“They are coming!” Ari screamed.
Cursing his own stupidity, he ran past Killian and the squirrel.
The tunnel emerged into a narrow ledge, maybe forty meters above the ground. The waterfall hurled itself over the cliffs high above him, and the water came crashing into a wide pool that frothed and spumed. To his right, maybe a kilometer away, he saw the walls of the village.
Ari quickly glanced left and right and noticed a set of steps that descended gradually from the narrow ledge. They seemed to be perfectly carved into the side of one of the enormous owl statues. Still, he knew the ants would easily catch up to them if they tried running down the slippery steps. Which left only one thing to do.
Killian appeared beside him and carefully leaned over the ledge, glancing down at the pool. Ari could see the fear painted on his face.
“Place a trap here!” he shouted and pointed at the tunnel’s mouth.
When the archer nodded and started whispering, Ari turned toward the squirrel and commanded it to run as far it could get into the tunnel. Two sizzling acorns materialized in the summon’s paws before it vanished into the darkness. He didn’t like sending the squirrel to its death, but he had no other choice.
“Jump!” Ari shouted.
They took a short run-up and leaped off the ledge. Not even a second later, two blasts rumbled behind them, raising clouds of dust and sending rocks flying through the air.
Ari seemed to fall for a long, long time. The shock of impact was like hitting something solid, and the tremendous crash drove all the air from his lungs. He felt himself going down as he was dragged into the depths of the seething pool by the water that fell from above. He could not breathe or tell whether he was upside down or right way up.
His lungs were bursting, and he thought it was over, but then he pushed all the water away from himself and formed a bubble of air around him. The split-second moment of clarity was enough for him to see the light somewhere above him. After releasing the spell, he swam up, frantically waving with his arms. He broke through the surface just in time to catch a wave square in the mouth. He coughed and sputtered, then dragged in a desperate breath and dove again to avoid being hit by rocks falling everywhere around him.
Ari resurfaced a couple of moments later and looked around the pool, searching for his friend. When he noticed that the archer was already on the shore, he began to move his arms again to swim towards him. Rocks were rearing out of the water, and he tried to grasp one, but it was too slippery. With Killian’s help, Ari staggered out of the water and fell to his knees, coughing.
“You alright?” Killian asked.
Ari nodded, his lungs still hurt too much to say anything. After a few long seconds, he pointed toward the walls and croaked out a single word, not much louder than a whisper.
Then, he activated the emergency signal in his necklace to let his teammates know they were alive. They weren’t safe yet, and he wouldn’t give the monsters another chance to catch up to them. If they could dig tunnels under the cavern, the collapsed tunnel would not give them much trouble.
The gate was not far away from the shore, so they ran along the lake. Their clothes were completely drenched, and they clung to their bodies, making it harder to move. Ari had to whisper the summoning incantation at least four times before saying the words correctly. He commanded the spider to follow, but instead, the summon jumped into the water and swam beside them.
Ari kept glancing back over his shoulder to look for any pursuit but saw none. When they were half a kilometer away from the gate, he noticed a few small figures standing atop, waving, and shouting toward them. Then the ground shook, and he stumbled, nearly falling into the lake, but Killian caught him in time.
A fissure opened some distance behind them. Ash and purple smoke spewed from the rupture, and the ground shook violently again. The fissure spread out like a spiderweb, and five ants crawled out of it. Their purple eyes dimmed, and their rune-covered carapaces pulsated slightly in a weird rhythm. Moving its head from side to side, one of the ants slowly turned around as if sniffing the air. It stopped when it faced the running pair of recruits maybe fifty meters away and clicked sharply with its mandibles. Then the ants gave chase.
Ari ran on as fast as he could, but the monsters were even quicker, and they grew closer by the moment. The bow appeared in Killian’s hands, but before he managed to use his spell, Ari shouted, “Water prison!”
A faint light shimmered inside the lake. The calm surface began to stir and churn before the spider sprung out of the water, creating waves that reached the height of its jump. They swiveled into a spiral that rose from the lake to form a long thin column of water beneath the summon. Runes covering its large abdomen flared to life, and five water tendrils flew out of the lake.
Somehow the ants were oblivious to the rapidly closing in spell and the tendrils wrapped around their bodies, yanking them off the ground effortlessly. They struggled as hard as they could to break free, but their clawed hands went through the water without doing anything. Soon they were wrapped tightly from head to foot in many coils of the water tendrils.
Got you! Ari thought and concentrated on running. But he only managed to cross a few meters before he heard a roar behind him. He threw a desperate glance over his shoulder and saw as one of the ants turned purple. Or at least that was what he thought at first. When he squirmed his eyes, he noticed a shroud that surrounded the monster’s body and pushed back on the tendrils. The same thing began happening to its comrades, and he knew they would break free soon.
I can’t let that happen!
Ari stopped, spun, and gripped his scepter tighter. Wisps of white essence started flowing out of his eyes as he entered the state of Vedrfolnir.
The world became clearer.
He saw the gray-white aura surrounding the ants, but there was something wrong with it. There were two sources of essence inside the monsters’ bodies, and it seemed the second one was linked to the purple shroud covering them. Killian shouted something, but he ignored him and started running in the opposite direction.
When he was in the range of his spell, the water tendrils rose as high as they could before slamming the monsters into the ground with a tremendous force. The impact created a large crater and sent debris flying everywhere. A pebble struck him in the forehead, drawing blood, but he ignored the wound and focused on the task at hand.
There was too much water for him to control at once, so he split it between himself and the spider. All but one tendril merged with each other, creating a large floating ball of water. The remaining tendril snaked through the air toward Ari, and when it was close enough, he activated the scepter’s enchantment.
The gem on its end brimmed with blue light, and a chill filled the air. The freezing rapidly progressed outward, and in the blink of an eye, the whole tendril turned into ice. But before the ice reached the floating ball of water, Ari formed its bottom into something more deadly — spears. He gritted his teeth and poured nearly half of his essence reserve into the Control water spell to push down on the large, jagged shard of ice. It crashed into the crater with a thunderous squishing noise, and a wash of orange blood squirted out in all directions.
Ari breathed hard, emitting bursts of vapor into the cold air. When the wisps of essence vanished from his eyes, he nearly dropped to his knees from the exhaustion. His whole body hurt, savaged by the amount of essence he channeled through his veins in a short time. Black dots danced in his vision, but he shook his head, and they vanished.
Killian ran toward Ari, staring at the destruction and then at him.
“We need to go,” he said after a moment.
Ari simply nodded. He was too tired to speak, but he understood that they weren’t safe yet. Exerting all his strength, he forced his tired legs to move his body and followed after the archer. Each step was pure torture. What was even worse, his healing spell did nothing — he was tired, not wounded.
They weren’t far from the gate now. Maybe two hundred meters of plain grass was all that lay between them from safety. Ari looked around, a small part of him hoping that the monsters gave up. But not even a few seconds later, the ground vibrated again, and another fissure opened some distance behind them.
An even larger group of ants emerged from it, but one of them towered over the rest. Its size was similar to Zoties, but it had an additional pair of arms that ended with blade-like claws. It pointed at the recruits, and the monsters sprung into motion. They ran even faster than the previous group, or maybe Ari and Killian were too tired. The ants were slowly gaining on the pair of recruits. They could already hear the half-sizzling, half-clicking sounds that were coming out of their mouths.
Killian suddenly stopped, tilted his arrow against the bowstring, and pulled it back. The muscle stood out on his arm, and the air crackled around him. He released the arrow and an afterimage of a lightning bolt shot toward the ants. A deafening shout of thunder instantly followed. The earth shook, and the large ant at the head of the group got struck by the arrow. But the attack didn’t do anything as it still ran after them.
Ari cursed and wanted to use the Water prison spell again to buy them more time. But then the ant slowed down to almost a complete stop; even the purple runes covering its carapace dimmed. A burst of lightning erupted from the monster’s back, spiraling toward those ants that were closest to it. Forked lightning jumped between them till their blackened bodies collapsed to the ground. The remaining ants jumped over their comrades as if their deaths didn’t bother them, and they continued the pursuit.
As he ran, Ari cast a shocked glance at Killian. He was certain that the archer would be tired like he always was after using that spell, but besides sweat pouring down his face, he seemed fine. The man caught up to Ari in a second, and they pressed on, the ants still on their heels.
The gate was still closed, but more figures stood atop of it; same with the two wooden towers that flanked it. We’re so close… So close and yet so far. Eight ants still chased them, and Ari knew they wouldn’t make it in time. And he was too exhausted to use another spell, but he had to do something.
Suddenly, a frail-looking old man appeared out of nowhere in front of the two recruits. He wore a plain gray robe, and his bushy white beard reached to his waist. The man walked between them with his hands clasped behind his back as if he was taking a stroll. Their eyes met, and he smiled.
Ari was too shocked to react, and only after a few steps, he shouted, “Don’t!”
Clenching his teeth, he wanted to command his spider to use its spell again. But a deep shudder of pain ran through his body, and only an audible gasp left his lungs.
The old man stopped when he was maybe twenty meters in front of the charging ants. He sighed and tilted his head slightly.
“Begone pests,” he said in a voice that sounded as it came from far away.
Then he raised his hand in the air and snapped his fingers. The ants instantly turned into an orange mist, exploding outward in a spray of blood, carapace, and heavier, wetter things.
Ari’s mouth dropped. He couldn’t believe his eyes, and he even forgot about running. Killian stopped near him, and both stared at the carnage.
The old man turned to face them, and a frown creased his forehead. A black smoke surrounded his frail figure before it started turning transparent and fading away.
“Run, you fools,” the old man hissed, and with a puff of smoke, he disappeared.
Ari and Killian exchanged confused glances, an expression of disbelief growing on their faces. The sound of the gate being opened brought them out of the shock, and they ran toward it. This time, no more fissures with deadly ants appeared.
When they passed through the gate, both recruits collapsed to the ground, panting heavily. Someone appeared beside them, and he was saying something, but Ari couldn’t understand the words. His blood still pounded in his ears, and he wondered how they survived. Only after a minute, he managed to calm himself and looked up at the two figures hovering over him.
One belonged to Ekene, the dark-skinned recruit from the second team. She observed him carefully with curiosity in her eyes. When their eyes met, and she saw the clarity in his, she asked, “What was that?”
“What?” Ari replied, confused.
“The large ball of water. I never saw a recruit using this much essence at once. Aren’t you a Master and not a—”
“Not now, Ekene,” a familiar voice interrupted her.
Selner knelt beside Ari and gave him a canteen. Ari drank greedily, and after he finished, he didn’t even bother with wiping his mouth. He passed the canteen to Killian, who thanked him with a nod.
“What happened out there?” Selner asked.
As Ari straightened, he saw something familiar in the worried face of the mentor. Somehow, he reminded him of the weird old man who saved them. But before he managed to ask about it, the ground below began to tremble.
One of the guards standing atop the gate gave a startled shout. “Fuck, are you seeing this?”
Selner and Ekene immediately ran up the stairs to the top of the wall. Ari helped Killian stand, and they joined them and gazed in the direction the guard was pointing.
The horizon seemed to blur, and the earth and sky became one. An enormous blue pillar descended from clouds and floated high above the trees, but only for a few seconds. Then, the pillar plummeted toward the ground and shattered into millions of pieces.
“Hide!” Selner shouted and threw himself over Ekene to cover her.
The last thing Ari saw before he hid behind the wall, was a shaft of brilliant blue light that erupted from the ground. A terrifying explosion followed that rended the earth, sending trees and huge clouds dancing in the air. He pressed his shaky hands against his ears and felt the warm blood oozing from them.
Then the world went white, then gray before fading to black.