1.3

“I’m a Rune?” Maybe if she repeated it to herself enough times, Nilien might believe it. “But… there’s a process. There’s a test, there’s…” She wasn’t entirely certain what there was, but she knew you didn’t just wake up one morning a Rune.

The process is: do you want to live? Here I am. The fox chewed on the fur between its toes. All the rest is ribbons and bows and ruffles: pretty but un-needed.

“But…” Nilien pulled herself together. “The book I read on Runes, Edmond de Martin’s Musings on The Power and the Mark, it said that that process is out-dated and no longer used. It’s too dangerous.”

Dying is dangerous, too. The fox nipped delicately at Nilien’s hand. But you were quite clear. You wanted to live, yes?

“Yes. Yes, I want to live.” Wanted? She peered at the creature. No, familiar; that explained the unnaturally red hue, too. “Wanted? What…”

She still could not remember what had happened. She could remember the morning — getting up, getting dressed — but there was a foggy patch missing in the middle, with nothing but the bright light and the voice in her head.

Wanted. Want. Life is important to you. So here I am.

“Ah, there you are, Nilien.” The headmaster’s shoes clicked loudly on the floor as he hurried over to her, fussing as if he had somehow misplaced her. “And your familiar. Very good.” Headmaster Narite nodded to the fox, then turned his attention to Nilien. “You’re awake, that’s very good. We were concerned.” He frowned at her. “You’ve been through quite an experience already, haven’t you? But here you are, safe and sound. We have contacted your parents, of course.”

“Thank you,” Nilien offered politely. She supposed getting a familiar and becoming a Rune really was an “experience,” but it didn’t seem like she’d experienced much at all yet.

“However,” the Headmaster continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “it seems mostly likely that you will be transferred to the Imperial Academy at Reinmonte to continue your education.”

“Transferred? The Academy is where they train people to become Runes, isn’t it?” Nilien glanced at her fox, who seemed to have nothing to say at the moment.

“Yes. Your situation may be quite unusual, but you are, nevertheless, now a Rune.” The Headmaster smiled broadly at her.

1.2

What is going on? The voice answered her out of nowhere. That is a very good question.

Nilien jerked backwards, the movement reminding her how much her body hurt.  “What… who?”  She pulled herself into a sitting position, wincing at every movement, and looked around.

I know the answer, of course.  But you have to ask me, not just the air.

At the foot of her bed was a fox, a fox the same vibrant red as the mark on her hand.  Nilien rubbed her eyes, but the fox didn’t go away.  If anything, it looked more real – and quite disdainful.

I’m here, you know.  Wishing won’t make me go away.  Not much at all will make me go away. It stood up, circled twice, and sat back down, staring intently at her.

“You’re… you’re real.”  She rubbed her eyes again.  “How are you talking?”

In your mind, of course.  How else would I talk?  As much as a voice in her head had a tone, it sounded as if it was the most obvious answer in the world.

“Well… like… oh.”  Nilien’s head still felt foggy.  “Where did you come from?”  That seemed like a reasonable question.

The fox opened its mouth at her in a lazy grin, tongue lolling.  Where did I come from?  Don’t you remember?

“As far as I know, this is the first time I’ve ever seen you.  I’m…”  She looked around.  “Oh, this is the infirmary.  I’m in the infirmary.  I was…” She trailed off, uncertain.  The mark on her hand caught her eye again, and she held it up towards the fox.

The mark looked nothing at all like a fox, except that both of them were red.  “I wanted to live,” she continued uncertainly.

You did.  This is a very good start. The fox nodded.

“And…”

And now I am here. It looked very pleased with itself.

“And now there’s a red fox on my bed.  Talking — talking in my mind.”  What had it said?  Something about knowing the answers?  “Oh!  What is going on?”

I thought you’d never get around to asking.  The fox stood up lazily and stalked towards Nilien until it could rest its chin on her marked hand. You wanted to live.  And now I am here.  Your spirit companion.

“My… my familiar?”  Nilien stared at the creature.  This close, it was clear how unnaturally red it was.  “You’re my familiar?” She flattened her hands against her lap and focused on the tip of the fox’s tail.  “I’m a Rune?”

The fox’s tail flicked up over its eyes, but the tone in her head still sounded amused. Now she understands.

1.1

Nilien was aware of the pain before she was aware of being awake. Two years ago she’d been laid up for weeks with a fever; this felt like the worst days of that: her stomach miserable, her whole body sore, her mouth as dry as if it had been stuffed with cotton. Her head was pounding, too.

It had been dark. Not just the dark of nighttime; there had been nothing to see, nothing but void. She hadn’t hurt, then. She hadn’t felt anything at all.

She forced her eyes open, glad of the dimness. Sunlight felt like it would be unbearable. The ceiling above her was white plaster, well-scrubbed. She was definitely not in her room at school; she was no longer in the dark void, either.

She was lying on her back in a narrow bed on a thin mattress, covered by a thin blanket. She lifted her hands above the blanket, discovering along the way that, while movement made her stomach queasy, it didn’t hurt in and of itself. Small gifts, she thought. But the fever had come with aches so bad she couldn’t move a finger without pain. If she wasn’t aching, if this wasn’t the fever, how had she ended up here?

Was she even feverish? She lifted her hand to her forehead to check for warmth. Wait. On the back of her right hand was a vivid red mark, something she’d never seen before.

Do you want to live? In the darkness – why had there been such darkness? – a voice had called out to her.

Do you want to live? A light had appeared, and the question had been repeated. It seemed like a silly question now: of course she wanted to live!

She could remember no silliness at the time, just an urgency. Yes, she’d answered. Yes!

Nilien closed her eyes to let the memory wash over her. The darkness, the single light, the question, her answer… Yes. She’d been dying. No wonder she felt awful. And then the light had grown brilliant, brighter than the sun, and then…

That was all she could remember. But now she had a red mark on her hand, something like an elaborate V, and Nilien was absolutely certain that hadn’t been there the day before.

Opening her eyes again, she wiggled her fingers and watched the mark on the back of her hand. She’d wanted to live and she was alive. That much, she was pretty certain of. The mark, the pain, the reason she’d wanted so strongly to live – none of that was coming to her.

“What is going on?” she whispered.