Reflecting the Unseen: Free Fiction for Fyretober October 9, 2023
By Carol Scott
Originally published in Trans Lunar Injection #67
The kittens were gone, and Luanna was furious!
But not foolish. She waited not a moment before diving to her left, rolling into a ball, springing forward into a corner, and cloaking herself in the wind. No physical attack would get through that, and magic other than hers was supposed to be abjured within her den.
Unless her foe was much more powerful than her. Or unless her watchers had let her down. Neither was a comforting thought.
Now that she was prepared for any surprise attack, she turned back to the blanket near the heat stones where three kittens should’ve slept. There were none.
She quickly dismissed the simple, comforting possible expLuannations. The kittens were still too young to have left on their own. Someday, like all wayfarer cats, they would be able to walk in the silent spaces between what the known and unknown. That was what made them so valuable to certain ruthless sorcerers. What they did to the poor cats…
Luanna shook her head. She couldn’t afford the rage right now. She needed to be clearheaded. Logical. She needed to see with her eyes, and with her reason. Despite her screens, someone had entered the den. They shouldn’t even have known the was here. Luanna had learned her art from the animals, adapting it and adding ancient enchantments to their native skills. Her den was a modified beaver lodge, only reachable from under the water. You had to know where to look before you could enter, and Luanna took great pains to make sure that the entrance wasn’t obvious: a submerged tunnel nearly a mile away, concealed behind massive tree roots. Luanna never entered the water anywhere within another mile of that. It would take a fish to follow her, or a sorcerer in the form of a fish.
But that was another trap: her screen was not just physical walls, nor enchantments. Her screen was also her friends in the nearby wilderness, including the two very large and very hungry snakes who happily patrolled in front of her tunnel, swallowing any fish that dared approach. And if that fish happened to be a human in fish guise, that was fine with them. And fine with her.
Other parts of her screen included a mated pair of Eagles who patrolled the sky in the territory, an entire family of foxes, and countless grubs that would inform her if anyone burrowed into the den.
As for sorcerous entry, that was where the abjuration came in. It had taken Luanna five years of her life searching for the secret of this spell, and another three years obtaining the rare crystals and herbs that empowered it. The result was a layered sphere of power within the den. Different layers had different degrees of protection, so that her most precious secrets were kept within between the two strongest layers, the outer shell of magic. That, of course, was where she had kept the kittens. If they surprised her and started walking on their own, they would still be too young, too weak, to escape the two shells until they were ready, and Luanna could lead them to safety.
But the inner shells were necessarily weaker. Luanna had to be able to do her own enchantments, of course. The innermost sphere of abjuration would stop only simple enchantments. You couldn’t penetrate them with a scry eye, for example. They were weak because Luanna herself had to be able to stand within them and change her form, or she would never be able to enter the flooded tunnel and leave her own den. The underwater passage was too long for her in human form. She had to switch to beaver form to make that passage.
She searched the den from room to room, from the inner shell to the penultimate, which even she could not touch unless she first performed a ritual to invest her power into a Riverstone. That was the only way she could feed and pet the kittens. Not even she could touch them otherwise.
She found nothing disturbed, nothing missing save the kittens themselves. She gently tapped each of the spheres of abjuration, but she found no sense that they had been tested nor penetrated. If someone had done magic here, she could not notice any proof of it.
If there were more subtle traces, they were beyond Luanna’s ability to tell today that day. She would have to take the shells down one by one, and examine each for flaws. That would leave her den defenseless, a prospect she did not enjoy, but she might have no choice. Well, there was always one choice: give up on the kittens, abandon them to their fate.
But that was simply not conceivable. Luanna had made their mother a promise as the cat lay dying from wounds inflicted by a sorcerous hunter, and she wasn’t going to let that promise fail. Even if that meant tearing apart her den.
But before she went that far, she could more easily test her outer shields: the senses of her woodland friends. She could talk to them, see if there was something they had noticed that she had not.
Luanna returned to the innermost shell, crouched down on all fours, and started into her slow, rhythmic beating breathing. She wasn’t the woman, she was the beaver. She did not walk on two, she swam and dug and built on four. She did not wear leather boots and a cotton cloak, she wore a thick pelt that shed water like a sailor’s coat. She wasn’t human, she was the swimmer.
A very large beaver with long claws and a powerful tail slipped into the water-filled hole in the center of the den and swam into the tunnel.
As a beaver, Luanna had exceptional lung capacity; but even she had to stop for air in places where the tunnel roof briefly rose above the waterline. She made three stops before she reached the wall of roots that covered the tunnel entrance.
Luanna looked out and saw her two guardian snakes, Ell and Zenn. They swam lazily back and forth in front of the entrance. If you knew how to look, you could see that they were patrolling, but it took close attention to notice. Sometimes, like now, they both guarded the entrance. Sometimes, though, one or the other would go out hunting, leaving the other on watch.
It was fortunate that they were both there, so that Luanna could question both at once. With her short but powerful forepaws, she spread the roots apart and emerged from the tunnel.
Faster than Luanna could follow, Ell speared through the water at her, mouth gaping wide enough to swallow even such a large beaver. Luanna had only a moment’s notice to jump back away from the gnashing teeth.
No! Luanna thought. As fast as he had attacked, the big snake swam away. What was wrong with him? As the big snake swam away, Luanna wondered if maybe Zenn could explain what was going on. She looked out, saw the second snake floating nearby, and cautiously made her way out between the roots once more.
Caution was the right decision. Like Ell before her, Zenn charged through the water as fast as the big snake could swim. Luanna paddled desperately backwards, but this time not fast enough. The big snake’s jaws clamped upon her forepaw. Luanna was trapped, and soon she would be a snake’s meal.
Unless she did something to stop it. The snake was stronger, no matter what form Luanna was in, but maybe she could surprise it. This would be dangerous. Switching back to human form would require her to expel all her wind, trapping her underwater. She would have mere moments to break free and swim to the surface.
But then Zenn let go, with no expLuannation at all.
Luanna shook her head and tried makes sense of the snake’s behavior. Regardless of the cause, she still didn’t want to face the snakes as a beaver, unable to exercise her powers. She got close to the roots, and let out all her breath along with the essence of beaver. She was human when she sped through the roots, swimming as fast as she could for the surface. She needed air, and she needed desperately to escape the snakes.
When Luanna reached the surface, she gasped as if her lungs would burst. But all she could spare was three deep, quick breaths as she prepared a fiery bolt against the snakes.
Then she noticed that she was not alone. The heads of Ell and Zennpoked above the surface, staring at her. She felt their curious thoughts. Friend Luanna, what are you doing here? Zenn thought.
Your secrets aren’t safe if you’re here, Ell thought. You told us that repeatedly.
Luanna spared another couple of breaths. “Also not safe… if… you eat me… idiot snakes…”
“You just tried to eat me when I came out of the tunnel. Why is that?” The snakes seem to have calmed, but Luanna was taking no chances. She hauled herself up onto the bank, so the snakes would have less advantage in case of a chase.
The both snakes waved their heads back and forth, a head-shaking gesture they had learned from her. We never saw you, friend, Zenn thought. We only saw an intruder emerging from the tunnel.
“An intruder? That was me!”
Again the snakes shook their heads. We never saw you go in, Ell thought. We never saw you come out.
Zenn added, You were just there. We saw nothing, then we saw a beaver. Since we never saw you arrive, we thought you had to be an intruder.
“You never saw me arrive?”
No, friend. Not at all, Zenn thought. As if you were invisible.
Luanna shook her head. Invisibility was one of the rarest of magics. So many lines of light had to be steered and shaped and reshaped. And if you moved, all the lines had to be redone. If the kittens’ attacker had been invisible, then all hope was lost. That took power far beyond Luanna’s.
But something the snakes had said… They had not noticed her. Not that they had not seen her. And she wasn’t the sorcerer who had cast the spell! She just happened to be within its range, seemingly long after the caster had left.
This was not invisibility, it was some zone of not noticing. It was not shaping light, it was shaping the senses. The mind. This would have its limitations, but it was far less trouble. It seemed the sorcerer had had to leave it in place for their own purposes. Maybe that would help her to identify who her foe was. She had a friend in a monastery on the third mountain south. Grigor had made a study of enchantments, though he had none of his own. Maybe he would know who was adept at not being noticed.
There was no sense in swimming up the river now. If Luanna was being watched, she had already been seen near her entrance. Either she would have to bring death to the watcher, or she would have to find a new place to hide.
So she walked through the woods back to the big lake where she had first entered the river. She was able to carry her travel pack in beaver form, so she usually cached it in a low cairn where she could retrieve it later.
When she got to the lake shore, she saw Kara and Thror sweeping through the air, majestic and carefree as always. An eagle had only three purposes in life: flying, hunting, and mating. Luanna counted herself fortunate that Kara and Thror had added a fourth: they were her friends, and they willingly watched the skies for her.
Luanna gave a whistle to let them know that she was there – not that it was likely that she had eluded their keen eyes – and then set to tearing down the cairn. She could just see the top of the leather pack when suddenly both eagles shrieked from the sky, and their thoughts echoed in her head. Luanna!
Luanna looked up just in time to see a large chunk of ice hurtling through the air towards her. She had but a moment to judge its size and decide if she could deflect such a large mass. Her instincts told her no, and so she dove aside.
Whatever foe had singled her out had a good aim. The shard of ice, nearly three yards across and half that wide, smashed into the ground right on top of her backpack, immediately splintering into a thousand jagged daggers. These her wind cloak could handle, so she raised it and crouched below the swirling air.
But the rain of ice surprised her in its intensity. The chunks were more numerous, more massive, and sharper than she had expected, and they slowly wore her cloak down until the last several pieces struck her, biting like knives into her shoulders and arms that covered her head.
By the time Luanna knew that no more ice was falling, she saw another mass, larger than the first, rising from the nearest peak and accelerating toward her. She saw no one controlling it, and she could spare no time for the search. She looked around, but there was no tree big enough to hide her, and she had no chance to reweave her cloak.
Since she couldn’t hide, Luanna fled. Her enemy seemed able to ride the winds. Well, they weren’t the only one. Luanna gathered the Four Winds under her until they lifted her into the air, faster and faster, putting her safely out of reach when the next ice boulder smashed into the ground where she had been.
Luanna scanned the skies for her attacker, but to no avail. Given time, there might be a way to figure out the direction from which the ice was summoned and directed; But that required tactical skills that she had never mastered. She was not a war mage, she was nature’s friend.
Meanwhile her opponent was far more adept. Now two chunks of ice from opposite peaks sped through the air, mere seconds from smashing together right where she hovered. She dove, but then she regretted it: when the two giant masses collided, once more their remnants rained down upon her. This time they were slower, less directed, and not as sharp. They did not pierce her skin, but they battered and bruised her.
Weakened, Luanna turned her fall into an arc, carrying her out from under the rain of ice. She turned in midair as she flew, searching the skies for her attacker.
But she saw nothing. Nothing! Where were Kara and Thror?
Then she heard the high, piercing hunting shriek of a diving eagle. Then another. She looked down, and both birds were diving upon a shape in the water, vaguely human though distorted by the ripples. She prepared a fire bolt to launch at the figure.
But when the birds struck the water, the figure dispersed. It scattered with the waves as if it wasn’t there at all. As if it…
On instinct alone, Kara flipped in the air one more time, guided her energies, and let fly the last fire bolt that she could muster.
There was a sudden scream in the air, something that Luanna could not help noticing. Suddenly there was a flaming, falling body, screaming in hideous pain as two mighty eagles dove upon it, ripping out its eyes and its gullet. They dragged it down to the water before the flames could catch their plumage.
Luanna carefully inspected the corpse that the eagles had dragged to the shore. Even in death, the sorcerer’s strange spell lingered. Luanna simply could not look at him, not directly. Out of the corner of her eye, she knew something was there, but not what.
Eventually she thought to dig through the ruins of her pack and find the small signal mirror inside. It held no glass, being instead made of the finest Whitesilver, so it was unbroken. Not even dented. Whitesilver was that strong. Luanna found what she had suspected, what she had hoped: the sorcerer’s body was easily seen in the reflection in the mirror. The face was almost unrecognizable, but the remnants of the cloak and the rings and chains were very familiar. This will surely Othred, one of the worst abusers of wayfarer cats. Later Luanna would have to find out how he had learned of the kittens, how he had tracked them to her, how he had found her den. Maybe her secrets had died with him; but maybe someone else shared them and was out there, waiting.
But first, now that Luanna understood Othred’s spell, she had an important duty to perform.
As Luanna peered at them through the mirror, the kittens were just waking up from a long nap. They would be hungry soon, and she had to purge herself in order to feed them.
She did not as much power to purge as usual. The battle with Othred and with Ell and Zenn before had taken most of her power out of her. She should be able to feed the kittens in just a few minutes.
Othred had been clever, in his way. He had expected to draw Luanna out for combat, or to set her on a fruitless chase to find the kittens that had never left. He hadn’t been able to break the abjuration to get them out, but he had simply painted his obscurement as close to the kittens as he could reach. Luanna simply couldn’t notice that the kittens were there. She would leave or she would die, and he could take his time unraveling her defenses.
But the spell hadn’t obscured his reflection, and so Luanna had survived. Now she could pierce the spell with the mirror, and eventually she would find a way to unweave it. It was time to feed the kittens.
Then the gray tabby poked its nose through the inner shell. The gray and white bounded after, followed by the fat little orange kitten. The kittens had already begun finding ways.
Life was about to get interesting…
The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt: Anti-magic costumes. (Some stories aren’t so close to the prompt…)
In case it’s not clear: Carol Scott is a fictitious author, and Trans Lunar Injection is a fictional magazine.
Or are they…?