The Chant is what she calls it. Other people have no name for it. Others don’t even hear it. To her, it is a multitude of voices saying hundreds of words over one another, all at once. Some whisper, some shout. Some hiss their sentences like secrets in your ears and others announce theirs proudly like a victory speech. The mage simply chooses their words as they need them. Some mages utter desperate pleas and prayers and rejoice in having them answered. Others choose each word meticulously, plucking them like individual strings to weave harmonies of sound together; and others never even know that they have chosen. Sometimes, the words choose themselves.
The worn down soles of Nia’s shoes slip on the smooth tiles of the underground station, her feet sliding around underneath her as if she is on ice. She can’t see him behind her any more, but he has to be there. Guardians never give up on the chase once they’ve found you. They sniff you out, wherever you hide, and pull the magic out of you strand by strand. The only choice is to run, as fast and as far as possible.
The jingle of coins in her pocket wouldn’t be enough to get a ticket even if she had the time. Instead, she slows to a shuffle, weaving through the crowd of commuters pushing toward the gates and sticks close to a pair of young women talking animatedly over the head of the screaming baby in the pram between them. At a first glance, she could pass for a scruffy schoolboy with her short, dirty hair and the baggy blazer she liberated from the off-cast bin at the back of Oxfam. The rest of her mismatched clothes are all faded or soiled to shades of dusty grey. Wide, dark eyes stare out of her small face, defiant in their vitality.
A year ago, she would have been the one backing away from the homeless girl with the dirty fingernails. A year ago, her wardrobe was neat, tailored dresses and matching shoes. A year ago, she was Yi Na Yeon, just moved into student accommodation ready to start her degree in illustration. A year ago, her biggest worry was whether her grades would be high enough. She still has her glossy student card. Occasionally, she takes it out and stares at it to see if she can still recognise the girl in the picture.
Run. Run. RUN.
She curls her tongue and presses it against one of her back teeth; pulls her hands inside the sleeves and curls her fingers into the ratty satin lining of the jacket.
The gates open long enough for her to slip through alongside the buggy and she is away again, clattering down the stairs to the platform. She doesn’t even glance at the train before getting on, begging it underneath her breath to get moving before the guardian has time to get down the stairs and spot her.
He reaches the bottom of the steps as the doors close, and takes a second too long to decide which train to take. His head turns straight toward her carriage but the dark hollows of his eyes look straight through her as they scan the tightly-packed people.
Instinctively, Nia presses herself as small as she can into the corner against the doors and the suitcases. It seems an age before the gentle lurch of the train leaving the station coaxes her to breathe in again and let herself relax a little.
“Waterloo Bridge, Wednesday night. We’ll find dinner”. That’s what Devin had said before they separated, but it was Friday morning now.
Devin was the one who picked "Nia". Within the first ten minutes of meeting her, he had announced that she needed a new name to go by. Standing a good foot taller than her, they were a mismatched pair, but he was fiercely protective and most importantly, the only other person she’d found who didn’t treat her like she was mad.
After two days of silence, he’d probably given up waiting.
Even so, she had to try.
Inside her head, the noise quietens down to a murmur from the shouting it was before. Like this, The Chant is calming.
When the Chant is calm, you can pick out your words at ease as and when you need them. When it gets stirred up to a cacophony, the words all flow into each other, over one another. They get said before you have a chance to stop them.
That’s when accidents happen, and after that, the hunt begins.