Defiant: Chapter Twenty-Three

Deep in Nano!

 

The world spun as Aida stared at the life drain from Cugat’s face. Was she imagining this, or had she just killed a powerful Venkri master in possession of secret Tengarper skills? Aida rose up to one elbow.

Ian moved as Cugat fell, and sprinted toward his master. He staggered to a stop. Cugat was dead. No longer bound, Ian examined the body with a different mind. He retched, bending over as he fell to his knees.

A scream came from Aida’s right. Kezia was also free.

Something blew Chandi back at least twenty paces, in much the same way Aida had tossed Ferran. Kezia’s ikast walked toward the Venkri Warrior, hands up to throw her again.

Aida’s father had worried about the day he or her mother died. He said their ikast would become free and could take whatever actions they wanted, which included attacking each other. Their forced journey to Calas lands under her parents meant there was no certainty regarding their loyalty.

She watched now as Cugat’s ikast dropped their loyalties and attacked. Kezia’s knuckles were white upon her now drawn sword. She faced Ferran and started a breathing sequence. The tension fell from her face and her shoulders, and she spun her sword lightly in her hand.

Ferran backed quickly into a nearby line of soldiers. “Circle on me!” he ordered.

Ian countered, “Hold! Away from Ferran. Hold your positions!”

Soldiers looked from Ferran to Ian as Ferran drew his sword and took a step towards him. Kezia’s charge stopped his attack on Ian, and the older Warrior turned his attention to the furious woman. Before the crazed yell of Kezia, any doubt among the soldiers left, and they all broke ranks and abandoned Ferran.

The soldiers retreated into the woods, past the second Kort army. Their Warriors and soldiers remained, unmoving.

Anger washed over Aida from Chandi, now far to the side of the others, facing Kezia’s ikast. The young Tengarper fell back at Chandi’s attack, which drew her farther away from his master.

Hinir slowly approached the body of his dead master, eyes flickering to Aida as he approached. She tried to pull herself up off the ground but barely remained on her elbow. Sienna and Luca rushed up behind her, swords out toward the Tengarper master. He scowled at them and returned his gaze to Cugat’s body.

“Hinir?” Ian left the retreating soldiers and Kezia’s battle with Ferran.

Hinir glanced to Ian and drew a knife. “She is the one in the Writings.” He intended to take Aida as an ikast himself, and strode toward her.

Luca advanced, sword forward. Sienna stood next to him, knife in her off hand.

Ian drew his sword. “Hinir!”

The Tengarper turned partially and backed, which kept Ian and Luca in his sight. “She is the one in the Writings, Ian. She must be made an ikast. If I don’t do it, someone else will. Maybe one of those.” He nodded to the Kort Warriors near the tree line.

“Just leave now,” Ian said. “Cugat is dead.”

“And Ferran and I will take his place.”

Ian stepped forward.

Hinir held his knife and pulled out his sword. “You should have attacked from behind. You always were too good for us.”

Luca wavered to the side. Ian jerked his head to indicate he should withdraw.

“I’m not leaving Aida.” He stood firm.

Ian nodded. He made a fast move forward, thrusting with his sword and found nothing. Hinir was to the side and brought his own weapon around. Speed saved Ian, as he ducked out of the way.

Behind Hinir, Luca shifted again and remained between Hinir and Aida. The young man would die if Ian failed.

Aida managed to roll to her hands and knees. She needed to get up. Zara appeared behind her and placed a hand under her arm to help her rise. Aida slowly stood, and it like she was back on the green, the first day she met the Kort. The sky was too bright, the grass too green, and the Warriors too fierce.

I beat Cugat. I can do this.

Ian moved again, and this time he came in much closer. He aimed for Hinir’s sword instead of Hinir. Ian’s superior strength knocked Hinir’s sword from his hand, but the move placed Ian close enough for Hinir to strike with his knife. Ian turned just in time, and the blade caught in the slack in his armor on his side.

The move also put Hinir’s back to Luca, who came forward as Hinir withdrew from Ian. Luca’s sword went wide as Hinir continued to step back and around. Ian and Luca stood next to each other and faced Hinir, who was now too far removed from Aida to threaten her, Sienna, or Zara who remained standing over her.

“Leave, Hinir.” Ian took a step forward, and Luca stepped between Hinir and Aida once again.

Hinir’s eyes flashed again back to Ferran and Kezia, but Ian didn’t look. Instead, he took the opportunity to rush forward, coming down on Hinir with an overhead strike.

Hinir tried to block it, but with only the knife left it wasn’t enough. Ian’s blade struck him just to the side of his neck on his shoulder, only barely slowed by his armor. He pulled away just enough to get distance before he rammed his sword through Hinir’s neck.

Ian turned as he fell, not bothering to watch. Aida examined the battle ahead with him. Chandi was enraged and chased Voker toward the trees. When she looked back towards Ferran, Voker released another powerful throw and sent her to the ground.

Ian moved toward the fight with Kezia.

Ferran backed away from his attackers. “You sick little whore,” he said to Kezia. “Here comes your little friend. You two always needed each other.”

Kezia didn’t reply but faked an attack from her side while Ian charged. It gave her a slight break and caught Ferran off guard. Ian could not face Ferran alone either though and stepped back as soon as the other man defended. Kezia attacked then, from the other side, and Ferran struggled to keep up.

Then it was Ian’s turn, and Ferran defended. Surrounded though, his face strained in defeat. On Kezia’s next attack, she connected and Ferran’s arm hung limply at his side, blood gushing down on his hand and then the ground. Ian didn’t make any more progress on his attack, but it seemed intentional. The killing blow belonged to Kezia.

Another attack on Ferran, and this time Kezia sent him sprawling to the ground after he tripped. As he crawled backward, Kezia finally spoke. “You are the most foul of all of the Venkri. I only wish I could kill you more than once.”

He stopped crawling then and snarled. “Just do it.”

With a fast slice of her sword, Kezia decapitated Ferran, leaving his body on the ground where his troops were stood just a few minutes before.

Chandi yelled out. She fell to her knees and stared blankly over the field. Her master was gone now, and she was free.

As the remaining Warriors stopped moving at the end of their combat, another wave of exhaustion hit Aida. She sat back down on the ground, leaned back, and stared at the sky.

The Kort delegation rode toward the city; it was time for them to discuss the peace treaty. Aida didn’t know if the Calas would accept it after Cugat’s actions, but they still wanted to try. Only one, a Tengarper named Merrill, remained.

Ian had put Cugat’s soldiers to work digging graves for the fallen Warriors. He returned to meet with Kezia, Merrill, Aida, and her friends.

Aida sat on a log Luca had brought over from the trees, watching the Warriors. She felt no aggression from any of them now. Kezia almost seemed happy, and Voker remained at her side.

Chandi had disappeared immediately after the battle, and Aida could no longer sense the raging Warrior.

Ian was content. She thought he looked different than when she ran away from the village; taller perhaps. She had to look different as well, and not in a pleasant way. Still, he smiled at her.

“You all are welcome to return to the Kort stronghold,” Merrill said to Kezia and Ian. “Though none of us expect that to happen.”

“You allow us to live?” Kezia asked.

“We have long known when Cugat died you would not remain loyal. We decided then killing you would not aid us and would only make your birth houses more angry.”

“Is that even possible?” Ian asked.

Merrill laughed. “I don’t know. It will be easier now that Cugat is gone.”

“What of the soldiers?” Kezia asked.

Ian spoke as Merrill opened his mouth. “They go with me, unless they want to return to Kort lands.”

Soldiers were free to select their own houses and not subject to the same impositions an ikast faced. It was why none came with Aida’s parents on their flight.

“Is anybody else going to try to track down Aida?” Zara interrupted the Kort discussion.

“I can’t think of anyone,” Ian said.

“There are some,” Merrill started, and then stopped. “Isma had to agree with Cugat’s interpretation of the Writings in order to risk all those troops to capture you.”

“She’s been safe so long as everyone knew she was dead?” Ian stepped closer to Aida.

“I can’t say for sure,” Merrill said. “But it seems likely.”

“So someone else could come looking for her?” Luca sat next to Aida on the ground, resting while Sienna tended Aida’s wounds.

Kezia sighed and looked over the city, and then back to the troops. “All of them know you’re alive. It won’t be long before the rest of the West hears it. Your parents were of high interest when they left.”

Aida chewed on her lip. The Writings, whatever they said, hadn’t come true for Cugat. They probably weren’t true, and would only be valid for another two or three years while she was still young enough to make an ikast. Was someone really going to come looking for her during that time?

Her friends had fled their home to help her. Zara was taken captive to manipulate her. A Calas priest was motivated to kill her. Her village leadership had abandoned her. The city behind them was afraid of her, so who knew what they might do if she remained powerful. The risk was so high, both to her and everyone she loved.

“How do I keep them from trying?” she asked.

“The only way to convince people the Writings aren’t true and to ensure you’re not seen as a potential ikast is to become an ikast,” Kezia said.

“That could prove the Writings true if it happens,” Sienna said. “And would also serve Tymon, in any event.”

“I don’t want to be an ikast to any of you or any from the West.”

Kezia nodded. “I’m not sure any would have you, unless they were pursuing this prophecy.”

“Exactly what I want to avoid.” Aida leaned back and looked at the sky. She needed to do something so her friends would no longer be in danger.  Aida needed to become an ikast, but to whom?

She could not go with any of the Warriors from the West.  She didn’t know any of them and didn’t trust them.  They were violent and unpredictable, and most of the houses had wanted her family dead.  That left only the Calas to the east.

“Sienna,” Aida said, “Calas have some Warrior blood from the west, don’t they?”

“Yes, we think so. It seems unlikely the Warriors in the Departure remained celibate.”

Aida chewed her lip.  There was only one Calas she could trust. “Can I become an ikast to Zara?”

“Of course not. That wouldn’t be the Calas way, and would serve Tymon.” Sienna crossed her arms.

“Would it?” Aida asked. “You said a few weeks ago using my powers did not serve Tymon. That the powers were left over from an earlier time. What if we just used it to our advantage here?”

Zara looked at the Warriors. “Would that work?”

Kezia’s head turned to Zara and then to Aida. “I don’t know, but it would solve the problem.”

“I don’t know if it would.” Merrill’s deception was evident to Aida. He must have known, as he smiled at her. “I think it would.”

“We can try,” Aida looked at Zara, “if you’re willing.”

Zara looked down at Aida. “I don’t want you as my slave.”

“But I don’t want to put everyone at risk if someone comes looking for me. This way I’ll just be like all the other Calas.”

“She will lose her powers, and they won’t return,” Ian said. “You will never be as strong as you would be if you didn’t become an ikast.”

“You won’t ever be much stronger than Zara,” Kezia said.

“I don’t need to be strong. We need to be safe.”

Sienna glanced back at the Temple. “I don’t know what I think anymore. This seems like a terrible idea.”

Luca looked back too. “I know you believe in the gods, Sienna, but I’m not sure the Temple has all the answers. What if, after all this time, Tymon isn’t so bad?”

“And wouldn’t the gods want me to protect others?” Aida asked. “I want you to be okay with this too. We talked about it.”

“We talked about the Calas having Warrior blood. I didn’t think you’d act on it.”

“What else would I do?” Aida smiled.

Sienna nodded.

Aida moved up to her knees. “Sienna, slice the back of my neck open.”

“Just a little,” Kezia said. “It doesn’t take much.”

Zara asked, “And then I just slice my hand open?”

“Yes,” Kezia said.

“It doesn’t need to be deep,” Merrill added.

Zara stepped forward, moving her hand towards the back of Aida’s neck. Everyone said the blood ritual didn’t hurt, but Aida panicked as her hand neared. Then her hand was there, and the blood mingled. It didn’t hurt, but Aida felt something leave her. Energy welled in her chest and flowed back toward her neck and where the blood mingled. She took one deep breath, and the world went dark.

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