Chapter Seven
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  We were still far from safe. I could already hear the groaning and yelling from the woman behind us. There was little room for both of us to walk, so Annie went in front of me. I followed at a quick pace, but tried to take it slow to avoid a fatal fall. It didn't look difficult to slip either, with loose soil beneath our feet. The door behind us swung open, and the screams creeped closer and closer to my ear. Annie had gone completely silent, focusing on not falling. The path only became narrower as we went, but it widened further ahead, so we kept walking. The woman wasn't being as careful as we were, but she was still struggling to keep herself on the path. Her nails were resilient as well, because she was gripping the side of the rocks with them.

     Annie started to run ahead once she was in a safer position. I tried to catch up, but part of the soil was starting to collapse underneath my feet. I felt a breath on my neck. I started to rush along the path, hoping I could outrun a landslide if I caused one. Once I was nearly in the clear, I felt a burning sensation on my back, as if something had sliced at it. I immediately stumbled to the ground, and I could feel something dripping down my back, soaking my shirt. I looked above me, seeing the woman on top of me now. 

     I jumped up, narrowly escaping her thanks to the fact that she was slipping against the cliffside. I met up with Annie, who had stopped walking. I thought she was waiting for me to catch up, but she had her eyes glued to the side of the mountain. The vault was right in front of us. Its enormous gates and red lights looked down on us.

     "Iris, open it," Annie said, turning to me.

     I turned around to see the woman struggling to pull herself up, then turned back to the gate. This was the end of the path. This giant gate was the only way forward. I didn't want another repeat of what happened at the Roseate Manor. I didn't know how to use magic. I didn't even know where to begin. Still, I was backed into a corner, and this was why I came here with Annie in the first place. I pushed all of my doubts from my mind and placed my hands on the handles. I could do it. I was a god after all. I was special. What did I have to fear? Failure. I would be an embarrassment if I failed, but more importantly, she was counting on me. I had to do it.

     With a desperate tug, I felt the giant hinges on the door begin to rattle. My arms struggled to pull. As I heard the screams get closer, that was when it happened. With a loud clang, the doors parted and started to open. They were extremely heavy, so Annie gave me a hand. Once there was a big enough gap, we both slipped through and pulled it back closed. Long fingernails nearly got through the gap, but with a loud slam. The doors shut.

     I laughed nervously and backed away from the doors. "We're actually in!" I sat on the cold stone floor.

     Banging sounded out from behind the doors, but the gates weren't budging at all. It looked like we could regain our breath for a while. Annie seemed like she was about to vomit from fatigue alone, so I handed her a bottle of water from my bag. I also got my own, because I was thirsty out of my mind. I only just got back from a coma, after all. It wasn't like I was fully recovered. I could move fine, but I wasn't in great shape for a chase.

     Annie started to laugh in relief as well. Then without warning, she tackled me and started squeezing me. "I told you we could do it, you foolish little thing!"

     "What the heck!" I desperately tried to escape her grip. 

     She gave a hearty laugh. "It wasn't like I was actually scared, since I fully expected this to happen."

     I stood up and dusted myself off. I'd brushed my hand over the blood staining my shirt, reminding myself that I'd been cut. The burning sensation of sliced skin also came back to me. "Can you look at my back real quick?" I asked. "She slashed me back there."

     "Oh, sure.”

     I turned around, lifting up my shirt. Annie used the one remaining flashlight to inspect my wound. She made a worried expression, which wasn't comforting at all.

     "We'll have to treat it once we get back so it doesn't get infected, but it's nothing urgent," she said. "It'll probably leave scars though."

     In my peripheral vision, there was an area of the room that was lit up by moonlight. Underneath that light, the treasure we came for was resting on an altar. The golden box and the staff held up horizontally behind it. I'd noticed it when we came inside, and Annie didn't look all that shocked to see it either. We didn't exactly have the chance to be excited, since it was ruined by our lives being at stake.

     "I guess the journey was a bit more exciting than the destination," Annie said, walking towards the altar.

     I followed close behind. I was more worried about how we were going to leave, so I wasn't as concerned about the treasure in front of me. It was the only thing of value in the entire room, unless you considered stone walls and pillars valuable. They were similar in appearance to the drawings Annie showed me, but they were a lot shinier in person. They definitely looked expensive, but more than that, the material looked bizarre. Not like normal gold, but something only mimicking gold. Annie picked up the box, which upon further inspection looked to be open. We both put two and two together.

     "Looks like fingernails got out," she said. "That would explain why this place was sealed to begin with." She handed the box to me, which I then put in my bag.

     "So those people back there must've been the ones to release her.”

     "I'm glad someone else did it before us then," Annie said. "Though, I guess they got through using the hole in the ceiling instead of the door."

     I looked up at what she was talking about. I wasn't sure whether that hole was there when the place was first built or not, but either way, it was an easy access point. Judging from the rubble on the floor beneath it and the pile of rope, it was probably broken into recently. Then when fingernails was released, she climbed out through the top.

     "I don't think we'll be able to climb up that way, if that's what you were thinking," I said.

     "Yeah, we'll just have to open the front door and hope for the best. That girl stopped banging on it, so hopefully she's not out there." She grabbed the staff, looking like some sort of wizard.

     I leaned against the altar, still catching my breath. “Hey, Annie? You never said why you didn't visit me when I was in a coma.”

     Annie tensed up, wearing an expression of guilt. “Well… I did in the beginning.”

     “So what made you stop?”

     Annie looked off to the side. “Things changed. You'll still always be my sister, even if we don't live together anymore, but things just kind of got out of hand.”

     “Got out of hand?” I tilted my head. “Mom never came to see me when I woke up either… what happened?”

     Annie’s lips tightened, as if she didn't want to say. “You know how I have a buyer, right?”

     I nodded. “Are you in debt or something?”

     Annie looked offended. “No! I'm not that stupid… it's just, I've known the guy for a long time. I think I met him through Dawn, but I don't remember how. After finding out that magic was real though, I guess I just became obsessed with finding a way to get you back. Then when Grace died and you woke up I had something else to obsess over.”

     A smile found its way onto my face. “In other words, you couldn't stop thinking about me.” My expression changed to smug. “Well don't you worry, this bite sized God of Vega would never stay asleep forever.”

     Annie laughed. “Am I still just your loyal sidekick then? You know, I'm the one with the cool wizard staff.” She showed it off proudly.

     I pouted. “Well… I don't need a staff. I'm just that powerful.”

     “Well, you did manage to open an ancient magically sealed vault. So what do you think now, huh? Maybe that coma was a sign.”

     I scratched my cheek, thinking to myself. It was still stupid with no evidence, but something inside me wanted to admit she was right. I did use magic, even if it wasn't as flashy as I'd hoped. No matter what my feelings were, that was the truth. 

     “Maybe… I am special,” I said.

     Annie tilted her head. “Well of course you are. You're my sister.”

     My eyes lit up as I stared at her. A warmth flowed from inside my chest. I felt my eyes water and I quickly blinked to dry them up. I wasn't going to cry, even if those words were all I wanted to hear since waking up.

     Annie had a smug grin. “That's right. You're my little adorable sister, aren't you?”

     She went to pat my head but I quickly swiped her hand away, my face red. “Yeah, I get it! Anyway… let's get out of here.”

     Annie giggled. “Right, fingernails should be gone by now.”

     The two of us headed for the door, Annie being the one to hold the staff. When my hands grabbed the handles to the door, I felt years of dust come off. The room was dimly illuminated red by the ancient seal above. Red, a color that I'd grown to hate. I sighed, once again trying to focus on the task in front of me. That was when I heard the sound of gurgling.

     As I turned around, my eyes went wide and my heart dropped. I saw Annie, suspended in the air with five fingernails piercing her chest. She coughed on her own blood, before being dropped by the woman. The staff collided with the floor. The long nailed woman turned her gaze to me.

     My heart was higher in my chest than it had ever been. Breathing felt sharp like I was breathing in knives. What had just happened? My blood ran hot, telling me to move. Annie was on the floor, face down with blood pooling around her. The same colored liquid that painted the grass at the Roseate Manor. 

     Thoughts zipped around in my head at lightning speed, not only processing what just happened, but wondering why it happened. Specifically, why was it happening to me? Something in my stomach was trying to escape. I was shivering, ready to vomit, but my instincts kicked in as my eyes met with the long nailed woman’s.

     In a split second decision, I threw myself to the floor and grabbed Mildred’s staff. The woman screamed above me as she swung her nails downward. I blocked them with the staff, before scooting backwards and standing myself up. Her head twitched in motions reminiscent of a bird’s head. After eyeing me up, she lunged at me, thrusting her nails towards my abdomen.

     I dashed out of the way before aimlessly swinging the staff at her. It collided with her jaw, sending her tumbling across the floor. I nearly choked on my own spit whilst trying to breathe. Tears formed in my eyes. 

     “Annie?” I muttered, my voice shaking. 

     She didn't respond, laying still against the stone floor. My heart sank, and a burning sensation lit up in my chest. Droplets of salty tears were dripping down my face now as my body trembled. I had to do something. Not to protect myself, but to protect her. I needed to do something extraordinary. I couldn’t let it happen again.

     From my backpack, I pulled out the golden box. I didn't know what to do or even what I was thinking, but my only other option was to run. I couldn't run. As the long nailed woman climbed to her feet, I opened the box, holding it in one hand. With my other hand, I held the staff, a bright blue orb at the end of it. I took a deep breath before speaking.

     “I am Iris!” I yelled, echoing throughout the vault. 

     Why I announced my name was a mystery even to me. Whether it was adrenaline or stress induced confusion, I yelled my name for all to hear. I continued to speak.

     “Iris… the all powerful sorcerer and God of Vega!” I yelled as my voice broke. 

     Tears streamed down my face. What was I saying? My head was foggy, not comprehending my own words as I said them. They ejected out of my mouth without intention. 

     My voice started to waver. “Go back to your prison!” 

     The woman stared at me before screaming and rushing towards me. In her face was anger. Anger, as if she comprehended my words. I yelped as she ran towards me, pointing the staff at her and wishing with all my might that all of this would end. Then, the room lit up with blue light. 

     A loud boom sounded throughout the vault, as blue streams of light started to swirl around the room, emanating from the orb at the end of the staff. There were two streams in particular. One that tangled around me and entered the box and another that flew around the room, eventually shooting into the woman’s eyes.

     She screamed a bloodcurdling scream, clawing at the air. It was no use, as these streams of magic started to warp the very reality she was part of. She began to stretch across the room like spaghetti, becoming blurry and liquidy. I watched on with bewilderment as this flurry of lights danced and subdued the horror. Eventually, the long nailed woman’s stretched out form entered the orb, coming out the other side and flowing into the box. Her entire being was being treated like water in a hose. I saw her stretched out face swirl around my body as it flowed into the box, gray, hollow eyes staring at me with fury.

     By the time the light show ended and she was fully inside the box, it slammed shut without any outside force, locking itself. I dropped both the box and the staff, running over to Annie as fast as I could. I turned her over, only to see her make a pained expression. She was still alive. Yet, one of her lungs was halfway outside her body by now, struggling to take in air like a dying fish. It expanded and constricted frantically. I felt my stomach lurch. 

     “Annie?” I shook her, trying to get her to open her eyes. “Annie, I'm going to call for help. Just keep breathing.”

     I fumbled around in my pockets for my phone, dialing in the emergency services number. As I did, I felt Annie wrap her fingers around mine. I firmly gripped her hand, frantically asking for an ambulance and giving my location. Inside of Mildred’s vault. Once I'd called for an ambulance, I set my phone down despite them telling me to stay on the line, but there was something more important in front of me. I lifted Annie by her back, holding in my arms.

     Her eyes barely opened, looking into mine. “Iris-” She coughed on her own blood, choking on some of it. Her voice was wheezy.

     “I'm here,” I said, holding her tighter.

     She wasn't going to survive by the time paramedics arrived. I had to do something. Something magical. Something that could cause a miracle. I tried to remember everything I learned about magic so far to conjure up some sort of healing spell, but nothing happened. There was no colorful light, only the dark and dusty air infecting Annie’s insides.

     “I really-” She winced in pain. “Screwed up, huh?” 

     I shook my head, placing it on her shoulder. “Don't say that. I'm the screw up…”

     With a weak and shaky arm, she rubbed my back. Each breath she took was right next to my ear. I could hear her struggling, occasionally gurgling on bits of blood.

     “You're fine,” she said, her voice weak. “You know… I had a feeling it would be you and not me.”

     I pulled my head away from her shoulder, looking at her? “What do you mean?”

     Her eyes appeared hazy, as she stared at my face without focus. “I never was able to use magic,” she said, gazing towards the ceiling. “But look at you go.”

     I gritted my teeth and shook my head repeatedly. I wanted it to be true. I wanted to do something, anything to save her. I held her tight, hoping in my head that some form of magic would emerge from my fingertips and heal her, but it wouldn't happen no matter how hard I tried.

     “I'm not special.” I placed a hand on Annie’s cheek, blood smearing against her face. “I couldn't save any of you.” Tears formed in my eyes.

     “You did save me,” Annie said, staring into my eyes, her own like an ocean of blue. “You saved me when you woke up.”

     With those words, I felt my chest get lighter, as if it were floating. Her face was pale now. The lung expanding from the opening in her torso stopped moving. As I watched the last bit of light leave her eyes, I slowly pressed my forehead against hers. She was cold. Tears fell from my eyes, splashing against Annie’s cheek. Silence filled the air. 

     By the time the paramedics got to where I was, the sun was already rising. Before they'd arrived, I'd opened the doors and carried Annie to the area by the cliffside. The sky was a mixture of blue, pink and orange. Sunlight kept my cold body warm. By the time they found me, I was already half asleep. What happened next was a blur. 

     When I woke up, I found myself in a familiar setting. On a bed in a hospital room, wearing a hospital gown. Dawn sat in a chair next to my bed. As I sat up, I took notice of her own outfit. She was dressed in a black uniform, which looked more like armor than actual clothing. It wasn't bulky, more lightweight. As well as that, she had a pistol strapped to her hip. A single black gem in the shape of a teardrop hung from her left ear as an earring. She stared at the floor, so I spoke first.

     “Annie… is Annie okay?”

     Dawn only glanced at me sideways, her expression indifferent. She sat in silence for a moment. “Iris, let's go home.”

     I stared at her before feeling a whimper escape my throat. I nodded. “Okay.”

     The drive home was quiet. The radio was off and neither of us said a word to each other. When we entered her apartment, she finally broke the silence.

     “For now, just focus on school,” she said. “Can you do that for me?”

     After hesitating, I nodded. “Can I… have a hug?” I opened my arms, feeling tears well up in my eyes. 

     Dawn stared at me for some time, her eyes wide with shock. Though reluctantly, eventually she gave in, kneeling down and wrapping her arms around me. The metal plates on her body were hard and cold, but her head on my shoulder was comforting. After only a few seconds, she quickly stood up and went to her room.

     And so, I was alone. The room was dark and cold. There was no one calling me. No one to look forward to. In that room, I was alone. Despair’s appetite had returned.