Anla’s hand was outreached, several feet away from the ledge. Then, both flew to her mouth, suppressing a gasp. She stopped and couldn’t move for a few moments from the shock. He was gone.
Then she heard two thuds, one after the other, following by a yell to her left. “Shit!” Raulin groaned through clenched teeth.
Her head snapped over and she saw the trirec on the ground, holding a taut rope wrapped in his left hand. His right was underneath him and something seemed off about it. She froze for just a moment, then ran to his side, grabbing the rope and pulling.
Raulin stood behind her and began walking backwards, hauling with as much force as he could with one arm. Anla ran to the side of the cliff and helped pull Al up and over the edge, his unconscious form dead weight for the two of them. When he was over, she examined his head, finding a cut on the back. She didn’t know if it was serious, but the bleeding seemed minimal.
She looked up at Raulin. “How…?”
He knelt down and tried to untie the knot from the rope with his left hand. “I got cold,” he said, pain lacing his words.
“I woke up because I was cold. I was cold because you were gone. Since I was up, I figured the wizard must have tired himself out and that I should bring him back to camp. I didn’t think he was well enough, though, so I got my rope out to tie him up. When I got to the tree, he was gone. I followed the trail to here, saw you talking with him, had a bad feeling about where it was going, and just managed to get a lasso together and throw it before he jumped. It’s a good thing I was thirty feet away, and not twenty, or I might have missed.”
Anla shook her head and smiled, taking over the unknotting of the rope. “Sometimes I think you exaggerate without meaning to, but I can’t catch you in the lie. I was wrong about your skills.”
“I could have introduced you to some trirecs that could have corroborated my story. Then again, they’re trirecs, so never mind.”
She nodded to his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“Likely a dislocation. I’ve had one in each shoulder before. I’ll need a sturdy tree to pop it back into place and a friend to catch me if I pass out from the pain.”
“What do we do with Al?”
“That’s the tricky part. I’ll have to stay with him while you get Sakilei and Tel.”
The three returned as quickly as they could. Tel knelt next to Al, thumbing his forehead and stroking his hair. “Only a man in a lot of pain would try to end his life. I knew he was having a troubled time, but I didn’t know it was this bad.”
“I still don’t understand what’s going on,” Raulin said, still gritting his teeth. “Nothing he’s done recently makes sense.”
Anla sighed. “It does, and I should have realized it before now. I think we should bring him back to the fire and get you taken care of before I clarify.”
Raulin explained to Tel that he needed to catch him after he hit the tree trunk, in case he passed out from the pain. Tel stood with his arms waiting. Raulin jammed his shoulder against the tree and gasped, falling to his knees and onto his face.
“Tel…” he said, groaning.
“I’m sorry, Raulin,” he said, reaching down and scooping up his friend by the armpits. ” I thought you were going to fall back against me. Do you feel better?”
“Yes, but for missing me I’m going to make you bring the wizard back to camp.”
Sakilei, without a word, restarted the fire and cooked up breakfast for the group, setting aside a bowl of oatmeal and fruit for Al as well. Once everyone was settled and eating, Anla began. “Al and I rescued the Duke of Sharka’s daughter from a kidnapping by cultists back in the spring. Since they took her through rough terrain in the forest, he was forced to use the Unease for extended periods of time. He wasn’t used to it and he began to show side effects from it. The first was a queer sense of humor where he made jokes at my expense. He apologized afterward and explained what it was like to stop his magic after using it for so long. Later, after a long night of running with a heavy pack and an eight-year-old girl on his back, he collapsed into a deep melancholy where he neither spoke to us or could move. Afterwards, he told me that if it ever happened again, to watch over him and protect him from himself, since he might try to do harm without meaning to and that he’d be useless.
“It was when I was speaking to him at the cliff that the candle in my mind was lit. He apologized to everyone and said he needed to free us from each other, and to not be a danger to anyone anymore. That’s when I remembered that I’d failed him.”
“Anla, I don’t remember this being an issue in the past,” Raulin said.
“You do,” she said. “Remember when we escaped the hunters after Carvek? We pushed hard to lose them, going through the woods at a fast pace. And when we were in the cave that Tel made, Al started laughing maniacally, just like he did last night when we tied him up to the tree.”
“But, he’s been fine since Carvek.”
“I’m not completely sure, but I think he’s been using constantly since…well, at least New Wextif.”
“New Wextif? What makes you say that?”
“Little things. It used to take him a few moments to tap into the Calm, which is what he preferred to use if he could, since the backlash was far less worse than with the Unease. In New Wextif I saw him instantaneously do things he shouldn’t be able to do unless he was using magic, like overhear the conversations of men at Schoolinghouse that were very far away.”
“Like see eight buildings away and pick up a seventy-five pound pack like it was nothing,” Raulin said, shaking his head. “But, wait. As a cross-switcher, shouldn’t he be able to use the Calm to do Unease things?”
“If he can concentrate and focus, otherwise no. He can tap into the Calm to increase his strength enough to shove a tent spike into rock, but if he’s out walking and talking, he can’t.”
“Then he’s been potentially using the Unease for months now. And it finally caught up to him.”
Anla nodded her head sadly. “I think he had started to develop a tolerance, so he was able to go for longer stretches of time without getting his side effects, but this was too much for him. Now he’s going through the worst backlash he’s ever been through.”
“What do we do, then? I don’t mean to rush us, but we’re racing the season south. It’s been fine so far, but the nights will be getting colder and I don’t want to be stuck camping in freezing temperatures.”
“I don’t know how Al is going to be when he wakes up,” Anla said. “We should get him somewhere safe where we can watch over him. How far are we from Kikiyan?”
“Two or three days, by my best guess.”
“Could we wait a day and see how he is?”
“Of course,” Raulin said.
Al’s breath was steady and deep, which took some of Anla’s worries away. At some point later in the day he opened his eyes a crack, but didn’t move or say anything. Tel helped him to sit up propped against a tree, but his head fell against his chest and stayed there. Anla fed him stew, which he chewed and swallowed, but he wouldn’t feed himself. They laid him down on his bedroll and as a precaution tied him to the tree.
“That’s what he was like during our flight from the cultists,” Anla said. “He said he felt trapped inside his mind. He couldn’t feel anything, he couldn’t respond. He had no interest or motivation to do anything.”
“How long did it last?” Raulin asked.
“Half a day? Maybe less than that.”
“So, he should be better by tomorrow morning?”
“If it’s the same schedule,” she said, but she didn’t feel hopeful.
Al was still in a fugue by the next morning. He had barely moved, but at least he hadn’t tried to slip his ropes and leave. Anla fed him watery oatmeal and bathed him quickly with a cloth, changing his clothes before the others noticed.
After she returned from the river they had been getting their water from, she sat at the fire. “I think we need to discuss what to do if Al doesn’t snap out of this soon.”
Raulin thought about this for a little while. If it had been any other situation, they would have to make a travois to transport Al to the nearest town in hopes of getting a carriage or cart. As it were, they had an extra member who wasn’t bound by the same circumstances that they were. “Sakilei, given that I’m injured, Anla is caring for Al, and Tel has a tendency to wander, do you think you could follow the Route of the Woods to the nearest town and get help for us?” When he didn’t say anything for a few moments, Raulin continued. “I’d be willing to pay you for your troubles, of course, and you…”
Sakilei held up his hand. “I still feel I still owe you. I’ll go.”
They spent another night under the stars, the skies made clear by Telbarisk’s magic that pushed off any incoming storms. Sakilei returned the next morning with a cart he had somehow convinced a local man to lend out for a few silver. They cleaned up the site, loaded the still catatonic Al into the cart, and began towing him to Kikiyan.