Tide of Darkness: Chapter 13
There was a roar of approval from the crowd.
"Well, good sir, then it would appear we have a challenge! Step forward!" The creature had a nasty smile on its face, as if it had just gotten the better of him.
The dusky-skinned man only gave him a bored and contemptuous look.
Slowly Gwydion removed his cloak, pulling it over his head and laying it across the back of the chair he had been sitting at. Brianna was saying something, low, her voice urgent, some warning or plea not to go through with this, but he wasn't listening. He had some trouble getting the cloak off, catching the hilt of tylith-senshai in some of the cloth; it was an intentional manuever. He would be watching him now, watching to see how Gwydion moved, how he reacted. Already tired from the earlier battle, it was Gwydion's one advantage - that he had seen a display of the other man's fighting ability. And that the other man, this Master Bleys, knew nothing of Gwydion's own prowess.
The people - and other beings - from the other platforms were shouting out catcalls, words of encouragement, and insults, sometimes speaking in different languages. Gwydion blocked them out. His eyes locked with the dusky-skinned man below.
He crossed three bridges and two other platforms on his way down. He went in an unhurried walk. The last bridge which lead to the square 'battle' platform creaked and groaned like a living thing behind him once he stepped onto the platform. He glanced back to see that the chains which held it were moving, lifting it away so that the platform was surrounded on all sides by open air and the drop into darkness.
"What are the rules?" he asked, coming to a halt. The dusky-skinned man stood calmly on the other side of the square, the grey-skinned creature between them. "First blood?"
"First blood indeed," said the creature with a grim smile. Its wings began to flap, grating like stone on stone as they slowly moved. "But only if you have something valuable to wager."
"Yes, cutter. You don't get something for nothing, not in the Broken Trust, no indeed. What have you to wager?"
Gwydion shook his head. He had only a few coins in his pocket. "Nothing," he said.
"Nothing indeed?" asked the creature. Its wings were beating faster, and with a lurch, it left the platform, though it seemed impossible that wings so heavy could ever lift it from the floor. "And what of these fine beings, your companions?" It gave a grand gesture towards the table where Tap and Brianna sat. "Wager their freedom against the prize, and it will be to first blood."
Gwydion shook his head. "No chance."
"Then you must stake your life. Nothing less will suffice, good warrior."
Gwydion glanced at the girl in the cage. She looked at him with a mixture of wonder, suspicion, hope, and anxiety. "Acceptable."
"First blood or not," said the dusky-skinned man, speaking for the first time, "It makes little difference. My first cut will be your last breath."
Gwydion stared at him. "We'll see," he said, reaching back for the hilt of tylith-senshai. He had some difficulty unsheathing the great sword from where it was strapped to his back. "When does it begin?"
The dusky man made no move to unsheathe his weapon. He watched Gwydion with something like amusement. "Already has, cutter," he said. "You really planning on using that blade? Something that big will slow you down."
Gwydion settled into an easy stance, sword up, muscles relaxed, ready. His instructors had called it the 'ready position', an excellent posture for defensive movement. He said nothing.
The cipher stood with his arms crossed, watching Gwydion critically. "You may be wondering why I haven't drawn my weapon, yes?"
Gwydion didn't answer, just waited. From around the platform the calls and shouts still came, but they didn't exist for him now. Not the crowd, not Brianna and Tap, not the grey winged creature which had flown away, not even the girl in the cage that dangled overhead. The only thing that existed was the dusky-skinned man and the platform.
"I don't bare steel unless I have to," said the man. "It's a waste of energy. I look at a hopeless basher like you and I see how weak you are, how untrained. It is written in every line of your body, in the way you move, in the way you stand. I don't need a sword to take a half-prime clueless like you."
Gwydion still said nothing. The man advanced a half step forward, stepping almost casually, his eyes never wavering from Gwydion's own. "As for the child and the tiefling girl you came with, I will enslave the one and rape the other after you are dead. Spoils. You don't mind that, do you?"
Gwydion still said nothing, only waiting calmly, ready. The man was trying to anger him, but Gwydion never fought in anger. He had learned that lesson years ago, had had it drilled into him by weaponsmasters and opponents.
The man smiled. He spread his arms. "Tell you what, just to make it fair, how about I close my eyes and let you have the first strike, eh?"
Gwydion said nothing.
The man closed his eyes and waited.
Gwydion held his place, calm.
The man waited for several moments. The crowd was yelling insults and encouragement at Gwydion.
Eventually the man's eyes opened. "You truly are a fool, cutter. I really would have given you a chance."
Gwydion said nothing.
The man took a slow step forward, deliberately putting himself within reach of Gwydion's blade.
Gwydion held steady.
The man's slight but confident smile faded. "What are you playing at?"
He must have meant the question only as a distraction, for he struck almost before he finished it. He took a quick step forward, inside the range of Gwydion's weapon and his hand lashed out in a lightning knife-hand attack to Gwydion's throat, perfectly aimed and timed. His form was flawless, the strike lethal... but Gwydion was prepared.
When the dusky-skinned man lunged, Gwydion leaned slightly to the left, spinning his sword and blocking the strike with his right forearm without loosing his hold on the weapon, trapping the man's striking arm between his wrist and the hilt of the blade, spinning and shifting on his heel, using the man's momentum against him.
The dusky man came off his feet easily - too easily. Building on the momentum Gwydion had given him, he rolled over Gwydion's back, his free elbow striking down on the base of Gwydion's neck.
Gwydion felt the man's muscles move as he shifted in midair, and jerked to the side in reaction, escaping a lethal blow as the man's elbow brushed by his ear.
The man was over him in an instant, landing catlike on his feet behind Gwydion. Or nearly.
Gwydion lashed out in a kick that caught the man in the chest just as the soles of his feet contacted the platform. The dusky man tried to shift to the side, but since he was still in midair he had little leverage to avoid the blow. It caught him in the right shoulder instead of the abdomen, and it wasn't straight on, but even glancing there was enough force behind the blow to send the man flying backwards a few paces.
He did a backflip in midair, going with the momentum of the blow and coming down lightly on his feet... except that the movement sent him beyond the boundaries of the platform, into open space as Gwydion had intended.
In midair he caught the chain holding the corner up, and swung around the far side of it.
As he came back around, Gwydion swung tylith-senshai, a blow aimed at the man's torso.
In an incredible display of strength and control, the man lifted his body over the blade as it passed, turning the manuever into a kick aimed at Gwydion's face.
Gwydion's swing sent the blade of tylith-senshai straight into the supporting chain. The edge of the blade met the metal chain and swept through it as if it were cheese. With a snap the chain parted, and the platform lurched and dropped a few inches in that corner, shuddering.
In spite of being slightly off-balance due to the sudden unsteadiness of his footing, Gwydion evaded the main force of the man's kick, but the heel did clip the side of his jaw hard enough to rattle his teeth.
For his own part, the dusky man continued through with the motion of his kick, landing on his feet and stumbling, just slightly, at the shuddering of the platform. He took three quick paces away from Gwydion, always facing him, and his sword came out.
The two faced each other for a frozen moment, neither moving.
The dusky man nodded at him. "I take back what I said about your blade. Enchanted, yes? Very nice. I may keep it when I'm done with you."
"I see you decided to unsheathe your blade."
The man smiled. He was warier now, Gwydion saw with a sinking heart. Fatigued as he was, he had hoped to take the man by surprise and send him over the side in the first exchange. The longer this battle lasted, the more tired he would become. And he could not afford to be slow, not against a swordsman as superb as this man. Time was on the dusky man's side.
"You're bleeding," he said, nodding toward Gwydion. "First blood goes to me."
Gwydion felt the iron tang of blood on his tongue. A tiny trickle of blood was visible at the corner of his mouth. "Too bad the contest isn't to first blood," he said.
"First or last, the blood will be yours."
And that quickly, the contest was joined again.
The dusky man feinted low and struck high, then to the side, then a sent a flurry of blows raining down on Gwydion from all directions.
Gwydion parried smoothly, again and again and again, but was forced backwards step by step. Wait for it, he thought, forcing himself not to take advantage of an apparent opening in the dusky man's attack, knowing it was an attempt to lure him into a counterattack.
There would be a moment, there always was in every fight, a moment when the time to strike presented itself. It was the moment, the deciding moment, and Gwydion would know when it came. Not yet, not yet, he thought, parrying and blocking and evading, and moving backward steadily. Wait for it, wait for it.
The dusky man would also know when the moment came, he was too well-trained not to. But he was on the attack, trying to force an opening in Gwydion's defenses, and that meant the man was still underestimating him. And that meant that Gwydion still had a chance.
But Gwydion was still giving ground steadily before the onslaught. Worse, though he had tried to circle away from the attack, the dusky man had managed to cut off his turn and force him back, herding him ever closer to the corner of the platform which hung down. This meant that not only would Gwydion soon have nowhere to retreat too, but - because the platform was now sloped - that the dusky man controlled the high ground, and Gwydion was forced to fight on uneven ground.
Wait for it, wait for it!
Another sudden opening presented it and again Gwydion fought the urge to attack and try to put the other man on the defensive. He knew the dusky man was baiting him; the openings were only lures. Against a swordsman as proficient as his opponent clearly was it would be playing right into his hands.
So Gwydion gave ground. And gave more ground.
Until there was no ground left to give. Backed to the corner, with nothing behind him but open space, Gwydion parried, and parried, and parried again.
The dusky man aimed an impossibly swift flurry of blows at him which Gwydion was barely able to fend off, then, suddenly, just when it seemed Gwydion's defense must breakdown before the onslaught, the man ceased the attack, taking a half step back.
He grinned fiercely. "You're looking desperate, cutter," he said.
Gwydion didn't answer. He merely waited warily, sword in ready position, using the unexpected break in combat to rest.
"I do like that sword though. You move it like it was a much lighter blade, yet it still gives you a reach advantage, heh? I'm definitely keeping it after I put you in the deadbook."
Gwydion said nothing. Wait for it, wait for it!
"Nice blade. How'd you like to die on it? That'd be a scream, wouldn't it? I use your own blade to kill you."
"Try it," said Gwydion.
The man smiled again, a cruel light in his eyes.
And suddenly he struck, again, again, again.
The blows were fast and furious, and Gwydion was hard-pressed to parry them. Over and over the dusky man's blade darted in, seeking his throat, his heart, his abdomen, his head, his legs. Every stroke perfect in form, devastating in speed. And no openings in the man's attack, no flaws to take advantage of, no-
And suddenly the moment came. Not for Gwydion, but for the other man.
Gwydion's foot slipped out from under him, and he stumbled to one knee. Off-balance, he managed to block a vicious overhand swipe by the other man, but only barely, and the cipher's backswing, which was aimed specifically at the lower part of tylith-senshai's blade, sent a numbing shock through Gwydion's hand.
A lightning quick follow up blow, also to Gwydion's blade, sent tylith-senshai flying from his nerveless fingers.
The man spun, backhanding Gwydion in the face with the back of the hand which held his sword. His free hand snatched tylith-senshai out of mid-air.
His form was perfect. Completing the spin would put him in perfect position to follow through with a sweep that would take off Gwydion's head.
But the moment his palm met the hilt he stumbled, gasping terribly.
It's touch is death to the unworthy! thought Gwydion triumphantly.
The backhanded blow had not been terrible, but Gwydion hadn't seen it coming, and his eyesight was momentarily blurred. He watched as the dusky man halted, facing away from him, and dropped tylith-senshai. He staggered two steps forward and collapsed on his face.
Panting, Gwydion regained his feet. The crowd was silent, uncertain of what exactly had happened.
He took a step forward, then bent to retrieve tylith-senshai. He moved forward until he was standing over the dusky man's body. The room was still silent.
With the toe of his boot Gwydion nudged the man over. His eyes stared sightlessly upward.
Slowly Gwydion raised tylith-senshai. The assembled crowd suddenly roared, shouting and yelling approval.
There was a rapid beating sound, and the winged grey creature appeared again, descending until it it hovered just above and to the right of Gwydion's shoulder. "What's yer name, cutter?" it asked. Its voice was different, much lower, as if the sonorous voice it had used earlier was a magical enhancement.
Gwydion stared at it. "Does it matter?" he asked.
"The crowd will want to know. Don't you wish to bask in the glory you've earned?"
Gwydion shook his head. "There's no glory in this place," he said. "Name me whatever you will."
The creature rose. "I give you the new Champion of Arms, the Nameless One!" it said in that booming voice it had used earlier. "All hail!"
The crowd roared even louder.
Gwydion tapped the little creature on its calf, which was dangling near his ear. "The girl," he said, pointing up at the cage. "Release her."
"The prize!" the creature boomed, giving a grand flourish, and the silver cage was slowly lowered to the platform. The girl within was staring at Gwydion in a mixture of fear and defiance.
"Open it," he said, once it was lowered.
The little grey creature merely pointed, and with a click the door of the cage swung open.
The young woman stepped out, still staring at Gwydion.
"A genuine child of the powers, still virginal, for your pleasure!" cried the grey creature.
He stepped forward, touching the steel collar at her throat. "Take off the collar."
The grey creature shook its head. "Sorry, cutter. Rule of law says all slaves must be collared in Sigil. Trust me, you want it on. This one will run otherwise." While it spoke, it darted forward, snapping a leash to the the ring on the collar. It placed the leash in his hands. "She'll be a handful, cutter. You may wish you had perished on Bleys' sword. But death in her arms would be such a sweet way to go."
The assemblage was still applauding.
Gwydion took the leash. He leaned close to the girl, who jerked back from him as if afraid she might be bitten. "Don't worry," he said, pitching his voice low enough that it didn't carry over the noise of the crowd. "This will come off the first chance I get."
She stared at him as if he were speaking another language.
"All hail the Nameless One!" the grey creature was shouting. "Master of Blades and Claimer of the Prize!"
They still hadn't lowered the bridge which connected the battle platform with the others, so there was little Gwydion could do but stand there as the crowd thundered. He glanced in the direction Tap and Brianna were sitting. Tap was hooting and clapping as eagerly as anyone else, but Brianna returned his glance with a level, flat stare.