Book 3 Chapter 21

It was not the same dream he always had, though he always dreamed viciously. This dream was more than just a dream, it was a dream-memory. Something he thought he forgotten in a lifetime long ago.

It always started the same. Sometimes he was walking down a dirt path. Or sometimes he was walking over the top of a flower-covered hill under clumps of heavy green trees.

The sun was always bright, shining down over his shoulder. He could remember being hungry. So it was no surprise that the scent of meat on an open fire was alluring. He told his stomach to mind its manners as he approached the small Gathering, but of course, it never listened.

The wagons were brightly painted, set in a protective circle. Wandering rider rhawns idled in a little blocked-off field behind the circle. He could see the women sitting in the shade as they talked and worked through the day’s catch. The men played games of sport on the far side of the fire, some of the younger brawling good naturedly. Children ran crisscross back and forth across the whole scene, trailing paper streamers as the newest toy.

A wide smile crossed his face. He remembered thinking how pleasant it looked as he sauntered down the hill with a spring in his step.

Of course, he was young and stupid then – so he couldn’t have known what he was about to walk into. His face was still smooth, untouched by the woes of time and struggle. He was a good looking youth, and he knew how to use charm to his advantage, which was part of the reason they chose him to be a Searcher. That’s why he so arrogantly believed he was good at it.

“Hallo to the wagons!” he called in a loud, cheerful voice.

The women stopped their work to watch his advance. He should have known by the glitter in their eye that he was not welcome there. His Nefolian robes told them everything they needed to know. But he didn’t catch it. Instead he walked right into the middle of it all.

The men stopped their games. The children stopped their frolics and drew closer to the women. He stood in the middle of it with a ridiculous grin on his face, one hand raised in greeting.

Finally, one of the men spat to the side in disgust, “What does yer kind want around ‘ere, Neffie?”

He was taken aback by that statement. He didn’t know that there was such a thing as “his kind,” nor had he ever heard the term “Neffie” before. Undaunted by either of these things, he pressed on with a wider smile. His charm never failed him. He had faith that it would pull him through.

“I am a Searcher for the School in the grand City of Nefol. I was passing through your lands and saw your Gathering,” he explained warmly. “I was hoping to ask for a moment of hospitality, and in return, I’ll tell you all about the wonders of the new City.”

Silence fell over the group, all eyes fixed on him. Some were disgusted. Some were incredulous. Some were just plain hostile. It was at that point that he began to realize that something about this place was different from the other Gatherings he had visited. A feeling of discomfort began to creep over him.

The man strode a few steps forward, face deadly serious as he intoned, “And I’ll be tellin’ ya what ya can be doin’ with yer wonders and yer city. We don’t ‘ave any use fer all yer mind-bustin’ talk and yer ways of tha Bane here in the Ka Gathering.”

Some of the other men began to approach him. There was a dark, unshaven look to their faces, and there were more than he could take on by himself. Even with his magic on hand. He was, afterall, still a third year.

“Uh… excuse me? I’m afraid that there’s been a misunderstanding here,” he backed away, realizing the danger in their balled fists.

“Aye, there be. And you’ll be tha one payin’ fer it,” the man, who seemed to be the leader there, gave a sharp nod.

Their dukes and curses fell on him, an no amount of shouting, wheeling or begging saved him from the repeated blows. He thought he was going to die right there and then. When the world finally fell into a hazy red, then a deep black, it was a blessed moment.

He never knew what they did to him after that. Not even his dream seemed to know what to do with the passage of time in his memory. Maybe they beat him to a bloody pulp and threw him in the river. Or maybe they left him face-down in the ditch for the roaming animals to scavenge off of. They may have hung his battered body upside down from a tree branch.

They were such barbarians. He’d never have put it past them.

What mattered more was what he found when he finally woke. He found himself lying in a sheltered area, under an outcropping of rocks near a wide open field. He remembered the feeling of the heavy-woven blanket laying over him, and the strange rhawn scent that seem to infest the rough cloth. It was brown, well-worn and the last thing he would sleep under if he was given the choice. But he hadn’t. So when he woke up, there it was.

Night was coming, and his stomach was still empty and complaining for food. Strangely enough, that was the moment that he had realized that an empty stomach was the worst feeling he was suffering from. Even after being beaten over the head with someone’s wooden shoe.

“Try not ta move too much,” a quiet voice told him.

He was surprised that he was not alone. Of course, he probably should have suspected it upon seeing the blanket. At the moment, his head wasn’t all there, so no one could really blame him for the lack of common sense.

He turned with a good bit of effort. It took his eyes a moment to make out the small shape within the deeper shadows of the stone. A girl sat there, her hands cupped around a tiny cooking fire, preparing a small meal, much to the approval of his empty midsection.

And the only thing that he, with all of his youthly charms, could think to say was, “Who are you?”

She didn’t answer right off the bat. Of course she wouldn’t have. The faded colors of her dress and the way that she wore her long white hair singled her out as someone who lived in the Ka Gathering. But he didn’t tell her that. He might have gotten a fist in the face.

“Are ya really from Nefol?” she had asked instead.

“Yes, I’m a Searcher from Nefol,” he answered.

“A Searcher? That’s one o’ those folks that go ‘round and kidnap other folks to take back ta tha school there?” The earnestness in her face was simply chilling to him. How anyone could believe such a thing about Nefol completely stunned him in those days.

“No! Of course not! Nefol doesn’t kidnap people!” he argued quickly. Then with a low groan, he pushed himself to sit up. “Searchers go out looking for people who have magical ability and the desire to train in the School. We don’t take people away from their home against their will.”

“That’s not what Pa always told us.”

“Is that so?”

The girl nodded, folding back a few leaves that were wrapped around the meat. She checked the food momentarily before deciding it was good enough to eat. Then she put the food on a plate and passed it over the fire to his waiting hands.

He was just so unbelievably hungry at the moment, he didn’t even think to thank her. He didn’t stop to consider that there wasn’t a lot of food, certainly none for her, as he used his fingers to pick it all apart and shove it in his mouth.

All that time, the girl watched him. When he looked up at her again, he realized that she wasn’t as young as he first thought. In fact, she might even have been a little older than him.

He gave her a sheepish grin as a compliment for the cooking. He never could remember what it had tasted like, but he did know that it tasted so good after being hungry for so long.

“Men, no matter where they come from, all act tha same,” she said with finality.

That statement was so sudden that he actually stopped eating for a moment. “Excuse me?”

“What ‘appened to the legendary manners of tha Apprentices of Nefol?” she asked with a slightly teasing voice.

“Sorry… when hunger calls. You know?” he gave her his best, winning grin.

“Mmm-hum…” When she smiled in return, he knew he had earned himself some ground.

He forced himself to finish the meal before he began further conversation. Since his lack of manners were already been noted, he licked his fingers clean with little show of shame. “So, did you help me out?”



“Cuz,” she wasn’t giving him much to go on.

“I know I’m terribly good looking, but there has to be more than just that?” he flashed another winning smile.

“It helps.”

He laughed, deciding to take another route to information. “I was sure that I’d at least have a few fractured bones after that. What happened?”

The girl had pondered a moment. Then she began to prod at the fire in discomfort. He had some idea why. It was obvious to him, as a Searcher, that this girl was a Healer.

“You healed me, didn’t you?” he decided to put her on the spot.

Her shocked look was enough to prove his theory correct. “How did ya know?!”

“It’s my job to recognize talent. That’s why I’m a Searcher,” he told her with a wave of his hand. “What’s wrong? Why are you so afraid? Being a Healer isn’t a ba–?”

“SHHH!” she cut him off with a sharp hiss, looking in every direction at once. “Don’t say that aloud! Don’t say that again… EVER… or I’ll cut yer tongue out!”

He remembered thinking at that moment that the girl had inherited some of the finer points of her Gathering. Instead of arguing the matter, he just nodded. “I’m… sorry. Forgive me. I don’t understand why.”

“Of course not. Yer a Neffie,” she snapped back as if that said it all.

Things began to get jumbled in his dream at that point, as if fast forwarding through things that held little importance. How the girl explained to him about the Bane. How her people believe that Nefol was spreading it through their unnatural practices of magic. How he was lucky to be alive, coming straight into their Gathering bearing the robes of the Bane-spreaders. Things that he would come to know very well later in time, but were completely unknown to him up until that moment.

There was also the fact that she was also a magic user. A Healer. One who had the taint of the Bane running through her, but could, confusingly enough, use it to heal the wounds of others.

He had remembered thinking she was certainly a conflicted, though attractive girl. That a day in the city would do her some good.

Then the dream leveled out again, stopping on the high point of the whole conversation. They talked about things for a while before he finally came back to his original question. And he asked her name one more time.

This time she answered with a direct look into his face, “JouKa.”

The name echoed forward through time, off the hazy edges of his dreams. A name nearly forgotten, but found by chance again. Lord Zeromus told him that JouKa, the very same from his memories, was in fact still alive.

This time, there was no mistaking it. He wanted her.

This was the part of the dream that went off in crazy directions. Sometimes they just sat and talked away the night. Sometimes they flew into a passionate bout on the far side of the campfire. Sometimes they made their plans to run away from it all together – both Nefol and the Gathering.

Of course, it probably didn’t happen like that. He couldn’t quite remember what really had happened. That was the lovely thing about dreams – they were what you hoped them to be.

The images began to fade from behind his eyes as awareness seeped into his mind. He didn’t need to see to know that sleep was over. He was being called once more. Dreams and memories would have to wait until the next time.

His body was stiff as he stepped from the chamber into the sifting shadows. His dark eyes lifted a moment before he gave a low bow. “Lord Zeromus, I am at your command.”

“Very good, KoGuRai,” the distant voice sounded from the pulse of darkness above. “LuShi has left Ceiswyr. He travels alone. This would be an optimal time for us to make our move. I will trust his capture to you.”

“It would be my pleasure,” a sickly smile slid over KoGuRai’s face as he straightened. The boy Sygnus made a mockery of him and dealt him quite a blow during their last meeting. This time, he would deliver LuShi to his Master and earn his ultimate, promised reward from Lord Zeromus for the service.