I rolled across the floor as Anja’s sword slammed into the spot I was just at. Hastily, i got back onto my feet and into a defensive position, ready to dodge her. “For god’s sake, Anja! Calm down! There is literally NO reason for us to fight!”
“You don’t have any idea about my reasons, master! I will be on top again! I will have control again! Hyaaaahh!” Dragging her greatsword across the floor, she swung it upwards at an angle, throwing up dirt and gravel in the process.
I couldn’t allow any of her attacks to hit me. My armor might’ve been strong, but a full blow from a buster sword might’ve even crushed it. I had to rely on my speed and agility to get out of the way.
As her swing came crashing towards me, I rolled out of dodge and pulled out my two bone blades. I looked at my father’s amulet dangling from one of them. I had no idea what effect it would have on an already transformed monster, but I had no choice but to use them now. “I’m not going to hurt you and I’m not going to fight you, Anja! Get your senses together! There’s a million other ways to resolve this!”
“This IS the way to resolve this! It has to be! It’s always been the way things worked!” Her sharp eyes focused on me and her blade once again dragged across the dirt towards me.
I shielded myself with my blades in a cross formation in front of my body. I gritted my teeth and braced myself as I saw the mass of steel coming towards me. The incoming blow of the side of her sword didn’t get to my body, but it still had enough pressure to it that my feet ground backwards over the floor.
The moment I gained my footing, I knew I had to strike before she could recover from her heavy swing. I pushed my feet into the ground and dashed forward bashing into her with my shoulder so I would at least get some distance between us.
I had to throw my whole body weight against her to even get her to move but with the way her claws could dig into the earth, that wasn’t much either. At the very least, it got her to let go of her greatsword which was firmly lodged into the ground. Even with nothing but her claws to fight, she was viciously dangerous. She flashed her fangs and began to unleash a flurry of cuts that I could only barely parry with my blades.
“Grrghghhh! HyaaaaAAAHHH!” She let out a thundering roar that almost mimicked that of her former self. She became an enraged beast with primal urges that I could see flash up in her eyes. “You’ve taken it from me! You’ve taken EVERYTHING!”
I blocked more and more strikes that equally gained more and more force. “I know! That’s why I wanted to talk to you! STOP THIS!”
“I’m done listening to you! Everyone should listen to ME! I’ve earned the right!”
“What are you talking about!? Please! Stop and let’s talk!”
“HrreaaAAAHHH!” With a crossed strike of her claws, she broke through my defense and knocked me down to the floor yet again. There was no stopping her and before I could even get up again, I had one of her claws wrapped around my throat.
“Hrgghnngghh…” I choked, barely getting any air as my body was lifted up and held in the air. I let go of my blades and pulled on her arm to get her to let go of me, but it was of no use. “I can help you. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We’re not… enemies.” I spoke with a piping, suppressed voice as I felt my esophagus slowly getting crushed.
Her face wavered and her eyes twitched as she noticed that my life was now in her hands. Her lips trembled and even through my slowly fading vision, I noticed the pain in them. “If you were not my enemy, you would be my ally. I have no allies, master. Everyone is against me. There’s only me.”
“And me, you stupid bitch!”
Without any warning, a massive boulder-like object crashed into Anja. Within milliseconds, the hand that was choking me was no longer there, and neither was Anja. Time shut down for a second as my brain tried to assess the situation. I turned my head to see Jaina finishing up a throwing motion from which she still had to recover while on my other side, Anja was flung several feet, stuck at the top of Jaina’s hammer.
Time unfroze, though I still couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. The second my feet touched the ground, I felt the earth shattering impact of Anja crashing into the side of a sandy slope at the far end of the arena.
I was still in disbelief and not at all ready to catch my fall as I landed on my butt instead with my legs giving in. I landed right between my blades and with my eyes still fixated on Anja’s crashing site, felt along the ground to grab them again.
I was suddenly taken out of my bewilderment as I felt someone shake my body.
My ears were still ringing and my vision blurry as I slowly regained my senses and the sound kicked back in. “…laydus! Kalaydus! Are you alright? Are you hurt? DID SHE HURT YOU?” Her voice broke up several times as tears streamed down her cheeks.
While the cloud of roughed up sand balled up behind us, I was focused entirely on my own breathing and my thoughts. I shook my head and faced Jaina who was sobbing and holding my shoulders like she was afraid to let go of me. I reached out to her and laid my hand on her shoulder as well.
I couldn’t smile, but I still nodded reassuringly while being out of breath. “Y…yeah, I’m… I’m fine, Jaina. She didn’t hurt me just… need to get my breath back.”
She broke down into tears and clutched my armor as she hugged me tightly. I gently rubbed her back to calm her down and turned my eyes towards the crash site cautiously. I could feel that this one hit was not enough to take Anja out.
“Jaina, you need to get out of here.”
She looked up through her tear stained eyes and was taken aback in confusion. “What? No! I can’t leave you alone down here, it’s my fault she’s this angry.”
I grabbed her shoulders and made clear to her that I was serious. “Jaina, I don’t think it matters at this point who of us she’s more mad at; she won’t care. I will not let her hurt you, me or even herself.”
Jaina grabbed my head and put her forehead against mine as she cried in fear. Her lip was quivering. “Can… Can you really promise that? I don’t care if she hurts me. I deserve it.”
I sighed as I gently combed her dusty, tough hair. “Nobody is going to GET hurt. You trust me, right?”
She sobbed. “Yes…”
“Then… stand… back.”
Angry grunts could be heard so loudly that they echoed through the entire arena. The whistling breaths of Anja’s nostrils ringing out from within the center of the enormous crater she had created in the slope.
As the dust settled, me and Jaina, slowly parting from each other, focused our attention on the ebbing cloud of sand and dirt.
In her hands, she held the hammer that Jaina threw at her and she tossed it towards us without any sign of difficulty. She was pissed. The hammer landed right next to Jaina’s feet as it ground to a halt.
Through the remaining dust, we saw something that we neither expected nor hoped to ever see again. A red glow.
Jaina and I backed up in panic as Jaina picked up her hammer with trembling hands.
The silhouette of a furious, imposing Anja emerged, smoke blowing out of her nostrils and formerly hidden, leathery sails rising out of her back. I never would’ve even suspected the she still had those but what was even more intimidating… was that her throat was glowing a fiery read and small embers escaped her mouth when she breathed. Either through regeneration or just pure fury, her flame sacs reignited and she was ready to spew fire at any point now.
“Now, Jaina. No matter what happens, stay back and don’t do anything to get her attention!” I said to Jaina, quiet enough so Anja wouldn’t hear it. My voice was trembling. Even I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
“But what about you?”
“I’ll dodge her as long as I can and tire her out. And if things get ugly… there’s one more option that I’ll try.”
“But she caught you last time too!” Jaina interjected as she reluctantly holstered her hammer.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes before flipping my blades to hold them backwards. “She won’t this time.” I said and slowly headed towards Anja who was heading straight for me as well.
As we came closer to each other, her eyes grew sharp and focused on me like I was a hindrance in her path. “Out… of… my… way!”
I shook my head firmly and stood kept on walking. “Not gonna happen.”
“I was going to let her off at first. I wanted to give her the chance to run away like she always does. Now she will regret! Stop trying to protect her from this!”
“Anja! For fuck’s sake! It’s fucking enough!”
“You don’t talk to me this way! Nobody talks to me this way! Get! OUT! OF! THE! WAY!” Becoming more and more aggravated, she noticed that I was not moving. Her eyes flicked between me and Jaina behind me until she finally set her sights on me. “HRRAAAGHGHHH!”
With an uncontrolled swing, she curved her sword over her head and struck it down in a diagonal slash. I followed her swing, swiftly sliding past her legs as I passed her in stride. I hooked the dull side of my left blade around her leg and took her off balance before quickly turning around and shouldering her in the back.
Going with the momentum of her strike, she fell over and made a full flip. Rolling over her back through the dirt, she recovered unexpectedly fast and rolled onto her feet again, initiating the next attack.
I saw the fire burning in her eyes. It was legit hatred. Nothing but pure, focused fury. But even through that, I noticed something in the pattern she attacked me in. Whenever I dodged an attack, she always left in enough time between the last and the next attack until I regained my footing again.
It was like she intentionally wanted me to have a chance at all times. A chance to strike back. And I didn’t know why… but she seemed distraught when those attacks back at her weren’t coming.
After a while of this back and forth, me dodging effortlessly and her exerting all her effort into crushing me with her blade, we finally came to the point of exhaustion. The constant movement and her constant muscle strain was bound to make us both break out in sweat. I could tell that her muscles were aching as much as mine were and that our breaths were equally labored and winded.
Yet her anger didn’t subside. Although, her demands sounded more like pleading to me now. “Go away. I need to finish this! I can’t let this stand! I need to win this!”
“Why? Why do you need to? We’re willing to let this go! We don’t hate you, we want you with us. What about this do you not get?!”
Tears started streaming down her cheeks and the grip on her sword tightened. I could see how strained she was and how an inner conflict waged within her.
But just as I thought that we may have reached a breaking point, she put in one last desperate attempt. Her labored breath turned even more heavy and hot. Hot in the sense of fanning fire in the back of her throat. Her head began to glow and her mouth started dripping with flammable spit.
My eyes widened as I realized what was about to happen. I was about to shield myself with my blades but… she wasn’t focusing on me. Anja turned her head to the left. To the spot where Jaina stood, trembling and fidgeting with pure fear in her eyes. She was frozen on the spot.
Anja launched her head back before unleashing a torrent of fire that hurdled towards Jaina.
Within a split second, my feet kicked up dirt as I ran in between them. In the last possible moment, I got in front of Jaina and protectively held my arms up to shield my face from the incoming flames. The initial heatwave slammed into me like a Kestodon and the following flames didn’t let off with the pressure either.
Thanks to the incredible resistance to fire, the armor I wore almost negated any damage I took. A spray of fire spread out in all directions around me, turning the sand on the floor into liquid glass and scorched earth. It spread out far enough so that Jaina had an umbrella of safety within she could hide. I felt her pressing up against me from behind with her claws clinging to my the back of my armor.
We both gritted our teeth until finally the barrage came to an end and only stuttering, weak flames came our way. Not even enough to warrant shielding us anymore.
I relaxed my body and went out of my defensive position, steadying myself before I spoke to her. “Are you done? Did you finally get it all out?”
Jaina wheezed and held onto her trembling knees as she coughed up the last spurts of ember in her throat. She was all out. She gasped for air and sweat trickled down her forehead and chin, mixing in with painful tears. “No… why can’t I do it? I just want…”
“Exactly.” I cut her off, getting both hers and Jaina’s attention. “You want. That’s all this is. You want power, superiority and control. You think throwing a fit like this is going to give you that?”
“No, I… I…” She found no words, her eyes diluted and unfocused as she faced the ground. “I can’t… this is not how this is supposed to work. This is not how this is supposed to work…”
“Yes, things used to work this way. The way changed. Me and Jaina are not here to destroy or torment you. Neither of us wants to see you suffering or dead, but obviously you don’t believe that. I know that you’re struggling with all these changes and so are we. I can only speak for myself, but I want us to make the best out of it and work together. But if you really don’t want this… if you really need to do this your way… I’m not stopping you.”
I took a step forward towards her and stopped. Anja looked at me with a surprised look and rose up to face me even though she was still unsteady.
“Go ahead, pick up that sword of yours and do what you tried to do this entire time…” I opened my hands and let my blades drop to the floor before looking Anja straight in the eyes and spoke with conviction. “…I’m not going to dodge it.”
Jaina was about to run out to me. “Kalaydus, no! You can’t…”
I raised a hand, signaling her that she should stand back, and shook my head softly. “No matter what, Jaina.” I solemnly turned around and saw Anja clench her sword and freeze in reluctance.
“What are you doing? Pick up your weapons! You’re…you’re supposed to fight me!” She stuttered, the situation completely eluding her. She clutched her forehead, trembling and sobbing.
I responded calmly but sincerely. “It’s not really a fight if one side doesn’t want to see the other dead, is it?”
She gulped and looked back at me with her reddened eyes. Her black hair falling over one of them. She sunk her head as she reluctantly raised her sword. Once it reached its highest point over her head, she waited. Maybe for a feint. Maybe for any sort of movement. I did nothing.
“Go ahead. Kill me.”
And then she finally did it. Within seconds after a bellowing roar, the sound of a heavy slam shook the ground of the arena. Once again, it was filled with a massive cloud of dust. And unsurprisingly, I was still around to feel these tremors for myself.
I was unharmed.
Though my sight was incredibly impaired from the dust that was blowing into my eyes, I could just about see what was straight in front of me: a greatsword. Stuck straight up in a patch of dirt right in front of my feet.
The cloud settled a lot faster this time and as my vision cleared, there was no sign of Anja anymore. She was gone.
I turned around to check the rest of the arena for her but instead…
“KALAYDUS! HIC! Don’t do this to me again! Don’t do this ever again!” Jaina jumped into my arms insincerely pounding my chest with her fists as she whined to me. I wholeheartedly embraced her as I let her cry herself out.
I chuckled although I myself was still trembling from what just happened. “H…Hey… you know you don’t need to do this every time I almost die, right?”
“Shut up, you dummy!” She puffed her cheeks as she nuzzled me even harder.
Suddenly, we both heard a shriek. The shriek of a Mernos. And when we turned to see where it came from, we could only make out the silhouette of someone hanging off of one, heading for Astera.
Jaina clung to me in worry. “Do you… do you think she’s going to do something bad?”
“I don’t think so. I believe she has way bigger problems on her mind now than letting it out on the other people.”
“She really was ready to kill us, huh?”
“Yeah, I think so. Do you… do you hate her still too?”
Jaina thoughtfully looked at the ground. “I don’t… I don’t know. We fought so many times back then. But now we’re not those monsters anymore, or at least we’re less of it now. I guess I kind of hoped things would be different.”
I wrapped my arm around her shoulder and pulled her against me. “They’re going to be different, Jaina. I think we just need to convince Anja that this change doesn’t make her weak or any less powerful than anyone else.”
“But how do we do that?”
I scratched the back of my head in thought as one… very unusual idea popped into my head. “I think I know one way… but I need your help to do it.”
Jaina only cocked her head in confusion as I signaled her to follow me to the remaining Mernos and we headed back to Astera ourselves.