Ember was out of bed the moment she was roused by the deafening ring of the warning bells.
Yesterday’s clothes had been haphazardly strewn onto the chair next to her bed. Her laziness had been useful. She slipped on trousers, a simple shirt, and a leathery vest. Her heart was stuttering in her chest from the rude awakening.
It was night. It was too dark to see the stars from her window and shadows dripped across her room. They had never done any drills with the warning bells in the middle of the night. But what would be that would be so bad?
She stepped out into the main living space, where her parents were gathering. They looked confused and worried. Not a drill.
Something was wrong.
And then the warning bells stopped, only trailing off with a faint echo.
“What’s going on?” she said, any traces of sleep shaken anyway by the intensity in the air.
“I don’t know,” Mum said. She gestured her closer and nudged her gently towards Mama. “You two stay here, I’ll go see what the problem is.”
She allowed Mama to place her hands on her shoulders for comfort, but then immediately ducking and leapt out of reach. “No way! I want to know what’s happening!”
The door swung open and slammed against the wall. Three figures poured into the room, clad in monotonous grey attire and masks that covered their faces. One held a sword, one a dagger, and the last held nothing but a vial secured in brass to keep the glass protected.
Mama lunged towards her and grabbed her, pulling her back. Mum stepped forward, grabbing a fire poker lying nearby, and positioned herself between them and the figures.
The figure in front, the one holding the sword, stepped forward. His position was relaxed, but he wasn’t unprepared for an attack. “Give up the girl and this will remain peaceful.”
“Touch her and you’re dead,” Mum said, and then spat upon the floor in front of the figure.
She eyed her surroundings. She had always thought of bringing one of Laska’s old, beat up hammers back but never had, and now she wished she had followed through. If she could get to the kitchen, there were knives. But knives against a sword? Maybe she should have spent more time with Mishal and his stupid swords.
The figure with the knife began to shift away, moving around the room. They were going to flank Mum. She had to—
“The girl, and nobody will be harmed,” said the sword-wielder, firmer this time. “We aren’t here to hurt anyone. Give her up.” Then, shifting forward with sword poised, said, “She was never yours anyway.”
Mum swung at the figure and the clash of metal rattled through the walls, hissing like a viper.
“Mum!” she cried. She tried to rush to her mum’s aid, but Mama was there to catch her, tugging her back and shoving her towards the master bedroom.
“Em, look at me.” Mama put her hands on either side of her face. “The locked drawer on my desk, you know where the key is. There’s a rolled-up piece of leather with a note for you. We knew we’d have to tell you someday, but you need it.” Her grip tightened almost painfully. “You take that letter and the moment you have an opening, you run.”
The clatter of metal against metal and the thud as the one wielding the dagger hit the wall filled her ears, but she couldn’t look away. “I’m not leaving,” she said.
Her mama grabbed her shoulders. “Ember, I love you more than anything, you know that? Listen to me this time!”
The figures were between them and the door, and in the hall, she could hear more activity and a blur of grey. The others!
“I need you safe, baby, I need you away from here,” Mama said. Then she pulled away and ran for the kitchen. For the knives. She was going to help Mum.
The figure with the potion was watching her and began to advance. Ember turned, chest seizing tightly, and ran into the master bedroom. She slammed the door shut and grabbed the nearest chair, shoving it under the door handle. The door shook from impact as the grey masked figure tried to break in.
She went for the key hidden in the mattress and then for the drawer. The rolled leather scroll was small, only the size of her hand from the heel of her palm to her fingertips. She shoved it in the pocket of her vest. The door shuddered.
In the few times she had practised magic, it always went wrong. Whenever she asked, the only thing she was able to produce was a fire that was nearly blinding.
She approached the door, heart pounding like a hammer against an anvil. Then she kicked aside the chair and let the door fly open.
The grey-clad figure stumbled into the room and she reached for their arm, grabbing them mid-fall. She snarled like she’d seen Lore do whenever the cat felt threatened.
“Adolebitque,” she spat, and her hands caught fire.
The figure yelped in surprise and shoved her away, staggering backwards as their clothes caught on fire. The flames curled from her hands, flickering in her palms, and she had half a mind to rush over and shove them against his face.
She closed her fists instead and the fire went out. As the figure began to swat at the brilliant flame to put it out before it spread, someone screamed.
She jerked her head in the direction the scream had come from, and her pulse stuttered. Without sparing the burning figure another look, she bolted out the door and towards the hall.
There were grey figures crowding in the opened doors of each of the living quarters, but at the end of the hall was one retreating. The mask was partially pulled back, revealing a scarred lip and the beginnings of stubble.
In his arms, clad only in a warm cotton nightdress, Alanna kicking and wriggling like a caught wolf. His hand covered her mouth, but her shrieks were only muffled, not silenced. Her cheeks were coated in tears.
“HEY!” she screamed. “LET HER GO!” And, as the man glanced up at her through the soulless black eye panels in his mask, charged towards them.
Before she reached them, she saw a flicker of movement, like a shadow.
“Excaecant oculos,” someone said, almost drowned out by the ringing of metal, Alanna’s muffled screams, and the general chaos.
A light flashed in front of the man’s mask, blinding and almost instantaneous. In his surprise, the man let go of the uncontrollable Alanna. She staggered, recovered, and leapt forward towards Ember.
She grabbed Alanna and held her tight to her side as the man reached up to clutch at his eyes. As he shifted forward with the motion, he revealed behind him Rowan, whose eyes were a solid jade and the faint shimmer of blue rushing down their dark hair. Beside him, Cassius, who was gripping a dagger in a white-knuckle hold.
Rowan’s eyes faded slowly back to normal and they gestured to them. “C’mon you two, we have to go!”
Alanna twisted in her grip and tried to wriggle away. When she caught Alanna’s midsection, the girl howled. “MUM! DAD!”
She tugged Alanna towards Rowan and Cassius. “What’s going on?” she asked, as Rowan ushered them further into the dark hallways and away from the activity. Alanna continued to scream.
“They’re here for us,” they said. “I don’t know why.”
“What about our parents?” she pressed as she and Rowan wrestled Alanna towards the stairwell.
Rowan’s brows furrowed. “They’ll figure it out. The grey masks aren’t here for them.”
Adolebitque = Burn
Excaecant oculos = Blind the eyes