The changes in Blazer’s life could hardly have been more abrupt and significant once Ardent Huntress arrived. The first thing he noticed was that he slept much more deeply. In the days and weeks after the Librarium, his sleep had often been troubled by too-vivid dreams, memories, or some combination of the two. But the first night after meeting Huntress, he had a dreamless sleep that was perhaps the deepest he could ever remember. He was usually an early riser, but had she not nudged him into wakefulness, he would have slept nearly until noon. Better yet was the fact that his nightmares – or at least what he was considering his nightmares – largely ceased to be a problem. They didn’t vanish, but they became more manageable, and far less prone to jolting him awake in cold sweats. Though the one or two times it did happen, Huntress was there with her arms around his midsection a few moments afterward, and so it really wasn’t that bad at all.
There were other changes, of course. Though he hadn’t had time to start on the gardens that first day, the following afternoon brought impatient looks and nuzzles from Huntress, and Blazer cut his day’s restorations short to spend a few hours picking out and sowing seeds on the grounds with her. Her knowledge of horticulture was impressive, and spending well over half a day tilling the soil with her with his reconstructed tools, getting his mind off of the present and just returning to the things he enjoyed, was far more therapeutic than he could have imagined. The next day went much the same, as did the next one and the day after that, and before he knew it he had an entire, expansive series of gardens planted and waiting, as well as the fountain he had long been planning for the front courtyard designed and alchemized into being. It was just a fraction of what he was going to have to do to restore the Librarium, but it was a start. An all-important start.
His memories of Ardent Huntress didn’t return, however. He had little pangs from time-to-time that definitely smacked of longstanding attachment, but whenever he would try and pin them down to suss out the memories, they would never come. It bothered him a great deal at first, but as he spent time with her, he became less and less concerned with it. Blazer…well, Shinn, that is…had always been someone to examine a situation from every angle, turning it over and around in his mind’s eye until he had thoroughly dissected it. He had always considered it one of his strong suits – rare was the occasion when Shinn the Loresmith went into anything without as complete an understanding as he could manage. But that approach had its drawbacks. It could be argued that he often overthought even the simplest things, trying to glean more out of something that didn’t need further explanation. And after a while, he realized that he was doing that very thing. “Sometimes, it’s good to pause in chasing happiness to just enjoy being happy,” Master Aiken had said.
And so one day, while standing ankle-deep in a pool of water, his pants rolled up to the knees, on the Library’s grounds, he paused in taking measurements of the aquatic plants beneath the surface, and just stood up. There was no sun in the sky here – at present he could only carve out a chunk of Elsewhere large enough to have a pale gray sky – but he looked up into the expanse anyway, before closing his eyes and breathing in deeply.
“Something wrong, Blazer?” Huntress was on her hands and knees in the water checking on some roots when she spoke, and sat back onto her heels, looking over at him with her tail swishing against the water’s surface.
“No…nothing’s wrong.” Opening his eyes again, he wiped his brow, and then looked back down at her. His eyes found hers, and after a long moment he just smiled.
“What?” she asked with a sly grin, getting to her feet slowly and stepping up to him.
“Nothing’s wrong. For once in a long, long time, nothing’s wrong.” Reaching out his arms, he pulled her close and just hugged her against him.
A moment later, her tail tucked itself around his torso, and she sighed as she nuzzled close. “I’m glad, Blazer.”
The Library made more progress in the following weeks than it had seen in the past several months. Surprisingly enough, having someone to work alongside encouraged Blazer to do more than shut himself up in the libraries transcribing books. With Ardent Huntress’s help, he quickly sped through the first of the renovations he had planned for the grounds themselves – touching up his archery range, planning for the addition of a rock garden and a hedge maze, roughing out the blueprints for adding an extra wing onto the main structure, etc. – which then left him little physical labor to worry about for some time. It was refreshing to have accomplished so much, but the downside was that there were other concerns to address once more.
“We have to get out of the Library for a while, Blazer,” Huntress declared as she crossed her arms. With just a long robe draped over her shoulders, she hardly looked as if she were ready to step outside into the frigid day, but her tail twitched impatiently, and her eyes narrowed. “I enjoy being here with you, and helping you with your work, but I’m going stir-crazy being cooped up every day.”
Pulling his attention away from the machine he was constructing, Blazer removed his goggles and looked over at her. “What do you mean? We’ve got the grounds to walk.”
“The grounds, Blazer, are not the same as actually being outside. There’s a sky, but it doesn’t have a sun, there’s no real wind, and the research pools aren’t even deep enough to take a proper bath in.” Uncrossing her arms, she walked across the room and brought her hands down on his workbench, looming in his direction. “Seriously, we need to get out of here and do something else.”
Looking a little embarrassed, Blazer scratched the back of his neck and glanced away. “Well, I guess you have a point…I just…I dunno.”
Giving him a perplexed stare, Huntress wrinkled her nose. “You’re being evasive, I can tell. What’s wrong?”
Drawing in a deep breath, Blazer looked down for a moment. “To be honest, I…well…I’m a little frustrated with always having to hide out there. Things are so much easier in here; I don’t need to be anything other than who and what I am.” Taking his eyes to the device nearby again, he made a slight gesture with one hand, and rearranged two of the parts using only a subtle extension of his anima. “I can use every bit of my power without worrying who might see, and actually make the best use of my abilities. It’s not that I don’t want to help people, because I still very much do. I just…it just wears down on me at times so badly that I can’t drag myself back out there.”
Huntress watched him with a reserved, moderated expression while he spoke. When he finished, and started to lower his eyes again, she reached one hand up to gently take hold of his chin, and then raised his eyes so that they looked straight up to her own. “Blazer, I want you to listen to me very closely. The work you do is important, and very much needed by this world. You’re right, you can’t perform to your fullest if you’re worrying about staying invisible all the time. Which is why I say that it’s time you stopped trying to pass for ‘ordinary.’ There is no good reason for you to hide who you are, alright?”
“But…what about hatred for the Anathema? What about the Wyld Hunt?”
“Not everyone is a lackey of the Immaculate Faith. And as for anyone who might try and hurt you, don’t worry: I’ll protect you.” Keeping her eyes locked on his, she smiled warmly, her hair gathered loosely down the left side of her body.
Blazer still had his reservations, but her eyes had a way of easing his concerns, and this time was no different. Sighing quietly, he relaxed, and closed his eyes. “Alright, Huntress. I’ll try to hang in there.”
“Good.” She leaned down and kissed him a second later, and then turned to walk out of the chamber. “I’ll go get dressed, and then meet you out at the fountain, okay?”
When Blazer had run into Ardent Huntress, he had been traveling through an even more sparsely-populated stretch of the North. So when they emerged from the Library, packed it up, and set off again, it was several days before they ran into any other settlement. Blazer had at first covered himself up completely, hood and all, out of habit, but Huntress insisted that it made no sense for her to wear extra clothing – after all, neither of them felt the cold like mortals – and after a couple of days managed to convince him to at least not fuss with his own hood anymore.
Of course, that almost went right back out the window again when they came to their first village. Even after Huntress’s pep talk, Blazer was still hesitant to just use his powers openly. As chance would have it, the village was facing nothing in the way of a real crisis – just a few minor injuries and a recent, isolated rash of blighted crops. Most of the injuries were easily dealt with by a handful of poultices and herbal teas, and the crop sicknesses were traceable to a bad patch of soil after a couple of samples. He was able to whip up a special fertilizer that would reinvigorate the tainted ground without even consulting any of his books. He probably could have solved the soil issue in one day instead of two, had he resorted to his full powers – and Huntress knew it, based on the accusatory glances she gave him once or twice – but he managed to get away with it for the time being. He would give her way a chance, soon enough.
Besides, he was able to work much more quickly and efficiently just based on the fact that he now had an assistant. That alone made a huge difference. He had been ready to battle a barrage of questions as to Huntress’s unusual appearance; after all, tails and lion ears were not exactly normal even among the stranger localities. When no one even seemed to notice, he was immediately curious, but Huntress explained that Lunars had their subtle ways of hiding their appearances to most mortal eyes. That seemed a good enough(if somewhat hypocritical) answer, and by the time a medical procedure several villages later was finished in half the time because of the extra pair of capable hands, he had stopped wondering at the minor details and just accepted the gift.
But then, finally, the time did come. Detouring along a particularly out-of-the-way stretch of road, Huntress and Blazer neared another village that Shinn had never seen on any of the Librarium’s maps.
“I’ll check it out,” Huntress said as she darted off on silent feet mere moments after they had caught sight of the wooden huts some miles up ahead. That was her way, Blazer already knew; every potentially-inhabited settlement they had come to, she had leaped ahead to scout, refusing to let him follow her until she had known it was safe. They had yet to find one that had not ultimately been safe, but he imagined that if they did, she would likely just return to steer them around, or deal with any threats herself without letting him get involved. So he just waited patiently for his lioness’s return. While he did, he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye. Turning to look, he saw the recent carcass of a bird of prey lying in the underbrush some paces away. It wouldn’t normally have given him second pause at all, but there was just something…wrong…about it. Moving closer to investigate, he noticed a sickly, spidery web of something that seemed to cover the poor bird’s entire torso like a warped system of external blood vessels. Without really trying, his keen vision took note of the entire scene, and his mind immediately began rifling through explanations. That was no plant or fungus, not with that angry violet coloration. And he could still make out bright red inflammation around the bird’s vital chest organs. One explanation jumped to his mind, one that made his skin crawl-
“Blazer,” Huntress spoke as she dashed back up just a couple of minutes after departing. “You need to see this. We’ve got a problem.”
Following her lead, Blazer trekked with her towards the village, spying several more dead creatures along the way with those same spidery marks. He could tell Huntress saw them too, probably even smelled them with her keen nose, but she stayed focused on their path until they stood right at the outer edge of the wooden huts. Once there, she turned to him, pointing out a lone figure that walked through the streets, completely covered in a long, bundled outfit that obscured all flesh. “Look, no guards or lookouts, even though we’re elbow-deep in land that’s had icewalker trouble in the past. There’s practically no one around, and anyone who does show is all bundled-up like that.”
“It’s because no regular person in their right minds would enter a place like this willingly,” Blazer responded. “You saw those animals on the way; this village is smack-dab in the middle of some sort of plague outbreak.” Blazer watched the figure walk around a corner, and bit his lip slightly in thought. “It’s just too quiet here. Any raiding party worth its salt would have someone scouting ahead for potential targets, and would have spied the death leading up to this place. No, the only enemy these people have to fear is what’s infesting them.”
“Then let’s get inside there,” Huntress said almost eagerly as she reached over to take his arm. “This is the sort of thing we’re here to fix, right?”
As they headed into the village, there continued to be no one to offer them greeting, either friendly or otherwise. Every time Blazer would try and hail one of the denizens, they would turn and scurry away, or just ignore him outright and continue on by. But though they didn’t speak, Blazer could definitely spot the symptoms of debilitating sickness, even through their disguises. The fourth time one of the people darted away without a word, he made an annoyed sound with his teeth. “Damn it, I need to get one of them in for an examination, but it’ll never happen at this rate.”
“Then we just need to change our strategy.” A moment after speaking, Huntress sniffed at the air for a few seconds, and then grimaced, pointing towards a larger hut down the center street. “There. It’s where the largest concentration of that awful scent is.”
Blazer headed in that direction with Huntress in tow, and once he reached the hut she had indicated, he raised one hand and knocked on the door. A couple of moments went by before it was answered; a figure over a head taller than Blazer opened it, and around this person he could see a room outfitted like an infirmary, with over a dozen occupied sickbeds, but all he could see of the one in front of him were deep azure eyes above an entirely wrapped face. “The strangers,” a deep baritone voice rumbled in Skytongue from underneath the bandages. “You had best leave while you still can.”
Hesitating for a moment, Blazer cleared his throat and met those eyes levelly. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’m a doctor, and I believe I can help your people.”
“We don’t need a stranger’s help. Leave.” The man’s tone indicated that the conversation was over, and he began closing the door.
“Did you hear the man?” Huntress said as her raised foot halted the door. At the same moment, the full moon symbol on her forehead flashed into prominence. “He said…we’re here to help.” The glow from her caste mark expanded into a radiance that enveloped her entire body, and her hair flared out behind her as two great golden eyes appeared in the air above her. Blazer had not seen her anima banner yet, and stood a bit stunned as the rest shimmered into view, the translucent form of a hunting cat prowling through an image of tall grass.
At the sight, the tall figure took a step back, his eyes going wide. “By the Ancients…!”
The man’s hesitation was enough to knock Blazer from his own stupor. Concentrating on his essence, he followed Huntress’s lead, and called up his own banner. The setting sun formed on his forehead, and a second later he heard the call of his white wolf, burning snowflakes raining down around him as the lupine figure streaked by and then coiled its comet tail loosely around his form. “I…I do not wish to intrude, but I must insist we be allowed inside. We may be your only hope.”
Smirking a bit, Huntress looked at the shocked local, and put one hand on Blazer’s shoulder reassuringly. “That’s right. A Twilight Solar stands before you. Now, why don’t you tell us how he can help you out, big fella?”
Looking back and forth between them, the man’s eyes steadily took on a less intimidated, more respectful light, and he gave a slight bow. “The Shining Ones return…very well. Please, follow me.”
As they followed the man inside, Blazer could see the people in the beds, as well as more people tending to them. Most of the ones walking around the room were partially bandaged, but their hands were free enough to keep from inhibiting their work, and none of their faces were covered. On each one of those, he could see the same spidery lines as he had on the animals, stretching from hairline to neckline, all along their arms, and almost certainly continuing beneath their clothing. He saw the same lines on the bedridden people, but in their cases the marks were bolder and much more pronounced. Those unfortunate souls barely moved at all; most of them appeared unconscious, even comatose, and not a couple seemed to have lost most of their body weight. The people looked to have been tall, and darker-skinned than most Northerners, though it was a little hard to tell with the shape even the healthiest in the room was currently in.
“I am known as Brisk Mountain Gale,” the man leading them spoke as he turned around to face them once again. “And this village is called Hyla. I regret that we can’t receive you under better circumstances.” Unwrapping the bandages around his own face, he revealed a face that looked to have been cut from granite. A web-like pattern also stretched up his face, crossing his eyelids and continuing on into his reddish hair. “I had heard that the Shining Ones of the past did not have to fear mortal disease. I sincerely hope that the stories are true, for your sakes.”
“That’s a safe assumption,” Huntress replied. “Nice to meet you, Gale. I’m Ardent Huntress, and this is…”
As Huntress continued speaking, Blazer unconsciously tuned out the rest of the conversation. Walking over to the nearest bed, he looked down at the inhabitant, a girl probably no older than seventeen. Her marks were some of the most pronounced, and even standing right next to her, he could barely tell if she was breathing at all. He checked her vitals quickly, and within moments his brain was calling up memories of the Crawling Rot, a debilitating disease he had run across in his previous studies that fit what he was seeing exactly. “Contracted by drinking contaminated water, or eating meat from infected animals…one week incubation period…terminal within three weeks,” he muttered to himself. The diagnosis was grim, and it would require a drastic response.
“Are you still with us?” Huntress’s voice finally broke in on his concentration. “Blazer?”
“We have to act fast. This girl may not live through the night.” The hesitation and reserve he had shown earlier melted away; he didn’t have time for such foolishness with so many lives on the line. “Mountain Gale, I need you to send messages through the village telling everyone that I’ll be stopping in as soon as possible to treat them. I also need to know which water sources your people have been using; they’re tainted and unsafe.”
Mountain Gale looked at him in shock, but a second later just nodded. “I’m at your disposal, Blazer Orpheus.”
“So you already know what’s going on?” Huntress whistled quietly. “Nice. Well, as usual, just let me know what I need to do.”
Even as she was speaking, Blazer focused his essence into his hands, and started channeling his Physician’s Technique. His caste mark reappeared, and this time, he didn’t fight his anima, letting his essence flow as it would and directing it as efficiently as possible. Huntress had been right; he would not let her down. He would save these people, and fear of exposure be damned.
Working through the rest of the day, Blazer did not stop for anything. His first patients began to recover within minutes, and once he had the essence flows memorized, he quickly went from one to the next, performing his healing pranas and waiting for signs of recovery to take hold before moving on. He treated everyone in the clinic, and then moved on from building to building at Mountain Gale’s direction. Once the man’s own case had been reversed into recovery, he proved an even more efficient liaison, directing the two on which homes had the most urgent cases.
Night had come and gone before Blazer finished with the last of the infected people in the village. He was battling serious fatigue by that point, but he continued to shrug it off, whipping up a ritual in the wee hours of the morning to purify Hyla’s water supplies. He was on the tail end of the last calculations necessary when his energy stores finally gave out, and he slumped over the table where he had been working, quickly falling into a deep slumber.
When he awoke, the sun was high in the sky again, and Huntress was sitting across from him, one elbow resting on the table and her head propped up against her hand. She smiled at him, and reached over to poke his nose. “Have a good nap, doctor?”
“What time is it?”
“Two minutes before you should be awake. But I suppose I can let it slide, if you want to get up now.”
Rubbing his eyes, Blazer looked down towards his plans, but then saw that they had been slipped out from underneath him while he slept, and rolled up into a tube on the side of the table. “I’ve gotta get back to work. Do we have any new cases?”
“Not a single one. You caught every one last night, handsome.”
“Then I need to finish up the ritual. We need to fix the water supply before-” Huntress’s hands on either side of his face silenced him. Her palms were warm and relaxing, and as he looked over at her, he felt a bright flush fill his cheeks, betraying the sudden detour his thoughts had taken the moment he felt her touch.
“You did good, Blazer. You did real good.” Leaning over, she rubbed her nose to his own. “See what happens when you don’t hold back, and accept who you are?”
“I…yeah…I guess I do.”
“Good. Now, just relax for a minute. I’ve found a safe water source for the town a couple miles away. It won’t be convenient, but I’ve made a few trips there and back already, and they should have enough for at least the next few hours.”
“Well…alright.” Lowering his head back onto his arms on the table, Blazer sighed quietly, and closed his eyes again. A few moments later, he felt Huntress’s fingers tracing through his hair near his ear, and smiled at the soothing sensation. “Thank you, Huntress.”
“Just doing my job.”
Standing before the small lake that was the primary water source for Hyla, Blazer focused on the essence lines he was managing, closing his eyes. The contaminants that had caused the Rot had moved to other smaller water sources nearby, but they could all be traced back to this one as their source. If he purified this water, the rest would follow in short order. Concentrating on the image in his mind’s eye – he could not actually see the essence beacons he had set up around the edges of the lake, of course, but his heightened senses could feel them more than clearly enough – he formed a long series of hand signs, focusing the Solar essence in his palms. Then, with a flash of blue-green light, he slammed both fists down into the runic symbol he had drawn in the dirt at his feet, and infused the essence he had gathered into the earth. Within moments, the radiance had spread from his forearms and hands into the soil, and then filtered into the water itself. The whole surface of the lake lit up with an ephemeral glow, sparkling as if it were filled with a million million emeralds and sapphires, and as he drew himself back up to his full height again, he wiped his brow and exhaled deeply. “It’s done.”
“So, once the glow has faded, our water should be safe again?” Brisk Mountain Gale stood nearby, his bandages and hooded cloak discarded. Though the spidery marks from his infection were not completely gone, they were already so faint as to be nearly invisible, and he stood with even more presence and power than when they had met him on the previous day.
“Indeed,” Blazer responded. “In fact, it’s probably already safe, but I would give it until at least tomorrow morning, to be absolutely sure.”
“Blazer here does good work.” Ardent Huntress looped an arm around his neck from his side, and looked over at the tall villager. “You’ve got nothing more to worry about.”
Mountain Gale gave a deep bow. “I cannot thank you enough for what you have done here, Blazer Orpheus. We have passed down stories of the Shining Ones for many generations, but I never would have thought one would appear here. We are all forever in your debt.”
Blushing a bit, Blazer scratched the side of his cheek, looking down. “I just couldn’t leave you in the grip of something like that. I don’t deserve that sort of acclaim.”
“I very much disagree,” came another voice from further back, towards the direction of the village. Looking past Mountain Gale, Blazer could see the girl he had treated first on the previous day. Her short lavender hair was no longer matted with sweat, and she still had the web across her face, but it was fair enough by now that it did little to mar her looks. Like Mountain Gale, she had shed the garb of the infirmary for something more comfortable, and as she walked over, the long, loose-sleeved robe she wore swished with her steps. She stopped a few feet away from Blazer, and clasped her hands in front of her torso. “I did not have much time left; even I could tell that. Had you not arrived when you did, I surely would have died before the rising of the sun. I owe you my life, Blazer Orpheus. Thank you.”
“Did you hear that?” Huntress whispered with a nudge to his ribs. “She’s grateful. Really grateful.”
Trying to ignore the lewd hint in Huntress’s voice, Blazer cleared his throat and inclined his head respectfully. “I’m very glad to see you’ve recovered. I don’t believe we were ever introduced.”
“Gossamer Iris,” she said with a bright smile.
“Say, Gale,” Huntress spoke up a moment later, having darted over to the taller man’s side. “Since you and I are finished here, why don’t we go gather some more water for the village from, you know, somewhere else?”
Giving a look over at Blazer, and then tactfully deflecting his eyes to the lake, Mountain Gale nodded once and did an admirable job hiding the slight smirk that entered his face – to eyes other than Blazer’s, it wouldn’t have been visible. “Yes, I do believe that sounds like a good idea. Even if we left right away, it would take at least two, maybe three hours for us to deliver a useful amount of water. So we had better get going immediately.” Nodding respectfully to both Iris and Blazer, the man turned to walk back towards the village, and Huntress waved with a roguish look before joining him, her tail swaying in an upbeat fashion behind her as they went.
“So, Blazer…can I call you just ‘Blazer?’” Iris asked as she walked up to join him at the side of the lake, hugging Blazer’s arm in hers and smiling again shyly. “Can you tell me something of your travels? I still feel a bit overwhelmed from my sickness, and I think some relaxing diversion would do me wonders.”
Suddenly feeling as if his body heat had just concentrated in his face, that didn’t stop Blazer from meeting her eyes with a smile of his own. “Well, if you’d really like to hear, then I could always tell you about my home. A place we called the Librarium….”
Blazer had intended to leave Hyla not long after completing the purification rituals for the water supply, but Gossamer Iris kept him considerably sidetracked for the rest of the day. That, and even after the two of them had returned to the village, he had the damnedest time tracking down Huntress. Whether that was because she was being responsible and fetching more water, or engaged in more mischievous pursuits, he wasn’t really concerned: she was impossible to find if she didn’t want to be found, and given how helpful she had been, he could hardly have begrudged her some time to herself. Which also gave him some more time for checkups on the villagers to make sure they were really safe from the Crawling Rot.
So they set out the following morning, shortly after daybreak. Blazer had not wanted to make much more of a fuss than they already had, so when they left only Mountain Gale, Iris, and a handful of the other villagers were there to see them off. As they said their goodbyes and made their way off again, Blazer looked over his shoulder one more time to see the tiny village, and their new friends, backlit by the early-morning sun. Sighing slightly, he smiled, waved one last time, and turned back towards the winding, neglected road that had led them to the village, just as Huntress shifted her course to bump against his side playfully.
“Sooo…what’s on your mind?” she asked with a wide grin.
“I wanted to thank you, Huntress.”
“For everything. If you hadn’t led the charge there the other day, I don’t really know how I would have responded. You’ve really helped me out in a lot of ways.”
Giggling quietly, Huntress reached over for his hand, and clasped it warmly in her own. “Luna did put us on Creation to help our Solars. I’m glad that I’ve been able to do what I set out to do.”
Leaning over, Blazer pressed a kiss to her temple, and kept his head against hers for a bit as they both stopped walking. When he finally pulled away, he looked to her, and started to say something, but closed his mouth before forming any words.
“What is it?” she asked with a smile.
“Nothing. I’ll tell you later.”
Eying him with mock suspicion, Huntress finally shrugged, and then dashed on ahead, loping down the broken road as easily as she might have crossed a verdant field. “Then stop lollygagging and let’s get on the move! There’s plenty more people out there to help!”
Laughing, Blazer shook his head and ran after her. “Lead the way!”