Chapter 12: Authority
“Are these the friends you wanted me to meet?” Kanos asked, his voice filled with enthusiasm.
“No,” Arthur replied as he engaged in a staring contest with the elderly ECT soldier. “These people are … ‘angry’ at me,” he echoed what Kanos told him earlier.
Kanos nodded as if what Arthur had said made absolute sense and needed no further context.
“So are we going to talk?” the soldier called out, still standing at the edge of the clearing. “Or do you want to keep gaping like turkeys in the rain?”
Arthur’s mind raced back to his last encounter with the ECT, the scarred man who had almost impaled him with super-sized needles. The older man’s uniform looked much the same, perhaps older and more worn. Something about that uniform still struck a familiar chord to Arthur, one that he couldn’t quite place.
“What do you want to talk about? The weather?” Arthur chided. “Bit cold for my tastes. Can’t wait for summer.”
One of the younger men behind the soldier chuckled. “Cold? We have plenty of warm cells, little man.” He was silenced by a look from the old soldier.
“How about we start with introductions?” the gray-haired man suggested.
“Manners suggest you should go first,”Arthur retorted.
“I’m Ullen, an enforcer with the ECT. These are my apprentices, Watint and Litint. And you?”
Arthur wasn’t particularly fond of the word ‘enforcer.’ “I’m Arthur. No one of particular importance.”
Ullen took a few steps forward. When Arthur reacted defensively he stopped and held his hands out at his side. “Well, for someone who isn’t important, you’ve been a pretty big pain in the ass, Arthur. You’ve been causing a lot of -”
“Noise?” Arthur finished, reiterating the word the scarred man had used.
“That’s one word for it. The ECT goes through a lot of trouble to keep the secret of Elementalists, well, a secret. But when you go blasting a school in broad daylight, it makes our job more difficult. Now why would you do that?”
Arthur wasn’t sure what to think of this guy, and based on the look Marco was giving him he figured he wasn’t the only one. He was certainly talking a lot more, and a lot less aggressively, than the scarred man had. Plus he had yet to demand Arthur come with him anywhere. Yet. Beside him, Kanos bounced nervously on his heels, perhaps sensing the tension.
“Sorry about that,” Arthur replied after a pause. “If it matters, it was in defense. I’ve never wielded my power in public except in defense of myself and others.”
If that made any difference to Ullen, he didn’t show it on his face. “Defense against who?”
“I don’t know if you guys at the ECT are deaf as well as blind, but Adaghast has been sending his minions to capture carriers. You know, the Dark God? Evil being, wants to take over the world?”
Kanos made a gasping sound. “That sounds scary.”
Ullen seemed less impressed. “And who do you work for?” Arthur’s face must have properly displayed his confusion at the follow-up question because Ullen continued, “Who sent you to fight for the carriers? What organization gives you the authority to fight this fight?”
“Do I need to be working for someone?” Arthur asked.
Ullen sighed. His apprentices took this as a cue and began to split up in a flanking formation around the campsite. Arthur tentatively reached for his element, preparing to channel his sword at a moment’s notice.
“If you don’t work for anyone, then you’re a renegade,” Ullen explained, “An unpredictable vigilante whose every action we would be forced to clean up after. It doesn’t matter if your intentions are good if the collateral damage is so severe. You need to bow out of this and let those with the authority to handle the threat deal with it.” His gaze was stone. “I’m going to have to insist you come with us.”
“There it its!” Arthur proclaimed. His sword immediately appeared in his hands in a flash of light. “Saw that coming. Kanos, stay back from the danger. You ready, Marco?” He hated to put the amateur Stone Element in danger, but he doubted he could face all three of these guys himself.
Marco stretched his arms and cracked his knuckles. “Was hoping you would say that. Been itching to lay these big boys on the ground this whole time.”
“Marco Mascle,” Ullen said, his voice somehow making the name menacing. “My orders don’t concern you at the moment. I suggest you walk away.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll concern me in a moment, when your boys are all black-and blue,” Marco replied, grinning madly.
“He thinks he’s a big man,” the apprentice called Watint said. “I’ll show him how small he really is. Litint can take -”
Before he could finish the sentiment, there was a flash of electricity in the spot where Litint was standing. Had been standing. The spot had become the focal point for an electrical surge, bright lines of sparking energy branching from it towards the RV. It took Arthur just a fraction of a second to recognize all that. It took him another second to follow one of the arcs of energy to a spot beside him. And yet another second to register the fist impacting him in his side. One more second and the bludgeoning pain of the fist was replaced with a jolting one as electricity ran through his body.
He stumbled sideways, clutching his side and trying to clear the spots from his vision. Only sheer stubbornness allowed him to keep the sword together. His mind was still racing to keep up with what had happened, the flash of electricity and the apprentice suddenly appearing beside him.
Marco brought a mighty fist back for a punch on the Lightning Element. “Sneaky bastard!” he yelled as brought his fist forward.
His blow never made it near Litint. It felt as though his fist had suddenly been submerged in cold jello, absorbing the force of his punch and bringing it to a halt. When he looked he saw that a globule of crystal-clear liquid had formed over his closed fist. It had a tail of the clear liquid which lead behind him, going all the across the clearing …
And into the hands of Watint, who held the end of the glimmering trail like a whip. “It’s you and me big man, remember?”
Arthur wished he could come to Marco’s aid but he had his own problems right now. His opponent stood within a few feet of him, arcs of electricity cackling around him. The sword in Arthur’s hands flared with power as he channeled into it, swinging it with all his force at the Lightning Element. His sword cut through empty air as Litant was suddenly no longer in front of him.
A strike to his back informed him where his opponent had turned up. The surge of electricity running through him informed him how much trouble he was currently in.
And all he could think to do about it was yell out in pain.
“What’s the matter, Sam?” Aer asked as she gently glided to a ground in front of them. “You don’t look happy to see me. After all the work I’ve put into finding you.”
“You can say that,” Sam replied, trying to mask his fear and, based on the squeaking in his voice, failing.
“Well, I’m happy to see you, Sam.” The wind picked up into a flurry, picking up soil and leaves and sending them spiraling through the air in twisting patterns that might have been picturesque if not for the pressing feeling of dread. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while, thinking about how hurt my feelings were when you ran from me. But I can put the past behind us, if you are willing to come with me without a hassle. If you choose to resist …”
“You can’t fool me, lady!” Sam shouted back. “I know you want, I know your god wants to rip the fragment out of me, which will kill me! I also know you got to take me alive to do that, so save your threats!” He wasn’t sure that outburst come from.
“True, I can’t kill you,” Aer agreed, “but your friend there, not so much.” Her attention shifted to Peter.
Peter stood unflinching in her gaze. “I’m not too worried.” That was a complete lie. He was the only one here who had almost no access to his element. Plus Ai was hurt, possibly worse, and Ryu seemed to still have his consciousness in the void. Their best bet was to try and wake Ryu up and hope he could deal Aer.
The wind began to narrow around in around Sam, tightening in a circle until he was caught in the middle of a twister of dirt and leaves that separated him from Peter. The current of winds traveled under him, threatening to lift him off his feet.
“Come,” Aer beckoned. “There is no reason to make this difficult.”
The fire came to Sam’s hands almost unbidden, on instinct to grab onto something, anything, that might provide a lifeline. When he realized he was channeling, that the fire was coming to him so easy, a wave of confidence washed over him. He began to focus on the flow of fire passing through him, strengthening it, drawing power from it.
He had only practiced pushing his element against another’s once, very briefly, more as a demonstration from Ryu than actual training. But it felt very natural to him here, as the fire flowed through him, to push back against the winds that tried to encompass him. It was like a wall was trying to close in around him, but he could lift that wall, push it away from him. The wind immediately around him died down and were replaced with momentary sparks of flame, forming and burning and going out all in an instant in a chaotic pattern around him.
“I see you’ve learned a few tricks since last time,” Aer said, not sounding the least bit impressed. “If you were smart, you would have went quietly. I might need you alive, but nobody says I can’t beat you to within an inch of life first.”
Sam was still riding this surge of confidence, only further bloated by this feeling of overwhelming power. His fire wasn’t just pushing the winds away, they were superior, on a whole different scale. Just a little push and he should be able to completely consume her with it.
“You’re the one who’s stupid!” he called out. He wanted to laugh out loud at the very thought of someone trying to stand against him now. “You’ll be nothing but ash in a second!”
He brought his mass of power to a point in front of him and let it loose. A pillar of fire burst from his fingertips and blazed a path towards the waiting Aer. He was positive she was about to be a pile of charcoal.
The wind picked up in front of Aer, powerful gusts coming in from her left and right and assaulting the fire stream from both sides. The flames didn’t even make it halfway down the field before the howling wind snuffed them out.
It made no sense to Sam. His power was so much stronger than Aer’s, he could feel the difference like night and day. Yet this pathetic, minor, breeze was holding him off. He redoubled his efforts, channeling more and more fire through him, channeling under he felt like his own body was just moments away from bursting in flames itself, but he couldn’t break through Aer’s winds.
“Now, now,” Aer said, “It wouldn’t be good if after all this trouble you just went and killed yourself.”
Another blast of wind hit Sam from the side and knocked him off his feet. He slammed hard into the ground, losing his concentration, his flames, and his confidence in one moment. The memory of his power was just that, a memory, one that seemed to belong to someone else, some stranger far more dangerous than he.
“That’s enough of that,” Aer declared. “Now be a good boy and -” Her attention was caught by movement down the field.
Peter was desperately shaking Ryu, trying to snap him back to reality. “Come on, teach! We’re getting out asses kicked out here!”
Ryu blinked rapidly as he was torn from his concentration of the void and back to reality. The jolt startled him, but not as much as the massive presence of danger he felt nearby. “What is going …”
Aer leveled and arm in their direction. “Don’t be a nuisance.” An intense blast of wind cut across the field towards them, howling at the volume of a freight train.
A glowing shield appeared in front of the wall of wind, shimmering as it took the brunt of force of the gale and the projectiles picked up in its path. The patterns on the shield swirled as these forces beat against it, a hypnotic twirl of spiraling arcs. The force of the gale died down, only to be replaced by an equivalent one being projected from the shield in the opposite direction.
It took all off Aer’s concentration to regain control of the tempest before it blew her into oblivion. The wind cut around her, blasting dirt and grass in her face and staining her robes but otherwise leaving her unharmed. She wiped at her face while looking for the source of this latest intrusion.
Ai stepped back out into the field, a subtle glow around her giving proof to her channeling. “Ryu, get the kids inside, and don’t come out for anything.” Her voice was filled with command.
“Ai …” Ryu was finally adjusting to the situation he didn’t like it one bit. “Are you alright? You look…”
“I’m fine,” Ai promised. “I was just knocked cold for a minute, that’s all.”
It was a terrible lie, given her state. The left side of her face was caked in blood, and worse, her left arm dangled useless at her side, broken or worse. She was doing an admirable job of keeping a neutral expression, only Ryu’s years with her let him read the amount of pain she was fighting through.
“Let me -” Ryu tried to begin.
“You know that’s not an option!” Ai snapped, the pain causing her to momentarily lose her cool. “If you fight, you could … just get them inside. I can handle this.”
Ryu hated to do it, yet there was no time to argue. He helped Peter lift the dazed Sam off the ground and the three of them rushed inside the farmhouse, where they would have a iota of safety from flying debris. Aer watched them go, tempted to blast them now, deciding against it as that might give the girl another chance to deflect her attack.
“It would have been better if you had just stayed down,” she said as the winds picked up around her, lifting her from the ground. “This time I’ll make sure you won’t get back up.”
“You get one sucker-punch in on me and you think you’re powerful,” Ai retorted. “Well, I’m used to crushing over-inflated egos.”
She channeled her shield as the next blast of wind came her way.
Only the Light being channeled through his body allowed Arthur to withstanding the electric assault. He knew without it he have been on the ground in mere moments. Stubbornly refusing to lose his concentration, Arthur increased the amount of of Light flowing through him, and with it he pushed out the flow of Lightning that was harming him. Only the spot where Litint’s hand touched him still tingled, but not painfully so.
Trying not to reveal his temporary advantage, Arthur let himself drop to his knees, pretending he was on the verge of losing consciousness. When he felt his opponent put more pressure on him to bring him to the ground, Arthur reached behind him and grabbed Litint’s arm. He felt the surge of power in his hands as Litint tried to perform whatever trick is was that let him disappear.
It was a different kind of struggle, trying to keep an opposing element restrained and close as opposed to simply pushing it away. Fortunately, the sheer difference between the level of his power and Litint’s allowed him to get control pretty easily. He twisted his opponent’s arm around until they were face to face, which gave him his first view of his opponent’s ability in action.
Electricity arced from Litint, forming tree-like patterns that reached out around him. One of those branches would suddenly become brighter and Litint would disappear and reappear at the other end of the tree. With Arthur holding him down and restraining his element, his short jumps were only moving him a few inches, creating a strange, seizure-like effect.
Arthur had to use both hands to hold the muscular figure in place and couldn’t reform his sword. Instead, he pointed a finger behind him, spared a bit of his element to a point not far in the distance, and started to form a spear.
The world went black, then bright as his vision filled with stars. He felt himself stumbling but he wasn’t sure where. As his senses started to come back to him he realized he had fallen on the ground. And he tasted blood.
He picked himself up and found himself dizzy. There was a pain the center of his face which allowed him to piece together what had happened. The bastard had headbutted him. Square in the face. His nose was bleeding, hopefully not broken.
“Got to stop getting my ass kicked in melee range,” Arthur groaned.
The electrical arcs branched around him again, Litint going again on the offense. Arthur tried to figure out which one was the brightest, but there was so much energy around him it was impossible to tell. He reformed his sword and prepared for an attack that could come from anywhere.
“Hey, mister!” Kanos called out. “He’s going to attack you again from behind!”
Arthur had no idea how he could tell that, but with no other idea he swung his sword in a wide arc behind him. It collided with a shocked Litint, searing him in the shoulder. He gave a grunt of pain before disappearing once more.
“An inch more to the left and that would have been the end,” Arthur called out, searching again along the electrical arcs. “You want to keep trying your luck?”
Apparently, the answer to that was ‘yes’ because a moment later Litint was directly in front of him. Before Arthur had a chance to react Litint had wrapped a powerful hand around his throat. Arthur struggled but a volt of electric current sent through him made it hard for him to focus. Between the loss of air and the shock he found himself quickly losing consciousness …
“You’re hurting him!” shouted a child-like voice. Suddenly Litint’s grip was released and Arthur could breath again.
The scene in front of his was insane. Litint stood, electricity arcing, shoulder still smoking from his wound, blood dripping from a fresh wound on his lip, being stared down by young Kanos, who had his arms crossed in a childish pose of defiance. The Lightning Element loomed over the boy like a biblical giant, yet Kanos did not seem impressed. Arthur was reminded of the tale of David and Goliath.
“You’re being very mean to my new friend,” Kanos lectured. “I don’t care if you are angry, stop it!”
For a moment it looked like the large man would actually obey. Then he disappeared again in another flash of electricity. Arthur followed the arcs, trying to hone in on where he would appear. The only thing he could determine was that the branches were growing around Kanos now. He was going for the kid.
“Damnit, run kid!” Arthur shouted.
Instead, Kanos ducked. Litint appeared just a moment later, making a grab for where Kanos had been. Kanos struck with an opponent palm into Litint’s chest, and a force a compressed air burst from his palm and sent Litint reeling. Arthur now understood how he had been given the bloody lip.
“I said cut it out!” Kanos demanded.
Arthur spared a glance for Marco, who was struggling manfully against his opponent’s clear-liquid whips. He had one around a globule around each hand now, as well as a thick collar around his neck and another around his left leg. Each was attached to one of the liquid strands, all leading to the same point, a single line in Watint’s hands. For the briefest moment, Arthur contemplated rushing to aid Marco; if he could cut that line and free him then he, Kanos, and Marco could organize a defense together.
That thought was gone when he noticed the bright mote of light appear beside him. It was small and lightly drifted as if caught in a breeze. It reminded Arthur of the fireflies he used to catch as a kid, but much brighter, even if broad daylight. First there was one, then another, and another, and Arthur noticed he was surrounded by the tiny specks of light, dozens if not hundreds of them.
He traced them back to their source and was not surprised to see the ECT enforcer, Ullen, with his arms outstretched, the motes of light seemingly drifting out from under the sleeves of his uniform.
“I think it’s time we left the kids to do their thing,” Ullen said, “While we settle things ourselves. Don’t you agree?”
At the moment, it didn’t seem like Arthur had any other choice.