Chapter 40

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Nix stalked morosely after the shaman, stomping the ground, slapping away at branches and wasps with his good hand. His right hand hung by his side, throbbing, bleeding, but the cut didn't seem as bad as he'd first thought.

"I can't believe you call this crazy woman your friend," Nix said after a few moments.

Etrikis stopped and shot him a glare over his shoulder.

"She is my friend. At least she was, until now. And the only reason you're still alive right now is because of me. Don't forget that. I could've let her kill you."

They started walking again, and Nix said, "Not sure my father would've appreciated."

He regretted it right away. Using his father's authority to throw some vague threat at the shaman was cheap. But, well . . . it was true.

Nix's little brother had died a few seasons ago, he'd been doing his first hunt. But, as these things sometimes happened, the caiman had won the fight that time. It sucked, Nix felt grief for the boy even now, but it was all part of the game.

Which meant Nix was now the clan leader's only son and heir to the title and duties it entailed.

"No," Etrikis said without looking at him. "No, he wouldn't have."

They progressed toward their compound for a bit longer, but at some point they got caught under the downpour. It came, sudden and harsh, drilling the ground through the trees, making it impossible to keep going.

So they found a shelter, a depression in the ground along the twisting path. They hid there from the rain, with tree roots and vines dangling in front of their faces.

"How's your hand?" Etrikis asked, raising his voice to be heard over the storm.

Nix flexed his right hand, closed his fist, ignoring the sting of the cut.

"It'll be fine," he said.

Still, the shaman searched inside a pouch that hung from his belt, and produced a pale strip of cloth. Without a word, Nix gave him his hand, and Etrikis wound the cloth around it. The bandage was quickly stained in red.

When he was satisfied, Etrikis ripped the cloth with his teeth and tied both ends tight against Nix's palm. He stowed the unused fabric, back in his pouch.

Etrikis sniffed and sat more comfortably, staring out into the rain.

After some time, Nix finally said, "I'm sorry, for provoking Mikai. I should've just let you talk to her like we said."

The shaman let out a weak laugh, and his expression became uncharacteristically gentle.

"Truth is," Etrikis said, "I lost my patience with her many times too, in the past. We went long stretches, sometimes entire seasons without speaking, until she accepted me again."

Since they were stuck in their hideout, waiting for the downpour to pass, Nix asked something he'd been curious about for a long time.

"Are you in love with her?"

Etrikis smiled ruefully, like the question didn't surprise him.

"I was, for a long time. I probably still am. But I'm no fool, at least not anymore. I recognize the feeling for what it is. A lost cause."

Nix frowned, crossing his arms over his knees. He couldn't keep his thoughts from going to Leithan.

It had been so frustrating, these past few months, watching him spiral down a dark path. Feeling fucking helpless about it, while Leithan grew ever more distant.

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