The Neutralist: Chapter 1
The town encompassed all of one street; a mile long stretch that ran along the length of the east side of the lake. Lined with houses, small shops, and quaint inns it was a quiet and restful town; sealed off from the world in its own little bubble, it was immune to the pressures and chaos of societal life. Steeple Chase was a lovely, connected community where neighbors acted neighborly, and families were connected by years of friendship.
Looking closer, Armina could see that behind this entertaining façade there was unrest brewing and boiling. Deep within, at the core of this charming North-Eastern town was her destination, The Academy. The brick was worn and faded, a hundred years' worth of secrets ingrained in their porous surface. Spires and steeples dominated the skyline, while cobblestone paths, elegant stairways, and ivy-covered pillars enhanced the property. The bell tower pierced the heavens, announcing its authority over the campus. In the glow of sunset, it was enchanting. Dark and profound, the aura emanating from The Academy was penetrating; borderline overpowering.
Winding her way through the small grounds Armina took in all of it. Her casual glances showed her the truth, and she brushed away the feeling of fascination that she knew was part of the school's disguise. Even though the spell of the beauty surrounding her had little effect on Armina's mood she still pulled the power of the place into her being and sighed at the sense of fullness it brought her. The Academy would be her greatest tool, and she was eager to set to work.
She moved silently through the light snow, making her way towards the administrative building, it was twilight now and the glow from the full moon made every flake shine and glitter; so that it looked like it might be raining diamonds instead of frozen drops. Though Armina was enjoying her relaxing walk to what was sure to be a taxing encounter with The Academy's presidents Molly and David Knight; she was exceedingly alert. There was a commotion on the far side of the lake that she could not manage to tear her attention away from. She sensed magic, in both of its natural forms, but there was something else; a weak, fluttering heartbeat of a magic that seemed to cower underneath the power of the magic around it. She pondered at its existence for only a moment more before moving on to climb the staircase, and attend her meeting.
Pitiful. It was the only word Armina could conjure up to describe the two mousy, pale, groveling beings that had greeted her at the top of the steps. She was quite certain that she would hardly have to do anything to have these two under her control. It was a shame really, since she'd been hoping for a more interesting and challenging evening. Molly Knight's hair was as pale as her skin, and likewise her skin had a slight golden glow mimicking the color of her shoulder-length locks. She must have only stood five feet tall, as Armina found herself looking over the top of her head quite often, and had to make a conscious effort to lower her eyes and pay attention when the quiet little creature addressed her. Her husband stood a mere three inches higher, with auburn hair and eyes that reminded Armina of Tiger's Eye marbles. Where Molly was difficult to notice, David was difficult to ignore. Overly friendly, overly diplomatic, overly happy; he was just over enthusiastic about everything and nothing or at least he tried to act like he was.
She smiled as they greeted her, welcomed her to their Academy, and made general nuisances of themselves with their ridiculous small talk. Then it occurred to her that she wasn't smiling out of politeness; she was smiling because of a fleeting thought that had grown to dominate her mind. The Directors of the Witch Hunter Society were going to be disgustingly easy to control.
It felt as if the frown on my face had somehow been permanently etched there considering these past few weeks. I could smell my jacket crumbling off of me as it turned to ash and drifted down into the accumulating pile on the floor. My skin was untouched, which was a plus, but somehow charred leather smelled like failure. That is, if I had to associate a scent with failure.
My best friend, Trinity, was beside me looking quite contrary. Her lips were a light shade of blue while her body was shaking uncontrollably and dripping wet. Though she was clearly on her way to hypothermia her temper was flaring in her eyes like the fire that had destroyed my jacket.
My other friend, Zoe, was on the other side of her. She had been untouched throughout our entire mission. Her eyes were set lazily on the wall behind her parents' heads as they shook their heads at the sight of us. Her mind was clearly at ease despite our mess up tonight.
"You…okay wait," her dad, Daniel, started as he sat down at the desk and put his head in his hands. "What happened again?"
Before I could open my mouth to respond Trinity fell into a rage-driven rant. "We were about to nab the witch. Really, Joan and I had him cornered! Suddenly, BAM! He sets this giant fireball on a course for us. We asked Zoe to back us up, but all she managed to do was knock it off course!"
"At least I accomplished a lot more than being thrown into the lake," Zoe interjected in her normal monotone.
"The fireball hit Joan!" Trinity continued, completely ignoring Zoe's comment. "She dropped down and started to roll around to try to put the fire out, so it was just me and the evil ass-wipe you sent us after. I tried to hit him with a power surge, but he hit me with one so hard that I was thrown into the lake! The frozen lake! Then when I finally got back up the hill and was going to attack again Zoe was helping Joan into the main building."
"Zoe was unable to defeat the Devil's witch. She tried to bind him in his place, but her spell was easily broken," I stated calmly. "I'm grateful that rather than going after the witch, Zoe chose to stay and help me."
Molly put her hand on her husband's shoulder as he let his head fall from his hands and onto the desk top. We all remained still, not sure if we could fall any farther from their good graces. Daniel and Molly were great people, even better parents, but that didn't help us when it came to regulating the forces of good and evil in the witch world.
"The main issue stands. You let one of the most wanted Devil's witches walk away from a fight," Daniel said with a sigh. "We may never get the chance to catch him again."
"In my defense," I stated quietly, "I was on fire."
"I was in the frozen lake!"
Zoe merely shrugged in her own defense. "I tried," she said as she brushed some of the drops from Trinity's dripping hair off of her jacket.
Molly sighed, "Did you at least see which way he went?"
"Northeast," Zoe stated matter-of-factly. "He didn't sustain any injuries during the fight, so I doubt there will be any chance to track him. You're better off to let him reappear again and take him on then."
"Sure, now she has a plan," Trinity hissed under her breath to me.
I elbowed her hard and set my eyes back on Molly and Daniel, "I know you've heard this from us a lot lately, but the next one won't get away. We just need some more fine-tuned training and we'll be the best squad you've ever had!"
Their eyes told me that they didn't believe me and way deep down in my heart I wasn't sure if I believed them either. They had trained us each to have a sort of role when it came to being a team. I felt obligated to be the leader since I had no fear of witches and had been infused with God's witch blood. They were mortals in a way too and therefore were just as threatened by us normal mortals as we were by them. My sole job was to keep Zoe and Trinity from eating each other alive while also serving as an example for the both of them. Although, as of recently, things weren't working in my favor.
Trinity was more of the spit-fire on our small team. Though she was deathly afraid of witches, she tried to compensate by morphing her image into one of a tough and unmoved creature. Her blood was mixed with that of a Devil's witch to give her an extra amp of power when she needed it the most, though she rarely ever got that far.
Zoe had been a failed experiment. The Hunters Society had thought they could create the perfect balance between good and evil by inserting vials filled with both God's witch and Devil's witch blood. The project was an instant failure as these hunters could barely use their magic at all. Those that did had to have a level of training that went beyond that of any of us, which might account for Zoe's braininess. She read about spells more often than she cast them.
"We've given you many chances to prove yourselves girls, somehow it just isn't working out for you," Molly stated worriedly. "We considered maybe giving you some extra help. An extra set of hands maybe to help you on these missions. Would that be alright with the three of you?"
We all shouted out varied responses. Mine being, "Yes!"
Trinity's being, "Hell no!"
And Zoe's was just to shrug in indifference.
Molly and Daniel both blew out a long aggravated sigh. They would never yell at us, but they had other ways of expressing their disappointment.
"We'll deliberate amongst ourselves and give you our answer by the end of the day," Daniel said quietly. "In the meantime you can go back to your rooms and clean up. While you're at it, think about the repercussions of the loss you had tonight, would you?"
"Why don't you think about replacing our messed up clothes, huh?" Trinity quickly countered before I even had the chance to stop her. "Some of us try our hardest to get the job done, sadly, it doesn't always happen that way."
"Trin," I snapped harshly before pushing her towards the door, "don't say that to them. They meant well."
"See you at dinner," Zoe said to her parents before following Trinity and I out the door.
As I closed it shut behind us I was stunned by the sudden feeling of being watched. I knew what it felt like to have eyes burning into your skin and that was exactly how I felt. My flesh was hot—and not just from my burning jacket—but a cold feeling ran into my stomach and poisoned my heart.
"You coming, Joan!" Trinity yelled from the elevator.
"Yeah, be right there."
Armina turned away from the corridor to face the decorative walls of the small room she had relocated to during Molly and Daniel's meeting with some very young witch hunters; some very young, unsuccessful witch hunters. She had been very interested in the young team, especially after listening to their highly amusing conversation with the Witch Hunter Society Directors. The blonde with the long braid was the only one of the three to sense her gaze as they departed; that acute awareness might prove to be useful to her in the days ahead. She wondered if those girls knew that all the paintings in the halls of the administrative building functioned as "one-way mirrors" that could be used for monitoring just about anything from inside the various offices; she doubted even the Directors knew.
Molly and Daniel called her back into their office with much less enthusiasm than before. "Well, Princess. I assume you've heard most of the conversation that just transpired here." Daniel said in his overly friendly tone. Armina nodded her confirmation; she wasn't one to waste words.
"Joan, Trinity, and our daughter Zoe are in need of a great deal of aid, and training. So they are the team we will be placing you with during your stay at The Academy." Molly continued her husband's thoughts as if they shared the same mind. Armina figured that they probably each only held half within their heads.
"You mean to tell me, that you want me, the Coven Princess, to work with that "team" of untrained, unequipped, and completely useless little girls?" Armina's voice was silk, but her anger was apparent in every syllable she spoke.
"Yep, that's your team. Your stuff has already been sent to their suite. You'll be rooming with Zoe. Hopefully your influence and help will get them to function as a more efficient witch hunting team." Daniel slapped his hand on Armina's shoulder. She half expected him to call her champ, or son. She immediately sent her light magic to her shoulder. She only meant to shock his hand enough to make him remove it from her person, but her anger made it more difficult to channel her light power and she threw him halfway across the room with the voltage she exuded. Armina turned on her heel and left the room. If they were going to place her with the weakest team of witch hunters she'd ever seen she'd have no choice but to make them strong. As of right now they were useless to her, and she had a great deal to accomplish.