Ceria had been standing near the rock face; she now ran up and joined us, her staff again charged with several preset spells.
Bruna had been torn up before, and the state of her miasma had me seriously concerned. I had again done healing on her and her armor had suffered no further damage in the battle, but I was worried about how much farther she could go. She couldn’t have much margin left.
And her sister concerned me as well. Ceria was looking half-dead already. It was likely the mix of all the magic she’d done and normal physical fatigue, but physical fatigue caused a delay in recovering pneuma. If I possibly could, I needed to keep these two behind me, and as much out of the fight as I could manage.
In the woods that ended where the rocky ground where we stood began, that had been so empty when we crossed them, I could feel the presence approaching. Again, it made a hazy impression, like fog, that obscured the image I was receiving. So I expected to see again an improbable skirmish line of monsters when the foe emerged from the forest.
I did not. What emerged was a single figure. The only thing that wasn’t black on him was his face. He had black armor, and wild black hair flowing out from under a black helm without a face guard. He was gripping an obsidian-colored blade in one hand.
And he had black wings almost identical to my own.
There was something vaguely similar to that asura about him. I immediately identified it as a demonic sensation. Something my fairy sight was trying to tell me. It was picking up on some clue I couldn’t quite identify.
“It’s one enemy, and he’s a flyer,” I told my companions. “You two stay back. Ceria, if you can still manage it, set up that wind barrier.”
This time they made no protest. I wished I could tell them to run, but our backs were literally against a wall here, and some of those monsters I ran off earlier could still be in the forest. If they fled through there, it could very well be the last decision they made in their lives. They stood a better chance staying behind me.
I stepped forward, deploying my wings once again, then launched myself into the air toward the threat.
He took off as well, right at me. Our swords met in mid-air, and we were immediately pressing each other, blades locked together. We broke, exchanged blows, locked again, broke again. He fired a pair of fireballs at me, which I deflected with my sword as I once again charged him.
That seemed to panic him a bit, and he slashed at me with a wind scythe, that I simply took with my armor as I had my sword raised for a descending blow that he just barely parried in time. Three, four, five exchanges, and then we again hung in the air, swords locked together.
Then, to my frustration, I sensed monsters that had been hidden to me up until that moment. To my left, a pair of rock boar were making a high speed charge. To my right, a shadow panther charged like a cheetah, its feet galloping in air, several feet about the ground. Both were aiming at Ceria and Bruna. I cursed at my stupidity, angry for allowing myself to be drawn out away from my companions while he hid his cards.
At this distance, I could see that his skin looked horrible… unhealthy wasn’t the right word. It looked like a corpse. There was a sickly grayness to it I had never before seen on a living person other than that troll I had just fought. It was thicker on this guy. And his eyes looked dead. I thought I might be fighting an undead for a moment.
Such things exist. They happen when gidim, the demonic spirits that serve demons, possess reanimated corpses. If they can last long enough, the bodies can reacquire life and become ghouls, the lowest level demonic race. Much later, ghouls can evolve into larvae, then to liches, and the sages believe that archdemons were actually evolved liches. It made them the bottom rung of a separate ladder than the one in which gidim gained true ownership of possessed living bodies to become hags and wraiths that could evolve into Drudes, Imps, Fiends, Asuras, and finally Archfiends.
But this being was not undead. Nor was he ghoul, larva, lich or archdemon. He was none of the demonic classes I had studied, and none of the demonic monsters I knew. Nor did he seem to be possessed. Despite all that, my fairy sight still screamed Demon as I beheld this strange male counterpart to myself.
Because that’s the only thing I could see him as, you know? Pale skin, black hair, black wings, wielding a sword. The only real deviations in general description from me were his gender, the corpse-like tint discoloring his skin and the amethyst of his irises, so strangely similar to Mother’s in color. He was like a demonic mirror image to me.
We broke apart, then battled each other midair for several more blows before once again locking. This time though, the dead eyes had acquired some sort of life, and the creature was muttering something.
I managed to boot myself away from him, worried he was about to launch some spell attack. But as I sailed backward, it occurred to me that his face had looked confused. As if he couldn’t understand what he was seeing.
He swung his blade, and something similar to Ryuu’s [Spirit Shot] came flying at me. Fortunately I was keeping my blade charged with earth mana to strengthen the blade, and I parried the thing like a magic projectile. The power of it still partially survived, and it struck a hammer blow across my chest and abdomen, staggering me.
I recovered just as another [Spirit Shot] came at me, and I managed to evade this strike, although it brushed my right wing. But I was able to counterattack and drove into him again, and this time I was powering up an attack I did not want to use at all.
As I gathered healing mana, I whispered, “[Purify]” so that it would circulate as purification.
I kept circulating it within me as I continued to pull in more, building it larger and larger. My body sang with pain as the purification spell rolled back and forth through it, gaining strength with each wave in an awful oscillation of torment, while I pummeled his defense with my sword and my vision threatened to fade under the self-inflicted onslaught. As I closed into him, his last parry collapsed, and I could let go of my sword with one hand to grab his vambrace. I wrapped my fingers around it so that my fingertips found unprotected skin on the underside of his arm.
For the release, I yelled the power word, right into his face.
His eyes grew wide as the path opened through my fingers for the charge to flow. I couldn’t identify what sort of demon he was, but my fairy sight said, Demon, so I felt certain that this would work.
Pain like I had never known before, pain greater than the pain of the dragon’s mouth when it had held me clamped me like a vise, instantly seared my body in a titanic flare as the mana ripped through it, spilling through my hand into him.
He shook with his effort to resist it for a second, then let loose a howl and desperately tried to break my grip on his arm. I gritted my teeth against the pain and kept pouring it into him, my hand locked on his arm like the jaws of a predator. He flailed with his sword one-handed as the flow continued, and I parried one-handed. He lost the wind magic that was keeping him in the air, and his weight dragged me down to the ground with him as he continued flailing and I kept parrying. His feet struck the rocky surface, causing him to lose his grip on his sword as his legs crumbled.
When his back struck the ground beneath me, he somehow got his foot up and kicked me away. I lost my grip on him and rose back into the air, staring down at him.
The strange, corpse-like gray cast had been scrubbed from most of his skin. Except where it was covered by a few remaining patches of the stuff, his face was pink, flush with effort and streaming with sweat. As he lay there, he gaped up at me, his eyes now having come to life.
I could only watch him, because the aching nerve endings of my every-inch-of-me were preventing me from doing anything besides a simple hover.
At last he sucked in a breath and seemed to regain his senses. His eyes widened further and he gasped. “A strega?… No!! How? How is it possible? A strega! You can’t be real! You can’t exist!”