A tag to the episode ":White Tiger"
Contains major SPOILERS for that episode
Dar woke to the faint light of dawn and a blank feeling of loss. For several moments he lay still, not sure why he was feeling this way. Then, memories from the day before rushed over him and he closed his eyes in a futile attempt to banish the vision of Curupira, trussed up by serpents and trapped motionless on the bottom of the lake.
He curled up tightly on his side. ĎMaybe it was a dream,í he thought desperately.
He knew it hadnít been. There was an empty spot in his soul. Heíd never before realized that he always had a warmth, an awareness of Curupira: a spot in his heart that she alone held.
Sheíd been a part of him for so long. Heíd grown up for her and because of her--grown into the powers sheíd given him. At first heíd been--not really afraid--but wary of her threats, her moods, her demands. But, slowly, that had changed. Heíd always trusted her as far as he himself was concerned--in spite of her occasional threats to "suck the life out of him." He trusted her--well, as much as it was prudent to trust any demon--to care for the forests and animals; he was less trusting about other things. Tao, for instance. Dar could still feel the cold steel of panic in his chest when sheíd appeared after Ruh--infected by the diminutive demon Ketzwayoís magic--had injured Dar. Tao had been working to cleanse his wounds when the demon had firmly ordered Tao to follow her. For a brief, terrifying time, Dar had believed--or feared--that Curupira would hurt or even destroy Tao, to punish Dar for failing to protect her animals.
She hadnít hurt Tao. Tao wasnít even frightened of her, although surely anyone with sense would be. No matter what she might have threatened when angry or disappointed, sheíd never willingly harmed her chosen Beastmaster.
And, lately, sheíd changed somehow. The petulant, spoiled little girl was no more. Sheíd gone from ordering him around to teasing and flirting to--to--what? Her eyes the day before as sheíd asked him if he would leave with her--turning away when he mentioned Tao. Then, warning him, begging--then finally ordering him--to keep the promise heíd made her.
Annoying, capricious, demanding, flirtatious, arrogant...but then, as he had seen her at the last: vulnerable, lost, alone...but loyal to the end. Loyal to her forests. Loyal to her animals.
Loyal to her Beastmaster.
~"If you canít save me, save my forests, my animals! Use the powers I gave you to protect them! Promise me!"~
And he had promised...never really understanding what she meant until it was too late to do anything but obey the promise she had forced upon him.
He drifted to sleep again, and he dreamed....
~The cold mist swirled around him; the cold dank smell invading his nostrils. Panicked, he turned in helpless circles, searching desperately, searching for--
No one was there
He was alone. Truly alone.
Everyone whoíd ever meant anything to him gone, taken away, killed, stolen.
His parents, his people.
Kyra--taken once by the Terrons, then by the Ancient One, then, finally, brutally murdered by one of Zadís men.
Kodo. Podo. Sharak. Ruh.
Dar shot awake with a gasp, jerking upright, heart pounding frantically.
He recognized bright sunlight, bird-song, the comforting smell of wood-smoke.
Dar let his breath out in a sigh of relief, falling back on his elbows. A wave of reaction swept over his body and he trembled, closing his eyes.
He heard the note of concern in Taoís voice and responded to it. "Iím okay, Tao."
He stayed as he was for a few minutes, feeling the warmth of the sun warm his shivering body; hearing the chortling of Kodo and Podo and Ruhís soft contented rumble; the trickling of water over stones in the nearby creek. The moss felt as soft as velvet under his arms. He took a deep breath, inhaling greedily the scents of smoke, of wild onion and herbs and other, even more tempting aromas. His eyes snapped open as he identified them. "Tao, youíre cooking?"
"I figured we needed a hot breakfast today," Tao answered, not looking up from what he was doing. He had dug a small, shallow hole near the fire and filled it with red-hot coals. Over these he had placed a flat, thin rock. A wide, shallow gourd sat on this improvised stove. Tao stirred the mixture inside with a carved wooden spoon. "Before you ask, I donít know what kind of egg it is. Kodo brought it to me."
Dar looked into the bowl, recognizing scrambled egg, sliced tubers, onions, herbs, and -- "Cheese?" he asked in surprise. "Donít tell me that Podo brought the cheese!"
Tao grinned. "No," he admitted. "I traded for it in Xinca. Iíve been saving it." He wrapped a cloth around his hand to remove the bowl from the heated stone, setting it before Dar with a flourish. "My people call this Hutmanís breakfast." A shadow crossed his face at the mention of his vanished tribe.
"Why Hutmanís breakfast?" Dar asked, watching as Tao used a wedge of tuber to scoop up a small portion of the cooked mixture.
"Because when the Hutman would come around to re-thatch all the roofs before cold season, everyone would pay him with items of food. Potatoes, onions, bacon, cheese...then heíd combine it all together for his meal. Be careful," he added. "Itís hot."
"Well, of course it is," Dar smiled. "You just pulled it off the fire." He sampled a bite, nodding appreciation. "This is good!"
The two of them ate quickly, finishing most of the food but leaving a portion for the ferrets. Dar chuckled as Podo shot him a look before diving headfirst into the bowl.
"Whatíd he say?" Tao asked.
"He likes what you do with eggs," Dar responded easily, rising and going to the creek. He took a long drink, then scooped handfuls of the icy water over his face and neck.
Shivering, he glanced up at the sky, greeting Sharak thankfully and absently noting the sunís position. He moved to Ruhís side, placing his hand on the great catís head while their eyes met in silent communion. The warmth and security of their bond filled the Beastmasterís soul.
Tao hadnít moved from his place by the fire. The ferrets, having scoured the bowl clean, launched their furry bodies at him with chortles of glee. "Hey! Mind your manners, you little rats," he mock-protested. He glanced up, smiling, as Dar joined him.
"Itís late. Mid-morning. You should have woke me earlier."
Taoís smile vanished. "You needed sleep. After yesterday..." his voice trailed off.
Dar hadnít noticed before, but now that he thought about it, Tao looked terrible. His face was pale, with smudges of exhaustion under his dark eyes. "Did you sleep at all?" he asked suspiciously.
"No. Not really. I couldnít sleep. Oh, I made something for you."
Tao picked up a small pot near the fire. Inside was a pale yellowish cream. Curious, Dar dipped his finger into it. The stuff smelled faintly of lavender and lemon grass, and the skin on his finger immediately went numb.
"Do I eat it?" he asked, straight-faced.
Tao laughed. "Well you could, but your tongue would fall asleep after the first bite. Itís an ointment for your wounds." He gestured at the angry marks of battle that marred Darís smooth torso.
Reminded again of the day before, they both fell silent. Dar dabbed the ointment onto the cuts, feeling their fiery sting immediately ease.
"Why couldnít you sleep?" he asked abruptly.
"You think too much," Dar said automatically. Tao didnít respond, just stared into the fire. Dar saw a shiver pass over his frame. "You were thinking about Curupira?"
Tao nodded, then shrugged. "Her...the mist...all of it. Iara. It all seems like a dream--a nightmare. Like it didnít really happen...but it did."
Dar stared into the fire in turn. "I know. Itís almost like it happened long ago, instead of yesterday. Like it was a story I heard as a child. But...it did happen. Curupira--I canít feel her anymore." He touched his forehead, then over his heart. "Sheís gone here." Glancing at Tao, he said quietly, "I tried to save her, you know. Tried to reach her. But I couldnít. And--sheíd made me promise to...save her forests, her animals. Iara said sheíd let her go if Iíd leave this place and go with Iara. But--"
"You couldnít do that," Tao finished for him, gently. "You know Curupira wouldnít have wanted that."
Dar closed his eyes, trying to banish the picture of the little demon as heíd last seen her. "I know," he whispered. "She kept warning me about *my* death, but...that last time, I think she knew *she* was in danger. She told me how to stop Mohan--"
"Mohan? Is that the white tiger?
Dar nodded. "Iara tricked him...cursed him. Told him she would turn him into a man if he killed me." Dar frowned at a sudden thought. "But...if he was trying to kill me...he could have attacked me any time. That mist--things were so confused. *I* was so confused. Especially after--" he stopped.
"After the animals and I disappeared?" Tao asked steadily.
Dar nodded. "Yes." He pulled his knees up to his chest and clasped his arms around them. "I donít understand," he whispered. "Why would Iara want me dead?"
"I donít think she did," Tao said unexpectedly.
"Remember what you said? About our futures being predetermined and we could do nothing to change them?"
Dar shuddered. "I remember saying it," he said. "I even remember believing it." He shook his head. "But thatís *not* what I think. But yesterday...it was as if I was outside my body--watching myself, unable to--to--" he extended his hands in frustration.
"Unable to act," Tao said. He was still staring away from Dar, into the fire. "Thatís the way I felt." He took a deep breath. "I donít think youíre going to like what Iím thinking."
Dar stared at him. "Tell me," he demanded.
"All right. But...Iím still puzzling this out, I donít have a clear picture yet. Umm, I donít think Iara wanted *you* dead at all. No matter *what* Mahon may have thought he was supposed to do, she really didnít want him to attack you. Because, as you said, the tiger could have got you anytime. He could have attacked me, for that matter, in the cave...he walked right past me. And another thing: when you were fighting Zad, the tiger, and the sentinel...or when you *thought* you were fighting them...you werenít moving like yourself at all."
"What do you mean?"
"Dar, Iíve spent a lot of time watching you fight, remember? Youíre smooth, flowing, focused. Not yesterday. You were moving like you were a half step behind yourself. It was three against one..." Dar saw a smile briefly cross Taoís face, "And although that would usually be even odds against you, yesterday you were at a disadvantage right from the beginning. As if you were already ill, or injured."
Dar cast his mind back. "I donít really remember the fight," he said in surprise. "I just see the mist."
"Oh yes, the mist. Dar, I think Mahon was stalking you. Not necessarily for the purpose of attacking you, but more to scare you."
Dar frowned. "Tigers donít think like that."
"No, but Iíd be willing to bet thatís *exactly* the way Iara thinks," Tao said grimly. "Dar, it was all a game. A game, with Curupira as the stakes. Everything that happened yesterday--the tiger stalking you...that feeling we both had that something was out there, Destine, the animals disappearing, me being taken from your side...and that mist! That cold, wet, mist!"
"Tao, slow down. I donít understand--?"
"It was all designed to get at you! To--" Tao moved his hands in circles, apparently searching for the correct words. "To... wear you down. Exhaust you. The more energy you used--mental, physical--the more exhausted you became."
Dar nodded. "Okay. So?"
Slowly, wincing, Tao pulled his knees up to his chest in a mirror image of Dar. Resting his chin on his knees, he said, "I thought about this all night. I kept thinking, why? I also thought, how did Iara defeat Curupira? Theyíre both demons. Iím no expert on demons, but I would think they would be about equal in power, you know? And another thing...Curupira was on *her* home ground, wasnít she? Not Iaraís. That should have given Curupira the edge. But Iara defeated her.
"Curupira couldnít have been a--pushover. If she had been that easy to beat, Ketzwayo could have done it when he tried. But he *couldnít* beat her. Because *you* were in the way. Remember? He couldnít defeat Curupira as long as *you* lived."
"But Iím still alive," Dar pointed out. "And Curupira *is* defeated."
"Yes, but sheís not dead. Iara didnít kill her." Tao stopped, to take a breath, apparently. "I think, when Curupira gave you the power of the Beastmaster...it set up some kind of link between the two of you. Think about it--you said, earlier, that you couldnít Ďfeelí Curupira any more, you knew she was gone. I think there was some kind of energy flow between the two of you. Either she gave energy to you--and as you got more and more fatigued yesterday, she kept sending more energy to you, until *she* was exhausted and easy for Iara to defeat. Or Curupira drew energy *from* you, and as you tired there wasnít anything for her--"
Dar stared at him in horror. "Do you mean--Iím responsible for what happened to her?"
Tao sucked his breath in through his teeth. "No! Dar, donít think that! Thatís *not* what I meant! It was out of your control. Besides--" Tao stopped and seemed to try to collect his thoughts. When he went on his voice was calmer. "Dar. Think about it. You said yourself, Curupira seemed to know she was in danger. She could have left...run away--"
"She asked me to leave with her...well, she asked me if I would," Dar mused.
"Yes, but *later*, she *told* you to protect the animals. To sacrifice *her* if necessary, to protect *her* animals. Sheís not dead, Dar. As long as *youíre* alive, as long as her forests and her animals are protected, I donít think she *can* die. She might be trapped in Iaraís world, but maybe, someday, she will be able to get free. To come back to her own world."
For long moments there was no sound in the clearing save the crackle of the fire and Ruhís sleepy sighs. Finally Dar nodded. "I promised her Iíd take care of her world. I will, no matter what," he finished with steely determination.
Tao smiled. "And Iíll help you," he added quietly.
Dar looked at him and smiled. "Yes, you will. I think Curupira knew that, too." He thought briefly of how Curupira had called him to her, using Taoís voice. He hadnít told Tao that part of the story and didnít now. Instead he said, "You know, when you were talking earlier about how I felt, you never said Ďfrightenedí. I was, you know. I was terrified. Not about *my* possible death, but about *yours*.
At Taoís look of shock, Dar went on. "I told you I wasnít afraid of my own death. And Iím not. But...facing *your* death--that scares me. After Kyra died...you held me together. Gave me the reason to keep going." He took a deep breath. "If itís true, that I was Curupiraís strength--well, then, *youíre* my strength."
Tao studied him for a long minute. "Thank you," he said finally. Then a grin crossed his face. "Even if I talk too much and canít seem to stay on my feet?"
Dar laughed. "Even if," he agreed. "Besides, you didnít fall at all yesterday."
"Well, actually, I did," Tao admitted. "After I got separated from you, I fell into that cave." He moved his legs, wincing again.
"I saw the marks. But I didnít count that--it was a booby trap. The opening had been covered over with leaves and grass." Darís voice sharpened. "Did you get hurt?"
"Well--" Tao hesitated.
"Tao!" Dar said warningly. He moved closer to his friendís side. "Where?"
Carefully, very carefully, Tao extended his legs. Dar could see now that the left one was bare except for a length of cloth wrapped tightly around the ankle. "I donít believe you," Dar muttered, loosening the bandage to reveal angry red swelling. He poked and probed, eliciting a choked cry from Tao. "I donít think any bones are broken," he said finally. "But itís badly sprained. Weíd better stay here today. Itís late anyway and you donít need to be walking on this. And you need to soak it in the creek." He stood up and reached down a hand to help Tao to his feet. "Why didnít you tell me about this earlier?"
Tao made a sound halfway between a gasp and a laugh as he cautiously put weight on the injured foot. "Youíre not going to believe this. I was so busy thinking about--well, about everything else, that I forgot all about it!"
Dar rolled his eyes and regarded his friend with affection as he eased him down on the creek bank. "I believe it."
Tao hissed as the cold water covered his foot. "Dar," he said suddenly. "One more thing. About Curupira." He hesitated. "I didnít know her nearly as long or as well as you, but I donít think sheíd be sorry about the way things turned out. She loved--"
Dar nodded. "She loved her forests, her animals."
"Yes. But thatís not what I was going to say. She loved you, Dar. As much...maybe more than her animals. She loved you, and she wanted to save you from Iara. Just as she trusted--trusts--that youíll protect her animals."
Dar looked away from Tao. He stared into the rapidly-rushing water of the creek, seeing not it but instead the calm lake with Curupira trapped at the bottom. He could hear her voice again in his mind.
"Save my forests, Beastmaster. Protect my animals."
"I will," he whispered.