Cassia’s shoulders slumped slightly, but then she took a breath and straightened herself again, a look of determination taking over her features. “You are right, you have fulfilled your agreement with me, Arch-don. You should escape now. I do not know if I will be able to defeat him.”
I gave Cassia an incredulous look. “Escape? Are you kidding?” I said and chose one of the large white rocks protruding from the walls, climbing on top of it for a better view. “This is going to be a great fight! A church templar against a church templar—I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Darren laughed, hearing my words. “What a fool you have there, Templar Hightower. He wishes to watch you die. And when you are dead, he will be next.”
I could tell he was happy that I wasn’t leaving. Even as a Radiant, it would likely take him some time to kill Cassia. If I had gotten away, I could spread the word about his corruption.
Cassia looked at me for a moment, then got into a fighting stance. “If you will not leave, then I must not lose.”
“That’s the spirit,” I said.
“You have no chance,” Darren said to Cassia. “With your ability, you can only cast low-tier Rules. I bet you haven’t even broken thirty.”
Cassia grimaced. He was right, it appeared. But being able to use Celeru’s Rules up to thirty was already an impressive feat without the third gate open. Rules beyond twenty required significant halos. Technically, it was possible for someone without the Gate of Radiance open to cast a high-level spell, but they’d likely blow out all their halos on just the one. However, the likelihood of such a scenario was low because spells, especially high-level spells, were very difficult to master. And you can’t practice much if you don’t have the halo reserves to draw on.
Another problem was that as the spell difficulty increased, so did the risk to the caster’s body. Celeru’s Seventy-Seven Rules of Ruin turned one’s halos into destructive energy—a dangerous thing to hold within your body before releasing it. Even with the Gate of Radiance open, this posed limits to which spells a caster could use.
If Cassia ever did open the third gate, she would be a seriously powerful fighter, perhaps even surpassing the ability of some of my past disciples.
But right now, the person with the third gate open was her opponent.
“Rule of Ruin, Forty-Five, Desert Doom,” Darren said with a scythe of a smile.
The ground around Cassia morphed into black sand. She jumped half a moment before the spell struck, but the sand rose up from the ground in sharp black pillars, attempting to pierce and swallow her.
“Grace of Seraphel, Red Armor!” Cassia called out just before one of the pillars struck her and knocked her to the ground. The pillar did not impale her, hitting instead the gleaming crimson light that covered her body. But it looked as she had still taken damage from the fall and the blow.
Red Armor was an old fighting incantation created by the Warrior Tribe, the Takklan. I was surprised she knew it. Even I didn’t have that one in my arsenal. Mainly because it wasn’t the type of spell I needed in the past.
Cassia struggled to her knee, wincing at the reddening bruise left on her abdomen that peaked through a cut on the dress.
“You cannot win!” Darren roared as he rushed forward again with his sword. She met him halfway colliding, sending sparks of red and orange as steel clashed against spellblade. The taste of both their halos was intermixed on my tongue, but the flavor of sweet leather was overwhelming.
Cassia was holding him off, but I could already see the difference in ability between them. Darren had barely broken a sweat and his halo reserves were enormous. Meanwhile, Cassia was wasting her precious energies to maintain her summoned sword and armor. If she had come with her own physical weaponry and armor, she would have stood a better chance. Instead, she was wearing Elsa’s thin-laced white dress that was slowly coming apart at the seams. Probably the opposite of what you’d call ideal protective garments, but gods, was she stunning to watch fight.
As they clashed and drew apart again, Darren raised his hand for a summoning. “Rule of Ruin, Forty-Six, Bane’s Blade.”
A black sword appeared in his open hand that ran taller and thicker than the steel sword in the other. It was another high-level Rule of Ruin. This was starting to become dangerous for Cassia. Darren held two swords now, but the conjured one made of aura was far more dangerous. It could cut through both Cassia’s Spectral Sword and the Red Armor.
“You really shouldn’t be giving him time to cast spells,” I said to Cassia from my sitting position. “Each time he does that, your chances of winning go down. You’ll need to avoid that sword at any cost now. I bet he can make three swings with it before he loses it and has to summon another.”
Even with his Gate of Radiance open, Bane’s Blade took incredible power to hold onto. But because it could cut through just about anything, you didn’t usually need to keep it around after one slice.
“Understood,” she said, then she rushed forward.
The first swing came, and she ducked just in time. Despite missing, the sword singed the ends of her hair as it passed above her—the strands unable to keep up with her speed.
The next swing came from the top. She stepped aside in the nick of time, but the black sword caught her Red Armor at the edge of her shoulder, shattering it and tearing the shoulder’s dress strap, leaving a thin thread that by some divine miracle held together.
I was suddenly on the edge of my seat, my attention on the fight increased. It’s because I was worried about Cassia’s well-being, I tell you. That’s the reason. Nothing to do with the diminishing dress.
The third swing, she could not dodge fully. She swung her Spectral Sword to block. It didn’t block. The Bane’s Blade cut right through it. However, her Spectral Sword was enough to slow down the swing, giving Cassia the time to step out of the way.
Three swings. The blade dissipated. She had survived.
“Amazing,” Darren said. “I’m impressed that you’ve survived this long. But your time is running short. You can’t have more than a third of your halos remaining.”
He still looked immaculate in his shining plate armor, while Cassia, in contrast, was bruised and panting, wearing a dress that was falling apart.
She was winded, but with the Gate of Breath open, she would not tire just yet. However, Darren was right about her halos. They were deteriorating rapidly. She would have to make the next two spells count if she was going to have a chance of winning.
“Think about what advantage you have now,” I said. “Whatever it is, you will need to maximize it at the right time.”
I didn’t tell her outright, partly because Darren would hear and partly because she should figure it out herself. After all, it was pretty obvious that Darren was underestimating her. I bet she had something up her sleeve that he would not expect from her. A person with her abilities always did, a special trick, or a well-honed technique, and I was telling her that she needed to save it for the right moment. It was her last chance.
Cassia paused, then nodded once without turning to me.
“Rule of Ruin, Forty-Si-” Darren didn’t finish because Cassia reached him in an instant sending her fist at his face. He dodged, but she succeeded in preventing him from finishing the spell.
She swung again. He brought his steel sword down. She stepped out of the way and tried to close the distance again.
“Rule of Run, Fort-” Again, Darren was cut off as Cassia reached him in time. She was learning. Their physical abilities were nearly equal as they both had opened the Gate of Breath. As long as she could prevent him from casting, she could match him.
“Damn you!” Darren swung at her again with his steel sword. He went into a full melee now, forgetting his spells. She could not keep up without a weapon of her own.
They broke apart. Both began casting at the same time.
“Rule of Ruin!” they bellowed in unison.
“Twenty-eight, Ferocious Fist!” Cassia called out as she charged forward, one fist balled and turning red with aura.
“Forty-Six, Bane’s Blade!” Darren finished, and the black sword reappeared in his open hand. But he did not have enough time to attack with it. He would have to swing with his steel sword first. And so he did. But it was a weak swing. His footing wasn’t right, he’d put too much attention on the spell and not enough on his positioning. And this time, instead of dodging his attack, Cassia caught the steel sword in her right hand.
“Impossible!” Darren exclaimed.
This was her hidden move. She could catch a freaking sword with her bare hand. It stopped in the crevice between her thumb and her index finger.
Darren tried to bring around the Bane’s Blade in his other hand, but he was too late. Cassia shot her crimson fist forward, pushing all her strength and power into that single swing. Darren couldn’t dodge it in time. She aimed at his face, but he jumped upward at the last moment. The fist landed right in his armor’s solar plexus.
The armor shattered. Cassia’s fist broke through, launching him backward. He flew thirty feet, crashing thunderously into the wall of the atrium. Right beside Drimdelon.
Cassia panted heavily, looking at the hole she made in the wall with Darren’s body. She dropped to one knee, shaking with fatigue. That was the rest of her energy. She had put everything into that punch, and it’d been a good one too.
“I nearly thought I was done for…,” Cassia began shivering. Then she smiled weakly at me and the tension her shoulders released.
“You pulled through. You did good,” I said with a smile of my own.
Her eyes became alert again, and she said, “We must find where they took those orphans, Arch-don.”
“Yes, yes,” I said, standing from my seat on the rock. “Let’s see if we can wake up Drimdelon and get some answers.”
But then came the sound of a wall cracking. We both looked up and saw that it was coming from the hole. A hand reached out from the darkness and caught the edge of the wall.
Darren Tamblion stepped out.
He was bare-chested now, his armor completely destroyed. His body looked like it was chiseled out of stone. It was made of hard, lean muscle and not a measure of fat. A dark circle was forming around his chest, but he was standing.
And he was laughing uncontrollably.
“Impressive! Very impressive! Had that not been armor blessed by the Archbishop herself, you would have defeated me. I am humbled, Cassia Hightower! I have misjudged you, and I apologize for that. But now, you will die.”