“Here it is,” Mayumi says, fumbling in the dark of the alley. “The door.”
Aliyah curses as she hits her knee on a loose brick. “Ow! Man, those kids are screamin’ their lungs out in there.”
Mayumi shudders. “If they’re seeing that…thing, I’m not surprised. We have to get them out.”
“What are they seeing, exactly?” Geryon asks.
It is amazing that he can even fit in the narrow alley. At first sight, he looked too bulky, too wide to fit a space where both May and Aliyah (mostly Aliyah) are having to negotiate with a slight, sideways tilt to their bodies. But now he is fitting snuggly, only the outer edges of his folded wings grazing against the brick. He also looks suddenly much shorter in height, his features less imposing, more…cute.
She says to him, “I only got a brief look. It was…like smoke. Black smoke. With legs of a spider, or a crab. Many legs.” She finds her breathing quickening, her heart pounding as she recalls it.
“Crab?” Aliyah asks. “I’m allergic to crab. Makes me all itchy.”
Mayumi can swear she hears Geryon’s eyes roll in the near-complete darkness. “Let us hope the nice crab doesn’t invite us over for lunch, then… Where is the door, my dear?”
Mayumi finds his shoulder, slides her hand down the soft fur of his foreleg, then takes his large paw and guides it to the edge of the door. “These boards across it – there are four of them.”
“Ah yes…” Geryon rears up, forepaws against the door, pressing his weight down on the top board, then the one below it. He then unsheathes his claws and pulls on one board while his other paw is pressed against the one below. There is a creaking noise, barely audible above the sound of panicking children, but that is all. “And nailed quite firmly, it seems.”
Aliyah, feeling it too, doubtfully offers, “Maybe I can wedge the sword behind a board…”
Mayumi pulls on a lower board, putting a foot against the door frame. “Perhaps if we all try together…”
Geryon sighs, exasperated. “Please, do let me know when it is time for the friendly gryphon to intervene. Those boards have clearly been nailed for years. There is no way we can pry them out without proper tools.”
“Fine, Mister Gryphon,” Aliyah says, resheathing her sword. “Got any more tricks up your…uh…the fur on your paw?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Geryon retorts.
At that moment, the muffled sounds of screaming suddenly cease.
Aliyah says in a frightened whisper, “Whoa, did things just get real quiet in there?”
Mayumi feels as if her heart has stopped. “I…I can’t hear anything!” The warehouse is quieter than any tomb.
Geryon groans loudly, startling the other two. His voice echoes in the alley. “Dion, you idiot! Oh, you are never getting your bed back! Very well, ladies, take a step back, please. Things are about to get somewhat…toasty.”
Confused, Aliyah asks, “How far back we talkin’ about here?”
Mayumi grabs her arm. “Come over this way. Around the corner.” She only knows she doesn’t want to be near anything like that magical blast that Tuma-Sukai set off. But she and Aliyah both look back around the corner. A drift of the tall Constable’s very long, unbound hair falls onto Mayumi’s face, and the Bunny impatiently bats it away.
She can hear Geryon muttering to himself, “This’ll have to be quick and dirty.” He extends a claw and, though nearly blind in the darkness, scratches…something onto the wood of each board. “No iron filings, no sulphur, not even any fingers! Voice, symbols, and visualization only. Madness…” He pauses, takes a ragged breath, closes his eyes, then begins to whisper. As he does, points of light start to glow on the boards like embers, brighter and brighter, and suddenly burst into flame. Sparks spew from them, showering across Geryon’s flank, making his skin twitch and fur and feathers smolder. Before she pulls her head back around the corner, Mayumi sees Geryon’s eyes squeeze more tightly shut from the pain, but he does not stop whispering.
Aliyah gasps. “He’s gonna get burnt!”
Mayumi, trying to blink away starbursts of purple from her vision, grabs Aliyah’s arm to keep her there. “If you interrupt a wizard in the midst of a spell, bad things happen! He knows what he’s doing!” She suspects that he absolutely does – and that he knows it is also very dangerous.
In her dream life, Mayumi attended the Guardia Academy, and the intensive six-month training there includes one short course on Magic for Popula, the main message of which is, “Magic is not for you. Stay away, and call for a Dei officer.” But the Academy grudgingly agrees that it is useful to teach Popula recruits a little about how magic works, in case they have to deal with it in an emergency. And so every constable knows that one does not interrupt a wizard mid-spell.
And Mayumi remembers some other tidbits from her course. That while gods can use their own divine magic and even cast spells with relative ease due to their mana, mortals have no such advantage, unless they buy externally stored mana, which is terribly expensive. To make a spell work they have to use symbols, material components, gestures, ritualized chanting. This all allows them to draw mana out of the environment, ideally enough to fuel the spell. The more energy required, the longer and more elaborate the casting.
But it is possible to cheat. Like gods, mortals have an internal energy source: their own life force. Drawing on that allows human mages to cast spells with far more ease. But it can also trigger heart attacks, strokes, or other traumas. Many wizards simply die.
Getting a few minor burns from sparks is the least of Geryon’s worries.
The smell of burning wood and paint, plus a metallic stench, reaches them in a cloud, causing them both to start coughing. Mayumi wishes she could close her nose like she can her eyes, and to a lesser extent her ears. She crouches low to breathe more easily.
As she does, the light dies away, and Aliyah and Mayumi look around the corner again, then rush to Geryon. He is lying on his side, breathing heavily. “Oh, man…” Aliyah moans, running her hand over the feathers of his head. Mayumi kneels next to him and takes his paw in her hand.
The top board falls onto the ground, breaking in half as the center of it crumbles to ash. The other boards are nearly gone, and the door itself is warped within its frame.
“Don’t touch the door with bare skin,” Geryon cautions, his voice sounding like he has aged fifty years in barely a minute. “Give it a good kick. You cops are supposed to be good at that, right?”
“You’re alive!” Aliyah crows as she straightens and spins to face the door.
“Of course I’m alive,” Geryon mutters as Mayumi strokes his forelimb. “Only stupid people get killed by their own spells.” He flexes his paw, squeezing Mayumi’s hand, pricking it almost painlessly with his claws for just a moment.
Aliyah readies herself, then twists and lashes out a powerfully muscled leg with a side kick, a move that normally takes the average apartment door right off its hinges. The metal, still radiating heat, shatters into a mass of rust, and Aliyah’s foot goes all the way through to impact on…something.
“Wow! But oh no, there’s another wall on the other side!”
“That wall,” croaks Geryon, “is a courtesy of our friend Dion.”
The “wall” is like a glowing, hazy pane of ancient glass, warped by time, with occult symbols painted across it. The symbols slowly move, though whether it is the symbols alone or the glass itself moving is impossible to say.
On the other side of it, they can see small silhouetted forms: children, trying to peer through. One figure taller than the others is topped by long ears.
“He’s alive!” Mayumi gasps. “But how will we get to him?”
“Yeah, we gotta get them outta there!” Aliyah cries.
“Oh but of course!” Geryon raises his head. “Excuse me while I snap my fingers and get it done– Don’t you both know I haven’t performed magic in years?! And now in one night, I’ve…!”
Mayumi squeezes his paw. He looks at her, angry eagle eyes into her pleading expression, and he sighs. “Fine… Visit the Fourth Ring, they said. It will be good for you, they said… This bloody place should have a banner on every entrance: ‘Three Rats! Come for the stench – Stay for your funeral’!” He closes his eyes again and mutters, “Good thing for you I know shortcuts and backdoors for most of Dion’s spells.” He lumbers to his feet and raises one paw while whispering in some ancient language.
Sound from within the warehouse returns, very quiet at first, but then increasing as a hole appears in the glass-like barrier, rapidly expanding until it is large enough for even Aliyah to fit through if she ducks. The magical script on the barrier warps and flows around the hole. Immediately a sobbing child, hair matted, face dirty, starts to climb out. Something horrible is screaming beyond the children. Aliyah grabs the child and hands him toward Mayumi.
The Bunny pauses just a moment to give Geryon a kiss on the beak. He snorts and sits, his smaller, cuter form looking much less threatening than the thing howling inside. She turns to help the child and sees Sage, his handsome, dark face expressing fear and hope, looking out for a moment, seeing Aliyah and Mayumi, and his smile is the most beautiful thing she can imagine seeing. But immediately he ducks back inside to help other captives escape.