Elena gasped when she saw the scene laid out before her. JP guarding a knocked out child, a Banshee glowering within its shield. Her eyes went wide as she stood helplessly when it lunged.
Then, someone shouted.
The girl flew through the air the same moment JP hurled his scythe up and over the raging Banshee. Elena stared in shock as the stranger grasped it with both hands and brought it down brutally over the shield. She knew what was coming the moment the scythe connected.
“JP!” she screamed, but by then, it was too late.
Whatever magic the stranger had used reacted against the Banshee’s energy and detonated the shield like a bomb. The girl was hurled into the ground as a cloud of smoke and magic erupted in front of her. Elena could do nothing but gape as they swallowed JP up.
“Oh my gods,” Sylvia murmured, her hands going to her face.
Elena’s stomach twisted in pain. JP…he’d been so close to the Banshee; so close to the explosion. Was he…
She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. No, he wasn’t dead. JP was tougher than that. Stronger. All Warriors were. They had to be for the line of work they were in. Without the magic that protected Witches, they were born with a tougher skin than humans. They’d always been. He…he was all right. He had to be.
Beside her, Sylvia’s breath caught. “Look.”
Her eyes flew open and she gazed across the road. A wave of relief fell over her when she saw JP on the ground, shielding the child with his body. From what she could see, despite a little Banshee blood and a few cuts and scratches, he was no worse for wear. Thank God.
She started forward, her heart unsettled until she knew for sure that he was absolutely okay. But when he lifted his head, she stopped short. For the first time in the two years they’d worked together, he didn’t look at Elena.
He looked at her.
The stranger. Lying on the ground, her jacket torn and her knuckles bleeding. The girl he’d thrown his kama to as if he’d known she’d catch the hint.
Elena heart hesitated. Had he?
The sound of Axel’s voice jolted Elena back to the situation at hand, and she hurried across the road after him, falling to her knees at JP’s side instantly.
“Are you all right?” she asked him, helping him off the little girl. He winced when she touched his arm, and she realized a bit of rock had wedged itself just beneath his elbow. Axel bent down and checked the child.
“Is she okay?”
Elena looked back when the stranger spoke, and she was surprised to see Sylvia kneeling beside her, helping the girl to her feet.
“Yeah, she’s fine,” Axel told her after a moment. “She’s a little scratched, but she should be all right.”
“How much poison do you think’s in her?” JP groaned as he wrenched the rock out of his skin, and then fell back on the heels of his feet, spent. Smiling comfortingly, Elena rubbed his back.
The stranger nodded her thanks at Sylvia, shrugging as the pair made their way over. She was limping ever so slightly, Elena noticed, but covered it in seconds.
“I’m not sure. Her claws were already in when I got here,” she replied. “Maybe a couple minutes—hopefully only a couple minutes.” She crouched beside Elena and reached out to lay her palm across the girl’s forehead. After a beat, she checked her pulse.
“She’ll probably be out for another hour or so,” she said at length. Her confidence caught Elena off guard. The girl looked around at the group. “Do any of you know who she is? Who her parents are? Where she lives?”
JP shook his head. “Never seen her before. By her clothes, I’d say she’s from the lower city, but honestly, who could be certain?”
“We can take her back to the apartment,” Sylvia suggested. “Let her sleep it off and then take her home when she wakes. I’m sure her parents are worried sick but…what else is there to do?”
“Are you a Witch?” The girl lifted a brow.
Sylvia nodded. “Yeah.”
“Then do a spell.” She straightened. “A locator spell. You can use a few strands of her hair as a conduit.”
Elena’s brows rose. This girl…she certainly liked to take control. Sylvia was one of the most powerful Witches in their school and she was ordering her around like Sylvia was the lowest of the low. And worse, somehow the girl was able to sound as though she had every right to take charge.
Elena knew it was petty, but for some reason, she just couldn’t help herself. “You’re a Witch. Why don’t you?”
The stranger paused mid-scan of the road and turned her attention to her. Elena suddenly wished she wasn’t sitting on the ground. The girl wasn’t just looking down on her physically; she felt like she was looking down on her morally as well. She knew she was being assessed and squared her shoulders, refusing to allow this girl to see her insecurities as a Witch.
However, insecurities seemed to be the least of the stranger’s concerns at the moment. Abruptly, she broke out into a smile and winked.
“I’m not a Witch,” she said casually, and turned her attention back on her surroundings. She walked a few steps away, surveying the street and the connected alleys as she turned in a slow circle, her palms glowing a soft blue, scanning.
“Not a Witch?” Sylvia repeated quietly. “But…how is that possible?” She looked around at Axel and JP and Elena. “I mean, you guys saw it too. The electricity that went through the scythe. That was all her.”
Axel scoffed. “You think that’s all she did tonight? A few minutes before, she shot a streak of lightning at that demon.” He licked his lips. “That was definitely magic. The girl is one hell of a badass, Sylv.”
“Who is she?” Elena wanted to know, unable to tear her gaze away from the brown-haired fighter. She paid them no heed as they huddled, whether she heard them talking or not, her focus instead on the sky as if expecting to see something up there.
“Ask JP. He was the one who met her before.”
Elena’s head whipped around to her partner. “What?”
JP took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I ran into her a little while ago. We talked a little, then went our separate ways.” He shrugged. “We didn’t exchange names or business cards, guys. Besides, she was heading the other direction. I didn’t expect to run into her again.”
“Anything else you’d like to share, man?” Axel folded his arms across his chest and gave JP a hard look.
Elena watched the exchange in silence. She couldn’t help but feel a small wave of jealously that JP seemed to know the strange girl. Seeing someone so powerful the same night he witnessed Elena’s screw-ups didn’t exactly raise his undoubtedly low opinion of her.
“Dude, I knew you were keeping something from me earlier,” Axel said carefully. “Did it have something to do with her?”
JP hesitated a moment, then opened his mouth to answer.
Four pairs of eyes turned. The brunette smiled briefly, then gestured JP to her. “Can you come here a sec? There’s something I’m wondering.”
Elena was about to ask her to wait a moment while they finished their conversation, but before she could, JP nodded. “Yeah, sure.” He rose quickly, without once looking in Elena’s direction. He did, however, pause beside Sylvia. “Maybe you should start on that spell, huh? The sooner we get that girl home, the sooner we can get off the streets.”
Even Sylvia seemed taken aback by JP’s immediate agreement with the stranger. She nodded as he walked away, and then just stared as the two of them turned their backs on the others and moved a short distance away. Sylvia slowly turned back to Elena.
“What the hell is going on with your partner tonight?”
Elena exhaled slowly. “That’s what I’d like to know.” She looked up at Axel. “He didn’t say anything?”
Axel shrugged. “We only had a few minutes to talk before we heard the kid scream. Then we rushed over. Before that…he never mentioned this chick, Elena. I still don’t know who she is.”
“Maybe we should be grateful. After all, she did stop the Banshee.” Sylvia pursed her lips.
“What did she mean she’s not a Witch though? She knew exactly what she was doing. Like she’d dealt with Banshees before.”
“Maybe she had. Maybe she’s a Warrior.”
Both Elena and Axel shook their heads. “She can’t be,” Elena began.
“I’d know if she was,” Axel agreed. “And so would JP. Just like Witches can sense one another, so can Warriors.”
“I know that.” Sylvia stamped her foot pitifully. “But I don’t know what else she could be. She used magic—but she’s not a Witch. She fights Banshees—but she’s not a Warrior. What’s left?”
This time, Elena and Axel were silent. They glanced at each other sheepishly but made no attempt to answer.
Sylvia nodded. “Exactly.” She bent down and plucked a few strands of hair from the unconscious girl’s head.
“You’re doing the spell?” Elena asked.
“The girl’s right. It’s better to take this child home then let her wake up in a stranger’s house. Especially after what she just experienced.” Sylvia settled herself beside the child, crossing her legs one over the other and closing her eyes. She cupped one hand over the hair in the other and took a deep breath. Within moments, Elena was able to see Sylvia’s sea green aura—the color of her magic and spirit.
Elena couldn’t help but sigh again as she watched her friend. Sylvia was always so calm, no matter what the situation. Like tonight, she hadn’t shrieked and risked distraction like Elena had; and despite her confusion over the stranger, she hadn’t pettily questioned the girl’s background. Even now, as she obeyed the stranger’s command and cast her spell, she was completely and utterly at ease. Nothing could touch her as she silently chanted. Nothing could bother.
Meanwhile, everything bothered Elena when she cast spells. If she’d succeed, if she’d fail. What JP would think of her, what her teacher’s would say if they found out. What would happen if she missed her target, or if she made the situation worse. Elena’s only magic was a vibrant pink magenta, because she was simply never at ease in her own skin. Sylvia might be right that Elena was powerful in her own way, but that power meant nothing if Elena wasn’t good enough to control it. And right now, she knew if she’d tried this spell she’d never succeed because her mind was too wrapped up in JP and that girl.
She looked over at them now, unable to resist. It was clear the girl wasn’t asking him any questions. They were huddled together, talking as if they were old friends sharing their deepest secrets. The girl couldn’t have been any closer to him if she’d tried.
God, who was she? It was driving Elena insane! JP had claimed he didn’t even know her name and yet…there they were. Being all buddy-buddy. Cutting the rest of them out as if they weren’t even there. JP was her partner; shouldn’t he at least have asked her to come with him? They worked together. How could they do that if he was holding something back?
“I’ve got it!”
Elena spun around as Sylvia’s eyes flew open.
“Well?” Axel urged. “Where does she live?”
“JP was right. Down here in the lower city.” Sylvia pointed down a side street on their right. “About two and a half blocks that way.”
Axel nodded. “Perfect.” Gently, he bent down and lifted the little girl into his arms.
“Wait. What are we going to tell her parents?” Elena wondered, holding out her hand and helping Sylvia to her feet.
“The truth,” the Witch replied simply. “I hate admitting that their child was the victim of an attack, but once they see the needle marks, they’ll figure it out.” Gently, Sylvia brushed her fingertips over the girl’s pale skin. “At least they stopped bleeding.”
“Let me see.”
Sylvia stepped aside as the stranger suddenly came back across the road to them. JP, Elena noticed, stayed where he was a dozen feet away.
The stranger went up to the child and carefully laid four fingers over each of the wounds. With her other hand, she took that of the child’s and held it tightly.
Elena watched in awe as she suddenly started to hum a soft melody, one that Elena could only describe as a lullaby without words. She never closed her eyes, never took her gaze away from the child’s face, and after a short time, the child’s whole arm began to glow.
“What the…” Axel trailed off in wonder.
She ended the melody a few moments later, and as she did, the light faded. When she finally removed her fingers, the child’s skin was clean.
“How—” Sylvia couldn’t find the words to finish.
The brunette smiled a little. “Take her home now. I’d still tell her parents the truth but…at least now they won’t have to wonder if she’ll heal.” She brushed a few stray strands out of the little girl’s face. “She’s okay now.”
“That was amazing,” Sylvia whispered.
To Elena’s ever growing surprise, the girl shook her head.
“No, it wasn’t.”
“Damn.” Axel whistled. “Next time I’m hurt, remind me to call you.”
“Go on; take her home.”
He just nodded, still staring at the place where the piercings at been. Sylvia took him by the elbow and led him away from the scene, Elena only a couple steps behind her. She paused when she realized JP had yet to move.
“Aren’t you coming?” she asked him.
JP’s eyes flicked to the stranger, and he shook his head. “Not yet. Tell Axel not to worry though. I’ll be home soon.”
Her mouth fell open at his words. Tell Axel… What about her? He knew how she worried. And he was choosing to stay out here, in the dark, with a girl whose name he didn’t even know? He was choosing her over his partner? Why?
The tears burned in her eyes before she could stop them and she had to turn away quickly so he wouldn’t see. She nodded as she tried to hold them back.
“Yeah, sure,” she said, and started to walk away. “I’ll tell Axel.” She didn’t let the tears fall until the shadows had consumed her.
JP waited until his friends were gone before approaching the girl again.
“So…don’t tell them?”
She turned to face him, a few strands of her hair caught in a small cut along her jaw. She brushed them away, wincing slightly when she brushed too close to the cut.
“I never wanted anyone to see what you saw tonight, JP. You can’t tell them about it. I’m asking you not to. They can make whatever assumptions they’d like about what happened here but I’m…I’m asking you a favor.”
JP stuffed his hands in his pockets, ignoring the sting that shot up his right arm where the rock had wedged itself by his elbow. “I don’t know you,” he said with a shrug. “Why should I help you?”
She didn’t answer right away. His words seemed to catch her off guard. To be honest, they’d caught him a little off guard as well. He hadn’t exactly intended them to come out quite as harshly as they had. Tonight just wasn’t his night for words.
Nonetheless, his point was valid. Slowly, he watched the girl realize that.
She ran her tongue over her teeth and nodded. “All right. Fair enough.” She walked over to where the Banshee had first stood and picked up the two daggers that lay there. Tucking the sai back in their hidden space beneath her jacket, she returned to JP and handed over his own weapon.
“Julie Evans. Nineteen. One brother. No parents. Just got to town two and a half hours ago.” She smiled a little when JP blanched. “Yeah. Nice little welcoming party, huh?”
JP blew out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “I’ll say.” He took his dagger and shoved it into the sheath in his boot.
Julie nodded, impressed.
“Prepared for anything. That’s smart.”
“I’m a Warrior. It’s in my blood to be packing.”
“You did good tonight against that Banshee.” Julie started walking, and JP fell into step beside her. She folded her arms across her chest as the wind picked up. “Especially protecting that little girl. I wasn’t sure how far the explosion would go.”
“You knew the blade would react like that, then?” JP was awed. “You knew it’d explode?”
“It was what I’d intended.”
“How did you manage it?”
Julie chuckled, her head falling back as she laughed. “I’ve been doing this a long time, JP.”
“But you’re not a Witch.”
“No. No, I’m not a Witch.”
JP slid in front of her, stopping her in her tracks, even as she almost walked straight into him. He took her by the arms. “Then how did you do that?"
Julie gazed up at him, unable to speak at first. JP knew she had every right not to tell him the truth, but at this point, he couldn’t let it go. After what he’d witnessed the first time he’d run into her, combined with what he’d seen here, there was no way he could just drop it. This girl was something new, something different. Neither Witch nor Warrior, she had more strength and power than both combined. She hadn’t needed him to vanquish that Banshee a few minutes ago; she’d used his weapon, but she hadn’t used him. That meant something. This girl…whatever she was, she wasn’t normal.
After a few moments, Julie shook herself out of his grasp and took a step back. “Go find your friends, JP. They’ll be worried about you.” With that, she brushed past him, as if they hadn’t just fought a demon together. As if she hadn’t confided in him a very big, personal secret. He’d hit a nerve but he couldn’t for the life of him understand what it was.
Briefly, JP thought back to Elena. He’d both felt and seen her shock when he’d gone off with Julie, and he’d known he’d upset her when he decided to remain behind. Twice in one night, he’d made his friend and partner cry. But despite that, he knew he couldn’t just let this girl walk away. Elena would forgive him eventually; but his shot at getting to the bottom of Julie Evans was closing quickly. Shooting one last glance toward the side street his friends had gone down, he turned on his heel and hurried after the non-Witch, non-Warrior. She was already halfway down another alley.
“Look, I get what’s it’s like to be afraid of what people will say—” he began.
Julie’s laugh shattered the silence in the air, echoing through the alley. She spun around, walking backwards as she faced him. “Afraid? You think its fear that keeping me from answering your questions?” She shook her head. “I wish it were that easy.” She turned around again. “I’m protecting you, JP. For once, let someone look out for you.”
“No.” The word was out of his mouth immediately. As they stepped out onto the next road, JP hurried up to her side. “I didn’t ask for your protection, Jules, so forgive me for not taking it.”
She lifted a brow but said nothing.
“You’re not from around here, you said, but what you did tonight—on your own—I’ve never heard of before. Never seen. That’s got nothing to do with being new in town and everything to do with you. Tell me what it is.”
“Why should I?” Julie shot him a look. “For the same lack of reason you have to keep my secret? I owe you nothing, JP, and if you want to tell your friends, then fine. I’ll survive. I always survive.”
“You’re upset.” JP couldn’t stop himself from smirking. “Five minutes of debating, and you’re already deciding it’s easier to give up then to tell me the truth. Why? ”
“Give up? Hardly.”
“Then share. How is answering my question more frightening than that Banshee?”
JP grinned at the sudden turn of events. He’d never intended to get Julie ticked at him, but he was realizing now that it might work to his advantage. She was determined to keep the incident with the first Banshee just between them—the incident when she’d transformed into something…else and took the Banshee down with nothing but words. There had been no weapon, no magic, and no battle. She’d let herself into the shield and taken the Banshee out almost passively. And for some reason, she was absolutely hell bent on making sure no one found out about it.
But Julie refused to be baited. “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, JP. You think because you’re a Warrior you have a right to know? Well, guess what, kid—it doesn’t work that way. And if you’re going to oust my secret because you didn’t get your own way, then you’re too immature to be a Warrior in the first place. Now, I’ll say it one last time.” She stopped walking and faced him. “Go home.”
JP had a guess, but it was so farfetched, he wasn’t sure he should put it out there until he had more information. The problem was that Julie was already stalking away again. She was still trying to cut him out. Luckily, it just made him want to try harder.
“Look, things are changing fast around here,” he said, in an attempt to get her attention again. He followed her, keeping pace, but this time also kept his distance. “I can’t remember the last time I ran into more than two Banshees in one night, but the past couple weeks, they’ve been coming out of the freaking walls. That’s not normal.”
“Who says it’s not normal?” she tossed back without breaking a stride.
“My teachers for one; my years of experience for another.”
Julie paused and turned again. JP stopped where he was and waited.
JP shrugged. “See these streets?” He gestured to them proudly. “I grew up on them. I used to sleep out here before I got into Blackwoods. So I know for a fact the Banshees never used to frequent them.” He lifted his chin smugly. “Not until about a month ago.”
Julie put her hands on her hips. “And what happened a month ago?”
“They got shields.”
Julie was silent.
Deliberately, JP started to move toward her again, weighing each step carefully. “You keep saying you’ve been at this a long time. When was the last time you remember Banshees having shields?”
She clenched her jaw.
JP nodded. “In the time of the Wilas, maybe?”
Her eyes flashed fire. Not like fire—he watched as, for a split second, actual fire flickered in her blue eyes. It lit her face, only for a moment, then dissipated, fading away.
He lifted his chin, undeterred. “You’re a Wila, Julie Evans. I don’t know how, but I know that’s what you are.”
“You don’t know anything.”
“No? Then deny it.”
Julie lifted a brow at the challenge. “Fine.” She closed the distance between them, the heels of her boots echoing in the stillness, and came to a halt nose to nose with him. “I’m not a Wila.”
Her eyes widened.
“You can say whatever you like, Julie, but I know what I saw.”
“The Wilas are lost, JP. They have been for centuries. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“But their story’s not gone.” He crossed his arms and looked down at her. “If it was, then we wouldn’t know about the Banshee Wars two thousand years ago. And we definitely wouldn’t know how the Wilas defeated them.” JP took a step closer to her, the toes of his shoes coming right up to hers. He face was level with hers, her boots giving her the couple inches she needed to be almost his height. This close, he couldn’t help but feel like the more powerful individual.
“Song,” he said calmly. “Simple, submissive song.”
His words acted exactly as he’d hoped they would. Julie’s hand whipped out and she grasped him by the throat. He didn’t try to stop her as she lifted him off his feet.
“Don’t you ever call the Wilas submissive, JP. That’s nothing but disgusting ignorance.”
Breathing was hard, but JP managed a word. “Gotcha.”
Julie’s hold loosened when she realized what she’d just given away. She dropped him and stepped away, even though he landed on his feet, no worse for wear. She seemed stunned with herself.
Though JP kept his cool, inside he was secretly floored. She was a Wila. A Wila. A real, true Wila. It couldn’t be possible; it shouldn’t be possible. The only reason the Banshees had been released was because the Wilas had died out. But here he was, standing in front of a Wila, having just witnessed her legendary magic first hand.
Julie closed her eyes and another step away from her. “Damn it,” she whispered, running her hands through her hair.
“No, you’re not.”
JP fell silent. He watched her, watched as she put her hands against her temples, as she paced the small distance between them over and over again. He watched in absolute silence as she fought some inner battle within herself. He didn’t understand. Why didn’t she want the world to know she was still around? Why didn’t she want anyone to know the Wilas still lived? If this were to spread through the Banshees, they’d run for the hills as fast as they could. And the Warriors and Witches would have that much more confidence in protecting the world from them. People like Elena wouldn’t be afraid anymore. The Wilas were revered throughout the world as its saviors; why wouldn’t Julie want everyone to know one was still alive?
“All right, JP.”
He looked up at the sound of her voice. She looked tired. Suddenly, she was both mentally and physically exhausted. He’d pushed her buttons but he felt no guilt about it, because this was the biggest deal of a lifetime.
And as he watched her sigh, and resolve herself to his insistence, he realized it was just as big of a deal for her as well.
“All right,” she said again. “You win. I’ll tell you my story.”