In the aftermath, Larch worked.
She used her spells, first, repairing flesh and wood alike where fire had charred and blades had cut. This was the first raid she’d dealt with in a long time; the last she could remember had been when she was… nine? Something like that. But the principles remained. First, people, then places, with the fire being a priority above all- her magic created water to douse them and soothe earth and flesh. Then, when she was dizzy from use of her strength and all her magic was spent, she used her medicines, the poultices and salves, tinctures and wraps. Larch blew through her supply of dried herbs in under three hours, and went to her wagon grimly to gather fresh, thanking them for the gift so that others may be spared. Then she returned with bloody hands clasping precious medicinals to the rows of injured Heibarr residents, some walking wounded, some waiting for the release only death could bring. Rutt and Moosely were unhitched to help clear rubble with their immense strength.
Raids were serious business. Everyone pitched in to help after. She knew how this worked.
She did not offer the Iron Fang the same services she did the rest of the village; that was Old Smoke’s perogative, and they had no need of an outsider shaman. It would be insulting at best. Instead, she left them a basket of supplies, to be used “if needed”.
Larch was not afraid to use herself to the limits of her power and then beyond, to exhaustion, for the next twenty four hours, until she was staggering and could no longer think straight.
That was, of course, the point.
She had no house here, not like the others. Heibarr was not supposed to be home to her; she’d given that up so her people could have it instead. (Though… no. A thought for later. One thing at a time.) Instead she crawled into her wagon and lay down on her cloak on soft loam. Flower, equally exhausted (she’d been invaluable for finding missing persons and healing the wounded) flopped next to her.
“…We did well, sprout.”
“I don’t want to talk about it, Flower,” she said, softly.
“You may have no choice soon,” the spirit said, equally soft and infinitely gentle.
“It’s alright to feel what you feel- however that may be,” the spirit said into the quiet. “I find I am… of two minds as well. You may be three. Possibly even four, depending.”
Larch said nothing.
What was there to say? He had confirmed her worst fears, and yet, somehow, she felt…
Not pity. He had, indeed, made the bed he lay in, and he was no small sad creature to be excused his horrors. As he had told Mallory, it was no crisis of conscience that made him leave, but simple threat to his own life.
He pauses a moment. “We were still mostly in the experimental phase, one subject was only attempted on before we went back to the drawing board. The subject died before any of the grafts could take, his lungs dissolved.” He pauses, remembering. “The job has been greatly refined, clearly.”
Doc thinks for a moment, then adds, “We also took some contract work that didn’t directly relate to the lab, assassinations, poisonings, trafficking. But all of it was for the lab.”
“For the first ten years, I was an apprentice to my Boss. Menial tasks, preparation and learning, handling problems that came up to the best of my ability. This was also a time of intense training for the job.”
As a note, Doc appears to be in his late twenties to early thirties.
“For the next ten, I was running the Shop as his second. Planning and working on experimentation and research, removing obstacles, preparing reports for the Boss and when necessary, the Sponsor, as well as cleaning up after operations and continuing the work, locating the next place to move when inevitably the heat got to be too much.”
He blinks, owlishly, as if confused. “I’m upset my past work came to harm what I’m trying to build now, but there’s no use in self recriminations. I cannot change the past.”
The Doctor was not a good man.
But his story hit far too close to home.
Taken as a child. Learning or death. No real choice in the matter. Being forced to watch. Years spent… and now, here, in the River Kingdoms, where the Freedoms kept him safe.
“The word is empathy. Whether you want it or not,” Flower added, as Larch made a face.
And yet- if he was not a good man… was the rest of it merely convenience? Efficiency? Flat out lies? This group, the hospital, the way his eyes crinkled at Mallory, the way he joked with Glaz, drinking with Bolke… handing her his belt.
“There’s always a choice, but in hindsight, no, I didn’t really know what I was getting into.” He drums his hands across the table, thinking. “I suppose I thought for the first time an adult wanted me around, for me. That was my Boss. He valued what I could do.”
“In this, It would depend on the severity of the failure, as well as who was directly failed. With my Boss, A beating or a few hours in the heat box, nothing horrible if it was out of my control. Perhaps a whipping, if it was a real mistake of no severity.” He paused for a moment. “If it was a truly severe mistake, death. And any mistake at all without extremely valid reasoning with the Sponsor was just death. The End.”
He reflected for a moment. “The Shop’s staff was instructed to never talk to the Sponsor without her directly addressing us. She was terrifying.”
He considers Larch for a moment, then says, “I like my hospital. I think that will be good work there, people feel better after I help them, and I like that there’s a sense of stability. The work is usually unique and interesting, and any cutting edge things I reserve for myself. My boss, Urvine…. He enjoys the pain. I don’t.”
He shrugs, and looks at Bolke. “Of course, if I’m not around, I hope the hospital gets built anyway.”
“Long story short, Boss had a bad couple of weeks. Financials were a mess, as I understand it, contract work had dried up, and we were scrambling for supplies. There was a surgery scheduled he’d been looking forward to for…. ” Doc shrugs, thinking back, trying to recall. “For a long while. Wasn’t my surgery, was another guy. Barks, if I remember his codename right. Good hand, extremely intelligent, vain as all get out. In any case, we had a fiend delivered to us. Something from deep within the Pit, don’t actually recall the name, very hush hush.”
He stretches a little, keeping himself from getting stiff as he recalls the story.
“Barks’ hand slipped just as the surgery started, nicked an artery. The fiend bled out on the table, then discorporated. Boss was… well, I’d never seen him that angry.”
His voice goes quiet for a moment, “Barks became the subject that night. And Boss *liked* Barks. Sometimes more than me, Barks had the passion for pain similar to the Boss.”
“I realized that if I was ever going to get out, now was the time. Started packing my things, thinking maybe take a few notes, get free, maybe try something new. While Boss was busy, found his notebook on me. He’d been planning my vivisection for a few years now, after I was fully mature. Kept putting it off because I was good at managing research and he was consumed with financials. Apparently I was due to go under the knife during the next windfall of gold.”
This group was, she forced herself to admit in the privacy of her garden, quickly becoming more than a means to an end, or a way to pay a debt. She would not, could not, call them tribe… and yet.
The echo of memory, of horror and grief, overlaid the image of Heibarr on fire. The houses had looked like her own, for a moment, the screams in familiar voices. Miri’s frantic search for her people was heart wrenching and far too close to home. And… The sheer fury that overtook her when Miri fell- how dare he- the spell fueled with killing intent, daring him to try her, to give them the excuse. It was not dishonorable, because the fight HAD been over- but.
She hadn’t been angry like that in a long time. It was the embers of a banked fire, flaring up in a bloody wind. She wanted Feilong’s head on the tip of her spear, blood to answer blood, as the ancestors and her own honor demanded. It would be so easy to let that spill over. It would be so, so simple to hate the Doctor.
So simple. So easy. Even deserved.
Guilt twisted at her. Didn’t the dead deserve better than her soft heart? He was a threat, he could never not be a threat, no matter what else she felt about him. Her body knew it- the tension when he was near, the old postures and instincts. He was not simply suspicious or driven by the work. He had committed atrocities in the name of science, without remorse or care. The difference between the Doctor and the Master was as thin as the edge of a knife… wasn’t it?
(And what about the difference between her and the Doctor? She had killed, knowingly, without remorse. She brought her curse to fruition with terrible methodical thoroughness, leaving fire and blood in her wake, ashes on her tongue. She had not felt guilty, then or now. He had deserved the pain. He had deserved suffering, and only logistics prevented her from delivering that to him as well.)
“You’re very quiet, sprout. I can hear the wheels of your mind turning.”
“….I don’t know what to do, Flower. These people are becoming… important in a way I did not anticipate. He is one of them. But- but I- I don’t know how to live with him. I feel like I’m going crazy trying. I don’t want to empathize, or- or any of it,” she said. “How can he just… say those things? Be so casual about it?”
Whether it was about his crimes or the hardship he endured, she did not specify.
“I don’t know, sprout,” Flower answered honestly. “I am what I am- and what I am cannot understand what he is, the choices he made. A shaman protects the tribe; a shaman is a force for good, heeding the will of the spirits in the world, interceding between us and your own kind. He is… not good. But mortals are complex creatures, capable of wonders and horrors in equal measure. He has walked both sides of that line. Where he will settle, if indeed he does, I do not know. I cannot say. For your sake, I hope he continues to explore the path we have seen from him here, as the Doctor we know, rather than what he did as his master’s obedient dog. He may never be good, but he seems to have an interest in doing good- or at least doing things differently than what he did before. That may be enough. And,” she added, with the casualness of a cat, “if he starts to become a monster in truth, we will deal with that, too.”
“How is your friend?”
It was a subject change, but one she welcomed. Her thoughts had chased themselves into so many circles she felt almost dizzy.
“Recovering. No permanent damage, besides her pride, likely. She almost had him. I understand her wish to honor her tribesman, but if she’d her proper weapon, she would have beaten him,” Larch said, with a bit of pride. Her friends were strong; that was very good indeed. “Of course, now we must find him.”
“…” Flower paused.
“I… may have something to help with that. It is a gift I do not use lightly, but as you intercede for mortals and spirits, I can intercede for you with a higher power, and see if they could answer a question or two. Simple ones, but perhaps it could be of use to her, when she wakes.”
Larch sat up. “Flower, that’s incredible!”
“Well, yes, I am,” the spirit admitted, grinning at her. “We shall offer her the option when she wakes. In the meantime, sleep, sprout. You’re exhausted, and there is nothing more you can give today.”
“I will watch,” Flower told her, and at that, the shaman finally exhaled, slow and ragged, closing her eyes. True to her word, Flower kept a cautious eye on the entrance of the wagon, as her shaman’s breathing deepened into true sleep.