Persie Merlin and the Witch Hunters – Bella Forrest

An arm slithered skillfully around my neck and squeezed. It might have been a tentacle suckered to my throat, for all the good it did me, trying to pry the thing away with desperate fingers. The pressure against my windpipe had the mark of an expert: not too much, not too little. The Goldilocks of headlocks. My eyes were beginning to bulge, inky spots dancing in my field of vision. I knocked my fists against the arms that held me in a vise, tapping out. As soon as I submitted, the pressure released and I slumped out of the headlock like toothpaste flopping off a brush, half-expecting my body to land with a similar splat as I collapsed sideways onto the lurid blue spring floor of the training room. I lay there in a fetal position, panting hard. I had three-months’ worth of bruises that could not even be soothed by the industrial-strength bath salts my mom had sent. Everything ached. The continued training had layered more strokes of mottled purple and blush atop the yellow remnants of my last battering. “Getting better there, lass! Not so soon to tap out this time.” Marcel McCarthy stood and bowed at my defeat, and I tipped my head in return. I could hardly manage that, the blood still trying to find its way back into my skull. “Thanks for… humoring me,” I croaked.

As instructors went, Marcel had fast become one of my favorites, despite the fact that I left his classes completely exhausted. The pain and fatigue were relentless, as Marcel’s martial-arts training was held three days per week, providing insufficient time to recuperate from the repetitive defeat. Fortunately, the Institute gods had been gracious enough to slot the class into the last period of the day on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so I could immediately rush to my room and grimace under a shower. The hot water was my best effort to preemptively unknot all of the bodily cricks I’d have in the morning. Even Teddy, lord of the biceps and perpetual hogger of the gym’s weight machines, struggled under the strain of Marcel’s sessions. Marcel snorted. “Nae humoring about it, lass. If you can’t beat ‘em, at least you can stay conscious.” As the scholar of Martial Arts, Marcel was something of a walking paradox. Before we’d started these sessions, I’d expected to see some willowy, balletic guy who moved with the stealth of a tiger and had limbs that flowed like water.

Instead, we’d been met by this brutish bouncer of a Scotsman. He weighed 250 pounds, easy, with a perfectly oiled ginger mustache that curved up like Salvador Dalí’s, and not so much as a memory of hair on his shiny bald head. And yet, he moved as gracefully as a gymnast, able to flip and somersault his hefty weight through the air as though he weighed nothing at all— though the aftershocks when he landed still rattled my teeth. That was the beauty of Marcel: he could’ve used his beastly force to floor anyone, but he didn’t. He preferred technique over muscle, style over brawling. He never let anyone leave the room feeling desolate, even if he did dole out penalties for those loitering at the bottom of the class… and I was usually one of them. “Up you get, lass.” Marcel offered his hand and hauled me up so fast I almost got whiplash. “Right, then, since everyone else is licking their wounds, I’d say there’s only one of yez left. And dinnae forget, the quickest to yield gets the joy of sweeping the dojo.

Currently, that’s—” I lifted a limp hand. “Me. I know.” I glanced around the dojo as I caught my breath, well aware of how much of a pain it’d be to clean. This wasn’t my first rodeo. The dojo itself was a large studio of sorts, with high-beamed ceilings and paneled walls of pale wood and white canvas, as well as sliding partitions that could be drawn for small group practice. Green and red dragons coiled along the beams, adding a hint of the Far East, where most of our fighting styles hailed from. It was clean and minimalistic, aside from the bright blue spring floor, which had been installed to take the edge off harder landings. “Ah, dinnae be so glib about it. One of these days, someone else’ll be at the bottom of the pile.

” Something of a backhanded compliment, but he had a manner of delivery that made you believe the compliment part, no matter how impossible it seemed. Maybe, one day, I would scrape up to second-last. “So, who’s up?” Marcel asked. Genie bounded into the center of the floor before I’d even vacated it. “I reckon I can take you, McCarthy.” (She wasn’t being rude—he’d asked us to leave out the honorifics of ‘Scholar McCarthy’ or ‘Sir,’ to bring a bit of equality to our training sessions. Marcel or McCarthy were fine by him.) Marcel laughed with the entirety of his barrel chest. “Aye, the wee firecracker. I was wondering when you’d muster the plums after you botched that somersault on Wednesday.

I thought you’d be in the Infirmary, seeing stars for a week.” He grinned mischievously. “Though I’ve got to say, you’d have had me if you’d not conked your bonce six ways to Sunday.” “No clue what you just said,” Genie retorted. There was laughter from the rest of the ten-strong class. Since finding the Door to Nowhere and rescuing our fellow hunters, we’d earned our classmates’ respect, and they ours: Teddy Isherwood, Suranne Redmond and Gem Phillips (formerly the Ponytails), Colette Requin, Ayperi Khoury, Adrian Gunn, Pia Sund, and Dauda Jalloh. It had been a lengthy road to reach this level of friendliness, especially for Genie. She hadn’t forgotten the way things had started, and she hadn’t let them forget their initial behavior, either. But she’d taken it upon herself to educate them instead of ignoring them, and she’d given them plenty of food for thought. Like when she earned the top ranking during our Arena sessions and they used to quip, “Well, you only won because you’ve got all that Atlantean juice in your veins.

” They didn’t necessarily think they were saying anything wrong, but she’d called them out on the comment and explained the way it made her feel—as though she had no right to win, or that she’d somehow cheated because of what she was—and forced them to unpick the nuances in what they’d said and understand why it was more of a slur than they realized. Or when older students or graduates made a sly comment about her, or Atlantis, and our classmates stayed silent. She asked them, outright, why they hadn’t spoken up, and made them see that silence was almost as bad as hurling an insult. Slowly but surely, they’d realized the error of their ways and had begun to unlearn the judgments that had been instilled in them since birth. After apologies, the reading of Genie’s suggested texts, and vows to be better (plus, proving that they meant it by creating a no-tolerance policy of any anti-Atlantean sentiments), a truce had finally been struck. It was a good start. “Aye, well, you should count your lucky stars—all them ones that were swimming round your noggin last time we met in combat—that I didnae come from Glasgow, else you’d still be figuring out what I was saying after I’d already wiped the floor with you.” He maneuvered into position, stepping behind a line of white duct tape at the far side of the room while Genie emulated him on the nearside, closest to where the class was watching from a safe distance. It had been three months since our martial-arts training began, but six months had somehow raced by since the Door to Nowhere incident. Our classes changed up with every season, and as spring had turned into summer, we’d had two new classes piled on top of the old ones.

Our schedules were now fit to burst. Five days a week, from eight in the morning until eight at night, we sprinted from one two-hour lesson to the next. We had half-hour breaks in the mornings and afternoons for studying, and a half-hour for lunch—or a trip to the Infirmary, depending on how the day had gone. And once the day was over, we usually had a stack of homework to plough through: essays, notes-studying, preparing for the next day’s sessions, that sort of thing. Most people tried to get some of that done in our study breaks, but not me. For my part, I used my private study periods to visit Victoria at least once a day. She’d become my mentor, researching ways that I could better use my ability and guiding me through what she’d found. As it was a new ability, it came with a learning curve for both of us. At the moment, we were looking into the possibility that I might be able to Purge at will, to reduce the chance of a Purge sneaking up on me. The symptoms indicated when it was going to happen, of course, but we both thought it would make things easier if I could choose when I Purged.

So far, however, our attempts had only ended in me being very sweaty and breathless, with a few burst blood vessels from straining too hard. She’d promised to research further, but we’d have to wait and see if it came to anything. Aside from that, the general schedule included Hunting Technique with Tarif Hosseini, Engineering with Naomi Hiraku, Monster History with Ingram MacLoughlin and Nathan, and Monster Sciences and Anatomy with Lisbeth Oriel, a sweet, soft woman who hailed from Finland. That was our daily roster—and the latter three, I was happy to say, I was acing. In addition to our core classes, we had arena time twice a week with Captain Pain, otherwise known as Johannes Noah—a fierce and terrifying South African taskmaster who made non-sequitur jokes that everyone was always too afraid to laugh at. All except Genie, who was never afraid to laugh, and who’d become the firm favorite in all the athletic classes. And, of course, we had Martial Arts with Marcel to fill up those last three spots in the week. “Bow,” Marcel instructed Genie. He put his gigantic sausage fingers together and leaned forward. Genie did the same.

She was a foot shorter and a quarter of his width, but everyone in our class waited on tenterhooks, knowing this was going to be an interesting bout. The size difference didn’t matter one bit—she’d come close to flooring him a few times in the last three months, usually at a cost to her physical well-being. That somersault had been no joke. She’d soared over his head, misjudging her rotation and proximity to the wall, and crashed into the mirror, shattering it to pieces. Naturally, she’d brushed it off like she’d just grazed her knee, winning everyone’s awe for the thousandth time since defeating her first gargoyle in Hosseini’s class. But she’d felt that collision later. She’d splayed out on my bed, groaning with an icepack on the huge gooseegg that had risen on the back of her head, bemoaning her actions. And that’s why I love you. I settled down beside Teddy, who gave me a firm pat on the back with his meaty paw. “You did good, Pers,” he said with a smile.

Most animosities had fizzled away after the revelation that I’d saved everyone from Fergus’s realm and that my pixies had been helpers, not kidnappers. After I’d watched their growth and progression with Genie, I hoped in the future they’d have the knowledge to stop themselves, and others, from acting the way they had. Still, my classmates got a bit wary if I went pale or shaky, especially after I Purged a Wyvern at the May Day festival in the orchard. They’d heard a lot about my Purges over the last six months, but their fear was diminishing now that Victoria and I had our capturing synchronicity down to a fine art. I buzzed her when things got hairy, and she sent hunters to stand at my door, or wherever the Purge was taking place, in case I couldn’t deal with the monster myself. Nine times out of ten, I managed, using their momentary distraction of bowing or acknowledging me as their creator to launch a puzzle box. Sometimes, I used hex bags that Naomi had taught me how to craft, with Genie or a classmate adding a spark of Chaos to it to charge it up if the distraction didn’t work. A big gold star to shove in O’Halloran’s face, though he was still resolute about not letting me return to the SDC. But it wasn’t as though we’d been given a summer break, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out. My parents had been suitably disappointed that I wouldn’t be visiting, though.

Video calls just didn’t cut the mustard as far as they were concerned, and it wasn’t often that they could get away for a visit. Still, we’re halfway through our first year already… Putting it like that was bizarre. It felt like yesterday that Genie and I had arrived and the Door fiasco had gone down. Apparently, when nothing was threatening the peace and we only had our studies to focus on, time slipped through my fingers like sand. Well, I suppose it hadn’t been entirely peaceful; Leviathan still visited my thoughts from time to time, mostly during the private tirades of frustration I launched at my bathroom mirror after a particularly brutal arena session, or during moments of deep exhaustion. Anytime I was at my most vulnerable, it seemed—like he had a radar for my gloom. I might not have minded if he had more interesting things to say, but he was usually interrupting the hours of personal study that I had to do after classes ended, and he brought nothing of value to the conversation. He chitchatted, mostly one-sidedly, about the glory of Purging and how magnificent I’d look by his side, as his queen. That last bit tended to cut the conversation off sharp, every damn time. My attention was snapped up again by Genie, in the center of the dojo floor.

She darted forward like a furious honey badger, hands up and ready to boogie. This was the only athletic class that didn’t allow magic, but Genie was like a fighting chameleon, able to adapt to any and all circumstances and surroundings. On the other side of the training room, Marcel took a few casual steps toward his swift opponent. The sensei and the grasshopper, though I had no idea how this was going to end. “Ah, come on, I know you can move faster than that! Don’t give me this shuffling old bear trick!” Genie shouted, peacocking a little. She wasn’t a show-off, but she was a bit of a performer. Now that our classmates had our backs and we had theirs, the Institute definitely felt more like home. Mom was part thrilled, part miffed by that revelation, but I’d come to learn that moms always had a gear to grind, even when things were going well. Or maybe she just missed me as intensely as I missed her. Marcel snickered.

“You fight with your hands, Genie, not your gob.” Genie ignored this jibe and dropped to her knees, skidding right between Marcel’s legs. I could’ve sworn I saw a flicker of confusion on the scholar’s face as he processed what had happened. Genie jumped up on the other side and drove a kick into the back of Marcel’s knee, but his leg stayed firmly rooted, like the oak trunk it imitated. “I swear, you’ve had your bones replaced with metal,” she said, ducking away from his arm as it swung back to pull her into that deadly headlock. “Aye, and you grease yourself up before you come to my classes. Slippery as a jellied eel!” Marcel leapt into a breathtaking swan dive, curving his head up at the last moment before impact with the spring floor, so his shoulders took the hit. As the rest of his body followed through the roll, he popped up to his feet, all in one fluid motion. My Uncle Finch, with his troubling enthusiasm for that ancient film Flashdance, would’ve been whooping and hollering right about now. “It wouldn’t be any fun if you could catch me,” Genie shot back, pacing in front of her assailant.

Colette exhaled a tense breath in the brief pause. “Yeesh, that was close. When he gets you in that headlock, it’s all over.” She rubbed the crimson shadow on her throat, evidence of her turn with the scholar. Marcel’s headlocks were infamous, and though he’d taught us how to use them, they were never as precise or deadly as his. “At least ya arm stayed in its socket, eh?” Dauda winced as he rolled his own injured shoulder in a circle. The clicking sound that emitted from his bones turned my stomach. Dauda was a six-foot-five, hard-as-nails Sierra-Leonean, so I felt slightly better knowing he’d had his ass handed to him too. Marcel mopped his shiny brow on the back of the Institute’s version of a judogi, which we all wore for these lessons. The judogi worn by trainees was black and durable, with a strip of white cutting through the center to identify us as first years.

Marcel wore a solid maroon belt, which he tightened before lunging back in to silence Genie’s smart remarks. Finally, they were in close combat. For every strike that Marcel put up, Genie blocked it with a forearm, a palm, a shoulder—the sound of the fast impacts smacked through the room, making everyone flinch. For every strike Genie tried to land, Marcel countered as though he were flicking lint off his uniform. “You’re thinking too much,” he warned as he advanced on her, forcing her to retreat before jabbing the heel of his palm into her sternum and knocking her backward. She recovered quickly, steadying herself by squatting low. “I thought I was supposed to have a concussion?” “Maybe your head is the thing made out of metal.” Marcel covered the distance between them in two strides, his hand slicing downward, aiming for the space where her neck met her shoulder. She took advantage of the vulnerability of his body, left defenseless by his attack. She countered with a dragon rana, flipping herself forward through the air so that she landed atop his shoulders, her legs hooking around his neck.

Then she heaved her bodyweight toward the ground while the rest of us watched, breathless, as Marcel toppled, pulled down by the unexpected move. He arced in seemingly slow-motion before his back thudded hard into the floor, sending out shockwaves through the room. He lay still for a moment, stunned. “Holy crap!” said Suranne. I nodded. “My thoughts exactly.” Genie got to her feet, towering over Marcel, and pressed her foot to his chest. “Do you surrender?” “Not even close.” Marcel grasped her foot and pushed upward, sending her sprawling. I unclenched my fists, not realizing I’d balled them up out of anxiety for my friend.

Marcel wouldn’t admit it until the fight was over, but she definitely had come close to winning. “You almost had him, G!” Adrian Gunn shouted. Adrian was a long-haired Welshman who may or may not have had a huge crush on Genie, so who knew how objective he was. “Sock it to him!” Teddy yelled. Pia Sund, a Swede with a sharp blonde bob, punched the air vehemently. “Do that flippy thing again!” Is this really the same Institute? I observed my classmates with an amused smile. No one jeered, they just offered advice and commiseration, and even promised to save a slice of pie for me at dinner while I swept the dojo floor. “I’ll be coughing up bits of lung for a month,” Genie joked, lurching back up. Marcel cackled. “Well, dinnae go telling the medics it was me who dislodged ‘em.

” “Pfft, I’m no snitch.” Genie round-housed Marcel while he was mid-laugh, catching him square in the almighty chest. I made a mental note of everything she did, determined to try it out when I got back to my room. Maybe not the flippy stuff, but I could definitely improve my kicks and slices and spins. I have liv’d long enough for others, like the Dog in the Wheel, and it is now the Season to begin for myself: I cannot change that Thing call’d Time, but I can alter its Posture and, as Boys do turn a looking-glass against the Sunne, so I will dazzle you all. I’d been reading more British and Irish literature since coming here, thanks to Nathan’s recommendations, and that quote from Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor had struck a sincere chord. I did feel as though the seasons had changed, not just literally but figuratively, and these last days of summer had formed the firm foundations of the hunter I would become. I wasn’t a fumbling, staggering newborn foal anymore. Maybe I was still hitting the floor in Martial Arts, but I was making huge leaps elsewhere. I finally had a handle on my Purges, thanks to all I’d learned in training and the puzzle boxes I now carried at all times.

And Genie… well, she was dazzling everyone. I’d never seen her thrive like this, and it buoyed me up, knowing we’d made the right choice in coming here. Marcel stumbled back and Genie landed another roundhouse on the exact same spot, whirling like a dervish as she struck him with kick after kick after kick, until, like a tree that had been chain-sawed at the base, he finally toppled. The ensuing crash made the mirrors tremble, and some older students peeked through the training-room windows to see what had happened. A few inquisitive eyes widened in shock, seeing Marcel downed like Goliath to Genie’s David. “YASSSS!” Gem shouted, before flinging her arms around Suranne. “Genie, Genie, Genie, Genie!” Teddy started up the chant and everyone jumped in, cheering my best friend before the match was even properly over. Carried away by the mob mentality, I added my voice to the mix, shouting until my voice went hoarse. Genie had ranted about this for weeks, exasperated that she kept getting beaten by Marcel at the last moment, but she’d finally done it… Marcel was down for the count. Genie, sweating buckets, walked to Marcel and stood over him.

“Do you submit this time?” Marcel held out a hand. “I submit, lass. Three months of near misses, and you finally did it. Landed me on me arse, like a prize wally.” “Hey, Ms. Jules is always harping on about patience and modesty.” Genie grabbed his proffered hand and helped him up. “I’ve learned modesty by getting floored 99% of the time—or maybe that’s humility. And I’ve learned patience by persevering to reach that 1%.” “Well earned, lass.

” Marcel dusted himself off and tightened the belt of his judogi variation. “I could’ve done without the gawping spectators, but there’s nae shame in losing.” He nodded toward the observers behind the training-room glass. “You only learn how to win by taking a whole lot of hits first.” His eyes sought mine with a pointed nod, and I heard his encouragement loud and clear. If I’m ever going to get out of last place, I need to up my game. Poring over books and absorbing endless notes came easy to me, but I sometimes forgot that the physical part of my training also needed care and attention outside of lessons. It wasn’t enough to prance around in my bedroom, trying to kick seven bells out of imaginary attackers. I needed to learn from my mistakes and come back harder and faster and fitter than before, which meant cardio, and maybe persuading Genie to spar with me. Or perhaps I could ask Teddy or Dauda to step in, to imitate battling with physically bigger opponents.

Either way, I wanted to show everyone that both of us SDC women were a force to be reckoned with. Marcel smiled, unfazed by the loss. “After that, I need a sit down, so yez can scoot early and sort out your aches and pains. Persie, you know where the broom is, aye?” “Aye,” I mimicked. Ayperi shouldered her backpack, while the others were already halfway out the door. “Do you want us to get you anything from the canteen?”


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