I always visit Chinrar last, and would even if the merbeast wasn’t my favorite of the beasts in my care. He lives in a saltwater lake, so visiting him involves, at minimum, getting briney water on my dress and at worst ends with me covered in mud. The condition of my dress is important because a lot of the creatures in the Miac Mountain Preserve refuse to acknowledge me as a Caretaker if I’m not in pristine white. Since it’s my status as a Caretaker that calms the nervous enough to be seen and keeps the more aggressive from eating me, it’s pretty important that I maintain my qualification.
If I could change one thing about my job, it would be the dress. What sort of lunatic thought white skirts would be a suitable uniform for traipsing through the wilderness? I mean, yeah, okay, the original Caretakers were also priestesses, but they were clearly doing more than praying. If only the Preserve had been founded by a group of rangers instead of a temple!
This week as I approach the jut of rock where I usually meet Chinrar, I notice something wrong. He rests on the outcrop, his breathing sallow. When I meet his gaze, I can almost feel the pain in them. The wind that ruffles the fur on his dog-like upper half and the waves lapping against his scaley lower half mask his distressed whimpers until I’m very close, but as soon as I hear them my heart starts to race with the knowledge that I’m very much needed here.
I rush forward, sparing just enough thought to where my steps are going to keep from losing my footing. With soothing sushing sounds, I approach and kneel in front of the magnificent being. “You poor thing. What happened?”
He doesn’t answer, of course. While some of the creatures here are capable of human speech, he is not. But he moves against the hand I hold out to his snout.
His face looks fine, as do his forepaws, but when my visual examination drops to his lower half, I see a patch of missing scales. Oh, no. Not loose scale. Not Chinrar.
My magic rises inside of me, begging to be released. But magic can’t cure loose scale. The best it can do is ease the pain of it. “Please Goddess,” I pray quietly, “don’t let it be loose scale.”
Loose scale strikes fast and hard, prying scales off subjected animals at a rate of a few a day. Chinrar’s scales are where his magic is stored, and without them he’ll die. From the looks of things, if this is loose scale, it struck right after I saw him last.
Chinrar pulls himself further onto the rocks, allowing me to move down to the missing the scales. My blood chills as I take in the picture presented. With loose scale, scales separate quietly, leaving no blood. Right now, I’m looking at scabs. That means it isn’t loose scale, and I’m relieved about that. But it also means that something pried these scales off, which I’m not so happy about.
Pressing my hand against Chinrar’s side, I let my magic seap out into the wounds. “Of course you hurt,” I say gently. “I’d hurt too if someone ripped parts off me.” The closest a human has to the connections of scales would be the beds of our nails. I tore off a nail in a climbing incident once and that hurt like hell, and from the looks of things, Chinrar is down several dozen scales.
Chinrar begins to purr as the healing takes place. He’ll never grow the scales back, but at least he’s going to be spared the pain of healing and free from possible infections.
We have poachers though. I’m certain the only reason they didn’t kill poor Chinrar is because for the scales to retain their magic, and thus their value on the black market, they have to belong to something still living.
I finish healing my friend and then use the communication spell on the ring I wear on my left hand to inform the station of what happened. My boss isn’t happy with the report, but thanks me for telling her and says I can take some time to comfort Chinrar before coming back in. Sitting with the merbeast, I consider what to do next. It’s not my call, but I want to have a plan to suggest... The scabbing I observed means that the scales were stolen at least a day ago, so the people responsible are likely long gone. The sort of masking spell that would keep them from alerting me and my sister Caretakers to their presence wouldn’t be able to last more than three hours at tops. They would have needed to come straight here, knock Chinrar out somehow, and take their plunder as quickly as possible to get out again before we sensed them. They’ll be back, though, if not for more of Chinrar’s scales, then for a phoenix feather or a sphinx tooth.
I stroke Chinrar’s fur, thinking about how I’m going to trap and kill the people who hurt him.
The merbeast raises his head, interrupting my thoughts. He pulls back with a growl, then leaps over me. And a blast of magic slams into him, knocking him senseless.
As Chinrar collapses to the ground, I roll behind his body. The cursing I hear makes my breath catch and lights a fire of anger in my chest, because I recognize the voice behind it. Manilla. My direct superior and the only person I’ve told about Chinrar’s injury. She knocked him out, but was aiming for me. And magic strong enough to knock Chinrar out would have killed me.
I press into Chinrar’s side and summon the opposite magic to the healing I used earlier, letting it sizzle on my fingertips as I wait to be able to unleash it. My mind scrambles to catch up with events, to figure out why Manilla is here attacking me. “The poachers didn’t mask themselves, did they?” I call out. “You knew they were here. You let them in. Or...” Bile rises in the back of my throat. “Was it just you? Have you been hurting our wards?”
When Manilla speaks, her voice comes from closer than the cursing did. “It’s so easy to be righteous when you don’t know what it’s like to know your family is starving. My sister died from the famine. Her kids are next unless I do something, and the Goddess knows they don’t pay us enough for me to save them without finding something to sell. Do you really think a handful of scales are more important than the lives of children?”
“You took an oath,” I call back, shifting into a crouch that I hope will make me more able to react should Manilla come into sight. “We’re Caretakers! We exist to make sure people don’t hurt these animals.”
“I took an oath to defend life,” she says. It sounds like she’s still moving, still getting closer. Chinrar lets out a snore, a sign that he’s not going to spring into action to help out. “Those kids? They’re just as alive as the creatures here, and just as deserving of staying that way.” Her voice catches. “So was my sister.”
Her pain is honest, I can tell that from the suffering in her voice. But hurting our charges won’t bring her sister back, and there are better ways of taking care of the children. I’m pretty sure saying so won’t make an impression on her, though, so I stay silent as I try to figure out a way to get out the situation without ending up dead. My skirts are bothering me, so when Manilla starts to cry and I can tell she’s not approaching right now, I yank the dress off and crouch in only a bra and panties. It will be somewhat less dignified to die this way, but maybe it will help me avoid dying at all.
“You don’t understand!” Manilla sobs. “You’re an only child with no children of her own! You can’t say what you’d do for them!”
“You’re right!” Maybe if I act sympathetic, I can get close enough to hurt her without being hurt myself. “It can’t be easy to know that kids you care about are hurting.”
I lick my lips. Will she buy it if I offer to help her? Only one way to know… “I think I would do what you did. I don’t blame you. You’re just being a good aunt.”
She lets out a caustic laugh. “Nice try. You’re hoping I’ll let you live if you pretend you won’t turn me in.”
“I guess I should have taken drama as a kid.” What I took instead might have been better though, because it’s my gymnastics training that lets me leap up over Chinrar with a mid-air flip and twist that causes the spell Manilla throws at me to miss. I let go of my own magic even as I stick the landing.
Tears form in my eyes as I look down at Manilla’s form. Breaking an oath like ours, an oath backed by magic, comes with a price. I suspect hers came in the form of impaired thinking and loss of rationality or surely she would have pretended to investigate rather than try to kill me for realizing something was wrong. Maybe she’s been taking things for a while now and it was the impaired thinking that led her to take enough scales that I could know there was a problem; if she’d only taken a few, or taken them from different places, would I have noticed and put the pieces together?
Crouching, I put my hand against Manilla’s throat. The pulse is faint, but there, telling me I judged my magic correctly and she’ll wake up in an hour or so.
After I pull my silly dress back on, I activate my com-ring again, call both the police and my mother, and then sit down to wait for the authorities to take my former boss to jail. I stroke Chinrar’s fur as he sleeps, keeping an eye on Manilla just in case she stirs early, and I ponder ways to raise money for the famine victims without hurting my charges. Because although what she did was wrong, Manilla was right about something; we are sworn to protect life.
Featured image is Strength, by Meredith Dillman. Prints can be ordered from her store here.
It was featured as a prompt in my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.