Chapter 18 Preparing for Battle
Seeing the Academy mages, Arran froze in fear. He had dreaded this moment for months, and now, just when he thought he was finally safe, it had arrived.
"We need to warn Grandmaster Windsong!" Jiang Fei said, her voice hushed but filled with urgency.
"Follow me," Amar said. "I know a faster way to the monastery."
Without waiting for an answer, he started walking toward one of the side streets, with the other two following closely behind him. Arran desperately wanted to run, but he knew that doing so in sight of the Academy mages would draw their attention. And that, he knew, would bring disaster.
They turned a corner and, as if by unspoken agreement, all three of them immediately set off at a run. Amar was true to his word, and they reached the gates of the monastery in less than a third of the time it would have taken otherwise.
When they arrived, covered in sweat and panting from the exertion, the gate at the guard looked at them suspiciously. "Initiates? What are you—"
"No time," Amar interrupted him. "We need to find Grandmaster Windsong. Now."
"Grandmaster Windsong?" The guard shook his head. "I don't know where he is. You'd need to check with—"
"The training hall!" Jiang Fei said. "Adept Kadir will know!"
They started running again, ignoring the guard's protests.
When they arrived at the training hall some moments later, they took only a moment to spot Adept Kadir, who was instructing a group of initiates. As they approached him he noticed them, and immediately, his face turned sour.
"What's the meaning of this? The three of you are supposed to—"
"The Academy is here!" Arran blurted out.
Immediately, Adept Kadir's expression changed. "Follow me!" he said. "We need to inform Grandmaster Windsong!"
Before he finished the sentence he had already started to run, and the three initiates hurried behind him, followed by the shocked gazes of the other initiates in the training hall.
Just moments later, they reached the monastery's main building.
With a wave of Adept Kadir's hand, the door of the main building exploded in front of him, and without stopping he ran straight into the hall. At any other time such a display of power would have impressed Arran, but now, all he could feel was panic.
The door of Windsong's chamber exploded, and Adept Kadir stormed inside, Arran and the other two initiates only seconds behind him.
"What—" Windsong began to speak.
"Academy mages are coming!" Adept Kadir called out.
Instantly, Master Zhao rose. "We need to prepare for battle!"
Arran's mouth nearly fell open in surprise. Battle? They wouldn't flee?
"Windsong," Master Zhao continued. "You and I head to the gate right now. With some luck, we'll be in time to stop them. Adept Kadir can get the initiates to safety."
Windsong silently rose, a complicated expression on his face. Then, his body tensed as if he was straining in effort, and he waved his hand.
Suddenly, Arran felt as if chains of air wrapped around him, and he found he could no longer move. He looked at the others and discovered that they too seemed to be frozen in place.
"Grandmaster Windsong," Adept Kadir called out, eyes wide. "What are you doing?"
"The mages from the Academy are here at my invitation," Windsong replied, his voice grave. "We will give them the apprentice."
"You betrayed us?" Master Zhao asked. Arran could see that he was frozen in place as well, but his expression was calm and his voice icy.
"I had no choice, old friend," Windsong said. "I could have hidden your apprentice for a time, but eventually, the Academy would have found out. When that happened… They would have come not just for him, but also for me, and my students."
"The Academy killed your master, your wife, your brothers," Master Zhao said. "For years, you fought them by my side. Yet now, you choose to bend the knee?"
Windsong's face fell. "I was young at the time. Foolish. Filled with anger, after they…" He paused briefly, then continued. "But the truth is that my master's decision to resist the Academy is what brought that calamity."
"And you think you'll do better by throwing your lot in with them?" Master Zhao's voice was now trembling with anger. "You think if you help them, they'll spare your sorry life?!"
"It's not just me," Windsong said. "My students, the monastery… I could not take the risk."
"So you decided to betray us? Hand us over to the Academy?" Master Zhao asked.
"Don't worry, old friend," Windsong said. "Your apprentice, I cannot save. But you… I will hide you. When the Academy mages are gone, I will release you. After that, it is on you whether you choose to blame me for saving your life."
Master Zhao gave him a furious glare. "You think I will just abandon my apprentice?!"
Windsong sighed. "You don't have a choice," he said. "I will hold you here until they are gone. Perhaps some day, you will forgive me. But even if you hate me, at least you will be alive to do so."
"You utter fool," Master Zhao said, his voice suddenly flat.
At once, a deafening crash sounded in the chamber, and Arran was thrown backward, violently crashing into the wall. It took him a few moments to regain his senses. When he did, he found that the chains of air that had bound him were gone.
He looked up and saw Master Zhao standing in the middle of the chamber, surrounded by shattered furniture but untouched himself. Around him, Arran could sense a terrifying aura.
"You think you can hold me?!" Master Zhao roared. "You think you can make me sit and watch the Academy take my apprentice?!"
Master Zhao raised his hand, and a head-sized orb of white-hot fire appeared above it. With a single movement, he hurled the orb toward Windsong.
Windsong raised his hands, and just before the fireball hit him it changed direction, as if the air in front of him had solidified into a shield. Barely missing Windsong, the orb crashed through the stone wall, tearing away a large chunk of it and sending shards of rock flying in all directions.
Although Windsong did not get hit by the fireball, he still staggered several paces backward, and his eyes were wide with shock.
"How are you this—"
Before he could finish the sentence, another scorching fireball soared toward him. Again he barely deflected it, and again the fireball ripped through the wall next to him. Windsong was thrown backward by the force, and his back smashed into the wall. Panic appeared on his face.
Master Zhao took a step forward, his eyes cold with fury.
Wordlessly, he raised his hand once more. This time, what appeared wasn't a mere fireball, but a raging inferno the size of a man, its violent flames lashing out sharply. With a vicious gesture, Master Zhao launched it at Windsong.
Windsong tried to deflect the blazing mass of fire, but it was like a straw shed being hit by an avalanche. The burning mass blew away the man, the wall behind him, and anything else before it.
In its path, nothing was left but a trail of torn stone, mangled wood, and charred debris, cutting a path of devastation that led all the way out of the building.
For a moment, the chamber was silent, as the apprentices and Adept Kadir watched the devastation with looks of shock on their faces.
"Is he…" Adept Kadir went silent before he finished the question.
"He's alive," Master Zhao said. "Grandmasters aren't so easy to kill. Although it will take him some years to recover."
"You're not just a Master, are you?" Adept Kadir asked. His face was pale and his eyes wide, but his voice was strangely calm.
Master Zhao ignored him. With a look at them, he asked, "How many men did the Academy send?"
"Six on horseback, and another twelve on foot," Arran said, trying to remember the details. "They were all in white robes, and—"
"That's enough," Master Zhao interrupted him. "The six on horseback will be Masters and Grandmasters. The others will be adepts."
He was silent for a moment, seemingly lost in thought. Having just witnessed his power, Arran and the others did not dare make a sound.
"I can not protect you while I fight them," Master Zhao finally said. "Make your way out, then hide until all of this is over. The adepts won't dare get involved in the fight against me, but they will come for you and the other initiates."
"I can help you," Adept Kadir said, although his expression was fearful.
"You can't," Master Zhao replied curtly. "Leave, now!"
Arran and the others made their way through the large holes that Master Zhao's attacks had left in the wall, ignoring the devastation around them as they hurried outside.
They were only a few dozen paces away from the ruined building when a deafening crash sounded. A moment later, a large shockwave slammed into them, sending them tumbling to the ground.
When Arran got up and looked behind him, he saw that nothing was left of the building but a shattered ruin.
Another crash sounded, and he knew the moment had come.
The Academy had arrived.