The midday sun shone down upon the streets of San Cristobal where
brightly clad vendors and customers mingled and shifted in an intricate
mercantile dance. The ancient domes of Crescent buildings stood cheek to
cheek with churches and towering palatial homes as a man slipped through
the crowd. Although he stared about in bewilderment at the people and
towering buildings clustered around him, his natural timing and grace
allowed him to move quickly through the throngs of people.
He wore a newly tailored black outfit over a white silk shirt, but his
sword belt and boots were comfortably worn. His face seemed far younger
than his grey hair would account for and a smile often crossed his lips as
he asked for directions to Casa Aldana. He finally arrived at a large,
unassuming home set with sturdy doors directly upon the plaza. Several
servants were loading a canvas covered wagon directly in front of the
marble steps leading up to the door.
The man strode confidently up to the door and raised his hand to pound
upon it just as it opened. A harried looking servant strode out with his
arms were so filled with boxes and bundles that he blundered straight into
the man who stepped back gracefully. The servant bowed his head and
immediately apologized as he reached for the boxes he had dropped.
"My apologies, senor. I did not see you there.May I help you?"
The man straightened himself and said expectantly. "Think nothing of
it. I am the Grim Sword. Don Marcos Rivera del Rios, son of Don Julian
Rivera del Rios and I seek Don Aldana in a matter of honour."
"I regret that Don Alejandro is in the Vaticine city..."
"Ah, my error. I meant Don Millano Rios del Aldana."
"Again my apologies, Don Marcos. Don Millano left this morning. His
ship sails with the tide We are not certain as to when he will be
Don Marcos furrowed his brow slightly "Did he say what boat he was
"El Corazon del..." A startled look crossed the servant's face. "Pardon
me, but did you say that you are the son of Don Julian Rivera del Rios?
The butcher of Soldano?"
Del Rios' eyes narrowed and he nodded. "That is indeed my father, but I
suggest you do not dishonour his name. I am in the middle of a vendetta
right now and I'd hate to interrupt it for the likes of you." His hand
dropped to his sword and the servant's face blanched.
The servant dropped the bundles at his feet and stepped back into the
house. Del Rios smiled in amusement as he heard the steward yelling for
help inside. He turned from the Aldana Estate and looked about before
stepping up to a street vendor selling cool drinks.
He asked for directions to the docks, bought a drink and tipped her
well. Before he turned, he felt a hand upon his shoulder. Whirling around,
he saw that the servants from the wagon had clustered about him and drawn
steel. Drawing his own blade, del Rios called out, "I was just leaving.
Are you certain you wish to challenge me with only six men?"
One of the servants rushed forward with his sword raised high. The
swordsman swept his own blade up in a salute that turned into a strong
parry. Before the man could recover, the swordsman dashed his drink into
the man's face, stepped in close behind him, reached up and took the sword
from his hand.
As the servant opened his mouth to speak, del Rios brought his own
sword hilt down sharply upon the man's neck. As he crumpled, two other
servants rushed from opposite sides. Del Rios extended his two swords in a
graceful bow that neatly intercepted both incoming weapons.
He swayed from one side to the other for a moment as his arms
gracefully twisted and turned to parry each of their attacks. Then he
turned to one of them, his blades knocked aside the servant's weapon, and
a quick thrust pierced the man's forearm. With a curse, the man dropped
his weapon and clutched the wound.
The servant behind del Rios thrust towards his back but a quick side
step allowed the sword to pass him harmlessly. A single slash across his
hand and that servant dropped his weapon and backed away as well. The
remaining men hung back fearfully from the smiling swordsmaster.
"As I was saying. I was just leaving. Surely you three should look
after your wounded comrades?" With an elaborate gesture, Don Marcos
sheathed his own weapon.
A heartbeat later, the door to the Aldana Estate slammed open and a
horde of men swept through the doors led by the steward who pointed at the
lone swordsman and shouted.
Don Marcos scowled. "This is really becoming quite tedious."
Turning from the oncoming guards, he stepped lightly upon the back of
the unconscious man and leapt onto the wagon. Two more steps and he was
jumping off the far end of it into the plaza's crowd with Aldana's men in
The street was less crowded than the plaza and the pedestrians quickly
made way for a man carrying a bare blade and chased by a mob of guards.
Ahead of him, Don Marcos saw a slow moving wagon filled with barrels
rolling down the street ahead of him. He raced up to it and slashed out
with his captured sword.
Coming to a halt a step later, he turned with a triumphant grin, only
to notice that a pair of dirty young children stood only a few yards
behind him staring at the wagon in fascination. The barrels slowly began
to topple off the wagon with the dull slosh that indicated they held
enough ale to crush the children into pulp.
Del Rios dropped his weapon, took two running steps, dove beneath the
slowly falling barrels and swept the two street urchins out of the way.
The barrels smashed into the ground with a series of bone shaking crashes
and covered the street with the ale. Del Rios sighed deeply and gave each
of the two children a rub on their head as he straightened up.
Then without turning from them, he drew his own sword in a flicker of
movement and swept it behind his back to parry the stab of the first of
Turning from the children, his feet began to tap forward through the
frothy ale in a series of quick short steps that carried him into the
midst of the first four of his pursuers.
The first man lashed out again, but del Rios tapped the blade aside and
then tapped the blade again from the other side in time to his quick
steps. The swordsmaster took three short steps back and his opponent
rushed forward, only to feel his feet slip beneath him on the slick
The next man thrust for del Rios' chest, but he dashed the blade to one
side and slashed across his chest. The cut, though shallow, was enough to
convince the man to retreat from the fray. Before the others could move,
del Rios began prancing in the circle of his foes as his blade whisked out
in furious fashion.
Within a handful of breaths, all of his opponents were disarmed and
sporting minor slashes and bruises.
They backed slowly away from him.
Raising his blade to his face, del Rios smiled then he whisked it down
and started towards the docks again. He had only gone a few yards when he
heard shouts from behind him. Another group of Aldana guards had just come
into sight and were rushing past the opponents he had defeated towards
As he broke into a run, he muttered, "How much does Aldana pay these
Del Rios slipped by dozens of Castilians strolling through the streets
of San Cristobal while the men behind him ploughed them aside in an effort
to reach the elusive swordsman. Glancing over his shoulder, he noticed a
handful of them suddenly splitting away to run down a side street to the
Scanning the area, he realized that the street was gradually curved
that way as well and the shops on the street were giving way to the shops
and inns that cater to sailors, but only after they've expended themselves
on the bars, tattoo parlours and brothels that line the docks. With a
whispered curse, he remembered the vendor had given him the easiest path
to the dock, not the quickest.
Del Rios turned onto a side street. The traffic here was lighter and he
noticed a sign showing some sort of angel before him. "Posada de la
He had barely taken another step when he noticed a blockade of Aldana
guardsman lined up across the street. He didn't dare face those behind as
well as those in front, so he charged into the midst of those in front,
hoping to break through them quickly.
Del Rios drew his blade and rushed into their midst.
Parrying blows on every side, he pressed forward towards "Posada de la
Damisela Fugada". He twisted his blade and pulled his cuts so that none of
the men were injured too badly. After all, they were doing their job and
he could find no fault in the manner in which they did it.
Just as he reached the Inn, a handful of men all wearing black followed
by a lone swordsman rushed out of an adjacent warehouse and smashed into
the melee. Everything dissolved into chaos as blades began flailing wildly
and every man tried to determine whose side the new combatants would take.
Del Rios ducked and slashed out, pivoted and thrust for several desperate
moments, weaving a a song of ringing steel around himself.
As one of the Aldana men finally got through his guard and cut a
shallow gash across his arm, del Rios shouted out, "You men may be good,
but I swear you will not stop me from reaching Millano Aldana!"
Time froze for an instant as everyone pulled away from his whirling
blade. In the sudden opening, he thrust his sword into his belt, leapt up
and grabbed the sign. Clambering up, he realized that the best handholds
were rather inappropriate places to touch an angel, but he did not pause
long enough to apologize. He scrambled onto the roof and saw only a few
low buildings lay between him and the docks and El Corazon was plainly
visible pulling away from the dock.
A sudden shout from below attracted his attention. Another man, wearing
a voluminous black cloak, climbed onto the roof and faced him. He was a
tall, thin man with intense green eyes and a mouth that smiled frequently.
But not now.
With a tired sigh, the man asked del Rios, "Don't your kind ever tire
of wearing black?" As he spoke, his weapon hissed out of its sheath and
"My kind?" del Rios' own weapon whispered out of his sheath and beat
the attack aside.
His own weapon thrust towards his opponent but when the man's blade
lowered to parry, del Rios' blade dipped around it and slipped free.
"I'm sure the first mercenary sell-sword to wear black leather probably
looked menacing and impressive. But now it's just tiresome."
As he answered, the man drew a dagger with his off hand and parried del
"Forgive me, senor. I hadn't realized I'd stepped astray into a clich.
And while you must have me confused with someone else, I feel obliged to
point out that you're wearing black too."
A slash with the knife made del Rios backpedal a step and his riposte
was intercepted by both of the man's weapons crossed above his head.
"Es verdad, but with me..." The man shrugged aside his cloak and
revealed a black tabard intricately embroidered with four intertwined red
roses around a white cross. "It's a badge of office, not just a feeble
attempt at a fashion statement."
He launched another attack with his fencing sword. Del Rios lashed out
with his own blade and twisted his wrist sharply.
The Knight's sword leaped from his hand and del Rios caught it in his
free hand as he protested, "I have no quarrel with you or the Knights of
the Rose and Cross. After all, you aided Gosse when he needed it. I just
want to reach Aldana."
For a moment, the man looked utterly lost. Then his face clenched in
anger. "Gosse? You mean Phillip Gosse? Damnation! You're the one who swore
that oath down below?"
Confused, del Rios nodded.
The man continued, "I thought you were one of the men I was following.
It's all the damned black clothing." The Knight of the Rose and Cross
turned back to the edge of the roof and stared down. "No! They're gone."
Whirling back to Don Marcos, the Knight asked, "Did you see which way
they went? No, of course not. I was too busy distracting you. Listen,
those men stole something very important to my Order. Can you help me
"Forgive me, sir Knight, but I must catch El Corazon. It is a matter of
"Look if I don't get that book back, the Inquisition will have enough
to burn us at the stake. Aid me now and I swear I'll help you track down
that ship later."
Again the world seemed to pause a moment, as if a bell had rung without
sound and only the vibrations filled the air.
Del Rios stared into the Knight's eyes for a moment. Then he nodded
sharply. "Alright. I will help you. I guess I owe Highport that much. So,
I will be a deputy knight or something? Is there a test I have to pass or
anything like that?"
"Do you protect the innocent?"
The swordmaster shrugged. "I try."
"Do you bring justice to the unjust?"
Del Rios grinned humourlessly. "That's the reason I seek for Aldana."
"Will you protect those who wear the Rose and Cross?"
Del Rios paused. "For now."
"Good enough for me. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Francisco
Garcia del Torres."
"Don Marcos Rivera del Rios, the Grim Sword."
"I'd drop the title. Anyway, come on. We've got to catch those thugs
before they deliver the book to the Inquisition."
The Knight began to lightly run across the rooftop with del Rios at his
"Where are you headed? I thought you said they were gone?"
"For now, yes. However, they will take it back to their den first. Look
it over to see if there's anything in there of use to them first."
"Not unless they can read ancient tikat-baraji." The Knight did not
even slow down when he reached the end of the roof; he leapt the street
below and continued on.
Del Rios kept pace without a problem.
"Teeka what?" "Tikat-baraji, the sacred religious dialect of the
Crescent Empire." Del Rios was impressed. He'd heard tales of fabulous
wealth in the mysterious lands east of Vodacce. Perhaps he would venture
there himself someday, but for now there was urgent business at hand.
"So do you have a plan or are we simply barging in and dealing with a
half dozen armed men?"
"Worried? You were facing more than that back there."
"No. I'm just tired of surprises."
Another street and another low rooftop passed beneath their feet.
"If they're acting like they were back at the Chapterhouse, they'll
have one man keeping watch. You deal with him and I'll take care of the
"Why do you have all the fun?"
With a grin, del Torres answered, "Because you are just a deputy
knight." Shaking his head, he continued. "Actually, the six men are just
thugs, I can handle them. But they must have expected trouble breaking
into the Chapterhouse because they hired an expert swordsman. One of the
best I have ever seen. You just have to stall him for a little while."
"Just stall him? You say that like you think he's better than I am."
"I don't know. I know you are a better swordsman than I am. I know he
is a better swordsman than I am. I just don't know if you're good enough
to best him."
"How encouraging. Any other words of advice?"
"Don't let him get too close. Every time I closed with him, he'd parry
my sword aside and strike me with his fist."
The knight slowed to a stop and held up one hand. "Wait. See there.
That's him." He pointed down into the alley beneath them.
A tall, strong man with outlandish bright multi-coloured scarves, a
bandana and earrings stood alone before the entrance to a sailor's dive
called El Loro Pulgoso.
Del Rios whispered to his companion, "So how did you get past him last
"I cut a tapestry down onto him and ran after the ones who had the
"Wonderful. Alright. I'll go deal with him and you take care of the
Del Rios leapt from the roof and dropped lightly onto the street below.
Even under the bright afternoon sun, the street was dimly lit with the
buildings pressing in from both sides. The gaily-attired man raised an
eyebrow in surprise.
"Now swordsmen are falling from the sky?"
"Just from the rooftop. I'm supposed to keep you busy."
"Are you sure you're up to it, old man?"
"Appearances can be deceiving. I'm younger than I look."
"Well, then maybe this will be a challenge." The man drew a length of
steel in one hand without touching the dagger at his side.
As Del Rios drew his sword, he asked, "Don't feel the need for your
"I'd hate to have it said Tracey Anvilin only defeated you because he
used two weapons."
"You seem fairly confident."
"Yes. But then so do you."
Del Rios launched a series of quick cuts but Anvilin easily parried the
blow. When del Rios launched a high thrust, Anvilin returned it with a
lightning fast riposte that was tapped aside. Anvilin thrust towards him
again and again. After a moment, del Rios smiled.
"What's so amusing?" Anvilin asked as he continued to probe for
weaknesses in the Castilian's defences.
"Just...this." del Rios dashed his opponent's blade to the side and
spun around. His blade slashed out at head level without encountering any
Realizing his danger, he dropped to the ground as a blade pierced his
fluttering cloak above him. He rolled to the side, sprang to his feet, and
Anvilin stood to one side grimacing. "Nicely done.
I thought I had you."
A loud crash from inside the bar distracted them for a moment. Then the
Avalon said, "Well, let's try it again." He charged forward swinging down
broadly with the sword in both hand.
Del Rios dodged to one side, but before he could counterattack, he had
to dodge again. The blows continued raining down, coming down strongly
whenever he paused to riposte. He tried to parry the blows, but the
strength of the beating attacks numbed his hands. After a moment, he
rushed past the Avalon swordsman's offside.
With astonishing speed, Anvilin slashed across at him with the blade in
his left hand at waist height. Del Rios struck the blade down, jumped over
the blade and hit the ground rolling. Stopping suddenly, he lashed out
behind him and sliced into his opponent's shin. Incredibly, Anvilin
brought his feet back so the cut was just a scratch. Del Rios stood while
staring at his opponent with narrowed eyes. Anvilin just shook his head in
The two crashed together in a flurry of steel rapid enough that it was
impossible to follow the paths of the blades. Still, neither one could
gain an advantage.
Anvilin stepped back, panting slightly. "You're very good. Your teacher
must be very proud of you. How is Julian del Rios?"
"He is well. Complains about his scars whenever it rains, but
otherwise, he is well. How did you know?"
"I studied with him briefly before he was exiled. A fine swordsman and
a good teacher. I think you might be his equal with a blade."
"High praise from the man who has fought me to a standstill."
"Well, I do have an advantage. I know your moves, your style. And I
have a dozen different schools to draw upon to use against you."
"A dozen schools? Why so many?"
"I've discovered that each has something to teach me. You are extremely
skilled, but too limited. You know the Aldana School..."
"The del Rios school!"
"My apologies. You know your school intimately. But you don't have any
other techniques to fall back upon should your school be at a
"You do realize that your friend has the book already." The Knight of
the Rose and Cross slightly sheepishly emerged from the doorway to the
bar. He held a wrapped bundle in one hand.
Incredulous, del Rios asked, "You knew?
Why did you prolong this if you knew he was going in the other way?"
"My employers instructed me to guard this door and allow no one to
enter. No one has. I left the defence of the rest of the bar to them.
Besides, when we faced the Knight earlier, they abandoned me to fight him
while they scurried off like rats. I have little sympathy for them or
"I see." After a pause, del Rios shook his head.
"I'd like to finish this. Find out who is better."
He glanced at the Knight of the Rose and Cross. Del Torres simply
nodded. The Avalon agreed.
For a long moment, the two men stared at each other and then the
Castilian raised his blade in salute. The Avalon followed suit. They came
together with a clash of steel. Long seconds passed as the two men vied
for an advantage. Each attack was parried and each riposte missed its
target. Del Rios pressed harder, swaying from side to side and bouncing
He kept reaching out with his sword for Anvilin's head again and again
in an increasing tempo. Suddenly he swung his sword around and slashed
down at his opponent's legs.
But the Avalon was ready. He slammed his blade down upon the
Castilian's and drove it into the ground and swung out with his off hand
fist. The blow sent del Rios crashing to the ground. He looked up to find
Anvilin's sword poised above his chest. He bent his head in submission and
steeled himself for the killing blow. But it never came, instead Anvilin
helped him to his feet.
"Now you know who is better, at least today." Don Marcos bowed before
his Avalon opponent.
Now I must take my leave to seek Don Millano and justice for my
father." "He's had years to learn as well. It won't be an easy fight."
"I'll take your advice while I seek him. Study another style or two.
Prepare further. I must not fail in my task."
"Good luck to you, sir."
"And you? What are your plans?"
"I shall do what I always do. Look for more work. It's a sell-sword's
"Care to travel with me for a while? It won't pay much, but I guarantee
it won't be boring." Tracey Anvillin smiled. "Why not?" Fransisco Garcia
del Torres spoke up as well. "In return for his assistance, I have vowed
to aid Don Marcos in his quest for justice.
We should probably get about it." The two swordmasters and the Knight
strode out of the dockside slum discussing some of the finer points of