Broken – Chapter 7

After that initial scene, things proceeded much more smoothly for me. No one else that approached me caused any kind of trouble. Instead. I saw plenty of grown men tremble with fear and women flinch away from me when I reached out to touch them.

Only some of the children spoke when they approached me, which I was grateful for. At least, Until I identified the first child who also radiated the tainted cold of the disembodied soul. Watching a mother come crying to lead her confused child away to the small group I had identified as sick was painful.

By the end, I kept my gaze firmly towards the ground. The mixed expressions of fear and sadness that most of the villagers held were more than I could look at anymore. Especially from the twenty-six individuals standing by Astren.

“In just a moment, everyone but those standing by Astren may go. They will need to accompany with Talis and I for a short time, and then they may join you in going about their day. I will ask that everyone keep an eye on them as they may unexpectedly pass out and not wake up in the next few days, before we can resolve the situation with the earth-bound soul. It might do to have someone near them at all times just incase. Hopefully nothing will come of it, but it’s best to be safe when lives could be at risk.” Kyourin announced loudly so everyone could hear.

There were murmurs of acknowledgement from the crowd.

Kyourin went on, “Also, some time later in the day, I will need six or seven volunteers to assist me in searching for enough of the berries needed to make ink for the sending. I apologize again for the disruption to your day, but it’s an unfortunate necessity. With that said…everyone else is free to go.”

Kyourin waved me over as the larger crowd started to disperse, family by family.

“What now?” I asked, keeping my voice low so only Kyourin would hear.

“Now, you get to rest some. I might not be able to understand what you feel when you get close to those affected, but from the look on your face and your body language, it can’t be pleasant. Good work,” he replied in the same tone, “Sorry for making you an enemy though. That’s my fault.”

I stole a brief glance at the group of twenty-six, and sure enough the man from before was still glaring at me.

“What did you do anyway?” I asked while refusing to meet the man’s eyes.

“I’ll explain later, though it might be a bit complicated. Time to get things ready so I can do my part,” Kyourin said as he stepped away and continued to speak in a raised voice, “I would like it if you would all follow us to the chief’s house for a few minutes for one final thing, and then you will be free to go.”

After we arrived at the house, Kyourin had Astren wait outside with the group, after making some excuse about preparations, then ushered me inside and towards the kitchen where a closed window faced towards the group. Kyourin opened it a crack so they he could see outside.

“Good, no one is looking this way. Hopefully Astren can keep them distracted long enough for me to get a good look at all of them,” Kyourin said as he reached up to the bandages covering much of the left side of his face and began removing them.

“Umm, should I close my eyes? You didn’t want Astren or Merul to see what was under your bandages yesterday so…” I asked while looking at another corner of the room.

He paused mid-movement, as though considering, then continued taking them off, “That’s your decision. Yesterday kind of put things in perspective. I will need to rely on what I’d prefer to keep hidden just to do my job, some of the time at least. Since I’m committed to doing what I can to help you, and there’s no telling how long we’ll be travelling together, there’s always a chance you’ll catch a glimpse anyway. If you do look, just try not to scream. That wouldn’t be very helpful.”

“O-okay,” I replied. Why would he say that? I doubt what’s under the bandages could be that bad .

At first I kept myself from looking. Instead I stared at the dark walls or the little bit of light that peeked in through the window.  Eventually, curiosity got the better of me and let my eyes wander back to my companion as he finished removing the bandages. His right eye was closed, so I didn’t think he’d noticed me looking.

Seeing the scars he had was a bit difficult, given that not much light was making its way into the kitchen. But what I could see looked less like scars, and more like parts of his face had been gouged out cleanly, somehow. The gouges went maybe a fifth of a fingernail’s length deep, but I could imagine what that the marks that had been left behind would feel like when touched. Their shape reminded me of the furrows in the fields that surrounded Regia. I could make out two of them from my angle, each stretched from forehead to just above the lower jaw.

I couldn’t help but wonder what might have caused those marks. The few scars I’d encountered previously, on other people, had looked quite a bit different. Those had been more reddish and not the purple-black color visible from the little sunlight that breached the window. His left eye was also purple in color, though I only saw it for a moment before Kyourin turned completely away so as to position himself so he could look out through the small opening in the window.

“Does it hurt?” I asked.

“Not really. Not in the way you mean, at least,” he replied.

Not knowing what he meant by that, I didn’t press any further.

Maybe if I had better understanding of the world, I might understand why he felt the need to hide such things. His bandage wrapped left arm probably had more of the same scars.

After about a minute, he pulled away from the window and covered the left side of his face with one hand, “We have a slight problem.”

“What?” I asked.

“While every single one of them shows signs of being tainted by it, none of them are carrying it.”

As the words registered, I blinked a few times, “Then where is it?”

“I’m not sure, but this makes things more difficult,” he started to cover his face again with the bandages, “In any case. We should hurry back out there and get the rest of this sorted out. I’ll need some time to think about what to do.”

 

__________

 

After dealing with the twenty-six and sending them on their way, we informed Astren about the enigma surrounding the soul and then rested until just after lunch. Following lunch, we met up with the six volunteers. I recognized all of them from earlier.

There was the white haired man who was missing quite a few of his teeth, and his right index finger. Two young men, they looked enough like one another that they were probably related. There was only one woman in the group,her face was wrinkled and a bit leathery looking. Lastly there were two young boys.

Introductions were short, and Kyourin quickly went into explaining the task.

“As was mentioned earlier, I will be performing a Soul Sending at the next full moon. And in order to make the circle for the ritual, I will be needing berries from the Life’s Bane plant. Are any of you familiar with the plant?” Kyouriin said.

“Aye, helped Wiseta back in the day with gathering the stuff,” the old man named Jasilin said. No one else indicated any kind of assent.

“Only one person? That’ll have to do. As the name suggests, this plant is extremely poisonous. It has purple, bell-shaped flowers and the black berries of the plant should be attached to should have 5 green leaves in a star shape. Do not eat any of the berries, regardless of how tasty you might think they look. Better yet, don’t touch any part of the plant at all and call for either myself or Jasilin. We’ll split up into two groups of four, each covering a different part of the forest. Always keep in sight of each other. If you get separated and aren’t sure which way to go, try to find the sun and then head in the opposite direction of it. That should bring you back out of the forest and somewhere near the fields. Once your group has a basketful, you can head back. Two should be enough.”

Everyone expressed their understanding, and then Kyourin picked one of the boys and one of the brothers to join our group, and made the rest the second group. Then, we headed off to different parts of the woods and spread out. It took most of an hour before the boy in our group called us all over to the first batch of berries. Kyourin sent him and the young man out to look for more, while I helped him gather the berries up. This also gave us a chance to talk.

“It’s hard to believe something so pretty can be so deadly,” I said while picking out a berry and dropping it into the basket. The berries had a faint, sweet smell to them. As though they were trying their best to convince me to eat them. Thankfully, I knew better.

“It’s actually quite common. When the great spirits created Aeol, they were said to have created all sorts of things for the inhabitants of the world to experience. Beautiful berries that can kill you just happen to be one of those thing,” Kyourin said in a matter of fact way.

“So, this is actually pretty common?” I asked.

“Well, I wouldn’t say berries filled to the brim with the spiritual energy associated with are common, but poisonous plants are everywhere. The degree of toxicity can vary though. Life’s Bane, or Deadly Nightshade as it’s called in medical texts, is among the most deadly. The various names it goes by are intended to imply that.”

“I guess that does make it easier to remember,” I pulled the last berry from the shrub and dropped it in the basket, “There was something else I wanted to talk to you about though.”

“What about?” He asked.

I struggled to find the proper words to explain, “Early this morning, I think I had a strange encounter with some part of that soul. It had gotten into my dreams somehow, and was screaming about not wanting to be hurt, or something like that. And when I woke up, I could feel some part of it floating over my head…is there anyway to keep that from happening again?”

“Hmm,” Kyourin rubbed at his chin, “It sounds like you had an encounter with one of the soul’s extensions. I’m not sure of the proper name for them, since the technical aspects of detached souls isn’t something i’ve studied. Well, really, I haven’t studied souls at all. The extensions that I’ve seen both here in Regia and in your village, connect to each of the people it takes energy from. While they do lead back to the soul, they twist and turn all over the place to do it. To answer your question though, I don’t know of any feasible way to keep them from going anywhere, sorry.”

“I see…” I grabbed the handle of the basket and got up.

Some distance away, I could see the other two members of our group walking together.

“I’m a bit surprised you can feel the extensions too. That makes me think your experience last fall could have left you sensitive to more than just the effect it has on others. You could be sensitive to the spiritual energy associated with death in general.”

“But, didn’t you say the Life’s bane plant is full of death energy?” I motioned to the plant for emphasis.

Kyourin smiled and grabbed one of the berries from the basket and squished it between two gloved fingers. Blackish juice sprayed out from the crushed berry.

I squeaked and jumped back as a sudden, invisible, wave of cold washed over me. It was like someone had just thrown a bucket of cold water on me. The sweetness from before was replaced by something more foul, and I wrinkled my nose at the smell as I regained my composure..

“First thing to remember about things containing an abundance of spiritual energy, all of it is kept inside. As long as you don’t break the shell that contains it, none of it should get out. There are some exceptions, but it’s a good rule in general,” he wiped the juices on a nearby tree.

“That wasn’t very nice you know, I wasn’t ready for that,” I glared at him.

“Sorry, but actual experience is better than simply being told. Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting such a colorful reaction. There must have been more spiritual energy in that single berry than I thought,” his words contained a hint of laughter.

I hugged the basket of berries and turned away from him.

“In all seriousness though. Your sensitivity could still be helpful. While it might be time-consuming, you could potentially try to follow one of the extensions to the source. And the closer to the source, the more extensions there should be. Anyway, we should go catch up with the others.”

“Okay,” I said as I turned to follow him.

Unsure of whether I liked the idea of seeking out those ‘extension’ things that Kyourin had mentioned, I decided to change the subject.

“So, what exactly did you do to that man earlier?” I asked.

“How to explain it…” Kyourin ducked under a low-hanging branch before continuing, “Do you know that feeling you get when you’re afraid or excited? The one makes your heart beat faster, and fills you with energy so you can run faster?”

Remembering the feeling from this morning, after I woke up, I said, “I think so.”

“I looked for the signs that he was starting go through that first. Dilation of the eyes, flushing or paling of the face, muscle tremors are some of the them. Then I used channelling on certain parts of his body so that instead of gaining that rush of strength, the opposite happened. It’s a trick I learned when I was an apprentice. Well, more like my master made me figure out something I could do with my ability,” Kyourin finished with a small shrug, “It takes some time to really have an effect, but that’s what let you knock him over. He was probably having trouble just keeping himself standing by that point.”

“Now that I think about it. His legs were shaking, just before I pushed him,” I remembered the scene clearly.

“Yeah, and he couldn’t get up afterward.”

At this point, we both heard a shout from the boy up ahead. He was jumping up and down, while waving at us.

“Looks like they’ve found some more,” Kyourin said, “Let’s hurry and catch up, we can talk more later.”

 

___________________

 

Some hours later, we returned to the village with our basket full of poisonous, black berries. We headed back to Astren’s house, where we discovered that the other group had finished before us and left their basket there. Kyourin thanked the other two members of our group and sent them on their way.

Following dinner, and some explanations to Astren, I reluctantly agreed to try and search for the soul tomorrow, and then headed to bed. Sleep wasn’t forthcoming, as fear of another interruption to my sleep kept me awake.

Sometime during the night, I heard a woman shouting. As I exited the bedroom and made my way towards the entrance of the house, I saw Kyourin rush out of the front door, with his pack. Astren and Merul were looking at eachother with troubled expressions.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Rina’s boy, you met him early this morning, he’s having trouble breathing,” Astren said, “Kyourin went to see what he could do to help.”

I waited with them. About twenty minutes later, Kyourin returned.  His face looked pale, and his breathing was heavy.

“Everything’s fine now. There shouldn’t be any more trouble tonight,” Kyourin said, “No need to worry.”

Astren and Merul both sighed in relief.

“I’m going to get back to sleep. I’ll probably need it for tomorrow. We all might,” Kyourin gave me a small smile and a squeeze on the shoulder as he walked past me and into the guest room.

Maybe I imagined it, but I thought there was a coldness to his touch in that brief contact. And not just from the air.

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Release Day Change

Due to a time change with one of the Pathfinder campaigns I run, it is unfortunately necessary for me to change the day of new chapter releases from Wednesday to Thursday starting next week. I apologize for this, but preparation for each session takes time, and releasing a chapter the same day as a session occurs could have negative side effects for either one due to having to split my attention between the two.

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Broken – Chapter 6

A couple of hours later, with the sun rising higher into the sky, almost all of the villagers were assembled by the plant-clothed statue at the heart of Regia. Kyourin had me check over the family members of those already sick beforehand, so they wouldn’t be forced to leave their loved ones alone at home for an unspecified amount of time.

Checking them over wasn’t too much of a hassle, thankfully. Although I could feel the cold, wrongness emanating from deeper in the house. We had to move outside so it wouldn’t interfere, but only for a few moments. Kyourin was surprised when I told him that the other family members didn’t have the same cold feeling clinging to them.

The hardest part, was having to see the looks on their faces. One or two of them had eyes that were still red from crying. Others smiled and looked happy when we showed up, but their expressions became blank or looked like they were in pain after Kyourin explained our business. The mother of the young boy who was sick, she was the only one that I actually saw crying.

Throughout the process of checking each of them over, there was a tightness in my chest. I couldn’t describe it any better than that. Seeing the looks on their faces, the hollow expressions, and how they seemed to lack any vigor, made me feel…uncomfortable. Like I shouldn’t ever smile again. When we finished and headed towards the center of the village, I was glad to be away from that. Even if It was only to face a large crowd. Seeing so many people in one place made my legs go wobbly. There must have been at least a couple hundred people, filling the area. I shook my head and worked to get my legs under control as Kyourin led the way to Astren, who was standing in front of the restless villagers.

“Is that everyone?” Kyourin asked.

“Aye, should be all of them. I haven’t told them what’s up yet. Only that they all had to be here. That it was important. Figured it would be better to leave the rest to you, since you actually have better understanding about all of this spirit business,” Astren looked over the assembled group.

I tried my best to keep near Kyourin and keep my face expressionless and my back straight. This would be so much easier if I could actually see my face. How am I supposed to look ‘superior’ if I don’t even know what that looks like? I hope they just listen to Kyourin and don’t make a big deal of it. Why would it be such a big deal anyway?

The attention of everyone in the center of town was gradually turning to us now. Some people smiled and bowed towards Kyourin when they noticed him, but that was mostly the older villagers. The ones that had young children of their own, or had wrinkled skin and graying hair. Most of the other people appeared to be some mixture of annoyed or bored. Only the youngest seemed to be enjoying themselves.

“Everything okay Talis?” Kyourin kept his voice low so only I could hear.

I resisted the urge to look away from the crowd, and gave only a small nod in answer to his question. The sooner this was over with, the better.

“If anything happens, just remember what I told you,” he stepped towards the crowd and cleared his throat.

“People of Regia. I’m sure many of you are wondering why you have been pulled away from your work this morning,” Kyourin began.

There were many mutters of agreement from the crowd, and a few louder voices shouting about important things that were being held up.

“As all of you have no doubt heard, there is a fever that is slowly spreading through the village. Just yesterday, a fourth person, the village chief’s son, has also succumbed to the same sickness. I, Kyourinidal NalTaen, am tasked by the Miulani Order to do all in my power to combat illness and injury wherever I find it.”

“Well shut up and do your damn job. Some of us have work that needs doing,” one of the villagers shouted. Some of those around the heckler, turned to glare at him. He gave a less loud apology a few moments later.

Kyourin ignored the statement and continued, “After my examinations of the sick, and relating them to a similar experience in a smaller and more distant village. I believe the cause of Regia’s woes to be a soul that refuses to move on and reincarnate. If left unchecked… there could be many deaths.”

There were mutterings from those gathered as they discussed the revelation. I could see worry on some of their faces, and confusion covered others.

“Isn’t the sending supposed to prevent this kind of thing?” one woman asked.

“Are we going to have to leave?” another said.

More and more began to speak up, asking Kyourin questions until Astren waved for silence.

“The Soul Sending is supposed to prevent this, yes. The previous village in which I witnessed an event like this, a sending hadn’t been performed in at least a decade. Here though, just last winter it was performed at the scheduled time, according to what I’ve been told. I am unsure if the sending was done improperly, or if something else is at work. Regardless, I will perform one in four days at the next full moon. This should solve the problem in Regia, like it did in the other village,” Kyourin waited for his words to sink in.

“You gathered all of us here, just to tell us this?” one man shouted.

Others shouted, or muttered in agreement.

Kyourin’s face remained expressionless as he spoke once more, “No. You are all gathered here for a different reason. One that is crucial to the success of the sending. You see, the soul seems to attach itself to a living person in order to draw strength and continue to exist. It then reaches for more people to drain energy from, which is what is causing the current outbreak of fevers. Normally, finding something that cannot be seen, such as a soul, is impossible.”

At Kyourin’s signal, a small wave of his hand, I stepped forward.

“This is Ms. Talismere. She is a channeler from the Kaijran College of Spiritual Research in Jalgasta. She may seem quite young, but I assure you she is quite capable. And we are lucky that she can sense the spiritual energy given off by the soul. What I’m going to need from everyone, is to let her check you over so we can determine those that have been tainted so that we can track down the source. Finding the soul causing the sickness, should ensure a successful sending.”

While Kyourin introduced me, I stared straight ahead at the statue beyond the crowd. Keeping up this false front had started to wear on me. My back was aching a little. Still, I did my best to keep up the lie, even if I didn’t agree with it. The uncomfortable feeling in my stomach wasn’t helping me any either.

There were some grumbles from those assembled, but no one argued outright with what Kyourin suggested. Some of them even gave me wide-eyed expressions and either backed up a step, or backed into the people behind them. This caused a small amount of chaos in the large group.

“I know you’re all in a rush to get back to your day, but we’ll need to do this one person at a time, to ensure there isn’t any error. Being accurate is more important than being fast,” Kyourin pointed towards Astren with one hand and an empty area by some building with the other, “Those Ms. Talismere says are affected should wait by the village chief. Everyone else should form a group over there. Please keep things as orderly as possible.”

After he finished speaking, Kyourin began directing people towards me, one by one. I would then move close to the person and touch their hand, to make sure not even the faintest amount of cold energy was coming off of them.

For the first ten people, I felt nothing. Not even the slightest hint of the coldness that radiated from Aer and the other sick villagers. I was beginning to worry that maybe I couldn’t sense the coldness from anyone other than those already passed out, or about to be, when the eleventh person approached.

He was a large, brown-haired man, taller even than Kyourin. A bit wider too, though I wasn’t sure how much of that was from muscle. His nose was twisted oddly. He looked down at me with a sneer on his face. I did my best to keep my face smooth and expressionless, even if I wanted to be very far away from him.

“Let’s get this over with, Ms. Channeler,” he said.

As I got within two paces of him, I could feel the cold energy coming off of him like an invisible cloud. I didn’t try to move any closer. Instead I turned to Kyourin and nodded my head.

“Sir, please stand over by the chief,” Kyourin said as he walked closer.

The man looked from one of us to the other, then laughed, “You’re kidding right? The first ten people are all fine, and I’m the one sick? I’ve never even been sick a day in my life. Not even after the Ghul came through.”

“Sir, again, would you please stand over by the chief,” Kyourin repeated.

After standing to his full height, the man crossed his arms, “No.”

“Sir, please. Don’t make a big deal out of this,” Kyourin said.

Why did it have to be the biggest, person that wanted to be the problem, I kept Kyourin’s instructions earlier in mind while I did my best to meet the large man’s gaze. I just need need to do that weird hand wavey thing when I get the signal, and push him a little, and Kyourin will do the rest. That’s what he said anyway. I’m sure he knows what he’s doing, but… will this channeling stuff really work?

“No means no. I mean, is she even what you say she is? She looks too young to be a channeler. We’ve all heard that the tests for the university are all but impossible. How in Aeol did a kid get past them? She’s probably lying about this whole thing and you’re a fool to believe her. She hardly says anything so it’s hard to tell,” he replied, ignoring Kyourin’s requests entirely, “If she shows us some proof that she is what she is. Maybe then, I’ll be willing to believe her.”

There were some murmurs from the gathered people. I wasn’t sure if they were in agreement, or not with what the man said. Kyourin’s plan rested on them believing him, even if the part about me being a channeler was false. Not that I entirely agreed with the whole ‘lying’ part.

“Would you please reconsider Sir,” Kyourin asked with a pleading tone, “Considering the emotional aspect involved in channelling. Asking someone for a spontaneous display of power is neither safe, nor advised.”

The man made a strange, short sound with his mouth that sounded a bit like a fart before replying, “Oh, I’m sure that if she actually got into the university at such a young age, she’s probably better at what she does then most of the fools that try to get in. So, why not show us little lady? Maybe create some fire, or a flash of lightning. I’m sure you can do at least that. That’s what channellers usually do in the old tales.”

I turned to Kyourin and made a motion towards the man with my head and eyes, asking if I should go through with the plan, without saying anything overt.

Kyourin responded to my silent query by shaking his head, rolling his eyes a little, and shrugging.

I took a deep breath, “Alright.”

The man was looking down at me with a smug expression. It was clear to me he wasn’t expecting anything, and I wasn’t sure what to be expecting either. This whole thing was new to me, and not knowing what it was didn’t make things any easier.

Walking into the aura of cold energy that surrounded the man was very uncomfortable for me. Just like when I had met Aer, it felt a lot like walking into an area that felt like winter hadn’t quite gone away. Sort of like walking into a patch of intangible snow. I did my best to keep from shivering as I looked up to meet the man’s eyes. I noticed that his legs were shaking slightly, and there was some sweat on his brow. Then, I drew what I hoped amounted to a weird shape, with the index finger of my right hand, before using the same hand to shove the man with as much force as I could muster.

To my surprise, and his, the force of my push sent him toppling to the ground with a thud. This also had the effect of hushing everyone in the crowd who saw what happened.

“What the… how?” the man said as he struggled to get up, but his arms either couldn’t or wouldn’t support his own weight so he fell back down again, “What did you do to me?”

I turned away, trying to hide my own surprise, which I assumed was on my face, from the group of two hundred or so people standing nearby.

Then after walking away from the cold and thinking about it for a moment, I said, “Channeling.”

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Broken – Chapter 5

Waking up from my memory-dream was always a struggle. As the events from the dream faded away, they were gradually replaced by everything I did know. Throughout the process I was trapped within a silent world of endless fog, with only a point of light straight ahead. Only when I reached that light, would I wake up.

Today though, it was different.

The fog felt more like cold, wet mud.  I hope my body isn’t cold, especially under all those blankets. I rubbed my arms, trying to warm myself, as I forced my way through the semi-solid fog. The rubbing didn’t really help, but then again this was just a dream. I’d just have to deal with the unnecessary dream-cold, until I woke up. Still, it annoyed me.

I pushed on, heading towards the distant light, with just the sound of my dream-breathing to break the silence.

As I closed the distance between me and the light, I heard an unfamiliar voice echo through the fog.

“I don’t want to die.”

I froze. In all the times I had to go through this fog, never had there been anything other than myself and the fog. This was the first time anyone else had spoken.

I wrapped my arms around myself and looked around. My heart beat faster while I tried to identify who or where the voice had come from.  Other than the light up ahead, there was still only fog. Nothing else seemed to have changed.

“Daddy, please stop. It hurts! It hurts!!!”

“Is someone there?” I asked, letting my own voice echo into the fog.

After a few moments there was a reply.

“Please, it hurts. I didn’t mean to break it daddy. I’m sorry. Please!”

Screams followed the words.

My body shook as the sound of the screams reverberated through me.

I covered my ears and broke into a run towards the light that I hoped would remove me from this nightmarish screaming. The fog seemed to get more difficult to move through with each step, but I didn’t stop trying to force my way towards the light. Only when I finally reached it, did the screaming stop.

I looked around at the foggy world one more time, before heading through.

The bed covers felt warm, as my mind rejoined my body. My heart was still beating as fast as it could, and my skin was slick with sweat. Though there was a cold force hovering over my face. Of course, I didn’t see anything when I opened my eyes, but I could guess what was there. More of that earth-bound soul’s…whatever those things were called.

What does it even look like? It’s like it can reach through walls. I should probably get away from it, in any case.

I slid away under the blankets, away from that invisible coldness, before throwing the covers off and sitting up.

“Maybe that’s what interrupted my sleep…” I let out a sigh.

The air was cold, so I pulled the blankets back over to me, and wrapped myself up in them. There wasn’t any light seeping in through the window yet, so it was probably still night time.

Even though I had been sleeping, I still felt tired. With blankets still covering me, I got up off the bed and sat cross-legged on the wood floor instead, to put more distance between me and the thing hovering somewhere over the bed.

I placed my hands on my knees, and closed my eyes as I took a deep breath. And exhaled slowly. Trying to calm down after hearing that horrible screaming wasn’t going to be easy. But maybe working on the meditative breathing exercises that Kyourin showed me would help. With that decided, I began.

“In through the nose,” I breathed in and then exhaled again, “Out through the mouth.”

After repeating this several times, I could feel my heart rate slowing to a more normal level. I knew that I should tell Kyourin about what happened later, but for now, all I needed to do was to focus on breathing. At least, until the sun rose.

 

_____________

 

When I finally decided to leave the room, everyone except Kyourin was awake to some degree. Merul was already working in the kitchen, while Astren was half asleep in the other room with Aer. I kept as far away from the coldness coming from that room as I could, and joined Merul to help with breakfast.

Some time later, Kyourin joined us.

“Did you have a good night’s sleep?” Merul asked.

“About as good as can be expected, given what’s going on,” he replied, he went to grab his pack and started rummaging through it.

Any hope of carrying a conversation was lost after that exchange. I didn’t know what I could say that might help, so I didn’t say anything. And no one else said anything either. An uncomfortable quiet hung over us as we worked.

Only when Astren joined us, did that change.

“Astren, we’re going to need to go over everything that needs to be ready before the full moon,” Kyourin said.

Astren grunted and gave a nod.

“First, we’re going to need a supply of Morning Joy and Life’s Bane to make the ink. Since Regia has life stock, I assume those in charge of them keep a least some of the petals around for birthing right?”

Another grunt and nod, was all Kyourin received by way of answer.

“Next I’ll need to fashion the brush for the ritual from materials found in the village. It’s the best way to ensure a proper spiritual energy flow. Horsehair would probably be best for the bristles.”

Astren repeated his response routine for a third time.

“Thirdly, I’ll need to you to shape up and start acting like the leader of this village. I know Aer is sick, but you don’t have that luxury to be moping around. And I expect a response with words this time, no more of this nodding your head and sounding like a constipated goat,” Kyourin kept his face impassive as he said that.

I looked up in surprise after hearing Kyourin say that. That was the first time I’d heard him try to be commanding to anyone other than his patients.

Astren looked up, locking his gaze with Kyourin’s for a full minute before breaking off and heaving a sigh, “You’re right. I’ve felt like a useless lump since yesterday. Probably looked the part too. What do you need me to do? Aside from getting the other two things sorted.”

“You’re going to need to round up everyone in the village, so Talis can try to identify those that might be affected. The carrier should be among them,” Kyourin replied.

Merul and I began setting out breakfast, while the conversation continued.

“Hmmm,” Astren took a bite of his food. After swallowing he continued to speak, “If you said you were checking them, they would all respect that. You’re a healer, after all. Talis is just a little girl. Talis is just a little girl though. No offense, mind you. Some of the men, at least, might question that, even if you tried to use your authority as a healer.”

“That could be a problem,” Kyourin returned, before digging into his own food.

I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of having to meet with others when I proposed trying to help out. Just the thought of having to meet with a crowd of villagers made my stomach turn.

As most of us finished our meals, Kyourin spoke up again, “What if we told them she was a channeller from the capitol? That might give even the stubborn ones some pause.”

“Wouldn’t that be lying though? I don’t even know what a channeller is,” I said after I finished what I was chewing.

“She’s right, I wouldn’t be too surprised if one asked for proof. Probably something flashy, like starting a fire or something,” Astren added.

“Making it seem like she can channel shouldn’t be too hard,” Kyourin replied, “I doubt any of the villagers know anything about how it works anyway.”

“Wait, you mean to say, you can channel? How? When?” Astren said with eyes wide in surprise.

“Yes, though how might be too complicated to explain. Since before I was apprenticed though,” Kyourin took a sip of water.

I looked from Kyourin to Astren and back again, What are they even talking about?

“You never cease to surprise me. What can you do? Call down lighting? Freeze water?” Astren asked as he scratched his beard.

Kyourin shrugged, “I’m not really sure how best to describe it. I didn’t exactly have to study a book for years to learn how to do it. My master thought it might be one of the forgotten branches.”

“Ah, I see. It’s no wonder that old spinster took you as an apprentice. You have all sorts of strange things you can do,” Asten stood up, “Well, as long as you can make it look like Talis can channel, you’ll probably be able to convince even the bull-headed ones that she knows what shes about.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea? I mean… what if they find out? Won’t they be angry?” I asked.

“Maybe, but if it comes to that, I’ll take the blame. All we need to do is gather them up so I can find out which one is carrying the soul. I’d just rather check them all at once, than check each person individually. Less risk of overtaxing myself and ending up unable to do the ritual,” he replied.

I nodded. His answer didn’t exactly make the idea any more comforting. Meeting with so many people was the frightening part.

“We’ll need to organize a group to look for some Life’s Bane shrubs. I would imagine there are some in the woods to the south, but I’ll need several pairs of eyes to find them. It’s a good thing they produce berries in the spring and autumn, or we’d be in a lot of trouble,” Kyourin said.

“Getting six or seven extra hands should be doable,” Astren got up, “anyway, I should probably go see about gathering everyone up before too much of the day is gone by.”

He gave Merul a peck on the cheek before grabbing his cloak and heading outside.

With him gone, Merul spoke up, “At least he’s got something to keep him busy for now. I wasn’t sure what to say. Thank you.”

“Don’t worry about it. Everyone takes hardships in different ways. He was like that last time too,” Kyourin responded as he got up too, “Talis, I hope you’ll join us in looking for the berries too. We can continue your lessons while we search.”

“Sure”, I gave him the best smile I could manage, considering my discomfort I doubted it was a very believable one. It’ll hopefully give me a chance to talk to you alone, too.

“Now, we should probably go over what you might need to do to impress any stubborn men. Don’t worry, it’ll just involve a little acting on your part,” he smirked.

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Broken – Chapter 4

“Does it still feel cold where you are now?” Kyourin asked me.

I shook my head.

“So about three paces then.”

I was standing by the doorway to the kitchen in Astren’s home. The living room across the hall had been turned into a makeshift sick room for Aer, Astren and Merul’s son. All of the furniture had been pushed to the side as much as possible. Only three pillows were set up next to the bedroll where Aer rested. Merul’s sat on one, her eyes were still red and she sniffled from time to time. Astren was next to her on another pillow.

“Damn all the spirits,” Astren rubbed at his eyes with his thick fingers, “I can’t believe this is happening again.”

Kyourin rubbed at his chin, his one eye meeting mine. The bandages that normally covered his left eye were slightly askew, as though he had taken them off earlier and hadn’t had the time to properly replace them.

“You’re going to be able to help him, right?” I asked.

Kyourin smiled, “Of course. You should probably wait here while I check up on him. It’s a good thing you happened upon him just before he passed out.”

“I guess so,” I gave him a weak smile.

I disagreed with Kyourin on it being a good thing. I’d much rather have not been sole witness to what happened. Or better yet, not have witnessed it at all.

“Have you encountered the same cold anywhere else, since we arrived?” he asked.

I nodded.

“When?”

I kept my voice low, “Once when we entered the village, in the kitchen earlier, and once when I was looking for you after what happened.”

That last time had almost made me trip over myself in surprise.

Kyourin closed his eye for a moment, nodding his head, “Alright, I’m pretty sure I know what you’re talking about.” He put his hand on my shoulder, “I’m going to go check up on Aer, you should probably keep your distance since you’re too sensitive.”

“I…guess I’ll just stay in the kitchen then,” I broke away from Kyourin’s gaze.

He gave my shoulder a soft squeeze, before heading back to the other room.

Taking one of the chairs from the table, I moved it to the window and sat. The sun was farther down in the sky now. Still a good few hours before sunset, but staring out the window was better than staring at the wall. I could hear the conversation coming from the other room.

“Can you make him better again? Just like last time?”, came the deeper sound of Astren’s voice.

“I think so. The symptoms seem to be the same as the others’. So the root of the problem is identical for all four of those afflicted.”

“D-Do you know what’s c-causing all of this? All of the fevers?” Merul’s higher voice, broken by small sobs.

“I’m pretty sure I do. I just need to confirm that Aer’s condition is identical. Please look away for a moment.”

“We both already know about your eye, I don’t know why you need to be so secretive about it,” Astren said.

“I’m just uncomfortable with showing it to others, thats all. Would you please?”

There was a loud sigh, “Alright, alright. Come on Merul.”

I wasn’t sure what they were talking about. Why were they talking about Kyourin’s eye? I considered getting up and going over to see, but thought better of it. If Kyourin isn’t comfortable with them seeing whatever it was, I doubt he would appreciate me trying to look either.

After was some initial shuffling and there was silence for about a minute or two, excepting the occasional sniffle.

“Yeah, it’s the same as the others,” Kyourin finally broke the silence.

There was some more shuffling.

“So what kind of herbs and other healer things will you need this time?”

“A basket of berries from the Life’s Bane plant, and plenty of petals from the morning joy. To start anyway.”

“But that sounds like…” Astren’s voice trailed off.

“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” Kyourin paused for a moment and then continued, “I’m going to perform a Soul Sending.”

“B-but, we had one during the winter. Surely we don’t need another now,” Merul said.

“If I didn’t know what I do now about what’s causing the sickness, I would probably agree with you. That being said, I encountered a similar situation in a rather remote village just last fall. And everything I’ve seen in the victims here is the same as what happened there.”

“You mean, what happened with Talis?”

I hugged the back of the chair tightly, and tried my best to focus on a large cloud.

“What do you mean Merul?” Astren spoke this time.

“I kind of…got her to tell me most of what happened to her. I’ll need to talk to you about that later by the way, Kyourin,” Merul replied.

“Okay. And yes. I’m pretty sure the cause of all of this is an earthbound soul. It’s stealing the spiritual energy of others to keep itself from vanishing, which is what’s making others sick.”

Someone, I think Merul, gasped.

“And the Spirit Sending should get rid of it?” Astren asked.

“It should…if we can find the carrier of the soul. Talis was the carrier in her village, and she was very close to the sending when I performed it. I’m not any expert on ritual magic, so I can’t say for sure if we’ll get rid of the problem just by performing the sending near the village. I’d much rather do things the same way as I did them last time, just to be safe.”

That information intrigued me. I hadn’t known that the soul of someone. or something else, had been the cause of my sickness. Kyourin had never bothered to elaborate beyond me having been sick.

“How are we going to find the soul when they can’t even be seen? Unless that eye of yours can see them, that is.” Astren asked.

“It can…” Kyourin sighed, “But trying to search, person by person, might tax me too much to even perform the sending. Using it for more than a few minutes a day will give me a migraine for a week. And the sending requires a lot of focus on my part. We also might not have a week to wait.”

Astren threw up his hands ,“Then how?”

I knew what Kyourin was going to suggest. Just from hearing his explanation about the cause of illness last autumn and what was going on in Regia now, I knew. The strange coldness that had been bothering me all day was probably coming from the soul that was causing all the problems. As for why I could feel those things, that was beyond my knowledge. Either way, I could.

I got up from my chair, and headed over to where I could see them in the other room. The cold aura coming from Aer was palpable to me from where I stood since I was too close. Not so bad as to be unbearable. But bad enough to give me goosebumps.

All three of them looked up at my arrival, none of them spoke. Astren and Merul looked back at Kyourin after a few seconds, but Kyourin continued to look at me.

Just by seeing the look on his face, I could see the question he wanted to ask. If it was anyone but Kyourin, I would probably have said no. I didn’t want to do this. To search for the source of the areas of chill air that only I could perceive. From the moment I encountered the first one when we entered the village, I thought they were somehow wrong.

If it was anyone but Kyourin asking…

But, it was Kyourin asking, even if he didn’t say it out loud. He had done so much for me over the fall and winter. I felt like I owed him for everything. And if this was one way I  could try to repay him, then I would do it. Even though I hated the idea, I would still do it.

My heart felt like it was trying to jump out of my chest, while I worked up the courage to speak.

“I…” I looked from Kyourin, to Merul, to Astren, to Aer, and back to Kyourin, “think I can find it. The cold feeling I told you about before…I think it is caused by the thing that’s making everyone sick.”

I stared at my feet when I finished.

My legs were shaking a little. Using my hands, I pretended to straighten the skirt of my dress. I hoped they wouldn’t notice.

“It’s as Talis says. I think she should be able to locate whoever is carrying the soul we’re looking for. None of the people currently sick are the carrier,” Kyourin said.

“But-”, Astren began before Merul interrupted him.

“Talis honey, you don’t have to do this. I can see how uncomfortable it’s making you. I’m sure we can figure out something else.”

I looked up, and could see the hopelessness on their faces and body language. Astren’s arms and head just kind of hung there, he was staring at his unconscious son now, rather than at anyone else. Merul seemed to be forcing a smile now, the warmth it had held earlier when we first met, was gone. It wasn’t long before she gave up on smiling too.

“Astren, when is the next full moon?” Kyourin asked.

Without bothering to look up, he replied, “Aurenld should reach it’s peak in the next five days.”

 

“Five days? We’ll be lucky if Daelen’s boy survives that long…” Kyourin rubbed at his bandage covered eye with one hand.

“What abour Aer?” Astren reached for his son’s hand as he spoke.

“He should last a week and a half, maybe two weeks. Based on what I learned when I was helping Talis’s village. They lost three before I even arrived, and another while I was there.”

“I see…”

Kyourin rose from the pillow he had been sitting on, and stretched a little, “All we can really do for them right now, is to try and make them comfortable. Their current state is caused by something else siphoning off their spiritual energy, and not an energy imbalance like with the Ghul fever from last time I was here. Medicine will be more harmful than helpful.”

Astren nodded, but remained seated.

Merul got up a few moments after Kyourin did, “I had better get to work on the dinner…”

She walked past me, sparing only a brief glance and smile, before continuing on.

Kyourin headed towards me next.

“We’ll be busy tomorrow. I know getting a good night’s sleep is a bit too much to ask, but try to anyway, ok? I’m going to need your help with more than just finding the cause of this whole mess.”

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but I nodded.

He headed out the front door.

Astren remained in the room, not moving from the position he had taken up beside his son.

Rather than standing around doing nothing, trying to help with the cooking sounded to me like a better way to make use of my time. I followed after Merul, leaving the cold aura of that room behind.

When Merul noticed me, she set me to work, and some time later we gathered everyone together for dinner. The food didn’t have much taste to it, but it might have just been the mood in the room that was sucking all the flavor out.

When the sun finally set, I was the first to turn in for the night. As the fog of sleep enveloped me, I already knew what I was going to dream of.

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Broken – Chapter 3

The house was as empty as we had left it. Merul threw everything she was carrying into a basket, aside from my knife which she handed back to me. She dragged me over to one of the stools and told me to sit on it. Then she covered the windows and made sure the door was properly shut, leaving me wondering what was going on.

“Now, you said this was going to be your nineteenth summer?” she pulled over a second stool and set it down in front of me.

“I believe so, yes.”

“What do you mean, you believe so?” she sat and looked me right in the eyes, “You either are going to be seeing your nineteenth summer or you aren’t.”

“I overheard some people from my village talking about it during the winter.”

“Wait, you mean you don’t know your own age?”

I shook my head.

“How…” she looked away for a moment, “I guess this is what he meant when he said things happening, and you saying you had a hard time.”

I considered what she said, then nodded.

“Alright then, tell me everything about what happened between you two, and don’t skimp on the details.”

I didn’t say anything right away. I didn’t want to say anything at all, but I resolved myself anyway and told her everything important that I could remember. About being sick. About losing my memories and forgetting how to speak. I tried my best to not raise my voice when I told her how the people from my village, tasked with re-teaching me what I lost, resorted to shouting and fists when things didn’t proceed as quickly as they wanted. I felt more at ease when I described how Kyourin was patient with me when he took over. Throughout the telling, I kept my eyes faced down, towards my feet.

I told her about overhearing some of the villagers arguing over what to do with me. How some wanted me to leave, and others wanted me to stay. One of them saying that if I hadn’t lost my memories, or if my father hadn’t died, they wouldn’t even be having this argument. That was when they had talked about it almost being my nineteenth summer.

Why does Merul think the number of summers I’ve lived through is so important?, I thought as I finished my tale.

Merul didn’t interrupt me throughout my telling, she just sat in her chair with her arms crossed.

When I finished, I closed my eyes. Hoping she wouldn’t shout at me too, like the others had when I tried to speak up.

“I’ll have to have words with that man later, I suspect he didn’t know what a mess he was getting into. Assuming those fools you mentioned were telling the truth that is. I hope they were wrong,” her voice was calm as she spoke, and she let out a sigh when she finished.

I opened one eye and looked up at her when I realized she wasn’t yelling.

“Stay still for a twitch”

Merul reached over and started feeling every inch of my head with her hands. I tried to wriggle out of her grip, as it was uncomfortable, but she bopped me on the head for trying. She seemed to be paying particular attention to the skin under my hair, and then my ears.

After Merul had double and triple checked my head, she let me go, “Now I’m no scholar, but you seem to me to be normal enough.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant. Why wouldn’t I be normal? I started examining my head and face like she had been, but as I couldn’t see myself I knew it was pointless of me to try.

Merul stopped my searching by grabbing both of my hands and putting them in my lap, “Trust me, when I say you look normal, you look normal. A bit on the short side, but normal. Sorry for making such a fuss about it, but it is important to be sure. For now, don’t worry about it. And if anyone asks your age, tell them you’ve seen thirteen summers, thats about how old you look to be. After this summer you can tell them fourteen.”

“But isn’t that lying?” I asked, “Kyourin told me it isn’t good to lie.”

“To be honest, it might or might not be. If you’re lucky, it’s true. If you’re not…everything might get a whole lot more difficult for you if you go about telling everyone how old you really are.”

I looked down at my feet again, and nodded.

“We’ll worry about this more later,” Merul headed over into another room and returned with the basket of strawberries, “For now, why don’t you help me with these so we can share some with some of the other families.”

I smiled at the idea of having strawberries again. So I hopped out of my chair and joined Merul.

_______________________

I looked down at my now bandaged-up hands while Merul finished portioning off the now sliced strawberries with other sliced fruit and cheeses we had prepared and placed them in several small baskets. Each basket held portions of equal sizes.

I kind of wished I had asked Kyourin to show me how to use a knife when he had given one to me before we had set out several weeks ago. He had told me how to use one, but he hadn’t shown me how. Telling me to only use it for self defense when I was in danger wasn’t exactly good advice when I needed to use one to chop food. My hands seemed to throb in agreement.

“That should be enough. Hopefully you won’t have any trouble helping me to deliver some of them.”

I hoped so too. I hadn’t known cooking could be so painful, or how much work went into it.

While we had been working, Merul had told me about how most of the food we were preparing had been gifted to the village during the spring festival from two weeks back. Regia was a large village that possessed quite a bit of land and was an important part of Valglaiv’s agriculture belt. As such, during the spring, summer and autumn festivals, people from all the smaller villages and the towns nearby would come for the celebration. Those who made the journey often shared small amounts of food, cloth, or other wares from elsewhere in Valglaiv, with the village.

We had to go down into the basement and dig up the clay pots that the ingredients we would be using had been sealed inside. Merul then explained to me about how to recognize food that was still good from things that had gone bad. One of the pots hadn’t been sealed properly and I could smell the wrongness of the rotten fruit before I could see it. That also marked my first experience with having to try and keep everything in my stomach from coming back up. I didn’t totally succeed, but there wasn’t much to get rid of, which was a small consolation.

I was glad to be back outside again after that particular event.

I now had three baskets to deliver and, while having to talk to new people after I’d only just gotten used to Merul was a little frightening, it wasn’t like I would have to say too much. Merul gave me the names of the three people to drop off the baskets too, and pointed out their houses before we split up. They would make sure the portions were delivered to the families nearest them.

It didn’t take too long before I finished my task. The last person I had to deliver to was on the north end of the village, just short of the northern fields. I took the time following the delivery to explore what lay beyond the last circle of cottages.

Unlike the part of town Kyourin and I had entered from, where there was lots of wheat being grown, the northern fields had herds of sheep and cattle. They were spread over a vast, hilly area, with shepherds and dogs helping to keep things orderly. I noted some barns too.

While walking over to the direction of one of the herds, I came to the realization that this might be the first time exploring by myself. Usually Kyourin was with me.

I enjoyed the feeling of freedom that came with being able to go where I wanted. Even if I had to go back soon.

If only the feeling could have lasted a little longer.

A boy, taller than Kyourin but shorter than Astren, saw me and started heading towards me. He actually looked a lot like Astren. He lacked the beard, but his hair was the same shade of brown and cut almost as short. The boy also wasn’t filled out anywhere near as much, but I could imagine him looking almost the same if he was.

As he got closer he waved and called out to me, “Hello fair maiden, What brings you to Regia and you wouldn’t happen to be interested in seeing the most beautiful sights in all of Aeol with me, would you?”

What he said clicked in my mind. It matched something that Astren had said earlier. Him looking like Astren made more sense if he was was his son.

He closed to distance between us fairly quickly and tried to reach for my hand.

I almost tripped over the hem of my borrowed skirt  as a wave of coldness impacted me and I backed up.

“Now now my green-eyed beauty, there’s no reason to fret. I only wanted to the honor of kissing your hand. Isn’t that how these greetings are supposed to go?”

I retreated back a little more, trying to keep away from the offending coldness that surrounded him.

“N-No, thank you,” I tried to be polite with my refusal.

Not only had I never heard of the kissing of hands as a greeting, it felt like winter had taken up residence around him. How could he stand it? He even seemed to be sweating despite the cold.

“Maybe that drunken old bard lied to me,” he hung his head for a moment before clenching a fist, “I’ll have make sure to give him a good whack next time I see him. What brings you to Regia, by the way? I can tell by your green eyes you aren’t from around here. Ours’ are all brown.”

“Kyourin,” I replied after a moment.

“Oh Kyourin’s here?”

I nodded.

“I’m sure pops will be a little happier knowing he’s around.”

He wiped at his forehead.

“Anyway, that didn’t really answer my question. Why are you here?”

I was about to respond when I saw him wobble a little, and then stumble. He barely broke his fall with his hands.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“You know…all of the sudden….I’m not really…” he seemed to be struggling to keep himself up while he talked and then he just fell forward. I heard a soft thud as his head hit the ground.

My thoughts seemed to just fall apart at that moment, and I tried to move next to his fallen form. But I had forgotten about the cold, and had to recoil away.

I didn’t know what to do. A boy had just collapsed in front of me and this invisible, cold, force was keeping me back. I thought about it before, and then remembered about the symptoms of the sickness I had previously and what Astren had said. While I couldn’t tell if the boy had a fever, I was very sure this is what they had meant when they said that those afflicted collapsed.

I thought about running to find Kyourin. I was sure he knew what to do. But I wasn’t sure where exactly he was right now. Merul might also not be at the house right now, so that was also out of the question. There were other Shepherds nearby though.

I picked out the nearest shepherd I could see and started running in his direction, leaving the boy where he was on the ground for now. If I couldn’t get close to the boy, maybe someone else could. I didn’t think Astren or Kyourin had mentioned anything about a coldness anyway. So maybe they couldn’t feel it?

As I got closer I started shouting for help, until I grabbed the shepherd’s attention.

When I finally did get his attention, I explained what had happened and he followed me back.

On the way back to Merul and Astren’s house, I tried to figure out how best to answer any questions they had. I knew they would want to know everything that had happened, and I wasn’t even sure what exactly had happened.

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Broken – Chapter 2

A serious atmosphere filled the room when the conversation shifted to what Kyourin was actually in the village for. He had explained it to me sometime during the winter, while he was re-teaching me how to speak and understand the Halean language. He was a travelling Aishu, ‘healer’ in the spirits’ tongue, and he constantly moved around the Valglaiv, heading to the more out-of-the-way villages and towns where a male physician or wise-woman was less likely to have set up an area to care for. There was of course some overlap though. The wise-woman that used to handle Regia, along with the small villages and town nearby, had died some years ago and was yet to be replaced.

I was a bit fuzzy on how Kyourin knew that some of the villagers in Regia were sick though. Everything was still so new to me, there was a good chance I had overlooked something. Perhaps those purple flowers from before had meant something.

Astren’s voice broke the silence of my thoughts, “Two men, and a young boy have come down with some kind of fever. They were just fine one day, and then the next…”

“Did a swarm of ghul pass through? I remember that happening the last time I was in the area.” Kyourin asked.

“No, no signs of Ghul damage in the fields. We’ve been lucky on that front since last year. I think there was a swarm sighting off to the south somewhere, around Khelar maybe,” Astren looked at some unseen point on the far wall while he spoke.

“Hopefully that’s good news. Maybe it won’t spread as fast as Ghul Fever then,” Kyourin had a thoughful expression on his face, “What are the symptoms, aside from fever?”

“Aside from the fever…well, we didn’t really notice any single one of them had a fever until they just collapsed one day. And not on the same day, mind you.  We tried using smelling salts, but they didn’t do any good. Haven’t been able to wake any of them up since,” Astren gave Kyourin an apologetic look.

“Hmm, so fever… and coma?” Kyourin looked at me as he said that. I looked down and started fidgeting with my fingers.

I understood what they were talking about, Kyourin had told me the symptoms I had when I was sick. A fever, and being unable to be woken up. I wished I was anywhere but here. Knowing that a sickness had robbed me of everything but my life was bad enough without having to be reminded of the fact.

“Yeah, I think thats everything I can tell you about the sickness itself.”

Kyourin scratched at his chin, “What do you know about….”

I missed the rest of what Kyourin said as I felt something cold brush up against the back of my left leg, just below my knee, and the feeling set my hair on end.

I knew that feeling. It was exactly the same as when we had entered the village. Only it didn’t fade as quickly as it came this time. It remained. A cold something that I couldn’t find the words to describe. Snow was something that I had briefly experiences during the winter. But this kind of cold wasn’t the same as that kind of cold. Not quite. It sort of made me feel tired in addition to the cold. As though it was taking the energy right out of me.

I tried my best to not look worried, so as to not trouble Kyourin and Astren. I knew I would have to lift my skirt if I wanted to try and see if I could find the cause. But it was probably going to be the same as what happened when we entered the village.

While keeping my left leg as still as I could, despite the uncomfortable cold, and tried to rub at it with my other foot instead. My efforts were met with the cold feeling jumping from my leg to my foot, and returning to my leg after I stopped and put my foot back down.

I bit my lip as I tried to figure out what the feeling might be, It wasn’t tangible or my foot would have felt something. Also, it wasn’t on my leg right after we sat down, it only showed up a few minutes after. And when I first felt it, I think it was more like walking through it, than it going out of its way to touch me. Maybe it doesn’t move fast, so if I moved it wouldn’t follow.

I moved my left leg some, and the cold feeling began sliding off of my leg. I slid my foot further across the hardwood floor until the coldness was completely gone.

I sighed inwardly. My new sitting position was a little awkward, but it was better than having that, whatever it was, making my leg uncomfortable.

Kyourin and Astren were still talking, but being distracted had left me a little confused about where their discussion had gone. The creaking of the front door broke the conversation up entirely before I had a chance to get back into it.

We all turned towards the entryway and a few seconds later, a woman about Kyourin’s height entered the kitchen. She was wearing a simple one-piece dress with tiny blue shapes  decorating what would otherwise have been pure white cloth. Her initial shock soon gave way to a smile I couldn’t help but return.

“Why Kyourin, how good to see you again. We were worried something had happened to you when you didn’t show up last autumn,” Merul towards me, “And who might you be dear?”

I looked towards the wooden floor and tried to straighten my skirt instead of answering.

After a few moments, Kyourin spoke up, “This is Talis. Some things happened where she used to live, so I’ve taken her on as my ward.”

I looked up again after I was spoken for. I saw Astren nod his head.

“I see. I’m afraid we don’t have much space, but I’m sure we can work something out as far as sleeping arrangements are concerned,” Merul shared a meaningful look with Astren as she walked over and took the basket from the table.

“Fine, I get it. I no when I’m no longer welcome in my own bed,” Astren grumbled.

“Sorry for the trouble,” Kyourin said, “Hopefully we won’t be here too long.”

“Give me a moment so I can get a better look at both of you.”

After depositing the basket elsewhere, Merul returned to us and looked us both over from top to bottom. Kyourin drank more of his water while she did so, not seeming to find her actions as odd as I did.

When she finished her examination she let out a sigh, “You two both look filthy, but I guess comes with running around the countryside like a bunch of beastfolk. Though they at least clean themselves regularly, or so I’m told.”

Astren laughed loudly and thumped a knee, while Kyourin’s face turned what I thought was an interesting shade of red.

“Well… I guess we have been neglecting that somewhat,” he said after a pause.

“Not to mention your clothes have some tears here and there,” she picked at one such tear on Kyourin’s sleeve, “It wouldn’t do to have both of you walking around the village looking like that. I think I have an old dress Talis can borrow…but I might need to ask around for something that might fit you.”

Kyourin gave her an apologetic look, “We’re in your care.”

Merul sighed again and shook her head, “And here I was hoping to have a little time to myself while the clothes and sheets dried. Oh well. Let me just grab everything we’ll need and I’ll take Talis to the stream to get washed up.”

I watched her head out of the kitchen and towards another part of the house.

After Merul had left, Kyourin asked, “Would you mind taking me to see one of the people that came down with a fever? I’d like to see what we’re dealing with, and if possible, hear first hand accounts about what happened before they collapsed.”

Astren nodded, “Sure. We should probably go now before Merul gets back, or she might insist on dragging you to the stream for washing too.”

They both got up and headed towards the front door. Kyourin turned to me before heading out, “Do everything Merul asks of you, ok Talis? Things will be a lot easier for you if you do. Trust me.”

I nodded, “Okay, be careful”.

“I will,” and then they left.

Merul returned after a short while with a large, wrapped bundle in hand and a sponge on top.

“Okay, I’ve got every…” she looked at the now empty chairs where Kyourin and Astren had been, “And those two decide to leave while I’m out of the room. For some reason I’m not surprised. Well, come on then. The sooner we get you cleaned up, the sooner we can get back.”

I got up to follow her, making sure to keep a few paces behind her as we left the house. A weird

We stopped for a moment by the village well, which was situated at the top of a small hill near the center of the village. What I assumed was the actual center-point of the village, was dominated by a statue of a woman that appeared to me to be without any clothes at all. That isn’t to say the statue was uncovered though. Vines and other plant-life seemed to have taken over the role that clothes usually played. I found it curious that this was the case, since everyone I had ever met had been wearing clothes whenever I had seen them.

Merul began discussing something with another woman, so I used the free time this provided me to look more at the village itself. It seemed to me that the village was arranged in a circular arrangement with each circle of houses spreading out more and more. All of them seemed to face, as best they could, towards the statue at the village’s true center.

I made a mental note to ask Kyourin about it later. I wanted to know why a statue could be so important. I hadn’t seen anything similar in the three other villages I’d been in, including my own.

As I turned back to see if Merul had finished, a flash of orange caught my eye. I found the source to be a very small,l furry creature slinking around the cottage nearest me. It walked on four legs, with a white and orange striped tail arching forward as it walked. It had a large, white, belly. It looked at me for a brief moment, before turning around and going behind the wall of the building.

I was briefly considering following it when Merul called, “Talis, Let’s go.”

When I looked back to her, she had a metal pail riding atop the wrapped bundle. I followed after her, though I did look a back few times to see if I could find the small animal again. It was another thing I would have to ask Kyourin about, though I thought it might be easier for him to explain if he could actually see it.

“So, whats the story between you two?” Merul asked while we walked.

I took a few moments to gather my thoughts, and courage, before responding. I had hoped we would just continue in silence.

“He saved my life,” I tried not to say it too quietly.

“I see. From what, may I ask?”

“I was sick.”

She heaved a sigh, “I feel like I’m trying to pull out teeth.”

If she had her hands free, I thought she might have tried to rub at her eyes like Kyourin sometimes did when he was exasperated. She had a similar kind of expression on her face.

“Why are you travelling with him, then?”

Ah, maybe thats what she meant meant when she asked what the story was between us. I hadn’t ever heard such a phrase before.

I kept my eyes on the ground as I spoke, “I was having a hard time, after I recovered. The sickness took my father. Kyourin offered to take care of me, when no one else seemed to want to.”

“Oh. Okay. That makes more sense,” she looked a little happier knowing that, “He always seemed like the type of man who wouldn’t leave something alone if he thought he could help. Though I think he might be getting a little in over his head.”

“Why?”

“Taking responsibility for someone else’s future isn’t a simple task. Especially for a young girl such as yourself. I doubt he could teach you everything you need to know if you ever hope to find a husband and start a proper family.”

I contemplated her words, as I didn’t understand everything she was talking about. What did being a girl have to do with it?  What was a husband and why did I have to start a family with one? All of these questions that I didn’t currently have the answers to, bothered me. Well, everything I didn’t understand bothered me, but I could normally trust Kyourin to explain things. Right now, he wasn’t here, and I still didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask Merul what a specific thing meant. Memories of being yelled at by the people from my village for not simply understanding everything were still fresh to me. I did settle on a question nonetheless.

“Do I have to do those things?” I asked.

She laughed a little, “No I suppose you don’t. Though you will be expected to. Ah, here we are.”

She stopped and I realized we had arrived by the stream. I had been so lost in thought I hadn’t even noticed it.

The stream was quite wide, and a little deep, with rocks that occasionally broke the surface of the clear water. There were a few tree where we were, with sheets that hung on pieces of rope that were tied to some of the branches. There was also a large wooden bucket that rested on the ground. One or two other village women also seemed to be washing things further down the stream.

Merul handed me the pail, “Go fill up that bucket with water from the stream, while I get things set up so we have some privacy.”

I had to carry the pail back and forth from the stream, about a half a dozen times, before she decided the bucket had enough it in. During that time, Merul and rearranged the hanging sheets into a makeshift shelter, with a sheet just barely hanging above the grass in each direction and the bucket in the middle. I waited next to it.

“Well, what are you waiting for? Take it all off,” she pulled a sponge out from where she had hidden it in the small pile of clothes.

It took me a little while to slip out of all of my clothes and fold them up on a small rock nearby. The feeling of the cool spring air on my bare skin made wrap my arms around my midsection. I climbed into the bucket and sat in the cold water.

“I figured you to be the shy sort, thought I might have to drag you out of your clothes. But, no matter. I suggest you remove your hair pin too, unless you don’t mind it getting soaked along with the rest of you.”

I reach up to my head with a start, and then remembered what she was talking about. A small hairpin made of painted and lacquered wood. It was the only thing I had taken from my parent’s house before I left with Kyourin. He had told me to bring anything I wanted with me, as we might not be coming back for a long time. Aside from some clothes I had assumed were mine, this was the only thing from the house that I had brought with me. I’m not entirely sure why I even picked it out. Now that I look back on that time, I guess the hair pin just felt like it was mine.  Unlike everything else in the house.

I carefully removed it from my hair, undoing my braid as I did so, and handed it to Merul.

“This might be a bit cold now.”

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes as a pail full of cold water was dumped over me. While I sat there in the bucket, shivering all over and with my teeth chattering, Merul began scrubbing me with a sponge. By the time she finished, I wasn’t quite sure if I was clean. But my skin was a light shade of red and was sensitive when anything touched it. This included the air. I tried to rub myself for warmth.

Merul helped me out of the bucket and into the new clothes after I was dried off. I was wrong about them being like what she and the other village women I had seen were wearing. There were three pieces, not including the undergarments: A top with a floral pattern, a matching skirt that was long and wide, and a sash that was as blue as the sky. I looked down at what I was wearing after I put it on. I liked it. I liked it very much. Something about the flowering pink blossoms and green leaves that weaved their way across the fabric was just right to me. I spun around so I could try to see as much of it as I could.

“Judging by your smile, you approve? Now, you’re a bit smaller than I was at your age, but you probably have some growing yet to do. I’ll just have to adjust it later is all.”

I kind of hoped Kyourin would approve of the clothes Merul was letting me wear for the day.

“It’s a shame you missed the spring festival, you might have attracted quite a few stares,” she stopped to pick up my discarded clothes, ” How old did you say you were?”

“This summer should be my nineteenth, I think,” I shivered as I remembered the voice of a man from back home shouting something akin to that while arguing with some other people.

Merul had been picking up my discarded clothes when I said that, and she froze mid-movement. She stood up and looked me over from head to toe, not saying a word.

The walk back from the stream was much quieter, and I had the impression I hadn’t given her the answer she was expecting.

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