Khiray floated through the black and tried not to remember. He succeeded surprisingly well. The peace granted to him by the all-encompassing Nothing drove the pain and the thoughts away. In the heart of silence he felt safe and secure for the first time since long. Here there was no doubt, no fear, no agony.
Actually, it was very pleasant here. The Fox saw no reason to leave the place of darkness. He didn't even know how.
There was nothing else in the black, of course - just he and a dim memory of what he once had been.
He wasn't sure how he got here. Or when. Or why.
The Why belonged to the things he wanted to forget. A very evil being cast its shadow on that memory. It wanted to destroy him. It had really tried to, in various shapes. One of those had once been his own. Before the place of darkness. Here and now there was no clear shape. Another of those forms had had a special meaning for him. Khiray couldn't remember what it had been, but it was connected with the place of darkness.
But it wasn't worth thinking about. Thinking meant remembering. Remembering was pain. He preferred it to float about in the dark, letting his consciousness melt away. In a short while even the slightest remains of memory would be gone. And sometime after, the weak connection to the form - the old self, the former shape - that still tortured him would break. His soul had gone to live in the place of darkness. The former shape couldn't exist without it for long. It would dissolve, and with it everything that had been a Fox called Khiray.
Only then the peace would be complete.
The stone colossus slowly trudged through the rows of houses. The Bears gazes at him distrustfully, but they didn't take action against him. They didn't even ask questions. Saljin was rather glad about it. She didn't feel up to answering any questions. Fortunately the Bears were very reserved, even now, while a figure wandered through their city they knew only from stories and who seemed quite impressive and eerie even to the strong, powerful Furrys.
She had no choice but to ask the Trolls for help again. Khiray hadn't waken from his absence, and she couldn't carry him all the way, even if she left back all of Ghanzekk's weapons - and she didn't want to do that. Khiray was not much lighter than herself, and her front paw was still partly disabled.
The Troll had agreed immediately. It almost seemed as if the Trolls were ashamed about not having helped her against Khezzarrik. They'd been hopelessly outclassed by the Demon and hadn't even tried to intervene. But courage and loyalty were no alien concepts for the stone beings, and in their own eyes they had violated both. Saljin didn't blame them; any intervention would have resulted in their destruction. But the Trolls seemed to judge their behaviour as some kind of failure and were keen on any sort of help that would put it right in part at least.
To carry Khiray to Bear Mountain meant for the Troll to be seen, to reveal to the Bears the whole race of Trolls who had lived in hiding for so long. But the Troll never hesitated a second. Saljin thought it difficult to read the faces of creatures who actually had no face, but she was sure to recognize consternation and grief in them.
The Troll hadn't said a word all the way, and even in Bear Mountain he didn't raise his voice once. He would probably remain a conundrum for the Bears - until the Trolls would introduce themselves by their own volition. Saljin didn't feel like explaining the context to the leader of the Bears or anyone else.
Half the crew of the 'Silver Ansicc' met her on the way through the city. Kinnih stared at the giant figure of the Troll and didn't say a word.
"What happened? Where have you been so long? What did you do to Khiray?" Pallys seemed less surprised by the Troll. Either he had known more about the stone beings than her own tale had revealed, or his long life had made him indifferent to those kind of surprise.
"I'll tell you later", Saljin replied brusquely. "We have to cast off."
"Does someone follow you?" Delley asked worriedly. "Shall I get a doctor for Khiray?"
The Foxtauress doubted that a doctor would be a good idea. She had examined Khiray scrupulously. Maybe some of his cuts would leave scars, but they would heal. In this respect, the Demon had kept his word: nothing he had done to Khiray would mutilate him or damage him forever. His body, at least.
She wasn't even sure Khiray would appreciate being examined by a doctor. She knew perfectly well what Khezzarrik did to him - and she could guess what his powers had forced the Fox to do. Nothing of this was a doctor's business. Curious questions were the last thing Khiray needed.
Even if he probably couldn't hear them.
"We aren't followed. Here, take the staffs." She dropped the frame with the magical gadgets. "And forget about the doctor. We cast off as soon as everyone's aboard." She took command naturally. She still didn't know much about river sailing, and there was no real reason to hurry, but she wanted to leave the city behind. And could they know whether to trust the Demon?
Just in sight of the harbor the Troll handed Khiray to her, turned around and went away without a word. The Bears looked after him, and probably hidden patrols watched the stone being on its way into the forest.
Kinnih admired the Troll until he had disappeared between the houses. Then he turned to Khiray. "Captain! Hey, captain!"
"He cannot hear you", Saljin stated and carried the motionless body to the ship. He was heavy - and more difficult to carry than just an unconscious person. The load in her arms felt like a stone. Dead and soulless.
"Whatever happened to him?"
"Demons" she said shortly and dragged the Fox into his cabin. Delley at least obeyed her command. A short time after, the engines were running, and the 'Silver Ansicc' cast off. Saljin didn't know what Pallys told the Bears. When she came on deck, the quay was behind them already. She could see Shooshun standing among the Bears and Otters.
No one waved them goodbye. Not even the old Tomcat. The sight of Khiray had made perfectly clear what was at stake - and what fate awaited them if they failed. No one but her knew that Khiray's sacrifice had practically bought safety for this city, and many others. Beladanar and Galbren were defeated, and the Armygan would survive.
At least she hoped so.
It was all a matter of Galbren's patience and the Demon lord's plans. She was no strategist, and she didn't know the situation in the country well enough to assess the future. Everything had become uncertain. And Khezzarrik might still reconsider his options and break the pact.
They gathered on the upper deck so Delley could stay at the wheel and listen to her at the same time. Saljin didn't want to tell the story a second time. Pallys, Delley, Kinnih. Pakkaht, Fryyk, Sarmeen. Even if she counted Khiray, they were only eight. Eight Furrys against all the Demons Beladanar had brought with him. That might be just three or four, after Hhrugha and the Bears were dead, but it could be fifty as well. And the most important part was that they still didn't have a weapon against Beladanar.
It was unutterably difficult for her to tell about the events. She left out certain details that were no one's business, and even this way it was bad enough. Just as if she had to live through it again.
No one nterrupted her. Even when she had finished, no one said a word until Delley remarked: "Damn the gods of fate."
"Gods don't have anything to do with it", Pallys growled. "Just Demons. Just the Demons."
Pakkaht of all those present seemed to be least dismayed. He had hardly known Khiray, after all, and wasn't a crew member out of enthusiasm for the cause. "So the Demons can't find us again?"
Saljin shook her head. "At least they can't get at us any more. I don't know the powers of their magic. It is possible that they still know where we are, and will try to intercept us."
Fryyk spoke up. "They don't need to, do they? There are only two big waterways from here southward. The one leading to Larynedd is held by Galbren's soldiers, the other one to Drun'kaal by the Demons."
"As long as Khezzarrik told the truth", Pallys interjected.
Fryyk waved the thought aside. "He had no reason to lie, rather, to tell the truth. Actually, it is in his best interest to see to Beladanar's destruction. Else, the Lord of the Worms could find a way back to Hell..."
Saljin rose. "I'm looking for Khiray." For her it was definite that Khezzarrik didn't lie. Fryyk was right: Ex-Gate could not allow Beladanar to leave this level ever. Even if the words of the pact practically forbid the Hell beings to open another gate, there might be magicians here who had the same ability. If Beladanar had the same idea and made a deal with such a sorcerer, he might still return home - and punish Khezzarrik for his intrigue.
As much as she hated the thought that Galbren might find more allies in this world than just Galbren, and that he might get away with his power games - the idea that Khezzarrik would pay for his cruelty pleased her. Ex-Gate was the winner in the game before it was even finished. He had gained everything, won everything, and he hadn't even to fear consequences.
On the other hand, Beladanar would punish him only because of his betrayal. Khiray's fate meant absolutely nothing to the Lord of the Worms, he would not even hesitate to do the same thing to the Fox just to satisfy his Demonic appetite. Whatever happened, she could never find true justice. She could just save her life and her mind...
"I'll go with you", Kinnih said.
The Foxtauress eyed the young Badger. He admired Khiray. She wasn't sure whether it was a good idea to let him see his captain in his current state. But it was too late anyway, and she wasn't sure about so many things that one mistake more or less didn't matter anymore. "As you wish." She could need help. She felt weariness in every bone, but she couldn't let Khiray just lie around with all the blood and dirt in his fur. That was the least she could do for him.
They returned to Khiray's cabin. The Fox hadn't moved a bit. "Can you heat some water?" she asked Kinnih.
"We've got bathtubs in the bathing room", the Badger replied. "Medicine as well, and bandages..." He scrutinized his captain. Bandages wouldn't help much - almost no part of his body had escaped Khezzarrik's knifes. But the wounds were already closed, even those that appeared rather deep to Saljin. Surprisedly she examined Khiray. Yes, the wounds healed with an amazing speed, as if a spell was working on them. Pallys? No, the Rabbit had been at her side all the time, and he didn't seem to possess some healing magic thingies. Khezzarrik? Hardly, the Demon was not interestend in Khiray's health. It was possible that Khezzarrik didn't want to damage his useful tool too much if he hoped for Khiray killing Beladanar. But a healing spell was so unlike the Demon that she dismissed the notion.
The Trolls! Of course. They were the only magic-gifted beings around - except if the Bears were hinding some sorcerers. And the Trolls even had a reason to help.
Testingly, she shook her injured paw. Indeed - the pain was gone, she could use the leg as always. Unnoticed, the Troll magic had done its work.
But that wasn't enough. Not as long as Khiray's spirit wandered aimlessly at the verge of madness.
But what should she do?
Together, they carried Khiray to the bathing room. Fryyk had mentioned it, but not showed it to her, and Saljin had been too busy with her own thoughts to prepare a bath for herself then. To carry water to the second deck and heat it seemed rather laborious and uneconomical. Why wasn't the bathing room on the lowest deck? Since Foxtaurs, like most Furrys, didn't sweat, they needed a bath less frequently than Oo'men, so she did without.
Now she longed for it - spending some minutes in hot water and forgetting all those dark thoughts. But it would be strenuous enough to draw water from the river for a single bath for Khiray.
The bathing room was not very big and contained two tubs that took most of the space - big enough for herself, she admitted yearningly, and unfortunately with an exorbitant capacity. Behind the tubs a frame of tubes and pipes with numerous wheels and levers graced the wall. One wall had a window - of course, there had to be some way to lower the buckets to the river -, the opposite wall was adorned by a cupboard containing some clean towels and numerous bathing essences.
They sat Khiray on the floor, and Saljin looked around in the room. "Where are the buckets?"
"Buckets?" Kinnih looked puzzled. "What for?"
"To fetch water, of course!" The Foxtauress pointed impatiently at the tubs. "A little water is really important for a bath, after all! And where do we heat it?" She got the unpleasant notion that warm water wasn't planned for.
"Oh", Kinnih made and stepped to the pipe frame, shaking his head. He swung one of the tubes ober the tub and operated a wheel and a lever. Inside the frame, something gurgled. "We don't need to fetch water. The engines power some ship-internal pump systems. Here, this lever regulates the power of the pumps. This wheel opens the valve for hot water, and this one for cold water. The heat loop heats the river water on its way up. There's never lack of hot water on a steamer."
Saljin stared at the pipe frame with big eyes. Water bubbled from the end of the swiveling tube. Incredulously she held her hand below it. It was warm. Warm water without effort - she didn't even know such a luxury from Golden Shore where they afforded some real extravagances. For a people that lived several months of the year as nomads, it was a major disadvantage to carry around big machines and equipment for something as unimportant as a hot bath, and there was no room in the villages that were only occupied for some months to install complex things that needed care and service. If someone wanted to have a hot bath in winter, he had to fetch water from the river and heat it. During the wanderings, hot baths were almost unavailable for lack of tubs, except when they found a hot spring.
Facilities like this bathing room surpassed her idea of luxury. Cabins with beds, shelves with books, all those small things that got carried along, the mere fact that one could surround oneself with more objects than one could carry or drag along - every single one of those things was only part of the lazy winter life for her people. But hot water, a bath that almost prepared itself - that belonged to the realm of fantasy.
Kinnih looked at her questioningly. "But the toilets as well have... Oh." He just seemed to notice that her anatomy made it nearly impossible for her to use the toilets that were constructed for two-leggers. She could read in his face that he wondered how she... but of course he knew how things like that were handled on less luxurious ships.
Nevertheless she felt caught and a little bit unclean. Not that she had used another kind of water for cleaning; it didn't really matter whether it came from tubes or out of a bucket. And the toilets emptied their contents into the river as well - what else could they do? But this ship seemed so much more civilized by its facilities.
To smooth over the situation, she fished several bathing substances from the cupboard and deciphered the label. She spoke the language of the Armygan fluently, but the writing was something she didn't use too often. Dek was better with the letters. Had been better. She sighed.
Together they could lift Khiray over the edge of the tub. The water was pleasantly warm and smelled of soap. It took a while to remove the dried blood from the Fox's fur, but finally his body relaxed and drifted limply in the water. That made work a little easier. Saljin hoped it was a good sign and not just deadly exhaustion.
Kinnih took some medicine, but they couldn't get Khiray to swallow it. He needed water - no one could survive for long without drinking. But their efforts were in vain. As long as the will to survive didn't return to his tortured body, they couldn't do anything.
The Badger put clean blankets on Khiray's bed, and they wrapped the Fox in them. He had to return to them out of his own strength. Only then there was reason to hope. Only then...
She prepared a bath for herself and told Kinnih to return to his post at Delley's side. The hot water was a pleasure. Did frequent baths do harm to the fur? Probably; the soap washed the natural oils from the hairs and robbed them of their protection. But right now it didn't matter to her.
Clean and refreshed, but still tired, she visited Khiray's cabin. She had her own room - rather, had had it, because the rock the ship had collided with at Dorn's Rapids had damaged that side of the ship and tore a hole into the wall. But she felt more at ease at Khiray's side for the moment.
Maybe she could protect him from the dreams, at least. He had a dream knife, after all. Making dream carvings for someone else was not as powerful as for oneself, but she had a certain notion what Khiray had done in her place.
It was not easy to find wood fit for carving, but Delley finally gave her some reasonably soft blocks. With her booty she returned to Khiray, lay down beside him and started to work. Most of her people had mastered the art of carving at least in broad outline - because it was customary to create one's own dream carvings, but also because the long winter evenings were not quite filled out with training and stories and the production of useful things for the summer. Saljin was not very good with carvings, but for her intent it would suffice. Not the resulting form was important, but the magic that tied the thoughts. The idea was important, the feeling, the magic woken in the wood. Those were the things that reached into dreams.
Hopefully, these dream carvings could even advance into the darkness where Khiray was now. There were limits, even for a magic as ancient as that.
Dek. You are my brother now, he had said to Khiray. Wherever you'll be, my spirit will watch over you...
Even in the night beyond dreams? Yes, of course. Dek of the Thousand Foes would not shrink back. Four legs, a bushy tail, a weapon in his hands. Saljin tried to model the face with a little more detail, but she couldn't produce more than a hint of muzzle and ears. No matter. She put the rough figure onto the little desk beside Khiray's sleeping place.
Whom else would Khiray wish to be at his side? His mother maybe - what had been her name? Ayashlee. He had only mentioned her once, and Saljin hadn't got any picture of her. A Vixen with Khiray's features... the arms stretched out to pull her son back from the edge of darkness. The dream knife slid through the wood as if possessed by a will of its own. The Foxtauress regarded the result with awe. It looked much better than she had expected. Khiray might not believe in the power of dream carvings - or rather, he didn't know about it at all. She didn't allow herself any delusions: he hadn't bought the dream knife back in Sookandil, when they first had met, because he knew about its meaning or respected its holy purpose. He wanted it because it had a Troll steel blade. But even though he had never experienced the power of dreams, he had always carried the knife with him, and it was attuned to his self now.
One side for the good dreams. One side for the bad dreams. A blade to separate the one from the other. A knife that didn't carve wood but dreams. Dream carvings to wander the dream realm and to protect the dreamer from the terrors of the dark. Dream carvings that collect the wonders of dreams for him and accompany him to the mysterious places deep within his own soul.
She spoke the old words in her own language while she worked on the third figure. Something to protect him from Demons... a Troll. Wood to stone. The unfinished and rough features seemed to become the Troll. The final carving glowed with steady power.
When she was through, her hand hurt from the unaccustomed and long work. But she felt far from finished. Two to five carvings were the traditional number to escort the sleeper. In this case, three didn't seem enough. She could sense their power already, but Khiray's dreams were much darker than those of a sick person or a child. The Fox was beyond nightmares. Three were too few. Four was the number, four to descend all the way.
But who would provide the model for the fourth carving? His father? No, that didn't make sense because his mother was already there. Delley? The Rat was his best friend, and one of his teachers. But Delley was a cynic who possibly didn't believe in the power of dreams. Khiray would notice that. Pallys? The Rabbit had lived with her people and knew its traditions. But the relationship between Khiray and Pallys was rather strained. The Fox wouldn't follow his old teacher without questioning. Perdition! She simply didn't know enough of Khiray. Whom would he expect in his dream? Someone trusted. Someone able to show the way.
Suddenly she knew the answer. She took another piece of wood and began the final carving. The knife obeyed her fingers in an uncomparable way and freed the hidden form from the wood. Four legs. Two arms. No weapon, but with hands holding an invisible friend in a protective hug. Her own face.
Her eye wandered up to the little statuette still standing on Khiray's shelf. She couldn't compare her work with that of the great master - Charizoon of the Eternal Wood. But it had to suffice for her needs.
Strange. She couldn't remember anyone ever to have made a dream carving of himself. Especially for someone else's dream.
She put the fourth figure to the others. The magic carried the carvings into dreams. Dream to dream. A blade to divide the good and the evil dreams.
It was still bright day, and she hadn't eaten anything this day. But the tiredness was overwhelming. She embraced Khiray with arms and legs. The Fox at least didn't struggle against her... but he didn't react in any other way to her touch either. His fur was fluffy soft from bathing, and his own scent was covered by the aromatic essences of the soap. Saljin stroked him gently. "Come back, Khiray. Khiray of the River, come back into this world, back to your place." Back to my side, she thought, but she didn't say it loud. Then she fell asleep.
Somewhere in the black void four carved dreams glided through the night and searched for the trail of a Fox lost in darkness.
The return of his body sensations was an almost painful experience. The darkness broke and his free spirit cloaked itself in frail flesh. He shook with disgust. He had been so close to the perfect freedom, and now... Arms. Legs. A head. A trunk. Every body part carried the memory of maltreatment in itself. No, that was something he didn't need.
But it made no difference whether he kept his eyes open or closed. The body stayed, and with it an Up and Down, an Inside and Outside he already believed far behind.
He stood on a black plane under a black sky. The beckoning Nothing was far ahead; so far that he couldn't even see it with his inner eye. He almost had reached it! What kind of powers cheated him of the fulfillment?
Warm water touched his fur. Hands moved on his skin... Hastily, he protected himself against those sensations before they could reach him with their full intensity. There were voices, but so far away he couldn't perceive more than a whisper.
No. No. No.
I don't have a name, he thought. I am a spirit, a shadow, a nothing.
He knew that on the other side something waited for him, on the other side of the pleasant Nothing. A whole world with blinding light, sounds, smells, sensations... Pain. And the laughter of Demons who regarded him as some kind of curious exhibit. Whose hunger sucked at him while Khezzarrik...
No. No names. There was no Khezzarrik. There was only the void that patiently waited for his entry. He started to run to cover as much as possible of the black plane. To get it behind. Between himself and the world. The humiliation. The voices.
The farther he got, the more silent the sounds became until they were finally gone. The sensation of water had gone as well. His arms and legs got numb.
A pale light started to illuminate the plane. The sky became grey instead of black, and he could see again. Fortunately the view was rather soothing. Apart from the plane and the sky and the faraway void - still black - there was no structure, no form, nothing that could disturb
him. He looked down at his body and noticed that he didn't cast a shadow. There were no cuts in his skin either, no
things but himself. He tried to concentrate. No memory. Only the void. He inhaled. Nothing. He exhaled. Nothing. And the blackness seemed to be much closer already.
Without tiring he ran on. Only when the grey dawn would set behind him, only when the black Nothing had devoured the shadow-world, the final peace would be his.
It had to be an echo. The echo of his silent steps. He didn't hear anything, not really, especially not
those strange voices. Only an echo. He ran faster, but the voice stayed. "Khiray!" Too loud, too clear. It didn't come from the "real world", wherever that might be. It came from the plane itself.
The smooth ground in front of him deformed, rose to a bubble, formed a shape. A figure he knew emerged from the grey mass.
"Dek?" He spoke before he could think - and wished he had kept silent. Too late: he had broken the silence and granted the form before him a name.
"Brother!" The Foxtaur embraced him with the weapon still in his hand. The sensation on his skin made Khiray shrink back. There was no sensation. There was no sight. There was no Dek -
"You have to come with me", Dek said. "This is no place for the living."
The living? The concept seemed familiar. As familiar as the names Dek and Khiray. Khiray was his own name. The name of this body. The name of the pain. No, he didn't want to go back. He wanted to continue his way into the unreality. The living? The living weren't his business.
"If I'm not mistaken, you're dead as well", he replied. That was another memory: he had seen Dek die. Once. When he himself was one of the "living". By a Demon's hand...
Demons. He passed by Dek and started to run. Demons. That were the ones he wanted to escape, yes. But the Foxtaur caught up with him and kept the pace. "Where do you want to go?"
Khiray pointed at the void. "There."
"Not a good idea. You've been there already. You almost lost contact altogether."
"That was my intention." He stopped. As long as Dek was talking to him, he didn't make any progress. Just as if words forced him to remember. And when he remembered, he ran in place without covering ground. Or even backwards. He had to lose this annoying figure. "Scram! You bother me!"
"I'll stay", Dek said. "I am a dream. I've been sent to pick you up." He pointed into the direction of the "real world".
Khiray made the mistake of following the gesture with his eyes, and immediately regretted it. The "real world" burned like fire. He had no place in there anymore. "No!"
Dek helplessly raised his shoulders. "I will stay. I'm not going anywhere."
The Fox sat down on the ground. "Then I won't go, too." If he was unable to get ahead, at least he could prevent sliding back.
The plane stretched a second time and spit out a new figure. It was a vixen, tall and slim, with a red cloth around her forehead. An imaginary wind tugged at her clothing. Khiray could imagine her standing on the deck of a ship, looking across the river...
Ayashlee. That was her name. And together with the name a flood of unbidden memories came. Warm dinner on a table. A towel around his shoulders. The sway of the ship under his paws. Riverfurrys carrying the freight aboard. A teat under his muzzle. Soft fur and a warm scent. Heartbeat.
His mother. The shape was his mother. She too belonged, like Dek, into the realm of the dead. "Accompany me", he pleaded. For some reason he wasn't ready to banish Ayashlee from his presence. But there was more...
A father. A strong figure standing at the ship's wheel. Laughter. Maps, spread on a desk. Gold in a secret storage. Fishing-rods and bait. A bow that Saswin had given to him. Saswin, yes. Another name... And Saswin was dead, murdered by Demons to realize a long and complicated plan...
So many dead. His life seemed to be ruled by Demons. It was all Galbren's fault. Beladanar. Khezzarrik...
No! No! He refused to think of Khezzarrik. There were no Demons here. Away, just away... He jumped up and ran on, followed by the two shadows from another world.
"Khiray, be reasonable!" his mother asked him. "You don't belong to the dead. But that's the place your way will lead to. Nothing except death is beyond the void!"
But he didn't care. As soon as he was in the darkness again, death would no longer have a hold over him. The perfect void didn't allow those concepts.
But the "real world" blazed behind him like an ocean of flames, as if he was sliding backwards right into it. Never! He could feel the heat on his back, but he wouldn't turn around and look into the inferno
again. Nevermore. He didn't tire. Somewhen he would arrive at the blackness.
"We will protect you, brother!" Dek explained. "We won't allow something to happen to you!"
"Too late", Khiray replied. "Much too late."
"No! You still can turn around. It is over. You are safe, and the Demons can't hurt you anymore."
Yes, they could. As soon as he turned around. If he just made a single step into the direction of the "real world". Then he would remember, and everything would begin anew.
"You have to return, even if you remember", his mother demanded. "Your life awaits you." She moved her hand, and a third shape materialized at her side. A powerful stone colossus, rough and unfinished, but reassuring in its imperturbability. "The memory can't hurt you. We are here to lead you through it."
"Why?" Khiray demanded to know. "Who sent you?"
Ayashlee pointed at the "real world". "She did. Go back to her. We are just dreams. Death has nothing to give you."
"Forgetting", Khiray corrected her.
Dek waved the thought aside. "That is nothing compared with life. If the memory would be the price to live again, I would pay it gladly. Life is so much better than the void."
"That's what you say!" Khiray laughed bitterly. Too much of his memory had drifted back to him through the grey sky. The pleasant numbness had disappeared. He could see now with perfect clarity, and the knowledge of all things that had happened - the knowledge of his life - came back to him piece by piece.
But he didn't want it. He didn't want to have any part of the flames. They would just burn him to cinders.
"Nothing bad will happen to you", a new voice said. It belonged to a female Foxtaur. "Four dreams guard you. Take our hand and accompany us through the fire."
"Khezzarrik!" He knew this delusional image. Oh, he knew it all too well! The promise of salvation that just ended in new torture. The Demon used that body. No, he won't follow that figure. And none of the others, either! He ran away. This time he seemed to be able to detach from the dreams, because they didn't follow, and the fires of the "real world" stayed behind. A short time later, he was alone again, and the grey of the sky became darker with every step.
He stopped where the plane ended. At his feet waited the void he longed for. The darkness stretched into all directions, cool and soothing, beckoning and promising. He could almost forget his body. And the flames. And the Demons.
He spread his arms and...
"Khiray!" No, not again that voice! It seemed to belong to Saljin, but he knew who was really calling him.
"Khiray of the River!" He hesitated. That was a name Khezzarrik couldn't know. Couldn't, because he had gotten it only this morning. Khiray turned around to face the Demon.
The Foxtauress waited just some meters behind him. Could he really discern sorrow on her face? Any emotion that wasn't just greed and spitefulness? Something that told him this was not the Demon Khezzarrik khi Valangassis?
There was nothing Demonic in this dream. Saljin stretched her hand out to him. "Come with us." Far behind her, the other three figures approached.
Hesitatingly, he raised an arm. "Can I trust you?"
"Forever." Their fingers touched, and there were new memories - warm fur and four paws, a tongue and silky ears, a luscious tail and all-encompassing wet warmth. And a sensation of faraway yearning. Foreign land. The river. A smell like spicy cinnamon and pepper. Closeness. Being hugged by a strange pair of arms... and that indescribable happiness. They were together. Love. And at the same time the fear of being torn apart. The knowledge that their ways would not lead into the same direction forever. The pain... But it was another kind of pain than before. Not easier to bear. But a price that had to be paid.
There always was a price.
He raised his eyes and looked at the fire. The black abyss behind him shrinked and drew back to the horizon. The "real world" had come much closer.
He already had paid a price. To the Demons. And the reason was Saljin. He had done it just for her sake. And now he stood here at the verge of the void, lost and alone, instead of celebrating his return with
Okay, not really alone. There were the dreams. "Khezzarrik!" he called out. But the Demon didn't answer. He looked at the flames, then into the grey sky and finally at the Saljin-dream.
Only memories. The Demon had gone. This was Saljin, the true Saljin (or at least a dream image of the true Saljin). She knew his name. His true name.
Only memories. And Khiray of the River wouldn't allow those memories to hunt him into darkness. There was more to the "real world" than just pain and scornful laughter. More than limitless degradation and eternal deception.
He took Saljin's hand into his right and Ayashlee's hand into his left. No Demon would ban him to a place like this. Not even Khezzarrik. Especially not Khezzarrik. The last victory would not belong to any Demon, but to Khiray. Khiray of the River.
Together, they stepped into the flames. He felt the fire, but it couldn't harm him. Only memories. The Troll and the Foxtaur went ahead and cleared the path for him. Back into the light. To the place where the real Saljin was.
She awoke from a touch in the night. Hands had dug into her fur. She jumped up, but there was nobody present.
The Fox blinked at her, sleepy and very, very weak. "Is that really you?"
"Yes! Yes, it's me..." Saljin held him below the arms and lifted him to the air like a cub. She turned him right and left and finally hugged him close to her. "Of course it's me!"
She hurried to pour him some. "You are back again!"
"I'm not sure where I have been", he stated in a weak voice. "Such a strange place." His gaze fell upon the dream carvings, but he didn't comment.
"Lay down and sleep a while." Saljin had the impression that Khiray would topple over soon anyway.
Dutifully, the Fox stretched out on the blankets. "I thought about something."
"You. And me. Where I've been, I had a lot of time... On the way into darkness. Before the void. I thought of you and your people." He paused for a moment. "You think you owe me something, don't you?"
Saljin hoped he wouldn't say it. What he had done made her obligation just more grave and difficult. But even his wish couldn't tie her forever to his side. He loved her, and she could understand him, but there also was a duty that led her back to her people. She couldn't - didn't want to disappoint him. But duty was a shackle, and if he submitted her to that chain - tried to bind her -, he would destroy everything that was between them. Maybe she loved him too. But as long as the shadow of the obligation lay on them (and between them), she couldn't admit any emotion.
The old tradition bound even her feelings. But if Khiray made use of it - even without knowing -, any emotion would be nipped in the bud. No love could survive the fetter of duty.
If he spoke, he would change everything. He might have a right to, after all he had done for her. He only searched for some happiness as well. But he could destroy it with a single word before it had begun. And she could not even prevent him from making that mistake. She looked aside.
"As soon as we have beaten the Demons", he said, "you will return home. Your people is waiting for you, and you are the last who can still bring them the news. I've got some gold; so you can buy your medicine in Drun'kaal."
She looked up, surprised. "Do you want me to go?"
He hastily shook his head. "No. No, never. But I have my way to go, and you have yours. And I somehow feel that those ways will part soon. I've got a ship and the river. You have your plains. I would like to..." He closed his eyes. "I would like to come with you. But my father has sailed this ship, and his father before him. I will never be a great adventurer. And I can't ask of you to stay... here, in a land that is not yours. I would like to have you at my side forever. But forever is quite some time, and not even dreams can withstand the pressure of time. Not dreams of faraway lands, not dreams of togetherness. I don't want you to believe that you owe me something. You don't. You are free, you can do whatever you want. I would like..." He fell silent.
Free? He released her from the obligation? He didn't appeal to her duty? "Thank you", she said breathlessly. "I... You don't know what that means to me." No, he really didn't know. "But I will be there for you when you need me. As long as our paths lead into the same direction." She noticed that she truly wished that would be the case for a long time to come. The feeling of relief and liberation was so overwhelming that she could only dimly see behind it what Khiray really meant for her.
But she had to ask a question. "Why?"
He smiled and looked at her. "I have dreamt... a strange dream. My mother was in it. She had said something to me, a long time ago when I was a cub, and I just now remembered. Like so many things... Isn't it strange how you can remember things in dreams you have forgotten in your waking hours?" His voice trailed off. Saljin saw he was close to falling asleep. She took the dream carving of Ayashlee from the bedside table. "What? What did she say?"
"You cannot catch a bird in your hand. If you try, you'll crush it. But you can stretch out a finger. Sometimes, a bird settles on it... and sometimes it will sing for you." He closed his eyes again, and his breath told her he was asleep.
Saljin didn't mind. Maybe he wouldn't understand why she cried.