Cassia let out a sharp breath as she pushed herself back to her feet. She wavered, taking a step forward, then backward, barely able to keep her balance. Her eyes closed and her breathing slowed, and I realized that she was trying to call up the last reserves of her strength.
Even in this situation, when she had thought she’d won and found herself mistaken, she did not spend an extra moment on despair. Already, she was preparing to counter.
Though I respected her courage, I knew that she stood no chance now… that is to say, no chance unless she was to open her third gate.
It was in these moments of intense pressure that a gate was most likely to be opened. The Gate of Breath is commonly opened during moments of hard training, but more often than not, gates are opened when one is near death.
My gates had been opened in this very way. I had faced down my own destruction, and instead of letting my mind be lost to fear, I turned that heightened awareness and focus towards awakening.
Now that my gates were closed, I wondered if I could do it all over again and regain the power I once had. I doubted it. It wasn’t only courage that one needed to open a gate. It was will—the strength to accomplish something beyond simple need and hope. If I were to open my gates again, it certainly wasn’t going to be anytime soon.
However, if Cassia could awaken the Gate of Radiance, she’d have a chance against Darren. Yes, only a chance. Even if she did open the third gate, she still would not possess his level of spell-knowledge, and she was still more injured than he was. But perhaps a chance was all she needed.
Just as power increased severalfold with each additional gate, so did the difficulty of awakening. Out of all the awakened that managed to open the Gate of Breath, only half manage to open the Gate of Spirit in their lifetimes. Of the Spirited, less than one in ten will ever open the Gate of Radiance.
But for some reason, in the past few days, I had come to believe that it was just a matter of time for Cassia.
And perhaps, the time had come.
I cast the Spell of Seeing and let my halos fill my eyes as I set my gaze upon her. It only took a moment, then I saw it. Beyond her two opened gates, there was a third. I cannot accurately describe its appearance beyond saying that an image formed in my mind that looked like a door slightly cracked, bright light leaking from the edge of its frame. However, the door remained closed.
But as Cassia stood there, breathing, concentrating, I saw that the light from the crack along the gate’s edges grew brighter. She, too, had realized that for her to survive this fight, she must evolve and become stronger than she was now.
She was awakening her third gate.
Cassia breathed. Her face was calm and focused. Her eyes still closed. And slowly, bit by bit, the crack in the door widened, light flooding through…
Then it suddenly snapped shut.
I blinked, my halos leaving my eyes, and I saw that in a flash of speed, Darren had appeared before her and buried a fist into her belly.
Cassia spat blood as Darren finished out his punch, sending her bouncing across the stone floor until she rolled to a stop several paces away.
“Can’t have you doing that,” Darren said with a cocksure grin. “You’ve already been more than enough trouble.”
Cassia trembled as she clutched her stomach and tried to push herself upright. But her arm gave out and her cheek slapped hard against the ground, her head facing me. Her features were filled with pain and fatigue as she looked out towards me.
“Arch-don…” Cassia croaked from the floor, her body unmoving. “R-run.”
Darren stepped before her and opened his hand. “Rule of Ruin, Forty-Six, Bane’s Blade.”
Well, somebody has a favorite spell, don’t they? My guess it was his top spell, perhaps the only one in the forties along with Desert Doom. But damn, he could call Bane’s Blade three times in such a short period? Even with the Gate of Radiance open, that was an impressive feat. I certainly didn’t have such ability during the short time I was at the same gate back in my youth.
The dark aura extended from his hand and condensed into the shape of a long blade made of oscillating black energy.
Darren glared down at Cassia with a manic grin as he raised the black sword over his head for the final blow.
Darren’s body stiffened. Then he looked around, as if confused by the chiding voice. He saw me wagging my finger from the top of the rock. His brows furrowed, and he looked almost in disbelief at the interruption.
“That’s far enough,” I said.
The confusion on Darren’s face held for a second longer before he broke into a mocking smile as if interested in seeing how this would play out.
“Excuse me?” he said, almost polite.
I hopped off the rock. “That was a great fight,” I said as I strolled towards him and Cassia. “I enjoyed it thoroughly. Both of you did a good job. Darren, your casting abilities and halos are something to be marveled at.” I returned to Cassia as I came to a stop before them. “Cassia, you nearly managed to beat him with one gate less. That’s incredible. But your problem was that you let him drag out the fight. The longer a fight goes on between opponents of different strengths, the greater chance for the weaker person to lose. What you should have done is ran a distraction, then hit him with everything you had in one go at the very beginning. But don’t feel too bad, your mistake was a classic one.”
Darren narrowed his eyes at me. Perhaps it the tone of my voice or my comment about the mistake that put him off. He let go of his spell, the dark sword evaporating in his hand, and turned his body to me as if I was a threat.
“I think it’s time you told me who you are,” he said, his voice dangerous.
“Ah,” I said. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to save the day or heroically rescue the injured young lady here. I’m just a tavern keeper, a businessman in other words, and I’d like to make a deal.”
“A… tavern keeper?” Darren said like he didn’t believe it.
“That’s right. I’m the proud owner of the Tipsy Pelican in Kerrytown. Perhaps you’ve heard of us. We won second place in last year’s Summerfest Brewmaster’s Ale Comp-“
“Is this some kind of joke?”
“No joke. That young lady there,” I said, pointing at Cassia. “Is one of my barmaids, whom I’ll be needing back, by the way. She’s on her way to becoming a favorite among my patrons. If you kill her, it’ll affect my business, and that’s the last thing I want.”
“You really are a fool, aren’t you?” The smile turned to his face, his shoulders relaxing again. “I’m going to kill the both of you.”
“Ah, but that’s the last thing you want,” I said.
“Oh? And how do you figure that?” His expression was made of pure arrogance.
“The Archbishop sent Templar Hightower to Meritas. It’d be mighty strange if she suddenly disappeared right after openly inquiring about orphans in your church, wouldn’t it? Don’t you think the Archbishop would start a big investigation to find out what happened to her favorite templar?”
Darren frowned at that.
I smiled. “If you thought Cassia was a hindrance, you just wait til’ you have an official inquiry from the Chamberlain crawling up your ass. Bet they find some issues with your church right fast. But I think we can come to a satisfactory agreement. You let her leave with me, and I’ll make her promise that she’ll never bother you or your father again.”
“Arch-don…” Cassia said.
Darren laughed. “I don’t think you know this one well enough,” he said. “She’ll never give up the search for those orphans. Not unless she’s dead.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” I said. “I can be very persuasive. You see, Cassia here needs a favor from me. A very big favor that she won’t get if she doesn’t obey my orders.”
“Archibold…” Cassia said in absolute shock, immediately realizing I was referring to her original assignment to get me to save the kingdom of Lareinti by defeating an eldar dragon. “You can’t make me choose-“
“Oh, but I can!” I snapped. “This is the way of the world, Cassia. This is what happens when you are weak. You make hard choices or you die, and this is the one you have to make now. You either forget about those orphans, or you can say goodbye to my help in the future and die right here and now. Which will it be?”
“I-I-” Cassia looked at me with wide eyes. I was asking her to choose between the lives of a few orphans and the lives of hundreds of thousands in Lareinti. I could see her mind fighting against itself. Trying to understand, trying to come up with a solution, trying to find the right path.
“But…” Cassia began with a pleading voice. “But it’s wrong… No life is more important than another’s.”
“Don’t be naive!” I said, pointing at her accusingly. “This is the real world. These are the choices that the weak must make every single day. There are no happy endings!”
Darren was watching our exchange with a widening vicious smile, like our argument was becoming an enjoyable show to him.
“Look at him!” I said, turning my finger to Darren.
Cassia turned her eyes to him, misery across her features.
“These are the kinds of people that fill this world,” I continued. “If you don’t overcome your naivety, you will never be able to defeat people like him!”
Tears of frustration spilled from Cassia’s eyes, an impossible choice in her mind. “I can’t-“
I was still pointing at Darren. His smug grin revealing all his perfect teeth, a look of pure pleasure as he peered down at Cassia.
“Rule of Ruin,” I began.
His grin dropped as he heard my words, and his eyes turned to the finger pointed at him. A look of recognition flashed across his face. “Impos-“
“Sixty-One. Pointed Pillar.”
Blue light exploded from my index finger in a single concentrated beam of power. It punctured through Darren’s chest like a spear through rice paper and continued on, cutting through the wall behind him.
The light faded instantly, leaving him staring at me like a man who’d just had a hole blown through his body, which was exactly what happened.
“-sible…” he finished. Blood poured from his chest, and he fell backward to the ground.
I turned to Cassia, who was wearing an open expression that nearly matched Darren’s. She turned her bewildered eyes to me.
I gave her a wink. “Aaaaaaand that is how you run a distraction.”