We soon arrived at our destination Slipgate and exited. “Ay we’re here!” Nokon declared excitedly as we stepped out into a bright sunny day. “This is the ancient duelin’ grounds of the Kalnor Magi. We’re not but a ten minutes jog away from the temple. Oh I can practically hear Riala call’en me name.” He stepped forward and cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted into the wind, “‘Old on me love! I’ll be thar soon!”
I held up my hand to shield my eyes from the sun and looked around. We had exited into the middle of a ruined Roman-esque colosseum. The ground was covered in a hot white sand, the surrounding area was dotted with stone pillars and criss-crossed with crumbling walls, the arena was enclosed by a stone wall with several rusted iron gates marking exits interspaced around the parameter, above the stone wall was row upon row of seats. This place must have been quite something a hundred years ago. “You said this was a Magi dueling grounds? As in for ‘Duels of Destiny’?”
“Aye the very same! You’ve heard of those then, eh?”
I nodded. “Been in a few actually.” ‘Duels of Destiny’ to put it in simple terms are how wizards sort issues out if they can’t reach a compromise. It’s like back in the early 19th century two men would agree to the rules of a duel and slug it out, winner gets what they wanted, usually to be ‘right’ about whatever started the dispute. Wizards still do that even today, though there’s more to it. I’ll tell ya about in a bit.
I pulled the strings to roll up my left sleeve, so I could access my wrist mounted computer. “Okay if my clock is the same as local time, and judging by the position of the sun it is. We’ve got twenty minutes, and you said it was ten minutes to get there. That’s cutting it close.” I swiped over to the Etherium detector app and let out an impressed whistle. “Wow, Etherium levels here are ten times what they are on my world, it’s probably flowing out through the Slipgate to other worlds instead of in like on Earth.” I wouldn’t need to use my Etherium armband here. I lowered my arm and I noticed something I had missed before, a line in the sand crossing the mouth of the Slipgate, a line Nokon and I had crossed. At either end of the line someone had drawn complex runic patterns. “Damn it!” I swore as I quickly kicked the sand to erase the runes. “Nokon, I think we tripped an alarm when we came through! We best hurry I’m fairly certain the intent of those runes was to alert someone when activated.”
“Aye, always somethin’.” He moaned and we both started running for the nearest gate leading out of the arena.
We had just reached the opening of the exit tunnel when I felt something that caused my heart to drop. I slid to a stop as a wave of Etherium washed over me like a ripples in a pond “Damn it, someone’s warping in!” I yelled as I drew my gun. At the other end of the tunnel the air took on a shimmering sort of reddish haze then parted like an opening stage curtain out through which a short thin figure in a black hood and cloak emerged. “Nokon get to cover!” I shouted over my shoulder then turned my attention to the hooded figure, “Okay I don’t know who you are but–”
“Jack!?” A surprised human female voice called from underneath the hood. I know that voice! Helena pulled back her hood revealing her oval shaped face with piercing ruby red eyes, and trademark raven colored hair pulled back into to a ponytail reaching to the middle of her back.
“Helena!” I let out a gasp of relief. “I’m glad you’re here!” I began to holster my gun and walk towards her when Nokon stopped me short in both regards.
“Oy? OY! Jack that’s her! That’s the tawdry raven haired lass Flucra hired!” He declared as he pointed furiously.
“‘Tawdry’?!” Helena asked indignantly as a flicker of red in her eyes echoed the anger in her voice.
“Wait!” I called out to both of them. “There’s clearly been some sort of mistake or deception here. I know Helena, Nokon. While we have been on the opposite sides of conflicts in the past she wouldn’t do something evil like…” I looked to the Sorceress for confirmation of what I was saying but her eyes refused to meet mine as she looked to the ground with a deep frown. “Wait… Helena… *did* you kidnap Nokon?” I asked with disbelief paliable in my voice.
She lifted her head and took a slow breath before speaking. “Jack there are things going on here, you’re not aware of. I want to be clear what I did was to intended to prevent a war, to prevent mass bloodshed, and I meant no harm to Nokon.”
“No harm!” Nokon demanded. “Ya took me ON THE DAY OF ME WEDDIN’! Dragged me into the Slip then throw me through a Slipgate on ta some random world! That damned ‘El Tentáculo’ could have been waitin’ there to drag me off into Gods knows what!”
Helena began to respond then sighed and gave me an annoyed look. “Did you *have* to tell him the ‘El Tentáculo’ story?
I shrugged. “He asked, about the reinforcement around the Slipgate. Wait, but what’s this about a ‘preventing a war’?” Standing between Nokon and Helena and having to look back and forth between them made the conversation hard to track.
“If Flucra is prevented from marrying Lady Riala he will seize her lands by force and he has the army to do so, they’re already gathered at the border.” Helena explained.
“Wait ‘Lady Riala’?” I looked to Nokon.
“Aye, Riala is the rightful the Lady ruler of Yorin.” He explained.
Helena cut in. “Which means Nokon would become the new Lord if they married. Tell me, how certain are you of the nobility of your ‘friends’ intentions, Jack?” She asked pointedly.
Before I could say anything Nokon answered. “Yes, when I marry her I would technically become the lord. I don’t care though! Riala is the finest damned ruler our home as ever had I would allow, no… I would WANT her ta keep runnin’ thin’s. I care about being with her because I love her. We were each other’ first snogs, first romantic dates, first… other things we shouldn’t have done before being wedded technically … look me point is I would be more than happy to be a powerless figurehead of a lord, for Riala ta be the one in charge. Frankly I’m happier as trader anyway.”
I looked to Helena. “Yeah. I *am* sure of his intentions, but not yours. Nokon find a different exit! Go! Get to Riala!”
Nokon gave me an uncertain look. “Are ya sure lad?” What about you?”
“And do you think I’ll just let him leave?” Helena demanded as she raised her hand and began to channel Etherium.
“You already said you didn’t want to harm him.” I shot back at Helena. Also I was standing the line of fire so she would have had to shoot through me to get to him, but I didn’t voice that thought. “Nokon you’re running out of time just go. Don’t worry I’ll handle her.”
“Good luck to ya, lad.” He spun on his heel and ran off kicking up that hot white sand as he went.
The Sorceress scoffed and lowered her hand, “‘I’ll handle her’? You think you can ‘handle’ me? You miserable runt of a Wizard?” Rage seethed in her voice as red flashed in her eyes. “Once again you insist upon meddling in affairs of which you lack a full understanding! Do you not get it!? Your theatrical heroics, your running off to the save the day, it doesn’t really help anyone, especially not in this case. Not when you refuse to look at the bigger picture!” I could feel the Etherium surging back and forth around me. Helena was reflexively drawing it in and letting it out like someone clenching and unclenching a fist.
I snarled in reply my grip on my gun growing tighter. “Bigger picture? How about all of human history then? Just how often does giving into the whims of a madman end well? Hitler, Stalin … there were always people that said ‘just give them what they want and they won’t cause any more trouble’. Guess what they were wrong every time and innocents died for it! Can you say for absolutely certain Fulcra will be happy with just stealing one kingdom? Or will he go after the next, then the next one, and on and on?” Helena and I have unique ability to piss each other off. Had either of us been able to calm down and think rationally we could have worked something out. In fact that very notion may have been in the back of my head at the time, but couldn’t be heard over the shouting.
Helena shook her head. “Petulant, ignorant child. Always rushing in. Always thinking he’s right by simple virtue of his willingness to do good. This isn’t Earth, so–”
“So what?! A mad tyrant, is a mad tyrant be they human, dwarf, elf or whatever. Evil is only defeated when good acts, when good fights for things like love. Evil always wins when good men and women stand aside and do nothing.” It was then I felt something in the air, not the Etherium though something else. Something stronger, something that seemed to push at me to almost demand attention my mind.
Helena began to respond and she looked ready to spit litteral fire, to scream every curse and obscenity she knew but she simply sighed instead. “We… are at an impasse. I can see you won’t be convinced by anything I have to say.”
I let out a slow sigh and nodded. “I’m guessing the same goes for you.”
“Indeed.” She replied simply.
We both fell silent and the feeling of something building up around us grew stronger. “You can feel that to, right?” I asked after a few long moments of silence. I damned well knew she could if I could, just needed to draw attention to it.
She nodded. “Destiny.”
I looked out over the sands of the ancient Kalnor Magi dueling arena. “There’s only one way to settle this.” I turned and began walking towards the center of the arena.
Helena took a long breath in through the nose out through the mouth, then followed. “I suppose that would be the most civil way. At least you remember something from your training.”
Remember a little while ago when I spoke of ‘Duels of Destiny’? How I mentioned there being more to them than my short initial explanation? Alright ‘Destiny’ is a measurable force. Those with high levels of Destiny tend to be important in history, they tend to be able to make big changes to the world. I don’t mean to say free will doesn’t exist, it does. Destiny isn’t a set path to walk. Destiny is the measure of how much someone, something, or some place and time can affect the course of events to come for good or for ill. Its like ‘Chaos Theory’ how a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a storm on the other side of the world, those that can sense Destiny can know which butterfly flapping its wings can cause the storm. In some cases they can even know where the storm will happen and when.
We both stood a dozen paces apart ready to fight as the appointed time of noon ticked ever closer. I remember in the back of my mind hoping Nokon would make it on time, though I suspected because of the presence of Destiny here, the fate of Riala, her possible husbands and Yorin were going to be decided by us and not them.
“Do you remember the words of the ritual?” Helena asked.
“I will in a moment here.” I swiped through icons on my wrist mounted computer until I got to ‘Rital book’. “Let’s see… ‘both combatants raise their hands to sky and speak aloud the words in one voice’ … okay got it.” I raised my right hand she did the same. “Okay on three?” Helena nodded sharply. “One… two…”
We spoke together, she knew the words by heart I had to read them off my screen. “We the knowing, we the magi, we the walkers of chaos of and of order, we call upon Destiny!” The force of Destiny spun around us like a whirlwind kicking up sand and blowing at my hat and duster. Helena’s cloak got caught in the gale causing it to blow dramatically in the wind, annoyed she undid the clasp at her neck with her free hand and allowed it to blow away. Upon seeing her I nearly fumbled the words of the ritual. Helena was a singularly lovely woman. Slender figure, porcelain skin, an ample bosom proudly displayed in tight revealing yet not too revealing black vest and red blouse. Her ‘décolletage’ was ‘très agréable’ (and that’s literally the only three words of French I know). She must have noticed my gaze because she began to smirk. “Destiny we beseech the, the unnamed goddess, the time has come to settle a matter of fates and fortunes! We ask that you guard our lives with your protection and see that the will of the winner is done to the fullest.” The whirlwind of Destiny gathered and focused in the space between us, the dramatic flaring wind faded causing the air to fall silent.
Destiny condensed into a single point of light which like a marker writing on a board began writing creating letters of light hanging in the air. ‘Jack Vs. Helena’ it read. The light marked three dashes beneath both of our names. These duels were always decided by the first to successfully damage their opponent three times, combatants had to ether draw blood or cause their opponent to cry out in pain. The light wrote out ‘Stakes’.
Helena named hers first. “If I am the victor, Jack shall aid me until we find a way of preventing Flucra Bloodthorn from attacking the kingdom of Yorin. And will do so by any means necessary, even if he need attack or harm his friend Nokon Hammerfury.”
I frowned, if she won I would be bound by Destiny to do as she said, I literally wouldn’t be able to not do so. If the only way to prevent a war was to harm Nokon I would have to do it. I shuddered at the thought of feeling my arms moving against my will drawing my gun and shooting my new friend. The light of Destiny wrote out what Helena declared. Now it was my turn. “If I win, Helena will aid me in preventing Flucra from harming anyone by any means necessary, but without preventing Nokon from being able to marry his love.”
She sighed. “We both want essentially the same thing, we just aren’t prepared to do the same things to get it. Just what is your plan for stopping Flucra, Jack?”
I shrugged. “So far I’ve got, show up to the Temple tell him he’s an asshat and shoot him in the leg. If doesn’t promise not to start a war I’ll shoot him in the head next.”
Helena let out a sharp laugh that turned into very feminine giggle. “Oh Jack, If I didn’t know you… I would say you weren’t taking all of this seriously. You think that will work? You storming in flashing your shiny gun and hoping to intimidate Flucra and the many dwarves he has not doubt brought with him into surrendering?”
While my custom 44 caliber pistol with integrated suppressor and laser sight was pretty intimidating, “Probably not.” I admitted. “But I’d rather risk my own life confronting a tyrant, instead of letting him get what he wants and risk the lives of others. I’m betting if he does marry Riala, she and Nokon will probably both suddenly end up dead under ‘mysterious circumstance’ to prevent anyone from challenging his claim of lordship.”
She tilted her head to side and nodded. “That is quite likely yes… I had hoped to be able to do something to prevent that outcome, but I am unsure if I’d be able to.” she conceded. “I’ll say this Jack you always do have the best of intentions even if your methods are… dubious at best.”
We both looked up at the light of destiny which had scribed out ‘Rules’ with spaces marked one, two, and three under each of our names. It waited patiently next to the space for first rule beneath Helena’s name, like a blinking cursor on a blank page. I suppose I had been the one to issue the challenge so she got to be the first one to declare a rule.
Like in the duels of old competitors are able to declare conditions for the battle such as ‘pistols at dawn’, ‘no using poisons’, ‘barefists only’, etc. Though in the case of Duels of Destiny the rules do not have to be agreed upon, they do have to apply to both sides though. As you can imagine figuring out clever rules to handicap one’s opponent was key to winning. Helena provided that point by naming her first rule. “No guns, no silver handcuffs, and definitely no feathers of any sort.” Even though the rule applied to us both she didn’t use any of those, so the rule only truly affected me, and I couldn’t use a new rule to try and cancel hers. Still I smirked a little. Helena and I had dueled twice before, I won the second time. I managed to get the silver handcuffs on her which prevented her from using magic. Silver is an excellent conductor of Etherium so it can be used to create ‘short circuits’, its why silver is deadly to supernatural creatures. Of course beating up a helpless woman to win a duel was wrong in my mind so I found a way of making her surrender without harming her. She noticed my expresion. “What are you smirking about, Jack?”
In my best impersonation of her voice I quoted, “Jack you tosser! Stop tickling my foot this instant or I’m going to soil myself you rotten bugger!” She gave me a look that might have killed a lesser man, but it only made me laugh out loud. My turn to declare a rule, I had to think carefully. She beat me handley during our first duel, because at the time I hadn’t known she had talent for summoning monsters. She won our one on one duel by sheer force of numbers and quite thoroughly pounded me into the dirt. I had to prevent that but at the same time keep her from preventing me from using any of my other gear, which thankfully she didn’t realize I had on me. Speaking carefully I declared, “All not already excluded weapons, gear, and other resources both currently held and found the field of battle are permitted, but not those summoned.”
Helena scoffed. “That was rather a long one, Jack.”
I couldn’t help myself. “That’s what she said!” I replied smuggly. Come on that was a perfect set up! I had to!
“You are such a child!” She chidded me.
Destiny wrote out my first rule then moved to the space for Helena’s second, she declared it straight away. “No one aside from the two duelist shall be permitted on the battlefield, nor shall any resources placed upon the field by a non-duelist.” She must have thought Nokon was going to come back with reinforcements or aid.
Time for my second rule. Helena was a far more powerful spell caster than I was, possibly stronger than I might ever be. I can’t warp from place to place like she can. Now I know what you’re thinking, but no I couldn’t make a ‘Grenades only’ rule. Since duels of destiny are inherently battles between magic users, one can not make any rules that prevent use of magic directly. My first rule only prevented Helena from using anything she summoned she can still cast all the summoning spells she wanted though, they just wouldn’t do anything. I needed something to break her focus, something to help mitigate her advantage of greater magical talent. I had a lightbulb moment and declared. “Duelist may freely ask questions and all questions must be answered honestly and thoroughly…” after a moment I quickly added, “… within reason. If a thorough and honest answer would take more than… ten seconds, the question maybe skipped.” Most spells have verbal components so forcing someone to answer a question could serve as good way of interrupting casting. I had to add in the last part to prevent Helena from asking me something that could keep me talking forever like ‘what are all the numbers above zero?’
Helena let out a short ‘Hmm’ then nodded to me. “Clever.” She thought for a few moments about her third rule then declared, “Questions may only be asked once, must make clear sense, and must be intended to discover new information and not to solicit emotional reactions.” Emotion in spell casting is a double edged sword. Being emotional can detract from concentration making it more difficult to cast spells, but being emotionally invested can also make spells more potent. Helena had correctly reasoned I would probably try to disrupt her concentration by asking questions designed to piss her off.
Time for my third and the final rule. I tried to think of something anything that could grant me an advantage, but nothing came to mind. I ended up declaring, “No… backseat gaming?” with a shrug.
“Really?” Helena asked me with a raised eyebrow.
“I couldn’t think of any more good ones.” I admitted. The light of destiny wrote out the rule as I had declared it, including the ellipsis and question mark, so no telling how it might come into play if at all.
With the rules set the orb of light flew up high and then slowly began to descend to the ground, the moment it touched the sand the fight was on. Helena drew a pair of wands from a pocket on her belt and assumed a fighting stance.
Not good, I didn’t think about wands. ‘No wands’ would have been a great third rule… Wands were basically the magical equivalent of guns, just have to point and will them to fire. Spells are slower than bullets so I had a chance of dodging her attacks, but it would not be easy. I was about to draw my gun and assume my own stance but then I remembered I wasn’t allowed to use it. So instead I just awkwardly acted like I was doing stretches to warm up.
“Really?” Helena questioned with an expression of ‘what do think you’re doing?’
“What? I don’t want to get a cramp,” I countered as I turned to the side to mask the motion of taking a flashbang from my pocket and concealing it in my hand. ‘Flashbangs’ are non-lethal stun grenades that create a bright ‘flash’ usually around 7 million candela (your average spotlight is around 3 million) and a loud ‘bang’ usually around 170 decibels (195 dbs will rupture human eardrums). If I could throw it close enough to Helena it would blind and deafen her for a few moments and perhaps even cause her to cry out in pain, which would net me the first of three points I needed to win. Of course by the same token I couldn’t get it too close to her. Despite everything she was still a friend and while it is impossible to kill anyone during a Duel of Destiny (that was the ‘guard our lives’ part in the rital) you could potentially cripple someone, which I didn’t want to do. I was reasonably sure Helena felt the same, as we both likely needed each other to stop Flucra.
Helena’s body was tense like a coiled spring her wands sparked with energy ready to be unleashed. I found myself wishing I had my own, and that’s when I had an interesting idea, a dangerous crazy one but one worth trying.
The light was halfway to the ground only a few more seconds till the fight began.
I started rocking side to side on my feet. I knew Helena would start shooting the moment the fight started and thus I would have to dodge out of the way or raise a barrier to block her attacks. Most likely I would dodge to the left or right then make a break to a stone pillar for cover, and I wanted her to think that as it was exactly not what I was going to do.
Helena called out. “For what’s worth Jack I’ll try not to mess up your pretty face, your sister would never forgive me if I did.”
“Ditto.” I called back.
There was a bright flash when the light touched the sand. I dived forward as blasts of magical fire and ice flew over my head and tore my cowboy hat off. I threw the flashbang as I fell and buried my head in the sand and between my arms. Even with the my arms muffling the sound, the bang was loud enough to cause my ears ring. I pushed myself up to my feet and started running as fast I could straight at her. Helena had taken the brunt of the of flashbang head on and was stumbling around with one arm covering her eyes and screaming, “Jack you miserable bastard!”
I closed a hand into a fist and pulled back my arm to punch as I ran past her. I could have aimed for her jaw or throat probably hit her enough to break something, but I would need her able to cast spells after the duel so those options where no good. Instead I slammed a haymaker into her shoulder hard enough to spin her and cause her to let go of her wand as she cried out. I dropped into a slide like a runner going for home plate and tried snatch the fallen weapon.
Unfortunately immediately after my blow connected, both of Helena’s arm shot out to the sides with the kinesis hand signs and she uttered a spell “Vasnos!” Which I later found out was Elvish for ‘Shockwave’.
Knowing she had casted something I tensed up readying to take the hit and it came in the form of a wave of kinetic force slamming into me and flinging me several yards. I landed in a rolling heap just short of crashing into one of the stone pillars. Thankfully I had been ready for the spell so I managed to suppress any cries of pain. As I got up I noticed the wand she dropped had been thrown with me. I eagerly scoped it up and then dove behind the pillar for cover as a wild shots of ice magic flew past me. Once I was in cover I had a moment to catch my breath and look up at the scoreboard. Three to two I was in the lead. The flashbang hadn’t hurt enough to make her cry out but my punch sure did.
I used the shiny metal plate on the back of my left glove to get a peak around the pillar. Helena was still blinking her eyes and struggling to stand up straight, the effects of the flashbang were beginning to wear off, but I probably had a chance to get another hit in. I readied Helena’s wand and popped around the corner to fire.
“How could you dare hit me? A lady!” Helena called out as she took a shot at me with her remaining wand but missed completely, she was probably still seeing after images.
I tried to fire the wand but answering the question broke my focus. “I need to win the fight and wanted to take one of your wands.” I quickly turned my response into my own question. “Wouldn’t the great Helena be insulted if I dueled her and didn’t treat her the same as any man?”
“Ye-… n-… maybe I don’t know!” She struggled to answer fully and honestly.
I took aim center mass then shifted my angel a bit, I needed to hit her without hurting her too much. I willed the wand to fire … and made my first mistake of the match. Instead of shooting a gout of fire towards Helena the wand heated up burning my hand causing me to scream and throw it to the ground. I clutched my hand in pain and ducked back behind cover.
“You tried to use my own wand against me didn’t you?” The question was punctuated by spike of ice slamming into the pillar kicking up flecks of stone where I just was a moment ago, Helena had gotten her aim back.
“Yes! Why did it burn me?” I shouted back as I pulled a spray can from my duster with my good hand.
“I enchanted my wands so that if anyone tries to use them against me they backfire.” She sounded annoyingly smug.
“I should have known.” I muttered. The wand landed at my feet when I dropped it. As I used the aerosolized healing potion on my hand I stomped the wand into the sand then ran my foot over the spot to conceal it.
“How’s the hand?” Helena called out, she was getting closer.
I examined it quickly, the healing potion worked surprisingly well I could see the burnt dead skin flaking and falling off as new skin grew underneath, it was rather pleasantly tinglingly, though numb. “Not too bad actually. Jill and I came up with a spray on healing potion it seems to be doing the trick.” I frowned as I tried to flex the fingers on my burnt hand, it took far more effort than it should have.
Helena’s approaching footsteps halted and she asked, “How did you two make that work?” Her tone indicated the question wasn’t meant to distract me but rather she was genuinely curious.
“Take too long to answer!” I replied quickly as I stuffed the can back into my pocket and pulled out two smoke pellets. “Speaking of Jill have you seen her recently?” I cracks the pellets and tossed one to each side then ran straight away keeping the pillar between myself and Helena.
“I saw her this morning at breakfast.” I heard blasts of magic whiz by through the smoke. Helena had fallen for my deception in assuming I was going either left or right and my question delayed her from conjuring a wind to blow the smoke away till I relocated.
Behind the safety of one the walls I stopped to catch my breath. As it turned out stretching before hand had been a good idea. I took the Switchblade drone from my pocket. I needed time to get it set up. “Any idea why Jill was in Brindenburg four or five days ago getting drunk?” I called out as I held the plastic rectangle by the end and hit the button to cause the other three wings to fold out like a paper fan.
“She… she… grrr…” Helena sounded like she was trying to fight the compulsion to answer the question, but she wouldn’t be able to for long as she was bound by the force of Destiny to answer in accordance to the rules. With a pained gasp she finally let out, “She was probably trying to make herself forget the horrors she seen.”
I was in the middle of launching the drone when that answer made me stop short. “What do mean by the horrors she seen?” I demanded. I hit the button on my wrist mounted computer and the drone’s propellers spun up.
Again Helena seem to struggle against answering then finally let it out with sigh. “Horrors of war. The army of Unfallen attacked the kingdoms north of here, there were soldiers and refugees that needed healing.”
That made sense, Jill’s skills as a Bardess allowed her to heal through her music. Literally she could play a tune and weave magic into it that would cause everyone that hears it to physically heal. I supposed that made Helena the ‘friend’ that needed help that Jill mentioned in her note. “Why did you need Jill? What about the Fellowship of Altina?” The ‘Fellowship of Altina’ were basically the Red Cross of the multiverse. They were neutral non-combatants that aided anyone that needed it. They had a presence in almost every known world that had enough Etherium for spell casting.
“They had a temple in the area but the Unfallen burned it to the ground… they…” I could hear the sadness in her voice. “The bastards have been hunting them down! They’re parasites on dead bodies they have no need for healers therefor attack them to keep them from helping the opposition.”
“That’s horrible!” I croaked on the lump that had suddenly formed in my throat. Attacking unarmed, healers! What sort of monsters could do such a thing? That question was pushed aside as another thought roared into my mind. “Wait… YOU ****ING TOOK MY SISTER TO BE HEALER IN A WARZONE WHERE THE BAD GUYS ARE SPECIFICALLY TARGETING HEALERS!?” I screamed in rage at the top of my lungs I didn’t care I was probably giving away my position. The switchblade drone took of into the air and an aerial view from the camera displayed on my wrist computer.
“I didn’t take her Jack!” Helena shot back. “I asked and she volunteered to come she knew the risks! I would have asked you to come with her to protect her, but she told me you were out doing some hacking job. We couldn’t wait for you to return people were dying.”
The rational part of my brain knew Helena *literally* had to be telling the whole and exact truth. It knew Jill was an adult (in fact she is my older sister by a few minutes) and thus could make her own decisions including those that put her at risk. The irrational angry part of my brain wanted to hurt Helena for risking my sister’s life. I made my second mistake by listening to the wrong part of my brain. Thanks to the drone camera, I spotted Helena sneaking towards me from the otherside of the wall. I ran around the other way so as to emerge on the same side behind her. I saw her back and made the wind sign with my right hand and uttered the spell “Thundra boltus!” and instantly regretted it. The spell was too much and aimed right at her exposed back, it wouldn’t kill her but could easily shock her into a coma. You know how they say ‘never point a gun at anything you’re not willing to kill, because you can’t call off a bullet’? I understood the horror of what that truly meant in that moment. I was actually relieved when my spell passed harmlessly through her, but then a heartbeat later I realized ‘oh crap’.
“Ignous talnos!” (‘Ice swarm’ in Elven) Helena called from somewhere behind me and something akin to birdshot hit me in the back knocking me forward. I screamed in pain as a razor sharp shard of ice cut straight through my right ear. I awkwardly tossed a flashbang behind me and half stubbled half ran narrowly avoiding any follow up attacks.
When I found cover I touched my ear, it had a hole the size of a nickel going straight through it, which hurt like crap and was still bleeding. Score: two to one Helena in the lead.
“How bad did I get you Jack?” My opponent called out with at least a little concern in her voice.
“You gave my ear a botched piercing job, but the kevlar and armor plates in my duster protected the rest of me.” Good thing I didn’t cheap out on my coat. I took out the can of healing potion and sprayed the edge of the new ear hole as best I could. “Did you turn invisible and use an illusion at same time? I thought only one spell could be channeled at a time.”
“Yes, I used a potion of invisibly and cast the illusion. Took me three attempts though you kept interrupting me with questions. I saw your flying ‘X’ contraption and reasoned it was probably some sort eyes in the sky. It can see visible light, yes?”
“Yeah, it CAN see visible light.” I answered, as I switched to the infrared camera on the drone. I could see the red shape that was me on one side of the wall and another Helena shaped heat signature sneaking along the otherside. I turned to face the wall and began pulling in all the Etherium I could channel.
“Ask me if Jill is alright, Jack.”
If I asked the question she would have to answer honestly, I supposed that was her attempt to grant me reassurance. I didn’t ask though I didn’t want her to know I was just on the other side of the wall, also my anger was running the show right now. It cared more about winning this duel than about Jill at the moment. I suppose its fair to say I might have some temperment issues. I waited till the two heat signatures were aligned on either side of the stone brick barrier then with my rage pouring into in a spell I cast ‘Kinetus Hammerus’ and sent a shockwave of kinetic force into the wall at point blank range. The sheer awesome power of my enraged spell blew a hole through the two foot wide solid stone wall big enough for me to step through and sent shards of stone flying into Helena. She cried out in pain as the shards peppered any skin not protected by her warded clothing leaving her with several scratches and cuts. Streams of blood ran down her body revealing her invisible form. I tried to follow up with a second spell but that first one put too much a strain on me I ended up stumbling away catching my breath instead. Score: One to one match point.
“Through a solid stone wall…” I heard Helena call out from somewhere, I was too busy gasping for air to hone in on the sound of her voice. “You’ve grown more in power than I expected, Jack. Did you hear what I said earlier?”
Despite the burning in my lungs I had to answer. “Yes. Is Jill alright?”
“She is.” Helena had to speak between gasps as well. The strain of the fight or that last hit must have taken a lot out of her. “She’s strong of heart and mind. The horrors of war will have tested her, but she will endure.”
I let out a sigh of relief. I did feel better having heard that. “Thanks for telling me that Helena.” I glanced at my wrist computer and was confused. Helena was visible again and seemed to be crouching out in the open running her finger through the sand.
“It’s nearly noon, Jack.” Helena called out. “If we’re to do anything to stop Flucra we have to end this now!”
“I couldn’t agree more.” I called back as I stepped around the corner with the fire hand sign ready and cast an ‘Ignaius boltus’ spell at Helena’s leg. The spell fizzled in the air a few inches short of the target. Something had blocked my spell.
Helena returned fire with her wand nearly clipping my arm as I ducked behind cover.
I looked back at my drone’s camera view. “Damn it!” I swore. Helena was standing in the middle of a circle in the sand with runes drawn at the four cardinal directions. She had made a ward while we were going back and forth about my sister. She was clearly pulling in Etherium to cast some sort of high power spell. I was a trouble here. There were only three things I had that were strong enough to break one of Helena’s wards. My silver bullets, which I couldn’t use. A point blank high power spell, which I wouldn’t be able to get close enough to use without her wanding me. Or an explosive Grenade which might do too much damage. “What spell are you charging up for?” I called out.
“A little something I devised for people that like to use electronic gadgets, its a magical electromagnetic pulse essentially.” She answered calmly. She was too focused for me to break her concentration with a question, and I couldn’t come up with an unlimited amount of unique questions to ask to stall her forever. If she unleashed that EMP my drone was gone, and if she had another potion of invisibly it would be trivial for her to sneak up on me and get that last hit.
I looked at the screen once more the drone was now directly above Helena’s head. I looked around for something… anything I could use. I noticed a stone pillar at her back one close enough that if it fell towards her it would land on the barrier, that should be enough to break it and give me a chance to take a shot. A well placed explosive grenade would probably be able to bring it down. Only problem, the pillar was on the opposite of side of Helena from where I was now. Thus the only way to get to it would involve crossing through a wide open area in front of her.
“Jack how many of more of those flashbombs do you have?”
“Flashbangs.” I corrected. “And I only brought two, I’m out.” I had hopped she wasn’t going to ask that, but oh well. I didn’t have time to wait, if she asked something along the lines of ‘how can you break through my ward?’ I’d be done for. The only way was to get to that pillar somehow. I pulled the three smoke grenades from my pocket. Helena wouldn’t be able to cast a wind spell while gathering Etherium for her EMP so these could work. I started pulling pins and tossing them over the wall and asked the first question I thought of to distract her. “Why did you throw Nokon through a random Slipgate if you meant him no harm?”
“It wasn’t random!” She countered as she hit the first smoke grenade with a shot from her wand. The bomb became encased in ice which prevented it from detonating. “I chose the closest Slipgate I could find to Jack & Jill’s.”
That answer surprised me. “Why did you chose that one?” The smoke from the other two grenades spread quickly filing most of the space, but the grenade Helena shot down left a sizable gap between the wall I was behind now and the edge of the smokescreen.
“I intended for Nokon to find you. I overheard your sister talking to him about you. I reasoned if I put him close enough he might his way, I knew you could keep him safe. Helena sighed. “I just didn’t think he find his way too you so quickly, I suppose the directions I gave him were to good.”
“Wait! What do you mean by directions ‘you’ gave him? He told me Jill told him how to find me.” I pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and tied it over my mouth and nose so I wouldn’t breath in the smoke I was about to run through.
“Nokon had a memory of Jill telling him, yes. And warning him about the DPA so he would lay low, but that conversation never happened! I imprinted a false memory with my Illusion magic. The effect will fade by tomorrow.”
“Wait wait… how did you know about the unicorn thing? Only Jill knows-”
Helena interrupted me “‘Never try to use a unicorn as a hat rack’? You told me that story last time we met, Jack. Remember? At the golemancy convention?”
“Oh yeah…” I paused for a moment feeling like crap for being so angry at Jill earlier, of course she knew better than to tell anyone where to find us. Pushing that notion to back of my mind, I pulled in as much etherium as I could and uttered the spell “Barrious” creating a hazy gray dome of protective energy around me. It wouldn’t hold long, I was good at Evocation (blowing stuff up magic) and Divination (finding stuff magic), but my Abjuration (protective magic) was pretty lousy. I condenses the barrier into the size of a shape of a police riot shield and kept it in place with my extended right hand. I dashed around the corner of the wall with barrier up and quickly asked “What’s that behind you?”
Helena in order to answer truthy and fully had to turn to look. “A lot of sand and a stone column.” She shouted back as she cut lose with her wand.
The small delay my question had granted me gave me a few free steps but not much. A barrage of magic blasts slammed into my barrier. Most of the shot were deflected but a few caused pieces of my protective barrier to chip off and fall away. By the time I reached the edge of the smoke and the first piece of cover, my barrier was just a few thin strands and my duster was peppered with dents and clusters of frozen ice. Once again I was thankful I had not cheaped out on my coat. Unfortunately I found myself in a new predicament. The smoke was too thick I couldn’t see through it now that I was in it. I also couldn’t see where Helena was shooting but the shrieking whizing of magical blasts flying past served as a reminder they were still out there. Out of frustration I called out. “Don’t you ever have to reload?”
“No! Its a magic a wand.” She didn’t say the word ‘dumbass’ but I could hear it in her tone. “Are you getting tired yet, Jack?
I forced myself to my feet fumbling in the smoke. “Yeah a bit. I wish I had stretched more.” I glanced at my wrist computer and realized my only hope was to navigate by the drone’s thermal camera. I put my free hand up and started running.
“We’re running out of time to stop Flucra, Jack. Just surrender. I know you want to do what is right, but sometimes doing the right thing means doing something … you think is wrong.” Helena stopped firing probably to give me a chance to consider her offer, which thankfully gave me a time to get to where I needed to be.
I slid to stop against the pillar closest to the target, I was maybe a dozen paces from Helena I could hear her panting and gasping for air or maybe that was me. “Have you thought of a way of stopping Flucra without letting him steal Riala and the kingdom?” I pulled the two explosive grenades from my duster.
“No, but be reasonable Jack. What is the love of two people in comparison to saving a kingdom from a pointless war?”
“That’s not what’s really at stake here! This is about true love, and about the freedom of a kingdom from a tyrant that would slaughter them to gain rulership of them! Damnit Helena! If love and freedom aren’t worth fighting for then what is?”
“They are worthing fighting for… but damnit Jack! It doesn’t HAVE to be a fight. Not if we do it my way!”
I sighed. I was exhausted, my ear was still bleeding, my hand still ached and was covered with faded burn marks, despiste the effects of the healing potion my fingers were still stiff, I might have had nerve damage. Helena was right. She had a plan, I didn’t. Even if I had the absolute best of intentions, unless we came up with an actual plan to stop Flucra there was going to be an invasion. There would be more innocents suffering, there would be more horrors my sister would have to try to face as a healer. I was almost ready to call a surrender, when something occurred to me. It was almost funny I hadn’t thought of this early, what with all the question asking going. “Helena do you spend a lot of time in Yorin?”
“Yes, I live there in fact.”
“Really? I thought you were committed to the whole traveling sorcerous thing.”
“Oh I still travel, but its truly a wonderful kingdom, Jack. They have people of all races, humans, elves, merfolk, avians, and others. Yorin is the center of trade for the region. I suppose if I’m being honest that’s due in no small part to Hammerfury clan. Work has been so abundant there I was able to afford a place with my husband–”
“WAIT! WHAT?!” I asked in shock. I had this nagging feeling I was forgetting something but I had to ask about this.
“Yes… his name is Edwin he’s a captain in the Yorin army.” Helena sounded embarrassed she had let that slip.
“Well shit! Congratulations! Damn, I wish I had known! I would have brought you a gift! I mean I would go over and give you a hug right now, but you would probably shoot me.” Despite everything I had a grin and was genuinely happy for her.
“I would accept that as your wedding gift.” She replied with small laugh.
“Yeah, no I’ll get you something else.” I chuckled in reply. It was at that moment I realized something, I wasn’t the only one fighting for love here. Surely as a captain in the army Edwin would be on the frontlines if the kingdom were invaded. I thought again about surrendering, but that question that popped early up that I hadn’t voiced yet and that thing I forgot were still nagging at me. “Helena, you said I came into this not knowing enough about what’s going on… I guess you were right. Tell me is Flucra is as much of evil tyrant as I think he is? I mean I assumed anyone that’s willing to crash someone else’s wedding to steal the bride and if he doesn’t get her declare war, isn’t a good person.” It seemed a reasonable assumption, but ya never know.
“He is a singularly contemptible, foul, evil man. Yorin would be but one of many kingdoms he’s conquered through one means or another. You were right, Jack. He is a mad tyrant that needs to be stopped, but with army of the Unfallen on the march there isn’t anyone to stop him. That’s why he’s so focused on expanding as quickly as possible he knows he can do so unopposed.”
“What will happen to Yorin if Flucra was in charge?”
Helena hestated to answer. I could hear pain in her voice when she did, “I doubt it would fair much better than Nedia, Pridel, or Chenao. All three have fallen to ruin. Edwin and I would have to relocate no doubt. Flucra doesn’t allow any magic users in his kingdoms that aren’t of his employ.”
“Wait, but you do work for him! Didn’t he hire you to kidnap Nokon?”
“No, he didn’t. That was just something Nokon assumed. It’s been long known Flucra wants to conquer all of the Dwarven lands. So he just assumed he had to be behind the kidnapping.”
“But wait there were goons…”
“Jack… I’m a Summoner.” Helena let out an annoyed sigh.
“Oh right… had your own goons then.” The smoke had blown away by now so I lowered my handkerchief and checked my clock. The fight had been going on for longer than I thought about eight minutes. Which meant we had twelve before the appointed hour. Not a lot of time to come up with a clever plan to allow the happy couple to marry and prevent the war. “Helena, I have two last questions. If you can answer ‘yes’ to both then you’ll have my surrender.”
“Alright…” I could hear a tension in her voice. That’s when I remembered, ‘Crap she’s still charging up the EMP spell!’ My questions probably slowed her down but she would ready to cast it any moment.
“Is Yorin worth fighting and dying for?”
“Yes.” She responded simply but sounded confused. She was probably trying to figure how answering ‘yes’ to that made sense with what I said earlier about surrendering.
“Was it right to take away the chance to fight for Yorin? Because going by what you’ve told me the kingdom is done for if Flucra is crowned. I mean I know you, I know the caliber of man you would marry. Clearly your Edwin must think it’s worth risking his life for. You don’t get to be a captain if you’re not.”
“Y-… Y-” I could hear the strain in Helena’s voice, she was trying to force herself say ‘yes’. “I mean of co— gah!” She struggled I could hear the tears whelming up in her voice. “No.” She finally answered. “No, damn it. It’s an unconditional surrender to an evil man. Damn it! DAMN IT!” She knew it wasn’t right, Destiny wouldn’t allow her to say otherwise. I could hear her crying.
“Do you wish to surrender then, Helena?”
“NO!” She snapped back the fire in her voice drove away the tears. “Edwin is already at the walls on the border getting the army ready for the invasion if it comes! I won’t let him be harmed! I-I can’t lose him! I’m sorry Jack… but I will do everything I have to keep Edwin safe.”
“So now you’re the one putting the love of two people ahead of the future of the kingdom then?”
“Yes.” She snapped. “If you knew love as I did you would do the same, and yes I realize that makes me a bloody hypocrite!”
I looked at the two grenades in my hands, and I knew what I had to do. I tossed out the first one to my left I didn’t bother pulling the pin it was the decoy. Helena shot it out of the air with another ice bolt, that woman would put Annie Oakley to shame. I pulled the pin on the second and threw to the right towards the pillar then braced for the explosion.
I watched on the drone feed as the explosive detonated sending out a shockwave that kicked up a wave of sand like a giant ripple through a lake, the pillar fell as I had hoped crashed into the barrier shattering it like glass then onto to the lines drawn on the sand breaking the circle. In that same moment I felt a wave of electricity wash over me and my computer screen suddenly went blank. I needed to score the final hit right now before Helena had a chance to down an invisibility potion and sneak away. I jumped out from behind the pillar, spell at the ready! Just in time to see Helena get banged on the head by my falling drone. “Ow! Bloody ****!” She cried out in pain and I won the duel. I looked up to confirm it and I was right. I still had one mark left Helena had zero. The force of destiny and the words it created faded out of existence.
“What in the depths of the multiverse just happened?” Helena demanded.
“Well… I broke your barrier by dropping that pillar on it and when you EMPed you killed the engines on my drone so it fell and hit your head. Kind of a lucky shot actually. I mean the wind didn’t blow it off course all the engines had to stop at the same time so it didn’t drift…”
Helena spent the next minute or so swearing. At least I assume it was all swearing most of it wasn’t in english. She pulled back a foot to kick my drone.
“Wait we might need that stop Flucra!” I called out.
Her foot stopped just short of connecting. She pulled back her foot to try kicking it again but still couldn’t. She was now bound by Destiny to do anything she could do to help me achieve the goal I stated earlier, which meant she couldn’t do anything that might hinder it. She let out a defeated sigh. “Please tell me you have some sort of real plan for what were are to do.”
I shrugged, “Well now that the duel is over and we don’t have to answer questions truthfully I could…”
Helena pinched the bridge of her nose. “Unbelievable. Okay what do you purpose we do then?”
“Well… let’s start by picking up all the stuff we dropped, and patching up our wounds. Your wand is buried in the sand over there. I’m going to need some help with this hole in my ear.”
A short while later Helena offered me slightly charred cowboy hat. “Here, still wearable I’m sure you can fix it up later.”
“Thanks.” I popped my hat on. “Do you know the time? My computer is fried.” The EMP bricked my wrist computer and the drone, I could salvage parts from them at least. The locator beacon I needed to get home was still fine, it was harden against EMPs (actually Fix and I made the things all but indestructible).
Helena pulled out a gold watch from vest pocket, when she clicked it open there was a picture of her and I guessed Edwin inside. He was a tall man, strong jaw, short black hair, just her type. “Nine minutes to the appointed hour. So what do we do?”
“Well until we come up with a better plan… we go to the temple, you point out which one is Flucra, I shoot him and anyone that’s upset enough about it to do something in retaliation.”
“That’s a crime you know, you’ll be arrested.”
I shrugged. “I’ll be arrested by Lady Riala’s people right? I assume if I explain I was doing it to save her kingdom from war they’ll probably go easy on me.” A realization dawned upon me and I felt my shoulders sink. “Although come to think of it. If this Flucra guy is smart he’ll probably have ordered his forces to begin the attack he doesn’t return by a certain time.”
Helena looked up to the sky as if silently pleading to the gods. “I can’t believe I’m stuck helping you do this.”
“Well could you summon something really big to scare off Flucra’s army?” I asked offhandedly.
“Jack, if I could have done that why would I have bothered with …” Helena trailed off and looked distracted.
“‘Dwarfnapping’?” I suggested. “Hey, maybe we could take Flucra hostage?” I asked with a chuckle.
“Yes, of course.” She looked excited as if we had finally found the answer.
I raised an eyebrow, “What seriously? I was just joking. Do… do all of your plans have to involve kidnapping a dwarf somehow?”
“What?” She gave me a confused look, then waved her hand dismissively, “No, not that! Look I know what to do! I just need you to buy me some time. I’ll send you to the temple.” Helena took her little green warp book from her stachel and began flipping through it.
I nodded. “Okay, stall for time… how?”
“I don’t know! Think of something.” Helena cast a quick incantation causing the air in front of us to grow hazy and red and part like a curtain. Through the opening I could vaguely see a large hill with white stone structures at the top. “Don’t harm Flucra no matter what! He’s key to our success.” She cautioned as I stepped through the anomaly. I wanted to pause to ask her what she meant by that, but the moment I crossed the threshold I was carried away… sort of. Warping is weird, you feel like you’re stretched like a rubber band then snap back together. Sort of like when a cartoon character is being sneaky, the first foot reaches over with the leg stretching out like a snake then the rest of the body snaps into place. One foot steps through the warp and you feel it in a different place very far away, then step through with the other foot and the rest of you snaps to catch up. I could never understand how Helena could do that so often and not feel sick all the time.