There are times when it pays to be cautious of one’s allies, to study their motives and try to rely on them as little as possible. There are also times when circumstances spiral out of your control and you need all the help you can get.
Times like now, when I was confronted by an earth elemental of colossal size, the centaur shaman summoning it, and my arch-enemy perched overhead, overseeing the whole thing. Now, I didn’t actually think Zurra had anything to do with the centaur gathering, but she had to be here for a reason. Just as we had arrived in the vicinity because of Blaise’s desire for revenge against the centaurs, so too must Zurra have her motives and schemes.
Because if there was one thing I understood better than any other when it came to Zurra, it was that she was never without a scheme or two.
I suspected Darr had one up his sleeve, too, but I couldn’t really dispute his presence when he’d just saved me from being smashed into dust by the elemental in front of me.
“We have to get to Zurra,” I told him, as the elemental’s spell faded. There would be another one just around the corner, no doubt, but we had a moment’s peace.
Darr was looking over my head, studying the shaman, the stone hands of the elemental, and Zurra, on the cliff behind. “We do,” he agreed, “but I think we ought to do something about our other foes first.”
Much as I longed to rush up to Zurra and rip out something squishy, I knew Darr was right. I didn’t care much whether it was unethical letting an earth elemental and its centaur handler run amok, but it was indisputably in our way. Getting to Zurra would be much easier – and safer – with the creature gone.
“What do you propose?” I asked.
Darr gestured to the cliff behind us, where Spark was stationed. Occasional missiles would still fall, but the charr was having to be more careful now that the rest of us were so close to her target. “We’ll let your burly friend keep the elemental subdued. We need to get to that shaman.”
He set off at a run and I followed. I was beginning to wonder if ‘subdued’ was the word for it; Spark’s weapons were certainly hitting the elemental, but I had a feeling they were just making it angrier. Even as we darted across the rocky ground, its hands reared up again, madly knocking missiles from the air. Well, at least they were keeping it occupied.
A fresh series of concussions exploded above us and Darr threw a shield of mesmeric magic around us. It floated after us like a rippling jellyfish, releasing purple sparks every time it was struck. It was also, I quickly realised, the sole spot of colour in the austere, stony canyon, and it was drawing attention our way.
We were mere paces from the elemental when it noticed we were there. We’d been circling it at what I assumed a safe distance, but for all its size, the creature was fearsomely fast. As Darr scrambled up an outcrop, one of the hands – a flash of white light at its fingertips – turned our way. Already Darr’s shield was fading; it would be long gone by the time the hand reached us.
Well, Darr had dragged me out of trouble once – it was time to return the favour. I shadowstepped once, grabbed him by the wrist, and shadowstepped again, nearly yanking my arm from its socket. We went down hard, rolling along in a cloud of dust before slamming into the canyon wall. At least I’d been expecting the impact, and was on my feet before Darr, pulling him up after me.
I’d expected a protest, or at least some exclamation, but Darr was moving again in seconds, stoically beating dust from his robes. We’d passed the elemental, which had turned towards a glowing dome of white-blue light that could only signify Weir. And ahead of us: the shaman.
“This way,” I hissed to Darr, before throwing a field of invisibility over us both. Darr, of course, had a few tricks of his own, and between us we remained entirely unseen as we crept up a stony rise toward the shaman. It had its back to us, staff raised over its head, magic pulsing from the weapon like water running downhill.
Our invisibility gave out at the last moment, as Darr created a cadre of clones. I couldn’t even be sure which was the real asura, as they streamed up the hillside towards the shaman. The centaur was so absorbed in his task that he was surrounded before he knew it; the few quick parries with his staff did nothing to dispel the clones, nor did they find the real Darr.
And then the shaman whirled away again, giving me my chance. I leapt on his back, daggers in hand, striking twice before shadowstepping away again. One of Darr’s clones exploded, then another, and the shaman staggered, hooves clattering against the rock. I struck again, and as the final clone evaporated in a cloud of shimmering butterflies, I managed to knock the staff from the shaman’s hand.
It’s fair to say what came next was fairly cataclysmic. The elemental had struck us once with its spell and almost squished me into a fine paste, but that was paltry compared to its departure. The ground bucked once, monumentally, throwing both Darr and I into the air. Even as we landed, barely keeping our feet, the shockwave hit, and in a storm of dust and debris we both went tumbling to the ground.
For a moment, I couldn’t move, could barely even breathe. The shockwave had flattened me, knocking all breath from my lungs and strength from my bones. I lay, watching the dust settle and blue sky return, as the ground shuddered once more, then went still. Where the elemental had been was now only a jumbled heap of rock – I couldn’t be sure whether that was the broken canyon floor or the creature itself. And the shaman? Somewhere under the rubble, I realised, and winced.
In the end, it wasn’t Darr who dragged me upright, or Weir; both were nowhere to be seen. Instead, it was finding myself gazing up the cliffside and seeing figures still clinging to the rock, illuminated by the flashing lights of their assembled equipment. Equipment which they were quite visibly packing away.
I lurched to my feet, swaying as I regained my balance. The world snapped back into focus, and I took in the cliff-face with a single glance. Zurra had positioned herself well and there was no possible way to climb directly to her. No, I was going to have to go the long way round.
I took off at a run, pebbles rattling around my feet. I didn’t shift into invisibility, or try to stay hidden behind the many boulders now littering the canyon. Zurra had to know I was here and had no doubt assumed the earth elemental would keep me occupied. Well, not any more.
A shadowstep took me up one of the massive rocky steps that made up one side of the canyon, but after that I was forced to scramble. My fingers scrabbled at the ground, my feet wedged into every tiny crack or crevice I could find. Within minutes I was halfway up the cliff, but Zurra was still some distance away, and if I wasn’t careful, she’d be gone long before I reached her.
Another shadowstep up, and another, which had me panting for breath. I had, finally, reached the level on which Zurra had set up camp, but she was still some distance away. I started to run, shadowstepping when I could find the energy, leaping over the rough ground, darting around the pine trees that shaded this side of the canyon.
And then I saw it: hidden in the shadows of a scoop in the rock that was almost a cave, was a golem. It gleamed, every inch of it a polished black metal I couldn’t identify. Even as I watched, red lights flashed into life on its chest, running in complex sequences from top to bottom and back again. A golem, and one so like Flikk’s in design that I almost screamed in rage.
It wasn’t until heads turned my way and the golem jerked into life that I realised I had screamed. Too late for secrecy, so I did it again, yelling Zurra’s name. I could see her now, turning towards me. I imagined I could see a knowing smirk on her face, and perhaps I could – because close as I was, I knew I would be too late.
A single other figure, another asura, stood beside Zurra on the clifftop. Even as I skidded to a stop mere paces from them, both Zurra and her companion reached the golem. I yanked out a pistol and fired, but the bullets merely pinged off a shimmering shield, seemingly generated by the golem.
“Zurra!” I yelled again, and this time when she looked at me there was no amusement in her gaze, only blankness, as if she couldn’t comprehend what I was doing there – or didn’t care.
I fired a second time, and from behind me came a blast of mesmeric magic, sizzling over my head. Too late, though, even with Darr caught up to me. The golem reached for Zurra and the other asura, taking one in each of its massive hands – and then, as I watched, furious and disbelieving, it first lifted into the sky with a whine of motors, then winked into invisibility and was gone.