1st of Zi'da, 716.
The fields of the Skye Verath Lodge were covered with a fresh layer of white frost that crunched under him as he leaned back and pressed his hands against the wet ground to support himself. "You'll catch a cold, sat out here." Gaspard stood not a short distance away, hands pressed into his pockets with thumbs hanging over the edges. He thought it looked cool; Nir'wei found he didn't have the heart to correct him. "At least wear a jacket or something." Nir'wei shrugged a shoulder casually. True, his thin white shirt was poor attire, but he didn't really care, and besides, he didn't own a coat. The cold air snapped at his body viciously, but it all felt detached, like it was happening to another person in a different time. Ever since the first onset, and the several subsequent ones, it'd felt that way. The inevitability that something truly horrifying was happening to his body, that he didn't know what it was, or why... or how it could be stopped, if it even could.
Perhaps he was overreacting a little. That's what he told himself, what everyone else said over and over again. But then it happened again. Pounding headaches, like several sharp nails being driven through his skull at random angles. A pressure behind his eyeballs that made them want to burst from their sockets. And the constant flood of blood, deafening, blinding, soaking everything in its fetid smell and taste until he could only vomit, and look down into his bile to find it thick and red too...
He closed his eyes and banished the memory. "I'm fine," he lied. "How're the Volareon doing?" The beasts might be big, but it just meant they froze all the faster in weather like this. Their large wings needed spreading, else they'd end up frozen to their own hindquarters by the growing frost and faint moisture in the air. Unfortunately, they were in a severe lack of willing participants to escort them out and ride them about to keep their blood pumping; lacking a cage or a hundred-foot leash to keep them tethered, the vast majority of Volareon still in early training around this season wouldn't be allowed outside otherwise, in case they decided to make a quick dash out into the world, or even in case they accidentally strayed a little too far and got lost. "You can't keep them huddled under blankets all Zi'da, you've admitted that much yourself. If they're getting too restless, they need to be given room to stretch their wings." He was just repeating what he'd heard said a thousand times before, but at the reminder Gaspard sighed and almost looked ready to sit down next to Nir'wei as he rubbed his temples in thought.
"All the Skyriders are either busy or indisposed for the moment. Everyone needs to help clear the roads of all the frost and snow, break up the ice otherwise supplies can't be transported between the duchies and we'd be worrying about feeding and housing them, instead of just exercise." Frustrating, that they lacked so many capable hands to manage the number of animals under their care, but not entirely surprising. The Lodge was the largest, and indeed the only place to house all those riders currently operating in Andaris, and that meant hundreds stabled, fed, watered, cleaned. A stupidly huge task to be led by two handlers, no matter how many underlings were there to patch the cracks. "The best we can do now is wait for the worst to blow over, I fear." Yet the season had only just begun; Vhalar hadn't been a smooth season for them either, and if they locked their entire charge for the better half of two seasons without room to stretch their wings properly, they'd be undoing the damage for seasons more, possibly arcs, as the young's wing-muscles remained underdeveloped, the elders grew cramped and stunted...
It was his last day. He wasn't going to have it ruined by such a sour note. "Bring them out," he said suddenly, bouncing to his feet to shake off the chills now reaching his toes and fingers. Gaspard looked at him like he'd just turned mad and opened his mouth to retort, but Nir'wei shushed him with a hand. "I'll handle it. Just bring them out, as many as you can, and I'll deal with the rest." The handler still paused, but after a pause and a moment of silence, he turned and started jogging back to the Lodge. Nir watched him go, until he was just a speck on the field, before he turned as well and started for his camp, which, as always, he'd set not too far from the Lodge, but as far away from Andaris as he could manage.
Before being struck, he'd prepared for the cold cycle by setting aside a small portion of logs and kindling every evening, stashed away on the back of his wagon. The wagon itself was now no better than kindling itself, since there would be no chance of taking it with him on the trip to Rharne... and he could no longer be trusted to sleep outdoors. The cold, once a friendly companion, now sliced through his skin no matter how many layers of clothes he wore or blankets he huddled in. Some days, he woke to puddles of dried blood on his pillow, woozy and disoriented, struggling to sit up, let alone get out of bed and prepare his fire and meals. He'd have to stay indoors from now on, potentially for days at a time, under constant supervision in case he suffered another episode. Today might be one of the few 'good days' he had left. However many that might be. Gingerly taking up Malice's reins and trying not to dwell on it, he gave an encouraging tug to the horse as he slowly guided them towards the Lodge fields, where Gaspard had already begun releasing the Volareon from their pens one at a time. He looked up at Nir'weis arrival and frowned. "What're you doing?"
Letting the cart roll to a stop near the stable entrance, he climbed onto the back to release the ties to Malice. "Can't let them out or they'll run, right? Well, just got to give them a little incentive." Pulling a few pieces of a tinderbox from his pocket and sprinkling a little bit of gathered hay into a pile under the stacked wood, he struck flint to metal until the sparks ignited and the first embers of flame started eating through the wood. With a hefty stockpile, it didn't take long for it to take hold, spreading across the stacked piles of wood... and throughout the frame as well.
"Hey, the hell do you think you're doing?!" It was the first time he'd heard Gaspard come even close to swearing, but he looked especially flustered as he abandoned the Volareon and scrambled for the flaming cart.
"Relax, I took everything I plan on keeping out already." Eventually the old handler slowed to a stop, one hand still partially reached out. "That cart won't even last to the docks." He didn't have the strength or the dexterity to patch up the problems anymore; at odd moments his hands would start shaking, sometimes it reached all the way up to his arms, for breaks at a time. He'd blamed the chills. It wasn't the chills. "Besides, you've still got a couple more to let out... and look. It's working." The Volareons he'd let out already had quickly begun to swarm around the blossoming fire the moment they saw it, but now as the frost in the surrounding grass melted away they practically leaped for the small clearing, making characteristic high trilling noises of pleasure as they stretched their wings for the warmth of the flame. By the time the last of the Volareon had been let out of their pens, those that were already released had settled on the ground, mostly on their sides with wings spread out, basking in the intense heat. Barns like their stables couldn't risk a fire, even with a mostly stone foundation and walls, so it was clear the animals welcomed the change. None of them would be going anywhere with an open flame to bask in front of.
Gaspard chuckled softly and folded both arms over his chest, watching as Nir'wei tip-toed carefully between them for one last check. Beaks looked good, wings were fine, a few seemed to be in molting... but the biggest issue this time of the season was of course the first bits of frostbite. "Got some mild discolouration on Ygdra and Minstrel. Doesn't look too bad, but you're going to need to deal with that soon. Might have saw some mites on Duchess, too." Difficult little buggers to see, which made them one of the most frustrating when they did get caught out, even if it was normally nothing to worry about too much.
"Don't worry, I saw that earlier. Looks like frostnip to me. Already preparing some towels in warm water to treat them with later tonight, and some salts to add to their meal. I doubt any moisture managed to get into their pens, but before we let them back in again, I'm gonna do a quick once-over." Standard stuff. For all the prevention measures they could put in place, dealing with such a large number of creatures, it was almost inevitable that one might fall for it; as long as it didn't look black or feel stiff and hard, they could be sure it wasn't too serious. "The mites... they're trapped inside all day, the best I can do is set up a dust bath somewhere for them to roll around a bit. How bad did it look?" He gestured a little with his hand; she wasn't teeming with them by any standards, but there was clearly an issue. "I'll dust herself down myself then."
Gaspard suddenly barked a laugh loud enough to make Nir'wei jerk on the spot. "It's your last day, you really going to spend it working?" the old handler laughed with a cheeky grin.
"I don't think I'm going to get a chance to do it again. And I like it. I... really like it." He reached up to rub at an itchy eye, and found himself surprised when he pulled back his fingers and found tears. "These past arcs here have been the best I've ever had and I--" he shuddered to a halt as heavy hands wrapped him into a powerful hug, and without thinking he tightened the embrace, digging his fingers into his mentor's shirt as if gripping a lifeline with everything he had. He opened his mouth to try and continue, but the only thing that made it out were choked sobs, wracking his body until his shoulders shook. In the darkness lit only by the flames of his burning cart, he couldn't tell how long they stood there, but it wasn't long enough. This was his life. The best life he'd ever had. He'd never have it back.
"It'll be alright, son. It'll be alright, you'll see. I'll see my way around to visiting you, or sending Poppy down. We'll all be laughing about this an arc from now, you'll see."
In an arc from now, the incurable Brain Rot would likely have killed him, the doctors had said. But from somewhere deep down he found the courage to give a small, trembling nod.