Three serpents surrounded Kristy, giving their odd hiss cackles. With her sword, she spun a wall of fire around her, then shot a bright orange ring into the sky that cracked and dissipated when it was high above her. The move surprised the serpents enough for them to back away.
As Dylan let loose arrows on the serpents focused in his direction, he began to feel that they would never stop coming as more came in to replace those fallen. How much longer could he keep this up? The serpents had strategized well in separating him and Kristy, and none of the others with Elemental Discs were in sight.
An unexpected whinny broke through the sounds of fighting. Dylan, in the middle of pulling his string back once more, caught a quick glimpse of Kristy swinging herself onto the back of a grey horse with a saddle but no bridle. Immediately afterward, a black horse galloped up to him and skidded to a halt. "Jump on!" it shouted.
Dylan didn’t have time to be surprised as one serpent snapped at him. He hooked one foot into the stirrup, slipping himself into the saddle before the horse sped away.
Kristy, on the horse galloping beside him, laughed as the serpents were unable to keep pace with them. "Just in time, Felise.”
"We saw your fire ring," the grey horse replied in a distinctly female voice.
"Where have you been, Kristy?" the black horse demanded.
"Long story. How'd you get into the arena?”
"Blackhearts tried to enter through the bordering wall," Felise said. "And made a mess of it.”
Dylan looked back and saw a slithering figure slowly catching up. "We've got company.”
"No problem," the black horse declared.
"Hang on!" Kristy shouted, and Dylan gripped the saddle until his knuckles turned white, tightening his legs around the horse for balance.
The wind whistled and jungle colors blurred together as the horses went faster, jumping obstacles that lingered in their path. The horses' manes streamed behind them and Dylan queasiness forming in his stomach. He couldn't deny being nervous since this was his first time ever riding a horse—and so fast! He felt like he had become a part of the wind, or like one of those fragile leaves he’d seen being blown around by it.
The horses gradually slowed their pace as they came out from the forest near a high wall. In the circular curve of the wall stood a gap full of crumbled white bricks and cement. Without warning the horses made a rush for it, and Dylan gripped hard again as he realized they were going to sail over the high pile of rubble.
The black horse Dylan rode went first, then Felise. When their hooves had pounded onto the other side, Dylan saw a field of green meadow in front of them and beyond that a forest. As they neared the forest, a mansion came into view.
The windows of the mansion were cracked, and the house was pretty much in ruins so that Dylan didn't recognize it at first. Smoke rose from certain parts of the house, as if someone had wanted to burn it down and changed their mind later.
"Maria!" Dylan shouted, escaping the saddle the moment they halted. He stepped over shattered glass and splintered wood on his way inside, bow in hand. The stair railing was cracked to pieces, with the silver statue fallen and partially melted on the floor.
Dylan ran upstairs. All the doors were open, some wrenched partially off their hinges. He found the room Kristy had showed him to earlier: Maria was gone. He could only hope Jonas had taken her somewhere safe. Dylan couldn't find his sword either—Jonas might have taken that also.
"What did you expect to find?" Kristy asked when he came out. She was dismounted beside the horses.
"I don't know," Dylan said softly. Some older brother I am, he thought.
The Sorcerer reappeared in a hall of the castle. Although he was ashamed to admit it, the forces he’d come in contact with were stronger than he had expected. Before then, he’d been confident that, since the Swordbearers were young, they wouldn't know their power enough to wield it effectively against his experienced magic.
Five minutes passed until he could work off the freezing spell. Shivering, he made his way down the hall and, muttering mysterious words, plucked the arrow from his chest. His shoulder ached with every step, and he chanted quietly to reverse the effects of the burn. The Magician's meeting with the Lords and Ladies of the Middle Ground had probably reached the end of feasting and moved to important matters.
In the meeting room, tables were overturned, food and drinks splattered on the floor, and, well—suffice it to say, the place was a general disaster.
Isirien stopped in his tracks. "I sense your presence," he said. "Come out of hiding.”
"My, you've changed brother," a female voice said as someone in a black hood appeared. "I can't hide from you like I used to. But neither can you hide from me."
"Soul Thief," Isirien murmured with dread of recognition. "Why have you come?”
She drew back her hood, revealing pale and dead features, with eyes that were empty and a ghostly hollow. "I escaped the tombs where the Three Swordbearers imprisoned me. But the descendants are arising."