Chapter 29: Fate of a Warrior

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The air itself seemed to freeze. Ihab stared up at the man in gold, and the rest of the timors and the other demons behind him followed suit. As far as he knew, he’d been the only one to even have a guess as to the man’s identity – when he’d said it just now, it was the first all the other demons here had heard of it. So their shock was only natural.

Though, even given his name, would they even know who he was? Ihab had always had some interest in Verta and mortals, which was why he knew about Melthar – but did the rest of the demons here even know enough about Vertan mythology to realize the significance of that name?

It didn’t seem to matter. Ihab could hear, behind him, the sound of feet shuffling nervously. A wave of sudden anxiety seemed to pierce through the line of timors, stopping the ferocious charge dead in its tracks. And as that sudden hesitation struck them, the man in gold simply floated there, standing on nothingness, his expression unchanging as he stared down at the timors beneath him.

“Hmph,” Ihab grunted. “So, would this be deicide, then? That’ll be a nice thing to tell stories about.”

“Oh? It seems you overestimate yourself a little,” Melthar smiled. “I could kill you, you know. It was only the fact that I wasn’t sure where you were that stopped me from doing it before. Now that we’re face to face with each other, all it’d take me would be a stray thought. Really.”

“Maybe,” Ihab said. In truth, he knew Melthar was right. But he brought his sword into a defensive position anyway, even knowing it would be useless. “But then what? You should know that I already foresaw that something like this would happen. If I’m to be killed or incapacitated by the golden man, my troops are under strict orders to continue the attack. Once that happened, could even you stop them, Melthar? After all, I’ve seen you in action. And it seems quite clear, to me, that your reserves aren’t unlimited.”

The ghost of a frown touched Melthar’s face. “Hm. A bit of foresight, eh? I should’ve expected as much from a Councillor… and, I suppose, especially from you. You always were a clever one, even if most people didn’t realize it.”

“Oh?” Ihab said. “Praise from Melthar himself? I’m touched.” He smirked. “But you haven’t answered my question. If you were to kill me here and my troops just continued attacking, would you be able to stop them?”

Melthar smiled. “A sly one, aren’t you? But ask yourself this: So what if I can’t? You’ll still be dead, and a Councillor down is no small thing, you know. With how close-minded the Council is, it’ll take them ages to decide on a replacement, if they ever do – and in that amount of time, it wouldn’t be difficult at all for me to just start a new rebellion. For that matter, with me guiding it from the start, I expect that second one would have a lot more advantages, wouldn’t you say so?”

“Hah! Nice bluff, Melthar,” Ihab grinned. “But just because you’re a god or a Great Power or whatever it is you call yourself, don’t start thinking I can’t see through you. If you really didn’t care about this rebellion, you would’ve abandoned them long ago. No, actually, if you didn’t care about them, you would’ve killed me already rather than having this chat.”

There was a small pause, maybe a few seconds long. And then…

“Alright,” Melthar shrugged. “You’re right. Not bad. But that doesn’t really change much, does it? Right now, as far as I can see, it looks like we’re doomed either way. So tell me – why shouldn’t I just go ahead and take you out before we go down?”

“Well, you haven’t done so yet, so I assume you’ve got your reasons,” Ihab said. “So my answer to that is: no. I’m not going to give you a reason not to kill me. After all, clearly, you’ve already got one.”

“Ah,” Melthar smiled back, not a trace of anything but confidence in his expression or posture. He vanished in a blue blur and reappeared in the air right in front of Ihab – and in that same instant, another blur surrounded Ihab’s head, and his helmet vanished, and he found himself with a blade at this throat.

“Alright then,” Melthar said. “I won’t deny it. You’re a clever one, and I can’t help but respect you for it. I don’t like doing this, I really don’t. But if it’s our only chance, I’m not too proud to take it. So, Ihab… how about you call off your army? Cause if you don’t, I think it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen.”

Ihab laughed. “Really now? So this is what the Creator of the World has fallen to? Simple threats? Why, it seems you’re nothing more than a common thug.”

Melthar smiled pleasantly. “Well, you can call me all the names you want to. As I’ve said, I’m not particularly prideful. So say whatever you feel like, I won’t mind. Just make your choice – call of your army and leave this place in peace. Or die.” His eyes narrowed. “Well, Ihab? What’ll i-“

And at that instant, there was a blur of red, and Ihab’s fist smashed into Melthar’s chest.

“I refuse,” Ihab said calmly, a cocky smirk on his face. “And by the way, turns out even people who’ve lived for millennia can have an issue with talking too much, hm?”

The golden armor encasing Melthar stopped the blow from doing any actual damage, but it did its job anyway. The Great Power was sent tumbling away, flying through the air in the direction he’d been punched. But Ihab wasn’t content with just that. At the last moment, just before Melthar was flung out of range, Ihab grabbed his hand and, with a quick and forceful motion, jerked the sword out of the Great Power’s hand before tossing him away once more.

Melthar landed on the red soil, and a cloud of dust punctuated his fall. He rose to his feet with a trickle of blood descending from his lip – but there was a smile on his face.

“Oh, not bad,” he grinned, almost laughing as he said the words. “Not bad at all.”

Ihab spread his arms in a shrug, still smiling that confident smile. “That’s just how I am.” He looked right at Melthar. “Oh, and by the way? From what I’ve seen you do so far… it looks like you can only really do your magic on things that are close to you, right? So… I’m afraid you can bid the sword goodbye.” Casually, Ihab stashed the sword away.

“And you’ve figured that out too,” Melthar smiled back. “I’ll say it again: I’m impressed. You’re right – for most things, I’ve got to follow that rule. But… I’ve been using and teleporting around that particular sword for a long, long time now. It’s not exactly “most things” as far as I’m concerned.” He extended his arm and, with yet another blue blur, the sword reappeared in Melthar’s hand. Ihab took a moment to check, more on instinct than anything else, but indeed, the sword wasn’t with him anymore.

Ihab snorted derisively. “Oh, that’s just cheating.”

“Again, call it what you want,” Melthar said, spreading his arms. “But only the results matter, at the end of the day. If I have to cheat to get what I want, I’m not going to hesitate.”

“And what you want is for me to just up and leave you all alone.” Ihab narrowed his eyes.

“That’s right,” Melthar nodded. “But I assume you’re not going to agree to that quite so easily.”

“Well, nothing you’ve tried so far has convinced me,” Ihab said, tightening his grip on his massive sword. “So yeah. I guess I won’t.”

“Alright then,” Melthar smiled. “Well, I have to say, I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this. But I guess you’d have to die one day or another anyway.”

And blue blurred, and Melthar disappeared. At that instant, Ihab knew and understood with suddenly chilling certainty one fact: if he guessed incorrectly as to what the Great Power was about to do, he would die.

Ihab took a large step back. An instant later, Melthar reappeared, and his sword sliced through the air where Ihab’s head had just been.

Melthar smirked, not falling to the ground even though he’d appeared in midair. “Oh, I see you’re a quick one. Well then, let’s-“

“Now, now,” a voice said from somewhere nearby. “Let’s be a bit more civilized about this, shall we?”

Ihab looked towards the alley the voice had come from. Even Melthar looked a bit surprised, though only his eyes moved when he looked towards the voice’s source.

And out of the alley, an aeadite strolled, a confident smile on his face and a curved sword at his hip.

“Janus?” Melthar asked.

Ihab’s eyes widened a bit. “Janus?” he echoed, though he didn’t actually recognize the aeadite. He was just going off of what Melthar had said.

“That would be me,” the aeadite said. He turned to Ihab and nodded to him in a small bow. “Greetings, Councillor Ihab. I believe this would be the first time we’ve met in person.”

“Hm. Assuming you’re who I think you are, I’ve heard of you,” Ihab said. “Though, I can’t say I ever thought you actually existed…”

“Well. As you can see, I do,” Janus replied. “And I have a feeling I know what you’re thinking, and yes, my swordsmanship is just as good as you’ve heard.”

“Oh?” Ihab asked. “Well, that’ll be for me to decide, won’t it?”

“Really now?” Janus asked. “Then let’s find out the truth, shall we? Here and now.”

“Hmph,” Ihab snorted. “You’re trying to provoke me, aren’t you?”

“Maybe I am,” Janus admitted. “But you’re curious, aren’t you? Curious to find out if the Legendary Swordsman is as great as they say.”

Ihab considered it for a moment. “Alright, I’ll admit it. I am.” He grinned down at Janus. “Very well, then. Draw your blade!”

The curved sword slid out of its sheath with as much ease as if the sheath hadn’t even been there. “Alright, then,” Janus said. “Melthar, don’t interfere in this, will you?”

Melthar smiled vaguely. “Janus, answer me one thing,” he said. “Do you actually have a plan? Or are you just doing this because you want to fight Ihab too?”

“Bit of both,” Janus smirked. “So, how about it?”

For just a moment, Melthar hesitated. “Alright then,” he said, seemingly coming to a decision. “I can understand that. I’ll stay out of this.” And with that, he vanished. He didn’t reappear anywhere nearby, not that Ihab could see. But Ihab knew he’d still be around, still present to watch the duel.

Still, Ihab was willing to trust him for now. “You all!” he yelled to the timors behind him. “Don’t get involved either.” All the timors backed off, cowed by the force of his words. They formed a part of a circle as they jostled amongst themselves, each one trying to get a good view of the fight.

“So,” Ihab said, looking down at Janus. “This is how it’s going to be, then?”

“Yeah,” Janus smiled. “Let’s go.” He brought his sword up and, with a quick slash through the air, brought it back to his side – a fencer’s salute. Ihab mirrored the motion.

And then, Janus rushed towards him.

Melthar, of course, was watching as the first blows were exchanged.

He stood on the inner edge of the wall, away from the soldiers on the outer edge. It gave him a good view of the battle, and with all the people around, he probably wouldn’t be singled out by any of Ihab’s timors. Of course, it wasn’t like it would be horrible if he was spotted, but he’d still rather watch in peace.

Janus darted at the much larger opponent with lightning speed – but, Melthar could see, also liquid grace. When Ihab used his far longer sword and slashed at the aeadite, he hopped back just a few centimeters, dodging the strike perfectly. But before Ihab could recover from the blow, with a motion sharp as an arrow, Janus was already inside his range – in the area where Ihab would be hard-pressed to do anything to him. After all, larger size could be a disadvantage almost as much as an advantage.

But Ihab was hardly slow, either, whatever his stature may have suggested. Before Janus had a chance to make use of his advantage, Ihab noticed what was going on and took two quick, yet still large steps back, getting away from Janus.

The battlefield froze for just an instant. At this distance, even Ihab would have to take a step before he could attack Janus. Normally, that meant that someone would have to advance for the battle to continue, and whoever did would be vulnerable – but there was one difference here. Simply put, this time, only one of the duelists would be putting themselves at risk by advancing. After all, even if Ihab stepped forward, Janus wouldn’t be able to do anything to him.

And it wasn’t that the issue was only a temporary one – one that would only be present in this instant. Rather, that was the major problem with this entire battle: Janus couldn’t get past Ihab’s steel armor. Against enemy knights, mortals would often pin them to the ground and use a weak spot in the armor to kill them… but the thought of Janus doing that to Ihab was simply laughable, wasn’t it? So Ihab’s defense really only had two visible holes in it. The first was his helmet, which he hadn’t bothered to retrieve after Melthar had teleported it out of reach, and the second was his arms, which weren’t armored at all – apparently, in Aead, where steel was incredibly rare, a full suit of plate was too expensive even for a Councillor. But just cutting at Ihab’s arms probably wouldn’t do much against a timor, not unless it was done over and over again, which meant Janus would have to try and strike at Ihab’s head… and that didn’t sound particularly possible either. So Janus would have to try and make use of one of the smaller weak points even in the chaos of the duel – a daunting proposition, at the very least.

But oddly enough, even with all those odds stacked against him, Melthar didn’t think Janus would lose. It was a possibility in his mind, certainly, but… after what he’d seen Janus do in the past, he knew his title of “Legendary Swordsman” was a justly earned one. Even in a battle as seemingly hopeless as this one, Melthar didn’t believe Janus would be helpless.

Janus dashed forward first, making himself vulnerable – and Melthar knew it was a calculated risk. Ihab seemed to realize that too, because rather than going for a full swing, he merely feinted, trying to scare Janus into leaping back. But Janus, whether due to a lucky prediction or simply being quick enough to see what Ihab’s motions were truly meant to do and react accordingly, didn’t – he just continued running at Ihab, sword at the ready.

Were Janus fighting a simple bandit or something like that, like it had been back at the Deiran Mountains, that would’ve been a perfect chance. He could’ve slashed upwards and inflicted a grievous wound even on the larger timor. But once more, Melthar saw that Ihab’s steel armor would stymie his efforts. He could slash away all he liked – his sword would just bounce off.

But Janus didn’t try to attack. Instead, he just continued running forward and, dropping slightly lower to the ground, used his smaller size to snake between the timor’s legs and emerge on the other side – where, Melthar saw, he would have a perfect shot at one of the few weaknesses he could exploit.

Ihab realized that too. And unfortunately, he was fast. Faster than Melthar could’ve imagined something of that size being.

In a blur of steel, Ihab whirled and, in one swift motion, moved away from Janus and slashed at him with his massive sword. Janus was forced to block the blow, and Melthar knew that, were it a normal blade he was wielding, it would most likely simply shatter on contact with the enormous edge of Ihab’s sword.

But Janus’ sword wasn’t a normal blade. It had been crafted with the help of Melthar himself, using the finest of materials and the most advanced of techniques – and after he was done, he’d had Lein help out a bit too and use his geomancy to strengthen it further. That blade was Lein’s last gift – no matter what, it would not break.

Unfortunately, a sword was still only as strong as the person wielding it. Though Janus managed to block Ihab’s blade, Melthar could see his arms buckle from the force of the swing, and he slid backwards a few centimeters across the soil just from the impact. The instant Ihab pulled his sword back to try again, Janus darted away with thunderous speed, getting out of the timor’s range before he could even begin a second attack.

Ihab narrowed his eyes. “Well, you’re quick,” he observed.

In response, Janus readied his sword, gasping for breath. “Yeah. That I am,” he said. And then, in a lower voice, he muttered “Though this is bloody unfair…”

And then, he ran at Ihab once more.

But this time, he didn’t just do the same things he’d done before. Instead, the instant before he got into Ihab’s range, he changed directions and started to run to the side instead. Ihab responded by stepping forward and taking a swing at Janus, starting from the direction he was going in in order to trap him. Janus blocked the blow again, and the moment Ihab pulled back, he rushed closer, trying to get too close for Ihab to be able to attack him effectively.

Ihab wasn’t stupid, though, and he certainly wasn’t slow. He hopped back as Janus approached and swung again. Janus ducked under that swing, but Ihab took his chance. While Janus was crouching to avoid Ihab’s blade, Ihab rushed forward, pulled back his foot, and kicked.

That, Melthar had to admit, was clever. After all, with a size difference like this, Ihab wouldn’t necessarily have to use his sword to inflict a fatal wound – a quick kick would kill Janus just as surely. And in this situation, a kick would not be easy to defend against.

Janus’ eyes widened, and he did the only thing he really could – he put his sword in front of Ihab’s foot. Were it any other blade, it would’ve been a completely useless defense… but, once again, the power of a sword forged by the Great Powers shone through. The sword refused to break, and as it refused to break, Ihab’s steel-clad foot couldn’t reach Janus.

But that didn’t mean the impact couldn’t. Even having blocked the attack, he was thrown backwards, tumbling through the air and kicking up a cloud of red dust as he landed. He quickly got to his feet, but even from here Melthar could see he was staggering a little bit. He was getting tired.

Even the Legendary Swordsman was hard-pressed to overcome an advantage as massive as Ihab’s sheer size. For centuries, mortals had feared giants, and they showed up in myths and legends right alongside dragons and demons… and seeing the battle unfolding in front of him, Melthar could see why.

And Ihab saw Janus’ condition too. He rushed forward, aiming to make use of his foe’s exhaustion to grab a quick victory. But this was where, Melthar saw, he made a small mistake – in his haste to strike as quickly as possible, he thrust with his sword rather than slashed. And against someone like Janus, even a small mistake could make the difference between victory or defeat.

At that instant, Melthar realized the chance Janus had just been given, and Janus realized it in the very same moment. With frightening speed – both of movement and of thought – he brought his curved sword in front of the advancing tip of Ihab’s blade. Since Ihab’s attack was a thrust, he couldn’t use as much of his power as he could’ve if he’d slashed instead, and the tip of his blade slid smoothly to the side off Janus’ sword – and that slight slip was enough to make the thrust miss. Instead of piercing straight through Janus as Ihab had intended, the blade merely bit into the red Aeadean soil.

For that one instant, there was a chance for everything to be turned around. And what sort of Legendary Swordsman would Janus be if he didn’t take a chance like that?

Suddenly revitalized, energized by the chance he saw in front of himself, Janus rushed forward, his sword sliding against Ihab’s and pushing it further to the side as he went. In his rush to kill Janus while he was exhausted, Ihab had overextended himself, and now, he would pay the price. Janus could see it, Melthar could see it… and Melthar was certain that Ihab could see it too. But it didn’t matter. He couldn’t stop Janus.

Janus darted past Ihab, slipping between the massive timor’s legs, and, quicker than the wind, turned and slashed in a vicious arc of steel.

…Janus’ sword couldn’t penetrate Ihab’s steel armor. That was a fact. No matter how skilled the swordsman, no matter how perfectly crafted the blade, that simple problem would never go away. No matter how many times Janus slashed at Ihab, his sword would simply be deflected each time.

But.

That was assuming one thing: that Janus would try to slash though the armor.

Just like any sword had the weakness of being unable to penetrate steel armor, any suit of steel armor had its weaknesses too. A truly “full” suit of plate armor would leave its wearer unable to move or breathe. Since the armor was meant to be worn by a living being, it had to have some weaknesses, some holes, simply by necessity. For this simple reason, even someone like Ihab was not truly invincible.

With the sound of yielding flesh and cutting metal, the blade of Janus’ sword bit into the back of Ihab’s knee. If it were armored, the armor would have prevented Ihab from moving his leg – and so, as Janus swung his sword, nothing stopped it until it sliced straight into Ihab’s flesh.

For an instant, time seemed to freeze as the world itself seemed to temporarily stop in shock at the blow. And then, with a few droplets of blood following it, Janus tore the sword free and leapt away from Ihab, getting to a safer distance. As the blade came free, Ihab stumbled forwards, but he managed to catch himself, regain his balance, and turn to face Janus – even standing on his wounded leg.

The two faced each other, Janus’ previous exhaustion seemingly gone. He held his sword in front of him, a determined expression on his face. But it was determined in a different way, now. It was not that Janus seemed determined to win a battle – he simply seemed determined to finish what he had started.

Ihab looked right back at him. His face was a grim, unyielding mask, not showing even a bit of pain and concern as he held his blade at the ready and stared Janus down. But from his vantage point outside the battle, Melthar could see the blow’s impact. Even as he watched, blood poured down Ihab’s leg, and it kept flowing from the wound. The leg contained a fairly major artery, and while Janus hadn’t cut it with that first blow – the sword simply hadn’t gone deep enough – a second strike would easily do it. And if that happened, even a timor like Ihab would bleed to death quickly.

“So that’s your strategy,” Ihab calmly said, not seeming the least bit concerned that the enemy had come rather close to inflicting a fatal wound. “You sly fox.”

“I couldn’t fight you head-on,” Janus said, matter-of-factly. “I’m not a prideful knight, Ihab. I knew from the very start I wouldn’t be able to treat this like any other swordfight. And if I have to use trickery to attain victory, as far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t mean anything.”

A small smirk appeared on Ihab’s face. “Yeah, I figured. You know, I can respect that sort of thinking.”

Janus smiled back, and rushed at Ihab once more.

And the response came with thunderous speed.

Just as Janus’ blade had done a moment ago, Ihab’s sword whirled through the air in a torrent of steel. Perhaps Ihab was faster now, made quicker by his desperation, or maybe Janus had gotten overexcited and charged too far in – but whatever the case, Janus couldn’t just hop out of range this time, nor could he try and duck again. He was forced to meet the blow head on, blocking it with his own blade.

But this time, Ihab knew that Janus’ sword was special. He knew it wouldn’t just break or buckle like a normal sword would. And he was ready.

The instant the two swords collided, the instant Janus staggered from the impact, Ihab brought his blade around for a second blow, moving with the speed and skill and precision and ease of an experienced swordsman. Janus was not to be outdone, of course, and with a thunderous burst of quickness, he met the blow head on with his own blade. But in a flash of steel, Ihab withdrew his blade and swept it at Janus’ head, a crescent of onrushing metal. Janus stepped back from the blow, and Ihab lunged in response, his blade lashing out at Janus once again – only to be parried and sent to the side, where it passed right by Janus’ head.

From there, the duo’s swordplay became far too fast for Melthar to see. He knew that if he were in the thick of things, he could’ve seen what they were doing (though even then, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep up) – but from out here, all he could see were two blurry forms as the two duelled. There was one thing about Ihab that Melthar had, at least in theory, known for a long time, but it was this battle that truly impressed upon him the truth of it – for all the advantages being a timor granted him, for all his enormous power and towering size, for all his sheer strength, none of those things were his true greatest advantage in battle. At the end of the day, what truly made him a great warrior was the same thing that made a great warrior out of any man – nigh-unparalleled skill and quickness with the blade.

But that, at the very least, was one field in which Janus was more than capable of competing.

Two cyclones of steel met in the street of the inner city, blades arcing and piercing through the air, only to be met by their counterpart and stopped cold in a flash of sparks. Even at these unperceivable speeds, Melthar could see that Janus was being pushed back, forced into a losing position despite his greater skill simply by virtue of Ihab’s sheer size and power. But he was holding his own admirably. Even as Janus was pushed back, his defence didn’t falter, even for a bit. Every strike was dodged or blocked or parried, and though he must have been exhausted from being forced to endure the great timor’s assault for so long, Janus showed no signs of slowing down.

In swordfights between experienced warriors, Melthar would sometimes see a sort of grace emerge – the two’s movements would become fluid like a dance, their blades moving with the swiftness of air and the smoothness of a flowing river as the two foes competed in their deadly art. But both Janus and Ihab had gone beyond that a long time ago. In this battle, there was no grace to be found, not really. Both the combatants were simply trying their best to kill their opponent with deadly efficiency, blades lashing out and coming back like a vicious storm – graceful and precise and flowing when they had to be, yes, but just as capable of lashing out with nothing more than simple, sudden precision and deadly speed when it was required. The legends sang of artful swordsmen who fought with a certain dreamlike beauty and grace and flow, and Melthar had seen some of those swordsmen himself and found their reputations rather well-earned – but this was how the true greatest artists of the blade fought.

More and more strikes filled the street, until the air around the two seemed to flow into a sphere of blades, each attack deflected by the smaller demon. Yet Janus did not attack. He could not attack – that was what Ihab was trying to ensure. Ihab’s attack was relentless, powerful, and swift, carrying the ferocity of a great beast in every strike – but more than that, it was smart. The Councillor wasn’t simply trying to overwhelm Janus with countless blows, though he was trying to do that – more than that, he was keeping him out of range. The reach of Ihab’s enormous blade was easily greater than that of Janus’ curved sword, and Ihab was using that advantage as much as he possibly could. He’d seen how fast Janus could be, after all, and he knew that if he allowed him to, Janus could dart past him and deliver the second, fatal slash in a fraction of a second – so all Ihab had to do was to deny him that chance.

Janus leapt back, and for what Melthar knew would just be a few seconds at most, the battlefield’s deadly exchange stalled. Now, even Ihab’s blade couldn’t quite reach Janus, and one of the two would have to advance to continue their attack. Before that, though, the two simply looked at each other for a few moments, sizing each other up. Melthar wasn’t sure if Ihab could see it, but having known Janus for a long time, he knew that Janus was getting tired. He was hiding it well, but it was still true. He would have to end this quickly, or else he’d simply get too exhausted to defend against Ihab’s assault.

But that wasn’t to say the battle hadn’t taken its toll on Ihab, too. For all that he was an enormous, powerful, seemingly invincible timor, and for all that he was a great warrior on nearly the same level as Janus, he was still a person. Even though blocking his powerful blows must’ve been incredibly difficult for Janus, delivering those blows must’ve been nearly as exhausting, if not more – and Ihab had kept up a relentless flow of them for the last few seconds. And Ihab wasn’t quite as good at hiding his exhaustion as Janus was. Melthar was certain that Janus noticed it.

Melthar held his breath. (Well, as a Great Power, it wasn’t like he needed to breathe anyway. But he still preferred to.) In the next few moments, he knew, this battle would be decided. Ihab would advance, and what he did – and how Janus would respond to it – would be what determined the winner of this fight. Now, all that was left was to wait for that critical moment…

Janus rushed forward.

And for an instant, Melthar’s eyes widened, and even he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

What Janus was doing was, no matter how one looked at it, suicidal. Ihab would come into range before Janus did, and since Janus was running at him, his own momentum would make him unable to retreat, and thus vulnerable. His charge would be stopped cold by Ihab’s assault, and then, Ihab would have the advantage. He would be able to counterattack while Janus was unbalanced from being forced onto the defensive so quickly, and considering the fact that they were fairly close in terms of skill, such an advantage would be all Ihab would need to land a fatal blow. So advancing here was a stupid move – it would’ve been far smarter to wait for Ihab to attack and then try and look for an opening as he struck.

Which, of course, was exactly why Janus had done what he had.

He was no fool, Melthar knew. After all, one didn’t become known as the Legendary Swordsman by being stupid. And he knew that simply defending – that simply hoping Ihab would leave himself exposed as he struck – would leave too many things up to chance, especially against such a skilled opponent. Perhaps he could win that way, but more likely, he would simply be worn down quickly and finished off. So, he’d decided to take things into his own hands instead.

And Ihab was just as surprised at that as Melthar was. The Great Power saw the timor’s eyes widen, and he saw him flinch a bit.

And for just the briefest of instants, Ihab hesitated.

…It wasn’t because he had any doubts about what the best course of action was. It was simply because what he’d just seen was so unexpected that, just for a moment, his mind failed to respond to it. But that didn’t matter. The outcome would be the same.

Melthar saw it. And, he thought, Ihab saw it too. This battle was over. That single moment of hesitation would decide everything.

With a sudden burst of speed, Janus rushed forth even faster. Still, even knowing it would be useless, Ihab did what he could. He swept his sword in a crescent at Janus, trying to stop him – even if for just a moment – as he stepped back.

But, of course, it failed. It was simply too late. Without his eyes ever glancing away from his target, Janus brought his sword up to stop Ihab’s blade and, moving with speed that Melthar would swear was impossible without magic if not for the fact that he was seeing it now, darted to Ihab’s other side, the two blades sliding along each other until the last moment. Then, Janus turned and, with the swiftness and surety of a flying arrow, struck right at the back of Ihab’s knee once more.

It happened so fast Melthar didn’t even see the blade bury itself in Ihab’s flesh. Before he could realize the blow had even been made, Janus had already torn the blade free and spun away from his foe. But the gush of blood that came a moment later told the whole story. It was over.

Ihab grunted and fell to one knee, his wounded leg no longer able to support his weight. With each beat of his heart, blood pumped from the severed artery, spilling out and mingling with the red soil he knelt on. He lowered his head, his expression unreadable, and thrust his sword into the ground, gripping its handle tightly so as to keep from collapsing entirely.

It didn’t look like a fatal wound. It was just a cut on the leg, after all. But Melthar knew better. It would take, at most, a few minutes for Councillor Ihab to bleed to death.

Calmly, Janus sheathed his sword and walked around to the fallen timor’s front. Ihab raised his head to look him in the eyes.

“Heh,” the Councillor chuckled, no sign in his voice that he was a dying man. ““Legendary Swordsman”… well. I guess I know why they call you that now.”

Janus nodded to him. “You fought well.”

“Well, that hardly means anything now, does it?” Ihab sardonically asked. “But… I guess this isn’t a bad way to go. You’re not bad yourself, Legendary Swordsman.”

For a moment, there was silence. “You know why I joined the rebellion?” Janus finally asked.

Ihab smiled. “Not really. Enlighten me.”

“Well, mostly, I was just following Melthar,” Janus said. “But… if I were to have my own reason, it’d just be because I wanted a good fight. Being the best swordsman in the world gets a little boring sometimes, you know. There’s not many people who can even challenge me, let alone match me. But you’ve done both. If you hadn’t hesitated there at the end, I’d have died.” With a stoic dignity Melthar rarely saw in him, Janus bowed to his opponent. “Thank you for that. I think… I think you can understand the sentiment of wanting a challenge.”

“Yeah,” Ihab said. “That, I can.” He lowered his head, a resigned smile on his face. “Well fought, Janus. Finish it.”

Janus didn’t say anything. He merely took a few steps forward, laid a hand on the hilt of his sword, and, with a single movement, sliced Ihab’s throat. The blade was back in the sheath before Melthar even saw it.

Ihab collapsed to the red soil, his blood turning the ground even redder. And the victor stood alone on the field of battle.

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