Kalden ran in a half-crouch as they left the cover of the trees. The prison was still a quarter-mile out, but they didn't risk using their flashlights. A Martial sharpshooter could still spot them if they weren't careful.
Fortunately, their distraction was on the way.
An engine roared from deeper in the forest, and Kalden shifted his gaze to the north. There, a sphere of glowing blue mana soared down the road like a comet. He couldn't see the details from here, but he knew there was a pickup truck inside the sphere. Relia Dawnfire stood in the truck's cargo bed with a raised hand, supporting the Construct around the vehicle.
Jared brought his transceiver to his lips. "You're two hundred yards out."
The ex-Martial had given her a lecture before they left, warning her not to pull any punches tonight.
"They're brainwashed," Relia had countered as they loaded supplies into the vans. "They think they're protecting their families."
"And I can sympathize," Jared replied. "But they chose to fight you tonight."
"They're following orders."
"So was I ... until I stopped." He fixed her with a hard gaze. "You think these are a bunch of dumb kids who got dragged away from their homes? They're smart enough to see what's wrong with this island. They just don't give a shit."
Relia remained silent, seemingly deep in thought.
"I get it," he said after a long pause. "You don't want to butcher weaker Artists. But they won't share your sense of honor." He made a broad gesture toward Kalden, Akari, and the rest of the group. "If you hold back—if you hesitate—your friends will pay the price. It's their lives or the Martials. I don't like it either, but that's war."
A gust of cool wind blew over the open grassland, pulling Kalden back to the present moment. Chills ran down his spine despite his heavy armor.
"Two hundred yards," Jared said.
Kalden fixed his eyes on the darkness ahead, bracing himself for the enemy's attack. He still didn't know what to expect from this battle. Who had the advantage? Akari had hacked into a Martial database last night, and she'd learned a great deal about the prison's layout and security. She'd even discovered the exact cell where they held Relia's master.
To top things off, they had Jared Redwater who knew the inner workings of the organization, down to their weapons and tactics. Not to mention Relia who was easily worth several hundred Martials in a fight.
But the Martials had known Relia's goal from the moment they'd captured her master. The only question was when she'd attack. And with Kalden and Akari's disappearance, even that much was obvious.
If it were up to Kalden, he would have headed straight for Keylas and returned later from a position of strength. But Relia wouldn't leave without her master.
"One hundred yards," Jared said
No sooner had the words left his mouth than a hundred Missiles streaked the night sky. Most collided with Relia's Construct, and Kalden shielded his eyes at the blinding light. Others struck the surrounding landscape, and dirt erupted like a dozen small geysers.
Her driver didn't slow—not even as more Missiles struck the road ahead, forming craters in their path. Not even when they reached the end with its metal spikes and ice mana Constructs.
Relia waited until the last possible second, then she shot several pure mana Missiles into the road beneath them. This sent the truck flying through the air, over the barriers, and into the Martials' ranks.
Kalden couldn't see what happened next, but he didn't envy the soldiers on the front lines.
"Okay," Jared said, "That's our cue. Remember the plan."
Kalden nodded, mentally replaying the rules in his head. Don't raise your weapons or shields unless they spot us. Drop behind the ridge if you see a light.
Jared and Viv ran through the open field. Kalden and Akari followed, and a pair of Bronze soldiers held up the rear. They jogged for several minutes until they reached the cover of a short ridge. If this were any other night, they never would have gotten this close to the prison without being spotted. But with everyone focused on Relia, they might actually have a chance.
The prison itself didn't match Kalden's expectations. Most prisons had tall, chainlink fences, reinforced with micro-Constructs and lined with barbed wire. But this was a plain brick structure surrounded by brick walls. The road ended at a small parking lot with no signs or landscaping of any kind. It was the sort of secret government base that raised eyebrows, but that no one gave much thought. Even if the locals told stories, they'd all be forgotten the next day.
Their jog continued, and Kalden's armor felt heavier with every step. More light flashed from the north as Relia's team engaged the bulk of the Martials. By now, Kalden's group had closed half the distance, and—
"Down!" Jared ordered from up ahead.
Kalden dropped to his belly with the other five, taking cover behind the grassy ridge. In the same moment, he caught another flash of light from the prison.
Something hard struck his helmet as he fell. He felt the same punch on his shoulder.
"Everyone alright?" Jared hollered back
Kalden patted his new armor and found it unbroken. Well, at least that was paying for itself already.
"Good," he replied with the others.
More bullets struck the ridge, sending chunks of grass and dirt into the air.
"That's a machine gun," Jared shouted over the chaos.
The ridge ended about ten yards to the west, and they'd need to leave its cover to continue. They could activate their hand-held shields, but those wouldn't last against so much pressure. Neither would their armor.
The bombardment continued, and Kalden's ears rang until he couldn't tell noise from silence. His own heart pounded, and the whole experience felt strangely surreal. Four months ago, everyone here would have been strangers to his eyes. Four months ago, he would have been sitting in his alchemy lab, taking measurements or grinding reagents.
Now, he was laying in an active war zone, mere seconds from death.
"I've got this one," Viv said as she raised her Missile rod.
Jared nodded. "I'll draw their fire."
The pair sprang into motion. Viv activated the micro-Constructs in her armor, refracting the light and becoming almost invisible. At the same time, Jared shot several Missiles of shadow mana along the ridge. From a distance, those could easily be mistaken for a sprinting Shadow Artist.
The bullets chased Jared's Missile as expected. Viv fired her rod, then took cover behind the ridge.
"Anything?" Jared asked.
"No good," she replied. "They've got a Construct around the gun."
He considered that and turned to Kalden. "How's your shaping, kid?"
Kalden saw his line of thought. Unlike Relia, the Martial's couldn't make complete domes with their mana. That meant a Pure Artist like him could probably guide a Missile around the shield and take out the gunner.
"It won't matter," Kalden said after some more thought. "Even if I hit the gunner, another person could replace him.
"That's a damn good point," Jared muttered. "But unless you've got a better—"
Something metallic fell from the sky, striking a Bronze soldier on the side of his helmet. It took a moment for Kalden's eyes to process the sight, but Jared was quicker.
"Grenade!" he shouted.
The ex-Martial and his wife were already moving. Kalden and Akari leapt further down the hill. An explosion followed, shaking the ground beneath their boots. Shards of metal ricocheted off their armor, but they'd cleared the blast radius in time.
The two Bronze weren't as lucky. The blast tore one man's body in two, separating his torso from his legs. The second man retreated up the ridge, and the machine gun caught him when he crested the top.
They were still recovering when a Martial squad appeared at the bottom of the hill. A second squad appeared at the top, raising their Missile rods.
Jared and Viv each activated their armor, vanishing into the shadows. That left Akari and Kalden to face the enemy alone.
"Back to back!" he told her.
Akari complied, pressing her back against his, facing the enemy soldiers below. Kalden focused on the three above.
The enemy fired their Missile rods, releasing spears of solid ice mana. Kalden pulled his shield from his belt, activating the Construct with a press of a button. The protection mana formed an ellipse around the steel handle, wide enough to block all three attacks.
His arm shook from the impact, but the Construct held.
Not for long, though. These shields had smaller batteries than the ones they'd taken below Elegan. And Martials were a lot stronger than arkions.
Kalden extended his left hand around the shield, releasing two Missiles of his own. The Martials raised their own shields as they closed in, preparing to split apart and attack his flanks.
Viv emerged from the shadows behind them. She swept her dagger in a wide arc, opening two Martial throats in a single swing. The third man aimed his rod toward her, but Kalden seized the distraction and hurled a Missile at his left knee.
The man lost his balance, and Viv opened his stomach as he fell.
Kalden spun to see another Martial charging Akari. She dodged left, letting a frost Missile pass between her and Kalden. Then she countered with a Missile of her own. Her opponent raised a Construct, but she arced her mana around it, slamming into his left flank.
Talek. Had her Missiles gotten stronger?
The man hit the ground in front of Kalden, turning his next attack toward him.
Never hesitate, Jared had said. Not even for a second.
Kalden kicked the man's forearm aside, knocking his Missile off course. At the same time, he cycled his own mana, gathering a burst of power in his palm.
The Martial's eyes widened as Kalden struck. His instinct screamed at him to stop, but he ignored them, pressing his palm to the man's left eye. The mana left his hand, and he pushed the bulk of it into the center, sharpening the Missile into a blade.
Blood shot out from his victim's broken face, drenching Kalden's hand and forearm. Some even reached his helmet visor.
The Martial kicked Kalden in the thigh, and he staggered back against the hill. The man's body writhed and squirmed for several more seconds before falling still. A quick glance around the hill confirmed the other Martials were dead as well. So were the Bronze soldiers, judging by Viv's face as she checked their wounds.
Jared knelt over Kalden's victim, then cleaned his dagger on the man's shirt. "First kill?" he asked with a glance at Kalden.
Kalden gave a shaky nod. When he moved his fingers, he found them sticky with his victim's blood. He wiped it on the grass, but that didn't help.
"Let me guess," Kalden said. "It gets easier?"
"Not really." The older man sheathed his blades, then gestured over the hill. "Now, about that machine gun..."
Kalden surveyed the bodies in the dirt. "Can you find me another grenade?"
Jared knelt by the closest Martial and opened a velcro chest pocket. "You know how to use this?"
Kalden nodded. "After I pull the pin, I have four seconds to hit the wall."
The older man nodded and extended his arm.
Kalden accepted the explosive, and the four of them climbed back to the top of the ridge. Jared formed a Construct once they'd crested the top, refracting the light around them. Viv drew the gun's fire with her shadow Missiles.
Only one chance to get this right. Even if he found more grenades among the dead, the prison guards would counter his attacks once they realized his plan.
Kalden released a breath and cycled his mana, aiming above the stationary machine gun. Finally, he pulled the pin with his left hand and released his Missile from his right. Instead of forming his mana into a blade, he put pressure on the edges, cradling the explosive as it flew.
Three seconds ... two seconds.
Kalden slowed his Missile a few yards from the gunner and redirected it upward, separating the mana from the grenade.
An explosion hit the wall a second later. The Construct flickered out, and the machine gun stopped its barrage.
"Nice shooting, kid." Jared clapped him on the shoulder. "Now let's move."
They activated their energy shields and broke into a sprint. The mana on Kalden's shield rippled as he ran, and he felt the impact from the snipers' bullets. His battery was still at forty percent, though. He'd make it.
They reached the outer wall a few seconds later, and Viv began unraveling a grappling hook from around her torso.
"Stay here," she told them. "And don't die."
Kalden and Akari each raised their shields as the Shadow Artists vanished. They probably planned to scale the wall farther down—somewhere their enemies wouldn't expect.
"Great," Akari said. "Guess we're the bait again."
He grinned at her sarcastic tone. Mostly because it was something familiar to ground him.
Viv shot the grappling hook over the wall with her Missile rod. Gravity brought it back down, and it coiled around the stone parapet. The hook and rope both refracted the light, just like the Shadow Artists' armor.
That's useful, Kalden thought as they climbed. it never would have fooled anyone in broad daylight, but the Martials' didn't have the best vantage from inside the prison.
Screams followed soon after the pair crested the wall, and Jared waved for Akari and Kalden to climb up behind them
"Go ahead." Kalden gestured to the rope.
Akari gave the rope a few tugs, then she scaled the wall as if it were solid ground.
"Not bad," he muttered. When he'd first met Akari, she'd been all skin and bones, barely able to do a single chin-up. Her frame hadn't changed much, but she'd clearly put on some more muscle during her house arrest. Not only could she climb the rope with relative ease, but she did it with ten pounds of equipment
Kalden waited until she'd reached the top, then he followed her into the prison.