Considering he was by far the stealthiest of the team, Prolier had zero difficulty in following Claire. As soon as the flare had come into view, she had started marching toward the location, her cleaver slashing through the brush. As he made a parallel path, trying to get ahead of her, he had to admit that she had an excellent sense of direction. He’d pulled out his compass and taken a bearing. As far as he knew she had simply fixed her mind on the target and started moving.
Her pace was brisk, but he had no difficulty in working his way ahead of her. He scouted ahead and located a perfect place to lay in wait. Plus, he could used her predictable path against her. Once in position, he estimated that he’d have five or six seconds until she was on him. He would have to be careful not to reveal himself, but he was confident that he could.
As he squatted down behind a fat tree, he looked at his claw and turned it to catch the dappled sunlight. He smiled as he saw the purple tinged reflection of the blades. This poison was a lot safer to use against his fellow students. It was weaker than what he’d used during the previous trial, but he liked the way it worked with his fighting style. It dissolved slowly, meaning it would probably last all day, even if he was in almost constant combat. Each hit on a foe would put a little more in, slowing them down bit by bit. It shouldn’t take long for him to wear her down.
He heard her reach the opposite side of the tree and started to work his way around. He would slide in right behind her and get a solid hit in before he started the process of quick strikes. He made his footsteps match hers. He got into the rhythm, and as soon as he got to where he could see her, he closed in on her.
In the seconds it took him to get into striking distance, he debated where to strike. A leg shot would slow her maneuvering. A deep cut to her weapon arm could slow her attacks and make dodging easier. He had even considered stabbing her with the points, but that came with a pair of problems. The claw can get caught as they react, or it can get really fatal really quick. Screw it, I’m going for the leg, He thought.
He dropped as he swiped he claw across the calf of her left leg. To her credit, she didn’t utter a single sound of pain as she spun around her cleaver coming quickly at Prolier’s head. He had expected exactly that. He knew which leg her weight would be on and how she would turn. He had dropped down not only to score the hit, but to spring out of the way. He rolled gracefully away from her and back to his feet.
What he hadn’t expected was how quickly she came after him. He regained his footing, but was immediately on the defensive. He was barely avoiding the attacks and he didn’t like it. Dodging was much more difficult in a jungle environment. There were things growing and hanging everywhere.
Seeing the large cleaver up close wasn’t making him very happy either. It was one thing to see a foot and a half long blade from a distance, but when it passes scant inches from your eyes you really begin to appreciate how much damage a weapon like that can do if it connects. Even once would be enough to easily cut to the bone. It was quite literally a butcher’s tool, and there was nothing his foe wanted more at that moment than to make steaks of him.
He tried to parry a blow to give himself an opening. The weapons clashed together, sending a wave of vibrations up Prolier’s arm. Deciding there and then that he wasn’t doing that again in a hurry, he went back to dodging. His arm was partially numb and her blade had barely been deflected at all. The amount of force she was putting behind her swings was savage. It that connected, it might not stop at the bone. He had no idea whether the medics had the skill to reattach lost limbs, but he might be finding out soon.
Prolier rolled underneath a high horizontal slash in an attempt to get behind Claire. It didn’t even come close to shaking her. The unerring accuracy of her single-minded focus made her like a natural compass. She set her sights on something and always faced it. He could dance and move all he wanted to, she would be constantly facing him and moving forward.
He needed to find the weakness in her technique or he might not survive.
Renala hadn’t stood a chance at staying hidden from her prey. Ankur was very alert once away from his noisy companions and it’s very difficult to hide a giant halberd. She had considered changing to the less obvious shield, but she didn’t want to give up that little secret right from the giddy-up. Plus she knew she wasn’t skilled in stealth and decided it wouldn’t have helped anyway.
Once Ankur had gotten far enough away from his teammates that they wouldn’t interfere, he stopped. “I know you are there. Come out and face me. Do not make me search.”
For a moment she considered staying quiet. Maybe he hadn’t noticed her at all and was fishing. If she just sat still he might keep walking. That moment passed quickly though and she decided to just get it over with. “Okay, but we can’t engage until the horn sounds.”
She stepped from behind the bush that had been her cover and joined him in what passed for a clearing in the jungle. It was barely wide enough for her to get a good swing, but it was better than she was likely to get elsewhere. She needed to try to stay in the center for the most freedom of movement, although that also gave him the room he needed.
She watched as he stood, eyes closed, concentrating on his breathing. He was preparing himself mentally for the battle. She knew that she should be doing something too, but she had never learned any kind of pre-fight rituals. She wondered if it really helped him that much, or if it was an attempt at psyching out his foe.
As the horn sounded the point of his spear shot out toward her chest and was easily batted away. He followed it with a series of looping swings that were all stopped just as easily. He paused and regarded her. “Your defense is impressive.”
She gave a slight nod as she swung a mighty downward chop at his head; well, as mighty as a girl her size can manage. He stepped to the side to avoid it and countered with a few stabs. The halberd’s handle pushed each one aside just enough to avoid her body.
This went on for several minutes, both of them taking turns in attacking, and each strike being blocked. He had moved around her quite a bit, but she had stayed rooted to the spot. She was in the dead center of the tiny arena like a lone, unassailable tower.
Ankur smiled. “Your attacks lack conviction but your blocking is impeccable. Who trained you?”
“My parents trained me. My father was the daemon knight, but my mother was very skilled as well. Was one of your folks a daemon knight too?”
“Both of my parents were. In my country it is not frowned upon for knights to breed. It is very common there. Why is it not here?”
Renala shrugged. “I think it has something to do with feelings getting in the way of a mission. If you know your spouse is in trouble, you might get distracted.”
“In my country, the married make the best teams. They live their lives together and train together and can make an unbeatable combination. Their children grow up strong. I see no logic in the customs here.”
“I can see both sides of the argument, but this isn’t the time for such discussions.” She overextended her halberd, bringing another downward slash. When Ankur moved to block, his spear struck the shaft and Renala jerked back quickly. The tip of his weapon got lodged in a small groove at the base of her blade. When he saw his situation he jerked and twisted, pulling his daemon free and whirling it around him as he retreated. Just as she thought the spinning was coming to a close, he threw it.
She was shocked. A knight having a throwing weapon was almost unheard of. It happened but it was rare. Not having your daemon in your hand was crippling. Had he just made a fatal error in judgment?
She was about to go on the attack in a major way when she thought she heard a twig snap behind her. Hesitating a moment to listen she heard another one, coming closer. She didn’t want to take her eyes off her opponent, but she didn’t want ambushed either. She turned to start backing away when another noise made her freeze. This one made her previous shock seem like a breath of cool wind. This shock made icicles form in her veins.
It was a low rumbling growl she heard. She slowly turned to see a large white tiger creeping from the brush.
“Crap. It looks like he has better control of that tiger than we’d hoped.”
Angel cursed in his head when he heard Angus through his ear-bud. Renala got stuck with a virtually unwinnable fight in the last trial. He had hoped that this time she’d get one that would really showcase her skills. So far the team had caught some attention, but most of it was directed at Lethen. Renala deserved a chance to shine too.
When the flare went up, Butch had headed off in that direction with a casual looking swagger. He looked like an extra from a western in his big hat and boots; a holster on each side of his waist, strutting with his hands firmly fixed atop his excessively shiny belt buckle. Had he been a gambling man, Angel would’ve put money on him knowing his way around a lasso.
Angel picked his position well. He had a line of sight down Butch’s back, and assuming he continued heading on his straight course, he would for another forty or fifty feet. As he had been walking after him, he’d set a small portion of his mind aside to charge. Gathering energy more easily and efficiently was a main area of study since the previous trial. It wasn’t anything near as much as he’d collected to one-shot Ventrus, but it was much better than starting cold. Angel would have to do as much as he could with his initial shot because he’d give away his position.
He braced his rifle against his shoulder and aimed. Maybe, just maybe, if he could hit the right spot with enough force, he might be able to at least slow him down. He considered a few likely targets, but nothing jumped out at him. He was going to wait until the very last second so he would do as much damage as possible. As the moment of truth came, he exhaled and held it to steady himself. He’d decided to go for the back of the neck. Angel fired.
He ducked down behind the bushes as a loud humph noise came from Butch. He heard the American get up and shake himself off. He actually jingled. Angel smiled as he imagined that he was wearing the spurs to complete the ensemble.
“Boy, that wasn’t very nice,” Butch called out. “I knew you’re there now and I’ll shred this entire jungle to find you.”
The air was filled with tiny balls of light ripping through the vegetation. Angel’s hiding space would be gone in a matter of seconds.