Okay, the summary pretty much says it all. It's twisty, intense, fluffy, finished, and hopefully decent - I'm the process of editing. Each chapter about 2500 - 3000 words. Reviews are cuddled like they're my own personal Numair.
Disclaimer: Everything you recognize belongs to Tamora Peirce. This applies to this chapter and every single chapter in the fic, because I don't want to put a disclaimer for every chapter. Consider them all disclaimed.
I hope you enjoy!
Daine snarled and tried to launch herself at the man before her, a monarch covered in gold and jewels; elegant silks and glittering green magic. Teeu, a strong, lithe hyena, whirled around to the Emperor Mage's back, trying to get a bite on his rear. Iry and Aranh attempted to claw his sides. But all three hyenas - and the one human in hyena form - were thrown back as an emerald barrier appeared between them and their foe.
Hissing at Ozorne, the hyenas dropped back to circle him menacingly. Daine could see the sweat on his face - he was probably tiring from loss of blood and overusing his Gift. It didn't help he was terrified of hyenas as well. Ozorne smiled grimly and sent a bolt of green fire at each of the hyenas in turn. Teeu and her two packmates howled and fell to the ground, motionless. The last green bolt hit Daine squarely between the eyes, but it felt like a mere shock, and she continued to growl at Ozorne.
"Perfect," the mage said. "Now I know which is our darling Veralidaine."
Daine blanched. She didn't think he would be able to single her out like this. Stunned, she almost missed the emperor dropping his shielding spell. Daine was barely able to gather her wits in time to leap at Ozorne, baring her sharp teeth.
"That's not very nice, my dear," Ozorne said, side-stepping out of the way faster than Daine would have believed possible. Before Daine could whip around to face him again, a strong green net of magic was flung over her with the force of a tidal wave. Gasping, Daine realized that Ozorne's stores of magic must have been higher than she thought. She cursed to herself, struggling inside the emerald net.
Ozorne's face appeared in her line of sight. "You escaped me once already, Veralidaine. I must be assured that it will not happen again." His voice grew softer, and more intense. "I must be assured that you will wreak no more havoc in my world."
He raised a hand and more emerald fire collected in his palm. "I will have to dispose of you. In a difficult way. Just like I did with your traitor teacher, Master Salmalin."
Numair, Daine thought desperately. She thrashed violently against her bonds, rage and grief coursing through her at the sound of Numair's name. Ozorne was the man that killed him, her teacher, her closest friend, Ozorne was inches away -
Ozorne noticed her reaction and the cruelest smile Daine had ever seen spread across his face. "You loved him," he said wickedly. "Just as he loved you. But that's over now, dear."
Daine saw Ozorne raise the hand that was full of emerald fire, then everything went dark.
Hurrying down the ruined corridor of the palace, Numair cursed violently. Bodies of the palace guards who were not smart enough to get out of a furious wildmage's path were strewn all across the smoldering hallways, along with large piles of ash, rubble, and fallen decorations.
How could he have let this happen? He should never have left Daine alone, when he had known Ozorne was going to target her. Now he had no idea of knowing whether or not Daine was safe. Now she must think I'm dead, he thought bitterly. He couldn't believe he had neglected to tell Daine about his simulacrum. Knowing from the start of this trip that there was no way a man like Ozorne would have let him return to Carthak with a clean slate, Numair had planned for the eventuality that he would need a copy of himself. But it never crossed his mind to tell Daine this, for he had never thought he would have to let his simulacrum get executed.
Numair nearly slipped in a pool of blood on his next step and cursed again. Where was she? He had to find her, had to get out of this infernal country -
Piercing shrieks suddenly rang throughout the palace, every animal yelling or cawing or roaring in fury. Daine, Numair thought instantly.
He gasped in pain as something hard slammed unexpectedly into his side. Whipping around, Numair called his Gift to his hands, surrounding them with black fire and pointing them at a terrified guard who was holding a bloody sword. Disoriented, Numair felt a sting in side. The blood on the sword was his.
Numair didn't stop to think – there wasn't enough time – and he pushed out his Gift, killing the man instantly. Animals were still screaming around them - meaning Daine was still in danger. Ignoring the wound in his side - the pain was lessening; the cut wasn't deep - Numair pushed through the wreckage of the Imperial Palace.
Where would Ozorne take her? It couldn't be the regular dungeons; Daine could have broken out of them easily on her own. He closed his eyes, trying to remember where else they held prisoners. Think.
A young man with dark skin, dark eyes, and dark hair walked briskly down a gloomy-looking passageway, glancing back over his shoulder every now and then. "Come on now, Arram," he said. "It's not much farther."
Arram moaned and dragged his feet. "I don't like this, Ozorne," he said. "We shouldn't be around here at all, let alone at night. Your father will be furious if he catches us."
"Well, he won't catch us then, will he?" Ozorne opened a door and began down a steep flight of stairs. Shadows and spiders were horribly abundant.
Arram followed with his eyes narrowed. "Why are we coming here?"
Eventually the pair emerged into a shady room. There were no windows, only grey stone and streakmarks where water dripped down from the mossy ceiling above. It felt damp and musty, and was obviously not inhabited by anything other than rats.
"Where are we?" Arram asked. Part of him didn't want to know.
"Under the menagerie."
"Again, why - "
Arram stopped suddenly. In the dim, sourceless light, the young mage caught sight of familiar marks engraved into the walls, ceiling, and floor of the room. Instantly he recognized the runes.
"You can't do this," Arram said, his voice low. "Do you know how much power those hold? Just one is enough to take hold of someone's spirit or magic or soul, whatever you want to call it, never let it go-"
"I know," Ozorne said. "Which makes this the best place for prisoners, right?"
"What are you thinking?" Arram hissed. "Trap people here who are too good for the regular dungeons?"
"That's an idea," Ozorne said thoughtfully. "Because when I activate the symbols in here, the prisoner would never be able to leave. Without tearing their soul apart."
Ozorne's eyes bored into Arram's. Arram suddenly realized what Ozorne meant to do; why he was here.
He turned around and ran.
Numair snapped his eyes open. As suddenly as the memory had appeared, he knew where Daine was. Ozorne was going to try to trap her through her magic, permanently, as he has tried to trap Numair all those years ago.
Wild magic isn't governed like the Gift, he told himself as he ran towards the menagerie. Perhaps it can't be trapped and constrained.
It was his last hope - he flung open the nondescript door that lay by the menagerie entrance, and gazed into the dark stairwell he had descended so long ago. For a fleeting moment he stood there, frozen, but an animal shrieked overhead and he was reminded of why he was there. Gritting his teeth, Numair dashed down the narrow stairs that were infinitely too long.
A vast field of flowers stretched before her. Green dominated the land, but there were so many blooms that yellow, pink, and purple almost took the top spot. The sky glimmered a cloudless blue – it was like paradise, except there were no animals. By a large tree stood a woman Daine knew instantly, and a man she had seen only a few times. He had streaks of green in his tan skin, antlers protruding out of his curly brown hair, a bow slung across his back.
"Ma," Daine said. The voice that came from her mouth was that of a child's. "Ma… Da?"
The antlered man suddenly vanished. Daine frowned.
"Is he… not my da, then?"
Sarra only reached out a hand toward Daine. The girl leaned forward, trying to grasp it, but then Sarra disappeared too.
"No!" Daine yelled. "Ma! Ma!"
Something was pulling her away from the warm meadow. It tugged at her spirit, making her cry in agony. Claws ripped into her very essence, and the spring of copper fire inside her pulsed, as if angry. Daine tried to pull away from the mysterious force that gripped her, but nothing worked. Nothing.
Numair sent a streaming ball of black fire at Ozorne, instantly taking in the scene around him – the same cell, the same runes. Ozorne whipped around, his hands frozen in the half-completed design that would activate his magic. Numair panted with the effort of keeping Ozorne's hands fully immobilized.
The emperor mage's face went pale in terror. "No!" he screeched. "I killed you! I watched you die!"
"Didn't do a very good job of it, did you?" said Numair, circling around Ozorne. He stepped carefully so that he kept his body between the emperor's and Daine's.
Ozorne's face contorted into a sneer. "Come to rescue your true love? The damsel in distress?"
Numair growled, taking a step forward. "Stop this now, Ozorne, and maybe I'll let you live."
"You wouldn't have the guts to kill, Draper," the emperor hissed. "You never had what it took to be a war mage."
Ozorne knows nothing about me, Numair realized. He could use this to his advantage. Pretending to falter and hesitate, Numair let his spell on Ozorne's hands weaken - by just the slightest fraction. And just as he predicted, Ozorne felt it, and broke through the weakened magic in a bright burst of emerald mage-fire.
"Ha!" Ozorne screeched, tracing symbols in the air again. "I am more powerful! I hold you captive here! She will be mine, and you will die, Draper!"
Egotistical fool. Swiftly, before Ozorne could react, Numair swept his leg around, ramming his foot above the emperor mage's knee, just as Alanna had taught him back at home.
"Your enemy will crumple like paper if you strike in the right place. Everyone needs to know practical defense. Even you, a black robe mage."
Numair had pouted and complained at the time, but Alanna had insisted on teaching him the fundamentals of unarmed defense and basic swordplay. Now he was glad he learned: Ozorne was only expecting magical attacks from his former friend. The stupid, self-consumed emperor refused to believe that Numair could ever have more talent than him in any aspect at all. Falling to the ground, Ozorne cursed, his control over the spell slipping. The pulsing marks in the walls began to fade.
Numair forced his magic over Ozorne, freezing the emperor's entire body in place instantly. "Give me a reason," said Numair, his voice low and deadly. He barely recognized himself. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you."
Ozorne couldn't move anything but his eyes. He flicked them from side to side, but obviously could not find a way out. Numair saw the man's black eyes fill with hatred and, more clearly, fear.
"Just as I thought," said Numair, endeavoring to keep his voice light and friendly this time. "There aren't any good reasons. Goodbye, Emperor Mage."
But before Numair could use his Gift to force the life out of the emperor, a flash of green light illuminated the chamber. A piercing screech cut through the air, an awful grating noise like nothing Numair had ever heard. Behind his eyelids, he could sense the blinding light had fading, and he snapped his eyes open.
Ozorne had disappeared. Only a small pile of ashes remained where the emperor had been.
Strange, Numair thought with a frown. He shouldn't have been able to manage an incineration spell in that state. And the sound….
A small whimper made him turn. Twitching and moaning, Daine stirred as she woke, still in hyena form. Numair rushed over to her, crouching. Even with her in animal form, he could tell. He could tell she was upset.
"Daine," he whispered, extending a hand. "Daine, it's alright, he's gone. Wake up. Wake up, you're going to be safe - "
The hyena howled and before Numair could look away, a very human and very unclothed Daine sat mere inches away from him.
Numair's breath caught in his throat.
"No," Daine whispered, terrified. "It can't be, you're dead, you're Ozorne, tricking me again!"
Numair Salmalin stood before her, breathing heavily. He turned his face away.
"It's me, magelet," he said, shrugging his cloak off his shoulders as he knelt in front of her. He held it out, but Daine didn't take it – she was frozen.
It's not possible. It's an illusion, a sima-thing….
The mage threw her his cloak instead of waiting for her to take it. Snatching it instantly, Daine pressed the soft fabric to her face and breathed. It smelled of him – that spicy scent she couldn't really place. She slipped it over her shoulders, tried to open her mouth, and no words came out.
Numair looked her straight in the eyes now. "Ozorne killed my simulacrum. Though, not killed, I suppose, because it was never actually alive, was it? I stayed at the University, undercover, with Lindhall."
Daine took a deep breath, steeling herself. If he's actually dead, and I'm just fooling myself, I can't get any more broken than I am now.
Nothing to lose. Everything to gain.
Holding out a tentative hand, Daine placed it carefully on Numair's chest. Under her tense fingers, his heart was beating rapidly – strong, alive, and human.
"Horse Lords, Numair, I thought - I thought - " Daine flung her arms around his shoulders while Numair lifted her off the ground in a crushing hug, his arms strong and warm.
"It's okay, magelet," he said. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I should have, I meant to…."
"You just forgot," Daine smiled. It was so like Numair to forget something like that. All of a sudden, she knew without a doubt – it was him, her teacher and her closest friend, alive.
"Mithros," Numair said, setting her down. "Daine, Goddess bless, I'm glad you're safe."
"Me?" Daine said with a poke to his chest. "You were the one thought dead, dolt!"
"And you were the one with the power-crazed emperor chasing after you - "
Daine gasped. "Wait - Ozorne! Where is he? Where did he go? The - the hyenas - "
Teeu and Iry and Aranh. Ozorne killed them. Tears for her friends started to form behind her eyes, but Daine pushed them back determinedly, filled with a level of hatred she had never felt before. I'll get him. I'll get him for hurting my friends.
Numair pulled her into another hug. "I'm sorry, magelet. But - Ozorne is gone. For now."
For now? Daine shook her head to clear it. The hyenas had loved helping her track down Ozorne, hadn't they? They'd loved the last minutes of their lives. Daine sighed. Now she and Numair were stuck in Carthak, their friends had gone home, and the Imperial Palace had been almost completely destroyed. By me.
They certainly had plenty of problems.