Erika Moonwood's final test. Will she pass or will she fail?
The man jumped onto the hood of the car and looked down, unsurprised to see nobody hiding behind it.
He carefully surveyed the surrounding area, when suddenly he was knocked off his feet by a singular, massive blast of energy. A groan escaped his lips as he went down, landing hard on his back.
Erika stepped out from behind a truck and threw a grin at Liam, who was already standing above the fallen man. “Take that,” he gritted out, smashing his foot in the man’s face, gleefully dishing out his revenge for the gash on his arm. Erika looked on in surprise. “It’s still bleeding, your arm,” she observed. “Isn’t it supposed to heal or something? This is my test, not yours.”
“I’m as much involved as you are, Erika. I told you before, this isn’t a dream. It’s for real.”
Erika frowned, bemused, and opened her mouth to ask another question, when a beam of red light zipped pass her ear. “Damn it,” she cursed loudly, crouching down and looking around for the source of the attack. “I thought we’d gotten the last of them.”
“We might have missed a couple,” replied Liam, pointing to their right. “There!”
Without looking, Erika held up her hands and threw an energy blast in the direction he was pointing. “Did I get them?” she asked, straightening a bit to take a proper look. A spell hit her in the forehead and she gasped, falling backwards. Ignoring Liam’s concerned shout, she placed a trembling hand to her forehead and pulled back to see blood.
“Are you all right? They’re heading this way,” she heard Liam say.
She sat up and touched her head again. It hurt but not that much. Maybe it was because of the adrenaline, she didn’t know. All she knew was that she needed to get rid of those idiots. She got to her feet just as a fist entered her vision and turned her head just in time to avoid it. She blocked another punch, ducked and pushed her fist into her attacker’s stomach. It didn’t deter him much because he continued raining blows on her. His partner was fighting with Liam, who was faring much worse than Erika, unable to defend himself with only one good hand. The gash on his other arm was bleeding profusely.
After taking yet another hit to her gut, Erika was getting angrier and angrier. She had to end this now if she wanted to save Liam. She closed her hand into a fist, pulled back and punched her attacker with as much force as she could muster. He staggered back a few steps and that was all Erika needed to make her move. She raised her hands, let her anger coil around her, feed her, and then jerked her body forward, as if she was pushing an invisible wall with her hands. A powerful blast of energy burst forth from her, literally lifting her attacker off the ground and slamming him right into the truck Erika had previously hid behind. He went down in a heap and didn’t move.
“Erika,” she heard a faint whisper beside her and turned to look at Liam, who stood with one foot on the chest of his attacker, his trusty pistol in hand, and giving her a look of awe she had never seen on his face before.
“What?” said Erika, trying not to look too proud of herself.
“That was some powerful bit of magic right there,” Liam said with a smile. “Good work.”
The seventeen year old shuffled her feet a bit, her cheeks going red. “Thanks,” she mumbled.
Liam laughed and they continued towards their destination. They were going to the Arena. Liam had told her that it wasn’t an actual arena, rather the city square, where Erika would be facing her final enemy. He didn’t tell her who or what she would be facing, but she had a pretty good idea about it and had been trying to steel herself since then.
It was night by the time they reached the Arena, exhausted and thirsty. Liam was clutching his injured arm and was also bleeding in the head, while Erika sported several bruises on her jaw and waist and a pretty big bump on her head. They had encountered a dozen more evil minions on their way to the Arena and all Erika wanted to do was collapse in her bed and have her mom stroke her hair like she always did. She helped Liam find the safe house near the Arena and they lay next to each other, trying not to focus on the pain and also on the day after when Erika would be rolling up her sleeves for her final test.
“Liam,” Erika whispered uncertainly in the dark.
“What does Grimsbane look like?”
A few minutes passed before he replied, “You’ll see tomorrow.”
Erika waited for the terror to strike at the confirmation that she had guessed right, that she would really be facing an incarnation of Grimsbane the next day. But she realized that she was just sad. Maybe she would feel the fear when she saw the evil warlock tomorrow. But in that moment, all she felt was sadness and hurt and exhaustion. Still, she couldn’t make herself close her eyes and sleep. She was just too restless for that.
She turned her to Liam and wondered, “Are you allowed to help me in the Arena?”
“Not where it matters.”
“What does that mean?”
A nervous laugh escaped her lips and, for a brief second, all her pain vanished. “Are you always so secretive?” she asked, still giggling.
Liam snorted. “Only when I have to be,” he answered, his tone playfully conveying that he knew this reply was secretive as well.
“But why? Are you a secret keeper or something?” When he shook his head and mumbled a ‘no’, Erika continued, “Then what are you exactly, if not a warlock?”
Liam sighed. “Erika, I’m tired and sleepy. Why must you ask so many questions?”
“Come on, what you do can’t be a secret,” pressed Erika. “You just don’t want to tell me, because you think it will ruin your mystery-man image and secretive aura.”
“Gee, Erika,” Liam muttered, and Erika could feel rather than see him roll his eyes. She knew she was getting her answer this time. “I’m a Trailblazer, our kind is more popularly known as guardian angels. We look after our assigned witches and warlocks.”
“A Trailblazer?” Erika uttered in surprise. “Really?”
Liam huffed. “It’s not funny.”
“So you’re my Trailblazer?”
“I protect you.”
“I can kick your butt, Liam. I’m pretty sure I can protect you better than you can protect me,” teased Erika.
“How many times have I told you this is only for the duration of your test?” He said furiously and Erika held back her giggles, not wanting to irritate him anymore. “My powers will be returned once this bloody test is over.”
Erika nodded. He couldn’t see her nod and they lapsed into a comfortable silence, still adamant to evade sleep. After a while, another thought struck Erika and she instantly turned to Liam, who groaned, having already guessed she had another question.
“What now?” he groused.
“How old are you?”
“Oh, some five hundred odd years, I think,” he replied casually, as if it was a common occurrence among humans.
Erika whistled. “Wow.”
Silence reigned again. She heard him hiss and moan a couple of times but mostly, Liam wasn’t one to glorify his pain. They lay there beside each other, staring into the darkness, Liam’s mind carefully blank and Erika wondering about Liam’s family and the adventures and dangers he must have faced as a Trailblazer for the past five hundred years. She tried hard not to think about the next day and mostly succeeded but she could not control her dreams from conjuring up the Arena and a fierce face standing there, waiting for her. Yet again, she saw herself use the Moonwood and a light went out somewhere in the world – Erika’s eyes snapped open and she sat up with a start.
It was still dark out. She ran a hand down her face and winced when she accidentally massaged a bruise on her cheek.
“What happened?” Liam’s voice was hoarse from sleep. She had woken him up.
Erika sighed. “Bad dream, I guess. I keep seeing myself use the Moonwood… it doesn’t make sense,” she told him. She didn’t know what the dark artifact looked like but in the dream, she had known; and now that she thought about it, she couldn’t even remember what exactly she had seen in her dream. The more she tried to grasp it, the more it slithered away through the cobwebs in her mind. Just a general idea remained – she had killed someone using the Moonwood.
“Am I seeing the future? Is it even possible?” she asked Liam, who was sitting up now and watching her guardedly. “Is this how I’m supposed to defeat Grimsbane today and pass my test?”
“The Moonwood is never part of a test, Erika,” Liam said gently. “The Guild will never make the test easy for you.”
“Then why do I – ?”
Suddenly, Liam held up a hand and Erika clamped her mouth shut. She looked around trying to figure out what he had seen or heard. “Sun’s coming up,” he said finally and Erika glanced out of the window to see that he was right.
It was time for her final test.
“Oh God,” whispered Erika, her nerves backfiring and heart rate increasing.
“No,” Liam said loudly, grabbing her shoulders and shaking her roughly. Erika gaped at him in shock. “Don’t think about it! Don’t think this is a test. Just do what you think is right.”
“But I don’t know what’s right.”
“You will. So, don’t be scared now. Not anymore.”
“But what if I fail?” She realized she was insecure, but there was no reason to be scared. Even if she failed, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Erika absently wondered if she should just punch Liam. Hitting him always made her feel better.
“Then you won’t remember all this ever happened.”
Erika’s eyes widened. “Really? I won’t remember the test and meeting you and learning magic – anything?” she asked.
Liam shook his head. Erika let out a breath. She didn’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing – she didn’t mind not remembering the test but she couldn’t imagine forgetting Liam. Liam was her Trailblazer, he had saved her, he had mentored her these past three days. She couldn’t bear the thought of forgetting him. She looked up at his resolute face and nodded slowly. She would do her best and if that wasn’t enough, well… –
“Let’s kick the crap out of this stupid test!” she declared and Liam grinned.
“Good. Now let’s go.”
They made their way out of the safe house and towards the Arena. It was unlike anything she had ever seen. The buildings surrounding the square were completely blown apart and there was only devastation all around. Uprooted trees were strewn across the dusty road. The destroyed vehicles looked like they had been pushed to the side of the road to make a clearing in the middle. If Erika hadn’t already seen the real life city square, she would never have recognized this place that Liam called the Arena. It was as if an atom bomb had gone off right in the middle of the square, because the devastation here was more profound than any part of this test-conjured city.
Erika was trying to get over the distress and alarm the scene brought her when a chilling laugh reverberated throughout the Arena. A tall thin man floated out into sight, wearing long flowing robes of silver, long white hair billowing behind him as if by invisible air current that only affected him. His eyes were icy and sharp, his skin pale and stretched unpleasantly over his bones and when he smiled, his teeth were rotten and sallow. But it was his voice that sent chills down Erika’s spine.
Grimsbane spread his arms as if welcoming them to his home. “Liam the Trailblazer,” he boomed and Liam flinched visibly. “Good to see you again, my friend.”
Erika’s eyes slid to Liam. She had been right – Liam had known Grimsbane.
“Miss Moonwood.” The warlock’s smile had widened as his eyes scanned her face. “I’ve been waiting for you. My, my, you look just like –,”
“That’s enough chitchat,” Liam interrupted angrily. He turned to Erika and said, “Remember, Erika, this is not the real Grimsbane. This is just a… a cheap copy.”
A delighted laugh burst forth from Grimsbane. “Come now, Liam, you still resent me for my misdeeds?”
Liam grabbed Erika’s shoulders and wouldn’t let her look at Grimsbane as he ignored the warlock completely and continued what he was saying to her, “Just a cheap copy, get it? This is just a bad twist your test has taken; potential witches don’t fight Grimsbane in these tests, Erika…”
“I had to protect myself somehow,” Grimsbane’s voice echoed. Both men were speaking at once and Erika was getting the impression that Liam was more affected by the warlock’s presence than she was.
“Because it’s you and because it’s me and because we’re together, you’re getting me, Erika? Don’t pay attention to him!” Liam was flat out shouting now.
Erika stared at him in confusion. “Liam, I don’t… you’re scaring me.”
Grimsbane was saying, “And I’m not the only one to blame for Glinda’s death, my friend.”
Liam let go of her shoulders so suddenly that Erika stumbled back. “What?” he whispered, turning away from her to face the warlock. His hands shook with anger as he glared at Grimsbane and his eyes carried so much hatred that a trickle of fear and apprehension shot up Erika’s spine. “You tricked me, you bastard!” Liam spat. “You tricked me and I was stupid enough to believe you.”
“Yes, I must admit, you were never the sharpest tool in the box.”
“You think Glinda wasn’t aware of our deal? That she wasn’t aware her life was linked to mine?”
“Do not speak of her with your vile mouth!”
“Oh, she knew. But ultimately her wishes were more important to her – she wanted to get rid of me and she desired her mother alive. There was never any place for you in her life, Liam.”
Liam was marching towards Grimsbane and Erika was stunned into watching the scene unfolding before her. What was going on? What was Grimsbane talking about?
Grimsbane continued with an evil smile, “She chose us over you. She chose death over life with you. You were never enough. Not as a lover and certainly not as a Trailblazer.”
A gasp escaped her lips and Erika covered her mouth as she watched Liam raise his good hand and attempt to smash it in Grimsbane’s soulless face, except his fist went right through the warlock as if he was some kind of an apparition. Erika stared in shock. The hair at the back of her neck stood up and Erika was suddenly afraid. She wanted Liam by her side. He was standing too close to the apparition for her comfort.
Her fears were confirmed, because the next second, there was a blinding flash of light and Erika was thrown back. Her body smashed into the side of a car and slid down. Disoriented and trying to ignore the pain in her side, Erika scrambled up. “Liam,” she croaked and it was a weak plea from her lips. Blinking rapidly, she tried to clear her dazed head and see what was going on.
Eyes flashing and all traces of amusement gone from his face, Grimsbane stood with his hand raised, magically holding Liam up in the air like some rag doll. His body was levitated as if held up by his neck. His face was red and eyes bulging. Erika screamed his name and urged her feet to move. She needed to get to him. She had to save him. This was her test, not his. He wasn’t supposed to get involved. “LIAM!” she screamed again, hobbling towards both men.
Grimsbane was saying, his voice cold and harsh, “Erika will die, just like Glinda did. And as always, you will be unable to protect your charge.”
Then everything happened as if in slow motion. There was a sickening crack of bones and Erika watched in horror as Liam’s body fell to the ground, limp and unmoving. “No!” she cried, willing her legs to move faster. “No, no, no, please please,” she beseeched, falling to her knees beside him and carefully placing his head in her lap. “Please, Liam, please.” She did not know what she was pleading for or who she was pleading to but it was a word she couldn’t stop chanting.
His eyes fluttered open and he watched at her while she fussed over him and massaged his chest absently. “You look just like her,” he said and his voice was low and raspy.
Her hand stilled on him and she didn’t have to ask who he was talking about. “Glinda,” she whispered. “The dreams,” she said, realization dawning. “And that’s why you…” She trailed away looking down at him.
Liam nodded, wincing slightly. “Yes.”
“And you loved her.” She had meant it as a question but it came out a statement. Her mind had already put two and two together. Liam had been Glinda’s Trailblazer and they had fallen in love, and in order to protect her, Liam had linked her life to Grimsbane’s, counting on his power and invincibility to always keep him alive. But Glinda had used the link to take her own life and rid humanity of her father.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
He wouldn’t meet her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he rasped, his voice catching. “I was trying to protect you.”
“You did,” she said immediately. “You have.” She grabbed his hand and squeezed, trying to make him understand that he hadn’t failed. Neither her nor Glinda. If anything, Erika had failed him. “You wanted to tell me where I come from. Now I know.” Her guts twisted just thinking about it. It hurt to know that she had descended from the most evil warlock that had ever walked the planet.
“Hey,” Liam whispered and she looked at him. He had coughed up blood. “You’re nothing like Grimsbane. You’re a descendent of Glinda Moonwood, the strongest witch I have ever known.”
He coughed up some more blood and Erika’s eyes filled with tears. “Liam, please don’t leave me,” she begged. Frantically grasping at straws, she placed her hands flat over his torso and said, “Heal.” Nothing happened. “Shafa. Shafa. Shafa!” Angry sobs burst forth from her as she looked at him helplessly.
“Can’t heal me.” He could barely speak now and Erika clutched him harder. “Don’t let him into your head, Erika,” he uttered, before his eyes closed and the last breath left his lungs.
“Liam,” she whispered, shaking him a little.
A voice cut through the heartbreaking moment, “Are you done playing out the emotional death scene?”
Erika gently moved Liam’s body from her lap and laid it on the ground. Then, she pushed herself to her feet and turned to glare at Grimsbane, who looked almost bored in his observation of the scene before him. She shuffled closer to him and stood before him in a face-off, eyes burning, disgust and hate coiling in her stomach.
“You can’t hurt me, little girl,” he sneered.
Without warning, Erika pulled back and punched him. Her fist connected with his jaw in a sickening crunch and he looked back at her in shock. She shot him a nasty smile.
“Yes, I can.”
She was prepared for his hex, but couldn’t do anything to stop it. It hit her square in the chest and her body took a brief flight, landing in a crumpled heap some twenty feet away from Grimsbane. Her legs shook and her body strained as she got up, a laugh escaping her lips. “Your fate is sealed, Grimsbane,” she said, spitting blood on the ground. “Glinda brought you down and so will I.”
This time, she raised her hands to cast a temporary shield in front of her before his spell hit her. “You will die,” she continued, knocking him back with an energy blast.
He roared and the sound reverberated across the Arena. Erika took little satisfaction in his anger. He rained hexes upon hexes on her. Some she deflected, some she took, but she always gave back what she took with equal power and hatred, hitting him with energy blasts, setting his robes on fire and taunting him in between, not once thinking about defeat or Liam or her family or anything that had the potential to weaken her resolve.
Grimsbane shot a beam of red light at her and it hit her in the middle, opening up a nasty gash across her waist. Erika screamed out loud and clutched her stomach, bending a little in an attempt to block the pain. Grimsbane laughed and said something along the lines of a seventeen year old not standing a chance against him. Still hugging her middle, Erika hissed in agony, her eyes filling with tears. In the distance, light glinted off something and Erika stilled, looking at the shiny metal.
She lowered herself to the ground and crawled towards Liam.
“Liam won’t help you, little girl,” mocked Grimsbane. “Why, he’s dead.”
Erika ignored him and kept going, her breaths coming out in short gasps as her lungs betrayed her and her brain threatened to shut down.
“… and this is why he died – he always put his trust in the wrong people.”
Erika snatched the pistol from its holster and twisted around, pointing it at Grimsbane. The pistol fired and the thought bullet zipped towards him. His eyes widened as he finally realized what she had done. The bullet struck him smack in the middle of his eyebrows and a soft “No” escaped his mouth as he fell backwards, a cloud of dust rising around him as his body hit the ground.
The pistol dropped from her fingers and with another twist of her hand, Grimsbane’s body lighted up, the flames licking at him reflecting in Erika’s eyes. She slumped down heavily beside Liam, her fingers finding his, her eyes closed and only one thought prominent in mind – ‘We did it. Please let it be over.’
When she opened her eyes again, several blurry faces swam into her vision. “Dad?” she croaked, squinting. “Mom?”
“Oh honey!” her mother exclaimed, her voice sounding relieved. “Are you all right?”
A strong hand helped her sit up. “Do you want to go home?” Her dad.
Her vision cleared slowly and Erika looked around at the concerned faces of her friends and family. The room was aglow with colourful lights and party decorations. A half-eaten birthday cake sat on the corner table. Archie’s Clementine Cake was still intact.
She was back at Giovanni’s.
“Errr,” she hesitated, slightly disoriented. “What happened?”
“You fainted, darling, don’t you remember?” her mother reminded her gently.
Erika frowned. “But what about the…,” she began to say when she suddenly caught sight of a familiar face and her heart stopped. “Liam.”
He was standing by the door, watching her, a wide smile lighting up his handsome face. He looked unhurt and completely healthy and Erika could only gape at him. He was alive!
He put a finger to his lips and winked at her, before pushing open the door and walking out into the night. She wanted to stop him, to run to him and throw her arms around him in happiness and relief. But now she knew she would see him again. He would always be watching over her.
The moment was broken and Erika turned back to her family. A laugh bubbled up within her and she surged forward to hug her parents, circling her arms around both their necks. “Oh, I missed guys you so much.”
As they hugged, Erika turned her palm up and curved her fingers a bit, reciting the fire-making spell in her head.
The candle in the corner flickered to life.