Only three updates to go!
I’m going to wrap it all up this weekend, making way for Overworld October. More information to come about that next week. In the meantime, the show must go on…
ARIEN LAY CHEST down in the mud, his head twisted to one side. As he panted, cold silver mist gathered before his face, tiny clouds that slowly disintegrated. It was raining in large drops, like silver pennies clattering into the mud. They quickly made puddles, and those puddles spread. Before long, Arien had to push up on his hands and knees or risk drowning. The water was icy cold and ran swiftly as it trickled from puddle to puddle, overflowing to seep across the mud.
Then there was no mud, only water. It lapped up to Arien’s elbows and he rose onto his knees. The water followed, so he stood up. It was waist deep already, the current tugging at his feet. It pulled at him, urging him to let go, to flow with them.
He wanted to, but he was scared. He was a desert boy. The place of his birth was thousands of miles from the sea. There were no rivers in his desert. He couldn’t swim.
The silver river didn’t leave him any choice. As the water rose up to his chest, a surging wave crashed into him, knocking him backwards off his feet into the flow.
He opened his mouth to shout for help, but sank beneath the surface, swallowing a lungful of tingling magic. It pulsed through him, then lifted him up. Panicking, he rolled onto his front, trying to see where the river was taking him, expecting to sink again at any moment.
But the magic was inside him now, it held him up, cradling him in its heart. Warmth grew from the cold, filling him with its comforting touch as it carried him back to himself.
Arien opened his eyes. The fire spat in the grate. The flames were opaque and eager, surging around a piece of old furniture, testing it for weaknesses. Eventually the fire settled down, turning sullen as it was forced to burn slowly and wait for the wood to crack.
A shadow shuffled behind Arien’s head and he turned, groaning as the movement set off a dull ache in his brain. Rowan gave a protesting grumble and curled up tighter, tucking his nose into the hollow of his mage’s throat.
“Awake now?” the shadow whispered, creeping closer.
It was the rat girl, Arien realised, remembering where he was and why. “Have I slept long?” he asked, voice cracking with thirst.
The girl scurried away and returned with a chipped wooden cup. The water inside wasn’t exactly clean but Arien recognised the silver sheen on the surface. The magic shot through him, more potent than any potion or spell. It cleared his head in an instant.
“More?” she asked, as Arien guzzled the lot.
“Please,” he said, gathering Rowan onto his lap as he sat up.
The pine marten yawned, stretched his front legs, arched his back and settled down again, eyeing his mage grumpily.
A cup appeared under Arien’s nose and he took it with a smile. The girl tugged at her short, matted hair, watching as Arien dipped his fingers in the silvery-water and dribbled some into Rowan’s upturned mouth.
A droplet rolled across the pine marten’s nose and he jolted to his feet with a sneeze. Still sneezing, he shook his long body before setting his front paws on the edge of the beaker, leaning in and lapping for himself.
That hadn’t been quite what Arien had in mind, but he supported his sleepy mage-beast until he’d drunk his fill. Studying the cup for a moment, Arien shrugged, turned it around and finished off the water. He was a mage, Rowan was his mage-beast and the silver liquid was his magic. If there were any germs to be shared, chances were they were sharing them already.
The jolt this time was less potent but still filled him with soothing warmth, and he felt the last of his aches ease away. Stars, if he could bottle this he’d make a fortune.
“More?” the girl whispered when Arien put the cup down.
He shook his head. “No, thank you. We’re all right now.”
She looked at him and Rowan in quick, darting glances. Her body was a constant fidget, her fingers pulling and tugging at those of the opposite hand or playing with her hair, or scratching her arms. She shifted her weight from one hip to the other, moving forwards then back, her feet twitching. She seemed incapable of sitting still, as if she was always prepared to bolt. Her eyes rarely settled either, darting from one place to the next. Arien grew tired just watching her.
“Is Irissa back yet?”
The girl shook her head. “Gathering.”
He nodded. “I’m Ari. This is Rowan.”
“Mage, mage-beast,” she said, with a bobbing nod. “Always together, never apart. Funny magic, strange magic.” Dark eyes met Arien’s briefly. “Strong magic. You made the sky cry.”
“It’s not crying,” he said, remembering the taste of silvery water in his mouth. That had not been the salt of tears. “It’s laughing.”
“Laughing?” The girl frowned, as if she had never heard the word before.
“Because I thought I couldn’t use my magic, that it was too big and strong for me. I thought it couldn’t get out.”
Her big black eyes narrowed, then she gave a serious nod. “The world laughs at fools and mages,” she agreed, although that wasn’t quite what Arien had meant. Still, she seemed happier now she no longer thought he’d made the world cry, she even smiled when she caught his eye.
“Do you have a name?” he asked.
She shrugged, glanced at him, then away. “I was a rat before. We’re all rats in the city.”
“And now?” he pressed, because although he called her rat-girl in his head, he didn’t think he should use it out loud.
The girl stopped fidgeting and sat up straight. “Irissa says I am Kitten. When I grow up I shall be Cat, and I will eat the bad rats for breakfast.”
He felt the edge of her power then, a strange, odd little spark, as though someone had taken the magic of the world and given it a half-twist. “You’re a witch.” He wondered why he hadn’t noticed sooner. Of course Irissa would have rescued a little witch girl. If she couldn’t help rescuing mages, how much more would she do for one of her own? Even if witches weren’t supposed to live in a city. What plants would she find to fuel her magic here?
“And you’re a mage,” she said again. “I’m supposed to hate you.”
He smiled at her confusion. “Maybe later.”
She smiled back. “You’re stronger than me. Even when I am Cat you will be a lion. I will stick to bad rats.”
Arien didn’t know who the bad rats were but he could guess. By the time this Kitten became Cat they would be in very deep trouble indeed. Whatever punishment she dealt out, though, Arien had no doubt the rats would deserve it. “Good for you.”
Kitten rocked happily from side to side, dreaming about her future Cat days. Until someone kicked at the door and every muscle in her body drew tight.
“I mustn’t,” she mumbled, tugging on her hair. “Don’t open the door, she said. I mustn’t. Sit, shush, quiet. They’ll go. Go away. Quiet, quiet, like a Kitten, not a mouse.” She looked at Arien, black eyes wide and fearful. “Quiet, mage.”
He said nothing, until the kick came again. “Maybe it’s Irissa.”
The girl shook her head, holding a finger against her lips. “I mustn’t.”
Another kick, this one sounding desperate.
Arien put Rowan beside the fire and stood up. “If you won’t, I will.”
“No.” She grabbed his wrist and cringed, expecting a blow, flinching as someone kicked the door repeatedly. “No, no, no. Not safe.”
“There’s a peep hole,” he told her gently, peeling her little fingers away. “I’ll just check.”
“Not safe,” Kitten hissed, scuttling until her back hit the wall, and slid into the corner. She wrapped her arms around her legs and buried her face against her knees. “No, no, no.”
Rowan watched her antics with sleepy bemusement and rolled closer to the fire.
Arien hesitated, torn between the obvious distress of the girl and the constant kicking at the door. If that was Irissa she’d be getting angry. It wasn’t safe on the streets at night, especially this night, after everything he’d done. She’d saved his life twice; the least he could do was open the door. If it was her.
Dragging a rickety chair across the room, he climbed onto it and peered through the peephole. It was difficult to make out anything in the gloom, but the eyes that stared back were instantly recognisable.
Jumping down, he shoved the chair aside and worked at the ancient lock. “Sorry,” he said as he pulled the door wide. “We weren’t expecting…” His words trailed off as he noticed a line of silver glinting at Irissa’s throat.
“I’m sorry,” the witch whispered, then gasped as her head was wrenched back, baring more of her throat to the knife being held there.
Behind her glinted the cold, familiar eyes of a man he’d thought gone.
Veranon smiled. “Good evening, Azar, won’t you ask us in?”
* * *
VERANON SAVOURED HIS triumph as he stepped down into the hovel, making sure to keep a tight grip on the witch’s hair as he did so. She was a slippery one, with more twists than an eel. It had been a long hunt through the streets, but not even the advantage of home ground had saved her in the end. Nor had he been so foolish as to tackle her from the front. An arm about the throat, the threat of a knife and a copper chain about her wrists had been enough to catch her, but he wasn’t so stupid as to believe her subdued.
So he kept the knife pressed against her vulnerable throat as he elbowed the door shut and surveyed his prize.
The boy, at last, and within grabbing distance this time. He stared at Veranon with wide, wide eyes, so scared, so pitiful. Black rimmed with silver. It was almost too easy.
Yet Veranon was not so stupid as to scorn an easy catch, especially when the chase that went before it had been so difficult. For such a scrawny, unimpressive looking brat he’d been a worthy opponent, but the games stopped here.
Using the knife at the witch’s throat to hold her tightly against his chest, he reached into his pocket for his last two copper chains, then nodded at the boy. “Come.”
Those eyes glinted as they focused on the woman. “Irissa?” he whispered. So much for the almighty mages lording it over the witches of Wrystan.
He felt the breath shudder through the woman’s body as she tried to stay calm. “Don’t, Arien,” she said, hissing as the knife pressed tighter. “Don’t trust him.”
He’d always known she was smart. Veranon let the point slip the tiniest fraction and the body in his arms jolted. She didn’t make a sound, but he got plenty of satisfaction from the wide eyes of the boy in front of them. They glowed silver as a trickle of blood crept down the woman’s neck.
He was losing patience. “Come, boy,” he demanded. “My knife is thirsty.”
The boy stumbled across the filthy room. “Don’t hurt her,” he begged. “Please.”
Veranon was no fool and kept the knife precisely where it was. This would be the most difficult moment. “Hold out your hands. Wrists together.”
Trembling, the boy did as he was told. “I’m sorry, Irissa,” he whispered. “So sorry.”
“Hush,” the witch crooned. “Not your fault.”
“Higher,” Veranon ordered, ignoring their touching conversation. He had no tolerance for sentiment. “I want your arms level with your shoulders. Cross your wrists.”
As the boy did as he was told, Veranon felt the witch stiffen. Clearly she was planning to act once he was distracted by chaining the boy. Yes, a smart woman. He almost felt regret as he sliced the knife across her throat, shoved her away and seized the boy before he could flee.
He hooked an arm around the boy’s waist when he dived after the fallen witch, but Veranon had known he would. He fastened a chain swiftly about the boy’s neck, then managed to seize his wrist.
“No!” The second scream was considerably higher in pitch and caught him by surprise.
He looked up to see a tiny shadow detach from the wall and hurtle across the room. He’d thought it would stop at the witch, but it kept coming, crashing into his legs. She was so small she didn’t even reach his waist, but her fist pummelled anyway. He was so stunned at the daring of the little street rat, that it took a moment for him to twist away from the most obvious danger. Then his leg collapsed under him and he realised the little gnat had stabbed him.
Snarling, he backhanded the brat and seized the screaming boy by the throat, twisting his fingers through the copper links. “Enough,” he snarled. “Where’s your ferret?”
Across the room, the mage-beast arched his back and growled.
Spotting him, Veranon dangled a copper chain in his free hand and smiled. “Here, weasey, weasey, weasel. I’ve got a present for you.”
“No!” the boy squirmed in his grip. “I won’t let -”
His words gargled into nothing as Veranon twisted his fingers again, enjoying the way the child’s eyes bulged. “You know me,” he growled, bringing the boy close and relaxing his grip enough to let him breathe; it wouldn’t do to kill his prize. “You know what I can do.”
To his surprise the boy smiled, eyes turning molten silver. “But you’ve forgotten what I can.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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