Elias sighed as he brushed some more sand out of his hair. Things hadn’t gone exactly as planned, but he’d never thought that it would have been that simple. One tournament and then his quest would be over? Seemed a bit too simple, considering what he’d experienced on his journey. Of course, that had been something he’d been expecting to say if he had actually won the championship. All he could do now was face his friends and apologise for wasting their time.
He stumbled out into the still city, the throbbing in his thighs and the empty streets making his loss all the more apparent.
That’s another way to rub it in.
It was only now that it dawned on him how large the Arena complex was, even compared to the city surrounding it. According to one of Tylia’s old tomes, the Championship Grounds had been there when the first settlers of Bren had first arrived. More and more people had gathered around the structure and eventually, a small township had formed.
History lesson notwithstanding, Elias hadn’t the slightest idea where his friends could be. They’d all been too busy giving him last minute advice or wishing he had planned farther ahead than the just actual competition timeframe. The ex-Paragon furrowed his brow. That was odd. Honestly, forgetting to set a meeting point was pretty sloppy..
They’d probably just been too worried, Elias mused as he limped alongside the Arena, heading towards the main entrance. Daford was usually the main person that headed up their alternate plans, and, well, their main plan when there wasn’t a clear leader. He’d seemed especially stressed about this whole tournament business.
Barely five minutes went by before the former Paragon sighted the hulking outline of Reuben silhouetted against the afternoon sun. Elias frowned as he lowered his gaze, counting out a missing head amongst the group. Tylia and Annette were deep in discussion, whilst Reuben stood behind them silently, his back turned to them. Daford was nowhere to be seen.
One of the group only noticed him when he was barely twenty paces away. Elias raised a hand in greeting, to which Reuben responded in kind, but the other two were too focused on their discussion. Not exactly a new sight, but he didn’t have the slightest idea what could have spurred another of their debates outside of the Arena. Maybe one of the entrants or Paragons had been that notable? Or were they talking about the Championships themselves?
“Something the matter?” Elias asked as he approached. Both Tylia and Annette turned to face him, their confused expressions quickly changing into looks of sympathy.
“Nice try, Elias. Much better than that fight in the Overlord’s Pit.” Tylia said, drawing a wince from Annette.
Elias shrugged. “Not well enough, apparently. It was never going to be that easy though, was it? Win a tournament, and some Elemental Lord grants your wish.”
“Well, actually, the Champ—” Tylia started to say, but Annette cut her off by resting a hand down on her head.
“You did great, Elias. You gave as good as you got, and you came out in one piece. Much better than some of the others that went in with you.” she continued, ruffling the mage’s hair. “Most importantly, you came out of there without anything missing.” Elias immediately thought back to the first, mist-filled Arena and winced internally. It was true. His quest wasn’t complete, but at least he still had one.
“Thanks, Annette, I appreciate it,” he said, grinning slightly. “So where’s Daford? It’s a tad unusual for him to split off from you guys.”
“Well, about that. Elias, w—” The sound of footsteps broke the relative quiet of the empty city, and Elias turned to face the direction of the sound. The sharp tap of metal striking stone echoed up from the nearest Arena entrance. That couldn’t be Daford. Daford didn’t wear greaves or metal-soled shoes.
A figure in an emerald cloak emerged from the doorway. Elias and his friends stared dumbly at the person, making out a pair of eerie, glittering eyes beneath the hood. It considered the small gathering, appraising each member of the group before bowing its head. “Excuse me,” it said softly, and continued along the path.
Nobody said anything as the figure walked along the street. It trudged down the barren flagstones, turned a corner and vanished from sight. Elias frowned. The cheering and roars of the crowd hadn’t changed in the past few minutes, so the next cut obviously hadn’t happened yet. Wonder why they left.
There was more sound coming from within the passageway; more footsteps. Softer, but more of them. Two pairs? He turned to the doorway once more and saw Daford striding towards him, followed by an angry-looking Casimira. A chill shot through Elias’ spine, and he spun to his friends. This must have been what they had been talking about. Annette had an expression that could’ve been carved from a mountain, and Tylia’s brow seemed unnaturally creased. Even stoic Reuben seemed to slightly wary, his gaze honing in on Elias’ sister.
Daford, however, seemed relatively unperturbed. He spotted Elias and co., then smiled and waved. Casimira grinned upon recognizing her sand-covered brother.
The unusual pair made it out of the passageway and stood before the group. Daford grinned like a proud father as he approached, all the while ignoring the young lady behind him. Elias stood rooted to the floor, remembering the gauntlet-wearing, black-coated girl he’d encountered in the Wind Paragon’s room. He’d been certain that it had just been an illusion of his sister back then, but seeing her now… She looked pretty much like the Casimira that Elias had seen in chamber with a few differences. A large brown cloak covered her body and her hair seemed lighter than it had in the chamber, but those were minor details.
Eventually, Daford and Casimira reached the group and stopped. The woodsman was still beaming, chuckling slightly at Elias’ stunned expression. He walked past him and up to Annette, and began talking about... something. Elias didn’t hear any of what he said, his attention too focused on the girl before him.
“Well, aren’t you glad to see me?” His sister said, the grin changing to a bit of a frown. “I know we haven’t seen each other in… maybe a decade? But this… this reaction.” She gestured with an arm, a hand sticking out from below the cloak. A normal, pale-skinned hand. Not a metal glove.
Elias let out a sigh of relief. Back in the preparation chamber, that had been an illusion after all. “It’s... a bit of a long story. I thought—”
Casimira cut him off with a wave of her hand, and a cool breeze rushed over him. There was momentary tingling sensation, and then the sand covering Elias lifted up into a cloud, and down the street. “Maybe you can tell me later, when we’re sitting down. Drinks?”
The mention of drinks made Elias realise that he hadn't eaten since morning. While it may not have been that long ago, the various scuffles and fights had taken it out of him; he was starving. The windbender nodded and barely got his mouth open before a pair of hands on his shoulders stopped him. “That can wait a bit. Now that we’re done here, it’s time for us to leave. We’ve got an airship waiting on us. Annette?” Daford nodded to the amazonian cleric and started down the street with Reuben.
“Right. Sorry, Elias, we, uh…” Annette glanced at Tylia, who raised an eyebrow
“I mean I got distracted.” Annette raised a hand and concentrated for a few seconds. There was a loud hum, and then a soft glow suffused Elias. The pain in his legs faded to a mild itch, and Annette shrugged, closing her tome. “It’s not exactly a full heal, but give it a day and you’ll be fine.”
Elias nodded and thanked her. He turned back to his sister, but she’d run ahead and intercepted Daford. They talked for a few seconds, with Casimira seemingly becoming more annoyed as the conversation carried on. Daford shook his head, then raised his hands and said something before continuing along the road. Elias jogged to catch up to her, as she glowered after the lumberjack. “Uh, so… what was that about?” he asked.
She continued to glare after Daford for another few seconds before replying.
“I’ve still got important business here, but you lot apparently have a super busy schedule to keep. Meaning that if I’m going to follow you, then...”
Casimira muttered something under her breath before glancing back at Elias. He met her gaze and saw something there that he hadn’t seen before; a certain hardness. Was that… worry? Concern?
“Maybe I can talk to him. Or the captain. Or maybe Annette—”
“No, it’s fine.” She sighed and turned back to the road, looking down towards Daford and the city’s gates. The wind blew and some leaves rustled, but otherwise the city was completely silent. Even the sound from the Arena was muted, as though a world away.
Finally, Casimira spoke. “Maybe it’ll just be better if I tag along.”
“Commander? When did you say that our passengers were going to be back?”
The white-haired man didn’t respond for a moment, merely holding up a finger. He finished the page, then bookmarked his novel before turning to the young woman at the door. “Come again?”
“When were our passengers due to return from the city?” she asked, arms folding her arms.
The captain sat up straighter and stared up at her from his seat. Nothing was said for a few seconds as the two looked at each other, until the man eventually replied. “It’s ‘captain.’”
“It’s ‘captain’. We’re not on-duty right now, so it’s ‘captain’,” he explained. He got up from his chair and started towards the door, the woman close behind. “We need to keep up appearances, especially for Julius’ group.”
“Daford. His name is Daford now.”
“Daford, right. What a silly name. Who names themselves ‘Daford’ of all things? Anyway, they might start asking questions if you use military terms while they’re around. Questions that I don’t really have time to be answering.” he said, climbing a flight of stairs. The woman followed him, looking at the dark, gunmetal walls around them.
“This is a clearly military vessel. And we’re all wearing military uniforms,” she pointed out. “Also, as you said, we’re not on duty. You literally have all the time to deal with any questions.”
“Mm, yeah, but I don’t want to. My point still stands, though. As long as we’re off-duty and among civilians, it’s ‘captain’. Understand?”
The woman nodded. “Understood, Commander. So when did you say they were due back from the city?”
The captain sighed as they got to the top of the staircase and walked on to the bridge. Out the door on the right, and then they were on the balcony. The sun shone brightly above them, its brilliant rays flowing out across the desert sands. Bren was a mere speck in the distance, barely visible from the top of the dune they were hovering a few feet above. Not a hundred meters from there was an oasis, and from that point the desert stretched out. There was another, smaller dune in the distance, maybe a couple of Ks away, and it was on top of that tiny hill that the captain set his sights on.
He raised a hand to his brow, shielding it against the sun. It was painfully bright today, but at least it was cool. Or, well, cooler. A cool desert was still a desert. Bloody hot compared to most parts of most worlds. “Huh. They’re early.”
“How early?” asked the officer, squinting against the sunlight. She reached into her coat and pulled out a pair of binoculars.
“Very.” The captain adjusted his scarf and turned, walking back into the shade. “I don’t know why they’re super early, but prepare to uncloak and possibly depart, just in case. Not going to say ‘no’ to any possibility that we’re getting out of here, but knowing Julius, he might just need his money back.”
“Looks like they picked up a friend. There are five of them now,” she said, zooming out again. Other than their guests, there wasn’t much out there on the sands.
Frankly, the entire trip had been pretty boring. Their commander had said they’d be going cross-realm to basically act as a glorified taxi service for a friend. He’d mentioned the possibility of sightseeing while they were at it, but the entire crew had been stuck on the airship, hovering at a low altitude all of this time. Aside from the pond and trees below them, there wasn’t anything else to see except for sand, dirt and dust.
She was just about to put the binoculars down when a distortion on the far right caught her eye. It didn’t appear to be a heat haze; the effect was too persistent. None of the surroundings seemed to be affected, so it was most likely localized. The officer frowned. It looked as though something or someone was cloaked over there.
“I think there might be someone following them.”
“Friendly, I presume? Do we need to prepare some more bunks?” the man asked, as he walked over to the edge of the railing. He adjusted his glasses and then looked out into the distance for a moment before nodding. “Go check it out. Bring your blades, but you know the rules. And don’t forget to put on sunblock.”
“Want to tag along?”
“You’re flying right? I’m scared of heights.”
“We’re flying right now,” the woman pointed out, opening both her hands. A humming blade materialized in each one, their centers glowing blue.
“I’ll only slow you down. Call back once you’re closer.” The man took his novel from his pocket, pulled out the bookmark and started reading.
Behind her spectacles, the woman rolled her eyes. She spun and walked into the stairwell, vanishing into the depths of the airship.
As soon as the group had stepped outside the city gates, Tylia had teleported them to the general vicinity of the airship. General vicinity, however, still meant a few good kilometers of trudging through the desolate sands. The sorceress had tried her best, however, it was a bit difficult to teleport to a remarkably vague location. “Roughly around that puddle,” the captain had told them, as they’d prepared to disembark. “We’ll be hovering around there, so just pop on over when you guys are done. We’ll pick you up, and then be on our way.”
“You mean that oasis?” Tylia asked, trying to piece together a rough map in her head.
“Sure,” the captain shrugged, as he walked away. “Whatever powers your boat.”
Elias really didn’t like that man.
There was another factor, though. Something else had stopped Tylia from teleporting any closer to the oasis, but Daford had waved it off. “Probably security measures,” he’d reasoned. In all honesty, Elias didn’t have any idea about what sort of security measures could interfere with a teleportation spell.
The group had been walking for a good few minutes now. They had just crested a small dune and could see the oasis before them. Their ship wasn’t in sight, but Elias thought he could see a slight haze where it probably was.
Nobody said anything during the walk. Nobody was in much of a talking mood; due in part to both the dry, sandy wasteland they were trekking through, and Casimira’s somewhat uneasy presence in the group. Personally, the former Paragon had seen enough sand for a few months. Meanwhile, his sister was lagging towards the back, brooding over something only she knew of.
Up ahead, Daford could see where their ride was cloaked. A very, very faint haze in the air above the oasis was the only indicator. As good as invisible to the average human being, unless you knew specifically what to look for. Still a couple of kilometers away, perhaps, but at least he knew where they were headed now. The desert wasn’t quite the hottest that he’d experienced, but the walk still wasn’t exactly comfortable. That jerk could at least have sent something to pick us up.
There was the crack of a gunshot, and Daford instinctively threw himself to the side. He hit the ground hard, just as a bullet thudded into the sand next to him.
It took a split second for Elias to understand what had happened, but by the time he’d processed the betrayal it was too late. He spun, digging in his right foot and pivoting, preparing to thrust at the air as he turned. What felt like an invisible wall crashed into his head, and fist of air crunched into his gut, sending him back.
The blade-for-hire lurched back, balance broken, as his sister dashed down the dune towards him. She was fast; much faster than him. Dazed and winded, Elias raised a hand as she neared, but Casimira easily battered the hand aside. A shining, silver gauntlet crashed into the top of his skull, and he fell, landing heavily on his stomach.
“Never really could fight worth a damn, could you? I should thank Daford for making this easier,” his sister said, drawing a silver revolver. She stepped on his back, pinning him to the ground, and leveled the gun at his friends. “For what it’s worth, dear brother, I’m sorry.”