Sorry for yesterday's cliffhanger! I don't normally do cliffhangers, but sometimes they're impossible to resist. This is only a short chapter today, but I expect half the world is busy reading the new Harry Potter, so I doubt there's anyone left to read it, anyway. ;-)
Chapter sixteen: Possession
Will knew what the silence meant. The Wild Magic was still furious, but there could be no triumph in beating at the solid protections of a single Old One, wrapped in the fullness of his powers. Instead, it had rushed to a place where there were richer prizes.
The Wild Magic was loose in Oxford.
Will ran back through the meadows, moving faster than any normal man could move. Around him, the field was silent and empty. No-one watched him from behind trees. No-one watched him at all.
He reached the streets, where he stopped beneath the towering buildings. All around him, people slept, but the streets were full of the terrors and griefs of long ago. In Trewissick, years before, the fury of the Greenwitch had shown itself in a surging, chaotic replaying of past tragedies. Oxford was an older town, and a larger one, and history had several times been decided within its walls. The possession was more terrible than it had been in the small Cornish village by the sea.
He saw ghostly buildings burning, as the Danes sacked the city. He saw a proud king travelling through the streets of a city whose common people hated him. He saw the walls pulled down by the command of Cromwell. He saw the Black Death hit, and, later, he saw Colleges built on the ground of graveyards, and weeping widows watch it all. He saw riots, as townsfolk hunted down students, and students banded together and took revenge on townsfolk. He saw houses burn, and people flee.
There was history in stone; there were memories in every cobble. The Wild Magic took them all and replayed them in a vivid, terrible re-enactment. It plucked fears from the minds of those who were asleep, and paraded them, with dripping jaws and rending teeth. The past was never dead. To an Old One, the past was no different from the present, and close enough to touch. To the Wild Magic, it came in ghosts and memories.
"But none of it is real," he said out loud. "It was real once, but it is real no longer. To the people of this world, the past is gone."
A crowd of soldiers surged up High Street like a racing wave. Will stopped in front of them, raising his hand. "I am stronger than you. I still command you." He wondered if they would break around him, like the ghosts that they were, but they faltered, and stopped before him. He saw individual faces, though their eyes were blank.
"This is just the tantrum of a child who knows it is defeated," he said clearly. He raised his hand, and moved his fingers delicately, calling to himself the echo of the spells he had sung by the river. "I command thee."
The air filled with the stench of the river. To his side, almost behind him, he saw a flicker of movement. An illusion shaped of the river, a club, and Bran… Bran…
He expected to die. But he did not hide from it, or close his eyes.
So it was that his eyes were fully open when it happened. It was a towering figure made entirely of light. It was a voice that filled the sky. It was a thing so beautiful, so terrible, so cold, that the overwhelming awe of it choked him and made him feel that he could never speak again.
He knew even then, of course.
The club fell to the ground. The man in brown raised his head defiantly, but the light shone even brighter, and the man crumbled. His shoulders slumped in defeat, and then he faded even further, until nothing remained but a pool of water.
"I command thee," said a voice from everywhere at once, and another voice, hissing and defeated, whispered, "You do."
And all else faded. The small vanished. The ghostly crowds disappeared, and there were no bodies on the street. Faintly, Bran heard the normal night-time sounds of the city.
And Will was beside him, kneeling beside him, with human face and tousled hair, and a warm hand reaching for him, raising him.
"It was you," Bran breathed, incapable of producing any more sound than that. "You saved me."
"You need to go back to your room," was all Will said.
Will saved me. Bran pressed his hand to the growing bruise on his arm. And he was… He is… No, don't think about it. This is him, here, now. "What was that?" he managed. "Has it… Has it gone?"
Will linked a strong arm in Bran's, and began to lead him inexorably back to his College. He seemed reluctant to answer at first, but then he said, "It was the Wild Magic. It can manifest itself like that sometimes, when angry."
The smell of smoke had gone, and there was no trace in the streets of the chaos that had raged only minutes before. "It wasn't real?"
Once again, Will took his time. "It was real once. Now it lives only in the memories of stone. It has gone now. When people wake up tomorrow, they'll see no evidence that any of it happened." He walked a few steps, then said quietly, "But the… thing that attacked you was more real than the rest. There was danger there. I'm sorry, Bran."
Towering whiteness, unattainable, unreachable… Bran swallowed. "But you…"
"Made a challenge," Will said. "The thing I challenged disputed my claim. This was the result. I should have expected it." For the first time, his voice showed a trace of feeling. "You could have died because of it."
He did not want to hear that. If Will had been just a second later… Bran felt sick. His hands shook as he struggled to open the late gate that took them back into the sleeping College. But Will would have got there on time whatever happened. I called to him. Wherever he is, he will come to me when I need him. He closed his eyes, but the light still blazed on his retinas. He isn't human at all. And that was the worst of it – the thing that made him almost stumble, the thing that made him want to cry.
"Why…?" He struggled for control, walking blindly towards his staircase. Will's arm was still at his elbow. "Why didn't anyone else wake up?"
"The Wild Magic is closer to men's dreams than to their waking realities," Will said. "They were caught. Their dreams were feeding it." He hesitated for a while. "I don't know why you woke up. And why you came out in it…"
"Because I knew it was something to do with you," Bran told him. "I thought you were in danger. I had to come… I was afraid."
He felt Will's arm tighten on his elbow. They climbed the stairs quietly, careful not to disturb the people who were still asleep, their sleep no longer strengthened by magic. Only when they were inside his room did Bran allow himself to sink down on the bed, to put his head in his hands, to remember.
"It's over," Will said, his hand on Bran's hair like a benediction. "I can make you forget, if you want me to."
"Forget!" Bran lowered his hands. His voice was a furious hiss. His face, he thought, was even worse. "However bad it is, I don't want to forget."
But hide from it, yes. The body beside him was human. The face before him was human. The hands were human, the voice was human… This was Will. They had been friends as children, and they had played together and grown together. Now they loved. Lips, face, hands… Soft, warm, and human. His.
"Stay with me," he rasped. "Please, Will. Stay with me tonight."
He wrapped himself in Will's human warmth. He nuzzled his throat, wove his fingers through his hair, kissed his jaw, his cheek, his lips. Then, closer, he pawed at the fastenings of Will's clothes. Oh, but he wanted him. A part of him had been frozen by that beautiful, untouchable light, and it could only be thawed if Will touched all of him with human hands, if they shared everything as humans did.
"No." Gently, Will took hold of Bran's hands, stilling them. Bran became aware that he had been crying, tears pouring down his face without him realising it. "Not like this."
"Like what?" Because I need it. I almost died. You saved me. Save me again, Will. Please save me again.
"Bran." Will was still holding Bran's hands, but firmly, and not with desire. "You walked through the heart of the Wild Magic. It feeds on emotions like this. You will be feeling things that are not real. In the morning, things will seem different."
"No." Bran shook his head fiercely. "No it won't." He shook his head again, changing what he was saying. "I want it to seem different. That's why I need this."
"Bran." Will's cheeks were flushed. "I am close to the Wild Magic, too, but that is not who I really am. If I give in to it I… I will have lost something. I cannot give them this victory."
"I don't understand." Bran's head slumped forward.
Tenderly, Will helped him out of his coat. His fingers ghosted over the bruise on Bran's arm, then gently touched Bran on the lips. "I will stay," he said, "but while you are sleeping."
"I don't think I'll be able to sleep," Bran protested, as Will lowered him to the bed, and covered him with the blankets.
"I think you will."
The last thing he heard was Will's voice. The last thing he was aware of was a tender kiss on his lips, and a soft hand on his cheek.
This time, he did not wake up until morning. Will was still there, his body warm at Bran's side. Bran curled sleepily around him, and for a moment was perfectly content. Then he remembered.
Will smiled down at him with shadowed eyes. He touched Bran's cheek, and Bran imprisoned the hand hotly. "I need to go," Will said. "Something… unfinished from the night."
He wanted to argue, but thoughts and memories were sluggish in the morning. He remembered something from earlier, though – a stray thought, coming to him in the night. "Can you travel back in time?"
Will did not answer him. "I will see you later." Extricating his hand, he bent to kiss Bran on the cheek. "Goodnight, Bran."
"But it's morning," Bran protested, squinting into the light from the window. But by then, Will had gone.
There merest hint of the spells brought the voice into his head. "You had no right to do that," Will told it. He was alone in his room, now, and finally free to feel fury. It was not possible to use too much power in the presence of mortals, not without damaging them forever.
"You had no right to bind us," hissed the voice. "We will take our revenge in any way we can."
"But not through him." Will invested it with all the force of total prohibition. "Never through him."
It lashed at his mind, sharp tendrils of hatred like the strands of a whip.
"You will not," Will told it, but he had to feel in order to command it. He spoke with the power of the Light, but he could only bind a creature of the Wild Magic by calling on all those parts of himself that were not of the Light, but as frail and emotional as any human.
After the creature was gone, he staggered blindly towards the bed. Another night without sleep. His head was throbbing, and he pressed his fingers into his eyes, kneading the sides of his forehead with his thumbs. He had won a victory, but at what cost?
No cost, he told himself. No harm had been done. Past terrors had resurfaced, but those who had been asleep had continued to sleep, and those who had been awake would already think it was nothing more than a dream, derived from too much drink. Oxford was untouched. Life continued as it always had done, and no-one would know.
He was still raw from dealing with the creature, still far closer to the Wild Magic than any being of the Light ever ought to be. The thought of the club descending towards Bran's head… He moaned at the memory of it. The awe and fear in Bran's eyes as he looked up at Will from the ground. How close Bran had come to dying… And then, afterwards, in Bran's room, when hot hands had pawed at his clothing, and the Wild Magic had surged in Will's blood, telling him to give in to this, to let Bran take what he wanted, and to give it, too, to lose himself in it forever…
Will lurched to the sink, and splashed cold water on his face. It helped, but only just. Bran had not died. There could be no purpose whatsoever in dwelling on something that had not happened, however close it had come. Will had been successful in binding a creature of the Wild Magic, who would do his bidding now, and be, in a very small way, a hostage against the intentions of its masters. He had taken a chance, and had won. That was what mattered. That was what would make a difference, in the overall pattern of things.
He paced – to the window, to the bed, to the table, and back to the sink, where he looked at a face he barely recognised in the mirror. His damp hair hung in dark points over his brow, and his eyes looked deeply tired.
He thought of the way Bran had looked at him, when Will had saved his life. I have to break up with him, Will thought. I have to free him to be himself. Left alone, it could go one of two ways. Bran would sink into hero worship, or he would remember the fear of coming face to face with Will's otherness. Either way, Bran would lose the controlled confidence that he had attained over the years.
"And then there's the effect on me," he said out loud. It was not a selfish thought. He was at war, and his first thought had to be directed towards that. Bran was his strength, but Bran was his weakness, too. His feelings towards Bran were not of the Light. Loving bonds were the strongest thing on earth, Merriman had said, but the Light was not of the earth. Love was not a thing of the Light, but it was close to the Wild Magic.
Without Bran, Will would not have been able to command the creature from the river. His feelings for Bran had allowed him to communicate with a being of Wild Magic, like to like. Without those feelings, he could not maintain his control of the creature. As a being of Light, untouched by love, he had no powers at all. But, at the same time, those feelings were his weakness. They pushed him to stray from his purpose – to put the safety of one person before the safety of the world. They whispered to him, telling him that he should throw away all composure, all control, and give himself in to sensation.
And if he did so, his enemy would claim him.
Will sank onto the bed, his head in his hands. The Wild Magic had a hand in these doubts, he knew that. Feelings had been roused during his battle with the river, and he would have to contend with them every day that he controlled the creature. If he squashed them completely, he would lose his control over it. If he gave into them, he would lose himself.
And Bran was at the heart of it. Bran was at the heart of it all.
"I don't know what to do," he whispered.
End of chapter sixteen