Saturday, August 6, 2016

Maywitch Chapter 6: Living Things

Previous Chapter: Liar
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Just over an hour later, the helicopter touched down at what appeared to be a hospital. Juan rushed off the helipad toward a parking lot, waving at the others to follow him.
Kay hadn’t thrown up, but she still felt shaky as she lumbered after the others. She tried to give herself a pep talk, and had almost succeeded when her thoughts were interrupted by a tremor beneath her feet.
Nadia whirled around, eyeing the multi-story hospital fifty feet to their right, but quickly calmed down. Juan yelled something at them, but it was drowned out by a nearby car alarm.

Kay jogged after Juan, and the other three women followed. Juan waved to the driver of a beat-up, two-door pickup truck and motioned to the bed of the truck. The driver waved back, and Kay realized the driver must have been arranged by Maywitch. Nadia jumped in the back without even lowering the tailgate. Kay nearly fell as she attempted to climb in, and Nadia caught her hand.
Kay didn’t even have the energy to be annoyed. She carefully sat down against a wheel well, and when the others were seated, the truck took off with a jolt.
The earthquake seemed to have ended, though it was hard to tell for sure with the movement of the truck. As they drove down side streets toward downtown, traffic lights were out. Pedestrians milled about, usually staying out of the way of cars but sometimes walking in front of them. They were lucky it wasn’t the middle of the night, Kay thought.
A police car stopped them at a large intersection, but waved them through after a conversation with the driver. The truck swerved into a nearby parking lot and skidded to a halt. Juan immediately jumped out. He handed a small bag to Nadia as he barked: “You all follow closely and keep quiet. If I give the order to fire, aim to kill, not disable.”
Kay felt her legs grow weak again as she climbed out of the truck bed. She hadn’t signed up for killing people. She looked at Holly, who was biting her fingernails as Juan handed her a fistful of vials containing various herbs.
Nadia and Perry, on the other hand, seemed completely calm as they followed Juan down the sidewalk. Holly smeared something on her cheeks - charcoal, Kay realized after a moment, to help control fire magic - before following.
Kay reached into her pocket, pulled a stick of charcoal from a plastic bag, and did the same. No sense in burning down a church if she could help it. She was so nervous that she felt like her hands would spark and burst into flame at any second.
Juan took them around a corner, and a large, gothic church came into view, its stained-glass windows damaged by the quakes. A few police cars had blocked traffic down the street, but otherwise, the area seemed to be mostly abandoned. They were outside the heart of downtown, where there could still be people trying to get home.
There was a tall apartment building right next to the church, though. Kay suddenly found herself desperately hoping that the church would end up being a false alarm, just like the house that the others had searched the night before. She didn’t look forward to potentially fighting indoors, much less in a heavily populated area.
Juan suddenly stopped, peered across the street at the church, and muttered an incantation. Nothing happened, and it took Kay a moment to realize that it was an aura-shielding spell. No sense in getting caught because of a sensitive mage among the enemy’s ranks. It wasn’t unheard of for some mages to be able to sense others from quite a distance.
As he waved over his shoulder, Juan started to run across the street. Kay could barely lift her feet to follow. Why wasn’t there someone else at Maywitch – someone stronger, someone with more experience - who could do this? Why were they the backup team in such a dangerous situation?
She ground her teeth and reached for a bag of wormwood in her pocket. No sense in whining now, she thought bitterly as they crossed the church’s parking lot.
Juan tried the side door, but it was locked, and he glanced over his shoulder only briefly before blasting it open with a few words and a wave of his palm. If there were enemies in the church, they definitely heard the noise. Kay considered trying to cast a silence spell to conceal future noise, but realized that would also keep them from hearing any potential threats approaching. Every spell had its unintentional side effects.
Juan ran in, followed immediately by Nadia and Perry. Holly glanced over at Kay before running in next, and Kay followed, struggling to keep her legs from shaking.
The power was out inside the church, and only sunlight from the windows illuminated the wide hallway they had entered. Juan paused before heading to the right, his shadow casting ripples of darkness on the old stone walls.
Kay found herself jumping at every sound and shadow as they went. Holly was clearly just as nervous, her eyes darting about wildly and her neck craning to see the source of every noise. Sweat poured down Kay’s face, and she wiped her forehead with charcoal-stained hands as they walked down two short hallways.
Juan paused before an open stairwell near the entrance to the sanctuary. Kay felt her heart pounding in her throat as her senses urged her to keep moving. He seemed to steel himself for a moment before nodding to the others and darting down the dark stairwell.
He had to be just as scared as everyone else, Kay thought, pushing her way past Nadia to follow him. His magical abilities weren’t even that strong, were they? And God forbid he should get in the way of  Kay or Holly’s fire spells.
Juan’s footsteps echoed in the stairwell, no matter how softly he stepped, and the volume only increased as the others began to tiptoe behind him. It was a peaceful sound, like the white noise of a distant highway on a summer night, but it was still terrifying to know that it could give away their presence.  Kay found herself holding her breath until her lungs wanted to explode.
There was a soft scraping noise somewhere behind then, and she whirled around. A vaguely humanoid figure leapt down from the landing above them, its contorted face glowing orange in the burst of light that had appeared.
She instinctively lashed out, flames bursting from her hands, but Holly had beat her to it. The blinding light made Kay shut her eyes. Scalding heat filled the air, and she recoiled, nearly falling down the steps behind her.
The figure let out a piercing shriek and began to stumble backward as Kay opened her eyes again. Holly’s flames faded and were replaced by a shield, courtesy of Nadia, and the creature thrashed against the thin green haze before crumpling against the stairs.
“Let’s go,” Juan said, his voice shaking as he jumped down several stairs.
Kay followed, not wanting to be anywhere near the thing that had just chased them, and she heard the others’ footfalls thumping behind her. When they reached the bottom landing, Juan barged out of the stairwell without stopping, his palms outstretched.
There was another dark hallway before them, but it was short, and Kay could see someone’s silhouette in a well-lit room up ahead.
“Get ready!” Juan said, his hands glowing. “Shields up!”
Somewhere nearby, Nadia spoke a rumble of syllables, and a green glow appeared before Kay again. She couldn’t find the pride to be annoyed by Nadia protecting her. All she cared about was getting out of this alive.
Just as Juan’s shield came up, there was a loud, haughty cackle in the room ahead. A hulking mass emerged from in the doorway, crouching low, slinking toward the intruders with glimmering eyes.
It was a panther. Kay’s heart jumped into her throat. Witchcraft shields didn’t work on Earthly flesh and bone - only magic, demons, and non-living things. They could stop a bullet, but they were useless against even the smallest of insects.
She opened her mouth to say something to Juan, but the giant cat leapt forward, its growls echoing in the tiny hallway.
Juan dropped his shields and pulled something from his pocket. Just as Kay raised a hand and was about to unleash her flamecasting, collateral damage or not, the panther thudded limply to the floor – probably thanks to some kind of stunning spell, she thought. Without even hesitating, Juan stepped over it and ran into the next room, with Kay and the others close behind.
The room was lit only by candles, but their light spread over every inch of the fifty-foot-square space. A young woman leaned against the far wall, her expression unreadable as she surveyed her guests. Short, gray hair fell in waves around the side of her face, and a heavy red pendant rested against her collarbone. She wore a gray dress that was slightly singed around the bottom hem. Kay saw wounds on her arms that looked suspiciously like half-healed burn marks.
“Quake magic is easy to trace,” Juan said, nodding to the woman. “Come with us. You can’t keep this up—”
The woman’s eyes flicked upward for a split second, and Kay instinctively raised her eyes in time to see something black falling from the low ceiling beams. She threw her left palm up and shot fire upward as she pushed Juan away from the thing’s trajectory.
Her flames missed, but she moved quickly enough to keep the thing - whatever it was - from falling on her. As it landed on four legs, it whirled around, snarling, and she realized it was another panther. Juan raised a shield to deflect an attack from the gray-haired woman, and in the same instant, Kay launched her flames at the panther as it lunged at her. It was forced backward and fell in a burnt, twitching heap.
Someone yelled behind Kay, and she looked up again just in time to see a man swinging a blade downward at her and Juan. The floor beneath her seemed to give way, and she fell sideways against Juan, tumbling to the floor as there was a yell of pain above her.
Juan grunted in pain as Kay fell against him, and she scrambled to her feet. Pain shot through her right arm, and for a moment, she feared it was sprained or broken. The floor had apparently spiked upward and knocked them away from their assailant, who now lay on the floor some ten feet away. Kay guessed that one of her comrades had sent some kind of spell through the floor. The man with the long knife immediately rose and cast a shield about himself.
“Good try, Dustin,” said the woman against the wall. She had vials of herbs in each hand, and Kay knew she was readying her next attack. “I’ll take these first two. Surely you can handle the others, right?”
Unsure of what to do, Kay glanced down at Juan, who was finally getting to his feet. The other man - Dustin, Kay assumed – nodded and charged toward Nadia and Holly.
Perry, though, did nothing. Kay watched her for a moment before Juan yelled something and a strong wind began to blow.
Kay turned back to face their opponent just as Juan activated a shield, blocking the gust of wind that had threatened to knock them over. The woman charged, pulling something from her pocket. The gust had been a ruse as she was preparing her next attack.
Juan lowered his shield, and Kay launched flames toward the woman, who dove sideways to avoid the blast. Before Kay could adjust, there was a strangled, gurgling noise beside her.
She turned just in time to see Perry pulling a knife from Juan’s neck, and blood falling to the floor with a sound like heavy rain.
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