Jarred and Sarah strolled toward Post Office Square hand-in-hand. Telling her of yesterday’s harrowing events Jarred felt her hand squeezing a little tighter than he liked. He was probably doing the same. Neither complained.
They met at Central Station at around 11:00 and wandered around, talking and holding hands, finally heading into the Square at about 11:30. The inner-city square was a patch of dry, mostly-dead grass in the middle of a dry, mostly-dead Brisbane, but on Saturdays it bustled with energy instead of despair. The markets were up and running, the day warm and the sky clear. The stone trolls, grisly reminders of man’s fears brought to life through Taint magic, dissuaded what the stony-eyed glares of the armed security guards at both entrances couldn’t.
One entrance was through the Ann Street gate, above the twin sets of curved stone steps circling below the Shrine of Memories, a war memorial for soldiers killed in the battle of Gallipoli in a long ago war. The other was the Adelaide Street gate, from a tunnel under the street, continuing the thoroughfare from a shopping alley between a gutted bookstore and a dilapidated coffee shop. Various off-duty paramilitary security personnel hung out in the food court the alley led to, visible most of the time as a backup presence in case of sufficient conflict.
Jarred and Sarah approached the entrance, where a line made its way into the area.
“Trading anything today?” the imposing guard asked.
“Just buying,” Jarred answered.
“Same,” Sarah added.
“I know you, so I can trust you with that sword,” the guard said. “But it stays in its sheathe, got it?”
“Got it.” Jarred replied.
“Okay, you’re good. Have fun.”
“Hey, don’t tell me what to do,” Jarred said with a grin. The guard shook his head. The pair walked inside, emerging into a mecca of multiple trades, all kinds of people selling all kinds of services. Vendors sold food, clothes, engine parts, fuel, ammo, medicine, hand tools, batteries, flashlights—anything necessary or useful to basic human survival.
Armed paramilitary problem-solvers—and even a few outright mercenaries—ran booths for hired guns. Some of them were even legitimate businesses.
A few sold more non-essential but beneficial services—relaxation, education, and the like. It was one of these, Mazeus’ Masseuse, that held Sarah’s attention. She broke into a sprint when she spotted the massage parlour. From the back section walked Dimitri, a look of boredom on his face. He was big, muscular and tanned. He had a handsomeness that made even Jarred, who considered himself “about as queer as a can of beer”, feel just a little bit gay himself.
“Dimitri!” Sarah squealed. Dimitri looked up and immediately broke into a smile as he strode around the counter and crushed Sarah in a bear hug. He kissed her forehead. “Sarah!” he replied. “How’s life?”
“Never better,” she replied.
“So have you come here because you’re interested in exchanging a private session involving my hands strategically rubbed all over your body for monetary recompense?”
“You know just how to make a girl melt.”
Dimitri smiled even wider.
Jarred rolled his eyes. “And you say he’s just a friend,” he said with a suspicious squint, arms folded loosely over his chest.
“You’re looking rather fetching and manly, especially with that sword,” Dimitri said with a mischievous look in his eye.
“Wow. I’m in rags and dirty, and I’m still being hit on by a gay man,” Jarred replied. “I definitely still got it!” After a pause he added, “Of course I don’t swing that way, but hey: gay-person approval.”
“Well, are you sure I couldn’t tempt you into my parlour of sensual wickedness?”
“Your price is certainly worth it… and I did pull a muscle running from bad guys… so okay, can you book me in tomorrow?”
“Sure, not a problem. One hour or two?”
“One should be fine. Thanks.”
“Okay, tomorrow at one. That work for you?”
“I’ll take two,” Sarah said.
“I’ll bet,” Jarred muttered.
“For you, I’ll only charge one and a half,” Dimitri continued.
Sarah replied with a smile. “Charmer.”
“I’m going to look around,” Jarred said to his love-heart-eyed girlfriend. “You’re welcome to join your real boyfriend when you’re finished with your other boyfriend.”
“Oh you,” she said, sticking her tongue out.
“What a good man you are,” the Chinese lady running the stall said. “Getting the shopping done while your significant other gets pampered.”
“I’m just that dedicated.”
Jarred handed over the money as the seller put the new clothes in the bag. Just in time, too: he couldn’t go around much longer with a shirt both faded and developing holes, and those rips in his jeans weren’t custom made. Mercenaries—or whatever you called his group—had to compete, after all. He needed the new gear.
Sarah approached from the massage parlour, a blissful look upon her face.
“Hey. You got everything?” she said, touching his arm.
“Yeah, we’re good to go.”
“Cool.” She leaned in to kiss him and he kissed her back, softly under the sad gaze of a petrified troll.
A tingle went through his body, and he felt it in his blood. Then the screaming started. Jarred broke the kiss off. The cries came from uphill, at the exit opposite Central Station. Jarred saw a huge, stalagmite-studded earth elemental pick up a muscle car and throw it ten metres up the street where it crashed into a stone troll. The troll exploded into a spray of shrapnel.
Meanwhile a swirl of wind developed in the middle of the lane between the durable clothing store and the foodstuffs pavilion and began gathering speed, growing until it buffeted the tent flaps. From within the maelstrom a pair of white, foggy blue dots developed. The bestial whirlwind built to an even higher speed and Jarred planted himself between it and Sarah as small objects flew off the tables and joined the developing tornado. A small can of tuna whipped by Jarred’s head, clipping his ear.
Jarred dropped the goods in his hands and readied his power.
The air elemental approached him. He let it get close, and then loosed several thousand volts in an electrical arc accompanied by a furious popping noise. A primal scream rose from the elemental’s form. It thrashed wildly for a long moment before dispersing into nothing. As soon as it scattered Jarred rushed towards the stairs up… and skidded to a halt in front of a flaming humanoid figure. It raised its hands, and from its sides flames erupted in a line from ledge to ledge.
Screaming continued from the street. The earth elemental massacred armed security personnel, their automatic weapons fire almost cancelling out the screaming. Almost.
At that moment a stream of water seemed to erupt from the fenced-off Memorial Flame area and leap down off the street level to the Square. It landed to Jarred’s side, and stood up into the shape of a humanoid figure made of water.
The water elemental lunged. Jarred dodged to the right, and turned to see it crash into the clothing store. It came back at him, and this time splashed onto his face… and began to worm into his nose and mouth. He fell backwards from the force, clawing at his face. He choked as it began to work its way down his oesophagus. He tried to concentrate on his power, but the creature working its way down his windpipe was hard to ignore. He summoned a massive force of will and his power, except targeting himself.
He felt only a light tickle—a necessary secondary power for his primary to function without harming him. The elemental, halfway down his throat, immediately poured out and left Jarred gagging, his air passages feeling like they had been tenderised.
Jarred stood over the churning puddle of water on the ground and stomped on it with a boot emitting electrical bolts. The puddle of water convulsed, violently. Finally, when the water elemental had stopped moving, Jarred turned to the wall of fire.
People were dying up on the street. The security force were shooting and yelling. The earth elemental, with its ability to shrug off a lot of harm, chewed through them. He had to get up there and fight.
All he had to do was leap through fire.
“Wait!” Jarred turned to see Sarah approach. She stopped in front of him and put her hand on his chest, fingers spread. “Resistere Ignis!” A red flash of light enveloped him, and he felt a coolness pervade his whole body.
“There, a fire resistance spell,” Sarah explained.
“You better wait here,” he suggested.
“I wish you didn’t have to do this,” Sarah said with a frown.
“I have to,” he replied.
Then he was off.
He turned back to the fire elemental and the wall of flame it produced. Taking a deep breath, he put his forearms in front of his face, and jumped quickly through the fire. The elemental swirled around him, whipping and lashing at his body with gouts of flame. The heat pelted his body, but did no harm due to the spell. It kept up the barrage, and he worried that it would continue longer than the resistance spell. He punched and kicked at it, everything he could to harm it, but nothing worked.
Until the several buckets’ worth of dirty water drenched the pair of them.
The fire elemental disintegrated into a ring of wet ash around Jarred’s feet. Jarred meanwhile stood there, soaked. He gave Sarah, Dimitri, and the other merchants and customers a look almost as dirty as the water.
“Just go!” Sarah shouted, and Jarred turned and raced up the stairs to the middle of the street above. There, the earth elemental had two unfortunate soldiers in its hands. It bashed them together and dropped them, the bodies falling limply to the ground.
Jarred shot a lightning bolt into the earth elemental’s chest, issuing a loud popping noise as it lanced out.
It did nothing.
Jarred’s eyes widened. The elemental turned to him, its cavernous eyes giving away nothing of the fury it contained within, a fury born of Mother Nature but devoid of emotion, indiscriminate and uncaring. Jarred felt that fully as he locked eyes with the monster.
He drew Silverflame.
“Burn, Argáma Fiam’del!” he shouted, using its real name. Fire exploded from and then wrapped around the silver-infused blade. He just hoped that one or the other—fire of silver—would damage the monster.
Jarred rushed at the elemental. It tried to bat Jarred’s sword away with its fist, but being so big the elemental telegraphed its attack and Jarred’s keen reflexes did the rest. For four strikes Jarred couldn’t land a solid hit, the elemental unable to hit him either. Then it got lucky.
Jarred lunged with too much effort and couldn’t dodge easily enough when the elemental’s fist lashed out from by its side. Jarred went flying backwards and crashed into a bus windscreen. He fell down with a slipping noise, leaving a smear of blood on the glass.
He landed on the bitumen, between two bodies in black security gear, one with his head turned right around, his eyes staring upwards at nothing. He tried to rise but fell down again, aching too much. Jarred coughed up blood.
‘Oh god this is it,’ he thought. ‘I’m really going to die!’
At that moment Dimitri appeared, holding a rocket launcher. Jarred immediately put his head down. The RPG streaked through the air and slammed into the elemental, a trail of smoke and a whistling noise in its wake. The elemental’s head exploded into a shower of rock and shrapnel. It rained debris all over the road, over every body and car.
The elemental, now headless, crumbled into its component dirt and rock, the stalagmites snapping off and forming an imperfect ring around the pile of earth.
Sarah, a step behind Dimitri, rushed to Jarred’s side and placed both hands on his left arm. A warm and delightful sensation went through his body, and he was sure he smelt faint vanilla essence. His wounds began to recede, the feeling of regeneration ticklish as all hell but a relief just the same.
Metal booted footsteps approached. Jarred looked up and saw five knights in shining armour. A large, redheaded man with green eyes and thick, severe beard held what looked like a Claymore in both hands. An Indian woman with a multicoloured sash around her waist and thick gold jewellery had a Pata sword protruding from a gauntlet on her right arm. An Ethiopian man carried a Shotel, closely resembling a scimitar. A European woman with that blonde haired, blue-eyed look that they were famous for wielded a great sword. A man who looked French, with the big nose and everything, sported a proper rapier and a beret.
Five men and women of various races, all wearing metal armour—enchanted to resist bullets, or they’d be hopelessly ineffective. And where there were knights, there would be mages—who else could summon the elementals?
“There he is!” the European woman said.
“Doesn’t look so tough,” the African man replied.
“You have one chance to leave here alive,” Jarred said. The knights, with weapons drawn, smirked like Jarred was full of it.
“Okay, let’s put this another way. You guys know what your big mistake is?” Jarred asked.
The lead knight, a man who looked like a bald Denzel Washington, spoke. “What’s that, boy?”
“I have lightning powers… and you’re wearing metal armour.”
Their eyes widened. He charged up his lightning power, his fists crackling with electrical current like a pair of Tesla Coils, complete with accompanying sound effects. His hair stood on end.
The knights meanwhile charged. He would have been willing to spare them… but charging signalled that they lacked common sense.
He unleashed five lightning bolts from his hands. They slammed into chests, heads and limbs and caused violent convulsions to the smell of burning flesh. Finally he stopped the electrocution and they fell to the ground. One slumped against the pillar, then slid down leaving a reddish-black, sooty smear.
Jarred felt hot liquid trickle down his lips from his nose.
“Shit,” he said, before falling to his knees.
Sarah appeared to catch him, ready with a spell to restore his endurance for power-use.
“You overdid it again,” she said, even as she focused on the spell that would quickly replenish his ability to use his power again.
“I know. But it’s not finished. Not yet.”
“How do you know that?”
Jarred stood up.
“Mages, I know you’re invisible!” he shouted. “Come out and face me!” After a slight moment, four overweight figures appeared inside the fenced area of the war memorial, dressed in red trench coats with the hoods pulled up, faces in shadow.
The mages reached into their trench coat inner pockets, where they kept summoning bags. He didn’t let the mages use the bags. Sending a single lightning bolt into the metal fence, he made more electrical arcs surge across the gap from several points all along the barrier, crossing in a spider web of electricity.
It was brutal and horrible; Jarred felt sick doing it, but these summoners were terrorist mages, summoning elementals and making them wreak havoc on people just trying to survive. He made them suffer.
After it was done, Jarred wiped sweat from his forehead, then wiped the blood trickling from his nose as well. This was definitely a bad day. And he’d given himself a blood nose. Twice.
Then he realised something. He’d felt a tingle go through his body, in his blood. It happened just before the attack. Then the mages had shown up. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
He dashed back up to the mages’ bodies, the four of them lying where they fell, some bent over the fence, one having slumped against a stone pillar. It was this one Jarred checked first, before moving on to the rest. It took some searching, to Sarah’s disapproval, but he eventually found what he desperately hoped they didn’t have. His fingers touched plastic. He pulled out the small vial with dark red liquid inside.
The mage had a vial of blood.
With his name on it.