Chapter 13 – Warrior’s Way
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CHAPTER 13 – WARRIOR'S WAY

 

"Listen well, Aspirants! Once in battle, forget about morals, ethics, right and wrong, good and evil – those things are used beforehand, and if you are already fighting, it means you have failed. In combat, it's simple to tell apart winners from losers: at the end of the day, the winners are still breathing.

Still, there's a twist not many live long enough to learn: sometimes you win, only to lose; and sometimes, in order to win, you have to lose."

– excerpt from combat training lecture at the Starspire Academy, circa 229 RE

 

Come morning, Airo had a short, intense conversation with Veralla. The dragonet was restless, pacing around the circular room and flapping her wings.

"Why are you called the Dragonslayer? Is it because you killed dragons seven centuries ago?" she asked.

"Yes and no," Airo replied. He was practicing martial techniques with the katana, going through the moves in calm and focused fashion. He had gotten better at rekindling his skills, and intended to turn this into a daily routine as he had done in his previous life.

"I do not understand," Veralla said, after he didn't add anything further. "How can both acknowledgment and rejection be true at the same time? Does becoming a dragonslayer require... something else, besides... killing dragons?"

"There are no other dragonslayers," he said, slashing the air. "There is only one. Me. The Dragonslayer." He stepped forward, turning the current kata into a fluid seven-strike flurry.

Veralla stopped pacing, and her slit-pupiled eyes fixed on him. "...why?" she hrrr–ed.

Airo felt her intensity, and ceased his exercise. He faced her. "Everyone fought against the dragons during the Red Colony Campaign," he said quietly. "It took the effort of many to bring down even a single dragon. I made it possible for everyone to kill a dragon."

"Why?" Veralla murmured again.

"I created veronite," he said. He met the dragonet's amethyst gaze, and struggled against the overwhelming memories it evoked. "Thousands of your kind died because of my invention. And I personally ended the life of more dragons than anyone else. Thus I became the Dragonslayer." He averted his eyes, looking through the room's narrow window at the clear weather outside. "As to why I did it, the answer is simple: I was at war. It was not my war, and I was not even affected by it. Yet I took part in it. I watched friends die all around me, victims of a conflict which sent all of us far away from our homes across the vast ocean of stars. In the end, it was for nothing. However, it was a war all the same. In a war, you fight for your life, and the life of your comrades. Nothing else matters." Airo sighed, and sheathed the katana. "It was us against the dragons. They killed many of us, and would have killed many others, including me. So I killed them in turn. And continued to do so. Until... until things changed."

Veralla listened to him with an unhappy, yet pensive expression. "Why did you take part in that war, if it did not affect you?" she asked, after reflecting for a minute.

"Why indeed..." Airo uttered, his eyes focusing somewhere far away. He caught himself after several lingering moments. "I think it was ultimately a mistake on my part. I was young, and like every typical adolescent I desired adventure, a chance to see new horizons and to discover new experiences. So I went to the Starspire Academy, where the best and brightest on my homeworld were trained to become Magisters, people of honor and prestige.

"Yet things turned out differently for me. Somewhere along the way, I was made a soldier instead. An elite warrior, trained to kill and fight at the bequest of others. I realized that too late. By then, I had experienced loss, had bled blood and tears, and had become what I am. The Dragonslayer."

The silence told him Veralla was absorbing every single word. You are so naive, just like I was, little winged monster...

"Have you killed other... people, except dragons?" she asked.

"I have. Many times."

"Why?"

Airo turned his gaze back to her. "A warrior is concerned with many things. Yet above all, he is concerned with those who he fights and goes to war for."

"Is this why the Consortium and the Union are killing each other?" Veralla asked. "Because they are at war, and only their side matters?"

"Wars are like that," Airo said grimly. "It is hard to have empathy for the other while said other tries to end your existence."

"But why are the Consortium and the Union at war?"

"That is probably Ferrtau's fault. He must have somehow played them, and now uses the chaos to eliminate everyone with his Revenant. Yet this is where I come in. My intention is to stop him."

"How?" she asked.

"By going to war against him."

Veralla paused. "Are you going to kill more people?"

Airo snorted. "Unless you count the Revenant people, the answer is negative. No, the plan from now on is to save people."

The dragonet rawr–ed with excitement. "Yay! Just like the Radiant Knights do!"

Airo scowled and gave no reply. He checked his gridcaster. He had scheduled a number of tasks for today, starting with a general meeting with the Radiant Knight leaders. Airo prepared to leave, and began to don his power armor. There were currently no threats whatsoever within the confines of the hidden base, but his battle-ready habits were practically hardwired. "What are you going to do today?" he suddenly asked Veralla.

"Oh," she said, surprised. "I am having a meal first, and then I am going to be on my first training day as a Radiant Knight!" She flicked her tail, beaming. "Glawlrhain is the training master! He is the one who will teach me how to be a Knight!"

"I see," Airo said. The power armor hummed and clicked softly, adjusting to his body. He finished equipping, and headed for the door. "In that case, we will see each other in the evening."

"Oh, really?" Veralla stared at him with hopeful eyes.

"Yes," he assured her. Why the bloody stars I said that? "We can... well... maybe play computer games together again?"

Veralla rawr–ed loudly, overjoyed. Airo hurried to get out of the room before she jumped to hug him or something similar.

 

***

 

En route to the command room, his thoughts turned back to the task at hand. As he crossed the vast, empty halls of Ilsorin, the hidden base, he brooded on how to bring Ferrtau's downfall. Yet rather than evoking murderous rage, this time the thoughts about his archenemy were logical and coldly detached, concerned only with facts and plans on a strategic level.

For some reason, he felt particularly calm this morning.

Then the Great Cosmos decided to ruin it.

Airo was about to take a wide stairway which would've led him to the command room, when he heard a voice behind him. "Hello there, sir."

He turned, and saw Stamat coming from a gravshaft. "Greetings," he replied, voice neutral.

"Listen," the stout Knight began, "about what happened on board Vorzii during the last mission, I want to–"

"There he is!"

"The Dragonslayer!"

Airo turned again, and saw a pair of Radiant Knights on the opposite side of the stairway. They were a man and a woman, both around Kiana's apparent age, and their descents were somewhere between Corelander and Mistlander in origin. They both fixed him with angrily determined stares.

"Dragonslayer," the man said, "we have met at last."

"Now you shall face justice for the crimes you've committed," the woman said.

Airo regarded them for a second. "Who," he said, "are you?"

The Knights both had a near-identical voice, with an ephemeral, almost musical quality to it. "I am Emaerel," they spoke in unison. "And I am here to bring you down," they added.

"Emaerel, stop!" Stamat shouted. "We should focus on the threat that endangers us all, not delve into our pasts! If the Lightbringer..."

Airo held up his hand and Stamat trailed off. He gave the other two Knights a cold glare. "Are you sure you want to persist in your foolishness?" he asked them.

"A Radiant Knight's duty is no foolishness," the man said.

"It is clear you harbor dark intentions," the woman said. "Surrender, Dragonslayer. You should be in stasis, where you can do no evil."

"All right, you asked for this," Airo said. He slowly unsheathed the katana and lifted it before him in a dueling stance.

"Commander, I–"

"You stay back, Knight Stamat. That is an order."

"Yes... sir."

The twin Radiant Knights raised their hands, and swords made of pure energy materialized in them. Airo frowned, but held his guard. His katana had proven effective against the Revenant, so he was confident it would work against these immaterial blades.

The Emaerel twins didn't attack right away. They seemed to concentrate, and a barely-perceptible bluish aura enveloped them. Airo instinctively recognized his opponents were trying to timeshift themselves. He rushed at them, determined to bring them down before they could completely outclass his reactions. Simultaneously, he tried to summon his own mysterious innate ability.

It worked. Airo's senses strained and he felt his body pressed in a vise, as the world around was bathed in a faint red tint. The bluish aura around his opponents vanished. The Emaerel twins' eyes went wide, and they barely raised their swords as he descended upon them with a pair of crushing blows. Airo whirled swiftly, mindful of being surrounded, and made an overhang swing at the male Emaerel. The Knight parried the strike, but then tumbled down as Airo's power-armored knee slammed full-force into his stomach.

Airo dodged reflexively, and the female Emaerel's energy sword tore the air where he stood a microsecond before. He parried her follow-up swipe, his crystal blade flashing bright from the impact. He pulled her sword at a downward angle, with his elbow rising against the side of her head. The female Emaerel staggered, disoriented from the blow. Airo grabbed her, letting go of his katana, and dragged her body as a shield before the rushing male Emaerel.

The other Knight turned aside his energy sword barely before slashing his counterpart, but Airo was already pushing hard, slamming both twins into one another. He continued the motion, striding lightning-fast, and smashed his opponents into the stairway's wall, crushing them between his armor-enhanced strength and the cold, indifferent brutality of the composite surface.

Airo bashed the Emaerel twins several times with merciless savagery, and let them fall on the floor, stunned, their energy swords dissipating into nothingness. Without pausing, he went after them, locking each hand around their throats.

"Cloud, contextual defense systems!" he barked to his HUD.

"Engaging Class Seven targeted stasis field, Commander," the SAI responded jovially. The nearest light crystals shimmered and the hallway was permeated by a golden haze, which swiftly took more solid form around the two Radiant Knights.

Airo heaved and pulled the Emaerel twins off the ground, holding them aloft by a combination of his power armor and the stasis field. Their own armors prevented them from suffering injury, yet the restraining haze and the lack of support made them effectively helpless. Even with enhanced strength Airo strained to maintain his holds, but he kept the theatrics to hammer his point.

"Look at me." The Emaerel twins swiveled their eyes at him, their gazes full of shock and fear. "I could very well kill you now," Airo told them. "I need only to harden my grip."

"Sir, I urge you–" Stamat began.

"Yet I will not do it," Airo continued. He glared at both twins. "Because forfeiting your life will mean two less able-bodied soldiers I can use against Ferrtau. Two less warriors to help prevent the end of the world." His voice became lower. "So I will spare you, this time. And until I am done with Ferrtau, you will follow the oath your elders gave me to the letter. Or face the consequences. Do you understand?"

"Yes... sir..." the male Emaerel gasped.

"I... understand..." the female Emaerel choked.

"Good. Tell everyone else who has similar ideas to not cross my path. There will be no further leniency."

Airo let go the twins. They fell heavily on the ground, still immobilized by the stasis field, and rolled all the way down the wide stairway. Airo went to pick up his katana, and sheathed it in its purple-black scabbard. "Knight Stamat, in case you are not notified, your presence is required at the general meeting."

"Um, yes, sir, I... but what about..." the stout Highlander gestured in the direction of his helpless colleagues.

"Cloud, release the stasis field."

The golden haze disappeared. The Emaerel twins wheezed loudly, battered by the fight and their uncontrolled flight down the stairway. Airo didn't even spare them another glance as he walked up the stairs toward the command room.

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