This happened after a patrol. We were stopping at a village to rest and walked into a hanging. There was no official from the Seat there so we stopped them. The man they were going to kill was accused of beating a respected elder. The villagers were too impatient to wait for an official from the Seat. He was former cur like me. He hadn’t been out long as he was jumping at shadows and was ready for a fight. He was perfect individual to pin the crime on. I knew he didn’t do and I promised him to use what time I had to exonerate him. The situation was ugly, but nothing that level heads couldn’t work with. However, I had a dissenter in my ranks, Kellas. That strong trait everyone admired, to do what needed to be done, only works if he is working with you and not against you.
There was no golden sun that morning. It was reduced to a pale disk shrouded by clouds. Kiao thought it looked a bit ominous. She felt unsettled even though the mercenaries kept their word. Now they were gone. They had all left before sunrise leaving her in peace. The lady of the lodge gave her some buns on way out which made her feel a little better. However, her heart sank when she wasn’t greeted by Oeric at the stables. Instead, the stable hand gave her a message.
-Head down the north road. Stop at the outcrop of rocks. I will meet you.
Kiao stuffed a warm bun her mouth as she mounted her horse and headed down the road. She had four in all, two for her, and two for Oeric. However, when she came to the collections rocks that looked as if Dias had stacked them like a layer of pancakes, there was no Oeric. She climbed them and sat getting a better view of the road below her. He came nearly an hour after her, trotting down the road with his packs unbuckled. He veered off and come towards her with his tail wagging.
“Good morning, Sister,” he greeted happily and gestured to his packs with his nose.
“You know, you can call me Kiao,” she told him working on the buckles going around his chest.
“Thank you for last night,” he said bow his head at her.
“Many wouldn’t be so open to support those who are curs or former curs.”
Kiao remembered what Xerius told her last night and tried to ignore it. “It’s only because I find it stupid everyone assumes your some kind of fiend because of your scars.”
“It’s because of what they mean. Most see them as a sign of a disturbed individual. The scars are usually self-inflicted. Two of mine are my own doing.”
Her face screwed up. “Why would you do that?”
“The longest one going down the side of my face and the one going above my eyebrow was done with a hot knife. It was to ward me from certain…prospects,” he said.
“Basically you didn’t want to be another man’s skane,” she asked without a flinch.
“Correct. Being unblemished, little scarring and being young made you a target. I was the youngest fighter that Clincher ever took on. I had to do something. I kept getting into fights to keep them away from me. The only other way was to start killing them.”
Xerius’s words force their way into the forefront of her mind. However, instead of ignoring it, she wanted to hear Oeric’s side of things.
“Last night, Xerius claimed that he run into you when you’re were a mercenary and found you again as a fighter. He also claimed to have tried to free you from that life.”
Oeric tilted his head clearly confused.
“Said he seen you kill three other fighters.”
He thought a long moment before his ears dropped to his skull.
Kiao finished the strap around his chest. “So you know him?”
Oeric leaped down the outcrop and started off down the road at a determined pace.
She hit something he didn’t want to discuss.
Kiao mounted her horse and followed him.
“Okay who is Xerius,” she said at his heels.
He then spoke fast. “A-a-at the time, he wasn’t leader of his band, he was just a member who took a liking to me. He offered me a job to pursue a fugitive. He wanted me because the band consisted of those who have the exact same consort given ability as me.”
“And you didn’t take it because…”
“Because they literally hunted that fugitive down and killed him like animals. If given the option of bring one in or bringing their head, they’ll bring their head,” he said. “I didn’t like that. I-I-I didn’t like killing a person begging for their life.”
“That didn’t stop you from killing three in the ring.”
Oeric came to a dead halt. “Killing in the ring was rare. Training a fighter is time consuming and it costs a lot of coin for a true blood fight. All fights are agreed on by the fighters how they play out. Some are serious and some are just a show. In a blood fight, there is no choice. One of you is going to die. None of the fighters liked it. In all, I killed nine men in my life time. Five were in the ring, one was when I was a mercenary, one went after me because I was a cur and…” he said trailing off.
“And the last two?”
He sat in the road. “Why are you suddenly so curious about this?”
“Because Xerius made it sound like your nothing but a crazed elf and now you causally tell me you’ve killed nine people.”
“It’s not as if I’m bragging about it, Sister! Fa-fa-fact…is…fa-fa-” he paused a moment and looked at the ground. He took in a few steady breaths before he spoke again using slow and terse speech. “Fact is fact. I can’t change the past and I can’t pretend I didn’t do it. I rather most of them lived to have the chance that I did.”
“Most huh? And the last two didn’t deserve that chance.”
Oeric expression darkened. “Those last two were the Scourges of Paradise. Two brutal men who thought nothing of raping, mutilating, and killing some unlucky dod or skane. Sometimes not in that order.
Kiao stared down at him wordlessly.
“There was nary a soul there with any morals and so no authorities were there to stop them. Everyone let them roam because of fear. A powerful handler knew who they were and gave them targets. It kept him and his fighters safe and sated their blood lust. I was targeted because I won a fight against one of his men. He didn’t think I deserved to win.”
Once again, Oeric started down the road.
Kiao forced air through her throat and found her voice again. “First Warden!”
He whorled around and flashed his teeth at her with his hackles rising. “I’m done!”
She froze stunned that he bared his fangs at her. His irritation dissipated and his ears sagged with shame.
“I’m going to start down the road and we’re dropping this conversation.”
He left her. Kiao followed feeling the heavy silence as they proceeded. It was as if there was a wall of ice between them. It was her fault of course. Her father told her that she needn’t to be so persistent and could annoy the wool off a sheep.
Kiao manifested Emmery to keep her company and to mutter about their current situation. They walked until mid-morning without him looking back at her once.
“I should just apologize,” she told to Emmery.
Instead of a suggestion, the consort became alarmed and started squeaking at something. And image of Glen was impressed in her mind and the same time fear. At first Kiao didn’t understand what Emmery was trying to say. Until it occurred to her, they were being stalked by a tawny panther. She looked around and couldn’t see anything in the wood around her.
“First Warden,” she cried.
He rolled an ear back to her.
“I need you back here.”
He slowed down his pace until he was beside her.
“We’re being followed by a mountain lion,” she hissed.
“Keep your head forward. There’s another one ahead of us,” said Oeric with his head straight but pale eyes to the side. “I noticed. I didn’t want to alarm you. Mountain lions don’t hunt in pairs. They’re either consort or elves. Probably the two males with Xerius.”
“Why are they following us?”
He stared at the sky above them. He pulled his teeth back and looked up at her. “Want to find out?”
She was going to tell him no but he sprang forward shouting and waving his tail, prancing in a circle. “Ohhhh Xerius! Come on down.”
Horror raced through Kiao. “What are you doing,” she shouted.
To their right, there was the sound of something large lifting off from a branch with heavy wing beats. Kiao looked back and above her to see an eagle soar overhead and land right in the center of Oeric’s loop.
Oeric grinned. “Look Sister, I’ve learned to summon eagles.”
Xerius dropped out of his eagle shape and stood there tall. He held out his arm and his consort manifest on his forearm. There was even more rustling in the woods and there stepped out a doe. It was Roxlyn. She inclined her head towards Kiao.
“Well this is truly a surprise. I would’ve never guessed that you would wait for me. I’m honored,” said Oeric sardonically.
Xerius snorted. “You’re out-numbered and over-powered.”
“Do you have four more elves I don’t know about?”
The dyne elf face darkened. “You’re still just as arrogant as before.”
The two panthers come out of the brush one close to his side. The other one was to Kiao’s side. Oeric eyed them and sat on his haunches nonchalantly.
“Sister, how many sentences are in a paragraph?”
“I think the minimal is three,” she said watching one of the panthers position herself at her side. “But First Warden, this isn’t the time.”
All he did in response to her was turned his ear to the side facing the panthers. “Well then Xerius, you have five sentences to say your peace.”
The mercenary then spoke. “A few years ago, the Seat got a hold of some information and was able to capture an active handler and his five curs. From that bunch, they got schedules and location of most of the rings. They’ve even got the location of Paradise. Heard they’re going to be raiding it soon.”
“I’m I invited? I want to set the first torch.”
Xerius face tightened. “They backed up the entire ferry crossing to make sure certain handlers were forced to go through secret crossings they had trapped. You shouldn’t’ve been able to cross the river.”
“I happen to be very acquainted with Captain Gryfalcon. His brother just happens to be the Patriarch of the Brotherhood. His wife happens to be a good friend of mine and my wife’s.”
“Please, I know Gryfalcon. You could be his boy and he wouldn’t bend to him.”
“Well he owed me a favor. He understood I didn’t have time to wait and neither can I wait until you stop being thick and let me pass.”
Xerius gave one of the panthers that surrounded them a nod before stating, “There is a good price for any curs who crossed that river and stopped at the lodge.”
Kiao noticed the cat’s edging closer to her. The mare she was on started to get nervous. “First Warden,” she called with her voice shaking.
Oeric leapt with a snarl between her and the panther jumped at him. The two of them because a mass of teeth and claws. She instinctively moved her horse out of the way to put distance between them only to realize she gave them what they wanted. The panther who attacked him broke away while the other one took a swipe at Oeric’s leg. He yelped and bared his teeth at the cat. They stopped their attack and surrounded him.
Kiao faced Xerius. “Stop this!”
Roxlyn then stated loudly. “He insults Diva’s blessing by using his body for such a sordid sport.”
“Oh, please, don’t use righteous fury to cover up your own venality,” returned Oeric.
Roxyn’s face contorted to rage. “My sister taken and murdered by curs. I will not rest until I see them all dead. This is the duty that Diva has charged me.”
“You mean these kittens will see me dead, because you aren’t going to sully you’re hands!”
“Kill him now,” shouted the woman and the two large cats rushed at Oeric. In response, he crouched down and back-flipped over one of the backs of the pair. He landed and then was struck by Xerius’s eagle in his face. He snarled shaking his head and snapping his jaws. He had one eyes closed with rake marks and was pounced by one of the panthers and tangled with it.
Kiao’s mind raced. She wasn’t trained to fight, but she was a chanter. There was only one way to stop them.
She tapped into her magical heart pulling in more of Dias’s quintessence. She then took that power into her throat and with all the will and force of a tidal wave, she spoke.
“Stop and stand still,” she commanded. The mountain lions released Oeric from the dirt and they backed away and stood erect with their expressions blank. “Get out of your consorts forms and stand down!”
The shifted out and stood there looking very afraid. Oeric rolled to his feet and scooted back to Kiao side. Roxlyn stood there gaping with Xerius.
Kiao turned to her and slammed her voice at the two of them. It hit them like a waterfall crashing on rock. “Do not mistake me for some hapless girl. I’ve my duty perform and no worshiper of Diva will stand in my way. Step aside.”
Both Xerius clapped his hand over his ears and sent his eagle at her.
Kiao shouted out the phrase of peace at the consort. The bird banked away from her and dropped to the ground. It hoped in the grass preening its feathers.
Xerius gritted his teeth and back away from her. Roxlyn resisted and grabbed the hilt of the sword at her side and tried to rush at Kiao.
“Drop the weapon and moved aside,” ordered the priestess.
The woman entire body stopped and she lowered the sword looking her hand while the other hand tried to stop it.
“Roxlyn, drop the sword. Weapons have no place in my presences. You cannot beat me.”
The sword slipped out of her fingers and fell to the ground with a thud. Horror blossomed on her face and she wailed, “Get out of my head.”
“You want me out of your head then do as I will. Move aside. Stand in the grass beside the bird. Take Xerius with you as well.”
Tears ran down the woman’s raged filled face. “You pollute the body of the goddess with your footsteps. I will end you.”
“Shut up,” Kiao. And her mouth snapped shut. “Take Xerius to the grass.”
The man surprisingly didn’t fight her. He did glare at her for a moment however, his gaze found Oeric and stay locked on him as he was pulled to the grass.
Kiao nudged her horse forward and motioned the First Warden to come with her. Before she left, she gave Roxlyn and Xerius a blazing look. “Stand in my way again, and I will not be so kind to leave you quivering on the roadside.”
With that, Kiao let the horse take her down the road nearly at a gallop with Oeric speeding on ahead. She needed to cool down from that experience. Her chest burned as well as her throat. She hadn’t forced herself on people like since she was young. There was no stopping though. She had to let the fire burning in her chest die down. The world became cooler and with it came her stomach cramping into a twisting hollow cavern.
She slowing her horse to a stop and leaned forward on her horse’s neck. The world spun. She was unpracticed and doing that sort of thing came with a price.
“Need food,” she muttered and reached into her saddle bag with a trembling hand. She picked up one of the buns for Oeric. The walnut butter seeped inside her mouth from the bun. The saltiness urged her to stuff the bun inside her mouth in three bites. Oeric watched her through a single eye. Blood seeped into his fur from his shoulders.
“Your face,” she said and then saw his neck as well. They were both bleeding as well as his flanks.
“Not now,” he said. “We need to put more distance between them and us.”
They continued down the road as fast as they could before he suddenly veered off the road right before a bridge. The followed the shallow stream under. They followed the stream until she could longer see the bridge and behind an outcrop of boulders. She got off her horse. Oeric was only still for a moment to get her to take of the packs and into the water her went. He was silent again.
In that time, her stomach became empty again and it brought the jitters. She guzzled down water in her skin and ate the other bun. The tremors abated. She rested her back against the rocks and listened as Oeric cleaned himself off until she became too tired to stay alert. She fell into a stupor her mind playing a vision of Mien’s hand caressing her cheek.
“Kiao,” he whispered like a breeze and then was gone.
She jolted back awake again finding Oeric on his knees in front of her. His face was clean. The eyelid where he was struck was swollen. That didn’t stop him from wearing a perturbed frown.
“Hello First Warden,” she smiled.
“Did you just do what I think you just did,” he demanded softly.
Her grin became feeble. “You might not know this about me, but I’m a force of nature with my voice.”
“That was mind-control,” he said and rubbed his palms on the top of his legs. “If they tell someone—”
“Who would believe them?”
“That’s not the point,” he snapped. “You know very well you can’t do that that! You shouldn’t be able to do that! And certainly not for someone like me!”
She found herself becoming very alert. His breathing was short and pupils were large. He settled down assessing her like a wolf would do to another predator. She had scared him and couldn’t believe it. This was a man who had a knife to his throat and looked bored a day ago. He faced murders and monsters in the form of beasts and elves and yet he was scared of her. She pulled herself upright.
“First Warden, I did it because I didn’t know how else to help you,” she explained keeping her voice soft. “I’m not trained to fight and I used what Dias gifted me. Tell me how else could I’ve done that wouldn’t have harmed me or you more?”
The cords in his neck tightened. He said nothing.
“I’m not planning on doing it again. It’s draining. But I had to do something. I don’t want to tell your son that he also lost his father. He needs you.”
Kiao reached for him and he deflected her hand with his arm.
“First Warden, I need to tend to you,” she said. The compulsion she worked many years to control to want to heal was strong at that moment. She didn’t know if it was because she smelled blood or the puffy eye staring her in the face.
“It’s fine, they are just scratches and a few bites. They’re clean and will heal on their own. Rest.”
“Then let me treat your face. You don’t need another scar. People treat you badly enough,” she said reaching again slowly. He grabbed her wrist in a tight hold.
“Don’t touch me,” he growled. He then let go of her and looked ashamed again. “Not right now at least.”
“Healing this is will take but an instant,” she said gently.
“And that’s more than enough time for me to hit you for it,” he warned. “I was just attacked. Give me time to shake it off.”
Kiao settled back. “Is there a reason you haven’t already?”
“We aren’t going there,” he said ready to put up that wall between them.
“Is it related to the Scourges of Paradise?”
His stark gaze darkened.
“I only ask because I’m trying to understand where you’re coming from,” she said quickly before he shut her out.
“Where I’m coming from is the experience of knowing there is nothing more terrifying than having two men overpower you. Knowing that there is pain, humiliation, and death coming your way. And in that moment, you react in the most horrifying way to save yourself.”
Kiao didn’t know how to respond to what she was told. She only listened.
“The only reason I got away was because of Lykkon. I set him on them to get me free. Then I borrowed his body and I ripped them. I heard it was like the fury of all the people they raped and kill came down on them and tore them from their groin to the throats.”
“That was the night my mind broke. I just acted and ran. Clincher found me curled up on the doorstep apartment with my fur soaked in blood.” he said and then exhaled and looked at her. “Is there anymore of this story you need to know because I would like to stop.”
Kiao shook her head.
“You look as if you’ve something to say.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s nothing for you to feel sorry about. I put myself into that situation and hadn’t the sense to get myself out.”
“Not for that. It’s me always thinking the worse about you.”
He regarded her coolly. “So you’re apologizing out of pity?”
“No. Just listen. It’s so very easy to think you as a brute. I saw what you did to Soletus. I heard the pain in his voice. I saw him cry and he was so angry. When he decided to forgive you, I thought he done it too easily.”
“And now you think differently because I told you a story.”
“What part of listening do you not understand,” she exclaimed, the lit in her voice rising up.
He flinched as if she bit him.
She reined herself back and cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. You needn’t be so defensive. What I wanted to say is that I feel like a terrible healer for not understanding your situation. Your pain never sunk into until now. Yet I can accept Mien’s but not yours.”
“Because you can see the courage that Mien has. He’s taken steps to improve without sliding backwards,” he said with a self-deprecating smile. “These fiends in my head are decades old and as a monk, I’m supposed to be above them. I’m the representation of Dias’s strength. Hurting one son because he’s too afraid to face him isn’t a reflection of that strength at all.”
“But as a healer, I shouldn’t judge a person to the point I’m blind to their pain,” she said earnestly. “I shouldn’t force them into becoming distressed. And when a patient is distressed to the point they don’t trust me, I needn’t not make it worse.”
Oeric sighed at the ground. He scooted himself forward and sat tall. However, his hands were tight fits on the tops of his legs.
“Go ahead if it’ll make you feel less like a terrible healer. The only thing you’re guilty of is being a curious child.”
She was hesitant to touch him. “You’re just doing this to humor me,” she told him.
Oeric chuckled. “You need to learn when a man indulges you, say nothing and take advantage of it.”
Kiao didn’t need anything else said to her. She pulled her satchel towards her and dove into her back organizing what she needed. She couldn’t imagine all the wounds he had on him. She could see the ones on his face and neck. He had one on probably his flanks and shoulders. Even if he did clean them, they had the potential to fester.
“I’m moving too fast,” she muttered. “Face first.”
“Would it help if I at least take my shirt off?”
“I was just going to get your face and if you were willing go from there,” she said.
“No, you’ll start talking about infections with all intentions of treating them. Probably wait until I was asleep,” he said pulling his shirt over his head.
Kiao went straight to work while he was statuesque. She started with his eyelid. It was already scarred there and he didn’t need another one. In fact, he was lucky he didn’t lose that eye to Xerius’s talons. She stitched the skin and tissue back into place. It was a small wound and she could heal it fully with no repercussions. Some puffiness would remain but not enough that he couldn’t see.
She was going to move onto his neck when the longest of his scars got her attention. She traced it with her index finger. Nothing could be done about it to get rid of it or minimalize it. Time had done what it could. Oeric tilted his face away from her fingertips. She moved on to see his neck and shoulders. The wounds could’ve been much worse. They could’ve been made by a drass beast and made her job a lot harder.
The worse of them was his flank where he had four perfect holes where claws dug into him. Not to mention there were rake marks on the other side. The area was tender given how much he flinched and hissed when she disinfected the wound. She healed those and while she was inside his body, she finally took the time to look at his hip. She hadn’t gotten a chance.
What she found were inflamed nerves.
“I need to keep an eye on your hip,” she said on exiting. “It’s very inflamed. I won’t know until a couple more months pass but First Warden, it might not go away.”
“Worry about it then,” he told her and pulled his shirt back on. “Do you feel better?”
“Yes,” she said not pressing the matter even though she desperately wanted too. If he was still ill, she could understand. However, he was in recovery. The walking could be blamed though, she suspected, it was going to turn chronic. It annoyed her like a lot of things about him. At the moment, it was him being quick to dismiss himself. She could hear in his voice that he didn’t think very highly of himself despite his swagger at times.
He was in the process of tucking his shirt and told her, “I feel you staring at me.”
“It’s about what you said about Mien having courage. You implied that you don’t. You’re wrong. You have all the courage in the world.”
“You sentiment is appreciated—”
“But you think I’m wrong?”
He blinked at her.
Kiao took his hand and squeezed it. “You keep moving forward despite all those fiends trying to hold you back. That isn’t the mark of a weak man. It takes courage to move away from darkness back into the light. To live among people who aren’t willing to see that great big heart of yours because of a couple of marks on your face. You’re a good brave man Oeric’Sheldmartin and don’t you dare say otherwise.”
At first, Oeric was transfixed wearing that dopey expression she had seen on Soletus when he didn’t understand something. Then the expression softened into a smile. Not that wolf’s grin that never touched his eyes. If anything, it was a little bashful. However, it was fleeting and faded away into gentle composure.
“We should get going,” he told her standing.
“Don’t you need to rest,” she said and then she heard something on the wind. She stood to her feet and cupped her ears. For a moment, she thought maybe it was a timbre. However, she didn’t hear anything that chimed, ranged, buzzed, or tinkled. Instead, she heard the ethereal sound of the chorus.
Her magical heart felt warm responding to the phrase given to her. It was the phrase of purification and then it was gone. There wasn’t anything else and yet it felt as if there was more. She flexed her right hand and rubbed her sternum with her other.
She was so distracted she didn’t realize that Oeric was looking off in the distance.
“What is it,” she asked and leaned over to the side just enough time to see a tawny tail vanish