Chapter 8

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"So how come you know so much about the klar plants?" Leithan asked.

Teshin shrugged. "It's what we do. Or did. With Mikai and Xefen. Until he got too busy with other things, and then it was just me and Mikai. Well, and a few others, too – we had our little team. Picked out the klar, prepared them."

They were hiking up a sloping expanse of ground where the brush was scarce enough for them to walk side by side. As Leithan watched his profile, he saw Teshin's eyes darken.

"And we did some . . . experiments. Made some interesting discoveries," Teshin said.

Leithan raised an eyebrow. "Experiments? You mean, you guys got high all the time?"

Teshin laughed, the darkness gone.

"Well, there was some of that," he admitted.

Leithan smiled, waited a beat, then asked, "What happened, then?"

Teshin answered with a question of his own, "What does the legend say? The one about Xefen?"

Leithan shook his head. "I don't know. Nothing. That Xefen mysteriously vanished after defeating the Rengleam. Never to be found again."

Teshin looked surprised. "That's it?"

"I'm guessing a lot of stuff got left out?" Leithan tried.

Like how you and your sister are somehow magically still alive . . .

"Your guess is correct," Teshin said musingly.

"Now I'm curious," Leithan admitted.

"It's a long story, aki."

"I like long stories," Leithan replied, stealing Teshin's earlier statement.

And Teshin stole Leithan's retort with a rueful smile, "Not this one. Here's a hint. My family is insane."

"Well, maybe you'll tell me one day."

"Maybe," Tesh said, and they kept on in silence for some time.

How far is Mikai's cave anyway? Damn. Never realized the volcano was this huge.

The voss was starting to fade, slowly. The forest around him began to turn black and menacing. Maybe he hadn't smoked enough for it to last. As long as he stayed close to Teshin, though, he should be fine. He seemed to know where he was going.

Hopefully.

At some point, just after crossing a tiny stream, and as the moonlight snuck through trees and temporarily bathed them in its glow, Teshin stopped and grabbed Leithan's right arm.

"What?" Leithan said, alarmed.

"There's swelling there," he noted, looking at the back of Leithan's hand.

Cold dread gripped Leithan's gut and coiled there. There was swelling, and it was red and big. With a tiny red dot in the center like a bullseye. He instantly felt queasy, which was dumb, because he'd felt fine just seconds ago.

"Holy shit, what the fuck is that?"

"Venomous spiders are rare," Teshin said, disconcerted. "I'm sure it's just a harmless skin reaction, or something."

"Or something? One time, I heard a story about a girl who got bit by a spider on her arm, and then there were all these tiny baby spiders inside her arm. Is this what's happening? Do we have to cut off my hand?"

Teshin stared at him, unimpressed. "That escalated fast."

"I'm kinda freaking out here," Leithan said, as if it wasn't obvious.

Shivering in a gust of cold, damp wind, he decided he was sick and tired of being in this stupid forest. He'd much rather be home, in his room at the temple, plus he'd bet the heated tank still had enough water left in it for a shower.

"I have to ask," Teshin said, jolting him out of his hot shower reverie, "have you been true to the Zei Yelta, of late?"

Which roughly translated as the path of the spirits. A code of morality for the Yoxai, as dear to them as Veyaism was to the Rengleam.

And if you wanted to be superstitious about it, you could entertain the belief that if you did bad things, the spirits would go all karmic on your ass and be out to get you.

Leithan stared. "Don't tell me you actually believe in that shit. You think, what? That I somehow angered the spirits and so they sent a venomous spider to bite me, to punish me?"

"You do seem to swear a lot," Teshin pointed out.

"So? I like swearing."

"Maybe there's too much anger inside you," Teshin offered with a wise little shrug.

"That has nothing to do with it!"

"Are you sure?" Teshin hid a twitching smile in the corner of his mouth.

Leithan sighed, dejected. "You're just messing with me, aren't you?"

"I usually am. Come. Even if it is venomous, you'll be all right, I promise. Worst case, we'll ask my sister for help. She'll have something."

Leithan trailed after him, feeling all wrong and despondent now.

"She has antidotes for all poisons, or what?" he asked after a little while, skeptical.

Teshin gave him an over-the-shoulder wink. "The Mikai I know has something for everything."

Leithan hoped so, because after a couple more minutes, he started to feel feverish. Every nearby noise startled him and he stuck close to Teshin. Sometimes, his shoes even brushed the back of Teshin's as he overestimated the speed of his steps.

Then, in an uncanny display of empathy for Leithan's mood – one he really could've done without – the sky began to storm.   

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