The air quivered with the pulse of uncontrollable electricity. As the sun set, casting an eerie red hue across the horizon, the moon rose, and darkness swept across the skies. Bleeding into one another, the last rays of the sun battled the first strands of cool moonlight in a losing war. Below echoed the battle for power as lightning snapped and crackled like dynamite amongst human hands, lashing out at the monsters that crept from the darkest corners into the arena that was night.
At the center of it all were four people, and one terrible, ghastly, skeletal beast.
One monster, around whom the electricity centered, sparked, holding it back, away from humanity, in a cage made entirely from the nature it threatened. One monster, whose kind did not flee from magic, but rather ran toward it, envied it, determined to risk everything for the death of a Witch and the blood of a mortal.
On this particular night, the monster raged, its long pale white hair singed black from the magic; surrounded by two Warriors with swords bared, conduits for the magical lightning, its elongated nails clawed the air, longing to wrap its fingers around the throats of both but unable to reach beyond its own shield.
But the Witch was very close to losing control.
“Hold it! Hold it…” the blonde Witch, the crux of the electrical spell, commanded her friends, shouting to be heard above the sizzling noise.
“If we hold it any longer, Elena, you’ll kill us all!” one of her friends shouted, a boy armed with a sword and iron chains, the latter looped around one of the creature’s arms, even as it clawed at the air. On the far side of him, the other Warrior, taller and armed with a silver sword and a length of rope, held the other arm, crucifying the creature.
Between them, there was a second girl, with copper hair, and her palms stretched towards the monster, one low, one high, trying in vain to keep the monster centered within its own shield, preventing it from moving towards Elena. The sky, shifting as it was in the change from day to night, fought her as she straddled the magic of the horizon. The creature’s shield pulsed as Sylvia directed both sun and moon against its energy, but success depended on Elena…only on Elena. Nothing short of lightning could sever a Banshee’s protective magic.
Elena tried not to focus Sylvia’s hands, trembling as the universe wearied, or on JP’s skinned knuckles wrapped around the rope. She tried not to worry as she saw Axel’s heels slide against the cobblestones, wet from an earlier spell of rain, as the Banshee shrieked and yanked against his chains. She tried not to think about the fact that her own magic was dwindling with each passing second, because she still couldn’t control electricity running through her veins.
She tried not to think about the fact that if she failed to stop this monster, she would let her whole team down.
“I just need a little…” she murmured to herself, jerking her head call up a torrent of wind to coalesce around the monster, and keep the electricity steady while she quavered. She gritted her teeth as the wave of power flooded through her, as the winds backfired, and locked her knees as the magic attempted to overwhelm her.
“Can you take it, Ellie?” Sylvia shouted over the rising thunder of the winds. “Let me—”
"No!” Elena’s voice was sharp. ”No. I need to do this on my own.”
“Then do it!” JP snapped, gritting his teeth. The rope he’d wrapped around the monster’s arms to hold her in place were starting to tear. Fresh blood oozed from his knuckles as he tightened his hold. “This bitch is getting antsy.”
Elena narrowed her eyes at the creature, taking in every aspect of its shield.
How had it gained such powerful magic? When had it gained such powerful magic? Three weeks ago, these Banshees had one power, and one only: the power to scream and burst every blood vessel in the human body. Drinking the blood of a witch while it was still warm allowed them to absorb the powers left behind. But the creation of a physical shield was—should have been—beyond their control. Even if one Banshee absorbed such magic, all of them shouldn’t be able to use it.
So how was every, single Banshee Elena and her team had fought against in the past few weeks—totaling at least, if not more than, a dozen—possessed this inexplicable new power of protection?
And how was it so impervious to Elena’s magic?
And why, oh why did it decide to start happening when Elena was already on a streak of failure?
“Elena! I’m losing it!” Axel has to howl to be heard over the wind, as the Banshee began using his own weapon against him, dragging him slowly into the whirlwind of magic by the chains that encased its wrist. It wrestled the boy with renewed vigor, his mouth stretched across its teeth in a demonic smile. On its other side, JP dug his feet into the ground to try to help, but it was useless against the creature. It was dragging Axel by his own weapon into the electrical storm.
Elena bit her tongue, pushing herself to find more strength. From somewhere. From pain, even. Damn it. She opened her arms wider, expanding the reach of her lightning attack, and aimed at the far reaches of the shield. The further from the body, the weaker the connection…that was the theory anyway.
If she could just crack it a little, then maybe JP could…
"Ellie, let me do it!”
“No!” she snapped at Sylvia for the second time. I can do this, she told herself softly. God damn it, I know I can.
She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to remember what she’d learned in Mrs. Marks’ shield lessons. But for all the time she spent taking notes and paying the utmost attention, she couldn’t recall a single thing about breaking shields anymore. She couldn’t even recall the lessons on Banshees.
She was panicking.
Her eyes snapped open.
“Ellie!” Sylvia cried out, the weight of her magic growing as Ellie’s quickly began to dim.
Elena knew that she was done. Across the explosion of magic, she met Sylvia’s eye and nodded miserably.
Sylvia let out one loud, almost unintelligible battle cry, then whipped her arms together, summoning one of the fiercest storms Ellie had ever seen. Every ounce of frustration and determination, rage and fear that the dark-skinned witch had been feeling over the past few minutes erupted in a hurricane of pulsating pink and silver energy, bulleted directly for the heart of the Banshee’s shield.
The monster screamed as its shield cracked and snapped, its protection shattering like a glass window exploding inward. The shrapnel hit JP and Axel, and Axel was sent flying backwards, while JP used the momentum to wrap himself around the Banshee’s form, and slam a slim ivory dagger he’d nicked from his calf through its heart.
In a beat, the creature silenced, the weight of its remaining magic striking the ground with a snap. Ellie lost her balance and fell to her knees, while JP let out a sigh that weighed a thousand tons.
And then suddenly, as quickly as the storm had come, it was gone and all was still.
“Oooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!” Axel drew out of the word, but there was a hint of laughter in it, as there always was with him.
Sylvia darted across the distance between them, and knelt at his side. “You took a pretty nasty fall,” she said holding out a hand.
“No shit, Sherlock.” He gripped her palm and let her pull him to his feet.
JP rolled off of the monster onto his back and took a deep breath.
She waved a hand and the body of the Banshee disintegrated.
Ellie watched the ease of Sylvia’s magic with a mixture of jealousy and relief. She was absolutely spent, while Sylvia’s breath was already caught and the slight sheen of sweat that had wetted her brow during the battle was gone.
Where was that same strength in herself?
Axel limped over to JP, his knee bloody but the rest of him no worse for wear, and he sank into a seated position next to his friend. Sylvia went with him.
“Well….this was quite the night, huh?” Axel quipped.
JP rolled his neck until he was looking at his friend, and snorted. “Four Banshees in three hours. I’d say it’s a record for this town.” He sat up with a groan.
Sylvia waved her hand, summoning a cozy, overstuffed chair in the middle of the cobblestone street, and pulled her legs up into it. “It’s definitely not normal, I’ll give you that. One, maybe two, on a good night. But tonight’s been hit after hit after hit.”
“And that last bitch was a doozy.”
JP dragged his bloody fingers through his hair, streaking the blond both red and blue—the latter, the color of the Banshee’s blood.
“There’s got to be something going on,” he muttered. “The Banshees have been getting bolder since the shields started. They suddenly think they’re invincible. What the hell changed? Where the hell did the shields come from?”
None of them had an answer.
Shields were a new trick of the Banshees. It was old magic, dating back thousands of years; but until a few weeks ago, it wasn’t one the Banshees had ever used before. In fact, Elena and her friends hadn’t even realized the Banshees could use spells until the shields started to appear. Banshees weren’t Witches; whatever they were—however they had started—was knowledge long lost. All they knew about the Banshees came from exposure over the centuries. So they knew that Banshees screamed; and that they sucked the life out of the unwitting with dagger-sharp nails that protracted from their fingers. They knew that Banshees bleed blue, and they were female—if “female” was the correct term.
But there wasn’t a training manual on how to fight their shields. Centuries of Witch-Warrior combat with the race hadn’t prepared them for shields. Their teachers were as in the dark as they were because this was the first time the Banshees had ever exhibited such magic.
Elena looked around at her three best friends, each bruised or bleeding from the events of the evening. There was a long cut along the left side of Sylvia’s face from the nails of the first Banshee that had attacked them; Axel had a huge black and blue mark on his forearm from the force of the last one’s shield beating against his bare skin; and JP’s knuckles were practically raw.
Not that any of them seemed to notice their wounds, or mind them. Just like everything else in their lives, they were used to the daily grind of Banshee hunting. And they were strong enough and smart enough not to let the pain get them down.
And yet here Elena couldn’t stop feeling sorry for herself.
Why didn’t she have their strength? she wanted to know. She had been fighting as long as her friends—together, they had been a team for two years. Together, they were students at the most elite Witch-Warrior training academy in the world. And yet, while Sylvia, JP, and Axel continued to get stronger and better, she stayed still. Two years, and Elena felt she had nothing to show for her training. Why hadn’t she been able to break the Banshee’s shield like Sylvia had? Why wasn’t it as easy for her as it was for Sylvia? What was Elena doing wrong?
Sylvia had been honing her skills since she’d been born, the latest in a long line of Witches stretching back over six hundred years. Elena, on the other hand, was the third of a newer lineage of Witches. But time didn’t always make the magic, Sylvia and Sylvia’s mother had always said. Time and patience did. Practice and perfection, trial and error did. Elena had been patient since she’d started training with her own mother, and the gods—and certainly her teachers—knew how many errors she’d made. And yet, she could not stop failing.
And failure wasn’t even the worst thing. A Warrior was only as good as his Witch; without one, the other couldn’t thrive on the battlefield. The universe gave magic to Witches, and strength in muscle and steel to Warriors. Witches and Warriors were meant to be a team—unbreakably bonded, unstoppable in battle.
How much longer could JP trust her if she hold up her end of the deal?
Elena looked over at JP, his head turned toward the sky, watching as the sun finally disappeared and the moon settled contentedly in its place. His lip was bleeding too, she noticed suddenly; she had no idea when the Banshee had even hit him—if it was from the Banshee or from her own wayward magic.
Elena closed her eyes as tears burned in them. She was useless to JP.
“Oh, come on, now, Ellie.”
She opened her eyes to see Sylvia crossing to her. The darker girl wrapped her arm around Elena’s shoulders, and squeezed gently. “You just had an off-night; that’s all. Nothing to be upset about.”
Elena smiled her thanks, but shook her head. “I should’ve been better. I’ll get it, Sylvie. I promise.”
Her friend nodded firmly. “And I’ve no doubt that you will. These shields are new to all of us. We’re lucky that the boys’ muscles were able to break through long enough to hold the Banshee’s limbs back.” She shot a wink at Axel and JP.
Axel grinned and rubbed his hands together. “Hell’s yeah! Look at these bad boys!” he quipped, holding up his arms and flexing.
Elena couldn’t help but laugh. Axel—and JP too, actually—were both very lean for teenagers. They were stronger than they looked for sure, but they weren’t body builders. It had definitely been nothing short of luck that they’d been able to bust into the Banshee’s shield at all.
But if she’d been stronger, Axel wouldn’t have that bruise on his arm.
“You’re too hard on yourself,” JP said nonchalantly. “Relax. It’s been a long night for all of us. I say we call it quits for now. We’re already a half hour past our shift anyway. Come on; let’s go.”
Elena wasn’t entirely ready to end the night; if they could just find one more Banshee, maybe she’d be able to succeed this time. Maybe she’d be able to figure out her weakness. But, beneath the reassuring exterior, she could tell her friends were tired and beat. Especially Sylvia—witch extraordinaire. So she nodded and forced a smile.
“All right,” she agreed. “Let’s go home.”
Sylvia waved the chair back into the ether as JP hefted his ax, and together, the four of them headed down the dark, empty road. It was just after midnight by now, long past the nine o’clock curfew, so despite the other fighters out there tonight, the streets were empty.
Elena watched JP carefully as they made their way to one of the five apartment buildings that housed the students of the slaying academy. He’d been quieter than usual these past few nights and tonight had certainly been no exception. In fact, it’d been worse. Other than a few shouted warnings, and a half dozen encouragements, JP hadn’t said much of anything to her. She could tell that her remedial magic was finally getting to him.
But what was she supposed to do? She was trying. Every free moment she got, she was trying to perfect what she already knew, and teach herself new things outside the classroom. She wasn’t as good as Sylvia, but he’d always known that. He couldn’t have expected her to triple in strength and power in the couple years that they’d worked together. It wasn’t physically possible—for her, or any other witch.
A couple times, she almost said something to him. At one point on the way home, her hand was only a few inches from his shoulder. But she chickened out at the last second and let her fingers fall away. He was upset; she was afraid to upset him anymore.
When they came to their building, they made the trek up the three floors slowly. Axel had thrown his arm around Sylvia’s shoulders at some point during their walk, and she could see that he was helping her up the stairs by supporting most of her weight. Just seeing the pair of them made Elena’s heart drop. Sylvia only became this weak when she used too much magic. And that was why the four of them had decided to work together instead of in pairs—to make sure no one used too much strength. Seeing Sylvia like this was just one more reminder of what Elena had done wrong.
She hurried ahead and opened the door to hers and Sylvia’s room. Axel shot her a nod, then continued back to Sylvia’s bedroom. Elena watched them with a sigh. Damn it.
“I’d let her sleep in tomorrow,” JP commented and she turned abruptly, surprised to find him leaning just inside the apartment door. His blue eyes were on the back door, refusing to meet hers. “She needs to recharge her batteries.”
Elena just nodded. “She definitely deserves it.”
“I meant what I said, Elena. We all make mistakes.” He shrugged easily, but still wouldn’t look at her.
“It wasn’t a mistake, JP. I failed. It’s as simple as that.” She walked across the room, tugging off her jacket and scarf as she went, and fell heavily on the big yellow sofa in the living room. Throwing her feet up on the coffee table, she stared at the ceiling miserably.
JP didn’t move from the door. “It was one night,” he began.
“It’s every night and you know it. Sylvia’s always picking up my slack. I just can’t seem to get it.” She threw her hands up in distress. “No matter how many spells I master, or how much control I have over the elements, I just don’t have the strength to fight.”
“If you didn’t have the strength, you wouldn’t be at the school, Elena.”
She snorted. “Wouldn’t I?” She lifted her head to shoot him a look. “When the Banshees busted out of their prison a hundred years ago, Blackwoods was started so that Witches and Warriors would know how to stop them. All Witches and Warriors. They can’t spare anyone JP. I’m here because I’m a Witch but…that doesn’t mean I’m good enough.”
“Yeah, I know the story,” he threw back sharply, catching Elena off guard when he spun his gaze to hers. His eyes were like fire. “I’ve heard it as often as you have. The Wilas imprisoned the Banshees two thousand years ago, and when the last of the Wilas died, they were set free. I get it.” His voice was cold. “But I’m not about to spend the rest of this damned night making you feel better. So you screwed up—fine. We all do at some point. But stop whining over it, Elena. We don’t have the time for it.”
Then before she could so much as think of some kind of response, he turned and stalked away. She stared at the place where he’d been, stunned.
“Yeah, he’s been in a bit of a temper tonight.”
She turned quickly at the sound of Axel’s voice. He smiled sheepishly. “Didn’t mean to eavesdrop. But it was kinda hard not to.”
“What did I say?” she wondered softly, the numbness finally started to wear away, allowing the sting of JP’s words to burn her.
Axel’s smile fell away and, with a sigh, he came over to the couch and fell down beside her. “It’s not what you said, Elena. It’s just your attitude. You keep comparing yourself to Sylvia. Yes, she’s stronger. But her magic’s also older and her blood’s much more powerful. You don’t give yourself enough credit. It pisses JP off.”
“He yelled at me,” she whispered.
Axel cupped her face, rubbing her cheek soothingly with his thumb. “Tonight’s been a rough night. His patience has run thin. Don’t take what he said to heart, sweetie. Come morning, I’m sure he’ll apologize.”
Elena bit her lip, the tears finally starting to make their appearance. She felt like she’d been slapped. Slapped in the face by her best friend. No. Not just her best friend. Her partner. Her other half. She felt like scum.
“Oh, don’t cry, baby.” Axel slid his hand down her back and pulled her against him. “Really, it’s all right. Here, you want me to tuck you in, too? A good night’s sleep and everyone will feel better. I know it. Come on, baby.” He tucked his arm around her waist and pulled her to her feet. She didn’t protest as he led her across the room to her own bedroom beside Sylvia’s. She didn’t bother getting undressed—partially because she didn’t have the energy, and partially because Axel was there—and climbed under her pink and red sheets. Axel did as he promised, tucking the covers tightly around her and bending to give her a kiss on the forehead.
“Now, forget what that meanie said and get some rest, all right? I’ll swing by in the morning to check on you both.”
Elena nodded once, then closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind. She heard Axel make his way back to the door, and a moment later, the room was plunged into darkness. She couldn’t hear the sound of the front door shutting over the sound of her tears.