on." All the other times, he had been certain that at least some part of Tao could hear him, respond, fought to stay, to breathe. Not this time. Tao's white face twisted in agony; his mouth opened but no cries could emerge. His chest heaved desperately with the effort of taking in life-giving air.

Dar pulled Tao into a sitting position and wrapped his arms tightly around him. He could feel Tao's fragile heartbeat, rapid and fluttery as a hummingbird's wings.

The body in his arms gave a mighty wrench; then shuddered and went still. Tao's head limply rolled against Dar's shoulder. His face in the firelight was lax and suddenly peaceful.

"Tao?" Dar whispered, raising his head. He searched his friend's face with brimming eyes, already knowing in his heart the truth. The still body neither breathed nor moved. The fragile heart was silent.

"Tao! NO!" Dar screamed, shaking the limp body. "No! Don't do this! Stay with me....Tao..."

His heart breaking with another loss--the loss of a soul as dear to him as his own; the loss of one who had been as his brother--Dar gently placed the still body down. Staggering to his feet, he stumbled from the cave.

Ruh was there. The Beastmaster fell to his knees beside the tiger, buried his face in the sun-warmed fur, and cried.~~

 

 

Dar jerked awake, heart pounding.

It was full dark, the only light the embers of the dying fire.

All was peaceful in the Sanctuary.

'Dream. Oh gods. It was just a dream.'

Ruh rested beside Tao's still form, at ease, panting slightly although the night was chilly. His yellow eyes regarded Dar unblinkingly.

Dar shivered. He reached for the dead wood he'd gathered earlier and built up the fire. Flames leapt up crackling, sending a plume of smoke to the sky.

Dar started toward Tao, stopping short as Ruh suddenly rose and barred his way. The tiger straddled Tao's body and lowered his head, growling warningly at the Beastmaster.

"Ruh?" Dar asked, puzzled. Then his attention was drawn by a choking noise. To his horror, Tao began to convulse, his face first turning pale, then bluish, as he gasped for air just the way he had in Dar's dream.

"Tao!" Dar yelled, starting forward.

Ruh growled louder, showing his fangs. ~Keep away!~

~Ruh, he's dying! Let me help him!~

~Keep away!~

Desperate, Dar yanked up his staff and separated the pieces with a quick snap of his wrist. He raised the sharp end, aiming at the tiger's massive white chest. "Ruh, please, don't make me do this!" he implored.

The tiger eyed him steadily.

~Trust me.~

Underneath Ruh, Tao's gasps for air became weaker, more faint. His face was slack and bluish in the firelight as his head fell limply to one side.

"Tao!" Dar started forward again; still the tiger barred his way. Tears spilling from his eyes, the Beastmaster raised the staff again, knowing he must kill one friend to save another.

'How can I kill Ruh?' he agonized.

'But how can I let Tao die without trying to help?'

'How can I choose?'

Ruh gazed at him calmly, with complete trust.

Dar stared into those implacable golden eyes. The staff dropped from his numb fingers.

Tao shuddered violently one last time, and then was still.

 

 

Tao blinked his eyes blearily. Struggling to a sitting position, he stared around the Sanctuary, totally confused.

It was the Sanctuary and then it wasn't, at the same time. The landmarks--pool, trees, the sandy overhang that served as shelter during storms--appeared the same. It *looked* right, but didn't *feel* right. The breeze--which always seemed so fresh--was as flat and acrid as if it were billowing in from a desert. The pool looked stagnant, not the usual iridescent blue. Hardly aware, Tao commented aloud: "This looks like a pale imitation of the Sanctuary. Is this the work of magic? Sorcery?"

"Tao!"

Tao whirled around at the sound of the woman's voice. "Kyra?"

Dar's beloved stood on the other side of the pool. She looked much the same as when Tao had last seen her--before her mysterious abduction. "Kyra?" Tao asked again. He felt weak suddenly and sank to his knees. "Is that really you?"

"What are you doing here?" Kyra asked. She rounded the pool and came to kneel by his side. "Tao? Get up!"

Tao could hear her voice but from a great distance away. He was so tired suddenly, so sleepy. He put his head down on the warm sand. "Can't," he murmured.

"You have to!" Kyra shook him. "Why are you here? How did you even get here?"

Tao forced his eyes open with an effort. "I think I'm dead," he informed her.

"No, you're not. Not yet. But you're going to be if you don't get up and get out of here!" Kyra insisted.

"I don't even know where I am," Tao protested sleepily. "Do you?"

"We're in a place that exists, and a place that doesn't exist," Kyra said.

Tao groaned. "That's cryptic enough." He closed his eyes again.

"No!" Kyra shook him again. For a petite person she was awfully strong. Then she drew back her arm and slapped him hard across the face.

"Hey!" Tao protested. "Why did you do that?"

"You're running out of time. You have to get out of here and go back where you belong before it's too late!" Kyra tugged on his arm. "Come with me!"

Somehow Tao managed to struggle to his feet. Kyra dragged him over to the pool. "Look!" she demanded.

Tao's eyes followed her pointing finger. He gasped. The flat waters of the pool acted as a scrying mirror.

He found himself staring into the Sanctuary. The *real* Sanctuary, he was sure, noticing that it was night. He glanced around his current surroundings. The light was flat and came from no clear source. It wasn't as bright as sunlight but much more light than it should be at night.

"Look!" Kyra urged him again.

Tao could see himself--curled up on the ground unmoving--and Ruh standing over him. Dar knelt down. He seemed to be talking to Ruh but Tao couldn't hear the words.

Feeling dizzy, Tao sat down quickly before he fell into the waters of the pool. "I don't understand," he muttered weakly. "Is this a dream? Are you a dream?"

Kyra knelt next to him. Her hand was cool on his hot forehead. "This is my reality. That--" she pointed at the scene in the pool--"that is your reality."

"Again with the cryptic remarks," Tao groaned. "So what's the hurry about me going back to my reality? This is all a fever-dream anyway, isn't it?"

"Tao! You aren't breathing. And as long as your--your soul stays here, your body won't breathe. If you don't go back quickly, you won't be *able* to go back."

That actually made sense. Tao dragged himself to his feet again. He wasn't sure if this was a dream or what, but he knew what he had to do. "Come with me," he implored Kyra.

She took a shaky breath. "I wish I could. But I cannot."

"Why not?"

"Only one of us can go back...and it's not yet time for me to return."

Despite a sense of urgency that was compelling him to do something--even if he wasn't sure what--Tao sat back down. "Then you go."

Kyra sighed in seeming exasperation. "I just told you only one of us--"

"I heard you," Tao interrupted. "That's what I mean. You go. I'll stay."

Kyra stared at him. "You would do that for me?"

"For you and for Dar," Tao corrected.

She searched his eyes with her own. The she reached out to touch his cheek. "Thank you," she said simply. Then she straightened her shoulders. "But I can't let you do this. You have a task, Tao. Your task is not yet complete--and it is not yet time for me to return."

Tao shut his eyes tightly against the dizziness. "What task do I have to complete?"

"You must help and support Dar."

"The best way I can do *that* is to return you to him," Tao argued. "That's what I was trying to do. That's why I took the elixir in the first place."

"You were tricked into doing that.."

"Tricked?" Tao questioned, puzzled. "Who tricked me?"

She bit her lip, as if she'd said more than she intended to. "She who took me from Dar. But she's not the one keeping me now."

Tao shook his head. He was having trouble following this conversation. He didn't remember Kyra talking so much like a bad book of prophecy--on the other hand, they'd never had much time to just converse, either. "What does the Sorceress have to do with me? She wasn't even around--"

Kyra glanced into the waters of the pool again. Whatever she saw there seemed to alarm her, because she turned back to Tao with renewed urgency. "You have to go back now!" she demanded, pulling him to his feet.

"I'm not--"

"Please! Stop arguing!" Kyra begged. "I cannot tell you all you wish to know. Just know, now, you *have* to go back. Dar needs you...and I need you to be with him. If you don't go back--now--you'll die in your real world tonight...and then the path of destiny will be forever changed."

Tao hesitated. "I don't even know how to get back," he protested weakly.

"Like this!" Kyra shoved him suddenly, knocking him off balance. He fell into the waters of the pool, destroying the visions contained there.

As the water closed over his head he could hear her voice echoing around him. "Tell Dar I love him."

The water was cold--ice cold--and then burning hot. Tao struggled, confused as to which way to go. His lungs screaming for air, he saw a faint light in the distance and desperately struck out for it.

It was so far away and he was so tired.

He kept struggling. His lungs were bursting, he had to release the trapped air and then he took in a gulp of water. Coughing and choking, he knew it was over. He was too tired to keep going.

A voice yelled through the darkness, calling his name.

With a last surge of energy, Tao reached toward that voice....

 

 

Tao suddenly jerked upright, gasping for air.

"Tao!" Dar cried out. He started for his friend again, and was pleasantly surprised when Ruh delicately stepped out of his way. Dar knelt beside his friend. Tao was shaking violently and his eyes were closed. A series of choking sounds came from his throat.

Quickly, Dar put his arm around Tao's shoulders, noting almost absently that sweat was pouring off his friend. "Tao!" he said intently, shaking him gently. "Tao, wake up! It's all right. Wake up!"

The choking ceased, although Tao continued to shake violently. He was breathing fast and hard. Dar rested his free hand on Tao's cool, damp forehead, rejoicing that the fever had finally broken. "Tao!" he called again.

The violent shudders eased. After what seemed like an eternity, Tao lifted heavy eyelids. "Dar?" he whispered.

"I'm here." Dar smiled in relief. "Welcome back, my friend. You had me worried."

"Sorry." Tao leaned heavily against the Beastmaster. "I'm so tired..."

"Go back to sleep," Dar said soothingly. "Everything is all right now."

Tao nodded, eyelids fluttering. "Dar." His voice was the faintest whisper.

"What?"

"Kyra said...to tell you that...that she loves you."

 

 

Epilogue

"So what do you think?" Tao broke the silence that stretched between them.

Dar stared out the entrance of the cave and the sheets of rain billowing across the Sanctuary.

It had been two days and nights since the deadly poison had eased its grip on Tao. The cold but clear weather had finally broken with a violent series of thunderstorms. Dar moved Tao into the cave for shelter and kept a fire going. Tao rested and slept most of the time.

Tonight, though, he was stronger and wanted to talk. He'd told Dar all about his vision. Now, Dar stared at the rain, thinking about Kyra.

At the second repetition of his name, he roused and turned to look at his friend. Still wrapped warmly in blankets against the chill air, Tao sat propped against a rock close to the fire, a steaming cup in his hand.

"What do I think? I think you'd better drink your broth before it gets cold," Dar temporized, walking back to the fire and dropping into a crouch next to it.

Distracted--as Dar had intended him to be--Tao regarded the steaming cup suspiciously. "What is it?" he asked, sniffing the rich, meaty broth.

"Tao, just drink it. You probably *don't* really want to know what it is," Dar grinned.

"Oh, no...it's not something the little fur balls found, is it?" Tao asked.

Dar laughed. He made a gesture toward the back of the cave, where the glowing emerald eyes of the tiger regarded them steadily. "No. Ruh insisted on sharing his kill with you. But I did cook your portion." Then, as Tao continued to just look at the cup, he went on, "Tao, Ruh will be offended if you don't look as if you appreciate his gift."

Tao snorted. "Well, I wouldn't want to offend Ruh, would I?"

"It might not be healthy," Dar agreed with a straight face. Tao made a face at him and cautiously sipped the drink.

"Hmm, this isn't bad." Tao glanced into the shadows. "Thanks, Ruh."

The tiger rumbled softly.

"Let me guess. He said, 'You're welcome'?"

"Well, something like that," Dar grinned.

Tao sipped again, then went back to his previous question. "So what do you think, Dar? Was it a fever dream or a vision or...was it real?"

All traces of levity left Dar's face. "What do *you* think?"

Tao stared into the fire. "I'm...not sure," he admitted. "Part of me wants to believe it was just a dream." He laughed shortly. "It's not logical to believe that I was magically transported to wherever Kyra is, but--"

Dar jumped to his feet and walked back to the cave entrance.

"Uh oh, what did I say?" Tao asked.

Dar stared out at the rain. "If you didn't believe in the legend, why did you do it? Drink the elixir? Risk your life?"

"I didn't say I didn't believe in it. I said it wasn't *logical*," Tao pointed out. "But, it's not logical to believe a man-eating tiger brought me dinner tonight. Or that I owe my life--a couple of times over--to two fuzzy nuisance ferrets. Or that *you* regularly converse with an eagle that's as old as time. Logic and order don't rule this land, Dar--magic and sorcery do. And...knowledge is knowledge, no matter from what source it comes."

"Oh, Tao. You didn't do it for knowledge. You did it for me."

Tao started to protest, then he smiled. "Well, maybe partly for you," he admitted. Then the smile vanished. "I just--she said things that *I* don't know, so how could I have dreamed them? But--"

"Some of what you said...that does sound like Kyra," Dar admitted. "But other things..." he shook his head. "I don't know what to tell you, Tao. But I am grateful for one thing."

"What's that?"

"Whether it *was* Kyra, or a fever dream, or something else...you fought the fever and came back from wherever you were." He paused. "I asked you this while you were sick. I'd still like to know the answer. If you had known...that the elixir was poison, that it might cost you your life...would you still have done it?"

"Of course not," Tao said, too quickly.

Dar regarded him skeptically. "Tao," he said warningly. "The truth."

Tao was quiet for a long time, staring into the fire. Finally, he shrugged. "I can't tell you," he said softly. He shot a quick look at Dar. "I really...don't know. Anyway, I didn't die, so why worry about it now?"

"I'm worrying about it because I don't want to think that you would knowingly risk your life for me," Dar said steadily.

"You've risked your life for me."

Dar sighed. "Tao. You know what I mean. Risking your life is one thing when someone is in danger. I wasn't."

Tao finally met his gaze. "That's a matter of opinion."

Dar looked at him, seeing the friendship, the trust, in Tao's eyes. He wanted to keep on the subject until Tao had promised never *ever* to do anything like this again...but somehow he knew the subject was closed. Tao wasn't going to talk about it any more. He cleared his throat. "Well...anyway...thank you."

Tao's head shot up, surprise on his face. "Thank me for what?"

"For...caring. For trying. But most of all, for coming back."

Tao smiled. "You're welcome."

 

 

The Sorceress regarded the scene in her amethyst basin with a sigh of satisfaction.

"Interfering again, my dear?"

She turned to see the Ancient One watching her.

"Just a little." She smiled back into the basin. "I owed them that, don't you think? I interfered once...the least I could do was try to make everything come out right."

"A conscience?" The Ancient One's tone was faintly mocking.

"More like a sense of...balance."

He looked at her for a long time.

"You *are* learning, my dear."

 

~Finis~