Take Up the Cross – CH2: First Fight and Final Farewell

The woman’s face is unreadable, even after trying to kill Adris.

 

The buzzing in his ears from the sudden movement, combined with the intoxication of the air, makes it hard to vocally respond to this attack, especially while airborne.

Adris’ body decides to let his actions speak for him.

 

Flinging out his arm, the sleeve rips apart violently, dozens of razor-sharp projectiles swarming out from a hidden launcher strapped to his arm. The aura-powered blades whistle noisily as they fly to carve up his attacker.

The woman agrees with his decision, chambering her sword to her lower right while leaning in, the blade glowing scarlet red.

 

Adris reacts to the danger by running on the curved wall as he lands against it, his aura-lightened body scampering along it, as red light quickly fills the room.

A snake of scarlet aura disintegrates the blades in flight, before impacting with a floundering splash on the wall behind him. The wall explodes with the serpentine energy gouging into it, a great line of destruction following behind a running man defying gravity.

When he rounds the end of the curve, he leaps towards the center of the room with all of his strength.

Drawing his spear as he hits the ground, his back is slightly singed by his second near-death experience.

 

Ears ringing from the deafening roar of the red snake, a non-functioning mind is ignored by his well-trained body. His defenses are now mostly solid, even if his spear thrust out before him quivers slightly.

The girl turns like clockwork to face him, lifting her sword slowly and high with two, white-knuckled hands gripping firmly, entering into her chasing stance.

 

Adris can’t make out what she is thinking, even though it should be considered one of his most well-mastered skills.

All he can feel is numb fear and horrible confusion.

With spear now filled with his aura, his tense body is ready to kick off. The woman is prepared in the same way, her sword glowing an ocean blue as she awaits his attack.

 

After a moment passes, Adris’ mouth finally functions.

“What are you doing?” The question is a choked whisper, completely failing to carry his disbelief.

The woman blinks at the question, only lightly inclining her head, her stony face refusing to betray her thoughts.

 

The two stand facing each other, as the dust from the woman’s aura whip finally settles.

Quiet fills the room.

Fighting the urge to charge forward and gain the advantage, Adris’ spear is heavy, more a solid tree than a metal pole. The lack of breathing between them as the anticipation grows is becoming…

 

 

“What the fuck are you doing! SERRAS!”

Yelling out finally, Adris addresses his ambusher by name.

 

 

Serras doesn’t acknowledge her name at first, but then stares at him sharply, her eyes growing dark as her face contorts in anger.

 

“Surviving.”

 

Adris is confused at the response. Mental conditioning is telling him to flee, while his body tells him to both stand at Serras’ back, and also to put his spear through her heart.

“Did you think I’d let you get to it? To take it for yourself, so that you can throw me away? Like you’ve always tried to?”

Adris’ eyes look past her to the sarcophagus, then back. Understanding his moving gaze, her lips go into a sneer, an expression Adris has never seen.

“You thought I was dumb to your plans?”

(Which ones?)

Adris retorts to himself, lacking the ability to throw the question at her.

“I can see it. You used to only look at others with those eyes. And now, you look at me with them. You think you’re clever. That I don’t know what you’re doing. What you’re thinking.”

She brandishes her sword threateningly. Adris thrusts his spear out to menace her. The two shuffle their feet while changing stances, testing each other, as they tempt the other to close.

 

“I know how you live. You’re just a thief and a liar.”

 

Adris feels strange, for he’s never heard words like these from his partner. Serras doesn’t look like Serras, her face the same, but everything else dissimilar.

He knows that he should say something, but he can’t determine what. Trying to convince her of anything is impossible when he has no plan.

(No, what conceivable plan would fix this situation?)

 

“I can’t trust you.” Serras spits, growing more furious at his lack of response. “I won’t let you lead me around anymore!”

 

Adris feels hot.

It might be the room, the succulent aura from the Emperor’s corpse, or something deeper, but he feels a dam long stoppered break in an instant.

 

“’You can’t trust me’? Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to, you brat?” Adris growls, a voice he’s never directed at her before openly challenging her slander. Serras tenses when his voice deepens.

Adris reaches in and hastily flings three daggers pulled from his robe, the sweeping movement resulting in pathetic throws by his usual, sharp standards.

They fly screaming through the air, as her eyes narrow while tracking them.

Serras easily dodges two of them with a sidestep, deflecting the third with a sharp juke of her blade, causing it to bounce away, clanging loudly in the small room.

 

“Huh? You think you’re tough shit because you can slaughter weaklings?!” Adris swaggers, looming larger, while venom comes to his words quite easily.

“While you’re out butchering malcontents for mouthing off at you, I’ve been the one doing everything to keep you alive behind the scenes! If any of the hundreds of people who hate you were half as competent as me, you’d have been dead years ago!”

 

Serras rushes him finally, sword flashing as she tries to enter the center between them. Adris moves in to keep her from taking it, thrusting sharply toward her.

Catching her off guard with his longer reach, she clumsily kicks away, surrendering the center without forcing a confrontation.

 

“You filled graveyards and painted walls red all across Sinli province, while I was getting us food and jobs! We’d have starved a dozen times if you couldn’t trust me!”

(Wait. That’s not what I mean.)

Adris tries to interject, to stop himself. His mouth is moving independently of his brain, a strange occurrence.

As he resets his stance and glares her down, Serras begins to stare down at the floor, though Adris can’t understand why.

Taking your eyes off the enemy is wrong.

 

(Wait, does that make me the enemy?)

The situation doesn’t match Adris’ definitions of their relationship. The whole plan is coming undone, and he doesn’t know why.

 

“Huh? You think you’re hot shit, now? Who had your back when ten families all came to flay you alive for killing their sons at a party, just because one of them tried to taste a cold beauty?” Adris sneers, bringing up an old memory he’s often reminded her of.

“I guess I did screw up if you never learned how to say ‘no, thank you, sir, I find you ugly’ using words, instead of getting the message across by opening his throat with your blade.”

Serras lifts her head to lock eyes with his, her countenance suddenly as vicious as Adris’.

“What did you teach me? I watch you con people that you offer to help. You take a reward with one hand and stab them in the back with the other!”

When she moves to close in again, Adris kicks dust up at her, lunging forward stupidly after distracting her, only to be rebuffed by her blade. Falling back with an expletive, he gets back into a defensive posture, confused to see that she hasn’t pursued to capitalize on his sloppy mistake.

“And who gets to survive because of it? It’s not like we have a lot of options. You’ve got us on every provincial bounty roll in most of Xin!” Adris mocks her, blaming their situation on her.

His grip has his knuckles white, too, as he holds onto his spear, still shaking as he speaks. Angry, scared, confused, and vindictive, the only face Adris can manage now is one that he hopes will cowl her.

 

“Survive? I don’t need you to survive.”

Serras’ dispassionate response causes Adris’ knees go weak for a moment, feeling his heart stop briefly with immense pain. But the acid soon fills his throat, and then rage hits him.

He lashes out, feinting his spear wildly, moving in to get through a dropped guard. His partner ignores a feint she’s seen a few hundred times, batting away his spear and shuffling to close as he retreats.

 

“You’d be dead already if I didn’t constantly save you.”

His cold statement results in Serras’ hateful glare, her response a surprise.

“Like you saved Torrel?” The deep hatred in her eyes is inextricably tied to a long dead name.

Adris’ mind thinks back on that name, as Adris’ body continues to move on its own.

 

“Torrel?” Adris laughs, for the man had died for interesting reasons. “Save him?” He sneers, dismissing outright the idea of “salvation” for the man in question. “No, no, he’s the best example of what I mean.”

A quick jab sparks off Serras’ sword as Adris attempts to circle her, but he dives back when Serras’ answer is a vertical line of death.

The wild wave of aura slashing out from her blade cuts a trough in the floor, chips and pieces striking Adris as he rolls up into a guard.

Serras bares her teeth. “Example? Saving him would mean that… you hadn’t…”

 

“Let him die?” Adris asks monotonously. “If we’re going to…” He chokes, momentarily. “… be honest, then: sure.”

Adris starts to feel a little emotional about this story, as he taps his spear’s butt on the stonework.

“Except I didn’t let him die. I specifically killed him.”

 

Serras lurches forward with her aura leaking uncontrollable malevolence, as Adris instantly assumes a deeper stance. She throws another wild wave of raw aura at him, a screaming, bright blade beam, which he avoids by inverting himself with an aura-infused jump to touch the ceiling.

Launching off of it to strike at Serras, his well-timed counter goes wide as she nimbly escapes with a speed Adris rarely sees equal his. As the usually aggressive woman retreats, he also retreats upon landing.

They exit threat of each other for yet another reset.

 

“And it saved your life, you stupid bitch.” Serras stops her next charge, confused by the insulting revelation delivered with a breathless, rasping voice.

“Well, yeah, beauty of my dreams.” Adris starts rambling, beside himself with indignation at Serras’ stupidity, while also using the lull to recover his own stamina. “Torrel might’ve been a good man to look at, but what was inside was decayed. While you were flashing innocent eyes at him, all he was wondering was how he was going to get your body.” Adris laughs rudely, as Serras incenses further at the allusion to betrayal by her.

“Problem is, he wanted it two ways.” Adris says, as he swings his spear around and then points it at her. “After he would’ve had you, he’d have had his second helping… of your heart.”

A blank look of confusion comes to Serras, as she for some reason prepares to guard against an unseen attack.

“Torrel was a spy, you idiot, one for the Empty Crypt sect. He didn’t want you. He just wanted your particulars. ‘Heart of Serras’.” Adris sighs, wondering why she still hasn’t figured this out after so many years.

“Getting to taste your other parts, that would’ve just been a bonus.”

As Serras looks shocked, Adris finishes her off with the man’s fate, “So I let him taste something nice…” Adris snarls through clenched teeth.

 

“I cut off his legs and arms, and buried him alive.”

 

When Serras flinches, Adris feels happy for the first time in recent memory.

“’Empty Crypt’ became ‘occupied barrow’!”

He laughs madly at his own joke, as Serras goes white.

“Called it an attack by bounty hunters, fluffed the details a little, and everything worked out.”

(I still have the scar from faking it.)

“I’m so terribly sorry for not letting you sleep with him first…” Adris apologizes, though feels no real shame at his actions. “I suppose you had gotten tired of me? Or maybe you thought that liar was a good man where I am not? Sorry, but he managed to be… even more disappointing than I am.”

Shaking in embarrassment, Serras’ eyes go unfocused while Adris looks pleased.

 

Then, the same snarl as before returns to her mouth, her body visibly calming.

“That’s okay. I saved you, too.” She purrs, with suddenly soft eyes filled with something much crueler than love.

 

Adris freezes. The blood drains from his mind.

 

(The smell was awfully familiar.)

 

“What did you do.” Not so much a question as an accusation, Adris already knows the answer.

“You thought of a way out, too. With all your petty schemes. I’d follow you, you know.” Serras speaks, a wistful voice Adris has never heard before coming out. “The village of Ner’ja hurt me.”

Without any control over it, Adris’ spear lashes out three times. Serras effortlessly parries the strikes while still smiling, her nimble footwork almost a joyful prance.

(Stop smiling.)

“Yes, even you have to admit it now. That girl and her father, you had plans with them, right?” A terribly unnerving smile, animated in a way she rarely is, prompts Adris to confirm an old plot.

 

Wellek and his daughter Vishra.

A merchant and his spoiled princess in the Spine of Divinity region. Moderately wealthy. Very pliable.

Adris had considered going on with Wellek, to stay. To escape being hunted.

He wasn’t trying to… leave Serras. He’d planned for her to stay, too, as a bodyguard to the family.

 

“I’d never seen you truly smile as often as while we stayed in that town.”

(A terrible smell. Very familiar. Always close. Like when I hold her.)

“The problem with your love,” Serras starts, speaking more words today than in months. “Was it being all in your head. The merchant wanted your brain. And the daughter wanted a bad man. You were… dashing. You are always dashing.”

Looking drunk on her story, Serras begins walking towards him with no defense, her calmness more powerful than any of her deadly techniques. Adris falls back, overwhelmed by her open guard.

“So… I came with a fat bounty notice, and asked if he had seen it. He said yes.”

(I see. So I was played. Good game.)

Adris’ stomach knots, even as his survival instincts are secretly thankful.

“The daughter was happy, too. They offered to help. The merchant had poison.”

(All too realistic.)

Adris falls deeper into his misery, finding the memory of Vishra’s face revolting now.

“When he asked if poison was fine,”

Serras closes her eyes and smiles amiably.

“I couldn’t help myself.”

(I know.)

 

A feint thrust at her face turns into a thrust to her torso, but Adris can’t find his footing or aim. She stops moving towards him, dodging both thrusts by simply turning her body as she pulls back, but makes no attempt to return the blows.

Adris can’t feel his legs.

 

When Adris had gone back to discuss finalizing a business transaction, he had found the merchant and Vishra.

All of their loose money had been taken. Their sitting room had been repainted; but, they had been in one piece.

He’d run away, only to have Serras find him later, asking where he’d been during their stay in the town.

(Which is why… I didn’t think… it was you.)

 

Because Serras doesn’t mislead. She’s not… smart enough to hide a lie…

 

“Ahahahaha!”

Adris is startled from his despair, when Serras laughs crazily after opening her eyes. Her laugh, too, is something he hasn’t heard in… ages.

“Maybe I am dumb, but you know.” Serras words are teasing, all of Adris’ humor having rubbed off on her. “It’s not like you’re god, brother. You didn’t think it was me. When I found you trying to run away from me, I was a bit angry.”

(But I wasn’t going to run away from you.)

 

He was only hedging his bets. Like he has always done. Like he knows he has to do.

Set them up now, son, to use them later.” That was how he’d been taught.

Fatso had been strict and informative.

 

Serras, drunk on her reverie, continues to hurl abuse in an uncharacteristic tirade.

“Getting angry at me for killing? It’s what I do best! You lie to officials. You steal from them for fun. Every night after you win, you laugh and talk and drink and brag. You are happier to rob them than to taste my body on the same night!” She yells petulantly, shaking her sword.

 

“At least I rob rich men, instead of cutting up soldiers for fun! Or is it more than fun? Is that how you feel joy?”

It’s a thought Adris has kept to himself for a long time, suddenly freed to be used as a weapon against her.

 

“What do you care? We were never really soldiers. At least killing is honest, unlike you! For you to play around with our money, using it on… just ridiculous schemes to swindle powerful men…” Serras’ leering face has a childish anger to it that Adris can’t explain.

“Are you really going to be a hypocrite about me cutting up scum? ‘They deserved it!’ That’s always your justification! Why don’t the ones I cut up deserve it, brother? Because it inconveniences you!?”

 

Adris reaches into his robe, searching for a trinket. When Serras readies her sword in response, finally, his hand comes back with nothing, taking back up his spear.

“I spend most of our money buying off pursuers! Putting down suspicion! Bribing town watches and elders!” Adris spits, his mind on fire as he thinks of how to win this confrontation. “At least when I swindle someone, they don’t know who I am! You just march out and leave heads in the dirt! You malevolent wildcat!”

He stabs like a fool at nothing in particular.

 

“Arrogant, self-absorbed liar!”

 

She parries his spear, but doesn’t riposte.

 

“Witless, battle drunk, spoiled whelp!”

 

He somehow comes within her close range. Unsure how, he resorts to rudely punching her in the face, and she counters by kneeing him in the stomach. They both stagger back, bruised by the powerful blows.

 

“Ha, ha! You should know, you raised me!” She growls, slashing her sword wide with a laugh, as a bit of blood leaks onto her red lips. “Am I not the perfect weapon? Isn’t that what you and Jilahn wanted?”

Adris grows fearful at this accusation. He has never spoken of…

“‘Perfect talent and peerless blade.’ Jilahn called me ‘bloody little war goddess.’ He and you both let me crush any other slave I wanted to in sparring. They’d be tatters by the end.” Suddenly curious, she asks, “You never had a title, though. Why?”

(Because I wasn’t important. I was “assistant.”)

“You spent a year making me trust you. I believed in you.” Serras looks almost longingly at Adris. “You and I had our first time together.”

She moves forward, leveling her blade at his neck, ready to thrust.

“How useful was that to reaching ‘clear mind?’ Jilahn told me a lot the night he popped.”

(I don’t know. I did what Fatso told me to do. It seemed… fine. Wouldn’t his explanation have been sufficient? Fatso’s explanations were ever thorough.)

“When you pushed me down while I was wearing the necklace you gave me, what were you thinking when you kissed me? Was it how useful I’d be in saving your life?”

“Yes… no…” Adris blurts out, an admission streaming without guile. “At first, I didn’t understand what I wanted, but then I held you, and I was scared. Then, you held me back. I don’t know what I was thinking. Whatever I thought at first, by the end…”

 

Lowering his spear, Adris tries to find the words to say that will solve this, but instead only random thoughts appear.

(I’m usually more articulate than this.)

 

“I just… wanted you.”

Looking at him silently as he admits disconnected truths, Serras asks a hard question.

“Is it a lie, or the truth? I’ve known you my whole life, and…”

With a sad look, Serras attacks Adris’ very soul.

 

“I don’t know.”

Adris almost wretches at those words, with them cutting far deeper than he imagined possible.

 

Looking behind her, finally completely taking her eyes off of him for the first time since this began, she asks a quiet question.

“Why would I think you want me to have this… power, when it’s what you’ve wanted your whole life?”

(… No… That’s, not… untrue, but it’s also not…)

“Stupid! Why would I come down here with you if I was going to steal it for myself!?”

(Excepting the revenants… everything else I could deal with… right?)

 

Adris suddenly considers that that was always an option.

Looking to where her eyes go, the drunken feeling assaulting him is enticing beyond his capability to hide.

 

“Right. Even if you say you need me, the moment I take my eyes off of your quick hands… If it’s you, I bet you could do it.”

Serras voice is chilly, as Adris’ eyes lock back on her. She’d been waiting for him to look, too, so she could gauge his true feelings.

The disappointed look on her face is her verdict.

 

I would never throw you away!

A yell fills the small chamber, the man’s voice desperate.

 

Tilting her head, mouth firm, her eyes soften as she considers the statement.

 

“Is that the truth? Do even you know what is a lie and what isn’t, anymore?” She asks, curious at who Adris really is. “Are you sure you’d let me have it?”

Looking sad, again, when all Adris can do is let his mouth hang open stupidly, she asks the worst question yet.

 

“What am I? A tool? Or a partner?”

Adris is silent. It hurts too much to try to retort or explain himself.

This question makes Adris conflicted, indignant, self-loathing, and angry.

 

“If you really trust me,”

Her eyes are unwavering.

“Then how did you know to dodge?”

Before he can muster an articulate response, a commotion comes from behind him.

 

“They’re up ahead!”

Turning to look, Adris sees armor he recognizes entering the room.

Throwing himself to a wall and his pack towards the Emperor’s sarcophagus, he points his spear at the door as five Xin’Reh soldiers charge in and take up aggressive stances towards him.

Their swords and spears glow faintly, hinting at the aura alloy composing them. Their coppery, lamellar chest protectors and fitted, ceramic body armor gleams in the flitterlight.

A full team of militant aura users catches Adris off guard.

 

His worst nightmare is now complete.

(How the fuck did you-)

 

Adris’ mind clears in an instant. The most dangerous one is wearing a commander’s sash with a green, leafless tree on a red background.

(Fuck you, you should be dead!)

Soldon’s adjutant stands before him, the ugly man’s beady eyes burning with anger as he points his green spear at Adris’ neck. When last Adris saw the man’s bruised, but now healing, face, Serras was thoroughly humiliating him in a one-sided brawl.

There’s hesitation in the man’s gaze, though. The anger doesn’t translate to a lethal bloodlust, yet. The man looks more inclined to try to…

 

Adris moves himself in front of the soldiers, standing between them and Serras.

Trying to protect her, he prepares to charge in when –

 

“Lady Serras, we’re here to back you up.”

 

The leader.

 

“Capture him!”

 

Wearing Soldon’s colors,

 

speaks.

 

Adris’ eyes glaze over.

The soldiers before him are hostile towards him. When they entered, none were hostile towards Serras, a fact yet unchanged.

 

Adris is no longer shaking, for the nervousness disappears completely. The events of the past few minutes drop from his mind as he decides solely to survive.

It all vanishes away, leaving only a burning pain.

 

(All of Serras’ victims were other provinces’ soldiers. Serras disappeared after the assault on Soldon. The detachment always managed to find us, no matter how hard I tried. Facts that I was purposefully not connecting.)

There was the trap tunnel, too. The trail vanished when the fire incinerated it halfway. It was never completed, meaning their presence here is intended.

(She noticed the lever. And this idiot is alive.)

She’d led them straight to him, guessing what the switch’s function was. And this man is serving her.

 

He is already moving towards the Soldon guards before his mind and body reach agreement. Adris resorts to expending all of his emergency tricks: aura tools, mystical artifacts that can focus a user’s aura to create a defined effect.

Pulling free an aura tool shaped like a brass funnel, and bearing the Emperor’s sigil, he puts the small end to his mouth and injects a third of his remaining aura into it through his lips.

 

No sound comes out, but the air shakes. Even the walls quiver.

 

The soldiers are buffeted by the unheard, yet discordant, noise.

Their ears start to bleed, their consciousnesses wavering as they lose balance. Only the commander, whose aura control is superior to the effect, ignores its devastating noise, a brief distraction the only effect on him.

Adris pounces like a tiger, capitalizing on the disruption and making an audacious preemptive attack, planting his spear point into the face of one of the stunned guards. The man’s right eye bursts as his socket is hollowed out.

Dipping into his brain, Adris is sure of this kill.

Adris yanks his spear out as he kicks the man away like trash, bringing the sharp edge of the spear down into the leg of the man cowering next to his first victim, striking on the backside of the man’s armored shinguard. Slashing at a tendon, he drops the cursing soldier to the ground with the sweep.

Before Adris can land his feet, the commander thrusts his shining, green spear for Adris’ chest.

 

The man’s evil eyes show no hesitation, now. Nobody left alive and upright still intends to capture Adris, especially not this bastard.

 

Adris interposes his left hand between himself and the green spear, a piece of metal folding out from his sleeve.

A metal barrier appears before him, capturing the attacking spear and wrapping around it, tying up like wrapping cloth and rendering it mostly useless, as it drastically increases the weight of the spear. The spearhead hits the ground with a metallic thud.

Landing in a guard, Adris prepares to attack, but the commander circulates his own aura, a shining aura bursting the tool off of the spear’s head.

Another thrust begins for Adris as the enemy spear rises, just as swift as Adris’ own would be.

Adris is already injecting aura into a small ball he’s produced in his palm, flicking it towards the man while Adris closes his eyes.

The ball explodes into a blinding flash of light, the incoming thrust of the commander’s spear going wide with a jerk, as a spectral, green-turtle’s mouth gouges out the entire area to the left of Adris.

 

(If you’re not going to die easily, then die horribly.)

As the flash persists, Adris pulls out a wrapped, paper circle bound in string, throwing it towards the burning flash. He pulls the string in mid flight, releasing a red disk that explodes violently upon meeting the floating flames.

Adris throws himself out of the activated disk’s rapidly expanding red mist, rolling to safety as the soldiers within the obscuring cloud begin to violently cough.

 

(Serras was behaving strangely? Not a big surprise. She was never good at hiding anything she was thinking about. At least the traps I left delayed excess reinforcements.)

Adris had secretly re-activated a number of the traps that Serras thought were disabled.

(Five soldiers out of a detachment? Unlikely. More on the way. I need to run.)

Adris cannot beat a detachment of Xin’Reh and their supporters. Defeating five in an instant used all of his deadly trinkets, and relied upon them being incapable of responding.

Serras might be able to defeat a detachment if she has sufficient territorial advantage and ambush, but only an ascended being could defeat a complex full of angry, trained aura users who can coordinate.

 

Rather than run, though, his body turns, moving towards Serras.

He levels his spear at the girl, and charges.

 

(I can’t win.)

Adris’ mind is rejecting this charge. But, he can’t stop his own body.

Something within him is crumbling, the logic he prides himself on being murdered by the appalling feelings he now holds towards his partner.

 

As he hears liquids spilling onto the floor at the soldiers’ feet, confirming his flank’s safety, Adris moves with all of the speed he can muster, a short distance growing ever shorter.

Serras’ face looks stupidly blank as he approaches.

 

He calculates his only chance for victory, a process that takes surprisingly little time, and begins his mental countdown.

 

([Rising Wave] loses to [Impossible Pivot].)

 

Serras, suddenly with steel in her strike as death approaches, launches an aura wave from the ground, trying to blow him off his feet.

Adris’ right foot catches to the ground as he rushes in and his whole leg twists inhumanly. Dragging his body to throw him to the right as he rolls on the ground, this movement bypasses the wave and lets him move in from another vector after righting himself.

 

([Eternal Ice] cannot be used due to the concentration of aura in the room. The range dictates [Shadows Converge].)

 

Serras brings darkness out of the room lit by the flashing bomb, her body swaying briefly as she prepares to charge with the shadows, her body momentarily wavering.

Plentiful shadows exist to be used, lit as the room is by the lingering flash bomb. Adris pulls out a rare Acuity of Mind technique from his repertoire, one he had… coincidentally learned from the Solar Ire sect.

From him issues a scintillating light accompanied by a ringing bell, an expanding force that consumes every shadow in the room. The technique, stunning him for a second from the recoil, leaves Serras with time to attack before he does, even as her shadows are consumed around her.

She moves toward him with a familiar, blue aura winding up around her sword, looking like a mountain giant preparing to squash him flat.

 

([Oceanic Might] will fall to [Flea Flicker].)

 

As Serras’ blue-bound blade slams into the ground in front of Adris, absolutely pulverizing the space where he once was, Adris is already flying directly backwards at enormous speeds by utilizing a technique he has kept hidden, even from Serras.

Pulling free his last trinket, he flicks a paper doll in Serras’ direction. As he hits the wall and climbs it like an escaping roach, easily maintaining his momentum, the paper doll folds out like reverse origami, becoming a doppelganger of him that charges through the dust kicked up from Serras’ strike.

Reaching the top of the room, Adris flings himself over to the Emperor’s sarcophagus, while Serras bisects the doppelganger in place of him.

 

Adris prepares to throw his spear.

His body and mind are separate things, acting on their own principles. Even as he still wants to stand next to her, Adris is instead preparing to end her life. His heart is melting from the stress of his emotions and the aura rapidly draining from him.

(Why am I killing you, Serras?)

Adris rears back with all of his might, adding an enormous amount of aura from the room to his spear. His spear wobbles and groans with a metallic, wrenching sound as it accepts un-attuned aura straight from the environment.

Only someone with low Acuity of Mind, but high Power of Spirit, can serve as a tuning fork for external aura, at the cost of his internal organs distorting along with his energizing spear.

The weapon, his only wife for sixteen years, will never be useful again. Its internal mechanism completely deforms, as the pole begins to twist.

 

(I don’t want to kill you, but also…)

Adris can’t not do it. It’s just…

 

… principle, at this point.

 

Betrayal is betrayal.

 

As Adris prepares to release his technique, he feels a terror that brings him back to the day of Serras’ awakening.

 

Even though she isn’t looking at him, her body has become a writhing mass of red aura, droplets of it filling the air around her and hanging solid.

The air in the room falls to the ground, weighed down all at once.

Adris can no longer breathe as he feels submerged deep beneath the sea, though in this case it would be a red one full of gore.

(Serras’ favorite color.)

While she should be winded from all of the fighting and travel, she instead exhibits unbridled power. Adris’ own aura is pathetically dwarfed by the expanding wave.

The great tide he has always felt from her now becomes one that rivals the ambient outflow from the Emperor’s remnants. The girl he thought he knew inside and out has depths of talent that he’s never glimpsed, and he instinctively knows they will shortly devour him.

 

All this time, her enemies were only throwing themselves at a tidal wave hidden along the ocean floor, ready to surface.

 

(You’ve never trusted me our whole lives!?)

Adris releases his spear early in abject fear and a sense of total betrayal, hurtling it at Serras with no care for her survival.

 

The screaming spear carries all of his frustrations and outrage.

 

 

But… those emotions prove far too ineffectual against a true monster.

 

 

An unknown technique fills the air, Serras’ aura blossoming out to wrap around the oncoming spear without her even looking at it.

She drops her sword as she begins to dance, twirling in place as the storm of aura races around her, pulling Adris spear into a spiral around her body. It increases in speed, his own power merging with hers, as she finishes her deathly dance by flinging her arms out toward him.

 

Adris’ own spear flies like a ray of light, piercing through his chest and connecting him to the wall over the Emperor’s sarcophagus. Serras’ wave of aura follows behind it, guided like a frenzy of sharks along a trail of fresh blood.

 

The spear explodes his abdomen, piercing his spine as it slams him into the wall.

His organs, already weakened by his heretical technique, are completely crushed by Serras’ tag-along wave of aura. His internal expanse is permanently wounded.

Only his lungs, heart, head, and left arm survive the assault by din of Adris reflexively reinforcing them. Pinned to the wall by the pressure of the attack, Adris’ now blood-filled eyes watch as Serras walks up to him, with him barely able to see after cracking his head against the wall.

 

The pain is exquisite.

The spear only barely missed his lungs, yet something within them has burst, a heavy feeling coming to his chest as he can no longer breathe correctly. His body, resting on what’s left of his rib cage, leaks all over the floor.

(Hey, where did you learn that, beauty of mine? That was a good technique.)

 

Red on red, a blossom of death, like a hungry flytrap that seeks out its own prey.

 

(You always had a good imagination.)

Serras stands before him to look into his eyes, as her liquid aura recedes. Adris can’t make out her expression because of the sudden shock to his body.

(You hid how powerful you were the whole time. If you knew I had no chance, then why did you even play with me? What did you need me for?)

Adris is insulted and humbled.

Every fight they’ve ever shared together now seems like a lie and bit of a waste. All of his precious guile seems pointless, given that she could overwhelm any single, non-ascended opponent Adris can conceive of.

 

Guarding her back?

Wasn’t Adris just hiding in her shadow?

 

The girl he’d called a whelp is actually a bizarrely powerful threat. The obsession he’d had with mastering his talents and supplementing them to stand at her side, now seems rather pathetic.

His mind boggles at how powerful she will be if she claims the Emperor’s inheritance. Missing seeing this hidden potential the whole time, Adris laments his overconfidence.

 

There was no chance from the beginning for him to stand beside her.

All of the rage has vanished like smoke from an extinguished candle before he even notices.

 

Totally beaten, Adris accepts his loss, easily rationalizing that his ruin was inevitable.

Attempting to seek vengeance was the stupidest answer he could have arrived at.

There’s no point in being angry at something that is as honest as this situation.

 

It’s just… when it came time to run, Adris couldn’t think of where to go.

Outside of the room and away from her, there’s nothing waiting for him.

 

He opens his mouth to speak, but only blood rushes out, falling like a gout to the ground below him. He wants to ask why they traveled together. What their partnership meant.

Like her, he’s not sure, now; but, he wants to believe it was once real, even as he uselessly dies.

In contrast to this hope…

 

(I hope that hit you in the face.)

… Adris is ever possessed by petty thoughts of vengeance and punishing transgressions.

Nothing, not even death, will cure it. He’s always been consumed by a feeling of rebellion against the impossibly strong, those who can trample others without a consideration given.

 

Serras will, soon, firmly fit into that category.

 

In response to his futile attack, he can make out a voice, still lovely to hear.

“I wouldn’t find the tomb. I wouldn’t know how to explore it. I’d never be safe.”

(That makes sense. But that’s not exactly my real question. Maybe I did it faster, but it’s not like you couldn’t…)

 

She says more, but his head beats too hard for him to hear. Putting all of his aura into stabilizing his body makes it impossible for him to concentrate on anything else.

Using what’s left of his guts to breathe out air full of phlegm and blood, Adris opens his mouth to offer his last thoughts.

 

 

“Traitor.”

 

 

That word is all he can manage before his withheld blood drains out of him to spill onto the sarcophagus below, an event like incontinence as he loses control of the aura dam blocking his grievous wounds.

Then, he passes out.

 

 


 

 

Yer not much to look at, even after me trainin’ ye a bit.

The old mercenary eyed him, with a look of disgust. Adris had asked for the man to tell him if he had talent, using Adris’ work for him as leverage for a friendly personal chat.

The mercenary was the only man Adris had ever respected as a boy, and also the first aura user the boy had met.

When Adris had encroached on the territory of the people who employed the old man, he’d beaten Adris senseless for an hour to instill proper respect for territory into the young lad. Only a promise to owe the man a useful debt had kept him from breaking Adris’ spiteful mouth open, too.

When were ye born, runt? Ye never said.

Upon having heard the date, the old mercenary laughed hysterically, and regained a touch of youth as he cried. It was amazing how someone so ugly could look so mirthful.

That’s great. The mix is excellent, too. I love it.

Adris was confused as the old man pulled out another bottle with amber-colored liquid and started to drink it. When the man offered him a glass, Adris jumped at the gift.

The two shared a drink… no, a friendly interaction for the first time since Adris had met him.

Ye won’t make it if ye don’t learn any history, fool. Adris means starin the old scant tongue. Practically unchanged from when men were livin’ in caves.

Aren’t stars lucky?

Yeah, if they shine on good times.

He then eyed Adris with some pity, rare for a man who had lived a life as hard as his reputation suggested. The man had never shown compassion to Adris before now, yet here he was sparing him a drink and a look.

Boy, y’were born on the anniversary of the day the First Bastard died. Yer practically a curse. A livin’ testament to bad luck.

Taking a swig, the man concluded his thoughts. Adris couldn’t speak, his hand having stopped in mid motion when he tried to drink from his own glass.

Yer talent is weak, at best, I’d wager. And yer name? Loosely speakin’, to base it on yer day of birth like the robes do for clanless bastards, it’d be: Adris fehl Dain.

 

 

“‘Star of ruin.’”

 

 


 

 

Time seems immaterial.

Adris’ thoughts linger between life and death, an old memory the only thing that cares about him.

He can hear something happening around him, but not make out what.

 

His life has become a flickering flame, left as a crippled man, barely kept alive by his own tenacity.

The only thing that can heal is his body above his chest. Breathing is hard, as is thinking. The healing has reached its limit now that his aura has completely exhausted, with only his intact aura core preventing his death.

He can no longer draw in power from outside of himself. Maintaining only minutes left to live on, he resolves to enjoy that hard bought time.

 

He opens his eyes, looking around. Realizing that he is still upright, he recognizes that he’s somewhat embedded in the wall itself, not merely up against it.

(A wonderful shot.)

At the center of the room, he makes out the soldiers preparing a ritual.

 

A lot of them fill the room, the reinforcements having arrived to take part in the ceremony. More likely remain in the procession hall outside.

There’s a wrapped body in an inked oval, mystic characters drawn out with rare inks that are easy for him to interpret. Candles burn in an orthodox pattern.

Only… the air of the room is gripped with a feeling that Adris has never experienced before, memories of past ceremonies failing to compare to the dread lingering here.

 

The Soldon commander is reciting a litany and leading the ritual. His skin is pale and slightly mottled, but otherwise he is healthy. The red cloud of death failed to take out the one man Adris genuinely wanted to kill.

(A lot harder to think now with no blood in my body, but that looks like the ritual I “borrowed.” Serras remembered the parts I told her, and even managed to fill in the ones I didn’t.)

Serras is… present.

Wearing only white ritual garb, with her unsheathed sword laid before her, she kneels while facing toward the sarcophagus wall that Adris hangs from, her eyes shut.

(I’m a little proud of you for listening. You look beautiful, even if you’re a murderer.)

Her face is blank, and Adris feels no emotion from her.

Behaving like always, the image of the raving Serras is like a distant memory, or a bad dream.

 

(She thinks it’s too dangerous to move the body. So she’ll get what she can from it here, without being greedy. Very shrewd. You learned well.)

It had been an easy way to live that he’d taught her, living without being greedy.

When Adris had instructed Serras on how to awaken her power, his own studies had favored immediate practicality over future gain. The technique that Fatso had helped him develop, using his own aura to guide the development of others’, had been a novel breakthrough.

 

But also a form of suicide.

By empowering others with his aura, Adris had suffered a great deal, permanently scarring his own internal expanse. His mediocre talents were made even more mediocre, snuffed from the start.

 

He’d never told Serras about where the support for her early training had come from.

He didn’t want to appear weak.

Even now, Serras is living proof of what he’d lost in order to obtain immediate power, a sword maiden he had thought belonged to him.

(And I never told anyone how to do it. So I won’t even go down in history for it.)

Adris’ own unique advancement makes it possible, the same sort of technique as drawing in aura from external sources. Only someone that would bother to help another would find it useful; and, in a world full of people attempting to become ascended beings, betrayal is omnipresent.

 

(But I was forward thinking. And never wanted to ascend.)

Adris had taken to heart Fatso’s teachings, working to stay ahead of the present. Adris hated only living in the moment and wanted a future that was free of the designs of others.

Taking Serras to this tomb was just a step toward a better future for both of them. She was never supposed to…

 

But, now it’s just useless.

 

He tries to speak, but finds he can’t. He tries to do…

… anything to spite her, useless as it may be. All that’s left are the petty feelings.

Reaching into his robe, or what is left of it, he searches for one of his wonderful trinkets with the only arm that remains functional.

Using these because he cannot fight like Serras, a trickster’s game is all he’s ever had.

 

(But all my tricks are used up.)

His trinkets are either destroyed or missing, as the pockets inside his robe vanished with the robe itself. The only thing he finds is a metallic object, clinging to the pieces of his exposed ribcage.

Pulling it out of his tattered robe, he holds it up while the guard commander intones the main part of the ritual spell.

 

The silver cross is beautiful. Not as beautiful as Serras, but still quite nice, and shockingly unmarred.

Its gleaming surface hasn’t a speck of dirt on it.

 

(She’ll be okay.)

Adris silently laughs to himself, scornfully, as he looks back to her.

(And I hate her for it.)

The girl he’d wanted to grow stronger, strong enough to survive even if he died, will live on.

(Apparently, I didn’t know her at all; or, rather, I knew her all too well and just wasn’t going to admit it.)

He thinks of the shame at not being able to see how powerful she will become.

The shame of not putting his spear through her ice-like beauty of a face.

(Ah, my wife.)

 

Adris looks down to see his favorite weapon, now reduced to a twisted scrap of metal.

(I am a widower, now.)

If Adris had tears to cry, this would be a proper reason.

 

Full of spite, self-loathing, and sadness, Adris ponders useless questions.

He wonders why the Emperor wanted to be buried alive. Maybe the Emperor was as pathetic a man as Adris is?

One of his wives could’ve orchestrated the act to avenge herself upon the faithless bastard. It wouldn’t be a surprise, for women are powerful when mad.

 

The air grows heavy and baleful as the corpse stirs to life, power surging from it like tendrils where an absence of light manifests. They originate from a translucent, rainbow orb within the corpse where a human’s aura core would be.

Serras’ skin begins to pale as the emanation from the corpse rises in intensity to move towards her, seemingly obeying and shifting with the chanting of the soldiers.

Squinting, Adris is buffeted by the wind whipping up.

The aura of the Emperor being dark is unique. Adris has never heard of a dark aura.

He wonders at it, his highly impressionable mind considering that the Emperor’s power might have come from a novel understanding born from his obsession with shadows emerging from light, granting perspective form when toyed with.

 

Adris thinks about their partnership, watching as Serras grows a bit frightened by the proceedings.

 

She was the butcher girl, always smelling like the same day he had met her, the only one to survive the group she’d been captured in.

He was the sold out scoundrel, clinging to any vain hope, as yet another situation turned against him when his luck predictably soured.

 

But now?

 

Adris fehl Dain’s identity as [Serras fehr Almet’s Partner] is dead forever.

Adris’ identity now is [Nothing].

 

All that remains of this shattered, beaten persona are conflicting emotions.

The realization finishes off what was left of his struggle.

Now, all he can do is embrace the conclusion of his life.

 

(I just wish…)

He grips the silver cross with the last energy, venting his frustration.

(… that we could’ve escaped from all of this.)

 

A pathetic wish that he’d held onto for a long time. Even when they’d run away together, they’d never been free. Even before that, Adris had always been bound to run into catastrophes, no matter how hard he tried to stay ahead of them…

 

 


 

 

The wind stops.

Adris, who was passing out, reopens his eyes in surprise. Feeling like he should have dropped the cross, he finds it still in his hands, mystified by that fact.

Even if he tries to let go, it remains there.

As he dumbly waves the cross in front of him while trying to release it, the soldiers scream as arcing darkness fills the room.

It lances through them as they briefly glow, before disassembling into flying, whitely burning chunks of flesh, their screams entirely consumed by the sonorous drone issuing from the darkness lashing about.

The rising night begins to turn from Serras, who falls back mystified, as she watches it undulate and weave.

Finally noticing Adris, she is shocked to see him moving.

(Yes, I’m alive.)

Before she can begin the sentence forming on her lips, Serras is blown away by a rush of power from the corpse. Adris can’t make out her fate, the darkness becoming a winding coil which fills the whole room, rather than being a mere tendril or weaving storm.

 

From the corpse it unfolds, suddenly aiming violently towards him and the cross he holds.

The drone becomes an undulating cry when it strikes silver.

Space itself begins to warp as Adris feels his body fold up, his head going dark.

Nerves cry out in pain as they catch on fire, before even the pain is devoured by the droning abyss.

 

(Okay, I was wrong! Apparently, I have killed myself somehow!)

 

All light vanishes as the dark cascading from the cross envelops him completely, ending Adris’ silent screaming.

 

(Sorry, Serras. If I’m going to hell, I’m sure we’ll meet again.)

 

 

The world explodes with a white flash, as everything is unmade.

 

 


 

 

What he hears before the end are two voices.

 

One screams

“What did you demand?!”

in a fierce, groggy, masculine voice, full of unmatched self-importance flecked with horror.

 

 

The other,

 

 

infinitely more frightening than the first,

 

 

quips like an old scholar

from the nightmares of his cloister days,

mildly expectant and entirely congenial.

 

 

“Oh, good.

A fresh perspective!”

 

 


 

Characters:

Name: Adris fehl Dain
Race: Xin’El, Emperor’s Child (Human)
Sex: Male
Age: 3* (Deceased)

Occupation: Charlatan/Swindler; Xin’Reh (former); Soldier of Fortune (former); Bounty Hunter (former)
Discipline: Spear Veteran; Aura Warrior, School/Specialization: Self-Taught

Powers:

[Piercing Death] – “Produces blade-like aura at the point of penetration, destroying a creature from the inside. Of no use if you can’t hit, it’s a mortally wounding strike, otherwise.”

[Flea Flicker] – “Bug-like movements which enable him to climb walls and move at high speeds. He cannot attack or interact with anything during these movements, only able to act once freed of his rapid rush. Hidden from everyone that Adris has not already killed, it is his ultimate escape technique.”

[Unnamed Solar Ire Technique] – “Stolen from one of the schools that hates him the most, with a ringing bell accompanying it, it devours all shadows around it. That’s it. It is made to consume darkness, revealing areas. No greater purpose. Why is it so oddly useful against Serras’ most favored technique…?”

[Tool Savant] – “Adris is a tool-collecting-and-utilizing fanatic. Most men would consider him disgusting for loving tools more than his own partner. Has so many tools that it can be said to be his true power.”

Disposition: Deplorable / Adaptable / Sarcastic
Alignment: Chaotic

Eyes: Black
Hair: Black, with strands of White
Skin: Tanned

Statistics:

R-Value – “Please load additional feature.”

Beauty:

C-Value – “If all men looked like him, it might not be odd for women to think that the gods had painted the world in only the drab color brown? While not ugly, would he not exemplify the idea that ‘normal’ is perhaps indistinguishable from ‘undesirable’?”

“Does missing half of your body increase the rarity of what remains, thereby increasing its inherent beauty?”

Description:

“A rather plain-looking man wearing traveling robes, what he carries hidden is far more dangerous than his appearance lets on. A disarming smile, leads to you being suckered. A clever tongue, leads to your sorrow. Possessing quick wit and intellect, hubris and arrogance are certain to follow. Well known across the floating islands of Xin, but not by name, only by reputation. Owed many favors, but not with great joy, and certainly not love. The only person he seems to care about other than himself is his lifelong partner.”

“It can be said that Adris has done a lot of things in his life. Good, bad, evil, and unkind, all of what he has done has been done with the assumption that he will never have to worry about heaven or hell. Now that he’s lost the only thing he’s ever cared about, what is left? Perhaps he will get his chance to discover what it means to be free?”

Commentary:

“Well, apparently he is the protagonist. If he thinks he’s getting out of this alive, he’s wrong at least once. Was what was said about him correct? Perhaps…?”

 


 

Name: Serras fehr Almet
Race: Xin’El, Emperor’s Child (Human)
Sex: Female
Age: 3*

Occupation: Manslayer; Xin’Reh (former/disavowed); Soldier of Fortune; Bounty Hunter
Discipline: Sword Warlord; Aura Warrior, School/Discipline: Self-Taught

Disposition: Chilling / Hateful / Nostalgic
Alignment: Chaotic

Eyes: Black
Hair: Shining Black
Skin: Tanned

Powers:

[Rising Wave] – “In contrast to neutral, unformed waves, this one was specifically designed by her to deal little damage, but have the highest kinetic impact. Useful for clearing the area.”

[Eternal Ice] – “A prison of ice which leaches aura from the one frozen within, killing them like a spider as it sucks them dry. Because it is not discriminate, in areas of high aura, it will expand until it fills the area, only crumbling when the aura within depletes.”

[Shadows Converge] – “Calling forth aura to create duplicates made of the very shadows around her, Serras is capable of engaging multiple foes at once. Truly, this is the pinnacle of her fighting style: overwhelming her enemy and butchering them without affording a defense.”

[Oceanic Might] – “Nothing more than a titanic club, there is no subtlety or style to this technique. It will simply absolutely destroy what it hits, like an ocean wave dashing a ship upon the rocks.”

[“Red Blooming Fly Trap?”] – “A technique designed solely to defeat Adris, it takes advantage of his signature attack to kill him with it. Can you feel the love she has for the man she’s always been with? Surely we would all feel complete if someone created a technique solely to end us with it.”

Statistics:

R-Value – “Please load additional feature.”

Beauty:

C-Value – “Her beauty is perhaps like the lingering and deathly frostbite of a frozen winter night? While you might seek out her slender, yet womanly, body, mayhaps all you shall taste is the dirt? Unless your name is Adris, in which case you still might taste your own blood? A solid, desirable nightmare clad in flesh, like moths, men are drawn, but is it the beauty that calls to them or the hatred underneath…? Is it any wonder that she has never married?”

Description:

“A cold beauty who rejects pleasantries, she seems more committed to her blade than to belonging to humanity. Why she follows Adris can be summarized by the tortuous path their relationship has taken to reach the tomb they are in. Though they fight like more than siblings, and have committed to the future together, perhaps there’s more to be said and little time to say it? If Adris is the brains, then Serras is surely… The only person she seems to care about other than herself is, oh… nevermind.”

“As it is, all of her misgivings towards Adris seem to be very old wounds that never had the time, nor reason, to heal. If even half of what she said was true, then what does that say about him? And herself…? I suppose we’ll never know.”

Commentary:

“Well, well, well, how the turn tables. Did you think she was the primary heroine? Though that might be interesting… sadly, the world is cruel to our protagonist. By the end, he will probably wish she was.”

 

Glossary:

 

Torrel – “A member of the Empty Crypt sect. Tried to take Serras into his accompaniment, was murdered by Adris for his efforts.”

Wellek and Yishra – “A wealthy merchant and his spoiled daughter. Were murdered by Serras for trying to steal Adris away from her.”

Internal Expanse – “The place within an aura user which constitutes their inner world and where their aura gathers. It can be said to be their true soul.”

Jilahn/Fatso – “A terrible man who is to blame for everything. At the very least, he’s where things started to go definitively astray for both of them?”

Emperor’s Cross – “Okay, so it’s not so minor. Everything that was left in the Emperor… where did it go?”

First Voice – “While he sounds angry, he also sounds like he’s important, right?”

Second… Voice? – “WERE THERE TWOOOOO VOICES? SURELY THAT IS IMPOSSIBLE. THERE’S NO SECOND VOICE. PERHAPS WHAT YOU HEARD INSTEAD WAS THE CRY OF A DYING UNIVERSE…?

 

 

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