“Not even the flame can match the Shadow’s Dance.”
- The Latter Days of Discord, fragment LXVII
“Halt. Identify yourself.” The voice was garbled, spoken over a mouthful of half chewed squirrel. Finn was surprised the effete slob had noticed anything; fireblind and making as much of a racket eating as he was. The piglet ambled up from the shoddy fire pit, still gorging himself, and waddled into position at the foot of the bridge. He kicked at his snoring companion, startling him awake and sending him scrambling blindly about for his halberd which, upon finding, he thrust it blindly into the night. So much for the ever vigilant Last Guard.
The two infant Prætoriani, having calmed themselves down, smoothed their uniforms (embroidered silks? rich velvets? for duty on the Fringe? Tiamat below, either the ripple was larger than Finn expected or termites had gone to work years ago) and readied into defensive positions on the rickety wooden footbridge; the sleeping soldier yawned, pointed his halberd menacingly at Finn and repeated, with slight more, if warbled, authority, his companion’s demand. Finn would almost have laughed if he wasn’t so tired. He was in no mood for killing these whelps. Saints rage, the boys must be barely shaving once a week. From the way they were squinting, trying to make him out in the melting dark eyes adjusted to firelight rather than the deep forest shadows, Finn could they were far more concerned about their dinner and their beauty rest than their post. Why the High Command had left two upjumped cityboys serving cakewalk tours of duty before their fathers bought them Minor Seats out in the far reaches, guarding this bridge alone was beyond him. Had the importance of the wells been forgotten? Did Council really believe that this was just an ordinary borderland bridge? How much had truly been forgotten? Finn didn’t like the feel of it. It was almost as if the Priests wanted him to trespass. It made him nervous but there was no turning back now. Not this close to the end, to the last respite. He kept on walking silently, barely acknowledging their presence. Ruefully lamenting the bedraggled state the Central Legions.
“Stand down, stranger, or we shall force you to… It is well within our authority.” So much fire coming from such a physically unimposing kid. Perhaps he wasn’t quite awake enough to realize what he was talking himself into. After all, what threat could one lone man in the dark really present?
“Do you know who I am, boy?” His voice was slick, almost syrupy, mimicking their indolent cityboy drawls with a practiced ease. Of course not. They don’t teach anything in the Academies these days. Not if this was the best that they could get to guard the entrance to Vipunen’s Deeps.
“It does not matter who you are, old man. None shall pass. The area is forbidden to all citizens.” Old man? Finn kept on walking, wearily pulling back the deep cowl of his robe, inky inhuman eyes swirling darkness, drinking in the sad light of the boys’ fire. The guards exchanged fearful glances, looking more and more a brace of frightened coneys facing down a wolf pack, too scared to run.
“Sweet Kali, his eyes. His blood cursed eyes!” At least the porker knew enough to be afraid.
“I … do not … I do not want to use violence on you, stranger. Turn around and … and be on your way.” The tiny warrior stretched trying to gain an imposing inch or two, voice betraying a fear that his textbook threats could not cover.
“Leave it, kid. You don’t want to get into this fight.”
“I said stand down.” His voice quavered like a songbird. He was shaking. He had to know what was coming. His gibbering friend mouthed silent prayers, likely to St. Mexitl and his Valkyrja or Susano’o.
“Just let me pass. Let me be on my way and we’ll be quit of this.”
“I cannot do that, stranger. Gaius Lucius has forbidden all to pass.”
“I don’t wanna die……..”
“Will you shut up and act like a thrice-damned soldier already?”
Finn gently tossed back his cloak to reveal his matched dueling knives. Blood-forged black steel. Heavy knuckle guards, weighted hilts, two nine inch rune inscribed, demon cursed, hell-bent blades of midnight. Finn made to draw them, bring to light their perfect darkness, their swirling barely tangible not fully corporeal forms, blurred and rent by the bound wraiths within. More of an identifier than his name, the blades marked him, set apart, above. As his uncle before him and so many of his ancestors back through time beyond reckoning, his clan had always been cursed, had always given birth to the shadowdancers. One with the magicks of the depths; immune to their infernal dictum. Apart from the great horde mass of humanity. In but not of.
“You must know who I am, boy. You can’t think that the two of you will be able to stop me. And no one will come to avenge you. No one will quiet your poor mothers’ tears. It is your choice, boys. But one way or another, I shall cross this bridge tonight.”
“We … we have you surrounded!” They were scared now. Finn could feel the fear coming off them in waves, taste it on the air. Every predator for miles must have been circling, gathering to pick the carrion.
“No you don’t, boy. They left you alone out here. Nobody around for miles but the two of you … and me.”
“In the stead and by the command of Gaius Lucius Maximus, First Lord of the Morning, High King of Æmia, I command you to stand down.”
Finn let out a dry, sardonic laugh.
“Gaius Lucius is dead.”