Jarsel sprinted up the hill’s slope, his two knives slapping each thigh with every step. Rocks and dirt spit out from his boots, and weeds parted ahead of him – either from the breeze or from fear. A quick glance behind told Jarsel everything he needed to know about the past ten minutes and maybe even the next ten. And if he would survive.
Thrall congregated at the base of the hill, shrieking, eyeing him with a grotesque, murderous desire that actually frightened Jarsel. What puzzled him was how docile they acted. Normally the first to bombard a Guardian in an attack, the thrall stayed away from him, as if waiting for an Acolyte or Knight to deliver a command. It wasn’t something he was used to seeing. A group of thrall’s initial jump into the fray gave Jarsel the opportunity to sharpen his blades for the rest of the battle. That was something he looked forward to when fighting the Hive. It made him smile, made him enjoy the banishment he bestowed on the Darkness.
But this…this gave him concern. What were they doing?
Jarsel crested the hill and stopped. He stood overlooking more barren wasteland of snow and dry soil. In the distance, the familiar wall structures of the Cosmodrome taunted him with safety. Because when his eyes dropped to the bottom of the hill on this side, Jarsel found more Hive waiting for him to descend. Of course, the decision to do that would be fatal, and even though his trusted Ghost would take care of his death, Jarsel could look forward to a reprimand about why he made what the Ghost often called “bad judgements.”
Then, in some strange, horrific dance, the thrall spread out around the hill and pressed shoulder to shoulder with each other, enclosing the entire hill’s perimeter. They left no space for a dust particle to pass through, it seemed, let alone an increasingly worried Guardian.
What Jarsel needed was help.
But besides the rusted car hulks and the occasional tree – none of which were within accessible range in the visible area – the chance of using his surroundings rapidly dropped to zero percent.
A thunderous rumble boomed underneath Jarsel’s feet. The ground starting roiling, making him waver left and right like a man who’s had too much to drink at Yaturi’s Tavern in the City. Jarsel knelt and placed his hands on the dirt to steady himself, but the ground continued to shift and break apart. Stones and soil tumbled down the hill towards the thrall. Some tiny pieces pelted them, but none of the thrall cared: they continued to swipe their clawed hands at Jarsel. He couldn’t complain they weren’t able to reach him, but whatever was happening under Jarsel was going to break through any second now.
“Ghost, scan the area for…” What could he have his Ghost scan for? His eyes rolled over the area. Nothing obvious popped out at him.
“Yes? What am I scanning for?”
“Anything. Anything at all to get me off this damn hill.”
“I’m sure you are aware, but options are limited. The decision to use this hill as an escape route was–”
“I know, Ghost! ‘My lack of environment processing is limited and often mistake-ridden.'” The ground bucked wildly, and Jarsel used every ounce of leg muscle to keep himself planted. “Isn’t that what you always tell me?”
“That’s exactly what I tell you. Weekly.” Vibrant, blue lines shot from the Ghost and began dancing over the landscape. “I will see what I can do.”
“Make is snappy,” Jarsel blurted.
Jarsel’s request didn’t need to be said, but it made him feel better. Especially since his Ghost tended to complete demands at the very last possible second. And even then, only in dire situations where death was a ninety-nine percent outcome.
The ground started rising, lifting Jarsel confoundedly higher. What kind of hill his this? Another rumble – no that wasn’t an Earth sound. That rumble was more of a howl, a deep moan of pain and annoyance and anger fused into one outburst of emotion. Whatever was underneath him awkwardly swayed left and right, throwing the last of the dirt away. This stirred the thrall into a more intense frenzy.
Jarsel looked down; his feet were no longer on solid ground, but on something spongy and soft. Fleshy. And in that moment Jarsel said a prayer he’d overheard in the City. Not because he believed anything would happen because he said the prayer, but because he didn’t know what else to do. It would be another end for him. It was just a matter of waiting to die, then getting resurrected. Jarsel never looked forward to the initial wake-up, those first few seconds right after awakening when his heart would pound so hard, as if trying to carve its way out; when his stomach churned and swirled, trying so hard to push any contents within up and out. But he supposed enduring seconds of that was preferable to never having the chance to endure it all.
“You may not want to know this,” the Ghost said nervously.
“Give me everything!”
“There’s an ogre beneath you.” The Ghost said it nonchalantly, like someone ordering from one of the City’s restaurants.
“Well, that’s a bigger problem, isn’t it!”
The Ghost pivoted, its glowing eye circling 180 degrees. “I’m scanning movement about 200 meters that way.”
Jarsel followed the direction of the Ghost’s glowing, digital eye. And as always, his Ghost was right.
Approximately 200 meters away, Jarsel saw a woman cinching her robe. What’s a Warlock doing in this area. Two months ago, the City’s factions unanimously agreed to prohibit warlocks from entering this zone due to an incident they referred to as the “Blistered Land Event”. The warlocks were testing some form of newly discovered arcane knowledge. Something Jarsel understood to be thousands of years old. No one really knew how old it was. But what they were doing involved elements of Earth’s internal workings and energy collected from space. Things hadn’t gone as planned. The area affected had been closed off, but the prohibition extended for kilometers around.
The Warlock casually put her boot on the bumper of a rusted vehicle and stared at Jarsel.
“I wonder if she’s going to help us,” the Ghost said.
“Nah. Warlocks only like to watch things die. Especially hunters.”
The ogre stood up completely, and, as if realizing something was on his head, slammed two fists into the ground. Thrall backed up and scattered at the last second, and to Jarsel’s disappointment, none were harmed.
“Ghost, don’t bring me back until this threat has left the area.”
“But it could be a while.”
“As you wish.” The Ghost turned back to Jarsel, who swore he watched sadness creep into the metal housing. “What are you going to do?”
“The only thing: take out as many thrall as I can!”
Jarsel bent at the knees, ready to leap into the fray below. But from the corner of his left eye, he glimpsed flashing light. He turned. A large purple ball of void energy hurtled through the air. The sphere pulsed and vibrated unlike Jarsel had ever seen.
The ball reached its peak then started its descent. Right for the thrall. Before the throng of thrall could disperse, the ball crashed into the group, dissolving them into lavender outlines before they vanished forever.
This bothered the ogre, who tried to reach up with arms as heavy as lightships to dislodge Jarsel from his head.
“Impressive,” the Ghost said.
Jarsel waved, but the Warlock didn’t return the sentiment. Instead, she mimed a downward stabbing motion, a hop, then a horizontal stabbing motion.
“What’s she doing?” Jarsel asked neither his Ghost nor himself. She looked like one of the entertainers he often saw in the City.
The Warlock repeated the motion two more times before Jarsel got the meaning.
“She’s instructing me how to kill this ogre at close range.”
“What? What do you mean?”
Jarsel reached down and snatched the knife from his left leg – he’d need more efficient access from his right leg if he was to pull this off – and slowly stepped to what he figured was the ogre’s forehead. He raised the knife high, blade down, and took a deep breath.
He released this breath as he brought the knife down with extreme force. Jarsel had no idea what it took to penetrate an ogre’s head, but he hoped, as the tip of the blade rushed down, that what he was giving was enough.
It was plenty.
The knife punctured the outer layer with easy and slid through — skin? Bone? Brain? – with ease. Jarsel pushed until the blade disappeared and all he saw was hilt and handle.
As expected, this caused the ogre tremendous pain. He wheeled back, stumbling around as if he had partaken in too much at Yaturi’s Tavern.
Jarsel wasted no time. He bounded from the ogre, and in mid-air, spun his body around so he faced the creature. He dropped quickly as gravity took over, but just as he started the descent, Jarsel bent and grabbed his other knife.
Jarsel sort of felt like he rode an elevator. Weightless, his lungs tingling from the sudden drop. It was almost peaceful. But the roar of the hurt ogre brought his fantasy around to the real world.
When Jarsel was even with the ogre’s exposed heart, he cocked the knife and drove it as hard as he could into the pumping organ. It wasn’t as much force as the other knife, but not much was needed to do the job.
The moment he felt his feet on solid ground – real ground this time – Jarsel rolled out of the way and watched the ogre arch backwards as his life slowly drained away. The ogre fell to the ground with a tremulous racket, and Jarsel was sure anyone in the City probably heard that.
Another void ball erupted into Jarsel’s vision, hitting the rest of the thrall on the other side of the ogre. And within seconds, the air was still and all was silent.
“What a stroke of luck,” the Ghost said, “that you made it out of this situation with barely a scratch.”
“Yeah, luck.” Jarsel brushed himself off and immediately turned in the direction of the Warlock. She wasn’t there. He surveyed the area as best his human eyes could do. Nothing. She was nowhere.
“Do you detect her?” Jarsel asked.
A short pause, then, “There is no one within 10 kilometers of us.”
“There go introductions and an invitation to dinner at Yaturi’s.”
“You want to ask a Warlock to eat a civilized dinner?” the Ghost asked. Jarsel already grasped where this conversation headed.
“Just to thank her.”
“I don’t care what your reason is. It would be –“
“Bad judgement,” Jarsel finished. “Yeah, yeah. I get it.” He started walking to a building that would eventually lead him back into the City. “Let’s go. I still want dinner.”