A/N: This chapter was intended to be longer, but my attention was split with creating a new section to add on to the end of chapter 15. It's turning out to be a more involved add-on than anticipated. I meant for it to be just a connecting scene, but I alluded to a lot of things in the middle of chapter 16 that I hadn't shown you, so…Hopefully what I'm currently writing for that will give you the insight you need into why Bre acts/reacts to Rome the way she does in chapter 16.

….No, don't go looking in chapter 15 yet; the add-on isn't there. I'll let you know on Twitter when the scene is completed and posted.

In the meantime, I owe you a chapter! So, I'm posting this chapter before I start into another crazy week of math and music and work.

You're not going to see a lot of Bre in this chapter because, well, you know where she is. Rome, on the other hand…not sure you if saw this coming. ;)

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Glossary:

maschaiya [as-yet untranslatable; dead language]

sire: the father of someone of enviable bloodlines, i.e. the wealthy or noble father of a child

yea: yes (archaic)

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Coarse language warning, for Rome.

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Chapter 21
Power Cripple

Into the Temple: Part II

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Pain. There was pain everywhere. Like every bone in my entire body had been shattered.

That was how I knew I was alive: because every fucking fiber of my being wished it wasn't.

I expected to hear footsteps running, voices shouting out in alarm, but there was only silence, endless silence, stretching and crackling in my ears. Horizontal lightning struck vibrant white across the dark insides of my eyelids. Moving, breathing, seemed impossible.

But my breaths betrayed me soon enough, forcing my chest to inflate and contract against the cold, semi-even surface I shattered against. I tried to crack my eyes open, but they didn't answer, like the signal I sent them was all wrong. When light finally did filter through, I was seeing through someone else's eyes. The world was blurry and dim, a dreary, fuzzy place populated only by shades of gray. Some of those resolved themselves into squares. Rounded squares. Cobblestones. An empty courtyard, the edges littered with statues.

I didn't remember this place. All I remembered was falling, falling, being electrocuted, falling, being ripped inside out…the impact.

The rest of my body didn't respond at first either. Eventually I thumped flat on my back, and found myself staring straight up a chute in the ceiling, to the daylight beyond, partially shaded by blue glass. I remembered in flashes: that blue glass, filled with runes; that bright white sky, and the snowflakes chasing down; a high tower with a far drop to below.

I was no stranger to pain, but I was not used to it being so physical.

I flexed my hand. Nothing, nothing…there. A twitch. My fingers responded, thick and just a little too numb. Then my elbow responded. My arm. My leg. My other leg. Like the connections were different, slower, but there all the same. No, not the same. Heavier with pain, and yet somehow less.

I rolled back onto my side, finagled an arm under me, forced myself up. My elbow and shoulder almost gave, but I caught my weight with just as much pain on the other. I was facing the cobblestones, heaving up with an effort, and saw my hand. Paler. Unweathered. Fingers a hair shorter, actual hairs on the backs of them. Dark hair, the kind that shows up. The same colour of annoyance that was slithering over my shoulder in strands. And nails…Nails like tiles, not like waterdrops.

These weren't my hands.

Fuck, whose body was this?!

I sniffed, hoping to catch of whiff of who it belonged to. Nothing. Nothing but dust.

I laboriously dragged my weight into a veritable sitting position, and raised one hand to sniff the back of it directly. Still nothing.

I pulled a strand of dark brown over my shoulder. It smelled faintly singed, but other than that…same thing. Maybe a slight whiff of oil, but it was impossible to tell what kind.

Someone was screwing with me. Someone who needed to rectify this right this damn minute. Because no way was I going to be able to do what I came here to do if I couldn't even smell anything.

And what exactly was it that I was supposed to do?

I couldn't remember.

But I did know that I wasn't safe here. I may not be able to remember why, but wherever "here" was, it was not safe…

Pain seized me. Like seismic waves electrocuting my body. It buzzed my ears, shuddered like 10,000 volts through my veins. My head was on the ground again, nose ramming against the cobblestones. I blacked out.

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The pain was back. The kind of pain you desperately want to ignore, so you try to slip back into unconsciousness, but it's so damnably persistent that it won't let you. Pain so deep, it's already in your subconscious.

Fine. I'll come awake then.

Immediately I regretted it. I was no stranger to pain, but this pain was something else. Like I'd been beaten and stretched and warped over and over again, until I wasn't really sure I was actually existing.

But that was daft. Because I still felt pain. So, clearly I was still here on this wretched planet that always found something more to take from me.

"I knowest ye art there," a low feminine voice murmured. "Cometh back, ye wanderer. Cometh back unto the surface."

I felt something pulling me, dragging me back up, as if from a great depth. Up into currents of pain. I struggled, fought to swim back down, where I could senselessly drift.

"Cometh, ye scoundrel. Thou must have some cause to live for. Fight!"

Fight? What for? I was tired. What was life to me, but extended pain?

"Is it working, Mistress?"

"Maschaiya. Handeth yonder materials unto me."

"But Mistress, didn't you say those were only meant for—"

"Argue not with me, child!"

In an instant I snapped up to a sitting position, mouth gaping open on a silent scream. Pain ripped through what I suddenly had of a body.

There wasn't enough of my body there. I was missing half of it.

"Breathe, lad, breathe!" Something thunked into my back again and again. I did scream aloud then. My fragmented body quaked uncontrollably. Electricity shocked through me, like twin bolts of lightning colliding in electrified ripples.

"Bringeth yon Power dampeners. Hurry!"

A funny feeling clamped over my pulse, numbing my wrists. My body took on the weight of a stone and dropped forward, over a lean, strong arm.

"He's stabilizing," the voice murmured, sounding much closer yet still at a great distance. "Canst thou hearest me, young man?"

I coughed and choked on strangled heaves. I started to nod, but became instantly nauseous, and my coughs turned to retches.

"Pail, Robearta!"

There was a whoosh of air just before my stomach rejected its own malcontent. I heard a splat.

"He's not opened his eyes, Mistress."

"Giveth him a moment."

I didn't feel right. I didn't feel right, and these two had something to do with it. "Unhand…me," I rasped.

"Patients doth not get to maketh demands," the voice closest said curtly. "Canst thou open thy eyes?"

"What will I see?"

"Dost it matter?"

I gritted my teeth. It mattered a lot. After all I had seen, done, experienced…

"How high dost thee rate in thy way of pain, onst a gradient of one to ten?"

"Who…says…I'm…?" The arm holding up my chest squeezed around my torso. White and yellow streaked across my closed eyelids. "Th-Thirteen!" I gasped.

"If thou wert a thirteen, thou wouldst be deceased," she retorted critically.

I half laughed, and almost screamed when the jarring exacerbated my fried nerve endings. "T'would be…blessing." My breaths frayed, hitched, ceased.

Fwap! A hand landing on my back thumped my lungs back into filling. I did scream then, hoarse and not at all sounding like it belonged to me. The corners of my eyes began to leak.

No, this wasn't right. I should have more control over my reactions than this.

"What have you done to me?!" I snarled, but it came out a hoarse, pathetic-sounding gasp.

Something wet and slimy slapped onto the back of my neck. Instant coolness began to frost outward from it with a sparkling numbness.

"A better question wouldst be, Who art thee, and how didst thou comest to be in the Garden of Antiquities?"

Garden of Antiquities…antiquated garden.

"Where am I?" I whispered.

"In the temple of our goddess, of course," the one called Robearta answered. "In the Wing of Healing. Currently under the care of—"

The temple! Shit! The temple had me?! I forced up a numbing hand and clawed at the arm holding me. "Unhand me!" I hissed.

"Ungrateful," muttered the closer of the two women. "Suit thyself." My support retracted, and I fell forward, catching myself on a wobbly arm that barely reacted before I crashed on my face. I forced open my eyes. Blurry. Everything was so horribly unclear, it made me queasy. My stomach revolted again, and this time I clutched the pail myself. I blinked rapidly. The colours were all muted; the lines of where one thing should be defined from the next merged seamlessly. But I was able to make out the generalized shape of Robearta, beyond the end of what must have been a table I was seated on. But no, the Robearta-shape was too close. She shouldn't sound so far away, at that distance. I should be able to hear her whisper.

I sniffed…and smelled only a general hodgepodge of spicy smells. I sniffed harder. Something. I raised a hesitant hand to my face, half expecting half of my nose to be missing.

It wasn't. But it felt…different than it used to. Maybe not as long and straight.

I looked down. The general shapes of my arms and legs were still there. Even down to the fingers. I tried moving them. It hurt like hell, and they were sluggish and leaden, but they still responded. I wasn't a cripple.

So why did it feel like half of me was missing?

Whatever. I'd deal with it later. I had a working body; that was all I needed, for now. "Where is she?"

"Where art whom?" The voice behind me said flatly, moving out into visible space. The white-and-red-clad woman was wiping her hands on a cloth. I could make out few of the details of her appearance, impaired as my vision was, but my bleary gaze caught on her silver hair.

I was halfway backward across the table in a second, lip curling up in a snarl. A silver girl. "Keep your fucking mind games to yourself, Bitch."

Neither female made a move to approach me.

"Ist that any way to speaketh unto a person who saveth thy life?"

"I know what your kind are like," I growled. "Invasive, psychotic, mind-rending manipulators. Try me again, I dare you. See if you will survive this round."

The silver-haired one's hands had paused, and she was slowly lowering her towel. "The Maidens of the House Silver? Hadst an encounter with them, didst ye?"

I scaled carefully down the opposite length of the table. My balance refused to settle, but I couldn't let them see that vulnerability. "Tell me where my bitch is, Silver Girl, and I won't tear you apart."

"Mistress," Robearta said shakily, "shall I go get—?"

But the silver one held up a hand, signaling her to stop. "Whom dost thou seek?"

"Labriella. Tell me where you are keeping her."

Robearta sucked in a breath. "The Runaway? But what would you ever want with her?"

"Robearta," said the silver one slowly, never turning from me, "runneth along and let me handleth this."

"But, Mistress Healer—"

"Now, Robearta."

Robearta edged sideways toward the door.

I moved to intercept, my belaboured steps infinitely slower than I asked them to be. "I cannot let you pass," I told her.

"W-What?" The matronly assistant looked terrified.

"You have heard too much. One word of what you know, and people will start to die."

"Robearta, he is wounded. Haste."

She rushed around me, and though I scraped her arm, my battered body was unable to catch her. Damn, I wouldn't have much time until more arrived.

"Lord Eralynerohm, I presume."

My gaze shot up, across the table to lock with cold gray. I could see more clearly by now, though not nearly as sharp or bright as I was accustomed. "How do you know that name?"

"The child Labriella used to tell of thee often. Thy eyes giveth thee away."

"Did she," I growled. "Did she also tell of how greatly I distrust your establishment? You did not answer the question."

She abandoned her hand cloth to a small end table. "There art records of one of thy coloring. If a scholar should care enough to look. Maiden-born births art so rare—Common Maidens even less so. And thy sire paid such a high brideprice for her…"

My eyes smarted. "You have no right to speak of my mother," I retorted, hand balling into a fist.

"We all choose our paths in life, Eralynerohm." The silver woman poured powder into a quad-folded square of parchment and shuffled the contents by jostling the corner flaps. "I left my House. Labriella left her temple. And thou…" She eyed me over her shoulder. "Thou shouldst not be herein."

"I assure you," I growled, "I have no desire to be here."

"Then doth not be," she said shortly. "Labriella hast madeth her choice. The matter doth not concerneth thee."

"I did not fall down that tower of lightning for a matter that does not concern me!"

That gave her pause. "Tower? Which tower?" Her tone was stern, suspicious.

"Does it matter?"

"The bell towers," she said, pivoting. "Thou fellest down one of yon bell towers?"

I scowled at her skepticism. "It wasn't like I could get through the front door."

Her eyes rounded slightly, and then narrowed. Her long, thin fingers wrapped delicately around the hilt of a staff poking out of her pocket that I hadn't seen before. "Thou art not human."

"Never claimed to be, Healer. If a healer is even what you are."

"I am indeed. Tell me: Those marks on Labriella's body. Didst thou inflict them upon her?"

"To which scars do you refer?" I growled. "Last I checked, she was covered in them. Tell me: What kind of healer allows her charge to nearly die of lashing?!"

"I am the reason she survived!" she hissed, before regaining her composure. I had struck a nerve. "The child knewest better. I warned her if thou werst ever discovered, the consequences couldst be dire." She examined me critically. "Clearly more dire than I anticipated. The records sayeth nothing of nonhuman blood."

I cocked my head, letting a humorless smirk mask the pain scrunching around my eyes. "They wouldn't, would they."

"Thou shouldst not have survived thy fall. Yon raw Power currents shouldst have killed ye first."

I was starting to wish they had. I could still feel those currents coursing through me. My knee sunk of its own accord, anchoring itself to the bench. "Where is she?"

"What art thou?"

I slapped a shaky hand to the table. "Where is she?"

"I wilt not answer any of thine questions until thou answereth mine own. Art thou a threat to this Temple?"

I glared through my eyelashes, which were threatening to close on me. "Take me to her, and we shall see."

"Thou art not going anywhere." The healer straightened, chin jutting high. "Thou art injured. And thou art my patient." She pointed a no-nonsense finger sternly at the table I had just left. "Sit ye down, ye ingrate. Ye shouldst not nearly be standing."

I stared at her lifted chin. So that was where Bre picked up that gesture. That mark of immovable stubbornness. Yes, this woman was most definitely the infamous Mistress Healer. "Be your patient? She trusted you. Bre trusted you, and you fed her to the wolves. She may think you innocent, but she cannot even explain to me why you taught her half the secrets that you did. Am I to really believe," I said, voice gutteral-low, "that it could not have been you who sent that red-eyed bitch to chasing her in the first place?"

The outrage on the healer's face found a new focus. "Pandora? Thou hast had contact with the missing Maiden?"

"Where were you when that bitch was attacking Bre? I saw her broken ribs. She has Power burns!"

The healer's head pulled back an inch, as though affronted. Distance filtered into her eyes. "I knewest they wert pressing her. 'Tis not uncommon with the fairer servants. T'was her own choice not to draw attention to it. I respected her choice not to report; she will likely bearest such animosity for much of her life, and intervention oft worsens such. The girls so crave hierarchy, where there ist only equality…" The healer's gaze focused again on me, and sharpened to steel. "As for teaching Labriella, 'tis what one does with a Second. Even more so when she ist blindly fraternizing with estranged nobility of Powerful origins."

Her Second? Bre—a healer-in-training? That girl got into more scrapes…She was the one who needed a healer. Constantly.

"You knew I had Power," I accused.

"'Tis in thy blood, Child. Both lines of it. To not suspect wouldst have been foolish. To maketh the assumption, just as much so. There wast a chance; nothing more."

…What? She thought I had inherited my Power? …She didn't know. She didn't know I hadn't had it to begin with.

Fine. Let her think it was inherited. It might work to my advantage. I should have at least one card unfaced.

"And you, what? Thought to use Bre to keep tabs on me?"

"No." There was an edge to the healer's tone. "No, I wouldst sooner she stayed away from ye. But it wast clear ye had made thy mark on her. I didst not foresee that marking to one day be literal."

I gritted my teeth. Neither had I.

"A little overboard, wastn't it?" Her brow sketched up.

The depth of disapproval in her tone actually had me wanting to shirk away. Maybe duck under the table.

"You feel remorse."

I flinched, the guilt heavier than expected. My body penalized me the abrupt movement. "And you do not. You seem to take no issue with keeping her locked up."

"She is an Oathbreaker, Eralynerohm." Her tone bespoke the finality of Bre's fate. "Other than laying with a non-human, there is no greater crime she can commit. There is nothing left to be done with her, but to gather information on her betrayal."

The healer's words pierced me. The way she looked at me… She knew. Somehow, she knew that relations between Bre and myself were far from platonic. She was saying being intimate with me was the highest crime Bre could ever commit. Which was a pain too great for me to deal with right now.

But there was something else. Something she was not saying.

"You haven't added me to her list of crimes," I said slowly.

"Oh, ye art already on the list, young noble, make thou no mistake. The extent and purpose of your involvement are currently in question. Indeed, it may be the only mystery strong enough to keep Labriella alive."

Shit. I was the proof they needed to condemn her. And I was already here, buckling in their grasp. "You have told your temple of me."

"I hath informed my superiors of the possible significance of the marks upon yon Runaway girl. The gravity of the situation, and the next course of action, art left for them to decide."

"Your temple does not know…about my connection to this?"

"Scaring my Second certainly didst ye no favours in that regard." Her steely eyes flicked to the doorway and back. She pointed again at the table. "Sit."

"I am not human, remember?" I said. "What is it you think I should wait around for you to do to me?"

The healer pinned me with that look that again had me wanting to duck under the table. "Thou wilt do as thou art told."

I opened my mouth.

"Now."

I felt five again.

I clunked down onto the bench.

I instantly regretted it. But I was pretty sure I couldn't get back up.

"Thy physiology appears to be the same, but ye attempt to move quite different, and thy physiology is not well responding. Ist this thy normal shape?"

I ground my teeth, still pissed that I had obeyed without question. My teeth felt flatter, somehow. Like a damn herd animal.

"Do ye wish to move or not?" the healer snapped.

"Yea," I ground out. "Same shape."

"Doth ye feel any differences?"

I glared at her. "You damn well know the answer to that question."

"I assure ye, I do not. Seeing as thou art the only one inhabiting that thick skull of thine."

I froze. "The only one"

I searched my consciousness. Tested a few arm movements. Finger movements. No internal response. I clutched at my chest. No Power reservoir.

I choked, and searched in earnest, wracking my mind, testing every Power line and thought highway and dark corner that I remembered ever accessing. Ever fighting over. Ever challenging. Ever guarding. Ever tapping into.

Nothing.

It was just me.

I was in this fucking place alone.

The "Oh shit" panic must have shown clear on my face, because the healer's expression actually showed the first signs of concern. She started toward me.

"Stay back!" I said, pushing out a shaking palm. She paused, watching me.

That fucking tower had stripped my Power from me. I was clawless, fangless, vision impaired. The voice in my head—the other presence in my body—was gone. There was no one left to help me now.

I was injured, I couldn't heal, and I had no means to help Bre.

I was completely defenseless. Completely vulnerable, to attack, to emotions, to everything.

I was…human.

"How is this possible?" I whispered.

"Mistress Healer?" I started so violently I almost fell backward off the bench. There were four humans in the doorway, armoured in stiff leather. They looked like gatekeepers.

God help me, two of them were heavy, and I hadn't even heard their bare steps slap against the stone.

"Your assistant sent for our aid. How may we serve?"

I looked helplessly back at the healer. I knew I was finished; I couldn't even stand.

She kept studying me, as if waiting for me to react. I swallowed, trying to steel myself for whatever came next. For decades my fate had been in my own claws. I had no idea what it could be like to be mortal. To have my fate decided for me.

"Lend me thy strength," the healer said finally to the gatekeepers. "Lift this man onto yon table."

A man and a woman stepped forward. My wary gaze did nothing to deter them.

"Mistress?" another female pressed. "We were informed an unruly patient may have accosted your person?"

"That report soundeth a bit of an exaggeration," the healer said, gaze grazing over me before returning to the speaker. "A difficult patient he may be, yet as ye may attest, incapable of moving himself."

I got the feeling this "healer" liked stabbing my dead pride to watch it bleed.

I was unable to hide my scorn toward the two hoisting me up from under each arm, but I got the feeling they didn't care more than they didn't notice.

"Got the feeling"…? Since when did I "get feelings"? That was a bit…human, wasn't it?

Shit. Human was the last thing I needed to be. Fearsome, intimidating, revered—those attributes scored survival points. Scored dominance. Feelings scored…pain. Memory. Disappointment. An early grave.

"Do you require any further aid, Mistress?"

"None. My assistant meaneth well, but she should not have troubled ye. Thine talent art wasted herein."

"Shall we post a guard outside your door, Mistress Healer, to deter your patient's unruliness?"

The silver woman's gaze sharpened. "I am perfectly capable of subduing mine own patient. Thou art dismissed."

The female chose to bow out with the rest of her crew.

Crew. Pack? What. Why was this a question?

"You didn't hand me over."

The healer had her back to me, rustling over the contents of an end table. "Observant, aren't ye."

"You know I am not human, and you have me defenseless. Why the hell didn't you?"

"Because ye art inhuman and defenseless."

"I do not understand. You are loyal to your Temple."

"Yes, I am. What dost thou think wilt happen whence I turneth over thee, thou inhuman?"

"You will be rewarded."

"For doing whatfor ist expected of me?" The healer sounded mildly surprised.

I sighed. I was immobile, at her mercy. Not playing along wasn't exactly an option. "What, then?"

"Thou wilt be interrogated, studied, and executed."

"Is that not an outcome to suit your purposes?"

The healer turned partially. "How lowly ye must think the assembly of this Temple considereth of life, to assumeth a healer therein wouldst eagerly betray her patient and her pupil to death."

I stared at her. "You wish us to live."

"I wish to understand what ist going on," the healer said, turning sharply. She needn't have glared like that; t'wasn't like she needed to pin me to the spot. I couldn't go anywhere. "Ye discovered thy ailment, whence I asked thee. Prior to the barbarians storming mine door."

Noticed that, did she? My lips sealed.

One of the healer's eyebrows sketched up. "Oh? Ye hath no desire to saveth thyself or thy mark?"

My lip curled up. "Blackmail does not work on me, Healer."

"And disrespect doth not work upon me." She nailed me with a look.

I glanced away. "I see we are at an impasse."

She let out a breath. "Young noblemen. Always so impudent. So self-centered."

"That coming from a Silver Girl."

"The House Silver," the healer said, moving toward me with a shallow bowl on a plate, "is a respectable House revered for their abilities to challenge the mind. Many a noble hath approacheth House Silver for consultation in matters of Truth and Future. Those who didst not check thy egos at the threshold found many of their own secrets laid bare."

"Your threat is clear," I said, eying the pale brown liquid in the sipping bowl. "However, I cannot tell of what I do not understand."

She was quiet a moment, as she rearranged the items on the table to make room for the plate beside me. Her thin, elegant neck was close, close enough to see her pulse, close enough to wrap a hand around. I wasn't sure how she would react. I wasn't sure if the staff in her pocket was a dagger, or something else.

"One third of an ounce per second."

"Pardon?"

"Ye appear ardently interested in mine pulse."

Damn healer had a sixth sense.

"T'would explain much, if thou art really from yonder forest, as the girl suspecteth. T'wouldn't be unexpected of a predator."

I said nothing. To look to the throat of any living creature was second nature to me.

"T'would be lonely, I suspect," she said, checking my own pulse through my wrist. "If ye hath killed off the competition."

My hand clamped around the swan-like arc of her wrist. "Do not pretend to know what it is like to be a predator."

"Perhaps I wouldst like to understand what type of sentient creature wouldst torture a sixteen-wintered girl with his teeth."

I tried not to wince, tried not to let her bait me. Tried to focus on something else. Some other bit of information. "She is sixteen, then." Far younger than I. Younger than I expected.

"Eighteen," the healer corrected, moving her freed hand to check up my arm, over my shoulder. "Closer to, anywhence, based upon mine estimate. Sixteen charted by us, and by village hearsay. If ye art truly noble, ye must know how imprecise a servant's age canst be."

I did know. Servants' ages were hardly considered relevant, unless one was being sold or bargained for. Then it was only age bracket.

"Ye art noble, then," the healer concluded. "Ye show no surprise."

"There was question?"

"Being inhuman casteth quite a broad net of doubt."

I said nothing.

"Though, ye appear to be functioning quite like a human. I wast under the impression the physiology of a Second ist quite different from a Third."

"What…did you say?" Somehow, that sounded a lot more like what the old hag was saying, than what Bre could ever be.

She arced a brow. "Ye live in yon forest, and ye honestly expect me to believe thou hath never seeneth a Second?"

"How the hell would I know what a Second is? Acht!" My tone dissolved into a growl as I rubbed the smarting back of my head. The reverberations from where she'd whacked me were not appreciated by my current migraine.

"Ye art in a holy place!" the healer scolded, giving me a part-scandalized look. "Cut thy language."

"Doesn't stop Bre," I retorted, glaring back.

"Thy influence, no doubt." The look she cut me was scathing.

"What the—" Her arm raised in warning. I ducked. "What is wrong with my influence?!"

"She ist in chains in the Correction Wing, with liquid in her virginal places, ye really must ask this of me?"

Correction Wing?! So that was where they were keeping her!

A hand caught me in the chest, like thin clawed steel. "What is it ye think to do, thou fool? Enter the Correction Chamber with her?!"

"I swear to God, if I find her in pieces—" A tickle answered down my arm.

The healer stared at it. "Ye wilt do what?"

"I swear I will find a way to kill you."

"Eralyn,…"

My eyes shocked wider. "What did you just—How dare you call me—!" That was what my mother used to call me!

"Eralynerohm, look."

"The hell are you—" I glanced down at my arm. White tendrils were slinking and twisting down my arm like veins. "The hell is this?!" I focused on it, and immediately it doused like a shadow over the sun.

"Not completely defenseless," the healer said, her tone ponderous. "And definitely his mother's son."

I glared at the healer. "Keep my mother out of this, and keep your goddamn mist to yourself."

Thunk. I rubbed the back of my head, growling, seeing double.

"I doth not keep mist, Boy. Now, hurry up and drink thy soup!"

I eyed the sipping bowl skeptically.

"Animals doth not speak—least, not in words. How is it ye came to have such a foul vocabulary? Certainly thou didst not learn it from creatures around thee."

"From humans who are far more forthcoming with information than you and your cryptic notes." Seriously, she could have been far more detailed in those messages she used to send through Bre. I practically had to make up the lines to read between them!

"Information is only as good as its source." Her tone scolded without mercy. "They hath played thou the fool. Handing out their blind grumblings."

"Like you have played Bre and I as fools?"

"T'was I whom thou played, acting as a compatriot to the girl. Pretending as what thou wert not. Playing the girl as though she wert a toy for thine own gratification! Ye see what ye hath done now!"

"What did you think would happen?!" I snapped. "That a human as curious as she would not seek me out? Or that one as bestial as I would not see her for what she is?!"

"And what is she?"

"Perfect!"

Her expression froze in the mildest of arrays of shock. "'Perfect,'" she repeated.

"What the hell did you think I'd see her as?!"

"Perfect for what, exactly?"

I gave the crazy bitch a look. "There is no 'for'! There is just her. Why the hell do you all have to make it more complicated than that?!"

She stared at me, stunned. "Ye actually care for her."

I growled low in exasperation. "I don't have time for this. She doesn't have time for this. Drink your damn soup yourself. I've got places to be." I swung my legs around. Or, tried. They dragged.

"Ye wilt not survive if'n ye goeth unto her now."

"I don't care."

Her cool, smooth hand slipped around my wrist. "Thou art more valuable than ye know. If'n ye go unto her now, all may yet be lost. Ye and her included. Wouldst ye still go?"

I shook off her grip. "I will do what I must."

"What thou must is to wait," she pressed. "If ye go now, thou wilt be captured. Thou wilt be lashed along with her, if'n thou dost not cooperate or revealeth thy intentions. Thou wilt be of no help to her."

I didn't want to admit how useless I was, in this state. Not to the healer. Not to myself. "What would you have me do," I asked without turning around. Without giving hint in my tone that I was actually considering. I could manage that much control, at least.

"Thou art not familiar with this Power—this 'mist,' as ye calleth it. Whatsoever thy expected ability, 'tis not functional herein. Stay, as a medical patient. Heal. Learn control of thy mist. And, when thou havest control over thine self, ye may go, and yet succeed in thy errand."

"The mist: You are saying it is from me."

"Ye art untrained. Thou must master at least basics of yon gift if ye art to avoid detection. Elsewise, thou wilt draw others of the gift unto thy location. They likely cometh hither as we speak."

"To the side! To the side!" An echo down the corridor.

We locked eyes. Hers were demanding that I choose.

I let out a quiet breath and nodded slightly.

She shoved my chest down. I grimaced when my back hit the table. She pulled up the blanket. "Keep your noble tongue behind your teeth," she whispered harshly. "Closed!" She brushed a hand down over my eyes, forcing the lids to close…right before the steps of the first of a band of people paraded under the arch.

"All well, Mistress Healer?"

"As well as canst be expected, for a medical wing," the healer responded, neutral as a sigh on the wind. "What brings ye to this corner?"

"Stuffy as always in here, Mahgela." A set of bootfalls pushed the other steps out of the way. "I scant know how someone as elegant as you can abide it. You know with your connections you could have the wall knocked out, and the whole wing redecorated."

"I doth not need larger working quarters, Calcifus."

"Your walk-in patients waiting on the floors disagree. Still refusing to acknowledge my acquisitions, I see?"

"I am certain ye wilt remember thy title even if I doth not use it."

"It need not be only my title. We were prodigies together, after all."

"Mine place is herein; ye knowest it as well as I."

"Indeed. Between your musty scrolls, instead of between clean sheets. I hear tell you have some excitement. Gave your Second quite the scare. Robearta, was it?"

"Yes."

"She's conventional. Not at all your type."

"Knowest my type, dost ye?"

"I know you like the troublesome ones." The voice moved closer. "Is this the excitable patient?"

"He is."

"Hasn't touched his soup."

"Very observant of ye."

"Come now, do not pick a fight." The boots clacked slowly down the length of the table. His tone turned serious. "I am tracking a disturbance in the defensive wards. Seen anything?"

"Not in the wards, no. Dost it not sound like an issue of the front gate?"

"I assure you, those guards are already under scrutiny. But they are not trained in these matters. Not as…our class was trained."

"Wards art not my concern." The healer rounded the table, toward my head. "I entrust their maintenance to thee."

The boots clacked closer to the healer. His voice dropped low, too low for others to hear. "The disturbance is from inside. Tripped the concealment wards. Either we have a rogue Maiden, or an intruder has slipped through a seam in the web. You see something unordinary, you call for me. Understood?"

She must have nodded, or made some sort of gesture, because the boots marched away, all business. "Move out!" he barked. Feet shuffled, and the congestion tramped away.

The healer sighed. "I suppose Elsa's warning was too little too late. A First and a Second? T'would be my luck. Though, by the grace of the goddess, the First may yet distract from the Second."

"I doubt that," I murmured, letting my lashes blink open. An arched stone ceiling greeted me. It looked like prison to me. "Not if you're Old Hag Elsa's inside contact. Which would be just my luck."

The healer beside me jerked, as though startled. "Thou knowest Elsa?"

"I'd rather I didn't. Fucking cane of hers…Acht!" I raised a sluggish arm to rub at the side of my head. Exchanged caning for slapping, apparently.

"Didst she send thou hither?"

"Not exactly. She dragged me away from the front doors and told me there was another way in. Which shaved off more than a 'layer' of me, by the way. Turned me fucking human."

The healer was quiet long enough that I looked over. Her expression was too mixed to read.

"Thou art the First."

"That's what the hag thinks. Wouldn't shut up about it. Even though I told her I was born and not made. I wouldn't trust what she says. She'll do anything to get a favour."

The healer's face twisted into a different mixture, with her eyes a rounder than before. "Ye promised her a favour?"

"Don't look at me like I volunteered it," I scoffed. "It was Bre's favour. You know what it's like when a servant girl owes a favour."

"So you took it." She looked mortified.

"Look, I don't trust the hag as far as I can throw her. Which, in my normal state, is pretty damn far." I pushed myself up into a reclining position. "But entrusting her with Bre's life is just not possible."

"You're a damn fool," the healer whispered.

I smirked. "Now who's cussing?" And dropping the holier-than-thou accent.

"Ye have an entire prophecy built around thee, and thou art throwing it away on a mortal servant girl who will pass away like the wind."

The neck of her dress was in my fist before I could think to grab it. "Don't. Say that about her. Do not."

"Art thou a First? Or artn't ye?"

"I 'art' whatever the hell I am. Stop trying to put a label on it."

Her eyes flickered back and forth between mine. "Thou art him, artn't thou. The one whose howl awoke me as a child."

"Possibly." I let go of her robe. "I have lived in the forest a long time."

"How long?"

"Long enough," I said, glaring. "Don't you have something to fix? Like my damn reflex time? A snail moves faster than me."

A shadow of humour teased the stubborn corner of her mouth. "Somehow I doubteth that."

"Whatever else you may be, you don't seem like you want Bre to die. You're already harbouring a fugitive. Are you going to help me get her, or not?"

"What wilt thou do if thou 'gets' her?"

"Take her the hell out of this miserable place."

"And do what with her?"

I squinted at her. "What are you getting at?"

"Is she actually thy servant?"

"Possibly."

"'Possibly,'" she echoed, as close to dumbfounded as I could imagine her.

"Our relationship tends to be unclear. Other than revolving around me getting her ass out of colossal scrapes."

The corners of the healer's eyes softened a little. Her eyes took on a knowing glint. "A handful even for ye?"

I just looked at her. "You have no fucking idea."

"Oh, I think I do." She studied me. "I aid ye, and ye never lay teeth to her again."

"I can't promise you that."

Her gaze sharpened.

I held up a hand. "I stay human, I can promise you. I turn, and she touches me, I cannot promise."

"Art thou so lacking in self-control?" The healer looked slightly sickened.

That look was going to stick with me; I knew it. "Think what you will of me. I know what I can and cannot promise. Already I have made a promise I come dangerously close to breaking. I will make no other."

"Ye expect me to trust thee, to traineth thee, knowing thou art a First and thou might turn upon us at any moment."

"And you expect me to trust you to train me, knowing you might have sold out Bre to your own kind."

"What wilt it be, then?"

"When do we start?"

"After you drink your soup."

Drinking that soup was the last thing I remember.

.

"Where the hell are we?" It had taken a lot of convincing for me to follow the healer after she knocked me out like that. "Ye needeth rest," she'd said. "T'was the only way I knew thee wouldst get it." It pissed me off to no end that she was right. Damn human weakness.

Fuck, I cussed in my head and already I was ducking the head slap. A slap that wasn't coming.

"An olde practice room," Bre's Mistress Healer answered, oblivious to my new slap-reflex. "It hath been decommissioned, but it shall serve our purpose."

Great, I had upgraded from table habitation to dusty storage room captivity. "And what purpose is that?"

"This room ist still heavily warded," she said, revolving slowly. "'Tis safe for thou to call upon thy Power."

"You speak of it like it is already there," I grumbled, forking back lengthy bangs. My hair wasn't knotting itself into place like it usually did. Kept falling in my eyes.

"It is," the healer nodded. "However, it may not be seated wherein thou art accustomed. Close thy eyes and concentrate."

"Like I trust you enough to close my eyes."

"Close them," she snapped. "Time ist short."

I gave her one last warning glare before crossing my arms and obeying. "Fine. Closed."

"Focus upon thy breaths. Thy heartbeats. Thy coming in and thy going out." Her voice mellowed into a lull.

"I don't think—"

"Quiet. Dost not think. Follow thy flow. Follow thy flow to thy source. Feel thy flow inward, and thy flow outward."

My eyes snapped open, still narrowed. "There is no flow."

"There is," she said wryly, "else thou wouldst not be breathing."

"This is too docile," I argued. "Power does not exist like this."

"Yes," the healer asserted firmly, "it doth. Acteth not so ignorant. Ye must already have developed thy muscles for Power channeling, or thou wouldst not have survived thy fall."

"I don't remember my fall," I growled.

"But thou rememberest the feeling of thy Power as it courseth through thee. Thou rememberest how to call to it."

I frowned, letting my vision blur. Focusing instead on what was inside. Or, rather, what was not inside. She was right: I remembered Power paths. But those had been already-existing veins. Power had flowed freely along them. It came even when it was not called. The trick had been to keep it inside, contained. It had never been lacking.

"The paths are not there," I voiced, monotone and far away. It was like they had been…overwritten.

"Power flows are like neural pathways," the healer said. "They can form and reform. Wherein one ist blocked, another may be developed. As long as ye doth not attempt to holdeth more than quadruple open at once, thou shouldst not be ailed."

"You speak of energy. Of dividing energy."

"Of a sort." I could hear the smile in her tone.

"I have no need to divide my energy."

"As of yet." A beat of quiet. "Focus on one point in the flow, and incise. A new flow shall emergeth, like a new branch of roots."

Like creating a puncture wound. "Like blood, you mean." Blood flow…Life flow. My vision snapped back into focus. "You would have me alter my own life force?!"

The healer appeared unperturbed. "Thou understandeth quite a bit more than thou thinketh thou doth."

"I will not deliberately weaken myself in such a way," I said, outraged.

"Thou seest now why thou wert required to drink and rest."

"Rest will not curb damage that is done. You think I do not foresee any damage could be irreversible?!"

"I think thou must choose," she said quietly, firmly, "what thou art willing to do to save the girl."

I studied the healer. For the first time, I saw there in her eyes, in her posture, what she really believed needed to be done. It was unlikely, but it was there. She believed that Bre needed to be saved.

Not corrected. Not condemned. Saved.

Not that she liked me as the instrument of salvation. But still.

Maybe we could be on the same page.

.

Twenty minutes later, I wasn't so sure.

"I told ye: Thou must cut into thy flow to create a new flow."

"I told you, I don't have a flow!"

"All living things have a flow."

"I'm telling you, all of the grooves and riverbeds have been paved over! There is no Powerbed! No place for 'flow' to flow!"

"If ye hath no 'Powerbed,' as thou calleth, then thou cannot harness Power."

I stared thunderstruck. Not harness Power? Like, not use it? Not even have it?

The healer studied my expression. "Ye truly doth not see it, doth ye."

I brought the heel of my hand up to scrub at my brow. This couldn't be happening.

"Then how doth ye explaineth the mist?"

"I know not!"

It was quiet a moment, and then the healer released a sigh. "I must returneth unto mine clinic. If ye cannot be trained, thou must remaineth there until a new solution canst be devised."

"How long?"

"I knowest not. Whether or not thou art able to harness the Power gift, traces of thy former Power still clingeth unto thee. This wast thy best hope of moving undetected."

.

I spent the rest of the day watching her portion out herbs into elixirs and parcels. It was vexing, until she insisted that if I was to be occupying her space I might as well be put to use. Her Second, Robearta, appeared quite startled to find me thus some time later, knotting twine around stacks of parcels with clumsy fingers.

"Mistress, the patient…" Robearta began uncertainly.

"Ist earning his keep."

I glanced up, swiping back bangs that refused to tuck into the twine noose now holding the rest of my mane in check.

"But mistress, yesterday…"

"Wast quite alarming, I agree. Appalling manners for his part. Disobedience on thy part."

She paled. "Disobedience, Mistress?"

"Yes. Sending soldiers to calm a patient. Quite unprofessional. They stormed in twice on the yester."

Though, that second time was hardly her fault… Not that I could afford to protest. I was walking on glass shards as it was, so to speak.

"I…understand, My Mistress." Her furrowed brow betrayed a wont to leak water from her eyes. "I will report to the Correction Wing tomorrow."

My fingers stayed the ties. Correction Wing? Lashes? For this? Even I knew she was defending her mistress. I felt my own brow rumpling in a new breed of Temple contempt.

"Thou wilt do no such thing," the healer cut in, so abruptly I blinked. "Thou wilt apologize to the patient, and he wilt apologize unto thee."

"What?!" we both said in sync. Like hell I was going to apologize to some mothering servant who wanted me arrested!

The healer arched a perfectly manicured silver brow. "Thou wouldst prefer correction?"

The assistant bowed immediately. "Please forgive me, Suh; I beg your pardon for my conduct."

"It was, I suppose, to be expected," I replied, by way of dismissal.

The arced brow turned on me.

My eyes narrowed at the healer.

Her gaze sharpened. I could feel another head-slap coming on. Damn, I really didn't need a worse migraine.

I sighed. "I suppose I also was in err."

"That is not an apology."

"Isn't it?"

"'Tis not."

"Fine. I formally request the pardon of your Second for the threat upon her person the day prior to this."

Robearta's eyes rounded. "I-I accept your pardon."

The healer looked slightly amused. "She meaneth, she pardons thee."

"Y-Yes," Robearta agreed, blushing.

"Well. Now that everyone is agreeable, we may all coexist for the next several days."

"Several days?" Robearta and I exclaimed.

"But Mistress," Robearta said quickly, "the patient is already on his feet!"

"The patient is far from the condition he shouldst be," the healer said, leveling me with a look. Like I could help being a weak human and a Power cripple. "Only a day hath passed since he begged on death's door. Wouldst ye see him relapse, on our watch?"

She had to use the word "begged," didn't she.

"No, Mistress." I could tell the assistant didn't like the situation any more than I did. "But, how do we know he will not—?"

"Assault you?" I provided. She startled. "It is of no benefit to me." Besides, hitting mothers wasn't my thing, even when I was combat-ready. Even I had standards.

The matronly assistant shifted from foot to foot, and then straightened, as if trying to look tall. "Mistress, as you have previously instructed me to have an opinion in such matters, I feel I must state that I believe this man to be dangerous, and do not think he should stay here."

The healer appraised her with a not unkindly look. "I doth not disagree. However, he art our patient, and thus he must stayeth herein until able to leaveth on his own."

"I believe we have differing views on what constitutes the ability to leave, Healer," I interjected, keeping my tone cool despite the challenge. I was getting better at reining it in. I was getting a lot of practice.

"Returneth unto thy former strength, and then, perhaps, ye might have regained the ability to decide."

My jaw twitched. Yea, she definitely enjoyed stabbing my pride. And, for the first time in decades, there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it but bide my time. Knowing that was exactly what she wanted.

.

.

.


A/N: Weeell? What are you thinking of Human Rome? He's still in transition, by the way. Ouchie.

The story getting a little more Fantasy genre-oriented, are you noticing? It's going to keep going that direction from here.

Catch you next chapter, if not on Twitter as SeriahBlackShp!

You can also follow my blog on WordPress. I will be systematically updating my site, as random spare bits of time present themselves. I already added a bunch of words into the glossary over the weekend.

Seriah Black Sheep