227 – The Stubborn Refusal to Admit One’s Inferiority
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That thing had returned. There, in the gap between lightning bolts, the outline of that humanoid monstrosity. And the antlers, they weren’t ephemeral anymore, they were full manifestations wrought of congealed essentia, solid enough for even the layman to see - the left pointy and made of nearly straight lines, while the other a gnarled, twisting thing that nearly looked like a tree’s branch.

Arnys saw it take hold of Newman’s body as she proclaimed that boastful chant, she witnessed veins bulging from skin and musculature growing larger, harsher, more defined as every single visible silver conduit took on a tell-tale glow. Even her eyes became unnatural, coming to a total, perfect stop, focusing in on her without the tiniest unconscious twitch.

Arnys’ Second Sight wasn’t keen by any means, but even she could see the downright lethal arcane tension that had built up within her body. Somehow, by some twisted, unknown practice, Newman seemed to possess such fine internal control as to avoid aether saturation strain injury… But how?

What forbidden art had she learned? 

What was this so-called “Despot of Self”, and what did it have to do with her recent jump in body control from talented to downright implausible?

There was no way to know without ending the fight - neither the answers to these questions, nor just how far Newman was able and willing to push herself.

This had to end soon. Not for either of their safeties, but for the safety of the system operators and the system itself. A single blowout-worthy clash, that was acceptable, but any more and the failsafes might not hold up, or worse, the System Core might demand a greater sacrifice.

She knew she could be faster, she could end this whenever she wished if she were to wield some of her more advanced arts, but she couldn’t bring herself to even if the System’s safety hinged on it. 

To do battle with the upstart elder of an upstart sect, armed only with the Clear Sky Thundergod Mantle, Gastei-Tur fundamentals, and her blade, Nameless, so called for her younger self’s refusal to name the damn thing… It was almost like she was in her thirties again.

Arnys spun her sword around in her hand, switching her hold to a reverse grip as she performed arcane gestures with her left.

“Just one more Thunderwalk. Let’s see if you’ve really figured out the pattern…” she thought to herself.


It happened seemingly all at once, to the outside observer. 

The band didn’t even bother warning the audience of anything this time, only continuing their buildup.

From one moment to the next, a very flashy staring contest turned to an incoherent clash of flying dust, flashing lightning, and clanging metal.

Zefaris, however, saw it as it unfolded, ignoring the pulsing pain from the left eye as she focused every ounce of mental energy into following the battle.

Arnys vanished just as she’d done before, only for Zel’s bloodshot eyes to follow the trails left in her wake and for her left arm to snap upward, her hand grasping the handle. The lightning-sphere flowed into her sleeve, tendrils each as thick as an arm surging over its surface before she ripped the lever downward.

CLANG 

The air screamed as a directed mass of artificial lightning ripped its way through it, striking the Krishorn Matriarch squarely in the stomach. Her own aura erupted in a flash that momentarily blinded nearly all present, soon followed by a thunderclap… And silence.

Zefaris had had the foresight to plug her ears in advance, and close her right eye, causing the energetic clash to register as no more than a brief flicker where Arnys was normal brightness while everything around her was terribly pale and washed out.

The Matriarch laughed out loud as she plummeted from the air, effortlessly righting herself as she surged towards Zelsys with speed that very nearly matched her Thunderwalking. Even on foot, she moved so quickly Zefaris had to actively try to keep up.

The clash that followed demanded too much of her attention to properly describe in words, searing itself into her mind’s eye as raw memory.


Zelsys surged across the courtyard so forcefully that the crater which she ripped into the ground actually went deep enough to expose the solid blackstone underlayer half a meter underneath. With every single movement her body flashed white, for the breakneck pace of her breathing now neared the actual cyclic rate of an engine and her heart beat so rapidly that she could Thundercharge a muscle less than a second after it was contracted, her body already having either absorbed or destroyed any conceivable waste product buildup.

Even now, she was slower on foot than Arnys… But not by much.

Herself enveloped in lightning and with the Butcher’s ear-piercing, blindingly bright fury in hand, Zelsys struck like a lightning bolt given human form, her footfalls imparting force befitting of a Tankman, her strikes so forceful that speed and finesse became meaningless.

The Fulguric charge of her Retributive Battery had waned to but two-thirds of its initial strength, but the maelstrom of uncontrolled lightning surrounding her showed no signs of waning, for she was actively choosing to deplete the battery for the shroud’s sake, even now thinking of what would look best to the audience.

Unlike the earlier bouts of their fight, and even her struggle against the Horse-headed Golem, there were no mind games and subtle technicalities to be had here. Zel came at Arnys with a rancorous assault, a symphony of growling, screaming metal accompanied by its own wielder’s vocalizations and the continuous howl of lightning.

Much to her surprise, Arnys met her in kind. All subtlety and skill aside, the approach was a mirror of Zel’s own, an intensely aggressive, but thoroughly calculated assault. Now able to more accurately guess the Matriarch’s movements, Zelsys willed the Butcher’s Sawteeth to rapidly oscillate back and forth just as she had done in her struggle against the Golem. With this violent motion, she was able to cause Arnys’s sword to bounce off of her own weapon, using this opening to get in closer, close enough to catch the blade between her left arm’s gauntlet and arm-cannon’s trigger lever once again, this time twisting her own arm so forcefully as to either joint-lock the Matriarch or rip the sword from her hand.

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