The twenty-sixth hour of the night wasn’t the best time for a visitor, but Meryl Dolalu couldn’t ignore the frantic beating on the door to her room as the face of the clock next to her bed came into focus. Her eyes had already bolted open, and as much as she wanted to gently close them back someone else had other plans.
“Meryl!” a terrified young man’s voice cried from the other side of the door. “Meryl! Please open up!”
Meryl groaned as she pushed herself up from her mattress and squinted at the door. She knew that voice.
“Why tonight?” she protested quietly. She’d just fallen asleep an hour ago after an intense evening of studying, but apparently that wasn’t enough torment. Sitting up, she stretched and yawned before planting her feet on the cold hardwood floor. After stumbling over to her desk for her glasses she’d left atop an open book, she slowly made her way towards the door as the beating continued.
“Meryl, this isn’t a joke!”
Meryl tore the door open to witness the bother that was Farolt Robeldi. Ever for being of average height he stood a foot and a half taller than her in the doorway, and looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. His dark hair was unkempt, his black robes were hastily thrown on and he had a black cloak over that. A satchel was slung over his right shoulder, loosely hanging off of his arm. The outfit didn’t make sense for being indoors. Meryl rubbed her eyes. “Farolt, it’s almost midnight. What do you want?”
Farolt reached out with his right hand and grabbed her by the shoulder, shaking her violently. “We have to go,” he uttered hastily. “We have to go, now.”
“What’s wrong?” Meryl managed to ask before Farolt shoved his way past her into her room. “Hey!”
“Put on a cloak and grab your shoes. We don’t have much time.”
She watched him rummaging through her chest next to her desk, tossing her clothing all over the place. Her mind started to finally wake up when she noticed he was doing it all with one hand. “Farolt.”
He didn’t stop searching. “What?”
“How’s your hand?”
Farolt ignored her and walked across the room to grab the cloak that was draped over Meryl’s desk chair. He tossed it to her and went looking for her shoes next.
He grabbed her shoes from under her bed and stood up to toss them at her feet. “Fine.”
Meryl held the red cloak over her shoulder and raised an eyebrow. “I don’t believe that.”
“I don’t care,” Farolt told her bluntly. “Hurry up and follow me.”
“Not until you tell me what happened.”
Farolt ran his right hand through his hair, his eyes wide and face full of frustration. “Look, I was found out. Someone saw me changing the bandages on my hand and reported me.”
The reality of the situation took hold of Meryl. “Who?”
“I don’t know the guy,” Farolt replied, quietly but intensely, “but it wasn’t like I could chase him down and threaten him!”
“Calm down!” Meryl hissed. “Look, we’ll talk to the Headmistress, just give me a minute to make myself presentable.”
“It’s too late for that,” Farolt disputed, “because I left my room just as the Hexbrand were coming down the hall.”
Meryl’s jaw dropped. The Hexbrand were the enforcers of the school. If you broke a rule, let alone a law, they were going to find you. “Why them?!”
Farolt pulled his left hand out of his robe. The last of the stained bandages fell away to reveal a shriveled mess of blackened, peeling skin and dead fingernails. “I think this might justify their concern. It hurts beyond anything I’ve felt before, to answer your earlier question.” Meryl wanted to puke at the sight, but Farolt was quick to grab her arm with his good hand and push her towards the door. “We have to go.”
“Why do I have to go?” Meryl complained as she donned her cloak.
“If a Mysticist manages to glance into my mind, what do you think they’ll see?” Farolt asked her warily. Meryl’s eyes turned into saucers.
“Shit!” she hissed between her teeth, head out the door and eyes scanning the hallway. “Shit, Farolt, this isn’t good.”
“What matters now is leaving,” Farolt stated anxiously. “I’ll take the lead, and you stick close behind me.”
Meryl’s mind was racing with every negative scenario imaginable. If the Hexbrand caught Farolt then she was doomed too. The two of them would be labeled Malzauberod and tried for the practice of dark magic. “All I did was help to fix your hand. Won’t they listen to reason?”
“Not when they learn about what happened to it in the first place, no.” Farolt stepped past her and looked left and right. “Come on, I think we can make it down to the ground level and slip out of the back exit of the Living Wing.”
She looked back into her room, hesitant to do anything. “Farolt…this education is my life. I can’t just abandon everything I’ve worked for.”
Farolt grabbed her hand and squeezed hard as he looked her in the eye. “Meryl, I got you into this. This is all my fault. I promise I’ll get you out.”
Farolt was a fool. He was terrible at utilizing magic and terrible at staying out of trouble. He was also her best friend, and that tended to overrule the rest. They’d known each other since arriving at the Seminary almost twenty years ago, and now as students of the Advanced Studies courses of being a Zauberod he was throwing it all away. Still, as terrible a student as he was to have made it this far, the one thing he did right was acting as an older brother to her. “Okay. I trust you, Farolt.”
He managed a smile from beneath all of the fear and tugged her along with his right hand. “Let’s get out of here.”
The two of them set off for the stairs at the end of the hall and began their descent amidst the sounds of people banging on doors a floor above them. Meryl stayed on the third floor while Rylan’s room was on the fourth. The Hexbrand would be working their way down if they didn’t think to leave people below. While passing the second floor landing they bumped into a much younger student returning from a late session at the library, and knocked the books out of her hands.
“Sorry!” Meryl called out as Farolt dragged her along down the stairs.
“Assholes!” her shrill voice echoed after them. They’d just reached the ground floor when they heard shouting from above them.
“What’s going on down there?” a male voice called out.
“Some couple just ran past me and knocked my books to the floor!” the livid girl’s voice returned. Farolt didn’t bother to stop and consider the consequences.
Meryl was struggling to keep up the pace while she kept looking behind them. Farolt released his grasp on Meryl’s hand as he found the large wooden door to the back courtyard and threw it open. Meryl looked back one last time to see three figures dressed in yellow robes storming down the hall towards them.
“Hexbrand behind us!”
Farolt pulled her along outside and down the path of stone through the trees that populated the courtyard. A few oil lamps burned away to light their path on the cloudy night. The two moons that were supposed to be in the sky were shrouded by the cloud coverage, mocking them from above. If only hiding were that easy.
“Farolt, where are we even going?!” Meryl demanded. He was squeezing her wrist tight as they neared the center of the courtyard where a large maple tree stood in the cover of night.
“The coast is a mile west of here,” he panted, “and there are plenty of boats in the harbor we can use.”
Meryl dug her feet into the dirt as they came around the tree and pulled on Farolt’s arm until she diverted his momentum into the trunk, where his face met the thick bark in a loud thud.
“Farolt, you don’t even know how to navigate the open sea!” she protested. “Besides, some of them are Elementalists who can manipulate water! Running isn’t exactly our best option!”
Farolt turned around and kept his back to the tree, gritting his teeth and racking his brain. “Meryl, you’re a Groznian.”
While that was true and attributed to her short stature, she failed to see his point. “Yes?”
“Not only are you from the smartest people on the planet, but you’re literally the smartest person I know. Instead of berating my ideas, care to help me come up with one better?!”
Meryl was too panicked to think straight. Still, he was right. She could only imagine what his thought process was compared to hers, because she was already seeing herself imprisoned, and the many steps that lead up to that outcome. The gift of her people was a curse as well. “I don’t know…I don’t see a way out of this without losing.”
“They’re somewhere here in the courtyard!” a young male’s voice announced. Meryl and Farolt shared a glance, and both swore.
“Verdam?” Meryl asked incredulously.
“He was just made a Hexbrand last week,” Farolt uttered.
“He’s a Mysticist,” Meryl stated, but Farolt already knew that.
“He’s our worst nightmare right now. Guy was a good friend of yours, right? Any chance he’ll be willing to discuss this?”
“I don’t know.” Meryl stole a glance around the trunk of the tree and saw the trio in yellow robes slowly making their way down the stone path towards the middle of the courtyard.
“Farolt Robeldi, you are suspected of practicing forbidden magic!” one of the Hexbrand bellowed. “You will come with us to stand before Headmistress Lairel and confess your crimes, and then you will he handed over to the Association of Arcane Accords to face punishment for your infraction!”
The muscles in Farolt’s neck strained as he bared his teeth in fury. “I’ll die before I face the Association,” he uttered.
“Farolt!” Meryl exclaimed, hitting him in the arm. The glare he shot her told her that he was intent on sticking to what he said. “Look, dying here isn’t going to do anything to help, and I don’t want you gone.”
“I can hear an accomplice,” the third Hexbrand remarked aloud. “Someone find out who she is!”
Meryl slammed the back of her head against the tree trunk. “They have someone who can hear that well?”
“The only people like that are from the Frozen Wastes to the north,” Farolt commented. “Must be someone older, because I don’t remember anyone like that in our years here.”
“I already know!” Verdam replied. “Meryl Dolalu, I can read your every thought!!You aided him in his actions, and that compromises your position in the Seminary as well!”
“I’m not a Malzauberod!” Meryl yelled back.
“We’ll leave that for the Association to debate,” Verdam rebutted. “Farolt, you’ve killed someone! I’m coming to you as a friend, but as a Hexbrand first! You committed murder, Farolt!”
Meryl’s blood ran cold as she slowly turned her head to face her best friend. His face was grim. “Farolt…is that true?”
Farolt didn’t dare meet her eyes, instead holding his left hand up to feign an examination of the dying flesh. “I didn’t mean to. He saw me changing the bandages and went to get help. I tried to stop him, and when I grabbed his shoulder…he…”
Tears were forming in Meryl’s eyes. “How could you?”
“I didn’t know what would happen!” Farolt argued. “When we replaced my hand I thought it was gone!”
“You shouldn’t have ever practiced that magic,” Meryl spat.
“I was trying to prove a point!”
Meryl stood before him and grabbed his robes. “What?! That old magic the Association forbade isn’t as bad as they believe?! You’re wrong! You can barely use Reconstructionist magic as is, and you killed every cell in your hand trying to be unique! You don’t know how to focus it properly because you’re a terrible Zauberod! You’re incompetent! The only reason you made it so far in school is because I helped you! Then you go and practice forbidden magic to try and prove what?! You focused it into your hand and bound it there! You screwed up so bad that replacing the hand didn’t even fix it! I only helped you because you’re my best friend! If I knew it was going to go this far-”
Hexbrand rounded the tree, one on each side. Farolt shoved Meryl to the ground as one of the figures in yellow revealed a sword from behind his back.
The blade went up in flames as the Hexbrand waved it behind his head to swing at Farolt. He tried to move out of the way, but the Hexbrand behind him had his hands on the ground and was already working to inhibit his movement.
Roots erupted from the soil beneath Farolt’s feet and ensnared his legs. The burning blade was coming in fast, and there wasn’t a thing he could do but stretch out and reach for the Hexbrand’s hands around the hilt. The flaming blade sliced just over his head as he ducked and grabbed the man’s hands. He struggled to pry the sword from his grasp when the flames suddenly died. The Hexbrand’s grasp on his weapon loosened, and Farolt was holding the sword as his would-be assailant dropped to the ground at his feet.
“What did you do?!” the other Hexbrand cried, leaping back a few feet and losing focus on his spell. The vines weren’t as tight now, so Farolt went to cutting them away as the third Hexbrand appeared next to his fallen ally. The new one had to be Verdam. His shrouded face looked down at the body, then to Farolt.
Sword in hand, Farolt backed against the tree and quickly shifted the tip from one Hexbrand to another. “Let me go!”
“Farolt,” Verdam began from his left, “listen to me. Whatever you did has made you dangerous. We need to take you in and undo it. I’m trying to help you, but you have to trust me. This is bad, but we can stop it before it’s worse.”
Meryl could feel something tingling in the back of her head. Verdam was stalling to probe their minds, and he was doing it recklessly. There was no subtly to it. “Verdam, you know what happened. None of this was on purpose. Farolt is scared. We both are.”
Verdam reached a hand up and removed his hood, revealing the familiar face of their classmate they had attended the Seminary with for years. “Then come with me.”
Farolt switched his focus to Verdam. “Only if you let her go. Meryl is innocent in all of this.”
Verdam’s expression was grave, and his words came out of his mouth like poison to speak. “That’s not up to me. Headmistress Lairel will have to make the decision, and I’ll be honest with you.” Verdam’s solemn gaze found Meryl. “It’s probably not going to favor her either.”
“Then this goes the hard way,” Farolt replied with a scowl. He turned to the other Hexbrand and launched the sword at him before attempting to run off, but his body stopped responding after throwing the weapon. His eyes moved to Verdam, who had a hand outstretched towards him.
“Farolt, listen!” Verdam pleaded. Meryl used the opportunity to crawl towards their former classmate and slap a hand to the ground just feet away.
Shock overtook Vardem’s face as he suddenly sank into the ground. The soil around the tree had lost its density, and he was falling into loose mud that threatened to swallow him whole. With Verdam’s concentration broken, Farolt was free to move again as the other Hexbrand sat up from dodging the sword. Meryl got to her feet and joined Farolt in fleeing the scene of Verdam thrashing about in the mud, when the stone before them suddenly shot up under the massive dirt wall that had arisen to block their path. Meryl didn’t miss a beat even as Farolt faltered. “Metamorphmaterie!”
The wall of earth turned to dust at her touch, falling around them as they left the Hexbrand behind. Their vision cleared after a few feet, and they appeared to be gaining some distance from the Seminary. Yards later and the courtyard was behind them now,. The tree line lay before them.
“We’ll split up and meet on the other side of the woods!” Farolt shouted.
“Okay!” Meryl called back. Two pillars of earth exploded out of the ground before them. At first, they didn’t even both to slow down, but Meryl noticed Farolt closing the gap between her and him as they ran. He ducked down as he neared her. She couldn’t get the question out of her mouth before he checked her into a roll across the grass. When she finally stopped she straightened her glasses on her nose and saw that two other pillars had arisen behind them, and all four were boxing Farolt in. He stumbled after tackling her aside, and now he stood in place, trapped as the pillars all raced to the center.
She closed her eyes as the pillars audibly crashed together. It was over. She slammed her forehead to the ground and screamed. How had one night gone so horribly wrong?
“Get back here!”
Meryl’s eyes slowly opened as the hastened sounds of footsteps raced by. She looked up and could barely make out the Hexbrand that ran past through her dirty glasses. He was running into the woods and out of sight, occasionally shouting out spells as he disappeared into the darkness.
She removed her glasses and cleaned them with her cloak before donning them again. Farolt was standing over her.
“Farolt!” She threw her arms around him and started to cry. “I thought you died!”
He gently pushed her away, staring east towards the school. “Not yet.”
Meryl followed his gaze and saw Verdam walking towards them. Farolt raised his left hand up and set off to meet him.
“I’m not going to fight you, Farolt,” Verdam declared.
“I wondered.” Farolt lowered his hand. “Why did you save me? I was flung from that pillar attack at the last second. I know it was you.”
Verdam looked like he was about to punch him in the face. “I know you two didn’t try to hurt anyone. I also know you’re just trying to keep Meryl safe.”
Meryl stood up and chuckled nervously. “To be fair, I’ve done better than him so far.”
Verdam looked past them into the woods, then back towards the school. “I placed the other under an illusion. Right now he thinks he’s chasing you both through the woods. The other Hexbrand will be here soon.”
“You’re letting us go?” Meryl asked skeptically. Verdam gave an exasperated sigh.
“I’m going to help you. I’m not a genius like Meryl, but I think between the two of us we can send you both far from here.”
Farolt scratched the back of his neck. “How?”
“Teleportation requires matter to be broken down before it can be sent to another destination. Meryl is one of the best Alchemists I know, and between her powers and mine I think I can manage it.”
Farolt crossed his arms and pondered the plan. “It’s dangerous. Sending both of us means a smaller chance of success. All kinds of horrible things could happen. Sending one of us means you’d have to send me first, since you need her…” He threw his hands up in the air. “Damn it all!”
Meryl was already covering the issue in her head. “I can infuse a spell into someone else.” Farolt and Verdam looked at her incredulously as she kept thinking. “Think of it like making a potion. It requires an Alchemist to imbue a prepared spell into the mixture to create the compound. It works the same way with glyphs! Yeah, I think it can work!”
Farolt grinned. “See? Smartest person I know.”
Meryl blushed, but her mind was trying to piece together a way to get them both safely out of the area. “Give me a minute to prepare.”
Shouting came from the direction of the school. Farolt swore under his breath. “I don’t think we have that long.”
“I can prepare something to break us both up, but-”
“It’s too dangerous,” Verdam warned. “It’s not that I don’t think you can, but Farolt is right; the risks are way too high.”
Meryl came to terms with the situation and started to prepare a spell. “It doesn’t matter. I need to get him out of here. Farolt goes first.”
“Got it,” the guys said in unison. Verdam took the opportunity to give them any advantage he could.
It looked like it had no effect, but even Farolt figured it out. “An optical illusion to hide us?”
“Yeah,” Verdam affirmed.
“What’s going to happen to you?”
Verdam shrugged. “I’ll worry about that later.”
Meryl tried to ignore those words. In her head all she could hear were all of the lessons she’d learned, and around her hands she could see the texts she studied and memorized for so many years. All of that was going to be behind her now. Her life was going to drastically change. There was no going back.
“Hexbrand incoming,” Farolt mumbled, standing next to Verdam in anxious anticipation for what was going to happen next.
“I think I’m ready,” Meryl told them. Verdam turned back to her and stood tall.
“Do what you have to. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Meryl placed her right hand on Verdam’s shoulder. “Zygozauber!”
Her hand glowed a bright gold for a moment before the light moved to encompass Verdam’s entire body. It shrank away into his chest where it faded. He held up his arms and clenched his fists.
“Okay, I think I can do this.” His excitement died down as a frown stole across his face. “Unfortunately, I can’t keep up the illusion hiding us and perform the spell at the same time. Also, this spell comes from Malzauberod practices. Technically it’s forbidden, but it’s worked in practice. I’m sending you both to different areas, and after that I’m…going to alter my memories of this moment.”
The sudden silence made Meryl uncomfortable. “You can do that?”
“I’ve done it after a few nights I’ve regretted,” Verdam said with a sly grin. His humor in the situation was nice, but not enough to diminish the hovering sense of doom.
“So how much will you erase?” Farolt asked.
“Everything after getting to the courtyard.”
“If they see us it might just make you more confused in front of Headmistress Liarel,” Farolt pointed out. Verdam chuckled.
“I can let you face trial for murder instead?”
Farolt flipped the guy off. “As long as we get her out safe first.”
“No,” Meryl disputed, “because Farolt is going first.”
Farolt turned to Meryl, the desperation of the moment keeping his expression solemn. “Meryl?”
She was busy staring at his necrotic hand. She never asked where he’d gotten the replacement. She knew it was by means that were better off never being disclosed. Still, that one night of terror was the genesis, and now they were paying the price. All because she wanted to help a friend who’d made a wrong choice.
“Meryl, I’m sorry,” Farolt confessed, placing his arm around her.
She didn’t know what to say to him. Everything would be different now. She wanted to hate him. For a moment by the tree she wasn’t even entirely sure if she would have minded if the Hexbrand caught him. Still, she didn’t want him gone. “Don’t apologize to me.”
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I pulled you into this. I’m pretty sure apologizing is the least I can do to make amends.”
Verdam held his hands out, fingers outstretched to Farolt. “That’s not taking into account one more thing, Meryl.”
Verdam’s illusion was broken as he began to shift his focus to the task at hand. Two more Hexbrand were fast approaching from the courtyard.
“What are you talking about?” Meryl inquired. Farolt gave her a warm smile as Verdam turned all of his attention to her, hands and all.
It was too late to stop them. Verdam’s hands lit up with a blue aura that erupted forth and shrouded Meryl. Her hands and feet began to crumble away into the most basic of all matter. Her appendages were changing into dust to drift up into a tear in reality above her. She looked up in horror, unable to recognize the foreign location through the rift. Her limbs were now gone, and her torso was quickly breaking up. Her eyes found Farolt, who was still smiling at her. She understood why this was happening. Verdam was fulfilling Farolt’s desires. The Mysticist had seen his thoughts, and the two young men didn’t even have to talk to one another to get the plan across. It was a final request from a damned criminal, and Verdam was granting the mercy of granting it before they got to business. She understood, but she didn’t want this.
“Forgive me,” Farolt uttered, turning back to Verdam and bracing himself as the Hexbrand prepared a new spell to attack. The last she saw of her best friend’s face were his watery eyes.
“Farolt!” she cried. She was powerless to do anything as everything about the world suddenly failed to adhere to any laws of existence. Her senses were disoriented and her thoughts adrift in a faraway place before her body began to take shape again. It took a brief moment for everything to register in her brain as her body pieced itself back together on the molecular level. She was alone in an open field of snow, a cold breeze blowing across the land and chilling her as she screamed into the dusk that was just settling in on the other side of the world.