Rhiley awoke to the sound of screaming.
Before he'd fallen, before the oblivion of pain and merciful unconsciousness, there had been screaming, too. The yells of the enraged and triumphant had made a clashing chorus to the dirge of the dying and wounded. But that was then.
Now there was only the screams of the terrified and the snarls of monsters.
It took a long time for the rest of his body to wake up. The first sensation came from a throbbing in his head—and the black, black, blackness in the cavity where his left eye used to be. The darkness was so whole and complete and unwanted it was a physical pain, a throbbing pang in time with each heartbroken beat of his heart. He put the thought away for now. There were other things he needed to worry about. Even if—even if, because Emery outranked him; because of the twisted, nonsense law of the Vorvintti, chances were the eye would never heal—
No. These thoughts were useless.
Rhiley forced open his right eye. The charred black legs of desks and chairs met his weary gaze, as did the blackened curl of linoleum. He put his palm against the plastic in wonder: It was warm to the touch, as was, after he carefully ran his fingers over them, the metal of the desk legs. Slowly, slowly, as though he'd shatter if he went too quickly, Rhiley sat up. The room swam just a little as he put a steadying hand on the desk to his left—then missed the edge completely, falling back to the floor on hands and knees, his depth-perception off.
Gritting his teeth did little good; his fangs only dug into his bottom lip, drawing bitter blood. After a moment in which Rhiley allowed his misery to run rampant before he shut it away, a bizarre pattern begun to make itself known across the charred curls of linoleum. He followed the swirl of black and ash: It came from a single point, an epicentre of destruction. Rather than getting uneasily to his feet again he followed the burnt plastic on hands-and-knees to its source, the floor growing warmer and warmer as he went.
And at its epicentre, where Rhiley shouldn't have been surprised in the least, lay Morgan.
He was unconscious, drawing in rugged, rasping breaths in a fit of uneasy sleep. His glasses where gone, lying at his side with a deep crack running through one lens. Ash coated his JNDB uniform, patches and chunks missing from the violet fabric leaving smooth, unblemished skin beneath. Rhiley wished he had only been so lucky.
When he moved closer Rhiley noticed other things, strange things. Morgan's arms were curled loosely across his torso as though he had been cradling something before he had fallen unconscious. The black sooty ash thickened beneath his arms, and when Rhiley glanced down, piecing the evidence together—the scorch marks radiating from Morgan's feet, the ash on his coat—he could only come to one, hopeful conclusion:
Emery was dead.
It was over.
Without her strongest lieutenant, Talmira wouldn't dare continue her assault on the campus—
He had forgotten about the screams. They reached his ears now, with renewed terror this time. Talmira hadn't stopped her assault—on the contrary, by the sounds of things she had redoubled her efforts. Rhiley left Morgan to rest, crawling to the floor-to-ceiling windows lining one side of the classroom and peering into the red-coloured night below.
The massacre had grown. He couldn't believe it—Talmira, she couldn't have. She wouldn't dare use them.
He blinked his good eye several times, but the image wouldn't go away. They were here, here, in Jotai. Talmira's monsters.
The last Rhiley had heard of the beasts they were rumour, nothing more. The Kelaan spoke of them with hushed, terrified reverence; a final weapon on par with that of a suicide bomb.
And from what he could see, it was indeed suicidal to have them on the field.
Corpses of both Parlour fighters and Kelaan alike littered the field; the Unmade weren't discriminate with their prey in the least. It was stupid, Rhiley thought, to have brought those things over—with the mages dying at the Unmade's hands, Talmira's undead soldiers weren't able to come back to life, either. The Unmade couldn't make more of themselves without Talmira's intervention. At the end of all of this there will only be the Unmade and the creatures' master, Talmira, left alive. Rhiley realised then that summoning the Unmade was a very Talmira thing to do after all.
The screaming continued as the grey-scaled monsters went after friend and foe. Their claws and muscular legs churned the bloody mud unhindered as the Unmade went for throats and exposed limbs. The living weren't able to escape the loam so easily, getting sucked in the bog like quicksand. Prey ripe for the picking.
Rhiley shuddered, glad he wasn't on the battlefield. It would be easier for him to simply wait out the fight and for Talmira to move on; if she didn't, he'd simply convince her he was still on her side. With Emery dead there was a good chance she would accept him in desperation for a new lieutenant—
There, on the field. Dashing between Unmade, Kelaan and Talmira's undead—an uncanny blur of speed and grace.
An angel of gold.
No, that couldn't be right. Angels only existed in myth; there were none in Jotai that Rhiley had ever heard of before, especially not one as brilliant as this one. It had to be something else, then. A student, perhaps, or a teacher. Rhiley peered closer, willing his single eye to focus.
He placed his palms against the glass.
But no, it couldn't be—
It was Erin, but it wasn't. He was wreathed head-to-toe in gold upon gold; the tattoos on his arms, the blood pumping in his veins, it burned gold and bright and fierce, almost too bright to look at—even the roots of his copper-brown hair were yellow. And trailing behind him were a set of impossible bronze metal wings. They must have weighed a tonne each, but Erin moved and danced like they barely weighed a feather, the glittery gold sparkling impossibly in the mage-light.
But the beautiful image ended there, a much grizzlier one reaching Rhiley's eye—and his nose. Blood caked the cracks between the beautiful feathers of Erin's wings; it covered his shirt, his jeans, his shoes—it was drying on his golden arms and hands.
But there wasn't a scratch on him. It all—belonged to someone else.
Erin was mouthing something but at this distance Rhiley couldn't hear what it was. He finished whatever he was saying by swinging a gold-bladed sword in his right hand—a sword that hadn't been there moments ago and an exact replica of the one in his left—down onto an Unmade's distracted and exposed neck, cleaving right through the grey plate of its scales like butter. And Erin moved on, talking to himself because no one, living or otherwise, could keep up. Gracefully jabbing that gold blade into the chests of Kelaan. Cleaving the heads of Unmade from their shoulders. Viciously dicing Talmira's undead—brought back to the living by her mages—into bloodless pieces. He was relentless and quick, a desperate golden blur that Talmira's forces didn't even have the time to comprehend before they joined their comrades in the mud.
As he went the brown of his hair was slowly, slowly turning straw-yellow. What it could mean, Rhiley didn't know, but he had a feeling Erin's older brother would be keenly interested. He reluctantly turned away from the window, crawling back toward where Morgan still lay in troubled sleep.
Not a peep.
Rhiley grabbed Morgan's ankle, giving it a rigorous shake. "Hey. Wake up."
Nothing. Morgan snorted in his sleep, turning to the side with a frown, but nothing else. The skin beneath Rhiley's fingers was unusually cold; Morgan ran a heck of a lot hotter than this. Just what had happened between him and Emery when he had been asleep?
"Hey!" Rhiley grabbed Morgan's shoulders this time and considered holding Morgan's nose shut as he shook him. "It's your brother, man. Erin. Something's wrong with him. I think."
Morgan groaned. Then he snapped his eyes open. His wine-red squint wearily sought out Rhiley's face. "…Erin? Is he—is he okay?" He tried to gingerly push himself up, but it was no use.
Rhiley had never seen Morgan this weak before. "He's okay—well, I dunno, actually." He gestured outside the window. "You should probably look for yourself."
Rhiley had to help him up, but eventually the pair made it to the warm glass of the window.
Morgan squinted. "Where are my—glasses?"
"Oh, yeah." Rhiley went back to retrieve them, bumping into a couple desks and bruising his legs as he did so. This would take some getting used to…
Morgan slid his glasses back on his nose with clumsy fingers, but before he even bothered to glance at the battlefield, he peered at Rhiley first.
That gaze was too heavy.
"Rhiley, your eye…"
Rhiley shook his head, dismissive despite the turmoil he was feeling. "It'll heal."
"No it won't," Morgan growled. "I can hear what you're thinking. You don't think it will. Because of Emery—no, not even her. Because of me, because of how useless I am—"
"She's dead, isn't she!" Rhiley shook his head again, more vigorous this time, his anger mounting. "You killed her, right? That ain't useless. I came to save you, remember? Let me do my damn job."
Morgan clicked his tongue. "I'm not—I'm not worth it, Rhiley. You didn't need to do this for me—"
"Shut up," Rhiley groaned, but his voice betrayed the warmth in his chest. Morgan wasn't worth it?
That was just so—
"Shuuuut up," Rhiley repeated. "You—man, you're dumb. Not worth it? Not worth it? You saved me from rotting in Marl, you saved this stupid school from Emery—fuck, I've heard of all the shit you've done, and you're suddenly not worth it? Shut up. Grow up. People l-l-love you."
What a gross, human word.
But Rhiley had no other way to describe it.
Morgan paused, mouth agape. Then he shook his head with a smile. "You're such a—a little shit, you know that?" With the smile still hovering on his lips, Morgan pulled back the sleeve of his left arm, brought the skin to his teeth—and bit down, hard, fangs digging into the delicate flesh of his wrist. The blood that pooled beneath his lips was a red so dark it was nearly black, and it dripped almost sluggishly down his arm. It didn't steam right away, either; Rhiley had noticed Morgan's body-temperature was lower than normal, after all. Perhaps it was that, he thought. But before it could have a chance to steam, Morgan dipped two of his fingers in the red.
"I don't know—if this will work," he begun. "But if I can come through without a scratch…I'm gonna make sure you do, too."
Rhiley realised too late what Morgan was going to do before he could move away; he was so exhausted it was a miracle he was even standing. Once he realised what Morgan was trying to do though, he stilled.
Fingers dripping with blood, Morgan gently, gently, prodded the cavity left behind where Rhiley's left eye used to be.
A sharp sting, a throb of pain and pressure, before the blood got to work on repairing the wound. His eye socket throbbed and ached, a pressure building and building as the skin and muscle itched. He groaned, clamping his hand over his face as the ache built—
—then softened. And it was gone, just as quickly as it came. A small, dull ache behind his left eye, but that was all, and even that was fading fast. The wound—or what was left of it—was feverishly hot, the warmth seeping into the rest of his skin and obliterating any pain or ache it came across. After a few seconds the pain and exhaustion in his face—and indeed, the rest of his body—was disappearing, replaced by a warm, comforting molasses of numbness.
Rhiley took his palm away from his eyes slowly, almost reluctantly. What if it hadn't worked? What if it had sealed the wound, regrown the eye, but he still couldn't see?
He opened his eyes.
The world was a sea of red.
But it was just the dim red of mage-fire from beyond the window, countless fires casting their light into the third-floor classroom. Rhiley could see it all, clear as day despite the night.
His left eye was fine.
Like it had never gone. No, he swore his vision was even clearer than before, but that was probably just his mind playing tricks on him. After those few moments in total darkness even Morgan's vision without glasses would seem high-definition.
Morgan gasped when Rhiley's eyes found his.
"It's totally fine, I can see—"
"No, it's…it's not that." He was pursing his lips when he reached for the phone in his trousers—how the thing had survived so far given Morgan's streak of phone-destruction Rhiley had no idea—and tapped the screen. "It's—well…" Morgan turned the phone toward Rhiley, the camera switched to selfie-mode.
Rhiley squinted at himself. His sandy hair was a mess, spots of blood matted in the roots, and his face looked like it needed about twelve years' worth of sleep but otherwise—
He paused, turning his face so the camera caught his left side.
The eye Morgan had just saved, the one Rhiley had thought was lost forever. It wasn't his eye anymore. The violet was gone, gone, gone. It was so out of place, so unexpected, so bizarre, he couldn't help but reel back in shock. Because in place of the purple was a deep, wine red. And no, not just any red either. It was Morgan's red.
Rhiley tilted his head this way and that, the red catching the light. He found his voice after a long moment and a swallow past the lump in his throat. "…Cool."
"Cool? That's it?"
Rhiley grinned. "Yeah, cool."
He shook his head dismissively. "It's cool. I thought it was gone, y'know? So this is an improvement over gone."
"But it's my fault—"
The more he thought about it the cooler it was. It added a vicious, asymmetrical savage beauty to his baby-like face. Vorvintti were always so deceptive, their appearances always at odds with what they were really like inside. Wolves in sheep clothing.
It was probably one of the things that had drawn him to Morgan, in the beginning. Morgan hid nothing behind his fierce red gaze, the flash of sharp teeth, or the pulse of gold veins. It was something Rhiley had always envied behind his soft pale cheeks and hair, through the 'oh, your eyes are so cute!' and 'you're so adorable, your mother must be proud.' It wasn't much, but it was just enough to make him feel a little better about himself.
"Are you sure it's okay?" Morgan asked, wiping the blood from his wrist on his trousers. The wound sealed sluggishly closed.
Rhiley shook his head. "It's fine, I'm serious. Just go look outside, will you? I did tell you something was up with Erin, but you didn't even give a shit—"
"You're right." Still rubbing his sore wrist, Morgan turned back to the mayhem broiling below.
His eyes widened, lips parting in surprise. "Is that—you don't mean—"
"The gold one, yes."
Morgan paused for a long moment. "Erin?"
"I'm pretty sure."
Rhiley risked a glance below. The mound of Kelaan behind Erin had grown in his wake, but the swings of his golden blade had grown more desperate, less accurate. It was like no matter how many he cut down, it wasn't enough. He had to have more.
Or he was racing against time.
Morgan seemed to have reached the same conclusion. Letting out a deep, long sigh, he said, "I should probably go help him out…"
Rhiley didn't feel so inclined.
He really didn't want to go.
Empress, he didn't want to go—
"I'm going too," he forced himself to say through clenched teeth.
"…You don't seem very enthusiastic…"
"Psshh, what're you talking about? I'm absolutely—no, I can't. I really don't wanna, but he's your brother. I—I owe you."
Morgan's frown deepened for a moment. "You don't really, Rhiley. It's an adult's responsibility, to look after kids."
Rhiley didn't know what to say to that. He had had so-called 'adults' looking after him his whole life, adults with hundreds of years of life under their belts. Look at where that had gotten him. "Adult…?" he grinned slowly after a long moment. "Adult where?"
The frown loosened. Then it cracked into a smile. "…You little shit. Fine, but I hope I can trust you not to get yourself hurt."
"If anyone's going to get hurt, it ain't me—"
"Rhiley." Morgan's tone was so serious Rhiley's grin couldn't help but dwindle. "I'm serious."
"…I know," Rhiley, equally earnest, assured. "Let's go and save your dumb baby brother."
Morgan peered down at Rhiley a moment longer, gaze lingering on his left eye, before he nodded.
"Erin's going to kill me."
The sounds of the battle had intensified in the five or so minutes Ren and Na'ya had been uneasily waiting for everything to be over.
When they had arrived at the front gates, to Ren's horror the pair had discovered that the Parlour's portal, used to take students from Jotai into whatever space the campus existed on, was closed for business. Key-card from Kaidyn or not, Ren couldn't get the damn thing to open. Even Na'ya's pass, the high-clearance on par with that of a teacher, was completely ineffective.
Ren didn't think Erin would appreciate him bringing Na'ya back onto the campus, so instead the pair had opted to simply sit outside the front gates, awaiting any opportunity to escape that might come.
So far, nothing. Not even one of the Parlour's students, desperate to escape the carnage, had come. Either they were doing very good and had no reason to escape, or…
"Why would Erin kill you?"
Na'ya rubbed at the exposed skin of her ashen arms, gooseflesh rippling beneath her fingers. The night air was anything but cold at the height of summer. It had to be the loss of her magic, Ren presumed. People with heavy blood loss often felt cold, didn't they?
Ren fingered the red dagger in his hand, watching the blade catch the mage-light as he considered his reply. Carefully translating the words into Jotean. The battle, the adrenaline, the chaos—it ruined his ability to think, prodded at the kitsune slumbering in agitated sleep beneath his skin. He shuddered intermittently with goosebumps of his own.
"I was supposed to get you out of here," he eventually mumbled. "If you get hurt while I am supposed to be looking after you—"
"Don't worry about it." Na'ya shook her head. "I—I can look after myself, anyway. But why," she turned to him, her snow-white eyebrows furrowed in a frown, "why does it matter what he thinks? You should be worried about Jaime, too. I mean, if you have to worry at all."
Ren's lips parted in surprise. "Well, I thought—I thought you two were…" He twined the index and middle finger of his left hand together.
Na'ya's frown turned into surprise—almost outright disgust. "Oh no. No, no, no, no, no. Erin? Me and Erin? Ha," she laughed, a barking laugh that held little humour. "Erin? He's not—I don't even think he's interested in that kind of thing."
She shook her head. "No, I mean like, romance, sex, all of it. He's not—it's not his thing?"
Ren nodded. "Sure, I understand."
"You don't sound like you do."
"No, I really do get it. He never seemed all that interested, either. You know him better than me though."
Na'ya let out a snort. "You're right, there. And anyway," she gestured down out her body, "don't think he'd be interested in kids, anyway. You're gross for thinking about it, ha ha."
"Oh, is this a permanent thing?"
She frowned. "Yeah, I'm just knocking around in a fourteen-year-old body for shits-and-gigs? Yeah Ren, good one. If this wasn't permanent, I would've found a way around it ages ago."
Ren flipped the red dagger around his finger, then clicked his tongue when the blade nicked the skin between his index finger and thumb. "My condolences," he said, sucking on the wound, the tang of copper bursting unpleasantly across his tongue.
"Like you give a—"
Na'ya paused. Her icy-blue eyes unfocused, staring out into nothing beyond the campus gates into the black night beyond. But she wasn't regressing into the empty shell she had been when Ren and Jaime had discovered her in the art building; no, her shoulders were tense with emotion, a horrified frown burrowing a trench into her forehead.
"What is it—"
"The Unmade," she said above a panicked whisper. "She's using the Unmade."
Ren had a very, very vague recollection having heard the term somewhere before, somewhere in his home country of Almischa years ago. "What?"
"We have to go. You need to take me back to the fight." When she got shakily to her feet her body swayed with the threat of passing out.
Ren was quick to hop up at her side, steadying her. "I'm not taking you anywhere."
Na'ya shook her head, desperate to shake out of Ren's, once steadying, now iron-hard grip. "Don't be fucking—don't stop me. The Unmade will kill them all! Jaime, Erin… Gone, they'll all be dead if we don't help them."
"And what can you do?" Ren pointed out. "You have no magic left."
Shaking out of Ren's grip—he let her go—Na'ya violently shrugged, "I don't know! Something! I have a little magic left, I think. Just enough to make a difference. If I don't—she'll kill them all, Kelaan, kids, teachers, it doesn't matter. The Unmade will kill them all. You have to let me go."
Ren shook his head. No matter how adamant she was on this, he needed to be more so—for not only her sake, but his and Erin's as well. "I can't do that, I'm sorry. How much help do you think you can be? What will you do once your magic runs out?" He took her silence and glance to the side as an affirmative. "You won't help anyone dead, Na'ya. Would Erin want that?"
"That isn't fair."
"I know. I know it isn't. But you need to think about it. Besides, what about that sword? You don't trust Jaime enough to have gotten Erin to it? You don't trust Erin to use it? Prosperity's sake, you don't trust your own vision, which you gave your magic up for? You've done enough Na'ya. You've done more than enough, and I mean that in the nicest way possible."
Na'ya sighed heavily, pinching the bridge of her nose. "…You're right. I guess."
She leaned back against the brick wall to the side of the gate, relishing the support it gave her weak legs. "Fine, you're right. There's nothing much else I—"
Na'ya's eyes widened once again as she stared into space, this time the fear far more palpable than before. Her body went instantly rigid, frozen in tangible shock. She pulled away from the wall, still staring into space as she whispered, "I'm sorry, Ren. I need to go."
"She has the King."