Lyrics taken from Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) by Florence and The Machines.
I hope you enjoy!
I look around but I can't find you
If only I could see your face
Instead of rushing towards the skyline
I wish that I could just be brave
It was a prank, that was all. A brilliant, inconsequential, reckless prank that went terribly wrong.
Chatoya had known about it, vaguely. Josh had made something, or taken something, or done something. Whatever the something was, her twin walked a little taller for it.
His friends slapped him on the back. They looked at him with a kind of awe. She only looked at him as she always did – as her annoying, insufferable, ever-so-slightly older brother.
The hubbub died down. Josh kept a bit of a swagger in his step, and still wouldn't say what it was he'd done to earn such accolades. He shut himself in his room a lot, but that was nothing new.
Soon, she forgot about it. The days dissolved into friends and school and the unending drama of who'd said this and who'd done that.
Until one night, it all ended.
That was all Chatoya heard before he shoved her out of the way, making a shield of his body. There was a sound like silk ripping and it registered dimly on her panicked mind that her brother was twisting on the blades, his face a horrific rictus of pain.
She was frozen, caught in the moonlight like a rabbit in the gleam of a predator's eyes.
The assassins tore Josh to pieces without a word. They weren't elaborate, no flourishes of knives, no graceful movements. They were economical. You could look at them and know they were people who killed for a living.
And she was next.
Her foot slid back a step and Chatoya hesitated. She shouldn't leave him. She couldn't. Fear and love were ballast, pinning her to the spot while her heart hammered inside her ribcage.
They dropped him into a puddle of his own blood as if he was litter. A cry tore from her, raw and shrill. She didn't hear it: she was nothing but a mess of denial and grief and terror.
Make it a dream, a mirage, a trick. Anything but this.
Her brother looked at her, his hair mussed and dirty. There was blood on his shoes, she noticed distantly, and he'd hate that. They were new. He'd saved for weeks, taking jobs with any witch who needed cheap labour.
There was blood on his shoes, and on his lips and in lurid red ribbons on his skin.
Toya – run. You have to run. He felt flimsy as a cobweb on her senses, as if he might blow away on the breeze. Please. I've got a spell – but you can't be here. You can't.
Looking into his eyes was like watching fabric unravel itself.
I won't leave you...
She felt the crackle of magic then, heavy and potent. Go, he ordered. I'll be fine.
She wanted to choke on her laughter, but too late – she was choking on tears. She could feel the menace in the spell he wove around himself. You're lying.
Only a bit. Toya, please! Go…gods, go…
The assassins had seen her: cold eyes turned to her, throwing back the blind blank moon.
His voice was savage with desperation. GO!
Behind her, she heard footsteps, swift and determined. Metal clattered on the ground and then suddenly heat scorched a trail up her back. Screams were drowned in the roar of fire, a warcry of blood and smoke and horror.
She would never know another night like this; when familiar suburbs held shadows that seem to spring at her. Where she ran forever, tear-blinded and terrified, where every breath seared her lungs.
She ran all night and when the dawn came, her hands were bloody from hauling herself over walls and fences. Her long legs ached with every movement, muscles overtaxed.
And when she returned to her house that morning, bruised, battered and broken, they were waiting for her. Through the window she saw her parents' silhouettes and their pale, grim faces. She saw too, the lean black figures of the killers who had taken her brother and who now had taken her parents.
Her home was no longer hers. She was truly alone. There was nowhere left, nowhere except...
When the girl staggered into Gatajri Jubatus's office, the shapeshifter woman's first thought was that there had been some dreadful accident.
It turned out to be the truth.
One of the PAs followed Chatoya, dabbing at her with tissue, as if that could clean off the swathes of blood and mud and rain, his face anxious. "She says she know you," he said. "I mean – I know I shouldn't have, but she said – and look at her, and, and I didn't know what else..."
"Chatoya?" Gata asked, flummoxed. "Gods – what on earth happened?"
She'd always thought Bev and Ray's daughter cool and collected: but the eyes turned to her were dazed and hopeless and fragmented. Chatoya's voice was a choked rasp. "Josh – and knives and oh gods, oh gods...Mom, they took my mom..."
And as if someone had cut the strings holding her up, she slumped to the floor. The PA fluttered about her, patting, mumbling trite condolences and glancing up at Gatajri with sheer panic all over his face.
Whatever had happened, it had to be handled quickly and cautiously.
"Get me a witch," ordered Gata. "Either Arji or Damal, but preferably Arji. Ignore any questions – I'll handle it later. Close the door, please."
It soon became clear what had happened from the witch's distraught mental broadcast. Over and over, Gatajri watched as Josh Irkil forced his sister out of the way and launched his body into the blades. Not, she was sure, through any act of heroism. Simply because his instinct to protect his sister from the mess he had made was greater than anything else.
And her heart sank when she saw the men who led Chatoya's parents away. She only recognised one of them from the briefings she'd attended, but it was enough to tell her who was hunting down the Irkils so relentlessly: the Furies.
They were assassins, and they were expensive. They wouldn't stop until they had Chatoya.
But Gatajri wouldn't give her up. She owed it to Beverly and Ray. They'd been like parents to her when she couldn't go to her own. They'd never know...they'd never escape the Furies. But if their daughter could, surely that meant something.
"There's not much else I can do," Arji Hejazi said, standing with a grimace. She usually had an easy smile, but it was nowhere to be seen. "Lots of rest, Gata, good food – and a good therapist."
She'd been prompt, as she always was, her face full of interest. But one look at Chatoya, and professional curiosity had been replaced by dismay. Arji was the best healer Gata knew, and by far the most discreet.
Cuts had shrivelled beneath a wash of witched lights, bruises flowered and faded, and even a few of the tangles in Chatoya's black hair eased free. At last, a soft touch had put the girl to sleep, curled up on the leather chair in Gata's office.
"There's no time for that." Gata sighed. "The Furies are involved. Exactly how long do you think it'll be before they find her?"
Arji's brown eyes widened. "What on earth did she do to deserve that?"
"No idea. I need to get her away from here."
"More upheaval?" The witch's lips drew thin. "That's the last thing she needs. She's fragile as it is – I don't want to think what thrusting her into a new place with a bunch of strangers might do. Gatajri, she's barely a breath from madness. There's power inside her – she'll be a strong witch, a good witch if she has the chance and the training. I don't want to think about that power turned loose if her mind shatters." She swallowed hard. "Don't make her another Jenny."
Poor Jenny, shut away in soft-walled rooms that soaked up the wild bursts of her magic.
"She can't stay here. As it is I need you to erase half a dozen people's memories."
"Which I'll do. But there must be something left of her old life-"
Gatajri stared her down, steadfast. "Nothing. Her brother's dead. The Furies have her parents. She can't stay – sooner or later, my name will slip out. My connections are good enough to keep them from trying violence, but I need to be squeaky clean, and Chatoya needs to be a long way from here." She paused: Arji wouldn't like this. "That's why I need you to use the spell."
"Not another!" Arji snapped. "It's not a tool. Do you know how much trouble I'll be in if the Elders find out?"
Gata smiled, letting her teeth show slightly as a polished reminder of just how much trouble she could be. "You are an Elder. You're the only one who can - and will - work this, Arji. Please. Look at her. She can't stay here, but you're right – I don't want her to become like Jenny. Do you think she can live like this?"
Arji shook her head. "She just needs time, Gatajri. Give her time to deal with this. She'll learn to cope. Children are stronger than you think."
Chatoya was fourteen, only the knife edge between child and adult. Less of a child now: she had lost so much.
"She doesn't have time," pointed out Gata. The threat of the Furies hung unspoken in the air. "The Nightworld want her any way they can get her. They don't care how young she is. She's a thousand forms of entertainment, none of them pleasant."
"I know." Arji said, her hand clenching. The wedding ring on her right hand had no matching partner; that was buried with her husband, sunk into wormy earth back in Turkey. "It's the spell I object to, Gata. It siphons away pain, and yes, sometimes it is necessary. But only sometimes. I don't want to do this to a child – grief is part of life. We all lose, and it's our price for love. She will never be able to grieve. There'll be no sorrow, no anger, true – but no joy either, no ecstasy. No love."
Her patience was wearing thinner with each second. "Do you think I don't know that? I've lived under your 'unnecessary' spell for five years now. Remember, Arji? And I lived with the pain, too, I lived wishing it would end and knowing it wouldn't. Spare me a lecture on grief."
"You can't possibly comprehend the effect it will have on her."
Wrong, Gatajri thought in the calm depths of her mind. I understand better than you know. "I don't pay you to discuss possibilities. Cast the spell. I don't want to see her like this."
"Why?" Arji instantly fixed on the point. "Does it rouse some small spark of pity in you, Gatajri? Emotion frightens you, I know that. But don't deny this girl hers! Spells are easier cast than undone."
"You didn't see what she's been through. I've known this girl's parents since I was a child. I've watched Chatoya grow up and you're right, she will be a good witch one day. But not if we leave her like this. Cast the damn spell, Arji, and take your moral dilemma to someone who's interested."
The witch said nothing more, but her mouth set in a sullen line as she crossed to the girl and gently put her hands on her temples. Gata felt the air tighten as Arji began the spell.
No one could endure that loss, she told herself. Not without help. This was best for Chatoya, and best for all of them.
The spell took time to work and needed constant replenishing. Every day, in the sanctuary of the safe house, Arji returned to reinforce the mental blocks, to take away the pain of the girl's memories.
A fortnight passed, every day too long for Gatajri, who awaited the polite knock of the Furies on her door each morning as she quietly made preparations for the witch's exodus.
At last Chatoya was as safe as she could be. It was time to discuss her future – to make sure that she had one.
She smiled and welcomed the girl in. The bruises were gone, the torment buried deep and dark and she was left with this calm, unemotional creature. Gata dismissed any last doubts. No one should have to feel pain.
"Are you absolutely sure, Chatoya? There's no chance he survived?" Those green eyes held the heady glow of beryl, really rather beautiful. They were the only softness in Gatajri's strong face.
"They stabbed him," she said tiredly. In her mind, the memory spooled out with movie clarity, oddly distant. "Dozens of times. It was enough. And if it hadn't been, he cast a spell, one he couldn't survive. I don't know how he even managed - Josh doesn't have that sort of power. Didn't, I mean. They might not have killed him, but he finished it."
Her breath caught but the flood of expected tears never came. Where was the pain? Shouldn't she feel something? Anything?
"Chatoya, I don't know anything about magic. You know that. But I know about the Nightworld and I know a place where you'll be safe." Tentatively, the shapeshifter leaned over and patted Chatoya's hand.
She's trying, Chatoya thought deep in that rational, glacial part of her. She's never been any good at emotions... but she's trying.
"Why are you helping me?"
Gatajri sighed. "I owe your family a debt. And you're the only one I can pay it to." Then her stern mouth eased into a smile. "And maybe you remind me a little of my brother, the daft kitten. I've seen you both grow up, and I always wished I'd introduced you. Well – now's my chance."
Chatoya looked at this enigmatic woman, who she hardly knew at all. She was the daughter of the most powerful people this side of the Mississippi, yet she'd toss away her connections and her power for nothing more than a witch who reminded her of her brother.
And this brother...this daft kitten. He was the only person she'd ever seen bring a smile to Gatajri Jubatus.
Gata swung the computer screen around so Chatoya could see. There was a map and on it, a tiny asterisk glowed in green. She tapped it. "Ryars Valley."
"I've never heard of it."
Gata laughed, but it was a brittle sound. "Good – then we've been successful. It's a very well kept secret among a few of us who need a place to send our miscreant siblings and friends. Once you enter there, you can't leave. Unless you get a ticket courtesy of the angels."
"Angels?" Chatoya stared back. "I get the feeling we're not talking wings, clouds and nudity?"
"If only," Gata murmured. "No, I mean the organisation that go by that name. The angels are a society of people like myself. We don't really care whose side we're on, but we look after people. If you'd been a human, I would have helped you. If you'd been a vampire running from hunters, I would have."
Chatoya frowned. "I never saw you as the charity type."
"I'm not. But I did something once that I'm not proud of, and this is my penance. You have your own penance, I'd guess. You might as well join and work it off that way."
"I don't need penance," Chatoya said in a low voice. But she was lying. Of course she was. Josh had died and she had lived.
"As you will." The shapeshifter's voice was nonchalant. "But what I'm offering you is the chance to make a difference – while the angels try to find the people who killed your family. You have the opportunity to leave the valley if you need to." She sank back in the leather chair. "Think it over."
The asterisk blinked on and off. Hidden. Secret. Waiting. What else did she have to cling to? "Okay," she said softly. "Send me there."
Gatajri Jubatus nodded. "My pleasure."
I must become
The lion-hearted girl, ready for a fight
Before I make the final sacrifice
Thank you for reading - comments adored!