Yura stood before the Storm. She twisted her sword - Luck with that. - in a motion that had served her well in their last fight, when she had somehow deflected a bolt of lighting.
But this was no bolt.
Sollera spun skyfire through her hands, snarling streams of energy that crackled hungrily, pouring out of her in a nigh-solid line. The chit would have had better luck redirecting a river with her sword. There was a momentary wobble in the line, a frothing burst of scatter, before it coursed into Yura with a deafening crash the Stormcaller could feel in her own bones. Yet somehow, astonishingly, Yura staggered forward.
It was a step, only a step, but it sent a lance of pure, galvanic fear through the Stormcaller. She had never seen anyone take such a hit and remain standing, ever. Her fingers crooked, hands clenching in instinctive effort as the young woman delved deeper, pouring herself into the line. Her heart hammered in her chest and her lungs labored for breath, but she did not - would not - relent. This was it, this was everything. Either Red Blade went down, or Sollera did.
The Knight of Order’s knee buckled, and the Stormcaller fed the brilliant spark of hope it engendered into the spell. Almost… Almost… She could feel her palms heating as the line roared on and on, skyfire searing out of her and lashing into her foe again and again and again.
Her adversary, as usual, refused to make things easy. Yura endured, head bowed as if she was bearing the weight of the world on her shoulders, refusing to fall back to the tile. Sollera panted, pain radiating through her chest in sharp, stabbing bursts as her heart pattered an erratic staccato rhythm and her vision darkened at the edges. And still she pushed. Just die already!
Red Blade refused. More than that, she stood up, forcing herself to her feet with the aid of her sword. The Stormcaller met her foe’s steeled silver gaze for a moment that lasted a lifetime, a contest of will that transcended the arc of her lightning or the stubborn endurance of her opponent. The heat was unbearable now, blistering the young woman’s skin as she pushed harder, reached deeper.
There was nothing left.
The line stuttered, snapped, jolting in and out of phase as Sollera’s abused body shut down, simply unable to obey the demand of her will. And still Yura stood. The Stormcaller wavered, gasping for a breath that didn’t seem attainable as her vision dwindled to a pair of silver eyes lit by a fitful actinic glow. I wish… I wish I could be so… strong…
A sharp blow to her temple rocked her, shattering the world into spiraling fractals as Sollera fell with a dreamy slowness. It was almost a relief to collapse to the ground; the tile was blessedly cool against the back of her neck...
Everything felt hot, as if her body was wracked by fever. But she wasn’t… wasn’t sick, was she? She hadn’t been sick in years. Keffra had told her something about that once… something about mana flows and energy purging. That meant that she shouldn’t be sick. But if she wasn’t sick, why did everything hurt so much? Training, maybe? Yes… Damascus and his training regimens.
Sollera groaned softly, limbs twitching as she tried to… to what? Get up. That seemed right, but it seemed like so much effort. Get up for what? If she got up, Yura was just going to start hitting her again. Really, it was much more pleasant to stay where she was, watching the shifting colors of the chaotic aurora overhead. The aetheric cloud rippled hypnotically, a soothing undulation that reminded her of home, of waves rolling up to the beach. She could almost feel it, the faint vibration shivering up her spine from breakers crashing on the sandy shore...
Stars and oceans, auroras and lagoons... She hadn't understood when she was young. But... Did anyone really understand in those moments - the best moments - that they could vanish so swiftly? That they could burn away like a morning mist and then... never return?
She was jarred from her stupor by a banshee shriek, the sound scraping at her ears as the tile began to heave and buck like a giant coming furiously awake. At the same time the sky cracked above her, color coalescing into furious streaks that lanced downward, striking the ground like bizarre bolts of ethereal lightning. Sollera screamed, the sound tinny in her own ears, washed away by the death-howl of the Chequered Field as a pillar of surging, iridescent color crashed over her like a tsunami.
At her waist the triads wailed to life - heart stone buzzing at her back - as raw, unfiltered power cascaded through her. Every nerve and synapse throbbed with energy, jabbering and shouting over one another in a shuddering overload of information that set her teeth on edge. Pain followed, wrenching and grinding as bone knit and flesh mended. The onyx shards belted around her flicked on and off and on again to the whim of a being too all-encompassing for Sollera to take its measure.
This time, this time the Watcher was talking to her; the young woman felt every word - was it even using words? - as though it was carved into her ears like the most exquisite music played by the most wretched orchestra. Her body rose from the tile, lifted by the Watcher’s power, or perhaps simply its attention, until she staggered to her feet. There was not an iota of pain as her weight descended on her leg, only the nervy, humming fullness of the energy buzzing in her bones.
Sollera panted, struggling to calm the rapid pulsing of her heart, taking deep breaths and holding them. Focus… Just… Focus, before It tries to talk to you again. But apparently the Watcher had nothing further to say; instead the final orb sank majestically from the great Scales over the newly-shattered field and came to rest before the Stormcaller. It splintered, swelling up like spreading rays of light through a cloud to form a shimmering door, some manner of portal from this place.
She sidled forward slightly, tilting her head to gaze sidelong at the doorway. It was the most curious thing. From the front its outline seemed solid, but a mere inch to its side, and the thing was completely invisible. What sort of power... Her contemplation was interrupted by the sight of an outflung hand, and the prone form of Yura along with it. Sollera stared at Order’s Champion for a long moment, onyx and alabaster shivering, snapping to pieces that shredded away at the periphery of her vision. “What…” She paused a moment, her own voice shocking herself. “What will happen to her?”
-She will leave and live, little Skycaller- Even braced for it, the young woman staggered, biting her lip at the sheer force of the thought-voice. -Or she will stay and die.-
Sollera hesitated, mismatched gaze flicking to the shining, golden door and then back to Red Blade. Yura was her adversary, the one she had been willing to kill seconds ago, and yet… there had been a moment, that instant, where the Stormcaller had wondered at just how alike they might have been. The girl was unconscious; she was no threat now. Sollera looked away, towards the fraying edges of the dying Field. Time… There isn’t enough time.
“You could heal her.”
For five fluttering beats of her heart everything went still. The disintegrating particles of the grand board hovered motionless in the air, the flowing dance of the color-shifting aurora paused, and then her ears were assaulted by... laughter. Loud guffaws, raucous caws, hissing mirth, stifled giggles, snorting titters, low chortles, as the chaotic chorus was momentarily overcome with uncontrollable hilarity. -She, Champion of Order, who fought against Us?- The cavalcade of whoops and snickers died slowly, but not the feeling of titanic amusement behind the words. -She is not of Us. But if you desire, We may… let her fight for her chance.-
-Perhaps We already have.-
Stone cracked and snapped as the tiles began breaking up once more, the fluid aether seething through them as if aiding the process, but Yura didn’t stir. Sollera stared at her, willing the stubborn girl to stand, to get up and stagger to the crimson gate not far away. “Come on… Come on, get up!” They were both running out of time; the erosion of the Field was speeding up, and the Stormcaller couldn’t wait around for much longer before she had to take her own gate. But Red Blade wasn’t moving, except for the slow rise-and-fall of her breath. There was no way-
“Perhaps we already… Oh, Tempest!” Sollera swore, darting forward. Why was she so dense sometimes? Of course the Watcher would give her a chance. The young woman had been waiting, expecting to see something happen, but she was Yura’s chance. Crashing to her knees next to the unconscious girl, Sollera heaved her over onto her back. Inspecting her fallen opponent swiftly, the Stormcaller bit her lip. This was… This was not her area of expertise, and the inexorable timer of the shattering tiles was not going to make this easier.
“Remember… Remember…” Her teeth ground together as the young woman placed her hands as gently as she could on Yura’s shoulders. The belt about Sollera’s waist hummed, its stones going still and silent one by one as the Stormcaller drew and drew and drew, funneling the energy not into a spell, but into the girl’s body. “Keffra… going to… kill me… For not… practicing this more…”
She let the power pour out, only stopping - gasping for breath and bent over Red Blade - when all of the stones but the left triad had gone still. Was her color better? Her breathing more regular? Sollera couldn’t tell, and had no time to really make a survey of the matter. She grabbed Yura by the lapels of her strange jacket and pulled, hauling the Champion of Order over to the scarlet gate.
Panting from the effort, she stared at the strange portal, wondering what Red Blade’s home was like - her world. What would it be like to walk beneath another sun? Sollera pushed the thought away, giving Yura one last shove and rolling the unconscious girl through. But she paused a moment, kneeling by the doorway, as her hand came down on the graven form of her rod. The Stormcaller lifted it, using the staff one last time to lever herself to her feet. With a sudden flip of her wrist she sent the weapon through the crimson gate, spiraling back after her former foe. “Luck be with you, Yura Akabane,” the young woman smiled - the situation was too absurd for anything else, “fair wind and high tides.”
Sollera turned and sprinted for the golden door…
She staggered into something soft and yielding. An oppressive grip curled around her, stifling her breath and binding her limbs. Sollera gasped, clawing instinctively, but her eyes were blinded and her movement restricted, until she suddenly tumbled free and crashed to the ground.
“What… Who’s there?”
The Stormcaller blinked rapidly, trying to orient herself as she caught the sound of movement. Above her someone collided with something in the murky dark. There was a curse, the rasp of metal on leather, and then the young woman felt the kiss of cold steel along her neck. She held very, very still, which was generally the wisest course of action when one felt the edge of a sword under their jaw. “I… don’t suppose we could get some light?”
“E-Eb…” The sword clattered to the floor at the sound of Sollera’s voice, followed moments later by the chattering of flint and steel as a lantern was lit. Damascus, wearing little more than his trousers, stared in bleary shock. “Ebriva you’re… you’re…”
“Okay?” She suggested, trying for levity.
That particular gambit failed. Her brother’s expression went flat, angry. “You’ve been gone six days! You said you would be back. Where were you? Do you have any idea how worried I was?”
Staring up at her brother, the Stormcaller blinked slowly. “Days? Six days? You… You’re sure about that?”
“Sure about… What is wrong with you? We missed the caravan while you were out… out… sightseeing!”
“I wasn’t sightseeing.” She replied, swallowing a hot reply as she slowly pushed herself up to her feet. “And it’s fine.”
“Fine? Nothing is ‘fine’ Ebriva. Because of your little vacation the caravan got through the pass. The Crown will be-”
Sollera smiled gently. “Vel, please.”
Damascus, in the middle of drawing a deep breath to resume his tirade, nearly choked. “W-What… What did you just…”
The Stormcaller reached out, for the first time in a long time, setting her hand on her younger brother’s shoulder. “It’s alright Vel. Really, it is. I’m sorry… I’m sorry that I worried you. I’m sorry about a lot of things.”
“But the… the… the Crown…” He stammered, trying to hold on to the last vestiges of his anger despite the shock.
“The Crown is where it always was, little brother.” The young woman shook her head. “I was just too… too self-involved to see it.”
“What are you talking about,” he looked at her, confused, “and… what happened to your clothes?”
It was too much. A snicker slipped out, and once Sollera had started she simply couldn’t stop. Collapsing into a chair next to the planning table that dominated the center of her brother’s pavilion, the Stormcaller laughed until she cried while her sibling looked on, utterly flummoxed. “Vel… Oh Tempest, my sides hurt,” she pressed a hand to her stomach, fighting down another wave of giggles. “Oh… I needed that, but it hurts.”
“Sol…” He hesitated, but when his sister just smiled he pulled another chair out, sitting next to her. “Sol, what happened? Where were you?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
The Stormcaller smirked and leaned forward, taking Velon’s hand and holding it between her own. “Alright, so it started with an argument…”