Part Four: Chapter 44
A strident clang and scrape of metal shattered the plateau’s stillness, and the son of Ny groaned, stumbling back into his bearers’ shields. The morning bustle outside Fedrin’s tent had faded to nothing just before this first crossing of blades, leaving behind it a field of onlookers with held tongues and bated breaths. Yet now, as Astelidus rebounded from his surprise at Dragan’s freakish strength and rushed his enemy again, the yard came alive with intermittent clashes of combat. Sounds whose interval sped and slowed with each burst of aggression, like wind chimes left out in a gathering storm.
The next exchange pierced the gloom: three ringing notes in rapid succession followed by a sharp slap. Ny had planted his left foot and sent his armored right shin smashing into the side of Dragan’s knee, buckling the struck leg and causing the DoomBringer to stagger. This kick created an instant of vulnerability in his rival on which Astelidus should’ve capitalized. Any sane man who’d witnessed Dragan fighting before today would’ve viewed this as a god-given opportunity against a godlike adversary. But whether out of sheer arrogance or raw emotion or both, Astelidus abandoned logic and let the chance pass, wasting the opening in an attempt to incite the gathered crowd.
“You shouldn’t have returned to us, deserter!” he spat, lifting his voice next from Dragan to the host: “This man butchered our brethren in Ithiria!”
Unlike during his earlier bout with the Baneful, however, Astelidus received no roars nor throbs in answer from the encircling mass. Some may have cursed Dragan under their breaths—but thus far none of them had summoned the nerve to invigorate either combatant with cheers or the drumming of their weapons on shields. The GrimHelm had abandoned them and reportedly betrayed them also; yet the day wasn’t so long gone when he’d occupied the role Astelidus was now trying so hard to fill. To most observers, no doubt, this contest seemed wrong.
Dragan chose not to bite back with words, flicking his sword out instead as he leapt forward, feinting to one side. The blade’s tip drew a crimson line across Ny’s shoulder before the Sinian could block, yet still the young man didn’t shrink from the sting of first blood. On the contrary, it seemed this shallow wound had actually freed Astelidus from some intangible burden that’d been weighing him down. Perhaps—despite his outward confidence at the onset—he’d been unable to fully shake an inner fear that left him stiffer and warier than his usual martial self. Or perhaps the cut was like a splash of water in a drunkard’s face, waking him from his delusion and reminding him that every morsel of his concentration and skill would be required to survive this challenge.
Either way, Astelidus’ counterattack sequence was a thing of blinding speed and calculated rage that left Dragan backpedaling toward the ring of shields. If I can just manage to pin him there… Astelidus thought, ending his combination with a devastating front kick to Dragan’s chest. A normal man would’ve lost his feet from the sudden force of that impact; but again the GrimHelm’s aberrant physical attributes came into play. To Astelidus’ horror, an instant later he found that he was the one who’d fallen on his rear and was gazing up at his towering foe like a red-faced boy struck by an angry father. It felt as though he’d thrown his weight against a rock wall and been brutally repulsed.
Dragan, on the other hand, had hardly taken a step back.
Panic threatened to slay Astelidus at that moment. The DoomBringer’s blade would’ve been merely an afterthought to the actual killing: a tool to scrape dead flesh from a spirit ground to dust. Yet he refused to wilt before these people. He would gladly receive the Bastard’s blade into his body, if that meant saving him from the life of a craven. No, he wouldn’t cringe. He would fight.
Regaining his feet, Astelidus barely got his blade up in time to block the next attack from Dragan; yet rather than falling back in defense until he could recover his stance, the red-haired warrior roared back with another lightning barrage of blows. Unfortunately for him, however, all seven strikes in this succession were expertly deflected. Indeed, Dragan’s parries appeared effortless: as if the Prince of Ost were merely engaged in a fencing match, his casual motions focused on speed alone with no power behind them. Yet power there was. Astelidus had to put all of his strength and swiftness behind every swing of his own to keep from being thrown back or disarmed. How long could he keep this up? He saw now that he’d tire long before his opponent; and each moment Dragan lasted against him was another moment added to his shame. He needed to end this quickly. It was time to take a risk. A gamble that’d likely end in either a brilliant victory or his sudden death.
Sliding to the ground at Dragan’s feet, Astelidus swept his blade in a deadly arc that forced the GrimHelm to leap aside. Yet even as Dragan swarmed back in for the kill, Astelidus arose in a blur, planting a perfectly timed spinning backfist on the Bastard’s outstretched hand—knocking the sword from his nemesis’ grip.
The crowd finally stirred at this, issuing a collective gasp in surprise at Ny’s unexpected triumph; and over the top of it came the stifled cry of a woman being forcibly held back from entering the ring. Bronwyn—with one of Fedrin’s hands clamped over her mouth and the other latched onto her arm…
Astelidus heard these sounds and exulted as they registered in his mind, but this time he had the sense not to pause and gloat. Taking a step back, he put his entire weight behind a wide slash of his blade: a strike aimed directly at Dragan’s neck. A cut to change the world, elevating the son of Ny above even his hated rival’s perch amidst the lofty peaks of fame and legend. Never again would he need worry about filling his brother Ban’s shoes. No man alive nor dead would overshadow him after this day.
Dragan, momentarily dazed by the loss of his weapon, registered Astelidus’ follow-up swing too late. He’d only just begun to throw himself out of reach when Ny’s blade struck home with a vengeance, conjuring a muffled shriek from Bronwyn on the tail end of the collision. Yet the sound of the impact itself was not what anyone gathered there—including Dragan—had expected. Instead of a sickening slice and crunch to accompany the DoomBringer’s head on its flight from his shoulders, the note was a booming metallic clash. A herald to proclaim the breastplate’s curse as Astelidus’ weapon slammed into Dragan’s steel collar and faltered, blade snapping in half.
Shocked and enraged at how close he’d just come to death, Dragan reacted without thinking. Lunging forward, he rammed his skull straight into Astelidus’ nose, grabbed the warrior’s hand that was still holding the jagged hilt half of the broken bastard sword…
And slid the shard deep into Astelidus’ neck.
A dark cloud erupted from Ny’s jugular to wash over Dragan, transforming the victor’s face into a sadistic mask of blood. Then the GrimHelm shoved his foe to the ground and loomed over the body, releasing pent emotions in a sharp roar of anger and relief.
And so arrived the end of Astelidus Ny. In that penultimate moment before his soul slipped free of its mortal shell, the Sinian’s eyes met those of his slayer. Yet what he found in them was neither calm blue sky nor angry red flame. What his dying mind imagined there instead were two black ellipses running through orbs of yellowish-green light: the serpentine slits of the Daemon.
Your lack of patience shall be the death of you, she’d foretold of him once in a dream. And now her words came streaking back to Ny like a barrage of searing arrows, their impact waking him in a flash from each and every foolish figment of youthful invincibility he’d ever known. The last thoughts of a doom-struck man. A confrontation with all his life’s follies in the blink of an eye.
Then his world went black.
”No!" wailed Bronwyn, having worked her lips free from Fedrin’s muffling paw. ”You murderer!" She writhed wildly as the man-at-arms regained a clamp on her mouth, but Rae’s grip held as he swiftly yanked her away from the circle. In another moment the pair was swallowed by the crowd.
But Dragan had heard the woman’s accusing scream, and suddenly he reeled back from Ny’s corpse, aghast, swinging his head about in a desperate search of the onlookers’ faces. Surely there was a pair of eyes in that ring that wouldn’t condemn him for what he’d just done? He had to find that one understanding expression. He had to know there was still some shred of humanity draped over the savage monster he’d become.
Yet one-by-one the faces met his pleading gaze and shied away, till it seemed the earth itself had utterly shunned him.
And so, one-by-one, Dragan undid the clasps of his bloodstained breastplate, letting the hated armor fall to the ground.
This time, there’d be no going back for it.