677 The Siege pt 22

Grey and his opponent, the High Blade Kooranon Balta, studied each other, their experience and observation Skills provided a constant stream of information as they continued to feel each other out. Using his rank five Keen Eye, Grey could see every muscle twitch, every exhalation of breath in excruciating detail. The golgari wouldn't be able to twitch a toe without the wolf-folk being able to tell him how many millimeters he'd shifted it. Not just sight, every sense was pushed to the limit of his ability, Skills and his natural advantages as one of the folk ensuring that nothing took place outside of his notice.

Experience was what allowed him to filter that information, to disregard that which wasn't important. He could smell the ant pheromones that blanketed this tunnel, smell the blood and ichor of those that had fallen beyond the gate before him, but ignored those, all that mattered was the battle.

He centered himself as the great warriors of the Folk were trained to do, balanced his mind against his instinct to find the proper equilibrium. Almost reflexively, so ingrained was the technique, Grey began to circulate the mana inside his body around his center, creating a flow that empowered his movements and hastened the absorption of energy throughout his body. It had been so long since he'd fought in a high level duel such as this. The old familiar feeling had begun to stir in his veins, the impression of being on the hunt. The wolf within him had begun to bare its fangs and he allowed the sensation to wash over him, acknowledging its presence but he did not embrace nor dismiss it. Equilibrium was his safe harbor.

The High Blade mastered his breathing and once more began to exert his aura. Powerful and domineering, it swept through the air and attempted to crush down on the wolf-kin, intimidating and robbing him of strength. As before, he did not resist it, but instead let it pass through him. Such childish tricks were a waste of precious energy in a duel and would have no effect on him. The fact that the High Blade insisted on attempting it displayed a lack of experience.

"You will yield to me, beast," Balta said, confidence dripping from his large frame. "How many of your kind have fallen to my blade already? You are just another notch and you don't even know it."

Anger flared in Grey's heart. The war between the new and old races of Pangera never really ended and conflict between the Empire of Stone and the Folk continued to this day. There was a chance that Balta had slain his people in the depths, it was true, but most likely it was just a taunt. He allowed the anger to sputter out. This was not the time for anger.

"You are a pup," Grey said calmly, "whining and snuffling in the dirt, waiting for the alpha to teach you the ways of the world. What are you waiting for? I'm right here."

The golgari's stone covered face twisted with rage and he lunged forward, the rock beneath his feet shifting with the force of his Dash. In a battle of this level, there wasn't time to think or ponder, no consideration for the next move. It was a realm of highly trained reflexes so fast and automatic that an argument could be made the brain wasn't involved at all. Grey threw himself into the battle, refusing to direct or control his body to strike. He didn't need to, it would strike all by itself. He and his instinct were one and the same.

He Dashed with his right foot only, rotating his body as his left activated Meteor Slash. Stamina and mana drained out of him through his claws as the Skill activated and manifested in the air. Enhanced by the rotation of his body, the five jagged cuts streaked through the air at a speed faster than even his eyes could follow. As predicted, Balta had charged directly forward, relying on his toughened body to absorb whatever Grey could unleash, yet once again he had been underestimated. With a loud crunch, the slash impacted the golgari's side and threw off his balance enough that the destructive overhead strike flew past its target by centimeters.

Breathe. Then flow. The wild joy in his heart surged and Grey allowed his lips to peel back in a savage snarl, baring his fangs. His body continued its rotation, completing the full spin in an instant whereupon he slammed both feet down and charged. Mana swirled in the air and within his body as his hands fell inward to rest at his hips. Dash. DASH. DASH. Three times in less than a second he executed a perfect micro dash, bringing his speed up to a dizzying height as his hands concentrated stamina and mana. Unleashing his named Skill, he thrust both hands forward, palms up and claws extended.

Pierce the Wall!

The light from each claw unified in a single fang that shot outward from his thrust and dug into the side of the noble.

The golgari wasn't without his own Skills. Unable to bring his blade to bear in time, he activated his own Dash to take momentum from the strike as golden streaks of metal on his skin slithered together toward the point of impact. Just before the moment of impact, Grey noticed the telltale shimmer of a shield around the frame of the noble, then his Skill landed and blew the body of the golgari away.

He wasn't finished though, despite how much that must have hurt. As he blasted out from the point of impact, Balta rotated his body to protect his head before he slammed into the roof of the tunnel and felt the rock shatter around his frame. Even from that position he was able to fight back, his free hand gripped the hilt of his living stone blade and he used it to send a wide defensive slash toward the beast as he freed himself from the stone. Contrary to his opponent's expectations, Grey did not choose to follow up on his advantage, instead, he chose to be patient. Eyes wide, he studied everything. How hurt was the golgari? How effective had his strike been? At the same time he focused on regulating his breathing and ensuring his state of mind was not disturbed. It had taken a long time for him to learn the necessity of resisting his urge to chase, but it had been a valuable lesson.

As Balta dropped back to the tunnel floor, Grey flexed his hands and shook out his legs, ensuring he remained as limber as possible.

"That's a very tough mineral you have bonded to your skin," he observed conversationally, "quite a rare find."

Balta sneered as the light glittered on his true skin.

"We prize the stone above all things, beast. Naturally the best ore is destined to fall to the best of our people."

He was unbalanced to his left side, Grey was sure of it. The moment he detected the weakness his pupils dilated and the breath caught in his throat for the briefest of moments, then it passed and he was in control once more. It was unfortunate, but in that moment he lost control of his bloodlust, the murderous aura of the hunter had surged out of his body and judging by the expression on the noble's face, he had sensed it. It was almost funny. Balta had been so willing to call him a beast as a taunt, not realising that the description was quite apt. Grey was a beast, and Balta was his prey.

A wide and feral grin stretched across Grey's face as he accepted the rising tide of the wolf within.

"Naturally," he growled through his exposed fangs, "and I suppose you won that ore by your own hand? Did you Balta? Or did someone else buy it, like everything else exceptional about you?"

The mix of fear and outrage on the noble's face was like ripe wine on Grey's tongue and he didn't wait for a reply before he lunged forward. The golgari responded with excellent reflexes and high level Skills, slashing out once, twice, thrice with his sword in the blink of an eye. The sword light howled with malevolence as it carved through the stone floor of the tunnel, but Balta paid it no mind. His foe had dodged at the last possible moment, he had sensed it. His eyes flickered as he tried to track his opponent but the aged wolf had gotten even faster than before and his instincts were yet to catch up.

He never saw the final blow coming. Grey had leapt above the sword blows and used his shifting cloak to blend with the stone behind him. In a battle of this level, losing track of your opponent for an instant was ten times longer than they needed to end the fight. Focusing hard on his inner self, Grey breathed and shoved hard with both feet. To the outside observer, it looked as if the wolf-kin pushed off thin air, descending on his unaware opponent like a fanged comet. A vortex of mana and stamina formed in front of him and he rotated his body to give it more speed and power. When he reached the High Blade, he sent all of that energy driving into the giant, rock covered frame with the points of his claws.

BOOM!

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The stone around them shattered like porcelain as Grey drove his foe deep into the ground. By the time his attack had dissipated, he found he had buried the golgari in ten metres of solid rock. As he had no personal grudge with this foe, he ensured that the noble still lived before he hauled the fellow up and carried him back to the tunnel floor. Once there, he lay Balta down on the ground so that he might be collected by his people, turned and began to walk back to the nest.

A nice little fight. Just enough to whet the palate.

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