For a moment, the battlefield froze when Soaring Ibis appeared in the sky. Human soldiers and Dragonblooded monks alike halted their advance on the captured denizens of Three Oaks, staring up at the Solar with expressions ranging from indifference to loathing to horror. It was not the hesitation of the terrified, so much as a collective gathering of their fortitude for the task ahead. That much was especially obvious on the faces of the five leaders, who studied Ibis and the other newcomers like cats preparing to pounce.
But one of the soldiers, a lithe man built like a raptor, dashed back into motion a moment later, running at the villagers and aiming a wicked-looking spear at one of the taller men. A heartbeat before his attack would have struck home, though, the spear slammed into the ground, and Cerulean Wake stood in between the soldier and his target, his fist still moving downward from where it had deflected the weapon. The soldier looked a bit shocked, but quickly moved to lift his spear and strike at Wake instead. He was far too slow.
“Vortex Blow!” Slamming both fists forward into the soldier’s chest, Wake launched him with enough force to leave a minor shockwave behind. He went flying toward the group of his fellows who held Ichigoya pinned, and at the same time that he connected with another soldier, the old one-eyed man burst from the mancatcher he was held underneath, drew a pair of long staves from thin air, and struck about him in a whirlwind, knocking four soldiers off of their feet at once. Ichigoya’s rumpled clothing was suddenly a dark fighting suit, and the craggy cliffside of his face became something more like well-aged timber, the ancient visage of one Seven Vaulting Staves.
“I figured you were here somewhere,” Wake called out to his sifu as the invaders swarmed around them. “And you owe me a drink.”
“If we survive this day,” Staves replied as he spun into motion. “I’ll buy you Kagari’s entire stock.”
Cinder flash-stepped to cover Wake’s back as a fusillade of thorns came flying at him, deflecting the projectiles with her blade, and crouched low as Lilac’s vine whip swept over both of their heads, stopping the advance of the Air and Wood Aspect soldiers who had been pressuring them. Her crouch quickly became a dash as she left that group in Wake’s hands to rescue a knot of villagers being threatened by a squad of regular soldiers, and as she went she noticed Lilac’s whip taking out aggressors to either side of her, leaving her a clear path. Once she reached them, she leaped into the air and spun, sending out heat from her weapon that scalded six of the soldiers as she landed in the midst of them, and then proceeded to fiercely lay into them, punishing any that ignored her in favor of the townsfolk with the edge of her blade.
As she fought, a hulking Wood Aspect with a giant bow started peppering her location with arrows, nearly catching her legs a few times but otherwise unsuccessful in his attacks, and a few moments later she turned just in time to see a sphere of ice the size of a pumpkin heading straight for her ribcage. Performing a quick vertical slice, she followed up with Embers on the Summer Breeze, dicing it to shreds in an instant and scattering the icy shards in a starburst around her, taking down four nearby soldiers with the maneuver.
The two Terrestrials looked livid, and moved to charge her, but a vine wall erupted from the ground in an arc a few paces away, blocking their advance and heralding Lilac’s appearance next to her. “I brought some Fire with me,” the man said with a slight nod over his own shoulder. “Mind taking it off of my hands?”
“My pleasure,” Cinder responded as she pivoted to meet a jet of flame that surged from behind them, spinning Ivory Blaze Dancer in front of her to dissipate the fires before they could touch either her or Lilac. She then carved the ground before her up in three Earth Razors, exploding it towards the duo of Fire Aspects that had launched the flames. They managed to evade the rocks, but the burst generated plenty enough dust and cover for another large group of villagers to escape.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see a flurry of motion up where Ibis stood in the air, as the two demons at her flanks went on the attack, and a familiar essence pattern grew in her mind….
As the battle below resumed, Ibis stood with her bow at the ready, watching the five shikari intently. The aloof man with blue eyes moved first, flying down and away from them all quickly towards the melee, and was followed a moment later by the sneering woman with red hair. Ibis’s eyes flickered in their direction, and she spoke over her shoulder quietly.
“Florivet, please help the others, and look after the villagers.”
“For you, darlin’, anything.” With a wink, the wolf-muzzled man darted after the two Terrestrials, spinning as he dove and tucking his wings in for added speed.
“Matsuri-Ono, at your discretion.”
“Well then, I am off!” The little valley god let out a high-pitched whistle from the ears of his helmet, leaped off of Ibis’s shoulders, and dropped like a stone. Once he had descended some distance, though, he clicked three times, and then grew rapidly, standing as tall as two warstriders when he slammed into the ground, his eyes shining with a piercing light. “GOOD MORNING, Realm lapdogs!” He brought his fist down in a wide arc a second later, sending a handful of soldiers flying with a powerful sweep.
Still, the three remaining leaders stood in place, only watching Ibis. “Aren’t you going to join the battle?” spoke the blue-haired woman who stood at the leader’s right side. “Your friends are far outnumbered, and our monks are more than trained to deal with unruly local gods.”
“I don’t need to join the battle to aid them.” Drawing in a deep breath, Ibis glanced very briefly over to the dark-skinned demon who remained at her side. “Zsofika, I’ll need you with me for now, but be ready to break off and assist the others.” The woman responded by striking the surface of her blade, the multitude of bells in her hair ringing once in unison. Ibis looked back to the three shikari, her heart and mind growing very still. “Just listen…I’ve a song that’s perfect for the occasion.”
As the Anathema woman called her last demon into action, Naratis readied herself. This Soaring Ibis seemed quite confident in her allies, and in herself, to face three of the Wyld Hunt with only a demon for support. Naratis had seen similar bravado before on other hunts; it seemed a common thread among most Anathema. Still, it was best not to underestimate her, even if she did look so young and innocent – just because Naratis’s team had sent every other Solar they had faced on to their next lives did not mean they could afford to get to complacent. Most Solars did not have such backup, these days; and from what she could see below of the Outcastes, they would not be easy for their forces to defeat.
Taking a moment to study the other woman, Naratis frowned deeply. She really was young, probably barely over twenty. Anathema aged even more slowly than Exalted, from what the records claimed, but the signs of natural youth were still there. What had her life been like before? She was clearly a miko of high standing, and there was a depth of intelligence in her eyes that quite surprised Naratis. In a perfect world, such a girl would have lived a full, complete life, perhaps even Exalting herself, and dying at a ripe old age surrounded by friends and family. Instead, she would just be another blighted bulb clipped long before its time. The thought gave Naratis no pleasure; it never did.
Finally, rather than come at them or loose an arrow, the Anathema crooned a low note that began to waft and lilt through the air, turning into a haunting melody. It was soft, yet it cut through the noise of the battle like a blade, and as soon as it started, Commander Asalis hissed through his teeth. “Do not listen to the witch’s song!”
Sure enough, Naratis could immediately feel a presence trying to push against the wards on her mind. It was not strong enough to threaten them, so she just let it break itself on her mental defenses, but the battle below was a different story. Within moments, she could see the humans who made up the lion’s share of their forces starting to slow their attack, turning from the Outcastes to gaze up at the sky vapidly. Not all of them seemed affected completely, as some still battled on, but then Naratis noticed a second melody, somehow hidden in the first, that suddenly came to life and began harmonizing with the first. Any soldier struck by the second dropped his or her weapon, and either cowered or fled. Anathema tricks…we can’t have that.
Sliding her claws onto her knuckles, Naratis leaped toward the Solar, using a blast of water to propel herself across the intervening air. “That’s enough of that!” Soaring Ibis launched a volley of arrows at her, but she swerved and careened around them, until her claws slammed into the moon-shaped blade of the demon who had moved in front of her Solar opponent. “Zsofika the Kite Flute…it’s been a while.”
The dark-skinned woman blinked, and tilted her head slightly, before recognition dawned in her eyes. “Ah, the scion of Iselsi. Does this make three times we’ve fought? Or four?”
“I’d prefer it be the last.” Congealing tiny, spongy clouds beneath her feet to support her in the air, Naratis knocked Zsofika’s blade aside and began her Six Strikes of Daana’d combat form. Soaring Ibis’s spirit bow began glowing with a bright white light as she prepped some attack, but Naratis performed a high-arcing leap before she could loose it, one that carried her back and over a vine-wrapped arrow the size of a spear that launched from Asalis straight at the Anathema.
Zsofika bobbed out of the way, and Soaring Ibis wove her glowing light platform to the side in time, but before she had even completed the motion, Ryotheras appeared at her flank, one fist pulled back. “Crushing Meteor Strike!” She blocked the punch he threw with a serpentine motion that deflected the brunt of its force, but a split-second later his fist sprouted a small boulder, attached it to Ibis’s arm, and sent both her and it hurtling down towards the ground with a concussive force that battered Naratis like a tornado. Immediately after, Asalis launched another arrow, and this one turned into a long, wide wooden tendril with a pointed tip that snaked away from him as it grew and sped towards Ibis’s falling form. Naratis took the opportunity to disengage from Zsofika, landed on the tendril, and ran along it towards the ground, using another jet of water to catch up to the point.
Just as the razor-sharp tendril would have slammed into her and pinned her to the ground, if not impaled her, Soaring Ibis vanished from underneath the boulder in a flash of light, reappearing on the grass several paces away and beginning another song. Naratis leaped off and struck with her claws, preventing her from reforming her spirit bow, and managed to keep her occupied long enough for Ryotheras to come slamming into the ground at her back. Between the two of them, they managed to interrupt her singing several more times, and rather than try and pincer her between them, they used her mobility against her by hedging her out and keeping her exposed for the occasional arrow or spear from Asalis, who otherwise kept Zsofika busy and unable to come to the Solar’s aid.
As it became apparent that they weren’t going to give her the room to effectively wield her bow, Soaring Ibis let it fade to a blue glow in her right hand, stepped back into a low battle stance, and darted her hand out in a motion mimicking a viper’s strike towards Ryotheras, who was charging her from a short distance off. An invisible force struck the burly Earth Exalt square in the chest, but he pushed through it, deflecting two more as he closed the distance and then slamming both fists down into the earth, tearing up a violent trail of rock debris towards the Anathema. She halted for a second to regain her footing, then twirled gracefully a few paces back as a barrage of air pellets riddled the ground where she had previously stood. Nehor was responsible for those, flying in from the bigger battle, and he kept at it, driving Soaring Ibis further and further away from her allies with successive volleys until a bundle of vines covered in thorns erupted from the soil under him, two bright blue maws on their tips snapping up at his legs. He ceased his rapid-fire shots and banked away to avoid them, but sent an arc of lightning at Soaring Ibis as he turned, catching her very momentarily off of her guard and throwing her back a dozen paces. She recovered before she hit the ground, flipping backwards and skidding to a halt on her feet, but Naratis was there in her face before she could catch a breath, her claws now lengthened with several inches of ice, as Karanya dropped in across from her and began a lethal dance with her burning blades.
As she fought with the Solar, Naratis had to admit that her martial arts skills were extraordinary. With attacks coming in from all sides, the other woman did not have much opening to go on the offensive, but the weaving, sinuous form of her Snake Style meant that she didn’t need to: any dodge could just as easily turn into a strike from an odd, unexpected angle in riposte. Naratis had taken two of those deceptive attacks thus far, and was grudgingly impressed by the ferocity behind them. But despite that, she had seen one or two slight weaknesses in the Solar’s defenses, and all she needed was one good shot.
Suddenly, Soaring Ibis over-committed on one of her counter-attacks and missed, and Naratis lunged in for a mortal strike. However, as soon as she had shifted her weight, she saw a flicker of motion, and the sword-wielding Fire Aspect called Smoldering Cinder appeared in the air between them, her red jade daiklave already on the downswing and glowing with heat. Naratis coated her claws in an extra layer of ice, and shifted her step into a strong defense, locking her claws against that blade as it came down and extending a globe of water around herself to protect against the scalding heat that radiated from the new combatant. She could see Lilac at Dusk arrive to halt Ryotheras and Karanya’s advance on the other side – finding that one defending a Solar had been a big shock – and that was more than enough respite for Soaring Ibis to begin another song, the pressure against Naratis’s mental wards surging again. She gritted her teeth, and began a furious exchange of blows with Smoldering Cinder. Naratis had to get past her, and quickly – there was no telling how much longer the army could hold under the Anathema’s music.
Though some of them had attacked the populace outright, the tactics of the invading army were obvious enough to Lilac at Dusk. After all, the moment Cerulean Wake had leaped into the fray, nearly all of them had diverted their attention to him, Seven Vaulting Staves, Cinder, and Lilac. The play was simple: keep the Guardians away from Soaring Ibis until they could assassinate her. A textbook maneuver for the Wyld Hunt if ever there were one; Lilac was quite familiar with those tactics. With more than two hundred regular soldiers and monks at their disposal, plus nearly two dozen Dragon-blooded, it had certainly been one of the best moves they could make. Luckily, Ibis had brought along a little extra help; trained to fight against gods or not, they were having a lot of trouble facing down the wrath of a full-size Matsuri-Ono, devoting most of their Terrestrials to trying to subdue him, and that meant that Florivet was easily able to disrupt their attempts to pin Lilac and the others down by dropping in and laying about with fists, teeth, and claws against teams of soldiers at once. Cerulean Wake and Seven Vaulting Staves were too constantly busy to break away, but after a short while Lilac found himself fighting back-to-back with Cinder.
Karanya of House Sesus faced off with Cinder, those twin blades of hers leaving a constant swirl of red light in the air as they moved, and Lilac found himself primarily occupied with fending off the Air Aspect, a dispassionate young man he did not recognize. Air pulses and shockwaves rained down on Lilac, less intended to injure or kill and more for pure suppression, and he struck back with his vine whip, cracking it to launch thorns at his opponent whenever he hung back and sweeping it in wide arcs whenever he drew in close for too long. Every time he could spare a moment’s breath, he casually flicked a seed pod into the ground, doing his best to hide the motion and quickly return to his defense. Whether the other man noticed was not apparent, so Lilac kept it up until he had scattered enough seeds to begin his counter-attack.
Finally, with a quick surge of Essence, Lilac pressed his free hand to the earth, and concentrated. The seed pods sprouted in unison all around the area, immediately growing into towering, carnivorous vines as tall as six or seven men, snapping and biting at the Air Aspect. He reacted quickly, darting between them and only narrowly avoiding losing an arm once or twice, and when it became apparent that he wouldn’t be able to continue harrying Lilac easily, he withdrew to a safe distance and skirted the area entirely. Lilac knew where he was headed next, so he directed his vines to attack Karanya, who was already being pressured by Cinder. The enemy Fire Aspect followed her comrade’s lead shortly after, and with a quick nod at Cinder, the two of them gave chase.
Lilac and Cinder crisscrossed each others’ paths as they reached Ibis’s fight, dodging a hail of thick spears made of bark that rained down on them from Commander Asalis’s distant position. Cinder flashed into the air over Ibis and came down hard on Vice Commander Naratis, though the powerful Impenetrable Water Shell she called up protected her from Cinder’s fury. Lilac activated more seed pods as he went along – these had been planted weeks, if not months, in advance, in the event of just such a grand-scale invasion – and kept up the pressure on the Air Aspect, nearly catching him once more just as he drew within optimum striking distance of Ibis. It wasn’t enough to prevent him throwing lightning at her, but an attack of that power wouldn’t even scratch the High Songstress, so Lilac let him weave out of range again and moved to confront the other two shikari. Casting his whip out again, he summoned up a carpet of vines that caught Ryotheras and Karanya’s feet, slowing them to a halt before they could get too close to Ibis, and stepped to cover her back, directly opposite where Cinder now battled Naratis.
As soon as he arrived, Lilac heard Ibis’s voice begin another song, and reinforced his binding vines with extra essence, buying them some time to catch a breath while Ibis’s music went to work on the army once more. Sure enough, wails of despair began rising from the humans as the melody assaulted their minds, and several small knots of them broke rank and started to flee. Karanya unleashed an arc of fire that burned away the vines holding her and Ryotheras down, and then loosed another that cracked like a flaming whip at Lilac’s head, while her Earth Aspect ally barreled forward. Cerulean Wake intercepted them both, shooting up from the ground on a column of water that broke the flame whip and blocked Ryotheras’s charge, and landing at Lilac’s side a moment later. Ibis’s song intensified, and Lilac gathered his vine whip, taking a ready stance and bracing for another round of assault. If they could just hold on a little longer.
Naratis had heard of this woman Smoldering Cinder before, from some of her informants. An Outcaste Fire Aspect, she had appeared on the eastern edge of the Threshold in the company of Lilac at Dusk, hailing from some unknown flyspeck in the Far East. She had not been involved in any trouble beyond putting a few arrogant noble Exalted in their places – some of the Houses felt more entitled than others, and took rather disrespectful tacks when dealing with Outcastes not of the Realm or its holdings – but the fact that she was associated with Lilac had been reason enough to keep an eye on her. Naratis was thankful for that bit of foresight on her own part; otherwise, she might have underestimated the woman, which given her current situation, might very well have been deadly.
Flowing through her combat forms, Naratis went from Water Serpent’s Tail to Scattering Morning’s Dew to Eight Diving Kingfishers, and barely seemed to make any progress at all. Cinder’s blade was everywhere, meeting her blow-for-blow, moving like a weapon half its size. She didn’t fight with any of the styles Naratis knew or was familiar with, and it was simultaneously infuriating and invigorating to face an opponent of her level. In nearly any other situation, Naratis would have been glad for the fight to drag on for minutes, or even hours, just for the sheer joy of battling such a worthy adversary. As it was, with the Anathema’s music growing stronger, she was feeling more frustration than anything, considering that with even just three or four paces she could have been close enough to silence that Solar. But Cinder gave no ground, and so she fought on.
A few moments later, five sharpened logs came hurtling from the sky and slammed into the earth around the ground that Soaring Ibis and her fellows currently held. Immediately recognizing the formation they were in, Naratis quickly dashed back from Cinder during a dodge, putting some distance between them a split-second before the earth around them began to crack and heave. Ryotheras bellowed as he slammed both fists into the ground, intensifying the upheaval, and Karanya formed and released a quick stream of flame at their foes as wide as four men shoulder-to-shoulder. Cinder managed to keep her feet, brandished her daiklave and keeping the fire away from her comrades, but it was just the beginning of the attack. Naratis pressed her fists together, calling up a thick fog bank and lowering the surrounding temperature, and formed thousands of ice needles in that fog, just as the faint prickling sensation of static began to gather from up above. She released her Cloud of Frigid Death technique, riddling the entire area between the logs, and averted her eyes to avoid the blinding flash as a great lightning bolt struck at their center. It all took less than three seconds to trigger, but the tumult created vibrations in the air that very nearly pushed her back a few inches.
When she turned to look back, the logs had sprouted wooden spines all up and down their surfaces, that had grown towards the center faster than the eye could follow. It was not that much different in design than her Cloud of Frigid Death, but each spine was large enough to rip a fist-sized hole in a man’s torso, and they had all been aimed exclusively at the Anathema. But rather than a scattering of four corpses, the center of the field of devastation showed a dome of brown, ruined vines. The foliage crumbled a few seconds later, revealing a smaller dome of crackling flame, which slowly went out, and showed a still-smaller dome of opaque water that was not unlike her own Impenetrable Water Shell. When it collapsed, the three Outcastes stood unscathed in a protective triad around Soaring Ibis, who had stopped singing but was once again shining with the light of her spirit bow.
This is getting us nowhere. Asalis’s voice spoke quietly in Naratis’s mind, and a moment later he appeared next to her, his face set in a grim expression. The Outcaste scum are stronger than expected.
And if she starts singing again, the army’s likely to scatter. We need them to keep that valley god and those two demons off of our backs while we deal with the Solar. Naratis glanced at him quickly. Should we call out Raiton?
Asalis shook his head. No. I’d like to keep him up our sleeves, for now. We need to separate the Anathema from her protectors, and then eliminate them in concert. Though his thoughts were still focused on the matter at hand, Asalis’s eyes stared at Lilac at Dusk with an air of stern disapproval. We can’t afford to waste any more time.
The arrival of Wake and the others to Ibis’s side was well-timed. The shikari’s onslaught had become particularly intense, and she was by no means certain that she could have stopped that last concerted attack on her own. The barriers her allies formed gave her a few moments to catch her breath, and though it meant dropping the harmony of her Dirge of Certain Doom and Hymn of Inevitable Victory, she took the chance to rest. Wake in particular sent concern across their bond, but at her response he seemed convinced that she was alright. Taking a few long, deep breaths, she then hyperventilated for a few seconds to clear her lungs, and then breathed in deeply once more, expanding the Blue Ibis’s light from her palm into full bow form again and readying herself.
As the barriers came down one-by-one, she surveyed her foes warily. All five of the strongest shikari had reconvened around them, no doubt ready to strike at a moment’s notice. The remainder of the Terrestrials and humans still battled Seven Vaulting Staves, Matsuri-Ono, and Florivet, while Zsofika had gone to help, and some of the villagers with actual combat training had found the time to organize and join in. It was hard to accurately gauge their odds. Despite his advanced age, Seven Vaulting Staves was as good as fifty soldiers, and her two demon allies were even tougher. Still, the enemy Terrestrials were a problem, even for Matsuri-Ono; he could hold against them for a while, but not forever. If even one of the shikari fighting Ibis and her team returned to that battle, it would swing in their favor, but they wouldn’t leave so long as she sang. So it was back to her songs again. This time, she led off by focusing her voice on the Blue Ibis, piggybacking off of the channeled essence to amplify the range and effect.
Before she could get very far, though, the shikari struck. The blue-eyed man glowed with a fierce light, and then unleashed a howling tornado that ripped up the ground as it sped towards them. Wake leaped in the way, and seemed to halt the brunt of the force at first, but then the violent winds caught him and blasted him through the air away from them like a shot arrow. The Air Aspect followed after, seemingly opening himself to attack from below, and as Lilac moved to strike at him, the enemy Fire Aspect hurled a ball of flame that exploded into a burning geyser in their midst, separating him from Ibis and Cinder. At the same time, the Earth Aspect went hurtling at Cinder, connecting with her blade only but still driving her away a dozen paces, and rent the earth in a wide cone with his follow-up attack, giving her little choice but to retreat.
They’re going to separate us, Lilac thought towards Ibis suddenly. He was not usually one to link mentally with her, and it came as a bit of a shock. Your songs are devastating to their forces, and their commanders don’t think they can reach you in time to stop it so long as we’re using team tactics.
Yes, but I’m not convinced we can handle all five of them at once. They’re too good at creating openings; while I’m singing, you’re all having to protect me, instead of going on the offensive.
Lilac managed to avoid getting sliced up by a brutal combination from the Fire Aspect’s twin daiklaves, and thought back at her once more. Then I say we play along. We’ll take these three, you handle their leaders.
Wake and Cinder immediately sent agreement at that plan, and as Ibis glanced over at the Water and Wood Aspect shikari, they did seem to be preparing to attack her. I think that’s the best course of action. Be careful, all of you. Wake felt embarrassed and chastened all at once, and she smiled in spite of herself – that hadn’t been meant pointedly at him, but if he chose to take it that way, at least it meant he’d listened to her.
That goes for you as well, Ibis. Cinder’s thoughts chimed in suddenly. Despite the fact that the giant Earth Aspect was still bearing down on her, her mind was as still as a candle. We’ll meet up once we’re finished.
A barrage of wooden javelins came flying at Ibis a moment later, and she fell back while dodging them, allowing herself to be herded off away from the others. I mean it… she thought, only to herself this time, but still very much in regards to them. Be careful, and come back safe.
It took a while for Cerulean Wake to disengage himself from that whirlwind, and when he finally did, he found that Air Aspect waiting for him. The nature of his link with Ibis and Cinder meant that it didn’t take any focus for him to communicate, and so he had been able to keep a close eye on his enemy’s location and movements. Which meant that he was easily able to avoid the lightning bolt that lanced at him when he emerged from the vortex. Ibis and the others were no longer in easy visual range, but apparently the fellow wasn’t satisfied with that, and hurled a flurry of air pulses at Wake, pushing him farther and farther away and following. After the first, Wake formed a quick Cushioning Water Bubble around himself, and was thus able to weather the continuous attacks with only a slightly uncomfortable pressure.
When they finally stopped, he and his opponent stood in a large clearing some distance from South Oak. The man seemed finished with his barrage, standing there across the clearing with his arms tucked into his cloak, and so Wake let his Bubble dissipate, and studied him. They were probably the same age, or only a decade or two apart, but there was something…brittle and vacant…to the look in his eyes. Wake had seen such a look before, on an unhinged man named Iba. That man’s life had not ended well. “So, what’s your name?”
“Excuse me?” The Air Aspect looked to have been daydreaming, but Wake’s voice brought him back to the moment.
“A name. Do you have one?”
“Of course I have a name.”
“Well, what is it?”
“None of your concern.”
Wake furrowed his brow. “Hey, come on. Just because we’re here to fight doesn’t mean we can’t be poli-WHOA!” A whoosh of air blew by Wake’s head suddenly, barely giving him any time to dodge, and blew a tree as wide as his body in half behind him. Before he could fully recover, the guy was in his face, and chopped at his neck with an air blade wreathing his forearm. Wake flipped backward to avoid it, continuing on through several handsprings as his enemy kept advancing, then launched himself off to one side, towards a small stand of trees. His feet hit the trunk soundly, and then he rocketed off, twisting into a rapidly-spinning kick. “South Oak Monsoon!”
Rather than meet his kick, the other Terrestrial picked up on Wake’s momentum, wove around the attack to gather the surrounding air, and then shot Wake off in a different direction tumbling head-over-heels instead of flying gracefully. He followed it up with three wind shockwaves, one of which caught Wake off-guard, and then blasted through the air towards him, both fists out. The attack connected with Wake’s ribcage, and then continued on to smash him through three trees; he went rolling across the ground like a cabbage down a hill, splinters flying everywhere, and finally came to a stop several dozen paces away.
Brushing himself off and shaking his head to clear the momentary daze, Wake looked over towards his enemy and steadily got to his feet. The man had just stopped at the last tree, and stood in the same pose as before, arms tucked underneath his cloak and seeming to stare off into space. “You’re an odd one, aren’t you?” Wake said. “All I did was ask for your name.”
“What difference does it make?” Even the man’s voice was distant, disconnected, as if he were only partly present in reality. “It’s just a name.”
“It makes a big difference! You should never duel without introducing yourself to your opponent.” Wake shook his head, flabbergasted at having to explain such a simple concept. “What if one of us kills the other? How could we properly honor the other in death?”
“Ah. I see. So it’s the killing that you’re hung up on.” Throwing aside his cloak, the Air Aspect drew a weapon of blue jade nearly as tall as he was, that then expanded into a cross-shaped blade with a hole in the center for him to grasp. “Now you’ve got my attention, Outcaste.” He came at Wake in a headlong rush, and began laying about with that blade, slicing and spinning in continuous, unbroken motions that were deceptively hard to dodge. “There’s no doubt that this will end with death. First yours, and then the Anathema’s!”
As the series became fiercer and quicker, Wake knew that he had to put some space between them or else very seriously risk losing his head. So in one of the heartbeats where his opponent was completing a guarded spin, he dashed off to one side and swung out wide.
Apparently, the man had been waiting for just such a move. As his spin finished, rather than leap back to close again, he simply hurled that blade through the air, sending it whirling like a giant chakram. “Sonic Shuriken Rush!” The blade seemed to consume the air around it as it flew, and increased its speed tremendously in the split-second after its release.
Wake dodged it by a hair’s breadth, but the air around it managed to bite into his side like a knife blade. On top of that, his enemy actually sped around and caught the thing just a few paces past Wake, and then quickly moved to hurl it again. Unsure he could evade another straight throw at that range, Wake leaped up towards the nearest tree branches, and careened off of one at an angle, in the hopes of putting debris in the way. It was enough to throw the shuriken just the tiniest bit off-course, and as he landed some ways away in the clearing, he saw the Air Aspect gesture with a finger, followed by the daiklave springing into the air of its own volition and returning to its wielder. “Handy trick you have there.”
“You haven’t seen the half of it. Sonic Shuriken Rush!” This time, Wake paid closer attention to the man’s movements. He was fast, one of the fastest fighters Wake had ever witnessed, but there was something there that could be exploited. Every move was deliberate, efficient…and predictable. By the way he braced himself, and the direction the tip of his foot faced, judging the path that the shuriken would take was simple. Even the fastest attack lost some efficacy if you knew exactly where it would hit. Sure enough, as the daiklave came cutting through the air, arcing first high then dropping low to take out Wake’s shins, he was able to leap over it with little difficulty, tucking and rolling once and then coming up immediately in a run. When he did, though, his opponent had his hands pressed together, and looked not in the least worried.
“Shadow Shuriken Summoning: Kamaitachi!” In the blink of an eye, the entire path through the air that the daiklave had followed was suddenly filled with hundreds of smaller shuriken, copies of the main one but looking no less sharp.
Rolling to the side and disengaging from his charge, Wake still found himself beset by the whirling blades, as they began to home in on him like a swarm of bees. He immediately dismissed the thought of attempting to block them; every cluster that struck the earth drove several inches in, and even the ones that missed by nearly a handspan left welts along his limbs. Leaping and rolling, weaving and ducking, Wake nonetheless soon found himself surrounded by a cloud of whirling blades, glancing around for any hint of an opening.
“Let’s see how good that bubble of yours is.” The Air Aspect dropped into view again some distance away, his form obscured by his weapons. “I don’t expect we’ll be speaking again. Goodbye.”
Jeresh Tirva Nehor was thoroughly uninterested in this fight. Hunting Anathema was one thing – he was a Shikari-Amercer, after all, a survivor of prior Wyld Hunts, and had personally dealt the mortal strike on a Solar barely a year prior. That was the real goal, but he had even been satisfied picking off the minions and other hangers-on of previous Solars. Any death at all would do, and there was something especially satisfying about killing deluded fools and Sol Invictus cultists; the last bunch had given off a pleasant sizzle after being cooked with his lightning that he could still remember vividly. But this Water Aspect was just annoying. He wanted to talk and banter, he fancied himself a guardian of some sort, and he just didn’t seem to know how to die properly.
Nehor absolutely despised one-on-one fights. The Wyld Hunt was not the place for duels: it was all about bum-rushing a foe four- or five-to-one until they were assassinated, and then unloading the full fury of your forces on whatever fools continued to oppose you. It was about creating chaos in your enemies, about scattering and eliminating them, about delicious, exquisite carnage. There was no room for silly notions of personal honor, or about idiotic notions of a test of equals. And thus, so far as he was concerned, this Outcaste was pretty much the worst kind of person in the world.
But Kamaitachi was about to put an end to that. Nehor was quite certain that the protective bubble the Water Aspect had used was the same technique as Venerer Naratis’s Impenetrable Water Shell. Which meant that while it was good against single strikes, or even broad-based area attacks, it couldn’t reliably defend against successive, repeated pinpoint incursions spread about its surface. The Outcaste would throw it up, and a moment later, he would get torn to ribbons by the wave of Shadow Shuriken. When he braced for the impact after being surrounded, Nehor almost grinned. The mention of killing earlier had slightly lifted his mood; the anticipation of it had him salivating.
The whirlwind of shuriken converged on the Outcaste’s location, and he still did not throw up his Shell. But a second after the cloud closed around him, there was a bright flash of light, and shuriken began flying away as if repelled by something. More and more went soaring off, until Nehor could see the form of the Outcaste, moving in a rapid flurry. And something else was in there, too: the man was now holding a staff slightly taller than he, spinning it quickly and skillfully and knocking shuriken away by the dozens, not even letting a single one past his guard. Nehor passively let the rest of the cloud continue as long as his charm held, and when it didn’t contain enough shuriken to sustain itself, it collapsed, revealing the Outcaste again.
The weapon he held was a long staff constructed of black jade, with small red bands set into the metal close to either end. And he had the nerve to look excited. “That was pretty good,” he called out across the distance. “I can see this isn’t going to be easy for me.” Spinning the staff over his head with both hands, he spoke in a loud voice that boomed surprisingly for someone so young. “Listen and listen closely, Wyld Hunt. I am Cerulean Wake, and this is my Ironclad Seven!” As he spoke the last words, he slammed the staff vertically into the ground, and released his grip, leaping into the air. The impact sent vibrations echoing through the earth that Nehor could feel, and he called up a small whirlwind to lift him off of the ground in preparation. But the Outcaste wasn’t attacking yet; instead, he just landed with a single foot perched on the top of the staff, and as it grew to lift him more than four men high in the air, he struck a fighting pose, as waves crashed and roared in his anima banner. “Prepare yourself! Now you face the technique of the staff master, Seven Vaulting Staves!”
Nehor sneered. “Really, a mortal’s martial arts style? Why in the world would I fear-!” Before Nehor could finish speaking, the Outcaste rolled forward down the top of the staff, grabbing it as he did so. The weapon rolled through the air with him, and grew another three or four paces, enough so that when he brought it down with his momentum, the end now easily reached Nehor’s location. Sweeping backward on his small whirlwind, Nehor managed to avoid having his head cracked open by it, and immediately took to the air again, trying to stay out of range. Dodging that whirling monolith of a weapon proved easy enough, but just as he was about to launch a counter-attack, it and its wielder vanished, as surely as if they had never been there. Blinking, Nehor looked around quickly, and turned to see four arcs of water flying up at him from a different direction. He weathered each by shifting the air pressure around his body, and then suddenly the Outcaste leaped at him from yet another angle, his staff gone and replaced by a pair of black jade tonfas with the same red bands at the ends. Nehor drew his Sonic Shuriken, formed a Shadow Shuriken copy in his other hand, and used them to parry the incoming attacks, but found it far more difficult than it should have been – was the man now faster, as well?
“Now, let’s see how you like to be sent flying!” The Outcaste went into a series of spinning attacks, and then brought his tonfas together on his final revolution. They merged, becoming the bo staff he had been wielding earlier, and before Nehor could react, the tip slammed into his chest, against his thin blue jade shirt, and extended like a bolt, carrying him off in shock and aggravation. He recovered his senses quickly, halting his backwards motion and jetting towards the ground, and when he got there he was met again by the Outcaste, whose weapon had now become a three-section staff. The two battled furiously for a short while, with Nehor straining for just the extra little opening he would need to take out a vital blood vessel, and again he was sent reeling, turning it into a tactical retreat and searching for a more wide-open space.
Rounding a corner to put some trees between himself and his enemy, Nehor flew for a moment, then found the Water Aspect right in front of him again. The strike of the man’s three-section staff nearly took Nehor in the stomach, but he managed an arching vault at the last moment, throwing a high-pressure shockwave straight down beneath him at the Outcaste. They both shunted position at around the same moment, and Nehor went at him again, leading with half of his Sonic Shuriken in his left hand. The Outcaste whirled his sansetsukon and tried to parry, but Nehor was too quick; his Sonic Shuriken sliced through the man’s shoulder, and he followed up with a ball of lightning he had concealed in his right palm, punching it right into the other fighter’s stomach and driving it home.
However, rather than blood, water came pouring from the man’s wounds, and a second later his entire form collapsed into a puddle on the grass, leaving Nehor standing there surveying the area. A clone? Clever. Keeping very still, Nehor cleared his mind and listened for any indication of his enemy’s approach. The only sound that met his ears at first was the slight rustling of the leaves in the nearby trees, but then, he noticed it. There! Off to one side, behind a large tree, someone lay in wait to attack him. The motion had been brief, not much longer than a heartbeat, but Nehor had seen the end of a staff, and that bright blue hair that made the Outcaste stand out. Cautiously walking in that direction, Nehor feigned ignorance, drawing just close enough to the tree to seem to leave his back exposed.
When the attack came, he ducked under the high strike of the staff, aimed at the base of his skull, and spun away, hurling one half of his Sonic Shuriken in that direction. His aim was spot-on, but the weapon hit the trunk of the tree at neck height, passing right through the Outcaste’s form, which suddenly shimmered like a mirage. Nehor used the other half of his short daiklave to stop the attack that came a split-second later at his lower back, and turned to face the real Outcaste, who now held a black jade jo, the red-striped end stopped only a few inches away from connecting.
“Nice reflexes,” the man commented, sounding impressed.
“You’re just that transparent.”
The Outcaste blinked. “Was that a joke?”
Grinning toothily, Nehor chopped at the other man’s throat with his bare hand, and leaped to kick with both feet at his sternum. His enemy blocked it with his jo, but Nehor used the moment to slide backward, and called the other half of his daiklave into his free hand. The Outcaste shifted his weapon yet again, splitting it into two black short sticks, and Nehor rushed him once more, carving a razor-sharp swath through the air as he attacked with both blades simultaneously. It turned into an extended melee, with the two driving each other back-and-forth several times, until Nehor managed to knock one of those sticks sailing through the air. He followed by swiping at the Outcaste’s midsection, and caught him along the side, but not enough for more than a flesh wound, as he quickly rolled away and went after his other weapon. As he caught it, the man dashed a short distance away, carrying them out of the clearing where they currently battled, and Nehor helped him along, sending out blasts of wind from between his hands every so often to harry his opponent into making a careless mistake.
He caught up with the Water Aspect a few moments later, and resumed his assault, striking high and low at irregular intervals with both halves of his Sonic Shuriken. The escrima sticks his foe wielded were good for keeping up, but not at pushing an advantage, so he was able to build a good momentum; forcing the other man’s defending sticks aside, he quickly reformed his full daiklave and took a close-in slash intended to rip the Outcaste open from the waist up. But before he could connect, the man seamlessly changed those short sticks into a single stick barely longer than his palm was wide, and jabbed it into Nehor’s ribcage. His armor stopped most of it again, but the quickness of the strike stunned him slightly, and it was followed by six more all along his midsection. The last actually sent a hairline fracture through the thin blue jade, but Nehor pressed the attack, splitting his shuriken again and trying to catch one of the Outcaste’s arms, now that he had had to step in closer with that small weapon. They were both stopped, but not by the man himself; two more translucent clones flowed up from the ground, their ephemeral weapons absorbing the force of his attack, as the Outcaste dashed backward and out of melee reach.
Nehor gritted his teeth as he forced his weapons forward, cutting through the two clones and returning them into harmless water, and then he too disengaged, floating backward a few paces and catching his breath. Looking over at the Outcaste again, who stood with short sticks in hand, he studied him for a brief moment, then finally spoke up. “So your name is Cerulean Wake?”
“Well, congratulations, Cerulean Wake. You just became a worthy kill.”
Wake had wanted to advance after that last successful series, but he was also glad for the momentary break. His stance relaxed some as the Air Aspect hung back, but he still kept himself at the ready, shifting Ironclad Seven back into sansetsukon form and gripping the two outer sections of the tripartite weapon firmly. At first, he couldn’t tell what the other warrior was up to, but then his magatama started to grow warm and emit a faint glow. So he’s communing with the local spirits? To what end? A second or two later, even Ironclad Seven’s surface warmed just a tiny bit. That was a real surprise; though it was constructed of the same type of black jade as his necklace, the Ironclad had only the weakest connection to the spirit world. If it was responding to whatever the Air Aspect was doing, then it must have been something intense.
It came as a shock to him when the man suddenly snapped back to attention, and hurled another sizable whirlwind his way. Again, he wasn’t fast enough to dodge it, and wound up getting carried off, though he managed to orient and direct himself enough to avoid injury. The uproar carried him a short distance over some trees, and right into the vicinity of Lake Noamin. When it died down again shortly after, Wake was standing only a few paces from the shore. Glancing around, he saw the Air Aspect come flying in from the direction he had been, but for some reason the air around him looked…denser.
“You brought a Water Dragon-blood to a lake to fight?” Wake shook his head. “Where I’ll be the strongest?”
“Your strength is irrelevant, Cerulean Wake. I don’t depend on something as changeable as location – my power is always all around me.” That warped look in the air around the man only grew, and instead of that crooked grin he had given before, his face became intense and wild, his eyes suddenly flashing to life. As if on cue, not one, but four whirlwinds came winding over, and converged on him, like streams flowing into a river. Wake knew those were no simple wind tricks this time: they were elementals. As they came together, the combined windstorm grew into extensions of the Air Aspect’s arms and legs, with the bits that had been the tail ends of the funnels forming into four snakelike faces with white masks showing void-black eyes. And then there were suddenly more, phasing out of the surrounding air to meld into the Terrestrial’s mass, growing his limbs until he stood as tall as Matsuri-Ono in his largest form. The man laughed, a high, mocking sound, and the image of a howling vortex appeared in the air behind him. “You wanted to know my name earlier? I’ll tell you. I am Jeresh Tirva Nehor, Lord Sovereign of the Gales!”
Breathing in and out once, Wake took a wide stance, and whirled his sansetsukon around his body quickly, then froze it in place. The air pressure had changed noticeably; it felt as if the wind itself held killing intent, now. “Alright then, Wind-Rider. Let’s make this one to remember.”
Lilac let loose from the vine he was currently dangling on and dropped to the grass below, casting his eyes about himself warily. At first glance, one may have thought that Karanya had abandoned the fight, but he knew better. The plant spirits nearby gave away her every movement; Lilac could sense their trepidation at having someone so liberal with the use of fire in their midst. It was quite a marked departure from the presence of Cinder, gentle and controlled at all times. But even if the plants themselves had not been keeping close tabs on her, Lilac would still have known. There was a certain air about Karanya that was unmistakable for him, even after all of this time.
Darting from behind a hanging curtain of vines, a fiery trail bounded off of a high limb and rocketed straight at Lilac. The fire dissipated and revealed Karanya, both blades raised and ready to strike, a moment before she would have carved him into thirds, and Lilac grabbed another vine in reach and let it carry him back and up into another tree, launching a volley of thorns at her from his whip as he went. She knocked them out of the air with a quick whirl of her swords, and stopped on the ground below, looking up at him with patronizing amusement in her expression. “I see you’re still not fond of close-quarters combat, traitor.”
“Much has changed about me over the years, daughter of Sesus, but not that. I still play to my strengths.”
“So your ‘strengths’ now include running away? Pity. At least back then, you had something resembling a backbone.” Karanya slashed the air once with each of her red jade blades, and sent two crossing arcs of fire flying up at his position.
Lilac used his whip to swing to safety back on the grass some distance to the side, avoiding being caught in the flame as it consumed that tree limb – he had chosen one afflicted with a blight to help minimize the collateral damage – and turned to face her again. “You, on the other hand, seem to have grown rather careless and short-tempered, unable to read your opponent. I would have thought the Venerer would have instilled different values in his protege.”
Karanya smirked, and took a different combat stance, reversing her grip on one of her blades and holding it behind her back. “There’s that haughty tone I’m used to. I was beginning to think you’d grown addlepated living out in the ass-end of Nowhere for so long, as quiet as you were when we first showed up. Tell me, what is the fascinating tale behind a former Amercer winding up the personal pet of a Solar?”
“You would put it that way. ’Everyone’s either a master or slave,’ right? It’s still all about power, isn’t it?”
Karanya dashed at him, and as soon as she closed the distance, she began one of her cyclonic combat forms. “Of course it is, you fool. It’s always about power!” Her twin daiklaves carved through the air as quickly as if they were simple razors, sending out scalding blasts of heat that extended her reach far beyond the blades themselves. “When will you learn that?”
If Lilac tried to pull away from her now, she would cut him to pieces; Karanya had always been the best swordfighter in the cell, probably in the region, and she was very good at cutting down opponents who tried to flee. So he fought back carefully, making sure to stay just outside of her most lethal radius and striking back with his vine whip occasionally. Karanya didn’t wear armor – and against most, that would have given Lilac a sizable advantage – but she didn’t need to. Even when he did manage to lash her in the side with his whip, his thorns broke and melted from heat as soon as they embedded themselves into her flesh. The blunt impact was still just enough to throw her off every now and then, though, so he kept it up. He could still turn this situation to his advantage.
Karanya finally started to draw a little too close, and Lilac knew he had to break away. She came in high with one of her swords, and he quickly swept his whip up and under her attack, turning it into a vicious uppercut to her jaw. She bobbed back away just in time to avoid taking thorns to the chin, and brought her other blade up to parry the hail of thorns that the end of his whip shot towards her eyes. The force of it drove her back a few feet, and Lilac took the opportunity to back away a dozen or so paces.
Swiping her blade to the side to scatter the thorns, Karanya looked at him in disdain. “You haven’t improved as much as I would have hoped. What have you been doing with your time?”
“Traveling. Learning about the world. Doing things I never had time for before. Does it really surprise you that much?”
She shook her head in response. “The others had such high hopes for you, but somehow I always knew you’d just fizzle out. Your home, your life, and your duty apparently meant nothing to you. I suppose it’s good for you that you left Venerer Asalis’s team when you did. You lost the instinct you need for this life.”
“My ‘home’…you know better than that. And ‘duty’? You’re only in this for the status, Karanya. Getting to kill Anathema is only icing on the cake.”
Karanya smirked again, and shrugged. “Guilty as charged. Once I finish you here, I’ll go shiv that Anathema witch in the spine, and go on my merry way. I have no delusions about that, and neither does Venerer Asalis. In fact, I think it’s a testament to my ability, don’t you? That the devout Cynis Inora Asalis should still take me as his pupil, even knowing my true motivations?”
“Asalis and the Wyld Hunt need only tools. Nothing more.”
Her face returned to somewhat neutral, though there was a burn behind her eyes. “Now who’s the one talking power, Merari?”
Lilac closed his eyes for a moment. “That isn’t my name anymore. It’s Lilac at Dusk.”
“Oh yes, that’s right. Lilac.” Karanya brought both blades together, holding them side-by-side, and they began to glow. “A weak name for a weak fool. It suits you!” Thrusting them forward, Karanya shot a gout of flame from her daiklaves that spiraled through the air in a rapid flash towards him.
Leaping away to avoid it, Lilac noticed as it passed him that it wasn’t just a geyser of fire; the front was shaped like the mouth of a dragon, and within a second of missing him, it changed course and started homing in on him. He led it on a chase, hurling explosive seeds in its trail to disorient or slow it down when he could, and searched for a chance to attack Karanya directly. However, she steered her flame dragon deftly, herding Lilac away from any advantageous angle of attack and keeping him running.
Finally, he managed to lure the essence construct into flying past him again, and struck three times with his whip along the cooler parts away from the head. His whip still burned away in several spots, but the attack damaged the construct enough to dissipate it, and he turned to face towards Karanya again, only to find she was just a few steps away from him, both blades held low in another combat stance. The first two attacks came high, then one low, then a flurry all aiming for his arms and shoulders. He managed to knock the first couple askew with his whip, but her speed was increasing with every blow, and it was difficult to keep up. She dealt him a good cut along his left arm that sent searing pain and scalding heat throughout his entire body, and continued into a spin with both blades held out, flames sparking into life around her entire body and coruscating in waves in all directions. “Rondo of Blood and Torment!” Lilac managed to call up a wall of vines to absorb the worst of the heat, but it still blasted him as he drew away and stopped, forcing the pain in his arm into a small corner of his mind.
The flames receded from Karanya a moment later, and she smirked as she looked his way. “Your borrowed time is running low, Lilac. Have you anything to say?”
The pain from the cut tried to overtake Lilac’s senses – it had touched old scars, and opened an invisible wound. He got flashes of memory from days long past in that instant, of a smooth-featured but stern man casting him out of the way of an explosion a heartbeat before it would have torn him apart. Lilac – Merari, back then – walked away with only a burn on his arm, but his protector had not been so fortunate. He had never even learned the man’s name.
Then, in an instant, Lilac squashed that pain. The burn from Karanya’s flames was still there, but he refused to acknowledge it. “It’s funny that you should mention ‘borrowed time’, Karanya.” Standing back to his full height, Lilac turned fully towards her. “It’s true; my whole life has been on borrowed time, since the day I was a foolish boy who had to be saved by a Solar.”
Karanya looked surprised for a moment, but then shrugged flippantly. “It’s cute how you say such things as if they have any meaning to me at all. I don’t care if you had some sort of life-altering experience with a Solar, or if your favorite aunt turned out to be a Lunar. It’s a pathetic kind of interesting, yes, but it’s ultimately just wasting my time.”
Moving one hand in a broad arc in front of him, Lilac took a ready stance. “I see you have learned precious little in the time since we last met. So let me leave you with a lesson: you have always called me weak, but you have always equated gentleness with weakness. They are not the same, Karanya, and you will learn that today.”
The Fire Aspect smiled a slow, hateful smile. “Is that right?”
“Yes. Because today will be the last meeting between you and I. Rest assured of that.”