"I never thought I'd see the day Layans and Orakians would fight together like this," Nial said as he observed the armed camp deep within the cave.
"My master thought such a day impossible," Mieu agreed, her blue eyes as intent as his own.
Orakian soldiers in field plate sharpened swords and knives while nearby Layan warriors donned tabards over their scale armor. Women in red tunics maintained their bows and slicers besides technicians elbows-deep in war machines. Target mats sprouted arrows and flechettes as projectile troops practiced alternating their volleys.
It was not all peaceful, as plenty of knights, Orakian and Layan, eyed each other askance as they unconsciously loosened a blade from its sheath or hefted a staff over a shoulder. But for every scene of barely concealed hostility, another of poorly hidden curiosity played out. A green-haired Layan archer stared at a bipedal Stix and its half-dozen thin arms. Even though the war machine stood on its reverse-jointed legs in standby mode, she was fascinated by the orb that continuously circled the Stix's spherical torso. Nearby, an Orakian noble seemingly intent on cleaning his needler surreptitiously leered at the archer's shapely limbs.
That surprised him. Not the obvious lechery; men were men, and got up to the same antics now that they had in the time of Orakio. Even the incongruity of an Orakian lusting for a Layan could be explained by the perversity of men wanting what was forbidden. No, what still surprised him was how a man who was supposed to be a knight could act against the ideals he was meant to uphold.
Knighthood was the most important honor a young nobleman could obtain short of his own fief. To be a knight meant to swear an oath to Orakio himself, to hold the line against Laya and Lune and act with honor, help those in need, and punish those who harm or threaten innocents. Chivalry, integrity, dedication, and always doing the right thing, these were the essentials of being a true knight.
It was the ideal he had pursued ever since he had been old enough to walk.
How could he not? His father was King Rhys, the strongest Orakian warrior, the knight who had brought peace between Landen and Aquatica. His old man had challenged a dragon unarmed, had suffered great hardship as he chased it across three worlds to save someone, had defeated the Kings of Cille and Shusoran in single combat, all the while being true to the oath he had sworn as a knight of the Order of the Lakes. His father was a great hero and a true knight.
King Lyle of Shusoran had also been a true knight. Even now, the story was told of how the crafty Layan had pledged his life to his father, an Orakian, in gratitude for the salvation of his world. How could any knight not admire men so true to their oaths that they ignored the ancient hatred that was burned into the collective souls of the peoples of Orakio and Laya?
A true knight, like his father and King Lyle, had the strength of his convictions and followed them to their end, no matter what hardship he faced. How could he not strive after such a beautiful ideal?
How could he hope to be a true knight when his weakness meant an entire city of his innocents had been slaughtered?
Blood. The stench suddenly assailed his nostrils as the vision of his grandfather, ripped to shreds by monster claws, filled his sight. He almost missed a step, a weakness his cape concealed. Bile rose in his gorge as his stomach tried to empty. He forced down the nausea with a will.
How could he be a true knight when he could not even save those closest to him?
Nial's fingers traced the hilt of the curved blade at his hip. Normally, his great sword would be there, but for now it rested in the scabbard slung across his back. The weapon he touched was lighter, slightly curved as opposed to uniformly straight, with an edge that never dulled and was sharp enough to cut through the strongest armor. Alone amongst swords, it lacked a guard, leaving it a weapon that possessed only the blade and the grip.
It was an heirloom, passed on from generation to generation within House No Satera. The name of this royal sword was Friendless. The reason for that was simple: without a guard, the blade was just as capable of cutting its wielder as it was of cutting its foe. Friendless was the enemy of its master's foes, but no ally to its master. Why the sword was made like this, no one but the long-ago Sateran king who had had it forged knew. With the death of his grandfather and the end of House No Satera, it was his now.
He did not want it.
This sword was the weight of his failure. Every time he put it on, he felt the burden of his shame. His people, his grandfather, all the lives he had not saved. Still, he wore it, for remembrance and as a reminder. Friendless stood apart, isolated. It spilled blood and was indifferent to whose blood it spilled. It was a blade that required great will to keep pointed at the enemy. The sword was alienated from its home and from others. Simply put, it was at odds with who he was and what he strove for. If he wanted to be a true knight, he had to overcome the weapon's trial.
A pair of Orakians hailed him, but Nial ignored them. He did not like the Divisians. His own people were combative, but they were honorable, at least. They did not do sordid things like kidnapping, the way this lot did.
Rage boiled the blood in his veins whenever he thought about what the Divisians had done. Some uncanny intuition had prompted Nial to hide who they were when they had first arrived in Divisia. The news in the town had been enough to justify his obedience to that voice. To think that they had kidnapped Lune's sister! What made it even worse was they had done so precisely because she was Lune's sister. Their trap had been crafted specifically to take her alive and use her as leverage. They were disgraces to their vows to Orakio! Unforgivable.
It had not taken long to devise and prepare a breakout. A drop of blood had been all it took to gain entry to the castle, to be feted and hailed as a hero. The Divisians had been in disaccord. For every lord and soldier who boasted of kidnapping Lune's sister, another doubted the wisdom behind the idea, especially as reports came in of Lune's depredations. Regardless, they had all gone into denial and embarked on costly attempts to distract themselves from the very real threat of annihilation. That had worked out to his advantage. While the Divisians had all been distracted by yet another celebration, he had freed Alair.
Nial tugged at his ear a little. When he had heard of "Lune's sister," he had expected a middle-aged harridan, stout, squat, and ugly, with muscles large enough to bend steel and a shrewish demeanor. Instead, he had been presented with a tall, slender girl around his own age, with a heart-shaped face, light blue eyes, and bright lime green hair that was impossible to mistake for anyone else.
Rescuing Alair might have seemed like saving a damsel in distress, but one look at that determined face made it clear to Nial she had never seen herself as that. She was a fighter, just like his mother Lena. Still, the way she had kept tripping over her skirts had been cute. It had almost been enough to bring a smile to his face. Almost.
He couldn't remember the last time he had smiled, let alone laughed.
In an effort to head off that train of thought, Nial asked. "I wonder what Lune thinks of this lot?"
"Most likely, he doesn't," Mieu replied. "Though if their nuisance value has grown to the point he's noticed them, he'll crush them."
Nial took several more steps before he repeated the question he had asked after Alair's escape. "Are we sure it's the real Lune?"
"High probability," Wren said. "Reconstructive surgery is able to replicate a Palman face in general, but it is not able to produce a perfect copy. Facial recognition match for Subject A is 99.8%, too close for even the most skilled surgeon, mechanical or humanoid. Vocal spectrum analysis produced an equivalent match."
Subject A was how Wren referred to Alair. Though he did not quite understand the jargon-heavy explanation, the black android's absolute certainty could not be disputed. The Lune they faced was truly Orakio's legendary opponent.
Lune was an enigma to him. Nial was an Orakian, descended from Orakio himself. He had had enough contact with Layans to know the goddess of darkness most of his people feared was a force of love for their ancient foes. Nial was open-minded enough to think that good attributed to Orakio and Laya was most likely to be the truth. Why else would their followers venerate them so, a thousand years later?
Not only that, King Lyle had proven to him that the ideal of the true knight was something shared by both peoples. How could someone who was the goddess of love for an entire race chose a monster as her champion? If a champion was the knight chosen to represent the ruler, did it mean the goddess the Layans worshipped was also a monster? If she was, why had she passed the same law as his ancestor? Why were both Orakians and Layans forbidden to take each other's lives with their own hands?
Even with those questions on his mind, one thing was clear. When he had become a knight, he had sworn to hold the line against Lune. Lune had to be defeated, one way or another.
"There's the boss!" Their guide waved excitedly. "Captain!"
Ahead of them, a tall, broad-shouldered man with hair as black as night looked in their direction. Nial instantly recognized a hard-bitten warrior in that green mantle, someone who had spent so much time on the battlefield that he had no other existence. Beside him was a young lavender-haired woman around his own age, very pretty, wearing golden clothes and a metal cuirass. She was probably daughter or low-ranking subordinate.
Nial was fascinated by the man's glasses. The obsidian accessory handily concealed half his face, leaving only the merest hints at the scar that seemed to run over his left eye. Nothing could be read, either of his personality or of his intentions. To fight this man would be to fight at a disadvantage. Only his lips were visible, able to smile when this man launched the finishing blow. He was not an enemy Nial wanted to make.
He stopped in front of the black-haired man. It would take a great will to meet that expressionless gaze head on, but Nial would not back down. "I am Prince Nial Sa Riik of Landen, descendant of Orakio. I am an opponent of Lune."
Those same words had gained him entry to this rebel camp. The black-haired man looked him up and down as he crossed his arms.
"I'm Captain Ryan Ka Shiumu, the leader of these rebels," came the response, his voice deep and gravelly. "I know that you rescued Lune's sister, Alair. Lune must have sent you three to infiltrate us!"
Nial blinked, surprised. No one in Divisia had connected him to Alair's disappearance. Most rumors said that Alair had simply disappeared. The only rumor that hinted at an escape was...
He very carefully did not look at Mieu. That slight hesitation had probably given the whole thing away. "Lune cannot be defeated with actions that disgrace the very meaning of being a knight."
"That's a load of shit," Ryan sneered. "We're fighting a real demon for survival. Idiotic ideals like that have no place here, especially not from Lune's spy!"
"Then what's the difference between you and him?" Nial asked sharply. "Either we hold to our ideals or we become the same enemy we're fighting!"
"What do you know about the enemy we're fighting, spy?"
Nial ignored the insult. "My mother's kingdom of Satera was burned to the ground by Lune's army. I know the enemy we face even better than you, Ryan. You might condone something that disgraces the vows of a knight, but I won't."
Tension filled the air as Ryan uncrossed his arms. The black-haired man's hands reached for his weapons, a pair of short staffs at his hips. Nial's hand went up to the great sword on his back. The older soldier had more experience on the battlefield, but Nial had been taught how to fight by the strongest Orakian warrior alive and one of the mightiest of Orakio's servants.
"Oh, so even you can put on a good face like that," a feminine voice murmured.
Ryan turned his head in surprise. The lavender-haired girl was tapping her chin thoughtfully as she studied Nial with keen interest. It almost felt like he was being evaluated for purchase.
"I will fight him on your behalf, Ryan," she announced. "Consider it a token of my goodwill."
Even with half his face concealed, the rebel leader was obviously confused, a sentiment Nial shared. A token of goodwill? How did that make sense?
"Of course, once I have beaten him, he will belong to me," she added.
"Belong?" Nial asked simultaneously with Ryan.
Smiles appeared on the faces of the women around the lavender-haired girl. She seemed puzzled at his lack of understanding. "Well, of course. Returning home with a prize like the descendant of the great demon Orakio would bring great honor."
"Prize? You make me sound like a possession!" Nial protested.
A frown appeared on her face. "You're male. How else is it supposed to be?"
If he had possessed just a little less princely dignity, Nial would have stared at her slack-jawed. And to think he had thought she was pretty!
"If that is what you would like, shousa, I have no problem yielding the right to fight Lune's spy," Ryan said gravely. Nial thought he heard undertones of amusement.
"That's good," the girl said. She drew her sword, a slender and curved single-edged affair, and smirked at Nial. "You should learn the name of your mistress. I am Miyu, shousa of the Kensai and chieftain of the Falling Snow Tribe. I ask that you fight."
Nial said nothing as he drew his sword from his back. The straight double-edged weapon was singularly unsuited to the drawing techniques of his ancestor's sword art. That style was for Friendless at his hip. Nial held his sword in front of him at a steep angle, his left hand over his right hand, atypical for a right-handed swordsman like himself. Thankfully, Moon Dance was not limited to the Art of the Draw.
"I see I will have to teach you how to respond properly," Miyu said haughtily as she shifted her left hand to the bottom of her sword's hilt. Her right hand was near the tip of the sword, pointed at him. Her right foot led, right beneath her right hand, her left foot positioned similarly under her left hand.
Miyu wasted no time in allowing the heat and tension of battle to fill them. She pushed forward on her right foot and closed the distance between them. Suddenly, she thrust her sword, her target his torso. Nial opened his left hand and met her attack with all the might of his dominant hand.
Momentum was key. Even as his deflection allowed him to reposition his body, Miyu's thwarted strike forced her to continue forward. Nial rammed her with his shoulder. She reeled from the blow. Even as he advanced to launch his next strike, he had to approve of the way she never loosened her grip on her sword.
Nial sensed more than saw two additional enemies. Calling upon all the speed inherent in his ancestor's sword art, he created distance between himself and the new arrivals within the blink of an eye. He eyed the two women in blue, annoyed that what had seemed a one-on-one duel had clearly not been meant to remain so. Except...
"Get back!" Miyu said angrily. She gestured at her two surprised followers. "I'll beat him myself! Do not interfere!"
"Get back. I'm going to beat him alone!"
His opinion of his opponent went up a little. He once again positioned his sword at a steep angle, only this time, his dominant hand over his off hand. Miyu dropped back into her technique stance before she dashed forward once again. Her weapon was steady as she used her attack; Nial met the attack head-on. His sword rose from low to high in a powerful upward slash that once again staggered the smaller woman.
Rising Moon: the name of the move he had used on the shousa. It was one of the techniques found in the second half of Orakio's sword art, Art of the Cut. These were moves meant to be used when the sword was out of its sheath. While not as powerful as drawing techniques, Nial felt it suited him better, as cutting techniques derived all of their might directly from the swordsman's body.
Steel rang on steel; Nial used his superior strength to push the shousa back. The power behind his blows drained her even as his great sword chipped her more brittle weapon. He did not give her the opportunity to use her favorite attack again and stayed on top of her.
His opening came when he countered one of her strikes with another Rising Moon. Her guard broken, Nial moved his sword behind his back and brought it down in the powerful overhead blow called Moon Drop. His physical strength combined with the downward momentum made it his mightiest attack.
Miyu moved to block, her thin weapon her only defense. The strike knocked her down flat on her back. She tried to stand but froze when she saw what had happened to her weapon: the blade had been bent and rendered useless.
Before anyone could do or say anything, a loud voice caught all attention. "My, my, bickering amongst ourselves, eh?"
Ryan spun. Outrage colored his voice. "Lune! How did you get here, you demon?"
As shocked as everyone else in the rebel cave, Nial stared at his enemy. Lune was a massive giant of a man, a head taller than Nial and built more heavily. His hair was the same color as his sister's, a bright lime green that virtually illuminated the cave. His tunic and trousers were of slate grey and did nothing to conceal the muscles built by years of hard combat. Around his neck, he wore a collar set with a large round stone. That face twisted into an ugly sneer.
"That's Emperor Demon to you, worm! Abandon your revolt or you will all die!"
"And what are you going to do by yourself?" Ryan seemed to have recovered his nerve much quicker than anyone else. "Seize him!"
"Fool," Lune said contemptuously. He moved his hand almost languidly as a half-dozen soldiers raced to obey Ryan. "Negatis."
The soldiers stopped in their tracks. All of them desperately clawed at their throats as they collapsed to the ground. Nial could only watch, horrified, as they fell to the cave floor and flailed, their mouths open in silent screams.
Time slowed to a crawl as the soldiers' movements became weaker and weaker until they finally stopped. No one said anything. No one dared move.
"W..." Ryan swallowed before he tried again. "What was that?"
Lune's answering smile was plain nasty. "That was magic. True magic, not the shoddy Techniques you inferior lot use. I strangled them in a pocket of vacuum."
Mocking laughter met the weak curse as Nial tried to grasp what he had seen. Had he truly... had Lune... killed? It wasn't possible. Laya's Law and Orakio's Law said the same thing. Do not kill. No one could possibly...
"I gave you your choices," Lune said as he raised his arm. "Abandon your revolt or die. So commands Laya's general and champion."
Nial snapped the moment he heard the word "champion." Without conscious thought, he dashed forward, the distance between himself and this demon gone within a heartbeat. Lune blinked in surprise as Nial launched his left hand in a powerful punch. The giant caught his attack with the hand that had been about to launch another foul sorcery. Nial caught Lune's counter in his right hand.
They pushed against each other, brute strength against brute strength. Rage lent him the power to match the giant's superior might. "You're no one's champion!"
"What are you... babbling about?" Lune panted as effort knotted his face.
"Laya commanded her people not to kill." Nial bit the words off. "You flaunt your goddess' last command and try to pass yourself off as her champion? You think you're a knight worthy to represent your master? You're a demon! Forsworn by your own foul desecration of Laya's will! You have no honor! You are no true knight!"
Lune's face twisted into a hideous grimace . He drew back his left fist, still firmly caught in Nial's right hand. The giant's trapped punch was followed by a word. "Basara!"
A powerful impact hit his entire body with overwhelming force. Nial flew through the air before he crashed into something. Dazed, he tried to get up, but his body refused as pain flooded every nerve. He felt like he had been thrown off the top of Orakio's Keep.
Stubbornness forced Nial to his feet. Muscles rebelled at their use; every inch of him felt like a single massive bruise. Even so, he would not let Lune think that the blood of Orakio was kneeling before him. His vision blurred.
"Know your places, mongrels," Lune said. "I will return with my army and slaughter you all! Hinas!"
A blur of light and Lune vanished. Honor had been satisfied. Nial fell forward as Mieu dashed to catch him.
I'll... defeat you... Lune.