26. Friend for a Day
For a brief moment, Jorge flew. Free floating, nothing but blue sky around him.
Then the earth’s pull ensnared him, pulling him towards the ground. He managed to get his legs underneath him and landed with a jolt that shook his reinforced bones and sent his shredded muscles firing wildly, bringing him to his knees.
He tried to get back up, but his legs gave way with each attempt.
Digging at the dirt with his hands, he spun himself around. Hulda faced him, an almost pitying look on her face.
“You’re done, Excelerate,” she said. “Admit it. You’ve been on your last leg for years. It’s unsightly. Let me put you down while there’s still some pride left in you. Once it’s over, I’m afraid I’ll have to finish off your two apprentices. No one can know what happened here.”
She raised her hand and a clump of fragments gathered in front of her. He could barely make out her face through the spinning shield.
Jorge plotted a course around the shield and bided his time.
He wasn’t sure if he could do it. His Power didn’t rely on running, but he still had to push himself off of something to kickstart the acceleration. With his legs completely riddled through…
I’ll only have one chance at this. It has to be now.
The fragments shot out, merging into a single spike the length of a forearm. Time stretched into infinity as the sharp point neared his head.
Jorge raked his hands through the mud, dragging his body to the left, and released the energy that coursed within him. The world blurred, and when he skidded to a stop on his belly he was behind Hulda.
His body seized up, joints stiff as if they had been turned to rock. Just as he had theorized, a large portion of the fragments had risen out to counter his movements along the side, thinning out the shield overall. He only had a moment or two, then his opportunity would be gone.
One more. Come on, you worthless bastard.
Jorge bellowed from the bottom of his lungs as he dragged himself into another burst. He felt his skin get shredded as he passed through the shield. His right eye flared up with an unimaginable pain.
He hit something soft, something human, and he snapped out of the burst of speed. Jorge dragged Hulda to the ground, the woman screaming and batting at him with her free arm. He drew the knife off his back and put the edge against her throat.
The right side of his vision was dark. He felt blood trickle down his cheek.
“Finish it, then,” Hulda spat, baring her neck. “I have nothing left. You all forced me into this. I had to protect my family. The name of Ludenhaas means something. I couldn’t let you ruin it.”
“I think you’re done talking,” Excelerate said.
He took the knife off her throat and hit her over the side of her head with the pommel. She went out cold, and the spear shards dropped out of the air all at once, landing in piles with a loud rustling of metal.
Jorge rolled off of her. He gasped, looking up at the blue sky above. He couldn’t move another muscle even if he wanted to.
Maybe I should have just retired after all.
Kiren and Lace fought back and forth across the room. That damned staff kept him at bay and forced him to play it recklessly. Most of the time, he got tagged, only managing a few lucky hits.
Whatever wounds he sustained didn’t last long, but he was keenly aware that his healing was slowing down. He didn’t have the time to focus on creating strengthening mutations, either—he just had to hope he’d get lucky.
Lace looked beat, too, her face bruised and battered. Except no matter how many punches he threw, she kept getting back into it, maintaining a firm stance. He knew just how stubborn she could be from their sparring sessions, but he had never seen anything like this from her before.
She really wanted to win.
Or at least, she thought she did.
Kiren went in with a feint left. Lace fell for it, swiping with her staff to knock his fist away. Kiren tucked in and slipped to the right of her strike. He was about to hit her with a right hook when his foot slipped on a slick of his own blood.
“Fuck,” he muttered, trying to right himself.
Lace reset her stance and went in for a stab. The wind blade at the end of her staff drove into Kiren’s midsection.
Or at least, it would have.
His tattered shirt blew apart, revealing tough plates that coated his abs. Bits cracked and flew off the mutated segment, but he felt no pain. She would eventually get through, but not quickly enough.
Kiren grabbed Lace by the front of her tunic with both hands, lifted her up, and threw her down on the floor.
She landed hard on her back, air going out of her with a bug-eyed wheeze.
Good. This is my chance.
He descended on her.
Lace smiled. “Predictable, Kiren.”
She drew in a deep breath.
Shit! She was acting!
Lace pulled out a small bottle from a pouch on her belt and stuck it in one of the holes on the side of the gale-staff. It looked like it was full of…
She angled the staff at Kiren’s stomach once again and fired it up, producing a rattling hiss.
Kiren’s chitinous plates were blown apart and his stomach pierced all the way through, the tiny granules of sand shredding his flesh like wet paper.
He backed up, stumbled, and his legs buckled. He fell on his knees, swearing under his breath. His legs were too numb to stand back up, and his lips and hands quickly became freezing cold. He had sustained too much damage. Too much blood loss, too much trauma, too quickly.
Lace stood. She stayed at a safe distance.
“We’re done, Kiren. I won. Now I can burn that damned book, and everything will be the way it should be.”
Kiren licked his lips and forced them to move. “That’s not what this is about.” He looked her in the eyes. “Is it?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I think I do.”
This is the time to speak my mind. If I don’t do it now, I might lose her forever.
So many feelings surged through him. And yet, now that it was time to let them out, he hesitated.
“You’re disappointed,” Kiren said. “You’re disappointed in the Guild. I get it, okay? I’ve been a shitty partner to you. I didn’t fly straight with you, even after we agreed to fight the Dark Eye together. And I…” He took a deep breath. “You don’t deserve most of the things I’ve said to you. Excelerate’s not been any better. Too busy to train us half the time, and he seems content using us as pawns until we die off like his previous apprentices.
“In the face of that, I get why you would want to go with someone like Hulda. She’s powerful, experienced, and clearly sees through what she starts. I don’t know what she’s told you, but I can imagine it was exactly the sort of shit you’ve been dying to hear.
“So I get it, alright? I really do. I know what it’s like to be angry. More than most. But please, don’t be a fucking idiot. I think even you can tell that what you’re doing right now isn’t rational in the slightest. You’re trying to throw away your doubts. If you’re so sure that what you’re doing is right, then…” Kiren coughed up a glob of coagulated blood and spat it off to the side. He held his head high. “If you’re so sure of that, then finish me off. Forget the promise we made. Burn that book.”
Lace’s eyes widened. She found the single intact chair left in the room and slowly sat.
“Twin gods, Kiren,” she said. “I wasn’t going to kill you, you idiot.”
Kiren fought out a smile. “That’s relieving to hear. Saved me the trouble of coming up with my last words. I’m not much of a poet.”
Lace hid a smile behind her hand. “Shut up.”
She sighed, looking into the floor as her expression returning to a mournful longing. “I suppose you’re right. What you said. More than anything, I’ve just felt… lost. Hypocritical as it sounds, I’ve not been upfront with you either.”
Kiren shrugged and hissed as his stomach contorted with pain. “Shit…” He managed to collect himself, focusing on taking even breaths. “Well, now is the time to get it off your chest. I’ve not got anywhere better to be.”
“I feel like I’m only ever told that I’ll never be a Hero, or that I would be doing the world a service by quitting. My mother said it. Counter said it. Sage said it. You said it.” She paused, shaking her head. “A while ago, I overheard Counter and Excelerate talking. About my father. He never wanted me to be a Hero. He did everything in his power to stop me becoming one.
“He was the one person I thought would be behind my decision. This whole time, even though he’s dead, I felt like I had him at my back. Turns out he forced Counter’s hand in making sure I wouldn’t get taken on as an apprentice. That… hit me hard, I won’t lie. It made me feel like the world was against me, and everyone I thought I could trust was just waiting to show me their true colors.”
“So when I told you about my past with Xander’s…” Kiren said, trailing off.
“Yeah,” Lace said with a nod. “It set me off even worse. And with Hulda telling me those things, actually using my talents, I thought that was the only place to go. It felt like the only piece of solid ground in a world that was falling apart. I forced myself to trust her because I didn’t think I had anyone else.”
Kiren cleared his throat. He struggled in getting the words out. “You’ve got me. We promised to hunt the Dark Eye together. That’s one thing that’s never changed. I know we’ve not known each other too long, but I trust you. Even though I may not show it, and even though you may not trust me the same way anymore.”
Lace stood and padded over to him. She got down on her knees and sat on her heels. She wrapped Kiren in a gentle hug.
It made his entire body flare with pain, but he kept his mouth shut. He felt the warmth of her skin and her heart beating against his chest. She smelled of sweat and blood and that special scent—like fresh wood shavings and summer flowers—which belonged only to her.
It was the kind of moment that was worth being stabbed through the gut.
He found himself wishing it would last forever.
“I trust you,” she whispered in his ear. She pulled back and stared at him with those big, deep eyes of hers. “I’m sorry for being an idiot.”
“We’re all idiots here,” Kiren said.
He leaned in to kiss her.
Lace slapped him, setting his cheek ringing.
“Creator’s breath, Kiren!” she said, pulling away. “Not the time!”
“What? I just thought…”
“We’re both covered in blood, you’re almost dead, and there’s a fight outside!” She held up her hands. “You know what, we’ll talk about this later. Can you stand?”
Kiren groaned as he tried to move. Eventually, with the help of the remaining chair, he managed to stand. The wound in his stomach was almost fully healed, but his internals were still a tattered mess.
“Okay, good,” she said. “You go check on Excelerate. I’ll look through the book. If they’re still fighting, don’t step in. Just shout me. You’re in no position to fight.”
Kiren was in no mood to argue.
While Lace started flipping through the pages of the tome, Kiren shuffled outside into the street.
It was carnage out there. The street had been ripped up and stained with blood. Two figures lay in the distance, surrounded by a perfect circle of silver.
No sign of Hyena and Snapjaw.
He walked over, a near perfect silence around him. Excelerate and Hulda lay side by side. They were both unconscious, but still breathing. It was hard to tell who had won the fight.
Excelerate was covered in cuts, and he had numerous jagged holes in his legs, still bleeding. One of his eyes had been sliced open, the whole socket swimming in blood.
“Unmaker’s tits,” Kiren breathed. “He really took a hit.”
It was odd to see Excelerate this vulnerable. He wasn’t unbeatable, after all. If he had bested Hulda, it was a near thing.
He looked back. Lace was hurrying towards him, still reading from the book. Her face was creased with a deep frown.
“It’s hard to get much out of this,” Lace said. “Jarl only cracked part of the cipher. But if this is correct… It seems like the Ludenhaas family is smuggling Angel’s Kiss throughout Goldbrand and the rest of Aribel. If these numbers are to be trusted, they’d have to be the city’s largest supplier. That explains why the Heroes could never really crack down on it. Because it was coming from inside the Guild this whole time.”
“Should’ve guessed it was something like that,” Kiren said. He glanced over at Hulda. “She was as much of a stone-cold bitch as she seemed from the start.”
“Excelerate needs medical attention, fast.”
“Maybe you could run up to the Lodge and get someone,” Kiren suggested.
“It would take too long. We should bring him to the guard post in Small Miracle. They’ll have some basic medical supplies. If we can bandage up some of these wounds, it might keep him until Good Doctor or someone else can show up.”
“What about her?” Kiren asked, pointing to Hulda.
Lace looked at her and scowled. “We’ll bring her.” She sighed. “Grab a body. This is going to be a long walk.”