Things weren’t going so bad for Soma – it wasn’t even a tournament month.
He’d been getting a few patients he’d needed to take care of here and there, but just the right amount, not so much that it was proving overwhelming for him to keep up. It’s true that his means for healing the sick went somewhere beyond the average physician’s abilities, but at the same time, that created a context in which it was easy for people to overestimate how far his powers went. He didn’t advertise, wasn’t looking for new patients as such, but when people who knew about him took people with extraordinary issues to him, he could be depended on.
It was important for him not to get stretched too thin, as much as being able to provide the services that he could when no one else could be relied on mattered to him. He had to be able to save some of his strength and attention for keeping an eye on his grove, to make sure that the wrong people didn’t show up to start damaging it or messing with it when he was otherwise occupied. He wouldn’t have taken on a responsibility like that lightly, and he knew just how crucial it was that no one else figure out how the magic which permeated the place functioned.
If anything bad had happened to it, the circumstances of it would’ve been very dire indeed.
His senses went everywhere, since he was able to perceive anything that any of the trees around him were aware of. Trees were aware of things, on some level, or at least these trees were, enough to send an alarm to him if a threat approached them. The downside of that was that, if any of the trees through which he could perceive things was hurt, he’d feel the pain they experienced in turn, as though what they were going through was happening to him. It was a trade-off, but a sacrifice that he’d found had been worth making, on some particular days.
The internal eardrums in his snake head and the hairs on his spider legs twitched, registering the sound of feet stepping on leaves and twigs near the edge of the grove, and the heat pits in the sides of his snake head confirmed someone’s presence. He climbed up, moving through the branches concealed by their leaves to get as close as he could get to whoever the intruder could be without being noticed himself, making sure his traps were ready and set on his way. It seemed like he may have been going to need them soon.
It seemed like tournament clientele overflow was about to become one of his least urgent problems.
A humanoid Siamese fighting fish stood by the grove’s edge. She seemed determined to go in without delay, so the fact that she’d have been slowing down at all, however briefly, had to mean that she was probably scanning the perimeter herself, trying to figure out whether anyone else was there or not, and whether or not he knew she was there. He tried even harder to make himself as quiet and small as he could, bringing all of his plant, snake and spider patience and stealth to bear, creatures whose very survival depended on not being noticed.
All for naught.
His biggest clue that she’d noticed him in spite of his precautions was when she kicked the tree up which he was hiding trying to make him fall down from it. Extending one of his web-vines to another nearby tree, he swung from the tree he was on onto it, clutching his chest on his way with a burst of confusion in his mind. Turning around to see his attacker and the tree she’d kicked, he saw that the tree he’d just left was definitely on fire, and he was feeling it burn.
How in the world had she done that without so much as a lighter, he asked himself?
He threw one of his web-vine nets down at her from the canopy, hoping to trap her under it for long enough to be able to make sure that she’d no longer pose a threat. When her defensive front kick went straight up into a split kick over her head, he saw her kicking foot catch fire on its way up to his web-vine net above her. It set the net on fire as it struck it and it fell in burnt tatters to her sides, rendered useless for capturing anything.
So that was what had set fire to the first tree he’d been on.
He didn’t know how she made her feet catch fire when she kicked as such, whether it was through witchcraft or some other means unknown to him, but he understood how it worked in practical terms well enough. As he slowly lowered himself from a branch of the tree he was on in spider-taur form by dangling from one of his web-vines upside-down, he saw her step into a snare he’d set on the ground between the previous tree he’d been on and this one. He’d set it there planning to retreat in just this direction if/when he’d be found out, and it’d paid off.
When it yanked one of her feet up over her forcing her upside-down and unable to reach the ground, he cheered, but his celebration turned out to be short-lived. Her other foot quickly followed in its wake, unbound, finishing a complete backflip kick which left a flaming circle in front, over and behind her, easily severing the web-vine which had been pulling her other foot up on its way. She even stuck the landing as she fell back down to the ground, advancing as if his obstacles were mere nuisances that would inevitably fail in their task to deter her.
He’d never even seen her in his life.
Dropping to the ground in humanoid snake form this time, he pulled out a web-vine around his waist balanced by two stones, one at each end, and threw his makeshift bola low toward her ankles, hopping to wrap it around them and stop her in her tracks. As her eyes took in his primitive projectile weapon, she brought one of her feet high up above her head, then abruptly brought it back down at just the right time to swat the web-vine bola to the ground. She burned it to a crisp as she emphatically twisted her flaming ax stomp down on it after bringing it down.
The web-vines were a part of his body, just as the trees were.
Panicking as she kept getting nearer to where he was, he quickly wrapped his arms around his shoulders in a half-crouch then stood up arching his back and uncrossing his arms as wide as he could around him. A large web made from web-vines expanded in between the two of them, latching on to 8 different spots on several trees around their starting point in front of him. It was a last ditch attempt from him to keep her at bay. She torched her way through it with a flying side kick, sending tendrils of flames licking their way up the 8 web-vines every which way.
He felt them burning all the way through.
While he typically favored keeping opponents at as much of a distance as possible while he fought them, relying on guerilla tactics to see him through, this was an occasion on which trying to do so hadn’t served him well so far. Deciding to invert his approach, he first joined his scaly palms in front of himself, a web-vine extending sideways near the ground between them as he then extended his palms to his sides. Next, he pulled another web-vine out of his neck, one that closed upon itself like a snake biting its own tail as he threw it around her neck like a lasso.
Yanking on it as hard as he could, he managed to pull her the rest of the way toward him while making her trip over his makeshift tripwire on her way. Not missing a beat, she hijacked the momentum of her imposed stumble into an aerial kick-flip forward over the vine-wire, one of her feet burning through the web-vine around both their necks. She extended her other leg forward even while landing back on the vine-burning foot, knocking him down on his back on the ground as she finished bridging what was left of the distance between them.
His usually green skin started taking on a yellowish tone.
Remaining on his back, four spider legs came out of his hips and shoulder-blades, lifting him up horizontally in front of her. As they scuttled toward her as fast as they could take him, he kicked forward and down at her with each of his scaly, reptilian feet successively, taking her off guard for the first time since the start of their fight. She finally dove face-down between the spider legs as he scuttled over her and started climbing a tree trunk behind her.
She back kicked behind herself at the tree trunk, hoping to shake him down again. She didn’t know that he’d kept walking with his spider legs upside-down on a branch extending from the tree above her while she hadn’t been looking, and was surprised to see him landing right in front of her. But her kick had still been enough to set the tree on fire, and whether she was hitting him directly or not, the longer she kept him busy as the forest burned around him, the more she was winning and the more he was losing to her.
His skin tone had already shifted to orange.
Shifting to his spider-taur form, he pulled another web-vine out of the side of his torso, this one more like a whip than a lasso. Advancing at her with 8 spider legs rather than 4 and upright rather than on his back this time, he span his web-vine into a figure 8 at her while he charged. She grabbed his lashing vine whip in her hand, pulling down on it while pushing up on his body with one of her flaming feet, throwing him over her to the ground on the other side of her.
He barely rolled back to his feet out of the way of her flipping onto her back with one flaming leg extended aiming for his body. Her twirling kip up to her feet left a fiery trail around her in its wake, tracing a fleeting burning sigil in front of him as he painfully stood back up to face her. She inhaled deep from the smoke that was rising from his burnt dryad body and from the burning trees around them, laughing sadistically as she slowly exhaled, implying that she was getting high from the fumes of the agony that she was inflicting on them.
He defiantly stuck his forked tongue out at her, shifting it into a tiny carnivorous plant which also stuck its own tongue out at her in turn. His skin was bright red by then, and he was having a hard time even standing up and seeing straight, but he’d be damned if he didn’t go down fighting if he had to. He wasn’t going to give whoever this presumptuous fish was the satisfaction of burning down his grove without putting up a fight.
That was when the rain finally started to fall.
He praised the loa – his love was there for him...
After they’d been rained on for not even a minute, the fish’s feet had already been put out and lost their ability to catch fire when she kicked. While a lot of the trees around them had still been damaged by the fire while they’d burned, the fire which had been devouring them was completely put out. By the same token, his skin tone had already reverted to orange indicating that, while he was still in need of medical attention, he was at least out of immediate danger for the time being.
The raindrops which had already fallen and those that had yet to fall then all rose and fell at the same time to hover unnaturally in midair around the fish. Before she could even understand what was happening, each and every one of them came at her at full speed with full force from every direction at once, like a thousand watery needles striking every possible target on her body simultaneously. Stunned by the sheer collective impact of the legion of minuscule fluid blows, she fell to the ground, unconscious.
“Are you okay?!” Mandrake asked his partner, re-coalescing from his multitude of watery molecules into his more cohesive otter-y self. “... I will be,” Soma shook his head. “Who was that?” the therapist tilted his head. “I have no idea,” the snake shrugged exhaustedly.