Sunday, April 14, 2013

Aureus Manu

She stole the magic because fire dancing had lost all its draw. It simply wasn’t bringing in enough food to make it worth doing anymore. The food trade was falling off, the result of the drought everyone blamed on the creatures outside the walls. Everything was blamed on them, despite the fact that none had been seen in the streets since the walls had been raised another ten feet. The belief of their guilt bothered her. How could they be affecting the crops when all the farmland was out of their reach? Could the fauns control the weather? It wasn’t likely, but it did feel good to have something to point at and blame.

Renelle marveled at how being familiar with fire, knowing how to manipulate it, made stealing simple. It might have been because her victim didn’t care much about his possessions when his bedroom was ablaze and smoke threatened to choke the life from him. It wasn’t easy, though, keeping the dancing flames from tickling her skin, burning patches of her body when she didn’t want it to. There was a fine balance between controlled and wild fire that was difficult to maintain. Five minutes after she’d started the blaze under the wizard’s home, she had located and stolen the spell. Ten minutes after the onset of her arson, the flames had been whipped out of control by the wind, fed until every timber of the place was crackling, perfect fuel thanks to the drought. Thirty minutes after it all began, both house and Renelle were long gone.

Having at least a rudimentary understanding of magic made casting the spell easy. The spell was encased in a clay orb, the instructions printed neatly on the side in bright yellow ink. She read them four times before cracking the clay and letting the fluid inside spill over her left hand, careful to keep any of the liquid from splashing onto her clothes or legs as she knelt on the ground of her hideaway.

The change took place at once. Where the liquid touched her skin, it began to bubble. Clearing her throat, she intoned the words the instructions had spelled out, keeping her eyes on her tingling hand. She tilted her arm upward and her wrist down so the excess fluid could trickle to the ground. The last few words of the incantation left her lips, and the moisture that remained sank into her skin, leaving it clammy and jaundiced. It left her hand cold, the blood warm in her forearm turning to ice once it crossed the visible change in her skin tone at her wrist. She decided she would get used to it in time.

She scoured the little hideaway with her eyes, looking for something to test her hand on. All she could find was the clay orb, now useless, that sat empty in front of her. Trembling, she prodded it with the tip of a finger. Instantly, the sphere shuddered and turned bright burnished yellow. She lifted it with her other hand, testing its weight. It was solid. Solid gold. She tossed it aside. It had been worth more when it was made of clay. But she’d confirmed the spell worked, and that was step one. Step two was gathering the courage to go to the gate and leave the safety of the city walls. She would face the fauns.

There was nothing left for her in the city. In truth, there was nothing left for anyone; most people just hadn’t admitted it to themselves yet. The drought had sentenced them all to a slow, hungry death. All the walls ensured was that the inhabitants could starve in safety. The only thing left worth trading was food, and people had become reluctant to give it up for anything else. Entertainment like fire dancing or light juggling were no longer in demand. The performers were going to starve first.

Renelle lingered at the gates for a few days, watching as people grew desperate enough to chance the outside, chance facing the fauns that roamed free in hope of finding something else beyond their territory. On occasion, someone venturing out carried a golden chain or some other trinket of metal to tempt the creatures away. There were two things fauns relished eating. One was gold. The other was human flesh. It was a toss-up as to which one they preferred over the other.

She wiggled the fingers of her magicked left hand and wished she had some idea of what things were like on the other side of the wall. There was no way to climb to the top— none that was available to her, anyway— so she wasn’t able to see anything that happened after the gates closed behind an escapee. She realized she was stalling and stepped toward the gate. The gatekeeper’s eyes traveled to her, and he arched an interrogative eyebrow. Suppressing her fear, she nodded. With a shrug, the gatekeeper pulled a lever, and the gate swung open. Twenty steps later, she was past the gate, beyond the wall, and outside the city for the first time in her life. There was no time to reconsider her actions; the gate crashed shut once she was clear.

The world outside the walls was lightly forested; Renelle had never seen so many trees in her life. The fire in her that she’d spent her life cultivating called to the wood, desiring no more than to set it ablaze, to watch it burn to ash like the wizard’s house. It took willpower to tamp that desire down; she might need some of these trees soon.

Renelle realized she hadn’t thought much beyond passing through the gate. Where did she go from here? Was there even anything in the outside world worth seeing, worth risking her life for? There had to be; the world couldn’t be limited to what sad existence there was encased in those high walls. She chose a direction and began walking, her ears straining for sign of the fauns. Picking her way between the trees, she held her magicked hand further away from her body than was normal or comfortable. She wasn’t sure if its new properties would work on the rest of her, but she didn’t want to risk turning herself into a golden statue to answer that question. Would becoming gold kill her, or would she retain her sensibilities? Could she still move? She never intended to find out; being a life-size golden Renelle was not how she wanted to live out her days, mobile or immobile. It would probably hurt anyway.

More time passed, and the walls of the city disappeared behind her. Still, she saw no sign of the hunters that ruled this untamed, unwalled wilderness. Her stomach growled. Something in the trees snapped, making her stomach quieten, and she turned toward the other sound.

A faun stood a handful of paces away. If the light had been different, if she had been ignorant of the nature of this creature, she might have been able to call it cute. Pointed ears tipped with tufts of hair stood up from a human-like head. A pair of stumpy horns topped the head as well, poking out from a short cap of curly chestnut hair. Its chest was hairless, lean muscles visible under the skin. More chestnut hair began at the waist, thickening to a dense coat that covered the goats’ legs the creature stood on. But Renelle did know the nature of this unassuming predator, and she noticed the sharp points of its feet, the fingernails so much longer than they should be that they could be described as claws. Its big blue eyes were bloodshot and void of emotion. Small spots on its face and chest that could have been mistaken for freckles were actually dried drops of blood, maybe the remains of its last meal. The faun shifted its weight, eying her without expression. It didn’t lick its lips, but she could feel it wanted to as it inspected her from a short distance away.

Renelle’s heart thundered in her chest. Not wanting to take her eyes from the beast but knowing she had to, she scanned the ground for something she could use. The ground was surprisingly clear of debris; only grass and dirt were beneath her feet. She wished she and the faun had been in opposite places; there was a perfect stone the size of an apple a few inches from the faun’s foot. As it was, all that was nearby was a tree, but no branches were within easy reach.

Swallowing her terror, she backed up a step. The faun matched her movement, keeping the distance between itself and her constant. She backed again, but the faun followed, innocent bloodshot eyes locked on hers. Step after step, she attempted to back away, to find a tree to slip behind, cutting off the eye contact so she could sprint off in another direction, but the opportunity never came. She realized then that the faun’s stride was longer than hers; with every step she took back, the beast took a larger step forward, gradually shortening the gap between them.

Her foot came down on a stone, but she stopped her ankle from turning, catching herself on a tree. Now there’s a stone nearby. She reached down to grope blindly for the stone, never taking her eyes from the faun’s face. The faun broke contact first, eyes darting to her left. Her heart skipped a beat. Another faun?

She glanced aside. The tree beside her had turned to solid gold. She’d caught herself with her magicked hand. She glanced from the tree to the entranced faun. Her throat was dry, her voice croaking when she first tried to speak. She willed her mouth to produce some saliva, swallowed, and tried again. “You like this, don’t you?” The beast’s eyes flew back to her as she tossed the stone from her right hand to her left. It was a solid gold chunk a second later, an uncomfortable weight in her hand. “Here…” She lobbed the nugget toward her predator, who didn’t even attempt to catch it. Her heart skipped a few beats then began pounding in her throat.

It took the bait. A snuffling sound reached her ears as the faun squatted and took the nugget in a gnarled hand. The creature lifted it as though it weighed nothing. It turned the nugget this way and that, sniffing at it but flicking its eyes up to Renelle every few seconds. Just as she thought it was about to throw the nugget away, it lifted the gold to its mouth. The lips parted, revealing a mouth full of flat-bottomed teeth, and it bit the gold nugget like an apple. There was an uncomfortable metallic screeching sound, and now the faun was chewing, its eyes still on Renelle, but now it seemed more interested in her hand than her throat. It kept glancing at the tree then back to her as it took another bite from the nugget, then another. It didn’t take it long to finish the chunk; she was surprised the beast didn’t lick its fingers once it was finished. Was that gratitude in its red-streaked eyes? She backed away a step, and this time, the monster remained still. She took another step back. And another. The faun studied her as she backed away but made no move to follow.

Fear kept her from turning her head to see where she was going but also kept her break her eye contact with the faun she’d just obliged with a snack. It seemed disinclined to follow her now, but did she dare turn and walk or run away?

The sound that came from the creature’s throat when it opened its mouth was an ear-splitting combination of a human scream, a goat’s bleat, and the screech of a very displeased cat. The call was answered from further in the trees. Renelle spun and dashed from the spot as quickly as she could before the faun’s friends showed up. She’d gone only a few dozen steps before she heard the cries growing louder behind her, the thuds of their hooves covering ground as they sped to catch her. From the sounds, there was a whole herd of the beasts pursuing her. Trees flew past, branches whipping at her face, sweat streaming into her eyes, stinging and disorienting her. She stumbled and tripped, running into trees and underbrush as the foliage grew thicker. She bounced away from the obstacles, unintentionally leaving a bright golden trail behind for the fauns to follow.

It seemed like hours had passed since the chase began. Exhaustion made her stagger, but she regained her balance, blinked her eyes clear, and wiped at her sweaty brow with her right hand, gasping. The hoofbeats had faded from her hearing, leaving her encased in unsettling silence. The sun was far on its way down to the horizon. Night’s arrival would be a death sentence if she could not find a place to hide from the fauns. And sleep… she wished for sleep, but how could she dare get it? Exhaustion would take her if she didn’t find safety soon.

Her solution came in the form of the largest tree she’d ever seen, a massive thing with branches thicker than her neck. She had no idea what sort of tree it was, nor did she care. Climbing was difficult one-handed, but she didn’t dare allow even a finger of her left hand to touch the rough bark. A golden tree this size would attract the fauns again, give them a beacon pinpointing her.

She nested one a wide branch, lying on her stomach with her left arm dangling. Despite her fright, weariness took her. Sound woke an interminable amount of time later. The sky was pitch, save for a spattering of bright stars and a waxing moon. Renelle widened her eyes to take in as much light as she could and sat up. Far beneath her, the faces of a dozen or more fauns peered up through the branches, eyes shining in the moonlight.

The fauns looked different in the dark. Their hair was stringy and limp, their skin gaunt and shadowed. Furry legs looked matted, claws stained and discolored. Even their teeth were different, sharp and pointed, not at all like the flat-bottomed of the faun she’d seen eating the rock. They hissed up at her, gazing up through the dense branches. There was no hiding; they knew she was there. Renelle’s head was heavy; whatever sleep she had gotten had been neither restful or plentiful. It was hard to think. She struggled even to sit up, needing to steady herself on the branch with both hands.

Unlike the clay orb and the stone, the giant tree did not turn to gold all at once. The metallic yellow color spread across the bark, claiming every inch as water claimed the shore, rushing over the surface of the branch until it reached the trunk, then spreading from there. It was not a slow process, but it was not instantaneous. In the back of her thoughts, she wondered if the other tree she’d touched had been instantly changed or if it had been slower like this one. She hadn’t watched it.

What made this different from the stone and the clay? Was it due to the size? Or was it perhaps because the tree was alive while stones and clay weren’t? The fauns’ eyes glittered, their hissing turning to snarls as they observed the tree’s transformation into a banquet food. By the time the gold had reached the roots and disappeared underground, the fauns had, one by one, opened their mouths and begun feeding on the trunk of the tree, mouthfuls of gold disappearing down their throats. The fauns seemed to have lost all interest in her. Renelle hoped that their feast would sate them enough that she could climb down and escape. Wary of her left hand, lest she make another mistake, she clutched at her skirt with her right fingers, watching the disturbing meal below.

The beasts’ appetites were unending, and the trunk was rapidly shrinking in girth. Panic seized Renelle. Would gold break? She didn’t know. Beneath her, the fauns began looking upward as they chewed the bites they took from the tree. She could almost hear them taunting around their meal, urging her to fall. Was the tree no more than an appetizer for them, with her the entree? Or was the tree the entree and she the sweet to finish the meal? Despite her own hunger, bile rose in her throat at the thought of becoming a meal. Somehow, she knew they wouldn’t bother to kill her before they began feeding. She would rather die before that. She considered jumping from the tree, but so much of her courage had been spent walking through the gate in the wall that she hadn’t managed to gather anymore yet, at least not enough to leap to her death. Besides, that sort of fall was no guarantee for a swift demise.

The tree began to sway, and she clutched her branch. Below, some of the fauns had stopped their gorging and were pushing at the tree above the massive chunks they’d taken out of it. They were trying to tip the tree now as some others kept taking bites out, weakening it further. No matter what, she was going to be at the mercy of the fauns soon. She kept clinging to the limb she was on, waiting until the ground came rushing towards her so she could throw herself off the branch at the last minute and run.

Her perch swayed, a sapling in a gale rather than a waist-thick tree. She was jostled by the erratic movement. Her blouse bumped against her magicked hand and abruptly transformed to gold, not as rigid as worked metal but no longer comfortable fabric. There was a clang and a crack, and the ground rose to meet her. She’d been unprepared and could do no more than brace herself for the impact. Her eyes clamped shut of their own accord.

The fauns didn’t attack her right away. She opened her eyes, lost in a tangle of golden twigs and branches. Carefully, she stood, the golden leaves and limbs scratching at her hair, face, and clothes. Dead grass fell from her skin and clothes. Her head was pounding from the impact, and she felt the sticky warmth of blood on the corner of her mouth and on her scalp. The fauns were staring at her, ravenous eyes locked, dark tongues licking their chops. One let out a soft bleat and stepped forward. Renelle was too tired to run, too worn and battered to do much of anything. Her arms began to shake, her right one stiffening.

Her right wrist had already turned to gold. During her fall, or maybe when she landed, she’d accidentally touched her own arm. It felt cold and heavy as the change seeped down into her hand and up toward her elbow. She staggered her way out of the branches, her solidifying arm growing cumbersome and awkward. She couldn’t twist it to escape branches and tangles of golden foliage. Eventually she reached open air and was face-to-face with a half-circle of slavering fauns. Each one gazed at her as if noting which cuts of her flesh they wanted to have first.

The gold had covered her arm and was seeping downward from her shoulder, across her torso and down towards her belly. Even if she couldn’t move her metallic arm, she could still feel it. Every mouthful of flesh or gold the beasts tore from her would be agony, she knew. She would feel every ounce of her they ate as it was ripped from her, even if they waited until she was a solid gold statue before they began their meal. The image repulsed her, and the thought didn’t much appeal to her even without the visual her racing mind flashed before her eyes.

As if there had been a signal, all the beasts took a step toward her. She had nowhere to fly and no chance of fighting back. Even if she did, her transforming body would make escape futile. She was going to die anyway.

She would do it on her own terms.

A thousand fire dances flowed out of her memories, a thousand tongues of flame kissing her skin. She moved in her memories, flowing like the water that was absent. Fire dancing was dangerous; there was no protection from the destructive force she molded around her like clothes. The gold had traveled all the way down to her hip and into her leg; she couldn’t move from the spot. Still, she began the fire dance, calling to the flames. This was an awkward dance, clumsy and childish in its simplicity. Her movements were ungainly. Would the fire answer her?

There was a spark. With every inch of her, she willed the flames to the tips of her fingers, her left hand’s fingers, the very end of her magicked hand. The sparks caught, fire igniting, flames brought to life through the magic deep inside her, cultivated for years into an art form. For the first time since she’d begun calling the flames to her, Renelle gave them free rein. Like a curtain being drawn across her skin, heat washed over her, making its slow way over her body even as the gold washed across from the other side. Cold metal flowed over her right, the heat of fire her left. As unchanged flesh began to melt from her side, her chest and belly, it also began to morph into gold that melted in turn, dripping into a shining puddle at her unchanged feet.

Fire and gold consumed her, her vision full of orange and yellow so that she couldn’t see the fauns that must surely still be lingering, waiting for their feast to begin. Gold and flames crept up her neck toward her chin. She no longer felt cold or hot; the twin sensations had melded into one feeling that formed her whole world. Nothing beyond her vision had any meaning, and even her consciousness of her body was beginning to fade. The flames rose higher than her head, or perhaps she was lowering; she wasn’t certain. All that was her faded into a bubbling puddle in the grass beneath a fallen tree made of gold. The last thing that went through her mind before thought disappeared was that perhaps fire dancing hadn’t lost all its draw, after all.

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