Enamdis was already past us, kneeling in the soft, dark moss beside Mei’s sprawled form.
With Bayl’s help, I rose shakily to my feet. The colossal, buttressed trunks of sishumu – called ‘ancestor trees’ by the Gulgans – seemed to march in tightening circles around me, an army of ancient, knot-fleshed giants. My stomach lurched, as much from the after-effects of terror as from dizziness. Pain flared in my right knee, and I looked down to see blood trickling down my leg from where my own lotulis had sliced into me.
It didn’t even occur to me to draw magic to heal the cut. I knew without any conscious thought that the forest’s tolerance of my presence was provisional. It would not have survived a defiling, and nor would I. I tore a strip of cloth from the hem of my robe and bound the wound, then, leaning on Bayl’s strong arm, I hobbled into the clearing.
“She lives,” Enamdis said as we reached her, her voice thick as relief warred with the last remnants of fear-forged fury. Her emerald eyes shone with unshed tears.
I tried to kneel, but the pain in my leg forced me into an awkward half-sprawl-half-crouch. Putting aside my lotulis, one blade of which was still smeared with my own blood, I held my hands out over Mei’s chest, palms down, fingers splayed. I closed my eyes and, as gently as I could, sent my awareness out beyond my own skin…
With a strangled gasp, I fell back into the moss. My hands burned. Shocked, I stared at them, half expecting to see smoke, charred flesh, blackened finger-bones. Bayl and Enamdis seemed just as alarmed.
“What happened?” Enamdis demanded. “Is she…?”
“She’s fine.” I did not recognise my own voice for a moment. I took a deep breath, tried to calm my shredded nerves, to slow the heartbeat that hammered in my ears. “She has no need of my skills.”
Mei’s spirit was a living flame. All living beings have such a flame inside them, spreading its radiance through their body, heating all they touch, and lingering on as glimmering echoes in their words and deeds, like the livid blotches one sees after catching a glimpse of the sun’s reflection in something polished. It is the ability to see these flames, and to manipulate them, which allows me to heal wounds and ailments. It is this flame that I bind into bone and wood and horn and stone, to create talismans of power and devices that move as though alive. It is this flame that burns living matter to ash when it is drawn forth by the defiler’s Art. Some souls burn brighter – and hotter – than others, but this is nothing so simple as a measure of power. My lord and husband’s ancient soul is kept hidden behind so many veils of shadow that even I can barely see it, like a cold, glimmering star in a cloud-wrapped sky. Abhivada’s shines bright and warm, for all her chilly demeanour, and for all that her magical talents are modest at best.
But Mei’s was the brightest I had ever seen. Which made no sense, because I had seen her soul-flame before, during the battle against the sand devils, and it had been quite unremarkable then. Now, it blazed like the sun, as though the girl were armoured in burning light.
As much as the sudden unveiling had rattled my composure, the riddle it provided intrigued me. If only I had had the time to consider the question properly, some of what happened later might have come as less of a surprise to me.
Or perhaps not. For not everything in this world is as easily explained as the blind interaction of unfeeling machines. There were forces at play that night that were as much beyond my understanding as the arcane equations of magic are beyond the grasp of a mekillot. Love, for one.
Enamdis carried the sleeping Mei cradled against her chest, and I hobbled after them, leaning on Bayl. He didn’t ask why I hadn’t yet healed myself and I wondered whether, this close to Nibenay, his old deference might be returning. It was about time, I thought sourly. Tomorrow, our journey would reach its conclusion, and I would have to be the templar again. Tomorrow, I would have to deliver our friends up to the Shadow King’s justice.
It would have been far kinder to leave Mei in the forest.
I waited until we were at least halfway back to the silt skimmer before drawing a little magic into my injured leg, wincing slightly as I did so. Healing oneself is always more difficult than healing another, for the disturbing sensation of quivering skin and muscle moving of their own accord, and the sudden sharp pain as they knit together, makes it difficult to maintain the concentration required.
My leg whole again, we continued on, leaving behind two small patches of grey ash marring the yellow grass where I had stood. I thought that I heard a low growl from the dark forest behind me, but perhaps it was just my imagination.
Neren’s young face was a pale mask of worry in the moonlight as we came within sight of the silt skimmer. “Is everyone unhurt?” He demanded, almost leaping down the skimmer’s stepped ramp to meet us. His jade-green eyes met mine first, wide with concern. I glanced away quickly. I had just been brutally reminded of who I really was, and I could not afford to let him read that truth in my own eyes. It wasn’t that I feared he would harm me if he knew I was a templar. Just the opposite.
“The silly girl’s just sleeping,” Enamdis growled. “She seems none the worse for her little night-time wander.” She was trying to sound unconcerned, but she wasn’t very convincing.
“We heard… something. In the forest. Like the roar of some great beast…” Neren touched his long, delicate fingers to Mei’s brow. “No fever. And she’s never been one for sleepwalking before.”
“Unlike certain others here, eh, Neren?” Enamdis drawled.
Neren shrugged, but I could see the colour rising in his face even in the jaundiced light of the yellow moon. “My episodes only lasted a few weeks. And it’s hardly uncommon among those awakening to the Way.” He glanced up at Enamdis, suddenly grinning. “And I seem to recall my uncle told me something of your awakening, dear Enamdis…”
“No need to go into that now,” the half-giant spluttered. “Are you sure Mei is going to be alright?”
Neren caught my eye again, his expression unreadable now. For some reason, I found that infuriating. “When can we ever be truly certain of that? For any of us? Still, I don’t think she’s in any immediate danger.”
As we carried Mei up the boarding steps, Bayl turned to Enamdis. “Didn’t realise you were a master of the Way too.”
The half-giant shrugged. “The Way helps me fight. It’s just another weapon as far as I’m concerned.”
Neren glanced back at us, green eyes twinkling with mischief. “Dear Enamdis refuses to refine or develop her talents, though. Just doesn’t have the patience for it. She’s what we call a ‘wilder’.”
Bayl grinned at that, but a baleful glare from Enamdis persuaded him to keep silent.