He sits in the shuddering darkness with his arms clasped around the neck and shoulders of his hound. The dog tolerates the confinement for just long enough to show he cares, then wriggles free and abuses his master’s tear-stained face with kisses.
The boy laughs, then wraps one hand firmly over his own mouth, fingers sealing emotions in tight. His father cannot hear. He pushes the hound, still only a double handful of months old, away from his face and into the straw.
The dog is good-natured about the rejection, upending himself to present his belly and waving his paws invitingly.
The boy obliges with a belly rub.
The magic comes questing, prickling like ice, smooth as seeping oil and just as falsely pretty: a slick of shimmer overcoating magic that’s meant to smother and choke and claim.
The boy’s heart flutters like the pulse of a dying bird, and he snatches at the dog. He doesn’t let himself whisper no, because it’s possible his father hasn’t found him yet, is just checking in here to be thorough—but he isn’t hopeful. Dread weighs him down like a bad meal, a meal he has been ingesting every day of his life through all the pores of his skin. His body knows this feeling all too well, and leaps to familiar patterns: his mouth is dry, his fingers tremble, his throat too tight to swallow. The tremoring staccato of his heart marks a rhythm his nerves are all-too-keen to follow, and adrenalin and cortisol play two-part harmonies through his torso.
It is the fear his father senses, like a predator drawn to prey, like an overlord drawn to weakness, like an abusive parent drawn to the only shape they recognise their child in. The magic enfolds him, and his skin prickles.
Overlords will not waste their time on frivolous interactions, Father reminds him sternly in his head. I’ve told your mother a thousand times that dog was a bad idea. But she coddles you. Always has.
The magic winds tighter until it hurts to move. The hound pup quits straining against the boy’s grasp and begins to whine.
The boy can just twitch his fingers to mimic rubbing the dog’s ear, and the dog quiets.
You will be an overlord, Deviran. It’s what you were born to be, and you of all should know that destinies must be fulfilled. Overlords cannot afford emotional attachment; it is unseemly. You want to do well, don’t you? You want to make me proud? His father sounds confused, and Deviran hears the words he doesn’t speak: How could I have fathered this son? Why does he never seem grateful for what I offer?
Tears that have no light to shine in fill Deviran’s eyes. “Yes, Daddy,” he whispers through lips brittle as autumn leaves. I want you to be proud. He wants it so much that his chest hurts, and even if the magic wasn’t drawing tighter still, he’d find it hard to breathe. “I want you to be proud.”
The magic shifts, so subtlely that for a moment he doesn’t understand what’s changed. But then the dog yelps, convulses, and Deviran can’t even move to draw him close, can’t break against the bonds of his father’s restraint to show the only creature who’s loved him in all the world that he’s here, that he cares, that it hurts…
The dog convulses again, grunting and frothing interspersed with whines that shred against Deviran’s chest. Soft fur becomes an instrument of torture, silky ears files that scour away his skin. A paw shoots out in the darkness and claws rake against Deviran’s face. He doesn’t even feel the pain.
The tears that magic bids stay begin to fall.
Now, says Father, now you will be the overlord you were born to become. Say thank you.
Deviran cannot speak, cannot think, cannot move against the weight of the warm slip of happiness lying broken on his legs.
The magic grips him, arching him backwards until his spine protests in pain so hot it could be fire. I said, say thank you!
“Thank you!” Deviran gasps, the words tearing from him like a limb. “Thank you!”
The magic releases him and he falls to the ground on his back. He lies still for a moment, then, when he realises he can move again, twists sideways, curling his body around the hound who is still so warm and soft his dying doesn’t seem real. The shuddering darkness closes in once more as the magic fades away, and Deviran mumbles oaths into the young dog’s ruff.
I will avenge you.
I will never be my father.
I will never be an overlord.