With Jex leading the way as they traveled down the path, Apollo instructed them on the basics of qi manipulation. He showed them how to constrain and constrict it, making smaller, more powerful energy balls, then fire it like a weapon. He called these qire: blasts of highly condensed qi, fired in high amounts.
“No,” Apollo said in frustration. “Angel, you have to keep it aimed with your mind, as well as your hand. It’s a combination.”
“I’m trying,” Angel said roughly. “Leave me alone for a second, okay?”
They continued on quietly, until Jex broke the silence.
“Hey guys,” he said. “I think we’re coming up on something. It looks like the forest is ending.”
Around them, the trees were thinning, becoming fewer and farther between until just ahead of them it ended. Replacing it on either sides of the path were large stalks, most over seven feet tall, almost like wheat.
“I think it’s like a wheat field or something.” Jex said.
They all came out upon a sun-shiny, bird-chirping corn field, where the tall green stalks moved in waves back and forth with the wind. On either side of them, they could see the Forest of Ocanip come to an abrupt halt as it met the stalks, almost as sudden as it had been on the far side next to the water. The sunlight was a welcome change from the dreary path they had traveled, with no trees to obstruct the light’s path.
“Wow,” Jex said. “It’s kind of serene.”
Llandra drew her scimitar.
“All the more reason to be ready for an attack.”
“What?” asked Angel, bewildered. “You think we are going to get attacked out here in a wheat field?”
“Dang right I do,” his sister said, her eyes peeled for any movement among the green stalks. “Here’s the plan: We are all going to draw out weapons and walk back-to-back down this path. No hand is going to come out of the ground and grab someone or swoop out of the sky and plucks someone off, so we look in all directions, okay?”
“Gotcha,” Angel said, pulling out his swords.
“I’ll lead the way,” Apollo said, holding his bow in front of him. “If something comes up on us I don’t like, I can pick it off with an arrow. Sound good?”
“Sounds good,” Llandra agreed, nodding her head. “Let’s go.”
So, off they went, back to back, one person facing each compass direction. Apollo started off, and the others fell into step with him. They stumbled at first, Llandra and Jex awkwardly having to walk sideways, while Angel had to keep a steady pace backwards. At regular intervals, they would survey the sky or investigate the ground for any sign of an attacker or basically anything alive. Occasionally they would spot an oversized bug, or some sort of bird off in the distance, but nothing that posed any sort of immediate threat.
“You think we’re being a little paranoid about being in a wheat field?” Apollo asked no one in particular.
“No,” Angel said without looking away from the stalks. “I think Llandra’s got a good idea, making sure we don’t get jumped or attacked or whatever.”
“You know,” Jex said. “Yesterday, I thought my biggest problem was talking to this girl I like. I had no clue the next day I would be worrying about battle tactics in another dimension, facing off against some evil angel’s forces, and trying to get somewhere, I have no clue where, to do God knows what. Did ya’ll?”
“Of course,” Apollo replied, looking down his arrow at the sky, then down the path. “It was in my horoscope. ‘Beware of evil forces that may try and kill you when you enter another dimension and attempt to save a group of mysterious people’. But obviously, some of us don’t check our horoscopes.”
Llandra couldn’t help but smile.
Maybe fifteen minutes later, or so, they were still walking, not talking much. They were starting to lose their fear of being attacked. But not Llandra. She was still focused on her surroundings. Senses still acute, detecting any danger that might be ahead of them.
The sudden twang of Apollo’s bow made everyone turn quickly to see an arrow fly down the path and into the stalks.
“I saw something walk into the woods,” he said urgently. “I saw it as we came around the corner, and it could have been human. I don’t know. But it slipped into the stalks right when we came around the bend, and I know it’s still out there.”
“This is what I was talking about,” Llandra said. “Now keep your eyes out, but don’t stop walking. We’re blind on two sides. We need to get out of this giant death-trap.”
“I’m with you there,” Jex agreed.
Faster than before now that they were back on high alert, the four Warriors moved down the path even as they heard rustling in the wheat out beside them. Something was stalking them, moving through the wheat on either side.
Angel was getting impatient once again.
“Well, dang it!” he cried to his mysterious assailants. “If you’re gonna do something then get your butts out here and let’s get things moving, shall we?”
The movements stopped, and Angel strained his ears to hear something, anything to tell him where they were.
Then Jex heard it. It sounded almost like a fast movement, but he knew that that would constitute moving through wheat stalks, and that would produce a different kind of noise. Then he realized why they weren’t hearing wheat stalks moving. They weren’t out there. They were the shadows that were suddenly over them.
“UP!” he cried almost too late, raising his shield high. “Watch out!”
They hit the ground extremely silent, the impact barely making a sound. But they were there, on all sides, standing and staring at them. At first glance, it looked as though they were wearing men in black clothing, head to toe. But upon further study, their skin was actually slightly loose, black and lightly textured. If they were human, then they were all afflicted with the same freaky skin condition, one that covered the entirety of their body.
The Kehtayahn were slightly relieved that these were at least humanoid, standing on relatively normal legs and with a pair of standard, albeit strange, arms. The head, though, lacked a mouth or nose, and only narrow red eyes populated their soulless faces. Across their foreheads, as if to add to the ninja theme, a thick red line, like a tattoo, circled their scalps and led down to the back of their necks. Each one was an estimated six feet tall, towering over Apollo, looking Jex and Angel in the eyes, and looking up to Llandra.
On each of their hands, coming from the top of each one, a pair of serrated blades extended out twelve inches, their metallic surface reflecting the sun. They had almost a Wolverine thing going on, except that theirs appeared to be stationary. As if on cue, each ninja began to move their razor-edged hands in a blur, swiping the air ferociously before them, obviously attempting to intimidate the Warriors.
It didn’t work.
The Kehtayahn broke apart and held their weapons out in front of them, each blade swinging slowly and each arrow moving from possible target to possible target. They felt no fear, but one ping of doubt had risen in each of them: were these humans?
None of them were quite accustomed to fighting other humans in mortal combat. Llandra had plenty of experience fighting other people in jujitsu, but not to the death. She did not want to kill anybody. Human, at least. She had no qualms over killing a demon or something along those lines.
There were about fifteen Ninjas, spread out along the path and short distances into the wheat, and they were prepared for battle. But something was holding them back.
Fear, perhaps, thought Angel, trying to figure their tactics. I doubt it. These things aren’t scared. They’re waiting on something.
Then they heard a voice. From farther down the path it cried out to them.
“Better guard yourselves, Warriors!” it cried gleefully. “There’s about to be a firestorm, and this is one storm you don’t want to get caught in!”
“What the…” Llandra started, but stopped when the ninjas suddenly leapt straight into the air.
Their leap carried them fifty feet into the air, almost disappearing into the glare of the sun, leaving the Kehtayahn with no clue as to what was happening.
Except for Llandra.
“Jump! Jump!” she cried out to her comrades. “Get off the ground!”
Llandra leapt up with all of her strength and watched as the others did so as well, whether or not they understood why. Her curly hair gusted in her face as she closed the distance on the ninjas, whose own leap was coming to a peak. Keeping a careful eye on them, Llandra quickly glanced down the path and saw that there, only two hundred yards away, the wheat field ended against an open, grassy field that stretched far into the distance.
And, oddly enough, at the edge of the two fields loomed a fireball twice her own size. No, not just a fireball. A person holding a fireball. Glowing red and yellow, the stationary inferno sat atop a man’s hand, whose own form was hidden by the massive blaze.
As Llandra expected, the hidden figure gave the fireball a push, sending it forward in a powerful firestorm, engulfing everything in its path as it blasted through the wheat stalks. Had they been on the ground, they, too, would have been overwhelmed by the flames, and she highly doubted they would have survived such an attack, even with their heightened abilities.
Firestorm, Apollo thought dryly, watching the orange blaze pass underneath him. Original.
Green plants were instantly black and crumbled to soot immediately. The heat wave blasted upwards with the flames, forcing the Kehtayahn to close their eyes and tuck in tight from the increased temperatures. They may have been stronger than before, but they still worried that their clothes might catch aflame.
As soon as the fire passed, it brought behind it a great wind that rustled up the dust and made the air thick with it. This left the assorted characters with a cloud of blackness awaiting them on the ground, blotting their visibility to near nothing as gravity began to assert its pull on them.
I don’t think that the landing will hurt my legs, Angel thought hopefully as he began to drop into the soot-cloud. If they can make me jump this high, then they can handle the impact of the fall they brought upon themselves.
Angel hit the ground with no problem, not even having to bend his legs upon impact. A series of metallic thumps indicated his companions landing around him, and if the ninjas hit the ground, he did not hear it. While he could just discern the other Kehtayahn through the ash, the ninjas, in their black getup, were near invisible.
“I can barely open my eyes,” Llandra growled, keeping her scimitar high in case they were attacked. “The dust keeps getting in them!”
“Same here,” Jex said. “Crap! We’re gonna be fighting blind!”
“Guys,” Apollo chimed in, his voice carrying more joy than the others felt. “We were given a weapon. I’m sure it can come in as some use now.”
Apollo Slaughter dropped his hands to his sides and turned his palms upward, gathering energy in each one. They had had a couple hours of practice now, and it was coming quicker and quicker with every attempt. Within seconds, a blue orb rested in either hand, which he quickly turned inward and, in a sudden movement, slammed together. An eruption of light was produced, sounding almost like a clap of thunder, with an ensuing blast issuing forth like a sound-wave in every direction.
Dust swirled violently away from him, while Angel, Llandra, and Jex covered their eyes from the fast-moving soot. In moments the air was clear, and it was only them, the ninjas, and a burly individual standing in the black field.
It was obviously an angel, though not as tall as Giovanni had been. He was probably a foot taller than Llandra, but much different. He was very, very built, his skin rippling with muscle. He wore no shirt, so his scarred-up chest was very apparent to the Warriors. It looked as though he had been through a lot of battles, with many blades drug across his flesh.
Along the base of his back, protruding from beneath his quartet of blackened, ragged wings was a sheath, its handle protruding on either side. The handle hinted toward a sword of sorts, but the group could not tell.
The Naphal had no hair, his scalp a leathery patchwork of burnt flesh that led down to cauliflower ears. While his face bore signs of past wounds, his primary features maintained intact. The bulbous nose was no distraction from the half-crazed eyes that fixed the Kehtayahn, and, if Angel was not mistaken, his teeth had been filed to a point.
If intimidation was what this guy had been going for, he had done a very good job. The Kehtayahn had only recently encountered their first angel, and though he had been much larger, he had been much more refined and elegant that this character. His wings were ripped in places, and the four of them slowly rose and fell, spread out slightly in such a way that it gave him the impression of being larger than he actually was.
Lying on the ground behind him, Apollo noticed a bundle of cloth. Apollo strained his eyes to make sure it wasn’t some weird weapon hidden in there or something when he noticed that one piece had fingers protruding from it. As the digits slowly curled, Apollo realized what it was. It wasn’t a bundle of cloth. It was a person.
“He’s got a hostage,” Apollo said to the others. “On the ground behind him.”
“Or it’s a trick,” Llandra offered. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Welcome to Altopia, Kehtayahn,” the Naphal cried in a beastly voice. “That is what you are called, right? That is what my new friend here told me.”
He indicated to the prone form on the ground.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am General Caldera-Dabih-Lesath, and it is my duty to keep you four from entering Sargs Field, that great, grassy plain that lies behind me. Of course, you will be dead before you even get close, so do not fret yourselves with worry. My warriors and I are very skilled.”
“Wonderful,” Jex said sarcastically. “Great. Awesome. No really, I’m impressed. It’s not like I haven’t heard that before. Very original. But anyway, I think it’s time I killed you and moved on in our journey. Is that okay with you?”
Caldera smiled a fearsome smile.
“That sounds acceptable.”
“Battle positions,” Llandra barked. “There are fifteen of them, so we’re gonna team up. Two groups of two. Focus on two at a time. Don’t let them rest. Keep it going until they’re all down. Then, we’ll focus on Caldera. Apollo, you with me?”
“I’m with you,” he replied, smiling. “But I’m gonna need some help with my arrows. If you see any spent shots lying near you, toss them to me. I ran out against the Archer back there, so I’m probably going to need them against fifteen opponents.”
“I guess that teams up me and Jex,” Angel said.
“Works for me,” Jex said, holding his battle-axe viciously and bearing his shield in defense position.
“On my word…” Llandra said slowly.
It looked lopsided. Four vs. fifteen. Not looking too hot for the good guys. But they were confident. Maybe a little stupid, too.
The four Altopian Warriors shot out, and right out of the starting line Apollo took down two ninjas with one arrow, aiming at one as another took cover behind him. He had fired his first shaft at the one and, when Apollo noticed his evasive move, fired the second with extra velocity, the end result being the arrow piercing through the first ninja and continuing right on through into the chest of the other. The two fell to the ground with a burst of blue flames, their flesh, blades and everything turning to dust before they even hit the ground.
Apollo was thrilled.
“They’re not human!” he exclaimed. “They burn up when they die!”
The others heard, but didn’t respond. Angel was too busy trading swipes with two ninjas. His swords moved impossibly fast in all directions, sparks flying from the colliding metals. Jex was beside him, and he, too, was in extreme combat.
The slick-headed Warrior ducked down as the blades swiped over his head incredibly fast. In turn, he swung his battle-axe to the left, trying to take off one opponent’s legs. The ninja quickly put his feet on the large blade and pushed it down into the ground. Jex saw this and loosed the weapon, bringing his huge shining shield slamming into his opponent’s chin. The blow knocked the being onto its back as Jex snatched his weapon from the earth and brought it around and sliced right through the midsection of the black-skinned being, who ignited into blue flames immediately.
Llandra ran towards one ninja and held her scimitar out like a lone wing. In an amazing move, she leaned to her left and jumped through the air, her sword whistling as it spun around in the hot air. She opened her legs out and brought the right leg around the back of one Ninja, and the other flat onto its chest. Pulling her sword in, her velocity increased and the ninja spun around violently, and Llandra herd his spine break in half. He flamed up immediately, but Llandra felt no heat as she hit her side on the sooty ground.
Angel was pumped about battling the warriors that he never stopped moving. He stepped forward and moved his swords flashily in front on two ninjas, a maneuver which kept their metal blades at the ready and their crimson eyes locked onto the swords. Then, in an abrupt movement, Angel loosed the swords up into the air. Caught up in the gleaming metal, the ninjas momentarily followed their path, taking their eyes off of Angel just for a split second. That was all the time he needed, jumping between them and snatching their bladed hands, pulling them toward the other and running the two of them through. They paused for a second as the inevitable sunk in, then exploded in flames, their soot remains not even visible on the scorched ground. Without slowing, Angel snatched his swords from the air and turned to his next combatant.
Apollo leaned back as claw-blades scratched at the air where he stood. His arrow was already loaded, moving back and forth as he tried to get a bead on his target, a rather elusive ninja that flipped, turned, and jumped in a flurry of movement. The demon was closing the gap quickly, and Apollo knew he had to fire now or lose his opportunity. With inches between them, Apollo let loose the string.
What he did not see coming was the ninja reaching forward with his black, bladed hand and grabbing the arrow at the same moment. The result was a backfire of uncontained momentum as the bow responded to the arrow, rather than the opposite. On impulse, Apollo let go of the wooden handle as the bow shot behind him, clipping his shoulder and tumbling through the air.
“Dang it…” Apollo said through gritted teeth, rubbing his shoulder and backing away from his aggressor. “Llandra! My bow!”
Llandra, who had her back to Apollo, quickly glanced over her shoulder, then back to her adversary. The ninja punched at her face and she leaned to the left to dodge the blow. As she tried to roll away from the attack, the ninja brought his blades down hard, raking her sides with a crimson splash.
“No!” Apollo cried, watching as Llandra’s blood matted with the ash against her flesh.
As the ninja before him made to stab him with his own arrow, Apollo reached back and snatched the blade from the sheath across the base of his back and swirled it around through its upper body. Moving too late to block the attack, the demon turned to flames as it passed through him. Without looking, Apollo grabbed the now descending arrow from above his head as it fell from the denigrated hand and threw it like a spear at the ninja who had sliced Llandra. Ninja didn’t see it coming, and was flame to dust as it tore through its skull.
Apollo rushed over to his partner, hoping for Angel or Jex to come to his aid, but they were too busy butchering demon ninjas to notice the occurrence across the field. He looked back at Llandra, and saw the crimson river that flowed from her side.
“Ahhh!” she cried. “It’s deep, man!”
“I know,” he replied, panicking. “But it will be okay. Where’s the Varahora water?”
“Angel took it,” she said in a strained voice.
Angel didn’t stop to look, but leapt up and soared backwards, landing gleefully beside Apollo.
“We’ve taken down, like eight altogether,” he said enthusiastically. He smiled, then looked down at his sister and his happiness faded fast.
“Oh, no,” he moaned.
“Give her some water,” Apollo ordered.
Seeing their wounded opponent, two ninjas ran towards the fallen girl. Angel, busy retrieving the canteens from his pouch, leapt over and hid behind Llandra as Apollo grabbed his bow from the ground and stood. In an instant, an arrow was loaded, and the ninjas stopped in their tracks. The two of them were staring him directly in the eyes, and they were too far away to nail while paying this close of attention. Eerily, they cocked their heads to the side as they awaited his shot.
Across the way, Jex was fighting off the two remaining demons that remained after Angel had left. A quick look revealed to him the stand-off between Apollo and the two ninjas. His mind worked the situation for a moment and reached a strategy, one based partially on necessity and partially on enjoyment. Jex fought for a second more, totally focused on his two, then twirled his awesome axe over his right shoulder and let it fly. Neither of Apollo’s adversaries noticed until the axe planted into the spine of the ninja on the left.
The ninja to the right turned in shock, oblivious to the arrow that shot towards his neck Apollo had fired during the abrupt interruption. He was already in flames as Jex ricocheted the still-moving arrow off of his shield and into the chest of one of his own opponents.
Fourteen burned up like matches, one remaining.
The final ninja-demon looked around at the Warriors, then quickly assessed his situation. His eyes played from one to the other, looking at Jex and over to Apollo, who now had his sights locked on him. When it glanced over at the Forest of Ocanip, the Kehtayahn knew what was going through his mind and gave him time to follow through. If he wished to flee, they would not pursue.
Out of nowhere, a ball of fire blew past the Warriors and incinerated the ninja where he stood. The shocked Kehtayahn turned to see Caldera standing with a smug expression.
“Coward,” the angel called. “It is very disappointing to see my best contemplate surrender. But, I will live. He will not.”
The General turned his attention to the Kehtayahn and clapped his leathery hands together.
“Well done,” he congratulated. “I figured that at least one of you would not survive. And it seems that in a few moments, I will be proven correct. Her wounds are deep.”
The Warriors ignored him as Angel poured the Varahora water into Llandra’s mouth. She gulped it down greedily and looked down to see its effects on her flesh. Muscle and tissue appeared where it had not been only seconds before, curling and mending across the clean cut until the muscle underneath was once more hidden. Revitalized, Llandra thanked her brother and climbed to her feet.
“Varahora water!” Caldera growled. “A coward’s tool. Where did you get it?”
“Go to Hell,” Llandra said fiercely. “You don’t need to worry about it.”
“Is that it there?” he said, pointing to the canteens.
For some reason, the Naphal was getting angry. Something about the Varahora water had struck a chord with him.
“Did you not hear her?” Angel asked sarcastically. “If you want it, you have to come and get it.”
“Or maybe,” Caldera countered, then reached down and grabbed the unconscious person from the ground behind him. He held him up for them to see, and it was now apparent that it was yet another angel, though a particularly small one. “Maybe I snap his neck if you don’t give it to me right now.”
“And lose your only bargaining tool?” Jex replied sarcastically. “You’re not that stupid, and neither are we. So don’t try mind games.”
Caldera boiled. He could see they were right. If he killed the captive, they could simply take off in all directions. He had his orders, which was to kill them all. Chasing them all down would only prolong this trip. They needed a reason to have to stay so that he could destroy them.
“Here’s the plan, guys,” Llandra barked, huddling them in. “We need to split up again. He can’t take on two separate groups at once-”
“Hopefully,” Apollo muttered.
“-so we need to distract him with two or three of us, while the other person gets that angel and get out of here. Remember Giovanni said something about a building in a hole? Find it, stay there, and we’ll regroup once we’ve either finished with or lost Caldera. He’s gonna be tougher than the ninjas, I just know it, so three should fight him, one get the hostage out of here. Who’s up for the snatch-and-grab job?”
“I’ll grab him,” Jex offered.
“Fine,” Llandra said, moving on. “Jex grabs him. Us three fight Caldera on all sides. Simple plan. Let’s see how we can botch it up.”