Tuala’s bestial scream drowns out the two pieces of the tankard that tumble to the ground and roll, her expression is one of fury rather than pain. She charges once more as she turns her sword to try to slice me with a backhanded blow before I can draw.
I assemble and activate a perception construct with my two portions of flow, injecting the last in my single-edged broadsword. Her lion strike is so quick that it’s no different from a normal slash even in slow motion.
I hang back on my heels and avoid the point narrowing in on my throat by a hair while grabbing the hilt of my weapon. As the edge of her blade is still glowing from the armor-piercing construct, I decide to dis-finger her.
I lean in while activating the runic plowing construct, drawing and slashing out with the broadsword just a moment before she attempts a lion strike that I have no chance to avoid from close proximity unless I take a step back.
Our blades fly parallel to each other, separated by a mere centimeter or two. As the point of mine makes it past her horizontal guard, I alter the arc of my attack down to cut through the base of her thumb and the tips of her fingers but also hit the handle to alter the trajectory of her weapon.
Tuala’s eyes flicker down and her irises widen as she realizes, too late, that I’ve outmatched her. I care little and focus on my beautiful counter. My broadsword’s blade impacts her gloved fingers and crushes through them in a bloody mess.
The edge of my weapon hits the handle of hers and shreds the straps of cloth wrapped around it, even digging a small trench in the metal underneath, before bouncing off.
I barely manage to deactivate the runic plowing construct, which didn’t burn much energy at all because it merely amplified the force behind my attack, before it hits the chain-mail protecting her biceps.
“Aaaarrrrhrhhh!” She screams in pain.
Her sword escapes her five torn fingers and flickers wildly in the air over my right shoulder. I angle my head to the side and barely avoid the silver blade I detect. It tumbles to the ground and fades from my ‘sight’ because it cut through some pavement.
While I could have blocked her sword forcefully to eliminate her quickly and more safely, that would be using a style close to Elizabeth’s which is designed for brutal efficiency. Besides, I’m not trying to kill her. I return my perceptions to normal but reactivate the plowing construct.
“Rhaaaah!” She bellows in agony while seizing her right wrist with her left hand.
Her five fingers are still hanging on by a few chunks of muscle and flesh, the thumb looks especially bad because it was crushed at its very base. As she bends in two, I hang back while ensuring that my umbrella remains balanced on my half-shoulder and slam my knee into the center of her chest.
Tuala flies back and collapses to the ground. I take a single step forward, raise my left leg and lower my foot sideways on her throat, cutting her screaming short. She starts shaking uncontrollably with an utterly pale blank face.
“T, Tuala!” Huan stutters, stopping a meter in front of me.
He hesitates to draw his sword as I casually raise mine in-between us while keeping my eyes on the Ladyling suffering from shock. I hear Nahl’s feet grind on the pavement as he slides to a stop at the bottom of the Temple’s steps.
“As I was saying.” I speak up. “Nobility has failed and so you are unworthy to rule Izla Meria. I was going to confront you all in my own name to a duel, but it seems this one was so overeager to be defeated that she forgot to issue a challenge.” My voice resounds through the now utterly silent plaza. “This is no political bout, there will be no one to pursue you if you defeat me in a legal duel so you can forget arguing that I am acting as anyone’s pawn.”
“Let her go, Jessica Freepath.” Thrin utters between grit teeth.
“I intended to, Lordling. After all, I did score first blood.” I reply mockingly. “Are you trying to get rid of her by attempting to order me around because I didn’t instantly end her life?”
“Gh.” Huan chokes in anger at the accusation but manages to hold his tongue. I notice that he raises his chin to throw a look over my shoulder at the edge of my field of vision. “While Lady Tuala Hakarth was in the wrong, I would like to hear the Order’s position on this, Templar Nahl.”
“Dame Freepath, would you please allow Lady Tuala to be treated for her injuries first?” Nahl speaks up.
“Sure.” I reply with a shrug.
I slide my foot down to her sternum from her throat and apply my weight on her to take a step forward, forcing the Thrin to move back. He had no choice other than to fight me or let me shove him with my broadsword.
“You dare!” One of the female leaders exclaims.
She causes quite a few among the crowd to erupt in indignation as well but their voices are soon drowned out by far more numerous angry retorts. There are patrols of Templars and Hospitaliers watching now and, while they do not join in, their various expressions tell me they are on my side even if in disagreement over my walking over a disabled opponent.
“Be forewarned. I stand here and will challenge any that does not free my path. I will not take a single step back or to the side.” I utter in a glacial tone. I hear my voice echo back to my ears thanks to the sound construct. “I will go where I please and none shall block my way.”
“Uhla?” Nahl asks behind me.
“She’ll lose all four phalanxes and the thumb.” The Semplar replies with a quiet voice. “We may have been able to do something if she hadn’t used a shredding construct but…” She trails off.
“Take her to the Alemplar, now.” Nahl orders.
I don’t look behind, trusting that I’ll be forewarned by sound if someone tries to stab me in the back. Besides, Nahl isn’t the kind of person to let anyone ambush someone from behind on his watch.
“The Masters have determined that Dame Freepath has importance for the Empire, Lord Thrin.” The Templar speaks up. Something in his tone tells me that he’s repeating something he already told Huan. “While the Order won’t protect her from duels she provokes, it also won’t protect you from the consequences of doing battle with her.”
“So much for the Order’s love for order.” I comment with a chuckle.
“Sometimes, maintaining order involves letting chaotic elements gouge themselves out.” Nahl responds with a chilly tone.
“I won’t pursue reparation for Lady Tuala’s assault but Jessica Freepath has no status to issue a challenge!” Thrin exclaims with a somber expression, as if he knows the argument is flimsy and desperate. “We cannot act so dishonorably as to all challenge a peasant one after the other.”
“Cowards.” I note with a smirk. “Low borns have full permission to issue duels by authority of the Council, it has been so since it was established.” Sneaky Cecil slipped that one in before the other Council-members found their marks.
“The Kingdom doesn’t recognize this ludicrous Council!” Half the leaders erupt in sync, causing Thrin to grimace because that argument was likely rehearsed in some way to use in Arbitration.
“The Templar Order does not interfere with a Kingdom’s internal affairs unless it is asked to Arbitrate or the conflict compromises the Empire’s stability.” Nahl utters coldly, proving that there’s no point to say this unless they are making their case against the Council.
Thrin opens his mouth but snaps it back shut in a moment, no doubt aware that I’ve cornered his faction. Nobility definitely can’t ask for Arbitration over a peasant and Nobles certainly can’t make their way around said peasant to avoid dueling her.
Even if they win, I’ve already undermined any glory they could obtain by exposing how little I was taught and trained. Not that I can allow myself to be defeated, I have to crush them.
“Hey, that’s my tankard!” A man exclaims as he forces his way to the front of the crowd, disrupting the rather solemn mood.
“Ah, my apologies.” I speak up, recognizing the barman.
“It’s no problem, really!” He hurriedly responds.
I spot one of the tankard’s pieces behind Huan and another next to him. I sheathe my broadsword and pick one up before making my way around the Lordling to drop the first chunk on the second.
I then grab both and give them to the awaiting barman, who is babbling as he hesitates between apologizing for interrupting, thanking me for returning the pieces, and promising to frame them. I notice that a little less than a tenth of the crowd has pledged their flow to me, which has to be a new development.
I shake my head in dismay and return to my previous spot, drawing my weapon again. Thrin looks grim but I’ve noticed a few silver flashes between him and the Noble leaders, meaning they’re likely communicating.
“You can step aside.” I suggest with a mocking smile. “Once I’m past, you can enter the Temple.”
Huan’s blue eyes turn to mine, they look cold. He begins pacing in front of me, ignoring me as he thinks. He’s turning my own tactic against me, taking advantage of the fact I can’t attack unless he draws and I can’t immediately bypass him because he’ll brand me a coward. His shaking right hand soon lands on the hilt of his longsword.
“Izla Meria’s Nobility lost, but that defeat does not change the fact that Izla Meria is in need of our rule and leadership. Our lack of titles does not change the fact that our houses’ lands belong to us by right, you have no more authority to change this than to condemn us for mistakes not of our making.” He declares. I snort loudly.
“Whence I stand, the path before me shall be free or made to be so.” I utter sharply.
“You cannot take our subjects away! We have been so far willing to humble ourselves in front of the subjects we have failed, but we will not allow any more criticism from a woman who elevated herself without legitimacy.” He spits out with disdain akin to mine.
“Too many peasants have been hung for speaking up against Nobility’s oppression without recourse for the taxes and unjust laws weighing on our backs while you dined on our dime by right of being our protectors!” I erupt. “Today you face opposition, not injustice, yet you come here demanding reparation for what you lost in failure! Ha!” My mocking shout is joined by a clamor coming from the majority of the crowd. “You wish for comprehension on the people’s part? Believe me when I say that your attitude arises feelings in me that will lead to your death regardless of consequence. An intelligent man would simply oppose me today and lose for there is survival on that path. There is none in arguing ideology with me.”
“You seek to silence us by the threat of a bloodbath?” Huan questions with narrowed eyes.
“Have you not been paying attention? No one came here to watch a debate.” I respond. “I am Jessica Freepath and you’re blocking it, move aside or fall by my blade!” I holler with a grave voice.
“You will regret demanding proof that Nobility can protect the people.” Huan Thrin responds while drawing his sword, choosing the only path I left him to get out of this mess, that of victory in battle.
His right hand’s shaking intensifies but not out of fear or nervousness, no, it is out of a barely repressed desire to do battle. I am very familiar with this, I’ve witnessed Liz’ excitement in slaughter and felt a similar but different exhilaration in being injured as we crushed all those who stood before me and her.
I suppress my craving to experience it again because injuries would undermine my half of the legend we’re building to crush Nobility throughout the Empire. No matter how alive I would feel crushing past their retaliation with abandon. You’re so screwed up, sister.
Thrin’s sword suddenly erupts in flames, causing me to pull flow from my perception-altering construct, taking one-sixth of a portion which leaves one portion to fuel it. I assemble a defensive construct for my broadsword with that energy, fully expecting his construct to be dangerous to touch.
He leans forward with his sword in front and left hand hanging back, causing me to narrow my eyes. I take a step forward and loosen my muscles to send a probing slash. He intercepts my weapon, causing my defensive construct’s energy to dip by a third.
Indeed, that flaming construct is trying to spread to my weapon. A bad imitation of the Rykz’ fire construct that ate my arm. It isn’t a coincidence he’s using this. I activate my perception construct.
Huan lunges with a stab, trying to make me take a step back. It would be an utter defeat for me to allow that to happen. I take another step forward while sliding to the right side of his blade to avoid it while also making sure my umbrella remains balanced on my left half-shoulder.
He immediately twists his waist to pull back his right wrist. I slash down with my broadsword, still not bothering to use a lion strike. My aim is precise and the arc of the weapon flawless, yet it isn’t cruising towards his retreating dominant arm but further ahead.
His golden left palm appears, flashing towards my armored belly, as I expected him to do as soon as I saw him twist his waist to pull his longsword back. It wouldn’t make sense for him not to take advantage of the momentum.
He manages to stop that strike just before his forearm crosses paths with my slash and pull his hand into safety. I advance once more before he can strike with his sword, entering such close range that he has to either retreat or start wrestling me.
He leaps back with a grimace on his face. His apprehension about fighting me hand to hand, which would be difficult for me to handle, is no doubt influenced by the tankard style he witnessed me use against Tuala.
He launches a side kick that I block by shifting weight to my left leg to raise my right leg. With me on the back-foot he twists his torso again as he stomps down to add power but this time rotating his left side back to launch a classic horizontal slash from waist-level, which is oddly headed for my breast.
I do three things at once, causing my head to flare with a brutal ache for a brief moment. I dismantle my perception construct, use the energy to make a second defensive construct that I manually control to reinforce only the right side of my cuirass, and then parry his longsword with a left to right backhanded downward swing.
Our weapons touch very briefly but the impact shakes the hilt in my hand so violently that it hurts my two recently healed fingers. As I prepare to dodge and counter the left hand that’s likely to be coming, I notice that Huan’s expression is tense from pain.
He retreats, leaving blade fragments on the ground which seem to be covered in soot. The Thrin no doubt used a kinetic construct but, unfortunately for him, my plowing construct is specially designed to redirect that kind of energy. While both of us took damage, he had it much worse and was even forced to retreat.
Good, I can use that localized defensive construct for something else instead of keeping it to block his palm in desperation. I focus, knowing that my plan will be difficult to achieve without a perception construct.
I throw an upward slash at his throat. He raises his flaming longsword to block with the guard, which will pretty much blind me considering how close the point of his weapon would be with my eyes if I let it happen.
I redirect my momentum by twisting both shoulder and wrist, changing the swing into a stab, still aimed at his throat. He slashes at my broadsword and intercepts it. We both decide to lock swords, which he allows because that was exactly his intention in using that flaming construct.
I let him win the contest in strength and allow him to push our weapons midway between us. I definitely don’t do that because men have more explosive strength than women and so I would have lost if I tried to forcefully resist.
A look of suspicion dawns on his face, causing me to break contact by shaping a trickle of the flow I’ve regenerated into a very brief but powerful lion strike that shoves his weapon back.
I do so because my plan can only work if he doesn’t read my intention. The exchange cost me the defensive construct on my broadsword but it further blunted the edge of his blade.
We stare at each other for a moment. The flames on his longsword intensify. I agilely launch an upward backhanded swing from left to right, he raises his weapon to block with his guard once again.
I once again magnificently alter my momentum to turn the slash into a straight stab. This time, he forcefully blocks my assault by locking the guard of his blazing longsword into my broadsword’s guard.
The point of his weapon dances close to my helmet but I ignore it. He takes hold of his longsword with both hands, as predicted, to weigh on me from above with all his strength and weight. I gather the half-portion of energy left in the runic plowing construct and inject it into the defensive construct on my right flank, out of his sight.
I bend backward to avoid getting my helmet set on fire and delay my loss by redirecting the pressure. My left foot slides on the pavement as I struggle to guide his weapon to my left flank, while also ensuring we don’t disturb the handle of the umbrella resting on my half-shoulder.
I resist as best I can but he slowly overtakes me and brings his flaming longsword a few centimeters from the left side of my cuirass. Huan’s expression turns fierce as he prepares to make the last push and win. I pull the defensive construct on my right flank and apply it to the entire left flank of my cuirass.
The maneuver takes me a single instant because my intent is clear and concise, the construct will move and anchor itself on its own. It means that I still get to act just before he does, the perfect moment to destabilize him and scrape together a split-second.
I suddenly let go of my broadsword, allowing his weapon to slam against my side with little to no power because of the close proximity. His weapon pinches mine against my flank.
His flaming construct will take a second or two to defeat my defensive construct. Even if he switches to an armor-piercing construct, it’ll take a bit before it cuts through my cuirass, chain-mail, and hard leather armor. Not to mention it would require quite a bit of energy.
His face distends from astonishment as I seize my broadsword’s handle with a reverse grip and pull it out. I barely notice that there are flames on the blade climbing up towards my hand as I launch the flat of the blade in an almost casual backhanded slap at his temple.
Thuck. Thrin’s eyes roll up as he collapses with a few strands of hair in flames. I stare at the blaze for a moment before realizing that those on my weapon were extinguished as soon as he lost consciousness. I lazily grab his tunic and smother those on his head.
“My bad, I ran out of flow.” I tell Huan with a cocky smirk.
The crowd erupts in cheers from utter silence. My victory was that stunning, I suppose. I don’t worry about how I looked because I know the style of my attacks had very little in common with Elizabeth’s, I applied myself to make every one of my movements look good at the expense of efficiency.
The smell of roasted pig spreads in the air so I check the stubbed leather straps covering the opening for the left arm in the cuirass, finding that the tips are a bit blackened but otherwise fine and that the oil-cloth umbrella didn’t suffer at all.
Thrin’s longsword is still blazing on the ground but I ignore it to turn to the eleven Noble leaders, hoping that people will tire of being excited over such a straightforward duel and realize that my comment about being out of energy wasn’t simply a taunt.