Shadow's Pursuit

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Chapter Five

“DO IT.” DAMIEN whispered, but she didn’t need him to speak his frustration aloud for her to feel it. The target was stumbling around the room, clumsily trying to unbutton his expensive, finely decorated blouse with his fumbling hands. She could smell the liquor coming from him even from where they were hidden, peering inside the room through a gap between the door and the wall.

He had made his way loudly through the house as they had waited patiently in various hiding places, listening as he commanded his housekeeper away. He had muttered and grumbled in such a drunken slur that only the Gods themselves could have possibly understood him, all the while throwing pieces of his elegant outfit to the floor.

Only when all the candles were blown and the housekeeper had returned to her own room did they move forward with delicate, silent footsteps. Raine kept close to Damien, her heartbeat a rapid drumming in her chest. She watched him as he crept, placing each sandal-covered foot on the polished marble floor with a speed and silence that she was yet able to accomplish. He moved gracefully but powerfully, much like a panther. He turned to look at her, sensing her gaze, and his amber eyes flashed with irritation from above the black scarf that covered his mouth and nose. She quickly looked away.

Now, crouching on the ground before the large room, they watched the man as he unsuccessfully undressed himself, Damien’s eyes narrowing in distaste. His back was turned as he pulled apart the laces of his knee-high boots, and Raine felt the tiniest of nudges on the centre of her back. Damien moved away as she gently pulled the door open, and the light from the candles spilled into the dark, empty hallway. Raine crept in, her body low, knees bent, her hand pulling out her dagger from within the folds of her clothes. She gripped the weapon tightly, its weight and shape familiar in her gloved hands. She held it before her.

She closed the gap between the two of them slowly and carefully with one calculated step after another, her eyes constantly focused on the back of the target’s head. She could sense Damien watching her from within the darkness of the hallway, but his presence only heightened her fear.

As she came to stand only a few feet away from the man, she turned the blade in her hand, holding it close to her chest and aiming at his back. Now only a step away, she could smell his cologne, a rich and musky aroma that was mostly crushed by the overwhelming stench of sweat and alcohol that practically seeped from his pores.

She lifted the blade and tensed her muscles.

Then he started to turn, accidentally, it seemed, but she wasn’t expecting the sudden movement. She lashed out before he could turn around fully with a quick stab aimed at the low of his spine. The knife slit through his skin but instead of staying on course and severing his spine, Raine felt it turn to the side, cutting into his kidneys instead. She realised her mistake the moment the blade turned on its own, but loosening her overly tight grip on it would do nothing now.

Raine had been expecting him to fall to the ground and lie there still and quiet, like Damien had showed her. Instant cutting of the spine, instant death. Easy. Damien had always done it perfectly.

There was a brief moment of confusion, the man unable to fathom what had just happened, and he looked at her with wide, surprised eyes, his mind clearly drowning in a pool of alcohol. Then his mouth opened as he saw the knife in her hand, dripping with blood as deep red as the wine he had been drinking only moments ago. Raine started to panic. His voice fell from his lips in a high pitched stutter, but he was still too shocked to form any coherent words.

“Smother him, for Tenebrae’s sake!” Damien hissed from the doorway.

She kicked the man’s legs out from under him and he fell to the floor heavily, thudding like a sack of potatoes, and she rushed to the bed to grab an exquisitely decorated cushion.

In another flurry of movement she dropped to the floor and straddled him, using her knees to pin his arms down, and pressed the pillow to his face forcefully. Naturally he resisted, his strength temporarily enhanced by the liquor and the fear in his veins, and she had to use all of her strength to keep the pillow still and her body balanced. It was a tough struggle as he bled out, but eventually his energy left him and he fell quiet, muscles twitching before falling still.

Raine slowly removed the cushion and looked at his wide, horrified eyes, her heart racing painfully in her chest, her breathing rapid.

Then she felt warmth and wetness on her legs.

She gazed down at her knee-length pants and found them damp with his blood, and she couldn’t hold back her gasp as she saw how much of the liquid had leaked from him and all across the white marble floor.

“Messy and slow. Nice work.” Damien said dryly, standing beside her.

The memory of her first kill haunted her as they picked up pace, heading further into the complex network of trenches that linked them to their enemy. The air stank of mud, sweat and fear, filled with the sounds of stomping boots and shouted orders. It wouldn’t be long before the Treston forces would meet them in the half-submerged tunnels and when that happened, Raine did not know what she would do. Her heart was pounding in her chest and her throat was constricted, nausea and unease racing through her veins. Her mana vital was disturbed, reflecting her current state of mind, and she had to concentrate to calm the pool of magical energy that fuelled her magical techniques.

She breathed in deeply as she mentally recited the Shadow mantras, concentrating on slowing her breathing and the pace of her heart. It is my role to act as an Avendan mage. Therefore, Treston is my enemy. To maintain my position, I must attack them now. They are now my faceless enemy.

A BRIDGE HAD indeed been constructed over the Severin, but it was the large fortifications that surrounded its entrance that had caught and held her eye as she had followed her section down into the trenches. It was clearly the work of Earth Magi- two watchtowers of stone and rock rose from the ground on either side of the bridge whilst rock walls in front of the towers prevented Avendan forces from getting closer. The walls moved out in opposing diagonal angles in a V, with the vertex being the bridge itself. There was no other access route- the walls were clearly guarded on both sides with archers and long-range magi, and the only way to the bridge was between them.

The kill-zone was ridiculously obvious but any humour was removed by the truth of the matter- they could only destroy the bridge if they survived the opening mouth of guarded walls.

The world around her had a bluish tinge to it, the sky a gentle mix of baby blue and pink clouds as dawn broke. The darkness of night was fading, the last stars of Hector’s Blade ebbing away one by one and taking with them the luck that the constellation represented. Would the God of War favour them now?

THE AVENDAN FORCES had moved quietly during the night, but now the time for stealth was behind them and orders started piercing the morning air on both sides of the war-zone. The encouraging cries of soldiers clashed against the clattering of armour, and the screeching of swords being drawn somehow rose above the continuous buzz of voices.

Raine followed the section member in front of her as they descended further into the trenches. An Earth Mage led every group, guiding them through and continuing to construct the tunnels as they got closer to the bridge. The mud they had dug out had been hardened by Earth Magic and now sat alongside the top of the trenches in a diagonal angle, acting as a barricade and reducing the chances of aerial attacks hitting them.

THEY TRAVELLED THROUGH the trenches for a time, keeping themselves to the side of the path and underneath the earth shields, waiting for the inevitable. They scampered through the mud, listening to the yells and cries of those all around them. Strings thwacked as arrows were released from nocks, whistling through the air and thudding into thick mud or into the armour or flesh of unwilling victims.

Raine remained low, running with her knees bent. She kept up with the others with relative ease, and occasionally looked behind her to make sure that the rest of the section was following. The magi from Third Platoon were terrified, most not even bothering to hide their fear, and the experienced soldiers pressed them forward with grim, serious expressions.

She felt the earth shudder around her and she automatically adjusted her footing whilst others around her stumbled and slipped. She breathed in the stinging, powerful aroma of burning reeds and smoking plants, combined with hot mud and perspiration.

A glance up at the sky told her that they had reached the edges of the kill-zone, the enemy walls looming up on either side of her. The stench of blood and sweat intensified along with the heat.

“Get back!” the Earth Mage suddenly cried, and Raine leapt back gracefully. One man was not so quick, and was crushed as the walls in front of them suddenly slammed forward to meet each other, cutting off their trench system. She looked away as she heard bones snap and flesh press against itself in ways that were not meant to be. Many cried out in horror and she heard retching behind her, followed by the putrid and intense smell of vomit.

She returned her gaze to the Earth Mage as he moved his hands rapidly and forced the way open again, and more cries of disgust filled the air as the remains of the dead soldier crumpled to the floor.

“Keep moving! The bastards are trying to crush us!” the loud voice of Demley called, and Raine wasted no time in jumping over the body, staying as close to the Earth Mage as she possibly could.

Despite her calm appearance, her stomach was turning, bile rising in her throat as her mind replayed the death of the man over and over. This isn’t like fighting as a Shadow. We just step out, kill, and step away again into the darkness. This is different. This is violent, and gruesome.

A powerful shudder travelled through the earth and she fell to the ground with a splash, her feet slipping on the suddenly shifting mud. Another followed but it was not as intense, and she quickly pulled herself back onto her feet. Mud rained down on them for a moment.

“What was that?” a man nearby was shouting, his voice nearly lost in the cacophony.

“It was the trebuchet!” another cried, hopeful. “They’ve got the trebuchet working!”

Raine glanced up at the sky through a gap in the shield, hoping for an instant that she would see a huge rock fly over them and toward their enemy. Instead, she saw small porcelain pots shatter in the mud above them, and suddenly smelt oil so strongly that she could taste it.

A moment later, she heard the roaring of flames as they burst into existence. The blaze leered down at the Avendans from above, cutting out the sky and grabbing at them with fingers of light and intense heat. Smoke started to pour into the trenches.

Raine saw the Earth Mage start to run again and she followed, doing her best to ignore the screams and yelps of panic that surrounded her, keeping beneath the shield as best she could. She thought she could hear the commands of Demley from amongst the cries of hundreds, but it was hard to tell. No one was following orders anymore- the soldiers had been cast into panic after witnessing one of their colleagues being crushed to death by opposing earth walls. The thick black smoke that was now sweeping around them only increased their confusion and mania.

Deep in her troubled thoughts, Raine didn’t hear the large rock as it plummeted through the shield and into her shoulder, knocking her to the ground and drawing a sharp cry of pain from her lips. Training took hold and she went to roll as she hit the ground but, forgetting the size of the trench, she collided hard with the wall instead. She got a short glimpse of a tall and dark wall above them and faces peering down at her, faces covered with the black helmets of Treston soldiers.

For a flickering moment, she felt safe as she looked at her fellow comrades, feeling secure comfort at the sight of the dark armour and the hammer and axe insignia of her country.

Then an archer nocked an arrow and aimed, and she realised that they did not think the same of her.

She rolled out of the way as quickly as her reflexes would allow, slamming her back into the other wall, and an arrow thudded into the wall where she had just been.

Nursing her wounded shoulder as she tried to get to her feet, Raine kept herself under the protection of the mud-shield and watched as the Earth Mage continued forward, away from her. A rush of panic filled her as she considered the possibility of being left behind, but her foot slipped in the mud as she tried to dart forward, pain flaring in her shoulder.

Suddenly, the shield above the Earth Mage exploded as a heavy ceramic jar shattered against it, and oil sprayed into the air and all over the clothes of the mage. He stopped, blinking and wiping the fluid from his face, and Raine instinctively opened her mouth to cry a warning. Get down, idiot!

A well-aimed flaming arrow streaked past her in a blurry flash of colour, and suddenly it was imbedded deep within the chest of the mage, the force of the impact throwing him against the wall. The bright, bold uniform of blue and gold was instantly consumed by flame, fed by the yellow-brown liquid that now coated his body.

Raine could only stare as his whole body was lit alight, the heat and light searing her eyes, the stink of burning cloth and cooking flesh reaching her nostrils as she leaned against the shielded wall. It seemed too sudden to be possible, and only the sounds of his screams moved her into action. She swept her hands up violently, reaching deep into her mana vital to drench the man in water, but it was too late.

His smoky remains fell to the floor, his blackened body still twitching with pain and shock reflex.

One of the soldiers behind her had caught up, and shoved her violently in his desperation to advance, pushing her into the wall and sending a fresh flood of pain through her shoulder. She slipped, dropping to her knees in the mud, and more Avendans rushed past. One stomped on her hand and she cried out with surprise and pain, but they ignored her as they took in the sight of the dead Earth Mage.

Then they ran, guideless and manic with fear, leaving her alone in the mud as she tried to breathe through the thickening smoke, nursing her possibly broken hand.

A quick check of her shoulder told her that it had been badly cut, blood trickling down her arm, and Raine bit her lip as she bandaged the wound with a ripped strip of her cloak. Her hand was throbbing in time to her rapid heartbeat and she could already see it start to bruise.

She coughed violently, and looked up around her. The smoke was so thick now that she could barely see at all. I can’t die in this place, not like this, she thought, slowly getting to her feet, not killed by my own people, Gods damn it.

A strong breeze swept past from behind her, whipping the remains of her cloak up and around her body, her black hair waving wildly in her face. The smoke started to clear and, taking in the fresh air, she turned around. She only had a brief glimpse of gold and blue before a pair of arms wrapped around her.

“Thank Rendeis you’re alive!” Troy said, finally releasing her as she gave a whimper of pain as her shoulder was crushed. “I can’t believe I finally found you! I was so worried; I had no idea what you were up to, or where you were; someone said your section was going to infiltrate First Company-”

“We don’t have time to talk, Troy,” Raine said quickly, giving a small smile of relief. “Thanks for the help, but we really need to go.”

He looked at her for a moment, realising that she was holding her hand up against her chest. “You’re hurt!” he exclaimed. His eyes travelled across to her shoulder and his expression darkened.

“It’s alright,” Raine said before he could say anything else. “I’ll be fine. I just think my hand is broken. But we’ve got to keep moving.”

“Right.” A serious expression befell his face, a new and unsettling change from his usually cheerful demeanour. “You can stay with me. Let’s go- some of the other platoons have engaged with the enemy properly; you might be able to hear them now.”

“I can’t hear anything properly anymore,” Raine admitted, falling in step behind him as he started to jog, keeping his hand against the wall for stability.

Troy shrugged. “It’s chaos.” he said. “The enemy is aiming for the Earth Magi since they’re leading the groups and building the saps and trenches. So every time one of them goes, the whole line falters.”

“That’s what happened to us.” Raine called, hoping that her voice would reach him over the turmoil around them. He nodded.

“The trebuchet is slowly bringing down the walls but that won’t happen straight away.” He turned and grinned at her, his white teeth and blue eyes gleaming against his dirty, ash-stained skin. “But that’s what we’re here for, right?”

Raine forced a smile on her face, her teeth grit tightly together as pain throbbed through her shoulder and hand.

THEY CONTINUED DOWN the trench left by the dead, burnt Earth Mage, and followed in the wake of another section. Troy kept the smoke from sinking into the trenches whilst Raine extinguished any flames that came too close for comfort, all the while crouching low in the mud and trying to avoid the arrows, rocks, oil pots and general debris that the Treston forces were throwing down at them. It was difficult- the closer they came to the Severin River, the wetter and blacker the trenches became and they had to move quickly to stop their boots from being sucked down into the earth. Their once-bright gold and blue armour had long been dulled by the mud, and their faces were black. Raine could only recognise Troy from his tall, thin frame, his shining blue eyes and his graceful walk. His honey-blonde hair was invisible beneath a thick layer of filth.

WELL WITHIN THE kill-zone, Raine finally started to hear the smashing chimes of metal on metal as the Treston forces entered the trenches, and it didn’t take long until soldiers met them in the long mud tunnels. They were not covered in mud and their gleaming red and black armour was not yet tainted by the smoke and dirt, and their hateful expressions were obvious. It was strange, staring at her own people from the enemy’s side, seeing how others might see her. They looked strong, malicious and angry and even though they were human, they somehow seemed alien.

And right now, they were intent on killing her.

Raine quickly cast the unpleasant notion aside and went to grab her shortsword from the low of her back, but yelped in surprise as a sharp jab of pain ripped through her hand, wrist and arm. Damn it, looks like I did break or fracture my hand.

She brought her sword in front of her in a left overhand grip instead; it was not as efficient as her natural right hand but was good enough; Damien had seen to that. She tensed her muscles, ready to charge at the men with a quick flurry of movement, but then Troy stepped in front of her.

“You can’t use a sword with a broken hand, Raine.” he said. He looked back at her for a moment, and she could barely recognise his face- his eyes were burning with cold fury. “Back me up with support magic.”

“Okay.” she said, unable to say more as he leapt forward, unsheathing his rapier as he did so. She moved forward but it seemed that her assistance was unnecessary- Troy was a whirlwind, lashing out gracefully, powerfully and incredibly quickly. He didn’t give the Treston soldier time to attack, pressing him backwards with a constant barrage of perfectly executed strikes.

He stabbed him in the chest, ending the short battle, and stepped back as another charged over the body of his dead comrade, his eyes glowing with rage. In his large hands he held a battle-axe, already painted with droplets of blood.

He lifted his weapon high above his head and ran at Troy, bellowing a victory cry for Treston. Raine watched as Troy continued to step back, preparing himself for the powerful blow that was to come, but she had already determined the outcome of that. She cleared her mind and aimed her hands at the axeman.

“To the side, Troy!” she cried. Troy gave her a quick glance and pressed his body down against the side of the trench as Raine released a huge wave of water that exploded from in front of her hands. It charged directly at the man, catching him in the chest and sending him stumbling a fair few paces back, but it was not enough to push him over. He was built like an ox, thick and heavy, and he regained his footing and glared at her through the thin slit in his helmet. Raine could feel his anger and hatred sink into her like poison; it was so intense that it shocked her.

Troy took the opportunity to reach out with a wind-whip and pulled his feet out from under him, dragging the stocky axeman down into the mud. Raine pressed her palms out and sent another blast of water after him, making sure this time that it was forceful enough to send him rolling head over heels through the trench.

Troy got to his feet and sprinted after him, rapier extended in his hand once more. The Treston, lying on his back, raised his axe and blocked with a grunt as Troy swung his sword down upon him, again and again, but the axe acted as both a shield and a weapon. Not only that, but the Air Mage didn’t have the horizontal room to swing his rapier about in the way he was trained.

He readjusted his stance and went to strike again, but the man swept his feet out in an arc, his thick boots colliding with Troy’s. Unused to such close combat, Troy lost his bearing and slid into the mud, fumbling to rise onto his knees as the Treston quickly got up with a speed unnatural for his large size. Raine braced herself but she had no way to attack- Troy was stuck straight in her line of fire.

“Get him out of there, would you?” came a calm voice. Raine turned and looked at the calm face of Hammond. “Looks like he’s having a mud-wrestling competition with the guy. It’s just shameful.”

She was about to stammer some kind of response but then he lifted one of his hands. Raine recognised the thirst for violence in his eyes, and she hurried to help Troy. The axeman had raised his axe above his head in a double-hand grip, mere seconds away from brining the heavy weapon down on Troy’s head.

She extended her reach into her mana vital and cast out a thick water-whip, bringing it around the waist of the Air Mage. Troy didn’t even have time to look back at her as she yanked the rope back will all the strength she could muster, and he was hoisted a few paces backwards in the air. The Treston’s downward slice cut through air.

Rolling to a stop at their feet, she knelt down to pull Troy upright as Hammond took a step forward.

“Might wanna cover your face, Pretty Boy.” he said.

They both had the common sense to look away as Hammond concentrated, pulling his arms up before him in a wide sweeping gesture as the axeman rapidly advanced, perhaps sensing the danger within the thin, blonde man.

Hammond pushed his palms out and a great ball of inferno fire blasted from his hands, filling the trench before them and racing forward like a charging beast. Raine let go of Troy’s arm and covered her face as intense heat swept past them, hotter and fiercer than any of the winds she had faced in the Kreshna Desert. The darkness behind her eyelids lit up in a red-amber glow.

She heard the momentary screams of the axeman and the men behind him as they were eaten whole by the flames.

She opened her eyes slowly, unsure of what she would find, but Hammond had been very thorough in his work. He was already walking forward through the trench, its walls now pocked and fragile. After a moment, he looked back at her.

“You kids coming or what?” he said. Raine ignored the burning corpses that lay around his feet and turned her attention to Troy, who was staring at him with just as much surprise as her.

A sharp sting in her shoulder reminded her that she had to keep moving, and they quickly caught up to Hammond.

“Copped one in the shoulder, did you?” he asked nonchalantly, turning his gaze back down at her. His untidy mop of blonde hair shifted, and eyes green as fresh grass looked down at her.

She was more stunned, however, by the scar that ran alongside his right eye. It started at his temple and ran diagonally inward till it stopped in the middle of his cheekbone, an inch below his eye. It was not unsightly and it was faded, but was still quite deep. That’s one hell of a scar, she thought. How would he get such a thing? I’ve never noticed it before.

“My eyes are over here, sweetheart.” Hammond said, drawing her gaze back as he pointed at his eyes with his index and middle fingers. His expression was unreadable.

“Sorry,” she said hastily, feeling her cheeks burn with embarrassment. He shrugged and turned around again, his hair falling back into place over his face.

THE THREE MOVED together through the trenches, heading further north into the kill-zone and fighting Treston forces whenever they approached them. It was long and gruesome, the heat intensified by both the sun and the flames. The trenches were quickly dissolving into mud and water, the Earth Magi now being too far ahead to repair any damage behind them.

They turned a corner and Raine almost walked into the thin frame of Hammond as he stopped moving. She peered around him and saw what he was seeing- the trench had been cut off again by the enemy, leaving behind crushed bodies that were stuck like limp mannequins between the wall and the rock.

Troy made a sound of disgust as he too came to look.

“Dead end. Literally.” Hammond said dryly. Raine frowned, disapproving. Only he and Damien would say something that morbid, she thought.

“Unbelievable, I tell you.” Troy started, shaking his head. Sensing that he was about to begin a moral tirade against Hammond, Raine stepped towards him.

“We have to find another way, then.” she said. “There must be other Earth Magi about that are still carving through the trenches.”

“And how do you suppose we find them?” Hammond drawled. “Take a tour of the Avendan-Treston tunnel system?”

She ignored his sarcasm and tried to think. Her shoulder was aching and her hand was swollen and turning a dark shade of brown.

“We’ll probably have to climb over.” she said, voice heavy. “Maybe create a distraction, some flames and smoke so they can’t see us as we do it.”

She was expecting Hammond to say something sarcastic again, but the Fire Mage just sighed.

“Fine,” he said mournfully, moving his hands into the folds of his tunic. She watched on silently for a moment as he pulled a shiny piece of metal from his pocket.

“We can use this to look over the trenches; see where the next one is.” he said. Raine looked at him, surprised by his ingenuity and uncharacteristic involvement. “What?” he said blankly.

“Nothing,” she said quickly. “I was just surprised that you carry that around, that’s all.”

Hammond shrugged. “I forgot it was even there until now.” he said. Troy shook his head and sighed theatrically.

They huddled up against the wall of the trench and shuffled along until they had returned to the last gap in the shield, where it would be easiest for them to climb over.

“Here goes,” Hammond said. Troy and Raine waited nervously as he moved directly underneath the gap and slowly extended the shiny piece of metal up above the earth. They all jumped as an arrow thudded into the wall on the opposite side of him, but he held onto the piece, looking at the image that shone in the item’s reflection.

“Hurry!” Raine hissed, her anxiety growing unbearable. Another agonising moment passed and Hammond lowered his arm and placed the metal back into his pocket. He then crept back under the cover of the shield.

“The next trench is about three paces away.” he said, monotonous. “I can create a large flame in front of us, and we can just dive through into it. That should be enough of a distraction.”

“Yes, a great distraction, one that’ll set us on fire too.” Troy growled. Hammond just raised an eyebrow at him.

“We’ve got a Water Mage with us. If we catch fire, she’ll just put it out. Right?” he said, looking over at her. Raine nodded half-heartedly, which didn’t seem to ease Troy’s discomfort.

“And you can always use your wind skills to cover us with the smoke.” she added. Contributing to the cause seemed to lighten his mood slightly.

“Guess we could pull it off.” he said thoughtfully.

“Guess we don’t have any choice.” Hammond said.

They chose their position and readied themselves. Raine tightened the knot of fabric that was wrapped around her shoulder, now damp with her sweat and stained with her blood. She summoned water for them to drink and then drenched them all with it, a refreshing relief from the prickling heat.

Troy picked a strand of soaked hair from his face, expression glum.

Raine took a deep breath, tensing her muscles. “Good luck.” she said. Troy nodded and Hammond shrugged. Then Hammond stepped back and faced the wall, a look of concentration sweeping over his face as he flicked his hands. The earth above them erupted in flames, the mud parapet boiling away to thin, liquid sludge. Troy added a gust of wind to the air, pushing the smoke up and around them.

Raine covered her mouth as she watched Hammond nimbly pull himself up and over the trench, and disappear into the black. Troy gestured to her and she rushed forward, heartbeat now pounding wildly as he boosted her up. She clambered up onto level ground, her fingers sliding in the mud, and she resisted the urge to stare at her surroundings. The world was a mist of orange and red, rich with the stench of burning flesh and sweat. Ahead of her, Hammond’s tall wall of flames danced, blocking the next trench from view. Her mouth was painfully dry, and tasted of ash.

She struggled to swallow down her rising fear. What if they shoot me? Killed by my own side?

“Come on!” she heard Troy bellow from beneath her and, ignoring her screaming instincts, she pulled herself to her feet and ran towards the flames, diving into a roll through them. Her body was enveloped by intense, scorching heat that whispered the promise of peeling the flesh from her bones, and smoke filled her lungs with every short breath she took.

Then, a moment later, she emerged through them and fell into the trench.

She went to place her hands out to soften her fall, but the hard mud never rose up to meet her. Instead, she landed straight on top of someone and the two of them fell to the ground, mud splashing up around them.

“Hammond?” she said in alarm, looking down at the man she had collided with.

“Not quite.” Hammond said, crouching beside her and looking at the stranger. His hand was outstretched, and she realised that he had been a heartbeat from immolating him.

“Hello there,” the man said, his face inches away. His eyes were staring into hers, wide and filled with surprise, and she could see individual flecks of jade-green amongst the brown irises. Loose strands of white hair lay casually over his face, which was stained with dirt and ash.

“Oh I’m so sorry,” she cried, pushing herself off the man and falling onto her backside before him. He continued to stare openly at her as he slowly sat upright, his own expression one of shock and confusion.

He had long white hair tied in a low horsetail, and long fringes rested along the sides of his face. He too was stained head to toe in filth, but she could recognise the blue and gold uniform of an Avendan mage from beneath the long, white open robe he wore.

“That’s quite alright,” he said after a moment, taking in her appearance as much as she was his. Then his eyes rolled up to look at Hammond, and he jumped as he saw the small ball of blue flame flickering menacingly in his open palm. “I’m a good guy! I’m from Avendan! Like you!” he yelped quickly, bringing his hands up in defence.

“Hmm…” Hammond seemed to consider him for a moment before lowering his hand. “Maybe you are. I think I’ve seen you around.”

“Yes,” the stranger said, nodding furiously. “I’m a Life Mage of Second Company, Second Platoon! Please don’t burn me!”

Hammond opened his mouth to reply but was knocked face-first into the mud as Troy finally leapt down into the trench.

“You damn idiot!” the Fire Mage growled, slowly getting to his knees and wiping the muck from his pale face. Troy looked up at the three of them as he rested on his hands and knees, panting heavily. Then he noticed the Life Mage.

“Who are you?” he asked, frowning.

“Can you get rid of the smoke now?” Hammond interrupted wryly, “Now that you are aware that none of us are on fire? Breathing would be nice, you know.”

“You created it.” Troy snapped, but willed the smoke away nevertheless.

A large boom echoed overhead, followed by a thunderous shudder that ripped through the trenches, and they all looked to the sky.

“Must be getting close now.” Troy said, momentarily distracted by the sound.

“We are.” Hammond said. “Avendan forces are at the bridge fighting them as we speak. They’ve already taken one of the watchtowers down.”

Troy cast him a curious look. “I looked when I went through the flames; would you believe.” Hammond said placidly. The stranger suddenly sneezed, and they all looked back at him.

“So… you’re a Life Mage?” Raine asked him. “Where is the rest of your section?”

“They… kind of left me,” the man muttered, a blush growing across his face. “I’m not very fast, you see…”

“We shouldn’t take in strays, Raine,” Hammond warned, and she cast him a look.

“Please don’t leave me here,” he said quickly, panic rising. “I can be useful! See- you’re injured!”

The man moved onto his knees and reached out for Raine’s shoulder, and she automatically flinched. She saw Troy twitch as well in the corner of her eye, but the Air Mage remained still, watching them.

Raine looked on as a white glow grew around the man’s thin, spidery hand, and she breathed out slowly as the pain in her shoulder ebbed away, replaced with a sense of calm and strength.

“And your hand as well…” he muttered softly, gently taking her wrist and examining her hand. “Yes… it’s definitely fractured.”

Raine could only watch as he tended to her hand, the spikes of pain fading away.

“Thankyou.” she said quietly. “I didn’t think you’d be able to fix it completely…”

“I’m a pretty good Life Mage,” the man said, grinning. He’s definitely more powerful than Chelstra…

“My name is Erwin Atherton. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“I’m Raine Taylor,” she said, feeling her spirits rise as the pain from her wounds disappeared entirely. She had never truly appreciated Life Magic until now. “Do you want to come with us? We should go help the others.”

“Please.” Atherton said, and Hammond gave a sigh.

They went to move but there was yet another shudder that swept through the earth, followed by jubilant yells and cries.

“Sounds like they don’t need our assistance.” Hammond said wryly, and promptly sat down in the mud. “Praise be to Fortis.”

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