Graveyard of Empires - Chapter 5

“That’s it?” Jayson Coley asked, staring out the train’s circular window into the forest beyond. A squat building had just appeared through the canopy of trees, ahead and above them on their path through the forest.
Graveyard of Empires - Chapter 5

Sector 1 - Axis

Argus Wade

“That’s it?” Jayson Coley asked, staring out the train’s circular window into the forest beyond. A squat building had just appeared through the canopy of trees, ahead and above them on their path through the forest. It was the first sign of humanity they’d seen in almost eight hours since getting on the train. “That’s where we are headed?”

“That’s it,” Richard Dyson agreed with a nod. “The famed Silvent Academy.”

Jayson eyed it for another moment. “I thought it would be bigger.”

This was starting to feel like a wasted trip. This entire planet was small and uninviting with very little in the way of civilization. They had landed at a small backwater spaceport and ridden a train out into the forest. He’d come here because Silvent Academy was supposed to be the best: it was a military boot camp known for training spies and saboteurs as well as the famed Fists of the First Citizen.

It wasn’t open to the public but rather invitation only. Jayson had been surprised and a little suspicious when he got his invitation, and to be honest he wasn’t totally sure why he had come out here at all. Jayson wasn’t even sure if he would agree to join the academy if they offered it to him. He’d just turned nineteen, and after two years away from home, he was starting to think it might be time to visit his family.

Back when he lived on his home world, Eldun, Jayson used to think he was tough. A real badass, and he always planned on leaving and proving that he could make it on his own. He thought he could handle anything the galaxy threw at him.

Nothing dispelled that illusion as fast as having his own gun taken from him and pointed at his face.

Jayson stretched out his shoulders and fidgeted in his seat. His legs were cramping from the extended trip, and he had the beginnings of a headache developing behind his eyes. Allergies, most likely. This was a new planet, and it would take his body time to acclimate. 

“And I also thought maybe it wouldn’t be so far from civilization. Are there even any cities on this planet?”

“I don’t think so. It’s a training planet. But don’t let the size and lack of amenities fool you,” Dyson replied, yawning. “It’s come by its reputation fairly.”

Jayson watched the Academy slip out of sight once more behind the trees and let out a sigh. Huge pines, thick with memories and shadow. Right now, they were skirting the side of a great mountain, following a switchback trail ever upward. The peak of the mountain disappeared into the clouds, buried in snow. 

“Eight hours on this damned train with nothing to eat but stale peanuts, and the academy looks like a damned hotel.”

“I’m telling you, kid,” Richard said. “Looks don’t tell the story. They only accept a handful of students a year to get the best training possible. Most of us will probably be on the same train tomorrow heading home.”

Jayson leaned back in his chair.

“How did you get roped into this?” Jayson asked.

Richard Dyson shrugged. He had a trimmed black beard and cropped hair. His clothing was expensive, a blue silk shirt and tailored pants. He was muscular and athletic, quite a bit bigger than Jayson.

 “I grew up on Terminus. Spent my youth on the streets. Learned how to fight. The military wouldn’t take me,” Richard replied, leaning back and folding his hands behind his head. “Then Darius showed up and I liked what he had to say. I talked to some people, heard about the academy, and hopped on the first shuttle here.”

“You think they’ll take you?”

“I think there’s only one way to find out. What about you?”

Jayson thought about it for a second. “I was working with a group. Just a bunch of private contractors doing odd jobs. Mostly security.”

“Pays well,” Richard said. 

“It does,” Jayson agreed, “until your client gets murdered. Then no one wants to work with you. Friends disown you. You become a pariah.”

Richard whistled. “That’s harsh. Do you know who paid for the hit?”

“The guy was an arms dealer on Terminus. All kinds of enemies,” Jayson said. “We never figured out who paid to have him taken out. But I do know who pulled the trigger.”

“You didn’t stop him?”

Jayson was silent for a few seconds. “It was a woman. She did it right in front of me with my gun. Shot him twice from up close. She wasn’t at all concerned with me seeing her face or watching it.”

“You saw her face?”

Jayson ignored him. “I drew my gun. Or tried to. I’m still not quite sure what happened, but I ended up on my ass with a gun to my head. My gun.”

Richard’s eyes went wide and then he burst out laughing, slapping his knee. “Wait, wait, wait. You got your ass beat…by a girl?”




Jayson smiled and shook his head. “I should have gotten my ass killed. But she didn’t kill me.”

“Was she hot?” Richard asked.

Jayson scrunched his nose. “How is that relevant?”

“It’s always relevant.”

Jayson shook his head and sighed. “I don’t really know. I closed my eyes and tried not to wet myself.”


“Nineteen,” Jayson answered, chagrined.

“Then how could you not have noticed?” Richard asked. “Even if she was about to kill you, even if she’d already shot you, you should have noticed whether her ass was nice or not.”

“What can I tell you?” Jayson asked, shrugging.

“The truth. Come on, you had to notice something. Big breasts, little breasts?”

“You don’t give up, do you?”

“Hell no,” Richard replied. He scratched his beard. “The last time a woman tried to kill me, I asked her to be my wife.”

Jayson snorted. “Did she say yes?”

“I think she eventually would have. It didn’t end well.”

“Why not?”

Richard shrugged. “She tried again.” Jayson laughed. “Come on, man. Give me something. You have to remember something.”

Jayson sighed. “Fine. She had little breasts. Green eyes. Shoulder-length red hair. Athletic build. Perfectly smooth skin with freckles on her chest. She was wearing a black, low-cut blouse and skin-tight pants and…holy hell, I guess I do remember a lot.”

“Told you,” Richard said. “Even when a woman is about to murder you, there’s always time to notice.”

“Anyway,” Jayson said. “She didn’t pull the trigger. When I looked up again, she was gone.”

“An angel of mercy.”

“Not likely,” Jayson said. “She wasn’t much older than I am. Maybe she just felt sorry for me.”

Richard nodded sagely. “I know I do.”

“Anyway,” Jayson said, “two days later, I got a message. A location and a date along with an invitation card for Silvent Academy. Didn’t say why, but once I researched the Academy, I figured it out pretty quickly. Anyway, here I am.”

“You think it was her?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re hoping it was her,” Richard stated, his voice flat.

Jayson didn’t reply. He didn’t need to. He shifted in his chair and looked out the window.

“So, you’re telling me a girl beats the hell out of you, doesn’t kill you, and then maybe passes you a message to come to Alderson and join the Silvent Academy, and you do it?”

Again, Jayson was silent.

“Wow, you got it bad,” Richard said, settling back in his chair and studying Jayson. “You need to let this crush go before it gets you killed.”

“There’s no crush. She didn’t kill me, and I want to know why. I don’t like being toyed with.”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night,” Richard said, chuckling. “I wonder if I was that ignorant ten years ago. I’m thinking yes. Definitely. Hell, I’m probably just as bad now.”

“How long has the Academy been here?” Jayson interrupted, changing the subject.

“Six hundred years,” Richard replied. “Give or take. And that’s if you believe all of the stories. I’m a little bit skeptical. Thinking two hundred sounds more reasonable.”

“Still a long time.”

“True enough,” Richard agreed. “But until a few years ago, it was still a Republic training center. Now it’s Union and belongs to Darius Gray. Bet your crazy chick didn’t tell you that?”

“Is that going to change things?” Jayson asked. “Like how they operate?”

“New management,” Richard said. “But otherwise, I doubt it will change much. Maybe the color of our uniforms.”

“I doubt you’ll wear uniforms,” Jayson said. “But I’m not sticking around. I came here to check that message out. I want to know who sent it and why. I’m not trying to get in.”

Richard laughed. It was a rich sound, full throated and contagious. 

“If you think they’re going to let us leave,” Richard said, “then you’re either wishful or a fool.”

Jayson blinked. “What do you mean?”

“Whoever told you about this Academy must have left a few things out. When you make the trip to the Academy, it is a trip for their consideration. Whether or not they accept you is irrelevant.”

“But when I got on the train—”

“They told you that it makes two trips a week, one into and the other out of the Academy. They never said you would get to be on both.”

“I don’t understand,” Jayson said, ignoring the sinking feeling in his stomach. “I’m just going as a guest.”

“We’re all here as guests,” Richard said. “But let me tell you a secret. There are no guests at the Academy. Once you board this train, you’re only leaving one of two ways. The first is as a graduate of the Academy.”

“And the second?”

Richard grinned. “In a bag.”

Jayson let out a sigh and leaned back.

“Though, to be honest, that’s probably not true either,” Richard said thoughtfully. “I’m sure that if you die they just leave you for the animals.”

“You’re making this up,” Jayson said.

“I wish,” Richard said.

“Then why didn’t you tell me that back at the station,” Jayson said. “You knew, and you still didn’t say anything.”

“I figured you knew, too,” Richard said with a shrug of his shoulders. “And to be perfectly honest, would it have changed anything?”

Jayson hesitated.

“Didn’t think so,” Richard said. He leaned forward and patted Jayson on the shoulder. “Look, kid, if it’s any consolation, I think you’ll do well here. You might even survive a few weeks.”

Jayson pointedly chose to stare out the window. He considered trying to jump off the train and escape. But he had no idea how to get back to the spaceport, and even if he did, there were no ships there. Sure, he could follow the tracks, but that would be an incredibly long trek, and if they caught him…

And, to be honest, he was fairly certain Richard was lying to him. He’d come out here as a guest, not an applicant. Surely, they wouldn’t begrudge him the opportunity to see the Academy and investigate the message the woman had given him.





They finally came to a stop in front of the Academy. It was a sprawling building, only a few floors high, and rather bland. No observable patterns. No outlandish colors. Just uniform gray bricks and wooden beams. A pockmark on the mountainside.

The seven passengers filed out, dragging bags behind them. The only one Jayson had really met was Richard. At the station, he’d introduced himself to one other person: Tricia Jester, a thirty-something black woman with almond-colored eyes and a slim figure. She walked with a dancer’s grace and kept a holdout pistol tucked in her left boot. She was somber and quiet.

None of the passengers were over forty. Expressions varied from excited to apprehensive. And they all, except Jayson, looked prepared for an extended stay. Jayson hadn’t even brought luggage.

The train only waited long enough for its passengers to unload. As soon as they were clear, it kicked into motion again, gliding in reverse back down the mountain.

They waited in a line, watching the doors. After a few minutes, an old man with a cropped gray beard and leathery skin stepped out into the sunlit clearing. He was shorter than Jayson, only a few inches, and squarely built. He walked with a limp and leaned against his white cane. His clothes were ivory and loose fitting.

He moved at a glacial pace, stopping in front of them. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose as though in preparation for delivering a great speech.

“Welcome,” he said, his voice wheezy. He tapped his cane thrice against the ground before finally opening his eyes. They opened to slits, and he smiled lazily. It was a friendly smile, a fatherly smile. “Thank you all for coming.”

The gathered passengers exchanged glances. Jayson wasn’t sure what he had been expecting, but this old welcoming party was definitely not it. 

He tapped his cane against the ground again, three times.

“My name is Desmond Eppard. If I could ask a favor, please leave your belongings on the ground behind you. They will be brought to your rooms later. Supper has been prepared; something to welcome you after your sojourn.”

“Thank you,” a few guests murmured. The old man smiled wider, his gray eyes twinkling.

“You are most welcome,” he said, tapping his cane again and spinning on his heels. It was a graceful motion, unexpected. 

He began hobbling the other direction, using the cane for balance. The seven guests exchanged another glance. They dropped their bags and moved to follow Desmond.

Jayson was the last to follow, more than a little cautious. The hairs on his arms and neck were tingling. The woods were thick with shadows. Forbidding. Now that they were outside the train, those shadows also seemed deeper.

Standing outside in the clearing alone, he began to feel isolated. He was sure he was being watched, but a quick scan around the area revealed nothing.

Just because he couldn’t see anyone, though, didn’t mean he was alone.

The thought scared the hell out of him.

Jayson rushed to follow the others inside. They passed the threshold into a lavishly decorated antechamber. Symmetrical staircases climbed to the second level. Thick wooden doors ornamented with silver trim opened into an enormous hall in front of them. 

It could hold four to five hundred people if they packed in tightly, but right now it was vacant. Eerily so. The walls were egg-shell white and devoid of decoration.

Inside the hall were interlocked gray benches, very plain and small in the room. Right now, those tables were barren, except one near the center.

Jayson could smell food as they approached. His mouth began watering, and he could feel his pulse speeding up. A packet of peanuts—complimentary on the train—was the only thing he’d had to eat today, and the spread smelled heavenly. 

Desmond sat down first, resting his cane on the bench and easing down. Jayson picked a spot on the opposite side and slid into it.

An old fan spun lazily overhead. Otherwise, the mess hall was quiet. 

“Please,” the old man said with his lazy half-smile. The sound echoed. He gestured toward the dishes and trays spread before them. “Enjoy.”

Hesitantly, the guests began picking at the various dishes: smoked venison strips swimming in brown gravy, slices of roasted turkey with leafy greens, a thick yellow cream, lemon flavored, poured over cold spinach and kale, a bowl of quartered potatoes bathed in butter and smothered with chives, and spiced sausage wrapped in yeasty bread.

The atmosphere was subdued. At least at first. For drinks, there was a pitcher of spiced red wine, a flagon of honey wine, and a sweet green juice that tasted of mangos and passion fruit. There was also a pitcher of water. 

Jayson decided to stick with water. Most went right for the wine.

It only took a few awkward minutes before the trepidation evaporated from the atmosphere. The food was delicious, everything cooked to perfection. Jayson helped himself to a thick soup with floating chunks of white fish that dissolved in his mouth.

Silence was replaced with murmuring, the murmuring with conversation. More dishes were uncovered: grilled onions and stuffed green peppers, thick slices of a soft blue cheese, chunks of hard bread fresh from the oven.

Jayson ate slowly. The ostentatious meal should have put him at ease—if they were planning to kill or enslave him, why feed him first? —but it actually had the opposite effect. What Richard said was weighing heavy on him, and he was starting to feel on edge.

There were two things that were wrong. First, no one else came into the room. He would have expected a server or attendant at the very least. It was almost night, around suppertime, and yet they were completely alone.

But the more disconcerting fact was that the old man never touched the food. He smiled at his guests, murmured politely when a question was asked, and watched them eat.

Twenty minutes slipped past. They were gradually becoming more boisterous. Many were red faced from the wine. A few were even drunk.

Except for Tricia Jester. She was sipping the green juice, eyes locked on her plate. She’s as worried about this as I am, Jayson decided. 

“What’s the game here?” he asked, folding his hands. He stared at the others around him and spoke quietly, in a businesslike tone. It cut through the carousing atmosphere like a knife. 

The conversations died slowly. Everyone exchanged confused glances, eyes settling finally on Jayson.

He ignored them, focusing instead on the old man. Desmond was sitting at the end of the table, idly stroking the handle of his cane.  

“What game?” he asked wheezily.

“You haven’t even told us your name.”

“I did,” the man countered. “My name is Desmond—”

“I know a lie when I hear it,” Jayson said. He heard a few sharp intakes of breath, but he paid them no mind. “I grew up with liars. I want to know your real name. And while you’re at it, tell us the truth. What are we doing here?”

“You were all invited…”

“…to tour the Academy. But that isn’t how this works, is it? We’re not interviewing you, you’re interviewing us. So, if you would allow me to return to my first question, I ask again, what is your name?”

Silence, then, “You have to earn my name,” the man said, his voice hard. The twinkle was still in his eye, but there was something else there now. Not anger. Not exactly. But something close to it. Jayson peered into those eyes and saw the soul beneath.

He didn’t like what he saw. 

“And how do we do that?” Jayson asked. He kept his voice calm, but his heart kicked up a notch.

The man eyed Jayson for a few seconds, his lazy smile disintegrating. It was replaced with a feral grin that showed entirely too many teeth. He let out a long breath, closed his eyes, and whispered, “You survive.”




Desmond was up in a flash, swinging the cane with two hands like a club. It smacked into the jaw of the closest reveler. A short balding man with a ferret’s face. One of the drunkest members in the group. The man collapsed backward with a yelp, sliding off the bench and thudding onto the floor.

The long table squealed as it was jerked in various directions across the cement floor. The other six applicants all tried to extricate themselves simultaneously, tripping each other up.

Jayson slid his legs free and dropped into a defensive crouch. He wished like hell for a weapon. He wished even more that he hadn’t come.

The old man spun his cane. It whistled into motion toward a drunk twenty-something kid with bulging muscles. The first blow landed on the right shoulder and was followed with a sharp thwack on the left hip. Both blows echoed through the cavernous hall.

The kid screamed in pure agony, collapsing.

A drunk man laughed, failing to extricate himself from the table. His foot was stuck under one of the bars. The laugh didn’t last long, though, before the cane whistled in. 

By now the rest were clear. Two people still stood between Jayson and the old man, and he considered making a run for it. He could go for the door before the man could dispatch the others.

He quickly dismissed the idea, however. Where was there to go?

Richard Dyson was still up, Jayson saw. He was backpedaling slowly, but he hadn’t turned to run yet. He was apparently having similar thoughts.

Tricia Jester was standing as well, a look of cool concentration on her face. She held one of the serving trays—a metal one, not plastic—as a shield and was circling, keeping a few meters between herself and Desmond.

The only other person still standing was a blond woman with a sleeveless shirt. She was tall and willowy. She had the face of a badger and teeth bared in an ugly snarl. She’d gathered a butter knife from the table and was brandishing it before her. She passed it from hand to hand. Jayson could tell right away that she was an amateur.

She was the closest to Desmond. He planted the tip of the cane into the ground and leaned on it, staring at her. “Well go on then,” he said wheezily, grinning. “I don’t have all night.”

She feinted low and then attacked high, going for his neck. She overextended, and even if she’d been stabbing a bag of potatoes, her attack would have been little more than an inconvenience.

Desmond swiped his left arm up to deflect her clumsy attack and swung the cane in a low arc. It collided with her left knee with a sharp crack. 

 Her mouth opened, releasing an agonized gasp. She fell to the ground, clutching her torn cartilage. The knife fell harmlessly beside her, and the old man casually kicked it away.

He rolled the cane over the back of his hand and caught it. “I would not recommend running,” he said, pointing the makeshift weapon at Richard. Fifteen meters separated the two men. “Not yet, at least.”

“What is this?” Jayson asked. There were a few short utensils—all dull, he realized—that wouldn’t do him a lot of good against the cane. He didn’t pick one up; that would be tantamount to issuing a threat.

“As you said,” the man replied, the smile briefly returning, “it is an application process.”

“And what if I’m not interested in applying?”

“Then I’ll cut your throat and leave you to bleed on the floor,” he said. “But that is not the preferred solution.”

The woman on the ground was still screaming, clutching her broken knee. Without taking his eyes from Jayson’s, Desmond brought his cane down on her forehead in a precise whack

The room fell silent.

“So, you’re just going to kill us?”

“No, of course not,” the man replied. “It is rare that we kill an entire group of recruits. This is simply a lesson. Those four”—he nodded at the ground beside him— “had best take it to heart. This is a dangerous place.”

“So now what?”

“Now you try to kill me,” the man said, taking a step forward. He tapped his cane against the ground and smiled, his eyes twinkling. 

“Three against one,” Richard cut in. “That hardly seems fair.”

“You can attack me one at a time if honor demands it,” Desmond replied.

Richard shook his head. “No, no. I meant not fair for us. Can we call in backup?”

The old man didn’t respond, just looked at the unconscious bodies around him.

“How about stretching?” Richard asked. “Can we at least stretch first?”

The man scowled at Richard. “Does the lion stretch before stalking its prey? Does a bird stretch before taking flight?”

Richard scratched his chin. “So, is that a no?”

“Fight me,” the man said.

“And if we don’t?” Jayson asked.

“Then this will be quite easy,” the man replied. 

Jayson let out a sigh and shook his arms out. Tricia was circling with nimble steps, moving so that they were flanking the old man in a triangle. She had a knife in hand and was using the serving tray as a shield. 

Jayson moved to the table and grabbed a pair of ceramic plates. He thought to dump food off of them but changed his mind. The plates would be difficult to throw and easy to deflect, and flying food might actually be the best distraction he could hope for.

A few seconds passed and then Tricia attacked. She was quicker than Jayson expected, moving with fluidity and ease. 

Her tray came up as a visual distraction. She anticipated the old man knowing she was approaching and used it to break his line of sight. She jabbed low with her knife, aiming for his thigh. 

The old man waited until the last possible second before countering. He ignored the shield, spinning his cane in a quick deflection. He knocked Tricia’s hand away and launched an attack at her head.

She ducked away from the attack, leaning at an awkward angle. She quickly stepped onto the bench and skidded her butt across the table to create more distance. The attack missed by inches.

Jayson attacked. The old man still had his back to him. Jayson stepped in, kicking at the back of his knee. He moved as quietly as possible and grimaced in satisfaction as his kick landed. It wasn’t a clean hit, but even a glancing injury was better than nothing. 

Then he jumped back and ducked, anticipating more than seeing the old man’s counter. A heavy backhanded swipe whistled past, flying right above Jayson’s head.

And that was just what he was waiting for. Jayson stepped in and threw his plates. 

From such close range, he couldn’t possibly miss. He flipped them in the old man’s direction, lobbing them as easy targets. In response, the old man brought his cane in to deflect. But Jayson had chosen ceramic plates: instead of batting them away, the plates shattered, spraying the entire area with broken ceramic chunks and pieces of food.

Jayson used the distraction to sweep his leg. He caught the old man just below the knee and tripped him. Desmond hit the ground with a thud as broken plates landed everywhere, scattering wildly.

Richard chose that moment to wade in, rushing in and aiming a kick at the man’s head. Tricia flanked in the opposite direction, going instead for the man’s legs. It was a good strategy, difficult to counter.

They had him right where they wanted him.

But they never even came close.

The old man kipped up, landing nimbly in a crouch. He swept the cane through three quick arcs. The first disarmed Tricia with a jolt to the back of her hand. The second hit Richard hard in the foot he was kicking with, and the third landed on Tricia’s right temple. 

She dropped like a sack of potatoes, unconscious before she hit the ground. Richard stumbled, hopping on one leg while holding his foot and cursing.

Jayson took a few steps back, creating separation. He couldn’t believe how fast the old man was, how precise. No motion wasted. 

Jayson had spent two years in the militia on his home world of Eldun, learning hand-to-hand combat and weapons training. He would have considered himself moderately skilled, but against this man he knew he was outmatched.

The old man limped away from Jayson, gingerly testing the weight on his left leg. His expression was grim, the twinkle gone from his eyes. 

“Bum knee,” he explained, letting out a low sigh. He grabbed the knob on the end of his cane and twisted. It rotated ninety degrees and clicked. Then he drew the knob away from the cane, sliding a long, thin blade out of the wood. 

It looked sharp.

The old man held the wooden shell in his left hand and the blade in his right. 

“I thought this was an initiation.”

“It is,” the old man said. “But we don’t need all of you.”

The old man went for Richard first, swiping first with the blade. Richard dodged clumsily, hopping on his one good foot. The feint was followed by two quick jabs with the cane.

The first landed on Richard’s thigh and the second thudded on his shoulder. Richard went down with a grunt of pain. 

He started to stand back up. A quick kick to his head ended that plan, knocking him unconscious. Jayson was the last one standing, and he knew that if something didn’t change, he was in a lot of trouble.

He used the momentary distraction to mask his approach, needing every advantage he could get.

Jayson launched a kick, aimed for the man’s midsection and kidney.

The naked steel dipped low, moving to intercept his kick.

Jayson barely stopped his leg in time. His leg hit the blade. It sliced through his pants and drew a deep cut along his shin.

The man turned, facing Jayson and holding the weapon at ease. Jayson tested his leg. He felt blood running down the calf, pooling in his shoe, but the leg seemed to hold his weight with only a mild throbbing. 

Jayson moved to attack again. The old man raised the blade to parry the attack, and Jayson was forced to back off again.

“I can’t fight against your blade,” Jayson said, gritting his teeth against the pain. 

The man’s smile was brittle. “You can’t win against a blade.”

“Then what’s the point? Of any of this?”


“Respect would be you lowering the weapon,” Jayson replied. “And letting me walk out of here.”

“You aren’t leaving,” the man replied. He twirled his blade and took a few steps closer. “Until you are finished training. Or dead.”

Jayson backed up a few steps, leaning against the table. His hand closed on one of the metal serving trays. His left shoe was squeaking and leaving little globs of blood behind. “Can I take option three?”

The man hesitated. “Option three?”

“The one where I kill you and walk out of here.”

The man barked a laugh, stroking his beard. He bowed ever so slightly. “You are more than welcome to try.”

Jayson rushed forward, whipping the tray around in an arc. He didn’t aim for the man, but instead attacked the air in front of him. The man backed up, not bothering to deflect, and Jayson swiped again.

Another feint. The man ignored it. Jayson cursed and quickly stepped forward. His opponent took another step back, but Jayson was quicker. This time the attack that came aimed for the man’s head.

It was easily deflected by the blade. Jayson twisted his wrist as the two pieces of metal collided, turning the tray ninety degrees. He let the blade slide along the tray, holding it between him and his opponent. He didn’t have any time for an attack, but that wasn’t his intention. He put the large flat tray right in the man’s field of vision, breaking his line of sight.

The old man jabbed out with the wooden cane in his left hand. Without sight, however, the attack was misguided. Jayson caught the cane with his right hand and yanked hard. The man stumbled forward, off balance, pulling back hard on the wood so that Jayson wouldn’t disarm him.

Jayson let go, releasing the tension, and then shot in at his opponent’s legs. He shouldered into his thighs and caught the calves before the old man could sprawl, then used his lower center of gravity to lift him into the air.

And then Jayson brought him down as hard as he could, slamming him onto his back. It should have been enough to knock the air out of his lungs. Then he could take the man hostage and use him as a bargaining chip to get out of here.

Jayson leaned forward and raised his head…

…and saw the pommel of the cane-sword coming at his face.

It hit Jayson right in the temple. Even without good positioning, the close quarters attack hurt. He saw stars fly as his head jerked back and cursed his stupidity. He punched out, aiming for the man’s ribs, but was too slow. The old man rolled with surprising agility, twisting his leg and pushing Jayson off.

Another jab of the sword hilt hit Jayson in the cheek. He managed to turn his head enough to make it a glancing shot, but it still hurt like hell. Jayson ducked and shoved, trying to extricate himself and get clear, but the old man held on. Now his takedown was working against him. The old man launched two more precise hits on Jayson’s shoulder, sending agony rippling down his left side.

Then he slipped free. Jayson forced himself to a knee and then wobbled to his feet. His head was spinning and his face hurt. 

The old man stood five feet away, red faced and breathing in short, ragged breaths. The mirth was gone from his eyes. So was any forgiveness. Jayson watched, the world spinning and stars exploding in his vision, as the old man stalked in. His white beard was mashed against his face and his bright clothes were stained with blood. 

Jayson’s blood.

The sword came first. No feint. No games. Just an attack meant to kill. Jayson threw himself to the side, and the attack meant for his chest drew a long gash across his side instead. He ducked and weaved away from the man, but it did no good. His opponent was relentless. A cut on his arm was followed by another on his leg. He was moving slowly and his right arm wouldn’t work very well. He couldn’t raise it any higher than his chest.

But that didn’t matter. He couldn’t see well either. Blood was running from a cut above his eye. I can’t keep this up for long, he knew.

It didn’t matter. Jayson side-stepped, and his footing betrayed him. The bloody shoe slipped on the smooth marble floor and he landed on his hip. A groan came out his lips as pain flashed through his body.

One hit on his arm knocked him to the floor, and a second hit his diaphragm, knocking air from his lungs. His already blurry vision felt like he was looking through a tunnel, and he didn’t even have enough breath to moan.

He watched as the old man towered over him, breathing in ragged grasps. The old man set his bloody sword on the table and knelt down in front of Jayson.

Jayson lay on the groaned, writhing and wondering if he would ever breathe again. His head felt like it was going to explode from lack of oxygen, and he was starting to black out. He longed for the peace of it but was terrified of what would happen next. Would he be killed? Tortured? Left for dead in the forest? What would they do to him if he blacked out?

The man knelt in front of him and wiped his brow with the back of his sleeve. He hefted the wooden cane and leaned forward.

A few seconds passed with only the sound of their breathing separating them.

In a soft voice, the old man said, “My name…is Alexander Robertson.”

Then he brought the cane down, hitting Jayson right between the eyes. The world went black.

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