Amaryllis and Simuryllis had a private conversation early the next morning, and I watched carefully as Simuryllis turned to dust, which dissolved in the air. It was a neat effect: I had never seen anything like it. I hadn’t really expected Simuryllis to go back on her word, but I’d thought that there would be more … I don’t know, ceremony? It was twelve hours lost, twelve significant hours, I’d thought, and it was gone in a heartbeat. I felt a little bit alone.
“The news is in,” said Rosemallow once the display was done. “The trial by council is postponed until tomorrow, and the trial by combat will take place in six hours.”
“Fucking seriously?” I asked.
“Don’t swear at me, young man,” replied Rosemallow with a frown. “And certainly not in my own house.”
“I wasn’t swearing at you, I was swearing at your godsdamned idiotic legal system,” I replied. “It’s fucking stupid.”
“This is your final warning about swearing,” said Rosemallow, her voice stern.
“Fine,” I said, folding my arms. “Then explain to me how I have next to zero prep time for this.”
“Trial by combat is to be discouraged,” said Rosemallow. “It’s not a good system of justice, even we recognize that. The deck, so to speak, is stacked against any defendant, as a trial by combat is the final resort of the truly guilty. It is the council’s pleasure to hold the trial by combat whenever they please, whether that be an hour after it was requested or three months later. In fact, when Onion was — don’t snicker.”
“Sorry, I just forget that’s his name sometimes, and then people say it,” I replied. “I would find it less funny if people didn’t say it like it was so deathly serious.”
“When Onion first requested trial by combat,” she continued, insistent, “It was nearly impossible for the council to find someone who was willing to take the Court’s side in the matter.”
“And now you’re, what, his hype man?” I asked.
“I beg your pardon?” asked Rosemallow, frowning at me.
Amaryllis had finished up looking at her notes and made a beeline for us, apparently sensing trouble, or simply knowing that leaving me with Rosemallow would result in trouble one way or another.
“A hype man,” I said. “Someone whose job is to create a lot of excitement for a fighter or entertainer before the main event.”
“Juniper does take this seriously,” said Amaryllis. “He’s spent the last twelve hours planning for the trial by combat, and he had certain advantages in that regard which he’ll demonstrate before the Court. I have absolute faith that he will decisively win.”
“It’s important that it’s done without chicanery,” said Rosemallow. They used that word a lot in the Court. It had always been one of Arthur’s favorites, but now I was hearing it way too much. “It’s been some time since a trial by combat, much less one that was expected not to be a simple execution. There will be many warders watching.”
“We’re aware,” I replied. “Nothing out of the ordinary, I promise, just a regular, boring trial by combat.”
“Your husband will have to be tempered, if he’s to be a part of the Court,” said Rosemallow, speaking to Amaryllis as though I wasn’t there.
“I have a question,” I said. “Let’s say that I murder Onion, proving my innocence. What’s to stop me from committing another crime, declaring trial by combat, and then going up against the second greatest swordsman of all time, or whoever takes his place? Do I just kill a person for every crime I commit?”
Amaryllis sighed. “If no one volunteers after thirty days have passed, the matter would be taken to the General Council, and they are authorized to put forward a member of the prosecution, selected from the Court. Someone might be selected against their will, you understand. Most likely, that person would be me.”
“So if you have control of the votes in the General Council, and I go on a crime spree, we can just kill whoever we want?” I asked. “How does this kingdom still exist if things are this broken?”
“Anglecynn holds together through tradition, custom, and mutual understanding,” said Rosemallow. “There are certain things so beyond that pale that no one has tried them. And when people step out of line, unfortunate things sometimes happen to them, outside the system of laws.”
“Well, that’s all well and good,” I said. “But enough time wasted. I need to work on my squirt gun.”
I boosted Essentialism to 80 to get Scaphism, then began eating souls. It had to be done with at least some speed, because an unbottled soul would go to the hells pretty quickly, but I worked fast, scraping out every combat-useful skill I could see and putting it into my own soul. I was scared as shit that this wouldn’t work, that maybe there was a hidden rule somewhere that Reimer hadn’t known, some limit like ‘no more than one Scaphism effect can be applied to a skill at a time’, which would have been totally reasonable, except that I didn’t have the rules, because my mom burned them, because I had wanted to put off talking to her. It would have been fair comeuppance, in a dickish Dungeon Master way.
But no, there were unpleasant surprises, but nothing that stopped me entirely. The first was that there was another Affliction, ‘Overmaxed’, which applied above 200 points, and added additional drain on top of the ones from Scaphism, Overcapped, and Double Overcapped. The second problem was that skills couldn’t be pushed above 300. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but I’d been hoping to push things as high as they would go, just so that I would be completely covered.
There were virtues. Lots of virtues, some known, some unknown, but so many that we didn’t have time to write them all down.
Heavy Armor 40, Solid Craftsmanship: Your heavy armor is considered twice as dense, twice as hard, and twice as durable, where such properties would be beneficial. Your heavy armor has no weak spots, though it may still have the usual gaps in its defense. Embellishments and ornamentation on your heavy armor never count against you.
Heavy Armor 60, Immovable Rock: While wearing heavy armor, you are able to resist ninety percent of forced movement. Missiles which impact your heavy armor do not impart any momentum, so long as they do no damage. You do not take fall damage while wearing heavy armor.
Heavy Armor 80, Adaptable Armor: You do not suffer any penalties for wearing heavy armor meant for another species. All heavy armor resizes and refits to your body, even if it would not naturally do so.
Heavy Armor 100, Armor Synthesis: You do not suffer any penalties whatsoever for wearing any heavy armor. Heavy armor you wear is inviolable.
Parry 40, Prophetic Blade: For the purposes of parrying, any weapon you have accessible is considered drawn, even when it’s sheathed. This includes improvised weapons. You can parry even attacks that you are not aware of. Once parried, you are aware of them.
Parry 60, Mass Parry: You suffer no penalties for parrying multiple projectiles or attacks, no matter how many of them there are or how many directions they’re coming from, no matter how unreasonable this would be.
Parry 80, Reflective Parry: When you parry a projectile, you can redirect it back at the attacker or source. Use half your parry skill as the attack bonus. The redirected projectile travels at half the original speed.
Parry 100, Godly Deflection: You no longer suffer size penalties for parrying projectiles, objects, or attacks. For the purposes of parrying, what you consider to be a projectile, object, or attack is expanded by two degrees of reasonableness. Parrying never damages your weapon.
Dodge 40, Lightfoot: When dodging, if it is necessary to move in order to dodge, you may move, even if you would not otherwise have the time or speed to do so. You are limited to your normal movement speed for any given dodge.
Dodge 60, Retroactive Avoidance: If some unknown or seemingly innocuous effect hits you and is revealed to be harmful within five minutes of the hit, you may retroactively decide to attempt to have dodged it, altering reality with no trace or memory other than the knowledge this virtue was invoked.
Dodge 80, Displacement: When you successfully dodge, you can designate someone or something else as the target, so long as they are not the attacker or source of the effect you are dodging. The attack is made against them as though they were standing in your place. If successful, reality will be altered such that the attack was always against the target for redirection. Such an attack must be possible: if it is not, the dodged attack is simply dodged.
Dodge 100, Star Body: Your dodges can transcend space and even time. No dodge is strictly impossible. The maximum cumulative penalty to any dodge cannot make any dodge worse than a 50% chance.
One-Handed Weapons 40, Riposter: When you successfully parry an attack using a one-handed weapon, you can immediately make an attack without the usual combat penalties, and in half the time the original attack took, if that’s faster than your normal attack.
One-Handed Weapons 60, Off-handed: When wielding a one-handed weapon, using non-weapon items in your off-hand(s) can be done as easily as if you had both (or all) hands available, even when this is unreasonable. This applies to shields. For the purposes of this virtue, pistols and other one-handed ranged weapons are considered one-handed weapons.
One-Handed Weapons 80, Diamond Blade: One-handed weapons you wield never break or dull, even if they would do so due to magic, magical effects, entads, or entad effects, though they may still suffer other conditions and effects. Your one-handed weapons do twice as much damage when they hit.
One-Handed Weapons 100, One With the Blade: Using a one-handed weapon, including moving while using one, never fatigues you. While holding a one-handed weapon, you will not feel hunger, thirst, or the need to sleep, though you may still accrue afflictions. While in a fight where you are using a one-handed weapon, you do not suffer the maluses for any physical injuries sustained, even if they would otherwise be fatal (though these attacks still do damage, and you can still die by dropping to 0 HP).
Two-Handed Weapons 40, Heavy Swings: Your attacks with two-handed weapons generate twice as much force, multiplying the energy put into them. This does not always mean that they will do twice as much damage, depending on the circumstances of the attack.
Two-Handed Weapons 60, Weapon Shield: When using a two-handed weapon, you may block with it as though it were a shield, using either your skill in Shields or half of your Two-Handed Weapons skill, whichever is higher. This shield is not considered a parry, and does not interfere with normal use of the weapon.
Two-Handed Weapons 80, Thaum Breaker: Any two-handed weapon you wield is wardproof. When you attack a creature or object with magical defenses using a two-handed weapon, ignore those defenses.
Two-Handed Weapons 100, Total Commitment: When wielding a two-handed weapon, you can choose to not use two hands, but rather, your entire body, spirit, and soul. If you choose to do so, you can take no other actions (including talking) aside from using your two-handed weapon (you can parry, but not dodge, and weapon shield, but not shield). If you stay in this state for two minutes of combat, you may make an attack that automatically succeeds, with maximum possible damage, and your selection of injuries from the injury chart. The two minutes must be continuous. You may leave the state at any time. If you attack in this way, you must wait one week to enter this state again.
Thrown Weapons 30, Boomerang: Thrown weapons can hit additional targets, even if they otherwise couldn’t. Reduce your initial attack bonus by 25% for each additional target. A target cannot be hit more than once in an attack chain in this way. All weapons you throw have the returning property.
Thrown Weapons 50, Richoshot: You can bounce thrown weapons off surfaces without respect to normal physics, up to three times in a row. Weapons bounced in this way do not have to follow the angles dictated by physics, the weapon does not lose speed, and you do not have to have clear sight to secondary surfaces or the target. Attacks made in this way provide a ten percent surprise bonus to attack, because this is stupid and should not work.
Thrown Weapons 70, Multithrow: When you throw a weapon, you can throw as many duplicates or near-duplicates of that weapon as you have available, making a separate attack roll for each.
Thrown Weapons 90, Megathrow: When you throw weapons, you are no longer subject to penalties for size or weight, so long as you can physically lift and maneuver them.
Thrown Weapons 100, Throw Me To The Moon: You can throw anything you can get your hands on, including enemies, teammates, and yourself.
Combo Virtue, Journeyman Blade-Bound: You have double the effective attributes for the purposes of skills or checks related to using your bonded weapon. If your bonded weapon is a rate-limited entad, double its rate; otherwise, double the entad effects, if beneficial.
Combo Virtue, Master Blade-Bound: While using your bonded weapon, you gain a multiplier to speed equal to one twentieth your skill with it, to a maximum of five times faster. You can be one degree less reasonable when determining what you can do with your bonded weapon, including entad effects or properties, if it’s an entad.
Combo Virtue, Grandmaster Blade-Bound: Your bonded weapon is infinitely sharp (unless it is sheathed). It is capable of cutting as though it were a two-dimensional plane for the purposes of friction, but as though it were any acute angle of blade for the purposes of separating cut material. Your bonded weapon can cut inviolable materials.
Onion was so completely fucked. As I read through the virtue list, I was practically laughing. The capstone virtues weren’t universally great, but enough of them were straight up busted that there was no way that this fight with Onion wouldn’t be a complete curbstomp. My blade? Infinitely sharp. My armor? Inviolable. I could dodge things in strictly impossible ways. Onion wasn’t going to get a chance to hit me, but if he did get a chance, then he wasn’t going to hit me, and if he did hit me, then it wasn’t like it was going to do fuck all to me. Really, I was just trying to think of the most hilarious way to murder him. Maybe at the start of the match, I would just chunk my sword at the floor of the arena, bounce it off the ceiling, and have it come down to slice him in half, ending the match in spectacular fashion a few fractions of a second after it had started.
“Don’t get cocky,” said Amaryllis. She was giving me a very serious look and putting the last of the soul bottles back into Sable. We’d gone through more of them than expected, in part because some of the souls hadn’t been labeled, in part because trying to push everything to three hundred in spurts of (mostly) tens and twenties took a lot of souls, which took time, which caused the numbers to run down.
We were in the staging area at the Penndraig Arena, a relatively small room that had the entire crew in it, minus the tuung, minus Gemma, and minus Pallida, who was keeping Gemma company just outside the door. I was armored up in very high-class but completely mundane armor, made of something called ethermetal, which was one of those ‘non-magical’ materials that I had probably thought up when adamantine was looking a little too boring. The ethermetal was a loaner from Rosemallow, taken out of a vault somewhere and very rapidly resized to me, which didn’t really matter, because as it turned out, I got a virtue that resized non-magical armor for me. Ethermetal was extremely durable, and could soak up force from impacts, making it a little like punching silly putty. We weren’t thinking that it would help all that much, but it was pretty much strictly better than anything else we could get. There were some metals that were better, but so hard to work with that there would be no way of having the armor modified for me in the time we had available to us. Of course, that was before we found out what the heavy armor virtues were. I might have argued for borrowing adamantium-equivalent armor from some ally in the crowds, but the virtue made ethermetal inviolable anyway.
“Don’t get cocky, don’t talk to him, don’t do anything but kill him as quickly, efficiently, and safely as you can,” said Amaryllis.
“I was thinking of hamming it up for the crowds,” I said. “You know, get them to make some noise, clown around a bit, give them a show.”
“Juniper,” said Amaryllis.
“I could give a monologue, but we didn’t write one,” I said. “That’s an oversight on my part. I did think of some onion-related one-liners though. Like, if he jumps at me, he’s a spring onion. Get it?”
“Assume that this is the most deadly serious fight of your life,” said Amaryllis.
“When I kill him, can I put ‘World’s Best Swordsman’ on my business card?” I asked.
The door to the staging room opened. “Showtime,” said Pallida.
Amaryllis gave me one last look, and then I was on the move, following an attendant through utilitarian hallways until I was led out into the arena itself. Onion was already there, but it took me a moment to recognize him. When I’d seen him at the council meeting, he was old and wiry, the kind of old guy that you could recognize as a hardened military type, even if he was way past his prime. This Onion was in his twenties, dressed in glossy black full plate armor with three glowing orbs, each the size of a fist, set into his chestplate. He looked fucking evil, and that was before he put his helmet on, which had swept-back spikes around the top.
“He looks young,” I said to Grak, who stood beside me.
“He passed the initial inspection, like you,” said Grak. “It must not be magic, unless it’s one of his entads. I saw nothing suspicious.”
“Hrm,” I replied. I could see with soul sight that his armor and sword were magical, though that would have been obvious just from looking at both of them. If one of them was responsible for putting him at peak physical health, I supposed I wouldn’t hold that against him, but it was entirely possible that some other tricks were in play. He could certainly have had a soul mage do it, though I didn’t think that was allowed within the normal rules, since, after all, most of the Lost King’s Court looked old.
The clock was ticking. Between the various debuffs, I was losing about a point a minute. We’d gone as close to the start time as possible, but if there were a half hour delay before the match started … well, I was really hoping that wouldn’t happen. Even then, the multipliers that the virtues threw around were legitimately nuts, and my total bonuses were ridiculously high. Parry was SPD based, and I had not one but two multipliers to it, meaning effective SPD when using my weapon at something like 80, which would get multiplied by twice my skill, which was just below 300. That meant a total modifier that should, in a just world, be ten times higher than Onion’s.
“You there, you there,” said the referee, pointing to places that had been marked on the concrete floor of the arena. I moved into place.
The arena was a large one, with seating for fifteen hundred people in three different tiers that surrounded the fighting grounds. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Anglecynn had a thriving business in bloodsports. Part of the reason for that was that revision mages could make such fights non-lethal, reversing all the damage to leave two healthy men standing there (or women, or beasts, or whatever else was on the docket). According to Amaryllis, the bloodsport matches were much more sporting than in times past, with a lot of the exploitative elements stripped away, and there were some murmurings about stopping them altogether, which were usually shouted down by people who didn’t understand why a long-standing institution should ever change. The arena that the Court had decided on was one of the biggest and most prestigious, cleared out for the day with other matches postponed.
There was clear sky overhead, though Aerb didn't have retractable roofs, instead opting for permanent wards that would keep water and snow out. The arena we were in was supposed to be known for the water wards they'd put in place, which weren't of a simple geometry, instead being sculpted by someone with considerable artistic skill to create a display that was only visible when it rained. Looking up at it, I felt a little bit cheated, since there wasn't even a cloud in sight. I thought that I caught a glimpse of something golden, just for a moment, which wouldn't have surprised me at all, given that a gold dragon was known to be in the area. I had bigger things on my mind.
“When I’m done talking to you two, I will leave,” said the referee. “After I’m out of the arena, a gong will sound. That gong marks the start of combat. You both know the rules, and if those rules are broken, that means an automatic loss. Mr. Smith, in your case, that means you will be summarily executed. Lord Onion, in your case, that would mean that Juniper would walk free. Are we clear?”
“Yes, that sounds good,” I said.
“Clear,” said Onion.
“Are there any questions?” the referee asked.
“No,” I said.
“None,” replied Onion.
“I’m going to leave now,” said the referee. “This arena is currently warded against many different magics, but using any that aren’t warded against will result in an automatic loss. Using any entad aside from one of the two you entered will result in an automatic loss. Warders are watching you.”
He turned and walked away, leaving me standing not too far from Onion.
“Nice weather for it though,” I said.
Onion didn’t reply.
I looked at his sword, trying to see if I could work out what it did just from the look of it. The blade was silvery, a mirror finish, but the handle was a riot of color, tiny gems and varying pieces of metal that were just a bit too gaudy for my tastes. If I were designing an entad, that would be used to suggest something of variability or facets, but that wasn’t a lot of help, if it was even accurate.
“Do you ever bet on yourself?” I asked. “The odds are fourteen to one against me, so I gathered up as much cash as I could on short notice and had a friend go to as many bookies as she could. I guess the value proposition isn’t so good if everyone always thinks that you’re going to win.”
Onion got into a fighting stance, sword raised, and I did too: the referee had just reached the door. Aside from when I’d been burning through Mome Rath’s bones, I had never felt so powerful in my entire time on Aerb.
“There is no pleasure in life like cutting down someone cocky about their impending win,” said Onion. “I’ll make your death slow.”
“I wasn’t even planning to kill you,” I replied. “I was just going to leave you braindead. You’d be a vegetable for the rest of your life.” I grinned, and I knew that it wouldn’t be visible beneath my helm, but I wished he could have seen my face.
The gong sounded, and I threw my sword right for Onion’s mid-section, whipping it as hard as I could. Under normal conditions, the probability blade was a grip with a cloud of gray, but with all the bonuses I had, it had double the effect and needed to be two steps less reasonable. I could feel, holding it, that it was both a one-handed and two-handed weapon for the purposes of the game mechanics, which meant that it was getting the benefits from both right up until the moment it hit, when it would decide to be whichever was more beneficial. The cloud of gray that represented everything that it could possibly be was more than two meters across, and even the grip was only solid where I touched it. The moment it left my hand, it was a fast-moving blob of gray in the air.
I didn’t really know how the probability blade worked, even fully bonded to it, even with Grak having looked at it. If I had to guess, I’d have said that the probability blade would run through different timelines, testing out different shapes and seeing what the outcomes were like, but if it wasn’t doing that, then it had some kind of internal system, or a rudimentary agent that made a judgment call. Sometimes, it would simply choose to be nothing: I could pass my hand right through the cloud of possible blades.
That meant Onion couldn’t parry it, because it would choose not to be anything if it would have hit his sword, and the strike from my infinitely sharp sword would cut right the fuck through him —
Except that when my sword was halfway to him, his sword turned into an equally enormous cloud of gray mist, and when the two huge clouds hit, the gray mist that was my probability blade went flying back at me.
This all happened in a tenth of a second, and at the end of it I was standing there holding the probability blade again, its handle back in my hand, ready to use again. It wasn’t going to cut me, naturally.
“Alright,” I said. “It’s going to be one of those fights.”
Onion’s sword snapped back into its other version, reflective metal with a multicolored hilt. He advanced on me slowly, with the point of his sword held in front of him. I backed up, instinctively, and decided to take a chance on the Total Commitment virtue.
All at once, I was melded with my sword, not just moving it as an extension of my body, nor my body as an extension of it, but with the two of us as a single organism dedicated to fighting. My entire essence was in the fight, save for one small part of me that could pull out and abort, but it felt like multi-threading, a separate and distinct piece of me that was watching from the sidelines, unable to actually interfere with what was going on.
Onion struck, and I used my sword as a shield, which opened me up for the second attack from the side, which I parried and riposted, the riposte met by his own parry.
I had no idea what a true master swordsman was like. I’d fought blade-bound a few times, but they were nothing like Onion. Simply in terms of speed, his movement was grotesquely fast. He was faster than me. I didn’t know what his armor was doing, or if the sword had any other properties than being able to copy the probability blade, but it was nothing that I would have been able to keep up with if I’d had to consciously be making decisions. Even the opening throw, parry, and catch had taken my mind a moment to catch up with.
I’d been quietly counting the seconds as I watched myself do this impossible back and forth with Onion. My sword was a mist of possible swords, but I couldn’t land a hit on him, because when I went on the attack with a thrust or a strike, his own sword would turn into mist, and he would parry me. Once or twice I saw my probability blade take an actual shape, clashing against his to parry him, and that really shouldn’t have happened, because my blade was infinitely sharp. The obvious conclusion was that his blade was infinitely sharp as well, and the scrap of mind I had, which was lagging behind the actual combat I was doing, could see that was true from the way the blades slid against each other for those fractions of moments that they touched.
We eventually ended up in a riposte loop, which I’d been thinking about since seeing that virtue. I parried his attack and went for an attack at double speed, and he parried that, going for an even faster counterattack, and none of it made any fucking sense, because speed and physics didn’t work that way, but I narrowly parried him, and then he parried me, and by that point he must have been going sixteen times faster than his already ludicrously fast speed, finally going so fast that the probability blade couldn’t actually materialize into a sword form in time, which shouldn’t have even been a thing. I made a strictly impossible dodge as his sword hit my midsection, ending up ten feet away from him with my sword raised.
He’d cut me. His blade had gone through my armor just below my last rib, and I had dodged while the sword was actually touching my skin. This was explicitly against the wording of Total Commitment, which prohibited dodging. He’d forced me to bail.
“You’re pretty good with that thing, huh?” I asked. I wasn’t breathing hard, and neither was he. It was about thirty seconds of the most intense swordplay of my life, and I hoped that I was the best swordsman that he’d gone up against, like he was for me. Neither of us were at all worn down.
“How did you do that?” he asked. We weren’t actually fighting, just casually circling each other, with the understanding that the fight would start up again soon.
“Which part?” I asked.
“You moved out of the way,” he said. “My sword had touched you. Your sword, I know. Was the glove a decoy? Do you have a different second entad? The warders haven’t stopped the match.”
“Just a trick I picked up,” I replied. “I’m really, really good at dodging.”
There was actually a decent chance that I was going to lose this, I was realizing. His skill was basically as high as it could be, and he had to be benefiting from some of the same virtues, or something like them. While I would have thought before that people would be capped at 100 in any skill, I was realizing that was an assumption that the system had never actually confirmed anywhere, it was just that you didn’t get perks for going higher. Onion’s sword could cut my inviolable armor, which meant that he had the capstone blade-bound perk, or something like it. I wasn’t sure why I’d lost the riposte-off, whether it would have gone better if he had been the one to start it, or if it was down to dice rolls, or what.
“Do you ever wonder what it looks like to those insects out there?” asked Onion. “This display of skill is so far beyond their understanding of the art, they’re like illiterates holding a book club.”
“Well,” I said. “It’s good to know you have layers.” I really wished that my helm didn’t block my face, because I had on my best shit-eating grin, despite growing realization that this wasn’t going to be the cakewalk that I’d thought it would be.
I went into Total Commitment again, but kept my position as it was, not advancing forward on him, just sitting there, waiting for an attack. I was hoping that two minutes would pass with just this circling bullshit, and then I would get my automatic hit at max damage.
“You didn’t come by your skill through training,” said Onion. “When the arrogant enter training, they get weeded out, or they get exposed to their ignorance. You never had to pass that filter. The taunts aren’t taunts to you, they’re honest expressions of the deficiency of your character.”
I stayed silent. Total Commitment required it, because I was one with my sword, and to speak would have distracted from that oneness. I was only distantly aware that I could talk, and only with the piece of my brain that was waiting to see whether I should bail from the strike. I didn’t actually fight better in Total Commitment, I was pretty sure, I just gave up some executive power in order to have that one perfect hit.
“You’re a strange creature,” said Onion. “I’m trying to think of some way that I can keep you alive, to see what makes you tick, but I don’t think it’s possible. It’s time to get serious.”
He switched his sword from his right hand to his left. He was just far enough away that I couldn’t make the lunge to him in his brief moment of weakness.
If I had been fully myself, I might have told him off for being such a fucking cliche. What was next, was he going to remove the weights that he’d been training with? Was he going to reveal that he’d had his eyes closed the whole time? Or reveal that his sword was actually some super special sword forged by blah blah blah, its true power kept from me because displaying it before this audience would —
“This sword once belonged to Uther Penndraig,” said Onion. “It was one of his last acquisitions. We’ve pretended, for five hundred years, that all it would do is copy the powers of the sword you were fighting against. It’s far, far better than that. If pride is another of your sins, you may take pride in the fact that you are the person that caused me to reveal it to the world.”
Unfortunately, he didn’t tell me what in the hell the sword actually did, but if it was a weak meta-entad, then — well, I was one with my sword, and had a minute and a half to go before the full strike, so my actual thoughts in that corner of my mind that I was still holding onto were lagging and sluggish. A strong meta-entad, I thought as he approached me.
Just before he struck, his blade disappeared, all except for the hilt, and he kept swinging it towards me. I had a minor reach advantage on him, and pushed it, swinging the probability blade’s gray mass, but his blade popped back into existence, then became a blur, parrying my strike as every possible version of his blade met against every possible version of mine, presumably in some kind of race condition, because otherwise I would have assumed that one of our blades would be able to take a form that the other couldn’t defend against.
That blade disappearing and reappearing … well, that was the kind of thing that I would want to think about while I wasn’t focusing the entirety of my mind on swordplay. But that ability had a strong resemblance to one that I’d seen before, and even in my diminished state, backed into a corner of my own mind while I engaged in swordplay, I could realize that it was probably the flickerblade. His sword didn’t just copy mine, it copied hers, and that meant that it could probably copy any sword in the area, and if it could, then he’d be a fool not to plant dozens, hundreds of entad swords in the crowd, just on the off-chance that he really did need to use his super secret ability.
I think he did Amaryllis’ ability first just to psyche me out, because once that had failed, he began running through the gamut, throwing novel attack after novel attack at me. Some of them seemed like they were just tried on for size, like a (rather uninspired) flaming sword that was realistically never going to help him hit me. He took the ability of Gemma’s sword for just a moment, leaving him with two daggers, one in each hand, and I almost got him in that moment of weakness, but he dodged back and away, disengaging and forcing me to move forward. I didn’t know how his sword worked, what kind of control he had over what he got, but I was hoping that it would take him some time to find something devastatingly effective.
Total Commitment was ticking down, but all my skills were also ticking down, and if Total Commitment failed, then it was entirely possible that I was fucked.
Some other guy might have gotten increasingly desperate as he chunked through a dozen entad swords, but not Onion. He was methodical about it, taking his time, experimenting with the swords, though I suspected that he had some inkling of their ability just from locking onto them. One of them moved him so he was forty-five degrees to my right, but I parried with the probability blade, a proper parry, which entitled me to a riposte, which sent us into another cycle of increasingly fast ripostes. This time, I was the victor, and scored a hit, though it was nothing like what I had wanted, a cut that sliced through part of his offhand, removing a few fingers, nothing more. He bounded backward, checked his wound, then went right back into the fight, registering the injury and continuing on as though it hadn’t happened.
One of the swords he tried had a bit of a gun built into the handle, and he took a moment to retreat from me again so he could level the gun and fire it. I would have laughed at the stupidity of trying to shoot a blade-bound, if I’d been in my right mind, but I would have eaten that laugh, because what came from the gun was a cannonball, which was actually pretty scary. I parried it, and because I laughed in the face of physics, sent it right back at him going half the speed. I wasn’t terribly surprised that it didn’t do any good.
And it wasn’t long after that, when he was trying to get me with a sword that was weeping ooze, that Total Commitment paid off.
The whole attack took a sliver of a fraction of a second, not even long enough to properly appreciate, but as I watched it back in my mind’s eye, his body ripped apart and flying in different directions, properly obliterated, I could see the attack I’d somehow made, an impossibly perfect strike with the weight of the world behind, a transcendental moment of godhood, no more complete mastery of the blade in history. I savored it even as I stared in awe at pieces of Onion falling to the ground.
Then, he started to come back together.