Ric waited an age for her eyes to open. The tiny ember of hope in his chest furiously held on to the knowledge that the Gatekeeper didn’t lie. Without it, Ric knew he would be lost in the darkness. With the Gatekeeper gone, it didn’t take long for Catryn to come back to consciousness but every second in silence could have been an eternity.
As soon as she became aware of the world around her, she tightly wrapped her arms around Ric’s waist and buried her face in his chest. No matter how she convinced herself it was to calm his roiling emotions, she knew that wasn’t the only reason.
Catryn rarely cried. She told herself that it was a waste of energy; tears achieved nothing. Instead, she tucked her pain inside a little box and pushed it aside. In the depths of the earth, at the edge of death, she wept into Ric’s chest like an infant as fear and exhaustion caught up with her.
Wrapped in each other’s arms, they waited to be found; there was no use trying to navigate the tunnels when they could hardly stand. Time had no meaning in the dark, but eventually a small group came to guide them back out into the open air.
As they walked clumsily through the tunnels, Ric did not release her hand. He had requested that she allow him to carry her, but she reluctantly refused; she needed to prove that she was alive. Her aching legs, fighting to force her muscles to obey, she relished the feeling. Still, Catryn welcomed his steady warmth; she needed the contact as much as he did. Her mind was a mess of fog and fear, and he was the only thing keeping her grounded.
The priests guided them silently and even the amicable Ric didn’t bother to make conversation beyond asking about his men. Once he was satisfied they were alive and safe, he only spoke to murmur words of encouragement to Catryn. The priests carried their fallen brother on a wooden rack they had brought with them. Catryn wondered if they had known, or if the litter had been prepared for one of them instead.
Even without the threat of wayward spirits, the energy of the catacombs was oppressive. When they finally passed through the fine veil that separated the catacombs from the temple, Wolf’s legs stuttered to a halt as she savoured the sudden breeze. Remembering her bare face, she pulled her hood up to hide in its shadows and squared the bag on her back.
Her ribs groaned a protest, reminding Catryn of her injuries. She hid her discomfort from Ric as best she could, but his hard-set jaw told her that he had noticed. Instead of commenting, he moved in front of her to lead them into the main hall of the temple.
Ahren was ever the picture of professionalism. It was a testament to how haggard he was that he didn’t pause to greet the High Priest, who was waiting patiently for their return. Instead, he grunted “Renegotiate the payment with Jared.”
Without waiting for a response, he strode towards Rynir, who was limping hurriedly over to them. There was no colour in his face, and he collapsed as soon as he reached Ric, but his lips strained into a smile. “I thought…I…would have to…go in…and…get…you.” He chuckled breathlessly.
Holding Rynir in his arms, Ric lunged to grab the priest that had escorted them from the tunnels and roared “You told me they were fine!”
Though Ric’s hand was gripping the front of his robes, the priest calmly met his eyes and replied in a reasonable tone. “Death is a natural part of life. There is nothing wrong with your friend. If his time has come, what could be wrong with that?”
“Can you not help him?” Catryn asked quietly, placing her hand on Ric’s trembling arm. Rynir was smiling weakly; the reason most of them stayed with Iron and Bone was because of Ahren. Seeing him reluctantly resigned to his fate, Caryn’s mind was frantically racing through possibilities.
Magic was different to blessings of the divine. What the priests couldn’t achieve might be possible for someone like her. Yet it would be difficult, near impossible, to help him without revealing her magic. As she wrestled with herself, she could vaguely hear the priest’s gentle response.
“There is no method to reverse death’s hold on him. We will keep him here, and help him pass gently.”
“You will not.” Ric replied firmly, releasing his hold on the priest and casting him aside. As long as Rynir was still alive, he would not relinquish his fate to them. “You two!” He barked at Tomas and Kihyun, “Get back to the guild and wait for me.”
Watching the others leave, with their heads down, Catryn agonised over what to do. If Rynir hadn’t helped her back in the catacombs, she would have left him to survive under his own merits. The only reason her hand closed firmly around the last rejuvenation potion in her bag was because she felt indebted to him. Besides, she couldn’t tolerate the thought of leaving anyone behind to the Gatekeeper after what they had been through. She hesitated right up until the bottle was at her lips, and then downed the potion.
The burning sensation intensified, searing her throat and chest, and settling in her core. It was dangerous to keep artificially replenishing her magic, and each attempt strained her body more and more. A prickling warmth tingled outward to her toes and her fingertips.
“Can you keep up?” Ric asked her quietly.
Seeing the intensity burning in his eyes, Catryn brushed aside the last of her doubts. With the foreign but familiar feeling easing the weariness in her limbs, Catryn straightened her back and nodded “Keep your eyes forward. I’ll be on your heels.”
As they ran, the weariness quickly settled back over her bones. Despite her even gait, every step jolted her injuries until she struggled for breath. Ignoring the pain, she sent her consciousness forward to the seemingly lifeless man in Ric’s arms. The ethereal energy that pulsed through his body pulled her in, and she instinctively encouraged its path; keeping Rynir’s blood flowing as she sought the fragile chain that kept his spirit tethered.
Most of the time, Catryn fought to control her magic and stamp it down. Her expanded senses were a side-effect of the nature of her magic, the nature of all magic, but she rarely pushed it far outside of herself. She didn’t even know what her domain of power was. Without formal training, keeping it locked away wherever she could, it was difficult to discover.
The way her magic easily latched onto his essence, his spirit, made her wonder. All energy could be manipulated to some degree with magic, but the soul was different. She filed the information away to examine later and focused on keeping herself moving. It didn’t take long for her to fall behind, but she followed Ric’s aura and the trail of her own magic, which was stubbornly holding onto Rynir.
It was only when she stumbled to a halt at their destination that she realised where Ric had been leading them. Catryn’s heart stuttered, her magic rushed back to her, and her stomach lurched; she was in front of the healer’s cavern in the under city. The stale air on her face reminded her that she didn’t have a mask, and she had never felt so exposed.
In the rough clinic, Catryn could see Bennett carefully and meticulously manipulating the energy around the motionless mercenary. He made no attempt to hide his methods, magic circulating freely around Rynir’s body, but Ric showed no indication that he was bothered by it. She stared at his back, searching for any signs of discomfort, and found nothing.
The magic the potion had suffused her with dissipated, evaporating through her skin with the last scraps of energy she had mustered. Her legs refused to take another step. Instead, she leaned against the side of the entrance, watching the magic flow through the cavern like a musical symphony in a grand hall.
When he was satisfied that Rynir’s treatment was underway, Ric retreated to stand guard by Catryn’s side. They stood in silence together and she shifted her weight from the wall, surprising him by leaning against his solid frame. He looked down at her, startled, and she mumbled “Aren’t you meant to be watching the tunnel?”
He chucked quietly, running a hand gently under her hood and through her tangled hair. She was too exhausted to hide her blush so she pretended he couldn’t see her face and closed her eyes. The next she knew, she heard Ric mumble “I have another favour to ask you.”
She glanced up at him curiously before she realised that he hadn’t been speaking to her. Bennett was stood on Ric’s other side, hidden from view, and the two had been talking quietly. Realising that she had woken, Ric looked down at her with a strained smile.
“Healing people isn’t a favour; it’s what I do.” Bennett smiled gently and stepped past Ric to offer his hand. She stared at it for a moment before risking a glance at his face. The shock in Galen’s eyes struck her in the gut. He looked like he had seen a ghost. “Cat?”
Ric stiffened and flicked his eyes to her face. Seeing the panic in her eyes, he murmured “Wolf?”
“Wolf? Of course.” He rubbed the back of his neck, looking at the ground for a moment to rearrange his expression. It was a habit that Catryn was familiar with, reminding her of her dearest and best friend, and it tugged at her heart persistently. In contrast to her roiling emotions, Bennett’s eyes were detached and sharp. “You’re…not what I expected.”
Catryn worked to keep her expression blank, but she couldn’t keep a small wry smile from her lips. “I get that a lot.” Changing the subject, she asked “How is Rynir?”
“You would know better than I.” He muttered cryptically. “He is stable. The situation isn’t exactly standard, so I won’t know more until he wakes. If he recovers, he will be changed.”
As Bennett gestured towards a rough cot, Catryn sighed and reluctantly looked up at Ric. “Is this really necessary?”
“You know I’m not your subordinate anymore.” She mumbled, sulking, but she sighed and gingerly shrugged out of her heavy coat, dropping the gloves on top of it, at his feet. She forced her spine to straighten and walked carefully towards the empty rack.
Bennett watched their exchange and approached slowly as she leant against the cot, saying “I didn’t get a chance to thank you for your help yesterday.”
Wolf didn’t miss the surprise on Ric’s face; after the condition she had been in yesterday, even he must have been curious. Even so, it felt like weeks had passed since the incident. She looked around the cavern to avoid meeting his eyes and said, “I take it they left without any issues?”
“They did.” His smile didn’t match the suspicion in his eyes. “Why did you help me?”
“Why does a mercenary do anything? I was paid.” She replied simply, emulating Arabella again to project confidence she didn’t feel. Ric’s eyes were burning into her back, but she didn’t dare look around.
“Must have been a hefty sum to convince someone to go against the Blue Cloaks for the sake of some under city rogue mage.” His voice was matter-of-fact, but his eyes were searching.
She met his gaze head on and lifted her chin, making sure there was no hint of a smile on her face. “Sorry if you were hoping for a more personal motivation; you’re not my type.” She crossed her arms defensively in front of her, to hide her racing heart.
To Catryn’s relief, Bennett laughed quietly. To anyone but her, his questions could have sounded that way. His expression tightened when he saw the pain etched in the lines of her face and he bowed his head. “Apologies, I’ve kept you waiting. Let me see your injuries.”
At the sight of her injuries, the conversation stopped. Bennett silently made his way around the worst of the breaks and fractures, taking his time to heal them as best he could. Occasionally, he would exclaim at a particular deep wound and ask what kind of monster had attacked her, or how she had even made it there. She couldn’t bear to see the look on Ric’s face, so she kept her head down like a coward. There was nothing she could say to reassure or comfort him, she knew.
After a little while, Catryn insisted that she didn’t need any more help. She knew that he would have used up a lot of his energy trying to keep Rynir alive, so she muttered to leave the scrapes and bruises to heal on their own. Her excuse was that it would raise eyebrows if she was suddenly fine, but he knew that she was taking pity on him. Healing a mage was more difficult than healing a normal person; their magic tended to clash against any intrusion.
In truth, the scent of spring grass that came with his magic brought bittersweet memories she wasn’t ready to relive. Simpler times. Sneaking into the Archmage’s study, just because she could. Playing in the forests that surrounded their mountain fortress. Her older sister chasing after her knight. Their parents.
A warm hand on her shoulder broke her reverie and she looked up at Ric, stood steadily at her back, with a grateful smile. It was only when she stood that Catryn realised that her pain was gone. She dropped a handful of silver crescents on the cot behind her and muttered her thanks. While she gathered her bag and coat, Ric watched Rynir with a complicated expression. “How long until he wakes?”
Bennett ran a hand through his shaggy hair absentmindedly. “A few hours, at least. Beyond that, it’s hard to say.”
With a deep sigh, Ric glanced at Catryn and said “We need to tell Jared what we found.”
“Barracks?” She suggested, moving towards the adjoining tunnel without waiting for his reply.
He nodded and turned to Bennett, holding out his hand. “I’ll return once we conclude our business. Stay out of trouble, Galen.”
Catryn flinched. It wasn’t as though she had any doubts, but hearing his name made his existence that much harder to ignore. Clenching her fists at her side, she dropped her head. She tilted her head slightly, half glancing back over her shoulder, and muttered “If you get in trouble, Arabella at the Bleeding Rose knows how to find me.”
“Why?” His question was echoed in Ric’s eyes as they both stared at her with different shades of surprise and suspicion.
“Pay or not, I put effort into saving you. It would be a waste for you to get yourself killed now.” She lied unconvincingly and stubbornly looked towards the exit.
“How about if I just want to see you?” Galen asked, spring scents lifting the stale air that stretched between them.
Surprised, Catryn let a reluctant smile break on her face. He really hadn’t changed. She knew what he wanted to hear, but the girl he was hoping to find was gone. She couldn’t give him hope where there was none. The smile died on her lips as she lifted her hood and left in silence.
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