Running long distances isn’t about endurance, it’s about determination. Sure, at some point you will run out of energy and collapse in a puddle of sweat, tears, and puke, but that point is much farther than you would think, so long as you possess the determination to continue, putting one foot in front of the other, simple as that. Slogging through the mud and rain tires me out far more than usual, but our pace has slowed the past few days, either Akanai having mercy on me or truly in no rush to reach the Bridge. I don’t understand why, I’d prefer to put all this ugliness behind us, hopefully as peacefully as possible, maybe with a stern warning from the Justicar.
I can still dream.
A tirade of cursing draws my attention, a sigh escaping me as I slow down to help Ravil once again. Grabbing him by the shoulder, I pull him out of the mud with a loud pop, Ravil grumbling the entire time. “You’re a terrible rider, no grace at all.” Pointing at his quin, I beckon it over towards us, but it remains still, shrinking back as if afraid. “Hey, what’s your quins name?”
His grumbling stops for a second to answer me. “Jinx.”
“They gave you a quin named Jinx?”
“Nah.” Brushing my hand aside, he tries to clean himself of mud, an impossible task even if he weren’t blind, but I wisely keep my mouth shut. “That idiot creature didn’t have a name, so they left it to me to name her. Ain’t a single thing gone right since I marched with you Khishigs, so I figured you were my jinx, my black star, but I might as well embrace it, so that’s her name, Jinx. Must be working, I’ve fallen every day and ain’t broke my neck yet.”
Responding to her name, Jinx timidly walks over to us, stopping at arms reach to sniff me before deciding that I’m acceptable company. These wagon quins are the weaker more timid ones that wouldn’t survive as well in the wild, but I like them docile, they’re much sweeter and approachable. While they’re still capable of biting through flesh and bone, that’s more of a last resort and not their standard greeting.
Feeding the sweet quin a slice of dried fruit, I chuckle lightly. “Well, whatever you like.” Not like learning how to heal isn’t awesome or anything, just focus on the negatives why don’t you. Helping him back onto Jinx, I smack him on the shoulder. “Listen up, you aren’t used to riding and she isn’t used to carrying you, so sit on her back, relax, and let her lead. Someone will notice if she runs off, no need for you to guide her.” Jogging alongside, I continue to offer advice, until, tired of my company, Ravil urges Jinx to run faster, leaving me behind. You’re welcome, jerk.
Picking up the pace, I continue to run through the mud and rain, my raincoat little more than a straw cloak and hat, keeping me dry and my skin feeling hot. The day wears on, but the rain shows no sign of stopping, nor do we, eating on the move, something easier done from the back of a quin, but I manage somehow, wishing the entire time for money to fall from the sky, so I can buy another roosequin.
If only that stupid big cat was 1,000 years old or older, then all of my immediate money problems would be solved, even split with Huu. Instead, I have to find a way to pay him for half the value of the damn kittens as well. How much they’re worth I can only guess at, but Taduk doesn’t think they’d be very cheap, so my fiscal obligations continue to grow.
Do they have banks here? Perhaps I should see about robbing one… or better yet, open my own bank if they don’t exist. Although, collecting on debt would be a real problem, with everyone insisting I give face and whatnot. Man, how do businesses make a living here?
Mercifully, the downpour ends in the early afternoon as does our journey for the day, Akanai setting up camp on some rocky high ground. It’s difficult finding places to fit 4,000+ people, considering all the stringent requirements, like a defensible site with access to water, firewood, etc. I should find a book on command, so I can figure out how to screw up without putting lives at risk.
Mila and Li Song go out to hunt today, giving me time to rest, exhausted from the day’s run, while my squad settles down around me, silently practicing their healing, most of them still learning how to examine their own injuries. With the need for privacy, we settled away from the main camp each day, doing nothing to endear ourselves to the other Sentinels, but I know that screams of pain would see us immediately ostracized as masochistic freaks. There has yet to be another person to succeed with my healing technique, not even Taduk or Mei Lin able to replicate my success, but I have confidence that the both of them will be able to persevere past my horrible teaching and puzzle out the mystery, going on to teach the others far more effectively than I ever could.
Ravil, the poor unfortunate, currently sits nearby with Taduk and Tokta arguing next to him, the two of them spewing venom at one another over his head. It surprises me how terribly they get along, but I supposed it’s some sort of professional rivalry considering most of their insults are directed at the other’s healing skills. Neither of them are happy at being unable to puzzle out my healing method, and Ravil has taken the brunt of their displeasure, although I’ve endured more than my fair share.
Escaping their notice, I scoop up my favorite kitten and snuggle him, the runt of the litter struggling while I shower him with affection, nibbling at my hands. After a day of napping inside the sling Li Song made to carry them in, the little trio of adorable kittens curiously explore their surroundings, filled with energy yet unwilling to travel too far away on their own, often glancing back to see if I’m still where they left me. They’re timid little creatures and I hope they stay that way, because they will eventually grow into 500-pound murder machines.
I should probably ask someone for advice.
Gathering up the remaining kittens, I bring them over to the cooking pit where Alsantset is hard at work preparing for dinner. “Hey, you know how you said I can keep these cats as long as I tame them? How exactly would I go about doing that?”
“Hmph, three days and you finally come ask, your stubborn attitude never ceases to amaze me.” Giving me a wry look, she motions for me to sit, her lecturing beginning in earnest. “Contrary to your desires, those cats are not pets, they are living weapons, and a weapon that strikes its owner is worthless.” Following her gaze, I look down at the little cuties gnawing away at my hands and arms, kneading at my flesh with their claws out.
“But they’re being friendly, it’s only a little harmless play biting.” Cooing at the kittens, I smile as they show affection in their own way, smiling at the sight of their over-sized paws and sleepy eyes.
Sighing deeply, Alsantset tosses a few uncooked bones to the ground, the cats squirming out of my grasp to pounce on them, gnawing at the meaty treats with relish, their eyes shut in content satisfaction. Brushing off her hands, she grabs both my cheeks and pinches hard, frowning as she tries to tear my face apart. “Know this Rain, I love you like family but at times you frustrate me to no end. You take too long to ask and when you do, you choose to ignore my given advice. Do you know how infuriating that is?”
The pinching stops and she cups my face with both hands, her feline eyes staring at me full of concern and questioning. The extreme levels of eye contact makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but her unyielding hold on my head makes me keenly aware of how strong she truly is, leaving me stuck in an uncomfortable position while she remains silent, waiting for my response. “Er… sorry? Won’t happen again.”
Smiling, she gently pats my face as if soothing the pain. “You have always been one to question things and I was happy to let you, because you often came to the right answers. Perhaps that is even why you could discover your new method of healing, but your misdeed this time was far too severe and I cannot simply let you go unscathed. Akanai’s punishment is too light, so to thank her, I will be more strict with you in the future and help you grow into a proper man, one worthy of her daughter.”
Returning to her preparations, she begins to lecture me on wildcat care. “Stop letting the creatures gnaw at you, it encourages bad habits. They are tiny and cute now, but in six months to a year, their teeth will be like knives, tearing through flesh easily.” Stepping over, I begin helping her where I can while she continues to list off advice for taming the cats, from hand feeding, to commands they need to learn, and I commit every word to memory, making sure not to forget a single thing, until finally she ends with a stern look and a warning. “Combat training will only occur if they becoming compliant to your will. Do not shirk on their training Rain, if they are unruly I will put the creatures down myself. I will not allow them to be a danger to the People, and especially not around my children. Do you have any more questions?”
Gathering my thoughts, I ask a few questions to clarify a few of her instructions, and when I have no more questions, I continue to help with the preparations, doing whatever task Alsantset has for me. She says she will be strict, but she is still as kind as ever, taking the time to explain her instructions in detail, knowing I will ask why. In the end, a little discipline might not be too bad for me, although I am a little worried about her new mindset. I hope it doesn’t spill over to Tali and Tate, those poor sweet babies deserve the kind, loving mother they had before I messed things up.
Mila and Li Song return shortly with a few rabbits, pride surging through me as I inwardly gloat about my catch with Huu, but three deer, a wildcat and three kittens is tough to top. Taking over the dinner preparations, I cook the rabbits in a stew along with chopped vegetables and make some simple dough wraps, letting Alsantset rest for the evening. While it seems a little like currying approval, she’s been cooking dinner without complaint for ten people every day, Tokta, Huu, and his lovely ladies joining us every night, and she deserves a break.
Dinnertime comes and goes without incident, aside from a shower of compliments on my culinary talents, as well as some less-than-subtle prompting from Yesui for me to teach Huu. The poor guy is being led around by the nose, both sisters shaping him in various ways, molding him into their perfect man, but they display plenty of affection for each other, eliciting slight pangs of jealousy from me. Mila and Lin don’t even sit next to me at meals, leaving me to eat with Taduk and Tokta, bombarded with their questions as they shout at one another with mouths full, the food barely tasted in their rush to continue their studies.
Before I can rush off to do the dishes, Tokta and Taduk drag me away to once again display my healing for them to study. Lin and Mila follow along while Li Song gathers up the kittens with her unreadable expression, the little animals obediently hanging in her arms while their furry little butts sway back and forth. I wish I could carry them like that without being bit, I have no idea why they are so docile around her.
Handing me a knife, Tokta looks at me expectantly while Taduk shrugs helplessly, knowing there is no other way for them to observe. The panacea is invisible to their extrasensory perceptions, so if I were to create the panacea with nothing for it to fix, we’d all be wasting time, so to visibly demonstrate its effects, I require an injury to heal. Wincing before I even begin the cut, I draw the blade across my forearm, a deep gash in the fleshy area, avoiding any arteries. Don’t want to get my new clothes all bloody, it’s harder to wash out than cat piss. I should have asked Alsantset how to housebreak those cats, I’m getting sick of waking early to wash my bedroll, but their tiny sleepy snores are worth it most days.
Settling down to meditate, I quickly fall into the State of Balance and begin creating the panacea in my forearm, letting it take care of my injury, using every ounce of concentration I have on the process and unable to sense the results as I work. While I heal, I detect two intermittent streams of energy, Taduk and Tokta taking turns to ‘watch’ the process, remaining silent throughout the entire process. Once complete, I open my eyes and glance up at them, seeing the discontent and irritation in both of their eyes, neither one willing to admit to their failure first.
Shoving them aside, Lin makes her way to sit next to me, wiping my bloodied arm with a wet cloth, her hare ears inadvertently brushing my face, feeling soft and warm. “Good work Rainy, I’m sure Daddy and Tokta will figure it out soon. Could you explain the process again, I might have an idea.” She smiles expectantly at me from beneath her hooded headscarf and it’s difficult for me to say no. The headscarf was a normal scarf I bought her, one of more reasonable length than her prized white one, but instead of switching it out, she had ear holes sewn into them so she could wear both, a sweet, considerate gesture.
Taking her into a small hug, like we did when she was younger so I could read stories to her, I begin explaining my process for the umpteenth time. “Alright… So, it starts with teeth. Although teeth are composed of a number of varying materials, I noticed there was no gradual progression into the different parts. Blood would flow towards the missing tooth, and the different parts would form from the same base… material, I guess is the best word.”
“Which was previously believed to be a ‘tooth seed’, but you call it panacea.” Taduk chimes in, listening intently even though he has heard it a hundred times. “Not only are we unable to sense it, I still do not understand how it is capable of healing injuries without guidance, regenerating what is missing. There is a process to healing an injury, no matter what kind. The blood clots, collagen forms, then tissue will scaffold and skin will grow, these are the basic steps, but this panacea makes a mockery of all we know about healing, doing all those steps concurrently. How is that possible?”
“I’m more interested in how you create this panacea to begin with, the rest will come with further study, but I am unable to even replicate your success outside of regrowing teeth.” Tokta mutters beneath his breath while rubbing his jaw, recalling the dozens of teeth he’s pulled in the past few weeks, the man’s tolerance for suffering impressive even to me. He barely makes a sound when each tooth is broken and removed, but the pain is clear on his face every time. “Three weeks, and I’ve been unable to make my blood produce the panacea, yet that empty minded fool Ravil is able to do so, most vexing indeed.”
Shushing them both, Lin urges me to continue my explanation, but there really isn’t much else for me to say. “I don’t know either, I just… direct my blood to create the panacea in the area of the injury. I don’t have the attention to spare to see how it does anything, and even if I did, I doubt I could offer any addition insight on the matter.”
The happy sounds of Mila and Li Song playing with the kittens fill the silence, we four healers sitting quietly as we each ponder the problem, but my heart isn’t in it. I want to play with the kittens, they seem as if they’re having so much fun, pouncing around and mewling cutely while chasing strings pulled by a delighted Mila, lovely in the fading sunlight. Next to her, serenely petting the lazy one, Li Song exudes contentment and tranquility, completely engrossed in her single action.
“Ah!” Lin perks up, startling me from my thoughts and I do my best to appear innocent, and not an ogling lecher, but my staring went unnoticed. “You said you ‘direct your blood’ to create the panacea right? How sure are you about that?”
Taking the time to consider her question, I answer hesitantly. “Well yea, I believe that’s what happens. Part of the blood is… siphoned off, and that’s where the panacea comes from, but it isn’t always there. I can’t create it right away, it takes time for things to get started, so I assumed my blood is the source of the panacea.”
“Hmm, but blood doesn’t work that way, it doesn’t create things.” Plucking the knife from it’s sheathe, she draws it across her palm in a neat slice, carefully keeping from spilling any blood.
“Uhh, what are you doing?” My question goes unanswered as her eyes have already closed, her body going slack as she does when meditating, leaning against me, almost as if she were asleep. Looking to Taduk and Tokta for explanation, neither of them are any help as their attentions are already focused on Lin’s healing, so I make do with watching her palm, keeping any blood from spilling out and onto her clothes. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to remove blood from white silk, and I know her scarf means a lot to her, although she’s never said why.
After a half-hour, Lin’s eyes open and she sleepily snuggles against me, yawning adorably as she wakes from meditation. Grinning toothily, she triumphantly announces, “I did it Rainy, I figured it out!”
Before I can speak up, Tokta asks frantically, “How did you do that? You replicated his method! Speak girl, speak! Please tell me you can explain it better than this idiot can.”
“Hehe… Rainy was saying that it was ‘siphoning’ from his blood, but that didn’t sound right. Blood delivers and is consumed, that’s its purpose, so I thought that it was delivering the panacea which had to be created somewhere else. Add to the fact that Daddy couldn’t sense it and Rainy’s description of ‘siphoning’ –
“The panacea must be a special type of blood, made in the bone marrow!” Tokta blurts out the rest, before exclaiming, “Ha! I win, I figured it out first. Medical Saint, more like Medical Moron, can’t even reach simple conclusions.”
“You figured it out? My wonderful daughter figured it out, you just stole her moment, you second-rate scoundrel! I’d belittle your title as well, but what was it again? Oh right, you don’t have one, because you languish in mediocrity.” The two of them continue to argue as they sit and draw their own knives, cutting themselves and bleeding while they trade insults, their sudden silence almost a relief as they concentrate on testing Lin’s method.
Holding up her hand, she proudly displays the healed cut while leaning her head for a pat, waiting for her praise. Feeling foolish, I oblige her while smiling, listening to her continue on about her process, but I’m distracted by the fact that my simple mistake kept my teachers from replicating my success for weeks. It’s because they took my words at face value, and only after Lin decided to try to verify them did my mistake become clear.
I have little time to wallow in self-pity, as both healers leap up almost in unison and begin discussion on methods to more easily teach my squad, pulling me in to settle their arguments. Watching the animated expressions of my two healing teachers, I feel a touch of pity for my squad as it seems more of them will soon be joining Ravil in his pain filled misery as they slowly heal their injuries. On the bright side, Akanai will probably let me off the hook after everyone is healed, which means I won’t have to pay their salaries anymore, so I have that going for me. They say money can’t buy happiness, but crushing debt never made anyone happy either.
Now all I have to do is survive the trial with the Society.
How hard could that be? We’ll have Akanai, Baatar and the rest of the Banner, Du Min Gyu, and 4,000+ Sentinels. The Society is nothing, just a conglomerate of sects and clans that have been in existence for hundreds, if not thousands of years, perfecting their way of combat in the defense of the province.
Well, at least this can’t all be blamed on me, I didn’t want to go to that stupid contest in the first place.
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