Author's Note: This is sort of set in the same universe as Left Unsaid, but only because it's another plot bunny for the longer story those characters might or might not be part of. This story was originally supposed to be about an unreliable narrator. It turned out pretty different.
Tales of Ash
You've heard the tales of ash before you
From timeless legends that they speak
If you can listen now to reason
Then take the whispers to the heart
Forget this cold and black consumption
– Aviators, Angel of the Dark
It started with magic. Everything in Tamena's life had something to do with magic. Usually magic of the sort that was better left alone. This time, it started with a magical fire, and a spell to make flowers grow.
Tamena was a very young witch at that time. She wasn't truly a witch at all yet; just one of a magician's many students, stumbling over complicated spells and even more complicated potions. It was her turn to tend to the garden. What better time to practice conjuring rain?
She conjured rain, all right. A rain of fire. By the time the flames had stopped cascading like a burning waterfall, there was nothing but ash left of her teacher's prized garden.
Tamena fell to her knees. Dust and smoke whirled around her, settling in her hair, getting caught in her throat, and making her eyes water.
How do I explain this? she thought, wiping her eyes and smearing dust all over her face.
The garden was a good distance away from the magic academy. Addira Rheis-Vadasu, the magician who had the thankless task of teaching seventy less-than-promising students, had decided her garden was less likely to suffer harm if it wasn't near the main building. She had clearly never realised there was the possibility of a student assigned to gardening duty burning it to the ground. Likely no one had seen the fire or smelt the smoke. Tamena still had time to think of an excuse…
And then it hit her. Only yesterday she'd learnt a spell to undo damage. It had been meant specifically for damage to weapons, but surely it would work on gardens!
She stood up to her full height – which admittedly wasn't much – and gathered all her magic. She cast the spell…
And nothing happened.
Tamena stared. Her mouth fell open. What had she done wrong? Why was the garden still such a mess?
A peal of laughter rang out behind her. The young witch turned round quickly, a litany of excuses and apologies on the tip of her tongue. They all died unspoken. Instead of a classmate – or worse, one of the teachers – or even worse, the magician herself – she found a complete stranger sitting on the garden wall.
She didn't know all her fellow students by sight, but she knew this girl was a stranger simply because she was sitting on the wall. Professor Addira had very strict opinions about people walking, standing or sitting on walls. None of the students ever felt safe in defying her, because you never knew when she had replaced the wall with an illusion that would vanish if you sat on it. This girl had no such fear. She stared at Tamena with a highly amused smile. Tamena stared back, bewildered by her being there at all and not pleased by her reaction to the disaster.
"Who are you?" she asked frostily. "Visitors aren't allowed in the gardens."
"I would say students shouldn't be allowed in them either," the stranger retorted, leaning back and throwing her arm around the pillar at the end of the wall. "Just what are you taught here, if you can't manage a simple repair spell? I must have words with my sister about this. Do you know where she is?"
The girl's casual, careless tone grated on Tamena's nerves. To her the ruined garden was nothing short of a tragedy. How could anyone be so indifferent to it?
"I don't know who your sister is," she said bitingly. "You haven't told me who you are."
"Haven't I?" The stranger appeared genuinely surprised. Or perhaps she was just an excellent actress. "My name is Lódiren, and unless I've come to the wrong academy my sister is the headmistress here. And who might you be, may I ask?"
Once again Tamena's jaw dropped. This was the magician's sister? She studied Lódiren's face, searching for any resemblance to Addira. Black hair? No, the magician's was brown. Blue eyes? Yes, the magician had those. But so had many other people. So had Tamena herself. Pointed face? The magician's wasn't quite as pointed, or quite as thin. Pale skin? The magician's wasn't so eerily pale. Based on resemblance alone she had no reason to believe this claim. But she also had no reason to disbelieve it. Frantically she replayed their conversation in her mind. Had she said anything that would get her in trouble?
Finally she realised Lódiren had asked her a question. "Wh-who am I? ...Tamena. Tamena Liraquon. I'm in the twenty-seventh class. Pl-pleased to meet you."
"No, you aren't," Lódiren said with startling bluntness. "I wouldn't be either, if I was you. Well!" She jumped off the wall and stood up. Tamena noticed at once she was far taller than the magician. "I suppose we'd better do something about this mess."
She waved her hand carelessly, almost dismissively. Before Tamena's amazed eyes the garden sprang into life. All the ash reformed itself into flowers. The dust disappeared beneath grass. Not a leaf was out of place, not even a fallen petal showed what had happened minutes ago.
Lódiren was gone when Tamena turned to thank her.
Tamena didn't need magic to tell when trouble was brewing. Addira said nothing to the students about her sister's visit, even as Lódiren's stay lasted weeks. But everyone could tell she wasn't happy about it. She clenched her teeth until it was a miracle her jaw didn't break when Lódiren started helping students with their work. She balled her hands into fists when Lódiren started giving demonstrations of advanced magic in the classroom. She muttered under her breath when one of her spells failed while her sister's worked. Her behaviour was so very out of character that everyone noticed.
"Why is the magician angry with you?" Viala Neare asked during one of the study sessions Lódiren somehow came to attend.
Tamena kept her eyes on her book, but she listened with all her might for the answer.
"She's always been jealous, I'm afraid," Lódiren said with a laugh. "It galls her that my magic is stronger than hers though I'm almost twenty years younger."
It sounded like a perfectly good explanation. But there was something about it that struck Tamena as odd. Addira had never seemed the sort of person to be so irrationally jealous. Yet why would Lódiren lie?
The magician's sister disappeared as suddenly as she arrived. One day she was there, the next she was gone.
At last Tamena worked up the courage to ask the magician about it. Addira stared at her in silence for a long moment.
"My sister comes and goes as she pleases," she said in a grim, bitter tone. "She can't be relied on to stay anywhere for very long. I don't expect she'll visit again for years."
Four years later the twenty-seventh class graduated, with the exception of a few dunces who had to stay behind and study more. Tamena was now a fully-qualified witch with a decent grasp of most spells. Yet the minute she stepped outside the academy gates she realised she had no idea where to go.
She wandered aimlessly from place to place, advertising in each town's paper that she would look into the future or prepare potions for a modest fee. The money she made from this work was enough to support herself, but it wasn't anywhere near as much money as she had dreamt she would earn.
Faint whispers of ominous happenings reached her as she travelled. Whispers of people being raised from the dead, and a prince who claimed he was the heir of a long-dead kingdom. Tamena shrugged and ignored them. She had more important things to worry about than gossip.
Two years after graduation she met Lódiren again. She had just arrived in a new town, and she found a crowd gathered in the main street. Curious, Tamena drew closer to see what was happening.
"No one can deny it now!" a woman was shouting, waving a newspaper over her head. "A monster is among us! We must do something before it's too late!"
The crowd muttered and nodded to each other. Tamena looked around for someone who might explain what the woman meant. She did a double take. Lódiren stood at the edges of the crowd, looking not a day older than when she had disappeared from the academy.
"Well, if it isn't the girl who burnt the garden," she said when Tamena approached her. "What brings you here?"
"Looking for work," Tamena said briefly. She gestured to the crowd. "What's all this about?"
Lódiren shrugged apathetically. "Someone's died and his family think he was murdered. Seems there've been several deaths recently."
It was amazing how often Tamena met Lódiren after that. She always seemed to be lurking around somewhere. Tamena almost began to think Lódiren was following her. But why would she bother?
Somehow their frequent meetings resulted in almost-as-frequent tea parties. Sometimes other witches living in the town also came along. Sometimes it was just the two of them. And Tamena began to realise there was something truly worrying about Lódiren.
One of their discussions turned to the subject of the law.
"Of course keeping the law is admirable in principle," Lódiren said. "But what about the times when the law fails? Or when it doesn't give someone what they deserve?"
Tamena felt like a hunted animal that knew there was a trap somewhere nearby, but didn't know where and couldn't avoid blundering into it. "I don't… What do you mean?"
Well," Lódiren paused to add more sugar to her tea, "suppose someone can prevent a terrible crime. But to do it they have to kill the person who would commit that crime. The law would condemn them as a murderer when they were in the right."
Surely there was a flaw in that logic. Tamena knew she could find it if she thought hard enough about it. But her mind wouldn't let her think hard about it. Why should she argue with something that sounded like perfect sense?
Lódiren kept stirring her tea, but she never took her eyes off Tamena.
First it was an inability to think things through. Then came the moments when Tamena found herself thinking and doing things utterly out of character. She had never been a spiteful person, yet now she wished a horrible fate on a complete stranger who pushed her out of the way and didn't apologise. It frightened her when she looked back and wondered how she could ever have thought that.
All of this had only started when Lódiren reappeared. The connection was obvious. For the first time since she left Tamena went back to the academy.
"I hope I'm not a bother," she said, sitting in the magician's study and fidgeting with her hat. She felt as she had when summoned to this study to answer for some wrongdoing.
"Of course not," Addira said, pouring them both a cup of tea. For the first time Tamena was struck with a faint resemblance between her and her sister. "I'm always happy to hear how my former students are getting on."
Tamena took the offered teacup and stared at it as if it could answer all her questions. "I've met your sister again."
Addira set her spoon down with an audible clink. "Oh."
It was amazing how much emotion she could pack into one short word. Worry, anger, disapproval, suspicion, fear… Not a single positive emotion.
"Since I started talking to her regularly I've…" Tamena paused, trying to describe what she meant. "My thoughts have changed."
Addira nodded slowly. "I know what you mean. She's always been the same. Did you ever wonder why I never mentioned her until she came here?"
Yes, she certainly had. "She said you were jealous."
The magician's mouth twisted into a grimace of distaste. "She would use that excuse. She's used it every time one of us criticises her." She picked up her spoon and stirred her tea so vigorously it splashed over the cup's edge. "When Lódiren was born she was the youngest of the family. All of us gave her everything she asked for, never scolded her when she did wrong, never disciplined her in the slightest. We taught her that she could do anything she wanted simply because she wanted it. And by the time we realised our mistake it was too late to undo the damage. At some point she decided she enjoyed playing with people's minds, making them question everything they believe. I don't know why. No one does. But she did it to all of us. She turned my family against each other. And then she left. None of us heard anything of her for years."
Addira stopped. Her grip had tightened around her cup's handle until it looked like it would break at any minute. A dead silence fell over the room.
"What does she hope to gain from these mind games?" Tamena asked when the weight of that silence threatened to crush her.
The magician shook her head. "I wish I knew. I can only advise you to get as far away from her as possible."
How did one break off a friendship so abruptly? Tamena had never done it before. She felt a niggling sense of guilt. Yet Addira had confirmed what she suspected: she needed to avoid Lódiren.
In the end she decided to leave town without a word of goodbye. She had been considering moving on anyway. All that had changed was the timing and circumstances of her departure.
She didn't manage to escape without seeing Lódiren. Her former friend barged in just as she was packing the last of her spell-books. She took the situation in at a glance: the suitcases lying open, the swept floor, the covered furniture.
"I knew this would happen," Lódiren said bitterly with a grimace masquerading as a smile. "I knew as soon as I heard you went to see my dear sister."
Tamena winced. "I'm sorry–"
"Are you?" Lódiren stared at her as if she was trying to see right into her mind. Could she? The idea sent a chill down Tamena's spine. "Are you really sorry to get away from whatever she's convinced you I am? She was quite fond of telling people I'm a psychopath. Is that what you think of me now?"
Who's telling the truth? Tamena thought in despair. The magician or Lódiren?
She didn't know who to believe any more. The magician gained nothing from lying about her sister, but Lódiren could gain people's trust from lying about Addira. Yet she knew Lódiren much better than she knew Addira. Why should she believe her former teacher over her friend?
"I don't know," she gasped out. Her eyes stung and it felt like something was stuck in her throat. "Please, just… just leave me alone."
Lódiren nodded sharply. "Goodbye, then."
She spun on her heel and stalked out.
The door slammed, sending echoes ringing through the house. Tamena stood frozen in place, a folded coat in her arms, her mind a mass of confused thoughts. She still didn't know who to believe.