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World of Crystals > A Worthy Opponent

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Last edited by Aurora on 2008-06-29 16:38:43

A Worthy Opponent

By Aurora

Li Bei was an eminently practical warrior. He left nothing to chance, nor did he believe in coincidence. He did nothing frivolously or without purpose. For Li Bei believed strongly that for every action there was a reaction, a consequence. It was that sense of practicality that led him to wonder what precisely was going through Commander Tam’s mind when the order came down to rebuild the Pei Outpost to the northwest, just across the banks of the Troian River, where the forest began. The selfsame Pei Outpost that, just the past winter, had been razed to the ground by a band of Xanthyr.

Xanthyr. It was a word that inspired indignant disgust in every man that bore Imperial colors, and were they to be candid, fear in the hearts of more than a few. The unwashed she-devils were like locusts, swarming upon anything that dared cross their path, leaving death in their wake. Surely the commander would not risk provoking their wrath again so soon. Not with the latest group of reinforcements from Fort Kunlao still stuck in the south, victims of the interminably slow spring thaw of the Misty Mountains which rendered trails impassable even so late into the year.

However, if there was one quality Li Bei possessed which surpassed even his great practicality, it was his fanatical loyalty to his Commander, his Provincial Governor, and his Emperor. And it was that sense of loyalty that led Li Bei to march at the head of the column of samurai across the river and into the forest, despite his deep misgivings. It was not his place to question the Commander’s orders.

It was an old forest, filled with tall and majestic trees of evergreen and pine. A clean water source—a spring--and an abundance of wood, not to mention its strategic convenience, were all reasons the Commander chose the site. It was to be the base of operations for the next stage of the Tro campaign. Li Bei’s eyes scanned the trees. They appeared to be deserted, but that was no guarantee they were empty. Amazons, Spirit-Folk; anything could be lurking in them, without any trace. He remained vigilant, his knuckles turning white as he unconsciously gripped his sword hilt a little tighter. The interminable silence was unnerving; neither birds nor insects made a sound as the samurai crossed the wood.

The air turned a slight chill, gradually becoming colder, and an eerie fog crept in on the breeze. Li Bei swallowed hard, and quickly drew his sword. Something was wrong, terribly wrong…

That was when he heard it.

Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!

It was the most bloodcurdling sound he’d ever heard, a high pitched cry that seemed to pierce his very brain. Suddenly, without warning, they struck. Descending silently from the trees to the forest floor on vine ropes, death from the branches, like banshees the amazons echoed the cry as they hit the ground brandishing their weapons. Li Bei couldn’t tell how many there were in the fog; all he could see were blades, bows and terrible masks in the shape of a dragon’s head.

It was difficult for Li Bei, even now, to contemplate fighting a woman. He knew he would eventually face them, but struggling against years of conditioning that a woman was to be protected as a precious jewel was not easy. Grimly he set himself to the appointed task.

“For the Glory of Heaven!” he cried, leaping into the fray.

A pair of amazons swooped down from a nearby tree. One leapt at him, swinging a club at him, but he remained calm, parrying her blow and sending her flying with his fist. As soon as he did, her companion struck out with a long, curved sword, trading blows with Li Bei. Finally she lifted her knee to catch him in the groin but he pivoted, let out a mighty shout, and lunged, plunging his katana into her kidney, and she crumpled to the ground. He quickly yanked the blade out and turned, the air around him growing colder. Li Bei turned to see an Amazon with icy blue skin and streaming blue dreadlocks, eyes of solid white, descending from the sky. She swept her arms in an intricate motion as she floated down, as if she were casting a spell.

“Archers!” Li Bei bellowed, raising his katana in the air to motion to his men. They raised their bows and fired, but as the hail arrows were about to strike her, they stopped just inches from her as if they hit some invisible barrier, turning to ice and immediately melting. Her feet touched the ground and she raised her arms high above her head, encasing a half-dozen samurai in a spherical icy prison. Li Bei’s eyes grew wide and he raced toward her, dodging blows, and leapt to catch her as she brought an arm down slowly, and quite casually snapped her fingers. The ice sphere quite suddenly shattered, dropping the frozen samurai to the ground dead, and spraying icy shrapnel everywhere. He cut his way to her, but she was quickly overwhelmed by three of his men, forced into hand-to-hand combat.

“Captain!”

He raced to the aid of one samurai to his left, pressed hard by a dark-skinned Amazon, clashing blades with her until she stumbled and fell backward to the ground. Li Bei raised his blade to deal the finishing blow, but heard a sudden high pitched whistling sound and an in-rush of air as a spinning metal disc hurled toward him. He ducked and rolled, narrowly averting it, and turned in time to see his comrade’s head fly off; it was severed cleanly by the whirling disc. Growling, he narrowed his eyes and followed its path as it ricocheted off a tree and spun back towards its source. He whipped his head around and saw an Amazon catch it.

She was unbelievably tall, and the largest woman he’d ever seen; however it was a largeness of bone rather than of flesh. Her mask was the most impressive of them all, red with great purple wings, trailing grasses in a rainbow of colors. Her olive-skinned body was covered in markings—whether they were tattoos, war paint or blood, Li Bei could not tell—but he could not deny the terror that gripped him as he gazed upon her. She hooked the disc unto her sword belt and shouted a cry; it was then that Li Bei realized it was she who gave the first terrifying one. Surely this had to be their leader. Li Bei scrambled to his feet, setting his feet into the ground to assume striking position. Cut the head from the serpent, and the body would soon fall, he thought. And there would be great personal glory for bringing this one down. Perhaps even a promotion from Commander Tam.

The Amazon let out a third cry and charged toward him. Sparks flew as their blades clashed, saber and katana. She was so strong that the initial blow caused him to stumble back a bit. But Li Bei was ready. He answered her cry with a great kiai, lunging forward. The Amazon spun and easily avoided the precise blow, responding with a lunge of her own that Li Bei also avoided. Oh, she was a great challenge, this one, Li Bei thought. They traded quick blows and her speed was so great that it was only with great difficulty that he managed to keep up with her. He was forced into defensive posture, and could not seem to find an opening; every feint, every trick he tried she saw right through. Even as he fought for his life, Li Bei was tremendously impressed. This Amazon may well have been the best swordsman he’d ever seen.

Finally, he pushed back, creating an opening and going for an overhead blow. But she was faster. She raised her foot high and kicked him solidly in the chest. Li Bei gasped and dropped his sword, stunned with the wind knocked out of him, and she dropped her own weapon, grabbing him by the shoulders and planting her foot into his chest again, this time bringing him down with her into a tucked roll. Li Bei went flying, slamming his back into a massive tree, and hitting his head. He felt blood trickling down the back of his helmet, and grew dizzy. He tried to move, but found he couldn’t; he’d lost feeling in everything, it seemed. He slunk down to the ground, and his very nerves felt like they were on fire.

He watched as the Amazon bent down and retrieved her weapon. She bore down on him, raising her sword. Li Bei was resigned to his fate; he knew he was dead the moment he crossed swords with her, and it would be an honorable death. But there was one thing he had to know.

“Stay, Xanthyr,” Li Bei said calmly, hoping that she would, as their leader, at least be able to understand him. She suddenly froze in mid-blow, as if she were puzzled, and lowered her blade. To Li Bei’s great surprise, she did understand.

“You ask for mercy, warrior?” The Amazon asked in perfect Xsian, the surprise evident in her clear, rich voice. “Xsians are not known to do so.”

“It is not mercy I seek, Xanthyr,” Li Bei replied. “I would look upon the face of she who bested me, that I might know who to honor as Heaven claims me.”

She paused a moment, then raised her great mask. Li Bei found her beautiful beyond compare, despite the grotesque red war paint streaked across her cheeks, and silver rings pierced through her nose, lip, and eyebrows. Her eyes were a piercing blue, clear as the sky. They shone with pride and honor, and Li Bei smiled, blood trickling out of his mouth.

“You fought well,” the Xanthyr chieftess said. “And so shall you die.”

“Yes,” Li Bei agreed. “May I ask your name, that I might give it honor?”

She nodded gravely, and leaned in close.

“Maritana, Stalker of Night,” she whispered to him. “And mercy is granted you, Xsian, though you do not seek it.”

Li Bei felt a piercing pain in his chest and looked down to see the hilt of a dagger protruding from it. He smiled in resignation and sunk into the ground, his world growing dark as he felt the life slipping from him.

Farewell, Maritana, Stalker of Night. You are a worthy opponent of Heaven.


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