“I’ll take him on.” Hales announced.
“What?” Xander replied.
“Don’t be brash, Hales.” Warned Corvan.
“As a group we couldn’t even scratch him.” Dartan pointed out.
“Hales you want to duel him, you have a plan don’t you? I think you can win.” Juy said in support. She was the only one that did so.
“I’ll tell Marcarios you’re trying to get yourself killed again.” Said Genjam.
“I have a better chance at beating him,” Bregan scoffed.
The group, including Hales, gave Bregan a collective look of annoyance.
Bregan threw his hands up, “whatever.” And left the campfire.
Yillo stayed silent throughout, letting his classmates decide for themselves.
“You’re just going to automatically be able to beat this guy?” Dartan said with a shake of his head.
“He fights better against groups. With so many of us slinging our powers at him we have to hold back to stop from killing each other.” Argued Hales. “I certainly can’t go all out,” she added.
“You think he’d actually respond to a challenge?” Corvan retorted.
“Why shouldn’t he? He’s confident he can’t lose and it would be an opportunity to take out one of us.” Hales replied.
“Yeah, that’s the problem! We don’t want him to take one of us out.” Dartan exclaimed as he poked a stick in the fire.
“He’s been decimating our force for the last week, casualties we can’t afford to lose. Remember if the mountain falls to the Coalition’s army it’s game over for Garghent.”
“We all know that!” Snapped Genjam.
“So what’s the problem?” Hales said in exasperation.
“Because for the last few weeks you’ve been throwing yourself into more and more reckless situations!” Blurted out Corvan. “We’ve all noticed it and we’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
A few nods accompanied Corvan’s statement.
“Please tell me you’re not serious.” Hales sighed.
“Look Hales, no one here will deny your prowess. You’ve proven that a hundred and one times over.”
“But?” Hales interrupted.
“But,” Genjam continued, “there’s a fine line between fighting the enemy and handing them your head.”
“I have a family in Garghent, or did you forget our entire city is this close to being massacred. The walls have already fallen a year earlier than the analysts say is possible to survive from and a full scale invasion is probably just days away!”
“Oh shit, news to me! Of course we know that damn it. You think no one else has friends and family counting on us to win?” Xander delivered heatedly.
“How about instead of yelling at her we help her strategize?” Juy interjected.
“Okay here’s the strategy,” Corvan started. “Rone is a Sage class Savant with the Charientism Aspect. We aren’t even sure how it works except that when he speaks, the words we hear are personal to us. Things he would have no way of knowing that cut through our psyche.”
“You’re not just fighting him, you’re fighting yourself.” Dartan chimed in.
Xander took his turn, “additionally he’s an uncanny fighter. We don’t know if he can read minds with his power but for some reason it’s like he knows your behavior and habits.”
“So he’s just a combat psychologist. Simple enough.” Hales said.
“There’s nothing simple about messing with the brain,” warned Dartan.
“I’m reluctant to agree with you fighting him one on one, Hales, because you’re going in blind meanwhile he can deconstruct your mind and fight accordingly.” Genjam said.
“I’ll go in with a clear head. We were trained to be grounded through any situation.” Hales said.
“Being grounded didn’t stop those soldiers from throwing down their weapons and letting themselves die!” Corvan countered.
“I’m challenging him. Duels are natural” Hales asserted.
“I’ll get Marcarios.” Corvan stated equally while standing to his feet.
Yillo stepped in front of Corvan, barring his path. “No, you won’t.”
“Get out of the way, Yillo.”
“This is Hales’ decision. If she wants to duel Rone then don’t stop her.”
“We can’t afford to lose anyone.”
“This is the way of the Aspect, the strongest wins.”
“I out rank you Yillo, move! That’s an order.”
Yillo stood his ground. “You’re weak.”
“At this range I can shout you to pieces.” Corvan threatened while stepping closer.
“You’d die before you started.” Yillo replied unflinching but he made a fist.
“Chorus.” Corvan activated his Aspect. “Looks like I’ve already started.”
Yillo smiled. “You see what I mean now? Don’t deny the need for a challenge in Hales if you can’t even control yourself.”
Corvan stammered. He had been baited by Yillo who never intended to fight. He could see how it looked to the others. Corvan activated his Aspect, not Yillo. He’d lost support and validity to his argument, hypocritical as he was.
Corvan cursed and sat back down, letting his power deactivate.
Hales looked at Yillo and held back a smile.
There was an awkward silence for a minute until Juy broke the ice.
“So I think if you overwhelm Rone with stars and planets he won’t have the chance to speak.”
“He’s good under pressure so I wouldn’t count on that working.” Yillo said.
“So I just have to beat him before he deconstructs my psyche?” Hales asked.
“Put simply.” Yillo answered honestly.
Corvan was shaking his head.
“Simple enough. I’m going to fight close range.”
“Rone is a hand to hand combat expert, you’d be giving him the advantage.” Dartan said.
“If he thinks he can go for the kill he won’t be focusing on talking.”
“That’s kind of the problem, Hales…” Xander began but didn’t want to revive the argument.
“No that’s smart. Rone may have the upperhand on martial skills but Hales has far more firepower. A long distance battle would normally be good for Hales but with Charientism you can’t draw out the fight. That’s true against most Sages in general.”
“That was my conclusion too.” Hales said nodding.
Corvan had heard enough so he got up to leave.
“Is he going to Marcarios?” Juy asked.
“No,” Yillo dismissed. “He’ll let Hales fight.”
“He’s always been a cautious fighter. He means well.” Hales said.
“The man’s a coward.”
Xander stood up next, “I’m heading to sleep. Be careful in the future, Yillo. Pulling stunts like that will get you court-martialed, or killed.”
Dartan and Genjam followed shortly behind Xander, neither were thrilled about Hales dueling Rone.
It was just Hales, Yillo and Juy around the fire now, strategizing and plotting.
“You should get some rest.” Yillo declared after another hour. “You’ll have to challenge him first thing in the morning before the fighting begins.”
“I will. Thanks to both of you.”
“You’ve got the plan memorized?” Juy checked one last time.
“I think I got it. Night.”
“Good luck Hales.”
Alone now, Hales decided to meditate for a while before trying to reach a sleep she knew wouldn’t come.
In her mind she played out multiple fights. She thought through her life and cleared her mind of anything that could be distracting in a fight, coming to peace with her self and psyche.
Finally she lay down and stared at the stars for a few hours before entering a broken sleep.
Her internal clock brought her to wakefulness just before the dawn. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and forced herself up. It was cold and this helped to stimulate blood flow. She went through some light stretching and drank deeply from a water bottle.
She still felt groggy and most of her thoughts from the previous night were coming back to her muddy and disoriented.
With little time to spare, and before being noticed by any Garghent officers, she strolled from their camp and into no man’s land.
With arms up, signaling she wasn’t here for a fight, she approached the enemy frontline. They were stirring awake and preparing their morning meal.
“What do you want, Garghent scum.” A guard spat and kept his rifle aimed at Hales.
“I am here to challenge Rone to a duel.” Hales declared.
Hearing the commotion, more and more soldiers gathered around. Word spread fast amidst the jeers, insults and threats directed at Hales.
She was infamous enough at this point that everyone knew her face. There were even a few proposals at capturing or killing her on the spot. Better judgment prevailed and someone ran to get the Charientism Specter.
Hales eyed the enemies one by one. She found that most of these people couldn’t hold eye contact with her. They feared her, perhaps not now as they trained thousands of guns on her, but still they feared her power.
She had claimed the lives of many of their comrades in the past month and a half. And with each new day she had increased her viciousness, filling a hole in her that couldn’t be satiated.
So the Coalition hated her.
At last Rone emerged from the battleline, stepping in front of Hales.
Tall and lean, Rone was every inch the boxer type. Long arms, thick fingers and bony knuckles. He was light on his feet but relaxed in his movements.
His bright eyes focused on Hales.
“A duel you say?”
He deliberated for a moment as neither Specter broke eye contact. The first to look away would reveal their hesitation and therefore their fear.
“Very well. I accept your challenge, Hales of the Solar. We will meet at midday. Until then there will be no invasion. The prize of your death is worth a day of peace.”
Without further conversation Rone turned and left.
Hales remained where she was until he was out of sight behind the battleline. She turned next and found a clearing in no man’s land. She sat crossed legged and waited with eyes closed.
She was hungry but the feeling would pass. She had no desire to return to her camp. The Cull’s and captains would find out soon enough what was going on. She wanted to enjoy the sun before the fight and didn’t need the harassment from her commanding officers yelling at her and questioning her.
From the perspective of Garghent and the Coalition this would mark an important day in the war. All it takes is for a single Aspect to turn the tides, the reward would go to the winner.
The sun made its journey up the sky and finally it neared its zenith. The day was not overly hot nor cold. The autumn weather was pleasant and the colors of the changing season always brought a warm palette to the outside world.
She could hear movement around her. Soldiers were setting up to spectate the duel.
She opened her eyes and saw thousands of people in a wide circle around her. They kept their distance so as to avoid any stray stars and planets. Being out of earshot would also protect them from Charientism.
Hales rose to her feet, and ignored the stinging sensation as blood refilled in her limbs.
Hales smirked when she imagined how Saccha was probably in the enemy ranks making bets. It was the kind of thing he would do. It’s odd how a random day of ceasefire could promote such strange camaraderie between sworn enemies. It’s almost like there never had to be a war in the first place.
“Hales!” Rone called. “Shall we begin? Your men look nervous. Did you not tell them of your duel?”
“They don’t want your blood spraying in their eyes.”
Rone chuckled and drew out two brass knuckles, slipping them on and flexing his fingers.
Hales shook the rest of her numb limbs awake.
Hales pulled out a cluster of planets and set them to rotate around her, giving her a defensive ring around her waist, at a far enough distance to hinder Rone’s punches.
She advanced as Rone did. He was bouncing on his toes when Hales launched several small meteors at him. His brass knuckles collided into them and destroyed the space rocks.
This was the testing stage of the fight. Feeling the reflexes of the other Specter.
Rone’s punches were strong and the brass allowed him to counter solid objects.
Stars would be a different matter entirely, but these she saved. Giving him the opportunity to test out methods of self defense.
It was the same line of thinking that Rone was using. To save his Aspect for the right moment.
Rone dashed through the barrage of planets that came next, weaving and ducking, knowing that each planet he didn’t destroy would eventually come back.
Part of the training that comes from boxing is an excellent resistance to the body’s natural flinching response. Rone’s prescience of mind allowed him to reach Hales unscathed.
Rone smashed the first planet rotating around Hales and lunged with his other hand.
The brass knuckle hit Hales in the shoulder from the side. She was almost knocked off her feet from the blow but managed to keep her footing.
A planet rotating around her made Rone jump back. He weaved a couple planets making return orbits and tried closing the distance on Hales again.
To his surprise Hales stepped in, timing her advance with planets closing in on multiple sides. Rone made the decision to meet her attack head on. He let one planet crash into his back but grunted through the pain. In range again, Rone threw a combination of punches, first destroying two planets and then with the third hitting Hales. She blocked with her forearms, which was better than a hit to the face but now one of her arms was bruised numb.
Rone wanted to finish the fight but another meteor and planet crashed into his leg and side.
He skirted out of the way and Hales let him go.
The first encounter had finished. Rone and Hales were breathing heavily as they paused to assess the clash.
Hales was rubbing her arm, two hits from the brass was enough to paralyze it for a while.
Rone was brushing off dust from the planets that crumbled into him. He seemed undamaged but his leg clearly looked slower.
That was the first clash.
The second would be the last.
Hales brought out suns and planets to form a solar system. This one would boast multiple stars and two dozen planets. It was triple the size of her average solar disc and she began to spin it over her finger.
Rone started to circle Hales, keeping a few meters distance. Timing would be everything.
Rone spoke gibberish, a babble of made up words which to Hales appeared in her mind as a silver-tongued voice.
He was using Charientism, the veiled insults that were catered to an individual’s mind, to expose dark and inner anguishes buried deep in the unconscious at the most precarious of times, during a fight.
What do we have here? This is going to be easy, you already are going insane aren’t you?
Hales skipped to one side and flung her solar disc, she purposely threw it too wide from where Rone was. The move was designed to keep him on guard, knowing he dodged it was easier than not knowing where she truly aimed at.
Rone tried attacking but Hales drew out a star and rapidly expanded it, forcing Rone to back off as the heat became too intense. He continued to babble.
You feel it too, it hardly needs to be said. It’s at the point where you can’t tell if this voice is real, your imagination or from his power. Which one scares you the most, I wonder…
Hales slammed her star down in the ground in front of her, causing a burst of fire and light. Rone had tried wheeling around, using his superior speed to catch her flank.
Listen closely, that’s the sound of your mind snapping. You just needed a little push.
Rone charged and managed to shoulder Hales before she could draw another star out. Hales landed hard on the ground but took a star and threw it up. Rone ducked under it by dropping into a crouch. He slammed his fist down but Hales rolled back and got to her feet in one motion.
Our love is ended. My but your memories are rich with pathetic experiences!
Hales drew out five stars and kept them over her fingers. She would use her sun punch the next time Rone swung.
His punch came as Hales swiveled out of the way. He kept up the offense, forcing Hales to scramble away. He couldn’t fully commit to an attack with the threat of her star punch.
The human mind is so fragile, as even memories can carry with them the pain of old wounds. Like that time in the desert when you had a miscarriage and blood dripped down your legs.
Backpedaling, Hales suddenly reversed her momentum and lunged forward. She timed it to match Rone’s own jab. Inside of his reach his arm only grazed Hales. Hales however, pressed her stars into Rone.
He reacted fast enough by blocking the attack with his offhand. The brass took the brunt of the damage but the metal was ruined and overheated. Rone had to step back and remove the burning brass. The skin under was raw and tender but by no means unusable.
She had been leading Rone to a specific spot, staying on the defense until he was where she needed him. On the path where her solar disc would return to. The chaos of random planets and meteors flying about gave the disc camouflage as it made a long arc around the battlefield.
Now she just needed to keep him here for half a minute.
Talis is dead.
Hales suddenly stopped in her tracks. Rone noticed the pause and looked at her curiously. He had been distracted by the melted brass on his hand and she could have taken advantage of that.
“Why did you say that?” Hales asked, interrupting the flow of the fight.
“Say what?” He was clearly annoyed but could tell the message his power sent Hales was different than something personal.
“You mean you don’t know what your Aspect says?”
Rone shook his head hesitantly.
“You said Talis Ranis is dead. I thought Charientism was based on real memories that I have.”
“Yeah that’s one way it works.”
“Duck!” Hales warned.
Rone dropped to the ground in a prone position as the solar disc zoomed by him. He turned his head to watch it fly off some ways away, crashing into a hill.
Standing now, Rone scrutinized Hales. “What the hell are you doing? It tells things that get to people. Why didn’t you let me get killed?”
“Because everyone I talked to said your power never tells lies, whether that person accepts it is up to them of course.”
“So what? Maybe you don’t care enough to be affected by your subconscious.”
“No you pissed me off plenty of times. I just don’t get why it said that.”
“I don’t know. Why are we even talking, we’re trying to kill each other.”
“Shut up Rone, this is bigger than that. If your power can reveal things nobody knows, if Talis is really dead then that’s urgent news for the world, for us Specters. He’s been alive for centuries and I only just met him a few months ago.”
Rone threw his hands up. “It just messes with your brain, obviously it worked. All the reports say you’re a crazy, pathological liar who believes her own delusions.” Rone readied his fists, preparing to attack.
“Stop!” Hales yelled. “Don’t you understand the implications of that! If Talis is dead then something killed him. Get it now? There’s something out there stronger than Talis.”
Rone took on a hard expression. “You’re stalling because you know you’re about to die. Sorry but I won’t offer any mercy.”
“I just stopped from killing you!” Hales said exasperated. “This war is a waste of time. There are vital issues right now that need to be addressed!”
“How can you say that? Of course Garghent believes in its own benevolence, meanwhile the rest of the Sister continent suffers from your oppressive regime. And now you want to stop the fighting, now that your city will fall.”
Hales was about to respond but Rone sprinted into a charge. Hales went into a wide and low stance, having her right leg hold her weight as she bent and leaned back into it. She forced her damaged arm into position, extending it back over her rear leg for balance so that she was in a side profile facing Rone. Her front leg was straight and locked at the knee. The corresponding arm was extended over this leg, two fingers poised up and palm facing outward.
Spread out in this way, Hales brought the front arm towards her eye. Rone lashed out but Hales stepped back, reversing the placement of her body so that the right leg was forward and the left leg was behind her and bent, holding up her weight.
Rone swung at air when she moved but he recovered and moved with her.
Hales had pulled a planet from her eye when she reversed. The planet was floating on the tip of her rear hand. When Rone punched again, Hales this time stepped up, bounding off her rear leg and into Rone’s attack.
She wheeled her rear hand down and up, growing the planet all the while. Her feet were together now and her free hand was struggling to remain in front of her head as a shield, the bone and muscle soreness debilitating her normal range of motion.
Rone’s jaw felt the force of a galactic uppercut that smashed his teeth together, cracked bone and made his head snap violently back. His own punch had clocked Hales in the temple at nearly the same instance.
Rone was sprawled on his back, alive but heavily disfigured as he coughed out teeth and bits of tongue.
Hales swayed but stayed on her feet. Her vision was swampy and she knew that blow to the temple could have killed her had Rone’s fist that time been the one with the brass knuckle still equipped.
She had to kneel after a moment. Rone was mumbling something incoherent as his mouth hardly worked.
“It’s over Rone.”
His hands scrambled for something in a pocket. What he produced was a serrated knife. Somehow he had the fortitude to lean up and attempt to plunge the knife into Hales’ neck.
A star blew open his chest and ended all chances of that happening.
“Idiot.” Hales said and deactivated her Aspect. She tried standing but swayed again. Her vision was still blurry so she couldn’t gauge the reaction of the Coalition. She could only hope that no fighting would start.
If it didn’t she couldn’t tell as a platoon of soldiers came rushing to her, guarding her and leading her back to their camp.
Cull Marcarios was the first voice she recognized amidst the storm of praises and questions.
“Captain Hales, explain the reasoning behind this duel!”
“Had a plan.” Someone had given her a few painkillers and an ice pack. She was applying the ice when she responded.
“Which was?” Her commander pressed.
“To not sleep. That way I’d be too tired to react to his power. Among other things.” She concluded lamely.
“And yet you were almost killed and even saved him. That was a terrible plan and one you will never repeat!”
“It worked fine enough.” She said painfully, rubbing her temple as she did.
“Apparently not. I am going to have to have spies on you Hales. This reckless behavior of yours is not healthy.”
“Talis Ranis is dead. That’s what his power told me.”
Marcarios stopped his ranting. “You believe it?”
“Would you believe me if I said so?”
Marcarios shrugged. “Get some rest, we’ll discuss this more. You fought well, insane as you are. Regardless of how it was done, this was a crucial victory.”
Hales forced a smile and found a tent to lay down in.
Yillo came into the tent after a few hours. “Hales are you awake?”
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“Veron just arrived, thought you’d like to know.”
“Oh really? Can you tell her to come here, I could use some of her healing Jinx!”
“Uh Hales? Veron can’t heal.”
“Wha-” Hales stopped herself before she mentioned anything about the time Veron healed her in the Tournament. “She’s healed me before.” Hales said vaguely.
Yillo just looked at her a second, “I’ll go fetch her.”
“People really think I’m a liar?” Hales asked herself out loud.
A few minutes later and Veron stepped through the flap of the tent. She had far more tattoos than the last time she saw her on graduation. She had two full sleeves of tattoos, neck tattoos and the rest were covered behind clothes but Hales could only assume the rest of her body was no different.
“Hales! You’re always almost dying!”
“Thanks Veron. Hey do you think you could use a healing Jinx on me? My head feels like it’s going to crumble.”
“Of course.” Veron said. She went to Hales’ side and began to draw a new tattoo on her palm.
“Weirdest thing happened, Yillo was just here and he said you didn’t have a healing Jinx.”
Veron winked at Hales. “It’s a secret. I don’t want to be in a hospital my life being a medic and miss out on all the fun.”
Hales nodded and smiled.
“Bloom.” Veron called and her newly drawn tattoo became alive and moved to Hales’ temple. Laying as she was, Hales couldn’t quite see the tattoo.
“Thanks.” Hales said softly.
“So did you hear the news?” Veron asked, changing the subject.
“What news? I’ve been in bed for the last few hours.”
“It’s the reason I’ve come to the mountains. I had to deliver a special message to General Prion. They sent me because they didn’t want any chance of it being intercepted through a radio.” Veron waited a second before speaking again in a low voice. “Master Klyle is coming. And he’s bringing a legion.”
“No way? Everyone said it would take a year. We might actually win this war!”
“Yeah it’s exciting, we haven’t seen him since the camp!”
Hales felt like a weight of stress had been lifted off her. Klyle coming would change everything. If anyone could lift the enemy siege it was the Lion Aspect, the Master Augur.
“Anyways, I’ve got some more things to take care of, you feel any better?”
“I am already, thanks Veron. It’s good to see you again.”
“You too Hales. Don’t die.” With that Veron left and Hales felt herself get sleepy. This time she would have more pleasant dreams. She wondered what Klyle would think of her ability now. She thought of where he’d been for the last… well, almost two years! So much time passed so quickly, but things were starting to look up now. The siege would end soon and she could see her siblings and take a long vacation in her own house…
A voice disturbed her nighttime reverie.
You thought I was gone when Rone died. Now you really don’t know if I’m real or not!