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Soulblade: Chapter 23

THE NEXT TWO DAYS ARE a blur of exhaustion and a sense of loss. Although I know in my heart that Nem should be fine so long as she remembers how to negotiate with Zandar, there is still so much unknown in her future. Who will be at Rahimar to advise her and to continue her Nishan training? She will not dare to approach Khotann while the dragon is so enormous and over-excited. Not only because of the potential death toll, but the unknown effect on Zandar if he discovers he has accidently broken his pledge.

And I miss them both. I miss Nem’s acerbic comments, her solid reliability, her unswerving courage and loyalty at my side in battle. I keep telling myself that this is the best outcome we could have hoped for. Now Zandar has an Annubian rider he will be free to complete the binding and create the first truly paired Guardians of their land since the time of Nissanda. But his departure, his permanent departure, leaves an empty space inside me. I’m sure we will meet again, but I know our relationship can never be the same as it has been.

Deris draws his mount close to mine, watching over me as he always does when Marin is not around.

“Ariel? Are you all right?”

As if I could be anything but distraught with everything that is happening. I glance back at Marin. He is riding alone and unsupported now but I can tell that his life is fading just as mine is. Deris, on the other hand, has fully recovered, as I always have done after a healing. As soon as his strength returned yesterday he had tried to heal me, but the stab of fire running through my veins was enough to tell me that whatever poison I inherited from that place of death, Elemental power is not going to help.

And now we have lost Nem and Zandar…

“Let them go, Ariel. Don’t ruin a glorious past by clinging to it.”

“Deris, you always seem to know what I’m thinking.”

He looks concerned. “I swear I am not using my gift on you. It’s not difficult to know that the departure of a trusted comrade in arms and your paired Elemental has affected all of us, even though it is for the best. Nem’s half-sister is going to need all the help she can get to restore her country to its former glory.”

I hastily try to change the subject, not wanting my weary and disillusioned state of mind to spread around the others.

“I didn’t mean I thought you were spying on me.” I dip my head at Dragar, who is riding well ahead of us today. “What is it with you and Dragar? He suddenly stopped making offensive comments and now he’s desperately trying to avoid you at every opportunity. Seems I might have missed quite a few developments while I was officially dead. What happened in that fight on the temple steps? I saw Dragar flat on the ground and out cold the first time I came outside. Did you demonstrate your superior fight-skills on him and knock him out?”

Deris breaks into a wry smile. “Quite the opposite, actually. The cut on Dragar’s shoulder slowed him down enough for one of those hideous monsters to catch him a glancing blow on the head with a mace. We stood over his body for a few minutes, fighting off the horde before they could finish him––until it was obvious to me that we weren’t going to hold out without his help. So I healed him.”

“And he doesn’t know how to deal with that?”

“He really does not. He was quick to get back on his feet and start fighting again––but as soon as the immediate crisis was over the whole episode has left him feeling awkward. Diminished, somehow.”

“Penalty of living for so many years in a world of his own arrogance I suppose. But what about the consequences? That was the first time either you or Marin have risked healing someone in case you pass on Blade adept strength. I dread to think what effect that might have on someone like Dragar if our worst fears come true.”

Deris’ smile fades. Green Elf-eyes narrow and I catch one of those rare but unnerving glimpses of the fierce side of the Fae. The reason so many people are fearful of them.

“It was the only way to survive at the time. We would all be dead if I had not done it. Since then, Brac and I have been watching him. If he does go that way, it will not be long before someone with his aggressive temperament provokes a confrontation––and Marin has not demanded that he returns his father’s sword. That way we can put him down in a fair fight.”

“You already warned Marin?”

“Yes. And now I’m warning you.”

“If Marin and I don’t shake off whatever poison we’ve inherited from the dead-realms, neither of us are going to be much help if it comes to a fight. And without Nem and Zandar…”

His voice is steady. “That is why Brac and I are watching him so closely. We had already worked that out.”

THE REASON DRAGAR HAD given for staying in the lead is so that he can guide us on a different route back north. The ancient track is still passable, running almost straight and level, between the mountains and the route we followed on the way here. Dragar’s reasoning is that with our diminished strength we will be safer following the line of damage Zandar caused while flying this line on the way in.

So far, his logic seems justified. We pass patches of the fire-drake’s legacy in the form of burned-out areas of forest, no more than stands of blackened tree trunks pointing at the sky like charred fingers. And we meet no people anywhere. If there were either nomads or bandits in this wild area, it seems that the flying firestorm has been enough to scare them into hastily relocating elsewhere.

By the afternoon of the third day, I am starting to feel sure that neither Marin nor I are going to make it back to Samaran alive. I am even too tired to feel sad about it.

Deris is riding beside me as usual, watching over me while Brac makes sure that Marin does not relapse into unconsciousness. Dragar is ahead, leading the way.

In spite of the clinging mist of exhaustion, I notice when Deris stops for a third time, checking the position of the sun and the state of the trail.

“Deris, what’s wrong?”

He looks back to check with the two behind us and waits for Brac’s confirmation.

“You were right, Deris. Now you’ve pointed it out, I can see t’ deviation as well.”

Deris frowns as he looks back to me. “If you and Marin were not half-dead with this wraith-poison or whatever it is, you would have seen it too. Dragar has turned left several times since leaving the line of the ancient highway two hours ago. If my calculations are correct, he is either leading us on a wide loop to avoid something, or he’s taking us somewhere that lies to the west of the main trail and he’s trying to disguise the way he keeps bearing left.”

“A trap?”

“Could be. We can’t trust him, especially if he might have Blade adept power growing in him now.”

Trying to focus through the sickly haze in my mind and body is hard work, but I sense that my memory is fairly sound.

“All I noticed in my own experience was power-lust, full of anger or resentment. It did make me feel sharper, better at analysis and calculation, but it was always the strong emotions and reactions that drove me. I can’t ever remember being pushed into long and complicated strategies.”

Deris is silent for a few moments. “Yes… It has been the same with me. A constant struggle to control the anger and also to hold back from grabbing more power from Maratic. It is less painful now we are further from the source.”

“So… Dragar may not be deviating deliberately?”

“Maybe. But there is still risk of treachery.”

“Look, Marin and I can watch out for each other for the next hour or so. I don’t think either of us is about to pass out and fall off if we keep checking on each other. Take Brac as backup and go ride with Dragar for a while, see if you can find out what he’s up to.”

“If you’re sure…”

“I’m sure.”

Deris signals Brac and they spur their horses forward.

Marin moves up to ride at my side.

“We may not be able to fight, but keep your bow ready.”

I’m still amazed at the way he seems able to stay alert in spite of the poison in him. I manage to follow his lead as we close the gap between ourselves and the three in front, wondering if I even have the strength to draw a bow.

It is only a few minutes later when we come around a bend in the trail to find a heated debate has broken out between Elf-warrior and defeated army commander. Dragar’s face is livid with anger.

“So the arrogant Fae think they know better than a Rapathian in his own country? The main trail is right in front of you!”

Deris is keeping his calm. So far, at least.

“The most recently used trail, yes. But the ancient highway ran straight and true, parallel to the mountains until you started turning away from it a couple of hours back, instead of following the overgrown remains of the old way. I simply asked you what this loop is avoiding.”

“I am avoiding nothing! I told you, I have only been down this way a few times in pursuit of bandits, but my memory of the way is perfect.”

Marin interrupts before Dragar can work himself into an even worse temper. “General, let Deris lead for a while. See if there are in fact any differences in the best route. Then you can make your comments and test his theory.”

Dragar reins in with a bad grace, drawing his horse aside to let Deris ride in front.

“If you end up in the middle of a swamp, don’t expect me to pull you out!”

No one has mentioned our suspicions of treachery.

Deris turns his mount onto the right-hand fork. The overgrown track is narrow and appears to run parallel to the ancient highway we originally started following out of Duhokan. This new direction does not last long. After a few hundred paces Deris dismounts, frowning as he examines the faint marks and patterns on the ground.

Dragar spurs his horse past the kneeling warrior with a grunt of exasperation.

“Lost already! Why doesn’t that surprise me––”

Then he gives a choking cough and topples from his mount to lie unmoving in the mud.


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