Harlequin

Eight

They walked along the beach for several days, the scenery never changing, the uncomfortable feeling never disappearing. Mark’s magic never left him alone now. It continually throbbed at the back of his head, though it only flared up when they stopped to rest, as though it knew something was coming.

“Mark?” Malai looked with feigned concern at the younger boy. “What’s up? You’ve been edgy ever since we left.”

Mark looked back over his shoulder down the beach for the tenth time in as many minutes then took another bite of whatever animal it was that Llaeka had killed. She’d told him, but he couldn’t remember its name. Didn’t really matter anyway.

“I dunno,” he answered finally, “I just feel like something bad’s about to happen. Am I the only one getting that feeling?”

“Yup.”

“Ya-huh.”

“Figured as much,” Mark sighed, casting a sideways glance at the deep green foliage, tinted a faint golden by the seven o’clock sun.

“Is that, like, some kind of human thing?” Llaeka asked.

Mark raised an eyebrow. “I thought it was a cat person thing.”

Llaeka looked thoughtful for a moment. “Guess so, never really thought about it before though,” she said, shrugging.

“And you’re not feeling anything now?”

“Nup.”

“You are right to be afraid, my boy.” Mark’s head spun around at the woman’s voice, too deep for her slender figure.

She stepped calmly from the trees, the golden sunlight played on her jewels, the larger of which was red, the smaller a pale yellowish green. Her eyes were coloured in a similar way, the right deep red, the left pale green.

Mark felt an involuntary shudder run up his spine as she tossed her long, dark brown plait over her shoulder with an almost indistinguishable flick of her head, the sea breeze teasing her fine fringe slightly. Neither her clothes nor her sword were any different to those of any other cat woman, but there was something about her that made Mark edge back slightly.

Was this the seemingly famous Keena? She had one green jewel, but it didn’t look like the rich emeralds he’d seen advertised on TV. She did, however, look as though she could kill just by looking at him.

“Are you the boy with Human Magic?” she asked, her multicoloured gaze fixed on Mark.

His magic flared up again, obviously angry with the woman for some reason, and he grimaced against it, nodding weakly in answer to the woman’s question.

“Who are you?” Llaeka demanded, standing up and unsheathing her sword. Mark could hear the fear through the powerful confidence in her voice.

The woman removed her left hand from her hip and held it up as though she were holding something, then suddenly it ignited in flame, licking over her skin and glowing orange on her face.

“Holy shit!” Mark yelled, stumbling back in the sand, his eyes fixed on the fire. The throbbing pain in his head hadn’t yet subsided.

The woman raised one eyebrow at him, but was otherwise unmoved. “You do not ask questions,” she said sternly, playing with the fire with her fingers, “You answer them. Ask a question and you will die.”

Mark was suddenly aware of his rapid breathing and heart beating, as well as the agitation of his magic. It was for some reason desperate to attack this woman, pushing at his fingertips and trying to let itself loose on her. Meanwhile the pain in his head grew stronger, but it seemed now as though the magic didn’t realise it was hurting him, only focusing on the stranger in front of it.

Watch it, would you? He swallowed hard against the pain, but it only subsided a little, so he was dimly aware of what was going on.

Malai had stood up now, his sword unsheathed and yelling at the woman. Llaeka had dropped hers and was now rocking back and forwards on her knees in the sand, hugging her stomach with both hands.

The woman looked back at Mark and asked something in a calm voice, despite Malai’s obvious anger. Malai glanced at him briefly, then yelled back at the woman, his sword flipping around in his grip.

The edges of his vision began to blur, shimmering with the myriad of colours of his magic. A flicker of orange flew across his eyes, and he could have sword it was a plume of fire that had wrapped its fingers around Malai. A second flash of green light interrupted his line of sight, then a cloud of pink, before all he could see was his magic, and he fell to the sand, his mind blank.

When he awoke he was completely disoriented. Under him was a cool stone floor, in the distance was a very faint hushing noise, but around him was complete blackness. All he could see was the faint glow of his magic, still flickering in his hands, but not with enough intensity to show him anything of his surroundings.

Slowly he sat up, groaning and resting his back against the strangely smooth rock wall, rubbing his eyes and blinking them against the blackness, then pressed the button to light up the backlight of his watch. The clock showed a few minutes before seven. He frowned at the numbers, indicating it hadn’t been long since he’d been on the beach, then he noticed the date and his eyes widened. He hadn’t been out for five days before, not even when he’d first gotten here.

He couldn’t believe it. October seventh. He’d been here exactly a month, right down to the day, and he’d made no progress. If anything, he’d gone backwards.

There was a sudden, sharp pain at the back of his head, making him gasp and instinctively rub it with his fingers.

Look, it’s not my fault we’re here, you’re the one who knocked me out cold, remember? If you’d just left me alone I could have at least run, but no, you had to throw us in… wherever the hell we are. Believe it or not, when you’re doing whatever you’re trying to do, it bloody canes, got it? I am in pain because of you.

It fell silent, and even the flickering in his hands faded slightly. He took a deep breath and dropped his head back. One down, eleven to go. No technique he tried was working. He’d tried being aggressive, he’d tried doing nothing, he’d tried making friends with it, nothing worked. It still managed to overpower him.

His ears angled themselves towards the sound of footsteps on the stone floor. Mark was surprised at how much he could pick up from just the footsteps. Not just that the light steps were most likely feminine, but also that he was in a small cave with a winding corridor leading off from it.

His eyes were fixed on where he could hear the steps, even though he could still see nothing. Gradually, an unsteady orange glow began playing on the blackened walls, and the faint smell of smoke reached his nose. He subconsciously flattened his ears to his head and his tail began swishing over the stone floor. He knew who it was.

Don’t you freaking dare, he ordered, feeling his magic rising up again, We’ve got a better chance of escape if I can actually move, get the idea? It ebbed away again, though it still hid in the shadows, ready to strike did anything happen that it didn’t like. He could see it flashing under his skin and wrung his hands nervously.

The woman rounded the corner, her left hand again engulfed in a flame that glittered on her jewels, making them both a rich golden colour. Before she entered the room she pointed her other arm in front of her, her fingers spread, and sent several smaller flames flickering to the walls of the cave.

“What do you want?” Mark demanded, standing up so he could look down on her.

The woman stood on the opposite side of the small room, her back resting against the wall. “Like I said back at the beach,” she said, absently toying with the fire, “I ask questions, you answer them. You don’t ask anything, or you die.” She blew on the flame, which then flickered and broke off her hand to hover barely thirty centimetres from Mark’s face.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to keep his magic from attacking him again.

“Interesting hands,” she said smoothly, “Care to explain, remembering what happened when your friend tried to hide the truth from me?”

Mark frowned, then remembered how Llaeka had been clutching her stomach, obviously in great pain.

“Magic,” he said simply, looking down at the aforementioned hands. “It’s, like, really powerful and… yeah.”

“I see.” Mark was sure he saw a flicker of uncertainty behind her eyes, but if it was, it was quickly masked over.

“Does this have anything to with your performance on the beach?”

“Performance? Oh, yeah, it kinda attacks me sometimes. Worst it’s gotten me so far, I was out for what, five days? What do you want with me anyway?”

The flame in front of his face flashed bright blue, and molten drips of it struck his left knee, searing into his skin and sending jabs of pain through his whole body. But it was different to the pain of his magic attacking him, this was physical, and no amount of bribery or scolding would make it go away. He could barely feel his magic now; the scorching fire now had his full attention.

“Naughty boy,” the woman said calmly, “I told you, don’t ask questions, or you will die. Remember what happened to your friend.”

Mark’s head snapped up, but he still grimaced from the pain in his knee. “You killed her?” he asked softly, not realising he had asked another question.

The woman thankfully didn’t appear to notice either. “Oh, no, of course not,” she answered him, then cocked her head in thought, “Most definitely a ‘him’.”

Mark stared up at her in horror, almost forgetting his knee. He felt numb all over, not noticing that his hands were trembling. That flame he’d seen must have been real. He held one shaking hand to his head, but this time it had nothing to do with his magic. He’d thought the most dangerous thing he’d come in contact with on this island would be a tiger or something similar, not a member of what he now knew was his own species. She didn’t even seem the slightest bit regretful.

“So I would advise against asking questions,” she told him again, “Got it?”

Mark nodded dumbly, unable to speak. He had only known Malai for a month, but he’d considered him a friend. The fact that he was dead was one that wouldn’t register fully in his mind.

“Why the hell didn’t I stay back at the hotel?” he muttered to himself, hugging his knee and closing his eyes against tears that wouldn’t fall.

“Where’s the girl with Human Magic?” the woman asked. Her calm, almost bored tone hadn’t changed.

Mark glared up at her. “What the hell makes you think I’ll say anything to you?” he hissed through clenched teeth.

A sudden pain on his right shoulder made him flinch back, and he could feel a warm liquid dripping down to his elbow. It had seemed as though she’d barely moved, yet now the woman stood in front of him, her sword in her grip and with a drop of his own blood clinging to its tip.

“Where is she?”

“How should I know?”

A second cut was placed just below the first. “Sense her.”

Mark raised his eyebrows. “Sense her?” He flinched again as a third line was added to his skin.

“Sense her.”

“I don’t think you quite get it,” Mark told her, “I don’t even know what that is, let alone how to do it.”

The woman’s blank expression changed to one of slight confusion. “You can’t be serious.”

“Look, I only just found out I had magic a month—moon—ago. I can’t even use the stuff properly yet.”

The woman’s sword flicked around for a forth time. “You have magic strong enough that you can see it through your skin and you have no control over it.”

“’swhat I’ve been saying.”

“Learn it. I do not wish to waste time just because of your inability to use what you were born with.” She cast him a disgusted look, sheathed her sword and swept out of the room, extinguishing the flames with a flick of her wrist.

“I want to go home,” Mark mumbled, hugging his knee and closing his eyes against the blackness. It was too much. Right now he was supposed to be stressing about the final exams for his schooling life and assignments he had to hand in, particularly that English essay on King Lear that was due in a few days. He found it hard to believe that his classes were still continuing as normal, still handing out assignments, essays and directed investigations, while he was on a tropical island dealing with magic, swords and a woman who had killed one of his friends, all of which had caused him pain he’d never experienced, and had never in his right mind thought he would.

“I want to be a freaking human again.”

She’d told him to stay where he was, otherwise he would die, and while he’d believed the woman, Amiyo couldn’t just stay hidden in the trees while she got Mark and let the opportunity pass him by. So when he heard raised voices, he figured the woman was otherwise occupied and took his chance.

She probably expected him to make some attempt at escape, but he didn’t care. As far as he could see, it was his only chance. Even if she did find him, what would she do? Kill him? So what, it wasn’t like there was anything to look forward to if he’d obeyed orders. Nothing but more torture and being left in the dark.

He made his way cautiously through the undergrowth, first slow and silent, but when he figured he was out of earshot he quickened his pace, sprinting with little care for the noise he was making. His only thought was of escape.

It didn’t take him long to reach the river, a hundred meters wide at the mouth. He hesitated, glancing first over his shoulder then over the massive expanse of water ahead of him, his tail twitching in anticipation. Like any normal cat person, he hated water, but eventually he decided that the only way to escape was to cross the river. At least then she would lose his scent, if she was indeed following.

He stepped tenderly into the water, feeling every hair stand on end, and stood still, watching as the clear liquid wrapped around his ankles. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and sprang forward into the river, knowing that if he went slowly he would never make it.

He pushed himself through the water, shocked at how fast it flowed as he neared the middle of the river, but he wouldn’t let himself get discouraged. He powered on, fully focused on the opposite bank. When he’d finally reached the other side, he quickly shook himself off and dashed back off through the trees, his dripping, rope-like tail flying out behind him. He didn’t stop running until well into the night, where he finally stood with his hands on his knees, his breaths deep and fast in his cold, dry throat.

He lifted one hand, flipping strands of wet black hair from his forehead, then rested his back against a tree.

He had to get Mark out of there somehow, as well as Llaeka and Malai, if they’d been caught too. At least he knew where they were, and if he could find someone who knew their way through the catacombs behind the waterfall, he could easily wind his way through the caves and find them, without anyone knowing anything.

If he did meet someone though, he wouldn’t have any way out. His magic wasn’t able to attack, and he had yet to recover his sword. He had no defences, he could only hope he could anticipate their moves and escape before they had a chance to notice him.

His tail fell limp. They’d be looking out for him. He’d have no way of getting in there, at least not by the waterfall. Was there another entrance? He didn’t know.

He looked down at the raw flesh of the burn on his palm. In a few days it would scab over and eventually heal to a scar, like the ones on the skin of his first escorts. He had a feeling they had been ‘recruited’ in a similar way to himself, but why hadn’t they escaped? At least the two who had first caught him had the opportunity to escape, why hadn’t they taken it? Did they know anything about what was going on? What did the woman want with Mark?

He sighed and slid to the ground, resting his forehead on his knees. He hated questions. He wasn’t made to ask questions. He was the one who answered the questions of others, not be the one asking them. He was supposed to know everything.

“I don’t get it,” he mumbled. Whatever the fire magician was planning had something to do with humans. Beyond that he had no idea.

He glanced up into the tree he was resting against, idly rubbing the skin around his burn with his other thumb. There was no way he could climb it with only one hand. He’d have to sleep on the ground and just hope nothing would attack him.

Nine