A Midwestern Yankee... (Chapter 21)

Chapter Twenty-One

Balance

              Luga and Casey stood atop the roof of a sundry goods shop, surveying the battle spread through the city. His army had started strong, even pushing hard north on the western front for a while, but something had shifted the tide of battle, and now his people were falling back, setting pickets and securing territory. They would have to engage in trench warfare, it seemed.

              "It's my source," Casey said. "She brought statues and suits of armor to life to fight us. Such engines of war are difficult for flesh and bone to fight against."

              "I assume that's why those dragons were so small, and didn't use breath weapons," said Luga, grimacing. "Between her and the king's fucking lapdog, we'll never be able to wipe them out unless I get personally involved even further."

              "I can help," she offered.

              "No, you won't. I need you unharmed when I gain the rest of the Great Door. As for your source, I've commanded Thrasher to dispose of her. The beast is on its way now."

              "The Swarm?"

              "Slain by that cursed mutt," the shade snarled. "We're losing the advantage of numbers. Al will be evened up if we lose too many more on the eastern stretch. Send word on the wind to those troops to pull back and establish pickets." She used the wind magic to issue his orders, then sat down. "For now, you and I wait for Thrasher. When the human dies, I promise, you'll feel much better." She certainly hoped so, because at the moment, Casey was beginning to feel oddly reluctant about all of this bloodshed.

              Her spark of humanity was growing, and having stemmed from Kathy Potts's soul, it didn't care one bit for this war.

              "They're drawing back and establishing pickets," Daggeuro said in her ear, using the enchanted earring. "Everyone should hunker down, get healing and make ready for either another push or feints and skirmishes. Have your nearest wielders ready water magic in case they try to torch the neighborhoods they're in."

              Kathy made no reply, thankful for the elves and kennin and minotaur officers she'd come upon who offered her food and drink as they established pickets of their own. Lines of soldiers wielding tower shields locked in place at intersections, warding off arrows and thrown weapons, discouraging melee. Kathy was halfway through a ration pouch when several men holding those shields up grunted, raising their voices in a clamour. One shouted something about a demon as a knife, absent a wielder, stabbed down over the top of his shield into his head, felling him.

              What Kathy saw tearing into those men, bashing apart one of her orc statue warriors, was a floating tube of green energy, with dozens of thin cord-like tentacles of the same color whirling various weapons about with ease. Two more of her statues and a minotaur closed with the creature, their weapons swinging harmlessly through the center of the apparition before being plucked out of their hands by new cords and then buried in their owners.

Demon indeed, she thought, panicked. Rather than standing to fight, the remaining Watchmen fell back, lobbing spells at the creature, all of which failed to touch it. Kathy, frozen by the sheer terror flooding her mind, stood in its path.

              Survival instinct alone won the day, however. As ten blades of different sizes and shapes bore down at her, she crouched down under her cloak, willing it to harden and become sticky. The blades struck, and she felt each one pressing in at her first before trying to disengage. But she had trapped them against her cloak.

              Kathy closed her eyes and envisioned those weapons lashing back into the tube of green force. When she opened her eyes, the pressure eased, and a howl of rage and agony split the air.  She rose to find the creature flailing about, having impaled itself with every weapon it had tried to stab her with.

              A minute later, the second wraith was dead, its form dissipated as if it had never been there.

              Baron Dimanche materialized on the other side of the table across from Daggeuro, almost earning himself a warhammer in the skull. The kennin High Knight had stayed the bear faerie holding the hammer aloft with a gesture, though. He sighed.

              "I realize a tavern's a terrible place to use as a temporary command post," Daggeuro said, "but considering the nearest station house is in Luga's hands now, this seemed the better choice."

              "Reasonable," said Dimanche. "Did you see Kat'y's statues?"

              "I did. Ingenius of her, evened the odds. But now we're at a stalemate. They hold a full third of the city. The soumen can go out into the plains and summon more specters, though I doubt they will."

              "Even if dey did, wit' de barrier gone, I could bring spirits ovah to balance t'ings out." The door of the tavern opened, and in strode Kathy, looking haggard. "Commanding de statues is wearing you out," Dimanche said as she sat down with them, thanking an elven private for the glass of water he handed her.

              "It is. If I run out of energy, or pass out, I don't know if they'll stay active or not. There's only about fifteen left now, but they helped out a lot from what I've heard."

              "They have indeed," said Daggeuro gently. "But you can't go on like this for much longer, and we are approaching nightfall. Trench warfare is what remains to us now that picket lines have been established. There might be days of skirmishes ahead. You'll need to rest."

              The trio drank water and ate from meal ration pouches, none of them very appetizing. Kathy tried not to think about all of the lives that had been lost by her hands, including those her animated statues had done in. When they'd been traveling, witnessing the slendors of the Ether Plane, facing down monsters and camping in vibrant, rich lands she'd never seen, the romanticized vision of her adventure had shone bright.

              Now she was seeing the darker side of such quests, and she wanted to be done with it. She sighed, sipping water. "I don't know if I could handle days of this without at least a nap," she said. She wouldn't get the chance to take that rest, as it turned out.

              King Ovin's emmissary flew over the city, his little heart hammering in his chest. He didn't like this, no, not one little bit. But like Sir Daggeuro, he was a knight of the Royal Guard, bound to his duty.

              Locating the shade was easy enough, a wavery figure unrestrained by manifestation at the moment. Luga looked like a giant shroud flapping in the wind atop the building he stood upon with Casey, the taomen. The fairy knight saw Luga condense down into solid form as he neared, hands glowing with lightning.

              "Hold peace," the fairy cried out, putting up a magical shield a dozen yards away. "I being word from the king!"

              "Speak quickly or be destroyed, insect," Luga spat, silhouetted by the setting sun.

              "King Ovin offers victory by duel," said the fairy. "If you can best his chosen champion in singular combat, he will relinquish the remaining fragments of the Great Door to you, on condition that you then remove your army from the city. Do you accept these terms?"

              "I do," said Luga, smiling wickedly. "Who is his champion, or need I even ask?"

              "It is Sir Daggeuro, shade. I will now go inform him of the duel, which will be held at midnight in Cray Park, which stands behind your army's lines. Clear the way an hold peace until the duel, or the offer shall be rescinded." The fairy darted away, and Luga hooped and hollered like a lunatic. His victory, he felt, was assured. He took Casey in his arms, and together they danced, a mad coupling if ever there was one.

              And with the contact he made with her, the taomen's budding spark of identity twisted once again, corrupted by the shade's essence. She delighted now in the thought of betraying the formalities of the duel, and regardless of its outcome, tearing the city apart with her power. For her, even if he should be beaten, victory would be hers, and her source would die in the conflagration that would level the city.

              It was a good day to be profane.

              Daggeuro, Kathy and Baron Dimanche stared blankly at Sir Klip, the fairy Royal Guard who'd just informed them of the duel. "His majesty wishes to stop the violence and protect the citizenry," Klip said. "Surely you understand."

              "I understand that this is king Ovin's will," said Daggeuro. "I also understand that if he wins, he will wait only long enough to receive the fragments before ordering his people to commit slaughter."

              "Do you t'ink you'll lose," asked Dimanche, looking shocked.

              "Luga commands magics on equal with the king," said Daggeuro. "We've been fortunate that he hasn't personally participated in the fighting. He has only abstained for fear that king Ovin would personally retaliate. Is there a chance I'll lose this duel? Yes, there is." He chugged down a glass of water and set it down gently. "I must go meditate. Kathy?"

              "Yes?"

              "You should take some rest. The formal rules are in place. Your statues are no longer needed." He cast a look around the tavern, leaned in close. "And you should consider using that dragonbone dagger to get the hell out of here if things go badly," he whispered.

              Daggeuro left then, striding silently from the company of friends and colleagues he'd sworn to protect and serve. Kathy was weary down to her bones, and despite her desire to stay awake and plan a contingency scenario should Daggeuro be killed, she knew she needed sleep. She cleared off a bench against a wall in the tavern, and quickly fell asleep.

              Baron Dimanche remained right where he was, watching over her.

              Luga followed the goblin down the tunnel, seeing with some considerable interest that there were at least forty soldiers down here, all standing about quietly, speaking in hushed, respectful tones. When Manny Hurik, current patriarch and leader of the Hurik Clan goblins, had approached him on the rooftop, Luga had been in such a good mood that he'd agreed happily to accompany him to 'see something important'. Now, he wasn't so sure his good vibes were going to carry on.

              Manny stopped shy of a ring of his people, their black metal armor gleaming in the gathered light of torches. "It's here, Luga," Manny said, his voice gravely, raw. The shade gave him a look, noting that the patriarch wasn't calling him 'lord' or 'master'.

              Luga stepped forth, and the wall of armored goblins slid apart to reveal the body of Foruk. He looked deflated somehow, as if he'd been hollowed out. Yet his gray, tough skin had been washed, and some sort of ceremonial death mask was painted on his face. Luga let out a heavy sigh.

              "Yes, he is fallen. Tragic, but not unexpected," Luga said nonchalantly. Every warty, hook-nosed face around turned up at him, eyes narrowed, jaws clenched. "What? In war there are casualties."

              "This is not just some dead field marshall you hardly ever met," Manny snarled, teeth bared. "We served with Foruk for these last six years, and always he was close with you. He was the only troll vindicator we'd ever heard of, and a capable warrior. And you would simply say he's just another casualty?"

              "I don't appreciate your tone, Manny," Luga snapped.

              "I don't care a gotrin's ass if you like it or not, you deserve it, you faithless jackal! The Hurik Clan denounces you! I have already issued the order to my clan to depart from Celia post-haste. I will personally offer restitution to the court when all of this fell business is over. And we'll be taking the body," Manny said as his people lifted Foruk on a litter, moving out toward the exit. "He deserves a warrior's funeral."

              Luga said nothing, offered no rebuke, made no threats. How could he? He had taken for granted that the troll would always be there, at least until Luga used the Great Door to travel to new worlds. He had been dead wrong, and Foruk, well, he had been just dead.

              The shade felt a new emotion, short-lived and uncomfortable. He felt ashamed.

              "Miss Kat'y, it's an hour to de duel," Baron Dimanche said as he shook her awake. Kathy sat up groggily, mind fuzzy until someone set a cup of coffee down in front of her. She thanked the elven Watchman and sipped, mind slowly firing up again. "Sir Daggeuro is waiting outside for us."

              "How is he?"

              "He seems peaceful."

              "He either has a plan, or has accepted that he might die. I don't like it," she said, pulling her coffee in one gulp.

              "Nor do I. It's strange, seeing him like dat." Dimanche adjusted his top hat and his tie. Kathy did a double-take, as he was for the second time since she'd met him wearing a full tuxedo. She leaned to one side, looking at his feet; still sandals. "What?"

              "Wanted to make sure I hadn't woken up in Oz or something," Kathy replied. She stared off into the distance for a moment, then smiled broadly. "Baron, the taomen is likely going to be there for the duel, right?"

              "Yes," he said.

              "You're good at using shadows and illusions, right? I mean, you could hide something bigger than yourself, couldn't you?"

              "Yes, why?" Kathy told him why, her idea brought on by the most innocent of musings. When she was done, he made an appreciative face, rubbing his fingers down his cheeks to his chin. "I like your t'inking."

              "Thank you," she said. They headed outside, where Daggeuro stood in a circle of Royal Guard. Kathy excused herself, returning ten minutes later with her preparations made. Together, the trio walked in amiable quiet toward the duelling ground.

              The whees of fate were in motion.

              "Remember, as soon as Ovin has the fragments delivered, unleash hell on these people," Luga said quietly to Casey, shadows wrapped around her ever-thinning frame. It was the endgame now. Scouts reported that Sir Daggeuro was coming, ringed by Royal Guard, the voodoo spirit, and the human woman. Since seeing Foruk's body, the shade had learned that it was Baron Dimanche who had killed him, using a poison known to the shade. Likely, he'd tricked the troll into drinking it, coward that he was. Luga swore to himself that after the duel was won and the fragments in hand, he would personally vaporize the voodoo man.

              That, he figured, would assuage his guilt.

              The human woman, well, she was Casey's pet project. Surely the taomen could use all manner of combat spell to reduce Kathy Potts to so much bloody meat. Yes, even with the Hurik Clan gone, all was stacked in his favor.

So why am I so nervous, he thought. When he caught sight of Daggeuro and his entourage, his disquiet deepened. Luga had heard much from his people about events in the Mortal Plane over the years. One of the most fascinating things he'd heard of was a group of Buddhist monks who, smiling like all was right with the universe, set themselves on fire in protest against government forces. He imagined that smile to be both serene and yet softly hinting at insanity.

              Such was Sir Daggeuro's expression as he stepped clear of his entourage in the wide, maintained field of grass in the park. His eyes were droopy, half-lidded, like he was in some moving trance or fugue. Luga and Daggeuro both had allies present, shuffled off to one side of the field. The taomen kept some distance between herself and Luga's other allies, so they wouldn't be in her way when she made her move against the human she sought to kill after the master won the duel.

              Sir Klip flew into the park, hovering in the space between kennin and shade. "Ahem." The fairy glowed brightly with orange power. "Thou combatants, by the Right of Ayerlich, doth thou vow constraint from witnesses?"

              "I do," both men said at once, and a wall of white power shimmered into being for a moment between the spectators and the battlefield. Kathy reached out and touched the now-invisible wall to assure herself.

              "You know the terms of this duel," said Sir Klip. "Combatants, make ready." Daggeuro drew out Boon and Bane, their opposing auras of power flaring to life. Luga conjured lightning into his arms, body wrapped with crackling purple and yellow energy. "BEGIN!"

              Luga hurled two bolts of lightning at Daggeuro, who batted them aside with his blades calmly. He stood casually, as if uninterested in the fight. He took one step toward Luga, who launched a spear of ice at the kennin. This too was batted aside with ease, drawing 'oohs' and 'aaahs' from the crowd.

              Kathy exchanged a mystified look with Dimanche, then returned her attention almost entirely to the duel. She didn't need a lot of focus for her other, concurrent task. Nor did the Baron, holding his concealment spell in place.

              Luga growled as he sidestepped and flung three fireballs at Daggeuro in rapid succession, one-two-three. All were batted aside by his blades, with hardly any effort. "Fight me, you coward," Luga shrieked, but Daggeuro just looked calm, centered. More bolts of lightning, more deflections, though now the orange lights of the Word of the Knight were glowing from his eyes. Still he smiled, his every movement loose, relaxed.

              Finally Daggeuro spoke, the twin voice coming from one mouth. "Thou shade known as Luga, hear me well, for mine is the Word of the Knight!" Luga froze in place, and every spectator fell silent. "I am Sir Daggeuro, High Knight of Ovin's court, Lord of the Watch, Blademaster of kennin, santo of divars, wielder of Boon and Bane, and I give thee to listen and obey mine word!"

              Kathy could see Luga straining to try and cast a spell, but the shade's arms refused to move. Daggeuro continued. "Come forth, Luga, and take into thy grasp Boon and Bane," Daggeuro said, sheathing the swords, then flipping the sheaths around in hand, presenting the handles. Shouts of objection rang out from the Royal Guard, but Kathy and Dimanche, suspecting some trickery on Daggeuro's part, remained passive, holding their magic steady elsewhere.

              The shade Luga could, with enough effort, resist the Word of the Knight. But he didn't even try; if Sir Daggeuro thought he could prove something here, the kennin was about to regret it for the few seconds of his life remaining.

              Luga stepped forth, grasped the handle of Bane alone, and tried to draw it. He grunted, infusing his arms with magic to enhance his strength, but to no avail.

              "I say thee nay, foolish," Daggeuro said in that twin voice, not unkindly. "Draw thou both, together."

              "Your funeral," Luga snarled, grasping both legendary weapons' handles and drawing them from their sheathes. The metallic 'shing' echoed through the park, Boon's white aura flaring, Bane's black aura matching. Luga held the blades up before him, crossed over one another in an 'X'. "Ah, such power. These will be useful while traveling the many worlds. I thank y-", he managed, looking Daggeuro in the eyes one more time. The kennin's Word of the Knight had faded, revealing his natural eyes.

              "It's all about balance," Daggeuro said, watching peacefully as the auras of Boon and Bane spiraled from their handles into Luga's arms, flowing into his body. At first Luga's frame rippled out of shape, the inky black substance his body was composed of reacting violently to the sudden intrusion of external forces. His dark eyes sprang open wide, staring at nothing. "You see, I did some thinking earlier," said Daggeuro in a calm, measured tone. "I require balance, because my very nature is aggressive, hostile. But I'm a creature of order, given to instincts, given to a natural process. Balance is not harmful to me, and my prolonged exposure to the forces of Boon and Bane, combined by my mental and spiritual exercises, helps me maintain my essence."

              Luga dropped to his knees, body shaking, his shape becoming ragged around the edges. Daggeuro continued. "You are selfish, cretinous, a creature of chaos made of corrupt souls meshed together. You understand order, but only in its extremes. I ask you now, consider this balance you hold in your hands. Is it one you can comprehend? Think well on it."

              But all could see that the shade Luga could do no more thinking than a fallen log could do some  barnyard dancing. A whirling suction sound began emanating from the shade as the auras of Boon and Bane pulsed again, spilling from holes burned in his physical body by the legendary weapons' contact with him.

              "You see, Luga, you are not able to handle that power," Daggeuro said, stepping toward the shade. "And I knew you couldn't resist the temptation, the chance to get your hands on Bane. Really, you've done this to yourself. I just presented you with the opportunity."

              White light lanced out of Luga's left eye, black power pouring from his right, a primal roar of horror tearing out of his throat. The twin blades fell from his fingers as the stench of burning hair wafted from his faltering, shadowy form. He flailed about like an electrocution victim, howling and gibbering in agony.

              Finally, flashing like a strobe light, Luga's body stretched out like a thinning puddle, screams dying out as he stretched and faded, onward and onward until he simply blended with the empty night air, his existence reduced to nothing.

              The Barrier staying the onlookers vanished with Luga's death. The taomen let out a blood-curdling shriek, and Baron Dimanche removed his spell. The stone dragon hovered overhead until Kathy saw the taomen look up at it, at which point, the human woman released her magic, letting a ton of stone statue fall and crush the taomen to death.

              "Like the wicked witch of the east," Kathy muttered to herself, satisfied.