Chapter 1: Aftershock - Round 1
At first, he was astonished at how enormous it was. Had he done this? Made this huge, towering, sky-scraping giant of stone, all on his own?
But he totally did just do that.
The initial shock and feelings of rising confidence were short-lived, as Paiko discovered, much to his frustration, that the geode construct was incredibly slow. It took much of his mental concentration — too much, in fact — to try to direct its movements. Even just trying to hold it together taxed his ability.
Apirka’s cyclone construct was spinning circles around his; speedy, relentless, and accurate, searching for weak spots in the rocky hide of the stone titan. There were no gaps in its armor, the single advantage that Paiko had aside from sheer mass.
If he could win just by standing still, impervious and impenetrable, perhaps it was possible. But he was getting tired; though sitting still, he was shaking and sweating. And knowing Apirka, she would not tire out easily, if at all.
She’d figured out that physical tactics wouldn’t work, if she wanted to take the stone giant down. Paiko sensed a shift in her magic aura, a withdrawal of power from the cyclone, directed towards the surrounding atmosphere instead. What was she planning?
KABOOM—! The sky ripped apart with a cannon blast of thunder.
Paiko’s waning control on the construct dissolved instantly as he screeched and clutched his ears, throwing himself to the ground.
The towering titan cracked, collapsing, coming apart at the joints to reveal bright crystals inside. Shards of amethyst and quartz cascaded around the two contestants, a shimmering rain born from the spectacular downfall of the geode giant.
The half-drakon trembled, ears ringing, heart racing. Mind absent of disappointment, filled only with undiluted terror drowning out any rational thought.
WHERE IS IT WHAT IS IT no there’s nothing there THE SOUND SOMETHING MUST HAVE MADE THE SOUND the predators are not here WHAT IF THEY ARE it’s over it’s over now YES IT IS OVER EVERYTHING IS OVER hhhhh—
When the shockwaves began to subside, a presence at the edge of his awareness brought him back to this reality. Not Apirka, but someone farther off, with a distinct magical signature.
Oromykah had witnessed the whole thing. No doubt he was less than satisfied with the half-drakon’s pitiful performance. What had he said, at that meeting in the alley. . .
“Do your best. I don’t want to see you holding back.”
Paiko knew this was far from his best. As for holding back, he’d never attempted anything like this before. How would he know what latent abilities were ready to spring forward in the moment? Things didn’t just happen like that, unless he. . . unless he. . .
It was clawing forward, rising deep from his gut and squeezing his soul.
No! I can’t. I won’t. Too risky. Too dangerous.
The instinct pounded at his ribcage, demanded to be set free, to really show them what he was made of.
But if I do that. . . then I will destroy everything.
Time was ticking down. As Paiko’s construct fell to shambles, Apirka’s whirlwind made a breezy lap around the battlefield, awaiting the declaration of victory.
“Paiko—!” Apirka’s voice called, tinged with concern behind her breathless excitement.
The half-drakon lifted his head. He sat among glittering remains, too shaken, too spent to pull another construct together. He sifted through the crystal crumbles, feeling as scattered and crushed as the pieces of his construct.
It had been hollow on the inside. He felt a matching hollowness in his own heart.
Then his fingers touched something smooth, an unexpectedly non-jagged piece of crystal. He brought it out of the dust and noted its glass-like polish, its colored, layered bands.
This was no geode shard. What was it called? A. . . thunderegg. He remembered thinking it was a funny name. Now it held a strangely inspiring meaning.
Born of thunder. Split into pieces. Filled to the shell, one-hundred percent.
It is NOT over.
His fingers clenched, digging into the ground. The survival instinct inside surged, but not as a destructive force. Something constructive.
He reached out with his latent Earth ability and connected with the crystals. They crackled and clattered and crept upwards, shielding him with polished, rock-hard armor.
I am still in the game.
He stood up, reflecting amethyst specks of light where the sunbeams touched him.
Apirka came to a stop twenty feet away. As she saw Paiko rise again, there was a curious sparkle in her eyes.
“Not done yet, Paiko?” Apirka asked. The breeze turned to a brisk gale.
His focus was on the construct, barely twitching an ear when Apirka spoke. He crouched, waiting for the cyclone to pass by. The wind seemed to stall, as if sensing something different about its diminutive opponent.
Now or never!
Paiko sprang forwards, aiming for the center of the whirlwind that surrounded the casting focus. The crystal plating shifted, changing positions to accommodate for his movements.
First contact! The first layer of swirling wind slammed against his small frame, sending him tumbling across the ground until he collided with one of the spires. He heard Apirka gasp, sensed her pull power away from the whirlwind.
“No! Don’t stop!” With a growl of determination, he righted himself and charged back at the cyclone. This time, he ran counterclockwise, trying to enter in the same direction as the wind. He managed to get halfway in before the sheer force of the storm ejected him back out.
One more try. And one more issue. Apirka’s Whistler, the casting focus, was located more than a hundred feet off the ground. She was keeping it up there, not making it easy for the drakon to access.
He glanced at the spire behind him, sizing it up. It was tall enough. And if it wasn’t. . . well, it would have to be.
Back to the old days, Paiko. Climb. Climb like your life depends on it.
That thought fueled his muscles, gave him the confidence and speed to fly up that nearly vertical surface until he was level with the floating orb.
Higher. He had to go higher. But he’d run out of spire to climb.
The idea that flashed through his head was incredibly risky, definitely not well thought out. He was going to try it anyway.
He leapt into the cyclone, crystals shifting into broad wings to catch the updraft. The wind tossed him high into the air, a dizzying distance from his target, a heart-stopping height from the ground.
Are you watching, Oromykah? Because I’m about to give it my best.
At the top, he twisted his body around, morphing the shape of his crystal armor into streamlined spears. With his arms positioned in front of him and his head tucked between them, he dove. Straight down the eye of the storm.
The Whistler was there one second. Gone the next.
Paiko clutched the orb in his fingers, snatching it from the heart of the construct. The winds fell apart as their magic destabilized, and now the drakon was in free-fall.
That was how all his battles ended. With falling.
But this time, he held the prize.
And he knew Apirka would catch him.