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.