Mark 0200 (0600 Local Time), Rift Between Talich and the Untamed World
The Flame Dawn had been exceptional allies to the Overseers, Sol pondered. There had been a time when it had seemed that the knights of the crimson and gold would overtake the planes and aid the angels in throwing the demons back into Torment. But with this inane, annoying civil war with the so-called "Firmament Foundation" progress had ground to a halt. What was worse, their allies the Descendants of the Dragon had thrown in their lot with the trumped-up Infinite Worlds Defense Force. "Don't they realize that's what we do already?" the angel grumbled.
Mew's advice had been sound. Punish the Descendants indirectly by withdrawing support whilst crushing the Firmament Foundation, the Warpath, and securing the Overseers' rear before a final assault upon Torment. With luck, even the Hellmouth could be sealed and perfect order could be destroyed.
Luck had not been on their side. The massive army that Sol had mustered during their withdrawal from Reish (surely the Descendants would be able to hold their base in Jinhai without the Overseers' help for at least a while--they had been doing so for generations, after all) had been harassed by beasts of the Warpath, delaying him far too long and resulting in the destruction of vast swaths of forest along their route from the Rift to Reish to the Rift to Talich. At last, they had arrived. It was morning, with the sun just barely peaking its way over the horizon. Scowling at the delay and the cost in lives of the march, Sol ordered the army through the rift. First one squad went through, then another. A third passed through to Talich, but then a soldier came rushing back, shouting.
"There's a man out there!"
"What?" Sol demanded, flying down to interrogate the soldier.
"There's someone on the other side, a sorcerer of some sort. He just tore apart my squad. I barely escaped."
Sol swatted the soldier aside with a powerful backhand, sending him sprawling. "Ex! Send in your heavy troops! Secure a foothold while we send the rest of the army through. Daclerius! Expand that rift so we can send more angels through at a time. Move it!"
The Oppressor nodded with grim satisfaction and clenched his fist before waving forward twenty heavily armored angels, shock troops recently trained for the war against the demons and the corrupted of Reish. The squad disappeared through the rift even as Daclerius, Sol's most trusted lawmage, poured power into expanding the rift. The planar tear's edges crackled as it grew, and several angels fell to their knees clutching their heads or their stomachs, unnerved by the unnatural scar upon the fabric of the multiverse. Sol watched, unmoved. When it was wide enough, he personally led another hundred heavy shock troops through the gate.
Who he saw on the other side gave him pause. It was the immortal riftwalker he had been tracking, trying to contain, for all of those centuries. But he had been as slippery as he was powerful and had evaded them at every turn. When Solace's Gate had been opened during the infestation, Sol had hoped to orchestrate a more thorough manhunt, but there had been too many other priorities.
Why he was standing his ground instead of fleeing like he always did, Sol did not know.
Ethan, for his part, had spent the last three days preparing the site of the battle. He had long since placed useful runes throughout the infinite realms, dormant spells just waiting for him to call to life, but never in such density as he would need here. Sol's army was thousands strong, and he needed to keep them at bay while Erebus fought at Pyr. If the general failed in his endeavor, it would be through no fault of the immortal’sand he would merely return to his previous plan. Plan B, however, was much more amenable to him than Plan A, so he hoped the Firmament Foundation's operations would succeed.
When the first squad came through, Ethan activated a series of runes containing a storm of lightning, which lasted long enough to destroy the second squad as well. The third, however, he had to deal with using a few improvised spells while still laying the groundwork for larger magicks, including a rune that would close the rift and prevent it from being reopened for at least a few days. He fought as he worked, carefully imbuing the ground with power even as he cut apart the squad with slashes of magic. As one escaped, he looked up.
"Well, that can't be good."
During the following minute of calm Talich-side, which Ethan imagined was far less calm on Sol's side of the rift, the immortal returned to his work with zeal. Almost there, he thought. Just a few more symbols, a few more layers. Closing the rift would be a setback in his work, but he was patient. He had time.
Then the first squad of shock troops came through, slamming into the ground and planting their shields in a phalanx. Magic learned from the Descendants of the Dragon shimmered in front of their ranks, protecting them--for a time--from his spells. So Ethan didn't cast any spells, instead choosing to finish up another layer of the runic circle. The shock troops cautiously advanced under Ex's command. Still, Ethan waited to respond, waiting for the moment. The moment when the protective magic would either wear off or flicker as it was being reapplied.
The wards fell for a moment as they wore off, and as they did so Ethan unleashed a torrent of power, activating runes beneath the squad's feet to incinerate them where they stood even as another layer of protective magic was being applied.
Very few escaped.
The rift was widening, he noted, furrowing his eyebrows. "What're they up to?" Opening rifts was what Ethan did; the Overseers did their best to close them, to regulate them, to minimize their impact. Yet here they were, widening one so they could send in more troops at a time.
Another wave of shock troops poured through the rift, about a hundred. And flying at their head was Sol. The Champion of Vengeance was scowling. We go way back, don't we, Sol? Ethan thought with a bitter smile. No love had been lost between the two of them. To Sol, Ethan knew, he was a maverick, a rogue who must be stopped. To Ethan, Sol was an annoyance who impeded his plans. Whenever they had met in the past, it had ended poorly for the plane where they fought.
"Let's try to not destroy the world this time, shall we?" Ethan called out, and Sol's face stretched into something between a grimace and a grin. The angel was so serious, it was hard for Ethan to tell and it looked like Sol was in physical pain every time he smiled.
"This ends today, riftwalker!"
Ethan laughed. Even if Sol's army managed to overpower him, he could always just open a rift to another world with a wave of his hand. Admittedly, that would involve abandoning the IWDF, which he had recently put some effort into cultivating, but still, there was a greater purpose at stake. Even without Erebus' little alliance, the plan had to move forward.
Of course, by taking the time to talk Ethan had allowed more angels to come through the rift, leaving a significant force arrayed against him. Naturally, however, the immortal had not been idle during this time. Another circle of the rune was complete. Ethan recalled a conversation he had had long ago with the Aleta from Reish:
"Why do you insist on using those stuffy runes when there's so much raw power you can command?" she had asked. "Using runes reduces the power of the spells. It's better just to have the speed and flexibility raw magic provides."
Perhaps she was right, though Ethan would be loathe to admit it to her face. As much as he valued the control that his runes provided his magic, a little speed wouldn't be unwelcome with even just the vanguard of the Overseers' grand army staring him down.
Besides, she had turned Reish into a corrupt magical wasteland and gotten herself captured by the Demon Prince of Torment. So the results of her methods were, at best, questionable. And it was another mess that he'd have to clean up eventually.
Still, he needed a bit more time, and with that many angels bearing down on him time wasn't something he had in abundance. Given his few remaining options, Ethan decided to see if he couldn't distract Sol by talking.
"So, you finally catch up to me and you decide that you need to bring an army with you? Hardly fair, don't you think?"
Sol's cold voice rang out. "I'm not interested in fair fights, Ethan. I'm interested in order."
"Oppression, you mean."
"Depends on your point of view."
"Now if that isn't moral relativism, I don't know what is. You're stifling the planes in the name of security, Sol."
"And you're attempting to destroy them," the angel countered.
Ethan shrugged. "At least I have the honesty to do my own dirty work. You weren't even part of your own vanguard until three squads and some shock troops had already died. Some leader."
"You won't bait me into a fight, riftwalker. Nor will your prattle buy you any more time. Attack!"
By now there were some three hundred angels flying on this side of the rift, and every single one of them made for Ethan. Shock troops thudded into the ground and planted shields, cutting off his retreat--as if--while other angels began firing upon him with their lightcasters. Waving a hand, Ethan activated a shield rune and hurried to finish the circle. The shield wouldn't last for long beneath the coordinated assault of Sol's vanguard. As he added in the finishing touches and an extra flourish, Ethan activated another layer of shielding to compensate for the initial shield, which was on the verge of collapse.
Standing back to survey his work, the immortal nodded. "Perhaps my third best rune of all time," he said, smiling, then not. "Right, let's get to work." Snapping his fingers, he pulled power from the aether and activated the rune. Through his shields he could see the rift crackling and start to contract. It surged outwards again and Ethan scowled, pouring more power into the magic. Someone was fighting him. Odd. Annoying. Digging deep, he shoved power into the rune with a determination he had not felt in a long time. With a sickening lurch and what Ethan could best describe as a metaphysical burp, the rift slammed closed. It would stay that way for, at most, a week.
"Plenty of time for Erebus to finish his war," Ethan said. Then he fell to his knees, drained by the effort of forcing the rift closed. Taking a deep breath, he dug his fingers into the dirt. Another heaving breath.
And then the shields shattered and five heavily armed angels charged him. Ethan rushed to his feet, activating three binding runes to hold angels in place while a fourth he killed with a burst of uncontrolled magic he wasn't going to tell Aleta about.
Still, there were five of the angels, and even with three straining against magical bonds and one disintegrated, one was still coming and nearly upon him, apparently trying to tackle him to the ground and bash him with his shield. As the angel hurtled towards him, Ethan slashed through the air with his hand, opening up a rift to... never mind where. The angel backwinged in an attempt to stop, but it was too late. He couldn't stop his momentum and went through the rift. As soon as he was through, Ethan resealed the rift.
Bursts of energy from far-off lightcasters began to sear the ground around Ethan, one blast taking a chunk out of his patchwork cloak. Looking up, Ethan clenched his fist and activated another set of runes, these opening a rift to an ocean world, pouring seawater over the group of angels firing upon him and rendering their wings useless, forcing them to the ground.
"It's a good thing those lightcasters aren't designed for long range," Ethan muttered, whirling around and sprinting to his right to avoid another group of angels. Activating another series of runes, he summoned a windstorm that scattered a large formation in his way.
Sol watched the progress. So far the riftwalker was humiliating his soldiers, but that didn't worry him as much as the closing of the rift did. Most of his army--the vast majority of his grand army--was on the other side. Thousands of angels stranded in the Untamed World. Well, I suppose they can purge some of those incorrigible beasts while they're there, he mused.
This wasn't the first time Sol and Ethan had fought, but the situation was unique. The immortal was clearly not using all of his power, and his earlier jibe about not destroying the world seemed to indicate why. He was pulling his punches.
Not entirely. Another twenty-odd angels were engulfed in flames and killed by a set of activated runes as they charged over them. Sol snarled. That's how it always was with Ethan: preset runes laid days, years, even centuries in advance allowed him to fire off spells with ease.
"We have to force him away from his runes," the Champion of Vengeance said. The trick was how. Lose soldiers by a brute force attack, shoving him out of the field, or simply ignore him and fly away, forcing him to chase us. He's clearly working for the Firmament Foundation. Sol smiled.
"Ignore the riftwalker. We have other fish to fry." Not bigger, but other.
As the angels began to withdraw, Ethan furrowed his brow. "Ah, puffy with a cherry on top. They're leaving." He'd certainly put a dent into the force--and closing the rift was no small feat--but they were still significant enough to give Erebus more trouble than he needed.
And I'd like the Foundation to survive, if at all possible, Ethan mused. That way, well, she hopefully won't be as mad at me.
"Alright, Sol," he called out, "I see you're running away. Have fun. Course, if you can't beat me, I can't see you doing much against the demons. Is that why you're here, Sol? Abandoning Reish to Vasir in a fit of cowardice?"
The angel clenched his fists. This is smart. This is the right move.
They're leaving the runefield, Ethan worried. "Too afraid to even fight me yourself?"
"That might work on the Flame Dawn, immortal, but your tricks won't work on me." My pride can take it, Sol assured himself.
"Some champion you are!" Ethan shouted, walking after the departing force. "I thought you loved the humans, Sol. Where were you when Avarrach fell? Just watching, too afraid to fight?"
The angelic vanguard stopped. Ex, after barely surviving Ethan's earlier spells, shuddered. Now he's done it. Sol's ego could have ignored anything else.
Sol, on the other hand, was reaching towards his holstered lightcasters almost resignedly. "The plan to lure him out of the runefield was working so well," he muttered sadly. Then, with a sudden turn, he was diving at the immortal, guns blazing, eyes full of wrath. "But he has runes everywhere anyway."
Unlike the unfortunate angel who had earlier charged into a rift, Sol didn't fly directly at Ethan. Rather, he flew around him, darting and firing with his two lightcasters. The immortal threw up shields and opened rifts to absorb the blows, but the angel could tell that he couldn't keep up this defense forever. And by staying just outside of reach, Sol was ensuring that Ethan couldn't touch him.
Then the magic started up. Binding spells leaped up from the ground to hold him in place and drag him down, but Sol spun and shot at the magic to hold it off until he was out of range. A firebolt flew towards him and the angel closed his two metal wings to create a shield around himself while his two natural wings continued to fly.
Saltwater poured over him and Sol crashed to the ground, grunting on impact. His natural wings were soaked and useless, while his metal wings were sparking and useless. Spitting, he looked for the immortal.
Ethan's chest was heaving as he fought for breath. Normally he wouldn't stick around this long for a fight--he had better things to do and all the time in the world to do them. And all the worlds to escape to. When you can step through a rift into another world without being followed, running away becomes far easier. Still, there comes a time to fight.
Ethan's hands glowed with power as he stalked towards Sol, flickering blasts of energy absorbing the bursts from the Champion's lightcaster as he advanced.
"You can't kill me," Sol laughed. "I'll just reform stronger."
Ethan puffyed his head to the side. "Or weaker. One of the two."
Defiant, Sol stared him down, his guns lowered. "You asked me where I was when Avarrach fell, and you're right, I failed to act. But where were you, riftwalker? Why weren't you there when yourprecious Aleta began to suffer for all of eternity?"
Ethan snarled. "I was busy." He had been elsewhere, occupied for far too long. Hurt by her rejection. Annoyed with all of Avarrach.
Sol laughed. "Busy? You let a world die in pain and terror because you were busy? With what, might I ask? Your little project?"
"You know nothing of what I am!" Ethan shouted, more power swirling around his now clenched fists. "Nothing!"
"I think I do, immortal. I watched. I was there when you ripped the world asunder, ripped your true love asunder, in order to make yourself live forever. You selfish, childish, brat. All you've done since then is try to fix your mistake, but even then you're just leaving a higher and higher kill-count in your wake. How many have you slain since then, eh, Ethan?"
That might have been the end of Sol, for Ethan was by now lost to rage. But at that moment the immortal was struck from behind with a blast from a lightcaster. He took a step forward, stumbled, and spun. Sol's army had returned for him. Blasts of light began raining down, outshining even the sun in their fury.
Ethan unleashed the power he had gathered to destroy Sol, and not a single angel was left in the air. The area around where the rift had been had, in the space of a few moments, been reduced to a charred, smoking wasteland. Even the sky seemed scarred from the magical outburst. The level of destruction was absolute. This is what had happened to the last world where Sol had caught up to Ethan. This is what he was trying to avoid. This is what had happened, over the course of centuries, to Reish, creating the Demon Wastes. And Ethan had done it in mere seconds. Behind him, Sol whistled. "Looks like we both know each others' weak points. How to lure the other into rage."
Ethan shrugged and pulled the hood of his patchwork magician's cloak back over his head, his anger suddenly gone. "Indeed we do. See you in a few hundred years, Sol."
A rune flashed to life off to the Champion of Vengeance's left and lightning crackled forth, shocking him and forcing him to his knees. Trembling as the lightning continued to wrack his body, Sol reached for his lightcasters and opened fire. But Ethan was gone. He had disappeared through a rift.