I was good at fighting. I was good at it because I loved it, and because I had practised hard. The past few days had knocked the rust off, but I was nowhere near the level I had been at during the War. Even then…
Especially then, I would not have fought five on one, not by choice, not ever.
These five were neither mortals nor ima. These five, despite their relative youth, had all been raised to the power. I had no idea as to exactly how powerful they were, how far advanced in the disciplines. But if Exan had trained them, he would’ve prioritised combat skills.
Well, you’re always complaining that you never get a decent fight…
I tested Faris. No joy. The binding was a solid one, a couple of hours at least. I shouldn’t’ve let that happen. I should’ve been ready, broken it before it got its grip on me…
Exan’s disciples were advancing towards me, weapons drawn.
I recognised the tall woman in the centre, the one who had been holding Mako earlier. I recognised the two short horns that rose from her shaved scalp, and the basic set of her features. But her skin was a paler shade of brown than I remembered and her curves were more pronounced. The alterations did not surprise me in the least – when you mastered Ensis you could look however you wished, provided you took the time and power necessary to make the changes.
Many people chose to conform to whatever their local standard of beauty had been. Nor was I an exception – I was three inches taller than I’d been as a mortal, and had no shame about the changes whatsoever.
The woman’s name was Shas, and Exan had been planning to raise her to the power when I’d last seen him. She would be his most senior disciple then, the most experienced out of the five before me, and no doubt their leader.
She wore an arming sword on her left hip.
Not just any sword either.
I recognised that blade. I had broken the wrist of the man who’d made it and torn it from his grasp. I had pulled out his throat with my fingers and stamped his skull to powder.
His name had been Elis Carrick. He had fought for the Alliance in the War, though in the years beforehand he had been Dalarion’s personal nemesis. Carrick had been one of the greatest of us, and the sword had been the unassailable truth of that claim. It was called Nemi, and the wounds it made could not be healed with Ensis. Its edge could not be turned with Kasis. Turis would not steal the force from its cuts.
It was one hell of a weapon.
It was the blade that had wounded Dalarion back in ancient days. It was the blade that had nearly killed me in the War. It was the blade of a master, of one of the worthiest of my old enemies, and Exan had handed it to his no-name disciple like it was a stick of candy.
I was… somewhat annoyed by that.
I was also in very real trouble.
With that blade, Shas represented a severe threat independent of her skills with the disciplines. A mortal carrying that blade would’ve worried me.
And she wasn’t alone.
A thin woman in a duelling mask, who carried a long slim rapier.
A fat man with the head of a lion and an axe as long as he was tall.
A big, musclebound figure with four-inch tusks protruding from his lower jaw and a set of impressively long dreadlocks, his fists clad in steel gauntlets.
A woman, her skin the same shade of blue as Carmen’s, who twirled a pair of knives around her fingers like they were parade batons.
I labelled them in my head: Mask, Lion, Tusks, Blue.
This lot were like Cass, it seemed – they hadn’t yet fully mastered Turis and Kasis. They could not rely on their own flesh and bone, and so they had to rely on mortal steel instead.
I would’ve crushed any two of them, but all together? With that sword in play?
Shas drew Nemi from its sheath and pointed at me with the tip. ‘From what I hear,’ she said, ‘and from what I remember, there’s a lot of people who’d like to do what I’m about to do. And if I’m honest, ever since I got this I’ve been itching to use it.’
I shook my head with an amusement that was only partially feigned.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I guess when all you’ve got is a magic sword, everything begins to look like an evil overlord in need of slaying.’
She flashed me a sarcastic smile. ‘Cute.’
The others fanned out around me. Mask and Lion on my left, Tusk and Blue on my right. They moved surely and confidently. Of course they did. There were five of them and only one of me.
Sometimes, when the odds are against you and the enemy holds all the cards, the only thing to do is attack.
So I did.
Trouble was, so did they. All at once.
Mask came in from the far left, circling into my peripheral vision, lunging out with her rapier even as Lion charged, axe raised. Tusks and Blue on the right, Shas in the middle…
Not in perfect synchrony though. Mask and Lion were faster…
I went for them slapping aside Mask’s rapier with an open palm and exploding inside her guard. I took her arm and threw her between me and Lion, tried to follow up with a punch but never got the chance. Tusk blasted forward on Turis-assisted heels like a bullet from a gun, snow fountaining in his wake, his metal-clad fist seeking my head. I got a shoulder up into its path just in time and snow blasted outwards around my feet as I shifted the force.
I had no time to retaliate – Mask had pivoted clear and Lion’s axe was dropping for my head and Blue was coming around Tusk’s shoulder to get behind me…
I caught Lion’s axe by the haft even as I ducked under Tusk’s next wild swing. Yanked the weapon forward and kicked him the groin with an enhanced foot, felt his grip on the axe slacken as he doubled over. I half spun, the weapon suddenly mine, haft slamming into the side of Mask’s head even as I tried to put the blade into Tusk’s.
He caught it on his gauntlet and suddenly Blue was on me, landing from what had to have been a flying leap, her blades tearing bloody furrows in my back and shoulder as she jammed them in like a climber’s pitons.
I let go of the axe and peeled her off with one Turis-assisted arm, flinging her into Mask so that they both went down in the snow. Lion was still trying to recover from the groin strike, so only Tusk was standing, one hand still uselessly clutching the axe blade, the other in a rough approximation of a guard as he pivoted towards me…
Where is Shas?
I spun around, and then turned that spin into a desperate sideways leap. Nemi’s irresistible edge carved through the air where I had been.
She’d come around under the cover of Blue’s flying leap, nearly had me while I’d been busy with the others. Now she drove me back with a flurry of sweeping cuts, and Lion was up again with his axe back in his hands, and Blue was standing, and Mask was coming to support Shas on the left even as Tusk came up on her right…
Shas lunged and I went forward around the blade, seeking her neck, but she was ready for it and I had to dive sideways into Mask or lose an arm.
Mask’s rapier scored a scratch on my shoulder but got a reverse elbow into the side of her head by way of reply and I felt bone break. Dodged around her as she reeled, leapt back towards the edge of the ridge…
I had all five of them in my sights again, a decent amount of space between us. I could see that I’d done no real damage yet – they were all standing, all clearly proficient with Ensis, and their strategy was clear. Funnel me in towards that blade, swarm me with strikes, make it as hard as possible for me to hit back at them.
But I could read the frustration in their eyes, too. I had done no real damage, true, but nor had they landed anything on me. Each one of them had no doubt harboured some secret hope that they would be my match alone, that they would finish me without aid from the others.
I had crushed that hope, at least in most of them. They were uncertain now, a little off balance….
‘You guys aren’t actually that good at this, are you?’ I said to them as they advanced. Lion and Tusk on the wings now, moving out to bracket me.
I fixed Lion with a look, gave him what I hoped looked like my full attention and he hesitated.
Tusk blasted himself forward with Turis again, gauntleted fist aimed at my temple. But I’d been watching in my peripheral vision for exactly this and Lion’s hesitation and Tusk’s speed meant that he was now coming at me all on his lonesome.
I pivoted out the way and drove an enhanced knee right up into his belly. My hip flexors wrenched with the impact but it had the desired effect – he stopped, winded, clearly either unable or too slow to block or redirect the force.
I chopped my hand down towards the now exposed back of his neck, and the flesh split beneath the Kasis-hardened edge of my palm.
His head came off in geyser of red.
The others froze. Even Shas’s eyes were wide, her confidence shaken.
I held up my hand and inspected my bloody fingernails. ‘Nearly ten whole heartbeats to kill a man,’ I said, and then met Shas’s eyes. ‘Maybe I’m getting old?’
Ah, that look on their faces. I had lived for that once.
‘She’s trying to get inside your head,’ said Shas, after a second. ‘Don’t let her.’
She took a step forward.
I grinned. It was a genuine grin. This was the fight I’d been waiting for. This was a challenge. This was to the bloody screeching death. I stood, once more, between increasing my legend or dying in the attempt. It was my favourite place to stand.
I raised my hands to guard, and I beckoned.
* * *
They were more cautious now, but that only made them more dangerous. They came at me with everything they had. They threw Sansis and I threw it right back. They cut and slashed and I ducked and dodged and wove. I broke wrists and stamped on legs and delivered yet more crippling groin strikes, but these four knew Ensis and they knew it well. They wanted to make it a war of attrition, to make this matter of who would run out of power first. There were four of them and only one of me so such a contest should favour them… but they had not my experience, had not my skill. They spent heavily to cover their lack and I felt the rising certainty that even if they had their way they would still run dry before I did.
I had not engaged Shas. I had kept the others between me and her, made them my allies in staying beyond the reach of that terrible sword. Every time she found herself facing me I circled to put one of the others in her path. Every time they split to bracket me I slipped around them. No-one wanted to face me alone but they hadn’t the space to face me together.
I watched Shas’s frustration build.
It was an old group fighting trick, this one. Lock down one person, the enemy officer or their toughest fighter. Watch as they strain to close with you, as they struggle with those around them. Watch the group’s cohesion splinter. They will break apart soon, and they will break apart with relief.
When they do, pick off the weakest. Repeat, ad infinitum ad mortem.
I was beginning to remember. I had been good at this…
I killed Mask next. She over extended on one of those fancy rapier lunges and I burst inside and got my arm around her throat. I slammed my other hand against the top of her head even as I pulled her away from the others.
Her skull shattered like an eggshell. Her mask rolled away, a dented epigraph.
Lion charged me in a fury and I stopped him with a front kick to the groin. The axe blade dropped and it took a narrow slice out of the side of my leg, but I was pivoting around him, my fist lashing towards his temple. He was wise to that trick though and he dropped his head. The axe came cutting back, lower this time, and I leapt over it just as Shas came around him at me, Nemi raised in the high guard.
She cut at me , snarling, and I rolled under the sweep of that fatal edge the way I would roll under a hook or head-kick.
The blade, continued, unobstructed, into the space where I had been. Lion had straightened back up from his crouch. Shas was forced to arrest her momentum before she cut his head off herself. I kicked her into him and the two of them went down together.
Blue leapt right at me before I could finish one or both of them off, her blades seeking my face. I dropped into a crouch and my shoulder caught her in the stomach. She flipped right over me, somehow managing to score a cut across my cheek with one her knives on the way.
She landed hard behind me. I turned even as I heard her groan, momentarily incapacitated by the pain. She’d landed on an area devoid of snow, where the stone beneath showed through and there was nothing to cushion the impact.
I didn’t wait for her to get up. I just stepped forward and stamped her head apart with a Turis-assisted foot.
I spun back to face the other two, but they’d managed to disentangle themselves. They were spreading apart to bracket me. This was the most dangerous time. They could come at me from both angles but they didn’t have to worry so much about getting in each other’s way. Shas could finally bring that blade to bear…
So I played my trump card, the one I’d been saving for just this moment.
I gathered up a significant chunk of my remaining energies, and I let loose with a burst of Sansis.
The snow around me flashed into instant vapour.
I used Danis in that same moment, pulling in my power, hiding my taint.
Invisible. Or the next best thing.
I heard Lion cry out in the sudden heat, and I wondered if maybe I should’ve just gone right for him. If he couldn’t handle a little steam then a direct strike would’ve cooked him as thoroughly as it had cooked Isande.
I forced the thought away and made for the source of the cry.
‘Where is she?’ said Lion, and I didn’t know whether to be amused or disgusted. Where did Exan find these people?
Shas was too smart to reply, too smart to give away her own position as Lion had done. Nor could I sense her taint – she too was using Danis. Lion obviously hadn’t thought of that.
It was a depressing fact that the strength of will necessary to bind a thread of chaos did not always come attached to the greatest intellects.
I stepped up behind him just as the steam began to dissipate, and I lopped his head off with one Kasis-assisted arm.
I had always been a fan of that particular move.
* * *
Shas and I faced each other across the slick, steaming stone.
Both snow and steam were gone now, leaving only the rock. The nearby cliff edge was now much more visible, a dark grey line against the white backdrop of the mountain slopes below. The bodies of Shas’s allies were strewn about us. Four dead matter of minutes, each one by my own hand. Their blood caked my fingers, dry, sticky, already flaking away in some places.
A snowflake settled against my bare shoulder. A new fall then, just in time to replace the old. I wondered how long it would be before the evidence of our battle was buried in fresh snow.
It’s not over yet, Rukh, I reminded myself.
No. There was one more body to lay down. All that remained to be seen was whether it would be Shas’s or mine.
‘Just you and me, kid,’ I said to her, with a grin.
She glared at me past Nemi’s wicked edge. ‘You know what this is, right?’
I let my grin widen. ‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘After all, I killed the man who made it.’
Shas’s face paled slightly beneath those curving horns.
‘You sure about this, kiddo?’ I asked her. ‘I mean, five minutes ago you had all the advantages. Now you have only the sword. And it isn’t the instant-win device you’re hoping for either. It didn’t do Carrick any good. Or do you think you’re better than he was?’
Shas took a step toward and snarled. ‘Maybe I do,’ she said.
I laughed and spread my bloody hands. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘you obviously weren’t good enough to save your friends.’
Her face twisted in sudden rage. She took another step, and then she stopped. Took a deep breath. Her expression settled into something… not calm exactly. She was anything but calm. But there was a quiet resolve there that hadn’t been there before.
Shas was a hotheaded kid by the standards of our kind, but no-one could bind a thread of chaos without tremendous self-control. The trick was recognising when you needed to exercise that control. To learn that it wasn’t just something you needed at the edge of a chaos rent, but something that you need every minute of every day, and never more so than when faced with an enemy.
Shas wasn’t at that level yet. But she knew I was trying to goad her, and she knew that if she fought angry that I would kill her.
I was beginning to see why Exan had given her the blade.
‘I’m not Carrick,’ she said after a moment, ‘but I know what I’m doing. And I know that you’ve spent a lot of power today. More than me, for sure. I think if you were as confident of killing me as you make out, that you’d already be stepping to it.’
Well, there was a certain amount of truth in that. She was right about my reserves – I was at less than a quarter. She was right that I was more wary of Nemi than I was letting on. But she was wrong about the rest. I had no doubt of my ability to take her on. The reason I was talking so much wasn’t because I was stalling, but because this was not a time-sensitive situation and I was, quite frankly, enjoying myself.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you think you’re hard enough…’
Nemi carved towards my neck in a beautiful straight cut. It was a complete waste of the sword’s potential. The whole point of the blade was that it functioned against our kind the way a normal weapon did against a mortal. There was no need to go for the instant kill. If Shas had had any sense she’d have aimed for my centre of mass, made the stroke as hard to dodge as possible. She didn’t have to take me down with a single slice. Not when every wound would tell.
I dipped under the strike even as the weight of the weapon carried her past me, and I slammed a push kick into the small of her back.
She staggered forward but didn’t fall over as I’d hoped. I closed the distance knowing that the counterstrike was coming but reasonable confident of where it was coming from.
Of course, if I was wrong….
Shas swept around and Nemi came with her in a low sweep, seeking my shins. I leapt over the blade and her eyes widened in horror as she saw my flying cross coming towards her face.
She started to move her head but I could see, in that beautiful, frozen moment, that she didn’t have time.
My Turis-loaded knuckles connected with the side of her face.
I felt flesh explode under my hand. Warmth splattered up my arm. A moment later I hit the ground and rolled clear. Leapt back to my feet
That last part was more habit and reflex than anything else. I knew that Shas was dead. I’d felt her skull break under my knuckles. Hell the amount of force I’d put into that punch, she probably didn’t have a skull anymore. No way she…
She was still standing.
Half her head was gone, pulverised in an instant, but the rest was there. I could see the broken outline of her skull, the ravaged purple matter of her bisected brain, the blood leaking from thousand severed vessels. But more importantly I could see how those vessels twitched a grew like reaching tentacles, how the brain swelled to replace its lost matter, how the edge of her skull raced out and round, the skin and flesh only a few centimetres behind. Within seconds the destroyed half of her face was back, the eye swelling up from its empty socket, the missing hair sprouting back into place.
‘Well,’ I said aloud, ‘I’ll admit, that was quick.’
Shas raised the sword. ‘I’m stronger than you can imagine, bitch. I haven’t even touched my reserves.’
I grinned by way of response. ‘Guess I’ll just have to keep hitting you then, won’t I?’
But on the inside I was still reeling from what I’d just seen.
Ensis cost a lot of power. Everyone knew that. The more complex the regeneration, the more it cost. Regenerating part of your own brain was as expensive as it came. And the faster you wanted the job done the more power you had to use. Shas had repaired most of her own head in mere seconds. While you could train your mind to resort to indiscriminate use of Ensis whenever you lost consciousness, most people didn’t have the reserves to repair their brain at all let alone at that speed. I suspected that Exan or Ulmeshian could’ve pulled it off, but both men were famous for their facility with chaotic power.
If Shas was in their league…
Well, this was going to be interesting.
She cut at me again, a looping diagonal cut. I leapt back out of range and Nemi’s tip nicked my face. It was only just deep enough to draw blood. She swung the sword again from the other side and this time my leap was long enough to get me clear entirely. She swung again, and again, and each time I slipped further away from her. She tried to herd me towards the edge of the cliff but I circled around long before we reached it. Eventually, as I’d known she would, she changed tactics.
Instead of swinging the blade at me she unleashed a fast diving lunge. The blade shot towards me low and deadly, covering more ground than I could’ve hoped to clear. But I didn’t even try. This was what I had been waiting for.
I slapped the flat of the blade down with as much force as I could muster, hearing the point scrape against the ground. In a flash I was inside her guard, my legs parallel with the middle of the blade, the rest of me right up in Shas’s face. For one, glorious second there was nothing between me and her unprotected head.
I swung a fist, hard.
She staggered, but the ground cracked beneath her with redirected force and I knew I’d done no real damage. Her counterattack was no doubt coming, but I had one hand still forcing the sword down and the other was quick and deadly. I struck again and again, and she ripped the blade out to the side, freeing it of my control, and brought it up around and over…
A heartbeat more and she’d bring it down and split me in twain but she was slow, oh so slow. I struck at her with elbow and knee and open palm and she reeled back before me.
I swiped at her face…
He jaw went spinning away in a welter of blood, a formless scream of pain echoing in its wake.
But my time was up. Nemi’s wicked edge dropped towards me like Death’s own scythe.
I spun free, feeling the rustle of air as Nemi carved through the space where I had been. I heard the edge clang against the stone, and I threw my arm over Shas’s, trapping it against my side. I twisted my body clockwise…
The arm broke.
I got a palm against Nemi’s hilt to keep it off me, and then I severed that arm at the shoulder joint with the edge of my Kasis-hardened hand.
Shas screamed again.
I lashed a palm strike into her face and she managed a clumsy block. She stumbled back, her one arm flailing wildly. I stepped forward…
And my leg gave way beneath me.
Pain. A fall on to hard stone is no small thing, especially if it comes out of nowhere. I felt the bones break in my face. It was a harder knock than anything Shas or her posse had tagged me with in the entire preceding fight. Hell, it was the hardest knock I’d taken since Isande had stamped me unconscious back on Sansara.
I didn’t let it faze me. Pain is transient. I could heal later, but if I stayed on the ground I was dead woman. I made to get up…
And fell, sprawling, once again.
I couldn’t put any weight on my left leg.
I glanced down at it.
Somehow, in that vicious close-quarter exchange, Shas had managed to get in a clean hit with the sword. There was a wide gash across my upper thigh, biting deep into the muscle. A gash I could not heal with Ensis.
Fuck it, I thought, and forced myself to stand, weight on my good leg.
I put my hand over the wound to hold it closed. Blood pushed its way between my fingers in heavy pulses. There was quite a lot of it.
Shas was a few feet away, Nemi now off the ground and gripped in her one remaining hand, a grim smile on her recently repaired face.
She knew, as I did, that she had just killed me. The big artery in my leg was severed. I was going to bleed out inside the next few minutes, a quick and relatively painless death. I had only seconds of useful action left to me.
I glanced at the stump of Shas’s arm. ‘Not healing it yet?’ I asked her, and forced a grin. ‘Looks like you were exaggerating a little earlier, huh? About your oh so incredible reserves?’
Shas hefted the sword and took a step forwards. ‘Burn in hell, bitch,’ she said.
I raised an eyebrow. I had heard some shocking pre-mortem one-liners in my time, but that one wasn’t even original.
Nor did I have any respect for someone who chose their jaw over their fighting arm in a situation such as this. Had I really thought it was over, that I was really out of options, I would have spent my last to kill her. Even a dying dragon can spit fire.
But there is a wide gap between dying and dead, and I wasn’t ready to give up.
I didn’t bother with a pithy reply. I just loaded the heel of my good leg with Turis and shoved, hard, against the ground.
The stone split with the force of that leap.
I flew backwards ten, twenty, feet. The edge of the cliff passed beneath me. The freshly falling snow seemed to swirl all around me, above and below.
Then I dropped like stone.