Day 71, 74, 76, 80, 82 – 2,847 words (46,245 total)

[[9]] Clarté

From the tunnels that led to the mages’ training grounds, Etienne had no way of telling if the sun had set yet. Now that he thought about it, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d consciously noticed the sunset—not that you could really see it with all the fog. Sunset these days was just a shift from light to dark. He’d spent so much time in windowless rooms, and even when he was working in his own bedroom, the creeping darkness only came to his attention when he could no longer see what he was doing and he had to switch on a light. It bothered him—there must be some fundamental human need for sunlight, something about diurnal cycles, not that he could remember specifically learning anything about it. After all, since when did he worry about getting enough sunlight? At Kingham he spent his early mornings and his afternoons basking in sun of the outdoor training grounds.

Mira had a point. He had been cooped up too long, isolated from day-to-day interactions that alleviated the stress of constantly thinking about Jade League operations. Over the past few days, he and the other board members had rejoined the crowds in the mess hall. Just yesterday he’d met a refugee, an elderly old woman, who recognized him from his days waiting tables at his father’s café. They reminisced about the street artist who stood at the edge of the café’s property as he tried to sell his paintings to the café patrons. They ended up in a heated argument over whether or not Etienne’s father had charged fair prices—an argument that lasted nearly an hour and tangentially wandered into discussions of economic theory—until Julien finally came by to ask Etienne if it was time for the intelligence briefing. He had forgotten how comfortable such conversations could be, unburdened by the weight of responsibility he carried as the Jade League’s leader.

The warehouse lobby was empty and quiet as usual, but Etienne noted the subtle signs that his mages had opened up the practice room for the evening. Quentin always righted the small crystal dolphin statue on the receptionist’s desk when he ran demolition training downstairs—it was his way of warning the latecomers to watch out for flying debris when they entered the warehouse. But the other signs weren’t as clearly advertised. A turned desk chair for Julien. A pen on the counter instead of in the cup for Charlotte. Small details, little fidgeting motions while they gathered in the lobby, others missed but Etienne saw. He found a strange sense of comfort from these signs, some sort of reassurance that he wouldn’t be alone.

Downstairs, Etienne slipped into the soundproofed room in the midst of the thundering aftermath of an explosion. The plume of dust and pulverized cement rose from the far side of the warehouse, but he could just make out Quentin’s broad-shouldered figure silhouetted next to Mira’s slighter one as they watched the building crumble. Etienne was too far from them to hear their words, and he could only watch as Quentin pointed where the building once stood and critiqued Mira’s chosen plan of attack. She was listening carefully, nodding or stopping to ask him to clarify something.

Mira was a wonder. He could still see traces of the hesitant, shy girl he’d found in the Notre Dame, but he couldn’t imagine using those words to describe her now. The past few months had changed her, in the best of ways, different aspects of her personality surfacing as time went on. From the start, she had always been incredibly kind and humble, with a good-natured smile that put people at ease. People simply gravitated towards her, drawn in by her teasing sense of humor and the genuineness she brought to everything. He knew there were things she kept to herself, parts of her past and of her self that she didn’t volunteer readily, but she never gave the impression that she had anything to hide. She had an aura of such sweetness and naïveté that it always startled him when she executed sharp, powerful spells without batting an eye.

Etienne came level with Mira and Quentin as they and the other mages with them began shifting down the fake block to a different building. They had exhausted this city mockup for patrol training, and it was easier to build a new one from scratch than try to modify the existing setup, so Quentin used the old ones to teach spellcasting on buildings. Etienne greeted the others and continued a little further down to watch from the other side. He saw Briand, the Kingham mage who led patrols, slip in through the front doors and disappear from view as the heavy wooden doors creaked shut behind him.

Etienne turned to one recruit who had followed him. “What’s he doing?” he asked her, jerking his head in the direction Briand had gone.

She rolled her eyes. “He called it ‘evasive tactics,’” she replied. “Using spells to shape the blast so that he can escape.”

He shook his head slowly. “Always pushing things,” he sighed. Briand had graduated from Kingham a few years ahead of Olivier and well before Etienne’s time, but they had grown close in the early days of the Jade League. He was a strong, capable, and audaciously daring mage—who else would be bold enough to organize the patrols straight through secret police territory? Etienne suspected he lived for the thrill of danger, and stunts like this only confirmed that thought.

Back down the street, Mira consulted with Quentin on one last detail, hand raised to point out the plaster molding along the front of the structure. Etienne couldn’t hear them, but Quentin said something and nodded, then stepped back to let Mira cast her spell.

A demolition spell only resembles an ordinary explosion in its final stages. Quentin trained the recruits to exploit weaknesses in a building’s structure rather than throw overwhelming amounts of energy at the entire edifice. This way, a building fell under a carefully engineered collapse instead of expending a mage’s energy in a single blast. As Mira’s spell began its work, the entire building groaned, straining under the particular forces her spell applied. Etienne watched as the structure seemed to bow inward—the steel beams were meant to withstand the downward pressure of gravity, of force perpendicular to the ground, and it took significantly less exertion to break a building by pushing it sideways.

The iron railing on a second floor balcony gave way first, flying loose from its anchoring as the outer cement layer crumbled under the stretch and shrink of Mira’s spell. These outer structures began to crumble, and before long, with a loud, aching groan, the main support on the corner closest to Mira toppled over toward the center of the building, pulling crumbling walls inward with it. Now the process began to look more like an ordinary demolition, the windows shattering outward with the sudden change in pressure inside the building, the roof caving in as easily as if it were made of cardboard, and the falling rubble knocking its way through the lower floors. Cement and plaster, reduced to dust, filled the air and rushed into the streets and alleyways. Etienne threw up his arm to cover his nose and mouth, with his eyes squeezed shut to protect against the sudden onslaught of flying debris.

He would have stayed there, shielded from the dust until it settled, but he felt a jolt go to his hand—Briand. He deftly cast a spell to push back the dust from his face, but before he could call out to Quentin, he heard Quentin’s voice shouting his name from elsewhere in the cloud of dust.

“Etienne, Briand needs help!”

“I know,” he shouted back. He turned to the mages around him who were still shielding themselves against the debris and tapped a few on the shoulder. “Try to clear the air,” he instructed them. “We need to see where we’re going.”

One of the mages nodded and began directing the others. Etienne meanwhile began forging his way toward the still crumbling building. Mira had no doubt ended her spell, but she could only do so much to stop the momentum of the falling building.

The cloud of dust began to thin with the efforts of the mages behind him, but the tumbling rubble continued to throw up more dust. Frustrated, he shrugged off his trench coat and used it to beat out a clearer path before him, calling Briand’s name as he went. He could feel a faint push of magical energy emanating from one corner of the building’s foundations, the corner opposite where Mira and Quentin had stood. The energy likely came from Briand’s efforts to dig himself out.

Quentin and a few others soon joined him, scrabbling over the mountains of settling rubble toward the corner where Etienne had started digging with magic and bare hands. He could feel the steel crossbeam shifting under his hands, first with his push, then against it. Briand was on the other end and wiggling it back and forth. Etienne scraped away the loose gravel and wedges of sheetrock that were piled up around the beam. When he tested the beam again, it swung further.

“Briand,” he yelled. “Can you hear me?” He could only hear a muffled reply. “I can’t hear you, but I’m going to keep digging down this beam, alright? Zap me if there’s a problem.”

He stepped back and fanned his shirt to get some cool air going through. The exertion of digging was making him sweat like midsummer, and the hot, sticky dampness around his neck made him squirm. He undid the top button and the cuffs of his shirt before stopping to tug at the fabric again to keep air flowing. His tie had been getting in the way, so he loosened it and tossed it aside with his discarded coat. Feeling much better ventilated now, he turned back to the excavation and considered the particular arrangement of heavy slabs of debris. Quentin had taken his place by the beam, and with the other mages, they had managed to clear out a deep indentation in the rubble. Mira came up next to him to set aside her coat, her face streaked with sweat and dust.

“How far under the surface do you think he is?” she asked him.

“I can’t be sure,” he answered, rolling up his sleeves. “He can’t be too far down—I could hear his voice from the surface, though I couldn’t make out any words.”

She frowned and wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. “Do you think he’s all right?”

He glanced at her, noting the crease of worry across her brow as she watched the other mages’ progress. She was blaming herself for trapping him in the building and putting his life at risk when really Briand himself was the only one to blame. He nudged her gently with his elbow so she’d look at him. “I’m sure he’s fine,” he told her. “He’s just trapped, but he can take care of himself down there.”

She nodded slowly. “I just—”

“It’s not your fault,” he said before she could finish.

She looked up at him, biting her lip. “But I let him go in…”

“He likes the thrill, Mira. It’s not your fault.”

When she didn’t reply, he looked back towards the mages digging at the rubble heap. His eyes traced the line of the steel beam, extrapolating down toward Briand. He guessed Briand would have shielded himself such that a pocket of space around him remained while the building debris collected around him. The beam would run tangent to that space, and if they could just clear out the debris around the beam to a certain depth, they would open up that pocket so that Briand could get out.

“Watch out,” Etienne called out in warning. His spell shifted the face of the heap, shearing away a section that tumbled down into what used to be the alley behind the building. In the wake of the spell, he and Mira rejoined the others digging their way towards Briand.

Ten minutes and two more spell assists later, Quentin let out a shout and grasped Briand’s hand through the small space between two sheetrock fragments. With the help of a few others, Quentin widened the opening until Briand wriggled his way out, hands scrabbling for purchase on the steel beam that had guided them down to him. He was laughing, brushing dust and gravel from his hair as he turned around to look at the demolition aftermath from the outside.

“Nice one, Mira,” he said, whistling low in appreciation.

She threw him an angry look—or at least, it would have been an angry look if his laugh hadn’t been so infectious. “You had us worried sick,” she told him, doing her best to keep her words biting.

Briand stretched his arms up toward the ceiling and grinned. “Oh I was fine down there,” he said. “Had to tamp down the dust a bit, but all in all, it was quite nice in there.”

Mira half-heartedly reached out a hand to try to swat him, but he danced up a thick pipe out of her reach and headed off to explore the rest of the rubble pile. Quentin and some of the other mages followed, fanning out over the new terrain, but Etienne was watching Mira. Her feet were planted on firm footing, but he thought he saw her swaying slightly.

“You all right?” he asked, reaching out to steady her.

Startled, she jerked back from his hand. “What?”

“Are you all right?” he asked again.

She seemed to understand his concern, rubbing at her eyes for a moment as if she hoped the tiredness that showed there could be wiped away. “I’m fine,” she said. “I just have a slight cold.”

He tried to put a hand to her forehead to check her temperature, but she gently pushed his hand aside.

“Really, Etienne. I’m fine.” She smiled and jerked her head toward the street. “Come on, I want to try one more building before we finish for the day.”

He watched her for a long moment, hoping she would read the worry in his expression, but at length he followed her back to the main street. Quentin pulled her off to examine the ruins and explain how to improve her next attempt. At this point, he was just being picky under the guise of being constructive. Etienne had rarely seen a demolition so thorough from any of the recruits, and even Quentin could only do this well about three-quarters of the time. Mira was a quick learner—and resourceful, too—and Etienne loved seeing her master the difficult training regiment they’d set out for her.

Etienne caught Briand before he could enter the next building they’d chosen for demolition. “Not this time,” he told the older mage. “You’ll worry Mira.”

Briand nodded, but he shot Etienne a lopsided, knowing grin. “Worry her, or worry you?” he asked. Etienne ignored him.

They passed Quentin and Mira, who were conferring on the details of the new building structure. They were wrapping up their discussion, so Etienne jogged quickly over to the other side of the mock apartment complex to get a better vantage point before Mira began.

No sooner had he reached the curb on the corner, Mira squared her stance and raised her hand to face the building and spoke her spell. This time, the effect was immediate. A chorus of horrendous snaps let loose as the woof frame of the low building bowed inward and splintered under the force. The entire structure collapsed away from the corner where Etienne stood, the neighboring buildings funneling the immense cloud of dusk upward along their sheer faces into a high column. Etienne watched with admiration—he wouldn’t have thought to use the surrounding buildings to control the aftermath of the demolition. By caving the outside corner first, Mira had directed the collapse inward, keeping the streets free of debris and maneuverable. Such attention to detail was what made Mira a great mage. Though this measure wasn’t necessarily something the Jade League needed, the practice in controlling the demolition process might become useful in some situation they had yet to foresee.

He looked over at Mira—the dust this time had been directed upward, so he still had a clear line of sight to her. She stood planted in a firm stance next to Quentin, who was watching as the lower floors crashed into the basement. But as Etienne watched, Mira’s eyes lost focus, and her whole body went slack.

“Mira!” he yelled, hoping Quentin or Briand or anyone closer to her would notice. Her knees crumpled beneath her, and she slumped to the ground as Etienne sprinted towards her as fast as his feet would carry him.

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