Underground Ring: Book 1, page 18
“Just wondering if we’re OK,” I said.
“What? Over you losing control and nearly killing our childhood teacher?” he quipped bluntly.
I was taken aback. Ben had a gift for breaking things down to their simplest forms: I had tried to murder Lokus, and I would have succeeded had my friends not intervened.
“No, Augrais,” Ben kept going, taking my silence as a response. “We’re not OK. I mean, you lost it, brother!” His gaze was even more intense than Lokus’s. I could not bring myself to look at him. I stared blankly at the wall as if it were speaking and not Ben.
“We trusted you.” Ben walked in front of me and went on almost as if he were about to scream at me. He stopped then, composed himself, and continued. “I trusted you. I wanted to go out on our own as bad as you but that…” he pointed as if the event was playing in that direction, “that went too far. You would have killed him. Lokus, our freakin’ teacher.”
I had never seen Ben like this before. He no longer seemed angry but his disappointment was palpable. It made me feel like a child being scolded.
“You—” he began.
“Shut up,” I cut him off. “I did it to save all of us.”
“Did you?” Ben said, seemingly unconvinced. “Because from where I stand, it sure looks like you did it for yourself.”
I took a step towards him. “Don’t forget who you are talking to. I am a Vitae Lord now.”
Ben nodded, taking his eyes off of me as he walked past me and slowly strode to the window. “Before Lokus, my life sucked,” he said, looking out at the sun rising above the city skyline. “I was living on the street. One day, I was being attacked by a group of jerks that wanted my lunch money when this guy swooped into my life. He saved me from them that day and, what’s even more surprising, was this guy was the only person I had ever known who didn’t judge me for my greasy hair, my ripped clothes, or my messed up teeth. To him, whether it be true or not, I was special. And when I got to know him, I realized he was special, too. He was strong, cool, but best of all, he put others needs before his own.” Ben turned back to me. “I guess that guy’s not coming back.”
When I didn’t respond, Ben sighed and left to eat breakfast.
I went downstairs a few moments after Ben to find Lee and Ben already eating a strange breakfast. I had never seen such brands of cereal and toast. Normally, Lokus would feed us an old fashioned meal which we would chow grudgingly and finish quickly. But these things, with different sugars and sweets, tasted wonderful and made breakfast delectable.
“You think Trosian will be back today?” Lee asked, his mouth full of crunching cereal and milk.
Ben shrugged, keeping his eyes on the bowl. “No idea.”
“So, mall today?” Lee asked. “Uncle Dan left us a truck load of money and this new game is out today…”
Their uncle still hadn’t shown his face and when I asked Lee about it, he simply shrugged and said, “Out on business.”
I naturally disagreed. “We don’t have time to be messing around,” I said. “We haven’t been training or doing anything this entire week.”
“Come on, Augrais,” Lee whined throwing his hands up into the air. “If we keep up with the heavy volume of training, I’m going to be over trained.”
“You don’t even know what that is, idiot,” Ben muttered.
“I do too!” Lee exclaimed.
“What is it then?” Ben said, turning to challenge Lee.
“Well…” Lee hesitated, looking slightly sheepish.
I rolled my eyes, preparing to bowl this idea over with a strict regime of training and gathering when I realized: we weren’t at Lokus’s home anymore. There was no gym in this house or any proper supplies that we would need in order to start combating Shadows.
“Look,” I said, “we need to go out to get supplies anyway. But when we get back, we are training then doing recon.”
The fact that the mall was literally brimming with people was incredibly surprising. The “Exodus of Souls,” as it was called on the news, was all over the television these days. Thousands of civilians were fleeing the city, fearing for their lives as the city was in the grips of the highest murder and disappearance rate in recorded history. In the past few weeks alone nearly 300 people had died or gone missing under mysterious circumstances. Shoppers shuffled through the mall looking at one another with a cloak of suspicion draped over their shoulders. Will they be the next victim? The next person on a missing poster? I often questioned why we didn’t just try to tell them the truth. I suppose the sad reality of it was that they simply didn’t want to believe that civil war had been brought to their doorstep.
“Would you like something, Augrais?” Lee asked politely as we waded into the crowds. He tried to hand me some cash, figuring I would want to get my stuff and go.
“No, thank you,” I said, slightly distracted by all the minds buzzing past.
“You should take some,” Lee told me. “I still have,” he began to count but then gave up, “a lot left.”
“Give it to Ben,” I responded, waving it away as it were nothing. Ben would be happy to spend it on whatever was shiny and useless. Lee began to sprint ahead but then staggered as Ben and I froze in complete awe.
“Holy crap!” Ben exclaimed, glancing about in a nervous shock.
I said nothing. I was also shocked. Our Air gifts had both picked up the heat of a Fire gift that was so strong it made me feel as if I was being burned. And it was somewhere in this mall.
“What is it?” Lee’s mood darkened knowing this meant trouble.
“Be on your guard,” I said, glancing about trying to discern who it was. “A great Fire is here.”
Lee lowered himself and narrowed his eyes. Everyone was now his enemy.
“It feels,” Ben struggled to compare it, “it feels like Augrais’s or Laucian’s Fire. It’s like standing too close to the sun!”
I scanned as many individuals as I could while my mind raced. Could Laucian really be here? If he was, the mall could be filled with Shadows.
We were wide open here; anyone with a rifle could pick us off. This is bad. The Fire suddenly began to move, and fast, but I couldn’t pinpoint it.
“Upstairs,” I ordered, running to the nearest escalator.
“So much for our day off!” Lee cried as he dashed with us towards the escalator.
The belt looked to be already overflowing with people and more were pouring on. Not wishing to waste any time, I jumped onto the railing of the packed escalator and ran up, Lee following closely behind me. People gasped as we jumped off, glancing about to make sure we didn’t find ourselves in a trap.
“Oh no, where’s Ben?” Lee exclaimed, realizing one of us hadn’t made it.
We turned about, thinking he had been taken by the great Fire, when, like a ghost from the dead, his voice echoed about us.
“No, it’s cool,” he yelled as he slowly ascended the escalator in a throng of people. “Just leave me behind, no big deal.”
When he finally joined the party, the Fire was moving once again, and right for us.
“It’s coming!” I yelled, and we all readied ourselves for Laucian or some other powerful monster to confront us.
And that’s when it happened.
“Yayel,” we heard a woman roar from the clothing store. “Get your ass back here now!”
Immediately I felt something go zooming past, brushing my pant legs. A kid, no more than 12, with black hair and grubby shorts, moved at an unusual speed and catapulted into the crowd crawling under legs, trying to escape from his own mother. She chased him into the mob and began shoving her way to him.
“You are not getting away from me,” she cried, doubling her efforts. People around began to slow down to watch this half-crazed woman.
But at this point I wasn’t paying attention to the scene. The Fire had been moving again, in the same direction the child was moving.
“On it!” Lee confirmed and sprang into action. Jumping on the balcony handrail, where most people couldn’t stand, let alone run, Lee sprinted along beside the preteen who still had a good lead on his raging mom.
“Move!” he cried using his strong Water gift to part the people surrounding Yayel. Like a wave, the civilians all shifted to one side as the kid’s little legs kept propelling him forward in a panic. This use of the Water gift gave Lee the precious time he needed. Picking up speed, he pounced at the child, knocking him to the ground.
“Ha,” he cheered as he stood over the boy triumphantly. “I got you!”
But his victory was a short-lived one.
“Get off my son,” screamed the woman who was now charging directly at Lee.
Lee stood stunned. “I…I’m not—“
He couldn’t explain much more than that. The mother wasted no time protecting her cub with a solid right hook to the face as she yelled the battle cry: “Pervert!”
Lee was rocketed away as if he had been hit by a truck. No amount of training could prepare Lee to face a mother’s wrath. Seeing an escape in sight, Yayel with a look of terror on his face, scrambled to his feet and ran back through the crowd. The people were no longer under the spell of the Water gift but stared dumbfounded over the sheer insanity of this event.
The mother bear spun around and gave chase with hands ready to seize the kid.
“They’re coming right for us,” Ben said, fidgeting nervously. “We should move”
But we were too late. Yayel screamed for help as he veered around us. His mother was hot on his heels but, lucky for him, still only grasping at air.
“When I get my hands on you,” his mother puffed as Yayel began to run circles around the three of us. “I’m going to feed you to the wolves! You hear me? Wolves!”
They went round and round us like a merry-go-round as if we were some sort of great impassable pillar
Ben, I spoke to him via the Earth gift, When I move, get down.
Understood, came the response.
I lowered my weight slightly preparing for the preteen coming around the bend on my left. Like a master fisherman, I snatched Yayel under his arms in mid-gallop. To my surprise, the speed the boy was moving at drove me into a full circle spin. I dug my heels down, slightly dizzy. Yayel didn’t struggle in my grasp, only his legs kept moving which suggested he didn’t even realize he had been lifted off the ground. When he finally realized that fact, he tried to squirm away from me but the woman descended upon him, grabbing him by his waist until he was back on his feet. Muttering a thank you, she swiftly shuffled away. Her son apologized profusely to her as the crowd behind her stood, plainly stunned and unsure how to continue their trek into the world of shopping. She then lead him by the back of his neck out of the mall. .
“I think she punches harder than you, Augrais,” Lee said as he rejoined us, rubbing his red cheek.
Ben suddenly began to laugh hysterically, so hard that he grasped his stomach. Pointing at Lee, he said, “Dude, I wish you could have seen your face before she connected with that punch. Deer in headlights, bro. Deer in headlights!”
“Shut it, Ben,” Lee growled, putting his fist up as a threat.
The two continued to bicker but I paid them no mind. How could a child like that hold so much Fire in his little body? Better yet, should we just allow this human weapon to exist without intervention? No, I reasoned, if we wouldn’t use him then the Shadows would and I did not wish to test my abilities against a foe like that when he grew up.
We followed the small car that looked much like Ben’s van: crappy. They must have lived an hour away from that mall. Lee kept asking the usual question as he drove, “Are we there yet?”
“Now this is the boonies,” Ben sighed, trying to ignore the back seat passenger. “I thought I had left this kind of place for good.”
I had to agree. This was home to me for so many years and it felt almost natural to be going back to a forest.
“So, guys,” Lee said, interjecting. “Are we there yet?”
“I hate you,” Ben said, gripping the wheel tightly. We had lost the car a few minutes ago at one of the earlier turns.
“Guess not,” replied Lee. “So, how could that kid have that much power?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted, eyes narrowing as I remembered the sheer heat I had felt from the kid’s gift. “But if he were trained and used against us…” I trailed off.
“So what are we going to do?” Ben asked. “Walk up to him and say, ‘Hey, little boy, we’re not creepy. Come into our world and learn about your powers.’” He bit his finger, speaking like a pervert. When I didn’t respond he went on. “So you’re just going to wing it?”
Ben sighed. “We’re so going to jail.”
“So, guys—” Lee began.
“Damn it, Lee!” Ben cried, banging the wheel in frustration.
“Fire,” Lee simply said, pointing right across Ben to a column of smoke that was rising above the trees. “Five bucks says it’s them.”
We all knew what he meant. Shadows.
Ben and I slowly crept through the forest, the billowing flames and smoke coming from a small house now in view. We had the van parked a few hundred metres away so as to avoid suspicion. The house looked like a war zone, a dozen bodies strewn about the house. I searched desperately for any sign of the mother or Yayel, but at this distance it was hard to tell, even with my Vitae Lord eyes.
“Do you think they’re dead?” Ben whispered. “Or captured.”
I shook my head as we got on our bellies and crawled to the edge of the foliage. If Laucian had gotten a hold of Yayel, we would be in big trouble. Two dove calls interrupted my thoughts. Lee sounded the all clear and wanted us to move in to investigate.
The bodies looked like Shadows, though unlike the previous time, these were not as well-armed. This was unusual to say the least.
“Augrais, Ben, over here!” Lee called.
We rushed over to find the battered Yayel lying unconscious. Ash, blood, and dirt caked his skin. His clothes were tattered and ripped like someone had pulled him about.
Lee bent his head over the boy’s mouth. “He’s alive.” He confirmed. “I have no idea where the mother is.”
“Guys,” Ben said slowly, interrupting our questions and pointing down the driveway. “I don’t think we’re alone.”
I followed his direction with my eyes. In front of the house stood a mountain of a man with a great red beard and long red hair. His clothes were tattered and old, and matched the great staff he held in his hand. A constant hum of energy emanated off of this man. Even though he looked different from the others, I knew he must be a Shadow.
When he saw us, the man approached and he was much larger than I thought. His staff was marked with strange symbols and embroidered with metal reinforcement. I drew my sword, preparing my Fire.
He stopped when he saw Balmung. “Where did ya get that weapon, lad?” His accent was thick. Lines and scars marred his face, telling me he was about as old as my father would have been.
“A talking Shadow,” Ben remarked, also drawing his knife. “That’s a first.”
“Are ye deaf?” the redheaded man asked me coming closer again. “I asked where you got your weapon? That’s an Acerbus sword, that is.”
“Something isn’t right here,” Lee whispered to us as he nocked an arrow. “Be careful, Augrais. I don’t think this guy is a normal Shadow.”
“Those marks on his staff,” Ben whispered back. “I’ve seen those somewhere.” He concentrated hard attempting to remember. “Oh God, this is going to kill me.”
“You mute, lad?” he came within melee range. “Or are ye too afraid to tell me you stole it?”
With that, he slashed his staff horizontally at my head, a blow that was p
“We got a scrappa here,” he said, cackling a smile that twisted his thick beard.
I had already activated my Air gift. Though he did have the Fire gift, one much like Trosian’s, this did not explain his ability to shrug off energy. The theories I was beginning to formulate were interrupted suddenly when I realized we were about to be ambushed.
“Ben, Lee!” I cried. “Behind you!”
How could I not sense this before? Masked with a metal faceguard and in black garb fitted with countless weaponry, a short man dove from some wreckage. His Fire was nearly the same strength as the big man’s. Wasting no time, he barrelled into Ben who barely managed to block and parry his way away from me and the flaming house. This fighting changed, however, as Lee fired and nocked an arrow in a matter of seconds.
“Ben, get down!” he commanded as he took aim.
Diving back, the black-garbed being sheathed his sword and then with lightning speed began to put his hands into weird position that almost looked like…symbols? The arrow took flight and his hand stopped moving; his body instinctively stepped aside as the projectile grazed by him. His Fire gift was now gone and there was a strong Earth in its place. As if it came naturally to him, the small man dodged the incoming arrows and charged at Lee as his hands wove more signs. Lee dropped his bow and pulled out a knife as the man made a huge burst of speed towards him. When they connected in a clash of steel, I noticed the man’s Fire had returned.
What the hell is going on? I thought. My only answer was a sickening crunch to the side of my head as the large man took advantage of my lack of attention. My vision swam and the side of my head throbbed as I fell to the ground. Refocusing my power, my hand shot up and caught the incoming staff via the Earth. I yanked hard on his staff as my pain subsided, healed by Vitae. The redhead’s eyes widened as I pulled on his staff and his grip tightened, sacrificing his footing. He fell forward just enough for me to meet both my feet to his jaw. The staff still in his hands, the mountain of a man slid back but did not fall. His jaw should have been broken but was not; that constant energy was the key to his defence. Still, the damage was visible as some blood dripped from his mouth.