Thank Saturn, Midnight Rose thought with a mental sigh as the first guard attacked with an angry shout.
She had been looking forward to some exercise but the mercenaries had decided bore her to death with the usual flailing of empty bravado and crude innuendo first. After the first minute her patience was effectively depleted and she uttered some retrospectively nasty comments about their lineage and manly prowess to get on with the fated conflict.
The Battles wetted her lips on her glass of wine as she parried the low swing of a halberd with a swift kick of her booted heel. The guard attached to the weapon staggered under the shock of the blow and nearly dropped his polearm as his fellows moved in to attack. Immediately a curved, notched sword and a broadsword lunged for her throat. She pivoted on her heel and let the blades slice the air barely a fingerâ€™s width from her neck. From her position, she could have crushed the wrist of her nearest assailant before she knocked him into his comrade. Instead she leapt into a back-flip, her toes landing lightly on the headrest of the closest lounge chair though her footing was stable enough for her to take another, longer drink.
Her gaze swept the across the room within two heartbeats and took in the eighteen men arrayed in the cavernous chamber as they circled around the lounge chairs or hugged the walls as they tried to encircle her. She counted four men carrying polearms with the rest brandishing short ranged melee weapons. Then from the corner of her eye she spotted a man with a shortbow and decided that stalling for the Hostility Clearance Request to go through was going to be a bit more of a workout than she had initially anticipated.
She shifted her weight and tipped over the chair she was standing on just as the first of the mercenaries were upon her. The move bought her another moment and a heavy piece of wood to absorb the arrow the man with the bow had fired. A sharp kick sent the chair sliding into the shins and knees of the thwarted guardsmen, which knocked them over in a heap. Not wasting a breath, she hurled her glass into the face of a man charging towards her from behind then dropped low into a sweep kick and brought down another merc that strayed too close before she made a dash toward her makeshift barricade.
With a heave Rose launched off the chair and tangled bodies towards the bowman. She twisted her body midair and spun out of the way of the manâ€™s second shot before she landed well within striking distance of the bowman. The man barely had a chance to be surprised as she pilfered the dagger that hung from his belt and sliced through the bowstring between his hands in a single stroke. She then sent the bowman reeling into the wall with a hard shove.
Dagger in hand, Rose ducked as a sword whistled overhead where her neck used to be and rolled hard to the right. The clang of metal upon the marble tile rung in her ears while shouts of amazement and rage echoed from all around her. The Sidereal was beginning to feel impatient as she parried a wild swing of a guardâ€™s scimitar. The man pressed forward, probably hoping that his bulk would keep her from escaping his allies, but she had other ideas. She tripped the mercenary mid-charge then leapt over a thrusted halberd to land safety on the haft as though it were a solid platform. From there she somersaulted over the menâ€™s heads and kicked off a nearby wall, which sent her clear across the room.
She landed then rolled into a low crouch behind another chair. Her patience was wearing thin again. Maidens damn this waiting, she thought hotly. End the conflict as quickly and efficiently as possible her Sifu taught her, for an extended battle, whatever the cause and whatever the scale bred only suffering and resentment for all involved. And in situations like this, it was one Hell of a pain in the ass too, she mentally added.
â€œSurround her, ya slackjawed inbreeds!â€ she heard a man shout. â€œShields to the fore, protect the long arms! The rest of ya lads box the wench in!â€
From her position, she could not see the source of the commands, but she recognized the voice to be the guard captain they encountered earlier. Soon after, a familiar heavenly chime to her left caught her attention. Finally! The bureaucracy that drove the cogwheels behind the HCRs was one of the fastest in the Bureau, but it was never fast enough once youâ€™re actually in a scrap. Regardless, the reasons behind the whole affair made sense to her as it insured that no seemingly random fistfight, duel, or ambush cut short a destiny that the Bureau deemed important enough to mettle with.
But it was still a pain in the ass.
Rose ignored the slight tremor of approaching boots and armor as she thrust her hand into the lantern for the contents that waited within. The heavenly mailbox seemed to take offense at the rough treatment it was forced to endure and winked away almost instantly, but the Battles took no notice as she quickly scanned through the single immaculate leaf.
Source: Office of Hostile Intent, Division of Battles, Bureau of Destiny
Date Dispatched: 14th of Resplendent Fire, RY 763
Sender: Shan-Lon, forty second clerk of the Office of Hostile Intent
Recipient(s): Karal Midnight Rose, Chosen of Mars
Agent ID(s): M12004
Date Received: 14th of Resplendent Fire, RY 763
Subject: Re: Hostility Clearance Requests
Hostility Clearance Request received and logged. Last request received on the 20th of Ascending Earth, RY 732. In-house investigators report no earmarked destinies within one hundred yards of the agentâ€™s last known position. Hostility Clearance Request approved.
Approved Clearance Level: 2
Be advised: There is a Terrestrial level presence within the allocated battle space. Possibility of interference: 94.5%
Mars guide your hand, agent M12004,
Shan-Lon, forty second clerk of the Office of Hostile Intent, Division of Battles, Bureau of Destiny
Level 2? Seriously? Rose let out a short throaty growl. A level two clearance meant only abilities and overt uses of power up to the peak of enlightened mortal ability, which seriously limited her options. She now remembered why most field agents she spoke to often ignored the clearance level or skipped the process all together. â€œLeave it to the Bureau to make everything that much more of a pain,â€ she grumbled just as the rallied mercenaries moved into position to surround her.
â€œSorry boys,â€ the Battles said with a mirthless smile as she smoothly rose to her feet, â€œbut heaven says youâ€™re all expendable.â€
Then the guards were upon her. All four polearms erupted from behind a ring of shields from four different directions. Unfortunately for them, no matter how well they were aimed, her body was simply absent from those locations. The Chosen of Mars was still in a bad place in the middle of a forest of angry spears and shields however, and quickly moved to correct that. Her dagger in hand, she smashed one haft into splinters and seized the bladed half with her free hand to break through the human barricade. Invisible motes of essence sparked off her borrowed weapon as it shattered the shield she aimed for and pierced the armored body behind it.
A flick of her wrist sent the dagger into the unprotected face of the guard behind the shield bearer. As the ring disintegrated into chaos, Rose slipped past the two dead men into the open and commandeered a sword from one of the fallen as she did so.
She pointed the blade forward as she rose to her feet, its edge perfectly parallel with the floor, breathed in deeply and exhaled. Her eyes ran along the weaponâ€™s edge as the light from the lamps danced upon its surface. It was a sturdy sword and acceptably looked after, more than adequate for her purposes. The remaining mercenaries gave her plenty of opportunities to test out the weapon, as they worked to restore their ranks before they once again began marching steadily towards her to back her into a corner.
They were pretty good for mortals, Rose gave them that much, but they were not the ones with over a hundred years of swordsmanship under their belt. The Sidereal swept her sword down to block an angry swing for her legs. The force of the parry fueled her next parry against an overhead chop which guided her blade into a third manâ€™s thrust. Whether they struck alone or in concert, the Battles calmly parried each blow with just the exact amount of force required. Every one of her movements was calculated and carefully rationed as she followed the flow of battle along the reddish threads of fate while her opponents only succeeded to tire themselves in their attempts to land a blow.
To her enemies, her sword was a whirling dervish of life-ending steel.
Then Rose saw her chance. One of her opponents was slow to recover after she parried his attack and left himself exposed. She lunged for the opening. To the mercâ€™s credit, he managed a wild swing which would have warded off a lesser duelist, but she knew the blade would never touch her before it sliced the air an inch from her face and drove her sword into his throat. The manâ€™s shout turned into a gurgle as he grasped in vain for sword that Ended him, but she had already moved on, her blade leaving a spray of blood in its wake.
The next three also fell to slashes to their necks and a fourth went down quickly with a crushed jaw and broken wrists. She wanted to end this quickly. Conflict is necessary, but suffering and resentment are the only children born when it lingers, her Sifu whispered from her memories. She sidestepped then spun along the length of an out-stretched halberd and a fifth man fell to the floor, this time with a bloody spot where the heart should have been.
Rose began to see the fear in their eyes as she took another deep breath through her nose and leveled her sword into the stance she held before. The captain that rallied them before called for another, but this time she knew exactly where he was, hiding behind the two guards that had been guarding the door that led into the room Endeavor wandered into earlier.
He did not stand a chance. Strike decisively to defeat your opponentâ€™s resolve and the battle will see to itself.
She was across the room before they even knew she was there. Her sword flashed twice and two more bodies clattered to the floor. The guard captain moved to defend, but to the Sidereal, he might as well have been standing still before she cut him down with the same indifference the rest of his ilk received.
With their leader gone, the surviving mercenariesâ€™ will to fight evaporated like morning fog before the noonday. Weapons and dignity were forgotten as they fled the building, and left the Chosen of Mars standing there alone.
Well, not quite alone.
Rose noted the sound of panicked gasps for air and turned toward its source to find one last guard. Faint recollection told her that it was Brannic, the young mercenary who was identified by the guard captain at the front gate. The manâ€™s face was pasty white with fear as he held a sword rather limply in two trembling hands.
The Sidereal rolled her eyes, â€œI donâ€™t feel like Ending you today, brat,â€ she said simply and wiped her borrowed sword on the garments of one of young Brannicâ€™s fellows. When the man did not react, her eyes narrowed and she leveled her blade at him, â€œRun or fight, kid. Run or fight. Pick before I choose for you.â€
That seemed to finally get through the haze of fear, for he immediately bolted for the door, fumbled with the handle a moment and then was gone.
Rose blew a hard sigh then turned towards the doors to the Trade Lordâ€™s chambers. She had a little thank you ready for him for the welcome she was given. But as she reached the once barred double doors, a stone the size of her head streaked over her left shoulder and shattered into a dozen jagged fragments on the stone door frame. The attack made her flinch, but she was quick to recover and spun on her heel into a crouch, her sword held ready to ward off another attack.
â€œYou did not have to spare any of them,â€ her assailant observed aloud. His voice was a steady tenor that matched the rugged but youthful face of the man that stood not far from where she was. His dark hair was tied back in a practical knot and he was protected by a suit of finely crafted chainmail under a simple breastplate. In his hand was an elegant single-edged daiklaive made of white jade, and though his stance was relaxed, the Battles trusted that about as much as she trusted Venus to stay celibate.
Hello, Mr. Terrestrial interference, she thought with a mental smirk. â€œAnd you didnâ€™t have to miss on purpose,â€ she shot back, surmising that it must have been the reason why none of her self-preservation charms alerted her to the attack before it came.
â€œI do not strike my enemies from behind,â€ the Dragon Blooded replied stiffly, as though the mere suggestion was insulting. â€œI watched you fight. You are strong, but it is just the peak of human potential. If you surrender now, I will spare you, in honor of your skill.â€
Roseâ€™s response, which consisted of uncontrollable laughter, only seemed to agitate the man. â€œI had no idea,â€ she said as she calmed down and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, â€œthat people around here still said things like that.â€ She smirked for real this time as anger seeped into her opponentâ€™s countenance and planted a defiant fist on her hip. â€œAnd where would my honor be if I skipped out on my duty, hmm?â€
A dry chuckle was the reply, â€œI do not know whether your resolve comes from honor or simple arrogance, but you cannot hope to best me,â€ he said as her essence fueled instincts cried out in warning.
Decades honed muscles reacted to save her life as her arm brought her sword up to defend against the strike of an invisible sword that caused steel to shriek in protest and sent sparks flying in every direction. Before she had completely recovered from the staggering blow, the Blooded was in her face with a powerful overhead chop, his hands ablaze with a crimson aura. Rose swept her blade across her chest and deflected the path of the attack at the last moment. To her surprise, her sword cracked under the force of the blow, but she managed to escape unscathed. Rather than make some distance, she stepped in and drove her sword pommel at the manâ€™s face, but he managed to dodge by arching his back then lithely backed off with a smooth back-flip.
The Battles then tossed her damaged blade aside. An Unseen Strike followed up with a Fiery Garda she recognized with an approving grin. I take that back, Snakeblood. Also to his credit, the Dragon-Blooded waited rather than press the advantage. â€œIt has been a long time since someone has resisted my blows so completely,â€ he said, â€œI am called Iraja Yasu. I would know your name, bodyguard.â€
â€œTell me you donâ€™t try to pick up women with that line, Mr. Even Blade,â€ she retorted then dropped into the generic hand to hand fighting stance of the Violet Briar of Sorrows, the basic self-defense style of martial art that every Sidereal is taught. â€œZu Rat Teâ€™s variation of the style by the looks of it.â€
â€œYou know of master Zu Rate Te?â€ was his incredulous response.
She shrugged, â€œMaybe. Who knows?â€
Her opponent managed to keep his composure this time as he adopted the familiar stance of the Even Blade style of swordsmanship. She knew that it was a popular style for both mortals and Dragon-Blooded in the region from a martial arts exposition the Scarlet Panoply occasionally held. It was a simple, but powerful style of swordplay, though ultimately incomplete by most Bureau experts. Her opponentâ€™s particular variant was fading from popularity due to its creatorâ€™s sudden and unexplained disappearance, but it was still quite effective.
The Dragon-Bloodedâ€™s face hardened, â€œDraw your blade then, nameless bodyguard.â€
â€œToo bad,â€ she replied lightly, â€œthe paper pushers said no.â€
â€œEnough of your riddles,â€ the Dragon-Blooded snapped and bounded the distance between them in a single lunge.
Rose saw the attack coming from the red-tinged threads of fate that draped over the swordsman like the strings of a puppet and dodged the thrust that came with a quick pivot. She moved in further, crossing to the Dragon-Bloodâ€™s side, landing three essence-hardened punches, two to the wrist and one to the kidney, but they were all ineffective. She then made a low cross kick on her opponentâ€™s shin, but backed off when the leg did not so much are move an inch.
If the ebb and flow of battle and warfare was a river, then essence users like the Dragon-Blooded and her starry brethren were the dams and canals that directed the current as they wished. Fortunately, the influence that a Terrestrial Exalted could exert was at best minor and more importantly, temporary. Still, hobbled as she was by heavenly bureaucracy, it was one Hell of an advantage.
Dust began to swirl around the swordsman, and his skin took on a faint granite-like hue as he sliced at her with a backhand swing that kissed the air barely a breath away from her chin. The growing maelstrom of dust and sand threatened to blind and choke her as he launched a dizzying set of cuts and thrusts. She bobbed low to avoid a blow meant to take off her head then narrowly dove aside to avoid another that sought to gut her. As her dive turned into a roll, she managed to keep her head from being cleaved in half.
Because of her roll, her back was turned for a split second and it was not an opportunity her opponent let slip by. As she recovered, his next slash was already upon her and with a hiss she reached for Crimson Princess. Her back still mostly facing her opponent, she drew her blade across her shoulder to intercept the strike. Polished white jade rang against scarlet stained iridescent gray as the two warriors ground their weapons against one another.
â€œYou drew your sword,â€ the Dragon-Blooded said over the rush of sand. There was no mistaking the smug satisfaction in his voice.
Rose spat out sand. â€œNot quite,â€ she said as she directed his gaze to her scabbard with her eyes, which revealed the tip of her saber still tucked inside. She then slammed her blade back completely into its sheath. As she did so, her basket-hilt caught the edge of her opponentâ€™s sword and disrupted his balance long enough for her to drive her fist into the swordsmanâ€™s breastplate. The blow was hard enough to dent the steel, but the man did not budge. As she moved away to avoid the inevitable counter-attack, sand managed to worm its way into her eyes.
Now Iâ€™m getting annoyed, she thought with growl and squeezed her eyes shut. Experience with dirty fighting against sailors and cut-throats kept her mind clear enough to ignore the burning pain in her eyes, but Melaâ€™s tits it hurt.
Spitting out more sand became a waste of time and effort as the Dragon-Blooded closed in for another attack and brought his elemental anima with him. Blinded and deafen by the sand and dust, all she could do was dodge and stagger about the room. She was getting tired and they both knew it. His sword got closer to her skin with every strike and her garments already had been sliced in places due to close calls. Between the swear-filled evading, she knew that she would have to get serious or things would turn bad, and fast.
Then the bad happened.
She sidestepped a blow and made a grab for his wrists to force him to drop his weapon, but the swordsman responded with a sharp punch to her chest which felt like being hit with a goremaul. The kick that followed was like a charging yeddim and it sent her flying through two sets of doors and into a pile of sand and hardwood splinters on the other side. Her essence infused clothing saved her ribs from the worse of it, but it knocked the wind out of her and then some. Shouldâ€™ve Ducked that, Rose thought as she staggered to her feet,ahh, to Hell the damned HCR!
Still in a daze, she rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand when she heard a laugh that came from somewhere further behind her and then some chatter. A moment later she heard Endeavorâ€™s yelling over the ringing in her head, â€œWhat are you doing! Youâ€™re making me look bad!â€
For Fateâ€™s sake, Endeavor! â€œShut up!â€ she spat and finally managed to get most of the sand out of her eyes.
â€œThey said you were a combat specialist,â€ the merchant sniffed snootily from the criminally comfortable looking cushion he was seated in.
â€œThey gave me a level two clearance!â€ Rose snapped back.
Endeavor seemed to perk up immediately, â€œYou actually submitted a HCR? Iâ€™m so proud of you!â€
â€œShut up, Endeavor. Iâ€™m about to disregard it,â€ the Battles said matter-of-factly and drew her saber.
The Dragon-Bloodedâ€™s anima still churned furiously between the broken doors. Her partner squinted at the dervish and hummed as though impressed, â€œHe does seem to be quite the fighter, my dear,â€ he agreed, â€œBut I was looking rather forward to an impressive show of force. So have at it!â€ He then tapped his nose conspiratorially, â€œI wonâ€™t say anything.â€
â€œSo you are finally treating this battle seriously, nameless bodyguard?â€ Iraja Yasu said calmly as he entered the room. She could barely see him through all of the debris, a firm boulder in the center of a howling sandstorm.
â€œI always treat my Battles seriously, Snake-bloodâ€ Rose replied with a grim smirk and traced the mark of the Maiden of Battles with her sword. â€œWatch carefully now, because by tomorrow, you wonâ€™t know what hit you.â€
The Sidereal could tell that her blade had become what could only be described as, anxious, as she willed some of her essence into the blade. The scarlet tinged blade immediately brightened with power and she felt the almost euphoric rush of energy that ran from her core to the tips of her toes every time she fed Crimson Princess some of her power. Fortunately, decades of meditation allowed her to ignore it and focus on her opponent instead.
The Dragon-Bloodedâ€™s eyes narrowed, but she did not give him any time to strategize as she charged. Her legs felt light as she crossed the distance between them faster than a mortal could manage. Iraja Yasu was ready for her however, and launched an attack of his own, but to Roseâ€™s star-speckled eyes he seemed to move with impossible slowness. Everything within her sight flowed as though the world was underwater as every possibility played out at once.
She saw where each particle of sand was going to be, so she was never in its way. She saw where their swords would cross, and made sure her blade was there. But most importantly, she saw every thread of possibility that connected her opponentâ€™s weapon with her body and Crimson Princess severed every single strand like splitting the strings on a harp.
Threads of possibility that led to the Dragon-Bloodedâ€™s defeat were all that remained as she easily parried the daiklaive out of his hands. His face was a mask of shock and confusion as his weapon flew across the room and out of reach, but he was quick to recover and concentrated his essence into a melon sized shard of stone which he flung towards her much like the first time.
Her saber met the projectile head on. Crimson essence flashed then erupted in an explosion of bloody radiance and rocky shrapnel. The blast blinded her opponent for an instant and it was all the time she needed to deliver her final blow, a low and sweeping slash across the waistline. As her attack connected her saber unleashed another blast, and she noted a piece of the swordmanâ€™s thread of fate, discolored by his elemental nature, chip and fall away, but the thread remained intact. Again she was impressed, for he had managed to ward off death by hardening his skin with his Earth-natured essence when Crimson Princess had expelled its essence-fueled rage and enveloped him in the angry red blast. But the force of the explosion still sent the Dragon-Bloodedâ€™s body through what remained of the two sets of doors that separated the waiting room and the Trade Lordâ€™s audience chamber.
The sword in her hand, still bathed in ruby essence tingled seductively as she stepped over the wreckage and around the unconscious body of the Iraja Yasu. The Blooded was badly burned by the blast of raw essence, and he probably suffered from several broken ribs from the sheer force of it as well, but she was confident that heâ€™ll live through the experience. She felt a faint desire to End him at the back of her mind, but ignored the impulse as she always did.
With some effort she slipped her sword back into its scabbard and blew a long sigh. It felt like kicking a bad habit every time. Then the sound of overly-excited clapping brought her back to the present.
She rolled her eyes and sighed again, this time in exasperation, then glared at the self-proclaimed adventurer and merchant who stumbled to his feet with a broad grin across his face.
â€œYou made it, my dear!â€ Endeavor greeted her jovially and moved to embrace her, but she put an end to that with her palm to his face.
â€œStow it,â€ she snapped, â€œWhat the Hell have you been doing? Theyâ€™ve been trying to cut me open with sharp metal implements and youâ€™ve been sitting here chatting about the weather and picking your nose?â€
â€œYes, well,â€ the merchant said suspiciously sheepishly as he backed off and shrugged before he turned towards the Trade Lord, whose face was contorted into a comical web of outrage and fear. â€œNothing so uncouth, Iâ€™m afraid. My dear friend and I were just having a friendly wager. And since Iâ€™ve taken the pot as it were, itâ€™s time for you to spill the beans!â€