Excerpt from ‘Corridors’
In English that day there had been an oral presentation. Hall had given the class a few tasks that had to be completed at some stage during the semester, and one of them had been to perform an oral presentation on anything of our choice, and we had been allowed to work in pairs or groups of three for it. On that day, Harry and Simon had gone first; they spoke for a little over five minutes about Chopville's plumbing and sewerage systems. Many of the class had known they were doing that topic (they'd wasted no time in being vocal about it in the beginning), but everybody had underestimated the number of substitutes for ‘shit’ the twins could come up with or the number of times they could drag it into the presentation. They had even printed a map of Chopville's sewerage system and marked on it (in brown) the areas most prone to clogging. I was sure they were exaggerating some of their points along the way, but Hall didn't seem to mind; it added up to one highly engaging presentation.
“I can tell you one thing, though, folks,” Harry had told the class loudly. “These homes here”—he had gestured to the far southeast corner of Chopville—“are not where you'd wanna live. This particular area right along here has regular build-ups of excrement because the flow around the corners here towards the river isn't very smooth. The council doesn't tell anyone, but what it has to do is send troops down there to unclog it, but because it's very dark down there and no machinery can fit, you usually get at least one person emerge into the sunlight, covered head to toe in—”
“Don't forget to tell them the anecdotes,” Simon had reminded his brother, “about how sometimes they accidentally get it in their mouths. Can you imagine some of the conversations that must go on down there? ‘Wow, these guys must have been eating pizza not too long ago.’”
Ellie and Stephanie had been due to perform their oral presentation immediately after the twins, but as they were out in front of the class getting their notes all organised, Hall had moved oddly. Many of us had been on the alert for anything odd from Hall, Hignat, or Wilwog since their return to school, so we reacted in time to lower our heads so that the jet of pale light flew just over us, hitting the wall and disappearing.
Hignat and Wilwog had reacted at almost the same moment; they had both been seated in the back row so they had easy aim. Hignat's jet of light hit Erica, who was sitting on the other side of the room with Serena, Kylie, Holly, Anna, Cassandra, Matthew, and Anton. Wilwog's jet had hit James, who hadn't been quick enough to turn to see that Wilwog had aimed at him. Peter and I leapt away from James as panic erupted from the rest of the students, particularly those who weren't fighters.
In the next moment, the door had crashed open, and three more Hammerhearts had burst in. A fourth had done something in the doorway (sprung up an invisible barrier to seal us in, I had felt sure), then hurried off along the corridor. The three Hammerhearts that had invaded the room had lined up along the back wall, their solid-outliners (small devices that shot jets of thicky prison) poised. They had fired in unison; one had hit Ellie, who was completely without cover out the front of the room with Stephanie (Stephanie had screamed and tried to tear the white stuff spreading over Ellie's chest off her, only to have her hands swallowed in it and have it spread up her arms); one had hit Serena, who had just used her own solid-outliner to free Erica; and the third had narrowly missed Wilwog and hit Simon, who had just freed James from his prison. I'd had the Sien-Leoard Crystal in my pocket, but I didn't have a solid-outliner, so I had quickly sprung up an invisible shield around myself and Peter, then began moving us through the chaos towards the front of the room. It had been towards Hall, who was standing behind his desk. He had taken aim at us, but the crystal had been in my hand, and a moment later, he had fallen out of sight.
The five Hammerhearts in the room had overwhelmed the rest of the class for about ten seconds more before Peter and I had a chance to take charge. Nearly all of them had been trapped in thicky prison (a white spreading substance that immobilised everything it touched) by then. I'd used the crystal to knock them all out in turn; the last one had tried to make a run for it but been thwarted by the barrier his mate had erected. Peter had then freed the rest of the class from the thicky prison; they had all fallen about, sobbing and crying and panicking. With the reduced noise in the room, I could hear commotion throughout the rest of the school and knew that the same assault had been launched on all the other classrooms.
“Anyone got a spare solid-outliner?” I had asked the Young Army members.
“Use that thing to duplicate mine,” Peter had suggested, putting his in my hand.
I had never tried duplicating something before, but to my surprise, it had worked fine—I just had to hope it would work when I needed it to. I had then used my crystal to levitate the unconscious forms of Hall, Hignat, Wilwog, and the other three Hammerhearts into a line at the back of the room. The whole class was watching me now, and their thoughts, written on their faces, were simple: The same person who took charge in the last battle had saved the day again. Apparently they were waiting for me to tell them what to do, like the good little sheep they were.
“You guys all stay here,” I had said. “Peter, James, keep watch over them all. Take down any Hammerhearts before they can get too far into the room if they try to come in, and make sure they don't wake up—although I doubt they will. I'm going out there.”
“What about us?” Katie had asked. “We have stuff too.”
“Same thing. Anyone with weapons, be ready to fight.”
I had hurried between the rows of desks and around the back towards the door, using the crystal to remove the invisible barrier as I went. Once out in the corridor, I had resealed it so that not even the Hammerheart devices they used could affect it; that ought to keep them in, and anyone else out, until I got back. Now, however, I had been in Hammerheart territory; it seemed that everyone had been trapped in their classrooms, and the only ones roaming the corridors were Hammerhearts. I had decided, on the spur of the moment, to attack this situation in a far different way to the previous battle, in a way I had never tried before but felt would work just as well.
I had quickly made myself invisible and taken off up the corridor towards the year-seven/eight locker bay, which was the nearest door out into the yard, looking through the open doors of classrooms as I went, seeing nothing in any of them except Hammerhearts (no more than three to a room) loading packs of joined students into extender cases (backpacks enchanted to fit anything of any size inside them while reducing the weight). There had been a few Hammerhearts hurrying around in the corridors, but I had dodged them, preferring not to alert anyone to my presence just yet. Into the locker bay I had run and through the doors into the schoolyard, looking around and again, seeing nothing more enlightening than Hammerhearts running here and there with bags over their shoulders. All I had needed to know was the location of their base of operations; it had been the gym in the first attack, but I had a feeling that Cornish would prefer to do it somewhere smaller.
Then I had seen the problem facing me. Hammerhearts had been being struck down on the other side of the yard—not just knocked unconscious, but much worse things. One had been turned inside out, parts of his (or her) clothing mixed with his (or her) intestines; another had been mutated, so that he was attempting to stand on one leg and one arm, his head sticking out between his other leg and arm, his clothes almost completely ripped off; another had been cut into at least a dozen pieces; and another simply lay dead in a pool of flesh and blood. Quite suddenly, the Hammerheart running about ten feet in front of me was hit by an orange laser from high above and in front of us; he had screamed, then melted, and within seconds all that was left of him was a foul-smelling puddle that was not flesh, blood, or anything else I recognised.
I had looked up to where I thought the jet had come from and quite clearly seen the person who had cast it. My stomach dissolved; it might as well have been hit by that jet of light along with the Hammerheart. I couldn't have been sure if this was a good thing for our side or not. Bernard Moran, Marc's father, was standing on the roof of the two-storey building ahead, watching the commotion below quite impassively. I'm invisible, I had reminded myself forcefully. He wouldn't be able to attack me if he'd wanted to.
But as I had prepared myself to enter the fray ahead so that I could get to the doors into the building, Hammerhearts started coming out of it. In the lead had been Hank Cornish himself; he had stopped and stared at the battlefield before him even as another Hammerheart had been struck down. This one had writhed for a moment before his arms and legs had begun to stretch and reduce in density. His legs snapped under his weight and he fell to the ground, unable to move as his arms continued to grow, wrapping around him and eventually cutting off his extremities.
“What the hell!” Cornish had cried out, looking around for some sign of the source of all this mess, but Moran was way out of his range of vision.
“The bags!” a so far untouched Hammerheart had called to him. “He's killing anyone who has an extender case.”
The offending Hammerheart had actually been bagless, but apparently Moran thought it prudent to deal with him as well. Seconds later, he had met a similarly horrific end, as many of his fellows had.
Cornish wasn't stupid enough to run out of the protection of the building's shadow to catch sight of Moran. Instead, he turned and ran back into the building. Abandoning my initial plan, for it didn't seem to matter much anymore, I skirted around the edge of the battlefield and headed after Cornish into the building. I hadn't kept an eye on Moran while I moved, so I didn't realise he had moved until he appeared right in front of me, his back to me, running down the corridor in Cornish's wake.
In the staffroom, when I had reached it, it had been a stalemate. Marc, Natalie, and Amelia were on one side of it (the latter two bearing rips in their clothing, the marks on their skin indicating that their magic had been neutralised clearly visible from my position), and Cornish and a few other Hammerhearts I recognised (3K17, 3A93, 3P69, and 3E57) were on the other side of it. In the middle, several bags had lain on the floor between the lounges, along with (my stomach dropped like a stone) Marc's Hero Crystal, which had somehow been rested from him without splitting into the six smaller Sorcerous Crystals. There had also been a magic door standing off to one side, which opened up to the entrance of the Chopville Basement; I could see it clearly in the narrow view I had been afforded. With all the magic on one side, the situation looked bad indeed. Normally in this situation, I would stand quietly and see what the situation was before acting, but that hadn't been an option this time; Moran appearing in the doorway had changed everyone's focus from wherever it had been before.
“Oh, shit,” 3P69 had hissed, comprehension dawning on his face.
“Hello, Andrew,” Moran had said jovially. “How's it hanging? Limp and floppy as usual?”
Both 3A93 and 3E57 had laughed in spite of themselves. 3P69 had glared.
“Oh, no,” Cornish had groaned. “Get out of here, Berny.”
Moran had smiled unpleasantly. “I wouldn't have made the effort to come here today if I was going to leave immediately.”
Marc had been staring at his father with a face that could have been made of stone. Beside him, Amelia had put a resting hand on his arm.
“Just get out of here, all of you,” she had said forcefully, “before my dad turns up. He is on his way.”
“Oh dear, poor little girl crying for her daddy,” leered 3E57.
I had carefully squeezed through the doorway at that point, past Moran (he may or may not have noticed, but he acted as though he hadn't), and headed for where Marc stood with Amelia and Natalie, all three defenceless.
“We'd better just take those three,” Cornish had muttered to 3K17, and she immediately raised her solid-outliner and shot a jet of pure thicky prison at Natalie. It'd hit her before she had a chance to move. Marc jerked away from Amelia, but Amelia, whose shoulder had been against Natalie's, hadn't been quick enough to move aside, and the white stuff had begun to wrap around both of them.