Storm and his friends had dropped Gerald off at his house and were heading back to Krista’s estate when the first distant sounds of trouble began making themselves heard in the early evening air.
“Whoa there laddie.” Durin held out a burly arm to interrupt a story Ralt had launched into. “Ye hear that?”
They all reined to a halt. The noise of their horse’s hooves died away. Faint shouts and the clang of metal drifted to their ears on the cool breeze. Although Ralt was the newest of them to the sounds of battle, he’d already been through enough to recognize a fight when he heard it. “Now what?” he muttered peevishly.
Lorelei knocked an arrow as the rest drew their weapons. She glanced around. “Do we head back to Gerald’s tower or keep going? It’s about the same either way.”
Durin shrugged massively. “Who’s ta say until we know wot’s goin’ on?” His gnarled hands clenched the shaft of Fenris Fang. “But I’d feel better if’n we were movin’. Standing still is a bad idea.”
Storm was straining to make sense of distant battle noises. It sounded strange for some reason but he couldn’t put his finger on it. “You got that right,” he nodded. He gestured toward Krista’s estate. “Move out!” he ordered like the Marine officer he’d once been.
They resumed their trek, moving faster than before, trying watch in every direction at once. At the next intersection he caught Ralt swiveling his head from side to side with a puzzled expression.
“What is it?” he asked tersely. “Are those elven ears hearing something I can’t?”
The wizard shrugged. “I don’t know. It sounds like a lot of fighting is coming from that way.” He pointed off toward the western part of town. “But there is other fighting coming from somewhere else too.” He frowned. “It reminds me of Robling.”
They exchanged worried looks. When the King Roderick had died in Robling, it triggered a civil war between his two sons. The battle grew quickly until the whole city was engulfed. They’d barely managed to escape without getting caught up in it.
Storm bared his teeth. He activated his magical Sight to scan the area for magic, but for the moment found nothing. “I didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire from Roderick’s death and I sure as blazes don’t want to get caught in whatever that is either,” he snarled, nodding at the distant sounds which were unmistakably growing louder. He kicked his horse in the sides.
The rest spurred their mounts after him, abandoning caution in favor of speed.
It was nearly their undoing.
In his haste, Storm took a wrong turn and before he could get straightened out, they barreled around a corner right into a street full of struggling men. Their mounts skidded to a stop, their iron shod feet striking sparks on the cobblestones.
“Back up, back up!” Lorelei hissed frantically.
Storm nodded, already sawing back on the reins to back his horse away from the knot of men. His eyes narrowed. They weren't trying to kill each other, even though he saw men wearing the colors of different gods fighting with each other. It looked like they were . . . he shook his head. He couldn’t tell what was going on.
Abruptly he got an answer to his confusion.
One of the men chanced to see them. “There they are!” he yelled, breaking off from the man he was struggling with. “The bounty is mine!” he added victoriously. He stabbed at them with a corsecca, a dagger-like blade on the end of a long pole. Two metal leaves angled up from either side of the bottom of the blade to keep an enemy from pulling himself forward in a suicidal lunge.
Storm batted it aside with a sword but couldn’t get close enough to do more. Lorelei had no such limitation though. Her bow sang a song of death and the man fell with a strangled cry.
So much for your bounty, Storm thought grimly, wondering who’d set a price on their head. He didn’t question that someone had. He wondered who was brave enough to do it in the face of their Servant Nimbus. He spurred his horse forward with a savage yell, laying about him with his twin swords. Men screamed and fell, cut in half or trampled by iron hooves.
His friends followed close on his heels. Bodies littered the ground as they broke free on the far side and thundered up the street.
Ralt risked a glance over his shoulder as they left their enemies behind. They were struggling with each other, trying to be the first to come after them. He shook his head in disbelief. “Hey!” he shouted to his friends. “They’re fighting to see who gets us.”
“That must be some bounty,” Lorelei yelled back.
They turned another corner and nearly went down in a heap as they sawed back on the reins to keep from plowing into another group of struggling men. This time, some of them were town guards in their chain and half-plate armor. They seemed to be trying to separate the rest.
They were spotted and the guard’s valiant efforts to curtail the fighting were suddenly for naught. A wave of men surged toward them.
Storm’s lips compressed in anger. His natural inclination to lash out was stymied by the presence of the guards who actually seemed to be trying to enforce law and order for a change. He spotted an alley leading in what he hoped was the right direction. “This way,” he roared over the tumult. He took off, hoping his friends heard and followed him.
Luck was with them for two more turns.
They burst into the plaza where Javan’s Jewels was located. In the middle of the intersection was an angry swirling mob, surrounded by a thin line of guardsmen. The mob, waving weapons, was yelling at the stone-faced guards who held them at bay with 10 foot long war scythes, the edges honed razor sharp.
Another group of horsemen erupted the plaza a moment later.
Storm snarled defiance at the two groups of enemies and raised his swords.
One of the horsemen waved at him.
“It’s Thomas,” Durin rumbled behind him. “And never was I happ’r to see ‘em.”
Storm kicked his horse into a gallop as the mob in the center began breaking through the line of guards. Thomas and his men all carried bows. They raised them and let loose a volley at the rabble pursuing them. Screams split the night and their enemies slowed for a moment, giving them time to escape.
Thomas caught up with Storm. “Aram sent us out to find you,” he yelled. “Thank the gods, we did!”
“What’s going on?” Storm bellowed.
Before Thomas could answer they ran headlong into another gaggle of men hunting them. This time there was no help for it, they had to fight their way through. Fully half of the enemy were mounted and they came together with a sickening crunch of bone and flesh.
The fighting was too close and vicious for Ralt to use any magic. He laid about him with his staff. It was worse than the battle at the Temple because now the enemy was all around him. He turned to parry a spear thrust and was too slow. The spear missed him but pierced his horse to the heart. It whinnied in pain then staggered and collapsed. Ralt leaped clear but wound up sprawled on the ground. His staff clattered and bounced away, knocked out of his grasp. Before he could even reach for it three men rushed him, stabbing with their swords.
Two of them suddenly arched their backs in pain, then fell to either side of him, arrows protruding from their backs.
The third paused, gaping at them just long enough for Ralt to fling out his hand with killing magic. The man’s head erupted as if it had exploded. Blood and tissue sprayed everywhere.
Exclamations of horror erupted around him. Casting dignity to the winds, he scrabbled across the ground to reclaim his staff. He lurched to his feet, leaning heavily on the sturdy pole, staggered by what he’d done.
He looked up. Storm was bearing down on him at a full gallop, one arm extended to catch him.
He didn’t have time to think. He jumped, reaching for Storm. Their hands clasped each other’s forearms and he swung up on the saddle behind his friend.
The momentary shock of what had happened was gone and the men surged forward with renewed vigor, but it was too late. The instant’s reprieve from the fighting had given them the opening they needed. Threading the needle, they shot out of the ring of closing enemies and pounded down a random street, hooves thundering off the surrounding buildings.
Thomas took the lead. “This way,” he yelled over his shoulder.
The rest, trusting his knowledge of the city streets followed him unquestioningly.
Storm glanced back at Ralt. “How’d you do that?” he yelled over the noise.
Ralt shook his head. “I don’t know!”
Storm couldn’t spare more time for it and turned his attention back to staying on Thomas’ heels. His lips compressed. During battle, his first instinct was always to use his swords and physical strength even though he was slowly gaining a growing expertise with magic. But what Ralt had done was beyond anything he’d ever heard of except in Saturday night horror movies. Movies didn’t exist on Gaia though, so he didn’t know what to think.
Ralt’s mind was whirling too, but for a far different reason. Elves, and those with elven blood could imbue items with magic, channeling raw power into clothes, weapons, armor, and even such mundane items as plates and cups as they constructed them. Wizards, on the other hand, could only cast what Gerald referred to as ‘modulated magic’ in the form of spells triggered by incantations and predetermined gestures or components. What he’d just done was almost a combination of elven power and spell casting. It should have been impossible. He suppressed an atavistic shudder of fear and tried to put it out of his mind, yet knowing full well it could come back to haunt him.
They rounded a corner and slid to a halt.
A group of armed men, all wearing the armor and colors of the Temple of Ashima, were gathered before the gates of Krista’s home. Her guards crouched over their spears and shields, while bowmen on the upper walls tensely held half-drawn bows aimed at the men below.
Rolf, the guardsman who’d greeted them on their return from Robling, was trying to reason with the angry, shouting men milling around in front of the gate. Over their heads he saw them and his eyes widened. The Temple soldiers saw his reaction and turned to see what he was looking at.
“The fugitives!” someone shouted. “There they are!” The man was pointing straight as Storm and his friends.
The small group exchanged wondering glances. Fugitives?
They didn’t have time to ponder it further. Without hesitation the soldiers raised a battle cry, “Ashima Ascendant!” and charged at them.
“Fireball,” Storm roared over his shoulder at Ralt. “Now!”
The war mage’s face hardened as he did what he was told. His staff spat power at the charging men and a searing blast of fire exploded in their midst.