War was all I’d ever known. I lived it. I loved it. I was good at it. Standing there, on the edge of that cliff beside my fellow commanders and the Reaper Queen herself, I admit I felt slightly melancholic as we watched our countless forces swarm the last of the enemy. I worried we’d never have another war to fight, so perfect and absolute was the majestic rule of the Reaper.
As I glanced at my fellow officers, I could recognise a glimmer of the same bothersome realisation on their faces. We were, all of us, forged for this singular purpose. What meaning would we serve from now on? What lesser stations would we be reduced to in the absence of bloodshed? Nobility? State officials? Pathetic. Degrading.
“My beloved Scythes, you’ve succeeded magnificently today,” spoke the velvety deep voice of Kalistri Verian, the Reaper Queen. “Our long journey is finally over, our people are united and the work of lessers may begin, building an empire on the steadfast foundations you have laid. From the blood of your harvest we will grow anew, together, better than before.”
She turned to face us, each in turn, and we knelt. “Kharyn, the most effective quartermaster the world has ever seen. Your attention to detail and grounded council has been crucial to our endeavours. Thank you.” She nodded at the large bald man gracefully and drew from him a rare hint of a smile as he lifted his gaze to meet hers.
“Emillie and Tyrhardt, my hands in the shadows. Your cunning and unseen techniques have saved our troops from ever facing a battle at a disadvantage. The aim and resolve of your blades behind enemy lines has been as true and responsive to my vision as if I’d been wielding them myself. Thank you.” The twins lowered their hoods and met her eyes proudly. Tyrhardt’s smirk was noticeably more subdued than the vicious grin of his sister.
“Amiri, my rock, my council. Your wisdom and perspective have steadied me in all things. You, more than anyone, understand the burden of leadership and the toll it exacts upon me. Beneath the titles and politics, after impossible choices and crushing hardships, even I am human still, thanks to you. Not to mention the stability you’ve managed to imbue into our trail of death through the lands. I don’t know how you instill such loyalty into a people that was just conquered yesterday, but somehow you manage it. Thank you.” The soft-faced woman clad in long silks smiled the most genuinely of us so far and nearly shed a tear.
“And, of course, Mateus, the tip of my spear. As important as tactics, politics and army maintenance is, the fact remains that wars are won by soldiers, and you are the greatest one of them all. There were hundreds of overaggressive meatlumps vying for your position, but I chose you. A warrior who learned to fight before they were strong possesses an undeniable advantage, and I wanted to wield that advantage. You’ve led our forces on the front lines as a shining example. Every one of our fighters models themselves after your unstoppable tactical strength and willpower, and so will their children. Thank you.” It was hard not to feel pride when she spoke like that. Suppressing the swirl in my chest, I looked her in the eye and nodded with a smile.
“Now rise, my Scythes,” she commanded with a gesture and turned to look at the city below. “I believe we have a coup de grâce to deliver.” She glanced back at us once more before leaping off the edge with an acrobatic flourish. Amiri was the only one to twitch with panic, being less familiar than the rest of us with this side of our great leader. Emillie chuckled and clapped a hand onto Amiri’s shoulder before charging off the edge as well, followed closely by her brother. I looked to Kharyn with a question on my face before following. The old grump waved a dismissive hand in response. “I’ll join you later. I have work to do,” he rumbled and turned towards the warcamp.
Amiri looked at me as if she had something to say, but shook her head and turned to follow Kharyn. I too leapt off the edge.
I opened my arcanotech wings at the last second and cracked the fine tiles beneath my sabatons as I landed on the small elevated plaza in front of the city’s government building. Emillie cocked her mocking head at me. “You think it’s somehow impressive to land like a falling rock, Mateus?”
“Not impressive. Efficient.”
“I doubt it’s very efficient for your knees. How much does that armour weigh?” Tyrhardt pointed out.
“About forty kilograms,” I replied dryly and felt a sting in my knee as I started walking with the twins. “You might have a point about the knees, though.”
Tyrhardt smiled shortly. “The years go fast when you’re having fun.”
We walked up to flank the Queen, who was staring at the massive stone doors of the building before us. The stairs leading to the streets on either side of us were packed with my soldiers, standing perfectly at attention. The Queen crossed her ornamented arms and by the tilt of her elaborate horned headdress, I could tell her chin was up. “I am Kalistri Verian, the Reaper Queen, and today I release you from your stations. Your government is hereby dissolved. All of you inside are now civilians, and will be treated as such. Open these doors, or we will carve our way through both them and you.”
“H-how do we know we can trust you, butcher? What guarantee do we have?” came a shaky voice from inside eventually.
“You have none. Comply or be considered an obstacle.”
The door remained closed. I wasn’t counting, but if I had to guess I’d say she gave them exactly ten seconds before the runes on her bracers lit up with a violent red glow. With one eye closed, she drew in the air with a finger, tracing the outlines of the doors. When the rectangle was complete, she took a step back and pushed her palm through the center of it, sending forth a solid block of light with a booming sound reminiscent of metal getting cleft apart with immense force. It flashed faster than the blink of an eye, and when it was gone the doors were no longer there.
A pair of legs, cleanly dismembered at the shin, flopped out of the cleared doorway. From where I was standing, I could also see the half of a person who’d been standing just on the edge of the effect crumple to the floor with shocked horror frozen on what remained of their face. For a second or two there was silence. Then the screams rang out. Panic erupted inside as people ran in all directions. Some escaped through the windows. My men caught them. Some ran deeper inside to hide in rooms. A couple even ran out through the front door and met the Reaper Queen face to face. She grabbed one of the runners by the throat, her arm strengthened by the glow in the bracer. With her other hand she drew a simple line in the air and punched it, sending a paper thin beam through the other runner’s waist area, cutting her cleanly in half, her screams cut short.
“Please! Please! You promised mercy!” screamed the man caught in the Queen’s iron grip frantically.
“Conditional mercy,” the Queen’s deep, menacingly calm voice corrected. “The conditions were not met.” The bracer on her free hand lit up again as she grabbed the struggling man by the arm and pulled. She ripped him apart at the shoulder like wet paper. His screams took on new layers with each snap, crack and tear until they stopped entirely. His bulging eyes never closed when she dropped him on the ground like a dirty rag. She looked back at me and the twins and nudged her head, telling us to follow. As always, we did. Tyrhardt stepped casually on the broken corpse on the way.
I motioned a handful of my men to follow us inside. We stepped over the bit of stone door still remaining and entered into a round, decorated marble chamber. The painted ceiling was domed with many windows and the walls had a great many doors. As if sensing the expectant look I gave the back of her head, the Queen spoke; “Find me the vault. Fulfill my promise to any stragglers you find.”
I scattered my men all around the building, knocking down doors and doing exactly as the Queen wished. It did not take long. “Lord Scythe! We believe we’ve found it,” came a shout from one of the nearby rooms. When I stepped into the room, I could see why this one had caught their attention. It was all gold-trimmed marble from floor to ceiling, covered in paintings. The presentation was almost religious.
The Queen stepped in behind me, followed by the twins. Her eyes wasted no time on the room and locked directly onto the dark iron gate leading into a dungeon. Another purple red flash later the gate fell off its hinges and our stride took us swiftly towards the bottom of the stairs. Down there we found another opulent room, this time with someone in it. The hulking form of… a man? Not quite. It had two legs, but the knees were the wrong way around. It was hunched over a pedestal in the center of the room with it’s back to us. When it pulled free what looked to be a sword from the pedestal and turned around, we could see its head was one of a lion’s. It placed the tip of the sword gently on the floor, gripping the handle ceremoniously with both of its humanoid hands and stared at us with its intelligent eyes.
“This place is forbidden. Turn back or face extermination,” it growled.
Emillie laughed. “Everyone who’s denied the Reaper lately lies in a mass grave somewhere.”
The Queen hissed at her. “This is no soldier.” She stepped forward and spoke clearly. “Why is it forbidden? Who forbids whom?”
“The Council of Estravia decrees none shall enter,” the beast replied.
“The Council of Estravia decrees no more. They are disbanded. I rule here now,” the Queen explained. Her words seemed to have an effect. The beast looked thoughtful for a moment before closing its eyes as if focusing on something.
“False,” it stated simply and opened its eyes. “The Council stands. So do its orders. Leave.”
The Queen squinted at the beast in annoyance. Then she looked at me. I held her gaze for a short moment, then nodded and unlocked my sword sheath.
Approaching the beast with appraising eyes, I drew the sword and juggled it front to back in my hand. Stopping a few paces away, I too stabbed the tip of my sword into the floor, holding it like a cane. “I’m sorry, guardian, but we’re going to need to get past you. Will you die for loyalty?”
“Then you have my respect.” I locked the chain between my sword’s handle and my gauntlet in place. “When you’re ready.”
The beast bowed its head in respect before lifting the magnificent weapon in its hands and preparing a battle stance. Following battle etiquette, I was the one to initiate.
I charged in, my first swing coming from the left to force my opponent into either yielding ground or parrying with a backhand grip. The beast saw it coming and adjusted in time to parry head on, neutralizing my plan. What it did not see coming, was the jab of my spiked offhand gauntlet into its thick wrist. It reacted to the pain with a growl and a counterattack, using its immense weight and strength advantage to turn the parry into a push, sending me staggering backwards slightly. A series of three terrifying slashes immediately followed. I dodged and parried them, but only barely, closing distance all the while to make swinging at me awkward with such large arcs. The beast had shown itself to be fast and somewhat intelligent in addition to its immense size and muscle power.
I would have to slow it down to beat it. Attrition it would be.
For the next swipe, I parried with a downward pointing blade and closed the rest of the distance between us, enabling myself to turn the momentum into a vicious pommel strike into the beast’s jaw. On my way out of its space, I ducked out from under its sword arm, drawing a nasty line of blood from the side of its bicep as I went. My grip was now fully primed for extreme close distance combat. I held my weapon laterally in front of me, steadying the bladed end with my offhand. The beast let out an enraged rumbling growl and hopped a couple paces backwards, clearly irritated by the wound it had taken -and how it had taken it. I needed to stay close to avoid the devastating blows this thing was capable of, so I followed.
I understood the irritation in its eyes as it scowled at me. I remembered sparring against Tyrhardt once when he’d done the same to me. Using his smaller size and more versatile weapons to stay so annoyingly close that my large blade couldn’t get anything done. It felt strange being the Tyrhardt of the battle.
I managed to get in one more good cut along the beast’s forearm before it figured out how to stop me. It flipped the sword in its hand and started punching with the pommel and clawing with its offhand. The attacks were rapid and savage and two of them landed before I had time to adjust, one nearly breathtaking punch into my side and a swipe that scratched my brow. They hurt, but not badly enough to distract me from the plan.
Taking advantage of the opponent’s reduced defensive ability, I pushed my laterally held blade at it as a feint while also going for a kick into the side of its knee. The beast saw it coming, but only managed to half avoid it. While dodging the kick, it failed to fully parry the blade and took another mean cut across its shoulder.
I could see from its expression that I’d found its weakness. It was not used to switching up its entire fighting style mid-combat. Understandable. Most classically trained blademasters never needed to. Especially ones that sat around guarding vaults.
With that in mind, I immediately switched back to a slashing grip, throwing a long reach punch to distract from the fact. Confused by my unorthodox ways, the beast blocked the punch and expected another. Its eyes widened when it realised the next one wasn’t a fist, but a full arc upward slash of the sword. Knowing he’d try to parry it but that he’d be late to it, I readied my other hand to reinforce the slash. As predicted, the parry came. Fast enough to stop the slash, but too late to prevent the positioning for the follow up. I’m sure the beast realised it as well when it halted my blade by its chest.
Without hesitation, I stabbed the blade forward. The beast’s push managed to redirect it away from its heart, but it still sank deep into the lower sternum. The beast’s pained howl filled the room and I took a step backwards in preparation. I noticed the wound bled not red, but gold. I’d have to find out what this creature was afterwards. It touched the wound and hunched forward in pain, but looked me dead in the eye as it did. There was a knowledge there. One that we shared. The end had just begun. No quarter would be requested or given.
Confidence grew on the beast’s face all of a sudden, draining from mine. It grabbed the white and gold sword with both of its hands and strained. I watched in awe as its muscles rippled in a wave from the sword. The white colour of the blade fractured away like paint and the fatal wound in the beast’s side stitched back together. I glanced uncertainly behind me at the Queen. Her stare was enraptured.
Fully healed and its muscles bulging, the beast straightened its back strenuously as if violently stretching its entire body and the growl in its throat grew into a raw bellow. The look in its eyes had lost something. It was an animal now.
The change in body language was immediate. It launched itself at me, murder in its grin. The well trained tactical swordmaster was nowhere to be seen as it swung its clawed fingers at me. The sword in its hand was now just a tool to be flailed with as much strength and speed as possible. I blocked, parried and dodged every reckless attack it made, but I was losing ground at an alarming rate. Soon it would have me cornered.
From the corner of my eye I could see Emillie drawing her bow with surprising concern on her face, but both the Queen and her brother stopped her. Good. A handful of my men crowded the stairway behind them. A dirty arrow was not an option.
That did, however, leave me to fight this monstrous thing by myself, and the fact that its rampaging blows seemed to come faster and faster was getting worrisome. As the distance between my back and the wall diminished, I came up with a plan. I waited for the next strike of the sword to execute it, increasing my chances of not getting cut by it in the process by doing so.
The strike came and I rushed towards the beast’s space again while parrying above my head. Barely dodging a claw attack, I dropped into a knee slide and followed my momentum past between the beast’s legs, swiftly slicing a hamstring before jumping back to my feet on the other side. Judging by the pained yelp, I’d struck true.
I underestimated the constitution of the creature. The moment I turned back around to face it, the white sword was already in a full rage-fueled sideways swing towards me. I had no time to react and it cut straight through my pauldron, leaving a deep gash before exiting and catching the side of my jaw on its way out.
The beast was so intent on following up, it didn’t even take the time to fully turn around to face me before shoulder barging me off my feet. It was like running flat into a brick wall. I felt the back of my head greet the floor a little too intimately, and my vision flashed black.
This was fine. I’d taken hits to the head before. As long as it didn’t knock me unconscious, I was sure I’d be strawberry.
I knew I had to get back up immediately if I wanted to live, but it was a little difficult since I couldn’t quite tell which way up was. I asked my hands and they seemed to find out the answer for me by figuring out where the floor was and was not.
I told them to make me go up-up, maybe away too if they could manage. Away? From what? Away from the killy thing. The big sword cat. Oh, there’s a killy cat? I remember now. Oh, nice job, hands! This feels like up! Legs, can you do the thing you do? The standing thing? Wait. Eyes, where are we going? Where’s the killy cat? Right there. If there are three of them, does that mean the middle one is the real one? Oh, crap, it’s real close. Legs! Away!
This is bad. I’m very scared. Who’s that? Heart? Shut up. Just keep pumping, the rest of us will try to get us out of this. Hands, do we have a sword? No, but you keep it chained to your wrist, remember? Ah, smart. Of course I’d do that. Grab that thing and-... Legs, duck to your right, now! Oh boy, good call, eyes. I don’t think we could keep going without a head. Hands, get the sword and do the thing I’ve trained you to do. Defensive grip. Legs, keep us at a safe distance for now. Eyes, keep the information coming. Is everyone back up and running? Uh, think so.
Brain? Everything okay up there? Wait, I thought I was you. I think I’m a little bruised. Having a hard time making those… What are they called? Uhm…
Yes! Having difficulties making thoughts happen. Do we need those right now? Could I just sleep for a bit?
Hands! Top left!
Nice job. No! No sleeping! We’d never wake up. Just focus up. Let me back in there.
I was almost backed up to a wall again. I felt a pain in my left hand’s fingers and realised I was gripping the blade of the sword just as tightly as the handle. My nose was blocked with running blood that I could taste in my mouth. The back of my head buzzed painfully and my eyes were slow to focus. At least I was conscious now. Now just to-...
Whoah. Wasn’t I just standing? Why was I crawling on the floor again?
The beast towering over me huffed excitedly between growls. I looked up and saw it grip its sword with both hands again, lifting it for a final strike. A beat of panic ran through my entire system. With a surge of adrenaline, I pushed myself up, grabbed the blade of its sword to push it aside and threw all my strength into a swing with my own.
It landed. The beast’s left forearm fell to hang by a thread of skin behind the blade of my sword, which was now embedded lengthways deep into its abdomen. My eyes went wide in a moment of clarity and I clambered to my feet, driving the blade up into the beast’s chest cavity. The shocked whine escaping its throat turned into desperate gasping as I yanked my sword around, scrambling everything in there just to be safe.
In its hulked out state, the beast still tried to stab the sword into me, but it missed by a margin so wide it wasn’t a threat. With that last act, its eyes rolled back and it fell backwards, taking my embedded sword with it. I nearly followed when the chain on my wrist tugged.
I disconnected the chain and stood there for a moment in silence, just breathing. I turned around slowly and stiffly to face my audience. The Queen smiled with a hint of amusement. Tyrhardt and Emillie rolled their eyes. Sure was dark in this room suddenly. An increasing amount of dark dots floated in the air. I pulled my sword free and gingerly sheathed it, the scabbard spurting out overflowing golden blood. Then I bowed before my Queen. The floor slid backwards beneath me. The crash of my armour against the floor was the last thing I heard.