For a long, unsettled time, Jack felt he ought to be doing something. Unfamiliar sensations nagged him, tugging at the edge of his consciousness. Memories flooded in, scenes from an odd dream featuring a terrible fight with a massive fire-breathing alligator-like monster.
By the light and the smell and the sound, he identified a dewy morning, an open window and breakfast cooking over a wood fire. Bacon, he recognized, and thought he might smell eggs and toast as well. It came to him eventually that he was imagining the eggs and toast thanks to the bacon, but the bacon was real.
A presence hovered above him. His eyes were closed, and he didn’t seem to be able to open them, but he somehow recognized Nam as she leaned over him to tend to something. To tend to him. Was he ill?
He was conscious of more than just Nam. He knew he was back in the room they had used yesterday. Rogan was at the hearth, tending to breakfast. A great mass of stone surrounded him, too thick to penetrate in the direction of the rest of the keep. He wondered why he could feel it… see it?… as far as he could, with the adjacent rooms and more in clear focus, but perhaps it was the same reason he could sense the fortress walls outside, and the forest spreading out beyond those.
The reality of the prior night’s battle, not as a dream but a memory, flooded back into his consciousness. He made an inarticulate noise and opened his eyes at last. The huntress looked down on him with relief.
“Good,” she smiled. “Welcome back.”
To his alarm, he couldn’t move anything other than his eyes. More precisely, he couldn’t remember how to move.
“Wait,” she cautioned with an apologetic smile, reaching for his chest. “You were thrashing about last night. I had to restrain you for your own safety. Breathe deep.”
He didn’t comply on purpose; the deep breath simply happened. She had made a remote control command rather than a request. Her hand came away holding a feather and a primitive string of beads, which had been laying on his chest. “There. You can sit up now.”
The breath released on its own, and his body became his own once more. Nam’s magic had also had a pain-killing effect. Aches and pains from every corner of his body now made themselves known. He stared out the open window at the not-quite-clear sky for a few moments before complying.
Rising, he experienced a strange feeling of vertigo, a dizzying conflict like seeing cross-eyed whenever he moved. Then he remembered a bright ember flying through his hand and into his chest. He looked down at the palm of his hand, at the spot where it had drilled through. He thought he sensed a faint glow there.
“It’s still there, isn’t it?”
She paused, clearly hesitating over a subject she did not want to tell him. Finally, she nodded.
“The ethen that came out of that creature remains within you, yes. It is in your chest, not that hand, but it seems to have affected the gate of your hand as well, to some purpose.”
“Ethen…” Another new term. Would he ever understand anything these people told him? He shook his head. “What’s up with all these mystery words?”
Nam looked puzzled. “Well… All arts have their technical terms. Flux arts are no exception.”
She walked over and knelt at the campfire next to where Rogan sat cooking breakfast, then gathered a couple cups. Jack turned his hand over to investigate the back. A complex pattern showed on it, traced in what appeared to be black soot.
“‘Flux arts’ is the magic you guys do?”
Nam clicked her tongue and shot him a frown as she poured tea. “‘Magic’ is card tricks, Officer. Mind games, sleight-of-hand, and such make. I am no magician. Flux arts are methods by which we analyze and manipulate flux. Please do not confuse the two.”
Her sharp tone caught Jack off guard. She’d put some real emotion into her response. But then she shrugged and explained, “It bothers me only a wee bit, you see, but to that man who is cooking our breakfast, it is quite offensive.”
“Far too many superstitious idiots have called flux artists ‘witches’ down through the centuries, and hurt them for it. Many were people as devout and religious as themselves. And Rogan is a very good example of that. He is a deeply devout Christian, the furthest thing you will find from someone who treats with devils or demons.”
Jack blinked in confusion, although Nam was putting the teapot aside at the time and didn’t see. Of all the reasons that she might have given for why someone from another world might dislike something, ‘Because he’s a Christian’ was surely the least likely one he could imagine.
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