Morning light crept along the horizon, expanding further with each passing moment its domain, revealing the outlines of trees. There was a trail leading through the trees into a meadow, well-worn by the shepherds and the cattle and sheep they brought here to graze. They were absent this early, not yet stirring in their beds miles away. The grass was heavy with moisture and even as the light grew, the air turned misty and a bank of fog settled over the landscape, obscuring the trees and making the trail difficult to pick out.
Four figures emerged from the fog and stood across from each other. No one spoke or moved for a time, all of them staring at each other with a mixture of unease and disdain, bravado and fear. As the fog began to dissipate, an unspoken signal passed between them and two of the men stepped together to stand between the remaining two, bowing formally to each other. The two solitary men backed away from the pair in opposite directions until they were almost lost to each other in the murk.
“Brach wishes to commence?” one of the pair said.
The other nodded, his mouth formed into a thin grimace. They both wore dark robes, similar in cut and design. Their heads were shaved and their faces clean-cut. Their age was indeterminate; they appeared young, but something about their youth was edged with the entropy of years. The only thing to distinguish them was that one had blue eyes and the other brown.
“Hjesch as well,” the one with the blue eyes said.
“Then let us commence,” the brown-eyed second said. “We agree that the duel shall be without assistance? There will be no implements or engines, no familiars, and we, of course, shall remain observers only.”
“Agreed. As Hjesch has chosen the place, Brach can choose the element.”
“Water,” was The brown-eyed second’s immediate response.
The blue-eyed second nodded curtly. “A fine day for it. We further stipulate the battle shall involve no non-magical implements.”
“Of course. Are we fighting to first blood? To supreme effect?”
“To the death,” the blue-eyed second said and they both shared a faint smile, as though he had uttered a joke.
“If it is all agreed to your satisfaction,” The brown-eyed second said, “I suggest we inform the duelists and begin the contest.”
The other bowed slightly and they both turned to walk the several paces toward their respective parties to whisper the particulars of their agreement. When both men had agreed, the two seconds walked back to their original positions together between the two combatants. Each raised their left arm high in the air, looking to the duelists to ensure they could spot them through the fog. After a pause where they stood, arms poised, during which the mist halted and sun pierced somewhat through the fog, they both dropped their arms, in a scything motion, to their sides and the battle was engaged.
Nothing happened for several moments, both combatants eyeing each other as best they could. The fog grew thicker and the mist heavier, obscuring them both as well as the seconds. The air felt charged with electricity that might be unleashed at any moment in a cataclysmic thunderbolt.
No such charge was released, but a cloud, heavy with moisture, engulfed the meadow, subsuming the fog and the mist. It moved as though animated, slithering around Brach, slowly tightening its grasp upon him. Like a snake it began to constrict him, crushing his chest and neck so that he could not breath. The air left his lungs in an strange gasp as the cloud cinched itself tighter and tighter around him.
Oddly, his face betrayed no sign of the distress he must have been experiencing. It was placid and calm, his eyes far-looking upon a horizon he could not possibly see. Only one hand trembled slightly, hinting at the agonies he was undergoing.
Just as it seemed the cloud could grow no thicker, an inescapable morass from which Brach could never escape, an odd cracking sound echoed through the air. As its reverberations died, the cloud surrounding Brach and the two seconds vanished in time for them all to witness the ground opening up at Hjesch’s feet, sending him tumbling into a pit deep within the earth.
The two seconds stirred from where they watched the contest and moved toward the pit. They looked down into the impenetrable blackness and were surprised by the bitter cold of the air arising from it, creating small clouds in the air that clung around the pit’s edge.
The blue-eyed second grunted. “He cracked the frost. Clever that.”
The other did not reply, his eyes intent upon the crevasse that was redolent with the smell of damp earth and decomposition. Neither of them said anything further as they stared into the pit expectantly. The sun had fully risen above the trees, burning off the last of the fog, though the clouds still remained scattered above, casting down a slight drizzle on them. Behind them Brach waited as well, motionless, a faraway gaze in his eyes still.
“Shall we call it?” The blue-eyed second said. There was both disappointment and hope in his voice.
The brown-eyed second shook his head. “Wait,” he said.
The minutes stretched on. Birds began to chirp around them, flitting among the grass, which was slowly drying off as even the drizzle ceased. Finally the brown-eyed second turned to the other, his mouth open, ready to speak. Before he could though, Brach gave a mournful cry of defeat and they saw a hand emerge from the pit and then another, as Hjesch pulled himself from the bowels of the earth back into the sunlight.
His robes were dirty and he was unsteady on his feet, but he otherwise appeared fine. The two seconds stared at him, expressionless, no one speaking. They turned to Brach, who at last stirred from where he was and walked over to join them, his own expression unreadable. The four together began to walk along the trail across the meadow and into the trees where they vanished from sight.
In A Flash: read a new story every Thursday…