I catapulted forward, stealing the initiative. Leading with my borrowed shield, I swiped with my deepsteel sword. The Inculid assassin neatly parried my strike and backpedaled to try to put some distance between us. I planted my feet, cocked my shield arm back, and swung with all my stored momentum, bashing the assassin back even further. It stumbled away, giving me the space to gather myself.
The fight behind me was in full swing, strangely silent except for the clash of weapons and the scuff of feet on the loose rocks and shale of the escarpment. I couldn’t afford to take my eyes off my opponent long enough to assess the situation, but I trusted at least two of my companions to keep things under control.
I let my mental tendrils leak out as they would, gaining a sense of the battle through the currents of the Flow even if I couldn’t use my eyes. Rents from void tunneling popped in and out of my awareness as the little Inculid soldiers dashed around the clearing trying to overwhelm Kan’on and Jass. The rents appeared and disappeared too quickly for me to concentrate on any single one to crush it.
Focusing my attention on my opponent just in time to parry a vicious strike to my chest, I flooded the Flow with intent and willpower, augmenting my strength and speed as the currents added their own power to mine. I traded a series of rapid strikes and parries, leaning into the advantage the shield gave me as I continued to push the creature.
In the back of my mind, more detail of the battle raging behind me resolved itself, feeding my mental filaments faint images and impressions as time dragged on. Each filament almost felt like an independent piece of my mind, tracking details from all sides. I quickly realized that dozens of the smaller Inculid soldiers had swarmed my companions, their presence and their rents in the void inundating my mind.
With my strength and speed augmented, the assassin and I appeared to be evenly matched. My shield only gave me a marginal advantage, but the massive Inculid showed signs of adapting, which only meant bad things for me.
It tried to void tunnel again and I crushed the rent before it could jump through and disappear on me. With no clear advantage in skill or position, I could only keep it busy as my companions fought to pin down its smaller, faster cousins.
I didn’t have enough time or space to use runes in the battle to help out my companions, and even if I did they were right in the mix and any flashy tricks on my part would endanger them too much. I growled, frustrated, as I realized that I’d trapped myself in a position where I had to rely on nothing but my physical abilities to carry me, and that had never been my strong suit.
As the Inculid and I vied for advantage, my frustration grew until it started bleeding into the currents coming out of me, coloring my movements with its presence. The assassin couldn’t effectively attack me, not with my shield, nor could it escape through the void, but neither could I overcome its skill and pin it down long enough to do any damage.
With each strike, block, and parry my frustration threatened to boil over, filling my mental space until it pushed away thoughts of anything else. If only I could do something about the Inculids popping in and out of existence swarming my companions, we could end this and get on with our mission.
I wrenched my thoughts back into a semblance of control, but my irritation continued to color my movements and actions through the flow, making me jerky and uncoordinated. Fed up, and disgusted at my own lack of discipline, I marshalled my energy and pushed the irritation and out of my mind into my mental tendrils. As a parting shot, I imbued intent into the filaments, telling them to do something useful.
Before I could shift my focus back onto the assassin in front me, my filaments went wild. Where before they drifted passively through the Flow collecting flashes of insight and impressions they now whipped around in a frenzy, out of control.
Confused, I wrenched my attention back to the assassin trying to skewer me, backpedaling as it rained blows down onto my shield with renewed vigor. Behind me, I felt something shift abruptly in the battle. Each time a void tunneling rent popped into my awareness, I felt the energy bleed away as it was crushed before it could be used. Each time a rent was crushed, I felt feedback through a mental tendril, leaking a sense of satisfaction back into my mental space.
Shocked, I froze as I realized that the tendrils weren’t flailing wildly or aimlessly; they hunted the void tunneling rents of the Inculid soldiers, destroying their ability to maneuver unhindered around the battlefield. Each tendril acted as a small slice of my mind, imbued with the intent I’d casually thrown, doing something useful. My companions took advantage of the new development and more and more soldiers snuffed out of my awareness. Finally, a turning point.
I’d let my focus drift for too long as flash out of the corner of my eye warned me. Half panicked, I braced myself as the Inculid assassin crashed into me, bowling me over and sending me tumbling across the sharp rocks.
I managed to regain control and shot to my feet, but the assassin seized the initiative before I could establish myself. It kept its momentum as it dashed back and forth, its blows like a hammer as it knocked me around like a training dummy. My arms burned as the blows continued to rain down, struggling to keep my shield up to fend off the flurry of attacks. Despite my best efforts, my opponent managed to land slashes to my arms and legs amongst its powerful blows.
The effects of its onslaught finally made themselves apparent as I stumbled, slipping on rocks covered in my own blood. The muscles in my legs screamed at the strain of staying upright while withstanding the assassin’s attacks. The Inculid slammed a two-handed strike down onto my shield, sending me to the ground as my knee gave out. It kicked me while I was down, sending me tumbling again. Struggling to my knees, I dragged my sword and shield into a semblance of a fighting position.
As I attempted to get my feet back under me, the Inculid stalked forward, preparing another strike that would send me tumbling. As I resigned myself to yet another trip across the cutting rock shards, I felt a shadow rush past in the Flow, invisible to my eyes but not my senses spread throughout the currents. A smile cracked my haggard face as the Inculid raised its weapon in front of me.
Just before the assassin swung its long black sword, a vicious, gleaming dagger buried itself in the creature’s neck. Kayla phased into sight, feet planted on the Inculid’s shoulders, arm wrapped around its head using it as leverage to drive her dagger repeatedly into the vulnerable areas between the chitin of its head and neck. The bug let out of discordant screech that rattled my eardrums and almost sent me back to my knees.
At some point Kayla had lost her head covering. Long, black hair streamed behind her in the fading light as the Inculid straightened and thrashed at her. Open gashes in her face leaked blood down her chin and neck, reflecting the low light, but her eyes gleamed intensely as they tracked the assassin’s grasping hands. She spun around its head and neck like an acrobat, avoiding its grab, continuing to drive her dagger deep into its chitin.
Belatedly, I realized that she had given me the opening I needed, and I drew a quick and dirty rune in the air in front of me, imbuing it with my intent and willpower through the Flow.
She didn’t acknowledge my warning, but leapt away from the bug, fading from my sight. Her feet had scarcely left the creature when I empowered the rune and let it loose.
An invisible force smashed the Inculid to the ground, not strong enough to crush it, but enough to keep it pinned in place. Not my best work, but good enough to finish the job. It tried to void tunnel, but my mental filaments crushed the rent on their own almost as soon as it formed.
I stumbled closer to the pinned creature, discarding my shield as I raised my sword in a two-handed grip. Without hesitation, I chopped down at its neck, trying to finish the job that Kayla started. It let out another ear shattering screech as its tough chitin caught the blade, preventing a clean cut, so I chopped again and again until its head came away from its body. I grimaced at the bug goo and chitin covering my gear.
Turning my back on the assassin, I surveyed the continuing battle between my companions and the swarming Inculid soldiers. Bug corpses and goo covered a wide swath of the exposed rock. Kan’on, seemingly unconcerned with the number of opponents, dashed in and out of site, appearing next to a bug soldier and defeating it in a single slash.
Jass, thankfully not igniting his own life force, adroitly paced from one opponent to the next, spear dancing in his hands. Each thrust punctured chitin armor, each swing cracked Inculid skulls. I pursed my lips as I sensed the pulse of power at the apex of each of his attacks, but I wouldn’t mention it. It could be worse; he could be igniting himself like a bonfire.
It took me a second to find Kayla. I shouldn’t have been surprised by her stealth abilities, but there she was stalking the shadows all but invisible. Every now and then she took advantage of an advantageous position to pop out and eviscerate an unwary opponent, and generally watching everyone’s back. I huffed, once again annoyed at myself. I had misjudged her once again.
I took a second to throw up a refresh rune, letting the relief flood through my bones and muscles that were definitely too old for all this. Just before jumping into the fight to help clean up, I stopped. Had I drawn the refresh rune? I clearly remembered there being a rune, but I couldn’t remember actually drawing it. Shrugging, I renewed my body’s augmentations through the Flow and dashed to into the fight.
Between the four of us, it didn’t take long to cut through the remaining Inculid. I fed more power to my mental filaments and with renewed effort they continued to crush all attempts from the soldiers to void tunnel. While I couldn’t keep up physically with Kan’on or Jass, I wasn’t a slouch either. With a more utilitarian approach, I hacked and chopped my way through our enemies until we were the only ones left standing.
I threw out my senses to look for any more enemies but sensed only the power of the Inculid Queen emanating from the nearby entrance to the Labyrinth. Her power splashed against my own growing influence.
“We should have time to get cleaned up and have a bite to eat, but we need to move through the entrance sooner rather than later. I don’t want to be out here after nightfall.” I pulled out some rations and passed them around.
Jass sprawled out on the rocks as if he sat on some cushions in a royal palace and devoured his share of the food. I just shook my head and sat next to Kan’on, who gazed off into the distance.
This wasn’t the ideal place to have a picnic. Bug juice, bodies, and chitin covered everything, but I’d seen worse, and I’m sure the others had as well. I didn’t really have a problem with the gore, but it would have been a different story if they’d been human. I shuddered, imagining trying to eat in that situation, and quickly put it out of my mind. I turned my attention back to Kayla.
Now that I’d seen that specific side of her, the stealthy attacker, there was no way she’d only been a bodyguard, not for someone like Orleander. His type leveraged every advantage at their disposal. As he had thought of her before, she was already capable of handling almost all fights that came her way, as a bodyguard. These new capabilities, though, pushed her from moderate threat firmly into outright dangerous, in the right circumstances.
“So, how long have you been an assassin?” I dumped that question onto her like a bucket of cold water.
She froze, food halfway to her mouth, then rolled her eyes.
“I don’t assassinate people. I’m not a murderer.”
Her face still bore the injuries from the battle, wicked gashes and blood marred her features. Kicking myself, I got up and drew a healing rune in front of her, investing it with my intent.
“Stick your face in that. And you seemed awfully murdery a few minutes ago. You don’t get that skilled at ambush attacks from reading at the library. Someone has to teach you that kind of thing, and nothing is free.”
She poked her head into the glowing rune floating in front of her. She winced and jerked back as skin and muscle snapped back into place in an instant. Grimacing, she felt around her face, only finding smooth skin and dried blood.
“When my family died, the only connections I had were to Count Orleander’s father through a family friend. Count Orleander’s father, the Duke, sponsored me. He paid for everything. My training, food and board, education, everything paid for by him.”
I imagined that what she actually meant was when I’d killed her family. I didn’t sense any anger or ill intent behind her words, though.
“In exchange for what?”
“In exchange for nothing. I serve their family as a retainer.”
“I recognize your fighting style. I wasn’t certain at first, but you demonstrated some techniques that left no room for doubt. You were trained by The Dusk Society.” Kan’on no longer gazed off into the distance but focused his sharp eyes on to Kayla.
A panicked look crossed her features for an instant before she managed to smooth them over. She continued to pick at her rations, neither confirming nor denying Kan’on’s statement, but it was too late. We’d all already seen her reaction.
Interesting. The Dusk society was notorious. Not exactly assassins or thieves, they had started off in the distant past as a specialized mercenary group dealing in covert activities amongst the nobility. Over time they’d morphed into a secretive, decentralized organization that exclusively served the wants and needs of the elite, their influence and presence running deep. There was no chance that she was a member of that group and a retainer of a noble house at the same time. So, then the question became, what exactly was she doing palling around with Orleander?
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” she said. “The Duke provided his own people to train me since I was young.”
“Sure he did.” Thoroughly unconvinced, I let the matter drop.
Having been a client of The Dusk Society in my former life, I knew exactly what kind of oaths they swore in order to keep their secrets. There wasn’t any point in poking her about it further. At least not right then.
“Kan’on, will you set up a cleansing rune? Then we should get going.”
He nodded, then started painstakingly drawing the rune. His precise lines were a testament to quality of his education, but I found myself getting impatient with how long it took him to get through it. I would do it myself, but I needed to conserve my power, whereas Kan’on had power to spare.
Finally, he empowered the completed rune and a I felt its power wash over us, scouring away the filth of the battle leaving us pristine. Too clean, in my opinion. It sometimes felt like it flayed off the top layer of skin as well as any other contaminants, leaving me feeling like a blind barber had scraped away at my face with a dull blade.
We faced the nearby Labyrinth entrance. Kan’on, as unflappable as ever, looked like he was about to take a stroll through a garden. Kayla couldn’t sit still, her nervous energy almost infecting me with its intensity, while Jass stood to the side looking like he was about to start work for the day.
“Let’s go. We’ve got a lot to do and the Labyrinth is going to make all of it a pain in the ass.”