The silence is getting to me.
Tens of thousands of spectators fill the field, packed together like arrows in a quiver as they stare hatefully across at one another. Absent of any yells and taunts, applaud and support, the ambience is heavy and disquieting, a hushed atmosphere quiet as the grave, with only the sound of banners snapping in the wind to accompany my death match.
An ominous presence stalks towards me, my legs giving ground before the young hero, awe-inspiring in his multicoloured breastplate and shoulder guards, leg-guards clanking and glistening as the morning light breaks through the clouds. Delicately grasping his ornate twin sabers, his eyes narrow in concentration, swinging his weapons about energetically in an eye-catching pattern meant to deceive and distract. His feet move in semi-circular steps, staying low and close to the stage, a careful gait, his center of gravity low and his shoulders squared, facing me at all times.
A lump forms in my throat as I smack my lips, trying to moisten my mouth, panting behind my shield as I shuffle back, unable to muster the courage to face him head on. My arms and legs are like jelly, my stomach rumbling, too afraid to do anything but retreat away from his terrifying existence, wishing for the strength to turn around and dive off the stage, only certain death keeping me from following through.
Why is this so difficult? Even with Other me made irrelevant somehow, I have faced down Society assassins and soldiers, Defiled and Demons. Where has my courage gone? In front of the girly man-child, my body is tense and shivering, reverting back into that helpless slave in the mines, unable to do anything to defend himself.
I will never be him, not again. I have changed; I have grown; I have learned.
I am Rain, Sentinel of the People, and I will win.
Roaring in a blend of terror and challenge, I plant my feet and smash my weapons together, standing firm against my opponent, my determination giving me strength. Stepping to the left, Zian’s saber slashes out in a probing strike. Blocking with my shield, the tremor pierces through the metal and into my body, rattling my teeth, my inner organs trembling in the aftershocks. With no idea how to stop it, all I can do is grit my teeth and bear it.
A second strike goes low, the tip digging across my thigh as I hop back, and a heavy thrust sends me staggering away. Like a gong signalling his attack, he surges forward aggressively, swinging left and right in a frenzy of motion, circling around me as he attacks. Block and parry, slash and thrust, our weapons chime in song as I struggle to stay alive, a discordant, staccato melody which heralds my doom. The steady blows ring against my shield, deflecting his barrage of attacks aimed to throw me off-balance, buying time to gather my thoughts.
Fear is nothing new to me, just deal with it, let it be. Remember my training, read his pattern, anticipate and act. He isn’t perfect, his attacks are systematic, a practiced routine, otherwise it would be impossible for him to control both swords. I’ve tried using two weapons and it’s more of a hindrance at first. It takes rhythm and order to use both without getting in your own way.
Weathering the storm of unending blades, I study his movements carefully, my mind tranquil and focused, committing his patterns to memory in mind and muscle. The left sword jabs, the right sword executes, his habits easily spotted; Left slash, right thrust, right hook, left chop, his favoured attacks. Done in varying orders at varying angles, there is little deviation from these four moves, sometimes doubling up and attacking with both weapons at once. While unable to freely manipulate each weapon, his ever-changing pattern of attacks is enough to defeat me, eventually. All this information comes at a cost, paid for in nicks and cuts, his weapons too fast and accurate for me to defend unscathed, but it is worth it.
Taking advantage of a pause in his rhythm, my body moves forward for the first time in this exchange, Prancing Stride and Rising Steps, toe, heel, slide and step. Smashing aside an anticipated thrust, my shield rams into his chest, rocking him back. Darting Fang and Uplifts the Sequoia, my sword whistles towards his throat at an upward angle. Swept wide with a flick of his saber, my opponent twirls aside. Momentum carries me past him, my back open and vulnerable. Desperately twisting my body, my shield moves in place just in time to connect with his spinning slash, sending my overextended body crashing to the stone stage.
Fuck, that was close.
Sliding to a stop, I spring back up in a defensive stance, immediately retreating before his ferocious onslaught, my failed attack emboldening him, gaining confidence with each exchange. Left and right, up and down, his weapons flash in a flourish of steel and blood. Pain barely registers as his blade bites lightly into my forearm, then my shoulder, followed by an errant stab opening a gash in my cheek, more of his attacks finding their way past my defences as he too begins to read my patterns. Let him have these cuts, they mean nothing. I’ve suffered worse, endured through it all, and come out stronger for it.
Distracted by a feint, my shield going low to block as his other weapon is thrust towards my chest. My sword moves to intercept, deflecting it slightly to carve through my meaty shoulder. Clenching my teeth, I move in against the thrust, the weapon sawing painfully against my collarbone, angling my sword to pierce his face.
The panic in his eyes is unmistakable as he disengages, spinning away once again, his weapons twirling defensively around him in frantic effort to keep me away. He retreats to a safe distance, more than 10 meters away, warily watching as I stand, bleeding but undefeated, weapons held at the ready. His face twists in a grimace of alarm and anger, pausing to calm himself and assess the situation.
My cheek burns as I glare at him, our match at a standstill as blood slowly drips down my neck and chest. Channelling my inner Akanai, I try to appear as threatening as possible, hoping to delay him. Fucking right bitch, I’m a scary motherfucker, so stay over there for a little longer while I figure out how to kill you. Take all the time you need to get ready, I’m dangerous. Yea, stay. Sit. Good boy. No, no good boy, but stay.
Taking deep breaths to steady myself for round two, my chi begins to circulate as I take stock of and repair my injuries. My jawbone might be exposed, my collarbone is definitely exposed, and the rest is minor. No arteries nicked, no bones broken, our short exchange sees me on the losing end, but that’s fine. My sword has yet to bleed him, but my injuries are superficial, the taut pulling of my wounds indication of my well-practiced skills. Zian’s eyes widen in unease, swallowing visibly as he watches my flesh knit itself together before his eyes. Smiling darkly at him, I take immense satisfaction in his discomfort, despite knowing that the healing is superficial. Yea that’s right, your attacks were useless. Believe it, despair, and just walk off the stage now. Please.
“Brother, the affliction has eased now that we are at a distance.” His tired voice is subdued as he whispers in my mind. “I do not understand what is happening. As soon as we approached him, my strength withered away, my every instinct screaming at me to cower and hide, unable to control our body. I am sorry brother, for failing you once more.”
Frowning slightly, I inspect my opponent with a clear mind, mulling over the new information, mostly surprised that Other me can feel fear. From this distance, Zian doesn’t seem so impressive, just a willowy young man in armour almost too heavy for him. Don’t get me wrong, he’s intimidating; I’d rather not fight him and I’m super jealous of his armor, but he lacks… something. Skilled and cautious, powerful and fast, he’s well above me in skill, but that’s not exactly uncharted territory for me.
Why am I so terrified of him? Ignoring my bloodthirsty adventures in war, even the Society pursuers had more presence than Zian. Before we traded blows, I was already gasping for breath, my stomach in cramps, ready to shit myself before a horde of spectators, but now, from a distance? He seems no different from the other two Society brats, menacing and dangerous, but that’s it. If Other me felt the same, then it’s not my cowardice that’s the problem.
Remembering Akanai’s words, my frown deepens as I bounce ideas off my inner self. “Aura maybe? Makes sense, fits the word and what I experienced, an aura of terror, I guess.”
“Perhaps. You can feel it as well? How are you able to move?”
“Fight or die, not much of a choice there.” Inwardly shaking my head, I give up on trying to figure it out. “Nothing we can do about the aura except fight through it. Any other thoughts coach?”
He pauses for a moment before answering. “He favours slipping to your left, thinking it safe. Keep your shield a little lower so you do not obstruct your vision. Try aiming lower with your attacks, but know that when you attack his face, he retreats.”
Rudely interrupting my planning session, Zian charges me, weapon pointed for a thrust, unwilling to give me more time to heal. A wave of dread crashes into me as he closes, but this time, it flows through me as I accept the terror, my body tensing for a moment before I push it aside and relax, ready to fight once more. Sidestepping the charge, my sword slashes low, aiming for his exposed knee. Instantly coming to a halt, the slash comes short and his saber hooks around my shield’s blade, pulling it aside. His second saber connects twice, piercing my exposed shoulder and chest, two shallow thrusts before he slides away, avoiding my response, my sword again passing through empty air.
Well, that didn’t work. This little bitch is too scared to take a cut. That works out in my favour though, if he was willing to get cut, I’m pretty sure I’d be dying now. Then again, so would he and it’d be a race to see who dies first, and I’ve already demonstrated my healing abilities. My frustration mounts as he dances and weaves about, stepping in to strike before fading away before I can retaliate, his movements light as a feather, almost sliding across the stage at will, cutting me repeatedly, giving me no time to heal out of combat.
A ringing strike glances off my scalp, the pain barely registering through the haze, and I hunker down behind my shield, but Zian has adapted to my defensive pattern. A one-two rhythm of slashes knocks me aside as he circles me, followed by a delayed chop which I narrowly parry, stinging my palms and threatening to disarm me.
Leaping back, I move away without warning and Zian follows without hesitation, pressing his advantage. His feet slide across the stage, kicking aside stones and puddles, spraying water in his wake. His sabers are in continuous motion, scything through the air in a rapid-fire slashes as he tries to close the distance, exposing the weakness of his exquisite footwork. Meant for dueling, his shallow, concave steps are slower when moving in straight lines, sacrificing consistent speed for instantaneous burst and versatility.
His foot slips on a loose stone, hidden inside a puddle, and I leap at the opening, rejoicing in my good fortune. Raising my sword high to feint, I dart forward and stomp hard on his foot, crashing into him shoulder to chest. My shield traps his sabers between our bodies and my sword hilt cracks into his helmet, his head lowered to take the blow. Shoving his head down, I run my shield’s blade across his neck with a metallic screech and my knee slams into his unguarded face with an audible crack. Reeling back, blood streams from his broken nose as my opponent swings his swords ineffectively before him, a bird with a broken wing struggling to distance himself. Remaining in place to catch my breath and heal, his tyrannical aura slipping from me, a heavy weight lifted from my shoulders.
No blood spurting from his neck, no gasping for breath or falling to his knees, instead, he reaches up to touch his throat, displaying a steel neck-guard without a single scratch. The blood drains from his face as he reflects upon his near death while I struggle to hide my distress. What is that armor made of? Is everything he wearing that durable? Can I afford to assume it isn’t? I can cut through metal with a Honed weapon, but if his full body armour is impenetrable, a failed killing blow will leave me open and vulnerable to a counter. I can only aim for the gaps, beneath the shoulder, between elbow and forearm, above the wrist and knees, and of course, his face.
My options are limited and even though I can hold my own against him, it’s clear he is the superior duelist. All he needs to do is keep me from closing in and victory will eventually fall into his lap. Resisting the urge to vomit, his repeated attacks have shaken me to the core, my mind woozy from a gushing scalp wound, my clothes tattered and wet with gore. My legs unsteady from blood loss and arms heavy, struggling to keep my sword and shield up, I heal my wounds while I wait for my opponent to act, feigning strength once again.
That was my best chance to win so far and I fucking blew it. Time for another approach, no more standing out in the open. Slowly shuffling backwards to the closest corner, Zian follows at a distance, apprehensive after our last exchange. With the Society at my back, their angry jeering starts once again as I settle into my stance, facing Zian and my people. I’d rather they didn’t watch my death up close and personal, so it works out better this way.
Looking at the young, tired warrior standing before me, I replay our match in my mind, going over his every action. It’s strange, despite his overwhelming advantage, he holds back with his attacks, not daring to commit to killing me for fear of retaliation. Instead, he’s trying to wear me down, make sure I can’t fight back when he goes for the kill. Untested and without accomplishment, like Other me said, taunting him before we began. When it comes right down to it, he’s a coward, like me. A scared kid thrust into a death match, risking his life for the first time.
I can use that to my advantage.
Exhaling slowly, I shift into an offensive posture, my shield’s blade pointed directly at Zian. Giving him my best smile, blood dribbles from my mouth as I challenge him, gesturing for him to approach. “Enough dancing. Stand and fight.”
Glowering furiously, he hesitates while deliberating his options, my best-case scenario. Give me time to heal while you debate, I can wait all day. I’d prefer it, actually. With only a meter’s distance to the edge, if he moves too far left or right, he risks being shoved from the ring, an automatic loss, leaving him with no choice but to approach head on, something he’s been avoiding from the start. Always moving to my left, the safe side, hiding in front of my shield while I hide behind it.
Well, I’m not hiding anymore, so what are you going to do?
Seconds pass as I stare him down, Zian’s eyes flicking to the crowd as they grow in volume, gaining confidence from their cheers and encouragement. For a second, his eyes lock with someone in the crowd, his mother, Mentor, or maybe his sweetheart, I don’t know, but his weapons drop slightly, his grip loosened in a moment of distraction.
Balance on Windy Leaf, into Pierce the Horizon, I charge out, sword aimed for his eyes. Ducking back, he moves to avoid the thrust, sabers lashing out to dissuade me. My shield intercepts one, but the second saber bites deep, thrust deep into my right lung and bursting out my back.
Retreats when I attack his face. Right. Well… He retreated… Sort of…
At least he didn’t chop my head off.
Give flesh, break bones.
A slash of my shield slices through his left arm at the elbow, the hand still grasping the saber embedded deep in my flesh. His inhuman scream quiets the crowd, a clear clarion call of defeat. My shield smashes into his face with a wet crack, abruptly quieting his wailing and leaving him dazed. Winding up, I backhand him a second time, my arm numbing at the impact. In a spray of blood and spit, his teeth go flying into the crowd as he staggers aside, tumbling off the stage with a crash.
My sword slips from my fingers and clatters loudly to the stage in the silence that follows, my breathing laboured. I reach for the saber in my chest, every breath bringing new agony, and I grip the blade, my only thought to remove this weapon from my flesh. White-hot pain surges through my mind as I tear it from my chest, my lung burning as it fills with blood, my chest spasming as I sputter and cough, expelling fluid from my lungs.
Tossing the weapon aside, my chi circulates through me as I crash to my knees, my arms hanging weakly at my sides, frothy blood dribbling from my mouth. Taking a deep, gurgling breath, a wet helpless, unhinged laugh erupts from my chest, echoing across the field, only ending in a choking cough as I spit out a glob of blood.
Staring up at the bright, morning sky, the sun peeking out through the dispersing clouds, my mind fixates on just how beautiful it really is. Feeling nothing besides exhaustion and pain, I want nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep for days. A cool stream of energy envelopes me, and knowing the worst has passed, I close my eyes for a well deserved rest.
Four fights, four victories, one mine.
Let someone else pick up the spare, I’ve earned a break.
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