Chapter 12: Home
In the meantime, Blade and Mei made their way to safer ground. Mei's pride alone made her take one step after the other. Blade knew already that she wouldn't stop until he called for rest: he saw the pride in the lofty way her eyes passed their surroundings, the way she drew her shoulders back and her chin up so it made her look less small and even less in pain.
"Mei," Blade said, finally unable to stand it. He'd seen many good soldiers die not directly from the wounds the enemy inflicted, but from the stubborn pride that refused medication, thinking that they could just press on till the end. And the end did come. "Let's rest. It's far enough."
Mei's different coloured eyes flashed at him. Unable to decipher the meaning behind the look except that it held a warning like a wounded wild animal's gaze, Blade sat on the ground. After a moment, the Verity sat – sat was too graceful a word for her, she half-collapsed.
Blade let the silence drag on between them. What next was a question he daren't think of. The two of them alone were deer in the midst of a wolf pack, and considering that they'd just outsmarted the pack, he wouldn't be surprised if they took a hefty bite out of his thigh. He could survive it. How about Mei? She hung on life with her fingernails only now. He stared up at the full moon: a hunter's moon, bright enough to light a road for the traveller.
"Leaving me so soon, Cor?" Mei asked, bitterness lacing her voice.
"Off for a leak." He strode away. Unlike the Verity, he wasn't bound by the truth: he'd lied. If the moon was bright enough to hunt in, then surely it was bright enough to find herbs and edible plants. If he was lucky, maybe he could really be a hunter. Her bitterness didn't surprise him: she wasn't one used to being looked after. He understood when she plucked him out of the prison-den. The swift, no-nonsense way of a soldier on a mission. He noticed also, the way her eyes stared hard into him, concentrating instead on sounds or motions behind her. She covered her own backside.
Gathering what he could find, Blade prepared to make his way back. It was a hunter's moon indeed, for even the blind Substata were able to find their way in this light. Speaking of which, Blade did hope that Pyro was making his way to Argo with the Princess otherwise there'd be hell to pay.
Before reaching Mei, his hears picked up a rustle. He whipped around, taking in his surroundings in snatches. A white fur stood out against the rocks. He knelt, lay the plants on the ground and inched forwards. He had no weapon on him. No weapon, except his own body. The rabit bolted. Like a spring, Blade leaped onto it, his hands clasping over its warm, pulsing body.
"Here," he said, putting an apple down on Mei's lap.
She glared at him. "And how in Verity's name do you expect me to eat?"
Blade opened his mouth, then closed it. "Maybe you should at least let me try to do something about your injuries?"
Mei snorted. She looked away into the darkness in front of her. "I'll tell you what you could do: cut off my air supply and it'll all be over. Easy."
"That's not what you truly think," Blade replied, arranging the fistfuls of herbs he'd scavenged.
"I'm a Verity," Mei retorted, her head turned so Blade saw the green and yellow eyes staring back at him like some strange wild cat. "And anyways, why would you care?"
Carefully, Blade finished his arranging, and leaned back on his heels. "I thought you would leave me back there, in the prison-den." Mei's eyes rounded. "I did, and that's the truth. You had guts to pull me up instead of running. Thank you."
Mei's eyes blinked, giving Blade the impression of some kind of flashing coloured lights. She turned her face away from him and for a terrifying moment, he thought that she was weeping.
"Hey," he said.
She whipped around. "Don't you go all soppy on me!" Her face was drawn tight and her lips pinched. "Don't you dare!" She didn't raise her voice – she was too well trained for that. They both were: vulnerable, out in the open, volume was something they could control not to draw attention from others. She didn't need to though, the word ended in a hiss, snakish and catlike at the same time.
Blade held up his hands in mock surrender, and then he chuckled. "No, seriously, the only thing that's going soppy on you tonight are these." He wagged the leaves at her.
Her face froze for a millisecond and then she started giggling.
"So, how come a warrior like you gets stranded with the Submixt?" Blade stretched out his leg, gingerly running a finger against it. Now it was starting to ache again.
Mei's eyes rested on her arms, occasionally slipping down to her legs. Blade had pressed the leaves and herbs carefully onto her broken skin, and fully examined her arms. She would be able to gain full use of them, giving time and luck. "I was about to ask you that question," she replied, "minus the warrior part."
Blade bit down a retort. It wasn't worth it. Words were all she had against him for now. It irked him that though the Verity had to answer with truth, she was not obliged to answer it.
It didn't hurt, he supposed, for her to know. "We were on a mission for the Chief of Tria."
"Zephyr?" Mei turned to stare.
Blade felt unsettled by her eyes, the way they seemed to entrap his very soul. He nodded. It should be no coincidence that she knew him: he was, after all, the Chief. But the way Mei stared at him now, the calculating look, and the tone of her voice put Blade ill at ease. "Why? What is it?"
Her lips tightened, and it looked like she considered not replying. But then, she spoke, "My actions were under his orders…indirectly." She sighed, and both of them heard the whoot of an owl far away, and the patter of small night-creatures scurelling to their burrows. "You know of the treaty between Verity and Tria?"
Blade nodded. Instead of sending clansmen as peacekeepers, Verity used their word. They would come to Tria's aid once every moon cycle, if needed.
Mei tensed her shoulders attentively; gave up, and looked at the man. "Normally it's an ask for more crops, or some kind of labour to finish a building, or get rid of some wild beast that's been harrassing the clansmen. This time, it was to get rid of the Submixt." Her eyes crawled down her arm and Blade noticed her fingers twitching, then slowly curving. She flexed her arm.
An owl hooted in the distance and Blade closed his eyes and searched for any unwelcome noises while Mei gathered herself. Wind rustling leaf, leaf dropping, animal crawling over leaf. No, nothing abnormal.
"I had a team." Blade opened his eyes: Mei's gaze searched the darkness of canopy, as if searching for why something went wrong. "There were five of us. Arrow was on her first mission, Purple on her second. They were nervous. But Fists had done more misions than the three of us added together, and he knew no-man's land as well anything." Mei sighed.
There was another one. She said five. The cold of the night pressed in. The moon dipped behind some clouds. Blade didn't mind silence – but now, he felt uneasy in it.
"And the last," Mei whispered, her lips barely moving, "he fought well, he was confident, but he warned us not to be arrogant, that our blood flowed in the submixt's veins also. What we are capable of, they had the potential. And, furthur, they are not bound by laws. Any laws." Mei blinked, took a deep breath, and continued, "He was a shapeshifter also."
Was. Blade swallowed.
Mei drew a shuddering sigh. "Dash prepared us well, conjured up a strategy with Fists' knowledge of the forest. He used all of our skills to the maximum. He prepared us as if we fought a battle, not some scum. But it wasn't enough. The submixt knew we were coming. We were…outnumbered, overpowered. Smoke that clogged our noses so we smelt nothing, the thickness of it, so we turned blind, and with our blindness…"
Deep in Blade's gut, he felt a shadow of the sharp panic knifing in.
"We turned all our senses to our ears, but they made noises so loud it hurt our heads. And then they caught us, like picking fish from a stream. Dash was killed immediately." She held the emotion from her voice, she held herself so very still that Blade's fists tigthened and he sucked in a deep breath. "I suppose it was better: they help the rest of us captive, testing us. Seeing what made us tickle and what didn't. And when I was the only one left, I tried to escape, three times."
Blade surveyed Mei with fresh eyes. He'd suspected she was tough, but what she'd been though was more than what he could imagine. The Submixt grouping was more than anyone could think of, though. "What if…" The words slipped from his lips. What if he hadn't come, he wanted to say, but he knew that to her, it would not sit well. So, he said, "What were you planning next?"
She said it so simply that Blade's eyes widened. "Not?" Any other person Blade knew, including himself, would've opted for death. It was escape, only in another form.
"If I died, no one would know about the Submixt until later. I was planning to hold on till I could give someone a message, somehow. We'd been gone for too long, a search party must been cast by the Clan. If I were alive, if I were sleeping…"
Mei nodded. Blade knew that she clung not to the hope that someone would find her physically, but that the Dream walkers would cast a net and search dreams during the night and find her trace. Find her dreams, so that something could be derived from them. The cold of the night hissed at their necks and Blade massaged his temple, chasing the sleep from his head.
"And now? Where do you want to go?" His eyes dropped to his feet, staring at the roots twining against the earth. When there was no reply, he turned to glance at Mei. Her gaze had been drawn out, deep into the darkness as if she could find whatever she wanted in it. Dash, probably, he thought, she was searching for Dash.
"Home," she whispered.
Blade closed his eyes and leant the back of his head against the tree trunk. Home. Her home, not his.
In their silence, the moon dipped, and Blade noticed Mei's head nodding with sleep. Her words had sucked the sleep from him. Her home: forbidden land. Mei's shoulder and head slumped against Blade. The man bit in a breath; didn't move. She would not make the journey alone, that was clear enough. As powerful her Gifts were, she was as vulnerable as a Substrata without weapons. He had to escort her – but no – what about his mission? Blade drew in a long breath. Where was Pyro and the princess? What to do was the most important question now: he organised everything in his head. He was still weak, in the middle of no-man's land. It would take a couple of days for him to recover. In that period it was probably better for him to be with Mei, despite her impairment. Yes, accompany her, and then return to his own mission. He would not set foot into Verity territory. If he did, and Cor smiled kindly upon him, death would be quick.