The torches rattle as the entire room vibrates from an intense explosion, the sounds of glass shattering and stone crumbling not muted in the slightest. Rum retains enough balance to avoid the pulley as it topples over.
He says, “Okay, I’m new to rainstorms. Do they usually get that bad?”
Jojen shushes Rum and stands at the door to the smithy. He takes a few whiffs and frowns. He whirls back on Rum with a gravely serious look, and his next words have the tone to match. “I need you to listen to me closely, Sparks.”
“Okay,” Sparks says uneasily.
“Stand by this door and do not let anyone in unless you recognize their voice. But, you must stay put. It can only be locked and unlocked from the inside.”
Rum quickly moves to the door and slides the deadbolts above and below the knob into place. “What are you going to do?”
“Find Tameri and see what’s happening,” Jojen’s fading voice explains, followed by a door slamming.
Rum looks over his shoulder, then completely one-eighties when he discovers Jojen is gone. Rum narrows his eyes and sniffs the air like Jojen did. The acrid scent of smoke stings, but not just his nose. The scent reminds him of Auriel.
Stark cracks Jojen’s office door slightly ajar and peers into the hall with a wide, penetrating gaze. The entire front doors are blown to pieces, glass all over the floor. A good portion of the wall connected to the entrance blocks the stairs, the debris acting as kindling, same as one of the classroom doors. She flicks away the first drop of sweat she feels on her forehead.
Stark tenses when a masked man enters the school, a large axe in his left hand. He appears unfazed by the smoke and fire. She ignores the mask and burns the rest of his physique into her mind. He stands over six feet by a few inches, his arms and legs have the build of a professional weight lifter, and his dark clothing seems to reflect the amber glow of the fire. His mask is entirely metal and covers his whole face, save for two slits built-in for vision.
Keep calm, Stark. You knew it was bound to happen. Underworld leaves nothing undone. And this way, I can narrow down their target, or targets. Only seven individuals here in common with Four Hearts, and that means I’ll have to rethink my Underworld and invis- No!
The second he turns his back to her and heads for the steps, Stark silently slips out of the office and charges him from behind. Her fingers curl into a fist before shifting matter from solid to liquid. Her knuckles are mere inches from the back to the man’s head when she’s suddenly pinned against the wall by her throat with such force that the façade cracks, spiderwebbing out from behind her back.
Stark turns on the new aggressor, but her irises shrink when she sees her assailant has the same liquid hand as she. She traces the length of the attacker’s arm slowly, sees her sleeveless violet shirt with black around her shoulders and down her sides. She, too, has a mask on, but her dark red hair spills out from behind it, and her aqua eyes seem to shine behind the slits.
“Go on,” the masked woman says to her partner. “This one and I will not have our time ruined by a man again. Will we, Stark?”
“Y-You…what are you doing here?” Stark asks with a shaky voice.
“That’s what I’m here to explain. Ears open.”
Pan groans as she rises from the floor, several desks toppled around her. She smears blood across her cheek that pours from a cut on her forehead. She keeps her right eye shut tight as blood streams down over it.
‘What the hell just happened?” she asks in a haze. “Aven?”
She searches the room with her left eye. She wants to sigh with relief when she spots him through the door, standing before the second-floor windows, but his tense posture and rising black smoke steals away her spare calm.
“What’s going on?” she whispers behind Aven, too terrified to peek out the window.
“Some kind of explosion. I think someone caused it,” Aven whispers back. “I saw Stark chase someone away from the fire. I tried to call the fire department, but my connection’s dead.” He wiggles his out of service cellphone.
“Maybe a bad storm?” Pan says as she examines the blackout. She tries to flick the long-range weapon room light on, but it fails.
“The fact remains we’re trapped up here until Stark and Tameri bring help. Look at the stairs.”
Pan turns her head and sees smoke billowing onto the second floor, the glow of raging flames flaring against the walls.
“Wait, is Shuri okay?”
“Don’t know. Didn’t bother to check. Thought examining the situation was more pertinent.”
“You idiot! He’s trapped up here with us! He’s part of the situation!”
Pan huffs incredulously as she walks toward the spar chamber. She gasps when she opens the door. “Aven, be yourself later! Shuri’s not good!” She races across the black mat and tosses her bow aside. One after the other she moves the collection of scutums and targes from atop of him. Her trembling muscles make the task quite difficult, though she’s relieved when Aven comes and assists her.
Once uncovered, the duo flips Shuri onto his back and kick his swords away from him. Pan reaches for Shuri’s camera, scoffs when Aven pushes her back, but realizes he means to check if Shuri’s breathing. She calms down when he says, “He’ll live.”
“Thank goodness,” Pan says, a hand raised to her chest.
“But he’s in worse shape than you. His left wrist is definitely broken, and after all this weight fell on him,” he gestures to the pile of shields, “he has to have at least two to three bone fractures.”
“Then we can’t wait! We have to–”
A loud crash cuts through the air, something heavy slamming into the wall. Aven and Pan both raise their weapons and stand before Shuri like the shields that knocked him out cold. They tense up when they hear shrill scraping noise ring out between heavy crashes, like the footfalls of a giant. Still, they ease out into the hallway, keeping the door to the spar chamber open.
“Not gonna lie,” Pan whispers, “I was hoping Rum was behind the explosion.”
“You have so little faith in him now?” Aven whispers back.
From the stairs comes the tall man dressed in the dark clothing, a metallic sheen gleaming from his boots, pants, and shirt. On his belt are a dozen spherical capsules, three of which are open and empty. He has on a pair of grey gloves with thin dark plates covering the bottoms of his fingers. Due to the rainstorm outside, in addition to the blackout, his eyes remain a secret beneath his mask, but Pan is most interested in the masterfully forged axe in his grasp. It generates the scraping shriek as the man drags it through the floor in his wake.
“I just hoped it wasn’t someone like him,” Pan says through her trembling. Her breathing grows more panicked, her pulse races, her heart ready to blow through her chest. She’s on the verge of hyperventilating, screaming inside for rescuers. She wants to voice those thoughts, but her mouth only opens to expel shaky breaths.
Where’s Professor Tameri? Where’s Stark? Where’s Jojen?
“Calm down,” Aven hisses through gritted teeth. “I need you to cover me and you have to stay focused to shoot him.”
“I only have one good eye, Aven. I–”
“You can do it!” he shouts. “Tameri made me coach you and I wouldn’t trust you if I thought you’d fail right now. Just keep that left eye on me!”
Pan misses Aven’s take off with a stunned blink. She watches as he baits out the masked man’s downswing before slapping him across the face with his scythe. The metal mask protects his face from harm, but it bounces along the floor, making certain the next blow ends it all.
“I don’t know what you’re after, but you’re not succeeding today!” Aven boasts as he backs away to keep out of the man’s swing zone.
The masked man guffaws as he brushes his long brown hair out of his face and reveals five scars, each a disgusting jagged line. Two are on his right cheek, one on his left, one stretching across the bridge of his nose, and the final one straight across his forehead.
Aven flinches when he gazes upon the scars. He raises his scythe but the scarred man grabs it by the handle and tosses it beside his forgone mask. He opens up one of the capsules and removes a small device and uses the adhesive gel to affix it to Aven’s shirt.
“The hell is th–”
The scarred man knees Aven’s chin and knocks him back down the hall. The countdown on the screen starts before ASven is back on his knees. He growls when he learns only twenty seconds remain.
“Aven, what is that? Get it off!” Pan reaches for it.
Aven swiftly manacles her wrist and holds it away. “Don’t touch it! You’ll only get your fingers stuck! Those gloves of his must be special in some way! You have to shoot my shirt off!”
Pan makes her move to fire so fast that she forgets her recurve bow’s in her hands and notches one of the rubber-tipped arrows. She hastily and sloppily generates a minuscule pink arrowhead right before she releases the bowstring. The arrowhead is enough to pierce and tear Aven’s shirt off his body, but the window stops it in its tracks.
“Get back in the spar chamber!” Aven roars. He gets to his feet quickly and shoves Pan inside ahead of himself. He grabs the door to slam shut behind him when the explosion goes off. The door sandwiches Aven against the wall, but shields him from the gale of glass shards.
He slumps down, peeks around the door and weakly mutters, “Pan…run.”
Pan herself is feeling the fatigue, the explosion having blown her atop the pile of shields that had Shuri buried earlier. Weak as she is, her body finds the energy to shiver as she spies the scarred man standing in the doorway. Another sudden and sharp sound comes as she blinks, the scarred man’s back to her now.
Like Aven, she mutters words of concern before passing out.