“Dangerous?!” Moreth stared incredulously at Ared. “What could this boy possibly do against one of my-”
“Any magic in the duel must be enacted by the participants,” Ared explained, pointedly raising his eyebrows. Moreth gazed back at him blankly. “He wants you to name your… pet as champion, because then you are part of the duel.”
They were standing atop the bridge connecting the Gilded Gate with the Irnine Market. The square was usually crowded, especially this late in the morning, yet now those people stood along its edges as though some invisible force had pushed them aside.
In a sense, one had.
At the centre of the square, green cloak billowing around him, stood the young Silverblade. One hand on his hip and the other atop the hilt of a rapier; a blade that had appeared as though growing out of the ground where now its tip rested. His face set in grim determination, his gaze locked on the man he had challenged. Exuding the same imperious charisma that his grandfather had wielded so well.
“So that’s his plan, then? Lull me into false security, where I think him bound by the rules to fight only my named champion… Draw me into a trap.” Moreth let out a chuckle. “It is a clever ploy, I will give him that.”
“Rebuff him,” Ared repeated his counsel from when Moreth had first been challenged. “He cannot stop us now.”
“No, but the Prince Regent can.” Moreth glanced at the palace guards flanking them, weighing his options. “Even with no proof to back the boy’s accusation…”
Ared watched the crowd below. As yet, Silverblade had said nothing more than issuing a challenge over ‘crimes of the past’. Ared knew what it was about. He had made the same accusation only a scant few hours prior. Even with his resources, however, he had no proof. So how much did Silverblade really know?
The crowd was growing restless.
“I accept your challenge, Guildmaster.” Moreth’s voice rang out. “And I name Grand Chancellor Ared Merrinath as my champion.”
Ared shot an irate glare at his old friend.
“Very well.” The young man seemed undaunted, though from all Ared had seen he was unlikely to stand much of a chance. “Name your time and place, Champion.”
“Here and now.” Ared strode down the bridge, reaching back to gather up his cloak in one arm while drawing his rapier with the other. “Let us end this.”
The two men saluted with their blades before settling into ready stances, blades raised and eyes locked.
Silverblade’s grandfather had fought with magic and tricks, rather than skill with the sword. Everything about this young man suggested he did the same. Ared could only hope this would prove to be as easy as that.
The sunlight dazzled Gorm as he stepped through the doorway, his eyes taking a few moments to adjust to broad daylight after the gloom of the cave. Sethian stepped cautiously out behind him, one hand shielding his eyes and the other retrieving the rusted old key allowing them entrance to, and exit from, the Abode.
Taking a few steps forward, Gorm surveyed the area and tried to figure out where they had ended up. They stood atop a tower, one of a pair flanking a gatehouse. All around them stretched a city, beyond which lay a wall of green hills and a glittering lake of blue. Grand mansions, bordering on small palaces, fought over space and prestige on their left, while wooden houses big and small crowded the city to their right, separated from the wall by a wide, sunken, garden.
Atop the gatehouse, lining the crenellated wall facing the outer side, kneeled a dozen or so figures in white cloaks. Each held a crossbow, loaded and trained on the area below. An area where Gorm’s attention soon found itself focused.
Past a short, wide bridge from the gate lay a small plaza. A large crowd had gathered around it, turning the plaza into an informal arena in which two individuals fought in a rather spectacular, if inefficient, manner.
Draped in an impractically large green cloak, the unarmed combatant seemed at clear disadvantage. He moved erratically and elusively, nimbly staying one step ahead of his opponent, yet could not land a blow. The other, holding his white cape out of the way with his free hand while the other worked furiously to chase the green fighter with lightning jabs, struck Gorm as vaguely familiar. Something about his style and technique, seemed reminiscent of another.
Someone Gorm could not quite place.
The man ducked below a sweeping kick, his hood falling off to reveal dark skin and white hair, and Gorm needed no further reminders. He glanced at his master, curious if Sethian would recognize the man.
“There is something distinctly familiar about the man in white,” the arbiter commented, leaning out over the railing and squinting at the figures below. “I feel I know him from somewhere.”
“The Imperial Court?”
Sethian turned a quizzical expression Gorm’s way.
“The Imperator of Arlath, sir.”
Sethian peered at the duel. “Are you certain?”
Sethian seemed lost in his own thoughts. Before Gorm could inquire as to his master’s idea, a dark figure climbing the outside of the other tower caught his attention. He watched with curiosity as it detached from the wall and fell upon one of the cloaked men below. The victim uttered not a sound as death descended upon him, and the killer had already launched toward the next in line before the sudden movement alerted anyone of the impending danger.
Sethian, too, had noted the assassin. He watched the battle erupting with a detached interest, clearly still busy making plans. “He seems pretty good.”
“The dark one, sir? Not a complete amateur, I agree, though I would not say ‘good’ perhaps.” Gorm watched as the killer launched a rope-dart into the chest of one cloaked fighter, wrapping it around the man’s neck with a flick of his wrist and then leaping over the crenellations. “Competent, having mastered some difficult tricks but not much of a fighter. Ithilar assassin, I would guess, maybe even a shadowblade. A good one.”
“This far from Harma Ithil?” Sethian sounded incredulous. “And did you not just say he was not skilled?”
“Lacking fighter; good assassin, sir. A poor assassin would either be a better fighter, or a corpse.”
Sethian let out a chuckle and turned his attention back to the duel on the plaza. “He used his cloak to escape your last encounter, correct?”
“That is so.” Gorm did not care for the memory. The emperor had triggered a collapse of the building and then teleported away, leaving Gorm to dig his way out of the rubble. Only to find himself accused of regicide.
Sethian looked to their left, his gaze lingering on a large, lavish building with what looked like large bushes growing on its roof. “Perhaps we may get even…”
“I need to make some preparations… Once he has killed the green cloak, try to delay him as long as you can and then make him teleport. Meanwhile, go make sure our Ithilar friend doesn’t shoot the emperor in the back.”
Gorm chortled beneath his heavy helm. “By your command.” With that, he leapt off the tower to join the assassin’s battle below.
Kyrion had always enjoyed being theatrical. Whether he was arguing at Court or regaling a crowd with one of his adventures, he would always try to make it a spectacle. His style of fighting was much the same, full of flourishes and feints, sudden twists and flashy tricks. Unfortunately, Ared was agile, skilled, and worst of all, experienced.
Kyrion was outmatched, and both of them knew it.
Fortunately he was also quick, creative, and, most infuriatingly for his opponent, lucky. His rapier had long since been flung from his hand, his throwing blades had all been deflected, and he had been disarmed of his dagger before fully drawing it. He was empty-handed, but far from unarmed.
“How does it feel, knowing that win or lose, everything you’ve built is lost to you?” He grinned at his opponent.
Ared ignored him, instead launching into a routine of sudden jabs to force Kyrion off-balance. He responded by nimbly dancing backwards, out of Ared’s reach. Right into the duelist’s trap. Out from under the bundled cloak came a small crossbow, launching a bolt straight toward Kyrion’s gut.
Kyrion leapt up, pulling his feet up, the bolt barely forced below him by his ward. It was a move Ared was quick to exploit by lunging forward. Kyrion summoned a small shard beneath his right foot, using it to launch himself higher and into a spin. He conjured forth a handful shards in his leading hand. Ared halted mid-lunge and threw himself back, just in time to narrowly avoid the trio of streaking shards.
The shards embedded in the stones even as Kyrion landed once more on the ground. They dissipated almost immediately, yet by then Ared had already quick-stepped past them and launched a lightning quick jab that took Kyrion completely by surprise.
He could feel the blade slicing through his magical shield, pulling at it as if consuming it. Before he could even process what that might mean the tip cut a line along his chin, halting just shy of piercing his throat. Kyrion stared wide-eyed at his opponent, knowing full well he survived because Ared wanted him to.
The duel was over.
Ared lowered his blade as Silverblade sank to his knees in defeat, a look of confusion still upon his once-cocky face. Ared wiped the blood of the tip of his blade. He wanted answers before he could kill the boy, but most would have to wait until he was locked up in the dungeon.
Most, but not all.
“Why?” Ared looked down at him. “Even with all your tricks, you must have known you could not defeat me. Did you think us so ignorant of the rules that Moreth would be baited into being part of the duel?”
Silverblade looked up at him, smiling the same condescending smile that Ared remembered his grandfather wearing so often. A smile that always seemed to appear when the tables were about to be turned.
“You are but a puppet looking to cut his strings, Chancellor.” He was clearly in some pain, and going by the amount of blood flowing down his neck Ared had likely struck deeper than intended. Not enough to be fatal, or the man would have bled out already, but deep enough to remind Ared that he was not as young as he used to be. “It was never about me.”
Ared whirled about, looking for Moreth. The old man was leaning casually on his cane at the foot of the bridge, head tilted forward as if listening for something. Ared took a few hurried steps closer, fearing for the old man’s life. Something was wrong.
The Vizier’s weight was on his bad hip. His posture was slumped. The robes… even at this distance, Ared could tell they were wet with blood. The black colour no doubt hid it from most, yet for Ared the light hit the stain just right to reveal it. Ared closed his eyes and took a few steadying breaths, intending to thoroughly interrogate Silverblade.
A sudden crash interrupted him before he got started.
Looking up, he saw a knight in matte red armor, mottled with shades of darker red and veins of black, kneeling on the bridge. The crimson knight rose slowly, one hand gripping the halberd of a palace guard unfortunate enough to have stood near the landing.
“Gorm Whitehelm?” Ared stared at the figure with shock. “Should you not be dead?”
The knight laughed, stomping across the bridge with slow, determined strides. Around him, the palace guards dared not approach, and indeed a few even backed away. As well-trained as they were, they lacked experience with real combat and Ared knew well the intimidation Gorm could inspire in his jagged armor.
“Greetings, Your Most Just Imperial Highness.” His voice was as thick with sarcasm and hate as any Ared had ever heard.
“There was not enough evidence to convict you, I suppose?” Ared cursed under his breath for not making sure the man was executed for regicide. “And no doubt blood magic has kept you young.”
Sinister laughter, laughter bringing with it memories Ared had thought forgotten a century ago or more. He pushed them aside and focused on the present. Gorm was taking his time to approach; why? What was he planning?
Ared glanced all around, but saw nothing to hint at the man’s true intentions. And where was Gorm’s master, the Dark Lord? The only purple in sight was Silverblade’s shirt.
“The Master is not here, Imperator, but you will meet him shortly.”
Ared caught sight of one of his Silver Cloaks atop a nearby building, moving swiftly towards them. All Ared needed to do was buy a little time for him to get into position with his crossbow.
A gambit, given Gorm’s own stalling, but what choice was there? Ared had only his magic leathers, a rapier, and his hand crossbow. Gorm was clad in enchanted plate mail and wielding a halberd made by the finest smiths in Malqish.
“I see you brought your ceremonial armor, Gorm.”
“Someone melted down the regular ones.”
“Are you sure you can keep up with me, with all those spikes getting in the way?”
“Without trouble, I assure you.”
Ared did not doubt Gorm’s boast would prove accurate, given his own age and fatigue from the duel. Fortunately, the Cloak was in position and had his crossbow ready. Ared raised his free hand and made a few quick gestures to make sure the disciple invoked the blessings of the Master and then motioned for him to let loose.
The thud of the bolt striking home was strangely soft, and more tellingly came from behind him.
“Nowhere to run, Merrinath.” Gorm seemed to take a perverse pleasure in having Ared cornered, but clearly the knight had waited long enough for he lowered his halberd and rushed forward.
The sniper, then, had been Gorm’s intention all along. Ared scowled. There was nothing for him to gain by staying, and everything to lose. His task now was the conduit, and finding the insane Grand Chancellor so he could finish Moreth’s work.
In the same movement with which he dodged the halberd, Ared stepped inside his cloak and teleported to the study.