Chapter 26:

Countdown Initiated

Mahō no Gakkō: Chromatic

“So, did you manage to retrieve it?”

I stood next to Queen Teresa on the balcony of the Mirror Hall. Her tall, elegant frame wasn’t imposing to me anymore— I felt I was talking to an equal.

I unclipped the sickle on my belt. “You mean this?” I twirled it around in my hand off the edge of the guard rail.

“So you did manage it. I’m quite impressed— excuse me, would you stop spinning it off the edge? You might risk dropping it.”

I opened my hand to shrug. “Drop it? I would never.”

The look on her face was priceless. “You just did.”

I faked a gasp and looked over the edge. “Shit.” I saw it there, suspended in midair.

“If it is damaged, consider yourself hanged.”

“But you said you’d never hurt one of your own,” I sneered. The sickle came spinning back over the edge and into my hand, like a silvery boomerang. “Were you really gonna hang me?”

“Of course not,” Teresa scoffed. “Ahem. I’m quite impressed. When did you find it?”

“This morning.”

She was confused. “Were you not in Reapra this morning?”

“Yeah, I was.”

“Then how were you able to return to Earth and retrieve it?”

I smirked. “Do you know why we went to Reapra?”

“To create a diversion,” she answered quickly.

“That wasn’t the main goal.”

Her amber eyes reminded me of what Kori’s had looked like just a few hours ago. Compared to him, though, she wasn’t intimidating at all. “Then what was the main goal, Ms. Beta?”

“To rescue Kori, my twin brother, who Sakira captured and planned to use as a bargaining chip with you. And you didn’t even know he existed.”

She was shocked. “Nathan had two children?”

“Yeah, and guess which one he gave the heirloom to. I just got this shitty amulet.” I snickered. “Actually, I found out this was part of the cathedral that he just broke off and ran with.”

“So Sakira had the sickle?” she gasped. “How did you get out alive?”

“By taking the sickle. Duh.”

I noticed the Queen staring out into the Atlas skyline again. “You know, more often than not, I visit each year only once or twice. I aim to prolong my lifespan as ruler. For me, I asked you only an hour ago to retrieve the sickle, and here you are with it.”

“What’s that supposed to mean to me?”

“I’ve visited this year three times already. You’re something special, Ms. Beta.”

I wonder if she even knows my name. “Thanks.”

A brief silence. We both looked out upon the city, its structure reminiscent of Reapra’s. Humans and spirits really weren’t that different after all.

“…I hate to bring this up after you’ve just finished a daunting quest, but there was something I wanted to tell you about.” She seemed troubled, as if thinking on a poignant memory.

I had a guess as to what she was going to bring up. “What is it now, Teresa?”

That irked her. She looked down on me condescendingly. “That’s ‘your highness’.”

“Okay, Teresa.”

“Keep this up and I’ll drive a stake through your arm.”

I blinked. “For having said you’d never hurt me, you say you’re gonna hurt me a lot.”

“Hm.” She cleared her throat and adjusted her tiara. “It’s about your father.”

“Oh, yeah, I figured that out.”

“…You’re full of surprises. What did you figure out?”

I didn’t really want it to be true, so I said it tentatively. “Nathan was a werewolf. And… he killed my mom, right? Is that what happened?”

“It is.” Damn it all. “You seem troubled.”

“Yeah, no, that’s not troubling at all,” I grumbled. “Was your dad a werewolf? Did he kill your mom?”

Teresa’s silvery hair blew in the wind, covering her expression for a moment. “No. I can’t imagine how that must feel.”

“I get over things quick. I’ll be fine in, like, a day. But it’s still… well, you know. I’m probably not gonna get to see my dad anytime soon.”

By that time, the bell was about to ring. I felt my phone buzz in my pocket, but out of whatever courtesy I had left, I didn’t pull it out. Teresa turned back to me and eyed the sickle again.

“I’m going to need that back.”

“Oh, fuck no. This is mine,” I spat. “See ya.”

The bell’s chimes echoed from the cathedral, and without hesitation, I ran off. I could imagine Teresa’s expression as I flew down the stairs and out onto the stage. A quick hop got me down into the chairs, and from there, I just had to make my way to the hallway. While I walked past the rows of seating, I checked my phone.

“SECTOR 53– NOTICE. PLEASE REPORT TO THE HEADMASTER’S OFFICE AFTER COUNSELING BLOCK,” the screen said. Huh. Is this about the mission? I rerouted my footsteps and found my way to Milliheim’s room.

Outside the oversized wooden doors was the rest of the Sector. Aubrey, Marissa, Aka, Sydney, Wes, and Reyna— I was surprised I’d remembered the last two’s names. Oh, and Aaron was there, too. They all stood talking amongst themselves, like they’d been before the skirmish for the wall.

“Hey,” I called. “What’s this about?”

Aubrey was first to respond. “Dunno.”

“He’s probably holding it to congratulate us,” Aaron scoffed. “I know Milliheim. He does stupid stuff like that.”

Aka glared at him. “Would he really congratulate us on almost dying and getting saved by those three?” He gestured at me, Aubrey, and Sydney.

“And me,” Aaron corrected.

“Sure, because you were such a big help,” Aka shot back. “Marissa did more than you did. I don’t know why you were even there.”

“Thanks, Aka,” Marissa chuckled.

That reminded me of a question I’d had. “Hey, Aka. What was being possessed like?”

“I was kinda possessed at the time, so I don’t know.”

“Okay, shut up,” I said, rolling my eyes.

The bell rang again. If we hadn’t been called here, we’d all be late by now. As if on cue, the door cracked open. Milliheim’s friendly gaze greeted us. “Ah, sorry to keep you all waiting.”

“That’s fine,” Aaron responded lightheartedly. “Take as much time as you need to set up the decorations.”

Milliheim frowned. “Sorry, DeAndrick. You know me very well, but unfortunately, what I’ve called you all here for isn’t a joking matter.”

He opened the doors wider to let us all in. The eight of us managed to all find seats, whether they were next to the desk or at the table behind it. “Well, spill it, mister. Whatcha got? Why’d ya call us here?” Aubrey asked, reclining in the chair next to me. Her golden-blonde hair looked a little rougher than usual.

The headmaster slicked his grey hair behind his sharp ears and took a deep breath. “I don’t often show this, but…” He opened a drawer in his desk and carefully set down a tablet. “This is how her Highness schedules her annual announcement. Or, erm, three-times-annual this year.”

On the device, there was a list of times. The most recent accepted times were all lit green, and three of them were within the past month. More specifically, it seemed like they were all times Teresa had been at Atlas— perhaps they were points she had traveled to.

Aaron shrugged. “Yes, you’ve shown me this. I don’t see an issue.”

Wes, though, was a little less adamant. “If this is all the times the Queen’s been here, that means she’s here right now!” he called from the planning table.

I turned to look at him nodded. “I literally just talked to her.”

Milliheim cleared his throat. “Yes, yes, her Higness is present at this moment. That isn’t the issue I’ve having.”

“What is it, then?” Aka questioned. “I mean, if we know she’s here, what’s the issue?”

“Look at this.” Milliheim scrolled down on the tablet, revealing another request. I assumed at this point these were time traveling requests, meant only for the Queen. “This is a request, attempting to travel to… well, it looks like an hour and a half from now.”

I blinked. “Huh. That’s weird.” Is Teresa trying to take the sickle back? She could have just followed me down the stairs.

Sydney looked up with zero interest in the conversation. “Let the countdown begin.”

“What?” Milliheim remarked. “What do you mean, ‘let the countdown begin’?”

Sydney stared off into space. “It was less of an order, and more of a statement. It’s already started.”

“I’m more interested in knowing what this countdown of yours is,” Milliheim said. “This could be crucial information.”

“I would not listen to the girl with fire hair. She does not know what she is talking about,” Reyna mumbled, her accent still thick. I finally registered that it was Egyptian, and couldn’t help but do a fist pump behind the back of the chair.

Milliheim sighed. “Sydney, you can see the future, right?”

“I can see a lot of things,” she said, almost as if complaining.

“What is this request? What will it mean for Atlas?”

Sydney closed her eyes and pondered for a moment. “Usually, I wouldn’t say, but it seems fate would rather have me reveal something to you.”

“C’mon, just say it,” Aka groaned. “We don’t have all day.”

You certainly won’t. Not in two days’ time,” she snarled, seemingly out of nowhere. Aka was taken aback. “That request isn’t from Teresa, so if it’s the Queen you’re worried about, it won’t affect her.”

Marissa jumped to Aka’s side. “What do you mean?”

Milliheim was confused. “If it’s not from Teresa, then… who is it from?”

“That, you’ll have to find out the hard way.” Sydney opened her eyes and laid back. “Ugh. This morning was such a chore.”

Milliheim briskly walked back to his desk. “I’d like to consult the rest of you. Do you think it’s safe to accept the request?”

“Seems aight with Sydney,” Aubrey replied. “An’ Shiera don’t got anything ta say about it.”

“Why am I a deciding factor for you?” I asked.

She shrugged lazily. “Dunno. I’m tired. I’m not tryin’ as hard.”

“I… don’t know about it,” Aka said hesitantly. “Sydney said something weird, and now I’m a little worried.”

Wes tilted his head. “Sydney says weird stuff all the time, dimwit.”

“Yeah, but usually not to me, or even anyone in particular. She usually doesn’t even look at people.”

“That is not true,” Reyna said. “She is good at maintaining eye contact.”

Aka scowled. “With what, the fourth wall? C’mon. Last time she got like this, she was talking to Eliana. I’m not putting up with that shit.”

“Commander Cryojen, mind your language,” Milliheim advised.

“Sorry, sir. It’s just– Eliana… I don’t wanna end up like she did, you get me?”

Sydney looked back at him. “You won’t end up like Eliana. Maybe your children will, and their children after them… but Eliana was put on hold. You won’t be. And neither will I.”

“Cut the prophetic sh– crap!” Aka yelled. He was clearly distressed. “Should we accept the request? That’s all we need to frickin’ know.”

“Fate won’t allow me to make that choice,” Sydney replied. She gazed back off into the distance, to Aka’s frustration.

He spun in his chair and put a hand down on the table. “Fine. We should go for it. If my brains get blown out, blame Sydney for not telling us.”

Marissa looked pensive. “I don’t want anyone’s brains getting blown out. We should think about this.”

“Y’all, shut up, will ya? We should just go with a choice and stick with it. We don’t even know what’s gonna happen, anyway.” Aubrey hissed. “We’re all hella tired. We’ve been ta hell and back, okay? So let’s get this over with, and maybe Milliheim’ll let us sleep the rest a’ the block.”

“It seems like you all generally think accepting it is the right course of action,” Milliheim said. “Is that right?”

“Yeah.” “Eh.” “Mmhmm.” Mostly affirmative sounds surrounded me. It seemed like that’s what we’d chosen, then.

Milliheim tapped the ‘accept’ option on the tablet and tucked it away. “Thank you for helping me decide. As per Sumisu’s request, I’ll let you stay in your respective dormitories for the rest of the period. Any further questions?”

“Why’d you ask us about this?” I queried.

Milliheim smiled. “Well, you all seem to know your way around situations of these sorts. You’re all very talented.”

“Thanks,” Aubrey said. “Now dismiss me before I fall sleep in this chair.”

“Yes, of course. You’re all dismissed. Have a wonderful afternoon.”

We all stood up and made our way out of the room. It only occurred to me after we’d already left that I didn’t actually have a dormitory yet.

Aubrey’s dorm had two beds, but she’d dragged me into sleeping next to her since Marissa was bunking with her. I didn’t actually sleep— I just laid down and rested as Aubrey tousled and turned beside me. Occasionally she would scratch my back with her claw-like nails, in which cases I’d flip her over.

When the bell rang, I scrambled to my feet and left the dorm without either of my bunkmates. It was about time for dinner, after all, and having not eaten anything since the night before, I was starving.

I managed to get to the front of the line and snag my food before almost anyone else. I noticed I had a much greater appetite than I had before the mission, which was great, because I needed food in my stomach. A few minutes in, Aubrey and Aka sat next to me. “Damn, someone was hungry,” Aubrey laughed.

“Maybe I was just excited to stop getting clawed to death.”

“I toldja about that. Look, ya get whatcha get,” she chuckled.

Aka raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“We slept together,” Aubrey replied. Aka’s face was priceless.

I’d taken a sip of my water as she said that, and I nearly choked. “Rephrase!”

“We shared a bed ‘cause Shiera don’t got a dorm,” she explained. “An’ Marissa was in the other one.”

“You could’ve said that from the start,” Aka groaned.

Aaron walked through the doors to the cafeteria. “Shiera, Kori’s doing well. We just finished up the genetic reversal. He should be good to go.”

“Nice,” I said. “Is he awake?”

“Not yet. But he should–”

The crackling sound of the intercoms almost deafened me. Aubrey flinched and covered her feline ears. “Hello? Mic test, one, two… yeah, we’re good.”

The voice on the other side seemed strangely like a student’s— not much older than us, actually. It was a young male’s voice. “Yes, we’ve hijacked the intercoms. This is important. All students and faculty who can, please meet at the cathedral. We have an announcement to make, and the clock is ticking.”

Ticking, ticking, ticking, just like Sydney had said. The countdown had begun.

Steward McOy