Trial of Blood, Part 2
Hector barely had time to get his axe up before Orephius reached him. He blocked the swing from the mighty hero’s axe – not Terror, thank God. The impact was enormous and his hands and forearms ached from holding back the blow. He slid back and almost lost his footing.
Orephius raised the axe again to bring it down hard while Hector was stunned. It was a good move, but Hector was tougher than this simulacrum expected and quicker in lighter armor. By the time the axe swung Hector was already out of the way. He jumped to the left and slid, barely keeping his feet. As he slowed, he brought his own axe around and smashed it against the fake Orephius’s armor. He’d tried to find the thin gap between the shoulder and upper-arm plates but the fake recovered too quickly and his axe smashed fruitlessly into the armor.
Hector didn’t know if this version of Ore had his class powers or not. The trouble with a good Juggernaut was the difficulty in either approaching or staying away. They were strong in melee, but not the strongest, and while they had no real ranged ability, they had plenty of mobility with Lion’s Pounce and with Lion’s Roar they were impossible to approach. The way a Juggernaut fought was by constantly knocking their enemies away and then charging them before they had a chance to recover. If you could handle a Juggernaut in melee, it was far better to stay close to them and not let them get the jump on you.
Hector danced back a little. When Ore tried to press in on him he rolled around to the side, staying low and strafing. He was putting all of his energy into dodging, only counter attacking to keep the fake Ore off balance. It wasn’t working nearly as well as he hoped. He’d gambled that this version of himself did not have his Juggernaut powers, because he had not used any proper abilities to approach. His charge had been mundane, as had all of his attacks so far. They were strong, but not empowered with Glory energy. That gave Hector some hope, though he was easily outmatched. He didn’t even have a class yet.
He went around and around the Juggernaut, dodging and rolling in wide, strafing circles so as to keep the fake Ore spinning around. Hector slipped more than once on the loose ground but it didn’t matter. He didn’t need accuracy, just to keep moving and in turn, to keep the other Orephius moving.
He heard his opening before he saw it. Ore slipped on the sand and dust and went down. There was a great clashing, clattering sound as the fake Orephius went to one knee. Hector came out of his roll with his axe up and swung in a savage blow toward the fake’s head.
It met with a satisfying crunch, the metal of the helm caving in around the blade of his axe. His head jerked around and the helm flew clear. When he looked at the face, though, there was no damage at all.
The eyes on that face were not his. They were too light, too bright. The hair was different, the face too symmetrical. And yet, there was something lacking. It was not like looking into a mirror, as he had expected. Instead, it was like looking into a reflective pool. There was something distorted, washed out about that face – like his own, but not the same. Hector was stunned for a moment.
That moment was his undoing.
The massive axe of the fake Orephius lashed out, more of a rough shoving than a proper swing, but it hit and hit hard. The metal sank into the soft leather stretched across Hector’s chest and bit deep into his skin. Pain bloomed across him, spread in a monumental wave, and then overwhelmed him. He tried, almost on instinct, to flush himself with Glory energy, but he had none. He had no access to magical energies at all. He could not heal himself, no matter how he tried.
As he fell, he saw the other version of himself, the strange, distorted version, all grey with hard angles, stand up above him and lift his axe. No, Hector thought. This is wrong. Not like this. Then the world began to fade again, and Hector felt himself sinking into the soft ground.
He awoke sometime later, not knowing when exactly he’d fall asleep. He found himself in the middle of a field of tall grass, the stars winking to life in the dark sky above him. He blinked.
He sat up fast, his hands going to his chest. Of course, there was nothing. But he’d lost.
“Of course you lost,” a voice whispered to him, coming from all around him. “You are weak.” The night, still dark, was all in flames, though the tall, wet grass did not burn.
He didn’t know that voice, but he knew it was not Nemea’s. It was something else, something darker, hungrier, more primal. “Romulos,” he guessed. “What do you want from me?”
“I think I should be asking you that question,” the old wolf said, it’s voice harsh and low, rumbling with a growl. A face formed in those flames, long and thin. “You need me. Should I let you be my champion?” The face in the flame cocked, considered. There was laugher in that voice, dripping with mockery. Hector stood.
“I don’t need to be your champion.” He looked around, hoping that he would see Nemea somewhere, could petition her for power once again. He’d built a legacy as a Juggernaut, as a Hero of Nemea. He would do it again.
“You will not find her,” the wolf said, and laughed. It was a huge figure, stalking about, a burning shadow. “She has abandoned you.”
“That’s a lie,” Hector said, but he knew it wasn’t. She wasn’t there, and she had beaten him, in the form of Orephius. She had cast him aside.
“I do not lie,” the great wolf hissed. “I am violent, aggressive. I rip and tear. But I do not lie. I am not evil. I am a power for the hungry, vengeance for the vengeful. I make champions of people like you.”
“I won’t have you.”
“You have no choice. No one else will claim you.”
He saw it then. Far away, the deer Ceryn watched him, Nemea not far away. He saw the others, too. Etos and Ydra, Titan and Eo. There were others, too, classes he would not have wanted, had no aptitude for, and yet they were there, far away as if to say, “We have thrown him to the wolf.”
Hector remembered what had happened, when he’d met with Veil, the choices he had made. It made sense. He wanted power. He needed strength, more than he had before. He wanted to crush them, those who had brought him so low. He had been a champion and now he was nothing.
“With me you can be something greater,” Romulos said. “Together, we can conquer.” Hector gave no answer, just looked up the wolf and held out his hand. Romulos understood, and dropped the axe. Hector knelt to claim it.
“By fire by reborn. Rise as my Champion, Tytos.” Hector stood and felt the dark and pulsing power fill him. Slowly, the world began to fade, not into white light but this time into dark flames. He felt the heat lick at his skin. As Romulos retreated from his view, began to merge with the shadows that surrounded them both, he heard his voice again. “Go forth and hunt, and remember which of you is predator and which is prey.”
Then he was gone, on to the final room of the tower.
Hector, now called Tytos, came into the blue crystal room. There was a chest waiting for him crafted out of heavy dark wood and banded with iron. He went to it and found the symbol of Romulos above the keyhole: a heavy great axe, the blade dripping with blood.
Inside, he found his armor. Over his chest and legs he wore heavy leather with heavy plate shoulders and bracers. He donned a half-helm and heaved the heavy axe that Romulos had given him. He cinched his weapon into its sheath and latched it in place with a buckle that showed the symbol of the wolf. He was an Executioner now.
He looked down at his hand and clenched it into a tight fist. He tested his magic, letting the Power and Decay energy mingle and swirl around him, until, like Romulos, he ignited into a blaze of shadows.
He let his hand relax and the aura faded. He went to the crystal and rested his hand against it. Then, he felt himself lifting up out of the tower.
On the steps before the door he found Michael waiting for him. The blonde boy looked different, dressed up in forest colors with a bow across his back. He’d gone into the tower and found his path. That was good, because Hector now had his own things to accomplish.
He walked over next to Michael and stood, looking out at the sun as it set.
“Come on,” Hector said. “I’ll show you to a village where we can rest for the night.” Michael didn’t say anything, he just studied Hector, looked over the axe in his hands. He didn’t know how to read his face. Finally, Michael stood and made to follow him.
They climbed down the steps and into the night.