Episode 24.

CW: Vomiting, Syringes, Drug Use.

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image shows the letters C, I, T, B, in bold red type.

Issané's cough refusing to get any better in the cold, Reed had insisted they seek for a temple on the trail for her to recover in. Unsure where they might find one in the mountains, they reasoned that there must be one at the pass, and with spring and it's rain almost upon them but not quite, they'd moved on in search of any warm building where she could rest. Bundled up between Tristin and Kayn on the bench, her lips slightly blue in the cold, Kayn was pushing his mares smartly up the last of an incline. Not wanting to seem in a hurry, while plainly in one, they dubiously headed towards a gate in the distance scoped out by Reed riding ahead. Guarded by two well armoured from the cold, but still obviously lanky underneath it teens, armed with longspears, they lowered them at the Sanguine's Outlier greeting, returning their own version in kind. An immediate understanding reached between them, initial hostility soon faded.

“There a safe passage through here, mate, or is it blocked? We'd rather not turn around if we don't have to.” Kayn indicated the size of the dray at his back.

“Depends what you're looking for?” One answered and signed simultaneously.

“A temple, if you happen to have seen one.”

“Contagious sick?” The boy was quick with his mask, his cohort following suit.

“Injured sick. Is there a fee through here? You can take what you like off the cart? There's fresh deer for the fire there.”

“Sina's shit, there'll be bears up our arse before we know it. Get in.”

The gate is opened, and while admitted passage, Henrik of the pair is sent ahead, taking flight to warn the others that new guests will coming through Meadowfield Pass today.

Indignant at the hasty departure, Axel yelled after him. “Hey kid! Wait! You forgot your...”

“He can't hear you, he's Deaf. You can tip him when you've parked up. Alright, we'll wait for reinforcements just now, and I'll take you down to the outbuildings.”

He signalled, and more kids in equally mismatched yet plentiful armour arrive. Axel is impressed with their organisation. “We're at the pass already? I'm glad we've found you here and not, you know...”

“Yeah, I know.”

“You want to drive?” Kayn offered the reins.

“Alright.” The kid perked up at the offer. “I'm Radulf. And they are...?”

Kayn grinned, explaining the story of the bravest horses in the world, it taking the entire length of the avenue that approached the site to tell, the lane clearly man made in the wilderness. The welcoming party is sparse once they arrive, and the village is little more than a few dilapidated pigeonholes clustered together around a main well in the centre. Fed by a nearby spring, the falls they'd passed continued to roar at them in the background, their freezing feeling much worse with the direct wind sucked through the narrow rocky passage. True enough, a temple is here – the stone building still robust although it is dismal, disused, unstaffed and unequipped.

Radulf translated Issané's hand signals to David, with Reed helpfully helping here and there, their trepidation dissolved at their new host's geniality. His accent told of rolling emerald hills and rain, his skin Blacker than Axel's. “Come on, come on, sit down, then! You're making the place look untidy!” They must only have had a day on them, their camp still in disarray and incomplete, and Issané coughed at his joke, indicating she is hurt more than she is letting on. David, instantly concerned for her health, called for a stretcher to carry her. “This one looks on her last legs. A healer with an injury? Never seen anything like it. Get something for her to lay on and we'll take her inside.”

“Thank you.” Axel is grateful. “She'll need to recharge, and could not in the snow. It's the cold damp sapping her, and we haven't seen the sun in forever. Well, you know.” He waved skywards not needing to explain. “We may be a few days here, if that's okay with you?”

“Sure, we don't know how long we'll be ourselves. Just waiting for my good lady to pop and then we'll be off too.”

The mood high at their good fortune, Jed laughed at Issané and Tristin searching together for a sound. Both tripped into awareness, they hunted in unison, Tristin's echo picking out something in the trees above. He liked watching them together, spirits uplifted by how in sync they were becoming. Spring was almost back, the world would come alive again, and his mood reflected the promise of sunshine in the air back at them. Until a puzzled expression took up residence on his face. A look that morphed into pain, two darts well aimed, embedded into the vein in his forehead.

“You must understand.” David was still affable, calmly explaining. “We intend only to put him down as a safety precaution. My lady needs to relax as much as possible, you understand. The dosage is low, we only want to weaken him.”

“You could have just asked?” Axel's displeasure was hardly contained within the bounds of the etiquette he would adhere to.

“Could we now?”

“Issané. Put the blade down. We won't get anywhere with them otherwise. We need him alive. I’ve got him, he won’t get away. Jed will need your help more than you need to do this. Let him go...” Pinning Henrik to the ground with her knife to his throat until Kayn had time to hook an arm behind her back, he'd prevented her from injuring him in the nick of time.

Shaking her to loosen her grip and lifting her to her feet by the scruff of her collar, she stood, wavering as he released her, and fainted instead. Kayn huffed at her crumpled form, and put her over his shoulder on the way back to Axel, dragging the now smartly shackled kid behind him. How she'd forced him out of the tree and onto the ground, he couldn't quite grasp, and he would have questions about that later.

Jed, woozy, aware as Tristin broke his fall while Issané pelted away, whined from the ground. “Reed...” Anguish bled through his accent, “There's something in this...” Off his guard, and wandered into the trap, he'd been oblivious, since fewer and fewer people were around now, and more and more trees to conceal whoever felt they needed to protect themselves from him. Or take whatever he had on him.

And on seeing Henrik in manacles, David sheepishly deemed it an equal exchange. “Alright, alright, that's a fair swap. But you feed him, you understand? That boy is my son, and you will not harm even a hair.”

Axel took a deep breath before answering, patience extremely thin. “Of course.”

“And remove the cuffs.”

He pointed at Jed, now writhing with his stomach cramps and vomiting, emphasis on Reed trying hard to put him into the recovery position. “When he is upright again.”

“Fair enough. But you listen when he speaks.”

“Done.” He looked in open disgust then, as if it was ever a question.

“What was in this, Kid?” Reed was direct. “It's important to know. Is it Allium? Just a plain yes or no will do. Axel, go to my chest, top left hand corner there's a vial with MG on it. Bring me a needle as well.”

“Don't touch me. Don't fucking touch me.” Jed managed between purges.

“Well, if we don't, you'll die. Axel's looking for your shot, but you’ll have to hang on a couple more minutes.”

His response was a whimpered sob. “Why the temple, Reed? Why did they do that to me? I'd rather be anywhere else. Why? Moons, I wish there was some firewine here...”

Hiding that he frets as he waits, Reed concentrated on Axel's every move, eyes on his back while he hunted through his chest of medicines. Through the spasms, Jed tuned into his worried expression. “Hey, look. Don't freak out, okay? Don't worry if you can't mend it this time. It's no big deal. Right? Leave me behind. We knew that not all of us would make it. You can finally put me out of my misery, like you always said. You all can go on without me, right?”

“Jed...” Reed looked to the Outlier kid in shackles and Issané already on the stretcher. He couldn't believe the way the situation had turned sour. “You don't... You can't really mean that?”

The strain taking him over, his breathing became laboured. Reed observed his state, greying skin, his usual glint becoming dull, eyes listless. He closed them, summoning the strength to speak again from somewhere. “Fucking... No, Reed! In what fucking universe? No! I don't mean it! Fix me! Do it... now...” He cried out and gulped, not ready to die today. “Hurry...” Speaking took all his remaining strength. Eyelids drooped after a last sob, and the great beast could do no more than concentrate on breathing shallowly.

Axel approached and he nodded, relieved that the correct medicine had been chosen. “Alright, okay.” The plan flashed through him. “This'll be a while to take effect, but if you don't shut up, you'll bring all of Albion down on us, you understand?”

“Good.” Jed's voice was small – a strange thing for it to be. “I want them all to hear what that little bellend did to me. I want him to know what he did.” Eyelids fluttered open, and deep carnelian blazed hot. “Now, will you stick me with that thing, or no?”

“I will, but you need to hold still. Will I have to get the blackout and make you...?” The fact he'd had even thought twice about abandoning him had ignited enough fuel for the fight to survive. And Issané was fading fast. He watched Axel's face at the innocent word, getting nothing from him either.

“Don't you dare. Don’t put any of that shit near me, you hear? Don’t you dare knock me out...”

Mumbling a low instruction to Axel, who adjusted a tangle of mane to locate the artery, and finding it full of poison, vivid purple against lacklustre grey, piercing it produced an unearthly screech, a cross between harrowing despair and pure rage. Panting through the fluid sting, Jed could barely plead, “Okay, okay yes. You can put me down now. Let me go if you have to.” His breath caught in his throat and tears welled again. “I can't do this any more, Reed. Please. Please do.”

He kept up his protest, still taking a sachet of the powder into his mouth, protesting all the way through slurred complaints, down into a fixed gaze. His breath became relaxed, a gentle, welcoming expression creeping across his face. Reed tried hard not to notice how hideous it made him look, how not being in control of his facial muscles created an ugly veil, until he realised what it was he is looking at.

“She's there?”

Tears dribbled through his lashes, soaking his temples, drenching his hair. They faltered, sight fleeting away from Reed's voice as they closed again. Away, to her. “Waiting under the tree...” His whisper faint before a half gulp, half sigh came. “I see her...”

The wind whistled and blew, twisting every which way it could, looking for a way into the three wall deep den that was adamant it should be kept out, finding access denied at every turn. Issané felt the warming rag on her forehead before her eyes opened. When they did there was a shock. “You're not Tris.”

“Nah. Smell that roast? He's fighting off the kids lining up to pinch a bit before it's ready out there. ” He laughed. “He's actually got a stick...”

Her belly yowled to tell him she knew it was his cooking over the flames.

“Here, Reed said to keep you warm.” Kayn continued, fussing over her, bringing softness to the stone room. Being in a temple – albeit a dingy and cobwebbed one, unlike any he was used to – reminded him of the past and put him in good spirits. “I'm to stay here for an hour after you wake, and report back to him.”

“You do everything he says? Why don't you tell him he's too proud to come and see me for help? He's been limping like mad. I know his back must be killing him... “

“But people can die if you don't listen to him.” He cut in, deadpan. “Plus,” He sucked air through his teeth. “I haven't had a chance to talk you properly since... “

“Hey, okay? Let's not get too deep, alright? I just woke up.” She pulled the quilt he'd offered around her in defence, awkward. Feeling the subject had been changed on her, she wasn't interested enough to know why. “It's okay. Don't worry about it. Between us, it's like, I dunno, think of it as some kind of magical cat and mouse game.”

“There's nothing magical about hurting people. What I did to you... When I think about that first night in the camp... The cell?” His head dipped in apology. “I feel like I need to tell you that was the lowest I've ever been. I couldn't let you make the same mistake just now.”

“Oh come on. You knew I could fix the damage...”

“No, I didn't. I didn't know. And I didn't care if you couldn't fix what I did to you. It wasn't even close to evenly matched for fuck's sake. That was all on me, alright? No one else. And I shouldn't have had to go through dealing with this guilt afterwards just to learn my lesson, or deserve to feel any of the relief that you could fix it. It's bullshit to expect you to just let it slide. I hate that I made you feel unsafe around me, because I want for us to be able to go on together for as long as we can. I want to show you that you can trust me. I want you to know you can, all the way through. I've made a start, Issané, but it's not good enough yet. You're not here to teach me how to be a decent fucking human being. I'm unlearning, I know, but you let me off too easy. All of us.”

She finished staring at the ceiling as he spoke and sighed. “What you don't realize is that you men are all the same. Really, you are. The way you all think you're individuals... The only surprise about your violence is how long it took you. Honestly, I've had-”

He couldn't interpret much of what she signed, but the last part he knew. “Will you stop saying that? Look at you now. It's not worse than this Issané. It's not.”

A knock on the door interrupted them, and as it swung open, the smell of warm cinnamon and butter met them before the sight of a heavily pregnant woman waddling through. “I heard you were in need of some TLC, little sparrow? It seems we've crossed paths up here in the mountains because of each other. The least I can do is help. I'm Jennifer.” She addressed Kayn only. “Eh, it's so dingy in here, we've not had a chance to clear it out yet. There's nothing here at all, how can we heal- just think of the spiders! You, boy. Clean this place up. Help my kids get your stuff off the cart. Make her comfortable, and then you can do the same for me. Sharpish, go on.” She waited for his submission to her order, and proffered the plate she was holding. “Want one?”

Issané resisted still, “Thank you, auntie, but how can you expect me to eat when Jed is all... messed up in there?”

She slapped Kayn's hand on his way past her, scowl indicating the treats were not for him. “Ah, an unfortunate mishap for sure. Still, we can't ask everyone for their personal sensitivities before we take our precautions, can we?”

“Even so. You need these more than I do.”

“But you are sick yourself, no? And we've already got one of your deers on the fire. That's a fair swap. This is way too much for me to finish alone. Eat.”

Issané accepted, nodding to Kayn that it was safe to close the door behind him, and Jennifer is already on her second pastry. “My boy be safe with them, yeah?” Her peevishness came unconcealed.

“As long as these are safe for Orcen consumption.” she signed, chewing.

“Sure, if you don't have any allergies.” She guffawed, relieved. “It is odd that a healer should be in so much pain, though. Norizima cold or not.” She squinted, piecing the evidence in front of her together. “They alright, yeah? Nothing untoward happen while you were with them? You can tell me you know. Be sorted in two ticks.”

“Nah. Honestly, everything's going according to plan.”

“Oh so you meant for this? A wild one for sure! I know, then! Was it for a vision? Ohh... You all are on a expedition up here?” She squeaked, excited. “A mission-vision!? Now you have to spill it!”

Issané told her as much as her energy would allow. “...Long story short, there's an island, and this is the only pass in the mountains to reach it.”

“But it's all on fire that way! I mean, you can smell it from here, no?”

“We know, but we still have to try. Axel says we can go around it if we need to – and really, how big could one forest fire be? Listen, if we can make it, we will send word to you, yeah? Just to prove we did.”

She laughed, hearty. I think you misunderstand, sparrow... And secondly, prove to who? Albion? I've seen them use a devotional holiday sacred to them to raise funds to lawfully block us Outliers from dwelling even outside their villages. They've entrenched the New Guard to the outskirts of their territories, the vicious shits, and that's how they'll do us in. Eventually, they'll surround us, no no-man's land left, and we'll be done for. D'you know, they've raised thousands for that policy to be put in place, all in the name of charity? They invoked their deity for that?? Truly sickening behaviour. I've seen how they recruit and arm these New Guards specifically to oversee that they succeed in their efforts. I've watched Clerics fan the flames of hatred by pointing the finger over a robbery at us without proof – of course using the same old clichés – while it was proven to be a group of them acting in malice, using said patterns as their cover to get away with the crime. Told everyone that framing us was just another part of their campaign, and got away with it – and the loot, mind you – scott free. They'll travel from far and wide to the city centres simply to protest our right to work and live. They'll intercept any communication they find. Why give them any clue where you're going?”

“We have to get the word out. Sandraqar is gone to the red mages now, but the continuum will work. We have to try. Ahh, I think I've talked enough, I'm so tired out in this cold... Aren't you? The baby must be soon?”

“Yeah, but nah.” She shoved another cinnamon roll into her mouth, whole. “I've got these to keep me warm...”

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