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"Who's that?" Harper whispered.
Kason shook his head and looked back at the figure. The two of them made their way haltingly to where Lexia and Kayla stood and Alford joined them, all watching the figure carefully.
For a few minutes, no one moved. A cold wind whistled through the arena, particularly noticeable in the tense silence. Eventually, the black-clad figure began to descend towards the stadium's floor. They moved downwards, going from bench to bench, taking strides of a length that no human ought to and with such unnatural smoothness that they might have been floating.
As the figure reached the low barrier at the very bottom bench, Kason caught another movement from the corner of his eye. He looked away from the figure just in time to see Ashton vaulting over the barrier from his seat to land on the stadium floor. He then hurried towards the black-clad figure, casting concerned glances at Professor Kinora who was still staring at where the figure had been a few moments before as if he hadn't noticed they had moved.
As Ashton approached the figure, who was making its way slowly towards the children, Kason was shaken out of his dazed state by Alford's voice, which was quavering.
"We should head to the entrance tunnel. I don't like that guy."
It was only then that Kason realised that they had simply been standing where they were. He nodded, not wanting to speak and they all moved off in the direction of the tunnel.
Meanwhile, near the centre of the field, Ashton had intercepted the black robed person and was speaking to him. Kason could hear him asking who the intruder was and what they were doing, his voice ringing strangely throughout the arena. As far as he could tell, the figure gave no answer, they simply stood and regarded Ashton from within their ebony hood.
The silence stretched on, the only sound being the m.u.f.fled footfalls of Kason's group which were drowned by Ashton's commanding tones. Kason felt a tension building in him, like a spring gradually compressing. He licked his lips and rubbed his hands together, feeling the dampness of sweat on his palms. Ashton had begun his round of questions again, his tone turning angry. Kason wished he would just back off, the black-clad figure was dangerous - maybe even being responsible for the apparition he had seen in the Forest!
More than once he thought about calling out to Ashton, telling him to come back with them, but fear and something else held him back. A feeling of relief, quickly followed by shame, that the figure was occupied with Ashton and not them.
Halfway towards the tunnel, Ashton finished his round of questions for the second time. Kason, who was beginning to feel quite ill, reached into his uniform and pulled out his locket. He held it tightly as he walked, and gazed at the winged silver doors - thinking beyond to the stone that lay inside.
He closed his eyes momentarily, wishing that the figure in black would leave or at the very least, say something. He wished that Professor Kinora, much as he disliked him, would do something! He worried as he walked and as he began to feel overwhelmed, he felt what could only be described as a touch. Not a physical connection but something in his mind.
The touch brushed gently against his thoughts and seemed to calm them. His mind instinctively shied away from the connection, but it stuck to him and he could feel a sensation of hurt transmitted across it. What was going on?
Kason opened his eyes and the feeling disappeared. The others were all looking at him nervously. By the way they had all ended up slightly ahead of him, Kason guesses that he had stopped walking momentarily. He took a steadying breath and waved a hand, opening his mouth to say that he was fine but before he could, a piercing scream cut the air.
Kason leapt into the air in fright and spun around just in time to see Ashton crash into the wall of the stadium and fall to the ground. Mouth agape and heart sinking faster than iron through water, Kason turned his head to look at where the black-robed figure was.
He saw that the figure was now striding towards them, robes billowing around them and making them seem all the more intimidating for it. Kason heard someone nearby whimper as the black-robed figure raised a sleeve veiled hand towards the children, causing a slight thrill to run through Kason's body.
Kason tried to run. Even though every instinct in his body was telling him to flee, his limbs would simply not obey. It was as if they were no longer his to command; as if they were under the sway of some higher power than his own. And so Kason could only stand stationary as the mysterious person swept towards him. The fact that he was the closest to the person only served to heighten his sense of dread so that by the time the figure stood before him, his body had practically shut down and he couldn't have run even if his legs did decide to listen.
As the figure stood menacingly before Kason, he could see some vague outlines of a face within the hood. The shouts and cries of the other senior division students as they surged across the arena towards them faded into the background and all that occupied Kason's mind was the man - for he could now tell that is was a man - before him. The dense facial hair beneath the hood hid the remainder of the face that might've been visible, but the eyes remained clear. Bright green and piercing, they bore down into Kason and brushed over his face to fix upon the locket that was sitting, exposed on Kason's chest.
With one swift movement, the man grabbed hold of Kason and lifted him from the arena floor. Up close, Kason could now smell a putrid scent of cloying sweat coming from the man. With the hand not holding Kason, the man took hold of the locket, ripped it from Kason's neck, and held it up for examination. It glinted in the weak sunlight as it sat on the man's palm, who stared at it momentarily then, closed his hand into a fist, causing the locket to shatter into many silver shards which fell in a tinkling shower from the man's grasp. Uncurling his fingers, revealed the smooth black stone resting in the man's open palm. The green eyes gleamed triumphantly as he beheld it and then, seemingly by accident, moved back to Kason's face.
Kason saw them take in his features momentarily and then move back to the locket only to flick back a split second later. A small part of his mind that wasn't currently shut down by fear noted that shock seemed to float across the pupils. Then Kason was lifted higher and turned this way and that as if being examined himself, before being brought back to eye level.
From within the hood, Kason thought he heard a vague rumbling voice say, something. The man then waited as if expecting an answer. Kason, still paralysed in terror, moved his mouth to say something - but all that came out was an incoherent gurgle. The man snorted and peered at him a moment longer then, almost as suddenly as he had been picked up, he was flung to the floor where he lay trembling for a good few minutes.
When Kason recovered, he looked up from the dirt to see the black-robed man standing only a few steps from where he had been, facing the two other senior division students. The black-robed man looked at ease, whereas the two students were obviously tense and uneasy. In the background, Kason could see Ashton still lying spread-eagled on the ground beneath a cracked portion of the wall.
He turned to check on the others and found them still standing rigidly in the positions they had been before. They looked down at him with concerned and teary eyes but otherwise remained immobile, still under the sway of whatever spell the figure had cast on them. Kason turned back briefly considered attacking but then realised that his borrowed wand was not on his person. He glanced around again and saw that Professor Kinora had still not moved from his previous position. He also wondered what had become of the arena staff. Surely they should have come to help by now?
As Kason was thinking the standoff between the students and the intruder continued. The senior division students stood, various implements held at the ready but unwilling to act first in case they hit one of the children. The black-robed man stood as before, still at ease, but one hand seemed to twitch every so often.
After a few more moments, one of the senior division students let out an anguished cry and brandished their wand at the intruder, sending a column of fire roaring towards him. The intruder seemed to contemplate the fire for a split second before pushing out his palm towards the flame. When the column reached a meter away from the open palm, it collided with some unseen barrier and exploded in spurts of flame around the point of collision.
At the same time, the other student, seeing that his companion had begun attacking, also swung his staff about to point at the black-robed man. Kason, who had been alerted by the fire to the commencing battle, could not see anything burst from the staff as the fire had, but the intruder must have sensed something as he raised his other hand, clenched in a fist, and drew out a circle in the air with it.
Seeing this, the staff-wielding student gave a look of panic and tried to leap aside and dodge whatever it was that was coming at him. But some force seemed to catch him mid-leap and force him back to the ground. As soon as his feet touched the earth, his robes caved in at a point on his stomach before billowing out as the student was sent spinning a short way into the air before crashing down to the ground.
The other student, seeing that they were suddenly the only one left to face the intruder, began to back up. As they stepped backwards, however, the earth under their feet began to break apart and shake as if they were suddenly caught in their own localised earthquake. They quickly lost their balance and fell to the ground before being hit by another of the invisible spells that had felled the other student.
Kason who was now standing again, saw the man glance once back at them before he began to walk past them towards the tunnel out of the stadium. As Kason watched the black-robed back walk away, he suddenly felt a sense of loss. It came on so suddenly that he was momentarily immobilised by its intensity. It was an ache that formed in the front of his mind, radiating in uncomfortable waves throughout his head. As quickly as it came, however, it shifted again, becoming a peculiar feeling that Kason couldn't immediately put a name to.
As he stood with his leg stretched out, frozen in a half step, and watched the retreating back of the man, he realised that it was some kind of plea for help. And now that the intensity had dropped, he recognised, with some revulsion, the same touch as earlier. It was getting weaker over time, and it was across this connection that the silent plea was being transmitted.
Kason felt himself begin to panic. Whoever it was asking for help seemed to be desperate and he, Kason, didn't even know where they were to help them. He thought back to when he had last felt the touch, trying to grasp what had triggered it. He had been worried and had taken out his locket... But the locket was gone, destroyed. Then the man had taken the stone from inside and fought off the other students and...
Kason's eyes widened as he realised. He looked towards the man's fist, in which he knew was held the stone he had taken. And that was it, wasn't it? The stone was, somehow, calling out to him asking for help.
Kason stood where he was as the man walked further away. Fear at the realisation at what he needed to do kept him glued to the spot. While he remained frozen in indecision, the intruder made his way to just before the spot when Professor Kinora's platform was floating high above. Then, just before he pa.s.sed beneath it, the black-robed man stopped.
The ground before the man then erupted in a cloud of dust as something landed on the earth before him. Then, Professor Kinora emerged, walking with halting steps, from within the cloud. He walked as if each step was costing him some great effort to take and his face was static in a mask of concentration. The black-robed man watched him approach and seemed to c.o.c.k his head, peering at the approaching teacher.
"I thought you were going to stay out of my way." A rumbling voice came from within the shadows of the hood. Unlike when Kason had heard it, it was oddly accented and rolled like thunder around the stadium.
Professor Kinora did not respond but stood, straight-backed and jaw clenched, the muscles moving noticeably beneath his skin. The black-robed man, seeing that no response was coming, shrugged and raised an arm.
Immediately a blast of some crackling turquoise energy erupted from his palm, rocketing towards Professor Kinora. Professor Kinora raised his own hand and seemed to bat the bolt away before retaliating with his own spell. After this opening display, the fight continued with bursts of energy from both sides flashing back and forth between them. Kason still stood where he had been, dazzled by the display of power taking place before him. He puzzled momentarily over what the man had said to Professor Kinora before they fought but quickly lost concentration.
Suddenly, in the back of his mind, an idea began to form. Perhaps, now that the man was occupied with Professor Kinora, he could do something to try and get the stone. He took a couple of steps forward, still considering what it was he was going to do and then before he even knew what was happening, he was running at full pelt towards the black-robed figure.
The trigger was a piercing mental cry of a strength that dwarfed all others. Such was the overwhelming urge it gave him, that he only realised what was happening when a stray spell whizzed past his head, stirring him from his stupor. He let out a shrill cry as he realised what was happening, but quickly shut up as he realised that he was only a meter or two from the intruder's back.
Meanwhile, Professor Kinora and the black-robed man were still duelling. As Kason approached, Professor Kinora launched a missile of yellow light towards the man at the same time as he released a pulsating red beam towards Professor Kinora. The two attacks collided in mid-air, resulting in a miniature explosion that caused both of them to stumble backwards.
Kason too felt its effects and almost fell as he ran, but at the same moment another mental cry came and he ran forward with renewed vigour. He neared the black-robed man as the other was still regaining his footing and, seeing his chance, grabbed the fist in which he knew the stone was held. He heard a grunt of surprise from the man and heard a shout from Professor Kinora, but he paid them no mind. To his disoriented brain, all that mattered was that he somehow got the stone.
Kason's fingers scrabbled at the closed fist of the man, trying to prise the fingers open - but the man's grip was too tight, his fingers too strong. Kason felt himself being raised into the air even as he still clung to the fist. The man was yelling something at him, but Kason didn't know what. His mind was too clouded, it had shut down, and Kason couldn't understand anything except the base urge he felt to get the stone.
Suddenly he was being shaken. The man was waving his fist violently, with Kason still hanging on, in an effort to dislodge him. Then, just as suddenly, there was a burst of noise and light and the man stopped shaking him. The fist to which Kason had fastened himself jerked backwards and Kason lost his grip. He felt his tired fingers, shaking from exertion and slick from sweat, slip on the coa.r.s.e skin and, in a last ditched attempt to save himself, made one last wild grab before he was shaken off.
He flew through the air and thudded into the floor a short distance away. Winded, and gasping for breath, Kason looked up to see what was happening. The man who he had been holding the stone had been hit with another spell and was falling backwards. His mouth was open and he was bellowing something in distress, his hand extended and grasping for something even as he fell.
Following the direction of the man's hand Kason saw a glint as something flew high through the air. The stone! He began to get to his feet, intending to rush forwards and grab the stone as it fell. He started forward but was stopped abruptly in his tracks as a hand clenched around his wrist. Eyes still fixed on the stone he shook his arm, trying to dislodge his captor.
"Kason, are you mad?!"
Someone was talking to him. He struggled harder but then fell still, eyes widening in horror. A spell, crackling with pure energy and glowing bright white was speeding through the air. As if in slow motion, he saw the pulsating streak soar straight into the stone. He saw the small orb become slowly engulfed in blinding white and for a moment, everything seemed to be still - frozen in time except for what little could be seen of the little black sphere. Then Kason heard a sharp crack.
Black mist erupted in great billowing clouds from the point of collision. In all directions it spread, darker than the blackest clouds, quickly immersing Kason and his friends within its undulating ma.s.s. Within the dense clouds, Kason was blinded - unable to see. He quickly turned his head, looking for something that could be seen through the blackness. After a few moments, he was forced to concede that the only thing visible, if it could be called that, was the inky mist that surrounded him.
Taking a deep steadying breath to push down his rising panic, he thought about who had been around him when the mist came. Someone had been right behind him... Harper! Kason quickly stuck out his hands behind him, feeling for Harper who should've been right behind him. They came up with nothing. With panic now beginning to take over, he cautiously began to call out to anyone who might be nearby.
After a few moments, he fell silent to listen for any replies. It was eerily quiet in the mist, even the sounds of the wind did not penetrate in from the outside as if when inside the mist, Kason was part of a different world. After a moment, he thought he heard a voice calling his name and immediately plunged towards it through the darkness at a half sprint.
As he went he kept listening, trying to hear the voice again but even as he approached the point where he was sure it had come from, he did not hear it again. Had he imagined it? He could have. Breathing hard and almost sobbing, he broke into a full sprint. Someone must have said something. And how could have the stone have given out so much mist anyway? Suddenly his foot caught on something that did not give way and he pitched forward. The scream he let out was cut short as his head made contact with something hard and his consciousness slipped swiftly away.