Amelia had a split second to gape in shock as the formation of flying beastmen came crashing down on her before combat reflexes took over and she fast cast a shield spell.
-T-They're after ME!- she thought fearfully, and then thought was directed toward maintaining her spell as the formation impacted with her shield like a rain of boulders.
Er... rain of boulders with sharp, pointy STICKS.
"Amelia!" Zelgadis gasped, running! desperately for her position as her shield flashed suddenly blue, then white, then a pale yellow with the dozens of bodies that impacted with it then rebounded back into the air. Diving forward, he missed being decapitated by a short spear by a hair's breadth, turned his dive into a roll, and ended up in a crouch with his hands spread wide- bolstering her failing shield with a shield of his own. The last of the dive-bombers pulled up and split in every possible direction, though it was obvious from their flight patterns that they would form up again just out of reach. With a grin and a flick of magical muscles too long dormant, Lina blasted several fireballs up at the fleeing formation, and several Striking Talons were instantly incinerated by the magical flames... but as a whole, the formation got out unscathed, setting up for a second run in the distance.
Arashi, however, had other plans. Using the cloud of bodies as a mask, he dropped past Amelia and Zelgadis' shield, hitting the ground at a dead run for the injured half-dragon, the priestess and the Soul of Fury. It was a good plan, and probably would have worked.
Probably would have worked, that is, if he hadn't appeared to be threatening a certain Inverse's boyfriend.
"Oh no you don't!" Mina shouted, suddenly just THERE and swinging her sword in a vicious arc that barely missed taking Arashi out at the knees. He spun his short spear around to parry, his other hand slipping out to grab the other short spear that, when combined with the weapon already in his grasp, created the two-headed spears the Striking Talons were so feared for. Using the two short spears in tandem, he swept low for her legs with one; while twisting the short spear he'd parried her sword with in a tight circle so that the tines would catch her blade and strip it from her. She surprised him by jumping over his low swing and spinning, switching hands on the longsword so that the angle prevented him from disarming her.
He spun with her, aiming a hissing backhanded high slash with the spear that had previously been aimed for her legs and stabbing for her chest with the other. She reacted by diving left and parrying his stab, while throwing up her other hand and flinging a flare arrow at him. Eyes widening, he reacted in a manner no normal combatant could have, shooting upwards into the sky. The flare arrow flashed out, forcing Gourry to dive aside yelping, and passing so close to Zelgadis' head that, were his hair made of a less resiliant material, might have given him a smoking reverse mohawk.
"Hey watch it!" He shot her an irritated glare, which she returned with a sheepish shrug and a muttered. "Sorry..."
She scanned the sky furiously but the skilled beastman warrior she'd been fighting was nowhere to be seen.
Then she saw why.
"Crap! Zel, we got incoming!" She shouted, pointing.
Zel looked up as his supernatural hearing picked up a whistling noise that intruded upon his concentration. His eyes widened.
"LINA! AMELIA! SHIELD! UP! NOW!"
Not bothering to question the mystical swordsman's judgement, they nodded and complied...
A few seconds later, literally hundreds of fletchettes rained down on their shield. All three sorcerors maintaining the shield gritted their teeth and strained to maintain the barrier. Mina grimaced.
"This isn't going to work for long..."
Zel gritted his teeth. "I know... I know..."
Langdelin shook his head. "Uncivilized and crude, but effective. I canst not get in a single attack with my sword. A pity." He sighed, calmly removing a bundle from his horse's back and ignoring the glares of his more gainfully employed party members. Hydra watched him curiously (it having never occurred to her to bother helping... defensive magic was not her forte, and her normal tactic of flying and raining down ice spells was obviously suicide in this situation.). Langdelin swept off his hat and bowed to her. "Prithee thine assistance milady."
She blushed. "What can I-" she cleared her throat. "I mean, what can the greatest sorceress of all time do to assist you, Sir Knight?"
"As I use these up..." He flung open the waxed canvas bundle, which rolled out to reveal a dozen long metal pipes with waxed paper seals on both ends in several pockets along its length. "Do me the honor..." He removed a handle shaped object from the end of the bundle and snapped something on it's base out, where it locked with a click, making a sort of pistol shaped form without a barrel. "Of reloading them." Picking up one of the pipes, he locked it into place and put it between his legs, striking a match and lighting the magnesium fuse fixed onto the hammer of the now exceedingly long barreled rifle.
She frowned. "I don't know how..."
He dropped to one knee and sighted in on one of the Striking Talons preparing to dive for the beleagured party. "I suggest thee figure it out most quickly then, milady. Time is of the essence."
He pulled the trigger. Everyone's attention whipped around to the horrendously loud bang that emitted from his direction. He looked up, a smile of satisfaction on his face, flicking the now empty barrel loose onto the ground and snapping another into place. Their gaze whipped back around to the formation as one of the beastmen screamed and plummeted for the ground clutching his chest. Langdelin grinned. "Have at thee."
Lina stopped tossing fireballs left and right to blink, dumbfounded. "Whatdoyaknow? Fanaticus is useful after all..."
Amelia and Pix snorted.
Several frenzied minutes of combat later, the group was on its last legs. Mina, Lina and Zelgadis gazed at one another anxiously, well aware that the next focused attack was certain to break through their defenses. They'd managed to destroy a third of their attackers, but most of their magical strength had been expended using fireballs and flare arrows to knock out one or two of the beastmen at a time. Pix hung onto Lina's shoulder wearily, her wings drooping disheartedly.
"I'm sorry master. I don't have much power left."
Amelia frowned, looking up at the formation. "Neither do I." She shook a fist at them. "Dang it! Come down here and fight fair."
"You tell 'em, Amelia." Lina snapped. "While you're at it, tell 'em I'm getting hungry."
Zelgadis surveyed the formations in a state of outward calm. Inwardly he was just as tired as the rest, though he still had quite a bit of fight left in him. "At least the rain of metal has stopped... we only have to deal with their aerial charge attacks now..."
Lina glared at him. "Am I supposed to be feeling more confident after that observation? Sorry Zel, I ain't feelin' the love yet."
A bang sounded behind them and another of the fliers screamed and spiraled for the ground. A hearty cry of "Huzzah!" sounded in the background.
Zelgadis smirked. "Well at least one of us is having fun."
Mina wrinkled her nose. "Well that would matter if we just had to deal with a few of them, but there has to be at least a formation and a quarter of them left. They're after Amelia and Valgaav... that's the only explanation for them ignoring Knight Boy over there. This is going nowhere fast... we need..."
She blinked. "We need..." she looked around confusedly.
*HEY!! HERO! Pay attention!*
She stopped in mid sentence and looked at her sword in confusion. Zelgadis blinked.
"Yeah, it's still a sword, Mina." Gourry remarked sagely. With anyone else this might have been considered sarcasm.
"I know that, Dad! It's talking to me!" She snapped.
Lina, Amelia, and Zelgadis gave one another worried looks. Lina frowned.
"Ok Mina." she pointed at Langdelin and Hydra. "Over there with the rest of the loonies."
Mina waved her hand irritably. "Hold on a sec."
"Who are you?" She asked the sword.
*Who do you think I am? I told you this was a part of me.*
"Well yeah, but I figured you meant that... um, figuratively."
It snorted. *And since when have I been anything other than direct?*
"Good point. Ok, so we've got a problem... any idea how to solve it?"
The sword seemed to warm a bit. *Why don't you just blast them from the sky?*
She groaned. "We've been trying! They split up too fast!"
Zelgadis narrowed his eyes. "Here they come again. Get ready."
The sword chuckled darkly. *You just aren't asking the right Dark Lord.*
She muttered to herself. "What good is using black magic going to do? That's more draining than shamanistic spells! Plus I doubt there are any Dark Lords that would be... favorable to..." she stopped, then grinned evilly.
*You got it now* Mina got the distinct impression that the sword was grinning mockingly at her. Her normal recourse for such behavior was to kick the misbehaving Dark Lord in the shins, but seeing as the sword lacked shins, was likely cut her quite badly if she kicked it, and was currently the possible solution to her latest predicament, she wisely refrained from such an action.
Instead, pointing the sword towards the approaching formation with both hands, she sighted in on the middle of it and concentrated on flaming, explosive death.
The sword glowed for a moment, a ball of flame the size of a basketball flickering in front of it. Time seemed to slow down as it doubled in size, then speed sickeningly back up to speed as the ball of fiery death shrieked out towards the formation with a howl of inhuman rage. Mina almost dropped the sword as the ball of fury flashed THROUGH two hapless beastmen, turning them to ash before they even had time to scream. Hovering in midair for a moment, the ball exploded outward in an incandescent flash of concussive fury, and the sky began to rain flaming, and in some cases shrieking, bodies. What was left of the shattered formation scattered confusedly, gaining altitude.
Lina blinked. "Wow... do that again. Do it LOTS."
Mina stared at the sword slack jawed.
*Was it good for you?* It chuckled.
"Mina!" Zelgadis snapped.
"Yes?!" She turned to him, all business.
"Aim that at the other formation... I think I know who's in charge up there... I'm going to try and distract him."
He grinned coldly. "By convincing him I'm crazy."
She blinked. "Huh?"
"LEVITATION!" He shouted, taking off straight up, his cloak flapping behind him.
She shook her head. "He IS crazy."
Langdelin took aim, biting his lip in concentration. He'd run out of preloaded barrels; time to use the ones the lady Hydra had prepared. Taking aim, he pulled the trigger...
A thunderclap sounded behind the party again and they blinked and turned to see Langdelin lying flat on his back with smoke curling up from his blackened face and upper chest. Suddenly he sat up, thoughtfully pinched out the small flame flickering on the end of his hat, then raised a single finger as though making an extremely valid point.
"A bit too much powder perhaps."
Then he slumped backward, stunned.
Hydra winced. "Sorry."
She'd lost track of how long she'd been running. Exhausted, she leaned against a wall and took stock of her situation.
It did not fill her with confidence.
Somehow she'd been tricked into believing his illusion was reality, and while he'd had her running around in circles trying to treat the illusionary patients of this place, he'd been patiently worming his way deeper into Valgaav's psyche.
-Well... at least I don't have to deal with that freakishly warped version of Xellos... I was actually starting to LIKE the guy.-
Wait a minute... Xellos had WARNED her about this... did that mean... did that mean that he cared about...?
She shuddered about the ramifications of a conscientious Xellos.
-It's gotta be some kinda trick... besides, it doesn't look like it's going to matter anyway... I can't beat him like THIS!-
She balled her hands into fists and straightened up, resolute anger filling her. "NO! I'm not giving up! There has to be some...."
She stopped, her eyes wide. "The portrait!"
She ran again, but this time there was purpose to her frantic pace. She only hoped she was correct about her assumption...
Because an extremely hungry dark godlet was fast on her heels...
Bursting in upon the lobby, she skidded to a halt, frantically searching for the portrait that Xellos/Valgaav had directed her to seek out. It had to be here... HAD to.... THERE!!
Old and faded, it was easy to overlook, almost out of place. A confident, almost arrogant red-haired giant stared down at her from it, his mocking grin challenging anyone to stand up to him. So caught up was she in her fascinated study of Gaav, that she almost missed the dark chuckle behind her.
"He's quite bound, I assure you. Now... where WERE we?"
She turned around and backed up against the picture, narrowing her eyes at Talon. He'd given up all pretense, shedding his dark glasses and gloves. He shook his head sadly.
"Come now Filia. It doesn't have to be this way. We both know what I want. Give it to me, and I swear to you I'll let you go. Gaav too... I'm feeling generous. If you're worried about losing your son I PROMISE.... you'll HARDLY notice the difference!" He chuckled nastily.
"I'd sooner die!" she shouted angrily, wracking her brain for some way to release Gaav... it was the only chance now.
"I beg to differ... I have no intention of killing you." He said pleasantly, stalking forward. "What I have in store for you is infinitely less pleasant than dying."
She turned around. "Gaav! Gaav! Wake up! You have to wake up!"
"He can't hear you." Talon smirked. "You might as well give up."
"Gaav! Please! YOU HAVE TO WAKE UP! VALGAAV IS IN TROUBLE! GAAV!"
Talon shook his head. "He doesn't care about Valgaav! He's the Demon Dragon King!" he chuckled, turning the title into a joke. "He doesn't care about ANYONE!"
Filia slid down the portrait, sobbing. "Please Gaav... He's my son. He's... he's your son... please..."
A cracking sound echoed through the hall and Talon stopped advancing, confused. "What the?!"
A cannonball sized fist slammed through the portrait front and clenched on Talon's collar, lifting him easily off of his feet. He gulped.
"I... don't... believe...." He choked out, clutching that iron grip weakly with both hands to no avail.
"Believe it!" Gaav growled, his angry face inches from Talon's startled gaze. "You the one who's been pickin' on my boy?"
Talon blinked. "Er..."
"I don't appreciate that very much. Allow me to demonstrate my lack of appreciation."
It was not a pleasant smile.
Neither was Filia's.
The combat between Zelgadis and Arashi was something legends could have been made of, had any minstrels been around to witness it. Two masters of combat streaked across the sky, attack and counter-attack being traded so quickly and mercilessly that one slip, one slight mistake would have spelled doom for either master. Zelgadis did not seem to be hampered too badly by his use of only one sword, using one stony arm to block the occasional strike that slipped past his guard. Blood ran freely down his arm from the deep cuts that the wickedly sharp spear had carved into his immensely thick skin, but he ignored it as superficial. Arashi dealt with his various cuts and bruises with similar fatalistic stoicism, accepting the pain as his penance for failing Talon.
Yet despite the pain, despite the life or death struggle, both men had savage grins of enjoyment.
The ragged remains of the formation was in serious trouble. Without Arashi to lead them, the Striking Talons had degenerated into a series of one or two man attacks on the party, which while taking their toll, couldn't begin to get through such hardened warriors as Gourry and Mina.
Then Valgaav shrieked.
All combat stopped as a black form arced up out of Valgaav's wound and started to slink away, mewling angrily. Without opening his eyes, Gaav's huge hand flashed out like a striking snake and crushed it into squealing pulp, and a momentary spark of red lightning marked the end of the mini-Talon. Gaav opened his eyes and supported Filia as she slumped to the ground, exhausted. Setting her down gently he looked up at the scene before him.
"What in the HELL is going on here?!" He barked out angrily.
Mina waved tiredly. "Hi hun... just a little WAR here... Mind helping a bit?"
He cracked his knuckles and grinned. "Sure thing. "Hun"."
Arashi looked on, dismayed. His plan of attack was in shambles now, and he closed his eyes, shaking his head. Arcing into the sky out of Zelgadis' range for the moment, he shouted out a command to the rest of the remaining Striking Talons. "RETURN TO LORD TALON. YOU CANNOT STAND BEFORE THE SOUL OF FURY AS YOU ARE."
One frightened warrior looked up at him and shook his head. "No lord! Lord Talon will surely destroy us! Let us at least die cleanly... a warrior's death!"
Arashi shook his head, closing his eyes. "No. I will not have the Striking Talons pass from memory without ever having known the wonders of the homeland. Go. I will spend my last breath fighting our enemies. Let the blame fall upon my shoulders, for it was my failure that led us to this."
The warriors nodded solemnly and saluted him with clenched fists, then winged away. Arashi opened his eyes and looked at Zelgadis.
"I would know your name, stalwart one." he intoned solemnly.
Zelgadis nodded to him. "Zelgadis Greyweirs. It has been an honor...?"
"Arashi of the Striking Talons." He grinned coldly. ! "Record my name wherever you Inlanders keep such records, Greyweirs, for I will sell it dearly."
Zelgadis nodded grimly, his eyes hard, then brought his sword to an attack stance. Arashi climbed, then seemed to start to fall, spinning lazily. The sky was his, the wind flowed swift beneath his wings, and he screamed out a battle cry, diving down at the Soul of Fury.
A suicide dive.
Zelgadis gritted his teeth and cancelled his levitation spell, dropping through the sky right on top of the plummeting beastman. Just above the feathered warrior, he straightened out into a dive mirroring Arashi's, struggling to create the least amount of drag. "Such a damned waste." he muttered to himself.
Needless to say, he dropped like a rock.
Gaav wasn't the sort of person to take such an attack sitting down, or standing up for that matter. Gathering his strength, he crouched down low, then put all of his considerable strength into a leap, sword clearing sheath in a fluid single motion, held two handed, high and to the side. The ground where he had been standing not milliseconds before was cracked and visibly depressed from the strength of his leap. The party watched wide-eyed as he arced upward, three men on a collision course that could only end in death or dismemberment.
Contrary to what the party below believed, Zelgadis had no intention of getting in Gaav's way. He knew instantly how Gaav would react to a threat from above, having witnessed it before. An experienced swordsman, he understood Arashi's fatalism in that moment, but that didn't mean he had to like it, and in the short fight in the air he'd gained quite a bit of respect for the man. Instead, of contributing to what was almost certainly going to be a grievous amount of damage, he dropped past the airborne fight and reinstituted his levitation spell, turning in mid air to watch quietly.
Gaav had timed his leap perfectly; catching Arashi at such an angle as to make most of the stoic beastman's downward force useless, he flashed just past him and slashed downward. Arashi was a good enough warrior that he could have made a course correction to meet the Dark Lord properly, but he had rather obviously resigned himself to his fate once Gaav had leapt. That terrible blade hissed downward, and the sick sound of bone parting and flesh seperating filled the now nearly silent air. Arashi shrieked in agony as one of his beautiful wings was severed from his body, releasing his short spears and awkwardly reaching up to clutch the ruined stump. Gaav continued past, unharmed, and slammed heavily into the ground, looking skyward. He frowned grimly... what was Zelgadis doing?
Zelgadis came up and somehow managed to grab Arashi by one arm, straining upward to stop his downward descent. Arashi might have fought! him, had he not passed out from the agony of losing his wing. The ungainly airborne duo crashed to the ground a few feet from the startled party, and Zelgadis wasted no time, immediately doing what he could to stop the heavy bleeding. Arashi moaned painfully, shuddering.
"What the hell are you doing, Zel?" Lina asked confusedly.
Zelgadis looked at her calmly. "This is the only source of information we are likely to get about our enemy." He returned to his work. "Besides... after the way he treated his men... he deserves better than this."
Gaav shook his head, crossing his arms. "He'd be better off dead with a wound like that, Zelgadis. You're not doing him any favors."
Zelgadis glared at him. "That's the difference between you and me, Dark Lord..." He shook his head. "I'm giving him a choice whether he lives or dies, something not even his master gave him, obviously."
Gaav blinked and looked away, oddly subdued . "A choice, huh?"
He walked up and Zelgadis watched him warily, but he merely bent down and laid his hand on the stricken warrior's cheek. A wicked scar flashed into red lightning and slid into his palm, then without explanation, he moved on, stopping next to Mina.
Zelgadis blinked, not sure what to make of it.
"Just reclaiming something that was stolen from me, chimera." He grimaced. "Still, I can't help but wonder..." he shook off whatever introspection he was about to reveal and looked at Mina. A choice would have been nice for me... a long time ago." He rumbled softly. (don't ask me how you rumble softly)
Mina looked up at him concernedly, but said nothing as she leaned against him. Gaav accepted her weight without complaint, and (if one were observant enough to catch it) shifted slightly to accomodate her.
After a shocked moment, an exhausted Amelia stumbled next to Zelgadis and began to help him with the bloodied warrior intently, wincing when she saw Zelgadis' own ravaged arm, but saying nothing.
Lina leaned against Gourry and sighed. "I'm getting too old for this."
Pix raised an exhausted hand from her shoulder. "I'll second that motion."
Lina blinked, then sighed as Gourry took her hand.
She brightened. "SO! Who else is ready for lunch?"
Everyone blinked and looked at her.
"What?" she asked, irritated.
To Be Continued...
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All original, creative-type stuff on this website is copyright to Chris Cuellar and Teresa Dietzinger, 2002