The Cold Face of Knowing
“Why have you stopped?” Old Philan barked for the second time.
“Because,” Torek said, “we’ve been riding for 12 hours.”
“Excuses. All you care about is getting out of this. You have no intention of actually helping Kai.”
“I’m getting sick of doing this with you, old man. We have to stop and you know why.”
“Philan, we may be close, but we have no idea where Kai is. If we continue we could go leagues off course.” But yes, he did really want to get the hells out of there. He wanted to leave the lot of them and spend the rest of his days on the beach as some faceless nameless person.
“And you need to dreamfast to see where he is,” Philan said in a mocking tone.
“I don’t like it either.”
“It’s taking too long.”
Torek scoured his face with his hands. “It’s taking as long as it needs to.”
“Listen up, boy—”
“Yes, boy. You’re in the thick of your adolescence, so don’t presume you know more about the world than I do.”
“Philan, by the Grove, I’m 31.”
Philan flicked his gaze over Torek. “In human years, that may be something. What is that? 15 to a half elf?”
“Enough of this,” he said. “We’ll find him.”
The old man threw up his hands and disappeared into his wagon. Probably to sulk. It was just as well. No one could stand his company right now.
Torek shoved Philan out of his mind. Without even acknowledging the rest of them, he unfurled his bed roll in a nearby clearing, laid down and began to breathe rhythmically. Methodically. The thick gnarled trees, the swooping birds, and insects hovering in the late afternoon faded, and all around him the world stilled and he detached mind from body. Then he slipped into the dreamfast. In a whirl of motion, his energy released from his body and dispersed, like a mist, into the stream where others were.
He pictured Kai’s face, which he’d come to know quite well, and thought his name. Instead of Kai’s distinct tuft of grey, flashes of blonde hair trailed through his mind’s eye.
The abstract images aligned into a cohesive picture. He was standing in the middle of a field. The image came complete with fatigue, the emotional kind that sapped the strength from his limbs. But there are more crops to bring in, a female voice said in his head. One moment he was swinging a scythe, the next he was tripping over his own legs and beating his fists into a puddle of water. His throat constricted and a fever enflamed his skin. Then the grey camp he’d grown up in buried the golds and browns of the harvest. He was wrapping a blunt knife in his rags, wondering if he had the courage to do it.
He fell through that scene into another. This one caused his energy to slow, like a heartbeat, to a near fatal stillness. An arm drifted up in front of him, covered in grey clothe with a subtle monogram stitched into the hem. A pale finger traced the horizon. It carved out a path through the soft folds of the hills to where the fog gathered in the distance. Ghostly shapes ambled across the landscape.
“There he is,” a voice said.
Torek pulsed yellow with fear at the sound of the voice and the accent it carried. Crisp and stern, it turned a benign phrase into a threat.
“And someone else is looking for him.” The grey arm dissolved into light, which reformed into a face looking at Torek. “Hello, Guardian.”
Then something shoved at his mind. He tumbled into another vision. The one he had anticipated when he first began this dreamfast. Kai’s energy was bright and familiar.
Torek fused with him, mind-to-mind, still sick with yellow.
Kai threw up feeble mental blocks.
“I am a friend. This is called synching.”
Kai’s mind pushed against Torek’s with all the might of a kitten pushing against a tiger. “Be gone, demon.”
Torek eased through the cracks in the old man’s defenses with care. Minds were fragile things. Easily torn and broken. And synching required patience and attention, which Torek never thought he had. Now there was no choice. He scanned Kai’s memories from the day, scouted for landmarks he could use to guide the group to the Kai.
“I said get out, you wretch! I’ve been through too much to put up with this.”
“Go find some other plaything to torment.”
“I’m not here to torment you. You’re in trouble.”
“So you keep telling me. Now for the last time, demigod, be gone!”
Torek snapped back to the physical world. His muscles shook and a layer of sweat coated his face, and wet the edge of his hairline. He opened his eyes, not to the sky, but to the faces of his travel companions staring down at him.
Edrish and Tarvis stood together like brothers. Their energy harmonized to the same rhythm. Philan merely glared at him. Hedric was there, too. She was frowning. Her pale green eyes were less their own usual color and more resembled the glaciers hugging the Chronoberg Mountains, tinted—some said—by the towering evergreens of the Ancient Grove. Her gazed moved from his face to Nymos, who was standing by the wagons and staring at the road in the direction from which they had traveled. Tendrils of red traced between the two.
“What happened?’ Torek asked. He felt as if he still had one part of himself in the dreamfast and the other in this parody of reality.
Philan barged in with a question of his own before Hedric had a chance to respond. “Which way?”
“East,” Torek said, then waited for the old man to disappear. He stared at Hedric.
“She’s contaminated,” she said.
He frowned and glanced at Nymos.
“I mean, you shouldn’t trust her. Not really.” Hedric turned, and walked to her wagon.
Tarvis held out his hand. “Come on, you.” The firm grip devoured Torek’s hand, and hefted him up. “What do ye really have to say?”
The scar on Torek’s chest seemed to swell, catch on his shirt. “Kai is in danger.”
“Ach, we already knew that.”
They traveled eastward most of the morning. Fog thickened the air into visible specks of grey. Ghosts of trees lurked in the mist. Even through the mysterious filter of the fog, Torek recognized the land. The trees looked familiar, as did the bend in the road. His heart quickened. This had been in both visions. The Seduman assassin’s, as well as Kai’s. The road would divide again. This time they had to take the branch in the rode which led south. And maybe they weren’t far behind.
Torek stopped. He closed his eyes, forced his breathing to become deep and even. Noise dropped away, and so did sensation. Breath was all there was. When he opened his eyes, he was in a waking dreamfast. Mist was replaced by the dull glow of energy, the energy of the earth, the trees and air. The tracks of the people who had passed before.
He found Kai’s energy splashed all over the road, and glowing brightly. Another trace lurked beneath a smudge of wolf. Except it wasn’t a wolf. Peering into the layers of the track, a bitter taste coated Torek’s tongue. The sign flickered, and in those gaps, another stream of energy emerged. Four riders on horseback. Dressed in grey and magic.
He leapt from the wagon. “They’re close,” he said to the others. “I think they’ve been stopped by four riders.”
“How far?” Philan asked.
His travel companions watched him. Bright turquoise sparks zinged through their energy fields. They felt it, too? Didn’t they?
“Do any of you know magic?” Now Grimshader and Sorchaich’s company didn’t seem so dreadful. He couldn’t stop the trickle of fear, again that putrid sickly yellow, from tracing through his nerve threads and veins
Edrish flared, bright as a tube of magnesium thrown into the fire. In the next moment, his light drenched Torek with its nearly white, barely pink glow. It was the kind of light that ate away all other kinds of light. It devoured his fear and left him seeing the world as it was. Knowledge without judgement.
“Stalling again?” Philan pulled his lips over his teeth, baring them like blunt little threats.
“Seduman assassins follow Kai.”
Silence grew in their throats and their bodies, and Torek could almost hear them. The assassins halting the wagons, and ordering everyone out.
“Then he’s dead,” Nymos said.
Philan stayed mute as horror slackened his face.
Hedric shook her head. “We go on.”
“He said Seduman.”
“Nymos, he could have said the darkest, meanest, cruelest thing in this world, and we would still have to go on.”
“Are you addled?” Nymos asked. “Isn’t that exactly what Seduma is.”
“You can do whatever you want. You weren’t supposed to be here in the first place.” Hedric turned to Torek. “We go on.”
“By foot,” Torek said. “Now.” He pointed at the branch to the south.
Nymos grabbed Philan’s arm. “He shouldn’t go. Someone should stay with him.”
“The wagons had better be here when we return,” Hedric said as she armed herself.
“When.” Torek walked down the road, away from escape and into consequence. After a few paces, the fog grew more dense. It stuck to his eyelashes and tried to slink down his throat. The barren strip of land that constituted the road was rutted with deep tracks carved by countless wagon wheels. To the south, it slipped down into an undulating flood plain, where bay trees and elms interrupted the land. To the north, a brim emerged, hovering over the road just ahead.
Tarvis wandered up its slope. His red head descended out of view. A birdcall trilled over the landscape.
Torek, Edrish and Hedric turned at the same time, stepped into the tracks the giant had left. A ditch ran along the other side of the berm, parallel to the road.
“Micht as well be a speck of a surprise,” Tarvis said.
To delay their ending by a larger fraction of time, Torek wanted to say, but the light Edrish has inundated him with wouldn’t allow it. Instead, he nodded at the logic and took the lead, as if he was responsible and knew what to do.
“Get out of the wagons.” A voice cut through Torek’s thoughts. The accent was almost aristocratic. “All of you.”
“He’s in charge,” a voice responded.
“You’re a damned fool.” And that was Kai’s voice.
“Stand there,” said the aristocratic voice. “All of you. Close in. Good. Now, tell me from where you come.”
Someone began to say something, then there was a thump and a hiss.
“And what is so dangerous about telling us your origin?”
“Why is it your concern?” Kai asked. “And why is it so important that you should bar passage, make us captive and threaten us?”
“You have not yet been threatened.”
“You have ice in your gaze. I know what winter does to hearts and minds.”
“Well then, let us not stand on pretense and formality.” Then dragon tongue rushed out of the aristocrat’s mouth.
There was a thud and a choked scream.
Torek ran to the point closest to where the talking was. He undid the scabbard from his soldier’s girdle and laid it on the slope.
“’Tisna goin’ ta do ye any good there,” Tarvis said.
“If you think it’ll do me any good there,” Torek pointed at the source of the strained sounds of pain, “you should explore more of the world.”
Edrish and Tarvis both looked at Hedric.
“It doesn’t work that way,” she said.
“No’ even a hint?” Tarvis drummed his fingers under the pummel of his sword.
Her lips pursed together. She looked ahead and stared at spot of nothing.
“Leave her alone, Tarvis.” Torek started up the embankment as if he didn’t need them, or want them to come. The rest didn’t matter. All that mattered was the assassins, and how they had chosen to punish Kai.
Edrish stripped away his weapon and followed.
The grey-clad, blonde-haired assassins, tall, and grotesquely muscled, watched the man on the ground twitch, their faces rigid, but somehow still smiling.
Kai, with a tuft of hair swirling from his forehead, pointed a shining sword at the assailants, and stood over the fallen man. He was traveling with a small group of traders, who all had his same dark walnut skin and black eyes. Their horses tamped at the ground, tore pieces of sod with their hooves. A robust man swaddled in fine robes huddled against the wheel hub of one wagon. Two others cowered behind Kai.
“Shall we continue?” The aristocrat asked. It was the man Torek had first encountered as a face composed of pinpoints of light in the dreamfast.
“Continue what?” Kai asked. He kept his hands clenched around the pummel of the sword, which had clearly never been used. “This madness? This torture?”
“By my own name, Oten, given to me by my father, this is not torture. Just a bit of sport.” He uttered words in the ancient dragon tongue.
The man at Kai’s feet screamed. His body convulsed and jerked into violent angles.
“This is torture, you monster,” Kai yelled.
A sharp crack split through the air. The arm of the man on the ground was rigid up to the middle of his upper arm bone. The rest of it dangled to the ground.
“No!” Kai dropped the sword and knelt by his fellow Ketuan.
“Everybody likes a show,” Oten said. Turning away from the Ketuans, he directed his attention to Torek. “Don’t you, Guardian?”
“You have no business in Artesia. With these men.” Torek pushed the words out.
Oten looked at his fellow Defenders, which was what Sedumans called assassins in their homeland. “I am Seduman, half-elf. The world is my concern.” Oten glanced to either side of Torek. “You’re companions are quite,” he paused, “interesting.”
“Ye’ll be lettin’ those men free,” trilled Tarvis. He stepped in front of Torek. His broadsword angled out in front of him, heavy as a wagon axel. “Then ye’ll be movin’ on yer way.”
Oten smiled. A cold sly affliction of the lips. “From what hovel did you emerge? No. It doesn’t matter. Your friend, son of Astasiana,” he acknowledged Torek with a slight incline of his head, “was so kind as to let you keep your plaything. But really, you should put it away now. Ruathar.”
Tarvis spun around and raised the sword above his head.
“Shit.” Torek dove out of the path of the blade just as Tarvis swung the sword down at his head.
“What are you doing?” Edrish asked.
“You’re surprised?” Torek said as he rolled, and hopped to his feet. Crouched, he watched as Tarvis staggered. The giant’s face twisted in a grimace.
The Ketuan on the ground shrieked in agony.
“I canna help it.” Tarvis sliced the blade at Hedric. She dodged, and almost walked right into Tarvis’ counter-stroke.
Torek shook his head, then sprinted at Tarvis.
“What are you doing?” Edrish asked, even more shocked than the first time.
His shoulder hit Tarvis mid-back. The force knocked him off balance, and he teeter-tottered before falling. They hit the ground. Hard. Torek gasped, but didn’t stop. He threw his elbow into Tarvis’ face, then jumped up and stomped on the giant’s hands.
Tarvis howled, let go of the sword.
Torek picked it up. Words danced through the air all around him, but he ignored them, pushed them out of his nerve threads and veins, purged them from his ears. He rocked the sword to the right, then flung it, body straining, muscles tearing, toward the embankment over which they had just come.
“Fly, damn it,” Torek said. He stumbled away from Tarvis, and brought his hands up, made fists of them. By some luck—it couldn’t have been strength—the sword twirled just over the dirt at the peak of the embankment, and disappeared over the other side.
Torek took five more steps away from Tarvis, toward Kai and Oten. He opened his ears only enough to tell the difference between normal talk and magic-spiked dragon tongue.
Tarvis did get to his feet; he did look at Torek. His expression was a mixture of two things. Mostly it was shame.
Torek waited. It was usually a never-ending attack. That’s the game he remembered from the camp. Instead, Tarvis stayed still, a body at rest. Torek turned back to the Ketuans and their tormentors.
The man on the ground was still now, and quiet. His pant cuffs gathered at his knee caps, and his torso was bared and mottled with bruises. The clothes were saturated with the stench of urine. Torek looked at the other Ketuans. Their faces, slack, were bowed to the earth, where they fixed their gazes.
“Is this the only way you people have fun?” Torek strode to Oten.
Oten’s brow twitched. “That ended rather quickly. And with much less blood than I hoped for. Uist.”
The spelled froze Torek. Oten drew his sword and cut through the laces of Torek’s shirt.
The exposed scar made the emotionless murderer smile again. “They gave this to you. Your gift for winning the first time. What should we give you now, Guardian.” He spat out the last word.
Movement flicked at the edge of Torek’s vision. Kai had reached into his pocket, pulled out a necklace, and drew it over his head.
A vague look suffused Oten’s face. “But you are inconsequential, aren’t you? A distraction. As much as I’d like to educate you, I must interrogate the Ketuan about Naimh.”
Kai’s fellow traders draped their own identical necklaces over their heads.
“What’s this?” Oten practically sneered at the men, as if he could think any less of them.
Kai straightened his spine and seemed as tall and steadfast as a mountain. He looked at Oten with a calm and steady gaze. “I am of Tarska. This is an amulet of protection. And we are finished here.”
Sedumans loved challenges. They loved to dismantle proud men in the most humiliating and painful ways. “Stop,” Torek said.
Oten’s face became hard and impassive again. “You may have one more chance to tell us what you know of Naimh. We are fairly certain she is hiding on your pathetic trash heap of an island. And of course you’ll have to apologize for your transgression.”
“I will apologize for nothing,” Kai said. “You will leave us, and never attack another Tarskan for as long as you take air into your body.”
“Stop.” Torek hissed the word between his teeth.
“Listen to the Guardian. He knows better than most the consequences of insulting Seduma.”
“We listen to the heartbeat of our mountains. We feel the rush of our streams. Our force is the force of boulders hurtling into valleys. Of the sun searing. We listen to our songs. And to no other.”
Oten looked over his shoulder at the other Defenders. They were all the same: yellow hair, pale skin and slate grey eyes. And of course their frames all bore a ridiculous amount of muscle, cultivated by dogged training every day of their existence.
Whatever connection they etched out between themselves released Torek’s body from the freezing spell. “Go,” he said to Kai.
“I stand.” The old man spoke through tight lips. His face, which had been soft and friendly in the dream fasts, was unyielding now.
“Whatever they are doing right now will destroy you. Probably all of us.” Torek stepped back as the Defenders realigned themselves, and encircled the Ketuans with their massive bodies.
Edrish’s light, that objective clarifying influence, evaporated.
The Ketuans and Sedumans pressed into a dense cluster on the road, while all around was space. Hills, open fields and sky. Torek took several more steps back, and stumbled over his own feet. Or maybe it was fear he was stumbling over. Tarvis and Edrish pulsed with the same uncertainty. But Hedric. Despite the tears on her face, that little witch was the most calm and tranquil person.
A cacophony erupted from the Sedumans. A stream of precise staccatoed sounds ricocheted from their prey, the wagons. The air itself seemed to amplify with the jagged words.
Torek’s insides shook. He struggled between wanting to run, and wanting to dig a hole in the roadside, into which he could escape. And then the other sound emerged. A song. A steady cadence of rhythmic force. Energy zinged through the air, and resonated in Torek’s own body. Blinking, he studied the combat of words, and then listened to the song the Ketuans wove.
My body is the earth,
my blood, the water.
My spirit lives in Svarasa,
I am true, I am Tarska.
These demons disguised
seek to harm and to take.
In our midst, Parakya we name.
To the earth, bind them,
strip their flesh of power.
To the earth, bind them.
Now begins the killing hour.
The Defenders faltered.
The Ketuans joined hands and spoke their song louder, cycling through the same words. Torek took up the chant, too. Tarvis and Edrish merged their voices with his, and finally, Hedric drew the words through her throat, over her tongue.
Just like that the Defenders crumpled to the ground and clutched their heads in their hands.
Kai nodded, and with heavy steps, methodical steps, he walked to one of the wagons, and returned with four massive bladder bags. Runes riddled their cured surfaces. One by one, he slipped the bags over the heads of the Defenders. The leather slid down their bodies and gathered in folds at their feet. He tipped them over and cinched the bags closed with a leather cord woven through the opening. Only when the last Seduman body was imprisoned did the Ketuans cease the chant.
Torek and his companions quieted, and waited for the Sedumans to erupt from the bags, cursing and shouting the spells that would inflict long and torturous deaths. Instead, the whispers of birds slowly reemerged, and articulated the quiet with euphony.
Kai and his countrymen had gathered around their fallen. They rearranged his body into a semblance of a human, rather than that of a discarded doll. Someone had retrieved a rag and some fresh clothes. These all in black. They stripped the urine-soaked clothes from the man’s body, cleaned and dressed him in the fresh garments. Once they enshrouded his body with a sheet, they began chanting a new song in a language so ancient Torek could only decipher a sense of what they were conveying. Eagle spirit dwelling in Svarasa.
After the body was transferred to one of the wagons, after the men had bowed their heads together, touching each forehead with their own, after all that Kai acknowledged Torek.
He scanned Torek, pausing at his eyebrows and ears, and wandering back to his eyes. Kai leaned toward Torek and said, “I know you even though I’ve never seen you before in all my days.”
Torek smiled weakly and held out his hand. It shook.
Kai grasped it in his own dry, steady grip.
“I’ve been haunting your dreams.”
“That was you?”
Kai scowled. “You think just because you can, you should? Have you no respect for a person’s privacy?” He stabbed a finger at Torek. “A mind is no plaything. Didn’t your mother teach you that?”
The slow creak of wagons approaching startled them. Philan came into view. He had connected the wagons to form a single-driver train.
“Where’s Nymos?” Torek asked.
“Gone,” Hedric said. “Hopefully.”
Philan hobbled down from the wagon while it was still in motion and went straight to Kai. He placed his fingertips to the opposite shoulder, and bowed his head as unwound his arms and held his hands palms up before Kai, like an offering. Kai did the same, and placed his hands beneath Philan’s. Tears wet Philan’s face. Kai held his sobbing friend tightly.
The large Ketuan dressed in fine clothes emerged from behind the wagons. “We’re leaving this place. We can still make Azure Stables by nightfall.”
“Have you been there all this time?” Torek asked.
The man frowned.
“Hiding?” Torek asked.
“We are alive because of me,” the man said.
Torek looked from him to Kai, who was struggling to keep his lip uncurled and his attention focused on Philan.
“Who the Grove are you?”
“Dorin! That’s who I am, boy! And you’d best remember it. You there. Philan. Your people take up the rear. I’m in the lead wagon. Everyone follows me.”
Dorin snapped his fingers and waved the other Ketuans into motion. They slowly gathered themselves into their wagons, and left the bagged bodies on the road.
Torek turned to Philan and Kai. “What about them?” He nodded at the four shapes in the road.
“They will be left,” Kai said.
Kai shook his head once. “Their fields have been decimated.”
Torek frowned at the phrase.
“They are impotent. They no longer have power.”
“He runs the caravan to Ketu,” Kai said, his hand still gripping Philan’s.
Tarvis laughed. “That man couldna run a fish ta the river.” He and Edrish went to the wagons and undid Philan’s handiwork, readied them for the journey to Azure Stables. “Why is he running the trade?” Philan asked.
Kai shook his head and said, “I’ll explain after we reach the town. I have the distinct feeling we all have tales to tell this evening.” He gazed at Philan and squeezed his hand before returning to his wagon.
Nymos appeared on the road. She had woven a bolt of fabric around her throat, as if she was cold. The dark clothe made her skin seem unnaturally pale. Her eyes were wide as her gaze darted about the scene, taking in each detail.
Hedric glared at the woman, but said nothing.
Once the wagons were ready, they followed the south road, behind Dorin’s caravan, to the Azure Stables. And one step closer to Ketu, Torek thought. His stomach heaved, like a boat in stormy water. The sacks of bodies moaned as he passed them.
They arrived in the town near sundown. The horses were taken to the stables, and the wagons were secured. Normally the routine was comforting.
Torek stumbled into the Dragon’s Breath Inn after the strangers who’d invaded his life. But maybe they hadn’t invaded it. Maybe they were invited into it by the Cuff of Consequence. Philan sat near Kai, and kept looking at him, touching him. There was something different about the relationship between the two. It was something he had not seen before and for the simple reason of that lack of exposure, their affection seemed strange.
They talked as they ate. Philan explained how Torek and the rest had found Kai, and knew of trouble.
“A vision?” Kai asked Torek.
Torek looked at Hedric, but the little snake pretended not to notice. “Sort of,” he said.
“Quite spectacular,” Kai murmured.
Hedric smiled crookedly. “Not really.” Then she stuffed a baked baby potato into her mouth.
Kai leaned forward, elbows on the table and brown eyes glittering. “You were born with magic?”
Hedric nodded as she chewed.
“And you.” Kai stated it, already certain Torek had magic vibrating at his nerve endings.
He sighed. “No.”
Kai frowned. “How else did you find me if not with magic? .”
“No magic was involved.”
“Bah.” Kai’s lips soured and he waved his hand. “You must have studied then?”
“No,” he said.
“But you connected with my thoughts? How could you do that if not with magic?”
“That’s not magic. It’s just not something everyone can do.”
“Do explain.” Hedric smiled broadly.
“Why do you even care about this?” Torek asked. “It’s not important.”
“Don’t be such a snot,” Hedric said, rolling her eyes.
Edrish held his gaze, a challenge dancing in his eyes.
Torek steeled himself for what he was certain was coming next. Some snide comment about how he shouldn’t be on solid foods, about how babies only drank mother’s milk.
“Perhaps he doesn’t know,” was all the enigmatic man said.
“Yes I do.” Torek grimaced at hearing the childish ring in his own words.
“Well?” Kai asked.
Torek closed his eyes.
“Go on,” Hedric said, smiling faintly.
“Fine. We are all part of this… let’s call it a stream. Our thoughts and actions give off energy. We each have a peculiar signature in this purified space.”
“Where is this stream? Is it water? How can you be sure?” A mischievous glint lit her tired green eyes.
“It’s just a way of understanding how things work,” he snapped. “We don’t have words for everything we experience. It’s something you cannot perceive because you were not built to. I am built that way, so I can.”
Nymos, who had been silent up to now, glared at him. “Something that’s not magic but looks, sounds and behaves like magic.”
“Look at my eyes,” Torek said. “They’re not like yours, are they?” Everyone agreed without hesitation. “They not only appear different, but they see differently, too. The shape of my eyes, the things inside them, the way the dark part consumes the whole eyeball and the shape of my pupils are all things that help elves see in the dark and detect more subtle things. Like fear, anger, aggression, fatigue.”
“So, you see this stream?” Kai asked.
“No. It’s not really seeing it. That’s one way to understand the experience, but it’s not accurate.”
Kai tapped his finger on the top of Philan’s hand as he thought. “Experience. Like a sensation? Or maybe a way of thinking? Your mind is like your eyes? Is that what you’re saying?”
Torek blinked at Kai. He was pretty damned smart for a Ketuan. Pretty remarkable all around. “Exactly,” Torek said. “If I know someone’s name and something of what they look like, these things act like coordinates to the person and I can connect with them mentally. But the question of the night is why were Seduman Defenders after you? And how in the Grove did you do what you did?”
“Those devils.” Kai said, as if he knew what Seduma was.
“Aye,” Tarvis said.
“I don’t know the why of it. Just that Oten was tracking us the same way as you were, young Guardian.”
“I’m not a Guardian,” Torek said as his insides churned at the word at the same time as he wondered how Kai knew it at all.
Philan shook his head. “It’s over, you’re safe. The only question worth anything is why is Dorin leading? It’s your run.”
“I’ve decided to become a mainlander,” Kai said.
“But Tarska is your home.”
“It was my home. These twenty years of travel and trade, going to places I never dreamed existed—there is more to the world. And I want to see it before I pass.”
“What is Tarska?” Nymos asked.
Kai swiped his mouth after taking a big gulp of wine. “Tarska is what you call Ketu. Not common knowledge. I admit it.”
“What made you come out of Ketu?” she asked.
“An infestation destroyed our crops and all our seed stocks one year many years ago. Hunting grew scarce and folk became sick. We had to trade to survive.”
“The Sedumans called it the Hell of Sticks and Stones,” Nymos said, her voice distant and absent.
Kai smiled. “That’s…interesting. In any case,” he patted Philan’s hand, “they consider me an outsider now. Because of all this. I’d rather soak up the rest of the world while there’s still time. I want to die saturated with it.” He turned to Philan. “Are you planning on doing the run?”
Philan frowned at his plate. “Unfortunately my dear, I have to—I already bought for it. What about your home?”
He shrugged. “What about it?”
Philan’s mouth gaped open. “Your possessions, your – your collection. What about your land?”
While they were jabbering about pointless things, a dragon paced in Torek’s gut. His head throbbed. Murin. Ketu. Tarska.
“I have everything I need.” Kai smiled. “When you return, we can travel together.”
“Are you sure you aren’t returning?” Philan asked.
Dorin ambled up to the table just then. “I need traders. You folks could get some decent business if you’re willing.”
Hedric, nodded with regal authority and certitude. The others mimicked her as if the vision had been their own. When Torek remained still, Philan narrowed his gaze at him. “Isn’t this exactly what you were looking for. A late season run.”
Torek said nothing.
“Please. Trading is the least important aspect of all this,” Hedric said as she tapped the table. “Have you forgotten my vision, Torek?”
“Kai was the important part of it.”
“Philan, you are fantastically self-centered. We go into Ketu, and the vision goes blank. That is the important part of it.”
Torek stared without seeing, spoke without feeling the words, or even believing in them. “Philan’s right. Saving Kai’s life was the most important thing.
Edrish laughed, elbowed Tarvis and said something to the giant quietly. They laughed, heads thrown back. The sound reverberated off the ceiling.
Philan frowned. “But I thought you needed business?”
Hedric thumped her mug against the table. When he didn’t look at her, she pounded the table with her fists. “Torek, need I remind you of the vision? We all go to Ketu.”
“Oh, no you don’t. I have your reading burned into my mind.”
Kai tsked. “Young man, visions are nothing to evade. The Vizva—the Universe, that is—knows.”
Torek signaled the barkeep for a shot of Dragon’s Breath.
Giving a little growl of frustration, Hedric leaned across the table and wiggled her fingers. “Give me your hand.”
Torek snatched his hands off the table. Edrish and Tarvis looked at each other. Amusement shook their bodies. When the barkeep arrived with the drink, Torek downed the caustic liquid in one gulp.
“Shouldn’t ye be drinking milk?” Tarvis asked.
“That is what nourishes babes to grow into strong healthy men,” Edrish said, nodding at Tarvis.
Torek’s face felt like a furnace. “You two should be more original.”
“The sun has set, and the stars are in view.” Edrish waved his hands around his head. “Surely this is an hour for men and women. And not young fledgings, such as Torek.”
“Most certainly. Tis late for a little guy like ’im to be up.” Tarvis followed up with another verbal punch. “Ye should coorie doon with your ma, wee one.”
Torek clenched his fists and glared at the two men. “Are you calling me a child?”
“No,” they said at the same time.
Edrish smiled. “Babes become prickly at this hour. Their red faces and squirming.”
And that was just the start of their poking and prodding.
Finally Torek burst from his chair. “Enough. I’ve had enough,” he shouted at them. There was a rational part of him buried behind the reactive part of him. It observed the mistake he was making as if watching from beneath the clear ice of a frozen lake. Trapped and incapable of action. His fiery emotions were in full control of his mouth when he said, “An ocean and an army of mages couldn’t keep me away from Ketu.” He punctuated his words with the jab of his fingers and stomped out of the Inn.
What a mistake that had been. He knew it the moment his wagon had rolled onto the land bridge, when he heard the air whisper her name.