Three Fangs.

Relia bit her tongue and resisted the urge to say, 'I told you so.'

Fangs acted as officers and elite fighters in the Dragonlord's army. More importantly, they were Artisans. The power gap between them and Relia was as wide as the gap between her and Kalden.

She and Hector could probably hold off one Artisan, but only for a few seconds.

With three, they had no choice but to run.

"You mentioned a getaway car?" Kalden asked Hector.

"Yeah." Hector stepped over to the window, peeking out the curtain. "But they're blocking our path."

Relia joined him by the window. Sure enough, two black SUVs sat parked around the fountain in the town square.

Her knees shook, and she clutched the box inside her bag. She'd just taken a pill four nights ago before they attacked Mt. Khasa. Her mana shouldn't be seizing up so soon. What if it happened again mid-battle? That could be lethal.

But the dragons had her master. If she took her last pill now, she might be stuck in Creta for weeks without a replacement. Then she'd definitely die.

"There's a back door." Hector crossed the room and stuck his head into the hotel's central corridor.

"They'll be watching both exists," Kalden said.

He was right. The Grevandi were a gang of thugs who charged in with mana blazing, but Fangs had military training. They were also strong enough to send one inside while the rest guarded the doors.

"So we jump out the window?" Relia asked.

Kalden shook his head. "We take the catacombs." He joined Hector in the hall and took a left turn—the opposite direction of the staircase. At least he'd learned his lesson about hesitation.

They followed him to a utility closet at the end of the hall, barely big enough to hold the four of them. Kalden locked the door behind, then activated his portable sound Construct.

"Okay." Hector glanced around, examining the shelves of linens and cleaning supplies. "You lost me now, shoko."

"We need a hole" Kalden pointed to the center of the floor. " Right here."

Relia grinned as she drew her stolen blade. The chores had been annoying earlier, but it helped them learn the layout of this building inside and out. And Kalden was right again. This closet sat directly above the laundry room.

"I've got this," she said. "Stand back."

They moved back as far as the cramped space would allow, then Relia fed her pure mana into her weapon's hilt. The sigils were Artisan-level, and they took several seconds to activate, draining her own soul by several hundred points.

Azul's ashes. She was still years away from reaching Artisan herself. But what if her condition kept getting worse? She might not have that long.

The blade glowed with metal mana, and Relia adjusted her grip. Three sweeps, then the floor dropped out beneath her boots. She landed in the laundry room ten feet below. The floorboards shattered from the impact, but she flared her Cloak to keep her balance.

The room was dark, but the hole let in plenty of light from the room above.

"Sorry, Marco," she whispered. "Hope you have good insurance."

Unless he betrayed them to the Fangs, then it served him right. If not ... well, her master could pay him back later.

Akari and Kalden climbed through the hole next, and they immediately barricaded the other door with empty shelves. That wouldn't keep out an angry Artisan, but it might slow him down for a few more seconds.

Relia turned to the steel door in the corner, raised her blade, and sliced through the locks one at a time. Then she grabbed the handle and yanked it open, feeling a burst of dry air brush past her cheek.

She'd expected to find a dusty stone staircase covered in cobwebs. Instead, she found a straight drop into a dark abyss. Angels. How had they gotten down there before? Probably a rope ladder or something.

Footsteps echoed from somewhere else in the building, and Relia sent a pure Missile into the hole—chasing away the darkness with pale blue light. The drop was less than twenty feet—no problem for an Apprentice.

"I'll go first," she said as she leapt off the edge.

Her boots hit the stone floor an instant later. A few lizards scurried at the sight of her, but they were no bigger than rats.

"Hold on." Relia gathered more mana in her palms, forming it into a wide platform below the opening shaft.

"Okay," she hollered to Akari and Kalden. "Jump!"

They leapt through the opening together. The Construct sagged with their weight, but Relia flared her Cloak technique and dug her boots into the ground. The platform hit the floor like a collapsing elevator, shattering into blue mist at the last moment.

Hector jumped down after them, breaking his own fall with a quick burst of fire mana. He conjured more fire like a torch, and the light revealed arching stone ceilings with tombs on either side. The tunnel itself was over twelve feet wide with intricate carvings on the pillars. It seemed excessive for how old this place was.

Then again, Creta had its share of Stone Artists. A few skilled Artisans could hollow this out as easily as scooping ice cream.

"Guess we're leaving through the church?" Hector asked.

Kalden nodded as he took off in that direction. "Unless there's another exit?"

Hector shook his head, moving to take point. Then he raised his red scarf above his nose. "You guys should cover your faces, too. They might not know what you look like."

Akari unzipped her backpack and pulled out something black and silky. She pulled it over her head, and Relia recognized it as a Shadow Artist's headpiece. Kalden threw an extra t-shirt over his own head, tying it into a mask and leaving a narrow slit for his eyes.

Relia didn't have any extra clothes, so Kalden passed her another t-shirt, and she copied his mask style.

They looked like a group of bandits or assassins by the time they were done. That wasn't a bad thing, though.

Their path led them up a crumbling stone staircase into the church itself. Moonlight poured in through the stained glass windows, casting blue and orange patterns on the stone floor. Statues of the Angels loomed ominously on either side of the aisle.

She'd half-expected to find this place guarded, but the dragons clearly didn't know about the catacombs. Unfortunately, it wouldn't take them long to follow their trail, either. They'd check the hotel rooms first, but the utility closets would be next on their list.

"We've got a straight shot to my truck," Hector said, "but we can't outrun those SUVs."

"Why not slash their tires?" Akari gestured to the blade on her belt.

He considered that as he glanced back outside. "There's an Apprentice standing guard. Plus they'll have Artisan-level Constructs on their tires. Your blade won't cut through."

"I'll handle the guard." Relia refilled her blade's sigils and passed it to Akari. "You slash the tires. Hector and Kalden can get the truck started."

They left through the church's side door, keeping their heads down as they crept into the courtyard. Relia had half-expected the dragons to hear them, but the Artisan and Apprentice both focused on the hotel.

The boys crept toward the truck, and Relia led Akari toward the parked SUVs. Darkness shrouded the town, and the only lights came from the Cantina across the street.

Relia never could have imagined sneaking around like this a year ago. Now, it had become second nature after all that time evading the Martials. Of course, the Martials had all been weaker than her. These Artisans could take her out with a single technique.

She held up a hand, gesturing for Akari to take cover behind the nearest vehicle. The Apprentice paced back and forth on the other side. Relia waited for several heartbeats, listening to the rhythm of his footsteps against the cobblestones.

Finally, she sprang forward, putting a hand over his mouth. It was far wider than a human's mouth, and the man flared his Cloak technique as he struggled to break free.

Relia sent a life Missile down his throat, causing it to contract. This wouldn't kill him, but it would definitely keep him quiet, and he should fall unconscious within twenty seconds.

She sent a second Missile into his spine, and his muscles went limp. Guilt twisted her stomach at this—she knew how terrifying it was to lose control of your own body. Still, it was better than killing him.

Relia lowered her victim to the ground, keeping a hand pressed to his face until he stopped moving. This was why she'd brought Akari along to slash the tires. Hector was the obvious choice, but she couldn't show him this technique. Cadrians were a superstitious bunch, especially with their history of cultists.

But Akari and Kalden had never judged her. They were the closest thing she'd ever had to friends, and she'd almost walked out on them tonight.

Of all the stupid choices she'd made this past year, that might actually be the worst.

The dragon stopped struggling, and Akari set to work on the tires. The Artisan blade broke through the protection mana with ease, and the tires popped like balloons.

"Hey," a reptilian voice said.

Relia froze, glancing toward the Cantina. The Artisan still guarded the front door, oblivious as ever.

She spun around to see another Apprentice approaching them. Darn it. How had they missed him before?

Akari saw him, and she ducked around the front of the vehicle.

Too late. The dragon must have seen a flicker of movement because he stomped over to investigate.

Relia shot another glance at the Artisan. He still hadn't turned around, but he would if the Apprentice sounded the alarm.

She took a deep breath, then she charged the Apprentice. His yellow eyes widened as she approached, and fire gathered in his palm. Relia closed to distance in half-a-heartbeat and pressed a hand to his windpipe.

This time, she couldn't afford to be gentle. Her mana found the top of his spinal cord, and she twisted until it snapped.

Relia tried to hold him up after that, but his body collapsed like a tree, slamming into the cobblestone street.

She glanced back at the Cantina's front door, praying to all the Angels that the Artisan hadn't heard.

No such luck. He spun around, gathering fire between his clawed fingers.

"Run!" Relia shouted to Akari.

Flaming orange mana flew across the courtyard, faster than Relia could blink. It struck the nearest SUV, flipping it on its side.

Relia raised a Construct of pure mana, saving herself from a face full of glass and shrapnel. But where was Akari?

The Artisan leapt down from the Cantina's porch, firing more Missiles as he fell. One struck Relia's shield from above, and her mana broke under the impact. The next one grazed her left thigh, and she fell back on the street.

More fire Missiles closed in—each one impossibly fast and bright. Her vision blurred, and she reacted on pure instinct, launching her own Missiles and knocking the techniques off-course. One landed three feet from her head, leaving a deep crater in the street. Another hit the church behind her, shattering a stained glass window.

Relia hadn't felt so helpless since she'd reached Apprentice. Then again, she'd never faced an Artisan in a straight fight.

Orange flashed at the edge of her vision as Hector joined the fight, but his techniques felt small against their opponent. Like throwing pebbles at a charging drake.

The Artisan raised a hand, and Hector's attacks seemed to shatter in midair. He kept his eyes on Relia as he closed in.

But he wasn't striking to kill. Not yet, at least. For all the power behind his attacks, he'd also been careful and deliberate. They wanted to capture her—to use her as a hostage. Could she use that somehow?

The Artisan threw a fireball at Hector, and he let out a cry of pain as he fell. Then he loomed above Relia, gathering orange mana in his opposite hand.

Relia launched several pure Missiles in a desperate fury, but they broke harmlessly against her opponent's skin. She braced herself, flaring her Cloak technique as he launched his final attack

Then a silver blade sprouted from the dragon's windpipe, coated in crimson. He opened his mouth in a silent scream, and his attacker pulled the blade back through the wound. His body collapsed to reveal Akari standing behind him.

Azul's ashes, Relia thought as she climbed to her feet. Did she just kill an Artisan? At Silver?

A bird-like shriek sounded from nearby, and two more Artisans charged into the courtyard.

"Time to go!" Relia grabbed Akari's wrist and raced toward the truck. Hector was already waiting in the bed. That meant Kalden must be driving.

Or at least, he better be driving.

Fire filled the courtyard as their enemies attacked. Relia gathered her mana as she ran. She and Akari joined Hector in the back, and she released the strongest shield she could manage. Hector joined her with an anti-fire Construct of his own.

Missiles slammed against their joint effort. She felt the heat against her face, and she screwed her eyes shut against the blinding light.

All the while, she cycled more mana into the shield, filling it with everything she had. Her body shook, straining until she couldn't feel her own limbs.

"Step on it!" Hector shouted.

Kalden hit the gas pedal, and she fell backward as they took off.

When Relia opened her eyes again, she saw a canopy of shifting palm trees against the night sky. Her body sagged with relief, and everything faded to blackness.

A note from David Musk

Support "Web of Secrets [Modern Cultivation]"

About the author

David Musk

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

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