Continuing Tales


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 10 of 69

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I don't want to do this.

Her hand rests in mine with the same innocent trust that made her drink the potion I gave her. Her eyes are closed, dark lashes making soft crescents on her cheeks, and she breathes evenly the way I showed her. I envy her the quiet peace. I can't force my own eyes to close, however much I try. I watch her, and see all the ways I could hurt her.

We have not begun. Not yet. All I have to do is close my eyes and meditate, and there will be no turning back. We have not started. I don't want to begin. All I have to do is meditate, and the hawk will be freed from its cage. I have kept it there, trapped, for weeks now. It rested patiently for long days, but now it beats against my core like the wild creature it is. Shutting my eyes will be like turning the key in the lock- just half a turn, but the hawk is cunning, and has tricked me before. It is a part of me, after all. It is clever.

Then, I hear you ask, why did I suggest this? What made me coax Daine into doing something so dangerous, only to back out now? I have a thousand answers. I hoped it wouldn't be needed. I thought I could trust her to kill me. The coldness in her eyes when she pressed down on my sword-cut told me she wouldn't hesitate. But now... I made her promise, but I couldn't believe her words. They weren't empty. They held trust and warmth and hope and something else I don't dare name, but no sincerity. I couldn't believe them.

I look at her, and think of all the ways I could kill her. She has tilted her head to one side as she meditates, resting her cheek on one palm, and the childish posture makes her look ridiculously vulnerable. She is like a Yamani doll, a strange fragile creature caught in a web of violent monsters, and my heart turns over at the thought. Alanna used to roll her eyes at me for being defensive of women and call it a 'white-knight act', but this seems different.

I don't want to do this. I want to kiss her again, and hold her tightly, and tell her everything will be alright. I want her to fall asleep in my arms and wake up smiling rather than cringing away from every sound. I want to hear her laugh, and speak, and sing.

These are all things that are impossible.

If we don't escape, then we'll be separated the very instant the officials think I am tamed. Perhaps even sooner, if they realise what we're doing now. We'll spend the rest of our lives catching glimpses of each other across distant courtyards, and hearing each others' screams when they whip us for defying orders. How can I spend these precious hours comforting my friend, when we'd both know all too well that every word is a lie? That was why she spat at me when I asked her to escape with me, really. Words like hope and freedom and help have no place here.

I steel myself and close my eyes. Meditating is second-nature to me, even after years of avoiding it, and it only takes me a minute or so to find my centre. I remember when it was beautiful, a core of black light which flickered in opalescent wonder. I used to love meditating, finding the smallest flaws to focus on, to tame, so I could stare into the black colours and wonder at the fact that they were mine. Red, purple, deep blue and green, flashes of yellow and darts of silver made a glorious oil-painting that only I could ever see.

Now... now, I look into my core and shudder. The hawk flies there, darting from creeping tendril to barbed black vine, and its bronze feathers fall away from its frantic wings to stab into my heart like knives. Each one writhes, claws at my core, trying to snatch even more away from me. It's a riot of black and bronze, of comforting darkness and terrifying light. I don't want to stay here, but I must. I creep into the world which was once my own, and tease a fretful thread of my gift from the very edge of my core. I have tricked the hawk this way before, but it is always ready to pounce. I draw away silently and the thread follows me – enough to link me to Daine, but (please, please!) not enough to betray me. I have already played this trick once today, when I spelled the tea, and the hawk learns rapidly.

The gift Daine drank in the potion calls out to me, and in the world of glowing flames I find her easily. She flickers in and out of her core like a ghost, not able to meditate well enough on her own to keep her shape, and I catch hold of her floating shade.

-It's okay.- I tell her when she instinctively struggles. –It's me. Breathe.-

She- the mortal Daine whose hand I hold- takes a shuddering breath and then tries again, her shade becoming more solid as she relaxes. While I wait for her I study her core. It's...

... it's familiar, because it looks exactly like mine, if the shades were reversed. My black fire lurks around the outside of a bronze core, which spits and sparks like a badly-built campfire. The bronze fire bleeds into everything. Every cell of her body is swamped in it, but she doesn't have any control over it. It shivers from her mind to her heart to her fingertips without warning. It bleeds into the part of her that is human, and the glowing centre flickers under the assault.

The shade moves in my arms, and looks around with confused eyes. –What is this place?-

-You said you lose yourself in your magic.- I say urgently, -What shape does it take?-

There are no secrets here; any thought springs instantly into words unless you know how to hide it. Daine doesn't, of course, but even her thoughts hesitate at putting it into words. –A... a wolf.-

-Fantastic. It's never a duckling, is it? – The sarcasm doesn't quite work in a mind-voice, but Daine still picks up on it and bites her lip apologetically. I force myself to smile.

-There's been a slight change of plan, little one.- I say. –Before we break off the charm we need to tidy up this mess! It's really, really out of control.-

I don't mention how similar it looks to my own magic, but at least I have some control over mine! If I break the chain off her with her magic like this, she might burn up in front of my eyes! Even locking all of this behind a chain must have been agony for her.

-Okay...- she says, her voice hesitant but trusting. –What do I do?-

I pause, and then ask her flatly, -Where's the wolf hiding?-

She points instinctively, and then gasps and covers her face. Her thoughts stream out in a panicked rush. –How did I know that? What wolf? There's a wolf? A real wolf?-

-Not real. Well, real enough for us.- I say grimly. She'd pointed to her human-core. Well, of course she had. Why would this be easy? I study the pool of white light carefully. Four large darts of copper and a wolf. The darts would be easy enough to break free, but...

-I need you to lure it away.- I tell her. –For long enough for me to get rid of those copper lines. Then, as soon as I say so, you need to run. If it catches you then you'll lose yourself again. In one touch. Do you understand?-

She bites her lip and nods, her shade flickering as the anxiety makes her lose her focus. I smile suddenly, reaching out a hand to touch her translucent shoulder.

-I remember my very first magic lesson. I had to light a candle on fire. It blew up. I don't think I'd have managed to meditate properly in the first place, let alone agree to take on a magical wolf by myself. Have you ever considered a career as a mage?- I ask lightly. She laughs abruptly, and her shade solidifies.

-I've never considered a career, full stop!- she retorts. I realise that she sounds different. Her words are easier and far less stilted when she can speak them in silence. I bow my head in acknowledgement of her point, and then raise my head to smirk at her.

-Well, little one, I think we can name you an honorary mage. Or a little mage, at least. A magelet?- She scowls at me, and I grin. –Magelet it is! Well then, Magelet...-

- I almost prefer 'little one'...- she mutters, and takes my arm with fatalistic joviality. 'Come on, dolt, let's go and find my wolf.-


A wolf?

A real wolf?

Wolves don't scare me, normally. But this one does. I know it will have burning eyes and bloody claws, and its fur will be exactly the same shade as my hair.

This place is beautiful, even though it scares me. I feel instinctively that it's a part of myself, the part that has been locked away from me for eight years, and my curiosity about it overcomes my fear. I want to get closer to the glowing white core, to the part of it that feels safe and homely, even though I can hear the ominous low growl of a trapped wild animal lurking within it. Numair hasn't tried to explain anything to me. Perhaps he thinks I won't understand, or it will scare me. But I feel more confident with every step I take.

This is me. This is who I am. This place belongs to me, not to my madness, and we are here to reclaim it.

Numair's hold on my arm gives me strength, stopping me from dissolving into fragments of light every time my focus wavers. I look at him curiously. His shade is more than the skeletal, frail mortal who I've been nursing. Here, he stands straight and walks steadily. He is tall, but doesn't loom or hunch his shoulders like many tall people do. He looks down from time to time, but I make sure I'm always looking away before he can meet my eyes. I don't want to know what I look like here. It's his nature to be strong and confident, and mine is to shrink away.

Not from the wolf, though. The closer I get, the more I'm convinced that I can tame it. It growls softly, but I hear the voice of the pack in its voice, and want to get closer to it. I remember the sharp muskiness of fur, the thick greasy warmth of lying in a den with heavy paws resting gently on my shoulders. Numair glances sideways at me, and a line appears between his eyes.

-Don't let it touch you,- he repeats himself, and then adds, more insistently, -Not even its voice. Fight against it. Remember what it made you do. Remember everything. Even if it hurts. Especially if it hurts.- he doesn't say anything else, but his hand tightens around my elbow for a second, and he leaves my side.

I remember then, for a brief shining second, the scream that Cloud made when the butcher slammed the slaughterhouse gate behind him. I remember the smell of blood and smoke and the laughter of the officials. A wave of nausea rises in my throat, and tears spring to my eyes. The wolf growls darkly and I realise I loathe it. More than I fear it, I hate it.

I take five quick steps towards it, and rest my hands on my hips. The growl drowns out all other sounds, but I still can't see it.

-Come on then, you vile thing.- I yell, -Here I am!-

With a snarl, it launches itself at me. I throw myself to one side, rolling on the fire-laced ground, and laugh mockingly at it. –Is that all you can do? You're pathetic!-

-I said lure it away, not goad it!- Numair yells, but I laugh again and dodge another attack. Teeth snap close to my arm, but I dance away on light feet and the shining fangs turn into copper fire. Out of the corner of my eye I see the mage slip unnoticed towards the white core, and throw myself backwards. The wolf follows me, keening in pure fury, and I skip around it in mocking circles. It shakes its head, dizzy, and looks up.

The glowing eyes catch me for a second, and I am frozen. I can't look away! Its growl grows richer, honeyed in the gaping silence, and I feel it vibrating in my chest. It's a strange rumble... is the wolf growling, or is it me? I'm growling back, frozen and primal, primitive and wild. The red eyes are mine, and show me everything about myself that I hate, and as the creature stalks closer I snarl at it.

-Daine!- Numair's voice breaks through the haze for a brief second. I shake my head, and out of the corner of my eye I see the glowing core, freed from the bronze tendrils, blazing in sudden pure light. I shake my head and grit my teeth. They ache as they shrink from pointed canines into human molars. The wolf is inches away when my sight clears, and I throw myself backwards in blind panic. I stumble and fall. The wolf springs, and I roll sideways to avoid it, gasping. A bronze tangle of fire whips at me, sinking barbed thorns into my hands as I stagger to my feet. As it touches my fingers they whisper into feathers.

-No...- I whisper, watching my hands warp into sickening deformity. I can't remember what they're supposed to be like... and how would I turn them back? The tendril lashes around my wrist, then my waist, and wherever it touches me I glow with the bronze light which steals away my human form. I can't even think of the word help. All I know is fear, and the dizzy feeling of being forced to shapeshift against my will. It's like falling, too fast and too brutal to do anything but destroy me. I retch and try to pull away, but how can I when every muscle is shrinking and shifting?

The wolf pads closer, sated now I am trapped. Its eyes watch with something like satisfaction. Its fur is soft around its nose. I reach out a hand to it. Soft. Safe. Friendly. Let me be...

A ragged bolt of black lightning stabs into the wolf's side, and we both scream as our ribs explode in burning pain. The creature darts away, howling, snarling, ready to attack again. I sag against the vines which hold me upright, barely conscious, knowing only the pain and the constant shifting as a thin, shaking hand grabs my free wrist and pulls. The vines shrink away from the human intruder, who burns with so much black fire, and I am free. I fall to my knees and retch helplessly, shuddering back into human form.

-Daine...- the human says urgently, -I did it! You're safe, but you have to get out of here!-

I blink blearily at him. What is the human yelling about? I look around for the wolf, but it is hiding. I snarl at the human and snap at his hand, and he shakes me in reply.

- Wake up! You have the human man looks up and covers his head as a massive black hawk swoops down. It screams in the voice of a man, but he cries back at it in the voice of a bird of prey. The black fire that surrounds him reaches out to the creature, thick tarry ropes which stick to his hands and drag the two fiery black forms into each others' embrace.

And then I remember, and reach up a hand to him. I feel blind panic dragging me back to my body even before, in his last moment of freedom, Numair sends a bolt of light back towards me. It strikes me between the eyes, and the world of fire vanishes like smoke.

"No...!" I cry, forcing my eyes back shut to scare away the real world. I can't get back to that place without his help. On the bed next to me, the mage shudders, eyes shut, as if he's having a fit. I grab his shoulders and shake him, trying to wake him up, but my hands sink into the softness of feathers that burst from the skin under his shirt. He shrinks away from my hands, shadows crossing his face as he bites his lip. I see the red of blood froth at the corners of his mouth, and then he starts seizing in earnest.

Feathers spring from his flesh and then shrink back, his muscles spasm and twist and his hands twist into claws and back in each harsh breath he gasps in. I remember what he told me, to kill him, but I can't move. He strikes out blindly, fighting his own battle as well as against me, and his new claws catch me across the forehead. I shake the blood out of my eyes and force myself to grab his wrists. I know I shouldn't even try to hold him still when he's bigger and stronger than me. But what else can I do?

I can't kill him. I won't. I can't.

I feel tears on my cheeks, hot and wet, the salt stinging my cheeks. I hold his wrists with hands that are already aching with the effort, and know that I can't hold him forever. The feathers are staying now. He's losing his battle. Soon there'll be nothing left to stop him from attacking me. Numair will be gone, and the hawk will remain.

I shut my eyes and feel the barbs of the feathers growing under my clutching fingers. "Numair..." I whisper, I pray, I breathe. "Numair, don't leave me. Don't. Don't..."

There's a bright light, so fierce my eyes dart open of their own accord. This must be it. The part of him that's a monster, a mage-creature, ready to kill me. I stare down dumbly. The light...

The light... it's fire. Copper fire, brighter than a fire flame, streams from my hands into his wrists in a sudden rush. I feel it flowing from me, draining strength from my fingertips, but even when my grip lessens I can't let go. The fire fuses us together, and copper light seeps into black feathers until both become a shining blur.

Sound rushes back into my ears, and the black from the feathers grows into a wall of darkness until I pass out.


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 10 of 69

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