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.
… trap …
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 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.”
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.