As Lilac took his new stance, Karanya remained still and alert, her hands firm on the hilts of her daiklaves as she analyzed him. Body turned at an angle, one foot forward, back straight. Eyes focused forward. Before, he had just been getting a feel for her fighting capabilities. He hadn’t really been coming at her full-force. But now, he was serious and ready to fight; the fierce look in those eyes spoke volumes. It was about time – prodding him into action had been a chore, and Karanya needed a true warm-up before taking on the Anathema.
Lilac made a short gesture with his lead hand, and then stomped once, changing stances. If he had intended to hide the fact that he had just placed one of his seed pods with the same motion, he had done a poor job of it. But she was quite familiar with his tricks after the years they had fought, both alongside and against one another. Merari loved concealing nasty little surprises inside of otherwise obvious maneuvers. Like attacking her with his thorn whip. The thorns themselves were no threat at all; he had certainly known they wouldn’t break through the toughened outer layers of her skin. But she had seen him cause enough blunt force trauma with the heft of that whip to dent armor back in the old days; an average fighter would laugh those thorns off only to wind up with a set of cracked ribs. So dodging just enough to avoid the worst thrashing, while letting the thorns break against her, enabled her to stay close enough to keep up the pressure on him. And that was just one example of his subterfuge.
So the only question was whether to spring his little trap intentionally now, or to leave it for a while until she could turn it around and make use of it? She detested that sort of thinking – a real fighter went straight at her opponent with no hesitation and nothing held back – but Merari had always been the calculating sort. It was a big reason why the two of them had never truly gotten along. It had also quite likely been the reason why Venerer Asalis had so quickly taken her on as his main pupil after Merari left. The fact that she was unyielding, uncompromising, and wouldn’t walk away from a true fight. In his subtle way, Merari was calling her out. Testing her. Even after all of these years, he still felt he was her senior student. So let me leave you with a lesson. She had had enough of that.
Reversing her grip on both blades, she relaxed her stance, and tapped one foot on the ground, toe-first.
The ambient noises around them faded away slightly, and she was suddenly very aware of her own breathing. It sounded coarse to her own ears, and so she forced it to still, until she felt in sync with her own pulse.
The surroundings grew a little dull to her vision, but she could feel her environment with heightened clarity. The only target she needed to worry about stood right in front of her, focused in the center of her vision.
As her foot hit the ground for the third time, Karanya ignited the spark she had been building in her legs, and sped towards Lilac faster than if she had been hurled by Ryotheras, leaving a trail of inch-high fires burning along the grass in her wake. Both of her blades went for his neck, but he sprouted a thick cord of vine from under his sleeves to protect himself; her daiklaves went right through it, but they were slowed just enough for him to weave out of the way. She could tell by the look on his face that it had been a completely reflexive action – even the calm, collected Lilac at Dusk had not been able to follow that attack completely. Whatever trap he had laid for her had not gone off, either, so she dashed away before he could recover, barely even touching the ground again until she was more than twenty paces distant. As she came to a halt, the image of two flaming dragons spiraled up from the ground around her feet, circled her body, and then crossed each other’s paths behind her in her anima.
She could even still see the tiny flames she had left behind, winking out sporadically; not even Nehor could match her speed, now.
Karanya didn’t wait to hear what Lilac was going to say. This time, she shot at him until she was nearly within arm’s reach, swerved around, and chopped at his legs. He reacted by leaping to the side, but too late to avoid her; she caught him in the calf muscle, missing his tendons by a hair’s breadth, and followed through on the slice, tearing a gash in the back of his leg and scattering blood on the grass. Her momentum was at an end, so she peeled off again and spun around, skidding to a halt some distance away and carving a Burning Red Ripper at him with her other blade simultaneously. The arc of flame shot from the edge of her sword, and though it mostly missed him, the very end of one side licked him on the cheek while he was still off-balance, slicing it open and leaving a crimson trail along that side of his face as it passed.
Lilac clutched his face with one hand, but still stood in much the same spot as he had started out; he was, at most, two steps removed, and pivoted to the right, but he was clearly holding his ground.
The plants all around Karanya’s feet started into motion, reaching for her ankles, but they were too slow.
Rather than dash straight at him this time, Karanya swept out in a wide arc, her arms thrown back behind her as she ran. She called her fires back to her blades’ surfaces, and once she was lined up to strike at Lilac’s back, she catapulted in a straight shot, pouncing from a short distance away this time. He ducked, and tried to cover himself with a vine shell, but she began a forward roll in midair, her blades becoming a fiery wheel, and slammed down onto his dome, burning for several revolutions before careening off the other side. She could see before she moved again that she had cut through, and left two long, bloody ruts in his back, and smirked to herself as she halted at the other side of their grounds in a crouch, one hand on the grass while the other clutched her weapons off to one side.
Lilac stood back up a moment later, casting off the ruined mass of greenery, and winced noticeably. “I admit, I don’t recognize that technique…you didn’t know it before.”
“That’s correct, Lilac at Dusk. You’ve never experienced Riding the Flame Road. It’s a little something I cooked up in the past few years.”
“Three foot taps, and then a dash. Don’t you think it’s a little predictable?”
“Is that a fact? Well, in that case, let’s see you respond to it,” she quipped.
Karanya rushed headlong at him again, but this time Lilac had prepared his vine wall early, and actually managed to surround himself with it before she neared. She still cut right through it, attacking where his waist would be but catching only vines and hair as he ducked again, and continuing past. Still, he stayed in the same spot, and she narrowed her eyes as she came back to a stop. What was he doing? “Your Solar won’t last on her own forever, you know. You’ve seen the Venerers fight Anathema. They know what they’re doing.”
“You have yet to make me budge, Karanya. True suspense requires a sense of urgency.”
He was clearly goading her into attacking him, yet every time she did, he made no serious effort to strike back. He wasn’t an illusion or clone of some sort; while Riding the Flame Road, her perception of essence was heightened enough that she would have been able to pierce such trickery with little effort. The surrounding plant life seemed to be surging with essence, but that was common whenever Merari fought; it was his version of a smoke screen. It was highly doubtful that he was actually just intending on letting her beat him to death, but it left her with really only one course of action: go straight for him and force him to reveal his hand.
As her next attack began, Karanya zigzagged towards Lilac, heating up the surrounding air even further until she was practically a living, breathing trail of flame. When she neared her enemy, she leaped high into the air, and when she was directly over him, expelled all of her gathered essence in a searing column of fire that launched towards his location. “Flame Road Synthesis: Path of the Fire Dragon!” The roar of the attack mostly drowned out her kiai, and the backlash lifted her high enough into the air to clear neighboring treetops; but she would have a few moments to change her trajectory and land safely nearby.
Which was just one more reason why she very nearly lost the bottom half of her torso when a gigantic orange maw made of plant matter came barreling up at her through the flame. It was nearly the size of her body, and seemed not in the least bothered by the heat around it as it attempted to snatch her out of the air. Reaching out with the Flame Road, she generated a quick thermal around herself to carry her higher, and bit off a vicious curse as the thing followed with deceptive speed. Acting on instinct, she formed a Blazing Inferno’s Core with one hand, and hurled it at the gnashing mouth. Rather than recoil from the fireball, it actually opened wider, and caught it full-on, chomping it down like a tasty snack. While she was distracted by the sight, two side tendrils from somewhere below the mouth cut through the air and went for her. One tore a gash along the side of her thigh, its surface like sharkskin, but the other narrowly missed her shoulder as she recovered her composure and swung both blades at it. Deflecting it with her weapons, she used the impact to hurl herself away, and tumbled between four more sharp tendrils through the air to a safe distance, rolling and coming up in a ready stance when she reached the ground.
That enabled her to get her first good look at the scene that had unfolded below her attack. Much of the grass around Lilac’s position had been set aflame and was still burning, but a ring three or four times as wide as his own frame was still lush and verdant at the center. Lilac stood there, and next to him was an enormous plant with four stalks as tall as two or three warstriders, of a mottled red/yellow coloration and with three more of those vicious mouths along their surfaces. A scattering of large red flowers bloomed from the stalks, and from the multitude of smaller tendrils around them. As she watched, the fires in the surrounding grass shrank visibly, and her heightened senses confirmed that the plant was feeding on them. “A plant that eats fire? Are you kidding me?”
“Correct. It’s called a hearthbloom, or a red monarch, if you prefer.” The plant writhed around as Lilac spoke, and it seemed that it even responded to his presence, one of the mouths drifting close to him protectively.
“Where in the world did you find something like that?”
“This particular plant came from the Far South, though they never get this large in the wild. You’d be surprised what can be accomplished by transplanting a foreign species into a Wood Aspect demense.”
Karanya frowned. “Not anymore, I wouldn’t be. So that’s what you’ve been cooking up this whole time.”
Reaching to the ground, Lilac reformed his vine whip, this time of the same red and yellow hues as the hearthbloom, and coiled it around his forearm. “I figured you would appreciate me pulling out all the stops. And I can’t exactly let you keep using that Flame Road technique of yours, if I want to keep my head.”
“Hmph. I’ll at least give you credit for creativity.” Karanya raised both blades, and studied the scene carefully. That plant’s reach was tremendous; the tendrils it had other than the four main stalks were so coiled near Lilac’s position that she couldn’t get a read on how far they could stretch. If she went at him with the Flame Road, she’d be a pincushion. All it would take would be one wrong step.
Focusing, Karanya began constructing a charm in her mind. Then a second. And then another. She couldn’t use the speed of the Flame Road, but she could maintain the essence perception; now that the hearthbloom had sprouted, she could feel it drawing on its surroundings, thirsting for another gulp of fire-oriented nourishment. It was like a giant essence beacon – Lilac had little reason to hide any further, after all.
As the first charm coalesced, Karanya broke into a run. She didn’t need the Flame Road; she was faster than Lilac without it. Letting one of her daiklaves drop to drag along the ground as she ran, her Shards of Scattered Earth charm simultaneously bit into the earth and formed a collection of razor-sharp bits of rock along the edge of her weapon from the debris. Once she had built up enough, she changed her course to head towards Lilac, and swung her blade to hurl the fragments of rock at him. The hearthbloom reacted, moving tendrils in the way to block the attack, and she did it a second time, with the same result; it wasn’t as fast responding to this form of attack as it had been with her fire techniques. It’s responding to physical threat, not essence…it can’t sense my non-Fire abilities. Saving the last shards for a bit longer, the tendrils started to come after her as she neared, and she began leaping and dashing around them, severing a few with her other blade and circling steadily, looking for an opportunity.
Lilac’s whip struck at her a moment later, and she blocked with her rock-encrusted daiklave, quite a few thorns breaking off of her enemy’s weapon in the process and falling harmlessly to the ground. Just as she neared within easy throwing distance, two of the stalks jerked in her direction, their maws descending to attack. She launched the last barrage of rock shards at one, sending it recoiling, and performed an acrobatic leap away from the second. As it missed, she completed her Dance with the Air Dragon charm, quickly manipulating the air pressure around her body to change her direction and velocity, and landed on the stalk itself, just behind the carnivorous mouth. She slammed her other blade into the stalk; it was too tough for her to cut with one blow, so instead she completed the third charm she’d been holding, Malevolent Absorption, and channeled it through her sword. She vamped a swell of water and essence out of that part of the stalk, causing the maw to quickly shrivel and shrink to the size of a melon, and then severed it with a flick of her other weapon, vaulting off and spinning away through the air as Lilac’s whip tried to retaliate.
When she landed, she crossed her swords in front of her, and faced Lilac and his monstrous plant again. His expression was still the same, but it wasn’t in him to look intimidated. His plant, however, was clearly wounded by that last maneuver, and seemed to grow more agitated, the remaining mouths snapping at the air blindly. “One down,” she called across the distance.
“Three more to go,” he responded. “I see why he chose you.”
“No, not yet you don’t.” Weaving her blades in a quick kata, she prepared to go on the attack again. “But you will. Very soon.”
Stepping out onto the large rocky plateau that dominated one side of the Mountain of Sages, Cinder could see the valley below in her periphery. From here it was a long ways off, but she could feel the essence flows being tossed around, and occasionally she could catch a very slight glimpse of Matsuri-Ono’s hulking form. But her real attention was focused on the man across from her, the giant clad in white. She hadn’t yet managed to use her Inward Seeking Gaze on him, but she didn’t need to; her instincts could smell the violence on him. He didn’t have the arrogant bearing of that other Fire Aspect, or the vacant eyes of the Air Aspect, but he was clearly as dangerous as they, if not more so.
As she studied him, he reached over his shoulder, and pulled a huge white jade tetsubo from his back. “You would be Smoldering Cinder, the previous High Miko of this valley.”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Excellent. I’ve been looking forward to this.” The man started walking while keeping a distant perimeter, sizing her up and tapping that enormous spiked club against one broad hand. “I am Ragara Ryotheras.”
Cinder began moving as well, maintaining her distance and keeping a very close eye on him. “And why would you be interested in facing me personally, Ragara Ryotheras?”
“Because you’re the strongest among your Guardians. That’s all.”
The two continued circling each other slowly, and Cinder placed her left hand on Ivory Blaze Dancer’s sheath, settling her right one gently and slowly on the blade’s handle. Ryotheras gave the initial impression of a big brute, but his gait was too even and fluid for that. They were separated by more than twenty paces, but all of Cinder’s instincts told her that she couldn’t safely approach any closer than that just yet. With his size, there was no telling how much reach he had with that weapon, and she did not much fancy the thought of having her torso smashed open.
A moment later, Ryotheras paused briefly in his stride, and Cinder made her move. He had an opening on his right side, but it was too obvious; she would bet jade against pond scum that if she attacked him there, she’d take a club to the face before she dealt a blow. So she went straight at him, bringing her blade in a direct slash across his front. He blocked with his tetsubo, and the two tested each other’s strength for a moment before he gained the upper hand and started to push through. Cinder tilted her blade to slide under the club’s angle of attack, spun quickly, and kicked at his ankles, but he took the attack without flinching, and reached for her with one of his massive hands. She bobbed out of the way, and came to a stop, going perfectly still as she read him.
“A frontal attack? That seems awfully unimaginative.”
“I like to know what I’m up against before I really put my neck on the line,” she responded. “Besides, you surely didn’t think that little feint of yours would draw me so soon?”
“A feint? You mistake my intent. There’s no guile in my stance; I just have nothing to fear from you.”
Cinder let the boast drift off as she studied him again. Only, she doubted it was a boast; the grave certainty in the man’s eyes suggested he fully believed it to be true. If he was wrong, then she would crush him. But if he was right, it would mean a change in tactics. She preferred to know where she stood; which was why a moment later she resumed her attack, striking at him from the same location. Only this time, after he met her with his tetsubo, she didn’t switch to a low attack, she kept going high, watching his reaction time and blocking technique. She could see why Ryotheras was confident: her kick had felt like striking granite, and he was easily the strongest person she had ever fought. But he either lacked or refused to show speed. Every time she struck, he was just slow enough in his parry to suggest that he couldn’t quire follow her movements. So after one such parry, instead of hitting his tetsubo again, she pulled her swing and went into Fire Felling the Oak, coating her blade in flame while spinning and slashing across his body from the opposite direction with blinding speed. Ivory Blaze Dancer went through his rib cage like a hot knife through butter, his tetsubo dropped to the ground with a loud thud, and Cinder swiped her blade once to the side to clear it as the flames winked out, re-sheathing it a second later as Ryotheras fell over onto the ground.
But she knew the fight wasn’t over. Her strike had been true, but the cut was far too clean, no blood or anything. Sure enough, out of the corner of her eye the man’s body scattered like ash across the earth, and then melted away. No, not ash. More like…sand.
“Do you see now what I meant?” came Ryotheras’s voice a moment later, as his body started to flow up from the ground, remaking itself grain-by-grain. “Neither your flames nor your blade can harm me. House Ragara produces some of the strongest warriors in the Realm, and you’re just an Outcaste. This battle is futile.”
Rushing him again before he had completely reformed, Cinder sliced through his neck with her daiklave, to no avail. She immediately brought it up and then tried to part him vertically down the middle, but her blade again just passed right through, though it stopped suddenly around his lungs, as surely as if lodged in marble.
“Surely you heard me,” Ryotheras said as he swung a fist for her midsection. He missed as she released her hold on Ivory Blaze Dancer and leaped over him, but immediately followed with a straight punch up at her. “Or are you just being petulant?”
Cinder arched her back at the last moment to avoid his punch, and landed on both feet a short distance away. “Do you really expect me to stop fighting?”
“I suppose not.” Ryotheras stood at his full height again, and looked down at her daiklave. “Though I seem to have your sword, so I don’t see what-” Ivory Blaze Dancer suddenly lit up with fire, and Ryotheras hollowed out enough space around the weapon to avoid the flame, letting it clatter to the ground as he leaped back. “Perhaps I spoke too soon. But it changes little.”
“Is that right?” Cinder held out her hand, and Dancer returned.
Ryotheras retrieved his tetsubo, held it upside down, and let it drop from his hand. It floated in mid-air for a moment, before slowly descending into the ground beneath, the rock rippling like water. When it had descended up to the handle, he gripped it again, and hoisted it out of the rock; when it emerged, the weapon had ballooned to five times its previous width, and the spikes along it had grown several inches. He leaped at her a split-second after clearing it of the ground, and swung the white jade club down powerfully. She managed to flash-step out of the way, but Ryotheras followed through on the blow, and shattered the rock under their feet as easily as glass in a disturbingly wide radius, still almost knocking her off-balance. He then turned, and swung in a wide horizontal arc, turning the increased bulk of his tetsubo into a stream of stone shards that was so wide she couldn’t dodge it in time, striking her repeatedly before she could get clear.
When she stopped a good distance away from him, Ryotheras shouldered his weapon, and turned to look at her again. “You’re far quicker than I, it’s true. But I don’t need speed, when I can just…”
Cinder flash-stepped to cross the distance again, trying Upending the Ancient Stone. Her blade passed right through his legs just as with his ribs, and she continued on past him without pausing.
“…do this.” Before she got entirely clear, though, Ryotheras struck the ground around them once more, this time casting up huge fragments of rock that blocked her visibility on her escape. It slowed her down just enough that Ryotheras was able to get to her, and with a bellow he struck as if felling a tree, slamming his tetsubo crosswise into her midsection.
His swing sent her flying through the scattered rock, and she hit the ground several dozen paces away, rolling a couple of times before slowing to a stop. As she got to her feet, she could feel that she had bruised a rib, but paid it little mind; she had fought through worse before. Her fist had stayed clenched around the hilt of her sword, so she raised it once more and brandished it in front of her body.
“Most foes crumple after just one of those.” Ryotheras charged at her again, and when she dodged his tetsubo swing, he cast an arm towards her and loosed a wave of coarse sand her way from his palm.
She outmaneuvered the attack, but some of the loose grains still got in her eyes, and she barely avoided a second swing that destroyed a patch of rock in front of her. And the distraction was enough that when Ryotheras struck the destroyed shards mid-air, turning them into a small boulder and launching it her way, she couldn’t move quickly enough; the rock hit her squarely between the shoulder blades and sent her reeling once more. It scattered into a hail of sand shortly after impact, but she spun once with her blade ignited and cleared it away as she turned, facing Ryotheras and shaking the pain off.
He stood still, tetsubo over his shoulder again, like a stone statue, though she could make out the slight shifting of sand all across his form. “Time to end this.” Driving his weapon into the ground again, a moment later ripples in the earth began spreading out from his location, until they covered the entire plateau they were standing on. Giant clumps of rock the size of yeddims rose up into the air inside of that radius and then began to revolve around him in concentric circles, forming dozens of dangerous orbiting weapons. The first ones reached Cinder’s location within seconds, and they soon began moving so quickly that she could barely dodge around them.
And Ryotheras was clearly not finished. Slamming his hand against the earth, a geyser of sand erupted skyward from behind him, quickly filling the air and obscuring Cinder’s vision. Another of those boulders came flying at her, and she hopped away, but then collided with another going the opposite direction. When she tried to escape vertically, the whole system grew upward, rocks and sand lashing out at her every time she made a move. She finally managed to get out of the cloud on one side, but what she found waiting for her was no better; while distracting her with his other attacks, Ryotheras had disengaged a swarm of boulders from the field twice as massive as the one that had hit her. They had surrounded her in all directions, and the moment she emerged, they came converging in like a torrent. The last glimpse she caught before they reached her was Ryotheras raising up on another sand pillar above the dome, his expression stoic as the stones closed around her.
Ryotheras watched Cinder’s motion through the cloud of his Tempest of Earthly Fury charm, prepping his counter-attack for when she inevitably emerged. He could tell she was used to outclassing her opponents in speed; many people made the mistake of relying on that when facing him, which was unfortunate for them, as he had figured out how to turn that to his advantage while still but a pup. After all, speed meant less time to react or respond, and more momentum to be used against oneself. It was no trouble at all to drop a boulder in Cinder’s path when she darted a certain direction, and if that boulder was wide and well-placed enough, her speed was more liability than asset.
No, Ryotheras much preferred to take it slowly and methodically. It was how he had managed to corner her right where he wanted her, ready to spring into his trap. When she finally broke out of his cloud, the boulders of his Orbiting Poles of Punishment were ready and waiting; as easily as tugging in a fishing line, he reached out with his will and yanked on the central essence flow, bringing them crashing in towards her from all sides. There was nowhere for her to run, and the jagged pieces of rock clumped together with a mighty ring that echoed throughout the area.
Taking a deep breath, Ryotheras relaxed momentarily, but then caught himself. There had been something strange about the sound they had made. Almost as if they had struck something other than flesh and stone….
A loud ringing sound, much higher-pitched than stone-on-stone, suddenly split the air, and as Ryotheras watched, the boulders began to crack and fracture. Another ring of that tone, and they shattered into fragments, revealing Cinder standing at their center. All around her, floating at intervals in a sphere, were paper scrolls with glowing characters on them, and between the scrolls stretched a translucent field that had apparently completely protected the woman from harm. She held one more scroll between the fingers of her left hand, and a moment later she cast it into the air; the others disappeared, and with them went the barrier. “It will take far more than that to bring me down, Ragara Ryotheras.”
Assuming a ready stance, Ryotheras observed her carefully, stepping back slightly and lifting his tetsubo. She had been focused before, but there was something different in her eyes now. Ryotheras was certain he had crushed at least a couple of bones during their fight thus far, but she showed no signs of slowing down. She was either exceptionally tough, or too foolish to heed her body’s warnings. He could deal with the former, but the latter could be troublesome. People who didn’t have the sense to stay down when they were beaten forced him to make…messes.
Cinder reached for her sword at her waist, and settled her hand on its hilt. “Reduce all of Creation to ash…Ivory Blaze Dancer!” She drew the daiklave in a blinding flash, and when the momentary gleam faded from Ryotheras’s eyes, it was not the same red jade sword as before. Now, it glowed with a blazing white hue, almost painful to look at, and seemed more energy than solid substance. Cinder’s appearance changed, as well; where before she had red streaks scattered throughout her dark locks, now they covered every strand of hair below her shoulders, and had changed in intensity from a deep crimson to a bright scarlet.
But the visual changes paled in comparison to what Ryotheras felt across the plateau. Ryotheras had always been adept at sensing essence flows, and Cinder’s had just changed dramatically; it was much fiercer now. It was fascinating, and he could have studied it for hours. But he put that thought aside, and called out to the stones once more, hurling the largest barrage of boulders yet at her. He couldn’t give her the chance to use that power against him. So as the boulders locked in on their target, he called up a gout of sand from the ground near her, aiming it into a storm and hurling it at her, using its force to drive the boulders.
The first rocks to reach her split into halves along lines of pure white flame, and the sand storm never made it close, blocked by a pulse of heat that scattered the grains like chaff. He hadn’t even seen her move, but she was sliding her blade back into her sheath, preparing for another draw. He assumed she would rush him, but her stance was all wrong. Instead, she drew in a flash of white light, and a shockwave of fire tore through the air towards him, too fast for the eye to follow. Ryotheras dropped beneath it and into the rock underfoot, and when he emerged again a short distance away, Cinder was right there, blade already in motion. He had only just reformed his body from sand, but he managed to shift his right arm just in time for her daiklave to pass through his elbow. But this time, it wasn’t as an oar through water; this time, there was a searing pain as the heat actually managed to touch the still-solid parts of his body. Its intensity nearly doubled him over, before he let his entire arm fall away into coarse grains, backing away from her in a mighty leap to give himself time to reform it.
“I saw that, Ragara. I thought you said my flames couldn’t harm you?” Cinder raised two fingers into the air, and a globe of arcane symbols appeared around her. Ryotheras recognized sorcery being woven, but getting his arm reformed required every bit of his essence and concentration, so he was unable to strike at her. A moment later, a giant head made of ice broke from the rock in front of her, twice her own height; the head opened its mouth, and breathed forth a howling vortex. The gust caught him before he landed back on the ground, locking him into place in a column of ice; the intense cold tried to bite into his flesh, but he shifted his outer layers of skin into rock just in time to save himself.
The aftermath of the icy storm obscured the space between them, but that didn’t last long. A red light appeared in the fog, which grew into a fierce globe that burned away the mist around Cinder’s location. She held it in one hand, and quickly formed it into a firebird. “Here, let me help you out of that,” she called across the way, before sending the bird off shrieking in his direction.
Ryotheras finished regrowing his arm just then, and used it to shatter the shell around him. As the firebird reached him, he enlarged both of his hands with sand and caught it. The impact was followed by a wave of sweltering heat that melted them slightly, so as soon as he stopped its momentum, he shed the sand growths and tried to get away. Cinder was right there once again with that white-hot daiklave, and managed to cut him twice in the midsection before he could react. Rolling with the attack, he hurled a pillar of rock up from underneath her, and when she dodged it, sent several more up in a random assortment all throughout the area to buy himself a short respite.
As he got back to his feet, his chest aching from the still-burning slashes in it, he kept his eyes locked on Cinder. She had stopped moving again, standing with one hand on her sheathed sword, but all around her the air shimmered like that of a Southern desert. Her hand twitched very slightly, obviously the beginning of another sword technique, but Ryotheras punched forward and sent a boulder hurtling at her. She sliced it in half, but he launched another, and then another, until the air was filled with huge chunks of rock. Cinder dodged or cleaved each one, but it kept her occupied and on the defensive while Ryotheras prepped his next major charm.
Finally, when the entire plateau lay strewn with bits of destroyed boulder, he slammed one hand into the ground, and clutched it into a fist. “Stone Field Submission!” The rocks exploded into smaller fragments, which in turn blew apart into still-smaller pieces, in a chain reaction that filled the air with shrapnel. Even with Cinder’s speed, there was no avoiding it; she was struck by blasts again and again, and after two dodges made no attempt to avoid subsequent explosions, instead choosing to stay in place and shield herself with her weapon as best she could. When little more than dust surrounded the two of them, Ryotheras clapped his palms together loudly, and inverted his essence flow. “Grave of the Penitent!” Responding to his call, the floating dust solidified, forming one giant slab of rock four paces high and dozens across. Cinder was too busy defending to move, and was thoroughly entombed in the rock in the process. Ryotheras flowed through the enormous stone as easily as a fish through water, and settled on the top, breathing heavily and resting on one knee. His senses confirmed that the Fire Outcaste was still deep within the crushing stone, immobile. He had committed far more essence to that attack than he had wanted, but he had done it. The fight was over.
As he stood a moment later, though, the mammoth rock rumbled, and then shook violently enough that he nearly lost his footing. Then, without warning, a geyser of liquid flame erupted into the air from its surface, and Ryotheras watched in disbelief as the tip of a pure white sword emerged from the flame, melting the rock around it. The liquefaction spread out in concentric rings, and Ryotheras concentrated all of his will on keeping a pillar underneath his location solid stone. But everything else around him became a field of molten rock, flowing away from Cinder, who stood with her sword raised high, screaming in defiance. She was bleeding from a dozen wounds all over her body, her miko robe torn and showing lines of crimson, but her eyes remained fierce and unshaken, and her blade was still as steady in her hands as it had been when the fight started.
Ryotheras stood silently for a long moment, far longer than was prudent, most likely. In that moment, he was aware – annoyingly aware – of every cut Cinder had delivered to him, even the ones his body had completely ignored. He was aware of how he had completely misread her, and underestimated her capability. And he was aware of how, despite what he had just thrown at her, she still stood across from him, unbent and unbroken. In that instant, Ryotheras allowed himself to feel the anger that had been building to a boil in his chest.
Reaching up to his shoulder, Ryotheras ripped the torn and singed cloak from his torso, and tossed it aside. Then, with a single palm thrust filled with all of his rage, he struck the pillar atop which he stood, shattering it to fragments but solidifying the molten rock atop the plateau into an uneven mass. Dropping the short distance to the new surface, he reached out for his weapon, and felt the hilt of the white tetsubo settle against his palm as it rose from the rock. And just like that, his anger was gone, and he was his calm self again. Rather than speak, he simply pointed at Cinder, and tightened his grip. She responded by lowering her sword and settling into a ready stance, frozen like a statue.
This…was the fight he had been seeking.
Soaring Ibis had been running for a while. At first, it was just to avoid the onslaught of the continuous barrages from the Wood Aspect, but then she had fully went along with their nudging, moving away from her allies so the two of them would focus completely on her. With the combination of her bonds to them and her innate essence awareness, they could have been standing right next to her, but she knew they were miles distant by this point; she practically had the entire length of the valley between them and her, by now.
As she touched down in the midst of a large pond-strewn clearing, another fusillade of thorns the size of spears came flying her way. Only this time, rather than dodge them, she brought her spirit bow up, inverted its light patterns into a shield that shattered the projectiles heading for her, and then quickly fired her own salvo of arrows in the blink of an eye. The Water Aspect had not yet caught up to her again, and so was out of the way, but the Wood Aspect had to use the next round of thorns as a barrier instead, though his aged face hardly showed any sign of surprise at the sudden reversal.
“This is far enough.” Ibis launched another series of arrows that, rather than heading for the Wood Aspect, flew around her in a protective perimeter that staved off the flank attack of the Water Aspect. When the woman retreated to a few dozen paces away, Ibis studied them both with caution.
“So the mouse would face the cat?” The deep, scratchy voice of the Wood Aspect was unnerving, but not nearly so unnerving as his eyes. They were piercing, stark, and weighing – they took the measure of her soul instantly, and found her sadly wanting. “Does the demon in you seek death so readily?”
“Only a fool seeks death. It finds us all just fine without assistance.” Drawing her left hand back again, she formed a larger essence arrow and held it at the ready. “But if it should come for me today, it will have to wait. I have a valley to protect.”
She loosed the arrow at the Wood Aspect, and a split-second later the Water Aspect appeared next to her, claws slicing at her exposed side. Her arrow was blocked by another wooden wall, but she didn’t have time to pay it any real attention, as she spun aside from the slash and fired directly into the woman’s face. The Water Aspect narrowly dodged out of the way, and pressed into an aggressive series of attacks, her claw strikes and kicks moving faster and faster as she built her momentum. “You doomed this valley with your own presence! Now you face execution at the hands of Cynis Inora Asalis, and his second, Iselsi Cherak Naratis!”
Ibis fired again, and again, and yet again, but every time Naratis was just a hair too quick, bobbing out of the way, ducking, and even catching one shot between both sets of claws before hurling it away. Forming one more essence arrow, Ibis made to draw it back, then let it dissipate, instead moving into a quick Striking Cobra Fang aimed at Naratis’s eyes. The other woman shifted her defense effortlessly, deflecting the biting air pulse with her claws and kicking at Ibis’s ribs. Ibis wove around her leg with Shadow of the Serpent’s Belly, darted hand strikes at her with Striking Serpent Speed, and then attempted to kneecap her with Adder Strikes the Heel. Naratis anticipated the direction and speed of her dodge, met every one of her hand strikes, and spun her knee out of the way, bringing with the motion an overhead heel strike. Ibis blocked it at the last moment, but took a double palm strike immediately after in the chest, getting knocked back several paces. Her opponent moved to pursue, but Ibis turned her backward momentum into the first step of her Viper’s Fangs technique, flinging a blow at Naratis’s feet with two fingers to halt her advance, then following up with another, and another, and another, scattering a dozen lightning-quick attacks all around the seven targets across her enemy’s body. Only a couple made it through Naratis’s defenses, but Ibis wasn’t finished; dashing forward, she struck with both hands high and low, focused a ball of her essence, and released it all at once right into Naratis’s midsection. “Ten Thousand Vipers!” Simultaneously, every spot she had attacked was struck again dozens of times over, weathering Naratis and throwing her back, buying Ibis a little breathing room.
She spared a glance to find the Wood Aspect, but he was standing at his leisure on a tree branch a dozen paces in the air not far from where he had arrived, watching idly. A surge of essence in her awareness drew her attention immediately back to Naratis, just in time to see an image of a tidal wave appear behind the woman. Her claws were coated with extensions of seemingly-alive water, and her stance had shifted to a low one, with both arms outstretched at her sides. “You’re a fine warrior,” she spoke in an oddly quiet tone. “I take no pleasure in what I have to do here. May your soul forgive me in its next life.”
Crossing the space between them faster than she had previously moved, Naratis came straight at her. Ibis braced to block, but the impact never came. She realized a moment too late that it was only an image, but the real attack arrived just as her defenses were lowered, as Naratis’s claws punched into her stomach. Her skin hardened enough just in time to repel both water and jade, but Naratis flipped backward and struck her chin with a bicycle kick that rattled her skull. She retained enough of her senses to knock aside an incoming claw thrust, but took the brunt of another kick to the opposite side of her body, which was followed by four more to the same spot on her arm so quickly and powerfully that her defense entirely dropped on that side. Naratis tried to finish off with a roundhouse, but Ibis dodged; it didn’t seem to matter though, as the woman rapidly caught and blocked her escape with a sideways lunge, clawing her across her right arm, then her left, then back and forth across legs, arms, and torso in a rapid blur. Ibis raised enough of a guard to keep from being completely torn to shreds, but Naratis yelled “Current Takes the Weak!” and delivered the strong leaping roundhouse kick she had missed earlier. It hit Ibis’s arm, crumpled her block, continued on into her waist, and sent her flying and spinning out of control.
Fighting back a sudden onslaught of pain – the last few attacks Naratis delivered had actually broken the skin, but the real danger was the vicious force in her leg strength – Ibis regained control of herself two heartbeats later, only to find herself surrounded by several of those small pools. Before she could take a breath, long snakelike tendrils of water grew up from each one, and began striking at her like whips. She shifted her primary stance of Ten Thousand Vipers and used it as a defensive perimeter instead, but it still wasn’t enough to stop every incoming attack. On top of that, Naratis appeared in her periphery with another tidal wave behind her, but this one wasn’t part of her anima; streams of water were surging from every pool in the vicinity to form a massive wall, one that she then hurled in Ibis’s direction. The water whips had her pinned down, so the torrent struck Ibis full-on, carrying her off of her feet towards a wall of fallen trees. At least, in her periphery she thought it was just trees. At second glance, though, Ibis saw with alarm that what awaited her were a wall of giant punji sticks, with Asalis looming above and behind them.
Throwing all of her might into opposing the flood, Ibis managed to right herself before she would have slammed into the spikes, but Naratis, unfazed by the water’s current, dashed forward and tried to palm-strike her onto one of the sticks. Ibis bowed out of the way with Serpentine Evasion, and tried to riposte with Striking Serpent Speed, but Naratis kept up the barrage, every blocked blow barely a hair’s breadth from driving Ibis backward onto a spike. She noted with dismay that a field of giant brown vines began creeping up out of the water to close off any chance for escape, but Naratis’s attacks combined with the force of the rushing water gave her little time to think, and no breathing room.
Then, Naratis feinted, and instead of attacking, formed a small globe of water and pushed it right into Ibis’s face. The globe instantly became a bubble around Ibis’s entire head, cutting off her air supply. Though she closed her mouth to prevent immediately starting to drown, and in desperation tried to escape vertically, Asalis finally joined the fight directly, hurling a giant log sideways at her the moment she cleared the wall. It struck her across the back, hurling her in a long arc and thoroughly dazing her, and at some point Naratis pounced on her from above, punching both sets of claws into Ibis’s shoulder blades and driving her heels into her back. The force rocketed her into the water, but only a heartbeat went by until she found her second wind.
Flaring her anima, its blue wings popping the bubble around her head and pushing aside the rushing water to hollow out a dry space for her, Ibis let the Twilight seal on her forehead glow even more brightly as she got to her feet, and felt the wounds on her shoulder blades start to close up. “This is my home…my home!” Quickly shaping her essence, she formed her fire-spewing essence cannon, and targeted a mass of giant vines that were closing in on her. The brown tendrils burst into flame, despite the water around them, and quickly burned into cinders. “I don’t care what you do back in the Realm, but this is Three Oaks!” Letting her cannon dissipate, she then simultaneously formed a giant fan as tall as herself, and her coiled bracer that ran the entire length of her forearm. Spotting Naratis approaching again, Ibis opened her fan and swung it in a wide arc, loosing a screaming vortex that tore along the water and halted Naratis’s progress. Before she could recover, Ibis pointed her bracer at the Water Aspect, and loosed a long forked lightning bolt that struck her guard and pushed her even farther away. “We are no easy meat!” she shouted, firing bolt after bolt. “I was chosen by Sol Invictus, and I will not lose to you!”
“Chosen by Sol Invictus?” came an aged voice from behind her. “What of it?”
Before the words had even finished, wooden stakes sprouted from the ground underneath Ibis’s position, and she was scored deeply along the leg by one as she escaped. Turning, she saw Asalis walking towards her slowly from a few paces away, his eyes cold and hard. “It doesn’t matter if the sun chose you. Today, you die. Right here.” Inhaling a deep breath, Asalis expelled a buffeting wind from his lungs, but with it came a violet miasma. Ibis leaped out of the way, and as she watched, every spot on the earth that it touched went brown and dead. More vines covered in dagger-sized thorns lashed at her the moment she touched back down, as did Naratis, crashing in from her other side with a straight kick to her ribcage. Then Asalis was there as well, breathing a cloud of poison on her at point-blank. A wave of her fan dispersed it easily, but Naratis struck her arm immediately after, knocking it from her grasp, and a nearby vine snaked in, wrapped itself around her lightning bracer, and crushed it, detaching barbed thorns into her skin in the process.
She bit back a scream, and struck all around herself with Ten Thousand Vipers, barely chasing them away for a moment, but was instantly aware of the poison that had entered her body. She tried to purge it, but the moment of respite did not last enough. Asalis had drawn his bow again, and was firing wooden javelins at her, each shot coinciding with an attack from her other side by Naratis, sometimes at odd angles. Ibis could feel her blocks getting weaker and weaker, her motions getting sluggish as the poison continued on untreated. After catching Naratis with a Cobra Strike from behind, she once again attempted to treat it, but Asalis had anticipated the move, suddenly breathing a fresh cloud of poison from behind her. She wasn’t able to keep from breathing some in, and in the middle of a coughing fit he shot her right through the small of her back with another javelin-sized arrow. Ibis turned to strike back at him, her instinct clouding her judgement, but the repeated attacks of Striking Serpent Speed only bounced off of a wall of solid wooden planks that he called up from the ground. That wall came surging at her suddenly, and hit her head-on while another barrage of arrows shot through it, one lodging in her shoulder and another in her hip. Naratis straight-kicked her right in the center of her back, and she was thoroughly unable to guard herself; she crumpled forward against the shattered wooden barrier, and then fell onto her side.
Waiting for her there were more vines tying her hands and feet down, but Ibis was too exhausted and battered to fight them. Out of the corner of her eye, she could make out a wall of wooden stakes suspended from the largest vine yet over her, poised to drop. How long have they been there? There must be thousands. Did I really miss him forming those? She tried to send urgency across her bond, tried to move, tried to do anything, but the fatigue and injury had hit her all at once. Her body was suddenly a brick, and she couldn’t even think; she was done for.
“In the name of Sextes Jylis,” Ibis felt more than heard from Asalis, “I remand your soul back into the cycle of reincarnation.” Seemingly in slow-motion, the thorns detached from the vine, and began shooting down in a deadly fusillade wide enough to cover her body twenty times over.
But just as suddenly, there was a sound like a great stone cracking, and the thorns halted in their descent. A familiar presence appeared and stuck out in her mind like a bonfire, and then the thorns turned black and merged into a giant, immobile mass suspended in the air. A tall figure with silver hair and a giant axe over one shoulder stepped over Ibis’s body, and as he did the vines around her limbs withered and crackled. “That was a shameful display. I thought you were supposed to be protecting this valley?” Ravinius’s voice was as arrogant and condescending as ever, but he seemed only halfway interested in her; his eyes were deadlocked on the Wood aspected leader of the Hunt.
Naratis dropped in front of the Noble’s path, crouching in an aggressive stance. “Who are you? Another of…” Her face suddenly hardened further. “No. You’re a raksha.”
“That’s correct. I caught a whiff of the stench of little dragons in my valley, so here I am. Ravinius the Relentless has come to fight you to the death.” A tide of thorned vines, each wider than a man was tall, arced over Naratis’s head and crashed towards Ravinius. Shifting as if to move out of the way, he instead held his ground, opened one hand towards them, and gave a flick of the wrist as if casting aside a hair. The whole mass violently jerked off-course and slammed into the ground far away.
Asalis loomed atop the base of the vines behind Naratis, and as Ravinius looked his way, Ibis completed her healing charm and felt the poison being purged from her body, the wound in her stomach closing over as well. Standing up, she looked uncertainly at Ravinius, preparing to draw her bow. “Why are you helping me?”
“Did that beating take your hearing as well? I’m not ‘helping you.’ These children are trespassing in my valley, and so I’m here to fight them to the death. That’s all.”
Shaking her head, Ibis drew her spirit bow, and stepped back into a defensive position. “In that case, they’re all yours for a few moments. I need time to prepare.”
Scoffing, Ravinius spun his longaxe in a circle over his head with both hands, then pointed it directly at their foes. “Very well then. The Wyld has arrived, you fools. Let’s see you hunt it.”