Harlequin

Three

It was dawn by the time Mark came to. He groaned and noticed blankly that he could no longer feel sand on his back, but instead the moist leaf litter of the rainforest. He put a hand to his forehead when the memories came back to him, and he could feel himself beginning to shake again.

“Get a grip,” he muttered to himself, then took a few deep breaths to clear his head. Was it real or just a dream?

“It is most certainly real.”

His eyes snapped open and he sat bolt upright at the sound of the voice. He spotted the sword lying next to him and grabbed at it, but when he tried to stand up the feeling of the light crawling under his skin returned and his head started swimming, forcing him to close his eyes again.

“What the hell is going on?” he hissed, more to himself than the figure.

“You know what is happening.”

“P’raps you’d like to clear things up for me,” he said, his hand still held to his forehead.

The figure didn’t answer for a while, but remained motionless. “There are three groups of magic among the cat people,” she said smoothly. It irritated Mark how she never answered his questions directly, but he was too dazed to get her to hurry up and tell him.

“The most common group are the elementals; fire, or Red Magic, is marked by a pair of garnets of the person’s cheek. The magic of water, Blue Magic, is characterised by a pair of sapphires. Those with earth or Brown Magic carry a pair of brown topaz. The white quartz stone marks those with wind, or White Magic.”

Mark raised an eyebrow. “Whoop-de-bloody-do,” he said irritably, “I’ll ask again; what the hell is going on? Who are you?”

But the figure remained silent before continuing, disregarding what he had said completely. “The second group is marked by the opal and is called Animal Magic. This magic allows the bearer to communicate and transform into a particular animal species.”

Mark finally found the strength to get to his feet, and he found himself running at the cloaked figure, his sword held out.

But the shimmering blade only made contact with two more, the crash of metal jarring his wrists and forcing his grip to open and drop the sword to the ground. He gripped his wrists numbly, then bent to pick it up again, but again the two crossed blades cut him off, plus a third pointed between his eyes.

“The magic held within you is that of humans. You have done well, Mark, but the journey ahead of you is not nearly at its close.”

“You wanna run that past me again?”

“You’ve got Human Magic.” The voice this time came from the man behind the sword between his eyes. A pair of turquoise stones shone from under his right eye. “Don’t try and deny it; you know it’s true, just accept it.” He lowered the sword, and the other two cat people sheathed their own.

“Okay,” Mark sighed, “So I’m not human, but I’m a cat person with Human Magic. That’s what I’m supposed to believe, is that it?”

“You’re catching on.” It was the same girl he had freed from the village.

Mark shook his head. “I don’t buy it.”

The turquoise-jewelled man raised an eyebrow. “Yes you do, you just don’t want to.”

“Whatever you reckon. I’ll be going home now.” He turned and began walking away.

“How do you know the way back to the beach?” the man asked him.

Mark froze for a second, but continued walking. He didn’t know how he knew, he just did.

“The same way you just know how to hold your sword?”

He twisted the hilt around in his grip. It just felt right there, no special reason, it just did.

“Like your magic.”

The tingling came back to him, and he clenched his free hand into a tight fist to make it go away again.

“It won’t ever go away, it’s as natural to you as talking to us.”

How did he know all this? He seemed to know everything Mark was thinking. He spun around and strode evenly back to the group of four, pointing his sword between the man’s eyes. He seemed unfazed, and instead his lips curled in a faint hint of a triumphant smile.

“You reckon you’re hot stuff, don’t you?” Mark accused, “Just ‘cos you know what I’m thinking. Well I’ve got news for you, I don’t give a bloody rat’s, got it? Leave me the hell alone!”

The turquoise-jewelled man casually pushed Mark’s sword from his face with his own, though the force from such a seemingly effortless action surprised the redhead.

“Mark, like it or not you’re a cat person. You’ll have to believe it eventually. Think about it more logically.”

Mark glared steadily back at him. “You think about it more logically.” He spread his arms. “Look at me; no jewels, no ears, no tail, no whiskers.”

The two cat people standing next to him, each with a pair of opals shining from their skin, looked at each other and nodded, then turned back to Mark. For the first time, the boy spoke.

“Your magic is a lot like ours,” he said. What he did next made Mark freeze, his eyes wide and lips parted.

“Oh shit,” he whispered.

The cat boy, now in every way a macaw, flapped a few times to get into the air, then landed on the mind-reader’s fingers.

Mark jumped when he spoke again. His voice had changed considerably, it was more scratchy, as Mark would have expected a macaw to sound, but it still sounded wrong having fully-formed sentences coming from the bird’s beak. “Means you can turn freely from cat person form into an animal, in your case human. Nobody can tell the difference between a cat person in animal form and the real thing, not even those in the same species.”

Llaeka continued on for him. “Also means you’re generally well liked by that species.”

“Think how many friends you had at home,” the mind reader added, “but you still felt left out somehow. Now you know why.”

Mark didn’t say a word. It was all making a sickening sort of sense. There was too much to prove he was not human, and anything that proved he did—like his lack of a tail—was easily contradicted. He turned away and ran his sweating fingers through his hair again. There was one final strand of hope he could hold on to.

“If I’m a cat person,” he started, not turning to face the four of them, “Then how come I never knew it before?”

The cloaked figure, silent throughout the conversation, finally spoke, her voice cool and smooth despite the humidity. “This is one matter that has been perplexing us all.”

“You dunno?”

“No.”

Llaeka cleared her throat. “Running theory is that you changed into human form when you were younger then lost your memory somehow, then humans found you, naturally thought you were human and took you with them. Either that or you were born like that, but your magic’d have to be bloody strong for that, so we scrapped that idea.”

Again, perfectly plausible arguments against why he should be human. He had been adopted when he was five, and though it wasn’t particularly strange, he could remember nothing of his years before he was in the adoption agency. He looked back down at his hands where the light still danced comfortingly under his skin. The light was the only indisputable piece of evidence. Everything else—the instincts that told him where the beach was, the fact that he could talk to the cat people, the sword—could be simply fluke or coincidence, but there was definitely magic running through his veins.

He sighed heavily and turned back to face the cat people. The macaw had changed back into a cat person. The mind reader was grinning.

“Alright,” Mark said finally, then pointed at the grinning turquoise-jewelled man, “But only if you stop reading my mind.”

He shrugged. “Fair deal,” he said, holding out his hand for Mark to shake. “I’m Amiyo,” he said, “that’s Malai and Llaeka, I believe you’ve seen her before.”

“Who’s she?” Mark cut in, gesturing to the cloaked figure.

“Tell you later,” Llaeka answered, “Bit daunting for someone who doesn’t even know their own magic yet. Which brings me to another point, you need to learn it.” She grinned broadly. “Still say you’d be cute with a pair of ears.”

“How exactly do we go about this?” Llaeka asked Malai. They were both seated with their backs against the broad roots of a Morton Bay fig watching the sleeping redhead. He was still clad in nothing more than his board shorts.

“That I don’t know,” Malai answered. “I mean, ordinarily you’d say just imagine your normal self, but at a wild guess he dunno what that is.”

“Yeah,” Llaeka agreed, kicking herself for not saying something more intelligent. “You can stop putting magic in him now, he knows he’s got it.”

Malai turned to her, his dark opal eyes frowning. “I’m not doing anything.”

“Come again?”

“I’m not doing anything.”

“So why are his hands still glowing?”

Malai leant forward to look at the boy’s hands and his brow knotted further. “What the..?” he whispered to himself. “He only just found out about his magic, how can it be so strong you can see it through his skin?”

“This can’t be good,” Llaeka noted, edging away from the boy slightly.

“It can’t. He needs to learn it damn fast,” Malai said, his normally chirpy voice stern, “Believe it or not, your original idea about him being born like that doesn’t seem so impossible anymore.”

“You have any idea about what Human Magic’s like?”

“Nup. Humans themselves seem to be pretty irrational though, judging by the groups of them that live here. You said you were tied to a tree when you met him, right?”

Llaeka blushed and looked at her knees. “They shot me with three arrows,” she said defensively.

“’Sokay, not holding it against you, just trying to figure out what Human Magic’d be like.”

She frowned in thought, trying to think of how the humans had been. The lighter-skinned ones seemed to look at her as though she was there for their own amusement, like she was just an animal. Now that she thought about it, they seemed to think the same about the darker-skinned humans, like everyone was inferior compared to them. Mark’s mother had seemed incredibly defensive of him when Qillan and Amiyo had taken him away though, so they had that going for them.

“It’s too hard to classify them,” she said helplessly, “They’re all too different. Seem to generally think they’re better than everyone else though, if that helps.”

Malai nodded slowly. “So basically his magic’s going to think it’s better than ours. This’ll be fun.”

“Need to get him in cat person form first.”

“Which brings us back to our original problem.” He sighed irritably and stood up, taking his sword out. “Tell me if you think of anything. I’m going hunting, back whenever.”

“Righto, seeya then.” When he’d left, Llaeka fell back against the tree root, exhaling with relief. She had to think of something, if for nothing but to show she knew her magic too. Not show off exactly, but just to show she could do it.

She sat with her chin on her knees, frowning at the boy, in particular his still-glowing hands. It almost looked as though it would burst out of his skin. He grunted and rolled over, his hands no longer in sight. Llaeka shifted uneasily and looked away, not comfortable with the over-active magic, and instead tried desperately to think of how to get him back into his normal form.

At least opals and whiskers all looked pretty much the same. Granted, every opal was different, but to the casual eye they were all virtually the same. Maybe if they could get him to imagine himself with them, the rest would follow. She would have a hard time trying to explain how to change back. There was no particular technique she knew of, she just did it, with as little thought as picking something up with her hand.

Mark’s body stirred slightly and Llaeka heard him groan. He rubbed the back of his neck and said something roughly in human language. She expected it had something to do with the crick in his neck.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he croaked, but didn’t roll over. “You know, search parties are gonna come looking for me pretty soon.”

Llaeka shrugged. “Get into your proper form and they won’t know any different.”

“Think they’ll recognise the boardies.”

“The what?”

Mark slapped his thigh. “Shorts, whatever you wanna call them, they’re not exactly cat person material.” He sat up and rested against the opposite root, staring down again at his hands, then he looked over his shoulder. “Where is everyone?”

“Qillan and Amiyo have just gone, Malai’s hunting.”

“Hunting?”

“Yeah, you know, kill stuff, come back, cook it, eat it.”

Mark moved nervously. “I know what it is, I just… I dunno, it’s weird.”

“Why, what do you do?” Llaeka scorned, “Eat fruit all day?”

“No, it’s just… already dead before you get it.”

“Humans are scavengers?” Her tone was slightly disgusted.

“No way!” Mark snapped, “It’s refrigerated when you buy it,” he added, as though it was obvious.

Llaeka attempted to pronounce the new word. “Refrij—it’s what?”

Mark shook his head and sighed helplessly. “Just stuff it. Not like I’m gunna see a fridge again any time soon. Or a tv. Or a car. Not even gunna see a bloody lightbulb.”

Llaeka blinked at him dumbly. “You feel like explaining a bit?”

“It’s called civilisation,” he said derisively, “Something I’ll never see again, so like I said, just stuff it.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes until Llaeka decided to get a fire ready for when Malai returned with whatever he managed to kill. Mark didn’t make any movements, and Llaeka decided it best not to disturb him. He had obviously left a lot behind, and he had probably not yet gotten used to the idea of being a cat person.

Malai came back not long before sunset, dragging a cassowary behind him by the neck and dropping it by the now well-stoked fire.

“Figured since we’ve got three people to feed we’d need something big,” he said, bending down and hacking into the bird with his sword to make it easier to eat.

Mark covered his mouth with his hands and ran to the other side of the tree.

Malai blinked after him. “What’s up with him?”

“Doesn’t hunt,” Llaeka explained.

“What do humans eat then? Fruit?”

“He said something about refijing and cilvatation… I think. Don’t ask ‘cos I dunno.”

“Do they cook it?”

“Should damn well hope so.”

Malai shrugged. “If they eat it raw, that’s his problem, he’ll have to get used to cooked meat.” He threw the first chunk of meat onto the fire, sending orange sparks into the evening air.

Mark slowly rounded the tree, using its roots to support himself, then sat down shakily a distance from the fire on the opposite side to where Malai was cutting up the cassowary.

“You wanna warn me before you do that again?” he said.

Malai shrugged again. “Get used to it. You’ll be doing it yourself eventually. Start teaching you how to use your magic tomorrow, sound good?” He threw another bit of meat on the fire and poked at the first with his sword, flipping it over in the coals.

“Whatever,” Mark mumbled. All his previous skills suddenly seemed useless. There was definitely no hope of seeing a Gamecube here, or a surfboard. He couldn’t believe he’d never kick a footy again. He’d probably be famous by now; the boy who got kidnapped by cat people on Umnikai. They’d probably stop tours here now, either because people just wouldn’t want to come for fear of the same thing happening to them, or because it was just too dangerous.

Thinking that made Mark realise how real the situation really was. The rescue party was his last chance of getting back to civilisation, after that there would be no more humans on the island apart from the small tribes scattered over it. He was about to include himself in the human population, but after catching sight of his hands again he thought the better of it. Maybe a few scientists would come over once or twice a year, but that was it.

He just felt blank inside. He knew tears should be leaking from under his eyelids, but none came. There was no emotion at all, just blankness. He hugged his legs and laid his forehead on his knees.

“You okay?” Llaeka was standing over him, talking through a mouthful of cassowary meat.

“As okay as I can be,” he muttered bitterly in reply, staring out into the distance.

“You want anything to eat?”

Mark shook his head. He wasn’t in the mood for anything right now.

“You sure? It’s been really well cooked, beautiful meat.”

“I’m sure, okay? Just… leave me alone.” He stood up and climbed over the other side of the tree root, then slumped down against it. He could go looking for the rescue party and let himself be found, then get taken back home with nobody knowing any different. Just because he was a cat person that didn’t mean he couldn’t lead a perfectly normal human life.

Normal save the glowing in his hands.

He sighed and rubbed his eyes. Whether he liked it or not, there was no longer any such thing as a normal life.

Four