I was jarred awake by a booming explosion somewhere nearby, followed in quick succession by the roar of more blasts. I stumbled out of bed and started towards the window. A platoon of Pythian Guards crashed into my room.
"Come with me, my Lady!" demanded the senior Guard. "You must get to safety".
"What's happening?" I asked as I pulled the sash on my silk robe tighter.
"The Court is under attack," he said calmly. Peter stepped forward from behind the senior Guard.
"I will accompany you to your designated safe haven. Do you recall what location we decided on during your Court Evacuation briefing?" he asked.
"Mircea's court in Washington State," I replied quickly. "But I need to know that the staff and the Initiates are safe first," I told him. "I can shift away in an instant, and they can't," I reminded him as his brow furrowed in frustration.
"That isn't necessary my Lady," the senior Guard replied impatiently. "The Guard will escort all survivors to safety"
"Survivors?" I trembled with a sick feeling in my gut. "Have there been injuries…deaths?"
He looked at me with the stony face of a professional soldier. "Undoubtedly. It appears the objective of the attack was the dormitory. Some Guards are proceeding with search and rescue efforts, while others are launching a counterattack to buy time. The rest of us will join the effort as soon as you are safe," he said with a pointed look.
The knot in my gut cinched tighter. "Tell me…how bad is it?"
The senior Guard glanced behind him. "Report!" he snapped to another Guard who had been murmuring to the air.
A young Guard stepped forward. "My Lady, most of the initiates have been safely evacuated from the dorms and are being transported to a sanctuary as we speak. There are still several trapped in the northwest quadrant. The effort there is focused on extracting the survivors before the building completely collapses or burns." The young Guard turned his attention to his commander. "Sir, it's confirmed. Brimstone." The Guards hissed and furtively glanced between themselves.
Shit! I thought to myself. Once brimstone touched flesh, it burned until the body was completely consumed. It was certain death…a horrible death. I could not abandon children to that fate without at least trying to help. I grabbed Peter's arm and shifted.
We appeared in the yard at the north end of the dorms. A Guard did a double take as he saw me and then glared at Peter.
"Guard…you know the protocol. Bind her and get her out of here before we close the lines," he barked. Peter sighed and started murmuring while he clutched my arm.
"No way!" I yelled as I yanked away from him and shifted, getting closer to the building this time. I could see it for myself…the building had partially crumbled and it burned with a vengeance. I saw several small terrified faces beyond an expanse of bright flames. It was too wide for a Guard to pass through safely. A brimstone fire would eat their shields before they could get to the children. A nearby Guard looked at me curiously, and then frowned. Before he could bind my power to allow Peter to transport me out of there against my will, I shifted into the burning building. The small girls were crying hysterically and grabbed hold of my hands and wrists. I shifted back to the yard and pried their hands off of me, pushing them towards the stunned Guard. I stared back at the building, searching for more small faces.
"How many are still left?" I demanded.
"Six, from the kindergarten class," he told me with a hint of despair. "Their rooms were closest to the blast."
"There's one," I muttered, and shifted back into the inferno. The tiny girl was sobbing, with a trail of blood leaking down the side of her face. I bent down and took her face between my hands.
"Where are the others?" I asked as gently as I could. She frowned and shook her head.
"Sweetheart…tell me where your friends are," I asked again, this time a little more forcefully. She squeezed her eyes shut and went limp. I shifted her out to the Guard, letting her slide to the ground while I hurriedly shifted back into the hazy hall. I pulled part of my robe across my face, trying to block out the stinging smoke. I called to them while I hunted for the rest of the children, coughing every few seconds. The doors along the hall were warm to the touch, so I opened each one cautiously. Empty. Empty. Empty. Where the hell are they? I opened a door into a bathroom. I grabbed a towel and dampened it in the sink, wrapping it around my mouth and nose before I continued the search. I reached the last door. It was hot so I wrapped the end of the towel over the doorknob and stepped to the side as I slowly opened it. A wave of heat poured out of the room, but no flames…yet. I cautiously peeked around the door and silently thanked God. The floor of the room was split in two with flames leaping through the gap. Three girls were huddled against the far wall while one was on the other side. I shifted to the three and reached for their hands. Before I could touch them, the roof shrieked and I jumped in fear as parts of the ceiling fell around us. A sulfurous chunk of roof landed on the trailing skirt of my robe and I caught on fire. My hands shook as I untied the sash and let the robe drop to the floor. I grabbed two small hands with one of mine and the third child with my other and shifted out to the Guard. He gawked in complete shock at my nakedness, and then pulled off his leather coat and placed it around my shoulders. I shrugged into it and sluggishly shifted back to the last child I had seen. She was trapped on a chair that had been pushed against the wall, backed into a few square feet of the shrinking remains of the floor. The floor would burn out from under her in a minute or two, dropping her into the furious flames below. I carefully gauged my position, and shifted with the most precision I had ever used. I perched over the child as she lay unmoving, with one of my feet on the back of the chair. I touched her neck and felt a weak pulse. I held her hand as I visually searched the room one last time. There was still one child missing. With a disappointed groan, I lethargically shifted her out to the Guard. I sat on the ground, breathing heavily of the clearer air and gingerly examining my blistered feet. Peter stepped towards me.
"Don't!" I ordered, holding up my hand.
"The initiates have tracers. The last one stopped a few moments ago," he told me with resignation. "She is dead. There is no point in going into that building again. We closed the last ley line a few minutes ago to keep the attackers from entering the Court that way. We must close off both directions in order to use the strongest ward we have. You must shift out of here if you want to avoid capture or death." I peered around. Peter and a few more Guards stood nearby.
"I can't shift all of you," I told him quietly.
"We know. You must shift by yourself. Please leave the child and go," he implored.
"I'm not leaving this child to die. I barely got her out of the building," I told him bluntly.
"Can you shift the two of you?"
"There has to be some other way to get the Guards out of here!" I cried as I ignored his question. "You'll die!" I choked out.
"Perhaps. But we will not go without a fight." He regarded me calmly. "This is our job Cassie…and you are keeping us from it by remaining here. Please shift now."
I gazed at him with sadness, hoping but not expecting to see him again. I took the girl's hand in mine and shifted. Or not. I felt the pull…so sluggish…and then a harsh snap as I found myself back where I started. Peter stared at me with horror and swallowed hard.
"Nothing?" he whispered, aghast. I shook my head. Sweat streaked his sooty face as he rubbed his chin, muttering as he thought. He nodded decisively.
"The bunker," he announced as he hauled me to my feet and hefted the girl over his shoulder. "Come quickly," he ordered tersely and pulled me towards a small shed. He opened the door to the non-descript shack and dragged me through. He walked carefully around a dusty area on the floor, muttering. A trapdoor popped open. He tugged the trap open further and led me down the narrow stairs to a small room.
"What is this?" I asked.
"This is a hardened bunker. You and the girl will stay here. The Guards will activate the wards. They should hold against every known spell. There is also a secondary perimeter built to withstand most weapons. This is the safest place left. Locking you in here should buy you enough time to rest and regain strength for your power." He started back up the stairs.
"Wait! Aren't you staying down here?"
"No. I must activate the wards from outside the bunker, and I need the combined power of the remaining Guards to accomplish this."
"That won't leave you with any power to defend yourselves!"
Peter looked at me resolutely. "We must keep the Pythia safe. That is our job." He waved his hand and I felt the tingling power that suddenly surrounded me. He had set a containment spell to keep me still. He was leaving me here. I watched him helplessly as he motioned to the other Guards. I saw them through the open trap door as they raised their hands in unison and started chanting. The tingle gradually turned into a heavy static that itched along my skin. I had a final glimpse of Peter as he closed the trap. I silently cried for a while, lying on the floor of the bunker unable to move. Gradually, the containment spell dispersed and I could move again. I pulled the leather coat closer, trying to keep it between me and the crawling magic. I sat on the floor, rocking gently with my head in my hands. I listened as the fight arrived in full force to the Court…my Court…above me. It sounded like the attackers had breached the last defenses. The girl woke and whimpered behind me. I sat on the small cot and talked gently to her until she quieted. I didn't know her name, but it was the same child we had identified when Robert and I had been seeking the girl with green clothes from my vision. She was wearing torn and sooty green tights and an equally dirty green tunic. I rubbed the hem of the tunic absently.
"You're wearing green."
"I w-was t-trying on m-my costume," she stuttered. I closed my eyes in dread. Please, please let this end differently from the vision. I held the girl while the room shook from explosions, plaster dust drifting onto my hair. The wards held, but I could feel the earth around us settle with the force of the explosions that continued through the night. The trap door disappeared in a booming flash of magic, leaving a glimpse of the night sky. Debris rained down, but bounced off the shields. The shed was long gone. Colored flashes of magic lit up the night sky, punctuated by huge explosions. We huddled in the small room until dawn, until some members of the Pythian Guard disabled the wards and let us out. I flushed with hope, realizing that reinforcements had arrived to help Peter and the others. I could smell gunpowder and magic and things burning. I stepped out into a changed landscape. The Pythian Court was demolished, not a single building was undamaged and many were reduced to rubble. My own quarters were leveled. I surveyed the devastation, looking for anyone from last night's Guard contingent. I saw a single war mage with a blackened and torn leather coat, bandages covering his eyes. I walked over to him.
"Caleb?" I asked gently as he sat on the ground, waiting for medical aid. I startled him. I thought he was the tall older African-American war mage with graying hair that I knew from when MAGIC was destroyed. What I could see of his face made me ill. His skin was so charred I could not see any recognizable features. How was he still alive? He hadn't been here last night. The senior staff must have raised the alarm during the evacuation. I wondered how many war mages had answered the call. I snagged a passing Guard, asking what happened…where was everyone. The stunned Guard told me the war mages had fought long and hard but they had been wiped out. The enemy had been pushed back but they were regrouping and would start another action soon. The surviving staff of the Court needed to evacuate right now. There were other members of the staff here? He was trying to convince me to shift but I wouldn't leave until the staff was on their way. Robert walked over, limping.
"My Lady, I wish I could say I am pleased to see you but I am not. You should have left last night without the heroics," he told me flatly.
"I saved over five initiates…they were just children…I couldn't leave them to die!"
"More than five Guards were killed last night, staying to keep the wards on the bunker strong until help could arrive. You could have been killed or captured. Was it worth it?" he snarled.
I lifted my chin. "They did their job!" I echoed Peter's words. Robert's admonishment was nothing compared to what Pritkin would say to me. Last night I had done everything he told me not to do. I was looking for Pritkin, he was always nearby. I asked the Guard if he had seen Mage Pritkin. The Guard looked at me sadly, and told me that Mage Pritkin was one of the fatalities. I was screaming his name…
End of Part 1. The characters in this story and the world they inhabit are the property of the talented Karen Chance.