The next four months could hardly have been more different than the four that had preceded them. On the surface, they were mostly the same: Blazer went from town to settlement to village, helping with local matters however he could for a few days before moving along. Of course, now he had his Lunar, he had confidence, and somehow, he had his stability back. He still started off as Blazer the scholar and doctor, but if the troubles facing a community were serious, he no longer shied away from introducing people to Blazer Orpheus the Twilight Solar, either. At times – even occasionally when he wore the brilliant setting sun openly on his forehead – he actually felt like his old self again.
And even though reality had been different, at times he felt as if Ardent Huntress had always been right there by his side, even when he had been living at the Librarium; in fact, with fewer and fewer intrusions from past life memories, those days felt even crisper in his mind. She just so naturally fit into every aspect of his life that he was starting to find it difficult to imagine life without her. Further proof of their Lunar-Solar bond he would never need, whatever his memories – or lack thereof – said to the contrary.
Their gradual trek across the North eventually led them east, to the town of Bright Vista. Though not nearly so large as Whitewall or one of the states of the League, Bright Vista was considerably bigger than any of the settlements they had visited so far, and sat nestled in a crook in a mountain range that gave it a long, majestic view of one of the white plains. Blazer usually preferred to hit smaller places that might normally go without doctors, but Huntress wanted to relax a little, and since it was not too far out of their way, it seemed a sensible enough detour. Built primarily out of solid pine Northern timber, the homes were surprisingly cozy and welcoming; it was a sign that they were outside the reach of icewalker tribes.
“Ahh…finally, a bed in a proper inn, and not somewhere in Elsewhere, for a change.” Huntress tapped a finger to her chin and looked up in thought. “’Somewhere in Elsewhere’…that doesn’t quite sound right, does it?”
“What are you talking about?” Blazer asked with a raised eyebrow as they walked together down the main road in the town. “We’ve stayed in inns before. And besides, since when have you been finicky about where we sleep? Weren’t you the one who made fun of me for complaining that one time we slept on the ground after Falun?”
Giving a slightly peeved frown, Huntress made a quiet growl at him and tossed her head. “Hmph. Yes, I did, because you were being a baby.”
“I wasn’t being a baby. That patch of ground made the cots from my trainee days feel like cushions fit for a king.”
“But that shouldn’t have mattered,” she said with big sympathetic eyes. “After all, you were sleeping next to your lioness, right?”
“Sorry, but my back says it doesn’t work that way, dear. You’re the fantastically-built one between us.”
Huntress rolled her eyes. “Compliments, eh? I suppose I can let you slide, for now. In all honesty, I just really want the chance to look around some actual shops.”
“Huh. I never pictured you to be the type.”
“You still have much to learn about me, Blazer Orpheus.” As she finished those words, Huntress suddenly stopped in her tracks, and her head turned to look off towards a spot in the distance.
Blazer noticed, and tilted his head as he looked over at her. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I’ve just got some things I need to take care of. I’ll meet you on the south side of town when I’m finished, okay?”
“Um…okay, but what-” He didn’t get to finish his question, as Huntress loped off with her impossibly-long strides, and then was out of sight within mere moments. Letting his shoulders droop, Blazer just shook his head, and took a long look around. Since he had the time, he decided that he might as well make use of it….
The white wolf, a dark shock of fur forming a streak from his neck and down his back, dashed across the frozen plains, his strides tossing up sprays of snow, and a bright light shining from his forehead. As he traveled, he eventually was met by a lioness with fur the color of the setting sun, whose form shifted and wavered indistinctly. The two of them ran alongside each other, changing from a straight path to a circuitous, roundabout one, and as they traveled, the lioness gradually absorbed bits of the light streaming from the wolf, dimming it slightly but still noticeably. Eventually they wound up at the edge of a mountain range, where they slowed to a halt at a sheer drop-off overlooking miles of frozen plains.
Seated on a bench in one of the town’s parks, the tall, stoic stranger opened his eyes. He had had that same vision nearly since he had entered the North, but in the past few weeks the vision had repeated more frequently. He needed no further sign that the Unconquered Sun had a significant task for him, and so he had traveled to this location, this town of Bright Vista, as the vision had become clearer. And now, as he thought back on the feeling of finality that settled into his mind as the wolf and lion ended their journey, he was even more convinced that he had come to the right place. There was another Solar in Bright Vista, and he was in some sort of trouble.
Sipping a cup of hot tea outside, Blazer sat back in his chair and watched as people passed on their daily business. Bright Vista was quiet, peaceful, and relaxed. There had been a couple of minor illnesses, but nothing requiring any of his powers. Considering the sort of schedule that Huntress had been keeping them to, scouting out places where they were needed and guiding him along, he had expected at least a little something more troublesome. But he couldn’t really argue with the serenity – and the local tea was incredible. It was nice to have a big shot of ordinary for a change.
But the normalcy of his afternoon was broken a moment later, as a man the size of a mountain walked down the street towards the family restaurant he was occupying. Blazer had of course seen his share of strange people while traveling around, but this guy was more than just strange. Taller than Brisk Mountain Gale, he was dressed like no Northerner Blazer had ever seen, in a strange one-shouldered robe, and carried a huge cleaver of a weapon over one shoulder. The people of Bright Vista steered clear of the man, but they didn’t seem afraid of him so much as respectfully wary. For his part, the bald fellow took little-to-no notice of the townsfolk; rather, as he approached, he turned his severe glance on Blazer, and gave him an appraising look before stopping a few paces away.
“Can I…help you with something?” Blazer said as he toned down his wide-eyed surprise.
“Yes. Would you be the Twilight Solar known as Blazer Orpheus?” The man’s voice was deep and resounding, and commanded respect.
Glancing around out of habit, Blazer blinked a few times, and studied him carefully. Was this another Dragonblood? That sort of bold approach certainly fit them. “Indeed, you’ve found the right man.” The other patrons of the restaurant had made it a point to be elsewhere as they had seen the man draw near, and the street around them was empty. That was good; if it came to a fight, he could hopefully lead this guy out of town before something bad happened.
“Do not worry, I did not come here to attack you, Blazer.” As the man spoke, his forehead lit up in a golden sun, and a bright light followed by a spectrum of color flashed behind him. “We have much to discuss, for the Unconquered Sun has plans for us. I am called Prism of Truth.”
If his curiosity had not already been piqued, that would have sealed the deal. Blazer had learned that this far North, ideas of the Anathema and their patron deity were less likely to cause a panic, but even so, not even a fool invoked the name of Sol Invictus lightly. In that moment, a vision claimed Blazer’s senses. Instead of sitting at a restaurant before a giant stranger, he was standing on a balcony overlooking a vast square filled with thousands of people. A man in a high-collared blue coat with wild red hair longer than his own stood on a hill on one side of the square, making an impassioned speech while a golden sun blazed on his forehead. Every person below stood in rapt attention, and when he finished speaking, they erupted into a thunderous cheer. Something told him that he knew that man casually, but he couldn’t come up with a name before he flashed back to the present.
“Zenith Caste…” Blazer murmured without thinking. “Yes, I suppose we do have some things to discuss. It’s nice to meet you, Prism of Truth. Please, have a seat.”
Crouching over a set of large tracks, Ardent Huntress traced the dirt with two fingers, studying the footprints carefully and reading their owner through them. Yes, he had traveled this way, just as she had anticipated. It was too early to tell if everything would be falling into place, but for now she had what she was looking for.
Now to find Blazer again, she told herself as she stood back up and took off in the direction of the footprints. We’ll see how things go from there….
“Are you sure I can’t get some tea for you, Prism?” Blazer offered once more. The serving girl had finally come out of hiding a few moments earlier, when it became obvious that the newcomer did not intend any confrontation, but she was still eying the much larger man with a cautious eye, staying much farther away from the small table than she had been when it was only Blazer. And Prism did little to help matters with his grave, serious expression – though Blazer was starting to think that was less of an “expression,” and more just the natural cast of the man’s features.
“No thank you, more water will do just fine,” the taller man said. He sat across from Blazer, his daiklave resting on the ground and against the table, looking a bit uncomfortable in the chair, though the only giveaway was a slight twitch of his eye that most people probably wouldn’t have picked up on.
“So…you said that you had something important to say a moment ago.”
“I do, in fact. I believe it very likely that you are in danger, Blazer.” Turning his head to look down the street, Prism eventually let his eyes trail back over again. “Did you come here with a companion?”
“I did,” Blazer said slowly. “My Lunar, Ardent Huntress.”
Prism was quiet for a moment, those eyes studying Blazer carefully once more. “Then I would like to speak with her as soon as possible. I believe that may allow me to get to the bottom of this matter immediately.”
Furrowing his eyebrows, Blazer thought over that. It didn’t have a reassuring sound. “Can you tell me why you need to speak to her?”
“Blaaaazer, I’m back!” Huntress’s voice called out down the street. When Blazer turned to look, he saw the fair-haired lioness waving animatedly as she jogged up to the table, clasped her hands, and bent over towards him with a bright smile. “Did you miss me? And who’s your big friend?”
“Ardent Huntress, this is Prism of Truth.” Blazer said with a slight gesture towards the other man. “He’s a…well…he’s a Zenith Caste Solar.”
Her expression suddenly growing measured and even a bit suspicious, Huntress stood back up to her full height, and gave a slight nod of greeting. “I see. I assume you’ve just met?”
“Why, yes,” Blazer responded with no small amount of confusion. “Is something wrong?”
Prism stood up slowly, and regarded Huntress with a skeptical look in his eyes. When she not only refused to back down from his stare, but returned it with a frosty look of her own, the two just stood there for a long while, sizing each other up, not moving a muscle. Blazer looked back and forth between them a few times, but before he could speak, Huntress preempted him.
“I think it would be wise if we left, Blazer.”
“I’ve finished with my business here in town, and I see little reason to stay any longer.” Whatever her words, the look in Huntress’s eyes spoke volumes about her decision.
“Then I must insist that I accompany you,” Prism said without so much as a delay. “For I have concluded my own purposes as well.”
Looking back and forth between them again, Blazer tried to form words, but all he could find was stunned silence. Finally, when the two once again engaged in a staring match, he raised both hands in resignation. “Okay, okay. So we all leave. We can do that. Let’s just…everyone calm down, and we’ll be good, alright?” Once it seemed like the two wouldn’t raise any objections, he continued. “I just need to get a few things in town first.”
Huntress looked at him in consternation. “Are you serious?”
“Yes, Huntress,” he said with an exasperated glance. “Now, please, can you chill out?”
Giving him another sharp look, one that bordered on a glare, Huntress finally huffed and turned away, her tail twitching in palpable annoyance. “Fine. Just don’t take too long. And stop looking at me like that!”
Blazer got the rest of the time he needed to run errands in Bright Vista. There were a few homes he had been referred to by local officials where sick needed tending to, and it was a large enough town that the few materials he required were easily attained. However, the whole time he worked, he felt a storm brewing behind him. Whatever had gotten into Huntress refused to fade, and once or twice he thought he could actually see the hostile sparks flying between her and Prism of Truth. It made little sense to him – true, Prism’s clearly ascetic and somber nature was a considerable contrast to her own lighthearted attitude, but Blazer found him pleasant enough, and besides that, the man hadn’t done anything untoward. He didn’t understand, but all Huntress would do whenever he asked her about it was frown disapprovingly, say “I just don’t think he can be trusted,” and dart off like an angry cat, so he let it be after the first hour or two.
For his part, Prism seemed equally put off by Huntress. Not so much by overt action – the man rarely spoke more than two words to Huntress after that first exchange, but there was plenty enough subtext in the way his eyes practically slid past her, as if not even deigning to recognize her presence. Blazer winced when he noticed that; Huntress was nothing if not extremely proud, and a slight like that should have ended in heated words, if not a brawl, from his experiences with her. Remarkably, though, even when it seemed as if she wouldn’t take being outright ignored, Huntress showed unheard-of self-control, and settled for a derisive sniff or muttered curse without resorting to more confrontational measures. It was far from ideal, especially if Prism was going to be traveling with them for a while, but for the time being it was at least tolerable.
Except Huntress didn’t seem to feel the same way.
“We have to get rid of that man, Blazer.” As the two of them sat inside a covered noodle stand while Prism fetched simpler food elsewhere, Huntress sidled up next to him and spoke quietly but urgently into his ear. “He can’t be trusted.”
Glancing towards the owner of the stand, who made a very good show of being completely uninterested in their conversation, Blazer leaned over towards her and frowned. “You keep saying that, Huntress, but I don’t know why. Can’t you be a little more forthcoming?”
“I just don’t like him.”
“’Because’ isn’t an excuse, Huntress. We aren’t six years old, and you know that I won’t simply let it remain at that.”
“…” Giving her own look towards the noodle chef, who looked suddenly even less interested, Huntress turned back to Blazer. “Look, I don’t like Zenith Castes, alright? I never have trusted them, and I never will.”
“That doesn’t sound like a very solid justification to me. How many of them have you met?”
“More than enough to know how they are, and how they think. This one’s no different; ‘Unconquered Sun’ this and ‘Sol Invictus says’ that. No brain beyond religious doctrine, and that rubs me the wrong way.”
Blazer sighed. “I’ll grant that Prism seems a little…intense. But you’ve not even known him a single day! Try and give him a chance, alright?”
“For me? You know how much meeting another Solar means to me. And if he can teach me about my Exaltation, then he’s even more valuable an acquaintance.”
“…” Huntress looked as if she had just bitten into a rotten haunch of meat, but she finally nodded reluctantly. “Fine. I’ll give him a chance, for you. But if he does anything suspicious – anything – I’ll be on him, claws out.”
Blazer frowned, and stared at her intently for a long while. He had never had much luck browbeating her before, so he had no idea what made him try it this time.
Miraculously, though, her cheeks colored faintly, and she got a look of embarrassment on her face before turning away in a huff. “Alright, alright. I’ll behave. Don’t look at me like you’re going to tie me up over it.”
He eyed her flatly. “You would put it that way.”
Night fell in Bright Vista, but the small town didn’t follow the sun’s lead as it might have most other places. In fact, if anything, the residents seemed to get livelier as the last rays of sunset spread across the sky; there was a feeling of anticipation that was almost palpable in the air. When the first stars began to appear in the night sky, Blazer learned what was going on. At first, there was just the appearance of a single lit paper lantern atop the town’s only inn, but within moments the gourd-shaped beacon, easily as large as a man and thrice as broad, was joined by dozens, and then hundreds more like it, until every building in the town seemed aglow with the radiance of its own personal lanterns, in a myriad of colors. The effect was such that the town itself made the mountain nook it nestled within glow with a soft, welcoming light; this must have been what the name “Bright Vista” actually referred to.
“So that’s why everyone seemed to be taking it easy through the middle of the day,” Blazer murmured to himself as he walked under the lights with Huntress. Where most of the townsfolk had seemed to vanish off of the streets after the height of the day, now whole families, including young children, began to bustle around, filling small eateries, heading to the several parks that dotted the landscape with some of the largest and most fancifully-shaped lanterns, and generally just being as energetic as most towns at noon. Though he had read about similar habits in other locales, it was an experience that was new to Blazer, and he couldn’t contain his curiosity.
Unfortunately, he also hadn’t taken much of a break since arriving earlier in the day, and what with trying to get so much done – and dealing with the headache caused by Huntress and Prism of Truth’s friction – he was feeling the fatigue. Not for the first time, he wished for some of Huntress’s stamina; she, of course, looked as fresh-faced and alert as ever as she took in their surroundings with her golden eyes.
As if on cue, those eyes suddenly turned to regard him, and a smirk spread its way onto her face. “What’s wrong, cub? Your eyes look a little heavy.”
“You might say that. I do feel a little tired. But I want to check out this night life, it looks quite intr-” Blazer’s response was interrupted by a big yawn, making him blush a bit in embarrassment. “Er, intriguing.”
“Had I thought about it, I would have suggested you take a nap earlier. Come to think of it….” Trailing off as she looked towards one of the park paths that was more softly lit, she reached over and clasped his hand, then tugged him in that direction. “C’mon. We can go sit down in there, and you can doze off for a few minutes.”
“In a park? Why not go back and get, you know, a bed?”
“Do you really want to bother with that at the moment? And besides, if you get that comfortable, you might not wake up until the morning. Wouldn’t you rather nap with me, under the sky?”
Blazer rubbed the side of his nose as he looked down. “Yeah…that does sound pretty nice….”
“Well then let’s go! I want some time to check out all of those lanterns myself later, you know.”
Following along as she led him into the park, Blazer felt Huntress squeezing his hand a little more warmly than was necessary, and smiled to himself as he returned the squeeze. He just watched her as she scanned the nearby area, and then finally settled on a small patch of clear grass with a good view of several of the larger lanterns, but which was still mostly obscured by pine trees from anyone else.
“This’ll do nicely.” Letting go of his hand finally, Huntress knelt down to smooth out a sitting spot for the two of them, and then looked back up to him, her eyes inviting.
Settling down next to her, Blazer lay back and rested his head in her lap. The familiar warmth of her abdomen instantly soothed away some of his fatigue, and he sighed pleasantly as she interlaced her fingers in his hair. He opened his eyes to see her looking down at him affectionately, and she leaned down to press a kiss to his forehead as she spoke just above a whisper.
“Sweet dreams, Blazer.”
“I’ll see you soon, Huntress.”
Blazer nodded off nearly the moment his head hit Huntress’s lap. That was about as she had expected; he had looked tired enough to fall asleep at any moment for some time. He often pushed himself far beyond the limits of his own endurance, even when there was no need. But that was a flaw she had come to cherish, as she had most of his little quirks. Part of her had been apprehensive upon finally locating him; would he remember her? Would he truly embrace her as he should? There was no real way of knowing – Solars were mutable, unpredictable, even across incarnations, often. As she soothingly brushed some of his long ultramarine locks away from his closed eyes, she wondered just how many faces he had worn over time. He had been a passionate philosopher, a dutiful acolyte, a coldly-efficient strategist, and so many other things in the millenia since their first meeting. And yet, his heart had taken her in as readily as if they had known each other their entire lives, surprising her in the quiet intensity of his emotions. As it had turned out, she had underestimated even her own level of affection for the young Twilight who now rested under her watchful eye, secure in the knowledge that she would protect him. Everything was going according to plan.
In fact, it had all gone so well that she had to take a moment to congratulate herself. Since she had found him, about to throw his life away to a pack of wolves, she had carefully nurtured the hero’s soul that had called out to his Exaltation in the first place, guiding him along a path crafted to restore the greatness he had known so long ago. It hadn’t been easy; even discounting immortal threats, the North was not a forgiving land. When one threw Dragon-blooded, meddling Sidereals, other Solars, and even the possibility of a certain Lunar showing up into the mix, it became a constant game of wits and skill, figuring out how to divert her Copper Spider from some threats, eliminate others, and cultivate challenges that would test him, push him, without breaking him, all while keeping him from discovering what she was doing when he wasn’t around. It was a dance that, really, she found infuriating and invigorating, all at the same time. The appearance of Prism of Truth couldn’t have been more fortuitous, as it not only triggered the last phase of her plan, but gave her the perfect piece with which to make her most important move.
Blazer shifted a bit in his sleep, and Huntress smiled to herself. She could tell by that look on his face that he was having another of his vivid dreams. Probably of the time before. Letting her hand still on his forehead, she quieted her own thoughts, and let herself peek in on his dreams. It was always far easier with him than it should have been – few people dreamed as powerfully as Exalted, and from what she had seen, his were stronger than even most of his peers. Usually, those delicious dreams of his were so tantalizingly close while he slept that it took real restraint on her part not to over-indulge, which really made it better for her goals to try and sleep whenever he did, to avoid the temptation to snack. But this time, she let herself peruse readily, sifting through the jumble of emotions she could feel in him at her leisure.
He stood on top of a tall tower, looking much as he had the first time she had met him. He was taller then, and was as regal and dignified as he was striking, but he still had the same long hair and pale eyes. The pristine white shenyi he wore hung loose over his frame, and the long tail of his belt blew in a wind that scarcely seemed to touch his features. There was a thought behind those eyes, something of great significance, but before she could pick up on it, his dreams shifted again. This time there was a man who looked different – his face was more angular than smooth, he wore somber dark clothing, and his air was decidedly military, but it was still Blazer. He flipped through a desk full of documents with one hand, his other operating a crystalline device that projected various esoteric symbols into the air, and then suddenly the scene shifted again. Every time a new vision came to the surface, she examined it, turned it over in her own mind, and then very tenderly consumed it. Given the power of his Exaltation, she had often pondered what might happen if she really let loose on his dreams. And now, perhaps it was time to find out.
Prism of Truth walked through the streets of Bright Vista, somehow managing to ignore the hubbub going on around him. Apparently, once or twice a week the people of the town took a few hours off of working during the day in order to stay up half the night looking at pretty lights. It seemed a bit lazy and decadent, but one expected such things in towns that had such cozy surroundings. No, the only concern he had was locating Blazer and his attendant. Keeping an eye on them had not been easy, and not because of Ardent Huntress’s glares. The real problem was that it was difficult to convince Blazer that he was in danger. The visions had been clear enough; Ardent Huntress was somehow going to bring harm to the young Solar. But he hardly seemed convinced, despite Prism’s thorough explanations. Which left Prism with a predicament, but not one he couldn’t solve. It was always possible that he might have been misinterpreting things; after all, if Blazer was really so certain that Huntress was harmless, maybe there was something else to the situation that he was missing. The only solution, then, was to give Blazer his room until the two left the town. Though that didn’t mean he couldn’t check in on them from time-to-time.
Asking around, he was able to locate them in one of the parks, off to themselves. At first, he decided to just wait for them to emerge, but just as he was settling into a seated position, another vision hit him. He once again saw the wolf and lioness enter the mountains, but this time it went on longer after that. The two creature cavorted for a while among the cozy valley, but then the light streaming from the wolf’s forehead suddenly lost its intensity, dimming to a weak glow before disappearing entirely. The wolf himself never seemed to notice, and once the light was gone, he simply evaporated into motes of light, then vanished completely. The lioness, suddenly looking very much the sated predator, then stalked towards the frozen plains and disappeared into the snow.
When Prism’s eyes snapped back into focus, he knew that the time to act was at hand. It was all so obvious now: Blazer hadn’t understood the danger because he was being misled by his own Lunar. Prism had no quarrel with Lunars – they served Solars, which meant they were doing something right, at least – but he could not stand by and allow one to harm her bonded Solar.
Striding forward into the park, he could make out their image ahead after a few moments of walking. At first, he could just see Blazer lying on the ground with Huntress cradling his head with her hands. But then…he noticed Huntress’s form shift very slightly. It was only the subtlest of changes, but in the moment following, he could see a dim, ethereal light being drawn from Blazer’s forehead, forming a wispy trail straight to Huntress’s lips. He couldn’t be sure what exactly that was, but he could tell that Blazer was growing pale beneath her. And that was when he drew his God-Slicing Shard of Radiance.
“Ardent Huntress!” he called out as his anima banner flared to life, surrounding him with the pure light of the Unconquered Sun, “unhand Blazer, and explain yourself!”
At first, Huntress made no indication that she acknowledged his presence. But a second later, her eyes slowly opened, and lifted to glance towards him. He had thought the woman nothing short of impudent when they first met, but now there was a different look in her eyes. The passion he had witnessed before was replaced by a stark chill; the color of her pupils suddenly looked less like gold, and more like bile. “And what, exactly, do you plan on doing if I refuse, Prism of Truth?”
She had clearly intended for her voice to sound low and dangerous, but Prism was undeterred by her overconfidence. “You seek to harm a Solar. Futile though your wish may be, I cannot simply stand by and allow you the attempt.” He gripped his daiklave resolutely, and leveled it in her direction. “I will not warn you a third time.”
Letting go of Blazer – and letting him collapse into the grass – Huntress got to her feet quickly but unhurriedly, and flickered once, for a brief moment. Then, the image of the full moon began to appear on her forehead, but it promptly vanished once more. She made an annoyed sound through her teeth, and shook her head. “Zenith Castes really are the worst. But it makes no difference; there’s only one of you. I have nothing to fear, even if I can’t hide from your eyes.” As she spoke, the colors of her eyes began to twist and warp. The golden hue of her irises became sharp and threatening, while the remainder of each eye went dead black. The silver crescent high on her cheek pulsed once, like a heartbeat, and a black miasma started to flow from it, creeping down along her body like a living shadow. Holding her arm out to one side, a fell radiance began to form at the end of her hand, and as she started to walk forward, the miasma was drawn towards it, coalescing into a glowing, serrated violet blade. “All the same, I’ll at least honor you by using my full strength. I won’t waste my time with teeth and claws, not against you.”
Prism’s Celestial Armor formed just as other people started noticing the commotion, but they were in the far periphery of his awareness. Which was a good thing, as one moment Huntress was a dozen paces away, and the next she was literally in his face with her sword tip, as if she hadn’t had to cross the intervening space. He swung his blade in time to parry, and the force of her blow was undeniable, but it didn’t shake his stance in the slightest. “Who, and what, are you, in truth?” he asked as he forced her back.
“My name is Ardent Huntress, just as I said before.” She reacted quickly, bracing her footing and crouching low, one hand on the grass as the other held her blade almost to the ground while she studied him for her next angle of attack. “And I hail from a little place called the Wyld.”
“The Wyld?” Prism’s frown deepened. “A fae creature? Here?”
“Yes, here. Guiding a young hero to his bright future.” Charging forward, Huntress darted in a zig-zag pattern towards him, hoping to throw him off with an erratic rush. Her skill with a blade was obvious, but she had a tough time getting a solid hit against his armor. The force he could detect through the intervening essence was a strong suggestion that she was quickly learning to compensate for it, though. “Up until a certain meddling Solar had to show up. You threw my time table off considerably, but I just have to end you to correct that.”
Something in her words and manner caught his attention, but he made sure not to hesitate when an opening presented itself. Though she was fast enough to avoid most of his swings, he still managed to clip her a few times through the black radiance that formed a protective field around her body after a few moments. After a wide swing caught her with her guard down, flinging her away to give him some breathing room, he spoke up once more. “You’re still hiding something. Best to be out with it now, while you still have the tongue to speak.”
Huntress laughed mockingly as her blade crashed into his once more, heat radiating from the jagged edge of her weapon as she tried to overcome his guard. “Ha! Do you really think I have any intention of telling you anything?” She brought one hand away from the hilt of her sword, and began forming a second blade in it.
But before she could complete it, Prism pulled one hand back, and channeled a bright bolt of sunlight, aiming to take her right between the eyes. The lancing light narrowly missed her, as she rapidly broke off her attack and dodged away, but she growled in frustration and kept her distance for a few moments, focusing until her second weapon coalesced. Prism stayed in place for a moment, then began a grim approach towards her, “Speak, or don’t. Either way, you’re running out of time.”
Brandishing both blades in a crossed pattern in front of her, Huntress let her head hang, her hair falling around her face. But then she began tapping her weapons together, the action producing a discordant sound that was vaguely unsettling. When she raised her head again a few second later, her eyes once again held the killing intent of a natural-born hunter. “Then let’s be on with it, Zenith.”
Blazer was cold, for the first time in a long time. So very, very cold. It wasn’t simply that his surroundings lacked heat; it was as if his own internal fire had been somehow lessened or diminished. He opened his eyes, but all he could see was a vast expanse of gray void, as if he were in Elsewhere. Somehow, though he couldn’t explain how or why, he knew he was inside his own mind, but things were not as they should have been. It was so…empty. As if something had been here very recently, and had just suddenly been snatched away by unseen hands. And on top of that, his thoughts were jumbled and confused, and he could barely make anything coherent out of them. It scared him to think of what might have happened to put him in such a state.
First things first, he forced himself to think. Anchor on something solid, and expand from there. Calm yourself. Taking a deep breath, he called to mind images of the Librarium, standing majestically in the midst of the evergreens before the invasion. As he saw the dim outline of his old home in the distance of the expanse, and his consciousness started to stabilize, he shifted to his own much smaller collection of books passed down from Yukiri Tavon. It was slow going, but he managed to calm his thoughts enough that the feeling of emptiness began to fade. He continued focusing, moving on to the warmth that was his Exaltation, tucked carefully into the back of his awareness, and then shifted his thoughts to Huntress. But then, as if in violent rejection to an internal attack, his very consciousness lurched like a ship that had run aground, and he was suddenly inundated with images of a different sort. Huntress loomed over him, her eyes aglow and ephemeral tendrils extending from her fingertips to pierce his skull. He screamed, and tried to shut the images out, but they continued on. A stream of light began to trail from the version of him in the image, as if siphoned off.
No…it’s not…it can’t be….
The Full Moon caste mark that had once blazed so brightly on Ardent Huntress’s forehead began to flicker, as if merely an illusion, and a sinuous shadow began to spread across her form, as her features grew hungry and sinister.
No…it’s not true…stop it!
As Huntress’s image grew more and more imposing, the other Blazer faded continually, until he was little more than an indistinct shade. Then, at the last, there was a bright flash, as something impossibly brilliant shot out of the center of his chest, and he crumpled into a heap on the ground, his eyes glazing over.
When Blazer awoke, he was weak and drained, as if he had slept all of his vitality away. His eyes nearly refused to open themselves, but when they did, they caught sight of two figures locked in a vicious battle a short distance away. His ears picked up on the shrieks of frightened townsfolk, and a moment later his vision made out the forms of Ardent Huntress and Prism of Truth fighting against one another, anima banners blazing intensely. Prism looked the same as he had before, but Huntress’s caste mark and anima banner were overlaid with violet and black shadow, as if not really there. Every time one of Huntress’s blades missed, a trio of glowing claw marks was embedded into the ground, a tree, or a rock near her target, and Prism’s daiklave sliced through nearly everything it touched like a cleaver made of liquid fire. It was a disaster, but the worst part was that he couldn’t banish that horrifying image every time his eyes ran over Huntress.
It was just a nightmare. He knew it wasn’t. I’m awake now, and everything’s going to be fine. His mind wouldn’t ignore what he had experienced. I have to stop them!
Shakily getting to his feet, Blazer steadied himself, then called on Swooping Shrike. The bow was slow to respond to his summons, but he couldn’t afford to wait. He forced one step, and then another, and then another, willing himself to approach as the two continued to battle one another in the distance. He neared them just as Prism knocked one of Huntress’s swords out of her hand, and then blasted her at point-blank with a concentrated beam of sunlight. She howled in agony, and stumbled back several paces, dropping to a knee as she clutched at her face with her free hand.
“STOP IT!” Swooping Shrike suddenly formed itself as Blazer shouted at the top of his lungs, and he drew back an energy arrow as he aimed in their direction. “That’s enough, both of you!”
Prism glanced towards Blazer, but maintained his guard. “Are you alright? Your ‘companion’ here isn’t what she claims to be, Blazer. She-” He cut off as an energy arrow slammed into the ground at his feet, and his face became smooth and unreadable.
“I…just…stop….” Blazer said above the wild, uncontrolled beating of his own heart. “Huntress, are you…are you alright?”
Letting her other sword fall to the grass, Ardent Huntress let her hand drop from her face, and turned to look his direction. The skin around her eyes was scorched badly, but he could make out her golden irises, dimmed somewhat but still seeming to register his location. “For various values of ‘alright.’ Blazer, I-” She stopped speaking as he turned to aim at her, and drew herself up a bit, her caste mark flickering in and out of sight again. “What is this? Are you taking his side, this stranger?”
“I need the truth from you. Right now.” Blazer’s voice was cold and harsh to his own ears, and even as he spoke, he felt something go numb in his chest. “Who. Are. You?”
Brushing her hair out of her face with a casual flip of her hand, she stood to her full height, and in the blink of an eye, her anima banner, caste mark, and moonsilver crescent vanished. “Observe for yourself.” Obsidian-black eyes with gold rings for irises. Creeping black tattoos covered her face, neck, arms, and chest. Her hair, always long and unruly, practically writhed of its own volition. And yet, she was still breathtakingly beautiful, even in her terror. “Ardent Huntress, first representative of the Fair Folk to Blazer Orpheus, at your service.”
Blazer’s heart nearly stopped. The Fair Folk were monstrosities from beyond human perception and reason, who could devour a person’s souls, according to legend, rumor, and just about everything he had ever read. One of these creatures had passed herself off as his companion, his guardian, his lover. He should have been terrified beyond understanding. Yet that was not the largest part of his growing knot of emotions. “Why, then? Why me?”
Ardent Huntress stared at him grimly for a long moment, but then she burst into laughter, holding her own sides and finally settling down after a few seconds. “Okay, I can’t keep that serious attitude up for very long.” Giving her head a shake, she stretched, and settled her weight on one foot, both hands going to her hips. “Why you, Blazer? Because the dreams of Solars are tantalizing. Because I knew you owed me from a previous life. Because I was bored. What does the ‘why’ matter?”
Prism of Truth seemed unamused, his daiklave still held at the ready. “Don’t trouble yourself too much with the details, Blazer. I have heard that these Fair Folk are not exactly…sane…as we consider it.”
“I don’t care about any of that.” Blazer felt his eyes watering, but couldn’t bring himself to lower his bow. “I trusted you, Huntress! I really believed that we were a bonded pair, that I was meant to walk with you!”
“And wasn’t it wonderful?” she spoke without even the slightest bit of sarcasm. “During all of the time we spent together, all of the journeys we made, the people we helped, the feelings we shared, did you ever have any reason to doubt me?” When she looked at him, he could see the woman he had thought he knew, and she looked…sincere. “We were happy together, you and I. It’s true that I’ve been feeding off of you, but only enough to keep myself going, and not enough to harm you in any lasting fashion. Just a few long-forgotten memories here and there, with a dash of a First Age dream in a real bind.”
“What you just did to me was far from ‘not enough to harm me.’ I was losing myself, memory by memory, and if Prism hadn’t shown up, I’d likely be dead right now!” When she didn’t respond, he felt a torrent of feelings threatening to choke the breath out of him. Why did he want to believe her so? Why did he find himself not caring whether she was telling the truth or not?
“What shall we do with her, Blazer?” Prism said, bringing him out of his own thoughts. “She tried to destroy you.”
“I wanted no such thing,” Huntress responded evenly. “I simply wanted to be with you. I can’t help what I am, and what I have to do to survive. But at least with you, a being more than a simple human, I can feed without harming you.” Bringing a hand to her chest, she looked down at it, and then held it out towards Blazer, stepping forward a bit as her tail swished around behind her playfully. “What do you say, Blazer? Why don’t we go back to being Solar and Lunar, and forget all of this? You can come with me, we can leave this beast of a man behind, and go back to being happy.”
Blazer closed his eyes, and didn’t say anything for a long moment. So many things he wanted to say…so many things he had left unsaid. None of it mattered, now. Not anymore. “I’m sorry, Huntress,” he said over the howl of his own heart. “I can’t do that. I’m a Solar, and I…I have a purpose. I can’t run with a raksha anymore.” He opened his eyes, and looked over to her once more. He still felt that chill, somewhere in his mind, but he couldn’t help but see the Lunar he had so completely fallen for, even through the logic-defying being in front of him.
Slowly letting her hand fall, Huntress’s face smoothed over, and she looked down at the ground. “I see.” Her hair stopped writhing, and fell around her face, obscuring her eyes. A moment later, she looked back up at him, over at Prism, and then back to him. “Very well. I admit defeat. Farewell, Blazer Orpheus.” Spinning on her heels, she didn’t give either of them a chance to chase her, as she dashed off in the opposite direction, a cloud of dust and snow being thrown up in her wake that obscured her from vision. The last glimpse he caught of her was of her hair swishing across her back like a golden cape, and then she was gone.
Prism didn’t give chase, and as Blazer dropped to his knees on the ground, the much taller man lowered his sword and looked down at him. “Well spoken, Blazer.”
“Are you injured?”
“…I’m fine.” Swooping Shrike faded from Blazer’s right hand, but he barely noticed it go. The absence of its light was barely anything compared to the other, greater void he now felt.
“Was there any truth to her? Was your Lunar actually a lioness?”
Had any of it been real? “I don’t know. My Exaltation hasn’t spoken to me on the matter. But I don’t think so; Ardent Huntress would have loathed being a copy of anyone. Regardless, I…I don’t know what I’m going to do without her.”
“Nonsense. You’re a chosen of the Unconquered Sun, and she’s just some creature from outside Creation."
“She…she saved my life, Prism. I was ready to die, and she saved me. She held me in her arms, and told me that everything would be alright.”
“Do you truly believe she wouldn’t have harmed you?”
Blazer was silent for a long while. He just stared at the trail Huntress had left, tears forming long trails down both cheeks. “…If I come with you, will I learn what it means to be a Solar?”
“If that is what you wish, then yes. The path I walk is the path that Sol Invictus lays out before me. I have no doubt that you, too, will also find your way.”
Wiping his eyes with the back of his hands, Blazer drew in a deep breath, and pushed himself up off of the ground. He took one last, long look towards where Huntress had vanished, then turned away from it. “Then let’s go. I don’t want to stay here any longer.”