The world was a misty red haze, but that was to be expected from the Downside. The Reader could just barely make out the glow of the fire, still burning. He lifted his head, hair stuck to his face by the mud and, he tried not to think about this, his own blood. When something grabbed him, he lashed out -- but Oralech took both shoulders in his hands and held him still.
“Peace, Brighton,” murmured Oralech. “You yet live.”
“Scribes, I do not feel it,” croaked Brighton, collapsing against the doctor with no real strength left in him. He was vaguely aware of Oralech pulling back his hair, the stinging sensation of the ointments should have been enough for him to gasp and flinch, but he allowed it.
“Three scores, but not deep,” assured Oralech, pressing the ointment into each wound with a firm care.
“It suits me down here,” said Brighton, bitterly. “I shall be a rogue amongst you yet.”
Oralech pressed the bandage to his face. "I doubt it will scar. It does not even need stitches.”
“The Blackwagon?” asked Brighton, at last. Oralech paused to glance over the field. His vision returning, at least to the unbandaged eye, Brighton could make out the scene himself. A field of thorns and slime, shattered Howlers left and right. And the wagon….
“Safe,” said Oralech, “And mostly undamaged. Thanks to you.”
“Not so frail after all, am I,” laughed Brighton, reaching with a trembling hand for the waterskin as Oralech offered it.
“You have potential,” said the doctor, not unkindly. “Can you stand?”
“I don’t know.” The grass nearby rustled. “Ah, wait--”
A purple blob raised itself from the brush. The gaping teeth marked it as a Howler, raving, desperate or just spiteful. Oralech moved, raising an arm. He was a second too late, but it didn’t matter. One of the drive imps chose that moment to fly shrieking from the wreckage of their camp. It flew between Oralech and the howler. The howler collided with it. There was a screech, a messy squashing noise, and then silence. Oralech lowered his arm, blinking. The remnants of the howler sizzled against his sleeve.
“Those damnable things,” cried Brighton. “They don’t stop!”
And, much too his horror, the doctor chose that moment to lay him back in the grass. Brighton scrabbled, half-blind and, even more frightfully, alone.
“Oralech,” he began, “Please don’t leave me…”
“Peace,” said Oralech for a second time that night, with his back to him, he ventured into the grass. The fire flared and crackled. The chattering of the creatures at the edge of the light it cast grew louder. It seemed as though the night had a thousand eyes, and those eyes would soon descend upon them, but a loud explosion broke the song, and whatever was out there floundered and fled. Erisa rejoined them, one of her makeshift rifles over her shoulder. The end of the rifle smoldered. She held a bag of squirming escaped drive imps.
“Hey, Doc. Glad you made it,” she said. She glanced at Brighton, still sprawled out in the dirt. “Heh, and so did the weed. How about that. I managed to wrangle most of the imps, but we’re down a few. Going have to see if we can lure in a few when we reach Blackroot.”
“Mm,” said Oralech, kneeling in the grass, where the howler had emerged.
“Doc?” asked Erisa.
Oralech said nothing. Erisa peered over his shoulder.
“Aw hell,” she said. “You must be joking.”
“One more for the count,” said Oralech.
“Don't think that one will do much good."
“You’ve said that before,” said Oralech, standing. He held something in his arms. Brighton, who had managed with some lingering strength to pull himself into a seated position, could just barely make out the sodden rusty fur peeking out from over the doctor’s arm.
Erisa gave a sigh. She’d have crossed her arms, if she weren’t carrying a rifle and a bag of squealing imps. “Oralech. It’s a drive imp. We got a bunch of ‘em. We’ll have more, once we get the fuck out of here--
“It did us a good turn,” said Oralech, simply. “And it is need of assistance. Help Brighton to the wagon. I will meet you there.”
“My hands are full!” shouted Erisa, but Oralech had already crossed the field and returned to the only lightly smoldering blackwagon
“Then it is good I did not ask you,” answered Oralech, without looking back.
Indeed, it was the Lone Minstrel who helped Brighton to his shaking feet, and pulled an arm across his shoulders. As always, they’d forgotten he was there, but Oralech hadn’t. If Brighton fell against him, the Minstrel didn’t react. He seldom reacted to much of anything. His body was stiff and cold, like always. In the normal way, Brighton might have objected to having the strange colorless man so close, he found him inhuman and unsettling, but the Lone Minstrel held him carefully, humming softly. Together -- with Erisa’s rifle trained at the hills beyond-- they made it back to the wagon.
“That song,” murmured Brighton, hazily, “Have I heard that one before?”
But the Lone Minstrel offered no opinion. He never did.
Back in the Blackwagon, the Lone Minstrel helped Brighton into his bunk and then disappeared back to his own dark corner. Oralech arrived to wash the rest of Brighton’s wounds and administer some balms to dampen the pains, but he said little and soon vanished again. By the next morning, the dizziness had subsided, and Brighton was able to return to the main section, where he found Oralech bent over his peculiar second patient. A raggedy drive imp, for whom he had commandeered a crate and the extra raiments as something of a makeshift bed. The imp was not good shape: its collision with the howler had left its body burned from the monster’s corrosive blood, and one of its horns had nearly broken clear off. Oralech was, at present, binding that horn-- holding it in place as he wrapped a small strip of bandages over the break.
“Will that even work?” asked Brighton.
“We shall see, won’t we?” said Oralech. He picked up a brush, dipped it in his antiseptics, and brushed the symbols of healing into the bandage -- the same symbols had been sure to rub into the bandage that currently covered the cuts above Brighton’s eye.
“Have you ever even treated an imp before?”
This imp seemed like a lost cause. It barely moved, its large eyes fluttering only faintly as Oralech lowered it back into its crate.
“I wanted to thank you,” said Brighton.
“Hmph. Then go back to bed. There’s no need,” said Oralech.
“There must be something I can do. You have taken much about me on faith and I--” Brighton looked off and scratched his bandage, awkwardly. He brushed his hair out of his good eye. “I do not much like being at the mercy of others, and yet it is all I have been since I came here. It is a habit I would like to break some day.”
“You will be much more at my mercy if you overexert yourself. Go rest, Brighton. No one here thinks you are useless,” said Oralech, with his customary bluntness. Brighton stood in the door, stunned. Oralech picked up a dish full of pickled fish from the Sea of Solis, and tried to coax the imp to eat.
“A drive imp?” asked Brighton, after a day of jouncing sleep in his bunk, during which the wagon weaved its way to Blackroot. “Truly?”
“He does this,” sighed Erisa, from up her ladder. “Doc’s got a thing for strays. It’s worked out for the Nightwings more than once, but sometimes it can be a real pain in the ass.”
“I suppose you mean me,” sighed Brighton, handing her another sheet of metal.
“Heh. Aren’t we egotistical. I meant me ,” said Erisa, who was at that time fixing some of the Blackwagon’s outer panels, nails in her teeth and a hammer well at hand. She paused to glance down at him. “You, I haven’t made up my mind about.”
Brighton looked up at her. He wasn’t quite sure he’d heard her right.
“That was something,” she said, “With the fire and the raiments. Didn’t think the howlers would be fooled, but it drew them right out. I worked hard on these mods for the Blackwagon. They’re a work of art. It would’ve really pissed me off if those howlers had torn it all to shit. This wagon’s about the only family I haven’t ever completely hated. So. Thanks for keeping it in one piece.”
“Ah,” said Brighton. "That…”
“Keep goggling like a fish and I’ll drop a nail in your mouth,” said Erisa, with a grin.
Brighton cleared his throat.
“Well,” he said, rather loftily, “Needs must, and all that.”
“Aaand there you go again,” she sighed, “Ugh. Doc has the weirdest taste. But yeah, he’s right. You’re probably good for something.”
Still, Brighton limped about the day with a bit of extra energy. He had time to study the Book of Rites. His injuries only itched a bit, the words only a bit hazy as he squinted with one eye. It was slow going, and every now and again he glanced up to watch Oralech fuss over the injured drive imp. It had, like Brighton, regained some of its facilities. It had decided it liked the pickled fish, and ate them-- with some difficulty-- out of Oralech’s hand.
“There we are, little one,” said Oralech, his face was that doctor’s coolness, but Brighton could feel off of him a palpable relief. He’d approached the challenge with confidence, but he had not been wholly sure the imp would regain consciousness. “It is the least we can do for you. You have shown us kindness at great cost, and we do not even know your name.”
The imp clicked its tongue in answer.
“Ti’zo?” asked Brighton, surprised. He shut the Book.
“Hm?” Oralech looked up at him.
The imp chittered again.
“He says his name is Ti’zo,” said Brighton. “And that he would like another fish.”
And so it was that the ranks of the Nightwings grew just a little bit more that day.