The Fatal Choice
Teel James Glenn
The Kovar priest, his homespun fighting leathers covered by a captured guard captain’s tunic, moved like a ghost through the dark corridors of the silent fortress.
In his right hand he held a straight saber, its razor sharp tip already painted crimson with his ‘admission price’ to the warp wizard’s sanctum. He had been lucky in taking the outer guards quietly but he knew that the arrogance of the wizard’s men would not save him if he made a mistake.
He moved with exaggerated stealth for knew to make a noise would announce him to all the perimeter guards and might spell an end to his hunt. And most probably the life of the woman he held more dear than his own as well who was his reason to be there.
The Reverend Lord Erique Shoutte was a tall man with chiseled features, suns browned skin and a shock of jet-black hair that hung in a long braid almost to his waist. It was the intense dark pools of his eyes that dominated his face, however, scanning the shadows of the stone corridors for any sign of opposition.
All was quiet, with the sound of his boots like thunder to him on the smooth marble of the hallway. The cut crystal glowgems that were placed at irregular intervals along the wall in sconces cast ghostly blue light in the narrow corridors.
Shoutte paused at a hall junction to listen for signs of life ahead but had to hold his breath to be able to listen. The pounding of his fast pumping heart reverberated in his ears like the beat of savage drums and almost obscured the steps of two more guards coming in quick time toward his position.
“Do they know I’m here?” he thought. “Or are they just on their way to their next post?” He said a prayer to the Kova- the principle of eternal change that was the core of his religion- to remain undiscovered as pressed himself hard into a small setback. He hoped the pool of shadow would conceal him from a casual glance.
The cleric got his prayer answered almost immediately when the lead guard, his braid marking his rank as captain, called to his adjutant “I want the patrols doubled and unless we hear from those two at the portcullis I want the alarm sounded in ten minues; with that woman in the castle we can not take chances; our lord would not be pleased if we let a Kovar tvek of a priest in here now.”
The cleric breathed easy, they were not looking for him—not yet. They had not discovered the dead guards in the outer guard shack but he knew his luck would not hold out for long.
He underestimated how little time he had for almost as he thought it the trooper, while passing the pool of darkness that concealed Shoutte, stumbled on an irregular tile. In doing so, he looked down and saw the shine of the priest’s boots in the shadowed alcove.
The soldier’s eyes widened in shock but before he could make a sound Lord Shoutte sprang and ran his sabre through the man’s heart.
The sound of the blade passing through the officer’s flesh and his death rattle caused the captain to whirl.
The priest sprang forward but the officer recovered from his shock swiftly and drew his own sabre in time to get a solid parry up.
Shoutte pressed him knowing that he could not afford to have the man call out but he could see by the expression on the officer’s face that he was an old school man, who would not cede the glory of the intruder’s capture to any underlings.
The man’s pride was the priest’s only hope, but only if the fight ended quickly; Shoutte knew that if the priest appeared to be winning the officer would not hesitate to call for help. And if Shoutte allowed himself to be caught he knew there was little hope to rescue Myrran, the woman who was the world to the priest.
The captain was a schooled swordsman, obviously experienced as well, but Shoutte was well trained himself as well as he was driven. And, despite being discovered, he was still lucky.
The officer stumbled on a wild cut at Shoutte and the priest beat his blade down to spring forward and smash the knuckle-bow of his sabre into the temple of the captain.
The blow was hard enough that it brought the officer to his knees.
Shoutte finished him with a clean thrust through the throat.
“Loyalty is a virtue, captain,” Shoutte said softly, “But it must be tempered with honor; you served a beast in Count Kalistro.”
As if saying the name had summoned the warp wizard there was a sudden noise down the dark corridor the captain had come from, a woman’s voice raised in pain and a sinister laugh that Shoutte recognized as the Count’s.
The priest moved off toward the sound at a run, stealth meant nothing if Myrran was hurt.
Shoutte flung open a carved crystal door and had the sudden impression that he had breached the portals of a nightmare. Before him was a large room with a vaulted ceiling with crystal chandeliers ablaze with rainbow colored glowgems. What they illuminated almost stunned the would-be rescuer to immobility; Myrran was suspended from a beam over an oddly distorted mirror, but like no mirror the priest had ever seen; it reflected not the room they were in but some darker reality. In that reflection nightmare creatures writhed and undulated as if in expectation of escape from the glass. It was a portal to a nightmare.
Standing beside the scaffolding that held the captive was the dark figure of the warp wizard, Count Kalistro, his mistress and disciple, The Lady Maya Bathor and a guard in the black livery of the ‘Soul-cutter Brigade.’
The Count had a hawkish nose and arched eyebrows that shaded purple eyes. Those eyes burned like hellfire and if they were the windows to his soul they showed only a soul lost to darkness. He would have been a tall man, but he was as twisted in form as in heart, with a hunchback and a withered left arm. Despite his defect, however, he was a powerful figure, with his right arm muscular and his short legs powerful.
His female companion was tall and blonde haired, her skin pale where his was swarthy. She was laughing as she waved his hands over a smoky brassier so that the billowing cloud moved toward the hanging woman as if it had living tendrils.
“Stop your foul actions, Kalistro!” Shoutte called as he threw the bolt on the door to lock it behind him.
The wizard spun to face the priest his cruel face flashing from startled to sly in an eye-blink. “I swore I would punish you for what you did to my soldiers at the inn last week,” the Count said, “You Kovar scum have interfered with my tax collections for the last time: her fate will be an example to your people. As will your death. And both will bring me power when I have completed the sacrifice here tonight.” The wizard seemed to suddenly notice the way Shoutte was dressed and laughed, “You seem to have progressed quickly in your social climb though, I see you wear the uniform of one of my guards! So you are a thief as well as a priest?”
“This livery is no step up, Kalistro,” Shoutte said with a sneer. He pulled off the tunic to reveal the open front of his leather shirt that showed the triple brand symbol of his priesthood on the center of his chest. “Your oppression of the people in my parish is over; even now the militia approaches your stronghold.”
The Soul-cutter raced toward the would-be rescuer, a power staff in his hand with the gem atop it emitting the powerful rays like a miniature sun. He aimed it in preparation to destroy Shoutte with a withering blast. The priest was quicker and placed a single fatal throwing knife he pulled from his belt through the soldier’s forehead with a powerful toss.
“Erique!” Myrran cried as she strained against the ropes that held her, “Beware this devil’s mate!”
Before Shoutte could take another step forward Lady Maya halted him with a yell. “Your militia will be too late; come no further or I will sever the line that will drop her into the black mirror of Thizan Dunn.” The woman produced a dagger and stepped toward the two cords that ran from ring in the marble floor to a pulley that held Myrran suspended.
Shoutte threw another knife at the floor in front of the noble woman, then held up a third in threat that halted the blonde, who dropped her own blade.
“No, stand back, Maya my dear,” the wizard commanded with a sly smile slashing across his features. “This would-be hero has come a long way to meet with me and discuss the issue of this lady’s freedom, eh? We must not disappoint him.”
The twisted noble stepped to a bench and drew a jewel-encrusted sabre from a scabbard that rested there. “Shall we contend for the lovely prize like knights of the old kingdom, my good priest?” He said. “I am a sporting man.”
“You are a monster whose form proclaims your soul’s shape,” the priest said as he moved forward. He tossed the last throwing knife aside and stepped up to blade’s length from the wizard.
“If you slay me here the girl is yours and all your dreams come true; if I win I sacrifice her to the Dark Lords of The Rift and my dreams come true. A fair bargain, eh?”
“You have no dreams,” Shoutte said as their blades engaged, “Only nightmares for all the kingdom!”
Then the two were engaged in mortal combat whose outcome would decide the immortal fate of so many.
The sorcerer was no book bound intellectual despite his mal-formed body, he took pride in his physical prowess and skill with the blade. It was a fact that the priest knew well.
Yet Shoutte had no choice but to accept the challenge. He detached a part of his awareness for the deviant blonde who stood by the smoking brassier with her teeth exposed in a snarl of anger while he focused on the swordsman.
Kalistro attacked with amazing speed, his good arm driving the sword with all the force of his personality as well as all his body weight. The priest was forced into a defensive fight, knowing he could not relax his vigilance for an eye-blink. At the same time he had to keep aware of Maya.
The blonde vixen watched the battle with a blood lust in her eyes but made no move to pick up the fallen guard’s power staff.
“Your sword arm has not the power of your moral convictions, priest,” the wizard sneered.
It was true, Shoutte was forced to give ground against the power of the sorcerer’s sword. Nor could he waste energy with banter and Kalistro knew it.
The fight moved across the polished floor with both men maneuvering to avoid the tables and retorts of the wizard’s arcane equipment. Their blade play was hampered between two tables, confining the swings of the sabre’s to wrist work.
This is where Shoutte gained leverage, for his skill at point work was equal to Kalistro’s and without being able to bring his whole body into the strokes the Count was unable to drive as hard against the cleric.
The priest’s luck returned when, as they passed the fallen form of the Soul-cutter, he slipped on pooled blood. Kalistro tried to take advantage of the slight fumble and, over confident, extended himself in a thrust.
Shoutte, however, had faked his ‘wobble’. He beat the extended blade aside to slash his sword along the wizard’s forearm.
Kalistro dropped his weapon with a cry of pain and the fight was over.
Maya moved to attack but again the wizard stopped her with a word. “No,” he said, “a bargain is a bargain; make no move to stop him.”
Shoutte placed his sword point against the hollow of the wizard’s throat. “Tell me why I should not send you to your transition now, Count, and end your evil forever?”
“If you spare me I will swear my allegiance in your rise to power, priest.”
“Surely you know in saving this woman and defeating me you will find great fame and rewards?”
“My reward is her safety,” Shoutte said. He backed toward the ropes that went up to the pulley that held the girl but paused when he realized that one of them also led to the boom that she was fastened to, the true purpose of each was confused.
“Ah—” the wizard said. “I see you have a new problem; you surmise correctly—if you cut the wrong one she will plunge into the Rift Lord’s maw.”
“Don’t let me die, Erique!” Myrran called.
“Which one, Kalistro?”
“Which one?” The Count sneered. “For what?”
“Which one will free her, devil?” Shoutte roared at the wizard.
“Nothing in life comes without cost, priest, you should know that. The cost of that information is to free me; then I will tell you.” Kalistro laughed. “You have my word.”
The priest stilled his impulse to drive his blade through the nobleman’s chest, “Tell me, damn you, or by the Rythem I will…”
“Your word I will go free, priest?”
“You have it.”
“The one on the right will free her.” Kalistro said. He looked to Maya and smiled.
“Please, Erique,” Myrran cried, “cut the rope and free me.”
Shoutte glanced at the wizard and then to the blonde disciple.
“Have faith, my love,” the priest said to the suspended girl.
Shoutte said a silent prayer and slashed hard at the left hand rope.
When the left rope was severed the boom that held her over the mirror swung her toward her rescuer.
“No!” the wizard screamed and lunged forward as Shoutte reached for the girl.
The priest turned quickly and flung the sabre like a javelin so that it transfixed the Count through the throat. He stumbled back with a hideous gurgle of escaping blood then toppled over into the black writhing expanse of the mirror.
The wizard managed to scream once, a horrible liquid death rattle that echoed again and again as he seemed to fall forever, tumbling end over end into an infinity of pain.
Maya yelled then and lunged at the cleric as he grabbed Myrran around the waist to ease her off the boom. Shoutte reached back and smashed a fist into the charging woman’s temple with an absent minded gesture that none-the-less sent the woman sprawling.
“I’ve wanted to do that to her all night.” Myrran said. She threw her arms around her rescuer’s shoulders. “I knew you would come for me but—,” she whispered, “ I just wasn’t sure when.”
There were pounding fists on the crystal door. Myrran jumped in fear.
“You are safe now,” Shoutte said with a wry smile. “The door will hold until the militia arrive.” He held her closer, enjoying the warmth of her body.
“How did you know he told you the wrong rope to cut?”
“I believe in the Kova or I would not be a priest, my dear,” he said, “I believe in eternal change, that any choice I made would be the right one in the Rythem of things.”
He picked up the crystal topped power staff from the guard and threw it with all his might into the ebony surface of the mirror so that the glass of the portal shattered in an explosion of midnight shards and a crackle of etheric energy.
“So you guessed?” She pulled away from him with her eyes wide.
“I also knew he would never give up his plans for conquest,” the priest revealed. “I knew he would lie just because he could not help himself.”
She burst out laughing and he joined her, knowing more certainly than ever why he loved her.
“I can not help myself either,” she said pulling her rescuer down to stare into his eyes, “I have faith as well that I have made the right choice.”
Their kiss was full of hope and promise of bright tomorrows.
Teel James Glenn has traveled the world for forty years as a stuntman, fight choreographer, swordmaster, jouster, illustrator, storyteller, bodyguard, actor and haunted house barker. One of the things he’s proudest of is having studied sword under Errol Flynn’s last stunt double.
He’s stories have been printed in over a hundred magazines from Weird Tales, Spinetingler, SciFan, Mad, Black Belt, Fantasy Tales, Sherlock Holmes Mystery, SciFan, Sixgun Western, Crimson Streets, , Silver Blade Quarterly, and anthologies in many genres. His short story “The Clockwork Nutcracker” won best steampunk story for 2013and has been expanded into a full novel.
He is also the winner of the 2012 Pulp Ark Award for Best Author.
His website is: TheUrbanSwashbuckler.com