Perez Park – 11:59 PM

The chanting of the apprentices began to falter as one by one, several confused faces turned to look at Natalia. Luckily for her though, the magi themselves were too enthralled in their ritual to notice at first. But soon the chorus broke down enough to draw Eliam’s scowl, which quickly turned to alarm.

Suddenly Markham and a dozen mages whirled in outrage at the apprentices, more accurately, at the redhead in the second row, third from the left.

In that instant, the expressions of anger on several of the lesser mages turned to fear, then sheer terror, then atomized in a brilliant green explosion.

The entire cave shook violently as magic energy lashed out from every direction, slamming mages to the ground and hammering at the containment barrier surrounding the spell circle.

Markham himself was thrown a good 10 yards, clear through the barrier. By the time he regained his senses, the energy sphere in the center of the cavern was rapidly dissipating. Four fiery swords danced in the air, cutting the straps that bound the sacrifice to the altar. And floating above it, his apprentice-

No, not his apprentice. Though dressed in the robes of an initiate, the woman wielded more power than even some of his peers could imagine. Her eyes glowed with the intensity of a volcano and those few mages on their feet were set ablaze with a single wave of her hand.

Markham screamed in rage and lashed out, spears of electricity flying from his hands. His former apprentice spun in the air, hurling a torrent of fire that intercepted the attack in a dazzling blast.

“Perhaps I should introduce myself, Master,” she said. “My name is Effigy.”

Natalia just floated there for a heartbeat in silence. “Oh good God, Nat. You did not just say that,” she thought to herself, tearing her eyes away from Markham’s death stare to the altar below. But before she could register the sight of the girl diving off the altar, she did a double take.

On the podium below rested the ancient tome that the high mage had been reading from. With a suddenness she could not explain, she dove for it. The instant she touched the book, though, she wanted to reel back in disgust at the realization that it was not bound in leather, as she first suspected, but by human skin.

But was instead slammed to the ground by a blinding flash.

The world turned bright white, then pitch black, then melted into a mural of fire and stone. Effigy shook her head and climbed to her feet, trying to process her new surroundings. She now stood on a small pillar of rock in the middle of a chasm that stretched as far as the eye could see. The air was thick with ash and soot, billowing from flames that seemed to come from everywhere at once.

Suddenly a dark shape drew her attention from below. A shadow was rising, literally from the ashes.

Natalia stared in shock as a crazed Circle of Thorns Acolyte tightened his grip on her throat, a dagger poised in his other hand above her chest. At the edge of her peripheral vision, Markham was reading aloud frantically from the Book of Y’mathri’h while another mage lifted a ceremonial dagger.

Her mind reeled, searching for an explanation why she was not dead. She barely registered that everything around her was blasted and scorched as if a supernova had struck the cave. It was then that she wondered how she knew the name of the book that Markham was holding.

Effigy’s eyes flared and the Acolyte screamed. He loosened his grip on both her and the dagger, now smoking as it fell. With one hand, Effigy clawed at her attacker, firing a rapid stream of flares at the mage with her outstretched free hand. The missiles hit home, searing into the mage’s arm and knocking the ritual dagger away.

It struck her just how much strain those two simple spells caused as she scrambled to her feet. It took all the strength she could summon to fly, barely managing to lift the young girl from the altar.

Markham’s enraged screams were drowned out by howling wind as Effigy picked up speed, focusing her entire being on flight. She wove in evasive maneuvers through the massive cavern, dodging blasts from every direction, at last beelining through the tunnel that would lead her to the surface. Every minor defensive enchantment she could think of was invoked on pure instinct. Like a homing signal, her body sped through the narrow crystalline caverns until at last, open air.

She would have thought that freedom from the enclosed cave would have relieved the little girl at least somewhat, but her screaming only grew louder.

“Child. Sshh… Ch-” she tried to interject. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “My name is Effigy.” She had to repeat herself, looking to down to make sure the girl at least resembled calm. “What is your name, little one?”

“D- Dar- Darlene. Darlene Owens.” Darlene looked up apprehensively. “You don’t look so good, Effigy.”

Behind them a green sphere appeared over a large hill. Then another.

Effigy did not need to look back, but Darlene did. “Are we gonna die?”
“Darlene?” Effigy replied with as even a tone as she could manage. “Now is the time to be brave. Like Galaxy Girl. You know of Galaxy Girl?”

The little girl nodded hesitantly. “Now you must promise me something,” Effigy continued. Darlene looked up, quicker this time.

“You must promise not to scream.” The fire warlock gave that a second to sink in, heard the girl take a sharp breath.

Instantly they were both engulfed in flames, rocketing for the edge of the park. Above the trees, people could see a pillar of fire flying in an erratic pattern, reeling from emerald and silver explosions in the air.

Effigy was so focused that she had no idea how long they had been flying when they were hit. But when the flames dissipated, she could see the concrete below her. Her momentum froze so quickly that she lost her grip on Darlene, who had been clutching on for dear life more than the 5’6″, 120 lb Natalia was able to carry the poor girl.

She reached down with both arms, straining desperately to keep the girl from falling to the street 60 feet beneath them. She slipped. A dozen green lights filtered into the edge of Effigy’s vision and she slipped a little more. Then gravity finally won the battle and Darlene began to fall. The girl looked back up into Effigy’s eyes in sheer terror for what felt like eternity.

Suddenly a black form appeared out of nowhere and caught Darlene in the air, whisking her to an unpleasant but far less fatal landing against the brick wall that surrounded the park.

Effigy somehow caught her breath, staring at the hooded figure. He looked back at her with a measuring gaze, then suddenly toward the park. Her eyes followed and fixed on the approaching lights, growing brighter at an alarming rate.

“Take her!” the man yelled. She looked at him with an incredulous stare. “You’re in no shape!” he insisted. “I’ll hold them off!” And at that she looked at her shredded robes, char marks, and started to be aware of the pain from more bruises and burns than she wanted to know.

Effigy dropped to the ground. “Thank you…” she began.

“Nightstrike. Go,” was all he said, with a tone that made it clear the exchange was over.

Suddenly a silver bolt shattered the pavement in front of them with an earsplitting shriek. Effigy wrapped her arms around the girl and took off on a course for the nearest gate, staying low to the street and parallel with the wall for what little cover it could provide. She could easily see the War Wall from here, the towering structure that sealed off uncontrolled areas like Perez Park from the rest of the beleaguered city, but the passage into the safe zone beyond was still a dangerous distance.

Nearly a minute had passed before she allowed herself to sense amazement that no more blasts came from the sky to stop them. Soon the security checkpoint to Galaxy City came into view, and Natalia almost smiled.

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