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THE DREAD (3)

When Jair and Talwyn reached their tent, the fire inside was banked and the embers cast a dim light around the interior of their gar, the portable circular dwelling that the Sworn called home. Jair could just make out Kenver’s sleeping form underneath the woven blankets. The tent smelled of incense, and Jair guessed that Talwyn had scattered some herbs and scented wood in the fire before they left.

As if seeing them for the first time, Jair took stock of the painted images and symbols drawn on the interior of the dwelling’s cloth walls, and of the crystals and talismans that hung from the support poles. Despite Talwyn’s position as cheira and chief’s daughter, their home was nearly identical to those of the rest of the Sworn. For all the years Jair had ridden with the Sworn, he had never fully thought about the paintings and talismans beyond their value in teaching the nomadic people’s history to the children of the tribe. Now, after hearing Davin’s story and reading Harrol’s letter, Jair wondered about the protective nature of the decorations, and whether the markings, passed down from parent to child across generations, harkened back to more dangerous times.

Kenver did not stir as Jair and Talwyn settled into their bed. Jair closed his eyes, enjoying the night sounds outside the gar. The sounds mingled with the scent of burning embers and incense, and Jair sank into the comfort of the sensations, wishing once again that he could remain on the Ride forever. None of the comforts of Dhasson’s palace ever made him feel as much at home as he did on the Ride, and each year, the months slipped by too quickly, until it was time for his return to the palace city. The war might be more adventure than you bargained for, he reminded himself silently, and he inched closer to Talwyn, who was already asleep. Tired as he was, worries about the war would have to wait, and Jair drifted off to sleep.

He awoke with a start, unsure of what had awakened him. By habit, his hand fell to the pommel of his stelian in the scabbard that lay next to the bed. Nothing stirred in the darkness of the tent, and the glow from the banked embers was nearly gone. Across the way, Jair could make out Kenver’s form, assuring him that Kenver was still where he had been candlemarks before. Jair reached out to rouse Talwyn, but he withdrew his hand with a gasp.

Talwyn’s body was cool. Jair shook her, swallowing back rising fear, but Talwyn did not rouse. She grimaced in pain, as if about to scream, but no sound came from her, even as Jair shook harder. Talwyn’s hands were fisted, and her body was rigid. Fresh gashes, like claw marks, raked her arm and cheek, though no paw prints of an attacking animal led away from where she lay.

“Daddy, what’s wrong?”

Jair felt Kenver behind him, and only then became aware that he had been calling Talwyn’s name loudly. “Mommy’s sick. Go get Grandpa. Run!”

Jair drew a deep breath, forcing himself to think instead of feel. Talwyn’s skin was unusually cool, but not devoid of warmth like a corpse. Her muscles were clenched tight, though not with the rigor of death. To his relief, he found both breath and pulse, although Talwyn did not rouse, even when he splashed her face with water.

Pevre and Kenver were beside him in minutes. “What happened?” Pevre asked, taking in Talwyn’s condition with detachment.

Jair moved back to permit Pevre to examine Talwyn. “I don’t know. Something woke me. There was nothing unusual in the tent, no strange noises outside. I reached over to Talwyn and found her like this.”

Pevre frowned in concentration, and he extended one hand, palm down, over Talwyn’s face. Slowly, he moved his hand down the center of her body, just above her skin. He closed his eyes as he moved his hand and began to chant under his breath in a low voice. Finally, he opened his eyes and looked at Jair.

“Someone . . . or something . . . has sent dream magic against her. She’s rigid because she’s fighting for her life in the dream realm against something we can’t see or hear but that is very real to her. Her body is cool because whatever it is drains her life force, the same way a vayash moru drains blood.”

“Fighting for her life,” Jair repeated quietly, and instinctively he put a protective arm around Kenver, drawing the small boy close. “So it’s real to her, even in the dream realm?”

Pevre nodded. “Very real. This kind of magic is old. It takes power to wield it, and skill. It’s considered gray magic at best because the potential to misuse it is so strong. You can imagine what such a thing could do to a political rival, or a spurned lover, for example.”

“How do we break it?”

Pevre rocked back on his heels, thinking. “I need my ritual bag from my tent,” he said with a glance to Kenver, who ran to fetch it. While they waited for Kenver to return, Pevre motioned for Jair to help him move Talwyn closer to the fire. Lifting her by shoulders and ankles, they carried her near the fire pit and laid her on a mat. Pevre added wood to the fire and lit the lanterns. Kenver returned with the ritual bag, and Pevre set it down near Talwyn. He made a gesture of warding over the bag and opened it reverently, and then he walked a larger circle of warding around Talwyn, carefully keeping Jair within the circle and motioning for Kenver to step back so that he would be outside the warded space.

“I don’t know who sent this, or how strong their magic is. I’ll need your help to fight it,” he said with a nod toward Jair. “But I’d just as soon Kenver stay outside the warding. My magic should be strong enough to keep it contained.”

Pevre withdrew a shaman’s mantle from the ritual bag and carefully laid it around his shoulders. Then he took four carved images from the bag, one for each of the Spirit Gods the Sworn honored—the Bear, the Eagle, the Wolf, and the catlike Stawar. These he placed in a ring around the fire. As he placed the images, he bowed to each one.

“Guardian spirits, we honor you,” Pevre said in a low rumble. “Walk with me on the dream paths, and give me your strength to overcome the attacker.”

The fire glowed more brightly, and Jair thought he glimpsed movement in the shadows of the four images, and he wondered if it were a trick of the light. Pevre removed several polished disks of amber and agate from his bag and placed them at Talwyn’s head, feet, shoulders, and hips. He took a smooth piece of onyx and pried open Talwyn’s fist, closing her fingers around the disk. Then he motioned for Jair to kneel beside Talwyn.

“Hold her hand in your left hand, and your stelian in your right. Concentrate on the onyx she’s holding. I’ll open up the dream realm for you. A shadow of your weapon should follow you into her dream. Use the onyx to bring both of you back to the waking world.”

Jair nodded and began to breathe deeply as Pevre began to chant. Inhaling the smoke and incense, Jair closed his eyes and let himself enter a trance, keeping his mind focused on the onyx disk in Talwyn’s fist. At first, Pevre’s voice was loud, sounding just behind him. Over the span of several breaths, the voice grew more distant, until it was so faint Jair could no longer hear it.

Talwyn’s scream and the growl of a wild beast jolted Jair into action. Warrior training overcame instinct, and he rose with his stelian ready for battle. They stood on a stark plain that was devoid of color. Few trees or plants rose from the barren ground that stretched to the horizon, broken only by one or two rocky outcroppings. In the gray of twilight, it was difficult to make out the shape of the enemy, and then Jair spotted them and caught his breath. Shadows, not predators, were encroaching on Talwyn, who barely kept them at bay with a hand raised in warding and a gnarled broken branch wielded like a weapon. She looked exhausted, and the gashes Jair had seen on her sleeping form were fresh and seeping.

A ring of shadow forms circled Talwyn. At first, the shadows lay flat against the ground, and then one of the shadows rose out of the dark ring, amorphous at first, until it solidified into the shape of a man. It reached toward Talwyn with taloned hands, slashing at her and nearly getting inside her guard.

Jair hurled a rock at the shadow. “Leave her alone!” The rock sailed right through the figure. There was a guttural sound like many deep voices conferring in the distance, and the shadow ring began to move swiftly toward Jair across the dirt.

“Don’t let them touch you!” Talwyn’s voice was sharp with warning, but Jair could hear the pain and weariness that tinged it. She looked haggard and drained, with an unnatural pallor. He ran toward her, taking a zigzag path and doubling back on himself, eluding the shadow forms until he stood between them and Talwyn.

The guttural sound grew louder, and the shadows seemed to boil, as if his action displeased them.

“Where’s the onyx?” Jair shouted to Talwyn without taking his eyes off the roiling shadow that had doubled its size, coming toward them like a wave on dry land.

“I don’t have it!” Talwyn replied, dropping to her knees to scrabble in the dust searching for the stone. “Where was it on the other side?”

“Pevre put it in your hand,” Jair replied, bracing himself for the onslaught.

Behind him, Talwyn searched for the stone as the shadows drew nearer. Jair wielded his stelian as he would have in the waking world, unsure of its worth against their enemy. “What are these things?” Jair called to her.

Esiteran. Life-drinkers. They drain energy instead of blood.”

“Will my stelian hold them off ?”

“For a while. Sooner or later, they get inside your guard, as you can see.”

The shadows surged forward, and Jair struck at them with his stelian. The sword felt as solid and deadly in his hands here in the dream realm as it did in the waking world, although how it had moved across the gap between realms with him, he did not know. The stelian met the darkness, slicing through it like light. The shadows shrieked and drew back, only to rush at him from another angle, forcing him to pivot sharply to meet their advance with another blow of the stelian. A tendril of darkness snapped out and cut through the cloth of his pants, tearing into his leg. Jair gritted his teeth against the pain and slashed at the shadow, forcing it back.

The shadows were massing. Jair wondered if they had been merely toying with Talwyn, and whether his arrival had pushed them to action. He struck again at the shadows and a whip-thin edge of the darkness sliced down, lashing him across his shoulder and chest. He cried out at the pain and swung his stelian until the shadows drew back again.

“I’ve got it!” Talwyn found the onyx disk and clasped it between her two hands. “Lay a hand on my shoulder, and don’t let go,” she said to Jair. He complied, keeping his stelian ready in his right hand. Talwyn raised her hands overhead and murmured words of power, and she then held up the onyx between thumb and forefinger.

A brilliant flare of light streamed from the polished stone. The shadows hissed and receded, like a dark tide. The light traveled down Talwyn’s upraised arms, until Jair and Talwyn were encircled in a pillar of light.

With a sudden shift, Jair found himself back in the tent, kneeling next to Talwyn, his stelian gripped in his hand. He glanced down at his ruined shirt and the vicious slash that had laid open both cloth and skin. Jair shifted, painfully aware of the gash on his leg that had begun to throb. Talwyn’s eyes snapped open. Color had come back to her skin, and her whole form relaxed. Beside them, Pevre stopped chanting and drew a deep breath. He let his head hang for a moment, as though the effort had exhausted him, and then looked from Talwyn to Jair.

“You’re back,” he said, a note of tired pride in his voice.

Talwyn reached out to touch Pevre’s sleeve. “Thank you.”

Pevre shrugged. “The question is, how did you become trapped in the dream realm?”

Talwyn struggled to sit, and Jair helped her rise. “I’m not sure. I keep wardings set around the tent to avoid problems just like that. When we came back last night, the wardings were in place. Either something broke the wardings or someone is doing powerful blood magic nearby, strong enough that it penetrated my wardings.”

“Wouldn’t you know if someone tried to break the wardings outright?” Jair asked. Pevre was busy making a paste from liquids and herbs in his bag to clean their wounds. Jair winced when Pevre applied the thick salve.

“The sting of it can’t be helped,” Pevre grumbled. “The wounds are most likely poisoned.”

“Yes, under most circumstances,” Talwyn said, answering Jair’s question. “It should have awakened me if anyone tinkered with the wardings at all, long before they were broken. So either something was able to get past the protections without actually breaking them or we’re up against a mage who’s good enough to be sly with his power.”

“Will you be all right?” Kenver’s voice was thin and reedy, and Jair could hear the boy trying to hide the way his voice trembled. Pevre dismissed his own warding with a gesture, and Kenver ran to Jair and Talwyn, throwing his arms around them.

Talwyn tousled the boy’s hair, and Jair drew him close. “We’ll be fine as soon as your grandfather’s poultices do their work,” Talwyn said, though Jair could hear the exhaustion in her voice.

Pevre took a seat against one of the support poles of the tent. “It’s still the middle of the night. I suggest you three get some sleep. I’ll stand guard. I doubt anything will try again tonight to harm you, but if it does, I’ll be ready.”

Kenver would not return to his own bed, insisting to be between his mother and father. For once, Jair didn’t feel like arguing. Despite Pevre’s medicine, his wounds still throbbed, and he wondered if he could possibly sleep. But sleep found him, and this time, he did not dream at all.