UPDATED: NOVEMBER 25, 2015 - Ending revised.

AUTHOR'S NOTE:

This chapter is dedicated to laniessa, the lovely artist who designed and drew the cover for Nocte Yin: Anti-Villain, Anti-Hero and Anti-Everything-Else. I am always amazed by the talent out there in the world, those who are able to create something out of nothing, and I am so grateful for laniessa. Please Google her and take a look at her deviantART and Tumblr. She's made of awesome—seriously. (laniessa dot tumblr dot com)

RECAP:

1) Nocte has been summoned back to Erisire by Erisiren Councillor Ān Guó.

2) He explains that the Yins are playing a crucial and destructive role in the war on Erisire, and wants her to interfere with her clan.

3) Conflicted, Nocte agrees, as she believes that her siblings have turned self-destructive.

4) After he conjures a door to Evil Academy, Councillor Ān Guó advises Nocte to visit Ebony as her next course of action.

5) Nocte listens, and returns to Evil Academy where she meets Pyralis and immediately collapses into slumber.

SOUNDTRACK:

Taylor Swift ft. The Civil Wars — Safe and Sound

Katie Costello — Stranger

PART TWO: ANTI-HERO

Chapter Thirty-Four

In a reel of vintage film, the sound of Marie's laughter and the image of Burghard's smiling eyes juddered and skittered in fleeting and lovely moments, one after another. She felt the woman's dress graze her fingers—the man's shirt on her knuckles—the plates and forks and knives sliding, clattering, settling on the kitchen counter. Chatter—the woman's daisies swaying by the window—jesting—the man's bread rising in the oven. Glasses—spices—milk—butter—saltiness—yeast and richness.

It was a beautiful dream, of easy smiles and bright laughter, but it could never last.

Nothing so perfect or surreal could ever last.

(They were dead.)

With a quiet inhale, Nocte woke to the scent of lemons in the air and the sound of curtains knocking on the windowsill. The sun was just beginning to crest to its mid-mark point, beaming fingers of light across the floorboards of Room V4 and ripples along the length of the ceiling. From the windows, the curtains shifted in lazy patterns; the glass panes parted slightly for the crisp autumn breeze to lick through and stroke the peace lily in the corner. It was quiet and still, and warm with the sun and thick curtains.

Nocte did not remember there being a peace lily in the room.

Groggy, she turned to the teapot on the nightstand, films of vapour floating lazily upwards from the spout. The scent of lemons came from the steam; her throat felt dry. She tried to remember her dream, for she was struck with a feeling of urgency, but all she could recall was the angry blue of the arctic and the pleasing scent of ocean spray—honey and jam. She sighed, her chest rattling with effort. She was thirsty.

Gingerly, her arm crawled out from under the covers while the other pushed her torso up to a sitting position. As she reached for the teapot, her left side gave a sign of protest and she faltered, pressing a hand just below the ribs. The new muscles trembled and she remembered being tossed across the tundra, falling down an icy cataclysm and being speared through by a tremendous icicle. She eased back against the headboard to catch her breath. She remembered the councillor and their discussion. The sense of urgency returned twice fold.

Nocte sighed, tired and strained. "No rest for the wicked," she thought to herself. She chuckled at her dull joke, only for her laugh to end in a harsh cough. Frowning, she placed a hand to her chest to brace herself. Her throat was sore, her cheeks swollen and her head warm: these were the telltale signs of her beginning to catch sick. Blood loss in sub-zero weather followed by sweating profusely at the equator was not good for one's health, evidently. "Damn," she swore quietly, if not a little hoarsely.

Her oesophagus grated and she pinched back a cough. She really was thirsty. Bracing herself, she stretched her arm toward the teapot again, her ligaments nipping at the exertion. Shaking, she grasped the handle and carefully poured the tea into the nearby cup. She took a moment to steady herself before gathering the cup in her hands, the warmth seeping from the porcelain loosening her shoulders and easing her breath. She took a sip; it was a little sour and sharp without the sugar, but the lemon was invigorating and electric. She took another sip, this time longer, and sighed with relief and relish.

Nothing tasted so wonderful, so pure and so sweet than the water from home.

Something caught in her throat and she swallowed. She remembered blooming daisies and rising bread.

They were dead.

She pressed a palm to her head and rubbed the bridge of her nose. She could feel the coming ache, and the grit and dried sweat in her hair. Grimacing, she removed her hand and watched a shower of red flakes follow in its wake, traces of dried blood peeling from her hair and joining the others dotted sparsely along the pillows and the perfect white linens.

It was a mixture of hers and her opponents'.

A macabre confetti of dark red.

A few pieces landed in her tea and she deliberately tilted the cup from her line of sight. (She did not want to think of all those who fell, or even those she had felled herself.) More would fall if she did not interfere. (The councillor had said as much.)

Feeling sick, Nocte returned the cup to its place on the nightstand and directed her gaze elsewhere, waiting for her stomach to settle. The room hadn't changed much. Her eyes trailed along the shelves above the two desks—The Dead, the Dying and the Undead (hers), The Finer Arts of Necromancy (hers),Advanced Demonology(hers), History of Modern Xon(hers),Rare Poisons: The Most Toxic Potions in the Known World (Pyralis's), Obscure Poisons: And Their Cures (hers)—and then to the two desks themselves.

Hers was immaculate, almost barren and isolated in comparison to Pyralis's, whose workspace held a neat stack of papers on the side, a sparse grouping of clean beakers at one corner, and a cashmere wrap hanging at the back of her chair. Nocte's was nothing but a clean slate, her new desktop computer relatively untouched since she had finished setting it up; her laptop on the tabletop closed and pristine. Nocte suspected that there would've been a layer of dust across her desk if it hadn't been for the maids employed by the academy.

Rueful and a little guilt-stricken (Nocte liked to keep her things clean and organized so not to bother others), she turned to attention to the beds next; the closet was firmly shut and obscurely to the side of the bathroom. Pyralis's bed was perfectly made, almost rigidly so (taught strictly by the keepers of the orphanage where she's grown up in and still resided during the summers). Her black and white duvet and sheets were drawn taut on top and the edges anchored tightly under the mattress. Her pillows were perfectly fluffed. (As this was the first time she roomed with Pyralis, Nocte did not know if this was actually Pyralis's work or the maids'.)

Nocte's, however, was a mess. Covers thrown haphazardly over her body and sheets ripped up from under the mattress, all creased and forlorn from sweat. As Nocte rarely moved when asleep, she could only assume that she'd not slept well the night before. One of her pillows was currently wedged between her ass and the headboard, and the other had been tossed messily to a lower corner of the bed near her feet. She must've had fits over the night. She didn't remember much, only snippets of Pyralis's face, a warm wet cloth that seemed to burn when brushing against her scraped palms, and another cooler cloth wiping at her brow.

Nocte looked to her palms then, recalling how her thick winter gloves had been torn and shredded, bits and pieces of the fabric soaked in her blood and starting to clot into her flesh. She remembered the way her Ice sword had burned and froze to her palms, remembered the almost excruciating pain when the sword left her hand, taking pieces of her skin with it. She vaguely remembered clocking Pyralis in the chin for daring to touch her broken and ragged hands.

Nocte owed Pyralis. She owed her more than words could be expressed.

She traced the lines across her palms, rivets, dips and rivers that spoke of who she was, what she was capable of, and what the future had in store for her—so predicted palm readers. Nocte flexed her hand open and closed. Besides a little sensitivity and soreness, her hands have healed perfectly. Her superior immune system and healing abilities have been restored, made better from building resistance on Earth.

Surprised, she touched her neck. The enchanted string had been removed. She remembered Pyralis snipping it off to get a better look at her throat. Nocte could breathe now, and it was amazing how something so vital and ingrained in her since birth had been frustrating and aching on Earth, but so free and absolutely beautiful back on Eririse.

Erisire.

She glanced at the room again. Everything was exactly how it had been, before she left. Besides her half of the room, the other—Pyralis's—had been touched. Neither had the time nor the keenness to decorate, too busy with classes and the Final Project. It was still very sparse, but there was evidence that they had slept here. It was as if Nocte hadn't left. Two desks, two chairs, two beds. Pyralis's trunk, old and worn leather. Nocte's mug, round and fat and cute, on her nightstand. The big screen television! (She had no doubt that Pyralis used it very rarely.)

Out of whimsy and ache, Nocte opened the top drawer of her nightstand and found her retainer there.

It was as if she hadn't left.

But then her eye caught the peace lily in the corner. It was new and thriving. She did not remember it being there.

She squinted, trying to get a better look at the flower, so healthy and thick that it looked almost plastic. Without her glasses, she just couldn't make out the veins along its broad leaves or the yellow bumps on its stigma. She wondered when Doctor's spell had expired…or even how Doctor fared.

Nocte wondered about Alex and Chantée. She wondered about Witley. She wondered about all the men and women who had fallen, the Evil that had been beheaded, the vampires and werewolves that remained—and the father who was not her father.

Nocte flinched when another sweep of pain ran up her left side.

It wasn't that the room had changed, Nocte realized. It was that she had changed. The room never left; she left.

Sober, Nocte closed the drawer and leaned back into the bed again. She was in shock, the air knocked out of her. She struggled to keep a steady hand below her ribs, hoping to ease the pain. Soon, it dulled and she knew that she could not prolong the inevitable. Even if she were to stay in bed, shielded by Evil Academy's influence and power, Nocte knew that she could not be so naïve to believe that she didn't care.

Somewhere, out there, her siblings were involved in an intricate game privy only to themselves. Somewhere, out there, her mother was a delirious mess and calling for her father. Somewhere, out there…her father's ghost was keeping watch, waiting for another opportunity to smear and insult his memory and his well intentions.

(He would drag them all to Hell.)

Rubbing at her eyes, Nocte pulled the covers aside. The breeze coming from the window was a little chilly, but she welcomed it. The cold shook her awake.

Even if she wanted to continue as if nothing had changed, Nocte could still remember how her lungs had burned for air that first day, the agony of accepting that she would never be returning home and the unmoveable truth of it—the cold hopelessness of acknowledging that there might not be a tomorrow, or forever, or always.

That she had lost everything—so close to losing everything—and fighting and crying and sacrificing all she was for another minute of life.

Another second.

Another heartbeat.

Nocte could not forget how she had been ready to die.

And gladly, no matter how dark and definite and terrifying it was, for the others.

She could lose everything again.

It was as if she hadn't left, but everything had changed.

They were at war.

(Somewhere…out there…there were innocents relying on her: the farmers of Laurel Tree, the soldiers who swore their arms to her, and the spies that bound their lives to hers—the people who willingly gave up their homes and fortunes to travel to an empty land to make something out of it, without the name of Yin, without the promise of untold riches and without the threat of death. They chose her, and no one else. The noblesses oblige: Nocte Yin was honour bound to protect these people with all that she had. In exchange for their services, she must ensure their safety.)

And she would never wish such unhappiness upon her siblings and mother. She would not remain immobile if only to ensure her own.

It would be selfish of her.

(Nocte was not so selfish to not care, to take their services and give nothing in return.)

And Nocte, if nothing else, was not selfish.

She ignored the bruises and the clotted wounds running up her legs and arms as she made her way to the bathroom. She was dressed in white shorts and a T-shirt, flimsy material that gave her chills—Pyralis's work. Her throat, clogged and scratchy, made it hard for her to find her breath while her feet padded from hardwood to marble tiles. She was happily surprised to find her body strong enough to withstand her weight. Not once did she stumble.

Rubbing her throat and flinching when she accidentally touched a sensitive spot, Nocte looked up from her feet to the mirror over the sink. The bathroom was as she had left it, bright and pristine with a large tub and a frosted glass shower. She, on the other hand, was an unrecognizable mess; the light coming in from the window over the toilet showed just as much.

She had a black eye, her hair was in clumps from the dried blood, and there was an ugly gash up her left arm. Her lips were chapped and split, she was incredibly pale (and not like a beautiful porcelain doll or a flawless air-brushed model, but sick like an overindulged, hung over, vomiting teenager), and her eyes were bloodshot.

It was better than what she'd been expecting…not that she was expecting much.

Warily, she poked at the bruise around her eye and hissed, both at the pain and her stupidity. Sighing, she turned the shower on hot and full, and pointedly turned on the fan (she hated it when people forgot). She made to remove her shirt, but her body was too stiff and sore to allow for such an intricate manoeuvre. Instead, she conceded to just taking off her shorts. Pyralis did not attempt to dress her in underwear. Nocte agreed that it was too much of a hassle.

She attempted to run several fingers through her hair as the shower heat up, and winced when they got caught and pulled at the roots. Cursing and wanting to cry—she was not looking forward to brushing out the goddamn knots—Nocte angrily rubbed at the steam fogging the mirror and eyed the dirt beneath her nails with narrowed eyes.

Admitting that was no helping for her appearance now, Nocte opened the shower door and carefully stepped under the showerhead. Immediately, blessed heat fell upon her, running down her face and body, soaking her hair, and slipping between her fingers and toes. Her wounds, clotted and delicate, burned, but she savoured the burn. It marked her, broken but alive, lost but victorious.

She closed her eyes and leaned her face into the spray, the water pounding against her cheeks and eyelids at steady intervals. It was therapeutic and welcomed, and the consistent drumming drowned out all other noises and thoughts.

She did not know how long she had stood under the water for or how long she had had her eyes closed for, but when she next cast her gaze downwards, the water running down the drain was stained pink with blood and there were clumps of Earth dirt at her feet. She mildly thought about keeping some of the dirt for Pyralis to examine—the alchemist enjoyed that sort of thing.

Nocte felt the corners of her mouth lift at the thought, and she reached for the shampoo bottle. She paused, however, at the sound of the front lock twisting. She took the bottle carefully, feeling the weight and debating its heft as a makeshift weapon, but her caution proved unnecessary when she recognized Pyralis's gait.

Pyralis knocked on the bathroom door. It was an arbitrary action, seeing as Nocte hadn't bothered to close the door in the first place, but she appreciated Pyralis's courtesy.

"You forgot a towel," her roommate said.

Through the shower's frosted glass, Pyralis's silhouette draped a large fluffy towel on the outside towel bar embedded to the shower door.

"Thanks," Nocte said, her voice much clearer than when she'd first woken up. The steam had cleared her sinuses, allowing for easier breathing and movement.

Pyralis nodded, though it was difficult for Nocte to see through the steam and frosted glass, and then left the bathroom, this time closing the door politely behind her. Grateful for Pyralis, Nocte opened the shampoo, and lathered her hair twice before soaking her hair with heavy-inducing conditioner. She was hoping that this would make brushing easier.

Picking at the dirt from under her nails, Nocte turned off the shower with her elbow and opened the door with the other. It didn't take long for the room to feel cold. The T-shirt, now wet and dripping, clung to her like a second skin while providing very little warmth.

Swiping the towel from the bar, Nocte wiped herself down. Some of her wounds (the ones too deep for her body to heal overnight) had opened a little and dyed the towel. Pyralis had opted to gift her with a white towel.

There was no more dirt on her, and Nocte thanked the deities for small miracles.

She wrapped the towel around her bust and grabbed Pyralis's from a hook to dry her hair with. Pyralis would not appreciate it, but Nocte was willing to live with her naïve actions. Drying her hair, she grabbed the hair dryer and a brush. She did the best she could, what with her hair being so long, wet and tangled, that even after using the hair dryer, her head was still damp.

Pyralis knocked on the door again just as Nocte was busy working the brush through her hair. When the alchemist entered, there was a very brief, very tense moment when her eyes fell on the second towel on the sink counter—the towel that belonged to her. But just as soon as Pyralis acknowledged it bereft, she ignored it.

Nocte hadn't known she'd been holding her breath until she exhaled. Pyralis had a vial of acid on her person at all times for irksome creatures during irksome situations such as this.

"How do you feel?" Pyralis asked, noting Nocte's nerves and finding it amusing. If she thought it strange for Nocte to be wearing a wet T-shirt, she said nothing.

"Sick," Nocte replied, pulling at her hair. She pretended not to notice how Pyralis thought her nervousness was amusing.

"I have a potion for that," Pyralis said.

Nocte didn't doubt it, and nodded in reply.

"You should eat before you take another potion," Pyralis said.

Again, Nocte nodded, too busy fixing her hair. There were still some bloody pigments in the depths of her tresses.

"I've contacted the Winds," Pyralis continued, braced against the doorframe with her arms crossed, looking nonchalant and calm: the picture of ease.

Nocte's gaze flickered over the alchemist and then back to the mirror over the bathroom sink. She paused, barely noticeable in a small double take, before casting her eyes back to her roommate. A longer look had Nocte straightening from the counter to stare at Pyralis.

She deduced several things at once and saw through her friend's façade almost at once, but she wanted to hear from Pyralis herself. A blink, another, and Nocte asked, "What's wrong?"

"The usual," came Pyralis's blasé answer in her usual cool, bored monotone.

"It's different this time," Nocte observed, reading Pyralis's face, body and aura.

Pyralis appeared much like her usual self: cool, indifferent and impenetrable. To others, perhaps, the alchemy genius seemed unfazed and untouched, but Nocte was not "others." From Nocte's viewpoint, she noted the submissive quality in the air around her friend, the slight strain around the alchemist's mouth and the matte glaze to her eyes.

"You're tired," Nocte announced.

"You would be, too," Pyralis said, "after last night."

Nocte decided not to be merciful if her friend was going to dodge so sloppily—not her usual art. "You're scared," she said. She did not accuse, but any villain would take it as such.

Fortunately, Pyralis was not in the mood to snipe. She raised a steady hand to rub at her temples. "Things…are not well here, Nocte," she supplied reluctantly. "For myself, I can say that I am…relieved—"

"Happy," Nocte inserted.

"Relieved," Pyralis repeated earnestly, and then muttered, "Don't push your luck."

Nocte shrugged, happy to discover that she was smiling. There had been very few opportunities for smiling in the past few days.

"I am relieved for your return," Pyralis finalized. A beat, and she yielded with a quiet exhale, tugging at her bangs, so painstakingly fashioned to a straight, unforgiving line. "I don't know what Witley has told you—"

Nocte was admittedly surprised to find her friend in contact with her spies, in particular her knowledge on Witley's whereabouts, but wisely kept her mouth closed for her friend to continue. She would know later.

"—but a lot has changed in your absence," the alchemist said.

Nocte turned back to mirror and continued with snagging the brush through her hair. "Witley has briefed me, yes," she said. "But how are you?"

"Alive," Pyralis offered.

They left it as that as Nocte finished smoothing her hair and placing everything back to its place. Tossing Pyralis's wet towel into the hamper, Nocte followed Pyralis back into the room. She noted the tray of food on Pyralis's desk, but turned to the closet instead.

She opened the walk-in, noticing the right side holding a few haphazard hangers, but the left virtually untouched. Nocte moved to the left and began shuffling through the clothes.

Pyralis watched her silently as Nocte pulled out a pair of skinny jeans, a white long-sleeved turtleneck, and a thick grey button-down sweater. She tossed a pair of socks onto the floor, followed by snow gloves and a long scarf. She closed the closet door to put on her underwear in private, all the while pulling, pushing and shoving boxes aside in search of her winter wear. She shuffled through several boxes before producing knee-high winter boots and a long down-filled coat.

After pulling her hair into a no-nonsense ponytail, Nocte reached deep into her wardrobe, fingers grazing the back and corners, up and down, but never hitting the object of her goal. For a second, panic flared, but she doused it immediately. Pyralis would know.

Closing the wardrobe, Nocte exited the closet fully dressed, boots on, coat draped over her elbow, and gloves dangling from her fingers.

Pyralis gave her an once-over and criticized, "You need a bag for your supplies."

Nocte did not begrudge her small jab. Instead, she diverted with, "Where's my sword?"

"Eat." Pyralis gestured to the food tray on her desk. "I'll get your sword."

Nocte was about to ask, but stopped when Pyralis opened her worn leather trunk. She thought her friend had hid her sword in the box, but knew that it was much too small for her rapier. A moment later, Pyralis produced a potion…along with a chisel and hammer.

"What are you doing?" Nocte asked, wary and sceptical.

"I buried it under the bathtub," Pyralis replied, marching into the bathroom.

"What?"

"You heard me."

Of course, she heard her, but she did not hear her. Disconcerted, Nocte draped her winter things on Pyralis' bed and followed the alchemist to the bathroom. She stopped just short of the door frame to watch Pyralis work, first opening the potion bottle and then kneeling to reach the underside of the claw-foot tub. Slipping dots of acid from the potion bottle along the grout, Pyralis slowly chipped and pried the marble tiles apart.

"Eat," Pyralis instructed after lifting the first tile aside. It took skill to not have marred the marble. "This will take some time."

Nocte surveyed the scene and concurred. "I cannot stay long."

Pyralis didn't even blink when countering with, "Where are we going?"

Nocte avoided looking at her, even if Pyralis had her back to her and was too preoccupied to turn around. Pyralis's very presence exuded a pressure that heightened Nocte's wariness. Pyralis had been right; things have changed, and Nocte didn't know to what extent. She did not want to involve Pyralis this time; the alchemist was not a warrior or spy. Pyralis was a scientist.

"You can't come," she decided.

Pyralis turned around this time, pinning Nocte with a speculative gaze. Reading Nocte's face, Pyralis seemed to have come to a conclusion, for she then returned to the tiles. "Eat," she repeated. "The Winds will arrive soon."

Having neither the words nor passion to argue with Pyralis, Nocte conceded and excused herself from the bathroom. She retreated back into the bedroom and glanced at the tray of food on Pyralis's desk. There was a ceramic pot, bowl and spoon. From the bathroom door, Nocte recognized the scent of congee.

She looked to Pyralis's leather chest. It had been left open and Nocte saw that the alchemist had packed for travel, several satchels equipped for different scenarios—that was what Nocte would've done. She knew that she couldn't stop Pyralis from following if the alchemist truly wanted to…unless she resorted to violence. Shaking her head (and knowing that Pyralis's retribution was something she could never begin to contemplate), Nocte took stock of the food Pyralis had prepared.

Stepping forward, Nocte uncovered the pot, hot and heavy in her hand, and steam wafted from the dish. The perfume of steaming pork and century egg congee rolled into the room like a warm cloud. She was momentarily thrown by such a nostalgic and traditional dish. It was what all Xonese families made for the sick or weak.

Nocte almost took a step back, the memory of her mother so fresh and cutting.

Choking a sigh, Nocte chided herself, "Stop."

Picking up the ladle, she filled the bowl with congee and began to take small morsels of the dish into her mouth. She didn't want to overexert her body after fasting for so long and flashing between climes—

It tasted like ambrosia.

Nocte felt tears and blinked them furiously away. Comfort food: warm against her sore throat, perfectly seasoned to wet her appetite, soothing for her soul. She hoped Chantée and Alex were warm and safe in the aftermath of the blood and gore. She hoped Doctor and Witley were not suddenly turned by the vampires and they had found their way home. She hoped Ewan had finally reached the peace he so deserved

She hoped Marie and Burghard were happy…wherever they were now.

Congee aside, Nocte placed her hands on either side of the desk and slumped forward, taking pains to find her breath as multiple memories and feelings assaulted her in rapid succession. She had been doing so well, so very well, in avoiding a breakdown, but half of her still remained on Earth—half her worries, concerns and fears were still on Earth.

She shut her eyes, grotesque and horrific images flashing across her vision so fast and hard that it felt like she was being repeatedly struck. The arctic—the woods—the night cityscape—the small apartment—the white house—the subway tunnel. The eerie beauty of a limp pale wrist resting on the cold arctic snow; the dim and lifeless blue eyes of a woman who loved to pick daisies. The broken and battered fingers of a gentle man reaching for her, cut off midway from a swift death. He loved—had loved—her in ways she could not have dreamed or known.

Her father—her father—her father—her father—her father.

With a sharp intake of breath, Nocte pressed a palm to her forehead to stall the memories. Even now, the scent of the cold, biting arctic and the sound of steel sparking on ice were still vivid and invasive. She could still feel the dark forest earth give way under her feet; the deft panic that spiked when they found each other…but their Keys useless; the chilling realization in the auditorium that gripped and propelled her forward through the crowd, the hysteria, the chaos to reach the girl.

How were the others faring?

Nocte hoped, most fervently, that Witley would know how to carry her will without her present.

She just had to.

Nocte didn't know how long she'd been crying—or that she had even been crying—when Pyralis finally returned to the room. Nocte was only made aware of her presence and her own state of unhappiness when the alchemist pressed a handkerchief into her hand.

From the blurry corner of her eye, Nocte noted Pyralis's cool acceptance of her distress. "You don't look surprised."

"This may come as a shock to you," Pyralis said, leaning Nocte's silver rapier against the desk, "but you break down far more often than you think."

Nocte laughed, a spluttering choke. For some reason, she found the situation comical. "I-It's my greatest weakness," she confessed sadly.

"It's your greatest strength," Pyralis corrected.

Nocte watched Pyralis place the hammer and chisel on the desk, mildly surprised by the alchemist's sentiment. She wanted to catch her in the eye to express her love and gratitude, but the alchemist refused to acknowledge the feelings.

Instead, Pyralis offered, "You never remain broken for long."

Nocte smiled, drying her eyes with the handkerchief and deciding not to push her any further. Emotions were not Pyralis's forte.

"It's almost annoying," Pyralis deadpanned, a hint of teasing.

Laughing, Nocte elbowed her in the arm and reached for her sword, the exquisite filigree work along the scabbard and hilt flashing as the curtains shifted for the wind and sun. The magic in the enchanted sword hummed at her touch as she rubbed the dust from the crevices of the intricate metalwork. Testing its weight, Nocte felt more solid and balanced with it in her grasp; Dire's gift that anchored her to this world, these people and her heart.

A buzz sounded in the room and Pyralis withdrew her cell phone from her pocket, quietly checking her texts. Flawlessly, she pushed the bowl of congee in Nocte's direction as she typed a reply to the other end. "The Winds are here," the alchemist explained. "Finish your congee."

"You sound hurried," Nocte perceived cautiously.

"We are."

Pyralis moved to the closet, pointing at the congee once more before disappearing into the depths of her clothes. Nocte took up the bowl, keeping a weather eye on her roommate as she polished off the congee with very little time to enjoy the food. It did not take long for a knock to sound at the door, but Pyralis waved her aside to answer the door herself.

Nocte placed the now-empty bowl down and gripped her rapier loosely, guarded and alert. Pyralis had retrieved a satchel from the closet and tossed it to her before she opened the front door just a slip.

From her angle, Nocte couldn't see who it was, but she assumed it was the Winds. Being vigilant, she sidled to the wall, letting Pyralis's desk to block her from the visitor's view.

"Băi hé," Pyralis whispered.

"Sōng shù," came the reply.

Cold sweat slipped between Nocte's shoulder blades. It was not the words that caused her anxiety, but rather the number of people who knew. First the Erisiren Councillor Ān Guó, and now Pyralis Markku…and whoever was at the door. The more people who knew…the more who could take advantage.…

Pressing her lips, Nocte watched as four masked strangers were emitted into the room. Hooded and wearing pressed white gloves, the four were covered in robes reminiscent of the Grim Reapers. Black, thick and just shy from touching the floor, the robes barely moving from to their weight and their wearers' graceful steps.

Pyralis closed and locked the door behind them, glancing at Nocte to gauge her reaction. Although Nocte could not see their faces, she recognized their builds and movements.

"My Winds," she acknowledged quietly, stepping from the wall.

One by one, the cloaked figures removed their masks and fell to their knees. Boreas, Eurus, Notus and Zephyrus. Ivy, Janelle, Kara and Christine. Her Winds.

"Mistress," Ivy replied, head low and stiff.

When Nocte moved forward, the Winds peered carefully upwards from beneath their lashes, thick and beautiful. Several emotions flickered across their visages, however carefully (un)masked and fixed they were: caution, care, traces of fear, hope, expectation, question, suspicion and—once they confirmed that she was, indeed, herself—thick, thick relief.

"It's really you." Janelle was the one brave—foolish—enough to voice. Her relief was so palpable and thick that she broke rank.

Nocte smiled, tight and strained. "Yes."

Ivy nodded, coming to a decision immediately. "We must remove you to safety."

Nocte agreed. "Where's Aeolus?" she asked. Witley.

Christine answered. "We received word from her late last night, like, several hours after the Lady Alchemist informed us of your arrival."

"Your orders, mistress?" Kara hummed.

Nocte looked to Pyralis, who was leaning against the door and waiting patiently for them to finish. Nocte could not stop Pyralis from following and she could tell that Pyralis was determined to follow. It was what Nocte feared.

Turning back to the Winds, Nocte questioned, "Did she return alone?"

Christine shook her head. "No, mistress. Aeolus is with, like, the seventh son of the seventh son of the Lucents. She's, like, waiting for instructions.…"

The question was left unsaid, but it hung in the air in anticipation. They did not understand why Witley was with Doctor, but Nocte disregarded their confusion. She could only feel the relief chorusing through her after hearing the news; Witley and Doctor had returned. She would praise Witley later for her mindfulness, of assisting Doctor home as Doctor was important to her. She promised him that they would do this together, whatever this was.

"What is their status?" she requested.

"Exhaustion," Janelle listed, "blood loss, time lag. They are wounded, but the Key had taken them to Eris, as was expected."

Nocte narrowed her eyes, suspicious. "'As was expected'?"

The Winds shared a look.

"The Key for returning to Erisire was given to us by Erisiren Councillor Ān Guó," Ivy informed.

Nocte contemplated this, shuttering her eyes to hide her thoughts, but her strange quietness alerted the Winds of her change in mood. Before the Winds could pry in their subtle and exhausting ways, Pyralis intervened.

"What are you thinking?" the alchemist asked, not moving from the door.

"It was Councillor Ān Guó who hastened my return, transporting me across stars," Nocte sounded her thoughts, frowning. "If he was able to do so, why not earlier? Why now? What are his plans? And are all the Erisiren councillors involved?"

"We have considered the same, mistress," Ivy concurred. "We have been very cautious in our approach."

As cautious as they could be, certainly the Erisiren councillors were not easy to deduce or thwart. They were the best magician-warriors the world had to offer; there were very few who could hope to challenge them, much less gather up the courage to do so. Even villains thought twice—thrice—before poking their ire. As they were not often seen or confronted, not many remembered their faces or talents.

Only their names.

At this point, Nocte did not know who was friend or foe. If she were to do battle with the Erisiren councillors as well as a reborn-Blackthorn, Nocte needed to play this carefully. There was also the most harmful and complicated: the Yin—her siblings. She did not know what they wanted or why they decided to wage a war alongside their once-enemies, but they had the most potential of hurting her—physically, emotionally, fatally.

They were her weakest points, and it pained her even now at the thought of confronting them.

She did not even know how her mother fared.

Nocte closed her eyes, reordering her thoughts until she calmed. Taking a calculated breath, Nocte thought of the players along her side of the board.

Her allies were few by comparison, but their loyalties unquestioned. Nocte observed the Winds' curious compassion and Pyralis's knowledgeable patience. She would have to be vigilant in how she moved and how the others moved as well—she would have to put the pieces where most influential and helpful for their cause.

"Tell Aeolus to escort the seventh son of the seventh son to his clan," Nocte instructed. "Tell him that I am safe and doing the best I can to mitigate the situation as I know more of it. I will contact him, but I cannot say how soon. Tell him…that we are in this together."

Christine nodded, thumb on her cell phone and already relaying her message through text.

"For now, we must see Ebony," Nocte finalized. It was what Erisiren Councillor Ān Guó wanted, and her sister was situated on the same continent as the Blackthorn's beloved country Yhaemel. With the Erisiren councillor, the Blackthorn and the Yin intersected in this action, Nocte hoped to catch a hint of the war's severity, the councillor's devise and the Blackthorn's mood.

Nocte knew, too, that of all her siblings, Ebony was the most sympathetic and maternal.

"Have Witley meet us at Ebony's castle after Doctor's safety has been secured within his clan—with the most trustworthy of the Lucent members." Nocte grabbed her coat and quickly dressed. "Say nothing to no one. The empress must not know of my return. Not yet." It would only alert their enemies.

Ebony would be the least likely to cast her away if she were to ask for her.

"Yes, mistress," the Winds intoned, dipping their heads again.

Or so Nocte hoped.

"One thing," Pyralis cut in.

Nocte paused in wrapping the scarf around her neck.

"Two must stay in our place," Pyralis said. "You and I will have to take on the robes of the Examiners."

"'Examiners'?" Nocte quoted.

"Those who are in service of the Blackthorn to keep a close eye on the students of Evil Academy," Pyralis explained, fingers skimming the razor-sharp edge of her bangs. For others, it might seem like a nervous gesture, but Nocte saw it as it truly was: annoyance and maddening. "The Blackthorn had struck a compromise with the Headmaster Rahu: surveillance for the campus's safety."

Nocte saw the strained pinch at Pyralis's eyes even if the alchemist may not have known of her tell. Nocte could only guess at what the "Examiners" had put Pyralis through, being the Lady Alchemist and not only the roommate, but friend of the "missing" Lady Necromancer. How long, Nocte wondered, had Pyralis hid her association with the Winds from prying eyes and ears, waiting every day, every night, for Nocte's return…one hand posed over the phone to inform the Winds of her return—for a small glimpse or slim news of her safety.

Pyralis must have been waiting for her all this time. Nocte could not hope to leave behind her friend.

Nocte owed Pyralis more than words could express.

Again, Nocte blinked away the tears. She strode forward and took Pyralis by the hand. Pyralis pulled away, but Nocte held fast.

"Thank you," Nocte said, pressing her palm against her friend's. "For everything. Your life would've been safer without me in it."

Pyralis rolled her eyes, a thin camouflage of her love. "It would also be boring."

Nocte smiled, weak and hopeful. Squeezing Pyralis's hand one more time, Nocte released her hold and faced the Winds. "Who will stay? I'm assuming you have several plans in place before I charged in?"

Kara smiled that dreamy smile of hers and Janelle chuckled.

"Kara and I will stay," Janelle confirmed. "We will clean up before leaving. Shall we meet you at Lady Ebony's as well?"

Nocte thought on this before shaking her head. "One of you should be at Laurel Tree and the other to the Yin Manor." At Kara's quizzical look, Nocte explained, " My mother—"

"—had been taken to Lady Ebony's," Ivy informed.

Again, relief washed through Nocte. Ebony was, after all, the most sympathetic and maternal of her siblings. "Good," Nocte concluded. "Even so, one of you should be at the Yin Manor. There are…weapons and magic there that I do not want others to have access to. Excavate whatever you can fine. Perhaps—" Nocte was suddenly struck with a genius thought. "—check with my great-grandmother." There was wonder in her voice, soft and loving. "Please, see how she fares."

"She is residing at the Yin Palace," Janelle comforted.

Nocte nodded. "You may tell her that I have returned." Of all the Yin, Great-Grandmother Lian cared, genuinely cared, for their wellbeing. "Anything else?"

The Winds shook their head.

"Then let's get dressed," Nocte concluded, picking up her coat from where she had placed it on Pyralis's bed. "Oh, and ask Aeolus how Chantée and Alex fare. If they are well—please."

If the Winds were confused, they hid it well. After so many years in Nocte's service, Nocte's penchant for making friends in unlikely places was neither sudden nor surprising. In fact, it was almost expected.

"Like, of course," Christine acknowledged, thumbs already in mid-text.

Nocte smiled, small and careful and tired, and almost grimaced when one of the scabs on her lower lip opened, bleeding and sore and ugly. Her left side ached from being run through and her bruised eye throbbed from a bad landing, her legs and arms were battered and scratched, and her head was tender and fragile…

But she lived.

And at that moment, remembering an endless fall into an icy cavern and a vast tundra turning instantly to dust and grey and nothingness…Nocte could not have wanted anything more. Not when Pyralis touched her wrist, feather-light and glancing, and reminding her that they was still some fight left in her.

xxx

Zhen Xue Qing

甄雪清