Feast of Blades
|Title||Feast of Blades|
|Timeline||Approx. 1.4 years before main thread start|
 Feast of Blades
Ye whose swords taste the flesh of the Innocent, I deem you Heretic,
Ye whose blades drink the blood of the Righteous, I deem you Blasphemer,
Ye who take the life of your Sister, I deem you Traitor.”-'Lectitio Divinatus', Book VII, Verse 8
“—te morituri salutant!”
Surrounded by walls of marble, red sand clinging at their feet; wreathed in the adulation of the cheering crowd, and bathed in the imperious gaze of their Emperor.
So stood the two warriors sheathed in golden armor, fists over their hearts and heads held proud.
They were waiting for two words—a single command to begin the blood-bout. Their unfaltering gaze remained fixed on the figure lying in the box high above them, lounging on a cushion and fanned by devoted servants, wearing rich red silks embroidered in the purest gold: like a true king of kings of empires long dead.
With a smile brimming confidence and pride, the Emperor rose from her cushion and looked to the crowd, and the crowd cried out her name. Blood-red wine sloshed from ornate cups, spilling over nude and semi-nude bodies, bodies that rested atop one another as much as they lay upon the cushions under them. The Emperor let her eyes linger over each of the audience, drinking in attention addled with both wine and adoration.
“My brave warriors!” she cried, and at once the crowd fell silent. “In the name of the Four, I begin this Feast of Blades. May the Lady keep you; may the Shieldmaiden protect you; may the Blood Knight grant you courage; and may the First Knight grant victory to she who deserves it most.”
She raised her arms as if in benediction, and gave the two warriors below a magnificent smile.
Weapons clashed, the crowd roared, and so began the Feast of Blades.
Their weapons were locked— an ornate, winged spear versus a giant hammer, sparking and grinding against one another as their masters sought to push the other back. Two helms, one shaped into the visage of a snarling lion, the other etched with the image of an innocent cherub, glared at one another across their interlocked weaponry.
“You're distracted, Leona. Not like you, not like you at all.”
The girl named Leona paused, then with a twirl of her lance she disengaged and leapt back.
“I suppose I am,” she grunted. With grace born of years of experience, she settled back into a ready stance. “Now hurry up and let's get this over with.”
Leona Ornstein studied her foe, keeping her spear thrust forward and between her and the other duelist. Today's enemy was Miralda Smough, the self-styled Emperor's Executioner, whose oversized hammer lolled loosely on her shoulder and her posture exuding disrespectful ease. Both girls wore their golden Triarii armor, which marked both their exalted rank in the Fourteenth Officio and their skill at arms.
Though the cherub-mask obscured Miralda's face, Leona knew Miralda was wearing her trademark grin. In her mind's eye she could see the scarred lips peeling back, unveiling rows of teeth filed into points, mocking her and teasing her.
Miralda tsked, shaking her head as she pointed to the crowd with her hammer. “No sense of showmanship, Leona!” she said, her tone dripping with false pity. “It's a wonder why they cheer for you at all.”
Leona kept her gaze fixed upon her opponent. “As if the Feast of Blades was ever supposed to be for showmanship.”
Miralda chuckled as she rushed forward, hammer in motion. “Times have changed.”
'That, they certainly have,' grimaced Leona as she dashed forward, killing lightning snaking down her limbs and spear. Moving as a blur, she thrust her lance forward, its two wings crashing into the hammer's hilt and stopping it dead.
A deft motion with her arms sent the hammer smashing down in to the earth, and Leona lashed out with a kick that sent Miralda sprawling, the hammer left lying in the dust. Leona wasted no time pouncing on her fallen opponent to finish the fight, but Miralda rolled to the side and let the spear plunge into the sand
Before Leona could recover, the Executioner grabbed the shaft of the lance and pulled on it, throwing its wielder off balance and into her grasp. Two jackhammer punches slammed into Leona's face before a final headbutt threw the spearwoman away, five, ten feet across the arena.
Around them, the baying of the crowd grew louder.
Both warriors picked themselves off the arena sands, but where Leona simply steeled herself for the next attack, Miralda took the moment to grandstand, spreading her arms wide, shouting encouragement to the wine-soaked audience.
They lapped it up. Cheers became screaming, excitement hit a fever pitch. The crowd lost itself in a storm of adrenaline and pleasure, crying out Miralda's name over and over, demanding the Executioner crush the life out of her enemy. Grimacing for the second time in as many minutes, Leona snapped her fingers and summoned her spear to side.
She spared a moment's distraction to study the golden etchings on her weapon. They called it the “Witchslayer Spear”, and in turn called her “Witchslayer Ornstein”: titles that she neither begrudged nor acknowledged. They, like so many things of late, simply happened to her, events beyond her control.
Today's Feast of Blades, she thought, was also such an event. One where a dozen Officio laws were broken, and a hundred more Officio traditions so easily tossed aside. Her grip on her spear tightened as frustration darkened her thoughts.
Then came the Words, like a bolt of lightning in the empty blackness.
Blessed is the mind to small for doubt; fill it with only duty, courage, love, and righteousness.
'Book III, Verse 27,' thought Leona, letting the words cool the hot blood clouding her mind. One of the earliest passages of the Lectitio Divinatus she'd ever read, and one she carried with her always. Indeed, now was not the time for second-guessing and hesitation—such things were for prayer rooms, not a festival honoring the First Knight. Her burdens shed, Leona sprang forward at the beckoning Executioner.
Lance met hammer again and again, sparks of both electricity and scorched metal filling the air. Each spear-thrust met with a parry, each hammer blow meeting nothing but dusty air. Between the two, only one fought with her utmost. Only one brought truest courage and honor to a once-sacred ceremony that demanded it.
In the end, it ended the only way it could have.
Leona stood tall in the arena's harsh light. Her boot was on Miralda's chestplate, and her Witchslayer caressed the thin armor at Miralda's throat. The baying crowds chanted her name and demanded that rarest of wines: blood.
She ignored them. They and their wine-sodden demands meant nothing. Only one person in this arena mattered, and she was leaning her small, lithe body over the railing of her viewing box.
...through the narrow slit of her visor, Leona couldn't help but let her eyes run across the red-clad figure of Nero, Warmaster of the Fourteenth. Hair the color and texture of spun gold, artfully arranged into a braided bun bearing a silken ribbon of crimson. Eyes of purest emerald, bearing brilliance and energy spiced with the hint of mischief. A delicate face of the finest features, as though a craftsman-god had come down from his mountain and carved it out of porcelain. Today's outfit was silk wrappings wreathed with gold, embracing and flowing around her every curve like red-gold water, ending in a long skirt split up to her hip, showing just the barest glimmer of paradise.
They said that gallons of ink failed to put her immaculate form to paper. That reams of canvas tried to capture her sublime essence, and fell far short every time.
Leona could believe it; only such unearthly beauty could turn an entire Officio into...into this. This worldliness. This casting aside of honored tradition and custom. This...
...no. She didn't dare say it. To do so would be to take the first step on the road to heresy.
Slowly, with an actor's solemnity, Nero raised a bare arm and pointed it at Leona. Every eye was transfixed by it. Gone was the crowd's drunken jeering—anticipation rendered them sober.
At last, with slowness calculated to milk every last drop of drama from the scene...Nero curled her hand into a fist, with the thumb pointed up.
As one, the crowd roared its approval.
Beneath her, Miralda sniggered. Her breath was ragged, wet from the deep wound Leona had managed to slip past her guard. “Well, then, there's only one way this ends. Imperator vult.”
Leona's grip over her Witchslayer tightened. This was not a duel between two warriors under the approving gaze of the First Knight. This was not honor. This was a show for the hungry masses, a relief from boredom for an Emperor who spent far too much time attending to her whims, and every moment Leona stood on that blood-stained sand made her sick.
But the Emperor's command was absolute. The Word demanded obedience, and Leona was no heretic.
“There you go,” laughed Miralda. She let out a hacking cough, blood misting out from her visor-slit. “Easier...easier when you just stop holding back, isn't it? Ha ha ha...”
Leona spared one more glance upwards, towards her beloved Warmaster. Those beautiful green eyes were brimming with excitement, now, hungry for the sight of blood and death.
A sword was to be taken up to defend the Faith: so sayeth the Word. Slay the Witch, slay the Heretic, slay the Blasphemer. But this? To murder a sister-in-arms, for the sake of entertainment?
With each passing second, the temptation to hurl her lance away grew stronger. Only one thing compelled her to obey:
'Blessed is the mind too small for doubt.'
Leona resisted the urge to vomit, but just barely. “So sayeth the Word,” she muttered.
She plunged the lance into Miralda's neck.
A few days later, Leona found Miralda lounging about in the Apothecarium.
“Yo,” drawled the Executioner. She was lying in her bed clad in a hospital gown, her legs spread wide open with no regard for modesty. A bawdy comedy on the television screen filled the room with raucous laughter.
Less than aw eek ago, Miralda had died—Leona had made quite certain of that. But the divine blessing of their Incubator, Pius, ensured that even the death of the body was only a temporary obstacle.
Leona gave her a nod. “I see you're up and running already,” she said, noting Miralda's manner-less posture with a raised eyebrow. “In a manner of speaking.”
“Ha ha, it's great!” said Miralda. “Got the whole week off from duty! I love it when I get my shit kicked in, it's like a free vacation.”
Resting her golden helm on a nearby table, Leona sat down in a chair. Her armor groaned and clanked as it squashed itself into the leather upholstery.
Leona Ornstein was a stalwart young woman of nineteen years of age. Platinum-blonde hair, kept short as a measure of pragmatism, framed a face bearing a square jaw and piercing, bright-blue eyes flecked with burnished steel. Under her armor was a tall, lean body corded with hard muscle. For a veteran of four years' brutal service who well deserved her nickname of “Witchslayer”, her face was remarkably unscarred. Some said it was a mark of her skill: others, a sign of the Lady's favor.
Then there was Miralda Smough. Like Leona, she was also nineteen years old, and there the similarities ended. Ragged, shoulder-length brown hair, a thin, sharp face with high cheekbones bearing a pair of beady brown eyes—eyes that many found to be wild and uncomfortable to meet. Where Leona's body was fit and lean, Miralda's was so scrawny it bordered on anemic—yet somewhere in that emaciated frame was an unholy strength, one capable of wielding a hammer with a head the size of a large barrel as though it were but a stick. Scars upon scars marred her visage and body, such that her face—which was never terribly attractive to begin with—seemed more like a patchwork quilt than something belonging to a human being.
Miralda glanced at the gilded, highly artificed armor adorning Leona's body. “Geez, we're in a hospital, you know, you could just take that off.”
“'Wear your armor as a second skin, that--'”
“'—you might stand ready to fight the Darkness without regard for time, place, or yadda yadda, Book VIII Verse 2,” said Miralda, waving a hand. “But come on: we're in a frigging hospital, here to talk to an old buddy. Relax a little.”
Leona glanced at the sprawled Executioner. “'Old buddy?' I only came here to make sure a colleague was recuperating properly.”
“Whaaa?” pouted Miralda. “Leona! We've known each other for years! That hurts!”
Leona merely gave her a wry look.
“Ha! You're right, no it doesn't. But really.” She shifted her position to lie on her side with an arm propping up her head. “You're probably the only person in this entire Officio who takes this stuff that seriously. Not gonna do you any good fretting over it.”
“Which is what bothers me,” growled Leona. “It says so right there in the Lectitio Divinatus. Our duties, our rituals, our customs. Yet we've flagrantly disregard them, ever since...”
“Go on...” Miralda's voice was coy, a tempting fruit dangling in front of the Witchslayer.
Leona wouldn't take the bait. “I have nothing to say about the Emperor, Beloved by All.”
Miralda made a twisted grin. “Mmm,” she said, savoring what she was about to say next. “But I never mentioned Nero.”
Leona had no answer save silence.
“Ha ha ha!” Miralda leaned over and punched Leona square on the shoulder. Leona noted, with some concern, how Miralda cared nothing for punching combat armor with her bare hand. “Just messing with ya, you stick-up-the-arse.” She rose from the bed, caring little that the loose hospital gown hid little of her emaciated body from the grimacing Leona. “Come on, I'm starving! Let's get some grub.”
“So what I don't get...is what's got your panties in a twist about the Feast of Blades.”
The Fourteenth spared no expense in anything it did, and its cafeteria was no exception. What would have been a generic public eating area in any other Officio was more akin to a high-class restaurant, with lace-frilled tablecloth, a flask of wine at every table, and rich foods steaming off of every plate. Miralda was scarfing down an unidentified meat dish, while Leona picked at a chicken salad.
“Several things,” replied Leona as she speared a crouton with her fork. “The most important of which: it's an affront to both tradition and the Word.” She brought the fork to her mouth and, after carefully chewing and swallowing, she continued. “The Feast of Blades is meant to honor the Blood Knight and the First Knight, correct? A test of courage and aptitude, demonstrating to the world the worthiness of the contestants and the Officios they came from. But by conducting the Feast in...in the way we do today, we both tarnish the First Knight's blessings of protection and skill, and disregard the Blood Knight's call for courage and honor.” Angrily, she impaled another measure of salad on her fork and glared at it. “The actual killing is what gets to me the most. We're supposed to be taking the lives of heretics and traitors, not our own. It's shameful, what we're doing.”
Miralda shrugged as she shoveled another forkful of food into her mouth. “Eh, maybe. I mean, I guess that's how things might have started. But remember all those times we had political shitstorms going down, back when the Feast was all serious-like? Couldn't get through a single duel without someone whining about, oh, 'Her weapon wasn't fair', or, 'She totally poisoned my tea right before the fight, no really.' Not having to seriously honor the Four means not having to take everything so seriously, and that means not having to worry about bullshit drama. Simpler that way” She thrust a thumb at herself. “Besides, it's not like the death of the body is such a big deal for us, anyway.”
“That may be true, but the fact still remains; the way things are now, the Feast of Blades is a betrayal of the tenets of the Word.”
“Hmph,” said Miralda as she sprinkled something gray onto her food. “Word this, Word that. Never understood why you don't just transfer to the Second. Poor Nashandra's been getting swamped by their invitation letters, you know?”
Leona fixed Miralda's plate with a glare. “And I will never understand why you put the crushed soulgems of heretics and traitors into your food. It's revolting.”
Miralda's cackle grated on Leona's ears. “Because it tastes great! Beats the hell out of oregano, I'll tell you that.”
“...but it's disgusting.”
“For you, maybe,” she said, shrugging. “No rule against it.” She took a nibble out of her food, then added another pinch to the dish. “And besides,” she said with a grin bearing far too much relish, “the taboo-ness gives it that extra kick.”
Leona pushed away her plate, her appetite gone. “I don't know why I even bother speaking to you,” she growled. Miralda widened her grin.
“'Cuz of my charming looks and winning personality. Now answer my question: why stick around here? Sounds like you'd be much better off in the Second.”
Leona paused for a moment, returning Miralda's mocking smile with a studious gaze. Why was she telling all of this to someone she hardly considered a friend, much less Miralda Smough? The first time they met each other as fellow Triarii, they'd almost come to blows—the second time, they actually did.
Perhaps it was out of concern for a sister-in-arms she'd brutally executed in the arena? Leona was uncertain, but if nothing else, the scarred Executioner was somehow easier to talk to than most of the others in the Fourteenth.
Or maybe that wretched scarecrow of a woman was just very good at pushing her buttons.
“Why don't I transfer?” said Leona. “Because when I joined the Triarii, I swore an oath to our Emperor, Beloved by All. As long as that oath binds me, I won't leave this Officio...regardless of how I personally feel about it.”
“What, that little litany we all had to say when we signed up for our shiny suits of armor?” Miralda scoffed, following up with a loud belch. “Oh come on, that's just some stuff they make us all say, it doesn't mean anyth—”
There was a *crash* as Leona's fist met the dining table.
“It means something to me.”
The dining hall fell silent as curious onlookers peered at the duo. Leona coughed and awkwardly apologized, and the hall eased back to its regular hubbub.
“*Ahem* Apologies.” She wiped her mouth and stood to leave. “But as I was saying; it meant something to me, even if for you it was just some pretty words.”
Miralda shrugged. “Well, whatever. Just saying—no need to be so mopey when you've got an easy way out.” Her patchwork face stretched tight as it brightened with an idea. “Hey, here's an idea; come to Nero's party tonight. Give you a chance to loosen up.”
Hrnh. “Parties”. Such a pretty word for what usually amounted to a mass orgy. The Fourteenth used to be known first and foremost for its unwavering faith, but now, with Nero's increasingly lavish banquets...
“Thank you,” she said, shaking her head, “but I must decline. I have a training session to attend.” Waving Miralda a terse farewell, Leona began making her way to the nearest gym.
“Give it a little more thought,” called out Miralda towards the retreating figure. “I found you a little cute little brunette, just your type! Told her you'd love to get to know her later tonight, she'll be real sad if you don't show! Her name's Gwyn—”
“I said no thank you.”
“You're missing out! 'As the Lady loves we who are unworthy—'”
“'—so must we show our love for those we call Sister'.” 'Though I somehow doubt,' thought Leona as the sounds of Miralda's cackling faded behind her, 'that's what that verse actually means.'
The evening didn't find Leona in the gymnasium as she'd told Miralda. Instead, she was in her personal quarters, a remarkably spartan room compared to the lavish, personalized chambers of the other Triarii.
She sighed as she closed her worn and dog-eared copy of the Lectitio Divinatus. The Word provided fewer and fewer answers these days; sometimes, she wondered if it was worth turning to it at all—a sentiment she answered swiftly with self-reprimand. At times like these she would go out and lose herself in training, letting searing lungs and burning muscle uproot the seeds of doubt, but she was no longer sure if that would work, either.
Communion with the Lady, she hoped, would put her mind at ease.
Outside, the sounds of feasting and pleasure reverberated off the stone halls of the Fourteenth. With a sigh, Leona shut out the distraction and let herself sink into the calm serenity of prayer.
'I pray to you now, O Shieldmaiden fair, for I, myself, am unworthy to speak to the Blessed Lady.
'I pray to the Lady for her boundless love, for her warm embrace comforts me in this time of dark; I pray to the Blood Knight for courage, that I might bear the Lady's Word no matter what trials I must endure; I pray to the First Knight for enlightenment, to cut the root of doubt blackening my heart.'
A crash of breaking glass, followed by a shriek—whether of pleasure or fear Leona couldn't know. She put the distractions out of her mind and continued.
'May the light of the First Knight guide me to the Truth. May her Sword of Justice cleave apart ignorance. May her righteous spirit strengthen me, and leave me untouched by fear and hesitation. And may the Shieldmaiden herald this supplicant's prayer, that the Lady herself might hear it and grant me mercy.
'So I pray...'
“...As The Lady Wills.”