Traitor’s Hilt – Chapter 04

It’s only a dream, she tried to tell herself.  It was the same dream, reliving the same day.  The dream had come to her at least once a week for years, and she never got used to it.  The same half-awake feeling, the same soreness in her muscles.  The same voice growling at her.

*****

“Get up, girl.”

Tsaria had blinked, then opened her eyes.  She had moved her arms slowly to push herself off the coarse burlap cot, but had been pushed sideward roughly by an old boot.  She pushed herself up again, faster this time.

“I said get up.”  The voice was old and gravelly, as if the sound itself bore scars.  The tone of the voice dripped with disdain.

She had sat up then, and looked up into the face of the speaker.  It was the one who had saved her life and brought her here – and she had wondered again why he had taken the trouble.  If she was going to be tormented and beaten by everyone else she met, would she have been better off left to die with her mother and father?

No, she told herself. This will pass.

“I was kind enough to spare your life, girl… ” he had said, staring down at her.  He had looked disappointed in her, but she couldn’t guess why.  How could she have had a chance to disappoint him when all she’d done for the last week was try fruitlessly to keep from being beaten up?  “You’ll soon find that my kindness extends little farther than that.”

“Why have you brought me here?” she asked.  She had known her insolence would earn her more bruises, but she was past caring.  The bruises on her arms and legs were in layers now, and her ribcage ached from the punishment of the previous day.

But he hadn’t hit her. His eyebrows rose, and after a moment he replied, “I’ve brought you back to where you belong.  Why you were with those vermin I don’t know, but your place is here.  If you don’t believe me…” he’d grinned for a moment.  “I’ll take you to see what you did to my Sergeant again.”

She had shivered at those words.  He’d taken her down there once, the first day, to prove to her that it hadn’t been a dream.  But this time, when she had heard him speak, she hadn’t thought of the morgue.  The young warrior’s dead face had frightened her the first time – the blue skin charred black from one temple to the other, the eyes burned out of their sockets completely.  Instead, her mind had returned to the dark woods, to the fear and rage and pain gathering in her chest, to the electric feeling rippling down her arms and thru her hands.  She had remembered the sight of that face close to hers, the short final scream.

“So you’ve waited long enough, girl.  Your training starts today.  Your life begins anew.  This week should have taught you to take care of yourself when everyone else wants to hurt you, but it seems you avoid that lesson whenever you can.  No more.  When you finally leave this place, every person you meet will try to hurt you, and where will you run then?”  Again, the look of disappointment.  Was that why?  Because I never fought back?  Did he expect me to turn into one of them, like a jackal?  Fighting over food, clothes, privacy… fighting over everything?

“Get up, and get upstairs,” he had said, turning to leave.  “It’s always better to be up there earlier.  Stretch your muscles out as best you can.  It’ll be a hard day.  And when you feel like you can’t do anymore, remember… we’ve all been there.  Asking them to let you stop will only make them push you harder.  The main purpose of your first day is to teach you to never quit.”

*****

She opened her eyes, for real this time, and pushed herself up to sit on the edge of the bed.  She hadn’t slept on a cot for many years – she’d long since earned her own bedroom and a comfortable bed to sleep in.  She also had proper clothes now, instead of the leftover rags that she’d worn for so long.  Her sleeping clothes were black, stretchy cotton, fit closely and comfortably should she be awoken by violence.

It had been six years since that day, the day she dreamt of, six years of being afraid of everyone and everything, even though she could never admit or even show it for a moment.  It wore on her, as she used to think it wore on everyone, but some of the other acolytes she trained alongside didn’t seem affected by it.  She didn’t want to imagine the lives that some of them came from; harsh slavery or near starvation, orphanages and auctions.  Coming here was the only option many of them had, and the promise of the power they’d earn was enough for them to endure the grueling exercise, the agonizing torment, the constant and persistent fear.  Even the promise of power came with a condition- you had to survive long enough to earn it.

She opened a small wardrobe at the foot of her bed, and pulled out a set of arming clothes.  How strange it must be, she thought, to wear clothing not meant for armor, to not carry around a second skin of steel.  As she removed her sleeping clothes, she looked again at her body with the same mixture of pride and disgust. The muscles were tight beneath the blue-grey skin, large for a female of any race, but more so for a dark elf of her age, earned by all the work, exercise, and pure sweat she had forced herself through every day for six years.  The scars she carried, scattered across her skin, reminded her of all the things she’d done to earn them from her instructors and training partners alike.  Some of them were secret-keepers of a different sort, speaking of things she had done to others, making sure their scars were deeper than hers.

Her arming clothes were scarlet, as she had chosen them every time since she’d earned the rank allowed armor.  She was allowed 5 sets now, which was a bit of a luxury here.  The steel plates she attached to them, one at a time, were reflective black, some pieces still holding their mirror-finish, others dented and beaten where she’d been punished for performing a move incorrectly, for giving an incorrect order to subordinates… for showing mercy when dealing with the younger acolytes.

She left her helmet on the armor stand beside her desk, staring back at her.  She wouldn’t need it until later.  She’d be leading younger acolytes in their training for most of the morning, and most likely wouldn’t need to draw her sword until the afternoon. She returned to the bed, and picked up the sword that stood beside it, belting it around her waist.  She took a deep breath, looking in the mirror attached to the inside of her wardrobe door.  The shadowknight that stared back at her was both a stranger, and all too familiar.

“The sun isn’t up yet, is it?” She said quietly.

The response was barely more than a whisper, and she knew that no one else would hear it.  No one was in the room with her to hear.

No, girl.  At least an hour yet before dawn.  I’m sure Karialis is awake, though.

She nodded.  Professor Karialis never minded seeing her, and was like a beacon in the dark in this mountain.

“Will you need to feed today?”

No, not today, came the reply, then a feeling of mild amusement, but I won’t pass up the opportunity if it presents itself…

She felt a chill at this.  These opportunities had become more and more rare as time went on, and she found herself needing to plan for them earlier and earlier.  While there had been hundreds of acolytes her age and rank just a few years ago, now there were less than 50.  And by the end of the day, there may be fewer than that.

She strode toward the door, opened it, then closed it behind her as she made her way down the corridor toward the staircase.

*****

“Hello, girl,” Professor Karialis said, smiling and allowing Tsaria to enter the room.  “Welcome.”  She was wearing shades of blue this morning, many different shades cascading from a darker, deeper tunic to an almost-white robe that nearly touched the floor.  She was Tsaria’s height, but smaller, slighter, even below the robes.  Her body had not been subjected to the strain that Tsaria’s had.  But even so, she radiated power, and her violet eyes had a penetrating presence to them.

“Good morning, professor.  I’m glad I didn’t wake you.”

“I have far less need of sleep than you acolytes do, I assure you.”  Karialis laughed.  Her voice was soft and deep, but strong, like the undercurrent of a calm river.

The quarters behind the spellcraft study were no bigger than Tsaria’s own room, but could not have been more different.  There was a large, soft bed with dark purple silk sheets, a rather large writing desk, an oversize comfortable leather sitting chair, and every remaining bare space on the wall was dominated by a bookshelf. Books stared back at them from everywhere, and Karialis had many times demonstrated that she knew each of them intimately.  The other curiosity of this room was the suit of armor standing in one corner.  A trick of animation and conjuration, Karialis told her students, had formed this guardian for her.  She was rarely seen outside her own quarters without it.  Tsaria doubted that anyone else in the entire mountain had been told what Karialis had shared with her: the suit of armor was worn by a walking skeleton, an undead bodyguard, and the armor was merely to disguise its true nature.  The full suit of heavy armor covered the bare bones completely.  No one else knew Karialis’ secret, but then again, no one else but Karialis knew about Traitor, either.  The two dark elven women shared a few secrets with each other.

“Anything in particular this morning?  It appears you have time for a lesson, if you’d like,” Karialis asked, picking up her rod from the desk.  It was black, like obsidian, only the thickness of a thumb and the length of Tsaria’s arm.  The top was shaped like claws, clutching a star sapphire that seemed to glow in the torchlight.  She turned, making her way into the classroom, and Tsaria followed.  The suit of armor clanked after them, then stood in the corner of the class as it always did when Karialis taught.  “Have you mastered the last spell I taught you?”

Tsaria nodded, then whispered the words she’d been working on for the past week.  Instead of just being invisible, she had combined the spell to hide her from sight with another that absorbed sound within a short distance.  She moved from where she had disappeared, closing on Karialis in a half-hearted attempt to startle her.

Karialis noted her absence, muttered something quietly, and passed her own hand over her eyes.  A moment later, she looked right at Tsaria, nodded, and Tsaria cancelled the spell, returning to view.

“Much better this time.” Karialis said.  “The only drawback to using that particular combination is that it cancels all sounds.  If you get close to someone, they’ll know something is wrong when all sound around them disappears.”

“I thought about that,” Tsaria replied.  “Could that potentially stop someone from casting a spell?”

Karialis shook her head.  “No, not a good spell-caster, no.  A beginner might rely on their voice, but the words serve only to direct the energy of the mind.  How about the other?”

Tsaria smiled.  The other spell Karialis had asked her to work on had been difficult to practice; it drew strength and life from an opponent, and Tsaria did not often come across willing victims.  But she had finally mastered it, using it on one of her training partners during a round of sword practice.

“Try it on Grob.” She motioned to the suit of armor, which suddenly marched to the center of the room.

Tsaria approached the armor, then began speaking the words under her breath.  Without warning, Grob’s shield jumped up to his shoulder and his sword swung in a diagonal arc toward her left shoulder.  She dodged backward, instinctively, drew her own sword and parried Grob’s second attack.  She turned her eyes on Karialis, trying not to let her anger at being surprised show, but Karialis picked it up instantly.

“You can’t expect your opponent to just stand there and let you rain pain and destruction down on them, can you?” Karialis said, mockingly, over the clangs of battle.  “Cast the life drain spell, and then I’ll call out the next spell for you to use.  You should be able to cast them quickly enough to fit them between your attacks and his.”

“For some of them, I’ll need a free hand,” Tsaria said, dodging another swing and using Grob’s momentum to step behind him, cast the spell quickly, and press her left hand into the back of his armor.  She was surprised to feel the effect, the swelling of strength and vitality, knowing that she was fighting an animated skeleton with no life energy to drain.

“Very good, girl!” Karialis said.  “Combine your physical skills with your castings.  And yes, even though there is no life for you to steal from him, there is energy there, and you can make use of it.  Now, your electric strike!”

Grob had turned to face Tsaria again, lowered his left shoulder and trying to slam into her shield-first.  She spun with the impact, twisting both of them sideward, and as she twisted back she raised her elbow to connect with the side of the helmet.  Grob lost his balance for just a moment, and Tsaria muttered another spell, pushing her left hand into his thigh-plate.  When they connected, a giant electric shock traveled from the palm of her hand into the armor’s leg, knocking it out from under the torso.  Tsaria moved aside as the armor crashed to the ground, then rolled over and stood up to attack her again.

Over and over, Karialis called out the names of attack spells Tsaria had been taught.  Many of them had little effect on the undead, and Grob shrugged them off.  As Tsaria gained confidence and improved her timing, Karialis continued to increase the tempo of the fight, both in the spells she ordered Tsaria to cast and the speed at which she compelled Grob to attack.

“Now, banish him!” Karialis called.  Tsaria parried what would be Grob’s last swing, stepped away quickly as she spoke the words, then clapped her hands together over the hilt of the sword.  A blue light appeared around her hands, and spread like a shockwave out around her in all directions.  Karialis’ hair was ruffled as the spell passed over her, but Grob froze, then fell flat on his back.  The sound of the armor slamming to the ground echoed through the classroom for a moment, then silence descended like a blanket.

Tsaria, slightly confused, turned to her professor.  She heard the incantations before she saw what Karialis was doing, but guessed their purpose.  After a few moments of muttering under her breath, Grob stood, picked up the shield and sword he had dropped, and returned to the corner of the classroom.

“I’m not sure why I did that,” Tsaria admitted.  “It’s supposed to be used at a greater distance, and focused upon the target.  This one just spread out around me.”

Karialis nodded.  “And if you’d been surrounded by them, they’d all have been affected.  It might not have been as powerful as a strike against one of them, but considering that you can severely damage as many of them as you can get close to… ” she nodded.  “That is a piece of magic that I didn’t expect any of the acolytes here to achieve, even with deliberate practice.  Again, I wish I had the chance to teach you under better circumstances.”

Tsaria smiled.  Karialis was probably the only instructor in the mountain who would truly grant her a compliment.

Karialis led Tsaria back into her quarters, approached one of her bookshelves, then pulled an old book bound in black leather from amongst the others, and handed it to her.  “I want you to read this, and practice the exercises it describes.  Many of them you’ll need to practice outside, for reasons that will become obvious.  Again, read at your own pace; it’s more important that you understand all of it than you master it quickly.  And there will be no need for you to share any of this with the other acolytes or instructors.”

That got Tsaria’s attention.  Karialis had never instructed her to hide the things she’d been taught in their private sessions from the teachers.  Not showing the spells to other acolytes that would obviously not be ready for them was one thing, but why would the other instructors care?  She only nodded, knowing better than to question Karialis’ request.

“There is one spell in particular I want you to learn, and I’ve marked it.  It will take a lot of practice, but its effect is one that will save your life.  It takes almost half an hour of concentration, but once you’ve cast it, it will linger around you all day.  The spell offers one chance of protection- if someone successfully hits you, they will feel the force of their own blow.  I know Traitor will warn you of ambushes or sneak attacks, but this will still be useful.”

The sun rises.  Your instructors will be awaiting you.

“Thank you again, professor.” Tsaria turned to leave.

Karialis sighed as Tsaria left her classroom, and whispered out loud,  “If only I could have taught you at my own academy, girl… you’re too talented to waste on a sword.”

*****

She walked out onto the training hall early.  It was a habit she’d held onto ever since she had arrived.  Like many other things, Kadax had been right- those who showed up earlier had a tendency to survive longer.  There was no guarantee, but being alert, stretched out, and warmed up when the other acolytes were still waking was certainly not a handicap.  She was exercising when the younger acolytes began to enter the hall.  They wore various expressions of fear, distrust, and anger on their faces, and she knew that most of those emotions were directed at her in particular.  Especially the fear- because today was not just an evolution for them.

The younger acolytes would always eventually reach a point in their training when they would be forced to prove how ruthless they could be.  Any friendships that had formed in the years leading up to this would be shattered at this point, because the first day of weapons training was simply this; they were divided into pairs, and each given a blade.  With no prior training to guide their movements, with nothing but the will to survive and the ability to kill to ensure that survival, they were ordered to kill their opponent.  If the winner of the fight was unable to finish it, the executor would kill them both.

And today, Tsaria was the executor.  Ever since she had been placed in that ring, and seen the expression on the face of the young woman who watched her fight the boy she’d been paired with, she had feared this day.  She’d looked into the face of the executor of her own match, and seen the cold cruelty there, and she knew that she was in grave danger of becoming just as cold, just as dead inside.  Ever since that day, she’d fought with all her will to keep that from happening.

But that had also been the first day she’d heard Traitor’s voice.  She walked past the rack of old swords, looking up and down many of them, wondering if another of them held a hidden secret, waiting to come to life when touched by the right hands.  She closed her eyes, and the scene returned to her.  She saw the long white robes she wore, naked underneath, watched by Kadax as the older acolyte had ordered her and the boy she faced to choose one of the swords.  She’d been drawn to one in particular, a forgotten bastard sword with the hilt-wrappings coming unraveled.  There was enough room for both her hands on its hilt, and as she unsheathed it for a better look, the sword had begun to speak to her.  It was like a whisper, seeming to come from behind her, but she knew its source when she heard it, and gazed along the edge of the blade.

Hello, Tsaria.  My name is Traitor.  I’ve been waiting for you.

The fight had been a blur.  The boy she’d been paired with was the only one of the acolytes who had ever shown her kindness- he’d shared food with her when an older student had knocked hers from her hands.  For that one act of friendship, Kadax had paired the two, to make sure that one died and the other learned their lesson.  He had been as untrained as she had, but Traitor had relaxed her hands and arms, and although the sword appeared far too big for her small body, it guided her movements and attacks.  Traitor had seen many of these battles, and been chosen for its share of them- it knew that it’d give away the secret if he made it too easy.  The boy nicked her arm and leg before losing his own sword to a spiraling parry that Tsaria would later spend months learning to perform on her own.  The next swing of Traitor’s blade came close to the boy’s chest, and he stumbled backward into the stone wall that ensured he would not escape her.  She stood before him, blade pointed at his heart, her mind racing.  She had to do it, or they’d kill the both of them.  He knew it, and showed her this when he whispered;

“Don’t let them break you.”  It was his eyes that she remembered most – pale blue, reflecting the crimson torchlight, filled with a mixture of compassion and courage.  He’d felt sorry for her more than himself, because he’d found a way to end his own suffering.

And then, Traitor spoke again.

I cannot kill him.  You must strike the blow yourself.

She returned to the present when Kadax approached her, the younger acolytes parting before him as if he would strike them for looking at him. He held a wide roll of parchment in one hand, a sheathed sword in the other.  He was a head taller than her, his grey skin darkening with his age.  He’d tied back his long, white hair, and it stood out sharply against the black and gold armor.  His short beard twisted as he smiled and spoke.  “And here we are again.  Another cycle is complete.”  He looked over the old swords, and then back to the sword at her side.  “You later stole the sword you used here, if I remember.”

She nodded, her face impassive.  She’d gotten away with that bit of petty theft many years ago, and no one had really noticed.  Now that it was so far bygone, the act had earned her a kind of respect from the instructors- not only had she pulled off a theft from the training hall, under everyone’s noses, but she’d chosen a battered old blade and refurbished it to look and perform better than any of the blades offered her by the armory.  The blades that sat on that rack were the old, chipped, and forgotten blades no one really wanted anyway.

She’d learned over the years not to let her hatred for Kadax to show.  Somehow, he saw it when he looked closely- and lately he had been looking closer, much more often.  She drew Traitor from his sheath, turned it over and laid it across her arm for him to see.  The weapon was in far better shape now; blade sharpened and polished, hilt wrappings carefully replaced, and a new sheath belted at her waist.  She’d taken excellent care of it.  He smiled, and nodded.  “Not all of the swords here would turn out that nicely.  It would stand beside any that we’d crafted here.  You chose well.”

“Sometimes I wonder if the sword chose me,” she replied, truthfully.

He laughed.  “Call out the acolytes.”  He handed the parchment to her, and turned to cross the arena to his place.

The stone floor stepped down at the arena, only a step.  One side of the arena was blocked by a stone wall, otherwise the arena was open to the rest of the hall.  The stones in the floor were just like everything else here- cut perfectly to interlock, the builders demanding perfection from every block they carved.  Cold, unyielding, and merciless.  The single step down had great meaning- while life held little meaning throughout the training hall and throughout the entire mountain, it had no value here to anyone.

Tsaria turned around to the small crowd of acolytes.  Some were trying to warm up or stretch their muscles, some just sat on the floor, waiting, and some of them stared at her.

“Acolytes,” she shouted, her voice filling the hall.  “Take your places beside this arena.”

Moving quickly enough to make sure they didn’t anger their instructors, but as slowly as they could to prolong the unstoppable truth, the children took places all around the arena.  On a small, raised dais at one corner, Tsaria stepped up to look down at them.  Across the other corner, Kadax stood to observe.  Around the outside, many of the other acolytes, of all ages and ranks, gathered to watch.  This was certainly not the toughest challenge anyone faced in this place, and not the most brutal, but it was one of the most frightening trials and certainly the most desperate.  These children had learned some unarmed fighting skills, and had been following the grueling physical training demanded of everyone in the mountain.  But there was no weapons training before this point.  They didn’t know anything about how to use a sword properly, not even how heavy the swords would be.  All they knew was that at the end of this trial, half of them would be dead.  They looked at each other, wondering who they’d have to face, and dreading the answers.

They were 12 years old.  Each of them wore the white robes reserved for this test, bare footed and bare headed.  54 of them this time.  23 human, 31 elves. Even numbers male and female, Tsaria noticed.  In this place, and especially this trial, race and gender meant little.  The dark elves were usually more agile, the humans usually stronger and almost always larger- but it was the will to take life to preserve your own that mattered here, and little else.  This trial was held every month, and was as much a test of the elder acolyte acting as executor.  Each of the senior students had to pass this test before they earned their next rank.  Although it was physically easier, standing in the corner, wearing armor and carrying a sword at your side, it was the mental and emotional test that hit the senior students.  Sometimes they needed only watch the children kill each other.  Most of the time, they weren’t that lucky.

Children, Tsaria thought again.  How can anyone do this to children?

Traitor answered her.  Most of them volunteer.  Many are menial slaves before they come here, hoping they can better themselves. Some come by force, obviously, but they are few.  And all of them dream of power, and they believe that fear and hatred are the path to that power.

If they’d seen what I had seen before coming here, they’d make different choices, she replied.  They’ve been misled.  And now they’re trapped here, just as I am.

Kadax spoke, and the hall quieted to listen.

“Acolytes, behold your first day of weapons training.  This is the next step in your evolution.  Those of you who conquer your fears and weakness, your mercy and pity, will prove yourselves worthy to continue the path to becoming Shadowknights.  Here you rely on nothing but yourself.  Show us which of you are worthy.  Executor, call the first pair.”

Tsaria willed her hands to stop shaking, unrolled the parchment, and looked at the acolytes ringing the arena.

“Grathin.  Elyna.”  She pointed to the old weapons.  “Pick up the blades and begin.”

The two of them stepped down onto the arena floor.  Grathin, a human boy, tall for his age with dark hair and dark eyes, chose the closest broadsword to him, unsheathed it, then watched as Elyna approached the far side of the rack of weapons.  Her pale elven skin shone, and her violet eyes locked onto Grathin.  Slowly, she drew a slender sheath from the rack, then darted forward swinging the blade upward toward Grathin’s chest.  He stepped out of the way, just in time.

Tsaria locked her eyes onto Kadax.  He looked at the fighters, cold and impassive, detached, as if mildly interested in which one of them would live.  It didn’t take long- these fights rarely did- and Elyna was crumpled on the stone floor with Grathin standing over her.  He paused only for a moment to realize what he’d done, then raised his blade again, to finish the fight.  It swung down, clumsily but effectively, and the fight was over.

He cleaned his blade on her robes, then replaced it on the rack.  When he stepped out of the arena, another senior student lowered a black steel mantle over his head and onto his shoulders.  It bore the red, seven pointed star over his chest, the mark of a victor and survivor of the first deadly test.  He returned to his place on the edge of the arena.  Two younger acolytes, dressed in grey tunics and black pants, picked up Elyna’s body, and took it aside to make way for the next fight.  A third cleaned the sword she’d chosen, and set it back into its place.

“Lucky enough so far, Tsaria,” a waspish voice said from behind her.  She turned, and saw Jersan standing behind her, wearing his armor and sword.  On his shoulder were the chains marking an executor- it would be his turn after she had overseen the first 6 fights.

“Still can’t accept that I stood here before you did,” she said, curtly, then turned away from him.  Kadax was watching, but showing no signs of impatience, at least not yet.  He preferred the acolytes handle rivalries directly, and this one he’d watched grow for almost 4 years.

“We both know you won’t be able to do it, Tsaria.” He grinned evilly.  “And when you fail, I’ll be the one to end you.”

“Jersan, you’ll get your chance up here soon enough.” She smiled back, coldly.  “It’ll be just what you always wanted- killing a child with no training.  An even match at last.”

His face colored, and his jaw clenched, but he merely turned away.  She held her smile for a moment, then turned back to the arena.  Humans were so easy to read, especially him.  It was generally agreed that Jersan’s test in this arena had gone to pure luck.  He’d been able to best other acolytes since, obviously- you don’t last long if you make a habit of losing even the training matches they fought with blunted weapons- but almost everyone who had fallen under his blade had been bested by trickery, not strength or skill.

On the matches went, one at a time.  Two girls who had been close since they’d arrived were pitted against each other, a human and elf.  These two fought viciously, as if their intense friendship had turned to a more intense hatred.  When the human girl had fallen, the elf fell to her knees, shaking.  There was no need for a finishing strike.  The elf girl touched her dead friend’s hair, whispered something to her, then cleaned her blade and returned it.  When she stepped out of the arena, the mantle was placed on her shoulders, but once Jersan had let go of it, he swung a gauntlet-covered hand across her face, knocking her to the ground.

Kadax shouted down at her.  “This is not a place for mercy or forgiveness!  Show your weakness here, and these others will destroy you for it!”

Tsaria fought hard to keep her feelings in check, but she was certain Kadax saw it when he looked across at her.  Companionship had been what had held some of these children together for the past two years, and now it was being used against them.  The elf girl rose, ignoring the bruised side of her face, and hardened her stare on the arena in front of her.

The last fight Tsaria called out was the one that nearly broke her.  Two elves, a boy and girl,  stepped out into the arena together.  Tsaria knew them in passing; she’d run their group through some of their physical training in the past year.  Brother and sister, and of course Kadax had paired them against each other.  Tsaria had heard them talking in whispers, both knowing this would happen, and both planning for how they would deal with this morning.  If she guessed right, they would make a good show of a real fight, and then one of them would let the other finish them off.  She had even guessed at which one it would be; the sister, Laixya, had shown a kind of grim determination in her practices and exercise over the past few weeks.  Meanwhile Lorian had seemed detached from his lessons, and distant.

Their scarlet eyes flashed at each other as they chose their swords.  They said nothing to each other, merely raised the blades and stepped closer.  Laixya swung her blade first, clumsily- it was far too big for her.  Lorian dodged aside, swung his own blade back, and missed widely.  Back and forth they went for almost two minutes, by far the longest fight of the morning.  Kadax shook his head and shouted, “I’ll come down there and kill you both myself!  On with it!”

Lorian swung hard, and over-extended himself, and Laixya tried to block his attack, but her blade angled too high and as Lorian stepped forward, her blade caught him across his throat.  He fell backward, coughing, and Laixya wailed.  Her sword fell to the ground.

Tsaria’s fear was confirmed; Laixya had been ready to sacrifice her life to let her brother live, but she couldn’t bear to hurt him.  Now he was dying, and she fell to her knees, knowing she’d won the fight but unable to finish it.  She pressed her hands over her ears, sobbing, shaking her head.

Tsaria knew that her official warning wouldn’t be heard.  She looked at Kadax, and he nodded back at her.  He knew it too, and so did everyone else.  Some of the younger acolytes watching looked on in horror.  The senior students were cold, hard… even if this was the worst match they’d seen, they couldn’t show it.  Jersan’s eyebrows rose, as he realized what was happening.  In amusement, his gaze fell on Tsaria, for it was her place to correct this error.

If Laixya was this weak, she shouldn’t have lasted this long, and she certainly wasn’t worthy of being a Shadowknight.  This match was mere proof of the fact.  Tsaria stepped down into the arena, and drew Traitor from his sheath.

“I’ll need your help for this,” she whispered to the sword.

I can’t kill for you, Tsaria, Traitor replied.  You know this.  You can’t show weakness now.

Laixya looked up at her, locked eyes with her.  For a moment, Tsaria found her eyes pleading with the child to finish the fight, a foolish hope that she could avoid slaying a child for refusing to kill her brother.  The girl’s eyes cleared as Traitor’s point neared her throat.  Tsaria took a step closer, holding the point in place, her left arm tense and ready to strike.

“It was supposed to be him,” Laixya whispered.  “He would be strong enough to be Shadowknight.”  She put her hands on either side of the blade, gripping it tightly.  “I wouldn’t have been strong enough to make it, but he would have.  I am only strong enough for this.”

She pulled the blade forward, tilting her head back.  The wound was mortal, but not instantly.  Tsaria pulled the sword away from her hands, then reacting on instict as much as anything else, lifted the blade over her head and brought it straight down, slashing the girl across the collar and upper chest.  Laixya slumped to the ground at her feet.

Tsaria had to work hard to act cold, unaffected, by what had just happened.  She knelt, wiped clean her sword on the acolyte’s robes, stood, and sheathed her weapon.  She stepped out of the arena, and the younger acolytes still waiting their turns made way for her.

“Tsaria,” Kadax called to her.  She turned, and strode back to him, still acting, faking, as if she wasn’t really in her body.  Her motions were automatic.  He stepped off his dais, and put his hand on her shoulder.  His expression was a new one, and she couldn’t read it.  She stayed silent, waiting for him to speak.

“My last question about you has been answered.”  He nodded, slowly.  “I knew you had the gift, the killing touch… but your heart was another matter.  I wasn’t sure you’d be able to do this.  Now, we all know.”

She locked eyes with him, and after a moment, she said, “I will be the one to kill you, Kadax.”

He smiled as she said this.  She had told him this 3 times before, and he seemed to take pride hearing her voice what so many of his acolytes kept silent.

“I know this,” he said.  “I had told my own lord that he would die upon my sword, and one day I kept my word.  I’ve no doubt you, or one of them,” he tilted his head to indicate the crowd of acolytes filling the room, “will take my place the same way.  But for now,” he chuckled, “you have more immediate things to deal with.  We’ll both know when the time comes.”

He raised his voice, and declared, “Tsaria has earned the rank of Justicar.  Jersan, step forward.”

Tsaria turned, and took a step toward Jersan.  She cuffed him hard in the chest with the hand that held the scroll, her gauntlet thudding into his cuirass.  He caught her fist and took the scroll as she released it.  His eyes locked onto hers, and he smiled slyly at her.  His single grunting laugh was barely loud enough to be heard, but carried plenty of meaning.

*****

It was three days later, in the evening, after their afternoon weapons instruction of the 3rd-rank acolytes.  It had taken longer than Tsaria expected.  And in the dining hall, no less.  She had just sat, with her meal in front of her, when she felt Traitor’s warning.  It didn’t speak – it didn’t have to, really.  She just felt its awareness reach out around them, touching the tables, the chairs, the benches, and the other acolytes and justicars eating and speaking in low voices.  She closed her eyes, and the weapon’s strange sort of vision flooded her senses.  Five of them, moving to form a semicircle behind her.  Not making any noise just yet, but not trying especially hard to be quiet either.  Traitor couldn’t make out their faces for her, but she didn’t need it to – she knew the one in the middle was Jersen.

“Still haven’t learned how to fight without creeping up behind people, have you?” she said, loudly.  Several acolytes at nearby tables stood, collected their meals, and moved out of the way.  “I’ve said many times you were a coward, and you continue to prove me right.”

“You’re the coward, Tsaria.” Jersen replied, loudly enough for his voice to carry across the dining hall.  “We all saw it in your eyes.  You wouldn’t have been able to finish that girl if she hadn’t started the job for you.”

Tsaria stood, turned around, and pushed her chair back under the table.  “You chose meal-time for this, didn’t you?  You wanted to embarass me here, in front of as many people as you could…” she glanced at the others flanking her.  “But you still had to bring 4 friends to make sure the odds are in your favor.”

“This isn’t meant to be a fair fight, weakling,” he spat.  “You are unworthy of this order, and I won’t let you weaken us any longer.”

Jersen drew a long knife, and stepped close, trying to thrust at her before she could draw her sword.  His tactic was sound – any warrior would try to draw their own weapon, but his speed and smaller blade gave him an advantage.  To his surprise, she didn’t even try.  Instead, she caught his knife arm, twisted it behind him, then tripped and pushed him simultaneously.  He fell forward, over the table she’d been eating at.  One of the others tried to grab her, but she could tell by the girl’s grip she was far behind Tsaria in training.  With a twisting motion she caught the girl’s arm, dislocated it at the shoulder, then shoved her aside.  When she looked at the remaining 3, they hadn’t moved in on her yet.  They were all at least 2 years younger than her, and had all just decided that they’d made a very grave mistake.

Jersen stood back up, and was looking for his knife.  Tsaria called to him, laughing in spite of the anger, “So you’re recruiting the younger children to back you up against me?  Was it that the others knew better than to listen to you?  Or did they all know you’d get yourself killed in this feeble attempt on me?”

When she drew Traitor, his face went white.  He stepped back away from her, but found himself against the wall.

“You see, Jersen?” she said, drawing closer to him.  “You really are a coward.  When the time comes for a stand-up fight, your first instinct is to run.”

His right hand moved to draw his sword, but his left came forward.  She felt the energy of his spell focus on her, and concentrated hard on redirecting it, absorbing it, just as Karialis had taught her.  Again, Jersen’s lack of practice betrayed him, and without even raising her sword, Tsaria had halted his second attack.

“Better,” she growled at him.  “At least you’re really trying this time.”

He scowled, then swung his sword in a wide arc, bringing the point in line with her bare head.  She was aware suddenly that even with the blunted swords they practiced with, she was used to having her helmet.  Even with most of the rest of her armor, she felt suddenly vulnerable.

She whispered to herself, “I can deal with this, Traitor.”

Of that I’ve no doubt, girl.

Jersen thrusted straight at her heart, but Tsaria knocked his blade away easily.  She still let her sword hang down at her side, daring him to keep trying.  He swung again, and she leaned to the side and let his attack blow past her.  His third strike came from below, a diagonal sweep meant to hit her in the side.  But Traitor met it, halting it in mid-air, and Tsaria stepped forward and pushed her armored elbow hard into Jersen’s jaw.  When she turned again, squared with him as he stumbled backward, she thrust the point of her sword through his cuirass and into his shoulder, pinning him to the wall behind him.  He cried out in pain and anger, then gritted his teeth and hissed short, shallow breaths between them.

She drew very close to him, and though she wasn’t quite his height, their eyes locked.  Her orange eyes had turned almost to fiery red.  She whispered again, just loud enough for him to hear;

“Traitor… drink him dry.

The blade answered her with the strangest sound- anticipation, amusement, and the strangest sort of relaxed sigh.  The blade began to take on a scarlet tinge, metallic, but undoubtedly slowly spreading from the wound to the hilt of the sword.  Even through her gloves, it took on an alien warmth.

Jersen’s eyes darted from her face to the sword and back in confused panic- the blade couldn’t possibly be doing what it was doing!  But there was no denying what his body was telling him; all his strength was flowing away, being drawn upward and outward through the wound.  Tsaria was vaguely aware of the other acolytes watching them, and silently mimicked the muttering sounds they practiced in their spellcraft lessons.  Most of the other acolytes here were younger than her, and would think this was something advanced, that they could learn later.  In truth, some of the senior students had been gifted enough to successfully steal life-energy from opponents, taking an enemy’s strength to heal and strengthen themselves.  But not like this… It took almost a full minute before Traitor was satiated.  Jersan’s skin was blue-white, his eyes glazed, and when Tsaria pulled the blade out to release him, he fell to the ground like a dropped marionette.

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