The sinister air of the Temple grew heavier as Josephine’s words echoed around the room. Her voice took on the slithering quality that it had when they first walked in. The flickering torch light seemed to splutter and dim as the deep pools of inky black shadow deepened. Shivering slightly, Oberlin shrank back in his seat, throwing a frightened glance at Thorn who still looked calm.
This was not what he had in mind when he had recruited Thorn for the quest, and he was quickly becoming worried that the situation was getting out of control. About to try and mediate, he had barely gotten his mouth open when Thorn spoke again.
“Actually, not only do I expect you to give me the statue, I’m pretty sure you’ll give it to me for free.” Without standing, Thorn reached out his hand to one of the stone chairs and squeezed the armrest.
Under his incredible strength, the armrest exploded into a cloud of dust, startling Oberlin badly. Josephine’s eyes widened momentarily in surprise, but her expression smoothed so fast Thorn almost missed it.
“Ah, you are threatening me,” the Head Priestess stated flatly, no change in her tone.
“Think of it less as a threat and more as encouragement. A fight wouldn’t be in either of our interests. What would be better is if you just gave Oberlin here his cursed soul back. He has done some work for you, you’ve hunted him up and down the region, seems fair to call everything square and let it go at that.”
“Surely you have more than that. There is no way you would walk in here without something else to rely on.” Josephine uncrossed her legs and stood, looking mockingly down at Thorn. Or rather, she tried to. It was difficult to look down on someone who, crouching, was at eye level.
“You were not joking about being straightforward, were you? Do you really want me to lay everything out? Okay.” Thorn rose to his feet, stretching out to his full 8’ 9” height and gazing down on the robed High Priestess. “The truth is, I have a quest to crush your altar and all the statues.”
“Ah ha, the truth comes out. I thought I felt a familiar aura on you.” A wide smile spread across Josephine’s pretty face as she backed up to get out of Thorn’s reach.
“Can someone please explain what is going on?” Oberlin complained. When the other two ignored him, he sighed and got up as well, moving to the side of the room. The air grew thicker as Thorn and Josephine confronted each other. Without warning, both turned and walked out to the middle of the large hall, as if they were of one mind. Summoning his tetsubo, Thorn planted the end in front of him.
“Why don’t we start this over.” Josephine spoke calmly, lifting her snake head cane.
“I am Thorn, Avatar of Hati, the Moon Wolf.”
“Greetings, Thorn.” Josephine gave a slight bow, her left hand on her chest and her cane held up. “I am Josephine, Avatar of Salliish, the Shadow Serpent. Is this your first time participating in an Avatar challenge?”
“Yes.” Thorn was frank. “Would you mind explaining how this is supposed to work? I get the feeling that killing you is not the point.”
“That is correct.” Josephine eyed Thorn’s massive figure. “Thankfully, this is not a duel to the death. While some Avatars do go that far, an Avatar challenge is more of a duel for supremacy. Contrary to the commonly held understanding, the gods never left, instead hiding themselves for reasons unknown. Yet they never truly stopped their grand game. Ever since the first era, Avatars have continued to seek each other out to compete against each other.
“Challenges can come in all shapes and sizes, the only constant is that they are triggered when two or more avatars find themselves near each other. Avatars must state their challenge to activate it, and will be penalized or rewarded with the favor of their sponsoring deity based on failure or success. You can think of favor like a currency that unlocks reward tiers from the deity. When you walked in, I was notified that you were an Avatar and that I was to challenge you to a contest of strength. Since you are here for your friend’s soul, why don’t we make this simple? If you can beat me, you get his soul. On the other hand, if I win, you have to do something for me.”
Thorn shook his head, “I don’t agree to unspecified favors.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“Since we are dealing in souls, why not keep the currency consistent? If I win, you let him go. If you win, you let him go, but I’ll join your organization.”
“What!? No way!” Oberlin shouted from the side.
“Now that is a deal I like the sound of.” Josephine spoke at the same time as Oberlin, as if afraid that Thorn would take back his words. “You for him. The battle will go until someone admits defeat. What I mean to say is, make sure you give up before you die!” As her last word rang out, Josephine lifted her cane and thrust it forward.
With lightning speed the cane stretched out, the snake head on the end growing larger and coming to life.Thankfully, Thorn had been watching closely, so he was able to get his weapon up in time to deflect the thrust. Still, the snap of the snake head’s mouth next to his shoulder made him sweat.
Seeing her attack fail, Josephine jumped backwards and raised her hands high overhead, a purple glow gathering in the mouth of the serpent head. Loud chants began to roll out of her mouth as the purple light grew stronger and stronger, bathing the room in strange slithering shadows.
Tightening his grip on the handle of his weapon, Thorn was about to charge forward when warning bells started going off in his head. Shifting his momentum, Thorn threw himself to the side, dodging just as the tail of a giant snake landed where he had stood moments before. The marble floor cracked under the impact of the blow, chips of stone flying through the air.
Focusing on this new enemy, Thorn faced the massive snake squarely. Almost fifty feet long, the snake was as thick as a barrel, with jagged black and purple scales running along its sides. Wicked fangs were visible as it hissed toward Thorn, its cold, yellow eyes staring unblinking at him. As the purple light fell on the snake’s skin, it seemed to fade in and out of existence, melding with the dark shadows.
Josephine stayed still, her hands raised, continuing her chant. Seeing how the snake seemed to fade out as it left Josephine’s purple light, Thorn narrowed his eyes. As if feeling Thorn’s glance at Josephine, the giant serpent shifted slightly to put itself between them, defending Josephine from a possible attack, further reinforcing Thorn’s assumption.
“Let’s test the theory,” Thorn thought, and stepped forward.
Lashing out with his tetsubo, Thorn aimed for the snake’s side with a light probing strike.
The hardened purple scales deflected the blow with ease. Thorn, borrowing the momentum, swung his weapon again. And again, the blow was deflected. Undeterred, Thorn continued to lash out with increasing speed. Unable to react to the speed of the strikes, the giant snake stayed curled up, weathering the storm of blows.
In between the tiny gaps in the coils, Thorn could see the snake’s eyes watching for the slightest break in his rhythm. Its attention was entirely fixed on Thorn. Just as Thorn and the snake locked eyes, its head shot out from between its coils, forcing Thorn to abandon his latest attack and block in front of his chest.
With a crash, the serpent rammed into Thorn, sending him flying backwards into one of the Naga statues. Coughing, Thorn scrambled to his feet. As he did, the snake struck again, this time biting at Thorn and forcing him to tumble out of the way. Missing by less than an inch, the snake did not pursue Thorn, instead withdrawing back into the protection of its coils.
Staggering up, Thorn wove on his feet as he got his bearings. The snake was still in between him and Josephine, who was watching the fight with much glee, her staff still shedding purple light on the fight.
“Haha, how do you like my pet? She is pretty strong, isn’t she?” Josephine gloated.
“Eh, not too bad.” Rolling his shoulders, Thorn did not seem overly impressed. “Let’s start round two.” Charging forward, Thorn once again threw out a storm of attacks. His weapon flew through the air, raining down blow after blow on the scaly skin of the giant snake to little effect.
To the side, Oberlin stared at Thorn, a huge frown on his face. He had never intended for Thorn to get so enmeshed in his issue, and he felt terrible that Thorn was fighting on his behalf. As he continued to watch, his breath caught. Once again, Thorn had been sent flying into the wall, this time bringing down a bow-wielding Naga statue.
Yet, as this cycle continued, Oberlin’s frown turned to confusion. Over and over again, Thorn was struck, flying through the air to smash into the wall, destroying the room spectacularly. However, what was strange was that Thorn always seemed to hit a new statue each time he went flying. Soon, it wasn’t just Oberlin who was confused.
Josephine seemed to have caught on that something was wrong. Thorn was flying around like a human bowling ball, smashing into everything. Yet each time he hit the wall, he bounced back up, no worse for wear. His attacks were just as persistent and quick, as if he was using up no energy. Growing frustrated, Josephine bit her bottom lip before shouting a command to the giant snake. Quickly uncoiling, the snake slithered back, wrapping itself around her.
“What are you playing at? I can’t believe an Avatar would be so weak. Especially an Avatar of the god of night. You should know that failing a challenge brings serious penalties,” Josephine warned Thorn.
“But I’m not failing. I only have the altar left.” Thorn pointed at the altar behind Josephine.
“What?” Looking around, realization mixed with a sense of horror dawned on Josephine’s face. “You tricked me.”
“I told you I had a quest to crush your altar and all the statues.” Thorn smiled slightly. “According to the rules you listed, an Avatar must state their quest and give their opponent a fair chance to prevent them from achieving it. I did that. I told you that I had to smash the altar and all the statues.”
“And I assumed you were talking about the statues on the altar. Very tricky.” The High Priestess narrowed her eyes as she glared at Thorn. “Well, I’m afraid you’ll pay for that.” Whispering an arcane word, the purple orb in the mouth of her cane flashed brightly, forcing Thorn to squint. When the light cleared, the giant snake was gone. Instead, Josephine rose in the air, her body growing larger, a snake tail replacing her body from the waist down just like the Naga statues.
“No one can trick me and get away with it! The glory of Salliish, the Shadow Serpent cannot be maligned!” As she grew, her robe fell away, revealing tight fitting armor that grew with her. Jagged claws grew from her fingers and her hair began to wave as if it were alive. Her eyes pulsed with purple light, and she roared, shaking the room. Flecks of stone and little bits of dust and dirt fell from the ceiling.
Her eyes fixed on Thorn, Josephine shot forward, her snake tail sending her sliding around the floor as she advanced. Her unpredictable movement made her hard to pin down, but Thorn was not particularly worried. To Oberlin’s surprise, Thorn even put away his tetsubo and stepped back heavily, his feet hitting the stone floor so hard they left cracks in it. Spreading his hands, Thorn dropped into a martial arts stance, a wide grin spreading across his face.
“Haha, I’m finally facing something I can use my training on!” Thorn thought joyfully to himself. Every single fight he had participated in to this point was with people or creatures much smaller than himself. Josephine’s Naga form was much more his size. In fact, with her tail extended, she was taller than he was. Plus, her upper body had grown larger to account for the tail, so she was the perfect target for Thorn to use to practice his taijiquan.
With a piercing scream, Josephine lunged forward, her large claws outstretched. Rather than bracing himself, Thorn casually stepped forward, his front foot sliding across the floor smoothly as his hands came up to intercept the attack. With a twist of his torso, he deflected the attacking Naga, tossing her to the side.
Furious, she tried to knock Thorn back with her flailing tail, only for Thorn to accept the blow head on. Her tail hit Thorn’s solid figure and bounced off, unable to move him in the slightest. With a screech of pain, Josephine slid backwards, out of Thorn’s reach.
“What did you do?” Her pretty eyes were aflame with anger as she glared at Thorn.
“What do you mean? I’m not sure I am following.”
“Why can’t I knock you back? My summon could throw you all over the place!”
“Oh, that. Yeah, I’m not jumping anymore.” Thorn shrugged. “I’m pretty heavy, so I am not easy to move. However, I’ve noticed that the game compensates for my weight when I jump, otherwise I’d never be able to get off the ground. So, as long as I intend to jump right before something hits me, I’ll move. But I don’t have any more statues to smash, so there isn’t a reason to let you toss me around.”
“This is stupid! How am I supposed to beat you in a contest of strength! You’re as dense as a mountain!”
“So are we done?”
“In your dreams!” Chanting, a purple mist gathered in Josephine’s hands, quickly solidifying into a bow. Hissing, she drew back the string and a purple arrow with a two-pronged head appeared, aimed at Thorn. “Die,” she hissed, releasing the arrow straight at Thorn’s heart.
For a brief second, Thorn considered trying to block the arrow, but seeing how fast it was coming, he gave up that thought immediately and dove to the side. Too fast to completely dodge, the arrow cut into Thorn’s side, punching its way straight through his armor and ripping a gash along his ribs.
Grunting in pain, Thorn dashed behind a pillar, barely dodging the second arrow. Feeling the burning of the wound, Thorn looked down to see the edges of the cut slowly taking on a purple tinge. Poison. He needed to end this fight fast.
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Bio: My name is Seth Ring and I am a writer. I create worlds and tell the stories of those who inhabit them. I love exploring these new worlds with other people. To get advanced access to chapters you can support me on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/SethRing.