Darkening Sky, Chapter 8

  • Chapter 8

     

     

     

     

                    For the first time since he drank of the Clear Flask, Harrow felt his heart race over sixty beats per minute.

     

                    Ambarro and Diia were still buried under the pile of rubble, and he could not afford to turn his back and look for any signs of life. His elven hearing was less sensitive than a Po’ Tun’s, but if he concentrated, perhaps he could-

     

                    A thrum and the blur as the archer drew and released warned him an instant before the shot came. He wrenched his head to a side, wincing as the arrowhead grazed his neck. A second arrow followed a quarter-second later, impossibly quick. If he had not seen the archer’s hands move, he would have believed it to be magic. Leaning backwards, he dodged once more. The third arrow flew at his right kneecap. Cursing mentally, he cartwheeled to the side, right into the path of the fourth arrow.

     

                    Does the man have precognitive abilities? He’s predicting where my body’s motion is taking me almost perfectly.

     

                    As his cartwheel brought his hands to the ground, he twisted his arms, using them as springs and launching himself upwards. The arrow flew under his upturned head and he flipped back upright, landing crouched without a sound, his eyes still fixed on his enemy.

     

                    The archer whistled. ‘Those aren’t human movements. You’re an interesting one.’

     

                    Harrow did not waste his breath on banter. He inched forward, trying to get on the enemy’s blind side – Longinus, his name is Longinus. That’s what the Redguard swordsman said.

     

                    I’m glad I don’t have to fight that one again… at least for the time being.

     

                    As if he’d read his mind and was trying to remind him that he was just as much of a threat, Longinus renewed his attack, loosing a barrage of five arrows at him in the span of two seconds. Harrow pivoted diagonally in mid-air, contorting his form between two arrows. Sasayaki cleaved another from the air, and he used the momentum of his spin to lower his profile as quickly as he could, ducking beneath the fourth arrow. Then the fifth sailed past his cheek. From the corner of his eye, he saw it glow orange.

     

                    Oh…

     

                    The rune carved on the shaft exploded and would have taken his head along with it, had he not cast a lightning bolt an instant before the fireball took effect. He rematerialised ten feet away to the left, where his bolt impacted.

     

                    Longinus’ narrowed eyes were still on him when he reappeared, having tracked the lightning perfectly across the courtyard.

     

                    ‘Lightning riding, eh? Seems we both have the older magicks at our disposal.’ The Imperial still had his cocky air about him, but he seemed slightly more on guard now.

     

                    Slightly more won’t be enough, Longinus-do, Harrow thought, readying another lightning bolt. Even if you see it coming, arcane lightning is almost certainly faster than your arrows, considering you must be using a low draw weight in order to shoot quickly.

     

                    He cast another lightning bolt – this time directly at the archer. Willing himself into the electric current, Harrow flashed straight at him, preparing a killing blow with his sword. He rematerialised, swung-

     

                    Whisper slashed at empty air.

     

                    What-

     

                    Longinus was standing fifteen feet behind him, bow already nocked. This time his dodge was barely in time and the arrow almost went into his shoulder. It itched as he remembered the first time he took an arrow there. Snarling, he spun and hurled a fan of five shuriken at-

     

                    Empty air.

     

                    He heard a chuckle. Longinus was thirty feet to his left, an arrow aimed at his forehead.

     

                    Harrow studied the archer, growing quite alarmed now. It shouldn’t be possible for anyone – even a shinobi – to move so quickly, even if he rode lightning himself.

     

                    Longinus loosed the arrow. Harrow dove, not backwards or to the side, but forwards, transitioning into a full, zigzagging sprint, utilising his maximum speed. I am at a disadvantage from a distance. If I can just close the gap…

     

                    The closer he got, however, the less time he had to read the direction of the shot. He whipped past one arrow at twenty-eight feet, another at sixteen feet, and a last one at nine feet. Even within the miniscule timeframe while I’m charging him, he’s fast enough to shoot three arrows.

     

                    Then he closed five feet and the archer leapt backwards, shooting an exploding arrow between them and using the fireball as cover. The harsh flare made Harrow squint, and then somehow Longinus was thirty feet away from him again.

     

                    They repeated the pattern over and over – one shooting at the other, maintaining their distance, the arrows always just missing, darting into the snowy ground. Whenever Harrow rode lightning to try and close the gap, Longinus would always somehow manage to not be there.

     

                    He hazarded a guess that it was some form of teleportation. Which means that it’s instant. This is bad; my opponent has the ability to instantly occupy any point on the battlefield.

     

                    Twenty feet, dodge; twelve feet, dodge; eight feet, dodge; and he rode a lightning bolt straight through-

     

                    Empty air again.

     

                    There must be something I’m missing. But the problem with riding lightning was that in the one instant, the one hundredth of a second that Harrow was part of the electric current, he did not possess eyes. And whatever my opponent is doing to evade me, he’s either doing it in that hundredth of a second, or when my vision is otherwise obscured.

     

                    Switching tactics, he began running in circles around Longinus, making it as hard as possible to land a shot. The archer snorted. ‘Now you’re just trying to be annoying. Have you forgotten? I don’t need-’

     

                    Longinus shot an exploding arrow, placing it roughly three feet to Harrow’s right.

     

                    ‘-to land a direct hit!’ Cackling, he detonated the arrow.

     

                    Harrow clenched his jaw. The explosion was far away enough to be non-lethal, but the force of it still rattled his skeleton as it sent him flying. That was only an opening attack, however; Longinus’ true goal in the first place had been to knock him into the air for a perfect shot-

     

                    Harrow rode lightning and streaked off downwards to the right-

     

                    Only for Longinus to flick his aim to the exact spot his bolt landed, his arrow racing there to intercept his rematerialising form-

     

                    With reflexes only possible after ingesting the Yellow Flask, Harrow batted the arrow away by the shaft with an agile turn of the wrist-

     

                    And Longinus cackled again as the runes on the arrow glowed orange.

     

                    The resulting explosion ripped one of his sleeves into tatters, almost tearing his arm off. Harrow felt his ulna crack and bit his lip. Partially fractured, not broken. Still usable.

     

                    Forcing the pain from his mind, he dodged a fresh volley of arrows. For every five or six normal shots, there was an explosive one mixed in, sometimes two for throwing him off-balance.

     

                    It was a risky tactic, but it seemed to be paying off. Longinus was taking the bait, becoming increasingly aggressive as he tried to land quicker and quicker repeated shots. His quivers were running dry now… but that wasn’t the main reason Harrow adopted this strategy.

     

                    Longinus fitted his last arrow to his bowstring, growling with frustration. Harrow stopped moving and the archer glared at him suspiciously. He’s going to try to make this last shot count… but it’s far too late now, Longinus-do.

     

                    Crouching, Harrow slapped his good hand onto the ground. It snowed perpetually when one reached such heights on the Jeralls, and the courtyard was piled high with frost… or it had been, until Longinus came along with his exploding arrows. The heat from the fireballs had melted the top layer of sleet, creating a film of water that the two were now standing in.

     

                    Water on high mountaintops was extremely rich in minerals, making it an ideal conductor.

     

                    If my opponent can instantly occupy any point on the battlefield, then all I have to do… is take out an entire surface!

     

                    Taking care to loop the electric current around his soles, Harrow unleashed a wild torrent of lightning straight into the moistened ground, sending squibs and sparks skittering in a wave across the whole courtyard. A sea of lightning raced towards Longinus.

     

                    The Imperial simply smiled and shot his last arrow skywards. And just like that, he was gone, leaving only a purple afterimage behind.

     

                    A purple afterimage? Harrow thought back furiously to his studies.

     

                    Recall. His arrows are Marked.

     

                    Listening for the faintest of hints, Harrow’s ears twitched. There was the growing sound of air parting, coming from above. He sidestepped, catching Longinus’ dagger by the crossguard with Sasayaki as the archer hurtled downwards. Assassinations from drops are a shinobi specialty. You’ll not get me that way, Longinus-do.

     

                    With his free hand he grabbed for the dagger’s blade, palm flushed with electricity. Eyes widening, Longinus relinquished the weapon a split second before Harrow could run a current through the metal into his body, shoving him away by his arm. His wounded arm. An intense jolt of pain blasted through his cracked bone, but he had enough function left in the limb to pitch the dagger far away, outside of the abandoned fort’s walls.

     

                    ‘Aah, how unfortunate,’ Longinus said, a slow grin spreading over his face. ‘I’m out of arrows. They took so much effort to enchant, too…’

     

                    He walked forward, voice lowering with menace as he continued. ‘You’ve figured it out by now, I’m sure. After all, you forced me to use Recall right in front of you. You’re well-trained… but that training was never focused on prolonged open combat. I can tell.’

     

                    Retreating slowly, Harrow kept Whisper upright and between the two of them as he watched Longinus for openings. Lure him closer, and with one stroke…

     

                    The Imperial only seemed amused as he dropped his bow. ‘Oh, and one last thing.’

     

                    Longinus’ eyes glittered maliciously and Harrow felt dread run down his spine.

     

                    I’ve been had.

     

                    ‘Did you not notice?’ Longinus gloated, raising his hands to temple height and bouncing on the balls of his feet. ‘Over the course of the fight, I’ve scattered my arrows in every corner of the courtyard.’

     

                    And he disappeared.

     

                    At the exact same moment, a fist slammed into Harrow’s kidneys from behind and he arched his back, grunting. He brought Sasayaki around in a horizontal cut to cover maximum area, but Longinus was already gone. Before Harrow could even reorient himself, another fist powered into his left side, under his ribcage. His grunt petered out into a choke and he whirled, expecting another blow from behind, but Longinus reappeared in front of him from a cloud of purple and sank his fist into his diaphragm. Harrow’s breath whooshed out and he tried to counter with a Whispering Fang chop, only Longinus was suddenly behind him again and this time his blow was to his already fractured left arm. With a deep crack, the limb fell useless to the side. With only Sasayaki left in his right hand to guard himself, Harrow slashed desperately to the side. A violet glow popped up to his right and Longinus appeared in its place, his grin wide and mocking.

     

                    ‘It’s a pity you threw my poor knife away,’ he taunted, raising his fists again. ‘Now I’ll have to beat you to death.’

     

                    Behind, front, left; body shot to the liver, left hook to the jaw, and a right cross-hit to the chin. Harrow felt his vision swim as his brain rocked back and forth inside his skull. Colovian bare-knuckle boxing. Longinus brawled like he shot, a relentless assault of constant explosive blows. Not the most accurate of styles, but still accurate enough to cause lasting damage with each strike.

     

                    Staggering backwards, Harrow worked his chin, feeling his consciousness fizzle like a dying lantern. The chin is a point of leverage for the entire skull; a ‘button’ for cranial trauma. I can’t afford to take many more punches like that.

     

                    It didn’t help that Longinus could appear from any angle where his defence was the weakest. And here he’d been thinking that the Redguard was the harder one to fight in close quarters. After a quarter-second of thinking, he raised his blade over one of the arrows sticking out of the snow.

     

                    If I can destroy his Marks-

     

                    ‘You think I’d let you?’ The arrow glowed purple and Longinus launched himself upwards from the spot with a brutal uppercut. Harrow’s teeth clacked together as his head snapped back and the Imperial renewed his onslaught, systematically breaking down the young shinobi with his bare hands.

     

                    It’s almost impossible to predict where he’s going to appear from next, Harrow thought. And each blow I take brings me closer to the end.

     

                    ‘Your body’s a lot tougher than it looks,’ Longinus remarked with a right straight to his nose. Blood spurted. ‘Strange, it doesn’t seem to be magic.’

     

                    Harrow bared his teeth and crouched, trying to send lightning coursing through the wet ground again. But the water had already begun to freeze, and before he could even produce a current, Longinus kicked his hand away.

     

                    ‘Not twice a day, boy,’ he chuckled and Recalled away from a follow-up thrust, bringing his fist down full circle to the kidneys again.

     

                    The difference between us is overwhelming. He switches places at the speed of thought… Is there nothing I can do to fight back?

     

                    No, there was one technique he could counter Longinus with. True lightning travels at more than three hundred thousand feet per second. Recall may be instant, but Longinus was casting it as a reaction. Not even he could react fast enough to the Yamayubi.

     

                    But I can’t cast Yamayubi without making contact with the target, and taking even a fraction of the lightning bolt would be enough to kill me in this state. How am I supposed to…

     

                    ‘Oi, oi, oi!’ Longinus shouted gleefully, swinging out with the full weight of his arm. His fist crashed into Harrow’s chin again, and for an instant his eyesight flickered and died. ‘Giving up now, are we? Bright lad. Maybe you’ll get lucky and I’ll break your neck with my next one!’

     

                    Another blow to the chin. Whisper slid from his fingers into the snow. He was wide open now, but Longinus was still being cautious, teleporting about with every other strike.

     

                    Think. Think! Harrow screamed internally. What can I do right now?

     

                    Take every detail of the situation into account. What do I know about lightning? What do I know about the Yamayubi? What do I know about my enemy?

     

                    The barest hint of an idea sparked in his mind, and the more he considered it, the more he balked at the concept. It was insane, and he would have to be as well to even think of attempting it in the field without any prior testing.

     

                    But it was all he had right now. He could feel his senses dulling, his faculties beginning to fail. He couldn’t afford to let the fight drag on much longer.

     

                    All he needed to do was make contact once. Easier said than done, however. Longinus was almost impossible to track, with Recall allowing him to disappear and reappear on a whim.

     

                    Almost impossible.

     

                    Tsukikage’s library had extensive tomes on magic of the previous Eras, and Harrow distinctly remembered reading about Marking and Recalling in one of them. He dug up the little scraps of information in his head.

     

                    Only one Mark could be active at any given moment. Longinus no doubt worked around it by enchanting the base structure of the spell into runes on his arrows, only activating the Mark whenever he was about to reposition himself. It shortened the range of Recall to only where his Magicka could reach, but by doing so he gained the ability to activate multiple Marks in rapid succession.

     

                    The activation of the Mark is indicated by a purple glow. That much was obvious from the beginning of the fight, but Longinus is chaining the Recall so quickly with the activation that the visual indicator almost doesn’t help at all.

     

                    It was the only warning he would get, though. So he concentrated, silver eyes narrowing, scanning the snowy ground for-

     

                    Purple light, coming from his left flank. He turned-

     

                    The light dissipated and an arrow in front of him took on the glow instead. In that brief lapse of focus, Longinus reappeared on the right, his waist twisting, the power of his entire frame behind a single, destructive body shot to the spleen.

     

                    ‘Nggaak!’ Harrow coughed and doubled over, flecks of crimson flying from between his lips. He was haemorrhaging.

     

                    ‘A f-feint,’ he rasped, feeling blood begin to pool around his internal organs.

     

                    ‘Oh, so you can talk,’ Longinus said, sneering. ‘Yes, you’re not the first one to try following the spell’s light. Congratulations! A child could have figured that one out. And what of it? I can activate and deactivate my Marks at will. All I have to do is follow your eyes.’

     

                    Idiot, Harrow berated himself. He’s an extraordinarily skilled marksman, of course he’d notice little things like the direction you’re staring at.

     

                    He swayed, collapsing to his knees, right between two Marked arrows. Seeing that, Longinus’ sneer stretched out to cover his cheeks.

     

                    ‘How about we play a guessing game?’ The Imperial raised a bloodied fist, his voice taking on a mocking lilt. A purple glow switched intermittently between the two arrows. ‘Will my finishing blow come from the right or the left?’

     

                    Harrow closed his eyes, slumping and cradling his broken arm, the very picture of defeat. Longinus roared in laughter. ‘Excellent answer! Now stay still and I’ll try to make this quick.’

     

                    A gust of wind come from the right.

     

                    And the shinobi smiled.

     

                    It’s not the light that’s the true indicator, Longinus-do. When you Recall, a volume of air proportionate to the volume of your body is displaced. All I have to do is keep my senses open for that.

     

                    He raised his head and stared to the right, straight into Longinus’ eyes. The Imperial’s jaw fell agape in shock, and his motion slowed by just an iota – more than enough for Harrow’s enhanced reflexes.

     

                    Leaning to the side and around the punch, he raised an arm weakly and pressed a hand, crackling with emerald-hued Magicka, into Longinus’ chest.

     

                    ‘Yamayubi,’ Harrow whispered.

     

                    Yelping as the green electricity surged into him, Longinus Recalled out of the immediate vicinity and reappeared on the other side of the courtyard, his body jittering.

     

                    Then his trembling ended and he stood there, relatively unharmed. Rage quickly replaced pain, and he plucked an arrow from the ground.

     

                    ‘Worthless little brat,’ he hissed. ‘Giving me a proper jolt there, eh? You want lightning? I’ll give you lightning.’ He ignited one of the runes carved into the shaft, making the arrowhead blaze with his own electricity.

     

                    It hurt to laugh, but Harrow did so anyway. He was fading away, the blackness at the edge of his vision telling him that he had seconds at most. But at the very least, he would see this through to the end.

     

                    ‘I was about to finish you off with another lightning spell, Longinus-do,’ he said, wheezing from his battered lungs. ‘But in a way, this is even more fitting.’

     

                    The sky above opened and Harrow caught the faint scent of ozone.

     

                    A jagged bolt of iridescent jade energy roared down, splitting the air. Longinus didn’t even have time to look up. The Finger of the Mountain homed in on his electrified arrowhead, piercing his chest in the process.

     

                    The Imperial archer keeled over, already a corpse, a smoking hole seared in the place of his heart and lingering surprise frozen on his face.

     

                    Harrow coughed blood again and fell flat on his back. His newly devised variant of the Yamayubi had worked. Theory, refinement, field testing, all done with in barely two minutes.

     

                    He could only produce a Yamayubi if he was in physical contact with a target. That was a limitation he knew he could not surpass in such a short moment, so he had turned the idea around in his head. Why not delay the Yamayubi instead?

     

                    True lightning is produced by creating a polarity great enough for the energy to arc between an insulative substance. He had fine-tuned the difference between the positive and negative charges with enough control to push the polarity to the very brink of dielectric breakdown. After that, he had allowed Longinus to retreat to a safe distance. The original plan had been to hit him with another jolt of electricity, pushing the difference between positive and negative charges far enough for a lightning bolt to be generated.

     

                    I turned him into the pillar on Cloud Top, Harrow thought smugly. Hit him with any shock spell after that, and a lightning bolt will naturally descend.

     

                    Quite ironically, Longinus had saved him the trouble. His own electric arrow had summoned the Yamayubi.

     

                    The smirk on his face began to fade as he felt his consciousness slip away. No, he protested silently. Not now. Ambarro and Diia are… still…

     

                    His eyes closed and he would have panicked, had he not been so incredibly tired.


     

                    When the lightning bolt came down, Relnar almost lost his grip on the walls out of shock.

     

                    After the first few minutes of waiting on the other side of the tower, there had been no reply from Longinus. The three mercenaries had grown nervous. Vorstag and Culverin had frowned and said nothing, but Relnar believed himself a more steadfast companion than that. He’d circled around to the outside of the fort, and that was when he heard the explosions.

     

                    Longinus’ arrows, he realised. If one person could give him so much trouble…

     

                    The walls and battlements of the fort were high and in poor condition – not a good combination for someone who intended to climb them. Relnar had hesitated, then just as quickly shaken the doubts from his mind and begun to clamber hand over hand up the crumbling stones. At least the snow would cushion him if he fell.

     

                    He’d almost made it to the top when the air itself seemed to become charged and a deafening thunderclap drove into his ears. Wincing, he squeezed his eyes shut.

     

                    Then he realised the courtyard was now silent. Anxiety knotting his stomach, he put on a burst of energy and cleared the wall, falling and rolling to his feet on the other side.

     

                    He saw Longinus and the silver-eyed young swordsman from earlier each sprawled motionless on the ground. Of course he went for his comrade first.

     

                    The moment he drew close he realised it was too late. Smoke was issuing from a charred hole burned clean through the Imperial’s heart. Sorcery, he cursed. And powerful too. He had seen men disintegrated from arcane lightning before, but this seemed like another thing entirely.

     

                    ‘We may have had our differences,’ Relnar said softly. ‘But I have never known a more skilled bowman, and you always carried yourself with digni- with pride.’ Unable to think of anything better to say, he closed Longinus’ staring eyes.

     

                    Then he made his way towards the prone assassin. One of the sleeves on his grey tunic had been blown off, and the arm underneath it was obviously broken. His entire face was a mass of bruises and bleeding welts, and the same was probably true of the rest of his body. At first Relnar assumed he was dead, then he saw the slight rise and fall of his chest and tensed, drawing his sabres. Still alive, but only just.

     

                    He stood there for a full minute, debating whether or not he ought to kill the little bastard right then and there or to capture him for interrogation. I’m sure Vorstag and Culverin have questions.

     

                    The assassin made no response when he poked him lightly with one of his sabres. He probably won’t ever wake up anyway, Relnar decided, raising the blade over his throat.

     

                    And then for the second time that night the Ansei of old reached down and warned him.

     

                    There was really no other conceivable reason he could have seen the blow coming and blocked the slash. But he did, and the speed at which his new assailant recovered was nothing short of astonishing. In what seemed like the exact same moment, the enemy’s blade flashed in movements too complex for even him to grasp, creating a deadly web that forced him away from the assassin lying on the ground.

     

                    As the sun began to rise, it illuminated a female figure standing in front of him, clad in the same style of grey tunics as the three others who had come before. The figure reached for her hood and cowl, pulling it from her face, revealing golden fur, twitching whiskers, green eyes, and a mirthless smile. A Khajiit? No, something’s… different.

     

                    ‘I can forgive coming onto the mountain and making a ruckus,’ the figure said, her voice low. ‘After all, most of the other people here are too quiet for their own good.’

     

                    Relnar found himself unnaturally disturbed as the figure advanced, clutching a katana in a two-handed grip. There was a sense of strange familiarity in her movements that he could not quite place.

     

                    ‘I can forgive slaughtering some of the local warlords on your way up,’ the figure continued, her voice growing softer, her grin wider. ‘After all, it saves us a lot of trouble.’

     

                    Relnar swallowed. Why am I so intimidated by a smile?

     

                    ‘I can even forgive throwing spells around like madmen,’ the figure said, her voice almost inaudible now and her smile beginning to distort her face. ‘After all, we don’t get good light-shows and fireworks very often up here.’

     

                    The figure slid her right leg forward and lowered her centre of gravity, extending her katana upwards and diagonally, in the exact same stance the assassin on the ground had used during his duel with Relnar. And the Sword-Singer of Rihad was now truly afraid, for that alone told him exactly how his earlier opponent had learned Redguard techniques.

     

                    Old man Rashid in front of the gravestone. The First Disciple cradling the Akaviri sword like he was holding a child, murmuring about the fabled Second Disciple under his breath. ‘Our Smiling Cat. Our sweet little sister.’

     

                    The figure’s grin grew monstrous, her lips pulling back into a disfiguring, upward-curved horror as the skin on her face was dragged taut across her skull. The smile of a demon from the depths of Quagmire. The furious whisper that slithered out from beneath that smile was no less demonic.

     

                    ‘But hurting my dear student?’ The Smiling Cat’s eyes bulged out from their sockets and her pupils shrank until all Relnar could see was two tiny green slits in an ocean of deathly white. ‘That I cannot forgive.

     

     

     

     

     

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Comments

4 Comments   |   KaiserSoSay and 2 others like this.
  • The Long-Chapper
    The Long-Chapper   ·  September 28
    I was thinking the arrows too, but it was still interesting. I'm surprised honestly that Harrow can take such a beating, but that's Shinobi awesome at work here. 
  • A Shadow Under the Moons
    A Shadow Under the Moons   ·  September 28
    I'd be lying too if I said I didn't enjoy writing Harrow getting the living shit beat out of him! And this is just the beginning... I've built up the Shadeclaws a lot during Book One, now in Book Two you'll get to see them brought down a peg. Of course th...  more
  • The Lorc of Flowers
    The Lorc of Flowers   ·  September 28
    For a moment I thought he'll be shooting the arrows forever. How many fit into a quiver? 30-40? Longinus must have had more than one quiver then. But beside that I thoroughly enjoyed the fight. Harrow got good beating! And then a Smiling Cat shows up, yay!
  • KaiserSoSay
    KaiserSoSay   ·  September 28
    I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy watching Longinus beat the living shit out of Harrow. Makes me feel satisfied to know that shinobi aren't truly invincible. Oh well, it was good while it lasted.