Lyra stood between Grey and the jewel, sword drawn. She felt each line wrought on the hilt as a brand against her flesh. Her heart screamed that she couldn’t do this, but her mind and sense of honor forced her to stand firm.
“Leave now, Grey,” she urged. “You can walk away free and clear. No one will know.” But she knew he wouldn’t.
“I need the jewel.” His eyes burned, the glint of red in their mossy depths showing her how far the curse had spread. His skin lay loose against his bones, like an oversized meat sack. “I have no choice.”
“There’s always a choice.” Lyra’s voice cracked as she imagined the pain of allowing the curse to spread unscathed. “Maybe not a good one, but a choice.”
“Only the jewel can heal me now.” His blade rasped against the sheath, and Grey fell into his fighting stance — the same one he’d taught Lyra when she won a place in the Guard four years ago. Purple splotches marred the hands that had caressed her and the arms that had held her close.
“Breaking your curse would destroy the jewel,” Lyra said.
“I’ll take that chance.” Grey threw himself forward in a burst of fury, but Lyra knew his fighting style as well as she knew her own — the only blessing of fighting her mentor.
Their blades met with a crash. Lyra whirled and struck again, the clang echoing through the stone chamber. If the priests heard noise in the vault, they would call the rest of the Guard.
But it was a festival day. She’d drawn solo watch so the priests and the guards could perform the ritual cleansing and celebrate with the townsfolk. Lyra was alone, and Grey knew it.
As they dueled, Lyra drew him away from the altar where the jewel glittered in all its multicolored glory. The farther they were from it, the safer she felt.
Grey matched her step for step, thrust for parry. The danger of fighting her mentor was that none of her attacks surprised him — he’d taught them all to her, and in their sparring sessions, Grey always won. She sliced at his side, and he slipped out of range at the last second. Grey ducked, then lashed out from below, but Lyra leapt over his blade.
After Lyra joined the Guard, she and Grey and been together day and night, first as master and student, then as lovers. They’d shared a tent during the Galrisian campaign. It was later, during peace-time, that Grey met the woman who passed on the curse. Lyra had seen her once; she’d been waifish and childlike. No one would have believed her dangerous.
The pair circled cautiously, each searching for an opening. Lyra watched Grey’s chest, looking for a twitch, any clue to his next assault.
The curse changed Grey slowly at first. He began disappearing at night without telling her where he’d gone. Then he stopped eating, and his skin grew hot to the touch. Eventually, Lyra couldn’t ignore the truth. When she confronted him, he left, the curse making his eyes wild and his words angry. She’d believed him dead, or, rather, hoped.
Her eyes burned with tears, both for the memories and the stranger wearing her lover’s face, but she refused to give into them. Then Grey did something that he’d never done before. He smashed his fist into her face. He’d taught her that fisticuffs soiled the purity of swordplay. Blood trickled from her split lip, and she spat out a tooth, but she didn’t have the luxury of time to pause.
Lyra pivoted in the move Racin had taught her. Surprised, Grey faltered, and her blade bit deep into his arm. In the old days, the duel was over the first time a blade drew blood.
Instead, Grey attacked. His sword pierced her defenses and sliced into her thigh. Lyra bit back a gasp of pain. It was a flesh wound — painful, but not fatal. She worried more about slipping in the blood.
“Give me the jewel,” Grey said. “When I’m healed, we can be together. I miss you.”
“The jewel belongs to the kingdom; its power protects us all. Without it, everyone suffers.” She focused on his weapon, ignoring the pleading in his red-tinged eyes. “You taught me that.”
Grey battered forward with a series of fierce thrusts, forcing her to retreat toward the altar. She struck back, and they locked body-to-body. She was faster, but he was stronger. Her knees buckled under Grey’s weight. He bashed his head into hers. Lyra’s nose splintered, and stars exploded in her eyes. She crumpled, and he kicked her sword out of reach.
As his arm pulled back for the killing blow, Lyra rolled to the side. The sword glanced off the stone altar with a bone-vibrating clang. Lyra pulled the dagger from her jerkin and plunged it into his stomach. Gut wounds usually bled dark, almost black — Lyra’d seen enough during the campaign to know that — but Grey’s blood gushed forth a bright crimson.
“You hate daggers.” He choked on the words, then crumpled to the ground.
“Things change,” she whispered. “You taught me that.” She pulled herself close enough to stroke his cheek. The skin felt cool.
Lyra watched the life blood stream from Grey in a waterfall of death. At the end, he struggled to open his eyes one last time, and they were mossy green through and through. He breathed his last, and Lyra felt tears mingle with the blood on her face. This time, she let them flow.
Erin M. Kinch lives and writes in Fort Worth, Texas, where she shares her home with her husband and a rambunctious golden retriever. Her short fiction has appeared in various print and online publications, including Allegory, A Thousand Faces, Electric Spec, and Sporty Spec: Games of the Fantastic. For more information about Erin’s stories, visit her blog at www.erinmkinch.com.