The two had remained deep within cloud cover when they spied Sunaj and his female companion. The dwarf was sipping the simmering broth while his female companion simply stood by his side and waited. Vandross had barely scanned the area for Savati when he realized the green dragon was not too far away, clearly illuminated by torchlight. Was this a trap laid for them? Vandross weighed the idea in his mind. He was not aware of anyone who sought for him personally, save perhaps the Febhed he had encountered some time ago. It was not too far a stretch to consider that Pateron had hired these mercenaries to hunt him down.
With a heel tap, Vandross signalled Nicodemus to descend. He had locked both knees against Nicodemus' horns and drawn his bow and armed it with two strands plucked from Nicodemus' head. Nicodemus sliced its claws against the wind as they descended, and created a whirlwind that cushioned their fall while swirling soil and loose leaves about in a blinding cloud that announced their arrival.
"I am Vandross, Dragonrider Archer of the Faith-"
Vandross had barely finished announcing his presence when he realized the blinding cloud Nicodemus had sung had too rapidly dispersed into the winds. The next sight Vandross saw was the muscular short man cutting through the winds seconds before a tattood fist slammed into his face.
Vandross tasted blood dripping out from between his clenched teeth. His lower lip had popped open from Sunaj's punch. How the dwarf had leapt the distance from the ground to Vandross standing upon Nicodemus' back, the archer did not know. What he knew now, for certain, was that these mercenaries were dangerous.
And the woman knew how to compose with the Dragon's Song.
Alucita continued to stroke her fingers in the sequenced fashion that plucked the tones of the Harmony that combined the tones of fire and water. The resultant vibrations were rapid riffs of pain that burned through the circulatory system of living targets. The victims would feel their blood rush in unpredictable directions, vessels bursting from the stress as their heart struggles to maintain its steady rhythm. The Harmony known as Vitaesis.
It was a deadly Harmony. One even the Faith was loathe to teach, or allow to be practiced. But being the child of the Hierophant, Alucita learned, had its advantages. The gifts of comprehension that the Ancestral Dragons granted the Hierophant, in some strange symbiotic way, also reached her.
Sunaj landed a few feet away from where Vandross had struck the ground. The archer tried to shake the stars out of his eyes but he recovered far too slow. A heavy boot smashed harshly into Vandross' stomach, followed by a solid blow from Sunaj's knee into his face. Vandross nearly blacked out from the powerful strikes. Clamping down the urge to give in, Vandross forced his eyes open and on the last moment, kicked off the ground in time with a whistled intonation. The air picked up and lifted him from the ground, allowing Vandross to dodge Sunaj's next assault. Suspended in the air for a brief second, Vandross twisted his left arm to flick his bow into a new configuration. The bones and musculature moved, snapping into place and transforming the bow into a shield like framework that enclosed his arm. As the string of the bow began to rapidly weave through the frame into a netted skin, Vandross peered at his attacker and discovered the source of his immense strength.
The lines and markings looked abstract enough. The angled corners and the soft curves. But Vandross was a man whose gaze studied patterns well - the routes a target may attempt to escape, the path through the forest that a running target may attempt to use, the areas of cover where a rival archer may be preparing to strike back from - and in the scant moments he looked down at Sunaj he realized what the tattoos were.
They were an autographed notation of Vitaesis. The written score of a Vitaesis harmony meant to increase one's strength. A permanent tune seared into the man's skin.
"Stop this!" Vandross screamed as he fell, but using the shield configuration of his ivory bow, timed his parry of Sunaj's next punch, to redirect the fall into a roll to the side. A flick once again reconfigured the shield into a bow, but this time its configuration was meant for smaller range. "You are both Febhed. The truce demands we cease hostilities."
"This isn't hostilities," Sunaj laughed and charged forward. Each step he took to rush towards Vandross left a tiny crater on the ground. He swung his fists at Vandross, twice missing as Vandross timed his dodge to plant a foot on Sunaj's knee, then whistled once more to kick off and leap into a high arc into the air. From there, Vandross launched the two arrows he had plucked earlier from Nicodemus' back. The arrows unfurled as they sailed in the air, then entangled to each other as they erupted into numerous shooting threads that converged upon Sunaj in the form of a net. Sunaj pulled against the strands but found that they stretched with his motions, then using the contained energy, sprung back to pull him against the ground. The salty tang of blood in his lips concerned Vandross far less than the jolts of pain that he could feel from the Onus Bond. He spun to face the direction where Nicodemus was and allowed the ivory bow to reconfigure itself back into its default setting. "Stop now, Febhed Pateron," Vandross threatened and pointed the bow at the woman in the distance. It was easy even at that distance to see the bow had no arrow notched to it, but Vandross maintained his threatening stance.
"Alucita," the woman called back, "Huntsman. I would sooner throw myself down to be devoured by the mantis colonies here than kneel before the Patermaster and be chosen."
"Let my dragon go," Vandross growled.
"Your bow has no arrow," Alucita teased.
"I will ask one last time. You do now want to test me," Vandross maintained his stance.
Alucita's eyes narrowed. Was this Dragonrider Archer mad? Did he truly hope to intimidate her with an empty bow? Was there some song that the Archers now practiced which made their weapons deadly even without the presence of an arrow?
"Let my dragon go," Vandross gave the final warning.
Alucita stopped the movement of her fingers. Nicodemus gave out a sound that clearly reflected a respite from the pain. The dragon remained on the ground, catching its breath. Vandross slowly walked towards Nicodemus, all the while keeping the bow trained at Alucita. The Huntsman eyed him whimsically. The smile on her face clearly showed she did not fear him. For a moment, Vandross pondered if she was actually mad.
"The pain will pass," Alucita offered, but saw only Vandross scowl in return. "The Harmony I used was meant to hinder it. Not kill it. Killing songs are far easier and quicker to use."
The words were the last thing Vandross wanted to hear. He raised the bow again and let the string go. Alucita felt something whip past her face. She jerked back instinctively as a sharp searing pain sliced into her cheek. Drawing her hand away from her cheek, she saw it was stained with a line of blood.
Vandross reached Nicodemus, slid his arm around its head, and tried to wake it. The dragon stirred a bit, but did not open its eyes.