Winter was still drawing to a grumpy close in the northwestern parts of Karsyn. Further south as well, if you happened to be in the mountains, like I currently was. The ground was still slushy from a recent snowI was guessing perhaps a week or so previousas I shifted and tilted and slid my way through the thickening crowd and made my way toward the marketplace of a small town called Zakun, nestled back in the lower pits of the Gray Mountains. People shuffled past much like I did, bundled up in much the same way I was, but likely for much different reasons.
That wasnt to say I wasnt cold like they were, of courseit was rather brisk, actually; just cold enough to barely see the light fog puff away from my mouth with every even, unconcerned breath. The air was crisper in the Grays. And though the sky was almost always as the mountains name suggested, it was always a rather friendly, laid back, not-much-to-do-but-enjoy-the-air type of skysave for the occasions it would storm or snow. Or both. In which case, it would be a much less friendly shade, as you can imagine.
But despite our differences, the sky and Iit being perpetually intangible, and I being quite the contrary (as has been proven time and again)we seemed to get along fairly well, in a sort of mutual understanding. And between us we would share the wind like drinking buddies would share tales over tankards of ale.
Not today. Not at the moment, at least. Brisk thoughts of freedom aside, I had other things to do. Not necessarily dire important or wrapped up with a back-breaking deadline or time limit, but they were things nonetheless.
I shifted the hood on my head back enough so that I could roll my eyes skyward, seeking the sun, wherever it was hiding behind the seemingly domineering cloud cover. The afternoon would be drawing to a close in the next several hours. Terrans was a pretty decent trek from herefurther than I remembered when I left. I probably wouldnt be able to make it back tonight, and it was too cold to sleep outside (if I had the choicewhich I do now, Im proud to say). I decided distantly, pulling the hood back over my brow and fastening the last button on the second collar of my coat beneath the cloak, that I would find an inn and wait out the night. Maybe even get a good nights sleep this time. Isnt that exciting?
Is it sad that I actually felt a little excited at the prospect of a good nights sleep?
Presently, and ironically, I yawned, bowing my face into my tall collar to keep the sharp wind out of my face as it rushed through the streets of Zakun. I peered into peoples faces only briefly as they passed, searching their faces for signs they were searching for mine, to find none. And in passing, I moved my eyes down to peoples handswhat they were doing, how they moved them, what they were carrying, what could they be carrying, were they hiding them in their sleeves because they were cold, or because they were going to pull out a knife and turn on me?
You know. Routine thoughts and the like. The idea of food crossed my mind somewhere in there as well, Im sure, and my stomach gave a meek rumbling of a complaint to reinforce the thought.
The market drifted quietly into view as I walked on, shifting my gaze back to the front, and then up and down the rows of carts and stands and shops, listening intently to strangers shout their offers and call people to their businesses to encourage them to buy or trade. I ducked away from an unwary gentlemans hands as he thrust them up from where he stood (nearly clobbering me in the jaw) holding between them a fine-looking choice of poultry meat and openly joining in the discombobulated chorus of shameless self-advertising. I passed a spices and herbs stand, taking in the wafting aromas that mixed well with the mountain air, and exhaled in quiet, self-contained reverence at the pleasant (for once) nostalgia that drifted through in the unusually quiet space between my ears.
I casually spied a brittle and torn flyer nailed to the wall of a shop, fluttering in the breeze. As I passed it, I noted my eyes had been slashed out on the flyer, and across my likeness someone had scrawled filthy godslayer in red paint. By far one of the least offensive tags Ive seen yet, as exaggerated as it was. She plainly hadnt been a godshe died, didnt she? People these days
they should learn the difference between a god and a
Excuse me, mister?
I gave a subtle start, stopping in my tracks and peeling my eyes away from the flyer that was now more behind me, and turning my head all the way back around and down at the lad that tugged on my thick, gray cloak, still drawn about my front and hiding most of my body. His reddish-brown, shaggy hair hung in front of his face, untouched for days it seemed. His face was equally grimy and speckled with dirt (or frecklesperhaps both), but behind the layers of dirt I read a healthy, wary, and bright-eyed boy of about thirteen or fourteen. His eyes were a curious shade of mahogany, much like his hair.
I blinked down at him and raised my brows, suggesting he continue talking.
Can you spare some food, mister? he asked quietly, bringing sharply to my attention the cold rags he wore. After a moment, he released my cloak and ran his hand across his nose with a congested sniffle (and brought it back slightly moist), despite his dry, unbothered eyes. For a split second, I felt compelled to deny him altogether and tell him to take care of his own problems and not to demand the help of strangersbut I quickly suppressed the urge and reminded myself that his life was his and mine was mine. Different experiences for different people, I suppose. That didnt give me the right to push my experiences on others, even kids. If this was how he was handling things, so be it.
But, a casual question required a casual response. I dropped my arms from where Id had them crossed over my chest, opening my cloak somewhat and fumbling for the bag I had on my person, strapped to my belt on my left hip. With the boy on my right, I peered down at him as I rummaged and found my own rations unfortunately diminished.
I turned my face into a disappointed frown and shrugged. Sorry kid, Im only made of crumbs today. Ive been a glutton and eaten all of my own rations.
He wiped his nose-dampened hand on his shirt idly, staring at the heavy-looking pouch on my right hip, also fastened to my belt, before glancing back up again, seeming meek and unsure before, I suppose, my imposing appearance. I knew I looked haggard, and as such, I probably looked mean, especially towering over him and my face set in shadow by the hood over my head. I tilted a brow and released a foggy sigh. My stomach grumbled in agreement with the lad, and as I looked up and spied a fruit stand, I drummed my bare fingers lightly on the kids head before passing him on his right. Wait here, I told him. Just a second.
And as I approached the fruit stand, I flashed a tired smile at the unsmiling vendor as he sat back on his stool, rubbing a grimy cloth over a hatchet hed set over his thick thigh. Afternoon, I said, initiating eye contact for a brief moment before dropping my scrutiny to his produce. How old is your fruit?
Its ripe, he grunted unsociably. His face, at a second glance, reminded me of a boar. So did the rest of his body.
I smirked and picked up a couple of yellow apples, paying his attitude little mind. Fair enough. A fruit is a fruit, right?
Aye, the merchant agreed. He must have had enough business already today to not be particularly excited at my presence. That or he was just a sallow-minded fellow. Three whites each, those apples.
I felt compelled to belch at the price, but stifled my complaints as I held the two in my left hand and dropped my other hand to the pouch on my right hipthe one the boy had spied. I supposed his crop, wherever he came from, was suffering, and had needed to jack up his prices so that
My hand landed on my empty belt and stopped. And as I stared vacantly, curiously, at the fruit vendors deadpan boar-like face, the clockwork in my head began to slowly turn again as my eyes just as slowly slid down to where the money pouch on my belt used to be. I gave my other hip a feel for good measure, thinking Idnope. Pockets? No. Other pocketsno. They all clanked with the presence of anything but money.
Aaugh! I exploded suddenly, That little rodent! I whirled around where I stood, seeking out the childbut hed gone. That fucking street urchin! How the hellwhen did, I spun back around to the vendor, who hadnt so much as flinched, but rather just
stared, eyes half-lidded, fingers rested on the hatchet sitting on his lap. HeI was just!
It happens, he grunted.
No it doesnt! I cracked. Not toaugh! I need that money for! Caeish tourshrein! I hissed out an foreign swear. How the hell do you steal from me?! Me! I clenched the apples in my hand, one of them slipping out of the awkward grip and plopping back onto the pile. I swiveled my head back around, my jaw tense and my lips pursed in hungry agitation (agitation is one thing, but hungry agitation?). My nose wrinkled in aversion toward anything with a pulse. I cant pay for this, but Im really hungry so Im taking it anyway, I attempted.
The vendor raised his hatchet in his thick, chapped, gloved fist. No, youre not.
Okay. I abruptly dropped the apple before turning on my heel and storming off. I hadnt really expected him to take kindly to that anyway, but I figure maybe if I warn him hed let me off? Sometimes manners dont matter I guess.
I returned to the place Id left the boy, swiveling on my feet and gazing off in all directionsall at once, if only I couldand took in all the people passing by, their heads in their respective clouds. I let my cloak lay limply on my shoulders, not bothering to hold it closed anymore, but still being wary to keep my hood up and half my face covered by my collar. I looked down at the dirt and found the small footprints hed left when hed stood still, and searched the ground until I found similar shapes leading off further down the street. That direction. Fine. I turned abruptly and stomped into an alley way, jumping at the wall, putting my right foot against it before pushing off, putting my left foot on the opposite wall, pushing off, and repeating the action several times, hopping up the walls as if it was just routine before I grasped the top of the building and hauled myself up. And without missing a breath, I jogged across the roof, along the edge, and fastened my eyes to the street and every moving being that inhabited it.
How did he do that? How did he touch me without my even knowing? Those grubby little hands were probably small enough that he could just
augh. Stupid. I should have been more awake. This is my fault. Stupid.
No problem. Ill find him. Ill just get the money back and be about my business. This is my problem, and I can fix it. Its not like it hasnt happened before. Its just been a long, long time since its happened. Once I spot him, it shouldnt be too hard to just
There he is!
I tore off across the roof, barely noticing the leaps I was taking over alleyways, across sloped roofs, over slippery clay shingles, across more alleyways that became progressively further apart, climbing to higher roofs, falling and rolling to lower ones, all the while keeping my eyes locked on the shaggy-haired boy as he pressed his way through the crowd and turned down an alley on the opposite side of the street. I slid to a stop, putting my hand on the ground to quicken my stop on the slush, and scrambled to the edge before stepping off without hesitation, landing on the support rail of an awning, sliding down, and pushing off with one foot, rattling the stand with my weight and startling several civilians before sprinting down the narrow alley Id seen the pickpocket disappear into.
Hey! I shouted when I rounded into the back alley. I hoped maybe if he knew I was onto him, hed give up. Kids were usually easy to
He ran faster.
I gritted my teeth and did the same. Hey, kid! Stop! I commanded, letting my voice fall into a throaty, imposing yell. He grabbed trash bins on his way past them and upturned them in my path as if that would help, but even with hopping over all of them I still closed on him. When I was five feet from him, he abruptly cut down another side alley and sprinted toward the open street. I stumbled and slid, grabbing the wall hed sprinted past and throwing myself after him, feeling my feet slap against the muddy ground and throwing up grimy slosh behind me.
Kid, Im warning you! I commanded. I watched him exit the alley immediately before a wandering patroller walked into my sight and I felt my throat tighten up before I grabbed the collar of my cloak and drew it across the lower half of my face and lithely sprinting past the law enforcer before he had a second to even look, turning and tearing off after the kid down the street. When my back was to him, I simply dropped the cloak and ignored it.
The kid ducked in and out of the crowd, dodging around the taller frames of strangers going about their business and thinking I couldnt do the same. I turned and shifted, ducked, turned some more, throwing myself straight through the crowd as if nobody was there, keeping my eyes focused on the back of the kids head and the small fist the clutched my money. He chanced a look over is shoulder, and, his eyes widening in terror, threw himself into his run for all his was worth.
I just shook my head, but looked up to take note of the mediclers office coming into view. Oh happy coincidence! Ill just get my money back right here, turn around and head straight in to
The beggar child turned and sprinted into the mediclers building, hugging the money to his chest. And I felt a thought slap me so hard in the face I moaned audibly.
Are you kidding me? Seriously?
I abruptly stormed after him as he scrambled inside, opening my mouth to object before the door slapped back in my face after hed slammed it. My head snapped back from the impact and I staggered backwards as my hand flew to my face. How many times that has happened in my life, I hadnt the mind to count.
Feeling involuntary tears seeping at the corners of my eyes, I opened them, clutching my throbbing face, and tossed the door back open with a sharp sigh.
In the pause that followed, I brought my hand back from my face and wiped the trace of blood onto my pants that had seeped out of my nostrils as the front desk clerk looked up at he door a second time. The little pickpocket urgently deposited the money on the counter for him, looking over his shoulder, his mahogany eyes wide with hopeless dread at being found out.
I walked forward, producing from my pocket a folded piece of parchment with one hand, and with my other, held a used polishing cloth to my nose. I slapped the parchment on the table, picked up the pouch of money the lad had stolen from me, and promptly slapped it on top of the parchment, and slid it toward the clerk, who blinked up at me, baffled at us both.
I leaned on the desk and turned my head down to the boy, allowing all traces of sleepless nights, broken spirits, disappointing loathing of all things breathing, and any and all desire to put sharp things into living things show on my face. Needless to say, he shrank away from me.
Um? I said, noting out of the corner of my eye the clerk reaching for the paper Id given him and unfolding it dutifully. Whatd you think I was going to do, not notice when I tried to pay for an apple for you?
The clerk stood and left the room momentarily, taking the paper with him.
the kid uttered.
Or did you not expect me to give chase? Not many people do, I admit, when they cant see where youve gone.
Do me a favor, kiddo.
My mum, she,
Take thought to closer inspect your victims before you lift their money.
Mr. Silus? the clerk said from the back as he pushed the curtain aside and stepped back into the room.
Yes, I volunteered, looking up.
Here is your medicine, sir. Instructions have been provided. That will be fifty regals.
I gestured a finger down at the purse Id set on the table for him, Count it if you wish, before turning my eyes back onto the boy, who stared at the money in desperation as the clerk untied the small bag and emptied it onto the desk. I pulled the cloth away from my nose to inspect the blood loss before replacing it again, and studied the young boys face momentarily, watching his eyes inspect every coin the clerk slid from the next to the empty bag to the growing pile in front of himself, rapidly counting in his head, I presumed.
Mister, the boy said sheepishly at the clerk, clearly too distracted to bother with me, peering over the edge of the desk. Mister, hey
do you know anything about the Rot? Is there anyone here who can cure it? If I bring enough money?
No, son. Im afraid there isnt. the clerk peered at the boy over his round spectacles, his slightly-wrinkled face wrinkling even more. Im sorry
it is not a disease for medical intervention. We can only offer temporary relief from the symptoms.
I began drumming my fingers on the counter as he continued counting my payment.
Why not? Why dont you know how to cure it? he asked.
Because, son, its not of this world, the clerk answered offhandedly, drawing the last of the money across the table. He was likely tired of being asked the same question every day now. What these people need is a priest, not a medicler. I am deeply sorry for your troubles son, but there is nothing I can do. Finally, he looked up at me over the rim of his spectacles, handing me back the purse before depositing back into it what was left of my money.
Pocketing the slightly bloodied cloth from my nose, I took it with a thank you, and picked up my purchase. How long can we expect this medicine to take before it starts working? I asked.
The patient should be feeling better within a few days. The flu can be dangerous however, so take proper caution to be sterile after you interact with him or her.
I nodded. Thanks again. I really appreciate it. Take care. Come on, kid. I turned him by the shoulder and ushered him toward the door, receiving little resistance. And once outside, I asked him. What sorts of symptoms is your mum showing?
He looked up at me, his eyes looking somewhat vacant now, but still void of tears. She coughs a lot. Sometimes her spit is black or bloody. And she says shes really itchy, and craves odd things to drink.
How long as she been doing this?
A few days.
Is she coherent?
I mean does she still seem, I gesticulated lightly with my hands, still holding the two bags, awake? Understandable? Does she still talk clearly?
I took in a deep breath, gazing skyward, and then drawing my eyes down toward the horizon as it began to glow with the distant onset of an early evening. I looked back down at him, then fumbled with the medicine bag before depositing it within the larger bag on my left hip, wrapping it carefully securely along with the remainder of my money and fastening the flap shut over it. Take me to her?
Its not far
he muttered, and led me away quietly.
Hed been rightit was only a few blocks away. His home, a tiny apartment at ground level with barely enough for one person, let alone two. The doorway was covered by a thick woolen blanket rather than a door. The rusted hinges remained, jutting out sneeringly to catch anyone unwary of them by the skin of their shoulder. I brushed the curtain aside behind the boy as he led me in, and I was immediately greeted with a haggard, aged cough.
I spied the woman laying on the disheveled sofa with a cloth over her mouth as she muffled her coughs into it before peering up and over her shoulder at her son, and then up at me. She sat up abruptly, wincing back her aches. I focused on her eyes and the surrounding area, mentally peeling back the years her illness had set upon her to find her true age was likely less than forty. Mid-thirties or so.
Her black hair was wiry and unwashed, once wavy and now only greasy, her face sallow and sunken, but her brown eyes clearly shouted that she was very full of life. It hadnt been drained away just yet. The smallest hint of red rushed to her face as she hastily pulled at the wide, draping neck of her frayed gown, pulling it higher up on her shoulders and turning her shoulder away from me.
Nicolas! she wheezed breathlessly. Nick, no-no-no! Do not bring visitors, I told you! Send him away, he should not be here!
Mum, its okayhe told me he wanted to see you! He already knows you have the,
She shook her head urgently, convinced her son couldnt understand her situation. Im sorry sir, please, just go. My son, Im sorry for whatever hes done. Please, just,
He didnt do anything, I just met him at the mediclers office, maam, I said, not moving from where I was.
Medic, she was cut off by a shudder and a violent cough as she leaned forward and pressed the cloth to her mouth again. I grimaced. She had coughed herself hoarse already. It was very dry, which would mean the cloth was probably spotted with
She rested the dirty thing in her lap, urgently trying in vain to make herself appear less
like she did by shakily pushing her unbrushed hair out of her face and behind her reddened earsfrom her fever or her embarrassment, I couldnt be sure. Medicler? she tried again. Nicolas, why were you at the medicl, she coughed again, turning her head away.
the mediclers office?
tried to pay them to come look at you, he muttered, then hastily added, I was just trying to help
You stole again, didnt you? she hissed hotly. Nicolas, how dare you!
Mum, you dont understand
He stole from me, I provided. The boy gave a start and shuffled away from me, but stopped, seeing his mothers piercing glare despite her condition, and quickly shuffled back to me, unsure who to go to for support. But he gave it back. You see my niece is sick with the flu, so we were headed to the same place anyway. It ended up being convenient. He showed me to the mediclers office in effect, and to thank him I decided to pay you a visit.
Im sorry, sir, but you need to leave, she wheezed quietly, rubbing at her (itchy, I presumed) arms through the sleeves and staring at me desperately through dark rings under her eyes. Im sick with the Rot. I dont want to infect you too. Please, just go and leave us in peace.
I shook my head. The Rot isnt spread through air. Its a plague of a different sort, rather through the exchange of bodily fluids. Have you shared any food or drink with your son?
She shook her head eagerly. No. No, of course not.
Good. She was at least wise enough to know better. Have you kissed him?
she replied quietly. Ive been afraid to
My stomach knotted. She was a good mother, damn her. I drew in a breath and chanced a look around the dimly lit room before returning my eyes to hers. She hesitated, her eyes cast to the floor at my boots (full boots, not the toeless onesits cold outside and Im not an idiot). Maam, are you well enough to travel?
She slowly brought her eyes up to mine and stared. All but her eyes seemed hollow. Within the next several days, those too would become hollow as well. I had only to pray my hypothesis was right. Please, please, please, Caella, let me be correct.
And if I am, please, for the love of your Sisters, let him be able to do something.
I dont think I can
ride, Im in no condition to
I dont have a horse, I apologized, and moved toward her. But I can
She shrank away, and I paused.
Why should I trust someone whose face I cant see clearly?
Nicolas, her son, shifted on his feet, and gazed up at me blankly.
Would you trust me if you saw my face? I said. I can take you to someone who might be able to extend more help than a medicler can. His profession is markedly out of a different Book, which is what this plague hails from and is why mediclers can do nothing.
Her eyes widened marginally before she blinked rapidly several times and drew in a breath that shuddered and gurgled just slightly, causing her to wretch and heave out a fit of coughing once again. I stepped back on impulse and turned my head away from her as she did the same. She was sweating.
Yes, she said at last, squeezing the moist cloth in her hand. Yes, just please, let me see your face.
I abruptly drew the hood off my head and pulled at the buttons on my coats collar and folded it down. Her eyes met mine again with weary, very vague recognition, as if she couldnt quite place where shed seen me before. And for several moments, nothing was said, before she drew her shoulders back and straightened, looking at me closely as the thought struck her.
I should be arrested.
What do you want with me? Wraith! she hissed, her features traced with worry.
Mama, Nicolas whispered, stepping forward to calm his mother. Mama, please, I really think he just wants to help
I want to help, I replied, feeling barely any connection with the words as they left my mouth, and feeling a quick stab of guilt at disbelieving the words myself. This was nothing but a mere puzzle to be solved. Not a woman to be healed. How dare I?
A puzzle. Maam, I said. I promise I dont mean to harm you. Please allow me to take you to someone who I think can help
your son can wait here where its safe.
Im going with you! Nicolas protested.
Nick, she hissed impatiently, before looking back at me.
You said you would trust me if you saw my face, miLady, I said, slipping in the extra formality for good measure. What have I to gain from harming a sick woman and her son when plainly I have other pressing matters?
Then why are you trying to help me? she wheezed.
A cold gasp of air brushed past the curtain and lingered on the back of my neck. I glanced down at the boy, who was staring at my faceno, my neck. For what reason, I wasnt sure. The only thing interesting about my neck was the
Because most people I dont even know would sooner wish your condition upon me than fathom the idea of helping you, I said suddenly. And for that, I hate most people. I fancy myself better than most, and to prove that, I will help you rather than wishing your condition on anyone else. Well except one person, but thats a thought for another day.
She blinked at me, trying to decipher my explanation.
Im self-centered, in other words, madam; unfathomably so, I nodded. Does this reason suit you? I extended my hand at her, realizing Id crossed the room toward her.
she looked at Nick, who had sat next to her on the couch carefully. Are you alright with staying here?
He grinned. Of course Mum, Im okay on my own. Go with him and get help!
She drew in a breath and carefully hugged him around the shoulder weakly. I could see in her eyes the desire to kiss her son, but she resisted. Nicolas didnt stand on ceremony and went ahead and hugged his mother around the waist. Be a good boy. Dont steal anything.
I wont. I promise. Not til youre back, he grinned. Here
he stood up and bounded across the apartment to fetch her cloak before returning and wrapping it around her, going the distance to even clasp it for her.
If she comes back, I thought grimly. The woman took my handa weak grasp within my strong one, and I lifted her off the sofa. Within a few moments, I had her on my back, arms hugging my neck lightly as I drew my hood back up and awkwardly buttoned up my collar with one hand, before nodded down at the boy. Clean up the place while shes gone, kid. Itll only be a few days. No parties, no sex, no booze, and so forth.
I left him laughing slightly in my wake as I ducked out of the apartment and strode down the street toward where Id come from. The fresh, cool breeze of the mountain air and the nostalgia it brought with it forgotten, I looked skyward at the setting sun.
I guess one more night without sleep would be okay.
The night got cold, and so did my face. The ladys frail face hid in my shoulder most of the night, shielding herself from the cold air with her own hood draped over her head as she, I assumed, slept most of the way. Very frequently, she set into more violent fits of coughing that she tried hastily to direct away from me. I reminded myself over and over of Ethans estimation that the disease was not spread through the air, praying that he was as correct here as he ever was. That exchange of bodily fluids was required in order to pass it on. Saliva and blood and the like. But if he ended up being wrong, so help me
I would haunt him to his grave.
This disease was nothing natural. And Id grown tired of seeing traces of it wherever I went. Maybe, since she was so early into the stages, maybe it was possible to
What was your real reason? she asked suddenly, her frail voice breaking the stony, frigid silence between us as dawn quietly approached. I stared blearily at the path ahead of me, carefully adjusting her frail weight on my back yet again.
My what? I breathed.
Your real reason for helping me? Dont you know there is no cure for this disease, sir?
I am aware, maam. But my frie, I paused to step over a log. My associate, he is a Nexus shifter, and deals in all sorts of business like this. The undead and such. I think maybe if he meets you in the early stages of the onset, perhaps he can do something to help.
And if you are wrong
I didnt answer her. I was too tired to think of a good answer. I supposed if he couldnt do anything, and she became progressively worse
I would have no choice but to
She tore into a fresh fit of coughing, cracking my thoughts away before I could finish them. Id grown used to the sound of her coughing by now. And, she tried again, What is your real reason? For helping me, she pressed.
I waded through my thickening thoughts for several moments, watching the path ahead of me still, wandering distantly why it seemed to appear longer and longer the more I walked.
Because nobody would do the same for me, I replied suddenly, watching my breath billow from my mouth in a fog. I tucked my chin down behind my thick collar. A long time ago.
Were you sick?
No maam. Had I been, I would have died.
You must be a very lucky man
How do you figure?
To have not become seriously ill in previous years
? That is very lucky indeed.
Yes, but, I breathed tiredly, trudging on. Had I been, there would have been nobody but myself to see to my health. No family, you see. Im a very unlucky person.
Is that the only reason you are unlucky?
No, I said too quickly. And to make up for it, I added, but I forget the others. Thats just the biggest one.
So, she said, her voice sounding sicker than ever. How far was it now? Why is that any reason to help a complete stranger, who could potentially make you sick as well?
I dont know, I said. It just felt like a good reason. Whether or not I was telling the truth, I would analyze later. Were almost there. Are you all right?
Yes, she wheezed carefully. Thank you.
I knocked three times, loudly (so, more of a banging I suppose), before opening the door. Ethan. You awake? Get up.
Whawho? the Ekyran hissed, drowsily pulling himself out of his dreams or nightmares and rolling over to face the doorway, eyes squinting at the light that spilled in behind me. He pushed various locks of cerulean hair out of his face and blinked at me, barely opening his eyes past a squint.
Cyrus? What are you doing back so soon? Do you not sleep, ever?
I need your help. Its an emergency. Get your shirt on and come to the kitchen.
Cant Nale assist you with emergencies? he grumbled, already sitting up and trying to clear away his grumpy daze to make way for his usual civilized demeanor that would no doubt show up eventually.
This isnt his kind of emergency. Cmon. Up, up, up. I slapped my hand on the door for emphasis and left it open. I walked a few more paces down the hall and banged on Terrans bedroom door before opening it a crack. Terran
Cyrus! he threw the door open in my face (I bent away from it in time to save myself from getting smacked again) and clapped me on the shoulder as he hastily tied his pants after having thrown them on. He must have heard me banging on Ethans door and woke up. Youre back already? Thats fantastic! Did you get the medicine?
I did, I smiled, and drew the medicine bag out of the satchel tied to my waist. Here. Instructions are in there. Heres the rest of your money.
Keep it, cousin, he snatched the bottle out of my hand and stepped around me before striding to the end of the hall to Kareys bedroom. Thank you, Cyrus, I owe you!
Ethan stepped out of the guest room at this point, his green eyes still squinting (no wait, it had converted into his scowl by now, never mind) and hair still in general disarray and framing his long face.
What. He said.
I jerked my head toward the kitchen area and walked. When I heard his footsteps fall in behind mine, I said, deciding quick and to the point was the best way to address this, Can you heal the Rot?
Im sorry, beg your pardon? he grumbled wearily. God damn, but he woke up slow.
The Rot. The plague thats going about. The one you said was,
yes, I know what youre referring to
but why ask this now? What time is it?
About five in the morning. We stepped into the kitchen and I approached the woman Id brought back just as shed begun into another fit of coughing, this time holding a clean cloth to her mouth as she hunched over tiredly at the table. She gazed up at Ethaniel as he stepped into the light, busily pushing his hair behind his ears and staring down at her.
This woman has
he breathed, hesitating. Cyrus, why would you bring her here
Listen, listen, I hissed, peering down the hallway wed come from, then looking back up at his face, barely eye level with his throat (and he had kind of a long neck, not to mention). Remember what you said about this being unnatural? About what happens to
I lowered my voice, these people? I figured you could have a look at her, and maybe,
and maybe what? Heal her? I am not a medicler, Cyrus, and this is an advanced sickness that delves much deeper into parts of the soul and body that mortals will never understand, how can you even half expect someone like me to so much as,
Okay! I hissed at him to get him to stop. Goddamn if I could talk as fast as he could after waking up so early, Id have a lot fewer scars. Okay. I get it, I get it, but listen! Shes very early in the stages. Shes still quite cognizant. Her eyes are still clear. Usually we only ever see these people in passing, when we have no time and when theyve already advanced into the severe stages of the sickness, or
you know. Worse, I hinted with my brows to make my point.
? he peered at her over his shoulder, his brows deeply furrowed.
Well, maybe since its so early yet, theres still a chance you can lift the curse before it sets in too deep. Or am I wrong about how these things work?
He set his pointed ears back just marginally, his brain already setting to work with god-knows what thoughts and hypotheses and theories and what-ifs, possibilities, books, lectures, experiences, and so forth. His previous sleepy daze had completely left him, shoved aside by the opportunity to dabble in mysteries hed not yet had the chance to study. Things that were so close to his understanding, yet just out of reach until, possibly, this very moment.
He glanced back at me, his brows furrowed in doubt, bringing to my attention the possibility that maybe something else bothered him as well. I dont
If anyone can, its you, I muttered. Consider where you come from, who taught you. What you know. All those years, all those pages and pages
He stared past my head for a moment, thinking on this and that, the specifics of which I would never know.
I opened my mouth to say something else after a moment, but stopped when Ethan drew in a breath and let it out through his straight nose and walked toward the lady. My name is Ethaniel, miLady. May I have yours?
Candice, she replied weakly, holding her cloth to her chest. Its nice to meet you, sir.
He bowed his head generously and extended a hand to help her out of her chair. Im unsure to what extent I can be of service, but I shall put whatever knowledge I have to work to aid you. If youll come with me
Seeming astonished with the amount of civility she was treated by someone appearing so upper class (or maybe just upper height), she hesitated, meeting his sincere gaze for a moment before gingerly taking his bare hand. He helped her up and carefully ushered her to the guest room hed recently occupied. She seemed dwarfed in comparison, for shed been several inches shorter than I was, and realized briefly that she seemed even shorter due to her hunched back. After she was ushered in, Ethan turned and rested his hand on the door handle, peering back at me with eyes desperately trying to conceal his self doubt. It wasnt a look I was used to seeing on him, but then, I realized somewhat guiltily, perhaps hed never had someones life hanging in the balance within his own hands. Had I been able to warn him ahead of time, I would have. Sorry, Ethan.
He shrugged in an unvoiced request for good luck, and turned away, pulling the door shut behind him.
I slumped into a seat at the kitchen table, now left to my own devices. I blinked blearily, counting backwards in my head how many hours it had been since Id slept last, and then how many hours that had been. Ugh. My legs were sore. My back too. And arms. And I was hungrier now, too. I never bought any apples
I heard the door at the furthest end of the hall creak open before Terran stepped out and ambled toward the kitchen, stepping into the light and setting the medicine bottle on the shelf next to the doorway.
How is she? I muttered.
Tired still, he replied hopefully, running a thick hand through his thinning hair. But shes sleeping soundly now, bless her
and you too, Cyrus. Thank you for offering to run and get that for me, I could have gone,
Dont worry about it.
What brought you back so fast? I thought you said you were going to spend the night and not overexert yourself.
I brought someone back with me, I muttered, plastering my cheek to the table and not feeling much like moving it. Shell be using your guest room, I hope thats okay.
Oh? Whos she? he smirked slyly. Any friend of yours is a guest of mine, you know that. He slid into the chair across from me, the legs creaking under him as he did so.
A complete stranger
shes ill, Terran. I brought her back to let Ethan have a look at her. I hope thats alright. Shes not contagious as long as we take precaution. If need be, well disallow anyone into the guest room until shes gone.
I saw him stiffen noticeably and peer at me through very dark, green eyes as traces of doubt crossed his features. I rolled my head up onto my chin and peered up at him lazily.
I know its a lot to ask, since your daughter is sick and all
and Im really sorry to impose again. Thisll be the last time though, I promise.
Bahh, he huffed, faking his nonchalance. Not a problem
whats one more sick person after all? Just dont be offended if Im a bit scarce the rest of the time youre here. Ill be in with Karey for much of my time.
I understand, I waved him off. Just be careful not to catch her flu. Wash up a lot and all that, cause if you get sick
Im going to come back and kick your ass.
He chuckled and stretched his broad shoulders. Aye, aye, I getcha. Anyway, thanks again for getting the medicine.
Whatre family for, I muttered, staring down at the table under my face. At some point Id rested my head face-down on the surface. It was cold.
There was a long silence that drifted in and settled over my head as I was vaguely aware of the sound of Terran getting up out of his chair and moving about the kitchen, the floorboards creaking every so often under his planted steps. The sounds of various clinking and quiet shuffling about as he did whatever it was he did in the morning, coming and going, doing this and that
tending the things a father with a house needed to tend to
taking care of things
It wasnt until I woke up that I became aware that Id fallen asleep, face-down on my cousins kitchen table, slumped over in my chair with my arms resting limply in my lap. As with any time you fall asleep, I couldnt be sure how long Id dozed off, but I sat up with a sharp gasp when I felt a heavy hand clasp my shoulder in greeting.
Mornin Airhead, Nale said as he ambled past. That was fast. What timed you get up to come back? Four?
Uuh? I muttered, rubbing my face. What time is it? I glanced down, realizing Id been given a blanket about my shoulders, and shrugged it off.
About eighth mark.
what? I started. Wheres Ethan? Is she okay?
Nale stared back at me, somewhat baffled at my choice of words as he munched on a loaf of bread. His permanent bed head hair hung limp in his face. Uh
something happen with Ethan that I missed, or am I just
I blinked at him blearily. Huh?
My thoughts exactly, he stared back. Start over, whatre talking about? I just woke up myself.
oh! Oh, god. No. Okay, I waved my hands around, clearing my head. Okay no, sorryEthan was working on a patient and,
Ethans a medicler now?
and last I saw hed taken her into the guest room to help her. So have you seen him?
He raised his brows and shrugged, stuffing more bread into his mouth. Like I said
just woke up.
I grimaced tiredly, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. Wheres Terran?
I. Just. Woke. Up.
Have you seen, he cut me off by pitching the rest of his bread at my forehead. When it bounced off and landed on the table. I picked it up and began eating it, turning around in my seat and looking down the hallway. From under the guest room door came a steady, faint blue glow, unwavering. I couldnt hear anything from this far away, but if I were to wander closer, my guess is I would be hearing a faint muttering of Divinity.
I turned back around in my seat, catching a glimpse of Nales questioning look, so I downed the rest of his bread and set into explaining the situation. By the time I had finished, he too tilted forward to peer down the hallway and watch the doorway for a moment.
So you brought her all the way back here in one night, and dumped her on Ethan? And then just collapsed on the kitchen table.
I sniffed back some congestion and rubbed my nose. You make me sound like an ass.
You are an ass, he reassured me easily and then straightened against the counter again. But then so am I. Nice going. Then after a moment of disinterested silence in the room, he spoke again. Whats with you, anyway? You dont even know these people. This
kid and his mom.
I shrugged. I dont know. I just thought about it, and realized hey, why not. Its not like it took much effort to get her here.
over ten hours in the cold
with a sick woman on your back who couldve started into a fit of mania and tearing at her skin in a delirious fever before attacking you with her bare hands.
I can defend myself against sick people, I boasted tiredly.
Clearly I hadnt seen his point, because he tossed his hands up and rolled his eyes. Ethan claims this disease is supernatural. Ill tell you whats supernatural. Youre the one whos supernatural, you damn daemon. I pointed at the basket of fruit sitting on the counter. He picked an apple up and tossed it at me. Anyway, what made you decide to help her?
I turned the apple over in my hand and squinted an eye up at him. I dunno. Maybe I was envious of the kid.
Envious? Of what? He was begging on the streets and reduced to petty thievery. What did he have for you to be envious of?
I crunched into the apple without much delay, watching the doorway down the hall and the blue glow that remained unfazed by the hours.
And even so, envy doesnt usually mean you jump at the opportunity to help who youre envious of.
Good point. I dont know then, I dismissed. Lets drop it.
As if on cue, the glow from the guest room slowly died away, and the silence that had filled the kitchen between Nale and myself drifted down the hallway, hanging in the quiet anticipation neither one of us really realized we had until then. Was there a dead woman in that room? Was this situation really beyond Ethans expertise? The Rotting sickness was an ailment of the soul and the body, the specifics of which were beyond those who werent already studied in the Book of Nexus. But there are limits to what one can do. Would he ever even admit them?
The door opened quietly, and he stepped out even quieter, his feet still bare from having woken up hours previously. His sleeves were rolled up, the rest of his shirt wrinkled and hair in general disregard. His back straight, he rubbed his hands sorely as he made his way toward the kitchen and stood in the doorway.
he muttered, and stopped, staring at his hands, perplexed at what he was trying to say. I did it. He pulled his head up and stared at me, and for the first time that I could remember, he held on his face a look of pure, unchecked pridevictory at having just accomplished something he never had the slightest inkling that he would succeed at. I, I healed her
Hed been shown something behind that door. What it was, Nale and I had no business knowing, for we each had our own stories to tell and reasons why some things meant more to us than others. But whatever it was, a layer of self doubt well concealed under years of scorn had been peeled away. He brought his hands up to his forehead and raked his fingers through his hair as he stared at the floor in bewilderment at what hed just done. He heaved a quiet laugh that was almost a mere sigh. And suddenly the heavy realization struck me that whatever this Rotting sickness was, it ran deep enough into matters beyond my comprehension that it drove Ethan to such bewilderment when even he had doubted he had the power to do anything about it.
Or maybe, perhapsjust perhaps, hed never had it in his head the idea that he could be of any use to anyone until he was forced into a situation where he was the only one left that could do anything at all. Did he truly think himself to be that useless?
He shook his head presently, bringing his hands back from his head, shaking slightly from, I assumed, an overuse of his energy. To think, such an early stage of the illness, and even then, it
he muttered to himself, watching his hands shake. I exchanged a tired glance with Nale, who had crossed his arms over his chest to spectate, before glancing back at Ethan, who had presently realized
I believe Ive overexerted myself, he declared uneasily. I made to stand up, Nale straightened, but before either of us could do anything more, his knees buckled, and he fell to the floor in a heap, blacking out entirely as his exhaustion finally took hold.
Nale leaned back into the counter, shoving his hands into his pockets and tilting his head down at the fallen man. Early stages of the disease, eh? he said quietly. Desig forbid he try to save anyone further along than that.
I had nothing to offer to that, and instead I turned back around in my chair and heaved a sigh and rested my head in my arms again, feeling the apple slip out of my fingers, abandoned.
Thats good, I muttered, my eyes closing and my consciousness drifting off again, feeling sleep wash back over my senses. Maybe now he could see himself as something other than useless. Maybe now Kareys flu would leave her. Maybe Terran would be happy again. Maybe now the lady could go back to her son healthy and raise him to be a good lad. Someone who doesnt steal. Doesnt need to beg. Doesnt need to kill.
Thats what family is for
Thats why, I whispered. I wasnt even sure anyone heard me.