Chapter 85

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Koral, Etrikis and Xefen left the compound at first light. They ventured south, toward Nekaida. Koral was surprised that Etrikis had picked her, but at the same time, it made sense.

Nix was upset and confused right now. Yesterday, he'd gotten into an awful fight with Jenali over Leithan escaping on her watch. Koral had witnessed it, along with many others. The fight had ended with Nix spouting obscenities at his mother, and Jenali slapping her son hard enough to send him to the ground.

Kresh had drunk too much, had taken too much klar on the night of the celebration, and he was still reeling from it even this morning. Koral had seen him throwing up and complaining about a headache. He was irritated, foul-mouthed, and you just couldn't approach him.

As for Steba, he still felt guilty about what they'd done to Leithan and his friends, and those other Rengleam kids. He also felt crushing guilt over Mikai, and Teshin. It was all getting a bit too much for him, he'd told her so himself. She couldn't blame him. It was getting a bit much for her, too.

So Koral wasn't just the shaman's best choice. She was the only choice.

She was glad for the walking, and for the chance to be away from Clan of the Raven. It felt right; the crunching of the forest floor under her sandals, countless birds singing for the new dawn and charming her ears, soft wind whispering in her long hair, smell of damp foliage and sweet blossoms, and the roiling clouds, shielding them from the sun's heat.

Xefen, the living legend, trekking close behind her in silence.

Oddly, that felt right too. If only because it made him seem more human, more normal. He wore simple, slim, comfortable clothes, as well as walking sandals, same as her. His eyes were a bright mix of green and gold. His face still held the paleness and slight gauntness caused by his prolonged sleep.

At some point, as they trailed along, Koral saw him, from the corner of her eye, taking amrin. Worry slithered through her heart. If he took it all the time, never facing the comedown, he would become addicted. And, Koral had never witnessed it herself, but she'd heard that trying to get off it had horrible consequences. Apparently, it lasted days and could even kill you.

Still, she didn't comment, pretending she hadn't seen. Koral kept her eyes on the path ahead, where Etrikis progressed at a fast, determined pace, stomping the ground with his tall walking stick.

Koral sighed. The shaman was still grieving Mikai. In his own way, Etrikis had loved her, Koral was sure of it. Right now, Etrikis was putting up a strong front the only way he knew how; burying his sorrow under renewed determination for their quest.

After they passed Chena Ini – the heated pool of water free of guests this early in the day – the forested path widened enough for two people to be side by side.

Etrikis maintained his distance, stomping about furiously. But Xefen caught up with Koral so that they could walk together.

"I know you saw me taking amrin," he said quietly.

Koral raised an eyebrow. "Oh."

He was about half a head taller than she was, and she had to look up to glance at his eyes. His pupils were larger than normal.

"I don't mind," she said. "I'm only worried about you."

He gave her a small smile – a sad one, she thought – and they kept trekking side by side for a few moments. The path was lined in myriad species of trees and giant-leafed shrubs. Once in a while a large insect would scuttle along, crossing the path, avoiding their sandaled steps.

"Thank you," Xefen said.

His voice was soothing, serious and controlled. Koral enjoyed his presence, but of course the problem with amrin was that she couldn't know whether her feelings were real, or if the klar altering him played tricks on her mind.

"The truth is," Xefen said, keeping his gaze on the path, "I find it rather upsetting, going back home after all this time. For me, it doesn't feel like a long time at all. But the reality is," he said with a small shrug, "Nekaida isn't my home anymore. Nowhere is."

Koral pushed a branch out of the way, bending her head slightly as she stepped under it.

"Your home is with Raven now. And if it turns out that my shaman, or my clan leader, intend to just use you for war, and then dismiss you?" She shook her head firmly, giving him a sidelong glance. "I won't let that happen. It wouldn't be right."

A small smile brightened his eyes. The wind brushed his hair back from his face – his hair color reminded her of red tiger eye gemstones. Koral had a bracelet made of them, which Steba had bought for her a while back, in Little Cheztrian.

Xefen said, "Glad to know I have at least one ally."

Koral shrugged. "I'm tired of people using other people just to get what they want."

He seemed to like that, though he didn't comment.

They were both athletic – lean leg muscles flexing as they progressed – but even so, keeping up with the shaman's fierce, determined pace required some effort.

So they walked on in silence. 

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