Cullen’s Tough Guide to Fight Scenes: Sword or Sorcery

Welcome, once again, to Cullen’s Tough Guide to Fight Scenes! We’ve been on hiatus for a while as I finished my first novel and started on query letters for it. Now that that’s well under way and we’ve all had some time to cogitate over the previous entry in this series, it’s time for the showdown I promised at the end of the last entry. I’ve belabored my rules for high-fantasy combat and its martial systems long enough, so no more of that here. This is purely to explore a much less common question–outside D&D, anyway–how does a swordfighter deal with a mage?

In most universes, the answer is “not particularly well.” This is Canno, however: half of the mages are swordfighters, times-to-kill are quite low, and Adherents exist. You may be wondering “Hey, the fuck’s an Adherent?” We’ll get to that shortly, don’t worry. But now that I’ve thrown out the first relevant term, let’s lay out the fight.

The year: 1688 V.R.
The place: a tortured morass of mud, blood and bodies beneath the coastal rains of The Steel End, the muggiest of the pseudo-Germanic states known as the Black Havens. It’s the 3rd Battle of the Schilt Valley. For three days, a Coalition of forces from the Black Havens and other parts of this continent, Ceslon, has fought against a necromantic incursion from across the ocean to the West. There were once subtropical trees and charming hamlets throughout this valley, along with the best wine-country on Canno. All burning, now, and choked with corpses beyond counting. Today, at the battle’s high point, a small contingent of foot-knights from the Kingdom of Stoßdär breach the enemy lines–much to the consternation of the armored ghouls they face–and attack the enemy leader head-on.

That leader is a Lich. Cannoan Liches have their own unique rules and I’ll eventually write about those, but you don’t need to know most of it right now. All you need to know are the following:
-Liches can cast any spell they wish, but still need to know what it is they’re trying to achieve first.

-Physical damage to a Lich is only meaningful in the sense that it slowly drains the creature’s power. As long as a Lich has any power left, it won’t die. When it does die, however, a Lich produces an explosion equal to the instant release of all the power it’s ever wielded–not a pleasant prospect if you’re standing there at the time.

-And then, of course, there’s the Principle of Imbuement: “any idea strong enough in sapient minds becomes a force for its own creation.” Or to put it bluntly, thinking about an idea puts power into that idea. This frequently functions as in-universe Rule of Cool. For most beings this translates to unquantifiable performance increases–the fact that people believe the duelist who won the recent tournament is faster means that he actually becomes faster, but there’s no way to prove this is the Principle of Imbuement. Liches, though? Liches receive a direct boost to power every time people direct strong thoughts at them. If you pass one in the street and think, “Damn, that’s an imposing corpse,” you’ve just made them a tiny bit stronger. Of course, this cuts both ways–if a Lich starts looking bad, they lose power. A lot of it.

The Lich in question is named Teljira; she’s one of the Five, a squabbling cabal of… well… five Liches who have been engaged in a series of proxy wars with Ceslon’s kingdoms for around four hundred years. The Five themselves are much older than that, and Teljira is believed to be over three thousand years old. Their objective: known only to themselves, but it probably involves the creation of some kind of necromantic superstate. Fun!

Suffice to say that those foot-knights are consumed in a writhing torrent of blood-orange crescents that dice them to pieces and send ragged shards of their armor hurtling across the field. The Coalition forces, witnessing this, feel their spirits plummeting. Their enemy seems invincible–what could possibly survive in that crimson-dripping slaughter? How could any force hope to–

One of the knights is still standing. Upon his head, a distinctive sallet-helm with a faceted faceplate almost like polished obsidian. From it, three violet plumes sprout. In his hands is a five-and-a-half foot monster of a sword: a Königinmesser, literally “queen’s knife,” a razor-sharp, broad-but-thin blade with a four-foot cutting edge curving to a cruel point. This one’s name: Bloody Suffrage. The eviscerating spell has left the knight entirely untouched; steam curls from bloody gouges in the slaughter-strewn mud to either side of him.

Everyone, meet our second contender: Inberich Meyerinck, first and only Sword-Adherent of his generation. An Adherent is someone who pursues a single path in life with religious fervor–except, ironically, an actual religion, as this mostly involves the Gods doing stuff for you that you really could’ve done yourself–to the point that all other things fall away in time. Their Adherence grants them even greater prowess in their lone obsession, and a few other benefits to boot. Each type of Adherent is different. Warrior-Adherents, of which Sword-Adherents are obviously a subclass, have only three basic rules:
-They possess superhuman abilities on every level.
-Direct magic never touches them or their weapons without permission. It doesn’t matter how powerful the mage is, how big the spell is, how many they link together: a Warrior-Adherent may no more be touched by a mage’s lightning bolt than the sun by darkness.
-Their attacks cannot be stopped by magic, only martial force.

That’s it. There’s nothing more to lay out before this fight can happen. While the battle rages on around them, the Adherent and the Lich take stock.

***

Bloody Suffrage glinted in scattered firelight; a distant thunderstroke turned the blade shock white for a moment. Inberich stared down its back edge at his opponent, and said nothing. The creature was shorter than himself, perhaps by a half-foot, and strangely spindly. A distant corner of his mind felt this made sense; the Five were older than the Loar War, and so they must be older than the warstock.

The useful part of him considered her sodden bronze-hue robes–a nuisance, they’d impair cutting–and desiccated brown flesh, and the wan blues fires emerging from her eye-sockets. Theatrics–but those fires could veil a proper attack. Lanky black hair hung thick yet dry, more like gnarled roots than follicles. Bangles of gold, silver and copper set with sunset gems were strung through it, and ancient dull-grey plate armor of a strange segmented design encased her body beneath the robes.
“So,” the Lich began, “another Adherent steps forward to–”
Inberich dashed forward and watched the Lich to gauge her reflexes. After a moment without clear response, he threw himself left on general principle. A halberd dragging a corpse behind it hurtled past him and brushed the Lich’s robes before it plowed furrows in the mud beyond her. She did not visibly react other than extending her arm to hurl a mangled tree-trunk at him. Inberich raised Bloody Suffrage as if to cleave it in two, then threw himself underneath it and advanced. Clangs, thunks, and a few metal shards flying past told him he’d guessed right: the Lich meant for him to knock it aside and be caught by more debris from the rear.
Inberich pelted through the mud to within a few feet of her, but she blasted herself back and away in a shower of mud and tossed bodies. Inberich felt the first hint of frustration, but crushed it down with a few deep breaths through his nostrils. Anger might help a warrior–but never frustration.

The Adherent took a leap of his own before the geysering rain-filth settled, back and up but careful not to rise above it; the Lich would be watching from the other side. He landed amidst a crowd of startled ghouls who would rather have focused on the halberdiers assaulting their front rank. Bloody Suffrage whirled up and clove down–not at the plates, but the weaker chain beneath them. Even his queen’s knife didn’t always shear the chain, but it mattered nothing. Inberich’s sheer force exploded those links which weren’t cut, severing a withered arm here, a skinless leg at the thigh, and oh so many necks.

He saw something flickering at the corner of his vision and barged through the ghouls’ back ranks an instant before a lightning bolt exploded, writhed within their formation, and detonated them into a hundred bursts of shrapnel. Once again, Inberich charged the Lich; she hovered a hundred feet in the air above an advancing wall of plated undead, with new stormclouds gathering behind her. Inberich awaited the inevitable.

Her hands flicked out and the whole front rank of ghouls exploded in orange fire. They rushed forward with inhuman speed, thundering the ground. Inberich heard cries of alarm from behind him and gritted his teeth. Could the fools not control themselves? Their shock would only empower the Lich further! Quite suddenly, there came awful crackings from many of the lead ghouls–their own legs torn loose by their new power. The calls of alarm turned to laughter and jeering as the charge collapsed on itself.

Inberich leapt to his fullest, high out over the throngs with Bloody Suffrage braced at his right shoulder. He pulled the queensknife back as if to strike, and the Lich awaited him–doubtless to hurl herself away the instant he drew close enough to cut her. She even dared smirk at him just as Inberich flung his arms out from perhaps forty feet away, and catapulted the queensknife at the Lich. She raised a hand to cast something.

Orange energy bled from the Lich and she began hurtling sideways, but there came a walloping splatter and Bloody Suffrage punctured her right to the guard. Inberich impacted close behind it and drove his clasped hands into the Lich’s skull. Her brow exploded inward beneath his gauntlets.

They fell as one to the mud below, and the Lich scrabbled feebly at him. Orange light flecked with ugly black specks gouted up around Bloody Suffrage. Behind him he heard an arcane-embellished shout, but he did not turn; he was busy driving his fists down upon the Lich. She crumpled, tore and shrieked with every hit.
“Forward, children of the Black Havens–zu unsere Kamerad, durch schmerzen und schlacht!” There came the mixed warcries of Roteburg and Graufeld, of Geldeweg and The Steel End, and above them all the great rhythmic bellows of Father Stoßdär at every second stamp of the Black Shark’s sabatons:
ARA! ARA! ARA! ARA!” 

Inberich found that his every move matched the beat of their boots and the glorious chant: ARA! and he drove a palm into the Lich’s forehead, crushing it in. ARA! and before she began to reform, he drove the same palm into her right arm, then seized it and tore it loose. ARA! and he swung the limb up above him and hammered her with it.
“You–” the Lich began, before he dislocated her reformed jaw. He continued pummeling while all around him the Black Haveners hewed down the Lich’s army.
“–base–” he stamped down on her knee, and a yowl of pain interrupted her.
“–whoreso–” Yet again, he sundered her withered skull. A new sound began to echo out around him and all at once he understood it:
MEYERINCK! MEYERINCK! MEYERINCK! MEYERINCK!

He did not look up when a grim voice asked–with no little satisfaction–“The Vigil offers its power, Adherent, if you wish it!”
“Why indeed not? Let’s have it, then!” Inberich responded. A hot white glow suffused him, coursing off his limbs, and now his every blow blasted the Lich deeper into a crater growing beneath them. They cracked their way down into dry ground and stonework, and still he hammered.
Inberich realized, quite suddenly, that the Lich was not moving or reforming anymore, and that the sickly orange glow was boiling up out of her.
“Meister Inberich, I will take us to safety if you wish!” that same grim voice shouted.
“Do so!” Inberich snapped.

An armored hand landed on his shoulder and pulled him back. Inberich landed on both feet staring at a portal; it shortly vanished.
He turned to the Inquisitor, a black-robed figure in richly-engraved silver plate.
“What then of the rest of the army?” he began. A blooming orange sun cut off the words and blasted the stormclouds away into blue skies. Inberich did not look until the glare faded from blinding to dazzling, and when he did he saw a shockwave plowing up mud and rubble to the furthest ends of the valley below.
“Ah,” Inberich said.
“She gave sooner than I expected,” the Inquisitor said, with a perplexed voice. “It must have been the humiliation, you pounding her into the mud like that. Casualties will be high, but not, I think, total.” Inberich saw shaky blue wards bleeding energy near the mushroom-cloud’s base.

“This could have been avoided?” Inberich asked. The char and water vapor slowly settled, revealing that most of the Coalition army survived behind those barriers–but not those who had cheered Inberich only minutes ago. He growled at himself. Idiot. Damned prideful idiot.
“Perhaps, but likely not,” the Inquisitor shrugged. “We have never been able to corner Teljira. But you…” the Inquisitor looked at him. “…well, you can likely guess why you are different. The Vigil politely asks you keep this to yourself.” And with that, he tore open another portal and was gone. Instants later, Bloody Suffrage slammed into the ground next to the Adherent–unharmed. Inberich walked over, sat down next to it, and looked out upon his day’s work.

***

So, can you guess what happened? The truth is that when I started writing this fight, I planned for Inberich to kill Teljira, but I couldn’t think of any way he’d actually pull it off. Surely she’d be able to play keep away until one of her indirect attacks mauled him enough to give her an advantage, or she’d escape when she realized she couldn’t win. Even Inberich’s decisive–though risky–ploy in throwing Bloody Suffrage was only supposed to create an opening. I assumed in the end that she’d either flee, be destroyed by the Vigil instead, or even kill Inberich by sheer attrition. And according to my own rules, I’d have written it as such–likely that she killed Inberich so as to avoid any favoritism.

“Wait a minute,” I realized, as in my mind I saw the sword striking the Lich, “Magic can’t directly affect Adherents or their weapons, and casting magic needs it to flow through the mage’s body.” Impaling the Lich wasn’t one step in the fight–it was the instant in which Inberich’s victory became inevitable! Even the queensknife’s mere presence in Teljira’s body would rapidly ebb her power: a Lich is nothing if not a huge amount of contained magic, all of which would naturally shy from the Adherent’s nature.

From there it all stacked up rapidly; the total inability to use her own magic, her army destroyed, her enemies witnessing her utter humiliation as she’s clobbered repeatedly in the mud like a brawling peasant, and with her own arm no less! The idea of Teljira of the Five, the Imbuement core to her nature, would vanish oh so swiftly. Meanwhile an entire Coalition puts its power of thought into the idea of Inberich the Sword-Adherent, and even the Vigil makes itself an accessory to his power; not much doubt anymore, is there?

And while Inberich’s swifter-than-anticipated victory robs the Inquisitor of the normal solution–open a portal to nowhere and throw the Lich through just before they blow up–it also leaves the Vigil’s Inquisitors the vast majority of their power, letting them shield the Coalition forces from most of the damage.

If nothing else, this fight has been a nearly-perfect illustration of why it’s so important to think every aspect of combat through before you start putting it into practice. As per usual, there are further rules underlying all this: Inberich is able to surprise Teljira because he has a higher basic speed of movement and thought. There are arcane methods she could use to make herself faster, though–so why doesn’t she?

Simply put, Teljira outsmarts herself. Remember, Imbuement is a huge factor for a Lich. They can physically feel when they’re losing power, and that power is directly connected to their continued existence. When her ploy with the quickened ghouls backfires–namely, because Teljira only increases their power without increasing their durability to account for it–Teljira goes from a high of incoming Imbuement to a crash as an entire army openly laughs at her. Feeling this is not only disorienting in its own right, but naturally forces Teljira’s thinking away from the base mechanics of the fight and onto the literal mind-games of Imbuement.

When Inberich comes soaring over her forces to attack her, the answer seems obvious: let him come almost within range, then boost her own speed and completely take the wind out of the enemy by flashing easily away from the attack. Against every enemy on Canno, this would be the better option; it erases the shame of her earlier foul-up while undermining the idea of her opponent in her enemies’ minds. Every enemy on Canno, that is, except for Inberich–the only Sword-Adherent of his generation. The only entity against whom Teljira’s careful methodology can backfire.

He throws the sword, she starts her spell too late, and the rest is history.

It might be a while before I get into more of the Tough Guide; I’ve covered fantasy as much as I want to for the time being.

Next time, friends, we’re going to the future. And it may be shiny, but that only makes the blood and grime easier to pick out.

Say something, darn it!

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