“So what did you think?”
Dan looked back. Otonashi was behind him.
“What did you think of your first battle?” she asked.
What did he think? Dan didn’t know. He had killed two drow. How was he supposed to feel? All he knew was that he felt very little at all. The realization felt wrong to him, and yet he was oddly at ease with it. Surely that couldn’t be right. Was something wrong with him?
Gideon had led them all out of the tunnel, and after everyone had been checked over by the healers and healed accordingly, they had set out again, moving quickly now that there was nothing in sight but an endless plain. There was a small cluster of hills they needed to reach before daybreak. They couldn’t stay out in the open.
“What did you think?” Otonashi repeated. They were walking quickly, but she didn’t sound the least bit out of breath.
“I don’t know,” Dan said, a little annoyed at her persistence. “I don’t feel anything, alright?”
“Do you think you’d want to do it again? Kill, I mean?”
“No,” Dan said quickly. It seemed the right thing to say, but he wasn’t sure if it was true. He felt his gun at his side, and knew perfectly well that he would have no second thoughts about using it again.
Otonashi was silent, but Dan sensed she knew what he had been thinking. “All the great warriors,” she said, “the ones who really make it, the ones who everyone fears… they feel at home in battle. They don’t necessarily relish it, but they aren’t repulsed by it, either. They just… belong there. Do you think you belong there, Dan? In battle?”
It was Dan’s turn to be silent. Did he belong in battle? Now that he thought about it, it actually made sense. He knew perfectly well that he was constantly seeking something new, something different every second. What else could constantly change other than battle? Was that Dan’s horizon? It couldn’t be though. Right?
“I… I don’t know,” Dan said.
“Don’t worry,” Otonashi said, in a comforting tone Dan would never have expected from her. “Sometimes it takes a few battles to know where you belong. The important thing is to stay in control. Once your emotions take over, then there’s no telling where you’ll end up.”
“You speaking from experience?” Dan guessed.
Otonashi took her time in replying. “Maybe,” she said quietly. “But it’s true; just look at Jaseff.”
Dan glanced at Jaseff, who was walking a ways in front of them, head bowed, Trela close by his side. “What about him?” Dan asked.
“You saw what he did when the fighting broke out,” Otonashi said. “He fears battle, but instead of controlling his fear, he let it rule him. That’s the mark of a coward.”
“I’m not a coward,” Jaseff said.
Dan looked up. He hadn’t noticed Jaseff slow, allowing himself to drift closer to them. He now walked beside them.
“I don’t say it to hurt you,” Otonashi said, again in that surprisingly comforting tone. Dan felt that she meant it.
“I’m not a coward,” Jaseff muttered.
“Then you should stand up in a fight,” Otonashi said, her voice still gentle. “Watch those about you, channel their emotions, not your own fear.”
“Easier said than done,” Jaseff said. “Fear is all I have.”
Both Dan and Otonashi were silent. Dan knew there was more Jaseff could say.
“It’s all I’ve ever had,” Jaseff finally said. “It kept me alive. If there was a threat, you ran. Simple as that. I’ve listened to it all my life. Trying to control it now is like trying to stop breathing. It’s too late.”
“It’s never too late,” Dan said, surprising himself. “You can control it, trust me.” He remembered his own obsession with escaping, and how, with Heleer’s help, he had eventually subdued it. At least temporarily. He wouldn’t tell Jaseff about that part.
Jaseff shook his head. “I’ve tried,” he said. “I’ve been trying for years. I just wish I could be more like Trela. She jumps right into a battle. She isn’t afraid of anything.”
“Of course she is,” Otonashi said calmly. “The fear in battle is what keeps us alive. Otherwise we would all charge in and be killed within a second.”
“Maybe,” said Jaseff, “but if she is afraid, she never shows it. And neither does anyone else. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t even be on this mission. I probably wouldn’t even be in Jandar’s army for that matter.”
“What do you mean?” Dan asked.
“I probably would have run away by now,” Jaseff said, sounding disgusted with himself. “Found a hole to hide in until the war was over. Without Trela, I wouldn’t be able to face anything.”
“Jandar must have summoned you for a reason,” Otonashi said. “He must have seen something in you.”
“Whatever he saw died off a long time ago,” Jaseff said. “Leave it, Otonashi. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but it’s not going to work.”
Otonashi was silent for a moment, and then sped up to the front of the line, where she resumed her normal pace, alone.
“What would you do if you went back?” Dan asked Jaseff. “If Jandar sent you back to Toril? Away from this war?”
“There’s war on Toril too,” Jaseff said. “We’re always fighting the drow and their allies.”
“The war can’t be everywhere though,” Dan reasoned. “What if you didn’t have to fight?”
Jaseff looked up after a moment. “Then I would have everything I wanted. Trela wouldn’t though. She needs this. She won’t admit it, but she needs action, something to struggle against. I don’t.” He sighed. “But there’s no point in talking about it. I’m never going back. None of us are.”
“Why not?” Dan asked quickly.
Jaseff shrugged. “They’ve tried before,” he said. “The other Valkyrie have tried sending people back through the wellsprings, but they can’t do it, not without all of the amulets. Ullar’s failed at least twenty times.”
“What happens when they try?”
“Usually nothing. Once an elf was teleported into the middle of Utgar’s territory – an accident Einar is interested in replicating with an army – but that’s it. This war is no closer to ending than when it began, so we’ll be stuck here for a long time. Probably the rest of our lives.”
Dan wanted to tell Jaseff how close the end of the war really was – if for no other reason than to give him some hope – but he knew he couldn’t. So he said nothing.
They walked on in silence. So the other Valkyrie had tried to use the wellsprings to send people back. That was more than Vydar had done, at least as far as Dan knew. That didn’t help him, however. He was set on his path now. Vydar had been right: he could either help him end the war and hope he honored his promise, or betray what he knew, and prolong it with no end in sight. Dan was stuck now.
The hills they were making for came into view just as Dan noticed that the sky was lightening ever so slowly. They still had a good hour before dawn, but they would have to hurry. Gideon seemed to know it, for he urged them on with greater speed.
As they walked, Dan noticed that Laelia wasn’t as talkative as she usually was. In the forest, she had gone from person to person, often (as far as Dan could tell, since he could hear only a few words) with the result of an argument. He had thought she rather enjoyed it.
But now, she was walking beside Gideon, completely silent, without looking up. She was slumped forwards, and didn’t at all look like her usual self.
Gideon seemed to sense something was off. He put his arm around Laelia and said something Dan couldn’t hear. However, Laelia only shook her head, and shrugged Gideon’s arm away.
“What’s wrong with her?” Dan asked Jaseff, nodding towards Laelia.
“Depressed,” Jaseff said.
“Why?” Dan asked blankly.
“She wanted to kill Caius herself. Now that Gideon killed him for her… she’s been building up to this for years. I knew her well. She had become obsessed with it. Killing him had become her one great goal. Now it’s been denied her, so…”
“But,” Dan said, “Caius is still dead. Why would it matter who did it?”
Jaseff scratched his head. “All I have is theories,” he said, looking sideways at Dan.
Dan spread his palms. “All I have is time.”
“Well,” Jaseff said, “you remember how she said Caius raided the village she lived in?”
“Trela and I were in Lindesfarme at the time, and we were sent in as healers. A lot of Laelia’s family was wounded – in one way or another – and her father, Crixus, had it the worst of all. Einar even called Ana in to try and save him, but there was hardly anything she could do.
“While I was there, trying to keep Crixus alive, I couldn’t help but overhear what else was going on. I’m not sure exactly how, but Laelia’s mother had apparently been put down her whole life, told she would amount to nothing, that kind of thing. When she was summoned, she made something out of herself, and helped Einar’s cause more than once. So, naturally, she tried to instill what she had learned on her daughter.
“With her father barely able to eat, Laelia was going through a dark time. In the raid, Caius had done more than injure or kill everyone she cared about; he had stolen her family’s wealth. They were left with nothing. The only reason they had a roof over their heads at all was because Gideon’s mother let them live with her.
“Laelia knew she would have to join the war to support her mother, but she was convinced she would be turned down, thinking she wasn’t good enough. So, naturally, her mother did what she had always done, and told her the opposite: that she could be just as good as anyone else, better even.
“I think,” Jaseff paused a moment. “I think that’s why she had to kill Caius herself. Caius was the one who had destroyed her life. If she could destroy his life, then I think she would see herself as better than him. As more capable. And I think she needs to see herself that way. I think what her mother said had the wrong effect: by telling her that she could be as good as anyone else, I think it implied that she didn’t start that way, and now Laelia feels like she has to always prove herself. That’s why she won’t let anyone help her with anything. That’s why she had to support her mother herself. And I think that’s why she had to kill Caius herself. And now that Gideon both robbed her of that opportunity and saved her life in the process… you get the idea.”
Dan watched Laelia up ahead, walking slowly despite Gideon’s urgings. Was Jaseff right? Had killing Caius been Laelia’s one goal, the one thing she was aiming for? Had it been her own horizon? Dan saw her in a new light. If what Jaseff said was true, then he was looking at someone who had tried to reach their horizon, and had failed.
What if that happened to him? What if he never reached his horizon?