Chapter 14: Reunion
Ai had accepted, pretty much since the day Ryu had agreed to train, that she would one day die for this cause. It wasn’t something she feared. In fact, she was grateful that she had something so important to fight for. If her death brought the world one step closer to defeating this evil, then her life had meaning.
What she had not expected was for her death to come so soon, or against a single enemy she was certain she should be able to beat. She only hoped she had weakened Aer enough that she couldn’t pursue Ryu and Sam. If they had been observing the fight, they were probably already fleeing. Ryu would get them somewhere safe. As Aer stumbled towards her, the wind carrying some old farm equipment alongside her, at least Ai could die knowing that –
A fireball streaked past her head, breaking her out of her contemplations of death. Aer was caught completely off-guard and unable to defend herself. One moment she was sneering while she prepared to finish Ai off, the next her robes were on fire. The wind died suddenly, leaving all the equipment to drop rough to ground, as Aer screamed out in pain and clawed at her robes.
Sam stepped in front of Ai, once again surrounded by the haphazard sparks that accompanied his channeling. From the look of concentration on his face, he at least seemed to be in control this time. Exhausted, but in control.
“Who told you to come back out here?” Ai scolded, though there was no force behind her words, nor could she be truly angry.
“She wants me,” Sam said, his voice angrier than she had ever heard him. “I’m not going to just sit back and let you be killed when I’m the target! I’m going to fight!”
The wind whipped past Aer and put out Sam’s flames. The damage had already been done. The multiple layers of her robes had protected her body somewhat, the outer layers turning to scorched rags in the process, but her face was splotched with burns and her hair was singed to a close crop.
“You little piece of shit,” Aer growled, her voice choked and full of rage. “You know, if I kill everyone here, I’m sure Adaghast will forgive one carrier, killed in the cross-fire, in exchange for the heads of those who dared stand against him.”
The fire flared around Sam as he created another ball of flames and pitched it at Aer. This time she was ready for it and deflected it with it a blast of wind. The wind picked up as she prepared her own assault, but Sam did not plan on giving her the chance. He had learned that he was outmatched here in terms of control, yet maybe he could beat her in ferocity. One fireball after another launched from his hands, at first being pitched like a physical ball, until Sam realized the throwing motion added nothing, after which he just kept his arms outstretched and let the stream of fireballs fly.
Aer struggled to keep up with the brigade. As soon as her winds extinguished one flame another one immediately followed. Every part of her hurt, the pain threatening her concentration. One slip and those flames would reach her. Fury drove her, a rage that burned in her very core. Even as the flames licked at her face she refused to concede ground. Her winds howled, giving voice to her anger.
Sam kept up the assault as long as he could handle, longer, his body protesting the strain. His heart hammered in his chest as if he was running at full sprint. His breath became more and more labored until he was gasping for air, but still he would not relent.
His body gave out first. With one last rasping breath, Sam collapsed to the ground.
Ai forced herself to her feet and stumbled a step in front of him. It was a pointless gesture, she still couldn’t focus enough to grasp her element. At best she was buying Sam seconds.
For a moment, Aer didn’t attack. She stood, swaying on her feet, groaning from pain and exhaustion. Just as Ai was beginning to hope that their battle would end in a stalemate, the wind started to pick up again.
“Who … do you think … I am!?” Aer shouted between gasping breaths. “I am Aer! I control the winds! I will not be treated like some amateur -”
Whatever claim she was about to make was cut off by a sudden grunt as she was tackled from the side by a sprinting Peter. The two went down together in a jumble of flailing limbs and shouted expletives. Peter was physically stronger and had the advantage of surprise. He got Aer beneath him and put his knee on her chest to hold her down and levered his arm on her neck. She struggled, grasped at his face, but he was too strong to be thrown off.
Physically, anyway. A howl of wind and Peter was thrown off, sent flying several yards away. He crashed a fallen tree, uprooted by Aer’s earlier winds, and felt himself be cut as he scraped against the branches.
He prepared himself to be struck again, expecting to be blown clear into the sky this time, but no attack came. When he looked, he saw Aer stumbling past him, her focus again on Ai and Sam. Peter couldn’t blame her, he was the only one here who wasn’t really an Elementalist. Even if he could force himself back up to rush her again, what could he do empty-handed? He was helpless in this fight.
His hands grasped the bark of the tree, anger causing him to grip so hard that it hard, so hard that his nails cracked and blood dripped from his fingertips down the wood. Sam, his best friend, was about to die, all because he was too powerless to do anything about it, all because he couldn’t grasp his element.
Wood. What a stupid element to be stuck with in the first place. He wasn’t some hippie, some nature-lover, singing with the birds and making love to trees. He was a gamer, he spent most of his life indoors. The only time he spent outdoors was on the baseball diamond. How was he supposed to find a connection with an element he didn’t really understand?
As if in response to his frustrations, he could feel the bark of the tree in his hand begin to shift. It was different from the other times he had tried to grasp at his element. It was here, a physical thing, one he could feel and dig his fingers into. This wasn’t him trying to grasp at some abstract concept of nature, but of reaching out to the wood in his hands. Peter channeled.
It was a strange and confusing experience. The power ran from him and through the tree. All it was waiting for was him to give it a form. But with this much to work with, what form should it possibly take? Peter had only one instinct.
The bark reshaped itself, molding into itself over and over, until it was a baseball bat in his hands. He hefted it, a wooden bat with the same weight and form as a hundred others he had held, and yet this one somehow had the force of the entire tree behind it.
He got to his feet just as Aer was leveling her arms in a too familiar manner at Sam and Ai. Sprinting faster than he had ever in his life, he rushed in front of the howling winds. He held up his bat, his tree given the form of a bat, and swung it against the winds, hoping his instincts and minor elemental knowledge was right.
The bat collided with the wind, held it back even as the raging forces threatened to knock him off his feet. In his mind, this had gone better: he had knocked the wind right back at Aer in a similar matter as one of Ai’s shields. But now that he was here all he could really do was hold it at bay. He gritted his teeth and pushed even as he felt himself sliding along the ground, back towards the defenseless Sam and Ai.
And then was the wind was gone. Peter nearly fell flat on his face from the suddenness of it.
Aer must have been equally surprised, because her eyes darted about wildly. “Who?!”
“That’s enough!” came the stern voice of the farm’s teacher. Ryu stepped out into the open, one fist leveled in a punching motion in Aer’s direction. “You will not harm my students any further!”
“Should have stayed inside!” Aer cried, her voice as wild as her ragged appearance. The wind picked up again, this time its fury directed at the old man.
Ryu punched the air, a simple maneuver that made it look like he was practicing a martial arts stance. The wind again simply dissipated.
“I said enough!” Ryu shouted, now his fists taking on bright white glow.
Ai hopelessly stumbled forward. “Ryu, don’t!”
But his mind had already been made up. As a frenzied Aer sent yet another blast of wind his way, Ryu struck out in front of him with both fists.
The world seemed to grow still. The wind died. Then there was a kind of blur in the air, a distortion in the way that light passed through it. The area between Aer and Ryu was just slightly brighter than its surroundings. The light undulated, ripples of brighter light passing between them, first slowly, then faster and faster. All of this happened in the span of a few seconds, but to the observers time seemed to drag on.
Aer was caught in the waves of light, unable to move, unable to speak, unable to do anything. Her form became distorted, elongated, shimmering. Her mouth was frozen in a silent scream as the light seemed to tear at the foundations of her very being.
Finally, the light faded. Aer stood a moment longer, a shell-shocked look frozen on her face. And then she dropped.
Ryu, his face covered in sweat, stood just a second longer, a grim smile on his face.
Then he joined Aer on the ground.
“For the record,” Ullen said as he casually walked towards Arthur, hands in his pockets, “When I asked under whose authority you fought, Ryu would have been an acceptable answer.” He looked around at the devastated, flooded clearing. “Would have saved us a whole lot of trouble.”
“Wait, what?” Arthur’s exhausted brain was desperately trying to catch up. “You know Ryu?”
“Everyone knows Ryu,” Ullen responded. “He was kind of a big deal, back in the day. Not that everyone in the ECT shares my opinion of him, but I have a lot of respect for the guy.”
“Ruvian didn’t hurt you,” Arthur stated, dumbfounded.
Ullen still had that oddly playful smile. “Me and Ryu fought side-by-side a few times. Ruvian and I got well acquainted. He’d never hurt a friend.”
That was news to Arthur. As far as he could tell, Ruvian was a force of destruction that didn’t care what it took out.
“I knew Ryu took an apprentice. I should have guessed it was you when I saw how damn stubborn you are. He must pass that on through his training.”
He stopped in from of Arthur and held out his hand. “How about we reintroduce ourselves? I’m Ullen. It is a pleasure to meet you, Arthur, apprentice of The Silver Dragon.”
“Uh, yeah, nice to meet you, too,” Arthur managed during an awkward handshake.
Ullen gave him a friendly pat on the back. “Speaking of apprentices, I should go check to make sure mine are alright.”
A discomfited Litint was helping a barely conscious Watint keep his feet. They both shrunk under Ullen’s stare, Watint attempting to cover his swelling eye with one hand.
“A poor performance, boys,” Ullen berated. “If your enemies had used lethal force, you’d be both be finished right now. Seems you both have still have a long way to go if you want to join the ECT.”
Marco beamed as he put a hand on Watint’s shoulder. “Aw, your boy here tried his best. He was just up against a boxing legend, is all.”
That earned Marco some unfriendly words in Russian.
“Well, if we’re all done here,” Arthur said, hoping to jump on this window of peace before it closed, “I really should be getting Kanos back. Who knows when The Dark God might try to -”
“Hey guys!” Kanos called over from the roof of the now floating RV. “It’s getting kind of late so I think I’m going to take off. I’ll have to meet your friends some other time. Glad to see you guys all worked everything out, though! Nice meeting you, Arthur!”
He flew off into the air even as Arthur desperately tried to call him back. Soon he was out of sight, and Arthur felt he was in no shape to go chasing after him.
“Well, the point was to teach the carriers how to defend themselves,” Arthur reasoned. “I think Kanos seems more than capable of handling himself right now. It is a shame for him to have to be on his own, though. Maybe I’ll come back for another try after I recover.” His reasoning didn’t help the pain of seeing the whole point of this trip fly away.
“Guess we should get back so I can give my report,” Ullen said. He scratched at his head. “They’re probably not going to like what I have to say, though. Give Ryu my regards.”
Together, the two groups returned to the lake (or where the lake used to be) where both had arrived through the void. Almost immediately Arthur noticed something was wrong.
“The path back,” Arthur thought out-loud. “It’s gone. But Ryu should be holding it open. Unless ….” He remembered Ai’s warning of a pressing danger, yet he still couldn’t bring himself to say it.
Unless something happened to Ryu.
Vizel was not at all content with the battle’s resolution. Instead of killing each other and leaving the survivors weak enough for him to pick off, the bastards had made peace. But the worse part was, his target had flown the coop. He was now left with the unfortunate choice of chasing after carrier while his trail was still fresh, or killing the others.
Kill them. It’s what you really want. That would be so rewarding, it would feel so good. It had been too long since he killed someone. It was so tempting.
But there was no telling how long it would take. The older man seemed pretty strong, and he had barely broken a sweat during the fight. By the time Vizel was done (and gotten his fill of mutilating the bodies) the carrier’s trail would be cold.
And Adaghast was not one to disappoint.
Cursing his foul luck, Vizel departed from his potential prey and followed after the flying child.
“Ryu!” Ai cried as he struggled over to him.
He was breathing, but barely, and his face was pallid and covered in sweat.
“What’s wrong with him?” Peter asked as he rushed over to help.
“His heart has gotten weak in his old age,” Ai explained, her voice cracking. “Channeling puts a lot of stress on the body. He knows he’s not supposed to do anything strenuous with his light, foolish old man!”
Peter listened to her words, but it was kind of hard to focus on their meaning with everything else his senses were being bombarded with. Ever since he channeled into that tree, it felt like he had opened himself up to a whole new set of sensations. He could feel where animals around him were, he could sense the power of the plants and trees nearby, he was assaulted by the emptiness where life had been uprooted during the battle.
But the biggest, most distracting sensation was coming from Ai. She was in pain. Her whole body hurt to some degree, but that arm flared like an angry sun. It must have been excruciating, yet she was more concerned for her teacher than herself.
He needed to do something. If not for her than for himself. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could stomach being around so much pain.
“Ai, come here for a sec,” Peter said as he gently reached for her arm.
He wasn’t sure what exactly he was doing, and from Ai’s wide-eyed glance he could tell that she didn’t know any better. All he knew was that he needed to quell this pain. Once he touched her he again felt the power at his disposal, this power that flowed through all life, including him. This flow was more stubborn, more set in its ways than the already-dying tree, but he could push on it a little, so he did. Carefully as he could he tried to push away the parts that were causing the pain, tried to make it match up with the way it was supposed to be.
To both of their amazement, it worked. Ai’s body was still pretty beat up, and her arm wasn’t in the greatest of shapes, but it was no longer broken. A wave of relief washed over her as the pain faded, strong enough that Peter felt it, too.
“That was incredible, Peter,” Ai said. “I can hardly believe …” She trailed off as she remembered her fallen mentor. “Can you help him?”
Peter knelt down and put a hand on Ryu. He could feel the life still beating inside him, faint but present. This was different than with Ai. Ryu wasn’t really in pain, he was struggling to hold on to that glimmer of life. Peter considered reaching out for that glimmer, seeing if he could stoke it in some way, make it stronger, but decided against it.
“It’s too risky,” he said, shaking his head. “I still barely know what I’m doing. The life inside him … inside all of us, it is really complex. I feel like if I touched it, I could as easily snub it out as help him.”
Ai nodded, her face resolute but understanding. “Then we’ll just have to help him the old fashioned. I’ll get him to his bed. You go and help Sam.”
As Ai carried Ryu to his bed, she reflected on the day she had first come to him, the struggle she had undergone to get him to agree to train her, the feeling of finally having a purpose in life when she was finally accepted.
“Don’t you die yet, Ryu,” she pleaded. “We still need you here.”
“I can’t watch after Arthur on my own.”
“What do you mean it’s gone?” Marco demanded.
“I mean it’s gone!” Arthur repeated. “I can’t get us back.” He frantically paced around the bed of the lake, his worry making him forget how tired he was. “Ai must have been right. Something happened, and I wasn’t there! If something has to Ryu, I’ll never be able to -” He couldn’t finish the thought.
“Calm down, boy,” Ullen said, his voice firm. “Ryu’s not one to go gently into the night. And he’s also not the only one who knows how to create a path through the void. I’ll get you home.” He turned to his two apprentices. “You two wait here and try not to get beat up anymore. I imagine when we don’t report in, Myst will be by shortly to pick you up. Just keep your mouths shut about what happened here until I get back.”
Watint muttered something under his breath while Litint gave a very serious nod.
“Thanks, Ullen,” Arthur said, anxious to be back. “We live on a farm, it’s located -”
“I know where it is,” Ullen cut in. He grabbed Arthur by one shoulder and Marco by the other. “Here we go.”
Not too long later, Ullen and his two passengers stepped onto Ryu’s farm. Immediately, it became apparent that a battle had taken place here. Everything was torn up, trees knocked down, equipment destroyed, and a big hole sat in the center of the field.
The farmhouse itself seemed to still be mostly in tact, thankfully. As Arthur was about to make his way over there to see what happened, Ai stepped out. She looked like she had just fallen off the side of a mountain, but she was still alive, at least.
“About time you returned,” she said when she spotted him. She eyed the ECT uniform on Ullen but chose not to say anything about it yet. “Where’s the carrier?”
“He chose not to come with us,” Arthur explained. “He’s kind of a strange one, but he’s already a talented Elementalist, so my hope is he will be fine. What happened here?”
Ai sneered. “One of Adaghast’s minions found this place. Caught me off-guard, nearly killed us all. I was just coming out to make sure she stays down this time.”
Arthur recognized the figure, beaten and still as it was he would never forget her face. Aer, the first servant of The Dark God he had come in contact with. She was a powerful Wind-Element; it was no wonder Ai had trouble.
He wasn’t the only one who recognized her. Ullen pushed past him and Ai to rush up beside her. Memories came flooding back to him: a moonlight night, the bloodied bodies of his students tossed about like rag dolls, those cold eyes.
Those cold eyes were looking at him now. To everyone surprise, Aer still drew breath. She cracked a bloody smile.
“Hello, there,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper. “It is good to see you again. Master Ullen.”