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Short Story: The Demon of Skrandiskali

António stopped, out of breath, and took in great gulps of air.

“You know,” he said between gasps, pulling off his hood. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear you’re excited about seeing your people again.”

Chaakha grunted. “It’s been a while.”

In truth, it had been almost five years since Chaakha had seen his Bhakul family and their people. He’d left to seek adventure after meeting António, and for a while, the adventures on the road had been enough. But it was nearing the fifth anniversary of his mate’s death, and with that knowledge had come an overwhelming desire to see his mentor again and to visit Megaa’s grave.

“You still miss her.”

Chaakha looked up toward the mountain’s summit, always covered with snow, and nodded.

“And your mentor?”

Chaakha smiled. “Yes, Muuzga, too.”

“Tell me about Muuzga again while we climb,” António said, wiping his brow and brushing his shoulder length dark hair back from his face. He replaced his hood.

Chaakha sniffed the air. “Maybe another time. I smell venison cooking, and it’s not very far off.”

António sniffed the air, but he didn’t smell anything. That wasn’t unusual, though. Chaakha, being a man with an almost supernatural sense of smell, surely smelled something, and he’d go along, knowing there would be food cooking at the end of their trek.

They started out again, Chaakha in the lead.

“Slow down, man,” António gasped, plowing through the snow in a futile attempt at keeping up.

Chaakha slowed, but continued moving toward the odors only he could smell.

Chaakha was what we would call a Sasquatch here on Earth. Covered in white fur, having an athletic build and a height of seven and a half feet tall, he was a formidable sight to any who knew nothing of the Bhakul, but António knew Chaakha well and knew that under that apelike exterior was a man worth getting to know.

Which was why he’d invited Chaakha on his search for adventure. When they’d first met, António had already been adventuring for a couple of years on his own. António’s first sight of Chaakha in all his ferocious glory had struck fear into his very heart, but the Bhakul guardian had shown interest in him, rather than hatred and violence. It had taken António a while to learn Chaakha’s language, and for Chaakha to learn his, but now they barely even needed words to communicate, so well had they come to know each other. And in many ways, they thought alike, which, at times, rendered the spoken word useless.

Chaakha stopped suddenly, and António plowed into him.

The Bhakul kept his footing and barely noticed.

He sniffed the air again and pointed forward and a little to the right. “That way,” he said, and began moving again.

António lost track of time as he resorted to counting his footsteps, and was startled when Chaakha again stopped. This time, though, he didn’t run into him.

He looked up and saw a sign at a fork in an invisible snow-covered road.

“Nalanda or Urugama?” António asked, as Chaakha hadn’t quite decided whether he wanted to learn to read and write.

Chaakha pointed toward the left.

“Nalanda it is,” António said, and the pair moved off.

It didn’t take long for the village to come into sight. The roofs of the huts had been cleared and paths made throughout so the people could move around.

As they neared the tavern the delicious smells were coming from—smells that António could now smell, too—the sound of voices met them.

“Sounds like a town hall meeting,” António said. “Maybe we should wait.”

Chaakha ignored him as he marched up to the door and pushed his way in.

All eyes turned toward the tall furry man. The silence was deafening.

Finally, a man approached. He was tall for a human, but still much shorter than Chaakha.

Chaakha signed that he would like some food and water.

The man shook his head. “Sorry, we don’t serve your kind here.”

António stepped in through the door, and having caught the man’s words, moved in between Chaakha and the man, knowing what would come next if he didn’t stop it now.

“You want to explain yourself?” he asked calmly.

“We don’t serve the Bhakul in this here establishment. It’s my right to refuse service, and I’m doing so now.”

“What cause have you to let a man go hungry who would pay you well for a fine meal?”

“I’ve got my reasons, which you should know if you’re from anywhere on this mountain.”

“We’ve been traveling. Explain what you mean before my friend here gets angry.”

The man eyed António, then Chaakha. He shook his head. “Not until he leaves.”

António opened his mouth to speak, but Chaakha laid a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay. I’ll be right outside.”

Once Chaakha left, Antonio took a seat at a nearby table and waited for the man’s explanation.

The man jerked his chin toward the door. “You taught that monster to speak our language?” he growled, then continued. “His kind have been taking our people.”

“He’s not a monster, and…taking,” António repeated, “you mean, like, abducting them?”

The man nodded. “We know it because we often find their footprints in the snow.”

“It can’t be them. I know these people. They’d never do this.”

“They have done it,” the man stated emphatically, tapping his finger on the table with each word. “There’s no one else with footprints like that.”

“Could be a coincidence,” António said, glancing around at the other people standing around him.

“No, no coincidence. Their kind are not allowed in here anymore, and the next time I see one, I’m gonna shoot it. In fact, there are several archers in the village who would join me.”

“How many people have gone missing?” António asked.

The man didn’t have a chance to answer as another man barreled through the front door, attracting the attention of everyone in the room. He was out of breath and he wore a look of terror on his dirty face.

“They’ve taken Anil!” the man cried. “They’ve taken my boy!”

“Where were you when this happened?” António asked.

The man looked at him with haunted eyes. “Up near the cave about a stone’s throw from here.”

“I’ll get him back,” António said.

The man stopped. “You can do that?”

“Sure, I can. I’ll find him and bring him back safe and sound.”

“What do you want for repayment?” the first man asked with a sneer.

“Nothing. I just don’t like to see kids go missing.”

“I’ve got some money in the back you can have if you’re successful,” the man behind the bar said loudly.

Murmurs rose from the crowd around him, people lending voice to what they had to give, were he to succeed in finding the boy, Anil.

António raised his hands. “I haven’t found him yet. I’m not asking for payment. If you want to pay me, feel free to gather it up and I’ll get it when I deliver the boy safe and sound. But you’ll all have to tell me more about what’s going on here so I have an idea of what I’m getting into.

For half an hour, the people told António what they could. He had a pretty good idea of where the boy had been taken. He’d visited that cave before, and that was the first place he planned to search.

“My boy, he’s got hair so light it’s almost white,” Anil’s father said. “His eyes are like that too, so light blue that they almost look white, just’ like ‘is mama. If you see him, you’ll know him by this.”

António nodded, recognizing that everyone around him had black hair and dark eyes. “Indeed, I will.”

The people described their loved ones who had been lost up on the mountain, but António couldn’t remember them all. “Wait,” he said. “You’ll have to write them down. I can’t keep them all straight going on just word of mouth.”

The people assembled a list, complete with names and brief descriptions of their lost family members or friends.

Finally, António had the list in hand, and he tucked it into a pocket inside his cloak.

The man came out from behind the bar and approached, handed a parcel to him. “Food and water for your journey…for you and your friend.”

“Thank you,” António said. “We’ll bring them back safe.”

“I don’t doubt you’ll try,” the man said. He looked out the window, beyond which the steep slope of the mountain could be seen rising into the sky. “But there’s evil up there, and I don’t know if anyone can defeat it.”

António extended a hand, and the man took it with a firm grip.

“Be that as it may, I’ll do my best. At the very least, I plan to evade what’s up there and sneak them out and bring them home.”

“Good luck,” the man said, moving back toward the bar.

Moments later, António stepped out into the sunlight of the cold winter’s day. He found Chaakha standing nearby watching some horses in a corral by a large barn.

“We’ve got a job,” António said upon approaching his friend.

“Oh?” Chaakha asked without looking at him.

“Apparently, a bunch of people from this village have been abducted over the past few months. The latest is a young boy. We’re going to get them back.”

“You would help these people?”

“Yup. We’re all deserving of freedom and to make our own way in life, even the evilest among us, but I’ll be damned if I let kids be taken and evil things happen to them because I decided it would be easier to ignore the problem.”

Chaakha looked at him then. “Well…since you put it that way…” He handed António a pair of snow shoes and grinned. “So you can keep up.”

António laughed. “Now, why didn’t I think of this a long time ago?”

António pulled a flask out of the parcel given him and handed it to Chaakha. “Water.

Chaakha took it and drank deeply. When he pulled it away, his furry face was surprisingly dry. “When do we leave?”

“Whenever you’re ready. I’ve got food, too. We can eat some on the way.”

“If there’s venison in there, I’ll take that. And I’m ready whenever you are.”

António rifled around in the parcel and pulled out some jerky. I don’t know if it’s venison, but will this do?”

Chaakha took it from him and bit into it. “It’ll do.”

António took out a few more strips and handed them to Chaakha before putting the parcel into his other bag. He put on the snowshoes and walked around in them a little bit and nodded. “They’ll work.”

Then they set out.

On the way, António told Chaakha about his conversation with the people of Nalanda.

“They really believe your people are behind the abductions. I guess they’ve been told for so long that your people are evil that they now believe it without hesitation.”

“Then why do this for them?”

António grinned. “It’s a way for me to get in good with your people.” He grew more serious and continued as they trudged through the snow toward the distant cave. “I plan to prove they had nothing to do with these abductions. If the Bhakul are proved innocent, maybe steps can be made toward improving relations between them and the other people on the mountain.”

“It will take more than rescuing one kid to get the results for which you seek,” Chaakha said.

“It’s a start, and at this point, it’s all I can ask for. The kid has hair and eyes so light they’re almost white. If we see him, we’ll recognize him. I’ve also got a list of names with descriptions. I’ve looked at it and memorized everything.”

When António didn’t continue, Chaakha got the sneaking suspicion there was more to this than his friend had mentioned.

“What are you not telling me?” he asked.

“One man said something that’s got me on edge,” António said, stopping to look further up the mountain.

“What did he say?”

“He said there’s evil up there. He didn’t know if anyone could defeat it.”

“A physical being? A demon?”

António shook his head. “He didn’t say. He just said evil’s up there, but I’m wondering if it’s a demon, or a wraith, or something more malevolent.”

“Do you have your healing oil?” Chaakha asked.

António stopped and set his bag down. He knelt and went through it. He pulled out a small leathern sack and opened it. A frown came to his face and he tossed the sack aside. “Broken. We’d better be especially careful. Without it, we have little protection, save our weapons.”

“Think they’d have any back in Nalanda?”

“Doubtful. We’ll just have to make do without it. That kid, and all the others, are depending on us. The longer it takes us to get there, the better the chance they’ll die or worse.”

Again, he hefted his bag onto his back and moved forward, Chaakha slowing a bit to follow, since António was the one who knew where they were going. Soon, the cave came into sight.

As they neared, António caught a slight movement in the trees near the cave’s entrance. He studied the spot and suddenly saw eyes peering out at him.

He waved. “Hello! Can you help us?”

The branches closed quickly, the eyes disappearing.

“What is it?” Chaakha asked.

“Someone’s in the woods. They were watching us.”

He headed that way and Chaakha followed as he gently pushed his way through the trees. He went past several trees before a small hut shimmered into view, having previously appeared to be more forest. It was quite a bit warmer and no snow lay anywhere here. There was a clearing of about fifteen feet around the hut, and a young woman sat in a chair beside a small table, watching them.

At first glance, she appeared to be an ordinary forest elf, but upon closer inspection, António could see that there was something different about her. She appeared to be connected to the nature around her by a nearly invisible web.

“You’re a witch,” he said.

She nodded. “You are an adventurer.” She looked to Chaakha then. “And you are his Bhakul companion.”

The men looked at each other, then approached slowly.

“We’re here on a mission. A boy was taken recently, and we’ve been sent to find him and others taken before. Have you seen anything?”

“You don’t want to go into the cave,” she said, her voice trembling slightly. “There is a great demonic presence inside.”

“We must. Their lives could depend on it.”

She shook her head. “Stay away, or you will be his next victim.”

“Whose victim? Can you tell us about him?”

She sniffed the air and rose from her seat. She went into the hut, and when she came back, she had a small clay vessel in her hand. She thrust the vessel toward António. “Take this twice per day. It will protect you from him.”

He looked down at the bottle. “What is it?”

“Healing oil, with something extra. I use it, too.”

“Is that how you can live so close to the cave’s opening?”

She nodded. “If he can’t sense me, I’m safe.”

“What’s in it?” António asked, uncorking it and giving the contents a sniff. It smelled almost exactly like his healing oil, but there was a slight difference. “I smell cinnamon and cloves.”

“Yes, also frankincense, myrrh, ginger, black pepper, and hemp oil.”

“And you say it will protect me. How?”

“It will mask your scent.”

“My scent?” he asked, confused.

“I can smell your power, and if I can smell it, he will, too. But that ointment doesn’t just heal, it protects.”

“My power? I have no magic.”

She shook her head. “Not magic. Mental power. I can smell it, and so will the demon, and he will want you for it.”

“What can you tell me about him?” António asked, feeling a need to learn everything she could tell him about what they’d be facing in the cave.

“There’s not much to tell. He is evil personified. He has one foot in our world and the other in Sheforat.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s hard to explain. Death enshrouds him, yet he walks the earth. Of Elvish descent, he has magic, but I know not what kind. I only know that he hungers greatly, and those he captures never leave the cave.”

António looked at the bottle again.

“You must take three drops of the oil under your tongue twice per day,” she said. “It will last you about nine days.”

“There’s something else in it,” he said, setting the diminutive bottle down on the table.

The witch nodded. “You must be careful. I have added Monk’s Blossom to the mixture. It is what masks my scent, and my presence, from him. You see, I have mental power, too, and were I to slack off even once in taking it, he would sense me, and I would suffer the same fate as his other captives. Take no more than three drops of the oil. Any more and you will have serious hallucinations and become aggressive. Your mental power will grow out of control, and you will begin to crave it. You will do anything to get more.”

“Should I be worried?”

“Not if you take it as prescribed. Take no more than three drops twice per day and you will be fine,” she answered. She held up a finger before he could speak. “Should you slack off even once, he will sense your power, and as he has an insatiable lust for power, he will try to find out what power you possess. I cannot stress this enough: do not miss even one dose.”

“I won’t.”

“Take some now, before you go inside.”

“I’ll take it before I find them. I don’t want to waste it. There’s always the chance I’ll get lost and not find them at all.”

She was about to protest when he spoke up again. “What’s your mental power, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I am clairvoyant. I see things that will happen.”

“Do you see how this will end for us?”

She shook her head. “I can’t summon it by will. It just happens when it’s supposed to happen.”

António slipped the bottle into a pouch at his waist, and an idea came to him. “Could you make me some healing oil? My bottle broke, and I have none now.”

“It will cost you,” she said.

“What would you like for it?”

She looked at the ring that hung from a cord around his neck. At some point during their trek, it had escaped his shirt and now hung in plain view.

She took it between her fingers. “Silver?”

“100%,” he answered. The ring had been a gift from Cláudia Lopes, an old lover, the only one he’d felt he could ever truly love. She’d been killed in battle going on seven years earlier. He hated to part with the ring, but he had nothing else worthy of trading.

“That’s my price,” she said. “I’ll take nothing less.”

He removed the cord from around his neck, kissed it with great sadness, and handed it to her. “I can’t thank you enough for this,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.

“Don’t thank me until you’ve escaped with your life and humanity intact. You want it without the Monk’s Blossom, I’m guessing?”

“Please. It’s for general use, for when I’m sick or injured. A blend of the same ingredients in your oil, minus the Monk’s Blossom, is what I’ve always used.”

She nodded and got up. She disappeared inside, and while she worked, António and Chaakha discussed what and who this “demon” might be. Antonio remembered an elf who had killed a dear friend’s young wife. The elf killed her with a sword through her torso, then he drained her of all her blood. He did this on the battlefield while his warriors battled Antonio and the army he’d served with for a brief time. But the man hadn’t been entirely elvish. There had been more to him. And he’d escaped with many of his army.

António shuddered. Surely, it couldn’t be the same elvish man!

The witch returned and set the bottle on the table in front of him. “I wish you good fortune during your rescue attempt. I will be watching all from inside.”

“You have a scrying mirror?” he asked, impressed. Scrying mirrors were rare in these parts.

“I do. And I will pray to the gods for your safe return.”

“And a successful mission, I hope,” António smiled.

She bent slightly in acquiescence. “Of course.”

“Thank you, again…what’s your name?” he asked, rather embarrassed he hadn’t asked already.

“Faeran. Faeran Stormshade.”

She held her hand out to him, and he took it. It was warm and soft, the fingers delicate, though holding a strength he could sense.

“I’m António Azevedo. I’m glad to meet you, Faeran Stormshade.” He glanced at Chaakha. “We both are.”

She extended her hand to Chaakha, as well, then she led them back the way they’d come.

“Don’t forget to take the protective oil before you go inside,” she warned. “I don’t know how far away he’ll be able to detect you, but it would serve you well to take it now.”

“We’ll be heading inside in a few minutes. I’ll take it then.”

“I sense your hesitation and understand it, but you must understand that this demon is unlike any you’ve faced before. Trust me when I tell you that you don’t want him to know about your power. He is known for unimaginable tortures, tortures that leave the body weak and the mind near death.”

António smiled grimly. “I promise, I’ll take it.”

She let out a sigh. She’d done what she could. The rest was up to him, and him alone.

She bowed slightly. “Good fortune to you both, then,” she said, then turned and disappeared into the forest.

Chaakha walked toward the cave and stopped, peering in. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he glanced back at António.

“You ready to do this?” he asked.

António thought about taking some of the oil Faeran had given him, but thought twice about it, deciding to wait. He might need it at some point, but he didn’t want to run out before that time came. He patted the sack at his waist that the bottle was in, squared his shoulders, and marched toward the cave.

“No time like the present,” he said, ducking in through the opening.

He stopped and stood still, giving his eyes a chance to adjust to his dim surroundings. Chaakha did the same, then they searched the cave for evidence that anyone had been there…and for entrances to tunnels beyond.

“Over here,” Chaakha said, just loud enough for António to hear him without alerting anyone who might be further inside the mountain.

António approached. “What have you found?”

Chaakha knelt and touched the ground, running a hairy finger through the dirt.

“Someone’s been through here. A large man, I would wager.”

“You don’t say,” António murmured, looking toward the back of the cave in the direction the footsteps led. He looked down at the ground again and saw a lot more footsteps, many layers of them, one atop one another, so many that they couldn’t get a good idea of how many had been inside the cave. “No telling how many came through here.”

“No, but I would say there were at least ten who came through here recently, and possibly twice that.”

“You think so?” António asked, rising to his feet.

“I know so, and there are bound to be a lot more than that in the tunnels.”

A grimace came unbidden to António’s handsome face. “We’ll just have to be careful, then.”

“Agreed.” Chaakha nodded, accustomed to situations that looked dire, such as this. António had proven himself wise and loyal many times, and the Bhakul had no problem trusting his friend now. “It looks like there is one opening at the back. Shall we have a look?”

António motioned for Chaakha to lead the way. “By all means…”

Chaakha stepped into the tunnel at the back of the cave, and António followed a few steps behind. The tunnel wasn’t lit, but they could feel their way along. They did so until they came to a fork.

“Which way?” Chaakha asked.

António made a wild guess, listening. There were faint voices off in the distance.

“Left,” he said.

They moved down the left leading tunnel and began to see light in the distance. It seemed dim, but they slowed their pace, not knowing its source.

They reached another fork. This time, Chaakha didn’t ask which direction to take. It was clear the voices came from straight ahead, and he moved onward.

A few minutes later, they came upon a large cavern with many giant stalactites and stalagmites, but also groups of people, most of whom appeared to be guarding the area. The place seemed to be lit with orange and red flames, magical in nature.

António moved close to the entrance and peered out toward a group of people being guarded. He studied them and spotted Anil, the boy he’d specifically promised to rescue.

“I need to get over there,” he whispered.

“How will you do it without getting caught?”

“I don’t know, but I have to try.” António studied the guards and their movements for a few minutes. He thought he saw a pattern, which could give him a path toward the group of prisoners. “Look,” he said, pointing. “There are openings in their movements. I can use the stalagmites for cover.”

Chaakha had studied the guards, as well. He nodded. “Agreed. What do you want me to do?”

“You’ll stick out like a sore thumb in the light of the fires. Wait here, and I’ll bring the kid to you. If anything happens to me, I’ll tell him to run toward you, and you can grab him and go.”

“You sure you want to do this?”

António nodded. “I gave my word. I can’t back out now.”

“I’ll be here,” Chaakha said, moving into a position that would hide him from the guards while still affording him a view of António’s path toward the prisoners.

António took a deep breath, then made ready to move toward the first stalagmite. A guard walked by it, then turned and headed back the way he’d come. António ran toward the stalagmite, his feet barely making a sound as he moved. He reached the stalagmite, then peered out at the guard, then at the one further on before running for the next stalagmite. In this way, he moved from stalagmite to stalagmite until he reached the group of prisoners.

He moved into the crowd and went straight to Anil.

“I’m here to take you home,” he said quietly as the boy looked up at him.

Other prisoners started to move away from the pair, afraid of what would happen to them when the guards found them harboring an intruder. Some began to murmur, and this attracted the guards, two of whom approached.

“Time to go,” António said, picking the boy up under an arm and running with him toward the tunnel where Chaakha awaited them.

He reached his friend and handed Anil to him, as Chaakha could move faster with the boy in tow, and they moved down the tunnel, away from the cavern.

Other guards had joined the first two, and they made pursuit, calling out for more to join them.

“Run!” António exclaimed. “Run!”

They ran down the tunnel, heedless of what might stand in their way. Several times, scraping up against the rough stone walls as they went.

They reached the last fork they’d come upon. More footsteps joined the previous ones, many of these coming from the two tunnels branching off from the main tunnel.

“Keep going!” António urged. “Don’t stop for anything!”

Chaakha kept going, and António did his best to keep up, but his friend’s legs were longer and more powerful, and he lost track of the Bhakul.

Soon, he reached the fork nearest the cave, but here, guards poured out of the tunnels to either side, some carrying torches.

António had no choice but to stop. He raised his hands above his head to show he was no threat, and surrendered.

For Chaakha’s part, the Bhakul carried the boy back to Nalanda, releasing him only when the tavern came into sight.

“Tell them of António’s plight…and that I helped you escape. Have no fear, he will not stop trying until they are free.”

The boy nodded, then ran off to the tavern.

Chaakha left the town without talking to anyone else. He needed help to rescue António and the prisoners, and he had to do it soon. The only people he knew could help him were his own people, but he doubted they would acquiesce. He’d been gone almost five years. They would likely no longer trust him. Still, he had to try for the sake of those held prisoner, including António.

He went to the calling place, the one place where the acoustics were such that his voice could be heard all over the mountain, from deep in the valley to the very peak high above him. He approached it, thinking about what he would say.

He found the spot, threw back his head, and made the call for help. To anyone else, it would sound like a mournful cry of a wounded animal, but his people would know exactly what it was and what it meant. All he had to do now was wait for someone to show up.

A short while later, to Chaakha’s surprise, his mentor arrived. Muuzga hunched slightly now, and much of his hair had grayed, but he looked well. Chaakha, overcome with gladness, ran to his mentor, and threw his arms around him.

Muuzga stepped back and studied him. “You have matured,” he said in the guttural language of the Bhakul.

“As have you, Mentor,” Chaakha said with a nod. “Life has treated you well, it would appear.”

“You as well! What brings you back to the mountain?”

“My friend, António, and I were returning so I could see you…and Megaa’s grave. I wish to pay my respects. It has been too long.”

“You should not have come back,” Muuzga said, shaking his head. “There is too much adversity between our people and the others upon the mountain. You will get caught in the middle.”

“That is part of why I am here now.”

A questioning look came into Muuzga’ s dark eyes, and Chaakha explained António’s predicament.

“He wishes to prove the Bhakul innocent. I have no doubt he will escape, but I need help when he does.”


“We have been told there is a demon inside. We’ll need to trap him there so he can’t take anyone else.”

Muuzga shook his head. “They will refuse to help. You know our people. They are stubborn. The people of Nalanda, along with all the rest, see us as monsters. That is something our people cannot seem to forget.” He tapped the side of his head. “They have a very long memory.”

“But you’re not like that. Prove it to them.”

“If it were up to me alone, I would not hesitate, but I have the chief and the rest of the council to consider. I can tell you now that they will never go for it.”

“Will you help me?”

Muuzga let out a short bark of laughter. “I am old. What can I do?”

“Where can I turn, Mentor? If I cannot depend on you, who can I depend on?”

“I am sorry. I wish it were different. Maybe the Barbegazi will help you.”

“But they are so…so…”


Chaakha nodded, surprised his mentor would even suggest them. He had never seen them. He had only heard stories. The Barbegazi people were even more reclusive than the Bhakul.

“The Gnomish peoples are diverse, but I have yet to meet any who lack courage and fortitude. Make your plight known to them, and I have no doubt they will have the courage and the determination to help, and the compassion for the prisoners that our people lack.”

“How do I contact them?”

Muuzga smiled. “They are already here. I will leave you to it. If indeed you do come for a visit, I will have food and water waiting for you and your friend. At least there is one home that will welcome you back, even if only for a brief time.”

Chaakha knelt on one knee before him, his head bowed low. “I thank you, Mentor. I have every intention of coming to visit. It may be a few days.”

“I will be waiting.”

Muuzga disappeared into the forest, and Chaakha stood to his feet. He turned around and found himself facing several fat little red cheeked men with hairy feet and long white beards.

Now to deal with the Barbegazi…

 The guards took António back to the cavern and put him in with the prisoners. He wasn’t sure how long he was there before they returned for him.

They led him toward a section of the cavern that had been built up with walls of stone. Inside, a man awaited him.

He halted at the door, recognizing that face, those dark eyes. The guard directly behind pushed him into the room, then the door closed behind him.

The man standing before António was the same evil bastard who had killed his friend’s young wife. He’d remember that face anywhere. The man had torn her asunder in the midst of battle, then laughed about it.

Allannia had been beautiful, young, and vibrant and full of life. Taeran Ravenbrook had loved her with all his heart. They hadn’t even been married half a year when the call to arms came. António hadn’t known them long. He’d known Taeran’s brother, Vandr, a bit longer, but they were both good men, not deserving of such torment.

The man standing before him, Haban Dakuri, was unusually tall for an elf, which told António he had something other than elfin blood in him. Part giant? Part angel? There were other possibilities, too, but he didn’t really care to think about it. He just had to answer the man’s questions, then escape.

If Dakuri didn’t kill him first.

Dakuri approached, stopped suddenly, and sniffed the air. He leaned in and sniffed António’s exhalation, then a smile came to his lips.

“You have mental abilities. They are strong.”

He handed him a glass of wine, but António held it without drinking. No way would he trust anything this murderer gave him to ingest.

Dakuri put a hand to António’s forehead. António felt Dakuri’s mind probing his. At first, it felt like a headache coming on, then it became like physical fingers reaching into his mind, searching. He resisted.

“Can you read minds? Predict the future? What can you do?” Dakuri asked.

António said nothing, preferring not to engage the monster in conversation. He couldn’t keep the hatred out of his eyes, and Dakuri stepped back to study him. “Your defenses are strong, but I will break you.”

“You can try.”

Dakuri’s eyes narrowed. “Have we met before?”

António didn’t respond as he stood staring into the man’s black eyes.

The man snapped his fingers. “We didn’t meet, but I saw you on the field of battle. You saw me kill her, that female warrior. Your name is…António Azevedo, isn’t it?”

António swallowed hard, but said nothing.

“It was war,” the man said. He took a drink from his glass…something that looked more like blood than red wine, giving António the chills knowing this man was bloodthirsty. “It was nothing personal.”

António’s anger got the better of him. “You didn’t have to do what you did to her, you bastard.” He threw the glass across the room. It hit the far wall and shattered, splashing red wine in all directions.

Dakuri smiled. “No, I didn’t. We had already won. I could have let her live, but I wanted to make a statement.”

“Yeah? What statement?” António spat, his hands clenched at his sides. It was taking all his willpower to keep from slugging the man in the face.

“Never take your women to the battlefield. It will not go well for them.” Dakuri sniffed António again. “Really, what is this power you have? I can’t place it, but I know it’s there.”

António sneered. “I will never tell you.”

Dakuri tsked, wagging his index finger at him. “Oh, you will if you want to live. Maybe I can use you in my organization. If you play your cards right, you could go places.”

“No thanks. I’d rather die than join up with the likes of you.”

“Regrettably for you, that can be arranged, but not until I figure out what power you have. And mark my words, I will find out.”

“I will resist to my death,” António said through a clenched jaw.

“I would expect nothing less.”

“Then we’ve come to an understanding. Do what you need to do, and I’ll do the same.”

Dakuri grinned. “Count on it.” He hit the door a couple of times and a pair of guards stepped in. “Take him to his room.”

“Room?” António began, but was shoved through the door before he could say anything more.

Chaakha made his best case to the Barbegazi present. It didn’t take much convincing, as they knew of the people living in the tunnels. One of their number had seen several come and go, always going in with a prisoner or two, always coming out without them.

“Nimrick,” Chaakha asked their leader. “Do you think you can persuade your people to help me?”

A twinkle came to the little man’s eye. “Oh, I don’t think they’ll need much ‘splainin’. One word o’ the missin’ boy ‘n they’ll be ready t’ join ye.”

“Your people are friends of my people, yes?”

“Ya,” Nimrick said with a big smile.

“So you can help prove the Bhakul had nothing to do with these abductions.”

“What we c’n do, we’ll do, but we don’t gen’r’lly make ourselves known to them.”

“Like my people. I understand.”

“I’ll tell ye what, if we c’me ‘cross any humans o’ interest, we’ll be sure t’ mention it somehow.”

“I would be grateful,” Chaakha said with a nod.

Nimrick stopped. “Ah, here we are.”

True to the little man’s words, as soon as mention was made of the prisoners and the capture of António, their would-be savior, the Barbegazi showed more than a passing interest in helping to retrieve them. In fact, they were downright eager to head out immediately.

Chaakha had other plans, and as they sat around the fire in their warm and spacious cavern, he took a stick and drew a picture of the cave. He drew the forest beside the entrance and drew a primitive picture of Faeran, the forest witch who had given António his healing protective oil, and then he drew a pile of rocks up over the cave’s entrance.

“We will need to find a way to move large rocks and boulders up onto that ledge,” he said, sitting back and eyeing the group. “We need to seal them in once António gets the prisoners out.”

Laknar, a young male, spoke up then. “How c’n ye be sure this António will escape?”

“I’ve seen him escape worse dangers than this,” Chaakha said, unoffended by the question. He knew his friend would escape. There was no doubt it his mind. He only had to convince these little men of the same.

“Ye really believe ‘t?” Nimrick asked, studying Chaakha closely.

“I do,” Chaakha said, meeting the little man’s eyes. “With everything that is in me, I do.”

Nimrick looked around at the Barbegazi around him. “What say ye? Do we do this? Do we help António ‘scape the clutches ‘f the demon in yonder mount?”

A chorus of “Yea” went around the group, and Nimrick gave Chaakha a huge, warm smile. “It looks like we’ll help ye. We jus’ need t’ c’me up with a plan.”

“We have a partial plan,” Chaakha reminded him, pointing to his drawing in the sand. “We just need to fill it in a bit.”

“Agreed,” Nimrick laughed. “But first, we need sustenance. Hafwen!” he called out. “We need food ‘n ale f’r all!”

Moments later, the Barbegazi women began serving them.

The guards walked António down a short tunnel, down another, and down part of another before stopping at a door. One guard stepped forward and unlocked the door and swung it open. The other shoved him into the room.

He turned to ask about the room, but the door slammed shut before he had a chance.

He turned back to study the room. Candles were lit on a table to one side of a bed, on an armoire on the far side of the room, and on a writing table along a third wall. A tall cheval mirror stood in one corner.

He sat down on the bed, unaccustomed to being held prisoner, and let out a sigh of discontent. The room was small, but comfortable. This fact didn’t make him feel any better about his predicament.

Emptying his pockets, he spotted the protective healing oil and finally took some…three drops under his tongue, as Faeran prescribed, then he set the bottle back on the table near the candle. He waited to see how he would feel. Several minutes later, he didn’t feel any different, but he knew it had to be working.

He lay down on the bed, intending just to rest, but he fell asleep. He didn’t know how much time had passed when he woke to a key in the lock of the door. He quickly stashed the oil under the mattress before standing up and meeting the guards.

“Time for another session with the boss,” one guard said. He had dark hair, slicked back with some kind of pungent oil that made António crinkle his nose in distaste.

They led him back to the room in which he’d previously spoken with Dakuri. This time, there was a meal set upon a table that hadn’t been there before, and Dakuri sat in a throne-like chair made of oak and upholstered with richly colored, patterned fabric.

Dakuri stood and waved António into the room. “Come in. I thought you might be hungry. Sit, make yourself at home.”

“Home?” António asked with a sneer.

“Soon, it will be your home,” Dakuri said with a smile that lacked any kind of warmth.

“Never. I will resist you to my death.”

“You cannot resist me. Many stronger than you have tried and failed, like your two guards.”

António said nothing as he continued glaring into Dakuri’s eyes.

“Oh, come, now. Try the food. I promise, it has not been poisoned nor drugged.”

“And I’m just supposed to take your word for it?”

“Okay, fine, have it your way,” Dakuri said. He called out, “guards!”

A moment later, the two guards who’d escorted António to the room entered and stood waiting for their master’s command.

“Bring one of the prisoners, an adult male. I don’t care which one, but he must be reasonably healthy.”

The guards turned on their heels and left, returning a few minutes later with a man in tow. They shoved the man toward the table.

“What is your name?” Dakuri asked him.

“Ganesh,” the man answered, his voice barely more than a whisper.

“Ganesh, are you hungry?”

Ganesh nodded, his eyes cast downward.

“Sit, eat,” Dakuri said, using a foot to slowly slide a chair out away from the table.

Ganesh sank onto it and hesitated.

Dakuri motioned toward the food. “Go ahead, help yourself.”

Ganesh began transferring meat and vegetables to a plate António hadn’t noticed sitting there before, then he began to eat. Antonio waited, barely breathing, for the man to get sick and keel over. The man ate everything on his plate, then took some wine Dakuri offered him. He drank down the wine and remained sitting, his eyes cast downward.

“How do you feel?” Dakuri asked.

“Fine, sir,” Ganesh answered.

“Nothing amiss?”

“No, nothing. Why?” Ganesh asked, finally lifting his eyes to Dakuri.

Dakuri shrugged. “António, here, was afraid I’d poisoned or drugged it, and I wanted to prove I did no such thing.”

Ganesh’s eyes grew wide.

“Don’t worry,” Dakuri said, rolling his eyes. “I have no reason to poison or drug the food or wine. If I wanted you all dead, you would already be dead.” He looked to António then. “Satisfied?”

António nodded, then looked at Ganesh. “Have the prisoners been fed?”

Ganesh looked to Dakuri, and at his captor’s nod, he replied. “Yes, we have all been fed.”

“All right, thank you, Ganesh.”

The guards approached the table and pulled Ganesh out of his chair and led him from the room.

“Go ahead and eat,” Dakuri said. “You will want to keep your strength up for what’s to come.”

António pushed his goblet away. “I’d prefer clean water.”

“All right,” Dakuri said, and he rose from his chair, went to his desk, and picked up a pitcher. From this, he poured water into a new goblet and handed it to António. “I would have taken you for a drinking man.”

Dakuri was right, but António didn’t tell him so. He just sat drinking his water as he studied Dakuri.

Dakuri set the pitcher beside the jug of wine, then took his seat opposite António. “Why don’t you just tell me what you can do with your mind? It would make things a lot easier on you. I will find out anyway, you know.”

“Not before I die, you won’t.”

Dakuri shrugged. “I’ll turn you before you have a chance to die. Whether or not I know which power you possess really won’t matter by then.”

“Turn me. What do you mean?”

Dakuri snapped his fingers and stood. “That’s right. You don’t know what I can do.” He leaned down, both palms flat on the table, his face inches from António’s. “Have you ever tasted blood, António Azevedo?”

“Where is this going?” António asked with mock impatience. “Because I’ve got better things to do with my time than make idle chit chat with a psychopath murderer.”

In the next moment, Dakuri put his hands on either side of António’s head and stared into his eyes. “You want to know where this is going? I will show you!”

Images started flashing across António’s line of vision. They were in his mind, only, but they seemed almost real. People, mostly men, fighting on a battlefield, many dying. One lay bleeding out on the ground. António felt himself lean down and touch the man’s wound, then touch his bloody fingers to his mouth. He could taste the iron tang of the blood, felt a hunger take hold that he couldn’t shake, then, suddenly, he fell on his knees and began drinking the blood that seeped from the wound. He felt it dribble down his chin and onto his bare chest. The more he drank, the more he craved it. When there was no more blood to be had, he sat up, threw back his head and roared…

And found himself back in the room with Dakuri, who’d pulled his hands away and now stared at them as if in shock.

“What…was that?” António asked, out of breath. He felt weak and nauseated, as if his stomach would rebel and throw up the food he’d just eaten. He swallowed hard as he stared up at Dakuri. “What kind of devil are you?

Dakuri smiled and held up a finger, slightly bent. “Only half devil, as happens. The man you see before you was not always this way. Many, many days have I hated what I’ve become. But now, I have begun to embrace what I am, as I can do nothing else, and I am looking for men to join me, men with the same passions that I have…or men who have that potential. You, I believe, have that potential. Oh, right now, you pride yourself on doing good among humanity and the other races of Illdirin, but I can give you everlasting life. All you have to do is agree to join me, to become like me.”

“And then what? I become a slave to a hunger I don’t want? Be banished to eternity in Sheforat? No thanks. I want no part in what you offer.”

Dakuri put his hands on António’s head again, but this time, António felt the familiar sensation of metaphysical fingers reaching into his mind, trying to peel back the layers that protected the most intimate parts of his memory and being. He tried to pull away, but Dakuri was too strong. António’s mental power was strong, however, and Dakuri couldn’t get very far, and he finally pulled his hands away.

“Nothing yet, but I will reach those deepest parts of your mind. I will find out what your power is.” Dakuri walked to the door and rapped on it twice, then turned back to António. “And when I do, no amount of protective oil will help you resist me.”

The guards entered the room, and Dakuri motioned toward António. “Return him to his room.”

They pulled António to his feet. He realized then that he was weaker than he’d been when he’d first arrived, and he could only conclude that it was because of Dakuri’s contacts with his mind. He was grateful for the healing oil Faeran had given him, but couldn’t help wondering if it would be enough to protect him.

The Barbegazi brought out two giant mammoths they used to help with big jobs. To these mammoths they attached wagons. They loaded the wagons with large rocks and boulders as they made their way toward the cave.

Once they arrived, they piled the debris above the mouth of the cave, using a strong chain link net strewn between the two mammoths. When the time was right, two young Barbegazi, Garth and Morys, would release the net, and the debris would roll off the edge of the cliff above and block the entrance to the cave. Hopefully, that would trap the demon indefinitely.

One of the Barbegazi females, Cranogwen, offered Chaakha some dried, smoked venison and he took it gratefully. Another brought him a cup of steaming herbal tea. The earthy flavor of the tea mixed well with that of the meat, and oddly enough, the small amount of food and drink sustained him for the next several hours.

António lay down on the bed to rest and to think. He thought back to the memories Dakuri had forced into his mind. He could only guess that was what happened, as he’d never lived through that experience himself. As he went over it in his mind, something struck him that he’d somehow missed before. Dakuri had mentioned the healing oil, and the realization caused António to bolt upright, eyes wide open. Somehow, Dakuri knew about the oil!

He looked around the room, trying to figure out how the man could have seen him take the oil. His eyes scanned everything slowly: the walls, the floor and ceiling, the furniture…

When his eyes skimmed the cheval mirror, he felt a sense of worry that was not his own. He got up and approached and studied it more closely. He turned it around and looked at the back. By all appearances, it seemed to be an ordinary cheval mirror, but he knew it was much more, and he wondered if it had magical properties.

Now alert to the possibility, he turned the cheval mirror toward the corner and left it there, then searched the walls for a place where he might hide the bottle. He checked all the stones he could comfortably reach until he found one that was loose. He pulled it out and set it down, then started chipping away at the mortar along the edges of the hole. He didn’t need a lot of space, just enough for the tiny bottle to fit into. It took him five minutes to clear a space large enough, then he put the stone back.

He checked to see if the bottle fit. It did, but just barely, and it couldn’t easily be seen if one didn’t know to look for it. he would keep it there.

As for time, he could only guess how much time made a day in this godforsaken place. He had no sun to gauge the passing hours, so what could he do? Using his hunger as his guide, he decided he would take his second dose of healing oil after his next meal.

António lost track of how many times Dakuri fed him and searched his mind—two things that always happened together, possibly because Dakuri didn’t want to kill him before finding out what his power was. But António began to grow weaker—alarmingly so. Every visit weakened him a little bit more, and now he didn’t think he’d last another day.

He’d devised a plan of escape, and he was about to put it into play, but he would have to risk everything to do it.

António had been good about following Faeran’s directions in taking the healing protective oil, but the oil was getting low. He had to do something.

He judged he had about three or four days’ worth of oil left to him, and knew he would die here if he didn’t risk taking more in an effort to escape. He took the bottle from the hole in the wall and popped the little cork. He looked at it for a minute, knowing his actions could cause his death—or worse.

“Bottoms up,” he said, then he took the last of the oil. Twelve drops at once. He steeled himself for the sensations that were sure to come, and when they did, he fought to keep his mind focused on what he had to do.

There were always two guards outside his door, and he went to the door now and pounded on it, then stepped back.

Keys jangled in the lock, then the door swung open. One of the guards hung his lantern on a hook by the door, and they entered the room.

António, by that point, was crouched down by the wall, his hands up in front of his face as if he feared something unseen. At the sight of the two guards standing over him, anger took hold of him, the kind of anger a man feels when he wants to kill. He directed all this anger toward the two guards.

They stumbled back, eyes wide with terror.

“N-no…please…d-d-don’t!” the first one stammered, raising his arms up in front of him, as if to ward off a blow.

The second guard sank to his knees and covered his head. “S-s-spare m-me, I b-b-beg you!”

Perplexed, António, nevertheless, didn’t give up on directing his anger toward them, and what he imagined doing to them for their part in his captivity.

One of the guards collapsed to the floor and lay motionless. He happened to be the one with the key to the room, and António took it. He grabbed the lantern, then left the room, locking the door behind him.

He made his way along the corridor, going back over the many trips he’d made to Dakuri’s quarters. Once at the mouth of the cavern, he stood waiting for one of the prisoners to notice him. One did, and he motioned for the man to make his way toward him. The man rounded up all the prisoners and they stampeded toward the tunnel, much to António’s dismay, as he knew the guards would notice the whole group leaving.

He shook his head and arms frantically, trying to make them stop, but they kept coming.

That was when the extra aggression kicked in. António’s body surged with angry energy, and he faced the first guard that came near, kicking out at the man’s shin. There was an audible crack, but he wasn’t sure if it was his foot or the man’s leg that had broken. He felt fine…better than fine…and continued his assault on the guard until the man was a bloodless mass at his feet.

Another guard ran up and stopped when he spotted his fellow guard crumpled to the floor, unmoving. A look of rage crossed his face, and he stalked up to António, who didn’t give him a chance to get in the first hit, as he took the former guard’s sword and raised it, slicing up and across the second guard’s midsection. Then, in one smooth movement, he brought the sword back down and severed the man’s head from his neck.

His breath came heavy, and he wanted to fight more of the guards. He wanted to take out every one of them. And he wanted to kill Dakuri for what he had done.

Then he heard a child crying, and the sound brought him back to the present. A child had just been scooped up by one of the male prisoners as they rushed past António. António turned and ran to the head of the group, determined to lead the way out of the tunnels. From here, it wasn’t hard to find his way out, but he had to slow his pace so the people could keep up and not get lost in the maze of tunnels.

Someone at the back shrieked, “they’re coming!”

That spurred the group onward, and António sped up a little to stay in the lead.

They arrived at the first fork, and he went straight. He glanced back two or three times and found that the group had followed him straight through. The last fork wasn’t far ahead now, and he announced that fact as he moved ahead, adding that they needed to quiet down. They continued as before, murmuring and calling out to each other to hurry.

When they finally reached the cave, the group rushed, as one, toward the opening. António, determined to be the last one out, glanced back to see if there were any stragglers. He heard footsteps and waited for the person to arrive so he could lead them out.

Instead of a straggler, it was Dakuri, and he wielded a sword with a rather nasty looking blade.

“You didn’t really think I would make it that easy for you to escape, did you?” Dakuri asked, smiling as if he were talking about the pleasant weather they might be having.

“I’m leaving, and you’re not going to stop me,” António said.

Dakuri laid down his sword. “Hand to hand. If I win, you can go free. If I win, we go back inside and you tell me what your power is, and I change you.”

António glanced toward the cave’s opening. Everyone was out and pushing their way through the snow to get as far away as they could. He looked back to Dakuri, determined to end this, once and for all.

“All right,” he said, praying the extra healing protective oil would give him the edge he needed. The aggression was still there. He wanted to rip the man’s head off with his bare hands. But could he defeat the taller man in one-on-one combat? He wasn’t sure, but he’d find out soon enough.

He waited for Dakuri to make the first move, and the wait was short as Dakuri swung out at him. But António’s drug-enhanced reflexes were faster, and he easily dodged the blow.

As he did so, he came up with a blow of his own, hitting the man squarely in the jaw. The blow barely phased the man, who laughed.

“Is that the best you’ve got?”

António tried again, but this time, he tried doing what he’d done with the two guards in his cell. He imagined how he would like to end Dakuri’s life, slitting the man’s throat with his own sword.

Dakuri stopped and shook his head, then he grinned at António. “I see you have the gift of empathetic attack. I didn’t see that one coming!”

“Want more?” António growled.

“It won’t do you any good. You’re only giving yourself away,” Dakuri said as he kicked out, knocking the legs out from under António.

Antonio rolled and rose a dozen feet from his opponent and put his fists up. “I may not have your size, but I’ve got something you haven’t got.”

“And that would be…?” Dakuri asked, feigning a yawn of boredom.

“Defeat me, and you’ll find out.”

Dakuri came in again with fists leading, and he caught António in the ribs, stunning him for the briefest of moments. Then he kicked out, sending António sprawling again.

At this moment, António happened to glance toward the opening to the cave, and he spotted Chaakha standing just outside. The Bhakul pointed up, then signed to him that something would come crashing down, but he had to hurry and get out of there.

Dakuri stood menacingly over António. “You’re not going to disappoint me and stay down now, are you? And we were having so much fun!”

António kicked out with all his might and Dakuri went down hard. In the next moment, António was on top of him, pummeling him with his fists, his movements so fast they could barely be seen. He caught a glimpse of Dakuri’s sword to his right, and with one swift movement, he grabbed it, brought it up, and skewered the man through the middle of his chest. He heard the dull clang as metal hit rock below.

“I win, and I am so out of here,” he said, leaping to his feet. Just for good measure, he gave Dakuri a swift kick in the side. “Have fun in Hell.”

He ran for the cave’s entrance, joining Chaakha a few yards away from it. He turned back, waiting, and what he saw shook him to his very core. Emerging from the blackness at the back of the cave was a face he hadn’t seen since the war. The face of a woman he saw die on the battlefield. It was none other than Allannia, the young wife of Taeran Ravenbrook. She was alive and well, or so it appeared, and all António could do was stare at her.

“How—?” he began, and shook his head. “How is she still alive? I watched him—”

An explosion rocked the ground, and António struggled to keep his footing. A second later, rocks and debris crashed down from above, filling the entrance to the cave. António glanced up to find two giant white mammoths standing on the cliff above the cave, two diminutive white bearded men between them. They waved and he and Chaakha waved back, António with a confused look on his face.

“Who was she?” Chaakha finally asked.

António shook his head, thoroughly stunned. “I—I thought I saw a dead woman, but that’s impossible, right?”

“Yes, it is,” Chaakha said with a nod. “Come, I will introduce you to the Barbegazi.”

“The barbewho?” António asked.

“The Barbegazi,” Chaakha laughed. “It’s a long story, but we’ll be spending the night with them, so you’ll have plenty of time to learn more about them.”

“What about the prisoners?”

Chaakha pointed off into the distance. “They’re well on their way home. I think it is safe to say that they will confirm that my people had nothing to do with the abductions.”

“Good. And hopefully, your two peoples can come to an understanding.”

“I don’t know, but it’s worth trying,” Chaakha said. “Are you all right?”

“A bit hopped up on Faeran’s oil, but I think I’ll live. How long has it been?”

“Five days.”

“It felt like a lifetime. Do you have any idea what it’s like when you don’t see the sun or moon in days? You lose track of time. It’s unsettling.”

“Yes, I do,” Chaakha said with a nod.

António knew that was true from their time far to the south, in the Bloody Spires, a mountain range dividing the Kingdom of Hillonde from the Valhadell Kingdom.

“Right,” he murmured. “Well, let’s go meet your friends.”

António was about to turn away when he spotted a familiar face watching him through the trees. He went over to where Faeran stood, mostly obscured by the forest.

“How do you fare?” she asked.

“I had to take extra to escape. I had no choice. He was killing me slowly. I had to get out of there.”

“The second batch of healing oil, without the Monk’s Blossom, should help. And you should drink lots of clean water.”

“I will, thanks. I couldn’t have gotten them out without your help. If you ever need anything, I’ll be around.”

She nodded and gave him a shy smile. “I thank you, António Azevedo.”

She began to turn away to leave, but he called her back.

“I was wondering, can I come visit you sometime? I mean, we’re friends now, yes?”

She gave him a warm, genuine smile. “I would like that very much.”

His face brightened at that, and he held out his hand. “I think I could learn a lot from you. I hope you will teach me a few things.”

“We shall see,” she grinned. “Safe journey and God speed, António, my friend.”

António bowed slightly. “And to you, Faeran Stormshade.”

She disappeared into the forest then, and he returned to Chaakha’s side. He couldn’t express how glad he was to see his friend again and to be free once more. Unable to find the words, he directed the feelings toward the Bhakul.

Chaakha stopped and stared at him.

“I—um—might have discovered a new ability,” António said with a grin. “Time will tell if it becomes more of a curse than a gift.”

“Tell me about it,” Chaakha said.

He hadn’t meant it as a request, but neither did he regret that fact as António took it as one and began explaining how he’d discovered the new ability during the escape from his cell. By the time he finished, they’d caught up to the Barbegazi, who continued slowly making their way along a trodden path through the snow toward some destination António had yet to see.

"He who would travel happily must travel light."

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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