“Stay away,” I tell the man in the purple cloak. I adopt my Thrush Knocks stance.
He rips his own blade from his scabbard, all confidence and straight-backed pride. The Swarm hang back, waiting. He grins, baring his teeth. “Or what?”
Clarissant spits another quarrel at him, and I can see him seized on the force of her crossbow and propel it back into her face. She collapses, blood gushing from her nose.
Anthea scrapes Clarissant’s name from her throat and throws herself to her side.
“Alright,” I say. “That’s cool. Keep her safe. I’ll just…shit.” When I turn back his sword is on a path for my skull. My head is still buzzing, but I through the din I can tell he’s performing a Breaking Firewood Maneuver. He’s quick—no flourishes or hesitation. The maneuver’s been honed to a needle’s point.
(Just like Toric taught me.)
I’m less graceful, simply putting a steel bar sideways between Breaking Firewood and my skull. I try to execute a one hundred and eighty degree tear my hilt diagonal toward my left hip. It’s a clumsy Heave-Ho execution that this dude steps back to avoid. I try to angle my sword far enough to catch him, but he slips outside my reach. He smiles, laughs. Twirls his blade as we circle the ice outside the other’s reach. He chuckles, and says, “I expected more from you, Peter. Come on. The blood is rushing and the steel’s ringing. Let’s go, shall we?”
He presses forward, slashing on both sides in a figure eight as I back away. As he gains momentum I pull out of the my downguard and throw the point of my blade into his path.
His lips tighten into an o as he realizes what’s happening and shoved my blade aside, sheering his own steel down the length of my own. I realize something then, with my sword angled awkwardly and my hands almost too-far twisted: even as he fights, this guy has been sapping up the most minute of ambient energies we’ve been generating. He’s mopped up every footstep and blade-crash and tightened grip.
And as he raises his boot parellel to my chest and I see the snarl forming on his face, I realize that this dude is hardly older than I am! Eighteen—nineteen, maybe? Even when I was nineteen the last time around—I’d spent seven years here and that point and I had nowhere near the level of skill and precision it would take to sap up minute energies like that while locked in combat.
Though I suppose I hardly gave him so much of a challenge that he would need to break the kind of concentration he’d need to pull all that ambient into himself.
I realize all of this in the space it takes to think: oh.
And then his boot has collided with my chest and all the ambient he’s been storing up hits me with it. It should have broken my ribs.
It should have.
Anthea has Clarissant on her feet. The blood on her face has crusted over but her nose looks fine. Which I don’t even have time to think about because I realize that Anthea has buffeted wind in between this dude’s foot and my chest, which cushioned his blow. Even if it did send me skimming up to the shoreline with Anthea and Clarissant.
She locks eyes with this guy. He tilts his head and says her name. “Anthea?”
A trickle of blood drools down her nose, and this man’s smile vanishes. “What are you doing?” He looks up at the sky as the clouds part and the air thickens, heat waves pouring down. “Stop. No!”
One moment the bog is ice-over. The next the snow and ice has melted and the man is simply consumed by the swamp.
The Swarm watch us from the other side, not moving.
“Come on,” Clarissant helps me to my feet. “We have to go. Now.”
White hot, all-over pain sears me, as my body adjusts from freezing cold to thick, soupy heat. And even though I can hardly bend my fingers as I adjust, and even though my ears are still ringing and the back of my head is still buzzing with an absence of ambient, I retain enough presence of mind when Clarissant says, “Wet your cloaks. Quickly.”
So I throw mine into the melted swamp, and drag it, drenched, out and around me. I’m still shivering as I drape it over my shoulders.
The snow doesn’t melt. How do I describe it? It…crisps? I suppose? It dries to sand as the land changes. But as the heat blazes on as we tear through the sandy waste, I grow to appreciate it.
“Who was that?” I ask Anthea and Clarissant, when we’re far enough away to slow down for a walk.
“That,” Clarissant murmurs, “Was Lord Ath.”