RAZE - a weekly fantasy web serial

RAZE – 025 – Teacher of the Fifth Lesson

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The old masters have said that fighting one man is the same as fighting one hundred. That is, to put it mildly, something of an exaggeration. It’s far fucking harder to fight two than it is to fight one, and harder still to fight four. That said, fighting six or twelve or twenty and so on isn’t much different. It becomes a matter of stamina. Unless they have arrows, and spears as well as short blades, and, well, I suppose you understand the point is that there are many things to consider.

By this time in my life, I had considered most of them.

The elk-rider raced ahead of the rest as they dashed from rock to rock, but the arrows rained down ahead of him.

The points glinted above. I moved, slid between the raining missiles. Wood, feathers, metal heads, not stone. I turned my body, avoided most, swept my weapon up and snapped one, caught another in my off-hand.

The elk rider bore down, whirling a ball-headed club. Too much momentum. He expected me to move away, dodge back, so I moved in, stepped forward. He smelled of clay and smoke and sweat in the mist. With no more than an incline of my head, I felt the wind of his club pass my head. He raced past, and as he did so I slashed his beast’s bridle with the arrow.

His fellows reached me while he wheeled around. They were tall, copper-skinned with dark hair cut and spiked into ridges atop their heads. White paint mottled their faces and arms. Their weapons were not crude, but forged. They wore skins and furs, great cloaks and high leggings.

Three rushed at me and I leaned back, twisted, slipped, and their axes and clubs whistled past, one, two, three. I hid behind the blade. I saw the familiar confusion, the sudden squint. To them, for the space of a blink, I was gone. In that blink I struck out with my stick, one, two, three. Their weapons fell as they clutched their hands. I swept their legs from under them and knocked them flat, but I heard the approach of the elk again and spun, jabbed, let the stick slide to its furthest reach. The glowing point exploded in sparks against the rider’s shoulder and he fell while I sidestepped his snorting mount.

The rest reached me. Surrounded. They circled, stalked, leapt from stone to stone. The brook babbled beside us and the water flowed down the sand to the waves.

I breathed. Mist damped my mustache, salt met my nostrils. Cedar sang in the air, damp earth. I blinked. An overcast sky. I moved my grip, held the stick like a Toji greatsword, high and straight, the wood whispering to my calloused, battered old hands, telling me its weaknesses, its strengths. Another breath. My foes capered, sprang out and away. Their feet on the stones, their breathing, the silence of a barely held breath. It was all so, so familiar, and they raised axes and clubs and nocked arrows, and understood so, so little.

“Do you know me?” I asked in a gentle voice. I spoke Ularan, hoping they’d understand.

“Why do I want to know a dead old man?” The warrior, the elk-rider, had righted himself and drawn an axe and knife.

“Many have thought me dead before.” I let him circle me, remained still. “I promise, this dead man is about to teach you something new.”

One of them moved behind me. I drove back, an elbow into a stomach. A bowstring, but I swept down, snapped the arrow. The rest attacked, a trap of steel and wood springing.

There was a time before, when I used forms and techniques that had names, that had rote methods and proscribed movements. That time was past. The Open Way, the fifth Lesson, had shown me the truth of combat, and the truth was to destroy. I had become it.

That said, these were just boys and children to me. I had stopped being a monster long past.

I drove through them, rushed headlong with my stick lifting, clearing, striking. I slapped clubs aside, turned steel with wood. Outside their circle I whirled back, struck the stone. Driving at the center, I shattered rock with my bit of stick. The shards flew, driven by will, by force, by my shout. The attackers withered back beneath the hail, but I moved in the moment, rapped wrists, tripped, kicked away legs. I thumped heads. I batted axeheads aside with my fingers. Their power was misplaced. I let clubs fall behind me, around me. Their force was witless. Then, with a smouldering stick, I emptied hands, deadened arms, tapped foreheads, and they fell, and they fell, and they fell.

“Stop!” A voice echoed on sky and ocean. I let the last blow land, sank the elk-rider to his knees, weaponless, and turned.

The one who’d shouted rushed at me, a tall man, crag-faced and white-painted on skin brown as old leather. He was bald. He came over the rocks like a downpour, cloak high, eyes locked to mine. His club, a long, ridged, fire-hardened weapon, soared above him, struck down, drove, ripped the air.

I surged in, whipped up the stick. It turned his club and it fell beside me, shattering rock, but I caught the back of the man’s head and pressed, shifted his weight. He resisted. He resisted well, but his technique was imperfect. I spun him down, hurled him, smote him on the smooth stone beach and stood, waiting, while he scrambled back to his feet.

He raised an open hand, but I saw the fear in his eyes dissipate as the men I’d felled moved and writhed, in pain, but alive.

“You.” I pointed with the stick. I measured him and my lip curled up. “Will you fight?”

He stared. He said not a word for a long time, but his eyes searched over me. Finally, he spoke. “Are you a gwashay?” He used a word I didn’t know. “A ghost?”

“Not for lack of your friends’ trying. What language is that?”

He ignored my question. “I have heard of one man who could fight twenty Rowatokon Sunshadows with a stick, and win, and spare them. But he is dead. So you must be a ghost.”

“Not yet. I ask again: will you fight? Have you anything new for me?”

His face broke into a broad grin. “Not for you. I know you. The one they call Raze.”

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