Will clamped his hands over his ears at the boom of the explosion, and Arlamus' mouth fell open as he crouched to the ground beside them.
The Mastery. They're here. His muscles felt like liquid, unable to move him from his slouched position, his head ringing with pain.
'Come on!' Andrel shouted, swiping his and Will's wands out from under their pillows. He hooked his hand under Will's arm, trying to pull him up. Arlamus assisted, but it took a couple of tries before he had the strength in his legs to stand, even longer to follow the twins quickly down the scuttle. Andrel led them all, running with such momentum that he hit the banister as he failed to make a sharp turn towards the grand staircase. They all stopped as Andrel rubbed his stomach where he had collided, and Will needed it to catch his breath and stop his knees from giving way.
'How did they find you?' asked Arlamus, breathing heavily. The stairway was dark, light flowing through the thin panes of glass either side of the front door below.
Panting, Will replied, 'like they always do. The Evil Eye.' Reflexively, Andrel and Arlamus covered their eyes, an old superstition that the Wilthrics seemed to have. The Evil Eye was Will's curse, the symbol of the Mastery, a way for them to watch him and to make him suffer, a punishment for escaping them.
He walked ahead of the twins, clumsily descending the stairs towards the front door. With each step, he felt like he would collapse, and it was only through adrenaline that he remained upright. Snow had piled up against the window panes, too thick to see through, but he could sense magickal essence coming closer. He knew now why he had felt so sick, those who worked for the Mastery had a certain stench in their magick, one different from the serene sense of other magi.
Andrel and Arlamus hesitated on the penultimate step, looking out through the windows whilst staying back. Will was the furthest forward, sliding along the wall towards the left window, his wand braced at his side. He could see them now, two of them, walking up the driveway.
They heard the tap of their feet on the wooden porch steps, the boards outside creaking. Arlamus sounded as if he was about to hyperventilate, whilst Andrel's fear was palpable across his face as Will looked back to them, nodding that he would move closer to the door. He'd never truly fought against the Mastery, Maga had possessed his body during the battle, channelling her magick through him. He had only regained control when it was over.
Behind him, Andrel held his wand out to the door, ready to attack, whilst Arlamus reached into a vase of flowers in the hallway and withdrew a spare wand from amongst the stems, worn but sufficient. Will looked at the twins bracing themselves to fight, and with sadness realised that his summer holiday away from the Sanctuary had ended.
'Who is it? What's wrong?' They all looked up and saw Mrs Wilthric standing at the top of the stairs, Persephone sitting on her arm with heavy eyes, her head resting on her mother's shoulder.
The boys looked at each other, unsure whether to tell her the truth. Eventually, they realised they had to. 'The Mastery, Mother,' said Arlamus gravely.
Her eyes widened, 'the Mastery. Are you sure?' They nodded, and slowly she put Persephone down, behind the railing as if it could protect her, whilst she herself descended the stairs slowly, pulling her own wand from the pocket of her nightgown. She pointed it at the door, and with a flick of her wrist, she whispered, 'hogokoromo.' Will felt magick tingle through the air, past him to the door. It rippled across the walls, floor and ceiling, shimmering fluorescent blue like sunlight on water, before returning to normal.
Will guessed it was some kind of protective spell, and everybody was silent for a moment before Andrel whispered 'did it work?'
Will wanted to say yes, but surely the Mastery couldn't be subdued by a simple shielding spell? He listened, footsteps no longer creaked on the porch, but he still sensed them only a few feet away. Anxiety stiffened in him, and he clenched his wand so tight that he feared it would snap in two, the fragile willow wood not strong enough. Now, pressed against the front wall, facing the terrified family, Will turned to look ever so slightly out of the window.
He could barely comprehend the multiple events that followed, the sound of breaking glass next to his ear, the slicing of it against his cheek, and the sight of the grotesque hand that had broken through and grabbed hold.