The mixture of slow building agony and orgiastic rapture was exquisite; a serendipitous convergence dulling all sensation.
Gwen took advantage of her pumping adrenaline and circulated Almudj’s mana throughout her battered body, mending her beaten flesh and bruised ligaments. There was damage there, she could feel it, but at least there was no pain, and her system wasn't in shock.
She spat out the awful taste of fish and mud in her mouth.
A dozen meters from where she crawled on all fours, the Wyvern was trying to snap at Ariel. The mongoose proved too fast for the serpentine creature, but it couldn’t penetrate the damned thing’s armoured scales.
Her Opti-Cloak was in tatters; it was never built to withstand the level of abrasion delivered by the barbed tail of a Thunder Wyvern. Her sneak-suit was torn from the collar down to her left breast, though it was holding together by virtue of cross-sectional straps and slings.
Quickly, she tied the tattered cloak over the left side of her body.
Unlike the wyvern, she would find fighting semi-disrobed infinitely distracting.
Her opponent's form was barely distinct in the downpour.
The rain was hiding all the potential damage her spells might have caused, giving Gwen imperfect knowledge as to how to proceed.
"Uncle Jun?!" her voice reflexively called out.
No answer but the rain and the low rumbling of swelling thunder overhead.
The rainwater stung her eyes, ran into the torn collar of her suit; making it clammy and uncomfortable.
Uncle Jun HAD to be alright.
She had to believe that.
He was the Hero of the Northern Front, right?
He was the fucking ASH BRINGER.
NO WAY he would fall, just like that.
With the fire in her head put out by the wyvern and doused by the rain, she discerned there was no way someone like Uncle Jun could be ‘taken out’ so easily. If the Dragon-kin had such means, they would have unconditionally ruled this region, usurping the verdant paradise that was Suzhou and Hangzhou with impunity.
If so, there was only one thing left to do.
She had to mangle this wyvern, then force its owner to confront her.
Mayhaps she could even hold it hostage.
Once Jun was back, he would know what to do.
Her lips formed a grim, thin line.
Caliban leapt from the rubble, revitalised by Gwen's and its internal stores.
“MAGGOT WITH WINGS!” Gwen howled, utilising the projected voice of her Illusion talent to penetrate the rain. “COME ON! I’ll MAKE A VEST OUT OF YOU YET!”
Her cat-calling caught the wyvern’s attention.
“Si siofmea wux loreata!” it snarled. “Nomeno ui gethrisjir ekess qe diwhaf!”
Gwen knew she couldn’t tank the bloody thing. It was big, and it was fast, not to mention too strong for her Shield. She would have to kite it around the village, wear it down. If one Void Bolt wasn’t enough, how about twenty? How about a hundred? So long as she could keep her vitals up, she was confident she could mill it down to the stumps. She had her Conjured Storm up; she had her Warding Bolt. It was just a matter of time.
As for vitality and mana.
Gwen’s eyes grew dark and cold; her irises faded to pitch as the Void inundated her body.
There was a whole DAMNED village here.
How tough could the flying fucker be?
* * *
Ayxin pursed her lips.
"A girl's gotta eat," the Ash Mage's nonsensical inference made her heart skip a beat.
“What… is that girl?” Ayxin furrowed her scaly brows. "Is she human?"
“That’s not for you to know,” Jun answered. “Though if she had died just now, I can guarantee you that two of your three peaks would have ceased to exist. One by me, and another by her ward in Sydney. Lucky you then, huh?”
Ayxin glared at her quarry.
She regretted underestimating the human Mage. The damned human was at least her equal. He reminded her of the Elders in her long-perished Clan. They too had been powerful beyond belief, but unlike her, they grew old, their power waned, and then they died. They had seemed so insurmountable when they had sent Ayxin away to 'meet her maker'. Ayxin vaguely recalled that when her mother died, she had wanted to visit vengeance upon her maternal Clan. But in the end, her zealous ambition was laughable. Before she even matured into her draconic powers, her enemies had died of old age, consumed by the shift of dynastic power, became dust in the wake of history. How fragile these humans were! How transient their mark on the world!
How bright and brief was the candle of man?
“We can continue if you like.” The Mage shrugged, utterly relaxed now that his niece was worse for wear but otherwise unharmed.
Ayxin wasn’t the combative kind. Unsure of how to proceed, she turned her attention to the battle beneath them. If need be, she would dispel the Misty Realm and expel the both of them, though the chant would require significant concentration.
Below them, Golos charged the girl again.
Her boisterous brother better not play the fool now of all times, Ayxin pondered grimly. The uncertainty oppressed her, stifling her breath. She was confident she could subdue the Ash Mage, though Ayxin was ashamed to admit the cost of subjugation was proving higher than she was willing to pay.
Her opponent scratched his head. For some reason, the man's gaze made her uncomfortable. The cloak he had been wearing had been disintegrated by her lightning, though his body-armour remained intact.
The Mage coughed. Curiously, he held out a crude linen garb, retrieved from his ring. It was large enough to cover the upper and lower body.
“Look, Miss Ayxin? Mr Ayxin? I know you’re a talking-walking lizard, but how about putting something on?”
Ayxin looked down.
Golos' skirmish aside, her destructive melee against the Human Mage had shredded the silken garb which Ryxi had woven for her. It should have been durable enough to resist elemental damage, though not, as it appeared, the negative-fire.
The draconic side of her couldn’t care less.
Her body was a wonder of natural beauty, who wouldn't be proud to be descendant of a dragon with the scales to show for it?
Her human side screamed blue-murder.
Ayxin rigidly turned half-way away from the Ash Mage, hiding her profile.
She couldn’t think of an appropriate curse in Draconic.
Nor was she in possession of another item of clothing.
Below their awkward silence, the duel intensified.
* * *
Golos was surprised by his own vehemence.
There was something in the air that made him oddly stimulated.
His first attack had been a ground assault, covering the space with his powerful legs, guiding his strike with perfect poise, balanced by a pair of prideful wings and delivered via his thick, muscular neck.
One snap of his jaws and the girl would be bereft of a limb.
Then he could take his time.
He was confident because the Mages he had fought in the past were all glass-canons. This female, however, had both powerful Shielding and offensive magic, which confused Golos.
She appeared to possess the same blessing of Lightning which Golos possessed. More worryingly, the girl wielded a Negative-aligned power potent enough to penetrate his resistance.
It was with this foul-element that she tarnished his scales.
The very notion of such an idea; of being wounded by a being he could eat or mount at his pleasure, was the greatest insult.
He had to call upon his father’s constitution to resist the painful permeation of the tenebrous matter into his otherwise impervious draconic-body.
Then there was the matter of the two strange beasts that accompanied the female.
The first was an existentially inconsequent rat twice the size of one of Ryxi’s goats. It couldn’t touch Golos, but it was absurdly agile. For Golos, the effort he had to expend to catch the thing was more troublesome than just ignoring it.
As for the second creature, Golos had sensed a tingle in his thirty-foot spine when it made a horrendous noise and charged him. He had experienced a strange sensation of falling followed by the urgency one felt when urination was imminent. Alarmed, he dealt with it with more seriousness than he would have liked to admit. It was just as well that the insectile thing was as fragile as glass, Father knows what would have happened if it had latched onto him.
According to Ryxi, that thing has prehensile penis' with teeth.
The girl was screaming at him now.
“I’ll MAKE A VEST OUT OF YOU YET!”
Golos thought the girl had perished.
It wasn't every day he was pleasantly surprised.
“I thought you died!” he roared with glee, speaking in Draconic. He saw no reason to speak to the girl in the tongue of her apish ancestors. “This is going to be fun.”
If the girl could survive a strike from his tail, it must mean she was immensely capable at taking abuse. He had been worried earlier, as Ayxin had explicitly stated that Father wanted the girl alive. Now that the human female was proving to be such a good sport, his blood boiled. After the interlopers' meeting with Father, he would ask for her as a reward. If he could populate the place with Demi-Ayxins; it would irritate his half-sibling to no end.
With a single sweep of his wings, Golos lifted into the air. If a ground assault proved too weak to incapacitate the girl, then an aerial one would have to do. A pinpoint dive was a force multiplier, a talent every wyvern mastered. Even Ruxin, the purest of Father's blood-spawns could be brought low by a well-aimed dive bomb.
But first, a greeting for the girl was in order.
Golos opened his jaws and let loose a line of lightning that cut through the rain, vaporising water droplets and carving a channel into the earth.
The female teleported.
Golos tried to sense the girl’s Lightning Aura; previously, she had blazed like a thunder-struck Dragon-pine. Disappointingly, he found none. The strange dark energy she had emitted must be shielding her presence.
Another splash of corrosive muck struck his flank, removing yet more scales, soaking into his skin.
There! He caught a glimpse of the sorceress. She was using a spell to hide her presence, taking advantage of the darkness brought by the storm.
The sorceress was now covered from head to toe in the same dark substance that she used to attack him, hissing as the rain struck. Were it not for Golos' highly developed prey-sense; he would have missed the slim silhouette shifting between the Merfolk’s buildings.
A thunderous shockwave, concentrated into a conic blast, flattened the building behind which the Mage took cover.
There was a splash of ink as his breath-attack struck.
But the girl was gone.
Curses! Golos flapped his wings. The damned ape sure could hide!
From up on high, the Demi-dragon surveyed his domain.
His Merfolk livestock had been fleeing by the droves as soon as their combat began, elevating chaos into full-blown anarchy. The pelting rain did not impact Golos’ line of sight, but it did diminish the efficacy of his kinesthetic-vision, which specialised in hunting smaller creatures, especially when in hot pursuit.
A commotion caught Golos’ eyes.
The spiderling! It was alive, and it was hunting down the Merfolk.
Golos scoffed, what use would the slaughter of useless eel-men accomplish? He could kill them by the dozen any given day, a hundred even. Once, he ate one that had golden, shimmering scales, believing she would taste better. While not as good as Ryxi's carp, the eels possessed a fatty but delicate taste; they were one of Golos’ go-to snacks.
The spider turned itself inside-out, then consumed one of the Merfolk.
A few of the others who had been fleeing beside it fell to their knees and began convulsing and retching.
Before Golos could register what the thing was doing, another assault struck his right wing. The sudden pain spreading across his dactylopatagium felt like stinging ice. Golos inspected his limb for damage and noted that several of his most precious feathers, the likeness of which father possessed, were gone.
“DISGRACE!” He felt his head aflame with thunderous rage. The girl was spitting in his face! Her attack was an insult to their sacred Progenitor!
Three blasts of enormously destructive lightning cascaded off his breast, chipping a few scales and bruising his flesh.
With another mighty roar, the wyvern dipped below, the wind pressure of his dive so great that nearby huts were sent rolling, their roofs blasted open by the jet stream of Golo’s passing.
A flash of Lightning lit up the darkened gorge with a hysterical light.
There were two sources of crashing cacophony.
The first was the rumbling storm sundering the valley with ear-splitting sound. The second was Golos, smashing into huts and Merfolks, flattening shelters and storehouses as he snapped at the space where the spell emanated, where he could still feel the girl’s lingering lightning-aura.
Instead, he was greeted by a fleeing mongoose.
A blast of light and sound disorientated Golos for a mere tenth of a second, but it was enough for the mongoose to escape.
Where was the female?! Golos swung his tail in a wide arc and cleared a whole row of huts; sending up a cloud of dust, debris and Merfolk. All around him, his ‘people’ begged him for mercy in their grotesque fish-speak.
“COME OUT! COWARD!”
Golos had lowered himself to speak the human tongue. His frustration knew no bounds!
The voice came from further than Golos had expected. As he lifted into the air, another three blasts of the dark matter struck his leg, his chest, and his neck. More precious scales disappeared from his dermis. If Golos could see himself now, he would have revolted, for his once beautifully patterned scales now resembled the fur of an eclectically shaven cat.
Another thunder blast, this time catching the culprit.
A half-dome Shield foiled Golos’ hopes; then the girl was gone again. He could do nothing else but lift into the air, searching for yet another opportunity.
Golos caught the silhouette and began his dive. This time he would not stop until everything within range and beyond was ploughed and annihilated!
Golo felt the expansion of a lightning-charged explosion intercept the trajectory of his flight.
WHERE DID THAT COME FROM?! The wyvern felt as though he was going insane. Was the girl an Illusionist? Was he trapped in an Illusion? Ryxi could weave Illusions, but Golos never fell for those. Was this girl more adept than even a scion of their Father?
Before he could pivot and turn, he was struck again.
WHAT?! Golos felt his world go dark as a blast erupted right in front of his face, consuming his head. Instinctively, his scaly lids protected his eyes. The wyvern quickly channelled both vitality and lightning to protect his sensory organs, emerging better than he had expected from the exchange.
The darkness ended.
Golos opened his eyes.
Collision with a hut was imminent.
Golos smashed head first into the hut, completely demolishing the exterior structure. There must have been something hiding inside because he heard the crunch of bone and the smell of blood. From the stink of crushed roe, he knew it not to be the human female.
CURSES! CURSES! Golos whipped his neck back and forth, clearing the space around him. WHERE WAS SHE?! WHERE IS SHE NOW?!
* * *
“Your pet’s not doing so well,” Jun taunted the dragon-Mage.
“Golos is my half-brother,” the dragon-woman answered.
Jun regarded the absurd sight of a Draconian wearing a pink t-shirt with an anthropomorphic cat at the front with the words, "Hello Kitty." He had bought it for Gwen, thinking it was cute. When he saw her usual fashion, however, he had realised the design was for far younger girls.
Would Ayxin try to murder him if he took a Lumen-Pic? The boys at the barracks would never believe such a thing.
But then again, few would believe he was face to face with a Dragon-Mage?
That was the designation the PLA had for Draconic Demi-humans who could use human magic. From her appearance and her Spellcraft, the stupendously garbed Draconian must possess human blood within her, else she could not possibly be able to manifest this ‘Misty Realm’ of hers. Was it a Draconic-spell made possible by human Spellcraft? Or was it a human spell manifested by Draconic lineage? Was it particular to the domain of the Yinglong? Or was it the woman’s own?
Spatial Magic was a lost art, or perhaps, some would say - a deliberately ‘forgotten’ art. These days, Enchanters could recreate its effects with mandalas and glyphs, but the ‘School’ itself no longer exists, at least not in the sense of a curriculum. He eyed the Draconian as she squirmed, alarmed by the battle below. Gwen was doing very well indeed, using mobility and cover, as well as her Familiars as distractions. The two-legged winged dragon might be impervious to her spells, but so long as she could keep her vitality up, it was a matter of time.
He had heard of Ayxin; she had received an honourable mention in the archives. What he didn't expect was that she really did use Human Spellcraft. It meant the Demi-human had been around since before Mao’s Great Revolution in the 40s, before the fall of the Qing Dynasty.
The dragon-woman caught him staring.
Her castigating expression amused him; it wasn’t every day you pissed off the equivalent of a Demi-goddess. From what he could discern, she could use Lightning magic innately with impunity and near-limitless capacity, AND she had access to Spatial Magic. Her body possessed Draconic-constitution, meaning she could live for millennia, AND she was highly intelligent to boot.
If she had been a Mage, the Towers would be grooming her to be a Magi.
As she was a Demi-human, he should be seriously considering killing her.
But neither of them chose that path because Mutually Assured Destruction was overrated.
Instead, they stood in the space of her Misty Realm and watched the battle below. Was it curiosity? Jun wondered. Or was it that they both lacked the necessary bloodlust for senseless victories? He had known peaceful Demi-humans, but Dragon-kin seldom counted amongst that number. Perhaps this Ayxin was a sentimentalist? One for whom violence was the means, and not the end?
If so, he was in luck. Each second he maintained his Ashen Avatar, the spell set his soul ablaze. All these years, he had paid for it with the essence from his Amulet. Sadly, his reserve wasn't infinite.
Either way, pending on the outcome below, he would have to coax her into diplomacy.
With words, or with dark fire.
* * *
Falling rain turned to steam against Golos' obliterated dermis, his once proud armour was wounded, cracked and corroded.
The water cooled him - a pleasant sensation.
He would normally enjoy such a thing, but not so now.
Instinctively, he knew that his pretty plumage, those rare ornaments that had once framed his skull like a lion’s mane, like the ones Father wore, was gone.
The exchange had gone on for almost half an hour, with Golos missing the girl each and every time. During their last dozen melees, he hadn't even bothered trying to spot her. He merely hovered, demoralised and stunned by the turn of events, tanking her attacks until he was sure of her whereabouts.
But he was wrong.
The girl stayed just ahead of him, again and again.
It was Madness! Did the girl have an infinite mana-pool? Golos was being ground down by monotony and indifference! The ceaseless impediment was making him question his sanity. Frustration, loathing, impotent anger; he couldn’t flee, he couldn't lose, and he couldn’t win.
The wyvern preferred to be beaten to the ground, at least then, there was an end to the misery.
As Golos surveyed the desolated village, half strewn with corpses of Merfolk, the female Mageling was still nowhere to be seen.
FINE! Golos congratulated his opponent.
He would give her what she wants.
Play stupid games; win stupid prizes.
Golos took flight until he was above the gorge.
If the girl wanted to play the coward, he would simply destroy everything. From this day forth, this region will be nought but shattered stone; a memory of what once was. Riding the currents surrounding the storm, Golos found a spot to hover which allowed him the necessary space to manifest one of Father’s most destructive abilities.
There was no name for the power he was about to employ, Golos knew it only to be the manifestation of his father's wrath. He would call upon the heaven, offering his vitality and spirit to the skies, then call down a sweeping deluge of thunder and lightning.
That in itself would not be enough, of course.
Golos grinned, his cracked and bleeding reptilian lips forming a toothy curl.
The thunder and lighting would destroy the crags, the cliffs, the trees and the granite - the very substance that formed Huangshan. The falling debris would build in momentum until a flash flood of logs, rubble, granite and whitewater consumed the entire valley.
Then the girl would have to emerge.
That or die below.
Once above, Golos unfurled his once magnificent wings, now torn and splotched with blighted scales, bloody membrane, and feather-stumps.
The winds changed.
The air began to form into a maelstrom.
The already dark sky became lightless, plunging the gorge into a deep pitch.
As his assault intensified, Golos noticed a little green mote below.
It grew brighter, then brighter again.
It was coming closer.
Golos felt his muscles tense, his vertebrae trembled.
What was this feeling!?
It was as though Father was watching!
He glanced about him bewildered, wondering if the Yinglong's all-seeing eye would suddenly appear and berate him.
The green silhouette piercing the darkness became fully visible as it came closer. It had been scaling the cliff-face at a terrific speed.
A serpentine form.
Two long, protruding horns crackling with emerald energy.
A Kirin?! No, Golos’ jaws hung open. No Kirin looked as ridiculous as that thing. It appeared almost like that mongoose he had encountered below.
But that creature couldn't fly.
And this creature swam through the air, albeit with its paws waddling like a dog paddling through water.
Golos wondered if the world had gone daft.
He was exhausted, and he had taken at least three-dozen bolts of both elements to various parts of his body. The damned sorceress and her cowardice had sapped his patience and sanity.
Was it a Kirin then?
Its aura was palpable. Old! Was the impression Golos received. Older than anything he had ever seen or felt, perhaps older than Father?! Was it an emissary from the Great Mount?
“Lord Kirin?” Golos couldn’t help but ask as the creature finally managed to lift itself to his eye-level. “Why do you visit us in this hour?”
The Kirin opened its mouth to deliver its edict.
A Barbanginy Elemental Sphere Exploded in Golos’ face. Illuminating the gorge, the heavens, the cliffs; painting the cumulonimbus formation above in a blinding blast of viridescent light. The explosion expanded violently, engulfing the entirety of Golos’ body, then erupted again as a supernova, scattering the clouds above.
The rolling thunder could be heard as far as the horizon.
From within a shroud of superheated steam, Golos fell.
A draconic shooting star, fallen from heaven.