The forest was growing increasingly dark as the sun continued its long descent, and Shira wondered when the man in front of her was going to stop. They had been walking all day, and the masked figure hadn't shown any sign tiring. Nor had he stopped to eat or drink, even when the sun had been directly overhead and uncomfortably hot.
“Sir, perhaps we should stop soon,” she said hesitantly. “You must be getting tired.”
“No,” the man said simply. Shira sighed quietly to herself. She couldn't see his face, but he sounded old, with a deep, gravelly voice that was always calm and self-assured. It galled her to think that someone his age could do so easily what she found difficult.
They walked for another mile or so before he suddenly sagged, dropping to his knees in the middle of the path and groaning in pain. “Sir!” Shira ran to him, alarmed. She knew he must have been pushing himself. “What's wrong?”
He simply pointed over his shoulder in response, and Shira reached for her handgun, expecting an attack. Instead she saw only a slight, crumpled figure lying in the middle of the path some way behind them. The Vari that had been carrying most of their bags – she had completely forgotten about him.
“Oh...you were taking strength from him?” she said in sudden realization. The man nodded.
“Wake him up. We need to cover a few more miles tonight,” he said, sounding frighteningly weak. Shira hadn't realized just how much he had been relying on the Vari for energy.
She set down her pack and walked over to him. He was younger than she had thought, only a boy really, with the typical pale hair and skin that most Vari had. The caste mark on the back of his hand was a black cross with a single red character at the bottom, too small for her to read.
“Hey, wake up,” she said, prodding him with her foot. When that didn't work she tried kicking him, but he gave as much of a reaction as a corpse would. “He's out cold,” she told the masked man, who had climbed to his feet and was brushing the dusk from his ornate black cloak.
“Carry him,” he ordered. Shira sighed and slung the boy over her shoulders. He weighed almost nothing, but their various bags were heavy and awkward, and she had to keep moving them from one hand to another to stop from dropping them.
The masked man turned off the path and waded through the undergrowth, holding onto the trees around him to support himself. When they reached a small, sunlit clearing he eased himself onto a flat rock nearby, his shoulders sagging with weariness. Shira dropped the Vari boy onto the ground along with the backpacks. The clearing looked easy enough to defend; to one side the ground rose sharply in a steep, bramble-chocked hill, while a broad, fast-flowing river made entry from the east impossible. The only real way for someone to enter the clearing was the way they had come, and she would see them long before they got close enough to do anything.
“You'll have to set up camp, Shira,” the masked man said wearily. “At least until the Vari wakes up. Don't let your guard down, though. Right now I don't have the strength to ward off any sort of attack.”
Shira cast a baleful look at the unconscious boy. It wasn't her place to question the masked man's orders, but doing such a menial task was beneath her. She forced down her annoyance and set up the two small tents from one of their backpacks. Both of them were covered with intricate High Speech characters, and she had to make sure that the fabric wasn't twisted or bent in a way that would obscure any of them. As long as none of them were covered the tents would be waterproof and completely resistant to fire – Shira had similar characters running down the back of her coat.
The masked man suddenly stood up and made his way painfully over to the Vari boy. He stared at him intently for a moment, then pressed both of his hands together tightly, as if he was trying to squeeze one into the other. Shira felt a familiar, uncomfortable tingle at the back of her neck, a sure sign that some sort of invocation was being used. She watched curiously as the masked man traced shapes in the air over the prone figure and mumbled to himself. Some people were frightened of magic, but it had always interested her.
“Awake!” he cried suddenly, striking the air above the boy with one hand. There was a muted ringing sound, like a bell being struck behind a heavy door, and a brief flash of light. The boy shuddered and sat up groggily, clutching at his head as if in pain.
“You can sleep later,” the masked man said gruffly, his voice returned to its previous strength. “Fill the canteens with water from the river and cook our dinner.”
The boy bowed low and then scrambled to his feet, clutching one of the bags to his chest. There was something about him Shira didn't like, something she couldn't quite put her finger on. Then again, she didn't really like any Vari, and it especially annoyed her to think that even a powerful Ishtli like the masked man was dependent on them. Usually she refused to accept missions where one was necessary, but this...well, it was an unusual situation.
The sun had gone down by the time Shira and the masked man had finished eating. The meal had consisted of a brown, mostly tasteless powder with pieces of dried meat, all cooked together in a pot of boiling water. It was supposed to be a substitute for 'real' food, but Shira thought they could have been a bit more creative with the taste.
Even though it was pitch black outside the flickering light cast by their campfire, Shira wasn't particularly worried about an attack. They were many miles from the main conflict zones now, and if anyone had been trailing them they would have made their move by now. Mountain lions were about the only things she would have to worry about until they reached the capital.
The masked Ishtli sighed softly and folded away the map he had been poring over, tucking it into one of the deep sleeves of his robe. He reached up and ran a hand over his mask agitatedly, scratching a fingernail along the dark, polished wood.
“Leave me,” he said abruptly. Shira bowed and stood up without hesitation. She walked over to where the Vari boy was sitting on the ground, a few feet away from the fire. He hadn't eaten with them, but there were enough leftovers for him to feed himself later. When he realized that his master was taking off his mask he quickly turned to face the opposite direction, so that he and Shira were both staring into the absolute darkness of the forest.
It was incredibly shameful for anybody to see an Ishtli's face, except for family members or close friends. Shira wasn't naive enough to think that she was worthy of such an honor, although she thought that this particular Ishtli was growing to trust her. He had requested her as his bodyguard on three separate missions, and although she didn't know his identity, she had been told by several people that he was quite high-ranking and extremely powerful.
“So. Tell me your name,” he said after a few minutes. He sounded no different with his mask off than he had with it on, to Shira's mild disappointment. She had heard rumors that the masks used magic to alter an Ishtli's voice and further hide his identity, but apparently there were just ordinary pieces of wood after all.
“Sir? You know my name already,” she said uncertainly.
“Not you. I was talking to the Vari,” the man replied, sounding faintly amused.
The boy went rigid with fear and glanced up at Shira as if for instruction. She just glared at him fiercely and shrugged. If he got himself into trouble, it was his own fault.
“Master...I have no name,” the boy said, keeping his tone carefully neutral. The Ishtli started to laugh, a soft chuckle at first that quickly became a loud bellowing, as though he had just heard an incredibly funny joke.
“Oh, I wasn't expecting that!” he managed to say once he had his breath back. “Everyone has a name, boy, even if they're not supposed to. What did the other Vari laborers in Tun call you?”
He hesitated for a moment, clearly not wanting to tell the Ishtli but too frightened of him to disobey, then said in a small voice, “Rasul.” At this the man burst into another uncontrollable fit of laughter, guffawing loudly enough to disturb a few sleeping birds in the trees around them.
“Ha! Who gave you that name, boy?” he asked when he could speak again. Shira was completely confused at this point, both by the Ishtli's sudden openness and his newly acquired sense of humor.
“I don't remember, master. It must have been a long time ago,” Rasul replied, clearly as uncomfortable as Shira with his master's odd behavior.
“Whoever it was, they had an odd sense of humor,” the Ishtli said, quickly regaining his composure. Shira heard him rooting through one of the bags, the gentle hiss of fabric on fabric, and an odd, sharp metallic sound. “You can turn around now.”
Shira did so immediately. The Ishtli had changed into a different set of robes, these ones a dark navy and red, and had put his mask back on. It was impossible to equate this tall, anonymous figure with the jovial man who had been speaking so openly with a mere Vari only moment before. Perhaps the mask really did to something to them, she thought with a slight shiver. If that was true, she didn't envy them their power one bit.
“I'm going to go to sleep. You should as well, Shira. We need to start moving at dawn tomorrow.” He disappeared into his tent without waiting for a response. Shira turned to Rasul, who was still sitting in the same position he had been when the Ishtli was asking him his name. She couldn't fathom why the man had suddenly taken such an interest in him. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him, at least not that she could see.
“Put out the fire before you go to sleep,” was all she could think to say to him.
Rasul waited until Shira had climbed into her tent before standing up, slowly and carefully. His head ached, sending great throbbing bouts of pain down the back of his neck. The pain had worsened throughout the day, a mixture of his natural tiredness and the effect of his master constantly draining his energy. For the first time since he had been bought by the Ishtli back in Tun, he was genuinely afraid that the man would simply drain him dry one day. He didn't know if such a thing was even possible, but at that moment it certainly seemed likely.
He stumbled over to the river and splashed his face with handfuls of icy water and scrubbed a wet hand through his unruly blond hair. It made him feel slightly cleaner but not much better. The headache was impossible to ignore, made it painful even to think. He lay beside the river and simply willed it to go away.
When at last it started to fade he almost cried out in relief. His master was falling asleep. He could feel the exact moment when the connection was broken, an odd sensation that always reminded him of when someone switched off a loud radio that had been playing nearby – you didn't realize how unpleasant the sound had been until it was gone.
With the pain gone his stomach took over and demanded food, and Rasul greedily fell upon everything that his master hadn't eaten, which was quite a lot. When he was full he washed out the pot in the river and left it beside the fire to dry, then searched through the bags for a few blankets to make a bed with. They were waterproofed (Through conventional means rather than magic) but he didn't think it was going to rain. It was the height of the Summer dry season, and the sky had been cloudless for days.
Rasul kicked dirt over the fire, extinguishing it and plunging the clearing into total darkness. He felt his way back to his makeshift bed and collapsed into it, falling instantly into the deep, grateful sleep of the truly exhausted.
The next day his master's good humor vanished as suddenly and inexplicably as it had come; he struck Rasul twice for not packing the bags fast enough, and demanded that Shira quicken her pace until she was they were all practically jogging along the forest path.
The attack came at noon.
Rasul was the only one of the three who saw it coming, and there nothing he could do to stop it. He was trailing a few feet after Shira, weighed down by the bags and just beginning to feel the effects of his master siphoning off his energy when something caught his eye in the trees above them. They were immense, with massive boughs and thick canopies of dark leaves. For the briefest moment there was a slight shimmering in the air, like a heat haze but more confined. A black shape, vaguely man-likeand flickering strangely, came hurtling out of the air above them. It landed in front of Shira and cut her open in one smooth motion, too quickly for Rasul to see a sword or knife, and then it was rushing straight towards him, impossibly fast.
He dived out of the way instinctively and landed in a heap on the ground. It was on him in an instant, lifting his shirt with one hand and ramming the other into his stomach hard enough to drive the breath out of him.
“There, I'm done!” the figure cried desperately. It had the voice of a young man, but he couldn't see any sort of face - entire body was covered in that weirdly distorted black cloak. It threw him aside unceremoniously and simply vanished, folding in on itself into the air. The entire incident was over in only a few seconds.
Rasul couldn't move. He could still feel where the man (Had it been a man?) had pressed his fingers into his stomach as if they were still there, pushing against his skin. His master was kneeling beside Shira and tracing characters in the air above her, frantically trying to staunch the flow of blood from her chest with magic. Although he was casting a spell, Rasul felt none of the usual pain or nausea. The connection between them was gone.