Talking to Soletus that day was hard. I was afraid he wouldn't want to be around me after I told him the truth. Yet, he stuck around, and I didn't get hurt. That was what I was afraid of the most, getting more hurt. I didn't think I could take rejection on top of everything. I don't like pain. And then I found out that I don't enjoy seeing other people in pain. And that's goes for physical and anguish of the mind.
Soletus never imagined a single conversation would do so much for a person. Mien was better after getting all that off his chest. He figured it was probably the reassurance he gave. He didn't voice this to Brother Hickory. Why would he? The priest already saw it and was overjoyed at having Mien be talkative, well by Mien’s standards. He was still plenty reserved.
"He's a bit more comfortable around me," announced Brother Hickory after Soletus arrived early one afternoon. He was fanning himself with reed fan and wiping the sweat from his forehead. It was a roaster of a late summer day. Training had been cut short because of it, but not soon enough. Soletus followed Brother Hickory, trying to ignore the stinging sunburn on his forehead.
"He's more talkative," he agreed.
"And a lot bolder as well. The lad insulted my porridge by comparing it to brick mortar this morning."
Soletus couldn’t control the snicker that left his throat.
Brother Hickory grunted. “Yes, it’s the truth. When I was a combat chanter, my fighting brothers hated when it was my turn to cook. On the plus side, Mien does make a good bowl of porridge," he said, leading him to the back and stopped by Mien's room. The bed was neat. “And look, he finally knows how to fold his bed."
"I guess he's out back in the grass."
"Yes. He made it clear it was too hot to train. It's about too hot to do much of anything. It's a good day to head out to the river to swim."
Soletus took the hint. When he stepped from the chapel, Mien wasn't where he usually was under the tree. Instead, he was by the stone fence, talking to Lyndon with Doran sitting beside him.
"What are you two doing here," shouted Soletus and marched over there. The last thing Mien needed was Lyndon talking to him. For all Soletus knew, his cousin was asking Mien questions he didn't need to be asking. Lyndon didn't look as if he saw anything wrong with what he was doing.
"I felt like being social," Lyndon explained.
"Because we wanted to meet him and we knew you would come here, so we were waiting for you. Your fox-headed friend here was sitting looking bored, so I started talking to him."
"I wasn't bored," stated Mien.
Lyndon then pointed to the gift Mien received. "Well, it looks like you were doing some boring reading in that thick tome over there.”
Mien arched a judging eye at Soletus’s cousin. It was strange seeing him wearing it with a stranger.
"Have they've been bothering you,” asked Soletus.
The boy shook his head. "You didn't tell me you had friends," he said. He looked a little hurt.
"Well, I was going to introduce you to them at a more appropriate time," said Soletus, glaring at his cousin and Doran. Then he turned to Mien more friendly. "Anyway, I didn't think you enjoyed being around people."
Mien crossed his arms and said with a little of bravado, "Well, maybe I want to learn to like people now."
Soletus held up his hands. "Well, don't let me stop you," he said, happy to see he was trying. "You can either talk with these dunderheads—"
"I'm not a dunderhead," retorted Doran.
"Me thinks you protest too loudly," poked Soletus. "Or you can go swimming with me."
"Or we can go swimming together," offered Lyndon.
That was when Mien's newfound resolve faltered a little. "I don't know."
"It'll be fun," encouraged the young monk.
Mien didn't look convinced.
"If you want to roast out here, be my guest, but Brother Hickory is probably going to start on with the 'confidence' speech when he sees you still here alone."
The boy spun around without a second thought. "Let me put everything up," he said, walking over to his book and then back inside the chapel. As soon as he crossed the threshold, Soletus scowled at his friends.
"Really," he hissed, annoyed.
"Don't look at me," defended Doran. "It was Lyndon's idea."
Lyndon elbowed him roughly in the side. "If you didn't want to see him, then you could have marched back to dorms at any point."
"He's not some curiosity to be stared at," said Soletus.
"No need go all over-protective," said Lyndon. "You act as if you actually like him."
"Well, I wouldn't be coming here if I didn't," Soletus returned, and Lyndon gave him a look. "You act as if I just follow everyone's order like a dog without a care if I like it or not," he stated, and Lyndon continued his critical stare. "Well, that isn't the sole reason," he affirmed and spun around as Mien's head peered out of the door.
"There isn't a gate back here," he said.
Soletus vaulted over the rock wall and gestured for him to do the same. Mien left the door slowly and looked at the four-foot wall as if it were intimidating. He pulled himself up with a little effort and then planted himself on the ground, gesturing to Soletus to lead the way.
Lyndon and Doran didn't ask questions, but they were doing what Soletus feared as well. Telling him a bunch of things they shouldn't. They were pointing out places that Mien should eventually visit in town. Places where he could get a free bite to eat, places to work to get a little spending coin, that wasn’t so bad, and places where to spend it, which comprised mostly food and the general store. Then there were the things that Mien probably wasn't interested in or would get him into trouble, like who had the best-looking daughters to talk to. And they passed by the spot where bored warders of Lyndon’s variety could have a little fun scaring unsuspecting travelers and the places he could hide if he wanted to avoid training. Mien just nodded, tucking them away in memory, for better or for worse.
The swimming hole they went to was more secluded than the one everyone used. There was a group of boys there already and having a game of keep away at some poor tod's expense. Soletus was certain Mien didn't want that kind of chaos around him. Instead, they walked further down the road and then down a path that wasn't as large as the previous hole and the river current was a little stronger, with a steeper bank. The easy way to get into it was to swing into it by a rope suspended from a thick branch of a maple tree.
Soletus became worried when he saw the nervous boy studying the rope and then the water.
"You know how to swim right," asked Soletus.
Mien focused on the buttons of his shirt. "I'm a good swimmer,” he assured.
While Lyndon and Doran worked to braid their hair up, Soletus worked on getting undressed as his hair was always braided. He did have to take off the beaded tie he wore to hold it together. Mien undressed behind a brush and placed his clothing off the ground on a rock. His shot hair was convenient as he was first on the rope.
Soletus stopped him. "Have you ever done this sort of thing before?"
The boy gave him a rather expressive flat look that said, "really," before he backed up and shot toward the rope. He latched onto it, swinging out before Soletus could stop him. The boy let go and the young monk's heart stopped beating a second, even though the boy plopped into the water effortlessly. He come up a foot from where he landed, shaking the water from his hair.
"That's an affirmed yes," laughed Lyndon and joined him.
Soletus felt silly for worrying. However, it was Mien. He was still learning what the boy could and couldn't do. Then again, from what he told him, it should have been clear he had no fear of water. He had very little fear of the river's current. He even answered Lyndon's dare to swim out and touch one of the large smooth boulders that poked out of the water and then swam back. Soletus watched him as he started swimming upstream a little and then tackled the current. Any new boy would have dived in the faster current without a thought.
"He's not dumb," whispered Lyndon.
"He isn't," said Soletus, watching him drift to the rock with no trouble.
"But he's as shy as a cottontail. I got very little out of him other than one-word answers until you came."
When the boy returned, Soletus had to stifle a shout to tell him what to do. He would be on the receiving end of a Lyndon joke if he kept that up.
I need to let him alone, he thought. He's not helpless.
Someone who could push someone off a bridge and then try to drown them when they got to shore wasn't helpless. He didn't enjoy having grim thoughts about Mien, but that was reality. He watched the boy tapping his chin with his fingers, contemplating a moment before he just kicked himself from the rock and let the current carry him down to where the water slowed, and swam his way back. However, about midway back, he glanced over his shoulder and then did a double take. He bobbed in the water with his attention fixed on the opposite bank.
Soletus left Lyndon's side and swam beside him. "What is it?
Mien's eyes narrowed and Soletus saw the green color in his irises recede. From the center, they became back-lit with gold.
"I saw felt something and then I saw it."
"What did you see?"
"It looked like an animal, but felt like a shadow," he said, and pointed to the trees.
Soletus then caught sight of something dark moving in the high brush. In fact, it wasn't just one thing; it was three forms about the size of Onyx. His heart stopped.
"Start swimming slowly towards the bank," he instructed at a whisper.
"Just do it," Soletus urged, and he swam to Lyndon who was jeering Doran for his slowness. "Lyndon! There are three drass beasts in the woods."
He snapped his head to attention. "Where?”
Soletus motioned with his eyes in the direction, trying not to give them any more attention than he had too. If they ran to the river, they would be slowed down by the water and so would they. If they could get to the bank, they would have a head start. He waved to Doran to come over to them as Lyndon studied the three dusky forms that stared at them through white eyes.
"We need to get out of here," said Lyndon.
Doran started splashing his way towards the bank where Mien was at holding on to a tree root.
"Hey, don't go splashing getting their attention more," hissed Lyndon harshly. "Glide like a fish. Tell Mien to start climbing up, slowly though."
Soletus had seen an actual drass beast out in the wild when he was young boy twice. Both times he was out with his father. He didn't have a clear memory of them. He just remembered his father's urgent and snappish tones about keeping quiet and not moving when he was told. One incident was a close call. His father had to leave him in a hollow of a tree and led the drass beast away. Soletus hide their scared and ended up falling asleep. His father came back covered in sweat mixed with dirt and blood. There was going down the full length of his shirt sleeve with a matching claw mark. It was red and angry looking wound. His father’s only words were that he took care of it, and they went home.
It frightened Soletus so much, he didn’t want to go out beyond the wall for a while. He was scared at that moment. Not to the same degree but his only knowledge and experience with them were the ones captured for training. They always called it Rat. The monster was declawed, spines cuts, and tusks sawed off so they wouldn't harm trainees. From what he could see of the ones behind them, they were small skulkers and they had all their claws, teeth, and spines. He glanced back to the bank, seeing Mien's boney body sliding up the bank and into the brush without a lot of movement.
Lyndon pushed him forward. "Go," he said.
The young monk left him swimming slowly to the bank and made it in time to see Doran making too much noise clambering up. That was the thing about drass beast, they became agitated with movement and noise. Lyndon monitored the opposite bank as they dressed quickly, pulling on pants and boots first. However, they didn’t get a chance to pull on shirts.
“They're coming, let's go,” hissed Lyndon.
Soletus looked over his shoulder to see the three skulkers were already in the water and were making a beeline towards them.
The four of them ran from the brush, going back towards the road.
"We need to get to the nearest signal tower," shouted Lyndon leading.
Soletus followed his cousin, making sure that Mien was keeping up with them. The tower they headed to was close, but they had training and could sprint faster than the average elf through brush. Mien wasn’t, and he was afraid the boy would lag or trip. However, Mien kept up. He had good footing. That was surprising, as well as the fact he wasn't panicking. He was wide eyed with fear like the rest of them; however, most untrained elves would be making unnecessary noise or do something stupid like going their own separate way. That was a good thing because it left the young monk with the ability to focus on what was chasing them. The monsters gaining on them.
When the four made it to the tower, they sent Mien up first. The boy knew how to climb a rope ladder. He was swinging badly, but kept going. As soon as he was right above their heads, Doran went next. Soletus looked behind him and saw the skulkers getting too close for comfort.
"Aren't there supposed to be a bow and arrows around here," said Soletus.
"Up top," answered Lyndon, now realizing how close they were.
The young monk did the only thing he could do. He called forth his consort, Khodi. Once the bear took shape from a translucent blue outline, he started impressing Khodi with his thoughts of hold them off as long as he could. The bear affirmed with a rumble and charged off. He bowled into the middle of the skulkers. The situation they were in was Khodi's specialty.
He didn't give Soletus any standard abilities such as minor healing or seeing and hearing through them. Instead, the consort had a trait that many a monk would have loved. The consort generally weren’t used in combat because they passed on pain from their injury to their summoner, Khodi didn’t. In fact, as long as Soletus was near him, he was immune to pain. He could feel some indications of it though.
Soletus was the last one to go up. Out of all of them, he was the tallest and heaviest, not to mention the slowest to climb. He always found rope ladders difficult because of the way the ladder swayed. To him, it felt as if it would give.
A horn blasted above him. Doran had found the horn and let out three short blasts of the horn, waited and then continued the series, signaling immediate danger. Khodi sent an impression of danger before he felt teeth sink into his calf. His fingers nearly slipped from the ladder rung from the pain as the monster trying to yank him down. He tightened his grip on the rope rung and spied down to see the drass beast dangling from him. He took his free foot and kicked it in the nose. The beast wouldn't let go. It took hold of the ladder in its claws to provide more leverage and started shaking its head like Onyx would play with a scrap of fur.
"Shoot it! Shoot it now," he cried.
Lyndon came to the side of the tower with a bow and an arrow already notched. However, from the angle, Soletus knew he couldn't get a clear shot. He kept kicking and trying to pull himself away. However, the muscles in his arms were straining and the palms of his hands were sweating. Keeping his grip was getting harder and harder.
"I can't get a clean shot," shouted Lyndon.
Mien's head appeared at the edge, looking down at Soletus with eyes wide with fear. That was the last thing the young monk saw as his hands slipped from the rung and he fell. He hit the ground hard. The breath was knocked out of him. For instance, he lay there stunned until he felt himself being dragged. Soletus tried to reach for the bottom rung of the ladder, but it escaped his reach. His mind was still clear enough to searched for something to grab hold. There was a loose fist sized rock covered in moss. He snatched it, then twisted around and tossed it square into one of the monster's white eyes as it dragged him through ferns. The skulker squealed and released him.
Soletus scramble to his feet, but his right leg protesting and sent up a stab of burning pain up his leg and he fell to the ground. He shouldn't have been able to feel it. Khodi might’ve been too far away. He needed more time to move and thought if there was a perfect shot, Lyndon had it. His cousin let loose an arrow that clipped the drass beast in the side of its head. It let out a yelp. The young monk wanted to strangle his cousin for missing.
He managed to get to his feet again and hobbled to the ladder. He was within reach and then felt something heavy slam into his side. Soletus found himself on his back. He didn’t have time to ball up. Instead, he offered the monster his left arm. He felt teeth stab into his flesh but felt little pain, but not as much as the first time. Khodi was closer. It allowed him the clarity he needed to reach his side to the hilt of his tao stone hunting knife. However, his hand grasped nothing. He didn't feel the braided leather handle or the sheath. The only place it could be was in the bushes where they had undressed. He was in trouble. In an act of desperation, he balled his fist up and started slamming it into the side of the skulker's head. It continued to chew his arm, ignoring his strikes.
"Shoot it," he cried, desperately.
No arrow came. Instead, his answer came in the form of a chant. A bright orb of light struck the drass beast in the neck. It let out a terrible squealing wail. The spot where is struck, was sizzling. Burn fur filled Soletus nose. He scooted away from it just as another golden ball crashed into the same spot, this time it exploded when it popped. Sending magical sparks everywhere. The force of it knocked the drass beast clean to its side. It didn't move after that. It lay there with its head smoldering at an odd angle.
Soletus twisted towards the towers. He saw Mien stand at the foot of the ladder. All the green vanished from his eyes, so was every bit of fear he displayed. His golden gaze stared hatefully at the body of the drass beast. Another glowing winked into existence. It pulsed from gold to almost white. The boy was ready to hit it again if it moved. It didn’t, and he closed his hand and the sun globe snuffed out. He ran to Soletus's side. The young monk fell to his back. His vision was blurring. That was not good.
Doran was shouting something. The drass beast that Khodi was dealing with had finally broken away from him and he chased it. He saw arrows trying to hit it, but Lyndon kept falling short of his mark. Soletus impressed on him to come back. However, his consort shimmered out of existence before he could make it to him. Soletus didn’t unsummon him. He must’ve been more injured than he thought. Then all the pain of his injuries hit him at once. His calf was on fire, and his left arm felt like it was torn in half. He cried out and curled up in agony.
"Sol," cried the boy, trying to push Soletus to his back.
The young monk pushed him away and closed his eyes to the world that started spinning violently.
"He needs help," shouted Mien to Lyndon. "Soletus, your arm is bleeding badly." He tried to take hold of it, but it made the burning worse. Soletus would have shared it if his jaw didn't become stiff, along with his tongue becoming dry and wooden. It then dawned on him that the monster he fought with was venomous.
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