Chapter Fifty-Seven: A Friendly Sparring Match
Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight
That night Shoel slept a little better, to her relief, and after following it up with a quiet bath, much earlier than the day before, she actually felt close to normal. She took up all the coin she had left and, as promised, left Hemlock behind while she started out through the town to start their resupply for the journey back to the dragonry. It really didn't take her long, once she found the shops she needed, and given she'd gotten a much earlier start this time, and had eaten lunch while exploring, she got back to the inn in the early afternoon with what packages she hadn't already had sent ahead.
There hadn't really been all that much to buy: mostly food, some binding straps that she suspected would help them store their bulky armor, and, because she couldn't resist it, a new book. It had cost most of the rest of her coin, though, so she hoped Hemlock's generosity would continue on the trip back. She climbed the stairs with the two packages and her book just a little before midafternoon, wondering how to spend the rest of the day.
"Enjoy yourself?" the necromancer called, poking his head out the door to his room at the sound of Shoel's footsteps in the hallway. "You've been out all morning, I was looking for you."
"I told you I was going out to resupply today," she told him, pausing at his door. "You said you didn't like shopping, so I didn't bother disturbing you."
"I don't," Hemlock replied with a slight smirk. "I just wanted to see if you wanted to go down to the beach. Spar, or maybe swim if you like to."
"All right, we can do that. I don't have any more plans for the rest of the day, other than organizing. Let me drop my things off and get my sword."
"Alright." That said, he disappeared back into his room, to get his own things no doubt. Shoel hurried down the last few paces to her own room and set the packages and book down with the other few packages that the inn's attendants had already deposited just inside the door. Clipping her sword with its runic sheath to her belt, she pondered her armor a moment. Hemlock would probably be good enough to keep from skewering her, but when working with live steel, it was always safer to be protected, just in case.
"What, are you afraid I'm going to cut you open?" Shoel jumped, turning to see Hemlock leaning against the door frame. He was smirking, as usual, slightly mocking. "I'd hope I wouldn't."
"Even my own brother cut me open a few times," she pointed out. "But I can just leave it; you're probably better than he was, anyway."
"We'll see, it might be a good idea to bring along some bandages, just in case," Hemlock responded dryly, losing the mocking expression, and she nodded, sifting through one of her new packages before pulling out a roll of gauze and sticking it in her belt. "I don't think armor is necessary, though."
"I'm ready, then," she said. Hemlock nodded and backed out the doorway, turning the corner of the wall to wait just outside for her. She followed and shut the door behind her.
"I hope it's still about as deserted as it was last time," she commented, turning down the hall for the stairs. "That was nice."
"Not a lot of people go to the beach, really," Hemlock explained, following after her. "They tend to take it for granted after a while."
"Well, better for us, then," she grinned, starting down the stairs. "I can only imagine the attention we'd get, otherwise. The novelty of having a human in town still hasn't quite worn off, I think," she added as they crossed the lobby under the foul-tempered eye of the innkeeper.
"Oh," Hemlock said with a snicker, noting the look on the man's face. "I managed to get that refund earlier."
Shoel covered a grin with her hand, torn between vindictive pleasure and sympathy. "No wonder he looks so sour."
"I didn't hurt him, though."
"So I see. Thank you." She pushed open the door and let him follow her out. One of these days he'll even let me hold a door for him. She glanced at him. Then again, maybe not. "What did you do?"
"Just a few threats," Hemlock said with a slightly evil grin. "About the undead."
"Charter. I can only imagine." She laughed a little. "He must not have taken you too seriously; he didn't look at all afraid, just annoyed!"
"Well, I threatened to raise his first girlfriend and introduce her to his wife."
Shoel nearly choked in surprised laughter. "Oh, Charter take me!" she managed. "That would do it!"
"Something he couldn't do anything about," Hemlock added in smug satisfaction. "Necromancy isn't against the law." Still laughing, she patted his arm in approval, and he added, "Though I don't really see why that form isn't...."
Dying down to a chuckle, Shoel nodded. "Maybe they don't expect necromancers to actually do that sort of thing regularly. Or they just expect to be able to handle it, if it did happen."
"They don't have reason to expect necromancers to do much of anything," Hemlock said with a blink, turning just a little red. "If you haven't noticed, we're not exactly common."
"I haven't actually noticed," she admitted, turning her face up to the sun and half-shutting her eyes against the glare. "I haven't spoken with many of your people about their magical ability, after all, and it's not exactly obvious."
Hemlock shook his head a little, suddenly pointing a finger at his eyes, and she blinked at him. "See this shade of gold? The orange-gold? It's called wraith gold, the same shade a lot of the sentient wraiths have. All draclin'geyar necromancers have eyes this color. It's a connected gene. The only two people I have seen with this color of eyes in my lifetime have been myself and my brother."
"Oh." She looked at him a moment more, then shook her head and put her eyes to the path: it had turned to sand again, as they approached the beach. "I hadn't known that. So I suppose it is fairly obvious, then."
"Extremely, though I assure you you won't see many draclin necromancers. I don't even know what the statistics are."
"Well, then, I can understand why no one's made any laws against it. What would be the point, if you're the only one on the planet with the gift?"
"Heh, you're calling it a gift now?" Hemlock asked in slight morbid amusement. "But yes, that's basically why. Most of the population are geomancers, then there's also pyromancers, hydromancers, aeromancers, basically any other type of magic you can think of is more common than necromancy." Though she hadn't heard most of those specific terms before, she knew enough about the roots of words to pick out what they meant.
"I've always called it a gift," she pointed out, kicking lightly at the sand with one boot's toe as she walked. "It's not a particularly good gift, in most cases, but you do have to have the talent for it in order to be a necromancer, even where I come from."
"I guess you could call magic that," Hemlock conceded, still a little amused. "It is a talent involving one's mind and personal energy, after all."
"Mmmhmm. So maybe it's not so different from what I'm used to, even if there's no Charter to draw from."
"You can draw from the environment in certain areas," Hemlock supplied, scuffing a foot in the sand. "Wherever there is a Great Spirit present. Usually when you cast you do it without realizing, or maybe the surrounding magic just supports you like that."
"A Great Spirit?" she repeated. She thought she remembered him using the term before, but she'd never actually asked him what it meant.
"Most people would call them gods, I guess," he answered thoughtfully, tapping his fingers together. "Though really they're powerful spirit beings, related to demons and angels I'd guess you'd say. Kind of in between, bound to the physical realm. Most are either unconcerned with people like us, or fairly friendly. There are a few, however, that are dangerous."
"And probably nearly unstoppable," she said. "I wouldn't want to meet one."
"You might meet Bladerunner... or whatever he goes by now, if you stay on the planet for any amount of time. He usually shows up sooner or later."
"And who's he? Just a random Great Spirit?"
"Mmm, the Great Spirit of this planet, actually. Patriarch of Drakonus's race, probably be considered to be an elderspirit to those that really think about such things."
"Oh. Well, as long as he's friendly, I suppose...."
The sand had turned finer, and the shoreline itself was visible now that they'd passed between the scrubby hills between the inn and the ocean. "So where shall we spar? Just right here along the water?"
"Along the water is flatter," Hemlock noted, taking in the ground beneath their feet and the shore smoothed by the lapping waves. "The tide won't come in until after sunset, but it's still moist so it should probably provide better footing."
Shoel dropped to sit for a moment, unlacing one boot. "I'm still not even going to try in these," she explained as she tugged it off. "They're not made for sand, I'll go slipping all over the place."
"Suit yourself, just don't step on anything," Hemlock warned. "Some sea creatures have a nasty sting." She looked over the area as she started on the second boot, noting anything that she might not want to step on, and nodded.
"I'll be careful. Though it would certainly be ironic if you never mark me, and the worst injury I end up with is from stepping on a seashell, or something."
"Let's hope not, because I'm not using poison."
Tossing aside both boots, Shoel rose and drew her sword, tossing it from one hand to the other, and then back again, to reacquaint herself with its weight and balance. It felt like it had been a while. "Ready when you are."
The necromancer smirked and drew his own sword from his sheath, spinning the hilt on his fingers just a little before sliding his left foot back into the ready stance. "So shall we start off with a few exercises or go right into the match?"
"Go right into it," Shoel grinned at him, teasing, "before I lose my nerve at the sight of you handling that thing."
"Ladies first," Hemlock said with a slight bow, folding his free arm under his midsection as he did so.
"You're going to start regretting that habit, someday," she told him, lunging with a twirling crescent to his left side. Instead of moving to parry or block he leapt off to his right, turning his body against the motion so that he faced her still and keeping his left foot back to correct his balance.
"Going for my weak side?" he said with a grin. He used a much more agile style than she did, suited to his lighter build and blade; it would take some effort to keep him off. She pivoted to keep her sword between them, drawing it back in a return crescent that would never have caught the feint he'd made to her right, but which clashed against the true thrust he made after, more by luck than skill, the lighter blade sliding off the longer with a metallic screech.
"Of course," she answered over the sound, letting the power of her swing thrust his blade and arm away, to hopefully break his stance. If she could even take advantage of a moment off-balance before he recovered.
He did, indeed, sway a little, apparently surprised by the maneuver. He got his foot behind him again quickly, though, as she'd expected, changing his center of gravity to a more forward position. In the same motion he brought his own sword up diagonally across his chest, so she came in with a low, double-handed horizontal swing, instead of the higher diagonal slash she might usually have brought after a double-crescent. Turning his wrist Hemlock brought the sword blade down into position to block, bringing his other hand up to reinforce the grip; his speed was truely impressive. Even so, his defense was still weak against her own bigger blade and stronger force of swing, and instead of holding firm, his blade gave, biting into his thigh. First blood, she thought, mildly astonished.
He winced at the cut, clenching his teeth, but then pushed her blade back as he hopped back and out of the way, freeing his sword more swiftly than she could make another lunge to catch it again. His arm swept up and his blade slashed down, opposite across his body, at her right shoulder. She hastily brought her blade up with both hands, catching it in a block and stepping back against the force of it. "You are fast," she commented appreciatively.
"I've had lots of practice," Hemlock answered dryly, spinning his blade off to the right and aiming another feint at her right. This time he aimed the true blow lower, towards the same side but at her thigh just above the knee. She only barely blocked in time, and the tip of his sword slipped off the tip of hers, slicing through the loose cuffs of her leggings and nicking her calf before she could step back and out of immediate range.
"Blood for blood," she said with a hiss.
"So we're even now."
He took a full step forward, slashing at her right side and middle, but she already had her sword half-way there, and just had to flip it in her grip to block, letting his slash bounce off. She stepped back again, trying to give herself more room to go on the offensive. In response, Hemlock just engaged again, with a return-slash almost the exact mirror of the one he'd made before, across the whole front of her body. She took another quick step back, angling her blade again to try to catch and repel his in the process. This time she wasn't quite as successful, since he was so close and coming from the opposite direction, and the speed of his strike caught his sword against her arm, slicing through fabric and into the flesh before she managed to get the longsword up to shove him back at least enough to get his sword out of her arm.
I may have got first blood, but I think that was luck, she thought dryly, backing up again. He knew how to fight against someone with a heavier blade and body. But I know something about fighting lighter fighters, too, she told herself, I just need an opening!
Hemlock hadn't lost much ground before he pulled his blade away from her, aiming a slash in under her defense in hopes of getting another hit. Yes! She changed her stance instead of trying to get her sword moved in time, sinking into a swift crouch that dropped her sword to the level of his. The blades hit with a clang of steel and, at the point of contact, Shoel launched herself back to her feet, using the force of the spring to throw him back and away from her.
Caught off guard, Hemlock took the full force of the blow and staggered backwards until he fell gracelessly onto the sand, barely catching himself by putting his hands behind him. She backed off, counting that as a win for that round and grinning incredulously. He shook his head and rolled back to his feet, holding his sword at the ready once more. The look on his face was somewhat annoyed. "A nice trick, that."
Shoel laughed, a little out of breath. "All right, so maybe I'm not as bad as I thought!"
His answer was to rush at her, and very quickly she decided she'd spoken too soon.
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.