Cole and Mason circled each other like direwolves in a forest clearing. Muscles tense, eyes narrow, each waiting for the other to strike.
Of course, Saul Mason would never make the first move. Not unless he saw weakness. The Knight Commander was too careful, more an opportunist than a true fighter. He would surely...
No, Cole scolded himself. Don't think. Focus. It's been twenty years. You have no idea what he's capable of.
Rain hit them like falling icicles, broken droplets spattering their hard leather armor. The crowd waited in silence as if holding its breath.
And then Cole charged.
He feinted to Mason's left, then twisted to his right. The Knight Commander dodged both attacks, unfazed, a grin forming on his scarred face.
Cole slashed at his stomach, his neck, then his legs. Their blades sang as Mason parried each strike in turn.
The flow of battle fell into a rhythm of feints and counters. The clamor of steel was like a heartbeat. He didn't feel the cold, or the rain, or the hundreds of eyes that watched them. Never before had he fought with such high stakes, with so many lives on the line.
Less than a minute passed, but it felt like an hour. There was no denying Mason's fighting prowess now. Every stance and swing had been practiced far beyond the point of mastery. This left their minds open for greater strategy.
"Imagine if your father saw you now," Cole shouted between blows. "His only son—who he never thought could be a soldier—sparring with the greatest of all his students."
Mason gave him a look that could wither stone, but his attacks remained precise. Never using more force than he had to.
"If only you'd been so brave in Stormharbor," Cole continued over the clanking steel. "He might still be alive today."
Mason took the bait this time, rushing in with a series of violent, reckless assaults.
Cole backed down, raising his blade and twisting his torso in a defensive stance. He hoped to gain an opening, but Mason was far quicker than he'd expected. The other man was also well-rested, while Cole had spent the past few weeks in a cell, followed by a sleepless night on the sea.
Each incoming blow felt more powerful than the last. His head pounded, and his ears rang from the strain.
Mason came in with an upward blow that took him by surprise. Cole raised his blade to block, but the force of it sent the weapon to the ground. An instant later, Mason drew a dagger and slashed forward. Cole felt a hot line of pain across his neck. He stumbled back as blood sprayed from the wound.
His vision blurred, but he was still alive. A graze, then.
Mason gave him no time to recover as he charged forward again.
Cole met him on the offensive. He threw himself into the next few blows. His muscles ached as if he'd sprinted a mile, and a soreness worked its way into his throat.
Mason parried the first two blows, but the third cut across his stomach, slashing through leather.
He roared in response, raising a fist to Cole's chin. Cole barely felt the punch, but his breath left him when his back hit the snow.
His sword left his hands in the impact , and Mason raised his own blade to finish him
Reacting on instinct, Cole raised his gauntleted hand to catch the attack. He let out a cry of pain as the steel cut through his wrist, hitting bone.
"I told you," Mason sneered. "You should have run."
He pushed harder, and the pain grew unbearable.
Cole rummaged through the snow with his free hand, and his fingers found the hilt of his sword. A surge of strength filled him as he gripped it. Nahlia's face flashed into his mind as he wrenched his broken wrist to one side, taking his opponent's sword with it. Then, with a final scream of pain and defiance, he plunged his weapon up to its hilt in Mason's chest.
The other man fell back, leaving Cole's blade dark and red. The crowd stood still as he staggered forward to deal the death blow.
Cole raised the crimson blade, tensing his arm to hide the shaking.
No courage or defiance shone in the Knight Commander's eyes. Just raw fear. Mason pivoted his head around the crowd, still clinging to the hope that someone would rush to his defense.
No one moved except for Cole. He swung his blade in a clean arc, And the Knight Commander's body hit the snow.
Cole should've addressed the crowd, but no words came. His wounds were too grave, and it took all of his strength to remain standing. A pair of medics rushed out and escorted him back to the Knight Commander's tent. There, Mason's officers waited.
And so the fight continues.
Despite his victory, he had no real authority yet. Regulations weren't always reality. If these men wanted to, they could throw him over the cliff and seize command for themselves.
The medics lowered him into a hard wooden chair, and one of the officers approached. Tall and thin he was clean-shaven with short dark hair.
Cole's eyes fell from his face down to the insignia on his chest. Captian. The second highest rank in the Templar Order.
The man cleared his throat but didn't salute. "Your orders, Knight Commander?"
Orders... Cole struggled to think over the waves of pain surging up his arm. So many things... where to begin? He tried to speak, but his throat was dry and he found himself coughing instead.
The medic put a canteen in his good hand, and he took a good long swallow. By now, the other five senior officers had gathered around.
"Sir?" the captain asked. His voice came out as more of a challenge than a question.
"Disarm the explosives on the ridge," Cole rasped. "And have the men pull back from the lower tunnels."
The officer's eyes narrowed, and his lips made a thin line. "The men came here to kill Aeons. You expect them to turn back now?"
"The Raider army will be here in a matter of hours," he replied. "They'll slaughter us down in those tunnels. If we leave now, we can go home with minimal casualties. If we keep fighting, we all die here today. Us and the Aeons."
The officer stood poised and resolute. "That's a cause I'm willing to die for."
Cole shook his head, then winced when he remembered the open cut on his neck. "The Aeon warriors all died in the courtyard. It's nothing but families and raw recruits down now. Mason was obsessed with this, but there's no need for you to die on the orders of a dead man."
His head fell forward as if he couldn't bear the weight of it. Blood loss. He didn't have much time left.
Cole gritted his teeth as he met the man's eyes again. "Do you have a family, Captian?
He nodded. "A wife and two sons."
"Then fight for them. Whatever happens here today, there will always be another war. Your family needs you alive. Your Republic needs you alive. And your Knight Commander is giving you a way out. Take it."
Cole's vision blurred as his eyes scrapped shut. He felt the medic's hands hold him up, but darkness took him all the same.