I crashed down on my upper back with a peal of metal thunder, the impact as much a sound as a physical blow, jarring every steel plate and fragile bone. Flashes of lightning exploded within my helm, and I fought to remain conscious as I slid sideways down a mound of rubble, part of a small avalanche of splinters and broken bricks. I think I momentarily lost my senses, as the next thing I remember was a commotion of unpleasant sensations, pinpricks cascading across my limbs as my confused body tried to either reawaken itself or rage against the grip of paralysis. Something in my memory urgently vied for attention, the lingering flickers of rational thought screaming at me, going hoarse with desperation.
A shadow fell across my unseeing gaze, and my mind rallied.
I kicked as fiercely as I could, silently exulting at the sensation of my legs—though heavy—actually moving. The motion slid me further down the pile of wreckage, spinning me just as a heavy object impacted the rubble where my head had been, pelting my slightly askew visor with debris. My heels hit the semi-level stone of the courtyard and I was up, taking two long stumbling strides as one hand righted my helmet and the other gripped my sword. I spun, my blade half from its sheath before reflex threw me into another motion more akin to ballet than battle.
The barbed spike of a halberd whistled as it swung, swiping through vision up-flung by the extreme arch of my back. Muscles like taut chains snapped my torso upright, and I faced my attacker with blade fully drawn, a deadly extension of my outstretched arm.
What light filtered into the courtyard barely glinted from blackened plates as much weapons as armor, bladed and forged with the visage of a fiendish skull dominating the breastplate, its monstrous teeth gnashed together in a wall of daggers. The infernal steel piled upon a mountainous figure, his face now hidden behind the featureless visor of a newly donned helm. Had the night itself sent its own legionnaire against me, its manifestation could not have been more menacing.
A Hellknight. Now it was clear who Quil had found to avenge him against the Calavettis so affordably. Initially I'd assumed just some sadistic gang member or bloodthirsty lunatic, but those possibilities had largely evaporated when I'd seen the Slug's Trail emptied of its huddled occupants. So much for optimism. The Hellknights served no lord other than their own grim vision of justice, meting it out sometimes for the coin of those seeking lawful revenge, and sometimes merely to make examples of those who flaunted their crimes. I suspected Quil had convinced this monstrosity that the Calavettis fell into that latter category—they had robbed the crooked gambler, after all. It'd be easy to see them as the villains and undertake their execution with only half the story—Quil's half. I couldn't help but wonder if I would have done the same if Quil had come to me.
The Hellknight's tempered, dispassionate voice jerked me from my fantasy of morality, his words sounding almost mechanical as they reverberated from his heavy helm to mine. "There's no defense for your being here," he said, his tone that of judge delivering his verdict. "Having rejected amnesty, you are a war criminal and a traitor to the new order. Throw down your weapon and submit."
He was right. Just wearing this armor made me a criminal, an embodiment of slaughter and mad ambition. After the queen fell, the city's new rulers offered us our old lives back. They humbled us and called it mercy.
But they didn't know what it had been like. They might have had their families killed and their bodies scarred, but so had we—and worse, we had done it to ourselves. We were the Gray Maidens, the elite, the bodyguards of a queen as beautiful as she was ambitious—and viciously insane. Few chose to join the queen's guard, but she and her followers were not to be denied. The beautiful, the talented, the unscrupulous—I forget which I'd been—all of us were made to serve. Those of us who hadn't reveled in our cruel authority had our minds shackled as thoroughly as our bodies, the parts of us that made us who we were locked away, transforming us into the marionettes of a mad woman. The scholar I once was—the one who had dreams, who indulged in magic words, and whose blood I too often bled—died long ago, executed in all but body for deeds performed against her will, but performed nonetheless. And not the sweep of a thousand bureaucrats' pardons would resurrect her. There was only this. Only a chance, a hope, that I could make something right in whatever days I had remaining. That I might have a chance to prove that something like a heart still beat within this armor.
But the Hellknight cared nothing for my redemption. His halberd hung in the space between us, its curved blade all too suggestive of an executioner's axe. If I submitted, at best I'd be handed over to the city guard, put on public display, then executed as either a zealot or a dangerous lunatic. Or he might exact his view of justice here and now—as he did with the Calvettis. He didn't appear to be carrying any manacles. In any case, I doubted he would be the first of his kind to show sympathy.
I stepped forward, as if preparing to lunge. The knight's weapon came around in a predictable arc, but far faster than I'd anticipated, barely giving me an instant to dance back. The blade passed and I shot forward again, seeing how close I could get between scythelike swipes. Farther this time, but not far enough. The Hellknight channeled the momentum of the long-hafted axe like a deadly conductor, directing his steel around in a lethal figure eight, the weapon never even slowing as it wheeled around, intent on cleaving me in two. I flung myself back just barely in time, the point of the halberd's spear tip clattering across the steel scales of my midsection. If he'd been able to adjust his weight fast enough, he could have impaled me in that instant. I slid farther out of reach, and regarded him even more cautiously.
He knew his weapon, had greater range, was likely stronger, and was at least as well trained as I. This was going to be nasty—but he didn't have all the advantages.
His heavy blade waving between us, I darted in once more, directly toward the weapon. The spear tip shot forward to meet me, seeking to punch through my armor's weaker scales. It hit almost directly—an inch closer to my middle and it would have skewered me. As it was, it struck where I'd intended. I spun with the impact, twisting hard away from the curved axe head. Flexible scales rolled the weapon's point across my midsection, and for an instant the knight saw my back—probably believing he'd struck a deadly wound. I eagerly disillusioned him. My upraised sword arm came around with my spin, sliding my blade cleanly under his spiked gardbrace, tearing into his shoulder.
A growl of surprised pain rang within the dark armor and I yanked my sword back as though it were a knife, preparing to stab again. With me inside his guard, he couldn't effectively bring his polearm to bear. I had him.
His armored fist erupted upward, catching me under the chin. Stars flashed across my vision, and the blow snapped my jaw up hard, rattling my teeth as though I'd caught a thrown rock in my mouth. I stumbled back, slashing wildly, but succeeding only in scoring the fiendish face snarling upon his sculpted breastplate.
My sword almost didn't come up fast enough. The axe-head skidded along my blade and I had to use both hands to throw it aside, the power of his blow forcing me back another step. The vibrations of the impact rang through me, dulling the feeling in my arms. Just as fast, the next strike came. The bloodied Hellknight had perhaps lost a measure of his composure, but none of his vigor. His attacks hammered down, raining over me like a taskmaster's lash. Before the tremors of the last strike subsided the next was already falling. It felt as though my bones were being reduced to dust in their sockets. I gave ground just to keep my balance, each impact forcing me back farther, each step a chance to slip or find myself backed against a wall.
I felt his rhythm before I even realized it, my limbs expecting the coming blow, my sword arm rising to parry an attack high and to the left. The Hellknights prided themselves on their mercilessness, on their unfeeling exaction of law, but obviously didn't value imagination. This one had trained himself to be a clockwork soldier—deadly, but predictable.
I, on the other hand, had the dubious fortune of having been trained by maniacs.
The halberd came leveled for my head, and I wasn't there. Dropping low, I slid under the swipe and drove my blade down with all my weight, puncturing the metal guarding his left foot, momentarily pinning him to the ground. His growl worsened to a roar as he reflexively tried to jerk back. Lashing wildly, the butt of his weapon came down hard on my shoulder, knocking me away. I rolled as best I could, slashing at his legs. The armor seemed weaker there, and my steel cleaved through leather and skin—but not without a price. The spear-tip fell, and I threw up my arm to catch it. The barbed spike grated through metal and flesh with equal ease.
Immediately, the length of my arm coursed with wet warmth, rivulets leaking through armored gaps. It looked black as oil in the courtyard's shadows. My sword rose wildly, scraping the plates of my attacker's groin. It didn't find a mark, but the impact alone caused him to flinch, pulling his bloodied weapon along with him.
Bounding to my feet, I pressed forward, trying to keep him on guard as long as possible. We clashed like living swords, both of us weapons honed for similar purposes, but still far from alike. Where my armor granted me flexibility, his reinforced the impression of some hellish automaton, and what strikes he couldn't deflect with his weapon he beat aside with gauntleted fists. Again and again my blade struck like a cat's claw, his metallic hisses signaling a dozen minor scratches, but none telling. From the lines of dark droplets sprayed across the courtyard rubble, I had to be wearing him down, but his movements gave little sign. He fought like a fanatic, and as the fight ground on I realized he'd never back down. For him, this wasn't a battle with another soldier—it was against an enemy of his blind convictions. Somewhere, someone's word ordered him to fight unto victory or death. It was simple.
For a moment, I almost envied him. But my days of freedom through obedience died with the old queen.
Again the swing of that blackened halberd cleaved the air like a giant's axe, carrying the force of a killing blow. Flecked with gore, the devil upon the knight's armor sneered viciously, its cruel eyes acknowledging that out duel could only end in death. The Hellknight knew my speed now, striking lower to limit my motion. As agile as I was, attempting to leapfrog an attack was a deadly gamble. But if I was to survive, it wasn't the only gamble I'd be willing to try.
With his next thrust, I gripped my cloak like the cape of a bullfighter and threw it directly for his horned helm. The heavy fabric rippled between us and I followed, ready to strike. He struck first, ignoring my attempt at distraction. The halberd blade swept the ground, extended too far to sever my legs, but the shaft bludgeoned my calf. The blade jerked back toward its wielder, catching my limb in its hooklike curve, tugging my leg out from under me. A moment's weightlessness, and then I hit the ground with a rush of breath and a clangor of collapsing steel.
Two devils glared down—the one on the armor, and the one inside it. I gripped my sword, only to have a steel-shod boot kick it away. The first blow fell, punching through scale mesh and piercing my side. The echoes within my helm made me realize I'd screamed, more out of frustration than pain.
"You could have renounced your armor. You could have left with your sisters." The Hellknight's voice rumbled matter-of-factly through his heavy breathing and the blood-leaking helm. "Instead, you've persisted in the old queen's madness. As a Gray Maiden, still within these walls, you prove yourself the embodiment of that madness. You and your order forced this city to the brink of chaos, and for all of you the punishment is the same." The spear-point lifted again.
I was finished—but the dead woman inside me refused to give up so easily. The old words rang through my armor before I could compare them to faded memories. Numb fingers moved as though possessed, recreating delicate signs as I thrust my arms up to meet the plummeting blade. The crimson sensation of sharp metal sheering along my wrists matched the blast of energy that burst from my palms.
The arcane darts flickered and threatened to falter, they didn't have far to go. They lanced into the black sliver of the Hellknight's visor, then exploded in a rain of scarlet sparks. A wail like that of a malfunctioning machine tore through the courtyard as the Hellknight and his dripping blade toppled, crashing backward into the rubble.
I lay there breathing deliberately, letting the exhaustion of bruised muscles and split veins momentarily overcome me. When I rose, I cradled my left arm. Although my steel skin was little more than scraped, it felt as though the flesh within had been reduced to ribbons. Learning the extent of my wounds would have to wait, though. Recovering my sword, I walked to the fallen Hellknight.
A thin wisp of steam, smoke, or breath rose from the soldier's visor, and I imagined I caught a whiff of burnt meat. He lay perfectly still, and through the leering armor I couldn't divine any sign of life.
I didn't regret toppling him—it had been his life or mine—but I had to admit that I could all too easily become like him again: a champion of a crusade sane people could never fathom, a killer without the inclination to see or the soul to judge the difference between law and right. How many had thought the same of me?
Just in case, I kicked that bloody halberd out of his reach. Then my sword slid between the thick plates at his neck, releasing a spurt of liquid darkness and a brief choking noise more gurgle than gasp.
"Gray Maiden?" The name came unbidden, even as the steel-skinned fanatic bled out at my feet. Was that all I was even now? A shattered sword that refused to stop killing? "We'll see."
I turned to start the shadowed walk back to Trail's End, a Varisian neighborhood just outside Korvosa. I couldn't say whether I'd done right tonight, or avenged anyone who deserved it. I couldn't say whether I'd just murdered a hero or a monster. But I was pretty sure there was a Varisian girl back in Trail's End who would sleep better for the rest of her days knowing that the ones who killed her kin had paid for those deaths, and that she'd bought the sword that struck the avenging blow. And when you can't afford justice, you make due with revenge.
Coming Next Week: Honor among thieves in "Proper Villains," a new story by Erik Scott de Bie!
F. Wesley Schneider is the Editor-in-Chief of Paizo Publishing and co-creator of the Pathfinder campaign setting. He is the award-winning author of numerous RPG adventures and sourcebooks, including Rule of Fear, Book of the Damned Vol. 1: Princes of Darkness, Seven Days to the Grave, and Endless Night, as well as the Pathfinder's Journal Guilty Blood.
Illustration by Ashley Walters