Apr 05

The Arcane | Chapter Four: They Were Human

    Bluewhen sat down next to the hearth, gestured for me and Miles to seat ourselves, and said in a raspy whisper, “The shadows are alive.” She waved her fingers for added spooky effect.
    We stared at her. “Um…” Miles started.
    Bluewhen looked disappointed. “I’d thought you’d be a bit more frightened.”
    I tried to appear scared. I probably looked ill. “They’re alive? As in living or as in sentient?”
    “Both!” Bluewhen said, nodding. “Well, actually it’s all one Shadow. The power of a dragon from the Otherworld.”
    “Dragons are real?” I gasped.
    Bluewhen sighed. “They’re not supposed to be real in this world. But one was let in. And now the Shadow’s Vale is covered in darkness.”
    “There’s a tale that the Vale used to be a Faerie Wood,” I said, remembering my mother’s stories. “But almost a thousand years ago it filled with darkness so fast all the creatures inside were turned into monsters. The Vale still advances, but very slowly.”
    Bluewhen nodded. “Yes, that’s all true. Every creature that lives in the Vale was either turned by the Shadow or a descendant of those who turned. Except for me, of course.” She giggled.
    Miles leaned forward. “So, what were the vix, before?”
    “Wild boar,” Bluewhen answered.
    His head bobbed side to side in agreement. “That makes sense. What about the reen?”
    “Bats.”
    “Water lurks?”
    “They were the nymphs and merfolk.”
    He paused. “Arcanes?”
    Bluewhen chuckled under her breath. “They were human.”
    I was shocked. They used to be people? Miles’ true form slid over his skin. His claws dug into the chair he sat on. “I was human?”
    Bluewhen clucked like a hen. “Oh, of course. But arcanes are different from the other creatures. They were not made during the Turning. Humans always enter the Shadow’s Vale in search of magic. If they find it and take it, the Shadow tries to reclaim what is its. If the human cannot find the way out, the blackness inside them spreads until they, too, are a part of the Shadow. They do not remember who they were. It’s why arcanes hunger for human souls; they want what they’ve lost.” She picked up Caligro and scratched him behind the ears. “They are called arcanes, because they do not know who they are.”
    I watched Miles, who was inspecting his black claws. Suddenly he stood, and without a word, left the wildwitch’s cottage. Bluewhen watched him shut the door, still petting Caligro. The cat glared at me like: What are you waiting for? A written invitation?
    The cat was right. I stood and followed my companion.
  
 Miles was shredding pinecones again when I found him.
    “They should call you the Terror of Seedpods,” I said. “What did that poor cone ever do to you?”
    The last bits of tortured pinecone fell from his claws. “I was human. I had a name. I had a family. Why-” A crack spiderwebbed through his hollow voice. “Why would I ever let that go? What was wrong with me? What’s wrong with you?”
    “Me?”
    He growled in exasperation. “Yes, you! Why do humans want magic so much? Enough to leave their current lives and risk their souls?”
    I frowned. “It’s magic. Of course we want it!”
    He closed his black, black eyes. “There’s more important things to be greedy about.”
    “Like family?” I said, my voice mocking.
    He shot to his feet. Standing, he was at least ten centimeters taller than me, ten more centimeters of angry, deadly monster. I flinched in fear. “Yes! People are important! But I supposed it’ll take five hundred years of being alone for you to understand.” His fangs snapped a hairsbreadth from my face. “It’s horrible, being this. Why would you ever risk it? Go home.”
    I drew myself up and set my jaw. “At home, I’m nothing. I’m just a farmer’s daughter. No one cares if we live or die. But if I have magic, I can be someone.”
    “You’re someone to your family,” Miles spat. “Isn’t that enough?”
    I paused, remembering how my parents and sister had begged me not to go. I’d had to sneak out. They were probably worried sick about me.
    “Go home, Minnow,” Miles pressed. “And live.”
    I glared, trying not to let him convince me. “You wouldn’t understand.”
    “Understand what,” he spat.
    “Being poor. Going hungry. Bone-cold in the winter. It sucks. I’m sick of it.” I fisted my hands. “I’m not going to struggle through it anymore; I’m going to fix it!”
    “Then learn something! Bake or make clothes or whatever! Become a money lender! There’s millions of ways to get a more comfortable life that don’t involve creeping through a forest that wants to kill you!”
    “I’ve been fine so far.”
    “That’s because I’ve been there to save your sorry butt!”
    “I kept you from killing me!”
    He yelled in exasperation. “I wasn’t trying to kill you in the first place!” Miles pointed at my waist, where my knife hung tied to the tight band of my dress. “All you’ve got is that. What’re you going to do, poke the beast? You might as well wield a letter opener-”
    “Oh, shut up!” I screamed. I was exhausted and I missed the sun and- yes- I wanted to go home. Angry tears pricked the corners of my eyes. “Just stop talking!” I turned my back to him and took deep breaths, refusing to cry. I wouldn’t cry.
    Crap, I was crying.
    I sniffled, wiping my nose with the back of my hand. Miles had gone silent behind me. I could feel him staring. Here I was, in some dark, dark woods with only a monster for company, no solid plan, and a letter opener for a weapon. Lord, I just wanted my mom.
    Miles’ taloned hand patted my awkwardly on the shoulder. “Um, sorry,” he mumbled. “I didn’t mean- I guess I yelled a bit loud…”
    I scrubbed my eyes furiously and whipped around. “I’d say so. Why don’t you just stay out of my business?”
    “Oh, come on, Minnow, why won’t you listen? Go home and do something productive with your life.”
    My mouth opened and closed for words, but I had none. I really, really missed my bed. His argument was starting to get to me, and I realized how much I wanted to see my house again, even our sole, stupid cow that always kicked me when I tried to milk her. I gazed past Miles at the lurking shadows. The shadows that turned things into monsters. The shadows that were slowly spreading like a plague into the human lands.
    The shadows that had turned Miles.
    “What about you?”
    He hadn’t been expecting that. “What about me?” he demanded.
    “You’re stuck as an arcane. Can you leave?”
    He fidgeted. “Yes, I can leave. But it’s… hard. Part of me tries to stay in the Shadowvale. It’s best if I remain.”
    I glared. “So- what? You can tell me to bug off and go home but I can’t say the same thing to you?”
    “I’m already lost, Minnow. You’re not.”
    “What if I could help you? What if we could banish the Shadow?”
    He shook his head. “It’s probably impossible.”
    I planted my fists on my hips. “You don’t know anything. I’m asking Bluewhen.”
    Miles sighed, but reluctantly followed me back to the wildwitch’s cottage. I knocked my skirts out of the way and shoved the door open. “Bluewhen!” I called. “Is there any way to get rid of the Shadow?”
    She blinked up from her pile of shells, then gave a surprised smile. “Oh, my little fish! Will you be the one to lift the darkness?” She scrambled over, Osprey at her heels. “It’s simple, really. Kill the dragon.”
    The wind fluttered out of my sails. “Killing a dragon is simple?” I demanded, my voice breaking high on the last word.
    “It’s deep deeply asleep,” Bluewhen assured us. “Won’t put up a fight.”
    “Asleep?” Miles asked. “How do you know?”
    “I put it there. To slow the spread of its Shadow.”
    I slipped into the cottage as Bluewhen moved to close the door behind us. “If it’s that simple, why hasn’t anyone killed it yet?”
    Bluewhen looked uncomfortable. “Well, getting to the dragon’s nest isn’t exactly… easy. In fact, it’s very difficult. Broken earth, cliffs- not to mention the things that live down in the Maw.”
    “This just gets better and better,” Miles grumbled. “Minnow, it’s a suicide mission.”
    I patted his arm. “Not if I have a big, nasty arcane with me. Besides, it’s not just about helping you. The Shadow is spreading. If I can stop it, it’ll save people.” I peered at him. “You are coming. Right?”
    He sighed. “I get the sense you’ll poke me with your letter opener if I don’t, so I suppose so. But-”
    “My spell is weakening,” Bluewhen interrupted. “It won’t be long until the dragon awakens. Then everybody will be unhappy.”
    I spread my arms, turning to Miles. “See? I get magic, which I want, and save a bunch of people, which everyone wants. It’s a win-win.”
    He frowned. “I still think it’s a stupid idea. But if you want to get killed, fine by me.”
    I made a face at him. “That’s not what you said earlier. But whatever, arcane. We should get going. I don’t want to be searching for a safe place to sleep at midnight.”
    “You can sleep here,” Bluewhen said. “I promise it’s safe. No wandering beasts. Except for him, of course.” She tottered around, pulling blankets out of cupboards and piling them on the floor near the fire. Before long she’d made some sort of nest. “That’s for you,” she told me.
    I gave Miles a questioning look. “I don’t sleep,” he answered.
    “Ah.”
    I made my way to the makeshift bed, dodging books and cats on the way. Behind me, the door thudded shut as Miles left to wander the wildwitch’s clearing. Being the only one awake must be boring- but maybe he was used to it by now. I supposed he had been alone for several centuries.
    I undid the strings holding the front of my apron closed, sighing in relief when I was able to inhale fully again. I slipped off the blouse and curled up on the blankets in the sleeveless dress. It was cool and loose and actually quite comfortable. As I pulled a heavy quilt over myself, I felt a surge of relief that I wouldn’t need to sleep with my knife pressed to my ribs.

    The room was dark when I awoke, the fire only embers and the Shadowvale’s dawn not bright enough to pierce the gloom. Slowly my eyes focused, picking out a strange shape at the table. It moved, and I caught a glimpse of wicked claws.
    My elbow banged against the floor as I startled back. The monster leaned over and resolved itself as Miles. “Whoops,” he whispered. “I did it again, didn’t I?”
    I took deep breaths through the adrenaline rush. “You really have to stop scaring me when I wake up.”
    “It’s not like I mean to.”
    I blew hair out of my face and glanced at Bluewhen’s empty bed. “Where is she?”
    “She took Osprey into the forest. Something about getting water.”
    I sat up all the way, my long, unbound hair sliding over my shoulders. “Are my clothes dry yet?”
    Miles tossed a shirt in my face. “Everything but your boots. They’re still a little damp.”
    I made a face. “Gross. They’re going to smell. This is all your fault.”
    “I regret nothing.”
    “Oh, really. Where’s my knife?”
    Miles spluttered. “I’m not telling!”
    Chuckling to myself, I kicked off the blankets and stood, the dress swaying about my ankles. Miles scanned me from my mussed hair to my bare- and slightly dirty- feet. “You don’t really look like a maiden anymore.”
    “Oh, sor-ry.”
    I gathered up my clothes and headed for the outhouse. When I shut the little wood door, now in my comfortable, warm traveling clothes, I saw Bluewhen returning with a large pail of water. It must’ve been very heavy, but she carried it like nothing. Beside her, Osprey was no more than a black whisp in the early morning mist. She smiled brightly when she saw me. “Oh, goodie. My little fish is awake. Breakfast is coming, get inside and sit yourself down.”
    When I entered the cottage, Miles’ back was turned as he added wood to the now crackling fire. He’d taken off his dark blue jacket and now wore only his loose grey shirt, revealing that he was more slender than I’d thought. Smooth, sleek muscles showed in his arms where he’d rolled back the sleeves. He turned as we entered, skin warming to chocolate and his cat ears shrinking to human-sized. “I rebuilt the fire,” he said unnecessarily. “I figured you’d need it, Bluewhen.”
    “Yes, yes, very much. Thanks, thank you.” As she wandered away to pour some of her water in a pot to boil, I tried to shake off the realization that I’d been staring at Miles. It wasn’t like he was that nice to look at, right? And even if he was, he was a monster and not staring-at material. I must’ve been tired.
    “Here you go.”
    I jumped. Bluewhen had crept up behind me, and now she held out a hairbrush. Thankfully it didn’t have any hair in it, wildwitch, cat, or otherwise. “Thank you.”
    My hair had snarled horribly underneath. Miles watched the progress of my brush, his own smooth, sleek black hair shining in the firelight. He’d pulled the top half into an elegant ponytail, leaving the rest long over his shoulders. “Shut up,” I hissed. “Not everyone has perfect hair like you.”
    He smiled innocently. “Who, me? I didn’t say anything.”
    I bared my teeth, then winced as the brush snagged on another nest of tangles. I sighed, trying to carefully work out the strands with my fingers and the brush. “From now on, this mess will be in braids,” I growled. “I am not doing this again.” The tangles slipped free, and I ran the brush through smooth hair. I was about to call it done when the bristles caught again.
    My irritation surged. I was about to resort to ripping the snarl out when another pair of hands caught the brush and rescued my poor hair from my rage. Miles carefully detangled the last of the snarls and brushed my hair smooth.
    It was not what I expected a monster to do. I was something my older sister would do, something small and kind. If he was a human, I’d call him a friend.
    They were human.
    Maybe… maybe I didn’t have to hate him.
    Miles handed me the brush. “Do you want me to braid your hair, too?”
    I swallowed and shook my head. “No thanks, I-” I took a breath. “I can do it. Thank you for saving my hair from me.”
    “Anytime.”
    While I worked my blond hair into a braid, Bluewhen stirred what looked suspiciously like oatmeal. There was nothing wrong with oatmeal- except that it had the consistency of glue.
    It tasted nice, though. Bluewhen had sweetened the cereal and tossed in some odd-looking fruit. I hoped I wasn’t being poisoned.
    The table was mostly clear, so we could place our bowls on the chipped surface and watch as Bluewhen fluttered about, doing random things. She came over, a large roll of paper gathered in her arms. I moved my bowl out of the way as she let it fall on the table and rolled it out, revealing a map of the Winter Spine, the human-given name of the double mountain range that held the Maw between them. Bluewhen’s slightly crooked pointer finger jabbed at the dead center of the map. “The dragon sleeps there.” Her finger moved towards the western foothills, a surprisingly large distance away. “We are here. I think it would be best to cross the Spine by climbing across the south side of the West Fang.” She tapped a tall, jagged mountain.
    I frowned. “Wouldn’t it be better to cross here? There’s a gap.”
    Bluewhen shook her head vigorously. “No no no. That path leads through a grove of crying birches.”
    I sat back. “Ooh.” Crying birches were beautifully terrible trees, their leaves sparse and pale, the barkless branches bone white. The trees themselves weren’t dangerous, only creepy. But the wraiths that inhabited the groves… they were not human-friendly.
    “I know where that is,” Miles said, indicating the strange mark where the dragon lay. “We should get there in mostly one piece.”
    “That’s all I need to hear,” I chirped. “As long as I’m in three pieces or less, I’m happy.” Miles gave me an amused grin.
    Bluewhen continued. “Once you’re in the Maw, the best path is following the Iss-Noor.” Her finger traced a long river through the sharp hills. “The Black River. Its headwaters are in the Spine, and it flows into the center of the Maw.” She fixed us a stare, eyes holding not one bit of the cookiness she’d expressed before. “One more thing. The dragon is dangerous and will do anything to preserve its hold. If it wakes up, don’t listen to it. Kill it immediately.”
    “Okay,” I agreed, suddenly nervous. “Will do.”
    Bluewhen’s face warmed with a smile, her wrinkles deepening. “Good, good.”
    We finished our oatmeal. Bluewhen inspected my damp boots and flicked her hand. Steam rose up, and my boots were dry. Miles left the cottage to wait outside while I finished packing up my bag with the food Bluewhen had graciously donated, and I was about to leave when the wildwitch grabbed my wrist. “Be on guard around the arcane, little fish. He’s not to be trusted.”
    “I know,” I said, playing along. “He’s a terrible person who pushes innocent girls into streams.”
    Bluewhen’s hazel eyes were wide. “No, that’s not what I mean. This morning while you were asleep he asked me to tell him your name. He’d remembered that I’d said I knew it, you see.”
    The bottom of my understanding of the world had broken, and now I fell through disbelief. “What?” I whispered.
    “I didn’t tell him. But you must be wary.”
    I landed hard in a landscape of hurt. To think I’d started to consider him kind, to even think of him as another person. I was so stupid, to ever think I could trust a monster. I heard myself assuring Bluewhen I’d be careful, and then I left. I still needed the arcane to lead me through the Maw, so I could take my magic and kill the dragon, saving everyone outside the spreading Vale. What happened to him and the rest of the monsters after that- I couldn’t care less.
    Miles strode over from the edge of the clearing, where he’d been gazing into the trees. “I was thinking,” he called. “You should probably follow me. I have a better understanding of the Shadowvale than you, so-”
    “No,” I snapped. “You follow me. I will choose the way across the West Fang. I only need you to show the way through the Maw.”
    Miles frowned, surprised. “Are you angry with me?”
    I shook my head. “No. I’m angry with myself. Let’s go. I won’t wait for you.”
    He called my name as I stormed off, but I refused to say anything, or even turn around. I heard him fall into step behind me. We didn’t speak.