It’s one thing to attack a foe from ambush. Void anima casters are exceedingly good at that and its one of the many reasons for people who know what we can do to be afraid of us. The woman who climbed onto the roof with me didn’t try for a surprise attack though, despite the invisibility spell that was wrapped around her like a blanket.
That wasn’t a good sign.
Based on the kinds of situations I hurl myself into, it’s an easily demonstrable claim that I have an exaggerated idea of my own capabilities. Even with that, I’ll start a fight from ambush ten times out of ten if I have any choice in the matter. My opponent didn’t share that philosophy which meant she was either a masochist or dangerously talented.
Or both. I really shouldn’t confine people to labels I suppose.
We circled each other, gauging form and stance and measure of control over the anima we displayed. I was tempted to taunt her and try to throw her off guard but I bit my words back. Void anima cloaked my form preventing her from getting a clear picture of what I looked like, the same as I couldn’t see her as anything more than a three dimensional shadow. The effect didn’t extend to our voices though. I could hide my voice, but then she wouldn’t hear it at all, which would defeat the purpose of speaking. Also, anything I said that wasn’t hidden could be retrieved by investigatory spells and my true voice extracted from it. My opponent however was under no such restriction.
“You should let go of that veil,” she said. “You’re not going to like it if I have to beat you out of it.”
I ignored her. Or tried to. Playing head game with my adversaries was the best part of most fights. It was also the one tool I had against people with superior skill, power or training.
“Maybe you need a lesson though,” she said. “Who taught you how to move? You walk like a clumsy duckling.”
Insult my form, insult my teacher and probe to see if my ego was fragile enough to respond to petty snipes. I had to give her credit, it wasn’t a bad line of patter. I could let it roll off me, but that would tell her almost as much as if I responded to it aggressively.
Part of me wanted to play her game and beat her at it. I could go berserk and make it seem like I was much more of a novice than I was. It’s always handy to have your foe underestimate you in a fight after all. The problem with that approach though was that I was certain neither of us was going to end the fight in a single blow and in any extended exchange she was going to see me demonstrate a level of skill well beyond what a novice could manage.
So I slid one foot forward, rolled my shoulders and beckoned her to come at me.
“Oh? You’re not going to run away?” she said. “Well that will make this convenient. And brief.”
She then flawlessly cast a spell to gain a burst of enhanced speed. One ultra-short flash of Physical anima, followed a tiny fraction of a second later by a hyper-speed rush and an uppercut that would have knocked my head into next week if it connected.
Great technique for an opening blow, but the real mark of her skill was the follow-up right cross to my nose. She knew better than to assume her haymaker would lay me out and she pressed her advantage as hard as she could without opening herself up to my counter attacks.
If I tried to play the novice against that kind of assault, she would have floored me in under a second, so I had to match her ferocity and speed with my own.
Neither of us could afford to weave any long term enhancement spells, or the other would absorb them for the magic they contained. The same trick she used to start the fight, a micro-burst of magic for instantaneous effect, was one we both leaned on heavily.
I dodged her first haymaker, and the jab towards my face, then tried to grab her arm to bind her into a hold. She responded with another micro-spell to escape my grasp and went into a series of body blows without pause or hesitation.
My grab for her arm was as much as a defensive move as an offensive one though so it served to parry the first few punches she threw. I weaved back from most of the rest but a few landed anyways. She was just that fast.
Quick rabbit punches like the ones Shadow Lady hit me with aren’t meant to take down anyone. They’re meant to create openings. If they’re unanswered, or unavoided though, they can do serious damage. Broken ribs don’t sound life threatening but if those bones are turned into inward pointing spears and used to shred lungs and other vital organs, they can ruin your day pretty thoroughly.
Fortunately for me, I had an answer ready for her attack. A half step back into a split brought me out of her effective range while my front leg snaked forward in a low kick to knock her off balance.
She hopped over my leg and twisted into a spin kick that begged me to grab her leg and smash her into the roof like a rag doll. It was a trap but I snatched at bottom of her pants anyways. It was too good an opportunity to pass up even though I knew she was better than the move suggested.
As I anticipated, the spin kick wasn’t the real attack. It camouflaged a flying sidekick that would have no power behind it at all if she hadn’t boosted it with a quick snap of anima.
I had a hand free though, which left me able to counter her. She tried to enhance the kick again with a quick burst of anima, but that was her first mistake. I had a hold on her other leg and I knew what was coming. The energy she tried to add to the kick flashed for less than an eye blink but I snagged it with a tendril of Void anima as she cast her spell. Briefly charged up with her power, I refocused the force into meeting her kick with a straight punch.
As a note, meeting a kick with a punch is usually a terrible idea. Legs are lots stronger than arms and feet are noticeably tougher than hands. One of the exceptions to that rule is when the punch is backed with a superhuman level of force and durability.
My punch slammed into her so hard that her leg buckled and the force of the hit knocked us apart by a dozen feet or so.
The shadow lady landed right on the edge of the roof and hopped on her good foot for a second. I could have pressed the attack at that point. In fact I really should have, but the chance of sending her flying completely off the roof was a little too high. I didn’t have any intention of losing the fight, but I didn’t want to kill the woman either since I had no idea who she was or who she was working for.
I needn’t have worried though. Her “injured leg act” was well played but completely fictional. With the distance between us she was able to build up a nice big anima charge and slam her fist down onto the rooftop.
It crumbled beneath her blow. The whole thing. I had a flight pack on but extending anima wings seemed like an excellent choice only if I wanted to give her something to drain for power to beat me senseless with. So I tumbled into top floor of the building with debris raining down around me.
My Void sight let me see in the dark, but a heavy bank of dust and roof particles was another matter. Actual physical objects leave me as blind as anyone else. The shadow lady had an advantage there. She saw where I fell, which was enough to aim herself right at me. The first clue I had about that was when I felt my danger sense flare.
With milliseconds to react, I dropped into a roll to escape her attack.
That worked great, except for the part where I rolled over a jagged piece of metal from the roof that stabbed through my lower calf.
I bit back my scream and started calling up the most vicious curses that two years with a crew that were little better than pirates had taught me.
Shadow Lady was good. No mercy at all. She stomped after me, trying to land a kick on my injured leg and completely cripple me.
Scrambling away from her blows sucked. It was all pain and desperation and new wounds in my hands and sides.
I had to burn a bright stream of Physical anima to close the wounds and gain the speed and strength to ward off her attacks. Against any other opponent that would have worked great. Against her it meant that I left myself wide open to feed her a big chunk of power, which she very gracefully ripped right away from me.
I’m great with magical shields. Normally that would have protected me wonderfully from her bone shattering punches. That strategy doesn’t work so well though when your opponent can consume the shields themselves and gain even more power from them.
The fight was basically over at that point. Shadow Lady hit me so hard the world spun and I tasted blood that was definitely my own. She wasn’t trying to kill me either. I knew that because our relative strengths were incredibly mismatched in her favor and I was still alive.
The beating she lay into me wasn’t designed to be lethal. It was designed to damage me so thoroughly that I wouldn’t be able to heal myself or resist any further once she stopped. I’d had to deliver the same kind of smackdown to people who were too skilled or dangerous to capture any other way. It came as no surprise that it was exceedingly unfun to be on the receiving end of that sort of attention though.
As much as I was able to rationally applaud the shadow lady’s technique, I knew I couldn’t afford to lose this fight. Which meant I got to take the stupid risks.
Spell casting requires concentration and finesse. Neither of those are easy to come by when someone is pounding your face into pudding. Fortunately there’s an alternative to concentration and finesse; really sloppy casting backed by an inefficiently massive amount of power.
None of my spell instructors would have been happy with the Acceleration spell that I managed to pull off. It was more poorly constrained than even a six year old’s would be. I wasted a tremendous amount of Physical anima to no advantage whatsoever. The rest of the magic I spent though served its function perfectly.
For just an instant the world slowed to a crawl and I was able to act.
The first thing I did was lash out with a wave of Void anima, not at the Shadow Lady (that would have been useless) but at the splashes of my blood that were splattered around the room. I couldn’t leave them any forensic evidence that I’d been here.
Then I put some distance between Shadow Lady and I.
By diving backwards through a closed window.
That was pleasant and enjoyable experience, said no one ever.
I let myself fall about twenty feet, far enough to be out of Shadow Lady’s view and unfurled the wings from my flight pack.
I wanted to soar upwards and put the city and maybe even the whole planet far behind me while I went and licked my wounds, but instead I dropped down to about fifteen feet over street level and cast a larger invisibility cloak around myself to hide my wings too.
The open sky offered me no protection. Soaring among the buildings, I could rely on their solid, physical presence to shelter me from Shadow Lady’s Void sight.
When I’d flown about thirty blocks away, I dispelled the wings and Shadow Stepped inside a building to catch my breath.
The chill of ice in my chest that signaled danger was diminishing, which let me know I was safe to rest for a moment, but the aches of my internal wounds told me I needed to get back to Ilya as soon as possible. Thinking about the hours of travel that lay between us though I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it that far. I tried to stand up and felt myself wobble unsteadily. The betting pool in my head that had been putting wagers on me making it miles from here adjusted it’s guesses down to yards instead.
I closed my eyes for just a second and felt weariness and blood loss carry my consciousness far away, which settled the question of how much farther I’d be able to go.