Jessie leapt forward in a long, low dive past Raktar’s left flank, sword shining, speeding towards the ankle. There was a sharp sound of metal meeting metal as Raktar blocked the swing with the head of his axe, fast, impossibly fast. Jessie kept moving, tucking into a roll and springing away. “Faster, hear his breath, in the air, time to look, time, time it, now, glance back now, here he comes, measure his pace, time it, ground’s coming fast, fast, he’s too fast, too fast for so much bulk, almost on me, lose the blade, lose the drag, here it comes, hands wide, grab in, take it in the arms, ease it forward, steady, now up, up, now push, push, push back NOW!”
Jessie let go of her sword, let go of her focus on weapons and steel, and while still in midair, glanced back once as she soared in a long, low arc over the ground. Raktar had followed his parry around, and charged in pursuit after her, nearly within reach of her heels as she descended towards the ground.
As Jessie’s hands touched the ground, she remained in a perfect line, the force of her body flowing into and being caught by her coiling muscles, arms and shoulders drawing in, absorbing the energy. Just at the last moment, as her forehead came near to touching the ground, she allowed her balance to shift just slightly so that the last of her momentum carried her legs forward, up, up, just until her body poised for a moment in a perfect handstand perpendicular to the earth, leaving her looking, from upside down, directly back at Raktar as he rapidly closed the gap between them.
With an explosive shout of rage and fear, Jessie threw all of the strength in her coiled muscles into launching herself straight up, straight up in front of Raktar.
“My world, my rules, you bastard!”
The sword appeared again in her hand just as she knew it would, stabbing forward unerringly at Raktar’s face. With the impossible speed of a cat, Raktar stopped his pursuit in it’s tracks, and parried the lightning thrust with a cross body swipe of the axe.
As the axe head met the sword, Jessie flowed with it, adding her own desire to spin, to move, letting herself be carried with the push, letting Raktar’s blow send her spinning like a top, blade arcing with a flash to his right flank, where the axe should be out of line for another parry.
Raktar backhand parried it anyway.
The shock of it drove Jessie out of her calm center, and she lost her grip for a moment on believing she could float in midair.
With a crash, she fell to the ground headfirst, head spinning, but regained her calm in a flash and spun away again, sword gone, rolling fast, rolling away, getting some distance, the pounding of Orc feet hot on her ass.
“This isn’t happening, it’s not possible”, she thought, “He can’t be that fast, not here damn it!”
Jessie stopped her forward roll, spun around and in one smooth movement leapt to meet the charging Raktar head on, forgetting in her moment of panic and growing anger all that Fergus had taught her.
Sword appeared in her hand, silver and light, flashing in a straight up frontal attack on high line, but as Jessie leapt, so too did Raktar, leaping to meet her, his own weapon swinging in line.
Sword met axe as both twisted at the same time, moving past the other on their off sides, and kept on going, each pushing off of the other, edge to edge. Jessie touched lightly on her heels and spun around, only to see Raktar stop as well to face her.
Both of them were breathing hard, and for the first time, as Jessie scanned her opponent’s brow and eye and neck and chest to watch for signs of the direction of the next attack, she caught the unmistakable look of anger and confusion and even worry cross Raktar’s face.
All along, Jessie was taking a mental inventory of what she attempted, and what the results had been. It was starting to dawn on her that, no matter what she expected, and no matter what Gavin kept telling her, she hadn’t caught on in her gut that the dreamtime was not reality. No matter how big Raktar looked or how massive the axe should be, the Orc was almost as fast as she was, and moved as though nothing weighed him down. But at the same time, she met his blows and felt his parries, and there was no more force behind them than that of equal on equal.
Here, size and muscle did not translate to greater strength or power, bulk did not interfere with movement, mass did not hinder, steel did not slow.
“Dear Fergus,” she thought, “I’m not the lightning to his mountain. We’re just two rams butting heads in the forest, and it’s all about who can adapt the fastest. Can he learn to fight quick on his feet faster than I can learn to meet him toe to toe?”
Raktar looked back at her across the clearing, and his expression changed to a wide, fierce, delighted grin. Beckoning her to him with the axe, he called out to her in her own tongue, mocking her, cheering her on. “Come along, girl, what are you waiting for? Come and face me now. Come on!”
Jessie darted forward, all her senses, real or not, focusing down until all that she saw or knew was the massive Orc in front of her, his gray skin running slick with sweat around the leather.
She felt as if she were running down a tunnel towards the Orc, and knew that she was losing it, felt herself lose control on her center, knew that she should never let herself ‘tunnel in’ as Fergus called it, but she couldn’t help herself. Trick or not, she couldn’t stop herself from responding, her anger rising, the rage within her fueling her to move faster and get to grips with him, to cut that sneering smile from his fat gray face, to shut him up, to close him out, to get him out of her mind.
Raktar stood and waited for her to bring the fight to him, and met her sword with his axe, head to edge, blow for blow, moving his feet in a shuffling dance, always in balance, always in tune with the rhythms of his swinging arms, moving the axe in ways that an axe should never go as he blocked and parried her strikes.
It wasn’t effortless, it wasn’t silent, and it wasn’t easy. Both of them were trying as hard as they could to get their blade in the other’s flesh, and make it count. The clearing echoed to the sound of their harsh breathing and grunts of exertion.
Raktar chose to stand his ground, turning and twisting but holding his place, letting the fight come to him, while Jessie flowed around him, darting and rolling around, always trying to catch him off balance on the flank. No matter how they tried, neither could move faster than the other, and neither could overpower the other. Raktar spent more time on the defense, while Jessie was clearly more comfortable with the low lunge and distracting feint, but the more they fought, the better they learned the other’s style, and the clearer it became that they were evenly matched. Too evenly matched.
Jessie knew her focus was too narrow as she kept up the attack, as she tried to keep the pressure on, but the chance moments where she glimpsed the face of Raktar gave her hope. The Orc was clearly uncertain, emotionally off balance. Whatever his intentions, he wasn’t bringing the fight to her; he wasn’t in it nearly as much as she was. Maybe he didn’t have the heart, or maybe whatever shreds of his soul that had caught up in the axe weren’t enough, but Jessie could feel herself coming closer and closer to getting through his guard.
He was definitely weakening faster than she was. And damn it, he was getting closer to her own size as well! Hah!
As the Orc blocked a low slash with his axe, he growled out, “Why are you helping Far Dreamer, girl? What are you getting out of it?”
Nice try, Orc. Distracting an opponent with bullshit nonsense was a trick older than Fergus, but that’s all right. Two can play that game.
“What do you mean, monster? She saved my life and brought me back from death itself. I didn’t see her freeing your ass from the axe, now did I?”
Raktar let loose with a terrible laugh, a deep, thunderous sound that chilled Jessie to the heart. He swung his axe to the attack with a great sideways sweep that Jessie deftly rolled under, and called tauntingly to her as she stopped just out of reach.
“Did she not? And yet here I stand, face to face with you! And more, can’t you feel it? Can’t you feel my power? I was bound to the axe for four full seasons, and with each kill, the axe drank deep, but my soul drank as well. Look upon me! Do you not feel my strength?”
Jessie leapt once more to the attack. As she swung her blade in yet another futile blow, she had to admit, the presence of Raktar was different from both Gavin and the Katarese. He didn’t just feel more powerful, he felt wrong, twisted. His presence sickened her. Just being near him was akin to the feeling she once had had when breaking open a pastry to find it rotten and filled with worms on the inside.
That wasn’t going to stop her from kicking his ass, though. Swollen on stolen souls or not, he didn’t move any faster or hit any the harder.
“Wasn’t any of Bane’s doing, grayass. All she did was break you free to steal your power, and give it all to me. How’s it feel to be cast aside?”
Raktar seemed honestly amused, the grin from his black chuckles still wide upon his face.
“Hah! I’m not trying to distract you, fool, I’m trying to get through your blind, stubborn anger! Shut up and listen to me!”
“You say you hate me, you hate Orcs, and you hate everything about us. Isn’t that right, girl? You set yourself against us, against my entire people! You say you want us all to die, you want to bathe in a sea of Orc blood!”
Jessie laughed in delight and charged in, blade slashing high and low. “Damn right, grayskin! I want to see you, your clan and your whole people dead, from one end of the mountains to the other!”
Jessie paused for just a moment, locked eye to eye with Raktar. She whispered, as if to herself, as if to a lover; “Oh yes, Orc. Oh my, yes. I want to see your people burn.”
Raktar lunged forward, pushing hard, sending Jessie spinning backwards, off balance, half trotting, half running to regain her footing. Raktar pursued, axe swinging low, and Jessie deftly hopped back rather than risking a diving leap. She was becoming well aware of how fast Raktar was able to change directions of his axe in mid stroke.
Raktar growled as he chased after her, breath coming in great rasping wheezes. “Orcborn or not, Far Dreamer is one of my people, blood of my blood, clan of my clan. Even now, she fights to save my people, to free them from their chains. And you’re helping her. You’re helping us. You help the blood of my blood to survive!”
Jessie was so overcome with rage, blindsided with a burst of fury from her soul, that she lost all sense of what she was trying to do. In mid-block, she shifted direction with her blade, and sought to cut the sneer off the gray skinned bastard’s face. She forgot about distractions, about playing her own mind game. Raktar had gotten right to the heart of her own misgivings and fear.
As Raktar blocked, he twisted the haft of the axe to shift her reach on her hilt, and grabbed her wrist with his massive left hand. The sword edge stopped within a hair’s breadth from his eyes, and he held her there, axe to sword, holding her fast, both straining against the strength of the other. Both tried to get their blade through the others guard by sheer force of will, and crush their enemy completely.
The two strained against each other for a long, hard moment, and then Raktar sneered in Jessie’s face. “You hate us? Scream your hate to me, little girl. I know you hate. I feel it now, burning within you. It’s all around us, lighting the sky the color of blood and death. I taste it with my every breath.”
“Tell me, little traitor. How can you make yourself aid Far Dreamer? How can you pledge to help her in her quest to free my people, if this hate in your heart is true?”
Jessie clenched her jaw, feeling like her teeth would break off from all the effort she put into pushing Raktar’s axe aside and sliding the edge of her blade across his leering, grinning, mocking face.
She spit her hatred in his eyes, Raktar now somehow reduced to a size to match hers. Her need to get to grips with him, to cut him, to kill him, to shut him up was driving her into a frenzy. Nothing existed in the world but the need to destroy him. “I’m not helping her to free your people! I’m helping her to free mine! If the Orcs are freed of the Dryad’s false rage, then the war might stop someday!”
Raktar continued to hold fast, staring her directly in the eyes, face close enough to slap. “Ha! Bullshit! I know hate, girl, I know what real hate is. Real hate is a burning fire in your gut, a roaring, wrenching, savaging blaze that feeds on every thought of inflicting pain on the enemy, of making them suffer, wanting nothing more than the cursing, whining misery of your enemy, NO MATTER WHAT THE COST. So what if some humans you’ve never met will keep fighting forever, so long as more Orcs get to die?
“You hate, I know it, I can feel it, you bleed black venom from your heart, but still you help us, you help my clan, you help my blood sister on her quest to save my people.”
Raktar pushed back at her, releasing his grip on her wrist, a sudden shove that broke their stalemate and sent her staggering back across the clearing, a perfect moment to take advantage of her distraction and flash of sudden terror.
Instead of chasing after her and exploiting his sudden break, he stood there and screamed back at her as the veins pulsed in his throat. “Admit it! You don’t hate us, or you’d never be here having your guts cut open and your flesh set on fire to save us! You’d find some other way! So, who is it you really hate, girl?”
“Who do you really, truly hate?”
The question echoed inside Jessie’s head, and she tried to throw it off, to focus on protecting herself, on fighting. She had to keep fighting. It was all a trick, a distraction.
But the longer Raktar stood there, unmoving, watching her with a strange mixture of anger and frustration on his heavy face, the more time the words had to echo, and they continued to build in strength within her mind rather than fading away.
“Who do you really hate?”
Who do you really hate, Jessie? He’s right, it’s not him, the sight of him sets my blood to boiling, but it’s not a touch on the real rage in my guts. Who do you hate, Jessie, come on now, damn it, cut through the bullshit and lies, who do you hate with all your heart?
WHO DO YOU HATE?
Jessie felt her doubts, the rage and pain and confusion that had been in her mind all along, whether she recognized or admitted to them or not, finally stand out stark and clear.
She did hate. She hated with a black, terrifying intensity. Even now, as she broke free, blindly, recklessly, knowing not what she did or how she was doing it, she felt the hate coiling and beating within her heart.
She opened the eyes of her mind to truly see what was there to be seen, and saw the horrifying results of her self-deception.
The clearing of her youth, of training sessions and successes, was long gone. In it’s place was revealed a plain as black as a moonless night, and the black sky above was lit only by the constant pulsing of red and purple arcs of lightning forking across the heavens, like the flashing lights seen when she would close her eyes and press upon her eyelids with her fingers.
They stood facing each other within the true nature of her soul, surrounded by the terrible storm of her rage. All along, she had been lying to herself, denying the rage, pretending it was gone, claiming to have found peace, to be at ease, to be centered.
She was utterly filled with rage. Filled with hate. No more lies. No more denial. She couldn’t pretend anymore, no matter how hard she suddenly tried.
And Raktar still waited for her.
Jessie felt herself at a moment of choice; to fight the hate and rage, to deny it’s having any strength or control over her, or to give in, give herself over to it, body and soul, to take the rage and become one with it, and let herself go.
Jessie released her fear, and opened herself fully to the hatred within her soul. She saw, finally, with open eyes, exactly what was within her, and knew that it was fully and completely her own. No outside agency, no strange workings of magic within the axe, not even her time among the dead could be blamed. The hatred, the rage, every stray thought and feeling she had ever repressed and pushed away, they were all hers and hers alone. And she would deny them no more.
She tore her heart wide open and accepted it all, and along with the hatred came a dark power, and a feeling of almost boundless, endless space.
She was no longer trying to ride the lightning, she was the lightning, and she exulted in the exhilarating freedom of being swept away, out of control, without restraint or any possibility of being stopped.
Jessie’s entire being erupted towards Raktar in one overwhelming, unmatchable wave of fury.
Even as she swept, all hatred and power without form crashing directly into Raktar’s face, she felt herself unravelling, and although she had no idea what would happen next, although she desperately feared what was on the other side of this release, she let everything she had ever restrained or feared within her soul out, and shoved it all down Raktar’s throat in one final, primal scream that could no longer be contained.
“Damn you to hell, you bastard, the thing I hate most is myself!”
All there was in that moment was a woman filled with grief and rage, a woman that had tried to learn to be a warrior, who had dreamed of being a protector for her family, a woman who had been far away with her friend practicing the sword when her family needed her the most. A woman of great heart and passion who had been too far away to do aught other than scream in rage and helplessness as everyone she had ever known or loved died in the blackened remains of her only home.
All this rushed against the soul of a being that represented all the death and hopelessness and despair she had ever known in her life.
There was no contest.
As the essence that was once Jessie crashed fully against Raktar’s soul, the flashes of red and purple dimmed, muted, and mixed with the endless black, surrounding, engulfing, consuming.
And then, all that is or would ever be of Jessie erupted in one final, blinding burst of soul-shattering light.