Etherno

Chapter 6: Unwanted Help

Onin looked down. Saija, the girl that had almost killed them about a month ago, was on her side in the dirt in a small clearing. She still wore the skimpy two-piece outfit that they had last seen her in. Her hair was a mess and full of twigs, she was covered in dirt, and her right leg was missing below the knee. The stump was fragmented. Black lines ran all over it, and something yellow oozed out of what was left of her leg.

“If it isn’t the half-breed and friends.” Saija sneered at them. Her voice was strained. “Didn’t think I’d run into you here. Oh well. If you could make it quick, that’d be convenient.”

“Make what quick?” Onin asked.

He and the others entered the clearing and surrounded Saija.

“Ugh, I hate asking all nice-like.” Saija rolled her eyes and ground her teeth. “If you really are the goody-two-shoes you act like, kill me quickly.”

“We’re not going to kill you.” Kasai bent down and examined Saija’s leg. “Onin, that leg doesn’t look good. Can your servitors do anything about it?”

Onin bent down to get a closer look at Saija’s leg. The flesh looked charred and rotten at the bottom.

“Yeah, killing people isn’t how we operate.” Onin looked over at Kasai and generated a fist-sized servitor. “I don’t know if a servitor can heal that or not, but it’s worth a try.”

It floated over and ran a healing beam over Saija’s leg. The color improved a little, and the pus was gone, but it still looked bad. The servitor bobbed up and down for a few moments, then lowered itself down and attached to the stump.

“Don’t make me beg you not to toy with me, I—” Saija blinked and the tension eased out of her face. “Wait, it doesn’t hurt anymore. Trying to keep me alive long enough to interrogate?”

Onin sighed. “We have different views on life.”

“Ya think?” Saija said.

“Why are we helping her, anyway? She did try to kill us. This is probably a trap,” Cerina said.

“Cerina, she’s hurt.” Kasai stood and turned to face her. “We can’t just leave her here. Ard says that if we have the power to help someone, and don’t, that’s wrong.”

“Oh great, Ard followers.” Saija made a face. “Do you have any idea what I am? If you follow Ard, you really do want to kill me.”

“That’s not what the monks taught me,” Kasai said.

“Listen, we can argue about this later. Right now, we need to get her to a doctor,” Onin said.

“But—” Cerina started to say something.

“Later. They’re right. If we don’t help her, we’re no better than the bad guys,” Tannin said.

Onin generated another servitor. It hovered over Saija and reached out to grab her with four tendrils of light.

“Tannin, cover our rear. Kasai, lead the way back, please,” Onin said.

Tannin saluted and fell back a few yards. Kasai started pushing through the foliage in the direction of the boot camp building.

It took them about an hour to get back. Everyone was silent for the duration of the trip. They were probably all thinking the same thing Onin was: this would make a really good trap. Well, everyone but Saija. Who knew what she was thinking.

Karen met them at the edge of the woods. “You’re just a little late, Is everything… Oh. Who’s this? I don’t think she’s with any of the other groups…”

“This is Saija,” Onin stepped to the side to let the servitor bring Saija forward. “She’s, uh, an acquaintance of ours. Is there a doctor here? Her leg is hurt.”

Karen gasped and put a hand to her mouth. “Bring her inside, there’s a nurse’s station on the first floor.”

Onin and the others followed Karen inside, past the reception area, and around the corner into a white room with two beds. The servitor lowered her onto the bed on the right, then popped. The servitor on her leg stayed in place.

A man only a few years older than Onin entered the room.

“Hi, I’m Emmett, the EMT. What have we got here?” he said.

“I hurt my leg,” Saija glared at Tannin while she was talking.

“What happened?”

“Long story. I got stabbed with a stick, my mas—uh, boss, threw me out into the woods for failing my mission, and now that I’m cut off, spiritual rot has set in. I doubt there’s much you can do.”

“Really.” The EMT raised an eyebrow and turned to Onin. “She’s been out there a while, probably delirious. I’ll stabilize her and call the hospital. You can go back to your exercises now.”

“Exercises?” Saija said.

“Yes,” Karen clapped her hands together. “Your friends are here at team building boot camp. And I must say they worked together really well helping you!”

“Seriously?” Saija burst into laughter. “Team building bootcamp? That’s great. You got sent back to preschool. I can’t believe you defeated me. When my former master finds you, he’ll tear right through you.”

She doubled over with laughter and rolled toward the edge of the bed, and managed to catch the handrail before she fell off.

“You’d better go,” the EMT said.

“We’re staying. She’s very dangerous,” Onin said.

“I’ll go call Professor Jekao,” Kasai said.

“Speaking of which,” Saija shuffled on the bed. “I’ll hop off and try to die with some dignity.”

“You can’t go—”

Before the EMT finished speaking, Saija swung off the bed, slammed his head into the wall, slipped his pen from his front pocket, and had it pressed into his throat.

“Saija, sit down,” Onin said.

“Huh, right,” Saija held out her hand. Nothing happened. “Um, there’s supposed to be a portal there.”

Onin reached out with his thoughts to the servitor. It was still in healing mode. Onin pointed to the servitor that was still attached to her right leg.

“Between that, whatever the rot is that you mentioned, blood loss, and everything else, you’re in no condition to fight. Now, sit down, or I’ll make another servitor and force you to sit.”

Saija hopped over to the bed, slammed her butt down onto it, and crossed her arms.

Professor Jekao arrived four hours later. He must have run to the monorail station as soon as Kasai had called him to have arrived that quickly. Four policemen were with him. While they secured the room, Professor Jekao motioned for Onin to join him in the hallway.

“This is the girl that attacked you earlier?” the professor asked.

“Saija, yes, sir.” Onin nodded. “She needs to have that leg looked at. May we be present for her debriefing, sir?”

“Ordinarily, I’d say you could observe, but you’re not finished here yet.”

“Oh.” Onin looked into the room, then back at the professor. “We’re already involved in this. She’s really strong, and she’s got some kind of master, and we wanted to see it through.”

“I admire your dedication, but she needs to be checked out at the hospital first. After that, you have to go through proper channels. The only reason you’re involved in this at all is because you and the others have strong gifts and are, well, good bait. That said, you’ll likely be needed to flush out the rest of the people involved. Finish learning how to work as a team here, then come back to Dabrath. I’m sure we’ll know more by then.”

“Yes, sir.”

Onin sighed. He and the others did need to be able to work as a team. That much was evident from the disasters they seemed to make of every mission so far. On the other hand, he wasn’t at all confident in the ability of the police to keep Saija contained.

dragon

Onin yawned. It wasn’t even light out yet, and Karen had already dragged them back out to the lawn in front of the cabin. Tannin, Kasai, and Cerina stood next to him, forming a loose semi-circle. Had the others gotten any sleep, or were they also up all night wondering about Saija, her master, and everything? Tannin looked half-asleep, but he always did when someone made him get out of bed before noon. Kasai looked introspective, but again, she always did. Cerina, now there was a mystery. Her face was blank, and she picked at imaginary dirt under her nails. Why was she so angry all the time?

“Okay, everyone,” Karen said. “Today we’re doing a maze. Only it’s more like a minefield.”

She even sounded perky at oh-dark-hundred. Perhaps Tannin was onto something, about her not being Gesaran.

“Today is all about communication and working together as a team.” Karen lead them around the corner of the building. “One person is going to be blindfolded, and the rest will guide him or her through the maze. One person will give one direction, the next person will give the second direction, and so on. But watch out! There are traps you’ll want to avoid.”

A maze was laid out on the lawn with tape. The pattern wasn’t terribly complicated, but the challenge would be following the other persons directions. Hopefully Cerina wouldn’t ruin this for all of them.

“Let’s see, who’s first…” Karen looked around and pointed to Tannin.

He groaned and stepped forward to be blindfolded.

“Go straight forward for about two paces,” Onin turned to face Kasai. “Do you think Saija’s going to co-operate with the police?”

“Turn left ninety degrees, and take one step,” Kasai said. Then, in a softer tone, “I don’t know. She doesn’t seem like the type to be helpful, but she was really subdued and quiet yesterday.”

“Too quiet. I don’t trust her,” Cerina said.

“This is weird, Cerina and I have been agreeing a lot lately. Is there a rift in space-time or something?” Tannin snorted. “Also, where do I go next?”

“Oops, my turn, sorry.” Cerina grinned and rubbed her palms together. “Uh, let’s see, straight for….about, oh, four paces.”

Tannin ran straight into a plastic square—which squirted him in the face.

“Hey! You did that on purpose!”

Cerina doubled over laughing and didn’t notice a black plastic nozzle pop out of the ground in front of her. It completely soaked her with water. She stopped laughing and glared at everyone.

“Hey! What was that? That’s not funny.”

“Oh,” Karen tilted her head and looked off to the side. “Did I forget to mention that both of you get hit by the traps?” She looked Cerina right in the eyes. “You win as a team, or you lose as a team. Not just here. This is just a game. What about in the real world? You think about that, missy!”

Cerina lowered her head. “Sorry,” she whispered.

Wow, perhaps Cerina had feelings after all. Onin smiled. Perhaps they really did have a chance to make a workable team.

They made it through the rest of the maze without incident. Now it was after lunch, and they stood outside what might be another maze, an obstacle course, or the most over-designed torture machine Onin had ever seen. He wasn’t sure which.

A wood wall with irregularly spaced planks for ladder rungs was the first part of the obstacle course. After that was a narrow, enclosed corridor, followed by at least three giant swinging logs, and more enclosed areas.

“Think they could fit one more swinging or spinning log in there?” Tannin asked.

“Shut up, they might take you up on that,” Onin said.

“This,” Karen made a sweeping gesture at the gizmo, “is the obstacle course. This particular one we’ve built for our gifted attendees. You need to all make it through, without breaking anything, to finish. Once you’ve done that, your time with us has come to an end, and you can go home and apply the lessons you’ve learned here.”

“Sweet, let’s go!” Tannin said.

“Wait,” Karen held up a rope. “You have to go through together. As in tied together.”

“Always a catch,” Tannin muttered.

Onin raised an eyebrow. He wasn’t sure what was in the enclosed areas, but the course didn’t look that hard. Assuming Cerina didn’t do something stupid. Again.

Karen tied the rope around Onin’s waist, then Kasai’s, then Cerina’s, then Tannin’s on the other end.

“Are we ready?” Onin asked.

“As we’ll ever be.” Cerina rolled her eyes.

Tannin rolled his eyes, and Kasai just smiled up at him.

The first obstacle was a ladder with a door at the top. Slightly difficult when you had three other people tied to you, but still not much of a challenge. They made it to the top without any problems.

“If this is all there is to this ‘obstacle’ course, it’s a joke.” Cerina snorted.

“Perhaps it’s one of those things that’s not supposed to be physically hard, but just supposed to make you think,” Kasai said.

“You do that a lot, don’t you? Think, that is. Not what I expected.” Cerina cocked her head to the side, one corner of her mouth pulled down.

Onin opened the door and sighed. “Look, log rollers.”

A beam about a foot wide extended out a few feet, then a series of eight rolling logs were spaced about four feet apart. The entire apparatus was suspended about a story above a water pit.

“Ooo! It’s like on that game show, ‘Crazy Hard Obstacle Challenge.’ I love that show!” Tannin said.

“You would.” Cerina rolled her eyes. “This is just so stupid, this whole camp, and now an obstacle course? Really? Saija’s right. They did send us back to preschool. Is this pointless waste of time actually going to accomplish anything?”

“We could be actually looking for the bad guys,” Tannin said.

Onin looked over at Kasai. She shrugged and looked at her feet.

“Well, we’ve got two choices.” Onin pointed to the rollers. “We can actually try to work together and go across those, or we can go back and say this is stupid and we’re not gonna do it. Do you think Professor Jekao will let us continue to help if we do that?”

“Yay. Go team. Woo.” Cerina leaned over to get a better look. “But can you actually make it across? Because I don’t think I can, and that’d pull all of us down.”

Tannin peered down into the water pit below.

“Yeah, I don’t like wet. I’ve had my bath for the week.”

Cerina opened her mouth, shut it, and just shook her head.

Onin sighed and led the way to edge of the platform. The other shuffled in after him and the door shut, plunging the room into complete darkness.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Cerina said.

“What, afraid of the dark?” Tannin said.

Onin sighed and generated a fist-sized servitor. It floated up to the ceiling and glowed, filling the room with light.

“Thanks.” Kasai leaned over Onin’s shoulder and her breast pressed into his back. “Now, what to do about those rollers?”

Onin closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on the problem. It was hard with Kasai’s delightful form against him. He took a deep breath. It was best not to read too much into incidental physical contact, and this wasn’t the time, anyway.

“I got this one,” Onin said.

He raised his hand and generated a small servitor for each roller. The servitors each attached to either end of a roller, and sent out an energy beam to link with the other servitors.

“It should be solid now,” Onin said.

He stepped carefully onto the first roller. It wiggled a little, but didn’t spin. He waved to the others, and they made it across.

“Ready?” Onin asked.

Everyone nodded, and Onin opened the next door. Something clicked as the door opened, and a whoosh of air blasted past them.

“Um, was that a swinging log?” Kasai asked. Another blast of air answered her. “Yup. Swinging log.”

Kasai lifted her hand, and the log slowed down. “Hurry, while I can still hold it.”

They ran over the narrow beam past the log and barreled through the next door.

“Aw, man! More logs,” Tannin said.

Two logs were suspended in front of them, with the ends butted against each other. A ratcheting sound echoed around, and the two logs separated, leaving about a two foot gap between them. Before Onin could say anything, there was another click, and the logs slammed together.

“Ooo! My turn.” Tannin took a breath, and stepped into the gap between the logs.

They swung in again, and bounced off his shoulders. The ratcheting sounds started up again.

“Ug, hurry up, guys!” Tannin grunted. “Even strengthened, this shirt can only take so much.”

“And, how are we supposed to get past you?” Cerina asked.

“Uh…” Tannin looked around. “Crawl through my legs.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Cerina shuddered.

“No time to argue, I don’t see another way without breaking something, let’s go.” Onin frowned. “The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can get back to doing something important.”

Cerina crawled through, then Kasai, and Onin crawled under everyone.

“This would have been easier without the rope.” Onin shook his head. Oh well.

He opened the next door and blinked in the daylight. They stood on a balcony with a zip line leading down to the ground. Karen looked up and waved to them.

“One more obstacle, guys.” Onin looked over his shoulder. “Tannin, can you strengthen the rope that’s around us?”

He reached out his hand to grab the zip line handle. It bounced off a forcefield just before the handle.

“Ow!” Onin shook his hand. “That tingles. Okay, I think I can…”

“Excuse me.” Cerina tapped him on the shoulder. “Teamwork and all, blah, blah. It’s a sonic field.” She held out her hand. The air rippled and the sound of bells rang through the air. “Okay, go quick.”

“Tannin, get the rope. Kasai, I’m going to make some servitors to lift us, help them keep us level, okay?”

She nodded. Onin winced and reached for the zip line handle again. Nothing happened this time. Onin grabbed it, and they all jumped off together.

“Congratulations,” Karen said when they reached the ground. “You made it through, and you made it through as a team.”

“Go team!” Tannin yelled.

He had just enough sincerity to his tone that it would have fooled Onin if he didn’t know better. Tannin didn’t ever get that enthused about any kind of work.

dragon

Onin yawned and blinked his eyes open at the sound of an electronic tone.

“Now approaching Dabrath, Applied Bio-Gifting college stop,” the monorail speaker said.

“That’s us,” Onin said.

Kasai shut her book and put it back into her backpack. Cerina stood and stretched. Tannin snored. Onin lifted his leg and poked Tannin with his shoe.

“Wake up. We’re leaving.”

Tannin sat up, flopped against the wall, and rose to his feet, his eyes still closed. Onin snorted and grabbed Tannin’s shoulder, guiding him out of the monorail car and down the platform steps.

“Hey, should we go check on Saija before we head back to our dorms?” Kasai said.

“Sure,” Onin looked over his shoulder at Cerina and raised his eyebrow in an unspoken question. She shrugged. Tannin tilted to the side, and Onin pulled him back upright. “I don’t think Tannin cares.”

By the time they made it to the hospital where Saija was, Tannin was mostly awake. Which was good, because Onin wasn’t sure how the hospital staff would react to someone all but sleepwalking through the halls. Kasai got Saija’s room number from the front desk. The officer on duty recognized them from the police station, and waved them in.

Saija was almost unrecognizable from the last time Onin had seen her. The biggest change was the hospital gown covered most of her. Her hair was down, her cheeks were sunken and hollow, and her skin was even paler than normal. Her arms and legs were stick-thin, and the black lines now criss-crossed all over what was left of her right leg.

“Oh.” She looked up, blinked, and scratched the back of her neck when she saw Onin and the others enter. “Um, I didn’t expect to see you.”

Kasai sat on the edge of the bed and took Saija’s hand.

“Is there anything we can do for you?”

Saija stared at her hand that Kasai now held.

“I don’t get it.” She looked up and glanced at each of them in turn. “Why are you being nice to me?”

Saija’s tone wasn’t the usual cocky, overbearing, taunt that it usually was. She spoke barely above a whisper. Onin thought she might burst into tears any moment.

“At first I thought you found me to gloat over your victory. Or torture me for information. But even the police that brought me in have only had a few questions for me. They said they’d wait for me to feel better or some such nonsense.”

“Ard commands us to love everyone,” Kasai said.

“More religious tripe.” Saija rolled her eyes. “Don’t feed me that. Everyone wants something. No one in my whole life has ever given me something without wanting something back.”

“Well, it’s true. Ard does want us to love everyone, and I do care,” Kasai shot back.

“Yeah, right. Well, get it over with and gloat. Thanks to you, I’ve got a few days before that black crud spreads to my heart and kills me.”

“Hmm.” Kasai pulled her lips to the side and tapped a finger on her leg. She stood and went to the door. “Excuse me, I have to make a call.”

“We didn’t come to gloat. Believe it or not, there are people who care about others just because it’s the right thing to do,” Onin said.

“Hmm.” Saija picked at the hem of her blanket.

“Well, I’ve got to get going.” Onin stood and took a few steps toward the door. “I’ve got some studying to do. Kasai and I’ll be back later to see how you’re doing.”

“Okay…” Saija raised an eyebrow and tilted her head to the side. “Uh, don’t forgot your torture implements next time.”

dragon

Onin spent the rest of the night studying and didn’t see anyone but Tannin until lunch the next day. A lunch tray clinked on the table next to him. He looked up to see Kasai standing next to him.

“Mind if I sit here?” she asked.

“Sure.”

Kasai took a bite of something brown. Onin shuddered. He wasn’t brave enough to try it.

“So…” Onin pointed to the brown goo. “What is that?”

“Apple flavored something.” Kasai took another bite and chewed slowly. “At least, I think it’s supposed to be apple flavor. That’s one of the things I miss most about living with the monks. Most of the time, we had really simple meals, but in the fall, we had all sorts of fresh fruits and veggies.”

They ate in silence for a while, until Kasai spoke again.

“Speaking of monks, do you want to go back to the hospital with me to visit Saija?”

“Sure, but what’s that got to do with monks?”

“I called the monastery last night, and Brother Terrence said he’d come look at Saija’s leg.”

“Oh, okay.” Onin scratched his chin. What could a monk do that a doctor couldn’t?

Onin went to the hospital after his last class. Kasai was already there, seated in a chair along the back wall of the main lobby. Onin waved to her. Kasai gave a small wave in reply but didn’t say anything. Onin walked over to stand next to her.

A tall man with a full beard sat in the chair next to Kasai. He wore the stereotypical brown monk robes and had one hand around a wooden staff with some kind of vine engraved on it.

Onin blinked a few times. He looked like a character out of a fairy tale. Apparently, monks were still around. Kasai had mentioned them a few times, but he’d expected something more… modern.

“You must be Brother Terrence,” Onin said.

The monk inclined his head. “And you must be Onin.”

“Uh, Kasai’s talked about you a lot.” Onin looked over at Kasai. She was busy studying her shoes.

“Our Kasai, talking a lot? And to a boy, no less?” Brother Terrance chuckled and clapped Onin on the back. “That’s good to hear. She’s normally so withdrawn. Though every once in a while I’d find her alone in the garden, hiding from the others, I think, and she and I would have some nice talks. It’s good to hear she’s found a friend.”

The monk had a deep, soft voice, and he spoke with a slow cadence, as if he gave thought to every word before he spoke it.

Brother Terrance stood and walked over to the elevator. “Well, let’s go see your other friend and see if there’s anything Ard can do for her.”

“I’m not quite sure ‘friend’ is the right word.” Onin scratched the back of his neck. “She’s more of an acquaintance.”

“Ard wants us to be a friend to all. You do not call her friend, yet you care enough about her to send for someone who might be able to help her. You will find there are many levels of friendship.”

Saija was asleep when Onin, Kasai, and Brother Terrence stepped into her room. At the sound of the door closing, she rolled onto her side and lifted herself up with one arm. The black lines covered both her arms now.

“Holy natas, it’s a real monk!” Saija said.

“Only Ard is holy,” Brother Terrence said.

“Did you two do-gooders bring him to convert me or exorcise me?” Saija asked. She sat up and pressed the button to raise the head of the bed. “Because it’s too late for both.”

“He’s here to help,” Kasai said.

“Can’t hurt to try, can it?” Onin stepped forward and put a hand on Kasai’s shoulder.

“No one is beyond Ard’s love.” Brother Terrence sat on the edge of the bed. He took Saija’s right arm and studied the lines that covered it. “But for now, my first priority is to keep you alive long enough to learn about Ard. I take it you are aware that the demon has left you?”

“It’s not a demon.” Saija pulled her arm away. “It’s a Natas, and yes, it left me. Now that it’s gone there’s nothing you can do. I’m going to die.”

“Most call them demons. Yes, Natas is the name they have for themselves. They are a non-corporeal, spectral being, whatever they may be called. It is they who first convinced the dragons to turn from Ard. Then, they found our world and seek to corrupt as many as they can. Some through disbelief, and others, like you, by polluting the very flesh. These black markings are the outward sign of the spiritual poison they leave behind. They grant great power, but all who are possessed by them die this way, eventually.”

“And this sermon-slash-history lesson helps me how?”

“I said it was spiritual poison. The Natas corrupt the spirit, which then spills over into the flesh. First, the spirit must be healed, then the flesh will follow. That is why the doctors cannot treat this poison.”

“If you’re hoping to convert me to your wacko cult, good luck.”

“It’s not a cult—” Kasai started to say. Brother Terrence held up his hand and waved for Kasai to sit.

“The natas has been with you a long time.” A sad look passed over Brother Terrence’s face. “I will ask Ard to give you an opportunity to know him, but if you want to live, the choice must, in the end, be yours.”

Brother Terrance stood, placed his staff across Saija’s lap, and took both of her hands in his.

“I must warn you, this might hurt for one such as yourself that has been steeped in evil for so long and known nothing of good.”

Brother Terrance started to chant in soft words, in a language that Onin couldn’t understand. He took a step closer to Kasai and leaned over to whisper to her.

“What’s he saying?” Saija looked over at Kasai.

Kasai took Onin’s hand and led him over to stand next to Saija.

“He’s asking Ard to heal you.” Kasai placed her other hand on Saija’s shoulder. “He’s explaining the situation, begging Ard to give one who’s never known love to have a chance to get to know him. And no, there’s nothing magical or anything about the words or language. It’s just the old language that was spoken when the monastery was founded over a thousand years ago. That’s what all the monks speak, read, and pray in when they’re in the monastery.”

“Looks weird to me.” Saija looked up and around at each of them. “At least there’s no knives or blood or anything, just a little tingle. You don’t want to know what they do to implant a Natas into you.”

“I’m quite sure I don’t.” Kasai shuddered. “How long have you been pos… uh, been with the Natas?”

“Ever since I can remember. It’s nothing like life here. With the Natas, you’re forced by violence or worse to earn your keep in some way. Children and women who aren’t vessels are used as slaves or toys. ‘Sensitive’ types like you don’t want to know the details.

“I was chosen to be a vessel when I was around ten or so. That ceremony was the worst night of my life. I used my new power as a Natas to kill all the men involved.” She shuddered. “It got a little better after that, but when you’re a vessel, you only have some control over what you do and what you think. It was horrible at first, but then you get used to it, and even become a willing partner, in time. There in the forest when you met me was the first time in a long while I was fully in control of myself. But it’s been almost ten years, and don’t know any other way to be now. But why am I telling you all this?”

“The monks say the soul craves Ard. Like a hungry man craves food. Only he doesn’t know exactly what it is he needs,” Kasai said.

“That sounds like monks. A bunch of cryptic nonsense,” Saija said.

“I think it’s supposed to make you think,” Onin said.

“Yeah, I think they’re a bunch of crazy loonies.”

“And yet, who has actually cared about you, as a person, with no strings attached?” Kasai said.

Saija snorted. “Yeah, right. You just want to keep me alive so you can pump me for information.”

Kasai raised an eyebrow and didn’t say anything.

“There.” Brother Terrence took a deep breath and opened his eyes. “The final cure is up to you accepting Ard’s love, but you should have some more time for him to reveal himself to you now.”

The black lines were gone from everywhere but Saija’s right thigh, and there they were now just a faint gray color.

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