How We Roll Winner
There is a great shudder and he jerks in the womb.
There is no reply. Fear mounting, he calls out once more.
Sounds touch his ears.
Sinak heard the voice he had been dreading to hear.
He had been judged unworthy.
So it was over, he thought. He thought he had seen the Way, that it had shown him the path to the future. All of it for naught.
Rage filled him. All for naught. He wanted to spite. He wanted to launch an all-out attack against the arrogant Neeaa called Mori, even as the Paragon of Darkness dissolved into a monstrous form unlike anything seen under the sky or sea.
But deep down he knew: if he struck back, he would die.
So what? Sinak thought. It was over anyway. There was no future.
<No,> said a voice in the back of his mind. <There is always a future.>
Was that the Way speaking to him?
<Everything ends if I die.>
<<Fear and pain, hatred and rage.>>
<<<But also hope.>>>
<<<<In death, there is no hope.>>>>
Sinak ground his teeth. Fleeing from battle again? Teeth loser---
No. He was no longer truly a Shha’rarken. For his goals, he would do anything.
With decisiveness, he turned tail and sped toward the exit.
Vasily Jarishnikov stood up from his seat and promptly headed for the exit.
The Shha’rarken had failed. It --- he --- would not receive a boon. Humans as a whole were spared of a horrible death by teeth and fin.
Vasily squinted his one good eye warily at the hanging sun.
Then why, he wondered, did he feel so uneasy?
Dao Yulan huddled on the railing and peered down the arena. The mixture of elements permeated the air, which both soothed and irritated his ---
It was probably an excessive precaution, Yulan thought to himself, but he would prefer for Vasily not to spot him in this crowd, whether by chance or predetermined fate. The casual observer would see a small bird, about the size of a sparrow --- or rather, a Starling --- with feathers that glistened like fresh obsidian and gilded edges that gleamed in the sunlight, perched on the railings that lined the rows of seats in the stands of the Grand Arena.
A close observer on the other hand, even if they didn’t find it odd for a bird to indifferently stand next to large, intrusive humans and/or extraspecies, would surely notice its legs, which were blades rather than clawed feet, daintily balanced on the cylindrical rail. And only the keenest of vision would notice the Starling’s eyes; its right eye possessed a jade-green sclera with swirling cloud designs along with a blank red iris orbited by three smaller such irises, while its left eye was black as tar, so dark it seemed to pull in the light around it. This was one of Yulan’s seven summons, the Starling. Through the Starling did he see what it saw, feel what it felt.
Both he and Vasily had arrived in Bren too late to spectate in the initial “paragon” matches (though Yulan was pretty sure spectators weren’t allowed in the first place). He’d somehow lost track of Vasily during the intermission but as expected, the Ender of Beasts was present for the final.
The third pillar fell, Yulan observed, and the voice of the Lords announced its decision. The Shha’rarken had failed. He inhaled sharply; so this would be where the journey ended---
No wait. Curiously, it turned to leave instead of launching itself at the Paragon of Darkness. It . . . submitted?
A few rows away, Vasily stood up and promptly headed for the exit. Yulan watched him leave. That would be a story for another time, Yulan thought. The Shha’rarken would not be easy to track, and it would be some time before more Hunters arrived. He would deal with Vasily and the Shha’rarken --- no, Shinjri’shakraphrjat’shu’Sinaken --- later.
Sinak found himself back in the underwater chamber for the third time in a single day.
It was over, he thought. What was he to do now? He’d seen how flawed the path of revenge was --- the current to mutual destruction.
But he couldn’t exactly surrender himself to the Hunters either. Sledaristan had suggested he try to make peace, but the Hunters would never believe (or even conceive) of a show of good faith.
That left one last option: to return to the ocean, and disappear forever.
<Live the life of a corpse, without a purpose.>
<<Remembered as a monster.>>
He swam for the exit.
Sinak’s fin knifed the water as he sped through the canals. It was a path he was quite familiar with by now. And yet, the uneasy feeling grew. It pricked at his electrical field. Definitely some sort of presence but it lacked a number of characteristics--
Sinak turned and peered at the bottom of the canal.
It was hidden in the debris and rotting carcasses, nearly concealed from view. Most creatures would have missed it, but not Sinak. It set off every instinct in his psychically enhanced brain.
It was a small, featureless metal ball, spotlessly clean. At exactly one point on its surface, it glowed red.
And as Sinak moved, the ball swiveled so that the red dot was pointed directly at him.
Like an eye.
A low whine cut through the dark water as his brain glowed.
The electrical charge surged through the water, dramatically enhanced by the detritus. The ball that was no ball at all, but an electronic camera, sizzled and the red dot vanished.
Such devices had never been used by the Hunters before, Sinak thought. Were they equipped with some new weapons . . . ?
Fear snaked through him like a burrowing hagfish in his flesh. He plowed through the canal at a frenetic pace.
Yulan winced. Blood dripped from his right eye. He knew the Shha’rarken would eventually pick up the numerous Countless Eye cameras he had deployed throughout Bren, but he hadn’t expected Sinak to take the thing out with an EMP blast.
The red iris in his right eye rotated like a camera lens. Unseen by all except for Yulan, flicked the camera feeds of the Countless Eyes.
Vasily had headed for an inn. He seemed to be waiting for someone . . . more Hunters?
No matter. His target had been acquired.
Yulan spread his wings and dropped from the roof. He caught a thermal and soared into the sky.
Sinak had not forgotten the map of the canal pathways. It served him well, and within hours he had reached the edge of the city.
The eyelike device had rattled him. He knew about how the Hunters possessed eagles to spot their prey from the sky. He knew about traps, alarms, and mines, which surrounded every fortress and stronghold in a near impenetrable forest of death and destruction. He’d seen wolves and dogs let loose to track scents, and the strange beastly “pureblood” Hunters, altered in body and mind, on the prowl. And of course, he’d been shot at by greatbows and crossbows and sniped unaware by rifles and cannons.
All of these things were ostensibly more fearsome than a simple metal bead, yet none of them inspired such dread. The featureless ball, small and insignificant as it was, exuded a strange electrical signal consistent with biological beings, and only that.
Sinak hefted himself out of the water. It would be a short path to the city’s borders, after which he should be able to lose his trackers--
Sinak froze. His mind had conjured the thought, but the thought itself was not his own.
Someone was thought-speaking to him.
Thoughts flashed through his mind like a scattering school of fish. Already tracked down? Undoubtedly the wielder of the eye device. But then why did this Hunter decide to wait till now to reveal himself?
<Come out Hunter,> Sinak rumbled.
<I am no Hunter,> the voice replied conversationally.
Not a Hunter? <Who are you then?>
<A friend,> the voice answered. <One not unlike the Way of the Water.>
Sinak started. <You know the Way of the Water?>
<The Hunters have been tracking you for a long time,> the voice informed him. <Even as you entered the Elemental Championship, the Ender of Beasts has followed you. He was watching you fight.>
Sinak shuddered. Ssaatw’ppa was here?
<At the same time, the Dragonslayer in the Purple Dress had discovered the entity you refer to as the Way of the Water.>
The Dragonslayer in the Purple Dress was a name Sinak recognized. He had never encountered her before, but the master of sea combat Hae Iseul was not to be trifled with. If even she was tracking him---
<The Ender and the Dragonslayer have long determined your true intentions,> the voice continued. <Confirmed by the Way.>
The voice seemed to sigh. <The Dragonslayer knows and the Ender might as well,> it said. <But you have too much blood on your teeth. You have failed the Championship, and the Hunters will pursue you to the ends of earth.>
The voice’s statements echoed exactly what Sinak suspected. He had failed, and there would be no escaping the trench he had dug out for himself.
<Then let them come,> Sinak said resolutely. <I will accept my fate. They will not kill me so easily . . . but I will never harm an innocent again.>
For a full beat, silence hung in the air. <Truly, you are one of honor,> the voice said, “sounding” almost . . . satisfied? <It doesn’t have to be this way you know.>
<You said it yourself,> Sinak rumbled. <I have failed. There can be no chance for peace, for they will never accept me. I am Shha’rarken, and they are human. They have a duty to protect their own. I cannot wash my teeth of this blood.>
<No, you cannot,> the voice conceded. <Even if they know your intentions, the Ender will be bound by his duty. He cannot help you. The Dragonslayer is strong, but she and the others are already on thin ice with the Five Schools as it is.
<However, there is one last option.>
Sinak didn’t respond, but that statement had caught him off guard. A glimmer of hope---? Abruptly, the voice that seemed so coldly indifferent erupted in a stream, as though . . . desperate?
<I have also been watching you. Do you think I don’t know about the voices you hear? I see the truth. I see all. The Yyranaiads whisper to you. The Swarm is coming. It is drawn to you . . . and if you exist, then perhaps others do as well. I won’t let you throw your life away for nothing. This is no longer your journey alone. I need your help.>
Sinak was expressionless as ever, but inside, he reeled. This individual . . . wanted his help? It wasn’t just empty promises; they clearly knew a great many things that Sinak had thought none above the sea would be aware of.
<But know this,> the voice warned threateningly. <I am not giving you a choice here. As it stands now, the Hunters are fools, but they are powerful. I am taking a great risk bringing you in. If you force my hand . . . the Ender alone might not be able to stop you, but I can help him. You will never escape.>>
Sinak frowned inwardly. They were willing to sever their ties with the Hunters, just for him? <Who are you?>
A small bird suddenly dropped from the sky, landing daintily in front of him. In a snap of the jaws, there was a flash of smoke---
---and in its place now stood a dirtwalker of medium height, dressed in a dark purple overcoat embroidered with silvery designs, armored forearms, baggy pants, and black boots. His hair was tied in a short high ponytail. A great nodachi in a white sheath along with two sabers --- one crystalline and one cloaked in ragged black --- hung on his back.
And most of all, his eyes blazed --- the right with a green sclera lined with swirling clouds and a blank red iris orbited by three smaller ones; the left blacker than tar, so dark it pulled in the light.
“I am Dao Yulan,” the man said. “The Jadedaomon Nalion.”
A distant point in the future.
Nakai Reishi dropped through the vent and landed in the Tencorp Archive. Not for the first time, she thanked Master Daaxos for his rigorous training regimens. Even though this facility was long abandoned, Tencorp security was not to be underestimated.
Her gaze flicked across the rows of files. Spotting the correct one, she pulled it out.
Rank: Associate Doctor and Science Officer; Shock Trooper Commander
[FORMER] Squadron Dao Yulan [Designation: Jadedaomon Nalion];
[CURRENT] Squadron Hae Iseul [Designation: Purple Dress Dragonslayer];
[CURRENT] Crimson Hexagon;
[CURRENT] Squadron POLAR SWORDFISH;
Specializations: Yyranaiad mutagen research; undersea exploration & combat
Last recorded location: Toethe/4th Quadrant/Sector 32
Yyranaiad mutagen research.
Reishi closed the file resolutely. I have to find him.