Chapter 18

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My weapon is an extension of my body, more lethal than my fists, less predictable than my heart. My most traitorous organ is silenced for the time being, so long as I concentrate on the staff in my hands and the beast beyond it.

We circle one another, edging away from the fire and into an open piece of ground far-removed from any tents. The god of night has gifted a moon that is both full and low, painting the ground below our feet an almost blistering white. As I study my opponent, I forcibly ignore the increasing size of the crowd surrounding us. The commotion thunders around me but I tune out the cheers and blur my eyes to the faces, closing myself off to all distractions.

Jaron's stride is long but unhurried. Having stood alongside the chieftain in battle many times I am well-versed in his strategies. He conserves his energy while I remain on the lookout for a sudden, powerful strike. Jaron's strength is his greatest advantage, but what he possesses in brute force he lacks in speed.

He draws to a stop and abruptly throws off his cloak. The bulky garment crumples to the ground like a dead animal, where its feathers immediately begin to gather dust. The smug look on his face tells me that my tactics have been assessed as well.

This should be a very interesting fight.

I take a step the left, watching to see how he reacts. He doesn't so much as flinch, revealing what I suspected. He's waiting for me to make the first move.

So, I make it a good one.

I feint left again, then plant the end of my staff in the ground and vault myself into the sky, swinging forward which as much force as I can muster and aiming to kick him full in the chest.

Jaron dodges, throwing up an arm and barely managing to knock me aside. I take advantage of his lack of balance and thrust the staff back as soon as I hit the dirt, scoring a hit across his ankle and sending him crashing to the ground.

He recovers quickly, jumping to his feet with a terrifying speed for someone his size. I scrabble to keep hold of my weapon, managing to block his blow but sending a sharp pain rocketing from my hands down to my shoulders. I shove Jaron back, rolling out of the way of his next strike to shouts and roars of encouragement.

Dancing backwards, I toss my weapon from side to side, grimacing as I flex my hands to alleviate the sting in my palms.

Jaron watches me from a few paces away, a cruel smirk drawn on his face. I buy myself a few more precious seconds by making a show of rolling my shoulders, purposely exaggerating Jaron's advantage. Even though I am playing up my injuries, the power at which Jaron attacks is genuinely shocking. I ignore the knot of fear beginning to tighten and concentrate on his movements, needing him to burn some energy as my reserves are already depleting rapidly.

Jaron doesn't let me down. He shoulders his weapon and takes two lumbering strides, aiming for my ribs. I tuck into a ball and escape to the side, ducking under the spear but staying within reach. He swipes again and I once more dodge. Grunting in frustration he spins in place, finding the spot I occupied moments earlier conspicuously empty.

I emit a sharp whistle from behind, raising my staff and striking him across the face.

The cheers grow louder as Jaron falls back. I breathe shallowly, willing some strength back into my limbs. The Waster chieftain seems to be recovering as well, rubbing his chin as he regards me. The smug look on his face has been replaced by an expression a good deal more satisfying.

Respect.

My victory is short-lived as Jaron suddenly springs to life and races towards me.

I dart away reflexively but this time, he's prepared for my techniques. I am blocked by his lowered spear and only barely manage to throw my own weapon up in time. Switching tactics I abruptly go on the offence, knocking his blade away and sweeping my own staff before me, forcing him back. We battle back and forth, each impact sending lightening bolts ricocheting through my limbs. Jaron suddenly traps my weapon beneath his own and extends a burly arm, catching hold and then tossing me as though I were no more than a burlap sack. Sky rushes past as I am thrown into the air and sent crashing into the wall of spectators. My head spins and I am helped to my feet, cheeks burning and legs shaking while I struggle to right myself. Someone hands me back my staff and I nod my thanks, my eyes finding Jaron at the far side of the circle. He has his own weapon gripped with both hands and is leaning against it.

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