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THEY RAN DOWN the slope, their waterskins, arrow sheaves, and packs bouncing. Talen’s wound was raw with pain, and he wondered if soul bled, and if such wounds could be fatal. He thought about wolves, about one member of the pack distracting the prey while the other members sneaked up behind. Those orange skir had been working together with intelligence.

He shook his head and ran down the trail, ran beyond the sounds of the wurms in the vale and headed toward the white ridge in the distance. Every step jarred him, but as he and River ran, the tearing pain receded into a ragged ache, and he thought that maybe he wouldn’t die.

They followed animal trails and pushed through brush until they eventually worked their way up the last slope to the ridge and took shelter in a copse of trees. Talen dropped his pack and quivers and sat down. He unstopped his waterskin, and took a long drink. He still felt like someone had cut him with a knife.

River scanned the sky for crows, then turned to him. “Are you okay?” she asked.

“I hope so,” he said.

“What happened?”

He told her about the skir attack. She listened, and when he was done, she said, “A person can lose part of their soul and survive.”

Talen thought about his cousin. Poor Nettle—had this been what he felt when Uncle Argoth had taken his Fire?

River continued, “But was this part of your soul or part of the soul that you’re blended with?”

“It sure felt like my soul,” he said.

She shook her head. “Maybe Harnock will know.”

They drank more water and rooted through their packs for some food. He found nothing in his, but River retrieved a cloth sack from hers. She opened the sack’s mouth. “Ah,” she said and pulled out a fat thing the size of her thumb. It looked like some small brown root with a dark bead on one end.

River held the bag out to him. He picked one of the roots up. It smelled as if it had been fried in pig fat. “Smells good,” he said. “What is it?”

“It’s the larva of a large weevil,” River said. Then she bit the whole root part off hers and tossed the bead away.

“Larva?” Talen asked.

“Harnock gets them from the woodikin. They have . . . a different texture, but they’re good.”

Talen looked down at the one he held in his hand. He saw that the dark bead was the larva’s head and that it bore powerful jaws. He was hungry, but the thought of the fat body of the larva put a damper on it.

“You need to eat it,” River said. “With all the Fire you’ve been using today, you will begin to waste. Besides, Harnock swears they are the best food for someone who is multiplied.” She picked up another larva and bit it in half, chewing with relish. She was making a show of it, obviously trying to take his mind off his wound. Off his utterly freakish nature.

He sniffed his larva and tried to think only of pig fat. “It’s a bug,” he said. “No big deal.”

And he was a blend, something not entirely human. He tried not to let that crack his composure, told himself that it was not such a big deal, and bit into the cooked grub.

The larva was crunchy and then soft. But not squishy. Harnock had fried it in herbs. The herbs were familiar, but there was another odd flavor he couldn’t place. Still, on the whole it tasted surprisingly like . . . beef marrow.

“Lovely,” he said and tossed the grub head away and took another. Then an odd flavor welled up in his mouth and for one second his stomach almost revolted, but he told himself it was beef marrow and crunched on.

“If you like this, you’ll love it when Harnock feeds us properly.”

“I can’t wait,” he said and quickly washed the grub down with water.

River gave him another, and he found that eating these things did take his mind off his pain and the unsettling fact of what had happened back on the hill. He ended up eating two handfuls of the big weevils, then River pulled two dried apricot halves from another sack. She gave one to him and kept the other for herself. The dried apricot was tangy and sweet, and Talen made sure to take tiny bites so he could savor it. When they finished, he felt, oddly enough, quite satisfied. His pain was still there, but it wasn’t as bad.

They waited, became restless, hiked up a bit on the ridge to see if they could get a view of where they’d come, then went back down to the copse.

“Do you think he made it out?” Talen asked. “Do you think the Divine took him?”

“Harnock knows what he’s doing,” she said.

“I hope.”

Something moved through the leaves on the forest floor just down the slope from the two of them, and Talen remembered yet again that these were not like the woods back home. He peered into the trees. Anything at all could be hiding out there in the shadows of the wood. Harnock had said this ridge was at the border of woodikin lands, so it might be a woodikin, maybe even a patrol.

They waited in silence, and whatever it was moved on.

“One of us should be scouting,” River said, “keeping an eye out.”

“Traipsing about would just draw unwanted attention,” Talen replied.

“Can you still look with your other roamlings?” she asked.

He didn’t want to. He didn’t want a repeat with those orange skir. But the two of them were just sitting here like ducks in a pond. “I’ll look,” he said.

He peeked his roamlings out of his wrists. The yellow world opened before him. He looked about for the orange skir, but there were none, so he rose to the tops of the trees in the copse. In the distance, above the wurm vale, the flock of orange skir dove and fought over things they were picking up from the vale below. The souls of dead wurms, Talen thought. Maybe those of dead dreadmen as well.

He realized he had learned firsthand why they called the yellow world perilous. He’d been a fool not to be on guard. And so now, as he rose higher into the sky, he made sure to keep one roamling turning, watching for danger in all directions.

Talen looked down and saw the shapes of what must be birds and squirrels in the blue world. He saw a family of spotted boar rooting about a tree. He did not see any woodikin, nor did he see Harnock. His wound still hurt, and the pain mixed in with his hunger for soul. He thought of Harnock’s earlier comment about smelling River in heat. Talen thought himself not much different, for he could smell River’s soul.

He tried to put it out of his mind and focus on circling their position, keeping an eye out for Harnock or woodikin, but his thought kept turning to the smell of her. His roamlings began to circle a bit closer to her. And he realized that when his roamlings were outside of his body, his hunger for her soul felt sharper, more compelling.

“What do you see?” she asked.

He told her about the animals. His roamlings continued to circle, the hunger looping about him. He needed to eat. Somehow he knew a bit of soul would ease his pain. And yet to eat soul was the very essence of abomination. “I think I’m going to pull them back in,” he said.

As the roamlings came in close, the smell of River’s soul overpowered him, filling him with a desire stronger than it had ever been with Sugar or Black Knee or those rotted goats he’d had to milk. He hesitated, letting the roamlings linger outside himself for a moment, letting them take in the scent of soul like one might stand outside a baker’s oven and smell the bread.

It was lovely.

River put her hand on his shoulder. “You don’t look well,” she said. “Are you okay?”

Her touch was like fire to dry brush, and the desire to rip into her surged. He cried out in alarm and stepped back.

All he had to do was strike. His roamlings moved in close, looped about her. Maybe he could just savor the scent.

“No!” he said and backed up. “Rot and Regret, I will not!”

River stepped forward, concern on her face.

“Stay back!” he shouted. He wanted to rip and tear, but he dragged the roamlings away from her and forced himself to pull them back into his wrists. As he did, the yellow world winked out, and then he slammed his doors shut.

Immediately, the desire lessened, but it did not depart. Not by a long shot.

He panted. What was happening to him?

Something broke a branch in the trees behind them.

They glanced at each other, then snatched up their bows and nocked arrows. Talen scanned the woods.

Another sound.

They both swung their bows in the direction of the sound.

Then Harnock came into view. His fur was matted with sweat, and there was a wild gleam of joy in his eyes.

“Thank the Creators,” River said and lowered her bow. “We were beginning to worry.”

“You think you two could make any more noise?” Harnock asked.

“Did you stop them?” River asked.

“We got at least one of them, and the wurms are now swarming. Most of the time, they’re happy to stay in their holes. But these are riled up. They’re going to be swarming the countryside all around that vale, looking for food and vengeance. What’s more, I have this.” He held up something gray the size and shape of a very small loaf of bread.

Talen and River just looked at it.

“A wurm’s egg,” Harnock said in delight. “It’s going to come in very handy when bargaining with the woodikin.”

The smell of Harnock’s soul wafted over to Talen, and he grimaced.

“What, you don’t like eggs?” Harnock asked and grinned.

“He was attacked by skir,” River said.

“It’s not that,” said Talen.

Harnock waited.

Talen didn’t want to reveal what he’d almost done to River. He was ashamed of it. But he thought of Harnock, blended with a lion. He thought he might not be able to hold back next time. “How do you fight the lion in you? How do you fight its desires?”

“It’s awakening, isn’t it?” Harnock asked. “The thing you’re blended with.”

“I don’t know what’s happening. That’s the whole problem.”

“Every day, you become more the tool they fashioned you to be,” Harnock said.

“I don’t want to be someone’s rotted tool.”

“There is a way out.”

“No,” River said. “We’re going to work through this just like you did. You need to help him.”

Harnock looked over at Talen. “Tell me what happened,” he said.

Talen didn’t want to reveal anything, but what good would keeping it secret do? He sighed. “I can smell Fire and soul.” He took a breath and screwed up his courage. “Just now I almost attacked River. I wanted to tear her apart. I wanted to devour her.” He looked down, ashamed and horrified.

Harnock licked his lips.

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” Talen asked.

“It is what it is.” Harnock said and put his hand on the hilt of his knife.

“You want to kill me, don’t you?”

“I don’t know, Hogan’s son. Do you want to die?”

“I want to be rid of these desires.”

“The only way to do that is not to become a blend in the first place.”

“A little too late for that,” Talen said. He remembered talking with those in his fist about those who were true sleth. Some had speculated about how fearsome they might be if they consumed the soul of a bear or bull or horse. He now saw how foolish they’d been.

“Surely, there’s something,” River said to Harnock. “You’ve avoided giving into the lion.”

“Have I?” Harnock asked.

“I see a man standing before me.”

“You and Moon,” Harnock said, shaking his head. “You water a plant and feed your animals, and they grow. They multiply. You withhold food and they don’t. There are things that trigger passions. That feed them, urge them on. A man who has been twisted to crave drink, why, the very scent of an ale house awakens his hunger. And so he goes in. He tells himself he doesn’t want to give in. And maybe he doesn’t. But every moment he’s there, he’s looking at the froth, watching the men lick their lips. Every moment he’s there, he undermines that resolve. Every moment he stays, he’s feeding the other part of himself, bit by bit, until his thirst grows into something he has no desire at all to put away. Until it becomes his master. Stay away from the ale house, my abominable friend. Stay away from the things that quicken the passion. That’s what I have to offer you.”

Talen thought about it, but when had he ever fed his desire? It came and went of its own accord. Touch sometimes brought it to life. As did proximity to living things. So how did one avoid life? He didn’t know what triggered it, but he was sure that he had not bidden it to come.

“I haven’t fed this,” said Talen, “but it grows nevertheless.”

“That’s what I would say to Moon. And then she would ask, are you sure? Aren’t you feeding it now by making it out to be a monster? Fear only gives it power. Fear turns you into prey.”

“What kind of mumbo jumbo is that?”

“I don’t know what lives in you, Hogan’s son. I don’t know the nature of this particular thrall. You will have to test it for yourself. Be vigilant, watch for those things that inflame it. Flee them if you must. Do it in the first moments when you still have a choice. Before it rises up and fights to be the master.”

“And if you can’t?”

“Then pray to the Creators and hold on until the desire, sooner or later, crests and passes.”

Hold on? That was his advice? Had Harnock held on when he ate those men? Talen shook his head.

“You don’t have to take the hard road, Hogan’s son.”

“Men do hard things,” River said.

Harnock looked at Talen. “Are you a man?”

“I’m trying.”

“Trying won’t be enough.”

“Trying is the first step toward doing,” River said. “That’s what it means to be a man. A man tries even when he knows he’s got a long road of failure between him and his destination. A man fights.”

“And a woman?” asked Harnock. “What does she do?”

“What she always does,” River said and glowered. “She knocks sense into the men.”

Harnock grunted, then turned to Talen. “Whatever you decide, Hogan’s son, we need to get moving. The wurms will delay the Divine, but they’re not going to stop his crows. We need to disappear while we have the chance.”

“Where are we going?” River asked.

Harnock picked up the sack of larva, pulled out a few and popped them into his mouth. “We’re going to visit some blood-thirsty friends.”

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