Kyat trudged toward the boarding house, footsteps slowing with every step that took him closer to the place he’d come to think of as his prison. Brick walls enclosed a room barely large enough for a narrow bed, writing desk and chair. Surrounded by the smell of burnt food, and vinegar, and the sounds of drunken strangers below.
He longed for the smell of the forest, and the rattle of leaves. The warmth of his family. To share a meal around the firepit with his father, aunts and uncles, shoulders and knees touching. To watch his cousins scream and howl at their raucous games.
And he wanted to use his magic again. He’d never felt so helpless in his life before the day he crossed the border into Yois kingdom, and realized with a certain finality that he could not use his magic until he returned home. That if he did use it, he risked being arrested and executed.
The image of frightened green eyes made him shudder. So many hours since that morning, when he watched a child murdered and did nothing. The memory pressed much closer.
He’d made his decision. After only a week in Yois, he would go home. Rather than feeling relief at the knowledge that he would soon be with his family, he only grew miserable. He’d wanted so badly to learn Yois was different than all the stories. He felt he’d failed somehow.
“Hey, you there.”
Kyat drew up the collar of his coat, and sped up. It had taken weeks, and an attempted mugging for him to learn that in any city, you didn’t respond to anyone trying to get your attention from an alley.
The boarding house came into view, and with it the anticipation of a warm fire, a meal and the company of his miserable thoughts.
Rough hands grabbed his shoulders and yanked him off his feet. One hand clamped over his mouth.
Kyat flailed, clawing and bucking. He twisted his head to get his mouth free for a bite, and caught a glimpse of wild, dark hair. The attacker dragged Kyat into an alley and shoved him through a narrow door.
Kyat stumbled, dropped his satchel, and took a hard swing at the man behind him. His fist connected with some hard.
The stranger grunted and clapped a hand over his jaw. He stood head and shoulders taller than Kyat. Bearded, his mass of graying black hair nearly covering his face. Like a bear.
The Bear made no move to attack and Kyat scanned the room. Broken down shelves and a dusty counter against one wall marked the room as an abandoned shop. It stank of blood and unwashed bodies.
A woman sat against the far wall beside a pile of rags. She stared at Kyat through shadowed eyes.
The Bear laughed, still rubbing his jaw. “You didn’t look like much of a fighter on the street. You’re stronger than I thought.”
Kyat swallowed a growl and tried to calm his erratic breathing. Fantastic. Another attempted mugging. “I have little money, and nothing worth selling. Let me go.”
“We’ve no need for money.” The Bear shifted a little, looking almost uncertain. “You’re a physic, right? You’ve a physic’s satchel anyway.”
Physic was the name the people of Yois gave their healers. Eyes fixed on the Bear, Kyat knelt to retrieve his leather satchel of medical supplies, embossed with the physic’s symbol, a chalice. “I work at the university clinic.” He glanced again at the woman, and her bundle of rags. Had the bundle moved? “One of you is injured?”
The Bear moved toward his companion and waved a hand for Kyat to follow.
Kyat could have taken the chance to run for the door. Alert and prepared for the Bear’s strength, he might have made it.
The memory of his terrible morning struck him again. He didn’t want to walk away from someone who needed his help.
As Kyat approached, Shadow Eyes shifted onto her knees. She tugged at the rags beside her.
Not a pile of rags. A woman.
Instincts took over and Kyat knelt at her side. She was younger than Shadow Eyes, barely an adult. Sweat glistened on her dirt-streaked face. Kyat pulled up the filthy shirt she wore, and winced.
She’d been wounded in the stomach. Blood soaked the rags stuffed against the wound. Kyat inhaled, and cursed at the stink. Torn intestines. Nothing in his bag would help him repair the wound. She would die slowly, and painfully.
“Well, do something,” Shadow Eyes snapped.
Kyat rested his hand on the soaked bandages. “What happened?”
“She was shot.” The Bear clenched a fist against his thigh. “In the back.”
So the bullet had gone straight through. That would be two wounds to heal, along with the damage inside. “Why?” He didn’t care why. He simply wanted to help. He wanted to use his magic again, but he knew the people of Yois. They would kill him. Or turn him in to the city guards.
Kyat startled at how the answer echoed his thoughts. He’d forgotten he even asked a question.
The Bear went on. “She was caught stealing from a vendor’s stall in Round Stone Market.”
“I can’t fix it.” Kyat’s heart broke to say the words. “There’s internal damage. I can’t do anything for that.”
The lie tasted bitter.
Shadow Eyes let out a harsh breath that almost sounded like a sob. The Bear didn’t make a sound, only cast his eyes to the floor.
Kyat stared down at the girl, fists clenched, and shaking with frustration. Why? Why did they have to drag him here, so he could see another life he couldn’t save? It had to be a sign. He needed to go back to the northern tribe-lands, and forget such a wretched place as Yois existed.
The Bear reached out to brush the dying girl’s cheek. “We meant you no harm, healer. We only wanted to save her.”
Kyat’s throat tightened. He was free to escape. Back to the street, and to his dismal little room in the boarding house. And soon enough, home to his family.
And the young woman would die.
Just as the little girl that morning died. Because she possessed magic. And because Kyat had been too afraid to intervene. Fear had once been a simple thing, a matter of running afoul of a angry buck while hunting, or slipping while scaling a tumble of rocks. Fear in the forest kept you alert and alive.
Kyat hated the sick, nauseas presence fear had become since he arrived in Yois.
Something snapped inside him.
He leaned forward and pulled the bandages away from the bullet wound. Shadow Eyes cursed him and grabbed his arm to pull him away. He shrugged her off easily, and called up his magic. The soothing light flooded into his hands, and warmed away the cold that had eaten at him since that morning. He poured his magic into the girl, and closed his eyes.
He tensed with shock when his magic struck against hers. She held a wellspring of power writhing inside her. It ebbed away, and sank deeper into her as Kyat, over his surprise, searched out her wounds.
The bullet had sliced open one of her kidneys, and tore through her bowels. Infection grew already. Kyat burned it away, and urged the flesh to knit back together. First the smaller hole in her lower back, then the gaping wound just to the right of her belly button. Once her outsides were repaired, he turned his attention to the tattered mess the bullet made of her insides. Finished, his remaining magic sank back into his body and he opened his eyes.
The Bear seized Kyat by the neck and jerked him back. Shadow Eyes lunged forward to wipe the blood from the girl’s stomach. She gasped to see the bullet hole gone.
The Bear’s grip tightened on Kyat’s neck. Kyat tensed, one hand going to the stone knife he always kept hidden at his waist.
“You gave no sign.” Unease tightened the Bear’s voice. “What game are you playing at, magicker?”
He released Kyat so suddenly, Kyat dropped forward hard onto his elbow. He pulled his knife and held it ready, heart throbbing. “What are you talking about? What sign?”
The Bear frowned at Kyat, and shared a glance with Shadow Eyes, who cradled the still unconscious girl. She shrugged, and the Bear faced Kyat again. “Healing is no simple magic. Who did you learn it from, if not the Underground?”
Kyat’s hand shook, exhausted from the energy he’d just used to heal the girl. He could make no sense of what the Bear said. “What are you talking about?”
The Bear stared at Kyat’s knife. A Yurha knife, flint knapped to a razor edge on one side, and a grip carved out of the other. The Bear’s eyes narrowed. “Where are you from?”
Kyat hated when people asked questions they already knew the answers to. “North.” A growl escaped his throat.
Shadow Eyes gave a soft scream. “You’re one of them.”
“A werewolf.” The Bear studied Kyat in a quiet way that reminded Kyat too much of how the clinic healers had watched the little girl before they killed her.
Kyat took a step back. His thoughts raced ahead of him, desperate to think of a place he could hide for the night. He couldn’t lead these people back to the boardinghouse. He would hide somewhere tonight, retrieve his belongings in the morning, and return home. Back to the forests.
“Why are you here?” The Bear’s expression changed to simple curiosity. “Are the werewolves planning to attack us?”
Kyat hated that stupid name, werewolf. He wanted to say yes. He wanted to frighten these people, to give them the same sick fear he’d carried for so many days. Then his eyes fell on the girl, and he thought perhaps they had known such fear all their lives. “I came to learn.” His throat gone dry, he swallowed. “I believed our people could not be as different as everyone said.”
The Bear grunted. “And what have you learned?”
“This morning, I watched men and women, who called themselves healers, torture a small child. Trying to find some way to cut her magic away from her. They killed her.”
The Bear’s expression soured and he looked away.
“I’ve learned to be afraid here. Because every man and woman who smiles and wishes me good day would see me murdered if they knew what I was.” Kyat’s chest burned with the need to run, but something kept him still, kept him watching them.
“Not every woman.” Shadow Eyes brushed a strand of dark hair from the girl’s face. “You could have left my sister to die. You didn’t.” She gave a harsh, humorless laugh. “Perhaps our people are exactly what you think. You are nothing like I imagined a werewolf to be.”
Kyat almost smiled. “Thank you, I suppose.” He turned and walked to the narrow doorway.
“How long will you stay here?”
Kyat pressed one hand against the door frame and closed his eyes. A ready answer didn’t come, and he stood in painful silence for several seconds. “Before you …” He raised his head and met the Bear’s eyes once more. “On the street, I had decided to go home. I decided I’d had enough.”
“And now?” The Bear shifted from foot to foot, and sucked in his lower lip.
Kyat almost laughed to see a man so large, and several decades Kyat’s elder, appear so unnerved. “I never imagined there was more below the surface. What is the Underground?”
The Bear grinned. “Teach us about your people. We will teach you about a better part of Yois.” He laughed, a deep, infectious sound. “I’ve wanted to meet a real werewolf since I was a boy.”
Shadow Eyes hissed at him, and ordered him to pick up the young woman. Kyat realized suddenly that he didn’t know her name. As the Bear cradled her in his arms, Kyat straightened. “What is she called?”
“Zoamn. Zoey.” The Bear held her close, and gave a small, shuddering sigh. “I’m called Temvust, and she’s Chamnai.” Both raised their eyebrows at him.
Kyat realized after a moment what they waited for. “I’m Kyat.”
Temvust grinned. “I know Zoey will want to thank you. If you’re still around when she’s fully healed.”
Kyat drew a deep breath, and adjusted the strap of the satchel on his shoulder. “I’ll do my best.”
Chamnai held up her hand, fingers splayed, and folded the middle two down. She pressed her palm to her heart. “That is our sign. We live in The Windings, West Ultim district. Thank you again.”
Kyat imitated the sign. She nodded, and the three disappeared through the other door.
Back on the street, with the sun nearly down, Kyat felt like he had a twitch, with all the times he checked over his shoulder. But no one followed him. He reached the boarding house, and took his meal of bread and beef stew to his room.
Laying in his bed that night, he feared he would be haunted by the pleading eyes of a frightened child. Instead, as he fell asleep, he saw dark brown hair, shadowed eyes, and a hand raised in a symbol. For the first time in many nights, he slept peacefully.