Dan’s dreams shifted to many years ago, back when he was with Heleer, back when he was content, before he knew he could use his gloves to get out. He had been the happiest then: knowing that in time an opportunity to escape would present itself, but being content to wait, and to be with her. He remembered her face during those years. He could see her smile clearly, her light brown eyes dancing as she laughed. He remembered her skin and her hair, and the feel of both.
Somewhere in the back of his dream, Dan knew it was just a memory. He knew she was gone. He felt a wave of longing for her, or even just the sound of her voice.
The dream shifted, and Dan saw again Heleer as he had left her: disappointed, hurt, and acceptant of his fate. There was nothing, nothing at all, that Dan wanted more than to fix that face. He wanted the smiles to return, the laughter, and the joy.
But he couldn’t. He wasn’t there. He looked long and hard at Heleer’s face. “I’ll come back,” he said. He knew she couldn’t hear him, knew it was just a dream, but he didn’t care. “I’ll come back,” he promised her again. “We’ll be together again, either here or on Valhalla. I don’t care where now. We’ll be together again. I promise.”
Dan woke gently. He kept his eyes shut, trying to keep the image of Heleer in his mind, but she slowly faded into nothingness. Dan opened his eyes.
Everything was silent. Glancing about the gully, Dan saw that most everyone was still asleep. Gideon had elected to stay in the gully the rest of the day, just to make sure they weren’t detected by Valkrill. With nothing else to do, many had fallen asleep, Dan included.
The ash seemed to have stopped falling from the sky, although a thin dusting now covered everything, the gray powder giving the whole forest a bleak, dead look. Dan shivered. The sun was still up, although it was low in the horizon, but it was far colder than normal. There was an unnatural chill in the air. The light from the sun was still red, slanting into the forest and flickering on the trunks like fire.
Dan wondered what had happened to turn the sky gray and the sun red, but the question wasn’t at the forefront of his thoughts. That place was taken by a steady, almost painful longing for Heleer.
She had been so close. All Dan had needed to do was to retrieve the amulet with Otonashi. Even now, he could be on his way back to Vydar with her (Otonashi had never rejoined them; Dan was sure she had stolen the amulet and set out for Vydar on her own). He would have seen Heleer’s face again, maybe in only a few days’ time. So why hadn’t he taken the narrow tunnel with Otonashi? Why hadn’t he stolen the amulet?
Dan knew why: that would have been no kind of life. Ana had been right: a life not lived for others was no life at all. Dan couldn’t rejoin Heleer, knowing that the price had been the lives of Gideon, Ana, and the others.
Dan didn’t understand some of the things Ana had said, but he resolved to listen to her in the future. She had been right, and he had been wrong. That much was clear now.
No one had been hurt in Valkrill’s tunnels, aside from Dan (Ana had healed his arm once they were in the gully). Gideon had been the first to ask how Dan had freed them. Dan, however, hadn’t told him. If word of his gloves got out, even among people he trusted, he couldn’t be sure the Khyta soulborgs wouldn’t hear of them. He couldn’t risk that. He had said as much, telling Gideon that what he had done couldn’t be discussed with anyone. To his surprise, Gideon had accepted his excuse easily.
Looking over the group, Dan saw that they were all present: Gideon was awake, talking with Kaori and Francois at the head of the gully in low voices. Laelia was asleep not far away. All fourteen of Kaori’s ninjas were scattered throughout the gully; the only people who weren’t present were the knights Francois had lost battling the wolves (twelve still remained), and the painful absences of Trela and Jaseff. Ana and Sharwin were both still asleep, Sharwin with a frown, Ana with a peaceful smile. A thin coating of ash dusted them both.
Dan suddenly wondered if he could still salvage his deal with Vydar. He hadn’t actually betrayed him. Of course, he knew Vydar wouldn’t see it that way. And besides, Otonashi had said that the people Vydar had sent were the ones who would never join him when he betrayed the alliance, and Dan had just saved those people from the death Vydar had planned for them. No, his best chance at seeing Heleer now was to join another Valkyrie and hope they were sympathetic.
The obvious choice was the alliance. Dan could easily tell them Vydar was about to betray them. However, from there he would have to rely on their gratitude. Dan didn’t like it. He knew nothing about them. With Vydar, he felt more secure, knowing that he could ruin Vydar’s plans at any moment if he didn’t uphold his end of the deal. With the alliance, once Dan told them what he knew, his power would be gone. He would have to hope they were grateful enough to rejoin him with Heleer when the war ended. Assuming they won of course.
The other option was Utgar, but Dan still had the same problem: once he told Utgar about Vydar’s plans, his leverage was gone. And based on what he had heard of Utgar, Dan would far rather join the alliance.
That left Dan with no options but Vydar. And if Vydar didn’t honor his promise – which Dan was sure he wouldn’t do now – then Dan was stuck, with nowhere to turn. He would be reunited with Heleer. That much he knew. He just didn’t know how.
“Dan.” The whisper was Gideon’s.
Dan turned. Gideon had approached him, his feet silent in the ash.
“What do you think?” Gideon whispered. “Are we safe? Should we move out?”
“I’ll check,” Dan said. He rose, being careful not to wake Ana – who was nearby – and went to the embankment. He peeked over the ridge.
The forest was silent. Even the stream nearby seemed quieter than it had been that morning. Dan secured his goggles over his eyes and switched them to scan for arcane residue. Immediately, a brilliant dome of purple appeared over the whole of the gully: evidence that Jandar’s enchantments were still in place. Aside from a few faint wisps though, the rest of the forest was devoid of magic.
Dan scanned for heat signatures. The forest was full of them, but none were large enough to be an enemy. In fact, most of them seemed to be underground, huddled closely together. Dan found that odd. It was still an hour or two from dusk. It was almost as if all the animals were hiding.
“There’s no one out there,” Dan reported, returning to Gideon.
“That’s not right,” Gideon said, looking troubled. “He should be searching for us. We’re assuming Otonashi stole the amulet, but even if she didn’t, Valkrill knows we were in there. Why on earth wouldn’t he be scouring the forest for us?”
Dan thought for a moment. “Otonashi,” he said quietly, realizing something.
“What?” Gideon asked.
“If Valkrill knows she took his amulet, he wouldn’t be wasting any men on us. He must have every available soldier out looking for her. He probably doesn’t care if we escape or not.”
Gideon was silent for a moment. “That’s the only thing that makes sense,” he finally said.
“What do we do?” Dan asked. “Do we wait?”
Gideon thought for a moment. “No,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of going out there, but all this ash… Something’s wrong here. We’ve got to find out what’s happened.”
Dan agreed. He didn’t like sitting still and waiting for something to happen. He and Gideon spread out, waking the others up one by one. Everyone was silent, casting fearful glances to the dark sky and the red sun. Ana, whom Dan had expected to be the least affected, seemed the most afraid of their new surroundings. She kept glancing at the red light about them, and jumped whenever someone spoke to her.
Soon everyone was lined up. Warning everyone to stay quiet until they got out of the forest, Gideon clambered up the embankment. The others followed, and together, they wound their way through the silent woods.
They saw no one save for a few crows perched high overhead in the trees. The whole forest was unnaturally still, the twilight feeling oddly hot and dry. Once they made it out of the forest, they struck out across the open plain. If they hurried, they would be able to cross the hills during the night and arrive in the forest by daybreak. From there, they would be sheltered by trees all the way to Hyleran.
The unnatural stillness, the starless sky overhead, and the sudden unrelenting dusty heat of the baked ground began to get to Dan after only a few minutes. There was no wind, no sound of any kind except for the muted tramp of their feet on the weathered ground. Dan wasn’t alone. Many of the knights looked about them as they walked, squinting up at the dark sky, hoping to see a star or feel a breath of wind. Even the chirp of a cricket would be welcome. Francois decided to deal with the ominous atmosphere with levity.
Gideon and Laelia were at the front of the line, arguing again, and, walking close to Dan, Francois began to speculate on what they were saying. It wasn’t much of a mystery, since the dark sky overhead seemed to magnify their voices, allowing Dan and Francois to hear virtually every word.
“You know what I want,” Laelia was saying. “Don’t pretend you don’t. You know I wanted to kill Caius myself.”
“She’s still on that?” Francois muttered to Dan. Dan agreed, though he said nothing. He thought that given the current circumstances, it was definitely time Laelia learned to forgive and forget. She apparently had other ideas.
“If you would just apologize, I would move on like you want,” she said, speaking to Gideon.
“I won’t,” Gideon said.
“No,” Gideon interrupted her. “I know you wanted to kill him yourself, and you know I had every intention of letting you. But I had no choice. I won’t apologize for what I did. I won’t apologize for protecting you.”
“Why not?” Laelia exclaimed. “It’s a simple thing!”
“See,” Francois said to Dan, “this right here,” he motioned towards Laelia and Gideon, “is why I stay away from long-term relationships.”
They heard a ‘tuh’ of disgust behind them. Turning, they saw Ana.
“What?” Francois said. “Do you think this is normal?”
“They’re in love,” Ana said, her tone suggesting this was the most obvious thing in the world. “There’s no ‘normal’ for love.”
Francois glanced back at Laelia and Gideon. “Yeah… I can see that,” he said. “They aren’t exactly head over heels right now.”
Ana shook her head. “What?” she said. “If you have a disagreement you can’t be in love?”
Francois gestured to Laelia. “Look at her!” he said. “Does it look like she loves him to you?”
Ana looked politely at Laelia for a moment. “Yes,” she said firmly.
Francois threw up his hands and rolled his eyes. Dan was on his side. He glanced at Laelia and Gideon, who were arguing again. “Are… Are you serious?” he asked Ana.
Ana let out an exasperated sigh. “Yes, Dan,” she said.
“Well,” Dan said. He watched Laelia and Gideon critically. If anything, they looked like they were about to come to blows. “I mean, they’ve been fighting ever since Caius. Isn’t that… kind of the opposite of love?”
“No,” Ana said, speaking so quickly and so firmly that Dan was momentarily startled. “Fighting is something you do,” she said. “Love is something you are.”
Francois burst out laughing. “Looks like they really are love at the moment,” he said. He walked away, shaking his head. Dan knew he was just saying it to avoid focusing on everything around them.
“He’ll figure it out,” Ana said, watching Francois go. “When he meets the right person, it will hit him like a ton of bricks.”
There it was again. Something Dan didn’t understand. “What do you mean?” he asked.
Ana sighed, as if resigning herself to teaching Dan something extremely basic. “When you love someone,” she said, “you love them for who they are. Francois doesn’t get that yet.” She shook her head at Francois back. “I’ve seen people like him before. They think love is all about what people do, how they look, where they live.”
Dan glanced at Laelia. “Doesn’t that have something to do with it though? I mean, not everything, obviously… but something?”
“No,” said Ana, in such a deprecating voice that Dan was momentarily offended. “All that matters in love is who the people truly are. It doesn’t matter what’s on the outside, as long as you know what’s on the inside.” Ana watched Laelia and Gideon for a moment. “It shouldn’t matter, anyway. It usually does though.”
Ana continued to watch Laelia and Gideon bickering, and watching her, Dan had the sudden impression that she wasn’t just saying things. She was speaking from experience. “What do you mean?” he asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.
Ana took her time in replying. When she did speak, she didn’t look at Dan, but rather remained focused on Laelia and Gideon.
“I used to love someone,” she said slowly. “A gladiator, summoned by Einar.” She paused. “He was an idiot,” she said. “Got himself wounded in battle because of it. That’s how I met him: I had to heal him. He couldn’t move for a month. I had to stay with him because the wound would never fully heal. We… We fell in love. It was… I had never loved anyone that way before.”
She fell silent, watching Laelia and Gideon.
“What happened to him?” Dan prompted.
“He—” Ana paused. She took a deep breath. “He got better. He was able to sit up – and realize that his entire right side was disfigured. I hadn’t told him. I… I knew how he would take it, and I guess… I guess I hoped by the time he found out he would…” she stopped talking.
After a moment Ana sighed again. “He couldn’t stand it,” she said, still not looking at Dan. “He said I… didn’t deserve to be with someone who looked that way. He told me to… to forget about him, and rejoined his regiment.” Ana seemed to be breathing carefully. “He was killed two weeks later. The reports said he… disregarded orders and… ran straight into the enemy. He was killed instantly.”
Ana took a breath. “He hadn’t changed though. Not really. Not on the inside. I didn’t care what he looked like. All I cared about was who he was.”
Dan felt a sudden surge of sympathy for Ana as he watched her. “I’m sorry,” he said. He meant it, too, and tried to convey some of his sympathy into the words.
“It was two years ago,” Ana sighed. “I’ve gotten over it.” She took a breath and finally looked at him. “But what about you?” she said. “Is there someone waiting for you?”
“Yes,” Dan said, “… I think.”
“You think?” Ana repeated.
“Well… there is someone,” Dan said. He hadn’t mentioned Heleer to anyone on Valhalla save for Vydar, but somehow talking about her to Ana felt natural. After what they had said to each other, and what Dan had done in Valkrill’s tunnels… they were friends. At least that was how Dan felt.
“Back on Isadora,” he said. “Her name is Heleer. I’ve known her for,”— he counted up the years — “eleven years.” He paused. Somehow, talking about Heleer after what Ana had told him, didn’t seem to fit. Dan saw Ana watching him, waiting for more. “I guess I never really—” he paused. “I guess the word ‘love’ was never actually there. I mean,” he added hastily, “I know I need her. I know I can’t go back to life without her. It’s just…” He floundered for a moment. “I never thought beyond that,” he finished.
Ana merely smiled. “What about now?” she asked. “Do you love her?”
“Yes!” Dan said quickly. Of course he did. Even as he said the word though, he wondered. He had never actually told himself he loved Heleer. He had said he needed her, yes, but had he ever actually said he loved her? Had he even ever asked himself the question?
Ana seemed to be following his thoughts.
“Well,” Dan said, “I mean, I… I don’t really… know who she is though. Back on Isadora, we were kept apart most of the day. We only spoke at meal times.”
“You seem to care about her, though,” Ana said.
“I do.” For the first time in the conversation, Dan felt sure about what he was saying. “I can’t live without her.”
Ana smiled. “Well,” she said, “it seems to me that this Heleer is someone you would really want to get to know then. Someone you would really want to understand.”
“I would,” Dan said. Up until now, he hadn’t thought about himself as not understanding Heleer. He knew plenty about her, after all. And yet, even as he thought that, he realized he barely knew her. He knew what she was like on the outside, and he had caught glimpses of what was on the inside, but did he know who she was? What really made her the way she was? Not really. He had thought he did, but apparently he had been wrong.
“I would like to get to know her better,” he said, almost to himself. But then a familiar sense of despair dropped into his stomach. “But I’m here,” he added. “About as far from her as possible.
“You might see her again,” Ana reasoned. “Anything can happen once this war is over.”
“Maybe,” Dan said. He wasn’t convinced.
“You’ll see her again, Dan,” Ana said. Dan looked up at her. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned on Valhalla,” Ana said, “it’s that nothing, nothing can keep two people apart who want to be together. It might take a long time, and the journey might be difficult, but they always see each other again.”
The momentary ray of light Dan had felt at Ana’s words went dark. “If the war ever ends,” he muttered.
“It will end,” Ana said confidently.
“How do you know?” Dan asked.
“It can’t last much longer,” Ana said. “We’ve all been promised we’ll be sent back home at some point. There are too many of us. Eventually the armies of Valhalla will grow tired of waiting. It might take some time, and I’m sure it won’t be easy, but the war will eventually end. Someone will get all of the amulets in the end. And at that point… well, like I said: there are too many of us. Whoever wins this war won’t have a choice. They’ll have to send us back. All we have to do is win the war, Dan. Then you can see Heleer again. Then you can get to know her.”
After a moment, Dan realized Ana had a point. The war couldn’t last forever. All he had to do was survive until it ended, and then simply join the armies clamoring to be sent home. And once he was sent home… he knew what he would do.
He would make every effort to discover who Heleer truly was. He wanted to know.