“Are you insane?” Vera demanded, shock making the skin on her face wrinkled and more bark like than ever. “You think you can beat Leanna in a duel?”
“I didn’t say she had to beat me,” Maggie said, stretching her arms and turning her hips to warm up. Her wounds were still healing from the morning’s battle, but the bandages had made it so that her cuts wouldn’t tear open at the first sign of physical activity. “I said she had to prove she was worthy.”
“She’s a goddess.” The dryad ran her fingers through mossy hair. “Of course she’s worthy.”
“Then she won’t have any trouble proving it,” Maggie said. “Darius, how much longer?”
He checked his wrist display. “They’re on their way. Maybe five minutes.”
Maggie wasn’t the only one warming up. The Leannán Sídhe didn’t need to stretch her muscles or warm up her body, but she sat cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed, her lips moving subtly. She wasn’t working any power that Maggie could feel, but she was clearly doing something.
“Vera has a point,” Darius said. “Even if she hasn’t focused on sword fighting, she’s got thousands of years of experience and grace that we can’t come close to. What outcome are you expecting?”
Maggie eyed him and debated explaining.
Frey beat her to it. “It’s a ritual.”
Making eye contact with their captain, Maggie nodded.
Vera didn’t get it. “A ritual?”
“The swords aren’t just steel,” Frey said. “They’re made with purpose, and without taking shortcuts. The duel is just the first step in making one.”
Maggie nodded. “My blades aren’t a consumer product. If I’m making her a blade, that blade is going to be hers, not some one-size-fits-all bit of metal you can buy from a knick-knack shop.” She didn’t look at the sword on Frey’s hilt, but Frey’s expression twitched. Frey knew that her ownership of Cyrus’s steel was illegitimate at best.
“So, you don’t expect to win,” Vera nodded, the creases in her face smoothing out as she understood.
“I expect to test her,” Maggie said. “We’ll see if she gets her blade when she’s done. Deities get held to a high standard, after all.”
“If she fails, we don’t get the information we need,” Darius said, leaning in and speaking in a low tone. “Don’t be too harsh.”
“If she succeeds, I have to make her a sword. I’ll be as harsh as I need to.” It was a lose-lose situation.
Before she could deal with any more nay-saying, she stalked over to the Leannán Sídhe. She hadn’t reduced her size to something in a mortal range, yet, so despite the fact that she was sitting on the floor, Maggie had to look up at her, just barely. “What style of blade will you be using?”
The self-styled goddess opened one of her eyes and glanced down at Maggie. “I’m deciding that.”
“Taking you a long time to decide,” Maggie considered.
The Leannán Sídhe’s mouth turned up at a corner. “Do you want me to explain?”
Maggie didn’t respond with anything that could be interpreted as a request. She didn’t want to owe anything to this being.
“I know a thousand styles from a thousand lifetimes,” the Leannán Sídhe explained, despite the lack of prompting. “It takes time to consider them all.”
“Let me know when you decide,” Maggie said. “We’re in no hurry.”
“I’ve already decided,” she declared, getting to her feet and, at the same time, shrinking down. Maggie found it strange, watching her stand without having to adjust her eye line. Even when the Leannán Sídhe was done reducing her size, she was still far taller than Maggie, built on the scale of an amazon warrior. “I believe you’ve made one of these before.”
Extending her hand, she conjured a ball of light, which grew, extending out, longer and longer, well past two meters. The energy solidified into a shimmering white claymore, which the Leannán Sídhe gripped in both hands.
She had perfect posture and stance. Unsurprising. Maggie would have been shocked if she selected a sword she didn’t know how to use.
More helpfully, it was a style that Maggie knew. She was no master, but she could use a claymore, and she could tell if someone else knew what they were doing with it. A sword that big would take a lot of meteorite metal to make, and it’d be expensive.
As long as the check clears, the bigger the better.
Walking back towards Darius, Maggie asked, “How close?”
“Right outside. Want them to bring it in?” Maggie nodded, and he spoke into his wrist. “Bring in the package.”
Two elves rolled in Maggie’s cello bag, dropping it off in the doorway. They saluted to Darius, he dismissed them, and they hurried away.
He’s got them running like a Swiss watch, Maggie considered, as she walked over to her bag. Unzipping it, she checked the contents first. Nobody had disturbed her things. Good.
She returned her spearhead to the straps it belonged in, put her double blades back, and took out her claymore. It was heavy, almost six pounds, though not quite as long as the Leannán Sídhe’s blade. That thing was just comically big.
Maggie had trained with her blade. She knew its balance, its weight, its grip. She could have told her claymore from any other blade in the world just by how it felt in her hand. It was a tool she knew how to use, very nearly a friend.
And she was going to lose the fight with the Leannán Sídhe. There was no question of that.
“Use whatever you want,” she called, looking at her own steel. “I certainly will be. Try to win. Are the edges of your blade dulled?”
She turned to look at her opponent, who was smiling. “Are yours?”
“And neither are mine.”
They’d be fighting with sharp edges. Even if the intent was not to kill, it would be dangerous, and neither of them would be holding back.
“I don’t care if you win,” Maggie said. “If you sucker punch me with magic, you’ll win in a few seconds. I can’t stop that. You have to show me you’re a master with your blade, not that you can overpower me.”
“Understood.” The Leannán Sídhe smirked. “And how do I know you won’t decide I’ve failed arbitrarily?”
“I take this seriously,” Maggie said. “If you deserve it, I won’t lie.”
She looked down at herself. Her pants were missing one leg; it had been cut free to get to her ankle wound. Ichor was splattered on her shirt. She looked a mess.
The Leannán Sídhe was holding seven pounds of razor-sharp metal and wearing a flowing golden gown that shimmered in the light of her throne room. She was somehow making the two disparate elements seem like they were designed to go together.
Maggie took a deep breath. “Are you ready?”
The Leannán Sídhe nodded her head in a tiny—
It was a cheap move, but she wanted to see how her opponent reacted to surprise. Naturally, she didn’t catch the Leannán Sídhe off guard—-the goddess raised her blade and batted away Maggie’s first attack with a deft block.
Claymores were not delicate weapons. Swinging around six pounds of steel was, at the best of the times, awkward. Managing momentum was key: If one attack failed—and against this foe, her attacks were going to fail—she needed to be ready to recover and get her guard up instantly.
She reacted in time to block an incoming sweep. The Leannán Sídhe was strong, and though Maggie had the skill to intercept the attack, the force of the blow shook Maggie’s bones as she deflected it.
Okay, stop deflecting and start dodging.
Raising her blade, Maggie extended it, one hand on the base of the hilt, the other at the far end, eyeing her dueling partner. Now that the initial burst of action was done, they were staying back, squaring off.
Maggie couldn’t win on endurance. Claymores weren’t designed for long, drawn-out battles. If she took her time, her arms would get tired. It seemed unlikely that an ancient being of primordial power would have to deal with the same restrictions. If she wanted any edge at all, she’d have to claim it fast.
Readying herself, Maggie prepared to lunge and strike again, but to her surprise, her foe lunged first, dress glimmering while her sword came down towards Maggie’s head, playing aggressive despite the fact that it would benefit Maggie.
Maggie ducked and got out of the way, slashing in response. It was an easy blow. The Leannán Sídhe had left herself exposed and overextended. No matter how strong she was, she couldn’t just pull back a sword that heavy in an instant, and her body was bent forward, following her attack, vulnerable—the Leannán Sídhe jumped, doing an honest-to-earth flip over Maggie’s attack. She landed on her feet behind Maggie, instantly stable, instantly aggressive, and Maggie had to spin and slap away the Leannán Sídhe’s attack to avoid being cleaved in two.
It was an absurd display of grace and power, but Maggie caught something out of the corner of her eye. A tiny, golden scrap of fabric was fluttering to the ground, cleaved cleanly away from the Leannán Sídhe’s dress.
I… hit her, Maggie realized, shocked. Sort of.
Before she could consider this more, the Leannán Sídhe drove in again, swinging her massive sword as though she couldn’t even feel the weight. Maggie ducked to the side of one blow, caught the next on her sword’s guard, and twisted, going on the offensive.
She swung once, knocking the Leannán Sídhe’s blade to the side and bringing in the wicked sharp edge of her starmetal sword at the ancient being’s throat. Again, it was a narrow thing and the Leannán Sídhe dodged away in time, ducking her head but losing a lock of hair.
Maggie’s eyes widened in surprise as she drove her attack harder, playing the aggressor, striving to land a solid blow. Even now, she was doubting the Leannán Sídhe’s skill—the pseudo-goddess was relying heavily on strength and grace, but not talent. Perhaps thousands of years of experience could lead to thousands of years of overconfidence. A failure of practice, neglecting to keep up her skills, and…
No, that doesn’t make sense.
Attacking more harshly than ever, Maggie put her strength into her attacks, pressing her advantage. The Leannán Sídhe was forced to back up. She was graceful and quick, but her control over her blade was sloppy, and when she slashed at Maggie’s chest, Maggie was able to block, deflect, and make another opening for a killing blow.
It’s like she’s…
Not even trying.
Maggie didn’t even press the attack, even though she felt she was a heartbeat away from ‘winning’. She lowered her blade. “Stop.”
Sounds of muttered confusion echoed from the back of the room, where the team had been watching. Maggie had forgotten about her audience.
“What is it, Margaret?” the Leannán Sídhe purred.
Maggie felt like a fool. She’d known who she was up against. The tricks that could be played. Despite this, she’d assumed she could behave in a straightforward way.
The Leannán Sídhe was trying to lose, but subtly. Maggie could only guess her motivations, but it seemed like it was just another test, one to see how Maggie would react if put in a position where she had to choose between her team’s success and her own honor.
If the Leannán Sídhe lost—even if she just underperformed, as she had been—Maggie wouldn’t make her a sword. If Maggie didn’t make her a sword, her team wouldn’t get the information they wanted. Without that information, they could run into another surprise like the queen while they worked to exterminate the last few petraforms.
If Maggie gave in and made her a sword anyways, it would mean ignoring her own rituals, her own standards.
Maggie saw only one way to respond.
She stepped close to the Leannán Sídhe, close enough to whisper. “I know what you’re doing,” she whispered.
The rest of the team wouldn’t be able to hear her from so far away, not with her voice so low.
“Tell me, then,” the Leannán Sídhe requested. She was grinning, and Maggie noticed for the first time that she had too many canines in her mouth. The pointed teeth went all the way back. She was a predator, down to her core. “What, exactly, am I doing?”
Maggie spat in her face.
Then she turned and stormed away.
Chapter Twelve of this story is already up on Patreon, if you can’t wait to read it! I’m trying to get out a chapter a week, so if you’re patient you can read it here in a few days.