Sorry for the delay, everybody - it was unavoidable - and sorry that this isn't my best work, either. It will have to do, though. Owing to circumstances not wholly within my control, I can't bring myself to revisit this chapter ever.
Chapter Seven: Happy Trails
There are myriad pleasant ways to wake up, and Portland Smythe had experienced a great many of them during the course of his life. From the extravagance waking in a vine-wrapped bower in the beating heart of a verdant rainforest to the simple joy of opening one's eyes to the sight of one's lover, he had lived through the lot and, in fact, had ranked his top three favourites during one dull night spent hiding from Czech mercenaries in the Balkans.
This method of waking, however, was not to be found among the top three. It did not even make his top ten. In fact, had Smythe ever thought to compile a list of his least favourite ways to wake up, this one would have gone straight to the top without a second's consideration.
And that was because he was woken from a peaceful dream about cucumbers by a voice that ground upon his consciousness like skeletal feet across the floor of a crypt.
To say Smythe was alarmed would be an understatement. With a sudden involuntary contraction of his legs, he bent his body into a perfect arc and flung himself clear off the mattress, coming to rest a moment later in an undignified heap on the floor.
“Sumvahwassit!” he yelled, which could have been either an incoherent cry of panic or a florid curse in Hoennian, and looked around wildly for the source of the voice. At first, he saw nothing – and then his eyes came to rest on the Purrloin on the bedside cabinet.
“I found them,” it said, in the unmistakeable voice of Teiresias. “Ready yourself. I will take you there.”
Smythe stared at it. Within his mind, a brief battle raged between fear and confusion; neither won a clear victory, and in the end they settled for a coalition.
“What?” he said at length, which was, if anything, more coherent than could be expected of a man in his position.
“Has the change of shape confused you? I could not find another Liepard,” Teiresias said impatiently. “Now get ready. We must return to the dark paths at once.”
Smythe closed his eyes, counted to three and opened them again. The Purrloin had not disappeared.
Sh*t, he thought dismally, and got slowly to his feet.
“All right,” he sighed, trudging listlessly to the bathroom. “I'm going.”
Never, thought the hotel receptionist as Smythe paid her, had anyone ever looked so dismayed to be checking out.
“You're quiet this morning,” noted Cheren.
“Something's bothering you.”
It took a moment for my mind to wrap itself around his words; it had been drifting pretty far away.
“Oh. Yeah.” I poked the dying fire with a stick, and watched as a flame streaked out of the cinders and vanished in the crisp dawn air. “I guess... I guess it's that N guy.”
“I see. That was quite odd.” He speared a sausage – neither he nor Bianca were any good at cooking, especially not over an open fire, and my skills had been much appreciated this morning and last night – and chewed it thoughtfully. “What exactly is it that's bothering you?”
“What he said about Candy.” The little Archen looked up at the sound of her name, and I reached out to press my palm against her breast. Her heart hummed with the rapid pulse of a bird – and her chest rose and fell almost as fast. Alarmingly fast. “I never noticed before... She does have trouble breathing. It's just that you can't hear it.”
“She's survived this long,” Cheren said pragmatically. “I suspect she's tougher than N thinks.” He frowned. “What kind of name is N, anyway? I'd like to have seen the look on the midwife's face when his parents came out with that.”
“Uh... yeah, I guess.” My mind was still on Candy; I'd always taken her quick breaths and feverishly hot skin to be something typical of all Archen, but what N said made sense. I had looked it up last night on Cheren's phone: there'd been thirty percent more oxygen in the atmosphere back then, and it had been warmer right across the world. I knew from the disaster three years ago at Castelia Zoo that animals from Africa had a hard time surviving Unova's winters as it was; how could I expect a creature dislocated not only in space but time as well to fare any better? “I should have realised,” I mumbled.
Cheren looked at me.
“I really wouldn't worry,” he said, more gently than before. “By the number of lizards she's rounded up and slain already this morning, I'm fairly certain there's plenty of life left in her.”
I looked at Candy's little heap of corpses, piled neatly on the other side of the fire, and sighed.
“I guess so,” I said, not wholly convinced.
“Sorry,” he said, and though there was no hint of emotion in his voice I could tell he meant it. “I can't help you other than with logic.”
“I know. Don't worry. I'll be fine.” I looked back at Bianca's tent, which remained as silent now as it had been when the sun first rose. “Does she always sleep late?”
He gave me a look.
“What do you think?”
“OK, OK... Why do you get up early, then?”
“Because Cheren likes to watch the world go by, don't you?”
Halley seemed to slink from nowhere, appearing from between the edges of a gap in the air; she was really getting into the business of being a cat, I thought. The next thing I knew she'd be playing with string and chasing butterflies.
“Oh. Hi, Halley,” I said. “Where have you been?”
“I've been to London to visit the Queen,” she replied sardonically.
“It's a joke, 'cause – never mind. You must have different nursery rhymes in Unova.” She grimaced. “I actually went hunting. Can you imagine that? I pounced on a jay and suffocated it by biting down on its throat. I almost felt bad when it screamed, but by that point I could already taste its lymphatic fluid so I kind of forgot about how brutal the whole thing was.” She sat down next to Candy and yawned. “Seriously, I don't know why I haven't done that before. Think of how much bigger prey I could tackle if I were still human.”
“Oh.” A sick feeling rose in my throat, and I found myself wondering how human Halley actually was; had she always been like this? Surely she couldn't have been so... bestial before her transformation?
“I seem to have lost my appetite,” murmured Cheren, and flicked his sausage over to Lelouch, who regarded it quietly for a second before picking it up delicately between its tiny claws and nibbling at it like a squirrel with a nut.
“Don't Snivy get their energy from sunlight?” I asked.
“They get as much as they can,” Cheren replied. “Unfortunately, that isn't enough to sustain extended periods of activity, so they supplement it with berries, fruit and small quantities of meat.”
“Plants playing at an animal's game,” said Halley scornfully. “Photosynthesis ain't shi— shining snail eggs compared to heterotrophic nutrition.” She blinked. “Shining snail eggs? I hope you're pleased with yourself, Lauren. Look what you've reduced me to.”
“I'm just happy you aren't swearing,” I told her truthfully; I could have added that I didn't understand half the words she'd just used, but didn't want to complicate things and attract more needling criticism. I got it anyway.
“Huh. Of course you are. You would be.”
Candy cawed at her, apparently aware that her owner was being harangued by this wildcat; Halley, unlike last time, reacted with no more than a withering glare that shocked the little Archen into submission.
“Yeah, you shut up, you little b*tch,” she muttered moodily, and fell to staring at the flames in silence.
I looked at Cheren, and Cheren looked at me.
“What,” I began, but got no further before Cheren held up a hand for silence.
“I think it's best we don't ask,” he replied. “Something has evidently happened to Halley to make her sourer than normal, and frankly that is a prospect I'd rather avoid.”
“OK,” I said, relieved to have avoided a line of questioning that, while rooted in compassion, would probably have resulted in a scratch from Halley. “Um... should we wake Bianca? It's nearly seven.”
“She'll wake up soon enough,” Cheren told me. “Well... Perhaps not. Give her another half hour; she's not used to this much walking, and it really tires her out.”
As a White Forest resident, I'd been out on extended hiking trips more than most in Unova, and was pretty good at it – better than Cheren and Bianca anyway, it seemed, although Cheren's self-discipline and encyclopedic general knowledge meant he was catching up fast. He only needed a bit more experience and a couple of cookery lessons and he'd have overtaken me; I hoped I could teach him a little, to go some way to showing my gratitude for letting me come with them.
“Are you, then?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “But it's a case of mind over matter. My goal is to become the Champion eventually, and it won't happen if I don't value the objective over my immediate comfort.”
I stared at him, amazed. I didn't think that kind of resolve really existed; it was like something out of the old stories, the kind that dated from the days of the first Treatise. Cheren seemed different to me now, like a lordless knight wandering the hills of mediaeval Europe, determined to seek out glory at whatever cost...
Silly, I thought to myself. He's just like you.
And yet... There was a spectacular steel in his mind. He laid out the facts so calmly and clearly that I had no doubt that nothing whatsoever would cause him to waver from his path.
“I... I see,” I said. “OK. That makes sense.”
Thankfully, I was saved from having to come up with anything else to say by the sudden and noisy emergence of Bianca from her tent.
“Oh, so early,” she groaned, blinking in the sunlight. “Frige, it's so cold.”
“Not that cold,” said Cheren patiently. “Good morning, Bianca.”
“Morning!” She disappeared for a moment, then reappeared with Smoky in her arms. The little Tepig was, as ever, asleep, and I wondered if maybe that was why she had the Munna as well. Smoky didn't seem to me to be the battling type. “Is that breakfast? It smells good.”
“Courtesy of Lauren,” Cheren informed her. “She has cooking over an open fire down to a fine art.”
“Thanks. Here you go, Bianca.”
Smoky opened one eye as the sausages passed above his head, shifted just enough to snag one with his lips and draw it into his mouth, and fell asleep again before he'd even swallowed it.
“Isn't that kind of cannibalism?” I asked dubiously.
“I don't think he cares,” replied Cheren. “It's mainly humans that find cannibalism revolting. Many other animals will cheerfully eat their own if it seems like a good idea.”
“Oh. I see. That's... um... unpleasant.”
Cheren raised his eyebrows.
“I told you. Human.”
“Ignore Cheren,” said Bianca confidingly, as if he couldn't hear her. “He's just being silly again.”
I couldn't be sure, but I thought the ghost of a smile crossed Cheren's face then, and suddenly it seemed a lot clearer to me why he and Bianca remained friends. I smiled, and pulled the last of the sausages off the fire.
“I think these are done now,” I said. “Bianca, they're mostly for you, unless your Pokémon want any.”
“I think he might, but I don't really want to give him any,” she said, taking them from me. “I don't really want Smoky to be a cannibal.”
“I told you, I don't think he minds—”
“Oh, Cheren,” sighed Bianca in exasperation. “Shut up!”
“Fine, fine,” he said. “I'll be quiet.”
“What about Munny?” I asked. “Does he... she... it want anything?”
“No, it lives off... um, Cheren, what was it called?” Bianca asked. “Background...?”
“I thought I had to be quiet?”
“OK, OK,” he said, holding up a hand to forestall further outbursts. “Background imaginative radiation. Munna and its evolved form, Musharna, absorb daydreams, fantasies and waking nightmares, and convert them into regular dreams that can be experienced at night. As a by-product of this, they occasionally emit a pinkish mist known to cause disturbing hallucinations.”
“I see,” I said slowly, though I didn't really. I wasn't entirely sure how anything could derive energy from dreams – in fact, I had no idea how anything psychic worked. All I knew was that Psychic- and Ghost-types were weird.
“Yeah,” said Bianca. “So Munny doesn't need any regular food.”
“Then why does it have a mouth?” I asked, curiously.
“It's vestigial,” explained Cheren. “Their ancestors were organoheterotrophic feeders; in modern Munna, the entire digestive tract is atrophied, while the skull and ribcage have fused to create a protective case for the massively developed brain.”
I stared at him.
“How do you know all this?”
“When either of us catch something, I like to do my research,” he said. “Or if we face one in battle. The more you know, the more effectively you can use a Pokémon's strengths or aim for its weaknesses.”
“By the way,” said Halley abruptly, “I thought you should probably know that the forces of evil are closing in on us.”
All conversation stopped immediately.
“Mm. Something wicked this way comes.” She stretched and stood up. “I can feel it coming. Must be some animal instinct or something.”
“What exactly do you feel coming?” asked Cheren, frowning.
“Dunno. Teiresias, maybe? Seems pretty lethal, at any rate.”
Teiresias. So it had found us, then – as I'd known it would. Hiding in the woods might fool a human, but against that black and midnight being it seemed a pretty paltry stratagem. I was certain it could have found us even if we'd hidden on the moon.
I bit my lip.
“We should go, then,” I decided. “I don't want to be here when it arrives...”
“Hold on,” said Cheren. “We have no concrete evidence that anything is actually coming for us—”
“I guess you don't trust me,” said Halley slyly. “Well, maybe you'd better think about the fact that if Teiresias and Smythe get to us, the main casualty will be me. I'm not going to screw around with you on that topic.”
“I wouldn't put it past you,” replied Cheren darkly.
“I believe her,” I said. “Please, can we go? I mean, shouldn't we be going anyway? And if Teiresias is coming, we don't want to be here when it does.”
“I agree with Lauren,” put in Bianca, shuddering. “That thing – that thing is nasty.”
“Understatement of the century,” muttered Halley to herself.
“All right, all right, I see I'm outvoted here,” sighed Cheren. “Fine. Let's pack everything up. If you really think that monster is coming, we'd better move fast...”
“Good God,” moaned Smythe in his native Hoennian, and collapsed face-first into the leaf litter.
Teiresias regarded him with such distaste that one could have been forgiven for thinking it could actually see.
“Get up,” it said. “We are half a mile from where I saw their encampment.”
“Why so far away?” wheezed Smythe, spitting out decaying vegetation.
A shadow crossed Teiresias' broken face.
“I...” It trailed off uncertainly. “I... Why?”
Smythe stared. This was very far from normal behaviour for Teiresias. In fact, it was about as far from normal as it could get short of actually shedding tears.
“Because Halley is perceptive,” it said suddenly, its usual manner returning abruptly. “It is perhaps a result of the feline senses she has been gifted with. If we had emerged from the dark paths any closer to her than this, we could well have been detected.” It leaped down from the stump it had been sitting on and stalked over to Smythe. “Now get up. We have ground to cover and little time to do it in.”
Smythe struggled to his feet, brushed dirt from his suit and sighed.
“I haven't even had breakfast,” he murmured sadly to himself.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” he said quickly, and trudged off after Teiresias as it began to make its way through the forest. How it knew where it was going was a mystery to him; perhaps the strange psychic eye through which it viewed the world was currently locked onto Halley or White, and acted like a beacon to guide it; perhaps it had simply memorised the layout of all the forest between them and their destination beforehand. Frankly, either option seemed equally plausible where Teiresias was concerned; the vile creature seemed to positively delight in flouting the laws of reality.
Smythe heaved the sigh of the oppressed, and put the matter from his mind. There were no alternate options available to him. Abandoning Teiresias would incur the demon's wrath, and that was almost as frightening as incurring that of Harmonia. He turned the mess over once more in his head, winced at the thought, and trudged on with a heavy heart.
It was a bright clear day, the kind that looks far, far warmer than it is, and as the sun rose higher into the sky the forest should have brightened.
It did not.
Instead, the shadows deepened, darkening to the colour of pitch, and the spring green of the leaves seemed to turn a dull viridian. The birds fell silent. The wind died down.
None of us dared look back.
“Is it me, or does this seem worse than last time?” asked Halley quietly.
I nodded. I could barely speak; the air felt thick with tangible menace.
“Much worse,” I managed.
“Indeed,” agreed Cheren, only the faintest hint of discomfort in his voice. “It's interesting... Perhaps Teiresias' powers take time to charge to their full potential. Previously, it has attacked abruptly, but this time, it has time on its side...” He trailed off, thinking hard. “You know, it might be that it's a slow hunter in its wild state, slowly stalking its prey and weakening it with this psychological barrage of menace before moving in to paralyse and finish it off.”
“Che-Cheren,” said Bianca weakly, reaching up and clutching Munny tight to her chest, “could you maybe not theorise for a bit, please?”
“Ah. Right. Um, sorry about that.” He coughed and adjusted his glasses hurriedly, falling silent abruptly; I wouldn't have thought it possible, but he actually seemed flustered. It seemed he wasn't totally mechanical after all.
“I hate this,” growled Halley, her voice suddenly twisting into a cat's snarl. “F*cking Teiresias... I wish it would just attack. I hate waiting like this.”
“That's probably why it's doing it,” Cheren pointed out, and she hissed at him for his pains.
“I don't – do you think we can beat it this time?” I asked fearfully, jags of memory suddenly stabbing into my mind: a rotting floor, a pounding heart, white eyes that saw nothing but one's soul...
“Munny's Psychic attacks seem to confuse whatever it uses to sense us,” he said. “Perhaps we can make good our escape that way. But I'm not sure – its power does seem to be building this time, although maybe it only seems that way so that we are more afraid of it and thus easier for it to subdue.” He shook his head. “I just don't have enough information, I'm afraid, and until we can look up Teiresias in one of the Treatises, it's going to stay that way.”
So even Cheren believed it was a demon, then – which didn't bode well, I thought, another claw of fear curling around my brain. If any of us could have thought of a more mundane explanation for the creature and its powers, it would have been him; now that he seemed to think it was something from another realm as well, any hope we might have of stopping it seemed to evaporate into thin air.
No. Calm down, Lauren, I thought desperately. It's not real, it's a psychological trick, it's just a demon's joke, meant to make you weak; Munny will protect you, blind Teiresias, shut down its eye while you all get away...
A raven screamed and flapped away overhead. I didn't convince myself.
The shadows grew longer.
Distant footsteps sounded behind us.
“It's eight o'clock in the morning in the middle of spring,” muttered Cheren. “And yet... to create this kind of atmosphere even on such a bright, cheery day... fascinating.”
It might be an interesting opportunity to study our mysterious opponent. It might be an unparalleled insight into demonic hunting tactics.
But that was for Cheren, and for my part, I felt like I was only half a step ahead of Córmi himself, the dark ése's great black wings reaching out to snatch me into death. I had been afraid before, walking in the woods alone – of aelfe, of ettins, of rogue Liepard and black Grimveldt wolves – but this was something else. This was fear for fear's sake, welling up from nowhere and everywhere at once, climbing up the walls of my skull in dark waves and crashing down again into tides of paralytic fear. It was an effort to put one foot in front of the other, and when I looked at Bianca and Cheren I wondered how they kept going, how they were resisting the urge to lie down, curl up and wait for Teiresias' long shadow to fall over them.
It knows you're weak, I thought to myself. It knows you're afraid. It knows Cheren is too cold and Bianca too careless; this performance is all for you, to slow you down and shut you off and make you give yourself up.
“I promised Halley,” I murmured, so quietly no one else heard. “I promised...”
I felt, as if from a great distance, tears gather in my eyes.
“I promised I would help,” I said again, more forcefully, and the voice in my head retreated.
I blinked and looked up. The shadows were still dark, the birds still silent. The footsteps sounded, if anything, closer.
I was still afraid, I realised, but I could carry on. I could – just barely – resist.
Halley brushed against my leg, and I started.
“You're doing great,” she said, voice low and gruff. “Uh... keep going.”
With that, she stalked away from me again, and for a moment I stared after her. That had been – that had been concern, right?
“Halley,” I muttered, a small smile crossing my face despite the rounding menace, and walked on.
Half an hour later, the aura of menace was still with us, despite our efforts to speed up, and it was then that Cheren hit upon an idea.
“All right,” he said, “going faster isn't doing anything. We may have to try and use Munny to scramble Teiresias' trace.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “That... why didn't you say that before?”
“Because there's a small chance that Teiresias doesn't actually know where we are exactly, and is spreading this aura around the entire area to try and startle us into showing ourselves,” he replied. “If that's what it's doing, then it will be watching for Psychic-type attacks – if we use Munny, it will know what direction to go in, and then it can send in Smythe to deal with Munny before moving in itself.”
“How did you think of that?”
“It's what I would do,” he replied. “It's the most efficient course of action. But given how alien Teiresias' mind is, I'm not sure that it would think of doing it.” He chewed his lip. “Do we risk it?”
“Don't ask me,” I said firmly, shaking my head. “I don't know anything about tactics or anything like that.”
“Fair enough,” he muttered. “Bianca?”
“If I can interrupt?” asked Halley, before she could reply. “Cheers. For your information, Cheren, Teiresias knows exactly where we are. It's waiting because it's making Lauren afraid, and the more afraid people are of it, the stronger it gets.”
“How do you know that?” he asked. “Do you know what Teiresias is?”
“No,” she replied. “Yes. I'm... I'm not sure.” She frowned. “I can – I can half remember something. Like a long-forgotten...” She shook her head. “I used to know!” she growled furiously, slapping herself in the face. “F*ck!”
“All right, leave it for now,” Cheren said tersely. “You'll have time for this later.” He glanced at Bianca. “Are you ready?”
“What do I do?” she asked helplessly. “I mean... there's nothing for Munny to attack.”
“I don't know, aim at the sky or something. Just don't hit any of us.”
“OK,” she said. “Psywave, Munny. Just, uh, up.”
The Munna didn't move, but the same strange silky ripples in space that I had seen it generate the night before poured out of its body in sinuous waves. Despite its efforts to keep the move away from us, part of it must have hit me, because for a moment I had a headache and a strange understanding of the shape and taste of the colour blue – but a moment later, both pain and synaesthesia had gone, and the rippling aura was spreading out through the air above us.
“Well?” I asked, blinking hard. “Did... did it work?”
“I'm not sure,” said Cheren. “The shadows don't seem any lighter.” He looked around. “And – and aren't those footsteps faster now?”
“Yeah,” I said softly. “Yeah, they are.”
In fact, they were very fast, and very near.
I looked at Cheren, and Cheren looked at Bianca.
“Well, don't just stand there, morons,” hissed Halley. “Run.”
I could describe the chase. I could describe how we raced down the trail; how on my shoulder Candy shrieked in delight at the wind rushing through her feathers; how Munny trailed a vaporous stream of psionic strings behind it in its agitation; how Halley's breath came in wheezy spurts of curses, even after I picked her up.
But I won't.
I could describe how the tree in front of us, rotted through with Teiresias' corrosive magic, collapsed to block the trail ahead. I could describe Smythe, bearing down on us like Córmi in the legend.
Because none of it mattered except that Teiresias was here, its long black shadow cutting the path in half as it stalked towards us at Smythe's side.
It had changed. It was no longer a Liepard; it was smaller now, a little under Halley's size – a Purrloin. But its eyes were still white, and its voice still dead, and when it spoke my name my feet froze in place on the dirt.
“White,” said Teiresias, drawing to a halt a little way off. “And Halley. That is all we desire. You others may leave.”
“You've made that rather difficult,” observed Cheren, patting the fallen log. “In fact, I don't think you've left us much choice but to stay and help.”
“Yeah, um... what he said.” Bianca nodded vigorously. She might not have Cheren's way with words, but she definitely shared his spirit; it was about the only thing they seemed to have in common, and distantly I wondered if that was what bound them together—
“Lauren. Snap the f*ck out of it,” hissed Halley. “Come on, girl, don't go all panic trance on me here. We need to focus.”
I blinked. Yes. Halley was right. I'd made a promise, and I had to honour that.
“Look,” said Smythe, raising his hands as innocently as he could when Teiresias was at his side, “I really, really don't want any trouble. I had that damn Munna invade my skull last time, and I'm not really keen to repeat that. I just want Halley and White. That's all.”
“Then why aren't you taking them?” asked Cheren. “You're standing here talking when you could be taking action.”
“Smythe insists you can be reasoned with,” hissed Teiresias. “I am here to ensure that is so, and to safeguard against the possibility that you cannot.”
“I'm a very reasonable person,” said Cheren, “but I don't think it would be reasonable of me to let you spirit people away without due explanation. How about you tell us why you want Halley and Lauren, and then we'll decide what to do?”
Smythe glanced at Teiresias.
“I have no time for this,” it rasped. “Take them.”
The ground went black.
No slow spread this time: the entire trail, for as far as I could see, turned black with rot, little curls of it twisting away in coils of decay. I jumped back, but there was nowhere safe to flee to. Cheren snapped out an order and Lelouch dived for Teiresias' throat; dissolving into a green ribbon of light as he snaked across the ground—
The Purrloin swung a paw lightly in his direction, and with a momentary dark flash the Snivy arced away into the forest. It did not come back.
“Do not attempt to use the Munna,” said Teiresias. “It will end badly for you.”
No one said anything. I don't even know if they could. The smell was back, the smell from the train – the smell of a dead man's hand bloated in the wreckage of the flood – and the fear returned with it. This time, though, I could see the demon, and that made it a thousand times worse. Everything vanished: self, memory, all rational thought was swept away in a tide of unrelenting terror—
—except one tiny little thought that refused to go away.
Why doesn't it move?
I held onto it tight. It was all that was left of me; all I had that wasn't fear.
Why doesn't Teiresias move?
On the train, it had sat down to spread its aura of terror; in the street, it had only moved once Munny had scrambled its psychic 'sight'.
Is it that it can't move?
Now, as then, Teiresias was stationary, and it was Smythe who was walking towards us, Smythe who was doing the actual capturing. Teiresias itself hung back, impervious to harm, motionless as ever. Why?
And then an idea came into my head, and, fighting through the paralysis, I turned my head to Candy and whispered:
“Get it, but stay back.”
For a heart-stopping moment I thought she wasn't able to, or she hadn't understood, or she didn't know how—
—and then there was a small whumph by my ear and Candy's head whipped forwards like a striking snake, at almost the same moment as a large stone slammed into Teiresias' rotting body and sent it flying backwards.
Immediately, the spell broke. Shadows faded, darkness dissolved; the rot on the trail withered and vanished and the sun came out from behind a cloud. Suddenly released from the supernatural force that had gripped us, Cheren, Bianca and I staggered forward a step; Halley, lighter on her feet, simply bobbed a little.
Smythe stared, dumbfounded.
“Again, Candy!” I said, as Teiresias climbed back to its feet, a crater of snapped ribs and blood-matted fur in its chest where the rock had impacted. She squawked gleefully and another stone popped into existence between her jaws, swelling to full size as she snapped her head forwards and shooting towards the demon—
—who stuck out a paw and shattered the boulder with another of those flashes of black light.
“You are percep—” it began to say, but Candy was getting excited now, and sent another boulder whistling towards it – and another, and another, and now Teiresias was flickering and twisting in a loop of purple fur, desperate to save its borrowed body from destruction.
“All right, time to run,” murmured Halley. “Into the woods. Now.”
No one argued. Cheren, Bianca and Munny went first, heading off the trail in the direction Lelouch had vanished in; Halley followed a moment later, streaking across the dirt as only a startled animal can. I went last, Candy maintaining the bombardment from my shoulder. Teiresias was getting better, I noticed; it was moving less now, settling back into position and destroying the rocks without so much effort, and I knew that in a moment it would have adjusted to the new threat and begun to weave its spell again—
I turned, Candy hurling one last boulder over my shoulder, and fled into the woods.