My burning lungs threatened to initiate a strike as I ran up the hilly road leading to the school building. I considered myself a decent enough runner, but there was a hell of a big difference between the track field and the city streets, not to mention I was lugging around a large spear that threw off my balance and made sprinting even harder.
Speaking of the spear, I actually turned a couple of placeholder heads as I dashed past them. Was it just me, or were the streets getting more alive over time? Not to mention the old placeholders would have continued to carry on with their conversation about the weather or the local sports team or whatever even if a giant radioactive fire breathing lizard of thinly veiled nuclear metaphors stomped right next to them. A guy with a spear shouldn’t have even registered.
But I digress. I had more important things to worry about than placeholders. I took a huge breath, much to the continued protest of my lungs, and got ready to dash again. I came to a stumbling halt after just one step. There was a familiar, wispy tendril of silver light waving back and forth not too far ahead of me. I turned my stumble into a brisk walk and headed towards it. Once I got close enough I was fairly certain about what it actually was; last time I saw something like this it was Angie’s magic. I used the opportunity to catch my breath and reached out towards the gently undulating misty something-or-the-other and tugged on it three times like it was one of those old-timey doorbells.
After a brief moment, the tendril shuddered and was hastily retracted. Now all I had to do was to be patient, but I was really bad at that, so instead I used the momentary lull to close my eyes and use my Far Sight to check the locations of the others. The dots of Josh, Snowy and Crowey were still in the direction of the school, though they were strangely fuzzy. I could sense the others in the area as well. The princess and the class rep were only a couple of blocks from me while Angie was... above?
I opened my eyes and looked up just in time to see the girl falling towards me, her form drenched in a thick layer of silver light. I tensed up for a moment, my brain caught between the impulse to try and catch her and the question of just what the hell she was doing in the sky. Thankfully both of those issues were solved at once as she opened a pair of large, slightly translucent angel wings on her back that broke her fall and let her land as softly as if she just stepped off a curb. The logical part of my brain wanted to inform me that, while big, those wings obviously didn’t have the surface area necessary to break the fall of a human at terminal velocity, let alone raise one into the air; not to mention a sudden deceleration like that should have pulverized her bones like they were made of cookie dough. A more accepting part of my brain, which was already acclimatized to this world, countered by pointing out it was obviously magic, and there was probably some kind of spell or enchantment that let her fly and negate G-forces like that. A third part of my brain then told both of them to shut up because we didn’t have time for this, and they graciously obliged.
Where was I? Ah, right. Angie.
She was in the middle of fixing her ruffled, slightly damp hair. Maybe she was taking a shower when Josh was taken? More importantly though, she was wearing a fairly unusual garb consisting of a pair of greaves with soft white boots, what looked like a long, white tabard with a blue circle pattern on the stomach that showed off her legs (to the point where I was sure just a small gust of wind would have revealed her panties), a small chest-plate that only covered her right breast and a pair of large bracelets just above her wrists. I would have questioned what the hell she was thinking, going outside dressed like that, but then I remembered Snowy and how she had a weird outfit when she transformed and I wisely shut up. It still made me grind my teeth though, and I made a mental note that if I survived this night, I would do something about those outfits. It was getting bloody cold lately, and fighting in those stripperific clothes just didn’t do.
But speaking of transformations, Angie now also sported a pair of fashionable wings and a pointy halo that kind of looked like a very stylized compass rose. The look fit her, and I already knew she was a Celestial, but I had to admit she looked quite mesmerizing in the dark all the same. Her outfit was still stupid, but even that couldn’t ruin the image. No, what did it were the huge crocodile tears and the trail of snot running down from her nose.
“Leooooo!” She bawled as she suddenly threw her arms around me and squeezed hard enough to give a Siberian bear a run for its money.
“Here, here...” I patted her on the back while she unceremoniously wiped her nose on my jacket. I didn’t dare to tell her to stop, so I quietly waited for her to finish sobbing. It happened sooner than I expected, as only a few seconds later she separated from me.
“I can’t find him Leo,” She said in a mousey voice. “I looked everywhere but I can’t find him. He disappeared. I tried but I...”
I raised a finger to her mouth. “Shhh...” I chided her as I closed my eyes. No matter how I looked at it, the three of them were still in the school building, though their dots were still a little hazy. Since I was standing anyways I decided to use my Far Sight properly and after a second of concentration I was staring at Crowey standing in the middle of a dark area that I vaguely recognized as the school’s track field.
Just as I was wondering why Angie couldn’t see him from up above I noticed something that should have been blindingly obvious from the beginning: a small, slowly swirling circular cloud of some kind. It was right next to Crowey, hung in the air vertically like a large bathroom mirror, except it looked like a miniature whirlpool of stars and it was emanating a soft violet light. Then, just like that, I finally connected the dots and it shook me out of my Far Sight.
“That son of a goat herder!” I exclaimed angrily as I began walking, practically dragging Angie along.
“What? What happened?”
“I figured out what they are trying to do!”
“They are...” I began, but then I noticed someone running on an adjacent street and I shook my head. “I’ll tell you when everyone gets here. I don’t want to explain it to all of you individually.”
She obviously wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer, but at the very least she didn’t protest and just followed after me without a word. We got to the school gates just a few seconds before the class rep showed up from the aforementioned other direction. She was panting heavily from the exertion, even more so than we were, and she was already in her frilly green mage-clothes with the big witch-hat.
“Leo! And... Angie?” She looked over the girl at my side in her obviously celestial attire and furrowed her brows above her glasses. I waved to her and said:
“Evening class rep. Yes, it is Angie. Yes, she is a Celestial. No, we do not have the time to explain.”
This time she turned her frown at me. She had the good sense not to start a fight though, so she only nodded.
“Where are the others?”
“They should be here momentarily,” I answered and, as if on cue, a car’s headlights illuminated us as it rounded a corner. I expected it to be a large luxury car, but instead it was a dark-brown family sedan that stopped by our side. I glanced at the two girls stepping out of the car and I could only shake my head.
From the back seat came the one I was actually expecting. The princess was wearing a light red summer dress that made me feel chilly and a pair of sneakers, creating a weird combination that told me she dressed in a hurry. The other person exiting from the front, on the other hand, was as prim and proper as ever, even in her casual clothes.
“What are you doing here?” I asked my assistant in a tone that might have been a little too disapproving in hindsight. In my defense, it was probably the stress speaking.
Judy gave me a flat look and pointed at Angie.
“She said there was trouble at school, so I came.”
I looked at the girl at my side and she shrank back with a sniff.
“I panicked, okay? You told me to call the others, so I called everyone.”
I sighed and looked at the other girl exiting the car after exchanging a few pleasantries with the woman in the driver’s seat. Judy followed my gaze and said, “She was on foot, so we picked her up on the way.”
“I see,” I said, though I was honestly a little disappointed. I expected that at least some of the Dracis muscle would be with her.
I wanted to greet Judy’s mother too, but then the car honked and leisurely rolled away, interrupting the flow of the conversation. Speaking of interruptions…
“That reminds me,” Judy spoke again. “My father wanted me to tell you that he still has a shotgun, so no funny business under the night skies.”
I blinked at her in astonishment before I buried my face in my palm.
“Typical,” I muttered under my breath before I shook myself and looked over everyone present one by one. “Is everyone here?”
“I called Sebastian,” The princess said dejectedly, “but they were not available. Father is coming back from China and they are at the docks. It will take time for them to get here, and he said they might not be able to act before they get a permit because it’s Magi territory.”
“Speaking of which,” I turned to the class rep next. “What about you guys?”
She shook her head sharply.
“There is a Gathering in Glasgow. All the Schools were required to attend, so there was only a token staff present, and I can’t contact them.”
“So this is all we have?” I clicked my tongue. I feared this might be the case, but it still made my heart sink. As far as I could tell, this was something of a climax in narrative terms. As silly as it might have sounded, it would have been anticlimactic if the authorities could swoop in and deal with the problem instead of us, so they were all conveniently tied up elsewhere.
That made me wonder; was there some sort of overarching intelligence guiding this world, like a writer or director who set up all of these coincidences? Or was it something that arose naturally through a chain of causes and effects just by having the right people placed in the right place at the right time? These were questions I have been battling with for a while every time a contemplative mood struck me late at night, but this was the first time such things directly impacted my life. I didn’t like it, but I had to work with what I had.
That said, I had more important things to worry about at the moment, and I could always discuss this with Judy later. I had to focus on getting Josh and Snowy back first.
“Can I address the elephant in the room?” The class rep asked while raising a hand like she was in the classroom.
“Which one?” Judy asked back.
The class rep frowned at her for a change and pointed at Angie.
“Since when are you a Celestial?”
The girl, who unbeknownst to me was conspicuously hiding behind me, cocked her head to the side.
“I don’t know…” She spoke uncertainly. “Since I was born, I think. Why?”
“No, I mean…” The class rep let out a frustrated groan and turned to the others. “Don’t you have anything to say about this?”
“I knew already,” Judy said nonchalantly.
“You did?” The class rep and Angie spoke in perfect unison.
“The Chief told me.”
Angie glanced up to glare at me and pinched my arm.
“Didn’t we agree this was a secret!?”
“Ow! Hey, stop that! I told her because she is my assistant. She has to know these things.”
“I already figured it out,” The princess stated next with a hint of smugness.
“You did?” Angie gaped at the news. “So only Ammy didn’t know?!”
“I had my suspicions,” The class rep stated hesitantly. “Considering that we had representatives from all other factions, I thought you had to be either a Celestial or a Knight, and no offense, but you are really not the knightly type.”
“Yes,” The princess nodded in agreement, now with more than a ‘hint’ of smugness. “It was exactly how I thought as well.”
I wanted to point out that I was pretty sure I was the one who gave them that idea, but I decided to refrain from objecting in fear of further antagonizing Angie. Speaking of which, the Celestial girl slumped her shoulders and let out a disappointed whine.
“Awwwww... I am the worst secret agent ever.”
“Technically you are not an agent yet, only an asset,” I pointed out by reflex, conditioned by the long hours I’ve spent restructuring the classification structure of the Celestial Hub. I realized what I was doing on the spot though, so I quickly shook my head to clear it. “Not that it matters. Don’t you think we have more important things to worry about?”
“You are right,” The class rep turned to me with a nod. “What is the situation?”
I took a deep breath and tried to make my voice clearer as I checked the time. It was a little after 10 PM.
“... Here is what’s going on in a nutshell: About forty minutes ago Joshua was kidnapped from his home by Crowey and his minions.”
“Crowey?” Angie interjected with a puzzled expression.
“Neige’s older brother,” Judy explained in my stead, so I continued like I wasn’t interrupted.
“He was taken to the school where they are planning to open a gate to the Abyss and take Josh with them. We cannot have that, but since the authorities are apparently busy, we must rescue him on our own. Any questions thus far?”
“How do you know all this?” Came the first suspicious inquiry from the class rep.
“I have my ways,” I answered with a wink. She probably would have pressed me more if not for the princess and her question.
“What about Neige?”
“She is with them, but she is on our side. She was the one who warned me.”
I didn’t want to mention that technically she didn’t warn me about the kidnapping, but that I should not interfere. Nevertheless, the subtext told me that she wasn’t cooperating with her brother willingly, and explaining her situation to the others would have taken too long anyways.
“You said they are going to open a gate to the Abyss,” The class rep grabbed the proverbial mike again. “Where?”
“On the school grounds, somewhere on the track field.”
“There was no one there,” Angie chimed in. “I flew over the field a couple of times and I saw no one.”
“Of course you didn’t. They are in a purple zone.”
“Restricted field,” My assistant came to the rescue once again.
“And just how do you know that?!” The class rep protested while holding onto her glasses so that her scowl wouldn’t misplace them.
“Because that is the only place where they can open a gate?” I stated what I thought was obvious, but since they only looked at me blankly I was forced to elaborate. “The barrier sealing in the Abyss is impenetrable from any direction, right?” They all nodded more-or-less in unison. “The purple zone is closer to the Abyss somehow. Don’t ask how, I have no idea, I am only relaying what I was told. It’s just closer, okay? So, the trick is that from there you can tunnel into the barrier. Another group tunnels at the exact same location from the abyss using the mana-whatchamacallits that each big family has, and once the two tunnels meet they create a way through. It stays open for only a couple of minutes before it collapses. During that time people can move back and forth, but the stronger the person going through, the wider the tunnel has to be and the longer it takes to dig it out. That’s why Faun and weak Abyssals can move back and forth using tiny tunnels that can be formed quickly, but Crowey and Snowy would need a big tunnel that would need a long time and a lot of effort to make, and.... and why are you looking at me like that?”
It took a moment for the class rep to get shaken out of whatever she was in and close her hanging mouth.
“And just how do you know THAT?!” She practically shrieked at me, baffling me for a moment.
“I... asked?” I told her, not knowing exactly what kind of answer she was expecting.
“Yes. From Snowy. I asked her nicely and she told me.”
“Yeah,” I nodded suspiciously. “You want to tell me this wasn’t common knowledge?”
I was honestly surprised by her reaction, but to be fair, the others were giving me weird looks as well. Okay, all except my loyal assistant. She was too busy taking notes.
“No!” The class rep exclaimed in borderline despair. “We have been trying to figure out how they do it for centuries!”
“... Why didn’t you just ask one of them?”
“I think you are underestimating the weirdness of your situation,” The princes told me, earning a curiously raised eyebrow in the process. “Normal people don’t make friends with Abyssals.”
“You are friends with her too,” I countered, only to get shot down.
“That’s because you introduced her. Decent people don't associate with Abyssals unless absolutely necessary.”
"Some Schools even have a kill on sight policy," the class rep added.
“That’s harsh. Also, we are really losing our track here.”
“You... are right,” She agreed reluctantly for some reason. She was still giving me a weirded out stare. I didn’t like that, so I smiled at her to throw her off-guard.
“Of course I am. I am always right,” I told her jokingly, and her nod made me worried for a moment that she took me seriously. Either way, it didn’t really matter. “So, any other questions before we rush into dangers of epic proportions to rescue our friends?”
“I have one,” Judy raised her hand without looking up from her notes. “Where did you find that spear?”
“Yeah!” Angie exclaimed like she was waiting for the opportunity for ages. “It has been bothering me since forever, but no one else seemed to care!”
“I was curious,” The princess added hesitantly, “But as you said, no one mentioned it so I thought it would be awkward to ask.”
“So? What’s the story behind it?” The class rep rounded the circle with her own inquiry.
“Long story short,” I began, but then paused to actually trim my story before I continued. “On my way here I ran into a Faun sent to kill me.”
“You did what?!” The princess paled next to me. I sent her a sharp glance to convey my disapproval of her interruption.
“As I was saying, I ran into this Faun that Crowey sent to kill me. We had a bit of a chat about honor and mutual respect before we dueled.”
“You did what?!” Came the echo of the first question, this time from Angie. I ignored her and continued.
“Well, technically it was a ritual of dominance we fought...” I paused and raised my left hand to my forehead and wiggled my fingers, “...in our minds. It is hard to explain, but I won and so he let me borrow his spear.” I looked over the aghast faces surrounding me and decided that I would stretch my luck just a little further. “By the way, did you know that Faun talk in Shakespearean English? It’s freaky.”
“Okay, that’s it,” The class rep objected with an annoyed slant in her lips. “You are just messing with us at this point.”
“I’m not,” I protested, but it fell to deaf ears.
“If you don’t want to tell us why you have that spear, you could have just said so.”
“But I already told you how I got it. I’m one hundred percent serious.”
“Sure,” The class rep muttered dismissively before she turned to the others. “That aside, if what Leo says is true then we have to enter into an already existing restricted field. I can do that, but it will take a while to open a gateway. Watch my back.”
I gave her an affirmative nod and we headed to the track field in a tight cluster. Once there the class rep pulled out a familiar magic staff from thin air. She probably had some sort of hammer-space where she stored it until she needed it. I wondered if she could lend me one once this was all over. It would make carrying stuff around so much more convenient.
Jokes aside, we stood guard around the class rep while she chanted in a language that sounded like gibberish, yet my newly minted language awareness told me she was pretty much arguing with the universe about breaking down the rules of physics for a moment so she could do her stuff. It was weirdly fascinating, though not particularly fun to listen to. In fact, I was getting dangerously relaxed and had to repeatedly remind myself that we were about to enter battle at any moment. It was just that, well, I didn’t feel like I was in danger. Not yet. Maybe it was because my expectations were very much betrayed by the lack of resistance. Not that I was about to complain, but still, I thought there would have been at least some token trouble by this point.
“Leo. Trouble.” Angie chirped at my side in a hushed tone, making me roll my eyes and swearing never to ask for problems in the future lest the universe would think it was a challenge.
“What is it?” I answered in a whisper myself for some reason.
“I cannot open the gateway,” The class rep said in a normal voice.
“Me neither.” We all looked at the princess questioningly and she sheepishly averted her gaze. “I thought I try my own way. I cannot open a gate for others to go through, but I thought I could jump in ahead of you and draw attention away from the gate... or something.”
“Please don’t do that,” I told her firmly. She was getting ready to glare at me, but I cut off with one of my own. “I am serious. Going in alone is dangerous, and the last thing I need is for you to get hurt.”
She tried to frown at me all the same, but she just as quickly looked away again.
“Fine, I won't do it.”
“Good,” I clapped my hands lightly. “Still, you helped us learn something important.”
“I did?” She perked up immediately. I nodded.
“Yes. You established that the problem isn’t just with the class rep’s spell.”
“Definitely not,” Spoke the subject of my statement. “It feels like there is something stopping my gate from opening on the other end.”
I would have liked to sit down and ask her about how her spell worked and maybe figure out a way to overcome the problem, but I doubted we had the time for that. I turned to Angie next.
“What about you?”
“Huh? Me?” She pointed to herself and I nodded. “Errr... This is the first time I did something like this, so I have no idea.”
“I understand,” I told her reassuringly before I turned to Judy. “Your opinion?”
“Railroad,” She stated dryly, and I nodded in agreement.
“Yeah, I don’t think we were supposed to just jump in there. It would have lacked proper buildup.”
“This is the final boss we are talking about here. It is only natural.”
“Well, he is more of an introductory villain in my opinion, but your point still stands.”
“Of course it does,” She told me with a barely perceptible smirk that didn’t touch her eyes. “I think if we presume that we were not supposed to enter this way, it means there should be another way we are supposed to use in turn.”
“So you suggest a different approach?”
My assistant nodded sharply.
“Yes. Not to mention, opening a glowing portal in the middle of the hostiles’ operation would have exposed us to crossfire.”
“I... didn’t actually think of that. Very well, we should do this the more conventional way.” I turned on my heel to address the others, but when I did so, I found them staring at me like I was a strange, exotic animal. “What?”
“What were you talking about?” The class rep voiced the question reflected on all their faces.
“It’s... complicated and we don’t have the time to explain. Let’s just get going.”
I turned around again and began walking at a brisk pace towards the edge of the track field while ignoring the protests of the class rep. Once she realized I wasn’t going to tell her anything she gave up (though she swore she would pester me later) and we repeated our attempt to crash the party via portal a couple more times, each time a little farther from the field, until we finally made progress.
“I can do it!” The princess yelled, then she toned back and repeated. “I could do it, I mean. We could enter the Restricted Field here!”
“That’s neat...” I told her, careful not to let too much of the irritation show up in my voice. We were in front of the school’s main entrance by then, meaning we were practically back to where we started. In other words, we wasted a lot of time for nothing. I clicked my tongue in frustration and gestured at the class rep. “Open the gate here please.”
“I’m already doing it,” She answered hastily.
Since the process took some time, I used the opportunity to sneak a quick peek at Josh and company. To my relief, they were still in the middle of the purple-tinted field. There was something that bothered me though, I couldn’t see the portal to the Abyss anywhere. I hoped this meant they ran into technical difficulties like we did and it gave us some time, but I knew better than to pin my hopes on something like that.
On the other hand, by the time my perception returned to my body the class rep’s gate was all but open already. I didn’t know how I actually knew that, but just looking at that swirling magical mist in front of her was like looking at an hourglass. I didn’t know how soon it would be finished to the second, but I felt I could give a fairly accurate guess. I still had no idea how I did that, perceiving magic I mean, but I resolved myself to figure it out as soon as possible once the present crisis was averted.
That said, the class rep’s gate finally opened with the sound of a longing sigh and its edges shimmered into existence. Did that mean that the ball of magic I was looking at before was entirely invisible until this point? Again, I really, really needed to experiment on this one.
“I’m done. We should get going,” The class rep stated while straightening her wide-brimmed hat.
“Yes, we should,” I agreed with an uncertain nod. I felt like there was something I was forgetting, but I obviously couldn’t remember what it was. We stepped through the portal one by one (even the princess, who insisted that she could totally do it on her own if she wanted to) and in a few short moments we all stood in front of the same school building tinted in an eerie shade of purple.
“All’s clear,” The class rep stated in crisp words, and I had to agree. There was nothing out of the ordinary in sight.
“Let’s go,” Angie urged us and we complied.
We circled around the main building and were just about to round the corner leading to the track field when an unexpected chill ran down my back.
“Stop!” I yelled, startling the girls around me.
“What? What?” The princess glanced left and right frantically as she scanned the area for enemies. I gestured for her to stop and pointed in the direction of the track field.
“There is some kind of barrier here,” I told them flatly. It took me a second or five to make it out in the dark, and they probably had an even harder time doing so. It wasn’t exactly a wall per se, more like a row of thin pillars of magical light reaching about ten meters high with a barely visible, shimmering field of glowing mist stretching between them.
The class rep deliberately inched forwards besides me, with one hand stretched out. She slowly reached for the barrier. When her fingertips brushed against it there was a sudden sizzling noise and she jerked her hand away with a hiss.
“Good catch,” She told me with attempted solemnity ruined by her sucking on her burned finger. “If we walked into this, we could have been seriously hurt.”
“What kind of barrier is it?” The princess asked curiously while straining her eyes. “I can’t see anything.”
“It’s like…” Angie spoke between two hums, her form once again bathed in the white tendrils that cautiously tapped against the invisible force-fence. “It seems like a specialized barrier. It is coming from a number of distinct points around the school, like fence-posts with a wire stretched between them.” She paused while she cocked her head to the side like she was listening to a distant sound. “I think it is tuned to only let certain people through. If you are not on the list, you get zapped.”
“But how!?” The class rep glowered at the barrier. “How did they erect this on the school grounds!?”
“Does it really matter?” Judy piped in with the same question I had on my mind.
“She is right.” I agreed on the spot. “You guys can figure out how they did it later, we should focus on our rescue operation for now.”
“But we are walled out,” Angie piped in with an obvious point.
“Right,” I muttered irritably as I looked over the barrier one more time. I followed it with my eyes and figured that it circled the entire track field. It seemed unlikely that there would be any holes in it we could exploit. “Can we break through somehow?” I asked no one in particular.
“What about dragonfire?” Judy proposed, and subsequently all eyes focused on the princess.
“That’s right!” The class rep exclaimed. “Dragonfire can break magical enchantments and barriers.”
“I… I…” The princess stuttered for a moment before I came to her rescue.
“Hers can’t. She cannot use true dragonfire yet.”
“True dragonfire?” The class rep inquired while tweaking the edge of her hat. “Is there any other kind.”
“It’s complicated, right?” I said while gesturing towards the princess. She nodded. “See, she says so too. Anyways, we have to think of something el… se…” My voice trailed off as I raised my eyes high and stared. “Holy crap.”
“What is it?” Angie asked while she tried to follow my gaze.
They probably couldn’t see it; light in the purple zone behaved differently from the outside, and in the dark of the night anything non-magical disappeared into the black void after just a couple dozen meters. The portal didn’t. It was swirly and sparkly and, most importantly, huge. I didn’t notice it when I was looking at it through my Far Sight because it was so big its edge got outside of my field of vision.
Even more troubling was that I could see the timer on it. It was kind of like the way I could judge how close the class rep’s gate was to completion, except way fuzzier. Even still, I could clearly see one thing:
“Damn, we have no time!” I exclaimed. “We need to get through this barrier ASAP. We don’t have much time”
“But how?” The princess asked the obvious question.
“I have no idea. Not yet.” I told her before I inhaled deeply to calm myself. “Come on brain, think...!” I muttered to myself under my breath as I looked for some lead, anything I could use to get across this damned force field. I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment and then opened them wide to look over the entire area once again.
The barrier ran around the outer edge of the school’s backyard, encircling the entirety of the track field, the tennis courts and the basketball court. It didn’t stretch as far as the pools. Regardless of that it still covered a large area, which meant there should have been some weak spots we could exploit, but we didn’t have the time to circle the compound.
I took another very deep breath, sucking in the evening air through my nose until I felt my lungs were ready to burst, and then I slowly exhaled. It helped me focus, even if just a little. I knew I was missing something. I closed my eyes again and left the game board for a moment to look at the instructional booklet. I just had to think narratively and figure out how I was supposed to use the tools already present. I gestured for my assistant to come over and distanced ourselves from the rest of the group.
“Yes, chief?” She whispered, obviously noticing my efforts to be covert about this.
“I want to bounce a few ideas off of you. Would you mind?”
“No. Please go ahead.”
I nodded and began.
“Let us presume that the world follows narrative tropes when it comes to events, not just people and metaphysics,” Judy’s eyes flashed with sudden interest and she took out her phone without a word. I gestured for her to put it away, as we didn’t have the time for notes, and she complied, “Let us also presume that this is something of a climax at the end of a story arc. We are the heroes. Crowey is the antagonist. Josh and Snowy are the damsels in distress. According to the traditional formula...”
“You mean cliché?”
“The traditional formula,” I stressed again, “at this point, the heroes face off against the antagonist and save the damsel. Are we clear on that?” Judy nodded, “Do you see the problem yet?”
“The barrier,” She answered without a second of thought, “We cannot face the antagonist because there is a barrier in the way.”
“And what does that tell us?”
This time she did think for a second before she said, “That there must be a way we can overcome this barrier as we are right now. Otherwise there would be no confrontation, no climax, and no narrative. Q.E.D., the barrier has to be circumventable.”
“Precisely. I hoped you would come to the same conclusion.”
“But to reach it we had to make two big assumptions,” My assistant objected dryly, prompting an uneasy glance from me. “While the assumption that the narrative affects the way events unfold has some prior evidence, nothing tells us that this would be a climax. It is entirely possible that Joshua was supposed to be kidnapped and the climax is his rescue from the Abyss. Or that we are not supposed to save him and instead he would have to save himself. We have already established that, in all likelihood, he is the hero. It is likely he doesn’t even need our rescue.”
That was... as well-reasoned and of as much of a buzzkill as I expected from my assistant. But then again, that’s why I kept her around, not to be a yes-woman. I still had to shake my head though.
“If we follow that logic, we would have to presume that the narrative is beneficial and that not interfering and letting the act play out on its own is an option.”
“I was under the impression we already wanted to interfere as little as possible.”
“Not when our friends are in danger.”
“But how do you know that your actions are not putting them at more risk than your inaction?”
“I...” I exhaled sharply and rubbed my forehead in frustration. She was right. If I presumed that this narrative followed a traditional heroes-beat-the-bad-guys formula, any interference from us would put it at risk of derailing it and putting them at risk. But then if we didn’t help them, it also put them at risk. Not to mention, what if we had a role to play in the first place, and us not participating was also a form of interference?
I groaned lightly and massaged my temples. This was the problem with being inside a narrative. Being able to see the strings that tugged at the events was useful, but without being able to see everything at once it was impossible to tell if I made the right decisions. That thought gave me a pause though.
So what if I couldn’t perfectly predict the outcomes of my actions? Isn’t that just how life works in general? I just had to take a step back, rebalance myself and make the best choices I could, based on the available information. Knowing the events were influenced by a narrative was one such information, a crutch to help those decisions.
With that in mind, I got ready to take another stab at my options… Or at least I would have, if only I wasn’t startled out of my skin by a loud bang followed by a sickening, sizzling sound. I spun on my heel and faced the source of the noise which was, to my immediate relief, not an incoming attack. What I found instead was a giant slab of slowly disintegrating rock that I vaguely recognized as the same (or at the very least the same kind of) golem-thing the class rep summoned during her dynamic entry during the masquerade-breaking incident between the princess and Snowy.
At this point one of its bulky arms was in the process of melting off without actually giving off any light or heat, soon followed by the rest of its body as it crumbled to fine dust.
“What are you doing?” I inquired with the disapproval I felt clearly audible in my voice. It might have been a bit too harsh though, as the class rep immediately set her mouth in a thin line and frowned at me in return.
“I was trying to break through. What did it look like?”
“Something foolish that I wasn’t expecting from you of all people?” I snapped back at her, and she reflexively averted her eyes. To my surprise, Angie and the princess did the same beside her. So it was a group effort, huh? I was just about getting ready to chew them out for rushing and not thinking things through, but then I was once again interrupted by a noise. This was not a bang, but more… organic, for the lack of better words. It sounded like a combination of an elephant, a whale and a roaring lion with the volume slider set high enough to make my bones vibrate in my body. We all faced the direction of the track field, which was the source of the sound.
“What was that?” Judy asked with no small amount of apprehension as she practically clung to my back. “Some kind of animal?”
As usual, it was at this very moment that I remembered the thing that I couldn’t recall and had been bothering me for a while. After a silent gulp, I turned to the other girls (who were also trying to hide behind my back, but that was beside the point) and asked, “It might be a little late to ask this now, but could you tell me what a ‘chimera’ is? In two sentences or less, if possible.”
The class rep’s eyes widened in shock and she opened and closed her mouth several times before she spoke up. “It is a creature from the Abyss. It is monstrous, resistant to magic and can change its shape in a fight depending on its opponent.”
“No one has seen them for centuries.” The princess added in a whisper. “I've heard they are extinct.”
Technically their combined explanations were longer than two sentences, but I didn’t complain. Instead, I tried to twist my mouth into something resembling a smile and said, “Well, I’m afraid they are not.”
The class rep and the princess visibly paled. Angie and Judy, on the other hand, were apparently unaware of the danger, so they only looked at me uncertainly.
“We need to get out of the open,” The princess hissed, mirroring my sentiment.
I looked over the area and then the idea suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks. It seemed like my brain only operated at full capacity under stress, since the solution to our problem was blindingly obvious in retrospect.
“The main building!” I exclaimed as I pointed at the subject of my revelation. “The barrier only covers the wall facing the track field, the back entrance should let us right in. We have to get there before…”
‘Before the chimera shows up,’ I wanted to say, but then the point became moot in a moment.
The chimera didn’t rush at us. It didn’t even run. It simply walked over with a slow, deliberate strut that looked incredibly odd and disconcerting. But I was getting ahead of myself. First off, here is what I was actually seeing:
The chimera was big. No, scratch that. Brang was big. This thing was plain huge, at least three meters tall even while hunched over and its shoulders were so massive it would have put an NFL player to shame, padding included. It was also ugly as sin, an unholy combination of a primate and a crocodile with vivid red skin covered with a mixture of black scales, fur and the occasional bone-protrusions scattered around its body like pieces of disjointed body armor.
It had a lumbering gait, like a giant gorilla walking on all fours, but it was also dragging a long, serpentine tail behind itself and had an elongated head with a large jaw containing long, pointy teeth visible even while its mouth was shut. Its eyes had the same kind of orange-ish glow as I saw in Brang’s.
It raised its long head in our direction and it blinked one set of its eyes. It had three of those, by the way, and they seemed to blink individually in a sequence. Two pairs of different sizes looked forwards like a tiger’s while the last pair was staring sideways in an angle more suited for a prey animal. Its massive chest heaved as it let out a puff of smoky breath in a deep hiss that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on ends. It was like I was staring down a hungry grizzly bear that was trying to decide which one of us it should eat first. Except, you know, a dozen times worse.
The stalemate continued for a few seconds, which was just long enough to unnerve me, but not long enough to come up with a coherent idea about how to deal with the situation.
“Leo...?” The princess whispered at my side as she tried to sidle closer to me. In retrospect, that was a mistake.
The beast’s eyes snapped wide open, their smoldering orange light rising to a flare, and it stood upright on its stumpy hind legs as it opened its jaws so wide it was downright uncanny, and considering that we were talking about a monstrous mishmash of creatures, that was most certainly no mean feat. Then came the roar. It was the same sound we had heard not too long ago, except louder and meatier. It shook my insides as if there was a jackhammer trying to escape my chest, and judging by the way the girls flinched back it might have affected them even harder.
For a split-second I wondered if there was magic involved or just our instincts screaming at us about the dangerous predator in front of us that made us dizzy, but I didn’t have the luxury to do that, as the Chimera crouched down on all fours like a feline before it leaped forwards with thundering steps that shook the ground under our feet. Credit where credit’s due, the girls didn’t require instructions on how to scatter. In fact, if anything I was a split-second too slow when it came to reacting to the sudden charge.
“Shit!” I exclaimed as I rolled to the side. I still wasn’t used to the spear, so I felt really clumsy when I tried to rise to my feet and my legs got tangled in the shaft. By the time I got up the creature already barreled past me and was chasing after the princess. For a blink of an eye my brain wondered why it was targeting her. Maybe it was because she made the first noise? Or because it considered her the biggest threat? But then again, she wasn’t transformed yet, so maybe it was thinking she was the weakest in the group and tried to get rid of her quickly? Just how intelligent was this thing?
All those questions were soon drowned out by another innards-rumbling battle-cry that I found to be coming from, to my considerable surprise, my own throat. I raised the spear as high as my shoulder and leaped forwards, stabbing diagonally downwards towards the exposed side of the creature using all my momentum. There was a hard ‘thunk’ as my strike connected and the creature once again roared. This time though it was not the aggressive roar from before, but a more high-pitched, dare I say surprised cry.
I should have felt exhilarated about hurting the creature. Hell, I was fully expecting some caveman-portion of my brain to rejoice at the experience. Instead I found my mind extremely sharp and clear, like the blade of a well-honed knife, and it told me one thing: it wasn’t enough. The cut was too shallow to be fatal. It might not even hinder it much.
As if to agree with my assessment, the Chimera’s massive tree-trunk of an arm swung at me and sent me flying through the air. What really surprised me was how little the strike hurt. Maybe it was because I instinctively jumped with the impact, so it didn’t as much hit me as it pushed me away. It also had a useful side-effect, as it tore the spear’s tip out of the creature’s side, prompting it to shudder and let out another pained roar. It gave me just enough time to roll on landing and rise to my feet, this time minding the spear and thus doing so in a slightly less bumbling fashion.
“Leo!” At least three of the girls yelled in unison, and I couldn’t tell which ones. Not that it mattered. What did was how the princess was right behind the creature now, and the ambient reddish light gathering around her told me she was preparing to transform. For a split-second I almost felt relieved about getting some backup, but another thought overwrote the emotion and instead I yelled at her from the top of my lung.
“Stop! Don’t engage it! Head for the school building!”
The princess hesitated for a moment, and it almost proved fatal as the monster twisted around and swung its elongated arm at her. The only reason she wasn’t sent flying was because of a meaty impact hitting the creature’s side, throwing it off-balance just long enough for the princess to duck to the side and scamper out of its reach. I let relief wash over me for a moment before I pushed it aside and focused on the source of the previous distraction.
As I looked closer I saw something sticking out of the side of the Chimera. It was slightly translucent and I quickly recognized its light: it was an arrow bearing the magic of Angie. My deduction was promptly confirmed when the celestial girl swooped down from the sky and landed beside me. To my surprise, I found that one of her bracelets was unfolded into a sleek bow that, if it was made from regular metal, would have probably collapsed in on itself just from the internal strain, let alone let someone fire projectiles with it. But then again, I couldn’t see any bowstring between its arms, so as far as I knew the entire ‘bow’ might have been just cosmetic.
Angie was smiling defiantly, but even a cursory glance told me that she was heaving hard and her legs were shaking. She tried to say something, but her mouth might have been dry, as she only gulped repeatedly without letting out a single sound. I subtly rolled my eyes and patted her on the shoulder. The creature was busy with grasping at the shaft in its side, so I took the opportunity to speak, as I might not have had the time later.
“Good job. Now go to the main building with the others. Try to find a way past the barrier through the back entrance.”
“What about you?” She squeezed out the words through her clenching throat.
“I’ll keep this thing’s attention and follow after you once you are inside.”
In the meantime, the rest of the girls also circled around and got into earshot, so I pointed at them one by one.
“Class rep, you are in charge. Princess, take point. Angie, you are ranged support. Judy, you are in charge of communications. Everyone clear?”
They looked at me funny, but then all of their faces turned pale as the Chimera stopped messing with its wound and lunged towards us without prior warning. I let my instincts take control of my body the way I practiced with Brang’s shades and, to my immense satisfaction, it worked surprisingly well. I sidestepped the incoming charge and whacked the thing on the side of the head with the blade of my spear. It let out an ear-piercing shriek as it turned mid-run and swung at me. I nimbly ducked under it and poked it with the spear once again. I wasn’t doing much damage, but I was fairly certain I would be able to wear it down with time.
I looked up for a moment and found the four girls still gawping at me. This time I didn’t bother to be subtle with my eyes-rolling and yelled, “Go!”
They took a few hesitant steps towards the main building, but then the princess turned on her heel and yelled at me, “Leo! I want you to know that I…!”
She got that far before Judy and Angie grabbed hold of her arms and began dragging her along, much to her protests. I didn’t mind though. Anguished declarations of love were one of those ‘red flags’ that set either the confessor or the receiver up for dying a poignant death, a prospect I didn’t mind avoiding if at all possible. Either way, I hefted my spear and flashed a toothy glower at the creature… who then promptly ignored me and tried going after the girls.
“Oh no, you don’t!” I screamed in frustration at the obnoxious monster and stabbed it in the back. It roared and spun on its heel again, finally focusing on me. Sheesh, just how many times does a guy have to stab someone to be taken seriously?
The chimera howled and leaped at me. I ducked to the left and let my hands slide down on the spear so that I was holding it more like a pike. I took a couple of lithe steps backward and poked the creature a few more times while it was trying to regain its balance. While it was big and had claws the size of my fingers, it meant little when I had the longer reach. For the time being, I was satisfied with only keeping it at spear’s length and stopping it from going after the rest of the group.
After a few more useless rushes the chimera finally stopped its rampage and we began circling around each other. I was actually really pleased with myself. Maybe it was because of my protracted mind-battle with the Faun not too long ago, but I found the terror one would have anticipated from facing a giant monster made of teeth and claws and radiating bloodlust curiously absent. I was fine. Too fine, even.
But then again, maybe it was just my way of dealing with the incongruity of the situation. I was fighting against a huge monster that looked like the progeny of an especially wild drunken party between some gorillas and a bunch of crocodiles with a spear I got from an honorable warrior goat-guy while under the eerie pale-purple light of a distant moon in a pocket-dimension made of violet ambience and eye-strain. Maybe all of it was just too unreal for my brain to take it seriously enough to freak out, so instead I felt my thoughts bouncing on a cushion of complacency even as I was facing a horror that would have ended an entire Call of Cthulu campaign with sanity damage alone.
The cold, analytical part of my mind was still as alert as ever though, as were my strange, supernatural dodging-instincts. The creature threw itself against me time and time again, and each time it did so I rebuked it with a solid poke in the abdomen or the chest and a light sidestep. I was even a little disappointed. From the description of the girls, and even more so from their reaction, I expected something truly brutal. While the creature in front of me looked dangerous all right, it wasn’t particularly dangerous to me.
Then, about five seconds later, I had to remind myself to never, ever complain about not having enough troubles, as the chimera abruptly lashed out with a growling grunt and my instincts told me to dive to the side immediately. My legs followed the advice even as my hands were trying to stab back to keep it at bay, only for me to realize that the main bulk of the creature didn’t actually move. Yet, there was something swinging over my head when I got out of the way.
The chimera didn’t give me time to think, as it struck again. This time I paid attention to where the strike was coming from and to my astonishment I found that it didn’t actually take a step towards me. Instead, it made its arm grow longer than my spear.
… Well, that was one way to level the playing field, I supposed. A really, really unfair way, but I guessed I wasn’t one to talk. I dodged to the side again, and I was really thankful that we were engaged on the grass instead of the pavement, otherwise I would have probably gotten myself bruised into oblivion with all the rolling and skidding left and right.
But back to the chimera: its arm didn’t just grow or elongate, instead it looked like it lost all of its bones and became something like large tentacle tipped with a clawed wrist. It was also still growing, to the point where I was the one getting squarely outmatched in the reach department. For the moment all I could do was to run around it in circles and duck whenever it tried to strike me down.
And then there was an abrupt guitar solo.
“What?” I muttered in surprise, almost forgetting to dodge before I recognized my ringtone. I let out a nondescript curse aimed at no one in particular and let go of my spear with one hand so that I could reach into my pocket. My opponent wasn’t particularly considerate of me, so I had to weave around several more lashes before I managed to pick up the phone.
“Hi chief,” My assistant greeted me like it was just an impulse-call on a slow weekend evening.
“Hi,” I answered reflexively, only to let out a pained hiss a second later when I tried to redirect an incoming lash with just one hand on the spear. The impact twisted the weapon in my hand and sent a sharp tinge of pain running up my forearm. I stepped back to avoid the follow-up strike and flexed my muscles. It didn’t hurt anymore, so I hoped nothing was broken.
“Is everything all right?” Judy asked. Her voice sounded almost painfully clueless.
“I am just a little busy over here,” I answered with some irritation “Why did you call?”
“You said I was in charge of communications.”
“Oh, right...” I mumbled a moment before I had to throw myself onto the ground.
“Are you sure everything’s all right?”
“No! As I said, I am kind of busy!” I grumbled as I jumped to my feet just in time to avoid a vertical strike that would have probably broken me in half were I still in the vicinity when it hit the ground. I groaned, half in pain and half in exasperation, and told Judy to hold the line.
I pocketed my phone, grabbed hold of my spear with both hands and surveyed the immediate area. Until then I stuck to the open grounds next to the main building, as I preferred the extra mobility it allowed for ducking, weaving and scampering for dear life. It wasn’t really conducive for taking a breather though, so after a moment of thinking I turned tail and headed to the closest of the titular cherry trees. The chimera let out a couple of roars as it flailed its limb at me, but I avoided all of its attacks without a scratch (though one did scrape my thigh earlier, but it didn’t even draw blood so it wasn’t worth mentioning then.)
Through agility, luck and mad skillz I managed to get behind the tree without any incident. I figured it would buy me only a couple of seconds at most, so I immediately took out my phone.
Judy answered without a moment of hesitation.
“The back exit is also covered by the barrier. So are the windows on the ground floor.”
“Damn,” I hissed as I lightly hit the back of my head against the trunk of the tree.
“We need another way in. Any ideas?” Came the slightly fuzzy question from the class rep. She was probably shouting it into the receiver from a distance.
I took a deep breath and thought hard for a moment. So, if the back entrance is not good, what else was there? She said they tried the windows on the ground floor and... and then the realization hit me in that peculiar mixture of elation and embarrassment only the blindingly obvious can manage.
“Get to the roof!” I all but shouted into my phone. “The barrier only reaches up to about ten meters high! You cannot go through it, but you can go over it!”
“How?” Judy asked, and I couldn’t decide if she was incredulous or honestly thought I could tell her the answer.
“How the hell should I know? You have the magical people with you; have them come up with something!”
“Will do. Judy out.”
With that, she cut the line and I hastily put my own phone away before I grabbed hold of my spear once again. I was honestly a little surprised I wasn’t interrupted yet, and I had a hard time deciding if that was a good thing or something to worry about. I expected the chimera to tear out the tree by its roots by the time I finished, or something equally excessive in the very least. Instead there was... well, nothing.
I took a cautious peek around the trunk of the old tree and I actually had to stop myself from laughing out in surprise. The chimera was, for lack of better words, hobbling towards me on a pair of ridiculously stumpy, fat legs. Not only that, but its upper body was completely deformed. It still had the same head with the same six glowing eyes, but its face was gaunt and its torso lost most of its musculature on one side while bulging out on the other. In fact its left arm looked like it was sucked back into its shoulder.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to connect the dots, but when I did I couldn’t help but laugh for real. Yes, the chimera transformed in order to be able to negate my reach-advantage, but contrary to my expectation it didn’t just do it via magic. Well, fine, I was certain magic was involved in one way or the other, but it looked like its transformation was actually that; transformation. It only reconfigured its body, creating new tissues and body-configurations without adding or subtracting from the starting biomass. I am not going to lie; the last thing I expected to obey the laws of thermodynamics in this world was the insane shape-shifting monster, though I wouldn’t say the revelation was an unpleasant surprise.
After some further observation, I surmised it must have used up the material that made up its left side and chest to create the tendril and then put the rest of its biomass into those elephantine legs in order to make itself bottom-heavy so that it wouldn’t topple as it swung its arm. I couldn’t decide whether that was really a clever or really dumb plan. Either way, did this mean it was intelligent after all? But then again, it might have just reacted to my actions. It would have explained why it took things to the extreme without considering how vulnerable (not to mention stupid-looking) it became in the process. I wondered if I could get it to elongate its arm even further by kiting it while slowly retreating until the rest of its body couldn’t support the limb and would collapse by itself, but I figured it might take too long.
There was another option though. As pitiful as the horrible murderous creature looked at the moment, I presumed its current state also made it helpless at close range. I figured that if I could charge it and avoid getting hit by its whip-like arm in the process, I could likely build up enough momentum to pierce its skin and deliver a fatal strike. I only had a few seconds to decide, but I didn’t take so long to make up my mind.
I jumped out from behind the tree and bellowed a fairly modest battle-cry as I charged the creature. I kept the spear-point low and held the shaft as firmly as I could. My goal was to run straight at the creature and transfer all the kinetic energy I accumulated into the spear point. Sounded great in theory, but I barely took a step before I ran into setbacks, namely the fact that by then the chimera hobbled close enough for its arm to reach me. I ducked under the first swing, jumped over the second and continued charging while I kept shouting elaborate curses from the top of my lungs.
In my estimate at this point, the chimera’s jointless right arm was at least six meters long and it was using it more like a whip than an actual limb, swinging it with his entire upper body. Even though said arm seemed fairly lean, especially compared to how oversized and muscular its original limbs were, I was sure a direct hit could still shatter my ribcage like it was porcelain under a jackhammer. If my theory was correct then said whip-arm contained about a third of its entire bulk at this point, so it was only to be expected. It was a fearsome weapon at a distance, but at closer ranges it became extremely clumsy and cumbersome, as I quickly found out to my immense satisfaction.
At last I got into striking distance, so I shut my mouth, focused all my attention to the left side of the monster’s chest and kicked at the ground even harder on the last step, putting as much force into the stab as I possibly could. The strike connected beautifully with a visceral, meaty ‘thunk’ followed by a deep, pained howl.
The spearhead entered into the creature’s chest cavity on the left side of its ribcage, the flat blade sliding between two ribs and entirely disappearing in its flesh. It continued to cry out in pain and shook its torso, no doubt in an attempt to bring its weaponized arm to bear. It couldn’t do that, but the trashing was so violent that my hands slipped and I was thrown off while my spear remained lodged inside its body. I didn’t have the opportunity to roll with the fall, so I landed on my back with a painful impact that pushed all the air out of my lungs and had tiny specks of light dancing at the edge of my vision.
For a long second I could only blink at the fake starless sky in a daze before my instinct told me to dodge again. My weary body followed its instructions before I could even see the danger. It was a good thing it did, as only a moment after I got out of the way the creature lost its balance and fell forwards, nearly flattening me in the process.
I rose to my feet in a hurry and retreated for a good five meters before I stopped to catch my breath. The chimera was lying motionlessly on the grass, only a whining hiss escaping its body as its lungs deflated. There was a different wheezing sound in the air as well, and it took me a moment to realize it was my own ragged breathing. I tried to control it. Instead my efforts only turned it into a rough chuckle that soon blossomed into a relieved laugh from the bottom of my throat.
“Damn!” I exclaimed as the euphoria of victory washed over me. “Daaaaamn! That was almost too easy!”
I let out another bout of not-at-all crazy laughter before I realized that I still wasn’t out of the frying pan. I shook my head hard to clear it from stray thoughts and tried to assess my situation.
First and foremost, I have beaten a monster. Normally this was the time I received my experience points and some random loot, but I lost my weapon instead. “That is horrible game design,” I muttered under my breath, still a little high on adrenaline as I circled the motionless body of the chimera.
It was just as I feared; my spear was lodged under the entire bulk of the creature and I had no means of retrieving it at the moment. I clicked my tongue in frustration and glanced over at the main building. “I should hurry after the others,” I muttered once again to no one in particular.
Then the guitar solo sounded again, making me jump in surprise. I let out a grunt and reached for my pocket while heading towards the main entrance of the school building.
“Yes?” I asked once I got my nerves under control.
“There’s trouble,” Judy stated in answer.
“I figured. I am on my way. What’s the situation?”
“We are being chased by three… no, four Fauns.” I almost stumbled when I heard the news. I subsequently increased my pace while she continued, “They are in the way and we cannot get to the roof. Any advice?”
I slowed down as I was about to reach the corner of the building and uttered the first thing that came to mind.
“Tell the others that I said you should not let them herd you up the stairs and corner you on the roof. Do it as loud as you can so that they can hear it too.”
“Okay,” My assistant obliged on the spot. She must have put her hand over the phone, because I could only hear a muffled string of syllables. A second later she told me, in a clear voice; “Amelia says I should stop shouting or they will overhear us.” There was a moment of pause and she added, “And Eleanor asked me to tell you to ‘make up your mind already.’”
“Disregard the latter. As for the class rep, yell about how it doesn’t matter because the Faun are so incompetent they wouldn’t be able to use the information to their advantage anyway. Make extra sure they hear that one.”
“On it.” The noises coming from the other side once again got muffled for a few seconds. “Message delivered. Where should we go now?”
“To the roof, obviously.”
There was some commotion in the background. Then Judy said, “Eleanor wants me to tell you ‘you should really, really make up your damn mind!’”
“Comment noted. Now, I want you to retreat towards the roof. Put up token resistance and make it look like you are really trying to avoid going there. Let the Faun believe they are actually forcing you. Once up there you should be able to hold them back at the only exit. That should buy you some time while you figure out how to get over the barrier.”
“Okay. We will try.” She paused meaningfully before she suddenly asked, “How will you get there if the Fauns will be in front of the door?”
“I will think of something. I’m on my—” Just then there was a chill running down my spine and I immediately dived to the left. There was an ear-piercing sound of claws meeting plaster as I rolled to the side and finally laid my eyes on my new attacker. Or rather, the old one.
The chimera stood in front of me once again, changed. Gone were the stumpy legs, replaced by thick digitigrade limbs. It was walking on three legs now, the previous stump of its left foreleg reasserting itself into a new, fully functional extremity even while I was looking. It was still dragging its long whip-arm behind it as it awkwardly tried to follow after me, but it looked withered and I could see it pulsating just under the shoulder as if a second heart was in the process of pumping out all the usable biomass from the now pointless limb.
Weirdest of all, the creature still had the spear sticking out of its torso… except from the back. The only way I could imagine that could have happened if all the extremities of the chimera twisted around to turn its back into its new front, but as implausible as that sounded, the spear-shaft sticking out of its back like a huge quill on an otherwise bald porcupine told me it had to be true.
It shook its body like a wet dog before it let out a deep grown and tried to lunge at me using its strong back legs, but it got tangled by its own whip arm and it fell flat on its belly before the huge, scything claws of its brand new left arm could even get close to my retreating self. It let out a whine that felt curiously frustrated before it rose onto its hind-legs once again, grabbed hold of his elongated limb with the other one and pulled it in front of its head like a thick string of taffy. Then, without even flinching, it opened its giant maw wide open, which apparently had two rows of teeth as I learned just then, and bit down hard on the appendage. There was no blood, only a sort of black ichor that got absorbed black into the creature’s body as soon as it fell upon it.
It took several bites for the arm to be severed, and when it did the chimera tossed the lifeless limb aside like it was trash. Even as it did so I could see the new foreleg forming from the stump. I looked over the recovering creature as I slowly backed away. It was then that I remembered the phone in my hand, so I gulped and raised it to my face.
“Judy,” I told my assistant as calmly as I could. “I ran into some complications. I might be late. Don’t wait for me.”