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Blades of Air
Jason watched the entire battle play out with his perception of time slowed down. There wasn’t much for him to do while Henry and Aodh were demolishing the stream of orks, so he just kept careful watch in case he might be needed.
That moment came when the ork mage launched a fireball at Henry. Jason teleported in the path of the fiery energy and created the largest null-time shield he could manage. The fireball stopped, completely blocked, but some heat still leaked around the edges of the shield. It wasn’t very comfortable, but Jason could endure it, which was good since he couldn’t move too far away. He still needed to be close to a null-time shield in order to create or maintain it.
After a couple seconds, the fireball dissipated and Jason teleported upwards. He called down, “Henry, I stopped the fireball! Get your ass up and start shooting again! I’m gonna try taking out the mages!”
Henry’s head popped up and he nodded, immediately laying down fire with his rifle. As soon as his momentum in the air stopped, Jason teleported behind the ork fire mage and swept Breeze in a simple but effective Zornhau followed up with a quick, rising strike. The ork mage didn’t know what hit him. Even without a null-time blade, Jason’s cuts were powerful and precise. The hapless ork crumped to the ground.
With a longsword in his hands, Jason felt much more confident. It probably wasn’t the best weapon for his magic style, but he’d studied the long sword for over four years and Breeze fit him like glove. The results showed.
He teleported near an ork preparing to throw an atlatl, but he stumbled, his foot landing in a hole. His stab to the ork’s back went wide. Quick as a snake, the the ork pulled a dagger and attacked, lunging powerfully. Jason responded by flashing an elegant Krumphau, his bock taking the ork’s arm off at the wrist and his return strike biting deep beneath the ork’s ribs. As the ork stumbled back in shock, Jason danced away, teleporting again. He killed several more orks on his way to the remaining mage, trusting Henry to carefully aim shots and adjust his fire. He and Henry had a system. While Henry was shooting, Jason wouldn’t teleport long distances or change directions too fast.
This way, as long as Henry was paying close attention, he wouldn’t shoot his friend. The system was working so far, but it probably wouldn’t be viable if the two hadn’t known each other for so long and practiced fencing together.
After making a few short, deadly hops, Jason was near the other mage and realized the robed ork was riding on masses of thick, swirling air. The currents kicked up the hem of the orks dark robes, the garment decorated with ornate, white needlework. The ork’s robe was large and baggy, hiding his appearance and what he might be carrying, but Jason knew what the ork probably looked like based on his fellows.
Like the rest of the orks, the mage had mottled brown, light blue skin. The orks’ hair, or what they had in place of hair, was thick and dark. Jason kind of thought they looked like lizard people crossed with Neanderthals with blue skin and brown Vitiligo.
The mage’s nails were thick and dark, his hands large and powerful. Jason was sure that under the mage’s dark hood, his face was probably similar to the rest of the orks with small dark eyes, a wide, lipless mouth, slitted nostrils, and small mounds in place of ears.
Under the hood, Jason caught a glimpse of the mage’s jewel-studded tusks. Fancy. He tried sneaking up on the mage, but his target kept moving around, probably trying to decide what to do about the Battlewagon in the distance. When Jason teleported less than ten feet behind him, the wary orc caught sight of him and drew a sword.
Jason ran forward, but the ork mage scooted to the side on cushions of air and used magic to throw something at him. Jason ‘ported straight up and threw a couple knives, teleporting them behind the ork but the wily mage kicked up a rotating shield of air that slapped the blades aside.
This guy is good. In freefall before he teleported again, Jason realized that the ork was throwing wide, thin blades of air. Jason had to keep teleporting to avoid them. He couldn’t block magic attacks with his sword, and while he was fast enough to block with null-time shields, using that ability took a lot out of him. It was actually faster and conserved his magic more just to teleport.
Jason tried throwing a few more knives, but every time the ork lost sight of him or saw Jason throw anything, he brought up his air shield again.
Jason found his way to the ground again and the ork narrowed his eyes as they regarded each other. They were both some distance from the bulk of the fighting now and Jason was panting from exertion. This was duel to the death with magic, Jason’s first on Ludus.
Jason felt his mind slipping into the red place, his Killing World and he let it happen. His eyes and jaw hardened, his teeth clenched. He moved his sword back in Wai-gamae stance. This mage was possibly even more dangerous than Thod had been. Since the ork had no Dolos Orb, Jason had no idea what level of power he was at, but the other mage hadn’t seemed too threatened by Jason so far.
Jason’s resolve hardened as he realized how important this duel was. If he lost, the ork mage could probably tear through the rest of the Delvers. His air shield could stop Henry’s projectiles and he could just throw blades of air from a distance until they were all cut to ribbons.
Jason settled his sights on his enemy. He trusted Henry to cover his back. It was time to kill.
Without warning, he blinked forward, sweeping his blade in a nasty horizontal strike, but the ork mage darted back, barely deflecting the blade with his own sword. As he scooted back, the enemy mage tossed a couple wind blades for good measure. Jason barely teleported to the side in time, throwing a bronze knife to try catching the ork off guard, but the wind shield popped up again. That damn wind shield! Without it there’d be no problem, but he’s just kiting me!
The ork growled something Jason couldn’t understand, and his sword began emitting sparks. An enchanted weapon, damn. Jason was hoping the ork’s softer, bronze sword would eventually bend or break, but since it was enchanted, that probably wasn’t going to happen.
Jason teleported twice, once to the ork’s rear, and once to the side to try taking his enemy unaware, but the ork was smart. He was able to stay one step ahead of Jason and jump over 10 feet up using the cushions of air beneath his feet. Even with teleportation, Jason didn’t have much of an advantage.
He teleported to the ground, thinking furiously as he and the ork stared at each other again. Jason’s face was set in a snarl, his sword in Vom Tag, the blade pointing at the sky. The ork looked calm, snapping, spitting blade held at the ready, his other hand prepared to throw more wind blades.
Jason warily watched the ork’s hand in particular. All it took was an obscure gesture and a flick forward for another wind blade to appear. The ork’s magic was surprisingly versatile.
Jason knew his swordsmanship was better but he hadn’t crossed swords with the ork since the enchanted blade started throwing sparks. He had a feeling the electricity wasn’t going to be pleasant if their swords touched again. Jason gritted his teeth and closed with the ork. He had a plan, but it wasn’t going to be fun.
He slashed at the ork, and as before the robed mage dashed back, his wind magic allowing him to move incredibly quickly. However, this time when he threw a blade of air, Jason merely dodged to the side as if he was out of magic. The wind blade didn’t hit him squarely, but it still cut him about an inch deep through his armor from his left pectoral to his elbow. It hurt like hell.
Believing he saw an opening, the ork dashed in with his sword. Jason was hoping for this reaction. He ate part of the wind blade to sell the deception.
To throw another wind blade, the mage would need a second or two to gesture and wind up. That delay would have given Jason time to react, though. Jason had been hoping the ork would see the opening and try to end the fight quickly since they were both using up their magic reserves. The ork’s comrades were still getting torn up and Jason was delaying him.
Jason kept reeling until the ork was close enough, then hissed and sprung forward. He clashed blades with the ork and unfortunately, his assumption he’d get shocked was correct. All his muscles tried to lock up, but he could still barely control his actions. He transitioned into a Winden attack, his sword binding and snaking around the ork’s blade, ending in a thrust to the throat, Breeze’s hilt held high.
The mage lurched back, free hand going for his ruined throat. Jason advanced, slashing from collar bone to belly and the robed ork fell back in a spray of arterial blood. Then Jason stepped forward one last time, kicking the ork down, and snarled as he stabbed the creature through the chest, ensuring enemy was eliminated. He glared down at his dead foe and didn’t feel any triumph. He was glad to be alive and he was glad he won, but as his rage died down, he felt a little empty, like coming down off a high.
He turned to regard the main battlefield and was somewhat surprised to see very little movement, just bodies littering the ground. During his fight with the mage, Jason had half-registered the sound and pressure of a few explosions from the main fight. As he gazed upon the aftermath of the battle, he noticed the second claymore had been detonated and there were a few more craters where Mareen threw some of the big bombs for Aodh to set off, probably directed where to do so by Uluula. There weren’t any more orks left alive except for a tiny clump around a huge, impressive looking warrior in the middle of the battlefield.
As he folded his hands on top of Breeze’s pommel, the sword’s tip in the ground, Jason panted so hard he almost choked. The fight took a lot out of him, even with his extra endurance. As he stood trying to get his breathing under control, decided to stay put until he didn’t feel like he might cough up a lung anymore.
Smartstrong Gulzug mar-Tartooth stood on the lonely battlefield, his last 4 warriors surrounding him like the brave and true Plains People they were. The ground was wet with the blood of his people, but he didn’t think a single enemy was injured.
His warriors were dead, his mages were dead, his scouts were dead, even the warriors with atlatl were just meat now. It was a crushing defeat.
They failed. The Defilers would reach Tartooth’s room. Smartstrong never felt so drained in his life. The strange humanoid in the floating vehicle was pointing large cannons right at the Plains People. “What are you waiting for? End us, we have no more purpose,” Smartstrong wailed. He had nothing left to live for, none of them did. The most they could hope for was to die with a warrior’s pride.
Henry stood in the Battlewagon’s turret and blinked at the last of the orks. They weren’t really doing anything, just standing there. It looked like they were just waiting to die. He wondered, Why aren’t they surrendering? They hadn’t dropped their weapons, but they were pointed at the ground. What do we do if they surrender? The subject never came up before. Monsters didn’t surrender, and bandits got the death penalty so they didn’t either. Henry didn’t know what to do.
He noticed Uluula was increasingly agitated as she stood near the Battlewagon. She finally snapped, “Why aren’t you killing them? They’re tusk demons. Eradicate them.”
“They aren’t doing anything. They haven’t dropped their weapons yet, but they’re just fucking staring at us.” Henry shook his head in confusion.
“Fine, if you won’t then I will. Tusk demons are a scourge. They need to be destroyed.” Before anyone could react, Uluula brought her shiny new crossbow up in a snap shot that neatly took one warrior in the throat. As he fell, gurgling and pounding the ground, Uluula ran forward with her spear at the ready. The white haired Areva woman had murder in her eyes and she screamed something in a language Henry couldn’t understand.
What the hell am I supposed to do? He didn’t want to kill the last few orks in cold blood. They were just standing there and seemed to be inviting death. It went against Henry’s morality to just gun down enemy soldiers that weren’t resisting. He also didn’t want to use force with Uluula even though he thought she was acting out of control.
Things are getting out of hand! He scrambled from his turret, willing the skin of his arms and upper body to turn to steel. Four orks weren’t much danger to him anymore, but if he let Jason’s girlfriend get killed… He didn’t want to think about it.
Smartstrong’s heart wrenched when Proudstubborn fell to the ground in a heap, a crossbow bolt in his throat. The Areva woman that shot him ran forward, a spear in hand. Smartstrong felt his warrior spirit soar. He hated the Areva, hated them more than any other thinking creatures in Tartooth’s gaze. But he approved; this Areva woman knew how to fight, how to give no quarter.
“Meet the Areva one at a time. She offers a warrior’s death.”
“But she shot Proudstubborn,” one of the remaining warriors questioned.
“We are all dead anyway, about to meet the Soul Wind. We can consider the projectile as a challenge. They could have just turned us all to meat already.” Smartstrong’s voice was firm.
The ork warrior, Fighterfast shrugged and jogged forward a few paces, meeting the Areva with a challenging grunt.
Uluula hated tusk demons. She hated them with every fiber of her being. They were blight on the Universe, low level, animalistic warriors that reproduced more rapidly than quol and killed Areva by the millions on colony worlds every year. They needed to be exterminated.
Most people didn’t hate dusk demons much anymore in the Areva sphere nations because they were so common and some worlds even had trade with them, but they were barbarians and monstrosities. Uluula’s big sister died in a tusk demon invasion. Whenever Uluula thought about it, thought about how her sister might have been eaten alive by these beasts, she was filled with rage.
Just seeing the tusked shlarna made her want to stab their arrogant faces over and over again. She screamed, “Perish!” in Quadrant as she leaped to meet the tusked demons. They had to die, every last one of them!
Jason tried to make sense of what was going on from a distance. When Uluula shot an ork that was just standing there, he did a double take. The Delvers killed a lot of orks already that day, true, but demons or not, orks were obviously thinking beings with language.
Then he saw an ork go out to meet her in a duel. Jason’s perception of the situation changed a little, at least Uluula wasn’t slaughtering helpless orks. He knew she had some sort of hang up about orks from her past and she called them “tusked demons”, but she didn’t elaborate any further with him. He grimaced and thought, I should have seen this coming.
Jason wearily lifted his sword tip out of the dirt and teleported near Uluula. The steely eyes Areva woman was facing off against the ork, both of them circling each other. The ork she faced was slightly larger than average, about the height of a large man, but thicker. His brown-mottled, light blue skin was scuffed from the battle and like most of his comrades, he wore hide armor.
When Jason appeared with a pop of misplaced air, Uluula didn’t look at him but said, “Jason Booth, I must do this. Please don’t interfere.”
“I didn’t do anything during this fight. I have no blood on my hands. There is a good chance we killed all the tusked demons, orks in this dungeon. I may not get another chance for my vengeance, maybe not in my lifetime.”
Jason couldn’t see her face, but he could hear the tears in her voice. Not for the first time, Jason was forcibly reminded that this tiny woman he was falling in love with was also one of the fiercest people he’d ever met. He was around her so often he forgot she was a different species, had a different culture. He wasn’t really happy with what was happening, he wasn’t happy that Uluula was picking a hand to hand fight with a big, blue monster, but he also knew he didn’t have the right to interfere.
Jason shook his head, “I won’t stop you, but you can’t keep doing this. We should probably keep these ones alive until after we clear the dungeon. I want to see if we can find out any more about this world.”
Keeja floated a bit closer from where she’d been hovering in the air, “Won’t work. Orks are stupid and you don’t know their language anyway.”
Jason gritted his teeth and ignored Keeja. During the battle she just floated in the air, all the orks’ atlatl darts that hit her just bounced off. “We’re going to do this my way. Henry, you lead fighting but this is my decision. You backing me?”
“Hell yeah, dude. Better you than me.”
Jason nodded and watched Uluula fight, silently cheering her on. Part of him was really freaked out by how calmly he was reacting to his girlfriend, well, sort of girlfriend facing down an ork in mortal combat with a spear. Another small part of him was glad he wasn’t upset. Being constantly surprised and afraid was exhausting.
The ork was obviously an extremely skilled fighter. He fought using a thick hide shield and a stone axe. The weapon was crude, but the ork’s techniques were anything but. Watching the duel, something was bothering Jason, something didn’t make sense.
Uluula was overpowered by the ork, but she was extremely fast. Her opponent’s shield was causing her problems, blocking all her exploratory strikes. The ork was wary, trying to trap Uluulas spear or even grab it with his hand, but she was just barely fast enough to keep the spear out of his grasp.
Finally, the duel took a turn when Uluula feinted downwards towards the ork’s leg and quickly reversed with a thrust to his face, her movements smooth and fast. Her strike was more of a jab, but she stepped into the strike for more power. The spear’s blade caught the ork above the eye, effectively blinding half his vision with blood.
The ork roared, and Uluula took advantage of the ork’s misfortune to circle him towards his blind side. After that, it was only a matter of time until Uluula slipped a strike through the ork’s guard, first to his throat and then to his ribs. The spear made a squelching sound as she withdrew it and the ork crashed to the ground.
“Henry?” Jason called over his shoulder. In a flash, Henry sprang forward to subdue the orks and Jason teleported behind Uluula to hold her. Luckily, when he put his arms around her, she didn’t struggle. In fact, she leaned against him and sobbed quietly, hiding her face.
Henry was armored with steel skin and obviously strengthened with earth magic. He easily snatched the weapons from the remaining orks hands and cuffed all of them to the ground. Then he grabbed a bronze sword from the ground and fashioned crude manacles out of the metal with magic, attaching them to the orks’ wrists. It was strange watching Henry manhandle the orks, all of which were bigger than him, but by this point on Jason had seen weirder on Ludus.
After the orks were subdued, Henry took charge of the group again. Jason stood back and let his friend delegate tasks. This was Henry’s element.
Henry went to grab several large, heavy boxes from the Battlewagon. When he came back, Henry barked out orders. “Uluula, you’re not fit for duty right now. Stay with the battlewagon. Mareen, stay with her. You’re strong so don’t let her do anything we’ll regret later. Bezzi-ibbi, please stay here and watch them. We’ll be back if there are more nasties left in the dungeon or can’t deal with.
“Jason, you’re with me after Mareen heals you up enough to stop bleeding, I’m kind of surprised you aren’t complaining about that nasty cut on your chest. Aodh, you’re coming with us. Both of you grab as many trap balls you can carry and follow me.”
Jason shrugged and went to see Mareen. She was able to use a combination of magic and bandages to make sure he wasn’t going to spring a leak again, at least not too bad. Then he grabbed a pack and a few torches before following Henry. He was honestly glad that UIuula was safe on the Battlewagon. Even if there were no more orks left inside, a dungeon was still dangerous, particularly this one. Plus he was getting an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach, a feeling like something bad was about to happen.
What could be worse than fighting orks all day and almost dying in a duel with an inhuman mage? Jason laughed at the thought as he passed the shattered threshold of Yanbei Caverns.