The group of twelve began trudging back to the beach at around three o’clock. Mark couldn’t understand why they’d stayed in the village for so long. There was literally nothing to do there. He kept expecting to see Llaeka appear at some point, but she thankfully seemed long gone. The tribe hadn’t seemed particularly pleased when they noticed their missing quarry, but they soon got over it, though several continued to cast bitter glances in Mark’s general direction.
On the way back to the boat Mark amused himself by counting the mozzie bites on his arms. At least ten on his left. He smacked at another mozzie to make sure the number didn’t escalate any further. “I’m gonna be caning tonight,” he muttered, shaking his shirt with one hand to try and cool himself down slightly. At least there was a promise of a dip at the end of this, though he would rather have had it back on the mainland than in the possibly shark-infested waters of Umnikai.
With something to look forward to at the end, the journey seemed even longer, but when they finally broke through the dense canopy into the bright afternoon sunlight his shoulders visibly relaxed.
The tour guide turned to the group. “Right people, as promised, you can get your things from the boat then follow me. Best spot for snorkelling is just a little way up the beach.”
Great, more walking. He dumped his walking shoes in the boat, exchanging them for a pair of thongs, and slung his towel over his shoulder then made his way up the beach after the rest of the group. He stripped his shirt off and ran headlong into the waves, realising he’d forgotten his snorkel.
“I’ll be right back,” he called to his mum, then made his way back up the beach to the boat.
As he climbed back out onto the sand, snorkel in hand, he noticed something glinting on the edge of the rainforest. A puzzled frown on his face, he walked over to it, realising as he drew closer that it was a sword. He looked down at the silver metal, tinted with faint greens and pinks that reflected the sun’s light, then carefully picked up the leather hilt. A glittering opal was studded into the brass fitting that protected the hands of whoever the sword belonged to.
Mark snorted. Whoever it belonged to didn’t take very good care of their equipment. He made sure no-one was watching, then swung the sword into what he presumed was a battle-stance.
“The sword feels comfortable in your grip.”
Mark snapped up at the smooth female voice, hurriedly dropping the sword to his side. A figure clad in a heavy black cloak stood twenty metres from him, motionless.
“Who the hell are you?” Mark demanded, recovering from the shock of being seen with the sword.
The figure said nothing for a while, then spoke in the same silky voice as she had earlier. “It feels familiar to you, because it is yours.”
“What the..?” Mark lifted the sword, but the figure spoke again.
“You have always felt different to those around you.” The voice sent a shiver up Mark’s spine, but for some reason he couldn’t turn away. “Although you find it easy to talk to those you do not know, you have always felt as though you did not belong. You do not know what it is, but you know there is something unique about you.”
Marks lips parted slightly, but he said nothing. How the hell did she know that?
“This is because of the magic you possess, Mark, though as yet you are unaware you hold it,” the figure continued, “Believe you possess magic, and you will have the power to yield it. I can not make you believe magic flows through your veins, only you have the ability to do this.” The figure fell silent again.
Mark folded his arms. “Right,” he said slowly, “And you know this because..?” he gestured with a hand, urging the figure to continue.
“You may discover my identity in time, but first you must realise your own.”
He raised an unamused eyebrow. “You know how cliché that sounded, right?”
“I speak only the truth.”
“Sure you do. I’ll just be going now,” Mark said, dropping the sword back into the sand and running back down the beach to the rest of the group. Even on the off chance the sword was his, there was no way he’d get it through Customs.
“How’d it go?” Llaeka asked the black-cloaked figure anxiously. Even though the woman had been relieved of her magic several Monsoons ago, she still managed to make her feel uncomfortable. She had somehow managed to befriend the best-known mind reader on the island, so she could easily find out all she needed about anyone, and despite her lack of magic, she still held an air of mystery about her. Much as Llaeka disliked the idea, Qillan was her only hope of convincing the boy he had magic.
Qillan sighed and shed the black cloak. Her pasty white skin was flushed pink and she ran her delicate, black-nailed fingers through even blacker hair. “I can not say. He seemed to me to be ignorant of the fact. Amiyo, what did you get from him?”
Amiyo fingered at the pair of turquoise stones in his cheek and shrugged. “Not a lot. He’s trying to ignore it, that’s for sure, but I think he’s slowly realising it’s something he can’t run from.” He sighed and dropped his hand back to his side. “What I don’t get is how he didn’t know about it before. I mean, he’s obviously used it at some point; he’s in human form, so how come he doesn’t know about it already?”
Llaeka shrugged helplessly. “Buggered if I know. Maybe he was born that way or something.”
Qillan shook her head. “His magic would have to be stronger than Black Magic for that to have occurred.”
“I wasn’t being serious,” Llaeka protested, “So do you think he’ll know by the time they’re supposed to leave?”
“When’s that?” Amiyo asked.
“Usually just after the sun’s set.”
“We’re going to need something else to convince him.”
Llaeka’s ears dropped. “Like what?”
Qillan looked thoughtful for a moment. “Suppose we could get some active Animal Magic in him? Even though it would not technically be his own, it would feel similar.”
“Malai’s the only one with Animal Magic who can project it.” She sighed wistfully. Malai was well known on the island, particularly among the other Animal Magicians. He, along with forty or so others, had ridded the island of Black Magic for good. Since then the macaws of the forest seemed to be considerably cocky; the other two cat people who had fought Black Magic with Animal Magic had lost theirs.
Qillan snapped her out of her thoughts. “Do you know where he lives?”
Llaeka nodded. As if she didn’t know something like that! “Up the beach. If I go as an ocelot I might be able to get him back here in time.” Without another word, she slipped into ocelot form and darted off through the trees. Her legs may be shorter as an ocelot, but they moved much faster. She slid undetected through the trees, her sharp eyes and ears scanning the greenery for the macaw boy, occasionally darting to the sun to make sure she didn’t slow her pace.
As she neared the place where she knew he lived she sent out sensing fingers of her own Ocelot Magic to feel for his, then veered off course to trail him. When she was sure he’d be within earshot, she slipped back into cat girl form, calling his name up into the canopy.
There was a flutter of feathers from behind then a pair of strong claws clamped onto her scalp and a red-feathered head appeared upside-down in front of her.
“You called?” the macaw whistled.
Llaeka grinned despite herself. She was half glad Malai had taken macaw form; she didn’t know she’d be able to talk easily to him otherwise. Nevertheless, it was still awkward to find the right words.
“I’m Llaeka,” she started, “and I have a bit of a favour to ask of you.”
Malai nodded from his position on her head then flapped onto the ground and took his more natural form. Llaeka’s heart skipped a beat, but she cleared her throat and forced herself to continue.
“There’s a boy up the beach a bit who has Animal Magic—Human Magic to be more exact—but he doesn’t know he’s got it. We need you to project your magic into him so he knows he’s got magic before sunset.”
Malai held up his hands. “Slow down a bit, I’ve got little to no idea what you’re talking about. Why’ve you only got ‘til sunset?”
“That’s when he goes home,” Llaeka explained, “He’s in human form and lives off the island, and they leave just after sunset.” She looked over her shoulder at the aforementioned sun. “Don’t have time to explain too much, but will you help?”
“Sure, I’m not doing anything right now.”
Llaeka sighed with relief. “Thanks a lot,” she said warmly, “He’s up the beach that way, Qillan and Amiyo are there too.”
“Gotcha,” Malai answered, giving a thumbs up. He leapt into the air, changing back into a macaw before he hit the ground again, and flapped up above the canopy out of sight. Llaeka followed suit and bounded through the trees, the golden light of the setting sun making her dappled coat glow a rich orange.
Mark had soon grown bored of snorkelling, and despite everything he felt about it, he returned to the boat to pick up the sword and examine it more thoroughly, with the excuse that he was getting a packet of chips.
“Can I have a chip?” Julia asked.
Mark pulled one out of the packet and eyed it carefully, then put it in his mouth, grinning up at his younger sister as he crunched on it. “How ‘bout a packet instead?” he said, tossing a second packet up to her.
She eagerly tore the packet open, stuffing her face with the goodness inside.
“What’s that?” she asked between mouthfuls, pointing at the sword. She reached out with greasy fingers to touch it, but Mark grabbed it before she could dirty its smooth surface. He was strangely possessive of the sword, even though he was not technically the owner of it.
“It’s a sword,” he told the eight-year-old, running his fingers along the cool steel blade but not elaborating any further.
“I can see that,” Julia said scornfully, “But why’ve you got it?”
“Found it on the beach,” Mark answered with a shrug, “And nobody’s attacked me to get it back yet, so there you go, free souvenir.”
Julia shook her head, making her dark brown ringlets shake, sending droplets of water everywhere. “You shouldn’t do that.”
Mark shrugged. “Finders, keepers,” he said, putting another chip in his mouth.
In time, the rest of the group waded out of the water and lay with their backs to the slowly setting sun. According to the brochure, it was supposed to set by around seven. Mark looked at his watch and sighed irritably. Still at least another hour. He didn’t understand why they didn’t serve dinner of any sort until they got back to the mainland. Yet another reason why he’d have preferred to stay at the hotel. Could have picked an in-house movie or two to watch, it looked like there were a fair few good ones there.
He felt a sudden jolt in the back of his neck and lifted his hand to feel it. The jolt wasn’t painful just… he couldn’t find the right word. He noticed a faint tingling spreading from where he had first been ‘hit’. It was almost as though something was crawling under his skin. He shook his shoulders out to try and get rid of the feeling, but to no avail. He noticed his hands were shaking, and looked down at them.
Faint though it was, it was unmistakable in the weak evening light. Flickers of multicoloured light shone through from under his skin, glowing through from inside him. His eyes widened, and he shook his hands out, but still the light shimmered through. What scared him most was that the feeling of the light was not unfamiliar to him.
This is not real, this is not happening, this is a dream, this is not real. But no matter how much he told himself how unrealistic it all was, he couldn’t get the words of the cloaked figure out of his head. If it was a nightmare, surely he would be waking up by now. He could feel a cold sweat breaking out all over him now, and he ran his still flickering hands through his hair, half expecting to feel a much different pair of ears on his head.
He could faintly hear a voice through the ringing of his ears; his mother asking him if he was okay.
“Yeah,” he mumbled, “I’m f—” then everything went black.
“Mark!” His mother dropped to his side, catching him before he fell to the sand. “Mark, what’s wrong? Wake up! Mark!” She slapped his face a few times, but he wouldn’t wake.
Four sword tips suddenly appeared in front of her face, making her reel back and hold her adopted son tighter. She recognised one of the four sword-bearers as the cat girl who had been tied up at the village.
“You’re not taking him!” She silently cursed herself for how weak her voice had sounded.
The elder two of the small group sheathed their swords on their hip, but the other two pushed theirs further forward so the cool metal of their tips could be felt in her neck.
She closed her eyes tightly and gulped, knowing there was nothing she could do. The two who had sheathed their swords bent down and took her son from her arms, carrying him off silently into the rainforest and leaving her to bury her face in her hands.
She made her decision then and there that she would stay on the island and do something, anything to get him back. She wouldn’t let the possibility that he could very easily be dead cross her mind.
“Doug, take Julia back to the hotel then get a search party over here.” She tried to make her voice strong, but felt she was failing. “I’ll stay here just in case he comes back.”
She felt her husband’s arms wrap around her, and returned the gesture. “We’ll get him back,” he said softly, “Don’t worry, it’ll all be okay, you’ll see. You sure you’ll be okay here?”
Lisa nodded and drew away from him, her eyes red and sore. “I’ll be fine. Just hurry back, kay?”