At first I thought it was a revision mage, undoing the fight, which would have been manifestly unfair, given that it was to the death, but maybe a bit understandable. If everyone admitted that I was the winner, well, I would take it. But no, it wasn’t a revision mage at all, that would have looked completely different to what I was seeing, which wasn’t the reversal of physics, but instead, the pieces of a man being repaired by — his armor, I could see it coming back together too, assembling him.

I ran forward to attack this work in progress, and was brought to my knees by a glow of green magic that shrieked in my skull. It didn’t stop until Onion was back together, gasping within his armor, whole once more, even the fingers that I’d cut off back on his hand. The only difference was that one of the three green lights on his chest was burned out.

“I won,” I said. “You fuck.”

Onion’s sword was in his hand, its form the same as it had been at the start of the match. I was waiting for him to counter, to say that it was to the death and he wasn’t dead, or for him to ask whether I thought he was stupid enough not to clear it with the referee first. Instead, he just attacked.

There was something savage in the way he went after me, though it was hard to pick up on it, because there was nothing uncontrolled about his impeccable swordsmanship. Instead it was the way he would attack any opening, and naked aggression that wasn’t without its risks. He hadn’t expected to die. Now, he wanted this done.

I was a better swordsman than Onion. I’d known, going in, that would probably be the case, since if we were evenly matched, then my advantage would be sky-high skills, and his would be high attributes.

I moved in close, wielding my cloud of sword at one of the openings he’d left for me, and he wasn’t able to bring his blade down in time, not until my blade had already touched his armor. His own version of the probability blade made some absurd shape when he got it into position, a curved hook that might have been a bastard cousin of a kopesh. He managed to stop my blade before it had penetrated more than a few inches, but that should have been enough to wound him so badly that he would be easy to finish off for a second time.

Unfortunately, when I lost the contest of strength, Onion seemed completely unfazed, and resumed his attacks with the same speed and fury that he’d used before. We got into a third riposte chain, but I elected not to take my attack after my second parry, worried that I was going to get sliced up by the inevitable counter-riposte.

He was moving slower, more cautiously, and if his wound wasn’t stopping him, then it had been a wake up call. He was back to what he’d been doing before, testing out swords and generally finding them wanting. If he was concerned about a second hit like the one that had killed him, he wasn’t showing it in any way, which was a shame, because having him prepare for an attack that I wasn’t going to make would probably have been helpful.

This was all going on for longer than sword fights were supposed to go on, and I was getting weaker by the minute. My best guess at what was happening on a game-mechanical level was that the tuning was somehow off, and at very high levels of all the relevant skills, defense trumped offense, almost certainly because of how sky-high parry could get. We’d had it happen in a few of our sessions, where round after round would pass with no one seeming to be able to hit each other. Usually, I would try my best to fudge it, since it always sucked the tension from the combat to have miss after miss, but I didn’t think the Dungeon Master actually cared. Needless to say, D&D was a lot better balanced than the jank I was saddled with, the jank that underwrote the entire universe I found myself in.

After another minute of back and forth swordplay, with Onion occasionally trying out a different entad ability for his sword, he either happened on one that he had been trying to find, or one that he was lucky to come across. My world went dark, but only for a moment, because I dodged out of the way, not knowing what I was dodging or where I should be moving, somehow coming up from a sideways roll with all my vital body parts intact. Onion was standing beside a sphere of pitch black about twenty feet across, which he ducked into as soon as he saw that I’d moved outside it.

I sat there, tensed, waiting for him to come out, but he stayed in the zone of darkness. I didn’t know what he was waiting for, if anything, just that I couldn’t see him. Surely he hadn’t figured out that time wasn’t on my side? Surely he wasn’t going to while away a half hour in pitch black?

When his sword came flying out of the darkness at me, I parried it straight back into the darkness at him. I had only seen it for a fraction of a second, but it wasn’t the same black sword that had created the darkness, it was something else, a flaming sword whose heat I’d felt even through the armor. I tried to work out what that meant, and realized that the sphere of darkness was staying there even though he’d switched which entad the sword was copying, which meant that the darkness was probably a permanent or ongoing effect. That was bad, real bad, because it meant that he could safely cycle through different possible entads, secure in the knowledge that I didn’t actually know where he was. It was worse than him stalling.

The next attack from the darkness was with multiple blades, which I frankly found insulting, because a bladebound could parry bullets pretty much as a novice. I parried them back at what I thought was his location, based on the arc of the weapons, but they kept coming out, as though he thought he could tire me out, or somehow score a hit.

The last sword to come out of the blackness was followed by Onion himself, his black armor providing a bit of camouflage that didn’t particularly stop me. Rather than going at me head-on, he ran off to the side, circling around me and forcing me between himself and the bubble of darkness. I wasn’t about to get pushed into it, but assuming that he could see while inside it, it was an interesting asymmetry he’d created, where I had a physical obstacle that he didn’t.

Unfortunately, that was only half the story, because at the same time he attacked me, slashing forward with his probability blade, I felt a prickle at the back of my neck and caught sight of a second attacker in my periphery.

I pulled a sword from Sable, completely non-magical and unbound, and parried the attacker from behind at the same time as I parried Onion in front of me. Unfortunately, the non-bonded blade wasn’t infinitely sharp, and couldn’t properly block the sword behind me, and I felt the bite of a blade before “dodging” ten feet away, my movement far more like teleportation than actual movement. The sword I’d been using to parry with had been sliced in two, and I dropped it to the ground, with the probability blade held in front of me. There very much appeared to be two Onions in front of me. I couldn’t tell what had happened with the one that had been in front, and was now on my left. I was fairly certain that our swords hadn’t touched. They were moving out of sync, which put limits on what could possibly be happening with whatever entad had been used, but I had no clue, it was a fucking entad, it could be anything.

I finally decided to take a chance and pull a piece of untried, untested gear from Sable, which was on my left hand. Both of the Onions saw the weapon just as it came out, and moved away from the nozzle as I held it down, ducking away from the chlorine trifluoride. I managed to get both of them in the spray though, their parries ineffective (thank the gods), and the one on the right burst into flames straight away, then melted and dissolved into mud. The one on my left, the real one, made a change to his sword, causing it to be wreathed in shimmering frost, which attacked the fire on him.

(I was deathly afraid of the metal Super Soaker I’d used, in part because I had been the one to create it, as well as the one to synthesize the death fire inside of it. It was way beyond my skill level in Alchemy, and for how little time I’d had to produce the stuff, there had been an awful lot of nearly disastrous consequences. Aerb had all kinds of materials that weren’t available on Earth, some of them magical, some of them ‘not’ magical, and we’d done three tests with different Aerbian materials, all of which had been a bust. There was a gel made by an aquatic plant that firefighters would smear themselves with before running into a fire, and chlorine trifluoride set it on fire at the moment of first contact. It was impressive, seeing chlorine trifluoride burn through a piece of starmetal, which was supposed to stop dragonfire, but it really made me think that I was playing with something way beyond my paygrade.)

I held my breath and moved as far away as I could, because the arena floor was on fire where the chlorine trifluoride had come out, and that fire was producing fluorine gas, which was a severe irritant. Onion was still trying to put himself out with his sword, which was spreading frost across his armor now too, except where the fire juice had hit him. While he was working on that, I threw my sword at him, the probability blade once again a cloud in the air, and while he saw it, and turned his sword into a probability blade of his own to parry it back to me, that meant that he no longer had the frost weapon. The flames started up once more, burning his armor, and when I caught my sword, I threw it again, forcing him to parry. This time he tried to turn my sword away, to parry it and pin it to the ground, but it returned to my hand all the same, courtesy of my virtue that made it a returning weapon.

It was a slow death, until it wasn’t. He was burning, and to stop it, he needed the same entad that he was using to fend off my attacks. Eventually, the fire burned through the thigh of his armor, down into his leg, and he dropped to one knee. He parried my sword, then parried it again, but on the third time, he waited too long trying to fight the fire, and the probability blade cleaved straight through him, from the top of his shoulder down to the meat of his hip on the other side. My sword was back in my hand before his armor started rebuilding him again.

I waited and watched, wondering how many times I was going to have to kill this fucker. His armor had three jewels on it, and the second one cracked and went dim once he was back on his feet, but did that mean that he had one life left, or two? By videogame rules, it should have been three times.

I was at two thirds of my full HP. Normally HP wasn’t really a consideration, because I would use my bones to heal my wounds before it would even matter, and tracking how much more punishment I could take was really a matter of tracking bones, not the number on the bar in the corner of my vision. That was standard for a lot of games, where there were two health economies, and one of them was irrelevant most of the time. In D&D, once you got to a certain point, you paid a lot more attention to how many healing spells the cleric had, rather than how much the party members died. Now, in this arena where bone magic was warded against, I was back down to actually paying attention to that bar and what it was doing, since I’d turned pain way the hell down and my virtues meant that afflictions didn’t actually provide maluses.

I started round three with another squirt from the flame soaker. I was really hoping, in my heart of hearts, that it would drench him in flames and that would be the end of it, but all narrative logic said otherwise, and I had to believe that he’d been thinking about the problem for the entire time he’d been burning to death. When the gout of flame came toward him, his sword transformed, becoming a creamy white, and the liquid flame diverted around him. I let off the trigger, whipped my probability blade at him, and then mashed down on the trigger again, hoping that he wouldn’t be able to defend against both attacks at once. Instead, the cream-colored sword he was holding pulsed slightly, and the probability blade went flying off to the side, the attack diverted, before returning to my hand.

Well, fuck.

Once he’d acquired a sword, or whatever the fuck his actual limitation to copying was, he didn’t seem to have trouble using it a second time, and he switched fast enough that he didn’t seem to have a problem using it as a defense. This new cream-colored sword he was using would mean that future liquid attacks would be pretty much harmless, unless I could get in with my actual weapon at the same time, but I didn’t have dual wielding as a skill anymore, and I had to imagine that I was suffering some kind of penalty for doing it without: I could certainly feel that I was less effective with my weapon.

I crossed over to Onion, still holding the fire soaker. The dome of blackness was still there, and now half of the arena was on fire, the floor not at all impervious to the fire, not that I’d expected it to be. There were fumes in the air, already stinging my eyes, and I was trying my best to avoid the smoke. I idly hoped that the audience sitting above him, which I’d been completely ignoring, had adequate defenses against what we were throwing around.

I was actually a lot worse at swordfighting while holding something in my offhand, and not just because I was really worried about the fire soaker suffering some malfunction or leak that would end up fucking me. I had made the thing as fast as humanly possible, and definitely not had as much time for testing as I’d wanted, even though we’d had access to a facility that Rosemallow had procured for us.

When I was within melee range, Onion changed his sword to one that was red and pitted with rust, and lunged toward me, forcing a parry. I squirted the fire soaker at him, but he dodged to the side and switched back to the cream-colored one that repelled the fire. I wasn’t entirely sure what he was playing at, but I knew that if he was taking an overly cautious approach, that probably wasn’t good for me. I didn’t have a good gauge for how long the battle had been going on, but I was sure it had been a few minutes, maybe even double-digit minutes, which meant that I was appreciably worse.

Onion came in again for a quick strike, which I parried, and this time I could see that his rusted sword had done something to my sword where they made contact, a spot of rust that disappeared as soon as the probability blade was back to its old blurry self. I materialized it once, seeing if the rust spot was permanent, and Onion attacked again, bouncing backward from me when I squirted the fire soaker at him.

The liquid fire was coming out slower now. The tank was pretty small, and there was limited pressure. Once it was out, I could switch to the acid soaker, and some other tricks, but I was having trouble pushing the offensive while dual wielding, and time wasn’t on my side.

Onion came in a third time, and this time our blades stayed in contact for longer. The rust spread fast, more of a splotch than a spot, and I let the probability blade go immaterial, hoping to cut straight through him. Instead, I found myself dodging out of the way as our swords followed through at each other, another strictly impossible dodge made just as his blade touched my armor.

I had gotten him with the fire soaker in that exchange though, a glancing blow to his side that had nonetheless set him on fire. I smiled a bit, thinking that I was well on my way to killing him, but then I saw my probability blade flicker once before materializing into a rusted, pitted sword.

I cursed as I watched Onion put out the fire with his frost sword. I had other swords in Sable, of course I did, but I wasn’t bonded to them, which meant that I wouldn’t get the benefits, which meant that if we went sword-to-sword, I would almost certainly die. The place where he’d cut into my armor showed no rust at all, and I swore at what complete bullshit it was that my sword wasn’t actually inviolable like my armor was. I had the Diamond Blade virtue, but it only said that my sword would never break or dull, and apparently two degrees of reasonableness wasn’t enough for me to argue the point. As I looked at the rusted out probability blade, it hadn’t actually broken, and the cutting edge was as sharp as ever, it was just that whatever magical effect had been applied to the blade, it had stopped it from doing its probability thing.

I was getting really annoyed by entads.

Onion put out his fire with the frost sword and began to approach me again. My eyes were watering, but I could see just fine, because physical injuries were no longer a great concern. I still wasn’t sure how I was going to win this though, if the probability blade was stuck in one shape.

I decided to take a gamble. My armor had been struck by the same rusting attack, but it was unaffected because it was inviolable. However, the inviolability only applied because of my skill with heavy armor, and in theory, that meant that I could use my, er, ‘skill’ to let that magical effect continue on, if it was sticking to the armor. With that thought, rust raced through my armor from the point where it had been cut, and the metal flaked and fell off in pieces until it was completely gone. Once that was finished, I tossed the probability blade and the fire soaker to the side.

You see, when I’d been carving out skills from souls, I hadn’t just taken exactly what I’d needed, I’d been thinking about contingencies, and really, it seemed unfair that Onion was the only one to have multiple phases.

Unarmored 30, Glancing Blow: While unarmored, add a bonus to injury rolls equal to your unarmored skill. While unarmored, you can ignore one physical injury affliction, changing which is ignored whenever you would like.

Unarmored 50, Ghost Body: While unarmored, attacks which hit your body no longer make physical contact for the purposes of contact damage or effects, whether magical or otherwise, even if those attacks still do damage.

Unarmored 70, A Body in Motion: Attempts to net, ensnare, grapple, or otherwise restrain you have a 50% chance to fail (after dodge attempts), and are twice as easy to escape if they don’t fail. For purposes of dodging, you move twice as fast while unarmored.

Unarmored 90, Bodily Stasis: You heal from injuries and wounds at one hundred times the normal speed. You need one hundredth the water, air, and food you normally would.

Unarmored 100, Perfected Body: Your skin is as hard as steel. While unarmored, you gain a twenty percent bonus to all defensive rolls, including dodge, parry, entad defense rolls, and magical defense rolls. If this would result in a total defense bonus below fifty, raise it to fifty instead.

Unarmed Combat 30, Hardened Fists: You suffer none of the usual durability, pain, or injury penalties for using your hands, feet, elbows, etc. in combat, even if they are not your primary weapons. You will never suffer any affliction from attacking using your body, though you may still suffer afflictions while defending.

Unarmed Combat 50, Penetrating Punches: Armor, including natural armor, is half as effective against your unarmed attacks. When attacking objects, you may consider your unarmed attacks piercing, bludgeoning, or slashing, though not more than one at a time.

Unarmed Combat 70, Weapon Emulation: Your unarmed attacks may be considered weapons when it would be beneficial for them to be so. Also, your unarmed attacks may be considered short-range melee weapons (e.g. daggers) for the purposes of entads, magical effects, or pseudomagical effects, even when this would be unreasonable. Further, your unarmed attacks may be considered specific weapons, even exotic ones, even when this would be completely unreasonable.

Unarmed Combat 90, Ghost Hand: Your unarmed attacks no longer require direct physical contact, instead working even when executed up to several inches away from the target. You take no penalties for not actually touching your target when using unarmed attacks. This effect can be used to completely negate armor, including natural armor.

Unarmed Combat 100, Pressure Points: Your unarmed attacks can be used to strike directly at the soul, disabling body parts on a critical hit. In lieu of dealing damage to an opponent with an unarmed attack, you may instead damage their soul. This effect bypasses any abilities that would normally prevent damage.

Combo Virtue, Monkish Master: While unarmed and unarmored, you no longer suffer falling damage, can run on water, can run on walls, jump twice as high/far, and double your effective SPD. You instantly master any unarmed fighting styles or maneuvers you spend five uninterrupted minutes watching.

Combo Virtue, Monkish Grandmaster: While unarmed and unarmored, you may use your Unarmed or Unarmored skill, whichever is higher, for any roll that would use PHY or a PHY attribute. Double your effective PHY.

Combo Virtue, Monkish Ascendant: While unarmed and unarmored, your body, soul, and spirit are inviolable, except as necessary to carry out useful or beneficial functions.

The capstone monkish virtue was fucking worthless, given that I knew Onion’s sword was capable of cutting through inviolable material. I was still hoping that I would be able to fuck him up though, especially since Parry and Dodge both worked equally well whether I was using a sword or my fists. By my calculations, the monkish approach was numerically worse, but it was worse in a different way, and all I really needed was a single strike to land, which would damage Onion’s soul and almost certainly render me the victor. I wouldn’t have bet on it, but I was hoping that if I damaged his soul enough, I wouldn’t have to potentially fight him a fourth time.

I hoped that beneath his helm he was looking at me like I was crazy. His sword flickered for a moment, then settled on flame, which was so cliche that I grimaced. He came at me cautiously, as though he was worried I was going to pull out some kind of insane trick that he’d never seen before, which, in fairness, didn’t seem so insane given how the fight so far had gone.

He swiped at me with his flaming sword, but I parried it with my hand, slapping it to the side.

I really wished I could have seen his face. Unlike blade-bound, monks (or “monkish”, as the game inexplicably termed them) weren’t really a thing on Aerb, presumably because they didn’t get good enough, fast enough. For all I knew, I was the best martial artist in the world.

I moved in on him, kicking his blade hand to the side and then shifting my weight to punch him straight in the chest with a clenched fist. It should have broken my hand, but instead he staggered backward, reeling, though I’d been focusing on making the damage pass through into his soul, leaving his body untouched. It had been surprisingly easy to land a hit: maybe I had made a miscalculation in the numbers, or maybe having multiple implements to strike with was more of a boon than I thought.

“What was that?” he asked me.

“I punched you,” I replied. “That’s allowed by the rules, I checked.” I was so happy that with my helm gone he could see my shit-eating grin. All I had on were the underclothes that went beneath the plate and Sable, and I was sure that I looked a lot less badass than I felt, but goddamned if I didn’t like having my skills pushed as high as they could go.

Onion gripped his sword tight, then dashed off back into the black void that was still standing there.

“Oh come on,” I said. “You’re going to hide, you miserable coward?”

His sword came flashing out of the blackness, trailing lightning, and I batted it aside, careful not to touch the infinitely sharp blade that could cut my inviolable hand.

“Are you seriously going to make me come in there?” I asked. I said it with a weary sigh, but I really didn’t want to go in there, because I really didn’t trust my ability to fight blind against someone who would be able to see.

Thankfully, for all that Onion was a master of the blade, he wasn’t terribly skilled at throwing one, probably only in the top hundred in the world. I parried a second sword thrown at me, then a third, each of them different in its effects. The risk was that he would throw out something that I couldn't actually handle, and I was certain that I hadn’t seen the totality of copyable entad effects in the area.

He threw out a volley of swords, and I parried them all with punches and kicks, scattering the replicas across the arena. I was getting irritated with him and the way he was choosing to play this, not that I expected him to kneel down and let me slit his throat.

Of course, there was another risk to letting him sit in that bubble of black for too long, not the risk that he would find some sword that would save him, but the risk that he was building something up in there.

A beam of white light pierced out from inside the bubble of darkness, popping it entirely and revealing Onion standing there with his sword raised up and pointed at me like a rifle. It went out like a lance, too fast to dodge, but I didn’t care about things like ‘too fast to dodge’, and I found myself moving even before I could have known it was coming — and still not quite making it.

My left arm flopped to the ground, lifeless, and I stared at it for only a moment before I had to contend with Onion again. He was on me in an instant, and I was fighting one-handed, severely hampered in my ability to deal with him. I didn’t know if he couldn’t use the rusted probability blade with his meta-entad sword, or was just choosing not to, but I thought I was pretty much fucked if that came out, because there were only so many times you could make strictly impossible dodges, and I would have no way of parrying the probability blade, not when it could materialize only millimeters from my skin.

I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to deal with my missing arm, I was just ignoring it, because I was allowed to. It was charred at the shoulder, missing meat and bone in a half-moon, and leaking blood slowly enough that I would probably be dead to something else before it was a real problem.

He switched swords again, this time to what was clearly Amaryllis’ flicker blade, and let the blade disappear as he swung at me. There was fuck-all that I could do about it aside from trying to dodge, but I could tell that I wasn’t fast enough, and right at the point when the hilt was pointed at my heart — nothing happened. Onion’s helm tilted down as he looked at the sword, only for a moment, and that was when I struck, using my remaining hand to drive straight forward, fingertips all aligned right at his heart.

Critical Hit!

Onion’s left arm went limp and he dropped his sword hilt, which almost immediately leapt back up into his right hand as he backed away from me. He morphed the sword again, transforming the non-functional hilt into something more useful, this one a blade of quicksilver, mercurial in how it moved. We were both fighting one-armed though, his deadened by me severing a connection in his soul, mine completely gone. I had the advantage though, because he was fighting with his off-hand and I had more than just a fist, I had my entire body, feet, elbows, and knees as well. Even lacking an arm, I was making more attacks than he could effectively parry, and it was only a matter of time before I landed something proper.

Critical Hit!

His other arm went dead, and his sword dropped to the ground again, this time not moving from where it landed.

Onion tried to keep fighting, right up until the very end. I killed him with a lightning-quick punch, delivered straight to his helm, an attack that should have broken every bone in my hand, but didn’t. Blood flowed freely from his perfectly intact helm as he fell to the arena floor, and I waited, tensed, to see whether his armor would restore him for a fourth round.

Instead, he just lay there, blood pooling under his head.

“You’re leeking,” I called to him.

With a shudder, the third green gem in his armor smoked and cracked, and then the black metal that had been on him this entire time began to twist and buckle in on itself, twisting and squeezing the meat and bone instead with sickening sounds as it collapsed in on itself. It looked like an angry god was crushing a can of soda until there was no possible room inside. I kept my eyes on it though, waiting for one last trick.

Onion Penndraig defeated!

Quest Updated: Full Court Press - With the trial-by-combat complete, you are now a member in good standing of the Lost King’s Court, obligation to military service aside. Congrats! You are also now the undisputed best swordsman in all Anglecynn, with many suspecting that you’re the best in the world. Amaryllis still has her trial ahead, but now the Court knows which way the wind blows.

Level Up!

The golden glow lifted me from the ground, with none of the pleasure that had once been attached to it, the modifications I’d made to my spirit still doing their work. I hadn’t really been paying attention to the crowds watching down from above the arena walls, but I was very aware of them now. My wounds were healed, my hit points went back to maximum, and most importantly, my missing arm completely regrew — and regrew was the operative word, because the old one was still sitting there on the floor of the arena.

The level up had been witnessed by about a thousand people, and I was guessing that was going to complicate things.


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About the author

Alexander Wales


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