Traitor’s Hilt – Prelude

Tsaria paused on the edge for just a moment. The rough stone floor was cold, chilling her feet through thin soles of her black leather boots.  There were fewer torches lit today – only three. The remaining torches hung in their sconces on the walls, dark and neglected.  The grey, broken stones of the walls reflected the torchlight, looking the color of blood.  The stone floor stepped down only two inches in the center.  The ceiling was always hard to see – high and dark, it soaked in all the light that reached it, returning none to the eyes of the students beneath.

There were thirty-two of them today – roughly half of the students of their age group. They were arrayed around the perimeter of the smallest of the training halls.  Each wore the almost-black arming clothes that would secure their armor plates to their bodies, covering them from ankles to wrists to neck in coarse, padded cloth.  Each face was different. Almost every race on the continent was represented here – even a few of the High Elves from Pradjial had made their way here. The majority were Dark Elves and Humans.  They were more or less evenly matched between the sexes.  While every face was different, and Tsaria could name each of them, their expressions were identical.  Cold and impassive as statues. Each of them were hardened to death and murder by now. Each was unwilling to show a drop of emotion as the two students at opposite corners of the practice floor stared at each other.  The instructor in the room, the only figure wearing full armor, stood at a third corner. The mirror-polished black steel plates formed a rigid exoskeleton over nearly her entire body, and even at the corner of the arena, her outline was difficult to see. Her plate-covered arms were crossed over her cuirass, her grey and violet eyes turning back and forth between the two students about to start their morning sparring practice.  Gretalth’s impatience was growing, but she wouldn’t show it just yet. Soon, though, if the students didn’t begin to move.

The stone floor stepped down only two inches. But in taking that step, Tsaria knew she was forfeiting her right to continue breathing. The weapons practices that would take place here could turn lethal in an instant, and often enough had. And if she refused to enter – if she even appeared to hesitate – the instructor would execute her in a heartbeat.

Her training opponent stepped down into the practice arena, grasping the spear in both hands and leveling the spiked point on her chest.  His deep amber skin and greenish-blond hair marked him as an elf of the woods. Among their peaceful, gentle society, it was rare for any child to grow up showing the physical endurance and brutal, twisted mentality that would lead them to a place like Shadow Mountain. His eyes bore the quiet malice she saw in most of the students she trained with. Tsaria had sparred with him dozens of times, and his sword technique was weaker than hers. But today they were using spears, and Laitran was certain to be looking for payback.  This was his strong point.

She lowered the spear point, still holding it in one hand.  She stepped down into the arena.  She took a deep breath, remembering many pieces of advice at once.  But the advice from the familiar whisper stuck out in her mind; If you survive, you’ve won.

Gretalth noted the deep breath.  “I warned you once, Tsaria, you rely too heavily upon your skill with a sword. If you’re ever caught without one, you’re done for.”

Tsaria turned her head, meeting her instructor’s eyes to silently acknowledge the criticism.  Then she returned her eyes to Laitran.  She took some courage in the wording of her instructions – defeating him using only the spear was not the point of this exercise.  She did have a few surprises left.

Tsaria took two more steps forward, wrapped the fingers of her left hand around the wooden shaft of the spear, and raised the point to tap the side of Laitran’s spear-point. With that signal of readiness, the match had begun.

Laitran didn’t waste a breath. He slid forward, almost gliding across the stones, swinging the spear point’s edge at a sharp angle, as if he was trying to scratch out her left eye. Tsaria merely tilted her head sideward to avoid it. The back end of his spear shaft swung upward, toward her head from the other side, and she blocked it with her own just in time. But by lifting her spear, she’d left herself open, and Laitran planted a solid kick into her side. The breath went out of her lungs for a moment, and she moved backward to give herself time to recover.

He pressed his advantage, his spear point leading. He held the shaft high, but angled downward.  By the time Tsaria could breathe properly, he was stabbing downward toward her midsection. She used her own spear to deflect his attack, but he recovered and struck again, nearly catching her throat.  She twisted sideward, allowing his spear to pass between her face and her own weapon.

Enough of this, she thought.  Her eyes narrowed.  She stepped closer to him, at the same time trapping the shaft of Laitran’s spear in her right elbow. The two were now close enough to kick each other.  She let go of her spear with her left hand, drawing it back to her waist.  She saw his leading foot come off the ground, and moved closer again to keep him from landing a kick.  The mental commands to channel a magical strike took shape in her mind, and by the time she whispered the vocal trigger her left hand had already begun to glow bluish-white.

Laitran realized his mistake in letting her so close. He tried to retreat, but his spear was still pinned.  To pull it free would be easy, but would require both hands.  He tugged once, slipping the spear loose, but leaving himself defenseless against her own attack.

Tsaria needed only touch his shoulder. The magical energy shock that passed between them lit up the entire room for a split second, the CRACK! echoing off the stone walls. Laitran fell backward, stumbling once but then landing heavily on his side.  His spear clattered to the ground. Tsaria nearly lost her own, but redoubled her grip, moving forward and holding her spear point just over Laitran’s clavicle.

It took a few moments for Laitran to take in what had happened. His eyes refocused, moving up the shaft of her spear to meet her gaze.  The anger and frustration burned behind them, but he knew he had lost. He’d been robbed of his chance at revenge, his opportunity to embarrass her after all her victories with blades, and he fully intended to find or create another chance. But not this time.

“I yield,” he hissed. The match was over.

Gretalth crossed the floor in four long strides.  Her right hand swung in an arc, backhanding Tsaria across the cheek. She twisted with the blow, but recovered to look her instructor in the eyes.

“Was there any mention in your instructions of combat magic?” Gretalth shouted. “You were told to defeat him using the spear!”

“Pardon me for saying so, instructor,” Tsaria said, quietly.  She wiped the trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth.  “I was given a spear and instructed to defeat him.”

For a long moment, the two stared at each other. Gretalth’s eyes were a combination of disappointment and anger – she’d wanted Tsaria to lose. But for just a moment, Tsaria saw what could be nothing but discomfort… or fear. It wasn’t until Gretalth turned away, barked a command at the next pair to fight, and returned to her corner of the arena, before Tsaria understood what she’d seen.

Gretalth was one of the instructors who discouraged combat magic during lessons. The students had guessed that it was because her own gift for combat magic was not as strong as the other instructors and warriors. Tsaria had used a few spells in front of her before, but nothing like what she’d used on Laitran.

She’d scared her instructor. And for a young Shadowknight, that could be a very dangerous thing.

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