For a staggered second of silence, AC could feel the world moving under his feet. The motion made him dizzy somewhere in the depths of his mind. His violet eyes were still fixed on where the spot of white that had been Newt’s back finally disappeared into the shadows of the oncoming twilight.
Newt… killed his own father…?
A salty taste seeped in slow tendrils through his mouth. AC had bitten the inside of his lip and now it was bleeding. It seemed strangely fitting for that one, vast and overwhelming moment, matching the one pattern of thought that echoed in his mind.
How can it be? Is he really a murderer?
The Black Mage shied away from the final word. As if he was disgusted to pin such a title on anyone – especially the foul-mouthed, White Mage roommate that he had worked so hard for months to befriend.
Or is there something else he’s not telling us?
AC had believed that he could do something to help someone else, if only just this once. When he looked at the ill-tempered White Mage, he had seen someone who was as cast out and lonely as himself. Newt just had a different way of dealing with the prison of solitude that had been erected around him.
There must be something more to this.
And because they were so much alike in that one way, AC had wanted nothing more than to try to show Newt that there were people out there that could understand some of what he was going through. That there were people who gave a care and would try to accept him, no matter how hard the White Mage tried to shove the world away.
The Elder knew of Newt’s past. The Elder was the one that assigned Newt to room with me. I can’t believe that the Elder would allow a murderer to live in the Mysidian Academy along with the students.
Very slightly, AC felt his head nod as a trickle of relief broke through the tension.
Yes… if the Elder believes in Newt enough to take him in… then I won’t doubt the Elder’s choice.
The Black Mage drew in a slow, deep breath. The soft chill of the approaching night filled his lungs in a crisp, cleansing way.
I’m going to find out what really happened to Newt.
“Shiva…” Palom hissed under his breath. It was the first word that the boy had said since Newt had left. When his brown eyes turned to question AC, the usual jeering expression was missing. “Do you think he’s really telling the truth?”
“One thing I’ve learned about Newt… he tells his side of the truth far too much. I don’t think he’s making it up,” AC replied, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. “But I also don’t think he’s telling us everything.”
“Oh? You think he killed other people too?” Palom perked up with a mischievous look. “Serial killer typa stuff?”
“What?” the Black Mage blinked.
“I knew it! He’s as nasty as they come… and that just proves it!”
“No! That’s not what I meant!”
“You said there was more to it?” Palom peered at him.
“I meant, I don’t think it happened exactly like he made it sound. He seemed too upset about it for that to be the whole story,” AC frowned.
“What makes you think so?”
“When was the last time you ever seen Newt walk out on an argument?” the Black Mage motioned with one finger.
“Gooood point,” Palom tapped his chin. “So what do you plan to do?”
AC’s gaze drifted in the direction that the White Mage had vanished. “I’m going to figure out the rest of the story.”
“Why?” the boy looked incredulous.
“Because I think it’s important to hear the whole thing,” the Black Mage replied grimly.
“You’re yanking my chain! You can’t be seriously thinking about still going around talking with him after this?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“You could get yourself killed messing with him!”
“You’re the one that always tries to get into fights with him. Not me,” AC pointed out calmly.
A sick expression blanched over Palom’s face. It was only now that he was reconsidering the consequences of the insults that he had continuously aimed in the White Mage’s direction.
“Besides, I don’t think he’d do anything to me,” AC continued. “And even if he did, why are you suddenly worried about it? I thought you didn’t like me?”
“What? Well, I don’t!” Palom choked. Then he shook his head. “I don’t like you setting your eyes on my sister. But… I don’t want to see you get yourself killed either, you know?”
“Yeah…” AC nodded slowly, looking somewhat more hopeful. That was the first kind thing that the boy had said to him so far. As shocking as the revelations had been to them all, it seemed to have given Palom some groundings at the least.
“So, what do we do?” the boy was staring out at the forest as well.
“I think maybe we should leave him alone for now. I don’t know if he really meant to tell us what he did – maybe that’s why he left so quickly?” AC sucked on his bottom lip, fitting his mage hat over his brow. He fiddled with the brim a bit, making sure it stayed put – those were the worst kinds of hats for flying off at the most inopportune times.
“I suppose you’re ri–”
A hoarse cry shattered the calmness of the night, cutting through Palom’s words like a knife. AC’s head swung around, eyes focusing in the direction the sound had come from. The forest.
“Newt!” the shout escaped his lips before he realized. And suddenly he was off running down the sloping hillside, sliding over the damp night-dewed grass.
“Dude!!” Palom’s shout sprang after him. There was a moment of pause before a second shout followed it. “Dude, wait for me!”
AC could sense that the other Black Mage had also begun to run, chasing behind him. But he didn’t slow his long-legged sprint. Almost stumbling over himself, he slipped down the last long incline as the land bottomed out into the looming forests. Nothing but darkness greeted the Mage’s sight.
“NEWT!? Where are you!!?” his voice was hoarse and frightened. “Answer me!”
Palom jogged to a stop, catching a hold of AC’s shoulder with a heavy pant. “Shiva!”
Again, they heard the deep-throated yell – this time off in the shadows to their left. There might have been words mangled within the sound, but it was too hard to tell. The only thing that could clearly be heard was terror.
“Over there!” Palom pointed before making a dash towards a dimly lit glade in the forest. Sparks of flickering magic had already begun to swirl around the boy, summoned through the sheer force of will and fear. They left a lingering energy trail in the air behind him as he ran.
For a passing moment, AC wished he could do the same thing – that his own magic could be commanded and put to use so easily. Then shoving the thought from his mind, the Black Mage sprinted after Palom toward the source of the bloodcurdling screech.
What they found there froze AC in his tracks.
Newt lay sprawled in the tall grass. His back was arched in a painful angle as he struggled in body-wracking convulsions against the force that had him pinned to the ground by his wrists. His eyes had grown colorless, wide and vacant. They stared in perpetual horror upwards into the overhanging branches, never a once taking notice that the two boys had arrived. His mouth was now gaping wide in a silent scream, only a tiny, suffering gurgle of sound barely escaped his contracted throat.
Something was hunched over top of Newt — something unlike anything AC had ever seen. Its body pulsed in fluctuations of darkness encased in light, a white vaporish mist outlining the distorted form. Two appendages, which seemed like arms, held the White Mage pinned to the ground while a second set pressed down on his chest.
No… they’re stuck into his chest!
The ethereal hands were buried deep inside of Newt’s chest, a bubbling froth of energy splurting with each jerk that the White Mage’s tremulous body made. A ghostly, skull-like vision was superimposed upon mottled, rotted flesh where the creature’s face might have once been. Its mouth was nothing more than a formless cavern of darkness, a black liquid dripping into Newt’s own open-mouthed terror. A pair of burning, clear eyes fixed on the White Mage with an intense madness of a being that was vile beyond anything nature had ever intended to exist.
AC felt himself gag, stumbling back from the sight. His mind reeled at the sense of the tainted energy that came from the specterous creature – energy that it seemed to be force-feeding directly into Newt’s body.
“Get off of him!!” Palom’s shout broke through the overwhelming waves of nausea.
Before AC found a chance to react, a plume of brilliant flame leapt from Palom’s hands, rocketing straight at the creature. There was a strange ripple of sickly blue light as the fire burst through the spectral image. A terrible shrieking howl erupted from Newt’s mouth, despite the fact the flame had not touched him.
The spell is hurting Newt, too?
“Palom!! Stop! I think they’re connected, somehow! You’ll kill them both if you do that!”
Palom withdrew his spell instantly, looking frightened at the scene that continued to play out in front of them. “If we don’t do something, he’s good as dead anyhow!!”
The Black Mage couldn’t find words to respond. His mind was locked upon the battle before them — something was happening.
AC could sense it – a shift in the way the energies were flowing. Though fire spell had transferred damage to both the creature and to Newt, it seemed that the physical pain had also served to sever some of the creature’s control over the White Mage.
Did the flame weaken the creature?
The distant look in Newt’s eyes shifted into sudden fierce awareness, his teeth bared as he started to spit and choke up the thick black liquid. With something like a gurgling roar, every muscle in his body tensed as he began to fight back.
“Newt!” AC’s breath whooshed out of his lungs, feeling a second gathering of energy growing within the glade.
A flash of blinding white illuminated Newt’s hands as he began to draw the sacred power of White Magic around him. Instantly, the specter reared back, giving a shattered screech. Its hands were still embedded into the White Mage’s chest and it could not break away.
“Piss off!” With a tremendous growl of fury and anguish, Newt drove a burning white fist of holy magic straight into the creature’s opened skull-mouth.
As the pure light flooded across the glade, the ghastly features began to melt like wax. Pieces of tainted flesh streamed down in a dull grey liquid over his hand and arm, staining the white of his tunic in a dark, oily slime. The creature’s energy began to waver, the body flailing as the brilliance of the holy aura began to burst through pinprick holes all along the surface of its form. Then with one final bubbling shriek, the light burst it from within, sending a spray of grey matter and sickly blue light across the entire glade.
“AHHH!!” Palom dived behind AC to escape the putrid gush.
“Ugh….” AC could do nothing but stand there, spotted in slime and feeling more sick to his stomach than he had ever in his entire life.
Newt remained lying sprawled in the glade, now covered in a blanket of grey chunks and oozing darkness. He gasped and choked before rolling over on his stomach and gagging up more black fluid. It might have been a trick of the dying light, but AC could swear there were streaks of tears on his face.
After a long moment of silent illness, AC finally gathered his voice, “Newt… what happened… are you alright?”
The White Mage shook his head, trying without success to wipe his face clean. “Shit…”
“Newt?” he took a slow step forward, pain and concern on his face.
“Shit!” Newt choked again. “That thing was doing something to me!”
“Doing what?” Palom peered around AC’s shoulder with an ill look.
“How the hell am I supposed to know? It just jumped me out of the forest!” the White Mage gripped clumps of stained grass between his hands, as he fought to regain his composure. “And then it was like… screwing with my body or something!”
The energy transfer… it was feeding some sort of tainted energy into Newt… but…
“We stopped it before it could really hurt you, right?” AC swallowed.
“I don’t know…” the White Mage tone was grave and dark.
“Dude, I think we need to get you to Rosa,” Palom’s face was uneasy. “Messing with undead stuff… that’s never good. Even if you are a White Mage.”
“You think it was an undead?” AC shivered, peering around.
“I’ve seen undead before,” the boy replied. “Never one like that. But it was pretty close to what I remember…”
All talk in the glade stopped as a distant echo rang in their ears. Sounds of things moving in the forest toward them at an impossible speed. The leaves rattled with abrupt inhuman sounds of screeching and wailing – very much like the sound that ghost creature had made.
“Shiva!” Palom hissed, whipping his head to stare into the forest. “There are more of them out there!”
The forest was suddenly alive with burning eyes, all focused upon the three mages in the glade. The weight of their dark energy was nearly enough to crumple AC to his knees. The overwhelming wave of nausea once again filled his senses, leaving his body weak and unresponsive.
“Come on!” Palom grasped his sleeve, yanking hard. “We gotta split this place, fast!”
“Dammit…” Newt swore, weakly pulling himself up to his feet. “Why does this shit always gotta happen to me?”
AC hissed, feeling his feet start to work as he was pulled along in a mad dash back towards Baron. Behind them, the malice of the night forest raged on their heels, following in a torrent of burning eyes.