“How do you know?” Eric asked gently. “It sounded like they believed you.”
“Because they’re still here,” Hireth said. “Up the street, far enough away that we can’t see them, but they know.”
“You can sense them?” Eric asked again.
“Yeah.” She looked so haggard. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, guys. I fucked up.”
Illius screamed internally. What were they going to do? The portal was… an utter disaster of something Hireth had created in a drunken spiral. The enforcers knew something was wrong, or at least that Hireth wasn’t telling the truth. If anything happened to her, or to Eric, what would happen to him?
“Hireth,” Illius said softly. “Don’t let them take me.”
“I’d never,” she said.
He touched her arm ever so gently. “I mean, if the choice is me dying or getting taken, please… don’t let them take me.”
Hireth hesitated and opened her mouth to answer, but Eric butted in. “That’s not an option. You can’t just go around asking people to kill you. She won’t do it.”
“I’ll do it.” Hireth’s eyes became a dark storm. “I won’t let them take you again, Illius. I give you my word.”
“You can’t be serious!” Eric turned to her.
“Eric.” She leveled him with a stare. “Shut up. You don’t understand what it’s like to have the very essence of what makes you you ripped out and played with. I have no intention of losing this, but you’re both going to shut up and listen, because whether we get out of this alive is going to depend on all of us, got it?”
Neither Illius nor Eric moved.
Eric stared at her and swallowed hard. “When did you get so scary?”
“When death became an option,” she said. “Now, let’s see this mess in the basement. I want to know how well I did when I was slightly inebriated.” She brushed past them and walked into her lab. For a moment, Illius saw her eyes snake over to the papers on the workbench before turning her attention to the wall.
“Look at that,” she whistled. “Surprisingly good.”
“That’s… good?” Eric’s voice told a story of doubt.
“Yeah,” she said. “I think it’ll work. It’s shoddy, but as long as I don’t fuck up the navigation when I turn it on and my magic is in a good mood, we should be able to use it.”
“Right, navigation.” Eric nodded along.
“Alright.” She turned back to them. “We pack up everything. Eric, they’re up the street, so I’m going to send you with a letter to Mrs. Hannibet’s house explaining the situation.”
“She’s the spooky old lady on the corner of St. Paulis and Ninth?”
Hireth glared slightly. “She’s my therapist; she’ll want to know I’m leaving. She’s gonna be so pissed with me doing this, which is why I’m going to be a coward and send you with a note.”
“I thought you went there to crochet?” Eric objected.
“Crocheting is therapy.” Hireth shrugged. “Now focus. I’m going to take one to the neighbor on our right and tell her to spread the news. We’ll need to get everyone in this area evacuated.”
“Evacuated?” Eric hesitated, uncertain.
“Yep. In about two hours, this is going to be a warzone—if we even have that long.”
“War?” Eric asked again.
Hireth hesitated. “I’m not looking for this, believe me, but I don’t want to be unprepared. They might come back with three guys, and they might come back with an army. I don’t know. I’m guessing the army, because every fucking asshole in the enforcers is going to want the chance to bring in a witch.”
“Hireth.” Eric bit his lip. “Can we win?”
“Yes.” She looked at Eric first, and then her eyes went to Illius. They were still dark and stormy, but they held determination.
Hireth walked over to the wall and put her hand on it, muttering some words under her breath as she did so. A small section of the wall moved and revealed something unlike anything Illius had ever seen. It looked like a lantern, but inside it black and red liquid churned, slamming against the glass walls, trying desperately to get out. It seemed nonsensical. How could the liquid move on its own?
“What is that?” Eric and Illius backed away from it instinctively.
“My magic,” Hireth said.
“Your magic is red?” Illius asked in a small voice. It couldn’t be. The priest had said no one could wield red magic.
“Illius.” Eric jerked him from his thoughts. “Are you okay?”
“Did you know?” He refused to move his eyes from the lantern canister as Hireth set it on her workbench.
“No,” Eric whispered.
Hireth looked at them. “What’s wrong?”
“Red magic,” Illius muttered. “Your magic is red.”
“The priest,” Eric explained. “When we were in the institution, he said that red magic is the pure form of black magic.”
“Oh.” Hireth’s face softened. “Well, as you can see, it’s not horribly pure. The black never fused correctly.”
“Is it true?” Illius asked. He hoped it wasn’t. “Your magic is actually red? It doesn’t just look different in the jar or something?”
“Yes, my primary element is red,” she said. “I was born with it. The black… The black isn’t mine. I’ll explain later. You guys need to understand what this is, though. First off, I don’t know of anyone else who has ever tried sealing magic, so I don’t know what’s going to happen when I unseal it.”
“What does that mean?” Eric asked.
Hireth hesitated. “This is all my magic from the height of the war. It’s heavily compressed to fit in there—think a ton of magic compounded and compressed…”
“It’s a bomb.” Eric’s face was grim.
“Most likely.” Hireth nodded. “With any luck, I’m going to break it out in the street after we’ve evacuated everyone, but… I don’t know exactly what it’s going to do, because I’ve never done this before. After I break this, there’s no going back. I can’t seal it again, and there’s a chance that I won’t be able to wield it or that it turns on me—there’s a lot of possibilities.”
Illius grew paler every second.
“Hireth,” Eric asked her. “What do you think is going to happen?”
“Well, I think it’s going to be an explosion,” she said. “Then, I should be able to wield it, and I’ll have all my magic back. I can then activate the portal, and we can leave… Theoretically.”
Illius and Eric looked at each other.
“Then, do it,” Eric finally said. “I trust you.”
Illius stared at the ground. Red magic. She had red magic. Was this all an elaborate setup somehow to manipulate him? She said she had known other therians? Had she taken their power to make her own red? He knew it was ridiculous, but how much could you ever really trust anyone? No one just hid red magic in their basement.
“Illius,” Hireth said abruptly. “I need to know I can trust you.”
He looked up at her—she… Trust him?
“He’s fine.” Eric waved his hand at Hireth.
“No.” Hireth stepped past Eric. “He’s not. Illius…” She broke off and sighed. “You have to tell me what you’re thinking. You look absolutely terrified, and I don’t know if it’s me, the magic, the talk of going through a janky portal, or what, but you have to talk to me.”
He stood there, staring at her dumbly, his brain spinning up wilder and wilder stories. “What do you really want me for?” he finally asked.
She opened her mouth, and then closed it again. “I want to take you to Noviad. I want you to have a life where you don’t have to wear a fucking hat every single day, and where no one is trying to kill you. That’s it.”
It was too good to be true, and he knew it.
“Illius,” she said, “I can’t… I can’t convince you of something you don’t want to believe. Think back on everything that’s happened over the past few weeks. Think of Eric rescuing you—me healing you. I can’t tell you how much I just want to see you happy. The world is not always a terrible place, and I’m begging you to give me a chance to prove it. Okay?”
She was right. She couldn’t convince him.
“Eric,” Hireth sighed. “I’m going to go up and pack some things, burn some more things, and keep an eye on the outside. Please… talk some sense into him.”
She picked up the evil-looking lantern and walked up the stairs.
Eric and Illius looked at each other for a moment. Illius didn’t know what to say. His gaze fell on Eric’s hands and followed his arms up to his neck and his eyes. Beautiful blue. He gave a sad smile. These two had done so much for him.
“I’m not worth it,” he said. “All this for me? I wish you wouldn’t.”
“What do you think we’re gonna do?” Eric asked. “Let the guy we just rescued get taken by the enforcers again—or worse, go with your fucking plan and have Hireth kill you? Would you want that on her conscience? Do you know what we went through to rescue you?”
“I didn’t ask for it!” Illius objected. “I didn’t ask you to save my life. I didn’t want to cause you any—any of this!”
“Well, we saved you anyway,” Eric told him, matter-of-factly. “And since we value your life, why don’t you?”
Illius lowered his head. “I’m not worth it.”
“Fuck this.” Eric shoved him against a wall. “You are a therian, dammit! You’re goddamn gorgeous with your horns and your curly hair, and I’ve spent the last month nursing you back to health! Have some self-respect. I know you’re terrified—I’m terrified—and in case you didn’t notice, Hireth’s hands were shaking when she picked up that lantern. If she’s scared, I’m scared shitless. But we are going to get through this, and you are going to go through that portal because I am not losing you like I lost… everyone else.” Eric let him go and turned away.
He spoke again in a small voice. “Fuck. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t—I shouldn’t have—I’m sorry. I’ll, uh… I’ll be upstairs. And… it’s not my choice. Whatever you decide… I respect that, just please… Please don’t make me watch someone else die.”
Illius leaned against the wall numbly. Well, shit.