I could feel my blood pulsing through my veins. The thumping of my heart inside my chest was almost audible to my ears. Trepidation and fear had seized me, as I stared up at the woman on the ship, as dark clouds began to form behind her.
“What’s wrong?” Lilith asked, cocking her head. “I’m here to save your life, Aria. Why do you look so afraid?”
I raised my dagger up to guard myself, but that defensive movement was betrayed by the shaking of my hands. Cool droplets of sweat rolled down my face as I opened my mouth slowly. But no words came out.
“Well, by saving your life— I mean it in more ways than one. See, I was hoping to not only prevent you from dying here, but I would love it if you came back with me to the Holy Xan Empire. Perhaps there, with enough repentance and enough praying, the Goddess would accept your soul after they execute you for you and your mother’s crimes.”
I tensed as a savage smile spread across the Saintess’ face; she had not moved just yet, but I was certain if I tried to make a break for it that she’d instantly bound after me. So I just stood there, voice caught in my throat, unable to say or do anything.
“What brings you here, Saintess?” Bahr asked, seemingly as wary as I was. “Why would the Church send you after a single spellcaster?”
“Oh?” She looked over at him and scoffed. “Perhaps not for an Apostle like you. You’re not even a Herald. The Church doesn’t have time for petty heretics playing small games in some backwater country.”
“And she does?” He turned to me, narrowing his eyes.
“Yes,” she said, her eyes glinting as they flickered in my direction. “Do you want me to tell him? Or do you want to tell him yourself?”
I did not respond.
“Well, if you must know, that girl right there is the daughter of the Fiend. The great Valeria Aimy Corinna! One of the founders of the Shadow’s Evangelium.”
Bahr frowned, thurning to me. “She is?”
“Of course.” Lilith nodded eagerly, pointing down at me. “Take off your mask. Show him who you are, Aria. Let me see your face.”
I took a step back, fearing an attack. But none came. Instead, the Dark Acolyte called over to me.
“Aria, was it?” He didn’t wait for me to respond as he continued. “Saintess Lilith is known as one of the most ruthless people in all of the Holy Xan Empire.”
“Aw, thanks for the compliment. I had no idea my reputation was that well known even amongst the Dark Crusaders. I had thought the Church would be better at keeping word of it from spreading.”
He ignored her interjection. “We’ll have to work together if we want to survive.”
I hesitated, considering his offer. Why was he offering to help me? I was confused for a moment; I had betrayed the Dark Crusaders before, why didn’t he just leave me to die and run? It was at that moment, it clicked.
He doesn’t know.
Somehow, for whatever reason, he knew nothing about what I had done back in the Free Lands. Those Dark Crusaders the other day knew, but he didn’t. That was why he was uncertain about my name— the wrong name Lilith was calling me by.
Perhaps it was because he was cut off from the Dark Crusaders. He was one of them, however apparently he was not well connected with them, unable to even get too many allies to help him with the Elise. It made sense; the Dark Crusaders were mostly decentralized, so there had to be varying degrees of disconnect the different members or cells in the group had with the Infernalis.
I could use it to my advantage; he could serve as a distraction. He was evil after all. I had come here with the intention of killing him. And yet… why was he so insistent on helping me? Lilith had the same thought.
“Work with her?” The Saintess wagged her fingers sternly. “Come now. I was hoping to give a pest like you a quick death. But offering to help someone who is as much of a threat to the Church as her mother once was— a monster responsible for far too many deaths to count— might just make me hurt you a little before I kill you.”
Bahr’s face contorted into that of anger and fury. The Half Elf brought an arm up and pointed beyond the horizon— towards something in the distance. “Monster? The Fiend was no monster. If you want to talk about monsters, let’s talk about you, the oh-so-virtuous and just follower of the Goddess, who perpetuates the survival and will of an Empire that thrives off the oppression of so many peoples? That has brought an entire species to the brink of extinction?”
Lilith just shrugged. “I don’t actually care.” Then she leapt off the ship.
I reacted immediately; I sent two Fireballs flying at the woman midair. She effortlessly blocked the spells with her spear, the magical fire being splashed aside like it was nothing. I backed up as she landed between myself and Bahr.
The Dark Acolyte pointed and a flurry of Wooden Spikes flew at her. With a grin, Lilith twirled her spear and tore the projectiles apart. The ones that landed at her feet burst into the dangerous barbed protrusions of brambles, but they harmless scraped at an invisible aura around her.
“Come on,” she said, voice still carefree. “Do you really think those weak spells can harm me?”
As the words left her mouth, the sky crackled and a beam of light crashed down at her. I did not stop with the Lightning Strike, immediately following up with a Burst Cyclone; the air exploded into dozens of blades of wind shooting out in all directions
Bahr did not sit idly either; he followed up alongside me, determining that this woman was as much of a threat to him as she was to him. A large green magical glyph formed where Lilith had been standing, glowing brilliantly for a moment before a jungle of thorns shot out, engulfing the entire area.
I didn’t wait to see what happened next. I turned around and started running back towards the beach. I saw Braz disposing of the last of Bahr’s bodyguards, looking like he was about to come back me up. I waved my hands wildly in the air and shouted.
“Get out of—”
His eyes widened, and I did not think. I just jumped out of the way, following Braz as he dived into the water. A streak of flames ran down the pier where I had been standing, blazing with such intense heat I could even feel it in the water.
I took a deep breath as my head bobbed out amongst the rough waves, trying to pull me away into the sea. I clung onto one of the wooden pillars holding up the pier, turning around once again to Braz and Kai who had paused in shock just before the half-destroyed wooden platform I had been on. I shouted one word.
It took an instant for Kai to process this information and act; he began shouting orders back at the remaining pirates still on land as they scattered away from the docks. Braz took a moment longer to react, but eventually conceded and swam back towards land.
Truth be told, I could have had them help me. I could have asked them to attack her, distracting her as I escaped into the shadows unnoticed. But this did not involve them. This had entirely to do with me and whatever carelessness allowed me to get caught. Did Lisa betray me?
I shook my head as I climbed back up onto one of the intact piers. Think later, I thought, deciding that that did not matter at the moment. Just survive.
I glanced back at Lilith, and saw her engaged in combat with Bahr. He charged at her, his body being wrapped by an armor of vines and brambles— his entire being engulfed by nature. He clobbered Lilith, wisps of green energy around his wooden arm. She was actually knocked back, but not before stabbing at him from a distance.
The Half Elf howled as the tip of the spear nicked his shoulder. It sliced cleanly through whatever protection the magical protection he wore offered him, dealing more damage than any regular spear should have done with such a wound.
She was about to follow up with a lethal strike, but was knocked off balance as two Stone Spears crashed into her back. I was running away as well— trying to escape rather than stay and fight. But she was about to kill him. If he died, she would have easily caught up to me and captured me.
I followed up with a Frost Javelin. She easily smashed it into pieces and was about to leap for me, but Bahr grabbed her by her legs, and with a swing, threw her into The Lightbringer’s Vessel. It was then, suddenly, I felt an intense feeling of unease overwhelm me for just a moment— it was familiar. Like I had felt it before. Similar to how I felt at the beach over a month ago.
It screamed… danger?
I continued down the pier, my foot stomping loudly on the hard wooden surface as I was about to reach the end of the pier back to land when there was a massive explosion. The Lightbringer’s Vessel split into two and began to sink as Saintess Lilith landed right in front of the Half Elf who was also about to flee.
She stood there in front of him, covered in glowing red lines, inside the storm of ice and fire. A brilliant crimson aura exuded around her, protecting her from her own miracles than wildly destroyed everything in the pier. It ebbed away at Bahr’s armor, tearing it apart slowly as he tried to back up.
Then I realized what the feeling was; it was that of mana being pulled— a spell being cast. But this was different in many ways. Firstly, it was a lot of mana. I could practically feel it screaming at me, blaring loudly into my ears— completely taking over my mana sense. That was the danger I felt.
And instead of mana being forced from the surroundings into a magic circle, it was a concentration of mana within her body. Only the mana inside of the Saintess moved, nothing else.
Rushing forward at him, she parried a strike and slashed him across his chest. He fell onto one knee, grasping at both the wound on his arms and his upper body as Lilith brought her spear down at him. I tried sending a Fireball back, but I was too slow. She lowered her weapon—
And it stopped right at the darkened wood surrounding Bahr. The Elysian Shell had stopped the killing blow, with only a small mark where Lilith had struck. She frowned, before getting engulfed by the blast of flames I had sent at her.
She simply backed up as the aura around her protected her from the attack, although the lines streaking throughout her body shone more brightly for just a moment. The Saintess shot me an annoyed look, but ignored me and focused back at the Half Elf still inside his magical barrier.
The Elysian Shell was powerful. If I had to guess— and I blamed Gennady for making me think of this comparison— it was probably a Tier 6 spell. Even my strongest spell couldn’t break through it. Perhaps given enough time, I could whittle it down. But never in a real, active combat situation.
And yet, it was barely a problem for Lilith.
More lines appeared on her body, before gathering itself on her arms and hands. The lines came into contact with the spear and it flashed just for a moment, before being encased by the same red glow that covered her body. She swung her spear down at the Elysian Shell once. The entire pier shook. A visible shockwave sent me stumbling as the ships in the vicinity rocked and swayed along with the waves.
I looked up and saw a crack appear on the darkened wood. It was a light crack— it didn’t look to be much of a problem. Then Lilith swung again. And again. And again—
The sixth swing shattered the Elysian Shell. Bahr looked up, still injured and unable to react as Lilith brought her spear down on him. He opened his mouth, forming some words.
“My people shall no longer be silent—”
Before he was silenced. He fell, dead, leaving only me for the Saintess to chase after.
I could not run. There was no way I could escape. The Saintess turned to face me, a dangerous look in her eyes. I pointed—
And I set the pier on fire. I sent Fireball and Fire Arrows all across the docks. If there was anything flammable, I set it ablaze. The lamps and all the light sources flared up one by one as I forced all the fires I could to burn.
It was not an instantaneous thing. I had to light it all up one by one as I continued blasting fire into the pier. But this was in addition to the flames already created from myself and Lilith. This was all I could do. I couldn’t run, so I had to hide— escape, hidden behind the flames.
I had practiced with fire; I knew the basic spells to manipulate all the elements, but I had learned to control fire more than the rest. So I made the flames blaze— burn wildly at the docks of Luke. It tried to touch me, but I kept it back. I ran through the inferno, trying to escape my pursuer.
And yet, as I continued my sprint away to safety, a spear pierced through the curtain of flames behind me. How—
I whirled around, throwing myself to the side with all my strength. I felt the fire itself push me, giving me enough speed and strength to match the fast Saintess. It was barely enough.
My head moved out of the way of the spearhead as it came at me. I eyed the pointed tip as it came, almost in slow motion, and struck the side of my mask. There was a crack as half of it shattered from the impact, blood spurting out and covering my right eye. She followed up by striking me with the butt of her spear, and I felt a crunch as my arm broke from the hit. I bit back a scream as I crumpled to the ground.
She could sense my magic. That was how she found me so quickly. My only chance to escape had been foiled by my own panic; if I were more calm, I would have quickly hidden after setting the nearby pier on fire. Used the thick smoke and the blanket of flames to my advantage. But I tried to create an even bigger distraction than was necessary, so I was caught.
Lilith was here now. I could not escape. I had once again thrown away my freedom, and was going to be captured. Tried and executed by the Church for such ridiculous rules and laws which harmed so many people. But if I died, at least I would be with my mom, right?
I did not want to die. I wanted to live. I had already made that decision. I could not allow the Church to take me in and kill me for something as simple as magic.
But what could I do? Lilith was already here. She was reaching for me with one hand. Any spell I could conjure up could not hurt her. So I raised an arm, pointing at her, but it was too slow. There was no one here to help me—
And a thin beam struck Lilith in the back of the head. It did not kill her, of course. The aura from her armor protected her. And yet, she was knocked off balance. It caused her to stumble, giving me enough time to cast the spell.
I felt the air above us both as I backed up. A green magic circle appeared, but its color shifted. It was the smoke I manipulated, focusing solely on the gray-black fumes billowing above us. Lilith steadied herself, about to stop me from casting the spell, but was forced to dodge as Kai fired another shot.
I shot a glance at the man as he lowered his gun and nodded in my direction. He was standing next to Braz, and the two finally turned to run as my spell went off. It was the spell I had been practicing with. The Burst Cyclone which created a maelstrom of wind blades. But this time, it was not just air that burst out. The smoke overhead exploded in all directions, covering the entire pier with toxic gas.
I held my breath, ignoring whatever pain I felt, and cut off my connection with the mana in my surroundings as I backed up. Saintess Lilith was engulfed in the smoke. I silently ran away from her as fast as I could, finally finding myself standing on dry land as she sent streaks of fire and ice in all directions.
It could not cut through the smoke. Why would it? In fact, the fire only made it worse. Finally, she tried sending a gale of wind to clear the smoke, blowing it in all directions. But I ran with the wind, and the wind exacerbated the flames and thus the smoke.
I had anticipated this— or rather, I had hoped for it. She seemed genuinely angry when Bahr had hurt her. When he threw her into her own ship with all his strength. While she could manifest miracles of all elements, she did not specialize in using the wind. Perhaps if she did, she’d be able to send such a powerful gust it would disperse of all the flames and smoke all at once. But luckily for me, she couldn’t do that.
So she screamed and shouted for me as I escaped into the docks. She did not stop pursuing me, landing with a loud thud close to where I was. I couldn’t see her. I couldn’t feel her shadow. But I could sense her miracles.
I quietly backed up in the opposite direction of Lilith, trying to get further into the city. The blanket of smoke now covered half of the docks, keeping me safe as long as I did not make any noise or cast any spells.
She continued trying to blow the smoke away, and it worked for mere moments before more smoke always gathered around her. I was almost at the stairs that would lead me away from the docks, when suddenly she changed course.
The Saintess started for my direction as she called out.
“Where are you Aria? You can’t run from the Church forever. I will find you. Just give up and I’ll even tell the Archbishop to lighten your sentence— give you a painless death instead of burning you with the Sacred Flames.”
I ignored her. I immediately hid in a small alcove as she scanned the area. Smoke kept covering the area as she continued trying to blow it away. I waited for her to leave— to go investigate some other place. And eventually, she did.
With a click of her tongue, Lilith turned around and looked at the waves. Her gaze was fixed on the ocean— she thought I had jumped into the water to escape and hide. She slowly went further away from me, and only after another minute passed did I move.
I ran out of the alcove and ducked into the streets of Luke. Blood dripped down the side of my face. I tiredly made my way slowly through the alleys of the city. I was exhausted. My arm was broken, and my face felt like it was on fire from a simple cut. My vision was blurry. My entire body was numb. I wanted to pass out.
But I pushed on.
I heard the sound of footsteps from people and horses coming from the distance, and I quickly hid myself. Guards and firefighters pushing a simple fire engine ran towards the docks to investigate what had happened. I waited for them to pass before I went back out.
I continued stumbling through the streets, pushing myself off walls I occasionally found myself leaning on. Finally, I arrived.
I pushed open the door of the safe house and stepped into the dark room. I collapsed onto my knees
“Melas? Goddess grace us, what happened?” Lisa ran over to me. She grabbed my shoulders, and stared at me with a worried look on her face. “I’ll get a healing potion just wait—”
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