I leaned to the left, avoiding the enormous arrow the norn archer sent my way and swung my greatsword around, energy crackling along the length of the weapon. My beam caught the Son of Svanir square in the chest, breaking his bow into pieces and sent him tumbling back. His vision went dark, and I marveled at my new strength – while my actual weapon was still crude and bulky, my execution was something I was becoming more and more pleased with. This was the first time I’d had a chance to use it against real targets. Targets that fought back.
We’d struck the Svanir camp shortly after nightfall, Elsif and I both agreeing to come with The Mourn Knights, though I suspected my mentor had come more out of curiosity as to the methods of Ciani’s men than any real bloodlust. With their apparent reputation, I could hardly blame her for that.
And they had not disappointed.
The sentries had been silenced in a feat of near perfectly synchronous killing. The next death had been a half-asleep zealot relieving himself against a tree, then the Knights had moved their way quietly into the camp and started by clamping heavy cloths over mouths before knives entered hearts.
Nearly a dozen of the Svanir were dead before the alarm was sounded, and then Ciani and the remainder of her troops moved in. They swept into the cave with a smooth, military precision. No roars, no shouts, not till the battle was joined.
I had been part of that wave. My first two norn had been quickly dispatched, and as I noted the smouldering hole that’d been blasted through the archer I wasn’t displeased with my third. Movement to my right warned me that my fourth victim was coming for me, and I stepped easily aside to let the norn surge past.
But something was different about this one. Something wrong. Colder.
There was a chill in the air as the zealot passed, an unnatural cold that sent fresh goosebumps across my skin. It was colder than the already frigid air of the cave, and as I saw the creature through a nearby Knight’s eyes I realised it wasn’t quite a norn. Not anymore, at least.
Ice, tainted blue and silver with what I knew must be Jormag’s corruption had run up the norn’s bare chest and arms. Skin had been replaced with ice in scaly patches, revealing muscle and bone and azure veins beneath. The hands had formed into frozen blades, jagged things more like meathooks than swords. Its face was a nightmare, most of the flesh gone pale and see through, revealing the skull, blue-red muscle, and wildly roving eyeballs
“Fight me, human!” It roared at me, and I turned to face it, pleased to note that its eyes at least seemed to be in normal working order.
“Fight you?” I echoed. “Your compatriots didn’t fare so well when they tried that.”
“Weaklings. Mewling children to me!” The thing snorted. “I am Hanvorr Skalson. I have earned Dragon’s boons!” He hefted one of his hook swords, letting it catch the firelight. “You see, human?”
Keen eyes were watching us now, and Ciani dispatched her opponent with enviable and contemptuous ease – driving her short sword into an unprotected armpit, tilting it to pierce the norn’s heart – and her attention was already focused on me as her victim fell.
She ignored another norn that rushed her, the brute oblivious to the raptor until it leapt on him, bearing him to the ground with a harsh shriek and tearing into him with a savagery that might have unnerved had I not been focused on my own prey.
I was grateful that The Fallstar was making no move to interfere.
My first beam struck Hanvorr, sending him staggering back a step. He straightened himself, roared at me, and broke into a run. I hit him again, and this time he caught the beam on those frigid hook-blades and swept it away. The same force that had blasted a hole clean through the archer had been deflected – not easily, not without effort – but deflected.
My mind went back to the battles I’d fought against norn in the last year. Fiegrsonn. Ingesbror. Both of them had been strong in their own way, but Fiegrsonn had been broken of mind long before I’d had in my sights, and Ingesbror had been an arrogant brawler, simply outclassed.
This thing was different. I knew what icebrood were, and I always imagined they’d be powerful as there must be some reason why the fiercely independent norn were willing to serve Jormag, but this was unexpected. I hadn’t quite expected such a difference.
But this thing was not Tatianna, and while I was surprised, I wasn’t ready to be impressed yet.
The air around me shimmered, and five perfect clones sprang into being around me. Swords were raised, and I channeled everything I had into another beam. My illusions’ power joined mine, their own beams fusing with the one that lanced out of my sword. The magic flared, surging forward to envelope the charging icebrood in a cascade of seething violet energy.
Hanvorr shouted, roared, then screamed before falling abruptly silent.
I lowered my sword, letting the clones vanish as the light faded and waited, not without satisfaction, as what was left of the icebrood staggered forward.
Hanvorr was bleeding, seared, and where ice had replaced flesh – cracked. He stumbled forward, broken hooks reaching for me, and I leaned back to avoid a last, clumsy swing as he collapsed to his knees in front of me. “Dragon…” he muttered, his vision already starting to flicker as consciousness started to fade. Blood, thick and dark, leaked from his lips.“Power…”
I realised that he was the last of the Svanir left alive, and the remaining Mourn Knights were either watching us or tending to the wounded. He seemed to recognise it as well, his dimming eyes flicking left and right to the grey-clad Knights around him. His dying mind would linger on the question of why, I realised, as I planted my sword against the ground and drew my pistol. He would never know by who or why he and his brethren had been slaughtered, why his own power had failed him, or who had outclassed him.
I pulled the trigger.
“A mesmer?” Ciani’s voice said over the echo of the gunshot. I let the corpse collapse to the cave floor, and holstering my revolver as she approached me, wiping her sword on a scrap of cloth. “I suppose I should have guessed..”
“That’s not a problem, is it?” I asked, noting that there was something in her tone, though I couldn’t quite place it. My blood was still up from the fight, and I was beginning to wonder if I’d been too quick to put my gun away.
“Problem?” Ciani laughed, shaking her head. “Not at all, it’s just been a while since I’ve seen one of you, but I assumed the dark glasses and the blindfold were part of some kind of exotic training method. Seems I didn’t give your teacher enough credit.” I relaxed slightly. “Some kind of specialised training, I imagine?”
“Something like that,” Elsif answered for me, stepping forward, greatsword slung on her back.
“We had a mesmer, a few years back,” Ciani said. “Didn’t work out, but there aren’t that many of you, certainly not in this line of work. Rarity is an advantage though. Fewer people know to expect it, fewer still how to fight against someone who can be in multiple places at the same time.” I made a noncommittal noise. “Just like I was saying, you could very well as a mercenary…”
“Nine wounded, no casualties, nothing serious.” Zakarias interrupted any further discussion, and I felt an odd sense of relief. I didn’t know why, but I was strangely uncomfortable with the almost predatory smile that had formed on The Fallstar’s dark lips. “How many heads?” Ciani turned to look at her gore-splattered lieutenant, her expression growing thoughtful.
“Take a dozen or so, that should be enough,” she ordered. “Loot the camp, take what we can use, leave the dead for the wolves.”
“Understood.” The charr turned on his heel, barking orders, and The Mourn Knights got to work. Axes and swords rose and fell as several of the norn were decapitated. Proof of the kill, I realised, to take back to their client.
“Come, Kaede,” Elsif laid a hand on my shoulder. “This part isn’t for us.”
Slowly, feeling like something important had just happened without my knowing what it was, I turned and followed my mentor from the cave.