A note from InadvisablyCompelled


Keri rather enjoyed working with the Ell family. Most of them, anyway. Sienne and Giorn were great fun, of course, and many of the older Ells were pleasant. It was true that some of the older ones and the recovering addicts were grumpy, and some would have been grabby if Annie weren’t there to stop them, but they were in a minority. The little ones were just adorable, and she especially liked to watch Annie play with them. Annie was just so cute with kids!

It did a lot to take the sting off the fact that she had to do it. She’d felt the flood of Blue’s power as soon as she’d failed in healing Shayma, and it had left an unnamable dread in her gut. It wasn’t like anything had happened, but there was a distinct sense of dread hovering over her. For weeks, even, until Blue had recovered enough to talk to her through Taelah.

It wasn’t exactly a Bargain, but it seemed Blue had grown enough that even a favor, when traded for, had some real magical weight behind it. It also showed why people didn’t generally trade with Powers, because what he’d asked for in trade for her favor was actually impossible. There was no way for her to fulfill it, so she was almost bound to his service, at least for a time. At least he’d not held her failure against her, since all he’d asked her to do was take care of Shayma’s family, and that was something she could do happily.

Especially since most of them were in terrible shape, in one form or another. The addicts were the worst of all, of course, needing days and weeks of treatment even after the Scalemind helped them. It wouldn’t have taken so long if it were more than just her and Annie, or if all the worst Ells weren’t void Affinity types.

They didn’t have any active void Affinity mana in their bodies, obviously enough, or else they would have been long dead. But even the hint of it seemed to make healing more difficult, constantly dragging the former addicts back toward their former habits.

Unfortunately, she didn’t have too much prior experience with void Affinity Classers. Even though Nivir’s Great Dungeon had the void Affinity, very few people, if any, did. Even a year later she was still struggling with how to deal with the hungers it induced, since they weren’t even clearly something that was wrong with a patient.

It wasn’t really possible to determine what Affinity and Class a child had access to, but Keri was really beginning to think encouraging interest in void Affinity at all was cruel. It was powerful, certainly, and not a guarantee of becoming wastrel, as Sienne and Liani demonstrated, but it also made it exceedingly hard to maintain normal behavior. Her talks with Dreams-Ahead had given her a lot of insight into the mind that healers normally didn’t have, all of which had been fascinating. Classical healing missed so much.

“Hello, you two,” Shayma’s voice came, and Keri twitched and looked up from Kian Ell. It still made her heart lurch in her breast every time Shayma popped up, because she’d seen Shayma die. Yet, here she was back. She still had trouble sleeping at nights, the weight of that death still bearing down on her, and even beyond that she still was in enforced servitude to heal the Ells. Yet there Shayma was, whole and hale in spite of it all.

She and Annit had spent a lot of time with Sienne and Giorn after Shayma’s death, partly because they had to, but partly because they were the ones who knew Shayma best. But she could see in their eyes that they never quite admitted it, not without a body to properly mourn. There was some faint, painful hope that one day she’d come back to them.

But unlike any other person in the world, she actually had. It was hard to know how to deal with that. It was amazing, but at the same time it hurt. She’d done her mourning, they all had, but Shayma had returned. Keri tried to act normal, as hard as it was.

“Hello, Shayma. I’ll be done in a few minutes,” she said.

“Miss Shayma.” Rilu, Kian’s wife, stood up and awkwardly curtseyed. “I haven’t seen you since— I mean, thank you.” Shayma smiled a trifle awkwardly. She probably didn’t even remember Rilu, among all the other Ells that had come, or their son, who was playing with Annie.

“You’re welcome,” Shayma told Rilu, nodding and stepping back out into the front room. Keri and Annie had more or less moved into the Ell compound, rather than the Village, and even in his distraction Blue had provided a decent place to stay. A few minutes later, Keri stepped back and Kian levered himself to his feet, blinking.

“How are the shakes?” Keri asked, and Kian held out his hand. It didn’t tremble much. Behind him, Annie watched very closely despite having a two-year-old riding piggyback. She’d had to deal with one or two of the Ells actually trying something over the past year, and had gotten very good at intercepting void Skills.

“Better, Miss Keri. Thank you,” Kian said, bowing. She saw the three of them back out, then joined Shayma and Annie in their front room, seating herself by the roaring fire. Even if they had other ways to keep the place warm, the front window looked out on a snow-swept mountain and a fire was the perfect complement to that.

“So what brings you by?” Keri asked. Every time she looked at Shayma she was reminded of the feeling of her dying, but she forced herself not to look shaken. For all that she’d tried to leave it beyond, her childhood as a noble of Nivir came back to her in moments like that. Her instincts made her put on a calm face, pretending nothing was different even though everything was. Even their relative levels had changed. Now that Shayma was two tiers ahead of them, there was no way they’d be going back to adventuring as they once had.

“Honestly? Just to get my head on straight.” Shayma said with a laugh, holding her hands out to the fireplace. “I just had a surreal few days down in the Underneath with the Leyn, and you two are the most normal people I know.”

“I appreciate that,” Annie said, and meant it. After getting involved with Blue, Annie had been very firm about keeping her grounding.

“I miss the days when we could just go out in the Wildwood and hunt, you know?” Shayma told them, as if she’d heard Keri’s earlier thoughts. Which wasn’t out of the question, since she could take Scalemind form, but Keri was pretty sure she didn’t use that on friends and allies. “Though I have to admit, I love being able to do what I do,” she added after a moment.

“You had to know you were going to end up moving and shaking from the time you met Blue,” Annie told her, amused. “He gave you an entirely new class! One that hadn’t ever been seen before!”

“I know, I know.” Shayma said. “I just sometimes feel the need for some normalcy after dealing with kings and queens and the rulers of giant cities in the Underneath.” She shook her head and turned to them. “So, what have you been up to, aside from trying to wrangle my family?” Shayma grinned at them. “Though I’m sure that’s been exciting enough.”

“Only in the beginning,” Annie said. “I don’t have to tell you this, but dealing with void Affinity Skills is terrifying.” Keri shivered. It really was!

“Fortunately that only happened twice,” Keri put in. “Most of your family is quite nice.” Shayma frowned, but nodded.

“I suppose that was a long time ago, for you. Sometimes it’s hard to remember it’s been a full year for everyone else.” She pursed her lips, then shook her head, switching topics. “I don’t really approve of you having to pay off a debt, you know. It wasn’t like you didn’t do the best you could.”

“I think it turned out well, actually,” Keri said. “I probably would have been doing it anyway, but what’s really amazing is I’ve actually gotten a new Skill finally, working with the Scalemind so much.”

“Oh?” Shayma asked, ears swiveling forward as she looked at Keri.

“[Soothing Empathy],” Keri said. “It’s right on the line of mind and healing Affinity. I’m hoping it’ll evolve when I tier up, since I’ve started really delving into mind and body health together. It’s amazing how much one affects the other!” She wasn’t sure if she should continue. Annie always listened, but not everyone was so fascinated by her insights into the healing arts. Shayma, though, looked attentive enough that she didn’t hesitate long.

She talked about how the Scalemind had started developing ways to bridge her into their work so she could watch. About what addiction looked like from inside someone’s head, how it looked like inside their body. How she’d started putting these things together, even writing down her observations, using her hard-earned penmanship skills for the first time in years.

“I’m impressed.” Shayma said when she was finished. “I can take Scalemind form whenever I want, and I don’t think I really noticed all that. Though I suppose it’s not like healing is my Affinity, even if I can use your healing Skill with [Unbreakable Promise].”

“You are such a cheater,” Keri said with a grin.

“You know, being able to use other people’s Skills is probably great for forming your own,” Annit suggested. “Or at least getting insight into another Affinity if you’re trying to evolve yours. I’m pretty sure I’ll get storm when I tier up at this point, but it’s taken a lot of tedious experimentation.”

“Oh, that’s an interesting point. I’ll send that on to Iniri and keep that in mind for future trading. Though generally we aren’t trading supermaterials.”

“Maybe you can think about it now,” Annie said. “Not like people are going to try and mess with Blue.” Shayma’s face fell at the comment, and Keri pouted at Annie for bringing it up.

“What?” Annie said. “I’m just telling the truth!”

“I know,” Shayma replied with a sigh. “I’m just not comfortable with the fact that he destroyed a whole city.” Keri scooted closer to give Shayma a hug while she thought about what to say.

“My mom and dad said the worst thing for a ruler to do was be insufficiently ruthless,” she said quietly. “I’ve never really understood it, myself. To me, destroying the Anell’s palace would have been enough.”

“It’s simple,” Annie said, looking from Keri to Shayma. “You have a problem, you solve it. If that problem is people, you have to solve it all the way the first time, or it’ll come back. People will go off, rebuild, and come at you again, only twice as hard and tricky. Even if he didn’t completely intend it, Blue had to break the Anells, all at once. And he did.”

“You sound like you know that firsthand,” Shayma observed.

“The southern tribes, we’ve been feuding for ages. We know what happens if you don’t break your enemy. If you don’t, you lose. Even if you do win in the end, you have to be willing to let them attack you until they’re exhausted of the will to fight.” Annit’s mouth turned down before she sighed. “ One of the reasons I left was to get away from all that, but it’s really the same everywhere.”

“Yeah, can’t see things that way,” Keri said with a shiver. “Maybe things are like that but I could never do it. I guess that’s what I have Annie for.”

“It is, is it?” Annie said with a smile, and Keri nodded.

“I’m too nice! Annie keeps me from getting myself into trouble that way. You’re too nice, too, Shayma. It’s not a bad thing, because it means you’ll keep Blue from doing stuff like that most of the time. But sometimes mean people need to do things instead.”

“Most of time, really,” Annit said, as Keri shifted over to put an arm around her instead. “You’d be amazed at how many people have no sense.”

“I actually wouldn’t,” Shayma said with a laugh, clearly not entirely happy with the topic but letting it go. “You wouldn’t believe how deep the denial ran in Orrelin.”

“Oh, yes! I want to hear all about that trip,” Keri said, snuggling in with Annit to listen to Shayma’s stories.

A note from InadvisablyCompelled

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