2. Prodigal Swordsman
It was cold. Bitterly so. Caspian's hood was pulled over his head, in a vain attempt to contain some body heat. As they walked down the hillside towards the lake, he was forced to keep his katana outstretched pointedly; the thaumaturgy he had performed required the blade and blood as material catalysts. The pianist stumbled before him. He was dead, and yet still he walked, like a grey wraith.
Caspian had not always worked under the Court of Gods. But that had been a time before he had sworn his Gnostic Oath. The time before the darkness. The time before he had uttered those words of promise and made a vow before Nyx and her spawn Thanatos. And holding the katana in this way was bound in memories too. Nakamura. The man from Handa, Japan, who had first gifted him this blade.
"You… have total control," the pianist suddenly rasped. His words were the only possible rebellion he had left. His arms and legs moved under Caspian's lead. "What did you forsake… for this?"
He continued walking, remaining silent. The things he forsook. The things he protected. Neither would be heard by this man.
Once they were closer to the trees and enveloped by darkness, he blinked twice, heavily, and then suddenly stabbed his katana through the pianist's back. This time he did not cry out – for he was beyond physical pain now. With the blade piercing his necrotic flesh, the man would remain still for a moment, unable to speak, unable to hear, and unable to comprehend.
Caspian left the immediate scene, eyes scouring clusters of pine trees. He had hidden his backpack somewhere among the entwining roots. When he brushed a hand against a trunk, a small chaffinch burst from the upper branches and sailed into the moonlight.
Finally, covered in a fresh carpet of pine needles, he found it. He pulled open one of the straps and plucked free a small can of mountain dew. Chits of ice had formed on the tin plating. A satisfying hiss resounded through the trees as he bent the opening tab. Head leaned back to the sky, he downed the whole can. Acid fizzled on his tongue.
Crumpling, then throwing the can down the hill, he reached into the backpack once again and pulled out a black candle. Like the lodge, he had prepared this location earlier. In this silent copse a hexagram was scored into the ground, the dirt rent to form the shape. In the centre he wedged the candle into the earth, and pulling a lighter from his pocket, he lit the wick.
Standing back, he clasped his hands together and closed his eyes, slipping into a meditative trance.
The ebb and flow of emptiness. Cursed emptiness. The dawn and death of time.
"Sephira," the voice whispered, "Sephira…."
"It is me."
"Do you have it?"
"Not yet. But soon."
"Have they acted?"
"I know of only one. A girl. You should return to your home when you have it."
"A girl… I will. Do you think…?"
"Yes. It is likely."
The darkness shattered in an instant. Caspian usually returned from trance with a great measure of control, but this time he was thrown back into the physical plane, and his body tumbled to the ground. As he got himself back up from the floor, his eyes flitted to the ritual candle. The flame was extinguished.
His heart threatened to race, but it was all he could do to shoot up and turn to check the pianist. He was still there. A little relief washed over him, a droplet of sweat falling from his brow. He moved slowly towards the upright corpse, and quickly pulled his blade free.
"What did you see?" Caspian asked voraciously.
"It is… too late."
He turned again, just in time. Katana met unknown steel, and both parties pushed against one another until Caspian broke free from the deadlock and strafed away.
"Your reflexes are commendable."
The voice was familiar. An icy winter's bite, threatening spring's extent. He twisted to meet his attacker once again. A man, just a little shorter than himself, his face sharp and pointed, and an eyepatch framing his piercing features.
Swords locked once more, but Caspian used the curve of his katana to slide free and slash again from the side. His opponent was equally skilled. He dodged, mentally chastising himself for not bringing any consecration sigils.
His foe sped up his attacks, sword thrusts coming from multiple directions. Caspian knew he couldn't avoid the strikes forever. Remembering, he was back in the dojo, Nakamura facing him and instructing him on his stance. It was a particular lesson he sought to remember. The feint.
"Skilled warriors watch their opponent's feet. You can use that to your advantage in battle."
It was about perception. Not trickery, as Nakamura had been keen to point out. Instead, it was utilising your opponent's perception of events. Based on visual cues, they would anticipate the next move. And that would be their bane.
Nakamura moved towards him, and he shuffled his feet to parry. He even began to move his arm in the arc, but at the last moment he shifted weight, moving to the side and thrusting quickly. The memory faded.
Now, the one-eyed swordsman came at him again. On the thin carpet of snow, he twisted a foot and repeated the motions mimetically. And this time, he allowed a fraction of a moment more. Their eyes met, and Caspian was stoic until the last second. Then, a smile crept upon his lips. His parry shifted like water, and he hopped left. He feinted twice, moving into a sweeping arc position, before finally thrusting with the blade. It pierced the man's chest almost immediately. Fat droplets of blood pounded into the snow. White bleached red.
Caspian quickly turned to silence the pianist; drenched blade plunged through once again. And then he crouched into the snow to search his felled opponent. He pulled back the left sleeve and saw the mark almost immediately. Two interlocking triangles, with runic scrawl shaping the rest of the symbol. His instincts were rather active today – and they were proving him correct too.
He pulled out his iPhone and quickly tapped to dial a bookmarked contact. It rang for a long while, before cutting into answerphone.
"Are you there?" he asked quietly, his words produced with measured care. At least that was what he attempted. A hint of panic undermined his intention. A puff of translucent steam broiled from his mouth. "Hello? Alice. Can you pick up?"
In a London apartment, the phone rang. It rang, and rang, until a voice spoke over the answering machine. In the corner of the room, a young woman watched from the shadows, but she did not move to pick up the phone.
She didn't go by the name Alice anymore. Not now. Not after… Finally, his voice stopped, and the phone beeped, screen glowing to display the missed call. She turned breathlessly into the darkness. Her fingers released, and from her hand a tarot card tumbled to the floor. She stopped, bending down to pick it back up.
On its face sat a regal woman, living by the rites of the blade. The Queen of Swords.
"Caspian," she whispered, knowing she could not cry.
There was much to do, and she was quickly running out of time.
A/N: Yes, things will be explained, but at the moment I'm enjoying the mystery having a slow unravel. I've added Alice to my character pictures in my profile, so go check her out. More from her in the next instalment… I hope you're enjoying it. Reviews are always returned!