How did the saying go? Out of the frying pan, into the fire? Times like this made me think we needed a more severe version of that. Like, ‘Out of the burning airplane without a parachute and into the blast of a nuclear bomb’, or something to that effect. The only problem with that one was that, knowing my luck, I would end up in an even bigger mess afterwards and would have to come up with an even more severe expression, and then another one, and another one ad infinitum.
I took a sharp breath through my nostrils and tried to forget about my problems with linguistic serial escalation and focused on the more tangible problem at hand. So, I was standing in the slowly dissolving remains of a shape-shifting monster in front of the portal leading to this universe’s equivalent of the underworld. Those were the neutral news.
As for the bad ones... First off, I was alone. I was also face to face with Crowey, an Abyssal noble of considerable power whom I already antagonized in the past without knowing a thing about him. What was new?
For a start, while the school building looked to be pretty far before, I had to revise this statement. The walls were actually only about ten or so meters behind me. Maybe it was the lighting or the lightheadedness after landing or just my expectations telling me that Crowey would open his gate to the Abyss right in the middle of the track field, but it took my eyes several seconds to convince my brain of these new facts. In the end it amounted to the same: I have misjudged the distance, and for once that was good news. That meant the others would be able to get to me all the sooner, provided I was still alive by the time they got down from the roof. In other words, I needed to buy time.
I quickly scanned the area around the gate, and to my sincere surprise I only found three people there. I already mentioned Crowey. The other two were Snowy in her disturbingly skimpy succubus fetish attire and Josh. Hilariously enough (or at least what would have constituted hilarious under other circumstances) Snowy was the one showing less skin of the two of them, as my friend was only dressed in his underpants. Was that how he slept, or was he taken after showering? Also, was it just me, or was the guy surprisingly ripped?
Not that it mattered. Also, I have to insert another correction here: the briefs weren’t the only thing on him, as both his arms and legs were tied up in what looked like thin, semi-transparent glowing chains. Some kind of spell, I surmised.
When he finally noticed me as well he tried to yell something, but his mouth was also tied shut by a series of similar chains around his head and jaws, so I could only hear a series of muffled noises coming from him. That struck me as odd for some reason, and it didn’t take long to figure out why: Contrary to my expectations, the portal wasn’t making any kind of swooshing or humming noise. It was just... sitting there. Soundless, glowing and its edges slowly turning like a giant wheel or the edges of a galaxy on fast-forward.
“I have to say, I am surprised.”
I blinked at the words and almost uttered a baffled ‘What?’ before I regained my wits and swallowed it down before it left my mouth. Right, I was talking to Crowey, wasn’t I? Once again time seemingly escaped me while I was analyzing my desperate situation, and while it subjectively felt like ages passed since I landed on a cushion of gooified Chimera remains, it was actually at most a couple of seconds ago.
What was my plan again? Oh, right. I didn’t actually come up with anything yet, did I? I supposed that meant it was time to return to my fallback plan and continue playing charades. I forced a terribly amicable grin onto my face and looked Crowey right in the eye.
To my surprise, I found him standing in a very relaxed manner, his hands hidden in the pockets of his expensive grey suit and his eyes looking down on me with the distant haughtiness of nobility. Actually, that was the right word. All he needed was a lacquered walking staff and a top hat and he would have passed for a turn-of-the-century noble in a period piece talking to a stable boy. I could have sworn that when I arrived he looked way more startled and openly hostile, so the only thing to which I could attribute the change in his attitude was that he was also engaging me in mind-games.
Speaking of which, I wondered which angle would buy me the most time? Mock politeness? Groveling? Fake confidence? Taunting? No, definitely not taunting. That would…
“You are surprised? Imagine how surprised I was when I learned that some spineless asshole sent his underling to deal with me instead of getting off his lazy ass and doing the job himself.”
I sighed inwardly while restraining the urge to hit myself in the head. “Taunting it is…”, I muttered silently. It was stupid, I knew it, but I couldn’t help it. The guy’s face was just so... eminently punchable.
“I see…” Crowey mused with an inscrutable expression. “So sending Brang was insufficient.” Suddenly his face twisted in a facsimile of a haughty smile. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“Well, duh,” I told him with a shrug as I stepped off the steadily melting remains I was standing in. As I did so, there was a sudden stabbing pain in my left leg. I didn’t dare to look, or even twitch, but I was pretty sure I at least sprained that ankle, if not outright dislocated it. I hid my pained gasp in a tired-sounding groan. Well, there went my plans for walking up and down while giving a filibuster to buy time. I shook my head and continued, “He put up a good fight, but as the saying goes; you do not send a Faun to do an Abyssal’s job.”
The smile slowly evaporated from the sharply dressed man’s face and got replaced with a scowl.
“It is the way of the Abyss to have our minions act in our stead. Don’t presume to lecture me, cur.”
“Really now? From where I am standing, all I can see is a bad boss sending his subordinate on a mission they had no chance at succeeding and now trying to cover his own ass, which in your case would also mean your face.”
Crowey visibly twitched at my remark.
“Are these crass insults all you have?”
“Depends. Do I really need anything else when faced with such incompetence?”
“Incompetence? You call this incompetence?” At this point Crowey finally removed his gloved hands from his pockets and theatrically opened his arms. “I have found the Herald of the Emperor! I have timed his kidnapping on the day no one could interfere! I have drafted the plans for the impenetrable barrier surrounding this field and I have opened a gate to the Abyss in the heart of the power of the Magi! You call this incompetent?!”
“Yes, yes. Very impressive,” I spoke with a mocking smile in the corner of my mouth, “But then you had to mess it all up by sending your scout general after me. Think about it; if you were content with just leaving me alone, then I would have never heard about your kidnapping plot and would have no reason to come here to ruin your plans.” At this point I sent a sneaky wink at Snowy, who in turn shuddered and averted her eyes. He didn’t need to know I got wind of this situation from her, and I considered keeping it a secret a favor, so her reaction was a little cold. Nevertheless I continued; “So really, because of your useless pride you already ruined all your plans when you got me involved. But don’t worry about it. Please, keep monologuing to your heart’s content about how great your plans are. You still have about… say… fifteen minutes before your portal closes.”
I expected an immediate reply, but instead I only received a cold silence in return. At last Crowey smiled again, the same kind of weird, unnerving smile as before, but this time his eyes were crackling with anger as he let out a soft chuckle.
“I see… I see… You are right. I really shouldn’t have sent a Faun to do an Abyssal’s job.”
The words sent a cold shiver down my spine. ‘I probably went too far with the taunting’, I noted with the familiar detachment that at this point felt like a prelude of imminent danger. I mentally screamed at my companions to drag their shapely behinds over to my side already, but I didn’t dare to actually glance back and see if they were coming. Of course, I had other means to tell their whereabouts, but averting my attention for a Far Sight gaze was equally risky. I focused all my attention on Crowey instead, expecting an attack at any moment.
Contrary to my expectations, the guy slowly, deliberately slid his hands into his pockets again, his dark eyes still glaring at me with an intensity that would have made water boil faster. Then he tilted his head to the side and said, “Sister. Kill him.”
I silently gulped as my eyes darted over to Snowy. Up until this moment she was standing motionlessly besides Josh, but upon being called she shuddered and straightened her back. There was a flash of light coming off her neck and she took a tentative step forwards. The second one was a bit steadier, and by the time she took the third, her gait became an exaggerated, hip-swinging strut. I would have rolled my eyes at the display, but I didn’t dare to take my eyes off her even for a split second. As she drew closer a pair of long claws made of crystalline ice condensed out of thin air and attached themselves to her thin right forearm. They were about forty centimeters long and had a wicked curvature. In some way, they were even beautiful, yet extremely scary.
“I’m sorry darling,” She whispered with a voice that was phasing in and out of her vamp persona. “I told you not to get involved. I told you to stay home.” Suddenly her voice cracked and she repeated “I’m sorry,” in a near sob.
I had a feeling I should have said something. Something about it not being her fault or that she didn’t have to do this or something even sappier.
I never had the chance to say a single word.
First, there was a strange battle-cry, then a dark shape dashing in from the left and tackling Snowy off her feet. She let out a surprised cry followed by a similarly surprised grunt coming from the direction of Crowey as a series of glowing arrows impacted on a honeycomb-patterned purple barrier around him. He still stumbled backwards, more from the suddenness of the attack than from the impacts, and he hastily threw out his hands. The barrier suddenly flared even brighter, its surface covered in a series of incredibly complicated magic circles illuminating the area even further. It was weird looking at it. I have seen magic before as tendrils or an indistinct glow, but this was the first time I saw something this complex. It looked, or rather felt, weird.
Then the light faded once again as a large silhouette I vaguely recognized as the class rep’s golem rushed in and tackled him. In the meantime, Snowy kicked off her assailant and the princess landed on her back beside me. A moment later she was on her feet again, tail whipping and eyes glinting dangerously in the twilight.
It was at this point that my brain caught up with the situation and I let out a small sigh before I pointed my finger forwards and yelled, “Angie! Get Josh while they are incapacitated!”
“On it!” Came a strained voice from above. I glanced up and saw a pair of glowing wings in the darkness descending upon Josh, who was still standing rigid and upright like he was tied to a pole. Angie swooped down like a giant bird of prey. The wings covered him for a second and then with a loud ‘whoosh’ they both rose into the air. Their not-so-majestic flight only lasted for a couple of seconds, as they rapidly lost altitude and the two of them more-or-less crashed into the ground a few meters behind me.
“Joshua! Angie!” The panicked voice of the class rep reassured me that she was nearby as well, though I still couldn’t see her. Bonfire-blindness, I surmised. We were all standing around the portal long enough so that our eyes adjusted to it, and thus we were blinded to the area outside its glow. The girls used it to their advantage to position themselves around us for an ambush. It was clever. I made a mental note to give a pat on the back to whichever one of them came up with the tactic.
But back to the rapidly unfolding events: I tried to take a step towards the sprawled out Celestial girl and my still tied-up friend, but I stumbled and might have even fallen down if my assistant didn’t rush to my side and support me with her shoulder. A moment later we both shook as the princess grabbed hold of my other arm and pulled me up.
“Are you all right?” Judy asked with the kind of frantic worry I would have never expected to hear in her voice.
“I’m fine, it’s just my…” I glanced down at my unruly leg and the sight had the words trapped in my throat. It wasn’t just sprained as I though; instead my jeans from the knee down were covered in a thick black liquid that I recognized as coagulating blood. ‘Oh right,’ I recognized with a slight alarm. ‘I was bitten by the chimera’s tail.’
Maybe I didn’t feel it because of some kind of venom? Its tail was supposed to be a snake, wasn’t it? There were a lot of questions and observations whirling in my head for a moment, but I pushed them all aside for the time being and only uttered a flat “Huh.”
“What?” The princess asked with a hint of anxiety in her voice as she followed my gaze and promptly paled.
“Nothing,” I stressed with a smile I hoped was at least a little reassuring as I tried to put some weight on my feet again. “We should check on Josh before—”
Right at this moment my insides were shaken by a deafening rumble, disorienting me for a moment. When I got my bearings in order again, I figured that the new layer of gravel covering the ground in front of the portal meant that the golem couldn’t hold back Crowey for too long.
Speaking of the man, everyone’s favorite Abyssal asshole let out a frustrated groan and bellowed, “That’s enough! Where are the minions!?” He looked around, but there was no one else coming. At last his eyes found me and with a continued flair for the dramatic the guy raised a hand and pointed at me with all fingers spread. “Enough with the games! Sister, kill them all!”
From the corner of my eyes I saw another flare of magical light, but as I wanted to glance over, the hairs on the back of my neck abruptly stood on ends. It was the familiar feeling of incoming danger, and my body was instinctively trying to get out of the way… except I couldn’t, as both the princess and Judy were holding onto me.
With the sense of mortal danger growing even greater by the moment, a corner of my mind screamed at me to drop onto the ground lest I would die… but an even louder part reminded me that I wasn’t alone, and while I could let go of the two girls, it would put them into harm’s way instead. So I did something stupid. Truly shocking, I know.
Instead of getting out of the way, I went right against whatever instinct told my body to move and did the exact opposite, moving towards danger instead of away from it. Mind you, I still couldn’t see the danger we were talking about, but that didn’t stop me from acting.
Then there was a soft thud that shook my entire body, followed by a searing pain that raced through my nerves so hard it felt like my whole world was ablaze for a moment. Then there was only white, and nothing else.
Two seconds. That’s how long I was unconscious after receiving an ice-spike in my abdomen. It punctured my skin, the muscles underneath, passed through my abdominal wall and was wedged between the curves of my small intestines, its sharp end poking out through my back. I grunted with amusement as I noted that it passed through me without hitting any vital organs or veins. I don’t know why I found that amusing. It wasn’t. It hurt like hell. I considered I might have had to be there to get the joke, but then again, I was there and still didn’t get it. It was irritating.
I put my irrational thoughts aside and looked around. It seemed like time was once again running in slow-motion. How peculiar, I thought. I could see the princess roaring at my side as she faced off against Snowy. I could see the young Abyssal girl stare at me with wide open eyes, the corners of her mouth slowly trembling. I saw my dear assistant’s wild eyes as she looked at the spear of ice sticking out of my side with abject horror. I saw all of them. They felt so close yet so far away. I feared that if I reached out and touched them they would dissolve like mirages in the summer air.
I distantly noted how my thought-patterns felt weird. Weirder than usual, at any rate. Was that because I was dying? Was I dying? I didn’t know. It didn’t feel like I was about to die, but then again, I had a large piece of glassy ice stuck in my stomach, as thick as my index and middle fingers put together. People tended to die from things like that.
I could feel my mouth twist in a sardonic smile. I figured this was the moment when I had to reflect on my past. Was I supposed to do that? It felt natural, so I thought I might as well give it a shot.
So, where to begin? Mistakes were made. I do not mean this whole ‘being skewered’ business. That was a good thing. Well, for a certain measure of ‘good’. If I didn’t get in its way, it would have hit Judy in the chest instead, and if I dragged her out of the way, it would have hit Josh on the ground behind us. I didn’t know how I actually knew this, but I sounded convincing, so I decided to believe my words.
So yeah, getting impaled was the good choice I made. Everything else though? Just one giant, unmitigated chain of disasters barely avoided by the skin of my teeth. Why is it that hindsight always made me feel so dumb?
I glanced around again to take my mind off the steadily intensifying self-loathing when I noticed something peculiar. Snowy’s choker, the one I made note of a couple of times before, was shining. That light was strangely familiar, like I have seen it just recently. I sifted through my memories and made the connection: it was the same kind of light I saw just before the attack that had me in my currently punctured state. It was easy to recognize. It wasn’t the color per se, it was more like a… texture, for the lack of better words. I had actually seen it one more time before, when Snowy first tried to attack me. What was the common thing about those two situations?
She was ordered to do so by her brother; I concluded. I squinted to take a better look and my vision blurred for a second, then it came back into focus. It was only for a moment, but I felt like I glimpsed the true form of the light surrounding Snowy’s neck. It was… a spell? Enchantment? I didn’t know the right word for it. I decided to call it ‘effect’ for the time being. The glimpse that I saw told me a lot of things about the effect. It felt like I was looking at programming code, but at the same time not. It was more… organic. It wasn’t binary or based on mathematics, more like… I don’t know. I had nothing else to compare it to but itself.
What was it then? Aside from something that made my blood boil? I followed the effect’s trigger, which was represented by a thin, almost invisible string attached to the angrily shouting black-haired young man on the side. I stared at him, and the longer I did so, the more I could feel anger building up inside my chest. It was a black, sticky kind of anger, pure unadulterated loathing so strong it made me feel physically ill. Right, I thought. I cannot die yet. Someone has to take care of this mess and get rid of this guy.
Thinking so I took a deep breath, my chest no longer restrained by the lazy ebb of time, gritted my teeth and focused all my will into a single exhalation.
There was a moment of nausea when I came to my senses as time began to flow normally one again. I found myself supported by Judy, her still horrified face dressed in a crimson light. The source of said light was coming from the princess, or rather the growing ball of eldritch power swirling in front of her mouth.
I only had a split-second to act. I ignored the searing pain and my assistant’s distant protests as I lurched forwards to stand tall on my feet. I drew in a heavy breath between clenched teeth and held it for a split second before I let it all out in a bellow that shook my insides.
“Elly!” The princess stumbled when she heard my voice and for a moment it seemed like the ball of power was about to blink out of existence, so I hastily continued, “Don’t stop! Aim for the asshole! He is the one in control!”
Credit where credit is due, the princess didn’t as much as bat an eye at my order. There were no whats or whys, she just grunted in acknowledgement, faced the Abyssal and let out a roar that had no business coming out of a teenage girl’s throat. Even though it happened in an instant I could swear I caught a glimpse of Crowey’s face slackening in shock before he raised both his hands and the magical barrier from before sprung to life once again.
The beam of crimson light streaming forth from the princess’s attack hit Crowey’s barriers like a jet of water would hit a rock, spraying ground-melting droplets of dragonfire around the area with dangerous abandon. It was pretty to look at, but it didn’t penetrate, and that was a problem.
“Breathe like you mean it!” I shouted as loud as I could to overcome the sound of the princess’s wave motion dragon breath. “I know you can do it! Roar!”
I had no idea whether she could even hear me, but the lionesque rumble accompanying the attack dropped an octave and the stream of power abruptly changed color, from an angry crimson to a brilliant golden light so bright and intense it hurt my eyes. I looked anyways, without blinking. I wanted to see it, and my expectations were met with flying colors.
The moment the golden stream hit Crowey’s barrier it shattered like an egg under a hammer. There was a second layer, but it didn’t fare any better. The princess’ dragon fire peeled layer after layer like a sledgehammer would peel and onion, and even though I couldn’t hear it over the deafening noise, I was sure the Abyssal was howling in anguish. The whole process only lasted a second at best and finally the last vestige of the purple light around Crowey exploded with a pitiful pop and the torrent of raw magical force washed over him, sending his prone body flying through the air like a ragdoll engulfed in golden flames and he rapidly disappeared from sight as he got outside of the glow of the portal.
All in all, while it only lasted for a few seconds, I was sure I just witnessed something I would remember for the rest of my life. I was about to praise the draconic girl at my side, but the alarm bells in my head started ringing the moment I laid my eyes on her.
“Judy, grab Elly.”
“Don’t argue,” I stated forcefully. “Prop her up, quick.”
My assistant might have been rattled by the events, but she was still as efficient as ever. Without any further ado, she circled around me and grabbed hold of the heaving girl’s shoulders. It was just in time, as a moment later the princess’ trembling legs gave out and she nearly dragged both of them to the ground. Thanks to Judy’s support they remained standing, albeit barely.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
The princess looked up. I could see her brows tense in pain and there was a trickle of blood in the corner of her mouth, but she forced a smile onto her face.
“Heh... I must look really bad if the guy with the icicle in his stomach is worried about me.”
Her voice was hoarse, but considering that she had the energy to be snappy with me I figured she was fine. Her words however reminded me of another problem. I glanced down and found that the ice spear was still snugly lodged inside my abdomen. Curiously enough, it didn’t really hurt anymore. Or rather there was an unpleasant, throbbing sensation in my stomach where I could see it sticking out of me, and when I looked down I could see that I was standing in a pool of dark liquid that I figured must have been blood, but it didn’t really hurt per se. I wasn’t sure I was supposed to be relieved or worried about it, or the fact that my head felt surprisingly clear in spite of the apparent blood-loss. Or maybe it was because of the blood loss? Either way, I had to do something about it before Crowey got back up.
I looked over my shoulder and quickly found the rest of the group. Josh was still lying on the ground with his limbs bound by glowing chains, his eyes frantically darting between the two girls leaning over him. They both seemed to be in the process of casting a spell or five, and while I recognized that getting Josh out of his bondage was high-priority, delaying it a little for my own continued survival seemed like a fair trade.
“Angie, come over here for a second!”
The celestial girl looked up from Josh and her eyes opened wide in shock. A moment later she pretty much scampered over to my side and fell onto her knees before me.
“Oh no… Nonononono…” She reached out towards the ice spike with trembling fingers but pulled her hand away before they got anywhere close to it like she was touching a hot stove. “I… I thought she missed! I didn’t see!”
“Angie, look at me,” I waited for her to raise her face and looked her in the eye before I continued. “I need you to calm down. Panicking won’t help.”
For a second she was obviously struggling with her nerves. In the end she forcefully evened out her breathing and gave me a light nod.
“All right. You can use healing magic. Do you have anything potent enough to fix this?”
“I… I don’t know. I never healed a wound like that, only scratches and sprains.”
“Could you try? Just patch me up enough so that I could move around. I don’t care about scarring, just stop the bleeding.”
“I can try but… if I mess up you could die.”
“Same goes if you don’t try. I'll take my chances.”
Angie’s face twisted in anguish like she was the one with perforated guts.
“A-All right… First, we have to remove the object. Slowly. Then…”
All of us shuddered at the sudden wail of anguish and all eyes were glued on the Abyssal girl on the ground. I mentally kicked myself in the head for forgetting about her even for a second, and the sight made it even worse. She sat on the ground like a marionette with its strings cut and wailed with a vacant look in her eyes. And that’s when it started. First it was just a light breeze, then a squall, then all of a sudden we were in the middle of a snowstorm. It all happened so fast my body didn’t even register the sudden drop in temperature until a few seconds later, but then I shuddered as the cold wind cut to my bones.
I didn’t pay it much heed though, as my attention was firmly held by the veritable geyser of light emanating from the girl. Even with my non-existent magical knowledge, I could tell that wasn’t normal.
“What the hell is happening?” I yelled over my shoulder to the person I hoped actually knew the answer.
“She’s…” The class rep began to answer, but then she stopped in order to shield Josh from the worst of the sudden blizzard before she continued, “She is burning her soul!”
“I am not an expert, but that sounds bad!” I yelled over the howling wind.
“If she continues, she is going to die!” She answered, and though I couldn’t hear it properly, I was fairly certain she muttered “… and so do we.” at the end.
I glanced down at Angie and growled, “We have no time,” between gritted teeth as I grabbed hold of the icicle in my gut. She let out a yelp that was probably a form of protest, but I couldn’t hear it over the sudden, world-shattering pain running throught my body.
‘So that’s where the pain was all this time,’ noted a cold, analytical part of my brain. I blinked and looked around in wonderment as I observed the snowflakes dancing around me in slow motion. I was vaguely aware of the cold piece of ice in my hand and the flood of agony wrecking my body, yet my mind was crystal clear once again, the pain rolling off my thoughts like water off a duck’s back.
I closed my eyes and exhaled very slowly, forcing the already slow time into a standstill. I have made too many mistakes already. I had to turn the tide right here or be swept up in it.
With that determination in mind I took a sharp breath, and with it the world started moving again, but so did the pain. It was a strange kind of pain though, and as I glanced back down I saw Angie frantically humming something that sounded like a jazz-tune with her blood-stained hands covering my wound. I raised a single brow at the sight. So that’s how one’s tissues knitting back together at a visible rate felt like? In retrospect, that was an experience I could have lived without, but beggars can’t be choosers.
I let the Celestial girl do her job and focused my attention on the rest. The princess was out of commission for the moment, too exhausted to even move, and Judy had her hands full with keeping her upright, both figuratively and literally. The class rep was still frantically trying to shield Josh, who was still lying on the ground motionlessly. As for Snowy, she was in the process of getting surrounded by pillars of jagged ice. I figured that in a minute she would get completely engulfed. In other words, another ticking clock. Just what I needed. I had to get her out of there, but everyone was down for the count. Well, everyone save for one person…
I didn’t take long to make up my mind. Not that I had time for doubts to begin with. I took hold of Angie’s hand and removed it from the wound on my abdomen, which sent another wave of nauseating agony rattling through my nerves. I simply ignored it the same way I did before.
“Wait, I am not done!” Angie cried in a voice close to sobbing, but I held onto her hand firmly and raised her to her feet.
“It can wait. I need you to get out your bow now.”
“Angie, we don’t have time. I want you to shoot the ice around Snowy. You should be able to break it. Stop it from closing in on her or we will never get her out of there.”
“But she stabbed you…”
“She was forced to stab me. I will explain later.” She still looked hesitant, and I had no time to waste on this conversation, so I dusted off my most severe glare and looked her in the eye. “We came here to rescue both Josh and her, and we are not leaving until we have both of them back. That is the whole reason we are in this mess, and I can’t have you have second guesses now. If I tell you to shoot something, I expect you to shoot it. No questions asked. Are we clear?”
I don’t know which part of my words was the trigger, but all of a sudden there was a defiant light in Angie’s eyes and she nodded with surprising firmness.
“Yes… You are right. Understood!” Without further ado her bow sprung out of her bracelet and she fired an arrow more brilliant than anything she had ever released before. It hit one of the ice-pillars and it not only broke it, but the top half of it outright evaporated. “I can do this!”
“Yes you can,” I encouraged her with a pat on the back that left a bloody handprint on her white dress. I hoped she wouldn’t mind it later.
With that said I turned to Judy and the princess and beckoned for them to follow me back to the other two while Angie kept shooting the ice. Time was of the essence, so I tried to shuffle as hard as I could, and we all arrived to Josh’s side at the same time. I didn’t wait for anyone to say anything; instead I pointed at the class rep and said, “The Faun should get down at any moment now. I need you to go to the entrance. I want you to summon your golem again and have it sit on the exit. Afterwards go to the corner of the building and find one of the anchor sigils. You should be able to see them even with your bare eyes, they glow. Rotate the ground it’s sitting on by ninety degrees in either direction. It should destabilize the barrier for a few minutes. Don’t ask how I know this, I just do, okay? Doing this to one or two sigils won’t take the barrier down, but while it’s unstable it will be impenetrable to the Fauns as well. It should buy us more time. Once you are done get back here for further instructions.”
I thought she might protest, but the class rep immediately nodded and dashed away in the direction of the school building. I figured she was either used to obeying orders if they were given forcefully enough or she understood just how dire the situation was and she hoped I knew what I was doing. So did I, but she didn’t need to know that.
Next, I turned my attention to the guy lying on the ground making simultaneously outraged and horrified noises through a jaw clenched shut by a set of ethereal chains. I started by getting rid of those. Under the close scrutiny of the princess I struck two bloody fingers under the chain running down his cheek to loop under his jaw, curled them, and then made a sharp tugging motion. Like with Angie’s tendrils of misty light in the past, my fingers cut through the ethereal restraint and they snapped like an old rubber band. It must have been one single spell that kept my friend restrained, as the moment the chain on his face broke the rest slacked as well and a moment later all of it burst into heatless blue flames that burned away the magical bonds in a second.
Josh gasped aloud as the pressure on his body abruptly abated, his eyes darting back and forth between the three of us on the edge of panic before he sat up and hugged his knees in a fetal position.
“What’s going on!? Lili is a demon! Angie has wings! Elly has horns! What… What the actual fuck is going on!?!?”
While his confusion was completely understandable, I had no time for theatrics, so I promptly slapped him over the face, trailing another bloodstain on his cheek.
“Ow! Wha-What the fuck, man?!”
“Have you calmed down?” He probably thought that I would slap him again if he answered otherwise, so my friend gave me a curt nod. “Good. Stay calm, do exactly as I say, and with some luck, we might all live long enough to reminisce about just how crazy this night was. Got it?” He nodded again. “Good.”
This time I turned to the girls at my side. I opened my mouth but hesitated. I was about to ask something that would be outrageous under other circumstances. Then I was reminded of the ticking clock by another despairing wail followed by the sound of breaking ice, so I shook off any uncertainty and said; “Princess, I need you to kiss Josh.” Normally at this point there would have been a beat of silence, but I had none of it. “Yes, I am serious.”
“B-B-But… W-W-What? Why?!” The draconic girl protested with a face that was redder than her scales. “This is not the time to…!”
“I don’t have time to explain! I need you to exchange fluids, so use your tongue if possible. Now get to it.”
“This makes no sense…” Josh muttered on the ground, his limbs shaking either from the cold or the stress. “This must be a dream. No, a nightmare…”
“Hey,” The princess raised her voice. “I didn’t want my first kiss to go like this either!”
“Leave it to her to miss the point,” Judy muttered flatly. It was nice to see she finally regained her cool.
“But that’s too sudden! And it makes no sense, and…!”
“He is right! At least tell me the reason why I have to…!”
Their simultaneous objections made my blood boil and I shouted “ENOUGH!” so hard it hurt my throat. “We don’t have time for this. If we don’t do something, Snowy is going to die!”
“Die?” The word shook Joshua harder than my previous slap and he looked at me slack-jawed. “But… she was the one who…”
“She was forced to do that by her asshole brother, you idiot! She was the one who called me for help.”
“Yes! She is being controlled by the choker on her neck. It’s enchanted or something. I don’t know the details, but we need to get it off her and calm her down before she kills herself, and your obtuse fussing over a silly little kiss is not helping!”
That made them shut up. They glanced at each other awkwardly for a moment, then the princess turned to me. In a mousy voice she asked, “Are you sure this is going to he…”
It was at this point that my assistant rolled her eyes, and gently tapped my shoulder like she thought I would fall over if she poked me too hard.
“Chief, do they really need to exchange bodily fluids?”
“Yeah,” I answered in exasperation, “That’s why I need them to…”
Without waiting for me to finish Judy extended a finger, wiped off some of the previously mentioned trickle of blood on the corner of the princess’s mouth and then promptly stuck the same finger into Josh’s still open hanging mouth.
She looked at me with an inscrutable expression, and all I could do was shrug my shoulder and say, “Yeah, maybe that could work too…”
Not sooner than the last word leaving my mouth I was nearly blinded by a sharp red light coming from right in front of me. I shielded my eyes with my forearm, and even though I could not see what was happening, Josh’s alarmed grunts and the weird popping and cracking sounds confirmed that it indeed worked.
When the light subsided and I could lower my hand I could barely recognize my already standing friend. Considering the panic in his eyes as he was looking at his own hands, he had a hard time too. His body was now covered in rough, pearly-white scales with plate-like protrusions on his forearms and shins. His fingers and toes ended in sharp, slightly curved claws and he had the characteristically curved horns and long lizard tail of a draconian.
“H-How?! What did you do to me?!” He yelled in a weirdly echoing voice while the princess mouthed a silent ‘How?’
I ignored both of them as I stood up as well and pointed at the source of the still raging blizzard behind me.
“Listen Josh, I need you to…”
“NO!” Joshua roared while clawing at his own forearms. “I don’t want to do this! I want out! I can’t do this!”
I glared at the still panicking guy for a long second, then I reached out, grabbed hold of his horn and head-butted him right in the forehead. In retrospect that was a bad idea, since his head was now covered in ridiculously hard scales, but I was at my breaking point.
Josh staggered back like he was hit by a sledgehammer, but I didn’t let him go far, as I was still holding onto his shiny new horn. I pointed behind me again and forced him to follow my finger. As if just to accentuate my point, Snowy let out another wail.
“Do you hear that? That is Snowy! She is suffering because you cannot stop feeling sorry for yourself for one goddamn minute and help her!”
“But… But I can’t! I can’t!”
“Yes you can!” I let out a groan and let go of him. “Listen Josh, I know this is crazy and you don’t understand what’s going on. I get. It is perfectly fine to be scared and confused. But there is a girl right there who is in despair and agony over something she was forced to do, and she needs your help! I can’t help her. The girls can’t help her. Only you can help her. You are the hero of this story, start acting like one!”
“I…” Josh staggered back. His eyes were unsure and his movements sluggish, but he was no longer panicking. There was another wail and he shuddered, closed his eyes, and when he opened them again there was no hint of hesitation in them. “I get it. What do you want me to do?”
That gave me a pause I hoped he didn’t notice. Right, just what exactly did I want him to do? Until a couple of seconds ago I was sure I had a plan, a logical one, but after being sidetracked I could no longer recall it. I grasped for the bits and pieces swirling in my mind and decided to wing it.
“You… We are all down the count. You are the only one who can get close to Snowy without freezing to death. Try to calm her down and then get the choker off her. It’s what her brother uses to control her.” I almost added an uncertain ‘I think’ at the end of the sentence, but I swallowed it down. I had to maintain the illusion that I was still in control. Wait, was I ever in control? I couldn’t decide. It was hard to focus and my head felt heavy like it was made of lead. Maybe it had something to do with the blood loss.
“I will try,” Josh nodded.
“Do or do not, insert famous Yoda line here, whatever… Just get going already.” I muttered while exerting extra effort to keep my head upright.
“Right,” My friend answered with a thin smile before he flexed his muscles. By the way, I think I should mention that while his draconic form was a sight to behold, the picture was slightly ruined by the fact he was still only wearing underwear.
He shook himself and dashed past both us and Angie towards the ever-growing fortress of ice-pillars surrounding Snowy. He didn’t slow, instead he threw himself at the ice and began tearing the obstacles apart with his new claws like he was born with them. A part of me wondered if the transformation bestowed basic combat abilities on the guy as well, but a bout of nausea made me halt that line of thought and I raised my hand into the air.
There was a moment of pause before a voice rang out saying “Ah, that’s me!” and Angie dashed over to us.
“I think I might have opened up my wound just now,” I told her while gesturing towards my abdomen.
“I am almost out of juice, but I’ll try…” Angie spoke uncertainly as she kneeled down beside me, then she hesitated for a moment before asking, “Was that Josh just now?”
“Yeah. Long story.”
“…” She didn’t say anything to that, instead she began humming and waving her hands around my stomach with a difficult expression.
This time the pain didn’t bounce off me, instead it struck my very core like an arrow and made me shudder as my vision was swallowed up by the white-hot agony. I let out a soft grunt while my brain frantically looked for something to take my mind off the sensation of my flesh knitting, and it quickly found an outlet through my Far Sight. It triggered without my consent, and for a few moments I saw flashes of images that stayed too short for my brain to register, but at last it settled on one specific image that held my attention.
It was Snowy. Her exposed skin was turning blue inside the ring of ice monoliths surrounding her… or was it just the white light of the portal filtering through the ice playing tricks with my eyes? It didn’t matter. She wasn’t crying anymore but only because her tears were already frozen onto her face like two tiny glaciers. Her eyes were still vacant, her body limp and motionless and her mouth was half-open like she was still screaming. It was painful to look at her like that.
As I was thinking about that, there was a rumble as one of the large ice-pillars was uprooted. I saw Josh raising it over his head with an expression that seemed to wonder if it was normal for these things to be so light, but when he finally noticed the girl his eyes grew panicky and he threw the ice pillar to the side as if it was an empty cardboard box.
“Lili! Hey, Lili! Are you all right?” He called out to the Abyssal girl as he toppled another pillar and kneeled by her side. He reached out a hand but stopped, hesitating like he feared she might crack like the ice when he touched her. He balled his fingers into a fist and then opened his palm again before he touched her shoulders, gently and delicately like he was handling porcelain.
Snowy shuddered at his touch and her eyes blinked in a flutter, breaking the glacier of tears in the process. She looked at the boy in front of her uncomprehendingly for a moment.
“Yes, it’s me,” Josh answered while rubbing her shoulder. She must have felt so cold. “Everything is going to be all right.”
For a few seconds she only gazed at him with eyes wide open. Then her mouth twitched and her face was overcome by despair as tears began to flow down her cheeks again.
“No… No it won’t… I killed him, Josh, I…”
“I killed him!” Snowy screamed and threw off Joshua’s hand, covering her face with her hands and shaking uncontrollably. “I didn’t want to! I told him not to come! I didn’t want to!”
“Are you talking about Leo?” The girl didn’t answer, just shook, so Joshua reached out, his scale-covered hands taking the girl’s into his own and smiled. “He is all right.”
Snowy looked at him like he just told her the sky was green.
“But… But I saw it. I hit him. I…”
“He. is. fine.” The boy repeated for emphasis, trying to act calm and reassuring even though he was obviously just as upset. “He was the one who told me to come here for you.”
“He… He did?”
“Yeah. He even headbutted me to get the point across. It hurt like hell too. So don’t worry, he is as lively as ever.”
Snowy appeared to be looking for deception in his face, but when she finally accepted his expression her face scrunched up again and her tears began to flow like rivers.
“He is… Thank the… I thought…”
“Here, here…” Josh opened his arms and gently embraced the shivering girl. “Everything is going to be all right. Come on, let’s go back to the others.”
Snowy stopped shivering. It was so abrupt Josh had to pull back and look at her to see if she lost consciousness. She didn’t. She was just staring at the ground and avoiding eye-contact.
“I can’t. I have to go home with my brother.”
Josh’s eyes hardened and he put a hand under Snowy’s chin to raise her face.
“Right, now that you mention it, Leo said something about your brother controlling you with that thing,” At this point he pointed at the choker on the surprised girl’s neck. “Is that true?”
At first she tried to look away, but she realized Josh still had her chin in his fingers, so she reluctantly nodded.
“I don’t know the details” ‘In fact, I don’t know shit…’ he added in a mutter he thought no one could hear, “But can’t you just remove that?”
“I can’t… Not without help, but…”
Without waiting for her to finish, Joshua let go of her face and moved his hands around her neck. He tried to get his fingers under the choker, but he couldn’t. It looked like a simple strip of leather at first glance, but it stuck to the girl’s skin incredibly tightly, and he didn’t want to exert too much force on her neck in fear of his talons puncturing her fine white skin.
“That’s not how you…” She began to reach for the choker, but then her fingers froze like she just realized what she was about to do. She looked into Josh’s urging eyes and the two seemed to silently communicate with that one glance, as a moment later her own eyes turned resolute and she grabbed hold of her thin yoke.
Unlike Josh, she could easily fit her fingers under the choker and it seemed to stretch to accommodate her. Josh followed her example without a moment’s hesitation, and soon they both had two pairs of index and middle-fingers under it. Joshua inhaled sharply and tried to smile. It was genuine, though it couldn’t hide all his nervousness.
“Together?” He asked with a faint voice.
“Together,” Snowy answered resolutely.
They both heaved a big breath and… This was the moment the pain ended (or at the very least subsided), which surprised me so much it pulled me out of the Far Sight and I found myself landing on my butt with a heave.
“Dammit… It was just getting to the best part…” I muttered and noted with some relief that my head no longer felt heavy.
“What was that?” Judy asked while offering me a hand.
“Nothing,” I answered with a shrug as I accepted her gesture. “Josh and Snowy should be done soon.”
As if my words were all they waited for, a pair of spirited yells rang out on the track field, followed by a noise reminiscent of crackling glass gradually getting louder until at its peak it all got drowned out by an earth-shaking thunderclap that I could feel reverberating in my bones for several seconds.
Then there was silence. Well, okay, maybe not proper silence, but compared to the cacophony from before, the way the remaining ice-pillars were falling apart sounded positively soothing. Even the blizzard’s winds have abated, and now that the snowstorm didn’t block my vision I was surprised to realize that the ground was covered in a nearly ten centimeters thick cushion of fluffy snow sparkling in the portal’s light like a million tiny little mirrors.
Once my eyes adjusted I could finally recognize the forms of Josh and Snowy sitting in the middle of their own little stone henge (or should I call it ice henge?) in disrepair similar to the original. The way Josh was propping her up told me that Snowy lost her consciousness, but she was alive. Once again I couldn’t really say how I felt so confident about that assessment after just one glance, but I did. I was about to let out a relieved sigh and finally relax… but then a cold voice suddenly drew all our attention.
We both looked in the direction of the sound and I could hear sharp intakes of breath all around me as we recognized the source. Crowey slowly entered into the light of the portal magnified by the snow. He was no longer wearing his well-tailored suit. In fact, I couldn’t tell if he was wearing any clothes at all. His legs, now digitigrade and sporting talons at the end, were covered in a layer of thick, rough-looking black fur that crept up to his navel. There was no sign of his genitals, though I didn’t know if it was because of the fur or they disappeared as part of the transformation. His forearms and hands were also covered in fur of the same color, though not as thickly as on the legs, and he was now sporting pointed black nails on his long fingers. Rounding the look were a pair of curved, goat-like horns protruding from his forehead with glowing red patterns that looked like veins on their surface and a similarly colored tail hanging behind him.
Most importantly though, he wasn’t alone. One of his arms was firmly secured around the neck of the girl he was holding in front of him like a shield while the other hand was pointing its long fingers towards her temple threateningly.
“Ammy!” Angie yelled as she nocked an arrow on her non-existent bowstring and made a drawing motion.
“Stand down, or the girl dies!” The Abyssal hissed with a fearsome intensity. Angie hesitated, but didn’t let her bow down. I wondered why, but then I noticed that she was looking at me with a question in her eyes.
I clicked my tongue in frustration. It was a bad call to send the class rep out of sight all alone. I expected Crowey to stand down after being hit by the princess’ flame head on, but it might have been naïve of me. I scowled and let go of the self-condemnation for the moment. I needed to focus. She was still alive. I just had to make sure she stayed that way. I needed to get his attention.
“Hey there Crowey, there is something on your face right around…” I exclaimed while absent-mindedly scratching my right cheek, then I feigned surprise and smiled. “Oh, right. That is your face.” He snapped his attention towards me and I could taste the animosity he radiated. The right side of his face was red and swollen and the hair on the same side was also burned off. It wasn’t pretty, and I figured with time it was only going to get worse. Those were second if not third degree burns. I raised my fingers to my mouth and uttered, “Ouch. Sorry. Too soon?”
“You insufferable cur! I will have you turned into mincemeat while you are still alive for this!” At this point he remembered where he was and he continued between clenched teeth, “But that is for later. I propose an exchange of hostages.”
“Oh, so that’s what this is about…” I said with an exaggerated nod. “Sorry, but we are not handing Snowy over to you. That would defeat the whole point of this excursion.”
“I see…” The Abyssal shrugged. I wondered if he really gave up so fast or if it was a ruse. “Then I suppose I will have to do with this girl.” While saying so he tightened his grasp on the class rep. Unable to speak, she reached up with her hands to grab hold of Crowey’s arm and try to keep herself from suffocating. “I am sure I will be able to find some pleasurable use for her.”
“You didn’t just say what I think you just said, did you?” The Abyssal only grinned at me maliciously like his threat was an amusing joke. I sighed. I knew he was trying to rile me up, and I knew I shouldn’t act based on emotional impulses. But still... “So the negotiations have broken down. Very well. I have only four words for you.”
“Arrow to the knee.”
There was absolutely no delay. Angie already had her bow drawn, and the targeting only took a split-second before the arrow was already in the air. Crowey let out a surprised grunt and jumped to the side by reflex, but the arrow still grazed his leg and he almost fell over.
“How dare you!” He roared as he raised a hand with a complex gesture. From the outstretched hand grew an oily black shadow that rose into the air and then streaked toward Angie like a whip. She didn’t react. Maybe she couldn’t even see it. I cursed under my breath and before I knew it my legs were already carrying me. Unfortunately Angie was on my left, so I had to leap from my bad leg to reach the incoming attack. The black shadow stretched even further and was about to reach the girl when my hand made contact with it. My fingers cut through the blackness like it was fine mist and the shadow beyond the point of contact diffused into a thick mist that disappeared in a second. There was no shockwave traveling back on the other side, yet Crowey staggered back like I just hit him on the head.
“Bite!” I roared the command at the girl in his arms. She stopped struggling for a blink of an eye, but then she finally understood what I meant and sunk her teeth into the Abyssal’s biceps.
He let out a surprised cry and his grip on her weakened for an instant.
“Josh!” Came the next roar from my mouth. Unfortunately, it came with an undignified display as my leg gave out and I fell onto the ground with a painful crash. Still, even as I fell, I could see the form of a silver-scaled draconian rush past me like an express train and tackle the Abyssal with the force of one as well, taking both of them outside the illuminated area.
“You opened your wounds again, didn’t you?” My assistant asked as she tried to help me to my feet.
“Maybe, but I’ll manage. Look after the class rep, she tumbled somewhere over there when Josh hit the bastard.”
“Is he going to be all right?” This time the question came from the princess. She was trying to catch a glance of whatever battle unfolded, but I doubted her eyes could make out anything in the darkness beyond the light of the gateway.
To be honest, for a moment I was wondering as well. Josh got a sudden power up, but he still had no idea what he was up against and he was not formally trained. I think he mentioned he took judo classes, but I doubted they were applicable to a fight between a dragon-hybrid and a demon by any other name. On the other hand...
“He’s going to be fine,” I said as I rose to my feet.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” I flashed a reassuring smile and the princess calmed down a little. I couldn’t tell her the reason for my confidence, mostly because it was just something that felt right. The hero was facing off against a villain after all of his allies exhausted themselves. That was a typical storybook ending. And if we followed that logic…
I tried to peer into the darkness, but I couldn’t see a thing. I thought about moving to the edge of the illuminated area or using my Far Sight to watch, but both of those options would have left me exposed and vulnerable in case Crowey wanted to get a piece of me. Based on the sounds of it the battle was very intense. I could even hear the two of them shower each other with thinly veiled insults. Though I couldn’t make out anything in particular, the Abyssal seemed better at it. I made a mental note that if we somehow managed to all survive this night I would try and give Josh ‘combat banter’ lessons so that he wouldn’t embarrass himself.
As I thought about that, a body crashed into the snow in front of the portal. A moment later it rose into the air on a pair of bat-like wings just before the silvery shape following it could deliver a clumsy axe-kick to its head. Crowey flew higher, to the point the light barely illuminated him, and he positioned himself right above the portal before he roared in frustration.
“Insolent maggots! I will kill you all!”
There was a sudden surge of magic around his body that let me see him properly in front of the dark background. That was enough to tell me he meant it. I looked over my friends and back at the flying Abyssal. While it might have sounded like an idle threat born of fury, considering the state our team was in, I could not ignore it.
I turned to the recovering class rep and hissed, “Please tell me he can’t just explode us all.”
She gave me a flat look and said, “I am surprised he hasn’t done it already. It must be because he wanted to avoid his sister getting caught up in the blast.”
That changed things a bit. I clicked my tongue and straightened my back even though it hurt like hell, then raised my voice towards the flying figure.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” I tried to infuse my words with nonchalant confidence. It made him pause, so I pressed on. “You have about three minutes before your gate closes, you know?”
“Time enough!” He bellowed defiantly, and I could feel an invisible pressure weighing down on me. I slowly shook my head to dispel it and began walking around the portal in a circle, taking care to keep my distance.
“Really? So you think you can kill us all before the time’s up, huh? Let me propose a hypothetical scenario to you: what if you can’t?” Crowey only glared at me (or I presumed he did so, it was hard to make out his face), so I continued, “Imagine that you fail. Let’s say, you kill us all, get rid of all the witnesses, but we struggle long enough so that the gate closes. Opening one of these takes time and effort, so you cannot just willy-nilly make a new one. It would take days or even longer to arrange it.” I paused for effect and smiled. Of course I had no idea if it really took that long, but I had to pretend I knew everything. “Time is the key. It is time during which the mages will recognize how you barged in on their territory. I am sure they are not going to be happy about that. And it’s not just them. After all, I don’t think any of the powers that be would miss a chance to get their hands on a weakened Lord of the Abyss. Imagine the shame of being held hostage like that!” I paused again and theatrically scratched my chin. “But then again, being captured might not be that bad compared to what some would do to you if they learned you hurt their charges. Speaking of which…” At this point I turned to the princess with feigned absent-mindedness and asked, “What did you say, how long until von Fraenir would get here?”
She gave me a blank stare, so I winked at her to get my point across. Since she still didn’t answer I pretended that she whispered something and exclaimed, “Thirty minutes, you say? And you called him roughly thirty minutes ago? That’s great!”
“You are bluffing,” The Abyssal stated angrily. It looked like I touched a nerve.
“Maybe. But can you be sure? He could easily get here at any moment if he flew. In fact, he is even a little late already.” I glanced at the confused princess and flashed an amused smile. “Oh boy, imagine how mad that old guy would be if he came here and found you dead with an injured Abyssal over your corpse.” I made sure I was talking loud enough so that Crowey could hear me, but for good measure I added, “I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of that guy!” in a shout.
I looked back up and tried to look where I hoped the guy’s eyes were. I couldn’t really see his expression, but I had the impression he was gnashing his teeth. I decided to push him just a little further.
“Furthermore…” I began, and that was how far I got before my instinct kicked in. Surprisingly though, it didn’t make my body dodge reflexively, instead my right hand lashed out in what felt like a cutting motion. I could feel my fingertips touch something, but I could not identify what it was. It was soft, cold and viscous. In retrospect, I figured it was probably another of those black shadow whips hidden by the darkness of the sky.
Crowey roared a high-pitched scream, a mixture of anger, weariness and despair, then he shouted; “I will remember this! You will rue the day you made an enemy of House Inanna!”
With that, his wings abruptly folded and he fell toward the ground like a rock, only for them to open at the last moment with a low whoosh and carry him through the portal. There was no effect on the gateway, no rippling or wavering. He just passed through like he entered a tunnel and then a moment later he was gone.
“Did… did we just win?” Josh asked uncertainly. I couldn’t blame him. The way Crowey got away was really a bit anti-climactic, but no one will hear me complain about that.
“It seems so,” The princess replied, though her voice was not one bit more confident.
I counted down from five, and once I reached zero and was sure he would not poke his head back out I finally let the tension escape my shoulders. I might have gone a little too far even, as I could feel the strength draining from my legs as well. It took me considerable effort, but I gritted my teeth and kept standing. I couldn’t show just how weak I was yet. Not while there were still onlookers around.
For a moment I wondered how I was even aware that there were onlookers, but once I caught my breath I finally became aware of the ‘dots’ on the edge of my awareness I became familiar with through my Far Sight. The only problem was that I wasn’t using the power. They were just… there, unbidden.
I tried to concentrate on them, and even a cursory examination confirmed that the effect was the same. One of the dots I felt was certainly Brang, and he was surrounded by a couple of others. I figured those were the Faun I bumped into when I raced past them towards the roof. They were in a cluster on my left, and my Sight told me they were standing just outside the illuminated area. I glanced over, and at first I couldn’t see anything, but when I strained my eyes I recognized a familiar haze in the not too far distance. I faced that direction and wondered whether I should call out to them.
My dilemma was solved when the haze began to move and the person on the front came into view. I long suspected that the cloud surrounding him might have served as some sort of magical camouflage, a theory which gained strong evidence when Brang ‘de-cloaked’. I could hear a series of sharp intakes of breath and my companions all noticed him and scurried closer to each other in a hurry.
I looked over the imposing Faun and I let out a relieved sigh. Maybe it was part of my weird affinity with language, but his posture had told me he wasn’t hostile as clearly as if he had said so with words. I forced a weak smile onto my face and walked towards him and his men as steadily as I could manage.
“Black-cloak. Greetings.” Brang spoke with a rumble. He was using English, probably for the sake of the others present.
“The same to you, general,” I answered with a firm voice before I turned to the still cloaked figures behind him and nodded to them. They must have found it rude not to return the gesture, as they de-cloaked one by one and nodded in turn, each appearing figure drawing confused hisses from my friends in the back.
I rolled my eyes and cleared my throat before I answered; “May we proceed speaking in your people’s tongue?”
My question launched another series of confused whispers, this time from both sides.
“Aye, it would indeed make things easier for both of us,” The Faun answered with a borderline mischievous grin.
“Indeed. If I may ask, how is your leg?”
Brang’s ears made a swiveling-motion like he couldn’t believe them and a moment later he let out a hearty laugh.
“To appear in such a state yet still care about the wounded pride of an old warrior speaks long volumes of your character, young one.”
I looked over myself. My clothes were now encrusted with blood and even though I tried to stand tall, my stance was unmistakably tired. I looked back up and nodded.
“Your praise is unwarranted. Though I am forced to admit that I might have indeed somewhat overexerted myself, my injuries appear worse than they actually are.” Brang’s lips curved in a thin smile, obviously calling my bluff, so I cleared my throat and gestured towards the portal. “More importantly, you might wish to consider leaving at your earliest convenience. The gate shall close soon.”
“Indeed,” The Faun nodded solemnly as he looked over the gate. His eyes lingered at a point for a moment before they returned to me. “What of the young heiress?”
“She-whose-name-is-snow?” I muttered, briefly forgetting how bad the Faun language was with nicknames. I cleared my throat and started over. “Neige? No harm has befallen her, though I believe she is exhausted. We shall see to her recovery.”
“I see,” Brang nodded knowingly. “While I do not wish to doubt your honor, may I still ask you to swear that she will come to no harm? It would take a great weight of worry off this old one’s heart.”
“Certainly. I solemnly swear that she shall be under my protection and that no harm or ill shall befall her.”
Brang gave a satisfied grunt.
“That shall suffice. We shall follow after our master now.”
I was about to step out of his way, but then I remembered something and gestured for him to halt.
“Just a moment, if you please.”
Brand inclined his head in the affirmative, so I hurriedly (or as least as hurriedly as my injuries allowed) went over the large black stain at the edge of the track field. The whole trip back and forth took only a couple of seconds, but I still glanced at the portal from time to time just to make sure I had the time.
“Here,” I exclaimed once I returned. “I promised I would return this spear to you. It served me well, I wish it will continue to do so for you.”
The Faun gingerly took the weapon out of my outstretched hand. He checked it in the light of the portal for a second or two before he gave a satisfied nod. He then immediately planted the butt of the spear in the ground and leaned on it in a now familiar manner while he clenched his other hand into a fist and placed it on his chest. After a moment of hesitation the rest of the Faun behind him followed suit. I didn’t know what the gesture precisely meant, but I figured it was something like a sign of respect.
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to return the gesture or not, and by the time I balled my fist Brang had already let down his own. I still felt a little uncomfortable about that, but we had a time limit to think about, so I stood aside and gestured towards the portal.
Without a word, the Faun formed an orderly line and walked towards the gateway with unhurried steps. Then, just as Brang was about to enter, he looked over his shoulder one last time and said, “Goodbye, Leonard Black-cloak. I wish we had more time to talk.”
“So do I,” I answered. There was something strangely melancholic in his words, but by the time I mustered up the strength to ask, the column of Faun had already marched into the portal without a word.
“Why do I have to carry her?” The princess complained as she stepped out of the portal connecting the Restricted Space with reality. We were still standing right in the middle of the track field, yet the sight was completely different. No scattered ice-pillars, no snow, no purple moon… it was a little scary how surreal it felt for a moment, like I was so used to the extraordinary that the mundane started to feel strange instead.
I heaved a sigh and glanced at my companions.
“Because you are the only one who can,” my assistant answered her flatly. “The others are all too tired.”
“I am tired too!” The princess cried in response but continued to carry Snowy on her back all the same. Beside her, Angie was supporting Josh, who was back to normal. After the transformation wore off (which also meant that said transformation had a time-limit, I noted in my mental diary) he was hit by a mild case of hypothermia, so Angie was using some sort of magic on him to keep him warm. The guy seemed to be totally out of it. It made me smile sardonically and I began mentally preparing myself for a night spent explaining everything to him.
Suddenly my world began to tilt to the side and it took me a long second to realize I was swaying and so I forcefully corrected my posture. After the crisis was over, so was the adrenaline surge, and it made me acutely aware of just how messed up I was. Everything hurt. Even parts of my body I didn’t think could hurt were in pain. I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths to get the world to stop disappearing in a black tunnel, and when I opened them again I found the class rep standing by my side with a solemn expression. She looked worn and ragged, her stockings torn at the knees and her face bruised, but she still looked as composed as ever. She just finished closing the gate and gestured for me to stand a couple of steps away from the rest of the group. I obliged.
“We did something outrageous today…” She whispered in a low voice.
“We sure did.”
“I… For a moment I thought I was going to die. I thought we were all going to die.”
“But we didn’t.”
“Yeah… But we could have.”
“But we didn’t,” I stressed again. “We pulled through, got Snowy and Josh back and everyone is alive. That’s all that matters.”
“And what about next time?” She gestured towards the unconscious form of the Abyssal girl. “They are going to try and get her back. What are we going to do then?”
“We’ll figure out something when the time comes. Let’s not try to cross the bridge before we get there.”
She fell silent for a moment and then muttered, “I’m not sure I will be able to think of anything.”
“Fine, then I will think of something. Are you happy now?”
She looked at me like she was appraising me before her thin lips curved in a small smile.
“If it’s you, I think we might be all right.”
“Ugh… Please don’t put pressure on me like that. I have enough problems already.”
“And yet you keep taking more burdens upon yourself without even thinking. I wonder if…”
“Sorry for interrupting,” I spoke while raising a hand, “But could I have a request?”
“Please catch me.”
She gave me a weird look and was probably going to ask me something silly, like if I meant it ‘right now’. By that time my face was already approaching the ground at an alarming speed. There was a weird “Nyeh,” sound that probably came from my mouth upon impact, and I could hear a series of alarmed exclamations of ‘Chief!’ and ‘Leo!’, but I didn’t care. I was too tired. So I took one last breath, and for the first time in weeks… I slept.