Chapter 13: Stubborn
“What is the matter, big man?” the apprentice called Watint asked. “Weren’t you going to beat me ‘black and blue’? Where is beating?”
There was nothing Marco would have liked more at that moment than to deliver on his promise. Right now, he would settle for just being free of these bonds.
Both of his hands were encased in clear liquid orbs, cold and viscous feeling, like being submerged in gelatin. A collar of the stuff was also wrapped around his neck, tight enough to be uncomfortable but not quite tight enough to choke him. Another such collar was wrapped around his left leg. He struggled against these binds, and the man who held the liquid whip which connected them all.
The real problem wasn’t the bonds themselves but the cooling effect they had. His whole body was freezing like he had been caught in a cold rain. It was making it difficult for him to get his temper going, a trick he had learned to help him stoke his inner-fire, the Stone Element. As frustrated as he was, he was just too damn cold to get heated.
The bonds got heavier, despite not seeming to grow in size, and Marco had to strain just to keep upright. It reminded him of training with a weighted vest. Except instead of doing reps he was just trying to stand.
“Maybe big man is not so big after all,” Watint chided.
Marco was brought to his hands and knees, feeling a particular disgrace to the memory of the boxer he once was. When he needed it most his strength was failing, strength he had always been so proud of, strength he had sacrificed everything important to him for, his strength that …
He felt the ground beneath his fingers. It was separated from him by the liquid glove, but he could still feel it. The dirt, loose on top and harder packed underneath. The hard rock beneath that, eternal and unyielding. It was a power that had existed since the beginning and would be there long after he was gone. And he had a connection to it.
Marco channeled the Stone.
A strength poured into him that no force could bend. The weight upon his was nothing, a triviality to one with his power. He stood up, stretching proudly as if there were no bonds at all. Then he took a step back, letting the bonds strain against his might. He could see the intent focus in Watint’s eyes as he tried to hold onto the whip that connected them all, but no amount of effort could contain Marco now. Another step back, then another, as the restraints became tighter and tighter.
And finally, with a light pop like a bubble busting the bonds were broken, splashing out onto the ground in one big plop. Marco stretched out his limbs, sore from his straining, while staring down his opponent. “Thanks for the workout. Now how about a real fight?”
Watint was grinning from ear-to-ear. “Oh, big man has a few tricks after all. Good, makes interesting.”
He held his hand out behind him like he was expecting someone to hand him something. Marco didn’t know what trick he was up to, but he had seen enough of these Elementalists to know it was nothing good. With an athlete’s grace he bolted to clear the distance between the two.
A wall of water, as frigid and thick as his bonds had been, came up in his path too quickly for him to stop. Not that he would. He barreled through it, the unstoppable force, bursting out the other side like the start of a ticker-tape parade. Another wall took its place, and another. It couldn’t stop him, but each slowed him. Marco realized that his opponent was just buying time.
And soon he saw why. The trees behind Watint shook and the ground rumbled under the force that was coming their way.
“You saw lake nearby, yes?” Watint asked, confirming Marco’s fears just as a massive wave of dirty lake water crested over the tree line.
Nearby, Kanos ducked and dodged the attempts of the silent Litint to grab him. Electricity arced across the battlefield, branches of the bright energy surrounding Kanos on every side. Litint disappeared and reappeared along those branches, seemingly attacking the boy from every angle, yet unable to get a single hand on him. Kanos would begin to dodge before Litint had even begun his trip across the arcs, and by the time he made his grab the boy would be well outside his reach.
Frustration growing on his face, Litint launched a rapid flurry of forward strikes, making quick leaps forward along his electric arcs, leading with his fist. Kanos leaped back to avoid being hit, nearly landing on his back. His fall was stopped by a cushion of compressed air forming underneath him. Yelling out in surprise, Kanos backstroked through the air, just barely keeping out of Litint’s reach.
Just as it looked Litint would have him, a burst of air pushed Kanos into the air, over Litint’s head and into the sky. He hovered there, opening his mouth like he was about to say something. His mouth stayed hanging open as he saw the encroaching wall of water.
On the other side of the clearing, Arthur unsteadily watched the motes of light encircling him. He was still reeling from attacks he had taken from Litint, not to mention the strain of how much channeling he had already done. It didn’t help that he had no idea what kind of technique he was facing. Though, for whatever reason, his opponent hadn’t attacked yet.
“I thought I’d give you an opportunity to reform your weapon,” Ullen declared, after a somewhat awkward face-off. “I did catch you off-guard. Seems only sporting.” His attention was caught by something behind Arthur. “Though it seems that may have to wait a moment.”
It was then that Arthur also became aware of the lake-sized wave, just as it came crashing down.
If only Ai had sensed the attack a second earlier, she would have been able to deflect it and face this wind-witch at her full strength. As she was now, it was grand struggle just to channel at all. The pain from her broken arm was intense, threatening to overcome her the moment she let her concentration slip. It was her own fault it was like this, though, so there was no point complaining about it. She wouldn’t let this Wind Element harm Ryu or the carrier, even if it killed her.
“I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced,” the floating woman said. “My name is Aer, and as you can see I possess unrivaled power over the wind. And you are?”
Ai didn’t respond verbally, instead choosing to use the moment to channel her light at a point above Aer’s head. She knew a prolonged battle would be dangerous in this state, so she took the chance to push as much power as she could between herself and that point in the sky. Aer must have caught where she was looking as she glanced up.
A pillar of light burst from the sky, a brilliant white cylinder of bright energy came down from the clouds like an artist’s depiction of the wrath of god. A harsh blast of wind managed to push Aer out of the way just as the beam came down, sending her spiraling through the air but sparing her from certain doom. The pillar crashed into the ground, searing the ground and leaving a decent-size hole in their training area.
“So that’s how you want to play,” Aer coldly stated as she regained control of her flight. “Very well. I was hoping for a rematch with that Arthur fellow, but your head will do just as well.”
The wind picked up to hurricane-force, tearing up fencing, training equipment, and quite a few of the surrounding trees. A bubble formed around Ai as her channeled Light pushed back against Aer’s manipulated winds, but it would do nothing to protect her against the maelstrom of projectiles whipping past her.
Her shield formed just in time to protect her from one of a Marco’s strength-training machines. There was no time to try and reflect the projectile as she needed her shield just a moment later to block a small tree that had been on course for her head. With only one arm, she couldn’t produce a second shield, forcing her to resort to spinning the one she had around her to try and protect both her sides.
She could not keep this up long. Between the pain in her broken arm threatening to make her faint and the strain of channeling it wouldn’t be long before she slipped up. This was not the time to play defense. She had to go on the attack, whatever the price of that would be.
The winds around her appeared to be chaotic, a frenzy of debris and and projectiles with no pattern whatsoever. Ai knew that this couldn’t be the case. Aer was controlling these winds through channeling, commanding their every movement, and no person, no matter how mad, could create a truly random design. She watched the flow of the debris carefully, noting how the wind moved closer to Aer. Noting how several of these currents came together around her, flowing through her robes and, if Ai’s guess was correct, allowing her to float.
Ai was only going to get one chance at this. And if she was wrong, she would die.
She crouched, making herself the smallest possible target for Aer’s projectiles, and dropped her shield. All she needed was two seconds. Two seconds in which none of the large objects hurtling around her brought her down. A sharp piece of fencing soared past her face, nearly ending her before the first.
In the first second she focused on a spot below Aer, where the winds came together, and cupped her hand. In the second she channeled, creating a path for her light to flow between her fingers and her target. She saw the approach of a sharp branch that was certainly on a collision course with her, but she wouldn’t let it hurt her concentration.
Her shield formed, cutting off Aer’s flow of wind. With a sharp yelp Aer suddenly plummeted towards the ground as she no longer had the control to maintain her flight. Her concentration broke as she desperately tried to command new winds to catch her and the maelstrom died out all at once. The sharp branch landed in the dirt just inches from Ai’s face.
Despite her best efforts, Aer couldn’t stop her fall in time. She hit the ground with a resounding thud as her myriad projectiles crashed all around her.
Ai was convinced her opponent was down but not out, having slowed her fall just enough that the impact with the soft ground wouldn’t be fatal. She channeled, prepared to deal the finishing strike …
There was a loud crash behind her. She just barely had time to recognize that Peter’s truck had landed just behind her before the impact of the crash sent the vehicle bouncing towards her. She dived out of the way, but not quite fast enough. The vehicle clipped her and sent her crashing to the ground. Directly atop her broken arm.
The pain momentarily blinded her. When her vision had cleared she found that she had completely lost the grasp on her element. As she forced herself back to her knees she fought to regain a hold on it. It was no use. The pain made her dizzy and nauseous. The only thing that had kept her going this far was the strength granted to her body when she channeled.
Aer rose to unsteady feet, groaning and clutching at the side of her neck. Ai was hoping her opponent was in a similarly rough state and couldn’t channel. Her hopes where dashed as the wind once again began to pick up.
“That’s enough games,” Aer growled, the calm coldness in her voice replaced with a seething fury. “Now you die.”
Ai couldn’t find the strength to argue with her.
The wave brought its full fury directly down upon Marco’s head. He was lost in the torrent as the clearing turned battlefield quickly flooded. To the surprise of the clearing’s other combatants, the water flowed around them, a circle of dry land for them to continue their struggles with.
“He’s learned a fair bit of control,” Ullen said with a bit of pride in his voice. “Wasn’t that long ago he would have washed all the rest of us away with a technique like that.”
Arthur hoped to used the old soldier’s distraction to his advantage. He channeled his sword once again into his hands and fired a beam of searing light from its tip. One of the motes of light flew to intercept it, colliding with the beam, and then they both disappeared.
There was no contest of power, no clash of elemental control, as Arthur had come to expect. Both of their elemental projections were just gone.
Another of the motes dated at Arthur and he moved to block it with his sword. The mote collided with the sword for the briefest instant, then both were gone. Arthur felt the flow of the sword get torn from his grasp. It was as if the sword had been made of glass and had shattered into a thousand sharp pieces that could never be put together again.
He was so concerned that he might really never be able to form the sword again that he immediately channeled another into his hands. His moment of sincere relief when it formed was quickly taken from him as another mote of light dissolved this sword as well.
Arthur was tempted to form another just out of sheer spite. The only thing that stopped him was the wave of exhaustion pressing down on him. Each sword he formed took a not insignificant amount of his power, and he had just gone through five of them in a matter of minutes. All he wanted to do right now was lay down and sleep. He doubted the enforcer was going to let him take a quick nap, though.
All he could figure was that his opponent’s technique had some way of separating him from any projection of his Light. He had no idea, well, no good ones, anyway, but being too stubborn to quit, he went with a bad one: he channeled inwardly, allowing the Light to give him focus and enhance his senses. Then he rushed at the old soldier.
In the clearing’s only other dry spot, Litint looked up Kanos, who hovered in the air outside his reach, kept aloft by his compressed-air cushion.
Kanos stuck his tongue out at his frustrated opponent. “Ha-ha! You can’t get me up here!
In response to the challenge, Litint raised one arm skyward. His lightning arced through the air, forming branches that surrounded Kanos on all sides.
“Uh-oh,” Kanos exclaimed as Litint appeared next to him.
The cushion of air pushed Kanos higher just in time to avoid Litint’s strike. Through the air the two traveled, Kanos bouncing from cushion to cushion like clear trampolines only to find Litint’s electric arcs following right behind him, with Litint immediately after, getting closer and closer with each strike.
“Okay, I don’t want to fight anymore now!” Kanos declared. “You go back to the ground!”
He leveled one arm in front of himself and used the other to brace it. The air in front of his hand began to compress into a tight ball. He fired the ball straight ahead, directly at the end of one of Litint’s electric arcs …
Just as Litint appeared there. With no time to react, Litint was hit dead center. The impact knocked the wind out of him, and by the time he regained his senses he realized he was falling too fast to save himself. He braced for the impact.
Before he hit the ground he was jolted to a stop by his leg. He looked up and saw the boy he had been fighting had caught him and now held him dangling above the freshly formed lake.
“You going to be good now?” Kanos asked him.
Humiliated, beaten, and too exhausted to channel anymore, Litint reluctantly nodded.
Marco surfaced from the lake, or at least his head did. His entire body was being held down by a layer of Watint’s clear-liquid bond. He struggled, the power of the Stone granting him inhuman strength, but without being able to get his footing he had trouble applying the force.
“What now, big man?” Watint asked. He stood atop the water right above Marco, with his arms crossed and a smug smile on his face that Marco could not wait to wipe off.
As soon as he freed himself, anyway. He wiggled around in his bond until both of his arms were directly at his sides. When they were in position he attempted to perform a lateral raise, a weight lifting exercise he and his body were quite familiar with. His body strained against the resistance, his muscles pushing themselves to their limits while he took in as much of his Stone Element as he could take. More than he could take, because what’s a good workout without pushing yourself?
Finally, his arms came free. He reached up and grabbed Watint by the ankles. Watint let out a gasp of surprise and lowered an arm at Marco, clearly attempting to channel. Marco would not give him the opportunity. He pulled down on Watint’s ankle, dragging him into the water beside him. And then, with one mighty right hook, he clocked his arrogant foe right in his face.
The lightweight went down in one strike, falling limp in Marco’s grip.
Arthur was unfortunately having much less luck with his own opponent. His simple plan of just rushing his opponent, whom he hoped was too old to be much of a melee combatant, was being foiled by these bright little wisps. They buzzed around him face, directly in front of his eyes, despite his best efforts to avoid them. The motes flew in a confusing and hypnotic pattern, when they weren’t just outright blinding him. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t seem to close the distance between him and the enforcer. He kept getting turned around, running circles around his opponent instead of directly at him.
He had no idea how long he could keep channeling. Only too late did he realize the brilliance behind the soldier’s strategy. Why he had waited for him to form his sword again. Ullen was trying to exhaust him until he couldn’t fight anymore, negating his attacks and making him run blindly about while wasting his power. And if this kept up much longer, he would succeed.
“You ready to call it quits, young man?” Ullen asked. “I’m not getting any younger, you know. Also, seems my apprentices have run into a bit of trouble, so I’d appreciate it if we could wrap this up so I can help them.”
“You kidding? I’m just getting started,” Arthur tried unconvincingly between gasping breaths.
Arthur had only one bad idea left. He reached out into the flow of Light, putting out a call that he could only hope was heeded. To his relief, he felt the response, the power there racing to him, flowing into him, demanding to be released, to be used, to destroy. He doubted Ullen’s little motes would be able to stop it. Though the fear was, if the dragon choose not to obey him, nothing could stop it.
Too late now. He brought forth the power of Ruvian. The White Dragon roared to life, rage and power manifest, ready to destroy everything in its path.
To Arthur’s surprise, Ullen’s didn’t even try to get out of the way as the mighty scaled beast opened its massive maw and bared down on him. In fact, he seemed … amused?
The dragon turned aside at the last moment, doing a complete circle around Ullen until the soldier was completely ringed by its glowing form.
“Well, hello, Ruvian, old friend. It has been a while.”
The dragon circled Ullen a few more times, like a dog excited to see a familiar face, then disappeared back to the flow it had come from, leaving a very dumbfounded Arthur behind.
Ullen, on the other hand, was wearing a weirdly playful grin that seemed out of place on his face. “So, you must be Ryu’s student, then?
“This changes things.”