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Renshaw and I joined his class indoors. The kids were smart: they didn’t clamor over Renshaw or wail about the danger. Some looked more stressed and panicked than others, but they kept themselves in check. Renshaw directed them away from the window he wanted to observe from and ordered in no uncertain terms that if fighting broke out on the street they were to shelter in a separate room.

I joined Renshaw by the window, taking advantage of my status as his friend. I noticed that while Bing wasn’t blatant about it, he was at another window and doubtlessly listening to us.

“Have you made any enemies in particular here?” I asked Renshaw quietly.

“Of course, but none that I would expect to rush upon me in this chaos.” He replied equally quiet.

“If you’re not expecting trouble, then I’m going to be leaving shortly.”

Renshaw’s eyes darted from the street to me. “Are you mad? What stake do you have in this? You’re front-line fodder, you haven’t the skills or the magic to make any sort of headway! Not on any of those fronts!” he said, jerking his head towards the pillars of smoke.

“I’m not going to try and fight, I just need to get to the harbor.”

“The harbor? Maybe everyone’s too busy to notice you and it’s not any trouble. More likely everyone is going to challenge you and demand some sort of proof you’re not on an enemy side. Wait until tomorrow morning. The fighting will only get worse today and I’d expect either curfew or skirmishes tonight, depending on today’s battles. Tomorrow you can return to your ship.”

I wasn’t a seaman looking for safety with his crew, I was a cursed being with three hours until I died – unless I made it back to the sea.

“It’s not about my crew or anyone else. Trust me, I wouldn’t be going if I had any other option.”

Renshaw huffed in annoyance, returning to his scans of the street. A rider appeared, shouting out loud as he trotted down the road. When he got closer we could hear what he said:

“All residents stay indoors! Do not leave your homes for any reason! Do not leave your homes with weapons! All residents stay indoors!” he repeated his message over and over. Judging by how hoarse he was getting; he’d been yelling for awhile already.

“That rider is wearing army colors. This residential area is filled by loyalists, so we’re protected by the army. The other factions wouldn’t attack homes like this and turn the town against them. You really should stay.”

“I can’t. It’s not in my power.”

“Then don’t head straight there,” Renshaw said. “Head east out of town and circle north. If you avoid the streets you’ll avoid the fighting.”

“How long would that take?”

Renshaw shrugged. “Couple hours, most likely.”

I tried to think through my options in a rush. Under normal conditions it took just under a half hour to reach Renshaw’s home from the port. Given all that was going on, I thought it would take four times as long. That was doable with my current timetable. If I went around I’d be pushing it, but I only had to make it to the sea, it didn’t have to be the port here. If I was fast, I could make it …

“The army would detain you if you tried leaving the city now.” Bing said, popping up behind us.

“They would?” I asked.

At the same time Renshaw said, “Leave us, Bing.” I knew he was stressed when he dismissed the boy. Thankfully, Bing bowed to Renshaw but ignored his order.

“If troops have been committed to battle,” Bing explained. “Patrols will be circling around the city to intercept anyone leaving and report back if any dissidents try to encircle the fortifications the army has. You’re low level, so if you cooperate they’ll probably only arrest you, but they won’t just let you by. If you have something time-sensitive, it won’t work.”

Making it out of the city and rushing to the ocean would be tight. Dodging patrols would make it unfeasible, and getting captured would be a death-sentence. I’d have to make it through town.

Renshaw really didn’t want me to do that. “Bing, I value your analysis, but trust my experience. Domenic isn’t suited for the battle that’s shaping up.”

Bing may have been cowed by his peers, but strangely he was perfectly willing to stand up to the man who mattered most to him. “You believe this neighborhood is safe because it is filled with loyalists: that’s incorrect. The army’s own estimates don’t put more than 70% of the residents here being loyal to the monarch. That’s what protects this neighborhood. No one wants to hurt their own people by attacking. It’s also why there will be army patrols here if they can spare the men; to keep anyone else from joining the fight.”

“Does the army have enough people for that?” I asked. “I thought they were just a garrison in town!”

“They were. They entrenched themselves and had a token force. That’s changed gradually over the last year, but the garrison has tripled in the last month alone. Disruptions to the slave trade in the area have cost a lot of money in goods, so reinforcements have been brought in.”

It was also possible that they were being brought in to initiate a takeover so king Leopold could please Makam, but if that was the case I wouldn’t expect Bing to tell me. His familial connections and his brilliant mind made him the most informed person here, but there were limits on what he’d feel he could share. Frankly, I’m surprised he spoke up to help me at all.

Renshaw sighed. “All of that may be true, but I know that the number of mages in town has increased. The local factions can’t muster an army, but they can bring in a few powerful mages to stop armies. It’s going to be militant tactics against mana out there.”

“No,” Bing said. “The army commander knew about the influx of mages. He brought in magic specialists and hired adventures from the society as mercenaries.”

Renshaw paused. Student and teacher regarded each other. It seems that they’d both had their ear to the ground on opposite sides of this conflict. They hadn’t shared, though. Because all sides had been escalating, the fight was going to turn into a bloodbath.

“I don’t belong to any of the factions here,” I said. “I’ll make it to the harbor.”

“That’ll make it worse, not better!” Renshaw said.

“When violence erupts you need to pick a side for safety.” Bing continued. “Otherwise you’ll either be caught in the crossfire or deliberately targeted.”

Crossfire or target … great. It made sense in a brutal, bloody way. I was being deliberately optimistic because I had no choice.

“I’m going to level with you,” I said, conscious of the fact that I was not truly going to level with them. “I’ve got about three hours to make it to the port, or it’s only a matter of time until I’m dead anyway. So can you help me figure out how I can avoid the fighting to make it happen?”

Renshaw shook his head. “My spies can tell you what’s going on now, but I can’t support you all the way.”

“Your spies?”

“The bird and rats I sent out; I can see through their eyes. It’s not enough to get more than a small picture of what’s going on. Things are moving too fast all over town.”

“I can help you,” Bing said. “I can figure out where the flow of the battle is going as we go.”

“As we go?” I asked.

“Yes, I’ll take you to the harbor.”

“No.”

“It’s the smart move,” Bing explained. “I have an idea of what the army’s strategy is and I know the areas where people are most likely to defend or escape. I can’t tell you all the possible contingencies that fighters will go through, but if I go with you, I can see what’s going on and we can avoid the fighting! I’ll take you where you need to go and come back. If it’s too dangerous I’ll stay there with you.”

“No.”

“Why not?” Bing said, getting angry.

“Because you have no combat experience and we’ve never worked together before.”

“If we get into a fight, I leave you. You don’t have to worry about me, and you wouldn’t be any worse off than if you went by yourself.”

“No.”

“Because I’m a child?” Bing said, raising his voice. “Because you don’t want the responsibility of taking care of me? Because it’s too dangerous? You’re making the stupid decision based on a false sense of nobility!”

“As valid as those reasons are, you’ve proven you’re smarter than me already.” I said. “My motives are selfish.” I reached out to ruffle his hair, imagining if it was red. Bing slapped my hand away.

I sighed. “Last time I was in a fight there was a boy your age that I cared a lot about. I killed him. So no, I’m not going anywhere with you. I have trouble enough sleeping as it is! I’m going to make the stupid decision because I’d rather take a dangerous risk than … than risk putting you in harms way. Sue me.”

He glared but didn’t argue any more. At a glance, I saw more than one of the kids staring with their mouths open. It’s hard to have a private conversation in these conditions. I rubbed my face, digging my fingers into the corners of my eyes so I didn’t have to look at anyone, much less the boy in front of me.

99 out of 100 people would say it’s wrong to take a child to battle. Even those that sent their kids off to fight and level would still say it was wrong. Yet here I had the 1 in 100 who had the basis – and possibly the right – to argue against that.

I let my calloused hands drag against my beard growth. I felt old, drained. Maybe I should shave. As if that would help me.

“Between what you know and Renshaw can see, would you help me chart a course out of here?”

Bing nodded, still visibly angry. At least Renshaw didn’t look disappointed in my decision. He was another one of those strange people who thought children didn’t belong in the carnage of war.

Renshaw and Bing conferred over a map in the kitchen for a quarter an hour on the conditions of the battle. Obviously, I wanted to stay away from hot spots between the factions where battle was occurring. Less obviously, the areas where there was no conflict were also out. Those were the areas that were too strongly defended to even assail. Both tacticians in the room pointed that out to me when I pointed at a wall on the map and suggested I take a route there.

“The pirates are more likely to allow you past, but it looks like there’s division in the ranks over the Free Brethren. If you don’t succeed in your bluff, they’re more likely to kill you. The army is more likely to detain you on sight. No offense, but you don’t have a good chance of pulling off a bluff with them.”

I really needed some books on strategy. It was one thing to know how to fight, it was another entirely to predict or direct a fight. I understood everything they said, but I wouldn’t have thought of it myself in the time the situation called for. I’d be far too bogged down in ‘what ifs’ rather than ‘this is how soldiers behave’.

They came up with three routes. They all started on the same path, but diverged based upon what was happening wherever I went. I could leave the path whenever I wished, but chances were I’d be passing by some location of interest for one of the factions.

In summary, avoid gathering areas and choke points. One was likely to be a coordinating hub and the other was likely a defensible position. When I asked about what made a good defensive position (so I’d know the areas to avoid) Renshaw asked if I was on a timer. Since I was, he didn’t have time to explain the intricacies of what could make a defensive position great or pathetic to a novice like me.

When I left it was out the back door, with a simple nod to both Renshaw and Bing. I had two hours left, and I was feeling the burn in my legs and pressure in my mind.

My captain’s outfit remained in my bag. I’d debated putting it on for the stat bonuses, but it just screamed, ‘I’m important! Pay attention to me!’ and that wasn’t the look I was going for. I made it out of the residential district without any trouble. People peeked out their windows at me, but there weren’t any patrols. I guess the army didn’t have the manpower for that.

I was nervous as I moved forward. The sounds of fighting were much closer than I wished. Not the roars and booming magic that I heard further in the city, but clashes of metal and yells of pain all the same. I traversed several streets and alleys, careful to stick to the path Bing and Renshaw had so carefully analyzed. That was my mistake. Bing has insisted on coming along because he knew flexibility would be needed, and I stuck to a plan.

Three fighters saw me and yelled. I took one look at their green armbands and ran. That was like blood in the water: they chased. They’d had a movement buff cast on them, and closed the distance faster than I feared. Then the second thing happened which spelled my doom: the alley I ran into had a hastily made barricade on the end of it.

I had no idea why this barricade had been made or why there was no one around it. All I knew was that I couldn’t traverse it fast enough. Not with the speedy trio on my tail.

I turned to face them as they entered the alley and saw they’d cornered me. They slowed from their dash but didn’t stop. They already had weapons bared. The leader was level 17, the two trailing him were 14 and 12. They all had more levels in swordsmanship than I. Against the lowest level one I might have a chance. Fighting multiple opponents didn’t just add difficulty, though, it multiplied it. I couldn’t take them on with a sword, so I decided to pull a harpoon from my bag and try keeping them at bay. Maybe if I made it hard enough they’d stop to question whether they should bother fighting me.

As I turned to reach for my bag, a water barrel caught my eye. I stopped my reaching hand and reconsidered my plan. Another replaced it, one much more in line with my Trickster achievement.

I used a water pull spell on the water by the rim of the barrel and it shifted. I did again and it tipped over, dumping the water into the alley around my feet. This water didn’t count for my timer, but I still appreciated the wetness.

I used water pull several more times to direct the water to stay around me. It didn’t work so well, but it was obvious I was doing something to it magically. I took a swordsman’s stance in the middle of the puddle but didn’t draw a weapon. I stared the fighters down.

They’d slowed when they saw the barrel tip, when I quasi-gathered the water around me the leader had put the brakes on and held out his arms to stop his companions. He looked at me and I could tell he was analyzing me. I didn’t catch what level his analyze skill was at, and I didn’t try to see now. I kept eye contact with him.

He straightened slowly, leaving his stance. Then he saluted me with his sword!

“Appreciate the warning, sir! We’ll be leaving you.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. They backed up the alley, one of them having their eyes on me at all times. I didn’t relax until they were out of sight. Then I sagged.

My bluff had worked even better than I’d intended. They didn’t want to tangle with a mage, and since I’d made it clear I didn’t want to tangle with them either they just left. Was that normal on a battlefield? Did people just look at each other and say ‘nope’? I guess they did.

I didn’t follow them out of the alley, instead taking my time to clamber over the barricade. Blood and a few arrows showed where someone had tried to make a stand here. I guess this was one of those positions that didn’t make a good defense.

The street on the other side was clear, so I hopped down and scampered off. I wanted to make it to the harbor without any greater incident.

I didn’t even make it three streets.

“You there!” the shout stopped me in my tracks and I felt the urge to turn and fight. I did stop and turn, seeing a man who’d entered the street from a different alley just after I had. He’d caught me with a taunt, the skill demanding my attention. For this situation, it suited the man just fine. It stopped me, but my high Wisdom attribute allowed me to resist the compulsion to throw myself at him.

I caught sight of his adventurer’s bag the same time he caught sight of mine. He glanced around the street and then waved me over. I decided to take my chances talking to him rather than running. He analyzed me as I got close.

“What’s a low-level mage like you doing here?” he asked. “Where’s your group?”

“We got separated,” I lied. If he assumed I should be with a group I wasn’t going to argue. “We’re water-breathers, I’m supposed to be at the harbor.”

He didn’t have his stats hidden, and my own analysis of him told me that he was named Theo, level 27, and had a profession as a warrior. His 30 levels in axes explained his affront at my own martial skills.

He snorted. “Well, you got awfully turned around.”

“We ran into an air mage, he sent us packing.” I said, weaving a tale together. “A group of pirates chased me and I only lost them a few streets back.”

The adventurer growled. “There’s way more enemy mages here than they’re paying us for! Come on, we’re not headed to the harbor, but we’ll keep you safe.”

“Where’s your group?” I asked, trailing off as I saw a large group of yellow and black enter the street. They were in a defensive formation, shields on all sides. There were about twenty men, all wearing the colors of the army.

“I’m taking care of these ones.” Theo said. “You’ve got a lot of mana, you any good with your spells?”

“Just the basics,” I said vaguely.

“You stay behind the shield wall, slow down anything that tries to slip behind them. Got it?”

“Yes,” I replied immediately. I hadn’t intended to find myself on any side in all of this. If I was going to find myself anywhere, though, a strong group like this was just fine. I had just over an hour to slip away and make it to the harbor if I needed to.

“Stay in the center while we move,” Theo said, pushing me towards the clustered shields.

“Huh?” The soldiers moved their shields and they seemed to unlatch from each other. They opened a space and I gathered that it was for me, so I entered. They started moving again, and I kept in step, the press of bodies wouldn’t let me fall behind if I tried. It clicked in my head that they were protecting me as a magic caster! When they engaged I’d stand behind their lines and be expected to offer support. Until then they kept me from being assassinated from ambush.

That was nice of them.

After fifteen precious minutes of moving like that, utterly unable to slip away, I was less appreciative. Until now I’d been content to round off the amount of time I had left, now I wasn’t. I had 43 minutes and counting before my Uproot ability stopped forestalling the effects of my curse. I’d been worried about death, but as the heat burned my feet, I recalled the agony I’d felt last time I’d stepped on land without the ability. I wasn’t sure anymore which was the real reason I was sweating so much.

A quick ambush came from an alley: a barrage of arrows and bolts before the archers fled. One soldier took a bolt ricochet off the helmet, but otherwise the shields stopped everything. There were certain advantages to moving like this.

Versatility wasn’t one of them. All of the soldiers had at least 10 levels in shields and 5 in spears and swordsmanship, but for some that was the extent of their combat capability. They were trained to respond to commands and acted fluidly together, something necessary in a shield wall. They didn’t respond to the slash-and-run tactics the pirates seemed to have adopted against them.

My timer was at 31 minutes when the squad got what it seemed to be looking for: a straight up fight! The squad leader called out a command and immediately the soldiers moved into a tight wall spanning the street. I was amazed at how fast they moved, one moment they were surrounding me and the next they were in front of me, their shields somehow interlocked.

They carried several short spears they could throw with one hand. The effect of these was almost negligible and seemed designed to force the enemy to either attack or withdraw. The first throw from the squad seemed to do just that, the low-level chaff scattering off the street, leaving three fighters in the mid-30’s. One of them swatted a spear heading for him out of the air.

It looked wrong to me; it was too coordinated. The pirates hadn’t vacillated at all, they ran. Apparently Theo thought so too, as he chose this moment to pop into the fray from a side street. I hadn’t been able to keep track of him during the march, he acted something like a scout for the squad.

“Pull back!” Theo yelled to the squad leader as he brandished his axe. One of the three remaining pirates diverted to meet him with his own axe.

The squad leader seemed to share Theo’s sentiments, but even as he gave the order there was a huge rush of mana from the pirate in the middle of the street. The ground beneath the shield wall became soft and sucked them down to their knees before hardening again.

“Earth mage!” I yelled.

Remarkably, the shield wall didn’t falter. The third pirate carried a war hammer and took to bashing at the shields, but through some effect the force of every strike was distributed across every shield in the wall, and spears and swords were thrust above it to drive him away.

The earth mage had used a lot of his mana to cast his spell. He seemed to lack any other area spells and instead would place his hand on the ground. When he lifted his hand, a chunk of earth the size of his head remained stuck to it. Then that chunk was sent hurdling at the shield wall. They seemed to be trying to wear it down.

Despite the earth mage’s spells, the most impressive corner of the battle was without a doubt the two warriors and their axes. They moved with heavy speed, necessitating rapid dodges and blocks from each other. They seemed to each use the same style of fighting, and traded the same type of blows over and over again. There was a criteria to what constituted a good strike or advantage that they seemed to both be innately aware of but which left me clueless.

Their heavy armor shed blows; one strike that I thought crippled Theo was shrugged off as he smashed his gauntleted fist into the other man’s helm, decking him. The pirate scrambled and lost his axe before he managed to get a solid base. Theo’s axe came at him again quickly, the pirate used his armor to deflect the blow and jumped in close to wrestle with Theo rather than try and regain his weapon. It turned into a punching brawl, a question of who would lose stamina or a loose piece of armor first.

I pulled a harpoon from my bag, looking for an opportunity to help before I reminded myself that this wasn’t my fight. I had no real cause to fight against these pirates here, and I had somewhere to be in … 27 minutes!

I turned, that was the only reason I wasn’t stabbed in the back.

A pirate had tried to sneak up behind us and was aiming to take me out, then no doubt one of the men in the shield wall. They’d be stuck and helpless then.

I threw my harpoon at him, glad that my single level in spears at least let me throw 30 feet between us accurately. Unfortunately, he had a shield to go along with his medium armor and longsword. The same thing that kept the army squad alive right now stopped my spear. He charged, and as I pulled another harpoon from my bag I desperately wished I had been able to pick up the shield skill as well!

While Blake hadn’t been able to teach me to use a shield, his rough and sometimes vindictive training gave me some experience dodging them. The man was rushing to close the distance between us before I was able to ready my harpoon. Distance was everything. I realized as I ran out of it that trying to stave him off with my harpoon wasn’t going to work. He was going to bull-rush me, probably activating shield bash or something.

I dove to my right, his shield side. He pulled up but couldn’t stop and swing his longsword around fast enough. I got to my feet and tried to run, if I could get a height advantage on my enemy I might have a chance to use my weapons’ advantages.

I heard him coming up behind me and realized he must have a movement buff too, like the pirates I’d met earlier. Organized fighting wasn’t fair!

I spun and thrust my harpoon at his eyes. He was too far for my short harpoon to reach, but he still reflexively raised his shield to cover his face. He didn’t slow. He didn’t need to. He just needed to bash me and send me sprawling.

I couldn’t keep getting away with a dive to the side. Instead, I dropped to my knees right in front of him. I grabbed at his shield to pull it down but only caught it with one hand before he hit me.

It hurt. A lot.

If I hadn’t turned to the side I’d probably have a broken face. Instead I had a wrenched shoulder. I succeeded in tripping him up, though. He went sprawling head over heels just as soon as he’d finished flattening me.

Because I knew what happened and he didn’t, I made it to my feet first. I’d probably knocked the wind out of him, because he was just trying to right himself when I thrust my harpoon at him. He rolled, using his shield to knock the point of my harpoon down. His roll was onto his sword side, so that kept him from retaliating immediately. I took full advantage and pounced on him.

I dropped my spear and grabbed the knife on my waist. I was raising it to stab into his eye when the pirate did something I hadn’t expected.

He looked at me, stuck his tongue way out, thrust his wide-eyed face forward and shouted “BLEAAAH!”

I flinched.

He found the strength to heave his shield – which I was kneeling on! – enough to knock me back and get his right arm semi-freed. He couldn’t put any power into the blow, but it still bruised and made a small cut along my ribs. I refused to let this fight drag on any longer, not when I’d had the advantage! I swung my blade at his face, and once again his shield was raised to block it. My blade skittered off steel.

His face was protected, so I thrust my blade into his groin. I felt the tip hit what I assumed was his femur before the shield came back down so hard I worried he broke both the bones in my forearm. I pulled the knife out when he knocked my arm down, and I heard the stream of blood hit the other side of the shield.

The pirate shoved his sword at me, either the cross guard or the pommel hit my sore ribs and knocked me away. I was just glad it wasn’t the blade. I scrambled away and pulled a third harpoon from my bag, readying myself to get back in the fight.

There was no fight anymore. When the pirate had moved the shield away an arterial spray had squirted nearly ten feet. He had a bleeding effect that could drain his HP in moments. If there was a really good healer on hand, he could survive. If he stuffed enough bandaging around his severed artery and drank several health potions, he might live long enough for such a healer to be brought to him.

But you don’t get those opportunities in combat.

He’d dropped his sword and was trying to put pressure on his wound. How he wasn’t screaming I didn’t know. He glared at me when I leveled my harpoon.

“It wasn’t even my fight,” I said. I’m not sure who I was talking to. I thrust the point under his jaw. He jerked and I hit bone. He was dead.

10,574 XP gained for slaying Human.

Thankfully neither of the barbs on the harpoon penetrated deeply enough to catch on flesh. The squelch of removing the blade was bad enough, if I’d had to pull the man’s skin off the barbs I might have just left the weapon behind.

I collected my second harpoon and then made my way back to the street to pick up the first one I’d thrown. I should have just left the poor squad then.

As soon as the earth mage saw me he shouted “Enemy mage in play!” and threw a rock at me. I ducked while it flew over me, then bounced back up. Did he seriously think I was the threat here?

Apparently they all did. I realized that I had more mana than the earth mage did, even if he was twice my level. He was also running low. They didn’t realize I only knew two simple spells, they assumed I was some sort of specialist.

The man who’d been harassing the shield wall with his hammer instead turned to join his compatriot attacking Theo. The earth mage readied a spell, stomped his foot down and thrust his arms into the sky. A block of ground under the center two members of the shield wall shot up under their feet. Whatever effect the shield wall had that joined them together didn’t account for this, and the cohesive wall was fragmented.

The earth mage took a knee, his mana spent. Even as he did so the combatants who had fled earlier rushed back. There were two smaller shield walls now, but they didn’t seem to have the same potency and the soldiers were unable to move, their feet still encased. A few actually had managed to work their feet into at least looser mobility, but that didn’t help. They became the weak links, the first to break formation.

I didn’t stick around. I ran. Amidst the sounds of weapons banging against shields were the sounds of soldiers dying, stuck because of a well-placed spell trap.

I had 10 minutes left when I was finally sure I’d lost any pursuit. The burning sensation had moved up both my legs to my waist. I needed to get back to the sea, now.

My sense of the closest route overrode my caution. Now wasn’t the time for caution. If I’d listened more carefully I’d have realized I was running into another battle. As it was, I stumbled into it.

There were two ships that had pushed a short distance away from the dock and were using their artillery to attack the Andros army on the shore. There weren’t any sea battles going on, the pirates owned the water. I could understand the army not wanting to give them free reign of the waterfront; with those ships any fighting group could fall back and be supported by artillery fire. The army would lose the harbor.

To keep it from being so, they’d brought in several mages. I saw numerous spells being thrown at the ships. The pirates had at least one mage of their own: an air mage. I was in awe when lightning flew from ship to shore.

“Get down!” someone hissed.

I jumped and readied my harpoon, but stopped myself. There was a pirate in the corner by the alley mouth, hiding behind some crates. He urgently motioned me towards him.

“Get down!”

His green armband threw me off, but he wasn’t attacking even though I clearly wasn’t wearing one. I joined him behind the crates, and the frenetic energy left his eyes.

“They’re blasting anyone they see! We’re done, we’re out of the fight until things calm down.”

“Who is fighting here?” I ask.

“The army are the ones in the next streets over, they’ve got a couple o’ mages with them. I think it’s the Free Brethren manning the ships.”

“You think?”

“Yeah,” he said with a huff. “I think! It’s not exactly easy to get everyone to stop and sort things out! We tried just picking a fight with the loyalists but the Brethren weren’t holding any punches so we didn’t either. If they’d just worked with us we could have spanked these army brats!” he said bitterly.

Too many kings making decisions in one area, not enough soldiers to carry the orders out.

I had six minutes left on my timer. I could feel the burning ground, it hurt to sit still. I didn’t have enough time to move up the wharf to a safer spot.

How much mana could these mages have? They were casting spells like crazy, and lots of them were powerful, too! The air mage on the ship was chain casting lighting. More spells were being returned in the form of fireballs, stone lances, globes of colored light or a harsh ray of heated light. If the spell wasn’t instantly deadly, I imagined every mage had a healer dedicated to restoring them.

Joining the medley of spells were bolts of artillery, but these were entirely one-sided. With these forces in play, the battle was matter of attrition. I was beginning to see that’s what most battles were.

I had 3:15 on my timer. It didn’t matter what was going on or how much mana the mages had left, I had to move. I grabbed a health potion from my bag and sipped half of it, restoring the HP I’d lost earlier. Since half a potion in hand wasn’t what I was going for, I pulled out another. Then I readied myself to run.

The pirate latched on to me, the frenetic light back in his eyes. “Don’t draw their attention here! They’ll kill us!”

I pulled him close to me, boring my eyes into his. “Let me go,” I growled with a poke my quickly drawn blade into his belly. “Or you won’t have to worry about them!”

He released my instantly, backing away with a betrayed look. I’d feel guilty if I didn’t have 2:38 to live.

I saw the air mage cast another lightning spell, then booked it. For a few moments, I thought the army at least wouldn’t cast at me. I was charging from their side, wasn’t I?

A fiery explosion disillusioned me.

When I righted myself, I saw that the fireball had impacted the ground beside me. The left side of my body was burnt, my clothes still burning. I’d crushed one of the health potions – thankfully the half empty one. I downed the other. As my vision stopped spinning I realized that the flame licking at my clothes wasn’t the worst sensation of burning I was feeling.

I had 25 seconds left!

I stumbled and started running for the pier. 20 seconds, 15, 10 … I wasn’t going to make it! I had to make it!

When the timer hit 4 seconds my foot hit the pier, and my timer slowed.

While not technically on land, you are cut off from the sea and pushing the limitations of your curse.

Ability Uproot active: allotted time has been affected.

I stumbled towards the sea, my 4 seconds dragging out into the 7 I needed. I felt the eyes of the air mage on me as I tripped off the pier, falling for a short distance before splashing into the water.

My timer went away, and with it the terrible burning. My burning clothes were extinguished, and instead of stinging like saltwater ought to on wounds, I felt like Id submerged in a balm.

Lightning struck the surface of the water above me. I was shocked in several senses of the word. I could tell that there was much more energy playing over the surface of the water than reaching down to hurt me, but I still lost more health. Why had the air mage attacked me? He’d seen me burned by the army, hadn’t he? Did he think it was some kind of setup?

More likely he thought I was dead anyway and wanted to glean some XP from me. My opinion of the Free Brethren went down a few notches.

I didn’t have to surface back into that nightmare. I didn’t want to surface! I wanted to stay here in the comforting embrace of the sea forever.

Not so close to the action, though. I swam out into the bay. I floated along, rather than anchor myself and be forced to walk. I was still injured, though my HP was above 85%. My right shoulder was wrenched and that whole side was bruised from the shield of the pirate I’d killed. My right forearm hadn’t been broken by that same shield, but I had a bone bruise. My left side had been bruised and cut before I’d been on the receiving end of an exploding ball of fire. Swimming was reduced to slow minute movements. Walking would have been far worse.

There were predators moving in, attracted by the sounds of battle. Or maybe there were bodies in the water, there certainly seemed to be enough casualties going around for it. Theo and his squad had been skilled and prepared, and they’d still been wiped out. If enough carnage made its way into the harbor, more exotic predators would arrive, but what I saw arriving already were mostly scavengers and opportunists. If I was in better shape, I ought to get some XP from them …

But I was in terrible shape. I made myself swim as far as my normal haunt – even without my dinghy to cover up the corner I crawled into it was pretty safe. I checked my burns and other wounds and didn’t think they’d kill me while I slept. So, sleep is exactly what I did.

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