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20 – In Which Marion Meets the Phantom Two




20 – In Which Marion Meets the Phantom Two


Marion yawned, lay her head on the table, using Khalid’s floppy hat as a pillow. The green feather tickled her nose. She had not done so much eating, and drinking, and mingling in her entire life. Though the sky outside was still dark, she knew dawn was approaching. She felt it’s nearness like a distant melody, a warm touch just waiting to caress the Isle of Argos.

The party was still in full swing, and she imagined people would be celebrating All Hallow’s Eve until the ballroom was flooded with light. Though, there was a different energy now. The dances had become more sensual, bodies pressed together. Pairs disappeared off to their dorm rooms.

I wonder who started that, Marion thought bitterly.

She closed her eyes, tried to think through the haze in her tired, sugar-infused mind. She’d gone outside with Khalid and seen exactly what Valentine Sun was capable in a fit.

I hate him! he had roared about her brother. And then hour later, he’d climbed up his body like Timothée’s mouth was the only remaining water left on Thraina. It was disgusting.

And it was terrifying.

So much emotion, whether of lust or hatred, only could end in disaster.

Maybe she should have done something to stop it. But Timothée had been through so much—how could she embarrass him in front of the whole school?

He was quite capable of doing that himself.

She sighed. He was going to get his heart broken by that strange Dark Star boy unless she did something. But she was always having to do things. Always having to meddle. And it had been such a wonderful party. Maybe for tonight, it would be fine if she didn’t do anything at all—

“You’re drooling on my hat.”

Marion shot up from the table, blinking. Khalid sat beside her, a huge grin on his face. “So, you sleep with your mouth open, eh? Good to know. One time when we were children, Darius and I—well, mostly I, but he was there—snuck into Carmilla’s room and placed a big fat spider in her mouth—”

“I wasn’t drooling!” Marion shouted, wiping at her chin. “I wasn’t even asleep. My eyes were resting.”

Khalid touched her chin, winked. “Don’t worry. A little drool doesn’t bother me.”

“You’re impossible.”

“Come on. Let’s get you to bed.”

Marion let him drag her up with two hands. It had been a nice party, despite all that strangeness with Val. The ballroom had encapsulated all her favourite aspects of autumn: the warm smells, the bursting yellows and oranges, the bountiful harvests. The only thing she didn’t like was that damned dancefloor.

Why does it have to be glass? Another reminder they were hovering above the clouds and stars. That any moment, the whole isle could collapse back down to the earth. That her feet were never truly on the ground.

“I can’t believe we’ve been here all night and you wouldn’t let me have a single dance.” Khalid wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “And I thought we were friends.”

“I told you, I don’t dance.” Especially on that dancefloor.

“Do you want to say goodbye to Vivian?”

Marion found her sister among the many lovestruck couples swaying to the hauntingly beautiful music. Darius held her tight in his arms. How slight and pale Vivian looked against Darius’s huge shape.

Now, that was a problem far worse than whatever lust-filled tryst Timothée and Val might engage in. The closer they grew, the more likely he was to find out about her illness. But again, Marion found herself making excuses. No sense doing anything about it on All Hallow’s Eve. Let her have this one night to dance. To be the Sapphire Ranger, not a sick girl.

“No, I don’t think she’ll even notice if I’m gone.” Marion smiled.

“Anyone else to say goodbye to, then?”

Marion looked around the ballroom. Timothée had pulled off his little stunt and long retired to his room. Carmilla was surrounded by her Dark Star worshippers—not that Marion wanted to say goodbye to her. Val had left, too.

Marion looked up at Khalid. His face was soft and tired, bright green eyes half covered by long lashes. “I only want to talk to you.”

His hand ran along her crafted ears. “Then let’s go home.”

Home. The Morning Star dormitory. Yes, that sounded nice. With Khalid’s arm around her, Marion thought that tonight had not been so deeply unpleasant. Things may have been odd. But maybe odd could be a good thing, indeed.

They walked past the huge windows, heading up the stairs and out of the ballroom. A glint caught Marion’s eye outside: something metal shining in the moonlight.

No. Lots of metal things.

She pressed her face to the glass. “What’s out there?”

The ballroom was constructed at the very back corner of the Academy, so it sat on the edge of the Isle of Argos. The Meadow of Shattered Stars lay in sight beyond the window. And glinting lights filled the field, flashes of steel in the dipping moonlight.

People heading up the field toward the ballroom.

“Swords,” Marion breathed. “And shields. Are they Celestial Knights?”

Khalid came up beside her. “No. They’re not in formation. What’s that in the distance?”

Marion peered past her own reflection. Three massive ships sat in the meadow. They looked like the wooden pirate ships out of a textbook, but they weren’t on the sea. And instead of sails, they had white balloons emblazoned with a single image: a blue handprint framed by feathered wings.

More Starlings gathered around them and stared out the window.

“Is this part of the party?” Marion whispered.

Khalid’s mouth twerked and then he snatched Marion’s hand. “I don’t think so.” He looked behind him. “Professors!”

Setviren was already charging over, having seen all the students gathered. “Whatever is the problem?”

“Did you invite them?” Khalid grabbed the loremaster’s arm and pulled him forward.

Setviren narrowed his eyes, stared into the dark. His face went entirely blank.

And then he screamed.

“THE ACADEMY IS UNDER ATTACK!”

Chaos erupted. Students began screaming, running to the window, running away from it. Marion’s heart surged in her chest. “Under attack? The Academy can’t get attacked! It’s the bloody Academy!”

Suddenly, a bang exploded in the room. Professor Barracus stood on top of the grand piano, holding a bubbling vial. Everyone quieted and turned to stare at him.

“House leaders,” he said, deep voice reverberating throughout the entire ballroom, “lead your houses back to your dormitories. Bar the doors and do not leave for any reason. The professors and Celestial Knights will handle this matter.

“Erik isn’t here!” one of the Dark Star students screeched. “He’s disappeared!”

“I’ll lead you.” Carmilla stepped forward, her face a grim mask. “Follow me.”

Professor Barracus nodded. “Out the main doors. Straight to your dormitories. Now!”

A semblance of order formed as the house leaders for the Morning Stars, Evening Stars, and Carmilla began to lead their cohorts out of the ballroom.

Marion pushed herself into the Evening Star group, Khalid at her heels. “Where’s Vivian? Where’s Vivian?”

“Mare!” Vivian and Darius surged forward.

Marion grabbed her sister into a hug.

“What’s happening?” Vivian breathed.

At that moment, the glass windows erupted. Dark shapes flung themselves into the ballroom: rough-clad marauders. Some wielded swords, or hatchets, or knives. Some held nothing at all. But each had a painted marking on their chests: a blue handprint with wings.

The air filled with screams, and Starlings began to push and shove.

“Get the students out of here now!” Professor Barracus yelled at the house leaders. And then he ran forward, pulling from his jacket a spherical glass ball. He threw it at the marauders, and it exploded, sending several flying back against the wall.

Professor Inga ran into the fray. Great gusts of wind soared from her hands, pushing the enemies back toward the shattered glass.

And suddenly, Setviren was behind Marion, face dripped in sweat, face as green as his hair. “Don’t worry, Star Children! We will see you to safety.”

Marion’s heart thrummed in her chest. A moment ago, she had been asleep on a table. Now her body was in the tight mob of students, desperately trying to escape the ballroom.

“Who are these people?” Vivian cried. “Is it the Dark Prophet?”

“I don’t think so,” Darius growled. “He commands an army of vampires. These are humans.”

“Some of them are Starlings,” Khalid said, clutching Marion’s hand tight so they did not get separated in the crowd. “Look!”

He was right; though many wielded basic weapons, some of the marauders matched the professors’ moves. Wind raged against wind. Fireballs whipped through the air. And more and more marauders poured through the broken windows.

“We have to make sure Timothée’s okay,” Marion breathed.

“He went back to his dormitory,” Darius said. “He’s safer than any of us right now.”

Marion nodded. At least Timothée wasn’t here—

“VIVIAN! MARION!”

“Oh no.”

Pushing through the crowd was Timothée.

“What are you doing here?” Marion cried, shoving students away to get to her brother. She clutched at his thin shirt and pulled him back toward Vivian, Khalid, and Darius. “Where are your shoes?”

He was out of breath and pale. Gasping, he shoved a piece of paper in her hand. “T-They’re here. For us.”

Setviren snatched the paper from Marion, opened it. A rough drawing of the three Greywick triplets. His throat bobbed as he swallowed.

Cold fear shot through Marion’s veins. An entire attack on the Celestial Academy for Fallen Star in order to hunt the Greywicks? She wanted to throw up. She wanted to go punch her past self for ever stepping foot on the Isle of Argos.

“I won’t let anything happen to you.” Darius’s voice was full of dark promise as he grabbed Vivian’s face in his hands.

Khalid shrugged at Marion. “If it’s between my skin or yours, who’s to say what’ll happen?”

Ahead, nearly all the students had evacuated out of the ballroom, but the hallways were still filled with the mob of escaping students. Setviren looked around. “The five of you…come with me.” Then he darted across the ballroom.

The Greywicks looked to each other, then to Darius and Khalid, and ran after the loremaster. He led them away from the main entrance to Lady Kassandra’s golden chair. Marion fought back tears of fright as she ran. They were so close to the professors battling with the invaders. They had formed a line to hold back the marauders, and they were led by Professor Barracus.

He moved like a lightning flash, grabbing the alcohol off the drink station, and mixing it with a powder from within his coat. Bomb after bomb he flung at the enemies, their bodies flying like ragdolls. He doesn’t even have starcraft, Marion thought.

Setviren pushed aside the curtain behind the Archpriestess’s chair, revealing nothing but a wall. “Hurry, children.”

“You want us to run into a wall?” Khalid asked.

Setviren pursed his lips and stuck his arm into the wall. It disappeared. “An enchantment, Mr. Ali Bagheeri. Now go!

Marion cast one last look behind her, at the battle raging where there had been dancing. But then she stepped through the wall and the dark consumed her.

A dim, narrow hallway lit only by blue-flamed torches lay before them. “This way, this way.” Setviren pushed ahead. “I’ll take you to the Archpriestess’s office. You’ll be safe there.”

They ran and ran until Marion’s sides splintered and she swore her lungs would give out. She really shouldn’t have had two pieces of pie. And pumpkin loaf. And a cranberry tart. And there was the plate of smashed potatoes with gravy—

“Here, here.” Setviren stuck his head through what appeared to just be a stone wall. “Hallways are empty. Out we go.”

The five students and the loremaster leapt through the wall and emerged out into one of the Academy’s hallways, with the sapphire carpet and mahogany wood walls.

“Almost there,” Setviren said. “Just a little further. Then you’ll be safe.”

They darted down the too quiet hallway. What a sight they must appear: Setviren in his fluttering white robes, Khalid dressed as a pirate, Timothée with his bare feet, and Darius looking not himself one bit with his hair crafted brown and his ears elongated to points. At least Vivian looked a fighter, in her hunter’s garb. And Marion must look the most ridiculous of all, with her scandalous leaf dress and her stupid copper hair and her stupid green eyes and her stupid big ears. This is what you get for trying to have fun, Marion thought bitterly. Running for your life with your bosom bouncing all about!

A bright light surged out one of the windows. Marion slowed, stared.

Lady Kassandra crossed the Meadow of Shattered Stars toward the marauder’s airships. A host of Celestial Knights surrounded her, their previous path littered with dead bodies of the raiders. The Archpriestess’s white dress shone in the moonlight like a star itself. She rose her arms in the air.

And fire.

So, so much fire.

Marion couldn’t even be sure where it was all coming from, but she knew it sprung from Lady Kassandra. The air ships burst into red flames. Blazing bodies ran from the ships, smacking at their clothes. But there was nothing they could do.

The Archpriestess was the very sun itself.

Marion’s breath caught and she touched the window. To burn so hot no one could ever get close to you…

“What are you doing?” Khalid snapped. “Come on!” He snatched her wrist and yanked her toward the rest of the party.

The hallway led to a T-shaped junction. “We’ll take the path to the left,” Setviren called. “I think we’re in the clear—”

Marauders. Five of them skulking far down the hallway to the right.

Marion’s first thought was how normal they looked; nowhere near as disciplined in their movements as the Celestial Knights. And not even as organized as the Dark Prophet’s vampire followers had been that night in Wolfhelm. These bandits wore a mess of rough spun and pieced together armour.

“That’s them,” a gravelly voice said, spotting them. “Them’s the ones we been sent for!”

With a growl, Darius reached into the pocket of his costume, pulled out a cube of stellarite. The bristle of Evening Star magic surged through the air as the cube morphed, lengthened, shifted into a glistening sword.

“Do you keep that thing with you at all times?” Timothée said, impressed.

“Loremaster, they’re after the Greywicks. See them to safety. Khalid and I will handle these ruffians.” Darius’s handsome face had shifted into something menacing. There was a glimmer in his eye unlike anything Marion had ever seen. It made her feel afraid.

“But Your Highness!” Setviren gasped. “I cannot let you put yourself in danger!”

“You don’t have a choice. This is a royal command.” The Prince turned to Vivian, dragged his hands through her hair. “I swear this to you now: anyone who wishes you harm will die on the edge of my blade.”

“Darius, be careful,” Vivian whispered.

“There is no chance of me being vanquished while a single enemy of yours remains.” His voice was rough. “I am Darius Störmberg, ruler of Andúrigard and all of Thraina. I will protect you and the Celestial Academy with a wolf’s fury!”

And then he pulled Vivian in for a kiss by the back of her neck, his other hand still clutched to his blade. She raised upon her tiptoes to deepen the kiss.

Khalid turned to Marion, shrugged. “How about it, Marion? I’m Khalid Ali Bagheeri, ruler of nothing. I’ll avenge you—”

She patted his shoulder as she walked past to stand beside Setviren. “Maybe let Darius do the fighting.”

“Then let us go, children,” Setviren urged and began running down the left path. The triplets followed. Marion looked behind her to see the marauders surging toward Darius and Khalid.

Darius stared at Vivian. “I’ll find you.” He kissed a blue ribbon tied around his wrist. And then he turned and ran his blade straight through a bandit.

Vivian screamed his name, but Marion tugged her forward. “Trust them.”

But it didn’t stop her from turning back one more time to watch Darius’s blade flash, and Khalid’s palms explode with flame.

Then they turned a corner, and the boys were gone.

“We’re here!” Setviren cried. They stopped before two mahogany double doors with no handles.

Marion was instantly transported back to the memory of their first night at the Academy: the moving room that had taken them up to Lady Kassandra’s office. “Do we have to take this thing?”

“Would you rather take the stairs?” Setviren snapped. He opened the doors with a whish of his hand. They filed into the small room.

As soon as the doors shut, Setviren breathed a deep sigh. His hands trembled as he moved the room upward. Marion could barely even register the sensation; her heart was beating too fast, her breath too ragged.

She looked at her siblings. Vivian’s eyes were rimmed red, staring at nothing, and she rubbed her neck. Timothée dragged his hands through his hair, still too long, too dark, to suit him.

“Once we’re up, we’ll be perfectly safe,” Setviren said. “No one knows how to get here besides me and the headmistress. Everything will be fine.”

The room shuddered to a stop.

“Ah,” Setviren breathed. “Safety at last.”

He opened the door to Lady Kassandra’s office.

And leaning on her desk, looking perfectly at home, were two vampires.

Marion wasn’t sure how she knew they were vampires. At first look, they were two dark-clad figures. One was massive, broad body in worn black pants and a dirty black robe. His heavy boots were scuffed and covered in dried mud. The other was shorter, slimmer, neater, but held his body in the same arrogant stance. They wore deep hoods pulled up that shaded their faces to obscurity. And both had the painted emblem of the winged handprint on their chests.

But then they turned to face the Greywicks. And their wide, matching smiles flashed with moonlit fangs.

Marion stepped behind Setviren.

“Well, well, looks like the boss was right,” the tall one said. His voice was deep and husky. “The Greywicks have come straight to us.”

“You’re so right, brother,” the smaller one said. “We didn’t even have to get our hands dirty.”

The big one laughed and picked up an amber paperweight from the Archpriestess’s desk. Examined it in the moonlight. “Isn’t that a shame? I love getting my hands dirty.”

“Don’t touch that!” Setviren snapped. “You are trespassers in the Lady Kassandra’s office. By will of the Archpriestess and headmistress, I must ask you to depart!”

The big one dropped the paperweight to the ground. The heavy thunk reverberated in the office, and then it rolled toward the Greywicks. “Aw, did you hear that, Allistar? He’s asking us so nicely.”

Marion tugged on Setviren’s robes, whispered, “Get us out of here!”

But Vivian stepped forward. Her eyes were completely dilated, mouth a perfect O. Her hand rubbed and rubbed the side of her neck. She was staring at the lean vampire, the one called Allistar.

“Vivian, stop!” Timothée grabbed for her wrist, but she held it out of his grasp.

She walked, straight-backed and rigid, out of the moving room and into the office. Marion and Timothée rushed out after her, grabbed each arm. Again, Marion had the feeling she had entered a giant orb, the entire office a sphere of glass. The moon and stars seemed too close, she felt trapped. And this time, she was trapped with two predators.

“Don’t get close to them!” Marion cried. The vampires held themselves with perfect stillness, save the wicked glint off their fangs.

Vivian said nothing, kept staring.

And then Vivian screamed. She collapsed, hands clasped around her neck.

“Vivian!” Marion fell to her knees, tried to grab her sister, but there was nothing she could do. There was no wound on her neck. Marion looked at the vampires. “What did you do to her?”

The smaller one stepped forward, movements lithe and silvery. “I did nothing.” His voice sounded…confused.

“Make it stop!” Timothée screamed. “Make it stop!” He snatched the amber paperweight off the floor and chucked it as hard as he could at Allistar. It smashed against the vampire’s skull.

Silence echoed.

Allistar brought a delicate hand to his head. “Ow. That hurt.”

And then the bigger vampire laughed. He laughed and laughed, an almost merry sound, doubling over. “This one’s got guts!” Then he stopped laughing, and in a single movement, stood right before the Greywicks. “It’s a shame we have to kill him.”

Marion stared up at him. He was so tall, taller than any man she’d ever seen before. He could crack her neck with one twist.

“Are you playing with your food, Balthazar?” In a flash, Allistar was beside him. “Don’t leave me out.”

Looking up at them as they stood together, Marion’s heart sunk. Their faces were still shadowed by their hoods, but she saw that each had only one eye: Balthazar the right, and Allistar the left. In the dark, they looked like a single entity, each one eye of a hideous monster.

Then the ground beneath the vampires began to roil, the floor panels shifting, carrying the brothers backwards. Setviren stepped behind the triplets, arms extended. “Get back, foul creatures!” He looked down at Marion. “Hurry in the transport. I’ll get you out of here.”

Marion grabbed Vivian beneath her shoulders. Timothée grabbed her feet. They sprinted for the transport.

The doors slammed shut.

The brothers had regained their balance. Balthazar had his arm outstretched. “Leaving already?” He turned to Setviren. “I don’t think even your magic will be able to pry those doors open, loremaster.”

Allistar picked up the amber paperweight that had hit his head. It changed colour, shifting to an iron grey.

Evening Stars, Marion thought.

“You don’t need to be involved in this, old man,” Allistar said, bouncing the iron ball in his hand. “The boss doesn’t want you dead. But accidents happen.” With frightening force, he whirled the iron at Setviren.

Marion closed her eyes, expecting to see a bloody pulp for a head. But when there was no squelching sound, she opened to see Setviren’s hand extend, a bundle of feathers floating in the air where the iron paperweight had been.

The loremaster’s white robes fluttered like a gull’s wings. He placed one hand behind him and walked before the brothers, an instructor evaluating his pupils. “Who is this master you answer to?”

Allistar stepped over to the pearl statue of the phoenix, ran a finger along the outstretched feathers. “Ha! We have no master. Our boss is whoever has the most gold.”

Setviren rose a green eyebrow. “That emblem on your chest says otherwise.”

“What can we say?” Balthazar’s rumbling voice kept that edge of laughter. “The Exalted One has a lot of gold.”

The Exalted One? Marion shook her head. She’d never heard such a name before. “Help me get her to the transport,” Marion whispered to her brother.

Timothée picked Vivian’s legs up again. “They locked it with starcraft!”

“Evening Star craft. But maybe Vivian can unlock it.”

Timothée looked down at his shrieking sister, clawing at her neck like she would tear the skin off. “I don’t think—”

“We have to try!” Marion’s eyes filled with tears. They wouldn’t die like this, trapped like animals. Setviren would protect them.

But if he couldn’t…they needed a way to escape.

Setviren stopped pacing. He drew a foot before him, then held a firm stance, like a dancer. One hand behind his back, the other extended out. “I have told you before. You are trespassers at the Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars. Begone or be removed by force.”

The brothers looked at each other, single yellow eyes glinting. They laughed.

“Alright,” Balthazar said, pushing up his sleeves and revealing tanned, thickly muscled forearms. “I’m always ready for a brawl.”

And then the room sparked with magic.

Setviren moved like a great bird, his arms both delicate and purposeful. The floor shifted beneath Balthazar, liquifying. Balthazar gave a yelp as he sunk into the floor, as if he’d stepped into quicksand. Allistar leapt, doing a front flip over the Archpriestess’s desk. His hand grazed across a map laid across her desk. The paper sprung to life and flung itself across the room, wrapping around Setviren’s face.

At the same time, Balthazar pried himself from the quicksand, and growled. He held up his fists; his very skin turned hard and golden, changing his own flesh to gauntlets.

“Watch out!” Marion screamed as the vampire charged toward Setviren like a bull unleashed.

Setviren whirled, each movement graceful and deliberate. Balthazar charged past him, smashing into a suit of decorative Celestial Knight armour. The pieces clattered to the floor with a crash. Setviren snatched the animated map from his face; it crumbled into dust. “That was an original,” the loremaster snapped.

“Vivian.” Marion tried to hold her sister’s spasming body down. “You need to open the doors to the transport. Do you hear me? We have to escape!”

But Vivian’s eyes were rolled to white. And as she screamed, Marion saw the flash of fangs in her sister’s mouth. She sprung back, away from her. Her heart raced in her chest, and she could only wonder how loud it sounded to her sister.

Setviren traced his foot across the floor again. Now he held both hands extended. “In the name of the Archpriestess of the Celestial Church, I will bring you to justice!”

And the great pearl statue of the phoenix flapped its wings.

Giving a screech, the statue leapt from its perch of flames and soared toward Allistar. It smashed into him; his lean body went sailing across the room, crashing against the glass walls. A crack splintered where he hit.

The statue folded its massive wings and divebombed Allistar. He cried out, blood splashing across the glass.

Vivian screamed, and tore at her throat, leaving deep red lines. Marion snatched her hands, but Vivian was too strong. No, no, Vivian wasn’t strong. She hadn’t been capable of lifting a box in the last three years.

“Brother!” Balthazar roared. He held his golden gauntlets aloft and charged at the statue. With a massive blow, he sent the pearl statue smashing out the window and out into the night.

Allistar stood with the help of his brother, brought a hand into the dark shade of his hood, pulled it back bloody. Long dark hair fell across this face. “I think I’ve had enough playing.”

“This was fun,” Balthazar said, “but it’s time to get our job done.”

Setviren stood, his stance as strong as ever, but sweat dripped from his brow. “I will protect the Greywicks with my life.”

“Don’t need you dead.” Allistar rose his arms. His fingers were long and elegant as a pianist’s. “We just need you out of the way.”

Balthazar gave a chuckle and stood in a broad stance, hands extended out like his brother. “Nighty-night, Professor.”

A clattering sound rang out from behind Setviren. He whirled, looking for the source. The white Celestial Knight armour that had fallen in the battle. It was moving.

First, the greaves shot through the air and landed on Setviren’s shins. Then the cuisse flew and attached to his thighs.

“Enough!” Setviren cried, but the breastplate and tasses slammed into him. Then the white gauntlet pulled themselves on his arms and flung them tight across his chest. “No!” Setviren cried. “No! No! Greywicks, run—” But the helmet surged on last of all, and his voice became less than a muffled cry. The whole suit fell to the ground, stiff and unmoving.

Nauseating spurts of adrenaline ran through Marion’s body. “He’ll escape. He can get out of that.”

Allistar kicked the suit of armour. It rolled across the office until it slammed into the glass walls. “Maybe if just one of us crafted it. But we both did. Even your precious loremaster can’t undo that enchantment.” His fangs flashed. “Finally, we’re alone.”

Marion blinked. Stared down at Vivian, now curled in a ball sobbing and clutching her neck. Timothée held his body over hers, shaking.

I have to protect them, Marion thought. It is me who must do this thing. I am alone.

She stood, leg trembling, mouth dry. “What do you want?”

The brothers circled before her, predators batting around their prey. Then in a movement so quick, Balthazar was in front of her. She swallowed, completely engulfed by his size. He was nearing 7’ feet tall, shoulders broad in a black coat. She had always felt like she took up too much space, but beside him, she was positively doll-like.

“We want you, Marion.” He placed a finger under her chin, delicately made her look at him. She wished she could see his face beyond the shadows of her hood, know her murderer. “Well, the Exalted One wants you.”

“And your sister.” Allistar appeared beside him, one yellow eye flashing down at Vivian. “But the boy…he has to go.”

“Touch him and die!” Marion screamed.

Timothée whimpered at their feet. “Just let my sisters live. Please. Let them live.”

Balthazar ran a surprisingly tender thumb along Marion’s cheek, wiping away the single tear. “That I can promise.”

She had magic within her. The same magic that Lady Kassandra had. Lady Kassandra who had brought the force of the sun upon those ships. She could that too, burn this whole tower to the ground if she had to.

“I will see you laid raw before me,” she growled. “Charred and broken, a husk of who you think you are. You will beg for mercy and receive none. You will rue the day you threatened Marion Greywick.”

Heat burned in her palms. Yes, yes, she’d create a fire that rivalled the sun, and leave ash in her wake. With a roar, she whipped her arms up to Balthazar—

He caught her wrists. Tiny flames flickered on her fingers. “Very intimidating, my little phoenix,” he laughed. And then he covered her hands in his huge ones, the way one would put out a candle.

Tears streamed down her face. No, no. That was all she had. Their only chance—

“Do it,” Balthazar said.

Allistar leaned down and pulled Timothée up by his choker.

“Ahh.” He shook his head. “It’s uncanny, Balty. I don’t like his face.”

“Get it done,” Balthazar said.

“I know,” Allistar said. Timothee’s feet dangled in the air. “But I just feel like any moment he’s going to snap his fingers and obliterate me into dust. Do you remember when he—”

“Brother, you must not fear,” Balthazar said. “See how the child cages his magic? He cannot harm you.”

And then Vivian was sobbing, and Marion was screaming, and Timothée cried, “Please! Please! Don’t kill me!”

“The Exalted One says it must be done,” Allistar growled. He brought Timothée into the darkness of his hood, fangs bared at his neck. “Noctis cannot reign again.”

And then from the shadows behind them, a dark voice purred, “Oh, I have other ideas.”

As if emerging from a portal of darkness, out stepped night embodied. A cape of writhing shadows, armour of pure gravastarium, a sharp angled obsidian mask.

The Dark Prophet.

“Hello, Greywicks,” he said. “It seems you’re in need of saving.”


***


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