The red-haired man led me through winding alleyways, weaving between panicking civilians, and the occasional panicking guard. We were moving away from where I had entered the city, and the buildings on either side began to suggest that we were in a different part of town. The drains here were covered, the roads swept, and the houses weren’t on the verge of collapse. The people who ran and screamed here, did so while wearing washed clothes that didn’t have patches on them.
I jerked to the side as the red-haired man turned into an alley I hadn’t noticed was there, and began running down a deserted cobblestone path surrounded by smooth brick walls that blocked most of the dying sunlight. The tug pulled me from my state of confused compliance. I slipped my hand out of his, and stopped running.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked.
He turned around, and reached for my hand again. “Damn it! I said there’s no time to explain. Come on!”
I took a step back, and stared into his black eyes. “I’m not going anywhere without an explanation.”
He stamped his foot. “We do not have the time for this Jean!”
I stared back adamantly.
He cupped his hands, and brought them to his forehead. Then he whispered while tapping his foot incessantly. He brought his hands back down. “Look, Jean, I know this is a lot to take in, and you’ve only just gotten here, but please listen to me. We need to leave Sett right now, or else something terrible is going to happen.”
“How do you know my name?”
He brought his hands to his face, and took a deep breath. “You told me, of course.”
“But I don’t know you?”
“Yes, you do, will, have – look, just trust me on this one, please? I’m Ben, Ben Stane. And I would love to tell you everything about myself, and how I know you, and what we’ve been through together, but this really isn’t the place nor the time.” An explosion rang out as if to punctuate his sentence. “See?” He reached for my hand again.
I avoided it, and stepped back again. “Those explosions are far away, I can get away on my own. Also, you seem to know what they are, what if you planted them or something?”
“Planted them? I don’t need explosions to get you to come with me.” He narrowed his eyes. “In fact…”
I eyed him warily. “Don’t you even think about it.”
“Think about what?”
Fingers clamped down around my arm as I was pulled along again. He had gotten behind me without my noticing it, and in my surprise, I forgot to resist. He had been in front of me, and I didn’t blink nor look away, so I deduced that I had been foiled once again by my ignorance of magic.
“Let go!” I tried to slip out of his grasp again but to no avail.
“Why was I hesitating,” he mumbled to himself, barely loud enough for me to catch. “Nearly forgot she wasn’t all that scary…” He said something else but an explosion in the distance drowned it out.
“Where are we going anyway?” I asked, resigning myself to the situation for now. He held the upper hand as long as his magic was a mystery.
“Outside Sett, through the Eastern gate.”
As the houses, and stores grew increasingly nicer in appearance, and the crowd began to emanate a sense of confidence, satisfaction, and melancholy that were characteristics of the economically well-off, a giant, blood-red wall emerged from behind the painted facades, and decorative trees. Ben ran straight towards the only visible gate, which was heavily guarded by fully armored soldiers who didn’t seem perturbed by the explosions that were slowly encroaching towards the red wall.
“Halt, please present your identification marks,” said the lead guard – a tall woman with a glowing red sword hanging unsheathed from a crystal belt.
Ben didn’t stop. The lead guard frowned, and the others readied their weapons. There was movement along the top of the gate, and the corners of the wall. Turrets swiveled, pointing their nozzles in our direction. There was a red line in the ground several meters from where the guards stood, only a few feet from us.
“This is your final warning, the F-A-F will not be responsible for the consequences.”
“Here we go,” said Ben, stopping just short of the line; turrets, swords, and tense eyes poised to strike him – no, us – down. However, instead of stopping me, he brought his other hand back, and used my inertia and his strength to propel me across the line, and straight into the assortment of readied weapons.
With my heart jumping into my throat, I cursed myself for trusting Ben. Wind whipped past my face, and snatched the scarf that hung loosely around my neck. Flashing lights flooded my field of vision, some signaling death by magical machineguns, others declaring execution via shiny voodoo swords. I met the lead-guard’s narrowing eyes as she reached for her sword, her mouth twisting open to order a swift end to my short and ill-advised adventure.
Her pupils were a fiery shade of red, like tongues of flame licking the insides of a glass orb. I stared into them, convinced they would consume me. But the dancing flames froze, then flickered as her eyelids wavered, before being put out for good by the rocky road she collapsed onto. The ethereal lights that lit the upper corners of my vision puttered out as the turrets died down, and the glowing lines of magical swords and spears fell on the ground like emergency lights on a burning airplane as their owners joined the lead-guard on her mission to inspect the durability of the local infrastructure up-close.
Familiar hands caught my arms, and we were running down the street again, a horde of hooded figures jumping out of view in our wake. A familiar crystal belt now adorned Ben’s waste, with an unfamiliar black sword attached to it unsheathed.
I couldn’t stop to catch my breath, so my heart continued to pound in my throat, which meant I couldn’t ask Ben for an explanation either. What kind of magic would let him knock out so many people in the time between him throwing me over the line, and the lead-guard giving the order to shoot?
“We’re almost there,” said Ben, his voice finally breaking me from my stupor.
“How did you…”
“No time to explain. We –”
“Elenor?” I said, looking behind me.
Adding to my count of strange things I had seen that day, Elenor came barreling up the street on the back of a tall lady, the same one who had stared at Ben and me outside the guilds. The tall lady’s strides were huge, and her gait quick, but what really cut the distance between us was how she kept jumping and sliding over and around obstacles like a parkour specialist. Ben, on the other hand, had to weave through pedestrians – most of whom gave us surprised or indignant looks – and urban foliage like leafless trees and trash bags.
“Elenor? She should be outside the city, why is she here?” asked Ben, not stopping.
“You know her?” I asked.
“Let go of Val!” shouted Elenor as the tall lady jumped over a group of red-robed teens. Guards would show up from time to time, but they never unsheathed their magic swords, opting to wade into the walkways and chase us through the streets instead.
“Almost there…” mumbled Ben. A giant wall, shaped like the one outside the city but as tall as the inner wall, stood at the edge of a crossroads with a road leading through the heavily guarded gate, and another leading up to a mansion larger than any other building in the city.
An audible grunt. The tall lady jumped onto a wall, and used it to launch herself at us. Ben stopped suddenly, brought his other hand back, and propelled me forward like he had at the previous gate. He grabbed me again several feet ahead, running even faster but with heavier breathing, and with a tighter grip on my arm.
This gate was lined with dozens of guards, all of whom prepared their weapons as soon as they saw us. There were no warnings this time; the turrets swiveled to take aim, and charged at the same time. A fully armored figure stood on a raised dais between the turrets, two giant, glowing swords crossed behind their back.
Ben stopped, and brought his other arm back. There was a grunt behind us. The figure on the dais said something I couldn’t hear. The turrets lit up, the swords glimmered, and Elenor cried my name. I was expecting to be launched into the frenzy, my insides churning, cheeks burning, and heart racing through the mushy rollercoaster in my head.
But instead of being shot forward like a stone from a slingshot, I was pushed aside, roughly, and slammed into a wall. An explosion flooded my ears, leaving them ringing before deafening me with silence. The pain of being shoved into a wall was superseded by the forceful wave that swept over me, and the shrapnel that hit my back.
I took stunted, agonizing breaths. The houses on either side were on fire, and through the thick black smoke, I could see the edges of a hole in the ground. As my hearing returned, it began to retreat again as my ears were battered by more explosions – not as loud as the first one, and coming from the direction of the gate.
Ben appeared by my side, and tried to help me up. I tottered, unable to feel my legs. I could taste the blood in my mouth trailing down my raw throat. Ben grabbed my arm and slung it over his shoulders, before helping me through the smoke.
On the other side, were more holes on the ground and on the walls. One of the turrets had been absolutely annihilated, as had the dais. Several guards lay unmoving on the ground, while others waved their swords at blurs that kept circling them at dizzying speeds, causing explosions that shook the ground and sent bodies flying.
I tried to say something, but my words got caught in my throat. Ben tried to approach the chaotic scene from behind, eyeing the moving blurs cautiously, and humming softly.
The humming helped me regulate my breathing, and calmed me down enough to untie my tongue. Still, I barely managed to squeeze out a question, “What are they?”
Ben stopped. One of the blurs had moved towards us.
“Raxxers,” he said, before standing his ground and humming with all his might.