Harlequin

Four

“Hey Mark!” Malai shouted into his ear, making him jolt awake, “You ready to start?”

Mark groaned and looked at his watch. “Piss off, it’s barely six.”

“Come again?”

“I said it’s barely six AM and I’m still tired, so piss of and let me sleep.”

“I dunno what you’re talking about, but the sun’s up, so get up.” The older boy grabbed Mark by his arms and hoisted him off the ground, much to his annoyance, then tossed him a piece of meat he had cooked that morning.

Not having completely woken up yet, Mark took the meat and bit into it, chewing and swallowing the strange but nice new taste.

“What is it?” he asked, taking another bight. Already he regretted asking.

“Left over cassowary,” Malai answered, “You like?”

Mark shrugged. “’Sokay. Be better with sauce of some description but whatever.”

Malai grinned and sat opposite him, leaning against the fig’s massive root. “You’ll get used to it.”

Mark frowned at Malai’s hands. “How come your hands don’t glow?”

“Think the question should be more along the lines of ‘why do yours?’ Normally you can’t see magic at all, ‘cos it’s invisible.” He held out his right hand and formed a small, shimmering ball of his own magic. “Can only see mine because I had to develop it to kill Black Magic. Don’t ask, I’ll tell you later.”

“And so mine is glowing because..?” He raised his eyebrows, asking Malai to answer his question.

The older boy just shrugged. “No idea. Has to be damn powerful to be able to see it, but you only just found out about it yesterday.”

“So is it dangerous?” Mark couldn’t believe he was having this discussion.

“Possibly,” Malai answered truthfully, “Animal Magic’s different depending on the animal. What’re humans like?”

Mark raised an eyebrow. “What d’you mean?”

“Well, macaws are generally pretty talkative and sometimes aggressive, intelligent, pretty sociable, so that’s what Macaw Magic’s like.” He grinned. “Doesn’t necessarily mean the person with it is like that, though the magic’s personality does show through a bit.”

“Right…” Mark said slowly, “So it’s got a personality now?”

“Yup. So what’re humans like? You’ve lived with them all your life so you must know what they’re like.”

Mark shook his head. “Human’s aren’t all the same. We’re—they’re all different. Some people are really shy and have, like, no friends, some people are friends with everyone they know. Then there are the idiots who run around killing their wives ‘cos they were having an affair or whatever.”

“What about in general though?”

Mark looked up at the sky and tried in vain to put people all together in the same group, but it was impossible. “As a generalisation? Um… Sociable, I guess, but there are heaps of loners… Sorta possessive, but there are people who donate, like, a hundred grand to charities… I don’t bloody know, it’s too hard.”

“Okay, figure that out later, first gotta get you in your proper form. Close your eyes.”

“What—?”

“If you don’t get yourself in cat person form you’ll never get anywhere. Close your eyes.”

Mark did as told, suddenly aware of the magic actually inside him, rather than just seeing it through his skin. It felt wrong, but comfortable at the same time. It was as though it was trying to get out, but didn’t want to be left alone. Indecisive piece of… whatever the hell you are.

“Can you feel your magic?”

“Yeah, it hasn’t got the faintest idea what it wants to do.”

“Good. Okay, now try and get it, or at least some of it, into a pair of opals on your cheek, like I’ve got. Left cheek if you’re left handed, right if you’re right handed.”

Mark’s brow furrowed and his face twitched with his concentration. He had no idea how he was supposed to go about this, or even if it would accomplish anything. He was still half-convinced he’d wake up back at the hotel some time soon, but it was too vivid, too real. And besides, you couldn’t go to sleep in your dreams, far as he knew, anyway.

He clenched his hands in fists, trying to force it up to his face, but not getting anywhere. Okay, so it’s like humans, he thought, Bribery maybe? But what was so fascinating about his cheek? If you let me turn into a cat person, he told it silently, I’ll give you a treat. Stuff it if it didn’t get anything at the end of it, the magic didn’t know that.

The magic pondered for several minutes over the proposition, then without warning shot up his arms to his face with great force. His eyes snapped open, then he fell to his side, unconscious.

“What the..?” Llaeka yelled from the other side of the root. She had been chewing happily on the left over cassowary and listening to the training session when a sudden explosion of bright white light sent her flying. “Malai?”

She stood up and peered over the root. Both boys lay unmoving.

She leapt over the tree root and started shaking Malai, urging him to wake up. He did so within a few seconds, and sat up, rubbing his head.

“What happened?” he groaned.

“You tell me,” Llaeka replied, “What was that flash?”

“No idea, seemed to work though, guess that’s always a positive.”

Llaeka turned to look at the boy. Malai was right; a pair of white-furred cat’s ears stood on his head and a white and orange blotched tail draped over his ankles.

“At a wild guess he’s not supposed to be glowing like that. Malai, why is he glowing?”

“Dunno,” he answered bluntly, then crawled over and shook the faintly glowing body. “Mark! Wake up! You okay? Mark!” But Mark didn’t move.

“We need a healer,” Malai said, “Stay here, I’ll go get someone.” He spread his arms and flapped up in macaw form into the trees, heading back in the direction of the river mouth.

Llaeka slapped at Mark’s cheeks, trying without success to wake him. Then she noticed something that made her mouth open slightly. Aside from the standard leaf shaped and circular opals under his right eye, there was a third studded next to his left.

“What is wrong with your magic?” she asked him. She realised she had no hope of waking him up before a healer arrived, and that could be several days yet, tomorrow morning would be the absolute minimum.

She wondered what she was supposed to do until he got back. She couldn’t leave him here to go hunting, but she couldn’t starve herself either. Last resort would be the ocelots. She didn’t like asking them for favours, but there didn’t seem to be anything else she could do. Still, there was plenty of cassowary left, maybe it would last out until Malai returned.

“Do you think you could describe them?”

Lisa dabbed at her eyes again with a handkerchief. She had waited out the night on the beach of Umnikai, her nervous brown eyes scanning the trees for mainly her son, but also the source of any noises that made her feel uncomfortable.

“Um, I think so. One of the girls, the older one, had long, straight black hair, black ears and jewels, but her skin looked like it had never seen the sun… The other one had streaky blond and black hair… Um… One of the boys had light blue jewels…” she sniffed again, “Sorry I can’t be of more help.”

“It’s okay Mrs Trifford,” the head of the search party told her, “We’ll do our best to bring your son back. I do have to tell you though that the odds are slim to nil. Cat people are quite vicious, and there are other dangerous animals on the island too. I hate to say it, but there’s no guarantee that he’s still alive. Please don’t get your hopes up.”

Lisa nodded helplessly. She already knew there was little chance of getting him back, but she wouldn’t give up until he was found. She refused to believe he was dead. He was a strong boy, he could defend himself.

Hopefully.

“You can go back to the mainland if you want,” the man continued, “Try and enjoy the rest of your holidays as much as you can.”

She nodded again, not able to verbally respond, and stepped shakily into the boat with the help of one of the other members of the rescue party. If she could see him again just once more, she’d be happy.

Kevin, the head of the search party, turned to the group of thirty who had been brought over that morning to search for the missing boy. “Alrighty ladies and gentlemen, this is the boy we’re looking for, Mark Trifford.” He passed the photo Mark’s father had kindly donated around the group. It showed a seventeen-year-old ginger-haired boy with his fair share of freckles. “According to his mother, all that he had been wearing were his yellow and navy board shorts. Only discharge your firearms if yours or Mark’s life is in immediate danger. Okay, let’s go.”

Malai returned late the next afternoon, a white-haired healer running below him. He landed beside Mark and transformed back into his normal form.

“Llaeka, Kayil. Kayil, Llaeka and Mark.” He wasted no time with his introductions. Names weren’t important at the moment.

Mark was still very faintly glowing, the opal light twinkling from his body. When Kayil laid his hands on the boy’s chest, the Animal Magic flared up before he had a chance to do anything. He hastily took his hands away, not at all comfortable with the opposing magic.

“Hate to state the obvious, but that’s not normal,” he noted.

“I guessed that,” Malai replied, “We were hoping you’d be able to wake him up. His magic’s fine, obviously, but he’s not.”

“He’s got three jewels,” Llaeka said quietly, gesturing to Mark’s unmoving body with one hand and rubbing her wound with her other.

“That’d explain the extra magic,” Malai replied.

“Could be the other way round,” Kayil said, “He’s got an extra jewel because of the extra magic.”

He stood up and turned his face away from Mark, pointing his palms out towards the boy. “Stand back,” he ordered, then shot a bright pink ball of Healing Magic at Mark’s unmoving form, hoping it would be able to break through the Human Magic’s defences.

Mark groaned hoarsely and put a hand to his forehead. He felt different somehow. When the ringing in his ears had stopped, he noticed he could hear things much clearer. He could hear every bird call and the footsteps of some animal hundreds of meters away. He could smell the musty rainforest earth and the fresh leaves of the canopy.

But most of all he felt stronger somehow. He could feel his muscles under his skin and the strange energy that flowed through them. It took him a few seconds to realise this was his magic.

He groaned again and sat up, running his tingling fingers through his hair to try and gather himself. But his fingers met with something that wasn’t supposed to be there.

“Mark?” At the sound of Llaeka’s voice, the things moved.

“Shit,” he whispered, fingering the new shapes of his ears. “Just… Shit… This is so wrong…”

“Mark? Hello? You with us?”

“Yeah, I’m just… Shit,” he said again.

“You know it’d be really nice if you’d stop swearing,” Llaeka scorned, “You’re in your normal form, it’s perfectly natural. Get used to it.”

“Am I s’posed to feel like this every time I change?”

“Um, no, not exactly,” Malai told him, “Your magic’s not quite right. It’s abnormally strong.”

“Shut up,” Mark interrupted, “Its ego’s big enough without you praising it any more.” He could feel it trying to knock him out again, trying to show him it was better than him. Would you just keep still for five minutes? he yelled at it. It paused for a while, but began attacking him again. Mark cringed and put a hand to his head again, feeling the beginnings of a headache.

A hand lay on his head as the pain subsided, and for the first time he noticed the healer, a tall man with shoulder length white hair and eerily pink eyes. Though he was grateful for having his pain relieved, Mark couldn’t help looking away.

“So it’s not supposed to attack me?” he asked.

“It’s attacking you?” The macaw boy sounded surprised.

“I’ll take that as a no. And there’s no way of making it weaker?”

“No, but you can get control over it. What exactly does it feel like?”

Mark shrugged and looked down at his hands again. “I dunno, like it thinks it’s better than me and wants to show it… that sounds so wrong.”

“How so?” Llaeka asked, folding her arms.

“’Cos it’s not alive, so it can’t think.” He held his hand to his head again as another sharp pain shot briefly through it.

“It damn well is alive, just not the way you think it is,” Llaeka explained. “If it thinks it’s better than you, you have to show it you’re stronger. It’s purely up to you. Let it get the better of you and… bad things will happen.”

Mark raised a vaguely amused eyebrow. “What kinds of ‘bad things’?”

“Take control of you… so you know what’s happening but you can’t stop it, or just keep tormenting you until you can’t take it anymore and just have a mental break-down. You know, bad things.”

“So how do I control it, exactly?”

Llaeka shrugged. “Like I said, up to you. Only one other person has the same magic as you, so you’re on your own.”

“Gee, thanks.”

Llaeka put a hand on her chest. “Not my fault! I’d love to teach you how to control it, but I can’t. Ocelots are completely different to humans, so’s the magic. I can’t teach something I don’t know.”

“Fine, whatever.” Mark slouched against the tree root, trying hard to keep his magic from knocking him out again. “It doesn’t talk or anything, does it?”

Malai shook his head. “No, but you’ll know what it’s thinking, and you can sorta talk to it.”

“Do you still need me here?” Kayil still had his hand to Mark’s head, and the boy felt that this was the only reason he wasn’t passing out. He nodded, still vaguely feeling the cool magic in his head. Eventually he would have to fend it off himself, though how long that would take he didn’t know.

Five