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Kalden stopped running when he saw the line of enemies blocking their path. Behind them, a hundred more legs scuttled against the stone floor.

Azul's ashes. Had the arkions planned this? It didn't matter now. They were surrounded, and he had to act quickly.

A quick glance at his companions revealed they'd all frozen. Maelyn clutched the base of her shield Construct, gasping for breath. Akari and Darren stood with raised weapons, but they didn't fire.

Understandable. If the arkions fired back, they were dead.

Well, someone had to act. And while Kalden might be new at combat, he understood battle tactics.

"Up against the wall!" he ordered the group.

Barely a full second had passed since they'd paused, but Kalden dropped his rod and held the shield base with both hands. No sooner had he activated the Construct than several arkions hurled their toxic Missiles at him.

Maelyn did the same thing behind him. Together, the Constructs formed a triangle with the wall as their base, and their points touching in the tunnel's center. The semi-solid mana conformed to the tunnel's curvature, and Kalden locked his in place, doubling the shield's strength and engaging the gravity Constructs to make it heavier.

A few arkions charged on Kalden's side, but the protection mana repelled them like a magnet. The group on Maelyn's side didn't bother with physical force. Instead, they hurled their green projectiles at the shield, causing it to ripple and flicker.

Damnit. Those shields would break under enough pressure. These arkions had probably fought enough hunters to know that.

"How much damage will this hold?" Akari asked as she glanced back and forth.

"Ten-thousand pounds of force." Maelyn knelt down and examined the battery. "But that's at full mana. We're at ninety percent."

"Ninety-three percent over here," Darren hollered as he examined the other battery.

Judging by the amount of damage they'd taken in the last fight, he'd estimate each Missile at about two-hundred pounds of force. That was on the weaker end of the power spectrum, but it didn't matter. Time favored the enemy here.

Kalden's head snapped back and forth. Only a few arkions were hitting the wall with Missiles, and they weren't that quick. At this rate, they'd have...

"Eighty-five seconds," Akari said. "Then the shield will break."

"What she said," Darren confirmed with a nod.

Eighty-five more seconds ... then we all die.

"We can recharge them." Maelyn's voice quivered as she unscrewed the top of her battery. "Just feed mana through the top."

"That delays the inevitable," Kalden muttered. Arkions fought like wasps from a hive. They'd have to kill all eighteen of them if they wanted to get out of here.

Kalden let out a long breath. "Okay, here's the plan." He gestured to the point where the two Constructs met. "We reduce the width on one shield and let them funnel through the opening. We can fight one at a time that way."

He'd barely finished his sentence before Maelyn scrambled to adjust her shield's dial. Good. Every second mattered.

"I'll take the front," Kalden said. He'd gotten everyone else into this, after all. Even if it had been Akari's idea, and even if Darren and Maelyn had insisted on coming. He still felt responsible.

"The rest of you provide long-range covering fire," he continued.

"Wait," Darren said. "If we open a gap in the back, I can hit them with ice." That should thin their ranks.

"Do it," Kalden said with a nod. Then he turned back to Maelyn. "Recharge the shields if they drop below fifty percent." Her aspected mana wouldn't be as efficient as his, but it was better than nothing. Healing techniques wouldn't matter if they didn't live long enough to use them.

Darren adjusted the dial to Kalden's right, opening a ten-inch gap. Several arkions immediately scrambled forward as if they could squeeze through. Darren's ice Missiles wrapped around their legs a second later. He couldn't get a lethal hit from that angle, but it helped.

Kalden's heart pounded inside his ears, and he fell into a fighting stance, cycling his mana, preparing a Missile in his right palm.

"Okay," he said to Maelyn. "Open it."

The left shield shifted open to create a three-foot gap. The arkions abandoned their bombardment and raced toward the new opening, climbing on top of one another to get through.

Kalden's first Missile came out sharp like a blade, and it speared an arkion through the eye. The creature let out a screech as it stumbled forward, and Kalden brought his boot down, smashing its head against the stone floor.

Green flashed at the edge of his vision as a second creature attacked. Akari released her own Missile and flipped the creature on its side. Another Missile left a molten crater in its stomach.

"Heads up!" Darren shouted. A pair of ice Missiles tore past Kalden's head, colliding with an enemy on the ceiling. Kalden leapt back as It fell shell-first on the floor in front of him. He raised his fire rod and shot a Missile down its throat, burning it from the inside out.

They fell into a rhythm over the next few seconds. Akari stood beside Kalden at the front, covering him whenever he was cycling or reloading. Darren split his attention between the larger gap and the smaller one, shooting more ice Missiles at the enemy's flank. This divided the enemy's attention further as others tried to squeeze through the narrow gap and strike back.

As he fought, Kalden's Missiles grew stronger. Even stronger than the ones inside the rods.

Steel sharpens steel, the Grandmaster had said. One real battle could be worth a hundred ordinary practice sessions.

What's more, Kalden's physical body seemed to grow stronger as he cycled his mana, opening new channels in his muscles, skin, and bones. The Grandmaster had described this sensation too. It meant Kalden was nearing the end of the Foundation stage, approaching whatever came next. One step of many on the road to immortality.

Things got messier over the next few minutes. Green blood stained Kalden's visor, forcing him to look through a narrow gap. Another hot river ran down his forearm from when he'd stabbed an arkion with his blade.

For all their efforts, it wasn't enough. His own mana was less than half full, which meant Akari must be empty. Darren's ice rods were empty as well, and Maelyn had no offensive abilities.

"Shields at twenty-five percent!" Maelyn shouted.

"Damnit," Kalden said. "Charge them!" Opening a gap had worked at first. Then they got smart and re-focused part of their attention on the shields.

He cycled his mana and knocked another creature from the ceiling. By now, a five-foot mountain of arkion corpses filled the entrance to their fortress, but that didn't slow the enemy's assault.

"Shields at ten percent!" Maelyn said. "I can't charge them fast enough!"

Kalden glanced to his right to see more arkions breaking out of their ice bonds.

"Someone needs to go out there and flank them," Kalden said. It would be a suicide mission, but it was the best chance they had. Maybe he could—

"I'll do it," Akari said.

"Wait." Kalden spun around, but she was already squeezing out the gap in the back.

An arkion seized the distraction and speared Kalden through the stomach with its claw. He gritted his teeth and fell backward, feeling his breath leave his lungs. The poison burned like a fire inside of him, and his vision blurred as Maelyn dragged him back.

"Talek," she cursed, "why do you have to be so heavy?"

"At least it wasn't me," Darren hollered as he took Kalden's position in front, avenging him with a flaming Missile.

Maelyn unzipped Kalden's leather vest, moved his shirt, and pressed a hand to his bleeding wound. The restoration mana stung almost as much as the arkion's claw. But when he glanced down, he saw the muscle and skin re-knitting.

"Breathe," Maelyn told him, "cycle your mana."

Kalden did so, and the restoration mana flowed through his channels, chasing out the poison. His arms still shook as he forced himself back up and glanced through the shield.

Akari had already plunged her knife into a bound arkion's throat, and she pulled it free with a spray of forest green blood. Two more broke off from the main group to face her. One shot a toxic projectile in her direction, but she used her own mana to knock it aside.

The second charged her with razor-sharp mandibles. Akari charged forward as well, blade in hand. She hit its mandibles with a Missile, then slashed her knife across its right eye. In that moment, she moved more gracefully—and more viciously—than he'd ever seen her. She'd claimed to have fighting experience, but he'd assumed it was all talk.

Unfortunately, that was the end of her flanking attempt. The first arkion slashed its claw across her collarbone, and she fell backward with a cry of pain. It climbed on top of her after that. Its mandibles couldn't break her helmet, but all it needed was one good strike at her throat.

Kalden cycled his mana faster, restoring his strength, forcing himself back to his feet.

"Cover me," he shouted, "I'm opening the shield." Only four or five enemies remained. Nothing compared to the horde they'd just faced.

"Oh shit," Darren said. "Here we go."

Kalden knelt down and disabled the Construct. The semi-solid wall faded, then he launched a Missile at the creature on top of Akari.

The creature ignored Kalden's blast and prodded her several more times with its claws. Kalden ran forward and tackled it. It raised its claws to defend itself, but he was quicker as he struck another sharpened Missile into its throat.

When he glanced back at Akari, she was bleeding from more than half-a-dozen wounds. Her attacker hadn't gotten through her helmet, but its claws had pierced smaller holes in her arms and torso.

"Maelyn!" he shouted.

Maelyn rushed past Darren as he finished off the last two arkions. She knelt down in front of Akari and tried to unzip her vest. The other girl winced and jerked away.

"Hold her still," Maelyn told Kalden.

Kalden knelt down beside them, eying the bright red blood gushing from around her right collarbone.

"Akari?" His first instinct was to do as Maelyn said, but that might do more harm than good. The girl clearly showed signs of physical abuse, and she seemed to regard every gesture as an attack. "Can you hear me?"

"Yeah," she muttered.

"You have to let Maelyn heal you, or you're gonna bleed out. You understand?"

"Okay." Akari seemed to brace herself. "Do it."

Maelyn used her knife to cut through her hoodie and shirt, then pressed a hand to her wound, releasing a burst of golden restoration mana. All the while, Akari gritted her teeth, acting as if this were somehow worse than the wounds she'd received.

After a few minutes, she was sitting up while Maelyn healed her other wounds

"Take it easy," Maelyn told her, "you lost a lot of blood, and I can't put that back."

All the while, Darren stood guard over the group, Missile rod in hand. He was a better fighter than he'd ever admit. But after today, Kalden understood his friend's reluctance to train this way. For a well-off Silver with no interest in Mana Arts, it just wasn't worth the risk.

Kalden uncorked a pair of healing potions from his bag, mixing them with two vials of antidote. He handed one to Akari and drank the rest himself. They couldn't rely on Maelyn's mana to burn away all the poison. Even a small amount of the stuff could linger and cause permanent cellular damage.

The mixture was more bitter than anything he'd ever tasted—like drinking a stick of white chalk. The taste lingered even after he'd swallowed, and he immediately reached for his canteen.

"Something else is coming," Darren said.

Akari sprang to her feet, grabbing the nearest mana rod.

Well, so much for taking it easy.

Kalden followed Darren's gaze toward the exit, relaxing his eyes to see the glow of green mana in the darkness. This core was far denser than the others they'd fought—possibly ten times the size of a regular arkion. He'd even seen smaller cores on fully trained Gold Artists.

The clatter of its legs echoed off the tunnel walls as it stepped into the light. It looked just like an arkion, but it was several times larger. It had to crouch to avoid hitting the ten-foot ceilings, and its legs stretched out to either side of the tunnel.

"Azul above," Maelyn cursed. "That's a matriarch."

The creature moved her head from side-to-side, observing the mess of bodies they'd created.

Kalden swallowed as he took in the sight. "Same strategy." His voice came out low and far calmer than he felt. "Hit her belly when she goes to shoot." The mere idea of fighting this thing seemed ridiculous, especially in their current state. But what other choice did they have? If they ran, they would just go deeper into the tunnels.

Kalden adjusted his grip on his fire rod and checked the amount on the side. One shot left. His own mana supply didn't feel much better, even with the rich ambient mana in the air.

The matriarch stood up on her hind legs, preparing to conjure a Missile between her mandibles.

"Now!" Kalden shouted.

He and the others released their own attacks, and three of them collided with the creature’s massive underbelly. The fire broke against her exoskeleton without doing any damage. The matriarch didn’t even stagger or cry out in pain.

"Scatter!" Kalden shouted just as the creature released a toxic blast in the center of their group.

He dove right, landing arms-first on the concrete. The others had gone left, and they all seemed unharmed. But when he looked back at the matriarch, she was already conjuring two more Missiles.

Talek, this had been a mistake. They weren't ready for this level of fighting.

Just then, a Missile of pale ice mana soared through the air behind the matriarch. It coiled around her neck like a snake strangling its prey. Once, twice, three times.

The creature struggled for several long seconds, clawing at the glowing rope with its mandibles. It opened its mouth as if to shout, but no sound came as it collapsed on the ground, legs sprawled out in six different directions. Several more seconds passed, and the ice Missile turned into white vapor.

Finally, Kalden spotted a flash of golden hair as Emberlyn Frostblade stepped out from behind its fallen body.

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About the author

David Musk

Bio: Hey everyone. I'm a web developer and fantasy writer from Grand Rapids, MI.

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