Saturday, August 13, 2016

Maywitch Chapter 7: Ash

Previous Chapter: Living Things
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Kay’s first instinct was to attempt to save Juan and call for Nadia, but before she could, Perry brought the knife around and swung at Kay’s neck.
Kay stumbled back and launched another salvo of flames. Somewhere nearby, the gray-haired woman cackled as Perry raised a shield and the fireballs disintegrated.
Was Perry possessed? The gray-haired woman and Dustin both seemed to have their senses about them. If both of them were still in action, then either there was a possessor hiding in the shadows, or Perry was acting of her own free will.

“Perry, what the fuck?” Kay yelled, raising a shield to protect her back from the gray-haired woman.
Perry lunged at her, and Kay leapt to the right, landing hard on the cold floor. “Nadia!” she said as she rolled over, trying to regain her footing. “Nadia, help Juan!”
Nadia, though, was pinned down in the corner, fighting with a knife and small bursts of wind magic as Holly fought to keep a shield up. Whatever Dustin was doing, it was working.
The gray-haired woman and Perry both ran at Kay at once. Kay struggled to her feet and raised her bleeding palms, muttering forbidden words of a hex beneath her breath.
The flames ripped themselves from her hands with a screech, like metal scraping stone, and even Perry’s shield wasn’t enough to stop it. The woman disappeared in a tornado of blinding yellow flames less than three feet from Kay. The heat was burning Kay’s face, but she was powerless to stop it. She could only close her eyes as the fire billowed out of control.
She heard a yell of pain, and realized the gray-haired woman was still alive. Kay forced herself to open her eyes and could see a faint green oval amidst the flames.
She used all of her strength to weaken the flames, but she could tell by the smoky haze in the room that the ceiling had caught fire. It was only a matter of time before the whole building was ablaze. She looked to her left, where Nadia knelt behind a shield, holding Holly’s limp body.
But where was Dustin?
A battered, pale form burst from the smoke and flames, launching himself at the gray-haired woman. It was Dustin. Holly must have possessed him - but if he died before she left his body, she would die too. It was a risky move.
The woman shrieked with rage and hit Dustin with a spell that knocked him on his back with a thump. A second later, she turned to Kay and tried to cast something her way as well.
Kay raised a shield and glanced over at Nadia and Holly. Holly had regained consciousness, but Dustin wasn’t moving. Now was their chance to escape. Ash and debris were raining down from the ceiling, and the smoke was intensifying. They were in a vulnerable position if they stayed underground without any backup scheduled to come.
“Where’s Juan?” Nadia yelled.
As the gray-haired woman paused to ready another attack, vials in hand, Kay looked toward where Juan had fallen. She couldn’t see him amidst the smoke and debris. Part of the ceiling was already raining down flaming wood, and her eyes were almost useless with the smoke stinging them.
Something hit her hard, and she flew backward, hitting her head against the wall. For a moment, she couldn’t see, and could feel herself losing consciousness.
Then Nadia grabbed her and dragged her upright, yelling in her ear. Kay’s skull throbbed in protest, and her lungs were stinging - smoke, she realized after a moment. There was a green glow of a shield nearby, but other than that, all she could see was Nadia and thick, billowing smoke in the red haze. Nadia’s healing magic had to be the only thing keeping her upright, Kay thought as she coughed heavily.
“Let’s go!” Nadia said.
Holly, who was casting a shield between them and the other woman, doubled over coughing as she stumbled backward. Nadia pulled Kay toward the door, and once all three of them were in the hallway, they made a break for the stairwell.
Kay could barely feel her legs, but she forced herself to run. Something moved in the flickering shadows ahead of them. Nadia waved her hand, and Kay could hear a howl of pain as a gust of wind sent the creature flying into the wall.
“Hurry up,” Nadia said, before casting one last glance into the flames behind them.
Holly grabbed Kay’s other arm, pulling her into the stairwell. Kay felt nausea rush over her, but adrenaline overpowered it and let her move shakily up the stairs.
They reached the main floor, where the air was slightly clearer, and rested for a few seconds before stumbling into the parking lot. Kay could see smoke and flames billowing from the basement windows and part of the first floor. The stained glass accents around the building - what remained of them, anyway - seemed to wink as fire began to dance behind them.
She could hear Nadia retching in the grass nearby. She wondered for a moment if the fire department was on its way, but figured they were likely tied up with other fires.
She thought about calling for paramedics, at least, but realized with a pang that they wouldn’t do much good anymore.
She sprawled out on the warm concrete as sweat dripped from her skin. Her head was pounding. She could feel blisters on her arms, but they barely registered in the fog of pain and heat.
The last thing she remembered was the sound of sirens.

Everything hurt, but her head hurt the most, with pain seeming to echo between her ears. Her throat and mouth felt as dry as summer pavement. Eventually, she coughed, and something nearby made a noise in response.
“Kay?” a voice said.
Something nudged her arm, and she recoiled. “Easy - you’re back, Kay,” the voice said, closer this time.
Kay’s eyes flew open, and Meilan’s face came into focus, silhouetted against a white ceiling. “How are you feeling?” Meilan asked.
Kay shook her head. “Where’m I?”
“The base. It’s a little after 0700. You’ve been out a while.”
“How?”
Meilan sighed and adjusted something to Kay’s right. “Paramedics found you and then we took custody of you. Got some smoke inhalation, burns, a concussion, and general exhaustion from over-exerting yourself. You used a ton of magic, it seems, but you’ll be fine.”
Kay stared at the ceiling for a long moment, trying to piece together the fragments of moments dancing in her brain. She remembered the fire, the panther, a gray-haired woman, and a man named Dustin. She looked down at her arms, where bandages covered several inches of skin.
Then, with a jolt, she remembered Perry.
“Juan’s dead.” It was a statement, not a question.
Meilan grimaced as she nodded. “Cause of death to be determined, but it looks like it wasn’t your fault…”
“I know.” Kay slowly began to sit up, waving Meilan away when she tried to help. “Holly?”
“She’s fine. In fact, I’ll go let her know you’re awake.”
Kay started to shake her head, but winced as pain shot up through her neck. Why was she still in such terrible condition? “Where’s Nadia?”
Meilan’s face darkened further. For a moment, the only sound was the dull, dry hiss of the air conditioning, and Kay felt her chest tighten. “We’re not sure,” Meilan said. “She got you out of there, but after that, she vanished.”
Kay stared across the room. She thought back to the mission some two days prior, when Nadia had apparently been skulking around on her personal phone in the middle for the assignment. What, if anything, was she doing? If she had made it out of the church alive, what possible justification could she have for running off afterward?
Meilan seemed to notice her concern, and added: “It’s not unheard of for people to end up missing a ride back to the base afterward, especially since your squad leader was killed, but let us know if you have any idea where she might be.”
“Sure,” Kay said, stretching. “Is there anything else I can do right now?”
“Gardner wanted to see you as soon as you were awake and functioning. Are you feeling okay?” Meilan’s brow furrowed. “You can say no, if you’re not.”
“I want to talk to her, especially if she’ll tell me what’s going on.”
Meilan nodded and stepped back to the counter, where her cell phone was plugged into a charger on the wall. Kay suddenly wondered how long the nursing staff had been awake. “Okay, she’s on her way,” Meilan said after a moment. “Look sharp.”
Kay rubbed her eyes. She felt surprisingly well, considering the amount of fire and smoke she had escaped, but she still felt physically drained.
When Gardner appeared a few minutes later, she had dark circles under her eyes. Her uniform jacket was wrinkled, and her name badge was crooked, as if it had fallen off and been re-attached in a hurry. Kay had never met her before, and had to wonder if she always looked like that, or if she had just been up all night. “Glad you’re okay, Adamis,” Gardner said.
Kay nodded. “Likewise. What even happened?”
Gardner sighed and rubbed her temples. "Here's what we think we know. The woman you guys fought goes by Renaya. We don't even know if that's her real name, nickname, or what. We think she's a possessor, not a demon-summoner, and we’re pretty sure she survived the fire last night."
"How do you guys know all that?"
"We've been keeping tabs on her for several months, after the explosions in rural Illinois. We just didn’t know anything for sure until now. Yesterday, she didn't arrive in Denver until right before the quakes started. We think there was someone else who summoned a bunch of demons - one of which you guys fought in the stairwell of the church, it seems, and another four of which our mages killed on the outskirts of town."
Kay sucked in a breath. No wonder it had been just a small group of them going into the church - the others had their hands full.
"We've determined with relative certainty that the earthquakes are a direct result of demon-summoning spells. We're not sure if all such spells result in quakes, though." Gardner's lips tightened, and a flash of anger lit up her eyes for a moment. "I wish we knew more, but we thought demon-summoners were a dead race. We thought we contained the last of them over a century ago. That goal was part of the reason why Maywitch was created in the first place."
Witchcraft's history had never been of much interest to Kay, and her mother had only given her vague, fleeting glimpses into its depths. Now, she wished she had paid more attention and tried to learn more. She leaned back against her pillow, her head aching horribly.  “We were created to… get rid of demon-summoners?”
“Contain the last of them, anyway, until they died off. Our efforts to be humane about it apparently allowed some to reproduce.” Gardner sighed. “There are some ethical arguments to be made about how we handled it, but that’s a discussion for another time.”
Kay frowned. It sounded suspiciously like eugenics. "Okay," she said. "How much does the public know about what happened?”
"About last night? A little too much, unfortunately. We're doing damage control, but the government conspiracy crowd is already all over this." Gardner’s upper lip twitched, but she didn't smile.
"Casualties?"
"No civilians, mercifully. Next time we won't be so lucky. Three of ours dead, including Perry. Did Perry give any indication that anything was wrong before she snapped?”
Kay gritted her teeth and stared down at her lap. She didn't want to think about Perry. Even if she did, she didn't know what to think, and didn't know what questions to even ask.
"No,” she said. “I can’t think of anything. She was quiet, I guess, but I don’t even know if that’s her normal personality.”
“Let me know if you do think of anything. We’re investigating possibilities ranging from long-term possession to some kind of spell we haven’t seen before. Maybe it was just plain betrayal, though.”
Kay suppressed a shudder. “And Nadia? Where did she go?"
"She's AWOL. We know she made it outside alive, but she disappeared after that. If you hear anything from her, you let us know immediately."
"Right. Is Holly okay?"
"Yes, physically, but we're trying to let her get some rest. I think whatever happened with Perry shook her up considerably."
"She doesn't…" Kay stopped, searching Gardner's expression. "She doesn't blame herself, does she?"
Gardner sighed. "She does. She didn't figure out what was happening quickly enough to possess her and stop it. But she'll get over that. We still have no idea how or why Perry did what she did, and that makes everything that much worse for Holly, I think."
"Because if anyone's at fault, though, it's me--"
"No, you’re not," Gardner said. "If it's anyone's fault, it's mine, for sending you and the others into something that dangerous. It wasn't supposed to be your team going into the church. We thought it would still be manageable for a group of five with your respective Combat Classes, but we still shouldn’t have taken that chance."
They fell silent, and only the beeping of something nearby kept the silence from suffocating Kay. "We're going to work incredibly hard on your training, from here on out," Gardner said. "And it'll be tedious and hard at times, but you'll do it, if you want to keep this from happening again. I was never planning on sending you into such dire situations, but our forces are thinning out.”
Kay nodded. There was no sense in arguing. Now that she was in Maywitch at a time like this, there was no getting out of it. There was no way they would let her leave - and even if she did, there was no guarantee that Renaya or the demon-summoner wouldn’t come after her next.
She officially knew too much, and had been seen by too many enemies, to return to the way things were in Houston.

Meilan and another healer worked well into the next evening to get Kay's head and lungs fully healed. The burn marks started to heal as well, and by the time she was discharged from the clinic, she was beginning to feel normal again. Her breathing was steady and strong, and the pain from her remaining burns was mitigated with healing salve.
When she arrived back at her room, she considered knocking on Holly's door, but decided against it. She went into her own room and found a thick book on the nightstand.
There was a handwritten note set on top of it, which read:
Here's your homework for tonight. Read chapters 3-5 and come to the conference room at 9 a.m. tomorrow. Be ready to discuss recognition of basic spells. You'll need to learn their ingredients too - even if you have no intention of ever using them.
- F.G.
That must be Gardner, Kay thought as she examined the book, titled Magical Defense Theory. It had to be over thirty years old, with the amount of wear and tear on the outside.
She crawled into bed, wincing at the pain still lingering in her neck, and opened the book. Luckily, it had diagrams and charts, instead of just a wall of text. She had never done well in school when books were involved. She was too much of a visual learner.
As she began to read, the pages blurred before her eyes, and she had to stop to blink back tears. It was frustrating - stupidly fucking frustrating - that she had to be learning the basics at that point. Growing up, she had no desire to practice magic, since using it in everyday life was so risky. None of her friends were mages - not after things had gone south with her and Nadia, anyway. The only mage she knew besides her mother was the old lady down the street back in Houston. Why would she learn anything other than fire and shields, which were all she needed for self-defense?
And now she was paying the price for it. She hadn't even been able to bring back Juan's body - or protect him, or heal him, or anything - because all she was capable of was blazing, deadly fire. It was possible that she wouldn't be much good at other types of magic, but she wouldn't know until she actually tried.
She didn't give a rat's ass about Maywitch or meddling in the affairs of other mages, but she sure as hell didn't want to see anybody else around her suffer. She wiped her eyes and started to read again, struggling to commit the foreign words and names of plants and stones to memory.

A muffled knock roused her from her sleep. She blinked and sat up, the book falling from her chest. She had fallen asleep with the lights on.
She crossed to the door and opened it. Holly stood outside, hair unkempt and eyes red. She looked unharmed, but it was possible her blue bathrobe was hiding the injuries from the previous mission.
"Hey," Kay said. "You okay?"
Holly nodded. "Gardner said you'd been released. You okay, though?"
"Yeah. Anything on Nadia?"
"Not yet, but…" Holly smiled. "Don't worry. She might have run off to check on someone or something and got caught up in the chaos."
"You really think that?"
Holly flinched, and Kay immediately regretted her choice of words. "Sorry, but you know Gardner doesn't even know where she is, right?" she continued.
"I know, but you don't know how crazy things can sometimes get around here," Holly said, her eyes narrowing. "Phones get broken. People get separated. She could’ve been taken to a hospital and released before we could catch her. If our comms weren't so heavily secured, she probably would've found a way to contact us by now. She’ll turn up soon."
For a fleeting moment, Kay wanted to tell her about Nadia's suspicious phone usage during their mission in Las Vegas, but decided against it. Maybe Holly was right. "Okay, fair enough," Kay said. "I hope you're right."
Holly pulled her phone from her pocket and frowned. "I got a meeting with one of Gardner's brass. You got training in a half hour, right?"
"Shit, I do?"
"It's 8:30," Holly said, a smile drifting into her eyes. "You overslept?"
"You could say that. Thanks for the wake-up call. How did you know I had training?"
"Gardner asked me to drop by," Holly said.
Kay smiled, but it felt insincere. Juan was dead. Perry, fresh back from medical leave, was incinerated by Kay's own flames. It still felt raw. The half-healed burns on Kay's arms twinged as she raised a hand in a wave. "Thanks."
"Take it easy, okay?" Holly turned and walked down the hall, her shoulders tense with worry.

Four days after the earthquakes, Nadia hadn't reappeared. Kay watched as Holly's face grew more and more distraught with each passing morning, until it looked as if she would cry at a moment's notice.
Rumors swirled about Nadia: her phone had been tracked to somewhere in suburban Denver before being turned off; a book of forbidden hexes had been found in her room; a police officer had seen her setting a school ablaze and fleeing into nearby woods.
Kay took them all with a grain of salt, and figured it wasn't worth it to add to the furor with any rumors of her own. After all, who really cared if Nadia had been on her personal phone in the middle of the mission in Las Vegas? That didn't tell them anything about where she was or what she might be doing.
And, Kay thought, the last thing she wanted was for that to get twisted into something crazy before getting traced back to her. The less she got grilled by Gardner and the other higher-ups, the better. The entire base was on edge, and Kay could almost taste the paranoia in the air with each breath. From the chatter around her, she could tell that deaths at Maywitch used to be rare, but the number of fatalities had risen dramatically in the past few months.
At the memorial service for Juan, there was no mention of Perry's betrayal. Gardner, clad in all black, offered strong words for Juan's intelligence and willingness to charge into any battle.
Yeah - with a team full of untrained brats barely old enough to vote, Kay thought bitterly. Even if Nadia was somewhat trained, she apparently couldn't do much besides heal and conjure shields. Maybe that's why she had left: she had defected, unwilling to face the danger and chaos of their desperate, disorganized militia.
As several mages lit incense and recited rites over Juan's casket, Kay glanced to her right and saw Holly crying several seats down. She had to be traumatized. This had been her home for several months, and the pain of seeing someone she cared about stabbed and burned to charred bone by colleagues had to be horrible.
Kay, on the other hand, was still too stunned to feel much of anything. At the end of the service, she waited in line to offer her blessing over the casket, as was customary for mages, and walked away.
She stopped at the assembly hall's main doors, though, and turned around to wait for Holly. That, at least, she could do.

When Holly finished comforting another mage twenty minutes later, she and Kay walked silently toward their dorms, not looking at each other. Holly spoke first: "You have training again in the morning, right?"
"Yeah," Kay said. "I have a few questions about possession, if you have time--"
They rounded a corner, and Kay stopped short, her stomach lurching. Ahead of them stood Nadia, hair and clothing soaked from the rainstorms aboveground. 
Holly started to say something, but stopped. Nadia offered a reluctant half-wave, her exhaustion apparent in her gesture.
Then, the words left Kay's lips before she could stop herself: "Oh, this better be fucking good."
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