For a long moment the two groups stood staring at each other.
Now that the recruits’ hoods were gone, Ari could take a better look at the pair in front of him. But in the state that he was, he barely cared about their appearance. One was bearded and built like a barn door. The other, tall and lean, had hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. Barn and Lanky.
Then Ari narrowed his eyes at the boy behind them. And Ginger, he thought and commanded his spider to attack him. But his summon hadn’t responded, and a slight frown appeared on his forehead. After it attacked the archer, both vanished in the alley, and he couldn’t even see it now. I need to get closer.
Barn was the first to shake himself out of the shock. He sprang forward with an angry roar, raising his warhammer over his head.
Elijah’s hands flew to his hilt, and his blade exploded out of his sheath. Flames engulfed the sword and a stream of black-red fire shot out of it. But Barn jumped to the side with surprising grace for a man of his size and easily avoided the spell.
Lanky stood in the way of the sizzling flames now. Yet he hadn’t moved. Instead, he merely raised his dagger and whispered something. Then, a whirling gust of wind appeared in front of him, diverting the spell, and the flames crashed into the building behind. Its walls shook, and chunks of stones were ripped apart.
Elijah clucked his tongue irritably and his face twisted in an ugly expression. His bumbling persona was gone yet again, but Ari didn’t mind — whatever was the source of his Wanderer powers they needed them right now.
Elijah slowly walked to stand in front of Ari. He dragged his burning blade across the sidewalk, and stone parted from the heat.
“Those two are mine,” he said. His lips drew back over his teeth in a feral smile. With a flick of his wrist, he sent scorching pebbles toward Barn, forcing him to cover his eyes.
A thin layer of flames enveloped Elijah’s figure and he burst into motion. In an instant, he crossed the distance between them and attacked Barn’s unprotected side. The large man’s eyes widened, but Lanky appeared beside him and blocked Elijah’s attack with his sword and dagger crossed. The weapons clashed in a dazzling flash and locked together. Both men gritted their teeth, refusing to pull away.
Ari Sensed the essence gathering in waves around Ginger. He had his eyes closed as he leaned against his gnarly staff. Ari tried to command his spider again, but without any luck. The steel scepter appeared in his extended hand as he left the sidewalk and ran up the middle of the street. Barn wanted to intercept him, but a flaming whip swished and struck the cobbles in front of him, and he drew to a halt.
“I’ve told you already. I’m your opponent,” Elijah snarled. His sword was still locked with Lanky’s weapons, but he used only one hand to push against them. In the other, he held the black handle belonging to the flaming whip.
Lanky suddenly pulled back his dagger and lunged, aiming to exploit the opening. But Elijah let go of the whip and caught his opponent’s wrist in a steel grip. They stared at each other with blank twitching faces. Then, Elijah’s lips curled into a terrifying grin before he pulled Lanky closer and headbutted him in the face. The man cried as his nose broke, and bright red blood misted the air.
Elijah raised his sword, but a large stone spike burst out from the sidewalk beneath his feet, and he jumped back to avoid being impaled.
Lanky clutched his battered, bloody nose in one hand and stared with hateful eyes at Elijah. Barn joined him and asked if he was alright, but he was pushed away. Elijah stood between them and Ari, who now turned his attention toward Ginger.
White wisps still bled from Ari’s eyes, making his Sense stronger. The skill felt different as the surrounding world became clearer, and he could see every little fluctuation in essence without making a conscious effort to search for it.
This is how he knew Ginger was nearly done with casting his spell, and he couldn’t let him finish. As he ran toward him, Ari raised his scepter and pointed it at the boy’s head. A moment later, a curved shaft of blue-white light discharged from the gem at the top of it.
Just before the blast hit, a dense mist shrouded Ginger's figure. and the attack splashed against a wall made of ice that appeared in front of him. Cracks spread across its surface before it crumbled, and large chunks of ice scattered all over the street.
Ari stopped, trying to see through the mist. Suddenly, he Sensed another source of essence flare to life inside of it. He ducked, barely avoiding a large spike of ice, and it cut the steel lantern behind him in half.
The mist cleared, revealing Ginger and a creature floating above his shoulder. It was a tiny woman with pointed ears, clothed in a long pure-white dress, but with wings that buzzed like those of an angry fly.
Ginger bared his teeth and said, “I will show you what—”
“I don’t care.” Ari cut him off and discharged his scepter again.
The tiny woman waved her hand, and another ice spike shot out of it. The spells collided, sending sparkling shards into the air. One hit Ginger in the forehead, and blood started trickling down into his eyes. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and glared at his summon.
“Aravea, freeze him,” Ginger said as he pointed his trembling finger at Ari. Then he retreated a few steps and tried to stop the bleeding with a piece of cloth.
Aravea nodded and floated high above him while hurling more ice spikes at Ari.
Each spike flared with essence the moment it was summoned, and Ari saw exactly where Aravea aimed, allowing him to dodge it effortlessly. After a few seconds, the tiny woman narrowed her eyes and created a much larger spike and sent it straight at him.
Ari knew he wouldn’t be able to dodge it in time, and discharged his scepter instead. The projectile exploded into a shower of ice, obscuring his view. Aravea went back to shooting the smaller spikes, but Ari still saw the spells through his Sense and had no trouble avoiding them.
Then he felt something in his mind, and his lips curled into a half-smile. He sent a mental command to his spider and shot another shaft of light at Ginger. Aravea was forced to stop her barrage as she blinked toward her master to raise a wall of ice. Their figures were covered in a dense mist, and that was what Ari was waiting for.
Now, he thought, and his spider jumped from the building’s roof where it was hiding. When the summon touched the mist, it froze mid-air and crashed on the sidewalk. Part of its abdomen shattered, but it was still alive as it hadn’t vanished.
“Ice prison!” Aravea shouted in a high pitched voice from within the mist.
The ice chunks scattered all over the street suddenly lifted and shot toward Ari. Before he was able to react, he was enveloped in a thick layer of ice from his feet to shoulders. He tried to move, but he couldn’t even lift his finger. The cold gnawed at his bones, and he tried to warm himself by moving the essence faster through his veins.
Aravea buzzed in front of Ari’s face and stuck her tongue out at him. Ginger approached them with a smirk of self-satisfaction plastered all over his face. He wanted to say something, but then something exploded further down the street, and a heatwave hit Ari from behind.
Ginger looked past him and said, “Your friend is more capable than he looks, he already beat Katlan. Shame that Jonas ordered us to not kill you—”
“Ginger,” Ari interrupted him with a lifeless voice.
Ginger’s brows rose.
“You talk way too much,” Ari said, closing his eyes.
He used Control Water and fed the spell with much more essence than it was required. A second later, the ice enveloping him melted and then boiled, sending steaming mist into the air. Ginger shrieked and recoiled, trying to get away from him.
Ari’s skin burned and blistered, but he gritted his teeth and started healing himself. He swung his scepter and struck Ginger on the side of the head, sending him toppling to the ground.
Essence flared somewhere above Ari, and he raised his hand and pointed at it. Some of the ice shards that were still scattered throughout the street melted and started floating toward Aravea. Ari clenched his fingers into a fist, trapping her in a water bubble before she was able to finish casting her spell. She struggled, but soon her movements were restrained, and she stared at him wide-eyed.
Aravea’s high pitched screams echoed in the street as the water bubble steamed and boiled away. A moment later, her lifeless body spiraled down, but it vanished before even touching the cobblestones.
Ari turned his attention back to Ginger and started walking toward him. Steam rose from Ari’s clothes, and holes had burned through them in several places, but his spell already managed to heal most of the damage.
Ginger was scampering backward on his hands and ass, kicking and screaming. His whole face was crimson red and covered in blisters. When he noticed Ari coming toward him, he pointed his finger at him, and a small ice shard struck Ari in the forehead, jerking his head back. Blood mist drifted away from the wound, but it closed itself right after.
“How? Do you not feel anything?!” Ginger stammered.
Ari looked at him without any emotion whatsoever and lifted the scepter above his head.
“No no no, please!” Ginger cried and tried to cover his head with his hands.
Ari swung the scepter down, and the gruesome sound of bones breaking filled the air. Ginger opened his mouth to scream, but only a gurgling noise emerged from his throat as he stared at the two bones protruding out of his bent forearm.
Ari lifted his scepter again, but then he heard a familiar voice shouting his name. He ignored it and readied himself to finish what he started, but then someone caught his arm from behind.
“Ari, stop it!” Elijah shouted.
Clarity returned to Ari’s eyes, and the white wisps stopped pouring out of them. He glanced at the sobbing ginger boy lying in front of him and his stomach heaved.
I nearly killed someone…
Elijah grabbed Ari by his shoulders and turned him away. “Look at me. We need to go,” he said.
Elijah’s face was bloodied, and one of his arms was bare. Ari noticed several deep cuts in his skin, and he immediately used Healing Touch. After a second, the wounds closed, leaving only bloody smears.
“I need to heal him too,” Ari said after he was done and stumbled toward the sobbing boy.
“He will live. Tasia and Killian need us,” Elijah said in a hard voice.
Ari knew his friend was right, and he hated himself for what he did. He forced himself to look away and said, “Let’s go.”
When they were passing through the part of the street where the ambush started, Ari couldn’t believe his eyes. He was so focused on his own fight, he ignored everything else.
The street was riddled with various sized holes, rubble, and pits with burning fire. The houses didn’t look any better. Some had slits running across the walls as if someone cut them with an enormous sword. One house looked like it could collapse any minute because half of its front wall just vanished.
The two recruits Elijah fought stirred and moaned on the cobblestone. The giant man clutched at the blackened stump of a hand, and when he noticed them, he started begging for mercy.
Many terrified faces peered out of the windows at the pair of running men, but whenever Ari turned to look at them, they hid immediately.
Where are the guards? At night they usually patrolled the streets, and one should be closeby to react to the sounds of battle. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t seen any guards since they left the outpost. How much time had passed since the ambush started? Three or four minutes? Someone should have heard something, but besides the rumbling, the town was quiet.
Ari and Elijah increased their pace, and the noise got louder as they got closer. Suddenly, a shaft of lightning split the sky above into two, and thunder pounded in their ears. The lanterns and windows in the houses on both sides of the street exploded, sending glass flying everywhere. Ari and Elijah covered their faces in time and their cloaks saved them from getting pierced.
If Killian used that attack… Worry deepened on Ari’s forehead, and he ran faster. His legs pumped, and his lungs burned as he ran as fast as he could. Elijah had trouble keeping up with him, but Ari hadn’t slowed down.
Thirty seconds later, they emerged into a small square with a park in the middle. Ari stopped and focused his gaze on the treeline, maybe twenty meters away from him. Three men in Order’s clothing stood beneath the trees with their backs turned to him. They were laughing and flinging various spells at a large golden dome in front of them. Under the barrage of fireballs and stone chunks, cracks already started appearing on the surface.
Tasia and Killian hid inside the dome. Their clothes were torn, hair disheveled, and they were covered with blood. The archer lay on the ground, and Tasia knelt beside him, putting pressure on a wound with her hand.
The raven-haired woman lifted her head and looked around frantically. Then, she noticed Ari and their eyes met. A broad smile spread across her bloodied face, but soon it was replaced by a look full of determination, and she mouthed something. It was a short word, and Ari frowned, trying to figure out what she said. But then the dome flared, and his eyes went wide.
Hide. The word was hide.
Ari pushed Elijah, and they stumbled behind a nearby carriage. A second later, the dome shattered, and a chain of terrifying explosions drummed in his ears.
The onslaught of golden shards lasted for three seconds, and the carriage rocked as the zipping shards were hitting it. Only when Ari was sure it was over, he stuck his head from behind the cover, and his mouth fell open.
The park was gone.
The trees were entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood. Houses surrounding the park were riddled with holes, and not even one window remained intact. The carriages that were closer to the dome took the brunt of the explosion and their cabins were ripped to shreds.
“Go,” Ari said to Elijah, and they started running toward their teammates.
When they reached the remains of the park, Ari saw the steaming piles of meat and entrails scattered about, and he felt vomit rush up his chest. But he turned his eyes away and kept running.
Both Tasia and Killian lay on the ground, and he placed his hands on them. At the same time, he used his second healing spell, and a green mist spread out around him and snaked into their nostrils. The two spells worked in tandem, and soon color returned to their faces.
Elijah unsheathed his sword and stood guard above them, watching for any movement in the streets.
“Took you long enough,” Tasia said and coughed. She tried to sit up, but her face twisted, and she abandoned the idea.
“Lay still,” Ari said. “Elijah, do you see anything?”
“Nothing,” the man replied. “Tasia must have killed them all.”
Killed. The word echoed in Ari’s mind, and a sudden fear gripped his stomach and took his breath away. Elijah fell to his knees, panting heavily.
What’s going on? Ari thought and looked around.
Something shimmered maybe thirty meters away from the group, and two figures appeared out of thin air. One was the narrow-faced recruit Tasia attacked in the inn, presumably Jonas. Part of his arm was missing and he leaned heavily against a man who wore a black suit and a top hat. He was tall and in his early thirties, but there was something in his face that said he had to be from the same family as Jonas.
Ari covered his eyes in essence and gulped when he saw the white cloud with multiple green wisps surrounding the man. He tried to move, but whatever spell they were under prevented him from doing anything.
The suited man helped Jonas to lie down before he walked over toward the group. He stopped when he was a few meters away and shook his head. Raw, red anger flashed across his face and his mouth twisted in a snarl.
“I told him to let me handle it,” the suited man spat, and a dagger appeared in his hand. He glanced at the sky and frowned. “Looks like we’re out of—”
Something red sparkled in front of him, and he stopped talking. His eyes bulged, and a thin line appeared around his neck. Blood started dripping from the wound, but before he even managed to raise his hand, his head fell away from his shoulders. The body pitched forward on the ground, while the head tumbled and landed in front of Ari.
Ari stared at the decapitated head. The dead eyes stared back up at him in a kind of wide-eyed shock of disbelief. The pressure vanished a moment later, and he stumbled back and vomited noisily onto the ground. After a minute when there was nothing left in his stomach, he heard the flutter of wings somewhere above him and lifted his head.
A silver creature landed on one of the roofs. It looked like a horse, but with large white-feathered wings. The silver-haired council member sat atop of it and glanced with disapproval at the battlefield before snapping his fingers.
When the sound reached Ari’s ears, he lost consciousness, and darkness took him.