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Don’t tell them about the voice.

I saw the corner of her eye twitch. “Why?”

I had much to say. An eight-legged creature that had tried to lure us, and a phantom voice manifesting mere seconds after my display of magic – the one thing these occurrences had in common was me. That I’d been in the crux of it.

Maybe, or maybe it was something else, I couldn’t say for certain. Either way the safest thing for them to do would be to eliminate all possibilities from the equation. If it was me, I’d get rid of me to test the theory, ditch me somewhere in the cirque and see if the monsters followed suit.

That can come later. More pressing matters right now.

“You’re right. We don’t have the time.” Melory looked vehement. She shifted me as I slid down from her clutches, then catching me before my knees hit the ground.

Take it slow, yeah? We figure out a way to explain our thing, word it so they believe us.

She shook her head. Disagreement? On what?

Footsteps came around. Two long arms wrapped around from beneath my shoulders, lifting my weight off the ground.

“I got her,” Aenir told Melory. Latasha would be right behind him.

Melory, nodding, let him take me. “Um, she said something about poison.”

Mel, no, just follow my lead–

“I can communicate with her. She can talk through me.”

Fucking Mel.

I wish she hadn’t done that. I’d wanted us to decide on what to say beforehand instead of throwing that out, which now forced me to deal with the follow-up.

I couldn’t see what Latasha’s reaction was, whether she expected a response from me, with Aenir blocking the view.

The tall man bent down to wrap his arm around my waist before asking me, “Can you walk?”

I nodded.

“Want me to take you somewhere you can sit?”

I nodded again and let him walk me into the camp. Tactical retreat, to give myself a minute to figure things out. No one was reacting yet because it had been too sudden and in-the-face, no context whatsoever to help them process.

I felt a raindrop on my head, through my cowl. The drizzle had dwindled down to a few patters here and there. Grey clouds still hung above, silently threatening us with another downpour and keeping those below on their toes much like the beast horde did.

At the far side of the camp, where the barricade remained erect, some men stood guard with rifles on their back. Aside from those few there was an evident absence of people. If I had to guess, most were back inside the tents, resting or catching up with their sleep, but I had the feeling that wasn’t the case. Aenir wasn’t saying anything about it, which probably meant nothing was out of the ordinary.

He took me to one of the camp’s smoldering fires where a young drifter was sitting on a foldable stool. He had no sword, no gun and no crossbow, a spoon midway from bowl to mouth when he spotted us.

“Hey,” Aenir greeted with curtness that made me doubt whether he knew the young lad's name. “Can you give her some space, please?”

The young man readily got off his chair and helped me ease myself onto it.

The fire, even though nothing more than a flicker beneath a stack of charred wood, created a bubble of warmth that warded off the wintry breeze. It warmed my extremities, the tips of my fingers and parts of my body that weren’t as much affected by the venom.

“Should I go get the healer?” the drifter offered. Quick on the take.

“If you would,” Aenir replied, sending the him away.

The two lagged behind us. I could hear them talking.

“–nough of that, please?” the lady pleaded as she came into earshot. “Just, stop. Things are complicated enough without you spouting this Hrakian twaddle-tosh.”

Melory replied with words laced with knives, “Sure, take this opportunity to insult my dying culture.”

“Oh, shush, you’d have to bring your people into this? Everyone is scared and stressed as it is, and you're–“

Melory cut her off with what I could only assume was actual Hrakian twaddle-tosh. Some syllables I recognized because Aldwan had said them at some point; ‘Jivhak’ or something like it.

Damn it, Melory. This was why I’d wanted to take things slow.

Aenir snapped his fingers in front of me. It caught me by surprise.

“Your reaction is a bit slow. Are you feeling dizzy? Nausea?”

I shook my head. It was the same things Farica had asked about. The diagnosis then had been mild brain concussion and taking that into account, what I was experiencing wouldn’t be anything outside the original symptoms. It had gotten worse for a minute there, with Carleigh, but Nexy was likely to blame for that.

Aenir kneeled in front of me and placed two fingers on my neck, just below the jaw. Ten or so seconds before he pulled away. “Pulse… normal. Are you having trouble breathing?”

A bit. I nodded. I had to consciously take slow, deep breaths because my lungs didn’t feel like they were working at full capacity.

It occurred to me, again, that Carleigh’s most probable cause of death had been asphyxiation. Lung failure. I hoped I wouldn’t get to that point.

“I’ll be back. You stay here and wait for the healer, okay?” Aenir said. He left before I could protest, brushing past Melory and Latasha and back the way we came.

Meanwhile these two were keeping up with their mutual slander. It wasn’t even close to a debate. One was making insults in another language, while the other was… I couldn’t tell.

We needed a mediator. Aenir had been it and he was gone. I was tired, my mind was rambling and it was difficult to form a coherent thought. It felt taxing keeping my eyes open, let alone keep up with their dialogue.

Carleigh. He’d been alone when something struck him. What kind of thoughts would’ve passed his mind as he slowly fell unconscious, knowing he would never wake up?

I’d been alone too, once. With nothing but imminent death occupying my mind. I remembered wishing for it–

A jolt woke me up. I felt hands on my back, keeping me from falling over.

“Do you want to lie down?” Melory asked, leaning down to my ear, hands bracing my shoulders to keep me upright. She'd made her body a backrest for me to lean on.

I shook my head. It was crucial that I remain lucid as we told the others about this... about our telepathy thing. I was ninety-percent sure I’d pass out if I were to lie down.

“Are you sure?”

I’m sure. It annoyed me that she’d needed this confirmation. I felt like she and I had different priorities.

The girl nodded, straightened her back and told Latasha, “She said she’s fine.”

“So you say.” The madame had her arms crossed, a pucker between her eyebrows telling of dubiety.

“Yeah?” was Melory’s response. Challenging.

“I think you’re underestimating how utterly ludicrous this sounds.”

“I don’t have any reason for lying.” Melory puffed out her chest, I could tell from how my shoulders rocked in her grip.

“I’m not saying you are. I’m saying that maybe you’re seeing shapes in the clouds, or patterns in your teacup. I know some people believe in those delusions.”

“I’m not delusional!”

Mel, calm down.

I tried to get a word in edgewise, talked to Melory and waved my hand at Latasha, but they were both focused on each other.

“This isn’t me debasing you, Goldie. Psychological issues aren’t a joke and things like hallucinations–” the madame hesitated, “I know you talk to yourself when you think no one is listening.”

“I was talking to her.”

I nodded my head.

“Yeah, her.” Latasha gave me a look. “Not exactly the most credible, is she? Not after what she did to the other girls.”

There was a moment of pause. Shock on Melory’s part, confusion on mine.

Latasha was silent as well. Observing us, fingers tapping on her upper arm in a rhythm. “You didn’t tell her.”

Melory’s silence was revealing.

“’Thyra’s sake, how fucking stupid can you be?”

“She doesn’t need to know.” The grip on my shoulders tightened. I could feel tiny pricks where her nails were in contact with my clothes. Almost claw-like.

“So what, all this time she thinks Sallis is watching her for no reason?”

Mel, what is she saying?

We were getting off-tracked, but this felt too important. After all that talk about being my confidant, Melory was keeping something from me.

“She doesn’t need to know!”

The way she shouted, she'd sensed my trust in her wavering.

“I knew I shouldn’t have left it to you.” Latasha met my gaze. “There were others.”

“Shut up!”

“On the slaver’s camp. Other girls. Because of what you did, they–”

“Heeey!” someone shouted our way.

Bad timing.

Two figures, making a beeline towards us. Kaelyn and Farica. They both looked disheveled, loose hair clumping into bedheads and tunic slipping off their shoulders as they ran.

No.

I waved them away, hoping they’d see it and stayed away, or read the atmosphere and stayed away.

They didn’t do either. It was clear from their faces they’d heard about the venom somehow, and it hindered them from seeing things clearly. Had Aenir told them? Or did that drifter mistook the word ‘healer’ as ‘two girls sleeping inside the bunk-wagon’?

There had been no avoiding it either way. Kaelyn went straight for me, gripped my shoulders and shook them violently. “Are you okay?!"

“Let go of her!” Melory howled as she tore the redhead’s hands away.

I saw the spatter of blood.

There was a silent moment where everyone froze, each of us processing what had just happened. Then everything went bedlam.

The lady stepped in, arm drawn out. She backhanded the girl standing behind me.

I fell from my chair. My first thought was Melory stumbling back from the hit, but she stumbled forward, claws I didn’t know she had out and bared. Pouncing on the madame. My back reached the ground the same time they did.

Melory was on top. Their cries blurred together into a whirlpool of madness, no longer distinguishable from one another.

I felt sick. Too many voices. Too many people. Things happening too fast for me to follow, sick as I was.

I glanced around to see if there was anyone who could stop them, or at least knew what was happening. Kaelyn was on the ground as well, blood dripping from the claw marks on the left arm. It looked deep. Farica – she was yelling her heart out: stop it, or stop this, words that fell on deaf ears.

The two struggled. Melory dug her claws into the fabric on the madame’s waistline. One of the two screamed, I couldn’t tell anymore.

Latasha reached inside her coat and I could hear the click, metal against metal. My heart stilled when I saw what she pulled out.

A random scene popped in my head. A memory from my time back in the maze, early in my timeline. There had been me, frantic, losing all sense because it had been too much. Rendered witless by compounding fear. The monsters, the mazes, the monsters.

The slavers, the beasts, the Dread.

I looked at them and saw copies of myself, of the old, frantic me. I tried to remember what happened to me at times like these. What had pulled me out of it.

Wind picked up. It started as a swirl, a gentle breath of winter that was building up into something else. Dead leaves whirled, round and round, dancing in the air as if trapped inside an invisible storm. Tents roared as canvas pulled and pushed against the rigid poles, threatening to tear.

There was this sort of relief when drowning one’s self into the aether. I felt it last night as I projected one explosion after the other. The weightlessness, everything becoming clear as they moved as though in a timeless way.

I felt it now too. It chased away the venom’s haziness. Things felt like they mattered less: the blood, the two girls clawing at each other, trivial compared to the vastness of the aether. Through that vastness, I moved the gale in collision.

It hit them hard.

I lurched when they flew, pushing Melory down with my whole weight before she had a chance to get back up. When her eyes met mine, I couldn’t see myself in the reflection. Her odd-colored eyes were opened wide, pupils dilated, fangs bared and snarling. Feral.

Mel!

She swiped at me. I snatched her wrists before her claws could reach. I tried to hold her down but her lithe form was treacherous – she was much stronger than me.

Melory! I tried again, but I knew I’d lost her. I’d have considered slapping her out of it if my hands weren’t full holding her down.

I heard movement on my back. The rustle of clothes and grass: someone getting their bearings and settling into position. I shifted my body, putting myself between this person I couldn’t see and the girl below me.

Don’t shoot!

“Fucking move, Whitey!”

The madame was moving again, trying to get an angle on Melory. I couldn’t let that happen.

I lifted myself up, pulling my weight away and off her. It had been my only leverage. Immediately she pounced back, arching her back forward, knees buckling to push me off her.

I pulled the luphaen into a pseudo-embrace and wrapped as much as my body around her. The gesture was clear, a warning to both sides: you want her, you go through me.

Melory bit into me, hard, at the spot where my neck connected with my right shoulder.

I bit back. It was her upper arm and a place where I made sure it hurt. Around the same half-second I heard a smack from behind me followed by an object hitting the ground. Kaelyn or Farica, either one had swatted the weapon out of the Latasha’s hand.

I bit harder, and so did the luphaen’s fangs dig deeper into my skin. I was betting on either the pain from my bite, or the taste of blood from hers, to wake her out of this craze.

I won that bet.

The strength waned from her arms, falling down her sides. Her maw followed suit, the jaw easing off but fangs still embedded. I heard her taking a sharp breath.

Mel, I called.

When I felt her twitch, I knew she was back.

I let go of my bite. My hand went from her wrist to rubbing her on the back. The next part was vital.

Melory. It’s okay.

She was shivering. Too afraid to move as reality dawned on her. The blood, the eyes on her, the look in those eyes. The fangs, still rooted in my skin.

Movements behind me. I swung an arm out, fingers spread to tell them to stop whatever they were planning.

I moved the hand on her back to her shoulders, up to her neck. To the back of her head, caressing her hair–

She pulled away. She got on her feet and dashed off.

Mel!

I stumbled forward in my attempt to give chase. The aether’s effect had withered away and left only the venom’s paralysis. If I could chase after her, I would’ve–

No, that was a lie. If I really wanted to, a measly venom wouldn’t have gotten in the way.

Hands reached for me, turning me around. Farica’s teary eyes met my own.

Behind her was Kaelyn, now on her feet. She’d been the one to slap the weapon from Latasha’s hand. I thanked her in silence.

Latasha was putting pressure on her waist, where the dress was stained red. It looked bad. I pushed Farica away, turning her attention away from me and towards them because they needed it more.

“I’m sorry,” Kaelyn broke the silence. “It was my fault.”

“She struck you, Ruddy,” Latasha, her voice strained.

That. What happened there?

I remembered Kaelyn grabbing me in panic. Melory reacted violently, but… why?

I hadn’t… wasn’t pegging her as someone capable of so much aggression. Everything she’d said, how she acted until now, I’d been sure she was more on the passive side of things. When she’d lashed out, it didn’t feel like her.

The ruddy shook her head in disapproval. She held the injury on her arm tight. “It hurts. It hurts so much.”

“Walk it off.” The lady pointed a thumb. “People are coming. They can’t know.”

Three people were heading our way from the direction of Carleigh’s tent. Luise, Aldwan, Aenir.

She was right. We couldn’t let them know.

Fuck.

If Kaelyn and I were only ones harmed, maybe it would’ve been ‘okay’ with a slap on the hand. But Latasha was a madame, a noble of some sort. Melory could be facing a death sentence.

“She didn’t mean it. She couldn’t have, it’s not her,” Kaelyn murmured, voice breaking at the end. I wholly agreed with that statement.

“It doesn’t matter.” Latasha took off her shawl and winced as she wrapped it around her waist.

Farica tore away the cloth on Kaelyn’s arm, then quickly used it to gift-wrap the wound. Exposing the injury in order to hide it.

“I can patch this up if I had a kit,” Farica said. Her calmness was uncanny.

The trio drew near. Farica busied herself wiping the trails of blood running down the redhead’s arm, down her wrist and her palm, trickling off her fingers. They were but successful in smearing the entirety of Kaelyn’s arm red. So much for hiding it.

“Whitey,” Latasha called. She pointed at the base of her neck.

The bite. I pulled the oversized shirt from the collar, hiding the bite by letting the fabric fall of my shoulder on the other end. It felt weird, maybe even a tiny bit embarrassing to lay my skin bare against the cold air. An almost alien emotion.

Melory had been like that back in the river. Bashful, refusing to come out unless a rock separated us. A different Melory.

Aenir crouched beside me. His eyes were a clear blue like the sky unhindered by clouds, something I wouldn’t have noticed had I not desperately looking for a distraction from my own chaotic thoughts. Hells, I was desperate enough to make a fucking poetry out of it.

“The healer?” he asked. I shook my head.

“Tasha, everything okay?” Luise asked. Things were weird enough that his voice sounded comforting, as if everything from volume to tone was calculated to its soothing effect.

On the lady’s waist, redness was seeping through. I didn’t know if she noticed, but she aligned her body to keep her left flank out of their sight. “No, everything’s not okay. Whitey’s sick.”

Kaelyn followed her cue, positioning herself to hide the blood still leaking from the wraps. Farica helped hide it with her own body.

“Tasha, you’re bleeding–“

“Everything’s fine!” Latasha shouted, and it was a shout she’d put too much force into, worsening the pain. She couldn’t hide the grimace.

Luise stopped there.

Aenir hoisted me up in one swift move. One arm around my waist, the other under the bend of my knees, much like how he’d carried me into slaver hands. I couldn’t find the strength to protest. I was broadcasting my weakness in front of Luise of all people.

“Where’s the healer?” Aenir asked, not to anyone in particular.

“He went out,” Luise told him. “Someone on sweep duty got pricked by stinging herbs or something.”

The blond hunched over and picked something off the ground. A palm-sized pistol. He un-cocked it before passing it over to Latasha.

“Thanks,” Latasha said. She was getting wobbly, her form slouched forward. Her focus was split between staying on her feet and keeping the pain from showing on her face. Luise went to help her stand.

“Where is Melory?” Aldwan growled. I’d forgotten the eight-feet tall humanoid was even there. Everything seemed so blurry.

I pointed the direction she went. Go.

He stared at me.

Go, I repeated, as if it could make him go faster. I jerked my head to nudge him.

“Little magus, ‘hank you.”

He did as I told. I watched the broad of his fur-covered back as he stomped off. I’d known he was here for her, maybe to rescue her, maybe to take her back to her people. It didn’t matter. I just hoped he could fix what I couldn’t.

“We’re going back to our wagon,” said Latasha.

“Sure,” Luise said. “Our supply’s diminished from the battle and we won’t need another storage. You can keep using that one.”

 

The fifty-foot limp back was bleak. Neither men asked anything. They’d known something was up—they weren't idiots—and decided to keep a vow of silence.

“Where’s everyone?” Latasha was the one who spoke out first.

“Out on patrol. Clearing the area, making sure we’re not up for a second wave,” Luise answered. “I’ll go find Rips as soon as I drop you off. He’ll take care of you girls.”

“No, I can do it,” Farica said. This was the first time I’d seen her speaking directly to a man. “I just need his kit. I’ll take care of the rest.”

“I’ll pass the word.”

The guys helped us up the wagon. Latasha took her seat near the back, nearest the entrance. Kaelyn sat across, Farica beside her to provide an extra grip. As Aenir set me down further in, Luise supplied the heater with a handful assortment stones of varying shapes, pitch black in color.

Searing stones, I assumed. Melory told me about those. It lit up almost immediately when Luise turned a dial at the bottom of the heater.

Curious. And I didn't have anyone to ask about it.

Aenir took something out of his side pouch. A small vial of dark liquid, which he handed over to Farica. He gestured at me. “Concoction. For her."

“Ophalisks.," Luise blurted out. “Nasty sons of bitches. Nerve venom and a bizarro diet that culminates in acid-like poison. Mixes them up and spits them out. You’d have to cater the remedy carefully–“

“I know the drill,” Farica said, curt. Dismissive.

“I’ll see to it that you girls get treatment asap,” Luise assured us.

“Then get to it asap,” Latasha said, also curt and dismissive. She was clenching her teeth.

“We’ll leave you to it, then.” Luise gave us a nod and hopped out the back.

Aenir followed, but not before addressing me in a low voice, “You shouldn’t use magic so recklessly.”

He left the words hanging and closed the curtains behind him. I was too exhausted to even discern the meaning of that.

“Put pressure on the wound,” I heard Farica saying to the ruddy. She then came over to me, vial in hand. “Can you sit on your own?”

I demonstrated the very feat in response.

“Take it,” she gave me the medicine. “Two sips. You’ll feel hot down your throat. When the warmth goes away, take another two sips. Wait five minutes before drinking the remainder. Is that clear?”

Bossy – Farica was in her elements. I gave her a nod.

“Where were you burnt?” she asked me.

I opened my mouth.

“How did you– err, I see blisters on your tongue. It hurts but it’s nothing threatening. The toxin must’ve been well diluted by the time you, um, came in contact. It should be okay.”

On the contrary, I wasn’t feeling anything. I was assuming there was some kind of paralyzing agent in the poison as well. It would probably hurt later, after the numbing wore off.

Ah, well. I don’t use my tongue much anyway.

No one heard me.

“Can I leave you alone? I’ve got to…” the girl looked over at the others, the curls of her hair bouncing as she turned her head.

I gave her the yes. She scurried over to Latasha.

“No. Ruddy first.” The madame was heaving out the words.

Farica didn’t pay her any heed and untied the shawl, lifted her coat and her dress beneath it. I could see through a blur where a spotless ivory met with blotches of crimson. “You’ll need sutures. You and Kae both.”

“Smothering hell. Everything’s messed up.” Latasha’s eyes shut tight. Her nails dug into her palms.

“Um, it’s okay to cry.”

“I’m not crying.”

She definitely was. From the pain, of course, because I couldn’t imagine her caring enough to cry over anything else. To her side was the miniature pistol I saw earlier; four chambers, probably loaded, with a barrel no longer than the owner’s finger.

Latasha noticed me looking. “Luise gave it to me. For protection.”

Not what I was asking. I gave her a glare.

Kaelyn jumped in as if she'd read my mind, "You tried to shoot her."

“I wouldn’t have, I–“ Latasha stopped. Because she knew it’d be lying if she hadn’t. She corrected herself, “Whitey could’ve been killed.”

“She wouldn’t. Not Mel.”

Latasha was shaking her head. “The bloodlust? It’s their defensive mechanism. It’s bound to happen sooner or later.”

An ugly, ugly feeling rose from the pit of my stomach.

You knew.

The luphaen’s predisposition, Latasha fucking knew.

I wanted so badly to throw something at her.

Farica did what she could from there, using whatever she had on hand to bind the injuries. Latasha was worst off judging by the profuse bleeding. I hated feeling this way but I couldn’t help but think she deserved it, that she'd reaped what she sowed. This wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t pushed Melory into a corner.

A corner which I’d created by deferring on action. Because I was worried about the fucking questions.

A defensive mechanism, meaning she’d felt like she was being attacked. We made her feel like that.

Fuck. Fuck everything.

We were licking on our wounds and there I was, stuck in a twilight, switching intermittently between blacking out and barely aware, condemning thoughts mingling with contrition. Blaming Latasha, blaming myself for not making a decision sooner. Blaming whoever the fuck told Farica and Kaelyn about the poison.

I switched from problem to solution. What action to take next? What could I do to fix this?

I couldn't think of anything.

It was maybe a short while later that someone came up outside the closed curtain. A welcome distraction.

“Who is it?” Latasha called out, composure in her voice at odds with her facial expression.

“It’s Rips. The healer?” came the answer from behind the curtain. Male, average height compared to other drifters. Relatively young, if his voice was anything to go by. I struggled to pinpoint more details – anything to keep myself awake. The shadow moved near. “I’m coming in–“

“Don’t.” Latasha’s eyes wondered as she tried to think of a reason. “We’re not proper. Just leave your things here.”

As the madame said that, Farica moved towards the exit. “Um, Rips, right? I’ll take care of them if you can pass me your kit. Bandages, disinfectants, stitching kit. And, err, painkillers if you have any.”

Rather pointless to try and hide the incident at this point, but it was a sentiment more than anything – a statement from the madame that she wanted to keep things under wraps.

I saw his hands go in, one holding the handle of a wooden box with white cross painted on the sides. His other hand held a stack of cloths and blankets. “It’s all in there. Just holler if you need any help. I’ll be near.”

“Thank you.” Farica took the box and checked its contents. She let him place the blankets down on his own.

“Try to keep warm. The avlarks were saying that snowfall’s imminent,” Rips advised. “I don’t know what’s going on here. Would it be acceptable if I tell the others you’ve gone down with a cold?”

“That’s fine,” Latasha said.

Farica waited for the sound of boots going away before returning to the madame’s side. “Come here, Kae. I’ll treat you two together.”

While she treated them both, I took my own medicine. Two sips. It gave me a pungent, peppery taste down my throat that stirred me a bit from the ‘twilight’ state.

I heard a yelp. Farica was cleaning the madame’s wound with cloth moistened from her flask of water.

“Take one pill only,” our healer told them. She also addressed me, “Do you need one too?”

Pain relievers. I shook my head because I thought it would further mess with my head. I focused on the heat in my chest as it drained down towards my stomach. In the fringes of my vision, I saw Farica applying the bottle of clear, refreshingly odorous liquid onto a fresh cloth. She pressed it against Latasha’s wound.

Latasha sniveled between rasped breaths as the cloth was rubbed against her. “Painkiller my pretty ass, that fricking hurts.”

“It takes time for the analgesic to kick in,” Farica answered, now rubbing even harder.

Latasha hissed. “Can’t you wait until it fucking does?”

The little healer gestured at the redhead, who was pressing down on the laceration on her arm as she waited for her turn.

“Don’t whinge,” said Farica. “It only makes it worse.”

Latasha wasn’t making anymore complains.

Having cleaned out the blood and gunk, Farica took more stuff out from the box. A small bow-shaped needle and a spindle of really thin thread.

“You’ve done this before?” Latasha asked. Her eyes were locked on the needle.

“Yeah, lots.” Farica tied the thread around the needle’s eye with little effort.

The heat in my stomach had gone away. I took another two sips.

“He mentioned something about snow, didn’t he?” Latasha said.

Farica was flicking the needle, then she cut the thread at around an arm’s length. “He said it was going to snow.”

“That’s good.”

“Not good,” Kaelyn interjected.

Latasha shrugged with her right shoulder, the one away from her injury. “I’ve never seen snow before. We don’t get them back in Angestile.”

“I see.”

“Lie down, please,” Farica ordered.

Kaelyn offered her lap. Latasha grudgingly complied, laying with her back against the wood, head propped on the ruddy’s thighs.

“We have coasts, though,” Latasha continued, her gaze on the covers above our heads. “Beautiful beaches, resplendent reefs. I bet you inlanders have never seen the ocean.”

Kaelyn smiled at that. “Nu-uh. My family lived in the Isles when I was a kid. Da took me sailing every other day.”

Latasha made a painful chuckle. “Sounds fun.”

“It was.”

Farica brought a piece of fabric she’d ripped off and folded into a compact size. She gave it to Latasha. “Bite down on this if you want.”

“Does it really hurt that much?”

“We’ve stitched people without painkillers, if that’s what you’re asking. But they weren’t civilians. Or nobles.”

Latasha scoffed at the mention of nobles, but took the offer anyway, placing it in her mouth. Her eyes flickered to Farica’s hands – no more small talk to distract herself from the needle.

“Don’t move or I might mess up the stitches.”

Latasha responded with a sound that was halfway between a grunt and a whimper.

Kaelyn caressed madame’s forehead, to help soothe her, and the other arm across her chest, to help hold her down.

Farica’s hand was trembling. She hid it from the other two as she took a deep breath, steadied her grip, and pressed the point against Latasha’s skin.

I gulped down the rest of my vial.

 

 

 

 

A small lump of snow tipped over as I adjusted my cowl, a lump several minutes’ worth of buildup. A similar accumulation could be seen on the ground, on top of trees and tents, caking unmanned horses and vehicles at a worrying rate. I kicked on a mound of snow to check my strength. The medicine they'd given me had a rapid payoff and I’d been able to walk on my own within an hour or so. My steps were a bit wobbly to be honest, but I had to get out of that stifling wagon.

I'd been making my rounds around the camp, searching for Melory, when the snow started to fall. The drifters had returned from the sweep, and some of them started noticing me after I made my third or so pass around their vicinity.

On my fourth lap, one of them decided to call out.

“Little magus, you lookin’ for somethin’?” He was part of a larger group of drifters hanging by a fire, taking cups of something hot and what assumed to be dried meat. Snow had nested on their clothes, turning them white in the short amount of time they were out.

“She can’t speak, dumbass,” his friend said.

I halted, thought of something, then put my hands above my head, fingers pressed together to mock avlark ears.

A third guy chuckled into his cup. “That’s cute.”

“Wait, I think she’s tryin’ to say somethin’. Err, ears? Chief Aldwan?” the first guy guessed.

I nodded.

“He’s with the chief,” he pointed at a tent. “Wouldn’t interrupt them if I were you.”

Thanks, I gave them a curt nod.

The tent he directed me to was Orlev’s, situated around the center of the camp. It was bigger than the others because he'd been using it to brief his officers.

On my approach I heard raised voices inside. The meeting was still going on.

“I can’t do that,” I heard a man say. Orlev’s voice. “I have a responsibility to my men and the guild.”

Answering was an avlark’s distinctively low and gravelly voice, “I can ‘ake some of your people in, provide shel’er ‘ill the end of Grimyas.”

“That’s the problem right there. Some, not all.”

“Not really up to me, Orlevha. She’s a cardinal, they’ll ‘ear her apart as soon as she ‘akes a step in…”

Just as I was about to take a peek, I saw a glimpse of gold, moving around the other side of the tent.

I went around the other way. Cutting her off.

She must’ve seen what I was doing and doubled back, nimbly keeping the tent between us such that I couldn’t get anymore than a flash of her hair. Stubborn.

I tried doing the same thing, but so did she. It was coming down to merry chase around the dome of the command tent.

I didn't have time for this.

Come on, Mel. I might collapse if you keep this up.

A cheap move, taking advantage of my own weakness. Luckily she cared enough about me that it made her second-guess what she was doing. I used her faltering to catch up with her.

I found her on the other side. Snow had piled on her shoulders and uncovered head, telling of how long she’d been out in the open. She stood with arms on her side, gripping the edges of her clothes, eyes on her feet to avoid mine.

I was slow and careful in approaching her. I wasn’t sure if she’d run away from me.

Can you look at me?

She did, for maybe a quarter of a second. I caught the redness of her eyes, how swollen it was. When she looked again, it was a quick peep at my shoulder where the dressing Farica had put on me was partially visible.

“…They want to take me back,” she said. Her voice was barely above a whisper.

They. The avlarks.

Do you want to?

“I don’t know.” She finally met my eyes. A subtle conveyance, looking for my opinion.

I felt conflicted. She was leaving her life in my hands, because she wasn’t brave enough to make a decision.

Make her stay and she’d face the terrors of the Dread. Make her leave and I’d lose my only means of communication.

I was put in mind to my times in the maze. Everything had been simple back then, a time when every decision made was with my own survival above all else.

Thinking again, not much had changed.

I need you, Mel.

I saw her expression shift. Strained. “Yeah.”

Can we talk it out?

She shook her head. “No need.”

With the others I mean.

“I can’t. I– I hurt them.” She drew back.

I chased after, one step closer. So you apologize. Isn’t that how it works?

“I hurt you.”

And I got you back, didn’t I? She was wearing long sleeves, but I was sure I’d left a remarkable bite there.

I made another move. She saw the movement of my legs and jerked away.

"Please, I– I don't know what came over me. The voices– I wasn't– I didn't meant to–" her voice broke. Her hands went to cover her face, hiding. The way she collapsed in on herself made me think she was going to scream.

I know you didn't. I took another step.

Silence. She was making a painful whimper as she threw her head down, hands crawling over her hair, pulling at them.

Mel, please.

She took a deep, shaky breath. Her arms went down back down.

“I don't know what to do. I don’t know if they’ll forgive me.”

We don’t need them to forgive.

She was trembling. Cold? Scared? She wasn't meeting my eyes.

Hey, I'm your friend, right?

Her ears flinched at that. "You said no."

I never said that.

A long pause.

"...Do you mean it? Be my friend?"

I do.

I heard a hiccup. She turned away from me. "Sorry. So sorry. For everything."

I'm sorry too. I should've listened to you.

"It wasn't supposed to go this way. I never meant any of this to happen."

I know, Mel. I know.

Every step I took crunched the snow under my boots. She was within an arm's reach now. I held out my hand to her, then I halted when I heard her titter.

"You're so strong," she said, her tone changing drastically. "I painted this image of you, you know? Like you were some kind of wounded bird that needed help. But that's not you, is it?"

Mel?

She sounded different.

"Even now you're calculating the best way to coax me. Because you need me."

She flinched when I grabbed her. She turned, and the look in her eye had changed as well. Determined. Meeting my eyes straight.

I do need you.

"I know. I'll come with you."

I was caught off guard. She took my hand, or snatched more like.

"Can I ask you one thing?"

I gulped down. Anything.

She gripped hard, nails scratching my wrist. "You stay by my side. Even if they drag you around, even when they tell you to explode stuff, I get to be in the front seat. We stay together. No matter what."

I nodded. Deal.

She gave me an unnerving smile.

 

 

 ◊

 

 

“…Stew yesterday, stew for breakfast. I’m guessing we’ll have stew for dinner?” the madame’s voice rang out.

“It’s better than dried food.” Farica said.

“Where’d they get the meat, anyway? It’s not like–“ the madame paused, “Oh gods. Am I eating monster meat?”

“It’s just canned meat, Latasha.”

Latasha had gone talkative. I was thinking it was because of the painkiller taking effect, removing some of her inhibition, if she ever had any. Kaelyn on the other hand was being quiet.

The luphaen was standing behind me as we stood outside the wagon. She didn't look scared anymore. Nervous, yes, but not a nervous wreck like I was.

"I'm ready," she whispered.

I parted the curtains.

“Whitey!” Latasha beamed at me. Clearly not herself. “Come in! We saved some not-monster stew.”

I moved a bit to the side. They saw Melory.

The reaction was a bit less than what I’d call dramatic. The sudden tension, the flexing of their limbs. The clatter as Farica placed her porringer. Kaelyn bent forward to get a clearer look. I saw Latasha reaching for her pistol.

I met Melory’s eyes. She held my hand, and I gave her a nod.

This was going to be a lot of work.

 

 

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Derthian

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