I can touch them.
My hand had come into direct contact with the rabbit, and, as I was just realizing, I had grabbed the tiger’s arm earlier.
The fact that I was now unhindered by their auras could either be related to their weakness against magic, a result of some element inherent to a djin’s nature that I wasn’t aware of, or both.
Wasn’t there a notification saying that physical attacks would burn them? I remembered.
But my opponents had obviously not been set ablaze, so there was a chance that it had been referring to something completely different.
Still, seeing how the rabbit’s feeble aura hadn’t even been dispelled, it seemed that the tradeoff was that direct attacks wouldn’t weaken their stamina reserves anymore… and that was a price a was more than willing to pay.
I could hurt them. It had not appeased my hunger, but still felt… unbelievably good.
Is this how I burn?
I jumped forward and so did the tiger, anticipating my movements. It probably was an attempt to give his ally enough time to gather himself, but I didn’t care. Actually, I did not care about much at all at that moment.
Instincts I never knew I had were telling me that all I needed was something to kill. Rabbit or tiger, it made no difference.
I landed on the tree an instant before he did and immediately closed the distance. However the tiger was prepared this time around, and I was met with a tight defense that quickly made way for a shower of punches packing a devastating amount of power behind them. Devastating enough that even the thought of blocking one of them was out of the question.
My body was simply too light. If I took a hit from him, I’d be launched off the spiral.
I clicked my tongue, disappointed that the same trick wouldn’t work twice in a row, but unsurprised.
The beastkin’s monstrous fists were the size of my skull and, forced back on our small foothold as I used my superior agility to dodge them, I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to use his hulking stature at my advantage.
His class must be giving him some kind of boost, I thought with annoyance. No matter how good I was at unharmed combat, this fight was turning into a comparison between my acquired fighting experience and the classes’ miraculous ability to instinctually fill the gaps in one’s skill, and that did not seem to be a good thing for me.
That was despite the fact that the tiger’s attacks did not even utilize the reach of his long legs. Instead, his quick footwork was only interrupted to transfer the power of his lower body into punches I could almost see radiate death as they flew past me.
His rhythm started matching mine, some of his jabs grazed my skin, and I felt a pang of unease.
I thought of my sword. Using it would allow me to also take full advantage of my class…
But I couldn’t. Even if I could have managed to dance unaffected by the wound on my leg, my left arm would have still been broken. Me swinging Ikun Omi with the right one would have been a disaster.
Then again, the longer the fight went on, the less I felt inclined to use her help. Relying on a weapon against a barehanded fighter would have felt like an admission of my defeat.
And I wasn’t going to lose face. The current amount of conceit in the bastard’s expression was already infuriating enough.
I’ll show him his place.
Twisting myself over the void, I finally dodged the tiger’s punch in a way he wasn’t able to anticipate. I then used his own extended arm as support to propel myself upward and throw a wide spinning kick. My boot went through his aura without meeting any resistance, and my heel violently connected with the side of his head.
The blow would have beheaded any “normal” person and certainly made my opponent stagger, but it wasn’t enough to make him lose consciousness.
However, I now had the advantage. I was already about to follow up when I caught the tiger’s eyes still trailing me.
I caught the murderous glint they held just in time for me to release his arm and let myself drop on a tree right under the one he was still standing on.
Could djins feel shivers?
Did I almost just di-
Reacting before I could even finish my thought, I jumped backward and the tiger landed heavily where I stood a moment ago, sending a hail of splinters to the winds.
I was elated to see that the fur on one side of his face was burnt, but that didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest. He cracked his neck before confidently walking forward, and something in my mind screamed for me to take my distances.
I was aware that it was just my lingering human side. All this time it had been nagging me to strategize, to use my items and avoid a direct confrontation against the enemy despite my hunger… and I couldn’t fully ignore it. Not yet.
At some level, I understood why it could seem like I was the one needing to be careful. Constricted to a single line, unable to maximize my speed and move around to attack from different angles… a lesser fighter would have been doomed for sure.
But I wasn’t that fighter. I had an unshakable feeling that I would definitely be fine. That I would win.
Crouching as to appear even smaller than I already was, I begrudgingly opted to wait for my opponent to make a move. Even with just one functioning arm, there were various ways to deal with muscle heads.
I flexed my fingers with anticipation. Your eyes are mine.
But instead of attacking me, he stopped and stared back at me with a strange expression.
I could barely contain my smile. Had he realized his foolishness? Was he going to plead for his life?
The blow came from the left. I was so blindsided that it took me a second to understand why the world was in motion even though I was supposed to be standing. But someone screamed my name, and I remembered that I had left the rabbit alive.
It was great that I was unable to feel any pain. It allowed me to immediately focus on what mattered as the wind filled my ears.
A tree barely entered my reach and I extended my hand. The hardened fingers dug into the wood but no deep enough, only leaving gashes of embers as I plummeted down.
Sets of exposed roots failed to impale me as I fell through them.
However, they slowed me enough that, when I fell feet first on a different piece of floating wood, my bones didn’t break.
I just sat there for a moment, disoriented. The bandage on my leg became imbibed with blood, indicating that the wound had been reopened. Not that I could feel it.
Not that I cared.
“You can die proud to have hit me,” I said.
Already there to finish the job, the rabbit pounced forward so fast that I almost failed to react in time. It might have been too late to dodge, but the fact that I was still alive proved that he wasn’t too strong for me to block.
But instead of trying to reach past my guard, the rabbit grabbed my wrist and flared his aura, locking us in place.
More than the vice-like grip, it was the warrior’s willingness to leave himself wide open that alarmed me. I looked at his face and saw that my palm had burnt most of it. Only the crazy eyes were still recognizable.
I looked up, to where I had been a few moments ago, past the fire that was quickly spreading from one tree to the next. The tiger was standing with his feet wide apart and a fist rocked backward, incredibly still at the center of his boiling aura.
He then punched in our direction and everything that way was torn to shreds.
The wave of energy was similar to steam, in that it was almost invisible. Flesh, bones, wood, and everything else it washed over was torn apart, as if it had been exposed to the blast of a fragmentation grenade.
But he needs some time to focus before he can use it, I thought as I spat the rabbit’s fingers, glad that I had managed to jump in time.
The repulsion I felt from the blood in my mouth indicated that I had definitely not become a cannibal. But the rabbit’s sacrifice had not been in vain. While I was watching him being reduced to almost nothing in an instant, I had caught a glimpse of what I was yearning for.
It was gone before long, lost to the void like the rest of his remains. But now I knew that I wasn’t losing my mind over nothing.
It was there, waiting for me at the threshold between a mortal’s life and death. Ecstasy.
I wouldn’t have been able to tell whether it was blood or saliva running down my neck as I climbed back up the spiral as fast as I could.
Sprinting through the flames, jumping from one tree to the next, dodging the waves of aura the tiger threw at me. It seemed that the spiral was spinning even faster, rising even higher in the sky as I was getting closer to my prey.
Once I got too close for him to channel his aura again, the tiger came to meet me with both fists raised in front of him.
He looked calm and collected, his eyes showed a killer’s cold confidence. It was clear that he felt in his element and, to him, there was no doubt that the conclusion of this fight would be the same as all the others.
And why would he think otherwise? He either had a balanced set of attributes, or the ability to make his aura correct his deficiencies. Fighting on that floating tree, it was obvious that he was clearly stronger and more durable, while I was barely faster.
But he had been so shamelessly relying on his aura to kill me that I now felt comfortable using one of my skills.
“Grasp of the Deep!” I roared as we once again both landed on the same tree for our final showdown.
It didn’t matter whether I was on land or not. Grasp of the Deep was a skill that drained the stamina of any opponent in the vicinity, at the sole cost of interrupting the regeneration of my own.
The tiger had to have used up most of his energy already, but he couldn’t afford to disperse his aura while facing me.
The first punch came. Then the second, the third, and the countless ones that followed. I weaved through the onslaught without taking a single step back, facing his savage methods with my superior skills.
He probably thought this to be a final contest of skills that would end with the death of whoever would fail first. But I now held all the cards and would force him to burn through his reserves of stamina until the last drop, and then, exhausted, he would kneel in front of me. Ready to die.
I smiled, seeing his aura gradually shrink and lose its vigor. I was soon to be satiated.
But at that moment, I became lightheaded and my body inexplicably failed to move as ordered.
Only then did I notice that the bar representing my stamina was blinking. It was almost empty.
A momentary moment of weakness before complete exhaustion, the kind that I might have been able to brush off if it hadn’t taken me by complete surprise. However, at that moment, it was a death sentence.
All strength having left my limbs, I fell forward, basically right into the tiger’s hand. He closed his fingers around my throat and yanked me upward.
We locked eyes and panic made way to mind-numbing fear as I realized that he could snap my neck like dry wood at any moment, sending me back to face the sentence waiting for me in the afterlife.
I wasn’t a djin. Lost in the thrilling taste of this power, I had forgotten that simple fact. Simply staying in this form consumed my stamina, and apparently, it did so even faster than a beastkin’s aura depleted their.
None of the defense mechanisms I would usually rely on to protect the illusion of my sanity were in place, and as I face imminent doom, unrestrained visions of horror raced through my mind, so vivid in what they promised that they allowed me to forget even the maddening for a second.
The gears of my reason started to turn once again, and years of conditioning kicked in.
Pure curiosity was the only reason I wasn’t dead yet. I could see it in his eyes as he studied me like a predator playing with exotic food. He had never seen or heard of anything like me before, and it would all end as soon as he got bored.
Maybe it was because he wasn’t as experienced as he believed he was, or because being on a suicide mission had made him careless. I would never know.
Sun Avatar, I thought.
The spell had been ready for a while now. With its second activation, all the energy it had gathered was released at the same time, and I became a sun illuminating the dark sky of Yaga’s Garden.
The flames engulfed us both, and though I was at the center of the inferno, I was left unharmed. Overtaken by pain, the warrior’s first reflex hadn’t been to squeeze his fingers but to grab his own face in agony.
For a while, the tiger’s screams were all I could hear, and they resounded until his throat was no longer able to make sounds. And even then, he kept jerking and flailing, probably trying to find a way to make it all stop. I doubt he ever realized that we were falling.
The wooden trunk he had been standing on had been incinerated, leaving both of us at the mercy of gravity. But if I was really going to die, at least it wasn’t going to be with my insides twisted in hunger.
The tiger stopped moving, and something emerged from his corpse at it was turning into cinders.
I could not parse any features, but I could tell that it was him, or a version of him, made out of blinding light. Pure, and defenseless.
I reached out to take it. More than anything, it was what I wanted, but my hand moved through it and my eyes welled up with tears.
In some way or another, it was out of reach.
I’ll admit that I was curious, but is it not ironic? An amused Ikun Omi whispered in my ear. So close, yet so, so far away…
The tiger’s soul soon disappeared, as real as a mirage on the other side of the shore.
But we do now know why you were sent to me my love, she continued. You are incomplete.