Out of nowhere, a loud clapping echoed throughout the crater, and a familiar voice sent shivers down Alf’s spine as it said, “Yes. Well Done. Well done indeed.”
Alf swung his head towards the large ramp portion of the crater and froze in horror. Vackzilian himself walked down its length and towards them.
The breath caught in his lungs as he stared in total disbelief at the man that had single-handedly brought all of Alfireá to its knees. The usurper had changed since the day Alf had been killed by him. His once slender, gaunt form was no more: his cheeks had filled out; his formerly pale, white skin now gleamed with bronze ruddy youth, as if he had somehow gained years of his life back, and glowing magical runes ran all the way up and down his toned, muscular arms. Ebony black hair flowed down his back, over a sleeveless, onyx leather breastplate, and fell to his waist, fading into dark grey wisps of smoke that slowly curled around him. Dark leather armor clung to his well-muscled physique, replacing the wizard robe he had once worn all those weeks ago, and a pair of obsidian bracers adorned his wrists while the imperial, dragon scaled cape hung around his waist, clearly showing his blatant disrespect for its former bearer.
Gone was the gaunt hermit wizard that had plagued an empire. Instead, before them stood an emperor clad for war.
The Emperor took another casual step towards them, an evil light shining out from behind his topaz eyes, and his dark and immensely powerful presence washed over Alf, squeezing his heart in an icy grip. Alf’s limbs stiffened as he was petrified in fear.
Mr. Havanger yanked The Energizer out in front of him and yelled in exertion as he expanded the shield around them.
Vackzilian glanced at the older man through the golden shield then raised his hand and clenched his fist. The barrier shattered, and Rex’s father fell to his knees. Vackzilian turned his attention back to the rest of the group. His right eyebrow raised in interest. “You were most impressive. If I had not been watching myself, I would have a hard time believing it. My Empire could use people like you.”
Olivia shot to her feet and shouted, “We will never swear a blood oath to you.”
Vackzilian’s icy gaze fell on Olivia and she froze as if he had cast a powerful paralyzing spell on her. “You’re a rather feisty one, aren’t you?”
Alf smashed his still wounded left hand into the melted ground. Pain rocketed up his arm, piercing into his brain and freeing him from his paralyzing fear. He grabbed his sword, jumped to his feet, and stepped defensively in front of Olivia.
A hint of a smile cracked Vackzilian’s face, and he continued to speak. “Still, I see why you would not want to be turned into something like my now dead and rather useless commander here.” He waved at the beheaded Dy’Ixion.
“So I have an offer for you.” Vackzilian ran his eyes over the group. “You see, I’m looking for someone to be the general over my armies, but they have to be strong and able to think for themselves. My blood oaths are just not cut out for the job. You, on the other hand, Alf I believe it is?” he look directly at Alf, “not only killed my most powerful blood oath, you also helped kill two others, if I’m not mistaken.” He stared deep into Alf’s eyes and said, “You are exactly what I’m looking for in a general.”
Alf held his stare, his eyes full of defiance, but said nothing.
“If you agree, I will leave the city in peace, and you can give all these people here any position you desire in my army.”
Alf didn’t blink.
“And to sweeten the deal, I will give you the girl as a concubine.” He waved at Olivia and Alf gasped.
Vackzilian’s lips curled in a twisted smile. “Yes, I can clearly see your desire towards her. It’s quite visceral. What do you say? You can have all this and much, much, more. All you have to do is say yes and swear a binding oath of loyalty to me.”
Alf fought the fear rising in his heart and pulled himself to his full height. He stared down at the man who had named himself Emperor and growled as he said, “No! I would never serve someone like you. My loyalty belongs to the Maker of heaven and earth, and to him and him alone.”
In response to his answer, Vackzilian pointed his finger at Rex. A small strand of indigo lightning jumped from the tip of his finger and hit the young man in the chest. Rex screamed in pain and fell to the ground, writhing violently.
The evil, self-proclaimed monarch smiled as he continued to cruelly electrocute Rex. He turned his attention back to Alf. “I know this one has the skill I sought for earlier this morning. You may have thought he could use it to help you escape, but now… ,” Vackzilian enlarged the strand of lightning pouring into Rex, and the vice champion screamed again. “He’s not going anywhere. Are you still certain your answer is no?”
Alf slammed his blade into its sheath, whipped up his hand, and using the blood from his fingers, tried to throw an ice spike at the man in front of him, but Vackzilian flicked his wrist as if he were slapping a child. The air popped in front of him, and an invisible force smacked Alf’s hand, ripping his arm out of its socket and casting his half formed spell to the side. With a groan of pain, he fell to one knee and gripped his dislocated shoulder.
Vackzilian sighed, “It looks like I am going to have to do this the hard way.” He glanced off towards the horizon, stamped his foot, and made a small come here motion with his right hand.
Soul Knight and four others chose that moment to attack. It all happened so fast Alf wasn’t sure exactly what happened. One second, he heard the hum of frequencies as they prepared their spells, and the next, all five of them lay on the ground curled up in pain. As far as he could tell, Vackzilian had only spread out his left hand in the tiniest of movements, but somehow he had incapacitated all five of them like the hardened warriors had been mere toddlers playing at war.
The Emperor studied them for a moment; then his eyes fell on the object Mr. Havanger held and his left eyebrow rose. He returned his attention to Alf. “The Tokef? Impressive, you will serve my empire well.”
Alf swallowed hard.
A large, circular black stone flew over the ridge of the crater, and Vackzilian held out his hand, guiding it down to the melted earth beside him. The massive, flat rock hit the ground with tremendous force and sent shivers vibrating up Alf’s legs. As Alf stared at the strange object, he suddenly realized in dread, it was the teleportation stone.
Vackzilian gave him the slightest hint of a knowing smile. “You thought you had destroyed this didn’t you?” He flicked his wrist at the stone and a powerful gust of wind blew away the charred dirt covering its surface. “However, these stones are indestructible. All you managed to do is bury it under some rubble.” The dark lord glanced up at the moon. “It is time to go; we have business to attend to elsewhere. I would be most pleased if all of you would gather on the stone.”
Not a single one of them moved. Alf wasn’t certain if it was because some of them were still paralyzed in fear, or if they, like him, weren’t about to obey a single thing Vackzilian said.
An audible, agitated sigh came from the newly crowned Emperor. “It would seem I’m going to have to escort each one of you at a time.” The strand of electricity still running into Rex switched from Vackzilian’s right index finger to his right pinky as he used his left hand to motion towards Olivia. “Let’s start with the pretty one so you will be more willing to come.” He cupped his hands and three slightly visible, swirling brown walls leapt into existence. They clamped around Olivia, immobilizing her, and Vackzilian pulled his hand back towards himself. The three constructs dragged Olivia towards the teleportation stone.
Alf screamed at the top of his lungs and threw both of his arms forward, fully intending to blast the Emperor away with two powerful lightning bolts. But as the electricity crackled in his hands, Vackzilian pointed his right index finger and something slammed into his chest. He flew backwards as the impact pushed the air out of his lungs, and with a teeth rattling smack, he landed heavily on his back.
The walls around Olivia dissipated and the ruler of all Alfireá glared down at him in disgust. “Enough of this foolishness! Get on the teleportation stone now or I will start killing your men one by one.”
Alf struggled to regain his breath as he stared up at Vackzilian. After all they had come through, after actually defeating Dy’Ixion, they were now going to be captured, and there was nothing they could do about it. Hopelessness flooded his being; they were utterly powerless before the man in front of them.
Then, out of nowhere, Drake appeared behind Vackzilian. Gripping Rex’s sword with both hands, his young face shown with fierce determination as he drove it down into Vackzilian’s back with all the strength his little ten-year-old body could muster.
Zaphaniea shot up out of the infirmary’s medical bed. “Where are they!?” she gasped.
The handful of soldiers left behind to guard the infirmary stared at her in surprise. Several of the male soldiers gazed at her in awe and admiration, their jaws hanging wide open like a bunch of star-struck schoolboys; one of them even dropped his sword with a loud clang on the floor. Zaphaniea rolled her eyes in agitation and twisted around. As she looked for an intelligent one in the bunch, her eyes latched onto Gerhard and Katerina. “Where are they?” she demanded once again.
“Where is who?” Katerina asked in confusion.
“Southwest end of the city, fighting the blood oath,” the silver haired maid answered.
“They’re in trouble!” Zaphaniea threw her legs over the side of the cot and came flying to her feet. Her fiery, copper red hair tumbled down her shoulders as she ran over to the hole in the infirmary floor. Right before she jumped down into the tunnel, the others had used to escape, she glanced over her shoulder. “Gather everyone here and flee to the east side of town. We’ll meet you there.”
As she disappeared down the hole, one of the soldiers belatedly yelled, “Can I get your autograph!?”
Drake plunged the sword into Vackzilian’s spine with every ounce of his strength, knowing full well this was his one and only shot.
His blade plunged deep into his father’s murderer’s back… and kept on going, its weight pulling him with it till it slammed into the ground.
The prince’s mind reeled as he tried to comprehend what had just happened. He stared at the ground as he ran through the options, and like a finely oiled machine, he quickly arrived at the answer, no matter how implausible it may have seemed.
Vackzilian glanced down at his stomach where Drake’s head poked out and hmphed. “Enough of these childish games.”
With a flicker of light, Vackzilian’s form dissipated and reappeared several feet behind Drake. “I grow tired of this,” the usurper stated, agitation building in his voice as he swished his hand at Drake. Unknown frequencies flowed from Vackzilian’s hands, and the air directly in front of him solidified.
The invisible, solid air flew through the empty space, smacked Drake in the backside, and sent him flying face first into the ground at Alf’s feet. Drake winced in pain as his chin scraped against the jagged earth. As the prince struggled to regain his balance, Vackzilian clenched his fist, and one of the men screamed in agony as the sound of snapping bones echoed throughout the crater. The usurper opened his hand, and the poor fellow dropped to the ground, barely alive. “That was your final warning. I am through with playing with you. Get on the stone now, or someone will die.”
None of their number moved.
The space around Vackzilian rippled and a cascade of blurred lights formed an aurora around him. As the man’s palpable anger charged the air with electricity, Drake’s heart pounded furiously in his chest. Through all of his years as a spy master, he had faced many dangers, beheld much darkness, and conquered what he considered trivial base emotions. But today, faced with the man who had murdered his father and wreaked havoc on his kingdom, he found himself frozen in fear and anxiety.
“I see,” Vackzilian said calmly; then he slowly raised his hand and pointed his finger at a young man clad in dirty embroidered clothes. With a sound akin to popping air, an ice spike boomed into existence and shot straight for the man’s head.
Drake looked away and cringed, dreading the sickening thud he knew was coming, but instead of the screams of a dying man, the sharp sound of scraping crystal sounded in his ears. His eyes flew open to see the ice spike fly harmlessly off into the night sky. Then the ever present ,low humming sound of electricity flowing into Rex suddenly changed pitch as the strand bent ninety degrees in midair and plowed into the earth. At the same time, a beam of light appeared, blazing high above the crater. It curved in midair and shot down at an angle, hitting Rex and curing his paralysis.
“RUN!!” a female voice boomed as it bounced around in the night sky, seemingly coming from multiple directions at once.
Drake stirred in confusion; blue outlines of small, invisible floating spheres zipped around their ragtag group and Vackzilian. Then it dawned on him what the voice had just shouted. He turned towards Rex just as the vice champion sprung to his feet and glanced back at them through his badly damaged mask, the message clear in his eyes; he wanted them to follow him. Message delivered, he shot off running as fast as he could as Drake and the bedraggled men followed him via Traverse Wake. All of them, that is, except for the man who’d almost been crushed to death by Vackzilian a few seconds ago. Drake’s face slammed straight into him as they shot past him, and he barely managed to grab a hold of the man’s belt, dragging him along and almost yanking his own arms out of their sockets in the process.
The prince grunted in pain as he hung on to the man for all his worth only to see Vackzilian reach out for them in a large sweeping hug. A hurricane of wind and ash blotted out the world around them as it raced pass them, and frothing upwards like the waves of the ocean, it formed into one immense, circular wall. Rex collided with it headfirst and bounced backwards onto the ground, stopping the group dead in their tracks.
“You are trying my patience and I am not a forgiving man.” Vackzilian’s dark hair whipped in an unseen wind and his arms bulged as he pulled his arms in. The wall slid across the ground, pushing them back towards him.
Rex’s father hauled his son to his feet as Olivia spun around and channeled two holy beams at Vackzilian. The beams of light shot straight through his skull to no effect. Alf roared in exertion as he released a massive gust of wind. The roughly formed spear whipped the ash littering the ground into a typhoon that obscured the tyrant from sight as it careened into him. But the maelstrom didn’t stop when it hit, it just kept on going as if he weren’t there at all.
Drake had known what would happen even before Alf had launched his attack. The figure before them wasn’t Vackzilian at all; it was just a hologram of him.
Which meant there was no way they could fight back.
The hologram stepped to his left and tightened its embrace. With the grating sound of heavy machinery, the circular wall around the group shrank as it pushed them towards the teleportation stone. In seconds, they would be on it, and then they really would be in Vackzilian’s presence, their fate’s forever sealed.
Suddenly, Vackzilian’s hologram flickered and reappeared several hundred feet away. The solidified air forming the wall dispersed, showering them in ash, and Rex, who had miraculously recovered from his collision, stared blankly at the flickering form of Vackzillian for a moment, then hollered, “Follow me!”
Soul Knight snatched the comatose man from Drake, heaved him over his shoulder, and once again, the exhausted group followed Rex as he dashed away.
Tairex Julian Havanger sped across the war-torn basin, scrambled up the side of the crater, and vaulted over its jagged crest, leaving Vackzilian far behind.
“Don’t go to the arena. That’ll be the first place he’ll look,” Drake warned him as he ran through a maze of shifting side streets.
As they disappeared deep into the city, Alf fell to one knee and sighed heavily in relief. “That was bad. Just being in his presence caused me to seize up. And even when I was able to move, he tossed me around like a little child.”
“I know what you mean,” Olivia said. She motioned for Soul Knight to lay the crushed man out on the bed-shaped shield Rex’s father was currently forming. “I couldn’t even breathe after he stared at me.”
“I have been a warrior my entire life, but even I was paralyzed in fear upon his arrival,” Soul Knight admitted.
Mr. Havanger finished forming the shield and shook his head in disbelief. “That was just a hologram of him. If it had been him in person, Zaphaniea wouldn’t have been able to redirect his image. And we would not have survived.”
Rex reached under his mask and rubbed his forehead as he ran. “I don’t even want to think about what would’ve happened if he’d succeeded in getting us on that teleportation stone.”
Drake had his ideas, and none of them were pleasant. “Rex,” he asked, noticing the blood pouring down the side of Rex’s mask. “Are you alright? You collided with Vackzilian’s construct at an incredible speed.”
“Yeah, I’m good. I’m used to smacking my head. Not only that, the inside of this mask is lined with visco-elastic polymers so it’s pretty shock absorbent.” Rex turned the corner and came to a particularly dark alley some distance away from the arena. After assessing the location, he slowed to a walk. “It’s far more important that we decide what to do next.”
The man that had nearly been skewered with an ice spike spoke up, “We dig a hole underneath the wall and get out of here! That’s what we do.”
Soul Knight shook his head. “No, the grand champion is awake. It’s imperative we retrieve her and the men we left behind before we make our escape.”
At that exact moment, Zaphaniea came flying around the corner. Snapping her fingers off to the side, she did a ninety degree turn into the alleyway and rocketed towards them at a blistering speed. In a daredevil move, she threw her legs out, dropped to the ground, and skidded to a halt right in front of Rex. “I’m here, and I told the others to meet us at the far east end of the city.”
Alf stared at her in confusion and haltingly pulled himself to his feet. “How did you know where we are?”
“Visions,” Rex replied for her. “She most likely projected herself forward in time and checked every possible location. That’s why I stopped here, so she could find us.”
“Thank you, and that’s exactly what I did, but in doing so, I used up most of my energy. So we need to flee before we meet up with Vackzilian’s hologram again.”
“Give me just a few more seconds to stabilize him without the light constantly shifting,” Olivia interrupted.
Rex nodded in agreement. Taking advantage of the brief respite, Drake motioned for Alf to hold up his left hand while he drew upon The Energizer to once again start healing the young High Lord’s remaining burns. A torrent of blue light flooded him, and he grunted in exertion as the energy cascaded through him and into his healing spell.
Mr. Havanger left the recovering patient’s side and walked around in front of Rex. He gingerly pulled the mask away just enough so he could take a look at his son’s forehead, and his silver beard quivered as he grimaced. “Thank God the Imperial mages did a right good job of strengthening your bone structure when you were younger, or you’d be dead right now son.”
Rex shooed his father’s hand away. “I’m fine dad. Don’t be such a worry war…” Halfway through the motion, he froze. He glanced up and down the alleyway then looked up into the darkening sky. “I don’t like the feel of the air. I think we need to go now.”
Soul Knight touched his right arm as if he were rubbing away goose bumps. “It feels as if someone’s charging an extremely powerful spell.”
“You’re right,” Rex’s father stated as he gazed skyward.
Drake cut the flow from The Energizer and let his body readjust to the world around him. As he focused his senses, he could feel a powerful thrum pulsing in the air. They were right. While he couldn’t see any frequencies in the night sky, there was definitely something amiss. He turned to Olivia and whispered sharply, “Olivia, we need to go now.”
“Alright,” Olivia stood up and brushed her hands against her robes. “I stabilized his condition, and his life is no longer in danger, though he’s still in excruciating pain.” She pushed some loose strands of hair behind her ear. “I wanted to do more, but it’s too hard to heal something this serious without proper lighting, and I don’t dare risk a light spell at this point either. So it will have to do.”
Alf reached out and comfortingly squeezed her hand, and Olivia smiled back in gratitude.
“Good,” Rex nodded towards her. “Let’s go?”
“One sec,” Olivia turned her attention to Zaphaniea. “Thank you. If you hadn’t intervened, we would all be prisoners right now.”
Claudius, the older X soldier that had warned them about Dy’Ixion’s trap, said, “I would also like to extend my appreciation, and I’m sure the others would like to as well.”
At his statement, the others eagerly began to chorus their thanks. As they crowded in around her, Drake rolled his eyes at their effusive gratitude; they were obviously smitten with her.
Mr. Havanger laughed gruffly as the man, who’d barely avoided being skewered with an ice spike, made a comment about saving his bacon at the last possible moment. “Indeed,” Drake mumbled, “we have made quite the habit of miraculous last minute saves tonight.”
“I believe the saying goes, ‘God is never late, and he’s seldom early, but he’s always right on time’,” Olivia added joyfully.
Her statement was more accurate than she thought. Drake knew full well that such precise interventions, not once but three times in a single day, were no mere coincidences. There had to be a supernatural hand in play. This, however, was not something he could afford to focus on right now, nor did he have enough time to consider the full ramifications of such a thought. He turned his full attention to Zaphaniea and stepped in front of all her admirers. Bowing slightly forward from the waist down, he straightened to his full height, little though it may be, and said, “You have my deepest gratitude.”
Zaphaniea grinned, her bright smile lighting up the dark alleyway as her sun-kissed hair framed her lovely, heart-shaped face, then leaned over and pinched his cheek. “Oh look at you, so courteous you little cutie. You’re welcome.”
Drake froze in shock. He was the crown heir to Alfireá, for Eldrin’s sake. Not some child she could pinch! His muscles tightened, and he fought to school his face into a mask of indifference. More than anything, he wanted to declare who he was and that she owed him her respect. Instead, he clasped his hands behind his back and forced a fake smile.
She smiled blithely down at him, and her lips twitched in barely withheld mirth.
With dawning horror, he realized she knew exactly what she was doing. She was mocking him! His calm composer crumpled like a day old tissue, and for a brief moment, his cheeks flushed in humiliation as he gaped up at her.
Zaphaniea’s smile reached her ears in triumph as she turned and strode commandingly toward the front of the group. “Now let’s get out of here.”
Rex winked; his eyes sparkled with mischief as he answered, “Anything for a beautiful woman.” He quickly dodged her jab towards his shoulder and took a few steps forward. At that exact moment, a hologram of Vackzilian filled the night sky and stared down at the city.
Mr. Havanger grabbed his son’s wrist and yanked him into the shadows as he motioned for the others to get against the wall.
Vackzilian’s sharp eyes trailed across the city, and Drake, despite years of training, found himself holding his breath as he pushed his back against the wall and tried to use a spell to dampen the glow emitting from the shield the wounded man lay upon.
After several moments, the usurper closed his eyes and breathed in heavily, the muscle in his jaw twitching; then as he opened his eyes again, he said, “You have pushed my patience too far. You have three minutes to deliver yourselves, the Tokef artifact, and Travers Wake to me, or you, and this whole city, will suffer my wrath.”
So saying, the hologram floated up through the clouds, obscuring it from view.
Rex leaned out of the shadows and looked up. “And that is our cue to leave if there ever was one.”
“I can’t agree with you more son,” Mr. Havanger said as he too gazed up at the dark clouds.
“All right, every one foll-”
“Wait,” Alf said holding up his hand and cutting Rex off. “Vackzilian’s not going to just let us go. And I’m afraid of what he will do to the people if we manage to escape him. Isn’t there anything we can do to help them?”
Rex’s father closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead with his right hand. As he dropped his arm back down, his expression hardened. “At this point, us staying here any longer will only guarantee their death. I’m sorry to say this lad, but the only real option we have to try and save them now would be to throw ourselves at his feet.”
“Ha! fat chance of that working. I mean, did you see how angry he was?” Zaphaniea spat, her emerald green eyes flashing in the dimming moonlight. “I bet my last dragon scale that if we did do as he says, he’d make us kill all of them ourselves after we swore loyalty to him, just for spite.”
“That is a likely outcome,” Soul Knight agreed.
“I…,” Alf hung his head. “I guess you’re right.” Olivia placed her hand encouragingly on his shoulder and nodded towards Rex.
Drake could see the pain in Alf’s eyes. He knew this was hard on him, but eventually Alf would have to come to the realization that life was not a fairytale; not everybody could be saved, and not everyone would come out alive in the end. He wished it were different, but he had learned from his own harsh experiences that such was life.
With the soft scuffle of feet, the group disappeared into the night as Rex sped away.
After several minutes of travel, they neared the far east end of Glandledale. They would see the others soon. As the city zipped by in a blur of colors, Drake stared back in the direction of the arena, his own heart, for the first time in a long time, in turmoil. Alf, of course, was right; Vackzilian wasn’t going to take them escaping well, and thousands would undoubtedly suffer his wrath tonight. A shiver ran down his spine as the intense magic in the air made his skin crawl. Fighting a sense of doom, he turned to Alf. “Once we get to the wall, we need to burrow underneath it as fast as possible. Have Mr. Havanger help you form a… ”
Drake’s words trailed off as Vackzilian’s giant hologram sank back through the clouds. The self-proclaimed Emperor gazed down at the city with icy eyes. “So, you have made your choice, but know this, by defying me, all you have done is guarantee your own death along with everyone else’s in this city.”
The dark clouds, which had blotted out the heavens, pulled back to reveal a colossal meteor four times the size of the arena.
“I assure you, your speed, which you have in your ignorance relied so heavily upon, shall prove to be inadequate.” The hologram shifted, appearing high above the meteor and Vackzilian, as if cutting a thread, flourished his hand.
With a flare that lit up the night sky in a blood-red haze, the meteor shuddered and started to slowly plummet towards the city.
“You will perish,” he said. “And if, perchance, any of you happen to survive, the land now belongs to me. My magic resides deep within the bowls of Alfireá. The very beasts of the earth and the fowl of the sky will be your enemy. Your imminent demise is guaranteed.”
With that, Vackzilian’s form flickered and dispersed in a thousand black dots which consumed the surrounding light.
Drake’s jaw slackened as he gaped up at the falling star. A churning mass of compressed burning atmosphere, it’s red tail streaked through the night sky as it hurtled towards them. He knew about the final level of fire magic—his father had made him watch scryings of its destructive power when he was still a child—but none of that had prepared him for the sheer apocalyptic force he now faced.
Rex’s youthful vigor vanished, and his shoulders sagged as he came to a puttering stop. He stared up helplessly, the crimson flames of the meteor reflecting off his battered mask. “What now?” he asked. “He’s right. There’s no way I can outrun that! Even if I was on the other side of the wall it’d be hopeless.
Dark claws ripped at Drake’s innards. Fire coursed through his veins, and his dragon eye burned, singeing the edges of his eye patch as an indignant rage surged within him. His empire had fallen into the hands of a madman, and his people were going to suffer horribly for it. His father would turn over in his grave at this insanity.
Olivia’s voice interrupted his simmering thoughts. “Vackzilian’s insane. His attack will devastate the weather patterns and ecosystem of this entire region. This meteor won’t just destroy Glandledale, it’ll wipe out one fifth of Alfireá!”
“Vackzilian may be an idiot, but he is no fool,” Soul Knight corrected. “He won’t destroy what he’s just claimed, and as much as it pains me to say it, this is a well-executed strike calculated to leave no quarter for resistance.”
“But-” Olivia started.
“He’s right lass,” Mr. Havanger chimed in. “You underestimate our foe. Don’t forget he’s the only person in history, besides the dragons, to reliably control the weather.” The older man waved his hand at the sky. “This is insane but not insanity.”
Alf’s eyes followed the falling star, his face set in unyielding determination. With a sudden jerk, he spun toward Zaphaniea. “Do you think you could redirect it?”
She stared back at him as if he had just asked her to fight an enraged dragon with a spoon.
“Can you do it?” he pressed.
“No! For something that impractical I’d have to be as strong as a thousand men. Even then, I’d need infinite energy! The most I could do is slow it down.”
Alf’s eyes lit up. “Then do just that. Rex,” Alf’s sharp blue eyes snapped to the vice champion. “Run for the arena.”
The world came back into focus as Drake took in what Alf was getting at. “You’re right. She can stop it.”
“What do mean I can stop it!? Has your dragon rage reduced your brain to cinders?” She said, motioning at his smoldering eye patch.
“What in the world?” one of the men muttered as he caught a glimpse of the licks of flame around Drake’s eye.
Drake turned his back on the sputtering champion. “Enough. We have no time for this. For now, you just need to slow it down. Rex!”
Rex nodded, spun around, and pounded off towards the arena with renewed hope. At once, all the others followed him, all that is except for Zaphaniea, who just stood there gaping at Drake.
Rex skidded to a halt. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t slow that thing down! To make two magical forces large enough to affect something of that magnitude would take twice as much energy as Alf has, and I already used up most of mine.”
Rex jogged back towards her. “That’s not a problem. Channel energy from the thing my dad is holding.”
Her face scrunched in bewilderment. “What?”
“Just do it. It’s like an infinite magical spring.”
Zaphaniea looked down at the white, barbell-like device, then cautiously reached out towards it. A stream of electricity flowed to her hand, and understanding flooded her face. “I see,” she breathed. The current of blue swelled as she drew more power from The Energizer and started to charge it into a spell.
“Finally,” Drake exclaimed. “Everyone, help her channel energy. Rex, go!”
As the city buildings and streets hurtled by them, the group poured energy into Zaphaniea’s spell. The complex weaving of frequencies Zaphaniea charged were outside even Drake’s extensive sphere of knowledge, but from what he could tell, it seemed to be ripping a hole in the fabric of reality and pulling out some type of particle he’d never seen, or read about, before.
“Alright,” Zaphaniea said. She raised her hands above her head, and a massive influx of energy traveled down her arms as she cast her spell. The particles vanished into thin air, and Drake’s hair stood on end. Suddenly, a blue outline of an astronomically large, invisible sphere formed in the air.
Mr. Havanger’s makeshift group looked around in confusion. “What did she just do?” one of the younger warriors whispered. Zaphaniea stared up at the invisible construct, her features bathed in a soft rosy glow. She experimentally waved her hand around, and the balloon-like ball reacted, perfectly matching her movements. She smiled. “Good, I’ll need another.” She moved the sphere until it was safely out of the way and immediately commenced casting another spell.
Now more experienced at incorporating other’s magic into her own, Zephaniea quickly charged the second spell and another giant ball abruptly appeared.
Zaphaniea lifted her hand, moving the second sphere beside the first one. “I’m ready, but there’s no way I can stop that thing. As I said, I might be able to slow it down, but I doubt I can do even that.”
Drake glanced up at the meteor. It was so close now he could feel the heat radiating from its burning surface. The sheer size of the asteroid blotted out the heavens, and he knew the level seven spell should’ve already crashed down, obliterating them. Vackzilian must have intentionally used his immense magical powers to decrease its terminal velocity. Nothing says supreme power like causing your victims to squirm underneath imminent death, he thought to himself.
He ground his teeth.
He wasn’t going to let the man that murdered his father kill him too.
The prince turned his full attention on the young woman. “Just try!”
Zaphaniea chewed her bottom lip and gazed anxiously skyward. She cupped her right hand, and one of the giant balls folded in on itself; then she snapped her hand out straight as a board, and the folded sphere sprung back into shape like a giant trampoline. For several moments, the grand champion stared at the magical spheres. Then she glanced towards the wall, as if contemplating using them to fling her herself over the barricade and away towards safety.
Mr. Havanger gently placed his hand on her shoulder. “If anyone can do it lass, you can.”
Zaphaniea hesitated as she continued to stare at the wall.
She’s going to run for it, Drake thought. To his surprise, though, the grand champion straightened her back, eyed the meteor with determination, and settled into a fighting stance. With a warrior-like cry she threw her arms above her head.
The two invisible spheres raced skyward and slammed into the giant meteor with an earth shaking rumble. A gust of hot air flooded down over them, and the roar of two magic forces violently colliding pounded into Drake’s chest. Zaphaniea’s face paled, and sweat beaded along her brow; her arms trembled as if under immense pressure, and the muscles in her back strained against the fabric of her silken blouse.
They all watched in breathless amazement as the falling star slowed, and several gasps of awe sounded from those around him.
But the euphoria was short-lived as milliseconds later, Zaphaniea screamed and crumpled to her knees like a crushed tin can.
“It’s too much for her. We have to help!” Olivia shouted.
“How? She’s not casting a spell. There’s nothing to channel energy into,” Alf said as he stared helplessly at the crumpled champion.
“You can’t. Only my energy can affect them,” Zaphaniea whimpered.
“What do we do?” Olivia asked. “The Energizer is supplying her body with as much energy as she can take. If we try to push more through her it’s liable to rip her apart.”
Drake had already subconsciously prepared for this. He reached out towards The Energizer, and a wave of energy hit him like a typhoon. Channeling all of it into his right hand, he ignored the intense discomfort, formed the spell in his mind, and dashed over to Zaphaniea. With a grunt, he pushed the palm of his hand against the small of her back, and sparks of fabric and smoke hissed as the frequencies around his fingers burned straight through her clothes, leaving a glowing patchwork of magical runes on her skin.
He ripped his hand away and cut the flow of electricity from The Energizer as he shouted, “Use this to channel energy directly through her!”
His comment was met with blank stares. Conduit spells like this one were dangerous for both the giver and receiver, only a master of energy control could craft one properly, and definitely not as fast as he had just now.
“Now!” he commanded.
Rex’s father responded at once. Pulling energy from the device, he pushed it through himself and into the glowing runes on Zaphaniea’s back. The others followed his example, and Drake watched restlessly as the two pale blue outlines of the spheres pressed solidly against the meteor once more.
This time, the giant asteroid shuttered and gradually crawled to a halt.
A smile cracked his face; they were going to live through this. He would yet see Vackzilian pay for his crimes, and the usurper would rue the day-
A horrifying scream rent the air and his thoughts came to a shuddering halt.
He glanced down just in time to see the skin over Zaphaniea’s left triceps bulge as her muscles tore. A deep, heart pounding thrum shook the sky, jarring his teeth, and the meteor started to fall once again.
Rex looked over his shoulder, and his voice trembled as he spoke. “She’s not going to survive this is she?”
“Oh yes she will!” Olivia declared as she knelt down and switched from pushing energy through the champion to healing her. “Alf, reinforce her body with your spell.”
Alf craned his head to the right and took a shaky breath as immeasurable amounts of energy pulsed through him. “What?”
“Your family’s spell. The one that you almost defeated Vackzilian with. The first spell I ever taught you!”
“That only lets me use someone else’s energy to reinforce something; it won’t work with my own energy.”
“Won’t The Energizer’s work?” she asked.
“No. I don’t know why but it won’t!”
Drake knew why, but he didn’t have time to explain the science or teach anyone else how to fix it. Instead, he formed another spell and attached it to his shirt. Drawing power from The Energizer, he let it flow through his clothes and into him, then sent it at Alf. “Use mine. It will work now.”
Alf caught it and stared worriedly at him. “But won’t this be too much for you?”
“Never mind me. You have to reinforce her now. Her lungs are collapsing!” Drake commanded with all the authority he could muster despite the severe strain on his small frame.
Alf obeyed, reaching out and putting his right hand directly on Zaphaniea’s shoulder as he cast the spell.
The champion shuddered and sucked in air, catching a much-needed breath. She gulped a few more times, then whispered, “Thanks.” Kneeling on her knees, she pushed her arms back over her head, the pain evident in her face; nevertheless, she gritted her teeth and kept pushing. Slowly, but surely, the meteor once again crawled to a halt.
But they weren’t out of the forest yet. The exhausted and weary men had already reached their limits, and with a soft thud, Claudius collapsed. The old soldier hit the ground hard, rolling and bouncing as if he had fallen off a galloping horse, and as the group left him behind, he laid there on the gravel, unmoving.
Rex started to spin around to go back for him.
“Leave him!” Mr. Havanger shouted.
“No!” he barked at his son. Sweat streamed from his pores, and dirt and grime clung to him like a second skin. The grizzled old warrior’s veins stood out from the very tip of his fingers all the way up his arms and into his neck. Like his counterpart, who had just collapsed, the massive amounts of energy flowing through him was visually taking its toll. “Hopefully, he’ll be okay with some rest, but you have to get us to the arena right now!” As he spoke, another of their number fell away. “Before the rest of us fall,” he added weakly.
Rex’s Adam’s apple bobbed and he nodded; then his arms and legs blurred as he spun around and took off.
A third man dropped away and Rex’s father whispered, “Run, run as fast as you can my son.”
By the time they reached the arena, their number had dwindled down to a third of what it had been, and the meteor had resumed its slow descent towards the city.
Alf breathed a sigh of relief at seeing people still lingering in front of the coliseum. Most of them were running and screaming in all directions. However, others calmly looked up into the sky, resigned to the fact that they were going to die. Among them, family and couples were hugging and saying their goodbyes for what they thought was the last time.
He shouted, trying to get their attention, but his weary body no longer had the strength to produce a voice loud enough to be heard over the din. It was already taking every ounce of strength he had left to keep reinforcing Zaphaniea’s deteriorating body. He wearily looked at Rex who had come to a halt, parking them in front of the arena’s entrance. The vice champion stood bent over with his hands on his knees, greedily sucking down large gulps of air. Alf knew the never ending sprint had been torturous on him, even more so when Mr. Havanger had collapsed, forcing his son to leave him behind. Still, they were far from out of the woods.
Rex’s head finally lifted. “You have to get their attention.”
Rex waved his hand in understanding. His chest heaved two more times; then the vice champion straightened, took a giant breath, and an earth shaking shout boomed over the chaos.
“IF YOU WANT TO LIVE, COME HELP THE GRAND CHAMPION!!”
The world seemed to come to a halt as everyone stopped and stared in their direction.
“IF YOU WANT TO LIVE, COME HELP THE GRAND CHAMPION!!” Rex’s voice boomed again, reverberating off the walls of the arena.
He pointed towards the lone figure of Zaphaniea, her back shining with the impromptu runes, her arms reaching towards the blazing ball of sun fire, and the ragtag group crumpled around her.
Understanding donned on some of the older populace, and they dashed towards the vice champion. Soul Knight broke away from the group and began to continuously repeat a set of instructions as the new arrivals congregated around him.
As they took in what the warrior said, and joined in the effort to help Zaphaniea, Alf found himself marveling over the fact that Soul Knight still had the presence of mind to hand out instructions. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Drake stumble. The boy’s face looked pale; his raven hair dripped with sweat, and his tiny shoulders heaved with each ragged breath.
Desperately, he glanced around till his eyes latched on a young man reaching out towards The Energizer. “Hey… Hey you over there!”
The man stopped in his tracks. “Me?”
“Yes, come here.”
The fellow rushed over. “Yes?”
Being careful to keep his spell intact, Alf reached out and gently shook Drake. The half delirious child glared at him. “What?” he snarled through his intense pain.
“You have to teach this man the spell you’re using before you collapse.”
Understanding spread across the exhausted prince’s face and he weakly nodded.
Alf directed the newcomer to Drake, then returned his full focus to Zaphaniea. Over a hundred people now fed energy through her, and the incoherent moans of misery coming from her hunched form made his heart wrench.
Olivia’s panicked voice pierced his thoughts. “It’s too much! I can’t heal her fast enough. I need more help!”
Before Alf could answer, Rex responded by shouting, “ARE THERE ANY HEALERS HERE?”
The intense volume of his voice caused those around him to stop moving, and silence once again pervaded the arena as the echoes of his voice faded away.
No one stepped forward.
“ARE THERE ANY HEALERS HERE!?” he shouted again, a tinge of desperation coloring his voice.
Once more, there was no response. Rex stood on the tips of his toes, trying to see over the crowd. “Where’s Cretan?” he muttered.
“I.. sent them.. to the.. east end of the city,” Zaphaniea wheezed.
“Oh, looks like I’m not done running yet.”
“I don’t think she will last long enough for you to retrieve them!” Olivia said worriedly. Streams of golden energy poured from her hands into the skin over Zaphaniea’s heart.
“She will if I get more people to help me reinforce her,” Alf stated.
Olivia’s dark eyes widened. “But to do that, you would have to…”
“Teach others my family’s spell, I know.” He swallowed hard. The spell had been a family secret for centuries. Only the Brockovich’s personal physicians and they themselves knew it. He tilted his head back and took a deep breath. “Rex, direct about ten magic users my way, then go fetch Gerhard and the others.”
Drake laid out a cloth and watched as two, teenage non-magic users rolled their unconscious mother onto it and carefully lifted her into the air. He took a step back and almost fell over. Despite no longer having an endless stream of energy coursing through him, his body still felt like he was slogging through mud. He had passed his job off after teaching seven others the mishmash of spells he had been using, but it had taken its toll on him, and he was finding it difficult to move as he helped Soul Knight direct the others in dragging away the unconscious people from around Zaphaniea.
Shuffling forward, he made his way over to the cart holding the hastily patched together strips of cloth they were using as makeshift stretchers, and leaning against it, he looked back towards Zaphaniea. Alf had used earth magic to raise the young woman above the crowd, making it easier for everyone to send energy to her. The grand champion kneeled shakily on one knee with her arms stretched towards the falling star which little by little ascended higher into the heavens.
Hundreds of blue streams flowed over the top of the people, around her legs, and into the shining runes on her back. Her skin glowed, and her hair floated loosely in the air, kept aloft by the intense magical power radiating off of her.
Despite all that was at stake, he couldn’t stop himself from thinking how it was the most beautiful and breathtaking sight he had ever seen.
“The vice champion better get back soon. If he doesn’t, I doubt she’ll last much longer.”
Drake glanced over at the tall, dark man stepping up beside him, Soul Knight. He nodded at the base of Zaphaniea’s pillar, where Olivia, Alf, and those he had gathered, worked tirelessly to keep Zaphaniea alive. “They’ll keep her stable until he gets back, I know they will.”
Zaphaniea’s mind felt like a boiling cauldron of fog. For some reason, she was pushing as hard as she could against the big red dot in the sky as its unbearable weight crushed and suffocated her. She knew she needed to do more than just push against it. Strangely enough, though, she couldn’t, for the life of her, remember why. The harder she tried, the further it seemed to slip from her grasp, like a slimy eel slipping through her fingers.
There, in the middle of a blazing sea of blue, stretching out as far as the eye could see, she was drowning. Wave after wave of tortuous azure electricity burned through her veins, robbing her of all senses. Nothing made sense; time itself seemed to stop until, at last, she noticed a commotion in the endless tide around her. Brown and pink dots, led by a streak of green, split the ocean and flooded around her.
Seconds later, radiant energy washed over her and the never ending pain started to recede.
Finally, sweet, sweet release, she thought and let her eyes drift closed.
“We’re losing her!” someone shouted, but the voice sounded distant, as if it were coming down a long tunnel.
Then a powerful presence broke through the fog. She mentally startled at the foreign feeling. What is…? The thought faded as two more presences pressed their way into her consciousness. The three beings spoke not a word; instead, they slowly and methodically pushed away the fog engulfing her. Gradually, the world came back into focus, and with a gentle feathery touch, they coaxed her into opening her eyes.
As the champion’s eyes fluttered open, reality slammed into her. Glandhdale was about to become a place of ruin and destruction. That big red dot was a massive meteor of death racing towards them, scorching the land as it came.
Zaphaniea jumped to her feet and once again threw her arms high above her head. Her magical spheres mashed up against the falling star once more, bringing it to a halt. Her mind crystal clear now—thanks to the three unknown beings—she remembered exactly what she needed to do.
Coiling her fingers like a crab crawling across the ocean floor, she tried encourage her giant pink spheres to spin. They rocked back and forth, then lazily rolled back to where they had started.
She needed more power.
Zaphaniea peered down at those around her. The group that had swelled to hundreds had dwindled down to a few dozen. Anxiously, she searched the diminished crowd until she found Rex. His armored back faced her as he helped haul away the unconscious bodies scattered around the base of her pillar.
“Rex! We need more people!” she hollered at him, but the high keening sound of the electricity pouring off The Energizer drowned out her voice.
Frustration welled up in her until she saw Rex’s father pushing his way through the masses. He tapped his son on the shoulder and pointed towards the pedestal. Rex straightened up, nodded at her, and gave a cocky salute then disappeared.
She shook her head in exasperation, and her lips curled into a small smile. How can he be so jovial all the time? she thought as she returned her attention to the meteor. The black pitted surface, covered in fire and streaming a long tail of flames, loomed ever closer, slowly and inexorably making its way towards the city she called home. Stopping it seemed impossible. Every single muscle in Zaphaniea ached. Her body felt like it had become the habitation for a swarm of thousands of bees as they entered and exited her skin; however, thanks to the healers swarming around her feet, the pain no longer felt unbearable.
Now knowing exactly what she needed to do, she threw her entire being against Vackzilian’s apocalyptic force. As the minutes crept by, citizens came pouring in from all directions, answering Rex’s call. With their growing support, she gradually pushed the meteor back into the sky and farther away from the city.
Once again, she carefully coiled her fingers. This time, her spheres responded. Like giant rubber balls, they spun, turning the meteor, and little by little, redirecting it.
After what felt like an eternity, Drake rose on a patch of earth beside Zaphaniea and used a torn piece of clothing to wipe away the sweat pouring into her eyes.
“Where should I aim it?” she growled at him through clenched teeth.
“How far away can you deflect it?”
“I don’t know… maybe a few miles…”
Soul Knight made his way through the weary healers at her feet and shouted to them, “There’s a decent sized forest twelve miles to the east. It’s the only place I know of that doesn’t have a large population. Do you think you can hit it?”
“Maybe… but I’ll need a lot more help,” she wheezed as she watched two more people collapse around her.
She heard Drake mumble in concentration as he examined the conduit spell he had placed on her back. He drew in a long even breath. “That’s fine. Rex is on the way with well over a thousand.”
A thousand? She thought in alarm. Drake finished examining the runes and stood back up beside her.
The prince’s blue eye looked straight into hers. “I know it’s a lot. However, it is what I have estimated it will take for you to retain control as you release Vackzilian’s spell. Up until this point, you have had exactly seven hundred and sixty-three people’s energy flowing through you at once. Do you think you can handle four hundred more?”
The blood drained from Zephaniea’s face. She couldn’t believe she had survived being the conduit for seven hundred people! In all honesty, it was a miracle she was even alive, and now he wanted to put her through that and more again? How could he expect this of her; how could anyone expect this of her!?
She yanked her eyes away from him and stared bitterly up at the meteor. Vackzilian! This was all his doing! He had attacked her home and caused the death of her grandfather and uncle when she was a child. Her entire family had been forced into hiding, afraid of something like this happening, and…
The air caught in her throat. Her entire family still lived in secret… all except her. She… she was the one at fault here. She had flaunted her powers, and Vackzilian had come for her. Now the entire city was about to pay the cost of her arrogance.
No! She wouldn’t let that happen. Clenching her jaw, Zaphaniea Eunice D’Aavettila steeled herself. “I can take it.”
As if in response, Rex appeared, speeding down the main thruway with the people in question in tow.
Drake nodded confidently at her as his earthen base sank away, taking him with it.
She watched him disappear into the crowd; then, determined not to think about what she was about to go through, she stared intently at her hands and laboriously curled one finger at a time.
Almost a full hour crept by as Drake watched Zaphaniea accomplish the impossible. Over a total of two thousand exhausted people had collapsed as she tirelessly and constantly worked on repositioning the meteor, and now, at last, she released her hold on it.
An audible sigh filled the air as everyone fell to the ground. Their weary eyes watched in wonder as the falling star streaked off towards the forest.
With an earth shattering roar, the meteor plummeted into the vast, verdant green woodland. Birds shot into the air, and Glandledale shook as the black sphere, wreathed in red flames, exploded, turning the darkness of night into the brightness of day. A towering wave of earth and fire erupted from the base of the blazing star and raced across the land, greedily consuming everything in its path; every blade of grass, every tree and bush, instantly disintegrated into gray ash as it’s scarlet maul swallowed them whole. Seconds later, the air rippled as a visible swell of blistering heat engulfed the city. Children screamed in fear and clung to their parents as the oncoming tempest ripped the trees lining the walkways out of the ground, and tore the roofs of buildings clean off as if it were a giant hand reaching down and plucking them into the sky. If it hadn’t been for the blood oath’s wall acting as a barrier, most of the city would have been instantly leveled.
As the hurricane ripped and tore its way towards them, Alf yelled above the whistling wind. “Everyone! Stay calm and help me channel a shield!” Heading his call, those still able joined together in forming a thick barrier around the group. Debris, dust, and dirt pelted their shelter in an endless barrage as the city heaved and groaned till at last the never-ending destruction gave way to a colossal mushroom cloud that blotted out the eastern sky.
A deathly silence hovered over the city as the people of Glandledale watched the billowing blackness roll skyward.