I got home a little after six that afternoon and nothing noteworthy happened until just after nine. I did my usual things in the meantime; I checked the Celestial Hub for anything urgent, then I read Judy’s latest report from the library while I worked out (I was a fan of multitasking). It contained a lot of new and interesting things about the underground politics and treaties defining the areas of influence of the different factions. Nothing caught my interest in particular, so once I finished reading I took a quick shower to wash away the sweat and I had a quick dinner.
I was getting ready for another uneventful evening filled with research and maybe just a bit of leisure time when my phone rang. To my surprise, I found it to be a call from Snowy of all people. Now that was unusual. She almost never called me; and her doing so right after we talked about her with Josh hit me as just a smidgen too convenient for my taste. Nevertheless I picked it up with a smile.
“Good evening, Snowy.”
“Leo,” The sense of urgency in the whisper coming from the other end of the line made my expression wither at once. “I don’t know how long we can talk. Listen.”
“Is there a prob—”
“Whatever happens,” She interrupted me. Her voice sounded more and more frantic by the word. “You have to promise me that whatever happens, you stay indoors! Did you hear me? Stay indoors and stay away from the school no matter what!”
“Just promise me. Please…”
I hesitated only for a moment.
“Sure, I promise, but only if you tell me what’s going on.”
“I can’t. I’m sorry Leo, but I can’t. If I told you…”
There was a sound in the background, some kind of commotion, and before I could say anything else the line was abruptly cut. I stared at the phone in my hand for several long seconds, my mind desperately running through the possible scenarios.
The stupor only lasted for a moment. Whatever the hell was happening, Snowy was in trouble. Her final words said it all; while she couldn’t finish her sentence, I was fairly certain I could.
“’If I told you… you wouldn’t promise me to stay away…’” I mumbled as I pocketed my phone while my legs were already carrying me towards the door. I hastily slipped into the black long-coat I left on the hanger by the entrance and left the house as fast as my legs could carry me through the chilly darkness of the early night.
I closed my eyes for a moment and concentrated on her image. I didn’t have time for a full Far Sight gaze, as it would have interfered with my running, so I only used it to ascertain what I was already certain of. Snowy and her brother were at school for some reason. Also, there was another ‘dot’ with them, which signified someone else I knew. It only took me a second to figure out who that was, and I almost stumbled and fell over in my rush as the realization hit me: They had Josh with them.
I dispelled the Far Sight and once the disorientation died down I gathered my wits and continued running, only to slow down a few seconds later when the phone began ringing in my pocket. I took it out and checked the caller ID. I hoped it was Snowy and this was all just a misunderstanding, but instead the call was coming from Angie. I accepted it and raised it to my ear as I began moving again.
“Leo, there’s trouble!”
“Tell me about it,” I answered flatly. She probably didn’t notice the sarcasm, as she did just that.
“There was a commotion next door. I went over and Josh is missing! Someone kidnapped him through the first-floor window! I tried to follow after them, but I lost their trail.”
“They are at the school.” I told her in a calm, level voice. Well, calm and level considering the circumstances at least. I have read somewhere that the best way to keep people from panicking is to talk to them calmly and firmly, and while I wasn’t happy about the opportunity to try the advice in practice, I didn’t have much to lose.
“The school? How do you…?”
“Yeah. He is there with Snowy and her brother.”
“I have no idea, but I am already on my way. Call the others, I’ll meet you there when—”
The words got trapped in my throat as I was hit by a sudden premonition of danger. Maybe it was a flicker of a movement I caught in the corner of my eye or a scent or I don’t know what, but it clearly told me running ahead was a bad idea, so I came to a stumbling halt a couple of blocks away from the school.
Whatever that forewarning was, it was proven correct a second later as a huge body fell seemingly from the sky and landed a couple of meters ahead of me. I noted with a distinct chill running down my spine that if I didn’t stop, I would have been standing well within his arm’s reach.
The hazy form of the now-familiar Faun rose to his feet with a deep, primal grunt. A moment later the indistinct black miasma surrounding him dissipated without a sound as well, allowing me to look at him without any obstructions. Maybe it was the adrenaline, but he looked even bigger than before, and he was carrying a large spear as tall as he was with a flat, rhomboid head and a strange crisscross pattern running down its black shaft.
My mind locked up for a moment as Snowy’s warning about staying indoors finally hit home, but I was just as quickly shaken out of my shock when I remembered I was still on the phone with Angie. The Faun didn’t seem to be attacking just yet, but a single look at his softly smoldering orange eyes told me he was looking at me intently, probably searching for an opening. While a part of me said this was a perfectly good time to scream like a little girl and run away, another, more insistent part told me that the best course of action was to stay calm and appear confident. I have already met with this Faun before and he did not attack me. It was unwise to give him an excuse to do so now.
As such I raised the phone back to my ear and tried to sound as composed as I could manage.
“Sorry, I ran into a bit of an obstacle. I might be a little late; you can start without me.”
“What? What obstacle? Leo, what are you—?”
I ended the call and casually slid the phone back into my pocket before facing the huge humanoid creature in front of me with a neutral expression. I kicked my brain into overdrive to remember everything I could about Fauns.
They were big and strong. Well duh, I could tell that just by looking.
They were brutish and barely sentient. Well, that was bullshit. I have already seen this one talking with Crowey, and he seemed intelligent enough to appreciate irony, which already made him smarter than some people I knew.
They attacked in packs. That was a bit of info I had gotten from the Dracis library, and one that could have been useful… except this guy was obviously alone now as well as every single time we met before. Or at least so I hoped. Not that knowing that there could have been multiple extras hiding in the bushes would have made my chances any better or worse.
So, in conclusion, I apparently I knew less than nothing. I took a deep breath and after a half-second of hesitation I decided to do what I was best at and wing it, sink or swim.
“Good evening to you,” I called out to him genially, though I might have raised my voice a bit too much, as it made my throat tingle.
I knew that he could understand what I said, which made his reaction to my greeting even more unexpected. He lowered his head a little, his ears twitching, and his lips parted in a wide smile that revealed two rows of surprisingly white ivory. Even more surprising was his voice, which sounded just like a series of low, throaty grunts yet it also sounded like perfectly legible English at the same time.
“Ah, so you speak our language. A pleasant surprise.”
I cocked my head to the side and answered; “I have yet to speak with one of your kin in person, so please forgive my oblivious mistakes.”
Well, that’s what I said, but only because that was all that came to mind as my brain was frantically trying to reconcile with the fact that I wasn’t speaking English. In fact, I was speaking the same language as the Faun, whatever the hell that was, without even noticing it. What came out of my throat was a series of low grunts that weren’t even in the same ballpark as English syntax, yet somehow my brain interpreted them before I even had the chance to think about the sounds. Did that mean I was native in Faun? Maybe I was, before my amnesia, and it only came to light now because I was talking to one of them? What other languages was I fluent in? Was I even speaking English with the others all this time? What if the official language of the island was pig latin and I haven’t ever realized it? There were a lot of things I really wanted to test, but this was obviously not the time, considering I was still engaged in conversation with a creature that could probably bench-press a truck and snap me like a twig at the same time.
Speaking of him, the Faun’s smile widened even further at my previous comment.
“You are full of surprises, young one. I wish we could have met under different circumstances.”
“Why? Would you please enlighten me of our current circumstances?”
The smile vanished from his peculiarly-shaped face and was replaced with a grim scowl.
“I am under direct orders from my liege to…” He paused, his brows twisting like he just tasted something sour. “…end you.”
That was bad. Like, ridiculously, soul-crushingly bad. I mean, I knew he had those orders, but I hoped against hope that he was here on his way back from grocery-shopping or something. I took a silent gulp and kept my voice calm as I returned to the conversation.
“So you are an assassin.”
The light in his eyes flared up like two tiny furnaces as his lips parted again, this time in an angry snarl.
“I am Brang Shadowfeet, scion of Malrog Silvereyes, scout-general of the Faun Innana! I am no lowly knife in the dark!”
Even though I tried to stay calm and wear a neutral face, I flinched at his outburst. That was an unexpectedly angry reaction, exactly the thing I wanted to avoid. That was bad. However, he wasn’t mad at me per se. That was… less bad. Hey, I take my silver linings where I can find them, thank you very much.
More importantly, did I just detect a touch of wounded pride in there? What did that tell me? That he didn’t want to act like a killer. He showed himself to me even though he could have landed right on top of me and pulverized me into the sidewalk. Yet he didn’t. Why? Maybe because… it wouldn’t have been fair? That revelation opened a floodgate of ideas.
The Faun were warriors in the service of the Abyssals. Even if everything else I learned about them was hogwash, of this I was certain. An entire race of warriors. That was the key. There was a character type I stumbled upon during my ‘research’ called the Proud Warrior Race Guy. As the name suggests, it refers to a character who is culturally conditioned to be a warrior. Pursuit of glory, honor, epic battles and all that crap were the things that made these guys tick.
Now, while simply stereotyping the Faun in front of me like that might not have been nice, if I took a step back and focused on the idea that this was a narrative that certainly used these tropes, his behavior started to make a modicum of sense. There was only one question left hanging: Could I use this tenuous deduction to my advantage? There was only one way to find out.
I took a deep breath while I casually pocketed my hands and took up a relaxed stance. I was hoping he would consider this a sign of nonaggression. It must have worked, as the Faun’s expression softened and he swiveled his short, horse-like ears with evident curiosity.
I let out the air in my lungs in a slow stream as I decided on my approach. First, I had to find out whether my hunch was correct. I had to establish whether he was indeed an honorable warrior. As such my first target was his pride.
“You are the scout-general?” I spoke with a series of grunts that I subconsciously recognized as a more polite dialect. “Isn’t hunting unarmed prey below one such as you?”
I had no idea if it was or not, but I had to give it a try. Brang let out a low grunt. I couldn’t really decide whether that was a good thing or not at first, but then he leaned on his spear and spoke in a softer voice.
“Aye, it is. But I have no choice. I tried to delay the inevitable, but alas, I can delay no more.”
I could see him shift his weight on his spear, which could have meant many things. Just in the off-chance that it was in preparation of lunging at me and impaling my spleen on a pointy piece of metal I blurted out the first thing that came to mind, just to keep the conversation rolling.
“But a scout-general? Truly? I find it hard to decide whether I should feel honored or insulted.” That made him pause and raise an eyebrow, a very human gesture that looked subtly wrong on his face. I gulped very, very quietly before I continued. “I presumed…” I paused for a moment as I struggled to get the word ‘Crowey’ across, but in the end, I had to settle for, “… the crow-haired one would face me on his own. I have to assume his cowardice overshadows even my wildest imagination.”
That was another calculated gamble. Insulting his ‘liege’ or whatever could have easily goaded him into attacking, but at the same time I knew that there was no love lost between the two. If I could play whatever sense of honor and/or pride he had against Crowey, I figured (or rather hoped) it would take me one step closer to getting away from this encounter with my skin still draped over my everything. I kind of preferred it that way.
There was a tense couple of seconds there, but in the end my bet paid off.
“It is not my place to speak ill of my liege…”
I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. With this, I already had my foot in the door. I just needed to wedge it open a bit more.
“Even though you cannot deny my words ring with truth.”
“You are…” Brang paused meaningfully. “…not entirely wrong, that much is certain.”
“So we are in agreement that he is a sniveling coward who can’t even be bothered to fulfill his own obligations.”
“… Maybe not in so many words…”
“Please, general,” I shook my head. “It’s only the two of us; there is no need to still your tongue.”
Brang let out a throaty chuckle ending in a sort of snort, another human gesture that felt subtly wrong when performed by a more than two meters tall mountain of muscle with a ram’s head.
“Aye, you are very much correct, but I don’t see how that changes what we both know must happen.”
“I fail to see the inevitability in our situation. Following your orders would tarnish your honor.”
“Aye, but shrinking from my duty would do so as well.”
I opened my mouth to retort but then closed it as my brain caught up with the train on logic and I raised a finger to stall the conversation for a second.
“Please wait, allow me to ponder whether I understand this situation” I spoke, partially just to keep the chills from running down my spine. “You do not wish to fight me. I do not wish to fight you. Not only that, I cannot afford to fight you either, as my comrade is in danger and might be in dire need of my assistance. However, you cannot afford not to fight me, or it would damage your honor. But fighting me as an unarmed civilian would also damage your honor.” I paused and gave Brang a questioning look. He nodded, apparently satisfied with my brief summary of the situation. “So... maybe it is only my incomplete understanding, so correct me if I am wrong, but no matter what we do, we both lose.”
I didn’t want to mention that at least one of the outcomes would lead to me losing more than something as nebulous as ‘honor’, but I decided it was neither the place nor the time to discuss the relative worth of my life compared to the principles of the gigantic half-animal warrior.
Brang inclined his head to the side in an angle and let out a short puff of breath through his nose, a gesture which I presumed was a stifled chuckle of some sorts.
“Indeed. A major predicament, I must say.”
“It is. So... this might be just a stray idea, but would it be possible for us to pretend we never saw each other? You could hardly lose honor over a fight that never happened, and I...” I paused as I noticed the disapproving frown on Brang’s brows. I drew in a sharp breath and quickly shook my head. “On second thought, please forget I said that. Such deception isn’t very honorable either.”
The frown immediately melted from the face of the Faun and got replaced with yet another of those unnervingly wide smiles of his. Backpedaling: successful. It was a little silly in retrospect, I should have figured already that whatever these guys considered to be honorable was internalized enough that it no longer needed public scrutiny to work. So long as it would go against his code he would refuse it even if no one else would ever know about the transgression.
I clicked my tongue in irritation. Normally I would have considered my opponent adhering to a code of honor to be an advantage for me, as it would make them predictable. Sadly, not knowing about the actual tenets of the code turned that advantage upside down, as I had no idea what he would consider acceptable or not.
I pondered for a moment, during which Brang patiently observed me.
“I am drawing a blank,” I told him, though the actual wording was a little different in Faun-ish. Something about white rabbits. Slang didn’t seem to translate particularly well. Anyways, I decided upon another gamble. “I don’t see a way we can walk away from this without a confrontation.”
“Indeed,” He nodded, but didn’t change his relaxed stance. He obviously expected me to continue, so I silently cleared my throat and dusted off my best smile.
“I have just one question: does our confrontation necessarily have to be physical?”
Brang’s eyes opened wide as a mirthful laugh escaped his lips, taking me completely aback for a moment.
“Hah! I was afraid you might never ask! But let me ask you before we begin, as it is tradition:” It was his turn to clear his throat, after which his voice somehow managed to become even deeper and more booming. It was like listening to a landslide in motion. “Tell me whelp, are you ready to test yourself against your better in the Rites of Dominance?”
I froze up for a moment. I was thinking more along the lines of a contest, like rock-paper-scissors or riddling or something. Instead, I found myself being challenged to... well, something I had no idea about. My hesitation only lasted a second. I didn’t have the luxury to refuse the challenge, so I promptly nodded. Sink or swim.
My opponent let out a bellowing belly laugh that shook his armor and had the short braids of his mane tumbling around his massive shoulders.
“Very well, young one!” He declared as he lowered his stance, sparking a moment of apprehension in me.
I hastily threw my hands into the air and made him stop.
“Errr... I must beg your pardon, but before we begin, I am afraid my knowledge in regard of such things is very limited. Would you please enlighten me to the rules of our contest?”
Brang’s ears swiveled ambiguously for a moment before he relaxed and nodded absently towards me.
“I was under the impression you were already experienced in the ways of Dominance. If I was mistaken, you must excuse my presumption.”
“Such apologies are unwarranted. I might have been well versed at one time, but I am sadly unable to recall such time. It is complicated and its explanation is best suited for another time.”
Brang nodded again.
“I understand, young one. We all have our secrets and circumstances.”
My imminent opponent cleared his throat at this point and rested his weight on his spear again. For a moment his image reminded me of a grandfather leaning on his cane while preparing to share an old tale with his grandchildren, but then I remembered that he was a scary-huge warrior creature sent here to murder me, and that killed off the sentiment pretty quickly.
Anyways, he cleared his throat a second time and then began speaking in a slow, deliberate voice.
“The Rites of Dominance is our way of fighting without fighting. It requires the participants to lock gazes, project their spirits at their opponent and defeat them in the future. Once one side establishes their supremacy, the loser has to forfeit their position. It is our way of settling disputes without drawing blood.” He paused and looked over me curiously. “You are the first of your kin I have heard of who could engage in Dominance with one of ours. I have been looking forward to your performance since the day I learned that first-hand.”
“I see. That’s... fascinating.”
This time it wasn’t just the excessively polite way the Faun language translated into English that made me say that. I was truly fascinated by this system and its practical elegance. Such mind-battles would not only help establish a clear and unquestionable hierarchy between fighters, but it was also ingeniously doing so without the threat of death or injury that would impact the fighting efficiency of the Faun as a whole. Quite the contrary! I could hardly imagine how much such a system would simplify training the new recruits and help to keep the veterans in practice without risking them. Whatever Abyssal created the first Faun, they knew what they were doing.
As for why I was able to engage in this Dominance thing... I hadn’t the foggiest idea. The obvious (if stupid) first option was that I was a Faun in disguise. That was, of course, silly. More likely it was related to the way I was able to see magic and interact with it in weird and unforeseen ways. Or maybe it was a completely fresh pile of what-the-hell-pie right out of the oven and waiting to hit me in the face when I was least expecting it. As things stood, I couldn’t even hazard a guess, though I intended to find out more later... well, presuming I survived the night, that is.
“You mean that,” Brang stated with a puzzled tilt in his head, harkening back to my previous statement.
“Indeed, and why should I not? I know far too little of you and your kin, and I am one who wishes to know everything.”
“A vague and impractical sentiment, yet I approve. It is a sad affair that our roads had to cross like this, for I would have liked to share the tale of my people with one such as you. Finding an eager audience is an opportunity that is a sin to waste...” Brang fell silent and his expression darkened as he shifted his weight off his spear and began limbering his massive shoulders. “But alas, one cannot always choose their road. Are you ready, young one?”
“Ready enough,” I answered with a rueful smile, which I used to hide my nervousness.
Brang took a deep breath, so deep in fact that for a moment I thought his lungs were replaced by a pair of industrial-sized bellows, before he straightened his back and stared at me with the familiar orange light in his eyes.
“Tell me whelp, are you ready to test yourself against your better in the Rites of Dominance?”
The question must have been ceremonial, as while the translation suite in my head might have rendered it into perfectly legible English, it somehow sounded (or rather, as silly as that might sound, tasted) archaic. I reflexively stood tall, set my shoulders and answered with a firm “Aye.” before I locked my gaze directly with his.
The moments our eyes met the world suddenly faded away into an indistinct haze. The experience was similar to the first time, but magnitudes more intense. For a moment I could also feel myself brush against Brang’s mind. Only the surface, but it still imparted a few impressions on me like the last time. Determination. Excitement and bloodlust restrained by an iron will. A sense of curiosity and respect. Regret.
The experience only lasted for a second, though it felt longer. I was back in my head and Brang in his, like two vast oceans whose shores briefly overlapped, yet no matter how much of their water mixed it would never change their bulk.
I wondered for a moment why I was thinking in terms of water, but my attention was required elsewhere, so I discarded the question. By now Brang’s figure was enveloped in a thick golden-orange aura that became sharper by the second. A moment later he lunged, even though he was standing still. He brandished his spear even though his hands were unmoving. He bellowed even though his lips never parted.
It only took me a split-second to divorce the image of the real Faun from the golden phantom charging my way, but once I did that my own doppelganger rushed forwards without me even being consciously aware of it. Except... I kind of was. I saw through its eyes, yet at the same time I didn’t. Being in two places at once should have been a very strange experience, but the strangest thing about it was just how natural it felt.
I calmly observed my copy dodge and weave around the image of Brang with deft and deliberate agility I didn’t think I was capable of, its long-coat billowing behind it as it sidestepped, jumped and was generally being awesomely nimble. I wondered how it did it. Maybe it could do things my real body couldn’t during Dominance? I barely even thought about it, but it was enough for my doppelganger to momentarily halt and try to float in the air. It only got punched in the face for its trouble.
So no, apparently I couldn’t do things I wasn’t capable of, or at the very least flight was out of the question. I would have really loved to experiment, but then again, I felt it was a small miracle my copy survived its mistake and was barely able to continue dodging, which was no mean feat either. Brang’s phantom was like a whirlwind, his spear dancing with seemingly impossible grace in his large, meaty hands. A part of me wanted to point out how all of those twirls and brandishes he did between stabs and swings were completely superfluous, but then again, my doppelganger could never find an opening to attack him, so it somehow still worked. Not to mention, it looked amazing.
That, however, also reminded me of my conundrum: while my mental copy was able to dodge Brang’s attacks, it had absolutely no way to strike back at him, and that consequently meant I had nothing either. Maybe this was the wrong approach? I thought about this with a strange, absent-minded detachment while my copy fought for its life, and I probably wouldn’t have come up with anything if not for Brang making an unexpected move. The real one’s body flared up with golden light again and I was assaulted by a second golden phantom. For a long moment I thought it would be a two-on-one fight, but then I realized that the second wraith was coming right at me.
“Oh, I see now...” I muttered as my own second doppelganger rolled backward. Brang’s copy passed right through me, the real me, spear point first and the two began fighting behind my back. Common sense told me that fighting two Brangs with two of myself should have been mind-bogglingly, brain-meltingly hard... except it wasn’t. I was even a little disappointed about that, but only for a moment before my brain finally decided to stop lazing around and kick into a higher gear.
So, fighting with multiple copies was possible. It also didn’t seem to be particularly taxing for the participant. That... opened up lots of brand new opportunities.
I furrowed my brows, careful not to blink and break the eye-contact in the process, and tried to recall the feeling of a new phantom springing forth from me. For the first time, I ran into a setback. While I could picture my doppelganger, and I felt like I was on the verge of creating one, the last step somehow eluded me. In the meantime my copies kept dueling their respective opponents, much to my annoyance. It made thinking harder than it should have been. The one in the front was particularly annoying, as it was injured and keeping it dodging took more and more effort from whatever subconscious process was governing its actions.
At last it got too slow to dodge one of Brang’s swings and the shaft of the spear caught him under its armpit. My subconscious informed me that this was a blow that broke at least two of its ribs and fighting on in that condition was impossible. I groaned in frustration and dismissed the doppelganger, only to stop and wonder how I just did that. My copy brightened for a moment and then it faded out abruptly like a broken lightbulb. To my considerable surprise, Brang’s copy did the same almost exactly at the same time.
I didn’t have much time to wonder though, as the Faun’s body shined again as he unleashed another golden copy of himself. I answered in kind, this time paying extra attention to how I did it. As it turned out, the answer was frustrating in its simplicity: I didn’t just have to imagine the shape, I also had to assign Brang as an opponent to it. As in the real one, so that he could send out his own copy in turn.
I let the new copy settle into the familiar dodging routine while I collected my thoughts. I had a lot of possibilities to explore, and I barely knew where to begin. But then again, with this system in place, I didn’t really have to pick and choose. I wanted to close my eyes for a second to think, but that would have broken the line of sight, so instead I zoned out for a moment and tried to imagine as many extra copies as I could. I could comfortably go as high as nine. Anything above that was beginning to strain whatever part of my brain was responsible for moving them. I wanted to stay on the safe side, so I decided to stick to eight. That meant that, together with the two copies already in action, I had ten phantoms ready to try out every possible variation of actions I could have taken. I tried, but failed, to keep the wolfish smile off my face. This was fun. No, better. Exhilarating.
I focused for a second and with the snap of an imaginary finger I ordered all my copies to enter the fray. There was a moment of intense light as all eight of them shone around me, answered by an equally bright light from Brang’s direction as his phantoms also entered the fight. As they dispersed the Faun once again became visible and I took a bit of satisfaction from the astonished look on his face. It only lasted for a moment though before I quickly switched my attention to my phantoms and their individual tactics.
Phantoms one and two were still engaged in their duels on the sidewalk, neither of which seemed to have progressed at all. While they continued to dodge the Brang-copies’ strikes with impeccable swiftness and precision, they had no way of counter-attacking. Brang had the longer reach thanks to his spear, and even if my copies could have gotten close enough, he was so physically dominating I doubted they could have done any damage at all. As such, these copies’ job was to observe his movements. Even in these short minutes I have learned a number of things from this, though the memories and rudimentary thoughts streamed from the phantoms were so fragmentary it took a little effort to assemble them.
So far I knew that Brang was big, fast, smelled like wet hay, was left-handed, liked to wave his spear tip in an ‘8’ pattern before he stabbed and that he was nursing his left leg; his strikes were always a little slower and weaker whenever he was using it as his lunging-leg..
That was all for preliminary tactical assessment. The rest of my phantoms had very different tasks, however. Phantoms three through five were tasked with finding makeshift weapons in the environment. Phantoms six through nine rushed down the streets in various directions, trying to avoid fighting and head for the school using different routes. Phantom ten was on offensive duty.
Neither of them achieved much. The scavenging phantoms couldn’t find anything even remotely useful and thus were repurposed to runners as well. The ones that were running to begin with found themselves relentlessly pursued by Brang’s copies, who were remarkably fast and nimble despite their size, being able to scale walls and leap over fences with practiced ease.
The offensive one lasted only a couple of seconds before it got turned into a shishkebab, but I didn’t really mind. The beauty of this Dominance thing was that, as long as I had ideas and I was determined enough to try them, I had unlimited extra lives. As such, I sent out another one. And another. Copy after copy rushed Brang and got skewered or their head bashed in, but I had reserves, and each one of them lasted a little longer, incorporating every new experience of the previous assaulters, the dodgers and even the runners into their repertoire. It was fascinating, if a little disturbing to watch. It was technically me who was getting beaten and injured repeatedly after all, and while it was a little squicky, it was still fascinating overall.
Some of the moves my copies pulled off made me wonder if I could replicate them in real life though. Some of the runners managed to climb walls I wouldn’t have even tried under normal circumstances, and the dodgers were getting downright acrobatic with their act. If I presumed that my idea about them only being able to do things I in the flesh could do, it would have logically meant everything they did was possible for me as well. But... what about things I wasn’t sure whether I could do?
I zoned out for a second once again, my phantoms continuing to fight, dodge and run without my oversight, and I retreated into the recesses of my mind to think. My Far Sight was incredibly useful as a utility power, but not so much in a fight. However, there was another ability I have theorized I might have had and it seemed likely I was inadvertently using it a lot in this Rite of Dominance: dodging. Not just the garden variety, but one that bordered on precognition. Heck, now that I thought about it, it was precognition. It made my body react to dangers before they happened and let me dodge attacks from Brang with ridiculous ease. I almost felt bad for the guy. Aside from the first one (which was a fluke) and the assault phantom, he didn’t manage to land a single clean hit on my copies. He still wanted to kill me, so I didn’t feel that bad, but still.
That left one last ability I theorized about, one which I was never too keen on experimenting with as it would have resulted in a lot of head-trauma. I re-focused my eyes and flashed an evil grin at my opponent. He didn’t react, but I kept on grinning because stopping would have been awkward. Anyways, I concentrated on my runners for a second or five.
Honestly, while Brang might have been unable to land a hit, he was really good at kiting my copies. None of my runners were able to get closer to the school, as their cat-and-mouse chase around the streets was somehow always steered back into the same neighborhood by the Brang copies. They were good. But then again, he was a scout-general, so I figured he had more experience in running around the place and herding opponents than I did.
Actually, my previous statement was not entirely true. One of my copies wasn’t in the neighborhood anymore. Instead it was running down a highway in the exact opposite direction, dodging indifferent cars, trucks, and motorcycles in a reckless rush. My original plan with this one was to lure this copy into a dangerous environment and use an opportunity to shove it under a vehicle, but instead it provided me with a perfect opportunity to test my idea. I paid extra attention to the phantom in question, waited for the perfect opportunity, and finally, after a couple of seconds, I found what I was looking for.
My phantom threw itself into the traffic once again, closely followed by its chaser, and headed right towards a large truck thundering down the middle lane. I crossed my fingers (quite literally) and had it running towards the incoming vehicle without stopping, focusing all my attention on what the phantom felt and did. The truck was coming closer at an alarming rate. It wouldn’t hit the brakes, of course. The phantoms were invisible to other people.
I could feel the cold sweat on my back as I got so in sync with my copy that I could almost smell the exhaust fumes on the highway. The truck was only a couple of meters away, its bulk ready to turn me into a smear on the road, but I kept running towards it nonetheless. At last I leaped forwards, my heart beating like a war-drum in my throat, and… my bet paid off.
There was a moment of dizziness as the world blurred and streaked by my phantom. It wasn’t from an impact though. Instead he landed right behind the truck and continued running, much to the apparent astonishment of my opponent.
Well, he might have been baffled by what I just did, but it couldn’t even come close to how I felt. First and foremost, I was surprised. Partially that it worked, but more importantly about how simple it felt. The actual act of… whatever just happened was suddenly as clearly in my mind as my Far Sight was. It felt downright silly that I couldn’t do it before. In fact, that was the source of the second part of the overwhelming feelings churning in my head: uncertainty. It felt so easy, but I knew it was not supposed to be.
It wasn’t magic. I knew that even from the cursory knowledge of magic theory I managed to gather. It was something else, but that something felt as natural as riding a bicycle. Was this something I could always do and I just forgot about it along with everything else? And if it was, just how many other powers were sleeping inside my head?
However, all of those misapprehensions were dwarfed by the sheer fist-pumping, yell-from-the-depths-of-your-lungs elation that filled my mind with cheers and my blood with dopamine.
“So I can teleport now,” I stated with a giddy grin that threatened to split my face.
Like that, as if a dam had broken, all my phantoms began to use this new power like it was part of their repertoire all along. The runners used it to hop onto ledges and roofs, bringing the chase to the rooftops. The dodgers incorporated it into their acrobatics, making their avoidance of Brang’s attacks absolutely trivial, while the assaulter used it to find new and even more innovative ways to get skewered by the Faun’s spear. And it was all amazing. Yes even, the skewering part.
I am not going to lie, I felt pretty good about myself. For several minutes I absently observed my phantoms and marveled at the kinds of things they were doing. However, as the seconds kept ticking down, I started to become more and more uncomfortable (and not just because my eyes were itching from the lack of blinking). The ability to teleport short distances gave my runners an immense advantage, yet they were still herded around by their respective opponents. For the dodgers, it just made what they were already doing slightly less physically taxing, but aside from that, it didn’t really change anything either, while for the assaulter it did even less, as it still lacked a way to actually damage the Faun.
And that was when it hit me: I was actually losing. I was way better at dodging and evading strikes (in fact it seemed I was downright specialized in that), but this entire game or ceremony or whatever was about asserting dominance. It existed to show that one side would be able to defeat the other without question if it came to actual combat, and thus avoid it altogether. I was losing in that regard. Big time.
I furrowed my brows and recalled my runners one by one. While they helped establish that I could avoid combat, possibly indefinitely, they didn’t really help with the actual Dominance. My new setup was as thus: Four dodgers, five assaulters and one whose purpose was to establish whether or not I could use the teleportation offensively.
It turned out I couldn’t. When it tried to blink into his respective copy of Brang, it just didn’t happen. I hoped there would be a displacement-effect of some kind (after all, teleporting like that had to displace the air at the target location), but then I realized that I had no idea how this new power worked. Let’s look at the bright side: now I knew one thing it couldn’t do. That’s progress, right?
Either way, I made little to no actual progress. I was like the wind; so long as I was moving he had no way of catching me. However, he was a rock; no matter how hard I came at him, he remained steadfast and repelled me without any difficulty. Sure, I suppose I had the advantage in the grand scheme of things. The wind could wear down any stone after all, if given enough time. Sadly that was the thing I didn’t have. The best I could do right then and there was to grind the Dominance into a standstill and force a tie, but I didn’t know how long that would have taken or if it was even possible.
The clock was ticking, and I had no idea how much time I had. In fact, I had no idea how much trouble Snowy and Joshua were in. My hunch said it was a whole honking lot, but to know that for sure I had to actually get there, and I have wasted too much time already.
I took several, evenly paced deep breaths and discarded any stray thoughts, such as about the way my newfound teleportation worked (or why I would even have it in the first place) and I focused on the task at hand.
Question one: What was my goal? The first answer that came to mind said ‘To beat Brang,’, but I discarded it quickly. That wasn’t enough. He had beaten my phantoms many times, but he didn’t automatically win. No, my goal was ‘Dominate the fight.’ I not only had to beat him in this mock-battle, but I also had to do it in a way it was clear he lost, period.
Question two: ‘How do I do it?’ Well… that was a very good question. As I said, I could theoretically make him give up, or at least make him declare a tie if I stopped trying to fight him and just dodged him until he got bored, but that didn’t seem like a viable option. I had to find a way to beat him solidly and consistently.
Question three: ‘What was stopping me from doing so?’ I mulled over that one for a while. It wasn’t just that he was bigger and stronger than me (though it most certainly wasn’t a trivial detail). The real problem was that he was armed and had a better range. Even if he was a normal guy and not a magical half-animal humanoid bred for the express purpose of warfare, that spear would have made him a tough nut to crack. Combine the two factors and he was unassailable.
Question four: ‘How do I solve the problem?’ I had to level the playing field. I needed a weapon. There was only one itsy-bitsy problem though: I have already established that there was nothing I could turn into a makeshift weapon in the vicinity. I could theoretically send my runners out again to look for something outside this neighborhood, but that would have cost me time and I was uncertain I could find anything that could match up to the reach and heft of that spear.
And then, just like that, I had an idea. It was an unthinkably crazy idea, but that just meant that, if anything, it was more likely to work in this world. I had to make certain of one thing first though. I took a deep breath and took a step forwards without breaking eye-contact. Brang didn’t react. As a matter of fact, the Faun’s eyes seemed to be glazed over. Maybe this was more taxing on him than on me? Either way, he didn’t react even after I smiled and waved to him.
Okay, that part of the plan could have worked. That was one step. I had to make sure though. After a moment of hesitation I focused inwards and exhaled hard. There was a blaze of light surrounding me for a moment and then four more phantoms joined the fray, getting their numbers up to a mind-straining fourteen. That was my limit, and the suddenly appearing creases on the Faun’s large forehead told me it was close to his as well. “Good,” I muttered under my breath, “Focus on those.”
I steeled myself for a second and took a step forwards, then another. They were slow, deliberate steps, and after just a couple of them I was standing right in front of Brang. From this close, he somehow managed to look even bigger than before which, if you asked me beforehand, I would have said was impossible. Even his smell, a kind of thick, earthy musk that wasn’t necessarily unpleasant as much as it was thick and overwhelming made him seem scarier from up close.
I silently gulped and steeled my nerves. I made sure one last time that he was too busy with the Dominance. I was reassured by how he still seemed to be looking through me instead of at me. I knew I had only one chance at this, so I limbered up my fingers, counted to three, inhaled sharply, and then acted without any further hesitation.
“Wha…?!” The Faun sputtered as my hands lashed out and grabbed hold of his spear. Even though our eye-contact broke the phantoms lingered for several seconds, during which I pulled on the spear with all my might. He obviously wasn’t expecting that, so by the time he would have had a chance to reaffirm its grip, I already tore it from his grasp. Brang staggered backward in shock, his eyes blinking in confusion. It was an opportunity I couldn’t miss, so I used the momentum I had to swipe his left leg with the butt of my new weapon.
The Faun let out a downright pitiful yelp as the strike connected and his stagger turned into a full-fledged tumble as he fell backward and landed on his back with a loud thud that shook the ground under my feet. I wasn’t sitting on my laurels just yet though, as I followed after him with a half-step. I held the spear in both hands and pointed its head right at my fallen opponent’s chest, stopping the tip just a few centimeters from his overdeveloped pectoral over his heart.
It was at this point that I looked him in the eye again, re-establishing the Rite of Dominance. All the vaguely lingering phantoms around us disappeared in a blink of an eye to be replaced by fourteen copies overlapping me pointing fourteen spears at fourteen fallen Fauns. Neither of us said or did anything for several seconds. The only sound that registered in my ears was the heavy drumming of my heart threatening to burst from my chest.
Then, to my complete and utter bafflement, Brang slowly closed his eyes and began laughing. At first it was just a chuckle, yet in just a few moments it blossomed into a hearty, throaty chortle that reverberated through my entire body. Most surprisingly of all, it was genuine. I couldn’t detect a shred of distaste or bitterness in him, even though I was afraid he would be outraged by the way I re-arranged the power-levels in our contest.
At last, his laughter died down and he raised his gaze at me with a smile in his eyes.
“Splendid,” He said in a slightly croaky voice. He cleared his throat and tried again. “It has been decades since my last defeat in the Rites of Dominance, yet to think you would overcome me the same way warmaster Whlor Redmane did… Truly remarkable.”
“I see…” I muttered uncertainly. “I welcome your praise.”
He tried to nod, which was fairly hard considering he was on his back and already straining his neck to look at me. At last, he gave up and let his head back down and stared at the starless sky for a few seconds in silence.
“You are the victor, young one. Do as you must.”
There was a strange finality in his words, and I realized with a chill what he meant. He was defeated and ready to be killed. It should have been obvious, but for some reason it only dawned on me in this second, and it made my stomach roil. I imagined stabbing him in the chest and moving on, and just the mental image was enough to make me look away in shame.
I steadied my breathing and finally lowered my weapon. Brang twitched when he heard the butt of the spear hitting the pavement and looked up at me again with a dumbfounded expression. I let the corners of my mouth twitch upwards a little and after a moment of hesitation I offered him a hand.
“What are you doing, young one?” He asked while alternately looking at my face and my outstretched hand.
“Not what I must, but what I want,” I told him in what I hoped was at least a little bit cool, though my shaking voice probably ruined the image. If it did, Brang didn’t say so, as after a moment of hesitation he reached out and grasped me by the forearm. It took considerable effort, but I managed to get him onto his feet. Strangely enough, once he was no longer armed and staring me in the eye, the faun stopped being humongous. Now he was just plain huge. Funny how perception works.
Once he stood again, he awkwardly dusted himself off and looked at me with a face that said; ‘Now what?’ It was a question I wanted to ask as well, but since I was the victor, it was obvious I had to come up with the answer. I smirked ruefully and leaned on the spear in the mirror image I saw him do, though considering that it was longer than I was tall it took some extra effort to get the balance right before I spoke.
“I have never slain a worthy foe before, and I am not about to form a habit now,” I told him with the conviction of a technical truth.
“So I see,” Brang nodded in agreement. “It appears we have also answered your question. It was an insult.”
It took me a second to recall what he was referring to, and I shook my head.
“Do not value yourself so lowly. It was your liege who did not realize his mistake, so the shame falls on his head, not yours.”
“Kind words, if undeserved,” He answered with a ceremonial bow. “Though I fear you might face my liege as well this night. It might not be my place to say so, but I hope it never comes to that.”
“We shall see,” I said with a small grin before I hefted the spear in my hand. It was a little long for a human, but it was surprisingly light and well-balanced. I frowned at the weapon thoughtfully before I turned back to Brang. “Would you mind if I borrowed your weapon for the night?”
The Faun’s expression became fierce for a moment before it mellowed out again.
“The spear is the symbol of my rank and place in the Faun Innana. It was what I am,” He told me flatly. Right after this though, he let out a defeated sigh. “But you are the victor, and thus it is yours to take.”
I rolled my eyes and hefted my new spear again. “I shall take your spear, rank and honor with me then,” The Faun’s ears drooped at my declaration, so I quickly continued, “I shall return them to you once this night is over. You may have my word of honor on that promise.”
That made Brang’s ears and expression take a complete 180-degree turn in a split-second. He bowed again, almost reverently, and answered; “So be it. I cannot aid you in your quest, as it would put me at odds with my liege, yet I wish you the best of luck, Leonard Blackcloak.”
That last par felt oddly significant, but I had no time to ponder on it. I have already spent precious minutes nursing the feelings of the guy who was to be my assassin, time I should have been spending on the road. I gave him an appreciative nod and took a couple of steps before I was halted by Brang’s voice one last time.
“Beware of the Chimera,” He said before his shape blurred in a familiar black haze and he turned around, walked over to a nearby lamppost and sat down beneath it. I gave him one last look, then I tightened my grip on my newfound weapon and picked up the pace again while wondering if I just escaped the frying pan to fall into the fire.