Konrad insisted on setting up camp right there, in the middle of the road, as we waited to see what would happen to Mathias. When Trevor protested that there was still plenty of sunlight and we were losing time, Konrad just stared at him until the younger man looked down and slunk away. It wasn’t much longer before the wagons were arranged into their usual positions and Konrad had started a fire just off the road.
Reika, Erik, and I continued to sit vigil over Mathias as this happened. Once camp was set up Rose slipped silently in to sit beside me. She was the only non-Changed person in the wagon, and I thought she was there less to sit with Mathias than to be near me. She had, I’d noticed, something of an aversion to being away from me in the caravan. I couldn’t particularly blame her for that.
Over the next several hours, Mathias continued to Change. It was a bit more subtle and slower once the drug was in his system. His veins continued to grow more prominent and richer in color, turning his grey eyes almost lilac. His features were broader than they should be, cheekbones heavy and with almost ridges of bone under the skin of his temples. His skin was faintly darker as well, though I wasn’t sure whether that was actually the skin changing tone or just the darker blood underneath.
Reika kept her hand on his forehead most of the time, monitoring the boy’s temperature. I didn’t ask how she was able to do so with such precision, any more than I asked how the Dierkhlani–Erik–knew how rapidly the child’s heart was beating. Some questions just weren’t worth bothering with.
Erik continued to dose him with my sedative throughout the day. He always did it the same way, sterilizing the needle and coating it with the stuff before slipping it into his arm. The blood on the needle was darker every time, going from the bright crimson of human blood to a dark scarlet that could pass for black in dim light.
Shortly before sundown, he spoke up, breaking the heavy silence in the wagon. “Heartbeat is mostly stable,” he said. “Pupillary response is still minimal, but the digitalis seems to be working. He needs energy, though. The Change is burning through his reserves.” He looked outside, to the group of humans out there, and raised his voice to address them. “Can you make a soup for him?” he asked, his tone making it less a request than an order. “Thin, with meat stock and salt.”
There was a brief flurry of activity and discussion outside, but it only took a few minutes before a pot was on the fire. I continued to sit quietly where I was, though my attention was less on Mathias now. His condition was…not stable, precisely, but not in such a rapid state of flux that he demanded constant focus.
Instead, I was focused on the people sitting with me. Reika, with her quick motions and almost reptilian features, was a continuing enigma. Her concern for Mathias, the intensity of her feelings on it, was at odds with her usual demeanor.
How had she been treated when she Changed, I wondered? Not well, I was guessing. It was rare for the Changed to be cared for as well as this. Even in the Whitewood, disregard and mockery were more common. I’d been taken to a medic, who had determined that I wasn’t in imminent risk of death and then left me alone. I’d laid there, on a simple cot, alone in an empty room for a full day as I went through the agony of the Change.
It was hard to imagine it being better in Akitsuro, where the Changed were now a novelty rather than a commonplace. And Reika had said that her family disowned her afterwards, so they almost certainly hadn’t been kind during the process. What had they done to her, I wondered, to make her feel so strongly about keeping someone else from going through the same thing? What had they done to her?
People could be so cruel, sometimes. I couldn’t comprehend what would make someone look at a child who was already going through a horrifically painful experience, for no reason beyond poor luck, and heap further torture on them rather than offer them help? Why did they look away and wait outside the room rather than even sit with you as you died?
After about an hour, Olga called, “Soup’s ready.” Her tone was concerned, even worried.
“Bring a bowl here,” Erik replied, shrugging off his pack. He rooted around in it, and eventually pulled out a long length of cord. It was strange, though, translucent and apparently hollow, and it moved with an odd sort of flexibility.
“What is that?” Rose asked, staring.
“Alchemical resin tube,” he replied, holding it up as though measuring something. “Quite clever how they make these. The resin is molded around an oiled glass rod, and then they pull the rod out.” Then, louder, he called, “And bring a bowl of boiling water, too.”
“But what is it for?” Rose asked.
Erik smiled a very flat, mirthless smile. “You’ll see,” he responded simply.
It didn’t take long before the two bowls were brought in. One was filled with steaming water, while the other held a sort of thin broth that smelled strongly of meat–rabbit, I thought. Someone had been hunting.
Erik, with inhuman precision, poured the water into the tube. The opening was tiny, smaller than my smallest finger, but he poured a steady trickle of water down it perfectly smoothly. He got no water on anything else; even his hands were completely dry. It was a degree of steadiness and precision that I didn’t think any normal human could have, except possibly a very gifted water channeler.
Once he was satisfied, he shook out the tube and returned to the boy’s side. He held the tip of it to Mathias’s nostril, and slowly began to slide it in.
Mathias didn’t seem to be awake, but he reacted to that. He moaned, a low, strained sound, and reached up to swat the tube away. He never opened his eyes.
Erik frowned. “Hold him down,” he said. “And hold his head steady.” He then returned the tube to where it was.
“Are you really going to put that up his nose?” Rose asked. Her voice was…I wasn’t sure how to characterize it. Shocked, distressed, confused, all of them seemed to apply.
Erik, on the other hand, sounded perfectly calm. “Yes,” he said, simply.
“That’s torture!” Rose said. Her tone had settled on appalled, now, and it sounded too strong and too personal to be a simple objection. It made me wonder what had been done to her to make her feel that strongly, much as Reika’s strong feelings of concern had made me wonder about her past.
We all had our scars.
“He’s currently in a state of advanced starvation,” Erik said, his voice still completely level. “His body is effectively eating itself to sustain the Change. Between that, the inherent stresses of the process, and what the drug is doing to him, his state is still very delicate. He needs food or he’ll starve to death in a few hours. And he is in no state to eat. So unless you’d rather he die than go through some pain, I recommend you hold his head steady.”
Rose swallowed, hard. She looked as though she’d been struck.
But she took Mathias’s head and held it steady. I took the boy’s arms, sitting as close to Rose as I could to provide some attempt at comfort. Reika held his legs down.
Erik then began slowly sliding the tube into Mathias’s nose again. He thrashed, but the motions were rather weak; it wasn’t hard to hold him still. Without interruption, Erik kept sliding it in, pushing the tube further and further up his nostril. His motions were smooth, precise, and too confident for this to be his first time doing this. He kept doing that for some time, as dark blood started to flow out of the boy’s nose.
After pushing a considerable length of hose in, Erik paused and pulled Mathias’s mouth open, looking inside. Apparently whatever he saw satisfied him, because he went back to pushing the hose inside, sliding several more inches in before stopping.
He then picked up the bowl of broth in his other hand, raising it over the boy’s head. He began, with the same inhuman precision as he’d demonstrated with the water, to pour it into the tube. Then, in a single motion as fast as a striking snake, he dipped the end of the tube into the broth as he returned the bowl to level.
Broth continued to move in a very slow, steady stream after he stopped pouring. It flowed up through the tube and then down into, presumably, Mathias’s stomach. I recognized it as a siphon, though I’d never seen one be set up so smoothly.
“You can let go now,” Erik said, almost as an afterthought. “It should be essentially painless now that it’s in place, so I doubt he’ll try to pull it out.”
“What now?” I asked, as I let go of his arms.
“Now we wait,” Erik said. “And see if his body can adjust before it tears itself to pieces.”
Camp that night had none of the cheer and bustle that had become its norm. We sat, in our two sharply demarcated groups, in silence. It had the feeling of a deathwatch, and I think we all suspected that it was.
But none of were the sort to give up without a fight. I hadn’t known these people for long, but I was very confident of that. And so we continued to sit and wait, watching. Erik fed Mathias twice more over the course of the evening, pouring thin broth down that tube and into the boy’s stomach. The rest of us just…waited. Oh, there were things we did to cover it. Reika kept checking his temperature, and fetching cool cloths to apply to him when the fever started to rise again. I checked and rechecked that the bleeding–from the needle tracks in his arm and the tube in his nose–wasn’t too severe, that he was breathing evenly.
But a cover was all it was. We’d done all we could, and we knew it. Now…well. There was nothing left to do but wait and see whether he was strong enough to pull through, or the Change would kill him the way it had killed many others.
Waiting was always hard. It gave the dark thoughts time to seep in. What if we’d done something wrong, or overlooked the right answer? What if I had been wrong to give him the drug? What if all this was for nothing?
It was a long, grim sort of evening, the sort I’d passed too many of already.
After the sun set, on our usual schedule, Olga brought us our dinner. It was more substantial than what was being given to the kid, by far. Beans with rabbit meat, and bread so dense it could have been used for building materials. She gave us our portions and then went back out to the others. To the circle of firelight, the border of which seemed to mark the line between the two worlds. On their side, it was calm and pleasant and human. Food was had, and conversation had started up again, almost normal in tone if you could look past the tension, the long silences and gaps.
On our side it was dark, and silent, and there was a child who was being stuck with needles and having soup poured down a tube into his stomach for something he had no control over.
I could see why they preferred their world over this one.
We kept our vigil into the night, but eventually people had to go and sleep. There would be more work to do tomorrow, and being exhausted from lack of rest would do no one any good. It was the way of things.
Even within the wagon, people started leaving. Reika went to rest outside, as she usually did when the weather was pleasant, on a bedroll beneath the stars. The others retired to their wagons, Rose giving me a long look and a quick squeeze of my hand before leaving.
Finally, there were only three people in the wagon. Mathias, unnaturally still on the floor, with that damned tube still running into his nostril. Erik, who was leaning against a crate with his eyes closed. The posture looked careless, but I knew better. He was probably listening to the kid’s heartbeat and who knew what else. He was, after all, Dierkhlani.
And there was me.
I sat quietly, watching. I was looking at Erik more than the boy. I’d never really had an opportunity to look at him up close.
He looked much the same as he had at a distant, lean and quick and dangerous. But there was an almost alien quality to him, now that I really saw him. It was almost like looking at the varg, in a way. Seeing something that was a person, undeniably a person, but one with something other about him. He didn’t twitch or fidget–even his breathing was so slow that you could be forgiven for thinking he wasn’t breathing at all.
He was scarred. I hadn’t noticed it before; it was nothing that you could see at a distance, and most of his body was covered anyway. But now that I looked, I could see the marks. A fine silver line across his face, just next to the eye. Another on his hand, bare since he’d taken his glove off to put the needle in, the pale line disappearing under his sleeve. At the edge of his hair was another, this one a complicated web of marks. Still more were just visible at his collar, the edges of the scars showing from under the jacket.
So many scars, and that was just the part of him I could see. All of them so very old, and healed so cleanly.
When he spoke it startled me, though his voice was soft. “You’re an unusual girl,” he said, not opening his eyes.
I didn’t say anything in response. There was no need to.
“Very decisive,” he said. “Very…assured. You make your choice and you act on it. No hesitation. It’s an uncommon trait.”
“Needed it,” I said simply. I didn’t say why. He knew, anyway, at least enough. The details, the exact story of what I’d been through, didn’t matter.
“You remind me of someone I knew a long time ago,” he said. His voice was softer still, so quiet that I might not have heard him at all if I were human. “A friend of mine, once. She was…there was a fire in her. A hunger.” He was silent for a moment. “I’ve not thought of her in a long time.”
“Why are you here?” I asked. It wasn’t a question I’d asked him before. I wasn’t sure anyone in the caravan had. This was, I thought, probably the most personal conversation he’d had with any of us since setting out.
His lips twitched in a mirthless smile. “No particular reason. I had nowhere better to be.”
His shoulders shifted, the barest shadow of a shrug. “The friend I mentioned had something she used to say,” he said. “She would say that home is where you go when no one else will take you.”
I nodded. I didn’t point out that he hadn’t answered the question, because really, he had. “How did she die?” I asked. I didn’t have to ask whether she was dead. His tone said it all.
He was silent for a time. “It was simple enough,” he said at last. “They pushed too hard, and one day she…well, she’d simply taken all that she could bear.” He smiled again, still without any humor in it, still without opening his eyes. “It was a very, very long time ago.”
I nodded. I said nothing.
“The boy is dying, still,” he said after a few moments.
I jerked upright, stared first at him and then at Mathias. As far as I could tell, nothing had changed.
“It’s the blood, I think,” the Dierkhlani said by way of explanation. “Too thick. His heart is breaking down trying to keep it moving. The drug is slowing the process down enough to keep him alive for a time, but it’s doing its own damage in the process. He’s having…unexpected reactions to the digitalis. I tried weaning him off earlier, and his heart rate started to skyrocket again.”
“How long?” I asked. I didn’t specify whether I was asking how long the kid had, or how long Erik had known. I wasn’t sure which question I was asking.
“I’ve only been sure the past hour,” he answered. “Always difficult to predict what will happen, with the Changed. But it’s been, what, twelve hours now? The deep tissue changes are mostly done by now. The major changes that are going to happen have happened, at this point, and he isn’t pulling out of it. His heart isn’t adapting to suit the change in blood. And look.” He picked up Mathias’s arm, held it out towards me.
I looked. It took me a moment to see, but when I did it was obvious. His fingertips were tinged with violet. At first I took it for an effect of the changing blood, but then I realized it was bruising.
“Damage to the blood vessels,” Erik said, lowering Mathias’s arm back to the floor. “They weren’t made to deal with this. The capillaries are breaking under the pressure. Larger vessels aren’t outright breaking, but the damage is accumulating. We can’t see it, but he’s bleeding internally.”
I swallowed hard. I knew how internal bleeding ended. It was…not a condition that had had many outcomes back in the camps.
“What do we do?” I asked. My voice was a touch more thready than usual.
“There are two choices, as I see it,” the Dierkhlani said. His tone was still level, steady and dispassionate. “I can take him to Hasburg as quickly as possible. At hard ride on horseback, we could be there tomorrow. They have medics there, and medicines. But a hard ride might kill him on its own. His body is still in a very delicate balance. And I don’t think the medics can do anything to help him. This isn’t a peripheral issue, or a transient one like the fever. It’s a fundamental malformation of his circulatory system.”
He finally opened his eyes, and regarded me with a steady gaze. His eyes were a gold just barely too bright to be human, and his pupils were narrow slits like a cat’s. “Or I put an extra dose of the digitalis into his vein,” he said. “And he dies tonight. It will be painless; he’ll simply drift to sleep and never wake up. And his father will never know the truth of what happened here tonight.”
I looked at Mathias. He looked…peaceful. Calm, like he was just sleeping normally. There was no suggestion that his body was ripping itself apart beneath the surface.
“No chance he lives?” I asked. I didn’t sound hopeful, even to myself. I sounded dead and tired.
“Possible,” Erik said. “Remotely. But…no. I don’t think it can actually happen. And I think if we try to save him, he’ll die in agony.”
I looked at the Dierkhlani. His eyes were still open, still fixed on me. His gaze had a heaviness to it, a weight of calm sorrow. I looked back to Mathias.
My hands didn’t shake as I slid the needle in, and I hit the vein on the first try. I offered a silent prayer of thanks to the black gods for that. Hard enough to do this once. I wasn’t sure I could have done it twice. I held the needle in there for the three seconds that the Dierkhlani had instructed, and then pulled it out. The black syrup of the sedative was gone, replaced by blood so dark it was hard to tell the difference. I held the needle, watched as a drop of the blood formed and fell onto my hand.
A pale finger reached out and wiped it away, so lightly I could hardly feel the fingertip brush over my fur. I looked up and saw the Dierkhlani standing over me.
“You did well,” he said. His voice was gentle.
“It hurts,” I said.
“My friend had something else she said. Ethics are what you do with what’s been done to you, she said. You couldn’t save him. But you did everything you could to help him. And that isn’t nothing.”
I said nothing.
Half an hour past midnight, Mathias slipped silently from sleep to death. I snuck back to my usual place beside Rose with a guilty conscience, and lay down, and did not sleep.