A/N: I'm back! And now we get to hear from Dar.
Apologies for the poor formatting in the original posting of this chapter. Should be fixed now, but if anything looks terrible let me know!
Dar looked out over the river, taking in the beauty of the scene and the fresh morning breeze that flowed through its valley. He breathed deeply, tightening his grip on the sword in his hand, then froze.
They'd made camp at least half a mile from the river last night to avoid the paths of the night hunters who drank from its fresh waters. He'd woken early this morning to meditate on a mossy log just outside camp. Tao had been chatting away at Kodo and Podo, grumbling about rocks under his sleeping roll and breaking Dar's concentration. Ruh was hunting the next valley over to avoid any squabbles over territory, and Sharak was wherever Sharak went when he was feeling pensive. All of that was clear in Dar's memory. But why did he now stand on the riverbank holding his naked blade? Where were Kodo and Podo? And Tao?
At the thought of his friends, something shivered inside of him. Not knowing what prompted it, he turned around quickly and looked back into the forest, half expecting to see some large stalking predator. But there was nothing.
Nothing but signs of passage that hadn't been there yesterday when he'd scouted the area. His own near-invisible trail was evident to his practiced eyes - a soft impression in the loam, a bent bit of grass, and a faint drift of his own scent hanging among the branches.
But a second trail, unsubtle as a charging boar, wove across and alongside his own. Broken twigs, crushed undergrowth, and scraped bark echoed fear and desperation. A bright brush of wet crimson against green leaves spoke of injured prey fleeing a cunning and powerful predator. Human prey, he thought, troubled by the conclusion. He touched the leaves and his fingertips came away stained with fresh blood - the trail was only minutes old. And what of the predator?
Instantly more alert, he circled the area carefully, searching for further signs to complete the disturbing tale told by crushed leaves and broken twigs. A hunting cat had come this way earlier in the morning, but not for a meal. It's steps were closely-set and unhurried and it hadn't lingered. Day-old deer spoor and small, precise hoof prints dotted a small clearing nearby, and other small signs and rustlings of more timid woodland creatures breathed around him - all natural in a healthy forest. Yet something was not right.
Uneasy, Dar gripped the hilt of his sword more firmly, eyes flicking to the blade when it flashed in a stray beam of morning sunlight. His heart skipped. In an instant his eyes were back on the sword, which he now raised to examine more closely, resting the flat of the blade in his left palm.
Red streaked the steel and had just begun to darken with exposure to air. Blood. There was blood on his blade. Fresh, human…
"Tao," he whispered, horrified.
His knuckles whitened around the grip as he resisted the urge to hurl the blade into the river and forced his mind to calm. He closed his eyes and took a breath. It might not be true. The blood wasn't necessarily Tao's. He didn't remember what had happened, didn't remember stalking his friend through the forest like prey. Didn't remember kicking Kodo into a tree when she nipped his ankle trying to stop him. Didn't remember Podo's frantic pleading, or Tao's cry of fear and pain and -
Breath whooshed from his lungs as though he'd been punched, and he dropped to his knees in shock. He did remember.
Like a nightmare through a fog of cold bloodlust, he watched the events over again in his mind. Felt freezing tendrils grip his soul while he meditated a few paces from camp, felt that horrible thing fill him from his heart to his fingertips, felt it revel in his body's capacity for violence. Watched himself kick the pot of boiling water his friend had been preparing for tea, gasped as his blade lashed at the Eiron without warning or explanation, drawing blood. Choked on his own breath when Kodo's little body struck the tree and fell limp to the ground.
Dar's eyes snapped open and he fell forward to press his palms into the damp leaves, shaking his head in horror. What was this? What had he done?
His thoughts darted and flashed like so many river fish, scattering in every direction. With great effort, he tried to still them, slow them down so he could look at them one by one. Kodo. Tao. He needed to find them, needed to make sure they were all right. Make sure they were alive. Where was Sharak? And Ruh? Were they safe as well?
Leaning back to sit on his haunches, he ran his fingers through his hair and squeezed his eyes shut again, trying to remember how to breathe, trying to regain the centeredness he needed to call to his animal friends. Sharak first. Sharak could help him find the others.
After a moment or two of careful breathing and focus, calm returned to still the surface of his thoughts. Though his emotions still roiled with fear and confusion, his conscious mind was steady enough for what was needed. It was a forced calm, but it would suffice.
Knowing Sharak, his habits and preferences, he cast his mind on the wind to the east, following the thread of kinship he shared with his longtime friend. Unlike his other animal companions, Sharak could think like a man, and had been long enough in the world to understand love and loss, anger and fear. He would not refuse Dar contact because of the human's turbulent and confusing emotions. And because Sharak's mind was as keen and his will as strong as Dar's own, they could often speak with, or at least signal, one another at great distance.
As he expected, Dar sensed the sharp edge of Sharak's mind after very little searching. Sharak was hunting, working off a feeling of restlessness that head come upon him late yesterday afternoon. He was just swooping down for the kill, magnificent eyes focused and talons outstretched, the heady rush of fulfillment flooding his being, when he sensed Dar's desperate call. Like any hunter interrupted during a kill, he instinctively swiped at Dar's mind in frustration. But unlike any other wild thing Dar had ever known, he back-winged immediately and, with an apology, turned his full attention to Dar while his prey escaped to live another day.
Dar sent his own apology for the sudden inturruption, but Sharak brushed it aside as unnecessary.
What has happened? he asked.
Unable to explain properly, Dar opened his mind to let the relevant memories flow across the connection. It was all he could do to keep them under control. Sharak was a wise creature with great experience, but even he would break the connection if Dar's emotions threatened the safety of his mind.
Apparently he'd stayed coherent, because as soon as he finished relaying memories, the eagle sent a powerful suggestion to stay put.
Do not seek the others, Sharak ordered. I will find you.
Dar sensed Sharak turning westward and let the connection slide away. Still fighting his confusion and fear, he shifted to sit cross-legged on the leaves, ignoring their dampness and breathing deeply. Though he longed to check on his friends to ensure their safety, Sharak's warning had been firm. He knew he was in no fit state to make a sound decision, and he trusted the eagle's judgement. He would wait.