Playing With Fire (Power of Four Book 2) (7 page)

“What’s with the nature walk?” he asked. “I thought the portal would take us straight to the Blade.”

“You thought wrong,” Neriah replied.

“Like always.” Skyler’s quiet comment came from behind. Aaron turned to glare at him.

They walked for another few minutes in silence.

“Why didn’t you set up a portal closer to the Blade?” Aaron asked.

“Portals leave behind trails,” Neriah said. “And trails can be followed.”

Aaron considered this. “Who would want the Blades of Aric?” he asked. “They’re useless to anyone other than legacy holders.”

“Our enemies may not be able to use the swords,” Neriah said, “but if they found the Blades, they could stop
us
from using them.”

Aaron felt like an idiot, so he kept quiet and continued walking. It was another half an hour before they came to a clearing. The group paused, bringing out bottles of water to replenish that which the sun had forced out of them. Aaron didn’t have any water; he hadn’t packed essentials like that. All he had in his bag were his jeans and tops, and an extra pair of shoes – all useless for quenching his raging thirst.

As if to mock him, Neriah held out his empty bottle for Aaron to take. Aaron grabbed it, with every intention of hurling it into the air. Before he could though, Neriah held his fingers against the bottle and water began filling it.

No matter what Aaron had seen these past few months, water magically pooling out of thin air stole his breath. He brought the full bottle to his mouth, letting the cold, cool water rush down his dry throat. He drank almost the whole thing before remembering his dad was there too, and in his haste to follow Aaron, probably hadn’t packed a bottle of water either. Aaron turned around to find his dad next to Ella, taking the bottle she was offering. He brought it to his lips and, like Aaron, he almost emptied the entire thing.

Aaron turned and gave the bottle back to Neriah. “Thanks.”

Neriah didn’t say anything. They continued walking. Aaron kept up with him, walking in step with the leader.

“How can you do that?” he said. “The water? How can you make it from nothing?”

Neriah smiled. “I’m not making it,” he said. “Water is my element. It comes to me when I ask.”

“How?” At Neriah’s look Aaron quickly added, “I’m sorry, it’s just…I don’t quite understand how we can do...what we do.”

Neriah’s eyes had that same glint Aaron had seen the day before when they were talking about legacies – a strange mix of anger and annoyance…and maybe a little pity.

“Mages have what we call
cores
inside us,” he started, slowing his pace to allow Aaron to keep up. “Our core is what defines us, what decides which element we will have an affinity with. In a sense, our core is the root. It’s what makes us a mage.” He looked at Aaron and waited for his nod of comprehension, before continuing. “Our core pulls energy from the elements. The stronger the core, the more energy it pulls, making the mage that much more powerful. You don’t know your core is doing it, but it’s working all the time.”

Aaron looked around him, at the trees surrounding him, the soft ground under his feet. “You mean, I’m drawing the power of Earth right now?”

Neriah smiled. “Just as I am drawing water from the moisture in the air, the clouds overhead, and the lake that’s six miles west from here.” He chuckled at Aaron’s gob-smacked expression. “It’s an involuntary action, like breathing. You don’t think about it, you just do it. We do it from the moment we’re born. We practise while our cores are asleep. When they awake, they already have a store of energy.”

Aaron tripped on the overgrown root at his feet, such was his concentration on Neriah.

Neriah steadied him with one hand and continued. “Our core utilises this energy, giving us the ability to manipulate the elements. When I fill a bottle with water, I’m not making it out of thin air. I’m merely directing it from one source to another.” He gave a pointed look to the sky, where white fluffy clouds hung overhead.

Aaron grinned. “That’s awesome.”

“Glad you approve.” Neriah smiled.

“So when I want to make the ground split open?” Aaron asked.

“You’re not redirecting anything then,” Neriah explained. “You’re bending the element, making it bow to your will. It’s different.”

“Not to mention difficult,” Aaron muttered.

“It’s only difficult because you haven’t had much practise,” Neriah said. “You are a legacy holder. You are capable of much more than you think.”

Aaron fell quiet. After a moment he looked around at him. “Does holding the legacy make your core stronger?” he asked.

“It’s the other way around. Legacies choose those with a strong core,” Neriah replied. “But having a legacy connected to the core does give the holder an ability to manipulate their element with more ease.”

Aaron shifted his bag uncomfortably between his hands. He certainly didn’t find using his Elemental power easy, but then again, he hadn’t started training until he was fourteen. Most mages started at ten, three years before their cores awoke.

“Yesterday you said something about legacy holders giving power to the mages who share an affinity for their element,” Aaron reminded him. “I don’t understand that.”

“Each legacy keeps the power of their element alive,” Neriah said. “Your legacy is for the element Earth, so every mage that uses the power of Earth can do so because of your legacy. The legacies are what connects the mages. You are the legacy holder for Earth, so you share a connection with all those who use Earth as their element. I am the legacy holder for Water, so my legacy calls to all those who use my element.” He looked at Aaron. “But you and I also have a connection, through those mages that use both Water and Earth.”

Aaron glanced behind him, to his dad, to see him looking rather annoyed that Aaron was talking to Neriah. Aaron turned back. “This connection is even more powerful when we’re related, right?”

Neriah took a moment to answer. “Nothing is more powerful than blood,” he said quietly. “Our very cores connect to one another in the same bloodline. They act like links in a chain. When one core is lost, the chain breaks. The rest will stay connected but the link that’s missing will always leave a gap, one that can never be bridged.”

Neriah’s voice held such pain, such heartbreak, that Aaron couldn’t look at him. He lowered his head, studying the ground as he walked. They headed deeper into the forest. Tall trees with thick branches were blocking out most of the sun, draping everything in shadow. Aaron followed close behind Neriah, but his thoughts went to his dad, thinking about him and about the brother he lost, the four-year-old son he felt die. They were two ‘links’ that had been severed from his bloodline chain. The only two Aaron knew about. He realised there must be more – many more. His grandparents, for example. Aunts, uncles, cousins, anyone in his dad’s family that died left a break in the Adams family chain.

A pressure closed down on Aaron’s heart, making him breathless. His dad had been through so much. It was no wonder he was fighting so fiercely to protect him. The feeling of guilt was fast becoming unbearable. Aaron turned to look at his dad again.

Something crossed Aaron’s mind.

“Neriah?” he called, looking around at the Elemental by his side.

“Yes.”

Aaron faltered, before pushing on. “Do you have family?”

Neriah almost stopped in his tracks. Then he pushed onwards but didn’t answer for several long minutes. “Only Ella,” he finally replied.

Aaron had guessed as much. He remembered talking with Ella, the day he had found out that the demon Hadrian had actually been a mage once. He recalled Ella telling him the story of The Mage Who Fell – how Hadrian had given up his purity to become a hybrid, a vamage. It was when she spoke about Neriah that Aaron had asked if he was her father.

Uncle...Maternal. The only family I have left.

If Neriah had a wife and kids, Ella would have mentioned them.

“You said you’re the legacy holder for Water,” Aaron started. “But if you don’t have any kids, who will your legacy go to? What if the legacy doesn’t choose Ella?”

Neriah turned to look at Aaron and even in the limited light, Aaron could see the glint of amusement in Neriah’s eyes. “No one’s had the nerve to question me about my legacy,” he said.

“Sorry,” Aaron said quickly.

Neriah’s deep chuckle echoed in the woods. They continued walking in silence for long minutes before Neriah spoke.

“I’d thought about it, once,” he confided. “I had the usual plans – marry the girl I love, have kids, set up a home.” He fell quiet, the very air around them spoke of Neriah’s remorse. “Some things are not meant to be.”

Aaron didn’t know how to respond.

“Our powers are our own,” Neriah said, and his voice was back to its usual strength. “No one can force us to give our powers, our legacies, away. Only through free will can our powers be given to another.” He turned his head to look at Aaron. “When the time comes, I will choose to give Ella my legacy.”

Aaron frowned. “I thought you said the legacy chooses who to go–”

Neriah held out a hand, halting Aaron. He had come to an abrupt stop. Aaron stood still as a chill washed over him. Behind him, he heard footsteps stop as well. Neriah’s face was in shadow, his body perfectly still. Then he cursed.

Before Aaron knew what was happening, a hand grabbed his arm and hauled him back. He stumbled in the darkness and looked up to see his dad’s tensed and worried form next to him. Chris’s hand was curled around his arm, tight enough to make Aaron’s hand tingle in protest.

“Dad?”

“Shhh!” Chris urged.

Aaron could hear Skyler and Ella getting their weapons ready. No one moved. They barely breathed. But Aaron still couldn’t pick up on what had caused the reaction.

He stared at his surroundings until he noticed something moving, straight in front of him. Before his eyes, several big shadows stepped past the cluster of trees. Stray rays of sunshine made their way through the leafy canopy so Aaron couldn’t mistake what he was seeing.

Lycans.

A whole pack of them, growling low in their throats with fangs bared, blocking their way.

 

 

6

When Dogs Come Out To Play

 

It happened in the blink of an eye. One moment Aaron was standing, staring wide-eyed at the pack of beasts before him; the next a full-on battle had broken out. Neriah, Ella and Skyler unleashed a fury of attack, while Chris pulled Aaron behind him.

The Lycans howled as they were thrown back by the bullets. It took Neriah and Ella mere seconds to encase several Lycans in ice, holding them immobile, before moving in to shoot them in the back of their heads. Skyler sent whirlwinds of pure power at the Lycans, throwing them to the ground. But the Lycans weren’t staying down for long. They leapt back up, standing on two legs, not four, with their fangs and claws bared. The fur on their back bristled as they tensed before darting forward to attack. Some Lycans managed to break out of their iced prisons before they could be shot. More and more Lycans darted out of the darkness of the woods. They all slashed and tore their way closer to the Elementals, trying to get near enough to taste blood.

Neriah pulled back his hand and struck out. Spears of ice flew outwards and impaled two Lycans, pinning them to the trees. Ella sent a flurry of snow at the approaching five Lycans, blinding them long enough for Skyler to blast them back and against the trees, knocking them unconscious. But more Lycans kept coming at them, dodging the bullets and jolts of power.

When two Lycans came at Chris, Aaron’s training kicked in. Almost on instinct, Aaron pulled his hands together, ready to send out a ripple and throw the beasts back.

He never got the chance.

The ground trembled under him before Chris threw out his arms. The trees on either side of him uprooted, tearing out of the ground with a monstrous
crack
. Trees as tall as houses flew towards the Lycans, slamming into them. Chris moved forward, swinging his arms like he was throwing punches, sending tree after tree at the approaching Lycans. The beasts darted back, leaping aside to avoid being crushed.

Aaron stared at his dad in a mix of awe and fear. He had never seen anyone attack like that before. He realised belatedly the reason – his dad was the only Earth Elemental other than himself. Even Neriah, Skyler and Ella paused in their attacks for a heartbeat, to watch Chris unleash his power.

The ground shook under Chris’s feet, trees swayed and bent into arcs before springing back to hit the Lycans, throwing them across the forest with enough force to break bones.

The Lycans hunched down onto all fours. Their eyes were on Chris, a low growl in their throats. Chris held out both hands and the ground around the Lycans began to sink. The Lycans scrambled to get out but the ground gave way before many could manage. They fell into the fast-forming pit, their howls ringing in the air. But not a moment later, more Lycans thundered out of the shadows, coming at the Elementals from all corners. Aaron turned to see two darting towards him. He held up his hands and sent two perfect ripples through the ground, knocking the Lycans into the nearest tree. Two more took their place. No matter how many they took down, more Lycans kept coming at them, fangs and claws bared.

“Chris!”

Aaron turned at Neriah’s shout to see him throwing Chris one of his pistols. Chris caught it and ran towards a fast approaching Lycan. All of a sudden, the Lycan came to an abrupt halt. It jerked, trying to move forward but thick roots had grown from the forest ground and held onto his feet. Chris reached the trapped Lycan but went behind him, before shooting a bullet into the back of the Lycan’s head. The Lycan fell to its knees before toppling over, its feet finally released from the ground. It lay unmoving, clearly dead.

“Adams!”

Aaron turned at the sound of Skyler’s shout. He saw Ella holding two Lycans immobile, wrapping and rewrapping their bodies in ice as they struggled to break out of their prison.

Skyler met Aaron’s gaze before raising his guns and aiming at the back of the Lycans’ heads. He fired both at the same time. The bullets penetrated the ice to hit the Lycans. Ella let go and the ice disappeared, leaving the dead Lycans to fall to the ground. Skyler turned his head to hold Aaron’s gaze, before throwing him one of his pistols, mirroring what Neriah did with Chris.

“One bullet,” Skyler instructed. “Straight in the occiput.” He tapped the back of his own head, at the small space between his head and neck.

Aaron nodded and turned, but it was impossible to aim so precisely at the back of the Lycans’ heads – at their occiput – when they were moving at such an unnatural speed. Now Aaron understood why Scott always set up Q-Zones to trap and kill Lycans. Collapsing the prison with the Lycans inside was easier than trying to shoot them in such a difficult spot.

Something changed in the air. The Lycans came to a stop and fell back, howling unearthly cries. Aaron didn’t know what was happening, and then he saw it – the huge demonic beast that made its way through the pack of Lycans. The other Lycans were tall when they stood up on two legs, with greyish black fur sitting like a coat on their backs. This one easily dwarfed the others. The fur on its back was a deep blood red. Its eyes were a cold cobalt blue, and they were fixed on Aaron’s dad.

The ground shook so violently, Aaron was sure an earthquake had hit them. He had to hold on to the nearest tree to remain standing. He turned to see his dad’s entire being tense, his face distorted with rage, pure and unadulterated. His eyes were on the red-furred Lycan, who was growling back in response. It let out several loud barks before falling to all fours, and racing towards him.

Before Aaron could do more than steady himself on the shaking ground, his dad took off, running directly at the Lycan.

“Dad!”

“CHRIS, NO!”

Aaron’s shout was drowned out by Neriah’s furious cry. As his voice bellowed out, so did a cascade of water, sweeping through the forest. It pushed back the Lycans but before it could reach Chris and the red Lycan, the two had met. Aaron had to remember to breathe when he saw his dad take on the massive beast with nothing more than his fists. Then both fell back, the gush of water knocking them off their feet, but it didn’t take long for them to get back up. The Lycan howled, its crimson fur drenched, blue eyes slitted. Chris swung a fist and nearby trees uprooted to pound the Lycan. But this one took the hits, knocking them back with just as much force.

The rest of the Lycans were still fighting with Neriah, Skyler and Ella but Aaron couldn’t look away from his dad. He had to hold on to the nearest tree for support as he watched his dad pull back to strike the massive Lycan again. The ferocious beast lunged forward, twisting out of the way of Chris’s attack, swiping its clawed hand at him. Chris’s eyes widened, his mouth open in a silent scream as he arched back – as a long red line stretched across his torso.

Aaron’s world tilted when his dad hit the ground. The cut on his chest begun seeping blood, staining his front. Then his body started to writhe, convulsing in agony.

Aaron’s ears were ringing; a pressure built in his chest, making it hard to breathe. A strange sound had filled the air. It took Aaron a moment to realise it was a scream – and it was coming from him.

It was his cry that was echoing in the forest, his fury that was pounding at his insides, his fear that was twisting at his heart. He also realised his grip had fallen from the tree and he was now racing towards his dad.

Aaron didn’t stop to think what he was doing. All he could focus on was his dad, and getting to his side. He saw the red-furred Lycan come to stand over his dad’s fallen body and Aaron’s whole being pulsed with panic. His fingers felt like they were on fire. With another cry, Aaron threw out his hands and the ground shifted under his command. The whole forest shuddered. With a monstrous roar, the ground split on the far side of them, the chasm spreading to take down whatever was in its way – trees and Lycans alike.

The red-furred Lycan had to scamper back, the crack forcing him away from Chris. Aaron came to fall next to his dad, but his eyes were still on the Lycan, his hand outstretched towards him – ready to attack, to defend. The Lycan dropped to all fours and licked its jowls. It snarled at Aaron before taking a few steps back, crouching low. It was going to try and jump over the gap.

Before it could take off, though, something hit it with enough force to send it toppling to one side. It recovered and turned with a growl. Skyler waited a moment before curling his fist again and sending a jolt as powerful as a tornado. The beast darted out of the way, narrowly avoiding the power that tore across the forest, demolishing everything in its path. Skyler wasn’t done. He sent another jolt, then another and another. The look on his face told Aaron the attack wasn’t anything but personal. Skyler’s usually cold blue eyes were now burning, his jaw clenched, teeth bared as he hit out repeatedly. His tornado finally caught the red-furred Lycan, blasting him out of sight.

The other Lycans retreated, scampering back to the darkness they had come from. Aaron’s attention quickly snapped to his dad, who had fallen still, his eyes closed.

“Dad!” Aaron held on to him. The horrendous cut across his torso had stained the whole of his front with blood, but the rise and fall of his chest told Aaron he was still breathing. He was unconscious but alive.

Skyler manipulated the air to help Neriah and Ella jump across the wide crack in the ground before following after them. They gathered around Aaron and Chris, kneeling next to them. Neriah’s hand hovered over Chris’s torso and Aaron wasn’t sure if he was imagining it or not, but the bleeding seemed to slow down.

Ella was already holding on to her pendant, talking quickly to the only one connected to it – the Controller, Scott.

“We need it now,” Aaron heard her say. “He’s been infected.” She nodded at the response, her brow glistening with sweat. “Okay. I will.” She turned to her uncle. “Scott’s opened a portal, about a mile west.”

“What?” Aaron choked. “A mile? Tell him to open one here!”

Ella’s fierce gaze locked on him. “He would if he could.”

“Skyler,” Neriah commanded, his hand still aimed at Chris’s torso. “As gently as you can.”

Skyler didn’t say anything but stood up and held out both hands. Chris was pulled off the ground, his prone form floating mid-air, lifted up by Skyler’s power. Aaron wanted to protest but his voice failed him. His chest felt as if it was in a vice-like grip; just breathing was proving to be a feat in itself. He scrambled to his feet as Neriah rose too, his hand still hovering over Chris’s levitated body. Hoping that Skyler wouldn’t act on his intense hatred of Chris in front of their leader, Aaron held his tongue but stayed next to his dad’s side, in case Skyler decided to drop him.

With Skyler, Neriah and Aaron’s attention on Chris, Ella was the only one left to guard the group. Clutching her weapons, she guided them quickly through the forest.

The portal was waiting for them, the same glowing mark of Aric, a beacon of hope in the dark forest. Hurrying through the portal, Aaron arrived at a familiar Gateway – a long road with acres of flat land stretching out on either side of it. Rocky mountains in the distance. The sky tinted a warm orange and red from the setting sun.

It wasn’t Salvador or Marwa, but it did seem familiar, though right now Aaron didn’t have the clarity of mind to figure out why. All he could focus on was his dad. Neriah had managed to stem the bleeding, but Chris was still unconscious, his lips tinged a faint blue, his face far too pale to be healthy. Skyler kept him levitated, but his pace had quickened. They were practically running down the pathway.

When they arrived at the Gate, they stood before the brilliant white door towering over them. Ella strode forward and placed her palm on the door.

“Ella Afton.”

The symbols on the door brightened before fading to leave Aric’s mark. The Gate slid open and they hurried into the city. A group of mages were standing ready. They ran towards them, their hands raised, sending a stream of power to gently take Chris’s weight from Skyler. Ella and Skyler stepped back but Neriah and Aaron stayed with Chris.

They set off down the street, no doubt heading to the Empaths’ hut so the blind healers could save Chris before the Lycan venom killed him. Aaron hurried along with them until he was stopped by a middle-aged woman.

“Stay here,” she instructed as the group moved ahead with Chris.

“What?” Aaron asked. He pushed past her. “I’m going with him.”

“You won’t be allowed in with the Empaths,” the woman argued, holding him back.

“I’m his son,” Aaron snapped, pulling his arm out of her grip. He made to move forward but was blocked by her again. Aaron’s hands curled tight. He was close to shoving her aside. “Move!” he spat.

“Aaron,” Neriah called, turning to look at him, even as he kept up with the moving crowd, his hands still hovering over Chris. “Stay.”

Aaron wasn’t going to do anything of the sort. He pushed past the woman and raced down the street. He followed after them and turned the corner to see them approach a square building – nothing more than a wooden hut with a slated roof. There were other identical huts lining along the street. Aaron figured they must all be the Empath huts.

Neriah was left outside, as was most of the group. Only four entered the hut with Chris, disappearing behind the curtained door. Aaron ran to follow them inside.

“Whoa! Whoa!” A girl grabbed him by the arm, halting him. “Where’d you think you’re going?”

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