Rori: Her Final Stand
The spire fell silent save for the wind that whistled through narrow slit windows. Winifred stood at the eastern stairwell with a group of young apprentices and wide-eyed children. The youngest was six who Winifred kept at her side. The girl didn’t seem to mind. She clutched the old Mage’s robe for support and buried her face in the soft fur lining. None of them, after all, had their own parents to protect them.
Rori gave her mentor a firm nod before turning to the smaller, experienced group. But ‘experienced’ was a loose term. The Paladins had been in battle before but they were all either young fresh recruits or too grizzly and old to be physically useful. It was Cyrus, surprisingly, who was chosen to lead the central attack team.
The oldest Paladin had turned to Cyrus and rasped, “Merrick chose you.”
A few of the other older knights agreed.
“He trained you for a moment just like this.”
Cyrus’s mouth opened but it took him a few breaths to speak. “What does that mean?”
“He’d been having doubts, you see. Recently started questioning the king’s laws. Questioned the Paladin Order as well.” Then the old Paladin had turned to Rori and heaved out a sigh. “Rogue Mages didn’t kill Merrick. He was executed for plotting treason.”
Her eyes had started to burn and she could taste the salt of grief in the back of her throat.
She gripped her staff and shoved away the memory. She rubbed her sweaty palms across the smooth surface in hopes to divert her fears and grief. “They’re ready to descend. One floor at a time.”
Cyrus hoisted up his shield and the other knights followed the action. “Once the children are out of harm’s way, we fall back and use the tunnel for escape.” He looked at the Mages and then settled his attention on Rori. “Don’t risk your lives. We just have to keep them distracted.”
“We’ll provide support from the back,” one of the apprentices agreed.
“Let’s begin.” Cyrus was the first down the central stairs, the knights right behind him.
Rori signaled to Winifred and she began the descent down the eastern stairs. She watched until the very last child entered the stairwell then joined Cyrus as the others on the fourth floor. With each floor they continued the same careful pattern until they reached the second floor, the point of no return.
“Wait for our attack,” Cyrus reminded. “Once the fight begins, let Winifred know to descend the steps and take the eastern tunnel out of here.”
Rori stood taller in hopes her chest would stop hurting. Before the knights entered the stairs, she blurted in a hushed breath, “Guardians guide you.”
Cyrus smiled and whispered, “May they guide you as well.”
She watched the silver of their armor be swallowed up by the stairwell’s shadows. Rori stared into the darkness and strained her ears. She was desperate to hear a sound, any sound. Then, there was shouting and then Mages hurried down to offer support.
Rori turned and gave Winifred a solemn nod. “Be safe,” she mouthed and her mentor did the same. She watched them begin their descent before hurrying off to help Cyrus and the others.
On the first floor, right in front of the central stairs, was the spire’s main entrance. They were a set of massive double doors and at their base was a heavily fortified wall of furniture that the Paladins had built. Rori arrived just as a Mage brought up a sheer wall of energy that deflected incoming attacks. But to her surprise, across from the main foyer, was only a handful of knights. The bulk of the Paladins had to be elsewhere in the spire.
A crystalline arrow whistled towards them but a Paladin raised his shield, blocking the assault. Another arrow shot forward but their attacks were docile. Almost like they were putting on a show.
Cyrus must have considered the same idea because he motioned her over to where he stood, tucked safely in a small alcove in the wall. “Something’s wrong,” he told her after she raced to his side.
“Where’s Commander Zadkiel? If he isn’t guarding the main door then...” She furiously raked back her hair as she worried her bottom lip. “Winifred. She might be walking into a trap.”
“We have to turn back. We have to get to the tunnel before they’re slaughtered.”
“Let’s press forward and work our way around to the eastern side.” He pushed away from the wall and rallied his fellow knights behind him. “Move forward!”
Rori shouted behind her, “Mages, focus on defense!”
A series of arrows flew, two then five, clattering into shields. Other arrows were diverted with a flick of a Mage’s wrist. It wasn’t until their opponents realized their plan, that the arrows stopped firing. Enemy Paladins leapt across the barricade and charged forward, another Paladin tossing a glass vial across the foyer to where the Mages were standing. The glass shattered, spilling a plume of yellow-tinted smoke around the Mage closest to it.
Rori raced forward and grabbed the closest apprentice by the arm. “Don’t breathe it in.” They just managed to avoid it but were pinned between smoke and clattering swords. Paladins were pressed shield to shield. Cyrus was in the thick of the roaring crowd.
“We have to reach Winifred.” Rori turned to the Mages and eyed them. “You two, follow me. The rest, stay with the Paladins and offer support.” She spun around sharply to the Paladin that had thrown the smoke bomb. “Take him out first.”
Without waiting, she ran past the bashing shields and heaved swords. She encouraged the two apprentices to keep close to her as they rounded the foyer towards the eastern stairwells. She passed the dungeon doors, the brief thought of Emmett still trapped in his prison cell. If there was time, she excused. If only she had gone with Winifred in the first place things might have gone smoother.
They raced to the tunnel’s entrance and found that the first portion was still intact. They had cleared away most of the rubble to reveal a half-broken, wide mouthed tunnel that revealed a bright sun. And there, cowering behind what mounds of rubble that remained, was Winifred and at least two dozen children. They were crouched down just past the last bit of tunnel, the sunlight beaming overhead sparking Winifred gray hair in a halo of pure white.
Rori raced forward with her staff raised, then shot a bolt of electricity towards the Paladins that were approaching Winifred’s position. She fired another bolt of energy that knocked a Paladin backwards into the earth and left him writhing from the aftermath. She leapt behind another pile of stones with the apprentices behind her.
They were panting, sweat lacing their skin. Rori realized then her own face was beginning to perspire, her hair clinging to her neck.
She looked around the corner of their hiding place to Winifred just a short distance ahead. Her gaze swept to Commander Zadkiel and a group of thirty or so Paladins at his side. Just the four of them against such numbers? It wasn’t in their favor. But she couldn’t wait for Cyrus and the others to reach them, not if Zadkiel made the smart decision and charged before assistance could arrive.
She made eye contact with Winifred. They shared a long, worrying stare before finally nodding to each other. They would have to make their stand soon if they hoped to have any chance of making it out alive.
Zadkiel’s men pressed forward, a wall of towering shields that clattered as they bumped into each other. They stopped after a few steps and posted themselves as a second row of Paladins readied an attack. Rori caught a glimpse of the glass vials, the same that was used earlier as an explosive.
She turned to the Mages beside her. “We need a strong enough wind to blow the bombs away from Winifred and the children.”
“I can help you,” one of the older apprentices volunteered. “If we can combine our spells.”
“Alright.” Rori steadied her feet for the attack. “As soon as the vials are in the air.”
The Mage moved to her side and hunkered down.
They watched the Paladins secure toxic vials into a slingshot then aimed them towards the rubble. There were five vials, Rori counted. It was enough to poison everyone in the area, including herself.
Commander Zadkiel raised his hand, “Steady!”
As they pulled the vials back, the leather creaked in protest. The moment the commander dropped his hand, the vials went flying upwards into the air.
Rori leapt out from behind their hiding place. The Mage scurried to follow her. They raised their hands and staff in unison, calling upon the ambient energy in the air.
The vials arched in the air, ready for their descent.
A gust of wind howled behind them. Like a snarling beast, it rushed forward and tugged at her hair and robes. It flew upwards in a great spiral and caught the vials in its grasp. The Paladins began shouting a series of orders, but the wind was already diving down behind the wall of shields. Explosions of yellow gas sent the Paladins in disarray. They broke formation and in their confusion began to race forward. They were charging with shields and swords right towards Rori and the other apprentices.
“We have to stop them!” Rori charged, whether the others would follow her or not. “They can’t reach the children!”
“No. Rori!” Winifred screamed in protest.
She slid to a stop and raised her staff, pouring her spell into the crystal. Another Mage stumbled beside her then another. They joined her attack and threw bolts of energy at the scattered shields. But the bolts bounced off. Some propelled skyward but one shot back in a spiral that went right through the Mage standing beside Rori. He was thrown backwards into the dirt.
Winifred rushed over just as the Paladins reached Rori’s small group. She raised her staff and with a sweeping blow, sent a wave across the earth until it cracked. With another sweep and spin of her body, stone spikes shot out and impaled the Paladins standing nearest to them. She stopped five knights with her attack but heaved over in exhaustion.
“Winifred,” Rori pleaded. “Stay with children.”
“You can’t take them all on your own.”
She looked back through the tunnel with hope that Cyrus would arrive soon. Rori turned her attention to the last remaining apprentice. He was cowering, shaking as he watched the Paladins pushed their way through the maze of spikes. There were over twenty knights remaining, she considered.
Rori grabbed the apprentice by the arm. “Take the children. Get them to safety.”
He sucked down a sharp breath. “How?” He jolted his gaze to the tunnel and then the wave of Paladins. “We’re surrounded! They’ll just keep following us.”
“Lead them back to Cyrus and the others. Out the front door.” She grabbed his arm and shoved him. “Go! Before it’s too late!”
He scurried and waved the small children to follow him. He scooped up the youngest into his arms and raced back down the tunnel.
“Winifred,” Rori said flatly. “This tunnel... Could we in theory drop it down on top of them?”
The old Mage tried to stand taller but it was clear she was in pain. Her fingers dug into her side. “If they follow us further into the tunnel...” Her eyes jumped out over to the commander in the distance. “It’s him we have to kill.”
“If there were some way I could get there...” She tried to comb back through all the spells she learned and all the books she read.
“The Aether,” she muttered, nodding her head as she considered it. “You’re one of the few that can utilize it.”
“You want me to use the Aether to power my attack? It’s too far.”
“No, not for attacking. For traveling.” Winifred grabbed Rori’s hand then patted it with her other. “You only have one shot at getting to his side and killing him before he notices you.”
The young elf shook her head and pressed her palm into her forehead. “I can’t understand what you mean.”
“Travel through the veil to the Aether. It’s brief, a quick step from here to there to Zadkiel.”
She’d never heard of such a spell. But then again, most things about the Aether were forbidden to discuss. Few spells were even allowed to draw on its energy. If she understood the mechanics correctly, she could potentially catapult herself through the veil. The momentum could put her close to the commander but how close? And then her second spell would have to be powerful enough to eliminate everyone around her including Zadkiel.
“As soon as I leave,” Rori told her, “you have to drop the tunnel on the remaining Paladins.”
“I know.” Her voice softened, the tender sound of a mother to her daughter. “I am proud of you, my child. I am so proud of all that you have accomplished.”
Rori almost hugged her but the Paladins finally made it out of the spiked maze. They began their charge once more, shields raised as they shouted with the purest rage.
“Go!” Winifred shoved her.
Rori looked past the knights and between the dark stone spikes to the distance where Zadkiel stood with his high-ranking officials. Her grip tightened around her staff. She reached her hand forward through the veil, feeling the cold chill against her skin. Just a step, she told herself, then a powerful push to reach her enemy. She pictured it and considered her final spell to end the battle.
Rori leapt across the veil. It was a brief glimpse. She caught sight of another world with ashy skies and magenta-hued grasses. She saw the outline of an enormous tree with pale, gray roots and white leaves. With a blink of her eye, she was on the other side of the charging army and just meters away from the commander.
She heaved down a breath, trembling as her body reeled from the spell. Too much, she considered. It was the most spells she had ever used in concession and with such force.
Winifred screamed behind her and just as Rori turned around she watched as the tunnel’s opening collapsed down around the Paladins. She caught sight of Cyrus with the others as they rounded the spire. The Mages and children were fleeing in the opposite direction.
Rori turned around and held her self steady. “You can end this. All we want is freedom.”
“You’re cursed,” he hissed, drawing his sword from his belt. “To stop others from being cursed, I will do what I must.” He raised up his sword and his officers did the same.
She shouted, hoping the loudness of her voice would shake them, “Haven’t enough Paladins died?”
“There will be more to replace them.”
Before he could swing it up over his head, Rori raised her fist. The moment she flicked open her fingers, she ripped the veil wide open to gather a pool of energy.
“Rori!” Cyrus shouted somewhere behind as he charged towards her.
She couldn’t let him die in the blast of her spell. She released the bloom of energy, a maelstrom of raw magic as cold as ice that burned at the touch. She watched as Zadkiel’s expression twisted just before the skin on his face began to peel away. His officers began screaming, swords and shields dropped, as they tried to fight against the storm.
Zadkiel stumbled forward but something pulled her away from him. It was a cold hand and yet only the force of being pulled back seemed to register. When she turned around to find whoever had pulled her, she could only see an endless wall of gray mist. The storm had already quieted.
She spun sharply back around. Zadkiel’s officers were gone but there was something in front of her on the ground. Her skull was swimming and her mouth soured. It was the commander. At least, what was left of him. Her spell had peeled away some of his skin and the storm, perhaps, cleaved him in half.
She swallowed the hot bile that leapt up her throat. Rori turned but every which way she looked there was nothing but smoke in the air.
“Cyrus!” She called out but her voice was swallowed by the fog. She clutched her staff close to her chest and took a cautious step forward. “Winifred! Cyrus?”
Winifred. The memory came to her sharply. Winifred had died in the tunnel with the Paladins. She dropped to her knees. Her staff clattered out of her grip as the tears began pouring. Her face was twisting, brows creased and lips pulled back as a scream of pain ruptured out of her throat.
Grief knotted itself inside of her chest but it turned into anger. She screamed again, throwing it at Zadkiel’s corpse. He was the reason Winifred died. He was the reason they had to risk their lives for a moment of freedom after being imprisoned their whole lives.
It was his fault and yet he was already dead. She hoped there would be a sense of relief after Zadkiel’s death but there was only a hollow pain inside her chest.
She fluttered her eyes and looked around at the fog.
Had she destroyed everything, she wondered. Including the spire?
She could just barely make out the dark shadows of rock formations.
Rori picked up her staff and got to her feet. She wandered towards the shadows and as she grew closer, she noticed the land masses were floating. They were like fish bobbing in the water. She stared at them feeling like she’d been dropped into a voidless ocean. Everything felt rather absent. Stale. Calm.
She stood among the flow of magical energies like a stone in a river. There was no wind, no heat or cold, no sun or moon. She had defeated Zadkiel and perhaps the children made it to safety. They wouldn’t have to grow up behind tower walls. They wouldn’t have to risk their lives to pass a test.
She peered up at the focus crystal in her staff. It was lit up and pulsing with energy as if a spell was being threaded through it. Was it the aftermath of her spell or someone else’s? With every step she took forward the light pulsed a little brighter and a little faster. It was a hunch but she hoped that somehow the crystal would help lead her somewhere to something.