Chapter 146 – Walk The Plank

Sebastien

Month 3, Day 25, Thursday 9:35 a.m.

Sebastien took a deep breath and bellowed, “Down the stairwell! Get down to the ground floor!” loud enough for her voice to echo off the stone around them for several blocks.

Damien flinched, pressing one hand protectively over his ear as he stared at her incredulously.

She hurried to the center of the roof, crouched down, and waved frantically at the others to keep them from actually going down the stairs. Instead, she pointed at the building in the opposite direction from which the enemy reinforcements were coming. It didn’t have direct roof access, but it had a balcony. “We’re making a run for that balcony. We have to move faster than them, or they’ll see us. We can only hope everyone else is too focused on catching us in the stairwell or ambushing us on the ground floor of this building to notice what we’ve done until it’s too late.”

With that, she sprinted across the roof with the plank bridge over her shoulder, maneuvering the opposite end over and down to the balcony across the narrow street as silently as possible. Two of the bigger men helped to hold down the end and keep it stable, and when Damien got across, he did the same on the other end.

“Remember, you can feel free to stay here and slow down the enemy,” Sebastien said when several of her group members stared at the precariously placed bridge with hesitation. “We’ll laud your heroic last stand to the examiners.”

In the end, two of them did decide to stay behind. As Sebastien shuffled across the makeshift bridge, feeling bile rise in her throat, she couldn’t blame them. But her grade in Fekten’s class wasn’t high enough that she could afford to fail the final exam and still pass. In the distance, the roar of the audience rose to a fever-pitch.

She caught a splinter in her palm from clutching the sides of the sloping planks too hard but ignored the pinch of pain in favor of maintaining her precarious stability.

As she reached the balcony, several hands reached out to steady her way down, but her pant leg caught on the white stone mimicking a decorative wrought-iron fence and tore loudly. Her suit shifted strangely as it registered the “injury,” but thankfully didn’t consider it debilitating enough to theoretically kill her. Still, it would lower her final score.

Grim-faced, Sebastien motioned her orders, and the others pulled the plank bridge into the room beyond the balcony to keep it hidden. She pulled the splinter out of her palm with her teeth, sucked the blood off of it, and then licked her palm a few times just to be sure. She spat out the splinter, examined it, and tucked it into her pocket. She would dispose of it safely later. One could never be too paranoid.

Without hesitation, they continued deeper into the building and down the stairwell, moving so fast that Damien barely had time to scout ahead. The ground floor was not as empty as they had hoped, and Sebastien’s heart stilled for a moment, then crashed into her ribcage as it began to race.

But the people down below wore the black of upper-term allies, not red. They were picking up supplies from a black-flagged stash surrounded by a barrier of sandbags.

A woman raised a finger to her lips for silence, then waved them on. Her eyebrows rose as she watched all eight of them hurry to the nearest window and crouch down beside it.

“No enemies in sight,” Damien reported. “The black tower is that way. Do we just make a run for it?”

Everyone turned to Sebastien.

“Yes,” Sebastien agreed reluctantly. “Damien as scout, shielders and damage dealers pair up. I’ll bring up the rear.” Nominally, with her spell array disks, she was the wildcard, but if the worst came to pass, she could abandon the rest of the group and perhaps still make it to the tower.

Without argument, they exited silently through the nearest window. When Sebastien glanced back over her shoulder before following, the upper-term woman winked at her.

Soon after, the sounds of fighting erupted behind them. Sebastien didn’t look back.

They made it almost all the way to their destination without serious incident, meeting a few more grey and black suited students along the way. They took down a pair of injured enemies who were trying to retreat from the black tower’s territory. The sounds of fighting all around them grew louder, and they passed several sandbag barricades, some manned, some empty or collapsed.

Finally, they turned the corner toward the street that would lead them directly to the tower entrance. To their right, only a couple blocks away, the tower flew the black flag high above. At its base, students in dark grey and black manned sandbag barricades.

To their left, much closer, marched an entire unit of enemy troops, at least a couple dozen people, shielding spells up to protect them as they bludgeoned their way forward. ‘So this is what the audience was making such a big fuss about,’ Sebastien realized.

The woman at the front of the enemy unit wore a dark red cloak and epaulets to signify her high ranking—and commensurate danger level. They were marching on the tower with the intent to bring it down. If they succeeded, it would fly the red flag, and those students charged with its protection would fail.

Their entire group caught sight of the advancing enemy at the same time, and as one, they made the same decision.

“Run!” Rhett yelled, shooting a futile offensive spell at the enemy.

Sebastien’s group scattered across the narrow street, sprinting for all they were worth as their allies shot spells past them to try to cover their retreat.

Sebastien kept an eye on the enemy with her peripheral vision, her shielding spell array ready to activate at any moment. The harmless test spells moved slower than real battle spells, and if she reacted quickly enough, she could either dive out of the way or block them. With the wild way some of her allies were attacking, she might even need to shield against friendly fire. ‘I’m only a first-term student. If I can just make it to the base, my part of the test will be over, no matter what happens next.

Damien turned around, looking for her, then slowed down enough to run beside her instead of sprinting ahead at the front of the group. “I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine,” he said, only slightly out of breath.

Sebastien nodded curtly.

But of course, a unit meant to bring down a tower base was not short of spell power.

Sebastien saw the tell-tale foggy shimmer of a faux concussive blast spell roll out of the leader’s battle wand, followed by two more to either side, perfectly placed so that there was no dodging all three.

The low-powered, small-area shielding spells that she and the other first-term students had would do nothing against it.

“Tuck and roll!” Sebastien snapped half a second before the magic reached them.

Wide-eyed, Damien copied her, throwing himself to the ground in a fetal position as the magic pushed at their heels.

The faux concussive blast spell was gentler than a real one, and moved slower, but in some ways it was more powerful. Instead of slamming them into the ground and leaving them fractured, bruised inside and out, it lifted them up and sent them flipping through the air.

Sebastien collided with Damien, and then the ground, and then they were rolling and tumbling together in a painful tangle of limbs. Something bashed into her hand and sent her Conduit flying. As they settled, she looked up dizzily toward the approaching enemy, cursing the rules that had forced her to leave her pocket watch and the chain that would have secured her Conduit behind.

Several of the enemy unit’s people were laughing at them, and as they neared, they raised their wands again.

Sebastien still had the handle of the shielding spell array in one of her hands, and though her suit’s sensors had registered more damage and had begun to restrict her movement, she was not entirely out of the test yet. She was still considered “alive.”

A sparkle caught the corner of her eye, resting beside Damien’s hip. His Conduit had fallen out of his pocket.

Sebastien raised the shielding spell array and her leg at the same time, confirmed that she had thought to add the basic output distancing symbols and that the beast core was still held securely in its place, and brought her calf down hard on top of Damien’s Conduit. Her ripped pant leg provided the perfect patch of bare skin to access the celerium through, and the crystalline gem dug painfully into her calf.

She grinned ferally and cast the shield spell, just in time to block the offensive sphere of light heading toward her chest. “Damien, I need you to get up without moving me—carefully, and pick up my Conduit.”

“What?” Damien asked, his voice low and horrified.

Several of the enemies showed their surprise at their offensive spells impacting harmlessly against her shield, which was only a foot across but flitted about like a hummingbird to position itself perfectly in front of each attack. A few hesitated, looking toward their leader for instruction, but others continued the assault.

Tangled together as she and Damien were, it didn’t take much movement for Sebastien to position the shield’s output between them and any spell that seemed like it might hit. “Hurry!” she snapped.

“How are you casting without your Conduit!?” he hissed, scrambling to pick it up from where it had rolled and almost catching a stray spell to the head. He moved so quickly he almost tripped before he could return and press it into her free hand. “Oh, by all the planes-damned idiotic things to do, Sebastien. Are you casting through your own flesh?” he wailed, his hands flapping about uselessly.

“Of course not!” she snapped.

Slowly, still holding the shielding spell between them and the enemy, she rose to her feet. “Pick up your Conduit from the ground, and get behind me.” Any little advantage might help them make it to the tower unscathed.

She began to walk backward as quickly as her bruises and the restrictive suit would allow, blocking the increasingly frequent offensive spells and praying that the leader didn’t send another concussive blast at her. Sebastien’s mind spun through all the possible options, wondering if there was anything they could do to improve their chances.

At this point, they needed powerful backup, someone to come out from the tower and take the enemy’s attention while they retreated.

But before she could retreat more than a few meters, Professor Fekten’s voice resounded through the narrow streets, bouncing off the walls and almost screaming with tension. “Code red! Code red shutdown of area C! The exam is delayed!”

Sebastien dropped her shielding spell, looking around in confusion, relief, and a little bit of apprehension. Code red meant that there was significant danger to the students’ wellbeing nearby and that they needed to retreat to safety.

She turned, hurrying faster toward the tower as her suit released all of its restrictions. There would be tunnels at its base to lead them out of the exam arena, the same way they’d been brought into it. And at the very least, she would feel safer sheltered behind the back of someone like Fekten than right out in the middle of the street.

Except…everyone around her was scrambling back. Those closest to the tower were heading toward it, but the enemy unit was retreating in the opposite direction. Several people wearing black and grey were running beside them. Even Damien had retreated away from her, his expression screwed up in gut-wrenching pain as he met her gaze.

Sebastien slowed, the weight of a horrible premonition settling on her shoulders.

Fekten had left the tower and was sprinting toward her.

She stilled, dropping the spell array disk and raising her hands in the air. After a moment of hesitation, she dropped her Conduit, too, lest someone think she planned to keep casting.

“Possible break event!” Fekten screamed, tossing a small golden sphere at her feet, where it sprouted legs that dug into the ground and then bloomed with a spherical shield spell.

The shield surrounded her, semi-opaque and somehow solid enough to drown out most of the screams coming from outside. Idly, Sebastien realized that she could feel the rumble of the audience’s screams through the stone beneath her feet. This must have been the most exciting thing to happen all day.

His battle wand trained on her, Fekten stepped cautiously closer. “Get control of yourself, Siverling. Do not continue casting anything. If I catch even a hint—even a whiff—of magic coming off you, I’ll knock you unconscious. If you resist, I’ll do what needs to be done.” His gaze was flinty, and his meaning was clear. If he felt he had to, he would kill her to protect the other students.

Sebastien swallowed hard, her throat suddenly bone dry. She kept her hands raised high and met his gaze as she nodded slowly and clearly. “I understand. But I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”

Author Note:

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