(Zarya, near the Aizhou border, 16 Stormwater, 1022.)
Reed-sandaled feet silently walked along a long-forgotten path. Once a well-worn dirt road, now the track that unfurled before Jurnia’s emerald gaze was no better than a game trail. Shrubbery and brush snatched at her traveling clothes; her expression grim, she pushed onward.
Whatever—whoever—had left only the traces of a scuffle and a few drops of her beloved Lopayzom’s precious blood behind had wanted her to come to this place. I have your filthy bedtoy. If you want it returned, come to the abandoned temple near the Bhekom village of Athasati at midnight, the note had read, the calligraphy primitive, child-like. And with it had come a swatch of tangled, dirty red hair that still echoed with the golden aura of the missing Karavasu.
Whoever’s done this has been watching me. How else would he know I stumbled across that village while trying to follow my sense of Kara’s aura, and have a note sent to me? Jurnia’s right hand clenched into a fist as she forged deeper into the thick forest. The kindly Frog Clan there in Athasati had warned her away from the temple; the place was more than abandoned—its cult had been bloodily suppressed as an aberration against the spirits. So much so that their very practices have been said to have defiled the holy site so badly, even now animals shun it and it radiates impurity.
The Kaykolom maiden suppressed a shudder. Something very much like that lay ahead, like a festering wound in the land. What was worse was the sense she got of a glimmering, golden spark in the midst of it. Karavasu was there, somewhere, in that. She just knew it. Something’s terribly wrong, she thought, fear spiking through her. He would never consent to remaining in a place like that—or away from me.
But whatever’s happened . . . it’s enough to overpower the Demon’s Claw . . .
Despite her growing nervousness and fright, she would not, could not, leave her beloved in such a situation.
“She comes! She comes!” the gibbering voice said, the harsh, insanely gleeful tones breaking the oppressive silence of the night-shrouded ruin. “Now you’ll get a taste of hell! You’ll get to know the pain of losing all that’s important.” The noise that followed sounded like a blend of lunatic’s chortle and raven’s cawing.
Faint scraping noises sounded against the decaying wooden floor, the rustle indicative of a misshapen, halting gait. The cool, reassuring embrace of the night steeped the wellspring of negative energy and gladdened the creature’s twisted spirit. For a while now, sunlight burned—and now even moonlight created some sense of unease. But justice was near at hand. He could brave the few beams of silver from the full moon with such a prize within his taloned grasp.
The creature halted before a door. A dark eye full of hatred and madness peered through the bars of the solid wooden panel at the captive within. A shiver of terrified dread ran down the creature’s spine as he gazed again at the still, pale form sprawled on the former armory’s floor.
The man within was everything the creature was not. Fully human, fair of face and graceful of build, the prisoner’s aura gleamed with a purity that made the creature ache every time he drew near. Not only was the man so pure of heart, the full blessing of his totem lay upon him. The redheaded man reeked of Lopayzu’s favor. It was enough to make the creature gag at the thought. “Soon, soon, I’ll send you back to your misbegotten totem with your tail between your legs,” the creature muttered. Clawed hands fumbled with the lock. “But first we need to show the bitch what happens to those who lust after scum.”
The old door swung reluctantly open. The creature shambled in, a moving puddle of shadow. Pure hatred and envy flared through the thing’s twisted soul; he gave the unmoving man a vicious kick in the side. The pale body clad only in a now grime-smeared loincloth jerked slightly with the force of the blow. Three new gashes marred the Lopayzom’s skin, blood welling up, but the redheaded youth could only manage a faint groan of pain in response.
“How mighty now, the Demon’s Claw?” the thing that had once been an Avatar hissed. His malformed foot still burned from the contact. “Always a weakness. Regrets yet on not killing me when you had the chance?” The creature didn’t truly expect an answer; the drug used to control such a dangerous man was a powerful one, rendering especially those with Avatar powers into a state of semi-consciousness. “No matter. It won’t be long now before you join the rest of your accursed brood in hell.”
The creature braced himself for the coming pain. He needed to drag his prize out into the former sanctuary. Not only did the comforting dark energy radiate from there, but she needed to see his captive and watch helplessly as the object of her unholy love was forever snatched away. “Like mother, like daughter,” the thing gibbered while bending down and snatching up the prisoner’s drug-stupefied form. The creature hissed in agony at the contact, but his hatred was stronger. Concentrating against the pain, the thing gallop-shambled through the ruins of the crumbling temple, dragging the Lopayzom with him.
The sense of movement broke through the sleepy fog in which Kara had been trapped for days. New pain had roused him from a dreamless slumber; now the realization he was being carried somewhere by the creature that had seen to his capture kept the Lopayzom from succumbing completely to the drug’s effects. Hunger and thirst clawed at his drug-hazed awareness; Kara did his best to use the discomfort as a focus to try to stay as conscious as possible as the unnatural creature hauled him through the temple’s ruins. Must . . . stay awake . . . Jurnia . . .
Somewhere out there and approaching was the Kaykolom maiden’s violet aura. She was coming, and he was both glad and frightened by the knowledge. Thoughts of her—of how sad she would be if she never saw him again, of how much he missed being near her—had been what kept him determined to endure his captivity. Now she was walking into a trap—one in which he was the bait—and he was essentially useless, drugged and bound as he was.
The unclean creature’s grating, gravelly voice broke the silence as it entered the former sanctuary. “The moment is near. You’ll join the Fox in hell, and so will that bastard brat,” the twisted being chortled, though his harsh voice held a note of agony. The burning was intensifying; the captive’s purity felt as if it could cause the creature to burst into purifying flame if it continued the contact. “Damn you!” the creature hissed, tossing his burden hard onto the floor before the wellspring of darkness that marked where the altar had once been.
The Lopayzom hit the decaying wooden floor with enough force to make his slender form bounce slightly. Dazed, all Kara could do was lie there barely conscious—and wait.
A shudder ran up Jurnia’s spine. The old temple had not been very large to begin with, and the violent purge of its cult as well as the ravages of time had taken a toll on it. Part of the building had collapsed, and the marks of a fire scarred the intact walls nearest the ruined area. The entire place carried a sense of decay, a feeling of corruption and disease. Little wonder that no one had lingered to do the proper thing and purify the place; if it felt this bad after more than half a century, it must have been unbearable when the cult had been in residence.
The stairs creaked alarmingly as she mounted them, and the door swung loosely on crudely-repaired hinges. Her shadow fell long and stark, a pool of ink, in the bar of moonlight that was thrown across the floor. Something lay at the far end of that long rectangle of light—a huddled form that glowed softly golden to Avatar sight.
Jurnia gasped, taking a long stride toward Karavasu. A harsh, coughing chuckle stopped her in her tracks, and she raised her eyes from the Lopayzom to the figure that stood just behind him. She could see that it was dressed in ragged, dirty clothes, and was slightly hunchbacked, standing awkwardly. Even in the unhealthy aura of the place itself, this creature was surrounded by a halo of blackest rot, a moving void. She only knew of one thing that could cause such a void. She had seen the beginning of it over a year ago.
Pale light flared to life in her hand, and the creature flinched violently back from the spirit-flame, raising its arms as if to shield its face from the glow. What she saw made her stomach twist in utter revulsion, and she gasped.
Once it had been human. Now it resembled a mocking fusion of man and beast, the physical degeneration of clan-death eating away at its human features, driving it back toward the form of those children of Kaykolu who had not chosen the Goddess’s path. It was thin almost to the point of emaciation, its limbs sticklike, scarred and filthy; its legs and arms seemed jointed wrong, producing the hunched shoulders and awkward stance. Fingers and toes had become long and spindly, tipped with ragged, curving claws. The head was the worst—the lower part of the face seemed to have elongated, pulling forward into a distorted, beaklike shape. As it giggled at her, she could see that its teeth had become an uneven ridge within the warped jaws. The eyes remained human, full of hatred—and familiar.
“Dashtru,” she whispered, feeling suddenly lightheaded.
“I’m glad you remember,” the clan-dead hissed at her. “I’ve had trouble remembering myself for a while now. I can feel my mind slipping, day after day after day, just like my body.” He raised one hand, which still showed the mark of her vengeance, the loss of the smallest finger still obvious despite the distortion. “This is what Iryasitru condemned me to. Does it please you, Herald?”
“So this is all about revenge, is it? Hiring an assassin to kill Iryasitru, kidnapping Karavasu—all of it’s about your revenge?” Her mind was racing, analyzing the situation. She could see Kara’s sword, hanging from the crude belt that Dashtru wore, just as she could see that the young swordsman’s wrists and ankles were tightly bound. He seemed to be only half conscious, the shine of his aura muted.
“Of course it’s about revenge. Revenge against this little bastard, who saved the Silver Fox’s life when I had him at my mercy.” He delivered a vicious kick to Kara’s side. “Revenge against Iryasitru, who cast me out for killing a traitor. Revenge against you, who added to my torture by mutilating me. All of it is about revenge, little Herald, and I’m going to enjoy it. I’m going to enjoy seeing the look on your face as the filthy object of your affections dies.” He reached down and picked up a handful of Kara’s hair, letting the tangled, dirty strands slip between his twisted fingers. “What is it about your bloodline? First your mother, then you—both of you giving yourselves so freely to a Fox? What kind of disease found its way into the Kaykolom?”
“Don’t touch him,” she said in a deadly tone. “The only disease involved in the situation was the mad hatred for the Lopayzom that infected the entire clan.”
“Don’t touch him? Don’t touch him?” Dashtru shrieked mockingly, raising his hand over Kara’s throat, sharp claws poised.
As she had done in their first duel, Jurnia flung one open hand forward. Violet-white light exploded from her palm, searingly intense; Dashtru screamed, recoiling from both the painful light and the burning touch of Avatar power, staggering back and covering his eyes. Jurnia darted to Kara’s side, dropping to her knees and reaching for the ropes that bound him. Finding them tightly wrapped and secured, she hissed in frustration and worked at the knots.
“I’ll kill you!” Dashtru howled, crouching back against the wall, rubbing his twisted hands against his blinded eyes. “I’ll kill you and that Fox and Iryasitru and anyone else I find before I die!”
“You’d better hurry up, then,” Jurnia answered coldly as she threw the rope that had bound Kara’s wrists aside before going to work on the one around his ankles. “You’re not going to live to see morning. I hesitated to kill you before, but I won’t make the same mistake this time.”
“Even if you kill me, Iryasitru is still a dead man,” the clan-dead taunted.
“I have to wonder,” she remarked indifferently. “How did you expect to hire Khuradasu to assassinate Irya? I doubt that you managed to scrape together three hundred hiranya by rummaging through middens.”
“Someone else wants him dead badly enough to provide me with enough money to hire the best assassin available.”
Jurnia shuddered inwardly. “Whoever it was must be truly desperate to consort with a clan-dead,” she said almost casually. The second rope came loose, and she tossed it away. “After all, you’re nothing more than a breathing sack of meat. You’re not even a person anymore. You’re filth.” Standing, she drew her wooden sword from her sash. “It appears that I’m going to have to do some cleaning.”
Dashtru hurled himself forward, clawed fingers outstretched, the edgeless sword swinging ignored at his side. Her eyes wide and intent, Jurnia whipped back and sidestepped, evading the slashing talons—and dodging again as the thing that had once been a Kaykolom lunged once more. Her oaken sword slashed sideways and up, forcing a harsh grunt from Dashtru’s lungs as it thudded against his ribs.
The old floorboards creaked and groaned beneath the swift moves of attack and defense, dust drifting up and glittering like powdered silver in the shafts of moonlight that penetrated the cracks in the walls; stripes of pale light lay across Kara’s motionless body, leaching the sunset fire from his hair. Jurnia kept moving, her heart pounding in her chest, terror for her beloved and rage for the creature that opposed her seething in her soul. She had to keep Dashtru away from him, prevent the clan-dead monster from killing him.
It was proving difficult. Dashtru was fighting with no weapon, his hands and feet first maimed by her cold-blooded revenge and then twisted by the frightening physical degeneration that echoed his spirit’s fall from grace, but that same degeneration had gifted him with birdlike claws—and he had been long trained as a warrior. And although he no longer carried the spark of Raven within him, he had not lost all of his Avatar powers. He was still quick and strong and tough, and he fought with the raw fury of a man who no longer has anything left to lose—nothing at all left, in fact, but his hate.
Jurnia, on the other hand, was fighting to protect the man she loved, and that lent her an edge of desperate power. Her attacks were fierce and brutal; her defense seemed unbreakable. She had been unable to protect her mother from Dashtru. She would not fail to protect Karavasu from him.
Lying on the floor, Kara watched the duel through glazed, uncomprehending eyes. He could see the violet aura flaring brightly, the dull black one pulsing like an ugly wound in the flesh of the spirit world. He knew that his arms and legs were free, no longer frighteningly numb from the cruelly tight ropes, but he had no idea what that realization might signify. He could only lie still and watch, most of his mind drifting in a narcotic haze and only able to focus on one thought: The one I love is here and in danger.
Shrieking incoherent curses, Dashtru leapt at Jurnia, clawing at the wooden sword rather than the woman herself. He locked his grip and kicked out violently, driving his foot into the pit of her stomach and wrenching the weapon out of her grasp. The ragged claws on his malformed toes bit through the cloth of her blouse and into the flesh beneath, and she let out a short, sharp cry before the wind was driven out of her and she went backward, tumbling and rolling. Dashtru hurled the oak weapon aside with a snarl of contempt and deliberately advanced on her, his awkward gait slowing his approach. She rolled up to a crouch, one hand hidden by the folds of her sleeve, the other bracing against the floor.
He reached out very slowly, as if savoring the moment, which gave Jurnia the opening she needed. The sleeve knife dropped into her hand and she surged forward, bringing the blade upward in a short arc that severed the cord holding the edgeless sword on Dashtru’s hip. With the sharp clatter of wood on wood, the scabbard hit the floor; Jurnia planted one foot and kicked hard with the other. A strange grating hiss sounded as the weapon virtually shot across the floor, finally coming to rest against Kara’s side with a faint thump.
The Fox’s unfocused eyes followed the swift movement. His hand felt heavy and clumsy as he slid it across the floor to touch the grip of the sword. Part of his mind was screaming at him, raging at him to move, to shake off the drugs and help Jurnia. At the thought of her name, he looked again in her direction.
The maneuver had cost her. Sneering, Dashtru tackled her, trying to snatch her off her feet. The one braced leg gave her enough leverage to turn the fall into a more controlled drop, but that still left her on the floor with a man-monster that was determined to wound and kill, and had an advantage of strength and weight over her. A burst of Avatar power leveled the playing field as she rolled up and over, slamming Dashtru underneath her as if she were five times her real weight, opening a shallow gash across the back of his shoulders with a lightning-quick slash of the knife. If she had been able to keep her balance, her second strike would have been fatal, but Dashtru heaved frantically and threw himself to one side before she could get him pinned. Lashing out with one hand, he answered blood with blood, raking three long wounds down her arm and tearing her sleeve to ribbons. She cried out involuntarily, kicking away from him and getting back to her feet, switching the knife to her other hand.
Kara’s eyes focused slowly on what he was seeing. Jurnia’s tattered white sleeve began to darken, and a hot, coppery smell filtered into his nose. He knew that smell very well indeed, and something inside him clenched as if his heart had contracted powerfully in its beating. She’s hurt . . . bleeding . . . His fingers curled around the grip of the sword that lay beside him.
Jurnia and Dashtru circled each other, neither of them speaking, focused entirely on finding an opening in the other’s guard. It was the clan-dead who broke the pattern, leaping at the Herald with a scream, claws slashing wildly in front of him. She dodged once and came up fast, ramming the knife between his ribs with a hiss of exertion spilling through clenched teeth. Dashtru twisted to one side and jerked backward, and Jurnia’s eyes widened in horror at the realization that he had deliberately offered that opening to lure her into making the strike—because as he wrenched away from her, the knife snagged on his ribs and was pulled from her hands. The former Raven let out a ghastly laugh and fell on her in a flurry of blows; she had no choice but to pull back, bringing her arms up to block the attacks, half-screaming again as his claws shredded her sleeves and bit into the flesh beneath. Blood sprinkled the floorboards, glistening black in the moonlight. They were close enough to Kara that a few tiny drops spattered on his cheek.
No! Jurnia! The smell of copper, the blood hot and wet on his skin, the gasps of exertion and the sounds of tearing flesh, the sound of his beloved’s voice as she cried in pain . . . the edges of the drug haze curled in on themselves, seared by the golden fire raging upward from the core of his being. I will . . . protect you!
Dashtru hurled himself against her bodily. She landed hard on her back, the wind knocked out of her again by first that impact and then his weight crashing down on her. Weaponless, frantic, she did the only thing she could think of, grabbing his wrists as his talons lashed out at her face, holding his hands away from her. One of his feet scraped down the side of her calf, raising bloody welts as the claws dragged across her skin, and she whimpered involuntarily. Her forearms shook with strain as Dashtru brought his head down low enough for her to see the pale lines where his skin had stretched as his face deformed. He snapped his jaws, the fused ridges of his teeth clacking together, and she recoiled from the charnel reek of his breath. One claw brushed her brow, opening a stinging line, and she screamed despite herself, knowing that she was at the end of her strength. Despair welled up in her, bitter as ashes. I’m going to fail. I’m going to fail, and Kara’s going to pay for my failure . . .
The Fox was on his feet. He didn’t know how he had gotten up, but that was of no consequence. Nothing mattered except the two that he could see, locked in a mortal struggle only ten feet away. The cherrywood scabbard dropped to the floor, a small sound lost in the scuffle, and moonlight shone on the edgeless blade. A moment later, it seemed that sunlight had somehow been awakened within the steel itself, called forth by the mirror-glow, shaping itself into an edge as keen as a razor. The amber light was itself a mirror image of the golden fire blazing in his eyes, the power that gathered itself around him, burning away the sluggishness of the drugs. No matter the cost, I will protect my mate, especially from the likes of you.
Jurnia’s eyes widened as she caught a glimpse of blazing sunfire over Dashtru’s shoulder. With a snarl, the clan-dead impatiently turned his head to see what had caught her attention, and he went rigid with sudden terror.
Gone was the small, harmless man. Gone was the helpless captive. It was Khuradasu, the Demon’s Claw, the most feared assassin alive, who glided across the floor as swiftly as the wind, his sword already moving in a blinding arc.
Dashtru would have thrown himself to the side, or perhaps rolled forward or back to evade the stroke, his back arching as he sought to pull clear. But the grasp that Jurnia had on his wrists had suddenly changed from one that braced against his weight to one that locked his arms like steel bands, her eyes blazing and her lips drawn back in a snarl as she held him still, a human pillory binding him fast for the deathblow.
There was a sound like ripping silk, no louder than a whisper. Khuradasu’s blade, his Avatar power imbuing it with an edge sharper than any made by man and driving it with an inhuman strength, passed through Dashtru’s neck with no resistance at all. The kick that the assassin delivered to the clan-dead’s ribs, not an ounce of momentum wasted, broke Jurnia’s hold and flung the body against the wall like a bundle of straw. It was done so quickly that not even a drop of blood escaped the incredibly clean wound to soil the young Herald.
Jurnia lay on the floor, her heart hammering, her breath scraping in her throat. There was no fear in her, none at all, as she gazed up at the seemingly towering form of Khuradasu, who stood above her in a halo of fiery light. His eyes were feral, unshielded, and she saw the protective fury that had finally galvanized him to action.
The thing was dead. Khuradasu spared it not a single glance as he went to his knees, the sword stabbing into the boards beside him to free his hands for the more important task of gathering Jurnia up, pressing her against him with a fierce tenderness.
“I’ll be all right,” she gasped, responding instinctively to the question she saw in his face. “I’m not badly hurt. I’ll be all right . . .”
He nodded, once, his eyes darting to confirm that there were no other threats before returning to her face. She felt as though she were falling into his gaze, being consumed by the brilliant golden light, a part of his inner soul laid bare before her.
“I’ll be all right,” she repeated softly, lifting her hands to touch his face. He closed his eyes as her fingers touched his skin, like a wild animal permitting itself to be stroked. His power retreated, pulling back into him like a flower closing at dusk. When he opened his eyes again, she saw Karavasu there, not Khuradasu, just a gentle and exhausted man who had pushed himself beyond his limits to protect her.
The Lopayzom weakly smiled at her, the expression full of genuine relief and love. “Jurnia . . .” Then his face went completely slack, the amber eyes closing once more. Their positions reversed as he slumped bonelessly against her and she caught him, keeping him from crashing to the floor.
He hung in her arms, utterly limp, his head falling against her shoulder. His face was pale as bone in the moonlight, his skin feeling cold against her hands. Pure, icy terror seized her for a moment until she saw his chest rise and fall in a shallow breath. As if she had passed from noonday sun into a room lit only by a candle, her Avatar sight had to adjust to see the dimmed golden spark that still glowed within him. She could again see the bruises, cuts, and smears of dirt that marred his body, the marks of Dashtru’s cruelty. The ragged claw marks on his cheek were swollen and red, his skin stained with the thin yellow fluid that had wept from the wounds. He reeked of sweat and blood and sickness—and the foul taint of a drug that she recognized. Of course . . . what else could have kept him docile enough for Dashtru to handle for this long?
“Don’t die,” she begged him, her voice choking in her throat. “Kara, don’t die! It’s over, I’ve got you, please don’t die!” She couldn’t stop the tears that welled up in her eyes.
“I’m glad to see you again,” he said in a voice so faint she could scarcely hear it. “Don’t cry . . .”
“Kara, stay with me!” she demanded, her voice breaking. She buried her face against the side of his head, heedless of the tangled, dusty state of his bright hair. “I love you, Kara. You have to stay with me!”
“I will. I promise . . .” His voice faded off into a long, quiet exhalation, but it was not an ominous death-rattle. He had finally slipped into unconsciousness, his over-exertion draining him of strength.
Jurnia stayed on the floor for what seemed like hours, holding him tightly, her mind blanked out by the emotional storm that whirled through her. As the adrenalin rush of the fight faded, her myriad wounds began to sting and burn, jarring her back into action.
Her wounds weren’t severe, but were certainly painful. Kara’s injuries were much the same, though it was plain to see that the gashes on his cheek were becoming infected. It was a fair bet that his other cuts were going to go much the same way, and hers as well; Dashtru’s talons had been utterly filthy.
Jurnia had had the same kind of basic medical training that all Heralds received, but without supplies, it was a moot point. She did, however, have an alternative that most normal people didn’t; it had been difficult to master and was still not easy for her to use, but it was at least available. Settling down more comfortably with Kara in her arms, she closed her eyes and concentrated as hard as she could.
The night seemed to take a breath. A profound stillness formed around them as faint, pale light, tinted with a green like new leaves, began to radiate in slow, pulsing waves from the form of the Kaykolom girl. Where it moved over the bruises and cuts that both of them carried, the light intensified, leaving a glow that brightened and faded with the passing of the next wave. Slowly, very slowly, Lopayzom swordsman and Kaykolom herald began to heal.
The minor wounds vanished first, cuts closing smoothly, bruises fading away. Deeper wounds took longer; an observer would have been able to see the slashes sealing themselves together, the skin closing first to leave welts that gradually shrank, normal healing accelerated a hundred times over. The festering gashes on Kara’s face took the longest, but they finally succumbed to the persistent power. The dark, twisted energy of the fallen temple seemed to fight against her, making the work ten times more difficult.
Jurnia let out an explosive breath and relaxed, letting the healing power go, feeling even more exhausted from the sustained effort. Sweat plastered her hair against her face, and her shirt was sticking to her back. She got slowly to her feet, moving almost automatically to collect her wooden sword from the floor and her knife from Dashtru’s side, ripping a sleeve from his ragged, filthy shirt to wipe the blood from the weapon; she felt no horror as she did so, merely the slight queasiness that she would have experienced upon entering a slaughterhouse and confronting the fresh carcass of some barnyard animal. There was no blood at all on the edgeless sword, though the steel felt strangely warm to the touch as she wiped the cloth down the blade. Sheathing it and wedging the scabbard through her sash on the side opposite her wooden sword, she finally reached down to pick Kara up, maneuvering him up to hang over her shoulder like a sack of grain. In her weariness, the slight man felt like he weighed as much as a horse, and putting him down on the grass outside was a fleeting relief; she knew that she would have to carry him back to town as well. There was something she needed to do first, however.
The long-abandoned temple was already half in ruins. Jurnia felt no particular remorse for doing what she did now—short, controlled bursts of Avatar power delivering sledgehammer force to the load-bearing members of the structure. It took no longer than ten minutes to collapse the place entirely, and perhaps ten more passed before the old, seasoned wood fully caught fire. The blaze was fierce, a reflection of her own fury, and waves of heat beat against her back as she got Kara back onto her shoulder and turned away from the pyre. Dashtru had stopped truly being a human the day Iryasitru had passed judgment on him and cast him out of the clan. Though all tradition indicated that a clan-dead was nothing more than an animal, the image of his diseased black aura lingered in her mind. Animals were not capable of deliberate evil, but whatever Dashtru had become seemed to virtually embody the concept. It felt right to set the fire free to rage through the fallen house of worship, to consume and purify what had once been a man and had most recently been an object lesson in the treacherous poison that hatred could become.
She was never able to remember the walk back into town, though her arrival at the inn caused a stir, bloody and unkempt as she was and carrying an unconscious, near-naked man on her back, her hands supporting his thighs around her waist and his arms draped limply over her shoulders, his head propped against the side of her neck. With only a few short, curt words, she had the startled employees running to ready the bathhouse and prepare a tray of food. One of the attendants—a sweet-faced girl no older than fourteen—refused to be intimidated by Jurnia’s mood and insisted on helping her clean up both Kara and herself.
Jurnia’s stomach twisted as she ran the wet cloth over Kara’s body. His ribs showed much too sharply through his skin, which had a frightening, waxy pallor—where it wasn’t still stained with the faint yellow-green patches of faded bruises—and felt too warm to the touch. He was terribly filthy; if Dashtru had made any arrangements for his captive’s need to eliminate, the effort certainly hadn’t been sufficient. It was no wonder that his cuts had shown signs of infection. The heat and pallor of his skin, the patches of too-bright red on his cheeks, indicated illness, but only time would tell if he’d contracted something worse than a fever. Even after her healing, he still bore marks from his wounds and from the cruel ropes that had bound his wrists and ankles. The thought of him lying drugged and helpless in some dark room, fouled with sweat and blood and his own wastes, made her hands shake and her eyes cloud with tears.
“My lady?” The serving girl, Nama, who was working to trim and smooth Kara’s ragged nails, was watching her sympathetically. “If you wish, I can do this for you.”
“No,” Jurnia whispered. “No. I-I can do this. It’s just . . . he’s been so badly treated . . .”
“But he’s alive,” Nama said gently. “And I think he wants to stay that way.” She looked at Kara’s face, inspected the hand that lay limply on her palm, paying special attention to his fingernails. “Someone’s given him marnid-root, a lot of it, and over several days.”
“What? How do you know that?”
“Look here. See where his nails have that little bit of greenish stain at the base? That’s how I can tell—my grandmother’s an herbalist, and I’ve learned a little from her. She uses marnid-root sometimes, when a patient’s having a great deal of pain or can’t sleep, but she uses it very sparingly and never more than two days in a row. And she won’t use it on Avatars because it seems to work twice as strongly on them.”
“I know what it does,” Jurnia said, her voice trembling.
“That might be what’s given him the fever, too. If you like,” the girl offered, “I can go to my grandmother and ask her for help. If there’s a way to get marnid-root out of the body and maybe undo any damage it’s done, she’s sure to know it.”
“Yes. Please. I’d . . . I’d be grateful.”
Nama smiled at her, then returned her attention to her task. With the promise of help, Jurnia felt a little better about the immediate future, and her hands steadied a little. His bedraggled hair took longer to wash than she’d expected, full of tangles and grime, but she managed it. Once he was clean, he looked somewhat better, despite the starvation-carved hollows of his face and body.
The girl helped her get Kara back to the rented room and into one of the beds before going downstairs to fetch the food. Although he was otherwise unresponsive and did not open his eyes, Kara swallowed the rich beef broth that Jurnia patiently spooned into him, and drank water from the cup she put to his lips. She had no way of knowing if Dashtru had given Kara anything to eat or drink over the period of his captivity, but she would wager that he hadn’t, to judge by the appetite that was evident even with Kara mostly unconscious.
“Don’t give him too much too fast,” the young maid directed firmly. “You’ll make him sick if you do. He hasn’t eaten nearly enough lately, that’s easy to tell. Give him perhaps half the bowl, slowly, and then eat your own dinner before you try to give him the rest.”
Jurnia would have forgotten to eat at all if Nama had not been riding herd on the older girl with a sort of gentle ruthlessness. Only when Jurnia began to show some real enthusiasm in her food did the girl leave the room to seek out her grandmother. She returned less than half an hour later to find Jurnia putting more broth into Kara, whose appetite had obviously not been fully sated.
“Here,” Nama said, putting down the gently steaming pot of fragrant tea that she was carrying and filling a cup. “Grandmother said to have him drink this, a cup right now and another in the morning—it’s all right if it’s cold. And as much plain water as he’ll take in between. She said the best way to get marnid-root out of someone’s body is to make him piss a lot,” she added with a sort of cheerfully oblivious vulgarity, “as well as give him the tea to help reduce the lingering effects.”
Jurnia blinked at the blunt wording, but nodded and took the cup. The tea wasn’t anything she’d had before, with a strong aroma like the bottom of a log pile—a damp, earthy, woody sort of smell, not exactly unpleasant. Surprisingly, Kara drank it down readily enough and finished the last of the broth.
“Give him another cup in the morning,” Nama reminded Jurnia, gathering up the dishes. “And give him the rest of the pot during the day, if he doesn’t wake up.” The Raven only nodded in response, and the young maid retreated from the room, sliding the door shut with a quiet click.
Sitting on Kara’s bed, her back against the wall and his head in her lap, she watched him as she combed out his vivid hair. He had gone from that unnatural unconsciousness into what seemed more like normal sleep, albeit a deep one. Now that he had been washed and fed, healthy color was coming back into his skin, banishing the awful, chalky pallor; his body temperature seemed lower, as if the fever was receding. Without intending to, Jurnia drifted off to sleep right where she was.
Jurnia woke around midmorning, with a stabbing pain in her neck and shoulder. Wincing, she stretched to ease the cramp before looking down at her patient. Kara was still deeply asleep, his head still resting in her lap, his cheek turned against the soft plane of her belly. When she touched his forehead gently to check for fever, he made a quiet, contented sort of sound. She hated to disturb him; surely it wouldn’t do any harm to stay put for a bit longer before she got out of bed. Besides, it gave her the opportunity to pet his hair as much as she wanted.
She underestimated her own weariness, however, and slipped off to sleep again. The second time she woke, it was nearly noontime, and she was lying down in the bed with her back against the wall. Kara lay against her, his arm banded around her waist, his head nestled beside hers on the pillow. Her own arm was draped over him as well, and she blushed; they were both wearing robes, but the cloth was so thin that they might as well have been naked.
With the thought in mind to get over into the second bed, Jurnia tried to gently pull away.
Kara tightened his grip.
She tugged carefully at his arm.
He tightened his grip again, with a small, discontented sound.
She tried to wriggle down the length of the bed.
He buried his head against her shoulder and hung on.
It was rather like the struggle that he had had trying to reclaim his stuffed fox from the sleeping Kaykolom, in that no matter what the would-be escapee did, the sleeping captor countered neatly without ever waking up. Jurnia was disheveled and a bit pink in the face by the time the door opened and Nama stepped inside, carrying a tray. She took in the scene with one glance and smothered a giggle behind one hand.
“It’s not what it looks like,” Jurnia muttered.
“I wouldn’t presume to say a word,” the maid answered sweetly, setting the tray down on the table. “I thought you both might like something to eat. Has he woken up yet?”
“No. Well, I don’t think so,” she corrected herself, wondering how she’d gone from sitting upright to lying down. “And yes, I’m a little hungry. But I’m kind of . . . stuck.”
The girl managed not to laugh out loud as she helped Jurnia get up. It involved a lot of work, since Karavasu seemed very intent on not letting go of the Raven. Once she’d been pried loose, he rolled onto his back with a downright sulky frown on his pretty face, though he never seemed to become fully aware of his surroundings. When Jurnia returned to the bedside to feed him and get another cup of the now-cold tea into him, his expression smoothed out into one of contentment the moment she touched him.
“Is he your husband?” Nama asked curiously.
Jurnia started slightly, almost spilling a spoonful of broth. “What? No, he’s not. We’re . . . we’re friends.”
“Strange enough for a Fox and a Raven to be friends at all, but you two seem a bit more involved than most friends that I know of.”
“It’s . . . it’s a long story,” Jurnia said lamely, sticking the spoon into Kara’s mouth. As before, he swallowed obediently without ever showing a sign of being alert.
“I’ve known some close friends,” the girl persisted, “but there’s usually another word used to describe a pair like you seem to be.”
“He’s not my lover, either.”
“But you’re fond of him?”
“More than fond of him,” the Herald admitted, “but that’s neither here nor there.”
“He seems fond of you, too.”
“How in the world can you tell? He’s unconscious and he’s been badly treated over the past week. I expect he’d behave like this for anybody who took care of him.”
“I’ve seen plenty of folk who’ve been knocked out, and they don’t behave like this unless it’s their wife or husband taking care of them.”
“What goes on around here that you see so many people unconscious?”
“This is a farming village,” Nama pointed out. “Accidents happen. Besides, I’ve helped Grandmother often enough to see some odd things.”
“Well, I’m not his wife and he’s not my husband.” Jurnia had intended the statement to sound firm and final; instead, it came out too softly, sounding broken and sad. The hand that she had put out to smooth a lock of his hair back lingered, lightly touching his brow.
And her sorrowful tone produced an unexpected result. Amber eyes opened, their gaze almost instantly settling on her—though they also remained glazed over, as if Kara couldn’t quite yet rouse himself to full consciousness. A question lingered in their glassy stare, the same one Jurnia had seen in Khuradasu’s blazing eyes the night before. A hand lifted from the bed, slowly reaching up toward the Kaykolom maiden.
“I’m not hurt,” she whispered almost automatically, responding to the unspoken question; it wasn’t exactly a lie. She wasn’t injured, except in a way that no poultice or magic could mend. Taking his hand soothed a little bit of that pain, but the sadness wouldn’t fade.
He and I are always going to be on opposite sides of this barrier he’s put in place. He’s afraid of what might happen if he relaxes his control and lets his passions take over. Her eyes clouded, shimmering too brightly. I always thought that it was Khuradasu I wanted, but it’s Khuradasu who’s standing between us. His idea of Khuradasu is a ruthless killer; my idea is the brave, noble warrior that I saw years ago. An image rose in her mind, of the stone-faced assassin blocking her path with drawn sword, blood drenching his hands, his clothing, his blade. He would never turn that sword on her, but his very existence barred her way to a future with the son of the Fox Chieftain. He hates himself so much . . . he wants to keep me from being somehow tainted by his own deeds. Doesn’t he understand that no matter what he’s done, he’s still a good person inside? She pushed away the vision of the bloody-handed assassin, calling up the memory that she had cherished for so long—the magnificent warrior with fiery hair and sunlight eyes, his blade no less lethal than the assassin’s, but poised to defend and shelter those who looked to him for protection. Why won’t he see that this is how he really is? The tears welled up, threatening to spill over her lashes. Without a word, Nama stepped out of the room and closed the door; the moment was far too private for other eyes to observe.
“Jurnia . . .” Kara whispered. He gently tugged his hand from her grip, but it wasn’t in rejection. Instead, he merely needed it to struggle upward. Once he was sitting up in the bed, he shook his head like a man trying to clear the cobwebs from his mind, the covers pooled around his hips. His gaze settled on the Raven Herald again; this time he seemed aware of her and his surroundings, but very tired. He reached out, caressing her cheek, his expression full of concern. “Why the tears? We’re together again, alive and safe now.”
“Why can’t you see yourself the way I see you?” she whispered, the words scraping in her throat. “Why do you think you deserve to be so alone?” She closed her eyes at the touch of his hand on her cheek, and the tears broke free to streak her face. “If you had died, part of me would have died too.”
“Jurnia . . .” he said again.
“I’ve been so afraid that you would leave!” she burst out. “That I’d wake up and you would have slipped away during the night to wander on by yourself, because you think you’re such a terrible person that it would be better to condemn both of us to a lonely hell!” Jurnia seemed to do everything with more energy and drive than most people; crying appeared to be no exception, the tears spilling down her face. “Chaiya and Arjunayazu chose duty above everything else—it killed my mother, and it nearly killed your father! Do you think I want to spend my life like that? Do you want to spend your life like that? Living without being alive? Dying by inches, in spirit as well as in flesh?”
She was in his arms, suddenly, her embrace circling his ribs as she buried her face against his chest. “I don’t care what you’ve done in the past that you think has made you so evil! I saw real evil last night, and it wasn’t wearing your face!” Her voice was raw, the words coming out in gasps between sobs. Some women seemed to have the ability to weep delicately, but Jurnia’s emotions ran far too deep to be satisfied with a few silent, artistic tears. “You promised you would stay with me! You promised, Kara!”
His arms folded around her, holding her against him. “Yes, I promised,” he murmured; with her ear pressed to his chest, his voice had a peculiar, soothing resonance. She could still hear—and sense—his weariness, and was vaguely surprised that he had managed to rouse himself at all. “I’m not going to break my word. Don’t you trust me?”
She gulped, hiccupped slightly. “Yes.”
“Then believe me when I say that I’m going to keep that promise.” He pulled her gently down as he lay back, not wanting to let her go, but feeling the weight of exhaustion on him like a mountain. “I’m sorry, Jurnia, but I’m very tired. Will you stay with me now? It feels good to have you near me.”
“Yes,” she whispered, shifting a little to settle herself more comfortably against him. He smiled drowsily, lifting a hand to stroke her hair for a moment before his breathing evened out again, sleep reclaiming him swiftly.
It had to have been the oddest dream he’d ever experienced. Even years later, few others could even hope to compare to the surreal recollection of that particular dream. In what seemed to be the Derkaryan War Minister’s office, Kara sat, or stood leaning against the wall—he never was clear on what he had been doing; it really wasn’t germane. But also in the room, as separate people, were both the persona the Lopayzom swordsman showed the world.
Cute, fluffy-headed and certainly harmless, the wanderer slowly paced in a circle off to Kara’s left. An image of the present-day Karavasu clad in slightly too-large traveling clothes—garments which, though clean, were beginning to show the wear of almost two years of homeless wandering—the sword at the wanderer’s side seemed very out of place.
Khuradasu’s sword, however, belonged. Standing to the right, the assassin had the appearance of a seventeen-year-old Karavasu fresh from a battle. Blood flecked him all over and stained the red shirt and golden-brown pants that marked him as a member of the Ruby Dragon Army. More blood dulled the bright shine of his drawn sword; his youthful face was set in the fierce death-glare that had frightened so many of the Phoenix warriors.
“How could we even promise that?” the wanderer said, worry clouding his wide-eyed cuteness. “It isn’t right—”
“How could we not?” Khuradasu responded, his chillingly soft voice cutting through the room with ease. “Did you really want her to keep crying like that?”
“Well, no, but—”
“We’re not going anywhere. And right now we have no intention of just slipping away either,” the assassin pointed out.
“But she’s not talking about just now,” the wanderer responded, still very worried.
“I know that.”
“Then how are we supposed to be able to keep that promise? We can’t—”
“Look, you irritating fluffhead,” Khuradasu interrupted, raising his bloodstained sword to point at the wanderer, “I’ve told you this over and over. She’s mine.”
“You can’t do that,” the wide-eyed vagabond said, his expression one of shock. “She’s not some piece of property. You can’t own her.”
Only a single twitch of a cheek muscle betrayed the assassin’s increased ire. “I don’t mean it like that, you imbecile. She’s my mate. She’s claimed me and I’ve claimed her. What’s there to debate?”
“Lots of stuff. We’re Lopayzom and she’s Kaykolom. She’s also Iryasitru’s Herald. People are not going to be happy.”
“The only one I care about being happy is Jurnia herself. Everyone else can just go to hell.” Khuradasu lowered his sword, the point resting on the office’s floor. “Can you honestly stand there and tell me that you’d make her start crying like that again just because other people aren’t going to be happy finding out about how we feel?”
The wanderer’s posture wilted. “I don’t want to make her cry, that I don’t. She’s too young, too innocent, to live a life full of sorrow.”
“The only way she’s going to not live a life of sorrow is if we never leave her,” the assassin pointed out. “Besides, in all truth, can you really stand the thought of someone else touching her?”
“Not exactly, but that can’t be helped once she marries someone else.”
For a moment Kara honestly thought Khuradasu was going to leap from his spot and slap the wanderer silly with the flat of the assassin’s bloody blade. But the moment quickly passed; Khuradasu merely closed his eyes for a few heartbeats to exert a bit of self-control. “I swear he’s actually castrated you.”
“I am not,” the wanderer huffed, looking a bit hurt. “I feel the same way as you do.”
“I’m betting you wouldn’t know what to do with her if she were dropped naked in your lap.”
The vagabond’s cheeks reddened with a blush. “I do know, but it wouldn’t be right. Just like it’s not right letting you touch her.”
Khuradasu’s glare grew fiercer. The assassin took a step toward the harmless-looking persona, sword coming up in a threatening manner. “Your morality be damned. I’m more than willing to atone for the blood I’ve spilled, but we’ve never allowed our own punishment to affect others. If anything, our atonement’s been to keep others from harm or sorrow. But you have to face the truth, Wanderer. If we turn our backs on her simply because you believe we don’t deserve any shred of happiness, then it’s not we who will suffer for our choice and only we. She suffers as well. Didn’t you listen to her? You know what will happen.”
The fluffhead started to say something, then paused—then his stance wilted again as he deeply sighed. “It’ll be Chaiya all over again,” the wanderer murmured. “I recall those few times we’d seen her, how sad she was when she thought no one was watching and how it all seemed to fade whenever she was near Father.”
“Do we really have the right to sentence Chaiya’s daughter to that?”
The wanderer sighed again, looking defeated. “We can’t be selfish, even in the matter of our punishment.”
“Well, you can wallow in guilt over any happiness all you want,” Khuradasu responded, once again resting the tip of his sword against the floor. “I’m determined to enjoy myself once it comes to pass.”
“Once what comes to pass?”
“Are you really that clueless?” the assassin asked, staring at the wanderer. “Jurnia’s biggest fear is that one day we’ll just up and walk off, leaving her behind by our choice. There’s truly only one way to take that fear away from her.”
The wanderer looked like he was going to pass out. “We’re going to make a lot of people angry.”
“Like I said before, the only one I care about is Jurnia. The rest of the world can get as angry as it wants.” Khuradasu continued to stare at the cute and harmless wanderer. “So . . . are we agreed?”
The wanderer nodded. “Against my better judgment . . . agreed, but . . .”
The assassin twitched. “What now?”
“If there’s any doubt whatsoever . . . If it seems like she can find a way to live a happy life without us, then we won’t do this.”
Khuradasu’s harsh expression shifted to an irate glare. “You need to accept the fact that that’s not going to happen, Wanderer. And you need to stop hating me so much. Yes, I’ve killed people. Yes, my hands have been stained with human blood. Yes, I’m the living weapon Father wished to create. But I’m not some soulless, heartless killing machine. I feel everything you do, including remorse and regret.”
“Even so, if she hesitates or we discover some other way to allow her to live a happy life without us, then we stop this.”
“Stubborn ass,” the assassin murmured to himself, amber eyes glowing faintly gold. “Agreed.”
For the first time in days, when he opened his eyes, he was wide awake. Kara was lying on his side, uppermost arm draped over some warm, soft mass that was also snuggled comfortably up against his front. A blush crept over his cheeks as he realized that mass was actually the Raven Herald, her back fitted neatly against his front as if they were specifically made to fit together. A hazy memory popped into his mind, of her crying and his asking her to stay with him. Swiftly added to that was the lingering memory of his odd dream.
Well, seems as if I have work to do . . . Steeling himself—he could sense the wanderer’s panic at them actually going through this—the young Lopayzom carefully peeled the thick blanket back from his slender form and began to slip from the bed. His intent had been to keep from disturbing the slumbering maiden. He should have known it wouldn’t work.
The Kaykolom rolled over, a frown settling on her face at the absence of his warmth against her back. Emerald eyes flicked open in time to see the robe-clad swordsman stand up at the other side of the bed. Suddenly frightened—he may not have remembered his promise, he’d been so tired when he’d reaffirmed it—she bolted to a sitting position. Her throat tightened with panic, and her words came out a bit sharper and more accusing than she had intended. “Kara, where are you going?”
The redhead jumped slightly. Then he turned enough to glance over at the maiden over his shoulder. “The toilet,” he responded blandly. “I feel like I’m sloshing when I walk, for some reason.”
Jurnia blushed. “Oh. Well, don’t let me keep you then. You are coming right back?” The last was more a statement than a question.
Kara shook his head in the negative. “I have some business to which I must attend as well. I’ll be sure to have the innkeeper send some breakfast up to you.”
His reply startled her, then made her somewhat suspicious. “We’re in a small farming village far from the beaten track and you’re telling me you have some business here?”
This isn’t starting well, Kara sighed. Facing her, he knelt with one knee on the edge of the bed. He reached out and took one of her hands in his. “I thought you said you trusted me?”
“I do, but—”
“Then please, just wait here patiently. I do have some business to which I must attend, but I don’t know for certain if it can be done here. So I need to go find out if that’s the case. I won’t go any further than the village itself. If my business cannot be done here, than I will be sure to return and fetch you.”
“What business is this, Kara?” she demanded. “Are you going to send a message or something?” She paused thoughtfully. “I need to do that myself. From what I learned, it seems that there’s someone else behind the plan to assassinate Iryasitru. He needs to be advised to watch his back.”
“I thought you had sent a message when we first learned about the attempt to hire Khuradasu.”
“I did, but that was before I discovered that this seems to go farther than just one person with a grudge,” she pointed out.
“Well, then.” He smiled sunnily at her. “While I’m out, you can arrange for your message to be sent.” Jurnia’s gaze bored into him. He raised a hand hastily. “You just said that I have your trust. I’ll come back, Jurnia. Just to prove it, though . . .” Stepping away from the bed, he rummaged in his travel sack and produced the little stuffed fox, which he offered to her with a slight bow.
With a faint, reluctant sort of smile, she took Lopzu from him with one hand. Her other hand latched around his wrist and pulled; he was off-balance enough to stumble forward, almost falling over the bed as his legs hit the edge of it. Jurnia had already rolled up to her knees, and she released his wrist to catch hold of the back of his neck instead.
The kiss was slightly clumsy due to the awkward angle, but she didn’t let that slow her down. If he had been so dazed with exhaustion that he had somehow missed the emotional charge of her outburst, he would definitely remember this. It was hot and fierce and possessive, proving solidly that Khuradasu’s assertion that she had “claimed” him was quite true.
“Ar-mph,” Kara burbled, his yelp of surprise quickly muffled by the kiss. At first determined to keep some internal distance, his slim form tensed as he began to pull back. But it felt too nice, too tempting, to just pull himself away. Try as he might to keep his own love for her under tight control, his passion wouldn’t allow it. He relaxed against her; kissing her back while softly purring deep in his throat, he wrapped his arms around her.
This was right. After a week of being held in a drug-induced stupor in a place spiritually polluted, something this life-affirming was quite intoxicating. However, the guilt quickly crawled back, reminding him of who and what he truly was. He gently broke the kiss. Nuzzling against her neck while still holding her close, he murmured, “There’s no other way for you to be happy?”
“Once, I chased a dream. Now that I’ve found the reality behind it, I’m not letting it go,” Jurnia replied, her voice rather breathless. “I can’t be happy without you.”
It took nearly every shred of his self-control to not do anything more than just hug her tighter. He ached for her, and the sleeping robes they were wearing were hardly any barrier between them. Slowly, reluctantly, he released her and pushed himself back. “I really must go now, but only for a little while. I will return. I promise.” Without looking at her again—he didn’t trust himself to leave her be if he kept his attention on her—he walked over to his travel bag and rummaged around in it once more.
The clothing he pulled out was red and gold, but that was all Jurnia could see of it. He kept the garments folded up, holding them against his chest with one arm as he grabbed his sash and sheathed sword in the other hand. Without another word, he was gone, the sliding door closing with some hint of finality.
She watched the door for a moment. He wanted her as much as she wanted him; that was plain to see, now that she knew what she was looking for. His last question had been a little strange, but her answer had been heartfelt. She had done well enough for herself, going about on her own, but now she knew that she had been missing some vital piece throughout her entire life. Kara filled that deep-down emptiness, leaving her feeling warm and complete at last. The thought of living without him was intolerable, and even this brief separation was uncomfortable.
Worry crept into her thoughts. He’d said that he would only be gone a short time before, too—and Dashtru had caught him. A knot of anxiety tightened in her belly, and she bit her lip. Dashtru was dead, but there were other people in the world who had no real cause to like Kara either. Whether because he was a Lopayzom, or the dreaded Khuradasu, or any other number of reasons. With a faint whimper, Jurnia sat down hard on the rumpled bed and hugged the little stuffed fox against her.
“He’ll be all right. He has to be. He promised,” she whispered.