Jake slid forward, gliding in a crouch across the rooftop on almost pure blue paint. He used his brush, with green paint at the end, to propel him forward, as though he was rowing a boat. He had to move with utmost silence in order to catch Ora by surprise. She had a fast reaction time and incredible aim.
He had been lucky to spot her up here without her seeing him. He had seen one of her arrows fly off into the distance. Whether or not it had hit its mark, he couldn’t be sure. He suspected it had, else Ora might have repositioned, knowing that someone could detect her location.
Jake had circled around to the opposite side of the three-story apartment building and ascended directly up the wall using green paint on his hands and feet. As far as he could tell, she hadn’t heard him coming. She had her bow ready in her hand, prepared to draw, and someone down below held her attention.
Jake knew he was thinking about the game the wrong way. He should be taking whatever opportunities came up before him to secure points, rather than seeking out a foe for vengeance. Outside of the game — if he could even think that way, for he hadn’t known anything outside of the game for what felt like months, and he certainly hadn’t known Ora outside of it at all — he held nothing against Ora. She seemed like a fine person.
Inside of the game, and more specifically, inside of this match, Ora had killed him several times already. He hadn’t even seen her yet up close. He had almost no range at all, not without his capsule gun, which hadn’t been brought with him by whatever force controlled this place. Ora had a distinct advantage at any range but melee.
Mere feet from here, with no sign that she had detected his presence, Jake slowed his forward glide and stood up, preparing yellow paint on the end of his brush and readying it to strike her.
Then Ora stepped backward, swiftly, her arm jerking backward as she began to draw her bow. She struck Jake, who was halfway out of his crouch, and stumbled. He maintained his balance, however, and used green paint to make his footing more assured. He flipped her over himself, tossing her to the ground behind him, where she slid away on his line of blue paint.
Less than a second later the source of her surprised appeared above the edge of the rooftop. The Staff of Asrai, as the score sheet had called him; or rather, as it called the staff in his hand, which was apparently the true combatant. The glowing golden man hovered above the rooftop. He showed no surprise at the presence of a second foe. Without ceasing his forward momentum, he attacked.
Jake sidestepped his blow, swiping at him with the red paint of his spearbrush as he dodged. It left a track on the Staff-man’s chest. There was little momentum behind the blow, making a second trick possible. He produced green paint from the brush and looped it around, sticking it to the golden man’s back.
With blue paint on his feet, he used the golden man’s momentum to whip around, putting the Staff between Jake and Ora. Before he lost his inertia, Jake stuck himself to the roof with his green pain and pulled hard on his spearbrush. He whipped the golden man around, then released him in the direction of an air conditioning unit. As the Staff flew away, Jake ignited the red paint he had deposited on the man’s chest.
A burst of bright orange flame flashed outward. Jake could not spare a moment to see if the Staff-wielder survived, for out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ora readying her bow. She had rolled away from his streak of blue paint and brought herself to her feet.
“Nice move,” she called to him, even as she unleashed her arrow.
He ignored her. Or rather, he couldn’t spare the concentration it would take to respond. He grabbed his spearbrush in the crook of his elbow. With it and both hands, he flooded the air with white paint mixed with an abundance of brown paint. He threw himself to the side as he did it.
White paint hovered where he drew it upon the air. Brown paint weighed things down. They did not work well together. The weight of the brown paint dragged the white paint down faster than any of the others, negating the white paint’s properties. The white paint held on just enough that the marbled mixture seemed to fall in slow motion.
The arrow passed through the paint. The weight and the viscosity were just enough to alter its path. Even so, it missed Jake’s arm by only a finger’s width.
Jake couldn’t avoid her shots that way infinitely. He would have to close the distance. He found himself wishing desperate for his capsule gun, or even for a rock or some small object to throw at her coated in paint, to give him some sort of range.
The Staff of Asrai and its human wielder moved from where they had struck the air conditioning unit. They turned, revealing blackened, scorched armor on their chest. Ora reacted faster than Jake. She drew and unleashed toward the golden man. Her arrow tapped against his chest, then vanished in a sparkle like dispersing diamond dust. He froze in place.
While she was distracted, Jake rushed forward. He pushed away from the wall behind him to slide forward on blue paint, the used his spear brush as an oar once again to maintain his momentum. He had an idea, thought it was a risky one, because it wouldn’t lead to Ora’s immediate defeat.
She had another arrow drawn and ready. She fired it, at the Staff, just as he struck her, his brush coated in violet paint. His action caused her shot to go wide. It struck the Staff-wielder in the shoulder, piercing his armor. His paint drew a line down her bare left arm all the way up to her shoulder.
Ora’s clothes left more skin exposed than most of the other combatants. She had high boots with greaves of a light golden metal, but her legs were bare and free of armor, to give her increased mobility. Bracers, with that same light metal covering her forearms protected her wrists and arm, but above them her skin was bare to the shoulder.
Jake couldn’t home to coat her entirely in the violet paint, but perhaps he wold be able to cover enough of her skin to have an effect.
She spun toward him, her face contorted in anger. “I had him!”
He halted right next to her. With his hand covered in violet paint, he slapped her across the face, though not as hard as a man trying to bring her harm. Instead he ran his hand across her face and down her neck, leaving it covered in violet. It got into her hair, which was bound into tight braids. It dripped into her eye.
“Get off!” she said, pushing him away. He heard the fear in her voice. She was right to feel it. Had he coated her in orange, red, or yellow paint, he could have already defeated her. She looked at her armor, eyes wide. “Purple? What does purple do?”
He never used purple. He barely ever had the occasion. It was simply too niche, and too difficult to use, since it required so much contact with the skin of his target. In the context of this place, it was better to go straight for the more lethal paints.
“Shoot the Staff-wielder,” he told her.
She gave him an odd, confused look, but she pulled back on her bow, producing a black arrow from nothingness. She drew it back to shoot. This was good. She had followed his instruction. At the very least, he’d gotten enough violet paint on her to make her inclined to listen to him, even if this was something she would have done already.
A black hand, like solid shadow, gripped the edge of the roof behind the golden man. Mikael’s face appeared, just visible over the roof. Ora let her arrow fly. Another hand of darkness, at the end of a long, thin arm, passed through the roof and grabbed the Staff-wielder’s head, twisting. His body twisted in the air, Ora’s freeze dissipating, as he moved with the motion of Mikael’s hand.
The Staff of Asrai came up in his hand. As he had done when clearing the staff of paint the first time Jake had encountered him, the Staff of Asrai held the staff vertically at the end of a flattened, outstretched hand. It spun, lightning quick, like the blade of a saw. Ora’s arrow snapped against it and shattered.
Mikael withdrew the hand holding the golden man’s head. Jake took advantage of Ora’s surprise. “Hold still!” he said.
In an unguarded moment, she was more likely to heed his request. She did so. He quickly spread violet paint across her other arm, around the back of her neck, and onto the rest of her face. He then knelt, with one eye on Mikael and the Staff, and spread paint where her legs were exposed.
“Back up,” he said. “Get some space for yourself.” He eyed her. She had already begun to follow his instruction. That was good. “Shoot to disable, not to kill.”
He wasn’t sure how whoever determined the score would take it into account if he told her to shoot someone and she succeeded in taking them down. The violet paint made her susceptible to his suggestions and commands, but only up to a certain point, especially without covering her entire body. If he stuck mainly to things she might do already, he would have more success. But if he told her to shoot to kill, and she did, would he get the point, or would she?
If he were adjudicating, he would give the point to her. It took him some effort to cover her with the paint, but it took much more of her skill for her to secure the point, even if it was Jake giving her some direction. He needed to use her to help him secure points, rather than letting her finish the opponents on her own.
Mikael had brought himself fully onto the rooftop. One of his shadowy limbs gripped the roof’s edge, pulling him swiftly out of range of the Staff as the man wielding it struck at him. His other hand raked out toward the man, sharp fingers crooked like claws. The Staff had started to pursue, with the man darting forward in its hovering way, but it staggered as Mikael struck.
The blow left no mark upon the armor, but passed through it all the same. Jake knew, from past experience, that Mikael could ignore armor at will. His arms were one of the biggest problems for Ryse, whose metal armor lend him no protection from Mikael’s hands. The golden man, clearly, had the same problem.
“Freeze Mikael,” Jake said to Ora. “We can’t let him finish off the Staff.” He paused. He wouldn’t have any easier of a time against Mikael than the Staff would, not one-on-one. Luckily, he had changed those odds. “Keep him frozen, if you can.”
Mikael struck again at the Staff-wielder as Jake moved into range. Jake tense, but the blow was not lethal. In an eerily fluid way, possible only because of whatever mechanism allowed him to hover, the golden man twisted sideways and down. Mikael’s hand raked along his side.
Then three things happened all at once. Ora’s arrow tapped Mikael, and he froze in place, with even his invulnerable arms immobilized. Jake came within range of the Staff and readied his spearbrush and his free hand with overflowing orange paint.
And, over the edges of the rooftop, from every side, crawled chameleon-shaped creatures the size of dogs. At least three appeared from every side, with four on the side farthest from where Mikael stood frozen. Knobs of bone sprouted from the chameleons’ backs like dull horns. Around the coiled dozens upon dozens of Naleya’s blade-snakes.
In that moment, it dawned on Jake that he had been wrong. He had assumed that, because Naleya had no points yet, the others had been shutting her down. That was not right. She must have been hiding since her encounter with Jake and Celia, building up an army.
Jake looked upward. Sure enough, one of Naleya’s birds flew high above them, looking down upon them with eyes that relayed their information directly to their master. Jake cursed.
The blade-snakes flowed forth ahead of the chameleons. The engulfed Mikael before his stasis wore off. He came back into motion with a high-pitched yell, his Talent-arms flailing, but they were not enough.
When his arms faded from existence, the blade-snakes dropped to the ground. The swarmed toward the golden man.
Jake backed up away from the spectacle, though he had nowhere to go. A tongue shot out from one of the chameleons, latching onto Jake’s abdomen. He dropped his spear so that he could grip it with both orange-painted hands. The tongue began to sizzle and dissolve, but another struck him from behind, and then another.
Jake twisted to look at Ora. “Shoot them!” he called.
She drew back on her bow and fired, not at a creature, but at the roof between her and an approaching swarm of snakes. A black line emanated from the bow, widening to become something like a thick spear. She shot again and again, driving spears — which, in other circumstances, she used as paths — into the roof, obviously with the hope of slowing the snakes down to create some space for herself.
It did not work. The blade-snakes flowed around the ineffective barrier and swirled up Ora’s legs, engulfing her.
Held from three sides — four, now, as another tongue struck him, latching onto his clothes — Jake could do nothing but watch. He reached for each tongue in turn, desperately smearing red paint upon them. He ignited it, feeling the heat from the flame. The tongues released, recoiling, but it seemed the flames had only burned away their top layer of saliva, for they looked unharmed.
His efforts were fruitless, however, for, finished with the Staff of Asrai and with Ora, the entire rooftop full of snakes flowed toward him. Instead of resisting, he sat down, resigned to his fate.
Whatever the prize might be, if there was one at all, Naleya would surely win it. He had made a mistake. They all had, by allowing her to grow her army unchecked. Now, they would all lost.