The ringing of metal on metal echoed as Lynx blocked Ace’s blade, parrying and pushing back to put some distance between them. She watched him stumble a step before recovering, his ragged breaths mirroring her own. Apparently, he hadn’t been idle these past ten years either. He fought with a voracity that told her he had been waiting for this fight since the moment their last fight ended.
“What’s the matter Hellcat? Weren’t you always better than me? Have you gone soft since we last fought - after you destroyed everything?” He spat the words out, lunging on the last, spearing his blade in a swift strike towards her gut. Lynx blocked, letting his blade slide off her dual blades as she stepped into him, sweeping her foot behind his. As he stumbled, she tried to move in to disarm him but he was too quick. He blocked the blow with the bracer on his left arm, the intricate crystal reflecting the flames that sprung to life on his blade as he threw her back. She hit the ground in a roll, springing to her feet, katanas ready as she faced back to Ace.
She watched the flames dance along Ace’s broadsword, amazed he still had enough energy for magic. She kept her face impassive, her training well ingrained as she took a careful step looking for an opening. This fight had been dragging on too long and they were both tiring. Soon one of them would make a mistake, and that would be the end. She watched him as he stared at her, his eyes watching intently as she shifted her weight but made no move to advance. Ah, that’s what’s different. She heard a deep voice in her head, Vaughn’s voice annoyed as he echoed her thoughts.
He has learned what patience is. He waits for you to make a move. Pity he is not still the hot-headed child I remember.
Lynx could feel her demon companion bristle as he watched from within her. He did not like being bound inside her, unable to act. She replied to him with their shared link.
Yes, he doesn’t charge in as he used to. No, she hastened to add, feeling Vaughn’s eagerness to join in the fight, you aren’t getting involved. This is a between us.
She felt a flash of Vaughn’s frustration but it subsided quickly as he sighed, mumbling about stupid human children. She felt her lip twitch, and saw an echoing sneer from Ace as he noticed.
“That can’t possibly be the start of a smile I just saw. From you, Hellcat? The master’s prized assassin? The inhuman beast who slaughtered thousands? The Reaper who brings death wherever he goes?” He turned his sneer into a leer. “Or has the world finally figured out that the demon of death is actually a woman? Tell me, can you finally show some emotion, now that you no longer disguise yourself as a man?”
Lynx took a step, adjusting her blades as she watched him. He should know that he couldn’t bait her with words. He had never understood that it wasn’t a lack of emotion that she had, just the capacity to control them.
“Number One, the right hand and trusted prodigy of the powerful mage Mateous. How’s that working for you now? Do you still hate me so much that you cannot see what he is doing to you?”
“You know nothing!” he screamed, his blade slicing through the air as he lunged, the heat from the flames washing over Lynx as she caught his blade in both of hers. But instead of blocking, she continued the motion, twisting her blades to drive his sword down; the tremendous heat from Ace’s blade sizzling as it embedded into the damp ground. Lynx slid her left elbow back into Ace’s face, connecting with his nose and following up with a right punch to the gut. Ace’s grip on his blade loosened and with a final kick, Lynx sent him falling back to the ground. She rested a blade at his throat, her other poised to strike should he attempt to move.
“Stop this,” she said, “I never wanted to be pitted against you, never wanted to be Mateous’s anything. I just wanted to save my brother.”
A cruel smile spread across Ace’s face, and this time, his words pierced right through her.
“And how did that work out?”
Lynx’s knuckles grew white on her blades as she remembered. They had been so close to freedom. Harrison was already through the portal and she started to push Benny through. But he had to look back, had to see the spear flying through the air aimed at her back. She could still feel his small hands on her, shoving her through the portal. She had screamed, grabbing his arm and pulling him with her but it was too late.
Little one, move!
Lynx saw something dangerous flicker in Ace’s eyes, Vaughn’s warning giving her barely enough time to jump back before flames erupted around Ace. She shielded her face, the heat more intense than anything the old Ace was capable of. She put more distance between them, lowering her arms to see what was happening. Ace rose, the flames around him parting to let him through, and she froze when their eyes met. His eyes were no longer the artic blue they had been, but a ruby red that reflected her own left eye. Ace smirked, holding up his right hand where the part of the bracer he wore fell away. She could see that the crystal it bore was now fully seated inside the metal as if it was melded to his body. Thin veins of red spread out from the strange device like a poison and she looked back at him in horror.
“Oh yes,” Ace hissed, “Mateous figured it out. Who knew that the magicless freak was really hiding a demon inside him. Sorry, her. But now, you aren’t the only one.”
Behind him the flames grew and something out of a nightmare emerged. It was humanoid in shape, nearly twenty feet tall. It’s body was all muscle, bound in a red and black leather-like skin, it’s face grossly elongated – discolored fangs protruding from its massive jaw. Horns grew in jagged rows from its skull and eyes as bright as fire.
His spirit rose from her body, his being materializing as his paws hit the ground. He was equal in size to the monster before him, his giant feline body covered in midnight black fur except where his two tails and ear tufts shone a brilliant orange. He flexed his giant paws, extending bladelike claws as he faced this new threat.
With no preamble, Vaughn launched himself at the creature before him. Claws raked at the monster’s face, connecting solidly with the forearm the creature blocked with. Lines like molten blood ran from the wounds as the creature backhanded Vaughn, the feline demon landing lightly on his feet. He swatted his paw at the singed fur from where the blow struck, hackles raising as he glared at the beast.
“Ifrit,” Vaughn spat before launching at it again, Lynx recognizing the beast from her time in the demon realm. But she didn’t have time to be distracted by the demon’s fight. A flame shot out, grazing her shoulder as she dodged, turning back to where Ace’s cruel smile twisted.
“Not so special now, are you?” He sent another flame towards her, a yellow white that was hotter than anything she ever remember him conjuring. She danced out of the way, shocked that he was still even able to stand. She could feel herself tiring as the fight dragged on, but with the amount of magic he had thrown around, he should have been exhausted.
Ace flung himself at her, his sword now flameless but dropping like a battering ram. Lynx slid in, crouching down as she blocked, getting belt level and pushing up with her legs, throwing him hard into the cave wall. He grunted with the impact, falling awkwardly but scrambling back to his feet. As he threw out a hand to send more fire her way, she noticed two things before ducking behind a stalagmite. First, the fire wasn’t coming from him, it was coming from the stone in his wrist. The other was that the red veins stemming from the metal seemed longer.
The floor shook and Lynx glanced over to where Vaughn had the ifrit trapped under him, claws tearing at its exposed abdomen. The monster roared in pain, surging up and headbutting Vaughn, the feline demon yowling as he jumped back. Blood dripped from where the ifrit’s right horn sliced a long cut from Vaughn’s left eye to the orange diamond seal on his forehead, twin to the black seal in her left eye. The ifrit lashed out, a whip of white-hot flames wrapping around the feline’s front paw, another bellow of pain ripped from Vaughn’s lungs.
She screamed his name through the bond that linked them, stepping out to race to him. But Ace was waiting for her, forcing her back into her hiding space as flames seared the rock she sheltered behind. The rocks started to glow with the heat and she noticed the flames were as white as the ifrit’s had been. Vaughn’s voice returned through their bond, the pain evident in his voice.
I’m fine little one, but it is odd. This ifrit does not behave as most usually do. They may be more primitive than me, but they would not normally throw themselves into battle so haphazardly. It is as though his thoughts have ceased and only fights in a blind rage.
Lynx frowned, not sure what to make of that. She needed to get a better look. She almost wished Harrison were with her so she could use his illusions but she knew she would never endanger him like that. Harrison didn’t need to see his only remaining brother like this. She reached into her boot, pulling her last knife out and tossing it to the left while she ran to the right. As she had hoped, at the first sight of movement Ace had sent a wave of flame after the blade, Lynx taking in the scene before reaching the safety of the next stalagmite.
“I always knew you were a coward, Hellcat,” Ace called, but Lynx was to busy processing what she had seen to respond. In the instant she had run, she had watched as the flames Ace wielded raced from the stone at his wrist. At the same time, the flame-whip that the ifrit wielded died out, a crystal glittering on the beast’s wrist exactly like Ace’s. A ragged breath rasped behind her and she glanced back to see Ace, sweat pouring freely down his face, a slight sway to his stance as he took a step towards her. And she suddenly understood. She vaulted over the stone, watching as Ace lifted his sword, meeting her blades in a flurry of blows forcing him to use his blade instead of the stone. Behind him, the ifrit’s fire had returned, Vaugh bounding away, his twin tails glowing with his own magic.
Lynx glanced at the device on Ace’s wrist, the veins of red had grown longer and thicker as if it were a visible infection spreading up his arm. She threw out a leg forcing Ace to stumble, one sword slicing towards the offensive device but he snatched his hand back, landing a blow across her already scorched shoulder before stumbling away.
She watched him clutch the embedded device to his chest, his scowl turning venomous but confirming her hunch.
Vaughn! The crystal on the ifrit’s wrist. You have to smash it. I think it is linked to Ace and he is controlling the demon with it.
Lynx grunted as Ace tackled her and she cursed herself for being distracted. He landed on top of her, using his weight to pin her down. He was heaving in breaths, his body cut up and battered as it shook with exhaustion. He leveled the crystal at her face, the fury in his face almost delirious as he screamed.
“You took everything from me! You will not take this!”
She could feel the heat building, the light from the crystal blinding her as she braced herself for this final blow. But it didn’t come. A deep growl ripped through the cave, Vaughn launching himself at Ace, teeth tearing through flesh and muscle as he clamped on to the arm aimed at Lynx and ripping the man off her. Lynx inhaled struggling to her feet, snatching up the blades she had lost in the tumble and turning to face Ace and Vaughn.
The ifrit had taken advantage of the feline’s distraction, latching onto Vaughn and dragging him away from Ace. The demons continued to struggle, Vaughn managing to break free, and luring the ifrit away from her.
It’s damaged, the boy’s-
Vaughn’s thoughts cut off as the ifrit threw another assault at him, but Lynx forced herself to face Ace. He was staring at her with more hate than any person should have. The arm with the strange device hung limp at his side, blood dripping to the cavern floor. She could feel her own body trembling as her strength ebbed. There was only going to be one more shot, and she could see Ace knew it as well.
She took a breath, her blades held ready as Ace took a staggered step towards her. She mirrored the movement until they were both running towards each other, battle cries ringing from the stone walls. Ace aimed a killing blow at her neck and she blocked and lost one of her swords, but with his damaged arm he was unbalanced and clumsy. She drove a fist to his face, his head snapping back as he turned and staggered away. She glanced down to see if he would use the stone, only to see a crack running through its center. Vaughn must have damaged it in his last attack!
Hope surged through Lynx and she redoubled her efforts, driving him back until he stumbled and fell on his back. Lynx quickly relieved him of his sword, and without hesitation drove her blade into the center of the crystal. An ear-piercing screech echoed through the cavern, and Lynx looked up in time to see the stone on the ifrit’s wrist shatter, the piece falling to the floor as the creature staggered back as if in pain. A moment later it was looking up as if it was waking, its dark eyes narrowed on Vaughn as it growled. The giant cat’s answering yowl was deep and menacing, cowing the ifrit as it took a step back.
I will take the ifrit to our realm, Vaughn said through the bond, will you be alright until I return?
Lynx nodded, her eyes fixed on Ace’s broken body. His face was twisted in pain and all the fight had left his eyes. He wasn’t going to try anything else. As the demons disappeared into their realm, Lynx came to stand over Ace’s body, his eyes glancing at hers before falling to his body, a humorless smile on his face.
“You may as well finish it. Then you really will have stolen everything from me.”
Lynx scoffed. “You really do hate me.”
“Of course I hated you!” His voice came out strangled. “Mateous was our father. I was his number one. His most trusted son. The leader of our family second only to him. The best of all one hundred children he had stolen to create our family. And then there was you. Zero. The reject son. The magicless freak. The stupid recluse who was a prick to everyone. Our siblings should have hated you.”
Lynx frowned, confused. “I was ruthless and cruel to all of them. Of course-”
Ace spit, cutting her off. “You bastard. Of course they didn’t hate you, not after Thomas,” pain at the mention of their dead brother flickered across his face, “he figured it out. You were a prick on purpose. You would call them stupid for failing at a task, then take it over so that if it didn’t get done, you were to blame. You would take the beatings. You made it seem as if you didn’t care for them so Mateous wouldn’t use them against you like he did Benny.”
Lynx flinched at the tears now rolling down his face.
“You found a way to protect them when I couldn’t. You took their pain that I couldn’t. And got Harrison, my only biological brother after Thomas died out of this hellhole. How could I not hate you?”
Lynx was surprised to feel tears running down her cheeks, and she let them fall as Ace continued, nodding to the sword in her hand.
“Just finish it.”
She felt a spike of anger flash through her, and in one smooth motion she brought her blade crashing down. The sound reverberated through the cave, Lynx falling to her knees.
“You asshole,” she whispered, glaring as he stared in surprise at the blade lodged in the rock next to his head then glanced back at her. “I won’t let Harrison lose another brother.”
Lynx assessed his wounds, bad but not life threatening while he stared at her in incredulousness. She hefted him into a sitting position, resting him against a rock. Vaughn had returned and she gratefully accepted when he offered to carry her.
“Wait!” Ace called. “Mateous is too strong. You’ll die.”
“You’re wrong. For me, failure is no longer an option. I will kill Mateous. As for you, I’m giving you a chance at a life, Ace, it’s your choice what to do with it.” Vaughn made his way towards the cavern opening, Lynx calling back before disappearing through it.
“Don’t screw it up, you stupid big brother.”