The Archfiend Artifact

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34

34

saathoff academy, dark moon port, MABON CITY

Friday, OCTOBER 24

11:18 aM

I sighed and released the string of my bow. My arrow sprinted a hundred yards down range and sank into the foam target three inches above the bullseye with a thwump. I made a frustrated noise, nocked another arrow.

Another sprint down range.

Thwump.

Another miss.

My aim was usually much better than this. I wanted to blame it on the lousy design of the bow, but deep down I knew it wasn’t the one at fault.

Aim.

Thwump.

Miss.

A bad feeling had been plaguing me for the past hour. It started when Aiden didn’t show up for lunch. Quinn had even gone inside to search the cafeteria for her. When he returned without Aiden, he had had Morgan dig up the Crosses’ phone number. I had left a message on their answering machine.

Thwump.

I tried to ease my worries by telling myself Aiden could have stayed home from school and is now comfortably asleep in her bed.

Thwump.

Anything to keep me from imagining the Mirror of Souls being turned upon her. I may not know the girl, but no one deserves that fate.

My last arrow sailed right past the target and headed for the backstop. It sank into the foam and carpet with a barely audible pfft. I shouldered my borrowed bow with a frown, stared at the stray arrow.

It took a minute or so for the other archers to empty their quivers, and for the range officer to call the all clear. I followed them downrange to pull my arrows from the foam target. I was nearly to the backstop to retrieve my last arrow when my phone suddenly rang. I quickly pulled it out of my back pocket, checked the caller ID.

Blocked.

The hairs on the back of my neck started to rise.

I took a deep breath, put on my resting witch face. On the third ring, I pressed the answer button. “Osiyo?

Static pulsed over the connection. Then a distorted voice cut through the noise. “Good afternoon, Jinx.”

I frowned. Whoever was on the line couldn’t have been a Shadow. The last time I bumped into one, its voice was like gravel and it kept referring to me as ‘Young One.’ No, this was a human. A human who knew me by my nickname. And they seemed to be using a device of some kind to disguise their voice, which meant that the odds were good that I knew them as well. That list of people was pretty short, and none of them struck me as someone willing to kill for something.

But with the static on the line, I was willing to bet that a Shadow lurked near enough to cause the disturbance. Perhaps Morgan and Duncan were right and the demon had possessed someone. Even that didn’t explain why the caller used my nickname.

“Who are you and how did you get this number?” I demanded, pulling the arrow free of its cushy prison.

“Before —u say something you might regret, bzzt –ould consider the fate of your AEON frie– kshh –vr there by the tent...”

My blood ran ice cold. I rushed to the exit of the archery range, peered over the kids’ gaming arena. Quinn stood at the far side of the food pavilion from me, watching the area around the dance floor and food court.

“... an— vendors.”

I spotted Morgan’s golden hair in the midst of the little market row. There were too many people around her for me to know if someone had gotten to her. I got the impression that, had she been confronted, she would have made a scene that astronauts on the International Space Station could see.

I may not have been able to pinpoint the threat against their lives, but I knew it couldn’t be anything but real. And my teammates were too far away for me to warn them without alerting whomever I had on the phone. I truly hoped Specter had been hiding near me when the call came in. He would be able to warn Quinn and Morgan of the threat without drawing attention to himself. Maybe he could even trace the call.

But I doubted he needed to.

Almost nobody had the number to my phone. The only one way our enemies could have known how to get a hold of me and where to find me. They had listened to my message on the Crosses’ answering machine. That simple fact brought to light a whole new and terrible circumstance. If Aiden wasn’t the Shadow in disguise, she was a hostage. Her whole family could be hostages. And there was no way in hell I was going to let that slide.

I tried to keep my voice steady and calm. “What do you want?”

“Meet me.”

I licked my lips. “Where?”

bzzt— theater. Come alone or the AEONs will die.”

The phone disconnected.

I looked at the school’s southern entrance, already knowing that Quinn wouldn’t miss seeing me if I went that way. I couldn’t afford to have him follow me. Good thing I knew the east wing had a door that led to a hallway that was a straight shot to the theater. I made for that door at a dead run, paused long enough to check that I wasn’t followed. Then I pulled the door open and slipped inside.

The lights were out and I fumbled in the dark, sunblind, but I had navigated this route too many times to not know where to go. Fifty steps ahead. Turn left. The theater doors would be right there. I couldn’t see anything lurking in the simulated night, but I could feel it. A sinister presence had settled over the area like a dense fog. It crept into the back of my mind to fill me with overwhelming terror and doubt.

I don’t have the luxury of being afraid now, I firmly told myself as I nocked an arrow on my borrowed bow. With a deep, calming breath, I strode forward, shoulders squared and chin held high.

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