A Dark Lord's Penance

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Chapter 4: Duel

A cool, gentle breeze sweeps over the forest path, causing the trees to shake ever so slightly, the sound of their calm, rhythmic swaying soothing to the ear. The sun’s rays shunt through the branches as they dance, enhancing the forest floor with brilliant bands of orangish gold that complement the cooler greens and browns. The rustic smell of the forest pervades the area, magnifying a pleasant feeling of seclusion for Nyx. She observes, however, much to her chagrin, that these sights, sounds, and smells are easily countered by the addled marching and whimpering of the recently dispatched bandit horde about fifty yards ahead of her and her new student. Additionally, Nyx occasionally hears “spooky” sounds whispered in her ear or sees “creepy” creatures appear in her path, a result of Ralph having far too much fun with one of his new spells, gifted to him via their contract.

“Ray-Ray, if the sole reason for having entered into a pact with me was to gain the ability to either annoy me or make an ass of yourself, I’m disappointed to inform you that you have officially succeeded…” she scolds, the intonation in her voice full of irritation.

“S-sorry, Master Nyx. It’s just so cool to suddenly be able to do something like this… Ah!" he explains, rubbing the back of his head before suddenly screaming in surprise at the sudden appearance of an 8-foot tall orc before him.

“Ha! That I understand quite well…” she agrees, snapping her fingers to dispel her newest illusion. “Now, tell me, Riff-Ralph, how much longer would you say until we reach Vaxi?”

“Ah… it shouldn’t be much more than a half-hour now,” he says, defeated.

As Ralph predicted, the horde eventually begins its approach to the gates of the forest city after about a half-hour. When the city is within sight, Nyx roots through her infinity bag, retrieving a ring from its depths and slipping it upon another of Ralph’s fingers.

“What’s this one do, Master?” Ralph asks curiously.

“This is a ring of invisibility. As surprising as it may seem, although I have the power to make myself invisible, I do not currently know the spell to make others invisible. I would like to observe the bandits’ arrest without the town guard becoming aware of our presence. Then, we can slip into the city unnoticed and unhindered. To turn invisible, just fill your mind with thoughts of fading into the background. I imagine you’ve already had plenty of practice,” Nyx explains, her teacherly habits resurfacing in tandem with her habit for stinging remarks.

“Fill my thoughts of fading into the background…” Ralph whispers to himself, immediately beginning to turn invisible. No longer able to see himself, he thoroughly examines the area where his body should be but finds nothing. A childish idea popping into his mind, he begins to make faces and obscene gestures at his new master, making use of the impunity his invisibility now provides.

“Huh. Good job, Ralphy boy,” she says, turning invisible herself. “But, just for the record and so you don’t continue to embarrass yourself, I can still see you. I understand the temptation, so I’ll forgive you this once,” she relates telepathically, not orally.

Ralph, both embarrassed by the revelation of his teacher’s awareness and perturbed at the voice inside his head, sheepishly responds.

“W-why can I hear you in my head?!” he telepathically asks.

“I have command of telepathy, Ralphy my boy. We can’t very well speak conventionally to each other whilst we try to invisibly sneak into a city, can we? It would defeat the point. Oh, and if you’re worried about me being able to read your thoughts… Rejoice! I can’t with just this. I need to either cast a spell or wear a magic item for that,” she lectures as she grasps his hand. “Now, let’s go watch your old bandit buddies get themselves arrested. I imagine it might be therapeutic for you.”

"So soft…” Ralph internally remarks upon being grasped by Nyx’s slight hand once more.

Using their invisibility to acquire front-row seats, the pair watch as the broken bandit captain and his horde are met by a large group of soldiers, who are obviously expecting an altercation.

“Freeze, brigands!” a well-equipped soldier yells. “Do you really think you can just waltz up to the city, after the crimes you have committed against it?! Any stolen goods on your persons are now forfeit! Yield, or pay with your blood!”

“I… I must turn myself in… We… have to turn ourselves in…” the beleaguered, aged bandit captain begins to quietly repeat, followed by the rest of the horde.

Bewildered, the guards look at each other, searching amongst themselves to confirm what each is seeing, hoping that they’re not going insane. Upon confirming this bizarre turn of events, the guards slowly approach the troop and begin to take them into custody.

“Y-you’re… you’re all under arrest, then,” the soldier says as he restrains the bandit leader and starts to lead the group into the city walls, trying to mask his confusion from his subordinates.

“That’s our cue…” Nyx says, pulling Ralph with her to go through the gates before they close.

"Ha! Serves you right, dickhead!” Ralph revels internally as he smiles, allowing himself to be pulled along.

Entering the city, which Ralph is somewhat familiar with, having snuck into it on occasion, Nyx is treated with a beautiful cityscape, perfectly integrated into the surrounding forest. Trees have been converted into houses and offices, stumps of once greater trees now harbor small business, like bars and merchant stands, and a gondola system makes use of the extensive system of branches. She notices that, eventually, further into the city, the forest dwindles, clearing and giving in to plains. The immediate portion, however, with buildings and aesthetics making full use of the surrounding trees, reminds her of an elven city and the elves’ inherent attunement with surrounding nature.

Looking around, though, she finds neither hide nor hair of elves, or any other race than humans for that matter.

“Ralph, tell me, are there no elves in this city?” she asks, surprised at the disparity.

“Very few if any. This city was the spoil of a war that was fought centuries ago between the kingdom of Munditor, the kingdom of humans that now rules this city, and the kingdom of Thranduil, the kingdom of wood elves comprised of most of the forest and its edges. The kingdoms aren’t openly hostile with each other anymore, but Munditor heavily taxes non-human races, so very few of them immigrate here,” explains Ralph.

"I suppose that’s not all that surprising…” she thinks. “Even back in my old world, although the races are generally friendly with each other, they basically voluntarily segregated themselves. Oh, but if most of the forest is elvish territory…”

“If my house suddenly appeared, unannounced, deep within elvish lands, why was it you and not an elven scout party that encroached upon my home? In fact, why was your bandit’s guild able to operate so brazenly? It’s quite atypical for elves to allow for such bastardization of their forest,” Nyx observes, befuddled.

“Well, over the past decade or so, the elves have been keeping to themselves more and more, rarely ever leaving their settlements, even for tending to the forest. That’s why we were able to set up shop so easily, and because Munditor doesn’t want to risk provoking the elves, they didn’t want to send a big enough force to try to capture us,” Ralph illuminates.

"For elves to sequester themselves to such an extent…” she thinks, worried at the possible implications as she leads Ralph into an alleyway. Upon entering the alleyway and ensuring they’re alone, she dispels her invisibility, with Ralph following suit. Leaving the alleyway, they meld into the flow of a main street, with Nyx finally letting go of Ralph’s arm.

“So, what do you want to do in the city?” asks Ralph, still ignorant of his teacher’s intentions, nervously wringing his hands, not used to walking freely about the city.

“What, indeed… Do you happen to know where I might find a cartographer?” she inquires, contemplating her next moves.

“A mapper? I don’t know any myself, but we can probably find one in the artisan’s district. It’s to the left of the city’s center,” he directs. “Are you trying to get a better idea of where you are?”

“How astute of you. As much as I love being ignorant of my own whereabouts, I think it prudent to obtain a map to elucidate my position, even if only marginally. Also, the cartographer himself is likely a well-traveled individual, and he could relate to me the current goings-on of the world,” she expounds, heading in the direction of Ralph’s suggestion.

Entering the artisan’s district, the duo becomes surrounded by a sea of buyers and sellers, who engulf the many merchant stalls and ground-level shops. Bards flit about, trying to rouse donations of coin for their performances or attracting travelers to taverns, inns and brothels located elsewhere. A street urchin is being shaken down by a guard, but the boy, sleight of hand obviously his specialty, manages to pull down his heckler’s trousers and escapes, with the guard tripping over his pants as he attempts to grab the boy. Some adventurers can be seen poking through wears, with one loud party attempting to haggle with a weaponsmith, much to the craftsman’s annoyance. Scanning around for signs of a cartographer, Nyx’s eyes eventually fix upon a shop with a thematic sign, utilizing cutouts of both types of compass, reading “Globe Trotter’s Maps, Curiosities and More!“.

“How creative…” Nyx sardonically observes as she leads Ralph to her discovery.

The interior of the shop is chocked full of maps, knick-knacks and other items. The shop owner, a bored-looking young human woman, leans on her counter, appearing to be daydreaming. Nyx, with her truesight, however, notices that the human appearance is merely an illusion… The woman is, in truth, an elf maid.

"Ooh… how fortuitous… perhaps I can inquire into the affairs of the elves…” she thinks as she peers into her soul. The she-elf appears to be about 150 years old, and she’s in impeccable physical and mental condition, with her dexterity, constitution and intelligence standing out the most. Nyx also notes that she detects more magic power than she would expect from a typical elf. Twinges of anxiety and melancholy pour from her soul. “What is someone like you running a no-name cartography shop…?” Nyx wonders.

The shop has very few patrons in it currently, and even those few seem to simply be window shopping. Eventually noticing her new possible customers, the owner greets them, frazzled at her being caught unawares.

“Oh! Welcome to my shop! How may I be of service today?” she asks, her ginger hair messy from her hand leaning on it, her blue eyes open wide in inquisition, a wide smile appearing on her face.

“Good afternoon! I would like to procure several maps today… One of the wood, one of the region and one of the world, if you have them,” responds Nyx, her mind focused on business foremost.

“O-of course, right away, miss!” the woman shouts, beginning to root through some scrolls behind the counter, eyes glittering at the prospect of selling so many maps at once. Eventually finding the requested maps, she unfurls them before her customers, showcasing their contents. “Are these to your satisfaction, miss?”

Nyx, inspecting the maps, finds them to be of far greater quality than she was expecting. Running her fingers softly over the map of the world, which is labeled Ea, as Ralph had intimated before, she detects the meticulous details of elevation bumps for mountains and hills and texture changes for different types of terrain. The maps have precisely demarcated borders for countries, roads about the country sides, and common trading roots for merchants. The map itself is made of an excellent, seemingly handcrafted, papyrus. Entranced by the high-level craftsmanship, she inspects the map of the forest, Thrandulwood, searching for where her house should be. Finding the general area, she notices that her house should not be terribly far from an elven town. Wanting to ensure the validity of the maps, she turns to her student.

“Ralph, are these maps consistent with of which you have knowledge?” she asks, still enamored.

“They look alright to me… Of course, I don’t know much about the world, but what I do know is on these maps,” he responds. Accepting his answer, she turns back to the shop keeper.

“Ma’am, these maps are extremely well-made! They far exceed what it would have taken to merely earn my satisfaction. Tell me, did you make these yourself?” Nyx praises, curious to see if the craftsman herself stand behind the counter.

“T-thank you, miss! Certainly, I’m undeserving of such praise…” she squeals, blushing brightly in embarrassment as she bows her head in thanks, her buxom chest jiggling. “I am the maker of the maps. I’ve gone all around the world to create the absolute best maps possible, without any detail left unchecked! Ah… I’m so happy someone finally recognized them as high-quality…”

“How could one not?” Nyx asks, confused. Looking back at the now empty shop, the other customers having left, she continues. “I would expect you to have more business. Why is it that I find the contrary?”

“It’s because you’re not an official member of the merchant’s guild, right?” Ralph interrupts. “I noticed the symbol, the one that looks like a pair of wings, on the top of your door. They’re afraid you’re a wanderer.”

“Correct…” the young woman replies, pensively. “Because I spent so long traveling to create my maps, I haven’t had any time to establish myself in the city, so I’m still considered an independent merchant… And, the current heads of the guild are quite stringent on newcomers. They often send their men to cause trouble at new stores to test the patience of their owners, and we’re highly taxed as well… In fact, I may have to move elsewhere if they don’t let me in soon…” she relates, looking down, melancholy infused in her voice.

“Hmm… that’s quite the dilemma. I’m sure you don’t want to have to move from the city closest to your homeland, if you can help it. I understand elves are tightly knit to their communities,” Nyx observes.

“Yes, that’s right, I…” the girl pauses, tensing up as she realizes what her customer just said. “I-I’m sorry, m-miss, but what do I have to do with e-elves?” she stammers, sweating from fear of her secret being discovered.

“Um… Master, this woman’s clearly a human,” Ralph adds, pointing his thumb at her ears.

“There’s no point in trying to hide it. I can see right through a disguise of that level,” Nyx reveals.

“A-are you from the guild?! Please, I can’t pay any more than I already do… Please, overlook this…” she pleads, beginning to tear up, hands gripped tightly on the counter.

“No, dear, I’m not from the guild, so please don’t start begging me for anything. I’m simply a foreign mage gifted with the ability of truesight who prefers not to have to use it when talking to people,” Nyx consoles.

Comforted a bit by her words, the elf looks around the shop before walking out from behind the counter to the front door of her shop, flipping the open sign to closed. Looking back at her customers, she speaks again.

“C-could you please speak with me in the back room?” she asks, heading toward a door behind the counter.

Obliging her, the two follow her into the back room, with Ralph giving quick side glances at his teacher for assurance. Once the three of them have sat down at a table, the woman removes her disguise, revealing fairer skin, long elf ears and more pure red hair before looking down at the table in worry.

“Please… don’t tell anybody about this. If the guild were to find out, my taxes would almost double to stay in business, and they’d never let me in…” she begs, downtrodden.

“You don’t have to worry about either of us gossiping. I am simply hoping, knowing your identity as an elf, that I could ask you some questions concerning the state of the elves of the wood. I’m concerned over their withdrawal from the affairs of the forest,” Nyx relates.

“T-to tell a random stranger from the street…” the elf hesitates.

“Please, miss, I get that she’s being very forward and… really rude, actually …” Ralph begins, giving his instructor a curt glance.

“Hey, hey! Who’s calling who rude?” Nyx interjects, attempting to imply hypocrisy.

“But trust me when I say that Master Nyx here has only the best intentions in whatever she gets herself involved in, rude as she is. Just today, she dug me out of a pit I dug for myself so deep that I didn’t think I’d ever get out of it alive, but I’m here now, alive and better than I have been for a long, long time… If you let her know about what’s going on with you or the elves, I guarantee she’ll help somehow,” Ralph monologues, belief and truthfulness radiating from his words. “Also, so we’re not strangers off the street anymore, my name is Ralph Adamas, and this is Nyx,” Ralph says, smiling and extending his hand.

“Ah… what can telling you hurt at this point…?” she reasons, seemingly calmed by Ralph’s endorsement, shaking his hand.

“My name is Sylva. As you two likely know, we began to isolate ourselves in our towns and villages just over a decade ago… Around that time, a powerful druid, Mycelius, entered our capital city in the southwestern wood, demanding the hand of Arlene, our princess. When we refused, he vowed revenge on the elven people of Thrandulwood. Of course, at the time, we didn’t think anything of it… We just thought he was a lunatic who had spent too much time talking to the trees of the forest who wouldn’t dare challenge an entire kingdom of elves… Soon after, though, elves began to disappear in the forest, and search parties often came back without members as well, the other members never noticing when they had left the group…”

“Was it the druid, or even… bandits?” asks Ralph, wincing slightly as his final word leaves his mouth.

“We believed it to be the druid’s handiwork, so we sent a war party to where we knew he kept his grove. He admitted to the kidnapping of our people and demanded the hand of the princess as ransom. Refusing, the war party ordered him to return the stolen elves or face the pain of death. Enraged, he disappeared into the trees, boasting that the depths of his revenge would only deepen, and the party was unable to find him thereafter. Shortly after, elves who had been walking about the wood began to be afflicted with a terrible illness. Eventually, it got to the point that simply leaving the limits of one’s village would cause the affliction, and it seemed to affect elves exclusively,” she recounts.

“Were you able to ascertain the nature of the contagion? Was it magical or natural in nature?” Nyx asks, invested in the tale.

“Our scholars determined it to be a curse based on advanced application of the Contagion spell… but they were unable to determine how it was being transmitted, as the spell normally requires the touch of the caster,” she replies. “Attempts to remove the curse were only marginally successful, as the symptoms were merely reduced, not cured. To save their lives, the victims had to be kept in a morbid, painful state between life and death. They recommended seeking outside help from more knowledgeable scholars of magic, but…” she pauses.

“But, what?” asks Ralph, puzzled at Sylva’s long pause.

“Our king, Thrand, stubbornly refused their counsel, insisting that the solution be internal. His refusal to ask for aid from neighboring kingdoms and persons likely stems from the memory of the bitter loss to Munditor he suffered two centuries ago… But, Arlene, who has no such bitter memory, was outraged at her father’s obstinacy, believing that the welfare of the people far outweighs his petty grudges. As the captain of the royal guard and ultimate shield of the princess, she confided much in me, and I quickly became sympathetic to her cause. I couldn’t bear to watch my people and my princess, who cares so deeply for the people to the point of practically falling ill from grief herself, to suffer. So, I stole this, the sole reason for my being able to leave the forest unhindered by the contagion,” she says, outstretching her left hand to showcase to the duo a beautiful, ornate gold and platinum ring with a shining green emerald embossed within it.

“It’s a ring of the purest gold and platinum, enchanted to protect against all manner of poison and disease. It’s considered a treasure of the kingdom. Spiriting away with the ring under the cover of darkness, I asked for foreign aid around the world, anywhere that would hear my plight. But, because I could not offer surety of reward, as I had gone to them without approval from my king and country, every kingdom, every guild, every mage, every mercenary… refused to help. So, I made maps as I went. I made maps so detailed, so immaculate, so accurate that they would surely make enough money to offer as a reward. But as you can see…” she relents.

“Why did you not take up adventuring to earn gold? I can sense that you’re more than capable of completing high-paying jobs. You’re in excellent physical condition, and you have decent magic power!” Nyx interjects.

“The same problem with the merchant’s guild exists with the adventurer’s guild in this country… sometimes to an even harsher extent. Human adventurers are preferred for most jobs, and the guild takes higher percentages of non-human’s job earnings… It’s not too farfetched to imagine that I would’ve earned even less. So, I persevered with my map making. I was even able to rent this shop from a kindly old woman who doesn’t mind non-humans, but even then…” she pauses. “I’ve failed miserably! I can’t even get into a stupid merchant’s guild! How am I supposed to protect my kingdom, my people, my princess, when I can barely provide for myself?!” she shouts, starting to cry, pounding the table in frustration.

"What are you doing?! Get ahold of yourself!" Nyx suddenly screams, eyes filled with unbridled rage.

Nyx’s thoughts were currently stuck in the distant past and a distant world, fixed on her days as a captain of the guard for her own kingdom. She worked tirelessly to provide training and strength for the military, security and health for the people, wise counsel and moral support for the royal family, logistics support for statisticians, financial support for the helpless, aid for the kingdom’s allies… but there were always forces that sought to rend it all asunder. Every success in one area was met with a failure in another, in an endless cycle, slowly corroding her physical and mental fortitude. This, of course, partially helped to lead her kingdom and herself to their own downfall, as it allowed the wickedly saccharine words of an interloper to penetrate the minds of the stakeholders… She knew the pain, the sadness, the helplessness of this elf very well – too well, really – which is why she felt such rage, as if she were looking at a reflection of her past self, whom she hated intensely.

“Do you think sitting there uselessly, crying, sniveling, and begging, at the feet of strangers, will help you?! Do you think waiting for the help of the pitiless and greedy as you labor to feed them the money derived from the blood of your people solves anything?! You’re useless, powerless, pathetic! To cling on to the title of “Royal Guard”, a cretin,a knave such as you, brings shame not only to your kingdom, your forest, your king, your princess, and your people but on the entire elven race, on every proud knight in the world! The idiocy, the naivety of your people, your king, your men, your princess in putting any sort of trust in you must be endless! It makes me sick! You make me sick!" she derides, standing to spit upon the elf before turning to leave the shop. “Come, Ralph, we’re departing immediately. I can tolerate such filth in my presence no longer!”

“M-master Nyx… that’s harsh, even for you…” Ralph laments as he turns to follow her.

“No… she’s absolutely right…” the elf weakly responds. “I am a sorry excuse for a knight, a sorry excuse for an elf, and I’ve failed my kingdom so egregiously that I will never forgive myself… but…” she says, her voice strengthening. “But… I will still never, never, allow anyone to insult anything about my home in my presence with impunity, especially not a puny mage like you! I could care less if you insult me because I know that I deserve every word, but I demand that you apologize immediately for what you said about everyone else!” she erupts, life returning to her visage and eyes.

“And what will you do if I don’t?” Nyx asks, mockingly, as she stops without even turning to face Sylva. At this, Sylva raises her arm, her hand open. As she does, a rapier suddenly appears in her grasp, and she lowers it immediately, pointing it directly at the source of her rage.

“I demand singles combat with you! If I defeat you, you will admit your fault and apologize for what you have said of my country and its people. If you, conversely, defeat me, I will yield both my right to an apology and my life, which you may take if you desire, for to suffer a defeat at the hands of the likes of you would be tantamount to death! Accept, if you be so confident, wench!” she resolutely responds.

“Ladies, is this really necessary…?” Ralph nervously questions, neither expecting the elf to unleash a weapon in such a manner nor at all, as a familiar wave of despair washes over the room. Ralph, understanding what this feeling means, is shocked to find Sylva still standing there, seemingly unaffected by the aura of fear.

“I shall gift thee this one chance to yield now… If thou seek to continue the pursuit of such folly, I will not slay thee in thine own turn…” Nyx begins as she turns to face and glare at the elf, her speech strangely growing more archaic. “I shall keep thee within an inch of thy life, hopeless to watch as I lay waste to thy king and country at a scale far greater than the impotent druid’s parlor trick thou hast described to me… With this knowledge, dost thou still maintain thy challenge? Speak, or remain forever silent in thine own cowardice.”

“I will not yield,” Sylva resolves, her eyes piercing into Nyx’s own. “Be you living or dark undead, I will smite you for what you have said! Come! I know of a place where we shan’t be disturbed by onlookers…”

“Thou hast made thy choice… Do not come to regret it,” Nyx growls, following the elf.

Ralph, still standing shocked in the room, ruminates on the events that have just transpired for a few moments before coming to his senses.

“Ah… wait for me!” he shouts, running out of the back room to follow the pair.

Sylva, who grabs and puts on a cloak to cover her true form before leaving, exits the shop, moving at a brisk but manageable pace to allow herself to be followed in the bustling streets. Eventually, she leads the group to a large building, which looks like a barrack of some sort. She approaches a guard at the front door and hails him. Appearing to recognize her, he smiles at her approach, greeting her warmly. After a short conversation, during which the guard occasionally steals quick glances at the student-teacher pair, the guard gives a hearty nod, and Sylva and the guard wave the two over. Approaching the guard, Sylva asks them to follow her inside, which they oblige, the guard sarcastically wishing Nyx good luck as she passes. The three enter a huge interior training ground, currently devoid of life.

“This is an old training ground for the Munditorian army. It’s fallen out of use now that new facilities have been built, but it’s still maintained in the case of a new war breaking out and recruits needing to be trained. The guard outside has promised me that no engagements are planned for the day, so we’ll be at full liberty to go all out,” Sylva explains as she begins to don a set of half-plate armor, boots, combat pants and a shield. “Do you require any armor or weapons?”

“I require no additional equipment. When you are ready, inform me,” Nyx states curtly as she watches the elf.

“Can we really not be more civil about this…?” asks Ralph, exhausted from the previous few days’ events.

“I will not stand idly by as she insults and threatens my comrades, especially not when they currently endure such suffering!” Sylva replies angrily.

“I refuse to allow such provocation go unpunished…” Nyx responds, visibly offended.

Powerless to stop the clash, Ralph resigns himself to a small set of spectator benches. Soon, Sylva appears to be ready, fully clad in her desired armor and equipment, and goes to stand opposite Nyx on the training field.

“I suggest that the criteria of defeat be defined as hence: one of us surrenders or one of us is unable to continue by their own power. Do you accept?” sternly asks Sylva, readying herself.

“I accept those terms. Only know that your defeat, no matter its form, comes at the expense of death for both you and your people. Begin when you are ready,” responds Nyx, arms crossed.

“Very well… En garde!” shouts the elf, rushing to close the distance between her and her foe. Doing nothing to stop Sylva’s advance, Nyx remains stationary. When the she-elf gets within striking distance, Nyx snaps her fingers, causing a spectral, frigid mist, which quickly solidifies into an ice, to form like an armor around her. When the elf thrusts and her rapier hits it, the armor appears to travel along the length of the blade up to Sylva, who visibly winces at the bite of the cold now enveloping her arm. Not wanting to continue her initial assault, she attempts to pull away, eliciting an attack from Nyx.

“Leaving so soon?” Nyx condescends, evoking another cloud of frost to engulf Sylva, who responds with a wave of her hand, causing a ward to appear around her that seems to weaken the power of the ice. Escaping Nyx’s immediate reach with minimal damage, she angrily exclaims.

“You insult me even now?! Will you not even draw your sword?!” she shouts, shivering, referring to the jeweled fell blade upon Nyx’s back.

"Make me…” Nyx repudiates, still standing confidently in her initial position and frigid armor.

“So, I shall…” Sylva promises, sheathing her sword and raising her hand again, with a longbow and quiver appearing in her hands this time. Drawing back the bowstring, an action which seems all too familiar to her, she takes aim at her opponent and lets loose three arrows. Nyx deftly dodges one of them, remaining in her initial spot, but two manage to hit her armor, shattering the ice. Unfazed, Nyx yawns, overexaggerating to goad her opponent. Not immediately taking the bait, Sylva takes a deep breath, seeming to recover somewhat from the chill.

“If you’re capable of only that level of attack, you’re more useless than I gave you credit for…” Nyx mocks.

“Let’s see how long you can say that…” Sylva shouts as she conjures three bolts of fire around her, immediately approaching again after shooting them. In response to their approach, Nyx snaps her fingers, summoning a barrier before her that blocks both the bolts and the rapier strike, imbued with bone-chilling frost, that soon follows them. While the barrier keeps Sylva at bay, Nyx summons a large, ghostly, skeletal hand that savagely strikes the elf, prompting a pained cry from her as the magic saps her vitality. Mercilessly, Nyx immediately follows this by commanding it to strike once more, injuring the elf further. Valiantly resisting the pain being dealt to her, Sylva raises her sword, imbues it with a magic power, and attempts to strike Nyx again as the barrier suddenly drops. Laughing, Nyx once again snaps her fingers, raising the barrier anew to block both this desperate assault and a subsequent strike. Sylva, not wanting to be at the mercy of the hand, once again retreats, this time with impunity as Nyx fails to attempt to stop her.

“Will you surrender, or must I beat your submission into you yet?” asks Nyx, giggling at the panting elf.

“Your repeated use of the shield spell tells me that you fear my strikes, witch!” responds Sylva, as she raises a hand to cast once more. “And now, you won’t be able to hide! Hold!”

At Sylva’s shout, Nyx’s body tenses for a moment before relaxing again.

“Drat… even though you should’ve been susceptible…” scowls Sylva.

“Ha! I cannot be held so easily, you egg! Although, I will admit, it was quite shrewd of you to inject that dissonant magic within me with that initial strike of yours to create a chink in my spell resistance… unfortunately for you, I have a strong natural resistance to magic. Will that be all?” Nyx demeans.

“Not even close!” Sylva shouts, brandishing her bow once more to fire at her rival, drawing back three more arrows.

“How repetitive…” Nyx sighs as she snaps her fingers, a strange visual static blurring her body and its immediate surroundings. Her target obscured, the three arrows Sylva looses fail to find their mark, but without pause, the elf raises her shield arm and unleashes a mighty shout.

“Shatter!” she screams, before the magic of her casting fizzles at another snap of Nyx’s fingers.

“Counter…” Nyx hisses, grinning evilly as four bolts of sizzling energy appear at her sides.

“Shield!” Sylva shouts as the bolts fly toward her, creating a barrier like that which Nyx has made twice already. The barrier stops two of the bolts, but it crumbles at the force of the remaining two, allowing its caster to be assailed. Beleaguered by the blows, she stumbles, coughing, before catching herself, watching as her rival becomes clear to the eye once more.

“I thought you were going to make me draw my sword…” Nyx teases. “But I suppose this is as far as a worthless, filthy little worm like you can crawl. Surrender now, and perhaps I will deign to grant your princess a painless death at the cost of a slow, painful one for you.”

"Don’t you dare threaten her!” the elf screams, enraged, the mention of her sovereign provoking her into another charge. “Based on what I can tell, this girl is a warlock of some kind…” Sylva thinks as she sprints forward. “I understand that they can’t cast many spells without some rest, and she’s already cast at least four full spells, so she just might be wide open…”

Reaching her target, she unsheathes her rapier and begins a new assault, imbuing magic within the blade as she thrusts. As the blade draws nearer, she suddenly feels an overwhelming sense of dread, a feeling of her mortality being laid bare before her, causing her to flinch during her attack. Missing slightly because of this, she indomitably overcomes the twinge of fear and makes another attack on the warlock, but the girl infuriatingly sidesteps the slash.

“I’m impressed you were able to withstand it! As a reward, I’ll allow you to experience a bit more of the power of whom you’ve dared to anger!” Nyx yells as she makes an arcane gesture with her hand, causing a nearly transparent shadow to momentarily appear around the elven soldier. After this, she points at the elf, causing the clamor of bells to fill the training grounds and immense pain to befall the she-elf, who clutches her head. Mentally clawing through the searing pain, Sylva attempts a flurry of three thrusts, one of which Nyx sidesteps and two of which are deflecting by a strange, eerie purple armor, taking the form of many hexagons, that suddenly surrounds the warlock.

“What is this?!” the elf questions, distraught at the new surprise.

“My cute little hexes, of course!” shouts the warlock, evilly saccharinely, as she snaps her fingers, causing a scorching pain to ripple through the soldier’s mind. Screaming in pain, Sylva is brought down to one knee.

“Little elf, are you ready to give up? I have so many things to do after this… namely, slaughter of a kingdom of innocent elves while I parade your limbless carcass about on a pole. Perhaps, if you give up now, as an act of charity, I’ll tie your princess’ limbless carcass to your own so you’ll be tog-…” she’s interrupted as a thrust, blocked by the armor of hexes, flies toward her neck.

“Shut up…” says the half-kneeling elf. “No matter how much pain you cause me, no matter how many of my limbs you tear off, no matter what manner of depravity you unleash, as long as I can point my weapon at you, no, as long as I merely have breath in my body, I will not allow you to pass me! I am the captain of the guard… I am a symbol of security, of strength, of reliability. The shield of the people! I have far too many people to protect to lose to you now! I will endure everything and anything for their sake! En garde, witch!” she exclaims, a burst of vitality allowing her to spring forth to stand before her foe once more.

“Ha! Let’s see where that talk gets you!” responds Nyx as another flurry of strikes assault her, each deflected by the hexes.

"I’m not done!” Sylva shouts, unleashing another magic-imbued thrust.

"Ah… the armor won’t stop this one…” Nyx muses internally, her hand reaching for the untouched blade on her back. Finally drawing it, she parries the thrust, not expecting another thrust, this one looking critical, to come immediately. “If I don’t do something…” Nyx thinks.

“Master Nyx!” Ralph shouts, believing his teacher about to suffer a critical strike.

The elf’s foot slipping ever so slightly, the trajectory of her strike is altered just enough to but graze the warlock, who suffers no real damage. How fickle the god of luck can be!

"There’s… no way…” the elf internally refutes, not wanting to believe she just squandered a golden opportunity, sure that she was about to deliver a critical blow. Refusing to leave herself open, she twists around and raises her guard once more.

“So, you’ve finally drawn your blade…” she observes, smugly.

“Even a rabbit, when cornered, can be quite dangerous, you know…” Nyx redirects. “As a show of respect for having made me draw this sword, I will give you the satisfaction of using it to cut you down, just as you wanted!”

“If you can…” the elf responds, smiling confidently as she moves forward to attack once more, thrusting at the neck of her enemy.

Nyx, meeting her charge, deftly dodges the thrust, slashing the elf on the down swing with the fell blade, which tears through the elf’s armor as if it were butter and cleaves through her flesh with a twang of malevolent magical power.

Immediately realizing the lethality of the wound and feeling her body drain of all its vitality, tears well into Sylva's eyes as she falls to the ground, recognizing her loss and failure to protect her people, her kingdom, her princess. Darkness and silence surround her, and death welcomes her with a cold embrace, the warmth of her blood her life’s parting gift...

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