DRAFT. Aryah owes a debt of blood. The Asters mean to take it.
Kaden stared hard at the woman that he was supposed to fight. Honestly, how she spoke to him didn't bother him one bit. The idea of being beaten until he couldn't even stand did though. He wasn't at all surprised when the woman pulled a weapon out of the darkness. After all, she was a praedari like the rest of her clan. Rather than showing any sort of fear, Kaden simply cocked his head a bit to watch her before taking a deep breath. She had showed her stuff so he decided he would do the same. He held out his left arm and let his breath leave him slowly. This arm, the one that was covered in an intricate web of tattoos, seemed to change. The thorny vines of the tattoo began to move and slide down his arm like some strange optical illusion. They wrapped themselves about his hand and he managed to keep his eyes on Aryah in order to gauge her reaction, but it was hard to do it through the pain. The vines' thorns dug into his skin in order to secure themselves to his body. It was after they were fully secure that they grew in length and rolled off of his hand as if he were letting loose coils of rope. By the time this was over, he had something akin to a thorn-covered lash. Once finished with this feat, Kaden took a sword in his free hand and hoped he was ready for this fight. He'd never been forced to use his weapon on purpose. It had only ever been accidental and when he or someone he loved was in danger. This time, he hoped he could control it. Kaden drew his left arm back and sent the barbed lash through the air once to test its stability. It cracked just like a whip and he made sure he looked as fierce as he could muster before sending the lash through the air once more, this time toward his opponent.
Aryah's body shimmered from sight, like a mirage disappearing in the desert, and the lash struck something solid behind her. She was using the night to her advantage. Kaden's eyes went wide when she disappeared. "Shit," he muttered to himself as he began looking around and tugging on the lash to remove it from the rubble that he'd managed to dig it into. She reappeared in a blur of shadows, rushing Kaden from the right side to flank him and hoping that he could not recover his lash's momentum before she made contact. She swung her sword at his right shoulder, probably not wanting to kill him but just wound him or slow him down. He couldn't collect the lash in time to swing it, but he managed to bring his sword up to meet her's and braced the blade with this vine-covered left hand. The impact of her blade on his pressed the razor-sharp edge into his hand before making him stumble back and fall. The vines saved him from losing fingers, but they were a part of him and they bled just as he did. Kaden recovered as quickly as an untrained fighter could and his fight-or-flight reactions seemed to kick in. He freed the whip and sent it toward her in order to buy himself a time to get off the ground. Blood splattered in so many directions from the swing of the whip alone. The woman was an accomplished warrior with at least a century of experience under her belt. Did he really think that he could kill her with such childish moves?
Aryah used her sword to catch and bind the whip that was attached to his hand. He tried to pull the lash back toward him, but was unsuccessful. The lash was made in such a way that it liked to bind together when it connected with something. He tried to shift his focus in order to reform the weapon again, but made little progress before Aryah drew more shadows to her from the ruins. She formed her own whip that she swung to wrap around his ankles. She'd decided that she would make him stay down if she had to and beat about his head until he was unconscious. She didn't really want to hurt him, but it had to be done.
"Just stay down, boy," she directed her anger at him as she began to advance, her shadows tightening as he struggled.
"No," Kaden called out to her in a more determined voice than he had used before. He attempted cut through his bindings with his sword, but all this did was succeed and damaging the weapon. Part of it snapped clean off! He flailed a bit, eventually giving up on the broken sword, and took hold of his thorned whip with his free hand. The thorns bit into his skin as he pulled it hard in an attempt to do something to free himself. The vines broke loose with a loud crack, something like the sound of a breaking tree limb. The twisted vines blew apart, lashing wildly in all direction and causing chaos. Aryah's face and sword arm were cut from the thorns and she slung what was left of the whip off of her sword in some random direction.
Kaden was able to reform the whip and swung it with much more precision as he was getting a feel for the thing now. The newly-formed vine-whip grazed Aryah's shoulder. She screamed before yanking on her shadows, trying to roll him across the ground. She needed to keep him disoriented so she could end this quickly. That was her ultimate goal.
The young man made some pained sounds as he rolled across the ground and, when he stopped rolling, he was on his stomach. He tried to push off the ground to recover, but the praedari walked over and stomped her foot into Kaden's back in order to force him down again. "Stay down!" It would be easier if he'd just stop fighting, but she knew the Asters. If he was anything like the other members of his clan had been, he wouldn't stop until he couldn't move anymore. "I don't want to kill you!" She pressed her weight into his back.
He cried out under the weight of the woman as she pressed into his spine, the toe of her boot digging in between his shoulder blades. For a small woman, she was able to hold him down with massive force. He didn't want to be crushed by this woman all in the name of honor. Whose honor? Was it just her's or was his at stake as well? Something in the back of both their minds seemed to think that this was about more than just honor, but Kaden didn't know want to die so he just decided he would give up. He stayed down and didn't fight against her any more.
That was it. The game was over and Aryah had won her place back into her family. That was all that really mattered to her anyway. She removed her foot from Kaden's back and turned to walk back toward those that had gathered to witness. Her sword and the lash disappeared just as simply as they appeared, returning to the shadows that they had once been part of. She pressed her hand to bloody injury at her shoulder and examined the places that the thorned whip had cut into her. She turned her eyes back to Kaden after her examination. He did carry powerful magic so he truly must be an Aster.
She shook her head as she walked away, unsure if she was really satisfied with this win, but something strange happened. Kaden's body writhed and contorted, making some inhuman squeal as if he was again in pain. She could hear him take in a deep breath and let it out again as he moved in order to pull himself up from the ground. The young man now stood up straight, as if nothing had happened to his body, and he cracked his neck slightly. The sound was loud and gave Aryah a sick feeling in the pit of her belly. She turned to face the boy whose stance now looked more like a man.
He looked himself over a bit, seemingly to take note of the damage already done, before licking away the blood that had splattered across his lips. He seemed to mumble something to himself about flesh before pointing a bleeding finger at the woman across from him, "The Aster coven is not yet satisfied and the honor of the blood traitor is not yet restored!" The voice he spoke with was not the voice she had heard from the meek little boy just moments earlier. This wasn't the same shy, quiet little mouse that had been thrust into this challenge. The eyes that stared her down didn't belong to Kaden anymore.
"No, you lost." Aryah's eyes turned toward those standing at the edge of their battle ground. It was their opinion that mattered, the new Matriarch and her own brother. "I won. I beat your--."
"You beat a child!" Kaden, who everyone was quite sure was no longer Kaden, screamed at her with all the rage and fury of a madman. "He was no true Pain Knight! He was merely the warm-up!" The possessed young man ran his fingers through his hair as if feeling it for the very first time. It was longer than he expected it to be and that bothered him a bit. It should've been cut close in order to make him less of a target. Nothing he could do about that now. "You do remember me, don't you?" He took a few steps to the right as he taunted her and she mirrored him, keeping the length of their cemetery arena between them. "Shall I give you a little hint?" He stopped in front of a large tomb, worn with time and harsh weather, and laid his hand upon the lid softly before. All eyes were upon him as he recreated the thorned lash and used it to smash through the lid.
The sound of the stone shattering in the silent darkness was deafening and Aryah pulled her sword from the shadows again. It took some time, but she finally did realize this was not someone she should discount. Asters were conduits for the dead and, clearly, this boy was channeling a champion who thought himself more worthy to defend the honor of the Asters and their Merritt masters.
Kaden reached down into the tomb and pulled out a long sword that seemed to be made from a collection of bones. Each rune ignited in a particular order, as if being lit like a row of candles. He caressed the sword like an old lover returning to him before swinging it downward with a snap. The blade separated into sections, connected by various sinewy pieces of flesh, before snapping back together into one solid piece. The magic that had shaped the blade was unique and very much Aster magic.
"You cannot harm me! I am a Merritt princess!" Aryah screamed at the man who glared at her with such ferocity before turning back to the Matriarch and Mael. "I followed your rules! What are you doing?"
Kaden sent the lash flying in her general direction again, intentionally aiming for the ground beside her rather than her in order to frighten her. "You are no princess." He growled at her as he took a few steps forward. The anger in his eyes was real and it was entirely focused on her. "You betrayed my masters--your family!--and hunted my kin to extinction! It will take more than beating a boy to satisfy the blood debt you owe to the Aster Coven, let alone the Merritt family." He turned his eyes toward the his superiors who were silently watching everything unfold. He took a knee and lowered his head, offering his weapon up as if it was a sacrifice. "Great Lady, I am Sabbath, child of Isra and your most humble servant. I would be so honored if I could be the blade that cuts the heart from this traitor."
Mael's eyes flitted between the man and Aryah, before he turned his head to look at the woman beside him. "I yield to you, Lady Matriarch," his voice was low as he spoke to her, unsure of what else he could say. He didn't want to pass judgement on his sister so it was much easier to pass this task off to the Asters. They were, after all, the Merritt's own brand of executioners. It seemed only fitting that they punished those who had wronged his family.
Jorja had never asked to become the new Matriarch of this family. In fact, she didn't know if she even agreed with being called Matriarch. And now, here she was, having to make decisions that would effect the lives of those around her. Everything seemed still as she tried to decide what the best course of action was between them all. Even the spirits had stopped their incessant chatter so she was alone with her thoughts. She could feel the eyes upon her so she made the only decision that she found fitting. "Our champion still breathes. Your debt is not paid."
Cries of victory erupted around her as the spirits began their chorus again. They were excited to see the traitor executed. They wished only to know that their lives were not given in vain.
Aryah pulled herself together and stepped back into a shadow. She had no doubt that she could beat Kaden, but Sabbath was a different story altogether. He was strong, powerful, and she was only half a fighter in comparison to his ferocity. She would have to really fight this man if she wanted to survive to see the next sunrise.
Sabbath chuckled a bit, happy to be useful to his Lady and Master. If this young praedari wanted to play games, then he would play games. "I can smell your fear, Aryah," he taunted her while he waited for her to make her next move. She was a crafty one, that girl, but she wasn't nearly as strong as her brother. Sabbath may have been a little rusty, but he was not afraid. Fear was not something a true Aster had in their hearts. It was merely a weapon they wielded against their foes.
"I doubt it's my fear you're smelling," her disembodied voice echoed between the headstones. How was she going to get the drop on a man this powerful? The only true advantage she had over him was her use of the shadows so she tried to make as much use of her powers as she could. She needed to use her skills in stealth in order to survive. It was all she had that could counter the primal fury of a true Aster pain knight.
The man held himself steady as he waited on her to advance. He could be patient as this was her battle to win, not his. He would end it on his terms and, when he did, it would be her still-beating heart that he served up to his Lady and Master.
It took some time, but Aryah finally steeled herself enough to advance on the knight. She reappeared in what looked to be a smoke-like puff of shadow and brought her blade heavily down from above.
Sabbath blocked her attack with his blade before using the ridges of the sword to sling the sword aside. She couldn't possibly think that her strength alone would be enough to overpower him. That was suicide. The man whipped his magic lash in her general direction and frowned as she disappeared from sight yet again. It seemed she was going for the hit-and-run offense. She would test his skills until she found a weakness and then try to take advantage of that. "Pitiful creature." He tsk'd at the young woman as spun around slowly to take in the view of the graveyard. "I wanted to make this easy on you, but I grow tired of games." He could only be patient for so long. His heart ached for bloodshed. He needed this victory and he would have it.
"Is my life a game to you, Sabbath?" Aryah's voice seemed to come from multiple directions. It was the best she could do in order to keep him from pinpointing where she truly was as she flitted between shadows, trying to find a new opening. She would have to be on the defensive until Kaden's body wore down too much for his spirit to keep hold of him. She would have to attack, retreat, and repeat that strategy over and over while still avoiding the man's skillful advances. She figured she could survive, but only if she was careful and especially if she didn't screw up.
"Not a game," he murmured as he stopped and brought his sword to his chest, almost as if he were going to salute the young woman. "A debt to be paid in full." His lips mumbled something that she could not understand and a bright burst of acid green light filled the area for just a moment.
The blinding light forced Aryah from the shadows. Magic. God damn the Aster magics! Her momentum did not change as she was pushed from her hiding spot. She hit the ground and tried to roll with the motion in order to keep herself moving. Remaining still meant death. That was the only way she would survive. In all honesty, she felt like a child who was watching Sabbath pay a lesson to one of the young Asters who had violated a tenant. She'd done just that, but it was a violation that earned her a death sentence. This boy, who had looked so innocent, now had a twisted grimace of anger and hatred. Instead of cowering in fear, she did only what she could do. She reached for a shadow that fell upon her from the burned out support of the Aster manor and solidified it. A second sword was created and she pointed both instruments at her opponent, yet she still was afraid. "All right then! Fight me!" Better to fake courage than to truly show him her fear.
"As you wish," Sabbath nodded his chin at the praedari, as if he was giving her one last acknowledgement of her nobility, before he snapped his sword and allowed the blade to separate. Now, he would take this seriously. The runes on the sword glowed as if they were ignited by a living flame, their color a sickly green. It was the same color as the light he had used to force her from the darkness.
In an instant, he sent the last toward her again. His accuracy and power were unprecedented. Aryah was quick enough to dodge the lash, but not the resulting sonic boom from the end of the thorned whip. The crack of the lash graced her cheek and brought forth blood as she pulled herself from its range. She did not raise a hand to her cheek. Instead, she charged and swung wildly, hoping to connect with anything. It didn't matter what. She just needed to land a few blows in order to run him down.
Sabbath felt exhilarated. She was just as smart as he remembered. In fact, she had probably learned so much more in the last century or so that would make her a wonderful foe to defeat. He side-stepped her advance before arching his sword toward her. The whip-like sword had an almost frightening scream to it as it sailed through the air looking to drink of her blood.
Aryah slapped away Sabbath's sword with her own as she tried to find something that could be akin to higher ground. It shattered her shadow blade with such force that she was startled. The magics that held his weapon together were still strong after all these years.
"Your fear is showing now." Every time Sabbath took a step forward, Aryah took a step back. His change of position seemed to be something to drive her to where he wanted her.
If she was to attack and retreat as she was wishing, she would need to find her own position rather than become penned into his. The praedari reached for a new shadow and materialized another blade this one a tad bit shorter than her sword. A long defensive dagger. Better to be safe than sorry. "I am not afraid." It was a lie. She was quite petrified. She'd never had her blade shattered before. It only proved the superiority of the Aster knights.
Sabbath decided that he was done with the game. His body was beginning to grow tired. He needed to finish her so he could return to the aether and rest. "But you are," he growled as he spoke one last time. The end was coming. He could taste it. He launched himself at the praedari woman, using his full weight behind his weapons.
Aryah blocked what she could, but he was so fast. Too fast. Eventually, the lash found its mark as it wrapped about one of her arms and he drew her in toward him. She was like an animal, trapped in a net, and tried desperately to remove the last. Every time she struggled, it only proved to make the weapon grasp onto her even more tightly. She screamed out in pain, but the words she used were nearly gibberish as they poured from her mouth. Curses, pleas, cries. Sabbath pulled and used his raw strength to wrestle her to the ground. There were tears in her eyes and, had he a heart, he might have felt sympathy for her fear of death. If only he did have a heart.
"That's enough!" Mael took a step forward. The praedari's pleas didn't fall on deaf ears. She had screamed out for Mael to save her and, as much as he wanted to separate himself from her punishment, he could not do it. He could not let this spirit claim her sister's head as a trophy.
Sabbath stopped in mid-swing, but did not allow the woman up from the ground. The wild look in his eyes said that he did not want to comply. He wanted to slit her throat and be done with her. It would provide safety and security for the new Matriarch and the last of the Merritt line. Against his better judgement, he stood and separated himself from Aryah in order to please his king.