A bead of sweat slid along Katriyana’s left eyebrow and slid down her chin. The air, once biting and now warm, brought her scents of fresh blooming wildflowers from the Darsprian Forest’s border. The three women stood within a ten-step diameter, far enough to study each other, yet near enough to be dangerous. No longer obscured by morning mist, the sun beamed from behind the three women and into Kat’s eyes. Being outnumbered was bad enough but the sun’s interference was the true disadvantage.
She blinked while her eyes flitted from one woman to another. The three stood at the ready, watching her, assessing her. Despite intense battle sounds funneling through from the other side of the farmhouses, none of them twitched. Swords clanked against wooden shields. Frantic shouts betrayed her comrades’ inexperience. Perhaps their quantity balanced out their inelegance. Soon however, cries of dismay quickly snuffed that thought and its’ resultant hope out. There would be no help coming.
Overwhelmed by the longsword’s discomfort, Kat adjusted her grip on the clumsy weapon. It felt unbalanced, unlike her own swift daggers. She tossed the sword from hand to hand hoping for a better grip but that only betrayed her discomfort. When she shifted to her left towards the farmhouses, the scabbard flapped loosely around her left thigh. Ripping it off her belt, she flung the cheap casing behind her. She could always procure another one easily if necessity dictated it.
With her left hand barely surrounding the leather grip, the longsword’s tip aimed for the ground. The blonde’s eyebrow quirked upwards in amusement while the scarred woman dropped her defensive stance.
Deciding that she’d already displayed an unfamiliarity with the longsword, Kat brought her right hand up to double-grip it. Better survival odds if she had to fight with the weapon.
Despite her inability to get closer to the symbol, Katriyana knew that focus was the key to the mental hallway. Whenever she kept her eye and mind on the suspended Triliska and headed towards it, it seemed her consciousness expanded above the Material Realm. Her vision penetrated so deeply that she could envision people’s emotions, their motivations a few fractions of a second before their actions.
Was this predictive power? Kat only knew that the mental hallway had saved her life countless times before, and it told her currently that her shuffling misdirection had no effect. Both the tall woman and the scarred woman by the well knew of her intent to negate the disadvantage from the sun.
A few minutes later, the tall blonde warrior relaxed her grip and stretched. “‘Enough of this fahrce,” she said with a dismissive sniff. At that, the short red-head lowered her two half-staves and headed for the barn’s shade. Tristien, the scarred woman, approached the well near the barn, her back to the rest of them and her weapons at her side.
Did those two effectively remove themselves from the equation? Their relaxed postures indicated so. Nonetheless, Kat continued her evasive movements away from the tall woman, determined to erase the solar disadvantage.
However, the scarred woman by the well kept drawing Kat’s attention. Why was she standing facing the well? Granted, she was drawing water and drinking from the ladle in the bucket, but the well was approachable from all sides. Why was the scarred woman blatantly ignoring the ratcheting tension behind her?
Did that woman, Tristien, know that her back was exposed? One flick of a blade-dart and… A gasp burst out of Kat’s lips.
Turning her head so only the Slicer could see, Tristien smirked.
That preckin’ scarface grinned! As if she read Kat’s thoughts. Losing focus for a moment, the Triliska looked a few yards further away.
Satisfied that she was seen, the marked woman shifted her weight slightly and went back to drinking from the ladle. Her back was fully exposed once again.
The smirk froze Kat. Was it almost a dare? Or something else? She readjusted her grip on the slipping longsword. Sweat. Damn it, perspiration was a luxury Ordineres had, not Celebricates. And why was she hearing a pulse in her ears? Bothersome! The Slicer forced her gaze away from the woman’s bare and scarred shoulder blades and onto the more immediate threat.
The Yiftan (that had to be what she was: tall, blonde, muscular, trained) soldier waited between the other two and Kat. During the time Kat had been distracted, the warrior moved enough to concede the advantage; the sun now blazed between the two adversaries.
Interesting. These three women had no interest in unfair odds. Either that or they had complete confidence in the Yiftan warrior. Why relinquish the solar advantage? Still, there was no guarantee this was a fair fight. From what she saw of the blonde’s abilities, it will take every skill Kat had to keep up.
The warrior discarded her shield and extracted a short sword to complement her longer blade. She had correctly surmised that Kat was built more for speed than force.
Kat took a deep breath. Were they in a city with dark alleys and low overhangs, her chances for success increased tenfold. But out here in the open and with her wielding an unfamiliar and hated weapon, the assassin saw her chances of defeating the warrior reduce further. Drops of sweat merged into a rivulet that ran between her breasts. Was that from the rising heat or the growing certainty of defeat?
Not a single cloud sullied the fine spring sky. They’d all been blown away by the southwest breeze. Out here where there was no damp moss, the breeze also carried the sounds from the Darsprian Forest. Many songbirds made their presence known. Between the trills, the sounds from the other side of the farmhouses came less frequently and with greater distance.
Unable to help herself, Kat glanced at the well. Tristien was handing the ladle of dripping water to the red-haired woman. Smiling and pointing, the two women sat on the well’s wall seemingly at an exhibition. Ignoring them was going to be a chore. An audience was the antithesis of what a Midnight Slicer stood for. Still, she gave the two an acknowledging nod. The odds had undoubtedly shifted due to their withdrawal, though probably not enough to give her the edge. Catching the grateful look, both of the women shot back barely perceptible nods.
To forget her audience, Kat likened the situation to having to perform newly acquired moves in front of the Arbiters. Because her exhibitions often involved multiple foes, which was a requirement to advance careers, focus had to be absolute. Then as now, she used the mental hallway to help block out the presence of observers.
Concentrating on the Triliska, her visual field changed. The tall blonde woman and the ground they combated on, became ultra-sharp. She even knew where the larger pebbles were, the ones that might cause stumbling. Everything else faded into a brown mist; something to be ignored.
The warrior’s small smile curled at the edges of her broad lips. “Shoul’ be usin’ weapons your own size,” Had the woman’s bulk and blonde hair not given away her Yiftan background, her accent certainly would have. No one in the Material Realm slurred their words quite as much nor had as lazy a mouth in pronouncing Standa, the common language.
Having conceded the advantage already, the Yiftan stood her ground and studied Kat’s eyes. By keeping her focus there, the warrior’s peripheral vision picked up on Kat’s sudden movements.
Kat smiled. At that instant, the blonde launched herself, blades out. Both swords aimed for Kat’s heart.
The Slicer saw the angle and the speed she needed.
Kat parried. With a clumsy jerk, she yanked her longsword in a downward swing. Her right foot backed up to sidestep the lunge. The length of the longsword surprised her, tipping her to the right. She felt the clang of blade against blade before she heard it.
A flash of metal!
Almost off balance, Kat jerked back with her hips and twisted. The short sword’s point glided by, nicking only the Slicer’s belt. Had her training not kicked in, she’d have been eviscerated by that thrust.
She straightened up. The tall warrior had flipped over, trapping the Slicer between the well and warrior. Damn, a mistake. Though the two observers showed no interest in joining in the battle, it was better if Kat didn’t have to focus on two fronts.
Moving to her right meant having the enclosed corral fence at her back. She preferred more open space. After all, wasn’t that what she was here to learn? She scurried to her left, towards the Darsprian Forest. The moment she moved, the Yiftan warrior struck. Blurry with motion, the tall woman’s arms slashed furiously at Kat, backing her up.
Their combined shuffling feet kicked up a dust cloud that obscured the two observers. Their coughs confirmed their continued presence, though.
Block up! Swing down! Up!
Kat used the longsword as best as she could all the while backing up quickly. Somehow, her horizontal pendulum-like swing fended off the blonde’s expert attack. Being honest, Kat knew the success depended more on her focus in the mental hallway than actual ability.
Without pause, the blonde warrior spun away from Kat’s fumbling defense and swung at Kat’s leg with the broad sword.
As the assassin leapt backwards, the Yiftan warrior dove forward with her short sword. Kat felt warm stickiness ooze down her right thigh. She had to have been cut. Extending the unhurt leg out as a counter balance, the Slicer landed gracefully, wounded leg bent underneath her body. Her left hand felt for the cut. A long thin superficial line of wetness met her probing fingers.
Stepping over a dead comrade, Kat held up two bloody fingers to show the warrior that first blood was drawn.
Surprisingly, the Yiftan warrior shook her head. “Be a funner figh’ if you use the two daggers by your side,” the blonde insisted.
Fun? Kat cocked her head slightly. Was this why the warrior allowed the sun behind Kat? Why the other two watched from the well? Who were these three and were they insane to insist on fun in battle?
Had fun been a factor, Kat was sure she’d be nowhere close to Celebricate, 7th level. Her advances were due to efficiency which had little to do with amusement. Furthermore, impeding oneself was considered fun? Katriyana checked. The tall woman’s brown eyes shone with mirth. It apparently was.
The Yiftan’s assessment was accurate. For her to enjoy herself, she had to use her own familiar blades. Perhaps it was Kat’s own narrow definition of open warfare, that insisted on using an ungainly longsword. After all, the Arbiters suggested no weapons. And since her daggers were a part of her, combat with them would provide a better learning experience.
The moment Kat released her grip on the longsword and reached for her daggers, the tall warrior struck. She aimed downwards at the Slicer’s stomach with the short sword.
Before her fingers finished closing around the daggers’ grips, Kat plucked them out of their sheaths. Crisscrossing them above her, she instantly knelt. When the blonde’s sword struck the crossed blades, the Slicer shoved forward and up, rising to her feet.
She blocked the short sword with her right dagger and pinned it against the blonde’s own body. Keeping a close distance to negate the broadsword, Kat used quick slashing with her left dagger to drive the warrior back. Three short lines of red appeared on the blonde’s left uplifted arm.
Having backed up four steps, the Yiftan dug in her back foot and lifted her armored front leg. The leg broke Kat’s hold on the short sword. The tall warrior planted her right foot on Kat’s stomach and kicked hard, followed by a wide broadsword swing.
Kat doubled over to relax into the kick. That let the momentum carry her back just beyond the broadsword’s reach. Falling backwards into a flip, she landed upright to face the tall warrior again.
Licking the blood off her left forearm, the tall blonde grinned and said, “Told’ you it’ll be funner.”
The instant Kat’s eyes followed the warrior’s movement to the forearm, the Yiftan attacked again. A flurry of thrusts from both swords drove the smaller woman back.
Left! Right. Right. Left. High!
Kat’s daggers followed her instructions given in the mental room. Using minimal movements, she flicked her blades about just enough to deflect the swirling swords. But not even the clinking and clanking of the metal drowned out the oohs and aahs of their audience.
Normally, the exertion a Midnight Slicer experienced was that of patience, of stillness. Oftentimes a job required endless waiting. That type of stamina differed from what Kat required today. Slicers weren’t trained for sustained battle. The longer the two women fought, the better the advantage for the warrior.
She could feel it in her heavy arms. Each block slowed down. The warrior slowed her attack as well but it wasn’t due to fatigue. Finally, one light tap of the Yiftan’s sword sent Kat’s dagger pointing in a direction not of the Slicer’s choosing.
Lifting her large foot, the Yiftan planted it on Kat’s chest and pushed.
Winded, Kat stumbled backwards. Tripping and rolling, the momentum carried her upright again eight yards away.
Preck! The blonde met her landing!
The tall Yiftan’s speed shocked Kat. Within a breath, she had closed the distance, pressing the advantage with yet another flurry.
Right. Lower left. Straight ahead. Left again.
Kat’s focus in the mental hall did no good. Her body just couldn’t respond quickly enough.
The warrior exploited the mild defense by slugging Kat across the chin every opening. Each blow, heavy with a sword behind it, snapped Kat’s head to the side.
Roll away, roll!
After the third crack, the Midnight Slicer used the momentum of the blow to tumble back away from the blonde warrior. A large welt grew above Kat’s eye. Bruises from knuckles showed up on her chin. She shook her head once to clear any double vision.
Panting, she felt behind her. What stopped her tumble? It felt like… a stone wall? A curved stone wall. Preck! The well! Before she could move, a gourd that had been fashioned into a ladle floated in front of her eyes. Overflowing with well water, it tilted towards her mouth.
“Drink. You need this,” a female voice said. Three fingers held the handle of the ladle. Two were missing. The scarred woman! “Don’t drink too fast. You’ll cramp if too fast or too much.”
Kat took the ladle from Tristien, who ignored the red-head’s elbow in her ribs. The refreshing cool water chased away any residual grogginess. Just in time too. The blonde approached rapidly.
Her eyes never leaving the Yiftan’s, Kat dropped the ladle which fell neatly into a three-fingered palm. Standing up, she drew three blade-darts from a sheath belt that hung from her shoulders and rested against her ribs. An instant later, they flew towards the Yiftan’s feet and legs.
To avoid the flying darts, the warrior had to jump. Exactly what the Midnight Slicer counted on. Her swift attack of slashes and jabs with the curved blades drove the blonde backwards. The two longer swords couldn’t defend against all the attacks of the swift daggers. Kat’s hand darted in past defenses at times. Instead of cutting the warrior, Kat focused on cutting leather strands on the warrior’s armor. Enough cuts and perhaps the armor could fall away and expose something tender for her blade to taste.
Before her plan could come to fruition though, a deep male voice bellowed from beyond the farmhouses. “Kinjara! Cela! Come help!”
Without hesitation, the red-head sprinted from the well to the path between the houses.
The warrior slashed down on Kat’s daggers decisively, driving their points down with such force it pulled the Slicer off balance. Grinning, the Yiftan said, “Nice figh’. Bea’ you later,” before running to join the red-head.
Only the scarred woman, Tristien, remained by the well. The overhead sun lit up her amused face. She stood up slowly and said with a smile in her voice, “Guess this means we’ll have to fight each other.” The maimed woman flashed a sudden warm grin. “Too bad.”
Those lips weren’t marked up. Wonder what other part of her wasn’t scarred. Why was the Triliska fading?
The woman circled around to where the blonde had just vacated and stood waiting. Safely sheathed away, her specialized swords hung from her belt. Crooking a finger, she beckoned the assassin towards her.
Katriyana took that to mean she was to make the first move. She hoped she wasn’t violating some unspoken rule. Were there rules in open warfare? She edged towards Tristien, unsure of this strange woman. Playing with her daggers, she flipped from an overhand grip to an underhand and back again, trying to assess a weakness.
The problem was, Kat couldn’t find a place to focus on the scarred woman. She tried looking into the woman’s curiously grey almond-shaped eyes.
She lost the Triliska. This was the first time that had ever happened. How was she still in the mental hallway? Where was that damn symbol? Oh. It had moved further, higher, out of reach.
Looking at Tristien’s lips yielded no better results. For the first time in her life, Kat wondered how soft lips, especially those particular ones, were.
Perhaps if in the Material Realm, she were to look at something else, the Triliska would lower.
Katriyana looked at the scarred woman’s chin, noticing angry red marks even there. The last time Kat got a deep cut on her abdomen, it took months of stretching the scar before it was supple enough to handle a slicing. How could this woman move, covered in scars like that?
Looking at the scars wasn’t working either. Perhaps fighting? She’d regain focus immediately.
Kat shifted the grip on her right dagger. She lunged. With an overhand swing, the assassin stabbed, aiming for the scarred woman’s heart. Her left arm arced upwards, the dagger heading for the scarred abdomen.
Tristien stayed motionless.
Kat braced herself, waiting for the resistance that would stop her momentum.
Flying forward, Kat narrowly missed the log house. She rolled into a crouch facing the well. Scanning the horizon, she found her quarry. The scarred woman had moved a yard away.
Tristien seemed pleased by Kat’s puzzled look. “Are we done fighting yet?” she asked.
Kat’s answer was a roll forward with her arms crossed. When she reached the woman, she pulled her daggers in a scissoring move. The blades sliced through empty air.
Tapping Kat from behind on the shoulder, Tristien looked like she was about to ask again. Then she saw the determined look in Kat’s eyes and sighed, “Not done yet, huh?”
Was it because she lost focus of the Triliska that this was happening? How was this Tristien able to move like that?
Kat arched backwards. She tried to at least nick the scarred woman. The woman was gone again.
Somehow that woman moved to the well two yards away. Kat drew out another three blade-darts and launched them. One she aimed at Tristien. Another she aimed for the far side of the well. The last she threw to the right of the scarred woman.
None hit. One clanked against the well, another thudded into the ground. The last she lost sight of. Where the preck did that woman go?
She saw the woman materialize next to herself.
At the same instant, she felt the scarred woman’s breath on her shoulder. Whirling around, Kat faced Tristien.
“I suppose I’ll have to do something in here to get you to stop fighting.”
What the preck? The only other person Kat had ever seen in the mental hallway was the one who taught her how to get to it. There’d been no one else. Naively, she had thought they were the only people who knew of it. But of course, others had access; how else could he have known of it? But when both teacher and student were only eight, thoughts of others didn’t exist.
Her focus completely broken, Kat looked around the hallway. Which somehow morphed into a round room with the Triliska in the middle. Under the symbol, there was an elongated speck. A speck that grew larger and became Tristien as she popped closer and closer to Kat.
“Welcome to the Quietude. Here, have a seat,” Tristien said when she arrived with a soft *pop*. A wooden chair materialized and slammed into the back of Kat’s knees, forcing the assassin to sit.
Before Kat could act, the scarred woman grabbed her right wrist. With a painful wrench, the dagger clattered to the ground. Kat automatically attacked with her left. Tristien side-stepped and plucked Kat’s wrist in mid-slash. With a quick twist, she wrenched the left away as well. Disarmed in less then two seconds. Tristien let both wrists go.
There under the noon sun on a stranger’s farm without any cognizance or forethought, Kat dropped to her knees. Words, words she had never contemplated before, much less used toppled out of her mouth. The Midnight Slicer, a 7th level Celebricate, said “I’m not worthy to be your opponent. Please teach me all you have to teach. I surrender.”
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