When he’d first woken up he had no idea where he was, but when the pain struck his right palm again he was sharply reminded of what had brought him here. Now, Amiyo sat, his hand limp at his side and still throbbing, in the pitch blackness of the cave behind one of Umnikai’s three waterfalls.
He had no idea what it was like outside. It could be the middle of the day or the middle of the night, the sky could be cloudless or flashing with lightning and he wouldn’t know. All he could hear from the world outside the cave was the distant rumbling of the waterfall. Not even any breeze was to be heard in the catacombs.
Amiyo’s ears pricked up at the slightest hint of a footstep echoing faintly down the blackened hallway, long before the golden glow of the Red magician’s fire began dancing on the walls. Though it was faint, he blinked at the light and stood up, trying to look as though his hand wasn’t causing him any pain.
The woman rounded the bend in the tunnel again, her right hand engulfed in flame, her left carrying her unsheathed sword. She swanned into the cave and stood in front of Amiyo, flicking her long, dark plait over her shoulder with a small jerk of her head. She stared calmly at him until he looked uncomfortably away at the sword in her hand.
“What makes you the best?” she asked suddenly.
Amiyo looked up, frowning. “Say that again?”
In one fluid motion, the woman whipped her sword around and cut into Amiyo’s left forearm, making him jump. He had hardly even seen it move before it was pointing back at the stone floor, a crimson drop clinging to its tip.
“What makes you the best?” she repeated.
This woman was getting more unpredictable every second. He’d expected her to get her to take him to where he left Mark, or at least question him some more, but instead she appeared to be flattering him. Amiyo longed to look into her mind, but had a feeling that she would somehow know he was.
“I… I don’t know,” he answered finally.
The sword blade sliced again at his arm, leaving a second dripping cut just below the first. Amiyo cringed and pressed his fingers against the cuts, trying to slow the bleeding.
“For a mind reader you don’t seem to know much, do you?” the woman mocked, “I am the best at what I do because of my control over my element.” She nodded at the hand Amiyo had pressed against his arm. “Look at your palm,” she ordered.
Amiyo frowned but did as he was told, his eyes widening at what they saw. The burn on his palm wasn’t just a burn, it had a distinct pattern. A small circle in the centre surrounded by six dots was emblazoned into his hand.
“What makes you the best?” Her voice was still calm, but Amiyo could sense her temper rising.
“I can read several minds at once and know what each person is thinking,” he began. He felt more than just slightly nervous, but he tried not to let it show. “As you already know, I can hide my thoughts from other people with Turquoise Magic, but only if I know what I’m hiding,” he emphasised, “And I guess just general intuition, though that’s not really Turquoise Magic.”
“You can read the thoughts of other species, can you not?”
Amiyo shook his head. “No, just their instincts. I really don’t see where this is leading.” The comment earned him a third cut to his forearm, in line with the first two. The blood that dripped from the cuts trickled down to his fingertips.
“The less you know, the better,” the Red magician snapped, “I don’t trust Turquoise Magic, though you appear to be smarter than most. I am yet to see any evidence that you have read my mind, so you are either smart enough avoid such practice, or smart and skilled enough to hide the fact. The more trustworthy you are, the higher your chances of learning anything,” she grinned evilly, “and surviving.”
Amiyo just nodded, knowing anything he had to say would give him nothing more than another cut.
“You’re learning already, good boy. Follow me,” she said, sweeping around and back down the corridor and extinguishing her flame.
Amiyo pricked up his ears, no longer having his sight to rely on, and followed the near-silent footsteps of the Red magician in the blackness, his unburnt hand on the wall.
It was night time when they emerged into the still humidity of the rainforest, much to Amiyo’s relief. Having spent what seemed like days in total blackness save a few minutes when the Red magician had lit up the cave with her fire, his eyes weren’t used to anything stronger.
“Where is he?” the woman demanded, raising her voice over the drumming of the waterfall.
Amiyo didn’t answer, but led her down the river back the way he had come with the other two cat people to where he had left Mark. He silently hoped Mark wasn’t there, for his own sake, but he didn’t know what this woman would do to him if the tree had been vacated. She would either believe him or not, simple as that.
“I thought you said I had to learn my magic properly before I could do anything else.”
Llaeka put her hands on her hips. “Swords are different, they’re just… things, so they’re a lot easier to get used to. Hurry up and draw it.”
Mark sighed and did as he was told, letting his sword dangle loosely in his grip. “Okay, so what do I do, oh great one?”
She glared at him for a second, then opened her mouth to begin her lesson, but was interrupted by Malai.
“What’cha doing?” he asked, peeling back the hairy, red skin of a rambutan and leaning back against a tree.
“Teaching him to use his sword.”
“Why not get Keena to do it?”
“Main reason being that nobody knows where she lives anymore, ‘member? What’s wrong with me doing it?”
Malai shrugged and bit into the juicy white flesh. “Have you seen her? She has seriously got the best sword skills anywhere. Probably best for him to learn from the best, you know?”
“Who the hell are you talking about?” Mark interrupted.
“Keena,” Malai answered, “Best swordsperson ever.”
“Also got Green Magic,” Llaeka mumbled.
Mark raised his eyebrows at the comment. “And that would mean…”
“She can kill anything with less than a snap of her fingers,” Llaeka answered, “From what I’ve heard she’s the best at it, after Ninyo.”
Mark’s eyes widened slightly and he turned to Malai. “And you want her to teach me how to use a sword?”
“Well, yeah,” the cat boy answered casually, “Problem?”
“Aside from the possibility of her killing me without even blinking, no, everything’s fine and dandy.” He couldn’t have fitted much more sarcasm into his voice if he’d tried.
Malai sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “Don’t… just… don’t. They live on the beach somewhere, come on.”
Llaeka growled, but followed him as he pushed away a fern frond. “Still don’t see what’s wrong with me teaching him,” Mark heard her mutter.
“Malai,” he complained, “Do we seriously have—ah!” He leant against a tree, gripping its rough bark tightly with one hand, his forehead with his other. It had never come that suddenly before, and he was caught off guard. But slowly, the pain ebbed away, leaving him blinking against the tree trunk. He waited a few minutes, but it didn’t strike him again.
Thanks, he told it. He knew it could have knocked him out if it wanted to, but that obviously wasn’t the intention this time. He soon became aware of Llaeka’s muffled voice in his ears.
“Mark? You alright?”
“Yeah, fine, thanks,” he answered, pushing himself away from the tree.
“Hey, you just beat it, didn’t you? You’re getting better!”
Mark shook his head. “Don’t get your hopes up. Could’ve knocked me out if it wanted to, but it didn’t feel like it. We going now?” He blinked at himself as the words came out of his mouth. Five minutes ago the last thing he wanted to do was ask the person who could kill him instantly for sword training, but now, he couldn’t wait to leave. It wasn’t so much the prospect of meeting the elite swordswoman, more the fact that he was leaving.
Malai didn’t seem to notice his puzzlement, and grinned triumphantly at the younger boy. “Good to see you’ve come ‘round,” he said, slapping the boy on the back.
Mark looked over his shoulder as the three left the massive tree and breathed a sigh of relief. Something just wasn’t right there anymore. He could feel it, but not with his magic. He’d had the same feeling before, when he’d been living at home, but only now could he put it down to the basic instincts of the cat people. Something was going to happen there, and he had to be as far away as possible before it did.
“This is where I last saw them,” Amiyo said, peering into the milky dawn sunlight. It was still too early to distinguish between shadows of tree leaves and living creatures, but his ears told him nobody was nearby, and he figured the Red magician knew the same thing.
The woman stood to his left, her arms folded, silently surveying the scene. She breathed in slowly through her delicate nose and gave a slight nod, barely noticeable, but still said nothing.
Amiyo sniffed the air and caught the unusual scent she had. Humans; a smell he had always associated with danger, but the four humans who had been here smelt more of fear than anything. Their scent was cold; they had left days ago, but the smell of the three cat people, one of whom Amiyo recognised as Mark, had only left the day before.
“Lead on,” the woman ordered, not turning her head to face him. It almost seemed as though she was trying to hide her face from him.
He took a breath and strode through the leaf litter in the direction his nose told him the boy had left. There seemed to be no way to lead her off track without her knowing he had done so. There was some vague hope in him that made him think that maybe when she had found what she was looking for, she would let him go, but the more realistic part of his mind told him he would be in her grip until he found a way out of it himself.
The further they walked along the scent trail, the stronger it got, and the more nervous Amiyo grew. What was going to happen when she found him?
Within a day’s walking the three cat people broke through the dense rainforest into the bright sunlight of the island’s beach.
“So where to now?” Mark asked, looking up and down the beach.
Malai shrugged and began scaling one of the coconut palms that lined the shore. “Whichever. Just walk ‘round the island ‘til we find them, I guess. Heads up!” He grabbed one coconut and twisted it from the mass of leaves that topped the palm, dropping it to the soft sand below.
Mark watched as two more coconuts dropped from the top of the tree, then Malai slid down its smooth trunk and unsheathed his sword. “This island has gotta be at least four hundred ks around, you realise?”
The cat boy began hacking at the top of one coconut with his sword. “No idea what a ‘k’ is,” he replied, “Never actually walked around it before, good chance to find out how long it’d take, I s’pose. Have a coconut.” He finished chopping the top off the first coconut and tossed it over to Mark.
“Thanks.” He took a swig of the cool, slightly bitter milk inside and sat down with his back against the palm tree. “Can we stop here a bit? I’m sick of walking.”
“Sure, whatever,” Malai answered, flinging the second coconut to Llaeka, who caught it and took a seat beside Mark.
“How different is human life?” she asked, taking a swig of the coconut milk. “I mean, it can’t be that different to here, can it?”
Mark snorted and looked out over the sea, guessing that that was where the mainland lay. “You have no idea.”
“So why don’t you enlighten me?”
Mark shook his head. “Too hard.” He unstrapped his watch and tossed it over to her. “I’ll let that baffle you for a while, have fun.”
Llaeka took the watch and turned it over in her hands, frowning at the numbers, changing every second.
“What is it?” she asked, “And how does it keep… moving?”
“A watch, one of if not the simplest pieces of technology in the world. Battery keeps it changing. Basically tells time.”
Llaeka blinked at the watch and lifted it hesitatingly to her ear.
Mark couldn’t keep from snickering.
“What?” Llaeka asked.
Mark took the watch back and pointed at the numbers. “That’s what tells you. It doesn’t talk.” He giggled again. “See? Three forty-two. It’s basically so everyone can coordinate properly.” He strapped it back on his wrist and sipped again from his coconut.
“Right,” Llaeka said slowly, “So everyone’s got one of them?”
“Pretty much, yeah. And everyone in the same time zone has pretty close to the same time, give or take a few minutes.”
“I don’t get it. Why not just use the sun?”
Mark held up his wrist. “Watch is more exact. Timing is everything. Here it doesn’t matter squat, but with people—humans, whatever—it’s everything. If you’re more than five minutes late to class or for work, you’re stuffed.”
Llaeka shook her head. “Still don’t get it.”
“Told ya you wouldn’t. And that’s something pretty simple. Do you seriously want me to go into detail?”
“Nuh, that’ll do me for now.”
Mark suddenly pricked his ears up. He had that feeling again, the sudden need to be anywhere but where he currently was. “Can we go now?” he asked hurriedly.
Malai raised an eyebrow. “You’re the one wanting a rest.” He took out his sword again and thrashed at his coconut, splitting it in two so he could get at the sweet white flesh lining its inside.
Mark shrugged, trying to appear casual, but he couldn’t help looking over his shoulder into the dark greens of the rainforest. “Just feel like going now.”
Llaeka blinked at him. “See what you mean about the indecisive thing.”
“It’s not that,” Mark retorted harshly, “It’s just… we have to go. Now.”
“Mark, are you okay?” Malai asked through a mouthful of coconut.
“Not—ow, not again.” Again he put the heel of his hand to his temple. I know there’s something wrong here, no need to emphasise the fact. Slowly the pain ebbed away, but it still throbbed at the back of his head in warning. “We’ve seriously gotta go. I’ve just got a bad feeling here.” He looked over his shoulder back into the rainforest. Every moving shadow caught his eye, every snapping twig or rustling leaf made his ears twitch.
Malai casually broke off another bit of coconut and sighed. “If you’re really that edgy about it, we’ll go.”