The road to Jegan was unusually bare for the trading season. Only a matter of weeks ago the gravel and dirt path leading to the city of Felthespar had been alive and bustling, filled to capacity with travelers and the banter of excited women and children. Then came the attacks.
The first incident still lingered in the minds of the people. A creature had appeared in the Ducall Forest, the dense natural barrier that cushioned Felthespar from its enemies. A merchant had been making his way to the city, a commonplace occurrence. His cargo had been secretive and valuable, well suited for a commonplace robbery. Knowing this, the cart had moved with four armed guards at its side, well trained and ready for combat.
The attack that came was not commonplace. Two of the hired men were dead before they could draw their swords. The merchant was stricken with such panic he did not wait to witness the fate of the guards, whipping his peist into such a frenzy it did not stop until reaching the city walls. There he told stories of a horrible demon, bigger than a bear and wielding swords of lightning.
At first the citizens wrote off the story. They had heard these campfire tales before. Two further incidents within a week’s time reduced traffic to a reluctant trickle. Dark rumors spread rapidly over the city, and a blanket of despair surrounded the myth of the Daemon, a name that emanated from the taverns.
As the slowed rate of imports took hold on the economy, the Knighthood began to take matters seriously. When the next attack claimed the lives of two decorated Knights, a war party was assembled. Two Gold Knights and three Silvers were sent, armed with the finest grade armors and weapons. None returned alive. With this final blow struck, only the bravest of souls would venture forth from the city and traverse the dread Jegan Road.
Such a soul belonged to Atheme Tethen, Platinum Knight, Grand Councilor to the Military, former squire to Lord Councilor Calvin Darmani. Two High Councilors of the Military marched alongside him. One was mounted atop a peist, docile mounts the Knighthood bred from dragons. The group was too small to be considered a formal war party, but Atheme had deemed that sending more soldiers would be an unnecessary risk of lives.
The Grand Councilor’s body belied the imposing warrior it contained. Twenty-nine years old, he stood a mere five feet, eight inches. His short, fiery red hair was matched by a simple red tunic and breeches, which hid a light mail shirt. But Atheme was not a man to be taken lightly. He had mastered all of Felthespar’s martial arts, as well as every school of magic, including the taboo shadow. He had a reputation for speed and defense, but it was his offensive diversity that made him capable for any task.
Lost in his thoughts, Atheme set a leisurely pace. His compatriots were irritated at this, but any complaints they had were stifled by their leader’s reputation. Though not himself a man of noble blood, Atheme was Felthespar’s highest celebrity. His Lord Calvin had been the Knighthood’s only Knight of the Heavens, and had held perhaps the most successful reign since the time of Vesovius I. As Calvin’s sole apprentice, similar expectations were placed on Atheme. By all accounts, his own reign as Lord Councilor was only a matter of time.
The three traveled until they found the remains of the last war party lying at the edge of the forest. The eldest of the two soldiers leaped from his peist and inspected the bodies.
“They’re dead,” he reported shortly. “Murdered, I suspect.”
The other gave a snort. “Brilliant, Zynex. You’ll make detective any day now.”
The bodies had been dumped in an organized fashion along the side of the road. It was clear their killer had wanted them found. Several pieces of clothing were missing, and nasty wounds were visible underneath. Blood had already caked and the air smelled of death. Each man’s weapons lay beside his corpse, and insignias of the Knighthood’s three Houses had been deliberately shattered and left in plain view.
Atheme sank to one knee and offered up a prayer for the dead. Whatever had done this, it wanted him to take this display as bait. He abandoned any remaining hopes of a mindless beast or a simple bandit. This had been done deliberately, thoughtfully; their enemy was hunting bigger prey. Now he would become that prey.
He stood and turned to his companions. “Cyprus, Zynex, don’t get involved in this fight. If I can’t take him alone, then he can’t be taken. Do you understand?” The men nodded in response. “Excellent.”
He stepped away from the fallen knights with a heavy heart. He walked a few more yards down the road, then turned and bellowed into the forest. “Daemon! Come out and face me! I am here to make you pay for your crimes.”
For a moment there was no response. Then the forest fell into silence, as though the creatures of the woods cowered at the words. Atheme knew better, as a series of magic feelers crawling over the area warned him. These creatures were not afraid of him. Something bigger approached. Something tremendous, remarkable in power, and blocking Atheme’s ability to clearly read the ether currents.
He struggled to focus his senses on the creature. Before he could, a shadowy figure dropped from the nearest tree, less than two yards away. Slowly the figure stood.
Atheme’s eyes went wide in shock. He had been expecting anything from a demonic knight to a crazed behemoth. But this Daemon, this creature who tormented his city, the creature that Atheme’s magic could not track, was a young man no older than twenty.
The youth towered over the Felthespari, comfortably over six feet tall. He had a dangerous build, all muscle, with thick arms attached to a broad chest and shoulders. His hair was wild and unkempt, with frayed ends which seemed to have been clumsily cut by a longsword. His clothes were ragged, a jumbled mismatch of articles stolen from various victims and ruined through battle. In a simple scabbard on his left hip rested a stolen sword of the Knighthood, a single-bladed Morabet.
They stared at one another momentarily, trying to gauge the upcoming fight. Each seemed disappointed by his opponent. Atheme could see that the man was strong, but he could easily counter brute strength with grey magic. He was uncertain how this youth had defeated trained knights, but confident that this would not be the challenge he had expected.
His hand began to stray to the two-foot long silver bar on his belt, while the Daemon’s eyes wandered over and sized up the other knights. Atheme watched closely, waiting for any sign of his opponent’s intentions. The dark blue eyes gave one subtle twitch.
The man dashed forward suddenly, whipping the Morabet skillfully from his side and attempting to mow Atheme down, keeping his focus on the two knights in the background. Atheme’s hands moved fast. He seized the silver tube and flicked a switch on it, and instantly the device extended into a five-foot staff. He sent it into a spin and brought it down hard into his enemy’s sword, stopping the charge with a clang. Without hesitation he reversed the spin and struck the sword from underneath, knocking his adversary off balance.
The big man regained himself and retreated a few feet, changing into a defensive combat stance. He recognized that he had underestimated his small opponent, and his face turned to joy as his eyes locked onto Atheme.
The Grand Councilor tried to stifle the surge of nervous adrenaline pumping through his veins. He silently admitted that this attack had truly startled him. It was the fastest assault he had ever seen, far too fast for a man so large. Even with years of training and the most legendary reflexes in Felthespar, Atheme was not fast enough to stop that strike. If the twitch had not given the move away, the battle would already be over. He ignored a taste of copper on his tongue and began activating grey magic spells, heightening his senses and wrapping his skin in magical armor.
There was no tell to give away the next attack, but Atheme was prepared this time. As his enemy charged in with a rapid overhead slash, Atheme took a hop backward and raised his sare, stretched out across both palms. The impact rang hard through his arms, and a bead of sweat appeared on his forehead as he struggled to hold his ground. The Daemon did not break position for another strike, but instead pushed his blade stubbornly against the sare, anxious to prove his strength.
Muscle and steel bent with the force of the exchange, and Atheme began to fear that his sare might give out. The weapon was well crafted, but at its heart it was a complicated machine not designed for tests of might. As he contemplated his next move, his eyes flickered over to lock with the youth’s. There was a single-minded determination there, a passion that Atheme recognized all too well. It was time to adjust his tactics.
He surreptitiously adjusted his balance, sliding his left foot forward. For most, the delicate move would have been imperceptible. The Daemon, however, read it as a signal that Atheme was preparing for a kick. He quickly twisted the Morabet and drove it down the shaft of the sare at Atheme’s left hand, aiming to slice off his fingers. This was the response Atheme had hoped for, and he sprang his trap.
He flipped a switch and the sare collapsed to its compact form. He then jerked back with his left hand and threw his body into a spin, twisting about on his right heel. With the support of the sare gone from underneath him, the big man lost his footing and began to fall forward. Atheme spun a full circle, and soon was looking at the youth’s back. He flipped another switch and extended the sare to seven feet, grabbing it firmly with both hands and bringing it crashing at the back of the dark head.
The Daemon recognized the situation he had fallen into, but still falling forward he was left with few options for reprisal. He used his velocity to his advantage, pushing forward and spinning about in midair to avoid fighting blind. He landed on his back and thrust up with his Morabet spread across his palms, mimicking Atheme’s previous defense. He caught the sare at the same time that his body crashed hard against the dirt road.
Again they locked in stalemate, but now the advantage had reversed. Atheme knew what he was fighting now. This Daemon, whatever else he might be, was a consummate fighter. Atheme was not facing a simple killer—he was fighting a human weapon.
He relinquished the deadlock for a moment then leaped a few steps back. As the man regained his feet, Atheme flicked another switch on his weapon. A fanned series of blades opened from one end, mirrored by a long single blade protruding from the other. He twirled the sare about and stabbed the single blade into the ground at his side. He took half a step from it and began to stretch and loosen up.
Now that Atheme had proven himself a worthy opponent, he suspected the young man would not attack while he was unarmed. Playing along, the youth stared suspiciously but did not interrupt his activities. Atheme continued to feign limbering up, but in reality was using the moment for thought. His foe’s fighting style belonged to no specific school of combat, and had no indicators of disciplined martial arts. Still, there was an undeniable coordination to his movements. It seemed that the young man was untrained, barbaric even, but his understanding of combat was innate, perhaps taught at a young age. His natural speed and strength—which dwarfed any Atheme had encountered before—made even his limited technique deadly.
This lack of any formal school of combat left Atheme at a loss as to the man’s identity. He could hail from any part of the continent. If he was an assassin, he was a strange choice—one who relied on brute force and luck rather than stealth or planning. So then, more likely a distraction. But from where? Revian? Pardol? Lenghe? Only Revian might be capable of producing a warrior at this level. What was the endgame? If this was a distraction, what were they distracting him from? If the Daemon was indeed being used as a human weapon, he might not know the answers himself. In any event, Atheme was convinced it would be necessary to bring him in for further questioning.
He seized his sare once more and performed an elaborate flourish, spinning it about with his right hand in an almost mocking manner. The Daemon charged, seeing an opening on Atheme’s left. The flourish suddenly turned into a sweeping strike at waist level. Atheme was confident this move would bring his opponent to a halt, but instead the man threw himself into a roll, rocketing past then springing up behind the shorter man and launching at his back.
Atheme’s eyes widened with annoyance. He took a quick step forward and stabbed the knife of the sare backward, where his senses told him the large man had to be. His blow failed to make contact and a sense of urgency seized him. He bent forward and broke into a swift run, then stabbed his sare into the ground and spun around it. Even as his body twisted around the sare he saw a sword flash alongside his face, narrowly missing. He landed, ripped his weapon from the ground and retracted it, then jumped back and extended it at his foe’s face with alarming suddenness. The Daemon smoothly parried, and continued to approach with a look of deadly calm on his face.
As a flurry of similar exchanges transpired, Atheme considered the tide of battle. His enemy was not holding back, but rather making quick and efficient strikes. Every blow was a kill shot. At the pace of the battle—a pace that Atheme had never had an opponent maintain with him—he was finding it difficult to predict the blows in time to defend adequately. He was only one mistake from being rendered incapable of continuing at the speeds necessary to stay alive. If he was going to survive, it was time to stop holding back himself.
He recklessly increased his pace, relying on well honed instincts to keep himself alive for a few precious seconds. Sword and sare clanged and cracked, and fighters and weapons became a blur of color and sound. Each fighter stopped watching the other, dropping all pretense of control and giving fully over to the thrill of combat. No one had ever countered the sare so effectively, especially someone witnessing Atheme’s intricate fighting style for the first time. His resolve wavered, and he considered that he might not be able to stop this man without killing him. He quickly shook the thought away, determined to at least try.
Carefully, never taking his attention from the battle at hand, he checked his spell matrixes. A potent Fireball was the weakest spell he had with him. He used a few strikes to lure the big man into favorable position. Then, he faulted. He left an attack to his chest unguarded, and instead stabbed out at his enemy’s face. The enchanted Morabet bit easily through Atheme’s chain mail, but grey magic protected his chest from anything worse than a flesh wound. The Daemon was caught so unaware by this gamble that he nearly tripped in his attempt to avoid taking the sare’s blade to his eye.
Atheme took his attack of opportunity and jumped several feet away. He raised one hand and pointed his palm forward, then chanted with inflection, “Tal-loris desuze ein-akul.” His matrix grounded and filled the air in front of him with a blazing network of runes. As swiftly as they had appeared they burned themselves out, leaving the air empty and smoking around a ghostly afterimage. All that remained of the spell was a large ball of flame racing towards his target.
The Daemon’s eyes widened at this display. He thrust his sword into the ground at his side, threw his arms up and crossed them in front of his face. Atheme grinned at the sadly inadequate shield. The fireball hit the man’s wrists with explosive impact, driving him several yards back and scattering a maelstrom of flames and sparks. When the clamor faded he remained standing on his feet, and as he slowly lowered his arms he revealed that he had not even been singed.
Atheme would have been dumbstruck had he been given the time. The Daemon charged immediately, snatching his sword with wicked intent as he passed. Atheme hopped back and prepared another fireball, but this time fired it directly at the ground in front of him. A shower of smoke, dirt and flames covered the battlefield and drowned out both men’s senses. Atheme charged and slammed his sare into the crater he had made, vaulting himself forward with both feet outstretched for a powerful kick.
His enemy anticipated this attack in spite of being robbed of his senses. He grabbed Atheme’s ankles and latched on hard, stopping him in midair. Feeling the steely vice of that grip Atheme knew he was in trouble, and thought fast. He gave a twist and let his head drop, collapsing his sare as he fell. He dangled upside down for a second, then angled his sare at the man’s right knee and opened it up to its full length, nine feet. Machine force cracked bone and rent muscle, and both men fell to the ground. Atheme collapsed his sare and scrambled quickly to his feet. He only took enough time for two quick breaths, then used his heel to deliver a powerful blow to the back of his foe’s head. In spite of the finality of this attack, the man still fought the wash of pain and struggled for nearly five seconds to climb back to his feet. Atheme watched in amazement, unsure how to react, until finally the big man collapsed face first onto the road.
The Grand Councilor shook off his stupor and wasted no more time. He needed to put the man into a magically induced sleep, but if he could shrug off a matrixed Fireball, it was unlikely his Sleep matrix would have much effect. He needed a real rune structure.
He unsheathed a dagger from his belt and made a deep slit against the palm of his left hand, and dipped his thumb into the blood that welled forth. Carefully, aware of the sloppy nature of his ink, he drew a rune onto the youth’s forehead. When he finished, he touched it and charged it with a small amount of ether.
The sigil caught and burned away with an eerie light. Small white flames licked the rune into dust, leaving a delicate black line traced against the forehead. The man groaned and twitched for a moment, then went still.
Atheme tore a strip of cloth from his enemy’s ragtag attire and used it to brace the young man’s injured knee. He saw blood on the makeshift bandage and remembered his hand, and used a small dose of white magic to clot the blood and expedite his natural healing process. Then he waved over to the other knights, motioning that it was safe to approach. They did so silently, unsure how to respond to what they had witnessed.
Atheme paid their awe little heed. “Load him onto the peist. We’re heading back.” He turned and walked away, already returning up the road on his own as the others began to move the body. A few yards later he stopped and turned about. “Oh,” he shouted over his shoulder, “and pray that the sleep spell holds.”