Chapter 11

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The cave was exactly how Teshin remembered it.

From high on Ashira, a stream wound down the south-western slope, branching off into several rivulets, one of which ventured all the way to Mikai's favorite cave. Through a crack in the rock, it trickled, or dripped depending on the mood of the sky, forming a pool in the dark confines of the cavern.

Torch in hand, Mikai guided him deeper than he'd ever been before, past this pool and through one last narrow, twisting corridor of jagged stone. He held his breath as they reached a dead-end – a small, roughly circular, low-ceilinged, earthy-scented chamber. In its center, a mattress of palm fiber and coconut husk and, lying across it, a body covered in thin linen.

Mikai delicately gripped the cloth with the tips of her fingers and herded it down, gathering it at his legs.

Teshin approached, loomed over him. Something caught in his throat, tangled feelings stormed, restless, but mostly and before anything else, he frowned in consternation.

"Why is he like this?" he asked Mikai. "Is it normal?"

It was Xefen, undeniably. He was identical in appearance to Teshin save for tiny details that were hard to catch. Clothed in modest, uncluttered garb, he lay still as a statue, slim-fingered hands joined on his flat stomach. His hair was slightly longer than Teshin's, but not by much.

Teshin wondered if Mikai cut it frequently. Wondered, uneasily, not for the first time tonight, what else she had needed to do.

His twin was ghastly, skin no longer touched by the sun, but that was true even of Teshin, if he inspected his own hands.

No, it wasn't just that.

Xefen had the stillness of a dead man. His skin was drawn tight, lips an unnerving grayish color, veins nowhere to be seen. His chest didn't go up and down, no pulse fluttered at his throat.

"Mik, he's dead," Teshin protested weakly, chagrined, reaching for his brother's hand, though he couldn't be sure why.

Mikai swatted his arm away, quick as a frog's darting tongue, before he could touch Xefen.

Teshin stared at her with wide, questioning eyes.

"Don't make him dirty," was the only explanation she gave.

Then, as carefully as before, she secured the linen back over Xefen.

"That's enough," she said, finally returning his stare, big green eyes intent and gleaming in torchlight. She wanted him to leave.

He stepped back, but stopped there. "At least tell me he's still alive?" he pleaded.

She nodded, once. Back to avoiding his gaze. His heart leapt with hope.

"So," he said, gathering his thoughts. "This is what tuly does? I . . . I was like this too? Before tonight? All this time?"

She studied the ground, held her torch steady beside her head, the red of her hair shining with it.

Another nod.

What Leithan had said earlier came back to haunt Teshin.

One hundred and sixty seasons. Two lifetimes – in fact eighty seasons represented a lengthy, full life for a Yoxai.

All the spirits in the sky, help my soul.

"You . . . that's how you kept us alive, after that night?" Teshin asked, as gentle as he could. He didn't want to push her, but he needed answers.

Once more, she nodded.

So far, so good.

He swallowed, uneasy.

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