Harlequin

Eleven

When they were what Mark suspected about a kilometre from Eliya’s home, the Red Magician spoke to them again, or rather gave them more orders.

“Take me to the nearest human village,” she demanded, “Should you disobey my orders at any time, and I will remind you that you are both expendable. Now go.”

Mark’s hands suddenly began to feel itchy, and when he looked down at them, he noticed they seemed to be glowing more than they usually did. The glimmering light was more erratic, and he could feel under his skin that his magic was anxious. Suddenly it stabbed him at the back of his head, forcing him to his knees.

This is really not helping. I know whatever it is she wants me to do is not going to be pretty, but if you keep trying to knock me out she’ll end up killing us both, got it? Lay off, okay? Just let me think!

Slowly the stabbing pain was reduced to a dull throb, but it remained there as a warning, and his hands still itched. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t been attacked for quite a while.

He opened his eyes and waited for his vision to clear before standing up. Eliya was taking worried glances at him as she was lectured by the Red Magician. Mark could see a new pair of parallel red lines on her arm.

“I can’t,” Eliya was insisting. She sounded meek against the powerful voice of the Red Magician.

“Why not?” the woman demanded.

Eliya shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know; I’ve just never been able to. I’ve always had weaker magic than everyone else.”

The woman sighed heavily and added another swift cut to the girl’s arm. “Worthless,” she hissed, then turned to Mark. “Good to see you’re with us. Where’s the nearest village?”

Mark rubbed his eyes and pointed to his right. He didn’t even need to send out any slivers of his magic now. He just seemed to know where the Human Magic was.

“I’m going to regret this,” he muttered, then began following after his captor.

As they made their way through the trees, Mark had several things to think over. He had more magic than he could handle, as well as an extra opal next to his eye. Eliya was missing an opal, and from what she had just said, her magic was less than what it should be. Somewhere, the wires had gotten crossed and Mark had ended up with half of Eliya’s magic. He didn’t know how to explain it, but he knew that must be it. Soon as I get out of this, you’re going back where you’re s’posed to be. Dunno how, but you are.

It was early in the morning after they had regained their swords that Amiyo decided they needed to make a move.

“Llaeka?” His voice was soft. He knew how much each ocelot meant to her, but she had to remember the reason why it had died. “Llaeka, we need to get Mark back now.”

Llaeka nodded and rubbed her eyes, pulling herself away from him. “What’s the plan?” she asked, trying to regain her composure.

Amiyo shrugged, then pricked up his ears. His hands moved to his sword and his hard, turquoise eyes were fixed on the forest floor fifty or so metres ahead of them.

Llaeka followed his gaze and spotted the figure Amiyo had his eyes on.

Llaeka’s eyes and mouth widened involuntarily at the sight of the man. He looked to have seen around thirty monsoons, and at first, the brown haired, brown furred man appeared to be nobody special, but as he walked, Llaeka spotted two swords hanging from his waist, and a third strapped to his back. Glinting at his ankles were a pair of machetes, and two daggers were strapped to each forearm. Even from this distance, Llaeka could see the blades’ distinctive black colouring.

In the pale gold of the mid-afternoon sun, his eyes and the jewels on his face would be sparkling fuchsia pink, but only a few hours ago, in the sharp midday sun, they would have been a soft amethyst purple. In a few hours when the sun would have just disappeared from view, they would change again to a deep teal blue.

The man with the pair of alexandrite jewels fixed to his face, one under each eye, was seldom seen, though every cat person on Umnikai knew of his existence. There were hundreds of rumours about him, but how many of them were true nobody could say. He was said to have a personality that changed as often as his jewels. Some made the assumption, since he barely ever made contact with the other cat people, that he didn’t talk. The only rumour anyone knew to be true was the undeniable fact that he was the best swords person on Umnikai, better even than Keena.

Nobody knew his real name, but he was known as Blade, the man with Sword Magic, who created and distributed every sword on the island. Like the man himself, nobody knew how far his magic extended. Some thought it was restricted to creating and using swords, others figured he could probably use any weapon that was placed in his hand. Either way, Blade was a legend.

Llaeka was jolted from her thoughts by a charcoal-coloured dagger stabbing the tree branch in the centimetre gap between her legs. The shock made her lose her balance, and she fell backwards from the tree branch, just managing to hook her legs over it to steady herself before flipping over and landing gracefully on the earth below.

“What was that for?” she demanded angrily, momentarily forgetting who she was talking to.

Blade stood with his arms folded, a smug grin on his sharp-featured face. “Your stare was beginning to worry me,” he answered, beginning to swagger through the trees towards her. He stopped not far from her, close enough to cup her chin in his hand. “It ruins that pretty face of yours,” he drawled.

Llaeka rolled her eyes and shook herself from his grip.

The Sword Magician gave a small laugh, then unsheathed one of the daggers on his left arm. Without taking his eyes off the rather bored looking Llaeka, he tossed it straight up. The knife made a sharp ‘ching’ noise as it hit the one still rooted into the tree branch, then both dropped back into Blade’s hand. He raised his eyebrows, prompting some response from the cat girl.

Llaeka’s eyebrows arched in mirror to his own, though her half lidded eyes showed she was not impressed. Men, she thought cynically, glancing back up into the tree for the first time for Amiyo.

He was sitting with his chin in one hand, looking equally blasé. He probably didn’t even need to look into Blade’s mind to know what was going on in there.

The mysterious and often majestic reputation of the Sword Magician was definitely not holding up. Maybe that was why he generally made himself scarce, because in some twisted way he enjoyed the secrecy, being held in high regard just because he was never seen.

Blade followed Llaeka’s eyes up to where Amiyo was sitting. The cat boy gave a loose wave then flipped off the branch to land softly on the dark earth below.

“You here to read my mind then?” Blade asked him as he straightened up.

Amiyo grinned dryly and slapped the taller man on the shoulder. “Not much there to read, buddy.” Llaeka could just barely hold back a giggle as he slid past and jerked his head towards her. She nodded and turned around with him. The amazement at seeing the man who made her sword for her had more than worn off.

The instant they heard the shing of a blade being drawn, two black blades were pressed against the sides of their necks, making the pair freeze.

Llaeka sighed and turned around, folding her arms and resting her weight on one foot. Her eyebrows were raised in question. Blade’s stiff expression didn’t faze her in the slightest.

“Well?” she demanded suddenly.

“Where’d you get the scar?” Blade responded, poking at it with his sword.

Llaeka roughly pushed the black metal away, glaring at its bearer. Amiyo interrupted before she got a chance to open her mouth.

“Feel like a challenge?” He held out his right palm, which bore the same scar as Llaeka’s stomach.

Blade cocked his right eyebrow to show he was interested, but the swords he still held at arms’ length.

“Go on.”

“Friend of ours has been kidnapped by a psychotic woman with Red and Speed Magic. Challenge is to get him back before she kills every human on the island.”

Blade’s left eyebrow rose to join his right. “Red and Speed Magic? How is that possible?”

Amiyo shrugged. “Dunno, but it is apparently. Interested?”

Blade thought about it for a second, then frowned and nodded with determination, sheathing both swords. “You’re on.”

Within two hours, the small company had reached the village. The whole time, Mark’s magic had been niggling the back of his head, growing stronger as they grew closer, but nothing would be able to prepare him for what was about to take place.

“Stay here,” the Red Magician ordered when they approached the edge of the village. With no falter in her step, she strode into the centre of the village where she stood with arms folded, waiting for the people of the village to gather around her.

“Is she wanting to talk to them?” Eliya asked quietly, peering out from behind the tree.

Mark shook his head without taking his eyes off the woman. “I’d highly doubt it.”

A good crowd had congregated around her small, slender form, but they all held back a good four paces. Most were mothers with their children, as the majority of the men of the village were out hunting.

One small boy ran from the group and into the largest of the huts. Before long he came back out with an important looking man. A trio of green macaw feathers stuck out of his wiry hair at the back of his head, and around his neck hung a cord with a curled boar tusk attached to it. The tusk almost made a full circle, indicating his importance. In his left hand he held a bow, and over his shoulder was strung a bag filled with arrows. As the chief walked towards the group of villagers, he took one arrow from his shoulder bag and slipped it into his bow.

The group of thirty or so murmuring villagers fell almost silent when the chief appeared.

Mark’s magic, previously just a dull pain, reached a peak, making him cringe and put a hand to his head.

Eliya looked alarmed. “Are you okay?” she asked desperately.

Mark nodded and took a sharp intake of breath through his teeth. “It just does that sometimes,” he said with effort, “usually when something bad’s about to happen.” He shook his head and clenched his eyes a few times, then looked back up at the village, massaging his temple with the heel of his hand.

He froze instantly, forgetting about the continuing throb at the back of his head.

Flames licked over nearly every surface. The glowing orange curled up the trunks of trees, demolished the grass huts and flowed over the earth like water. But worst of all, it clung to the bodies of the villagers. Some still writhed and screamed in agony, but most lay motionless but for the flickering of the fire.

At the centre of it all stood the Red Magician. Her arms were folded, and a blank, almost smug look was plastered over her face as she stared at the last remaining squirming bodies, waiting for them to fall still and silent. When she was convinced that the only sound that reached her ears was the roaring of the flames, she gave a slight nod then began to almost glide over the bodies and through the inferno, unharmed.

“You disobey or try to escape, you die,” she said sternly, “We continue until no human remains. Now show me to the next village.”

Mark swallowed hard, knowing full well what would happen if he disobeyed. He closed his eyes, breathing short, nervous breaths, but nothing happened. The strings of magic that told him where others were wouldn’t extend further than his fingernails. He began to panic, spreading his fingers wide and frowning hard in concentration, but still there was no reaction. Please, he begged silently, If you don’t, she’ll kill us.

His magic gave him a hard slap at the back of his head, so hard that it felt physical, and he lifted his hand up, half expecting it to come back stained red. It was quite plain that his magic felt that his life was expendable if it was going to save hundreds of humans.

“Hurry up,” the woman ordered, flicking at his arm again with her sword.

Mark shook his head. “I—I can’t,” he said quietly. The cut he had expected on his arm appeared within half a second of him finishing the last word.

“What do you mean you can’t?”

“My magic’s really bloody strong, remember?” He held up his hands to emphasise his point. “It won’t let me use it to find more people for you to kill. Doesn’t like it.”

Now that his hands were held in front of his face, he noticed that they were considerably brighter than they usually were. They seemed to be tingling slightly too. Don’t even think about it. You attack her, most you can do is knock her out. Soon as she wakes up she will freaking kill me, got it? She knows this island way better than I do. She will find me and kill me.

The Red Magician interrupted his thoughts. “I don’t care what it thinks, control it and show me the nearest village.”

“I told you, I can’t!” He was getting frustrated now. “It won’t let me!”

“Turn around,” the woman ordered.

Mark obeyed, and almost instantly felt a pair of scorching lines appear in a cross over his back, from one shoulder to the opposite hip. He tried to keep still and not show his pain, clenching his eyes and teeth against it. He took a shaky breath before opening his eyes again.

“I’ve had worse,” he muttered, clenching and opening his fingers. He was doing his best to hold his magic, knowing that no matter what it did, it would end up worse for him. If you don’t hate me, you’ll hold back and leave her alone.

Amazingly, the magic’s intensity held off slightly. It obviously would have preferred to attack the woman with everything it had, but something kept it away. Maybe it realised that if it couldn’t kill Mark by itself, it wouldn’t be able to kill the Red Magician either. Whatever the reason was, Mark visibly relaxed, the look of shocked curiosity unseen by his captor.

“Do you have control over it yet?” the woman demanded.

Mark shook his head. “Like I’ve said several times before,” he said with strained patience, “It’s too bloody strong.”

In an instant, the glinting ruby-tinted blade sliced straight down his spine. Like with the first two, he felt it pulling his skin apart almost a full second before the sharp, stinging pain hit him, but still he didn’t scream out.

He took another shaky breath before speaking to the Red Magician. “I’m doing my best here to stop the stuff from attacking you. To be honest you’re really not helping.” He flexed his fingers almost continuously, trying to settle the magic that he could feel radiating from them.

“Turn around,” the woman ordered again.

Slowly, Mark obeyed her, but she said nothing more. Instead she stepped forwards, closing the distance between them until Mark could see himself reflected in her odd-coloured jewels and eyes.

“You do not answer back, you do not disobey.” Her voice was soft and dangerous, and Mark swore he could see a flame behind each eye, burning with held-back anger. “Is that clear?”

“Obviously you didn’t get me the first time,” Mark began, “so I’ll say it again. Your people have told me that magic can pretty much not be seen unless it’s really strong.” He held up his right hand, glaring through his flickering fingers at her. “I can see mine through the skin. I’ve only known about the stuff for, what, a month and a half? And you think I can control it? Fat bloody chance.”

He dropped his hand by his side again, but not before it let out a puff of an opaline smoky substance that evaporated into the air like a breath of fog. Mark tried not to show his shock, but he had a feeling it was as plain on his face as on the face of the woman standing less than half a metre from him.

Regardless of the danger that was in front of her, the woman glared back with the same fiery eyes as before. “We’re going back to the waterfall. If by then you still have no control, you will remain there until you do. Either way, I will kill every human on this island. Now move.” She jerked her head in the direction of the waterfall, pushing Mark along with her sword tip. Llaeka, where the hell are you?

Twelve