by Casey Nash
Ceravic, Nex, and Xandra all share the same dream, though it ends differently for each.
I stare at the tower of black robes before through a thick haze of red. The fury that is always so much with me, a fire raging in the back of my mind, releases itself in a shriek of raw emotion and wordless ire, and I whip Slayvyr down in a gleaming arc of silver. It is blocked by a staff held horizontally in two white hands. Nex's hands. My blade sinks into the wood. I press. Nex presses. We remain locked for a moment, and then Nex has the temerity, the unmitigated gall, to give me the faintest of mocking smiles. Slowly, deliberately, the sorcerer removes one hand from the staff. Unhurriedly, he brings it up to brush the black cloth of his hood away from his face in an exaggerated show of nonchalance. Theatrics. The cowl falls back, and bright green eyes pin themselves to my own. They do not waver or blanch, and though I have never seen them do this, I remain reluctantly impressed. I am now being held at bay by the mage's right arm only.
My lips twitch. Fool. Does the magician think he can overpower me? Fool, I say again. If you want to play games of intimidation, you have chosen the wrong opponent. I remove my own left hand from Slayvyr's heavy pommel, matching his leisurely, mocking pace. It pulls the band out of my hair, allowing it to flow freely about me, no longer constrained. In this, it is not unlike my fury. I lower my left hand lazily to the level of my waist, and he does the same. Our deadlock continues one-handed, power building impotently.
I snarl, and Slayvyr burns in bright, blazing crimson. Those green eyes grow hard and cold, as though I've just violated one of the abstract rules that float and flicker in and out of existence in the mage's dream world. His staff ignites in green flare, and I spin away, sword twirling about me in an impenetrable defense of blurring scarlet energy. Nex mirrors me in the same instant, performing the identical flourish with his staff. Both weapons sweep to low guard and drop their arcane discharges, reverting to normal implements of steel and wood.
Humph. Nex is showing off his Arcane Perception, mimicking me simultaneously. Fat lot of good it will do him. I charge, blade shooting up from the ground in an ascending diagonal slash. Nex acts identically in the same moment, no doubt thinking himself unendingly clever. Slayvyr and Shardish collide again in another deadlock, this one below the waist, and I smirk. Here, the advantage is all mine, and he, of course, knows it as soon as I do. Knows it, and is powerless to do anything about it, as I shove the stick of wood out of my way.
The amateur is holding his staff like a sword for a result of greater reach and less leverage. "Die!" I hiss aloud unnecessarily, for there is no doubt he can already hear the word that is being screeched a thousand times every instant through my brain with crystal clarity. I kill my momentum as the sword reaches eye level--neck level for the tall sorcerer. Now I have him. His staff is behind him, reeling from my shove, and he d--
--And he sweeps his left hand in a tight, quick arc in front of his wan face. His hand ignites in green flames, redirecting the steel harmlessly to the side. He takes one swift, long step back, readying his staff again. Energy crackles about those nervous, twitchy fingers, in that noxious green color of which he is so unaccountably fond.
I stare in outrage. I had him! In a fair fight, he would now be dead. But, of course, Nex cares nothing for rules, or etiquette, or style. Just one more example of his utterly irreverent, self-serving attitude.
In response, I channel my anger into my own left hand. Crimson light bursts into being around it, and I claw at the white skin of that thin face. But in another show of flagrant disregard for that which is unspoken but still implied, he meets the attack with his staff, swatting my arm aside at the elbow with bruising force. He smirks at me ruefully, as though I have just done something foolish, as though I should have seen that coming. You mock me further!? You have just committed suicide! I feel my eyes burn red, and the world slows around me.
I spin in what I know will appear to him as a blur, ramming my blade into his perforce hastily raised weapon, but do not maintain the tension this time. I instead unleash a storm of flickering steel upon my black-robed opponent, sword darting toward any and every unguarded inch of Nex's body.
There is an answering storm of blurring wood as he desperately tries to stave off the onslaught. He stops trying to block everything and keeps up a steady pattern of retreat. The dark, sardonic humor has faded from his eyes, and his focus is now intensely centered on remaining alive. I attack, and attack, and attack.
He makes the mistake of attempting to disrupt my momentum. Shardish intercepts Slayvyr at a bad angle, and the fiery edge bites deeply into Nex's right hand. He jerks his arm back and scrambles away. I snarl triumph at him and press on.
A heart-stab, a quick left-right, a spinning leap into the air and an airborne, cleaving strike at the head; all are countered or evaded. Then the crystal of his staff comes whistling down out of nowhere at my head. My sword is busy dancing around his body, so I catch it in my magic-guarded hand. Nex takes the cue to capture my sword in a similar fashion. Fine. I yank on the staff and release the sword. Let him have it; it is spell-guarded against unfamiliar touch.
He catches that thought, and the irrepressible smirk returns, as though a fine joke has just been told. He releases the staff and yanks on the sword; we simultaneously arm and disarm each other. There are two small explosions as the spells guarding our weapons and hands interact, hissing and crackling furiously. Each weapon is flung away, and the energies flickering around our hands sputter and die in the arcane aftermath.
I stare at him and he at me, and I pant and he takes one deep, slow breath after another. He reaches up his right hand up to grab a handful of robes his on his left shoulder. A jerk, and the black cloth is thrown to the side, exposing the excessively thin body of the magus, clad in form-fitting black. I unclasp the more extravagant robes of my estate, and let the rich capes fall to the ground, leaving myself in my tightly billowing, stylized robes of red and blue diamonds. I then pull a dagger out of my sleeve, twirling the hilt through my fingers.
Nex's eyes flick once to the small blade, and then rivet themselves again to my own. I meet his stare unblinkingly. The sorcerer's expression does not change as he takes in the weapon.
"Nex," I spit out the name, then continue with some modicum of calm, or at least try to. The effort is not quite sufficient to fully mask my ever-present fury. "One of us is about to die." Nex's face remains as impassive, yet intensely attentive, as ever. "And it's not going to be me."
Nex is slouched in his fatigue, his green eyes boring into mine from beneath his dark brows, his arms hanging down in front of him. Ever conscious of his image, he takes a moment to correct his posture with one deep breath before answering, drawing himself up to his full, considerable height, and crossing his arms across his lean chest. His trim black clothes emphasize his girth, or rather, lack thereof. He speaks, and some part of me is galled that I have not managed to burn that sky-cursed tone out of his voice, that faint sardonic edge without which I have never heard him speak. "Wrong," he says slowly, exactingly, in more of a drawl than anything else, "on both accounts."
I stare, then rolled my eyes in exasperation and scoff. "That makes no sense whatsoever."
Thin shoulders shrug. "If you say so." The fingers resting on his left elbow twitch.
I have had enough of his complacent attitude. If he insists on deluding himself into thinking that he has nothing to worry about, I'll make sure it's the last thought in his head.
I leap forward.
The silver dagger sinks into black cloth.
Red blood flows.
- - - - - - -
A large, silver sword slices its way toward me through the air with alarming speed, and an incoherent howl splits the air. Had mine eyes not so informed me, I would never have believed it was coming from Ceravic, the Lord of Oblivion. Some sort of beast that was either dying or enraged or both or--
These weighty musings are cut short as I move Shardish to intercept with a resounding thunk. He is angry, palpably so, and it seems infectious, for my customary detachment gains a frosty outer layer of condescension. Does he truly think he can kill me? I will face Death when I am good and ready, and not an instant sooner. His presumptuousness in thinking that he can be the one to deliver me to that grim specter affronts me, and I remove my hood deliberately, leaving but one hand on the staff, reminding him that I will not be cowed by brute force, that I am just as capable of it as he is, and that I find the whole affair entirely ridiculous.
He does not take the hint. I can see it in his eyes, the storytellers that can regale those who know how to listen. I see fury, and I see an all-consuming desire for my death. Never one to be outdone, he removes his own hand, matching my pose and strength. Impasse. Or so it seems. Slayvyr glows the color of blood, and the air starts burning. So, incidentally, does my staff. I look at him in shock--he's always prattling on about some sort of proper conduct, or etiquette--have these rules suddenly ceased to apply? If so, I counter in kind, and Shardish bursts into the lovely green color of my eyes, my one great vanity. Or maybe that's my height. Or my extreme slenderness... oh, I can't play favorites. I love myself through and through, and I intend to keep doing so for a good, long while.
He spins away in the flourish he taught me, and I do the same, having just seen the intent to do so form in his eyes. Seeing his intent to nullify the Burning Blade spell, I do the same with my staff, and the energies snuff out simultaneously as both weapons sweep down to low guard. Mimicking him seems prudent, as he is the best bladesman I've ever encountered. I try to pay attention to the battle plan unfolding in his mind, but he doesn't have one. Of course he doesn't have one, why think ahead when you can play it by ear? It's not like there's anything important at stake, just your life...
We charge, and collide, but I am overpowered this time. Seeking the answer in his mind, I find some very vindictive satisfaction; something to do with proper leverage, or reach, or... something...
Now he means to decapitate me, but my aforementioned fondness for my eyes and general state of existence altogether prompts me to thwart this action. My right arm aches from being thrown aside, but my left is perfectly serviceable, and it intercepts the edge of that uncomfortably close bit of steel in a quick haze of green energy--I having wrapped it thusly first, being just as fond of my hands as I am of the rest of myself. He retaliates similarly, and I swat the offending arm away with Shardish, slightly bemused; he attacks with a hand when he has a sword? Now he looks outraged; no doubt he expected me to concede defeat; meekly accepting doom.
I thought you knew me, Ceravic?
He did and he does, as I know him, and I feel the first chills of trepidation begin to crawl over my skin and creep up and down my spine as I recognize the rage seeping into his eyes and his muscles, enhancing them with a magic so much more potent than any of my or his spells: pure, uncontainable fury.
He's always been so angry.
He blurs, and Slayvyr slams into my staff, the kinetic feedback numbing my arms.
Again he seems to fade out of existence, moving with impossible speed that renders him virtually invisible. I block, and block, and retreat, and block some more, but eventually retreating becomes overwhelmingly favorable, and I do so with considerable fervor, all the while watching and waiting for an opening.
I think maybe it would be more expedient to create an opening; I swat at the approaching web of steel with my staff--
The blade slides off the wood and plunges straight into my right hand, nearly removing my thumb. I gasp in pain and return to the much more rewarding tactic of retreating. Retreating, and waiting.
There! I have just side-stepped a falling blow that would surely have cleaved me in half, and can swing my staff down at his head safely without his being able to block. With his sword, at least, for he catches the crystal in the hand that glows red. Without taking the time to think, I grab Slayvyr my left hand, protected from the bite of steel by my magic. I look into his eyes, and see that he thinks I will take it from him, and its arcane safeguards against new hands will attack me. I smirk; how funny, Shardish operates the same way...
I disarm him and he me and vice-versa, and the weapons flee and our hands sputter, and now we stand staring at each other, quite out of breath. My cloak has grown unaccountably heavy and just a shade warmer than is entirely comfortable; I fling it to the side with perhaps a touch more drama than is completely necessary, but, whatever. There, that's better. He drops his ornate, rippling cape, considerably diminishing his profile, though he becomes no less intimidating. More so, rather, as a glint of steel flashes into existence, emerging from the shadow of his sleeve. Huh. I had forgotten about that particular bit of armament. It's a good idea, and one I wish I had implemented. Ah, well.
I rear up to my full height, relishing the faint snaps of my vertebrae as they adjust to my new posture. I eye Ceravic, my dear friend, my deadly foe, with unblinking attention.
"Nex." My name is spoken with precisely the type of inflection usually heard in particularly vehement profanity. My eyes widen infinitesimally. He goes on to make two statements. "One of us is about to die."
"And it's not going to be me."
"Wrong," I voice my mental contradictions, "on both accounts."
He eyes me in utter disgust, total exasperation. "That makes no sense whatsoever."
Well, not if you look at it as one statement. "If you say so," I say with a shrug, and I hope he is planning on attacking soon, because my mind is starting to wander.
He alleviates this condition for me with a blurring lunge. Sunlight gleams in a silver arc as his dagger swoops in at my heart. My magic emanates from me in green splashes of energy, and Ceravic, my friend, spasms and twitches and smokes.
Then, still smoking, he falls.
- - - - - - -
I'm not sure at what point in history they all sat down and agreed that beating each other senseless was the only logical method of settling dispute, but we see the aftermath of this momentous decision every day.
I can see two of them now, going at it, over the skies know what. I am ready to dismiss this as merely another example of the stereotypically male mindset, but something about this particular duel catches my eye: I know these men! Or do I? One of them, at least, I know I know...
My thoughts trail off as I realize they are making no sense at all. Are they? Confused, I watch the exchange. One wields a large, glowing red sword and is clad in a thin, extravagant cape of purple and red that hangs dead in the still air. He seems to be pressing with all his might and main against the staff in his opponent's hand.
His opponent, now, is wearing unrelieved black. He looks to be at least a full head taller than the first guy, just as thin if not thinner, and as I watch, his staff bursts into brilliant, blazing green. The two weapons press against each other a bit longer, and then the two combatants twirl away in identical and overdramatic motion. I keep watching, and the boys keep fighting, but I'm not really seeing them. I'm trying to figure out who they are. They are both, I note, extremely attractive, in different ways, but in equal potency. Or maybe that's just me. My friends say I have weird tastes. They have a certain air of refinement about them: both are fair-skinned, and thin, and they both move with the same fluid, graceful control. I start moving closer, trying to identify them, to assuage this nagging feeling in my gut that something is wrong, some undefinable, all-important thing. There are more flashes of red and green; red from the one in the cape, green from the one in the cloak. These occur to me to be their respective colors, remembering the way the weapons were glowing earlier; though they have now faded to black and silver, wood and steel.
I come closer, and the black-robed figure is fighting off what appears to be a blur of blazing, angry red, and gleaming, deadly silver. Whipping that staff around him frantically, he starts backing up, forcing me to change the angle of my approach. I break into a run, suddenly terrified without reason, and their faces become visible to me, evoking tangled, powerful emotions. Love, joy, longing, anguish, regret; a hurricane of emotion is thundering within me, and at the center, the eye of the storm, is another, harder to identify; equal parts shame and confusion, for somehow I feel that this is all my fault. All my fault, and yet also completely outside of my control. I know them now, but I cannot name them. The longer I dwell on it, the more painful my emotions become, made all the more poignant by the fact that I don't understand what's going on, and feel that I should. Stop! I want to yell, but can't. I can only keep running, fighting off the feeling that I'm going to be too late.
There are two small explosions, and staff and sword go flying. Shortly thereafter, so does a cloak of black, and a cape of red. I'm breathing heavily, running flat-out, and seemingly gaining no ground. Sunlight flashes on a small, shining blade, and my foreboding increases. Winded and frustrated, I stop running, my feet tumbling forward of their own accord as my momentum burns itself out. I collapse down to my knees, and tears start flowing down my face, tasting of salt and sweat. Powerless, I watch through blurred vision.
And then Ceravic lunges at Nex, and green lights flash and red blood spills, and the black-clad body drops to the ground, the power of rising again to his feet permanently gone from him.
- - - - - - -
Ceravic's eyes snapped open. He was lying in his own luxurious bed--one of them--and his right hand ached slightly. Examining it, he saw it was clenched around the imaginary pommel of a sword in a grip that was whitening his knuckles. He relaxed it, then looked at his other hand, which was similarly clenched, and lying in a mess of ash. He smirked at himself ruefully; he had enacted igniting his hand into magical flame in his sleep. It was a wonder he hadn't burned the castle to the ground, spellcasting in his sleep.
He sat up, pondering the inanity of his dream. The dream wherein he had been locked in savage, furious combat with his loyal sorcerer, and arguably his closest friend--insofar as the word "friend" had meaning for him. The mind certainly did funny things. Nex didn't even know how to swordfight. But perhaps it wasn't so funny after all; Nex would certainly be a challenging opponent, and Ceravic so rarely enjoyed true challenge in swordplay. It could just be his subconscious giving him what he wanted, working with whatever it could. Still, the very idea of challenging the sorcerer was ludicrous. He recalled the joke from yesterday, Nex's open-ended quip about one of them being vastly superior to the other; it being a magnanimous gesture to term them equals. He chuckled at the memory. He had no doubt he was infinitely superior to the sorcerer, and he was sure the sorcerer was equally confident in his own superiority. If they ever were to clash...
He examined his left hand, frowning. Because sleep-casting was a danger for high-level magic-users, there were spells that one learned designed to negate the possibility. He usually performed them before sleeping, along with a single alarm spell to wake him in the event of impending danger. It had never once been tripped, nor did it seem likely to even be possible, considering his residence in an impenetrable--so far--castle within an equally impenetrable--so far--city, but he didn't consider himself paranoid for keeping it in place. He knew Nex kept at least three wards in place about his person at all times. But tonight he had neglected to perform it. The night's events had been replaying in his head, distracting him. His frown deepened at that; distraction was something he did not need. But the longer he pondered the exact nature of his particular distraction, the fainter his frown became until it very nearly became a smile.
There were worse distractions, he knew.
He glanced out the window. It was not yet dawn. He got out of bed, hand trailing absently to the sword that leaned against the bedpost as he did so. The hilt spun through his fingers and he struck a ready stance, entirely unaware of doing so. Ceravic had no need to force himself to follow any sort of daily training regimen; left to his own devices, he would spend all day with the weapon. He found considerable joy in merely handling a weapon, and he lost himself for hours just whirling one around, dispatching one imaginary army of foes after another.
He swung the sword around his body, relishing the sound of rushing air, the feel of power building up in momentum, ready to be unleashed on the first thing unfortunate enough to obstruct its passage. He looped it around him, spun it overhead, and swung it in a strike that stopped a centimeter short of the bedpost. His arm burned with the effort of so abruptly halting his own momentum. He switched hands and repeated the move. Then he did it in reverse, transferring back to his right hand.
By the time the sun splashed color into the world over the horizon, the Goblin King put the sword down, panting slightly. He lay himself back down on the bed and let his thoughts wander. Without preamble, they went straight to Xandra, in not so much of a wandering fashion as in the fashion in which an arrow moves from bow to target. He'd been thinking about her a lot recently, he realized. It was almost becoming distracting, and he was not easily distracted. He didn't know (or overmuch care) what the reaction to bringing her into the court would be, but he knew his eventual intentions.
She was to be Queen.
He moved to his wall-sized window with his hands clasped behind his back, watching the sky redden. He wasn't sure what it was, exactly, that had prompted this idea. It was very out of character for him, to make such a decision on the spot like this. He felt uncertain and even slightly nervous about the whole idea. Excited, too. A very different sort of excitement than he usually experienced. He had never really devoted any time or energy to the field of personal relationships, and if that had ever bothered him, he always told himself he was still young, and he was not under any deadline.
And he was still young; not many people outside the court knew it, but the Ceravic whom they credited with ruling the city for the majority of their lives had been his father. Neither of them made many public appearances, so all the public really knew was that someone named Ceravic had been in charge. He looked enough like his father to be mistaken for him if seen from a distance, which was the only way he was seen, typically. Ceravic II was barely in his twenties.
So, he decided, he was overdue for the adventure that was romance. From all he'd heard and read, it should be a pleasurable experience. And even in the worst-case scenario, what could really go wrong?