The predators circled, each taking a turn to snarl at her, some more vicious than others, but everyone determined to take their piece of flesh.
'Stupid, shabby thing.'
'She never learns.'
'She's too stupid to learn.'
'Why are you here?'
'You don't belong in this place.'
'Why do you even exist?'
'Elda. Even your name is ugly.'
'Look at yourself!'
'She can't. She shuns mirrors. She's afraid they'll crack at the sight of her.'
And then the leader, the alpha, came to bite, the pack parting, their faces turned admiringly upon her, her radiance reflected in their eyes.
Tanit, beautiful young Tanit: cruel, and worse than cruel.
'No, that's not the case,' said Tanit. 'She stays away from mirrors because there's nothing to see. She's so insignificant that she's barely there at all.'
It was the way that she spoke, the words tossed carelessly as though the object of her disdain were unworthy even of the effort involved in crushing her. She looked down on Elda—Tanit was tall, even for an Illyri; it was part of her power—reached out a hand, and let it slip through this lesser Novice's mop of dark hair, the strands falling from her fingers in tousled clumps.
'Nothing,' said Tanit. 'I feel . . . nothing.'
Her victim kept her head down, her eyes on the floor. It was better that way, easier. Perhaps Tanit and the others might grow bored if they couldn't provoke a reaction, and seek other prey to torment.
But no, not this time. Elda felt a prickling on her skin. It began at her cheeks, then slowly spread to her nose, her forehead, her ears, her neck. Warmth became heat, heat became burning pain. What Tanit was doing to her was against all the rules, but the rules did not apply to Tanit and her acolytes as they did to others. After all, this was merely practice for them. They were like disturbed children encouraged to torture insects and rodents so that they would not falter when told to inflict pain on their own.
And they had no fear of being caught. This was the Marque, the ancient lair of the Nairene Sisterhood, and held no shortage of places in which the weak could be tormented by the strong.
The burning grew more intense. She could feel blisters forming, her skin bubbling and lifting. She put her hand to her face in a vain effort to shield herself, but her palm immediately started blistering too, and she snatched it back in fright. She tried not to scream, determined not to give them that satisfaction, but the agony was becoming too much to bear. She opened her mouth, but it was the voice of another that spoke.
'Leave her be!'
Tanit's concentration was broken. Immediately, Elda's pain began to lessen. There would be marks, but no scars. That, at least, was something.
The Novice looked up. Syl Hellais was pushing her way through the pack—a well-placed elbow here, a knee there. Some resisted, but only passively. There was grumbling and confusion, but Tanit alone merely tossed her head and laughed, folding her arms across her chest as if settling in to see what Syl planned to do.
Now Syl stood by Elda's side.
'Elda, are you all right?'
Syl helped her to her feet, looking anxiously at the girl's face, then turning her hand over and inspecting the injury on her palm. Elda appeared badly sunburned, and her hand was red and sore, but the blisters were small and unbroken.
'Is it awful?' whispered Elda.
'It will fade,' said Syl, which wasn't quite answering the question. Anyway, there was no time for that now. They had more pressing concerns. The pack was brave when in numbers, but still only ever as strong as its leader. Tackle the leader, and the pack would slink away. In theory.
But this was Tanit, and Tanit did not back down easily. She was watching Syl closely, her face set in a mask of amusement.
'What did you do to her?' said Syl.
'I simply told her she was pretty,' said Tanit. 'I made her blush.'
'What is it to you anyway, Smelly?' said one of the braver females, bristling on Tanit's left. Her name was Sarea, and she and another Novice, Nemein, were competitors for Tanit's favour, and the floating post of her best friend. Tanit enjoyed playing them off against each other. Each would deny Tanit nothing for fear that she might turn instead to the other.
Now Syl and Tanit exchanged a look, a brief flash of ice-cold understanding between deadly rivals. Sarea was trying to score points by baiting Syl. Tanit gave Sarea a barely perceptible nod, giving her permission for the entertainment to begin.
Sarea stepped forward. She was graceful and almost delicately pretty, all fine bones and sparkling eyes. However, Sarea's prettiness hid a near-psychotic lust for violence. Her particular skill was the application of pressure with the power of her mind, from the merest sensation of tightness on the skin to the breaking of bones and the crushing of skulls. She had tried it on Syl once, shortly after her arrival at the Marque; a little welcoming bruise, that was how Sarea had described it.
Syl broke Sarea's nose in reprisal, and it didn't require much mental effort at all on her part. It was mostly physical.
Now Syl smiled, though her stomach felt weak and empty, her hands shaky. She balled them into fists.
'You're brave when picking on those weaker than you, surrounded by your friends,' said Syl. 'Would you be quite so mouthy if it were just you and me?'
She could feel Sarea itching to hurt her: a little pressure and she could burst some of the blood vessels in Syl's nose, or in her eyes. Slightly more, and a finger might snap, a toe break. And then there were all those lovely internal organs: lungs, bowels, heart.
Oh, the heart! Sarea yearned to crush a heart. And already what she was envisaging was becoming real. Syl felt the faintest squeezing behind her ribs, a pressure on the beating organ, and knew that it was Sarea's work, even though Sarea was banned from using her skills out of class. However, Sarea was just a Novice too, and not completely in control of her dubious talents, not yet. Or perhaps, she merely chose not to be.
Now Sarea opened her mouth as if to reply, but then her eyes glazed over and she shook her head, seeming to have no words. She stared hard at Syl before looking to the rest of her group, bemused. Syl watched her, her heart released again, freely pounding in her chest. She waited for the pack to attack, but then Tanit spoke once more.
'I'm sorry. We meant no harm.'
'Excuse me?' said Syl.
'It was nothing, Sister. Nothing. We're sorry. No harm.'
Tanit stepped away, turning to leave, and the others moved after her while Syl and Elda watched, slack-jawed with surprise. But one of the pack remained, staring at Syl, unmoving as the rest of Tanit's creatures melted away. She was half-obscured in the shadows, a reedy, dark-haired figure in rich blue robes. Her name was Uludess, but her friends called her Dessa. As Syl looked into that intense, furrowed face, a bead of blood slid from the older girl's nose, and she shrugged and gave a rueful little grin. Syl opened her mouth to speak, but Dessa shook her head ever so slightly then spun away, wiping the blood on her sleeve as she hurried after her pack.
A tutor in the red garments of a full Sister approached.
'What was all that about?'
It was Cale, who was responsible for the junior Novices like Syl. She was young for a senior Nairene. Her family had died in a shuttle crash shortly after her birth, and only Cale had survived. The Sisterhood had taken her in and raised her, so Cale's progress through the ranks had started earlier than most.
Syl and Elda stared at the floor.
'Do either of you want to explain to me what was going on there?' asked Cale, but it was only for show. She knew what Tanit and her pack were like, just as she understood that Syl and Elda would tell her nothing of what had happened. Even if they did, Cale could only go to the Grandmage Oriel to complain on their behalf, and Oriel, who supervised the training of all Novices, would only ignore her. Oriel had a fondness for Tanit and her kind.
'I tripped,' said Elda. 'Syl was pulling me to my feet.'
'And the others?' said Cale.
'They were queuing up to help too,' said Syl.
Cale gave Syl a peculiar look. She seemed about to smile, but thought better of it.
'Get back to your duties, both of you,' she said.
They did as they were told. Cale watched them go, but so too did another, unseen. The Grandmage Oriel remained in the doorway for a moment, and then was gone.