When he heard the rain begin to fall, Daion smiled. Tonight he would sleep dry and warm despite the storm. Shelter was a small luxury that, as a seasoned vagabond, he knew to treasure.
Minutes later, fat drops of cold water were beating down his head. By all measures, it was miserable and unpleasant, yet he remained out in the rain of his own accord. There was always trouble when it rained. He had to check.
Daion had never thought of himself as someone who liked to travel, but instead as someone who needed to run. In truth, he preferred to stay stagnant, and had tried time and time again to settle, only for the restlessness to crawl back into his mind and his bones. A nebulous discontent seized him, as if there were something else that he must do to be satisfied, no matter how many times he calculated that what he had should make him happy. When he could bear it no longer, he would run again, carrying only what would fit on his back.
Seven years passed this way. He was younger than the age his face and his attitude told: he had begun this traveling nonsense just shy of thirteen, living on the generosity of strangers until he learned to survive on his own. Everyone had told him that time could quell the disquiet. Seven years had done nothing but fill his recollection of childhood with a thick fog. Until a week ago, he had forgotten Azier.
The Azierites stirred up old memories, beyond just the sight of Althea. Upon meeting Faenon, Daion remembered late nights lit by candles, reading any books he could find about injuries to the brain, frustrated when they told him what signs to look for but not how to fix the problem. In his unsettling silence, as if he wanted to speak but could not, Rune reminded Daion of his sister. He saw her in flashes, again and again, dark red running down her blonde locks, her head wrapped in cloth to stop the bleeding.
“Why her?” he wondered, as he had wondered all day. “Why not me?”
The rain made his words fall dead in front of him. He was in the habit of talking to himself, of pulling thoughts out of his head and sorting them with his hands. At the sound of the door in the tree trunk opening, he packed his thoughts away again.
Kari stepped out, staring at the ground. She jumped when she saw Daion only a few feet away.
“Nice weather tonight,” he said with a shrug.
She frowned, having missed the sarcasm.
“Did you need something?” he asked.
She seized up, then shook her head with vigor.
“So what brings you out here?”
She looked up at the rain, down at her clothes, and then behind her into the fort. Deciding that she could no longer hesitate in the doorway because she was letting water inside, she shut the door behind her and took a step closer to Daion. Her eyes stayed fixed on the ground.
Daion sighed. “Whatever you want to say, just say it.”
“Well, it’s not really… I just…” She grasped her finger and twisted her wrists, wringing her skin. “I’m… I’m sorry about Althea and Faenon.”
She stared at her feet, still grasping twisting and wringing her hands and fingers. “What are you sorry for?” he asked.
Her fingers tangled in ways they should not ordinarily bend. “They—the fight,” she said, her voice rising as if it were a question rather than an answer.
He stared at the starless sky. “You’re going to see that side of them a lot more,” he said. “They’re under a lot of stress. You all are.”
Kari turned her tactile attention to loose straps on her belt that had earlier secured her bow and quiver. Daion thought he heard her mumble, “They’re always like that,” but the patter of rain muffled the sound.
The rain was getting heavier. It was late enough in the fall that the chill was uncomfortable, perhaps even dangerous. Neither of them moved inside.
“What were you saying about my name earlier?” she finally asked.
When Daion sighed, he expelled hot contempt from his chest for the word she called a name. “Kari isn’t a name,” he said. “It’s an elven word, but it’s not a name. It’s a kind of nickname you’d call a little girl.”
Kari recoiled at the sound of anger in his incredulous tone. She folded up her arms, wrists to shoulders, and held them close to her chest, one hand crossing over the other and mercilessly pulling at her small fingers.
“You’re at least five years too old to be called kari,” Daion said, eyeing her compressed body with unease. “Imagine meeting an elf whose name is Baby. That’s what it’s like meeting you.”
Humans had a different way of saying their R’s than elves. As a child, Daion had carefully practiced the subtle grimace required to make the growling sound that replaced the dainty flip of the elven tongue in his speech. When forced to call this girl by a meaningless name, he gave it an aggressive human R to differentiate it from the word people had once called his sister.
She sobbed and thrashed as if possessed, while he held a wet cloth to the wound under her golden hair. The sound of little bells filled his ears. Though he only noticed it now, he had heard the constant background noise every time he saw his sister in his head.
“It was on her ankle,” he remembered with a wet snap of his fingers. “She—she dream-walked, and he…”
The bells had been her friend’s idea. Daion remembered tying them around her ankle in the darkness. She walked in rain like this with slow, certain steps and half-closed eyes. The image of her empty bed in the morning light filled his stomach with dread, even now, or maybe that was still just the rain.
Daion became suddenly aware that he was not alone, despite the silence. Kari stared at him with uneasy eyes.
“Sorry, old habit,” he muttered. “I just remembered… I don’t know why, but something about this has been bothering me all day. My sister used to wear a string of bells around her ankle when she went to sleep. She was a… a dream-walker, right? Is that the word, or…?”
“Your sister is a dream-walker?” Kari’s tone was hushed, almost awed.
Daion gave a small frown. “Whatever the word is where you start walking around in your sleep because of a dream you’re having,” he said. “She kept walking out in the rain, so I—”
“Oh.” Kari’s expression fell flat. “That’s sleepwalking.”
“Sleepwalking, that’s it,” Daion said. “So the bells were supposed to wake me up when she walked past my room.” He laughed once at the childish idea. “I don’t think it ever worked, of course. Our father would get mad at her all the time for wandering off.”
“Why would he get mad?” Kari asked. “It wasn’t her fault.”
Daion sighed. “That still doesn’t make much sense, does it?”
Though he remembered with clarity his sister’s fate, he had forgotten how it all began. The details were lost to the sands of time, or perhaps he had not seen them as they were happening. Being near others muffled the usual pangs of guilt that came with the memories, a small comfort after having been alone for some time.
“Where are you going?” Kari asked.
Daion was several steps away from where he had started when he first drifted into his thoughts. He stared at his feet as if they would tell him where they were taking him. “I have no idea,” he responded.
He had never learned to read auras with any discipline or practice. Any sense he got of other presences felt more like an itch in his brain or a pull on his legs than a shape made of magic. Kari itched; she was a grating overlap of two colors that did not blend. This new aura was a pull. It hummed something reverent, something ancient, something like the demon he had seen earlier today.
Even after seven years, there was always trouble when it rained.
“I need to go check this out,” Daion muttered. “I mean it, I have to. Sorry.”
A few steps later, he heard the quick splash and squish of Kari running through the mud to catch up with him. He almost could not keep his magic from reaching out to mask her aura along with his. It was instinctive, tied up in the way his heart rate kicked up another notch to account for another person he needed to protect.
Sometimes he could tell an aura was close because the soft edges would come into focus. Sometimes the aura would grow, like a distant figure that turns out to be larger than it first seemed when it stood along the horizon. Sometimes his feet just stopped and that was the only indication he got. Kari bumped into his back.
Through the pouring rain, the tangle of trees, and the thick darkness of the night, he could see nothing. He laid a hand on Kari’s shoulder and warned, “Stay close to me. There’s someone here.”
He reached inside his jacket for the worn handle of a knife. Its sheath was sewed into the inner lining so that he was never without it. His nerves were not telling him to hold it low in front of him, his common sense was. His useless nerves still thought he was going to hear bells and see his sister again, dancing and laughing with a dead look in her eyes.
“I heard something,” Kari whispered, and tugged his hand.
He followed her until a thicket of bushes to their left stopped him in his tracks. For a heartbeat, they pulled and itched and yelled all at once in his head. With a silent nod to Kari, he laid his index finger against the flat of his blade and pointed at the bushes. Kari nodded back, falling a step behind him.
As soon as his knee touched the ground in front of the bushes, curved fingers and sharp nails came at his left eye. He swerved away, but not in time. There was a sting on his cheek. Kari yelped and Daion pushed back against her stomach, shouting, “Get back!” all while he pursued his attacker through the thicket.
Wet flesh came into his palm when he lunged forward and made a blind grab. A howl came from the bushes, and those clawed fingers dug into his wrist. He held his knife in his left hand at the ready, but he would not attack, not even when the beast raised its veiled head and pressed powerful hands against his shoulders that threatened to push him over. The veil, wrapped in a style from the Highlands, told him that, despite the size and power of his assailant, he was fighting a woman. He pushed back, holding the hilt of the knife against her shoulders.
“Kari, run!” he yelled. “Just get out of here, go!”
The woman gazed over his head to Kari. Behind the narrow slit in the veil, her eyes were piercing white.
Panic seized him. The rush of nervous energy gave him the strength to hold the woman at arm’s length while slipping one hand under her shoulder. With a directed push from there, he turned her sideways with the small sacrifice of another light scratch to the face. He pinned her hands to the ground, leaning on her back with a knee.
Kari, still only a few dangerous feet away, stood like a horrified statue. “Kari, leave, now,” Daion ordered. “Get inside, get safe. I can hold her down until then.”
She backed away but did not run, eyes fixed on the woman on the ground. He looked at her, too, because she did not push against his hold. She resigned herself to lie beneath him, closing her eyes as the folds of the veil came loose and something unhuman emerged.
“Are you okay?” Daion asked, lifting his knee from her back.
Twisting horns, slicked with rain, sprouted at each corner of her forehead and curved back along her scalp. He slowly released her hands, but she did not stir.
“What are you doing out here in the rain?” he asked. “Do you need shelter?”
She struggled to raise her head. The right side of her face was covered in mud, and she blinked it out of her eyes when the rain washed it down.
He dropped his dagger without a thought and held out his hands to help her. “Yeah, let’s get you inside,” he uttered. “I won’t hurt you, it’s alright.”
She shuddered at his touch, giving a whine like a wounded animal, but she could not stand on her own. He slipped his fingers under the points on her wrists that were in line with her shoulders and pulled until she leaned into his chest. He grabbed his dagger, shoving it back into its sheath, then lifted the barely conscious creature as he stood.
Her clothes were covered in mud and soaked all the way through. Her brown skin had all turned to gooseflesh. Kari watched in awe, but followed him without question when he nodded.
“Pretty sure you saved us both, there,” he said to her.
“I… I didn’t do anything,” she said, dumbfounded.
“Yeah. It was perfect,” he replied. “But seriously, if I ever tell you to run, run. She could have killed both of us if she hadn’t figured out we weren’t after her.”
“After her?” Kari repeated.
“Oh, yeah. This is a Vessel, by the way,” Daion explained. He shifted her weight against his chest so that he could pull her veil back over her horned head. “Now we know.”
When they reached the false tree, Kari went down the ladder first, sending Faenon to help Daion with the added weight, then descending further to retrieve Althea. All four crammed themselves in the bedroom closest to the entrance, where they laid the sleeping woman.
“She’s got nothing in her stomach,” Althea was saying as she ran her hands over the Vessel’s body. “And the reason she’s not hypothermic is because she’s already running a fever, caused by… looks like a cold.”
Daion knew he had a tendency towards naïve optimism, so it was with a conscious effort that he tried to be skeptical of Althea’s ability to heal. Some small part of him was still reeling at the sight of her mending Faenon’s concussed head in a matter of minutes. The same shock returned as he watched her intuit these details from an unconscious body. It was during these dangerous moments that Daion believed in the Azierites’ quest to save Faenon’s father.
“Her antibody response is incredible,” Althea murmured in disbelief. “That’s not normal. That’s superhuman.”
“So it’s not just me, you’re missing a lot of obvious things,” Daion said.
She finally noticed him when she turned to look, initially with confusion, and jerked her head in surprise. “What happened?” she asked, storming closer to examine the gashes that the Vessel had left on his face.
“It’s fine, they’re just scratches,” he said, but in the time it took for him to say the words, Althea had already made them disappear. His skin felt numb, then tingled where her hand had been. With a tentative stroke of his fingertip, he felt his cheek and found it smooth once again.
“How did you get those?” Althea asked, frowning.
He gave himself a moment to remember how to speak by pointing to the Vessel. “Look at her hands,” he said. “Look at her horns, actually.”
In the defense of Faenon and Althea, the room was dim, and the Vessel’s horns followed the curve of her head enough to stay hidden under the gauzy layers of her veil. Faenon swore in shock when Althea pulled back the fabric to reveal not only horns, but also the fur-covered ears of a goat.
“I found a Vessel,” Daion said with pride.
“That’s a Vessel?” Faenon uttered. “But she’s…”
“Do you think she could tell us more about what’s going on?” Althea asked, hovering over her with wide eyes. “About Vega and Vessels themselves, anyway.”
Daion was about to pretend that this had been his plan all along to cover for his snap decision to help her, but Faenon blurted, “She’s beautiful.”
Althea’s face went blank. She very slowly turned her head to Faenon before regaining her wits and muttering, “Okay, get out of the room.”
“What? Wait, I—I just mean she’s…” Faenon was at a loss for words and searched for them in his jittery hands. “I dunno, Daion over here was talking about weird animal-people, and I got it in my head that they’d be… you know!”
“I would still probably call her a weird animal-person if I didn’t have a better name for her,” Daion said, stroking the hair on his chin. “Maybe goat-person, to be specific.”
Faenon could barely contain his frustration. “Okay, Kari, back me up here,” he said, taking her by the shoulders and pushing her closer to the Vessel’s bedside. “I’m talking about her face, swear to the gods. She’s objectively beautiful, right? In a weird, mythical sort of way.”
Kari cocked her head to one side. “Her face looks tired,” she mumbled. “And sad.”
Daion only noticed the melancholy air around the Vessel when Kari drew attention to it. Faenon’s flustered rambling continued when Althea accused him outright of admiring her filled bodice. Daion could not put from his mind the notion that the woman did not belong in this setting, as if, even in sleep, she did not want to be part of this world.
The sudden attention from Althea’s stern eyes brought him from his reverie to reality. She held the Vessel’s hand in her palm. “She attacked you,” she said.
Her intense stare made Daion nervous, even though he had a sound defense. “Well, yes, but—”
“Why did you bring her here if she attacked you?” she demanded.
“It was a misunderstanding.” He showed his empty palms to her on a reflex, though he did not understand yet what had triggered it. “She assumed I was after her. That’s the kind of thing you have to assume to stay safe in a world out to get you. That’s why Rune hasn’t spoken all day.”
Althea placed the Vessel’s hand back on the bed, adjusted the veil, and rose. Although she was nearly a head shorter Daion, she was a tall woman, and the brewing fury in her eyes made him fear every fiber of her being as she stormed towards him.
“That is not why Rune hasn’t spoken all day,” she stated.
Daion flinched when she jabbed a finger at his chest, as if expecting a bolt of lightning to strike him at her command.
“You don’t know Rune. Don’t you dare try to speak for Rune,” she said with a tongue that moved and struck like a lash. “And you don’t know this Vessel, either. You know a lot, Daion, but you don’t know everything, so don’t act like you do.”
With that said, she turned away and made for the door. Although the tension left Daion’s body as soon as her deadly stare vanished, her words hung like weights in his chest.
Faenon’s jaw hung ajar as he stared, appalled, at Althea. “The hell is wrong with you?”
“Nothing at all,” she said, nudging him out of her way.
“Where are you going?”
“To read. I’m busy. Bye.”
She shut the door in her wake and the room fell still. Her aura drifted away with the faint sounds of footsteps down the hallway.
Once she noticed that no one else was going to follow, Kari jumped to her feet and started for the door, but Faenon caught her by the shoulder. “Don’t even bother,” he grumbled. “She’s nuts tonight. Forget about it.”
Daion nodded dumbly as if he agreed, but the words offered only a moment’s solace. He knew he deserved every word Althea had thrown at him.
“I guess we’re supposed to deal with the Vessel on our own, then,” Faenon muttered.
“Althea said she hasn’t eaten,” Kari said in a small voice.
“Sure, yeah, let’s fix her something,” he said, forcing cheer into his voice while he curled and uncurled his fingers in his palms.
Daion watched them leave the room without realizing that he was standing still, or even present at all. He forced movement back into his bones by pacing, and as he paced, he searched for the right words, and once he thought he had found them, he made his way to the study.
Althea sat at the desk, surrounded by lamps she had taken from the shelves. Her fingers ran through her long, dark hair and squeezed her scalp, elbows holding her book open. It took some time for Daion to force out a quiet, “Hey,” when he realized she was so absorbed in the text before her that she had not noticed him entering.
Her head shot up. In better lighting, her eyes looked bloodshot already.
“Daion, perfect,” she said, scrambling through the books on her desk. “I found something—it’s just a couple of pages, could you—hold on, it’s somewhere here…”
With his apology derailed, Daion plodded in silence towards the desk. She flipped through a book of diagrams and elven texts, scanning with urgency, before she slammed her finger on a particular page.
“This,” she said, tracing a block of text that sat underneath technical drawings. “I’m not positive this is what I think it is, but the pictures look a lot like compression resuscitation. Can… can you translate it?”
He was not in the practice of reading elven, but he could still speak it quite well. The written language was phonetic, so he could sound his way through the words whose appearance he had forgotten. The guesswork, however, would require context.
“Sure,” he said, “but what’s compression resuscitation?”
“Oh, it’s, uh…” She held up her hands, one crossed over the other, peering upwards with one eye squinting. “If someone’s heart stops beating, you can press on their ribcage at a fast pulse to manually pump the heart.”
“Oh, right, and you breathe in their mouth,” Daion recalled from his school days.
Althea came very suddenly out of her academic air. “Wait, what?”
He furrowed his brow. Childish disgust was his only memory of the technique. Among the textbook figures was a smaller drawing at the end of the sequence featured a man holding his patient’s nose shut and mouth ajar while he sealed their lips together. He slapped his finger on the image and Althea studied it.
“Why?” she murmured. “By the time the blood is completely deoxygenated, the person will be dead.”
Daion parsed through the text directly below the image. “For someone who’s drowned,” he read, “or if something else is blocking their breathing somehow. Only if it’s absolutely necessary… because… don’t stop the… something.”
“The something?” she repeated.
“I don’t know what that word is,” he admitted.
“Oh.” She slumped back in her seat.
Daion gave an apologetic shrug. “I was a kid when the Event happened. That’s as good as my reading ever got.”
“So read like a kid. Use context clues.” Althea must have been talking to herself, because after that instruction, she leaned forward again, pressing her fingers to her temples. “Don’t stop the compressions, probably. Getting oxygen in the blood is useless if the blood isn’t going anywhere.”
Her eyes ran over the page for another silent ten seconds. She did not meet his eyes when she looked up, but somehow it still felt dangerous.
“You’ve got more to teach me than the textbook. You know this, yourself,” she said. “How do you do it with the breathing? Do you need two people?”
He scratched his coarse, unkempt sideburns. “I think you’re supposed to do the compressions for a minute, then give them a few breaths, then go back to compressions,” he said. “Not that I’m sure which you’re supposed to start with, breathing or compressions. Maybe if you have two people, you should do both at the same time.”
“If you were doing the compressions right—the same way as humans do, anyway—you’d probably force out any air anyone tried to put in there,” Althea muttered. “Probably alternating. Maybe start with the breathing if you think something’s obstructing the airways. Is there anything written here about it? Or anything interesting at all, for that matter.”
He could not skim the page for interesting words because he did not recognize them at sight. “Not that I see,” he said.
“Okay,” she sighed, sliding the book away but staring at it for a while longer.
This was the moment, before she nestled herself in her reading, to apologize for his transgression of assumption.
“I’ll probably be up late tonight,” he said instead. “If you have anything else you need me to read for you, just ask.”
She looked him in the eye for the first time in this conversation. “Thanks,” she said, as if all was perhaps not forgiven, but at least forgotten.
He hesitated at the desk for too long after this dismissal, and remedied his error by picking at random one of the elven texts on her desk and taking an incomplete leave. Despite the interest he had had in revisiting a lost world of elven literature only hours ago, he found himself unable to do anything but watch Althea as she pored over her volumes. He wanted to ask her so many things—how she had learned to heal, what knowledge she had gained from a childhood full of books, if she remembered him from when he fell to Azier during the Celestial Event—but she had only one night to learn everything she could from more books than she could read in a year. Obscured by the shelves, he sat down, leaned against the wall, and read with distant company.