Thursday, December 20, 2007

Chapter 25

XXV

When Namah entered the hovel which she called her home, they were ready for her.

Unfortunately for them, Namah was no unwise spring chicken, and was even more ready for them than they were for her. As the young man and woman lunged for her she thrust them against the walls on either side of the room using magic she hadn’t used for some time, idly considered in some corner of her mind. They both fixed her with gazes equal in fury and defiance, and Namah couldn’t help thinking that it was possible they were both marked for destiny.

“You nearly killed Xylic!” the girl yelled at Namah from her spot against the wall.

“He looks fine to me,” Namah replied.

“You’re going to have to let us go sometime, and when you do—“

“Then what? Are you going to bite the hand that feeds you, girl?” Namah grew a little short with the girl, although she actually didn’t feel short at all. “How long do you think it would have taken you to learn how to do what you just did if you’d gone to someone else? Do you know how they teach you in other schools? Carefully, mote by mote, making sure no one gets hurt and there’s no danger. Well, that’s not the world of healing. There’s danger, and it’s constant. You have to learn to deal with mortality, death, and the dying, and you have to be able to come through in a clinch. I taught you in six days what most other teachers would take six months to do, and you’re ungrateful for that?”

The girl merely withdrew her vocal opposition and resumed glaring. Namah took that as reluctant acceptance. She turned her attention to the young man, the elf. As she looked at him she saw his thoughts and understood him in a blink. She returned to the girl.

“Bactine, do you want to learn defensive magic?”

Bactine glanced down, and Namah knew her thoughts, too. The girl possessed a biting sort of anger within her, but it was a tool. A tool to mask emotion, and a tool of focus. Namah fell to wondering if that was healthy. She was talented, though; remarkably talented. Namah had actually expected to have to come in the next day and heal the elf before he had the chance to pass away, but she was determined to give Bactine all the time possible to fret herself into learning what she had to. When she’d sensed the girl using the drawing ability Namah had been genuinely surprised, and impressed. She didn’t plan on telling her any of that, though, and assumed the young pair would attempt to ambush her in her own hovel.

The idea made Namah chuckle.

“Is something funny?” glared Bactine from her plastered state against the wall, and Namah had to admit to herself more than one thing was funny at the moment. She recalled the magic and released them both.

“Will you teach Bactine the magic you know?” Xylic asked Namah, speaking for once. Bactine looked over at him, her face taking on a look of shock. He returned her look plainly, without chagrin.

“Son, that would take twenty years, and I don’t think we have that long,” replied Namah. She appraised them both. Yes, they were definitely on the verge of something. She could feel it around them like a tremor. They were unstable. She turned to Bactine. “But I’ll teach you however much you can grasp in a week.”

Namah had a feeling that would be a lot.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Chapter 24

XXIV

So ever since this morning, when Xylic had fallen unconscious the first time, Bactine had been struggling to make sense of Namah’s words.

She was tired by now; it’d been at least twelve hours that she’d been trying. Xylic was feverish, and his arm had swollen precariously. Occasionally he made a sound, but it was rarely something she could decipher. It didn’t matter anyway. There was only one thing Bactine could do to help him, and she had no idea how to do it. It frustrated her beyond reason.

“Take it,” Namah had simply said after Bactine had described the blackness she’d sensed inside of him. Bactine had tried to take it, but she had no idea how. By the time she grew frustrated enough to ask, Namah had gone, and hadn’t returned.

Xylic was dying, Bactine had been abandoned by the one person who could help, and the whole situation made her want to scream. The next time she saw Namah she was going to give her a piece of her mind, and verbally berate her into assisting Xylic somehow. Something –anything would be better than this horrible torture he was going through.

Regardless, Bactine spent a lot of time inside of Xylic because it helped with the pain, and she eventually grew to know him rather well. Now, at this desperate hour, she leaned over him as she had for the past several days and pressed her hand against his brow. Her other hand was on his chest and she was doing what had become automatic: Checking inside of him. The blackness had grown. It crept outward unnaturally, like ink in water; no pulse beating in its ravaging, soulless maw. The rest of his body was all light and warmth and sensual clockwork; and just as horrified by the ugly blackness as she was. She wanted to push it back, but was only able to observe. His body tried to push it back, but was waging a losing battle. The blackness laughed and shot out another inky-thin feeler.

It was infuriating.

As her fury ebbed, she found herself in a moment of curious sentiment. She moved her hand from his forehead to his cheek as she thought of the newly discovered grace that, now that she was aware of it, seemed to emanate subtly from him like a halo with the same pulse that ran through his body. He wasn’t quite as beautiful as Sangwine, but certainly not far off.

Well, she took that back. He was just different. Where Sangwine was all sparkling outward and wide-eyed, Xylic was withdrawn and cautious. Their coloring wasn’t that different, really. Xylic’s skin was a bit darker, Sangwine’s eyes a more pure blue, Xylic’s hair pale like sand where Sangwine’s was gold.

They are similar, thought Bactine, very similar. Her hand moved into his hair, synapses firing.

Suddenly she forgot entirely what she’d been thinking, or why her hand was in Xylic’s hair. She removed her hand and pulled up his bedcovering to his shoulders in a gentle move, then glanced around, feeling strangely blank.

The sickness. That was what she was doing.

She returned inside of him, feeling towards the sickness and melding with Xylic’s body like another part of him. It welcomed her, the push and pull of life embracing her, and sped her on closer to the illness in question. This time she came closer to it, prodding around it, feeling through the tear in his flesh, and then she pulled. It resisted. She pulled it again. It threatened to tear a larger whole in the being of Xylic if she continued.

This didn’t go over very well with Bactine. For one thing, she was being dictated to by gangrene. For another thing, it had been threatening Xylic long enough. Xylic, who was her best friend in the world. Her best friend in the world.

That was the breaker. Inside him and in her anger she swelled and became an even worse creature than the wretchedness and blackness, and she consumed it entirely with a golden maw, drawing it back with blurring speed, back through the veins of Xylic and through her hand, into herself and she absorbed it. Into herself, unfortunately. It screamed.

No, wait. That was Bactine screaming.

Xylic woke feeling slightly weak, but for the most part he was whole and hale and sat up immediately.

“Bactine!”

She was clutching her arm, which was swollen and gangrenous, bleeding and torn. Her face paled, and she looked on the edge of collapse. As she began to wobble and slide from her stool, Xylic caught her, pulled her to him, and she cried out again, since any movement sent searing pain throughout her arm and shoulder, as Xylic knew very well. He loosened his grip and her ragged breath brushed his shoulder.

“I did it,” she said to his shoulder, her voice weak and broken. She began to go limp in his arms and he stopped it, for no other reason that he strongly felt that she wouldn’t wake again if she slept now. He was fairly certain the only way to keep her awake was to cause her pain, as much as the idea made his stomach sink. Besides, he didn’t have much time to think about alternatives.

He tightened his grip on her arm, and she yelled wordlessly. Surprisingly, and he supposed because it surprised him because it was Bactine, she began to cry. He immediately felt horrible, but had an ultimate focus.

“You have to get rid of it,” he told her.

“I can’t,” she cried.

“Yes, you can,” he said to her, sounding completely certain, although he wasn’t at all.

She looked up at him, her brown eyes all strength and fury and weakness and anguish. He loved her, and it was agonizing for a multitude of reasons at this particular moment. On her face the expression of determination won out, and he sensed she had gone inside of herself, so to speak.

He had very little he could do, except hold her and prevent her from falling to the floor, and so that’s what he did, unconsciously avoiding her bleeding arm. She gradually fell into a sort of deep thought, her forehead on his shoulder and her hands somewhat painfully gripping his forearms, or more specifically, the skin on his forearms. He didn’t really mind, though, regardless of the pain. Anything was less than the past several days’ worth of agony.

“Remember what Namah said,” he told her. She looked up at him.

“What did she say?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, “But I’d assumed she said something.”

She looked both amused and annoyed, but also in mortal pain. It would be an unusual mixture on anyone’s face. She shuddered and closed her eyes, her brow furrowed deeply and she began holding her breath.

“What are you doing?” asked Xylic, alarmed.

“Shutup!” she replied from her intense reverie, and her arm looked as if it might be a little less swollen. Then suddenly, it all swept away, as if into a vacuum. The swelling went away, the redness faded, the tear in her skin knit together until it was untorn satin. There was nothing to be done for the blood, though. It was still everywhere.

She released her held breath and gasped for air, and opened her eyes.

“I did it,” she said to him, and they were both suddenly wracked with smiles. An embrace came next, although the realities of everything else is never far behind, and it swiftly grew awkward, as Xylic was undressed to the waist and Bactine was sharing a bed with him.

“I can’t believe it. I did it,” she said, standing suddenly as Xylic went for his clothes.

“Do you think you could do it again?” he asked, pulling his shirt over his head.

“I do,” she said, her glowing jubilance outshining the side dish of awkward. “Xylic, was it horrible? I’m so sorry.”

“Well, it was horrible, yes,” he replied as he tied his jerkin. “But I suppose it was worth it in the end.”

He paused.

“You’re a healer, now, aren’t you,” he said.

She took that in ponderously.

“I suppose I am.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Chapter 23

XXIII

Al’bert always dressed very carefully in the morning. He never really thought about it, but it was something in which he found a distinct sort of pleasure. It was vanity, surely, but a vanity so engrained in the elven psyche that it wasn’t remotely considered vain by Al’bert; it was just a part of life. However, if someone were to call him vain he wouldn’t care at all.

So this particular morning, as he smoothed the clasp near the throat of his longcoat, one of his favorite noises in the world came from the mussed recesses of the bed at hand. It was the sort of noise a woman makes in the morning, when not displeased at all with the events of the night before. He glanced from himself in the mirror to the tumble of auburn hair which was currently the only evidence in plain sight that the girl existed and he grinned to himself.

His thoughts split in two directions as he straightened his cuffs. One part of his mind went to the fine make of his coat, and how he was chagrined that he had to be careful with it because there wasn’t similar quality of tailoring to be found anywhere near this human city. This was yet another way he found himself roughing it here among the humans of the world. The other direction his mind went was to Sangwine.

The girl had been a fair, pleasant conquest, and she’d told him everything she knew and possibly more than she knew. Al’bert now knew where Sangwine lived, when he was there, and where he went during the day. He had everything he needed to do what Fang had sent him to do.

Al’bert’s movements slowed as he considered this.

It was problematic, to say the least. Al’bert just didn’t want to kill Sangwine. Sangwine might have been a fairly annoying kid, sure, but he didn’t think he deserved to die. Well, none of the royal family deserved to die, but the way it goes is that when those at the top are removed, those below move up a rank. So with the death of the royal family, Al’bert’s father, le Duc du Fromage, moved up in royalty, as did the rest of the Fromages. It was a mixed blessing, one that required heartlessness to appreciate. Al’bert’s best bet was turning a blind eye, and doing what he must.

But if what he must required killing?

He sighed audibly, not knowing what he was doing.

What’s wrong? he heard the girl ask from behind.

He looked at her in the mirror as she was trussed with an angelic swirl of sheets and coverings which created a sort of strapless gown twisting to the edges of the bed. Her auburn hair stood out starkly against the white and her fair skin. He smiled at her.

Nothing at all, he replied, smoothing the front of his attire.

He paused.

Except one thing, he said to her, turning.

What is that? she asked him, tilting her head slightly.

I’ve run out of time, he said. I have to go, now.

She looked somewhat disappointed then asked, You have to go find him?

Al’bert caught himself before he hesitated too long.

Yes, he said simply, as he leaned over her to kiss her.

As he shut the door behind him, he realized he wasn’t going to find Sangwine. He didn’t know how long he could put Fang off, but he didn’t want to do it quite yet. Regarding the act of killing, he supposed the four people in his current service would have few qualms with killing the doomed prince. Well, the thief probably wouldn’t. Three of them, anyway. But it all came down to his orders, and Al’bert couldn’t shake the feeling that Sangwine’s blood would be on his hands no matter what he did.

There was also his family to consider. As they were a family aligned with Fang, as it were, it felt to Al’bert as if they were hostage to Fang’s dictatorship. If Al’bert were to perform too poorly he didn’t doubt that Fang would use members of his family as leverage to force a better performance out of him. He’d done it already with others. The Fromages had been treated differently than most, simply because Fang and Al’bert were best friends as children, but Fang was rapidly losing his humanity, as they say.

Overall, however, there was nothing to be done for it. Circumstances were what they were, and Al’bert would eventually do what he had to do, when he had to do it.

For now, though, he would stall.

As he thought this last thought, he’d arrived at the fairly pleasant inn where he and the rest of his party were staying. The morning was brisk and lovely, and as he turned into the common room, he saw the four sitting at a table. Al’ice was looking for him, and as their eyes met, he made sure to act as if everything was quite normal and perfect. The Wiz, who had been ruminating over a steaming cup of coffee in the direction of the bored others, spoke first.

So, have you found him? he asked.

Quite nearly, said Al’bert cheerfully. Perhaps today I’ll stumble across what I’m looking for.

The girl didn’t know? asked Wiz, knowing full well Al’bert didn’t desire him to bring up the girl in front of Al’ice. Al’bert made a mental note to chastise Wiz later, as Al’ice in turn feigned nonchalant tea consumption.

No, said Al’bert dryly. She didn’t know.

Then why did you…”

Al’bert coughed loudly, and Wiz took the hint at last. He rolled his eyes and ignored the rest of whatever Al’bert or anyone else might do, and absorbed himself broodily in scribbling notes into a tiny notebook next to his coffee mug. Steev was too moronic to care about what was going on, the thief looked nervous as always, and Al’ice continued to act uninterested and nonchalant. Al’bert knew he was probably going to have to perform some damage control later with Al’ice.

As he moved to sit beside her at the table, she stood up and left. Al’bert ignored this pointedly.

It should only be a few more days, he told the rest. Maybe a week.

A few of them looked bored. Well, the two that weren’t drawing algebraic shapes in a notebook and completely ignoring everything he was saying looked bored.

At most a fortnight, finished Al’bert, to no one in particular.