“Sometimes, a scratch is enough.”
I slowly follow the shadow down into the dark tunnel. His black cloak hides him perfectly, but I recognize the signature of his mana. After weeks my hunt is finally coming to an end! Seeing how widely spread the resistance already is, I gave up on stopping them. It isn't my job anyway. At this point, my only goal is to gain a little more information before I return home and report to the king.
Ever so slowly, I enter the cavern at the end of the tunnel. The ground is littered with the corpses of the local resistance group. Yesterday, I paid them a visit. Since then, I planned my ambush.
Standing between the bodies is the shadow who I followed into the tunnel. “Don’t bother to check, Kerrigan. They are already with their gods.”
The man in the dark cloak turns around and pushes his hood back, revealing a pale, human face. “It took you long enough. You followed me since Amitesh. Did I hurt your pride as the elven king’s loyal dog?”
I draw my sword, a thin, silver blade. It’s perfect for stabbing, but can also be used as a slashing weapon if the user decides that it’s necessary. “I just wanted to get a few more answers before I report back. I already caught one of your fellow agents, but something felt off about the body.”
“Yes, about that... how should I put it? He was unfinished. Carving flesh was new to me. The others turned out better.” Kerrigan laughs and draws his own blade, a short bastard sword with black runes on it. “Why are you even hunting me? Do you really think that I will tell you anything useful?” He tilts his head and frowns. “Or that I can tell you anything?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll get the answers from your corpse. After a few dozen attempts, even I have to admit that my ability isn’t of any help in interrogating you. I won't even make the mistake of using it against you,” I answer and edge slowly closer, careful to stay between Kerrigan and the exit. After hunting him for so long, I have no desire to let him escape a second time.
The man nods and swings his sword, testing it. “And you really think that you can take me on? It doesn’t matter though… I already created more agents with my abilities. The master will just lose one of his minions. It doesn't matter.”
I slowly raise my blade, taking an offensive stance. “The last time you got me by surprise. This time, I am prepared for a fight. And I wouldn’t have become his majesty's assassin if I had only my ability to rely upon,” I threaten and take another step, then I jump forward.
Kerrigan’s sword blurs as he counters with unnatural speed, but I already expected it. The clash of metal on metal rings loudly through the cavern. Only the silent corpses stand witness to our duel.
I try to centre myself and allow my instincts to take over. Kerrigan is a dangerous opponent, but so am I. We follow a wordless dance of attacks, parries, and evasions. My concentration is completely on his blade. His unnatural speed requires my full attention.
It's as if I am in a trance, so it’s almost a shock when my opponent tries to kick my knee. Shifting slightly, I barely avoid losing my footing. Our blades sheer off of each other, drawing a shower of sparks. Ramming him with my shoulder, I shove him back and we resume our duel.
The exchange happens so fast that neither of us can even attempt to cast a spell.
No words are spoken as the seconds stretch to over a minute. I feel my muscles starting to hurt, but my opponent must suffer the same problem. Clenching my teeth, I realize that Kerrigan gained a lot of experience. He must have trained day and night since our last encounter. Though, he is still strongly relying on his speed and strength.
Then I realize why his fighting style is so odd. Someone must’ve boosted his power somehow. He isn’t familiar with his own body. That’s why he seems stronger. In essence, he is still green behind the ears when it comes to close combat.
And here I am, fighting him as if I am facing a sword-master.
Relying on my footwork, I sidestep his next blow, using my sword to control his blade. My fist impacts his solar plexus and he chokes, falling back, but not showing the reaction which I expected.
Too late, I realize that whoever changed his body, also made him much sturdier.
Kerrigan executes a beautiful move, guiding his blade around mine. The tip comes up from beneath my field of vision, pointing directly at my neck. Twisting my upper body backwards, I barely avoid having my neck slashed open. Unfortunately, the tip still draws a thin line of burning fire up my cheek and over my right eye.
The wound isn’t critical, but it hurts like hell and I feel tendrils of mana reaching into my flesh. Crying out in pain, I use the offered chance. Kerrigan’s desire to strike a blow rewarded him with success but also left him unguarded. A mistake which is often made by young swordsmen.
The veterans know that committing yourself to an attack which leaves you wide open is dangerous. It’s better to wait for a safe opportunity to inflict minor damage, hoping that the opponent bleeds out or loses the strength and concentration to fight back.
Twisting my blade, I slash it across his belly while I draw it back for a decisive strike. With my free hand, I catch his blade-arm and step towards him. My sword slides easily up to the hilt into his chest. The elven steel parts his leather armour with ease.
For a long moment, I just stand there, looking into his amused eyes.
“Looks like your hunt came to an end. But it doesn’t matter. One body falls, while new ones rise.” Kerrigan shudders. His voice is strangely shifted as if it's not his own. “At least he gave you a little parting gift. I am pleased with my creation.” Then the light in his eyes dims and Kerrigan is gone... or whoever controlled him.
The words caused me to shudder.
I lower the body onto the ground and pull my sword out of his chest. Cursing, I reach for my face and cast a regeneration spell, but the spell matrix ripples and falls apart before settling into place. After trying two more times without success, I begin to suspect that I have a problem. The magic which I felt when I received the wound must have done something to me.
Turning, I reach for Kerrigan’s sword. Not touching it, I allow my hand to hover just a few inches above the blade. And indeed, the weapon is infused with layers upon layers of enchantments.
With uneasiness spreading inside me, I rip off the sleeve of my shirt and improvise a bandage.
“… and so I brought you the body of one of the agents.” I finish my report to the elven king.
The monarch is sitting on his throne, his latest consort, Gwiaha, sitting on his lap. She has one hand on his chest, while the other rests on her bulging belly. It’s still early, but the tight dress reveals everything. By now it’s undeniable that she is with child. Her formerly firm and flat belly shows clear signs of pregnancy and the fact that the king still tolerates her within his presence can mean only one thing…
I don’t understand why he is so infatuated with her. She is just some upstart noble who he acquired like all his other servants. I expected him to lose interest after a few weeks of fucking her. Is she that good in bed to sway even him? On the other hand, every man has a type of woman he worships.
The king gestures at my face. “And that? There is really nothing the healers can do?”
“No,” I grumble. “They tried everything. Healing spells don’t work and the wound doesn’t close. The curse settled into the flesh. Someone suggested to remove the affected area completely or to blast the curse with concentrated magic. That bears its own dangers.” I reach up and touch the bandage which covers the wound. “I am not willing to take the risk as long as the wound doesn’t threaten my life.”
The king nods. “We already dealt with someone who likes nasty enchanted blades. I think that you can stop following this trail. With the weapon and the body you brought us, it’s more than enough proof. The spellwork is different, but the underlying principles are similar enough to draw a conclusion. There aren’t many who have the knowledge or the ability to create such enchantments.”
He looks at the ceiling and massages his consort’s thigh. “What do you think of the rebels?”
“Things have clearly gotten out of hand. They are using the slave collars against their enslavers. The Sociocrathy might be able to root them out if they continue to act decisively. It helps that they didn’t embrace slavery like the Empire. In the case of the Empire, I think that they are in trouble. The density of new recruits is much too high in their territory.
“The Revolutionists are spreading like cancer. The Empire might be able to deal with them in the short term, but the nature of the rebels’ organisation makes me think that it’s impossible to deal with them in a permanent way at this point. They are already out of control.”
I sigh. “They have good leadership and are split into many independent cells. In most cases, one group doesn’t know what the others do, but they are steadily increasing their numbers. The agents who organize them are a different story. The agents don’t take direct action, but they are the ones who coordinate the various groups. The changes to their bodies allow them to be stealthy. What worries me is that they don’t have the collars. Someone branded the enslavement spell directly into their skin.”
The king pulls a grimace. “I saw the body. An ugly piece of work. Worse, I recognized some of the runes. Whoever controls them can watch through their eyes and ears. This is clearly something that deserves everyone’s attention. I have to share this with the others.” He waves his hand, dismissing me. “You may go. Find a way to recover from your wound. I need you in top condition.”
I bow. “As you wish.”