The two of them scrambled up the hill, the sounds of horns and shouting in the distance. The pace was frantic and Apricot could feel her heart pounding. She half expected it to burst at any moment. To her side, Daniel was moving with ease, his strides even and his breathing controlled. Of course, as a Tumbler, this wasn’t as rigorous as the training he received on a daily basis. Even in their dire circumstance, she spared enough thought to be a tad bit envious.
They needed to make it to the top of this hill and then they just might be able to escape. It was a bold plan, and one that would probably never work, but it was all she could come up with. Hope and desperation were about all they had left. In the moonlight she saw an arrow sink into the ground a few feet ahead of her and panic nearly took over.
The idea of surrender flitted briefly in her mind, but it could not find purchase. She knew what awaited them now if they stopped. They were, quite possibly, the last hope her world had for salvation. There was no way to go but forward. She gritted her teeth and kept moving. It was only a few more paces until they reached the top. Realizing their prey had no intention to stop, the men following decided they had passed the point of bringing the two fugitives in alive. The arrows rained down upon them. Luckily the woods surrounding the hill and the incline of the hill itself kept the shots challenging.
Apricot’s momentum forward was more a constant state of falling and barely catching herself than any real definition of the word running. So it was a good thing Daniel shot out his arm and suddenly yanked her to the side, stopping her run abruptly. There was no warning and she stumbled sideways. She cried out as she lost her balance and dropped to her knees. Pain in her shoulder made her want to shout at him, but the view suppressed that impulse. Just a few short inches past where her knees sat, the hill ended abruptly. Almost as if it were carved out by a giant cleaver, the cliff side went unnaturally straight down. She peered a tad over the edge and watched as arrows shattered on the stone far, far below.
She turned and went to thank Daniel for the save but any words were turned into a cry of worry as an arrow could be seen protruding out from both sides of his forearm. He himself bit back a cry of pain and released her, clutching his arm close. The arrow could be seen protruding out from both sides of his forearm.
“Hurry!” he hissed between gritted teeth.
Apricot nodded and pulled out the vial that hung on a thong from around her neck. The liquid was almost clear in color, with streaks of deep crimson swirling inside. She hoped she could performed the spell correctly. It was way beyond the study material of a second-year Acolyte and she grew more nervous as she held it in her hand.
“I just need a moment,” she said to him, much calmer than she had thought possible. She was surprised she could speak at all through the lump she felt in her throat.
Daniel’s expression at that moment seemed so young, it reminded her that the two of them weren’t even through their second decade of seasons. The world of Zethenia had so much riding on shoulders that were far too inexperienced for such things. The moment lasted for less than half a second, however, as his chin squared and he snapped off the back half of the arrow shaft.
While blood poured from between his fingers, he began to pull the arrow the rest of the way through. He met her eyes and just said as a statement of fact, “We do not have a moment.”
Apricot had the overwhelming impulse to cry, but with arrows falling like rain drops around them she didn’t have the time for such childish things. She tucked the vial into a pocket and stood, turning to face down the hill. At the very bottom, shapes were appearing through the trees, swords drawn as they hacked through the underbrush. She closed her eyes and ignored the world around her.
Apricot was destined to be a mage. And while she had not yet attained rank at the Sanctum, she still had access to the one thing that gave all mages their power: the Everstream. The Everstream was the unseen energy that coursed through the worlds, fueling arcane users throughout the multiverse. It was an energy that was woven into all parts of Zethenia and allowed her elders to produce feats simply not possible without it.
Her control was lacking and it required extreme focus to cast a spell successfully. Needless to say, this might prove difficult at the moment. However, she did excel in one particular aspect of streamcrafting: manifestation.
While her eyes were closed, she imagined the Everstream as an endless river that flowed all about her. As always, so easily did the Stream come to her, she had to fight to stop it from trying to drown her. The energy all about her tingled through her body and Daniel could see her hair begin to float about her head. Inside her mind she forced herself above the water and simply scooped a single cup into her hands.
She opened her eyes and willed that gathered energy into being before her. She released her hands and gestured to the sides. Pain exploded through her body without warning and she saw blackness creep around the edges of her sight. An arrow had found home deep in her shoulder. That pain and agony was raw, pure emotion that mixed with the Stream at the exact moment of release. There was a reason focus was so strongly taught at the Sanctum, and spells never attempted while emotional. Emotion was a source of power all its own and it compounded upon the energy of the Everstream.
Apricot had intended to bring up a wall of energy, just enough to deflect the arrows and give her time to cast the spell they needed to escape. In the most basic of ways, she was extremely successful. Pure energy exploded out of the ground in front of her, knocking her off her feet and pushing Daniel to his knees. Dirt and rock rained down upon them as the energy streaked to the left and right, curling about the hill fifty feet to either side. It reached into the sky, higher than Apricot could accurately judge. It was a wild thing, shimmering and wonderful.
Despite the pain, Apricot slowly regained her feet. She could see through the vaguely translucent wall as arrows struck its surface. The exploded into tiny puffs of dust and excess energy. It wasn’t what she intended, but there was no denying it certainly did the trick. She could feel the small tendril of energy, connecting her to her manifestation. As long as she kept feeding that tiny tendril, this manifestation would stay indefinitely. Or at least as long as her strength to do so remained. Without it, the wall would slowly vanish.
She sighed and let the tendril go. She only needed the wall for a minute. Besides, between the pain and the spell she needed to cast, it was doubtful if she could have held it for long anyway. Daniel stood and nodded. She could tell he was worried at that display of power, but he knew that conversation could hold until another time. Apricot just gave him the most relaxed grin she could manage. His expression proved it came out more likely as a pained grimace.
“That should give us our moment,” she told him. She pulled from beneath her robes an ancient scroll. One that she had stolen from the forbidden section at the Gateways’ Index. Trying to control her breathing, she began to speak the words from the scroll. It was a complex spell, with specific stops and starts, written in a language she had only just started studying.
It took about a minute, but when she was done she could feel the energy release itself from the parchment. The scroll disintegrated into little more than ash and drifted over the cliff side. She used the edge of her robe to wipe the sweat from her brow that had formed during the reading.
“Well, mi’lady,” Daniel asked, “did it work?”
Apricot inwardly held her breath in anticipation and glanced over the precipice. She nodded and he joined her at the edge. Below them, rising from the base of the cliff, was a swirling mass of clouds. It looked like a miniature thunderstorm, complete with streaks of lightning. The clouds rolled into one another, gray and foreboding. Apricot knew that this was how this particular portal presented itself and that the doorway was open for but a few moments.
She pulled out the vial and uncorked it. She dipped one finger into the mixture and carefully used it to place one drop upon her tongue. The potion barely had any taste, with the exception of just the slightest hint of metal. She held out the vial for Daniel and he did the same, frowning the whole time. It was harder for him, as he tried to find a clean finger. Most of them were covered in his own blood, as he had not yet been able to stop the flow coming from his arm. He managed with a pinkie and handed the bottle back. Apricot lifted the vial.
She rattled off yet another enchantment, a tracking spell this time. She felt the magic take hold and she slowly tipped the vial, allowing the contents to spill down into the swirling portal. She went around to Daniel’s other side so she was next to his uninjured arm. She ignored the blood and their fingers intertwined. He gave her a slight squeeze and then a nod.
From behind they heard a thud and then a scream of rage. They both turned their heads to regard the sound. There was a dark figure on the other side of the wall, pacing and howling. The man on that side was pounding at the wall with his sword. The fact it hadn’t exploded yet meant the blade was no doubt enchanted. Then, as if to confirm that fact, the blade suddenly burst through, a dark metal with small bursts of lightning dancing about its surface.
With another bellow of fury, the sword began to cut into the wall. Around it, the energy popped and began to fade. Crazed eyes from the man bored into theirs and they knew there was no more time. Apricot gave a quick kiss onto Daniel’s cheek and with a cry of fear and exhilaration they stepped out into nothing. They plummeted down, towards a portal that would lead them to a place long forbidden. To try and find the one being that might be able to help lift the darkness that had descended upon Zethenia.