“Oh, is it coming back?” I said as a tiny black shape shot out of the tree with a buzz.
No, I realized, what I was hearing wasn’t buzzing, but whistling, the whistling of wind being pierced by something sharp and deadly.
A clang echoed as Sally jumped in front of me. An arrow fell to the ground, and the shadow of Sally’s pickaxe fell across my face.
“Show yourself!” Sally yelled.
Jerome and Ben stepped to either side of her, guarding our flanks. Elenor tapped her stick and Ben’s face flickered in various directions. The pages of The Tempest fluttered in the back of my mind.
Another whistle rang in my ear.
“Behind us!” shouted Elenor.
I turned just in time to see the arrow get knocked out of the air. A pebble fell to the ground beside it.
“Nice one, Ben!” I said. I hadn’t picked a character to play using The Tempest yet, because I wanted to know who was attacking us, first.
“They’re behind those bushes to your right, Jerome,” said Elenor in a low voice.
Jerome brought a black box out of his pocket and aimed at the tree where the first arrow had come from, but when he threw it, it was the bushes that exploded.
“On your left, Sally!” said Elenor.
“Got it.” Sally swung her pickaxe as another arrow appeared from behind the tree trunk.
“Why can’t we see them?” I asked.
“Some sort of concealment magic,” replied Jerome.
“Behind you, Val!”
I swayed to the side and a blur whizzed past my ear. My heart jumped into my throat. That was too close! This concealment magic was bad news.
Another blur whizzed through the air, however, this one went towards the bushes. The bushes groaned as the pebble hit. I looked over my shoulder at Ben. His eyes were narrowed and he was taking long, deep breaths. Another pebble flew from his hand, this time to the tree trunk, and an arrow flew haphazardly to the side.
Only finders could fight this battle, I realized. As Elenor gave directions to Sally and Jerome, and Ben shot more pebbles towards our invisible assailants, I made my decision.
Taking a deep breath, I crouched and picked up a pebble. Another arrow whistled towards me. My eyes flickered as my hand jerked violently forward. Another whistle cut through the air, then the whistles died in a loud crash.
A broken arrow plonked to the ground with a pebble stuck in its arrowhead. I raised my eyes and scanned my surroundings. I couldn’t tell where our attackers were, but I picked up the tiniest details like crumpled leaves, broken twigs, dust in the air, and sounds of movement and breathing, and pieced them together to build a bigger picture.
I intercepted another arrow, scooped up another pebble, then hurled it over my shoulder. A cry of pain followed. I stepped back until my back pressed against another.
“Val, you…” said Ben.
“Just copying your magic for the moment, Ben.” That was partially true, I was copying the effects of his unburnt magic, but only because it came with the rest of his character. I didn’t know why I was hiding the details of my magic from him, but I did it anyway.
“I see,” he said.
The arrows had stopped coming but we kept hitting them with pebbles and exploding boxes. They were probably concentrating on dodging our attacks, and it seemed to be working, judging by the lack of groans and cries.
Fifteen arrows whistled through the air, surrounding us completely.
I chucked two pebbles in quick succession, knocking as many arrows out of the air. Sally swung her pickaxe, smashing five of them to bits. Jerome’s exploding box destroyed four, while knocking another one out of the way. Ben got the rest with his pebbles.
I immediately fell to the ground. A powerful shockwave reverberated, blanketing the area in silence. A further fifteen arrows hit the ground.
“They’re gone,” said Elenor, breathing heavily.
“You sure?” asked Sally as she stood up.
Elenor nodded. “I could sense all of them clearly, but they were too fast for me to fight them directly.”
“How many were there?” asked Jerome.
“Five,” said Ben. “Judging by where the arrows originated. Some of them curved to make the illusion we were being fired upon by fifteen people.”
I let The Tempest fall back to my shelf. “Who were they?”
“I didn’t recognize any of them,” said Elenor. “But they gave off a familiar feeling. Cold, enigmatic, and disgustingly self-righteous, just like that woman from Inline.”
Jerome frowned. “They shouldn’t have been able to find us this quickly.”
“No, if it’s them, it’s possible,” said Sally. She didn’t put away her pickaxe. “We need to get out of here before they come back with reinforcements.”
“Do we stick to the road?” I asked.
“Yes, we’d be playing into their hands if we left the road. If we can reach the first rest-stop before nightfall, we should be alright.”
We ran until I stopped to catch my breath. The others were breathing quickly too, but I definitely had the least stamina amongst us. We walked until the pain in my chest receded, then began running again.
All the while, Ben and Elenor scanned the edges of the road. Jerome took point while Sally brought up the rear. Running in the middle of the formation, I felt a tang of annoyance at being a liability. I wanted to use The Tempest to play Ben’s character again, but that would make me more tired, and I was already setting the pace for the group.
No, the best thing I could do for the moment was keep my eyes on the undulating road and put one foot in front of the other.
Water breaks were tense. Four people stood on guard while we passed around a single canteen. Our packs were slowing us down but we kept them. Although my mask let in light, it wasn’t porous enough to let air through, so my face was soon covered in sweat. I took it off once I couldn’t handle the smell of my own breath anymore. I made a mental note to punch holes in it or something.
Our attackers didn’t show up again. However, we couldn’t calm our nerves. We jumped at shadows, shouted at trees, and Ben even spooked a bird with a pebble. The comfort of Devel seemed like a distant memory that faded with the sunlight.
“We should have captured that tiker,” remarked Sally during a water break.
It wasn’t enough to break the tension in the air, but we ended up walking the rest of the way – a decision my aching feet were grateful for.
“We should have reached the rest-stop by now,” said Jerome.
The sky was painted in hues of orange and gold. There weren’t many trees around but thorny shrubs dotted the ground, casting twisting shadows across the coarse soil. Jerome tried to read a map with one hand, while holding a black box in the other. In retrospect, that was probably both inefficient and dangerous, but at the time, it didn’t strike me as odd. We needed to be wary, cautious, alert.
We needed to be paranoid.
I frowned as white noise filled my ears. Something wasn’t right but I couldn’t tell what it was. The Tempest flickered in the back of my mind, but even with Ben’s deductive abilities, I couldn’t put my finger on it. I couldn’t read this situation at all.
Or could I?
I focused my eyes and the world stopped moving, which was strange because it shouldn’t have been moving in the first place. Information flooded my mind.
“John Ulfric Jenkins,” came the thought in my head. “Fifty-four. Header from Bendeck. Member of Inline and leader of its Third Column. Father of Conis and Jenny. Burnt Book of Bitany, Book of Bendeck, and Book of Inline. Interprets Book of Bitany and Book of Bendeck to allow him to manipulate targets’ minds.
Current illusion has victims think time and space is passing faster than normal.”
“Over there!” shouted Elenor, breaking my concentration. The thoughts stopped flooding into my mind.
An explosion blew a hole into the ground and someone screamed in pain. Or rather, someone’s screams intensified. Drops of blood fell on the ground, appearing out of nowhere. The sun was high in the sky and we were still standing in front of the tree the tiker had flown into.
“Captain, what happened?” came a voice I didn’t recognize. Ben chucked a pebble at it but it didn’t seem to hit.
“I don’t know,” said the voice that had screamed. The speaker sounded like he was speaking through grit teeth. “It felt like I was being read. All units, avoid giving away your position.”
Sally jumped at the voice and swung her pickaxe but hit nothing but air. Ben shot another pebble and Jerome eyed our surroundings with a black box in his hand. Elenor bumped into my back.
“Was that you?” she asked in a hushed voice.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I read the illusion.”
“I see,” she said. “I don’t think I could do something like that.”
I frowned. Was the way I read things different because I was from another world?
“Are you going to do it again?” asked Elenor.
“Yeah,” I said. I already had The Tempest ready and was using Ben’s character to find our invisible attackers.
“Hold on a second, we don’t want them focusing on you,” said Elenor. “Wait for my signal.”
“This one,” she whispered. Then she shouted, “Duck!”
Our team crouched, but so did the person I was following. I took the opportunity to focus on them intently and more information flew into my mind.
“Clara Tay. Twenty-seven. Header from Bendeck. Member of Inline’s Third Column. Wife of Hagel the blacksmith, mother of Sara and Julian. Burnt the Book of Bendeck, Book of Bitany, and Book of Inline. Interprets Book of Bitany to grant invisibility to fellow believers, allowing them to carry out their righteous acts in secrecy.
Currently granting invisibility to Tay, Yao, Said, Banter, and Jenkins.”
Clara screamed and five people materialized around us. Before she could recover, a pebble struck her forehead, and she crumpled.
“Clara!” cried the middle-aged man nursing a bleeding arm.
“Captain, watch out!” shouted the redhaired man.
The Captain, Ulfric, became a blur, avoiding the black box that left a crater where he had been standing. A brown-haired man aimed his bow and shot five arrows which curved through the air towards Elenor.
Elenor hit the ground with her baton, and the air in front of her vibrated, making the arrows fall like kites with cut strings. Ben shot a pebble at the brown-haired man, but he dashed to the side.
They were insanely fast. That had to be magic, I was sure of it. And if that Clara lady could grant invisibility to her teammates, one of the others could probably grant super-speed too. I needed to read that person so we could take them out.
“Elenor,” I whispered. “I need another distraction.”
“You’ve already got one,” she said, signaling to her right.
Sally jumped at the bleeding Ulfric’s back. Somehow, Sally had managed to get outside of their encirclement and snuck up behind him.
“Captain!” shouted the brown-haired man, pointing behind Ulfric.
Ulfric didn’t turn, choosing instead to trust his men and dive to the side; a choice that let him keep his head as Sally’s pickaxe swung through the air. However, his team was looking at him, giving me a window of opportunity to strike.
I read the red-haired man.
“Gaben Yao. Thirty-two. Header of Bendeck. Member of Inline’s Third Column. Brother of Yamten. Burnt Book of Bendeck, Book of Bitany, and Book of Inline. Interprets Book of Bitany to grant enhanced speed to fellow believers, to assist in carrying out the will of the goddess.
Currently granting enhanced speed to Yao, Said, Banter, Jenkins.”
Gaben screamed but his screams were cut off by an exploding black box. He fell to the ground, severely burnt and unconscious.
Got him, I thought to myself. With this we should be able to round up the others with ease.
My body froze with Ulfric’s shout, not because I was afraid or surprised, but because my body refused to listen to my brain. It was like someone was holding my limbs and I couldn’t budge without their permission.
“The girl is looking away,” said Ulfric. “You did it, Nene.”