Too weak to stop her own bleeding, Ana allowed Kaori to bandage her magically-inflicted wounds. Dan saw that she was right; they weren’t deep. They were, however, large, the abrasions covering most of her body. Ana insisted that she would be able to heal once they could rest.
Now that the battle was over, the flow of magical energy from the mages had stopped. The result was that everyone felt drained, as if they had gone a full day without sleep, and been fighting the whole time. Ana said the feeling would only get worse. They needed to find a safe place to rest.
Gideon decided that they would make for the fallback point. It was close to the Underdark cavern where Valkrill’s wellspring lay, but since it had been shielded from detection by Jandar’s mages, they would be safe there, invisible to unfriendly eyes. Once they got their strength back, they would enter the Underdark.
The ninjas procured some strips of black cloth, and Dan helped them wrap Trela’s body in it. She looked peaceful, her expression at odds with her gruesome wound. She was still smiling serenely as Dan began to wrap her head. He paused, pushing some stray strands of brown hair away from her face.
How could she look so peaceful? Dan knew he wouldn’t look that way if he were dying. He would do everything he could to keep himself alive. But Trela hadn’t done that. She had told Jaseff to stop healing her. Why?
It didn’t make sense to Dan. First Ana, and now Trela. Did all the mages care so little about their own lives? Dan shook his head. He carefully wrapped Trela’s head, gently covering the wound. Then her mouth, then her nose, and finally her eyes. Dan looked at them one last time, the lids closed, the expression so peaceful. He would never forget that look. He sighed, and wrapped the rest of her head.
Once all of the slain wolves had been pulled beneath the trees, where they would be invisible to passing kyrie, two knights arrived to carry Trela. Jaseff, who Dan thought would stay by her side, instead moved to the middle of the group, surrounding himself with knights. He spoke to no one, and kept his eyes downcast.
Neither Jaseff nor Ana were able to do much healing, and, as Dan had guessed, Sharwin couldn’t heal at all. The ninjas seemed to have basic knowledge of how to treat wounds however, and bandaged those who needed it. Then, limping, wincing, and favoring various limbs, the group moved for the forest, coxing the last vestiges of energy from their bodies. It was morning, and the sun was up. They couldn’t be seen.
Dan watched Jasseff as they walked. He didn’t weep. He didn’t speak. He simply put one foot in front of the other, looking at nothing but his own two feet. He didn’t need to say anything, however. The way he moved was enough.
Dan knew he was looking at a defeated man. Jaseff was broken. Dan could imagine how he must feel. What if he had lost Heleer? Would he be the same as Jaseff: defeated, broken? Would that be the end? Would he be finished?
Dan had to admit it would be. There was nothing beyond Heleer and his horizon. If they were taken from him… he couldn’t even picture the pit of darkness which would engulf him. But then, unbidden, he remembered Trela’s face. She had died. She had been separated from everything she loved and desired. And yet she had been at peace. Dan watched Jaseff, and saw the opposite: he had lost everything he loved and desired, and now he was devastated.
How could the reaction of one be so far from the reaction of the other?
They found the fallback point easily. Jaseff was one of the mages who had protected it, and led them to a nearby stream. He didn’t cross it, but followed it a ways until they came to a wide gully.
“This whole area is shielded,” he whispered to them. “As long as we stay in the gully, we won’t be found.”
One by one, the group slid down the embankment and into the gully. It was dry and covered in soft grass and moss-laden boulders. It was wide, and plenty long enough for them all. They settled against the boulders as comfortably as they could, and with no other option, gave in to sleep. Once they were rested, Ana and Jaseff would be able to heal them. And then… then they would steal Valkrill’s amulet.
It was dark when Dan woke, feeling sore all over. His right side in particular was sore, and when he gingerly touched it, it seared with pain. He guessed having a massive wolf sit on top of him might be the cause.
Others were stirring in the gully, though all were quiet, knowing how close they were to Valkrill’s wellspring (even though Jaseff had said that they couldn’t be heard). There were two glimmers of flickering light in the gully, and Dan soon discerned that they were Ana and Jaseff, healing those who needed it. He quickly made his way over to Jaseff.
Jaseff was busy healing Gideon, who was lying against a large mossy stone and grimacing as Jaseff worked. By the light of Jaseff’s magic, Dan could see that Gideon’s wounds were many and deep. Only the bandages of the ninjas had kept him from bleeding out. Jaseff still looked pale, but Gideon’s wounds mended steadily under his concentration, and soon they both stood.
“My thanks,” Gideon said. “But remember what I told you: don’t overexert yourself. We need you in there, and Ana’s a lot stronger at the moment. Let her do most of the healing.”
Jaseff nodded, but said nothing. He turned, and saw Dan. “Are you hurt?” he asked. His voice was hoarse, and his face was hidden behind his long dark hair. He made no effort to brush it out of his eyes.
“Yes,” Dan said, a little uncertainly, “but I’m sure Ana can handle it. Gideon’s right. You should—”
“Sit,” Jaseff said. His tone wasn’t commanding. Neither was it calm. It was devoid of all emotion, bereft of all feeling. It was the voice of an empty shell.
“Where?” Jaseff asked.
“My rib,” Dan said. “I think that wolf might have cracked it.”
Jaseff’s palm flickered with a faint blue light. “You’re right,” he said, still in that same dead voice. “Hold still.”
Dan braced himself against the rocks beneath him, but he felt no pain. Instead, he felt his ribs moving slowly, steadily back into place. It didn’t hurt exactly. It just felt… unnatural.
“I’m sorry about Trela,” Dan said as Jaseff worked.
Jaseff said nothing.
Dan didn’t know what else to say.
“They buried her,” Jaseff said unexpectedly. “At the head of the gully, some of the knights buried her.” His voice was still dead. “Ana was there. She said Trela had a full life. That she died happy.” Jaseff paused in his healing and looked up. “How can someone die happy, Dan?”
Jaseff’s voice held a measure of confusion, but Dan didn’t know the answer. He was just as confused as Jaseff was. “I – I don’t know,” Dan said. “Ana’s said some things which don’t make any sense to me either.”
“They make sense to me,” Jaseff said, resuming his healing. “She’s just trying to make me feel better, by somehow suggesting that Trela was happy about dying.”
“I doubt she was happy about dying,” Dan said. “But she seemed at peace.”
“Of course she did,” Jaseff said, his voice returning to its empty tone. “She was doing the same thing as Ana, trying to make me feel better. She always did that. She was always considering someone else, and never herself.”
Jaseff was silent for a moment. His palm flared briefly, and then went out. Dan felt fully healed.
“That’s why I loved her,” Jaseff said quietly into the darkness. “She was fearless. She didn’t care what happened to her, as long as she could save someone else, be that an ally wounded in a drow attack, or a boy – or a boy about to throw away his last chance at a good life.”
Jaseff’s voice finally broke. Dan heard him take a shaky breath. “It’s your job to save us now,” Dan said. “That’s what she said, isn’t it? It’s your turn?”
Jaseff shook his head. “I can’t save you,” he said. “When I first met her, I decided I wanted to be like her: fearless. But I can’t. I’ve tried for years, and I can’t.”
Dan didn’t accept that. Before Heleer, he would have said nothing could convince him to be patient, to simply wait for an opportunity to escape. He had been wrong, and Dan believed Jaseff was wrong too. “You can be,” he said. “You can be just as fearless as Trela was.”
“Not without her,” Jaseff said. “I need her.” He let out a sigh of defeat. “I always needed her. I was always too cautious, too afraid of everything. She was my shield. I thought that if I got to know her, then I would become confident like she was. And what happened? I just hid behind her, content to let her take all the risks and challenges for me.” Jaseff sounded disgusted with himself, but worse, he sounded defeated, like he had given up on everything.
“It’s not your fault, Jaseff,” Dan said quietly.
Jaseff sighed. He got up and pulled Dan to his feet. “I know,” he said. “It’s just… I wish I had been better. For her.”
“You can be,” Dan said. “Trust me, you can be.”
Gideon found Dan shortly afterwards and told him that they would enter the Underdark at daybreak. “The drow are nocturnal,” he explained, “so it’s a better time for us. Get some more sleep. I’ll wake everyone at dawn.”
Still feeling worn and sore, Dan was grateful to get more rest. He settled back in the spot where he had slept, and was soon far away from Valhalla, chasing distant horizons and following Heleer’s calling voice.
He was pulled from sleep by Laelia just as the faintest hint of orange began to tint the sky.
“Time to get up,” she whispered. “Jaseff’s gone.”
“Gone?” Dan echoed. “What do you mean?”
“I mean he’s gone,” Laelia said. She sounded almost as defeated as Jaseff had. “He left while we were all sleeping. Kaori has already sent ninjas out after him, but he has too great a head start.”
“But—” Dan got to his feet. “But… I was just talking to him. Why would he leave?”
Laelia glanced at him before turning away. “He needed Trela. He wasn’t just saying it. He couldn’t enter the Underdark without her. He was too afraid. Come on,” she added. “Gideon wants to talk to us all at the head of the gully.”
She led Dan up the gully, past restless knights and ninjas. All were preparing for battle, checking their armor for damage or sharpening their swords. Gideon, Ana, Sharwin, Otonashi, Francois, and Kaori were clustered at the head of the gully, waiting. Dan and Laelia sat down.
“Right,” Gideon said. “I’m sure by now you all know that Jaseff has left us.” He looked a bit lost as he said it, as if he couldn’t quite believe it. Dan glanced at Laelia. She looked as if she had no trouble believing it. If anything, she looked acceptant to the point of defeat.
“Some of you,” Gideon said, forcing some certainty into his voice, “might be wondering if he had the right idea.”
No one said anything. Dan knew he would go into the Underdark no matter what – the way back to Heleer was there – but looking at the others, he could tell they were uncertain. Jaseff’s desertion had been completely unexpected. None of them knew what to think.
“I won’t lie to you,” Gideon said, “going in there is going to be dangerous. We’ve already lost several of Francois’ men to the wolves.” He glanced to the right as he spoke, and following his gaze, Dan saw several fresh graves nearby, rough stones with chiseled names on them the only markers. He couldn’t see which one was Trela’s.
“I don’t believe in ordering people to do something when I know it’s only going to make the situation worse,” Gideon said. “So if any of you are having doubts about going into the Underdark, I’d like to hear them.”
No one spoke. Dan both wanted to stay as far away from the Underdark as possible, and at the same time knew he had to go straight to its very heart. There was no choice for him. Vydar had made sure he had only one option.
Glancing at the others, Dan saw that they didn’t seem so sure. In fact, the only one who didn’t have doubt or fear written all over their face was Otonashi. She looked calm and peaceful, but somehow Dan sensed a quiet determination coming from her. He didn’t have any trouble believing that she was ready to take on the whole of the Underdark herself.
“I don’t want to do this,” Gideon said, surprising them all. Everyone looked at him. “I don’t,” he said, “and I doubt any of you do either. For the first time since the war began, my whole family is together under one roof. I don’t want to be out here, in the middle of Braunglayde, about to dive into the Underdark. I want to be with them.”
He took a breath. “But I’m going in anyway. I believe in what I’m doing. Utgar is trying to take away Valhalla’s freedom, and that’s wrong. It’s as simple as that. If my father taught me one thing, it’s to not stand by if you can fix something,”— he glanced at Laelia — “or save someone.”
Laelia saw him look at her. Dan saw her mouth tighten, and in that moment, he realized that she wasn’t merely disappointed that Gideon had killed Caius. She was actually angry at him. It was a stupid reaction, but based on what Jaseff had told him, it made some sense. After a moment, Laelia got up and walked away.
There was a moment of silence. Then Sharwin spoke.
“I don’t want to go in there either,” she said, her voice quavering slightly. “At times I think about leaving, about just slipping away. But I always remind myself that I can’t.” She paused and wiped her eyes. “I have a son,” she continued, “a three-year-old son whom I have never seen since the day he was born.”
No one spoke.
“My husband was… away when he was born. And thanks to a surprise attack from Valkrill, he never saw his son. I was urgently needed at the front, and as soon as I was able, I entrusted my son to the care of Syvarris and his wife. They were both retired from the war, and I trusted them to raise my son. I swore I would return once the threat to Ullar’s territory was handled… but I never did. Since then, there has always been a place I must go, an army I must fight, or a force I must join. Because of the war, I haven’t seen my son since I placed him in Syvarris’ arms.”
“Surely Ullar would understand,” Ana said. “Surely he could make an exception and send you back, even for a little while.”
Sharwin shook her head. “He’s tried. More than once. But every time, something new arrives, and I must leave again. Every time, I tell myself, ‘this is the last time. The last time I’ll be called. After this, I’ll see my son.’ But I’m always wrong.”
“Why don’t you leave?” asked Kaori gently. “You said you think about it sometimes.”
“I do,” Sharwin said. “I dream about seeing my son, about seeing his face, about raising him myself. But every time I think about that, I know that I would be living a lie. The war has taught me a lot, and there is a lot I would teach my son. But one of the greatest lessons I would teach him, would be loyalty. I could never do that if I had deserted my own Valkyrie to do so.” Sharwin drew a breath, steeling herself. “And that is why I will enter the Underdark. That’s why I will continue to do whatever Ullar needs me to, until I can see my son without betraying all I’ve sworn.”
Silence followed these words. The similarities between Sharwin and himself were not lost on Dan. They were both stuck in the war, both unable to be with the ones they most desired to see. But that was where the similarities ended. Dan would give anything, do anything, to see Heleer. Sharwin would not. She knew her horizon, she knew how to get to it, but there were lines she would not cross. Dan thought about that. Were there lines he would not cross? Or was his horizon and Heleer the only things which mattered?
“What about you, Ana?” Gideon said. “I know you never wanted to come on this mission.”
Dan looked at Ana. Her skin was pale, but in places it was reddened, evidence of her magic still visible. She looked frail, fragile even, but in her light green eyes there was a calmness Dan had never seen.
“I never wanted to be in this war, let alone this mission,” Ana said. “But that doesn’t change anything. As long as there are people for me to heal, I’ll go wherever I’m needed, even if that’s Utgar’s throne room.”
Gideon smiled. “Then let’s end this war together,” he said. “We get Valkrill’s amulet, and we get one step closer to victory, and peace for Valhalla. Then we can all get what we want.”
As they prepared to move out, the knights and ninjas lining up, Dan saw, from where he stood near the front, Gideon and Laelia talking. He had the distinct impression that Laelia’s confidence was slipping away, that her determination was deteriorating out of control. Gideon was talking to her, and Dan felt he must be trying to prop her up, to save her from the despair which was about to engulf her. But Laelia walked away. She wouldn’t let him save her. She wouldn’t let anyone save her.
Dan watched Gideon as Laelia left. He saw on his face only sorrowful determination. Gideon watched Laelia join the knights, and then turned back to the rest of the group. “Move out,” he called.
Dan looked back, the whole column of knights and ninjas behind him. None looked determined. None looked confident. Not one face looked like it was ready to enter the Underdark.
But that was exactly what they had to do.