Note: This first chapter has always been my least favorite, I just can't seem to get it to be less dull without taking out too much essential information. If anyone can think of some way of helping out with that, please don't hesitate to review and share your thoughts! It's getting a bit better each time I rewrite it, and special thanks to Lynn K. Hollander for some invaluable insight and suggestions here.

Part One: Shaeen Feen Ila (The Times We Share)

Chapter One: Yakar (The Righteous Path)

"What were you thinking, putting those two together?! They'll never complete the yakar!"

"Calm yourself, Emar. That is precisely why we paired them up."

"You're setting them up to fail!" The man who spoke, though dwarfed by the high seats and raised dais upon which the five other occupants of the room sat, seemed surprisingly formidable, cloaked in righteous anger and armored in his indignation. The council he stood before could do nothing but mutter and stare down at their shuffling feet. "You are deliberately sabotaging their careers and, worse, ruining their lives!"

The man at the head of the council, in the middle seat of the long table, shot back a swift denial. "Nonsense, Emar. They are healthy lads, and young. They will find a new calling in life, and a new trade to pursue."

Emar just shook his head stiffly. "You know better. There is no failing the yakar. You complete it, or you die--you all know this."

The council shuffled their feet and murmured amongst themselves, because they all knew Emar's words to be truth. Then the head of the council leaned forward a bit.

"Now, Emar, we understand that your concerns are legitimate and are not to be taken lightly, but don't you think you may be overdoing the theatrics just a little bit?"

"We admit that they are powerful, and each has great potential. That potential is the reason they must not succeed. If either Sarran or Avain were to become baeleen'kar, the village would surely descend into chaos."

"That's not true!"

"But it is. Neither of them will ever be accepted by their peers, and this will lead to the disruption of our peace and perhaps even open conflict. This cannot be allowed."

"So you would sacrifice two young lives…"

"…for the good of the village! Surely even you can see that, Emar!"

But Emar shook his head slowly. "No. I see only a power mad council seeking its own advancement and using its esteemed position to eliminate all threats."

"Emar--"

No use. The man was gone.

----------

"Look, here's how this is gonna work, Sarran. I'll go fetch the shikareen, and you can just…wait here."

Sarran scoffed derisively at very though. "No one can make the yakar alone, idiot. Especially not you. One of the purposes of this test is to teach the importance of teamwork and trust." Sarran turned to look at his companion.

Avain, who had clearly not listened to a word he said, disappeared from sight just then around a corner of the stony corridor, lit from above by ensorcelled flames along the vaulted ceiling. The yakar had been designed within the confines of a series of caverns and passages drilled deep into the mountain.

Sarran shook his head in exasperation and began to trudge after his ignorant, impulsive teammate. What a drag.

There were four other teams of two taking the yakar today. The first three teams to reach the end and claim the shikareen there would become baeleen'kar…if they could make it back to the village without losing their prize.

That was where Sarran had intended to come in. Whoever returned to the village first won the title, no matter how they had come upon their shikareen. But he had been paired with the infamously incompetent Avain. No matter. Sarran excelled at adapting to his ever-changing environment.

As Sarran passed through the heavy stone door leading into the first chamber, he took note of the two panels on either side of the wide corridor. The obvious task had, apparently, not been so simple for Avain, who, by the looks of it, had attempted to hit first one button, then the other, triggering a trap that had spewed daggers all along one wall. Idiot. But he must have figured something out eventually. Somehow, he had managed to hit both panels at once, opening the passage into the next chamber.

The next chamber held the bloody corpse of a shapeless, scarlet Meep. Sarran knew a great deal about Meeps; indeed, they had been taught about all sorts of Others at the ihari-kar. The Meeps were not terribly dangerous, if one knew how to handle them. Their main strength lay in their ability to paralyze a perceived threat with nothing but a glare from their main eye, the only one of the seven not set on a long, thin stalk above their heads. Sharp three-inch fangs rounded out their arsenal. All one had to do to defeat a Meep was provide an adequate distraction and sneak up on the thing, an incredibly simple task if one brought a friend along, since the stupid creatures could only focus on a single target at a time. But how had Avain beaten this one?

I wonder…

Initiates were instructed to enter the yakar unarmed, and, for a moment, Sarran wondered if Avain possessed even less honor than most people gave him credit for. Then he noted the plain steel hilt that protruded from the Meep's main eye socket and regretted the harsh thought. The knife was identical to the ones from the trap in the previous room. Sarran wondered if Avain were more competent than he let on, if he had sprung the trap for precisely this reason, if…No. He dismissed the idea and attributed the Meep's death to sheer dumb luck.

Sarran found Avain in the next cavern.

At first, Sarran could not determine the nature of this room's challenge. Then he reached the edge of a clever trap hole and crouched down to peer over the rim. The walls were smooth and flawless and round and touched either edge of the chamber. There was no way around. Avain slumped against the far wall, openly exhausted. He was covered in blood, and Sarran doubted all of it was the Meep's. His clothing was a mess, sliced open from a handful of near misses with the knives from the first room, but the boy did not seem to be badly wounded, just a bit tired. The streaks of blood smeared across the smooth stone at his back gave some indication as to why.

Avain looked up, having finally taken note of his companion. He shook his dark, lank, sweat-soaked hair from his face and glared at his teammate, daring him to say something.

Sarran, who had never been one for words, took the challenge anyway, just because it came from Avain. "Idiot." He flicked his gaze all about before pursing his lips in annoyance. The walls of the hole stood just the right height for a couple of boys to escape. If they worked together. "We have to do this together."

Avain staggered to his feet with a monumental effort. "Not…a chance," he gasped, leaning heavily against the wall. He glared at Sarran, daring him to respond.

Sarran rose swiftly, but hesitated on the brink, poised to leap down into the pit. "It's the only way."

"I don't…need your help…"

Even I couldn't do this alone. "Of course you do."

"You're so…so arrogant…! Everything's…so easy for you!" Avain lurched away from the wall, his heated glare the same deep black as Sarran's. But the passionate fire that lit it now set him apart. "I can do…just as well! I can! I just…" He trailed off, swaying unsteadily.

Idiot. Sarran jumped down to join his teammate. "I'll go first. Give me a hand up."

Avain did not move.

A bit peeved, Sarran reached for his arm, intending to force Avain to kneel so he could stand on his shoulders and reach the edge. Avain, battered as he was, jerked away faster than Sarran would have thought possible. Avain glared as he backed off a step.

"Don't you dare touch me!"

Sarran hid his impatience and tried to look at the situation from a rational point of view. He knew Avain's story, all about how everyone who had tried to care for him, even his parents, had wound up dead.

After the death of his second caretaker, the council had been forced to declare the child old enough to live independently, mostly because no one would take him in. Avain had been granted a room at the ihari-kar. Vicious rumors of guardian demons and otherworldly influence had kept the world at a distance, and only superstitious fear prevented the villagers from chasing him off or killing him outright. Avain had lived all of his young life alone and isolated from the world around him, a stranger in the only place he had ever called home. His seemingly impulsive decision to enroll in the ihari-kar at the tender age of eleven and begin studying to become a bael'kar had taken everyone by surprise.

Avain was always messing around in class, and everyone suffered for it, making him a very unpopular student. But, when it really mattered, he always managed to squeak by, though Sarran attributed his progress more to pity points than anything else. Though, Sarran had to acknowledge the fact that Avain did, at the very least, put forth the effort. Many times, Sarran had found himself training long after regular class hours, but Avain had always remained even longer than him. While most young people took five or more years to complete the required training prior to their yakar, Avain had passed every test and fulfilled every requirement in just three. And while this was not unheard-of (after all, Sarran had done the same thing) no one had expected Avain, of all people to do it.

It really wasn't all that surprising that the two of them had been partnered up, Sarran mused. No one really wanted Avain to succeed, and pairing him with the youngest and most inexperienced teammate possible should have been the surest way to see him fail. The boy's flippant attitude and fiercely autonomous nature would have torn any semblance of teamwork to shreds, had anyone else been involved. But Sarran had come too far to fail now. While he understood his teammate's reluctance to surrender the independent spirit that had sustained him these past fourteen years, he simply didn't care.

I have a job to do, and nothing can interfere with that. I won't allow it.

Sarran, bracing himself for a fight, closed the meager distance between himself and his partner. "Let's do this, Avain."

For a moment, Sarran thought the conviction in his eyes might be enough to sway his teammate. But then Avain withdrew. "Not a chance. How do I know you'll help me after you're up? You could just leave me here!"

"Then you'd be no worse off than you were before. Come on, do you really think this is the worst challenge we'll face? Bumbling and incompetent as you are, I'd rather have you at my side than stuck down here. Now get down on your hands and knees and give me a boost."

Avain gritted his teeth in clear reluctance and did not move for a long time. When he finally did, he ignored Sarran's instructions and cupped his hands before him.

Sarran stepped forward and placed a steadying hand on Avain's shoulder, gleaning an instant of cruel pleasure when his fingers discovered a deep wound there. But it would not do to hurt Avain. At least, not yet. Sarran shifted his grip and stepped into the supportive cup and thrust himself upward, surprised by the strength his companion revealed with a sudden shove that lifted his groping hands to the level of the top edge of the wall. Sarran latched on, and nearly fell back in surprise. His right hand had come down on something sharp. Sarran clenched his jaw and slid a bit to the side, managing to haul himself up onto the rocky ground beyond. He paused for a moment, his cut and bleeding fingers curled into a tight fist, until the pain receded enough for him to lean over the edge and clasp the arm Avain proffered.

As soon as he rolled onto the flat ground, Avain twisted the wrist he held and examined the shallow wound. "You're hurt." He grimaced in sympathy.

Sarran jerked away. "So are you." He turned around, seeking their next path. The brilliant spot of sunlight at the end of the long, straight tunnel hurt his eyes, accustomed as they were to the dim glow of the magical flames.

"We're almost done!" Avain shouted gleefully. He leapt to his feet and took off down the narrow tunnel.

"Wait!" A feeling of ominous dread settled deep in Sarran's chest. Something bad was…

It happened so fast; Sarran nearly missed it. An invisible trigger activated with a nearly inaudible click. Avain stopped in his tracks and turned toward the source of the noise. A half-dozen of the plain, razor-bladed knives shot out of hidden crevices in the wall behind him.

Avain whirled about just in time to snatch the leading knives by their hilts, right out of the air, winning himself the moments he needed to skitter away from the other four. What? Sarran did a quick double take. Avain had never been particularly good at working with knives. Where had this come from?

He must have landed on another trigger, but this time, Avain was ready for it. He threw himself backward, executing a sketchy somersault and an equally awkward landing, right on top of a third trigger. Avain fumbled a bit, but managed to avoid serious injury by tossing the knives he held and knocking the two nearest him off course. This could not continue much longer.

A glittering line of knife tips appeared in the ceiling. They would not shoot straight down, Sarran was sure. If they did, they would be too easily avoided. Avain noted the threat, and leapt back, just as any other person would do.

"Get down!"

Sarran was moving before he knew what was going on. He launched himself off the ground and tackled Avain. The pair of them slid together across the rough loose stone and dirt of the cavern floor. One of the deadly little knives caught the fabric of Sarran's pants, and they jerked to a halt.

After a brief moment, Avain wriggled out from beneath Sarran, making little grunting noises of pain as he picked sharp rocks from his Meep bites and the nicks left by the numerous traps. Sarran pulled the knife pinning him down free and tossed it away with a grimace of disgust. He pushed himself to his feet. "Let's go."

Avain watched as Sarran started forward--and fell through the floor. Sarran experienced a curious moment of freefall before he jerked to a halt.

The boy looked up at Avain, who had caught the back collar of his shirt, then down at his dangling feet and the endless void beyond.

"Now we're even," Avain declared.

Sarran stifled a sigh. What a drag…

----------

After what seemed to Avain like a thousand miles and a million more traps, two bruised, battered, and thoroughly beaten boys emerged into the sunlight at the base of a mountain. Avain had not realized how far they had come. The valley they came into was in full bloom, a sheltered, fertile haven amidst the imposing mountains that surrounded it on all five sides, rendering it inaccessible by any means other than the path they had just traversed. And, Avain supposed, four similar paths cut through each of the other mountains. He looked up at the sky. It was well past midday. Avain groaned.

"There's no way we're one of the first three teams!"

"I don't know about you," Sarran muttered, taking stock of their surroundings, "but I've come too far to fail." He headed for the center of the valley.

Avain glared after him. Sarran was such a snob, an arrogant, egotistical snob. He was always the best at everything, and everyone knew it. Avain hated him.

But, for now, they needed each other. Avain rushed to catch up.

They found the shikareen set on a rack on a raised platform near the middle of the valley. None of them looked the same. In fact, the only vague similarity common to all six was the distinctive shape, that of two wide, flat, curved blades attached to either end of a short wooden haft. Not even the blades were uniform. Some were longer than others, some were more slender; some were plain, others were engraved; some were steely blue, others the deep gray of iron; some flashed bronze fire in the afternoon sun, others seemed dull and listless, the color of rust. Avain's eye was drawn to one on the end with wider, but shorter, blades than the rest, blades that gleamed silver, as though made of tin. Sarran paused just short of their goal, and Avain drew even with him.

"Something's wrong," Sarran muttered, nearly inaudible. Avain did not respond, but slipped two of the four knives he had secreted away into his companion's belt.

"All of them are still here," Avain noted aloud.

"We cannot be the only ones who survived," Sarran protested.

Avain ignored him and danced ahead. "Why the sour look, Sarran? Pick your prize!" He reached out and brushed his fingers across the short wooden haft of the nearest shikar.

Suddenly, yet another of the slender knives shot out of nowhere, and Avain only barely pulled back in time to avoid losing some fingers. The boy looked around wildly for the source of the assault.

The trees grew thick in this sheltered bowl ringed by mountains. The shikareen had been set in a stand in the center of an open glade. Two people, a boy and a girl, appeared suddenly from the underbrush across the clearing. Avain made a grab for the shikar, but yanked his fingers back, stunned, at the painful shock that passed through him.

"It's already been claimed," the girl, older than both Sarran and Avain, informed them. "By me."

Avain leapt back, drawing a knife from his belt. "Let us pick, too, Amevon!"

The girl had always been a rather mediocre student, but she was mean and overbearing, a real bully. Avain had always been one of her favorite victims.

"You still don't get it, Avain. You can never become a bael'kar. You're not even one of us." Amevon came forward and took her shikar in hand, spinning it effortlessly before her. The wide, curved blades flashed in the bright sunlight. Her companion lifted a second shikar off the rack and fell back, skittish and wary. Avain did not recognize him.

"Where are the others?" Sarran asked abruptly.

Amevon shrugged one shoulder. "They came. We killed them."

"Why?"

The girl faltered, blinked, and the passionate fire fled her gaze. It returned a moment later, even more vivid than before. "Because I could! I'm better than all of them! And you!" She lunged, her shikar coming up and around in a clean arc that ended right where Sarran had been. Luckily, the boy had anticipated the move and ducked away just in time. Amevon's teammate did not enter the fray.

"You missed," Sarran observed.

Amevon snarled something particularly nasty and leapt at him, but Sarran managed to stay always one step ahead, always dodging just in time. Avain took a moment to gather his scattered wits before jumping to Sarran's aid, leaping in with his knife. He attached himself to Amevon's back and clung tight, slowing her down through sheer bulk. Sarran saw his chance and slashed at her with one of his knives, but Amevon twisted in a complicated maneuver and brought her shikar around, knocking the blow wide and throwing Avain from her back in the same motion. The knife flew from Sarran's hand and stuck in the ground halfway across the glade.

Avain slid across the forest floor, stopping just short of the tree line. Amevon's teammate still had not moved to assist her, but he watched the battle with a sort of rapt, almost hypnotic attention. Avain leapt to his feet and charged the pair of combatants, lunging in with a downward slash that would have proved fatal had it landed across Amevon's back as was his intention. As it was, he found himself suddenly facing Sarran, not Amevon, and he only barely checked the blow in time.

"Where'd she go?!" Avain cried in dismay, looking about wildly. Sarran jerked his chin toward the rack of shikareen. Blood dripped from a shallow cut on his cheek. Avain whirled about and caught sight of Amevon, perched on the edge of the dais. "How--"

"Her shikar." Sarran gestured to the elegant weapon. All shikareen were imbued with magical gifts. That was part of what made them so dangerous. "Hers…is the gift of teleportation."

"So she can just--!"

Sarran nodded once, his fixed stare never leaving Amevon's face.

The girl smirked. "That's right. Why don't you two just give in now? You'll never beat me, not without your own shikareen. And I'll see to it you don't get those."

Avain bristled at the implied insult. "We don't need shikareen to defeat you, Amevon!" He lunged at her, but Amevon disappeared, leaving only a small puff of smoke in her wake. Pain shot through Avain as her elbow connected solidly with his back. He crashed to earth, more ashamed than hurt. She was toying with him.

Sarran took full advantage of Amevon's distraction. He seemed virtually to teleport himself, moving almost faster than the eye could follow. But Amevon must have heard him coming, for she disappeared just in time. Sarran, quick as a cat, did what Avain could not, redirecting his attack in the blink of an eye, but Amevon was not there.

Baffled, Sarran froze on the spot, his quick, intelligent gaze flicking all about the open glade and into the trees beyond. Avain picked himself up off the ground.

"Where'd she go?"

"Shut up, idiot."

"Don't tell me to shut up! You can't order me around like that!"

Sarran made a soft noise of disgust and swept Avain aside. Avain, already a bit peeved by Amevon's dismissal, flew at him. Sarran leapt back, right onto the dais where the shikareen stood.

Amevon appeared suddenly between the two boys, her shikar very close to Sarran's chest.

"Slick." Amevon smiled nastily. "Very slick, Sarran. They always said you were the best."

Sarran stared sullenly, but did not respond. Amevon's smile grew. "But I suppose you already knew that. You know everything, after all." Still, Sarran did not speak. Amevon pressed her shikar to his ribs. "Don't you?"

"Not everything. If I did, you would be dead right now."

Amevon laughed, and her shikar wavered a bit. "I begin to like you, Sarran."

As ever, Sarran took the opportunity. His second knife leapt into his hand, and, almost of its own accord, launched itself at Amevon. In the same instant, Sarran threw himself back, flipping over the shikar rack and snatching one up as he went. It was a risky move, Avain knew, since only the proper shikar would allow a particular person to handle it. If Sarran chose wrong, the results could be devastating. But then Avain had no time to consider his teammate's plight. Amevon teleported to safety a short distance away, and Avain found Sarran's knife headed right for him.

Avain had practiced his knife skills so long and so hard, the act of catching and rebounding a projectile had been ingrained to the point of instinct. He nearly failed to register Amevon's position before the knife came and went. It flew straight and true, but, as ever, the girl vanished just in time. The knife continued on, right into the chest of Amevon's partner, forgotten until that point.

Several things happened just then.

Amevon screeched and toppled off an overhanging branch far above, her shikar cart-wheeling wildly through the air. Both hit the ground simultaneously, one with a dull thump and the other with a sickening crunch.

The small boy let out a gasp of pain and fell to earth as the air around him shimmered, as though from a sudden wave of intense heat.

Sarran shouted some warning Avain did not heed.

Avain leapt forward, guilt and anguish scrawled across his young features.

Sarran caught Avain halfway to the wounded lad. Avain struggled mightily.

"What do you think you're doing?!"

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hit him, it was just instinct!"

"Avain!" Sarran shook him roughly. "Avain, look at him!"

After a moment, Avain forced open eyes he did not recall closing.

The boy was gone. In his place lay a man, middle-aged and already going gray. He was clad in long robes, and a stick, not a shikar, rested across his open palm. He coughed weakly, and blood sprayed the front of his clothing.

Avain paused, thoroughly baffled. "W-what…what happened?"

"Let's find out." Sarran released his now-calm companion and stalked toward their unknown adversary, a gleaming shikar clasped in his right hand. He must have chosen right. But then, this was Sarran. He always chose right.

The man rolled his head toward them and offered a weak smile. "Who would have thought…that I would fall…to children…?"

Sarran stood over the man, the tip of one blade of his shikar brushing the grass bare inches from his head. "Who are you? What have you done to Amevon?"

"The girl…is dead."

"…Dead…?" Avain echoed blandly into the ensuing silence.

The fallen man laughed harshly, then stopped, coughed, and spit up more blood. "Do not fear…I will be…joining her…very soon…"

"Who are you?" Sarran demanded once more.

The man did not respond, so Sarran bent and grabbed a handful of his robes, hauling him up off the ground. He grimaced in pain, and, for a moment, Avain thought Sarran might kill him outright, but then something caught the boy's eye. Sarran pulled back the man's collar, revealing the swirl-and-dots tattoo of Crestil. "You're a Crestilian wizard." Sarran's eyes narrowed as he pieced together the puzzle. "A vin Shah, right? You specialize in mind control. You made Amevon attack us, and caused us to see you as a peer."

Avain scowled darkly. The war with Crestil was older than he was, and he had been raised all his life to fear and hate the southerners, their wizards most of all. "Why not just kill us outright?"

The wizard snorted, but failed to respond. After a long moment of consideration, Sarran shoved the man back down, hard. "This way, he didn't have to risk anything. He was in no danger--if Amevon got killed, then he could step in."

"But if he got killed…is that why Amevon died? Because of some spell of his?"

"My, but you are sharp, aren't you?" the wizard snarled nastily.

"Then her death…had no meaning," Avain concluded hesitantly.

Something about the proclamation unnerved Avain. At the ihari-kar, the students were taught to embrace death as a necessary part of life, but only if that death had a purpose, a logical, rational reason. Unchecked violence was a very real threat in a community of elite warriors, so morality and a strict code of ethics were battered into the students from day one. Just as the wild game gave up their lives so that the hunter might live, the enemies of the baeleen'kar surrendered theirs so that all the Killeen'ghymn might survive. Even though he supposed Amevon had fallen into this last category, there was something inherently wrong about her death. Perhaps it was the fact that Avain had known her quite well. They had lived and learned and grown together for as long as he could remember, and while neither cared much for the other, they had been obliged to work together on numerous occasions, just as Avain was forced now to cooperate with Sarran.

Then again, perhaps the uneasy feeling spawned from the fact that Amevon's death had not been Avain's intention when he threw that knife. Had he known she had no control over her actions, he might have--would have!--acted differently.

Whatever the reasons for Avain's regret, Sarran shared none of them.

"There are others, aren't there? How many? Where are they? Why are you here?"

"Surely you know this last," the wizard muttered, his voice growing fainter with every passing moment. He would not live much longer. "As to your other questions…I don't feel like telling you."

Sarran released the man abruptly, and he fell back with a sharp grunt of pain. "They're at the village, Avain. I know it."

"How?"

"Don't ask! Just do as I tell you! Select your shikar, and hurry. We don't have much time!"

Avain, ever impulsive and never one to think things through, vaulted onto the dais and snatched up the first shikar that came to hand. He dropped it with a yelp of pain an instant later, nursing burned fingers.

"Idiot," Sarran murmured derisively.

Avain shot him a withering glare, but his wary hands hovered over the two remaining weapons before he closed his eyes and grabbed one. It, too, seared his skin. Exasperated, Avain dropped it and reached for the final shikar. It clattered to the ground, and he stuck his now-aching fingers into his mouth.

Sarran stared at Avain, alarmed and confused. Then his expression cleared. "Yours must be the one the wizard hid away so he could place his own imposter shikar on the rack."

Avain nodded, but could only dream of the level of certainty and confidence with which Sarran shared his insight. What if none of the shikareen accepted him? What if everyone had been right all along? What if he wasn't cut out to be a bael'kar? He knew that his father had been an outsider, a raskha, and that he possessed only half of the esteemed blood the rest of the village held so dear, but he had always managed to convince himself, at least, that his other half was no worse than the first. Now…for the first time, he doubted himself, and that very act seemed to yank the proverbial rug right out from beneath him, sending his universe sprawling into the infinite void he had thus far avoided through sheer force of will.

Between them, it did not take Sarran and Avain long to discover the missing weapon, casually discarded beneath a massive oak just within the tree line. Sarran found it first and called Avain over, but the boy found this shikar too hot to handle as well.

A heavy cloud of despair descended over Avain, but something within him rebelled forcefully. There had to be an answer, some simple solution he had merely overlooked. If he tried hard enough, poured his heart and soul, his entire being, into a task, there was nothing he could not do. If nothing else, Avain would go so far as to force himself to handle one of the wrong shikareen until either it submitted to his right to wield it or he grew immune to the pain it inflicted. Nothing could stop him. Nothing ever had, and nothing ever would.

Despite his sudden resolve, Avain found himself reluctant to put his tolerance for pain to the ultimate test. He hazarded one final possibility. "Maybe Amevon's…?" Everyone knew that, sometimes, when a person killed a shikar's first selection, it might make another. In fact, the shikareen that were given to new baeleen'kar had been handed down through the ranks of the Kille'ghymn elite for generations, taken from the dead and passed on to the new initiates.

Sarran hesitated before nodding once, acknowledging the validity of the possible solution.

Gritting his teeth against the uneasy feeling in his stomach, Avain crossed over to where the now-dirty weapon had fallen beside its slain master. He crouched and reached out to touch it with a tentative finger, sick and tired of being burned. At first, his own mind projected the expected shock of pain, but then he realized it didn't hurt, but, in fact, felt rather cool and soothing, very comfortable, as though it belonged. Swallowing hard, Avain closed his fingers over the smooth, polished haft, pausing only a moment to admire the perfect curve of the twin blades before rising and whirling about, all smiles.

"All right! Let's go!"

They left the peaceful valley with no living witnesses to the chaos that had ruled only moments before. Avain knew, because he checked both corpses before they left. He no longer felt the terrible guilt at the deaths. Both had served their purposes, one by freeing the other to live and the other by freeing him, Avain, to fulfill his destiny.

May you rest forever in your own paradise, Amevon, for you have created mine.

The sense of closure was almost more of a relief than the gift of the shikar.