Thackeray and Maeve wandered around aimlessly. They could’ve sworn they’d seen that same multicolored bush made of bird’s tears for the third time now.
Thackeray looked down at the chronologically protected watch. As expected, it was moving at the same time as Maeve’s was, meaning some semblance of Magick still worked in this world. He bit his lip, knowing that one day had already passed, despite them only wandering around for what he thought was a few hours or so.
“Damn that Dean,” said Maeve. “He never told us where to go!”
Thackeray lipped his lips. He gestured for the two of them to take a rest on the same space framed by roots of a large tree. Sighing in effort, Maeve leaned against the steel bark, and it clanged hollowly when she banged her head lightly against it.
Thackeray sighed. He reached into the gym bag and brought out a bottle of water, which was already half-empty. He threw it to Maeve. “Maybe… maybe he didn’t know? Come on, we are the Huntsmen here after all. Weren’t we trained to use our surroundings to seek out our enemies?”
“Yes, but there are special Huntsmen for jobs like these,” said Maeve, sighing. “They’re called High-Ranking ones. This was a suicide mission, wasn’t it?”
Thackeray’s face went through a vortex of emotions. He didn’t know if he wanted to furrow his eyebrows or shake his head in denial. “M-maybe once we do find the Warlock, he might be able to bring us back?”
Maeve sighed. “Probably. He’s been here before, hasn’t he?”
Thackeray shrugged. “I’ve only heard rumors. He was our senior, remember? He was already in his Master’s Year while we were still in our Initiate’s year.”
The black-haired woman nodded. “Right. He never even finished that Master’s Year. That was the year when he got expelled, right?”
“For reasons unknown too…”
There was the large groaning of the wind. The groaning turned into whispers, and then into giggles, and then into seductions of hypnosis
Succumb to night…
“Shit.” Maeve rose. “Come on, Thackeray, we have to move.”
Thackeray nodded and slung on the gym bag. “I got that.”
And that was when they heard the basso, bellowing horns.
Chrysanthemum’s eyes were wide, and she looked at the floor with a glazed-over gaze. Kasu furrowed her eyebrows in confusion.
The mauve-haired girl turned to the belgar. “Why? What did you do to him?”
The belgar turned for the first time to Kasu, noticing her. He looked at her from head to toe, before shaking her head. “Don’t interfere, human. I’ve got a contract to bring down that Siddivata. Her being here in the Mund will only cause trouble for everyone.”
“Wh-why?” asked Chrysanthemum. Her little fae hands balled into fists. “Wh-why did you do that?”
“He was in the way,” said the belgar. Still looking at Kasu, she continued, “And if you don’t get out of the way soon, you’ll suffer the same fate.”
Kasu grimaced, but held a determined stance. She saw the blood dripping from her underarm, drenching her lune-iron suit in blood.
Holy shit, lune-iron?!
“Now,” said the belgar, stepping forward. “I’m going to take the Siddivata, without hurting her, and you won’t get in the way. Is that a fine deal?”
“That isn’t even a deal.” Kasu inhaled. She blinked once, and with a thought, activated her desknode. It whirred to life, the holographic monitor popping up, showering the darkened room with a blue-gray haze. Rexza kept her eyes off of it.
Chrysanthemum still didn’t move, her eyes plastered to the wooden floor.
Kasu stepped forward in front of Chrysanthemum.
The belgar sighed. “For the love of Adon, woman. I’d prefer to keep my casualties to a minimum.”
“Wh-why…?” Chrysanthemum’s voice shook.
“I would too,” said Kasu. Her eyes were glimmering with the same, digital blue haze. From her perspective, holographic screens popped up around her periphery, and she was scanning the Database of Throne’s population to see who the belgar was.
She was unidentified. Kasu cursed inwardly.
“Then get out of the way, please,” said the belgar, and she took another step.
“Who sent you?” Shot in the dark, Kasu knew, but at least it would buy her enough time.
“The Dean,” the belgar said, waving a dismissive hand. “That’s all you have to know.”
Kasu’s eyes widened. Hakumatheia…?
In one of the holographic screens in her periphery only visible to her, a progress meter materialized in a torrent of datal numbers and scripts. It displayed the meter at 95%. Come on…
“Just get out the way, human female,” said the belgar, raising a paw and then placing it firmly on Kasu’s shoulder. She leaned in closer, and Kasu could smell her breath — it smelled of coffee with the tinge of alcohol.
“No.” And the progress bar reached 100%.
Rexza found the human lady with the glasses and the mauve hair to be cute. The kind of cute Rexza would prefer to have cuddled up with with a cup of warm cocoa during a wintry, Nymph snow day like this.
Alas, such things weren’t meant to be.
“No.” Her voice echoed once, and then it boomed as if she had spoken into a voice amplifier. Rexza furrowed her eyebrows, and found the walls slowly peeling away horizontally, revealing the blue-gray Datascape underneath.
“What the…?” Rexza turned to see the two women gone in front of her, and everything was replaced with the hazy hues of Kasu’s Datagrove, resembling a digital palimpsest. There was no way in or out, Rexza knew. So all she had to do was wait. She turned, and sat, and watched the walls fitz and glitch, as if it were attuned to a dead channel.
Kasu turned around and grabbed Chrysanthemum’s hand. She hauled her out of their room, eyes wide and blinking. She grabbed and slammed the door, before heading down, still pulling the blank-eyed Chrysanthemum all the while.
Dammit, she said. I never asked for this.
She stopped in the middle of the first flight of concrete stairs as an idea came to her. There was no way that the assassin belgar wouldn’t think of searching down here, so she decided to go the safe route. Still gripping Chrys’ limp hand, she hauled her up the stairs until she reached the rooftop, six floors up. She grabbed the lever of the rooftop door and pushed. The blue-green door gave way.
The two of them stumbled out into a concrete rooftop area framed by a concrete parapet. Usually, these places were off-limits, but Kasu’s landlord couldn’t care less about what her tenants did, or what happens on the rooftops, or what happens below them.
Kasu closed the door behind her, and she heaved breaths. She hadn’t moved that much since Initiate-Level Physical Classes.
She walked Chrys over to one of the concrete parapets and sat her down in front of it, letting her lean against the cold concrete. Chrys still watched her surroundings without much acknowledgment of what was actually happening. She can see, but she didn’t look.
Kasu straightened herself, still breathing heavily. Beside them, the CRT zoomed past like a heavy, long bullet-snake. Kasu could feel the wind buffeting her as it flew past, the kah-klunk from its tracks creating a mundane symphony.
Kasu plucked out her palmnode. The Datagrove wasn’t going to last forever — two to three hours, tops. She had to get help. She tapped a few times on the palmnode and turned on a converse channel.
“Sygmun,” Kasu began, and she immediately remembered what the belgar had said.
There was the amplified voice of the Professor in the background. “What is it? Can it wait? I’m in class.”
Kasu bit her lip. “Right. Sorry.”
The converse channel shut off. She sighed, which was lost in between heavy breaths. “Dammit, I liked Oberen,” she muttered underneath her breath.
“Me too,” Chrys said. Her voice was weak, but rising in power, as if she had just awakened from a reverie. “Wh-where is he?”
Kasu turned, her eyebrows in a concerned arc. She knelt down beside her and told her the news. Again.
The pink glow of Chrys’ hair seemed to dull. So much so that it resembled a dirty dye job. “Oh.” She said. “I… I’m sad.”
“Me too,” said Kasu. “Me too.”
Chrys blinked, and Kasu blinked as well. Slowly, the Siddivata moved, positioning herself in such a way that she could be cuddled by the arms of Kasu. She laid her head full of pink hair against Kasu’s chest. It slowly glowed again.
“You’re so soft, and warm, Kasu.”
Kasu blinked again. “Y-yeah. Thanks?”
“Mm-hmm?” Kasu didn’t want to move, but… well, she guessed that she could allow it at least this once.
“What do you think happens when people die?”
Kasu shrugged. “We stop living. I never thought much about it. I’m pretty sure our Souls just get reprogrammed or something.”
“Huh.” There was a silence, and another train zooming past, creating the same cacophony. When it passed and all was silent again, Kasu thought of once again calling Sygmun. She had to break the news somehow.
She just wished it didn’t have to be her.
“What do you think happens when I die?”
Kasu clicked her tongue. “Uh…” she shrugged. “Maybe your Soul goes back to Avalon?”
Rexza sat, cross legged, in the middle of the Datagrove. She could hear the sounds of the Mund outside, but they were muted. She meditated in the middle of it all.
She… she had to finish this Contract. What other choice did she have? She already went too far. She was Knight Vigilant.
And they always fulfilled their promises…
Shikoth barrelled through Dean Hakumatheia’s open window, crashing onto the carpeted floor and spilling snow all over it. The Dean blinked a few times, before leaning over and watching Shikoth pick himself off the ground and turn to him.
“Mission accomplished! Apparently.”
“Is that so…?” Hakumatheia raised an eyebrow.
Shikoth nodded. “Well, I didn’t really see what happened. Just that Rexza told me to report that to you.”
“Hm.” He leaned back into his chair. “The Knight must’ve been quite confident in her ability.”
Shikoth shrugged. “It was a Knight Vigilant against some Siddivata girl who didn’t know about her powers.” The skeletal bird sighed. “That’s weird on so many levels. How’d a Siddivata stay here and manage to keep a mortal form long enough? Why does she not have her memories? How’d you get a hold of a Knight Vigilant — weren’t they supposed to have been disbanded?”
The Dean shrugged. “Officially, yes,” he said. “But all one hundred and eight of them still lurk underground, preferring to do work without the eyes of the public trained on them. Apparently, it allows them to do the harder things without judgment.”
Shikoth nodded sagely. “Mm. I wouldn’t blame them.”
The Dean leaned forward. “And yes, Shikoth, quite sharp of you. A Siddivata girl staying here for longer than two days? Seems like they should’ve unravelled by now and turned to Gossamer, yes? But no. She’s stayed. Just what did the Warlock do, hm?”
Shikoth shrugged. “I’m no good at this Magick stuff.”
The Dean nodded. “I guess the only way he could’ve done that is through some sort of reality-breaking. That’s the only way that I know of. That, and… “
Shikoth raised an eyebrow. Which was strange, for a bird without a face. It was like Shikoth’s big pits for eyes grew bigger to emulate the expression. “And…?”
The Dean inhaled. Even he didn’t like the thought of it.
That was when there was a knock on the door.
The Dean raised an eyebrow, and turned to Shikoth. Shikoth nodded, and blasted out of the window, back into the freezing storm.
The windows closed with a flick of a wrist, and the doors swung open with another. Behind it was one of the Medic-Magickers, wearing the uniform of the Collegium’s medical school — a white flowing garment made of faux-leather, glinting with green highlights that shone like neon lights embedded into the fabric.
“Physicker…?” The Dean said, still with an eyebrow raised.
“Physicker Koto Lifara, Dean.” The woman walked in, adjusted her glasses. Her short hair was a dark shade of green, her eyes hazel brown. “It seems there was a… failure, Dean.”
“What is it?”
“The Warlock sir,” she said. “His physical body… is dead.”
The Dean blinked. “How?”
“It seems there was someone in his room the other day, sir. One resembling…”
The Dean blinked again, and white lances of pain surged through Koto’s body. She winced and fell to her knee. “One resembling not me, was it?” said the Dean looking at Koto with heavy lids, as if he were half-asleep. “Or I may have the entire Collegium shut down. I can do that, you know that, Physicker Koto? This is but one Collegium of many.”
Koto blinked. Her eyes watered. “P-please…!” Her voice was but a whisper. She tried to continue her sentence, but pain engulfed her.
The Dean inhaled, breaking away his gaze, and Koto gasped for air, as if she had been submerged in ice cold water. “I-It… It seems we cannot identify,” she grimaced again, “the perpetrator, sir.”
“Good. Now leave.”
Physicker Koto bowed by her waist, turned, and walked out. The doors had been open all this time.
When she left, the Dean shut them with a flick of his wrist, and then he ran a hand through his whitening hair. “Damn it.”