Leif didn't have to see the blow coming to know he was about to die.
He did see the shining red magic it emitted with runes fighting to stay together as his silencing aura unravelled them. He heard the electric crackling of condensed mana that shouldn't be possible in his presence. Before the hammer meant to shatter his skull landed, he somehow felt its weight and presence and the very essence of death enveloping him.
The words came to him, a half-remembered warning that had insulted him at the time. “If you’re in trouble, don't hesitate to use this.”
Leif bit down on one of his false tooth, shattering the beast core into a fine white powder. At the same time, the stored mana within surged out filling his body with the focus he needed to survive.
Without time to pick a direction, Leif activated Harm’s magic a moment before it was unraveled and was gone. For an instant, it felt like falling into an empty abyss without color, sound, or any sensation whatsoever. A moment later, he was back on his feet only for a wall of force to slam into his back like a physical object.
The ringing in his ears was his first clue that an explosion had sent him flying. The second was how the trees fell over as the destruction carried him until crashing into the dirt with a roll.
“Gods damned teleporters,” someone said, and it took Leif a moment to realize it was Bitarr probably thanks to the wound spurting blood from the back of his head.
Getting to his feet, he shuddered at what he saw. Where he’d been pinned just a few moments ago was gone, replaced by a crater the size of a small pond. At the center, where it was at its deepest, the wind turned around Bitarr from a thin red aura that shouldn't be possible while he was silenced.
The god or man, if he was telling the truth, was covered in blood and bruised skin. His shredded tunic caught the blood spilling from his mouth and nose, but his eyes were focused. They blazed with what Leif mistook for hatred until a second later when he realized it was determination.
When Leif clenched his fist in response they hurt. That also shouldn't have been possible, not with his cultivation, not with the years he spent shattering wood, then stone, and soon enough metal with ease.
There was no breastplate he couldn't cave in, no helm he couldn't crack like an egg, and no sword he couldn't snap like a twig. Even if the man in front of him was made completely of steel, a single punch should have been more than enough to kill him. But Leif was in pain with knuckles redder than he'd seen them in decades and an enemy covered in blood that just wouldn't fall.
When the man who might be Bitarr stepped forward, something crept into Leif’s chest forcing him back a step. His fist came up and he took two steps forward as if to erase the fear controlling him.
He wasn't weak. There wasn't a defense he couldn't break through or a someone his fist couldn't put down. This fight would take a bit more effort than usual, but so what. His knuckles were only throbbing, but his enemy looked like a very defiant piece of tenderized meat.
The flicking aura surrounding Bitarr grew brighter calling an end to the lull in the battle.
Leif expected the bloodied man to leap at him, but he smashed right through the edge of the crater as if it wasn't there. He exploded through the ground with an arm already craned back for another attack. Leif stepped into the blow knocking it aside with one hand and striking with his elbow.
Once again, the pugilist found himself imagining what should have happened but didn't. His augments multiplied the force of the attack 10 fold as it smashed into Bitarr’s ear. Brains should have been gushing out the opposite ear. Bitarr’s head should have been caved in, eyes popping out like seeds from a crushed fruit. His neck should have snapped from the force of his head jerking to the side. Instead, Bitarr was sent sprawling but stopped himself within half a breath and charged again.
The attacks would have seemed blindingly fast to anyone else, but Leif dodged them all, each coming faster than the last. Every time he did, a blast of force lashed out, shattering something behind him. Every time Leif countered with what should have been lethal blows, Bitarr didn't slow down in the slightest, accepting each strike as if asking for them until one bounced off him as if thrown by a child.
“Oh no,” Leif thought as his blood ran cold.
Bitarr released a bestial war cry as his speed suddenly redoubled. His stance changed, and Leif was suddenly fighting some kind of boxer whose rapid attacks forced him back. Bitarr style changed again, going low with kicks and then high as he spun nearly decapitating Leif who found himself retreating until he turned and ran.
He flash stepped to the side feeling Bitarr are right behind him and again to avoid a fist moving almost too fast to see.
With every explosive moment, Leif felt a shockwave from attacks that were now too fast for him.
All thoughts of victory left his mind as the thunderous steps behind him grew louder. His fists were swollen and probably fractured while his feet ached like he’d been kicking a steel statue for hours. Victory was no longer about winning but escape and that fact killed whatever pride and duty weighing him down.
“Get back here you fucking coward!” Bitarr roared, his rage moving Leif even faster.
Brand was no stranger to pain, but he hadn't seen so much of his old friend in a very long time. He wanted nothing more than to keep the relationship brief by dulling the pain with a spell, but that wasn't an option.
His breath was raspy and wet thanks to the blood filling his lungs. His kidneys, liver, intestines, left eardrum and stomach were badly damaged, not as if they'd been shredded by a sword but beaten leaving a 1000 small injuries while only half of them would eventually kill him. His muscles were torn and crushed and would soon begin poisoning his body if left untreated.
He wanted to dull the pain with a spell, but between being numb and stupid or alert and in pain, he’d choose the pain. And even if having a clouded mind seemed like an attractive prospect, he needed to concentrate if he wanted to survive the next 10 minutes. Still, Brand managed a laugh that quickly became an agonized moan.
If the pugilist stood his ground, he would have probably won. A few more minutes of punishment and the small slivers of mana converted from each strike wouldn't have been enough to keep Brand from death's door. He would have had to sacrifice strength for survival which would get him killed either way. But luck was on his side, just like in his fight with Cull.
Brand laughed then moaned again before falling face-first onto the forest ground biting down a scream. “If I were lucky that goddess would have never shown up. Then none of this crap would have happened.”
Brand's attention first went to his lungs. After coughing out a mouthful of blood he moved to the worst bleeders regrowing tissue and convincing his body to put itself back together. After a few minutes, his stomach was stitched back together but he’d be pissing blood for a few days. As for his most damaged kidney, he let it die and broke it down to help feed his starving body but was resolved to regrow it as soon as he could.
With his most urgent injuries taken care of, Brand finally dulled the pain and closed his eyes.
He didn't realize he was falling asleep until someone was shouting at him.
“Brand, on my gods you have to be alive! Please be alive!”
“Gods damn, shut up!” Brand shouted and roared in anger, all of it directed at himself. “I fell asleep!”
His body was still a throbbing mess, but worst, the healing magic without his careful control ran wild using the last of his mana leaving him as an ordinary fourth gate cultivator. Pain he could deal with, but weakness, that Brand couldn't handle.
He was suddenly very aware that he was in a monster-infested forest. The thought made his heart beat faster and a cold sweat crest his skin. Rustling leaves caused him to jump because it might not be some small forest critter. It might be something dangerous, a stealthy monster he couldn't see without magical perception, or a werebeast stocking him that could easily rip his throat out. The possibilities were endless, but the only ones on Brand's mind ended in death
Brand looked from side to side as if he’d find a beast core laying around. “I need mana.”
“I thought you died,” Thora said with tears somehow in her voice.
“Just stop talking. You're wasting the little mana I have left. And how are you crying without a body? Fuck, don't answer that!”
“I don’t know!” Thora said with a voice so muddled by fear he could practically see her tears in his mind.
Every word said or sound she made used mana. Normally, Brand would have hardly noticed the draw on his well of power, but now that it was empty, her presence was suffocating. Still, it’s not like he could shut her up without mana to work a spell even if his mana regeneration wasn't being stunted, he didn't have half a day to wait around before being able to use iron sides again.
“I didn't know you cared,” Brand said, holding his anxiety behind a wall of levity.
“You think I want to spend the rest of my existence in a corpse?”
Brand shrugged. “Good point.”
Without the use of his magical perception, Brand sat up and listened for the sounds of battle. He heard nothing and had no idea how he was supposed to find anyone with magic.
“What are you doing?” Thora asked. “Took too many hits to the head didn't you.”
“Just be quiet. I need to think.”
“I’ve been quiet for the last ten minutes!”
“Ten whole minutes! Are you sure?” Brand said as he shot to his feet.
“I don't know,” Thora said.
Brand cursed and was about to climb a tree to get a bird’s eye view when thunder echoed through the forest. On the edge of the sound, like a barely noticeable after taste, was the roar of a lion if you knew what one sounded like. It could only be one thing. It could only be her, so Brand ran towards the storm like Tanya’s life depended on it.
Tanya was a powerful mage, but that fact seemed to be lost on her enemies. From the pained expression on the woman's face while she struggled to conjure water faster than Pyro could vaporize it, desperately fighting for her life had been a surprise.
If this would-be assassin was a vellian noble, she would have heard the stories of King Albert's lion cub. She would have known how many siblings, how many cousins, how many upstart nobles fresh out of the Hall Tanya humiliated in the year before became Regent.
It had been fun getting challenged every week as if her losing would change her father's mind. Well, maybe not fun, but she enjoyed having something to hit. And at the same time, whenever Leo shattered someone's bones after walking through their defenses, whenever pyro set the world ablaze until being begged to show mercy, whenever Thundra left someone twitching with thunder scares marking their defeat, it proved she wasn't just any Bryer.
Now, Tanya floated far above the treetops looking down at the battle below that was already over, but her enemy didn't think so.
Leo ran on the air with the same runes she used dodging blast of water that snaked through the forest shattering anything that got in their way. The werelion didn't need to be told to avoid the attacks. He knew all on his own what magic the glowing runes across his fur would defend against.
As he drew near the water mage, Leo didn't bother dodging a water snake. Unlike Tanya who would have been pulverized by the attack, the werelion forced its way through like swimming up a waterfall with his brute strength while sky stepping to push forward.
The water mage retreated as Leo neared, but she wasn't fast enough. The werelion swung his hand and a great sword appeared, twice as long as what anyone would think reasonable.
The mage blocked the attack with her Damascus sword and surprisingly wasn't crushed. So she was a cultivator then, a water master, but not one strong enough to challenge Leo's strength without her focus.
An explosion of water came to her defense forcing Leo to fight against the current. It left a water master vulnerable, her attention and power focused on the sword-wielding beast in front of her and not the flaming comet that came next.
On Tanya's command, Pyro crashed into both Leo and his prey. The resulting explosion of steam was deafening while the vaporous plume rose high enough to dampen Tanya's hair, but she wasn't done yet.
The orange flames in the midst of the hissing steam turn blue as Tanya fanned Pyro's flames.
The sky blue wave of heat sent Leo flying back, but he landed gracefully with his oversized sword still in hand and wet fur unaffected after being engulfed by flames. His reserves of mana only grew as his fortress aura absorbed the heat. The watermaster on the other hand was a mother's cautionary tale of playing with fire.
Where the skin on her right arm hadn't vanished under blisters was black where fibers of her once beautiful dress melted into her. The side of her face and chest weren't doing much better than her arm or back; the casualty of Tanya's first attack. The Damascus sword, the only part of her that wasn't damaged, glowed red and hissed against the water in a trembling hand whose grib was more of a pained reflex by now.
The water master screamed, the sound ebbing between a growl and unabashed sobbing. She freed a glass vile from somewhere on a person and shattered it against her head spilling its contents over her.
The burns began to vanish immediately, burned skin flaking off her like a serpent’s. Tanya didn't bother trying to stop her. This was the second time she'd healed herself and it would only prolong her suffering.
“I can do this all day,” Tanya said, trying to speak over her enemy screams.
When the last of the water master’s injuries vanished, she looked up, eyes filled with rage and terror. Tanya expected her to say something, to carry on about her eventual victory, or beg for mercy. Last words also seemed appropriate for the situation, but whatever the woman said next would probably count one way or another.
“You’re a traitor,” the woman said her words colored with the effort it took to speak them.
Something like anger blossomed in Tanya’s chest. It was hot and traveled up her throat until her teeth were bared and a growl mixed into her words.
“A traitor to who exactly?” Tanya asked, her words as sharp as a threat.
“To your own kind!” The woman spat.
“My kind is weak!” Tanya said. The words stabbed at her as much as anyone else but she continued. “You're too weak to resist Vellia, too weak to kill me, and too stupid to know how lucky you are that I’m the regent instead of some fucking human!” Tanya's hand jutted forward with lightning crackling around it. “Now do yourself a favor and let me end this quickly. Thundra!”
Lightning leaped from Tanya’s hand with a thunderclap, but the woman was already surrounded by water. Like with all of Thunda’s attacks, the bolt exploded on impact, vaporizing the water with an explosive releasing heat and sound.
Before the cloud of steam could dissipate, the water master surged into the sky with a tendril of the water she had left engulfing half her body. It was an impressive display of power that allowed her to fly faster than Tanya could move regardless of terrain, but it was a draining one. Tanya realized this would be the last attack and welcomed it.
With a swing of her Damascus sword, water leaped from the tendril forming into flying javelins. There were dozens, and some curved unnaturally cutting off Tanya's path for escape.
Maybe Mildrith would have had a chance at dodging, but Tanya was sluggish in the air so she left her flying up to something else and relaxed.
A twister spun up around Tanya pulling her out of the way of the coming attack. It was anything but graceful. The roaring wind tossed her about like debris without caring how much it turned her stomach. Up and down or even where the water javelins were coming from didn't matter. Tanya just hugged her knees and trusted that nothing would suddenly punch a hole in her.
When Tanya finally came to a stop, she found the water master still inching towards her with Leo and pyro closing from behind. She was out of water to attack with and only maintained her altitude with a thin sheet she used as a platform. There was still fight in her eyes though, so the illusion was at least impressive.
A near-invisible current of swirling air gathered behind Tanya. The real water master’s sword bounced off it while the illusion fell apart into water falling like rain.
Tanya turned, finding her enemy’s expression was that of shock and despair. The sneak attack had been her trump card, her last-ditch effort to survive. Against another mage, it might have even worked, but Tanya’s magical perception being weak didn’t mean she needed her own eyes to see.
“I can see through my lions,” Tanya said. The water master tried to respond, maybe to beg or give one last insult, but Tanya didn't give her the chance. “Zephyr!”
The air growled but was completely invisible. When it slammed into the water master, Tanya heard a crunch of bones before the woman was sent hurtling to the ground in a condensed twister like a spear of wind fallen from the heavens.
Just before hitting the ground, Tanya finally saw her construct in the leaves and dust swirling around it. It was a lion like the rest, but its body was the wind itself, an apparition without form or presence before an attack.
The forest shook when Zephyr hit the ground. Trees and dirt flew into the air like a giant's fist assaulted the land scarring it with a crater. At the center of the depression was a bloody smear and a Damascus sword embedded halfway into a stone.
Tanya floated back to the ground and freed the weapon. “Leo, hold onto this for the time… Leo?”
Pyro floated just off the ground to not catch the forest on fire and Zephyr hovered around Tanya, but the werelion was nowhere to be found.
Just as she was beginning to worry, a chorus of familiar obscenity came from the forest. A moment later, Leo walked into the crater holding none other than Bitarr under an arm like a sack of flour.
Tanya had never seen the god in such a horrible state. What was left of his torn and ragged tunic was drenched in blood. His dark skin was covered in even darker bruises and his face was a swollen mess of injuries.
“Leo, put him down,” Tanya ordered, but he hesitated.
“Kill,” Leo said, but it was a question. More importantly, it was a question that didn't make sense.
“What, no, don't!” Tanya exclaimed. “Just put him down.”
The werelion didn't hesitate to drop his load this time but still seemed anxious. Tanya ignored him. He was probably just being overprotective.
“You’re hurt pretty bad,” she said.
“Yeah,” Bitarr said, and the word hit Tanya like a hammer to her chest.
Their eyes met and something was missing while at the same time a long-forgotten presence was in his expression. The way he passed a hand through his hair and sighed. The way he rolled his right shoulder as if it bothered him. The hundreds of other quirks Tanya didn't notice until this moment widened her eye with certainty.
She could already feel tears welling up in her eyes as she spoke in a hushed whisper. “Brand?”
“It's been a long time Tanya,” Brand said smiling.