Cynis Inora Asalis studied the new arrival onto the battlefield intently, taking in every detail of the creature’s appearance without losing sight of the Solar girl. It was not often that he had seen such a being come to the aid of an Anathema during a Hunt, but it was also not entirely unheard of, and little more than a temporary setback. Ravinius the Relentless was not a name he recognized; he doubted the faerie was known to the Wyld Hunt yet, and would be sure to file a report cataloging it and its status when he returned to the Blessed Isle.
Reaching out with his Essence towards the giant vines that Ravinius had cast aside, Asalis sent them hurtling around towards the Solar, then called up a wooden dome from the ground to entrap the faerie. She dodged out of the way as they came in – it seemed she had already healed herself of the poison and the crippling torso wound – but Ravinius just stood there as the thick wooden planks bowed in and closed over its head. Naratis, good soldier that she was, immediately went back into motion, dashing after the Solar girl, but before she had moved ten paces the wooden dome exploded, sending chunks of timber flying in all directions.
“I did not come to be dismissed,” Ravinius spoke a heartbeat later. “I am here-” It cut off as Naratis suddenly changed directions and flew its way in a lethal charge with her clawed left hand. Before she arrived, it once again changed the direction of Asalis’s vines, pulling them from their pursuit of its comrade and slamming them down into the ground between itself and Naratis, so that her claws bit harmlessly into three feet of brown plant matter. “-to fight you to the death.”
“Then die already and be done with it.” Naratis shot long talons of ice from the ends of her claws into the vines, tearing right through their centers and homing in on the faerie. But before they reached it, the air around its body went wrong somehow, and the ice melted away harmlessly as quickly as if it had been thrust into a forge.
“So this is the vaunted might of the Wyld Hunt? Paltry elemental parlor tricks?” Ravinius brandished its axe, and that look of wrongness expanded around it, the air shimmering in a globe several paces thick. Naratis retreated to a safe distance off to the side, and glanced very momentarily at the Solar, who seemed to be concentrating very hard on something. But Ravinius cast its arms out to the sides, and that globe exploded in a pulse that all of them, even the Solar, had to dodge back even farther from. The grass and other plants where the pulse passed immediately turned black and twisted, but started growing wildly towards Asalis and Naratis, a horde of grasping black claws. “We are made of the elements. Your powers are a poor imitation, at best.”
Asalis backpedaled from the encroaching mass of plant life just as it attempted to spear through the thick green jade of his armor. He felt the change in the plants more than saw it – tainted by the touch of the Wyld, they would no longer submit to his control. They continued to follow him in jagged formations until he reached the perimeter of the tainted zone, when he raised a solid wall of untainted wooden planks from the ground to halt their advance. Crouching behind it, he quickly reached into Elsewhere and retrieved a cache of arrows made of iron, shaft and all.
He barely finished before his wooden barrier exploded, and Ravinius came charging through with its axe already in-motion. Narrowing his eyes, Asalis rapidly nocked and fired at the faerie’s heart. It shifted the axe into a defensive position just in time to deflect the impact, then sprang backward and sent a roar of flame at him that alternated between black and gold, another identical burst of fire heading for Naratis as she tried to return to pressuring the Solar. She broke off her pursuit and maneuvered to a safe distance, and Asalis retreated to keep the faerie between them.
“I realize that unlike Lilac at Dusk, you’re unable to protect your plants from my touch,” Ravinius spoke over the sound of the flames. “Still, do try and provide me with sport.” It stalked forward, surrounded by more of that black fire like some mockery of an Exalted’s anima.
Analyzing the faerie’s gait, Asalis identified four weak spots in its defense within a moment. It seemed quite content to just stroll toward them as if it had all the time in the world, so Asalis reached out and summoned a horde of vines from the ground between himself and his enemy. Naturally, when they homed in on the faerie it tried to just cast them aside, but Naratis attacked from the side as it was distracted, forming a blast of water from another side to draw its attention while she straight-kicked it from another direction.
It caught the attack on its axe, but its defense crumpled slightly, and Asalis quickly closed the distance, firing from a few paces away at where kidneys would be on a person. The iron arrow struck true, and the fae crumpled to the ground, but it became a formless mass in a heartbeat, just as a bundle of twisted vines erupted from the ground beneath it. Asalis and Naratis both got their defensive animas up in time to protect themselves from being impaled, but the vines wrapped around the globes they’d formed and lifted them into the air.
A sinister laugh echoed through the area, and Ravinius oozed up from the ground through the mass of its fallen copy, both arms holding onto those vines. It slammed them against the earth and then hurled them up, and as Asalis righted himself in the air, he saw the faerie pitch that long-handled axe after him. It came spinning at him deceptively quickly, but he put two iron arrows into it to stop its flight and dodged away from it as Ravinius teleported to him, took hold of it again, and tried to take off his head.
Naratis came in from a different, higher angle with a strong axe kick, and this time she seemed to connect with the real faerie. She drove it down and hard enough into the ground to form a small crater, and turned to look at Asalis, nodding once. He understood, of course – she was the best martial artist he had ever met, and if they couldn’t use the elements against this creature, then she was the better choice. Naratis’s combat skill was superior to his own, and left to fight without restraint, he had no doubts she could handle this monster.
Having given Asalis the nod, Naratis turned back to the fae. He rose up from the ground like a marionette pulled slowly to its feet by its strings, but she returned to the attack immediately. The slow rise was a distraction; his axe leapt to life on its own and sliced up at her from the ground, but she saw that in plenty of time to flip sideways, turning her charge into a spinning kick. Ravinius tried yet another trick before she connected by replacing his real body with an image. Her instincts warned her of that, too, and she tightened her spin to increase her speed, kicking right through the decoy and connecting both claws with the real faerie just beyond.
The black jade bit into his crossed arms, but he nevertheless grinned at her, an unhinged look creeping onto his unnaturally-beautiful features. “Oh … I like this little dragon. She has spirit.” She thanked him for the compliment by way of a hard roundhouse to his face; the kick distended Ravinius’s neck, but his head remained perfectly shaped as he snapped it back around, that same grin still on it. Tossing one hand casually over his shoulder, he formed a dome of black vines over and around his Solar ally’s position to block a hail of thorns from Asalis, keeping his attention focused on her. “You. I’m going to take you apart, little dragon.”
“Come and get it, little faerie.” Naratis took her Cresting Dragon stance, and Ravinius came barreling at her. His axe flashed once, twice, three times, far too quickly for such a large, heavy-looking weapon, but Naratis kept up without a hitch; even with Ravinius’s greater reach, her long claws were enough to keep him at bay as she searched for a weak point.
At least, at first. Ravinius’s speed increased as the two exchanged blows, and then increased again. Her initial concern was that he was somehow siphoning her energy away, but she didn’t see any Essence flows suggesting such a thing. Remembering how close to the Wyld they were, though, and how easily this faerie could manipulate the elements, she knew what was actually going on – manipulating Wyld energy to boost his own fighting prowess was hardly a difficult trick for a cataphract.
“You’re analyzing me,” Ravinius said with a leer. Surrounding his axe with black fire, he slashed horizontally through the air, swept it in an upward arc when she leapt over that swing, and scattered the flames all around him, though her Impenetrable Water Shell kept it at bay. “You’re water, but you’re different than the Wake boy.” He grew a thorny bundle of vines from one arm and tried to impale her, then used the bundle like a flail, lashing at her with it and striking against claws over and over again. “Very methodical, precise, careful. You’re more like the Cinder woman. It’s a very interesting difference.”
The bundle of vines caught her claws and tried to hold her in place, and when Ravinius tried to pull her in, she initially let him jerk her off of her feet. The ice extensions on her claws shattered, turning into a hail of ice fragments and starting to melt, so she melded into the stream of water and flowed up along the vine, quickly closing the distance and reforming right next to him. He wasn’t prepared for the maneuver, so she kneed him in the side of the head, then spun and roundhouse kicked him, sending him bouncing away and skidding along the ground. She immediately pounced and tried to take his head fully off with her claws, but he sent a porcupine of vines shooting up out of the ground to block her attack. She dodged those, and flipped over the faerie’s axe as it flew toward its master and tried to butcher her from behind, landing in a ready crouch and watching him carefully.
I seem to have captured his full attention, she thought. Here’s hoping I can finish this quickly.
While Naratis battled the faerie, Asalis refocused his attack against the Anathema. It wasn’t easy; even with one of the most veteran Shikari Asalis had ever known trying to keep it occupied, Ravinius was annoyingly able to shield her at the last moment against nearly every opening, throwing up a shield of vines or planks or fire to block Asalis’s arrows and spears and poison. He hated to admit it, but the faerie’s level of control over the elements was frustrating. If this Three Oaks was plagued with fae of this level, then the whole valley might very well need to be wiped off of the map after all.
Still, the leader of the Wyld Hunt pressed his attack against the Anathema witch. Each time the faerie interefered with the fight, Naratis quickly drew it away again within moments, and each time Asalis found a new angle of attack. The Solar had gone on the full defensive, for reasons that were not immediately apparent – she still seemed to be concentrating quite hard on something, but that concentration meant that she ignored opportunities to strike back, allowing him to keep up the intensity of his assault. Eventually, she would break – they always broke.
Finally, the faerie seemed completely absorbed in fighting Naratis, and Asalis took his chance. Drawing in a huge breath, he spat out his largest cloud of poison yet, right atop the last vine dome that the faerie had left over its ally. The purple gas left a thick, heavy miasma that clung to the ground and the plant material protecting the Anathema, and Asalis fired three arrows with special corrosive tips that drove the caustic substance deep into the dome.
It crumpled, and the Anathema shot two of her blue light arrows at him when it did. Asalis dashed past them and exhaled another gout of deadly poison right into her face and the surrounding area, immediately forming his own smaller vine bubble around her to seal her in with the harmful air. She put four arrows through it and then tore it open, and only barely blocked a fusillade of thorns he fired at her as she emerged again. Drawing his bow to attack her again, Asalis noticed something different about her. On her forehead, lying just under the mark of her Anathema curse, was a circle – no, an oval – of a different color. Bright green.
Asalis’s eyes suddenly went wide for a moment, then narrowed in disgust. He fired a volley of arrows, but she didn’t even shoot them down this time. Instead, there was a bright flash of green light, and the arrows disintegrated when they got within a few paces of her. Asalis clenched both fists hard, nearly hard enough to draw blood through his gloves, and called out loudly in her direction. “Well, it seems my suspicions were accurate. We meet again after all, Orpheus.”
The Anathema’s face could have been carved from stone, but for a heartbeat, Asalis saw surprise in her eyes. “You know the name Orpheus?”
“We’ve fought before. Several times, in fact.”
“Good. Then you won’t be surprised by what’s coming next.” The pressure in the air seemed to increase for a moment, and then there was a rush of air as it settled once more. The oval on the Anathema’s forehead opened and became an eye – a glowing eye with a baleful green iris. “I had hoped never to use this, but you’ve made me quite desperate, Cynis Inora Asalis.” She reached back and drew her bow, but the arrow she formed was surrounded in crackling energy and far larger than any she had loosed thus far. When she let it go, it flew at him like a lightning bolt, so quick he only mostly dodged it, the projectile grazing his side and scorching his jade armor.
“You’ve changed, my dear,” Asalis overheard the faerie say loudly from where it fought Naratis. “I take it you’re ready to defend yourself again?”
“Quite.” The Anathema pulled back another arrow, and aimed it at Asalis. “Where were we?”
“I believe it was with me about to pierce your ribcage.” Asalis fired at her six times in rapid succession, trying to lead her into a pattern, but she winked back and forth like a flash, faster than before and heading directly at him in the process. After the first two shots, he was blocking more of her arrows, and very slightly giving ground to keep her from getting too close too quickly. Coming out of a teleport and nearly getting her foot pinned to the ground by an arrow, the Anathema hopped backwards, drawing another arrow of her own, but a heartbeat before letting it go she vanished. Almost concurrently, Asalis felt a thundering impact against the back plate of his armor, and realized he had been struck by her fist. He was struck at least a dozen more times so quickly they barely registered in his mind, and he fell forward in shock.
He quickly recovered himself and spun to fire at her, regaining his footing, but he saw only empty air. She hit him again from a different direction this time, and then again, and then he was caught in a blinding flurry of punches, palm strikes, and finger jabs, coming from all sides, always in his blind spots. The only sign he could see of the Solar was a flash of light and the barest flicker of movement just before every attack, but it wasn’t enough to defend himself. He barely kept hold of his jade power bow, and every blow rattled his entire body, her attacks striking him as if the bulky green jade of his armor wasn’t even there. He called out to the plants around him with his will, turning fragments of planks into thorns to put up a defensive perimeter, but she struck around them without obstruction, appearing above him with her bow drawn. A hail of arrows rained down on him, and even though he shielded his head with his bracers, after the volley she punched at him with enough force to drive those energy arrows into his forearms, pushing him to one knee.
A fusillade of ice spears shot at the Anathema from the side and made her break off her attack, and Naratis appeared at Asalis’s back a moment later, her back turned to him. “So we’re up against the one called Orpheus again?”
“Yes. There’s no mistaking that fighting style.” Arrows came flying at them from seemingly five directions at once, and Asalis and Naratis split up again, Naratis leaping off to intercept the faerie once more while Asalis catapulted himself high into the air using a nearby vine as a slingshot. “I’ve killed you before, Orpheus, and I will kill you again.” Landing high atop one of his tall discarded brown vines, Asalis found the Solar’s location and glowered down his nose at her. “As many times as I have to, until you finally die for good.”
The Anathema ran up that vine to approach him, and the two shot back and forth right into each other’s arrows as she closed the distance. “My name isn’t Orpheus. You’re fighting Soaring Ibis of Three Oaks today!”
When she reached him, Asalis tried to gouge out one of her normal eyes with the tip of his bow, then fired more razor-tipped needles from his arms at her face and torso, watching her movements carefully as they fought hand-to-hand. She was fast, and her attacks were crippling in power, but he had seen this fighting style many times. “Blood will tell, monster. And I’ve seen enough of yours today to know who I truly face.” She aimed a palm strike at his chest, but he dropped backwards and off of the vine, spewing another poisonous miasma up at her as he fell towards the ground, then hurling a wickedly-barbed wooden spear up into the cloud as she dove after him, missing her by a hair’s breadth.
“You brought war to us, yet you dare to speak of spilled blood?” The Solar formed one of her floating light platforms at her feet to push off of, and then another, increasing her descending speed and firing another hail of arrows at him. “You’re the monster!”
Good, she’s getting angry, and losing her composure. It didn’t make her any weaker, of course, but breaking her calm would give him an opening. Incarnations of Orpheus were at their most dangerous when they were calm. But as Asalis continued to lead her on a running battle, it became obvious that she was going to be too much to handle. She was just too fast, and the raw power pouring from her with that eye open made it hard to counter her. And Naratis was having more trouble against the faerie than he would have thought. They were going to need to call in their last resort.
If they still got the opportunity. The Anathema’s third eye glowed brighter, and released a beam of green light as wide as Ryotheras was tall. Asalis sprouted a huge oaken shield from his bracers at least as thick as his forearm, but it only partially deflected the laser. The beam slammed him down into the ground with barely enough time to find his footing, and within a couple of seconds he could see a green circle melting through it on his side. He grew support struts from three points on the shield into the ground, then rolled away just in time to avoid that infernal blast as it punched through and into the earth. As he rolled and got back to his feet, he broke back into a run and formed another grounded shield, and then another, creating a small web of covered ground that obscured him from sight and gave him at least a little breathing room.
The Solar went after him with both that beam and her energy bow again, but with more than one location to focus her fire on, she wasn’t able to cut through the thick wood nearly as quickly. Several of Asalis’s shells sprouted blue tips on their undersides, and one melted away into paste, but it gave him the moment he needed.
Reaching into Elsewhere, he pulled out a glass figurine of a lightning bolt, small enough to fit in his palm. “Raiton, the time has come to honor your oath.” He crushed it with one quick clench of his fist, and let the fragments scatter in a sudden breeze. From high up above came the sound of rumbling thunder, and Asalis looked up at his barrier. Somewhere on the other side, the Anathema was waiting for him – but she would soon have more than just him to worry about.
Holding position high above the ground, Soaring Ibis surveyed the battlefield down below. Ravinius and Naratis were fighting a short distance away in her peripheral vision, but her attention was focused on the wooden phalanx. She could tell Asalis was still down there – his Essence pattern was unmistakably on the other side of that wall – but pinpointing through the swell of Wood Aspected Essence those shields radiated was difficult. The best she could do was track movement, but he was apparently standing still.
And it didn’t help that her Third Eye was far more draining than she had expected. She had never used it in combat before; it had only been a few weeks since she had unlocked the ability, and she still hadn’t had the time to do more than test it out a few times in solitude. The power was tremendous – her limbs buzzed with energy despite the long, brutal fight – but focusing all of that raw might into controlled attacks was daunting, and her emotions had started to flare wildly. Despite the fact that she had thus far been able to stay mostly level-headed, her composure was drifting into fury, something she had never really had an issue with.
Calm down, Ibis. He’s down there somewhere, and you need to press the attack before he catches his breath. Taking a moment to breathe deeply, she tried to quiet the storm that was building in her mind, wrestling with her Third Eye to get it under control. She even imagined hearing thunder as if it were actually a storm. Then she realized she hadn’t imagined that, as a huge Essence pattern appeared in the sky above her.
Looking up, she saw a shape hurtling down from above the clouds toward her. A great gold and white bird, wings tucked in at its sides, dove straight for her, a spiral of crackling lightning surrounding its body. Inverting her spirit bow, she formed it into a shield and blocked the bird’s snapping jaw – its beak was as large as she was – and fought to stay aloft, her light platform starting to buckle slightly under the pressure.
The bird broke off as Ibis aimed an eye beam at its face, and flew back up higher, hovering a hundred or so paces away from her. “You have invoked the bargain, Wyld Hunter,” it said in a deep, booming voice, “and now Raiton, thunderstorm god of Zu, answers.” Raiton regarded her with red-irised eyes, its jagged wings beating slowly and humming with static. “What do you demand of me, Cynis Inora Asalis?”
“Destroy the Solar Anathema.” Asalis’s dispassionate tone sent chills down Ibis’s spine, as he emerged from his phalanx down below. “When she dies, your debt is fulfilled.”
How easily he condemns others to death, Ibis thought bitterly. “I have no quarrel with you, Raiton-sama. As Chief Miko of this valley, I beg you to withdraw.”
“Nor I with you, child.” Raiton spread his wings wide, and the buzz of static in the air began to grow. “Unfortunately, I have made certain oaths, and now I must keep them.” His beak began to glow with a golden crackle, and then he shot a gigantic lightning bolt at her, with a boom of thunder so loud it sounded as if the sky itself were cracking in two.
Ibis reacted by raising her forearm and forming her lightning bracer, hoping to dissipate the electric charge. The bracer successfully drew the bolt, but the charge was too great; the coil shattered and exploded, throwing her off of her aerial platform. Asalis appeared under her as she fell, launching a volley of arrows all along the trajectory of her fall. She flipped her body in the air to shoot his arrows out of the sky, but took a smaller lightning bolt directly in the back in the process.
Tightening her somersault to finish it after that attack, she landed on a new light platform, expanded her bow into a shield to block another fusillade of arrows, then focused her Essence on her Third Eye and her bow simultaneously. “Furious Azure Bolt!” Launching a huge, crackling arrow from her bow, a fraction of a second later she also shot a beam of green fire from her Third Eye. The two attacks went into a tight spiral around each other, heading straight for Asalis. He raised a wooden wall in front of it, but before striking the beams split apart and went around him, darting after Raiton and gaining speed. The thunderstorm god banked away and fled at high speed, but a second later the beams diverted again as if ricocheting, shooting towards the Wood Aspect Shikari again from behind.
They connected this time, and Ibis heard a great crack of metal, but had no time to celebrate. Her senses alerted her to Raiton’s presence behind her a heartbeat before a wave of lightning crashed into her back. She managed to draw some of the energy in the attack away with her Third Eye, but the lion’s share of it still wracked her body. The pain made her lose her concentration on her platform, and she tumbled out of the air to the ground, landing with a “whump” and feeling the air knocked out of her lungs momentarily.
Pushing up onto her hands and knees, Ibis raised her head to see Asalis emerging from the smoking ruins of his shield wall. The old Wood Aspect was by no means unscathed; chunks of his green jade armor were missing and his barklike skin was stained bright crimson in more than a couple of places. But that iron look in his eyes was still the same.
Is this guy even human? What does it take to slow him down? Ibis got to her feet carefully, and took note of Raiton’s location in the sky above, but didn’t take her eyes off the Wood Aspect. If I try and take to the air again, I’ll be shot right out of the sky. And if I take any time to form another Azure Bolt, one of them will hit me in the back. Letting her bow fade to a glow in her hand again, she struck one of her defensive Snake Style stances, one arm held out to her side with the other up near her face. She was running out of options, but she wasn’t beaten yet.
Ravinius the Relentless danced for what seemed like hours with the little water dragon; it had been a very long time since he had had so much fun fighting a single opponent. Soaring Ibis and the little wood dragon fought each other not very far away, and it seemed a bird god of some kind had entered the fray as well, but he wasn’t concerned with that anymore. He was currently far more interested in the woman who had managed to turn aside his axe and avoid his flames and vines every time.
He had been correct in his initial observation: though they shared their Water Aspect, this Naratis woman was quite a different beast from Cerulean Wake. Her fighting style was calmer and more focused, with zero wasted motion and a distinct purpose to every single move. She fought like a trained killer with many, many decades of experience, and it was pure ecstasy to face off against her with no restraints.
“I’ve been fighting Soaring Ibis and her guardians for so long that I feared I’d never face another truly new challenge.” Ravinius extended his plant manipulation aura again, turning the ground around him for dozens of paces into a writhing, thorny mass of overgrown vines. “You’ve been a breath of fresh air, little dragon. You’re so quick to go for the throat, so to speak, that I’m literally tingling in anticipation to see what you do next.”
Naratis swept both sets of her claws out to her sides, and then charged forward. She began quickly zigzagging as she entered his plant zone, slicing his vines apart and making her way toward him. Ravinius created a globe of molten fire at the end of his axe and hurled it at her, then torched entire swaths of ground all around him to beat her back as she continued to gain ground. She evaded much of that fire, forming a water shell around her body when she couldn’t dodge, and spin-kicked him, connecting with his axe hard enough to knock him back a few steps.
“Excellent! That’s it! More!” Ravinius swung his axe again and again, trying to break her defenses, and laughed out loud when she kept striking at him, undaunted. “More! More! More, more, more! Come at me! Strike me! KILL ME IF YOU CAN!” She feinted low hard then gave him a crushing kick to the midsection that knocked him off of his feet, but didn’t give chase. He lay on his back for a moment, then laughed at the sky. “This feeling – to think that the world still holds such killers. Perhaps my time here has been wasted after all.”
Naratis wiped her face on her sleeve. “We may be killers, but our murder is necessary. What purpose does yours serve, faerie?”
“Why, none at all, beyond my own amusement.” Ravinius sat up and braced his hands on the grass behind him. “I don’t feel the need to delude myself with rationalizations. But I’m sure your reasons are perfectly valid.”
That earned him a high-speed knee right in the face, and when he stopped rolling, he chuckled as he got to one knee. “Oh dear. My tongue seems to have struck a nerve my axe has yet to find.”
“Enough of your prattle. Get up.”
“With pleasure.” Ravinius sprouted two razor-sharp vines from his shoulder blades and sent them towards Naratis quickly, calling his axe to his hand at the same time. She leaped the vines, turned and knocked his axe away mid-jump, and shot herself towards him. His axe, though deflected, spun its way towards him anyway; he caught and swung it diagonally at her, following through when she dodged and turning for another slash.
“Why are you protecting this Solar?” Naratis asked loudly as she dodged him. “Why are you risking your life for her?”
“Because she’s my prey.” Ravinius caught her sleeve with his axe, but couldn’t get any closer as she sprinted around him. “The one to kill Soaring Ibis of Three Oaks will be me. Not you.”
“Then why not work with us?” Two spin kicks whistled past Ravinius’s head, and her claws raked his armor. “She can still be your kill.”
“Sorry, but that’s against the rules.” He turned his hand into a bundle of thorns and struck out for her heart, then turned it back into a hand when he missed wide. “I would never stoop so low as to accept an offered kill. Shame on you.”
“Then this is goodbye.”
Naratis dodged to the side, and Ravinius saw an iron arrow fly from Asalis’s direction right at him. He had gotten so involved in fighting Naratis that he hadn’t expected her to get an assist, but he still managed to dodge it. “As if that-” Ravinius cut off suddenly as an iron arrowhead sprouted from the center of his chest. He looked down at it, just as it left through his back and then impaled him four more times in different spots rapidly.
He realized then that Naratis had caught her ally’s arrow in flight, and was still behind him, holding the base of the arrow. “A trick after my own heart,” he said as he turned his head to look at her. “Well, what’s left of it anyway.”
Soaring Ibis teleported away from another of Raiton’s lightning bolts, only to find herself looking right at Asalis’s drawn bow. She flashed out of the way again, but too late she noticed that she wasn’t the true target. The iron arrow shot past Ravinius, where Naratis suddenly appeared, grabbed it, and shoved it through the faerie’s back. He stood with a stunned look on his face, and before Ibis could react Naratis peppered him with more stabs.
Ibis dashed in that direction, but she knew it was too late. Ravinius got a supremely satisfied look on his sharp-featured face, looking up at her as she neared, then melted into a puddle of indistinct violet goop. Naratis hurled the sizzling iron arrow at Ibis, then flipped away, setting herself up in formation with Asalis and Raiton.
“Are you going to cry over the faerie?” Asalis croaked. “Over yet another life taken because of you?”
Ibis looked at him, feeling nothing but hatred for the cold-blooded man. “Ravinius the Relentless was a murderer and a monster, and never got into a fight that he didn’t completely wish for. He fully intended to kill me someday; none of this changes any of that.” She took a ready stance, drawing in a deep breath and puffing up her chest a bit before letting that breath out, trying to calm her emotions. “Regardless, he came to my aid when I needed it. His death is on your hands, not mine. And I will make sure that you pay for it.”
“You’re alone and outnumbered,” Naratis said, in a tone that Ibis very nearly thought sounded like a plea. “If you just surrender, no one else has to suffer.”
Ibis looked right at the other woman. She didn’t get the same remorseless vibe from Naratis that she got from Asalis – the Water Aspect very clearly had a conscience, but Ibis had tried and tried to appeal to her the entire fight, with no success. “It doesn’t matter if I’m outnumbered. I’m never alone. I fight for this valley, I watch over it and protect the people here. So I refuse to just give up and let you, or anyone else, kill me.”
Little Bird, how fares your battle? Matsuri-Ono’s voice spoke in her head suddenly. The bell woman and the winged wolf have our end mostly under control. Do you require assistance?
Hesitating, Ibis thought for a moment towards her guardians. Her initial reaction was to send Matsuri-Ono to them, but she knew what they would say. She felt no panic across any of their bonds – in fact, the resolve and focus she sensed across her emotional link to Cinder and Wake was uniform. And Lilac, well … she could even sense him for a change, and he seemed as even-keeled as ever. She, on the other hand, was in trouble, whether she wanted to admit it or not.
I’m sorry, Matsuri-sama. I do have need of your strength.
Never apologize for calling out to your protector! Matsuri-Ono chided. Now, summon me already!
“Your allies will fall.” Ibis had been watching Asalis carefully the entire time, and he had not made a threatening move. Suddenly, she realized why that was – the man now had a veritable forest of plant matter moving around him. Every vine he had animated, every thorn he had fired, and every plank he had formed, had converged on his location. Even the plants Ravinius had been using suddenly seemed to be answering his call. “And now that your pet faerie is dead, there is no one here to stop me from utilizing the full extent of my power. Say your goodbyes, demon.”
“Keep talking all you want. Our spirits remain unbroken!” Ibis formed a quick series of hand signs, and then slammed her fist against the earth. “Blade of the Valley, Sentinel of Three Oaks, Warlord Matsuri-Ono! To me!”
With a great gonging sound, Matsuri-Ono dropped out of the sky and landed in front of her, his giant armored figure dwarfing everyone else on the battlefield except for Raiton. “YOUR SHIELD HAS ARRIVED, SOARING IBIS!”
“Hear me, Wyld Hunt!” Even over the clamor of Matsuri-Ono’s arrival, Soaring Ibis’s voice rang clear and true. “For everyone in this valley whom you have hurt or killed, we will defeat you!”