Chapter 22 : Cure
Soon after exiting the village, Karya wandered off the road and headed north-east. While the lands in the Inachis region were healthy and verdant, Nikkum could not help but remark on the gradual change of scenery. As they trod upon the waning grasses and tiny blooms, the cracked ground alongside indicated they were entering the barren land of Eclis. There was no visible natural frontier between the Inachis and Eclis regions, and yet no travelers would mistake their location. Like the merchants of the city of fair trading fought hard to keep out the black market goods smuggled in by gold seekers, the soils of Inachis struggled in their own way not to be swallowed by the death-inspiring badlands of Eclis. If even rocks refused to give up their existence, people's attachment to life must be something extraordinary to lead them to sacrifice anything, accept any devil's deal, just to stay alive.
The study of medicine was said to be the origin of wizardry. After helplessly watching the diseased pass away, some men resolved to wait for miracles which never happened and prayed to the beings who never listened, whereas others had sought something ironically more worldly: magic. The first ideas were ridiculed, and the early attempts fumbled. Man was this peculiar animal that, despite living a limited life, was able to pass down every asset to the next generation. 'Magic' was actually a very insulting word to describe the understanding of spells; most respected wizards knew there was nothing 'magic' in magic. If physics revealed the fundamental laws of elements in a comprehensible way, then magic simply related the cardinal flow of energies in a poetic form.
It was inconceivable to stand up against the Divine and the Almighty. However, humans knew any problem had boundless solutions, for as long as they handed down different pieces of the puzzle, their descendants would inevitably complete the picture one day and wait for any new trials the Old Gods would impose. But as humans lived their life, the taste of joy, anger, sorrow and happiness would never fade away.
Perhaps this very cycle was the true suffering, and a cure was yet to be found.
Nikkum took in a deep breath; the north wind carried a scent of mist and sea, refreshing him. After walking on this natural frontier for two hours, his hands were getting itchy. Every now and then, he would incline his neck left and right to remove the irksome strains. He would also release a set of bold axes out of the blue, simply to amuse himself in front of a startled doctor and a displeased magus. As the vegetation was getting poorer, a clear line separating the land and the sky became easier to see. The warrior was certainly bored, he had to tag along because Saar wanted him to. It would not have been any better if he had waited in the village anyway. Instead of idle chat with commoners, he preferred looking at how the world was cut in half by this line of separation and how he walked on a straight path dividing the eroding rocks and resilient grasses. The absence of clouds in the sky and the lack of life on the ground made up a picture which could not be more melancholic, and a lone man appeared only lonelier in it. And yet, the noisy words between Karya and Saar broke his solitary reverie.
"If we go any further, we'll reach Night Tear. You said we'd be back before sunset." The youth needed a rest.
"I was wrong thinking you were the smart one. I said Silverclaw Floret bloomed on cliff edges, what would we be on an island for?" The doctor was in a rush.
"The misty island does have some hillocks..." Saar stopped to catch his breath.
"They have slopes, we're going to cliffs." Karya tended out both hands, palm-to-palm, then motioned them down, "Cliffs, never seen them? They are straight like this."
"I'm more aware of this land than you think, thank you for your explanation." It must be hard to breathe and talk at the same time.
"What a useless boy! You don't find good health in books, you know?" The doctor quickly saw through Saar's lifestyle.
"Give me just a minute..." Saar was used to travel but after rushing this much in a weak body he needed a pause indeed.
"Hey! Big one there!" Karya switched her target, "Yes, you!"
Nikkum turned his head with a "Hum?" look on his face.
"Right, I'm talking to you. Do. You. Under. Stand?" Karya paused between her foreign words.
Nikkum sighed and spoke to Celius instead: "She really reminds me of someone..."
Celius nodded slightly.
"Stop your chat there, listen up!" Karya's imperious attitude matched any queen's, actually any woman would become queen if they were badly needed.
Nikkum let out a scornful sound, but Celius turned to the doctor thankfully: "I'm all ears, milady."
"If you manage to see any doppelgangers, don't let them get away. They lurk around this area." Karya was talking about a rare species of monster.
Celius had never seen one before: "What do they look like?"
"Humanoid form with deformed limbs, dark gray skin, hairless, pointed ears and teeth, face covered in profound wrinkles," Saar's knowledge was back to use, "and identifying trait: red glowing eyes."
"Ready to catch one?" Karya's excited tone showed that the young man was completely right.
"No, you said you only needed Silverclaw Floret and the time is pressing." Saar reminded the doctor of her own prescription, "Why shall we do monster slaying?"
"Doppelganger's heart has medical use, and it fetches a fairly high price." Karya seemed to weigh Duriuk's life against some black market goods.
"Nikkum, give her that bag of gold now." Saar knew what worked.
The warrior unhappily loosened the thread and threw the bag to Karya.
"Ha, heavier than I thought." The doctor seemed satisfied about the reward, "All right then, we're almost at the cliffs now. Still, be on the lookout for one on our way."
"I doubt so." Saar wanted the doctor to focus on her real mission, "Doppelgangers live in caverns, they don't come out in broad daylight."
The small group started to move again, and they reached the land limit after a few moments. Beyond the glinting blue water and far off the main land, Nikkum was convinced that he could see the island of Night Tear, even if it was really a small dot of brown mist from this distance. The soughing of the sea sent little whispers to the warrior's ears. Yellow clouds amassed afar, as if reflecting the island in the sky. Gleams of daylight pierced through the spaces between the floating accumulations and quietly entered into the weighty blue. The cliff appeared like the edge of the world to Nikkum, and the island dowsed in light in the distance was much like a place of salvation, of escape. How many times had he stood at the brink of life, laughed death off, and yet remained unable to see the light. At this very moment, in this worldly place, he perceived something he had never felt before. The immersion with the earth and the sky taught him a sensation of warmth, telling him that, when a tough man fell, he was only returning to the lands, becoming one with the nature. Outlaws were not chased down in every corner of the world, no liars were forced to hide the truth forever. Forgiveness does not come from the king or the clouds above, every man has had it in their hands since the very beginning.
And yet, when one looked down, one saw the abyss.
"Hey, big one! Climb down to the rocks from here and get us the flowers we came for." Karya liked to pick a hard target.
Nikkum was vexed by this disturbance: "How about me throwing you down and picking you up together with your pathetic flowers?"
"Watch your words, Mister Muscles, you are the one paying me a whole bag of gold for flowers." Karya matched nicely the warrior's appearance with his name.
"Go bother someone else, someone more interested in saving than killing." Nikkum was not giving in this time.
"I'll do it." Celius volunteered, trying to save Saar trouble.
"You don't have to, Celius." Nikkum was irritated by the fact that the honest man always got the short end of the stick, "Let the concerned one do this job..."
Then suddenly a high-pitched voice shook up the situation: "Yes, don't do it, Celius! Your effort'll only go wasted."
"What!" Celius turned around, to see Lily appear out of nowhere.
Nikkum laughed: "This is great, Saar, your personal doctor is here."
Saar showed worry instead of surprise: "Lily, what do you mean by that?"
Celius inquired of the young wizard: "Did you know she was following us?"
Saar was more concerned about his dying man: "No, but it would be more surprising if she didn't follow us. Lily, answer my question."
"Well, you are not going to save anyone if you listen to this charlatan." Lily replied, "She's been deceiving you since the village, your man will die anyway if you follow her method."
Nikkum chuckled: "So Lily was with us there too."
"Wait a moment!" Karya was displeased with having her skills questioned, "Which hole did you crawl out from? Are you saying that I'm unable to save that fellow and I came out all this way only to have a good view?"
"I'm not saying that... it's just..." Lily retracted.
"Explain." Impatience could be heard in Saar's voice.
"I'm just saying these men will not let you have your way to make the cure. After all, you need..." Lily hesitated.
"Silverclaw Floret? We are here for that." Saar was confused.
"Not only that..." Lily was still hesitating.
"What more? Back in the village, she said we had everything except Silverclaw Floret." Saar pressed.
"Yes, you had everything..." Lily's way to hide the truth was quite unusual.
"Hmph, looks like you know something after all." Karya intervened, "Silverclaw Floret is used in only one rare recipe, that's why I didn't have it on me. What this good-natured lady's afraid to say is that the recipe required more than just flowers, and among other things it needs a fresh human heart. Since we've got two dying men there, I can either kill one to save the other or just watch both of them die. The villagers only asked me to cure the Oracle anyway."
What was stunning was certainly not the diabolical recipe but the way the doctor described it. She might have handled the situation in a logical way in line with her profession, but to commoners she was simply requiring murder. Even though Nikkum could not care less about the Oracle, or the soon ingredient-to-be, a wave of shame worried at his heart.
However, Saar showed little emotion: "Go fetch the flowers, Celius."
The righteous man shook his head in astonishment: "Sorry, I'm afraid I can't..."
Saar repeated in a much more compelling voice: "The flowers."
Celius was a man of bravery and leniency, always painfully endeavoring to find the best compromise to every thorny situation. But he was also a man of ideals and principles, when the line was being crossed he would stand up against anything. He had perfectly perceived the aggressiveness of Saar's demand, however, he had just told himself that he needed to prepare for the worst.
The young wizard's right hand gripped him firmly: "Don't make me repeat for the third..."
"Saar, Look over here!" Nikkum yelled, standing at the edge of the cliff, "I have a better solution for you all!"
Saar's next sentence was wrapped in anger: "What do you want? Unless you want to get it..."
Then everyone's eyes were fixed on the end of the brute's arm: Karya was hanging in mid-air above the immeasurable height separating her and the sea, Nikkum's claw tightly choked around her neck, which was also the only thing keeping her from crashing to a certain death.
"Nikkum, you..." Unable to finish his words, Saar released the highly condensed air spell from his right hand making a sizable cavity in the ground. The sound of its impact left no doubt that it was way more powerful than the one the impudent villager had suffered.
"So what shall I do?" Nikkum's eyes shined with amusement and fearlessness, "Choose your words carefully."
Celius stepped forward, reaching out his hands: "Don't do it, Nikkum!"
"Don't do what? Let her go or not let her go?" Nikkum squeezed his claw tighter, the lack of breath made Karya's arms spasm in pain.
Lily was at loss as well and babbled: "Look, you don't have to kill her! Saar, say something! You only want to speak to that guy, right? I may not save him but I think I can wake him up for you. It's worth trying, I'm good at poisons and stuff, remember?"
Saar loosened a little: "Are you sure?"
"Maybe... No, Yes, I can, I'm sure!" Lily did not even know if she was lying anymore.
"Then the fuss ends here." Saar turned his back, not caring about the doctor or the executioner anymore.
Lily ran past the furious magus to take the lead, in order to show her eagerness to do what she promised.
Celius was relieved to see Saar leaving: "Nikkum, it's OK now, put her down."
"Heard you." To the guard's horror, the beast let loose his prey, watching her drop straight down the cliff.
"No!" Celius cried out.
Nikkum looked down then halted his laugh: "What the..."
Upon hearing Celius' cry afar, Lily asked Saar, worried: "It looks like that stupid Nikkum has dropped her. I hope she'll survive somehow."
Saar mocked: "She's OK. Celius is around, he'll figure out something. He won't let her die, even if he has to throw himself down the cliff to catch her."
Soon after Saar finished his explanation, Nikkum caught up, sounding amazed: "Did you see that? She landed on a rotten branch! Why in the world was a tree sticking out like that!"
Proven right, Saar said to the lady: "See?"
Lily could hardly hide her astonishment, still she kept walking: "Is Celius coming?"
Nikkum shrugged: "That woman was unconscious, and from that height Celius won't be able to do anything. He has a better chance to get her out of there by returning to the village with us and seeking help."
Lily nodded: "True that he can't expect you to do anything."
Saar was not in the mood to be angry any more, all he had on his mind was reaching the village before Duriuk died. His worried steps left his companions behind as he advanced alone. He was much like a seeker of the truth - every path he decided to take only led him further from it, every aid he obtained only hindered him more than he could possibly imagine. The more knowledgeable he became, the further he felt he strayed. To complete the timeless quest in his aging body, Saar never stopped peeking into the future and always took the best shortcut he could identify. However, even if he believed none of his actions were a wasted move, sometimes he simply could not deny that not everything had gone as he envisaged. The resulting flaws in his perfect plans coldly reminded him of another cruel and indisputable truth: he was born human after all.
Only a few moments later, Nikkum suddenly remembered something: "Lily, I was too surprised back there that I completely forgot to... how do I put this... compliment your new outfit."
"Oh, you noticed?" The young lady was obviously happy to hear it, "I know I look good in it."
It was unusual to see Nikkum embarrassed: "I wouldn't call this... 'good'... But sure, it's unique and perfectly matches your craziness."
"Thank you!" Lily did not seem to be bothered to be called insane and sent back a bright smile.
Indeed, next to Nikkum was certainly something so unearthly, so extravagant, so beyond words of description. Nikkum only vaguely remembered her bleached prisoner clothes from when he first met the damsel in Zeal. Afterward he never had a good chance to gaze upon this beauty. Even when he had looked, his eyes were often drawn to her angelic face, blinding him to anything human. But at present, it was impossible to miss the dazzling white one-piece robe, embroidered with so many wild flowers in different colors and types that it could barely be called a 'white robe' anymore. While the underlying cloth looked like the work from some sane artisan, the unfashionable warrior's best guess about the flowers was that Lily had pillaged every garden she had come across and tied on every floret she had ever seen. And yet, the robe lost all its originality beside the 'crown' she was wearing. The closest worldly thing on Lily's head Nikkum was able to match with was a crown, covered not in jewelries but in feathers. Its rainbow colors fitted surprisingly well with the flowers below, whilst the drop-down long feathers were much like an inverted peacock's tail. 'Heavenly', the tasteless warrior was unable to come up other words beside this, and art was certainly one of his greatest weaknesses.
Thanks to Lily's lavish display, the warrior's mind was fully occupied on the return trip. By the time Celius finally caught up with the rest of the group, they were greeted by a mob of villagers gathered not far from the entrance. The fire of anger in their eyes clearly indicated they had come to avenge the wounded man and were looking for something they did not bring.
Sensing the inevitable conflict, Nikkum poked Saar's left shoulder: "Not my fault."