A cushion of air lifted. Calvin’s Featherfall blessing caught them both, and Alma felt the ground touch her back as they landed, aided by the wind, their fall lowered to a stop.
He scrambled up. “Please tell me you’re okay.”
“I-I am,” she stuttered. Her voice cracked. She took his hand and rose. “She attacked us.” It was a pointless statement, but the first one her brain could form.
Calvin looked shaken. “I don’t know what’s happening, but we need to go.”
She turned around. They had landed in the middle of the chaos, surrounded by the battle, and the only reason demons hadn’t swarmed them was the others there, fighting to keep them at bay.
Eris had attacked them. She had kept the gem.
Her mind reeled.
But it had to be the sage. She had known their names, known about the letters. Even if a demon could steal an identity, a person’s shape, they couldn’t lift memories from flesh. Eris couldn’t have been eaten.
Then why had she thrown her?
A hand clapped on Alma’s shoulder, jerking away shaken thoughts. “What happened up there?” a woman asked. She held a giant broadsword in one hand, drenched in dark blood, her short purple hair clumped by the splatters. Her uniform was sleek black with the royal four-diamond. A royal knight.
“Sage Eris,” Alma stammered out.
“I know. What happened? How did you fall?” she pressed.
“She threw her,” Calvin said, and the reaction was visible on her face. “I don’t know why. She just grabbed her—and—”
The wind crystal rang out again.
“This is Sage Eris speaking. From now on, no one may act against the demons. If you do, I’ll kill you.”
“And then, in one hour, I will drown everyone in this city using the water gem.”
The knight swore and bolted, sprinting for the ladder. She passed by Reina and Mir as the two ran over.
“I’m sorry,” Reina told them. “I couldn’t get it back.”
She shook her head, saying, “No, we can’t,” but the words came out wrong. She meant that they couldn’t now, not in the middle of this chaos, not against the person on the roof, but it sounded like they simply couldn’t at all.
Maybe that was true. If not now, then how could they later?
Fleeing the city meant plowing through demon-infested streets.
Defending yourself meant being killed by Eris.
Hiding would be waiting for your inevitable doom.
There was a short breath into the crystal, like laughter. “You want your gem back, Alma? You want to be a hero? Come and get it.” It was a taunt.
Alma was scared. She thought about how strong her hand had been around her neck, like iron, how much she had struggled, how all of that struggling had come to nothing, and how Eris had simply grabbed and thrown her down like a toy.
The wild demons had surrounded them in a circle, and scarlet blood still pooled down the steps. “Run,” she heard herself plead, and the rawness of it. Her mind registered that she had grabbed somebody’s arm. “Run!”
The demons hadn’t paused. They recognized their sudden reluctance to fight. On instinct, maybe primal fear, a guard slashed their sword and a demon fell mid-lunge.
Eris kept good on her promise. A thick bolt of water jetted down. They watched as the guard swung themselves back in a dodge, the bolt bursting through their side.
Someone screamed a name. Others screamed curses. Some just screamed.
The demons ran forth in a wave, teeth and claws covering every angle.
“Everyone, fight!” A command cut out, shouted from above. “I’ll hold her!”
The guards fought back. Through the slash of swords and rain of warm blood, Calvin grabbed her hand and they ran. Alma turned back, looking up as the knight kicked herself towards Eris and swung, then shut her eyes and felt the jostle of the ground as they escaped.
When they got to someplace quiet and narrow, she pressed her back to the wall and the palms of her hands against her neck. Calvin and Reina looked concerned.
“What’s wrong?” Reina asked. “Alma?”
“What’s wrong?” Calvin echoed. He’d defaulted back to anger again. “The sage just choked her and threw her off a building. She kicked you into me!”
“That wasn’t her. That wasn’t the same person we met—”
“Obviously!” he snapped.
“Something must’ve happened in the forest,” Mir said, sounding the most composed out of them all. “Her scream wasn’t for nothing.”
“Shut up. This is your fault,” Calvin said.
“You’re alive,” he reminded him.
“Guys, stop,” Reina pleaded. Her hands rested on Alma’s arms. “Are you okay? Does it hurt?”
“Damnit!” Calvin put his hands to his head, shutting his eyes. He pressed his forehead against the wall. “Pull yourself together!” She didn’t know who he was telling that to.
Reina’s hands were warm over the sleeves of her blue coat. “We’re still with you,” she said. “We’ll make it out, somehow.”
“We need a plan,” Mir told them.
“What can we do?” It was Mir’s statement, but Reina’s eyes searched her face. She couldn’t answer. They had had one ray of hope among this disaster and now it was crushed like a bug, twisted on them, the water gem stolen. Even if she could meet the water goddess again, the deity would probably smite Alma to the ground. Sage Eris had emphasized how important the jewels were. Now it was in an imposter’s hands.
Mir thought for a second. “We can shoot her from here, on a roof.” He looked up. “You’ll have to do it, Thomas.”
“Calvin,” he corrected, the edge clear by his voice. He sent him a scalding glare.
“Can you hit her?” he asked.
He unlatched his bow roughly from his back. “I can hit anything I see. Is that good enough for you?”
“But it’s too far,” Reina said, turning to them. “Will your blessing also make up for that?”
He shrugged. “I’ll boost it with magic. The wind spell, maybe.”
“That’s dangerous.” She hurried after him as he walked to the end of the alley. “You might have enough mana to use it once, but the backlash—”
He spun. “What else do we do then? Got any ideas?”
She paused, and her face fell. “No. But then at least let me help you up.”
“Don’t need it.” Calvin climbed on one of the stray boxes flush against the wall, then stretched up, trying to reach for the ledge. Even for his height, his fingers couldn’t make it. He didn’t say anything further.
Alma wanted to give a warning, words of caution against haphazard climbing, anything she would usually add on. She’d always had something to say. But now her back was pressed against the wall, her arms hugging her body, her tongue silent. She’d been shivering until Reina held her. It wasn’t the cold, but the fear.
“Aim for her eyes,” Mir said. “She can’t heal if she’s blinded.” Without the vision, a mage’s main gate to the external world, nobody could. As a healer, Alma knew better than most.
Calvin made a frustrated sound, struggling with the ledge.
Reina went up behind him. “I’ll help,” she decided. She wrapped her arms around his torso and boosted him up, then climbed up after him onto the roof.
He grappled the blue shingles and stood, testing the footing. “What are you doing?” he asked when she joined him.
“The backlash—I’ll catch you,” she explained. “And if you faint—”
“Alma’s the one who faints,” he said. “I’ll be fine.” He took his bow again and readied an arrow, aiming it into the distance. Even if the knight was still holding Eris up, fighting against her on the roof, his blessing of accuracy would guide the metal head into the sage’s own.
Once it hit, she wouldn’t be able to recover.
Calvin drew back the string. A spiral of wind picked up, circling in to the point of the arrow, blowing up yellow locks of hair as it spun, gaining speed.
His mouth opened to call out the spell.
It blasted forward in a blurry streak, an explosion of air. The force blew him back and Reina caught them both before it could send them flying off the top of the building, digging her heels as shingles ripped from the rooftop and clattered to the street below. They stumbled just before the edge.
In the distance, a scream cried out. It had struck.
Alma jolted upright.
Reina straightened and looked up, and she broke into a smile. “You did it! You got her—” She caught him again when his knees buckled.
“Cal!” Alma cried in alarm.
He had a hand over his mouth, his face pale. He squeezed his eyes tight for a moment, bent over, trying to let the nausea pass—the wind deity’s spell took a heavy toll, as all of them did, and it had ripped out most of his mana in an instant. Calvin had enough in him to use it once and still stand, and that was asking for more than enough.
Reina kneeled down with him. “Are you okay?”
He gasped in. “Yea,” he said, but it sounded strained.
She helped him stand on the roof again.
“Did it kill her?” Mir asked.
“It hit her in the head,” Reina called down.
Alma bit her lip. “Then there’s no way she could have survived from that.” She looked up nervously, watching Calvin stagger upright on the roof, Reina steadying him.
He tensed, and then his hand snapped up.
A blade of wind materialized just in time to cut the returning arrow in half. The veil of water broke, spraying out. Reina grabbed him and they fell, avoiding the following bolt of water that blasted the roof and sent up shards of debris, and they both landed, cushioned by his blessing as it came to life. A funnel of wind blew up in resistance, stopping their descent a second before they hit the hard street, taking away the impact before they fully fell.
Reina sat up in an instant and backhanded a falling tile before it hit them.
They ran over as she stood, Calvin giving a wince before he managed to prop himself up.
“What happened?” Alma asked. Her hand was already glowing with healing magic, but she let it sputter away as Calvin sat himself against a wall, only shaken from the exertion.
“It came back at us,” he said slowly. “That was the same arrow.”
“From Sage Eris?” she asked.
They were silent.
“But she doesn’t have a bow,” Reina argued.
“She’s strong enough,” Mir said. “Calvin and I saw that for ourselves. Plus, she propelled it with her own magic.”
But we hit her, she thought feebly. An arrow through the face should have disposed anyone—with the wind spell, even more so. Eris’s survival was like a spit to the name of the wind deity, to their own futile attempt to kill the sage. The first shot returned was a comeback; the second shot was a warning.
It must have been some exception, some loophole, some miracle, but in the end it hadn’t worked. They were exposed, optionless.
Alma had already come to one knee to check on Calvin, but now despair brought the other one down.
“Oh, man,” she heard Calvin say, “if Alma’s looking like that then we really are doomed, aren’t we?”
“You’re giving up?” Reina asked. “But we’re not done yet.”
“That shot was our best chance,” he said.
“Our best chance, but not our only one,” she countered.
Mir kneeled beside her. His white coat was dimmed by the dark alley to a light grey, but the silver buttons lining the front had caught enough light to glimmer. He must’ve had something important to do before all of this, some reason he was in the East capital instead of the North—now he was caught with them in the middle of this disaster. “Lady Alma, please hold on a little longer,” he urged. “I know you can think of another solution. They’ll only give up if you do first.”
Her eyes were to the ground. “I don’t know.” Even that was unsure.
“Alma…” Reina called out, but it sounded tentative.
“The water deity trusted me with that gem. It was my responsibility. Even if we take it back, I’ll never be forgiven.” She looked up, but couldn’t face him. “I’m sorry. You don’t know—we never told you everything. We needed to call the ice deity because a giant monster rose out of the ocean. They’re all battling it right now—we can’t count on them to save us. We’re on our own.”
“So we’re doomed?” Calvin asked. If he was merely joking the first time, the belief was starting to show on his face now.
Despite all of this—everything he had heard and seen, everything Alma had told him—Mir was calm still. “A giant ocean monster?” he mulled. “That explains the fog. It must have been miasma. That’s why we were hallucinating.”
Calvin sat up in disbelief. “What? I thought you didn’t hear anything.”
He looked at him. “I didn’t.”
“The forest,” Reina interjected. “Can we go back? Miss Eris said she never found Sage Sigmund. If we go back and rescue him—”
“Rescue him from what?” Calvin asked.
“Whatever had rent Sage Eris insane, most likely,” Mir answered. “But it could be a lost cause. He was in the forest for even longer.”
“Then why hasn’t he returned?” Reina asked. “Miss Eris did.”
“It—she returned for a purpose,” Alma said numbly. “She tricked me into handing her the water gem.”
Calvin shook his head, his expression firm. “She didn’t even need to trick you for that.”
She paused. “You’re right. I just handed it over—my own deity’s treasure—I didn’t notice a thing! Reina tried to warn me but I just gave it to her without a word.”
“Okay, we get it,” he told her, but he looked nervous still. “What do we do now?”
She put her hands to her head. “Something,” she mumbled, trying to think. “I need to do something. Even if the knights can apprehend Eris, what would Mazu think after I’ve done nothing, put out no effort?”
“Then let’s look for Sage Sigmund,” Reina suggested. “There has to be a reason he didn’t come back.”
Calvin grimaced, likely remembering the fog. “It’s…a long walk. I don’t think we’ll make it in time.”
Another shrill scream echoed above them.
This time, it wasn’t Eris.
They all stood.
Calvin swore. “The knight,” he said. He spun to the alleyway’s exit, wanting to dash back out, to help, but in the end he turned back to Alma, waiting for her word. They needed to decide.
She couldn’t do it at once. Quick choices ended up unfavorable. The weight in her pockets—now the only one—drew to the front of her mind instead, and she reached a hand inside, touching the handle of her broken dagger. The blade was scorched and snapped, but she had kept the rest sheathed in the scabbard, if only to preserve the item in her family’s name.
A heirloom taken from a glass case.
More importantly, taken without permission. In a stroke of self-will, she had decided that if she was already leaving by her own word, a weapon taken would fit better at her side than one granted.
Even if it was only a phantom of her dagger now, its presence assured her that she was capable of doing something right. Of helping people the way she could.
They were split between Sigmund and the knight.
They couldn’t be the only ones who had heard the scream. There were other people—royal knights, guards, mercenaries; stronger people. Someone else would go, and they would be much better help than her.
And, turning that over in her head, she paused again.
But what if no water mages went?
What if no guards could make it?
What if, as everybody thought this, nobody would go at all?
But what if, and the same time, Sage Sigmund was really trapped in that forest, really in need of help?
She straightened. “Let’s split up.”
“What?” Calvin asked.
“Let’s take advantage of the fact that we have two healers. We’ll split into groups of two, with Reina and me separated.”
“We’re gonna die if we split up,” he protested. “We can’t take that risk. Especially if we don’t even know what’s waiting out there.”
Alma put a hand on his shoulder, looking him in the eyes, and his mouth clicked shut. “We’re too involved to not try our best. People have already died, Cal—if we can do anything to save even one, then—” She stopped herself. “I’m the one who lost the gem. I have to go through with this, but you don’t. You can stay here and wait it out.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he said, his protest dampened. “I just—whatever.”
“If Lady Alma suggests splitting up, then it must be our best option,” Mir said. “I’m fine going with either group.”
Reina stepped up. “And I can go find Sage Sigmund. You should probably be the one to confront Miss Eris, Alma.”
“We’re really doing this?” Calvin asked, incredulous.
Alma nodded. “Will you come?”
She saw him hesitate—but for only a moment. He had no qualms about speaking his mind; but when it came to her, Calvin seemed to think twice. He looked away. “Of course. I’m more worried if you’ll make it.”
“I’ll be fine,” she assured him. They were empty words, but the only ones she could have given. She turned. “Mir, you seem well handled in close range. If you go with me back to the city center—”
“No,” Calvin cut in. He’d tensed beside her. “You can’t go with him. You can’t trust him. He’ll abandon you like he abandoned Sage Eris.” He’d practically stabbed the words at Mir.
The ice mage looked almost disappointed. “Sorry, but I didn’t abandon anyone. If I recall correctly, I persuaded you to run after the sage told me to keep you safe. You talk like we could have saved her instead of dying if we’d fled the other way.”
Alma put an arm out before Calvin could lunge at him. “His actions made sense, Cal. If it meant bringing the two of you back alive, he did the right thing.”
He backed up, if only a little. “I just don’t trust him,” he said. “I should go with you, and he can go with Reina.”
She frowned. “If you can trust him with Reina, then you can trust him with me.” Her voice was stern, frustrated. “Or maybe you need to check your attitude.”
The statement landed, silencing him.
“It’s a better arrangement this way,” Mir said. “You can use your wind magic to clear the fog. You two will be less likely to get lost than if I go.”
He gave him a seething glower, then turned for the alleyway’s exit. “Come on, Reina.”
“Eep,” she said.
“Remember to be careful,” Alma called out to the two of them. “And if you can’t find us here after, we’ll be at the city center.”
The two of them turned the corner.
Their mission wouldn’t be any less dangerous. Even before they got to Eris, there would be other enemies waiting, the mobs of forest demons the knights hadn’t yet slain. Reduced from four to two, pushing through the streets again wouldn’t go as smooth as their escape from the city center.
She patted her pocket. “I’m afraid I can’t do much for combat.”
“I can take care of the demons,” Mir said. “But I’m afraid the sage won’t give your item back without a fight.”
“No.” She turned to him. “We’re going back to rescue that knight. She’s the one who let us all escape in the first place. Getting the gem is second priority.”
She almost missed the ever slight pause. “Of course,” he replied.
Alma couldn’t tell what had caused it. “I’m sorry you got dragged into this. If we hadn’t met, you could have avoided most of this bloodshed.”
“I’m sure I would have gotten involved anyway,” he said.
She was silent for a moment, peeking around the corner of the alley. It seemed so quiet. The bodies of demons tended to disappear, but the corpses of humans would remain on the ground, dead.
How many more would die before night?
“Let’s go,” Alma said.
She offered her hand, a gesture.
For the first time, despite everything that had happened, Mir looked surprised.