Mana surged from the temple's altar room into the sky like a jet-black geyser. The moon disappeared, and darkness basked the forest. The temple's red flicker was all that remained. Abandoning their enmity, they started to run with only one desire: to get as far away from the temple as possible.
None of them knew what had appeared inside the temple, and they weren't eager to find out because, instinctively, they understood that the source of the roar wasn't an entity that should exist. Ragna's heart screamed to her that the being was powerful beyond compare.
The wind that breezed through the leaves increased its intensity and cut into her skin. Like knives, they tore her flesh and cloth. Thunder drummed, and raindrops fell from the sky. And following their trail was the sound of hooves. Louder than nature itself, they stomped on the ground and crushed through stones. Like a boulder that would galvanize their bodies, the sound approached them.
The winds transformed into sickles and scythes, increasing the cuts on her skin. At first, the pain was unnoticeable. But as the wounds accumulated, blood began to gush out, and the pain added up. With each new cut, it added to the sensation until her brain was unable to ignore it.
Rain poured in masses. It soaked the ground, and the soil dampened to mud. Thunder roared, and lightning struck the dry bark of the trees, lightening them up. Despite the rain, the fire spread with the winds. It burned across the mud and cut off the way back.
They had no choice but to run forward.
Thick smoke and nebulous gases forced their way into Ragna's nose. She coughed, and the sickening drench disturbed her brain like toxins. The flaming images around her contorted into enigmatic shapes: Monsters that reached for her with their claws and fangs. Over the puddles, she stomped, through the branches, she swam. Ragna couldn't care about the abnormalities.
She had no time to spare for such thoughts. Not when it was so near. The galloping had closed the distance. She could hear the hooves behind her. Those who were not quick enough, the galloping and howls engulfed, and their screams were all that would remain. And at the end was a wall of trees. All paths concluded at this blockade, and Ragna chuckled to herself.
That's it. It's over.
The hooves were there. Blood gushed from every part of her body. Her clothes were heavy, and water lashed like bombs onto her scorched skin, cuts, and skull. It itched and hurt. Thousands of mosquitos buzzed around her and stung her.
How much she wished to claw her brain out so that she would not feel it anymore?
Mud covered her lips with a sour and filled her head with nausea. Everything was twisting and turning. Where up and down were, she couldn't tell. Her eyes could see that Altera and Eric made it this far, as well. She smiled and dropped to her knees. At least, she wouldn't be alone. Clockwork, that girl, and three of his men had arrived too.
Strange. How reassuring it was that even those criminals had made it here.
She looked up to the sky. It had transformed into an ocean of dark clouds, with neither stars nor moon. The dances of fire and lightning were the only source of light.
At least, they would see their end coming. Was this how it ends? She didn't want to die.
“No!” Altera's voice echoed. “This isn't the end. We will live on.”
Either way, her words were the truth. They would fight to ensure they were alive for even one more second.
“But we will recognize our transgressions.” Altera grabbed Eric's bag and forced him to the ground. She knelt as if she was a knight in front of her king and opened Eric's bag.
The stag's skull levitated into the sky, and the hooves and noises stopped. They heard the screams of the Clockwork Coterie, but then those vanished as well. The skull turned around, facing them. Perhaps it was because her brain was on the verge of collapse, but when she glimpsed at the stag's head, the outlines of a humanoid connected to it.
"So be it."
She heard those words drumming in her head, and the skull vanished.
Ragna wasn't sure how long it took for her to become aware of herself. It might have been minutes, or it might have been hours. The rain was gone, the fire extinguished. A full moon shone with all its might. Cuts, bruises, burns, wetness, and dirt – all had disappeared.
That was not exactly true.
Three pins raged into the sky. They were sharp as needles and white like ivory. Small rivers of blood spiraled down from the bodies of the Clockwork Gang the pins had impaled.
Ragna stood up. A warm breeze messed up her hair, and she looked up at the sky. “Just what was that?”
“If I had to guess, Eikthyrnir,” said Eric, as he stretched his body.
“That can’t be.”
“Have you any better explanation for everything that just happened?”
Ragna remained silent. Eric was right. There was nothing she could explain with logic. She walked towards Altera and offered her a hand.
“Thanks.” Altera took it.
“How did you know kneeling would work?”
Altera shrugged. “The idea just came into my mind. Sorry, I can’t explain it.”
A warm smile formed on Ragna’s face. “Whatever it was, it saved us. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Altera averted her gaze. If it were day, one might have seen the red glimmer that drew across her face.
All three sighed in relief, and once their minds had rested enough, they decided to leave the forest. But their steps came to a sudden halt. As if a barrier or a force field blocked them, they could not move further. No matter which direction they tried, an invisible wall forbade them to leave the perimeter of the temple.
They were trapped.