Is it greed to desire something grand?
I often asked myself things like that as I killed someone. Many lives have been forever reduced to similar questions that fade in and out like fireflies on a dark summer night—what’s ironic is that putting a sword through a neck is so much easier than finding the answers. It shouldn’t be, right? Just reach out and grab one of the little lightbugs and put it in a jar to study later . . . but every time I try, they vanish. All I get is a fistful of darkness.
By the time I was done thinking about all of that, there was only one other person breathing in the field before me: the man who had killed my family. My friends. My clansmen. I’d have cried looking at him if that well hadn’t dried up so long before; screamed if there were any leftover rage to burn.
"You're strong, Kinghunter," Ilhor Drago snarled, a hulking man in shimmering ebony armor patterned with wispy typhoons of cream and oxblood. He must’ve stood seven feet tall. "But this is my home, and I'll not die here like some flame you'd snuff out with a shovel of dirt."
He peered at me through two clusters of holes in a solid iron headpiece, describable only as a perforated bucket. The rest of his battalion littered the wood-lined meadow like smashed tin cans. They'd made quite a morbid medium for my art, shades of death tainting the lush, fertile forest around us, painting fern and flower slick with a contrasting crimson. In the holy glow of spring's sun, amidst a field paint-brushed with trampled fuchsia tulips and peonies that dribbled out of the treeline, the bloodied plants almost looked at home.
Ilhor charged at me, and I backpedaled toward the lake's muddy shore while keeping my sword raised overhead. Ilhor would be a challenge, no doubt—perhaps even worth three whole questions—but challenges are meant to be overcome, even if that challenge was once the most feared knight in any kingdom. A man known for cleaving children in two might terrify most, but I’d have fought God himself if that’s what it would’ve taken to put an end to Hadrian’s reign.
What will I do when all of this is over?
His footwork was perfectly placed with excellent tempo; he had the speed of a fox despite swelling with brutish strength, bowing the boundaries of human limits as if they physically couldn't contain his mass. Each swing of his enormous weapon left my own feeling heavier and heavier in hand, every metallic crack a seismic spasm that rang my soul like a church bell. I ducked and weaved through his razing, slowly backstepping to dodge; parrying had become too taxing on my aching palms. With each lurch forward, he churned huge piles of mud, flinging it around us. Though he was slowed, the length of his broadsword kept me from making a clean retreat.
Is there a place left in the world for someone like me?
Not only was I reduced to defense, but the stout cascade of steel he donned had virtually no openings, aside from under the armpits and a small gap beneath his helmet—one just big enough to slip a thin, thirsty blade into.
Another swing, another step, retreating further and further until I could avoid parrying no more and our swords locked with spark and screech. He grabbed me with a single hand that touched its fingers together at the nape of my neck, feet desperately reaching for the ground as he lifted me into the air. I must've looked to pedal myself airborne.
Why am I so damn good at this?
“Why did you come here?” Ilhor asked, though he didn’t care to relax his grip. “I defected. I defected!”
My words barely squeezed out between his fingers. “Hadrian wouldn’t let a defector live. Did you think an early retirement would save you?”
“How did you even find this place? He promised me it was safe!”
“Nowhere—” I punched at his giant gauntlets like a child, gasping. “—is safe.”
He grunted twice; once at me, and once at the ground.
With our weight combined, he sank past his ankles into the soft, dense mud that lined the lake's western shore. He dropped me, hoping it wasn’t too late, then yanked at them fruitlessly—an alligator has strength on the close, not open.
I lunged, but his sword slammed into mine and sent it flying further into the forest than reality should allow, nesting into the canopy with a grating buzz like a silver beetle. A pained screech and flurry of wings rang out, followed by a distant, wooden thunk. Before I could look back in disdain, his blade was thrusting straight at my heart. I ducked, twisting, and barely managed to get low enough for it to deflect off my mail, then grabbed his wrists and pushed forward with all my weight to outstretch his arms.
I only had a second before he'd overwhelm me, but that was all I needed. A small dagger, its polished gold hilt adorned with rubies, was partially hidden at his hip under a small flap of fraying linen. I let go of his off-hand, dropped even lower and grabbed it, then released his sword hand and pushed forward. In a blur of motion, I jammed the dagger into the thin gap between his helmet and breastplate just as his massive python of a left arm snapped at me again. A weary stumble backward was enough to escape his reach.
He struggled and sucked at the air, his words wet with blood. “I’m . . . not even . . . a king. . . .”
“How many innocent people did you kill for one?” I whispered, hacking off his head.
That was for you, Ophelia. For our little ones.
He plummeted into the coast, sinking into it a little bit. After a moment to collect myself, taking a few deep breaths, I was free to finally loot his body—a vulture hungry for the treasure I could smell on him. Out of a covered compartment at his right hip, I pulled out a golden scroll with reverence, cupping it in my hands and brushing my thumbs across its complex network of embossed vines. It was the fifth one I'd stolen, and it was every bit as mesmerizing as the first, glowing as though the sun itself had been laid out in my still aching palms. I knelt there for some time, drinking its glow, and aches melted to memory with each moment. Eventually, I found it within myself to forfeit worship and tuck it into a satchel at my waist.
My fugitive beetle-sword was stuck in a tree nearly twenty yards away, with traces of blood on and around it. Splintered branches and shredded leaves littered the area, but there were no signs of life—or death—anywhere. I yanked it out, apologized to anything I may have harmed in Dominaria Forest, and ran back to the lake's edge.
Hidden. No patrols, no shipments, no trade. Forest for miles on all sides. How ironic that your pet’s hiding place has become mine, Hadrian. It'll need a little cleanup, to say the least, but maybe this can be somewhere my roots can anchor.
A place to belong.
As I approached the castle, stepping over bodies like they were nothing more than fallen branches after a storm, a light, playful voice caught me off-guard.
"What a shame—I wanted to kill him."
I spun, reflexively unsheathing my sword to flare wary steel. A woman emerged from behind bark, crossing her arms and leaning lazily against the tree she'd been using for cover. Her weapon was unattended, dangling with a laxness inherited from its owner.
"I was rooting for you to lose, but your fighting skills are impressive. You're not like the others I’ve run into around here," she continued, her gaze sharper than a blade fresh off of whetstone, her lips hinting at a smirk.
I smiled as a cool breeze slid through thick trees, relaxing. "Yeah. You seem . . . different, somehow. You seem real."