Shadow's Pursuit

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Chapter Eighteen

“LOOK OUT!” ATHERTON screamed and Raine felt a hand forcefully push down on her shoulder blade and she fell forward, landing clumsily onto her knees.

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the near-darkness as the light from the Teleportation Rune faded, and she could see hooded figures standing in front of her. She could hear yelling around her, but she didn’t know who the voices belonged to. She could only stare, momentarily stunned, as the figures disappeared behind a large translucent white rune, hovering in the air and glowing with symbols of protection and shielding. It took her another moment to realise that it was shielding her from them. Life Magic?

She turned her head and looked up at Hayato, still standing behind her. He was gripping his longsword tightly, the blade shaking, but his other hand was on the side of his face and he was frowning, eyes wide with horror. The rare expression was enough to send fear racing through her blood.

What happened? Why did he just push me down? Did he get me out of the way of an attack?

She delved into her mana vital and instantly recognised the Death Magic that was affecting his mind- a powerful paralysis curse, preventing his muscles from movement. He could barely breathe; his diaphragm was refusing to relax, preventing him from breathing out.

“Raine…” Hayato said and his voice was strained, his teeth tightly grit together. “Raine- I… I can’t…”

She got to her feet immediately, her breath caught in her chest as she reached out to touch his forehead, doing her best to remember her training despite the panic that was nearly overwhelming her.

“It’s a Paralysis Curse,” she cried, “I’ll try to release it. Stay calm, Hayato,”

Hayato could only grunt in response as she moved her mind around the curse, but she knew even as she looked at it that she did not have the power to deactivate it.

“Erwin!” she screamed, finally looking around at the others. “Erwin- help me! Hayato is cursed! He can’t breathe!”

The Life Mage turned to look at her, his eyes wide and his skin pale. It was then that she was finally aware of the heavy fog of Death Magic around her.

How many are there?

“Right.” Atherton said. In comparison to the darkness around them, the tall, thin Life Mage was positively glowing with light, his green-brown eyes filled with energy despite the fear and shock that was dominating his features.

He quickly put his hand in front of Hayato’s face, which was becoming paler by the second, and warm light started to glow around his fingers. A moment passed, and then Hayato gave a huge intake of breath.

“Thankyou,” he breathed, nodding at Atherton.

“Stay behind me,” he told them both, his teeth grit tightly together in concentration. “I’ll keep us protected with shields whilst you attack through them.”

Raine nodded her approval and agreement, and she turned to look out at her attackers as the white shield grew around them, absorbing and reflecting the flurry of curses that the Death Magi continued to throw at them.

Atherton had wrapped a Life Shield around them in a dome so that it blocked any attack regardless of what side it came from, covered in translucent Runes of Shielding and Magical Protection. She was glad for them- the Death Magic in the air was so strong that she could taste it, a caustic, tar-like flavour on her tongue.

A very brief glance told Raine that Hammond and Troy were standing behind her, and the five of them were still standing on the Teleportation Rune, back to back in a circle formation. She would have liked to move to less obvious ground, but they had no choice- they were surrounded. Hammond was casting fireball after fireball at the magi through the Life Shield, the fire illuminating the darkness, and she was stunned at Atherton’s ability to create a barrier that allowed magic to move through it from their side- it was an ability that required immense power.

Looking through the translucent wall, she realised that they were in a large, bare room, a few pieces of old furniture sitting along the sides of the wooden walls, which were decorated with a couple of paintings and tapestries. Her senses in overdrive, she was able to smell dust and mildew, mostly overpowered by smoke and the scent of burning flesh as one of Hammond’s attacks met its target.

Where are we? She had a brief sensation of cold before the heat from Hammond’s flames met her, quickly filling the area with warmth, and she pushed the thoughts aside as she summoned up a substantial amount of mana vital. She could feel her Death Magic pulsating with the magic around her, wanting to be used, but she pressed down the urge.

I’m nowhere near good enough to use Death Magic right now- it would only be a waste of my mana vital. I must stick to what I know.

She breathed out as she extended her hands, and a blast of high-speed water erupted from before her fingertips. The Death Mage responded quickly, barely moving his own hand and creating a large shield that glowed black and dark purple. Raine recognised the symbol before her as a mana-absorbing rune, and her attack fell apart as it connected, the power source behind the technique having been destroyed.

But then a thin throwing knife flew out from beside her and pierced through the magical barrier with ease, embedding itself in the right eyeball of the mage. He put his hands to his face instantly, howling with agony, and the shield rapidly broke away. Instinct took hold and Raine summoned another wave of water, picking him up and slamming him violently against the wall. He fell to the ground and remained still, most likely knocked out from the force of the collision.

Raine looked up at Hayato beside her, eyes wide with surprise- the knife had moved so fast that only her Shadow training had allowed her to see it. The Kayokian’s expression was grim, and his eyes angry when he looked back at her.

“I cannot do much from in here,” he said, voice stern. “I am far more suited to close combat.”

“That worked well to me, from where I’m standing,” she said. “I didn’t know that you carried throwing knives.”

Hayato swiftly brought another up into his hand, and she realised that they had been tucked into a thin belt that wrapped around his upper thigh. She hadn’t even noticed it before; she had been so panicked about finding Lloyd.

“Yes,” he said with a short nod. “I’ll do what I can, but my aim is not as skilled as my swordsmanship.”

“Alright.” she said, looking back out at their surroundings. She rapidly deduced that there were ten to fifteen Death Magi in the room with them, and more were occasionally entering through an entrance to the left of their position.

We can’t stay here forever- Atherton’s Life Shield is going to give out whilst it’s under such continuous attack. How can there be so many of them here in the first place- the Guild only has twelve or so, doesn’t it?

“We’ll need to move towards that hallway!” she called, pointing over to it as she sent water-pellets out at the men around them. “We still need to find Lloyd!”

“More are coming,” Hayato growled in agreement. “And we don’t know what this Teleportation Rune will do. We must continue forward.”

“Sure, why not, I was getting bored here anyway.” Hammond snapped from behind her. He flicked his hand and another whip of flame reached out and threatened to consume the mage before it. He cursed as a Death Shield absorbed the attack. “These damn shields are starting to get on my nerves!”

“I can’t keep this up for much longer, I’m afraid,” Atherton said suddenly, turning to look at them, his hands still outstretched and glowing white. Raine was shocked by the paleness of his skin, and a quick glance with her Death Magic told her that his mana vital was dangerously low.

“Can you move it with us?” she called, fighting back her panic. “If we can get into the hallway, then there are only two sides that they can attack us from.”

“I will do my best,” he said, but she could see beads of sweat rolling down the sides of his face. “I apologise, Raine…”

“Just get moving, would you?” Hammond snapped. Beside him, Troy was moving his hands about furiously, sending gusts of air into the Death Magi and forcing them to retreat, but many of his attacks were also being absorbed and rendered useless.

“Damn…” Atherton suddenly said, his voice weak. “They’re using a collective Death Curse. I can barely keep it from penetrating the shield and invading our minds.”

“Collective?” Hammond said. “As in all together? They can do that now?”

“Of course, there are many tactics that a Death Mage can employ when found in a combat situation,” Wetherdon said, taking a sip of his tea and looking at her pleasantly.

Raine continued to watch him diligently, sitting on the cushions and ignoring the fatigue that was creeping into the back of her mind. “You have been practicing direct attacks, which rely on a one-direction motion and as such, can be blocked by physical avoidance or Shields.”

“A Death Mage can also rely on an area-based attack, rather than just the one singular projectile-style curse.” he said, and she couldn’t help the surprise from crossing her features.

“Area-based?” she repeated and he nodded, that glint of amusement back in his teal eyes.

“A projectile moves in one direction, and can be easily blocked or dodged, would you not agree?” he said. “The curse travels through space and enters the victims mind if it makes contact. An area-based curse, however, targets a specific area, and the curse affects whoever is inside of that area.”

“Why don’t we use those all the time instead?” she asked quickly, frowning. “It would clearly be a more effective way to curse someone.”

“That it is, my dear,” Wetherdon agreed, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “However, unfortunately, such techniques require substantial amount of mana vital, which Death Magi do not tend to be blessed with.” He gave a small chuckle. “Because of that, it is a technique that is favoured by groups of Death Magi, which is also something that is rarely encountered.”

“So does that mean I can’t use it on my own?” she asked. She was already considering how useful a technique would be for her Shadow missions.

The corner of his lips twitched. “One can use an area-based curse on their own, but they would only be able to hold it for a short amount of time. I can only withhold one for seven and a half seconds, personally, and that is one of the higher records of the Death Magi in this Guild.”

“Can Life Magi do that, then?” she asked. “Make area-based shields that protect everything inside of it?”

“They can, and they do,” Wetherdon said, his smile fading, “But they too lose much of their mana vital during the process. It is not something that is used often, mostly only in emergency situations.”

“Are you using an area-based shield?” Raine asked Atherton, momentarily stunned that she was actually witnessing what her tutor had spoken to her about. “You’re blocking all of the curses that come our way, including this collective one?”

“Barely,” Atherton muttered, catching the look of surprise on her face. “But I will not be able to hold it for long- a few minutes at best.”

“Then we have to get out of here.” Hayato said.

“I’ll do my best to keep up,” Atherton said, “but keeping this shield functioning is taking most of my concentration and energy.”

It was true- the Life Mage was becoming dangerously pale, his tunic damp with sweat, and his hands were shaking as he continued to hold them out in front of him.

We only have a few minutes with the shield, and then we’re on our own, against a collective, area-based curse. There’s no hope that we’ll avoid it.

She flinched as she saw a black and purple shape suddenly interact with the shield, and light sparked off of it as the two sources of magic fought against each other for a brief moment. The Death Curse then flickered out of existence.

Hayato had seen it too, and his expression was grim.

“This doesn’t look good,” he muttered, only loudly enough for her to hear. “If Wetherdon faced this when he arrived… Do you even know for certain if he is here?”

“He has to be.” she told him shortly, panic rising and threatening to overwhelm her once more. “There’s nowhere else he could have been. I couldn’t sense him in the house.”

“You couldn’t sense anything in that house,” Hayato said, but his voice was even. He looked at her sternly, his dark eyes filled with irritation and frustration. “They suppressed the Death Magic so you didn’t know about the Transportation Rune. What if they were concealing him in the same manner as well?”

Raine chose to say nothing. I refuse to believe that. He must have come here.

“Fine.” Hayato said, and she saw an idea forming in his eyes. His expression was set, and she had a feeling that he did not like whatever thoughts were moving through his sharp mind. “We move then, and fast. Claybrook- you act as point, and sweep up anything or anyone that comes between us and our path forward.”

He looked at her. “Raine, you remain behind Claybrook. I will follow behind you, and the Fire Mage will remain at the end of the group, removing any followers.”

“And me?” Atherton asked, watching him speak from the corner of his eye.

Hayato sighed. “I will carry you. We don’t have time to wait for you to walk.”

“Oh.” Atherton said, frowning. “Are you sure?”

Another curse hit the Life Shield and it shuddered violently, ripples of light vibrating through its ethereal, white surface. Pain shot across Atherton’s face and he nearly lowered his hands.

“Yes!” Hayato moved across to him in a few short strides. “I will carry you on my back, and you will keep this shield moving with us. We will need to run- you said it will not last long, didn’t you? But it will last longer if we’re in the hallway, and away from enemy attacks, yes?”

“Well yes, but…” Atherton muttered meekly. Raine could only watch Hayato, stunned that he would offer to do such a thing. He was proud, but it seemed that he was willing to put that aside for their survival.

“Can we get going now?” Hammond growled. “I have no wish to have my mind obliterated here, if you don’t mind…”

“Yes!” Hayato snapped. “We don’t have time to argue. Hurry!”

“Oh, well, alright…” Atherton mumbled. Raine looked away as the Life Mage jumped onto Hayato’s back, wrapping his legs around his waist with one of his arms around the Kayokian’s neck. Had they been in any other situation, she would have found the sight highly amusing, but such was their current state of urgency and panic that all humour was lost.

“Move!” Hayato bellowed at Troy, his voice filled with anger, and the Air Mage jumped and started running toward the hallway. Raine followed, and she could hear his heavier footsteps as Hayato also started to run behind her. She saw the tiniest of smirks on Hammond’s face as she ran past him, but the Fire Mage said nothing as he took to the rear.

THEY RACED DOWN the hallway, Atherton continuing to protect them with his Life Shield as they went, one hand extended forward as Hayato carried him. Raine didn’t look back as she heard the roaring of flames and screams of agony as Hammond attacked the Death Magi, but she knew by the ebbing Death Magic around her that he had just set the entire room ablaze with fire. The stench of burnt hair and cooked flesh reached her nose even as they ran from the room, and she swallowed down the rising bile in her stomach and throat, pushing away her urge to vomit.

Her mind was racing and her heartbeat was furiously fast in her chest, but her muscle memory was taking hold and she ran with ease.

If there were this many here when he arrived… well, then there’s no chance in Hell that he walked out unscathed. We just have to find him, but the Death Magic here is so thick that I can’t sense him anywhere.

“Where are we going?” Troy called, turning his head to look at her. She quickened her pace so that she was only a foot behind him, and strained her eyes forward. The hallway was long, the walls painted in dark colours and illuminated only by the occasional wall sconce.

Her body was warm from the combat and the energy surging through her blood, but she registered that the air she was breathing in was cold. She could not see anything at the end of the hallway- there was dim light, but that was all.

It probably just opens up into another room. I don’t know where we are, but I have a feeling that we are in a large house at the least. That Teleportation Rune could have sent us anywhere, if they have that many Death Magi powering it.

“We keep going until we find Lloyd,” she called over the clapping of their boots on the stone floor. Hayato’s footsteps were heavier than the rest, but the infantryman seemed to be keeping up just fine, and she thanked Rendeis that they had someone with high strength and endurance on their team.

“Can you sense anyone, Raine?” Hayato asked, his voice coming out in short gasps. Raine frowned but she kept her face forward so that he couldn’t see the look of frustration and pity in her eyes. She fought back her emotions and delved deep into her mana vital, extending her mind around her with both her Death Magic and her Shadowsight.

Being detected by an Illuminator is the least of my worries right now. If anything, having one with us would probably be more of a blessing than a curse right now.

She immediately sensed Death Runes around her, etched deep into the walls. Judging by the way they were placed, she guessed that they were in a large building, one with many levels.

“There are Death Magic Amplification runes in the walls,” she called, thinking furiously. “They seem to be powering the curses that the Death Magi are using.”

“What about traps?” Hammond called from the back of the line.

“No,” she answered, frowning. “none that I can sense.”

“I cannot sense them either,” Atherton said from the back of Hayato, “These Death Magi must be very confident about this place.”

Raine nodded and, having come to the same conclusion, decided to push away her doubt regarding her Death Magic abilities. Her head ached as she looked through her Shadowsight, seeing through countless shadows- the house was shrouded in darkness. It must be night outside.

She looked for and found the familiar golden glow of élan vital in various areas, though most were above her. Their movements seemed tense, but they did not come downstairs to the chaos that they were creating. A few, however, were situated nearby them.

“There are many still around,” she said after a moment, her brain trying to process the dozens of images she saw through her mind’s eye as she continued running forward. “but the next room is empty. Troy, turn right.”

Troy said nothing as they entered into the next room, and she barely gave it a glance as they swept past into the next corridor.

“Can they not sense us now?” Hayato grunted. “Can we drop this Life Shield now?”

“No,” both Raine and Atherton said at the same time.

“We’re approaching two life sources,” Raine said quickly. “I can sense one, which is immensely powerful, and another, which is shrouded in Death Magic. I think that might be Lloyd.”

“And I hate to add,” Atherton said, his voice fragile, “but I will be too weak to summon another one of these Shields if I drop it now. I really am sorry for being so useless; being carried is horrendously embarrassing…”

“Being a pack-mule is hardly dignified either…” Hayato muttered darkly. “Is it far, Raine?”

“No.” she said. She memorised the location and retreated from her gaze, wincing as pain shot through her chest and limbs from her overexerted mana vital.

“Thank the Gods.” Hammond said, “My legs are killing me; I ain’t cut out for this kinda nonsense.”

THEY CONTINUED TO run for a time, the sounds of their panting now filling the air along with their hastened footsteps. From time to time they were met by Death Magi, and the fighting was vicious and short. Protected by Atherton’s Life Shield, Raine, Troy and Hammond would race forward and attack with a barrage of fire, water and air attacks, leaving the enemy unconscious or dead.

We can’t kill all of them, she decided, Avendan might want to interrogate them. This is definitely a larger operation than I had thought. But if we get to this Grindale guy… Maybe he knows more about this situation than the others. If we could capture him…

“We’re getting close.” she said, causing Troy to turn to look back at her. Hayato was panting heavily now and Atherton was mostly silent, but she had already detected his weak mana vital. Hammond seemed to be the strongest of them now, but even he was weakened from the run. “We’re going to move through an empty room, and then he will be in the next one.”

“Who will be?” Troy asked. “Grindale?”

“Yes.” she said. “I think it’s him anyway- he’s got the strongest élan vital out of all the ones I can sense.”

“Who is Grindale?” Atherton asked mildly.
“Are you telling me,” Hayato said, breathless, his voice harsh and ragged, “that you don’t know who your enemy is? Did you… just simply volunteer without knowing?”

“Sorry, sorry,” Atherton said with an embarrassed laugh, “I was too caught up in the excitement to hear much of the details.”

Raine didn’t bother to sigh; she was too busy struggling against her own emotions. How would they fare against a Death Mage that powerful?

She turned her magical eye away from the blazing élan vital and focused on the other, weak and faded in comparison. Raine thought that it felt familiar to her, but it was covered in Death Magic that did not have his signature. She had been around him long enough to now recognise his aura, and she thought that she could feel it beneath the coating of alien Death Magic.

A glance with Shadowsight told her that the figure was small and hunched over, lying still on the ground, and the image made her heart race even faster. Lloyd…

“Game plan?” Hammond asked. “You said Wetherdon’s near him, yeah?”

“Yes,” she said, her breath tight in her chest. “I think he’s been cursed; I’m not sure. I don’t think he’s in a very healthy state.”

“I’ll tend to him as soon as we get there.” Atherton promised.

“You… need to fight Grindale.” Hayato muttered. “That’s why you’re here.”

“If Lloyd Wetherdon is indeed injured, I will need to tend to him immediately,” Atherton said, though his voice was lacking confidence. Raine did not turn around, but she could just imagine the look of irritation on Hayato’s face. “Grindale may activate other Death Curses upon him.”

“He could use him as a hostage, you mean?” Troy asked as he put his hands up, blasting open the closed door with his Air Magic. They charged through the next room with ease.

“Yes.” Atherton said, “Wouldn’t that render this entire mission pointless?”

Raine heard Hayato curse under his breath, and it surprised her. But Atherton was right.

“We’ll hold him off until you can help us, Erwin.” she decided, ending any further conversation on the matter. She turned to look at him, and he was watching her with wide eyes from over Hayato’s shoulder. His skin was deathly pale, whilst the Kayokian’s was red from exertion. “But you must make it quick- we need your help.”

“I promise that I will do what I can.” he said, nodding firmly.

“We should catch our breath, if we’re about to charge in there all heroic and whatnot.” Hammond said, “Which I know you want to do, Raine.”

She agreed, and slowed to a walk. The others followed suit. They were now in another short passageway, the next room some twenty paces or so in front of them.

“Can you at least walk to the door?” Hayato grunted, and Raine smiled sympathetically at him as Atherton gave a cry of horror.

“Of course,” he said weakly, giving a bashful laugh. “I’m so sorry for being such trouble, Master Kimura. You are truly a powerful and enduring warrior.”

“I don’t recall telling you my surname…” Hayato muttered, but he moved to his knees with a grimace, and Atherton climbed off.

Both stood tall again, and Hayato stretched his back.

“Thanks, Hayato,” Raine told him softly. “You really helped us out.”

Hayato gave a short shrug, too out of breath to speak, and wiped the loose strands of hair from his face.

RAINE ALLOWED THEM a couple of painful minutes to rest and regain some strength, though each second that passed felt like hours to her, each one filled with anxiety and concern over Lloyd. The being before them was still, and she had no doubt that he had detected her presence and her Death Magic, but he didn’t seem to mind.

He was waiting for them.

“We shall keep him distracted whilst Atherton gets Wetherdon.” Hayato said after a moment, moving his hands from his face as he drunk the water she had summoned into his cupped palms. “An all-out attack would be preferable, I think, though we should time our attacks so as to keep him on the defensive.”

“Easy.” Hammond muttered. Troy just simply nodded, his eyes wide.

Then Hayato turned to her, and his eyes suddenly glowed with fierce energy. “Please stay close to me again, Raine.” he said, his voice deadpan serious. “I cannot have you injured; I would rather be cursed myself. I would rather Wetherdon die than you.”

“Hayato…” she said, frowning despite the blush that grew across her face. “This is why we’re here…”

“I’m with him.” Hammond said. “Wetherdon gives me the creeps. You’re annoying, but not creepy.”

“Not helping, Hammond.” she snapped, but he simply shrugged. Troy was looking away, but she could see that he was frowning.

“I will stay near you.” she said, turning back to Hayato. “But be careful- you’ve never fought against Death Magic before, Hayato.”

“Then I will learn.” he said simply, unsheathing his longsword. “Shall we, then?”

“I will go first then, I suppose,” Atherton said, his voice light. “I may as well shield you all before I get to Wetherdon.”

“How is it that you can continue to function at all?” Troy asked suddenly, frowning at the Life Mage. “I thought you could only handle that shield of yours for a few minutes?”

“Oh, yes,” Atherton said, smiling sheepishly, “Whilst I was being carried by Master Kimura, I took the liberty to drink a mana-restoring concoction that I found within my robes.”

He flinched at the dark look that suddenly grew over Hayato’s face. “Not that it did much, mind you,” he said quickly, “And unfortunately, I only had the one. I didn’t even realise I was carrying it at all!”

He gave a weak laugh, but Hayato was too exhausted to reprimand him and merely shook his head, disbelief in his dark eyes.

“At any rate, it’s party time.” Hammond said. “No one be cheap with their techniques now, I’m exhausted as it is.”

Raine wanted to smile at his nonchalant comment, but she couldn’t find the humour within her. She merely nodded, and they continued forward, Atherton still protecting them with his white dome of Life Magic.

“I WAS WONDERING when Wetherdon’s bitch was going to show.” the Death Mage said from the other side of the room.

Raine glanced around automatically, her Shadow training forcing her to locate spots to hide in, exposed areas, and places of light and darkness. They were in a large rectangular room, decorated with furniture, and had the general appearance of a lounging or entertaining room.

The Death Mage was standing beside an armchair, which itself was in front of a full bookshelf. The walls were decorated with sconces, and they were burning with small flames. The whole mansion must be built with wood, Raine realised. How strange- where are we?

“Are you Thomas Grindale?” she asked, ignoring his comment. She had sensed Hayato tense up the moment he entered, and he remained only a foot behind her. She made sure that she stayed within the protective barrier of Atherton’s shield.

“I am.” Grindale said, bearing his teeth in a grin. He was young, as Lloyd had informed her earlier, and taller than her, with a plain face and features- his hair was a sandy-blonde and sat just past his ears, and his eyes appeared dark from where she was standing. He was dressed in a long black open robe and an Avendan mage uniform.

He seemed common enough, but he was radiating Death Magic, and that caught and held her attention more than anything.

“We’ve come to get Lloyd out of here.” she said, forcing her voice to stay even. “You have the option to give up and surrender, or to be killed.”

“Killed?” The man gave a bark of laughter. “You think that you can kill me, Raine Taylor? You’re only a baby Death Mage in comparison to the rest of us. Don’t think that you have anywhere near enough strength to fight me.”

“Go.” Hayato said to Atherton. “Keep your shield activated.”

“Go where?” Grindale asked, raising an eyebrow at them. “To Wetherdon? Go for it- he won’t be waking up any time soon, I think.”

Atherton looked at her, his expression unsure, but Raine gave him a firm nod and he walked away, taking his precious shield with him as he headed for the door to the right of them, on the other side of the room. She felt its calming presence fade the moment the light pulled away from her.

“So,” Grindale continued, spreading his hands wide to the sides of him as he slowly advanced forwards, “How shall we do this, Miss Raine? I’d like to see what the pupil of the famous Wetherdon can do.”

“Me first.” Hammond said coldly, and a barrage of fireballs came from before him and flew at the Death Mage. Raine ran forward to the other side of Grindale and Hayato followed, already hurling his throwing knives at the man. He deflected Hammond’s flames easily with an Absorption Curse, but he had to dodge to avoid the flying projectiles. When he did, Raine was ready with a water-whip, lashing out at him from along the ground and at his feet.

“Too slow!” he said, sidestepping the attack and raising his hand at her. Instinct took hold and she rolled to her side, feeling dark energy race past her ear, whistling promises of death as it went.

She rapidly got to her feet and continued to move, the four of them now circling the Death Mage and constantly firing techniques and weapons at him.

“Raine!” Hammond called, and she looked past Grindale to see him standing on the opposite side. “Let’s steam this place up, yeah?”

She nodded, immediately understanding his meaning, and moved her hands up before her as Hammond did the same. She pulled up energy from inside of her and as she saw flames erupt into existence in front of Hammond, she blasted as much water as she could from her hands, pain racing up her limbs as she did so.

Grindale moved out of the way just in time, and the fire and water collided with an ear-piercingly loud hiss, immediately turning into steam. Raine felt her mana vital weaken as she held the spell for a moment more and within moments, the room was filled with steam. She could barely see, but that was their intention.

“Troy!” Hammond yelled suddenly.

“That’s the first time you’ve ever addressed me by my first name, you know…” she heard Troy say.

“Shut up, would you?” Hammond growled. “Use your magic to keep this steam around him and not us- he won’t be able to see us then.”

“Oh, right.” Troy said. Raine waited a moment, her body braced, and she felt the air around her shift suddenly, a warm breeze sweeping past her face. The steam drifted away and, now able to see again, she watched as Troy moved the mist so that it surrounded the Death Mage in a foggy dome, hindering his vision.

But the man did not simply stand there- Raine saw him lift his hand up at the Air Mage as his body rapidly became hidden by the steam, and she cried out a warning.

Not that it mattered- she felt a throwing knife fly past her, and a cry of pain and anger told her that it had hit its mark.

A hand gripped her upper arm tightly, and Hayato’s voice was in her ear, his warm breath on her face. “Tell me when he’s aiming at me,” he said, and she nodded as he raced forward, his longsword extended out to his side. The blade was so long that it would easily reach about halfway into the swirling steam, and could possibly cut Grindale without Hayato even needing to get too close to him.

Raine moved into a run a few paces after him, aiming for the opposite side of the dome as she unsheathed her shortsword. I may be able to use my Shadow combat techniques if I enter the steam, she thought, ignoring the bead of sweat that rolled down her face. I’ll just need to be watch out for his Death Magic. I’m the only one that can sense him in there.

“Dodge, Hayato!” she yelled, watching as the golden form of élan vital moved from inside the steam, one of its limbs aimed at the Kayokian and one at her. She dived into a roll to avoid the curse as it swept past, and moved onto her feet in time to see Hayato rise from the ground and sweep his longsword through the mist.

The élan vital shuddered for a moment, and she felt a surge of excitement rush through her. “You hit!” she called, and the corner of Hayato’s lips curled into a smile as he moved away from the dome.

My turn now, she thought, encouraged by the small victory, and she stepped into the steam, sword raised. Grindale appeared before her as a dark silhouette, one hand gripping his side, and she moved herself into one of the classic stances taught to her by Damien, using both her Shadowsight and Death Magic to follow his movements.

She struck before he had a chance to curse her, keeping her eyes firmly on his feet as she approached him. Grindale went to move but she was far quicker, and her blade sliced through his other side, although not as deeply as she would have liked.

However, rather than step away or respond to the injury, the Death Mage leapt towards her, ignoring the bleeding wound along his lower torso, reaching out instead with his hand. He’s ignored my attack completely!

Raine moved back as she sensed his magic rise around her, and she darted out of the way just as his fingertips brushed against her arm. She dived out of the steam, her senses in overdrive, and rested on one knee for a moment as she watched Grindale inside. Her Death Magic vision was fading; her mana vital was still seriously low from the previous battles, and relying on it to see him continued to drain her. Grindale was moving his hands about, not aiming at any of them in particular and as he did so, Hayato swiftly rushed to her side.

“Are you injured?” he asked her fiercely, still holding his longsword. Raine went to shake her head, but then she felt all feeling drain from her left arm.

“My arm!” she cried in surprise, now gripping her sword with only her right hand. “He touched me- he must be using a partial Paralysis Curse.”

Death Magic that was not hers was racing up her arm, her muscles tightening and refusing to relax, filling the limb with pain. She gritted her teeth as she watched the steam drift away from Grindale, and she realised that he had absorbed Troy’s Air Magic, preventing the thick fog from remaining around him any longer.

He pointed at her and she clumsily dodged another curse, given only a few seconds of respite as Hayato moved in again to distract him.

“Raine!” he called, his eyes squarely on Grindale.

“It’s nothing,” she replied, “My arm’s paralysed; that’s all.”

“That’s all?” Grindale repeated with a cold laugh. “If you say so, girl.”

She frowned, considering the meaning behind his words, but then she doubled over as pain erupted in her stomach, forcing all air from her lungs. She opened her mouth and inhaled, but air would not come- her lungs would not move. Not partial-!

The combat had heighted her need to breathe and she automatically released her blade and put her hand to her chest, opening and closing her mouth like a fish out of water. No matter what she did, she could not draw breath. She heard Hayato yell out her name, but she could not concentrate as she fell to the floor, her body suddenly weak.

I can’t breathe, she thought, panicking. I can’t breathe!

She heard other voices screaming out now, but her mind was rapidly becoming clouded. She clutched at her tunic with the one hand that could still move, but her diaphragm would not relax. She could see dark shapes advancing down upon her, but her world was spinning, dizziness consuming her.

Raine closed her eyes to block out the spiralling images around her.

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