Tainted Thoughts (Amvaria)
Updated: Apr 7, 2019
I stare at the cage in my hands, my teeth chattering and my fingers aching. The tiny paper crane suspended in the midst of the rusting metal wires is a fragile existence amidst my war-torn world. The folded paper, so ordinary, so — unsuspecting, tremors as I take a step.
Closer, I think. I’m getting closer. And for a second the thought scares me. I’m often accused of being rash but never have I taken the words to heart. Now, I stop, staring at the strange thing I hold in my hands, wondering why I’d ventured this far without a single thought of what I’d do next.
If I found my brother— if by some miracle this thing was leading me to my sibling and not my death…what then? Would I drag him back with me? Convince the Chant to let him stay within the walls? Even as the thoughts occur I know it’s impossible— I have no plans for the future, but I’ll deal with it when the time comes.
The crane shivers in its cage once more, and then turns, its crumpled, badly folded head pointing ever so slightly to my right. My head turns with it and at once my fear is gone. My feet move before I can stop them, tripping over rocks and debris, stumbling like a newborn doe down the overgrown path. My heart sings, but something about this rings strange to my mind, it’s—
Too easy, I think.
I dig my heels into the ground, coming to a sudden and ungraceful stop. The thought echoes for a moment in my brain.
Months…no, years, I’d been searching for him. Every spell, every attempt I’d made to find him had failed. I’d started to believe that what everyone said was true. Maybe… maybe my brother really was dead.
Finding that spell had been a blessing—a ray of hope in the eternal darkness that was my existence in the Chant. But as Masha would say, there are no such things as miracles. I couldn’t deny how strange it had been to wake and suddenly find the very spell I needed at the foot of my bed. I couldn’t pretend that I hadn’t forced the dangers out of my mind as I, with shaking hands, had folded the small sheet of parchment to take the form of my sibling’s revered bird.
Now, as I stare at the cage in my hands, fingers gone cold to the metal’s touch, I realize—I haven’t truly done anything at all. I’ve been led.
The crane’s head jerks suddenly— harshly, the fragile parchment tearing from the sudden movement before fluttering to the bottom of the cage. I stare. What does that mean?
“Death…” a voice purrs. “It means death.”
I spin on my heel, the metal cage crashing to the ground as I whip my hands to the daggers strapped at my hips. The leather bound handles sit comfortably in my palms as I sink into a crouch, ready to strike at the slightest hint of trouble.
The person behind me doesn’t even react. “I was joking,” he says. Even as my grip tightens he doesn’t seem to worry about the weapons within my reach. At most, he seems annoyed.
I take in his appearance: the style of his clothes, the weapon hanging at his back, and finally, the strange markings permanently etched into his skin. The more I stare… the more I understand. The words and the symbols are all spells.
“Tiaent,” I hiss in realization.
And he smiles. The act doesn’t seem to reach the deep amber of his eyes. “You say that like it’s supposed to offend me.”
“Your kind isn’t allowed here.”
“My kind?” he laughs. “Are we truly that different, you and I? Is a name and some spells all it takes to stop us from being human?”
“I’m not going to debate ethics with a Tiaent.”
“No? By all means carry on then; I’m sure you have better things to do.”
I scowl at him, waiting for him to move on, but instead he chooses to lean against the tree at his back. Vivid vines of ivy cover the bark, snaking skyward as light filters through the leaves. Still smiling, he begins to whistle, filling the air with hearty, familiar tunes of seafaring heroes and drunken adventures.
Still, I watch him. “You’re not leaving,” I say.
The corner of his mouth twitches. “I was here first,” he responds. It sounds like the argument of a child, yet I cannot argue. He studies my movements carefully, amber eyes sizing me up before he releases what sounds like a disappointed sigh. I flush despite myself, feeling foolish the instant the heat hits my face. I want to grab the cage and leave, but I am loath to avert my gaze for even an instant. To turn my back to a Tiaent would spell my death. I have no choice but to wait.
As if following my thoughts the Tiaent tilts his head, shifting his attention between the cage and I before seemingly reaching a decision. He pushes himself away from the tree, walking towards me. I don’t wait for him to get close to begin my retreat, but it quickly becomes clear that I am not his target.
“You follow instructions well,” he says with grudging approval. The cage groans as it’s lifted from the ground, the papery remains of my pathetic crane lying on the base.
My heart sinks to my heels. “It was you?” I say aloud. Disappointment coats my voice.
“Who were you hoping for?”
I don’t answer. I know better than to fall for his tricks.
“You think we’re monsters,” he says.
“Using spells to stay alive long after your time? You’re not monsters, you’re just pathetic.”
At that he laughs, and the sound rings eerily among the trees. “Pathetic,” he repeats. “You’re brave, I’ll give you that.”
“Don’t talk down to me,” I begin to argue with him, but my voice falls flat, my attention shifting. There is movement in the trees to my left. I grit my teeth as another man emerges. One, I might escape, but I cannot fight two.
I glance the second one’s way. For a moment time stops.
He’s watching me, but not in rage. Instead, his face twists in pain, his heavy brows knit as I return his stare. No…
“Des?” My voice near breaks. I take a step forward but the Tiaent blocks my way. He is no longer smiling.
“I didn’t bring you here for a touching reunion,” he says. There is no more amusement in his voice; the way he speaks to me now is cold. “At your brother’s request I gave you a test which you spectacularly failed. Now run along back to your instructors girl, you are no longer welcome here.”
He has barely finished his sentence when, with a flick of his wrist, I am standing alone in my room once more. No chant, no preparation. With barely a movement he’s performed the kind of enchantment that teams of master magicians took hours to accomplish.
I shiver as I slump to the ground, my gaze fixed transfixed on the rusting cage he has sent back with me. The crumpled parchment sits at the bottom, two words scrawled across it in angry, beautiful script.
My chest aches as I read but there’s no time to register the pain. The floor outside my door releases a hair-raising creak, the door practically flying off of its hinges as I hastily shove the cage and its contents into the space beneath my cot.
Masha studies me as she enters. She must be wondering why I’m seated on the floor, surrounded by piles of parchment but she doesn’t ask. Instead, she places her hands on her hips, fixes me with her usual pointed stare and says, “You’re late.”
In my mind, I swear.
The next week passes quickly. Under Masha’s instruction I have little time to myself, and what time I do have is spent practicing enchantments and learning spells that are no more useful to me than any of Old Hien’s history lessons.
With a scowl I shove my head back into the book I’m supposed to be studying. I will my eyes to focus on the page and the lines of script that sit on it.
“Ein and Shoal the first of the Tiaent,” it reads. I vaguely remember the tale.
Two brothers, both trained under the Chant, both steps away from being declared masters, and both turned rogue after the acts of the older brother, Ein, rid them both of their humanity.
An illness, incurable, had taken hold of the younger sibling. He was dying and quickly. Desperate, the older sibling begged the Chant to heal his brother. With their abilities, it “would be simple,” he’d said.
The Chant declined.
“Magic must never be used to extend one’s life,” they’d said. Ein’s fury was described as ‘a whirlwind of smoke and ash’.
“He isn’t dead yet!” he’d argued.“This is no different than salve on a wound or a potion for a cold.”
But again the Chant refused. Weeks passed as he watched his brother fade. It was only when he could no longer bear to hear his sibling’s screams that he took a blade and into his skin etched the symbols and words that would extend his life and mark him forever as the first of the Tiaent.
My stomach churns as I remember the Tiaent’s scarred skin. I try to picture my brother, his arms and his face. Was he too marked? Disfigured like the rest of them? It had only been a moment, barely enough time to even register before he had been once again wrenched from my life. Like fruit hanging just out of reach.
Within the walls of the Chant the air is cold and even beyond the library no one speaks. The looming threat of the Tiaent sobers everyone. The war is drawing closer, we all know it.
I wait until night to take my leave, the moon my guide through the sprawling forest. I’ve barely stepped foot in the place we’d last met when the Taient appears before me. He frowns at me, clearly unamused.
“I made it clear that you weren’t to return.”
I ignore him. “I want to speak to Des,” I say, as bravely as I can manage.
His lip twitches. “Your brother isn’t here,” he answers. “And if he was, the answer would still be no.”
“Because I say so.” He offers no more reason than that. “Leave,” he warns. “Next time I won’t be so lenient.”
“Who are you anyway? You have no right to order me.”
He pauses, a smile playing on his lips. “Don’t you know?” he asks, and then I am alone again. I try to follow after him but a barrier blocks my way. My hands hit a wall of air so dense I can’t walk through.
I consider leaving, returning another time to demand my brother’s ear but the thought of Masha waiting for me causes my stomach to churn and I know, deep inside, that another chance may never come. So I sit, and I wait.
Hours pass, and the sky begins to lighten. The clouds turn pink with morning light and, despite myself, I feel my mind drifting into sleep.
My brother’s face floats behind my closed eyes, my father, my mother—then fire. It all melts, burning away at my heart as screams echo in my ears. We run, my parents crumble, their bodies lost to the wind as ash. Finally, I am alone.
I wake suddenly from the sound of crunching leaves at my back. Peeking around the trunk of my tree, I see the Tiaent not ten feet away. I consider calling out to him, but his expression is carved from stone. I watch him confusedly, the man who is my enemy, sitting in the dirt playing idly with fallen leaves.
“Stop avoiding the situation,” he says suddenly and I freeze. For the briefest moment I think he’s speaking to me, but it isn’t long before a figure steps out from the forest behind him. Des says nothing, he just stands there, watching the Tiaent, his lips turned downwards.
“Scowling at my back won’t help,” he sighs.
“And talking to her will?” It is the first time I’ve heard my brother’s voice in years and it chills me to the bone. “Shoal, you heard what she said—what she thinks of us.”
“Until she meets with you she will only keep coming back. And I can’t waste any more time making sure she doesn’t get killed by someone else.” I shiver at his words, a knot forming in my chest. “We’re preparing for a war, Des. Ein is out there fighting while I… ” His voice softens. “I cannot continue to be distracted by one little girl, even if she is your blood.”
The names hit my chest, as understanding dawns. Ein—Ein and Shoal. The first of the Tiaent. Still alive. The thought makes me sick.
“I—” Des hesitates and lowers his gaze. His jaw sets, his eyes close, his entire body tense as he folds his hands into fists at his sides. “Fine,” he answers. His voice is clipped as he speaks. Shoal and I both notice it. I feel an unspeakable pain in my core with the knowledge that it’s my words which cause him so much grief. I remain in the shadows, so frozen in self-pity that I nearly miss the Tiaent's movement as he reaches a hand to my brother’s face.
I see his lips move as he speaks, but I am too far to hear the words. I can only see the smile that paints my brother’s face, the quick gentle kiss they share in the morning light, and Shoal’s gaze that flits my way before he disappears into the trees the way that my brother came.
“Des?” I call.
He jolts and tenses before turning my way. His gaze is wary and he doesn’t approach. Neither do I. We talk where were stand, idle things, insignificant, before the conversation swings once again.
“Come with me,” I plead.
His shoulders stiffen once more. “To the Chant?” he scoffs, a strange bitterness catching in his throat.
“You’d rather stay here? With them? They’re carving spells into their bodies to keep themselves alive! You think this is right?” I struggle to control my voice. My nails dig into my palms. “They’re twisting the natural order of the world.”
“Isn’t that what magic does?” He laughs disbelievingly. “We can suspend a man in the air, leap halfway across the country in the blink of an eye, reverse time— and saving someone’s life is what’s unnatural?”
“We are not meant to live forever.”
“But we can’t just let our people die meaningless deaths. Not when we can prevent it. To not do what we do is like standing in the way of a stampeding wild beast. Would you let it run you over when you know for a fact that all you need to do is take a step to the right?”
“If it was my fate.”
“Your fate,” he echoes. “They’re so deep in your head you can’t even tell the difference between their words and your own.” He shakes his head, refusing now to look my way. “I told him, this would be pointless.”
“Ah.” I understand. I’m spitting my words now. I want them to hurt. “So it wasn’t him saying no, it was you.”
Des meets my gaze with lightning speed. “Cala…” he begins.
“Your foolish sister is part of the Chant, how embarrassing for you. You’d rather pal around with monsters and heretics, make love to their leaders and leave your family behind.”
Des’ face turns to stone. “Don’t you dare—” he hisses, and his expression has to work to meet the anger in his voice. “I would be dead, if it weren’t for him! My family left me behind. Or did you forget that little detail, dear sister?”
Fire rages in my mind, ash like snow in the air. My father’s arms tight around my tiny waist as he hauls me over his shoulder. He runs. My mother runs. In the distant flames I hear my brother’s screams. They echo in the air, a string of guilt around our necks that tightens with every step. They cry, but they don’t look back— their tears have turned to ice.
My throat constricts at the memory of it.
“They mourned you,” I say.
The words do nothing to ease his pain. “They left me.”
“The Tiaent are monsters Des…”
At that, I know I’ve gone too far.
What little emotion was left in his gaze burns away. Our parents are gone, he doesn’t ask to know. His hatred now falls on me, and I have done nothing worthy of his forgiveness to abate it.
“We are not the monsters,” he whispers, lowering his head as he turns away. I move to rush to him, to hold him, to stop him, but I cannot pass. My hands will not reach him, and neither will my words. Not now.
I sink to my knees, horrified by the truth of what I have done as he turns away. The next time I see my brother, there will be a war. We will stand on opposite sides, see each other across the carnage and not recognize the people that this world has forced us to become. We will fight. And we will die.
The next time we meet, either he will lie at my feet, or I will lie at his. I know this, yet I watch him go. I don’t try to stop him. I just watch…burning the image of his back into my mind and the ring of symbols carved into the base of his neck.