Duel

Pholius Primus, barefoot in a loose fitting tunic and long trousers, stepped calmly from the airlock of the Queen Comet into the cold vacuum of space. Staring into the inky blackness of the void, he reached with an outstretched hand and called it to him. The darkness began to coalesce around his chiseled body, slowly forming pauldrons, greaves, a cuirass, until Pholius was fully incased in midnight armor.  From the glow of a distant star, Pholius created a shining blade, six feet long and sharp as light.

A short distance away Pholius's opponent had created a set of plate and an axe from the orange light of the sun beyond. Behind him, like the one behind Pholius, was a massive battleship, the Supernova.  Both ships were in rough shape, heavily scarred across their hulls by extensive laser blasts.

"Pholius."  The other knight nodded in greeting as he floated close, using his sorcery to transmit his words mentally. Space remained silent.

"Gallun."  Pholius returned the nod.

"Why have you called this parlay?" Gallun asked.

"You seem to have taken extensive damage."

"And you have not?"  Gallun glanced back and forth between the two ships.  "It seems to me that our vessels are equal in their wounds."

"And if we continue as we are, they will be equal piles of junk."

"So, what do you propose?" Gallun asked warily.

"Should we fight this battle to its end, both of us will die, as even the victor's ship will be too damaged to reach port. Even now that may be beyond our capabilities."

"Get to the point, primus."

"The two of us will fight. The victor will take the other's crew captive and enough parts for a safe journey."

"Why would I do that, when I can continue to pummel you with my cannons?"

"Are you listening?  In the time it will take you, my crew can render you incapable of space travel."  Pholius raised his gaze to the bridge of the Supernova, where Gallun's crew stood watching the discussion.

"Very well," Gallun said. "Let us fight."  He roared, and his armor blazed bright. The light lanced towards Pholius's eyes, but his black helm lowered a thin film across the visor for protection.

Gallun , expecting Pholius to be blinded, shot forward with his axe held high for a vicious blow. But eyes covered, Pholius saw only Gallun's unprotected chest, and he thrust his blade at it. The strike failed to pierce Gallun's blazing armor, but sent him spinning away.

Yelling telepathically, Gallun advanced again, this time holding his axe ahead in a low guard. As soon as he neared, Pholius danced forward with a flurry of strikes, his starlight blade flaring with Gallun's axe as they collided.

From the bridge of the Queen Comet, Pholius's crew watched nervously as the two knights filled the space between ships with their battle. Gallun, in his flaming armor, flew around making wild sweeps with his axe, which trailed fire as it went. As a counterpoint, Pholius was nearly invisible in his black armor, so the crew had to look for his bright blade. He allowed Gallun to soar around him, keeping up a patient defense.

The two titans struggled back and forth until suddenly, almost imperceptibly, a mistake was made. Gallun over exaggerated an overhead swing, and Pholius had time to deliver a thrust to his hand. The axe flew from hand and slowly dissipated into embers. Unarmed and overmatched, Gallun could do nothing as Pholius stabbed him through the chest. His flaming armor flickered and faded, leaving his mortal body impaled on a blade of starlight.

Pholius pushed Gallun's body from his sword and let the blade fade from existence. The silence of space was punctured only by his labored breathing.

Seeing the battle was won, the Queen Comet enabled their thrusters, moving to make its conquest of the Supernova. Pholius took his place in front of it, looking every inch the conqueror in his midnight armor with his battleship at his back.

The Supernova lowered its remaining shielding, ready to accept the victors. Gallun would have telepathically informed them of the duel's stakes. The Queen Comet did away with her shields as well, and began extending a bridge to the other vessel's airlock.

The bridge was only halfway across the intervening space when Pholius noticed something wrong. A nearly invisible sheen covered the Supernova. Her shields were back up!  Gallun must have told his crew to attack whether he won or lost. Pholius tried to mentally shout to the officers in his bridge, but he was too late. The cannons on the Supernova blazed to life, and beams lanced through space into the unprotected side of the Queen Comet.

Pholius felt a burst of hot pain and was sent hurtling backwards. Looking down as he spiraled through space, he saw that a laser had sheared through his armor. Cold was already seeping through the wound.

As the Queen Comet was torn apart above him, Pholius stared into dark space, and drew power  from it. As he held the dark energy, he gazed back and forth between his ship and the hole in his armor. He only had so much power to use.

Should he use it to destroy the Supernova?  Even if he did, his men would die a slow, stranded death–their ships was irreparably damaged.  Turning away from the battle above, Pholius touched a black gauntlet to his broken side, and saved himself.

Carnivore Coast

General Kail Richards leaned against the railing of his balcony, a thick cigar smoldering in one hand and a crystal glass of dark rum in the other, watching as, down in the beach, his white-jacketed officers forced the savage chief up to the headsman’s block.  Beyond that, his soldiers held back a crowd of the savages with long spears. Kail could just hear the shouts coming from the flame-haired mob.

“Don’t you want to go down to the beach, sir?”  His bodyguard, Wyn Bruce, stepped up to the railing, his rank insignia glittering on his breast and his white tricorn hat tucked under his arm.

Kail shook his head and puffed a cloud of smoke out towards the beach. “I don’t blame to get any closer than this balcony,” he said. “It’s the small things that make life worth living, like being able watch an execution without ever leaving my house.”

When Kail had first come to land on the Carnivore Coast, a storm of steel before the primitive natives, he had built his manor into the side of Ember Mountain—a dormant volcano with a commanding view of the coast and inland rainforests.  He had come as a conqueror, but the savages had rolled over as easily as he expected.  From those rainforests, they had mounted a furious resistance.  That had been six months ago.

“Have a drink,” Kai said, pointing to the bottle that sat on the nearby table.

“I’m on duty, sir.”

He should have known—Wyn was a stickler for the rules.  He had been a colonel, but had been demoted when his practice of checking the Officer’s Field Guide before making maneuvers in battle had ended bloodily early in the campaign.

“When the king hears of our victory, we will be richly rewarded.  I believe that’s worth celebrating.”

“I’ll celebrate when I’m off duty.”

“Your loss.”  Kail turned back to the beach, shading his eyes against the bright tropical sun.  That had been a disadvantage at the beginning, his men having to adapt from their rainy homeland to this bright continent.    Since, they’d learned how to survive, though Kail swore his skin was a few shades darker than it had been six months ago.

Down on the beach, two of Kail’s officers held the savage chief roughly by the shoulders as the paraded him before his people.  The chief’s face had been scrubbed of its vile markings, and his fiery red hair had been cropped short, as a man’s hair should be.  But his expression…

“Does he seem happy to you, Wyn?”  The savage’s face was turned skyward, his lips slightly curved.

Wyn leaned over the railing and squinted towards the crowd.  “Not happy, sir.  I’d say he looks at peace.  He has likely realized that we are right to kill him.  He never should have resisted civilization.”

That must be it.  Why else would a condemned man be smiling?  Still it nagged at Kail.  His officer’s instincts told him that something was wrong; he just didn’t know what it was yet.

“Hand me that spyglass.”  Wyn passed one over, a long tool of polished wood, and Kail brought it to his eye.  His instinct had never failed him; something was amiss.  What was it?  “Something is wrong with the crowd,” he muttered.

“What’s that, sir?”

“They don’t seem distraught that their leader is being killed.  I know that they’re barely human, but they did show emotion in the field, at least in regards to their own dead.”  What was wrong?  “They aren’t doing anything.”

“Of course not, sir.  Our spearmen are holding them back.  What can they do?”

“It’s not that.”  There was no tension in them, no emotion but determination.  “They aren’t even trying to get past our spearmen.  In the rainforest, they would throw themselves on our swords just to recover their own dead.  Now, they just stand there, easily five yards from our men.”

“What’s that, sir?”  Wyn had procured a spyglass of his own and was focused further along the beach.

“What’s what,” Kail snapped.

“Behind them, sir.  Those four men.”

Kail turned his gaze to the spot Wyn had indicated.  There were, in fact, four men gathered around a fire, holding their palms out as if to warm their hands.  Only their lips moved.

“How could they be cold in this weather?” Wyn asked.  “I haven’t stopped sweating since we reached this continent.”  Then, having forgotten his decorum in his moment of confusion, he added, “Sir.”

They couldn’t be cold.  The temperature hadn’t dipped below seventy degrees in the last six months, including nighttime.  Then Kail noticed a swirling tattoo on one of the men’s legs.  These weren’t just any savages; they were the sorcerous shamans that had tortured Kail’s armies, causing the very forest to attack them.  Suddenly, everything fell into place.

He grabbed Wyn by the shoulders and yanked him around to stare into his eyes.  “Get the news down to the beach as fast as you can,” he said.  “All of our men are to focus on killing those four savages around the fire.  Forget the chief, just kill those four.  Do you understand soldier.”

Wyn saluted, “Yes, sir!” and ran off of the balcony screaming for the servants to saddle his horse.

Kail turned back to the beach, what he was seeing confirming his suspicions.  It was subtle, but the savages were arranged in a defensive formation similar to that of his white-clad soldiers.  They were protecting the shamans—why, he didn’t know, but if the savages wanted it, he would do whatever he could to deny them.

Wyn reached the beach even faster than Kail had expected, his horse moving down the steep path at more of a fall than a run.  He shouted something that Kail couldn’t hear, and the soldiers leapt at the savages.

The flame haired tribesman pulled forth concealed weapons and fought back fiercely, but Kail’s men were the best in the world, well trained and merciless.  They began to steadily push towards the shamans.

Kail allowed himself a sip of his rum, thinking that he his quick thinking had solved the problem.  The shamans didn’t stand a chance.

Then, the very mountain rumbled beneath his feet.

Kail, stumbled at the violence of the shock; his glass slipped from his hands and shattered on the balcony deck.  Pulling himself to his feet, he looked back to the fight.

His men had almost reached the shamans and the beach was littered with dead savages, but the view still filled him with dread.  The fire that the shamans stood around had grown.  It now blazed ten feet in the air and glowed as brightly as the Carnivore Coast’s accursed sun.

The mountain shook again, and this time Kail was thrown bodily to the ground.  He came up tasting blood.

This couldn’t be.  The savages were powerless primitives, only capable of animating vines to trip and whip at his soldiers.  How could they be moving mountains?

The campfire flared, spurting a gout of flame thirty feet into the sky, and the mountain exploded.

***

Wyn Bruce looked up as the top half of Ember Mountain disintegrated into a fountain of lava.  The soldiers around him saw it too, and began to run.  Wyn followed, knowing that once an army broke, they would never again turn and fight.  His only chance was to run faster than the rest.

Unfortunately, he had taken a leg wound during the first minute of the fighting.  The other soldiers easily outpaced him, and before he had gone twenty yards he was tackled to the sand.

A fire-haired savage straddled him, knife held high.

“How?” Wyn asked.  How did this happen.  Structure and order were the hallmarks of civilization.  How had a tribe of primitive, chaotic people defeated the most disciplined army in the world?  “How?”

The savage answered by sliding his knife into Wyn’s ribs.