Survival is a craft, and it is one requiring a lifetime to master. To some, it may involve fighting to eliminate the danger while to others, evasion is the goal. Growing up in a place where monsters thrive, I’d acquired some of these skills myself – the art of playing dead in particular. I needed time to gather my thoughts and time to asses my position, which was why I was pretending to be asleep. Well, I said ‘pretend’, but it really was me lacking the strength to do anything. If they had done more than look, I wouldn’t have been able to stop them.
“What do you reckon? An escaped slave?” one of them said.
“Maybe,” answered the man who carried me.
To wake or not to wake, was my predicament. I didn’t feel like I was in danger. Quite the contrary, it felt like they were helping, but then…
“There’s a spare cage.”
“You’re going to lock her up?”
Slaves. Cages. I wasn’t so sure anymore, but then again, I needed the help. They could give me food, water, and a place to rest. If I had to be caged to receive it, I just had to break out afterward.
It took a fair bit of walking to their base and the whole way, the man who carried me never faltered under my weight. I could only imagine a large and muscular man because I was too afraid to open my eyes out of fear they’d notice.
I saw lights through closed eyelids. Shimmers of orange in the dark, like lights in the distance brighter than the one in the sky. I could hear the sound of fire crackling, accompanied with low murmurs you’d expect from a large group of people in one place.
“Buggers. That’s Danill’s party.” The man holding me stopped under a shade.
“Well, that changes things.”
“I should find the Lord, find out what’s going on. Here, take the girl. The spare cage’s over there, on the utility wagon.”
“Nay, you take her. A man’s got to see things through, and you’re the one who wants to put her in a cage.”
I felt the grip on me tightening.
“Fine,” answered an irate voice. “Then you go talk around and get a sense of what’s going on.”
“Deal. Talk to you later, Aenir.”
The man called ‘Aenir’ moved swiftly after separating from his friend. Intermitting flashes of light told me he’d placed the trees between us and the fires, and adding on how no one greeted him, I concurred he was trying to avoid being seen.
He jumped on top of something, wood creaking beneath his feet. A door was swung open before he placed me down, treating me gentler then he needed to. Then I heard the door closing back, followed by the sliding of metal and a click as something locked in place. I waited until he jumped off the platform before opening my eyes. Darkness had fallen, and now I was in a cage – wooden, vertical bars fixed onto rectangular boards that served as both flooring and roof. One side of the cage had hinges connecting to a door, which was fastened by a hasp fitted over a staple and secured by a padlock. Looking outside, the wagon was cluttered with various tools, bags, and crates. There were some weapons even, swords and pikes, unfortunately out of reach.
I grabbed onto the bars and pulled myself up, just enough to peek over the sides of the wagon. There was another vehicle parked right beside the one I was on. On top were three cages, three people– no, four; the third, larger cage housed two individuals. Four people in total, all women, in the same situation as I was. Maybe even more that I couldn’t see. Further away was a camp, lit by fires and populated by an untold number of tents. There were moving figures around the fires, shadows in the shape of people, with an orange outline as they were backlit with distant lights. One of those figures was approaching.
I laid back down onto the cage’s floor before he could see me and listened to the sound of boots. As he drew close, I smelled something new; a scent that overwhelmed the petrichor and horse shit, and a smell made my stomach growl.
“Hey, guy yonder,” a female voice said. “She won’t be eating that anytime soon. Why don’t you give it to me instead?”
Give what? Then it clicked in my head that it was food I’d smelled. I considered whether to make a claim of my own, but then I would have to give away my readiness for questioning. I could only continue to listen in.
“You should give me those, lest you want the Lord finding out about miss whitey over there.”
Miss Whitey – I had a feeling she was referring to me.
“Are you threatening me?” said a man’s voice. The same voice as the man who brought me here.
“W– who’s threatening who now?” the female retorted.
I waited for a reply. None came. Daring myself a peek, I saw the tall man’s back as he returned to where the tents were. Dark hair, broad shoulders accentuated by a long coat, carrying a sword as tall as he was.
More importantly, one of the girls on the neighboring wagon had acquired something I needed.
A bread was thrown from one cage to another. They were sharing it amongst them. I opened my mouth to speak. I had hoped that maybe, maybe because things were different up here, something about this could be different as well.
It wasn’t. No voice came out. I didn’t even know what I was expecting. Even after all I’ve been through, I was still…
“…–a bloody idiot?”
“Ruddy, I’m taking this in a very wrong way.”
Their voices were risen. Were they fighting?
“ …–a bit of grub? That was a stupid thing to do,” one of the girls said. She had red hair and darker skin than the rest, wearing a loose-fitting and short-sleeved, knee-length dress, ripped rather than sewn that way.
“You mean that bit of grub in your hands right now?” came the snarky response from a raven-haired girl wearing what seemed like a multi-layered dress, somewhat conflicting the trousers she wore underneath. There was something in her voice—confidence? Arrogance?
In the same cage, silently sipping her soup was a brown-haired girl wrapped in a large mantle that covered the entirety of her sitting form. Like me, she was quietly observing without saying any word.
‘Ruddy’ and the dark-haired girl continued the heated but hushed dialogue, and I absorbed everything. From them, I knew they were all taken against their wills and that the people partying around the fires were criminals.
Criminals. That was an important word because it meant the existence of law, implying a complex social structure which required population, and population led to settlements. Multiple settlements, apparent by the very wagon I was on top of. That meant villages with roads between them. Maybe even towns and cities, forming a conglomeration to nations.
I was shaking, maybe from the cold, maybe from the excitement of how real this was. The world of the living – I’d made it. The proof was right there in front me; people talking, debating and sharing food. Real people, unlike the monsters down below.
Pff… hah! Damn you, Thalvos. Starve me or cage me, it didn’t matter. None of it mattered because I’d survived. I got out. I had won–
I stopped grinning to myself when I realized one of the girls was looking at me. She had golden hair and big, long ears poking out the sides of her head. Her clothing was unlike what the others had; a long and embroidered dress made of a silkier material, padded in some parts, battered and patched in some others. She kept staring at me like I was a crazy person.
Another one of the girls noticed me. The one with raven-hair, glaring with her narrowed eyes. I answered her gaze and hoped to form some sort of connection.
“Ruddy, give her a piece. Goldie too,” the dark-haired one commanded. I was right in my guess. She was in charge.
The red-hair, Ruddy, took a small chunk of bread and passed it to the fuzz-eared girl. She then tore off another bit but seemed to hesitate about giving it to me.
“What are you waiting for, Ruddy?”
“Um, she’s a bit far.”
“Just throw it.”
Ruddy looked over to me, “I’m going to throw it, so you have to catch it, okay? You absolutely have to catch it.”
I nodded repeatedly and reached my hand out between the bars.
She threw. It was a good throw, but I was a bad catch, or just too tired. The bread bounced off the bars and over the side of the wagon.
“Ah, um…” Ruddy looked at the little piece left in her hands. “I– I’ll throw this one next, so–“
“No, that one’s yours. Whitey had her chance and she bonked it.”
“But Latasha, she’s…” Ruddy lowered her voice, “look at her. Don’t you feel pity?”
“Like I said, she had her chance,” said ‘Latasha’, the raven-haired one. “Besides,” she addressed me, “I think she gets it.”
I nodded slowly. It wasn’t that I was fine with it, just that I happened to notice how the woman called Latasha didn’t take anything for herself either. It was a sacrifice she made to take charge of this little group, and now she was asking me to make the same compromise if I wanted to be included.
“See? Whitey understands,” she said with a conniving smile.
I did understand. But that didn’t mean I would stay quiet about it. I reached out and rattled the hasp locking me in to see if it was loose in any way.
“Don’t bother. You’d sooner pry those bars off,” Latasha said.
True enough, the metal parts were screwed solidly into the cage. I tried yanking on the padlock as well, but the most I could do was make enough jangling to annoy a certain woman.
“Stop that already,” that certain woman said. “Just sit tight, Whitey. We should be out of here soon.”
“How do you figure?” asked Ruddy.
“Weren’t you paying attention? I made a proposal to their boss. He’ll come get me soon enough.”
“You mean you were being serious? So with him, you’re going to, um…”
“Don’t even!” Latasha snapped. “I shall negotiate with him and nothing else.”
“Then how? It’s not like you have anything else to give.”
“Oh, but I do. I can offer him things he can’t refuse. Things well beyond the imagination of you peasant-minded people.”
I watched, or rather listened as another debate developed between them. The girl with brown hair sharing Latasha’s cage stayed quiet the whole time, while the one with hairy ears, Goldie, was… she was still watching me. The girl was waiting, or expecting something from me, but I didn’t know what. She turned away the moment I met her gaze, so I never found out that night.
Latasha was dead set on making a bargain with our captors. She didn’t reveal many of the details, wouldn’t or couldn’t, but we decided to go along for now – ‘we’ here being Ruddy, because Goldie and the brown-haired girl voluntarily abstained from the discussion, but didn’t seem to be against it either. Me? I was just nodding my head whenever they addressed me. Simply put, Latasha’s idea was to wait for this apparent ‘Lord’ to come and invite her for negotiation, through which she would somehow make him agree to our release. In other words, her plan was for us to sit and wait, then wait some more while she did all the work. Since I could do anything but that, why not?
We waited, and waited, with the churning of my stomach growing worse by the minute. Once in a while, someone would come by and check on them. Fortunately, they never did anything more than stealing looks. There was one prudent enough to walk right up to their wagon, but he too merely gave Latasha an ogling. He went away laughing after Latasha made what I assumed was a rude gesture with her hand. The fabled Lord? He never came. Mumbles of doubt began to sound from Ruddy’s mouth, doubt that I too shared.
“Just wait. You’ll see,” Latasha responded to those doubts. Her voice was lacking the poise she had a while ago.
“Latasha, it’s been hours. I don’t think that man is even awake.”
The raven-haired woman made a long sigh but didn’t say anything in reply. She made a distant gaze into the darkness of the forest.
“Latasha?” Ruddy tried.
“Um, you know, about what I said…”
“Yeah, yeah, I follow your point.”
Ruddy waited for an elaboration. After a minute of silence, she asked again, “Um, what now?”
“Oh thee, I don’t know, do magic and break out?” Latasha responded sarcastically.
“Ca– can you?”
“Would I still be here if I could? Please, stop talking so I could think.”
Ruddy did not fall silent and fell into another verbal quarrel with Latasha.
The ‘plan’, quote unquote, was a bust, no question about it. It didn’t seem like they could come up with a new one anytime soon. It was time for me to act. My first thought was Nexy, but considering the connection it had with the Dark God, I decided to leave it alone. Then I remembered Latasha saying something that piqued my interest.
‘Do magic,’ she said. ‘Magic’. There were many things I’ve noticed were dissimilar in this world compared to the one ‘down below.’ The people were one thing, the sunlit sky was another. Those were the obvious changes but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think there were other differences in a subtler scale, like say, the mechanics of magic. Perhaps one tiny variation to the rules to make it possible for me. Was it too hopeful to expect that?
Nevertheless, it was worth a try. Linking with the aether was a matter of muscle memory, less about recollection than it was about reliving it. I closed my eyes, covered my ears with my palms, and tried my best to shut the girls’ hushed whispers out. I focused on my own breathing, at how my body moved as the air flowed in and out.
Usually I had to maintain that meditation before I could get into the state. Therefore, I was honestly, and pleasantly surprised when the ‘tether’ appeared in my senses, not even a minute after I started. It was like an invisible ‘string’ stretching long, connected to a web in a place beyond my perception. The web conjoined and disjoined into more strings, each of them attached to something in our world.
Now that I’d made the connection, I should be able to input ‘commands’ through the tethers. First, however, I had to figure out what kind of ‘command’ I needed to break out of the cage. Option one: break the metal lock. Option two: break the hinges. Both possibilities involved the handling of brute force on the cage’s strongest points. ‘You’d sooner pry those bars off’, was what Latasha said when she saw my playing with the lock, and she had a point. Why aim for the metal when there was a viable, weaker link? That left me with option three.
The bars of the cage were widely-spaced enough that removing just one would allow me to fit my body through. I grabbed one of them and tried pulling on it hard, noting that there was barely any movement. By reaching a hand out and feeling around the top, I knew they were fixed onto the cage by a single screw or spike each on the top and the bottom. The boards were thick, and the nail would have to penetrate all the way through them and into the bars, one or two fingers’ width deep.
While the cage itself seemed newly built, the wood they used weren’t as pristine as the construction. There was barely any movement on the bars when I yanked, yes, but there was still a wobble, especially around the edges where the nails fixed them onto the roofing and flooring. My best conclusion was that the wood had decayed around those parts and I only needed to speed up the process.
I knew the theory and grasped the method, and all I had to do was the make the actual command. The problem was, I didn’t know how. ‘Alignment of the will and the subconscious’, or so the mantra went. Even now, I could derive only nonsense from those words.
First, I tried ‘talking’ to the tether. Then I tried a request. When that didn’t work, I arranged the instructions like a syntax in my mind and willed for the tether to take them. The next thing I knew, I felt like a piece of my soul was being sucked out, and that was how I knew it was a success.
Fuck yes. If only I’d been able to do this back then, I could’ve at least fought back against him.
The air moved around me, whirling unnaturally, converging on the cage. To elaborate, collections of air molecules were gathering on the ends of one wooden bar, swirling faster and faster within tighter and tighter boundaries. It didn’t take long for heat to build up and the wood to start smoking. The smoke, which was volatile vapor, prompted me to vacate dioxygen molecules from the swirling air, leaving only nonreactive gases to continue the work so that I wouldn’t burn myself alive.
I waited for a couple of minutes before curling my legs, then sprung them into a kick. The bar did not budge.
“Was that you, Ruddy?” I heard Latasha say.
“No, I think it’s her…”
I waited for a bit longer before a second try. This time, the bar made crackling sounds under my attack, but still stood fast.
“Stop that, Whitey.”
I did stop. For a minute or two until I could see the ends of the wooden bar blacken. Then I kicked again.
“Hey, I said stop tha–“
The wooden rod flew upon the second successive hit. It fell a few feet away from the cage and left two pointy stumps where the bar connected. I easily slipped out through the new gap, then stood up on my feet as I breathed in the taste of freedom.
“How in Athyra’s perky bosom did she…”
I jumped off the wagon and skipped onto my neighbors’. They stared at me wide-eyed and gape-mouthed, part disbelief and part hopeful. I walked pass Goldie and Ruddy, straight to Latasha’s two-girl cage.
Now that I was close, I could properly see her features. She was a fair-skinned girl with dark hair and narrowed eyes, young adult or late teenager in age. Her multi-layered clothing started with a jacket on top of a dress, and trousers underneath a skirt. Her hair was put up in a regal manner, which when paired with the embroidered clothing, gave me a good hint of her social status.
In the same cage, a young brown-haired lass was using a mantle as a quasi-blanket. I guessed by her bare legs that she wore little, if anything, underneath. Tears welled up in her droopy eyes as she looked up at me. Her mouth opened to say something, but only a little squeak came out.
“Goodness, Whitey. You’re full of surprises, aren’t you?” Latasha said. I grinned in response. “Alright, uh, see if you can find a wrench or something.”
A what? I titled my head. I had been planning to do to her cage the same thing I did to mine but thinking again, it would take a long time to do that for all three cages.
“It’s a tool about this big. Metal, with a rotating cylinder in the middle that you turn to adjust the jaws,” she used her hands to describe an object around a forearm’s length.
“Um, I don’t think she understand, Latasha,” Ruddy remarked.
“Of course she does. You do, right, Whitey?”
Not really. I nodded. Then I headed back to the other wagon. I didn’t know exactly which tool she mentioned, so I picked up everything that fits the general size and ran back to Latasha’s cage. I also grabbed a sword along the way, just in case.
She had an unimpressed look on her face when I dropped everything on the floor. Sighing, she pointed at one of the tools I brought. “That one. The coach’s wrench.”
It was a heavy, broad-shaped metal tool with a long handle and some sort of pinching mechanism. Latasha pressed the apparatus to the padlock and fiddled with the pincers, then commanded my help with her eyes. We twisted the tool together against the lock’s shackle. We were met with heavy resistance.
“Hey, Wussy Girl. Give yourself a hand, will you?”
With Latasha’s decree, the brown-haired ‘Wussy Girl’ reluctantly joined the fray. Even with the combined strength of all three of us, it still took a good minute of pulling and twisting before the lock gave in. It fell with a heavy clunk and the cage door creaked open. Wussy Girl gave me a teary-eyed look of gratitude as she toddled out following the dark-haired girl.
“You two go get Goldie out,” Latasha instructed, taking the wrench to Ruddy’s cage.
There was only one of those jaw-tool, so I settled with the sword I brought and ran up to Goldie’s cage. Her ears, covered in fur the same color as her hair, twitched on attention as I approached.
I tried swinging the blade against the lock. It rang loud.
“Keep it down!” Latasha hissed.
I know, I know.
Next, I slipped the thin blade between padlock’s shackles up against the sword’s guards. As I pulled the handle in a lever movement, Goldie reached out and pushed in the same motion while Wussy Girl grabbed my shoulder and tugged from behind… which wasn’t helpful in any way.
A short moment later, I heard something breaking on the other cage. Ruddy was out. Just as she and Latasha went to help, sounds of footsteps drew near.
“Craps!” Latasha jumped off the side of the wagon and we followed.
“W– wait!” Goldie pleaded, still in her cage.
“Ssh! Act normal!”
We ducked underneath the neighboring wagon just as the light of a lantern entered our view. I could see the boots of a person approaching from the other side.
“…–he hell?” I heard him say. The feet broke into a jog towards the cages. “Bloody hell? You, luphaen, where’d the other lassies gone to?”
We held our breaths as we waited for an answer. There was none. I could imagine the fuzz-eared girl sinking her head back between her thighs.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” the man cursed. He turned back towards the camp and ran.
Latasha was the first to act. She nicked the sword from my hands as she clambered out from under the wagon and dashed off. I followed closely behind her.
She yelled something profane. The man turned around as Latasha charged towards him with a sword. He seemed unarmed at first, but I saw him reaching for something on his hip. He pulled a weapon partially out of its holster—a pistol. I’d seen it before. I understood what it could do.
The man took his aim, thumb on the hammer, finger on the trigger. Latasha wouldn’t make it, I knew. She knew, but she didn’t stop, or couldn’t.
My body was running, but my mind was tunneling away issuing directives through the tether. More with instinct than logic, I guided charged particles through the humid air, creating a current of electricity ripping amongst vapor in the atmosphere. It split the molecules into two invisible bubbles, with the gunman in-between.
He cocked the hammer. The two bubbles moved closer, sandwiching the unknowing man who now had his gun trained on the girl.
Latasha faltering in her steps, nearly tripping over her own feet was the last thing I saw before the trigger was pulled.
Were it not for the initial spark warning me, I wouldn’t have the chance to cover my ears from the deafening boom. For a moment, there was nothing but ringing. Latasha, closest in proximity, was brought to her heels. She was squirming on the ground holding her head – a good sign, concussion at worst because otherwise she’d be holding other parts of her body.
Colorless vapor rose from the charred grounds where the man had stood. His gun had been the spark that set off the explosion, making it and the man holding it the epicenter of the blast. It happened so fast that it vaporized the projectile before it could leave the barrel of the pistol. A dozen feet away, a tent had caught fire. I didn’t know if my explosion did it, or if the shockwave knocked a lantern or a candle over. The blaze spread fast to nearby tents, turning the night into inferno. It was my understanding that we were trying to stop the man from alerting his friends of our escape. I’d forgotten that in a flurry of adrenaline and instead gave them a very loud and very rude awakening. Within seconds, rows of enemies were pouring out the tents.
I ran over to Latasha and helped her up. She looked at me with bewilderment, “Whitey, you–“
I dragged her by her hand before she could finish. They were looking for us now. If we wanted to have any chance of escaping, it was now or never.
“Wait, wait!” Latasha planted her feet, “There are others here!”
I pulled her again, but she refused to move. There were figures a distance to her back, their true numbers hidden behind the smoke from the burning tents. Dozens of enemies at least, and every one of them were armed to the teeth, raring to find someone to blame for this chaos.
“Whitey, we have to help them,” said the girl by me, but my attention was on something else.
One of the enemies pointed at our direction. Heads turned, followed by more shouting and pointing. Judging by the distance between us and them, it would take mere seconds to get their guns in range of us. I let go of Latasha’s hand. I wanted to run but this time, it was her turn to wrap her fingers around my wrist.
Let me go!
“Where are you going?! We can’t leave them!”
Swords were drawn. One of them started running towards us and like rock turning to avalanche, others followed. They didn’t care for the flaming tents nor did they intend to save the people burning inside. They just wanted blood. My blood.
They wanted to hurt me. Just like the monsters back then.
Latasha was saying something to me. Her hand stuck to mine like glue, keeping me in place while the enemies trudged closer. The only way out I could think of was to curl my fingers into a fist and hit her in the face.
She stumbled back with a shriek. Even as she crumpled in pain, her claws still lodged themselves tight on me. I readied my leg as I deliberated kicking her, but then she looked at me. With one teary eye and a palm covering the other where I hit her, she pleaded, “Whitey, please help.”
I… but they–
I couldn’t understand. Help how? Didn’t she realize what they would do to her?
She… wasn’t the only one to forgo their own survival. Back on the wagon, Ruddy and Wussy Girl were fumbling to open Goldie’s cage. No one was running away. No one but me.
A gunshot crackled through the air. I ducked away, pulling Latasha down with me. She clumsily fell into the ground yet still her hand held mine. She was never going to let go.
We were prey, you see. We were the weak ones, and it was our natural part to run from the predators. I knew it all too well, but these girls didn’t. They were fortunate enough to have never played the part of a prey, unfortunate enough to not know how to act like one. But I knew. I had the experience they didn’t have, and yet… what was I doing?
Running. That was how I survived then. It would be how I survive now, or… should be. But was it really? Must I keep running from the monsters?
I looked over where the enemies were. The gunshot had startled them as much as it did us, buying us maybe a couple more seconds. I turned to Latasha, cusped my hand over hers as I communicated, Let me go.
She somehow understood for she let me go after. I stood up and faced the enemies who were coming again. I ran to meet them halfway.
“Whitey!” Latasha yelled in horror.
What’s the point of escaping that place if I was going to keep running away? Things have changed. Would change if I only had the courage, because now I had the aether under my command. I could almost see the current in the air as it bolted throughout the camp, past the enemies ignorant of the danger I would bring.
I’m not prey.
There was another gunshot. I couldn’t care less whether it hit. If I was to go down, I’d make sure they go down with me. The invisible current had transformed the very air into fuel, waiting only for a single spark to set them off.
I stopped a few feet short from the nearest enemy. Not one of them attacked immediately, stunned by the abruptness of my appearance, calculating in their little heads whether I was a target. Meanwhile, the converging bubbles of gases spelled a forthcoming doom.
I am not prey.
One of them trained his gun on me. “You!” he howled. He didn’t have the chance to say the rest.
The wind caught cinders of the flame and flew them into the gas bubbles. It was the last cog needed to start the reaction.
Nearest the burning tents where the sparks came from, an explosion occurred out of thin air and set off a chain reaction faster than human eyes could see; the shockwave from the first detonation dispersed the rest of the volatile gases, expanding the blast radiuses further just as they erupted.
When the ash settled, the enemies I was facing were no longer standing. The fire from the burning tent had been snuffed out by the first blast, only for its embers to start new flames all over the place. From where I stood, it looked like the whole camp was on fire. I could hear coughing and groaning through the coagulating smoke. The shockwaves, it seemed, had become so scattered, with what the fueling gases spread too thin to kill them outright.
I had to see it through. I had to see the undoing of the monsters with my own hands, so I walked forward, with a small globule of air around me to protect from the noxious smoke and ash. As I went forth, something grabbed my ankle. I looked down to see a man on his back staring at me. He tried to voice something along the line of ‘mercy’, but spat out blood instead.
I tore my foot off his grasp. His eyes were teary from the smoke, unable to speak through ruptured lungs. He wheezed and begged with his eyes when I placed my foot on his throat.
I am not prey.
I pressed against his airway. His whole body twitched as it sensed its imminent death. I pushed down harder.
The sound of clashing steel interrupted me before I could end the monster’s life. Then there were gunshots and battle cries following from behind the veiling smoke. Silhouettes could be seen, tall and bulky figures swinging poles larger than themselves. More enemies. I prepared another set of commands through the tether for a second round of explosions.
“—it! She’s… —nother barrage!” a shout came.
Not a second after, a figure came running from beyond the smoke. A man with golden mane and cloth covering his face, wielding a bloodied sword. He ran full speed toward me.
I didn’t have the time to explode him. Instead I gathered as much air as I could and squeezed them into a small point of space between him and me. Dirt and ash alike flew as I let loose the condensed ball of air, simulating an explosion with no actual fire.
The man saw my trap, sidestepped it with inhumane dexterity and continued his advance. I prepared more similar attacks to stop him in his tracks but he sensed them all somehow, danced through them as though without effort. It shouldn’t have been possible.
How did– shit! I backed away. He was different from the others. A true monster.
Electricity bristled through the air once more, breaking down molecules indiscriminately. There was no time to make a distinction between fuel and oxidant, nor between enemies and friends. It was a risk I needed to take if I was to become something more than a prey.
“Luise, take her down now!”
Following the disembodied shout, the man threw his sword away as if it only slowed him down. He sprinted at me full speed, no longer caring of the traps I laid for him. He must’ve made a bet that I’d forgo obstructing his approach in favor of a bigger move. He’d won that bet. And he lost as well.
The moment he reached me was the same moment my explosives reached the flames. He tackled me down just as everything around us fell into violent combustion. My back hit the ground hard. He swiftly arrested my wrists above my head and pulled out a large pistol with his free hand.
I felt the sizzling barrels pressing against my chest. “Stop it,” he said.
I didn’t need my hands to control the aether. The elements whirled around us, ash mixing with sand as they cut into our skin like tiny knives.
His eyes widened upon realizing I had no intention of submitting. He mouthed something underneath the cloth, then flipped the pistol in his hand and held it by the barrels. The next think I saw was him swinging it towards the side of my head just before I blacked out.