236: Trial By Combat

on June 11, 2008 in Book 9

In Which Gloria Gets The Point

I hefted the phantasmal pitchfork before I moved away from the mockboxes. I wanted to figure out what the hell I was supposed to do with it before I stepped into the combat area.

The most natural way to hold it seemed to be two-handed, like a staff, but that seriously seemed to cut down the reach, and I didn’t know how to bring the points to bear when I was holding it sideways like that.

Also, I felt really nervous about my hands. I mean, they were right there where Gloria could hit them, and then I’d be disarmed and slightly more defenseless.

Of course, what would happen if she did disarm me? She’d “killed” me before. It could hurt like hell, but I’d get over it. Anyway, if Callahan saw me fighting and losing and decided to chuck me out, would that actually be any worse than if I just refused to fight?

Actually, when I put it that way, it seemed like it was worse. If I was going to get chucked out, I might as well avoid getting run through with spectral blades first.

I sighed. That really wasn’t an option. If I did my best and got kicked out, I could tell Amaranth that I’d tried. If I refused to fight knowing that would lead to my dismissal, that would be like quitting.. and Amaranth had ordered me to take this class.

The funny thing was, now that the pitchfork had been mocked I could suddenly “feel” it in my hands. The real thing was an infernal implement, a cursed weapon… and for that reason, my attempts to read its enchantments turned up nothing. To those who were sensitive to sanctity and its opposite, though, it apparently radiated very strongly.

The mockbox would copy exactly all the properties of whatever was placed into it, but its worldly magic could not duplicate the property of sanctity or infernality. Gloria’s sword, the original of which was almost certainly sanctified rather than enchanted, came out of the box with whatever enhancements had been laid into it but with no trace of holiness about it.

The pitchfork in my hands was much the same: an arcane copy of an infernal item. If I’d had an unlimited amount of time to study it, I could probably get a handle on most of its properties.

If I’d had unlimited time.

“Get a move on, Crybaby!” Dobbs shouted.

“Oh, stick a fork in it, Dobbs,” I said, giving the pitchfork a lazy twirl… “lazy” because I couldn’t have managed doing it quickly. I’d been going to say “stick a sock in it”, but came up with the variation at the last second. I smiled when he turned a little pale.

If only I could spook Gloria so easily. But, no… she was resolute. She looked a little scared, but it wasn’t the fear of a coward. She was going to do what she had to do, no matter how she felt.

I didn’t really want to spook her. She’d never been anything less than polite to me… almost friendly, even. Her religious background had made for some awkward moments, but she’d been helpful. Nice.

Now, as we squared off and prepared to fight, I could almost believe that she would have happily killed me for real. I was glad I had more than my knife with me, but I wished I’d had a chance to get some more practice with the pitchfork before it came down to this.

It was a bit late to think of this, but I wondered if Steff would have been willing to coach me in private, if we had known for certain that Gloria would be unavailable.

I held the pitchfork in much the same way I had when I’d tried to keep the demon dogs at bay with it. Gloria wasn’t a dumb animal, though, and she had a weapon to increase her reach. If she got past the points, she could probably bring the sword into play faster than I could pull the pitchfork back and bring it to bear again.

We stood facing each other, me with the pitchfork leveled and her with her sword raised. Neither one of us wanted to make the first move and expose ourselves to a counterattack.

The sun was bright in the clear blue sky, but it was a cold day. It seemed like it should have been raining, or at least overcast. What would Sooni have thought, if she’d seen this scene? She’d stop us and tell us it was all wrong.

I snorted at the idea, in spite of myself.

“You heard the coach, Crybaby!” Dobbs said. “Go for her throat.”

I ignored him. We were holding, the two of us. Gloria was no more or less going for my throat than I was going for hers. He was just a distraction, though. I could ignore him.

He wasn’t a problem.

“I said fight, you damned demon bitch!”

An ongoing distraction.

That might be a problem.

Figuring that a serious holier-than-thou case like Gloria would not be so dishonorable as to attack me when my back was turned, I wheeled around to face him.

“My name is Ms. Mackenzie,” I said. My voice came out slightly growly, but this was actually because I was straining to keep a lid on it.

“Fuck you, Coach says your name is Crybaby,” Dobbs said, as if he hadn’t called me anything more offensive than the coach’s “pet” name for me.

“Until you’re willing to come over here and knock me on my ass like ‘Coach’ did, you will address me as Ms. Mackenzie,” I said.

It was kind of a bluff, but it was a legitimate one. Callahan claimed the right to call me whatever the hell she wanted because I couldn’t stop her. Dobbs was too scared to get within arms’ reach of me. The fact that he was too much of a pussy to call my bluff meant it wasn’t a bluff.

He couldn’t beat me because he wouldn’t even try.

With that thought, I had a sudden, blinding flash of realization about Callahan’s methods, and her purpose in making Gloria and I fight like this.

No… no… wait.

That was actually just a sudden, blinding flash of pain as Gloria’s sword cleaved down through my skull and into my collarbone.

The sucker punch aside, the thing was completely unfair. I mean, I have to imagine that if this hadn’t been a mock combat, I would have died without feeling most of that.

“What… the… fuck?” I sputtered when my vision cleared and the illusory pain receded. I was on my side, looking up at Gloria.

“I will not sully the concept of honorable combat by engaging in it with you,” Gloria said. “Honor can be an arrogant man’s excuse for suffering evil to live.”

“So why haven’t you tried to kill me for real?” I asked.

“Because Khersis is a lawful deity,” she said. “‘To do right, you must not only ask what is good but also what is lawful, for reason must be tempered by morality and morality by reason.'”

I recognized the passage, though strangely, it hadn’t been one of my grandmother’s favorites. Dee had quoted it to Gloria, the time she’d attacked me with holy signs in the spiritual arts center.

“Be reasonable, then,” I said. “I haven’t done anything. I don’t want to do anything, but people keep pushing me…”

“Hey, class ain’t over,” Dobbs said. “Get up and do it again.”

“Get up,” Gloria said to me, ignoring Dobbs. “If you refuse, I will kill you again, on the count of three.”

“I’m getting up,” I said, groping for my pitchfork. My hand found it. As soon as my fingers closed around it, I knew what to do.

“Stand and make yourself…” she started to say, but I hit her in the shin with a wild swing of the pitchfork. It was an awkward angle, and the blow didn’t have a huge wind-up, but it had my strength behind it and the element of surprise on its side.

She went down, howling and grabbing her leg… obviously, losing her sword in the process of doing so.

Dobbs blew his whistle.

“You treacherous beast!” Gloria said, when she’d recovered from her shock.

I turned the pitchfork around and drove the tines through her chest. Her eyes went wide and blank and her mouth turned into a perfect “O”. I felt a sick thrill inside me at her scream. I pulled my weapon out, but not straight out… the awkwardness of the angle and my own lack of coordination made me pull down her body a bit in the process. There was resistance as if the embedded tines were tearing and stretching flesh, and then they were free.

Dobbs blew his whistle again.

“Foul!” he yelled. “That was bad form.”

“This isn’t a duel,” I said to Gloria, but loud enough to make sure Dobbs could hear. I took a step back and adjusted my grip on the pitchfork. I knew how to use it best now… both to best effect, and best against this foe. “Pick up your sword and fight me. If you refuse, I’ll kill you again on a count of three.”

She nodded, grimly, got to her feet and recovered her sword. We each stepped back. She held her sword in front of her and gave me a small nod, like the tiniest of bows. I returned it.

She ran at me, sword held at the ready. I took a half step back and twisted my body around. I was holding the pitchfork with both hands up near the pointed end.

I swung the thing like a club at Gloria’s head as she approached. She raised her sword with both hands, too late and too slow to do anything but catch the blow head-on with it. The sword clanged like a gong and flew out of her grasp, the flat side whacking her in the face and then falling to the ground.

I think the force of the blow not-broke her arms. Given my intimate familiarity with not-injuries, I might have been inclined to sympathize.

Might have…

Didn’t.

She stared at me in disbelief and horror.

I hit her again, the wooden pole cracking against her upraised arms with a sick and satisfying sound. I battered her until she couldn’t raise them any more. Each blow was accompanied by the simulated sound of bones cracking, though her body remained healthy and whole.

When she could no longer shield herself, I swung the shaft back and then let fly at the side of her head like I was wielding a broadsword. The impact knocked her spinning away sideways.

She landed on her side and rolled over onto her back. If it had been a real weapon, she’d have been dead twice… once from the pulped skull and once from the broken neck.

I was over her as she recovered. I think she’d actually blacked out briefly from the pain. As she came back to an awareness of herself, I thumped the end of the pitchfork down on her chest. She tried to rise and I did it again, harder.

“Stop!” she cried.

“Class isn’t over yet,” I said, giving her a prod with enough strength to crack her ribs.

As long as she was down on the ground, with no weapon in her hand, she wasn’t hurting me.

“Stop it!” she said. She started to raise her arms. I didn’t think she was just trying to block the blows, so I drove the pitchfork down as hard as I could before she could form any signs. She stiffened and her arms flailed out to the side.

I felt my stomach lurch when the end of the pitchfork drove through her stomach. The weapons weren’t incorporeal illusions. They wouldn’t seamlessly interpenetrate a body unless they penetrated it. That meant, mockery notwithstanding, I was driving a blunt weapon through her frail little meat shell with my strength alone.

I kept pushing, though, until I was sure it had come out the other side and been driven into the ground beneath her. She was well and truly pinned now, impaled on the semi-solid weapon.

Her body twitched and her eyes rolled up in her head, and then she was disturbingly still.

I wondered, could I just keep it there for the rest of the class? What would that do to her mind?

For that matter, what would it do to mine?

The anger and fear that had driven me to such savagery were draining away from me, and now I was looking at a woman… a very beautiful, occasionally kind young woman… with the image of a cursed weapon sticking through her stomach.

She wasn’t actually dead. I could see her perfect chest rising and falling, slowly.

That didn’t make the image any better.

A small movement caught my attention. Her hand twitched. That was all the warning I had before her eyes snapped back into focus, and she grabbed the pole with one hand.

It would have been a superhuman feat of endurance if she’d actually been wounded, but I supposed that all she was really doing was pushing past the pain.

It was still scary to see.

“Stay down,” I said. “I don’t want to do that again.”

“Going… to… have to,” she said. She tried to pull the pitchfork out of her, but she didn’t have the leverage.

“You weren’t like this before,” I said. “What the hell happened?”

“You… attacked… humans,” she said.

“I told you, that was self-defense.”

“Delvers… in the labyrinth.”

Shit. She was definitely getting more of her strength back.

They attacked me,” I said.

She let go of the shaft, and I thought for a second that she’d given up… then, she wrenched herself to the side. There was a horrific wet ripping sound… much like a torso would have made if it were being sawed through with a blunt pole… and then she was on her stomach, shaking like a leaf beside the still-standing pitchfork.

“Oh, fuck,” I said. I dived for my weapon and wrenched it out of the ground as she picked herself up to her feet. I’d beat her down if I had to, but I was growing weary of the brutality it required.

“You have a talent,” she said, bending down by her sword and groping for it while keeping her eyes on me, “for provoking humans into attacking you. It is a convenient thing, for one who would claim self-defense.”

“It’s my fault, then, somehow, that delvers tried to kill me?” I asked.

“Fault does not enter into it,” she said. She’d found the hilt of her sword, and straightened up. She was breathing hard. One hand was on her stomach, as if she couldn’t believe there was no wound there. “There is no blame for your nature. You are simply… a threat to be dealt with.”

“I’m a threat because people keep attacking me?”

“People keep attacking you because you are a threat,” she said.

“I don’t do anything to them,” I said.

“You exist,” she said.

“I can’t do anything about that,” I said.

“You could stop.”

“Fuck that!” I yelled. “Am I just supposed to surrender to anybody who looks at me funny? Lay down and die? Is that the only way I can be good in your eyes?”

“You will never be good,” Gloria said, and her eyes lit up with anger at the mere idea of that. “But you will at least cease to be evil.”

“I’ve never meant to be evil,” I said. “And I’ve done my fucking best to be good. I’ve never killed anybody, but I’m not about to let anybody kill me.”

Gloria opened her mouth to retort, but her first word was drowned out by a whistle. It wasn’t the sound of the metal whistles that the coaches wore around their necks, but a sharper, shriller sound that pierced my skull like Gloria’s sword had earlier. We both froze, and then turned to see Coach Callahan standing there with two fingers between her lips.

“Congratulations, Emo Kid,” she said. “You’re in the class, after all. Take your friend to the healing center and then hit the library. I want you to find a book called The Warrior’s Handbook. Read the first five chapters before you come back here, Thursday… ready to be taught.”

“Gloria isn’t my friend,” I said. “And I don’t think she needs the healing center.”

“I wasn’t talking about her,” Callahan said. She jerked her head in the direction of a cluster of students… or rather, at Steff, who was laid out on the ground in the middle of them.


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6 Responses to “236: Trial By Combat”

  1. Anonymoose says:

    FUCKING.

    WIN.

    Current score: 1
  2. Hoopla says:

    On second thought, keep the farm tool. It’s the only weapon with which she has been sucessful so far.

    Current score: 9
  3. sengachi says:

    The moment Mack said she couldn’t feel the infernal enchantment of the pitchfork because she was a demon, and was therefore immune, I just went “No. No, it means you can’t feel it twisting your mind inside out. Welcome to the world of cursed items. Enjoy your slow descent into insanity”

    Current score: 9
    • nobody says:

      This chapter shows that the rage curse is at least less effective on Mackenzie when infernal power is in it and that stops resets very quickly when the weapon is not being held.
      She was far more influenced by the mockboxed weapon than the real one and far more quickly as well, though part could be that she knew the mocked weapon wouldn’t kill but she was still far more ruthless than that would explain.

      Current score: 6
  4. Zeta says:

    That section gave me the biggest hard-on I’ve had for this entire story.

    Current score: 3
  5. Sahsa says:

    Badass Mack is badass.

    Current score: 1