The Backup Eight is made up of four duos: Lily, or Revel as her teammates call her, and Batty; Flora and Fauna; Brush and Circuit; and Sopho and Reflex.
“Stop worrying so much about magic replenishment,” Brush says loudly. “We’ve got Revel. She’s like the queen of that stuff.”
Lily perks up at the mention, but goes back to stretching when the bickering starts up again.
“Brush!” Flora reprimands. “She’s not an everlasting battery. Revel can’t replenish our magic forever. We still have to be smart about this.”
It’s kind of a pain to stretch in the costume. The short, fluffy petticoat of her skirt sparks with static as she maneuvers herself into a hurdle stretch, and she always feels like the strapless top is going to sink down a little too far, even with the strange, magic fashion tape keeping it over her chest. Nothing about the thing hurts, even the boning and the laces, but it’s mentally uncomfortable.
Fauna, true to her non-confrontational nature, raises her hands placatingly. “Guys, I’m sure we can find a solution to this.” Her high fur collar rustles as she turns her head. “What do you say, Revel?”
“Huh?” Lily says, like a kid who’s just been caught sleeping in class. A few of the girls chuckle, but Flora absolutely does not.
“Are you taking this seriously Revel?” she demands. “You can’t just tune out the whole strategy meeting! This is the final battle! The Summum Malum! Even you could run out!”
Lily lets out a strangled, tired noise and tips her head up to look at Flora. “I won’t. I’ve never even come close.” None of them have ever come close. They all produce magic energy all the time; they would have to do some very drastic things to truly run out. All Lily really does is help them access their reserves and boost morale so they can keep up with the physical motions of using magic.
That’s the hardest part, actually, is the using. Contrary to Flora’s statement, each of them is like an everlasting battery. They can’t stop generating magical energy, and their reserve tanks grow and burst and change over time to fit their needs. Just one of Batty’s weapon summons is like taking a millimeter of water from an olympic pool. Most of the girls simply haven’t figured out how to really get their hands in and scoop out energy; they skim foam off the surface, and Lily helps them stay topped up.
It’s too complicated to explain though, so Lily just stretches out her bent leg and falls into an almost-splits, then plants her face in the grass of the library lawn. She’s so done with this.
As Lily savors the scritch and scratch of grass on her cheek, the other girls keep talking. Flora worries in her strict, low voice, and Reflex blurts out every single thing that comes to her mind in the exact moment that each thought manifests. How her teachers deal with that, Lily doesn't want to know.
She pulls herself into a full splits eventually, during one of Circuit's long-winded plans, and bends forward over one leg. The air starts to change, and Lily wonders if she should bring it up, but realizes that Circuit has started talking faster, like she's sensed it too. Lily keeps her mouth shut.
The other world always smells bad. Today, it is a mix of rotten fish and dirty cat litter, all tied up with the faint twinge of cows. Underneath that, however, and growing by the minute, is something nastier. It is darker than dirt and stinks like tar pitch. It smells like death, and dying people, and the sweat of roiling, boiling anger.
Is Circuit going to wrap up soon? Lily thinks that whatever they're fighting, it's almost here. Surely the Big Six will come and fetch them and trade notes soon. It's almost time.
But no, Circuit keeps going. Now she's answering Reflex and Sopho's questions. Now Flora is worrying again. Now the smell is clogging Lily's nose, sitting on top of her shoulders like an elephant, pushing her down, further into her stretch, into the dirt and the pitch.
She stands up midway through one of Sopho's more well-thought-out questions and looks to the sky. "It's here," Lily says.
The other girls all look up, their necks snapping.
"What?" Reflex asks. "No it's not. There's no dark cloud. Everything is still just greyish."
"Seconded," Flora says.
Fauna lets out a tense giggle. "Oh come on guys, I'm sure Revel isn't totally wrong. I mean, maybe it really is time to go meet with the elemental girls?"
With a sigh, Brush flops backward, her homey, apron-covered skirt spreading out like a fan around her legs. "I trust Revel with all things magic-sensey-feely. No offense, Circuit."
Circuit scowls and reaches over to shove at Brush's shoulder. "My predictions are fine. And why are you on her side? Revel interrupted my plan-"
The grey sky does... something. It inverts, and all the dark particles floating up there coalesce. The sky, or the world, or maybe just Lily's perception of it, wobbles and twists. She might have gone upside-down for a split-second.
And worse than the gut-churning visual effects is the horrible movement of smells. Lily's nose catches the moment when every magical particle around them realigns, focusing on the dark cloud like iron filings on a magnet. The hairs in her nose swirl, throwing off her balance, and she stumbles into Batty's steadying arms.
"Careful there," Batty whispers. "What's wrong?"
Lily opens her eyes, though she's not sure when she closed them, and glances at the other girls. They're standing tall and firm, glaring at the cloud above them, ready to fight. Circuit stands with her feet apart, her fists raised and crackling with electricity. Sopho clicks her heels together and lets her magic ooze out over the field. Her delicate scent of raspberries and cream is nothing against the stinking mass above, but Lily feels the magic seep under her skin and wire through her brain.
Sopho's magic clears Lily's head, gets her through the overwhelming sensory shifts around her. In a moment, she takes stock of their surroundings.
The Big Six stand in the middle of the field, arrayed in an orthodox cross under the center of the cloud. Each of them glows with power, charging up for a bright and brilliant first attack. The greyscale trees around them inch skyward, growing longer and taller and more menacing. The grass stops rustling underfoot, frozen by either time or frost.
Circuit shouts. "Cross formation! Batty and Revel on the far side! Flora and Fauna go north! Brush, we're going south!"
Lily lets Batty take her wrist and pull her across the field. Batty is tall, and her strides are already long, but with the crimson glow of her magic around her, she moves like lightning. Each of her steps pulls them yards, and she zigzags across the field, overcorrecting and reorienting after each stride. When they stop on the other side of the field, Lily has to lean over and breathe.
"Come on," Batty says, offering a hand. Lily takes it and easily forgets to tell her heart to chill out. They're all keyed up by the battle anyways. "It's go time. Keep me safe out there, Revel?"
"Always," Lily gasps. She looks up and makes eye contact, takes in the way Batty's eyes crinkle behind her red and gold domino mask. Batty's lips pull into a bright white smile. Her sturdy chin dimples.
Lily pulls on her own magic, lets it surge inside of her. Its sweet, singing neutral smell roars out from her heart in a wave, crashes through her and Batty's linked hands, and sends the smell of bloody, iron magic coursing through the air.
Batty's battle aura grows brighter, and she backflips into the fray like a tall Simone Biles to strike the first blow against their final enemy.