Chapter 50 The Salamaster

Talis Ranis meditated on one leg atop the highest point at the peak of the tallest cave overlooking the dry desert. He balanced on a single finger, his body wrapped and twisted around itself in a knotted ball. He remained upside down with legs crossed and folded twice over. His lengthy bird legs allowed this flexible contortion. His other arm, the one not supporting his weight, had its wing unfurled and acted as a cover for his whole compressed body, much like a cloak or a curtain. 

This was his position for the three days following the Solar Aspects departure. Talis Ranis simply felt the universe around him. The flow of life and energy that permeated through the land and sky. The sun beating down filled Talis Ranis with joy, contentment and power.

He could already sense its approach. The movement of energy so deliberate and extreme that it rivaled his own force.

The displacement of gravity and electromagnetism itself was a clear indication of a travelling body clad with immeasurable strength. Talis Ranis could sense further the specific shape and emotions of the imminent being. The taste in the air reeked of bloodlust. The finger that held him perceived the slightest vibrations of a creature moving at breakneck speeds. His third eye, the organ associated with sensing electromagnetic radiation, hummed achingly in his forehead as the raw energy washed over him.

In his lungs was the flavor of crisp oxygen, the way one might feel after a thunderstorm. His opponent electrically charged the very wind for dozens of kilometers out. Few living creatures could have picked up on it from this distance. Talis Ranis was one as he had trained for centuries to feel every spectrum of light and energy in the world.

The desert stilled as the insects and microbiology began to sense the approach. Already quiet to the sense of hearing, the desert became silent in a way that night cannot herald as violence bode its grim form closer and closer.

Talis Ranis opened his eyes for the first time in half a week. The sun had not yet reached its zenith, though this much Talis already knew.

The friction generated from such a forcefully moving object caused sparks of lightning to burst from its landing spot, dust swirled around before blowing away from the lagging wind that finally caught up.

Had Talis not known better, it would appear that the creature in front of him, standing in the sand below him, teleported to its location through some use of an Aspect. But this was not the case. The creature had stopped its running momentum, a skidding halt that produced enough friction to trigger an explosion. 

“Hello old friend.” The speaker had a lisp, a result from its altered facial bone structure and split tongue. It stood upright, over three meters tall, humanoid in shape and boasting a thick tail that became blue towards the tip. The legs were muscular and its four toed feet were clawed and webbed. The arms were built much the same way with fingers tapering off into jagged razors. The creature was encased in rustic red scales, save for the occasional green, purple, yellow and magenta colored scales that looked like jewels of the finest cut and polish.

“I knew the Salamaster was dropping by when the force of a nuclear reactor reverberated throughout the planet.” Talis Ranis unfolded himself slowly and deliberately. His body moved in a single fluid motion as it righted itself. He stretched out his wings, legs and torso, utter control over his vessel allowed him to send blood back into the numb limbs as if he were evenly distributing liquid from a pitcher into multiple glasses of water.

The Salamaster chuckled a guttural and sibilant noise.

“It was centuries ago when last I used that name.” 

“Oh? What name have you chosen this time?”

The Salamaster’s nostrils flared in a quasi-scowl.

“The names are given to me by the land. I am Xihuatli.” The name was of ancient origins, a tongue easily spoken by the Salamaster, Xihuatli, because of his lizard body.

“We are the last two who can speak the old tongues.”

“That is your limited world view, dear friend. But no matter, your death is written in the stones and I am here to ensure its delivery. No more knowledge for the great Fable Talis Ranis.”

Talis Ranis lifted his wings up and then down, as if in a shrug, “Very well, Salamaster. But we cannot fight in this location.”

Xihuatli shook his head in beratement. “Ever the teacher. You should have spent more time training. That cave will be your final message.”

Talis leapt down from the cave. His wings caught his momentum and he remained hovering a meter off the ground.

“One way or another.” Agreed Talis. Xihuatli snorted. 

“Come, I know our battleground.”

The Salamaster turned east and set off on a run. Talis Ranis kept the pace, flying at eye level with Xihuatli.

The ground sped beneath them. Two legendary beings, ascended to the furthest peak of Aspect awakening. The color of each seemed faded, Talis’ grey feathers and Xihuatli’s faded red scales. They were bodies from another time, a past era. Moving across the desert, the two Fables looked out of place. Like a supernatural sighting, they didn’t quite look real and altogether didn’t belong in this world. But they were men once. Men who trained and studied and somehow unlocked the doorway to the secrets of the universe…

Gliding over dunes and deserts and hills and plains, Talis looked to Xihuatli. He knew one day the Salamaster would seek to fight him. Talis Ranis would have it no other way. Not that he wished to fight his ancient friend but it kept reality consistent and the world spinning. The struggle for power is what drives humans, all of life, into invention. Perhaps one day there can be a world of harmony, but for now, there must exist humans who grow and seek to obtain that power.

Talis Ranis would be forced to kill Xihuatli and await once more for another opponent. 

“Tell me, Xihuatli, why now do you choose to fight me?” They talked casually as the desert became grass and forest.

“In the wind, I taste interesting powers. I want only to fight and grow stronger, that is the thrill of living.”

Xihuatli bounded over a ravine. Talis maintained conversation as he followed the Salamaster’s arc in mid air.

“I am glad to see you unchanged despite your new name, Xihuatli. You are the same as I remember. It makes me glad to know my last friend alive is true to himself. But I suppose I misspoke when I asked you why you choose now to fight me, what I meant to say is, why do you think you can beat me?”

“You stopped fighting a long time ago. Those who do not fight, do not grow. I will start with you and then kill every other Aspect. I will become the greatest hunter.”

“We both have our own ways, Xihuatli. For me, my growth is through meditation and endless exploration of knowledge and truth. For you, it is the flow of blood and chemicals into and out of your body which brings you truth. You seek enlightenment through bloodlust, I seek it through noesis. Neither is superior to the other, everything is part of the grand whole of the universe and all things are connected. No, the difference is simply that I am better than you.”

“You have become talkative in your old age,” laughed Xihuatli. “Tell me Talis, what is making you act so out of your usual calm and sage character.”

“Ah but you know the answer to that already. You alone in this world, say, all of existence I don’t doubt, you alone, the Salamaster, are capable of making me violent.”

“Is your conviction so easily shaken?” Laughed the Salamaster once more.

“Shaken!” Talis squawked, “You are the antithesis of all that I believe and learned. Ages of wisdom is lost on you for brutal savagery. Ending you would help humans evolve past warmongering tyrant lizards. Peace with self and the world is the way to enlightenment.”

“Yet still we both have reached the top of the mountain.” 

“If a mountain is the highest you are willing to go, then you have already lost a dozen times over.”

Xihuatli laughed. “You have spent too much time in the air, dear Talis, the oxygen must not be reaching your bird brain.”

“I seem to remember a time when you could not figure out how to wipe when your tail appeared.”

They had reached the coast and still neither slowed. The ocean changed nothing about their pace. Xihuatli, thanks to his webbed amphibian feet and his incredible momentum, ran on the surface of the water. Talis flew low enough that his wings glided on the ocean water, creating a temporary split in the water in his wake. The ocean would collapse on the gap when the Fable flew on. 

“Ah, the memories are flowing back in much like the ocean tides.” The Salamaster spoke over their thundering movements and displacement of water, “Unfortunately this will be where they end. It is always a pity when one has to slay a lifelong friend.”

“We ceased our friendship when your bloodlust overcame your conscience.” Talis said stoically.

“That is true,” Xihuatli conceded, “but then we became as kin, closer than brothers with ties far more binding than the red fluid of life. Our kinship is with the universe, with the Aspect itself. Is that not how you described it in your revolting book?”

“Ouch! A dagger in the heart. You did not enjoy the read?”

“To divulge so many secrets of the Aspect is unforgivable. It is a betrayal to the principles of power.”

“That is unlike you. You should thank me for now you will have far more opponents to satiate your desire for battle. And do not mistake me, Xihuatli, what I revealed in that writing was a scratch on the surface that is the endless truth of the Aspect.”

“Your motives are a mystery to me, Talis Ranis. Too bad you will not live to reveal them.”

 So saying, the two Fables came upon a series of small islands, the backdrop of which was a mighty wall of water, somehow geysered into the air and falling back inwards so as not to spray outward. A solid wall, running from north to south, the diameter of the planet, dividing the ocean into two halves. It reached a dozen kilometers into the sky, towering above most clouds. 

The Great Tidal Wall. One of the planet’s most mind-numbing mysteries, for all possible explanations defied logic and reason, the most pseudo and fringe theories failed to offer any sort of adequate understanding, even among the more open-minded pragmatists.

Talis hovered above the water near a beach, his wings flapping lazy but methodically. The Salamaster stood ankle deep in water, the cool waves lapping passed his legs to ride up the sand bank and slowly back down in an endless cycle.

Their day was curiously shorter, as they had travelled east halfway around the world where the sun was evening. The water appeared orange as distorted reflections of the dipping sun caught the eye in brilliance.

Where Talis’ wings flapped, the water would be pushed out in a ring of inexorable force. A whirlpool formed under him simply by his presence and lackadaisical flying.  

“You have chosen an intriguing place.” Talis said after a minute of silence.

“It is far enough from civilization for you, no?”

“This will suffice. Though it is a sacred island system of the Yitjola tribe who aptly named their home Aufre-hutagan’aba, the islands of two oceans. Were there any existing members of this tribe I would refuse this location.”

Xihuatli said no more. Talis thrust his wings backwards creating a gust of air that gently pushed him to the beach. He descended softly and touched the ground with the tip of his bird-toes. He stood on a single leg and wrapped the other leg twice around the first one so that Talis was perfectly balanced, his usual resting meditative stance. 

Talis and Xihuatli faced each other several meters apart on the beach, two gods of a bygone era under a darkening sky standing erect in an ancient beach, the wall of ocean serving as a backdrop to this battle of ascended masters, one whose path represents the toil of the ground, the struggle for survival and the conquest over the weak and the other whose path leads to hidden truths and manipulation over the fabric of reality through bioscientific knowledge.

The lizard who crawls in the filth and the heron that soars in the clouds.

Two abilities developed beyond the point of distinguishing between Man and Aspect, organism and superpower.

The Salamaster, his hulking lizard frame glinting curiously in the dusk, his feet leaving imprints in the muddy sand and the spiky horns on his head itching viciously in anticipation, charged.

Talis Ranis unwound his hooked leg, his whole body spinning in the process as it became a roundhouse kick that crashed into Xihuatli’s jaw. A shockwave rippled. The bone snapped and Xihuatli was hurled to splash in the water.

He rose and with a grunt returned his jaw to its proper place with a cringing snap. He tested it but didn’t have time to defend another kick, this time square in his chest. Talis Ranis landed smoothly on his feet, Xihuatli did not. 

Tumbling and skidding on the beach the Salamaster finally settled half submerged twenty meters from where he was kicked. He prodded his chest to find more than a couple fractured ribs as he pushed himself up. Talis rushed the advantage, flying low to the surface he stopped an arms length distance from Xihuatli and threw his wings forward. The force carried a devastating wave that punched into Xihuatli, carrying him to an outcrop of island. His head smashed into a boulder and split the two million year old rock into three pieces. Xihuatli used his tail to prop himself up as he shook the aches out of his limbs. 

Talis once more appeared in front of him before he could react. Talis slapped Xihuatli, nearly breaking his neck and sending another ripple of shockwave that disturbed dry leaves into flurry. Talis palmed Xihuatli in the gut. Xihuatli doubled over. Talis stepped passed the heaving lizard-man and took hold of his tail with a single claw of his foot. With the force of a tornado, Talis fluttered his wings and jumped straight up. Talis flew as Xihuatli hung limp by the tail. Talis was holding a pressure point in the tail that sent nerves which tightened the muscles that Xihuatli would normally be able to use to flex his tail and bring his body towards it. There was no way he could reach Talis’ foot. He was at the mercy of the soaring heron whose only direction was up.

Talis brought the Salamaster to the peak of the tidal wall. The water rended and churned itself between each side of the wall toward the center. Anything inside would be torn to shreds by the force of a tsunami in the style of a blender. 

“Farewell, Xihuatli.” So said Talis Ranis as he released Xihuatli into the primordial chaos below. The Salamaster made no noise as he fell and disappeared into the abyss.

Talis descended back to the ground. He sensed that Xihuatli still lived but nothing could survive long inside the tidal wall, though his ridiculous durability allowed him the unfortunate prospect of a drawn out death. But a death fitting of a Fable. The universe both feeds and consumes.

“You will return to the waters that gave life to us all.” Talis said sadly, feeling the loss of perhaps his only equal in the entire world. It was necessary to kill him, although Talis hadn’t entirely expected to win. He had prepared the cave writings knowing his time must soon be up. Those messages would be vitally important to humanity in the coming years. With the Salamaster’s death Talis Ranis could do more to save the world, possibly even preventing the coming scourge. Nothing is set in stone and not all was written in the stars, this much Talis knew for sure…

Xihuatli emerged from the ocean, dripping water and stretching overworked muscles. He let out a brief hiss, which served as his version of a tsk. “That is not the easiest of swims. Twice in one hundred years is two too many times. Although I do admit this time was much easier. The first time I went all the way to the bottom.”

Talis’ eyes narrowed. “You lie. Nothing can survive that deep in the ocean, let alone survive that long in the tidal wall.”

The Salamaster shook his head. “You have spent too much time staring at the pretty stars and closing your eyes in meditation. You have forgotten the world beneath us as you sought to reach the heavens.” Xihuatli’s entire demeanor transformed, changing into something altogether serious and haunting. “I slithered down to the bottom of the universe and learned of its secrets. You will never know them and that to you is worse than death.”

Talis showed no further emotion, trained for centuries to let all feelings pass through him like a distant observer. Aside from anger, this alone he fastened himself to.

“Ancience.” Xihuatli called his Aspect, though it was a formality rather than a necessity for activating his power, he was one with his Aspect and therefore it remained bound to his very essence.

“Feather.” Talis Ranis in keeping the tradition called forth his own. He made the first move, flying into the air and spreading out his wings. “I will read the secrets from your corpse.”

The Salamaster chuckled, “you know a way?”

“Extracting your DNA.” With that Talis launched a hundred feathers from his wings. They cut through the air, slicing gas molecules as opposed to displacing them. With a snap of his finger, done at a specific resonant frequency, Talis detonated his feathers as the atoms burst at the trigger of sound and Xihuatli was in the center of the blasts. 

The explosions combined into a massive bomb which uncharacteristically fed back into a center point as if it were being absorbed. Only dust and smoke remained. Once it settled, Xihuatli was still standing with his chest puffed to triple its size and scales glowing erratic and bright.

Xihuatli coughed in short bursts accidentally and some explosions sputtered out. He finally had a hold of it and the rest of the explosion inside him settled. His chest returned to normal size and the scales normalized. When next he breathed out, flames licked and danced, eager to etch and scrape all in its path.

Talis flexed his wings and released more feathers only to see them incinerated by the Salamaster’s fire breath. Talis rotated in the air until a vortex began to form. He sent feathers into it which gave the spiraling wind deadly cutting potential. He flapped his wings and pushed it to Xihuatli. 

Xihuatli breathed flames on it as it sped toward him. The feather vortex tossed the flames around and dispersed them without slowing. He dove out of the way, almost being pulled in as the ground sunk and tore apart. A gap in the island was created that soon filled with ocean water. The integrity of rock and soil underground was weakened and water mercilessly tore the island asunder.

It sank like a wrecked sailboat. Xihuatli ran clear from that island to another one. Talis sent another vortex on the path the Salamaster took. His momentum and the dragging winds impelled him toward the eviscerating vortex. On a path of no return, Xihuatli ceased all movement of his feet and plunged into the ocean, no longer water-running. The vortex soon broke the surface of the water in a sense impossibly literal. It left a hole in the ocean where it travelled and Xihuatli found himself being pulled into its center even more forcefully. With no other options he swam toward it, picking up speed and angling himself slightly off-center. Caught in the rip current of the whirlpool, Xihuatli swam with the torrent. As he spun around and towards the center he exhaled a mighty blast. Underwater the explosion was muffled but the force still proved powerful enough to send Xihuatli clear of the vortex’s pull. His tail, however, had to be dropped as it was still caught in the rip. It was torn from existence a second later.

Xihuatli swam to the surface, the lack of a tail being an annoyance to his balance and fluidity of movement. Swimming too required more effort without it.

Talis gathered himself for another storm of feathers. Xihuatli had a moment. He puked another explosion, though this time it was no ordinary combustion. Out came a red and orange sword with a wave-like blade and a flared cross guard. Xihuatli gripped the explosion sword and went down into a squat.

Talis fired hundreds of feathers, each with the sharpness to pierce anything clean through. Xihuatli sprang from his squatting position and jumped into the air. Talis adjusted his aim and let out an endless barrage of feathers. Xihuatli thrust his flamberge rapier behind him and an explosion propelled him in the air towards Talis. 

The Salamaster continued to breath fire, incinerating the feathers and using his explosion sword to chase after the evading Talis. Flames reached close to Talis but he simply swiped a wing and the air snuffed it out. His feathers regrew at a near instantaneous rate so his barrage was never-ending.

Xihuatli felt more than a few feathers slide in and out of his body, leaving thin but jagged holes in their wake. He kept up his pursuit of the elderly heron Fable. Turning around upside down in mid air and breathing out an explosion he changed tactics. Using his breath to fly, the explosion shot him forward and he reoriented himself in time to lunge with the flamberge. Talis risked getting a wing severed for an open swipe of his other wing.

Explosions followed and the two Fables dropped from the sky to land on another island. The aftermath saw the right wing of Talis Ranis with a massive, singed hole. Only luck had prevented a loss of the connected arm entirely. 

The Salamster bore a gash running the entire length of the left side of his body from leg to head. In some places bone was exposed. 

This would be the final bout. That much was obvious. The winner was no longer clear to either. Two Fables of unparalleled power gave way to such an unpredictable outcome. Any other creature or Specter would be hard pressed to so much as puncture the skin of a Fable, but such was their power that damage was sustained in the brutal fashion that accompanies the dance of death. No battle at this level can last long.

Talis grew a feather to be tall and narrow. It grew stem first from his damaged wing and this he plucked with his left hand. As if pulling from a sheath, Talis drew a feather sword.

Standing calm as ever, in his stance indistinguishable from meditation, his wounded arm and wing held behind his back in the fencer’s style, sword poised forward and angled slightly up to accommodate his opponent’s taller frame.

The Salamaster mirrored an identical pose, his wounded left leg faced sideways and set as his grounding behind him. The front leg faced his opponent and would serve as the guiding and lunging leg. Since his rear leg was too damaged he would not be able to reliably back up. The weight would prove to be too much and collapse under the pressure. No, there was only going forward. His explosion sword held tightly in his right hand.

Xihuatli and Talis Ranis saluted with their weapons. A similar scene flashed in their minds as teenaged versions of the two Fables faced off in the finals of a fencing tournament, the world beyond their eyes a place of wonder where determination and strength could allow one to dine on all the secret veins of limitless power the universe offered. 

No words were needed to be spoken, they knew everything about each other, memories and dreams alike.

The Salamaster lunged at the same time Talis did. Their swords collided for the briefest of moments. As any master swordsman knows, the slightest touch on the parry is all that is required to redirect an attacker’s arc of assault. Talis’s feather rapier bounced naturally off of Xihuatli’s flamberge, the touch so soft that no explosion was produced, but just enough to cause the flamberge to sail harmlessly past Talis’s heart. Xihuatli rolled with the deflection, bringing his back foot forward and rotating on his heel to the right, his sideways turn brought his flamberge away from Talis. Talis’ own sword, aimed for the center of Xihuatli’s chest, stabbed nothing but air as the Salamaster dodged the strike with his semi-turn. Fully extended in a lunge, Talis shifted his weight to reset his position as both Fables were too close to swing but Xihuatli, legs together, off balance and still sideways continued to turn his trunk as the shoulder of his sword-arm wrapped back around his neck as he leaned into the twist and maneuvered his wrist to the point of touching his cheek on the opposite side from his arm.

The move is a sort of trick shot, in such close proximity it is nearly impossible to hit your opponent with a sword so the obvious and natural adjustment, aside from engaging in hand-to-hand combat, is to retreat a few paces for room, the footwork of swordsmanship is designed in such a way to ease this process of back and forth. However, in extreme cases or displays of showmanship the idea to twist sideways, breaking the pattern of footwork and leaving one exposed completely, in order to rotate and wrap the sword around the head or neck which would create the space needed to stab when room is tight essentially broke every cardinal rule of dueling.  

For Xihuatli, whose sword had been parried, a move he anticipated due to his opponent’s superior speed, began the rotation as soon as his sword was deflected. This also caused him to dodge Talis’ lunge. Xihuatli’s back leg had been too damaged to retreat, risking everything on this move was his only chance. But the circumstances had to be so specific because Talis used his left hand, which meant his body was angled left side forward and Xihuatli used his right side which meant Talis would parry the flamberge to Xihuatli’s right, leaving Talis exposed for the flourish when Xihuatli bent his body toward the right.

For a fencing match that lasted no longer than a second, the complexity of the duel was layered so intricately that one could spend hours alone dissecting each frame of movement…

The flamberge lanced into Talis Ranis’ chest, a tiny thump noise resounding from within the cavity where his heart ruptured from the explosion sword. Xihuatli held his lunge, his sword barely reaching Talis’ heart. The Feather Aspect stood in his starting position, having reset his stance after the missed lunge.

A rush of energy left Talis’ body that was so powerful Xihuatli thought he might die from the sheer force of the bioelectricity escaping the body of the Feather Aspect. The energy wave lasted only a few seconds but managed to pause a section of the tidal wall for a brief instance. 

Xihuatli allowed his sword to disintegrate. The body of Talis Ranis, no longer being propped up by anything, fell limp to the ground. The corpse landed on its back, staring eternally towards the night blackened sky.

Xihuatli closed his eyes and began to molt through his skin. He let fall the wounded shell and stepped out of the sticky skin and matted blood that caked him. The molt lay beside Talis and Xihuatli let out a sigh and a hiss. His tail would take a month to regrow and he stood about a meter shorter than usual, making him about the height of an average human. It would take several more sheddings and a lot of food to obtain his larger frame. His wounds were mortal, or nearly that, and so his body sacrificed the damaged parts by shedding through over a quarter of his entire mass.

Xihuatli was too tired to run across the ocean again, he laid down beside his old friend, staring into the stars with the lifeless body.

“I don’t see what you see, old one.” Xihuatli said to the dead Fable. “Up there is void and nothingness. Here is life and death. Well, I shouldn’t talk to you about death. You know about that more than me now.”

“The obstacle that was your existence is gone now. But I will heed your words, as a favor to our friendship. I will not destroy that cave of your final writings, I will await for the strongest to rise. This is my promise and I swear your legacy will not be tarnished by me, though I cannot guarantee I won’t over shadow it.”

“Those days of our adolescence were the best of times were they not? We trained under the same instructor and trained for nearly a hundred hours a week. The world was innocent to us, a place to play out our fantasies of being mighty warriors. Legends of heroes were painted in our eyelids when we blinked and we swore that together we would become the best, only so that we would have a worthy foe to fight at the end of our lifetimes.”

“But then we became Aspecters, our dreams were fulfilled and we wandered the world in search of knowledge and battles. We never lost, or at least never died and therefore could grow stronger and stronger. Time no longer affected us, the willpower of our spirits was eternally youthful. You rose to the heavens and I descended to the underworld, of course we would meet again as all of existence is but a wheel. My dear friend, I will miss you.”

Xihuatli turned to his side and stroked the lifeless face of the dead Fable, moving his own face closer.

“Do not disappoint me Talis, the thrill of hunting you was the most glorious high I have ever tasted. The next one must be greater. This generation of Aspects set in motion by your teachings better be worthy. For now I will sleep… and dream of an opponent who can take me to such heights again.”

the end of arc 4: war alone