10. Point of Conference

A cushion of air lifted. Calvin’s Featherfall blessing caught them both, and Alma felt the ground touch her back as they landed, aided by the wind, their fall lowered to a stop.

He scrambled up. “Please tell me you’re okay.”

“I-I am,” she stuttered. Her voice cracked. She took his hand and rose. “She attacked us.” It was a pointless statement, but the first one her brain could form.

Calvin looked shaken. “I don’t know what’s happening, but we need to go.”

She turned around. They had landed in the middle of the chaos, surrounded by the battle, and the only reason demons hadn’t swarmed them was the others there, fighting to keep them at bay.

Eris had attacked them. She had kept the gem.

Her mind reeled.

But it had to be the sage. She had known their names, known about the letters. Even if a demon could steal an identity, a person’s shape, they couldn’t lift memories from flesh. Eris couldn’t have been eaten.

Then why had she thrown her?

A hand clapped on Alma’s shoulder, jerking away shaken thoughts. “What happened up there?” a woman asked. She held a giant broadsword in one hand, drenched in dark blood, her short purple hair clumped by the splatters. Her uniform was sleek black with the royal four-diamond. A royal knight.

“Sage Eris,” Alma stammered out.

“I know. What happened? How did you fall?” she pressed.

“She threw her,” Calvin said, and the reaction was visible on her face. “I don’t know why. She just grabbed her—and—”

The wind crystal rang out again.

“This is Sage Eris speaking. From now on, no one may act against the demons. If you do, I’ll kill you.”

They froze.

“And then, in one hour, I will drown everyone in this city using the water gem.”

The knight swore and bolted, sprinting for the ladder. She passed by Reina and Mir as the two ran over.

“I’m sorry,” Reina told them. “I couldn’t get it back.”

She shook her head, saying, “No, we can’t,” but the words came out wrong. She meant that they couldn’t now, not in the middle of this chaos, not against the person on the roof, but it sounded like they simply couldn’t at all.

Maybe that was true. If not now, then how could they later?

Fleeing the city meant plowing through demon-infested streets.

Defending yourself meant being killed by Eris.

Hiding would be waiting for your inevitable doom.

There was a short breath into the crystal, like laughter. “You want your gem back, Alma? You want to be a hero? Come and get it.” It was a taunt.

Alma was scared. She thought about how strong her hand had been around her neck, like iron, how much she had struggled, how all of that struggling had come to nothing, and how Eris had simply grabbed and thrown her down like a toy.

The wild demons had surrounded them in a circle, and scarlet blood still pooled down the steps. “Run,” she heard herself plead, and the rawness of it. Her mind registered that she had grabbed somebody’s arm. “Run!

The demons hadn’t paused. They recognized their sudden reluctance to fight. On instinct, maybe primal fear, a guard slashed their sword and a demon fell mid-lunge.

Eris kept good on her promise. A thick bolt of water jetted down. They watched as the guard swung themselves back in a dodge, the bolt bursting through their side.

Someone screamed a name. Others screamed curses. Some just screamed.

The demons ran forth in a wave, teeth and claws covering every angle.

“Everyone, fight!” A command cut out, shouted from above. “I’ll hold her!”

The guards fought back. Through the slash of swords and rain of warm blood, Calvin grabbed her hand and they ran. Alma turned back, looking up as the knight kicked herself towards Eris and swung, then shut her eyes and felt the jostle of the ground as they escaped.

 

When they got to someplace quiet and narrow, she pressed her back to the wall and the palms of her hands against her neck. Calvin and Reina looked concerned.

“What’s wrong?” Reina asked. “Alma?”

What’s wrong?” Calvin echoed. He’d defaulted back to anger again. “The sage just choked her and threw her off a building. She kicked you into me!”

“That wasn’t her. That wasn’t the same person we met—”

Obviously!” he snapped.

“Something must’ve happened in the forest,” Mir said, sounding the most composed out of them all. “Her scream wasn’t for nothing.”

“Shut up. This is your fault,” Calvin said.

“You’re alive,” he reminded him.

“Guys, stop,” Reina pleaded. Her hands rested on Alma’s arms. “Are you okay? Does it hurt?”

She whimpered.

“Damnit!” Calvin put his hands to his head, shutting his eyes. He pressed his forehead against the wall. “Pull yourself together!” She didn’t know who he was telling that to.

Reina’s hands were warm over the sleeves of her blue coat. “We’re still with you,” she said. “We’ll make it out, somehow.”

“We need a plan,” Mir told them.

“What can we do?” It was Mir’s statement, but Reina’s eyes searched her face. She couldn’t answer. They had had one ray of hope among this disaster and now it was crushed like a bug, twisted on them, the water gem stolen. Even if she could meet the water goddess again, the deity would probably smite Alma to the ground. Sage Eris had emphasized how important the jewels were. Now it was in an imposter’s hands.

Mir thought for a second. “We can shoot her from here, on a roof.” He looked up. “You’ll have to do it, Thomas.”

Calvin,” he corrected, the edge clear by his voice. He sent him a scalding glare.

“Can you hit her?” he asked.

He unlatched his bow roughly from his back. “I can hit anything I see. Is that good enough for you?”

“But it’s too far,” Reina said, turning to them. “Will your blessing also make up for that?”

He shrugged. “I’ll boost it with magic. The wind spell, maybe.”

“That’s dangerous.” She hurried after him as he walked to the end of the alley. “You might have enough mana to use it once, but the backlash—”

He spun. “What else do we do then? Got any ideas?”

She paused, and her face fell. “No. But then at least let me help you up.”

“Don’t need it.” Calvin climbed on one of the stray boxes flush against the wall, then stretched up, trying to reach for the ledge. Even for his height, his fingers couldn’t make it. He didn’t say anything further.

Alma wanted to give a warning, words of caution against haphazard climbing, anything she would usually add on. She’d always had something to say. But now her back was pressed against the wall, her arms hugging her body, her tongue silent. She’d been shivering until Reina held her. It wasn’t the cold, but the fear.

“Aim for her eyes,” Mir said. “She can’t heal if she’s blinded.” Without the vision, a mage’s main gate to the external world, nobody could. As a healer, Alma knew better than most.

Calvin made a frustrated sound, struggling with the ledge.

Reina went up behind him. “I’ll help,” she decided. She wrapped her arms around his torso and boosted him up, then climbed up after him onto the roof.

He grappled the blue shingles and stood, testing the footing. “What are you doing?” he asked when she joined him.

“The backlash—I’ll catch you,” she explained. “And if you faint—”

“Alma’s the one who faints,” he said. “I’ll be fine.” He took his bow again and readied an arrow, aiming it into the distance. Even if the knight was still holding Eris up, fighting against her on the roof, his blessing of accuracy would guide the metal head into the sage’s own.

Once it hit, she wouldn’t be able to recover.

Calvin drew back the string. A spiral of wind picked up, circling in to the point of the arrow, blowing up yellow locks of hair as it spun, gaining speed.

His mouth opened to call out the spell.

“Eurus!”

It blasted forward in a blurry streak, an explosion of air. The force blew him back and Reina caught them both before it could send them flying off the top of the building, digging her heels as shingles ripped from the rooftop and clattered to the street below. They stumbled just before the edge.

In the distance, a scream cried out. It had struck.

Alma jolted upright.

Reina straightened and looked up, and she broke into a smile. “You did it! You got her—” She caught him again when his knees buckled.

“Cal!” Alma cried in alarm.

He had a hand over his mouth, his face pale. He squeezed his eyes tight for a moment, bent over, trying to let the nausea pass—the wind deity’s spell took a heavy toll, as all of them did, and it had ripped out most of his mana in an instant. Calvin had enough in him to use it once and still stand, and that was asking for more than enough.

Reina kneeled down with him. “Are you okay?”

He gasped in. “Yea,” he said, but it sounded strained.

She helped him stand on the roof again.

“Did it kill her?” Mir asked.

“It hit her in the head,” Reina called down.

Alma bit her lip. “Then there’s no way she could have survived from that.” She looked up nervously, watching Calvin stagger upright on the roof, Reina steadying him.

He tensed, and then his hand snapped up.

A blade of wind materialized just in time to cut the returning arrow in half. The veil of water broke, spraying out. Reina grabbed him and they fell, avoiding the following bolt of water that blasted the roof and sent up shards of debris, and they both landed, cushioned by his blessing as it came to life. A funnel of wind blew up in resistance, stopping their descent a second before they hit the hard street, taking away the impact before they fully fell.

Reina sat up in an instant and backhanded a falling tile before it hit them.

They ran over as she stood, Calvin giving a wince before he managed to prop himself up.

“What happened?” Alma asked. Her hand was already glowing with healing magic, but she let it sputter away as Calvin sat himself against a wall, only shaken from the exertion.

“It came back at us,” he said slowly. “That was the same arrow.”

“From Sage Eris?” she asked.

They were silent.

“But she doesn’t have a bow,” Reina argued.

“She’s strong enough,” Mir said. “Calvin and I saw that for ourselves. Plus, she propelled it with her own magic.”

But we hit her, she thought feebly. An arrow through the face should have disposed anyone—with the wind spell, even more so. Eris’s survival was like a spit to the name of the wind deity, to their own futile attempt to kill the sage. The first shot returned was a comeback; the second shot was a warning.

It must have been some exception, some loophole, some miracle, but in the end it hadn’t worked. They were exposed, optionless.

Alma had already come to one knee to check on Calvin, but now despair brought the other one down.

“Oh, man,” she heard Calvin say, “if Alma’s looking like that then we really are doomed, aren’t we?”

“You’re giving up?” Reina asked. “But we’re not done yet.”

“That shot was our best chance,” he said.

“Our best chance, but not our only one,” she countered.

Mir kneeled beside her. His white coat was dimmed by the dark alley to a light grey, but the silver buttons lining the front had caught enough light to glimmer. He must’ve had something important to do before all of this, some reason he was in the East capital instead of the North—now he was caught with them in the middle of this disaster. “Lady Alma, please hold on a little longer,” he urged. “I know you can think of another solution. They’ll only give up if you do first.”

Her eyes were to the ground. “I don’t know.” Even that was unsure.

“Alma…” Reina called out, but it sounded tentative.

“The water deity trusted me with that gem. It was my responsibility. Even if we take it back, I’ll never be forgiven.” She looked up, but couldn’t face him. “I’m sorry. You don’t know—we never told you everything. We needed to call the ice deity because a giant monster rose out of the ocean. They’re all battling it right now—we can’t count on them to save us. We’re on our own.”

“So we’re doomed?” Calvin asked. If he was merely joking the first time, the belief was starting to show on his face now.

Despite all of this—everything he had heard and seen, everything Alma had told him—Mir was calm still. “A giant ocean monster?” he mulled. “That explains the fog. It must have been miasma. That’s why we were hallucinating.”

Calvin sat up in disbelief. “What? I thought you didn’t hear anything.”

He looked at him. “I didn’t.”

“The forest,” Reina interjected. “Can we go back? Miss Eris said she never found Sage Sigmund. If we go back and rescue him—”

“Rescue him from what?” Calvin asked.

“Whatever had rent Sage Eris insane, most likely,” Mir answered. “But it could be a lost cause. He was in the forest for even longer.”

“Then why hasn’t he returned?” Reina asked. “Miss Eris did.”

“It—she returned for a purpose,” Alma said numbly. “She tricked me into handing her the water gem.”

Calvin shook his head, his expression firm. “She didn’t even need to trick you for that.”

She paused. “You’re right. I just handed it over—my own deity’s treasure—I didn’t notice a thing! Reina tried to warn me but I just gave it to her without a word.”

“Okay, we get it,” he told her, but he looked nervous still. “What do we do now?”

She put her hands to her head. “Something,” she mumbled, trying to think. “I need to do something. Even if the knights can apprehend Eris, what would Mazu think after I’ve done nothing, put out no effort?”

“Then let’s look for Sage Sigmund,” Reina suggested. “There has to be a reason he didn’t come back.”

Calvin grimaced, likely remembering the fog. “It’s…a long walk. I don’t think we’ll make it in time.”

Another shrill scream echoed above them.

This time, it wasn’t Eris.

They all stood.

Calvin swore. “The knight,” he said. He spun to the alleyway’s exit, wanting to dash back out, to help, but in the end he turned back to Alma, waiting for her word. They needed to decide.

She couldn’t do it at once. Quick choices ended up unfavorable. The weight in her pockets—now the only one—drew to the front of her mind instead, and she reached a hand inside, touching the handle of her broken dagger. The blade was scorched and snapped, but she had kept the rest sheathed in the scabbard, if only to preserve the item in her family’s name.

A heirloom taken from a glass case.

More importantly, taken without permission. In a stroke of self-will, she had decided that if she was already leaving by her own word, a weapon taken would fit better at her side than one granted.

Even if it was only a phantom of her dagger now, its presence assured her that she was capable of doing something right. Of helping people the way she could.

They were split between Sigmund and the knight.

They couldn’t be the only ones who had heard the scream. There were other people—royal knights, guards, mercenaries; stronger people. Someone else would go, and they would be much better help than her.

And, turning that over in her head, she paused again.

But what if no water mages went?

What if no guards could make it?

What if, as everybody thought this, nobody would go at all?

But what if, and the same time, Sage Sigmund was really trapped in that forest, really in need of help?

She straightened. “Let’s split up.”

What?” Calvin asked.

“Let’s take advantage of the fact that we have two healers. We’ll split into groups of two, with Reina and me separated.”

“We’re gonna die if we split up,” he protested. “We can’t take that risk. Especially if we don’t even know what’s waiting out there.”

Alma put a hand on his shoulder, looking him in the eyes, and his mouth clicked shut. “We’re too involved to not try our best. People have already died, Cal—if we can do anything to save even one, then—” She stopped herself. “I’m the one who lost the gem. I have to go through with this, but you don’t. You can stay here and wait it out.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he said, his protest dampened. “I just—whatever.”

“If Lady Alma suggests splitting up, then it must be our best option,” Mir said. “I’m fine going with either group.”

Reina stepped up. “And I can go find Sage Sigmund. You should probably be the one to confront Miss Eris, Alma.”

“We’re really doing this?” Calvin asked, incredulous.

Alma nodded. “Will you come?”

She saw him hesitate—but for only a moment. He had no qualms about speaking his mind; but when it came to her, Calvin seemed to think twice. He looked away. “Of course. I’m more worried if you’ll make it.”

“I’ll be fine,” she assured him. They were empty words, but the only ones she could have given. She turned. “Mir, you seem well handled in close range. If you go with me back to the city center—”

“No,” Calvin cut in. He’d tensed beside her. “You can’t go with him. You can’t trust him. He’ll abandon you like he abandoned Sage Eris.” He’d practically stabbed the words at Mir.

The ice mage looked almost disappointed. “Sorry, but I didn’t abandon anyone. If I recall correctly, I persuaded you to run after the sage told me to keep you safe. You talk like we could have saved her instead of dying if we’d fled the other way.”

Alma put an arm out before Calvin could lunge at him. “His actions made sense, Cal. If it meant bringing the two of you back alive, he did the right thing.”

He backed up, if only a little. “I just don’t trust him,” he said. “I should go with you, and he can go with Reina.”

She frowned. “If you can trust him with Reina, then you can trust him with me.” Her voice was stern, frustrated. “Or maybe you need to check your attitude.”

The statement landed, silencing him.

“It’s a better arrangement this way,” Mir said. “You can use your wind magic to clear the fog. You two will be less likely to get lost than if I go.”

He gave him a seething glower, then turned for the alleyway’s exit. “Come on, Reina.”

“Eep,” she said.

“Remember to be careful,” Alma called out to the two of them. “And if you can’t find us here after, we’ll be at the city center.”

The two of them turned the corner.

Their mission wouldn’t be any less dangerous. Even before they got to Eris, there would be other enemies waiting, the mobs of forest demons the knights hadn’t yet slain. Reduced from four to two, pushing through the streets again wouldn’t go as smooth as their escape from the city center.

She patted her pocket. “I’m afraid I can’t do much for combat.”

“I can take care of the demons,” Mir said. “But I’m afraid the sage won’t give your item back without a fight.”

“No.” She turned to him. “We’re going back to rescue that knight. She’s the one who let us all escape in the first place. Getting the gem is second priority.”

She almost missed the ever slight pause. “Of course,” he replied.

Alma couldn’t tell what had caused it. “I’m sorry you got dragged into this. If we hadn’t met, you could have avoided most of this bloodshed.”

“I’m sure I would have gotten involved anyway,” he said.

She was silent for a moment, peeking around the corner of the alley. It seemed so quiet. The bodies of demons tended to disappear, but the corpses of humans would remain on the ground, dead.

How many more would die before night?

“Let’s go,” Alma said.

She offered her hand, a gesture.

For the first time, despite everything that had happened, Mir looked surprised.

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9. Dashed Hope

Hope rang through hearing those words.

She’s alive, Alma thought. She’s okay!

“Now, I understand that you’re all facing a dreadful issue here,” said Eris. Her voice rang clear throughout the room, throughout all of Oceana.

She had made it back safe. The dread weighing on Alma lifted. They weren’t going to have to go out and find a crumpled body in the woods, carry it back, make the announcement that one of the sages was dead. With her here, the entire city was saved. Part of the lingering mess in Oceana was due to the incongruent city defence. While not just the guards, but anyone willing and able to fight—knights, mages and mercenaries—would have battled against the hoard, there was no unification between them. No strategic plan formed. There had been no way for everyone to fight together, to fight efficiently—not without a sage present. Eris commanded enough authority and respect that anyone, any group, would be willing to listen and work together.

“Oceana is now under lockdown. No one may enter or leave. We’re going to work until every single demon has been killed,” Eris told them.

Alma frowned. She had hoped this wouldn’t be what it had to take to secure the city. But if Sage Eris chose it, it had to be the only option.

“…Oh, and Alma. I need to talk to you.”

She was suddenly aware of the weight of the gem in her pocket. The water deity had lent it to her, and she would be expecting it back. And there were other important matters to discuss: any progress of the battle, the evacuation, the context of Sage Sigmund’s note.

She looked down. “Well?” Amarhys asked, crossing her arms.

Yuli was still kneeled on the floor, hunched over the dying demon, her fingers splayed over the ground. She was absolutely silent. A tear hit the rabbit’s scorched fur.

Alma thought about walking up and giving her a hug, patting her back, consoling her somehow, but she also thought about the demon she had held—how many people they had killed. If it had been amidst her own customers—if any of them had been instant at all. And if it was all a façade, even now, and they had been eyed as food the moment they had entered.

She hadn’t even believed Amarhys until the demon showed itself. That was what made the shock.

“We’re going,” she announced. She had been quiet for too long, staring at the girl.

“Yuli, we’re sorry this happened,” Reina said. “We still care about you. Please, just stay here and wait for a guard.”

She didn’t move. Another tear dropped.

Alma turned and scanned outside, then opened the door. “Let’s hurry. We’ll meet with Sage Eris at the city centre.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Amarhys waited until they were long gone. Her eyes travelled to the young girl, who hadn’t budged since the demon had stopped moving.

The rabbit demon wasn’t dead. This was expected; sentient demons, ones that could think and talk, usually took more than a few good hits from the fan to kill. With its small and malnourished body, two would have been enough.

The contract didn’t mention staying off the rabbit—some had sympathies for witches, if they were young or known or looked good, but never the demon—but trying to finish it would set off the girl again. Instead, she walked over to the door, making each step slow and obvious. Her hand drifted over the talisman.

“…What are you doing?” Yuli croaked. Her voice was raw.

“I’m leaving,” she answered. “You can be a good girl and wait for a guard yourself.”

She began peeling off the talisman, and panic registered in the girl. “Wait, no!” She staggered to her feet. “If you do that—”

Amarhys took hold of the corner and ripped it away. No talisman, no barrier.

And no barrier meant no protection from the hungry demons outside.

“I’ll die,” Yuli pleaded. “I’ll die!”

She didn’t turn to look at her. “So?”

Silence.

She waited.

“…Please.” A small, trembling word.

Amarhys wasn’t smiling anymore. “Is ‘please’ all you have?”

“Please, miss, I don’t want to die—”

She opened the door and left.

To each their own.

♦ ♦ ♦

A bolt of water shot down from the sky, and the wolf demon didn’t stand a chance. The magic knocked its head back, sliding in and out, and the demon skittered and dropped to the stone ground. Blood pooled under its head. A fast and efficient kill.

All around and on the wide steps of the city hall, ragtag groups battled. Steams of blood flowed down the marble steps and pooled around the base. Already, multiple bodies, sometimes limbs, lay strewn about.

Alma’s eyes travelled up, squinting against the sunlight. A figure in an aqua dress stood against the sky.

“Is that the sage?” Calvin was also craning his neck to look. “How’d she get up there?”

Eris was on top of the telescope dome, holding a clear crystal with a yellow core in her hand. A ladder attached to the wall of the city center extended up to its roof.

Reina grabbed her arm. “Is it her?” she asked. “I’m not so sure…”

“Why not?” Alma asked. “Don’t worry. It’s her.” She scanned around, then led them as they crossed the street. There was a stray demon at the base of the ladder, growling and scratching at the metal but unable to climb up, and when Calvin waved his arm a blade of wind burst forward and took off its back leg in a spurt of blood. It yelped and scrambled, dashing for them, and another slash of wind magic took off its head. The body fell and rolled to a stop, dissipating black particles. Alma turned to him and frowned.

“Sorry,” he said. “Missed.”

She took a hold of the ladder. “Can one of you guard the base?”

“I’ll do it,” Mir said.

“Be careful.” They began to climb up. Halfway to the top, she looked out. The city was spotted with red. There were flashes of magic and swords over the slick marble steps where guards and knights in black uniform fought off a hoard. So many were dead already, but Oceana hadn’t fallen. And with Sage Eris returned they could take it back.

They got to the top of the roof, and the sage was waiting for them. “Alma,” Eris greeted warmly. “Good to see you. Have you and Reina finished the letters?”

She nodded. “They’re ready to be delivered.”

“You’re okay?” Calvin asked. He still seemed doubtful. “What was that huge sound earlier? And the scream?”

She waved her hand to ease him down. “Don’t concern yourself with that. Something had just startled me. As you can see, I have no injuries.” Her dress had no tears, evidence to a wound, but its front was splattered with dried blood.

Eris caught where they were looking. “It’s only demon blood,” she explained. “The forest creatures were all quite agitated.”

She glanced to Reina, as if to say, see? “Did you find Sage Sigmund?” she asked.

Her face fell. “I didn’t. Maybe he couldn’t wait and ran off somewhere.” She shrugged. “You never know with that kid.” Before Alma could ask anything else, the sage held out her empty hand. “Well, enough with the chitchat. I called you for a very important reason: the water gem. Do you still have it?”

She drew it out of her pocket. Even under the bright afternoon sun, it shone its own glow over them. She handed it over. The blue light disappeared when it left her hand.

The sage clutched the gem, and a pleased smile stretched across her face. “Good. You’re done here.”

She blinked, taken aback. “That’s it? You just wanted the gem? I thought there was more to discuss.”

“I said you’re done here,” the sage repeated. It sounded like a command. Alma faltered, but Reina took her hand, stepping up beside her.

“I don’t think you should keep it, Miss Eris,” she said. “It doesn’t glow for you. It glows for Alma. She can give it to the water deity when the monster is dead.”

“Bold of you to question a sage,” Eris commented, her tone lax.

“Please give it back.” Reina held out her hand.

The sage smiled. She dropped it into her pocket. “No.”

When her fist flew forward, Eris caught it with one hand.

“Reina!”

“Who are you?” she asked. “You’re not the same person!”

She retaliated. Her leg swung and took Reina in the side, and the blow, reinforced with magic, lifted her into the air. She struck Calvin and they both cried out, tumbling and landing just before the edge of the roof.

Alma tried to scream, but a hand wrenched over her throat and squeezed hard.

She couldn’t breathe. She grasped the hand, pulling, clawing at the skin. It wouldn’t budge.

Alma!” Calvin cried. There was the sound of running.

Eris threw her over. The edge of the roof rushed up past her feet. She saw the face of the sage, her cold eyes cast down to watch, and Calvin, leaping after her in the sky.

He grabbed her arms, and then the ground flew up to meet them.

Next: Point of Conference

8. White Witch

It was the afternoon. When the light filtered through the store windows of the White Rabbit, it hit the dark oak shelves and tables with a glowing red sheen. The tail of Amarhys’s dress was lit up by the light like black and orange flames, like a wave of smooth fire magic boiling under fabric. When she turned, the hot glow lit up the room.

Nobody made a sound. They stood there, six people and a snow-white rabbit, in the silent red store.

Amarhys’s fan only revealed itself when opened. Each paper segment of it save for the front and back had an inky character drawn in. When closed, only the blank parts were visible, hiding the inner contents.

A talisman fan.

Amarhys broke the silence first. “I was expecting an attack right away. Are they becoming more cautious?” She turned to Yuli, the small girl petrified behind the counter. “Well?”

Yuli’s eyes had widened to large, frightened circles. She took one step, then two steps backwards until her back bumped against the wall.

“Amarhys.” Alma stepped up beside her. “This is a serious accusation.”

“I take my work very seriously.” Her fan swished she moved it forward, in line to Yuli’s face. “It’s quite literally a matter of life and death—for both sides.”

Yuli’s face was contorted in terror. She turned to Alma. “B-big sis…”

Her heart lurched. “Don’t worry, Yuli, it’s okay—”

Amarhys blocked her as she made to move forward. “Not one step closer, or I can’t guarantee your safety.”

“What?” Calvin asked. “Look at her! You’re accusing a little girl and her pet rabbit.”

“I agree. You’re making a baseless conclusion here,” said Alma. “Or will you explain to us your reasoning?”

“Gut instinct.” Amarhys wasn’t smiling anymore; her mouth was a grim line, as if she herself didn’t want to be right.

Calvin gawked at her. “Gut instinct?”

Yuli shrank into herself. Her eyes shined with tears.

Amarhys glanced to them. “Now, don’t take me for a charlatan. I understand that you knew this girl before. So,” she raised her finger and pointed. “If I can prove that the rabbit she’s hugging so endearingly is a man-eating demon, that should be proof enough of my claim.”

It was logical. Enough so that Alma had to agree. “Indeed. But if you cannot, there will be charges awaiting you.”

Amarhys nodded once. She raised her fan again. “Using this, I’ll hit the rabbit one time. If it is a demon, the talismans will cause its transformation to break and reveal its true form. Otherwise, no harm will come to it.” Her eyes rose to meet Yuli’s. “Well? Will you take this opportunity to prove your innocence?”

It was simple but clever. There were only two ways about it, and if she refused, that would be a poignant declaration of guilt.

Yuli didn’t move to hand over her rabbit. “Ruby…Ruby isn’t a demon.” Her hands trembled. She brought her arms over it, shielding it. “You’re going to hurt her even though she’s not.”

Reina made a cut-off sound in her throat. Her hands covered her mouth. Her eyes were wide at first, then anguished, betrayed, and she finally turned away.

“I just said that normal animals won’t be hurt.” Amarhys clicked her tongue and stepped forward. “You’re stalling. Just give up the rabbit. Or are you about to confess?”

Yuli straightened. “No! Ruby is my family! I won’t—” Her breath hitched. She looked down as her tears spilled. Her rabbit perked itself up, stretching its body to nuzzle her face. “…Family is the one thing you can’t give up. M-mom said that…” She curled over.

Amarhys closed her eyes.

“She…said that.”

“Wait!” Deciding to act before she could hesitate, Alma stepped between them. “I’ll vouch for her. I know Yuli.”

Amarhys gave her a strange look. Pity. “The Shuling family, was it? Will its noble house publicly back a witch now?”

She tensed.

“Will you sweep away all that your father has built?”

No.

Alma stepped to the side, a stagger, shying away.

No, she couldn’t.

She turned to Calvin, pleading, but suddenly he wouldn’t look at her. “Just do it,” he said.

“I don’t have a fancy family name to uphold,” Reina said. She stepped up. “I’ll protect her.”

A bold move. And under Amarhys’ eyes, a stupid one.

“From who? Me? The guards? The royal knights and the archmages? The Council, the Crown, the family of those who have been slaughtered, butchered and eaten?” she rounded on her.

Gaze met defiant gaze. “Yes. All of them. And anyone and anything else willing to persecute a girl and her rabbit.”

They looked at each other. Then Amarhys leaned forward. “Fine. But who will protect us from them?”

Reina’s face twitched, but she didn’t budge. They were at a standstill.

“Reina, just let her though,” Calvin said.

She cast him a look of betrayal. “If you care about the sage, can’t you care about her?”

“Then why are you ignoring what those witches and demons have done to us?” His voice rose.

“I’m not.”

His expression twisted into something painful. “Then you know people who trust them are just stabbed in the back.”

Reina didn’t flinch. She didn’t turn around to reassess Yuli, to see if that could be true. “Just because she has a contract with a demon doesn’t mean she’s done anything wrong.” She searched their faces, and her eyes landed on Mir. “Right?”

He turned. “Even demon rabbits need to eat.”

And Amarhys moved.

One kick off the floor was all it took. In a blur of red, Amarhys pushed past Reina, aiming for Yuli.

The fan raised, and a voice boomed.

“TOUCH HER AND DIE.”

A myriad of ice shards formed in the air in a cloud of frost, raining down in a barrage. Amarhys leaped back and the spikes nailed the ground in a trail until she landed behind a line of tables.

Yuli’s rabbit stood on the counter. What had been a cute, bunny face was now an enraged monstrosity. Two slit irises had appeared over its black doe eyes. Its body was suddenly more muscle than fur, large fangs protruding from its mouth. “If Yuli is harmed, I will kill everyone in this place.”

Mir moved in front of Calvin. “Don’t try,” he warned.

Amarhys grit her teeth. “Nobody move,” she commanded, fan held out. She pushed Alma back with her other arm.

“Ruby!” Yuli pulled on her rabbit but it wouldn’t budge. “Ruby, please, don’t hurt them—”

Amarhys swept her hand and a wave of fire flew forth. A barrier of ice formed over the two, and the collision exploded in smoke. The rabbit demon kicked off the counter, bounced off a wall and aimed its teeth for her.

Amarhys swung her arm and a slap of the fan ended it.

Yuli shrieked. Her rabbit squeaked out, flying until it collided with a bookshelf, and hit the ground. Its entire side was burnt, faint embers eating at its fur and flesh like acid. It convulsed on the floor, twitching and flopping in pain.

Yuli nearly stumbled as she sprinted over. “Ruby!” Her hands hovered over its body. “No, no, no!”

She iced over the burnt areas. Its convulsions slowed, then died out. It was still.

Ruby!” Her scream was raw.

A hand locked over Amarhys’s forearm. “Why?” Reina hissed.

“It would have killed us otherwise.” She wrenched her arm free. “And how could a member of the Dianthus family, who pride ourselves on banishing demons, look at one and walk away?”

“Is that all what this was about?” she asked. “Family pride?”

“If that’s what you think,” Amarhys snapped, “then you really don’t understand.”

She raised her fan and it pointed at her next target. Yuli.

“The families of those who were killed…How many do you think show up at our door?”

She made for the girl hunched over the ground. “How many pleas for justice have I heard?”

The tip of the fan brushed Yuli’s back. “How many people, do you think, will thank me after I kill you?”

She raised her fan, and Alma’s mind raced. “If you kill her now, you’ll only be a murderer.”

Amarhys spun on her. “Seems like the next dinner party conversation will be the Shuling family.”

She stretched her lips in grim confidence. “Not quite. Since you’ve killed her demon, the contract is severed. Yuli isn’t a witch any longer; now she’s just a simple girl.” Her eyes flickered to the demon on the ground. White particles blew from its body, but she wasn’t sure if it was the demon or Yuli’s ice. Either way, it wouldn’t survive.

Amarhys exhaled. “That’s the logic you’re going with?”

“It’s logic, nonetheless.” And then she made a daring move. “I wonder if it will hold in court?”

The fan snapped shut. Amarhys’s grip on it was so tight the wood might have creaked. “Listen. Your family is new to the outer nobility, so if you know what’s best, don’t go stirring up a scandal.”

“It would be your scandal, not mine,” she said evenly.

“Are you suggesting that we act all nice and dandy and forget about the trail of dead bodies they’ve left behind?”

She had a point. Yuli’s shared crimes still weighed heavy on her. However, being charged by trial was far better than an execution on the spot. “Of course not. Only that a proper trial would be the best option. Or are we going to, again, kill in haste?”

Amarhys’ jaw clenched. “Well then, I suppose it will have to wait.”

“Great,” Calvin said. “Discussion over. Can we get going?”

Alma slapped him on the arm. “The four of us need to leave; we can’t spare any time waiting for the rampage to end and any guards to become available.”

She raised an eyebrow. “So?”

Alma needed a guarantee that Yuli’s head wouldn’t be lopped off the second they left. “Promise me,” she held her hand out, “that you won’t hurt Yuli while we’re gone.”

Amarhys scoffed. “A contract for this? Really?” She looked down at her offer. “And what am I getting in return?”

She needed something simple and specific. “The Shuling family will not accuse the Dianthus family of anything regarding mishandling of witch and demon purges—provided that no one innocent was harmed or disadvantaged.”

The contract was leaning towards Amarhys. Her conditions would be met after they came back, but Alma would be upholding her side of the contract indefinitely. If made incorrectly, it could lead her into a string of trouble in the future.

She received something between a scoff and a chuckle. “Fine. I accept.” Amarhys’s hand met her own. They shook, something in her head tightening as the contract sealed. “Don’t regret this,” she said to Alma.

A loud ringing pinged out. They jolted. Calvin covered his ears and winced.

Amarhys crossed her arms. “The broadcast system,” she explained above the noise.

The ringing stopped. A familiar voice spoke in its place.

“Attention, please, citizens of Oceana. This is Sage Eris speaking.”

Next: Dashed Hope

7. The White Rabbit Alliance

The streets were in chaos.

The horse rode in at a gallop. The first thing they saw past the corner was a large wolf charging itself into a store window, banging against the glass, growling and thrashing. Inside the shop, someone moved way.

Normal wild animals never moved with such intent. If it wanted in that badly, it could only be looking for one thing.

Human flesh.

Alma jerked as she understood. If the capital’s walls had been breached to the forest, the demons in there would hardly miss such a chance.

The wolf demon made another lunge at the window and was rejected again. It turned and prowled around the building, looking up and down for another opening. Its tongue licked its muzzle and hung down in the air, dripping red saliva.

Alma tugged the reins, turning the horse as they raced past, and she scanned the streets in vain, hoping for a gleam of silver but only seeing so much red, so many bodies already on the ground. They passed an alley where a crowd of smaller demons, oversized squirrels, feasted over a corpse. An arm and a leg still stuck out. She turned and gagged as the smell hit, the horror.

Every child learned the terror of wandering into the woods. Never go past the fence. Never follow a wild animal. And if something speaks to you, run. But the nightmare fuel of ravaged villages in the storybooks had never prepared her for this.

Sitting behind her, Reina grasped her shoulder. “The guards are all busy fighting,” she said. “We need to get somewhere safe.”

She looked forward and snapped the reins again. The horse picked up its speed, hooves clicking over slick red-splattered pavement. Its nostrils flared, alarmed at the scent of blood and animals, the sounds of shouts and screams and howls, and when animals skittered by them it reared despite its blinders, nearly sending them to the ground. Reina yelped and looped her arms around Alma’s stomach.

The horse backed quickly, spinning for another exit. Something got it from behind. It toppled and the two of them on top flew out of the saddle, the reins ripping from her hands. Reina hugged her body and they hit the ground with Alma on top. The horse landed to the right, kicking, trying to scramble back up, but demons crowded its body. A wolf bit into its throat, and quickly it became still.

Alma slid herself upright. Reina had taken the brunt of the fall, cushioning her by landing on bottom, but she was the first on her feet. A demon bounded for them. She screamed, her hands shooting up, and a jet of water magic smashed into its body. The wolf tumbled to the ground.

She glanced back, scrambling up. A demon went for Reina as well, its maw gaping, but only tasted the metal of brass knuckles as her punch tore through its jaw. It flew back and fell, smearing blood onto the ground. She spun on her heel and smashed her elbow into another demon. The silver body of fur and muscle yelped and tumbled along the pavement, and other ones, those intelligent enough, stared at the fallen bodies and slunk back. A mercenary wasn’t an easy meal; Reina was far from one, but she certainly had the talent.

“I can make a path,” she said to Alma, then looked around, troubled. “But I don’t know where to go. Would any of the shops open for us?”

They wouldn’t. Some of the half-eaten bodies scattered around had blood trails leading from a closed doorway. When the hoard came, people would have scrambled to get inside and barricade themselves in. Those too slow would have been locked out and left to fight or die. Unless you were a wind mage, fleeing was for the optionless.

Alma shook her head. “Some parts of the city have mercenary guilds. We can try—”

“Behind you!”

Reina moved first, but she was just out of reach. From her outstretched hand, a spark of fire magic flared to life—sprung out—and died midair. Her eyes widened in horror. There was a hot breath on Alma’s neck as a set of jaws closed.

A bark of pain. The demon convulsed midair. It rammed into her, carrying its momentum, and they both smacked the pavement.

All she could feel was the crushing weight of the wolf and the hard ground against her back. Terror registered her silent, but she struggled in desperation until the body finally rolled off. She gasped to catch a breath of air, trembling with terror.

“Always make sure they’re dead,” a woman chided. There was a coil of red-brown hair at the corner of Alma’s vision, the flash of golden pins.

Reina rushed over and helped her up. “Are you okay? I’m so sorry.” She sounded like she was the one who was hurt.

“I’m fine.” She staggered upright. After falling on the ground twice, her arms were starting to hurt. She turned around and thanked the woman. “You have my gratitude.”

She wasn’t dressed for a fight. Her dress was long and expensive, a stylish pattern of red and black, and the only item in her hand was a white paper fan. Her nails were long, a glossy emerald. Gold rings glittered on her fingers.

She clicked her tongue in displeasure. “And you may pay that off by hiring some better bodyguards. By your clothes, I can see that you at least come from a wealthy house. Off to sightsee, or running away to teach daddy a lesson, perhaps?”

Her amicability toward the woman shrivelled. Alma bit her tongue to stop herself from making a face. “Thank you, but your concern is unneeded. I—”

“Anyways, we can’t make idle chat here. Feel free to follow me; I have the skill to make up for that bodyguard’s incompetence.”

Reina’s mouth fell open. It was the first time Alma had seen her angry. They turned away from the bodies on the ground, hurrying past the stores. Some were already boarded up from the inside. In others, the glass was broken, wet lines of blood the sign of entry.

One shop had a striking difference from the rest. Thick layers of ice covered the windows and the entrance. Alma glanced up. The White Rabbit. It’s here. She’s in there. “Wait,” she told them. She tried the door, but not even the handle would budge. Coating a building with so much ice wasn’t the impressive part; keeping it there was. Anything materialized from magic was still magic. That meant it constantly eroded into the atmosphere. To maintain something at a steady mass, a constant stream of magic had to be supplied into it as well. How long had the little girl been upholding this much ice?

She knocked, then banged on the door. “Yuli,” she called. “It’s Alma; I came here with Sage Eris this morning.”

The woman’s brow ticked up at the mention of the sage. She regarded the title of the shop and frowned quietly.

“Please, Yuli,” Reina said. “We need to know if you’re okay in there.”

Most of the ice on the front suddenly dissolved into sparkling white particles. The door yanked open, the welcome bell ringing out violently, Yuli stared up at them, her eyes large and terrified. “Come in. Quickly.”

They piled into the store, and the girl slammed the door shut again. New ice formed over the handle and the bottom. Yuli screwed her eyes tight and clenched her jaw, taking breaths in deep heaves. When she turned, her face was too pale.

“Oh, no, Yuli.” Voice pitched with worry, Reina kneeled down to examine her better. “You can’t keep this up, or you’re going to faint.”

“But the demons will get in!” Despite her retort, she swayed on her feet as if she really was about to drop. The woman stepped up to her.

“Dissipate your ice.”

They stared at the fire mage. “What?” Yuli asked.

She pointed to the frosted door with her fan. “My barrier won’t work if your magic is interfering. Stop your output.”

“I’m assuming this ‘barrier’ won’t simply be a wall of blazing fire,” Alma said.

She scoffed. “Don’t take me for a simpleton.” She turned back to Yuli. “Anytime now would be good. While you’re still standing.”

Yuli slowly lowered her hands. The ice covering the house flashed white and disappeared in a shower of light particles. With a sudden swiftness that Alma didn’t expect her to have, the lady whipped out a piece of paper and slammed it onto the door. It stuck to the glass. She turned, implying that her work was done.

Reina was the one to ask. “Um…is that it?”

“What, were you expecting a light show? Do you even know what that is?”

A symbol was stroked into the paper with dark ink. It was unfamiliar, but looked like a cross between the characters for ‘barrier’ and ‘guard’.

“A talisman,” Alma realized. A rare sight. The magic was mysterious, understood only by the makers, its utility dubious by the rest. “You’re a talisman merchant?”

“And demon banisher.” She gave a flourish of her red dress. “Amarhys, from the noble house of Dianthus.”

“Alma Shuling,” she returned. “And this is–”

Amarhys stopped her. “You would introduce a mercenary’s name right after your own?”

“Friend,” Alma bit out. “Reina is my friend. She doesn’t owe me anything.”

She gave them a scoff and a look, her fan held loosely to her chest, then turned for the inside of the shop.

“What were you doing outside?” Alma asked her.

“Since the rampage started, I’ve been posting barrier talismans on buildings all over the area.” She sank herself into a chair, crossing one leg over the other. “But I was bound to run out of stock at some point. Now I’ll be waiting it out from here.”

Something banged on a window. A large demon had lunged for them and been repelled. Yuli flinched and rushed over to the store counter, scooping up her rabbit and hugging it tight like a stuffed toy.

Waiting it out seemed like the best option for all of them. “Does anyone know how they breached Oceana?” Alma asked.

Yuli shook her head timidly. “A bunch of birds flew over, and then they just came…”

“That’s about as much as I know, as well,” Amarhys said. She tipped her fan to her chin, speculating. “Oceana has recently seen an increase in security. But it’s impossible that they could have known this would happen. If it was a simple weakening of the wall or increase in demon activity, they wouldn’t be scrutinizing the people entering and leaving instead.”

Alma bit her lip. She knew the reason for the extra guards, but couldn’t reveal it. “Then they must be unrelated.”

“Alma and I saw when it happened. It looked like all of the birds from the forest towards the ocean all flew out at once.” Reina paused, staring back into her memory. “Like…they’d all been scared.”

An entire forest. What could it have been? The leviathan was supposed to be in the waters before the shore.

Amarhys interrupted her train of thought. “Think hard but we still won’t get anywhere with this. We’ll wait here for the guards to clean up, however long that takes, then the Council will figure out the rest.”

Yuli seemed uncomfortable with this. “We should just sit and wait?”

“Exactly. It’s not our fault if the city fails to protect us.”

“I—that’s not true.” Yuli frowned.

Amarhys opened her mouth to say something back, but kept it, turning aside. “Regardless. All of Pangaea lives in this way.”

Her mouth twisted. She shook her head and abandoned the thought. Her rabbit was looking around, its white muzzle twitching, and Yuli brought its face to hers. “Ooh, Ruby, what do you think? Will we be okay?” In response, the rabbit straightened its ears and nuzzled her cheek.

Alma looked at them and smiled. Even without her parents, the girl wasn’t alone.

She sat down in a chair close to the counter. “Yuli, about this morning…”

Yuli’s face fell. She looked to the side.

She continued, “I don’t think Sage Eris will charge you with anything. Just—”

I’ll have to send over an investigation, Eris had said.

“—I apologize that we were pushing you so hard. We both regret it, but understand that the situation was very urgent.”

She gave a small nod in response.

Alma’s face softened. “We scared you, didn’t we? I’m sorry.”

Yuli lifted her face from the rabbit’s fur. “Then it’s okay.” She grinned and gave a thumbs-up. “I forgive you, big sis!”

Alma smiled back. An apology wasn’t always enough, but giving one made a monumental difference.

Her face fell as Amarhys made an annoyed tsk. She turned to retort, but Amarhys wasn’t looking at them, but something through the glass door.

Reina turned and peered outside as well. “What is it?”

She shook her head. “Some boor is harassing a guard outside.”

The demons were mostly gone. They had likely moved in as a single hoard, a giant rampage, and now the rampage had made its way into another quarter of the city, racing each other for fresh meat.

There were three people standing idle on the street. A guard with a sword and armor, silver with splatters of gore, leaned back uneasily as a young wind mage with a bow shouted at him.

Alma shot up from her chair.

“Hi, Calvin!” Reina waved.

Amarhys looked just about done. “More friends of yours? Great.”

She stepped out, closing the door so that the barrier would re-seal. Mir was standing next to them, looking out as Calvin argued, and when a demon lunged for them a streaking white spear of ice threaded through its head. The two didn’t notice.

“No, just drop the ‘city guard’ shit and go! This is way more important!” Calvin was saying. He sounded angry and desperate, waving his arms.

The guard was nervous. “Sir, the city people still hold priority over one individual. Some of them are being protected by barriers, but we need to save as many as we can.”

“She’s a sage. After you help her she can clear the entire city,” he argued.

“Yes. I understand, but the eastern forest is quite far from here, and from what you’re telling me, we would need to send dozens of guards. This is the logic Sage Eris would follow, even if it were her life on the line…” He trailed off. Calvin had only gotten more angry.

Now’s the time.

“Excuse me, sir.”

Alma sketched a polite bow as they turned. “I would like to inform the guards that a sanctuary grounds exists as Sage Eris’s estate. If citizens could be safely escorted there, it would serve as a large area where they can reside under the water deity’s peace blessing.”

Relief washed over his face. “That’s great news. I’ll tell the head guard. Thanks, miss.” He gave her a nod and turned, shying away from Calvin’s seething glare, and ran off, fumbling with his sword. He had looked younger than them.

“I hope that isn’t the general state of the city guard right now.” She patted Calvin on the shoulder, mostly out of pity. “The wave of demons might come back. If you’ve got something to say, we’ll hear it inside. Let’s go.”

♦ ♦ ♦

“Well?” Alma asked as soon as they entered the shop. Calvin was despondent, eyes downcast, so she turned to Mir. “The three of you went looking for Sage Sigmund, but something happened along the way. Am I correct in assuming that?”

Mir spoke. “Yes, Lady Alma—”

“Just Alma is fine.”

“Sage Eris was attacked by a merlion while we were in the forest.”

“Mer…lion?” she echoed. “I’m not familiar.”

“Impossible,” Amarhys stated, and Alma stiffened. She hadn’t thought she would so openly eavesdrop.

“It claimed that the more aquatic-based demons were moving inland due to the water deity’s absence,” Mir explained.

“I’m no expert on the water deity,” Amarhys continued, “but everyone knows that Mazu doesn’t simply leave her post.” She leaned forward. “Yet, true enough, it explains the uncommon demon breeds I saw in the city.” Her eyes were sharp, demanding an answer. “Are you five involved in this, I wonder?”

Reina shook her head. “Leave Yuli out of this. She doesn’t know anything about it. And Mir doesn’t know either. We were just asking him for a favor–” She realized something and spun. “Oh no, you got caught up in this because of us. Did we pull you from something important? Do you have friends to get to? Um…we’re really sorry for the trouble…”

“It’s fine,” he said. “As long as I can help.”

The only sign Calvin was listening was his sudden, seething glare. “Oh, right, like you can talk about helping people.”

Alma had yet to see such a hateful expression on him until now, and she gave him a careful look. “We’re getting off-topic. What happened after the merlion attacked?”

“Sage Eris killed it. She then deemed the trip too dangerous and sent us back. Later, there was a large sound that came from her direction.”

The pieces were coming together. “So that’s what triggered the rampage.” They just had to know what it was; certainly not a tree falling. Something much, much bigger.

She turned to Calvin. “And did you just automatically assume that Sage Eris was in trouble? You know she’s not an ordinary person.”

“I know because she screamed,” he said.

The room was still.

“Her scream was horrible,” he continued. “I knew we had to help, but Mir stopped me.” He glared at him.

“Sage Eris told me to protect him,” Mir explained.

“You told me we could get a guard to help, knowing that none of them could,” he accused. “Because of the rampage.”

“I told you that you could call a guard for assistance, not that any would give it,” he said.

Calvin turned on him. “You tricked me,” he said loudly.

Mir faced him equally. “I didn’t. I never lied to you, though I did word it so that you would willingly leave the area.”

Things were escalating too quickly. Alma raised a hand, opening her mouth to interject, but Calvin’s volume cut over her own words.

“Why can’t you understand?” He ground his teeth. “You left her for dead!” His anger was visible now, his wind magic buzzing around his body, blurring the line of his figure. He looked ready to hurt him.

Reina tackled Calvin. He stumbled and they hit the wall, her arms wrapped in a hug, red hair blowing up. “Don’t do it,” she said, her eyes shut. “I’ll help you. I’ll help you find her. Just don’t be angry anymore.”

The wind vanished. Calvin stared at her for a moment. “Get off me,” he said, but he didn’t sound so livid anymore.

She straightened and clasped her hands.

“Do you mean it?” he asked.

She nodded. “Of course.”

Alma jumped in. “I’ll go as well. Though it may still be dangerous there, it is critical that we find her and Sage Sigmund.” She glanced to Mir.

He looked dubious about it. “I’ll follow along,” he said.

“Good,” she said, relieved. “Let’s head out right away. The mob will come back soon after they’ve circled through the city.” She moved for the door.

“Wait.”

Another voice stopped them: Amarhys. Alma bit down her grimace. “Yes?”

“You’re all, of course, free to leave. I must only address something first.”

“Seriously?” Calvin asked. “You know we’re in a hurry, right? Do you have to do it now?”

Amarhys stood. Her fan unfolded with a flick of her wrist.

“Yes. Because I cannot bear sitting beside a witch any longer.”

Next: White Witch

6. The Oncoming Storm

“That guy,” Alma muttered. She’d paused at the end of her writing, thoughts straying back to the ice shrine again. Her fingers drummed the table. “I should’ve done something.”

“Mir?” Reina asked. She was scribbling away at her own parchment. Education wasn’t great in remote villages, and it showed in her spelling. She was on her third copy.

“Cal,” she said. “Sage Eris wanted to have a private talk with Mir when she asked him to go along.”

She looked up. “She didn’t say that.”

“She couldn’t. But it was on her face.” Alma frowned. “She tried hard, too, saying that he must’ve been spent, asking me if I would object. It doesn’t surprise me that Calvin didn’t notice.”

“Oh. Do you think it was important?” she asked.

“It was the sage.” She took up the last of her tea, swirling the porcelain cup with a practiced hand. “At least she’ll get to do it when they get back.” It probably had something to do with the ice shrine—perhaps there had been a problem with it, and Eris had thought it prudent to discuss it with Mir first.

“Somebody like me would’ve never gotten to talk to a sage,” Reina admitted. “We must be really lucky.”

Her words hit a chord. Alma’s mind drew back to that monstrous leviathan, to her sick father. “I suppose,” she said, though she knew it was more like the opposite of luck—something less avoidable.

Reina could read her expression. Her upbeat optimism could’ve come to a fault, but never reached it. “Sorry,” she said. She looked down, her face falling, then gathered up her papers. “I know my writing’s not as good as yours, but I tried my best.” She held them out.

“You’re done?” Alma took them and scanned the first page. “Good. Let’s address these. The fire sages are Reiner and Teresa, and one of the ice sages is Ley. You send yours to those three. Mine will go to Annabeth, the other ice sage, and Bellatrix and Markus, the wind sages.” She slid the letters back.

“What about the prince and princess?” Reina asked.

She faltered. “That’s for the council to decide. It’ll go through them either way.”

“Oh.” She tapped her chin. “I guess they might withhold it. The deities would freak out if they were in danger.”

The problem was that one already was. Alma froze on her next words, wondering if she should let it out now, but she faltered and the moment passed. She closed her mouth. Reina was a villager; her world was too small. The news could be earth-shattering. She sat in silence and let her continue on.

“To be honest, I didn’t know Miss Eris was a sage until she introduced herself,” Reina admitted. “I must have been really sheltered, even if it didn’t feel like it.” She paused. “Um, if that makes sense.”

“The ignorant rarely know of their ignorance,” Alma said. “That’s a famous quote from someone—though I forget who.” she shrugged. “I suppose everyone is ignorant, in a way.”

Someone knocked on the door with two quick raps; one of the maids. An old lady with greying hair entered. Her eyes were pale with age, and she slowly paced along in an approachable mien. “Pardon me, just coming in with more tea.” She set a tray with another teapot, sugar and cream onto the table in one fluid motion without rattling the spoons. “And the Council stamp.” The maid procured a small red box hidden in her sleeve.

Alma took it. “Thank you,” she said. “The house has been a wonderful host to us, even as travellers coming in for a small errand.”

The maid waved a wrinkled hand. “Oh, no. We always welcome company. The last time it was this lively was before Sage Sigmund holed himself in the library.”

Her brows went up. “The library?”

“The grand library in the city,” she replied. “It’s been awhile.” The maid nodded to herself, almost sadly. “Said it was to save himself the trip there everyday. Those two take their work quite so seriously.”

“Oh,” she said, understanding. Her father’s candle wick often burden until midnight. She had never understood how he could handle it all—and considering his sickness now, he had hit his limit. “Sage Sigmund is the younger water sage, correct?” she asked.

“Oh, yes. I remember.” The maid glanced to one of the lightly curtained windows, looking out fondly. “Before he started studying for candidacy—not too many years ago—some kids from his school set a dog on him. It chased him all the way into this corner of the city.” She pointed to the ground she stood on. “He just barely made it onto the lawn here.”

The front lawn was visible from where they were sitting now, a giant garden with a straight pathway cutting to the front door. The entire span of the mansion was only a fraction of Eris’s estate.

“There’s no fence around,” Alma noted.

She smiled. “Doesn’t need one.”

Beside her, Reina gasped. “I felt that! There’s something in the ground.”

A nod. “Very keen. Indeed, our Lady Eris’s contract with the water deity was to bless the entire lands of the estate. Blessed it into a peace zone. No hostility, no malintent; a giant shrine grounds.”

“I see,” Alma said. A contract with a god reserved for the sages. It was a less than one in ten million opportunity, and this was what Eris wanted the most. “I don’t know Sage Eris well, but it certainly speaks for her character.”

“Gratifying, isn’t it? Lady Eris announced it all around. ‘Anyone seeking peace, seeking rest from persecution, I welcome you,’ she said.”

And, naturally, with the mention of persecution, one single event came to mind.

The witch burnings.

The old maid closed her eyes in a tired sort of way. “If only she had won candidacy even an year earlier. And now, in a time of peace, no one remembers what Lady Eris has done for them.”

Mentioning the ice purge was a fast way to kill conversation. They sat or stood in silence, contemplating.

Finally, the house maid moved from her statue-still stance. “I’m getting old,” she said, shuffling to the door. “I’ve too many ‘if-only’s. But there’ll always be people to replace me. Younger ones to keep the place running.” Her hand went for the round, golden doorknob. “Good day.” And she was out.

They finished addressing the letters, stamped them and rolled them up to be sent away. “We’ll need aves to send them off,” Alma said. “It seems like Eris left the sending for herself.” She walked to one of the large windows, where beams of sunlight filtered through. Light wind picked up translucent curtains and let them dance in the air. A mix of cool and warm; Oceana’s weather was known for its equanimity. “Well, it’s not like her own aves would listen to strangers.”

Reina joined her at the windows. Before the front gardens was a wide, paved area with a fountain in the middle and benches to each side. And beyond the garden was the public road, used for carts and carriages, which led beyond to the denser part of Oceana. From the small blocks of houses and shops in the distance the tall telescope dome could still be seen towering above like a giant. Over them, pillared clouds glided low under the sky. “Wow,” she admired. “It’s so calm.”

“Nostalgic,” Alma added. She took in a deep breath and let it go. “The days fly by in a place like this, once you’ve settled down.”

“Yea.” She leaned out the window and let her arms dangle over. “My village wasn’t that far from here, but it’s completely different. It’s so weird when people are close together but live so differently.” She looked down from where they were standing on the third storey. “And the ground is so far away.” She became silent.

“Sorry,” Alma said.

“It’s okay,” she answered. It was a reflex. After the second it took to register Reina spun to her, confused. “What for?”

“For failing to keep my promise.” Her fingers tapped the window ledge. “I said that I’d send you back home right after I got to see the water deity. Obviously, that can’t happen.”

She turned. When the wind blew in again it curled stray strands of red hair past her face, swaying her low pigtails. She tucked a strand behind her ear. “That’s not your fault.”

“Still,” she said.

“Well, if we’re apologizing for things out of our control, then I’m sorry for being pretty useless.”

Alma straightened. “You’re a fire mage that can heal,” she said. “That’s unprecedented.”

“You also heal. And you’re better at it.”

She looked away. “I had training.”

Reina gazed out again, hands on the windowsill, and she was smiling. “It’s nice that we can talk over it like friends.”

“Yea,” she said. Before Reina she had met Calvin, and before that another mercenary, a fire mage named John. “You’re all much more talented than me at magic,” she said. “Though for Calvin, it seems to be talent alone that’s keeping him alive.”

“And his blessings,” Reina added. “Lots of blessings.”

“The wind deity is generous with the slow,” she said.

A loud bang echoed far away. From beyond the wall, a massive flock of black dots—birds—flew up and out, then scattered. They glided towards the city, their cries raucous and frantic.

Reina’s face fell as her eyes followed their flight. Her lips parted into a quiet, “Oh.”

The birds flapped and spiralled down on the distant clusters of buildings.

“Oh, no.” Her hands tightened. “Did something happen?”

It had been from the direction Eris, Calvin and Mir were headed. Something bad had happened. Alma tensed for a moment, then pushed herself from the window. “I’ll check outside,” she said.

“Wait.” She leaned out. “There’s something else coming.”

They could hear it. A low rumbling building in the background.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know,” Alma said. “But it sounds bad.”

“I’ll come too.” Reina turned then stopped herself, looking to the table. “The letters.”

She bit her lip. “They should be fine here. Just remember to close the window. I’ll leave a note for the head maid so she knows that we left.”

When they got outside, the chaos had risen. There were shouts, cries in the distance, a low bell than rang without stop. Eris’s mansion was further from the incident near the wall than the central part of the city. Whatever chaos they were hearing was happening in there, with homes, with families, with children.

Reina grabbed her sleeve. “Is it an attack?” She looked scared.

The old maid’s words came back to her. No one remembers. The people would be safe on the estate grounds, under a blessing of peace, but only if they knew to come in the first place. They were the only ones who knew. They had to tell the residents, to start an evacuation.

“Yuli—she’s all by herself in her shop. She’s just a kid—” She looked to Alma, asking what to do.

“I don’t know,” she said. She had always been on the other end of that look. There had always been other people to solve her problems, always others who knew what to do. But if she turned now, there would be no one to turn to. There was only herself.

Alma sucked in a breath and straightened. Confidence set a steady mind; panic was for later. “There are plenty of guards stationed in Oceana. We’ll inform them of the protected grounds here so that civilians have a place to evacuate. We’ll check on Yuli in the process.”

“Will we make it?” Reina asked.

They wouldn’t. Not on foot. She thought about what they could do, and then she remembered. “Get the horse,” she commanded. “Hurry!”

Next: The White Rabbit Alliance

5. A Forest of Silence

“You did it wrong,” Calvin said.

“I didn’t.” Mir’s face was cold and impassive. He didn’t know the situation—didn’t know what was at stake—but Calvin still felt irked at the ice mage. He’d never heard good things about them, and now he was beginning to know why.

“Let’s try again,” Alma said quickly. “I’ll go in there with you. Maybe it needs to be glowing.”

“It wasn’t glowing for me or Reina,” Calvin told her. “And we still got a response. The wind shrine lit up and everything.”

Reina nodded a little. “And I heard Vulcan’s voice, too, saying that he would go.”

Alma paused, her expression almost hurt, and Calvin felt a pang of guilt. They knew there was more in it for her. He quickly backtracked. “We can always try,” he said.

“Everyone, wait.” It was a wonder Eris’s voice still flowed smoothly. “Let’s think about this for a moment. It may be that the deity had already noticed beforehand and left.”

“Wouldn’t he have said?” he asked.

“Not necessarily. The battle could be requiring all of his attention.” She closed her eyes and concentrated, thinking over the options they had.

Reina held up the blue gem. “Should we try again?”

“No. If he didn’t respond the first time, he won’t for the second, either.” Eris paced herself from under the tree and gazed at the sky again. “But hopefully we’re getting some answers soon.”

She stretched out her arm, and seconds later a flurry of feathers swooped down and landed on it. A blue and white bird settled itself, folding two sets of wings. An eastern messenger ave; it trilled a greeting at Eris, who smiled. She went for a cylindrical container attached to its leg.

“Sage Sigmund was stationed to observe over the East ocean. This is his first report: if we’re lucky, it will have an account of which deities have arrived,” Eris explained. She let the bird flutter to one of the lower tree branches as she unfolded the letter. “The Ocean Den is flooded, but otherwise empty. Neither Mazu nor the creature has appeared,” she read. ” To draw them out, Eurus has started a giant whirlwind—” The sage faltered, reread the line, and said in a resigned tone, “started a giant whirlwind to suck up the ocean. As such, I have begun to evacuate the villages in the area.” She looked up. “That’s all.”

Not good. The report was just vague enough to leave out what they needed. Eris scanned through the text again, eyebrows pinched. Above, the ave watched in silence.

“May we write back to ask for the specifics?” Alma asked.

She didn’t look away from the parchment. “Something is off.”

“Off?” Calvin echoed.

“Yes. His writing is extremely rushed—the content and the penmanship are in shambles. It’s strange. Suspicious.” She rolled up the paper and held it in the air, though without indicating for any of them to take it. Instead, the bird flew down in an arc, grabbing the report and returning to its branch. It downed the roll in one swift movement. “In light of this, I will be heading there myself to investigate.”

“You’re going alone? Shouldn’t we come with you?” Reina asked.

“No. I need your party to head back to my mansion and relay these developments to the other sages,” she said. Eris blinked, seeing her worried frown, and smiled in return. “Thank you for your concern, but the forest won’t be that dangerous. Though if it will ease your mind…” She studied them for a moment, thinking. “Mir, if it’s not too much trouble, would you accompany me?”

Mir looked up, almost surprised. He inclined his head. “If you require it, Sage Eris.”

Calvin stepped forward. “Wait, wait—why not one of us? Er, no offense, but…”

No offense, but you can’t trust him, he wanted to say. He remembered the two giant cobra demons they had faced, completely white, each blended into the background before striking.

Eris humoured him. “I supposed that you two must be spent from running around the city,” she said.

“Oh, I’m fine. A little walking around won’t wind me.” He faked a grin. From the corner of his eye, Alma was definitely glaring at him. “I can come along too.”

Eris seemed to notice. “Do you have any objections, Lady Alma?” she asked.

Alma looked hard at him for a moment. There were harsh words ready at the tip of her tongue, he knew, but she sighed and pushed them away. “Are you sure about this?”

“Are you going to stop me?” he asked.

To his surprise, she shook her head. “I can’t. Our contract was completed.”

“Oh, right.” One moment she had been inside the Den, then the next they had been running for their lives. It had felt like an instant. He stopped and thought, then broke into a grin. “Wait, so I’m a free man now?”

She scowled at his sudden joy. “Free and unemployed. Come find me after or you’ll be running off without your pay. I still need to fulfill my half.”

“Got it,” he said.

The group parted. Alma and Reina turned for the inner city, while the three of them continued to the wall. The eastern gate in Oceana was secured, but barren; Eris had called an active lockdown over the city when she had found them—found the blue gem, glowing, clutched in Alma’s hand.

Passing through security was tenfold faster with a sage. She simply walked up, briefly talked with a guard, and they were through. Ironic that sages gave up their family name—often a noble one—to gain higher authority. Above all, the role required education.

Their path cut through the eastern forest along a rugged road. What began as a light mist down the path grew into a thick white haze under the foliage, fading the surroundings into an ash-white, the trees to giant stalks of grey. The air was strangely heavy. Calvin waved his hand, watching the white particles swirl, then brushed it through his hair. It was damp.

“Is…is this normal?” he asked, perturbed.

Eris, walking at the front, didn’t stop. “Many abnormal events have occurred in the past month, sir Calvin. Perhaps soon we’ll be reconsidering the new ‘normal’.”

“Huh?” he said.

His voice must have betrayed his panic; Eris turned back to manage him a reassuring smile. “A mere speculation. No need to worry. The Council will make sure everything is set back in place.”

He nodded mutely, though she had already turned around. “Have other things happened?” he asked.

“The ocean line has changed, for example. If the Den is flooded, the water level must have risen dramatically.”

His eyebrows shot up. “The water’s not supposed to go past the Den?” That explained some things.

“Oh, no,” she said. “It’s supposed to be much more accessible than that. Not everyone can swim or part that much water.”

Alma hadn’t questioned it when they had arrived at the shore. He supposed even her knowledge must have had a limit; she was barely old enough to be considered an adult. The two of them had both left their homes, both at eighteen, both looking for help—the difference was that Calvin wasn’t sure who he was supposed to find. Healing wouldn’t help in his case.

Movement shook him from his thoughts. Something quiet. Breathing. He spun, listening for the sound.

Eris halted at the front. “Trouble?” she asked.

“One.” It was drawing in on the sage. She and Mir couldn’t hear it.

She smiled. “One won’t make a meal out of us.”

The demon moved. A second, dangerous pressure pulsed through the air, sending a cold tingle down Calvin’s spine. He spun towards the threat, one hand raised. Behind them the demon whimpered and bolted.

Only Sage Eris was standing there. “It was just me,” she said. “I mimicked an intimidation technique that demons often use. None of the sages are allowed to carry weapons, so we do this to ward off any attacks—though it also disturbs the normal wildlife.”

He could tell why. Even as a human, it felt like something deadly had just boasted its presence. Eris must have been at least as strong as his fear implied.

She looked to them, worried. “I apologize. Was that too much?”

“No. Don’t worry about us,” Mir answered.

Calvin grit his teeth. Wow. Speak for yourself, he thought. Without the sage with them, he would have run right off with the other animal.

They continued down the path. “That’s good,” she said. “The technique is quite useful. You can learn it yourself—I think it’ll be especially helpful for someone of your profession. You must be very talented to be selling your abilities at such a young age.”

He frowned, hearing the words, and looked down. “Yea,” he said.

Walking in the front, Eris didn’t catch it. She continued. “Sage Annabeth was in a similar situation before she applied for candidacy. She started young and climbed up to captain of the royal day guard, and now she splits it part-time with her new duties.”

He didn’t reply, and the conversation dropped into silence. The forest was quiet. He scanned around as far as the fog would let him see, watching the mist swirl, trying to tell how far they’d gone. It felt like they had walked a long time without covering much ground.

“He said that he’d evacuate them, right?” he asked, thinking back to Sage Sigmund’s letter. They were on the one path that led to Oceana from the east. Why was it empty?

Sage Eris crossed her arms, drumming her finger against her sleeve. Her eyes looked to the side, suspicious. They walked for a few more minutes. “This isn’t right,” she announced. “We should have met up with him by now. I gave away my location when I sent out my aura.”

Calvin looked around. “Did a demon get to him?”

She frowned. “That can’t be.” The sage glanced around at the fog, then put her fingers between her lips and blew a sharp whistle. The sound shrilled out, dull, as if matted down by the thickness in the air.

They waited.

Nothing came.

Eris thought for a moment. “Let’s hurry,” she said. “The first village should be just ahead.”

Then she began down the path again, stepping forward—and for what happened next Calvin was too slow to react.

He heard the whistling of claws before it came.

A giant blur swooped in and a meaty paw struck Eris. She screamed—a short cry, a forced exhale—and her body crumpled to the ground. A spray of blood gushed from her neck, draining into the dirt.

One hit.

She didn’t move again.

The muscled creature stood above its kill. It opened its mouth, revealing jagged, meat skewering canines, and a giant pink tongue darted out to lick its paw. It was as big as a carriage. The demon didn’t look like one animal; it was a monstrosity, an amalgamation, the body of a giant cat and the thick, elongated tail of a fish. Something older and powerful.

It turned to them, and Calvin’s blood ran cold.

Its eyes were yellow over pinpricks of black. One bound forward and another swipe: that was all it would take. It was too late to run. The deities had given them magic to protect themselves, but demons were stronger still.

Someone moved. It was Eris. She pushed herself up, one hand pressed against her neck. Blood ran between her fingers. There was a blue glow for a moment, and then she lowered her hand, the edges of her wound sealing shut into smooth skin. He couldn’t see her face, but her tone was calm and casual. “Why, you took me by surprise. What is a merlion doing out here?”

The beast’s whiskers twitched as it eyed her in evaluation. It flashed its fangs. “Wonderful! A Human that can recognize our pride!” it boomed.

“A sentient demon,” she said. “I figured as much.”

It bared its anger. “More than mere sentience! We boast intelligence and might!”

“I see. Then, from one intellectual to another, let me ask you again: what is a merlion doing here?”

Its heavy fish-like tail swished and rose. Already the demon towered over her, but its tail doubled their difference. “The Ocean floods, and her guardian leaves her post. Is that not a sign to conquer?” it replied.

The merlion spoke in nearly riddles. The old water demons, once driven into the ocean, had sensed Mazu’s departure. They would have ventured inland to feast on villages of people.

“So the threatening aura I put out earlier must have felt more like an invitation for you. Are you looking for a fight? Or food?” Eris asked.

“A match to sate my pride, after I have sated my hunger,” it growled.

The villages near the shore.

Oh, gods. Calvin clamped a hand over his mouth. For them, the evacuation had come too late.

Eris’s words cut through the air. “Yet you attack by ambush. Coward.”

“WHAT!” it bellowed, the roar blowing back her teal hair. Spittle flew out. Seeing her lack of a reaction, it flung out an enormous paw, slamming the trunk of a tree, splintering the wood like a twig. A thunderclap rang out, and Eris didn’t even turn to look.

“There is no pride in winning an unequal fight,” she said evenly. She had to crane her neck up to see its face. “Since you’ve hit me once, I should get to do the same. We’ll take turns until one of us is dead.”

“Fair,” it rumbled. “But do not expect me to spare your companions after. I will blow away your head in my next turn, and you will be unable to regenerate.” It leaned into her and growled.

The sage didn’t reply. She shifted one leg back, curling her fingers into a fist, tightening it under her other hand. Magic ran under her skin, though it didn’t show. The muscles in her arm only clenched under her draping sleeve.

For a tense moment she only stood there. The demon peered down at her, thinking the wait was a sign of weakness, of fear, and it made a low rumble in its throat like a laugh. Its mouth opened to a taunt.

It went flying.  Her punched lifted it off the ground and blasted off the merlion’s head. The demon’s huge body hit the ground and rolled, slinking to a stop among the grass and trees, spewing blood and blue mana.

Eris settled herself, breathing out as the carnage began to dissipate. She watched for a moment as the body dissolved into the air. “Sorry,” she said.

Calvin turned, supressing a gag. It was a demon. Demons slaughtered people, created witches and bred sorcerers. They were the root of all the wrong in the world. Of all people, a sage shouldn’t have felt the need to apologize.

Eris turned back to them, face tight. “I’ve changed my mind. This is too dangerous. You two need to leave, or you’ll only hold me back.”

This time he couldn’t argue. He thought about what waited in the next village—and if not, the next, closer to the shore.

Calvin pointed in the direction they came from. “O-okay, so we just—“ he stuttered. His arms trembled.

She took his hand, gently, and shook it. “Thank you for escorting me. You were very brave. Just turn around and hurry back, okay? Avoid anything else you see. Stay sharp.” And this time her smile was like his mother’s. She looked to his side. “Mir, protect him.”

The ice mage blinked. “I will,” he replied. Calvin wasn’t sure how that was supposed to work.

They watched as the sage nodded and turned, continuing down the path. Her blue robes swayed until the fog swallowed them whole, and then she was gone.

Without her, the forest seemed too silent.

The two of them turned back around and began to walk where they came. The fog was even thicker than before. He could feel it in his lungs when he breathed. He unhooked the bow from his back and clenched it in his hands, eyes darting around, feeling half-blind and choked from the whiteness.

Something moved beside him. Calvin jolted, a scream shooting up in his throat, but he spun and realized that it was just Mir. “Gods damn it!” he said.

“What?” Mir asked. He sounded almost bored in reply.

“Why are you wearing all white?” he snapped. “Isn’t your hair edgy enough?”

“What else would I wear?” he asked.

Calvin didn’t answer, looking him up and down. The ice mage was as old as him at most, though he was shorter and looked about as snap-able as a tree branch. “Don’t you have any weapons?”

“No. Just magic,” he replied.

“Well then I’ll protect us,” he said. The sage must have mistaken Mir as the mercenary instead of himself. “Mir, right? I’m Calvin.”

He didn’t reply.

He cleared his throat. “I said, I’m Calvin.”

Mir looked up from the ground. “Oh. Sorry.”

“Listen, you look that way, and I’ll watch this direction.” He pointed. The problem was that there wasn’t much to look out for in distance. Once either of them saw anything, it would already be too late. Calvin’s best bet was his own ears, the hearing of a wind mage, but even that was muffled down by the thick air—thick in more ways that one.

They lapsed into silence as he tried to listen. When Mir paused beside him, he almost didn’t notice.

“The road is gone,” he said.

Calvin started, looking down. They weren’t on the path anymore—only grass.

“Dangit,” he said. “Hang on, I’ll try to blow some of this away.” He began to gather mana, then thought twice about it. “I can do that, right? It won’t trigger an attack or something?”

Mir tilted his head. “I don’t know.”

Crap. So sometimes it was useful to have an extreme nerd like Alma around. He had taken her knowledge and her attentiveness for granted, and they had wandered off the road.

He gathered up his mana again and released it all at once in a burst of wind magic. The grey particles swept up around them and blew out in a circle, revealing the edge of the road.

“Oh, it’s over there,” he pointed.

There was a whisper next to his ear. The breath of a ghost.

Give it…

He screamed and stumbled back, nearly tripping himself up. A hand spun him around.

“Gh-ghost! Ghost!” he cried.

Mir was annoyed. “You’d better not be talking about me. I don’t see anything else here.”

“It was right there. It almost grabbed me!” He waved his arm. “And it talked to me!”

Mir looked him dead in the eyes. “Quiet.” He stepped past him. “You’re going to attract the real monsters.”

Calvin frowned as he followed. Whatever had been there, hallucination or otherwise, was gone. “It’s not like you heard it,” he muttered.

Mir’s expression told him it was a good time to stop talking. He turned to the sky instead, though there was nothing to see except for a thick cover of fog. It seemed unnatural. A result of the wind deity messing with the ocean? Or the manifestation of the water deity’s anger? The gods had always shaped natural disasters to their will.

A loud rumble sounded in the distance.

This was the ‘trigger’ he had meant. His little swirl of wind was practically nothing compared to this stalwart blast of energy. The forest seemed to shift, animals raising their heads, the cry of a murder of crows lifting up in alarm. The sudden sense of danger.

“Crap, run!” he shouted. His legs picked up before he even registered for them to move. Grey shapes faded in beside them, a multitude of bounding or flying silhouettes. They closed in onto the flat road, running with them instead of at them, which meant that something much scarier was behind.

A dark green, scaled beast dove in front of him, and he had to leap to avoid it. Its hooves clicked on the path as it leapt past, but not without a glance—or glare—back at him. The road was the path of least resistance; the animals surged together, merging their escape to one route. A poor place to be in, now that he thought about it. The thought came a little late. The strong forelegs of a leaping deer were about to crack down on his skull.

Someone roughly jerked him back. The hooves just barely missed his face—then Calvin went tumbling, ground over sky, rolling until he hit a bush. Stunned, he could only register the moist grass for a few moments.

He sat up and wiped his face. “You didn’t have to throw me,” he said.

Mir walked up beside him. “At least you’re not dead.” No hint of an apology there.

He got up and shook himself off. Drying off with wind magic was also an option, but he didn’t want to risk any more ghosts. “Well, thanks,” he said. He turned to look back at the rampage of animals, some of them undoubtedly demons, and wondered if they knew where they were going.

That’s when the scream came. A raw, ravaged cry. Desperate and echoing. But the only other person nearby was—

“Eris!” Calvin made to run, but Mir suddenly had an iron grip on his wrist. “What are you doing? We need to go!”

“If we go, you’ll get killed,” he said. “She made me promise—”

“She needs help!” He tugged. “Let go!”

“How are we supposed to help her?”

He paused. “What?

“If you think you can kill a Merlion in one punch, then you can go.” He released his wrist. “Or, you can call someone more capable, like the city guard.”

He didn’t like it, but Mir was right. There was little they could do if they went. If the sage was having difficulty with something, then the two of them wouldn’t even measure up against it. And who was going to come help then, except a search party a day later?

“Fine, just hurry!” he forced out. He ran past Mir again, making sure to stay near the path—how they had wandered off was a mystery.  In front of them the last of the creatures bounded off into the fog, charging forward in one direction, and he suddenly realized where they all were going. Beasts and demons alike—all following the road, all heading for Oceana.

The city had walls and the walls had guards, but even so they couldn’t be prepared for the incoming numbers. Just one breached point meant an entryway to the entire capital. There were shops there, residents, families with children. It would be a large-scale buffet.

The fog had spread from the forest, the furthest wisps reaching past the trees. It cleared as he ran forward, and the scene unfolded.

The entire gate was collapsed. The last of the forest animals were streaming in or scattering around it. Nobody was there to stop them.

But there had been two guards just before. The ones Eris talked to. He spun around. Where were they? Where were they?

…That dark splatter on the stone wall wasn’t water, was it?

That pungent, metallic smell wasn’t there before, was it?

It was just some unlucky animal, wasn’t it?!

His throat clenched. He took a step forward, his boot knocking an object that made a harsh skid against the ground. He looked. Somebody’s sword. Completely clean. Held by an arm. Oh.

He looked to the left.

A body.

Oh.

To his right—

Mir moved and blocked it from him. “You shouldn’t see that,” he said quietly. The command was gone from his voice.

Calvin just barely strangled out the words. “Did you know?”

No response.

“Did you know?

Nothing.

Did you know we couldn’t come back for her?

His expression hadn’t changed.

“You–you–” He shook his head. “She’s the sage, and I’m just a bloody farmer!

“Get inside.”

“We killed her!”

Mir grabbed him and wrenched him towards the gate. He didn’t put up a fight as they stepped over the broken metal.

Calvin turned back in a hopeless effort. “We—”

Behind them, a merlion was chewing away at an open corpse.

He screamed.

Next: The Oncoming Storm

4. Chosen

Alma woke up in an unfamiliar bed.

She was in a room of bookshelves and silk drapes. Crystal chandeliers dangled from the ceiling, shining over flowered wallpaper and inked scrolls that none of the inns had. There was the smell of tea. A stranger’s home. She sat up, pushing off a thick layer of comforter.

A pair of gentle hands were holding hers. “Alma. How are you feeling?” Reina asked. She sat in a plush chair to her right. Her voice was soft. She was cupping a tiny, glowing flame between her palm and Alma’s, the warmth travelling up her arm, above her throat. “I was afraid that something was wrong,” she told her. “Like a head wound. So I did this until you woke up.”

It was like water magic as it healed, soothing, but it also tingled her insides. Alma withdrew. “I think I’m okay,” she said. “But thanks.”

She smiled.

Calvin was sitting to the left, his elbow propped on the chair, head leaning into his arm. He looked concerned. His eyebrows were pinched, but in a sullen way. “We made it out alive,” he said. His bow and arrow holster were set against the wall. “You remember what happened?”

It was burned too deep in her mind to forget. Still, she had too many questions, many of them too vague. “Where is this?” she asked.

“We’re back in Oceana,” he said. “Don’t freak out, but this is the water sage’s place—well, more of a mansion.”

Water sages?” she said through her teeth. At the words she’d straightened, her hands curled into fists. It was almost a reflex.

He leaned back, visibly unnerved by immediate, uncharacteristic—though reasonable—panic. “We’re not here for capital punishment for anything,” he said. “Calm down. You look crazy.”

“Crazy?” Reina asked. She grabbed Alma’s hand again, golden eyes worried.

“No,” she said. “What happened after I came back to shore?”

“I hauled you onto my back and we ran for it to the carriage. You were blacked out and we sort of made a commotion at the back entrance into the city,” he said. He glanced up at a scroll, an inked drawing of Mazu under a dome of constellations. It was fitting for the water sage’s estate. “A lot of stuff happened, but the sage took us in after we showed her the, uh, the blue rock? That you took from the Den.”

Her meant female, which meant Eris, the elder sage. If she was the one waiting for a talk, then the matter was serious.

“What did she say?” Alma asked. “Are we in trouble?”

He shrugged, as if to say, not my deity, not my problem.

Someone rapped at the doors and entered. Not a servant—not with the way of dress, with low, silver-lined blue robes and a tumble of curly teal hair down her back. The woman smiled, tilting her head, and blue bead earrings caught the light.

“I’m Water Sage Eris,” she said. “This is my manor in Oceana.”

Alma fumbled with her bow, bending as low as she could. “Alma Shuling. Very sorry to cause trouble for you, Your Grace.” She nearly slackened in relief when Calvin had the sensibility to stand, giving the figurehead his seat.

Close up, the sage smiled again. It was the same smile. The niceties somehow made the atmosphere worse, like the calm before the storm—or the gravel.

The sage must’ve seen the fear buried in her face. She paused, then leaned forward and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Your companions informed me of your pilgrimage to the Ocean Den,” she began. “You made it inside, I heard, but your proposal was interrupted.”

She nodded, not knowing what to say.

Her kind face seemed to sober. “Now, I know that you may be bewildered, but there are very urgent circumstances surrounding the water deity.” She turned over a hand to reveal a spherical blue stone. “I believe that this is yours?”

Alma stared down for a moment, unsure, then took it. The orb came to life, glowing a blue light. She looked up and the sage’s expression had taken a subtle change. “Something occurred in the Ocean Den when you happened to visit,” she said. “Is this correct?”

“The water deity…she was wounded,” Alma told her. “Bleeding out. She told me to leave, but then, a…monster attacked her. She sent this stone to me and told me to get help. Then I was forced out.”

“Monster,” the sage mused. She threaded her hands. “What did it look like? Can you remember?”

She glanced away. “It was larger than the deity. Giant. It had dozens, or…maybe hundreds of giant tendrils, and they were choking her. And there were red lights circling its body, like eyes—but the den was dark, so the rest was hard to see clearly. I’m sorry.”

Eris nodded, somber. “Thank you,” she said. Her eyes were light and blue, downcast at the sphere in Alma’s hand. A light still shone off of it. “Do you know what that is?” she asked.

She shook her head. “No.”

“Yet the water deity sent it to you,” she said. Not an accusation, but a statement.

She nodded.

There was a moment’s pause. Sage Eris leaned back. “A gem,” she said. “Or a pearl. One from each deity. They were presented to the prince and princess at their coming-of-age, and they allow anyone of the royal bloodline to wield all four magics.”

“A treasure,” Alma said, understanding.

Eris inclined her head. “A treasure closely guarded by the deities. One that only shines for royalty.” She looked at her, and Alma didn’t miss the meaning behind her eyes.

Her body tensed. If the sages were envoys of the people, the Crown was the envoy of the four dragons. The prince and princess had been selected, plucked up by divine wisdom from the streets.

And, like Alma, the gems shone for them.

Chosen.

“How do we interpret this?” she asked.

Sage Eris looked down at her hands for a moment, her face solemn, trying to decide. “The water deity asked you to send her help. She must have lent you her gem to contact the others—to get their attention.”

“To fight against the leviathan?”

Her brow wrinkled. “Right. I’ve already sent the other water sage to check out the Water Den. We’ll hear from him soon; right now, it’s our mission to let the other deities know. We’ll use the shrines in the city.”

Alma glanced across the room. They had two water mages, a fire mage and a wind mage. No ice. That would be a problem.

“There’s Yuli from that White Rabbit shop,” Calvin said.

Alma looked to him. “Of course. I’d forgotten.”

Eris stood. “We must hurry. Here’s how we’ll do it: Calvin, you and Reina should take the gemstone and pray at your shrines with it. The deities should respond. Alma and I will pick up her acquaintance and meet you two at the ice shrine.”

“R-right, okay.” He took the gemstone from Alma, and he and Reina and rushed out.

“Do you remember where the shop is?” Eris asked as she stood.

She nodded. “Let’s go.”

♦ ♦ ♦

The White Rabbit was a quaint little store that sat in crowded streets, carrying a mix between weapons and books. In Oceana, the capital of the East, business was good for tomes in particular.

Alma’s second dagger had come from the shop. Now that Calvin had mentioned it, she could recall the young girl, an ice mage with a bob of curly white hair, who had greeted them with a smile. Alone at thirteen. The Witch Purge—though in reality, a scrabble for anyone with white hair—had spared more children than parents. Just as they entered, Alma winced at the thought.

A welcome bell tinkled. There were others inside, browsing the bookshelves, but at the sight of Sage Eris, her face solemn, striding towards the store owner, they passed them with a bow and hurried out.

The rabbit on the counter straightened, but Yuli was unperturbed. She sent them a smile that flashed like sunshine. “Hi there. Are you looking for anything?”

“Hello,” Alma said. “Do you remember me?”

Yuli hummed and studied her face. “Yea!” She grinned. “What do you need?”

“We need to ask a favor of you. Is that alright?”

The girl nodded. “What is it?”

“We need to contact your deity,” Alma explained. “But we need an ice mage to enter the shrine. Can you do that for us?”

Yuli paused, looking at them with large, grey eyes. Her eagerness shriveled. “Contact Ull? Why?” she asked.

Eris spoke. “The water deity is currently battling a creature in the ocean. It’s very powerful, so she has requested help. Ice magic would be most effective against it, but we can’t enter the shrine by ourselves. We’ll need your help.”

“No.” Yuli shook her head.

This was bad. It would be difficult to find another ice mage in Oceana.

“We won’t ask you to do anything else,” Alma pleaded. “I lost my dagger, so I’ll also buy another one from your store afterwards. Is that okay?”

“No! Go away!” she said, upset.

Eris placed her hands on the counter. Yuli’s rabbit, sitting alert on its bed, scrambled into her arms. “I’m sorry to have to do this to a young child,” she said, “but this isn’t just about you. All of Pangaea could be in danger. I must demand that you contact the ice deity immediately or face treason against both the Council and the Crown.”

Yuli shrank down. Her cheeks reddened, tears welling in her eyes. She hugged her rabbit even tighter. “I’m sorry. I-I c-can’t-”

Any person’s heart would break at the sight. Alma went behind the counter and kneeled down to her. “It’s okay if you can’t. Can you tell us why? We won’t be mad.” The girl was genuinely adamant that she couldn’t do it. Had she somehow angered her own deity enough to sequester herself?

Yuli skirted around her and ran, moving faster than they expected. She escaped into the storeroom and slammed the door. Ice crackled over the handle.

If Eris was frustrated, she didn’t let it show. She went for the door, paused, then turned around. “Let’s go,” she said. “There’s an announcement station in the city centre that we can use to call for an ice mage.”

They wouldn’t pursue it further. “I apologize that this fell apart,” Alma said as they walked out. “She was much more open just a day ago.”

Eris didn’t look over as she rapidly led them through the streets. “You couldn’t have known. I’ll have to remember to send over an investigation. A child like that probably—” She cut herself off, realizing what she was saying. It was nearly taboo to insinuate that ice mages were prone to witchcraft, true or not. The burnings had stopped years ago, and yet intolerance still flashed through at times. Here, it was a regrettable slip of the tongue, the phrasing like that.

Eris closed her eyes for a moment. “Please excuse me,” she said. “For a sage of all people to say something so narrow-minded…”

Alma had only heard the stigma being passed around so many times within the nobility. She shook her head. “It is unfortunate, but the whole kingdom was abject to the idea. It’s been hard to tear down.” Her own family hadn’t taken a role. Watching the burnings, however, was almost a social event. So many would gather; some fire mages would even take turns incinerating. There had been a permanent rift created between ice mages and the rest of society. Afterwards, most of them had retreated to the North.

She moved their minds off the topic. “Oceana has been heavily guarded at the gates—I remember waiting for hours in line to enter and exit the city. Could it have anything to do with this incident?” she asked.

Eris’s lips pulled into a slight grimace. “That’s another issue. The information has only travelled as far as the Council of Sages. Letting it out any further would onset mass panic.”

So the sage couldn’t say. Alma looked away in understanding but Eris continued, her voice quiet.

“Yet the attack by the giant creature is too coincidental in timing. I trust that you would keep this secret from outside of your party?”

“Of course,” she responded.

Eris nodded, but didn’t speak, perhaps unsure where to start. “It was just this moon. The princess was in her villa here, in Oceana, when she was attacked. Nearly all of her night guard on patrol were killed.”

At the word killed, Alma nearly stumbled. Her mouth moved for a moment. “Impossible,” she said.

“I know it’s hard to believe.” Eris put a hand over her mouth. As one of the resident sages, she must have felt particularly responsible. “We don’t know who, or what, or how many. There were the remains of a fight in her room, but we found her unconscious. She wouldn’t wake up. Not even the water deity could heal her—there was nothing to heal.”

Her eyes turned to the ground. “And the prince?”

“The prince is fine. He’s at the castle. We investigated for motives, but found nothing of note. However, it could have been an attack out of spite.” She closed her eyes briefly.

“Oh,” Alma answered. Her response felt numb. Wordlessly, they both knew why the border checks were being combed; a criminal was on the loose. Even as she looked up, they passed a group of guards in gleaming silver armor, their eyes searching the streets.

“Perhaps we’ll get some answers after the creature is defeated,” the sage said, though her face didn’t reflect her words. She looked at Alma for a moment, her worry almost like sadness, then turned away.

They arrived at city centre. The building was hard to miss; it was the tallest structure in Oceana, dwarfed only by the giant telescope dome attached to the side. Marble steps, spanning the giant entrance, led up to colossal, circling columns.

Alma followed her up, weaving around multitudes of other civilians. She turned her head to scan the flow of people, marveling at their variety, the myriad of colours and clothing, the blend of taste from locals and travellers. The long lineups and the meticulous gate security hadn’t stifled Oceana as an economic hub.

As they climbed, it seemed to happen in slow motion. Eris turned in front of her, looking the other way, missing what Alma saw.

They nearly passed each other before she reacted. She spun. “Wait.”

The ice mage didn’t stop.

“Please wait,” she said again, racing down the steps.

He halted and looked at her.

“I’m sorry. You’re an ice mage, right?” she asked.

It was an obvious question, but she had been frazzled. He wore a white coat, two columns of silver buttons looped together on the front, and his eyes were grey like Yuli’s. He could’ve passed as her older sibling.

She sketched a bow. Behind her, the sage had taken notice. “Alma Shuling,” she introduced. “I’m with Sage Eris, and we need your help.”

♦ ♦ ♦

At the far end of the city, near the back gates, a white arch marked the entrance to the last ice shrine in Oceana. As appointed, Calvin and Reina had stood there and waited.

“We owe you an explanation,” Alma said to him. “It’s urgent for a just cause, but I’m not sure how much I can say.” She glanced to Eris.

“The other deities have been called. We simply need to contact the ice deity as well,” Eris continued for her. “It’s nothing to worry over.” A white lie. Alma wondered if this was the only time a sage had been forced to so blatantly lie to a citizen.

The ice mage, Mir, stared at the sage for a moment, as if voicing his doubt. “I see,” he said.

“Thank you for coming!” Reina was wide-eyed, and she looked as frazzled as Alma had felt when she had woken up. She cupped the blue gem with both hands and handed it to him. “Please hold this when you visit the shrine.”

He took it as if it was volatile. “What is this?” The question was aimed at Eris.

“A magic stone.” It was vague answer. She exhaled a deep breath. “I understand your caution, but we can’t spare any more time.”

“You think that I would just let anything into the shrines?” he asked. It sounded like a warning.

Calvin’s back straightened. He was about to retort, but Eris held up a hand. “No. It is uncultured to ask this of you, but I am also asking as a representative of the Council. We promise that it’s only to draw the attention of the ice deity. Nothing more.”

He paused, seeming to accept this. “What should I say?”

“Just that the other deities are gathered over the water’s eastern domain.”

Mir nodded and headed past the gate. Among them, there was the collective ease of relief.

Calvin turned to her. “What happened with Yuli?”

Alma started. That was a good question—the girl had given them no explanation before shutting herself in. “She refused quite adamantly. We had no choice but to leave, and ended up meeting Mir instead.”

“We’ve done what we’ve had to do in the end,” Eris said. She gazed up at the sky. Sunlight filtered through a nearby tree and shone on them in a dark and bright dappling pattern. There was no sign of the chaos ever happening at the Ocean Den. While the gods fought, their people carried on with peaceful lives.

Peace through ignorance. If only the gods had to take action, only the thought would bother the people. Obliviousness must have been the best option.

Eris turned. “How are you two faring? I’m sorry this has made for so much trouble.”

Reina’s gold eyes had been downcast in thought, but she quickly brightened herself up. “I’m okay, thank you. I just—I was just thinking—” Hesitant to speak, she looked down. “Alma, will your dad be okay?”

“He’ll wait for me,” she replied. The response was automatic and hollow. She fought to keep desperation from twisting her face. This is just one setback. So please, please hold on. I can still make it. Alma bit her lip. There was a gentle touch to her shoulder, and she turned to face Eris.

“I’m sorry,” the sage said. After listening to just two lines of exchange, she had also grasped the situation. “This came onto all of us too quickly. I won’t claim to understand, but after this is over, please ask if you or your friends need anything. I’ll help to the best of my ability.”

“Thank you,” Alma responded.

The rest of the wait was in silence. Finally, eventually, Mir walked out.

“You’re back,” Eris commented. “The ice deity has received our message, then?”

“Possibly,” he said.

Eris’s eyebrows twitched up. “Pardon me? You’re not sure?”

“No.”

Calvin spoke up, eyes narrowed. “You did use the gem, right? It can’t be in your pocket or covered by your hands or anything like that.”

“I did use it properly.” He showed Calvin the blue orb he was still holding, then gave it back to Reina.

“This means that…” Eris put a hand to her chin and trailed off.

Oh, no. Alma looked between them. Don’t let it be true.

Mir said it for her. “There was no response.”

Next: A Forest of Silence

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