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Decision Maker

Time was measuring itself in burning breaths and throbbing heartbeats. Var felt these measurements in his body. He clung to that reality, for anything was better than the lurking, terror-driven chaos that wanted still to consume him. But he did not want to be consumed! And so he clung to the rhythms that were beating out time. And life...

Slowly, the measures eased, and somehow, the chaos faded. Var opened his eyes, and saw blackness. No, not blackness, but a dark substance, tiny clumps of soft dampness. Soil. Earth. He was resting on this dampness, his fingers digging into its softness. Breathing in again, he found himself suddenly overwhelmed with scents that had no identity -- pungent, acrid, gentle, ancient, new, salty, tangy. And with the scents came a roar of sounds -- rustles, chirps, hoots, squeaks, creaks, sobs --

Sobs. Var concentrated on that sound, trying to ignore the rest of the cacophony his ears and his nose were delivering to his brain. Someone was sobbing, crying. Someone in the group. He couldn't feel who it was. He couldn't even feel the emotions that person was feeling. But, he knew it was someone from the group.

Staring at the ground, Var concentrated on his arms, and then his legs. Gaining his feet, he swayed, his body sending more messages to overwhelm his mind. But the sobbing was still audible. He had to get to that person. Listening to the soft cries as hard as he could, Var tried to figure out which direction to go. Then, he began to walk.

Flexing, slender branches -- some covered with sharp points, and all of them with damp, dark leaves-- and massive, immovable trunks got in his way. It took effort to think, to walk around the one, or to move his hands and arms to lift the former out of the way. The world kept chattering, trying to drown his senses, while the chaos waited, lurking, for a moment of inattention. But Var stubbornly refused to be overwhelmed. Not while he had a task to accomplish.

Pastels glowed against the dark background and through the thick network of leaves. Carefully bending the branches out of the way, Var eased his body through the brush, and found himself standing next to the slender, dark-haired form. Fear suddenly tensed his body and nearly shattered his control. He didn't know who it was! How long since forms had mattered: this close, their thoughts should have long since touched each other, without effort, without thinking, with only as much apartness as they willed! But now he couldn't even sense who the dweller was --!

Going to his knees, Var fought back the panic. Steadying himself, he sent a thought outwards, probing. Chaos roared back. He flinched, pulling everything back to himself. The other was still engulfed by the chaos, he realized. As he had been. Perhaps a different approach.

Leaning over, Var grasped the body and turned it onto its -- her -- back. Identity of other still did not come to him. He thought about it, then touched her face with his hands and sent, not with the complex stream of imagery, thoughts and ideas that he was used to, but with the simple words used with a troll or preserver. **I am Var. Push away the terror -- answer me! Who are you?**

The chaos slammed back into him, full force. Var stiffened, a cry caught in his throat. Confusion/fear/pain/terror! The Palace falling, out of place out of time! Confusion shouting -- when are we where are we!? Doors opening, fresh air, new scents, and two-legged figures moving closer. Questions, questions, can you tell us where we are when we are have you seen others like us?

Then, pain! Shattering, exploding, self and body ripped apart, unwilling! Terror! They do not know us! They do not like us! They fear us! They are killing us! Try to lift, try to glide -- cannot! Make fire -- cannot! Make a wall, protect -- cannot! Run! Use legs, use body, run, run, run! Pain, shattering, exploding, again and again -- run! Run until breath burns, until heart hammers, until body collapses, run!

No! Var fought the chaos. I am Var! Fear does not hold me! I am Var! The chaos receded a bit. He sensed another voice, crying amidst the turmoil. A voice he recognized. **Maelain? Maelain!** He felt her respond to his call, felt her starting to struggle against the chaotic terror that bound her mind. **Maelain, come to me! I am Var! Fight the fear -- come to me!**

She fought, reaching for him. **Var? Oh, Var!**

Her sending touched his and merged. Time disappeared as they shared thoughts and awareness, as the dark, chaotic terror faded before the mingling of joy/relief/sharing love. Terror lessened when it was shared, when they knew they were not alone.

Their sendings drifted apart, finally. Var found his eyes opening, to look down at Maelain. Her eyes -- dark, russet brown, matching her hair -- met his. **We have ... survived, haven't we?**

**So far.** Var found himself able to remember now, without the chaos threatening to overwhelm him.

**What of the others?** she asked. **Does anyone else live?**

**I do not know,** he admitted. Standing up, he helped Maelain to her feet. **Let us try to find the others.** Looking around, Var realized that the air was lighter. Dimly he dimly sensed the world's mother-star just edging up over the unseen horizon. Dawn. It was a new day.

Another dawn was coming as Var pulled the branches back and half-guided, half-pushed Liria into the tiny clearing formed by several handfuls of bushes and crooked trees. Following her, he made s ure that no shred of bright material caught on the branches. Easing himself to the ground, Var combed his red-gold hair out of his eyes and looked around. Six others sat within the tiny, leaf-roofed space. Two were looking at him, eyes bright and bodies alert. But three others were slack-eyed and listless, enmeshed in the chaos, while Liria sat hunched over a broken arm, her face twisted in pain. They were all he had found, in a day and a night of searching.

**How many more of us do you think there are?** asked Maelain, possibly sensing his thoughts. **Once, I almost thought I felt a sending, but I couldn't seem to, to make myself heard.**

**I have felt echoes, but you six are the only ones I could find,** he replied. **Sefra ... she is calling ... I think she is trying to call everyone to where she is.**

**Then we should go to her!** sent Tayalli, hope stirring. **Maybe if we all get back together, we can get back to the Palace, and leave!** Var felt the yearning in her thoughts, and sensed it spreading to the others. To leave this world that was draining their powers, that had brought the chaos of pain and terror --! For a moment, Var let himself feel that yearning, for the end to this nightmare. But the part of him that had pushed the chaos far enough back to let him think, insisted on seeing -- and accepting -- the truth. A truth that had to be shared.

**I don't believe we can leave.** Var sent the words with as much force as he could. Everyone looked at him with bewilderment and hurt, even the listless ones who had been roused by Tayalli's hope. **There are too few of us. Our powers are too weakened. And the humans hold the Palace: they would slay us, if we tried to return.**

**Then what should we do?** asked Tayalli. **I am cold, hungry, and everything hurts.**

**We have to decide. But first...** Var pulled a rough bag from under his belt -- the remnants of his cape. He opened it to show the contents. **I saw flying creatures eating some of these. Since we changed ourselves to this world's pattern, we may be able to eat these, too.**

Tayalli leaned forward, intent interest in her indigo eyes. One slender finger touched some of the berries. **The yellow ones are poisonous,** she sent. **The rest are safe.**

Var studied her a moment, a different kind of hope starting to stir. **You can sense what is good to eat, and what is not?** he asked. She blinked, looking at him, then agreed that might be so. **Then that makes our chances of survival better,** he sent, picking out the yellow berries and setting them aside. Tayalli helped him divide the one pile into seven. The small piles were all too quickly consumed. Var eyed the bag wistfully, then folded the cloth and pushed it back under his belt.

**We must decide what to do,** he sent to all of them. **Let us present our ideas.**

They joined his sending, one at a time, until all were united. But the ideas and the thoughts that would have flowed like quicksilver in another time and place, did not come. The link sagged, pulled down by the chaos that still stormed through three of the minds, and by the pain that attacked the fourth. The joined sending faded, then shredded apart. Var glanced around, bewildered and not a little afraid. They couldn't just sit here! They needed food, water, clothing, shelter, and a goal, but how could they even make a start, if they could not hold their thoughts together long enough to create ideas and come to a consensus? **Let's try again,** he sent desperately. **We've got to decide what to do.**

**Do we have to decide? Or do you?**

Var stared at Maelain. **What do you mean?**

Beside him, Liria lifted her head, her eyes widening. **There's more than one way to decide things, that's what Maelain means,** she sent, turning to look at him. **Other worlds, other peoples ... we saw where one person made decisions. You may have to do that, for us.**

Make decisions by himself?! **But --**

**Var,** interrupted Maelain, **you're the only one of us seven who recovered enough on his own to think and to do. You're the one who found this covered place, and the food. You're the one who decided we needed to consider what to do.**

**But, but that was just chance!** he protested, feeling the chaos edge a little closer. **One person can't decide everything!**

**We will give you all our ideas, and help you as we can,** sent Liria. **If we don't agree with you, then all of us can discuss it. But I agree with Maelain. You are leading us already. Accept it.**

**I was going to try and get back to the Palace alone, and you stopped me,** added Tayalli. **As long as you listen to everyone, I don't mind if you decide things.**

**But ...** Var looked down at his hands, feeling fear. It was not the fear embedded in the chaos. It was a different fear. He had never made a decision for the group. No one ever had. It wasn't their way.

But they were no longer as they had been. The bond group was broken and scattered. Most were dead. Their thoughts could not even leap from woods to Palace, let alone from world to world. Their fire was gutted, drained by the world of two moons. If they wanted to live, they were going to have to learn and do new things. This was a new thing, what they wanted him to do. Maybe they were right. He knew what they had to do, if not how. And they said they would help him.

**I'll try,** he decided reluctantly. **I'll try to make the decisions, as long as all of you want me to. Until we're all strong enough to make them together again.**

He hoped it wouldn't take too long.