Chapter 42

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Teshin spent all morning and a long part of the afternoon looking for Mikai.

She'd deserted her favorite cavern, and the most disturbing thing was that Xefen wasn't there anymore either.

It was empty, save for a ragged blanket, a broken spear, and the cold ashes of a fire. The pool of water, deep inside the cave, stared back at Teshin with no answers.

Teshin remembered two other caves, both smaller, which Mikai used to call home. One was low on the southern slope – he tried that one first, only to find a colony of bats, roosting.

The second one was much higher, maybe two thirds to Ashira's summit, and it took him a while to find it again. The scenery had changed around it, trees and plants had come and gone, he supposed. But a small twisting stream, as well as a particularly large water-worn boulder, triggered his memories.

Teshin found the opening in the rock face, next to the short waterfall that fed the stream, and carefully crept inside.

There was a tangy smell that made him scrunch his nose. It took him a few moments to realize it was probably urine. Simultaneously, from the depth of the den came a low, almost lazy, growl. Nekaida.

Clan of the Nekaidaliked to believe themselves safe, impervious to becoming the big feline's prey.

Harboring no real desire to test that belief, Teshin hurriedly slipped out of the cave. Defeated, he started back down the way he'd come.

That meant his sister wasn't using those caves anymore. And he had no idea where her new ones might be.

I should've stayed with her that first night.

It gripped him as he walked. The day was hot and thick with clouds, a match for his mood. He felt rather lonely, and he had this longing, this yearning for kinship. For the company of someone who actually knew him. The real him.

Right now, Mikai was the only one.

Well, that wasn't entirely true, was it? There was Leithan.

His spirit brightened somewhat at the thought, which, in a way, surprised him.

Isn't it strange, being fond of someone I've known for such a short time?

But, Teshin mused as he walked, it was probably in great part because Leithan knew the truth. It helped alleviate the loneliness.

Teshin's legs ached by the time he returned to his hut.

He closed the door behind himself, and leaned against it. He squeezed his eyes shut. A headache had been troubling him for a while, pounding, pulsing.

It got worse now. When he opened his eyes, the wood-paneled walls swayed and tilted.

What's happening to me?

He stepped forward, tried to reach the table . . . Couldn't.

The pain of the headache stunned him, prevented his progress. Teshin half-fell, half-sat across the floor, and crawled back so he could lean against the wall, panting with the effort.

Thoughts escaped him. He held his head in his hands. His back arched and twisted. The only thing he wished was for the pain to go away.

It felt like his skull would splinter and burst. He thought he heard a moan. Realized it was his own.

Then . . . moments later – he couldn't know how long, lost track of time – reality shifted. Colors and textures faded, blurred, and disappeared. New patterns, possibilities, and senses tugged instead at his consciousness.

But was any of this really new, though?

No, he'd been here before. Except here wasn't the right word. There were no right words.

So he just experienced, because now was not the time for thinking – this he knew, without knowing.

And, many, many heartbeats later, when Teshin would finally come to again, wake up from this state, he'd be filled with a sense of details lost. As well as, shockingly, grief. Like he didn't want to leave. Didn't wish for it to end. He would wonder if it was because, in part, of the absence of pain. Of fear.

There had been a music about it. A melody. In sync with the endless, intricate yet simple patterns. Limitless connection, overwhelming, welcoming, familiar, almost—

But Teshin would try to remember, would think about those things later, alone, unable to fall asleep.

Because first, when he came to, he had company. The shaman, Etrikis, standing by the cold stove in darkness. Staring.

Teshin flinched, gasped, struggled to his feet, leaning against the wall for support. His legs only obeyed him with dizzy weariness, halfway numb from being rigid for too long. Outside, the day had faded and gone. No shred of light filtered in from the window's cracks.

But one candle was lit on the table, its flame flickering, feeble glow outlining Etrikis' silhouette.

"H-How long have you been here?" Teshin asked, finding his voice weak and raw.

The sense of longing for the . . . other place . . . struck him then. It came, shivered through him, and was gone just as abruptly. But he didn't forget. Such longing was too peculiarly fierce to ever forget.

"Not long," Etrikis said, jerking Teshin back to reality. "No, I just got here. I knocked, but there was no answer. Someone had seen you walk in earlier, so I knew you were in here. I grew worried—"

"You didn't think that maybe I was asleep?" Teshin replied, and his anger wasn't faked.

Etrikis gave a small bow. "I'm sorry, Xefen. Atiet," he amended, as though catching himself. "I was worried about you. We haven't . . . seen you in some time, now."

"I was looking for my sister," Teshin said. "All day, I looked for her and couldn't find her. Do you know where she could be?" Real concern laced his voice now.

For Mikai. But also Xefen.

I should've asked her to wake him up, the first chance I got. I should've convinced her somehow.

At least we'd be together.

Teshin hadn't realized, until now, just how much he truly missed his brother.

The dimness played to Etrikis' advantage. Teshin couldn't read his expression at all.

"I'm sorry, I don't know where she is."

Something about his tone was . . . off. But Teshin couldn't put his finger on it. Mercifully, his headache was gone, thank the spirits for that, but instead he felt awfully tired.

It's really too bad spacing out and into that strange . . . otherness . . . doesn't seem to count as sleep.

"I'll try to find her again soon," Teshin said wearily. "Could you . . . I'd like some privacy."

Another bow, outlined in candlelight.

"Of course," Etrikis said tonelessly.

Without looking at Teshin again, the shaman stepped past him, opened the door, and left. It slammed shut again behind him.

Teshin let out a long, heavy sigh. He rested his head against the wall, staring into darkness, lonely as a child lost in the forest on a night with no moon. 

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