45 years ago, Caladwen
Lissa’s back hit the ground with a thump, strong enough to send the dew flying from nearby blades of grass and transform it into mist. The force of the goddess’s throw had sent her sailing several feet through the air before she had crashed to the earth, her body plowing a wide furrow through the field.
“Not good enough, Lissa!” the golden eyed queen called.
Groggily, shaking her head, the druid pushed herself to her feet. Her limbs ached, and she felt like her flesh had been rubbed raw by the hard ground.
“Where is your sword?” Sirae asked.
Lissa shook her head again. “Huh?”
“Where,” Sirae said again, slower, “is your sword Lissa?”
Lissa realized only then that her hand, sometime during the throw, had released the blade, and it lay impaled in the earth several paces away.
“Never drop your sword!” the goddess almost yelled, shaking her head in disappointment. Moralltach glinted in the morning sun, reflecting the light rebounding from her scarlet hair.
“I don’t see the point of this,” Lissa grumbled. “I think we both know by now that I’m no fighter, I’m just a druid. When am I going to need to know how to defend myself this well without calling on the earth?”
The goddess smiled at her. “That’s what my last apprentice said, a couple hundred years ago; and my last one before than, almost a thousand years ago; and the one before that, several more hundred years before that. And I smiled and laughed and said, ‘If that’s what you want,’ and let them practice only the skills they wanted to practice.” Sirae pressed her face almost against the druid initiate’s. “And do you know what?”
Lissa shook her head.
The smile vanished completely from Sirae’s beautiful face. “Someone killed them. One damned monster or idiot after another killed every last one of them. So you’re damn well going to learn this if I need to beat it into you, and you’re going to practice until I’m satisfied.”
Lissa sighed, falling into a crouch as she brought her sword back to a ready stance. “And when will you be satisfied?”
There was no humor on the goddess’s face when she answered. “When you beat me.”
Alassiel waited for Cerec back in her own little cell, where he had for six months raped and abused her. She knew that the avatar would go for Sirae first, and when he found her dead he would understand what had happen… and then he would come looking for her. The goddess that she had become had no intention of hiding. Instead, she rested, cross legged in the pouring rain, atop the tiny pile of flowers that Liriel had managed to grow.
It was here, in this bed of flowers, where Liriel had found the pair of seeds pushed through the earth to her. It had seemed an incredible twist of fate to Alassiel the time, but now that she was aware of exactly how vast the earth’s power was, now that she could feel it writhing and twisting in the very air she breathed and the dirt she tread upon, Alassiel had to wonder. Had her old friend, the friend that Lahk had torn away from her almost four years ago, been conspiring to free the two of them even then? She would not be surprised.
The Archdruid noted, also to her utter lack of surprise, that the bed of flowers she was sitting on was growing, flowing out to cover the entire ground of the small cavern. Where they spread the rock softened into fertile earth, and the flora grew with incredible speed, going from seed to full bloom within moments. Alassiel felt nothing would surprise her anymore.
Cerec did not disappoint. Her connection to nature began to scream warnings to her that her foe was approaching. Several seconds later, the earth began to tremble beneath her feet. Alassiel slowly rose, holding Menelrûth gently in her hands as the blade coursed with electrical fire. Several breaths later the promethean bulk of the vast avatar filled the entrance to the little meadow she had unconsciously created. He stopped and stared at the strange sight, and at the red haired druid, fully healed, pointing a sword directly at his six eyes.
“Bring it,” she whispered, “giant squid.”
The tendrils on his face twitched in agitation as he extended a hand towards her, his eyes pulsing as he obviously reached for her with his magic, planning to cause the elf some new torment. Just as obviously Alassiel remained standing, completely unaffected.
“You have no power here any longer, Avatar,” she said, her voice both quiet and regal. “You are a jailer without a prison.”
A bubbling growl came from beneath the tentacles. “Blackwand will heal this,” he stated.
Alassiel shrugged. “Maybe. One way or the other, by then all your inmates will be gone.” She moved her sword into a ready stance, shifting her weight onto the balls of her feet. “You need not fight me. If you just let everyone go, this doesn’t have to end like this…”
Cerec just glared at her, all three pairs of his eyes narrowing.
“I hoped that would be your decision.” She smiled.
Then they charged each other, pounding feet tearing flowers from the ground by the dozens and sending them flying through the air. Close to fifteen feet tall and seven wide, the furious Avatar of Blackwand towered over her, one of his hands dissolving into a whirling nest of striking tendrils, thick ropey appendages that ended with shining chitin that would no doubt pierce her naked flesh with no more effort than it took to crush a bug. Alassiel shot to the side, calling on the earth for speed and receiving more than she had ever had before… in her mind, the attacking whips of flesh began to slow to a crawl, and she had plenty of time to bring her sword up in a lazy slice to cut the two of them that were best adjusting to her new position. A snarl, strangely distorted by her slowed perception of time, erupted from Cerec at the tiny injury, and the rest of the tentacles changed course to seek her.
Smiling to herself, Alassiel danced away from him, extending her hand to the sky and directing the rainfall. It pooled into a crescent shaped arch, the steady downpour turning into a driving waterfall as all the falling water for many hundreds of feet in every direction was concentrated in one spot. Alassiel directed the flow at Cerec and it struck the avatar like a blow from a geyser, knocking him from his feet and back into the wall. The spray from the impact filled the air and the newly minted goddess directed it to condense around her left hand, forming a thick shield of water around her limb, and then directing it to spin faster and faster until it began to form a vortex.
Cerec rose again to his feet, gray musculature shining in the deluge and his eyes blazing with hate as Alassiel took the measure of the monster, ready to spring aside when next it charged her. It was less of a charge than a rush, a 4 limbed lope that would be more natural for a bear or perhaps an ape. A lumbering arm swung out in a wide arc, whooshing above the elf’s ducking head and slamming into the cavern wall, crushing rocks into dust, and Alassiel reminded herself not to be hit. As the Avatar recoiled its arm, Alassiel struck it with Menelrûth, the blow drawing black blood from the limb even though it caused little but a scratch. The monster launched another blow, and another, and Alassiel dove forward and scrambled to the right, putting her shield in the way of the next blow. The quickly spinning water carried enormous force and though his fist pierced the surface of the shield easily it was, the next moment, thrown free of the spinning current with sufficient force to send Cerec staggering to the left, right into where the bastard sword was now swinging.
This time the wound was not a scratch, and Cerec roared in agony and fury, kicking out at the druid. She dodged the attack almost entirely… but only almost. The barest edge of the strike glanced her, and she felt ribs break beneath the tremendous force. Biting down on the pain savagely she rolled even as Cerec pursued her through the kick, stomping heavily with one foot and barely missing the fast moving elf. The attack sent branching cracks in the floor for many feet in either direction, and as Alassiel began to pour energy into healing her broken bones it served as a poignant reminder that Cerec only needed to get lucky once to end this fight.
Twenty seven years ago
During the War of Ascension
Lissa’s unarmored back slammed into the mud of the cleared ring surrounded by army tents. The impact hurt, but she bounced back to her feet almost instantly. The druid was wheezing but her sword never stopped its motion, catching and turning two slashes and sliding aside a long thrust from her opponent. She was slightly too slow on the thrust however, and a string of scarlet beads appeared along one her ribs, slicing through the flimsy cloth of the sparring shirt like it wasn’t there.
The druid had had the wind knocked from her when she hit the ground, and it showed when she tried to launch a furious counterattack against Elide. The general blocked every single attack, seemingly by the barest of margins, then made a peculiar, circular motion of her wrist. Lissa’s sword rolled abruptly from her grasp and fell to the dirt, flung from her hand by the ancient warrior’s disarm.
Lissa didn’t hesitate, but instead pressed in close and gripped Elide’s sword arm. She attempted to slam her forehead against the noirette’s and when she twisted away from the blow drove a punch into her ribs with a feeble, breathless yell. Elide absorbed the blow like an anvil to a hammer, letting it impact her to no special effect before lashing out with her own foot and stripping the druid’s feet out from under her. As Lissa fell, Elide’s knee struck her stomach, and what little breath she had recovered was blown from her again and she dropped to the earth and did not immediately rise.
“Is that the best you can do?” Elide snorted, sheathing her sword. She looked over at Sirae, watching her reaction to the fight. “You expect me to work with this?”
If the goddess responded, Lissa didn’t hear it, but the next thing she knew her vision swam into focus with Elide’s aristocratic face staring her in the eyes, upside down. The woman was not even breathing hard in the slightest. “Listen to me, druid. You are going to practice with me every day until the goddess gives me leave to stop, and if you work hard you may one day be competent, but…” she sneered a little bit. “You’ll never be one of the greats.”
Liam danced in the arena, twirling his spear as the Avatar charged him once again. Shards of bone had erupted from the female’s arms and legs, and she spun and attacked over and over with unnatural speed. Getting caught in any single one of her attacks, no matter how minor, would pin the prince in place long enough for another thirty to land and tear him to pieces. He had no armor of any kind, so he was forced to keep his distance, using the superior reach of his weapon to drive her back, warding off the greatest of her attacks… but there were simply too many of them to keep her at bay permanently.
Cerec lashed down with a spine even as her knee rose in a kick, propelling both the spine of her knee and the one coming from her foot at him. He spun the spear like a staff, knocking aside two of the attacks even as he let the third through. The final shaft of bone, the one attached to her foot, he leapt out of the way instead of parrying and only when he was outside of its reach did Liam disengage his spear, whirl it around his body once to gain momentum, and then smash its butt against the base of the third extended spine.
The blow, delivered with such force to her leg, radically altered her center of gravity and the avatar could not react in time. With a scream of rage she started to tumble, cartwheeling towards the prince like a deadly pinwheel to clear him away from her vulnerable fall. Liam gave ground freely, diving out of the way even as he watched the fall with deadly intensity, looking for the opening that was going to appear in just… a… second…
Now. His spear lashed forward, then he continued his retreat, coming to full readiness twenty paces from Cerec and waiting for her to do the same.
Cerec disentangled herself by the simple expediency of withdrawing all of the bone spears, her feet kicking at the wet, sticking sand of the arena as she rose quickly to her feet and glared at the prince. He smiled back at her, a grim little smile that promised death… the same smile he had given to so many foes in the War of Ascension, the same smile he had given to every assassin that had ever stalked his family. For all that Cerec was fast, strong, and deadly dangerous, she fought like an idiot. She had never needed to develop any true style or tactics because she was used to being an unstoppable, irresistible force… and Liam knew that she simply wasn’t anymore.
Amid the drops of rain Cerec felt a warm liquid drip down her cheek and raised her hand to it, wiping away the blood. Liam’s attack had been intended to pierce her skull, but the roll had been too fast and the opening had passed before the spear could penetrate deep enough and only opened the Avatar’s cheek. The head wound bled easily, and Cerec’s eyes were wide.
Liam’s smile widened. “Not untouchable anymore, are you?”
Her eyes shimmering with rage, she held out both hands and a vast, scythe-like sword materialized in her hands. Liam shifted. The new weapon required a new stance, and new tactics. Against the bone spears his best option had been to keep his distance. Against this heavy, long blade he would be better off closing the distance as fast as he could and trying to stay inside the reach of its edge, where the sword would be slow and weak. His bare feet dug into the sand as he sought the most traction he could get, preparing the charge.
“I’m not helpless anymore, you bitch…” he muttered, smile locked onto his face even as it never touched his eyes. “See how you like me now…”
Liam charged, wet sand kicked into the air with every step.
Twenty five years ago
During the War of Ascension
“Again!” Liam yelled, driving a series of high, whirling slashes at Lissa’s head. The prince was not restraining the force of his blows, and even when his preferred weapon, the spear, lay leaning against the nearby fence it took every ounce of Lissa’s skill and concentration to survive them. She found the rhythm of the attack, found the tiny half beat of vulnerability between one of Liam’s strikes and the next, and countered low, her body dipping to one side and out of the line of the attack, one hand resting flat on the ground to support his suddenly altered balance, her blade darting in a swift thrust for the prince’s midsection.
She was an instant too slow.
Prince Liam slammed his blade across Lissa’s with such savage force that it was ripped from her fingers before kicking a booted foot at the woman’s face, which she just barely rolled away from. He again drove a heel at her throat, and Lissa called on her strength to rip the attack away… only to find the tip of her lover’s blade at her throat.
“Too slow, Lissa. It has to be faster.”
The fire maned druid, gasping deep breaths, took a half roll away. To her dismay she noted several of the prince’s bodyguards and soldiers exchanging coins… they had taken to betting on the outcome of the sparring sessions now. Lissa had no doubt that they were not betting on whether or not Liam would win, but rather how long it would take him. She extended her hand to the prince and he took it, but rather than let him pull her up she playfully dug her heels into the ground and pulled, and the prince tumbled down on top of her.
Now both in the mud, they couldn’t help but laugh and laugh until Liam finally got control of himself. “You fight with your head,” he said. “That’s good — there’s a time for that — but it’s not all the time. The head is slow.” He sat up, touching two fingers to the side of his head. “Can only plan and react, can’t really anticipate. Too much going on.”
His hand touched his chest, then reached out to touch hers. Her heart beat slightly faster. “Need to fight with your heart the rest of the time. Don’t think,” he said, rapping her softly on the side of her head. “Feel. You have been developing instincts and responses that can bypass conscious thought altogether. Use them!”
He reached over and kissed her, pressing her down into the dirt as she was helpless beneath him. She moaned in pleasure, and the guards rolled their eyes and turned away, pretending to notice nothing. Lissa had gotten used to that.
“Keep working on it, love,” he whispered to her as soon as he pulled his lips away, many minutes later. “You’ll get it.”
The sword cut inches away from Liam again and again, but he was inside her easy reach now. It prevented her from bringing the sword to bear on him effectively, and conversely being so close gave him more time to dodge than being further away because it made the motions of an attack so much slower. It made him safe from the blade, but the sword was only one of the prince’s problems right now.
Being this close in gave him problems of his own. The spear was far too long of a weapon to be useful in such close quarters, so he only had kicks and punches as a way to hurt Cerec… and she was far, far stronger than he was, even now that he could again call on Caer. Too, she was the more durable of the combatants, and in the contest of attrition like this Liam did not like his chances. He needed to change the game, but placing himself further away in reach of that monstrous sword was a losing proposition.
Then he saw something which gave him an idea.
Liam struck out at her midsection three times in rapid succession, punch kick punch. He was fast enough to deliver the first two, but the third had been an overreach, and held him in place long enough for Cerec to deliver her elbow against the side of his skull. The prince staggered back, and with a cry of triumph the Avatar swung, knowing that he had put himself into the ideal range for her sword…
…right where he wanted to be. With a twist of his entire body he drove the flat end of his spear into the sand and pushed, flinging himself into the air even as the sword passed below him, cutting the spear’s shaft in half. Liam used the leverage from his leap to deliver a kick to the woman’s face, putting every ounce of strength and weight he possessed behind the blow. Cerec accepted it and stumbled backwards… only to realize that her legs would not move! To her horror, the Avatar of Blackwand realized that she had tripped over a pale elven druid who had crawled right behind her.
Cerec hit the wet sand with a noticeable creak of impact, even as Liam’s jump reached its apex and he fell towards her, gravity propelling the remaining length of the spear down at her with shattering force.
Two years ago, Shevarn’s Tower
Alassiel impatiently tapped her sword against her foot as she watched the latest in the long line of incompetents walk away from her sparring sessions, dismissed for being so completely useless. Not a one of them could stand against her, and not a one of them could imitate Lahk’s fighting style well enough to be even remotely useful, no matter how much she had the wizard augment their speed. Alassiel knew she had not grown so significantly better, so much as there seemed to be a distinct lack of competent fighters left in the land… they had all been pressed into service as private guards, or else soldiers in the church’s new army.
Beside her, Shevarn heard her snort of amusement and turned to the injured druid. “So, who’s next?”
Swearing beneath her breath, the elf turned to the wizard and gave a microscopic smile. “Didn’t you say you thought you had found another possibility, a boy who you thought could be trained to my standards?”
The wizard nodded. “Dorn, his name is.”
“I don’t care what his name is,” Alassiel snorted, “as long as he can fight.”
Alassiel was upon him in a flash, slicing and thrusting in turn with Menelrûth as she advanced on the sickening monstrosity, sliding back out of reach each time Cerec swung around, already leading with another ferocious blow. The monster stomped again, the thunder of its foot nearly knocking the goddess from her feet, and then it came in hard, falling down at the elf with the intent to use its sheer mass and size as a weapon. If Alassiel had been even slightly slower, if her fighting reflexes had not been so perfectly honed by so many teachers, she surely would have been crushed flat.
Instead she spun entirely out of the way, managing even to deliver a sliding blow against his arm as he crashed to the ground, the impact shaking rocks loose from the cavern walls and splashing the elf, several paces away, with a spray of mud from the soaked earth. Quicker than Alassiel would have thought possible Cerec was on his feet again, advancing as he dropped a heavy arm straight down to squash the little elf. She did not even raise her sword into a parry, for she knew that no amount of strength that she could summon could possibly deflect such a blow — instead she rushed forward, sliding her hand along Menelrûth’s edge as she did, and then slapped the hand across the tiny wound she had made on Cerec’s arm before retreating across the room.
As they separated once more, the Avatar looked down at the streak of blood the elf had placed on his chest and laughed. “I am not a demon, foolish druid…” he muttered.
Alassiel smiled and raised her hand. The rain water washed the blood away from her cut, and even as her power healed it he could see the roots of eyrn eregdos shifting inside of it. “I know you’re not.”
Cerec had a single, terrified instant to understand before Alassiel pointed a finger at him and called “Cuio!”
The seed of the sacred tree that the elf goddess had planted in his wound grew with ferocity, roots stretching down into the ground even as they dug into his muscular, rotting flesh. They grew faster than he could tear at them. Both the monster’s hands erupted into tendrils in the attempt to tear the vines and roots free of his form… but it was no use. Rapidly he was being bound, restrained and buried beneath the incredible strength of a tree that simply did not stop growing and would not die no matter what Cerec did to it.
A flash of light hit Cerec then and he looked up to see lightning strike Menelrûth as it descended through the air, Alassiel having leaped high above him and bringing the sword down in a savage arc that ended six inches deep in his skull.
Cerec did not understand why she was not dead.
She was pinned to the black sands by the spear in her shoulder, and by Prince Liam’s foot on her throat. Blackwand’s power no longer came to her through the shattered prison, and her strength seemed to ebb out of her along with her lifeblood, even through such a simple wound as the one she had suffered… she just didn’t have the strength to pull Liam away from her.
Her twin must have fallen. It was the only explanation.
She just wished she understood why she had not been killed as well.
The rain stopped by the time Alassiel entered the arena, naked and glimmering clean, washed by the falling rains. Her scarlet hair stuck to her head in wet clumps, and she carried a beautiful looking sword casually in a single hand. There was no longer a single scar on her body, every injury she had ever suffered stripped away from her in an instant by the power of the earth…
And the golden flecks in her eyes had grown. The orbs now glowed a faint golden light.
Cerec watched as the nude druid knelt down before her injured apprentice, holding her hand against her chest as the golden light spread down her body and between their forms to completely cover the pale haired elf.
“So not the goddess then… you instead.” Cerec spat, turning her head away from the pair even as Liriel came to her feet, her scar tissue vanishing before their eyes and her recent cuts closing up.
“That’s right,” she said. “Me.” She turned to Liam. “Go to the armory my love, and find what weapons and armor you can. We have a long trip to make.” Prince Liam, with a smile and a mocking salute, left to do so.
Cerec and the fire haired druid stared at each other for long seconds before the Avatar could take no more. “So, what now!” she spat.
Alassiel just continued to glare at the monstrous woman, golden eyes meeting her pale, milky white ones. “You hurt people I care about very badly, for no reason other than petty cruelty.”
“Oh,” Cerec asked, her tone mocking. “Are you going to make revenge on me then? Torture me? Rape me perhaps?” She spat at the druid, but the glob managed to reach nowhere near her. “I somehow think not.”
The druid shook her head sadly. “Maybe once, I’d have made you suffer the way I did. Revenge has cost me enough — I’ll have no part of it anymore.”
Cerec’s scornful laughter filled the arena as Liam returned carrying clothing, armor and weapons, and packs. “My,” she cackled cruelly, “Aren’t you so noble…”
The frank answer caught the Avatar by surprise and she looked into the druid’s golden eyes, so difficult to read through the glow.
“I’m just a work in progress,” she said. “I’m not going to hurt you.” Then Alassiel bent down to whisper softly to Cerec. “But a noble person? She would save you.” And with that, the newly born goddess took her friends and walked from the arena, and towards an escape from Blackwand’s caverns.
And Cerec was left to stare up at the men and monsters that covered the stands of the arena… beings she had tormented for centuries or millenia… who were all staring right back at her.