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Alien Magic

Chapter Text

Sometimes, Tris wondered if a visit to Winding Circle would ever be as simple as sitting graciously down with their teachers, drinking tea and eating cakes, and leaving after two hours full of Gorse’s cooking and general goodwill. Not that she wanted that, especially—but when the four had presented themselves at Discipline each had been snapped up by a teacher. Sandry was showing Lark some Namornese embroidery (“the only good thing about that wretched court,” she had confided in Tris, who was inclined to agree).  Rosethorn and Briar were weeding together in something close to silence whilst Evvy provided the chatter; Daja had disappeared off to Frostpine’s forge. Tris herself was walking with Niko.

Gravel Beach was not her favourite place to stroll. It was a very public reminder of the most spectacular way she had lost control of her power, when her mage’s medallion had been a distant dream. Worse, voices and sights flowed into her ears and across her vision; but Niko was restless, and seemed to have chosen this place deliberately.

“Lightsbridge,” she prompted. “What were you going to say?”

“Mmm?” He was distracted, as though he was attempting some small form of magic at the same time. Tris didn’t believe he would be that rude to her; Niklaren Goldeneye had the manners of a cat, true, but they were manners all the same.

“Lightsbridge. The university, Niko.”

“Yes. Yes.” Niko frowned, looked at the rounded stones at his feet, and seemed to come to himself again. “I was only wondering if you’re definitely sure that’s where you want to go.”

“No, Niko, I want to go to the other mage’s university famed for its excellent education,” she responded, close to rolling her eyes. “What other university can hope to match Lightsbridge?” She had visited university after university with him—Tharios’ had a wonderful library, but nothing could match up to the golden idea of Lightsbridge.

He really was distracted, if he couldn’t summon up a dry retort. “I’ve had a letter from a friend of mine—across the Circle Sea—“

He didn’t have a chance to finish what he was saying. The sea broke on the shore and as the tide pulled away it left something broken behind. Tris thought it a dead body at first, and unbidden thoughts of pirates and drowned slaves rose up into her mind. She closed her eyes hard, feeling her heart thud, and swallowed the need to vomit. As she opened them again, Tris forced herself to look harder.

“Feathers?” she croaked. “Is it a puppet or a somesuch?” But who would take a dead bird and sew an approximation of human features where its head and breast ought to be? It looked entirely too real to be human-made, anyway.

She stared at the ugly thing, whose odd feathers trembled as the tide washed in again, and then realised Niko had not answered her. Stealing a glance at him, she was shocked to see his face drained of blood.

“No, Trisana. It’s no puppet. I felt something earlier—a trace of something odd, a strange magic—it’s this. It was only hidden in the sea.”

He waited until the tide had dragged itself out again, took a piece of driftwood, and pulled the creature towards them. Tris resisted the urge to step back a pace, though she did draw her skirts closer towards her and made sure no breeze would blow them close to the dead thing. She turned away for a moment, trying to resist the urge to vomit, but spun back again when she heard the scrape of metal on metal.

“Niko, what kind of animal is that?” she cried. “Was it shot?” Was that an arrowhead making that noise?

“No, it’s…” Niko leant over the creature without appearing to notice the smell emanating from it. Less able to ignore it, Tris grabbed a handkerchief from her belt and pressed it over her long nose.

“It’s?” she prompted, muffled.

“It’s feathers are metal.” Niko paused, then bent further over to retrieve a molted feather. “All dull metal. It seems safe to touch.”

Grimacing, Tris touched the metal feather. The shine on it was dulled by the seawater, though it had not rusted yet. The sides of the feather would not have cut butter.

“How are we to get this to Winding Circle?” was her next question

+++

Daine’s belly heaved again, but she was certain nothing more could come out of it. Morning sickness wasn’t meant to last all day, and it definitely hadn’t been this way when she had been pregnant with Sarralyn or Rikash. And the embryo wasn’t changing shape, so…pregnancy didn’t seem an option.

She didn’t feel fogged, or hot to the touch. Gingerly she sat up, touching her forehead with cool fingers. So what could it be?

A knock at the door, and glad she was dressed, Daine dragged herself up and sloped to the door slowly. Opening it, she was faced with Onua who looked as sick as Daine herself. That pointed to one explanation—one she didn’t much want to think of.

“Immortals?”

“A flock of them,” Onua confirmed. “A flock of Stormwings, in fact—landed in the courtyard. Ill, Daine. A smaller flock than there should be!” She paused, working to swallow back bile. “They’re asking for you.”

“It must be why we’re so sick,” Daine mumbled as she hugged the closest jacket to hand—one of Numair’s.

“Because of the Stormwings?”

“Their magic—and ours—well, it must be fair messy for them to ask for help.”

+++

“I feel that I should protest at my worktable being used as some kind of—dissection project,” Dedicate Crane observed dryly.

“Then don’t have access to a place where disease is studied,” Rosethorn muttered. Briar and Lark stood slightly in front of her, ostensibly by chance. Everyone else knew better but was too polite to say so.

“It’s not just disease, anyway, though this creature plainly was unwell before it’s death,” Niko put in. “It’s alien magic. Trisana will confirm that.”

No matter how many times he says that, thought Tris, It still makes me proud to hear.

He respects you as a mage, Coppercurls, put in Briar. Get used to it. His words were mitigated by a warm hand on her arm, a brief squeeze, and a smile.

“It’s like varicoloured silk,” put in Sandry, “Like the present from the Yanjingi emperor. Layers upon layers of spells—some are from human mages, I can tell that much, but…”

“Is this going to go on much longer?” Daja suddenly asked. “The metal—my metal. It doesn’t like it.”

“Your hand?” asked a concerned Lark, and then nodded as Daja extended the limb coated with living metal. Parts of her hand were marked pink where the metal had retreated, leaving her skin exposed, tender and raw.

“I am no expert,” Niko remarked, voice dry, “But that doesn’t appear to be normal.”

“I am an expert,” replied Daja, her voice tight with pain, “And it isn’t.” She nodded towards Crane, next to the dead bird with all its blunt metal feathers lying out on the examination table. Steel rested upon clean white cloth, looking like a soldier dead after battle being laid out for his last rites.

 “The animal isn’t natural. It could by why your hand is paining you," Rosethorn said as she gently shouldered Briar aside. “There’s no plant matter in it’s belly as far as I can tell. Could Unmagic do this?”

All drew the sign against evil on their chests, but only Sandry shuddered. “No. Unmagic’s about unmaking things. Monstrous as this is, it’s a creation.”

“There are places…places where this thing might have been made. The more experimental universities…” Niko trailed off, smoothing his moustache with his dark eyes clouded. Tris glared at him. So that’s why he was going on about other universities than Lightsbridge!

“More travelling?” Sandry asked, hiding her despair badly. Briar slung an arm around her shoulders.

“We’ll go in disguise, how about that, Your Highness? No clehames. No Viymese.

“Some Viymese,” put in Daja.

“Actually, they don’t have a particular address for mage. Other than Master.”

“They?” the four chorused.

Niko smoothed his moustache again, looking for all the world like he was preening before delivering an important message, but Lark beat him to it.

“You four should start to learn Tortallan.”

+++

Chapter Text

Going across the sea wasn’t so much of a grand adventure to anyone anymore. All had travelled extensively by now, and all had learned of the various horrors it could produce. They packed without a long list, didn’t wonder what souvenirs to buy for their teachers, and when the time came boarded the boat in Summersea Harbour.

Daja was surprised at how quickly her mood lifted, just from being on the water again. Her heart was bruised, maybe, but she had something to investigate, and she was with her siblings. As soon as she could stow all her things tidily in her cabin she went up to the deck, staff in hand, to watch the sailors cast off and to watch the water take the ship on its way.

It was peace of a sort, with her friends setting up their own cabins belowdecks. Briar’s wouldn’t see much use, she estimated—either because of dalliances with pretty young ladies, if there were any on the ship, or because he wanted to sleep in the fresh air. It was winter in Tortall, though. He’d want to get somewhere warmer the closer they got to this country with the experimental universities.

Briar was up on deck first, and Daja nodded at his scowling face.

“What’s wrong?”

“I asked the captain how long this was going to take. The full journey, I mean. For the final part, we’ll be dumped in a boat not bigger than a table and have to make our way up to Tris’ fancy new lodgings, and apparently some of the folk there reckon it’s good fun to welcome new students with thrown rotten vegetables.”

“That’s not a length of time,” Daja pointed out. “Why do we all have to go with Tris? Can’t she go by herself?”

“I don’t fancy being an innocent bystander if she gets hit square in the face with a cabbage,” he replied darkly. “We’ll hold umbrellas over her or somesuch. The journey’ll take a full fifty days or thereabouts, depending on the wind and which boats are judged more important than ours. Why couldn’t Vedris have worked some ducal magic on this thing?”

“Oh no, Sandry, we won’t have to bother with clehames and titles when we’re travelling,” muttered Sandry, sotto voce, from behind her foster-brother. “Tris may already attract some attention just by dint of joining a Royal University and being recommended by Niko. We thought it best to let the ducal connections rest for a while.”

“Where was I during this conversation?” Briar demanded, and Daja hid a smile as Sandry very deliberately rolled her eyes.

“You were distracted by the chat Rosethorn was having with Crane about the feathers, probably,” she pointed out, and Briar had to nod, begrudgingly.

Tris came up just before the ship set off. The cover story rested on all their shoulders, but hers most of all. None of them wanted to dance another political dance in a court beset by rumour and intrigue. She’d done some reading before they set off and found that, not so long ago, the current king’s champion had slain a major noble in the palace; the noble was trying to stage a coup. After that, there had been magic jewels, giantkillers, flesh-eating unicorns, and an unsettled part-truce between the old guard and the new, based around a woman’s place in the defences of the realm.

No, they were all better removed from it. Besides, the university seemed a better place to gather evidence. In her experience, courts were never concerned with fixing problems—only ignoring them until they exploded. She’d seen it—they all had—with Yarrun Firetamer in Gold Ridge, and most of all the deadly Namornese court.

So she was still Trisana Chandler. Out of all of them, only Sandry had had to modify her name slightly, and take the ‘fa’ from it. It wasn’t unusual for a young mage to come up to a university with her family, to help her settle in, was it? Although she had to live in the lodgings the University provided its students with, they would not be far away.

“I’ve unpacked—mostly,” she told the others. The dead metal bird was suspended in a case of something Dedicate Crane had produced, something which smelt very strongly and stung the inside of everyone’s noses, thick and faintly yellow. It was to preserve the thing, and it helped to modify the stink too. Currently, it was locked in a trunk in the corner of her cabin.

The others made a space for her on the rail, and they, along with the sparse, other passengers, watched as Summersea slowly retreated from view.


 

So it wasn’t just the wild magic users who felt the sickness sweep them clean, thought Daine as she swept a look over the assembled council. The King had something worn in his eyes, and she had no doubt he gripped the Queen’s hand under the table. Alanna had a mulish set to her jaw, but a sallow one to her skin. When Numair came in, and quickly took a seat next to her, she felt the queasiness roll off him in waves.

“Daine. What did the Stormwings tell you?” asked Jonathan, and Daine leaned forward to answer.

“They’re upset. But they don’t know what the cause of this is, or how it’s transmitted. It’s not so simple as one infected Stormwing flies to another flock, and then they get sick too. What seems to happen is that a feather dulls—just one—and then as the rest of them blunt and rust, the Stormwing sickens and dies. It picks them off in months, from what they said.” Daine paused. “And there’s no rhyme or reason as to who it picks. The clan I spoke to lost their headwoman, but days before, they lost a young one—the first Stormwing born to that flock in seven years.”

“If this has been going on for months,” put in Onua, “Why are we only hearing of it now, and why do we all feel this sickness?”

“Several other flocks have been sighted in the city,” replied Alanna. “I would guess it’s something to do with the proximity of so many sickened immortals congregating in one place. It’s acting like…”

“Like an open sewer next to your house,” someone said. Daine half-turned in her seat to see Raoul of Goldenlake shift in his. He continued. “Or those with magic, anyhow.”

“The Royal University has been made aware of the probable cause of this sickness,” said Jonathan, rubbing a hand at his beard. “It’ll affect the students, I suppose—if it is indeed affecting everyone with the Gift. I know George is away at present,” he added, mostly to Alanna, “But we need to know what it’s like for someone with the Sight.”

Harailt of Aili, wan and tired, sipped at a clear drink that smelt strongly of ginger and mint. “And with a new year beginning soon, who knows how it will affect new students? Imagine; your magic is controlled, but you’ve been stretching with it, playing with it, before you embark on your new studies in the capital. And the second you arrive, you find the immortals dying, your own health affected, and your teachers unable to explain it.”


 

Fifty-one days later, with Port Caynn in sight, Tris woke up with a rolling belly. Stumbling to the upper deck in the dawn half-light, her spectacles clutched in her left hand, she inelegantly vomited over the side of the boat.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t done to tie a handkerchief over your mouth when respectfully addressing a group of Stormwings, so despite the fact that Daine wanted nothing more than to lie down in a darkened room, she was in one of the courtyards close to the eastern edge of the palace, smart and neat in appearance.

What they were saying, after all, was fair vital to know.

“Lady Maura sent us,” one, Kirha, told her. “All of us—even the sickening. Well, she didn’t make the sick ones come, but they said they would prefer to be with the flock. We carried them in slings the way here, but they’re resting now.”

“It was good of them to come to Corus at all,” Daine responded, and although she wanted desperately to demand she see one of their own and learn from their symptoms, she held her tongue. It wasn’t decent, wasn’t good or proper.

“We brought some of their feathers,” said another, and there was a discordant jangling as a wrapped bundle was kicked close to the dirt where Daine stood. She bent and unwrapped the roll of greyed cloth, to find feathers. Some still sharp at the tip but pitted and dull at the base, one almost rusted into pieces, still more dull and lifeless and blunt.

“Experiments—a very human thing, a mage thing,” grumbled the first. “But she said you and the black-robed fellow, you were the best ones around for this.”

“I hope we are,” Daine replied as she thoughtfully turned a feather over. Gods above, she wanted to be free of this pitched battle with her body and magic, being a slave to ginger-water or potions with mint. How could her mind work clearly when she felt so feverish? It wasn’t a spell sent by a single human mage, she was almost certain about that. It seemed to affect most of the adult mages in the palace and even in the city, and to curse a whole series of Stormwing flocks…

But she didn’t like the options that left her with.

When the Stormwings flew away, Daine stayed in the rustic courtyard, organising the bundle neatly. Here were the worst-affected feathers, an ugly pained copper, and here the least, pitted silver. They should observe them, see if they got worse on their own. She doubted they would—she already felt a little better now the Stormwings had gone, and there wasn’t the sick wave pressing against her magic from the steel—but it was a start.

The lady knight Kel had raised a griffin. She wondered if looking at these feathers through a sheaf of griffin’s fletch, copper-red to dull rust, would help uncover their secrets.

“If you stare at them hard enough, I’m sure you’ll find a way out of our current predicament,” came Alanna’s wry voice. Daine jerked her head up, curls brushing against her head, as she watched the King’s Champion stride across the yard to meet her.

You’d never guess the Lioness had been ill unless you knew her well, and after Carthak Daine supposed she probably did. She walked a little stiffer, and she was so pale her hair glowed around her face.

“They’re a beginning,” Daine said ruefully, and Alanna nodded.

“This doesn’t feel natural, though—does it? Nothing like this…nausea…has been reported before. Not unless we count the time—”

“When the barrier between the worlds fell,” Daine finished for her, eyebrows raised. “You think this could be a matter that the gods had a hand in?”

“It’s either the gods or a cadre of mages with a lot of spite against all things Immortal,” replied the Lioness. “And I wouldn’t like to guess which.”


 

“Easy, Coppercurls,” Briar muttered, patting Tris on the back. “What, did seasickness creep up on you? Fifty days at sea too much? Perhaps you could only control the wav—”

Something red and purple tugged at the edges of his vision and the land suddenly loomed large in his mind. He felt the rivers and streets as surely as he felt his feet on the deck, and with it the swirling of countless magic. The colours turned into a vortex in his mind’s eye, pitching at him more violently than the ship had ever done.

Soon, he joined Tris hanging over the side of the boat. Something thin and savage plucked at him, crawling over his arms—and then they were gone. So was the sickness. His nausea disappeared and he raised his head to see Tris peering at him as she cleaned her spectacles on her skirt.

“Feeling better?”

“Surprisingly, yes.” Briar stood, and rubbed the back of his neck. “But you felt that, didn’t you? We didn’t both eat the same thing at dinner.”

“I felt it,” Tris replied grimly. “Like a sticky infection washing over my skin. Perhaps Tortall is doing worse than Niko implied.”

None of the sailors showed any signs of illness, though when Daja and Sandry drifted up to the deck all it took were a few words to establish that they too had experienced the same illness as the ship came closer to the shore.

“But it was like diving into cool water,” added Daja as they picked up the bags that would go up the river with them. “Once it had swept over me, I felt fine again.”

“It could be the…” Sandry trailed off as a sailor stopped near them, and thanked him when he handed her an errant bag. She turned to the other three again. “I wonder if it’s not the land—misunderstanding our magic. I did some reading about this place when I was living with Uncle. The King and Queen stole a jewel which forces the land to bend to their will. Maybe it doesn’t recognise ambient magic?”

“It’s never called stealing if they’re nobles,” Briar pointed out, and settled down in the small boat that would take Tris to her lodgings.


 

When Neal was sickening, either for the love of a maiden or because he was sure he had some hideous disease, Kel knew him to moan and pitch around and generally whinge. She allowed it because it made her smile and because it meant he was never really ill.

This, though… where Neal was whey-faced and marching resolutely down to the lower city, speaking not a word to her and hardly even opening his mouth, this was a worry. His father (and former knight-mistress, too) had asked him to explore the city and come back with any reports of anyone who had the Gift, or the Sight, and didn’t report symptoms of illness. Kel had found him trying to go alone and had insisted she accompany him.

He hadn’t even pretended to be embarrassed about it. He’d just tiredly accepted her help.

And everywhere they’d gone so far, people had been the same as Neal. Tired, lethargic, pretending not be ill. It was the children that got to them both the most. They were too young to understand why they felt ill, only that they did.

Thankfully, nobody had reported a death yet. Kel knew better than to point this out to Neal and tempt fate.

They walked silently together, through the bustling streets, when Neal abruptly stopped and headed towards the river. He braced his hands on his thighs, taking in great whooping breaths. Looked up, squinting, at the boat that passed in front of them. And as Kel caught up with him, he keeled over.


 

Briar had been in too many hazardous situations to ignore the man who toppled to the ground. The tall woman next to him caught him by the arm, but all she did was slow his descent. Briar yanked his mage kit out of his bag and hopped over the side of the boat.

Maybe the climate in Tortall didn’t agree with anyone who lived here, because since they’d been put on the smaller boat all they’d seen had been pasty- and grey-faced citizens. The whole country seemed down in the dumps. Besides which, more time on the water was making him itch to get his feet on solid ground.

His sisters were yelling, but it wasn’t that far a swim to get to the side of the river, and not a lot of work to get up to the patient.

Sandry’s clothes worked their magic as he knelt next to the man, wringing themselves dry. Before he could open his mage kit, the man’s friend warded him off with a warning hand.

“Who are you?”

Her voice wasn’t panicked, and she seemed to have possession of all her wits. Briar’s estimation of the people in Tortall went up a notch. “My name is Briar Moss. I’ve worked in hospitals. What’s wrong with him?”

Her face closed a little, turning a kind of blank slate. Was it xenophobia? His accent had a noticeable foreign tang, after all. But she answered him anyway.

“A…sickness. He’s not been able to eat or drink much.”

And he decided to take a walk in the capital city? Clearly he wanted to be pickpocketed. Still, it made his job easier—no need to head to the more complex magic inside his kit. Briar was busy pulling out anti-sickness solutions with lemon and peppermint when his sisters arrived. It didn’t look like they’d swum, and with a glance over his shoulder he saw the boatman waiting grumpily at a local dock.

Tris looked at the woman, who looked straight back. There was something of an exchange only through gazes going on, Briar was sure, but he concentrated on the balms and tools of his trade. He heard Tris introduce herself, Daja and Sandry, and identify themselves as Briar’s sisters; he could only imagine how the woman would take that, with none of them looking related in the slightest.

“I’m Keladry,” she told them instead, and then returned to focusing on her friend as Briar applied the blunt tack of smelling salts to nose. “He’s dehydrated, but we have rooms not far away. I can get him there, and he can see a healer.”

Her fallen friend spluttered and waved his arm as he came back to the land of the living, and Briar sat back on his haunches. There was often no way to tell how people would react once they woke—whether it was a dream of being attacked or thinking they were at home in bed.

“I am a healer,” he told his friend waspishly, and both Kel and Briar’s shoulders relaxed.

It didn’t take long after that to make sure the man—Nealan, he said—was back on his feet. He seemed to be having trouble with his vision, insisting on wiping a salve under them, and then peering at them strangely.

I saw people of every hue on the river, came Daja’s dry voice in their minds. But he’s staring like he’s lived in the dark all his life.

There was to-and-fro about whether to give them coin in thanks, which Sandry solved by suggesting they were going to be late. Nealan seemed happy enough to let them go, but the woman had a few more questions.

“Late? Are you starting at the university?”

“Just me,” replied Tris, her back straightening a tiny amount as if she were daring Keladry to argue. Instead, the woman looked at the rest of them.

“Are you helping her to settle in?”

“We can’t have our Coppercurls heading off to a strange new city without her siblings,” Briar said with cheer, and ignored the rude word in his mind that Tris slung his way.


 

Even Neal had to admit that once he’d fainted it was time to head back. They watched the doctor and his sisters get back in the boat and glide away, again in almost complete silence. Neal smelt strongly of the oils Briar Moss had put on him, but Kel had a feeling they weren’t doing him any harm. If nothing else—she didn’t believe the story of Trisana’s family taking her to university for a second—his motive hadn’t been to harm Neal.

“Hmm,” Neal eventually said, and wiped the salve away from under his eyes.

“What?” Kel had noticed the use of the salve—the very expensive salve she’d gifted him for his birthday, the stuff that let him see magic.

“Nothing,” Neal said, but they both knew that was untrue. He sighed, and looked at Kel. “Only that every person with magic, everywhere in the city, they feel off-balance, at odds with themselves. But those four are saturated with the Gift. It’s as strong in them as—it’s close to Numair’s level of strength. I can’t find any speck of decay or infirmity in them.

“They…could have something to do with this.”