The two cat girl sisters stood ready facing each other, their ears forward and tails twisting, their leather sword hilts held firmly in their hands. Laira may be four Monsoons the senior, but Keena had overly impressive sword skills. Laira relied on stealth in combat, while Keena’s strength lay in her speed, agility and precision, as she had shown with her earlier stunt, which had resulted in the disarmament of her sister.
The two girls circled each other silently, each noting the muscle movements of her opponent. They both knew better than to attack first, so the preliminary circling lasted for several minutes.
Laira eventually grew impatient and leapt forward, slicing her sword through the air. But her younger sister was too fast for her, elegantly spinning out of the path of the shimmering silver sword and slicing back with her own blue one. Blue Serpent’s tip grazed the older girl’s left side, drawing blood.
Keena spun back to face her sister again, cutting down vertically in a clash of steel against the silver blade. She whipped Blue Serpent around, again meeting her sister’s sword. She swiped again to the right, striking Laira’s sword a third time. She continued the actions, slowly pushing forwards and forcing her sister against a tree where she could back up no further. Here she thrust Blue Serpent’s tip against Laira’s throat, just touching it.
Keena raised her eyebrows in question. “It would seem you have good reason to fear me,” she said, almost cheerily. She transferred Laira’s sword to her own hand in the same way she had done earlier, but kept both the blades relaxed by her side.
“Now, I’m going to ask some questions, and I want straight answers, okay?”
Laira nodded, trying in vain to regain her composure, but constantly eyeing the two swords hanging by her sister’s legs.
“How did you know I was in the tree?” Keena demanded. She twisted her sister’s sword hilt around in her hand, aware of the older girl’s attentiveness to it.
Laira’s sapphire eyes met Keena’s emerald ones. “I didn’t,” she answered, keeping her voice strong, “You know our territory lies only a short distance up the river. I was hunting, saw you asleep up the tree and couldn’t resist. I still can’t believe you named that thing.”
Keena shrugged and lifted the hilt to examine the sparkling green jewel embedded at the top of its blade. “It’s served me well,” she said, her cool green eyes again turning to the nervous blue ones in front of her. “Guess you don’t have much use for yours, what with your other…” she searched for the right word, “…talents. So you’re still living in the same place?”
“Yes,” Laira answered carefully, “Why do you ask?”
Keena shrugged again, “So I know to avoid you all. I don’t want to have you all living in fear of me, now, do I?”
She deftly swung Blue Serpent upwards, leaving her sister topless. She giggled, seeing her older sister trying to cover herself up with pleading eyes.
“Aww, poor baby,” Keena teased, dropping the unfamiliar blade at Laira’s feet. She slid Blue Serpent back in its sheath, confident Laira wouldn’t attempt to attack her.
“Never try to steal my sword,” she hissed, “Next time you’ll suffer more than a scratch. And don’t breathe a word of our meeting to anyone. If you do, I can’t be held responsible for my actions.” She glared hard into Laira’s quivering blue eyes before turning her heel, tossing her hair over her shoulder and letting her waist-shawl flap behind her. A click of her fingers and the wedge-tailed eagle dropped from the tree and lit on her shoulder.
She could hear her sister collapsing to her knees, sobbing, and rolled her eyes. She’d only gotten a scratch and a mildly damaged garment. Keena had no intention of hurting the girl. She wasn’t one to injure another living creature when it wasn’t for self defence or food, Laira should have known that.
Laira had always been an overly proud girl, and she had always taken her losses to heart, but never like this. She should have used her magic to win, but Keena hadn’t seen anything unusual about her movements. Either she didn’t have any magic, or she feared Keena’s so much that she wouldn’t dare let her know either of the two had any at all, not even to preserve her pride.
Keena wasn’t sure which explanation she wanted to believe. The first seemed more realistic, but Keena had never seen her break down like that over a scratch. It seemed like there was more to it than met the eye.
She strolled off in the opposite direction to her family’s territory until she was confident Laira could no longer see her. She flew through the forest on silent feet, intent on reaching her old home before Laira did. Despite Keena’s threat, Laira could still talk to her family, confident of their support, and Keena wanted to catch them off guard, so if there was magic in the family, she would have the most chance of witnessing it.
When she could hear voices, she slowed down and silently scaled a tree with thick branches, then made her way through the canopy to the giant banyan tree her family called home. She dropped down a few branches, to her old favourite, where she could see everything but where nothing could see her unless they were looking.
Her mother and the youngest of her other three sisters were sitting with their backs to her on the fallen log, covered in moss. In front of them lay the fire pit, piled with a few logs that they had obviously just placed there. Her father lay dozing a few meters from the base of the tree. Keena guessed her other two sisters were collecting more wood for the fire.
Sure enough, they returned a few minutes later, each carrying an armful of logs, which they dropped on the accumulated pile.
Keena almost fell off the branch when she saw Anya, her second eldest sister, as she dusted herself off. Small though it was, it was unmistakable. In her belly button shone a blue jewel. Keena’s fingers touched the emerald on her armband. That same jewel had been studded in her mother’s belly button when Keena had been growing inside her. She didn’t look it yet, but Anya was pregnant.
A young man emerged from the trees, his mousy brown hair pulled around his tan-furred ears and tied loosely back in a tail at the base of his neck. He dropped more logs onto the building fire before sitting down on the fallen tree and wrapping his arm around Anya’s shoulders.
Keena was shocked, but this wasn’t the kind of magic she was hoping for.
As her eyes were fixed on the couple, her father stretched and rose, making his way to the river that lay only a few meters from the banyan. Keena tore her eyes away and fixed them on her father. If he was going out to fish, he would almost definitely use any magic he had. Keena watched as he strode waist deep into the river and dove under the water’s surface, his sword unsheathed.
He spent at least five times longer than Keena thought possible under the water, and when he emerged, his sword skewered through the flapping bodies of no less than seven fish.
Keena’s eyes widened. There had to have been magic involved there. Keena had never been able to stay under water without taking a breath for that long, not even a quarter of that time, and it should have taken him at least half the day to catch that many fish. Keena was definitely beginning to believe the cloaked figure’s words, but she wouldn’t be convinced until she saw the magic first hand.
She sat on the branch of the banyan until well after the sun had set and the moon had risen but saw nothing unusual. Laira had returned and not spoken a word about seeing her; she giggled silently when she heard her explanation for her torn garment-she said she slipped when climbing down from a tree and caught it on a branch. They lit the fire in the same way she did, cooked the fish in the same way, ate it in the same way.
Keena had long ago grown bored of watching the family. The initial shock of the blue jewel in her sister’s stomach had worn off, as had the appearance of the mousy haired man, and Keena was now beginning to doubt any presence of magic in the group of cat people at her feet. So much so that she almost missed it.
The seven people rose to their feet to make for the safety of the branches, and Keena watched in disbelief as her mother put the fire out with a splash of water that came from her hand. Keena sat bolt upright on the branch, staring unblinking at the casual act. Steam rose in a cloud above the wet coals of the fire, proving that it hadn’t been her imagination.
There was no longer any doubt in her mind. Keena had magic.