Carius’s enhanced perception gave him just enough time to slide his leg free of Veil’s strike. Veil’s blade dug into his horse’s shoulder and the beast fell. He flung himself free, his blade coming to life with blue light that trailed where it moved. It cut hairs from his horse as he landed on his feet, warded by the blaze of his sword.
Two more Veil’s appeared, one fell to pieces against the light, an illusion. The other stopped just short and thrust a blade, movements sluggish and telegraphed. Carius’s weapon went through Veil’s with ease, then shot a gout of power from its tip into his assailant. That Veil fell dead as three more appeared.
With his enhanced perception, reflexes, and mental speed, Carius could manage this against someone so slow. All the vaunted skill of the Einarr’s Veil amounted to this sad display of belabored motion and fragile attacks.
His mind might move faster, but his body retained its normal speed. Carius shot power from his sword to give it more speed. The trailing gout spread, killing someone he didn’t see as his parries cut Veil’s weapons.
Two of them faded, returning to the original, while the third struck home. Carius wheeled around, just in time to catch the strike. But it went through him and the illusion fell away. Another Veil put their sword into the back of Carius’s armor, but Kol metal deflected the blade. That Veil’s sutured wound opened and they stumbled, returning to the nearest Veil before losing their head.
“I expected more from you, champion of Clarient,” Carius roared.
Then something boomed behind him. He turned in time to see the rest of his riders cast aside in a whirlwind. Something caught in his throat, like he’d tried vomit a large stone.
“It Below,” he cursed. “What was that?”
Two new Veils appeared, clones of the sutured one. They dove into Carius, taking him to the ground. One reached for his helm while the other drove a dagger forward. Before it struck, Carius’s free hand caught the pommel and an instant later a blaze of light removed his foe’s head. His fist moved and landed against the second’s wounded side, earning an eruption of blood as stitches broke. That one faded as Carius got to his feet.
The captain caught his breath, attention moving to the combat.
Other Veil’s fought his troops, their efforts keeping the Clarien’s from breaking, but the Veils slowed with each assault. Further, the Iylians hammered home against the Prylians. Carius’s mercenary allies faltered as the Iylian professionals kept their nerve, even as two thirds of their own lay dead.
Olgur made it to Carius and shouted, “let’s get the man and end this.”
Carius wiped blood from his chin and pulled his helmet back firm over his face. He pulled the carriage door open and grabbed its occupants. First came the Master, hurt and pale in the orange light of his torches. Next came Veil who strayed near to death.
“Lapdogs,” the Master spat from his spot on the ground. “If you would just cast aside your chains, we could all-”
Carius slammed a foot down on the Master’s hand. His heel dug deep and broke the bones. “We’d still have a nation if not for you.”
The Master screamed, his breathing ragged and fast. It took what control he still had to reign it in long enough to say, “keep your quiet suffering, we knew our happiness would be miserable. Until we reached it.”
Veil placed one bloodied hand on their mask, leaving a print as they pulled it free. Underneath, a young androgynous face gasped for air. Their gleaming amber eyes glared up at Carius as Veil tried to stand and streaks fell down their cheeks.
“How many of you do I have to kill today?” Carius asked.
“Veil,” the Master wheezed, “return, you’ve done enough.”
“Return to what?” Veil asked as their hands shoved against the ground.
Carius took a step back, a small smile on his face as he let Clarient’s champion stand.
Olgur leveled his crossbow at the Master and raised his voice. “We have your leader! We have the Einarr’s ruler, surrender or we slay him!”
A few heard it and the word spread. Veil got to their feet, shuddering as tears stained their face.
“How many more?” Carius asked.
A stiff wind blew past him, accompanied by a small buzz. He glanced around, wondering if it might be some trick of Veil’s moveskip, but Clarient’s champion could give no more. All the same, Veil drew a sword as their hands shook.
Carius turned to the master, “I’ll make this one suffer, for every day my family went hungry within your walls.”
Something cracked, wet and awful. Carius and Olgur turned back to see a woman resetting her arm, ten feet behind them. She took slow breaths as blood blinded one of her eyes, coming from a cut on her forehead.
She showed them a half grin while one arm wiped the blood on her face. “How about,” she said between breaths, “you surrender?” Her voice raised, “all of you surrender. To me, Athia Fensa. I’m gracious in victory.”
Carius pointed his sword at the Master and Olgur pointed his crossbow.
“We’ll kill him,” Carius said. “If you try anything.”
Athia hunched forward, body tensing. “I fancy myself a bit quick on the draw,” she said. “You think you can kill him before I get to you?”
“Easily,” Carius said. He’d know the instant she tried something, not that she realized.
Athia wet her lower lip, still catching her breath.
“You work with them, for him?” Carius asked.
“Then why protect him?”
Athia squeezed her fists. “I’m not, I want to kick the shit out of all of you. She leaned forward, knees bending. “So, why don’t we find out who’s faster?”
Her knees tensed and released, her gaze settled straight forward. On a path that would take her directly in front of Carius for an easy strike.
But he saw it, he’d been fighting for longer than she’d been alive. And he knew what she was about to do.
. . . . . .
Athia’s eyes locked on to Veil’s. For an instant, they held each other’s gaze. Then Athia winked, turned forward, and tensed her knees.
Carius’s sword shot around, to kill her mid moveskip.
And then Athia’s cord tightened and pulled the carriage door into Carius, and Olgur. The weight of it bowled them over and, with momentum in use, propelled Athia forward on frictionless feet.
Her spikes retracted and returned to spin on their cords next to her. One beat down againt Olgur as they spun. She twisted and clonked Carius on the head as he tried to rise, then the other wrapped his ankles and constricted until it broke.
He screamed and his sword shattered, sending power blazing out and into the treeline. Everyone expected the moveskip, and Athia knew it better than anyone. It was-
“A simple ploy,” Athia said as she slid past Carius. “Good try though.”
She came to a stop in front of Veil.
“I’d like to fight you again, when you’re not sucker punched at the start. And when I’m not either.”
Veil stared at her. Their sword fell from their hand, unable to grasp it with muscles weakening. “Why? What do you want?”
Another Veil came to a stop just outside the combat.
“Patience.” Athia jumped up on top the carriage, planted her feet, and shouted while one of her spikes spun. “Alright Lerian’s people, get lost! Both your leaders are down, I already took care of all your cavalry and I’ll gladly break every bone until you stop!”
She slammed a spike down, so hard it boomed, then beat a fist to her chest.
“I am Athia Fensa. Hero, warrior, adventurer, and bone breaker extraordinare! Tell Lerian I’ll beat him myself if he ever plays general again!”
Confusion turned to panic, and panic turned into a route. Lerian’s people broke, just as the Iylians regrouped enough to mount an offensive. The civilians huddled together, just off the road and just passed them a masked figure paused to watch.
With that done, Athia hopped back down. “Alright, Mister Master,” she said. “I’m here for a favor.”
Veil reached out to grab Athia, but the Master said, “stop, Veil. You’ve done enough.” His eyes settled on Athia. “Who are you to ask favors of someone like me? Even broken as I am.”
“Who were you to kill those that ruled you?” she asked. “Same as me I presume.”
Anger welled in the Master, but pain and fatigue blunted it. “Ask, and I will listen.”
“Two things,” Athia said. “First, and this one is a bit selfish, but remove the bounty on my head. That’s just a convenience thing.”
“Simple,” he said, feeling unease rise like bile.
“Next,” Athia smiled and raised her voice for everyone to hear. “Swear to It of the New Order, swear that you will eat no better than the lowest citizen of your city.”
The Master, Veil, the people who heard, all of them gawked at her.
“Why?” the Master asked.
Athia poked his stomach with the toe of her boot. “I think someone needs some perspective again. And some motivation. Nothing works quite as good as hunger.”
Veil stumbled forward. They reached out and grabbed Athia’s arm. “That’s it? You made an enemy of Lerian and risked your life for that? Even after we tried to kill you? For what reason.” Veil’s voice cracked as they shouted, “for what purpose do you do this?!”
Athia leaned back and rubbed blood from her eye again. “I dunno, but it seemed like a good idea.”
Veil’s body shuddered and they shouted, “I hate you! I HATE YOU!” before falling back against the carriage.
Athia snorted and held her hands up in a defensive posture. “Sheesh.”
From the ground, the Master said, “I will do it.”
She turned to him and held out a hand. The Master took it and got to his feet, unsteady and groaning. His ruined right hand hung beside him, next to Veil. When he stood, he found Athia an inch taller.
“In return for what you’ve done today,” he said. “I will swear to It of the New Order.”
A star blazed bright overhead, it’s light coming down in a silver column.
“That I will eat as the meekest, hungriest of Clarient. If they hunger, I will hunger, if they feast I feast. This I swear.”
It of the New Order’s power filled him, soothing his wounds just long enough for the bargain to be struck. Then it faded.
When it did, Athia kicked the Master in the ass, so hard he came off the ground and landed in his carriage.
Athia gave a little salute, backing away from them. She tossed a small vial of liquid and it landed next to Veil. “That’ll help some.”
No one said a thing as she gathered her supplies and unpacked her kite and board. The wind caught it and she skidded off in the most uninspiring exit she could imagine. Ten minutes down the road, she collapsed in a heap. It took what little power she had left to crawl into a hiding spot and put up her protective ward.
. . . . . .
“You no doubt heard of the dangers that befell our journey,” the Master said to his silent people. Everyone in Clarient, once more, gathered to hear him speak now that his negotiations with Iylian were finished.
“But the light burns ever still.”
His stomach panged, but he didn’t stop. Word of his deal spread, though most thought it rumor.
“Iylia has been gracious to us, though their neighbors sought treachery. We will begin trade in earnest and they will deal in our Clariens, so long as we keep the roads safe and provide them the fastest paths to Tinwald and the Tricorn lands.”
No one spoke, but a small sense of relief did ripple through the crowd, as a shared exhale.
“There is far more to tell, and it will be relayed to all in the daily lectures, once it is sorted and summarized.”
He took a deep breath, awaiting the one constant in all his time as ruler.
“Are there any who would speak now? Of Clarient, of the agreement with Iylia, of anything that you wish?”
Silence held, moment by moment. Some part of him turned hopeful after his close encounter, after his new vow. As if it might make a difference, but cynicism filtered back in as his people refused him once more.
Then, someone shouted, “Where do we go, the Suns sit high and the clouds are low!”
People looked around, until they found a woman standing on top the city bakery. She cupped her hands over her mouth and continued, “down to the river were no one knows!”
A moment past, then an elderly couple called, “Meet my love where the lichen grows on the tree by the river in the hole by the sea!”
Then someone else, and then a few more joined in, singing the next verse. More joined on the verse after, more still on the next. The silly song worked its way through the people, many barely able to remember their parts.
When Veil appeared next to Athia, it stopped once more. Athia locked her eyes on Veil’s mask, seconds passed, then a second Veil joined the first, staring back at its other duplicate. Neither moved, but the first stepped back and vanished.
The second Veil turned to Athia, a crack ruining its mask. Then it turned to the people and nodded. Athia slapped Veil on the back. The champion stumbled, then, in a weak voice, said, “find my place past the garden rows.”
And the song began again.
And the Master cried.
Athia took a long breath and stepped back. Maybe she didn’t fix anything, maybe it would all go back to misery within a day. But, then again, maybe not.
END OF ARC 1