How We Roll Winner
“You are the Way of the Water,” Hae Iseul said. Was that a note of accusation in her tone? she wondered. Possibly.
“You know who I am,” the Way replied. It was not a question. “Or rather, what I am.”
“You are not real,” Iseul whispered.
“One does not need to be corporeal to be real,” the Way retorted, a flicker of amusement appearing in its eyes. “Surely you understand that by now.”
“Well if you insist,” Iseul said. “You are not an independent entity.”
“I once was,” the Way said, a ghost of a wistful smile passing across its fish face..
“You were once an entity known as the ‘Way of the Water’,” Iseul continued slowly, as the pieces fell into place. “But you are dead. The ‘you’ that exists now . . . is but a Dream construct that the Shha’rarken activated unknowingly with its psionic power.”
“Yes, yes, yes, and no,” the Way replied without skipping a beat. “I am no longer an independent entity. It is true, I was once such a being, known as the Way of the Water. It is true that I am dead . . . but I am not merely a Dream of a memory conjured by Shinjri’shakraphrjat’shu’Sinaken.”
Iseul started. “Is that the Shha’rarken’s name?”
“Yes,” the Way said reproachfully. “I would have thought that the Dragonslayer in the Purple Dress would be the first to be aware of that.”
Iseul shook her head. “What are you then?”
“I am the Way.”
Iseul exhaled. She met the Way’s gaze unflinchingly. Her eyes glowed. The Way didn’t react. It said simply, “What Sinak knows, and what he has once known, I know.”
Iseul was silent. Dead but not dead, not truly alive, not a Dream returned, what else could it be?
“You are manipulating him.”
“He speaks to you in this grotto,” Iseul accused.
“Yes, that is true,” the Way said, “However, not only do I not manipulate him, I cannot. Every word that leaves my lips is reflected in his mind and heart.”
What Sinak knows, and what he has once known, I know.
“By heaven,” Iseul whispered. “You are his conscience.”
Vasily Jarishnikov strode down the paved street. His greatsword glinted menacingly in the setting sun. His ragged black robes, perfectly suited for beast Hunting, looked quite out of place in the cheerful, civilized city of Bren. He walked briskly, his mind racing.
The Shha’rarken had somehow been directed to Bren, the home city of the legendary Elemental Championships. If his calculations were correct, then he had just arrived around the time the Championship began. He wondered how it could possibly enter the city in the first place. His eyes fell on the canal that arced along the sidewalk under his boots.
Something seemed off . . . It was still early in the morning. Where was everyone? Alarmed, Vasily broke into a jog. Empty streets, dead silence--- there!
A group of guards stood around a large doorway, looking bored. Before they could react, Vasily rushed forward and grabbed the nearest guard. “What’s going on?” he hissed.
With a shout of alarm, they all raised their pikes, but the one in his grip just laughed. “If you’re here to participate, you’re way too late!”
Immediately aware of how hostile he seemed, Vasily released the guard. “I apologize for my behavior,” he said, shaking his head.
The guard raised his hand and the rest of them sighed in relief and withdrew their pikes. “No harm done,” he said. “I’m used to friends and/or relatives of combatants coming here out of concern. Say, what is your concern anyway?”
“You wouldn’t happen to know who the combatants this time around are, would you?” Vasily asked.
“Certainly I do,” the guard said, laughing. “Bummer I have to miss the fun cause I’m on duty, otherwise---”
“Who are they?” Vasily interrupted impatiently.
“Well, uh,” the guard said, frowning. “There’s this really, really old man, really creepy (no idea how he’s even standing, much less fighting) and an old lady, though she looks a lot nicer. Um, I’m pretty sure there are several girls too. Like, one of them is actually a ‘bean-slinger,’ whatever that means! There’s this really big woman, like crazy strong ‘big’, and then---”
Vasily harrumphed impatiently as the guard continued. Something about a knight, a singer, a cat girl, and a fox-masked assassin went in one ear and out the other. “What about . . . inhumans?” Vasily suggested.
“Ah yes!” the guard said excitedly. “This year has had a ton of exotic species combatants! Um let’s see, there’s a vampiric dragon---” Vasily winced “---some kind of rat man, oh! Another dragonkin (blind), and---” this time the guard shuddered “---there was this really nasty fishlike fellow, he spit on one of the officials and we had to hospitalize her---”
“Fishlike?” Vasily asked, instantly alert.
The guard nodded. “Ye, fishlike! He had tentacles growing out of him too---”
Vasily rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Was there a shark or something similar?”
“Oh yeah, I was just getting to that!” the guard exclaimed. “It was one of the big talks of the city! Not only was it some kinda shark, but it wasn’t even Water-aligned!”
Oh no, Vasily thought. Aloud he asked, “What happened to it?”
The guard laughed. “You’re concerned about a shark?”
Vasily gave him a look. “Just answer the question.”
The guard wilted slightly, but he brightened. “Oh you needn’t worry about it; it actually made it to the finals.”
For a full three beats, the words didn’t register.
“It WHAT!?” Vasily yelled, shocking himself.
“Yep,” the guard said. He looked at the breaking dawn. “And the final should be starting in about another half hour or so actually.”
Sinak swam restlessly in a circle, just as he had done in what seemed like another lifetime.
<I am Shinjri’shakraphrjat’shu’Sinaken.>
He reflected back on the events that unfolded previously a few hours --- or perhaps a few moon phases? --- ago.
(The passing of time was but a trifle.)
((Sinak shook his head, the memory of the voice fading.))
He had blundered into the Championship blindly, rashly, with practically no preparation. He remembered speaking to a fellow denizen of the Deep, how they had joined forces in an attempt to slaughter an unconscious, dark-haired man (he was somewhat sure now the fallen was male) and a strange female that had ears and stance like a Kh’kkhein --- a furred creature (a cat) --- and flesh made out of sand.
In his battle frenzy, he had attempted to taste first blood with the dark-haired male while his temporary ally had assaulted the female. In the skirmish, she had somehow gotten to the male first and --- surprisingly --- decided to protect him instead of killing him.
(Wasn’t the point of the Championship to kill everyone else and emerge the victor?)
((Of course he was aware of his alliance with the amalgamation, but that was a different story.))
So surprising in fact, that he found he was unable to attack her at all. Ordinarily (as he now recognized), he would have fled from such a thing. But the Championship was far from any occurrence he was used to. Escape had not been an option. Unable to run away, he ended up recalling all his memories of similar events, the ones he had spared because they reminded him too much of himself, of his now decimated kind, and most of all, that not all dirtwalkers were the bloodthirsty monsters he had always been sure that they were.
With his resolve shaken so badly, he had exploded into a fit of rage and furiously attempted to kill the female whom he perceived to be the source of his doubt, believing if he finally broke the cycle, he would be free. A foolhardy thing to do, Sinak thought grimly. Just like the Archtraitor in the tales, he had committed the fatal mistake of attacking another unprovoked. She had not instigated an assault, had not done anything other than to do what any decent sentient being ought to --- what secretly, Sinak wished he could do for his own kind, and could never now.
He had struck and struck in a blind fury, and she dodged and evaded until she could do so no longer, and he had bitten into her leg. The stalactite she had been hanging on to broke off from their combined weight and collapsed on top of him.
Sinak shuddered slightly, remembering the feeling of Skyfather’s fingers wrapping around him, squeezing the life breath out of his body. Ssaatw’ppa had figured out how to bypass his mental shield in the past, by means of a two-pronged attack, but practically never had his shield been disabled in such a manner (though he knew it was theoretically possible).
The first trial was surprisingly short; he had only just recovered from the crushing stalactite when the lava suddenly withdrew like the low tide. Scarcely a moment after, the entire cavern shook itself apart. A wail as terrible as Deep Mother’s anguished cries rent the air as the ground swiftly soared in temperature. The howls rose until he thought his head would split from the strain . . . and then everything went silent.
Which brought him back to where he was currently. By the time he totally came to, he had been mysteriously transported from the chaos into the underwater chamber from which he had entered the Forge much earlier.
Sinak wondered. How did the Way appear before him? Even now he wasn’t entirely sure that really was the Way of the Water, but the conversation was too lucid to be a mere hallucination.
Everything you know, and have once known, I know.
Then there was the matter of the voice. Even now Sinak, Shha’rarken warrior, who knew no fear even amongst the fearless, trembled at the memory. What was it? That wasn’t the first time his shield had been disabled by force --- or maybe it was? (He had good reason to doubt his soundness of memory.) But it certainly was the first time it took him so long to restore it. This was also the first time he had heard the voice. Coincidence? Not likely. No, nothing was a coincidence. The Way flows as the Way wills. Sinak shook his head. What was that the Way said, something about the Klaayphaunthuu?
Speaking of which, he hadn’t noticed it in the heat of battle before, but it followed him; a strange throbbing in his head. It was painful, a strange internal, visceral pulsing from within. Far unlike any external injuries he had ever suffered, but for now, it would not affect his combat capabilities.
Perhaps a swim would clear his head. Decisively, Sinak turned and left the resting chamber.
Sinak glided through the canals absentmindedly. He didn’t want to think right now. Just rest. Without meaning to, he retraced his path through the canals. Through the tunnels, through the sewers, out into the open---
His head bumped into a grate and he jerked back, startled, then shook his head. How careless, zoning out during a swim, in the middle of dirtwalker territory no less. He was about to turn away to head back, but something made him take pause. Something that tugged at the edge of his memory---
Ah yes, he realized. This was the same place he had met the giant woman named Sledaristan. Sinak sighed. Although he would never admit it out loud, he felt ashamed when he thought of how their last encounter ended. Without really thinking about it, he rose out of the water, then immediately cursed. Stupid! While reminiscing, he had subconsciously repeated his actions that day, almost as though he were wishing he could repeat them in a different manner. Sinak clicked his teeth irritably, moving to resubmerge --- and froze.
Savagely, he clamped down on his Shha’rarken instincts. There was no mistaking it. With senses so acute they could pinpoint droplets in the vast ocean, he was nearly overwhelmed by the scent of blood which soaked the air. The victim must be badly injured, and nearby. Sinak didn’t exactly frown, but he was certainly perplexed. Although he hadn’t paid much attention to Bren in general, he wouldn’t have pinned the city to be a particularly violent place. While well aware he wasn’t entirely in control of himself, his curiosity got the better of him and he followed the scent.
He didn’t have to go far.
By the Core, what had happened to her? She was leaning against the alley wall. If he didn’t have his electroreception or smell, by sight alone he would have thought her to be dead. She didn’t seem to be breathing, but with his hearing he could still detect a pulse.
(Albeit very faint.)
Blood poured out of the wound on her chest. It perforated his olfactory nerves. His eyes glazed over and he gnashed his teeth hungrily.
<<I am Shinjri’shakraphrjat’shu’Sinaken.>>
<<<I have found my purpose.>>>
<<<<I WILL NOT BE OVERTAKEN AGAIN!!!>>>>
Apparently he had made a lot more noise than he had intended, because she blinked and opened her eyes. Thank Grandmother Moon that she hadn’t been completely unconscious.
She said something in her strange language, but as it was before, he understood. Inwardly, he cursed himself. He was a Shha’rarken warrior, who feared nothing below the sea and sky, who had torn through legions of the Hunters of Beasts, and yet here he floated, helpless to do anything except to watch and hope Sledaristan wouldn’t die.
As it turned out, his worry was needless. She shut her eyes and entered what he now recognized as some sort of trance, and the wound quickly scabbed over and faded.
(Wait . . . “worry?”)
She awoke once more and stood up. Once again, he became aware of just how tall and strong she was; when he raised himself upright, they stared into each other’s eyes.
“Kata mak refral,” she said. It’s good to see you.
Sinak acknowledged, <I too, am happy to see you again.>
((Where did that come from?))
He asked, <What happened to you?> Mentally, he indicated her now vanished chest wound. She laughed. I entered the Championships, didn’t win. All there is to it.
Sinak was surprised by her response (though not by her candidness, as he had learned to expect it even despite their short time of interaction). For a few moments, a torrent of questions flooded his mind: You entered the Championship as well? Who did you fight? What were you fighting for?
He transmitted none of these thoughts. He inclined his head, peering carefully at her. For some reason, it was harder to make out her emotions this time, but he thought he recognized something in her mannerism. Remembering the way the . . . well, the Way of the Water spoke with him when he was feeling down, he said simply, <I am sorry to hear that.>
(Wait, what? Why did he say that?)
Again she laughed. Thank you, Shinjri.
(No one had ever thanked him before.)
I haven’t had a real good laugh in a long time.
The prospect of laughing was such a foreign concept to him. By Skyfather’s light, except for the nights he spent stalking the Hunters, he probably would have never known that “laughing” existed. But in the presence of Sledaristan, he understood what it meant to laugh.
And so (to compound on his surprise) ((what a night for surprises)) he laughed with her (or at least he imitated the sound). <And I as well.> Then embarrassed, he asked quickly, <Where will you go from here?>
She sighed. Sinak listened attentively as she spoke. Although her words were short, he gleaned a tale of a life on the run, a last chance for peace . . . lost. They were not so different from each other after all.
<I am sorry.> he said once again. Somewhat uncomfortable with the mood, Sinak shifted slightly so that they were both looking at the canals. <Do you remember how we first met?>
She grinned and recounted her chase. Sinak shook his head in wonder. So similar they were, and yet so different too, he mused. Here, he wallowed in a bog of poisonous regret and self-pity, which had quickly evolved into violence. On the other hand, Sledaristan seemed to be quite carefree, unhindered by fear and pain. (So unhindered she’d run up just to pet Sinak, a monster even his kind would probably fear to look upon.)
He tried to put his thoughts in order, but the things he wanted to say were too many. So as he did once, he did again. His thoughts poured into her, though this time, they were not ones of hatred and resentment built up over the years, but of wistfulness . . . and gratitude.
<That day, when I fled. I was a fool.>
<<I feared the prospect of your proposal of peace.>>
<<<But I understand now.>>>
<Thank you. For showing me the Way, when I was unable to see it.>
She didn’t seem to understand the significance of his acknowledgement, but he didn’t mind. When the words were spoken aloud in their minds, he could feel his resolve solidifying. He knew his purpose now.
She started suddenly and jerked her head to the side. Startled, Sinak followed her gaze, raising his fins slightly. She spoke again. Sinak listened, and frowned slightly (not literally of course). She was already being tracked down by her equivalent of the Hunters?
What is this? Instinctively, he wanted to help her. What a change from his old self, he thought. But something told him that this was where their paths diverged. Just as he had his own battle to fight, so did she with hers. And so he responded.
<I still have business here, yes.>
<<I leave you now, Sledaristan. Farewell.>>
<<<As you have shown me the Way on my journey, so do I bid you luck with yours.>>>
<<<<May Maeeluuk’s --- Deep Mother’s --- currents guide your path.>>>>
He turned away, aware he may have just given his last farewell to this stranger, this creature who no longer seemed so strange. No, he thought. No more circling the waters. That was what had gotten him into this mess in the first place. He admitted---
Sinak dove back into the water as he did so long ago. But unlike the first time, where he headed into the beginning of his journey, now he was headed towards the journey’s end.
It is time.
Vasily was speechless.
The guards had expressly declared that no one was allowed into the stands until the Finals began. So Vasily had decided to take a stroll through the streets, relishing the silence every moment possible. He had just turned down a corner when he saw it rise out of the water.
He may have been the Ender of Beasts but that didn’t mean even he could take down the monster single-handedly. He’d ducked into an alleyway and secretly trailed it.
The results: he had seen it converse with a very large, and probably very strong woman. (Probably the same one the guard was talking about.) He hadn’t been able to make head nor tail of the exchange; Shha’rarken spoke their thoughts privately, while the woman’s tongue he had never heard before. Vasily wasn’t considered a legendary Hunter for nothing though. While he couldn’t understand anything he heard, he could certainly recognize the familiarity with which they greeted one another.
Could it be, he thought, that Iseul was right after all?
A splash awoke him from his reverie. Then---
“Come out,” came a voice.
Vasily jerked in surprise. He’d assumed neither of them had noticed him since the Shha’rarken had not reacted. He peeked out and saw that the Shha’rarken had left; it must have gone back into the canal, based on what he had heard earlier. And now this woman --- this very large woman --- who had probably noticed him hiding in the shadows. Briefly, he pondered if he should run. (Also why was she speaking Standard now?)
Vasily raised his hands, palms extended, and stepped out of his hiding spot. “I’m here,” he said quietly.
He watched her carefully. She turned slightly, muttered something, waited for a bit, then turned back and said in perfect Standard, “You’re hunting my friend.”
Vasily was well aware he would be at a disadvantage if a fight broke out. Instead of acknowledging, he asked carefully, “Your friend?”
“Shinjri’shakraphrjat’shu’Sinaken, the Shark.”
So that is its --- his --- name.
“I see,” Vasily said neutrally. It would probably be unwise to continue prodding instead of answering anything, but he tried, “Since you’re his friend, as you say, do you know what he’s doing here?”
She gave the answer that corroborated exactly with Iseul’s words: “This is Bren. There is only ever one reason to come here. The Championships.”
Before he could dwell on it further, she gripped her axe. “If you keep being cagey, I think it might be best to just be rid of you here and now.”
Looks like she’s angry now.
Vasily raised his hands again, indicating surrender. “I’m not here to fight,” he said. “And since you asked, I will answer: Yes, I’m following him.”
He nodded at her retort. “You’re right, I do not simply follow such creatures. I am, after all, a Hunter of Beasts.” Before she could say anything, he continued, “But while once I was one of those who Hunted him, that is no longer my primary objective.”
As he thought, his follow-up had given her pause. And when one is curious, one must ask. So he answered. “The Shha’rarken --- Shinjri, as you call him --- was once a terrible enemy who plagued the coastlines. He stalked and hunted and slaughtered everything that had warm blood and walked on two legs.” Something occurred to him; he breathed and continued. “If you’re really friends with him, then I’m sure he has told you everything---”
She smiled and nodded. “He told me. All his history. How the war between his and yours erupted and the cycle of hatred that followed. I think I was the first person he’d ever met to not hate and fear him. He didn’t know what to make of me at first.” She turned her gaze to the canal, and Vasily followed it. “And just now? He thanked me for showing him the possibility of making peace where once there was only hate.”
Vasily took a step back. Incredible, he thought. Absolutely incredible. “Then Iseul’s prediction is true,” he murmured, rubbing the mass of scars that used to be his left eye. Remembering the woman was watching him, he said, “The Shha’rarken was, and even now, still is considered a great enemy. However, not all of us are that narrow-minded. We have long since deduced that he is far from the bloodlusted monster the locals would have you believe.”
Vasily sighed. “We have also long since known that he --- Shinjri, as you call him --- had come here for the Championship.” He smiled faintly. “He made it, you know.”
She didn’t react to that --- oh yes, the Shha’rarken must have told her --- and instead asked, “So then Hunter. Ex-Hunter. What will you do now?”
He didn’t bother to clarify the “Ex-Hunter” comment. “Now?” he said. “Now I will do nothing.” He smiled again, but this was one of resignation. “If what you say is false and we were mistaken, and if the Shha’rarken emerges victorious, then we will all be dead --- instantly smote from existence if quick, or hunted down like rats if he chooses to take his time.
“On the other hand, if he perishes in the arena, my work here will be done. If he survives ---” Vasily’s voice hardened “--- then I will do my duty and hunt him down to avenge the families of the slain, the ones who had never had a finger, much less a hand, in the war.
“But,” he said, staring off into the distance, “if all this is true . . . then perhaps it’s possible that this feud of more than fifty years would not be in vain.”
Similarly to their lesser shark brethren, Shha’rarken did not truly sleep nor did they need to. And Sinak, with all his enhancements, needed it even less so. Even while resting, out of habit he continued to swim in circles.
He awoke to the throbbing in his head and winced. The throbbing seemed to be growing in intensity.
It is time. said a voice. It was not his own.
Anticipation flooded his system. It had finally arrived; the finals, the last battle. His electroreceptors flared to life. The source of the throbbing was not in his head, but elsewhere. Sinak kicked his tail and rose out of the water, once again back in the hallway that formerly led to the Forge. Only this time --- he stretched out his senses --- there was a vastly different smell. One that was now oddly familiar . . .
Sinak frowned inwardly. Even now, he found it difficult to discern how much he had seen while suffocating to be hallucinations. The Way, the voice---
The cat-eared female, leaning against his back exhausted. But instead of panicked, she was strangely calm, as though everything was peaceful---
(Sinak shook his head for what was probably the tenth time today.)
((He wondered if he had somehow lost consciousness back then.))
<I am Shinjri’shakraphrjat’shu’Sinaken.>
<I now know my purpose.>
<<My purpose is not revenge.>>
<<<No different from the Archtraitor otherwise.>>>
<As long as I am trapped in the past, there can be no future.>
<<With no future, I might as well be dead.>>
<Years of grudge and hatred cannot be swept away in a single day.>
<<Not by myself.>>
<<<Not when both sides are at fault.>>>
<But there is one thing I can do, on my own.>
<<With my own body.>>
<<<With my own mind.>>>
<I enter the Championship to receive the boon the lords provide.>
<<This boon will not be used for myself or against the children of Skyfather.>>
<<<This boon will represent the hardest fight in my life.>>>
<<<<I fight for an end.>>>>
<<<<<But not one of death.>>>>>
Sinak burst out into the arena, into a cacophony of cries and cheers. It was disorienting and, he had to admit, amazing. He’d never heard anything like it before, not against the Hunters and certainly never out at sea. His brain crackled with energy and he rose upright, assuming his fighting stance.
Unlike the cloistered Forge, this arena was open to the full scrutiny of Skyfather’s eye, which hung at its zenith. The arena itself resembled the abyssal wastes of the ocean floor, only without Deep Mother’s touch to wash them clean, the dunes of sand were stained crimson.
(Fortunately with the Championships only being held once a year, the majority of the odor had long since faded.)
((He could still detect hints of blood, enough that his Shha’rarken instincts pricked him uncomfortably.))
Abruptly, a hush fell over the spectators. And the chants began. Names and elements. He recognized none of them except for two.
Circa, the cat-eared female, whose drive to protect and survive against the odds aided him to open his eyes.
And R’thazz, his more-or-less ally, once upon a time.
Ironic, he thought grimly. Each of these two had and would give him more than his fair share of headaches, respectively. The universe seemed keen on testing the extent of his resolve.
(The others he filed away into his memory.)
He, Shinjri’shakraphrjat’shu’Sinaken, was the Paragon of Energy. Not Water, he thought. He no longer truly belonged to the sea, as much as he yearned for it, just as he would never be a dirtwalker.
Above the sea, a darkness threatens to swallow the sky.
An evil that cannot be fought, from which we cannot fly.
Beyond all hope and beyond all fear.
An end to all things we may hold dear.
United they are, with all minds as one.
United must we, under the sea and under the sun.
Sinak smoothly circled around the pillar of his element, heading toward the center of the arena. He allowed himself one last, brief moment of reflection. He remembered his mother’s soundless voice, which told him stories even from the womb. He remembered the war, seen through the genetic memories of his ancestors. He remembered the Hunters, and his oath to avenge the Shha’rarken.
He remembered the Way of the Water. He remembered the innocent dirtwalkers, not unlike the Shha’rarken that had fallen to the Hunters. He remembered Sledaristan, for showing him the possibility of peace.
He remembered the Way.
<I am the bridge between land and sea.>
<<I am the scion of the past, and I reach for the future.>>
<<<I fight for an end, but not one of death.>>>