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.
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.
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.