34. Fire and Darkness
“It`s been a long time, my love,” the woman named Evine spoke, her words to the king honeyed. A thin sneer painted her lips, her eyes sparking with what I could only describe as delightful wickedness.
The woman who was engaged to the king a long time ago.
The one who killed herself…and somehow his mother as well.
But the woman before me wasn’t dead. She stood with a tranquil grace, a silver-coated staff in her grip like an extension to her arm. Her robes fell all the way to her feet, dragging behind her like a shadow.
And when she spoke, that scar of hers only deepened. It was bright red, as if freshly made, and it streaked in a long gash across her neck.
My mind couldn`t comprehend how on Ignolia was she still standing there –looking very much alive despite the proof of her death on her skin.
But how I felt was nothing compared to the unfiltered shock residing in the king.
“That`s impossible,” he whispered, barely audible, and sucked a breath. “…you`re impossible.”
Her lips only stretched in a grin, and I grimaced at the malice behind it. “And yet here I am,” she cocked her head at me, “back for what your little Slifer did to my men.”
“Those wizard hunters belonged to you?” I asked, referring to the ones who kidnapped the princess.
“I never expected them to take Imarnia`s dear princess,” she confirmed, and smiled roguishly. “It would have been quite a reunion. But I was told a Fire Slifer and a shadow wizard stopped them. Thought I would come back for a bigger prize.”
So the man who fell down the White Woman` bridge survived.
She stopped to admire the chaos around us. People shouting and fleeing, tables turned over and decorations ripped and torn. The flowers the princess, Ayana, and Redmond worked hard on were rooted out and blown all over the place. Bodies dropped to the ground –lifeless or powerless.
Over a corner, both king Morrison and king Calix were fending off the hunters. Shimmering gold lightening and ice spears twirling together, impaling through their targets.
Aero had taken to escorting the guests out through the woods, his bronze skin transformed into hard metal. Lysa was flying over him, clearing the path from any hostile as she used her fairy magic to enchant small swords left on the ground from dead hunters.
I could see a ripple of water and shooting vines from the corner of my eyes –and I knew Ayana and Redmond were unharmed.
Evine seemed to enjoy the ruckus as if it was a beautiful scenery, inhaling the overwhelming scent of blood and terror. When she turned to look at us, madness blazed across her delicate face. “Tonight, our reap will be worthwhile. I`ll have to thank dear old Lis for that. Although, I`m a little disappointed I wasn`t invited to the party.”
“You`re not getting anywhere near her!” I decreed, fire bursting in my fisted hand.
She had the audacity to marvel at my flames and whistle. “Oh, now that`s going to be quite a trophy. I`ll think I`ll take it for myself.”
My teeth grinded against my jaw. “Why don`t you go ahead and try.”
“In a moment,” she raised a finger, then cranked her neck to bat her eyelashes at the king. “What`s the matter with you, Gabriel? You look like you`ve seen a ghost.”
I rolled my eyes at her jest, but couldn`t help but lift a protective arm in front of his solid form.
“Well, no matter,” she rolled her shoulders, bringing the bottom of her staff on the ground. “I`m not interested in you. But do say hello to my former future mother-in law for me, will you?”
I could feel him stiffen behind me, but my eyes were trained on her.
That red jewel at the center of her staff glowed, as if it was conjuring a force, and I steadied myself, my magic. The stolen power visibly trailed from her hand to the rest of her body, equipping her with whatever magic she had taken.
When she raised her other palm towards us, a magic circle of what seemed like intertwined snakes appeared. And from it, spires of emerald serpent-shaped wisps came shooting with their open fanged-mouths.
My fire welled up inside me, and I drew it out like a shield. It spread, casting them away.
I exhaled a breath, feeling as if the flames were sucked out from my chest. And at the same time, I was slightly impressed I could hold my own.
But I knew it wouldn`t last long.
Not when she repeated the attack, this time with more of those snake-like tendrils.
Each time she whipped one at me, I would it send it right back, keeping my back glued to the king. When I looked at him over my shoulder, his horror-stricken gaze was directed at Evine, as if he blinked she would vanish.
I had to get him out of here.
She shot a hit at my left, and I used that to slide my body back and push it back with a wave of fire.
Every ember out of me knocked the breath out, and the feeling of almost draining out emptied my body.
I can`t keep this up!
I have to go…regain a bit of my energy.
I sent one final surge of heat before grabbing the king by his arm and pushing him onwards. “Come one,” I dragged his body behind me, feeling as if I was pulling along a huge boulder. “We have to leave!”
I used the crowd of people scramming to get away to my advantage, cramming myself and him through and squeezing us to get by. When I brought him to a clearing, I rattled his shoulders to get him to pay attention to me.
“Your Majesty, you need to snap out of it!” I yelled through the shouts.
He had a haunted look on his face, empty and full of emotions all at once.
It didn`t ease the rabidly escalating rate of my heartbeat. I shook him again, blowing off the locks of hair sticking to my face. “Please! Your Majesty, we don`t have time!”
My urgent tone didn`t seem to sway him. He looked lost, like my voice didn`t even reach his ears.
The more he descended back into the darkness, the more I became panicked.
“Gabriel!” his name was pleasant and strange on my tongue, and I swear I had seen something in his expression twitch. I dug my nails through his tunic, using all of my strength to shake him harder. “You can`t do this now! Lis needs you. We have to find her.”
I had no idea where she was, I couldn`t see her through the masses. And Luxus too. Where the hell was he?
The idea of Luxus afraid and trembling somewhere disturbed me. I just hope he was fine.
I hope they both were.
The mention of his sister seemed to cut through him, those silver eyes finally blinking at my alarmed face.
“Lis…” he croaked, hands travelling from my arms to my shoulders, gripping them firmly. I almost sighed in relief at the focus returning to his expression. “My sister, where is she?”
I swallowed, taking one hand in mine. “Let`s find her together.”
He nodded, pressing his lips together.
People were bumping into us as they ran for their lives, and we were sprinting towards the opposite direction –to where the fight was. King Gabriel left shadows wherever he stepped, commanding them to go help and defend his people. The cloaked dark figures obeyed in a hiss, gliding away from us.
Before me, a hunter was crouched over a fretting woman trying to crawl back, her fingers slashing through the grass. I summoned a fireball and blasted him with it, the white-cloaked hunter flying into mid-air.
All around us, the stench of death seemed to cling to everyone. Half of the people were attempting to flee through the forest, the other went for the palace –but those were probably met with the horde of wizard hunters waiting for them there.
“I don`t understand how they were able to get in,” king Gabriel growled, and I turned to see a different kind of fire dancing in his eyes. “The protective spells should have been enough to prevent wizard hunters from entering the palace` grounds.”
I had come to know that these spells were also made to keep out other creatures lurking in the forest –like werewolves.
“We can think about that later,” I told him, tightening my hold on his hand. “Meanwhile, let`s just focus on finding Lis.”
Where was he!?
I tried to spot a small black feline form between people` legs, or even under the tables. But nothing. The only small form I saw was Aramis –now sober – and he was busy protecting the band of elves with a jeweled dagger I had never noticed before.
I shook my head, sending a prayer to whoever was listening to keep Luxus safe.
“Gabriel,” a shout echoed through the crowd, and both the king and I stopped our fast pace to find the princess` fiancé slashing his way towards us with blade-tipped fingers. I blinked for a moment at the black metal, sprayed with scarlet blood.
I think I remember Lis mentioning that he had Recreation Magic. Kind of similar to Aero`s.
When he reached us, he flexed his hands once and the skin returned. “I can`t find Lis anywhere!”
That can`t be good.
King Gabriel looked inclined to rip someone`s head off –preferably Evine`s. “Why the fuck did you let her out of your sight!?”
“I didn`t,” David`s usual kind expression was twisted into that of primal anger. “She said she was going to help the people, and before I could turn around and refuse she was already gone!”
The king`s only response was a low snarl.
“Gabriel,” he started, looking around frantically. “What`s going on? How –“
“David, listen,” he was cut off, Gabriel taking hold of his arm. “I need you in the palace, to protect the people inside.”
David was appalled at the request –the command. “No! I can`t leave Lis—“
The king clapped his back, his face close to the other man`s. “You won`t! I`ll find Lis. I promise.”
The princess` fiancé didn`t look convinced –or didn`t want to. “Queen Adria and General Malla are already there.”
“Then you go help them,” it definitely wasn`t a request, but an unquestionable order from the king, “and I vow to you Lis will be returned safely.”
There was a shakiness in his voice that didn`t escape me or David. The truth is, he wasn`t sure if we can even find her –if she was still in one piece.
“Some guards went along with her,” he sighed in surrender, but understanding and trust filled his eyes. “Gabriel, please…”
The king didn`t need to assure him that he would rather die than let anything happen to Lis.
And with that, David took off running towards the palace.
Gabriel tugged on my hand, and we hurried to what we both dreaded was awaiting us. We battled our way out, me throwing flames and Gabriel using shadow strings to pierce through the bodies of the hunters. His creatures were hovering over the garden, diving down for a second only for a scream to come out before going back up.
From the forest way, Redmond had blocked the path with thick branches that sprout from the ground, and only parted them to allow more survivors to go through.
I caught Elsie literally floating over the grass, a sphere of dense air picking her feet, as she waved a hand and a lash of sharp wind tore at the hunters. Ayana was at the stairway, a wall of water behind her as multiple water globes burst from within.
Even though she was afraid of wizard hunters, she was more than eager to blast them all.
Thunder crackled above us, and when king Morrison brought down his hand, no lightning bolt had missed.
Everyone I knew were holding their own, and had not fallen. I was relieved for that, and from the look on Gabriel`s face he was too.
But then we heard a scream –one that made us both freeze in our places. A cold numbness had washed through me, and I wasn`t sure the king was even breathing.
It was Lis`s.
Faster than any of king Morrison`s lightning, we headed towards the source of the sound. Careful not to trip over dead bodies –whether it belonged to a hunter or a person of this kingdom –we made our way, and my heart was thudding with each step closer. It was pounding so hard I couldn`t even hear the sound of others screaming.
And when we reached the spot, seeing the pile of dead guards lying on the floor, with the princess` unconscious form beside them, I wasn`t sure if I was breathing correctly –if ever.
A wizard hunter was standing over them, and I unleashed a fire so great his screams as he clawed at his burning skin was music to my ears. He dropped to the ground with one final thud.
“Lis!” Gabriel roared, the warmth and sweat of his hand leaving me as he rushed to her. I followed after, my breath short and my legs remembering to move.
No, no, no, no.
Please, if any god is listening, please don`t let it be.
We stepped around the bodies, and Gabriel knelt by his sister`s side. If seeing her like this made my heart almost stop, then seeing the tears line his eyes made it shatter.
Gone was the king who held himself so surely and instead this frightened shadow of him remained before me.
His hands trembled as he touched her shoulders, flipping her to her back. I clenched my fist against my constricted chest, searching for any signs of injuries on her.
Her dress was tattered, covered with dirt and blood –whether it was hers, I wasn`t sure. But there wasn’t a visible wound on her skin.
She was probably hit by a staff`s blast, but I didn`t know if it killed her or…
“Please, Lis, please…” Gabriel begged, swiping the hairs from her face. Tears flooded his eyes, and I could do nothing but stand there and watch, with my own silent tears lining my face.
No…this can`t be.
He brought his head down her chest, mumbling her name over and over again. She didn`t stir, but laid there as if she was sleeping peacefully, make-up smudged against her lovely face.
I knelt and took her hand, but it dangled in my hold. “Lis, please wake up,” I whispered, not knowing what to do.
Everything in me felt disorientated, like every part of my body was jumbled together, unaware how to function right.
This shouldn`t have happened.
None of it…
A sound that I must have imagined entered my hearing –and it was coming from her. Her chest rose, a cough slipping from her lips. Gabriel snapped his head up, grey eyes round in disbelief as they desperately roamed over Lis` face and body.
A cry mixed with a laugh came out of my own lips, watching with blurry eyes as the coughing continued and her eyelashes fluttered open.
Gabriel`s jaw was hung open in half a smile, tears sliding down his pale cheeks.
“Gabriel,” she wheezed, and the sound to him must have been utter bliss. She angled her head at him, groaning in the process. “What happened?”
She was alive! The blast didn`t kill her.
My smile vanished when I realized it.
“A wizard hunter attacked you. But you`re fine,” he told her gently, supporting her back with his arm. The way he looked at her, precisely at her expression, made me understand he probably had come to the same realization.
She was confused, her brown eyes going down to her arms and legs.
“I…” she began to say, but something caught in her throat. For a few seconds, she seemed to hold her breath.
Something like worry dawned on her, as she swept her fingers against her arms, as if she was searching them –for what`s inside. Then it turned into panic.
“What…what,” she stammered, scratching her forearms like she could dig out what was stolen from her. She fretted around, her eyes wide and welled up. “My magic…”
She turned to her brother for an answer –as if he could bring it back for her. Gabriel tried to comfort her, but when seeing his overcome expression an agonized cry broke out of her. “No!” Lis sobbed, shaking her head in denial. “No, no, no, no, no!”
She looked at her empty hands –her hands that can no longer heal.
And the princess of Imarnia shattered, her delicate frame caving in as a scream ripped out. Her brother was quick to hold her to his chest, soothing her short hair and rocking her. But she didn`t stop, not for one second.
I closed my eyes, the sound of her cries pounding in my head –refusing to let go. I couldn`t even imagine what I would do if I was in her place, if it was my magic that was taken from me.
What would anyone do if what defined them had been stolen?
So we let her grieve, even if death danced around us.
“Lydia, behind you!” the king`s shout resounded as my instincts kicked in and I angled my body around with a shield already formed.
It swallowed the attack that was coming at me, but I didn`t mistake the slight faltering.
Three wizard hunters stood with their staffs blazing crimson sparks, relentless in the way they fired at us. I held them off with the fiery wall, still intact to my credit.
“Gabriel,” I said without looking at him, “take Lis somewhere safe. I`ll handle them.”
He already had picked her up, cradling her in his arms. She held onto his neck, face buried as she continued to cry.
I had expected him to take off, but he mumbled a word and a shadow creature rose up from the ground. He handed Lis to its awaiting long-limbed arms. “Take her beyond the forest, to where the rest of the survivors are.”
“As you wish,” it responded with that raucous voice, going off to do its master` bidding.
“What are you doing!? You should leave too,” I told him off.
He stepped to stand beside me, and with resolution he said, “I`m not going anywhere,” then he slid his hand over mine, enclosing his fingers around it. “Though to be honest, I was kind of hoping you would say my name under different circumstances.”
I shifted my head away in embarrassment, but squeezed his hand in return. “Don`t get used to it.”
A faint smirk played on his lips. “I`ll try not to.”
And with that, his whole body darkened and converted into a great black mist, feeling the ghost of his fingers slipping by. He shot upwards, over my shield, and launched at the three hunters.
They angled their staffs at him, raining down on their blasts but he maneuvered and dodged each one of them. By the time he got to them, he had enwrapped them all like a dark sheet, and when he emerged out only lifeless bodies plunged to the ground.
But it wasn`t just them.
Two more came at each side of me, and one of them shouted orders to remind the others to only take our magic without killing us.
I took the wall down, feeling something weighing down my legs from having to put it up this long. But that didn`t stop me from lighting my arm on fire—wincing from the fact I ruined my dress—and sprinted towards the ones at my right.
The one with the dark skin used Speed Magic to try and come up from behind me. But seeing him, I spun around and kicked him in the stomach, earning a gag out of him as he staggered backwards. I didn`t allow him much time to recover before I sent him soaring with a fire-armed punch.
That`s one down.
But more were coming out, circling us.
Gabriel had varied from changing into mist and using their own shadows against them, but I had kept a close eye on him in case one slithered behind him again.
Though it didn`t take the focus from my own foes.
I was aware that my magic was slowly draining with every burst of fire sent their way. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach, as if my magic was a well that was rabidly becoming dry.
But I had kept going, kept fighting my way through.
My shields were thinning, starting to form gaps and allow their flares to partially go through. Luckily, all of them managed to evade me.
I can`t work with the shields now, but I can still use my fist.
Sweat was flowing down my skin like pouring rain, and there was a ringing in my head I couldn`t dull down. My hair had stuck to every sticky patch on my face, and when a hunter had thrust a foot in my middle and knocked me down, it had come completely undone.
I didn`t have time to cough the pain out, but quickly rolled away from the hunter`s next assault.
A roar echoed from behind me, and I glanced over my shoulder to see Gabriel impaling three hunters to a tree with a spear of darkness.
“Looks like that`s all you have,” the hunter snickered down at my exhausted state, as I clutched my throbbing stomach and rasped a shaky breath.
When I lifted a hand to summon what`s little of fire I had left, it was too slow, and he pulled a small knife and threw it swiftly, the blade going through flesh and bone.
I screamed as blinding pain spread through every nerve, my hand quivering as the blood pooled down and spilled like a waterfall.
I was inhaling through my nose, my mouth no longer able to make sounds, and waves of agony clashing through my body, wider and wider.
Shit, shit, shit…
I sucked my lips, bracing myself as I pulled the knife out, every inch scarping flesh and twisting bones. Only whimpers were coming out of me, and my vision almost lost complete focus due to the tears that gathered.
A flood of nausea threatened to still, but I fought it off.
“You`re mine now, little Slifer,” the hunter declared, the jeweled end of his staff pointed at my face.
I tried to crawl away, but my whole body was pinned to the grass, and fear had made me immobile. I could hear Gabriel shouting my name, but it seemed distant.
Everything seemed distant and slow when that blood-red blast unleashed.
I waited for the impact, for the feeling of emptiness, for the sensation of having something absorbed out of you.
But none of those occurred.
Instead, when I peeled my eyes open, I saw the hunter standing still, something like electrical violet energy seizing him, precluding him from even twitching a finger.
In fact, looking around me, the rest of the hunters were the same.
When I blinked next, that energy had vibrated then exploded, and only screams were heard as their bodies shook in their spot. The brightness almost blinded me, and I squinted my eyes at the scene.
And in less than a second, the hunters had let one last shrike before they plummeted to the ground, eyes and mouths open –but no life resided.
The static energy fazed off, but the feel of it –how magnificent it was –left the hair at the back of my neck standing on end.
I could feel a strange warmth on my wrist, and when I looked down, I saw that my bracelet was glowing.
From the far edge of the garden, before me, a silhouette of a man with a pointed hat and a long coat emerged from the blackness of the trees.
And I was sure I had died.
Grandpa staggered, a flask in his hand as he eagerly took a long gulp. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of that weathered brown jacket I hated so much, and regarded us with a hiccup. “Sorry I`m late.”