Chapter 22:

Passing the baton

On the run with a witch from another world

Verus appeared to be shocked by the sudden transformation of Serpens, though it was hard to tell through the mixture of emotions that his face rapidly went through. With him being distracted, it was the perfect moment to start our counterattack.

I raised the whip high in the air and flung it at him. The golden flames shot out, hitting him across the face. He tried to cover up the wound with both his hands as he hissed in pain, smoke rising from behind his claws. When he lowered them again, I could clearly see the damage.

I had managed to inflict a deep wound that seared the upper portion of his face, a gash now ran across his forehead and right eye. With this weapon at my side, I could inflict some serious blows.

Chiyo got up and ran up to me. She whispered in my ear.

“It’s not healing. Will this be enough to take him down?”

I thought about it and replied: “This one wound definitely won’t stop him. I can feel how powerful Serpens Aurum is now, but as a swordsman this whip is unwieldy. I’ll see what I ca-.”

Before I could finish the thought, Verus raised his head to the ceiling and let out an ear-piercing howl. The windows rattled intensely at the sound. All my hairs stood raised as an overwhelming feeling of dread crept over me. If anyone was still sleeping through the sound of our fight, they had now surely been woken up. We needed to get out of here quickly, but the witch hunter was not planning on making it simple.

Verus once again got into the stance to rush us, bending through his knees. I cracked the whip and he flinched, just for a split-second. It gave me just enough time to lunge Serpens at him, the fall of the whip wrapping around his ankle. Smoke rose from his leg as fire licked at it. I pulled with all my might and the beast fell backwards. He landed on his back with a thud that echoed throughout the room. 

“He’s down!” Chiyo gasped. She couldn’t believe that we were actually inflicting damage on what had just moments ago seemed like an insurmountable foe.

I hoped he would stay down, but that prayer was quickly dispelled as Verus’ rose to a sitting position. He was frothing at the mouth, his face distorted with rage. Nothing was left of the meticulous, composed man he was known to be.

“I’ve trained all my life for this very moment, you’re not getting away. Do you believe your little toy will save you? Think again.”

Before I could react he had jumped back on his feet from a sitting position, then he moved. My eyes couldn’t register the speed at which he flew sideways, leaving only blurred afterimages as he went. He jumped against the walls, ceiling, and floor. He was even faster than before, and every time he launched off a wall, he gained more speed, more energy. The burn on his ankle and the gash on his face didn’t impede his movement at all. 

I tried to predict where he would be and swung Serpens at it, but it was a complete failure. I grew irritated at the enchanted weapon. Why did it have to turn into a whip of all things? 

Setting off against the far wall of the ballroom, he shot straight at me. I flung Serpens forward, aiming to hit the beast in mid-air. This would be the final blow of our battle. Time seemed to slow down as the whip extended toward him. Verus blinked in and out of the darkness as he passed by the large windows, and finally they crossed paths. What happened next thwarted all my expectations.

Serpens grazed his shoulder, but completely unfazed, he kept going. His claws rapidly approached my throat. Even with a considerable power-up, I was no match for him.

Is this really it? After turning the tide so drastically, will it all have been for nothing?

Then a miracle occurred. Two cloaked figures rushed past me to my left and right. Crossing their blades, they deflected the head-on attack with much difficulty. The impact of Verus’ claws on their swords pushed them back, but they didn’t falter.

“Get out here, run!” one of the men yelled in an unmistakable voice: Aldo.

“We heard a great commotion resounding through the castle. I knew it was you two, but to think a witch hunter would show up…” Elegast strainingly spoke. The two had come to save us.

“Listen closely. We’ll hold him off while you take down the barrier. The crystal powering the barrier is located at the top of the palace’s inner tower. Destroy it, and we’ll be able to leave.”

He didn’t need to tell us that twice. Chiyo and I immediately bolted. As I looked back I saw them engaged in a fierce fight with Verus. But the strange thing was, they were holding out against him, and even striking back.

Their stances, the way they swung their swords, how they blocked attacks, it was all straight out of a royal knight’s guidebook. Who were these two exactly to be able to stand their ground against this monstrous hunter? Even with all my training and an enchanted weapon I had only barely been able to stretch time. But there was no time to dwell on that for now, we had been given an important mission to complete. Whether we would make it out of here at all hinged on it.

Doors on the left and right side began to open with confused nobles peeking from their bedrooms as we ran through the spacious corridors, but we paid them no mind. Soon the alarm would be raised and this whole place would be swarming with knights. Time was of the essence.

After making our way through a labyrinth of rooms and hallways, we came to a door, decorated with rusting flowery metalwork. Branches, leaves and buds formed double arches, with glass covering the open space.  I put my hand on the knob and pushed it open, revealing a symmetrical and neatly trimmed garden. This was the inner courtyard. 

I looked up to the skies and saw a purple discoloration in the dispersed clouds. The sun would soon rise and Verus' powers would be greatly diminished once again. The two might just be able to hold out until then, or so I hoped.  Before us the massive tower, ivy running up its sides, reached for the heavens. It looked like we still had a lot of running to do.

We wasted no time and started climbing the stairs in the tower. I was exhausted from the fight and all the running, and Chiyo had trouble keeping up. I couldn’t be frustrated at her slower pace though, she had played her part.

While we were ascending, an awkward silence fell between us. Despite the tension of the situation, our love confession was fresh on my mind. I still had trouble believing that our feelings were mutual. How should I act? What should I say? It was a mystery to me. My mind raced to break the ice and talk to her like we usually did, but I only pulled blanks.

“So, that Verus. What a guy huh.” What am I even saying?

“Uhh, sure?” Chiyo tilted her head at me.

The silence that ensued was suffocatingly thick. Defeated, I wisely remained silent for the rest of the ascent.

After going up hundreds of stairs, we came to the top. It was in the open air, with the iconic conical roof above us, held up by thick wooden beams. The sun peeked over the valley's ridge and Indestria was waking up below us. My eyes immediately fell on our target. In the middle of the tower floated a large scarlet crystal, with a single black rune carved in its center.

It was time to take down the barrier and get out of here.

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