The next morning Cassie had just finished eating breakfast when Quinn appeared in her doorway. He told her Jhi and Anna were both out, Jhi doing something for the Rat and Anna dealing with what Quinn referred to as nobles’ business. Quinn chatted to Cassie about her training with Zephyr; he had always loved the look of the weapon but couldn’t part with his sword. When they reached a hallway Cassie recognised from the night before, he left her with a nod towards the Rat’s door. Cassie glanced in that direction and when she looked back he was gone, silently.
Smiling - she should be used to the soundless movements of the Mice by now - Cassie walked through the door.
The Rat leaned easily against the wall, watching with hooded eyes a young girl sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room. She moved, but barely, just the faintest rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. Cassie stopped, not wanting to interrupt whatever was happening but the Rat beckoned her over. Cassie shut the door and quietly crossed the room, thankful she had spent so many hours training herself to step noiselessly. She hadn’t mastered it yet but it was a significant improvement.
When Cassie reached her, the Rat placed a warning finger against her lips then lightly gripped Cassie’s bare arm. Cassie only just managed to suppress a loud exclamation of surprise.
Her vision was completely altered. Flickers of colour danced around the room, reminiscent of the reflection of light on water. The girl sitting in the middle of the room looked strange. Light danced in her too, not on the surface as with everything else, but as if it were trapped beneath her skin, rippling and glowing there like candle light through delicate silk curtains. Even as she watched, Cassie sensed a change in the girl and in the air around her. The light inside the girl wavered. She gave a warning cry and her eyes flew open, hands leaping forward as if trying to catch something that was escaping her grasp. Cassie saw it coming.
A solid wall of silver-white light burst out of the girl and rushed towards Cassie and the Rat. The Rat let go of Cassie’s arm and moved in front of her; the vision disappeared but Cassie had no doubt that the wall was still approaching. She braced herself, arms racing up to protect her face. The Rat stood with both arms out in front of her body and Cassie somehow knew she was deflecting the blow. Even so, when it hit, both she and the Rat were knocked backwards. Had the Rat not been there Cassie was certain she’d have been thrown into, or through, the wall behind her.
Stunned but unhurt, Cassie stared as she got to her feet. The girl had literally released a tangible barrier of air. Like a gust of wind but far more solid and concentrated than Cassie had felt before.
“Sorry. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t hold it. I tried, honestly I did but it got away from me.”
The Rat grinned at the girl who now stood, shoulders slumped and staring at her feet. “Don’t worry, you’re still learning. You’re young and you’re strong. It was never going to be easy. It isn’t supposed to be. Besides I told you, air is flighty. So are you. That makes it doubly hard to control.”
The girl beamed and skipped from the room happily after the Rat told her she was free to go.
“What was that?” Cassie knew what she had seen, but she didn’t understand it.
“Air.” The Rat shrugged at the puzzled look on Cassie’s face. “Essentially it is as simple as that. But if you want the more complicated answer it’s this; each of us is born of four elements, you have no doubt heard that all your life.” Cassie nodded as the Rat continued. “Our bodies are formed of earth and water, we breathe air to survive and the flame inside us is our life, our warmth, perhaps even our soul. It dances in perfect time to our Asyriah. Once extinguished, that flame cannot be relit. Though, as with any fire, it can be rekindled from even the smallest ember.” Some people are more strongly bound to a particular element. I don’t mean that one element dominates the others as such, just that certain people are able to use one of the elements.”
“You mean magic? I’ve heard people talk about it, and sometimes when travelling performers came to the village there’d be people who could do things like swallow fire, or make things disappear.”
“That can be learnt without magic, but it certainly makes things easier. What you saw are often tricks, though when using real magic it would almost certainly be disguised as little more than a trick. People with magic are sought after but not all those who hold it wish to be sought.” The Rat paused, a slight frown flitting around her mouth before she continued, “You obviously have a strong tie to fire. It burned in your veins the other day like I’ve never seen before.”
“But it must have been the necklace. I didn’t do anything.”
The Rat nodded thoughtfully.
“Perhaps that’s true. The necklace could have been working by itself. But nevertheless there’s more at stake than whether or not you caused those flames to burn alongside your blood.”
Cassie shifted uncomfortably. She could see that Rat hadn’t fully accepted her explanation. It was unnerving to think there was something inside her that she had never known. She realised the Rat was still talking and thrust the thought away to concentrate.
“Whatever you have, magic or knowledge or nothing at all, someone has already tried to destroy you once and they will try again.”
“James.” His name tasted bitter in her mouth.
“Exactly. Learning to fight physically is important, but I have a feeling he’s not just relying on physical means to attack you. Nor should you rely on physical defence alone.”
Cassie looked at her blankly, not sure what to say or exactly what she was talking about. Thankfully the Rat continued.
“You told me yesterday about what happened with your necklace, and the way it was like screens being torn off your memories. That reminded me of two boys, twins, I once knew. Both had the power to manipulate the way people saw things. I’ve heard other stories, of people who not only can change memories, but can create new memories or remove old ones entirely. Most people wouldn’t believe that, but I know such things are possible. The twins meant well. They used their ability to change hurtful memories into better ones, ones that didn’t cause pain. But they used it sparingly. I think James has a similar ability, but he is using it to manipulate people to his own ends. You need to learn how to protect your memories, your thoughts, your mind, from his power.”
“What happened to the twins?” Cassie couldn’t help but ask.
The Rat smiled but it was a twisted smile full of sadness. “One of them fell sick and was in terrible pain for weeks. It reached a point where his mind could no longer deal with the pain his body was enduring. He unconsciously altered his own memories until he believed he was well again; he became trapped in his own mind where he was living a happy life without pain. A person cannot survive in a world outside reality like that. He died. The brother I haven’t seen in four years. He disappeared completely. He didn’t want to be found, so he strived to remove the memory of any interaction with him from the minds of those he’d met. I remember their story, but I can’t remember what he looked like. He took that from me. I think he intended to take everything, but I managed to lock some of it away from him.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“You did. But that’s okay. It’s important you understand how dangerous these things can be, not just to those around you but to yourself.” The Rat bent to sit on the floor and motioned for Cassie to do the same. “First, you need to learn to breathe.”