“Did you really think I wouldn’t cheat just because I was already winning?”
⁃ Dread Emperor Terribilis II
“Oh? Things are about to-” the Bard started, but I interrupted.
“Shut up,” I Spoke, and wasn’t watching her mouth snap shut the most satisfying thing I’d seen all week?
The heroine tried to open her mouth, struggling in vain against the compulsion. That should take care of that, at least for a little while. The Hunter charged for me again but he was moving so very slowly – I stepped around the spear into his guard and opened him up from belly to throat with a single cut, letting him fall with a scream behind me as I stepped towards William without missing a beat. In the background Apprentice and the Conjurer had begun their magical duel anew, lights and shaped elements flying back and forth as the hero steadily lost ground. Things turned sour for the twit even worse when Kilian’s mages started pitching in, a staggered flow of fireballs disrupting his casting and forcing him onto the defensive. They were adapting the rate of fire Legion doctrine taught to deal with dug in targets, barely a heartbeat passing between every strike. The mages would run out of juice in time, but hopefully by then Masego would have closed the deal. There were only so many times the Conjurer could bumble his way out of defeat: no Role could stave off death indefinitely.
Hakram was keeping his opponent at bay by the skin of his teeth, collecting cuts but no wounds of any great import. His training was playing against him here: he’d never been taught to fight as a Named and legionaries were expected to kill in properly ordered ranks. Duels weren’t taught in the War College, and that was one of the reasons the remnants of the barricade legionaries were getting mauled by enemy soldiers. That they’d been caught flat-footed and dispersed didn’t help, sure, but when it came down to it Callowan swordsmen were just better at fighting out of formation. In a contest of shield walls the Empire would win nine times out of ten, but chaotic melees were a poor fit for a stabbing short sword and unwieldy tower shield. Warriors against soldiers. They won’t last much longer. Didn’t matter: ultimately, all the other fights were sideshows. Black had always stressed that the place of a Named on the battlefield was to find the fulcrum, the tipping point, and then to yank that lever as hard as you could.
For tonight’s battle, there was no denying that the fulcrum was my duel with the Lone Swordsman.
“I think this one will go a little differently. I’m not half dead this time,” I told William, casting away the wreck of my shield.
The dark-haired man smiled. “Night’s still young,” he replied.
As someone who got into pissing contests with alarming regularity, I could admire a good line like that. As the Squire in charge of a city the bastard had been busy putting to the torch, I fully intended on making him eat the words along with a mouthful of dirt while I buried him alive. I raised my now-free hand and strands of shadow wove themselves around it, forming a wicked-looking spear. I tossed it at William with a grunt, aiming for his abdomen, but the green-eyed hero raised an insultingly skeptical eyebrow. His sword came down and slapped the projectile to the side, where it dug into the pavestones with a howl. I hadn’t figured out how to make it stop doing that yet. I wasted a heartbeat in surprise, though I really shouldn’t have. The spear trick might have been the most dangerous ranged option in my arsenal, but I’d already known William’s sword was far from a normal one. The whole keening sound whenever it cut someone was a bit of a giveaway. I pushed the thoughts away: Struggle would only raise me up for so long, and if I failed to get a definitive advantage before it was done then I’d be facing a full strength Lone Swordsman while exhausted. That way lay bad things, and not the kind of bad villains worked with. I focused on the power, let out a deep breath and moved.
The stone under my feet broke as I barrelled forward towards William. He met me with calm, measured precision. His stance perfect even by the exacting standards of my teacher, he pivoted to let me pass him and struck for the back of my neck. I ducked under it, momentum carrying me in a slide on the stone, and cut at his legs. Pointless, now that he’d traded his leather duster and chainmail for actual plate, but just the force of the blow was enough to throw off his stance. He took a single step back and adjusted so he was facing me as I stood back up. He waited with his sword raised, unhurried. I was the one with a time limit, he could afford to let me go on the offensive and wait for me to make a mistake. I grimaced. For all that I’d stated that this fight would be different than the last one, I’d never had a real confrontation with the Swordsman before. Taking him by surprise when half-dead didn’t count, and before that he’d trounced me effortlessly. Both our Roles were related to combat, but there was no denying that he was a better swordsman than I was a swordswoman. It’s in his bloody Name, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
I probed his guard, hoping for him to move, but he didn’t bite. Green eyes remained trained on me, that fucking little smile never leaving his face. My Name snarled at the sight of it and I let the power guide me, following the set of instincts that weren’t my own but not someone else’s. My arming sword came high, for his eyes, but he stepped into my guard and our forearms met. Sucker punching was usually what I would have gone for in a situation like that, but with his armour there was no point: I could hit hard and my gauntlets would add that little extra twist, but it wouldn’t be enough to damage good plate. Instead I grabbed the back of his head and smashed it into mine, the top of my helmet slamming into his forehead. For once being this short had come in handy. He grunted but pushed me away, slicing at my sword hand without pause – I dropped my sword and caught the handle with the other one, ramming the pommel into his stomach. It wasn’t enough: his fist caught me in the jaw and my teeth clattered together painfully. If he’d hit a moment later I might have bitten through my own tongue, I realized with a start.
I used the fear like the fuel it was, weaving my Name into a lesser trick: the blast of dark power erupting from my hand threw him back. Finally, a solid hit. I wasted no time in weaving a few strands into a proper spear that took him right in the chest as he was trying to get up. I’d seen that working punch through plate, but aside from knocking him back again it left him unharmed. Weeping Heavens, what would it take to actually hurt him? Face still serene, William rose and went on the offensive. The flat of my blade slapped the side of his in a display of dexterity that would have been beyond me if not for my Name, carefully avoiding for either blade to bite into the other. I flowed into a cut that would have torn through his forearm if he hadn’t kept pace, blade twirling and coming down on the top of my head. I felt the metal give but I mostly managed to step out of the blow, sweat pouring down my back. That had been close. Way, way too close. Another heartbeat and that screwed up sword of his would have hacked straight into my skull.
“I see you’re beginning to realize it,” William spoke calmly.
He didn’t sound like he was gloating or dramatizing, for once. In fact, the moment blades had come out he’d turned into an entirely different man, the frills of his personality falling away to leave only naked steel intent on killing me.
“The Bard was right,” he noted. “You have an aspect that serves as an equalizer.”
“I’d be a little more worried about that, if I were you,” I replied through gritted teeth.
I’d been taught to fight by some of the most dangerous people to ever grace Praes, and they had kept me sharp over the last year. I came for his head again, and there was nothing uncertain about it this time. He needed to die. For all of this to work, he needed to die. Darting back and forth around him, I put all the swiftness my Name granted me to work. The moment I stepped out of his field of vision I stepped into his dead angle and went for a crippling blow, but the Swordsman remained unfazed. He might as well have had eyes in the back of his head, given how easily he seemed to predict my movements.
“That’s the thing with Names, Squire,” he continued in that same even tone. “An equalizer can put you on even footing with me power-wise, but…”
He took a hand off his sword and caught my wrist with it a moment before my blade went through the back of his neck. I tried to blast him away but a flare of blinding power killed the manifestation of my Name before it could get anywhere.
“… but it doesn’t account for skill,” he finished, and his blade dug deep into my shoulder.
The kick caught me in the stomach a moment later, sending me rolling on the stone with shoulder bleeding. I came to a stop on my back, the now-broken arrow I’d been shot with earlier seeking deeper into my body. I let out a hoarse cry and force myself to get up. Keep moving, keep fighting. Hune would have reinforcements coming, I just need to stay alive a little longer.
“You’re a decent swordswoman, for someone who can’t have been at it more than a year,” William admitted casually. “You even seem better at working your Name into the fight than I am.”
“I’d blush,” I gasped, raising my sword. “But I don’t think there’s enough blood left to spare.”
Heartbeat by heartbeat, my Name’s power bled out. And with it went the burst of energy I’d felt, the wall that had prevented me from feeling the pain in my body. My acrobatics had torn something in my leg and all the jumping had wiggled the arrowhead around enough that muscles had been cut into. My shoulder was a bloody mess, and with it went my sword arm. I traded hands with my sword, but I was painfully aware I was much sloppier with my left. Against an opponent of this calibre, I might as well have been waving a stick. Gods, I felt tired. My eyes wanted to close, to let me sink into a sleep where all the pain and throbbing would go away.
“This? This is what I do. I’ve been learning the sword since I could walk,” William said, smiling mirthlessly. “I am not a general, you see. I am not a politician or a scholar. I’m self-aware enough to know I’m not even particularly clever.”
It saddened me that I was too tired and sluggish to make something out of that.
“All I’m good for is swinging a sword, Squire,” the Lone Swordsman told me, “but sometimes, that’s all that’s needed.”
The blade rose, and a bolt of lightning struck him in the face.
“Would you shut up already?” Kilian snarled, strands of energy whirling around her.
William fell to the ground, body wracked with spasms as the redhead continued to pour power into the spell.
“Hakram,” she yelled. “Take care of this, she’s badly wounded.”
My vision was swimming but I recognized my adjutant’s silhouette ambling towards the Swordsman.
“Finish him,” I croaked. “Quick, before he recovers.”
Kilian laid a hand on my shoulder and whispered a few words, frowning when the wound failed to heal.
“I can’t do much more than stop the bleeding,” she told me.
“The sword,” I said. “It’s… wrong.”
“Preaching to the choir here,” she replied as she passed a hand wreathed in a green glow over my wound. “Just looking at it gives me a headache, there’s no way that thing is made of metal.”
She helped me back to my feet. With a rush of panic, I saw William was already on his, sidestepping Hakram’s blows effortlessly. Fucking Hells, what would it take to put the man down? I knew heroes were more durable than most, but this was ridiculous. I frowned as a thought suddenly struck me.
“If Hakram’s here, where’s the Thief?” I asked.
“She disappeared after he punched her in the face,” the redhead snorted. “I guess she’s not the fighting type.”
“So to speak,” an amused voice acknowledged from behind her.
The short-haired woman appeared out of thin air, dagger in hand aimed at Kilian’s back. No. I tried to push the redhead down but I knew before moving that I’d be too slow and no.
“None of that,” Masego growled, snapping a hand in our direction.
An invisible force yanked the Thief back in the air, her eyes widening in fear and surprise as she continued to gather speed until the spell threw her through the window of a house on the other side of the street. The bespectacled boy winked in my direction before contemptuously slapping aside a fireball sent in his direction by the Conjurer who was still, against all odds, standing. The patches of darkened skin had spread over most of his face by now, though his other eye remained untouched.
“Kilian, go back to your line,” I spoke urgently.
“I hear that,” she muttered, face pale.
Coming that close to death had a way of shaking people. Well, sane people anyway. The jury was still out on whether I qualified for that. She smiled at me and opened her mouth to speak, I followed her eyes and saw William casually rip up his sword, tearing his way through Hakram’s chest and taking a hand with it.
“No,” I screamed, already running. “Not Hakram, you son of a bitch.”
The Swordsman spared me a glance, face expressionless.
“Let’s get this over with,” he spoke.
He should have known better by now. The chariot barrelled through the sky at breakneck speeds, the two pitch-black winged horses pulling it running the hero over with almost inappropriate enthusiasm. The wooden wheels creaked as they rolled over him, breaking bones, and Warlock put down the reins casually, pulling at his gloves.
“Well,” the Sovereign of the Red Skies said, “this is a mess. It used to be such a nice city and now there’s blood everywhere. Think of the resale value, children.”
“You’re late,” I called out, relief slumping my shoulders.
The older Soninke raised an eyebrow. “There was this-” he paused as Conjurer sent a column of fire in his direction.
With a put-on sigh he wiggled his hand and the spell redirected to his left, looping behind him and coming out as a flock of crows made of fire. They lost none of their momentum and flew to the other side of the street, where they caught Thief in the chest as she crawled out of the house’s wreckage. The explosion threw her back out of sight.
“Fire,” Warlock finished. “Just a moment, Catherine.”
Conjurer was already casting, but the Calamity lazily pointed a finger in his direction.
“Boom,” was all he said.
A perfectly symmetrical charred hole appeared in the middle of the hero’s forehead, and a heartbeat later his skull imploded. A shiver of dread went up my spine when the body dropped and I saw that the house behind the Conjurer was also a burning wreck.
“Now,” Warlock said calmly. “Who’s the rapscallion responsible for all this arson?”
The chariot flipped over, the Calamity almost losing his footing before landing on his feet and brushing away a few flecks of ash.
“That would be me,” William grunted. “Finally, villain, you crawl out of your hole.”
“Mind your manners, boy,” the dark-skinned man replied. “It will do wonders for your life expectancy.”
The Lone Swordsman smiled. “You should worry more about yours. Now!”
He brought down his hand in a sharp gesture. I started moving towards them, but nothing happened.
“Was that a bluff?” I asked as I slowed down, a little puzzled. “Because we’re pretty much past that phase of the fight.”
A shape emerged from one of the rooftops. Not a human, I saw. One goblin, drenched in blood from head to toe.
“Boss,” Robber saluted. “Sorry for the wait, ran into some shady Thieves’ Guild folks. Lots of bows, skulking around rooftops, you know the type. I’m happy to report we stabbed everything until it stopped moving, just like you taught us!”
“I didn’t teach you that,” I replied automatically. “Don’t implicate me in your future crimes.”
William’s face dropped, as well it should. Hunter was a gory mess on the ground, and while I suspected he might not be entirely dead he was done for the night. Conjurer had just been served the Calamity special and Thief had just taken a second hit in the face. The Bard was – my eyes turned to the rooftop where she’d been, finding it empty. Oh, that could be trouble. Regardless, the enemy soldiers had killed through the rest of the barricade legionaries only to get wrecked by Kilian’s line, if the scorch marks were any indication. The amount of casualties left a foul taste in my mouth but it could have been much, much worse.
“Doesn’t matter,” the Lone Swordsman finally said. “Maybe it was always supposed to be this way. Just me and the monster.”
“You’re about forty years too early to take a crack at me, boy,” Warlock sighed. “For one, an older hero would have known not to give me all this time to cast.”
He snapped his fingers and William flipped, something dragging him up by his feet. He snarled and his sword lit up, but Warlock frowned and the glow winked out.
“A nasty piece of work,” the Calamity acknowledged as he levitated it away from the hero’s grasp “but I’ve handled nastier.”
“Permission to make a joke about your sex life, sir?” Robber called out.
“Denied,” I interrupted.
The Soninke cast an amused look at my tribune before turning his attention to me.
“You’ll have to kill him yourself, of course,” he said, “but there’s no reason we can’t put him on ice until we can arrange that in a more controlled setting.”
“Nah, that’s not gonna happen,” a voice called out.
The Wandering Bard sauntered onto the scene, undaunted by the fact that my legionaries immediately formed a circle around her. Warlock frowned.
“A Bard,” he spoke with distaste. “By far the most irritating type of Name ever inflicted upon us by Creation.” He paused. “On the other hand, I have been meaning to dissect one of those. I thank you for the sacrifice you’ve volunteered to undertake on behalf of the Empire.”
“That got personal really quickly,” Almorava announced. “But as I was saying, we’re totally going to escape. We got our asses kicked, so William needs to go all brooding for a while so he can pull his shit together before the third fight and lead our little band of misfits to a last minute victory.”
I opened my mouth but she raised a hand.
“I get it, things aren’t ideal what with Conjurer having gone all esplody and Hunter doing his best imitation of a pile of fresh pork chops. But come on, any team with a woman as outrageously beautiful as me on it is basically mandated by the Heavens to win.”
“The only thing outrageous about you is the size of that nose,” I muttered.
The Bard gasped. “That actually hurt my feelings a little,” she admitted. “Now I don’t even feel guilty for threatening you guys.”
Warlock drummed his fingers against his leg impatiently. “Do get on with it. Exactly why shouldn’t I put you in a block of ice and have Masego buy a very reliable set of gags?”
“Right,” the Bard said, shaking herself. “So when that whole tower ward went down, I took whatever power you didn’t sink into you and shoved it in a bottle. Think sharper multiplied by about a thousand.”
She fished a bottle out of her knapsack and presented it triumphantly. I squinted.
“That’s a half-empty bottle of rum,” I told her.
Apparently my waitressing days could come in useful, who knew?
“That’s embarrassing,” Almorava admitted, not looking in the least embarrassed. She took out another bottle, this one emitting an ominous blue glow.
Shit. She hadn’t been lying. Warlock cocked his head to the side.
“Are you trying to bluff me with a bottle full of common Callowan sprites?” he asked incredulously.
The Bard cursed. “All right,” she replied. “So that could have gone better. I’ll admit, the plan still has some kinks to work out. But that’s okay! I was just a distraction.”
The arrow took Warlock in the shoulder. The Calamity barely blinked before turning in the direction it had come from – before I could even see what was there, half the rooftop was on fire. A single silhouette fell off, trying to smother the flames. A handful of smokers blew around William, but by the time Masego dispersed the smoke with a gust of wind there was no trace of the Lone Swordsman. I didn’t even bother looking for the Bard: she would have disappeared the moment we’d stopped looking at her. It was my turn to curse.
“Mages, see to the wounded,” I called out. “The rest of you, secure the archer. And someone check if the Hunter’s still alive.”
They snapped to it. I headed for Hakram immediately, pleased to see Masego was already taking care of him. The orc looked paler than usual, and it was disturbing to see an orc his size looking so… frail.
“You’ll be all right, Hakram,” I spoke, kneeling next to him. “You’re in no danger of dying.”
“Well,” my adjutant replied, “I suppose my clapping days are over. Good thing I was never much of a theatre enthusiast.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin when a hand came to rest on my shoulder. It was Warlock. The touch made me uncomfortable, but after he’d pulled our asses out of the fire I suppose I should grit my teeth and take it without comment.
“We won’t be able to reattach the hand, child,” the Calamity said. “Things cut by that sword remain so, as your leader well knows.”
I absently traced the length of the long scar across my chest hidden by my armour. A good thing I’d never been particularly vain about my looks, as it was pretty disfiguring.
“That said,” Warlock spoke with an interested glint in his eye, absently ripping the arrow out of his shoulder, “some interesting discoveries have been made in the area of magical prosthesis, these last few years.”
A real grin split my adjutant’s face.
“I’m listening,” he said.