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A note from Faenon

Party for this chapter:

Ryn, Nuthea

Ryn raced through the woods on the chocobo, driving his ankles into its flanks to make it run even faster, air whistling past his ears.

In front of him, sprawled across the creature’s back, lay Nuthea. She was still not moving. Blood had stained some of the chocobo’s yellow back-feathers. Ryn drove his ankles into the creature’s sides again. Dappled sunlight passed across his face as he pulled the reins to weave round a tree.

Gods, I hope I’m going in the right direction.

Sagar would be furious that Ryn had unseated him and taken Nuthea in his place. But he couldn’t think about that now.

Ryn gasped with relief as the tree line broke and the chocobo sprung out onto open grassy fields. These quickly became a patchwork of crops marked off by wooden fences, which the chocobo was easily able to leap--though Ryn put one hand on Nuthea’s prostrate back whenever it did to stop her flying off.

There. In the distance he saw smoke rising from a chimney; red-brick and wooden structures; and then people moving about among them. Nonts. Still he drove the bounty hunter’s chocobo onwards.

The town didn’t have a gate or a wall, so he was able just to ride right into it. Nobody paid him any notice. He reined up the chocobo and called down to the first person he came to--an elderly woman wrapped in a green shawl, walking with the aid of a gnarled stick.

“Ex-excuse me!”

The woman stopped and looked up at him with a wrinkly squint. “Hello?” she said hesitantly.

“Excuse me, but I need to find a healer, fast. Do you know where one lives?”

The woman’s eyes landed on Nuthea. “Oh my.” She put a hand to her mouth, then pointed. “Straight down the street till you get to the central square. It’s the house with the red scarf tied to the door knocker.”

“Thank you,” breathed Ryn, and began to gather the reins.

“Wait, lad!” said the woman, and waved her walking stick, eyes still on Nuthea. Ryn paused mid-reins pull. “Haven’t you heard there’s been an invasion? Morekemian Soldiers have taken control of our town. There’ll be some posted outside the healer’s house, surely.”

Ryn’s blood ran cold. No. If Nuthea has an Imperial bounty on her head, they’ll take her for sure. “But I don’t have time!” he said aloud.

The woman’s eyes went to Nuthea and then up to Ryn again, like she knew something she wasn’t saying. “Might be best to get the healer to come to you, perhaps?” she suggested.

“But I don’t have anywhere for my friend to stay safe while I fetch the healer!”

The woman went quiet for a moment and sucked on her teeth. “Let me take her, lad,” she said eventually. “I’ll look after her until you can bring the healer. Come this way; I live just round the corner.”

“Thank you! Thank you!” said Ryn, unable to contain his gratitude.

At the woman’s house Ryn reined up, then carefully swung himself down from the chocobo, which cawed compliantly. He tied its reins to an iron ring on the side of the woman’s house which was made for just such a purpose so it wouldn’t wander off.

He hooked his hands underneath Nuthea’s arms and slid her from the creature’s back as delicately as he could, but her feet flopped down to the earth with a thud so that he was holding her resting limply against him for a moment until he scooped her legs up and carried her in his arms.

She didn’t protest, or make a single noise. Ryn’s midriff started to go damp with her blood.

The old woman’s dwelling was small and simple. There was a fireplace, a bed in the corner, a table, and a door to another room over at the far end.

“Over here, young man,” she said, beckoning him towards the bed.

Ryn lay Nuthea down like he was returning an unhatched egg to its nest. Her head lolled back. He looked at her red bandage.

“She’ll stain your sheets…”

“Don’t worry about that!” the woman said. “You must go to fetch the healer now! Quick as you can!”

An invisible rope pulled at Ryn, refusing to let him leave Nuthea’s side. But he knew if he was to have any hope of saving her then he must.

She’ll bleed out in an hour or so, the bounty hunter’s voice rang in his mind. And my blade is coated in poison.

“Please, look after her!” Ryn said to the woman.

“I’ll do what I can. Now you go, lad!”

“Yes,” Ryn said meekly, and ran.

He blinked in the sunshine outside, then sprinted between the buildings in the direction that the old woman had indicated before.

The town square barely merited the name. But from the way the houses around formed a quadrangle with a grassy space in between them he knew this must be it, and slowed his sprint to a walk.

Ryn spotted the Healing House at once from the scarlet silk scarf tied to its bronze door knocker--just as the woman had said it would be.

His stomach lurched.

Sure enough, standing outside were two men in black armour. They weren’t wearing helmets, and they watched him as he walked into the square.

In his hurry he had forgotten that the woman had said there would be soldiers posted at the house. Instead of walking up to them, he kept on as if intending to go somewhere else.

He kept walking, up to a wooden noticeboard that protruded out of the ground from two poles in the middle of the square.

When he stopped behind it most of him was out of sight of the soldiers, except for his shins and boots. He could pause a moment here and gather himself.

They had been watching him, he was sure of it. Did they know that he was ‘jewel-touched’ as Nuthea called it? Had news of his escape from the Imperial skyship reached these common soldiers? Had his stunt in the Traveller’s Rest in Ast attracted attenion?

Something caught his eye.

‘WANTED’ read one of the parchment notices pinned to the board in inked black letters. It was pinned at the top, and the bottom of the parchment had rolled up, obscuring whatever was depicted on it below the letters.

With a horrible sinking in his guts, Ryn reached up to it and rolled down the rest of the parchment.

He gasped, then put his hand to his mouth to muffle it.

It was an ink drawing of Nuthea. It wasn’t perfect, but the likeness was quite good, and it was detailed, right down to the circlet that she wore underneath her hair, her proud, high cheekbones, and the elegant cut of her dress.

‘5000 GOLD PIECES ALIVE’ read the letters under her drawing.

And underneath that it said:

‘2500 GOLD PIECES DEAD’.

Damn them! They weren’t going to have her, dead or alive, if Ryn had anything to do with it. He had to get to this healer.

He looked around quickly at the rest of the noticeboard. Hm. The bounty hunter had known about Sagar as well, but Ryn couldn’t see a poster of Sagar anywhere here. Either there had been and someone had removed it, or the bounty on Sagar was more recent and a poster of him hadn’t been put up here yet. The poster of Nuthea looked fairly old, after all. If that was the case, maybe this town hadn’t heard of Ryn and his flame projection abilities yet.

He peeked out from behind one side of the noticeboard. The soldiers weren’t looking at him any more. Good. They can’t have found him that noticeable.

One was fat and jowly, with more greying hair under his nose and on his chin than on his head. The other was taller and spindly, with a hooked nose and a mean, angular face under thin black hair.

Sponge and spike, Ryn thought, recalling a story that his mother had told him when he was a child. Mother. He shook his head to try to dispel the stab of grief and halt the train of his intrusive thought, then returned his attention to the soldiers.

Both wore swords, but they also wore the slightly glazed-over look of people on a boring guard duty without anything to do.

Ryn swallowed his saliva and stepped out from behind the noticeboard.

Sponge’s eyes found him first, but Ryn deliberately looked away at the scarf on the door of the house.

I have to seem confident.

He wasn’t sure what the proper procedure was so he just walked right up to the door without saying anything.

He had nearly reached it when Spike put out a hand to stop him.

“Hold it!” the soldier snapped in a nasal voice. “Where d’you think you’re going, boy? Can’t you see that we’re guarding this house? Nobody goes in or out without stating their business.”

Ryn’s bowels turned to water. “Um...I need to see the healer.”

“What’s wrong with you?” said Sponge in a deeper, gruffer voice. “You don’t look ill to me.”

Think, Ryn, think. All he could think of was Nuthea, and his mother. “Um...I have flu.” He remembered having flu once and his mother nursing him back to health.

The soldiers each took a step away from him. “Flu?” said Spike, cocking his head. “If you had flu you wouldn’t be up and about! You’d be home and in bed! Where do you live, anyway? Why aren’t you in your house waiting for your conscription order like all the other young men?”

Oh crap oh crap oh crap. Why hadn’t he thought about this before approaching the guards?

“Er, it hasn’t set in properly yet.” Ryn desperately tried to remember the sort of things his mother had said when he had been ill. He did remember having to stay in bed, and her putting her hand on his forehead, and her repeating all sorts of strange phrases. “But I think I’m coming down with something. My head feels hot. I just want to see the healer.”

Spike regarded him with titled head for a moment, narrowing his eyes into a suspicious squint.

Ryn hoped against hope that the soldier would believe him. Just then he remembered he had flame-projection abilities. His fingers twitched.

Sponge broke the silence. “Come on, Wedge, let him in,” the larger man said. “He’s clearly harmless.”

“I suppose you’re right, Biggs,” said the thinner man. Morekemians had such strange names. “In you go then, boy.” He didn’t take his eyes off Ryn for one moment.

Ryn pushed open the door, and tried to stifle the involuntary sigh of relief that welled up from within him as he entered the Healer’s House.

Inside was a large room with wooden floorboards and no windows. At the far end, in front of another door, stood a makeshift plywood desk with a clerk sitting behind it. Ryn had seen enough of his father’s business dealings to work out that the man was a clerk from the pile of parchments and the quill and ink pot on the desk and the way the small, bespectacled man sat hunched over it, writing.

Ryn ran up to the desk right away. “Excuse me, I need to see the healer as quickly as possible.”

Just then there was a muffled scream from behind the door that the clerk’s desk was positioned in front of, then a faint cry of what sounded like “No!”, followed by another scream, followed by--silence.

Ryn shuddered. He had never had to visit a healer before, even when he had been ill. What did they do to people? Was this really the best place to look for help for Nuthea?

Slowly, the clerk raised his eyes and regarded Ryn over the top of his spectacles like he was looking at a misbehaving infant. “You and half of Nonts,” he said and gestured with his hand.

Ryn followed the gesture to see people sat on wooden chairs along one wall of the room. He had missed them completely when he entered. All those that could looked back at him. They were all in various states of ill health: A man with his arm in a cloth sling. A girl whose skin was almost green and who looked like she might vomit any moment. Another man who was missing an arm, although he couldn’t have lost it recently, asleep. Another man on crutches who just then hacked and coughed like he had a rat stuck in his throat. And an older man with a white beard and a leather bag slung round his shoulder--though Ryn couldn’t quite see what was wrong with him. After him were three more chairs, unoccupied.

“In case you hadn’t realised,” the clerk sneered, “you’ve recently been invaded. Quite a bit goes on during an invasion--lots of people needing to see the healer. Join the back of the queue like everyone else.”

“But this is urgent!”

“Urgent?” The clerk sneered. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’ve--I’ve…”

Ryn winced as another muffled scream came from behind the door.

He couldn’t think of a better lie. He wished he had more experience of being ill, or of other people being ill. “I’ve got the flu!”

“You look well enough to me,” said the clerk, though he moved his head backwards slightly, looking Ryn up and down.

“Please…” Ryn floundered, “It really is urgent! I need to see the Healer as soon as possible. I...I can’t tell you why...it’s...embarrassing… It’s a personal problem.” he finished lamely.

The clerk stood up. He did not get much higher. His cheeks were turning purple. Through gritted teeth, in an unnervingly quiet voice, he said “Get to the back of the queue, boy, or I will call in the soldiers.”

Fear gripped Ryn’s guts and he hung his head, slinking away from the desk to go and take a seat.

What am I going to do? Now all he could see in his mind’s eye was an image of Nuthea slowly turning paler and paler as the lifeblood seeped out of her. Not her too… He thought about praying, but what good had that done him in life? Imkala the frog-god hadn’t stopped his parents and hometown being taken away from him, why should he stop Nuthea from dying now?

“I can’t help but notice that you’re having a spot of trouble.”

Ryn started. The old man sat next to him had spoken in a kindly whisper.

Ryn wasn’t sure why, but he answered in a whisper too. “I really need to see the healer, as soon as possible...”

“So I gather,” said the man. He didn’t look at Ryn when he talked, but stared ahead, like he was trying to avoid attracting attention to their conversation. “But you honestly don’t look like you have influenza.”

Ryn felt the roof of his mouth with his tongue. Should he tell this stranger about his predicament? He had trusted the old woman with Nuthea automatically--but she had seemed so kind. This man was strange and cautious and he had big white bushy eyebrows. Could anyone with eyebrows that big be trusted?

Ryn was desperate.

“It’s not for me, it’s for my friend,” he whispered. “She was attacked in the woods nearby and is in urgent need of attention.”

The eyebrows raised high as the man looked at Ryn. “Well, why didn’t you say so?” he whispered more urgently. “Quick, come with me!”

“What?”

But the man was already up out of his seat with his leather bag, taking Ryn by the arm and pulling him up too. The clerk didn’t even give them a second look.

Outside, the man kept walking, pulling Ryn along by the arm. “Which way is your friend? Where is she? Tell me.”

Too bewildered to protest, Ryn pointed. “Er, that way.”

“Good. We must be quick if she is in as bad a state as you say.” The old man dragged Ryn with him.

“What are you doing?”

“What d’you think I’m doing?” said the old man. “I’m a healer. We need to get to your friend as quickly as possible so I can attend to her.”

“But I thought the Healer was behind the door!”

“Yes, yes.” The old man had picked up a jog now, his leather bag swinging on his shoulder, and Ryn jogged alongside him. “My apprentice, Elivenn. He’s about ready to take over from me now, though he can still be a bit clumsy”--Ryn recalled the screams--“so when we saw the Empire coming we swapped places so that they would think he was the resident healer. They have their own way of assessing the seriousness of medical ailments you see, and it’s not the same as mine. So I pretended to be sick with a minor illness and waited to see if anyone with a serious problem came in whom my apprentice wouldn’t be able to help. And then you did. Now, which way?”

They had reached a crossroads. WIthout another option, Ryn pointed in the direction of the old woman’s house, and they sprinted the final stretch to it wordlessly. The chocobo was waiting patiently, still tied up. Three loud knocks got them in.

Inside, Ryn rushed past the old woman to Nuthea’s bed. “Here she is!” The old woman had provided a bucket, but she hadn’t done much else. “Please, if you’re a healer you’ve got to do something to help her! She’s been cut, and the man who did it said she’s been poisoned too!”

“Stay calm,” said the old man, arriving at his side. “Poison, you say? What kind?”

Ryn reached with his memory. What had the bounty hunter sad? “Agava?”

“Ajanga?”

“That’s right.”

“Alright. Step back. I need space.”

“That’s him,” said the old woman. “He’s the one who brought her here.”

Ryn spun.

Four black-armoured Imperial soldiers had appeared from the doorway at the other end of the room. The began to advance on Ryn, swords drawn.

The woman’s eyes were dewey, pleading. “I’m sorry…” she said. “Her face is on the poster... They took my son for their army… I need their favour…”

She had betrayed him.

This time Ryn’s hand lit on instinct. He drew it up in front of and across himself and a flicker of flame flash through the air for a moment.

Fire!” he shouted at the soldiers. “Get back!

They stopped in their tracks, shiny helmets reflecting orange.

“Stay back, I tell you!” he yelled, hearing the words as if someone else was shouting them. “I have the Gift of Flame!”

The soldiers looked at one another.

“He can’t attack all of us at once, can he?” Ryn heard one say.

“It’s either death here, or back at camp if we retreat,” said another.

They looked back at Ryn...

...and charged.

Ryn got his hand up in time to throw fire at one of them, who screamed and went down in a red-hot writhing mess, steam sizzling off him as he hit the floor.

“No, please!” the old woman was wailing. “You said you’d take him quietly! My house! My house!”

Ryn jumped backwards to avoid the vicious swing of the first soldier that reached him. Cold terror seized him. He didn’t know if he’d be able to throw fire again.

He dived out of the way of the next slash, rolling clumsily as he hit the ground. As he came up, he caught a glimpse of the healer he had brought with him bent over Nuthea, reapplying a new bandage from his bag, completely focused on his work despite the carnage unfolding around him.

That gave him some more fire.

He broke his limit.

“Stay BACK!” Ryn shouted, and flung out two hands palm open. “FIREBURST!” Billowing flames burst forth from them, hotter and redder than Ryn had ever produced before.

But the soldiers were ready for him this time. They ducked out of the way of the jet of flame, which flew straight into the opposite wall.

As the fireburst subsided, the flames did not.

Ryn’s body stiffened with horror.

He had set the old woman’s house on fire.

The soldiers didn’t seem to notice or care. The three of them came on at him more cautiously now, step by deliberate step, brandishing their blades in front of themselves.

Despite the flames that started to leap up from the far wall and lick the ceiling, Ryn’s body was cold again.

I think that last projection used all I have up. I’m not sure I can do it again...

“FIREBURST!” he shouted again in desperation, throwing out his hands. The soldiers winced and held up their hands to shield themselves.

Nothing.

Damn it all. I don’t have anything left. I tried, Nuthea. I tried, mother; father.

The soldiers came on, and the nearest raised his sword high.

Ryn could run, but he wasn’t even sure he had the energy left to do that right now either, and that would mean leaving Nuthea.

He hung his head and closed his eyes, accepting his end.

The front door of the house smashed open with the noise of crunching wood.

“Death and glory!” shouted Sagar.

“For Imfis!” shouted Elrann.

The soldiers turned their heads to see what was happening, taking their attention off of Ryn.

An exploding noise sounded, and sparks sprang from the breastplate of one of the soldiers as he was knocked backwards into the wall by the shot from Elrann’s pistol.

Sagar leapt at the other two, twins swords twirling through the air. Soon all three blades sang as they struck and blocked and parried. Ryn stood transfixed. Sagar was a whirlwind of fury.

The soldier Elrann had shot was up again, lurching towards Ryn. Another sound like a short thunderclap, his armour flashed white and he was knocked back into the wall again. But he shook his head and recovered himself more quickly this time, and came on.

“Damn Imperials!” shouted Elrann. “Their armour’s tougher than I thought! Ryn watched as she quickly clicked off a mechanism on the top of each of her two pistols and shoved them back down her overalls, before pulling out another object. Since when did she have two pistols?

“Ryn! Get moving, kid! Make sure princess-girl is safe!” She flicked her hand out and a long, thin, snake-like length of material that shone like metal uncoiled into the air with snap--a whip.

“No! No! My house!” the old woman was screaming. She fled for the front door and slammed it behind her.

Elrann ran at the soldier she had been shooting and lashed out with the whip. It whistled across the soldier’s face faster than Ryn could see, and the soldier dropped his sword and cried out as he clutched his eyes where blood gushed out.

“Get to the princess, pup!” Sagar called out over the ringing of steel.

“Right!” Nuthea!

The old man still stood beside her, one hand rested gently on her forehead, the other on her abdomen, his eyes shut. He appeared completely oblivious to the chaos taking place around him.

“Hey!” Ryn said to him. “What are you doing?

The old man opened his eyes, blinked and looked at Ryn with a furrow in his bushy brow, like he had been woken from a dream. “Pardon? Oh. I am healing her, of course.”

A blood-curdling cry of pain came from somewhere behind them. The old man didn’t bat an eyelid.

“Is she going to be alright?” Ryn sputtered.

“I believe so, yes,” said the old man. “We should probably get her out of here, though.” He glanced behind him. “Oh, the building seems to be on fire. And your friends seem to be finished.”

Ryn turned to see Elrann and Sagar standing victoriously, three black figures splayed on the floor behind them. The old woman who owned the house was gone. Behind them was a backdrop of leaping orange and red, like a vision of hell. Thick black smoke filled the room near the ceiling. Ryn’s cheeks prickled.

“Is she safe to move?” Sagar barked at them over the crackling blaze.

“Yes,” said the old man.

“Come on then, you fools!”

Ryn gathered up Nuthea in his arms again, and the four of them sprinted for the door.

But the fire had spread. The front door itself was on fire, repelling them with smoke and heat.

They looked about frantically. The flames were closing in. Ryn’s chest was a vice around his heart.

“Hold on!” Sagar yelled.

He put his hands, still holding his swords, to his mouth, and inhaled, expanding his cheeks.

Then he took his hands away and…

...blew.

Ryn had to put a foot behind him to stop himself from being knocked over with Nuthea.

A huge gust of air flew out from Sagar’s mouth, making Ryn’s eyes water as it whooshed by. It spread out the flames around the door to the house, pushing them back and away, and then forced open the door, which flew off its hinges with a crack of wood and tumbled into the street beyond, hitting another soldier who had been running towards the house and bouncing off him.

In the wind tunnel that Sagar held in place with his breath there was room to escape without being reached by the flames.

“Go!” Elrann cried.

Ryn shot forwards with Nuthea, aware of Elrann and the old man following close behind him, and was carried along by the air into the world outside.

They regained their feet and stumbled away from the burning building. Outside the chocobo they had taken from the bounty hunter was flapping and cawing wildy, waving its wings around in distress and trying to break its tether to the burning house.

Elrann flicked out her whip and split its rope with a snap, cutting rhe chocobo free. The bounty hunter lay on the grass, now with his hands and his ankles tied, making muffled cries through the gag over his mouth and trying to roll away from the burning building.

And, in the distance, more soldiers in black armour were running towards them, including Biggs and Wedge from the Healing House, the old woman in tow.

“Vandals! Sorcerers! They set fire to my house!”

“Hey!” shouted the soldier Ryn remembered as Biggs. “Stop, or we kill you where you stand!”

“Stay right there, arsonist rebel scum!” yelled Wedge.

An arrow thudded into the ground in front of them. A warning shot. Some of the soldiers had crossbows.

“I think I’ve got one more in me,” panted Sagar, kicking over the bounty hunter with his foot to help him roll away from the house, “but you’ll have to put me and the bounty hunter on the chocobo afterwards when we run, woman.”

“Do you have to be such a jackass that you call me ‘woman’ even when our lives are in danger?” said Elrann.

Sagar didn’t reply, but sheathed his swords and took another deep breath so loudly that Ryn heard it over the sounds of the hollering soldiers.

He waved his hand to get the rest of them to step out of his way. Then--

“WINDARAAAAAAAAH!”

This time his exhalation was somewhere between a shout and a scream; somewhere between command and pain.

This time Ryn did lose his footing, and fell back on his arse still holding Nuthea.

His ears popped as an invisible rush of wind tore down the street from Sagar’s mouth, rippling over the ground, slamming back the doors and windows of buildings, spraying dust and grass and dirt up into the air, making a noise like a hurricane as it tore through Nonts.

The soldiers flew backwards, scattering like ten-pins, some of them flying head-over-heels backwards down the street, some of them getting swept up into the air. Ryn saw the old woman who betrayed him take off from the force of the wind blast.

When the wind subsided, none of the soldiers left were still standing. Most of them had been blown away out of view.

Sagar was on his hands and knees, trembling. For once he didn’t have anything to say.

“Quick!” said Elrann. “Now’s our chance!”

Ryn heaved himself to his feet with Nuthea and the old Healer helped him lift her onto the chocobo. He and Elrann lifted the bounty hunter onto it too to lie beside her, still cursing incomprehensibly from under his gag. And finally they helped hoist Sagar, still shaking and silent, to sit on its back. There was just enough room on to chocobo for the three of them.

It cawed and looked at Ryn with its big beady white eyes, as if to say “What now?”

“Come on,” said Ryn, “let’s get out of here while we still can!”

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About the author

Faenon

Bio: Hi, I’m Faenon, from Oxford, UK.

I’ve been writing for a long time and I’ve even been lucky enough to complete a paid creative writing course and get some short stories published (PM me if you are interested in reading them as it involves telling you my real name).

I’ve written four novels so far but haven’t been able to get any of them house-published--though I came close to getting an agent with one.

So although I’m going to keep trying, I’m also getting fed up with the traditional publishing industry.

That’s where the internet comes in!

I’m going to be posting my novels online one by one, anonymously, in the order I wrote them. And then I'll start posting my latest project as I write it.

If you enjoy my novels, please support me on patreon to get chapters ahead of time and access to early drafts, and then I can devote more time to writing!

(I have a wife, a kid, and a non-writing job.)

One more note. I've studied Theology and Philosophy to postgraduate level, and you may see these things turning up in my stories sometimes. You have been warned.

To support my writing and get access to early chapters go to https://www.patreon.com/faenon

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