Hawk to the rescue!
IT WAS THE screaming that did it. Hawk had been following the silver for a while and was starting to believe he’d never track Arien down. The soldiers at his back were restless and uneasy at being led so deep into Night Town. The mages were arguing, with the healers wanting to return to the devastated market and help the wounded. Only Sir Tobias remained with him; certain, sure and strong.
Then Hawk heard the screams and knew he’d found the right place. The door was small, set low in the street and the perfect height for him to slam with his shoulder.
Except it wasn’t locked.
Feeling foolish, he fell through the open door, tumbling down the deep step into the oddly lit room. He landed hard on his shoulder, knocked breathless by the impact. A tiny girl hunched weeping over a slumped body, but it was the other two people in the room that held Hawk’s horrified attention.
He knew that man, the tall one with the arrogant face, who held a copper chain in one hand and wrapped a second chain around Arien’s throat with the other. He’d never heard him scream before, though.
For while the man held the young mage in a strangling grip, Arien clung to the slave-trader’s face with his bare hands. Silver light radiated from them both, brightening with every passing moment as Arien poured the magic of the world into the body of a man who could not take it.
Nursing his aching shoulder, Hawk rose to his knees as the others dropped into the room behind him. Cyrus wriggled his way out of Hawk’s coat, looking rumpled and annoyed as he flapped onto a chair. Hawk felt rather than saw the healers gather around the body, and almost passed out when Sir Tobias pulled him to his feet by his bad arm.
“Ry, should we stop him?” the knight asked, soft and worried.
A biting flow of ice jolted through Hawk’s neck, shooting along his throbbing shoulder with the soothing balm of Mage Faron’s magic. “I don’t think we can. This is his moment. His demon. He has to fight it himself.” There was a pause as the healer’s magic flickered. “You’ve dislocated this, Hawk. No more heroics for you.”
Hawk didn’t care, he just waited for the pain to stop, the magic to fade and the mage’s hand to lift. Then he darted forward, evading all attempts to stop him, until he stood by Arien’s side.
The boy was almost all silver now. The magic poured from his eyes, ears, nose and open mouth, bleeding through every pore of his skin. His curly hair stood on end, crackling with silver lightning. How he could stand such power rushing through him, Hawk would never know, but he knew it was dangerous.
The slave-trader wasn’t screaming now. He wasn’t doing anything. His body was held up purely by the magic roaring through it. Where Arien was silver, the slave-trader had turned a burnt black and blistering red. His skin was peeling away. He was most definitely dead.
But Arien still lived. Although not for much longer if he didn’t tamp down the magic.
“Ari,” Hawk whispered, the power of the magic stealing the air from his lungs. He could feel the force of it trying to push him back, force him away, but he resisted. “Azarien. He’s gone now. He’s dead. It’s done.”
“Never,” Arien said in a voice of pure magic. It drummed inside Hawk’s head until his ears rang with it. Arien turned his head and Hawk’s eyes burned at his brightness. “It will never be finished. They will always come.”
“But not today,” Hawk forced the words out, feeling the wild magic wrapping around him, searching out his weaknesses. The silver slicked across his skin, teasing, tasting. It was worse, far worse than anything the Hunger had ever done. That had been desperation and need, trying desperately to fill the void inside the boy. This was magic in its purest form, it cared for nothing and knew nothing but want.
“Ari,” he gasped, as silver tendrils burrowed painfully beneath his skin. “Ari, please.”
“They will always come,” the magic said through Arien’s lips. “They all must die.”
The silver light spread to the rest of the room, reaching for the mages first: the healers kneeling on the ground, the battle mages standing protectively over them.
Hawk slammed into the boy who wanted so much to be normal. Who wanted ordinary friends. Who didn’t want to be different. This boy who had seen so much, survived so much, and suffered every step of the way. This child who had been beaten, abused and abandoned, who thought he’d finally found his place and people to care for him, only to feel disillusioned and betrayed by them again and again.
That was the boy Hawk tried to find inside the magic. The boy who was capable of so much good, who would hate what his power was trying to do. A boy who’d rather save the world than destroy it.
Magic punched through Hawk, biting chunks out of every patch of skin that came into contact with Arien. Ice and fire, ravenous and starved, and lonely, so very lonely, it dug swiftly to the heart of him, uncovering his own golden light.
Hawk shut his eyes and braced himself. He wasn’t ready to die. There was so much he wanted to do. He wanted to become a mage-squire, travel the four quarters of Wrystan, go beyond the borders, fight for ordinary people, become a mage-knight, serve his king. Perhaps more, if there was time and the chance.
Except there would be no more chances, there was no more time left. But if he had to die, surely this was as good a way as any. Going down trying to save a friend. To save more mages. To save a city.
His only regret was that Cyrus would die with him. There were no mage-beasts without their mages, and a mage alone was nothing more than a man.
Or a boy, a very lost, scared and lonely boy.
Silver light pulsed, brushed against the gold magic –
“Hawk?” A weak and reedy voice from the heart of the magic and yet outside it. The light softened, rippling into mist. “Oh, stars, Hawk.”
The mist splintered into raindrops, the rain fell into a river and the magic flowed back out into the world. The light shimmered and shone, then slowly faded into nothing.
Hawk opened his eyes to the dark, dingy room and staggered as the boy in his arms collapsed. As he sank to his knees, he watched the copper chains about Arien’s throat and wrist crumble into dust. Just as the former slave-trader had.
There were no chains left that could hold this boy now. He would never be a slave again. The magic had done its work well. Now all they had to do was clean everything up.
* * *
THE CLEANUP TOOK days. First there was the matter of the witch, Irissa, whose throat had been cut. Thanks to the swift actions of Kitten she had still been alive when the mages reached her. The cut was long but shallow, avoiding anything too serious. In time it would have killed her, but for now she was recovering in the Healer’s Hall, determined to be unimpressed by whatever the mage healers could do for her.
Kitten was with her, being fed and spoiled by the nurses, and gradually overcoming her scuttling shyness. Her eyes still rounded when she saw Hawk, though.
The city was somewhat scorched by the whole event. Night Town had been gutted, but the rest of the city remained intact. The people of the lower city were a resilient bunch, though, and had rebuilt most of their homes before the first winter frost struck.
Elsewhere the ten soldiers who’d answered Sir Tobias’ bellow by the harbour were granted several days off, a fat purse each and unlimited freedom to trawl the taverns they’d been so rudely ripped away from. By the end of their three-day drinking binges their minds were so foggy on the details that they were convinced their memories of a silver-flooded room and murderous magic was nothing more than alcoholic illusions. Sir Tobias was careful to make sure they stayed that way.
For Hawk life swiftly got back to normally, except that his shoulder left him a little less active than he was used to. Instead of rising before dawn to trot up to the palace with Sir Tobias, he found himself heading down to breakfast with the rest of the mage-students.
“Can you believe it?” Sidony was full of beans this morning as she bounced up and down at the table.
Hawk grimaced as he eased himself onto a bench. Mage Faron might have been able to take away the first shock of pain over his dislocated shoulder, but his subsequent antics had undone most of his good work. As such his body was having to heal it in its own way in its own time. Eight days on it still ached, but his magic was working hard and he expected to be back training long before the month break the healers had advised was over.
On his other shoulder, Cyrus nibbled at his ear until Hawk passed him a slice of bacon.
Arien shuffled onto the bench beside him, quiet and subdued. He’d hardly spoken since he woke three days ago. He wouldn’t look anyone in the eye either.
Not that Sidony cared; she just kept bouncing. “You’ll never guess, Hawk! Go on, Ari, guess, guess!”
The boys shared a glance before Arien stared down at his plate and shrugged. Which left the guessing to Hawk. There was only one thing in the world that would get Sidony this excited, but he decided to play along anyway.
His shoulder might still hurt, but it felt good to smile. “You’ve started growing feathers?”
She snorted, unimpressed.
“You’ve finally cracked the secret of brewing your own whiskey?”
She opened her mouth to utter a crushing putdown, paused and tipped her head to one side. “Is that possible?”
Arien’s head shot up. “No!” he said, in chorus with Hawk and all their friends. The prospect of Sidony brewing her own alcohol had them all shuddering.
The girl grinned. “You’re so easy.”
Except she had a certain glint in her eye that didn’t bode well for any of them. Hawk received more than a few glares for planting the idea in her head.
He could only sigh. It was too early in the morning to expect him to think clearly. “I give up, Sid,” he said instead, hoping to distract her. “What won’t I guess?”
“Magic lessons!” she announced with a flourish of her hands. “We finally start our practical magic lessons today. This morning!”
That sent the first-years into a delighted babble, while Hawk felt Arien tense up in panic.
“Our own magic,” Sidony sighed, clutching her hands to her chest in rapturous delight. “Just think of all the things we’ll be able to do now.”
Hawk could imagine all too easily, and wasn’t sure the mansion was tough enough to withstand the full force of Sidony’s enthusiasm. He hoped the weather stayed fine so they could work outside.
“It’ll be amazing!”
“It’ll be a disaster.” Arien’s doom-laden tones cut through the first-years’ happiness like a sword. “Magic is dangerous,” he growled. “It shouldn’t be allowed.” Shoving back from the table, he slid off the bench and walked away.
Silence greeted his swift departure. Even Sidony watched him go with her mouth agape, but no one other than Hawk knew what had really happened in the city that night. There were plenty of rumours of course, but since the truth was so much stranger, the Mage-Mistress had chosen to let them spread unchecked. Not one of them came close to the truth of Arien’s power.
Hurt clouded Sidony’s bright eyes as she turned to Hawk. “Did I say something wrong?”
He gave a swift shake of his head, hissing as he jolted his shoulder. “Bad memories, Sid,” he murmured, knowing she’d think back to their time in the forest, when the Hunger was roaming.
“Oh.” She gave a subdued nod of understanding.
Patting her hand, he eased off the bench and went after Arien. He doubted Sidony would believe him if he told her that what frightened Arien now was ten times worse than the Hunger had been.
Hawk found it hard to believe himself. The burning silver light was like something out of a terrible dream. But if it was the stuff of nightmares for him, he dreaded to think how it seemed in Arien. He was right, magic was dangerous, but that didn’t mean it should be banned.
Following his instincts, Hawk left the school by the back terrace and walked through the gardens, across the lawn and down to the water garden. There, sitting on the bridge, feet dangling over the water, Arien watched an enormous fish drift curiously up to the surface between the lily pads.
Since he still had a roll in his hand from his interrupted breakfast, Hawk settled beside Arien, broke off a chunk and tossed it into the water. The giant fish gaped and swallowed it.
“They’re always hungry,” Hawk said, breaking his bread in half and offering some to Arien.
The boy took it and began crumbling it into fish-size lumps, letting it rain onto the rippling surface below. More ghostly shapes rose up to feed.
“It’s a kind of magic, don’t you think?” Hawk asked, after the roll was gone.
Arien didn’t say anything, just folded his arms over the lowest rail of the bridge and sighed.
“Eating, I mean,” Hawk continued, as though his friend had answered. “Well, and fish, but I meant eating really. I mean think about it, one moment it’s food, the next we’ve gobbled it up and somehow it keeps us all going. What is food anyway? How did it get on our plate? Where did it come from? Growth, death, eating and recipes. Just one big magic circle.”
For a long moment Arien didn’t seem to have heard him, then he rolled his head to study Hawk’s carefully bland expression. “And the fish?”
Hawk bit down on his smile. “Well, look at them. Bobbing about in the water, somehow surviving. If you or I tried that we’d drown. Yet if we picked them up and have them join us, they’re the ones who’ll die. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t it in its own way a little bit magical?”
Arien blinked at him with dark, solemn eyes. “It’s life.”
“And life is dangerous,” Hawk agreed. “Those fish could get speared by a heron, scooped up by a gull, yanked out by a cat, caught by people. Or if they weren’t in a pond they might get eaten by bigger fish or seized by an osprey.”
“And we’re back to eating again,” Arien sighed, staring down at the fish.
“Well, you did interrupt my breakfast.”
Even though he tried to hide it, Hawk was pretty certain he saw Arien smile before he sighed again. “It’s not the same.”
Hawk couldn’t deny that, so he lent on his good arm and gave a careful shrug. “Magic is magic, Ari. It isn’t all good, it isn’t all bad. It’s like life. It’s risky out there, but there are rewards too. I’m a healer, which makes my magic mostly good, but Sidony is a battle mage. Does that make her bad?”
“She’s certainly dangerous.”
“Sid was born dangerous. If she hadn’t developed magic she’d still have found a way to blow people up.”
Arien didn’t bother hiding his smile this time as he looked at Hawk. “The world needs more Sidonys.”
“Sweet stone, no, we don’t.”
That made him laugh and he rested back on his hands beside Hawk. “She’s so happy and vibrant. Everything’s an adventure to her. The world needs more of that.”
Arien certainly did. Hawk sighed. “She’s not stupid, you know. I think most people see her happiness and think she’s too innocent or dumb to know what the real world is like. I know she’s the daughter of a march, and has been protected a bit, but she knows what’s out there. She just chooses to enjoy herself despite it. There will be time to face the bad when it gets here. She doesn’t believe in borrowing trouble.”
“What if the bad is already here?” Arien asked softly. “What if it’s inside you? Then what do you do?”
“It’s not badness inside you, Ari. It’s magic. Pure magic.”
His friend shook his head, getting upset. “How can you say that, Hawk? You were there? I almost killed you! If I hadn’t recognised your magic, I would have killed you and everyone else. Taken the whole city with me, probably. It was too much, too strong. I couldn’t stop it.”
“But you did stop it,” Hawk reminded him gently. “You did recognise my magic.” And he still didn’t understand why that had made a difference.
“It’s so strong,” Arien whispered, drawing his knees up to his chest and hugging them tight. “I’m afraid of what it might do.”
“The longer you leave it festering,” Hawk said, knowing he had to be hard this time, “the worse it will get. Your magic isn’t going away, Ari.”
“I can hold it.”
“For how long?” he pushed, knowing it would eventually overwhelm him. All mages faced that at some point. That was why explosive ones like Sidony were packed off to school almost as soon as their powers emerged. Others, like Hawk and Fort, could manage a little longer. Some could go decades before their magic escaped them, but they were the weak ones. Even they had to face up to their magic in the end. Control or death.
Someone as strong as Arien didn’t stand a chance.
“If you don’t learn how to control it, it will always be a danger to you.” Hawk paused, knowing he was about to hurt his friend. “And everyone around you.”
Arien flinched. “I can’t.”
“Then it will keep on wielding you, like it did in Night Town. That wasn’t you in charge, Ari. You know it as well as I.”
“That’s why I can’t. I can’t risk it happening again. What if I can’t stop it next time?”
“You stopped it this time,” Hawk reminded him firmly. “You halted it right in its tracks, even as it sensed a room full of magic to devour. You recognised me, you knew I was your friend and you stopped.”
“Only because it was you,” Arien whispered. “I could only stop because it was you.”
“Why?” he had to know. It was a question that had been plaguing him for days. “What’s so different about me? About my magic?” Because he knew it was his magic that had stopped Arien, not himself. It wasn’t his voice or anything else he’d done. It had been his magic.
“You reached out to me,” Arien explained softly. “That day in the forest. When the Hunger was so strong. You didn’t cower or run. You didn’t fight. You offered your magic freely.”
“You were hurt.”
“I was dangerous.”
“You were hurt,” Hawk repeated. He was a healer; he was meant to heal. It was what his magic existed for. “I wanted to heal you.”
Arien dropped his forehead onto his knees with a shuddering sigh. “You did, Hawk. That’s exactly what you did.”
Hawk put his hand on Arien’s shoulder and squeezed tightly.
It started raining in the gardens of the mage school of Royas Bay. Sitting on the bridge above the fish pond, the two boys barely noticed as the water soaked through their clothes. It didn’t matter. This was only water, clear and fresh, not a hint of silver in sight. Yet in its way it was more precious than all the magic in the world.
~ Final chapter ~
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