Episode 21.

CW: Male Violence, Knives.

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The Dandelion and Lilly had at one time been a grand and welcoming place – although recent years had been considerably unkind to Coldwater Pond, not even half a candle in any of the sconces surrounding the pair with neither back to the door. Once a lively place for raconteurs and bards to share hearsay alike, most of the windows had long since been boarded up. The food was grey and as dusty as the interior, prepared without care and bleak as far as aroma went, the lumps of indistinguishable substance in the dish indifferent to the diner grimacing at them. Displeased by the fare, and made worse by the lack of salt and pepper on the table, Marima poked at a nugget with her fork. “That boy is back.” She sighed grateful to assess anything else but her miserable plate. He never appeared to notice the shadow in glasses trailing him but she did. Every time. “How can he not see that he's being followed?”

Keziah barely glanced in their direction, while little Wulf suckled at her little finger and she scribbled at the parchment in front. “Because it's no-one but you who notices him at all? Page.” She pressed her fingertips into her eyeballs and then rubbed her whole face while her friend smoothed down the paper in the book she was copying from, and the infant in the sling grumbled at the change in his domain.

“Tired? We could swap if you want? I've rested enough.”

“Be alright.” She stifled a yawn as though she hadn't been up since 3am, awake in the small hours sourcing the next article or document, or manual she felt driven to liberate. The boy was back in the bar, asking after the same four names as always. They were never here when he was, the redhead he wanted often two weeks behind here, or three days ahead there. “He'll end up in that cellar if he's not careful.”

“We should warn him.”

“Yeah. Give me a...” Her sentence went unfinished, the door slamming open, sending scrolls scattering across the table. “Fuck!” She froze mid-scramble as it became clear who'd entered the room. “Mari- Shit, don't look.”

The man in the stinking robes was back. Whiskers caked in scat, porcine tusks curved either side of his snout and slack, downturned, greed driven jaw. Beady, cruel eyes scanned the room, barely visible beyond the folds of skin which hooded them. He yanked the chain of the thrall trailing him, the collar jolting her unmercifully forwards. Made of fine gold, it was ceremonial, made to show how easily it could be snapped and yet it hadn't been. Not by the thrall herself, and still not by anyone who would break his spell on her behalf.

Eyes down, Marima's knuckles shone white through dark brown skin, the grip on her bowstaff grounding her breath. She spoke, low, only for Keziah to hear. “Watch her.”

“Already am.” She propped the baby up to wind him, by now in the perfect angle to spy. More people had noticed the Cardinal's presence, and had taken up loudly jeering at his captive.

Spelling out his intention to her for the last few weeks, the crowd were hungry for the conclusion to his threat. “Soon!” He hitched the chain again, to their ridicule. “It won't be long now before this raggedy little bitch has paid her forfeit to this society of upstanding citizens. And what, pray do tell me, do you think we should do first, fine people of Coldwater Pond”?

The fine people had plenty of suggestions.

“Give 'er the rat bucket, Pennington!” one yelled hoping to bootlick his way into some favour.

“Doubt even they'd want 'er!” Another yelled, fairly drooling at his own idea. “Try two or three red hot pokers, that'll teach the bitch.”

Pennington grinned, boorish, and the effect was grotesque beyond words. The raggedy bitch swayed, glassy eyed and uncertain of her footing, made more so by another wrench on the chain. She seemed drugged, concussed, weakened by the things the mage had promised he would do in public, as though half of them hadn't been happening behind closed doors for months.

“Don't look. Don't...” Keziah's leg bounced under the table. Partly for the baby's benefit, and partly because her throwing blades were by this time in hand.

Starting towards the door, the mage now finished baiting the crowd inside, the thrall paused in her doubtful footfall, transfixed on something at the back of the room, remaining a step slower behind until a final snatch span and floored her. Keziah alone saw her hands hit the floor before her head. A loud cheer went up as the swine picked her up by the hair, and a bawdy song began when he slapped her, hard across the face, the chorus line being, “She gets what she deserves...”

Knees hit dirt, anger, pain and shock reverberating through the trees, a violent squall released from deep inside Tristin's air force. In the outburst, branches threatened to escape their trunks, the wrench of the blast testing their grip.

Taking his payment from the pair, Kayn had settled the score between the three – the hunter's debt long overdue, while Issané’s was still fresh in his mind. Killing two birds with one glass blade, he turned, flaunting, fierce, for half a moment’s pure satisfaction. Arms wide, he cackled before his breath was taken from him and the gale he'd anticipated rushed over and died away to nothing – before finding himself stricken to the ground, pinned in the slushy mulch by the strength of the vision surrounding her and Axel.

Locked outside the colossal, monstrous, brilliantly luminous intensity that swirled this way and that, and held them airborne, knowing immediately the scene they are engulfed in, their line of sight locked on to each others, and sickened by his own disloyalty, Tristin cannot watch. Rooted to the ground, head in his hands, as much as he wanted to get to her, wanted to wrap his fingers around that little shit-demon’s throat, he could not. Dreamlike instead, arms and legs of lead, dizzy, dazed, he could barely see straight much less squeeze the life from a man.

Two and a half heartbeats later, Issané and Axel are released from her power into the half-frozen muck, and Jed bolted for her. Bringing her to Tristin, his promise fulfilled, he cast his eye over Kayn, who was still restrained by her energy as he passed, resisting the urge to firmly stick his boot into him.

Reed took control then, springing into action, finally able to detach himself from the scene. The instinct to assist kicking in and spurring him on to save her. Loud, yet hoarse, he barked his instructions. “Stay down on the floor Tris. Stay kneeling down like that, and we will lay her on the floor in front of you. That dagger will need to come out of her.” Realizing he is talking to no one, he tries harder to get through. “Tris, listen to me. You must place her hands on the wound so she can heal herself, not yours. Does that make sense? You must press down hard on top of her hands and don't let go, so there is a good healing contact between her and the wound. Lean right on her, hard, for the pressure to stop the bleeding. We’ll save her, okay? We have to. We will.”

Jed placed her on the furs, ripping open her shirt and revealing the extent of her injury, the knife still sticking out of her chest. Shooting Reed a doubtful look that he hopes Tristin doesn’t see, apprehensive that she can heal herself like this, he balked at the injury. Fist pressed to his mouth, he began to hum, a random atom of information lodged in his brain which told him he wouldn't throw up if he did. The blade all the way in up to the guard, Kayn had gone between the ribs, and deep into a lung.

Shouting his instructions again, the medic checked that Tristin understood, studying his face, skeptical he is even still in the camp with them, seeing eyes glassed over, and hope draining instead. “Ready Tris? We’re going to do this now. Be ready with her hands. See where to put them? Press hard when I say. Ready? Now. Three... Two... One!”

Jed pulled the dagger in one strong, smooth yank. The slick that immediately followed, and the second swell after her next heartbeat interrupted his hum, and a hand went to his earrings, checking them, soothing him, an equally matched swell of vomit rising within him as scarlet fluid saturated the binding under her shirt.

Struggling to breathe, eyes still open, Issané stared upwards at the faces above her, vacant. Tristin with her hands in the correct position, still the glow fails to begin straight away.

Reed, trying hard to make eye contact, is shouting still, desperate to reach in. “Heal yourself now, Issané. I’m going to guess here, but I’d say Kayn has punctured a lung. This is why you cannot breathe. Don't. Panic. You can do this, okay? Come on, we’re all here with you. You can do this. You can’t die yet, we won’t let you. We need you.” Hope drains when she does not. “Come on... Do the thing, Issané. Please... Do it now.”

Pulling each other up off the ground, Kayn is startled by the repercussion to his actions, instantly distressed. Pacing, shamed, wringing stained hands, sobbing into them, now that he is out of his frenetic momentum, he swings back down into reality from it again. Imagined, but no less real, fire ants crawl on his skin, biting, stinging him, while panic takes hold. “What did I do? Obbé's fire... Why? Why did I do that? That wasn't fair? Nothing was fair about that...” He whimpered, “Axel... I hurt her. She's one of us.” He stared at the blood on his hands. “I... I had a knife? Why did I have a knife out in camp?”

“No, hey, no no, here. Look. Listen to me. Here now, okay?” Shaking his head, hoping he can intervene before true terror set in, Axel paused him with a hand on his arm for just long enough. Turning to hold him by the shoulders, he directed his focus to him and explained. “The only way to see her vision was with blood, okay? Blood magic. Part of the curse on her. She showed me that. She showed you, but...” He sighed, and recognised her message would have been blocked. “Listen to me. You did the right thing for us all. She will forgive you for it, when she comes round after this. Let her in, and she'll tell you. She will.”

“How? How can she? How can anyone forgive me after this? What have I done?”

He pulled him close, feeling his body begin to shiver. Wrapping his arms a bit tighter he felt Kayn soften, allowing this comfort, instead of railing against it or fighting him off. “She will. She will live, and we'll all realise you did the right thing. Maybe not in the right way, but...” He squeezed. “That's blood magic.”

“Blo.. What? Axel? That means...”

“Shh, don't worry. Okay? Reed’s got her. He'll know. He'll know what to do. Okay? He can save her. He won't let her leave us.”

Surrounded by his arms, the fear interrupted by the emphasis in his voice, their embrace had a way of cutting through the despair taking root in him. Snapping him out of the spiral of disengagement only enough to actually hear the inflection in his tone, Kayn whispered, unsure if he wanted to know or not. “What was it, Axel? What did she show you? Tell me what you saw?”

In utter disbelief at the visual impression of the very thing he'd been searching his whole life for, Axel hardly managed a reply at first, his throat crowded with many new notions and inklings he found hard to describe. “It's true. All of it. It's all true. The ruin, the island. The pass. We're close. Kayn... It’s there, and we can get to it. Like, soon, you know? All of the places we've been before were completely wrong. I was getting it wrong. Thinking too, I don't know... small? I see how it is now that she has shown me. We’ll get home. It’s there for all of us, and we'll be free.”

Quietly, approaching the others and leaning on each other for support, Reed stood, trying his best to buffer the pair from Tristin, and stopped them from coming any closer, while Jed put himself firmly between his brother and Kayn. “That is far enough. Give them space. She will live. She’s responding in the same way as this absolute fucking genius did to her own magic.” Turning to him, he is accusing, seething. “You can count your lucky stars she can do that, you little prick. Make sure you get all of them.”

Crumpled under the weight of his guilt, now on her level, he watched her drift into unconsciousness to heal, almost doll-like beside Tristin's frame. Gasping sharply as he looked, for the first time seeing her without hatred, without any jealousy or suspicion, without accusation or defence, he is full of apology.

Tiny as she now was – bundled in all the furs Reed could find her – brilliant amber eyes were still open, conveying to him a message of forgiveness, exactly as Axel said she would. “The... deed... is done. It is done. Axel, please tell him not to worry. We did it. I did what I came to do, and it is done. I'll keep going, and I have shown you who I am.”

Relief flooded him when Axel knelt too, and placed a hand on his shoulder, whispering her message into his ear. Purified self-condemnation followed his realisation, and he knew in his heart how and why she was willing to go as far as to sacrifice herself to their cause. The Sanguine and the Outliers were all on the loose from Albion's grip – pledged into the underclass, bound to kill for their army. She'd sworn and purposely put herself into a situation where it was likely she'd be killed in myriad ways to avoid it. She accepted that the oath to them was a cut above the alternative. He'd been there too. Her life on the line for all of their sakes, as the pact dictated to them all. To get them home.

In that moment, it was clear that Issané believed in what they were trying to do as much as any one of the rest of them, and that she believed they could succeed. She did deserve the respect the others impulsively had for her – and Kayn found himself dazed – that he now has too. She was true to her word and fought for them, surviving every one of his attacks, while keeping Tristin from his door. One word from her, and he would have had his head on a pike. He shivered at the recall of how he’d threatened him with Jed and Reed holding him back, at the realisation he would go so far for no one else but her, and had probably seriously considered it more than once. She'd never even thought of giving him the order.

The same could not be said for Tristin himself. Refusing to even look in his direction, and not taking his eyes off of Issané’s injury, he is dangerous still, close to reigniting himself, toying with the idea. Panic a long way from dying down, his Dismay still grew inside, and Axel is as chilled by his rasping, breathless threat as he is by Jed’s scowl at hearing it. “Get him out of here. It's not safe, Axel. Someone will fucking die if he does not leave this minute. It had better not be her, and you all know damn well that it won't be me.”

Axel knelt, and looked directly into his face – these words from him were not to be taken lightly, he knew, and neither was the glare Kayn was under from the other two. Treading carefully, explaining calmly about the vision he'd seen and all it meant for them, he repeated the ideology they'd all already heard a thousand times. A mantra so well-known, yet this time he adds what he has learned from Issané. “At the heart of the matter, it means we are going home, Tris. A home for all of us, and many others. No more running. No more hiding.” He shifted, making sure to meet his eye. “No more looking over our shoulder, right? This one in your arms now will forgive both of your betrayals in the name of the continuum. All of the scores are settled between all of us now, and we will move on together, stronger than before. Tristin. Its real. Everything we’ve worked for so far... It makes sense now I've seen it. And I know you know it too. We’re going to do it. We’re so close, and we're going to get there. Together.”

Teeth grit, hearing the truth he'd already seen for himself, he could not refuse or relinquish his side of the deal yet. If Kayn would accept and work through the remorse he obviously now felt, and that they would both have to let this lie, then he must too. Issané still having a breath in her body now proof of that – if he'd meant to kill her, nothing would have stopped him finishing the job.

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