Rain splattered my head. The roof and walls were gone, blasted away by Elenor’s magic. Skinner and the robed figure squirmed in the corner, Sally and Jerome lay in the wreckage of the chairs they had been bound to, and Elenor helped a groggy Ben to his feet.
Normally, I would have raced to help my friends first, but I realized the most effective way to help them, was to take down our enemies. I dashed through puddles towards Skinner, frowning inwardly at all the mud that was getting on my shoes.
Sacrifices had to be made for the greater good, I reminded myself.
Skinner turned around, trails of muddy water running over the droplet sign on his cheeks. The robed figure jumped back, leaving Skinner alone in a pool of thick mud.
I had no weapon, no offensive magic, and no training in any martial arts, yet I was running headfirst at a large, obviously well-trained man who had just sucked the life out of two people in front of my eyes after kidnapping my entire team of powerful magic users and experienced fighters.
And I saw absolutely nothing to worry about.
“I knew I’d missed one,” said Skinner as he picked himself up. His sleeves had been ripped, revealing how he’d been able to grab heads despite supposedly not having his right hand.
Sleek metal fingers glistened under the paltry rays of moonlight that escaped the roiling clouds blanketing the sky. Skinner’s metallic hand seemed brittle at first glance and it didn’t look like he could bend his wrist, but the ends of his fingers were sharp like needles. That explained why the bald man had been struggling more aggressively than the bearded one.
Skinner lunged forward and punched with his metal hand, but I fell to my knees and let the momentum of my charge carry me forward as I skid through the mud. I rammed into his feet, but he didn’t topple like I’d hoped, probably because his legs were thick and sturdy while I weighed barely anything.
I grabbed his leg and swung around behind him. Mud splattered through the air as his kick passed by my face. I pulled on the leg I was holding just as he put all his force into his kick, and he fell backwards, hitting his head on the muddy ground.
I rolled out from under him and acquired a layer of wet earth all over my clothes.
“Damned kid,” cursed Skinner as he lashed out and sent water and mud splattering everywhere. “Who the hell are you?”
I saw Sally get to her feet in the corner of my eye, and noticed Elenor tapping the ground with her stick. Ben stood on his own with a hand on his head, but it didn’t look like he’d be much help. I couldn’t tell where Jerome was.
“Who am I?” I said as I got to my feet. I made sure to keep the robed figure who stood next to a half-broken wall, within my sight. “Interesting question, fascinating even. Although you’re seeking a superficial answer, like a name or a description of my occupation, that question warrants a far deeper, more meaningful answer than one I can provide within the short time we will be able to spend together.”
Skinner cursed and glared at me with infuriated eyes. The rain couldn’t wash off the mud that painted his hair, but it did make some of it drip into his mouth and down his chin. He began lifting himself up but I couldn’t let him do that so I prepared to tackle him again. But I stopped.
“Skinner!” yelled Sally. She dashed past me, splattering me with muddy water, and pointed a broken piece of wood – likely a wooden leg from the chair she was bound to – straight at Skinner’s neck.
Skinner parried it with his metal hand, and punched with his left. Sally swayed to her right and brought the sharp end of the wooden leg trailing down Skinner’s arm. Skinner screamed and pushed Sally away with both hands, sending her shooting away from him.
However, Sally didn’t lose her balance, and stood ready to jump back at him again. “You knocked me out after offering me a drink. I knew you’d lost your hand, Skinner, but I didn’t know you’d lost your mind too.”
“I’ve lost neither.” He flexed his metal fingers and charged at Sally.
“Behind you!” shouted the robed figure.
Skinner stepped to the side, avoiding my sliding mud-tackle.
I cursed and dug into the ground to stop myself. I’d almost forgotten about that guy. I met the robed figure’s gaze. “Feeling hot under there?” I asked.
“Mr. Tamp, we will not be paying for those orbs if we have to collect the souls ourselves,” said the figure, ignoring me.
“Yeah, yeah, just make sure you keep an eye on all of them this time,” said Skinner.
The figure stared intently at me. “I will.”
Ironically, that’s exactly when the figure was blown away by a shockwave.
“Takes you a while to prepare that one,” I said.
“Yeah, and I can’t move while I’m doing it,” said Elenor, breathing heavily. The area around her was clear of mud, but that just meant the earthy ground beneath her was thinner and more likely to collapse.
Her attack uncovered a face I’d been searching for. “Ben,” I called out and pointed to the face. “Help Jerome!”
Ben nodded and trudged over to Jerome. Skinner eyed him but was distracted as Sally swung the piece of wood at him. The robed figure sat hunched in the corner, unmoving. Elenor tapped her stick on the ground while catching her breath.
And I observed everything calmly.
The puddle by my feet reminded me of Demetrius and the time he had stolen the House of Wisdom from me. I was winning our little scuffle until his unburnt magic turned the tide, and it was only now, after I had used unburnt magic of my own to turn the tide of this battle, that I finally understood how effective it could be.
Skinner tried to stab Sally with his fingers but she hacked them away with the piece of wood, and struck his face with her fist. He growled and punched with his metal hand, Sally met it with her weapon, and they both locked their other hand together and began grappling.
The robed figure suddenly turned, and a jet of water flew towards Elenor. I was about to call for her to dodge when she sidestepped it neatly, and charged at the robed figure.
I ran to Ben as he raised Jerome out of the mud. I let The Tempest fall back onto my shelf, and used The Cannon to inspect Jerome’s wounds. He had a vicious gash on his lower thigh, which I covered with some cloth I ripped from my shirt.
I let The Cannon fall back onto my shelf and grabbed The Tempest again, noting that it had flipped back a few pages while sitting on my shelf. I felt a tug on the back of my shirt. It was Jerome. He pushed something into my hand, and I almost gave it back in fright.
But then I realized what he wanted me to do, and accepted it.
Then Ben tackled me to the ground as a freezing jet of water shot overhead. A boom resounded through the air, and the mud rippled. Spitting mud out of my mouth, I saw Elenor huffing while facing the robed figure, who was lying on the ground again.
Skinner growled as he punched at Sally again, but Sally dodged it and thrust her makeshift spear at his neck.
Alarm bells rang in my head, and to confirm my fears, the corners of Skinner’s lips curved upwards. Then he brought his left arm to his chest, and broke the large piece of wood into splinters, before bashing Sally’s head with his own.
Sally tottered backwards, showing her back to him. He stepped forward and aimed his pointy fingers at the back of her neck.
“Sally!” I cried out.
The ridiculously sharp fingers bore down towards Sally’s neck, piercing through the raindrops in between the cold metal and the warm flesh. I could almost picture them cutting her skin, and jabbing all the way through her neck.
But with a sharp twist of her feet, Sally let the finger drills rip the back of her shirt, and punched Skinner in the gut. Skinner doubled over, his head above Sally’s crouched figure. Sally swung her other fist, aiming an uppercut for his chin.
Thunder rumbled overhead, and lightning flashed, painting the battle on the de facto roof of Villa Serenity in black and white. Light also flashed off the metal hand that Skinner had brought towards Sally’s hand, but the flash was gone when Skinner’s spiky fingers scraped the back of Sally’s arm.
Neither could react in time, so two, long, bloody lines ripped into the skin on Sally’s arm, while her fist connected squarely with Skinner’s chin, sending him toppling backwards into the large pool of mud from which he had just crawled out of, moments ago.
Sally winced as blood dripped from her arm and mixed into the muddy rainwater below, but she didn’t stop. She rushed over to Skinner.
I ran towards her as well, while observing Elenor’s fight, in case she needed help.
The robed figure had given up trying to use surprise attacks against Elenor, and resorted to whirlpools and dozens of water jets to try and clip the nimble girl. Elenor stepped between the robed figure’s attacks, avoiding all of them with ease and precision. She was within striking distance of the figure.
Sally jumped at Skinner’s head, aiming to crush it under her feet. Skinner’s eyes shot open and he rolled out of the way, spluttering as the muddy water flew into his mouth. Sally kicked his back with her other foot, and he grunted. She aimed for his head again, but ended up jumping backwards as he swiped at her leg with his metal hand.
He pointed his spiky fingers at her and sat up, breathing heavily.
“It just had to be you, huh,” said Skinner, between breaths. “Yui Sally Josef, the bloody miner. If it was anyone else from the force, I could probably take them out, easy.”
“Nobody else would be stupid enough to accept a drink from you,” said Sally as her eyes darted around, looking for an opening from where she could finish him off.
Water splashed near them as the robed figure slammed into the ground. Elenor was breathing so loudly, I could hear her from where I stood, despite the sound of rain and thunder.
“This is your fault, you know,” said Skinner. “I was promised a competent assistant.”
“I am not your assistant, Mr. Tamp,” said the robed figure, standing up as if nothing had happened. “And considering how much assistance you have required of me, I think it is safe to say, I will be expecting a discount on these orbs.”
“Funny, you say that like you’ve been helping.”
“I did not say anything funny, Mr. Tamp.”
“You did,” said Skinner as he stood up.
Elenor had caught her breath. Sally had torn off the bottom of her shirt and wrapped it around the gashes on her arm. Ben had tottered over, and Jerome was tinkering with a black box.
“Because for some reason,” continued Skinner as he pulled out the Soul Orb from his pocket. “You still think we can get out of this without a little…”
He crushed the orb.
Grey winds howled around Skinner, as rain swirled around him. The winds blew the hood off the robed figure’s head, revealing the face of a black-haired woman with raised cheekbones, furrowed brows, and enraged blue eyes.
“What are you doing?” she shouted.
Skinner faced her and smiled. “Collecting my payment.” He pointed a finger at the woman and grey smoke began flying out of her mouth.
The woman’s screams were drowned out by the deafening thunder above, both of which masked a softer sound that I could only barely hear.
Elenor shouted something but I couldn’t tell what. The thunder was too loud. The ground beneath me shifted, and I slipped despite not moving an inch.
Rain pelted my face as my heart lurched with vertigo, and the sky and the rain fell away from me.