Sword and Shield
Trust Lune to feed his ego and receive us in the largest area in Dahlia, the pyramidal Grand Convocation Chamber. Each level of the pyramid was held up by a forest of fluted stone columns, with the large alcoves at the center of each floor filled with the soldiers of Lune's bodyguard. Even as we went up one of the twinned staircases to the top, I fingered my bow and worried for the thousandth time if someone was going to recognize me. My bow, my face, the tikal on my forehead, even the pendant around my neck, they're all too iconic, too hard to mistake for anything but Laya's. This hood concealed me for the most part, but I still felt eyes on me. All it would take would be just one person recognizing me before we get to Lune and...
All of these people have served my sister faithfully for a thousand years, so the last thing I want to do is hurt them. The chief thing is to force Lune to make peace. It might be enough if we capture him. If not, I would reveal my identity and force his submission. As to why I've agreed to this insane scheme... I... I...
"You Orakians have invaded my domain!"
Lune bellowed in indignation as Mieu quickly leaped out of his range. The Restriction Ring fell from my arms onto the night sky itself as Mieu deactivated it with a flick of her fingers. Freed, I threw myself to the side as his slicer missed my head by a hair.
Mieu's clear voice cut through the sudden cacophony of chaos. I saw my sword sail through the air. I braced my hands against the floor and used my crouch to launch myself toward my weapon. My blood started to race as I saw Lune's slicer return to him out of the corner of my eye. I blinked; I knew the demon had thrown his weapon again.
The sound of the slicer cut through the air.
I'm not going to make it.
My heart jumped into my throat when Lune screamed. Human shouts and beastly roars announced the arrival of Lune's bodyguard as they flooded into the massive enclosure. At least it's easier for our smaller numbers to face Lune's army from up here. There's a sub-chamber below, but I know Lune - he won't retreat. I hesitated; I didn't dare use magic in front of Lune and he might recognize my bow. What should I...?
Nial's greatsword caught my eyes as Mieu called out to him. Then I saw Lune, his arm pulling back to launch his trademark weapon. Nial wouldn't reach his sword in time... he wouldn't...!
First heartbeat. More than enough time to put arrow to bow and pull the string back. More than enough time to make the world one. I am one with Nial. I feel Lune's slicer, as eager to drink blood as its master.
Second heartbeat. Clairvoyance. Not my sister's power of seeing the future, but the archer's ability to see the point where the future and the past become one. The arrow flies.
Lune's outrage reached me before his slicer did. My hands grabbed my sword even as I braced myself for the fatal blow... but it doesn't come. I look for the slicer, only to see it flying back to Lune. How did he mi—
I heard something hit the floor. An arrow. It's an arrow. She is amazing. She is absolutely amazing. I smiled at her in gratitude for just one heartbeat. Then I drew my sword. My friends are busy at the staircases, keeping the Layan army at bay. It's just me and Lune.
My mind and body worked together to draw my ancestor's sword art out of the muscle memory I'd developed from years of training. I used Perigee, the secret technique that closes the distance between attacker and defender in the blink of an eye. My footwork launched me at Lune at top speed, without any need to gather momentum.
Familiar flames began to gather around Lune. I saw them once before, in Mystoke's castle, strange fires with faces that seemed like they'd explode on contact. They solidified and leered at me. Anyone else would back down in terror.
I am not afraid. They'll never reach me.
She'll protect me.
What possessed him to charge? Just because Lune's power level is mediocre does not mean he is harmless! The talent to create elementals in the first place was very rare, and when combined with Lune, a person who specialized in destruction, it made him more than a match for a hundred mundanes!
"You dummy, you're going to get hurt!" I muttered crossly as I fitted arrow to bow. He is absolutely not allowed to get hurt, not until after I drub him for doing something so reckless.
Lune can only create and maintain three elementals at a time. Again I made the world one - I was one with Nial, I felt where the elementals were, I sensed Mieu drop Nial's second sword near me as she raced to secure our flank.
I knew the path Lune's Fires would take to attack Nial. I released my first arrow; I saw the point where the future and the past join. I knew I'd already dispelled the first one. I prepared my next arrow.
I held my sword low and threw my left arm in front of my face as the fires burst and waves of awful heat singed me. Even now, with the enemy that started my quest before me, I admired how incredible Laya is. When the heat was gone, my left hand joined my right on my sword's hilt. Lune's face revealed his surprise. I brought my sword from low to high in a powerful upward slash.
The brute sidestepped my blow with surprising speed. His retaliatory fist struck my chest with explosive force. Pain engulfed my body as the wind was knocked out of my lungs. I can't afford to collapse from pain. I can't afford to freeze up and gasp for air. Either would result in my death. My right hand released my sword and I used my left hand to slash horizontally. Just as planned, Lune stepped back.
I inhaled deeply as I gripped my sword with both hands, stepped forward and attacked again. I needed to restore my breathing or else I would be nothing more than easy prey for this brute. I attacked Lune's head, but he blocked it with a short staff he had drawn from somewhere. His left hand held the weapon even as his right forearm braced it against my attack.
After I dispelled Lune's Fires, I could do nothing more but watch as Nial attacked with all his might. They were too close together for me to risk using my arrows. It's not that I could miss. I was an archer trained by my sister. Even so, if I did miss, Nial...
A high-pitched wail filled the air. I turned my back on the two combatants as they engaged in single combat. Far above me, a dozen humanoid shapes hovered in midair, the scene of eternal night behind them a suitable background as they spread the wings attached to their arms.
Alair taught me about all the different monsters in my sister's armies. Those were Harpies, beasts engineered to look like women, but with the ability to fly, taloned feet, and innate mastery of Zan Techniques. I glanced to my right and left before I returned my gaze upwards. Mieu was a red whirlwind as she twirled in a graceful dance of death at the staircase to my left. To my right, Ryan was controlled brutality as he crushed bones with his twin staffs. Exactly halfway between the two, Wren was murderous efficiency as he aimed and fired his heavy shot.
I glanced at Wren again. Did the combat machine not consider the Harpies a threat yet? Well, even if he didn't, I certainly did! Harpies are pretty cowardly when they find out they are not safe in the skies. The demise of just one of their number will scatter them and reduce the threats to our group.
I fitted an arrow to my bow and pulled the string back. My back was to my enemy. That slicer will cut through the air, eager to strike me down. But I'm not worried.
He'll protect me.
I desperately moved my arms. Lune, armed with two weapons, had twice as many options to attack than I. His right hand, equipped with his slicer, lashed out at my neck. I parried the strike even as his next blow went for my ribs. I deflected that attack as well and lunged at Lune's throat. My enemy blocked my thrust with contemptuous ease.
My last confrontation with Lune had ended before it began. I now understood my enemy's true strength. "Just as strong as the legends say you are, huh?"
My question was a begrudging admission of the uncomfortable truth - Lune was indeed the strongest Layan warrior. The only answer I received was a face twisted into a rictus of hate. Lune brought both of his weapons down; I deflected his attack.
I brought my sword down in a slash that would go from high right to low left. I heard a screech from high overhead but I could not spare the instant to find out what it was. Lune dodged my attack, but his eyes were not completely on me. He pulled his slicer arm back. His target was—
"I won't let you!" I furiously roared.
I jumped to my side. Lune's hand hit my chestplate with that too-familiar brutality, but this time, I was ready. Even as I lost the breath in my lungs, I latched onto his wrist with my left hand. I slashed.
Lune bellowed in pain as he broke free. His slicer fell to the ground as he lost his grip on the weapon. The way he could not make a full fist betrayed that I had succeeded in severing the tendons in his arm. The bastard should be happy I didn't chop his hand off for trying to kill Laya!
I owned the advantage. I moved my sword behind my back and brought it down with all my strength!
He blocked it. I stared, astonished. His right forearm was braced against the center of his short staff. Lune twisted his wounded hand around and half-closed his fist around my blade.
An explosion of heat shattered my sword. I reeled back unsteadily, thrown off-balance as sharp slivers of steel buried themselves in my face. I tripped and fell onto my back. My vision cleared in time to see Lune looming over me. One glance revealed that my greatsword had been shorn in half. I had no weapon.
"Orakio banished us here almost 1,000 years ago. Cryonics has kept me alive for centuries, waiting for revenge," Lune said, his fist pulled back. His face wore a hideous smirk. "Now my revenge is at hand!"
I spun on my heel at the sound of an explosion. It took me a single moment to see Lune's fist drawn back. I knew that gesture. It was Lune's favorite spell, an attack of pure force designed to crush its target. I had heard from Nial how he had escaped this magic the first time, but there would not be a second time. Lune would kill him. Lune would... would...
Lune would not kill Nial!
Even as I saw death approach, orange-colored glass appeared before me. The color of force clashed against the glass wall and failed to break it. Lune stared, dumbfounded, as I painfully dragged myself to my feet.
I turned toward that dulcet, exotic voice, the voice of my savior. Friendless flew through the air towards me.
Behind me, I heard the sound of glass cracking. I caught my sword and settled into the formal draw stance of my ancestor's sword art, with my right foot forward. I was within range. The moment Lune fired his spell...
...he was mine.
The magic barrier shattered like a porcelain cup thrown to the floor, but that did not matter. I drew. I felt the slightest resistance as I cut.
It is the most basic move in the Art of the Draw, the very first technique my father had taught me, known simply as Crescent.
Lune's pained bellow forewarned what my eyes would confirm. The long cut on Lune's forearm had gone through all the tendons in his remaining hand. He could no longer melee.
Without hesitation, I kicked Lune in the stomach. The brute doubles over. My father and King Lyle had taught me how to prevent magic attacks, and I would not let him continue to fight! It was over, here and now!
"Stop! Please stop!"
I'm surprised. A short green-haired girl, around my age, throws herself between Nial and Lune. Her large eyes are filled with tears. "Please don't kill the father of my child!"
I really should not have been astonished, but I was. This pretty little thing was Lune's lover? From the open door to the sub-chamber, I saw a head of familiar lime-green hair. I felt joy fill my soul as I recognized who it was. Alair!
A sudden movement drew my attention forward. Lune had wrapped his arms around the green-haired girl and presented his back to Nial's blade. The action screamed desperate defense. I rushed toward the recessed alcove that I remembered held the screen control terminal. I know Lune too well. As much as I didn't want to take my place as Laya, it must be done. I manipulated the controls so that the events here would be broadcast throughout the ship. It was done in a trice; I silently blessed Alair for teaching me how to use this so long ago.
I stepped out in time to see Nial sheath his sword as Alair stood beside her brother. I walked forward, self-conscious of my appearance on the screens that made up the floor and ceiling. For better or for worse, everyone would witness everything that happened here.
"I'm surprised that you don't just kill me," Lune said bitterly. "Even if you spare me, make no mistake. I'll have you killed here and now."
"The war has to end!" Nial exclaimed.
"The war will never end so long as I lead the Layans!" Lune snapped.
"Then it is a good thing that you do not lead my people," I said, my voice cold, hard, imperious. I wore my sister's mask. There was no room for Sahana here.
"Your people? Your people? Who are you to speak to me like that, you-"
I tossed aside the hood that concealed me. Astonishment filled the faces of Lune and Alair. I could spare my closest friend no attention; I focused my will on her brother and saw the exact moment his expression hardened into defiance.
"An accident of genetics, nothing more!"
"There are no accidents," I said.
It was a battle of wills, mine against his. He had to submit, because I could not. I removed my sister's pendant from around my throat. In the early shock of its discovery, I had not recognized it, but I did now; it was the medallion she had worn ever since her ascension to leadership. I calmly dangled it from my fingers, my sister's sigil on display. Horrified recognition filled Lune's eyes.
"Laya's Pendant! You must be Laya's little sister!"
"That is correct. You and all of your forces will submit to me, Lune. Then you will negotiate an honorable peace with the Orakians."
"Submit to you?" Lune's contemptuous sneer always angered me, and this time was no different. "You may be Laya's little sister, but—"
I cut him off. "I am Laya. You know this. You also know that you swore an oath. You swore to follow and obey the Laya. Are you nothing more than an oath breaker?"
"Oath breaker? I swore to Laya, not to—"
"And I am Laya, as you know well," I said calmly. "The oath you gave to my sister binds your obedience to me, to my daughter when she succeeds me, and to whoever else inherits my name. Were you to live a million years, so long as the women of my family inherit the name of Laya, you are sworn to obey."
This might break his authority for decades to come, but I could not allow the slightest bit of factionalism to arise. I had to take back all of my sister's sovereignty over her followers in this single moment, or spend the rest of my life fighting for something I never wanted in the first place.
Lune opened his mouth, but I continued without pause. "You are merely the strongest Layan warrior. Or do you wish to prove what everyone knows? I know you cannot use weapons, but there is little to impede you in fighting me in magic."
Lune flinched. Basara was Lune's strongest spell. My Warla barrier spell blocked it three times before breaking. Even if Lune fought with all his magical strength, he did not have a chance against me.
"I have no wish to fight you," Lune said at last. "I submit to Laya. The war is at an end! I'll recall my armies."
It was not enough. There could be no room for doubt in any Layan who witnessed this and recounted the event. "Are you at peace, Lune?"
"At last I am at peace!"
Even if it was a lie, it would serve.