I hadn’t seen Zurra in weeks, but there she was, as brazen as ever. Zurra, whose experiments for the Inquest had caused untold destruction. Zurra, who had killed my master and wanted nothing better than to see me dead.
Well, the feeling was certainly mutual.
Which put me in something of a tricky situation. Weir, Blaise and I still had our backs to one wall of the canyon, and Zurra was beside the other; between us were somewhere in the region of two hundred centaurs, their shaman, and the elemental he was in the process of summoning.
No matter how eager I was to reach Zurra, that elemental was starting to draw my attention. I hadn’t paid much heed to the shaman’s summoning – though Caolinn, who we’d left further up the cliff-face, had certainly been affected by it – but now I didn’t really have a choice. The very ground was shaking, the air thrumming with power, and thrusting their way out of the rock beneath the shaman’s feet were a pair of colossal hands.
It would be true to say that, for all my esoteric knowledge, elementals weren’t my speciality. In fact, I’d never seen anything like it.
Blaise had gone even paler than usual. “An elemental,” he breathed, eyes fixed on it.
I prodded him in the leg. “Yes, but what kind?”
He didn’t look at me. “A Greater Earth Elemental.”
I thought about that for half a second, before deciding it told me precisely nothing. It was made of earth and it was big – that, I could see for myself. “Can we kill it?”
Blaise was shaking his head, but I thought in disbelief, not in answer. Weir, on the other hand, looked resolute.
“I’ve never met a creature I couldn’t kill,” he growled. “Let’s get to it.”
Which was when Spark started shooting.
Fortunately, as it turned out, she’d stayed behind on the cliff-top above us, readying her turrets and rocket launchers. There was a low sputtering sound, then a whine, before the first missiles began to fall.
If it was possible, they sowed even more havoc than they had outside Ascalon Settlement. I didn’t know if Spark had been tinkering with their design, but the blasts of explosives seemed even larger than before, raining fire and debris over half the canyon. Weir pushed both me and Blaise against the cliff-wall, raising his shield over his head in a dome of blue light, against which the remains of Spark’s missiles pattered.
“I’m not going out there,” was the first thing Blaise said, when Weir released us.
“Of course you’re not,” Weir said with a grunt. I thought he was about to accuse the ranger of cowardice – which would have been perfectly fair – but he went on, “Get back up to Caolinn. If she’s still incapacitated, she might need protection, and you can do more good higher up with that bow of yours.”
All of that was true, but I also sensed Weir was giving Blaise a chance to escape. Never mind that the ranger was down on the canyon floor with us because he’d been so determined to fight centaurs – his presence, now that he’d had a change of heart, would only slow us down.
And nothing was going to slow Weir, that much was certain. The centaurs were already scattered, streaming out of the canyon or at least taking shelter beneath its far wall, but the charr ploughed straight into the thinning crowds that were left. With mace in one hand and shield in the other, he smashed his way though the panicking centaurs, slamming glowing symbols into the dirt and creating pulsing walls of magic that threw our foes back.
I followed in his wake, a pistol in either hand, firing streams of bullets at any centaur that dared get too close. I hardly need have worried, though. Between Spark’s assault and their own inebriation, most of the centaurs were too bewildered to do anything but run.
By the time we reached the elemental, I was starting to wish I could join them.
The ground gave another heave and I was forced to clutch at Weir’s leg to keep myself upright. A great rent had formed in the earth, black as the abyss, and from it a pair of hands were emerging. They tore at the ground, their rocky fingertips sparking with white light, until all ten digits had fought their way clear. Just as alarming, a veritable storm had risen, a vortex of spinning air and chunks of rock whipping past out heads.
Weir threw up another shield of guardian magic, which I felt shudder as a boulder struck it. “How much more do you think is under there?” he shouted to me, as we edged ever closer to the elemental.
Other than its hands? I didn’t have an answer, which was probably a good thing. I didn’t want to know what might be connected to those writhing fingers.
“We need to split up,” I shouted back. “I need to get to Zurra.”
Weir twirled his mace, taking that as a challenge. “Then I’ll take care of Mr. Slappy.”
Mr. Slappy…? Best not to ask. As Weir put his head down and pushed his way through the vortex, I turned aside.
Almost immediately, I was nearly knocked unconscious by a rock spinning through the air. I ducked just in time, only to feel it shatter against the ground behind me, peppering my unprotected back with a painful spray of shards. Even as I pressed on through the storm, I knew I was never going to reach Zurra, not with the elemental, the shaman and the vortex in my path.
I turned back, searching for Weir, but could see nothing except a dusty brown haze, occasionally dotted with a few points of blue-white light. A fresh barrage of explosions from Spark’s guns boomed overhead, accompanied by a rain of arrows with burning tips. They scattered the last of the centaurs and thudded into the rocky hands of the elemental, but I knew they’d do little to injure it. Nothing could, except-
Except ending the summoning. There was no way to destroy the elemental, not with so few of us, but what if its link to the shaman holding it in thrall was severed? Guns and swords and spells, after all, would have a lot more potency against a single centaur.
I changed direction yet again, this time running for the very centre of the summoning. I jumped over a rolling boulder, staggered as the ground bucked, then gained my balance again. A quick shift into invisibility and a shadowstep as one of the colossal hands whipped towards me; a second shadowstep, into empty space-
Or what I thought was empty space. Only as I landed did I realise how badly I’d misjudged, and how close overhead the second hand loomed.
For several heartbeats, I thought I was going to die. The shadow of the elemental’s hand was all-encompassing, a gloom that shuttered out the light even of its own blinding magic. I didn’t cower – I was too shocked for that – but I could only stand and watch as the hand lowered, a single finger massive enough to flatten me.
And then someone called my name. How it cut through the storm winds, I’ll never know, but it sounded as clearly as though someone had rung a bell right next to my ear. My pulse started hammering again, the world snapped back into focus, and I shadowstepped just as the elemental’s hand came down.
I was almost too late as it was. The hand itself missed me, but the colossal shockwave it created was enough to launch me off my feet and send me bouncing, head over heels, across the rocky ground. My skull struck a boulder, and I saw brilliant flashes of light as the hand lifted again, this time turning itself to face its brethren. More light formed between them with the clarity of a star, almost too painful to look at. I was too stunned to get up, even to look away, though I knew in the back of my mind that the spell – whatever it was – would likely fry me to a crisp.
There was no voice this time, simply a hand – a real one, of flesh and blood with a greyish hue. It reached down to me, then when I didn’t take it, grabbed me by the arm and hauled me sideways. The elemental’s spell blossomed as silently and beautifully as an unfolding flower, and I was too mesmerised to look away even when its light became too bright to bear.
It dimmed quite suddenly, taking on a purple sheen. I was still lying immobile, gaping at it, as the elemental’s spell rippled out, bursting over the mesmeric magic shielding me like a wave breaking over a rock.
Mesmeric magic. I scrambled to my knees, head still spinning, and managed to turn just far enough to see my rescuer. He stood a pace behind me, hands raised in the air, the strain on his face evident as both his shield and the elemental’s magic died away. I could only gape at him and wonder – with that logical part of my mind that never switched off – just how concussed I was.
“Hello, Amber,” Darr said, with a smile. Around us, the dust was beginning to settle and an eerie silence to fall. “I wouldn’t usually interfere, but you looked to be having a little difficulty. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Mind?” I couldn’t seem to make my mouth form coherent thoughts. “Darr, what… doing… here?”
Darr understood well enough. He pointed off behind me, to the cliff wall behind the elemental. To Zurra. “There’s someone up there we both have an interest in, remember? I can’t let you have all the fun.”