Chapter Twenty-Two: Ethereal Magic

TREETOPS and steep cliffs passed below. At first, Ora leaned over the side of the pukha to peer down at the world. The terraced foothills, the waterfalls, and the sharp precipices were an endless source of awe. She did not dare blink for fear of missing some spectacular detail. As the night deepened, the landscape became inky black. Only then did the sky with its countless stars draw her eyes upward.

In Himil, she could name the constellations. Lupin would take her to one of the basalt cliff tops to point them out and tell their stories. The maiden, Isil, and her lover, Auphren, danced in opposite hemispheres, unable to cross paths. The twin wolves, Aliph and Ausin, nipped at the heels of the warrior, Gisalt. The spider queen, Miseris, and her triangle web of three red stars, which sat just above the southern horizon in the summer months. There were more, but now, she saw nothing familiar.

Eiko, she said. The stars are different here.

That’s because you are looking from a different place altogether, but Rioc and Himil look out into the same infinity.

With those words, the pukha began to descend. She saw the glint of water beneath them. The glassy, dark surface extended toward the looming silhouettes of mountains in the distance. A cool, fishy scent filled her nose.

Eiko landed on the shore, graceful and quiet. She slid from its back, and it shifted into a wolf. They walked side by side to the tree line and found a clearing with soft grass and the gentle, pulsing lights of fireflies. Ora had never seen fireflies before, but the wonder faded. She was too tired and shaken.

“Will we be safe here?” she asked.

“There is nowhere safer than by a pukha’s side.” In the dark, Eiko’s expression was difficult to make out, but it was easy to imagine a sharp-toothed grin.

They sat beside each other. Ora pulled her knees up under her chin. Despite being far from the palace, she still felt uneasy. The unexpected turn of events and the pukha did not seem quite real. Even if it had agreed to return her to the Hy Borea, she would not rest well until Hademar was safe.

Thinking of her brother, she asked, “Can you turn a pig back into a human?”

A warm, deep chuckle shook the pukha’s sides. “Why? Are you in love with a pig? Have you tried kissing him?”

“Don’t mock me. He’s my brother,” Ora said. A sharp, irritated pitch crept into her words. “Tyg turned him into a brush pig. I’ve been trying to find a way back to the Hy Borea so I can help him.”

Eiko sat up and nudged her arm with its head. “The real trick will be finding him I’m afraid. He may very well have forgotten himself. That sort of magic twists the mind, Ora. It is not so simple. Even if I change him back, he may still be lost in other ways.”

The pukha spoke with unyielding patience, but its words shot a pang through her chest. “But I have to help him! He can’t live the rest of his life as a pig.”

“Ora, you have helped me more than you realize, so I will help you find your brother.”

She sat up straighter, unable to believe her ears. “You will?”

“Yes, now we should rest. We will have to go to the Basin, and there’s a day of flying ahead of us.”

“What’s in the Basin?”

“A crossing, of course. More importantly, it will be unguarded.”

“So, you know the words of passage?”

It paused but then said, “I have crossed the Ether many times.”

“That doesn’t sound promising,” she said, recalling Renna’s warnings. She had no intention of being shredded to pieces in the Ether. “No matter. I made a deal with a wayfarer.”

“Ah,” said Eiko. “I’m not sure how you managed that, but do not waste your passage. It may be useful one day. I will take us through the crossing.”

“Isn’t it dangerous if you don’t know the words?”

“There is more than one type of magic, Ora. One does not have to be limited to words and spells.”

Magic without spells. It was a topic she had not been able to find in any of Tyg’s books. She leaned into the pukha’s soft fur and asked, “What types of magic are there?”

“There are three,” it began. “When you unlocked the drawer in the queen’s study, you used corporeal magic. It draws from the energy that flows through your blood, and it’s what the fae of Mysanhal rely on. It is summoned with words and spells.”

“I’m not fae, though.”

“In theory, there is nothing stopping humans from harnessing their inherent power. It just seems to be more difficult for you. Well, for most of you anyway.”

This comforted Ora. She did not want to entertain the idea that she was anything other than a Nor. “What are the other magics?”

“Ah, yes. The second is elemental or alchemical, depending on who you ask. It can be harnessed through spellcraft and ritual as well. The sylv once had vast libraries dedicated to the art, but that is all lost now.”

“And the third?” she asked.

“Ethereal magic. There is nothing more powerful. It is not drawn from your body or the elements around you but from the Ether. This magic requires no spellcraft and cannot be written. It resists explanation. Not that this has stopped some from trying.”

Her heart thumped in her chest. “Can—can it be cast while you sleep?”

“That is an odd question.”

“Is it?”

“Yes. Why do you ask it?”

Without looking, she felt the pukha’s eyes fasten on her, and she grasped for the right words. “I dreamed of magic once,” she said at last. “That’s all.”

“Dreams are not always truthful.”

The words rang in her ears, and she thought of Hademar. He had said the same, but the cliff elk in her dream had been an omen. One that she did not understand until it was too late. And then, there was the orb of light she woke to after the falcon clawed through her chest. The soft, bluish light had been all too real.

Whatever the dreams meant, she did not want to explain the strange landscape she visited each night. It was a private world of her own, one that she did not wish to share. So, she shifted the conversation away from dreams and asked, “Can you really change into anything?”

“You don’t think I can?”

“I mean, if you can be anything, what are you really? What do you look like if you aren’t something else?”

“That’s like asking for someone’s true name.”

“In that case, it seems fair that you would show me.”

A glint of starlight caught in its wolf eyes, and though it did not shift, she saw a beast before her. A dangerous snarl licked at its next words. “You don’t know what you’re asking. Not really. Do not speak of it again, Eudora.”

Ora wanted to press the subject, but she could not form the words. Her tongue felt like lead in her mouth each time she tried. Cheeks growing hot, she finally managed to blurt, “That’s not fair.”

Voice still feral, it said, “You would be wise to remember that you are bound to me. Not the other way around.”

Her heart sank, and she grew silent. Even if the pukha had agreed to help her find Hademar, even if it had helped her escape the palace and Tyg, she was still name bound. She would have to answer to Eiko. No matter what.

Eiko’s words made Ora even more restless, and sleep evaded her. Would the pukha let her go once they found Hademar? Would she be able to return to her family? And if not, how would she get away from the pukha? No matter how many scenarios she imagined, she could not think of a single way to escape the name binding. The pukha would always be able to call on her.

She sat with these thoughts until she could take it no longer. She crept away from the pukha and wandered down to the edge of the lake. There, she hugged her sides and began to cry.

“Ora.” The animosity had faded from Eiko’s voice, and she heard it pad softly toward her.

She turned her head away and wiped her cheek against her shoulder. “Go away.”

“What I said …” The pukha sat down beside her and searched for the right words. “I didn’t mean to sound so harsh. But you must understand—”

“Leave me be.”

“Ora, you must listen to me. Your life will always be intertwined with the fae now. They will not let you return to your old life.”

“No.” She turned to the pukha, her grief overflowing. Her words came between gasps for breath. “You won’t let me return. Youbound my name. No other fae did that.”

“Would you prefer to be Queen Innes’s little pet? Or worse, if that ritual killed her, and it very well could have, you would be tortured and executed without any trial. Far from home, far from your family or anyone you love. Then, your brother would be a pig forever, probably to be hunted down as you fear.”

The tears stopped, and she stared blankly into the wolf’s eyes. She had not considered any of that.

Eiko went on. “If you wish to return home, I will let you. But you must do so with the knowledge that they will come for you, Ora, and I will not be there to protect you. Because the queen was right in one regard. You are not an ordinary human.”

“What do you mean?”

It looked up at the night sky. For a long time, it did not answer. “I’m not sure yet, but your blood should not have poisoned the queen. Not even a fae’s blood would have done that,” it said.

A chill coursed through her. Were the queen’s tormented screams truly because of one little drop of her blood?

Sarah Day ©2021