Three more elves ended up in their infirmary the following day. All of them were adults. Then in the early morning, the day after, a batch of children came in one after the other. They all had blisters like the first boy, except they had the red blistering rash all over their bodies. Some were mild, others were very severe, but all of them had high fevers. The worse cases called Kiao in before her shift started, and she would watch them the entire day. There was no one else to cover the extra load. Brother Oli asked for assistance, but there were no volunteers.
Mien wasn’t allowed to be there for extend periods of time because of his other training. It allowed him time to mull over why the children were there. He learned from eavesdropping from the parent’s that they were all friends. All of them denied their child getting a hold of any blighter and passing it around.
“Honest, we didn’t take any blighter,” cried the first boy that arrived. Mien stood to the side, spreading the salve he had made on the arms of a girl that lay in bed racked with chills from her fever. “I don’t even know what it looks like.”
Then how did they ingest it and in that amount,” thought Mien.
It made no sense. If they ingested that much to cause the blistering they had, the children should be dead. They had no nail discoloration either. Not that one could get it with a single dose. Then there were the other factors he had to consider. The first boys contact, and his friends were days apart. It was another piece of the puzzle he couldn’t figure out.
Mien wished his father were there. He was good at finding solutions. The most complex problems had simple answers. That was what his father used to say.
The only solution he could think of was that he needed to get ahold of the blighter that was being passed around. And that was a problem. They didn’t have a chanter priest in the order who knew the phrase of purification. They could draw the poison out of their bodies and then he could test it, well, if he had the supplies. That brought him to the other hitch. If he got a hold of it raw, he couldn’t do much with it. The order didn’t have a proper alchemy kit.
Mien was torn. He hated seeing children hurt. It reminded him of his own pain. They were buried deep inside him like tap roots.
He rubbed the back of his neck and smoothing down the raised hairs from the voice of the peaceguard behind him. It bothered him. The man’s sternness in the search for the truth was a lie. He could feel the tell-tell chill between his shoulder blades strongly now.
The peaceguard lowered his voice to sound menacing. “Listen boy, this is a matter of importance. Where did the blighter come from?”
“I told you, I know nothing about it,” said the boy.
Mien felt his pleas and the fact no one was listening to him. Not even the poor child’s parents, especially his father.
“Tell him the truth, lad! We’ve no time for this,” said the father.
The boy started crying just as Mien had done when he was wrongly accused by his uncle. He knew Dalaen had set him up, however, he would continue to shout, insult, or hit him. Then one day he stopped crying. He grew numb and there was nothing to feel from it. The dejection overtook his ability to care. And when the man couldn’t produce tears anymore, his uncle found more creative ways to stab at him.
“Tell them the truth,” shouted the father, growing impatient.
Mien’s hand curled into a fist. He didn’t like the man’s voice. There was anger there, fear, and disappointment. He was being foolish and harsh for no reason other than his unwillingness to listen.
“Shut up,” Mien muttered.
“I am,” sobbed the boy.
“You can’t just get blighter like you can poison ivy,” said the farther speaking louder than he had before.
“Shut up,” shouted Mien. The phrase of silence was on his tongue, ready for him to unleash it. And then he felt an arm wrapped around his chest and a hand clamp over his mouth.
Kiao whispered in his ear. “Si’le so, come back.”
The fury that manifested from in Mien subsided. Peace washed over him, and the world took shape again. His ears ringing. Mien didn’t realize he was standing and facing the peaceguard, the boy, and his parents. They were all staring at him wide-eyed.
Kiao said from by his ear. “I ask that you don’t shout in here,” she told them. “There are those here who are sick and those who work here who are sensitive to tone of voice.”
Alder appeared, picking up the pot of salve that Mien had dropped. “I’m sorry about that,” he told the parents. “You have to be aware of chanters sometimes. We do train to be calm, but as Brother Kiao stated, some of us are sensitive and yet learn simple control.”
Mien’s irritation surged back up and he struggled against Kiao at Alder’s barb.
“Some of us have yet to learn the power of empathy,” returned Kiao.
She dragged Mien upstairs to a private room and shut the door. Mien sat on the bed and covered his face.
“You’re shuttering,” she told him. She pulled the blanket off the edge of the bed and tossed it over his shoulder.
He was. Shame rested on his shoulder. He was scared Brother Oli would pull him off duty when he heard about it. He probably wouldn’t, but the parents would complain then it would be a mark against him. Then he would be pulled from duty.
Logically, the Arch Priest wouldn’t pull me, he told himself. No need to go into an anxiety fit over that.
He very much understood what being timbre sensitive meant. He was one himself but was old enough to have a great deal of control over it. As long as he didn’t burn anyone, he would be fine. The priest assembly was who he had to worry about. He hung his head down despite that. “I’m sorry. I hear things and I lose too quickly.”
“I know. He was being very loud,” she said.
Alder burst through the room. “This isn’t the time to react this way, Mien!”
Kiao let out a long exhale. “Really Alder.”
“You know this was okay three years ago, but now—”
“Now what,” Kiao snapped, flashing her eyes at him.
“Dias wants us to control our abilities and our emotions so we can stay clear headed. He shouldn’t allow himself to get so affected by a frustrated father.”
“Timbre sensitivity is a gift and a burden. It isn’t something one can just master in a day, week, or three years. A slip up is expected. And because of that fact, we deal with it, Alder. We help him. We don’t belittle him.”
“There are things that are acceptable and things that are not when dealing with the general populous,” argued Alder. “He was about to use the phrase of silence. We can’t have him out there if he’s going to do that.”
Kiao became appalled. “So, you want to lock him up where he can’t learn?”
“I didn’t say that. I mean, for safety’s sake; isolation is for the best for the whole at times.”
The young woman became more frustrated. “You don’t isolate a chanter because they don’t perform the way you want them to. The common folk need to learn to expect an oddity here and there, just like he needs to learn control!”
Alder raised his hand. “Kiao, calm down. I get it. This is a touchy subject for you, and you only get this way if your season is coming. Maybe you need to drink some tea or something.”
Mien cringed inwardly and covered his face. Idiot.
“I’ve been in this infirmary watching sick children with fevers and covered in blisters for nearly a day. And you think that the only thing that can make me moody and upset is the fact that I occasionally bleed!”
If Alder had any amount of sense, he would’ve known to shut up. However, instead, he said the worse thing he possibly could utter.
“Listen I just thought–”
“You thought,” she said, growling out her word and forcing them at Alder. Mien covered his ears. “Say that again to me again and I’ll kick your stones to your throat and make you eat them!”
Alder did the first sensible thing he had in that moment. He fled the room. Kiao let out a long huff of air through her nose before she flopped down on the bed beside Mien. She rubbed her face with the palm of her hands. Her hair was in her face. There were dark circles under her eyes from lack of sleep. Mien saw her when he arrived in the infirmary and then left with her still being there.
He stood up from the bed and draped the blanket he had over his shoulder across hers.
“Kiao, you’re cranky from no sleep,” he told her as benignly and applied as much concern to his voice as he could. “Why don’t you rest a little?”
She shrugged off the blanket. “I’m not cranky and I can’t nap when children are getting hold of blighter.”
“I’m not sure about that,” he said, picking up the blanket and placed it on her shoulder again.
“Them getting a hold of blighter. Don’t you think it’s odd that none of the adults are covered in blisters like that?”
Kiao nodded. “It is. One could attribute that to them being young and they might’ve ingested a worse mixture where the ratio of the mixture of blighter is off. There might be less bark from the five-finger tree and more other things.”
“Or maybe we’re looking at this wrong,” he then thought about and realized there was a way for them to have the blisters. He even mentioned it to Kiao. The problem was the how. “I have a theory, but I need proof. Once I have that, I’ll share it. For now, you rest, and I need to get back to work.”
Kiao held onto the blanket this time. “Don’t hurry off just yet. You still look a bit frazzled.”
“I can’t hide every time the world makes me uncomfortable,” he said to her and thought, Well, I can’t hide, not after what you said.
He left the room after that and made his way downstairs. The peaceguard had departed. The boy’s parents, however, were still with their son. Mien then did something he never would’ve done without the presence of someone beside him. He approached the parents. He didn’t have to get their attention as they saw him entered the room.
Mien then did what Oeric told him to do. He straightened his spine and walked forward as if the room was his. That he was in control. He was a presence. As he approached them, they reached for the other one’s hand. They were uncomfortable and scared, as well as looking for reassurances and answers. As a chanter, everyone seemed to believe they could provide remedies and solutions to every aliment and concern. Brother Oli told him that there were times when they were powerless. There was nothing they could do. However, even if they couldn’t fix something, they should always show they had empathy.
Mien stopped in front of the parents and clasped his hands behind his back. “I am sorry about what happened earlier,” he said, noting his voice had reverted to that soft unassuming one he used when he first arrived at the Brotherhood. It was easier to look small and if he sounded small. It was a habit he broken, but every-so-often he returned to it.
“Eh, it’s alright,” answered the father with hostility in his voice. He wasn’t looking for a fight, but he didn’t want Mien there.
Mien cleared his throat and added strength to his voice. “I come over here to ask your son a few questions. It’s about his blighter rash.”
“I already told them,” sniffed the boy. “I don’t know anything about it.”
Mien sat on the edge of the empty bed across from him. “What’s your name?”
“Ferris, we’ve a problem here. People are getting ill. They are getting ill from blighter-”
“But I didn’t take any,” pouted the boy with his head down.
“I believe you.”
The boy peered up at him, meeting his eyes. Mien returned the acknowledgment with a thoughtful smile. He would’ve loved for someone to stand up for him and listen. Now, he could be that person who could hear.
“I believe you,” Mien repeated. “I can tell when people are lying. And you aren’t.”
The boy’s parents fixed their attention on him, surprised. It was a bold statement for him to make, but he knew the boy wasn’t.
“I want to help you and everyone else in the room. First, I need to know a few things. Do you go outside the wall?”
The boy let out an indecisive groan as his parent’s frowns suggested that wasn’t something they approved of.
“Let’s say you hypothetically leave the walls and go somewhere with your friends. Where would that be?”
“The sliding rocks,” he whispered.
“I’m unfamiliar with the sliding rocks.”
The boy held his head down. “It’s a cave where you crawl into, and it opens to a cavern. There are these smooth rocks there and we slide down them on barrel lids like a chute.”
“Is there’s water in the cave?”
The boy nodded. “That’s what makes the rocks slick. It empties out in a small stream.”
“Did you hypothetically play there right before you got sick with your friends?”
The boy scratched the back of his head. “No, I went to the stream to get something I left there.”
“Did you happen to drink the water?”
The boy nodded. “Just a sip and I washed the mud off my arms. The water is moving, so it was clean.”
Mien thought about it. Moving water wasn’t good. He needed standing water. “This cave, where does the water come from?”
Ferris shrugged. “It trickles out of the rocks.”
The boy’s mother scoffed at him. “You don’t think the rocks makes blighter.”
“No,” said Mien. What a ridiculous notion. “Caves are very interesting structures, Madame, and movement of water below ground. The water that’s feeding into that spring might be what’s tainted with an ingredient that can make blighter.”
The father’s eyes widen. “Then we need to tell the peaceguard.”
“No,” Mien exclaimed and then cleared his throat. “I mean…I don’t…” Then he realized he didn’t know what to tell them.
The mother looked him in the eye and asked. “Do you trust them, the peaceguard, I mean? Is your chanter wisdom telling you not to?”
Wisdom, ha. “I would rather this stay between us for now.”
The two adults looked at each other and nodded. “Alright,” said the father.
Mien then told Ferris, “I can release you. You’re well enough to go, but on one condition, you show me where the sliding rocks are.”
Mien left the infirmary and the two of them made on horseback going across the bridge and away from the spot where Oeric met that man a few years ago along its banks. Ferris talked the entire way, asking him all sorts of questions on what it was like being a chanter. Mien didn’t mind the questions. He had to get used to them. Nimbus told him he would spend more time answering questions than actually healing people on the road.
The place that Ferris stopped was out of sight where the land started to dip. On the side of an embankment was a hole in the earth. Mien paused at the entrance of a hole shaped like it was waiting for a key to be instead into it. A child could fit in it, no problem. If he were taller and broader, now. He doubt Soletus would be comfortable squeezing through it. Yet, it still reminded him of a mine entrance and his stomach quivered. It had been seven years since he stood in front of the collapsed cavern that became his father’s grave. It wasn’t enough time for that great sense of loss to fade or for him to not detest the underground.
“Are you coming,” said the boy.
Mien nodded. Ferris crawled on first, slipping out of sight before Mien followed. The space wasn’t as tight as he imagined it. It was enough for three children to stand in line waiting to slide. It was damper than he imagined. He chanted up a light globe though. He didn’t find the boy’s lantern very sufficient. Indeed, water came trickling in from the rocks. He looked down at his footing. The entire area was slick so, crept his way as close to the rocks as he could get. He smelled the surface and discovered a sour odor coming from it mixed in with the earthy smell one might expect.
Mien dug out a tube flask from a pocket held it under the dripping rock.
The boy pinched is nose. “What’s that smell?
“Does it normally smell like,” Mien asked.
Mien swung his light closer to the rock and saw discolored mud clinging to a rock. There was orange-green slim growing on it. It seemed to only grow in the areas where light was filtered through the spaces between the roots and rocks. If it was any other color, he would’ve ignored it as something naturally occurring. His father told him repeatedly that the underground rarely produced brightly colored oddities that weren’t rock, mineral, or crystal. Mien scraped some off in a flask he brought and sealed it up with a cork.
“What is that,” said the boy.
“Tell your friends not to come back here,” said Mien. “Don’t drink the water or touch the water.”
The ominous warning caused Ferris’s large eyes to widen. He didn’t ask why, which was good. Mien didn’t want to explain himself more than he had too. He didn’t know enough. Afterwards, he went to the infirmary and down into the basement. Once there, he pulled out his alchemy book.
The master who taught him was a middle-aged elf by the name of Rail’Towhee. Mien didn’t know if that was the man’s real name. Rail was a surname as well as Towhee. Not to mention the alchemist like to be called Master Rail and people on the streets referred to him as “Buggy.” One day, he entered the man’s small shop, and someone referred to him as Roth. His father knew the man and told him he had a bit of a colorful past without a single explanation on why he did. Mien figured it was his knowledge of illicit substances like poisons and blighter was why.
He taught Mien how to make it, as it was a good pain relief. He didn’t sell it or give it to just anyone. He had a few elder elves who would come in and get a tin-full for their worse aches. He had processed his in a way that it wasn’t addictive at all or that is what he claimed. Then again, he never had an insistent person begging for the powder with the shakes. If there was one thing the man taught him, was make sure he had suitable proof before a hypothesis was correct. And Mien was looking for answers.
When Mien couldn’t find what he wanted in that book. He pulled another one out from the large shelf behind the long worktable where the Brotherhood’s alchemy kit was spread on. He sat on his stool and rested the heavier book down on the table podium. That book was devoted to healing and toxic plant book, and there would be the answer he wanted.
He knew there was a section devoted to the exfoliating bark of the five-finger tree. That bark was used to make a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory. It was also the main ingredient in blighter. When mixed with a certain alga, it enhanced those properties including the addictive nature of the bark. Then there were various other junk fillers to increase yield. What Mien was interested in was the algae.
He was nearly in the back of the book when he found it listed under toxin. His eyes scanned the page and found something interesting. If not cooked properly, the ingested algae made elves ill. Prolong exposure to it caused darkening cuticles and a rash on the skin. The spores were much worse. If exposed to skin, it caused a blistering rash that shared the appear. If ingested, it would cause a high fever.
That was enough evidence there. However, Mien wanted to make sure and went to see if there was a test, he could perform to confirm what he scraped from the cave, was indeed the algae. However, the alchemy kit in front of him was limited. He didn’t have all the compounds he needed, neither the full equipment. He wondered if he could talk his mother into donating coin so the infirmary could get one.
The was a simple test that maybe he could to perform. He stared gathering beakers, got his heat lamp ready, and poured slimy substance he gathered into a beaker as well as testing liquid for metal. The algae had high concentrations of a certain metal, and he hoped he would get the indication that it was present. He sat on his stool waiting for bubbles to appear in the beaker as it heated up.
Mien heard footsteps overhead, coming towards the door. The footsteps were light, so he figured it was Kiao. The young woman walked down the stairs, stopped at the bottom, and sat down. She yawned loudly. Her hair was hung loose from the low que that she wore it usually. He watched her take out the leather thong that bound her hair and she started rubbing her scalp. She was a mess, and he couldn’t help but smile at the sight of her. He went back to watching his experiment when she made eye contact with him.
“It’s late,” she said. “It’s nearly dinner time and past your shift.”
Mien observed the cloudy liquid to change shades to looking yellow. “I’ve been looking into what hurt those children.”
“Okay,” she said, standing up to stretch. She then made her way towards him. Instead of standing beside him, she stopped behind him and stared over his shoulder. “What’s this?”
“It’s a sample of mud I gathered from a cave they were playing in. Ferris told me he gone there, took a drink of water and washed his arms. His friends went there to play there days after, if I had to guess.”
Mien read the indication chart his finger was pointed on. The water in the flask then changed to a deeper shade or yellow going to orange. It was light orange. A smile spread on his face.
“You were wrong,” he said.
“About how they got into contact was irrelevant. It’s very relevant. The children played in the cave, sliding down rocks where water comes from a spring. That spring has traces of the algae used to make blighter.”
Kiao stared at the flask.
Mien blew out the flame of his heat lamp. “They must have ingested the algae’s spores and their skin made contact with it causing the blister rashes. I don’t know the concentration, but no one needs to be near that spring.”
Kiao blinked, looking like she was slowly catching up to what he had said. She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and yawned. She slid from behind him to beside him.
“If I got you, the children were playing in a cave where water comes from rocks, and you found concentrations of algae that is used to make blighter. That’s fine and well, however, algae need light to grow.”
“It wasn’t growing in the cave except where there was a little light. The water is coming from another source and traveling underground to there. The bulk of the algae is growing someplace else and releasing toxic spores in the water.”
“I follow you now. That’s a high concentration of spores then. However, all the water is moving around here, there aren’t a lot of ponds. Algae blooms don’t just happen in steadily moving water.”
“The concentration could be related to the fact it hasn’t rained in a while.”
Kiao crossed her arms. “Still, where is water that’s still and stagnant enough for this to happen?”
Mien’s brow creased in thought. “That is a really good question. I don’t know this area well enough. I mean, I’ve been outside of town…” Mien trailed off speaking when he saw the grin Kiao wore. “What?”
Her lips curved upward into a smirk she leaned forward again. “Oh, nothing other than I find you rather adorable talking the way you are.”
Mien’s face reddened.
“Smart boys are attractive.”
Mien felt his ears burning. He closed his book, unable to respond to what he took as a harmless flirt. That was something he expected from a girl in town teasing a Brotherhood tod. Most of the time, they’ll get someone like Soletus who didn’t enjoy being toyed with. Then there were those like Alder or him who would fumble, and they would tease for the fun of it.
Kiao sighed and took a few steps back from him. “Sorry, I probably shouldn’t say things like that to you.”
“No,” said Mien quickly. “It isn’t you. Say what you want. Act how you want. I just… it’s just me.”
He hated to say that because he proved Alder right. He was awkward.
“You’re right, you are you,” she said, tapping a flask with her fingernail.
Mien didn’t like that tone she used. She saved that for Alder when he was being a dod.
“Look, I can’t help how I react to things. I mean, I’m not Alder, but I am a dod who doesn’t know what to say to bold girls.”
Kiao brightened up. “You think I’m bold?”
“Well, you’re disguise as a male in an all-male order and succeed at it,” he told her softly.
She patted the top of his head. “And you claim you don’t know what to say.” She then clapped her hands together. “Anyway, my dear fellow, it’s time to eat and you need a meal after making this discovery.”
She was right. His stomach had been growling since he come back. There would be plenty of time the next day to get more answers.