Chapter 15: Leak

Keith grabbed onto Alair like he was afraid the boy might actually float away if Keith didn't dig his fingers in.

"Alair!" Keith shouted. "Wake up!"

He was shaking Alair's shoulders now, but he hand't noticed when he'd started. His eyes remained fixed on Alair's face looking for any signs of awareness. Alair's brow crinkled slightly. It was a small movement, but it gave Keith hope and he called out to Alair again with more fervor.

"What's going on?"

A new voice came from behind Keith.

Keith hadn't noticed the two men enter the room. Though reluctant to look away from Alair, Keith turned his head to see Claude and some other man he'd not seen before. Keith guessed the man was older than Claude, but it was hard to tell anyone's age when covered in a layer of plaster. The man's blonde hair was nearly as white as his skin contributing to the image of a lanky ghost frowning in the entrance.

Claude immediately moved to Alair's side, but the other man flicked his eyes between Alair, Keith, and the spilled food before fixing his scrutiny on Alair.

"What happened?" Claude asked with some urgency. Even as muted as it was, the emotion seemed extreme for his stoic personality.

"I don't know." Keith said. "He was fine last night. But now he's like this."

Keith had the urge to shove the man away, but instead he forced himself to let go of Alair and give Claude a chance to assess his cousin.

Claude ran his hand over Alair's forehead, down his neck and to his chest where it rested.

Whatever he found — or didn't find — it made Claude frown deeply.

"Where is a doctor?" Keith asked hurriedly.

Claude shook his head. "This is not an illness of the body. We need to take him somewhere else."

"Fine." Keith said. He was eager to get Alair somewhere — anywhere — if there was a chance of waking him. Keith reached out for Alair but Claude blocked him with his arm. Claude was surprisingly strong for having a seemingly frail body.

"I will take him there now." Claude said as he wrapped Alair in the blanket. "You may come when you're ready."

"I'll go with him now." Keith said.

Claude lifted Alair easily into his arms. "You need to put some clothes on. Trinff will stay behind to show you the way."

Keith had forgotten his unabashed nudity.

Claude left the room with Alair hanging limp in his arms. Eager to follow, Keith hurried to find his clothing that had been thrown to various corners of the room through the whole night.

The man, who must have been Trinff, waited at the doorway.

"What did you do in here last night?" Trinff asked as Keith threw fabric over his shoulders like a shawl instead of a shirt.

"Plenty of things." Keith said brushing the man off. Given the state of the room, their lack of clothing, and the lingering smell, the man knew perfectly well what they had been doing. And it certainly wasn't the polka.

Trinff lead Keith out of the large tent that contained their rooms. Outside, the lanterns were still lit and the sky above them was dark. There were no stars yet, just the spiraling gold of sand.

Keith felt a riling urge to see the sun again, but the need to move quickly was even worse. Trinff walked agonizingly slow, and it took all of Keith's willpower not to shove the man forward.

They were near the edge of the oasis before Trinff gestured to a small tent ahead of them. Keith practically ran through the tent's entrance. The inside of the tent was lit brighter than the outside, but only barely. An array of bottles, books, and lose papers fought for room on the shelves that crowded the edges of the tent. At the center of the room, Keith saw the back of an old man with long white hair at least a foot longer than the man was tall. The man was hunched over a table chanting words Keith couldn't understand with his hand pressed to the chest of the still body lying on the table.

Alair was still unconscious.

Keith barely felt Claude's hand hold him back.

"Don't interrupt." Claude hissed quietly.

"What the hell is he doing?" Keith barked back.

Claude shushed him and continued to whisper. "He's trying to save Alair."

He didn't relax his arm until Keith stopped pushing against it. Keith hadn't been using his full strength, but he'd used enough of it that the stick figure should have toppled over. Was this man made of stone or something? Rock or not, Keith wanted to throw Claude aside and storm over to the table — but that wouldn't help Alair.

"You can stay in here," Claude whispered. "But only if you remain silent and don't interrupt."

So Keith kept his mouth shut and he didn't make a sound — but his body was overly tense and he was ready to spring the old man hovering over Alair if it looked like he was about to do anything suspicious.

No one moved when the man finally stopped changing. It was hard to tell when he was finished since it wasn't clear what exactly he was doing in the first place.

"Come here." The old man said softly without turning from Alair.

Both Claude and Trinff looked to Keith, so Keith had to assume the man was speaking to him. Keith quickly moved to the other side of the table.

Alair didn't look any better than before. He was still very pale and sweat had begun to collect over his body. His face was tight and his lips pulled slightly with a hint of a grimace. Keith couldn't decide if that was a good or bad thing. An expression — even a pained one — meant that he wasn't dead.

"How did he get this cut?" The man asked without looking up.

"What cut?" Keith asked.

The old man held Alair's arm up slightly. The bandage on Alair's hand had loosened and hung limp from his wrist.

Keith had completely forgotten about it. Even the cut on his leg had slipped him mind, and Alair hadn't complained about any physical wounds last night. He'd expected Alair's magic would have healed it by now, but it was raw and open like he'd only just stopped the bleeding.

"He was cut by a blade," Keith said, "but that was several days ago."

"Who injured him?" The man asked. He finally looked up at Keith.

His eyes were a deep grey, calm but pensive. The white layer on his skin cracked to follow his frown lines, making him appear much older than he should.

"He did it himself." Keith said.

The man pursed his lips

He gently set Alair's arm back down and placed a flat, white stone in his palm, just over the wound. Then he placed a black stone, similar in shape, just to the left of Alair's sternum.

"Is it his magic?" Claude asked.

"It does seem to be flowing away from his body," The man said. "but I have yet to find the cause."

It was what Keith had expected, but hearing it confirmed made his gut churn. He'd wanted it to be anything else. There were doctors to take care of all kinds of things, but none of these magical issues. Keith didn't know the first thing about what to do. Seeing the old man at least act like he knew what he was doing gave Keith some amount of hope, but it didn't stop him from feeling helpless.

"I've slowed down he effect." The man said. "His body will still naturally pull more magic to him, but not at a fast enough rate to sustain his body for more than a few days. I will need to find what is affecting him, then I will see if I can find a way to heal him."

He pulled the blanket over Alair's body, just up to his chest, and turned to face Claude.

"My lord Claude," The man said. Keith's ear perked at the title he hadn't heard till now. "I wish to speak with you."

"Of course." Claude answered. "We will speak outside."

Claude turned towards the doorway, and after a nod from Claude, Trinff did the same.

The old man looked at Keith like he going to ask him to leave as well. But Keith's expression must have made the winner of that argument clear. Instead the man said, "Don't rebind his hand. It needs to be exposed to the air until it heals."

Keith looked at the guy like he was a quake. "What about an infection."

"An infection is the least of his worries." He responded only loud enough for Keith to hear.

"I will stay near and return when he wakes up." The man said before he left.

When he wakes up. Keith took hope in that.



Whatever Alair was lying on was terribly uncomfortable, but actually moving his stiff body was the unacceptable alternative. To make things worse there was an annoyingly loud sound like wood grinding against wood. When Alair's mind cleared enough, he realized the sound was coming from his own throat.

"Alair." A voice said urgently.

Someone was hovering over him. Alair took a few deep breaths to prepare himself for the effort of opening his eyes. He almost gave up a few times. If he just kept them shut he could slip back into the darkness, but that voice kept urging him awake.

When he was aware enough to register Keith's worried face leaning over him, Alair only had the energy to sigh.

Keith called his name again, this time more hopeful and questioning.

Alair tried to answer and this time he managed a grunt. Now that he was waking up his mind was slowly clearing and moving seemed easier, but it wasn't far from swimming through loose sand.

Keith ran his hand along his face as a nervous gesture. Even in the dim light Alair could see how much Keith's hand shook and how tired his eyes were.

"What," Alair could only whisper and had to swallow between his words, "happened?"

His throat felt stiff and scratchy like a sand slug had crawled inside. And based on what he could remember — nothing — he couldn't say it hadn't.

The darkness where he'd been sleeping had been cold, but it had felt nice against his fevered skin. Now he was awake and the sticky sweat all over his skin chilled his body. Keith lay beside him, and Alair used any available strength to inch closer to the warmth of Keith's body.

"You didn't wake up this morning." Keith said. Though it did sound better than Alair's, Keith's voice was noticeably hoarse. "Claude had you brought here. He had some healer, or something, look at you."

"It's my magic, isn't it?" Alair asked, though he already knew the answer. He was too tired to react emotionally.

When Keith stood up and stepped away Alair felt cold again. The table they'd been using as a bed was so narrow, it was a wonder how Keith had managed to fit on there with him.

Keith grabbed a cloth off of a nearby shelf and busied himself with whipping sweet from Alair's face.

"Yes." Keith finally answered. "The old man treating you seemed to think that was the case."

"Does he know why?"

"No." Keith said. "At least not that he's telling me."

Alair sighed. "I don't have the energy to deal with your trust issues right now."

Keith actually managed a small smile. "At least if you have enough energy to get cranky with me, that must be a good sign."

Alair tried to pull himself up to sit, but Keith gently put a hand on Alair's shoulder.

"Don't sit up yet." Keith said.

Alair rested back down, but it wasn't because Keith asked him to; his head swam when he tried to pick it up too far.

He hadn't noticed the two rocks sitting on his body till one slid off onto the table and the other fell to the floor. Alair frowned at the cut on his hand that still hadn't healed. Even though it was strange to have an open wound this long after he'd cut himself, it didn't hurt. Though Alair supposed that wasn't a good sign either.

But that wan't his worst realization. The magically placed mark on his arm where the key was stored had begun to fade, and the key was already sticking halfway out of his arm like a bone poking out of sand.

"Take it out. Now." Keith urged when he also noticed the key slowly slipping away from the skin.

"I can't." Alair said. He was starting to feel a hint of the panic he was suppressing. "I have to protect it."

"It's coming out because you can't conceal it anymore." Keith said. "It's taking up too much of your magic to hide it."

"It's my job to keep it hidden and protected."

"Even if it kills you?"

"I'll die to protect it." Alair said with full sincerity. That was what the Keeper did; he or she protected it until they died, then passed the duty to someone else.

"And who's going to protect it after you die? You need to stay alive to get anything done."

Alair knew who he'd choose to protect it, but Keith would not agree. The next Keeper had to stay in Eastland — not run away to some old room in Antiquem.

For the time being, Alair could protect it even if it wasn't concealed inside his body.

After the barest sign of agreement from Alair, Keith turned to rummage through the crowded bookshelves around the room. Keith managed to find a small box slipped between a couple of large dusty books. Alair didn't see the box's contents, but he could hear them spilling out onto a wood surface.

Keith turned back and held out the empty box.

Alair looked hesitantly at the old, beat-up wood container. For something so powerful and significant, shoving it into some old box seemed unsuitable. But this was only temporary. Alair would retrieve it when he got better — and if he didn't, then Keith would know where it was.

Alair ran his hand along the rest of the key-shaped marking that was still on his arm. Using magic stung enough to grit his teeth, but when the key fell out into his palm, there was relief like he'd been holding a muscle too tightly for too long. After hesitating one more time. Alair placed the key into the box.

Keith replaced the lid and stashed the box in a gap beneath one of the bookshelves. The place didn't look like it was cleaned regularly so no one would accidentally stumble across it.

As soon as Keith stood back up, the tent flap opened.

An old man with long white hair walked in carrying a try with two bowls filled with milky brown liquids. When the man stepped into the candle light, Alair recognized him.

He'd seen him a few times in the past, but Alair didn't know his name and couldn't recall any instance when they'd spoken. Alair knew the man had similar magic to Claude's, which explained why they were able to live in the same camp together. Alair's childhood memory of the man was faint, but the man hardly seemed to have aged.

"Oh good." The man said. "You're awake."

He set the tray down on the small table before turning and giving them a slight bow.

"I am Rhydian." He said. "I am the healer of Obrattåm."

Alair opened his mouth to speak, but Rhydian held up a hand to stop him. "You don't need to bother using your energy for greetings, I already know who you are." He said with a tired but gently smile. "Both of you."

Alair made another attempt, and he was grateful Keith helped him instead of protesting again. Even though the table was at the near-center of the tent, the space was small enough that one end of the table pressed against a shelf, so Alair could use the books as a backrest.

Rhydian took one of the bowls and handed it to Alair. The smell might have been appealing for an empty and receptive stomach, but Alair's gut felt like it had imploded and wouldn't allow entry for anything.

"This is broth for you to drink." He said. "When was the last time you ate?"

Instead of answering, Alair looked to Keith questioningly. Alair didn't remember so he'd need Keith to answer for him.

"Yesterday." Keith answered. "Around midday."

Rhydian pursed his lips in obvious disapproval.

"Drink this as well, then." He said, placing another bowl beside Alair.

Alair felt the blood leave his face, and it seemed to collect in his hands, adding to the already hot an clammy sensation. One bowl would be enough of a challenge, two made him regret not sleeping longer.

"It's broth." The man said. "Your body will have a hard enough time regaining magic if it doesn't have enough energy to keep you moving."

Trying to convince his brain to conquer his stomach, Alair slowly sipped the liquid. It was lukewarm, and tasted like water with some dirt thrown in for color. But he managed to drink it without the urge to throw it back up.

"Lie back when you've finished." Rhydian said to Alair, then he looked to Keith. "He's out of immediate danger for now, so let him rest."

Keith shot a questioning look to Alair. Alair was comforted knowing Keith would stay with him if he asked, but Alair would rest better without Keith's constant hovering. He gave Keith a reassuring smile that used up more energy than he dared show. "I won't die just because you leave me alone for a few minutes."

Keith didn't smile back and didn't look convinced. After a long, wordless look to Alair, Keith slowly turned and left the tent like he had something heavy tied to his back.

Alair tried to finish the food he'd been given, but his eyes started to droop half way through the second bowl. He was getting tired already and he had to lie back down before he collapsed. As soon he laid his head back his eyes drifted shut. Sleep took him quickly and he let the soothing darkness surround him again.