Opening his eyes with a groan, Ga'briyel slowly sat up and looked around him. He knew it was first light, for he was alive and whole, but nothing about the cavern told him that. The dim light that filled it had not changed since the night before. He shuddered as the pain from the fire raced through his body, but he slowly got to his feet. Why did he still feel the pain?
He was naked, for the flames had burned his clothing off as well as his flesh, and he wondered how he was going to get back to camp, especially when he saw the little girl sitting on the table staring at him. She had her knees drawn up to her chest, and her head was tilted to one side as she studied him.
"You were dead," she said softly.
"Yes, little one, I was."
"Why are you alive now?"
"Do you not know what I am, little one?"
"You are Anmah," she said simply. "I heard the Dirack call you this. Does being Anmah mean you cannot die?"
"No, it just means I will live again after I do." He searched the cavern for something to cover himself with, and he was surprised when the girl pointed to a chest to the left of the table.
"There is clothing in there, but I do not think it will fit you. You're big."
He glanced at her and moved to the chest. He opened it and saw that it was filled with children's clothing. He pulled it out piece by piece, but it was all far too small. At the bottom, however, were larger items, and he guessed they were from the adults who were killed by the evil he had faced the night before. He rummaged through these items until he found a pair of breeches, a shirt, and a cloak that he thought would fit him. As he slid them on, he realized that there was nothing for his feet in the chest, and he frowned.
"What is the matter, Anmah?"
He looked at the girl and then gestured for her to join him. She jumped off the table and came to him.
"Find something warm to wear," he said. "I am taking you back to your people."
"Yes, sir," she said and quickly found breeches and a shirt for herself. There were boots for her in the chest, and she found a pair that would fit and slid them on her feet. "What about your feet, Anmah? Will they not freeze?"
"They might," he said as he stood, "but there is nothing here I can wear on them."
"You could wrap the other clothing around them. That would be something, at least."
He smiled at her. "Smart girl." He took two child-sized shirts and wrapped his feet in them before tying the sleeves tightly around them. Then he walked over to the carcass of the Dirack and cautiously walked to its head, but he need not have worried. It was indeed dead. He reached inside its maw and pulled his sword free. It was amazingly undamaged. He'd have to make a new scabbard for it, though. His old one was now nothing but ash. Then he had an idea. He went back to the pile of clothing and found three leather belts. He buckled them together and then placed them around his waist. It was not much, but it did make a place for his sword, and he carefully slid it behind the belts. "Come, little one. It is time to get you home." He held out his arms, and she walked to him. He picked her up, flinching when her touch caused him to feel as if he was still on fire. He clenched his teeth against the agony, however, and wrapped them both in the cloak before walking up the stairs and down the tunnel.
When they reached the end, he pulled the lever, and the rock door slid open. Cold air blasted them as he stepped through, and the little girl shivered, but it helped cool the burning sensation that was still rushing through him.
"What is your name, little one?" Ga'briyel asked as he headed back toward the camp.
"And you are eight years old, Lalana?"
"Yes, sir." She looked up at him. "What is your name?"
She huddled close to his chest. "Thank you for saving me, Ga'briyel."
"You are most welcome, little one."
They walked for perhaps a quarter of an hour, and Ga'briyel thought the girl had fallen asleep, but then she spoke.
"I watched you heal, Anmah."
"Did you? And what did you think?"
She raised her head, and her dark eyes met his violet ones. "It was interesting. I opened my eyes when I heard your screams, and I watched. All night long I watched you. I was happy when the Dirack fell, but you didn't stop screaming." She let out a small sob. "I wanted to help you, but you were on fire. You screamed for a long time, but then you stopped, and I knew you were dead."
Ga'briyel frowned deeply as the agony hit him again, and he asked, "If you knew I was dead, why did you watch? Why did you not just leave?"
He felt her shrug. "I was scared. I thought that if I left, I would just be captured again, so I stayed and watched you. It did not take long before you started to heal, and then I couldn't turn away. Your blackened skin slowly turned pink, and where your bones showed, it was filled in again." She took a deep breath. "It took a long time, but you finished healing just before you opened your eyes. I was very happy when you did that, Ga'briyel."
"Me too, little one," he answered, but the frown remained. Never before had the pain of his deaths stuck with him like this, and he did not like it. He remembered each death, of course, but that is all he had of those times--memories. This time, he could still feel the fire searing his body. He could still feel himself cooking from the inside out, and he wanted it to stop.
They continued toward the camp for a few more minutes, and then Ga'briyel stopped walking and put the girl down.
"What is it, Ga'briyel?"
"They are coming."
"The others who came with me. We can wait here. They will be here soon."
He held Lalana against his legs underneath the cloak, and within minutes, he heard the soft sounds of booted feet against the rocky ground. When the first man came into view, Lalana gasped and pulled herself from his grip.
"Baba!" she cried and rushed toward Rewis, who dropped to his knees without delay and held out his arms to her. She slammed into him, and he held her tightly as he looked up at the Anmah.
"Lalana," he breathed, his eyes never leaving Ga'briyel. "You are alive." Then he buried his face in her hair. "My baby is alive."
Seeing the man's shoulders shake, Ga'briyel turned away from them and sat on a small boulder. The others from Mirstone surrounded the two, and their smiles and joy were almost enough to banish the agony, but not quite. He dropped his head and tried to hold back his tears, but he did not succeed. They fell at his feet, and he took a deep, shuddering breath and dug the heels of his hands into his eyes.
He did not move when Sophyra knelt in front of him, and he held his breath so that the sobs that were building in his chest could not escape.
"My love, what happened?" She put her hand on his arm, but he wrenched it away from her, unable to bear her touch. It felt as if she was touching a raw wound, and the pain raced through him. He stood up and turned his back on everyone, walking away a few paces, his fists clenched at his sides to keep the screams inside.
"What is wrong, Captain?"
Dinton had followed him, and when his friend tried to touch him, he jerked away and said shakily, "Do not touch me, please. It still hurts."
Ga'briyel just shook his head and sat on the ground with his back against a large boulder. He pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around his head. He managed to keep himself from screaming, but he lost the battle with his sobs.
"It hurts, Dinton," he whispered, his voice cracking. "Why does it still hurt? I don't want it to hurt anymore."
"Talk to me, Ga'briyel," Dinton said, kneeling before him. "What still hurts?"
The Anmah raised his head, and his eyes shone brightly. Dinton could see his friend's agony in them, and he gasped. "I died last night, Dinton."
"I figured as much when you did not return before first light. How?"
"Fire," Ga'briyel breathed. "I burned, Dinton, and I can still feel it. I can still feel the flames, I can still feel my skin melting off my bones, and I can still feel the pain. Why? This has never happened before. I have always had memories of the pain, but never the pain itself." He dropped his head in his hands. "It hurts, Dinton."
Tero had joined them by this time, but neither he nor Dinton knew what to say. They both knelt in front of the Anmah and stared at him silently. After a long time, Ga'briyel took a deep breath and stood. The others stayed on the ground and watched as he walked back to Rewis who was holding Lalana in his arms.
"Thank you, Anmah," the man said, smiling. "Thank you for saving my little girl."
Ga'briyel nodded. "Why did you not tell me she was yours?"
"I did not want you to feel as if you must try to save her. I know how important it is that you reach Hera Ela Larai in time, and I was afraid you would want to take time to find her. I was resigned to the fact that I would never see her again." Then the man smiled brightly. "But you saved her, Anmah, and I can never repay you for what you have done." Then he turned to his men and spoke as a leader. "Vatsar, Pavak, take Lalana back to Mirstone and get Captain Mistri some more boots. You know the map, yes?"
"Then catch up to us as quickly as you can. We will stop at last light again."
"Yes, Rewis," the two men said, and they swiftly took off toward Mirstone with the girl.
Without a word, Ga'briyel turned east and started walking. He had the map memorized, and he knew exactly where he was going. Each step was torture, however, and when they reached the rock that marked the beginning of the tunnel, he bit his bottom lip as the burning increased. It diminished as they passed it, though, and he breathed a little easier. As he walked and the others followed, he let the tears fall.
He felt Sophyra coming up behind him, but all she did was fall into step beside him. "Talk to me, my love," she said softly. "Please?"
"There is nothing to say," he sobbed. "I am in so much pain, Sophyra. I do not know why, and I do not know how much more I will be able to handle." He glanced at her. "It hurts, my heart. Make it stop, please."
Tears fell down Sophyra's face, and she reached for him, but when he flinched away from her, she dropped her hand. Her worry and distress flowed over him, and it only added to the agony he was feeling. They said nothing more until midday, and when they stopped for their meal, Ga'briyel walked off by himself. He was not hungry, and that bothered him almost as much as the pain did. He was always starving after dying, and he had not eaten anything since midmeal the day before. He did not know what was happening to him, and he dropped to his knees.
"Yisu, please help me," he prayed. "Please make it stop. Please."
"I can help you, Ga'briyel. I can make it stop."
The Anmah let out a cry when Telantes spoke softly, and he collapsed to the ground and rolled himself into a ball. "What is happening, Telantes? Why does it still hurt?"
The Debaduta did not answer, but cool hands touched Ga'briyel's head, and a rush of ice flowed through his body. It made him shiver, but it felt so good that he laughed. He stretched out on his back and closed his eyes as the cold reached into every part of him. It extinguished the flames little by little until all he felt was blessed numbness. It was as if he were frozen again, but he did not care. He welcomed the ice, and then the hands left him. He opened his eyes with a smile. Telantes was kneeling beside him, and Ga'briyel reached out a hand to him. The Debaduta looked surprised for a moment, but then he clasped the Anmah's forearm tightly.
"Thank you, my friend," Ga'briyel whispered, and Telantes stood, pulling him to his feet.
"Friend? Am I your friend, Captain?"
"Definitely. You have helped us more than you could possibly understand, Telantes. First you took away the others' pain in Grama, and now mine. Thank you."
"It was my duty and pleasure, Ga'briyel Mistri el'Adama. I am pleased I could help you. Do you understand what happened to you last night?"
"No. I have never felt the pain the next morning. Why did it happen this time?"
Telantes frowned deeply and tilted his head. Ga'briyel waited while the Debaduta listened to Yisu. "Yisu says this has never happened before, Ga'briyel. Anmah have been killed by Dirack before, but it has always been a normal death. Painful, yes, but normal. It seems that these Dirack are different. Their fire burns even after awakening. This has never happened before."
"These? There are more of them?"
"Oh, yes, Ga'briyel. Sayatan has most likely created dozens. None have been seen above ground, however, and this is good. It will not stay that way, and I believe this may be the evil you are supposed to stop." Telantes took Ga'briyel's arms. "You must stop them, Anmah. If Dirack are released into the world, there may be no people left when they are finished."
"I understand, Telantes."
"Good boy. Now, you must eat something. I had to almost freeze your body to extinguish the flames, and you need food to build up heat again. When you stop at last light, you must hunt, Anmah, and eat something hot." Then the Debaduta smiled. "Sophyra can help generate heat, too. Keep her close and use her body heat to warm yourself."
"I can do that," Ga'briyel responded with a grin, and then Telantes faded away.
Ga'briyel turned around and held out his arms to his wife. She rushed to him, and he held her close. "I'm sorry, my heart," he whispered. "I couldn't--"
She raised a finger to his lips. "I know, Ga'briyel. You have nothing to be sorry for. I am just happy you are all right again."
"I am," he said, and then he kissed her softly, "but now I need to eat." Now that the flames were gone, he felt his stomach twisting, and he knew that he would need to eat a lot to satisfy the hunger that he was acutely aware of. He did not want to consume the rest of their supplies, however, and he knew he could do so easily, so he released Sophyra and went to his bag. He pulled out enough dried meat and fruits for a normal meal, but he knew that would not be enough. He ate it quickly, though, and forced himself to not take any more. When they stopped at last light, he would hunt. Perhaps he would find a chagala, the large goat-like creature he remembered from his first trip over the mountains. Perhaps he would find two, for at this point, he felt like he could eat that much.
He looked up at Mathi's voice. "What?"
The boy held out his hands, and there was food in them. "You can have my portion, sir."
"No, Mathi. You need to eat, too. I will be fine until last meal, I promise. Thank you, though."
Mathi just nodded and walked back to the others, glancing over his shoulder at Ga'briyel. They were all staring at him, and they were curious, but more than that, he felt gratitude surround him from the men of Mirstone, love from Sophyra, and the slithering worry from his men and the boys. He wanted to say something to take that worry away, but he just held his hand out to Sophyra and picked up his bag. As she took his hand, he slung the bag over his shoulder and started east again. It took only moments before the others followed.
"Ga'briyel, you are cold."
"I know," he said softly. "It was the only way to put out the flames. I will warm up tonight. Or maybe tomorrow." He pulled Sophyra close and sighed when he felt her heat seeping through his clothing. He kissed her hair. "I will be fine, my love. I promise." She nodded against him, wrapped her arm around his waist, and they talked quietly as they walked.
They moved faster and farther than the day before, and Ga'briyel guessed that they were only about ten leagues from the ruins when they stopped at last light. It was as if the rescue of Lalana had energized everyone, especially Rewis.
During the trek, Ga'briyel had spotted a herd of chagala, and he had quickly raised his bow and shot three before the others dispersed among the rocks. Rewis looked at him curiously but said nothing.
"I am starving, Rewis. We will cook them tonight."
"But three, Anmah? That is a lot of meat."
Ga'briyel chuckled. "When I say starving, I mean that literally. Two are for me. The other is for the rest of you."
They quickly dressed the meat and carried it with them, taking every ounce of edible material. Rewis was worried that the smell of fresh meat would attract predators, but Ga'briyel said there was no alternative. He needed hot food and a lot of it if he were to thaw. The man just nodded, but Ga'briyel could still feel his confusion. Ga'briyel also saved enough of the hide to make himself a new scabbard when he had a chance.
When they made camp, Ga'briyel paced back and forth impatiently as the meat cooked over the fire. Sophyra finally stepped in front of him.
"Come with me, Ga'briyel," she said, laying her hands on his chest.
"Why? I need to eat, Sophyra. My stomach is trying to digest itself right now."
She smiled, took his hand, and led him around one boulder and then a second and a third until they could not hear the sounds of the camp anymore. "I know that, husband, but you are making everyone nervous with all your pacing. The meat will not cook any faster with you standing over it. Besides," she said, stepping closer, "I know of one way to help you warm up."
With a grin, Ga'briyel picked her up, spun her toward the boulder, and pressed her up against it. "You do? And what might that be?"
In answer, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. He groaned at the heat coming off of her, and, although he knew it was not true heat that would help him recover, it still felt good.
When they returned to camp nearly an hour later, he definitely felt better, but he was hungrier than before. The fragrance of cooking meat had drifted toward them for some time now, and he smiled when he saw a large mound of meat sitting on his plate next to the fire. More was cooking, and more still was waiting to be cooked. He looked at everyone and grinned.
"Have you all eaten enough?"
"It is all yours, Ga'briyel," Tero said with a return grin.
He let Sophyra take what she wanted from his plate and then started to eat. He gave a Rewis an amused look when the man said, "You cannot possibly eat all of this, Anmah. No one can eat this much."
"Just watch me," Ga'briyel responded, and he forced himself to eat slower than he wanted to so that the meat over the fire had time to cook. Sophyra finished her meal and took over the cooking. As soon as a piece was done, she added it to his plate and started on another. It took a long time, but finally the last piece was cooked and in his hand. In addition to the meat, he had consumed another portion of dried meat and fruit, and when he was finished, he just smiled at Rewis.
"I stand corrected," Rewis said with a matching smile. "How is it that you can eat two chagala by yourself, and one was enough for the rest of us combined?"
"I have not eaten much since yesterday's midmeal, and I died last night. That always makes me hungry." Ga'briyel kept his voice light, but he cringed inwardly at the memory of the pain that continued after he woke. Sophyra must have seen something in his face, for she moved next to him and laid her hand on his leg. She looked up into his face, but he kept his eyes from her and only covered her hand with his. Then he squeezed it lightly and stood up.
"We will take watches in threes from now on. I know what is in these mountains now, and I will not run the risk that anything will sneak up on us," he said to the men around him. "I will take first watch. Who will watch with me?"
The next few minutes were spent deciding who would take which watch. The boys insisted on being included, and Ga'briyel had planned on it, but they wanted to be on watch together, and that was not going to happen. The Anmah wanted two seasoned men with each of the boys, so Mathi got second watch and Zahin got third. Tero said he would take first watch with Ga'briyel, and so did Rewis. As the others got ready for sleep, the three men drew their swords and staggered themselves around the camp, facing outward toward the rocks.
Ga'briyel was searching the dark with his mind more than his eyes, and yet he still felt Sophyra approach him from behind.
"What is the matter, my love?"
"Nothing," he said shortly. "Why?"
"Something is wrong, Ga'briyel. I may not have your abilities, but I can tell when you are hurting. Talk to me."
"Nothing is wrong, my heart. Please, just go to sleep. I will join you when my watch is over." He did not turn or look at her, for he knew she was right, and he knew she would be able to tell that he was lying to her. Not only about the hurting but also about him joining her in sleep. He knew he would not be able to sleep that night.
When Dinton came to him three hours later to relieve him, he just went to his bag, pulled out the chagala hide he had saved, took a dagger, and seated himself in front of the fire. He started scraping the tissue and sinews off the hide with the dagger, and by the time third watch started, he had gotten it clean and smooth on one side. Then he turned it over and started on the other side, removing the hairs in the same manner.
When third watch was set, Dinton sat beside him and stared at him for several minutes. Then he said, "Tell me what happened, Mistri."
Ga'briyel glanced at him and frowned. "When?"
"When you died last night."
With a shudder, Ga'briyel shook his head and tried to focus on his work.
"Fire and ashes, Ga'briyel! You have to tell someone before it destroys you. I can see that it is eating you up inside. Talk to me!"
"No, Dinton. I just want to forget what happened. I want to forget what I saw and what I did and what happened to me. Please, my friend," Ga'briyel said, looking up at Dinton, "please just let me forget."
"I am your friend, Ga'briyel, but you know you will not forget. You still remember your first death. What makes you think you will forget this one?"
"Please, Dinton, do not push. I do not want to talk about it. Not now."
"If not now, then when, my friend?"
"I do not know. Maybe never."
"Very well. Are you going to sleep at all tonight?"
"No. I need to finish this scabbard. I cannot carry a naked blade through these mountains."
Dinton knew that for what it was. An excuse not to sleep. "Are you afraid of nightmares, Ga'briyel?" he asked softly.
The Anmah's hand tightened around the dagger. "Do not push, Dinton."
"Sorry. I will leave you alone, my friend."
When Dinton was wrapped in his cloak and snoring softly, Ga'briyel put down the hide and dagger and stared at the dying coals of the fire. He pulled his knees to his chest and tried not to cry. He failed miserably.