A dozen fighters stood below the ashen sky, weapons bristling as they surrounded a lone warrior. The man and his spear were dripping with blood, but the soldiers circling him knew that the blood was not his own.
I wrinkled my nose. Seeing crimson trickle down his blade brought my attention back to the rancid stench that had paved the boulder field. Even with my mask, the smell was nauseating. It reminded me of how many had fallen during this battle. I couldn’t let their efforts be in vain.
A chilly wind snatched at their cloaks of authority and set their assorted banners snapping like spinnakers in a gale. This alliance of soldiers fought under various insignia, their competing flags telling a story of their own. They were not a single army, but a unified force from different empires in different regions.
And I was the man who had gathered them all together to crush the rebellion led by the gory warrior. This was the endgame.
In my hand, I held a silver spear I rarely used. I could fight if I had to, but strategizing was my forte. And my plan had worked.
The majority of his rebels were crushed or had scattered. Now, he was cornered, alone, facing an entire army. That was not unusual; he was known as the warrior without a partner. But it only made his presence more frightening; it wouldn’t surprise me if he took down the dozens of men before him in less than a minute. The soldiers knew too. Anyone who valued their life wouldn’t dare confront the Valiant Tiger.
This proud fighter had no quit in him. He bellowed and jeered, daring any man to come forward and challenge him.
There were no takers.
To face him. To face death. Were they all cowards?
Seeing the crazed look in his eyes, and the way his chest heaved with labored breaths, I was struck by a surprising certainty.
He’s gone insane.
A babble of thoughts floated around my head, unheard to anyone but me, tinged in varying degrees of anger and confusion.
The madman thinks he’s invincible.
I always knew he was crazed.
The power must’ve gone to his head. Typical Althaean.
My brow furrowed in concentration as I tried to block out the intrusive chatter. At times it was mild enough to ignore if I concentrated hard enough. Other times, it was like being locked in a room with a dozen screaming children throwing tantrums. This was one the latter.
Between all the sentiments and convictions overwhelming me, two people stood out from the rest: the warrior we had surrounded, cloaked in the finest silver armor and blue cape suitable for the highest ranks, and the seemingly fragile young lady that I brought along with me on this campaign.
What made them different? Their minds were blank. I couldn’t hear what they were thinking.
Then, I sensed a change as all those gathered around reacted with surprise, curiosity, and confusion. I soon understood why, as the massed troops parted. The young lady strode forward, toward the open ground that harbored the bloody rebel foe.
As this fearless challenger approached the battleground, the confounded roar of feelings assailed me. Awe. Disbelief. Even shame… For this challenger entering the ring to face the rebel leader was no battle-hardened centurion. No scarred and grizzled myrmidon. She was just a fragile-looking young woman – practically a girl. Not a single one of the fatigued soldiers gaping at this wisp of a thing believed for one moment that she stood a chance.
Except, of course, for me. I didn’t know precisely what powers or abilities she possessed. But whatever force she had inside her, I could perceive it would be terrible to behold. The zeal in her eyes – passionate flares of glowing magenta – told me the same.
Even the heavily muscled deadly rebel, who had proved his lethal prowess a thousand times, looked utterly perplexed at the sight of her. He ripped his spear out from the soldier underneath him and blood splattered onto his polished armor. The bodies that lay around him were like trophies, a prideful display of his strength. But for the girl, the sight of the fallen, acted as fuel, making her raging glare more frightening.
“What is this?” he bellowed. “You miserable cowards send a maiden to do—”
He never finished. Her bloodcurdling scream struck like a wave of force all its own as she charged at him with astonishing speed and a sword in hand. He barely got his spear up in time to block her first slashing attack.
The sound of their dancing blades echoed through the field, drawing the attention of fighters from both sides. The two of them were locked in combat, so intense that they seemed unaware of the host of bodies surrounding them. What was going on in their minds? I hadn’t a clue. Their walls were impenetrable; my mental powers were no match for them.
The woman slashed and parried, her assault driven by an immense rage. Their weapons clashed and swiped with such speed it was all a blur. The warrior waved his hand, commanding the ground below them to shatter and erupt. But the girl danced upon the rising rubble, her feet light as wind as she leveraged the fragmented earth to give herself the advantage of the high-ground. She waved her sword as high as she could, then struck down with the full force of her body.
The impact of their weapons sent high-pitched waves that caused my neck to tingle, and some of the spectators to cower between their arms.
I felt a tug on my arm, followed by the warm embrace of my wife’s tender hands. I had advised her not to come on this dangerous mission, but she insisted. We had gone on every adventure together after all for decades now. There was no battle that couldn’t use the expertise of a fine healer like her.
“What’s going on?” Starlight yelled, covering her flawless snow white face with her arm. Her rose-colored hair that had always reminded me of thin strands of fairy floss, waved in all directions. I didn’t need to see her worried face to discern the distress in her heart.
I stepped in front of my disoriented wife, not wanting her exposed to the peril of this battle any longer. She was a fearless woman, a fighter who carried more courage than my sorry excuse of a warrior. But something profoundly uncommon, not to mention dangerous was going on, and I couldn’t explain it. Normally, the outcome was clear, predictable. But what we were witnessing here was far from normal, and the clashing forces of these two combatants threw the rules of the ordinary world into unforeseeable chaos.
Despite my absorption in the battle before me, an awareness pushed forth from the back of my mind. Many soldiers on both sides had been severely injured in the battle that took place earlier.
“Take care of the wounded,” I told my wife, reaching into my pocket and handing over a handful of renastōnes to increase her healing capability. She nodded and proceeded to treat bloodied soldiers with the power of kore in the stones.
These probably won’t be enough, I heard her thinking. But even so, I had held two stones back, just in case the fight behind me didn’t end well.
The warrior attacked and defended with all the mastery and strength of a champion. But the girl, who seemed to be without skill or training, fought with a reckless, murderous fury, which seemed fueled by all the devils in Inferna.
Maybe that’s why I wasn’t surprised when I saw the small ball of fire she caressed in her left palm. She appeared confident now and tossed her sword away as if it were just a bother. The reddish flame she wielded was a rare occurrence and she had absolute control over it.
Although I couldn’t read his thoughts, the sudden caution on the warrior’s face spoke volumes. It was clear the domination dynamic had shifted. The girl’s elemental control over fire changed everything.
How unusual, I reflected, to see such overwhelming force coming from a commoner who had never seen a battlefield before. Yet, here she was, more than matched to Althaea’s greatest warrior.
A larger flame erupted from her hand, and she charged straight at the warrior, her voice crying out in a valiant roar. The warrior dodged her fiery attack, darting left and right, blocking her hand with his metallic blue spear, handled with a mastery no other could match. The involuntary fear that erupted in him did not affect his combat skills; they remained the best I have ever seen.
The rest of us kept our distance – it would be unwise to go near the flames. We could all feel the heat upon our faces, dispelled by the swirling gusts of high winds blowing from the towering mountain in the backdrop. Small balls of fire splashed loose from the girl’s hand, like sparks popping from a hot fireplace. They bounced across the ground, erupting in small brushfires in the patches of the tall, dry grass in the boulder field.
For once, I was grateful to be wearing the mask I use to cover my face at all times. Both to conceal the shame of my mutilations, and my very identity, hidden since the cruel punishment of my youthful self. Now, it gave me the advantage of being able to tolerate the heat, and see clearly, while everyone else buried their heads in their shirts.
“Fang, we need to do something!” Shiba caught my attention. Along with Neo, his partner and powerful lieutenant, he was anxiously waiting for my command.
Yes, of course. That was the whole reason I was invited here – to lead this motley alliance of troops from Althaea, Minetta, and Valenia to stop the rebellion.
But frankly, my plan was now obsolete. What we were watching made our petty strategies worthless. Our forces, and those of the enemy, were all enthralled with the epic duel raging before us. We were merely spectators, captivated by the champion warrior trying to curb the astonishing girl and her fiery punches without letting up. Her assault continued, setting pockets of the field on fire every so often. Her hits kept the man at bay, but he was still physically stronger, and might just succeed in wearing her uncanny powers down.
But there was something Shiba and Neo could contribute. They were an odd pair to say the least. Lord Shiba Zabato was a powerful region leader, a representative of Minetta. He was a sharp-featured man yet handsome in a roguish way, lean as whipcord with all that sting. His second in command, Neo Xanth, was the strongest brawler of Minetta. Brawlers – I like to think of them as shaved bears – trained and worked hard to turn themselves into massive machines of human muscle. Despite the rigorous training, Neo was a gentle sort of giant, an intelligent, witty, kind, caring fellow who could grab a man around the throat and simply squeeze to pop his head off like a champagne cork.
The two of them were partners sealed by the Paragon’s Conduct. It made them twice as dangerous, not to mention the immense reservoir of kore they possessed. Everyone has a little bit of spiritual energy, a flame of life. But for some, it was a much deeper pool of strength, the might behind their gift. It took years to develop and control it, and those who were lucky enough to be born with high kore capacity became fighters to be feared.
A section of grass ignited in front of me. I put it out with a stamp of my foot. Yes, it would be unwise to go near. The possibility of potential collateral damage was too significant.
“Neo,” I said, “Can you focus your kore to create a barrier around them?”
“I could generate a ward, like a domed force field, to contain them. But it won’t stop them from fighting.”
“At least it will confine the damage to only them. Do it.”
I turned to Lord Shiba. “Your shadow form… Can you try to hold Gaven in place, so she can land a punch?”
“With pleasure.” Shiba clapped his hands together, pressed his soles to the ground, and focused intensely on the skirmish in front of him. A dark shadow formed underneath him, seeming to take on a life of its own. The dark, sinister shape quickly slithered into the fight.
As it closed in, Neo slammed his fist on the ground. A pulse of energy vibrated through the earth, creating ripples and bending the air. A transparent dome shimmered into existence, forming a clear barrier that enclosed the two fighters. Shiba’s shadow creature made its way inside the area just before the dome was sealed.
Within seconds, the atmosphere cooled down – the heat from the girl’s otherworldly flames was contained within the barrier. Still locked in combat, the fighters were completely oblivious to the force field now locking them.
As Gaven, the warrior, tried an advance with his spear, the shadow rose and seized his ankles. Gaven strained to break free, but the shadow held his feet like steel shackles. He lost his balance in the struggle and pitched to the ground. Unable to move his legs, he could no longer dodge the girl’s fierce strikes.
She showed no restraint. Her arms spread wide as she let the flames erupt, hitting the sides of the dome and spreading over its curved surface until the entire dome was completely enveloped in flames. As the blasting fire grew stronger, we could no longer see inside. The half globe appeared to be nothing but a giant ball of fire from the outside.
“Fangbane, sir?” Neo said, his voice trembling from the effort of holding the barrier intact. The blaze was pushing hard against it, expanding the heated air, the mounting pressure straining Neo to the limit of his strength to contain it. He held fast by force of will, but he was more concerned about what was going on inside.
“They’re going to suffocate in there!”
“No they won’t,” said Shiba, with his typical humor edged in cruelty. “They’ll be roasted alive long before that.”
“Hold it steady,” I instructed. All around me, a garbling wave of skeptical thoughts started to seep into my subconscious making me wonder if that was the wisest choice.
“Fang?” Suzan yelled from the other side, challenging my judgment. I’m not ready to lose two more people.
I know, my brain answered, even though she wouldn’t hear me.
“Hold it,” I said again with confidence, having made up my mind. I could sense the fear boiling around me. For all I knew, they were right. Still, Neo held fast. They trusted me. The roaring flames grew deafening, pulsing against the barrier as the heat and pressure continued to climb.
The dome shattered when the weight of the fire overpowered it. A wave of smoke blew past us. Some tried to cover their faces, and we all tried to not inhale the clouds of smoke and ash. People began to sputter, coughing and choking on the fumes.
Is it over?
There’s no way they survived that.
Roasted them like an oven, I’ll wager.
Dire and fatal predictions piled up inside my head as the crowd foresaw certain death. Nothing was visible in the thick black smoke.
I knew the crowd was wrong for I sensed a miracle out of what appeared to be a definite tragedy.
And though I still couldn’t see anything behind the dark smoke, somehow the emotions of the two fighters – pain, confusion, bewilderment – broke free, rushing into my mind, proving they were alive. As the smoke thinned, I could make out the two figures kneeling, facing each other, heads bowed, not making eye contact, and gasping for breath. They were caked in soot and dirt. But somehow the inferno had not burned them to a crisp as all had expected.
The lady rose to her feet, standing tall, gazing down at the man she had just defeated. She blinked rapidly in a daze, stupefied by the destruction from her fireballs. She blanched, looking at her hands in a panic. Incredibly, despite the struggle, she showed not a single scratch.
A jumbled trail of her thoughts bubbled to the surface; I could experience her disorientation and uncertainty as if it was happening to me.
I turned my attention to the warrior, who seemed totally wrung out in comparison. His limbs were shaking, and he was covered in cuts and bruises. The only similarity was in their expression of equal confusion. Regaining the ability to read his thoughts put me at ease.
The battle was over. He tried to rise on one knee, but fell back down immediately. The young woman gasped seeing him fall over. She took one step forward to help him but retracted just as quickly. Her thoughts told me she was afraid, afraid of the damage she had just caused, and afraid that she was still not in control.
Memories of similar instances played out in her mind.
I read every second of it.
How fascinating. In all my years, I’d never met someone with her… experiences.
So that’s why they call you Miss Miracle.