Exalted: The Sun Also Rises

Lekarapoo / Bumficnico



(Scene opens with a wide-angle shot of a snowy modern city landscape)
A long-ass fuckin’ time ago,
In the city of Lekar,
There lived a humble tyranny
Known for cruelty wide and far.
But yea there was a black sheep,
And he sought to raise the bar.
His name was young K.N.
And he refused to step in line.
A vision he did see of
Fucking rocking all the time.
He wrote a tasty jam
And all the planets did align…

(Dinner shot with young Gerhart sitting at a table, eating timidly, while wild-eyed Vlad Drakov sits at the head of the table, glaring at the one empty seat. Then, young Kai hops from around a wall, with a guitar slung around his neck, and starts strumming.)

“Oh the dragon’s balls were blazin’ as I stepped into his cave.
Then I sliced his fuckin’ cochles, with a long and shiny blade!
T’was I who fucked the dragon, fuckalizing, fuckaloo!
And if you try to fuck with me, then I shall fuck you too!
Gotta’ get it on in the party zone!
I gots to shoot a load in the party zone!
Gotta’ lick a node in the party zone!
Gotta’ suck a choad in the party zone!”

(Drakov gets up from the table, grabs Kai by the wrist, and pulls him out of the dining room. The next shot is him beating Kai over the back with a paddle in his room, before letting him go to huddle on his bed.)

You disobeyed my orders, Kai, why were you ever born?
Your brother’s ten times better than you, the Dark Powers love him more.
This music that you play from us comes from the depths of hell.
Rock and roll is Ligier’s work, he wants you to rebel!
You’ll become a mindless puppet; the Ebon Dragon’ll pull the strings,
Your heart will lose direction, and chaos it will bring.
You’d better shut your mouth, you’d better watch your tone!
You’re grounded for a week with no telephone!
Don’t let me hear you cry, don’t let me hear you moan!
You’d better praise DRAKOV (Drakov flexes) when you’re in my home!

(Drakov leaves, slamming the door, and once he’s gone Kai drops to his knees on the floor in front of his Metal God Sol Invictus poster, hands clasped)

Sol Invictus can you hear me?
I am lost and so alone…
I’m askin’ for your guidance,
Won’t you come down from your thr~o~o~one?
I need a tight compadre
Who will teach me how to rock.
Old Drakov thinks you’re evil,
But man, he can suck a cock.
Rock is not Malfean work,
It’s magical and rad.
I’ll never rock as long as I am
Stuck here with Old Vlad!

(Sol Invictus starts moving in the wall poster)

I hear you, brave young Kennes, you are hungry for the rock.
But to learn the ancient method, sacred doors you must unlock
To escape the tyrant’s clutches, and gain the glory of the Dawn
On a journey you must go to find the land of Cre-a-tioooooooon!

(map of Creation, focus on the East)

Far east of the Blessed Island,
In the verdant Scavenger Lands
You will forge a strong alliance
And the world’s most awesome band!
To find your fame and fortune,
Through the forest you must walk.
You will face your inner demons.
Now go, my, son, and, ROOOOOOOOOOOCK!

(Kai gets up and rushes around the room, gathering a few clothes, some hand-scribbled guitar tabs, and a couple of muffins, grabs his guitar with his other hand, and leaps out of the window.)

So he bailed from damn Fuckovnia with hunger in his heart.
And he journeyed far and wide to find the secrets of his art.
But in the end he knew that he would find his counterpa~art.
Ya, ya-ya-ya-ya-ya-yaaaaaaaaaa,



(After much searching, and some years, Kennes happens upon a tall man with long, feathered red locks playing a wicked-looking emerald guitar. The following scene ensues.)

Can’t you see he’s the man, let me hear you applaud!
He is more than a man,
He’s a shiny golden god!

If you think it’s time to fucking rock,
And fucking roll,
Out of control,
Well then you know you got to rock the block,
You fucking suck,
My fucking cock,
‘Cause when you rule,
You fucking school,
All of the fools,
Out of their jewels.
’Cause if you think it’s time to
If you think it’s time to
If you think it’s time to fucking ro~ooooooock.

He, is going, to fucking get it on!
And, you know, his name is Red Li~on!
And fucking rolling,
And fucking rocking,
And fucking rolling,
and fucking DOOT-DOOT,
(more unintelligible, with air guitar)

(A bearded, sun-dark man with silver hair and a long platypus tail throws the Evil Fingers nearby)


Session 43: Moonstruck, part 1
In which Venomous Spur hosts her long-awaited moot and a plethora of unusual characters arrive

[this space reserved]


Tavra Swiftwind
Full Moon, horse totem
Winding Path
A short but broad-shouldered young woman who might be more generously described as handsome than beautiful. Her black hair is shaved on the sides, leaving her with a warrior’s Mohawk that strongly resembles a wild, black horse’s mane. Carries a mighty white jade goremaul.

Roaring Mouse
Full Moon, mouse totem
Swords of Luna
Roaring Mouse stands an impressive five and a half feet tall… in deadly beastman form. In her human shape, she stands just short of five feet, with mousy brown hair cut in a pageboy style and a faint, cute overbite. Her upturned nose, full cheeks, and wide ears all give her an impression of being mouse-like. This is all in complete opposition to her status as a mighty warrior of Luna.

Thief of Hearts
caste unknown, totem unknown
A roguish teenager with unruly red hair and cheery green eyes, Thief has the sort of knife-edge grin that makes girls and boys alike abandon their families for him.

Tya Sarineth Wavedancer
Changing Moon, seagull totem
Winding Path
A dark-skinned Western woman with facial tattoos who wears her blue-black hair in tight dreadlocks and binds her breasts with a sarashii. Wears billowing pants tucked into boots and carries a moonsilver wavecleaver blade.

Makisa Dragon-Tamer
Changing Moon, hyena totem
Crossroads Society
A deeply-tanned Southern woman with dull amber eyes. Her mottled brown hair falls all the way to her knees. Has a tendency to chuckle to herself constantly.

Serena Killjoy
Full Moon, cougar totem
Swords of Luna
A full-figured middle-aged woman with cat ears and a long cat’s tail.

The Prince of Crows
Changing Moon, crow totem
Winding Path
A handsome youth with ebon hair and pale skin. He’s never been spotted in his war form, even assuming he has one. Dresses in a black crow-feather cloak and black silks, with a plague doctor half-mask.

Wise Hog of Autumn
No Moon, boar totem
Crossroads Society
A rather fat man in his mid-50s with short grey hair, a wild beard, and wearing the trappings of a tribal shaman. His tell is a pair of boar tusks jutting out from his lower jaw.

Ancient-Eye Sovar
No Moon, stag totem
Wardens of Gaia
Sovar’s appearance is fairly nondescript, somewhat tall though he possesses a slight Southern cast to his features. His tell is deer-like eyes and a pair of antlers. A former student of Ma-Ha-Suchi, currently traveling with Somi of the Ironwood.

Walking Ice Terror
Full Moon, snow leopard totem
A six-foot-tall amazon with lean, corded muscles, pale skin, and white hair. Looks like an Icewalker and has a mouthful of fangs.

Spring Rabbit
Changing Moon, rabbit totem
Winding Path
A young woman with pale blonde hair and heavy, seductive eyelashes. Spring Rabbit is voluptuous and wealthy—a deadly combination. Currently traveling with a huge armored warrior she calls Red Wind of Mourning.

Luminous Vesper
Full Moon, polar bear totem
A former Sword of Luna who turned pacifist some time back. Snapdragon’s Lunar mate.

Arbash Illila
No Moon, copperhead snake totem
A young woman wearing heavy robes, a hat, and a veil. Only her silver-colored eyes are visible under the layers.

Somi of the Ironwood
Full Moon, raptor totem
Somi is tall and lanky, with feather-like hair and reptilian eyes. His skin is deeply tanned, like most Easterners, and he is slimly muscular rather than bulky, unlike most Full Moons. Currently traveling with Ancient-Eye Sovar and mentoring Fleng.

Changing Moon, bobcat totem
Fleng is a wild-haired teenager with heavy freckles covering his face and shoulders, and a set of short whiskers sticking out of his face.

Marek Ironback
No Moon, snapping turtle totem
An elderly-looking Lunar with grey, wrinkled skin and wisps of white hair clinging to his bald pate.

Danoli Bakeni
Changing Moon, red duck totem
A red-headed girl who looks like she might be in her mid-teens.

Mnalif Nganto
Full Moon, shark totem
Full-bodied and broad, Mnalif Nganto is feminine but deadly-looking. Her grey-white hair hangs down her back, and her broad full lips conceal rows of razor-sharp shark teeth. The most off-putting thing about her appearance is her dead-black eyes. She is traveling with three Lintha pirates for some reason.

Lady Vulpa Silverwings
Changing Moon, vampire bat totem
Vulpa is an old friend of Venomous Spur’s.

Changing Moon, wolfhound totem
A young Eastern man with shoulder-length hair and a neatly-cut goatee, wearing green traveling clothes.

Thoughts on an Elder

Leviathan. Elder Lunar and hero of the First Age. I had such a different picture of him in my mind. At least, that’s what I’d like to say. But I know better than that. Far better.

I recognized him, the moment we first met. I didn’t tell the others, and I may likely never. Not from this life; from times long past. I’m fairly sure the memory belonged to him, the one people actually have in mind when they call me “Orpheus” now.

We didn’t know each other, that I’m aware of. The one memory I have is of seeing Leviathan from a great distance off, perhaps from some sort of scrying device. He wasn’t an admiral back then, just a rising young officer with a far smaller command. But there was something to him, even then. A proud, noble bearing, well-suited to a young man with a bright future. And his crew respected him – you could see it in their eyes, in the way they trimmed sail and snapped to follow orders practically before they’d been given. What I saw of him, I liked: there was great potential in this one.

After hearing of the Lunar Elders not long after meeting Venomous Spur, I did no small degree of research myself. I had heard the stories of how Leviathan had sunk Luthe beneath the waves, ending countless lives and destroying one of the greatest treasures in the world. I actually got into my head images of a rampaging, rapacious beast, but I should have known better. Real pain, real tragedy, is almost never that cut-and-dry, that simple. So it was really no shock when he told us his story, or when we discovered that he still held a grudge against the Traitorspawn. I think back on the carnage I wreaked at the Library in the aftermath of finding Seelah dead. Or what I would do if Apple or Huntress died in my arms. It makes sense for Leviathan to hate the people who killed Queen Amyana. And it makes sense for him to still keenly feel that pain more than a thousand years later. Among the many things I’ve learned about us Exalted is that we don’t feel things quite like regular people anymore. Our emotions, our passions, are like our powers – enhanced, amplified. I used to be calm and serene inside; now, I can barely keep a rein on my feelings, whether they be positive or negative. I can only imagine what sort of tempest must rage inside the heart of one who has been ascendant for many, many times my own life.

For these reasons, my anger abated considerably right before Leviathan showed back up, but I was still furious; he sank the city in rage, and then, rather than just leave the city alone forever, came back and oversaw the creation of a nice little tyranny, all justified by the usual half-assed Thousand Streams River method of thinking. “That was just the society that developed naturally – it’s not our place to tell them how to live.” Except that his personal attendants were the progenitors of the ruling races and were meeting with them to pass down the “will of the whale god.” And then to claim that none of this was his responsibility….

That was the crux of the issue. And it was why I slapped Leviathan, a creature who could tear me limb-from-limb as easily as breathing, directly across the face. I doubt he even really felt it, but I could scarcely think of any more fitting reaction. Levithan’s pain is great, and his rage was extremely justified, but the fact remains that he destroyed and sank a city, and then held his ire over the heads of the descendants of those who had wronged him. To the point where he was perfectly fine letting them continue to be enslaved, tortured, and murdered many, many centuries after the crime, all with the convenient excuse of “it’s not my responsibility.” I have not had much direct experience with Lunar Elders yet, but I certainly have seen that they are, if nothing else, very creative when it comes to recognizing and acknowledging their own mistakes, and justifying immense atrocities in the name of their own selfish desires. For all of their constructed image of being leaders and mentors, they fail to grasp some of the most important aspects of being a teacher.

Back at the Library, “teacher,” “professor,” “mentor,” and the like were the titles of respect we recognized. This was because teaching is one of the most difficult roles a person can fulfill. It’s not as simple as giving someone information. It’s showing someone how to do a thing, opening a mind to how to think and how to learn, and guiding that person towards using their gifts for the good of all, while refraining from dictation or force. It’s not an easy line to walk. But that’s why we spent our lives honing the craft. To simply toss technology and information into a culture and say “Welp, have fun with that!” would have made most of our senior sages choke on their breath. Yes, it’s difficult negotiating the middle way between entirely hands-off and complete hand-holding. But you don’t half-ass a thing because it’s difficult. And if Leviathan insists on doing that very thing, while letting his hatred of people who died more than a millenium ago define how he acts even now, then he doesn’t deserve the title of “Elder.”

I don’t hate Leviathan. Far from it. The truth is, we are none of us ready for the responsibility that our Exaltations present us with. Even our forebears, the first Exalted, were not ready. They were humans – mortals – given the swords of the gods and sent out to destroy our creators. The human mind and heart weren’t created to handle that sort of burden. And to this day, not all of us want to be glorious heroes. All I ever wanted to do with my life was teach. In my wildest dreams, I Exalted as a Water or Air Aspect, but before meeting Nagi I never craved such a thing. Regardless, my Exaltation chose me. Perhaps I was simply a convenient host. Or perhaps I was always meant to carry the torch of Orpheus. I imagine the answer lies somewhere between the two. None of it really matters; Sol Invictus’s will recognized me, which means I have both the ability and the potential to do great things. I was chosen for a reason, and so was Leviathan. And that reason is not wallowing in my own pain, shirking my duty by running and hiding, or still expecting to be treated with respect and deference despite my conduct.

There I go sounding angry again. But I’m not, not anymore. Despite what he’s done, Leviathan was still a hero. Not just in the First Age: by seeking out Luthe when he found out there were survivors, and helping the people inside it who had fought and scraped to get the most meager functions up and running again, he saved a lot of lives that would otherwise have perished. The city wouldn’t have been there for us to save if he had not done so, and for that I will always be grateful to him. When I look at him, I don’t see the broken, eternally-mourning remnant he’s become. I see what lies deep beneath all of that, the resourceful, compassionate soul who found it somewhere in himself, despite the misery, to finally reach out to the people he had wronged, to not abandon those who were trying so desperately to survive just because their deaths would have been part of some “natural order.” We don’t have the luxury of being consumed by our regrets and suffering – we have to bury them, deep down, and carry on, even when it hurts just to live, because this world depends on us. I believe Leviathan feels the same way, if he could ever bring himself to look beyond the past, or else he would have just let Luthe continue to rot. And I want to see him recover himself, and to be the example that Ven claims he can be.

But in the meantime, he’s no good to us or anyone else. For all of their vaunted wisdom and power, the Lunar Elders have grown mad, selfish, and weak. Dark days await this world, but they’re so busy trying to protect their individual houses of cards that they can’t look to the big picture. We’re all doomed if we continue to let them lead, or to rely on them in any real fashion. It’s true that we’re going to have to work together to fix and save Creation, but for now it’s looking as if the Lunar Elders are more trouble than they’re worth. We don’t need them.

Even so, I’ll look forward to the day Leviathan wakes up and comes back. If I have any say in it, I’ll keep Smiley in the Library for that day.

The Guardians of Three Oaks, part 9

Screams, explosions, and the other myriad sounds of war rocked the valley, seeming to come from all sides at once. Here there was a lightning blast, or a fountain of earth erupting high into the air; over there, the hulking form of a giant armored god fought a small army of Immaculates alongside a pair of demons and a grizzled old man pulling sticks and staves from thin air. The giant god had disappeared, but from the rumble in the ground a few moments afterward, and the same occasional clicks and whistles sounding through the air but more distantly, he hadn’t quit the battlefield, just changed his location.

Either way, that was completely fine with River Rat. He didn’t much relish the thought of running into a vengeful god while he poked around the valley. In all honesty, this wasn’t much of a place for someone like him – he wasn’t a fighter by any stretch of the imagination, he was just a sneak and infiltrator. But the locals didn’t seem to suspect he was with the invaders, so he had little to fear from them. And the River Rat never left a job without a little something for himself.

Skulking around the villages and carefully avoiding the scenes of fighting, River Rat snuck into that inn where the Water Aspect Guardian of the Solar girl had pointed him earlier, and rummaged through the booze. There was some pretty choice stuff that must have been hard to acquire this far out in the sticks; he sampled a few different selections before settling on one small bottle that he tucked into his belt pouch before moving on. The villages were modest and didn’t trade very far away from the valley, so he knew he’d likely find little else of value inside of them. The real score, he figured, would lie at the shrine at their center.

Making his way carefully to the hill, he found the stone stairs leading down from the shrine to the chamber beneath. He had never seen inside this chamber – not exactly – but he knew that it had its own god, and so he would need to put on an act if he planned on gaining access to it. Putting on his best panicked face, he started breathing loudly, and shuffled around as if lost. “Hello? Is anyone there?” Coming to the bottom of the stairs, he put both hands on the door and knocked, then rapped anxiously. “Is this place safe? The villages are under attack, and … gods, is someone in there?” No response. “Please, I beg you, let me in! I’m so scared!”

The door slid up into the ceiling, and River Rat held back a smirk as he stumbled inside, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. “Hello … ?”

“Do not be afraid,” a smooth voice spoke. “You can take shelter here.”

“Thank you! Thank you so much!” River Rat looked around, taking a few more cautious steps inside. The chamber was pretty much as he expected, right down to the big control seat in the center in front of a curved panel. “Um … whom should I thank for saving me?”

“My name is not important. Just know that this is my home, and I will protect you. Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m fine. Just a little terrified, and exhausted.” River Rat took shaky steps towards the center of the chamber and collapsed into the chair. It was hard and uncomfortable – how did anyone sit in this thing? – but he knew it wasn’t exactly meant for him. He looked over at the panel in front of him, covered in Old Realm runes, and put his hands on it. “Which one of these will close the door behind me?”

“I will take care of that,” the voice continued as the door closed quietly. “Please do not touch those runes, they are part of a complex system necessary to this chamber’s functioning.”

“Relax, Argus,” River Rat said with a sinister grin. “I know exactly what I’m doing here.” Before the animating intelligence could react, River Rat’s fingers quickly moved over a long sequence of runes. The crystal panels up on the circular walls came to life, and he scanned them quickly with his eyes. “Outside communications disabled. Excellent.”

The image of a sun-dark man with three faces appeared on one panel, flickering, and Argus’s voice came out stuttered, as if he was struggling. “W-what … why … ?!”

“Just take it easy.” River Rat sat back in the chair – which was contouring itself to fit him finally – and stretched his fingers, wiggling them to limber them up. “I imagine that Essence feedback loop is going to take quite a bit of your will to fight. Far too much for you to worry about what I’m doing.” Sure enough, the image flickered several more times, then disappeared entirely, and the animating intelligence’s voice went silent.

River Rat grinned a toothy grin, and set to work pulling up displays and analyzing the situation outside of the chamber. “Now, to get a look at this battle before I take care of business.”

“Matsuri-sama, are you sure you’re alright?” From behind her giant protector, Soaring Ibis could see that the surface of his armored skin was battered and dented in quite a few places. Matsuri-Ono took immense pride in the experience that weathered armor spoke of, but he polished and cared for it between battles. For it to look as it did currently, he must have seen some brutal fighting today.

The warlord god clicked confidently. “Realm lapdogs have a savage bite, it’s true. But they’re still largely bark. Your shield stands ready, Little Bird.”

Raiton let loose another huge lightning bolt, and Matsuri-Ono blocked it with both hands. It seemed to go considerably better for the valley god than it had for Ibis: he was far better at defense than she, and his enormous bracers dissipated the shock and force. Raiton fired another, and then another, the successive flashes and booms of thunder making it hard for Ibis to focus on their other foes. They had shifted position to be underneath the thunderstorm god, but they were standing still for the time being.

Asalis’s Theme – Gallows of Cynis

Once the lightning barrage ended, Ibis saw why. Asalis had doffed what remained of his broken armor. Instead of green jade, his own dark skin had grown out like a layer of thick bark, and it was now directly connected into the mass of plant matter he had salvaged from the earlier stages of their fight. All around the elder Shikari, brown vines writhed and crawled, huge stakes the size of logs floated like a volley of arrows held at the ready, and the entire forest seemed alive with menace. It was by far the most intimidating sight she had ever witnessed. Lilac could animate almost as many plants, but they always felt alive and protective. This was a forest of death.

“You have my grudging respect for pushing me so far, demon,” Asalis called out across the distance. “I’ve never met an Orpheus who could tax me so thoroughly.” He spread his arm and clenched both fists, and even at that distance she could see the veins under his skin like the veins of some poisonous plant. The first rain of thorns and spikes began then, forming a wide arc towards her location while another lightning bolt pinned down Matsuri-Ono.

Even with her speed, Ibis couldn’t shoot down that many projectiles at once, so she fired a Hail of Blue Feathers vertically in one area to give her a concentrated wall, then formed her wind fan. Swinging it with all of her might, and immediately tearing it back into motes in the process, she unleashed a torrent of wind that knocked most of them down, but still had to dodge and deflect a large number, more than a few of which bit into her skin. With her Third Eye active, Asalis’s poison burned away before it could do any harm, but her mounting wounds were taking a toll, and the strain of the Eye was starting to get noticeable.

Naratis made a zigzagging charge around her ally’s assault, and Ibis met her with a fist, trying to clip her at the ankle from behind with Adder Strikes the Heel in her follow-up attack. The blue-haired woman defended both, but Ibis hit her in the stomach with Striking Cobra Technique and put all of her force into the attack, driving her away with a fierce blowback of pressure. Immediately going on the offensive, Ibis sprouted the limbs of a Lightning Spider spell from her back, letting her glide right over the encroaching wave of plant life, and made for Asalis, firing arrows from her Blue Ibis constantly.

Chunks of wood shifted to defend him without the Shikari leader having to lift a finger, but when she reached him he clapped his hands together loudly. A wooden dome closed around her, and thorns grew from all sides in an attempt to impale her a thousand times at once. Ten Thousand Vipers broke them en masse, then riddled the dome until it exploded outward.

“Orpheus claims to disdain martial arts and hand-to-hand combat in general as being too rough,” Asalis said as he hurled a huge sharpened log at her chest. She shattered it into splinters with a Striking Cobra Technique, but he threw another and kept on talking. “But it’s a facade to lure the unsuspecting. They’re always masters of at least one martial art, usually Snake, Silver-Voiced Nightingale, or other similar deceptive styles.”

Ibis used Striking Serpent Speed to rain attacks down on him faster than the eye could follow. Always there was another plank, another hunk of bark, and so she shattered each one, advancing a step and forcing him back a step. Matsuri-Ono knocked Raiton reeling through the air with one enormous fist, then dropped in and tried to smash Asalis into paste. Gigantic vines caught the valley god’s arm, stopping his momentum even as steam whistled from the big clay warrior’s helmet on both sides with his exertion. Naratis flashed to one side and kicked at her leg, uppercut with a spinning claw when Ibis met her attack, straight-kicked Ibis when the Solar rolled out of the way, then came down with her other claw and a high-pressure water blast when Ibis blocked. Ibis countered with Ten Thousand Vipers, striking at Asalis, Naratis, and the plants all at once, and Naratis pulled back for Asalis to breathe a cloud of poison, forcing Ibis to stop her attack.

“They fight best by luring their foes in with perceived weaknesses, and then launching a surprise of some kind. They almost never choose direct confrontation or attack, though much like rats, when forced into a corner they can be especially violent and dangerous.” One of his giant vines slammed into the earth only inches from her, and when she severed it with a shot from her bow, he animated the end and bored it at her until she ripped it to shreds with a cat’s cradle of wire from her fingertips.

“And like the other Solars, they always convince themselves that they’re invaluable to their communities, and that their lives are more important than those of the people around them.”

Ibis turned her web on the vines that held Matsuri-Ono, on Naratis as she maneuvered for a lane of attack, on Raiton as it came tearing back into the fight, and on Asalis. Her arms moved like a flash, and the air was full with wires conducting blue and green light. When she cast her arms out to her sides, brown plant matter rained down from all around, as Matsuri-Ono was once again free and Asalis’s animated vegetation barely spared her foes from being sliced apart themselves. They hadn’t weathered the storm unscathed, however; Naratis was cut on all of her limbs, and several of her wires had circled and sliced into Asalis’s bark carapace, drawing blood.

Through it, she made direct eye contact with the elder Shikari, refusing to look away. “Why? Why do you hate me so much?”

“I don’t hate you,” he said matter-of-factly. “Your kind is simply poison that will kill the world if left unpurged.”

Ibis went to speak again, but winced as she grew increasingly unable to ignore the pain from her dozens upon dozens of wounds. She had to finish this, and soon.

Naratis breathed heavily, feeling more ragged and exhausted than she had in many years. Perhaps ever. Even with Asalis bearing the brunt of those crushing attacks with his Blood of the Forest technique, they had all still been hit hard by Soaring Ibis’s last barrage. Raiton had managed to avoid most of it, but she hadn’t been so lucky. In fact, she was rather surprised that she still had arms and legs; for a moment, she had been convinced that those wires around her biceps and thighs were going to garrote them right off. Then, suddenly, they had slackened and vanished. Had Soaring Ibis actually held back?

Asalis looked just as bad. Worse, actually. His hits had been even more direct, but it was more than that. Just maintaining the Blood of the Forest took every scrap of Essence he could call forth, and put a terrible strain on his body. He was the most powerful Aspect she had ever known, but not even he could sustain that technique for an extended battle, on top of a growing host of wounds no less. She had never seen him go this far in all of their time fighting together; he actually looked winded, his breathing growing a bit labored and blood oozing from his sides.

Perhaps we should change our tactics, she thought across their mental link. We don’t seem to be making any progress with Blood active.

Yet without it, I fear she would have carved us all into chum with that last attack. You are worried about my safety. It wasn’t a question.

Of course I am. We should regroup, change tactics. This god ally of hers is a match for Raiton; we need a new plan.

The plan stays the same. No retreat from Anathema. If I die, then I die.

Naratis clenched her teeth. She had expected as much – as much as he seriously believed his “go to any lengths to win against Anathema” creed, Asalis had a stubborn streak that meant retreat was unlikely, if not impossible. He had only rarely withdrawn from a fight in the past, but against an Orpheus, never. That didn’t mean she had to like it, though.

Raiton swooped back in and engaged once more, and while the thunder god kept the valley god busy, Naratis and Asalis returned to bearing down on Soaring Ibis. Though the young woman was noticeably hurt, she was winning more and more of their exchanges. Asalis still had a wealth of vegetation left to animate, but she was tearing through it quickly, and Naratis could tell her partner was starting to weaken just as much as she was.

Dodging one of Matsuri-Ono’s behemoth fists as it launched at her and crashed into the ground, Naratis sped around and found Ibis shooting arrows at Asalis’s position. She went in head-on for a change, and managed to disrupt the barrage, but Ibis quickly knocked her away and went back on the attack. Asalis put up wave after wave of wooden shields, replacing them as fast as he could as she tore through them and jabbing at her around them. The Solar pushed on despite Naratis’s harrassment, focusing her ire on Asalis. Her Snake Style got her in around the last row of shields, and just as it looked as if she was going to strike a telling blow, Asalis spoke up in that booming voice of his.

“Tell me, how well do you really know your friend Lilac at Dusk?”

The Solar halted in her movement, crouched in one of the forms of Snake Style. “Excuse me?”

I wondered when he would get to that.

“How much has he told you about where he came from? Why he left, who he really is?”

Naratis held position, though Raiton and Matsuri-Ono continued to fight elsewhere. This was a big gamble – she should have been going on the attack right away. But they had already shaken her calm before, and Asalis was good at drawing Solars’ insecurities out. If they could distract her enough, it might provide the extra edge they needed.

“I don’t see how it matters,” Ibis responded carefully.

“It doesn’t matter that he’s from the Realm? Or that his name is actually ‘Merari,’ not ‘Lilac?’”

“No, it doesn’t.”

Asalis’s eyes narrowed. “Or that he used to be a member of the Wyld Hunt, and has killed other Solars before?”

Ibis’s expression froze. “You’re lying.”

“Cynis Inora Merari. I know his parents quite well. In fact, I taught him everything I know. He was a fine Shikari, and my most talented pupil.”

Silent again, Ibis studied him in rapt attention. “Why did he leave?”

Asalis shrugged. “I suppose he has traitorous tendencies. When a situation gets difficult, he flees. I trained him, but there’s only so much you can do with a cowardly heart.”

Ibis took a step forward, clenching a fist threateningly. “Watch your mouth, Hunter.”

“Do you really think such a person will stand by your valley forever? He’s up against my new pupil, Sesus Natasus Karanya. She’s as skilled a fighter as he ever was, and far more loyal to the cause. If she doesn’t slay him outright, she’ll at least send him running with his tail between his craven legs, then-”

“I told you to watch your mouth!” Ibis’s anima flared hotly, and she took a wild swing at Asalis.

That’s it! Naratis saw the opening she had been waiting for – several, given how unguarded Ibis’s stance was – and made her move. Shifting position with a few quick dashing steps around to the Solar’s other side, she flipped forward and pushed off of the ground with both hands, aiming a kick with both feet at the Solar’s lower back. The strike would disable her, and Asalis would deliver the finishing blow.

“You lose.” Naratis heard Ibis’s voice suddenly from a different spot, but she was now in the most vulnerable part of her attack and couldn’t change her course. The Solar flashed up from the ground, struck her with two fingers right at her left hip joint, then flashed away again.

The shock of the attack completely threw Naratis’s focus off, and the force sent her rolling to the ground. She couldn’t roll with it at all, and found that she couldn’t even struggle back to a standing position. At first, the horrified fear that her spine had been broken ran through her mind, but then she realized she could feel her legs, she just couldn’t move them well enough to get them under her. She could have broken me in half with that attack … why did she leave me alive? Lifting up onto her hands so she could at least look around, Naratis saw Ibis walking over towards her illusion who had been charging at Asalis.

“That’s it,” the woman said, her eyes calm as she looked from Naratis to Asalis.

Asalis frowned even more fully than usual. “That’s what?”

“Your last gambit. I knew you would try and make me doubt my friends.” Ibis tapped one finger against her temple ruefully. “Courtesy of these memories. I remember you now, Cynis Inora Asalis. Slayer Asalis. The Gallows of Cynis. You’ve been prattling on about what you know of Orpheus, so I figured I should learn a little about you.”

Naratis tried again to get to her feet, but failed. Suddenly, the fatigue and weight of her wounds crashed on her all at once. Or was that the technique the Solar had hit her with? I’m sorry, Asalis, she thought at him. I’ve failed you.

“And what did you find?” He addressed Soaring Ibis, but Naratis knew he had heard her. She was a Shikari; he wouldn’t dishonor her by showing pity.

“I found a butcher.” Soaring Ibis pointed accusingly at him. “This isn’t the first time you’ve come to a peaceful place and turned it into a war zone. The last time you killed me, I was the only doctor in a Southern oasis. How many people in the two villages nearby died for lack of a skilled healer? And before that, I was a scholar just east of the Blessed Isle who had spent most of two decades chronicling the time around the Great Contagion in hopes of recovering some of that lost knowledge. Where was the ‘threat’ in that?”

“Your choices in those lives were irrelevant, as are your choices in this and every other life. You are a Solar Anathema, a bringer of chaos and destruction. Wherever you go, whatever you do, it is my duty to annihilate you.”

The mention of those previous lives took Naratis into her own memories. She remembered both of those missions – she remembered all of their missions, but those two had been just over the past few years. The doctor was a boy barely older than seventeen, but he had grown up in the unforgiving deserts of the South, so he at least had known how to defend himself. The scholar, a woman in her late twenties, had spent her entire life in libraries. Even as a Solar, she had shunned violence of any kind, using her talents instead to build up and preserve the lore of her home. It hadn’t mattered, in the end – Asalis had still killed them both without the slightest bit of hesitation. And she had helped.

When did it get this bad? Or, maybe, when did I stop facing the reality of what we were doing? Naratis had been under no illusions when she chose this life centuries ago; she understood the martial nature of the Wyld Hunt, and knew that sometimes they had to do things that were ugly. After decade after decade of slaughter, why was she suddenly having these thoughts now? There’s no compassion left in you anymore, is there Asalis? she thought to herself. There’s none in any of us. We are monsters.

Ibis seemed to come to a decision. The woman was battered, torn, and bruised, just like them, but the fire in her natural eyes burned as brightly as the green in the eye on her forehead. Her spirit bow expanded into a bright blue wing made out of pure light, and as she pulled her hand back a ball of radiance surrounded it. “You’re wrong, Asalis. Our choices matter more than you’ll ever know. They make us who we are. They might be the only things about us worth remembering.” She paused again. “I suspected that Lilac had things in his past he didn’t want to talk about. But it doesn’t matter. I trust him, and until he gives me good reason not to, I always will. If humans can’t trust each other in this life, then we have nothing.”

“No, stop!” Naratis tried again to force her legs to cooperate. She had more feeling in them now, but she couldn’t make them work.

“Venerer Naratis,” Asalis spoke, his eyes flickering momentarily to her. He lifted his own bow once more, drawing an arrow longer than a spear, and what remained of his grown arsenal floated in front of him, everything moving into an offensive position. “If this is the last time we should speak, I want you to know it’s been an honor serving with you.”

Trying to move with everything she had, Naratis could only push up onto her arms and knees. She told herself she could still fight, could still do something, but the nagging doubts in her heart paralyzed her just as much as the Solar’s strike had done. “Asalis, no. We don’t have to-”

“I’m ready whenever you are, Orpheus.” Asalis’s tone said he was finished talking. Loosing his arrow, he sent his lethal tide of thorns and spears and sharpened logs sailing at Soaring Ibis, in the largest rush of Essence Naratis had felt in a very long time.

Ibis closed her two eyes for a split-second, then opened them quickly and fired a single shot. Her arrow, blue as the northern sky in winter, cut through the wave of plant matter and Asalis’s arrow like a cry in the night. It seemed to have lost some of its force once it passed through, until she reappeared along its path, holding the burning blue energy with her hand like a spear. She took Asalis right in the chest with it, and screamed as she kept going forward, finally impaling him to the ground a dozen paces past where he had last stood.

A moment later, the plants around them started falling out of animation, and Naratis could only watch as Asalis reached up and gripped the energy arrow protruding from his chest. For a brief moment, she saw the man her commander had been so long ago again, someone not consumed by fervor and cold devotion to duty, but someone intent on saving the world. And then his arm fell and his body went limp.

In shock, Naratis could only crawl that way. For the first time in more than two centuries, she couldn’t reach out and sense Asalis’s presence. Cynis Inora Asalis was dead, and it looked for all the world like the Solar who had killed him was crying. As she neared, it took every bit of Naratis’s remaining energy to force out a few words.

“W-why? Why did you … you could have killed me … why did you stop?”

Soaring Ibis didn’t look her way at first. When she did, she had runnels from her eyes all the way down her face, but they had partially been wiped away. “Because I know you too, Naratis. I saw you in my previous lives. You weren’t like him. You didn’t want to kill. You still had – still do have – a heart.”

Disbelief, anger, and confusion all battled for supremacy in Naratis’s mind. In the end, exhaustion won, and before she could say anything else, she collapsed into the dirt.

“I didn’t want this,” Ibis said to herself as she looked down at Asalis’s corpse. “I didn’t want any of this. You forced my hand. Why does someone always force my hand?” Her Third Eye flared again, and it sent a throb of pain throughout her head. She clutched her temples with both hands, and gradually gained full control over it again, closing it with some effort. The wave of fatigue that followed nearly knocked her off of her feet, but she caught herself just as Matsuri-Ono landed nearby.

“Little Bird! Are you alright?!”

“Yeah, I’m just … just a little tired.” She looked up at him, and his armor looked very much the worse for wear, dented and scorched and falling apart in several places. “You’re hurt.”

“Raiton is a fierce opponent, it is true. And I confess that I took quite a beating. But not even a thunderstorm god can stand against the Hundred Year Matsuri Stomp.” The valley god clicked confidently, but then a small section of his helmeted head cracked and fell apart. “Oh my. It has been some time since I was this tired.”

“Matsuri-sama!” Ibis took a step toward him, but couldn’t call up enough energy to start a healing charm.

“No no, I am fine. I just need to rest for a while. Raiton will … need some time to remanifest … I will handle him again … when I return.” Matsuri-Ono’s giant form sagged a little, and then disappeared in a puff of smoke and a loud whistle. A clay figurine of the valley god small enough to fit into her palm dropped to the grass in front of her; it stood in his “Fierce Protector” stance, and actually drew a short chuckle out of her.

“Get some rest, my old friend. I’ll see you shortly when you awake.” Picking up his figurine and tucking it into her sleeve, she turned and looked down at the collapsed form of Naratis. From the way Asalis had spoken, it seemed that he had bound the thunderstorm god to a pact; with the elder Shikari dead, Ibis was confident she could find a way to release Raiton from his oaths. Naratis was a trickier subject; what was she to do with a captured Venerer?

She didn’t have much time to think on it, though, as Argus’s voice spoke up in her mind suddenly. Soaring Ibis, there is an emergency that needs your attention in the chamber. The barrier is becoming unstable, and I fear the energy may detonate in a lethal manner.

Detonate?! Did one of the Wyld Hunt do this?

I do not know, Soaring Ibis. I am afraid I cannot determine the cause.

Glancing back down to Naratis, Ibis knew she had to go. If Argus was in trouble, the entire valley might be at stake. “I guess we’ll figure out what to do with you after that.”

Jeresh Tirva Nehor was proving to be the most difficult opponent Cerulean Wake had ever faced. That “windstrider” form of his was hard to fight; even with an entire squad of water clones from his Thousand Ripples on a Still Pond technique, Wake was barely able to keep up with the ferocity of Nehor’s attacks. The snake-masked whirlwinds on the Air Aspect’s arms and legs hit like tornadoes – none of Wake’s water clones could take more than a single hit from any one of them, and his foe had an annoying tendency to conceal his Sonic Shuriken daiklave inside a mask’s mouth, sending it screeching through the air after a strike and cleaving through multiple clones at once, or coming only a breath away from cutting Wake himself in half.

On top of that, the other man’s demeanor had changed considerably. Where before he had been reticent and dispassionate, now he was wild-eyed and laughing, entirely consumed in a raging fury. Crushing blows from the Ironclad Seven in fully-extended form were the only thing that seemed to keep him at bay, but the weapon was so heavy and bulky at that size that Wake couldn’t make use of his own speed, so he had to pick and choose his attacks carefully.

“What’s wrong, Cerulean Wake?!” Nehor converged both elemental-wreathed hands on Wake’s location in a vicious bite. “You don’t seem as energetic as before!”

Wake scattered his team of clones, letting Nehor come straight at him, then jammed his Ironclad into the ground, propelling himself up into the air. Right as the masks were about to strike, he pulled his body into a barrel roll and brought the black jade staff down across their tops, smacking them hard. “I’m thinking.”

“You? Thinking?” Nehor began a vicious punch combo, snapping at Wake from multiple angles. “I thought you were all about ‘instinct’ and ‘moving like water?’ Thinking about what?”

Wake’s clones swept in and rejoined the battle, deflecting the masks with their translucent weapons. “About what I’m going to have for dinner after I’ve wrecked your crazy ass.”

Nehor laughed that shrill, high laugh of his again, and clubbed two of the water clones with one wind serpent arm, knocking them into puddles and striking hard at Wake with his other. “So much attitude! But the clock is ticking, and my snakes are hungry.”

Jumping over the striking snake, Wake used his Mirror on the Surface technique to make himself translucent just like one of his clones, and led a cluster of his fellows in an assault on Nehor’s main body. Shifting the Ironclad back to paired tonfas for the speed, he beat back the masks as they tried to chase him away, weaving in and out with his clones to help conceal which one was the real him, then changed his weapon back into three-section staff form once he made it in close, laying into Nehor’s ribcage and sides. With the elementals encasing the other fighter, though, his attacks barely made it even to his blue jade armor, and by then there wasn’t even enough force left to do anything but knock.

“I think you’ve reached the limits of your little weapon’s effectiveness.” Nehor screamed, and a howling whirlwind radiated from his body, catching Wake’s clones and turning them into water vapor, and throwing Wake through the air like a discarded toy. “Tick-tock, Cerulean Wake. Tick-tock!” He sent another mask flying after Wake, and this time the snake struck true, closing its jaws around his waist. “Got you now!” As the whirlwind died down, Nehor gave the snake a tug, and it bit down for the finishing blow, but Wake popped like a bubble.

“Solar Hero Style!” Nehor turned his head, a look of surprise and abject horror on his face as he saw the real Cerulean Wake appear from the puddle of a clone and take a different martial arts stance immediately behind him. “Fist of the Undefeated of the East … FIST!”

Wake’s vicious punch struck true this time, hitting through the elemental buffer and connecting with Nehor’s jade armor full-force. The impact hurled him through the air, spinning, and he righted himself after several revolutions, slamming all four masks into the ground like anchors. The Air Aspect’s head hung for a moment or two, and then he looked up, face furious, pointing one of his long arms at Wake accusingly.

“What in the green hell was that?! That wasn’t Solar Hero Style!”

Wake scratched the side of his nose, then shrugged. “Meh.”

“Don’t you ‘meh’ me! What kind of a ridiculous stunt was that? You said ‘fist’ twice, are you stupid?”

“What does it matter? I learned it from a memory. I mean, I guess technically I call that style ‘Unconquered Hero Style,’ but shouting ‘Solar Hero Style’ sure seemed to spook you, so I guess it did the trick. That crack in your armor certainly seems to agree.”

Nehor’s face was red, and he sounded twice as livid as he looked. “Don’t think I’ll give you another opening like that, you son of a bitch.”

“Oh, I don’t expect you will.” Quickly going into motion, Wake dashed sideways a few dozen paces until he stood on the surface of Lake Noamin itself, as easily as he might have stood on solid ground. “Which is why I’m calling in a little help.” Feeling both his black jade magatama and the Ironclad heating up, Wake held his staff behind him in one hand and struck the surface of the lake with his open palm. “Water Summoning: Ripple Tsunami!”

The power of that last attack had actually managed to shake Nehor’s hold on the elementals, so as he gritted his teeth he reasserted his control over them, watching Cerulean Wake retreat out onto the water. It wasn’t easy; Wake’s strike had indeed broken through his armor, and he felt his back bleeding into the blue jade. The enemy Water Aspect had shown plenty of power, but Nehor hadn’t thought him capable of that level of force.

As Wake struck the water, Nehor heard a ringing sound resonate from the lake. A single ripple emanated from his enemy’s location, and then another, as that ring repeated. The water underneath the Outcaste rose, and within moments he was standing atop a huge serpent. Even coiled, it was taller than Nehor’s windstrider form, and reflected a rainbow of colors though the primary hue of its scales seemed to be blue.

“I need a hand, Joru-jii,” Wake said with a grin. “Think you can help with that?”

The serpent fixed aquamarine eyes on Nehor. “An enemy of Cerulean Wake’s is an enemy of Jorudo, God of Lake Noamin.” The two dropped quickly into the lake, then reappeared a heartbeat later at its edge, Jorudo leaping out of the water’s edge with fins spread like a tidal wave while Wake dropped from his head towards Nehor, his giant bo Ironclad Seven held up like a headsman’s axe.

Nehor sent two of his masks at Jorudo, then had to add a third when they failed to halt the water god’s advance, and brought the last one up to collide with Wake’s falling blow. The enemy Water Aspect followed through on the hit, fighting the mask back, then tucked into a roll, hitting the mask over and over with both ends of his staff as he spun. The other three masks didn’t seem to be able to cut through Jorudo’s scales, so he diverted two of them to attack Wake. The martial artist disappeared into the water that had surged up from Jorudo’s charge, and reappeared next to Nehor, black tonfas driving into his elemental armor repeatedly.

Kill. You.

Disengaging from Jorudo, Nehor took to the air. The god followed him on a column of water, snapping at him from below but only catching his masks a few times, while Cerulean Wake sent a cluster of water clones up to harass him. Nehor shot his Sonic Shuriken from an arm mask, performing his Kamaitachi technique to blend them all within seconds, then dove sharply, twisting around Jorudo and careening right for Wake. The Water Aspect ran out onto the surface of the water, goading him, and Nehor followed, his wind snakes lashing out. “You think I’m scared of your lake, or your water god? Ha! I’ve beaten gods into submission before. You can’t intimidate me!”

Wake vanished into the lake, then attacked from behind with his staff. Nehor blocked it, but he did it again. And again. And again. Floating up above them, Jorudo screeched out, and the water below their fight turned into a water spout, raising towards and engulfing them both. Nehor fought free of the vortex and sailed higher into the air, and went for Jorudo, biting savagely at his tail, face, and fins with all four masks. Wake rode the vortex for altitude easily, and when he jumped from it to help his ally, Nehor unleashed a howling cyclone into both of them, then loosed a lightning bolt from his chest into that.

I’ll kill you.

Not only Wake, but Jorudo as well went translucent as the double attack collided, dispersing into water clones, and then the real versions appeared on opposite sides of him again. Jorudo closed his jaws around Nehor’s midsection, biting down through his elemental shroud and into his already-damaged armor, and Wake turned his Ironclad into a single palm-sized stick again, forcing it into Nehor’s back with a powerful palm strike that further cracked his blue jade mail and sent pain coursing through his body.

I’ll kill you both!

“LET GO OF ME!” Nehor rained mask blows down around Jorudo’s head, and when the serpent finally released him, spun quickly and struck all about himself with all four masks and his Sonic Shuriken, almost blind with rage. He hit both of them several times – at least, he was pretty sure he did – and formed another tornado with himself at its center, screaming in fury and letting it explode outwards. “I am Jeresh Tirva Nehor, Shikari-Amercer, lord of the sky! I will not lose to scum like you!”

“Yeah, we heard you the first time.” A translucent Cerulean Wake appeared over him as the tornado scattered, and Nehor struck up at him. He turned to water as the mask passed through it, and then seven more appeared all around. “And I’m Cerulean Wake, Guardian of Three Oaks!” The attacks that followed came from so many directions that Nehor’s frayed nerves couldn’t process which one was the real Wake.

The last one cracked him atop his head, and sent him plunging towards the lake. Jorudo appeared below him, and swung his tail up like a club; the strike hit Nehor in the back, stunning him and finally breaking the last hold he had on the elementals as it rocketed him back into the air. As his windstrider form started to dissipate, Cerulean Wake once again maneuvered over him, his Ironclad nowhere to be seen and his stance once again shifted from its normal style.

“It was a good fight, Nehor, but now it’s over.” Wake pulled his fist back. “Fist of the Undefeated of the East … FIST!” He connected the punch right in Nehor’s chest, then hurtled down with him towards the surface of the lake. Rather than let them both fall in, the water solidified, and Nehor heard and felt both armor and bones crack, as blue jade erupted in a shower.

He wasn’t sure whether it was a moment or an hour later when he looked up and saw Wake over him, bruised and cut but still standing. He could tell he was still on the surface of the lake, but that was all he could feel: his arms and legs hung useless off of his broken torso. “Such a … stupid attack.”

“I figured you’d want to remember me as an idiot, so it seemed appropriate.” The Outcaste actually had the nerve to look pitying.

Nehor laughed once, a sound that was more cough than laugh, as he let his eyes close. “Yeah. I guess so.”

Wake bowed his head respectfully at Nehor as the other man closed his eyes and went silent, but then doubled over, holding his stomach. “Sonuvabitch! My everything hurts. He was one tough bastard.”

“He certainly was a lively one.” Jorudo flowed up out of the lake next to him and settled atop its surface. “I’ve never seen such ferocity in one so young.”

“Nehor had some demons, that’s for sure.” Looking at his opponent’s still form, he frowned. “My whole life, up until Seven Vaulting Staves took me in, I was alone. No one really believed in me. But that also means that no one depended on me, and no one put pressure on me to succeed. These Dragon-Bloods from the Realm, they seem to carry the world on their shoulders. That kind of pressure can do awful things to a person.”

“Well then, it’s good that you learned how to handle it before you needed to.” Wake laughed, then inhaled sharply and held his side. Jorudo looked at him with concerned eyes. “I believe he cut you more times than you originally thought.”

“Nah, it’s nothing.” There was definitely more blood trickling through his fingers than he wanted to admit, but it was nothing fatal; he’d heal soon enough. “More importantly, I need to go find Ibis.”

“I don’t think so.” Jorudo made a gesture with his head, and a bubble surrounded Wake. “You’re in no condition to go running off. You’ll stay here and heal up.”

“Jorudo!” Wake pushed on the bubble, but it was no use. It was a solid barrier, and he was weak after that brutal fight; the healing energy from the bubble felt great, but only highlighted how drained he really was. “You have to let me go!”

“I have to do no such thing.” Jorudo coiled up and sat vigil just a short distance away. “If I were to let you go running off right now, chances are good you’d get killed. And Soaring Ibis would never forgive me for that.”

Giving up after a few more pushes, Wake plopped down into a seated position and crossed his arms. “Fine. But once my wounds close up, I’m breaking out of this bubble and going to her side.”

Soaring Ibis quickly crossed the valley, heading right for the main shrine and the hill on which it sat. Everything looked normal thus far; at least, normal given the carnage of battle. The shrine didn’t look disturbed, so she skipped it, making her way around to the stone staircase. Giving it a quick glance, she didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, and put her hand to the door at the foot of the staircase. It reacted to the caste mark on her forehead, retracting into the ceiling, and she stepped into the grand chamber within.

The chamber showed no signs of damage, but the panels on the wall were alive with warning messages and glyphs. Only, they didn’t agree with each other; some complained that the barrier was entirely down, others said that the energy of the barrier was overloading; others said everything was normal. Argus was nowhere to be seen, and that worried her. “Argus? Where are you?”

The dark-skinned man appeared on a side panel. “My apologies, Soaring Ibis. I have been busy attempting to identify and address the problems in the system.”

“What can I do to assist?”

“If you can reconstruct the protocols you used when you first opened the system, I believe it will help us clear the conflicting information and diagnose the situation.”

Ibis nodded, and worked at her control panel quickly. Everything was garbled, and it was hard to sift through the noise to work the necessary steps. But she was still exhausted from her fight with the leaders of the Wyld Hunt, so she pushed through and forced herself to concentrate.

As she finished a glyph sequence, she saw most of the messages start to clear, but then she got the feeling that someone was standing right behind her. Turning, she saw a rather unremarkable bearded little man, with grubby clothing and wide eyes. “Who are you?” she asked. “How did you get in here?”

“R-River Rat is the name, ma’am,” he said, taking off his hat and revealing a head as bald as an egg. “Please tell me this place is safe? I thought I was gonna die out there!”

The hearthbloom had proven to be quite effective. With Karanya’s fire charms effectively shut down, she was finding it incredibly difficult to strike any further blows at Lilac. She knew techniques of every elemental variety – she prided herself on a level of versatility that few Shikari possessed – but she was most at home in fire, naturally. Lilac couldn’t have planned for facing her any more thoroughly. In fact, knowing him, he had probably worked this strategy out years beforehand, in case the two of them ever fought again.

Really, she couldn’t have hoped for a better test of how far her abilities had come. The last time she had seen him as Merari, back before he had abandoned his post with the Hunt, his skill had still outclassed hers by quite a bit. Now, they fought on equal footing. More than that; as Karanya pumped the third of the hearthbloom’s four giant maws full of a poison charm she had learned from Venerer Asalis and modified, then sliced it free of its stalk, she was winning by no small margin. Lilac’s whip occasionally flailed uselessly against her toughened skin, while she in turn had cut him liberally across back, legs, and arms. Even his too-perfect face bore the same gash she had inflicted earlier on in the fight.

I bet he’d give a delicious scream while being incinerated in my Flame Road Synthesis, she thought with a sneer as she leaped away from the hearthbloom’s counterattack. Perhaps once I’ve disposed of this atrocious red monarch of his. Though I suppose having such a plant in my apartments back on the Isle might be rather pleasant. Luring the fire-eater’s attention with little bursts of fire-aspected Essence channeling, she switched over to air charms whenever it would attack her, pummeling its stalks with Kisses of the Air Dragon. It seemed reluctant to commit its last jagged mouth to an attack, which was fine with her, as it just gave her more time to whittle away at its mass.

Lilac, on the other hand, did not seem as thrilled at this status quo. Every so often, he would grow his vine whip out to strike at her whenever she drew somewhat close. Yet he clearly knew how quickly she would end him if he ventured from the hearthbloom’s protective presence, so he stayed put. “Looks like my dear Lilac is very firmly planted in his vase.” When he made no retort, she laughed and peppered him with a few concussive Kisses as well. “No witty rejoinder? Can you really be that tired?”

It was plain enough that she wasn’t wrong. Lilac was breathing hard enough for her to hear, his suit streaked with blood and his hair matted from the wound on his cheek. He was focused, but it was no longer the composure of someone entirely in control – it had become the quiet desperation of someone who had finally realized how in over his head he was. How very hard she had worked to see this day.

“Where’re the snappy insults, Lilac at Dusk? The quiet confidence?”

Another wave of air pulses rained down on plant and master, pinning them both down.

“Where’s that famous finesse?”

Shoving both daiklaves into the ground, she worked the seals for Earth Claims the Plow, tearing the ground under Lilac up in a ripple and knocking his balance off.

“Where’s the battle-hardened skill that you were so proud of?”

Pulling her daiklaves out of the ground, Karanya tossed them into the air. They began orbiting around her, and she completed her Spear of the Piercing Winds charm, forming a javelin of high-pressure air in her hands. She hurled it directly into the main stalks of the hearthbloom, and heard a satisfying crunch, followed by what might have been a shriek from the thing’s remaining mouth. Immediately after, she tapped her foot once on the ground, gathering her fire Essence as quickly as she could.

“Tell me, Merari.”


“When does my lesson begin?”


Lilac looked at her in surprise. “You fool! You would really risk it?!”

Karanya only grinned, reclaiming her floating blades as easily as she reclaimed her speed with Riding the Flame Road. The hearthbloom responded immediately to the fire, naturally, but she didn’t run straight at it. Instead, she ran in a long arc, watching as the last mouth on the giant plant’s body tracked her movement. It couldn’t resist that tempting meal; several tendrils came flying at her, only to stop short as she remained just out of reach. That, and the plant wasn’t moving as quickly anymore after being punished so heavily.

Finally, she hung a quick left and dashed right for Lilac. The mouth moved in for the kill, and she sprung her trap. Once again letting loose of her daiklaves, she formed her two remaining Piercing Winds javelins, one in each hand. Her Flame Road speed was just enough to keep her ahead of the fatigued plant’s movements, so she speared the mouth with both of them, caught her blades again, and ran right around it. Both of her daiklaves swung and caught the mouth at its stem, severing it cleanly, and she continued past both it and Lilac, streaking up into the air.

Her foe snapped his whip at her as she passed, but it was too little, too late. The hearthbloom shuddered, its stalks already going lifeless and starting to collapse. Karanya had analyzed it carefully while fighting, and the perception of the Flame Road only confirmed her suspicions; the red monarch relied on its mouths as the focal point of its Essence to maintain its impressive size. Without them, it was unable to hold on to all of that energy. Even as she passed, she had felt the swell of Essence at its base beneath Lilac’s feet quivering tenuously.

“Please, do tell, Lilac!” she called out as she spun around and watched his hearthbloom wilt. “I’m all ears. I’m your eager pupil!” She held onto the fire of the Flame Road, using the thermals to keep herself aloft as the fire dragons of her anima danced and cavorted around her, and laughed uproariously.

Until a white flower bloomed on her shoulder. Specifically, from her shoulder. Looking down in surprise and annoyance at the blossom, a quarter the size of her palm, she released the Flame Road and dropped to the ground, reaching to rip it out as her feet touched down. How obnoxious. As she pulled on it, though, she felt a stabbing pain deep in her shoulder. It was so strong that she gasped in shock, looking down in disbelief as another flower of the same color emerged from a spot right above her breast, and another from her waist on the other side of her body.

“And that,” Lilac said as he brushed his hair away from his eyes, “is the match.”

“What do you mean, ’that’s the match’?” Karanya said angrily. Her first impulse was to burn the flowers off, but on the off-chance that they were hearthblooms, she instead tried to shake them loose by turning the Rumbling Earth charm she had learned from Ryotheras inward, vibrating the toughened layers of her skin. She couldn’t shake off earth charms like she could fire, but anything was preferable to letting Lilac’s trap trigger. The charm never went off; simply gathering her Essence caused a wave of pain from all three flowers that broke her concentration and nearly took her feet out from under her. “What … did you do?!”

Holding one hand to the worst of the wounds in his side, Lilac smiled thinly. “I’ve introduced you firsthand to the joys of amateur gardening, using your own skin as potting soil.”

Karanya fought to stay upright, but the pain was growing worse, and identical white flowers started appearing all over her torso and limbs. While trying to figure out what to do, she thought back over their fight, and her eyes went wide. “That damn whip … are you telling me it had seeds in its thorns?”

“I knew you were supremely confident in your armor skin training. Thorns would break right off in your flesh, and you’d never feel the injury. Which meant there was a good chance you’d never feel a few tiny seeds, either.”

Why didn’t they burn while I was Riding the Flame Road? She clutched both of her daiklaves and jammed them into the ground, holding the handles with a white-knuckled grip to hold herself up. I bet he wrapped them in hearthbloom seed casings. Damn him! “So what? I won’t be beaten by some flowers. This pain is nothing.”

“Oh, well that’s good. But it isn’t the pain you should be worried about. It’s what comes after.”

The first flower to bloom split down the middle, and so did that spot on her skin, as a green tendril with a toothy mouth as big as her fist burst forth from her shoulder. The pain she was already in overshadowed it, but it immediately bit deeply into her neck like a viper before she could tear it off. She bit her own tongue to muffle a yell. “You think this is over? I’m not finished yet. I destroyed your hearthbloom, and you’re cut to ribbons. I’m still winning this fight.”

“I’m afraid not. It’s true that you mortally injured my poor red monarch, but that was the plan all along.” Karanya fought to take a step forward, and then one more, but Lilac just kept talking, as calmly as if they were chatting on the beach. “Once my seeds were fed enough, I needed you to lay off of the fire techniques, since yours are still more than I can handle for an extended time. Once you did, it was only a waiting game.”

Karanya stumbled and fell over onto one knee, as the next two flowers split to reveal their mouths. They too went for her throat, but only one managed to make it; she snatched the other with her hand mid-strike and crushed it in her fist. The hearthbloom was a ploy? “No … I’m going to kill you … right now.” She gathered Essence for an air charm, but the pain intensified and stopped her in her tracks again. She was nearly covered in those white flowers, now.

“You can’t use your Essence any longer. Any attempt will simply accelerate the growth of the snow vipers in your system.”

“Which means I have to finish you with my blades.” Every step was agony, but Karanya pulled her blades free of the ground and stalked toward him. “I don’t care if I die … I just have to kill you!”

“I just have to kill you!”

Lilac at Dusk had expected little else. In fact, with the exception of her Flame Road charm and the power it wielded, the battle had proceeded exactly according to his plans. He had spoken the truth to her; Karanya’s fire techniques had always been formidable, and only the difference in relative amounts of training and experience between himself and her had been enough to hand him victories during their sparring days. He hated sacrificing his hearthbloom like that, but without it, she would have burned him to a crisp within moments.

Now, as she walked towards him, her eyes staring death and her hands firm on her blades despite being covered in snow viper blooms, he couldn’t help but think back over the course of their association, and the bitter blood that lay between them. I was much like you, once. In some ways, I still am. As a youth, he had never really fit into the hedonistic environment of House Cynis. Rather, he had yearned for the discipline and recognition that the life of the Wyld Hunt provided. His cousin, Asalis, was a legend in the Inora branch of the House, and Merari had always looked up to him as a paragon of righteousness. As soon as he was able, Merari had joined the Hunt, and before long he was working directly under the vaunted Venerer Asalis.

His cousin had never let him skate by on his name alone. Life as a Shikari candidate under Asalis was grueling, punishing, and at times, overwhelming. It didn’t help that Asalis discouraged his candidates from forming friendships with each other, preferring rivalries for the motivation they provided. Sesus Natasus Karanya had been the only one who could hold a candle to Merari, and the two were the fiercest of competitors from the moment they met. Even after they completed their training, their rivalry only intensified.

But that had all changed – at least for Merari – when a murderer ran loose in his hometown. The man, a former Shikari who had cracked under the pressure, had killed Merari’s uncle, and nearly got him as well when he came to investigate. But an itinerant, energy bow-wielding scholar had also been looking into the murders, and came to the rescue at the last minute, sacrificing his own life for that of a self-righteous young Wood Aspect whom he had never even met.

Merari apprehended the washout Shikari, but coming to terms with the actions of that Solar had begun to consume him. It was little wonder that Asalis had eyed him with complete disdain when he announced a month later that he wasn’t signing on for another tour of duty. Karanya had mocked him openly for his need to “take a philosophical pilgrimage,” which was also exactly what he had expected. He had seen Solars at their worst, had killed several, and that one man had made it impossible for him to continue the work until he resolved that.

Much had changed in the intervening decades, and he had learned more than he would have ever thought possible. He had never gone back, and he had not found a subsequent incarnation of that Solar. Until chance had brought him to Three Oaks, and the young miko who would become a Solar herself. He still didn’t know if Soaring Ibis indeed bore the same Solar Exaltation as his savior from years before, but that was alright, as well. Lilac at Dusk was a different man from Cynis Inora Merari. He just wished he could have said the same for Karanya. There but for the blind kindness of one Solar go I.

Despite his reverie, barely a couple of moments had passed. Several more snow vipers had bloomed on Karanya’s body, taking chunks out of her in their sprouting hunger, but she had ceased trying to tear them off. She seemed to have realized she wouldn’t leave this battle alive; every step she took, she poured blood onto the ground. Yet still she marched on, her eyes dead-set on him.

“I wish you could have understood as I do now, Karanya.”

“Bugger your understanding.” She was close, now; well within easy striking distance. “You’re a damn fool, Merari, and I hate you. I always will.”

“Do you know what lilacs mean in my hometown?”

“They’re funerary flowers. Your people place a lilac on the grave at dusk as the final rite of burial.” Suddenly, she lunged at him with far more speed than he thought she had left in her, both blades catching fire and heading for his neck. She was too close for his vine whip to deflect them in time, but Lilac activated nearby seed pods, and thorny tendrils burst from the earth to impale her forearms.

The remaining blooms on her body reacted to the surge of Karanya’s Essence, and began to feed as her body’s motion halted, less than a pace away from him. She grinned a gallows grin. “Your very last ones.”

“You could tell?”

“I was Asalis’s best student. Of course.” She shook and wavered, but kept her feet. “Perfect angle. You knew me well, Merari.”

“Not as well as I thought, apparently. I suspected that last attack might still kill me.”

She scoffed, coughing up blood. “Bullshit. But thanks for going all-out, one last time.”

And then the snow vipers devoured her where she stood.

The Guardians of Three Oaks, part 10

Soaring Ibis eyed the man carefully. He was a little beaten and ragged, and what she had mistaken for a beard at first was just a lot of dirt smudged into the stubble around his chin and mouth. He was dressed like one of the river barbarians, and was plainly absolutely terrified. Unconsciously, she relaxed a little, and forced a tired smile.

“Don’t worry, River Rat. You’re safe in here. The fight should be almost over by now; I need to check on a few things and then we can leave together okay?” When he nodded, she turned back to the panel and continued her work. “Argus? I need a status report on the level three containment protocols. Can you update me?”

When only silence answered her, she tried again. “Argus? Is everything alright?”

Again, there was no response. Maybe I made an error in my work? Did I somehow cause him to go dormant? She tapped away at the runes in front of her and furrowed her brow. She was incredibly drained; it wasn’t impossible that she had made a careless mistake.


A voice spoke up in her mind, but only in the faintest whisper. It didn’t sound like Argus’s voice, and she only caught that single word, yet it was familiar, somehow.


Tur … round, it’s a tr-

Turning around reflexively, Ibis’s eyes were drawn to the air above River Rat. She saw a man in a purple hooded fighting suit crawling on the air, arms and legs splayed out like a spider’s. At the same time, she felt an attack coming at her from the side and barely managed to parry a fist with both hands crossed. Her eyes darted at her attacker – who looked the same – just as his form flickered and disappeared, appearing again across the chamber.

“What a shame. I had hoped to end this with one blow.” His hood covered his eyes, but what she could see of his face looked a little older than she was. “Well, that’s a lie. It’s always more fun when it’s drawn out.”

She realized then that River Rat had disappeared, but she knew quite well that he stood before her now. Why had she been so secure with him there before? “Who are you? Another of Venerer Asalis’s Shikari?”

The man laughed, a loud bark of a sound, and shook his head. “Not exactly. I’m just A Devil in the Darkness, baby. But I know you well enough, Soaring Ibis. Or should I say, Orpheus?”

Ibis frowned, and took her Snake Style stance. She wasn’t really in any shape to be fighting again, but she had to defend herself. “Everyone seems to know Orpheus in one form or another. And to have their own ideas about us.”

“Well, if it’s any consolation, I don’t care that much about it, or about that eye you have tucked away into your forehead. You don’t have the strength left to use it anyway.”

“You seem pretty sure of that.”

He shrugged. “Prove me wrong?” When she didn’t move, he grinned, and took a fighting stance, a symbol appearing in the air that she knew somewhere in her spirit as the sign of Saturn, the Maiden of Endings. “Oh come now. Don’t be so serious. I’d like to enjoy this, if possible.”

Ragara Ryotheras parried Ivory Blaze Dancer in its unleashed form, growing the sharpest stone he could manage from his tetsubo to keep the daiklave at bay. From the moment Smoldering Cinder had called out the blade’s true form, it felt alive, as if it bore its own independent fighting spirit. But he knew that was just an extension of Cinder’s own spirit, and it gave him an incomparable thrill, right along with a growing sense of unease.

Keeping up with Cinder’s new speed was no easy task, of course. Ryotheras didn’t usually try to match a fast opponent, since they could rarely even so much as scratch him. Cinder was a unique challenge; any one of her cuts could scorch him even in sand form, so that meant positioning and forethought were everything. He had to dip into every lesson he had ever learned from his sifus, and it still wasn’t enough for him to deliver a decisive blow.

Cinder’s entire body pulsed with a flash of Dancer’s white fire, and Ryotheras leaped away just in time to avoid a fiery explosion. She quickly was in his face again, and he beat her away after a short exchange. It was only a few seconds later that he realized she had cut him in the side, and he shouted a loud battle cry to take his focus away from the pain, hurling his tetsubo directly at her. She flashed out of the way, but Ryotheras flowed along under the ground, following the path of his weapon, and reemerged to grasp it, blocking her next attack.

Pulling one of her hands back, Cinder worked a quick spell, and a globe of water popped up around her. Only, with her flames raging like they were, the water nearly instantly converted into steam, which flew into his eyes. He disengaged by dropping into the ground again to clear his vision, but when he popped back up the entire area was still filled with a thick curtain of steam. A stream of black glass came flying at him from somewhere in that cloud, and as he shielded himself he realized they were butterflies. Cinder fell from above with her blade arcing down, kicked to the side as he shifted around her, then swung Dancer horizontally, missing her cut with everything but the tip, which met only the stone of his protected skin.

Ryotheras had a long history of annihilating opponents without receiving much of a fight in return. It was much of the reason why he served as Venerer Asalis’s personal guard; his elder did not really need the protection, as powerful as he was, but it was a position of high honor to be at his left hand, regardless. It had been several decades since Ryotheras had been seriously challenged by anyone – his blood was excited, but it didn’t make sense. No simple Outcaste should have been this powerful.

“I can’t help wondering if there are more Lost Eggs here than we thought,” he said casually as they circled each other again. “Your power is great, Smoldering Cinder. It speaks of very strong blood.”

“I appreciate the compliment, Ragara Ryotheras.” At this short distance, the heat coming off of her body was easily palpable. “But if you’re thinking of raiding our valley for potential Exalts, you had best think again.”

“And if some of your people choose to come with us willingly?”

“Is this how the Realm operates? Showing up in force threatening butchery, then offering peaceful surrender and asking for hostages?”

“Call it what you will. We were warned that you and your other Exalted fellows might be bewitched by the Anathema’s unholy magic, so I’m not surprised you would see it that way.”

“Is that so? Do you think you face a bewitched opponent right now, Ragara?”

“Difficult to say. What I do know is that you’re too powerful to be wasted on this flyspeck valley.” He expelled a wave of sand from his body in all directions, then swung his club at her side.

She melted the sand mid-flight and blocked his attack. “This flyspeck is my home. And I will defend it to the last.”

Ryotheras coated his club in heavier spikes, then returned to the attack. “Then that is a shame.”

The two continued back and forth steadily, with Cinder very slightly testing his defenses, too carefully for him to strike back with any real success. When she had gained that huge increase to her speed, he had fully expected her to push the advantage hard. The fact that she was being so conservative and careful was throwing him off, and making him impatient. On top of that, she flowed between combat forms and sorcery shaping as effortlessly as breathing, and Ryotheras had never been very fond of sorcerers.

Cinder rushed at him, missing by a hair with her sword strike, and Ryotheras countered with a fist of rock from below. It struck her leg and knocked her off-balance, and he moved in for the kill. When he took a step forward, though, his foot was caught in a patch of ice that formed suddenly on the ground, and Cinder quickly shaped another spell, emitting an ear-piercing howl that crippled his guard for a second. Her sword came around again, and Ryotheras only narrowly blocked it before dropping into the ground and pulling a short distance away.

I’m losing this fight, it occurred to him, and if I don’t turn it around soon, she’s going to end me.

When he formed up out of the ground again, Cinder was walking toward him slowly, her anima a colorless fire that hurt his eyes to look directly at. That feeling of dread grew, and he pulled as much Essence as he could into his body. He would not lose such an important fight, and bring shame to Venerer Asalis’s team. The ground began to rumble under his feet as he watched Cinder’s steady approach. His Grave of the Penitent hadn’t worked, but he still had more than a few techniques that might do the job.

Cinder stopped suddenly, and put both hands on her dailkave. “This is your last chance, Ryotheras. Surrender.”


Swiping her daiklave out to the side, Cinder’s anima enveloped her entire body, and Ryotheras had to shield his eyes from the flash. Glancing her way, he saw she had changed once again. Her hair was now entirely red and orange fire, she had flames coursing off of her in waves, and Dancer was clearly drawing off the ambient Essence she was emitting, shining even more brightly. Her eyes were molten lava, and her Essence was more than powerful now – it was overwhelming, oppressive.

For the first time in many years, Ryotheras felt a chill run down his spine. This wasn’t right. It didn’t make any sense. “No. No, that’s impossible. Who are you? What are you?”

She focused those baleful eyes on him. “I already told you. I’m Smoldering Cinder, Guardian of Three Oaks.”

“No! You lie. The blood here cannot possibly be that powerful!” Ryotheras pulled his tetsubo back in a ready stance. “It must be a lie. Or perhaps you worked some fell sorcery to gain those powers. I suppose it matters not.”

“I agree.” Cinder’s anima pulsed, and she held her burning daiklave in front of her again. “Are you ready, Ragara?”


This was the first time Cinder had pushed herself all the way anywhere but her training spaces. She had little doubt she was showing up on Argus’s readings now. She thought again to her meditation on Makoto and its facets. She had always followed Li, being honest in word and deed. She held true to Yi, doing what was moral and equitable. And she had had no trouble with Ren, treating others as she would wish to be treated, until she had ventured out into the world with Lilac.

She had thought her family line mostly unremarkable; even her grandmother, who had come as a trader from far away and decided to stay, was completely ordinary. But she had traced her lineage when she left the valley, and had discovered that her grandmother was anything but “ordinary” – she had been of the same family line that had produced the Scarlet Empress, just a different branch. The woman had not been a Dragon-Blood herself, but her family had several powerful scions, and she definitely carried the potential.

There was little doubt in Cinder’s mind that her own abilities were due to the strength of that blood. She had always felt something slumbering inside of her since her Exaltation, and after that discovery it all made sense. Yet she had never once had the desire to leave the valley for the Realm, despite the riches and status it offered for a Lost Egg of strong lineage. This man Ryotheras and his ilk seemed to think that Dragon-Bloods had a duty to serve the Empress and the Realm. And perhaps they were right. Cinder didn’t much believe in debts or loyalty traveling across bloodlines, but she didn’t know much of law.

Regardless, she had a different duty. Three Oaks was her home, the place that had raised her. The people needed protectors. And Wake’s and Ibis’s lives were interlinked with her own, so tightly that all three shared one life. Ragara Ryotheras seemed to be a man of principle and duty, but she doubted he would comprehend the idea of staying in a place for love.

Being with Ibis, Wake, and Lilac, fighting for this valley, is what I want. And I would never ask anything different of anyone else than to follow their heart. She smiled thinly to herself as she tightened her grip on Dancer. Perhaps Ren and I really are in-sync, after all.

Shifting her stance and putting Dancer back into its sheath, she looked over at Ryotheras, and drew in a deep breath. There was no sense in drawing this out any longer – she would finish it with one more strike. The air around her began to shimmer and distort, and the fire around her body was no longer completely under her control. Dancer hummed in her grip, and she felt her Essence sharpen like a blade itself.

Dashing toward Ryotheras, she drew Dancer in her fastest iaido technique, swinging diagonally along his chest. He shifted his form into sand again, but this time it wouldn’t do him any good; her daiklave sang as it flew, and she cut through him as easily as if she were parting water. “Pogrom Pyre!”

As she touched down past him, Ryotheras stood like stone, his tetsubo held in front of him in the last motion of his block. “I couldn’t even see-”

And then came the flame. An explosion so fierce that Cinder actually felt it through her own fire tore through Ryotheras’s body and lit up the plateau like the naked fury of the sun. When the light faded, Cinder turned, and saw that Ryotheras had become a glass statue, its surface smooth save for the huge scar across the chest that had been his killing wound.

Calming the flow of her Essence, the fire around her died down, and Dancer’s white glow faded as it returned to normal. “Don’t feel bad, Ragara. Even I can hardly follow that attack, and I’m holding the sword.”

With a single hit from the flat of her blade, she shattered the statue into fragments.

A Devil in the Darkness’s Theme – Shadow Blade

A Devil in the Darkness feinted several times, teasing the Solar’s defenses – such as they were – and danced around her ripostes with little effort. It didn’t seem fair; she was so exhausted and beaten, and he was fresh as a newborn babe after shucking River Rat’s persona. But that just added to the fun, of course. These Solars, they thought themselves so high and mighty. They always had.

Weaving his fingers back and forth in a fluid motion, like a spider working a web, he struck a battle stance, and smirked. “Once there was a small maiden.” He vanished from view as the Solar readied herself, then flashed around the room and came at her from behind, aiming one long knife at the base of her neck. She parried and counter-thrust with two fingers, but he went immaterial again and walked the strands of fate around her, calling out to her once he had climbed high in the chamber again so that his voice echoed from all around. “-whose skill was great enough to climb a whirlwind over water.”

The Solar formed an energy bow and unloaded a hail of blue shots at him. He wove around and through them, as ghostly images of himself filled the air and followed suit. “Arrows fell upon her, forcing her to descend, but the Essence burning within her set the arrows afire.” He put a knife into the Solar’s leg, but was unable to push it all the way through as she shunted position to the other side of the chamber.

Forming Essence threads from his fingertips, he swiped at her legs, sliced at her torso, and tried to ensare her arms as he walked slowly towards her. “She answered the arrows’ flight with a storm of her own, and the small maiden began to climb the waterspout again.” He only managed to cut her once or twice, but those gashes drew deep red blood, and she had to go entirely on the defensive to fight them off. “The story isn’t over, though. The maiden become a mother, and to one child she said, ‘I have many things to show you.’”

His foe thought she had found an opening again, and returned to using her spirit bow. A cluster of the arrows found their mark, but at the last moment the Devil wove his hands in a different pattern, drawing those energy arrows into an Essence vortex and dissipating them. “And to another, she said, ‘You may rest within my home, and eat; no need to fly,’” he continued, vanishing from his point and reappearing at her side with a knife in each hand.

She switched back to her Snake Style fast enough to fight him off, but he laughed and kept going, until he threw both knives out to his sides and launched more filaments from his hands. “And to a third, she said, ‘How beautiful you are!’” The transparent filaments filled the area around him, catching the Solar girl right near their center, and she quickly found herself stuck in place, trying her hardest to move her arms to form her bow but failing.

The Devil walked up to her and put his hand under her chin. “And as each heard her words and came to the center of her web … .” He caressed her cheek for a moment, smiling wolfishly. “-she ate them.”

Soaring Ibis didn’t know what to make of this man’s fighting style, and her confusion only compounded the disadvantage her fatigue had thrown on her. He didn’t fight like anyone she had ever encountered; not even Ravinius or his ilk had prepared her for anything like this. He didn’t just move quickly, like she and Cinder could; he vanished entirely from perception, only to reappear from places he shouldn’t have been able to reach. When he launched that second round of threads and filled the room, she was completely off-guard, and couldn’t even defend herself.

“Who … are you?” she managed to stammer out as his hand touched her cheek. “Why are you doing this?” She couldn’t begin to understand the story he was reciting, either. Though she was pretty certain “she ate them” was not going to end well.

Suddenly, he split into solid clones, enough to fill the room around her on all sides. And then he set upon her with fists and feet, a dozen attacks coming in all at once. Even if she had been able to defend herself, she would have been pummeled viciously. Suspended in the air on some sort of invisible web, she was battered more thoroughly than either Asalis or Naratis had been able to manage.

When the hail of attacks finally stopped, she was gasping for breath, overwhelmed by a hundred sources of pain. Her head hung, but the man gripped her hair and lifted it so that she had to look at him. His eyes were merciless, amused, and he waggled a finger at her. “Didn’t you like my story, Orpheus? I thought you loved old lore?”

“I … found it rather … boring and hackneyed, honestly,” she managed between gasps and coughs.

The man laughed, and jabbed the fingers of his free hand into her head, right behind her ear. He didn’t poison her, exactly, but something immediately felt wrong in her soul, and she would have screamed if she still had the breath. He dropped her hair and let her head hang again as he took a few steps back, and she wrestled with the worst fit of nausea she had ever experienced, as if her body were trying to eject her consciousness.

There’s that disrespectful tongue I’m used to. I was beginning to think I might not have the right Solar this time. I mean, I’d still kill you, even if you weren’t Orpheus, but he’s one of the ones I enjoy ending the most, you know?”

“You’re … not a Dragon-Blood. And you’re not … a Solar, or a Lunar. So what-” Mid-sentence, a memory from a distant life came to the fore of Ibis’s mind. Several memories, actually – things that sped by so quickly she couldn’t even make anything out. But her mind knew, somehow. “Sidereals … the Exalted of the Maidens.”

“Give her a treat! She got it in one. I guess this shitpot backwater still learns a few things, despite being obsessed with the Unconquered Sun.” The man turned and walked around the chamber, for all the world as if he were out on an evening stroll. “In the old days, the Dragon-Bloods were our army, and the Lunars our spies and field agents, but we Sidereals were the real stars. We were the masterminds and strategists, the ones who laid the real groundwork for the war against the Primordials. All you Solars had to do was follow our directions, lead the charge, and – most importantly – not fuck it all up.”

He turned to look at her again, and even the edged mirth in his eyes was gone, replaced by a look of pure hate. “We thought you had done it. For thousands of years, we thought it was all going to hold together. But you’re a proud lot, and bull-headed. And so damn greedy.” Ibis was getting sicker by the moment, but he kept on going, pointing a finger at her. “The genocide of entire races. The Solar Deliberative. ‘Dangerous ideas’ as a punishable offense. And Orpheus. Always, somewhere, Orpheus. It’s little wonder that you all went mad and had to be put down.”

Ibis thought as quickly as she could, given the pain she was currently in. If this man just wanted me dead, he would have done it already. So what is he actually after? “One might think you have a personal vendetta against my previous incarnations. Did I steal your favorite toy? Wooed your first love away from you, perchance?”

“That’s cute. I suppose I do take special pleasure in killing an Orpheus whenever possible. You’re always so damn convinced of your own brilliance. It’s pretty sickening.”

“And yet, I’m not the one … standing here prattling on to a defenseless person. We have an old saying here in the Valley, about a pot and … a kettle.”

The man crossed the room in another one of those blinking steps and punched her hard in the stomach. “You actually think we’re matching wits here? That’s not happening. You’re a means to an end, and then you’re going to die.”

She coughed for a few moments, and then spat. “Then quit yammering and get on with it.” The worst of the soul-sick feeling had passed. She was still weak, but she had a plan.

“I suppose the time is about right.” He took a different stance, and the air filled with a red and yellow miasma. He made another one of those sinuous hand seals, and the web dropped her; she was surprised that he didn’t attack her again as she regained her footing. When she looked up cautiously, he crossed his arms and nodded at the control console of the chamber. “Assist me with this console. I need complete access.”

“You what? You can’t be serious.” Ibis almost laughed in his face. Until she found herself moving toward the chair against her will. It felt like fingers had crawled into her head and were spidering their way across her brain, tugging on her willpower like a weaver at a loom.

“That’s a good girl. I can navigate my way around, but there’s a pesky lock on the deepest layer.”

Ibis’s hands got to work, even though she tried to stop them, and since Argus recognized her Essence pattern, it only took her moments to get to the lowest level of his system. What in the world … I can’t stop!

“Good, good. Now you’re going to sit there and behave yourself, little Solar, while I set a few things up.” The Sidereal walked over and spun the control panel around to face him, then started working the runes himself. “This shouldn’t take long at all.”

Naratis woke up with a start, and glanced around quickly to take stock of her situation. Asalis’s body lay just a few feet away, but there was no sign of the Solar. Pushing herself to her feet, Naratis felt the full weight of the injuries she had sustained in the fight, and knew she couldn’t handle another one anytime soon – the simple fact that she was able to stand and walk was nothing short of a miracle. Her first thought was to go find the others to see if they had survived their battles, but her curiosity got the better of her when she noticed the Solar’s tracks.

It wasn’t easy, but she traced the path to the central shrine of the valley, and to a descending staircase at the back. Her keen senses picked up voices before she reached the stairs, and so she proceeded as carefully and quietly as she could.

“So is this why you came here?” she heard Soaring Ibis ask someone. “To gain access to Argus and our Wyld Barrier?”

“More like ‘to destroy this Wyld Barrier and your entire society with it,’ though that isn’t the whole story,” said a male voice she didn’t recognize. “Getting to ruin a precious Solar artifact is certainly a plus, but the real goal is always you lovelies, Orpheus.”

“How many times do I have to tell you people that that’s not my name?”

“You named yourself the moment you embraced the power of that eye, fool. Protest all you like, but it will do you no good.”

“Your allies are dead or beaten by now. You must know that.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes. I can sense my Guardians’ emotional states, and they’re all alive and well. It’s only a matter of time until they arrive.”

“That confident conviction. Is that a smile? Would you still smile if I told you that those Shikari were disposable?”

Naratis froze at that, and stopped advancing down the stairs to listen more carefully. Who is this man? That voice doesn’t match anyone in our force.

“You intentionally sacrificed your own allies to get here?” Ibis said, incredulous.

“I’ll admit, I had hoped that the old man and woman would put up a better fight against you. Asalis can usually handle the job of taking your head while I do my work elsewhere. But I suppose it took us longer than usual to find you. Oh well – the nice thing about Dragon-Bloods is that they breed like crazy. Another century or two, and we’ll be able to replace all five of those broken toys with newer, better ones.”

Naratis reached the bottom of the stairs finally, and carefully peered around the door. She caught a glimpse of a man in purple working at a panel deep in the center of the large chamber within, and of Soaring Ibis lying in a chair near it, looking like dead weight. Their attention was diverted, so she slipped into the shadows and made her way just inside the door.

“They’re not toys, they’re people! What is wrong with you?”

“And all people must eventually die. It’s a Bureau of Endings thing, sweetling; you wouldn’t get it if I took the time to explain it to you. Dragon-Bloods die – sometimes in droves. Don’t act like they matter to you; you clearly have your three under your thumb.”

“They’re my Guardians,” Ibis protested. “They have fought and bled for this valley, and I would do the same for them in a heartbeat. I respect them more than anyone I’ve ever known.”

“Isn’t that sweet? The Solar fucks a couple of its underlings and thinks it’s in love.” The man laughed derisively, and pressed a few runes on the console in front of him. “I hate Sol Invictus, you know. Everything about him is a lie. Mercy, compassion, honor, justice. ‘Mercy’ and ‘compassion’ are just crutches for the weak. ‘Honor’ is a joke. And the only justice in this world is found at the end of a blade.”

He turned to look at Ibis again. “For all the talk of the righteous, only one thing has ever protected this world: cold, unrelenting violence. All of those competing philosophies, yet murder is the only true kindness we can do Creation. So really, by killing often and indiscriminately, I’m a paragon of virtue. How’s that for a laugh?”

“Destruct sequence, initiated and charging,” said a third voice in neutral tones that echoed throughout the chamber.

“Ah, there we go.” The man dusted off his hands and turned to look at Ibis. “You have no idea how much I get off on this. Running around right under your noses, tearing your societies apart in a matter of days, and, always, the dumbfounded looks on your faces? It’s better than sex, lovely, and the high doesn’t stop for months.” He had another good long laugh. "Well, we still have a while, so let’s hear some more about those allies of yours. Entertain me with your feelings, Orpheus.”

Naratis crept closer, sticking as well as she could to the shadows. She didn’t know what this man was talking about, but she wasn’t about to let some spy get away without a few pointed questions, particularly after the disrespect he had just shown her entire team. And destroying the Wyld Barrier had never been part of the mission.

Soaring Ibis’s face twisted as if she didn’t want to speak, and her voice held bitter resolve. “I … want to marry Cerulean Wake and Smoldering Cinder, once we have time to settle down. I love them both with all of my heart, and want to have a family with them. I trust Lilac at Dusk with my life, and look up to him like a brother. But I have to leave the valley at some point to find my Lunar, and bring her here, so we can all be together.”

The man had started chuckling right as Ibis said “love,” and by the time she had finished he was laughing loudly. “Pathetic garbage. You crack me up, Orpheus. Let’s hear a little more about it. I could use a few more good laughs.”

Ibis started turning red in anger, but Naratis only slightly noticed her. She was heading for the man in purple, gritting her teeth and doing her best to ignore her injuries. If this man was strong enough to capture Ibis, he had to be powerful, but she had to approach from a position of strength. If she could catch him off-guard … .

“That’s quite far enough, Venerer Naratis.” The man appeared directly in front of her, his eyes amethysts in a smooth young face. “You’ve been watching us. Shame on you.”

Naratis started to speak, but the man popped a knife out of his sleeve and went for her throat. It never arrived; in a flash of blue light, an arrow flew across the room and shot it out of his hand. The man disappeared and popped up on the far side of the chamber, holding his hand and looking in fury and disbelief at Soaring Ibis. “You rotten bitch! I should have dissolved your soul a little faster, apparently.”

When Naratis looked that way too, she saw Soaring Ibis standing, her bow held at the ready. She saw something else, too – Essence fibers coursed all over the woman’s body, seeming to converge at her heart. No, they looked to be flowing from her heart, and stretching out to each of her limbs. What was she doing?

“You’re too injured to be here,” Ibis said to her. “You have to get out before he kills you.”

“This man owes me an explanation,” Naratis replied. “I can’t leave until I beat some answers out of him.”

“Then you can listen from a safe distance.” Ibis formed another energy arrow and shot it at Naratis, but it collided with her chest harmlessly and pushed her out of the room.

Once she was out of the doorway, it dissipated, but a translucent barrier blocked her from re-entering. Naratis beat on it several times, though she knew she lacked the strength to get through it, and heard Ibis address the man again.

“Turn off the destruct sequence, Devil,” she said, pointing her bow at him, “and we’ll sort this out between the two of us. No need to involve anyone else.”

“I refuse,” he said, with a nonchalant tone. “I’m far more interested in talking about how you’re able to stand. Sit back in your chair, Orpheus.” Naratis saw Ibis’s body twitch to move, but then the Essence strands glowed, and she remained standing. The man made an annoyed sound with his teeth. “Healed my compulsion that quickly, did you?”

“Not exactly. I simply decided that your will against my will was a more even match than your will against my body.” She formed another arrow, this one larger and brighter. “I’ll give you one last chance, Chosen of Endings. Stop. The. Sequence.”

Chosen of Endings? What is that? Naratis saw realization dawn on the man’s face. “Using sorcery to puppet your own body around to circumvent the disease? Clever girl. And you think that will be enough to let you fight on equal footing with me?”

“There’s only one way to find out.”

“Hm. As much fun as that would be, I think I’ll pass. I’ve already won, so there’s no need for me to stick around.” The man disappeared, was gone for a moment or two, then reappeared just inside the edge of the bubble, not two feet from Naratis. Only, his attention didn’t seem to be on her, and his face was confused. “I don’t understand … why can’t I get out? What did you do?”

Ibis smirked slightly. “Another gift from Orpheus. It seems my third soul remembers you as well. Your Fate powers won’t work inside this bubble, and you won’t be spidering your way out, either. It doesn’t drop until I do.”

“You’ll be guaranteed to die if you stay in here, fool. Are you really ready to risk that just to fight me?”

Ibis looked past the man and straight at Naratis. “I know you have no good reason to oblige, but please, get my people to evacuate, in case I can’t stop this.”

Naratis locked eyes with her for a split-second, then nodded. “I’ll do what I can. You have my word.” Turning, she ran up the stairs, as the sounds of fighting started behind her.

A Devil in the Darkness pounded on the bubble as Naratis fled the scene, cursing internally. I should have killed her the moment she walked in. “Never leave loose ends,” you know that. He dashed out of the way as an energy arrow came flying his way and shattered against the barrier, and spun to face the accursed Solar, popping his starmetal arm blade out of his bracer, a weapon nearly half as tall as he was. “You’ll never disarm it in time, you know. I’ve overwritten your access and locked your precious Argus down. Three Oaks will burn, guaranteed.”

Soaring Ibis shot at him again, and then again, her movements far quicker than he would have thought. “Then why is there doubt in your voice?”

Damn you. “I don’t fear you, Orpheus. I fear the giant fireball that’s about to eat this backwater alive.” He tried to step back into his Charcoal March of Spiders form, but it was no use. True to the Solar’s word, the massive bubble she had put up had taken control of the Essence fibers in the chamber. He could no longer pluck at them at will like he had before. That wouldn’t stop the Violet Bier, though; he wrapped a line of Essence around the Solar and pulled it taut, driving his blade right for her heart. “I’ve killed you before, and I’ll do it again!”

To his surprise, she seemed to have followed his motions precisely. In a frighteningly-similar manner, she looped an Essence thread around his arm blade, pulled it past her before it struck, and delivered a crushing elbow to the back of his neck. “The last person to say that to me was Venerer Asalis. I put an Azure Bolt through his chest and left him dead on the ground.”

“You think you can taunt me? I’ll gut you.” He swung for her neck, then tried to eviscerate her. Both times, she met him with Snake Style parries, and then slipped past his defense to strike at his windpipe. He only partially avoided it, and clutched his neck as he skidded off to the side, a bloody gash appearing on his skin. How? How can she have this much power left? My Maw of Dripping Venom should have her comatose on the floor by now!

“I warned you, Devil.” The Solar coughed and spit up some blood, but her body remained steady as she took another Snake Style stance. “You bought and paid for this fight. Now get up and face me. Or I’ll strike you down where you cringe.”

The Devil felt himself starting to shake in rage, and went charging at her. “Orpheus! I’ll be sure to mangle that black soul of yours, this time!”

Moving as quickly as she could, Naratis made her way from the shrine and toward the location where the battle had originally begun. Along the way, the valley was marked all over by the signs of combat: scorch lines in the earth, upturned rock, unconscious and broken forms lying here and there. Their fight against Ibis seemed to be rather telling of the operation as a whole; she recognized every one of the prone figures she came across at a glance. This is a disaster. We never should have come here.

“Hello? Is anyone there?” she called out loudly. “This is Venerer Naratis of the Wyld Hunt, and I’m ordering our forces to stand down! The valley is in imminent danger, and everyone needs to flee the Wyld Barrier immediately!” No one responded, but she continued on, repeating the message every few moments.

She came upon a trio of her soldiers, bound securely to a tree with some wire, and after a few shakes one of them awoke. “Venerer?”

“Yes, it’s me. We’re canceling the operation, and getting the villagers to safety.”

There was a hint of confusion in the woman’s eyes, but she was a good soldier and, nodding quickly, set about bringing the others to consciousness. After a couple of moments, they were ready to move on, following Naratis without question.

Finally, she felt a cluster of presences not far away, and turned to see Smoldering Cinder, Cerulean Wake, and Lilac at Dusk approaching her quickly. They were still a safe distance away, so she held her hands up to signal that she held no hostile intent, but the other Water Aspect spoke up first, his eyes furious.

“What’s going on? Why are you here? The lake spirits are a panicked mess, what did you do?”

Cinder put her arm in front of him to keep him back and silenced him with a look, then turned her eyes on Naratis. “You should explain, quickly.”

“We lost to your Solar friend. However, some unknown agent on our side has unmasked himself, and is trying to destroy the valley and kill everyone in it by overloading the Wyld Barrier.” As she spoke, she noticed other people emerging from the treeline, but kept her attention on the three Dragon-Bloods. “She asked me to evacuate everyone, but she’s still fighting this man as we speak.”

Wake looked dubious, but Cinder just held out a hand towards her. “You’ll understand if we don’t trust you, so please, take my hand. It’ll show me the truth.”

Nodding after a moment, Naratis did just that, and immediately got the feeling of someone poking very slightly into her thoughts. Only a couple of seconds passed, but Cinder quickly released her hand and looked to her two allies. “It’s true. Something is very, very wrong. We need to get the people out, but we need to get to that chamber, too.”

“Why don’t you let us handle that?” an old voice spoke. Finally looking at the newcomers to the scene, Naratis saw the man who had been fighting alongside Cerulean Wake, flanked by the two demons Soaring Ibis had brought along, standing protectively in front of a cluster of villagers. “We’ll get the people as far away as we can.”

Naratis heard the subtext there. Even moving as fast as mortals could, it was still mountain terrain; getting them entirely free of the Barrier would take the better part of an hour, if not more. “Can you get them all, just the three of you?”

“These two demons are strange, but they’re pretty handy in a pinch,” the old man said with a grin.

“We’ll go with them, Venerer,” said the soldier she had first spoken to earlier. “In case they run across any of ours.”

Nodding, Naratis turned back to Cinder. “Very well. I’m coming with you three.”

Wake looked at Cinder, and the Fire Aspect nodded. “Let’s move.”

As they set out, Lilac spoke up next. “I can only assume Venerer Asalis did not survive the fight?”

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye as they ran. “He did not. And Karanya?”

Lilac shook his head. “She got the fight she’s always wanted with me, I suppose. I had hoped things would end differently between us.”

“Karanya chose her path, as did you.” She paused for a moment. “Perhaps you chose the better one, after all.”

Ibis’s Last Resort Theme – Wings

Invoking the Irresistible Threads of Spirit Puppetry spell was a difficult and dangerous move. It wasn’t even supposed to be used in this manner, but Soaring Ibis was exhausted in both body and spirit, hemorrhaging Essence, and fairly certain she was on the verge of dying from blood loss. But she couldn’t give up now. This Sidereal had engineered an invasion to murder her, her people, and their whole society, and she would fight until she crumbled into dust to stop it.

More images came flooding into her mind as she fought – more memories, she knew, of previous battles against A Devil in the Darkness and his pawns. This wasn’t the first time he had done this; a secluded community here, a village there. Even an entire small town, at one point during the chaos of the Balorian Crusade. How many hundreds, thousands of people had he marked for death because they had dealt with a Solar? She still didn’t even really understand the reasons; there was just always a lot of screaming about how “her kind were all mad, and needed to be put down for the greater good.”

“Destruct sequence seventy-five percent charged,” Argus’s empty voice spoke.

The Devil came at her with his arm blade again, trying his phasing trick to catch her off-guard, but her Essence threads gave her all the warning she needed. She countered the attack fluidly, kicking him hard in the midsection, then struck back with Ten Thousand Vipers. The first few hits rang true, but he quickly recovered and retreated out of her range, swearing loudly. She kept pressing the attack, reforming her spirit bow and loosing arrow after arrow. Archery seemed to be easier than close-quarters combat with her spell going, so she laid into him with the Blue Ibis’s full fury, raining down arrows and forcing him into constant motion as she pushed for an opening.

“What’s wrong, Devil? You’ve gotten awfully quiet.” He closed again and took a swipe at her knee, but she jerked her body out of the way, shot at him point-blank and grazed his lower leg, then inverted the Blue Ibis into a shield as he threw a series of rabbit punches at her. “I thought you loved the sound of your own voice?”


The punches ended in a hard straight-kick, but she wove her upper body back, brought both hands underneath his foot and threw him up into the air, then moonsaulted after him, kicking him squarely in the back. She shot at him again when she landed, but he twisted out of the way and came down on the other side of the chamber.

Another memory hit her then, but it wasn’t one of hers. She saw a man who might have been A Devil in the Darkness, but younger, still a boy, really. With him was another taller boy with black hair and a hooked nose. The two were sparring together, and the taller boy was winning every exchange. The memory flashed forward, and the two were grown men, still sparring under the watchful eye of a hard-looking woman with indigo eyes. Again, the taller man took every series, and Ibis could feel the frustration and animosity coming off of the Devil in waves.

“I get it now,” she said as she formed a group of three arrows at once. “This is personal, isn’t it?” Launching her arrows, she dashed right behind them, and made quick lunging strikes at him when he dodged.

He tried to counter, but she was out of range by the time his blade came around. “Of course it is. Solars are a menace, and-”

“Oh, it’s not really about us. Sure, you have to erase us from history or else we’ll steal your thunder, but we wouldn’t be the first. In some way, if we win, Raven wins, doesn’t he?”

The Devil froze, and his eyes became burning amethyst coals. “Y-you … how do you … ?”

“Raven was always the better pupil. He was faster, stronger, and smarter, too.”

How do you know that name?!” Spittle flew from the Devil’s mouth as he leaped at her, his previously-fluid and elegant manner of moving now fallen to clumsy brutality.

“Even now, he still gets better assignments than you, and your sifu speaks more highly of him.” Ibis dodged three more swings, each less accurate than the last, and retaliated with a dashing elbow to his ribcage, smacking her palm hard against his chin in a spinning leap and then kicking him across the room. “That’s why you’re A Devil in the Darkness – because no matter where you go, you’re always in Raven’s shadow!”

The Devil hit the wall of the chamber hard and fell onto his back, then shrieked at the top of his lungs. As he got to his feet, he clutched his head, his eyes wild and rimmed with red. “I … I don’t … no … how can you … how can you-”

“You made the mistake of letting me into your head,” Ibis said as she drew again. “Your over-confidence has always been your weakness, Devil. And now, it’ll be your death.”

Snarling, he jumped back into the fray, but by now she could easily follow every move he made, even in her weakened condition. Tugging her body out of the way of his swings and stabs was as simple as plucking the strings of her qin, and each of her ripostes landed more solidly than the last.

“Destruct sequence eighty-five percent charged.”

The Devil thought he found a hole in her defense, and tried to put his blade through her face, but she blocked with the Blue Ibis again. He rained down stab after stab, doing little more than making the Blue Ibis’s energy thrum musically, then pulled back for yet another of the same. She called out the newest of her weapons, a smooth gray hilt that didn’t yet have a name, and cracked him across the face with it. Channeling the energy of her bow into it so that it formed a sword-like blade shorter than Ivory Blaze Dancer, she cut him across both knees and then severed his arm blade from his gauntlet.

He stumbled and fell, and she shoved the weapon into the floor in front of her, casting two more just like it out to form a triangle formation around him. The Essence fibers she had been using to control her body extended into the room, and locked them into place, as a blue pyramid half as tall as the chamber enveloped the Devil. “If my experiments were correct, I’d normally have to push my Essence output to unsafe levels to use this technique. But thanks to you, I’m already bleeding so much Essence I’m about to die, so why don’t we see where this goes?”

The Devil got to his feet, and beat on the inside of the pyramid. “This isn’t over Orpheus! You think you can kill me?! You think I’ll die before I’ve torn your entrails out myself?!

“Let’s see what happens to a Devil when his darkness gets erased.” Ibis reached to her bracelet, and tore one of the beads off, breaking the cord and causing all of the rest to fall free as well. Crushing the bead to powder in her fist, she scattered it over the hilt in front of her. “Twilight’s Glimmer – Aster!”

The Blue Ibis’s light spread from her location to all three points in the floor, and the pyramid lit up, first like a beacon but quickly growing in intensity. The Devil screamed, the light igniting his fighting suit and burning his skin. The blue radiance grew as bright as the sun, then the inside of the pyramid exploded, leaving an after-image on Ibis’s vision. When it faded, there was only a charred starmetal blade and a pile of ash left behind where the Devil had once stood.

Ibis collapsed to her knees, her breathing ragged and labored. She hadn’t really noticed before, but her white miko robe was so stained with blood as to be nearly as crimson as her skirts. There wasn’t quite as much pain as there had been before, but she knew that was misleading. Get up, Ibis. It’s not over.

“Destruct sequence ninety-five percent charged.”

Pulling herself to her feet, Ibis went to the control chair and dropped herself into it. Spinning the panel to her again, she worked her way into the system and searched for Argus. There were traces of the animating intelligence’s presence, but he was distant, unaware. Whatever the Devil had done, he had locked Argus away as thoroughly as he had been when she first accessed the Barrier. The voice that was periodically updating the charge time was only the faintest echo of him.

The knot in the system that the Devil had tied was too complex for her to handle alone, so she rapidly began peeling back the layers of Argus’s prison. That much only took her a couple of moments, and Argus reappeared on one of the wall panels. “Soaring Ibis! You have returned.”

“Argus, this is my fault. I should have protected you. Please, can you help me stop the sequence?”

The three-faced man shook his head. “The man in purple took control away from me. I don’t know what he did, but I can’t undo it without time.”

Ibis bit her lip. That was the one thing they didn’t have. “What’s the lethal radius of the Wyld Barrier detonating?” Argus brought up an image on the central panel, and the entire valley glowed red. “There’s no way that the people can get out in time. Do we have any other options, Argus?”

“I’m sorry, Soaring Ibis.”

“Destruct sequence fully charged. Overloading commencing.”

“We’re out of time.” Ibis coughed into her hand and wiped blood from her mouth. “I have a different idea, but I need you to promise to do exactly what I say, Argus.”

The animating intelligence nodded. “Direct me as you will.”

“Good. Activate the overflow panel.”

Cinder and the other three raced to the shrine, but as they moved, she noticed a ripple across the sky. She didn’t stop, but she glanced at Lilac, and he nodded. “Yes, I can feel it, too.”

“Feel what?” Wake asked.

“The Barrier is swelling with Essence,” Naratis explained. “It’s apparently begun.”

“No! There has to be something we can do!”

Cinder was as concerned as Wake, but she turned her eyes forward again. “All we can do is get to Ibis and hope that it’s not too late.”

A few moments later, they reached the shrine, and made for the door. The bubble that Ibis had put up to keep the Devil from escaping was still there, and looked thicker than it had in Naratis’s memory. Ibis, torn and bloody, was on the other side, working at the control console, and Cinder noticed something that instantly sent a chill through her – Ibis had her hand on the overflow panel that had killed White-Spotted Owl. “Ibis?! What are you doing?”

At the sound of her voice, Ibis turned to look at them, and got to her feet shakily. “Cinder, don’t worry about the Barrier. I have a plan that I think will work.”

“Then let us in so we can treat those injuries.”

Ibis shook her head, and gave a wan smile. “I can’t do that, Cin. I have to stay in here, and … you all need to get clear.”

“What are you talking about?” Wake demanded, stepping up next to Cinder and putting his hand on the barrier. “You’re not making sense.”

“The Barrier is already overloading, and I’d need hours to stop it. If nothing is done, it’ll detonate and destroy everything. But I think I can siphon that energy off, into a different source – my Exaltation.”

Cinder froze in shock, and the grim determination she felt from her bond with Ibis confirmed her fear. “No. No, you can’t do that. You won’t survive it. You know that.”

“I have to,” said the younger woman firmly. “My life for everyone else’s. There’s no question about that trade.”

“Ibis, if you let us in, maybe we can link all our Exaltations,” Lilac suggested. “You don’t need to bear the brunt alone.”

“No, Lilac. I’ve run the simulations, and the risk is too great. I have to do this alone.”

“There’s no way we’re letting you do that!” Wake pounded on the bubble again. “Let us in!”

“Don’t make this any harder than it has to be.” Ibis made her way slowly to the edge of the bubble, and put her hands on it. She was keeping her face as stern as she could, but tears had formed at the corners of her eyes. “I need you to listen to me now. I’ve unlocked as much of Argus’s system as I could. If he … if the Barrier stays intact after the eruption, you all should be able to handle his maintenance from now on.”

Wake looked at her, then at Cinder and Lilac, his eyes pleading. Cinder wanted to argue as well, but she put her hand against the same spot where Ibis’s sat, and closed her eyes. Her mind-reading charm still worked, and in just a couple of seconds she understood the situation, and everything that had happened leading up to it.

“Did you get it all, Cin?” Ibis asked.

“I did.” Cinder said the words, but her tongue felt like lead. “I’ll follow your instructions, Ibis.”

Ibis nodded again, and the tears finally started to fall, as the Barrier shuddered and groaned loudly high above them. “I’m leaving it in your hands, then. I … I’ll miss you all. Wake, don’t give Cin too much trouble going forward, okay?”

He put his hand up to Ibis’s other one, and forced a smile, though his voice broke. “I won’t let you down, love.”

“Lilac?” Ibis looked past the two of them and at the third Guardian. “I’m glad we met. I’ll never forget the things you taught me, and I hope you’ll stay in the Valley.”

Lilac smiled. “It’s been my pleasure to fight at your side, Songtress. I’m happier here than I’ve ever been anywhere else.”

The Barrier shuddered again, and Cinder saw the overflow panel behind Ibis start to glow. Ibis glanced back at it, then looked at Cinder and Wake again. “Our life was exactly what I wanted it to be. Thank you both. I love you.” She turned and ran to the panel, and the bubble went opaque as the Barrier high above gave a great hum, then pulsed like a huge signal flare. The massive concentration of energy overwhelmed Cinder’s senses, and she fell to her knees.

However, she did catch one last glimpse of Ibis. The bubble she had put up went transparent for just a moment, and at the center Ibis stood, one hand on the panel and the other supporting her arm. The center of the chamber had been breached from above, and a column of blue and white light poured down through the hole. That light bathed her, pure and deadly, and Ibis shouted at the top of her lungs, the Caste mark on her forehead shining only slightly more brightly than she herself. Even with her injuries, she looked more beautiful and powerful than ever, screaming her defiance at the sky.

And then the bubble once again sealed the chamber off from view, and Cinder and the others were thrown against the staircase by a wave of concussive force that knocked her out cold.

The Guardians of Three Oaks, part 8

Ravinius’s Theme – Creature from Beyond

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.

Ibis’s Counterattack

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!”

The Guardians of Three Oaks, part 6

For a moment, the battlefield froze when Soaring Ibis appeared in the sky. Human soldiers and Dragonblooded monks alike halted their advance on the captured denizens of Three Oaks, staring up at the Solar with expressions ranging from indifference to loathing to horror. It was not the hesitation of the terrified, so much as a collective gathering of their fortitude for the task ahead. That much was especially obvious on the faces of the five leaders, who studied Ibis and the other newcomers like cats preparing to pounce.

But one of the soldiers, a lithe man built like a raptor, dashed back into motion a moment later, running at the villagers and aiming a wicked-looking spear at one of the taller men. A heartbeat before his attack would have struck home, though, the spear slammed into the ground, and Cerulean Wake stood in between the soldier and his target, his fist still moving downward from where it had deflected the weapon. The soldier looked a bit shocked, but quickly moved to lift his spear and strike at Wake instead. He was far too slow.

“Vortex Blow!” Slamming both fists forward into the soldier’s chest, Wake launched him with enough force to leave a minor shockwave behind. He went flying toward the group of his fellows who held Ichigoya pinned, and at the same time that he connected with another soldier, the old one-eyed man burst from the mancatcher he was held underneath, drew a pair of long staves from thin air, and struck about him in a whirlwind, knocking four soldiers off of their feet at once. Ichigoya’s rumpled clothing was suddenly a dark fighting suit, and the craggy cliffside of his face became something more like well-aged timber, the ancient visage of one Seven Vaulting Staves.

“I figured you were here somewhere,” Wake called out to his sifu as the invaders swarmed around them. “And you owe me a drink.”

“If we survive this day,” Staves replied as he spun into motion. “I’ll buy you Kagari’s entire stock.”

Cinder flash-stepped to cover Wake’s back as a fusillade of thorns came flying at him, deflecting the projectiles with her blade, and crouched low as Lilac’s vine whip swept over both of their heads, stopping the advance of the Air and Wood Aspect soldiers who had been pressuring them. Her crouch quickly became a dash as she left that group in Wake’s hands to rescue a knot of villagers being threatened by a squad of regular soldiers, and as she went she noticed Lilac’s whip taking out aggressors to either side of her, leaving her a clear path. Once she reached them, she leaped into the air and spun, sending out heat from her weapon that scalded six of the soldiers as she landed in the midst of them, and then proceeded to fiercely lay into them, punishing any that ignored her in favor of the townsfolk with the edge of her blade.

As she fought, a hulking Wood Aspect with a giant bow started peppering her location with arrows, nearly catching her legs a few times but otherwise unsuccessful in his attacks, and a few moments later she turned just in time to see a sphere of ice the size of a pumpkin heading straight for her ribcage. Performing a quick vertical slice, she followed up with Embers on the Summer Breeze, dicing it to shreds in an instant and scattering the icy shards in a starburst around her, taking down four nearby soldiers with the maneuver.

The two Terrestrials looked livid, and moved to charge her, but a vine wall erupted from the ground in an arc a few paces away, blocking their advance and heralding Lilac’s appearance next to her. “I brought some Fire with me,” the man said with a slight nod over his own shoulder. “Mind taking it off of my hands?”

“My pleasure,” Cinder responded as she pivoted to meet a jet of flame that surged from behind them, spinning Ivory Blaze Dancer in front of her to dissipate the fires before they could touch either her or Lilac. She then carved the ground before her up in three Earth Razors, exploding it towards the duo of Fire Aspects that had launched the flames. They managed to evade the rocks, but the burst generated plenty enough dust and cover for another large group of villagers to escape.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see a flurry of motion up where Ibis stood in the air, as the two demons at her flanks went on the attack, and a familiar essence pattern grew in her mind….

As the battle below resumed, Ibis stood with her bow at the ready, watching the five shikari intently. The aloof man with blue eyes moved first, flying down and away from them all quickly towards the melee, and was followed a moment later by the sneering woman with red hair. Ibis’s eyes flickered in their direction, and she spoke over her shoulder quietly.

“Florivet, please help the others, and look after the villagers.”

“For you, darlin’, anything.” With a wink, the wolf-muzzled man darted after the two Terrestrials, spinning as he dove and tucking his wings in for added speed.

“Matsuri-Ono, at your discretion.”

“Well then, I am off!” The little valley god let out a high-pitched whistle from the ears of his helmet, leaped off of Ibis’s shoulders, and dropped like a stone. Once he had descended some distance, though, he clicked three times, and then grew rapidly, standing as tall as two warstriders when he slammed into the ground, his eyes shining with a piercing light. “GOOD MORNING, Realm lapdogs!” He brought his fist down in a wide arc a second later, sending a handful of soldiers flying with a powerful sweep.

Still, the three remaining leaders stood in place, only watching Ibis. “Aren’t you going to join the battle?” spoke the blue-haired woman who stood at the leader’s right side. “Your friends are far outnumbered, and our monks are more than trained to deal with unruly local gods.”

“I don’t need to join the battle to aid them.” Drawing in a deep breath, Ibis glanced very briefly over to the dark-skinned demon who remained at her side. “Zsofika, I’ll need you with me for now, but be ready to break off and assist the others.” The woman responded by striking the surface of her blade, the multitude of bells in her hair ringing once in unison. Ibis looked back to the three shikari, her heart and mind growing very still. “Just listen…I’ve a song that’s perfect for the occasion.”

Ibis’s Battle Theme – The Siren

As the Anathema woman called her last demon into action, Naratis readied herself. This Soaring Ibis seemed quite confident in her allies, and in herself, to face three of the Wyld Hunt with only a demon for support. Naratis had seen similar bravado before on other hunts; it seemed a common thread among most Anathema. Still, it was best not to underestimate her, even if she did look so young and innocent – just because Naratis’s team had sent every other Solar they had faced on to their next lives did not mean they could afford to get to complacent. Most Solars did not have such backup, these days; and from what she could see below of the Outcastes, they would not be easy for their forces to defeat.

Taking a moment to study the other woman, Naratis frowned deeply. She really was young, probably barely over twenty. Anathema aged even more slowly than Exalted, from what the records claimed, but the signs of natural youth were still there. What had her life been like before? She was clearly a miko of high standing, and there was a depth of intelligence in her eyes that quite surprised Naratis. In a perfect world, such a girl would have lived a full, complete life, perhaps even Exalting herself, and dying at a ripe old age surrounded by friends and family. Instead, she would just be another blighted bulb clipped long before its time. The thought gave Naratis no pleasure; it never did.

Finally, rather than come at them or loose an arrow, the Anathema crooned a low note that began to waft and lilt through the air, turning into a haunting melody. It was soft, yet it cut through the noise of the battle like a blade, and as soon as it started, Commander Asalis hissed through his teeth. “Do not listen to the witch’s song!”

Sure enough, Naratis could immediately feel a presence trying to push against the wards on her mind. It was not strong enough to threaten them, so she just let it break itself on her mental defenses, but the battle below was a different story. Within moments, she could see the humans who made up the lion’s share of their forces starting to slow their attack, turning from the Outcastes to gaze up at the sky vapidly. Not all of them seemed affected completely, as some still battled on, but then Naratis noticed a second melody, somehow hidden in the first, that suddenly came to life and began harmonizing with the first. Any soldier struck by the second dropped his or her weapon, and either cowered or fled. Anathema tricks…we can’t have that.

Sliding her claws onto her knuckles, Naratis leaped toward the Solar, using a blast of water to propel herself across the intervening air. “That’s enough of that!” Soaring Ibis launched a volley of arrows at her, but she swerved and careened around them, until her claws slammed into the moon-shaped blade of the demon who had moved in front of her Solar opponent. “Zsofika the Kite Flute…it’s been a while.”

The dark-skinned woman blinked, and tilted her head slightly, before recognition dawned in her eyes. “Ah, the scion of Iselsi. Does this make three times we’ve fought? Or four?”

“I’d prefer it be the last.” Congealing tiny, spongy clouds beneath her feet to support her in the air, Naratis knocked Zsofika’s blade aside and began her Six Strikes of Daana’d combat form. Soaring Ibis’s spirit bow began glowing with a bright white light as she prepped some attack, but Naratis performed a high-arcing leap before she could loose it, one that carried her back and over a vine-wrapped arrow the size of a spear that launched from Asalis straight at the Anathema.

Zsofika bobbed out of the way, and Soaring Ibis wove her glowing light platform to the side in time, but before she had even completed the motion, Ryotheras appeared at her flank, one fist pulled back. “Crushing Meteor Strike!” She blocked the punch he threw with a serpentine motion that deflected the brunt of its force, but a split-second later his fist sprouted a small boulder, attached it to Ibis’s arm, and sent both her and it hurtling down towards the ground with a concussive force that battered Naratis like a tornado. Immediately after, Asalis launched another arrow, and this one turned into a long, wide wooden tendril with a pointed tip that snaked away from him as it grew and sped towards Ibis’s falling form. Naratis took the opportunity to disengage from Zsofika, landed on the tendril, and ran along it towards the ground, using another jet of water to catch up to the point.

Just as the razor-sharp tendril would have slammed into her and pinned her to the ground, if not impaled her, Soaring Ibis vanished from underneath the boulder in a flash of light, reappearing on the grass several paces away and beginning another song. Naratis leaped off and struck with her claws, preventing her from reforming her spirit bow, and managed to keep her occupied long enough for Ryotheras to come slamming into the ground at her back. Between the two of them, they managed to interrupt her singing several more times, and rather than try and pincer her between them, they used her mobility against her by hedging her out and keeping her exposed for the occasional arrow or spear from Asalis, who otherwise kept Zsofika busy and unable to come to the Solar’s aid.

As it became apparent that they weren’t going to give her the room to effectively wield her bow, Soaring Ibis let it fade to a blue glow in her right hand, stepped back into a low battle stance, and darted her hand out in a motion mimicking a viper’s strike towards Ryotheras, who was charging her from a short distance off. An invisible force struck the burly Earth Exalt square in the chest, but he pushed through it, deflecting two more as he closed the distance and then slamming both fists down into the earth, tearing up a violent trail of rock debris towards the Anathema. She halted for a second to regain her footing, then twirled gracefully a few paces back as a barrage of air pellets riddled the ground where she had previously stood. Nehor was responsible for those, flying in from the bigger battle, and he kept at it, driving Soaring Ibis further and further away from her allies with successive volleys until a bundle of vines covered in thorns erupted from the soil under him, two bright blue maws on their tips snapping up at his legs. He ceased his rapid-fire shots and banked away to avoid them, but sent an arc of lightning at Soaring Ibis as he turned, catching her very momentarily off of her guard and throwing her back a dozen paces. She recovered before she hit the ground, flipping backwards and skidding to a halt on her feet, but Naratis was there in her face before she could catch a breath, her claws now lengthened with several inches of ice, as Karanya dropped in across from her and began a lethal dance with her burning blades.

As she fought with the Solar, Naratis had to admit that her martial arts skills were extraordinary. With attacks coming in from all sides, the other woman did not have much opening to go on the offensive, but the weaving, sinuous form of her Snake Style meant that she didn’t need to: any dodge could just as easily turn into a strike from an odd, unexpected angle in riposte. Naratis had taken two of those deceptive attacks thus far, and was grudgingly impressed by the ferocity behind them. But despite that, she had seen one or two slight weaknesses in the Solar’s defenses, and all she needed was one good shot.

Suddenly, Soaring Ibis over-committed on one of her counter-attacks and missed, and Naratis lunged in for a mortal strike. However, as soon as she had shifted her weight, she saw a flicker of motion, and the sword-wielding Fire Aspect called Smoldering Cinder appeared in the air between them, her red jade daiklave already on the downswing and glowing with heat. Naratis coated her claws in an extra layer of ice, and shifted her step into a strong defense, locking her claws against that blade as it came down and extending a globe of water around herself to protect against the scalding heat that radiated from the new combatant. She could see Lilac at Dusk arrive to halt Ryotheras and Karanya’s advance on the other side – finding that one defending a Solar had been a big shock – and that was more than enough respite for Soaring Ibis to begin another song, the pressure against Naratis’s mental wards surging again. She gritted her teeth, and began a furious exchange of blows with Smoldering Cinder. Naratis had to get past her, and quickly – there was no telling how much longer the army could hold under the Anathema’s music.

Though some of them had attacked the populace outright, the tactics of the invading army were obvious enough to Lilac at Dusk. After all, the moment Cerulean Wake had leaped into the fray, nearly all of them had diverted their attention to him, Seven Vaulting Staves, Cinder, and Lilac. The play was simple: keep the Guardians away from Soaring Ibis until they could assassinate her. A textbook maneuver for the Wyld Hunt if ever there were one; Lilac was quite familiar with those tactics. With more than two hundred regular soldiers and monks at their disposal, plus nearly two dozen Dragon-blooded, it had certainly been one of the best moves they could make. Luckily, Ibis had brought along a little extra help; trained to fight against gods or not, they were having a lot of trouble facing down the wrath of a full-size Matsuri-Ono, devoting most of their Terrestrials to trying to subdue him, and that meant that Florivet was easily able to disrupt their attempts to pin Lilac and the others down by dropping in and laying about with fists, teeth, and claws against teams of soldiers at once. Cerulean Wake and Seven Vaulting Staves were too constantly busy to break away, but after a short while Lilac found himself fighting back-to-back with Cinder.

Karanya of House Sesus faced off with Cinder, those twin blades of hers leaving a constant swirl of red light in the air as they moved, and Lilac found himself primarily occupied with fending off the Air Aspect, a dispassionate young man he did not recognize. Air pulses and shockwaves rained down on Lilac, less intended to injure or kill and more for pure suppression, and he struck back with his vine whip, cracking it to launch thorns at his opponent whenever he hung back and sweeping it in wide arcs whenever he drew in close for too long. Every time he could spare a moment’s breath, he casually flicked a seed pod into the ground, doing his best to hide the motion and quickly return to his defense. Whether the other man noticed was not apparent, so Lilac kept it up until he had scattered enough seeds to begin his counter-attack.

Finally, with a quick surge of Essence, Lilac pressed his free hand to the earth, and concentrated. The seed pods sprouted in unison all around the area, immediately growing into towering, carnivorous vines as tall as six or seven men, snapping and biting at the Air Aspect. He reacted quickly, darting between them and only narrowly avoiding losing an arm once or twice, and when it became apparent that he wouldn’t be able to continue harrying Lilac easily, he withdrew to a safe distance and skirted the area entirely. Lilac knew where he was headed next, so he directed his vines to attack Karanya, who was already being pressured by Cinder. The enemy Fire Aspect followed her comrade’s lead shortly after, and with a quick nod at Cinder, the two of them gave chase.

Lilac and Cinder crisscrossed each others’ paths as they reached Ibis’s fight, dodging a hail of thick spears made of bark that rained down on them from Commander Asalis’s distant position. Cinder flashed into the air over Ibis and came down hard on Vice Commander Naratis, though the powerful Impenetrable Water Shell she called up protected her from Cinder’s fury. Lilac activated more seed pods as he went along – these had been planted weeks, if not months, in advance, in the event of just such a grand-scale invasion – and kept up the pressure on the Air Aspect, nearly catching him once more just as he drew within optimum striking distance of Ibis. It wasn’t enough to prevent him throwing lightning at her, but an attack of that power wouldn’t even scratch the High Songstress, so Lilac let him weave out of range again and moved to confront the other two shikari. Casting his whip out again, he summoned up a carpet of vines that caught Ryotheras and Karanya’s feet, slowing them to a halt before they could get too close to Ibis, and stepped to cover her back, directly opposite where Cinder now battled Naratis.

As soon as he arrived, Lilac heard Ibis’s voice begin another song, and reinforced his binding vines with extra essence, buying them some time to catch a breath while Ibis’s music went to work on the army once more. Sure enough, wails of despair began rising from the humans as the melody assaulted their minds, and several small knots of them broke rank and started to flee. Karanya unleashed an arc of fire that burned away the vines holding her and Ryotheras down, and then loosed another that cracked like a flaming whip at Lilac’s head, while her Earth Aspect ally barreled forward. Cerulean Wake intercepted them both, shooting up from the ground on a column of water that broke the flame whip and blocked Ryotheras’s charge, and landing at Lilac’s side a moment later. Ibis’s song intensified, and Lilac gathered his vine whip, taking a ready stance and bracing for another round of assault. If they could just hold on a little longer.

Naratis had heard of this woman Smoldering Cinder before, from some of her informants. An Outcaste Fire Aspect, she had appeared on the eastern edge of the Threshold in the company of Lilac at Dusk, hailing from some unknown flyspeck in the Far East. She had not been involved in any trouble beyond putting a few arrogant noble Exalted in their places – some of the Houses felt more entitled than others, and took rather disrespectful tacks when dealing with Outcastes not of the Realm or its holdings – but the fact that she was associated with Lilac had been reason enough to keep an eye on her. Naratis was thankful for that bit of foresight on her own part; otherwise, she might have underestimated the woman, which given her current situation, might very well have been deadly.

Flowing through her combat forms, Naratis went from Water Serpent’s Tail to Scattering Morning’s Dew to Eight Diving Kingfishers, and barely seemed to make any progress at all. Cinder’s blade was everywhere, meeting her blow-for-blow, moving like a weapon half its size. She didn’t fight with any of the styles Naratis knew or was familiar with, and it was simultaneously infuriating and invigorating to face an opponent of her level. In nearly any other situation, Naratis would have been glad for the fight to drag on for minutes, or even hours, just for the sheer joy of battling such a worthy adversary. As it was, with the Anathema’s music growing stronger, she was feeling more frustration than anything, considering that with even just three or four paces she could have been close enough to silence that Solar. But Cinder gave no ground, and so she fought on.

A few moments later, five sharpened logs came hurtling from the sky and slammed into the earth around the ground that Soaring Ibis and her fellows currently held. Immediately recognizing the formation they were in, Naratis quickly dashed back from Cinder during a dodge, putting some distance between them a split-second before the earth around them began to crack and heave. Ryotheras bellowed as he slammed both fists into the ground, intensifying the upheaval, and Karanya formed and released a quick stream of flame at their foes as wide as four men shoulder-to-shoulder. Cinder managed to keep her feet, brandished her daiklave and keeping the fire away from her comrades, but it was just the beginning of the attack. Naratis pressed her fists together, calling up a thick fog bank and lowering the surrounding temperature, and formed thousands of ice needles in that fog, just as the faint prickling sensation of static began to gather from up above. She released her Cloud of Frigid Death technique, riddling the entire area between the logs, and averted her eyes to avoid the blinding flash as a great lightning bolt struck at their center. It all took less than three seconds to trigger, but the tumult created vibrations in the air that very nearly pushed her back a few inches.

When she turned to look back, the logs had sprouted wooden spines all up and down their surfaces, that had grown towards the center faster than the eye could follow. It was not that much different in design than her Cloud of Frigid Death, but each spine was large enough to rip a fist-sized hole in a man’s torso, and they had all been aimed exclusively at the Anathema. But rather than a scattering of four corpses, the center of the field of devastation showed a dome of brown, ruined vines. The foliage crumbled a few seconds later, revealing a smaller dome of crackling flame, which slowly went out, and showed a still-smaller dome of opaque water that was not unlike her own Impenetrable Water Shell. When it collapsed, the three Outcastes stood unscathed in a protective triad around Soaring Ibis, who had stopped singing but was once again shining with the light of her spirit bow.

This is getting us nowhere. Asalis’s voice spoke quietly in Naratis’s mind, and a moment later he appeared next to her, his face set in a grim expression. The Outcaste scum are stronger than expected.

And if she starts singing again, the army’s likely to scatter. We need them to keep that valley god and those two demons off of our backs while we deal with the Solar. Naratis glanced at him quickly. Should we call out Raiton?

Asalis shook his head. No. I’d like to keep him up our sleeves, for now. We need to separate the Anathema from her protectors, and then eliminate them in concert. Though his thoughts were still focused on the matter at hand, Asalis’s eyes stared at Lilac at Dusk with an air of stern disapproval. We can’t afford to waste any more time.


The arrival of Wake and the others to Ibis’s side was well-timed. The shikari’s onslaught had become particularly intense, and she was by no means certain that she could have stopped that last concerted attack on her own. The barriers her allies formed gave her a few moments to catch her breath, and though it meant dropping the harmony of her Dirge of Certain Doom and Hymn of Inevitable Victory, she took the chance to rest. Wake in particular sent concern across their bond, but at her response he seemed convinced that she was alright. Taking a few long, deep breaths, she then hyperventilated for a few seconds to clear her lungs, and then breathed in deeply once more, expanding the Blue Ibis’s light from her palm into full bow form again and readying herself.

As the barriers came down one-by-one, she surveyed her foes warily. All five of the strongest shikari had reconvened around them, no doubt ready to strike at a moment’s notice. The remainder of the Terrestrials and humans still battled Seven Vaulting Staves, Matsuri-Ono, and Florivet, while Zsofika had gone to help, and some of the villagers with actual combat training had found the time to organize and join in. It was hard to accurately gauge their odds. Despite his advanced age, Seven Vaulting Staves was as good as fifty soldiers, and her two demon allies were even tougher. Still, the enemy Terrestrials were a problem, even for Matsuri-Ono; he could hold against them for a while, but not forever. If even one of the shikari fighting Ibis and her team returned to that battle, it would swing in their favor, but they wouldn’t leave so long as she sang. So it was back to her songs again. This time, she led off by focusing her voice on the Blue Ibis, piggybacking off of the channeled essence to amplify the range and effect.

Before she could get very far, though, the shikari struck. The blue-eyed man glowed with a fierce light, and then unleashed a howling tornado that ripped up the ground as it sped towards them. Wake leaped in the way, and seemed to halt the brunt of the force at first, but then the violent winds caught him and blasted him through the air away from them like a shot arrow. The Air Aspect followed after, seemingly opening himself to attack from below, and as Lilac moved to strike at him, the enemy Fire Aspect hurled a ball of flame that exploded into a burning geyser in their midst, separating him from Ibis and Cinder. At the same time, the Earth Aspect went hurtling at Cinder, connecting with her blade only but still driving her away a dozen paces, and rent the earth in a wide cone with his follow-up attack, giving her little choice but to retreat.

They’re going to separate us, Lilac thought towards Ibis suddenly. He was not usually one to link mentally with her, and it came as a bit of a shock. Your songs are devastating to their forces, and their commanders don’t think they can reach you in time to stop it so long as we’re using team tactics.

Yes, but I’m not convinced we can handle all five of them at once. They’re too good at creating openings; while I’m singing, you’re all having to protect me, instead of going on the offensive.

Lilac managed to avoid getting sliced up by a brutal combination from the Fire Aspect’s twin daiklaves, and thought back at her once more. Then I say we play along. We’ll take these three, you handle their leaders.

Wake and Cinder immediately sent agreement at that plan, and as Ibis glanced over at the Water and Wood Aspect shikari, they did seem to be preparing to attack her. I think that’s the best course of action. Be careful, all of you. Wake felt embarrassed and chastened all at once, and she smiled in spite of herself – that hadn’t been meant pointedly at him, but if he chose to take it that way, at least it meant he’d listened to her.

That goes for you as well, Ibis. Cinder’s thoughts chimed in suddenly. Despite the fact that the giant Earth Aspect was still bearing down on her, her mind was as still as a candle. We’ll meet up once we’re finished.

A barrage of wooden javelins came flying at Ibis a moment later, and she fell back while dodging them, allowing herself to be herded off away from the others. I mean it… she thought, only to herself this time, but still very much in regards to them. Be careful, and come back safe.

Nehor’s Theme – Winds of Madness

It took a while for Cerulean Wake to disengage himself from that whirlwind, and when he finally did, he found that Air Aspect waiting for him. The nature of his link with Ibis and Cinder meant that it didn’t take any focus for him to communicate, and so he had been able to keep a close eye on his enemy’s location and movements. Which meant that he was easily able to avoid the lightning bolt that lanced at him when he emerged from the vortex. Ibis and the others were no longer in easy visual range, but apparently the fellow wasn’t satisfied with that, and hurled a flurry of air pulses at Wake, pushing him farther and farther away and following. After the first, Wake formed a quick Cushioning Water Bubble around himself, and was thus able to weather the continuous attacks with only a slightly uncomfortable pressure.

When they finally stopped, he and his opponent stood in a large clearing some distance from South Oak. The man seemed finished with his barrage, standing there across the clearing with his arms tucked into his cloak, and so Wake let his Bubble dissipate, and studied him. They were probably the same age, or only a decade or two apart, but there was something…brittle and vacant…to the look in his eyes. Wake had seen such a look before, on an unhinged man named Iba. That man’s life had not ended well. “So, what’s your name?”

“Excuse me?” The Air Aspect looked to have been daydreaming, but Wake’s voice brought him back to the moment.

“A name. Do you have one?”

“Of course I have a name.”

“Well, what is it?”

“None of your concern.”

Wake furrowed his brow. “Hey, come on. Just because we’re here to fight doesn’t mean we can’t be poli-WHOA!” A whoosh of air blew by Wake’s head suddenly, barely giving him any time to dodge, and blew a tree as wide as his body in half behind him. Before he could fully recover, the guy was in his face, and chopped at his neck with an air blade wreathing his forearm. Wake flipped backward to avoid it, continuing on through several handsprings as his enemy kept advancing, then launched himself off to one side, towards a small stand of trees. His feet hit the trunk soundly, and then he rocketed off, twisting into a rapidly-spinning kick. “South Oak Monsoon!”

Rather than meet his kick, the other Terrestrial picked up on Wake’s momentum, wove around the attack to gather the surrounding air, and then shot Wake off in a different direction tumbling head-over-heels instead of flying gracefully. He followed it up with three wind shockwaves, one of which caught Wake off-guard, and then blasted through the air towards him, both fists out. The attack connected with Wake’s ribcage, and then continued on to smash him through three trees; he went rolling across the ground like a cabbage down a hill, splinters flying everywhere, and finally came to a stop several dozen paces away.

Brushing himself off and shaking his head to clear the momentary daze, Wake looked over towards his enemy and steadily got to his feet. The man had just stopped at the last tree, and stood in the same pose as before, arms tucked underneath his cloak and seeming to stare off into space. “You’re an odd one, aren’t you?” Wake said. “All I did was ask for your name.”

“What difference does it make?” Even the man’s voice was distant, disconnected, as if he were only partly present in reality. “It’s just a name.”

“It makes a big difference! You should never duel without introducing yourself to your opponent.” Wake shook his head, flabbergasted at having to explain such a simple concept. “What if one of us kills the other? How could we properly honor the other in death?”

“Ah. I see. So it’s the killing that you’re hung up on.” Throwing aside his cloak, the Air Aspect drew a weapon of blue jade nearly as tall as he was, that then expanded into a cross-shaped blade with a hole in the center for him to grasp. “Now you’ve got my attention, Outcaste.” He came at Wake in a headlong rush, and began laying about with that blade, slicing and spinning in continuous, unbroken motions that were deceptively hard to dodge. “There’s no doubt that this will end with death. First yours, and then the Anathema’s!”

As the series became fiercer and quicker, Wake knew that he had to put some space between them or else very seriously risk losing his head. So in one of the heartbeats where his opponent was completing a guarded spin, he dashed off to one side and swung out wide.

Apparently, the man had been waiting for just such a move. As his spin finished, rather than leap back to close again, he simply hurled that blade through the air, sending it whirling like a giant chakram. “Sonic Shuriken Rush!” The blade seemed to consume the air around it as it flew, and increased its speed tremendously in the split-second after its release.

Wake dodged it by a hair’s breadth, but the air around it managed to bite into his side like a knife blade. On top of that, his enemy actually sped around and caught the thing just a few paces past Wake, and then quickly moved to hurl it again. Unsure he could evade another straight throw at that range, Wake leaped up towards the nearest tree branches, and careened off of one at an angle, in the hopes of putting debris in the way. It was enough to throw the shuriken just the tiniest bit off-course, and as he landed some ways away in the clearing, he saw the Air Aspect gesture with a finger, followed by the daiklave springing into the air of its own volition and returning to its wielder. “Handy trick you have there.”

“You haven’t seen the half of it. Sonic Shuriken Rush!” This time, Wake paid closer attention to the man’s movements. He was fast, one of the fastest fighters Wake had ever witnessed, but there was something there that could be exploited. Every move was deliberate, efficient…and predictable. By the way he braced himself, and the direction the tip of his foot faced, judging the path that the shuriken would take was simple. Even the fastest attack lost some efficacy if you knew exactly where it would hit. Sure enough, as the daiklave came cutting through the air, arcing first high then dropping low to take out Wake’s shins, he was able to leap over it with little difficulty, tucking and rolling once and then coming up immediately in a run. When he did, though, his opponent had his hands pressed together, and looked not in the least worried.

“Shadow Shuriken Summoning: Kamaitachi!” In the blink of an eye, the entire path through the air that the daiklave had followed was suddenly filled with hundreds of smaller shuriken, copies of the main one but looking no less sharp.

Rolling to the side and disengaging from his charge, Wake still found himself beset by the whirling blades, as they began to home in on him like a swarm of bees. He immediately dismissed the thought of attempting to block them; every cluster that struck the earth drove several inches in, and even the ones that missed by nearly a handspan left welts along his limbs. Leaping and rolling, weaving and ducking, Wake nonetheless soon found himself surrounded by a cloud of whirling blades, glancing around for any hint of an opening.

“Let’s see how good that bubble of yours is.” The Air Aspect dropped into view again some distance away, his form obscured by his weapons. “I don’t expect we’ll be speaking again. Goodbye.”

Jeresh Tirva Nehor was thoroughly uninterested in this fight. Hunting Anathema was one thing – he was a Shikari-Amercer, after all, a survivor of prior Wyld Hunts, and had personally dealt the mortal strike on a Solar barely a year prior. That was the real goal, but he had even been satisfied picking off the minions and other hangers-on of previous Solars. Any death at all would do, and there was something especially satisfying about killing deluded fools and Sol Invictus cultists; the last bunch had given off a pleasant sizzle after being cooked with his lightning that he could still remember vividly. But this Water Aspect was just annoying. He wanted to talk and banter, he fancied himself a guardian of some sort, and he just didn’t seem to know how to die properly.

Nehor absolutely despised one-on-one fights. The Wyld Hunt was not the place for duels: it was all about bum-rushing a foe four- or five-to-one until they were assassinated, and then unloading the full fury of your forces on whatever fools continued to oppose you. It was about creating chaos in your enemies, about scattering and eliminating them, about delicious, exquisite carnage. There was no room for silly notions of personal honor, or about idiotic notions of a test of equals. And thus, so far as he was concerned, this Outcaste was pretty much the worst kind of person in the world.

But Kamaitachi was about to put an end to that. Nehor was quite certain that the protective bubble the Water Aspect had used was the same technique as Venerer Naratis’s Impenetrable Water Shell. Which meant that while it was good against single strikes, or even broad-based area attacks, it couldn’t reliably defend against successive, repeated pinpoint incursions spread about its surface. The Outcaste would throw it up, and a moment later, he would get torn to ribbons by the wave of Shadow Shuriken. When he braced for the impact after being surrounded, Nehor almost grinned. The mention of killing earlier had slightly lifted his mood; the anticipation of it had him salivating.

The whirlwind of shuriken converged on the Outcaste’s location, and he still did not throw up his Shell. But a second after the cloud closed around him, there was a bright flash of light, and shuriken began flying away as if repelled by something. More and more went soaring off, until Nehor could see the form of the Outcaste, moving in a rapid flurry. And something else was in there, too: the man was now holding a staff slightly taller than he, spinning it quickly and skillfully and knocking shuriken away by the dozens, not even letting a single one past his guard. Nehor passively let the rest of the cloud continue as long as his charm held, and when it didn’t contain enough shuriken to sustain itself, it collapsed, revealing the Outcaste again.

Wake’s Battle Theme

The weapon he held was a long staff constructed of black jade, with small red bands set into the metal close to either end. And he had the nerve to look excited. “That was pretty good,” he called out across the distance. “I can see this isn’t going to be easy for me.” Spinning the staff over his head with both hands, he spoke in a loud voice that boomed surprisingly for someone so young. “Listen and listen closely, Wyld Hunt. I am Cerulean Wake, and this is my Ironclad Seven!” As he spoke the last words, he slammed the staff vertically into the ground, and released his grip, leaping into the air. The impact sent vibrations echoing through the earth that Nehor could feel, and he called up a small whirlwind to lift him off of the ground in preparation. But the Outcaste wasn’t attacking yet; instead, he just landed with a single foot perched on the top of the staff, and as it grew to lift him more than four men high in the air, he struck a fighting pose, as waves crashed and roared in his anima banner. “Prepare yourself! Now you face the technique of the staff master, Seven Vaulting Staves!”

Nehor sneered. “Really, a mortal’s martial arts style? Why in the world would I fear-!” Before Nehor could finish speaking, the Outcaste rolled forward down the top of the staff, grabbing it as he did so. The weapon rolled through the air with him, and grew another three or four paces, enough so that when he brought it down with his momentum, the end now easily reached Nehor’s location. Sweeping backward on his small whirlwind, Nehor managed to avoid having his head cracked open by it, and immediately took to the air again, trying to stay out of range. Dodging that whirling monolith of a weapon proved easy enough, but just as he was about to launch a counter-attack, it and its wielder vanished, as surely as if they had never been there. Blinking, Nehor looked around quickly, and turned to see four arcs of water flying up at him from a different direction. He weathered each by shifting the air pressure around his body, and then suddenly the Outcaste leaped at him from yet another angle, his staff gone and replaced by a pair of black jade tonfas with the same red bands at the ends. Nehor drew his Sonic Shuriken, formed a Shadow Shuriken copy in his other hand, and used them to parry the incoming attacks, but found it far more difficult than it should have been – was the man now faster, as well?

“Now, let’s see how you like to be sent flying!” The Outcaste went into a series of spinning attacks, and then brought his tonfas together on his final revolution. They merged, becoming the bo staff he had been wielding earlier, and before Nehor could react, the tip slammed into his chest, against his thin blue jade shirt, and extended like a bolt, carrying him off in shock and aggravation. He recovered his senses quickly, halting his backwards motion and jetting towards the ground, and when he got there he was met again by the Outcaste, whose weapon had now become a three-section staff. The two battled furiously for a short while, with Nehor straining for just the extra little opening he would need to take out a vital blood vessel, and again he was sent reeling, turning it into a tactical retreat and searching for a more wide-open space.

Rounding a corner to put some trees between himself and his enemy, Nehor flew for a moment, then found the Water Aspect right in front of him again. The strike of the man’s three-section staff nearly took Nehor in the stomach, but he managed an arching vault at the last moment, throwing a high-pressure shockwave straight down beneath him at the Outcaste. They both shunted position at around the same moment, and Nehor went at him again, leading with half of his Sonic Shuriken in his left hand. The Outcaste whirled his sansetsukon and tried to parry, but Nehor was too quick; his Sonic Shuriken sliced through the man’s shoulder, and he followed up with a ball of lightning he had concealed in his right palm, punching it right into the other fighter’s stomach and driving it home.

However, rather than blood, water came pouring from the man’s wounds, and a second later his entire form collapsed into a puddle on the grass, leaving Nehor standing there surveying the area. A clone? Clever. Keeping very still, Nehor cleared his mind and listened for any indication of his enemy’s approach. The only sound that met his ears at first was the slight rustling of the leaves in the nearby trees, but then, he noticed it. There! Off to one side, behind a large tree, someone lay in wait to attack him. The motion had been brief, not much longer than a heartbeat, but Nehor had seen the end of a staff, and that bright blue hair that made the Outcaste stand out. Cautiously walking in that direction, Nehor feigned ignorance, drawing just close enough to the tree to seem to leave his back exposed.

When the attack came, he ducked under the high strike of the staff, aimed at the base of his skull, and spun away, hurling one half of his Sonic Shuriken in that direction. His aim was spot-on, but the weapon hit the trunk of the tree at neck height, passing right through the Outcaste’s form, which suddenly shimmered like a mirage. Nehor used the other half of his short daiklave to stop the attack that came a split-second later at his lower back, and turned to face the real Outcaste, who now held a black jade jo, the red-striped end stopped only a few inches away from connecting.

“Nice reflexes,” the man commented, sounding impressed.

“You’re just that transparent.”

The Outcaste blinked. “Was that a joke?

Grinning toothily, Nehor chopped at the other man’s throat with his bare hand, and leaped to kick with both feet at his sternum. His enemy blocked it with his jo, but Nehor used the moment to slide backward, and called the other half of his daiklave into his free hand. The Outcaste shifted his weapon yet again, splitting it into two black short sticks, and Nehor rushed him once more, carving a razor-sharp swath through the air as he attacked with both blades simultaneously. It turned into an extended melee, with the two driving each other back-and-forth several times, until Nehor managed to knock one of those sticks sailing through the air. He followed by swiping at the Outcaste’s midsection, and caught him along the side, but not enough for more than a flesh wound, as he quickly rolled away and went after his other weapon. As he caught it, the man dashed a short distance away, carrying them out of the clearing where they currently battled, and Nehor helped him along, sending out blasts of wind from between his hands every so often to harry his opponent into making a careless mistake.

He caught up with the Water Aspect a few moments later, and resumed his assault, striking high and low at irregular intervals with both halves of his Sonic Shuriken. The escrima sticks his foe wielded were good for keeping up, but not at pushing an advantage, so he was able to build a good momentum; forcing the other man’s defending sticks aside, he quickly reformed his full daiklave and took a close-in slash intended to rip the Outcaste open from the waist up. But before he could connect, the man seamlessly changed those short sticks into a single stick barely longer than his palm was wide, and jabbed it into Nehor’s ribcage. His armor stopped most of it again, but the quickness of the strike stunned him slightly, and it was followed by six more all along his midsection. The last actually sent a hairline fracture through the thin blue jade, but Nehor pressed the attack, splitting his shuriken again and trying to catch one of the Outcaste’s arms, now that he had had to step in closer with that small weapon. They were both stopped, but not by the man himself; two more translucent clones flowed up from the ground, their ephemeral weapons absorbing the force of his attack, as the Outcaste dashed backward and out of melee reach.

Nehor gritted his teeth as he forced his weapons forward, cutting through the two clones and returning them into harmless water, and then he too disengaged, floating backward a few paces and catching his breath. Looking over at the Outcaste again, who stood with short sticks in hand, he studied him for a brief moment, then finally spoke up. “So your name is Cerulean Wake?”

“It is.”

“Well, congratulations, Cerulean Wake. You just became a worthy kill.”

Wake had wanted to advance after that last successful series, but he was also glad for the momentary break. His stance relaxed some as the Air Aspect hung back, but he still kept himself at the ready, shifting Ironclad Seven back into sansetsukon form and gripping the two outer sections of the tripartite weapon firmly. At first, he couldn’t tell what the other warrior was up to, but then his magatama started to grow warm and emit a faint glow. So he’s communing with the local spirits? To what end? A second or two later, even Ironclad Seven’s surface warmed just a tiny bit. That was a real surprise; though it was constructed of the same type of black jade as his necklace, the Ironclad had only the weakest connection to the spirit world. If it was responding to whatever the Air Aspect was doing, then it must have been something intense.

It came as a shock to him when the man suddenly snapped back to attention, and hurled another sizable whirlwind his way. Again, he wasn’t fast enough to dodge it, and wound up getting carried off, though he managed to orient and direct himself enough to avoid injury. The uproar carried him a short distance over some trees, and right into the vicinity of Lake Noamin. When it died down again shortly after, Wake was standing only a few paces from the shore. Glancing around, he saw the Air Aspect come flying in from the direction he had been, but for some reason the air around him looked…denser.

“You brought a Water Dragon-blood to a lake to fight?” Wake shook his head. “Where I’ll be the strongest?”

“Your strength is irrelevant, Cerulean Wake. I don’t depend on something as changeable as location – my power is always all around me.” That warped look in the air around the man only grew, and instead of that crooked grin he had given before, his face became intense and wild, his eyes suddenly flashing to life. As if on cue, not one, but four whirlwinds came winding over, and converged on him, like streams flowing into a river. Wake knew those were no simple wind tricks this time: they were elementals. As they came together, the combined windstorm grew into extensions of the Air Aspect’s arms and legs, with the bits that had been the tail ends of the funnels forming into four snakelike faces with white masks showing void-black eyes. And then there were suddenly more, phasing out of the surrounding air to meld into the Terrestrial’s mass, growing his limbs until he stood as tall as Matsuri-Ono in his largest form. The man laughed, a high, mocking sound, and the image of a howling vortex appeared in the air behind him. “You wanted to know my name earlier? I’ll tell you. I am Jeresh Tirva Nehor, Lord Sovereign of the Gales!”

Breathing in and out once, Wake took a wide stance, and whirled his sansetsukon around his body quickly, then froze it in place. The air pressure had changed noticeably; it felt as if the wind itself held killing intent, now. “Alright then, Wind-Rider. Let’s make this one to remember.”

Lilac let loose from the vine he was currently dangling on and dropped to the grass below, casting his eyes about himself warily. At first glance, one may have thought that Karanya had abandoned the fight, but he knew better. The plant spirits nearby gave away her every movement; Lilac could sense their trepidation at having someone so liberal with the use of fire in their midst. It was quite a marked departure from the presence of Cinder, gentle and controlled at all times. But even if the plants themselves had not been keeping close tabs on her, Lilac would still have known. There was a certain air about Karanya that was unmistakable for him, even after all of this time.

Darting from behind a hanging curtain of vines, a fiery trail bounded off of a high limb and rocketed straight at Lilac. The fire dissipated and revealed Karanya, both blades raised and ready to strike, a moment before she would have carved him into thirds, and Lilac grabbed another vine in reach and let it carry him back and up into another tree, launching a volley of thorns at her from his whip as he went. She knocked them out of the air with a quick whirl of her swords, and stopped on the ground below, looking up at him with patronizing amusement in her expression. “I see you’re still not fond of close-quarters combat, traitor.”

“Much has changed about me over the years, daughter of Sesus, but not that. I still play to my strengths.”

“So your ‘strengths’ now include running away? Pity. At least back then, you had something resembling a backbone.” Karanya slashed the air once with each of her red jade blades, and sent two crossing arcs of fire flying up at his position.

Lilac used his whip to swing to safety back on the grass some distance to the side, avoiding being caught in the flame as it consumed that tree limb – he had chosen one afflicted with a blight to help minimize the collateral damage – and turned to face her again. “You, on the other hand, seem to have grown rather careless and short-tempered, unable to read your opponent. I would have thought the Venerer would have instilled different values in his protege.”

Karanya smirked, and took a different combat stance, reversing her grip on one of her blades and holding it behind her back. “There’s that haughty tone I’m used to. I was beginning to think you’d grown addlepated living out in the ass-end of Nowhere for so long, as quiet as you were when we first showed up. Tell me, what is the fascinating tale behind a former Amercer winding up the personal pet of a Solar?”

“You would put it that way. ’Everyone’s either a master or slave,’ right? It’s still all about power, isn’t it?”

Karanya dashed at him, and as soon as she closed the distance, she began one of her cyclonic combat forms. “Of course it is, you fool. It’s always about power!” Her twin daiklaves carved through the air as quickly as if they were simple razors, sending out scalding blasts of heat that extended her reach far beyond the blades themselves. “When will you learn that?”

If Lilac tried to pull away from her now, she would cut him to pieces; Karanya had always been the best swordfighter in the cell, probably in the region, and she was very good at cutting down opponents who tried to flee. So he fought back carefully, making sure to stay just outside of her most lethal radius and striking back with his vine whip occasionally. Karanya didn’t wear armor – and against most, that would have given Lilac a sizable advantage – but she didn’t need to. Even when he did manage to lash her in the side with his whip, his thorns broke and melted from heat as soon as they embedded themselves into her flesh. The blunt impact was still just enough to throw her off every now and then, though, so he kept it up. He could still turn this situation to his advantage.

Karanya finally started to draw a little too close, and Lilac knew he had to break away. She came in high with one of her swords, and he quickly swept his whip up and under her attack, turning it into a vicious uppercut to her jaw. She bobbed back away just in time to avoid taking thorns to the chin, and brought her other blade up to parry the hail of thorns that the end of his whip shot towards her eyes. The force of it drove her back a few feet, and Lilac took the opportunity to back away a dozen or so paces.

Swiping her blade to the side to scatter the thorns, Karanya looked at him in disdain. “You haven’t improved as much as I would have hoped. What have you been doing with your time?”

“Traveling. Learning about the world. Doing things I never had time for before. Does it really surprise you that much?”

She shook her head in response. “The others had such high hopes for you, but somehow I always knew you’d just fizzle out. Your home, your life, and your duty apparently meant nothing to you. I suppose it’s good for you that you left Venerer Asalis’s team when you did. You lost the instinct you need for this life.”

“My ‘home’…you know better than that. And ‘duty’? You’re only in this for the status, Karanya. Getting to kill Anathema is only icing on the cake.”

Karanya smirked again, and shrugged. “Guilty as charged. Once I finish you here, I’ll go shiv that Anathema witch in the spine, and go on my merry way. I have no delusions about that, and neither does Venerer Asalis. In fact, I think it’s a testament to my ability, don’t you? That the devout Cynis Inora Asalis should still take me as his pupil, even knowing my true motivations?”

“Asalis and the Wyld Hunt need only tools. Nothing more.”

Her face returned to somewhat neutral, though there was a burn behind her eyes. “Now who’s the one talking power, Merari?”

Lilac closed his eyes for a moment. “That isn’t my name anymore. It’s Lilac at Dusk.”

“Oh yes, that’s right. Lilac.” Karanya brought both blades together, holding them side-by-side, and they began to glow. “A weak name for a weak fool. It suits you!” Thrusting them forward, Karanya shot a gout of flame from her daiklaves that spiraled through the air in a rapid flash towards him.

Leaping away to avoid it, Lilac noticed as it passed him that it wasn’t just a geyser of fire; the front was shaped like the mouth of a dragon, and within a second of missing him, it changed course and started homing in on him. He led it on a chase, hurling explosive seeds in its trail to disorient or slow it down when he could, and searched for a chance to attack Karanya directly. However, she steered her flame dragon deftly, herding Lilac away from any advantageous angle of attack and keeping him running.

Finally, he managed to lure the essence construct into flying past him again, and struck three times with his whip along the cooler parts away from the head. His whip still burned away in several spots, but the attack damaged the construct enough to dissipate it, and he turned to face towards Karanya again, only to find she was just a few steps away from him, both blades held low in another combat stance. The first two attacks came high, then one low, then a flurry all aiming for his arms and shoulders. He managed to knock the first couple askew with his whip, but her speed was increasing with every blow, and it was difficult to keep up. She dealt him a good cut along his left arm that sent searing pain and scalding heat throughout his entire body, and continued into a spin with both blades held out, flames sparking into life around her entire body and coruscating in waves in all directions. “Rondo of Blood and Torment!” Lilac managed to call up a wall of vines to absorb the worst of the heat, but it still blasted him as he drew away and stopped, forcing the pain in his arm into a small corner of his mind.

The flames receded from Karanya a moment later, and she smirked as she looked his way. “Your borrowed time is running low, Lilac. Have you anything to say?”

The pain from the cut tried to overtake Lilac’s senses – it had touched old scars, and opened an invisible wound. He got flashes of memory from days long past in that instant, of a smooth-featured but stern man casting him out of the way of an explosion a heartbeat before it would have torn him apart. Lilac – Merari, back then – walked away with only a burn on his arm, but his protector had not been so fortunate. He had never even learned the man’s name.

Then, in an instant, Lilac squashed that pain. The burn from Karanya’s flames was still there, but he refused to acknowledge it. “It’s funny that you should mention ‘borrowed time’, Karanya.” Standing back to his full height, Lilac turned fully towards her. “It’s true; my whole life has been on borrowed time, since the day I was a foolish boy who had to be saved by a Solar.”

Karanya looked surprised for a moment, but then shrugged flippantly. “It’s cute how you say such things as if they have any meaning to me at all. I don’t care if you had some sort of life-altering experience with a Solar, or if your favorite aunt turned out to be a Lunar. It’s a pathetic kind of interesting, yes, but it’s ultimately just wasting my time.”

Moving one hand in a broad arc in front of him, Lilac took a ready stance. “I see you have learned precious little in the time since we last met. So let me leave you with a lesson: you have always called me weak, but you have always equated gentleness with weakness. They are not the same, Karanya, and you will learn that today.”

The Fire Aspect smiled a slow, hateful smile. “Is that right?”

“Yes. Because today will be the last meeting between you and I. Rest assured of that.”

The Guardians of Three Oaks, part 7

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.

Karanya’s Theme – Furious Flame

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?”

Lilac’s Theme – Eternal Bloom

“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.

Ryotheras’s Theme – Crush and Scatter

“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’s Theme – Spirit and Blade

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.”

Naratis’s Theme – The Price of Duty

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.”

The Guardians of Three Oaks, part 5

Smoldering Cinder floated in a quiet void, sequestered from the world. She sat with her legs folded underneath her and her palms pressed together, in the middle of an empty space with only her faithful daiklave for company. The sheathed blade lay a foot or so in front of her, just inside the most acute range of her awareness, as she concentrated. At the edge of the void were five flames, each a different color; today her thoughts were centered on the green flame, the one which represented Makoto, the concept of honesty. It was a complex virtue in her philosophy: the lowest level, Li, involved being upfront with one’s words and actions; Yi sat at the middle level, and encompassed doing what was moral and equitable; and the highest level, Ren, espoused treating everyone, even your lessers and enemies, as you would wish your superiors to treat you.

Contemplating the nature of Makoto was always particularly interesting, but Cinder couldn’t help feeling a bit hypocritical doing so every now and again. After all, she was keeping a very big secret from everyone but her two fellow Guardians and Ibis. Honestly, at times she was concerned that she was violating Ren outright. What always convinced her to maintain her silence was the fact that her secret wouldn’t really change much – though it might draw unwanted attention to the valley were it to become common knowledge, the fact remained that Ibis herself was already plenty of reason for enemies to find their way to Three Oaks. Luckily, they didn’t see many visitors from more than a few miles away, and the people of the valley were quite happy to stay mum about their resident Solar when an outsider did show. So if she was actually mistaken in her interpretation of Ren, and would eventually incur an honor-debt for her actions, she would pay it gladly, if the dishonor meant keeping the valley even a little safer.

As her meditation came to an end, Cinder drew in one long breath, closed her eyes, and relaxed her entire body. The flames winked out silently, and the void faded, starting with her immediate surroundings and spreading out until she was once again part of the world. The roar of the falls under which she sat finally intruded on her ears, but she paid it just as little mind as the frigid water coursing down her body and soaking through her thick haori completely. That loose outer robe was the only clothing she wore, but it was still a burden – rather than actually shield her body at all, the extra weight from the material absorbing the water and clinging to her skin forced her to concentrate even more fully to maintain her calm. It was just one of many meditation techniques the mikos of Three Oaks had to practice; in fact, her true purpose for being at the falls today was training the next round of candidates. Three girls were with her this time, and as they had only recently begun the training, she had permitted them the luxury of practicing without their own haoris for the time being.

Finally opening her eyes, Cinder held her pose for the moment, but glanced around at her pupils, seated abreast to either side of her. Each of them hailed from one of the individual villages below the mountain they were on, and they all showed considerable promise. Lilica Brightmoon already knew the basic rituals forwards and backwards, and Iori Catstail, though the youngest at barely more than ten, could enter the dreamscape and speak with the local minor gods with the skill of a priestess twice her age. But the student who had shown the greatest progress was Temari Yula; seated immediately to Cinder’s left, the fair-haired teen managed a good imitation of a miko’s calm, the only chink in her appearance being the occasional shiver of her bare shoulders under the water’s constant assault. Beyond that, she was the image of patience and focus. The other two would make fine Watchers over the central great oaks of their respective villages, but Cinder was secretly expecting Temari to eventually become Soaring Ibis’s immediate subordinate. She wouldn’t be surprised if the girl gained an elemental Aspect of her own, given a few more years of training.

“Alright, my students,” Cinder finally spoke, reaching over to lift Ivory Blaze Dancer out of the water and getting to her feet. “I’m returning to the village for a bit. Continue the usual routine until I return.” The last bit wasn’t necessary; she knew these three would see to themselves just fine, and as she spoke, they nodded in unison, Iori sneezing quietly but maintaining her seated pose. With a nod, Cinder strode out of the pool, and headed for the bank to fetch her clothes.

A few minutes later found Cinder walking through the streets of South Oak, her hands tucked into her sleeves as she went. The sky was a bit overcast today, but it was still a pleasant day, and many villagers were out enjoying the weather. They greeted her with respectful nods and warm smiles as they passed, but otherwise left her to her own devices, and she theirs. She had grown up over in West Oak, but any child of one village was treated as a child of all three, and so she felt equally at home wherever she went. It was a good feeling, that; not the sort of thing she had experienced while wandering Creation.

Turning her view southward, her gaze fell on the towering boughs of Great South, the village’s giant central oak. It was enormous, even compared to the grand trees of the surrounding forests, easily catching the eye from almost three miles distant. Matsuri-Ono told the people that, before he had regained his physical form, those central oaks had been his symbols in the world, his protective instincts made manifest. While in the presence of one, it was hard to believe otherwise – they each were shrines of no small regard, and though they couldn’t compare to the powers of the Wyld Barrier, they still radiated an aura of calm and serenity that Cinder found bordered on the intoxicating. She normally would have gone to spend some time in reflection underneath Great South’s limbs, but she instead kept on her course traveling through the village proper. Meditation had taken up the better part of her day so far; she could do some more walking.

As she made her way through the busier parts of South Oak, she ran into Cerulean Wake. That wasn’t unusual; this time of day, if he wasn’t training on Lake Noamin or atop the Mountain of Storms, he was often milling about the shops of one of the villages. This time, he was engaged in a lively conversation with a man Cinder didn’t recognize. The fellow was rotund, grimy, short, and more than a little bald for his age, and dressed in the clothes of one of the river barbarians who wandered the forest some miles away from the valley. They would occasionally see one or two of them around the valley, usually trading for supplies, but this one just seemed to be enjoying a sumptuous meal in addition to chatting with the Guardian. As they were obviously busy – and Cinder very nearly winced at how disgusting it was to watch the man eat, chewing with his gap-toothed mouth open and propelling tiny flecks of food every so often – she decided against going over, and instead just continued on her way.

Eventually, as she was about to return to the mountaintop, she noticed Lilac sitting by himself on one of the village clearings, a small pot in front of him emitting steam. Heading his direction, she waved and gave a respectful bow once she reached him. “Mind if I join you?”

“Not at all,” he replied, setting out a cup for her as well as himself. “You’re always welcome, Lady Guardian.”

Sitting across from him, Cinder waited for him to pour her a cup of dark aromatic tea, and accepted it graciously, taking a sip and relaxing. “Another lazy day for all of us, hm?”

“Certainly seems to be the case. Just the way I like it.”

“And I as well.” Cinder studied him for a moment, then let her eyes wander away again. Ibis felt that Lilac was always a little guarded, and she wasn’t wrong. Cinder knew quite well that the Wood Aspect had his secrets, and that he had gone to great lengths to bury those secrets and find a different life. Eight years he had been in the valley, and still their first meeting was still etched immutably into her mind.

When he had first shown up, too clean and well-spoken to be just some random vagrant, “Realm spy” had been at the top of her list of suspicions. The other people of the valley had kept a polite distance when dealing with him – what little news they did receive of the world was clear on the fact that any place that still worshiped Sol Invictus was viewed as hostile by the Realm – but Cinder had made it a point to meet him personally as soon as possible. When he agreed to a friendly sparring match, she had gotten a good look beneath the surface, and was quite thoroughly surprised at what she had found. Wake had at first given her funny looks when she told him she had seen all she needed to to trust him, but it was true: this man was not in the least their enemy. Now, years later, he was part of their family, even if he was occasionally obscure and vague enough to exasperate even her.

“You look deep in thought,” Lilac said, his pleasant voice interrupting her reverie.

“Just reminding myself how much I prefer peace.”

Lilac grinned a bit. “You mean even ‘Serene Edge’ herself doesn’t miss the time we spent battling Fair Folk hordes every other week?”

“You tell me, ‘Flowering Requiem,’” Cinder replied with a wry smirk. “Would you rather be knee-deep in whatever passes for hobgoblin entrails, or sitting right here enjoying tea with a fighter who thinks she’s still a miko?”

Laughing quietly, Lilac took a sip from his own cup, shaking his head. “Naturally, the latter. I don’t particularly miss that nickname of mine, either. What was it they called Wake?”


“Certainly evocative, if a bit over-the-top.” Lilac smiled nostalgically into his cup, and then lifted his eyes back to Cinder. “Those were rough times, but they do serve to make the present that much sweeter. I’m glad I found my way here.”

Cinder nodded, smiled back, and looked up at the sky. “And we’re glad to have you, my friend. Always.”

River Rat stood in the middle of the impressive camp, his wide-brimmed hat held in his hands. That meant his bald pate was exposed to the oh-so-hateful Eastern sun – Sol Invictus could choke on a whole boatload of gator nards, so far as he was concerned – but he didn’t want to risk disrespecting his employers, who might emerge from that central pavilion any moment now. And it would stink more to have to sweep his hat off and deal with the sudden heat than to just get used to it over a few minutes.

Finally, there was motion in the doorway of the tent, and a statuesque woman with short, deep red hair strode out. Her formal military cloak, lined with bright crimson, covered most of her frame, but River Rat could still get an eyeful of the shapely figure underneath. Her eyes fell on him, too, and when they did, she groaned in disappointment and shook her head. “Great, the Sewer Rat. What’s wrong, run out of holes to crawl up into?”

River Rat laughed, gave several short bows, and tried to avoid openly gritting his teeth. He enjoyed looking, but god how he detested that woman. “Fine day, Grace. And it’s ‘River Rat,’ but the joke wasn’t lost on me. Quite entertaining, if I may say so.”

“Can it, vermin.” Walking over to him, she stopped once she was just close enough to loom – which wasn’t difficult, as she already had well more than a head and shoulders in height on him, so towering wasn’t a problem – and frowned in disdain. “Don’t forget that I can’t stand you; your very presence makes me physically sick to my stomach, you little deviant. Asalis might think you’re worth keeping around, but if you so much as look at me crosswise, I’ll give you the closest shave you’ve ever had.” The quiet sound of metal being drawn accompanied her last few words, and by the end of it she held one of her curved red blades to his neck, the jade pressed close to his throat. “And by the looks of it,” she whispered, “you could certainly use one.”

“That’s enough, Karanya.” Another woman’s voice spoke from the area of the tent, and when River Rat’s eyes darted over – he didn’t dare move his head at the moment – he saw two more figures emerging from the pavilion, both in cloaks of the same style as Karanya’s. One was a thin, leanly-muscled man with disheveled blond hair and cold blue eyes, who took one look at him and then let his gaze just pass right over, as if River Rat’s existence had less than a moment’s worth. The other was a woman not quite as tall as Karanya, and she looked just old enough to be River Rat’s mother, had she been mortal. But there was no frailty to her appearance; she carried herself with an air of dangerous authority, with her dark blue hair swept back and fastened tightly, and a look in her eyes that said she was used to having command.

Karanya withdrew her weapon, sheathing it back at her waist, and spun on her heel. “Always spoiling my fun, Naratis. But I suppose I can wait a little longer to cut something.” And with that, the woman moved on into the camp, and out of view.

“Bitch,” River Rat muttered to himself, now that he could stop holding his breath. Then he turned to Naratis and bowed deeply and respectfully. “A thousand thanks, Commander Iselsi!”

Naratis gave a half-smile as she approached, her partner heading off in the same direction as Karanya, and waved a hand dismissively. “Not at all. I apologize for the behavior of my colleague. She gets…difficult…while on a mission. Though,” she began in a lower voice, “you might be better served refraining from trying to catch a glimpse inside her tent while she’s asleep, hm?”

River Rat turned bright red, and nearly dropped his hat. “Y-Yes, Commander. I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Anyway, Asalis awaits your briefing. I expect I’ll speak to you again before we set out.” Giving a nod, Naratis strode off as well, her blue-lined cloak billowing behind her booted feet as she went.

Once she was gone, River Rat took a moment to puff himself up, and then entered the pavilion, walking through the doorway with a careful combination of respect and swagger. On the other side were two men. The first was roughly the size of a mountain, nearly as wide, and balder than River Rat himself. He could have been a statue for all the motion he made; even his eyes could have been topaz gems in a bronze face. The other was not nearly so gigantic or physically imposing, but he didn’t need to be – his presence alone could have filled the tent, and then some. Standing on the other side of a large central map table, the man was dark, weathered, and ancient, with wrinkles that looked very much like the bark of an old tree stump. But where Naratis’s eyes said she was used to being in command, this man’s entire bearing said he was used to being obeyed. And feared. That was Cynis Inora Asalis, leader of this Wyld Hunt.

“Greetings, Agent Rat.” Asalis’s aged croak even sounded as if he were speaking through a hollow log. “Do you have anything to report?”

River Rat swept into a low bow, practically putting his forehead to the floor. “Only that the target and her accomplices are all still in the valley, Eminence.”

“Have you managed to locate the source of their Wyld Barrier?”

“Not yet, Eminence. Though I have narrowed down the location to a few potential spots.”

Asalis raised a hand to his chin, and stood still in thought for a long moment. He was so motionless that suddenly River Rat felt as if he were the only living being in the room. “It would serve us well to know where that is before we strike; they may try and bring the Barrier down once the battle begins, as a means of keeping us busy while they make their escape. This Anathema scum has enslaved our cousins; I would scarce put it past her to have allies among the Fae, despite this ruse of ‘maintaining the barrier.’” As it was clear that the man was thinking aloud rather than soliciting a response, River Rat remained silent. “However, I feel that is an acceptable risk. We must strike now, before they become aware of our presence.”

“Should you require this humble servant’s aid, Eminence, I would gladly assist however possible,” River Rat kept his eyes lowered as he spoke.

Shaking his head once, Asalis raised one hand. “You have already done us a great service, Agent. I fear, however, that you cannot aid us further without putting yourself at undue risk. We shall move tomorrow morning, but I would like you to stay behind with the camp and await our return.”

“As you command, Eminence.” Taking Asalis’s nod in response as dismissal, River Rat turned and shuffled out of the pavilion.

Once he was back outside, he stood back to his full height, and replaced his hat. Another day, another job well done for the River Rat. Which meant another big, fat payday in the very near future. He could almost smell the perfume of his favorite Realm bordello already. “Just one more day,” he said to himself, rubbing his grimy hands together. “Just one more day.”

The bright blue glow of her eyes fading, Soaring Ibis removed her hand from the translucent cube in front of her. Inside was a perfect sphere, just larger than an apple and slightly pink in coloration. She hadn’t taken this experiment of hers out of storage much since its creation a couple of weeks prior; for various reasons, it needed to stay in its Elsewhere pocket until the time was right to use it. But she had to perform certain tests occasionally, to ensure it would suit her needs appropriately.

This time, the testing wasn’t for her own curiosity or benefit. Instead, she was demonstrating for the lithe woman who sat across the chamber from her. Her companion was bald, with violet skin covered in piercings and tattoos, but smooth and flawless. Eyes like dark gemstones watched the sphere as it floated in suspended animation, and the fingers of one hand drummed her opposite bicep as she held her arms crossed under her breasts. After a long moment, she nodded once, and lifted her eyes to look at Ibis. “Yes…I think this will do nicely. The preservation has worked without a hitch. Are you sure you would not rather use this now, Soaring Ibis?”

Ibis shook her head in response, and gave a quiet sigh, smiling a bit wistfully. “Yes, Tixia, I’m sure. I would like to, very much, but…there are just too many pressing matters. But soon, though. Very soon.”

Standing up, Tixia let her view linger on Ibis for a few moments, and then nodded again. “Very well. I look forward to working with you, I believe it will be an interesting project. Give my regards to the other two; I expect to meet them soon.” Giving a long sweep across her body with one hand, she dipped her head in farewell, and then was gone in an instant.

Long moments passed after the woman departed. Ibis spent those moments studying the sphere inside its cube; she had since dismissed her diagnostic vision, so her eyes were back to their usual hue, but she wasn’t looking for anything this time, just dwelling on the future. She seemed to do that a lot, these days – spending inordinate amounts of time thinking and worrying about the future, instead of letting herself be absorbed into the moment. Was that inherently part of her Exaltation, something that all Solars experienced? Or was it simply that the knowledge she could live for centuries, or even millenia, had gotten her thinking about life and destiny in entirely different ways?

Another sigh escaped her lips, and she closed her eyes. There was no way she was going to sort all of this out right away. She probably wouldn’t have it sorted out in another year, or another decade, really; it was just part-and-parcel of who she had become. Leaving mortality behind certainly did come with its own set of problems, but balanced against the life she was now able to lead, it was a small price to pay.

Looking back at the sphere again, she brought her hands together and reworked the sorcery that placed the cube into its protective hiding place once more. She had driven herself crazy over this issue plenty enough for one day. Time to do some of that “living in the moment” and forget the rest for a while.

The sun had not yet risen, but the camp had been awake and alive for several hours already. River Rat hated being up so early, but he wanted to see his commanders off properly. Also, it never hurt to make one more good impression before the time came to dole out potential bonuses. So he hid his yawns as best he could, and made his way through the camp to the clearing out on the edge where the others would already be meeting.

When he arrived, he saw the ranks of soldiers and monks who had been brought along standing at attention. They numbered around two hundred fifty; only twenty or so were actual Terrestrials, but even the regulars were mortals trained to the pinnacle of Realm military skill. Every one of them was motionless before the imposing form of Commander Cynis Inora Asalis, decked out in his green jade combat armor as he paced a long path between his soldiers and his four lieutenants. Somehow, that ancient voice resonated throughout the clearing in perfect clarity, even to River Rat’s half-asleep ears; he was obviously on the tail end of a speech.

“…came here to continue a task handed down to us from our ancestors, a task that this entire world depends very seriously on us to accomplish. So never forget that when I say we have a solemn, holy duty, you should take those words to heart.”

More preaching. Asalis refrained from such most of the time, but River Rat knew what a devout believer he was in the Immaculate Faith, and from time-to-time, when he got especially geared-up for a mission, it was inevitable that there would be some rhetoric.

“Reports suggest that three of our brethren – three! – have been taken in by this blasphemous harlot. She clearly has the entire valley under her sway, so do not trust these people. They will likely try and stand in our way. We cannot allow them to do so; attempt to frighten them into submission, but do not waste your time or risk your own lives attempting to preserve theirs. Should you run across the three Outcaste fools, remember to lead them to us, according to the plan. It would be preferable to reason with them, but I fear they will likely be beyond that. Though you should feel free to make use of the locals as bait to draw them out.”

River Rat’s eyes ran down the line of Commander Asalis’s team as he continued with his speech. All the way to the left, the perpetually uninterested and unimpressed Jeresh Tirva Nehor, his blue eyes every bit as aloof and detached as they had been when River Rat had seen him at the pavilion. To his left, the mountainous Ragara Ryotheras, looking very much like a white jade obelisk with crossed arms now that he had donned his cloak. Next down the line, the pleasing form of Sesus Natasus Karanya. But he couldn’t even take a moment to ogle her; she stared daggers at him when she saw him looking over, and he could have sworn she would have burst him into hateful flame had her commander not been standing right there. At the end of the line was Iselsi Cherak Naratis, the only other member of the team that River Rat actually liked besides Asalis himself. Actually, she was probably the only one he liked – Asalis had always been kind to him, but the old man had a chilling streak to him when it came to matters of the Hunt that unnerved even River Rat, and spoke to some deep-seated misanthropic tendencies. When Naratis caught his look, she just nodded once, barely perceptibly, and then returned to listening to Asalis.

“One final reminder: if you see the Anathema, do not engage. Send up the signal, and then regroup at the meeting point. Are there any questions?” When silence greeted him, Asalis nodded his head once. “Good. Remember, we only get one shot at this. Now move out!” The commander raised his arm, and there was a rush of motion as the green-clad Terrestrial elites vanished into the forest, moving so quickly that River Rat had no hope at all of seeing them go. The remaining soldiers split off into teams and moved into the foliage quickly after, and finally Asalis and his team stepped into a rift in the air, vanishing in the blink of an eye. Just a couple minutes later, River Rat and the few non-combat personnel who had shown up stood there alone.

Reaching into his belt pouch, River Rat fished out a piece of sourthorn root, and began chewing on it. The others returned to the camp proper, but he had nothing to do for the time being, so he just stayed in place, enjoying the bitter bite of the root. It was nice and quiet again, but part of him wanted to go and watch the battle. From a good distance, of course – he knew quite well what chance he had of surviving any sort of altercation involving that demolition squad. But after a few minutes, he decided against it, and turned to walk back into the camp. Risking getting your head knocked off in a battle wasn’t part of the Rat’s role. He was just fine leaving that to someone else.

A pleasant breeze rustled the leaves of the bamboo forest as Cinder strode towards the peak of the Mountain of Dreams. This far on the wayward side of the mountain, she was outside the reach of the Wyld Barrier, but it had been many years since she had been worried to venture out of the relative safety of the barrier’s reach. After all, Argus had a wide reach, but even fully restored, he could not possibly be aware of everything that happened around the valley. It was important for someone to occasionally patrol the very edge for potential threats – and there was also the fact that these forests were equally beautiful, and equally deserving of being admired.

Her enjoyment of the scene was spoiled by the sudden presences that popped into her awareness. Stopping with one foot forward, she took a glance over her shoulder, moving her head only a couple of inches. “You may as well come out, and tell me why you’ve been following me.”

A single figure in full-body clothing that matched the green of the leaves stepped out of the shadows. “Smoldering Cinder?”


“I wish to speak with the chief miko of the valley.”

“I’m sure you can find her at the main shrine of South Oak. Why seek me out?”

“I have heard you have…dealings with her.”

“You can say that. And your friends?”

“They’re here for protection. We have heard you’re dangerous.”

“Only to those who wish harm on the valley. Who are you?”

“I’m afraid I can’t say.”

“Then I must insist you shake my hand before I let you stroll into South Oak.”

The figure narrowed his eyes, and carefully approached Cinder. He offered his hand, and she took it. The expression on his masked face froze, but Cinder knew that was just a trick of her heightened perception. Images flooded her mind immediately, images of a great temple atop an impressively tall mountain, of an army of warriors being directed by jade-clad commanders, of the banner of the Realm flying over military encampments.

It happened in a flash like it always did, little more than a split-second, but when her perception returned to normal, she could tell that the man had noticed her little trick. His eyes narrowed at the same time that his hand twitched and began reaching for his sleeve, but it was likely just meant as a diversion for his allies, as six kunai came flying from the bamboo. She leaped back quickly as they landed in the grass underfoot, and managed to draw Ivory Blaze Dancer out of its sheath just enough to parry the first man’s incoming ninjato. The strike was fast, and might very well have severed her left arm at the shoulder had it connected.

“Drop your weapon and stand down, and no harm will come to you,” spoke her adversary, his grip on his short blade steady and unwavering. “You are not the one we’ve come for.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that. You’ve come from the Realm to bring violence against us.” As she spoke, Cinder saw the forms of several figures dart away through the bamboo, off towards South Oak. “You have no business here. You should leave now before it becomes too late.”

The man narrowed his eyes again, and a second later the air around him started to whip up; Cinder could feel the hairs on her arms begin to raise, and sparks leaped across the space between them, at first just static but growing stronger and more visible quickly. “Then you’ve sealed your own death sentence.” Two of his comrades emerged from the bamboo, one glowing a deep bronze with skin that looked like armor and the other shining with an emerald aura, a fusillade of sharpened bamboo poles floating in a threatening formation around him. “In the name of the Scarlet Empress!” they intoned in unison.

Cinder disengaged from the Air Aspect in front of her with a bounding leap, replaced her blade fully into her scabbard with a click while still in the air, and then set her feet and prepared to draw again as she landed. She didn’t want to fight other Dragontouched, but they were clearly going to leave her little choice. “The lot of you won’t keep me from going to aid the village for long, you know.”

“We’ll see about that,” the Air Aspect replied. And then, with a joint battle cry, the three rushed her….

“I don’t know who you are,” said Cerulean Wake as he ducked a thrown kusari-gama, which embedded itself into the wall of the nearby flower shop, “but I really don’t recommend this course of action.”

“Silence!” The lanky fellow who had thrown the sickle gave it a yank and pulled it back, then spun it in a slow circle as his allies formed up for another series of attacks. “Where is she?”

“I’m not sure who you mean. Maybe-!” Wake pivoted just in time to avoid a nasty cut to the cheek as the other end of that weapon came sailing at him. This guy was good – most people who attempted to use kusari-gamas in that fashion just left themselves horrendously open to attack, but he had complete command of his surroundings. It wasn’t often that Wake met a mortal martial artist who could hold his own against him. Let alone six.

Speaking of the others, before he even had time to regain his footing after that sideways maneuver, the five other warriors came crashing in on him from all sides. He parried and shifted, spun and bobbed around their blows, and in the middle of a handspring swept his legs into the revolving motion of Deepwater Vortex to force them back and give himself some breathing space. Springing back up onto his feet, he took a wide stance, and cast his eyes around at his attackers. “Fighting ain’t gonna’ jog my memory, but it will keep me entertained for a long while. Can’t we just do that instead?”

“Enough messing around with this fool,” spoke a new voice off to one side, accompanied by a muffled scream. When Wake turned his head in that direction he saw a stockier man with a serrated knife held to the throat of a young girl from the village. “I’m sure this little beauty will be more than happy to lead us where we want to go. Come along, won’t you, darling?”

Hey! Let her go!” Before the protests were even out of Wake’s mouth, the new arrival had darted off with his hostage, while the other six harried Wake another few seconds before following suit. Cursing low under his breath, Wake leaped to give chase, bounding through the rapidly-emptying streets.

The main map of the valley of Three Oaks covered the entirety of the crystal screens in Argus’s chamber. Clusters of yellow dots filled areas of the map around the circle that designated the reach of the Wyld Barrier, and numerous smaller images were overlaid on top of the map, showing people clad in dark green and black clothing, carrying weapons and heading for the villages. Some of them were fighting – at least two showed Cerulean Wake engaged in a running battle with six of them, chasing a seventh who held a young girl captive, while Cinder was displayed in another, fighting through one of the bamboo forests at the valley’s edge. Soaring Ibis’s first instinct had been to run out to give them aid, but they had run through this scenario more than once in training. Where she was most needed right now was right here, assessing their foes and preparing a response. As she watched, some of the dots turned green, while those that remained became a deep bronze color.

“How many Exaltations have we verified now, Argus?” she asked aloud.

“Twenty-two, Soaring Ibis. All Terrestrial Exalts.” Argus’s androgynous voice responded, but the animating intelligence did not appear on the screen. “The remaining essence patterns are all mortals.”

Ibis bit her thumb, then chewed on the nail pensively. That was quite a force, by anyone’s estimation, but why were the Terrestrials avoiding the fight, by and large? They had to know that humans stood little chance against Cerulean Wake or Smoldering Cinder for long. The whole thing stank to high heaven, but she couldn’t take action just yet. She had to keep an eye on the situation and trust her allies to handle themselves. “Continue to monitor them, Argus. Notify me the moment something changes.”

“Of course, Ibis.”

The thorn-covered vine lashed about like a thrashing tendril, catching two more of the warriors before retreating to Lilac at Dusk’s hand. The poison inside of the thorns took effect immediately; whereas other Terrestrials would have still been able to move under its influence, regular humans lost even the ability to stand. Sure enough, the two collapsed onto the ground, conscious and able to speak, but now completely immobile, like their four comrades. Now, they were down to one, a stout claw-wielding man who suddenly looked very, very nervous.

“I know the rest of you can hear me, so let’s try this again,” Lilac spoke, narrowing his eyes as his vine whip twitched like an angry cat’s tail. “I know you’re with a Wyld Hunt. Where are the Exalted?”

“To hell with you and your questions, Outcaste,” the last active warrior sneered. “We have nothing to say to a traitor.”

Lilac glanced around at the other fighters. Each of them stared him straight in the eye and showed the same look of solid defiance. He was certain he could have made any one of them talk, but that would cost precious time – time that he couldn’t afford at the moment. So with one more look at the last standing warrior, he gave his whip a loud crack, swung it in a wide arc, and struck once again. It quickly covered the distance between them like a shot arrow, and caught his opponent in the thigh before he could dodge. With a muffled shout of pain, the man fell to both knees, and then dropped his claw. Lilac didn’t wait another moment; taking only the briefest of motions to gather his whip again, he dashed out of the clearing and back towards the villages. They had attacked him close to his house – it couldn’t have been a serious attempt at eliminating him, as these people clearly had intelligence on the valley, and none of the Exalted who had come to the region were there. Someone was calling him out, and he had a very good idea of whom.

When Iselsi Cherak Naratis opened her eyes again, all she could see around herself and her comrades was…gray. Gray everywhere, as far as her eyes could perceive. Of course, distance as well, in a place like this, could be nearly impossible to gauge. She knew of Elsewhere quite well – she had studied it thoroughly in her youth, and had trained often in an Elsewhere pocket separated from the rest of her barracks – but that had never really dampened the sheer eeriness of the place. Infinite and immeasurable, and yet so empty and quiet.

Her allies did little to break that silence. Blond Nehor was quite pointedly ignoring everyone, his blue eyes focused on some distant point, and Ryotheras stood his usual vigil just a few steps away, arms crossed and only the slightest of deep breathing drifting to Naratis’s ears. Commander Asalis, too, seemed more a feature of the landscape than a living being at the moment, seated in a meditative pose only a pace from Ryotheras. That was usually the case with him; most people found the commander’s stillness in repose a bit unnerving, and Naratis had to admit that, from time-to-time, he creeped her out a little. But it was less intentional than simply an outward manifestation of the man’s inner calm. Like the peace of an experienced headsman.

Karanya paced a short distance away, prowling like a hunting cat. The warrior’s shoes clicked on something, though there was only the most bare-bones impression of a solid floor in this place. “I tire of waiting; are we to spend the entire day hiding away from the fight?” she spoke in caustic tones.

“We hide if it gives us the advantage in the Hunt, Karanya,” Commander Asalis spoke without opening his eyes. “We hide, we sneak, we crawl on our bellies, we do whatever is necessary to ensnare our prey. As does any hunter serious about her work. Do you disagree?”

Karanya looked chastened, but Naratis knew that was not their commander’s intention. In his mind, he was not countering her opinion: he was simply speaking an obvious truth that she was too anxious to observe. Even so, the red-haired shikari muted her protests, and went back to pacing silently. Naratis just shook her head slightly – the tall woman was incredibly skilled, but she lacked patience, and the value of subtlety was often lost on her. In her youth, Naratis would have probably agreed with her, but many years at this job had changed her views considerably. If I had my way, I wouldn’t even be bringing such mercurial youngsters along on Hunts for another few decades, at least. She eyed Nehor as well for a moment, seeing that he was still staring off into space, and sighed. But they’ve proven themselves, not only in training but in actual Hunts. I can’t very well stand in their way, especially with Asalis and the others chomping at the bit for new talent.

Naratis drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Why had things changed so much since the early days? Or had she been the one to change, even more than she had realized? It seemed so long ago, now, since she and Asalis had been idealistic young soldiers in the Order, aspiring to become elite shikari. It had all seemed so simple, then. But they had lost so many allies, so many friends, in the fight to destroy the Anathema. And now, they were resorting to using Exalts who were practically still children to fight these battles, in lands that were far away from their own, against opponents they had never even met. It was bad enough to see so many mortals willing to throw themselves into such a meat grinder; the Exalted were supposed to be meant for much greater things.

The Elsewhere pocket rumbled with the sensation of distant thunder, and Asalis opened his eyes. “We have arrived. Prepare to engage the enemy.” His voice was not much different from that thunder, and the look in his eyes supplied the lightning. This seemed like the only time she saw that anymore.

Getting to her feet, Naratis cleared her mind. This was not the time for such thoughts. Whatever her concerns, one thing had not changed in all of these years: the Anathema were the enemy. They always would be.

Though he kept pace easily with the soldier who had taken Arana hostage, Cerulean Wake was so harried by the other soldiers that he wasn’t able to close the distance without putting the girl in danger. But he could tell they were more interested in leading him somewhere than in actually causing harm to their hostage, so though it galled him to do so, he played along, trying to avoid grinding his teeth too hard while battling through their barrages. Finally, they headed straight into South Oak, making a beeline for the giant oak at the center, Great South, the largest of the Great Oaks. Wake frowned and made an annoyed sound through his teeth, then followed.

When they stopped only a couple hundred feet from Great South, Wake noticed that they were not alone. The telltale whisper of Ivory Blaze Dancer, followed by the sight of a different soldier flying through the air and smacking against the branches of a smaller oak, announced the arrival of Smoldering Cinder, and a split-second later, Lilac at Dusk walked silently out of the foliage, vine whip coiled at his belt. Other warriors in the same style of clothing as the ones Wake had been chasing entered the area as well, more than two dozen of them, and surrounded the one that had taken Arana captive.

“Well, this is all…awful,” Wake spoke with a frown as he watched the invaders carefully. “Who are you people, and what do you want with-”

Cutting off as a black circle appeared in the sky in the middle of what had looked like a low-hanging cloud bank – something that was otherwise quite normal to see this high up in the mountains – Wake’s eyes grew wide as the circle stretched out horizontally into a jagged line, like the maw of some giant void creature dwelling in the space between dimensions. As the line then opened vertically – adding to the “mouth” impression – he could make out the shapes of five individuals standing inside, wrapped in matching cloaks of a military fashion. Even at that distance, he could make out the power that radiated from them…and the killing intent, the cold premeditation of a seasoned predator. Their eyes glanced about at Wake and his two comrades, and for a moment, he could have sworn he saw pity in them. Of course, most of them also seemed to view the villagers who were being herded off to the sides in small but visible groups with disdain.

Wake let his eyes dart over to Cinder, who just nodded once, and then to Lilac. Arana wasn’t the only hostage now; as the invaders continued trickling into the area, they pushed more and more of the valley’s residents into clumps here and there, some actually bound with rope, though most were just kept in place by the obvious threat of violence. There were far too many of those villagers present – the attack had been incredibly quick and unexpected, but even then, more should have been able to escape to safety. It didn’t take much for him to realize that someone must have been spying on them, to have been able to so effectively cut off the people’s escape route. Either way, he and his comrades couldn’t make a move now, with so many innocents around. They would have to proceed very carefully.

“Soaring Ibis,” came Argus’s voice throughout the central chamber again, “I have detected five new Essence patterns directly over South Oak.”

“What?!” Ibis worked her fingers quickly over the access panel, circling the area of the grid where the new dots had appeared suddenly out of the blue. “How is that possible?”

“I am detecting the presence of a large Elsewhere entrance growing from the center of that location.”

An Elsewhere pocket opening that high up? They had to have shrunk the entrance to nearly nothing for Argus to have missed it. Ibis remained silent, waiting for the five yellow dots to change color. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Cinder, Lilac, and Wake converge near the Great Oak, and the villagers who were being rounded up, silently praying that the ones she couldn’t see were safe.

Argus’s voice pulled her attention back, as all five dots turned a bright red. “Essence patterns analyzed. All five are Terrestrial Exalted, S-Class.”

Shikari. Ibis suddenly felt very cold in her chest. The Wyld Hunt is here. Leaping up from her seat, Ibis called out as she spun over its arm and landed on the floor. “Take care of things here, Argus! I’m going!”

“Soaring Ibis, I must protest. You-”

“I can’t, Argus.” She clenched both hands into fists. “I can’t sit back and watch this. They’ll need me out there, and we all know it.” Looking up at the ceiling of the chamber, she sighed. “I’m sorry to do this, but I have to go.” Not waiting for a response, she dashed out of the room, making a beeline for South Oak.

“People of Three Oaks!” boomed the voice of the aged man in the center of the invaders, from his perch high in the air. Even augmented by Essence, there was the hint of a croak to the sound, but that somehow made it even more intimidating. “The Wyld Hunt has come to free you from the presence of the Anathema woman, and your enslavement to the worship of the Unconquered Sun. Give us her location, and we shall forgive the rest of you your…indiscretions…and leave you in peace.”

Cinder narrowed her eyes at the man, fighting the itch to put her hand on Ivory Blaze Dancer’s hilt. If he expected a bunch of wide-eyed yokels, he would be sorely disappointed; the folk of Three Oaks were disconnected from the rest of Creation, but they understood quite well his accusations, and the nature of the Wyld Hunt. Which meant that they understood that the Realm had no claim here, and that this was a bald-faced act of aggression. Her eyes very momentarily caught Lilac’s, but he just shook his head barely imperceptibly. He knew at least one of these people personally, but it hadn’t been the memories of his she had viewed that told her that. They would have to make a move soon, but not just yet. She drew her mouth into a thin line as she felt Ibis approaching, but couldn’t very well object. This wasn’t going to be an easy fight.

“We don’t know what you’re talking about, so get the hell out of our valley!” bellowed old one-eyed Ichigoya, while shaking his fist at the five. “We never done nothing to the Realm!” One of the assembled soldiers – there were at least two hundred of them now, both visible and skulking in the shadows, by Cinder’s count – took his mancatcher to Ichigoya, forcing the weathered man down onto the ground and pinning his arms at his sides while barking at him to be silent.

The green-clad man in the center locked his icy gaze on Ichigoya, who actually cringed a little despite staring back defiantly, and then cast his eyes back out in a sweeping arc across the other groups. “Do the rest of you feel the same? Will no one put aside your personal feelings to do what you know you should?”

“What these people should do is none of your concern,” said Cerulean Wake, his anger only barely contained. “I don’t care what authority you have in the Realm, this is not the Realm. You have no business coming here in force and making any demands of us.”

“The hunting of demons respects no boundaries and makes no exceptions, Cousin. But instead of a demand, allow me to offer a bargain.” The green-clad leader took a few steps forward, and looked down directly at Wake. “Turn over the Solar Anathema, come to the Realm with us, and you three Dragon-blooded will be raised nobility. Not only that, bring along as many of your people as you wish. You have no need to fear us, and if the remainder wish to stay here and continue their heathen worship, they may. We ask only that you not stand in our way.”

Wake spat, and glared a tempest up at the older man. “Keep your offers, and your so-called honors. I am a Guardian of the valley of Three Oaks, and you are intruders bringing war. Get out of my valley, or be thrown out: it’s your call.”

The older man was silent for a long moment, his eyes analyzing Wake. Despite his imperious manner, there didn’t seem to be much arrogance to the man’s attitude; he simply viewed the three Terrestrials before him as as one might the victims of a terminal illness. At least, that was how he saw her and Wake. When his eyes scanned across Lilac, there was something different there: a strong sense of disapproval. The sort that you had to know someone well to feel. He said nothing to her comrade, though, and Lilac only looked back at him, his jaw set firmly.

Finally, the man raised one hand and gestured dismissively. “Dispose of all of them. This entire place has been too corrupted.” The command was followed by the remaining Dragon-blooded elites leaping into action and rushing in teams at Cinder, Wake, and Lilac, while the soldiers that had been hiding in the brush charged out to reinforce the other mortals.

Cinder cursed under her breath, and prepared for the onslaught, but noticed that the five in the air stayed put. Small favors, I suppose…

But just as she was about to draw her daiklave, there was a flash of light in the air across from the five invaders. When the momentary flash faded, she saw figures floating there. At the flanks were a dark-skinned woman with bells in her hair seated atop a gigantic crescent-moon blade, and a man with a tattooed torso, a wolf’s muzzle, and great snowy wings. Between them was Soaring Ibis, her bow already formed and her body awash in pure light, the image of a giant bird with a curved beak spreading its wings behind her, and Matsuri-Ono perched on her shoulder, one tiny fist raised menacingly. Cinder had felt the spike in Ibis’s emotions, but hadn’t felt her moving their way; she had really come full-tilt. And from the look on her face, she had come for blood.

The leader of the invaders turned back around slowly, and regarded Ibis with eyes that were suddenly very, very deadly. “Soaring Ibis, I presume?”

“You presume correctly. And who are you?”

“Cynis Inora Asalis. I’m glad you could show. Come to protect your pets?”

“I’ve come to stop your senseless violence. Will you not quit this battle and leave these people in peace?”

“While your kind exists,” Asalis said while pointing to her, “there can be no peace. You will die.”

Sparing a moment to lock eyes with Wake, then Lilac, and finally over to Cinder, Ibis looked back at the older man, and brought her hand to her bow. “Then let’s be about it.”

The Guardians of Three Oaks, part 4
A little more smut here at the very beginning, but then back to business.

The next morning, Ibis awoke feeling happy and refreshed. Cinder still snoozed across from her with her head against Wake’s chest, so Ibis just lay there and enjoyed the intimacy of being with them. When Wake stirred and opened his eyes, he smiled, gave her a tender kiss, and then buried his face into her hair. Cinder roused with a yawn not long after, and rubbed her eyes. “Good morning, lovebirds.”

Ibis giggled, and Wake tapped Cinder’s nose lightly. “Good morning. Sleep well?”

“Mm-hmm.” Cinder sat up and stretched. “But I want to get some practice done before I head to the springs. You two go ahead, and I’ll meet you in a few.”

Not long after, Ibis and Wake sat relaxing in one of the valley’s numerous hot springs. After the energetic night, it was nice just relaxing with him, sitting side-by-side with the water level just over her breasts. Wake massaged her shoulders and left little kisses along her neck and ears, making her smile and laugh, and every so often she reached up to fiddle with his aqua curls. Of course, he eventually shifted her over to a higher rock, and worked himself inside of her, but even then, he moved steadily, unhurried and methodical as he held her up in his arms. Her eyes locked onto his as she supported herself upright, and she panted openly at their lovemaking, drawing her toes along the backs of his legs and keeping her thighs spread open for him.

As her excitement neared a fever pitch, she placed a hand on his chest, and wrapped his love around her heart and mind. It cradled her like the calm waters at the bottom of Lake Noamin, a feeling every bit as strong as Cinder’s fiery heart, but also just as unique and tailored for Wake. Just as perfect. He rested his face against her neck and pulled her hips more firmly towards his, driving deep into her and then practically moaning right into her ear as he orgasmed. The warmth of his ecstasy pushed her over the edge, and she rubbed her breasts against him as her body shook, her breathing limited to eager gasps.

When Cinder arrived minutes later, they were still arm-in-arm, sharing each others’ warmth and exchanging loving kisses. The other woman let slip the tiniest of sly grins – Ibis wagered that her delay had been quite intentional – and spent a few moments sitting on the bank washing her legs and feet to let the two finish cuddling. They finally broke apart, and Wake moved to say hello; this time by bending her over the bank, hiking her robe up over her hips, and plunging into her completely. Ibis couldn’t hold back a laugh at the look of surprise, likely only partially feigned, on Cinder’s face. Nonetheless, the woman didn’t fight Wake’s aggressiveness, her eyes lidding in a sultry manner as his hands clutched her hips and his arousal disappeared inside her. She visibly bit her lip to hold back her cries as Wake eagerly rammed her from behind, but she gave that up not long in, and even began howling in lust, clawing the stone under her hands. Cinder begged for more, forcing her rump back against him, and she got what she asked for, right up until he arched toward her and seized up, groaning out. She shuddered noticeably, made a sound that was part mewl, part throaty moan, and leaned forward onto her breasts when her peak passed.

Wake finally pulled away from her, and once she had discarded her robe and turned to sit down, he claimed her torso with both arms and nibbled her lower lip with a growl. “That was for last night.”

“Oh my. But Wake,” Cinder replied with a smirk. “I ride you until you nearly break, you respond by mounting me like a jungle cat, and call that punishment? How many more decades before you figure out my evil scheme?”

“Hush, you.” He pulled her into a deep kiss, she bit the tip of his nose afterward with a quiet snarl and then they both came to sit with Ibis, who was quite relaxed by that point.

The rest of their visit was mostly tame. Mostly. Emerging from the springs, they ran into Lilac, who was waiting leisurely with his arms crossed. The man took one look at them, clearly noticed the several bite marks on either side of Wake’s neck, and gave an amused grin. “Well, someone had a pleasant morning.”

“Hey, protecting these ladies is a full-time job,” Wake replied. “I have to be with them as much as possible, ready to jump onto or behind them at a moment’s notice.”

“Don’t you mean ‘in front of’ them?”

“I know what I said.”

“Uh-huh.” Lilac laughed quietly. “Well, I need to borrow Ibis for a bit to help me with my essence converter. You’re all welcome to come along as well, but you’ll likely get bored. Especially you, Wake.”

As Ibis walked over to Lilac, Wake looked thoughtful, then shrugged. “I’ll probably go bug Sifu for a while instead. I should at least do a little work today.”

“I’ll be at the shrine,” Cinder chimed in. “So I’ll see you all later.”

Ibis looked up to Lilac and nodded. “Alright then. Shall we?”

Lilac’s home was a short walk away, out at the edge of a thicker area of forest. Though a small structure, it would have been easily visible from nearby, if not for the immense flowering vines that hung dozens if not hundreds of feet down from the surrounding treetops to create an obscuring curtain. Behind the vines, there were scores more towering plants in myriad colors, clearly not forced into the organization of any garden yet still seeming to grow around the house instead of over or under it, almost as if they were conscious of the house itself.

Around the back of the house, Lilac and Ibis tinkered away on a small device no larger than a wash bin. She did most of the actual work; though he had learned the ins and outs of the converter’s functioning, Lilac preferred to just watch Ibis and stay out of her way. It was always an interesting experience – she was so intuitive and affective, yet once that switch flipped, she was all logic and structure. A miko scientist; fascinating, indeed.

“I think I’ve found why your arctic deepblooms are wilting.” Ibis leaned up from the converter, her sleeves rolled up to her shoulders, and pinned her hair back again. “There was a minor error in the chilling mechanism’s relay, but it should be easy to finish smoking out.”

“I very much appreciate the help.” Lilac watched with a silent smile as she returned to work. She had really grown up in those eight years. Gone was the gangly, often clumsy girl he had first met, replaced by a graceful, stunning young woman as poised and dignified as Smoldering Cinder. The outside world desperately needed her spark – he knew that better than most. But there were still too many enemies, and they were still not ready to fight them. So he would keep her here, and safe, as long as he could. He wasn’t officially a Guardian, but he had his own oaths to keep.

Ibis finished up a few minutes later, sliding the finely-detailed pieces of the essence converter back into place and then lowering the device back into the earth. A moment later, there was a pulse of rainbow light as it came back online, and then a section of Lilac’s plants, giant ice-blue bell-shaped blossoms that had started looking forlorn, began to recover immediately. “Ah, excellent! Exactly what they needed,” the man said with a smile.

“I can never believe how pretty your plants are.” Ibis walked over to one of the blossoms, dwarfed by its fifteen-foot petals, and touched it gently. “Where did you find these again?”

“A few days north of a Northern city named Whitewall. They grow far out on the frozen plains, but normally reach maybe two feet in height. The East is, of course, far more fertile.”

“And you’re the best gardener anywhere,” Ibis said with a grin.

Laughing, Lilac shook his head. “I just have certain advantages. You should see the flowers I’m engineering for the birth of your and Wake’s first child.”

She punched him playfully in the shoulder. “You know that’s a long way off! We’re not even trying yet, nor is Cinder.”

“Perhaps,” he said with a sly smile. “But I like to think ahead.” Even as he spoke, he could see a thoughtful look enter her eyes, and her hands fidgeted with her skirts around her belly.

“What about you?” she asked shortly after. “You’d make a great father. Why aren’t you finding yourself someone special?”

He raised one hand and wagged a finger in response. “In due time, Ibis. For the foreseeable future, I’ve simply too much work.”

“Of course,” she said with a slight roll of her eyes. “You should take more time for yourself. You’re not officially a Guardian, yet you work harder than any of us, and you always rush to our aid when we need you.” Turning from the deepblooms, she clasped her hands behind her back and tilted her head, giving him a cute look. "Eight years, and still so enigmatic. Are you ever going to tell me why you’re really here in the valley?”


She pouted slightly in response. “You always say that! Maybe I should use my scary Anathema powers to make you talk.” Waving her hands in the air and making spooky noises, Ibis made herself look so ridiculous that Lilac had to chuckle.

“Well, in that case, I’m here for your smiling face and sense of humor, Lady Songstress.”

She giggled and shook her head. “Uh-huh. Well I suppose I can let that do for now. But I’m keeping an eye on you, fella’.” Crossing to him, she narrowed her eyes, and then tapped him on the nose with a light “boop!” before turning and scampering off. “Heading to visit some folks, see you later!”

“Until then.” Waving, he watched her go with another smile, then turned back to his vast wild gardens. So very much work to do….

There were no two ways about it: Cerulean Wake was antsy. He had resisted the urge to just head straight to his sifu’s home on the Mountain of Elders. But as he wandered through the streets of his home village, his mind was entirely elsewhere. Fighting Ravinius hadn’t quieted the little voice in his mind. True, these days, the Cataphract raksha was more nuisance than threat, unless only one of the Guardians could respond, and thus the faerie only pinged Wake’s senses weakly. But the uneasiness had been strong and persistent, and was even now a dull thrumming in his awareness. Something was still coming.

Gradually, he found himself at Lake Noamin again. Clasping the blue gem of the magatama around his neck, he focused on the black jade beads around it and closed his eyes. When he reopened them, the tranquil surface of the lake was alive with activity normally obscured from his vision. The forms of spirits and tiny elementals danced and cavorted above and just below the surface, creating the impression that the lake itself was a huge creature, constantly jittering and fidgeting. After a moment, a larger form broke the surface, and sunlight scattered in rainbow hues, as if through a prism, off of a serpent slightly longer than a man was tall, with iridescent scales. It swam casually to the shore, and rose up to its full height once it reached Wake. “Ah, Wavestrider,” the spirit said lazily, yawning openly. “I sensed your arrival. You wished to speak with me?”

“Yes, Jorudo. Thank you for answering.”

“It was…no trouble,” Jorudo responded around another large yawn. “I was simply napping. I will gladly hear you out, young one.” The serpent coiled himself atop the water, shook his head as if trying to clear it, and then trained his solid aquamarine eyes on the Water Aspect.

Wake took a deep breath. Matsuri-Ono was god of the valley, but Jorudo held dominion over the lake. The two had both been freed from debilitating essence drain when Ibis had repaired Argus, and were old friends. But while Matsuri-Ono took a very active role in the valley’s life, viewing himself as a protective father, Jorudo was far more “hands-off” in his approach, preferring to get involved only when the lake itself was affected. Wake would have called him “lazy,” but perhaps “exceedingly patient” was better. He couldn’t complain, though – Jorudo had formed an excellent rapport with him, and was nearly always willing to listen, even when Wake himself felt he was being too worrisome. “My inner sea is turbulent, Joru-jii.”

“Your inner sea is always turbulent, water child.”

Wake sighed a bit. “I suppose you’re right.”

“I do not mean that in insult. You compare yourself to the flameborne Smoldering Cinder unfairly. She is measured and temperate, a fire that burns slowly and carefully, because that is where her strengths lie. You are not a slow-burning flame. You are water itself – quick to shift, quick to adapt, and never truly contained. That is where your strengths lie, young one. Your Songstress has need of those, as well.”

Standing in silence for a few moments, Wake turned that over in his mind. “You already knew why I came to see you when I called, didn’t you?”

“You have lived close to my domain, as an enlightened soul of my own nature, for more than seven decades. Lake Noamin’s waters resonate with the spirits of all in the valley, but yours is a waterfall among babbling streams.” The serpentine face became something very close to a grin. “So yes, I knew. Do not burden yourself with worry, Wavestrider. No storm lasts forever, and a captain always dwelling on the next one misses the joy of the voyage.”

Wake smiled, then gave him a deep bow. “As always, thank you for your wisdom, Joru-jii. You’ve been a great help.”

“You always have my ear, young one. Come back whenever you need to.” Turning back towards the lake, Jorudo’s form slid under the surface without disturbing it, and moments later the other spirit beings faded from view as well, as Wake ceased concentrating on his necklace. Turning to leave, he glanced at the water one more time, then headed back towards the villages, the water god’s words still playing in his mind.

Pushing through yet another tangle of thick foliage, River Rat mopped his forehead with a filthy rag, and surveyed the landscape stretching out before him. Trees, verdant, ancient, and colossal, surrounded his vantage point and continued on as far as the eye could see. He hated the East so very, very much. It was all obscene overgrowth and backwards hamlets and predators just looking to gobble up a fat little morsel like himself. And it was always so damn hot! The Far East was the worst. It didn’t matter that he had been born there – the whole stinkin’ direction was a blight compared to the perfect jewel that was the Blessed Isle.

Ah, the Realm. Now there was a fine place. River Rat had never been handsome, or strong, or fit, or intelligent, or talented in any real fashion. But, by the Empress, he could damn well do as he was told, and that sort could always find a place in the Realm. Dining with a Dragontouched courtesan beat endless nights of gator stew hands-down, even if it did mean he was broke most of the time. Luckily, the Rat knew where to find the lucrative jobs, which was how he got the inside line to his current employer in the first place.

Say what you would about the Immaculate Order, but those wild-eyed bastards often compensated their help handsomely. While working for the higher muckety-mucks, he could drink the good stuff and eat his fill every single night. Whether he had any use for their religion was irrelevant. It had its down sides – like being assigned back to this stinking pit – but he knew it would wind up being worth his while.

So as he had dutifully done for months, River Rat peered through the paired viewing lenses he possessed, looking out over the treeline. They were on loan from his employers, and fascinating things which let him see easily for miles. He didn’t understand how they worked; all he knew was that they would reveal what he was seeking. Chewing a knot of sourthorn root – the succulent was one of the few things he did like about the East – he scanned back and forth, keeping his eyes peeled.

Despite his diligence, he very nearly missed it. As he shifted his view away from a gently sloping mountain, he caught the slightest shimmer in the air through his lenses. Pressing a button on the side, he activated the higher-power setting that fed off of ambient essence, and watched as a translucent glow shone in his heightened senses, touching that mountain and continuing into the distance for miles. River Rat’s jaw dropped, his chaw nearly tumbling from his gap-toothed mouth. Then he started dancing a jig. It lasted for a full minute before he finally settled down, marked the location on his map, and touched his earpiece. “Master! Agent Rat reporting in!”

“Acknowledged, Agent Rat,” spoke a coarse voice over the channel. “What have you to report?”

“I’ve found, it, Eminence. The Wyld Barrier we’ve been seeking!”

“Are you certain?” The voice grew excited, but was still a croak.

“Completely, Eminence.”

A long pause followed, then the voice resumed. “Very good, Agent. Hold position: we move to join you before nightfall. Field Command out.”

As the link faded, River Rat began to shuffle and caper again. Soon – very soon – this assignment would be over, and he would return to the Isle. Yep, working for the Wyld Hunt wasn’t so bad. Not at all.