This Wild World

Not on her throne, not in her room, not eating lunch on that fancy table, Venyra thought, lips pursed. ‘Come see me’ and no idea where to meet, pff. One place remained she could check, at least before bothering Xiaomei about it. She rubbed her nose, a thick floral smell wafting across the open-air walkway. Fine-cut wooden columns supported a dainty little roof, punctuated by surrounding gardens, their plants, tiny ponds, and streams. Must be getting near summer again. The heavy, mana-rich flowers bloomed in full during then, mostly. Something about the interplay of spring and summer affecting nature and fire mana and so forth. Pretty as they looked it ended up clogging her nose something fierce.   Ah, there it was.   Velandra's acutely particular scent.   It led her through a wide-open gate, itself guarding a secluded, richer abode. Rows of differently layered flower beds surrounded her, contained by a sloping brick wall. Unlike some others she’d seen, the plants and flowers were all the colors the veltron could make. A certain method went into their arrangements—reds next to greens next to yellows—all under the guidance of ‘harmony’. Considering it all served the purposes of magic, Venyra wasn’t too surprised by the weird sight ahead of her. Behind the gray cloths of a simplistic pavilion, snake-like shapes churned and moved through the air. Amidst them worked a familiar outline, following some strange dance.   “You busy or something?” Venyra asked from just outside, and the figure within stilled.   “No, not really.”   Brushing past the cloth, Venyra wasn’t sure what she was looking at. Streams of sandy veltron and crysium shards twisted through the air, coiling as serpents around Velandra. A quiet churning followed, rock grinding against rock. The sovereign herself used the tips of her fingers and feet in a particularly slow, sweeping movement. Something between walking, waving, and striking in one flowing motion. Although her purple aura surrounded the streams, it looked rather subdued. “What’s this?”   “A veltron mage's practice, so I was told,” Velandra said, sounding pensive. “It is apparently quite difficult to do.”   “Don’t you grab hills on a whim?” Venyra remarked amusedly.   “It is different from that. I must hold every individual grain of sand, but without smashing them.”   “Sounds like a pain.”   “At first.” Velandra moved upright from her motions, lifting a hand. A stream of sand followed, spilling out into the air in a slow explosion. “The thinking is different. Focusing on something so tiny without destroying it. It is not impossible but I imagined it to be more … trying.”   I get that, Venyra thought, trying to smile reassuringly. Trying, it still felt awkward to do. Was she showing too much teeth? Ah, now her lips were moving stupidly. “Do you need more sand then?”   “The thought occurred to me,” Velandra said and then shook her head. Using a circular, gathering motion with her hands, all the floating sands came together before her. A gentle curl of her fingers and it transformed from a sphere to a pyramid, then to a cube, then to some angular shape with too many sides. “I fear I might need an entire desert before it starts to be, hm, ‘good exercise’.”   “One across the ocean, isn’t there?”   “Hah!” Velandra half-snorted, holding up her hand and pinching her fingers together. The sand warbled in place, trembling as the air around it contorted inward. A sudden, airy whistling scream came as reality inverted before Venyra’s eyes. All the sand disappeared into the deep, unyielding black void of another one of Velandra’s ominous looking spheres. It warbled unsteadily, its edges wild and ready to fall apart. “Yes, I suppose Maika would not appreciate me taking theirs,” she remarked, balancing the new sphere on the tips of her fingers.   “Probably. Keeping that one or?”   “Do you want it?” Velandra asked, looking over coyly.   “It’ll be the two hundred and thirty first one.”   “You’re still COUNTING!” Velandra laughed loudly, throwing the sphere into the air. Without that glassy pyramid she kept them inside of, the sphere rapidly trembled out of control. It blew apart without a peep, dissipating as the air flooded in and it faded away like ink in water.   “On to two hundred and thirty two then,” Venyra remarked dryly. Velandra’s sharp face contorted into something between fussy and amused.   “You!” she said forebodingly, reaching out. With one pointed finger, she booped Venyra on the nose, making her go cross-eyed. “You will lose count when we arrive.”   “… Arrive where?”   “Where indeed?” Velandra asked flippantly. She curled her fingers and stepped upward, rising into the air with a wholly casual ease. Turning onto her back, she laid down sideways beside Venyra, head propped up with her hand. “I recall a certain someone desiring, mm, what was it … Some entertainment?”   “Rampant destruction, if you’re talking about that,” Venyra returned, her sarcasm entirely too thick.   “Ah, that. Unfettered freedom and veltron scorching—“ Velandra’s face scrunched up for a moment, “—something or the other. A neat little problem found its way to me, and I think it something we would both rather enjoy.”   “Oh?”   Velandra smiled in a wide, warm way that still carried her smug superiority. “Oh, yes. But you will take me to the Compass, it will be easier to explain there.”   Staring at the all-powerful mage and her limitless smugness, Venyra only smiled back wryly. “In that case, I’ll take you there alright.”   Velandra, visibly pleased, quickly narrowed her eyes.   Yet the unspoken ball remained in Venyra’s court, something she knew all too well. Raising a hand up, she grabbed onto Velandra’s pony tail, dangling freely down as it was. Turning around, the slightest pull was all it took to bring the sovereign in tow beside her. Like pulling a cloud, she mused at the quite literally weightless experience. The sensation of an intense stare bored into the side of her head, something she pointedly didn’t meet.   “You are not dragging me by my hair,” Velandra remarked dryly.   “No, I’m pulling you through the air.”   “Ugh!” Velandra huffed, rolling over onto her back. Venyra stole a glance at her huffy highness, legs and arms crossed. “Of all choices, this is the one you take?”   “Heh. Heheh heh.” Venyra coughed her laugh out, habitually covering her mouth before a few sparks flew out.   “No, no, laugh it up. I will put any stupid fires that start.”   That sour tone really did her in right then, and Venyra chortled out a spark-spitting laugh. Hot embers danced with every breath, only to be swallowed up by dark purple magic before they touched any wood. Such an easy thing to do for her, without a thought or concern. Venyra glanced over, a lopsided grin on her face. Velandra wore only her ‘normal’ training robes, simple, flowing, and with an eye for nice threading. Not much makeup, her hair tied up to be out of the way, her sharp eyes curled all knowingly. And still, she looked so very—   “Something catch your eye?” Velandra asked, her glowing gaze peering back.   “You.”   The sovereign blinked before turning onto her side once again. “Oh?”   That cursed stare, she really couldn’t meet it. Venyra looked forward again, even as the fire in her veins crept up her neck. “You’re pretty. That’s all.”   “Pretty … what?”   You’re doing it again, Venyra wanted to say, but those weren’t the proper words. “Pretty … beautiful,” she said, suppressing the cough that tried coming out. It didn’t help that Velandra slid in closer, that piercing stare digging into her scaled-skin.   “Mm, go on …”   Ah but it wouldn’t be like last time. Venyra had practiced! Practiced specifically for what nice words would fit for someone like her. Hopefully it wouldn’t be as awkward as last time. “Well …”   By the time they reached the Compass, Velandra walked through the air with a beaming aura quite literally around her. A few of the scholars studying the readings looked up before bowing their heads reverently. They started to pack up their cartography tools before Velandra gave it a dismissive wave of her hand. “Continue on.”   Murmurs of acknowledgement answered back, and so they did.   Venyra glanced around the large room, resisting the urge to scratch her hot cheeks. Rings of metal rotated above her, spindly arms coming out holding orbs that were the ‘moons’ around the world. The glass dome ceiling let the sunlight in, and so the Heavens were arranged for comprehension. Some more spindles would come out for the important stars that needed tracking. Beneath her feet was a large, iron-bar reinforced glass floor, through which awaited the many lands. Nerzin, as others had called it, but Velandra and her people really only cared for Shu. Somewhere between a model and a painting, it showed all the world that the sovereign oversaw. She perked up at Velandra’s incessant ‘come here’ finger wave, and hurried over.   “We are heading toward the northeastern region,” Velandra said, gesturing with her hand. “A place near the Immortals' Gate.”   Venyra crouched down and tilted her head at the sight. “Isn’t that far outside your territory?”   “Quite. A summons came to me, from a bieneren queen no less.” Velandra stepped over, content to stand in the air in front of Venyra as they stared at the map.   “You don’t answer to anyone,” Venyra remarked amusedly. “Why this one?”   “The relentless are behaving strangely there. In the queen’s own words, ‘A never ending stream for months on end, battering down our walls’.”   “… They don’t ‘stream’ anywhere.”   “Precisely. She feels it enough of a threat to try and petition me, and I am quite curious as to what this is.”   “Could be a stampede. Or a herd and pack fighting it out still.”   “That is my thoughts as well. They are beyond the borders of most lands, and so it might be, mm, quite fun, for us to indulge.”   Venyra glanced upward, Velandra’s grin staring down at her. “Yeah, could be.”  
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  Bo’s sandals sank into the muddied veltron, a slurping suck following every step. Nonetheless he kept his back straight, the water jugs balanced off his shoulders. Such a burden proved the least of troubles in these times, and he was glad to have the work. The camp fires welcomingly warmed his weary body, and the dry ground so much more comfortable. What was left of the men and women sat around the billowing flames, covered in grime and filthy bandages trying to save hopeless wounds—all too familiar. An ashy smell hung in the air from the constant burning of tolm to keep away ravenous insects. “Fresh water!” he called out, setting the jugs down carefully. “Bring out your bladders!”   Grumbles, groans, and the sound of languid shuffling followed. As they came, they held out their water skins, and he slapped a crude funnel into them. A quick tip of a jug, and their day’s water poured in. Some went to drink, others to try and water up what was left of old noodles and meat. Beside him loomed Yanyu, sat on a thrown-down log, cradling a crooked spear. For a human her quiet presence unnerved him, far more than his mother’s ever did. He kept his matted tail around his legs when she was near, just in case.   “How long until the next meal?” Yanyu asked, the sternness of her words broken by a hissing slur.   “Sundown,” Bo answered, tired enough to not care about being coy. “The horns sounded as I left the camp.”   “Hn.” She rolled her head across her shoulders, irritation plain. “We’re chopping up the next ones we kill!” Yanyu called out, the gathered villagers grunting acknowledgingly.   “I’d kill for an orange alright,” one of them remarked, earning a few agreements.   “Is stupid, right?” another said, an arm missing and sloppily bandaged up. “Eat rice and fruit, always wanted meat. Now too much meat, and no rice and fruit!”   “Oi, oi, never complaining about my wife’s porridge again,” a third interjected. “Black as coal and I’d still eat it!”   At least they can laugh still, Bo mused. Lively spirits in the air despite all that happened. Once the jugs ran dry, he hefted them off to the storage pile, setting them next to all the other empty containers. Clapping his paws together, he headed up to the battlements, or so they called the pile of dirt. Han and his group awaited at the top, squatting on broken barrels and crates. He turned at Bo’s approach, chuckling at the sight.   “Ah, water fox’s back!” Han announced, handing off the second spear he had to Bo. “How’s the vacation?”   “Muddy,” Bo remarked tersely, much to Han’s amusement. “How’s the meat?”   “Rotting,” Han returned, shifting over to the side of his seat for Bo.   “It’s a waste, isn’t it?” Bo asked, looking out with Han across the field.   “If this is being rich, I’ll be poor the rest of my life.”   He really couldn’t disagree. A decent cut for a month’s eating took a barrel of rice in a good season, two for the bad. Yet as Bo stared out across a range of 2,000 steps, he figured a field of meat for a barrel of rice would do. Small mounds, temporary walls with logs and string, pits filled with spike traps, and so much more littered the landscape. All broken in, trampled over, or full of rotting carcasses—so many more just strewn across the ground. A few of the cows would’ve done well for the village, and they’d probably killed hundreds. Cleared out paths to walk in wound through hills of flesh, the veltron blackened by rot and glistening with oozing blood.   Not to mention the bugs. Goddesses above and below, there were so many. The field hummed from countless buzzing wings, and sickly squelches of their maggot spawn enjoying life. Reaching into his pocket, he brought out a long, yellow-stained cloth and superstitiously whacked it clean.   “Well, I’ll say maybe ten today,” Bo said, covering up his face and nose with the shoddy mask.   “Aww, why so timid? Let’s say twenty!” Han shot back. “Look, I even cleared out that spot over there.”   There wasn’t a clear spot where he pointed. “As clear as your backside, I guess,” Bo remarked dryly, only to lurch forward. A hard, guffawing laugh came from Han while he smacked Bo on the back.   “Ah, now you’re getting it, boy!” He laughed out before handing a bowl of tolm ashes to Bo.   Clapping the stuff into his paws, he smeared it on his exposed body parts, warding off the invasive flies trying to find perch. He thanked his luck for having enough cloth to stuff his ears, or the everything about the flies would be so much worse.   The time passed amicably, at least until one of the men called out.   “Hey boss! Looking like a runner from Jian’s camp.”   Bo, Han, and the rest looked up. A fellow ran down the main road through the bodies. No, running didn’t quite capture it. Bo stood up, squinting and staring, his two grime-covered ears perking. Runners came and went all the time, and he’d seen enough to know a man’s mood. “That’s not running,” he remarked, and Han, beside him, grunted.   “What’s burning his ass?”   It didn’t take long for the runner to start getting into ear shot. Bo frowned thoughtfully, trying to piece together his frantic—What was that shaking underground? He looked down, the sensation so terribly faint but there.   “What’s he saying?” one of the men asked.   “I dunno, bread? No, fried? Food?” another said, both scratching their chins.   Bo’s yellow eyes widened as the last of the words stitched together. He slapped his paw on Han’s shoulder, gripping so hard the man jerked. “We have to run.”   “What? Why?”   “They’re coming!” The runner screamed again, his words that much clearer. “Eyeless! Eyeless are coming!”   “Seriously? If it’s just a few—“   “No, hundreds,” Bo said, smacking Han again and turning around. “Hundreds, I can feel them in the ground! We have to run, Han!”   “Great Heavens, lift our wings,” Han choked out before shouting, “Pack up! Everyone! We’re running!”   Bo, already going ahead, sprinted down the battlement and into the encampment. “Yanyu! Yanyu!” he shouted out, and everyone stirred awake.   By the main camp fire she stood up, and demanded, “What is it?”   “Hundreds of eyeless are coming! From—from Jian’s camp!” Bo stopped by her, running in place. “We need to leave, quickly!”   “Eyeless, of all times, now?” Yanyu ran a hand down her mouth, sucking in a breath for one thoughtful heartbeat. “Fine. Everyone! Pack up! We’re falling back to Liang’s camp, now!  Weary or not, the many dozens of them sprang up in an instant. What was needed was already on their bodies; the camp supplies could be left without worry. Human, jiuweihu, lauraume, and more who’d come together to survive, now ran upon the southern roads. Few corpses marred the fields there, most hauled to the frontlines or off to the sides for predators to eat. Bo broke off from the group, heading to a small hill. They’d done more than one retreating run, and now proved no different. Holding a paw over his eyes from the bright noon sun, he studied the killing field from afar. Already shapes were entering it, barreling forward with uneven gaits.   Despite the distance, he marveled at how huge they were. He wasn’t kidding. Twice the size, at least. How are they running like that? As if the joints in their legs didn’t line up, or they popped out their shoulders—it had to hurt, but they ran all the same.   “Oi! Idiot! Keep going!” one of the last men running past shouted out.   Bo shook his head, breaking from the revere and hurriedly following after. Howling erupted behind him, and he dared a glance. As the eyeless ran, they bulldozed through corpses, fallen trees, half-remembered fortifications: it didn’t matter. Their voices twisted and unnatural, only barely the animals they had been before. How easily they tore through everything; as a flooding river would sweep away everything. The ones from before terrified him enough, but these, he wasn’t sure what he felt.   Inevitability, perhaps? A storm he couldn’t stop that yet loomed on the horizons.   Up ahead stood Liang’s defense line, a much sturdier place of fortified veltron and log walls. The few mages they had worked on it, and already so many lined it, spears and axes in hand. When he and the last ones got through, the gate slammed shut and heavy rocks were rolled into it for bracing. Bo panted, looking around as all the villagers hurried to their positions. A ringing hung in his ears, the thunder of his heart deafening everything else. He didn’t recognize any of them; most he knew were already long gone.   A hand slapped his shoulder, almost sending him to the ground. Bo looked over, and saw Han—concerned, frightened maybe—talking to him. When he didn’t say anything, Han pulled him by the arm, and that yank brought reality crashing back.   “Come on, we’re up here!” he shouted, the only way to talk over the rumbling roar of activity.   “A-are spears even going to work?!” Bo asked, his own weapon feeling more like a twig than anything else.   “They have to,” Han returned.   He already knew; they both did.   With Han on his left, the two of them stood at the edge of the shoddy ramparts. So many other villagers lined it, and when no space remained, the backups lined up behind them. One of the old warriors told them how to; it’d worked well against the frothers. But they were normal animals driven mad, a broken leg sent them screaming to the ground. Gazing upon the galloping beasts, Bo gripped his spear tighter.   “Listen! LISTEN!” an older man shouted, running down the rampart line. “Smash the brain! Break the back! Cut the tendons! NOTHING ELSE WORKS!” The many villagers fell into a murmuring repetition, repeating the three sentences feverishly.   “Oi, oi, Bo,” Han said, clapping him on the shoulder again. “Use that arm of yours for the head stabbing. I’ll fix ‘em still.”   “Yeah, right. Same as before.”   “Same as before.”   “SPEARS, READY!” The rattling of wood, rock, and metal followed, dozens upon dozens of spears lining down the ramparts.   Across the field the eyeless thundered toward them, a disjointed mass of flesh and rage. The veltron trembled underneath, his very fur and clothes shaking. They neared, their grunting exertions opening to bellowing screams. His ears flipped backward and folded up, two fluffy shriveled lumps. Not even his own thoughts entered his mind anymore as they barreled toward them. Cows, trocks, unbadi, and more, rippling with muscle and remade flesh. The emptiness of their skulls tore into his soul like death itself, every instinct he had screaming to run away. But for them, who had no hesitation nor desire to survive—the front of the herd slammed into the rampart, a cacophony of breaking bones, flesh, and howls. Those upon the rampart wobbled, the ground absorbing the awesome blows while the stone and wood reinforcement cracked.   Those first hitters ended buried underneath the second wave clamoring over them. The rampart’s height stood tall enough that it took until the third wave, savagely trampling up a ramp of writhing bodies, to reach Bo’s spear. For them who could not talk beneath such ear-splitting noise, they had only their wits. Around him, his fellows lunged forward, skewering the neck and shoulders of an eyeless cow. It bellowed into Bo’s face, a noxious rush of heated stench that clogged the nose. Its mouth wide and grand enough to rip half his torso off in a clean bite. He screamed back—or, someone did—lunging with all his might. For him of the jiuweihu blood, greater strength lent his spear that much more power. Piercing through the roof of the mouth, the eyeless choked and spasmed.   So it was, trembling with murderous desire, it collapsed. The shifting relentless beneath and the next eyeless coming forced the body downward, just one more stepping stone for them all. Bo’s lungs burned, but they all struck again, and he found an opening through that empty skull. One after the other, by the fifth one he’d killed a gap broke. The many eyeless clamoring underneath suddenly spilled out sideways, their ramp of bodies dissipating.   No, they’re stupid, Bo thought, fear far greater than the noise. He glanced up and down the rampart. Where?   Where would they break through?   The eyeless beneath him yet remained, hoofed and pawed feet desperately clawing upward, scraping rock and wood for any sort of purchase. With such height, for the moment, he didn’t care. Where? Bo glanced up and down the rampart, those like him killing eyeless, or at least shoving them off enough to cause a collapse. His ear flicked, pivoting on its own as a man’s shill scream shattered the air.   Far down his left, past Han, the eyeless clamored up onto the rampart itself. A cow chomped onto the arm of a man, undoubtedly shattering his bones, and yanking its head. Like a doll thrown by a child, he pitched over the wall and into the herd below. Smart, some might mistake, but the eyeless simply thrashed its head, and part of the man’s arm remained in its maw. More followed on its flanks, the villagers there far too few of spears and axes to stop them. They tried stabbing to throw them off balance, and force them back off the rampart. As some eyeless collapsed, they clung to the edge, their bulky weight distorting the reinforcement.   Shoddy work would last a season; a mistress’ work, a thousand years. Nevermore in his life did Bo believe such words than when he saw the rampart begin collapsing. It bowed beneath their weight, then crumbled at its damaged foundations. Pouring open like a dam, some villagers ended dragged under the shifting veltron. The relentless rushed the opening as it formed, drowning themselves in moving veltron while more trampled over them. That is the only way, Bo thought, his blood turning into ice. We can’t stop them now.   The more who left the ramparts to fill the hole, the greater their line weakened. Even the veltron shaping mages couldn’t erect barriers fast enough. The relentless plowed into it, undaunted even as fear-stricken spears skewered into them. For want any solution, the rest of the rampart’s thinning defenses let more of the eyeless through. A cascading failure, all in the span of a few heart-thumping minutes.   If the line fails and you have no strength to fight, run. Let them chase you away from the villages.   That’d been the warriors’ words to them all.   They failed but one duty remained. Bo, waving his arm frantically to be followed, turned away from the rampart. Han and the others nearby clued in, all of them breaking rank. The vast fields behind the fortification loomed, and it would be their many dozens of groups that spread across it. By doing so, they’d trick the eyeless to break up into smaller, more manageable groups. At least, that way, the final defenses would have to endure much less at once. The plan stood to reason, but Bo couldn’t help noticing some others. Desperate to survive, broken by fear—it didn’t matter, they left their groups, frantically sprinting as far away as they could. In the end, so long as the eyeless chased them, it would be for the good of the village.   May the winds lift us all, brothers.   What blissful fear, he’d lost it months ago.   With Han and others in tow, Bo led the way. Or tried to. His legs burned and what energy left in him took everything not to collapse. Him, of all people, rank and file with humans. How they managed to endure just as well was baffling.   “Haa, hahaha! Bo, I think dragon blood is in me!” Han proclaimed boisterously, laughing even as the howls of relentless followed.   “Did you hit your head?” Bo asked, pointing at his own skull with a fat finger.   “Ah, what else is this fire in my throat?!”   Bo just looked at him and his deliriously joyful face. For all the years he spent in the monastery, such people were truly bizarre to behold. “Oi, Han.”   “Yeah?!”   “I think we’re the ones with the short stick this time.”   “Why’s that?!”   “We ran down center field.”   As the many groups dispersed, and the relentless fanned out to chase them, theirs went through the center. No trees nearby to use for cover, no real foliage to slow them down, either. Those upon their flanks too slow to escape got torn or trampled apart, and the lucky ones soon made it out of sight. Now, however, the relentless that remained and saw them soon converged. They, who were tireless no matter the distance. They, who endured wounds beyond death’s own reach.   Ah, he was so tired, and the final defenses remained so far away. His thighs burned past pain, and he wasn’t sure when his knees would just not be there anymore. “H-Han, I think you will need to go on ahead.”   “What was that?!” Han asked, looking over at Bo and his flagging speed. “Come on, keep up!”   “I said—“   A thunderous crack blew away his words, an immense blast of wind throwing them across the ground. The veltron shook as if a mighty hammer slammed into it, and for a long moment, Bo wasn’t sure if he died or not. All the dirt in his mouth certainly didn’t taste like the afterlife. Instinct more than reason made him crawl onto his knees. His spear had disappeared, not that’d matter. Looking up through the billowing dust, he beheld a sight that towered over everything else. Standing atop the cracked veltron, black scale armor stood against the sun, night daring to stand in the light. Crimson cloth–no, silk–underlined it, an imposingly fearsome aura.   A cultivator? Bo wondered before the rest of his mind caught up. Mana lent itself in so many ways, from the gentle to the insurmountable. Until that moment, Bo had never met the latter, an existence so staggeringly immense it pained him to be near. Fire so great it could consume all the lands; a heat as deep and ever-burning as a volcano. Only then did he see her face, a woman of dragon scaled flesh and piercing black-gold eyes. No wings nor tail. Mixed blood? he marveled, but the novelty of it didn’t lessen the back-crushing pressure she exuded.   A dragon, he thought, wanting to laugh and cry at the same time. A dragon came from the Heavens.   Yet for all of them who had stopped running, the relentless continued. Nothing surprised them, it seemed.   “Hm, playing with sticks against these things,” the woman said, her harsh voice unerringly clear to hear. “Impressively foolish.”   He didn’t disagree. The groans of Han and the others caught his ear, but he couldn’t turn away. Not when the air began to shimmer, a heat so great it surpassed flame itself. Tiny sparks popped into life and died as quick, the very dust incinerating around her. What grass, small sticks, and insects remained flashed into ashes, crumbling away. Bo, believing himself safe at first, started sweating as the incredible heat blew his way. It grew and grew, the ground beginning to steam and crack. He scrambled backwards on his ass, slapping the others to their senses. They gave her a great berth and watched, captivated at the sight of relentless baring down.   The instant they entered her flaming aura, their fur flashed into ashes. Fires licked at their skin, turning them black as they cooked alive right then and there. Streams of steam ripped out of their misshapen maws, spittle and blood alike evaporating. Not one of them gave pause, their howling only for their endless rage. The first one to near and the half-dragon woman lifted a hand, swinging the back of it across the creature’s snout. Its flesh and bones bowed caved inward while the rest of it suddenly redirected sideways. Momentum sent it crashing and rolling across the ground as it burned to death.   Bo didn't even have the energy for his jaw to drop. He and the others just sat there, struck stupid by the sight.   One after the other, she met the relentless with fist and foot. A kick that made one summersault backwards, a fist that crushed their shoulders, a grab that swung one into many more like a club. Her rough movements swung with momentum, raw power chasing after inertia with each attack. Bo didn’t know what sort of martial art it could be, but he hadn’t seen many to begin with. A smell soon reached his nose, that of burning steak and oily grease. Dead or alive, the relentless cooked. Those near, even if she ignored them, crumbled to the ground as their organs finally boiled over. Coughing into his dirty sleeves, he slapped Han on the shoulder.   “Still think you got dragon blood?”   “Y-yeah, real funny guy,” Han sputtered back.   A presence from above weighed on his senses, and Bo looked. To his astonishment another woman appeared, dressed in a supreme dress of dark purple fabric, enshrined in an armor of … black rock? He squinted, entirely uncertain if it was rock or an exceedingly polished metal. Orbs of total darkness lazily hovered around her, their halos of fiery purple mana locked inside glass cages. He hadn’t a clue what they were, but what terrified him more was how she walked through the air. Dignified, self-assured, and captivating in her immaculacy, all without betraying her presence until right then and there.   What sort of mistresses are they? Bo wondered, almost beside himself at the question.  
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  “Venyra,” Velandra called out, stepping down through the air toward the anaxial. Hands folded together behind her back, she surveyed the handiwork beneath her. It helped a slight breeze carried the scent of burning beef away, though it did smell a little delicious.   “Yeah, what?” Venyra returned, looking up.   “I destroyed the others that branched off. Is that all that remains?”   “Yup.”   “Hm. Strange.” Waving her hand, Velandra brought a sphere into existence behind her and sat on it politely. “This is hardly a herd at all.”   “Yup.”   “That queen would not dare offend me with something so trivial. But here at the front, where there should be more and there is none …”   “Relentless don’t do strange.”   Murmurs and coughs caught her attention, and Velandra glanced over. A pile of people who looked more dirt than person gathered together nearby. A jiuweihu? A young one, she mused, glancing upon the man’s few tails. He, and some others, noticed her look, freezing up instantly. “Perhaps they know,” she remarked, sliding off the sphere. Walking through the air, Venyra joined beneath her, flaming aura sucking inward once more. She stopped until her feet almost rode upon Venyra’s shoulders, the two of them regarding the filthy peasants.   Frozen as they were, the jiuweihu moved first, his legs shaking like leaves. Falling upon his knees, and planting his paws upon the ground, he bowed as deep as one possibly could. His head certainly tried to go further into the dirt. “I pay respects to the venerable one!” he declared despite his troubled voice. The others, shocked by his swift movements, followed on their own and echoed his words.   She hadn’t a mind for expecting much from those with nothing; a pointless hobby others indulged in. “Your respects are received,” Velandra declared coolly. “Know I am Velandra of @Shu, Sovereign of the Heavens above you. Tell me of the relentless who have come here.”   “This lowly Bo greets the venerable sovereign,” the jiuweihu said, still prostrated. “It is as the sovereign sees. We have fought gnat and needle over many months. Some great, some small; none like this.”   “You are from a monastery, are you not?”   “I am, the Copper-Stairs Seclusion.”   “Then you are learned enough to know how unusual this behavior of theirs is.”   “It is as the sovereign says. In the first months we sent disciples to ascertain the truth. None returned, and soon eyeless set upon our grounds. We and all the peasants fled to the River Valley Village. This corridor is how we have endured since.”   It aligned with what she saw from the sky. The main central village stood at the mouth of a smaller valley, which made it ideal for funneling attackers. Miles of corpses, person and beast alike, littered the veltron as far as she saw. More, perhaps, already taken by rot, animals, or shoddy burials. “Eyeless, hm. And no others appeared?”   “Respectfully, not that I know. Very few eyeless, mostly frothers. So many at once here caught us off-guard badly.”   “And your scouts did not notice them at all?”   “Respectfully, no one has taken up that duty for months.”   “Velandra,” Venyra called out, almost absentmindedly.   That tone made her whole body perk up, instinctually alertness. “What is it?”   “Something is wrong here.”   The way Venyra glanced around, the threat had to be near. Something beyond vision; so Velandra reached with her senses. An exhalation, almost, that grew her mana’s aura like a fisherwoman’s net. Unlike all others, her unique mana meant everything else stood in sharp contrast. Only the tiniest of presences might go unnoticed, something truly dead rather than alive.   This cannot be, Velandra thought, her face tightening into a fearsome scowl. Out here? In the middle of nowhere? Who would spend that much effort—Her gaze drew upon the bowing Bo, who looked ready to die from fright. “Tell me,” she said, every word exceedingly sharp. “Who placed an array across these lands?”   “A-array?” Bo sputtered before clapping his paws together and bowing his head. “Re-respectfully, our Seclusion has no such talent. None that would wear our name, surely!”   He wasn’t lying; ignorant, perhaps, so she felt. Someone that young in jiuweihu orders wouldn’t be entrusted to anything at all. Velandra turned, gazing upon the fields and the forests farther away. It is well hidden. No one without a presence like mine could find it this quickly, she mused, stroking her jaw in thought. No, inactive. Old enough that it and the land’s mana have almost become one and the same. She looked down at Venyra, genuinely impressed. “How did you even sense this?”   “Sense what?”   “The—the array.”   “What array? There’s a bunch of people hiding around us.”   Velandra blinked. Nothing of the sort registered to her. “You mean the fleeing villagers?”   “No. Like assassins. I hear their heartbeats.”   How can they hide from me? Velandra wondered, bewildered at the thought. Nothing unaccounted for within her presence, and certainly she’d caught many interlopers before. She hadn’t a moment to consider what to do before the sound of meaty claps punctuated the air. A haughty laugh accompanied it, born of countless years to refine it to so perfectly.   “Splendid. I had wondered, ‘can a deformed freak sense us?’. It seems that dragon blood is still yet strong enough.”   They all looked up, and Velandra’s whole face contorted to one of grave offense. “Hmph! I see Crystal Peak’s Dora Zhong has come to spit on my face!”   “Please,” Zhong remarked boredly, rolling his blue eyes. Stood atop a crysium-forged spear, he descended through the air, flanked by two of his disciples. They wore fitting, combat-worthy robes of sky blues and lilac, contrasting to their brown furs. The jiuweihu cultivator maintained an air of utter stillness, his absolute control around himself. “You are not worth even that much. Truly, I’d expected another to fall into this trap. The Heavens are most generous to deliver you unto me instead.”   “Trap? You sent relentless here?”   “A simple feat. If they cannot sense any people, they do not do anything.” He waved a paw, drawing a circle in the air with a claw. “Poke a hole to wake up a few, and they always come. Such reliable pets.”   The array is not inactive, it is one of deception, Velandra realized, her glowing eyes tightening. “And how many are you keeping?”   “Enough. Several hundred years, at least, tending to this silly place. But!” He clapped his paws, smiling widely, narrow eyes curving viciously. “It is the best trap I have. It always draws the power hungry and glory seeking folk. Obstinate upstarts like you that are not what the lands need.”   She’d heard such before, and met many more people like him. Of them, he had the decency of being dangerous, but how much so remained to be seen. “And you think a lowly heavenly core can defy me?”   “Lowly!” Zhong laughed, six of his tails flourishing in a wave. “Little girl, you sup upon mana and think that makes you great. I, who even dragons fear to cross, shall teach you your folly. The fee for my estimable knowledge will be your life.”   As the three interlopers descended to the ground, Velandra stepped down alongside Venyra, barely a few feet off of the ground. The anaxial brushed off her hands, her deep well of volcanic mana slowly warming to life. “He’s charming, there’s a dozen or so hiding around us.”   “Quite!” Zhong said, setting down gently. A quick wave of his paw and the spear flew into it. “Do you know how irritating it is to chase someone flying away? For one without wings, I take it you know that at least.”   Velandra felt more than saw Venyra’s whole demeanor twist. An unbridled anger that rankled her own nerves. Still, the fact they have not attacked outright means they are not certain. She held a hand up to her face, feigning contemplation. You want to limit my options until you find the right way, is that it? The issue with magical battles revolved around what one knew or didn’t know. How much one could attack, or defend, with an arsenal as limited to simply what they learned. It only took one killing blow, but countless attempts to land it. Zhong would know she held power in reserve, and so a smart approach would be caution. Until she knew what tricks he had exactly, she couldn’t afford to overextend, either.   All that considered, she saw it more fitting he had to suffer first.   “My shidi,” Zhong declared, sweeping his open paw toward Venyra. “She will be your trial. A deformed dragon is still a dragon, but one much more manageable for you.”   "Yes, shifu,” the two said, bowing to him. Like Zhong, they wore the lilac robes of Crystal Peak, far more plain and lacking in the sparkly crysium threading Zhong’s had. One carried a spear, another a sword, their power something to think about, but vastly inferior in all respects.   Venyra snorted her laugh, flickering sparks escaping with it.   “What should we do with them?” one of the disciples asked, pointing toward the peasants.   “Kill them, of course. Long have I sent criminals and fetid people to redeem themselves through noble work here. Death, too, is another redemption.”   The peasants gaped, speechless.   Velandra squinted, a most vexing quandary appearing before her. We cannot fight at full strength if I pretend to care about them. Still, their wretched state reminded her of something far more uncomfortable. A helplessness, long ago before she’d left her own village. Gritting her teeth, she sucked in a breath most irritably. Stepping off to the side, she patiently walked away, mirrored in motion by Zhong. “Venyra, make an effort to protect them.”   “Me? Are you serious?” Venyra asked incredulously, but when no answer came, threw her hands up. “I get the two weaklings?”   “She will take care of them quick enough,” Velandra remarked, smiling upward at the sky for a moment. Turning toward Zhong, she found his attention fixated upon her keenly. “As for you, well—“ Snapping her arm out in a sweeping motion, the air distorted beside her. A newly formed unstable sphere ripped through the air with a whistling scream. Zhong met it with the tip of his spear, angling and diverting the deadly projectile in a deft move. In the next moment, the sphere slammed into the ground, carving a meteoritic crater before vaporizing.   “Hmph! I’m not surprised by your rudeness!” Zhong tsked, shaking his head. “It is only proper to punish it!” He lunged forward, striking with his spear. To her surprise a tight vortex of wind extended, drilling toward her. Velandra raised a hand, guiding another new sphere into its path. Unyielding to such weak power, the vortex deflected harmlessly away.   Her eyes, however, glanced to the side. Something whistled through the air, faint to the ear, and invisible to the eye. But she saw the mana in the magical attack, a solid column of drilling air. “Ho?” Velandra mumbled, directing with her other hand another new sphere. The high-pressure wind hit the sphere, forced upward and harmlessly over her. Just as quick as they began, Zhong pulled back, smiling pleasantly.   So that is your strategy. Velandra made a show of nodding sagely, walking once again. Zhong kept his ground, all the easier for her to reposition. A simple way of angling him between her and the vector of the magic attack.   “I’m insulted you think that is the appropriate choice!” Zhong said, shaking his head. He made a simple pointing gesture with his paw toward her, and two more wind attacks followed. Each came from her sides, but as the last one, Velandra deflected them with her spheres. He tried sweeping his spear, curving the next vortex, but she deflected that too. For her, who knew mana better than the wisest of sages, the near invisible dangers of wind magic were child’s play.   “Like every traditionalist, it seems you think too small!” Velandra returned with a barking laugh. Good, they are not trying to hide their presences anymore. Twelve assassins, and far more potent than those two disciples, but fortunately nowhere near Zhong himself. “Let this simple technique broaden your horizons!” The sovereign took a step forwarding, turning on her heel. Dragging her other foot, she whirled in a circle before sweeping her other foot out. Roiling purple mana gathered, and as her short kick ascended, it erupted in a surging tidal wave of power. Zhong’s irritating smile vanished in an instant as he hurriedly held his weapon out for protection. The blast erupted past him, destroying the ground and soon the trees behind it.   Velandra smiled, satisfied that two of the assassins had vanished. As fast as it started, it dissipated, leaving a deep, scarring gouge in the veltron. Zhong remained standing, shoved across the ground with a desperate mana barrier in front. Only the dust outside the attack moved, the rest simply annihilated along with everything else in her way. “How much you shake! I have not started yet and that is all it takes?”   “You—“ Before Zhong could utter another word, the surviving assassins leapt onto the field, swiftly encircling the two of them. “Imbeciles! What are you doing?!” he yelled at them.   “Respectfully, elder, our [Heart Piercing Winds] cannot harm her,” one of them answered, stiffly in a defensive posture. Unlike Zhong, they were adorned with featureless masks and plain looking robes, lacking any identification of sect or village. “We must change plans.”   And like all people confronted by overwhelming power, they become desperate, Velandra thought, so dearly wanting to gloat. The uncertainties of magical battles made it a cauldron of chaos, but they’d just put so much more into certainty. She folded her hands together behind her back. “Come then, show me your moves.” She did enjoy how offended they became from such a basic taunt. Cultivators, Velandra thought, almost rolling her eyes. The most arrogant people I meet.   “Wing Clipping Formation,” Zhong declared, pointing toward her commandingly. Of the ten remaining assassins, eight broke ranks, surrounding her in a star pattern. They took wide-set stances, their hands hovering close together. Air churned between their cloth-covered palms, roiling until the edge of a blade formed. Swords without hilts, condensed into a complete form, shimmering with wind-aspected turquoise mana.   Hm, complete mana condensation. They are all at the end of the core shaping step, but have not broken through to the heavenly core. Zhong truly commands extravagance, Velandra mused. The jiuweihu himself inserted as a ninth point in the formation, and they soon rotated around her, locked together in step. The ominous threat of being surrounded by near-invisible weapons might rattle the unprepared. For her, she need only look to their mana presence, for such spoke without lies. Before the air itself moved, the flowing mana changed, the barest showing of a will exerting itself.   Velandra, feet planted firmly in the air, twisted, only moving so much as to let an air blade rip past her. A testing strike? An idea came to her then, one so wicked she smiled; those who saw it flinched. “Elder Zhong,” Velandra said cordially, her acidic tone enough to turn metal to slag. “Let us play a game.”   “You think to play with me?  “It is a simple game, someone of your age should understand it. For each move one of you makes, I shall kill one of your helpers. That would leave you with ten spare moves to make.”   The two assassins outside the formation looked on the verge of nervous sweating.   “And you presume yourself so able?”   “The Heavens do not move, nor do I,” Velandra declared simply. “One of these will serve in my stead—“ She held out a hand, space-time distorting over it. A stable sphere emerged beside her head then, turning over-and-over in its endless floating. “—and show how far beneath me you will ever remain.” Unlike unstable spheres, a hedron-like cage similar to clear glass encapsulated it. For Zhong and his lackeys, who had only seen the inferior, unstable spheres, they yet knew what a stable one could do. She really wanted to see their miserable faces.   “Hmph!” one of the assassins snorted, a surprisingly bulky looking jiuweihu. “Only children care for condensing such toys! Take my move, woman! [Wind Rending Flesh]!” He spun his paws, throwing out his mana-sword spinning like a saw. A peculiar screech followed after, the air itself being slashed open by its ludicrous speed. However, to have any hope of defeating her defenses, it had to be concentrated.   Doing so made it much easier to handle.   Others who moved did so in very limited ways: pushing themselves against the ground, or through the air, all desperately exerting force against the world. For her, who walked in the Heavens, movement itself turned into a completely different idea. Velandra enjoyed mortal walking, both for the exercise and the proper conveyance of status. In combat, however—She curled her fingers, touching the binding fabric of existence. Through that, she slid every so slightly sideways, just enough the attack grazed her armor. A scraping-screech of metal nails upon glass sounded as the attack passed by, then flew harmlessly between the two assassins at the other end.   “What?!” the assassin roared in disbelief. “I do not miss!”   “That is one,” Velandra noted, smiling. The sphere’s idle rotations ceased, then it turned to face one flat side of the hedron toward the assassin. Between the singularity and the hedron’s face power released, and a triangular column of energy blasted outward. The laser swept from the ground, to the assassin, through him and beyond, an overwhelming eclipse sharpened by an ominous purple radiance. Destruction as a word remained too small to encapsulate what it did. Where the assassin was, and where the laser had swept, it appeared as if nothing had ever existed there in the first place. The only clue was the deep, sharp gouge in the ground, itself curiously a scant few feet deep. “Next?” she asked.   “KILL HER!”   They tried, not one-by-one, but altogether. Piercing stabs, slicing blades, raw wind to shove her off balance; all sorts of techniques. In surrendering their ambush, their magic’s weakness shone clearly. Wind magic, like water magic, relied on a certain threshold: enough power to do something convincing, otherwise it became wasted effort. Decisive action that needed to actually hit. Given the magic she knew, it did terribly in contests of attrition. Maybe if they used hammers instead of swords and spears, she mused, another assassin vanishing in a laser-sweeping attack.   Zhong’s face quivered with suppressed rage, and merely seeing it made her laugh.  
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  She’s having fun, Venyra thought, checking over on Velandra for a moment.   “She’s quick, brother,” the spear-wielding disciple said, the two of them looking quite ruffled. Despite their many and quite fast attacks, not one broke Venyra’s armor, if it luckily got that far at all. They wearily circled around her, obviously trying to find some flaw in her defenses.   “You won’t win,” Venyra remarked, shrugging her shoulders with a sigh. “Youngsters like you simply can’t.”   A simple truth that offended them greatly with how they scowled deeply. “We are the hand-picked disciples of master Zhong!” the sword wielder bit out. “Someone impure as you is not our match!”   Old enough to hold a sword, old enough to die, Venyra thought drearily, scratching the side of her head. They were only three-tailed jiuweihu, maybe with a century or more in their pockets. They must’ve lived a life of luxury to be so soft and inept at basic combat. Only a few attempts, all of them with flirty, light strikes and scratches that couldn’t even cut her clothing, let alone armor.   Frantic yelling and howls punctured the air, making them all look off to the side. Some more villagers broke through the tree line, nearly tripping over themselves on the way. “H-help! Help us!” one of them shouted when he noticed them.   Tch, couldn’t smell them coming. Intense heat had a way of destroying scents; not that she minded. The horrible miles of rot would’ve stuffed her nose terribly if she hadn’t burned the air. While they ran toward Venyra, she saw relentless break through after them. Of their few, each of them sported a broken body in some manner. One missed a front leg, another’s two frontal ones broken at the knees, and a third that dragged its whole crippled lower rear along the ground … I guess she missed a clean kill? It wasn’t as if the villagers couldn’t outrun them in that state. The poor fools looked ready to drop dead themselves from sheer exhaustion.   But the relentless wouldn’t stop, no matter what.   A wicked idea bloomed in her mind, one that made Venyra chuckle sparkly. “Hey, you two,” she said, giving a sidelong glance to the disciples. “Can you kill those relentless without touching the idiots in front of them?”   “You—“ Spear-wielder tried to say, only to be cut off.   “And why would we help you?” the sword-wielder asked, already sounding smarter by the minute.   “If your master is so great, surely you could?” Venyra goaded. Their ears flicked irritably at that, and she knew right then they would take the bait. “Don’t worry, I won’t do anything,” she said, holding up her smoldering hands in mocking placation. “Impress me.”   “Hmph. Watch her, brother,” the spear-wielder said, turning to the newcomers. “I’ll handle this.”   “Be careful.”   “What is there to fear?” he asked, rolling his shoulders. He twirled his spear in a circle, the tip of it sparking across the stony ground. Wind followed after, gathering in roiling streams from all around him. “They are but mere animals! Behold my [Killing Lance]!” He stepped forward, roaring the stupid name as he thrust the spear. All the gathered wind exploded out in a tight column, drilling across the field. It struck the relentless half-running on three legs, going straight through its chest and out the other end. The creature flew backwards from the blow, flopping uselessly behind the others. One down, the spear-wielder followed up two more times, calling out the same stupid attack name.   It’s not any different from Aerthen, Venyra thought, wanting to cringe from hearing it.   “Behold!” the spear-wielder said, standing arrogantly triumphant. “Who else do you know that can strike with such powerful wind?”   The fact of the matter remained actually using wind magic at range did take considerable skill. Its nearly invisible nature made it an ideal weapon for surprise attacks. Venyra hummed in her throat, staring as two relentless stood up. Their bodies twitched rabidly, spurring them on to yet continue more. It didn’t matter that their shredded organs oozed out the new holes in the slightest. The surviving villagers all gathered up nearby, Venyra standing between them and the disciples like a shield. “Hey, you,” she said, staring at Bo.   “M-me?” he sputtered.   “Yeah. You got three tails. How does someone kill an eyeless properly?” He muttered some half-assed response and her eyes narrowed. “Speak up.”   “Smash the brain! Break the back! Cut the tendons!” Bo all but yelled back, kowtowing up and down like a flopping fish, which made Venyra laugh.   “See? He gets it,” she said, glancing at the disciples while pointing at Bo. “Where were you aiming that grand skill of yours?” The spear-wielder might’ve blown a vein from the great anger overcoming him. Venyra waved her hand dismissively, cutting off whatever he was about to say. “There’s a fourth way, though.”   “And what is that?” he asked through clenched teeth.   Venyra rolled her shoulders, the flaming mana around her rapidly condensing upon her. Even with nothing to burn, fires self-ignited around her, the ground glowing red, then white hot under her feet. Rearing back her hand, she clenched it into a solid, unyielding fist before launching it in a punch so fast it broke the air. A bang followed, and the flames around her raced toward the shambling relentless. The column of fire, great enough to swallow a person whole, washed over them and continued on, burning a scar through the forest they’d just left. Trees ignited, shrubbery turned to ash, and not one bone could be seen in the wake.   “Overwhelming power,” Venyra said simply, the two disciples staring at the devastation disbelievingly. Pleased at flexing a little bit, she found herself still rather dissatisfied. Ah, this is such a waste of my time. It’s funny a little flame like that got to them. To her surprise, the disciples yet turned their weapons upon her. Their bravado had vanished, their eyes hardened with something far more fanatical. A commitment to something beyond fear. She’d seen that a lot before, too. “You’re serious?”   “Together, brother,” the sword-wielder said, the spear-wielder affirming with a grunt.   Venyra’s good humor disappeared into a deadly scowl, and she huffed an angry, spark-filled snort. “Those who come seeking death, I don’t turn them away.”  
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  A body flew into the crumbling encirclement, all their eyes locking onto it instinctively. The clothes said it was one of Zhong’s disciples, but so much had been burned black. It rolled across the ground, and Velandra glanced over. Venyra approached, the other disciple held by the throat and dragged along the ground. Superheated air devoured him head-to-toe, the man simply turning to ashes outright.   “Boooring!” Venyra declared, shaking her hand clean as the last ashes crumbled away. She glanced at the sovereign. “Stop shooting those stupid beams at me!”   “As if they could hurt you,” Velandra returned flippantly.   “Y-you …” Zhong growled out, a nasty look overcoming his calm façade. Velandra almost heard his teeth grinding together for a moment. Then, he stood up straight, the façade slipping back into place with his easy-going smile. “It seems so long as we are under one sky, I shall never sleep easy!”   “I would not be troubled by that for very long,” Velandra returned, chuckling while Venyra stood beside her. Her smoldering heat turned out quite refreshing to feel, a blanketing comfort during such dreary business. “Perhaps these cowards will be more sporting, Venyra?”   “Formation four! Go!” The captain-apparent shouted, pointing commandingly. “Great winds! Be [Veiled] brothers!”   The remaining assassins rushed in, the very air around their bodies churning. A technique meant for combating fire, by virtue of redirecting superheated air. Venyra didn’t waste a moment rushing forward, her heavy clanking armor against their airy steps. Four converged on Venyra, the fifth suddenly pivoting toward Velandra.   “No, no,” the sovereign remarked amusedly, lifting a hand sharply. The fifth rocketed high into the air, his very scream torn from his lungs. Whether the predators in the sky tore him apart or the ground welcomed him, she didn’t care. “I want to watch this.”   They watched their brother vanish into the sky, a lapse that costed them dearly. Venyra reached one of the assassins, slamming a fist into his barely-ready block. His mana shield shattered instantly, absorbing enough of the blow she didn’t outright kill him. He flew across the ground, his arm broken and his chest caved in, leaving only three left. They came to their senses fast enough and closed in, each aiming for a weak point in her armor. Venyra smiled then, one of anticipation and excitement, the veins in her face glowing brighter.   Velandra almost wanted to laugh at the sight. The assassins worked elegantly—smooth sweeps, inertia carrying movements, and flowing intent. Venyra’s attacks interjected them in a harsh, devastatingly straightforwardness. Yet it was not her moving to dodge, but them. Not one could afford to take a blow, and nothing they landed did anything to her incredible armor. Venyra, however, she knew hated such flighty opponents. Nothing irritates her more, really. Such a stupid looking dance but Velandra found it almost charming, in its own way.   A sense of surging mana interrupted her fun, and she scowled toward Zhong, glowing eyes narrowed.   “As any master should, I shall avenge their wrongs!” he declared, twirling in a circle. The tip of his spear scratched along the ground, sparking to life as all his mana concentrated. Beautiful blues and cyans glittered around him, the air flowing as rivers upon his weapon. Along them sparked the beginnings of lightning, tiny crackles that leapt from point-to-point. “And you, obstinate girl, will know your place!”   The assassins around Venyra leapt backwards, making space.   A lightning attack? Velandra realized. “Venyra, he’s—“ A mocking laughter cut her off, Venyra staring down Zhong with a wicked grin.   “Is that it?! IS THAT ALL YOU GOT?”   “What arrogance! Take this [Dragon Killing Spear]!” Zhong yelled out, rushing forward in a menacing thrust, wind carrying his feet in a glide. The gathered mana turned into a whirling drill around the spear, lightning ripping the ground apart in a thousand greedy fingers. Enormous mana compressed to the bladed spear tip, ideal for puncturing nearly indestructible dragon skin. Its strength spoke for itself, without any deception.   For a brief, fleeting moment, Velandra felt an unease in her heart. A need to intervene, before such an attack could harm Venyra. But, how excited Venyra looked! Her overwhelming aura surged, the dirt and rocks melting at her feet. Arms spread open, she waited. Surely she is not going to—A thunderous bang followed Zhong’s lunge, the ground shattering underneath. Air blasted him forward, toppling the trees behind him, and even blew away a nearby cloud.   In a flash, the two collided. Venyra met Zhong’s spear by grabbing ahold of it, stopping it dead. Lightning screamed under her gloved hands, and the winds blew with flesh rending sharpness. The jiuweihu cultivator slammed into Venyra’s unyielding body instantly, a disbelieving ‘what?!’ wheezing out of him. The edges of his clothes singed immediately, the rest of his mana trying to stave off her devastating heat. Laughing, sparks and all, Venyra ripped the spear from his paws with ease. “Velandra!” she called out, turning around with Zhong. “CATCH!”   A veteran of centuries thrown like a sack of garbage through the air. Velandra laughed at the sight, haughty in its utmost smugness. All it took then was a simple gesture, her hand swiping sideways, and a sphere blasted toward him. Colliding mid-air, Zhong’s whole body bent sideways before raw inertia sent him hurtling away. Another swipe of her hand, and one more sphere went out, meeting Zhong from the other end. “Hahaha! Heavenly core was it?!” she asked, willing into existence a third sphere. It crashed down onto him, catapulting Zhong straight into the ground with a stone shattering impact.   “Elder Zhong!” some of the assassins called out, all of them moving as swift as they could. They crowded around him, acting as a barrier for however worthless Velandra saw such efforts. To her surprise, Zhong stood quickly, shaky on his feet. Instinct, more than reason, seemed to move him until he coughed up blood. Battered, singed, and scowling with utmost rage, he held out his paw. It jerked a little, trying to grab at something that wasn’t there.   “Looking for this?” Venyra asked, holding his spear up. Divorced of its wielder, the wild mana within it churned uproariously out of control.   “Do not even THINK you have the right,” Zhong bit out, reaching with his hand again, but the weapon remained away.   "Hm. I don't know what 'dragons' you fought," Venyra said, gazing upon the spear contemptuously. “But something like this, not one of them in Votyoger would pick their teeth with it.” Grabbing onto the shaft with both hands, her whole upper body flexed.   “NO! STOP!”   Sun-hot veins and draconic strength alike, Venyra slammed the shaft over her knee. The crystalline core snapped in two, exploding in a release of mana. A man’s hoarse scream underpinned it, Zhong falling to his knees, both paws clutching at his chest. Velandra pushed her own aura out, crushing the out of control mana until it dissipated into harmless wisps of turquoise and blue smoke. For some cultivators, such weapons were infused with their very souls, vastly amplifying their power. In turn, however, their souls could be struck by mortal means.   Or broken into pieces, as Venyra so elegantly did. She threw the useless crystal scraps onto the ground, now nothing but pretty jewelry. “The way you talked about cultivators, I’d expected something flashier,” Venyra grumbled. “Not this.”   “Battles of magic are decided by decisive blows, not beating each other into submission,” Velandra remarked dryly. “You think of our first time too much.”   “… Shouldn’t I?”   “Captain, we need to retreat,” one of the assassins said, not trying to hide his fear at all.   “You presume to leave without my permission?” Velandra asked, stepping further into the air. They all looked up, even Zhong, to meet her glowing eyes.   “To take elder Zhong’s life is to offend Crystal Peak,” the captain said, his voice strained. “Surely the sovereign of Shu does not intend such.”   “I cared not for Crystal Peak until this presumptuous old fool made an attempt. You dare lecture me about my place? You draw your weapon upon my fushena?” With every word, Velandra’s presence swelled, her boundless mana opening wide. The field they stood in, the forests beyond, the village miles away, and more—all of them, swallowed up in her suffocating presence. Fortunately for many, the epicenter of it all is what bore the worst of it. “The ways of tradition slap me across my face, but not once have I let any who did so walk away.”   The assassins crumpled under the pressure, trying with all their might to stand and failing. Amongst them, however, Zhong pushed upward, his mouth stained with blood and his bloodshot eyes outrageously furious. “You who defy the Heavens! The ways we have lived in since the olden times!” he spat out, shaking but unwaveringly focused. “Adorned like a tyrant, wild and no restraint, how dare you! You who would ruin the peace we have made!”   “It is funny when you say that way, is it not?” Velandra said coolly, Zhong himself recoiling with surprise. “Spoken like a man who was not on the receiving end of such treatment.”   “Heheh. I, who lives virtuously, would not be so misfortunate! It is by my hand I guided others from their wicked ways.”   “Mm. Virtue. Heh.” Velandra held open her arms, cradling the sky. “Can you imagine why, for a moment, how I am able to cast my rule upon the Heavens? To be its sovereign, uncontested in all ways?”   “Anyone with a brush can proclaim a fantasy,” Zhong refuted in an instant. “How are you any different from all the others?”   “For I have walked upon their realm, stared into their eyes. I have proclaimed my mandate and made it unerringly clear. Tell me, would I have not been struck down?”   His silence was the only answer she really needed.   “It is a simple truth. My way is that of the Heavens; they follow me.”   "Im-impossible!" Zhong hissed out, Velandra's overwhelming pressure pushing him down further. No; pushing implied a pressure from above. It wasn’t that of gas or even atmosphere that weighed him. Something far greater, and infinitely vaster in its all-reaching expanse. He tried to spit out some kind of word, but the airs of it couldn’t lift away from the ground. He raged, and brought forth all his remaining power, daring to stand higher. The crack of bones stood out unerringly to the ear.   “Ho, a heavenly core is still one, even if the soul is too rotten for a tree to grow in.” Velandra clapped her hands together, then held them a scant few inches apart, palms firmly flat. “Entertain me, and endure this if you can.”   “Hm? Oh. Oh!” Venyra clapped her fist into her palm before hurriedly shuffling underneath Velandra again. “This’ll be good.”   Grand power condensed into a wide pool around Zhong and his nearly dead assassins. The purple eclipse swallowed the ground, and as Velandra’s will weighed in, gravity sunk heavier and heavier. Not too fast, not too slow; all to make him suffer, just a bit longer. The wind itself struggled to escape, and all of Zhong’s strength poured into a desperate stand against her. His very clothes began tearing at the seams, desperate to fall down, only his immense magical fortitude keeping his body together still. Yet he fell from his feet, his knees cracking upon the ground, and his teeth clenched to shattering.   “Dora Zhong,” Velandra declared in a voice of unerring finality. “I have a most sacred task for you. In the next life, greet your fellows from Crystal Peak. Tell them they died because of your grave offense.”   Only then did his face change, his eyes betraying his horrifying realization. The enormity of what he tried to do; failed, and what would follow.   Since his intrusion, only then did Velandra finally feel the muck sliding off her face. And so she laughed; laughed joyously and loudly, her voice ringing throughout the deathly silent clearing. In the next few moments, she bored of tormenting him. Gravity collapsed down in full, Zhong and all his assassins crushed into a thin paste. They were not shoved into the ground, but rather squeezed against it; the whole of their bodies compressed into a space of mere millimeters. With their deaths, Velandra withdrew her immense presence, and the world breathed easy once again.   Zhong’s prized array lost its master, and so finally fell silent. The relentless he’d long kept noticed their presences immediately, the distance filling with a thunder of roaring screams. In minutes an immense herd would be upon them, one whose sudden appearance might level most city-states.   “Ahh, hm. That did sour our vacation, did it not?” the sovereign asked, glancing down at Venyra. As the need of authority left, her weary and bored face showed in full. “Killing some relentless and these cretins interrupt.”   “His little stick was funny,” Venyra said, shrugging her shoulders. Then she slapped her hands on her hips, and looked up at Velandra quite sourly. “But you left junk to me! And took all the fun parts!”   Deflating with a great sigh, Velandra ‘fell’ from the air, landing in Venyra’s hurriedly outstretched arms. She crossed her arms across her belly, trying to scowl. It really proved quite challenging given how energetic and expressive Venyra looked at her. Oh, she is all … ahah, fired up. A stupid smirk cracked out before she could stop it. “What you say is true. Mm, I shall give you my share of the relentless that are coming.”   “That’s hardly fair.”   “Some of them are quite strong! I think. Certainly befitting of such an old and esteemed herd.”   Venyra squinted, but perhaps sensing their approach herself, started walking. For as rough and unrefined she prided in being, Velandra found being carried to be quite a gentle affair. The stable spheres floating after them bounced up and down on Venyra’s shoulders.   "I see you are still unimpressed. Then, my share of the relentless, and that—“ Velandra’s nose scrunched at even suggesting the idea, “—that awful, terribly spicy food you like.”   “But you said it was too hard to get.”   “It is! That spice takes thirty years to cultivate!” Velandra said, exasperated. “You ate their whole stock!”   “But you know where more is.”   Velandra slapped her hand to her face. “Yes, I do.”   “Alright, your share and some good food!”   She cries when eating it, Velandra thought, absolutely beside herself. Volcanic blood and a little spice makes her cry while eating it. Why does she keep wanting to eat it??   “About those Crystal Peak people,” Venyra asked, breaking the amiable quiet. “Are we really going to kill them?”   Hm? Starting to care about that now? Velandra took a moment, having to so drearily don the mantle once again. “You are not aware of Crystal Peak’s history. They are one of the great pillars holding aloft the tradition of restraint. As a sect, they go across the lands and ensure it is maintained. My Shu and them have not come into conflict, yet.” She tapped on her cheek for a moment, thinking. “Zhong has merely given me pretense. That he felt so bold to act, either Crystal Peak underestimates me, or believe themselves superior.”   “Or he was just a crazy old bastard.”   “As fun as that would be, jiuweihu do not live as long as he did without being clever.”   “Not clever enough, it seems,” Venyra muttered under her breath, and Velandra laughed.   “Now you understand,” she said, patting the anaxial’s warm cheek.  
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  Rows and rows of pristine buildings lined the valley, taken care-of despite their age. Luscious, soft greenery grew rampantly, climbing down small rock walled paths, up the sides of homes, and even into the rice fields. The rushing river that cut through the center of it all slammed into rocks and drove water wheels, a hazy mist filling the air. Idyllic, almost, were it not for the miserable people milling about. As if life had drained to the point of death, they trudged along, carrying tools or supplies from one place to another. Yet a light of hope hung about them, laughter and easy breaths coming. The burden of those who had survived something truly awful.   Bo’s ears flicked, the constant lowly buzzing murmurs like flies in his ears. Not that he minded the bieneren daughters talking as they did; they just never stopped. It reminded him of the rachtoh merchants his master met with on the occasion. The colorful difference being the bieneren only cared for themselves. The rachtoh went everywhere they found other people. Just thinking about the three sisters that followed him for a month made him want to die under a rock. Yet for as quick as such memories came, the impact felt surprisingly light.   Compared to last month, everything else became smoke in the wind.   “She comes,” the bieneren beside him said, her cute voice underlined by a buzzing vibration.   Looking up the flagstone path, it wasn’t hard seeing their queen’s procession. Daughters of all kinds lined the central road of River Valley Village, studiously alert. Heavily armed, from spears to crossbows and more, it might’ve been the greatest fighting force he’d ever seen. Or, so he would’ve thought once. Especially taller, bulkier drones carried a palanquin upon their shoulders, its imminently lustrous rosewood sharp against the village. He couldn’t spy the queen herself through the heavy cloth sheets covering it, though he feared she might be uncomfortable. Traveling through here in that, ehm …   Then again, she always preferred such unreasonable lengths. All the villagers watched from their homes and the side of the roads, giving the bieneren a wide berth. It may not be a regular occurrence, but they knew well enough to leave the royal guard to their business.   When they neared, he bowed, hands together in his voluminous tan-colored sleeves. “This lowly Bo greets her majesty.”   One of the large daughters at the front, walking as an envoy, spoke then. “Her estimable self receives the greeting.”   “Then, I shall lead her to the desired place. It will be just outside of the village, where the gates are.”   “Go then.”   He really didn’t want to go out there again, not at least for a century. Maybe two. Still, Bo nodded and turned around. The path ahead took them to the ‘mouth’ of the valley, where the flowing river began its descent down and carved through the ground. A zig-zagging road led up the incline, comfortable in its monotonous walk. When they reached the top, an immense wall of shaped brick waited. Sculpted by masons and veltron mages, it was the great barrier that stopped beasts of the wild lands beyond from invading. The final defense line.   The gates, already open, swallowed them as they passed through.   What awaited on the other side became a myth in its own right. Mounds of ashes and the skeletons of trees both great and small waited as far as the eye could see. A verdant land that teamed with endless life, and unending relentless, now eerily silent. One needed a mask deeper inside, and to tread carefully, for a slight breeze would wash away their foot prints in the ashes. Were it not for the blue sky, the only color to see would be the river that cut through the land. It, too, carried the ashes, but had since cleared up greatly. They hardly left the gate, the outside ground already black and terribly filthy to step upon.   “Unbelievable,” the queen herself spoke then, the depth of her mature voice a world above her daughters. “I thought your report a poor joke.”   “I assure her majesty, there is not a single funny bone in my body.”   A silence fell, and he dare not interrupt any thoughts that may be brewing.   “How … interesting.” The palanquin shifted from her moving around. “Then, Shu will go to war with Crystal Peak. Soon. Hmm.”   “Do you fear it will reach us?”   “No. Crystal Peak lives on the opposite of us; across Shu, toward Aochen. I am more surprised an elder of theirs had influence this far from their home.”   “It surprised me greatly, your majesty. I had no inclination they did.”   “Know that our lands are old; older than all others. The schemes of dragons and jiuweihu, and so many more, they run endlessly. So it is my mother told me, so I will tell my inheritor.”   “I thank her majesty for this profound insight!” Bo replied, earnestly grateful in his heart as he bowed once again.   "The Sovereign of Shu’s war with Crystal Peak will not reach us, not typically. Yet she has already cast tides in the heartlands, and the oldest have yet to stir. Her ostentatious mandate … how enviably she lives up to it.” The queen sighed long and drearily. “But it is not a matter for ones such as I or you. I have a new order for your Seclusion.”   “I shall convey it sincerely, your majesty.”   “The crysium mining tithe that once went to Dora Zhong, it is now renounced. The valley shall come under my domain, and all who would harm it will harm me in turn.”   “Your benevolent rule will bring much stability and peace to everyone, your majesty!”   “It is my home, and my daughters enjoy it greatly. No others shall plunder from it again as I live. In time, the forests will regrow, supping upon the ash, and life shall follow.” The palanquin shifted again. “Tell me, your ears did hear correctly of his insults to the sovereign?”   He, who had braved staying just in ear shot, and nearly dying for it, couldn’t be wrong. “I have thought upon them, and though I may not understand, I did hear them.”   “Hmm, hm hm. Funny.” The queen’s throaty, polite laugh could barely be called one. “Acolyte Bo, remember these words. You, with fortune and grace, will live far longer than I will. Never be as inflexible as Dora Zhong, for ideas change with the ages, and so must those who believe in them.”   "I will etch these words upon my heart to remember them, your majesty."   “And try not to insult a woman’s lover to her face,” the queen added on. “Not unless you wish to invite endless suffering.”   Bo blinked, his ears flicking confusedly. It took but a moment for him to connect the meaning, an entirely new understanding dawning upon his mind. “Y-yes, your majesty,” he said, his gaze crawling upward to the endless sky. The ways of the Heavens, I think, I will let be mysterious for a while longer.