Lait was angry, frustrated and tired. He stood in front of his men, fire essence stone in hand. His sword had been put away a long time ago. Right now he just stared at the massive golden array between himself and his enemies and muttered curses under his breath.
Outwardly, he could do nothing. Not till they brought down the ward. Consequently, Lait just stood there and drew on the essence trapped in the crystal he held, frantically replenishing his reserves to have another go at the stupid thing.
After about a minute, he put the essence stone away and readied himself. Standing before the array he took in a breath so deep his chest seemed to bulge a bit. Every one of his men could feel the build of qi in his body and watched with tense expressions as their leader made to fire off his most powerful skill for the fifth time in the last twenty minutes.
‘[Fire Wyvern’s breath!]’ he called out in his mind as he expelled the air and qi.
In response, a sustained blast of fire attributed qi shot from his mouth in a straight line towards the array. Under his control, it was a focused beam only twenty centimetres in diameter unlike the wave of fire it usually was. He directed this beam to strike at the array at a low spot just a meter or so off the ground. That section, already a dull red, began to heat up even further.
After closely examining the array, he and his men were unable to figure it out. They couldn’t be blamed. Not even Evans that bullshit warder knew much about arrays. None of them was any good at the subject. Who could have predicted that they’d run into an array master?
Their only choice was to brute force their way through. Unfortunately for them, it appeared that this shield array was perfectly suited to resist brute force. Seeing that they were making no progress Lait, as the leader, responsibly offered himself up.
He was a fire attributed tellurian. The array was clearly a metal based one. Thus he was the most suited to dealing with it. After all, metal was weak to fire in the elemental cycle. So he went at it with his most powerful skill and was surprised to see some results. Lait did not know it but the great defensive array before him was just a metaphysical series of metal plates. What he was doing was basically taking a focused blowtorch to a safe.
What he did know was that his attacks were working … somewhat. The main problem was that his qi reserves were not up to par. Fire Wyvern’s Breath was a very powerful skill and had the energy consumption to match. Lait had worked long and hard to become capable of firing off three in a row but after he did so his qi core would be near empty.
Today, he had fought with that trice damned water attributed swordsman and used up a lot of his qi keeping him at bay. He was barely able to use the skill twice before he was tapped out. Sadly, it wasn’t enough. They had to break through the array, kill those Steelborns and cover their tracks before the reinforcements the swordsman had called arrived.
With no other choice, Lait took out a fire essence stone from their shipment. Essence stones were crystals composed completely of condensed world essence. They were precious resources, each worth its weight in silver florins. The one he held was formed purely from fire attributed essence making its price twice the normal on account of its greater rarity.
Lait was forced to absorb the essence making up the stone to replenish his own. It was an extravagant expense but none of his men uttered a word of protest. They understood the stakes they were currently playing for. Failing this task would be far more costly than even ten thousand of the stones. They just watched as their leader made use of the costly gem.
Lait wasted a great deal of the essence stored in the stone every time he tried to make use of it. He wasn’t exactly in an optimal mental state and his technique was poor and shoddily executed. However, he got the job done. He’d fire three quick Fire Wyvern’s Breaths and then frantically replenished his qi as he rested. As the minutes trickled by, the damage to the array became more and more noticeable but so did his fatigue.
Mentally drained and physically overdrawn Lait knew that when he finally got through the shield he would be useless in the resulting fight. All he could do was hope in his heart that his men would be able to handle it without him.
‘We have to succeed. We just have to!’ he prayed.
On the other side of the array, Valerian was nearly done with his preparations. He had lined up in front of him a grand total of nine Explosive Spheres. Originally intending to make more he recanted and focused on enhancing the ones he had already created. To do so he used yet another metal element array. This one was a reinforcing one to boost their power.
Frankly, Avery was horrified at what he was doing. Still, he knew his place. He just stood on the side and watched with his usual expression. Nevertheless, his apprehension was justified. The Explosive Sphere spell was one that gathered metal attributed essence to form a sphere of magic that well … exploded. However, all spells could be cast using a medium. When done properly, this lessened the cost and increased their power like with Valerian’s favourite Heart Seeking Bolts.
Valerian had done same with these Explosive Spheres. He used bits of metal, mostly scraps and weapons. When they exploded the force would not only be greater, they’d discharge metal shrapnel at the unlucky folk in their range. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he had run a reinforcing array through them. Avery actually worried for the bandits now.
Preparations dealt with, Valerian then began explaining his plan to Avery, asking if it was viable. The blue liveried man thought about it carefully. It was a sound plan. He was even a little surprised at how simple and direct it was and he made that known. He did keep one part to himself though. He was even more surprised that Valerian had consulted him about it.
“It would work but don’t double cast. Just focus your spells on me in instead”, he pointed out.
Valerian gave him a look filled with incredulity. “And what about me?” he asked.
“You’d get on my back and I’d carry you”, Avery stated.
“There’s no need. I can cast the spells. We’d each get our own”, Valerian countered.
“That is a waste. I am faster and stronger. Focus your efforts on me. Or is this because you’ll be riding piggyback?” Avery questioned.
“It is unnecessary and undignified”, his charge said.
“You have ridden on my back for years. It is nothing new”, Avery added.
“Yes”, Valerian pointed out. “Years. That’s how long it’s been and I don’t think you’ve noticed but I am a lot bigger now”.
Avery smiled. He remembered those simple times. Valerian had been so adorable then. He was a little, precocious thing who’d point and ask about everything they encountered and force him to lug him everywhere. Oh, how things had changed!
Ignoring his charge’s protests Avery placed a hand on his shoulder. He wasn’t good with words. He wanted to say something but words failed him. He just looked at the boy. The atmosphere turned solemn, with two staring at each other saying nothing.
They knew the risks of what they were about to do. Chances were; only one or none of them would survive this ordeal. There was no getting caught. There would be no ransom. They’d be slaughtered and buried in a shallow grave somewhere and no one would ever know. Valerian, in particular, was very scared.
He was the privileged grandson of a city magistrate. He had never been in this kind of danger before. He could barely calm his nerves and when he thought of what lay beyond his shield array he was filled with dread. This was different from being in battle.
Here, he wasn’t charged by the action and emotion that would draw your mind from such things. This was walking into a situation where death was a very strong possibility. It required a different sort of courage.
Part of the reason that he was able to stay composed was because he had Avery with him. The man was the sturdy wall he could lean on. He had been with him forever. The blue liveried man was not a servant of the household or one of his grandparents’ hired hands. He was Valerian’s own manservant. A position he had held since Valerian was born.
The boy could not think of a single moment of his life when the man was not around. He had come to rely on him even more than he realised. That scared him. He knew well enough that if push came to shove Avery would no doubt sacrifice himself for his sake. The man was that loyal. He did not want that.
“We will get out of this”, he said. “Don’t do anything stupid!” he warned the man.
Avery nodded and chuckled. To think in the end it would be Valerian trying to reassure him. It was funny. His charge had grown up. He was more like his father every day. He was also different in many ways. In some he was better, others worse.
‘Is that a good thing?’ he asked himself.
Valerian stepped back to put the last bits of his plan together. With his mace held in both hands, he began his spellcraft. He cast three spells on Avery and on himself. The first was Wind Cloak, a defensive spell that rarely saw much use in his hands. The reason; Valiant Armour was a much better physical defence and Mage Guard was better at shoring up elemental weaknesses.
It had one great benefit though. Wind Cloak boosted speed and agility, which was something they’d need for their plan to succeed. As if in confirmation of this, Valerian followed that with wind speed, a spell he learnt from his grandmother which increased the speed of its target. Adding that to Wind Cloak made for an awe-inspiring increase in speed for both Avery and himself.
However, the spell casting drained him and that was before his final spell, Valiant Armour. It was a strain but he managed it in the end. This was the reason why Avery had wanted Valerian to concentrate his spellcasting on him and let him carry him to safety. The strain from maintaining his mental effort combined, with the exhaustion of arcane energy was becoming quite evident in Valerian’s visage. But he did not stop. Their lives depended on his plan.
Unlike Lait, Valerian did not practice a poor method. The Manifold Elemental Incarnations was a high, Profound technique. Plus, he had attained a perfect arcane vessel. With his method and arcane vessel, he could absorb, refine and channel arcane energy dozens of times better than the average arcanist.
This was a great aid to the regeneration of his arcane energy and provided him with a rather large reserve to draw from. Still, he had to rest a little after expending so much energy. After a couple of minutes of circulating his method, Valerian stood up.
Avery gave him a questioning look but all he did was nod in response. Holding his mace in his right hand and stretching the other hand out, he let out a pulse. The nine Explosive Spheres slowly and carefully levitated from the ground to orbit him. He was ready!
Lait huffed and puffed as he tried to catch his breath. He was getting close. He knew it. The array was clearly weakened and place he’d been attacking was heated to a cherry red glow that radiated with heat. He fell to the ground and pulled out a brand new fire essence stone. The third one. Collecting himself he stimulated his remaining qi and begun to drain the crystal in his hand. He never had the chance.
A change occurred with the array he and his men were camped in front of. One second the array was there the next it burst into motes of light. The scary part involved the things that flew out of the light cloud.
Three glowing balls of indeterminate materials shot out towards himself and his men. They moved independently from each other. One headed straight out towards Lait, another went left and the last right. Knowing that they could be nothing good the bandits quickly scrambled out of the way. Alas, that wasn’t enough.
Lait was in very precarious position. He was seated on the floor with barely enough energy to get up. There was no way he was going to evade what he guessed was death coming at him. He also had no qi to use any defensive skills. But he did have one trump.
Despite looking middle-aged, Lait was actually in his early sixties. What’s more, he had been a mercenary for two-thirds of that time. His experience with the border of life and death was plentiful and when he saw that metal ball shoot towards him it came in handy.
Without even a shred of hesitation, he reached for the necklace he wore and crushed the pendant in his fist. A glowing barrier immediately surrounded him.
It was a talisman that he had acquired from the corpse of a young master after a raid. The poor bastard hadn’t had the chance to activate it. Lait had kept the lifesaving treasure knowing it could save his one day. Today, he called on its powers and it didn’t disappoint. The barrier it released was sufficient to protect him even from attacks from the average Lord whilst it was active.
It was sufficient to protect him from the chaos that came next. When the balls struck something – like the body of the earth attributed tellurian who activated his stone skin defence – they exploded. Each explosion carried the force to level a large house and the metals that made them up shot out with the explosion borrowing the force to destroy whatever they met.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
The earth attributed bandit met his demise in the explosion. Lait survived unharmed, as well as the other one who had been chatting with the arcanist. This meant that he was thankfully ensconced in the spells the warder employed to protect himself.
The sound from the explosions was deafening and caused roosting birds up to five kilometres away to take to the air in fright. The ground around them was completely cratered and torn up. All trace of grass and plant life had disappeared leaving rocks with shrapnel stuck in them and scorched earth that smoked slightly.
Lait looked around in fright and worry. He was so shaken he nearly didn’t notice when their quarry dashed out of the crevice and made a run for it. His eyes almost fell out as they ran past him trying to make use of the confusion they had caused to escape.
“Get them!” he found himself shouting even as he forced himself to his feet. “Don’t let them get away!”
Unfortunately, they were too late. The young Steelborn and his valet had made it past them and were already working on creating a lead. Evans quickly created one of his floating platforms and they all got on it to give chase. That was when disaster struck again.
Valerian only used three of the nine Explosive Spheres in that first attack. Nine was the greatest number of things he could control with true finesse. They were to be used in three volleys. The whole point of the first was to sow chaos to aid in their escape. The second was to break down any barrier that the warder may have set to box them in.
Thankfully, the second volley was not needed because the bandits hadn’t thought of that. The last volley was kept in case they got chased. However, Valerian did not fire them at his pursuers. He fired them at the rock wall behind him.
Earth shattering booms rang through the mountain face as the airborne mines detonated along the cliff face between the bandits and their pursuers. Lait and his men were just lucky they were not fast enough to get caught up in it. The destruction was even bigger than Valerian had planned it to be since he had more bombs.
As he’d hoped, the rock wall began to crumble and fall apart. Soon a landslide was created between the two parties creating a downflow of rocks and dirt that blocked the bandits’ advance and continued into the trees.
Lait could only curse. He couldn’t even make out the bastards with the dust cloud that had cropped up. The ringing in his ears wasn’t helping matters either. There was no way through the active landslide and no safe way over or around. That meant they were going to get away. They’d failed! He was just about to place his head into his hands in defeat when Evans tapped him on the shoulder.
“What?” he snarled in anger as he spun around.
He needn’t have asked. He could see for himself. A squad of soldiers was speeding their way. As if that wasn’t already bad enough, they bore the Steelborn badge.
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