Light of the Heavens
: Tie-Breaker by K. Olsen
“What if he hurts you?” Seben asked with worry, hovering near Vassa as she stretched out her shoulders. Her back still ached from contact with the ripping power of the ward, the last remnant of its power not quite banished by alchemical healing.
Vassa looked at her companion with a hint of amusement curling the corners of her lips behind her mask. “So eager to leap to my defense?” she said. “Perhaps you should take my place in the ring. That could be entertaining.”
“I mean it,” Seben said firmly, looking over at Rhujag. “He’s huge and I don’t think he’s slow.”
“I am more than capable of seeing to my own defense,” Vassa said, still amused by Seben’s fretting. It was rather endearing, even if she would never say so. “I am merely grateful that Lord Osei and Djau stepped out this morning to gather intelligence on the assassination attempt on our blood mage ally. I prefer not to display my tricks to an audience unless the situation requires it.”
Seben nodded hesitantly, a bit of curiosity slipping out. “I suppose I haven’t seen everything you’re capable of.”
“You never will,” Vassa said, slipping her sword-belt off. She ran fingertips lovingly over the hilt of her shortsword, the rayskin wrapping of the handle almost smooth from use. It had been bound and rebound many times since its reforging by her dwarven acquaintance in the north. The blade had followed her since her birth, a last relic of her heritage and the life she’d lived before her training sapped the light from her. She set it down carefully on the floor beside her outer shirt, though she was still covered from head to toe in fabric that shrouded her from the world. “I promise.”
“You’re very attached to that blade,” Seben observed instead of pressing on Vassa. Her sense for the masked woman’s boundaries grew every day and she likely knew that Vassa was referring to the darker magics she was capable of using. What she’d seen already was fuel for the occasional nightmares.
“A saress is more than a blade,” Vassa said, sliding the blade out of the sheath. It was featherlight in her hands. “It is memory. This steel served zhendai like myself for thousands of years before I was born. They are relics now, things that survived the destruction of the First World, gifts of the Life-Giver in the war between gods and demons.”
Seben tilted her head as she looked at the blade, watching sunlight glitter on the razor-sharp edge, the reflection refracted by the scars on the steel. “It looks like it was damaged and repaired.”
“It was,” Vassa said. She hated the memory of Lysaerys shattering her blade in front of her. In that moment, she would have rather had her heart ripped out and shredded. Fortunately, Sethon had showered her with the broken pieces as an insult as he left her broken body at the threshold of her exile. His arrogance allowed her to recover all the fragments in order to have them repaired. She smiled faintly, brushing her thumb over the flat of the blade. “They each have their own qualities. No two are identical, even if they appear to be, and they change depending on their wielder. This one, Naesha’an, was a thing of fire and fury in the hands of the one who came before me.”
“And what is it now?”
“Shadow. Illusion. Deception.” Vassa sheathed the blade. “I have an orc to amuse, Seben. You may wish to stand back, lest the blood splash on your nice clothing.”
“Your blood or mine?” Rhujag said with a deep chuckle as he approached.
Vassa shrugged expressively, lips tugging into a faint smile. “Yes.”
“That is your favored weapon, yes?” Rhujag said, gesturing to the blade.
“It is,” Vassa said. She’d always preferred the saress. It had less reach than a longsword, but that was no problem for a woman who could close distance the way she could. “Yourself?”
“Shield and spear, though I carry an axe or two,” Rhujag answered. He hefted a staff, carefully padded at both ends for practice and a training shield, made from a light, more flexible wood. Just as she was setting her true weapons aside, he had set his: a shield and spear made of a dark, dense hardwood covered in carvings traditional to orc weapons, including the dragon marks that were said to ward off evil. The head of the spear was leaf-shaped, but tapered to a wicked, reinforced point that would pierce armor with ease. Both were heavy enough that even a Kingsguard soldier would struggle to use them effectively, but the orc could move them like they were toys. Two handaxes completed the picture, though they were much rougher in construction.
“Your weaponry is most impressive,” Vassa said, nodding to the tidy pile of his gear. The weapons sat atop his armor, brigantine in desert style even down to its colors, which matched the sands at night. “It is rare to see an orc in armor, granted.”
“It is easier to guard with only a shield when your enemy meets you only face to face,” Rhujag explained.
“The threat of knives to the back does make one appreciate the concept of armor. I really ought to invest in some if I am to continue my fine tradition of placing myself between others and danger,” the masked woman agreed. She picked up the hard leather training sword, rigid around a core of light wood. It was stiff enough to mimic the feeling of a real blade, but would flex or snap before breaking a bone except maybe the more delicate bones of the hands. She wasn’t concerned here. Trying to shatter orcish bone with even a real weapon was like trying to smash steel with a hazel switch.
“Ready?” Rhujag said, taking a few steps back into the center of the ring. The floor beneath them was raised slightly from the rest of the room by several layers of mats, each one with just enough give to soften impacts.
Vassa stepped forward without hesitation, feet bare on the mat. Both she and Rhujag had shed anything that might add to the amount of damage they would do to each other. “Certainly,” she said, loosening up like a boxer.
Fighting Rhujag would not be easy. If he connected well enough, he would knock her down and possibly out in one hit. To hold her own, she would need to fight dirty, and he wanted to know at least something of what she was capable of.
Rhujag’s padded staff darted out, probing her defenses. He wielded it like his spear, using the tip to guide it. The rest of it would become a weapon if she closed the gap between them, but while he had reach, he would use it with the most lethal aspect possible. He circled as he made his attack, using his shield as a perfect guard to his hands and body.
Vassa’s lips tugged into a smile even as she stepped back and to the side ever so slightly, just barely out of reach of the feint. He was clearly more capable than even Masaharta had indicated. She could recognize an experienced warrior in the prowling aura of his movements. The time to talk was past, however. She needed to focus on how she was going to deal with him.
The orc’s next blow was just as cautious, though slightly deeper of an advance. Again, Vassa evaded rather than striking or trying to get inside his reach. She allowed him to probe her defenses as she mapped in her mind exactly how far that spear and his arm could reach.
There was a rhythm to the movements, almost like a dance. It was easy to follow him, movements smooth and thoughtful. Almost...lulling.
Then Rhujag’s surprisingly graceful caution exploded into a sudden ferocity. The orc hurled himself at Vassa with perfect control over his speed and body, spear twisting and dipping as he approached with a speed powered by muscles that were beyond human. The masked woman hurled herself at an angle, barely dodging the attack. She slid on the mat, coming up on her feet with an acrobat’s grace, and brought her blade down towards the back of his knee.
He parried with the edge of his shield, driving it back with enough force to almost knock her weapon from her hand. The movement was automatic, clearly so practiced that it required no thought. Muscle memory moved faster than the mind.
Vassa grinned behind her mask as she recoiled away from his strike, circling around to his side as he pivoted to face her again, his spear aimed at her head. She adored lenthai, what human warriors called ‘broken time’. It was the process of setting rhythms and expectations, then shattering them into an advantage. That Rhujag was skilled enough to know it and use it so effortlessly spoke well of him.
Seben watched them in awe. Rhujag’s brutality came effortlessly, hounding Vassa across the mat. The orc’s fighting style was unshakable in its aggression. He focused heavily on taking and keeping the initiative, relentless enough that it forced Vassa into reacting rather than acting. Eventually she would make a mistake.
The masked woman faltered for a moment, a retreat not landing quite right. Rhujag pressed his advantage and lunged for her again.
It was good to know that she hadn’t lost her deceptive edge. Vassa recovered from her ‘mistake’ faster than he could react, slipping inside of his distance where the spear’s stabs couldn’t harm her. He had the sense to cover his body and head with his shield, but Vassa could generate enough flexibility to strike around the shield as she passed him, catching the orc hard in the ribs with a stab.
She was rewarded by the padded end of the quarterstaff opposite the point hitting her in the back. Vassa rolled with the blow to soften its impact, allowing the force to throw her across the mat. She tumbled and sprang up, using the bounce in the mat to find her feet again.
“That’s one,” Rhujag rumbled.
Vassa laughed. “Are we keeping score now?”
The orc’s yellow eyes gleamed with amusement. “Why not?”
“Very well. And to the winner goes…?”
He shrugged. “Bragging rights? I’m sure we’ll think of a thing.” Rhujag grinned at her. “We go until one or both yields. Whoever has given more death blows at the end wins.”
“Seben will have to keep track,” Vassa said. The idea of combat as play was so very orcish. It was no wonder their kind were such fine warriors when they grew up scrapping and wrestling from infancy on.
“One for Vassa,” Seben said with a smile.
Rhujag gave the masked woman a nod. “When you are ready,” he said with a surprising chivalry.
Vassa returned the nod and stepped in again to face that lethal spear without a trace of fear. It could and would hurt very badly if it really hit, but she suspected that Rhujag had enough control to avoid killing her with a training weapon even if he could easily do so.
The fighting quickly went from a graceful dance to something far more savage. Rhujag was a fearsome opponent between raw strength and speed, but Vassa was just as fast and complimented her technique with vicious precision. Soon Seben had a tie on her hands and the combatants were beginning to slow.
The masked woman ached all over. She hadn’t entirely recovered from almost being ripped apart by a ward and Sethon’s assault. Now she had some large, beautiful bruises over the healing ones. She’d given Rhujag some debilitating blows, but not enough. The orc was moving with more certainty than ever, yellow eyes hungry for victory.
It was time to stop relying on her blade alone. If he wanted to know what she was capable of, she could most certainly indulge him.
Vassa dropped to one knee and fed power into the threads around her as he advanced towards her, twisting and weaving the invisible fabric of existence to craft an illusion of herself sharing her space. The moment she was finished, just as he started his lunge, she far-stepped, leaving the illusion of herself behind to keep him committed to his assault.
In less than a heartbeat, the masked woman appeared behind Rhujag. Just as his training spear connected with the illusion, disrupting it for a moment like smoke, Vassa struck hard. Her blade cracked across the back of his skull with enough force generated by the movement of her body to ring even an orc’s bell.
Rhujag roared and spun, dropping his shield and spear so that he could tackle the masked woman. They crashed together onto the mat, the impact and his grip bruising her wrists. “Magic?” he demanded as he pinned her to the ground.
Vassa had barely managed to keep her breath, a laugh slipping out. “No one has ever accused me of fairness,” she said, fingers flicking as she carefully separated her threads from his own, readying another far-step.
The rumble in Rhujag’s chest sounded more like a growl as he pressed down harder. For the first time, the orc looked vexed by his opponent.
She grinned behind her mask and disappeared in his grip, reappearing again behind him. Rhujag’s hands slammed awkwardly onto the mat without her arms there to stop him and this time she stabbed him in the back.
He kicked out and Vassa turned instinctively, allowing herself to crumple and take the hit to the back of the knee rather than catching his blow with the side of her knee and breaking her bones. She rolled and grabbed his shield, throwing it up in time to catch the spear stabbing down at her. The force of the blow knocked her flat against the mats.
“You are difficult to pin down,” Rhujag rumbled, eyes narrowed as he kept up the pressure to trap her under the shield.
Vassa wove a tiny pattern against the back of his shield with her fingertips. A whisper of dark magic seeped into the wood, flowing harmlessly to it until it reached the spear. Corruption and rot poured into his weapon. The force he was applying broke it, pieces crumbling into rotten wood. He almost fell, instead using the movement to grab the edge of the shield and yank it away from her.
Her blade touched his throat even as his foot landed on her sternum, pinning her to the ground again. “Draw?” Vassa asked softly, exertion burning in every muscle in her body.
Rhujag moved off of her and extended a rough hand to help her up from the ground. “Quite the trickster.”
“You have no idea,” Vassa said. She had to admit to herself, a battle like that was rather exhilarating. She hadn’t crossed weapons with an opponent so skilled without the mired feelings of an actual fight to the death. Better yet, he was cunning and well-trained enough that she felt confident in his ability to defend Seben against just about any warrior Userkare could throw in their direction.
“I look forward to seeing more in action,” Rhujag rumbled with his crooked grin. He looked over at Seben. “Score?”
“A solid tie,” Seben said with amusement.
Vassa drove her elbow into Rhujag’s solar plexus while he was distracted, the slim point of her bone enough focus to be particularly painful. He made that wonderful gasping sound of a person struck unexpectedly there. She hit him in the side of the head with the training blade as he doubled over.
“Well, there was a tie,” the apprentice fire-speaker said, trying her hardest not to laugh as Rhujag grimaced and rubbed at his midsection. He hadn’t been braced for the blow, so he certainly felt it. “Was that really necessary, Vassa?”
“My pride says yes,” Vassa said airily.
“You have sharp elbows,” the orc grumbled, dropping the last piece of his destroyed weapon. “If this is how you handle your friends, woe to your enemies.”
“To quote a Yssan proverb, in two affairs are all stratagems employed: love and war,” the masked woman said, laying aside her weapon once she was confident that the fight was actually over. She rolled up one sleeve, glancing at a massive bruise from where the padded edge of his shield had caught her forearm. “Besides, you had your revenge preemptively. My bruises have bruises.”
Rhujag chuckled at that, straightening up. “No hard feelings,” he said. “I like your cunning, even if it stings.”
“Well that’s good,” Seben said with a mixture of amusement and relief. “It’s not about to go away any time soon, knowing Vassa.”
“Besides,” the orc said with another crooked grin, tusks on full display. “I respect any who can thrash me.”
“That was far too close to be a thrashing,” Vassa said, using her outer shirt to dab some blood from her split lip. “You are more capable than the orcs I encountered in the north. I expect you would have been a goth if you stayed.”
“That was what my tribe wished,” Rhujag admitted. “Leading was not for me.”
“How fortunate you have Seben and her royal blood to command you,” the masked woman said with amusement.
“I would not object to following you either, khelled,” he said, straightening up to his full height. “You are skill combined with purpose.”
“Perhaps,” Vassa said, crossing her arms as she looked at him. The orc was barely even sweating, not that she was breathing too heavily either. “But it is not my desire or my place to order anyone around.” She appreciated the term of respect. It was rare for an orc to use such a word on anyone but the different peoples of the north. It didn’t translate well to the languages of the human kingdoms, but she understood it as a honorific denoting her as a warrior worthy of dueling.
“A fine start to the day,” Rhujag said, stretching as if he didn’t feel his wounds. Vassa could see the battle scars littering his chest as the fabric of his shirt moved across them. “I hope there are many more like it to come.”
“It would be beneficial to have some practice,” Vassa agreed. She assessed her vitality thoughtfully, measuring the drain she had taken from her spellcasting. The answer was hardly any: when she kept to the magic she had trained in, it was hard to exhaust herself without working a truly powerful force on the world around her. She picked up her saress and belted it back on, the barely-noticeable weight of her weapon comfortable along her thigh.
“The beginning of a good friendship,” Rhujag said with a chuckle.
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