Chapter 240: Dark Secrets
Hollow Shade’s four chosen students stepped out of the academy’s administrative building and sighed in relief.
“Finally, it’s over,” Sylvie stretched her arms and yawned.
“I didn’t think I’ve ever heard Lord Noir talk so much in one sitting, let alone in my three years here,” Callum said dryly.
“We had to cover our travel route. We don’t want to get lost,” Stryg said.
“Sure, but it’s not like we’ll be traveling alone, thank the gods,” Freya said. “There’ll be several wagons and carriages with us, along with a dozen centaurs and everyone else it takes to keep our little caravan running smoothly.”
“You seem to know more about our journey than any of us, captain,” Sylvie grinned.
Freya smiled abashedly, “Yeah, well, my dad taught me since little what it takes to run a caravan. I’ll try to put my knowledge to the best of use for the team.” Freya ran in front of her friends and took a deep breath, “I want you guys to know that I take the rank of team captain very seriously. If you guys need anything, I’ll be there to help. You can count on me, I won’t let you down.”
“Hard pass,” Stryg stepped around her.
Anger briefly flashed in Freya’s eyes, but it was quickly replaced with disappointment. “If you change your mind, I’ll still be here, I guess,” she mumbled.
“I’m glad you're team captain, you’ll do great,” Callum forced himself to smile.
Freya’s eyes widened, “Oh, uh, thanks. I really appreciate that coming from you.”
“We’ll be counting on you,” Sylvie patted her shoulder and smiled. “I’m going to head to my dorm room and get some sleep. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow. See ya all later!”
“Take care,” Freya waved.
“Good night, Sylvie,” Callum smiled.
Stryg grumbled a response and kept walking.
As soon as Sylvie was out of sight, Callum clapped his hands and bowed his head to Freya, “I need your help, captain.”
“That was a little faster than I expected… But I’m ready to help,” she beamed.
“Sylvie’s birthday is in a few days and I still don’t know what to get her. I was hoping you might be able to help,” Callum said.
“Hehe, you came to the right person,” Freya said proudly.
Stryg groaned, sometimes he really hated his sensitive hearing.
Sylvie arrived at the dorms and giggled brightly, “He remembered!”
A basket sat on the floor in front of her door. It was filled with scarlet roses, a bottle of expensive-looking wine, and a small gilded note:
To the most beautiful woman in the world,
Happy Birthday, Sylvie.
Sylvie swooped up the basket, unlocked the door, and walked inside her dorm room with a skip to her step. The room was empty, save for a simple bed and a small dresser. It was a far cry from the bedrooms she had grown up with, but here she was free and no amount of lavish rooms could ever compare.
Sylvie slipped off her boots and jumped on her bed.
She picked up the wine bottle and pulled out the cork. A faint whiff of blood and grapes wafted up. She licked her lips and drank down a few gulps. The flavor was strong, it reminded her of a bottle she had tasted from her father’s collection, but this one was a tad sweeter, and there was something else, a flavor she couldn’t quite place.
The room suddenly started to spin, her body felt numb. The bottle slipped from her fingers and rolled on the ground, the bright red liquid spilled over the floor. Sylvie opened her mouth to scream, but her throat felt tight. A horrible weariness began to overtake her.
The door creaked open, a stranger dressed in a dark cloak walked in.
Sylvie’s vision darkened and blurred. Her mind panicked, desperately searching for a way out. She tried to move, but her body didn’t respond. All she could think of was… was…
The cloaked stranger watched and waited as the poison overtook the vampiress. “Shh, don’t fight it. It’s okay, just enjoy the dream,” he whispered.
Sylvie’s ragged breaths fell into a quiet rhythm.
“There, now that wasn’t so hard was it?” the stranger said softly. He reached down and carefully tossed aside the aurum aegis from her neck. “Even better,” he chuckled.
The stranger pulled off his glove and hovered his hand over Sylvie’s forehead. Weaves of purple light seeped from his fingertips and curled around her skull. The mind tendrils flared bright wherever they touched her skin.
He smirked, “Now, let’s see what secrets you’re hiding.”
Sylvie kicked her bedsheets and blew out a sigh of frustration. The winds howled and rattled her windows as the storm raged outside. There was no way she could sleep like this, but her parents had already sent her to bed. She had tried pleading to her big brothers and sisters to convince their parents otherwise, but they simply chuckled and ruffled her scarlet hair.
Sylvie hated being treated like a kid. Just because she was the youngest didn’t mean that she couldn’t handle herself. Sure, she was only eight, but she was already as tall as the maids and some of them were over seventy.
The windowsill shook at the sound of the thunder. Rain pelted the windows like a constant drumbeat.
“Ugh,” Sylvie groaned. “I can’t do this!”
She threw her bedsheets aside and jumped out of bed. Surely her siblings wouldn’t mind if she went down to the kitchen for a midnight snack. They were probably a dozen drinks in by now, their mood would be much more mellow. Maybe they’d even let her taste a bit of wine this time. After all, tonight was a celebration.
Sylvie couldn’t remember the last time all her brothers and sisters had gathered together in the castle. She wasn’t about to let the opportunity to play with them slip by.
Mom and Dad were probably already asleep anyway, they wouldn’t notice if she was out of bed.
Sylvie cracked her door open as slowly and quietly as she could muster. After a few tensive and painfully boring moments, the door was open wide enough to slip by. She tiptoed down the tower’s long winding stairs and made her way towards the kitchen.
As she neared the kitchen Sylvie stopped in her steps, she could hear her siblings’ voices coming down from the main dining hall. She changed her direction and snuck silently to the dining hall’s door. Her siblings’ voices grew louder and louder. Sylvie frowned, they didn’t seem to be laughing, it sounded almost as if they were arguing.
The sound of glass shattering and chairs being thrown back echoed from behind the door. Sylvie trembled, what was going on?
Then she heard it, another voice. It was quiet, yet it cut through every other voice in the room. The voice was muffled, its cadence strange. Sylvie placed her ear next to the door and tried to listen in on the conversation.
Her siblings sounded angry about something. She didn’t know what, but she had never heard them angry before… or scared. Then the stranger spoke and the room grew uncomfortably quiet.
A wretched scream pierced the silence. A hard thump hit the floor.
“Aria!” her brother James screamed.
Sylvie frowned, Aria?
Had something happened to her big sister?
“Bastard!” her sister Lea screamed.
The sound of wood cracking and fire roaring exploded in the dining hall. Sylvie shuddered back and fell on her butt. Half a dozen voices yelled in anger, her siblings' voices grew louder as their rage overtook them.
The crackle of thunder boomed behind the door. A broken voice howled in agony.
“Lea, NO!” her brother Jasper cried out.
A second boom of thunder struck behind the door. The castle’s walls shook from the blast.
Sylvie cried in terror. She didn’t know what was happening, but she felt the pain in their voices, the horrible pain.
A third clap of thunder resounded behind the door. Bits of rock and dust fell from the ceiling all around. The dining hall fell silent.
The sound of glass crunched under a pair of footsteps echoed quietly.
Sylvie swallowed the lump in her throat and crawled to the door. She reached out hesitantly and with a trembling hand turned the knob. The door creaked open just an inch, Sylvie peered inside. She froze and stifled a cry.
Splatters of blood bathed the room in red. The broken bodies of her brothers and sisters were sprawled over the scorched floor. A woman in a tattered blue dress stood alone in what little was left of the dining hall.
The woman’s neck snapped backward, her head lolled to the side, and her lips slowly curled up into a smile. Her bloodied mouth stretched further than what seemed possible, revealing a row of sharp black teeth.
Sylvie’s voice caught in her throat, she wanted to scream, she wanted to cry, but she couldn’t. Her body felt numb, she couldn’t move, she could only stare into the monstrous woman’s iridescent eyes as she shambled towards the open door.
Caligo smiled wide, “Hello, little girl.”
Sylvie gasped, her eyes opened wide.
“You’re awake?” the cloaked stranger frowned. “This shouldn’t be possible.”
The stranger flexed his hand, several more mind tendrils curled out and injected themselves into her skull. Sylvie groaned in agony. Her eyes darted to the window, it was still dark.
She cursed to herself and tried to move her sluggish body to no avail. She called out to her magic, tried to form whatever spell she could muster, but her mana didn’t respond. Something was wrong with her body.
Poison, she recalled dimly through the mental pain.
Her clothes were drenched in sweat and she could barely feel her fingertips, but still, she tried to spell-cast.
“This doesn’t have to hurt, you just have to stop resisting,” the stranger grinned maliciously. The mind tendrils flared brighter.
Sylvie gritted her teeth and whimpered in agony.
Move, she screamed in her mind. Move, MOVE!
The door slammed open.
“Get away from her!” Poppy shouted.
The stranger spun around, “What the-”
A flash of white light exploded from Poppy’s palm. The stranger yelled and staggered back. Poppy drew a dagger from her sleeve and charged. A sudden gust of wind slammed her into the wall. A second cloaked stranger stepped out from behind the curtains.
The first stranger stood and rubbed his eyes, “A little friend, come to save the day, huh? Fancy yourself a hero?”
“Not for long,” the second stranger scowled.
The men drew long thin swords and advanced on the young orc woman.
Poppy pushed herself to her feet and stared at the two men, cold determination in her eyes. She tossed her glasses aside and rolled her shoulders, “...Is that so?”
The strangers swung their swords in wide arcs, Poppy ducked under their blades with deft movements and dashed at them. Her dagger flashed in quick precise strikes, aiming for her enemies’ vitals. The strangers quickly fell back as Poppy overwhelmed them in a flurry of steel.
Sylvie’s eyes widened in shock. Was this really her best friend? The girl who could barely hold a sword without cutting herself? The girl who was terrified to step into the practice arena? Was this really Poppy?
The second stranger casted a durability spell over his skin in an effort to stop Poppy’s attacks. With her open hand, Poppy gripped his face and generated a small bright spell in his eyes. He screamed, blinded; his focus lost, the yellow scales shattered to dust. Before he could recover, Poppy dug her fingers into his left eye. The man cried in agony and dropped his sword.
“Stop or I’ll kill her!” the first stranger yelled. He held his sword at Sylvie’s neck.
Poppy froze at the sight, her eyes filled with worry. She suddenly grimaced and spat a mouthful of blood. The tip of a sword poked out from her stomach. Poppy stumbled and toppled over.
The second stranger staggered to his feet, his left eye bleeding profusely, “Fucking bitch!”
Sylvie paled, a broken hoarse cry escaped her lips. She stared at Poppy’s body as blood pooled underneath her gut. Sylvie groaned with strain and forced her body to roll off the bed. She dragged herself to Poppy with what little strength had returned to her numb limbs.
“We need to go before someone else comes,” the first stranger whispered harshly.
“Not without the target,” the half-blinded man said grimly.
Sylvie ignored their voices and focused her all on reaching her fallen friend.
Poppy dimly noticed her approach. She smiled weakly, “...Syl…” Her amber eyes slowly glazed over and her breathing fell quiet.
Sylvie shuddered, a wretched pain stabbed at her chest. Her scarlet eyes burned with rage. She roared a thunderous howl, golden flames erupted from her voice and devoured the men in a flash of searing heat and light.
Stryg sprinted across the campus grounds. He ignored Callum’s and Freya’s shouts of confusion. None of that mattered right now. He had heard it, an agonizing cry from someone who he never expected. Stryg channeled orange mana into his veins and casted an agility spell.
He ran up the dorm’s stairs in a blur. The scent of smoke filled his nostrils. He spotted an open burnt door, barely hanging by its hinges. He drew Nameless from his sheath and ran into the room without hesitation.
Stryg stiffened to a halt. The room had been scorched to ash and cinder, the walls had been blackened, and the windows had been melted apart. Sylvie’s aurum aegis lay amidst ash next to a pair of blackened broken bones. Sylvie sat on her knees in the middle of the room; she sobbed and cradled Poppy in her arms.
“What happened?” Stryg whispered.
“T-they killed her,” Sylvie whimpered.
Stryg narrowed his eyes, “...She’s not dead yet.”
“Can’t you hear that?” Stryg dropped Nameless and ran over to them. “It’s weak, but Poppy’s still breathing. We have to hurry to the infirmary, now.”
Sylvie’s eyes brightened with hope, “She’s alive?”
Stryg frowned as he saw the extent of Poppy’s wound, “Not for long.”
“N-no!” Sylvie cried and held Poppy tight.
Stryg sighed and ran his hands through his silver hair, “...What am I doing?” He glanced at the open door, “…Agh, god dammit! Move your arms, Sylvie.”
“There’s no time to waste, move your arms!”
Sylvie nodded numbly and gently laid Poppy on the ground. Stryg ripped open Poppy’s shirt and channeled white mana into his hands. A soft white light flowed into her red skin.
“Healing magic,” Sylvie’s eyes widened in surprise. “You… You’re a white mage?”
“Don’t tell anyone,” he muttered.
She shook her head, “Wait… You’re a quadra-manifold and you didn’t tell anyone? Why not?”
“The same reason you didn’t tell anyone you’re a chromatic orange, Miss Hexa-Manifold.”
“Hexa? What? I’m not an Orange.”
“Yeah, right, and this room burned to a crisp by itself too, huh?”
Sylvie bit her lip and looked away, “That’s…”
“We all have our secrets, let’s keep them that way.” Stryg pulled his hands back and gently picked Poppy up. “I’ve closed the wound in her stomach. It’s not perfect, but it should hold long enough for us to get her to the infirmary. The master healers will take it from there.”
“Thank you,” Sylvie said warmly.
“It’s nothing,” Stryg shook his head and headed for the door, Poppy in his arms.
“You just saved Poppy’s life, that’s more than nothing.”
Stryg stopped at the doorway, but he didn’t look back, “...She’s your best friend, right?”
Stryg breathed out shakily and cleared his throat, “Just don’t tell anyone about my magic and I won’t tell anyone about yours.”
“Sounds like a deal,” Sylvie smiled softly.
Stryg nodded stiffly and carried Poppy down the stairs without another word.