They landed on the roof a second later. Relia stumbled on the uneven surface, catching herself on the clay tiles. Her eyes still stung from the sand, but closing them felt worse than holding them open.
“Here.” Hector pressed a bottle into her right hand. “Wash it out”
Relia held open her eyelids and poured the water over her face, blinking rapidly until the pain subsided. The sand came out easier than she’d expected, almost as if it were evaporating.
Hector offered her a hand, and she pulled herself to her feet. No Grevandi had followed them yet, but that was hardly a surprise. Fire Artists could jump high, but it wasn’t as easy as shooting some Missiles. You also needed an anti-fire Construct to suppress the blast. Otherwise you’d lose your legs before you ever left the ground.
“Thanks,” Relia said as she handed him back the bottle.
Hector nodded as he clipped it on his backpack. He wore his scarf over the bottom half of his face now, and a pair of dark-tinted goggles shielded his eyes.
“Guess that wasn’t your first sandstorm,” she said with a grin.
Hector gave a casual shrug, and she saw his eyes smiling behind the goggles. For a second, it looked like he might reply.
Then a fireball struck the side of his head.
Relia turned to see three Grevandi climbing up the roof’s opposite side—two Fire Artists and the Sand Artist. Hector slammed into the clay tiles and rolled down behind her. Relia flared her pure Cloak and dove after him.
Hector fell off the edge, but she grabbed his wrist at the last second, holding him over the twenty-foot drop. A nasty red blister covered the left side of his face, stretching from his temple to his ear.
Relia cycled life mana from her arm to his, and fresh skin formed over the burn. At the same time, she flooded her upper body with pure mana, tripling her strength, hurling Hector back onto the roof.
By now, the Grevandi had already crested the roof’s peak. Hector threw several bursts of fire, and Relia formed a wide shield above their heads. Hopefully, that would cancel out the enemy’s high ground advantage.
More mana flew back and forth as they exchanged attacks. Hector kept the Fire Artists busy, and Relia focused her shots on the Sand Artist. Better to deal with her sooner rather than later.
The other woman raised a shield of transparent rock, shattering Relia’s Missiles like broken needles.
Okay, so she’s a Stone Artist. A Stone Artist that could also move sand. Unless the sand was actually mana this whole time…
Relia got her answer when her opponent raised a palm, conjuring a cloud of sand from thin air.
“Cover me,” Relia shouted to Hector. She brought both hands in front of her face and formed a helmet-shaped Construct. Then she flared both Cloak techniques, kicking off from the gutter, soaring toward the roof’s peak. Her helmet only shielded the front of her head, but her momentum kept out the sand.
Hector sent a volley of fire around her, forcing the Grevandi to defend themselves as Relia closed in.
She slammed into the Stone Artist, but it was like hitting a brick wall. The woman raised a steel machete, twice as long as Akari’s Martial blade. Relia didn’t need her Silver Sight to know it was enhanced with metal mana.
The blade flashed down. Relia blocked the slash by interposing her forearm with her opponent’s wrist. Then she sent a pure Missile into the woman’s stomach.
The technique shattered against another stone Construct. Her opponent staggered back, readying for another slash.
Relia stepped forward again, but that put her between both Fire Artists.
Idiot. Her master had warned her about this exact thing.
More techniques closed in, and Relia defended herself in a panic. Three against one. She was the better-trained Artist, but that wouldn’t save her. There was a point in every fight where numbers trumped skill.
A Missile struck the back of Relia’s head. She staggered forward, cracking several clay tiles beneath her weight.
Hector raced to her rescue, and the Grevandi all rounded on him. He was good, but he had the same weakness as all Fire Artists—no defensive techniques.
Relia scrambled back to her feet, but she was too late. The Stone Artist hurled a solid projectile toward Hector, throwing him off the roof.
They all turned back to Relia, smiling like a pack of raptors.
Don't hold back, her master had said before the fight began. His words had been vague, but the meaning was clear.
People had always looked down on life mana. They’d feared her because she could kill a person and make it look like a natural death. She’d wanted to prove them wrong. She’d wanted to look them in the eye and say she would never use those techniques against another person.
But this wasn’t her school battlegrounds. No one was watching. More importantly, her enemies would never see it coming.
The Grevandi raised their palms, preparing Missiles of fire and stone. Relia leapt forward, putting herself between them.
Steel caught sunlight as the Stone Artist brought her blade toward Relia’s throat. Relia ignored the weapon as she darted forward, slamming a palm into the woman’s chest.
Once again, her opponent’s stone Cloak protected her from most attacks. But not this. Life mana lacked speed and power, making it useless at range. But up close, you could send it straight into another Artist’s body, slipping past Cloaks like water through a net.
Her Missile found the dragon’s heart, the same way she might heal a wound. But instead of healing her heart, Relia squeezed.
The woman widened her yellow eyes, and her blade clattered against the roof. Her mana stopped cycling. Her body went as stiff as an iron rod, and the force of Relia’s palm threw her back.
A Fire Artist closed on Relia’s left, raising a flaming fist. She ducked the strike and slammed a palm into his right knee, releasing another life Missile.
The man kicked her hard in the stomach, knocking her back. But he was too late. Her technique found the bones in his knee, and she squeezed again. His leg snapped like a tree branch, twisting at an unnatural angle.
Even as he fell, Relia turned her focus on the last Grevandi. This one had been smart enough to keep his distance.
The man fired two Missiles. Relia dodged the first, knocking the second aside with a rough Construct. Then she fired three pure Missiles of her own—one directly at her target, and one on either side of him.
The Grevandi dodged the center Missile, jumping straight into the next one’s path. The sharpened mana struck his chest. More tiles cracked beneath him as he fell, joining his friends in the street below.
Relia sank to her knees on the roof’s clay peak, feeling waves of relief wash over her. Someone else climbed up a second later. She spun around, readying another Missile in her palm.
“Hey!” Hector threw up his hands. “It’s just me!”
She dropped the technique, reabsorbing the mana back into her channels. Had he seen her use her life mana? Probably not. Even so, guilt twisted at her insides.
Tactically, she’d made the best choice. The Grevandi had her surrounded and outnumbered. She had to use every technique at her disposal. Still, she couldn’t close her eyes without seeing the scornful looks of her peers. Even now, the words “Cult of Trelian” echoed in her ears, drowning out the sounds of—
Her master! She’d almost forgotten.
Relia forced herself to her feet and stumbled to the other side of the roof. From here, she had a clear view of the courtyard where Elend fought the Grevandi Artisan. The sun had finally vanished below the horizon, and flashes of blue and orange cut through the twilight.
She spotted three versions of her master in the courtyard. Each version looked as lifelike as the real Elend. They even fought with the same skill, unleashing their own techniques against the enemy. It was a smart choice against someone who knew your tricks. The Artisan could ignore the copies, but what if he ignored the real Elend? That would be a deadly mistake.
But why hadn’t her master beaten this guy yet? Elend was a Grandmaster, and the dragon was only an Artisan. He should have killed him like a chicken.
The fight continued, and her eyes adjusted to the blur of motion. The pair exchanged Missiles at a distance, flaring their Cloak techniques when they came closer together. Her master had the better techniques by far. Every Missile was precise, and many of them slipped past the dragon’s defenses.
So why hasn’t he won yet?
Elend’s next Missile hit the dragon square in the jaw, and Relia saw the problem. That technique should have caved in his face, but he shrugged it off like a Bronze’s punch.
It’s those cuffs. His weakened mana hadn’t mattered against the Martials, but the difference was too much here. He couldn’t kill the Artisan as easily as they’d hoped.
Elend closed in for another attack. The dragon slashed a steel machete, and Relia held her breath as it struck her master’s forearm.
Even with a clean hit, the weapon didn’t pierce his skin. Elend still had the body of a Grandmaster, cuffs or no cuffs.
Hector stepped up beside Relia at the roof’s edge.
“He needs help,” she said, more to herself than to him.
“I wouldn’t get between Artisans," Hector said.
Any other day, she would have listened. But this was a stalemate where time favored the enemy. Those cuffs could damage her master’s soul if he strained himself too hard. At that point, the Grevandi might hurt someone else.
More likely, he’d realized he was fighting a Master and flee, drawing the Dragonlord’s attention.
Relia picked up the fallen machete and jumped off the roof. The enemy Artisan didn’t notice her at first. Even so, Relia kept up her defenses, ready to deflect a high-level technique.
“Master!” she shouted to one of the fake Elend’s.
The fake Elend turned to face her. So did the dragon.
“Catch!” Relia spun the blade around in her hand, tossing it to the fake Elend. Her master played his part perfectly. Not only did the illusion catch the weapon, but the other illusion vanished, along with the real Elend. It was as if he’d abandoned his Mirror technique and decided to fight the dragon one-on-one.
Relia released a cloud of life mana around herself, letting it sink to the ground like falling leaves. This was the closest thing she had to a life Construct. Normally, the aspect was too fragile to shape, but it served its purposes here.
The dragon stepped forward, and Relia fled for the cover of a nearby alley. Her enemy passed through the green cloud, too focused on the fake Elend in front of him.
Relia felt the life mana break through the enemy’s skin. She sent it toward his heart as she’d done with the Stone Artist.
Nothing happened, of course. She couldn’t hope to kill an Artisan with such a weak technique. Still, the Grevandi paused, yellow eyes narrowed in confusion. Most people expected pain in combat, but it was harder to ignore something inside your own chest.
The real Elend seized the distraction, appearing behind his opponent, wrapping his left arm around his throat. His right palm covered the dragon’s yellow eye. Pure mana flashed in the darkness, and a reptilian scream filled the courtyard.