Ties That Bind: Part Seven
“Harwood! Harwood, get up!”
Harwood's train of thought was fuzzy and muddled, and felt someone jostle his shoulder. Pain shot through his arm; that was enough to make him fully come to. As sore as he was, he almost wished to be unconscious again. Thankfully, he'd avoided the worst of whatever sickness that had suddenly struck him.
Layla was next to him with not a scratch on her. The worry in her eyes dulled as she let out a sigh of relief. “Thank Fyora. Thought I'd lost you...”
Propping himself up, Harwood spat out a mouthful of dirt and groaned. There wasn't a single part of him that didn't ache horribly, but as much as it hurt, it also bemused him. How had they landed with nothing more than slight scrapes and bruises? The Eyrie turned to Layla, knowing she must have had something to do with it. “How-”
“We were lucky. I managed to use a spell to soften the fall.” The Gnorbu's eyes narrowed, her voice sharp. “What on Neopia was that for? Did you intend to drop out of the sky and nearly kill us? What were you thinking?”
“Of course I meant to kill us,” he sneered. Ignoring her comments, he took the opportunity to scan his surroundings. Their landing had torn up a good part of the ground, leaving an ugly dark scar in the dirt. They'd clearly made it out of the Haunted Woods, and just in time. If they'd crashed any sooner, they could have collided into a barrier of trees. Luckily they'd made it to its borders, landing in a rocky, desolate area near the base of Terror Mountain.
Harwood attempted to stand, but was overcome with a fit of vehement coughing. Inhaling only caused a sharp pain to stab at his chest, each breath labored and stiff. After a moment, it seemed to fade, leaving him gasping for air.
Layla stared in shock. “Are you okay?”
The Eyrie frowned. “Never better. Let's get moving.” Walking, however proved to be a foolish decision. After only a few steps, pain surged through him again. Harwood cursed and clutched his side. Fyora above...
Layla came to his side, hands on her hips and a stubborn air about her. “You're not fit for travel. You can't even walk.” Her features softened at seeing how haggard he was, concern flitting over her face. “What's wrong with you, Harwood?”
“I don't know.” Trying to regain his composure was useless. He hated it, but the girl was right. As much as the defender wanted to keep moving, he wouldn't get far without rest.
“So you don't know?” she said apprehensively. “Is this why you stopped flying?”
“It's none of your business.”
“That's a lie, and you know it. I'm not going anywhere until I get an answer.”
Harwood heaved a frustrated sigh, but it came out as more of a wheeze. “Look. I don't know what's going on. Your guess is as good as mine.”
Layla furrowed her brow. “Maybe you're wrong about that.”
Before the Eyrie could question her, the distant rumbling of thunder reached his ears. He'd hardly noticed the hazy overcast that draped over the sky, a clear warning of an approaching storm. Fat drops of rain plopped onto the earth, another sure sign that the land was in for a fast, heavy downpour.
“I'll tell you about it later,” Layla said, rubbing a raindrop from her face. “We have to find some shelter. Can you walk?”
“That'll have to do.”
By the time the two found somewhere to stay, rain was beating down by the bucketfuls. It was a good bit of luck that a small cave was nearby, a hollow nestled in the side of the rising mountains. The place wasn't much to look at, but it still managed to reach out a hand of safety on the two travelers.
Both Harwood and Layla were soaked through and chilled to the bone. Though they'd passed its borders, the dreary weather of the Haunted Woods still clung to the surrounding area.
Harwood couldn't have looked much worse than he did then, Layla noticed, seeing him bedraggled and coughing worse than before. She immediately placed her bag on the cave floor, rummaging through it to see what wasn't spoiled by the rain.
The Eyrie eyed the bag, stifling a cough. “Wasn't that stolen?”
“Snagged it before we left the tent,” she said, smirking slightly. She withdrew a small roll of bread, a bit soggy but still edible. “Eat this. I doubt you've had anything since the inn.”
Harwood leaned against the cavern wall, ignoring the food. “Neither have you.”
Layla glared at him. “You just braved the Haunted Woods, rescued me, fought off bandits, flew us back out, lived through a crash landing, and managed to get us both here in one piece. Eat it or I'll shove it down your throat.”
The defender sighed and cooperated. “You'd watch your mouth if I had the strength to do something about it.”
“That's right.” The Gnorbu's smug grin faded into a frown. “You look terrible. When did this all start?”
“Why would you care?”
“Because,” she said, “I'm going to try and make you better. I need details. If I don't know what going on, something could go wrong. If that happens, you might end up losing a few fingers. Or worse.”
Harwood stiffened. “No magic.”
Layla groaned in exasperation. “Would you rather die? You have to trust me on this, Harwood. It's our only option. I promise I'll be careful, but you have to cooperate.”
“Fine,” the Eyrie scowled. “It started that night at the inn.”
“So you've had moments where you just stop functioning? What are the symptoms? Wait, don't tell me. I need an accurate description. Just imagine what you feel in your head, and I'll be able to see. Be sure the information is correct. This spell is harmless, so don't worry.”
Harwood reluctantly did as she suggested, picturing what calamities the strange illness had been causing for him. Layla breathed deeply, collecting her own thoughts and calling upon the magic invested in her. Reaching out with her mind, she touched on his train of thought, images and facts flushing into her consciousness. She skimmed over the ailments, taking a glance at irregular breathing and a crippling pain that seemed to branch out from the core.
So vivid were the feelings that she nearly felt them herself, causing her to cut off the spell, recoiling with a shudder. “This looks serious. I'll have to do an Inspection to figure out the cause. Just give me your hand. This isn't dangerous, either.”
Layla gripped his clammy palm, distant thunder ringing in her ears. She hoped it wasn't possible for magic to attract lightning. Once again, she took a deep breath, clearing her thoughts. In her mind's eye, she carried out the examination, trying to uncover any magic plaguing the defender. She quickly sensed the Bind, but she found something more, something deeper. It was too concealed for her to identify, perhaps being a spell of undesired intentions.
The Gnorbu released the Eyrie's hand with a sigh. “It doesn't look good. Someone's purposefully cast an undetectable spell on you. You've been cursed, Harwood.”
The defender knitted his brow. “That’s a first.”
“It isn't all that common. But this could be worse, you know. Most curses gradually kill their victims, but this one is different. It's almost like its waiting for something.”
“I tried blocking some of its symptoms for you during the Inspection, so you should feel a little better. The sorceress in the Lost Desert should be able to get rid of all of it.” Layla looked to the Eyrie in confusion. “Who'd want to curse you, anyway?”
Harwood nearly smirked. “More people than I'd care to remember.”
Night fell quickly. The rain never ceased, pattering down ruthlessly as the world began to sleep. A nearly full moon peered out between the hazy clouds, drifting in and out of sight. The celestial body had never looked so chillingly beautiful, and was possibly one of the few visual gems located near the Haunted Woods.
Layla had started a fire, having collected a bit of damp wood earlier. She'd only managed to get it going by using a magical blaze which, luckily, had been quite successful. Heat was one thing, but hunger was another. It gnawed at her stomach, not satisfied with the few meager scraps she'd found in her bag. The Gnorbu tried to ignore it, resting in the fact that they would reach Sakhmet tomorrow, if all went well.
Wrapping herself in whatever blankets and shawls she had stored in her bag, Layla shivered in the frigid night air. Though it was cold, she could see Harwood sitting at the mouth of the cave. With his back to her, he was silent. The Gnorbu wondered what could be going through the defender’s mind. Being cursed didn't seem like something he'd take lightly, but he hadn't said a word about it for the entire evening. Curious, Layla gathered up her blankets and went to sit with him.
She gazed up at the sky, watching the thinning clouds. It looked as if the rainwater was dripping from the stars above. The moon nestled between them, a milky basin of light in the darkness. “It's a gorgeous night out.”
Harwood never replied, staring blankly ahead. His maroon eyes were hollow, his scars glazed in moonlight. Layla thought he might be reminiscing of the past, reflecting on the countless battles he'd fought in his lifetime, both on and off the job. The weary Eyrie looked vaguely pained, but not in a physical sense.
“I was always told,” the Gnorbu said, “that when someone lives through a really hard tragedy, they turn grey over time. Others say it's just old age, but I always thought I knew better...”
Layla turned to the defender. “Why did you turn grey, Harwood?”
No response came. His strained breathing and the beat of the rain was all that was to be heard. After many long moments, he exhaled softly.
“You remind me of someone I knew once.”
Intrigued, Layla hooked her eyes onto his. “Who?”
“It doesn't matter anymore.”
The Gnorbu frowned. “Whoever it was must have been pretty annoying.”
Harwood shook his head as he rose to his feet. “No.”
Before he could walk back into the cave, Layla was determined to get just a bit more out of him. “But what was that person like?”
The Eyrie paused, looking somberly at the moon.
“She was lovely.”
To be continued...