With the Vextrus-infused great sword perched at his stool, Juxxa sat before the dying fire of the blacksmith’s forge, biting through a chunk of dried desert lizard. The hospitality was earned, as far as he was concerned, but in a softer, less reliable part of his mind, he felt thankful that Minah got to eat and rest. The blacksmith next to them had gotten the idea: no thanks would be spoken, but he was doing the right thing. He ate in silence as well.
“I’ve only one bed, in the basement,” the man grumbled, rising as he scarfed the last few bites of reptilian tail. “But you’re welcome to sleep on this level. If the elves find you, I know nothing.”
“Thank you, sir,” Minah said, and the man forced out an awkward bow of recognition. The daughter of the most dangerous man in the city was not so easy to patronize as other young girls.
Once he was down the trap door, Juxxa felt Minah climbing atop his shoulders, like she was one chair atop another.
“I just miss this,” she said, “when I got to ride on your shoulders.”
“…I do, too.”
They sat together in this preposterous arrangement.
“How much more are you willing to do of this?” Minah asked.
“You’re letting me determine when we stop?”
“It’s only fair. I know we can’t save everyone. We’ve saved many, for several days. We could leave now, get away from any wall guards under the cover of night.”
“If you’re ready, I’m all for it,” Juxxa said, then rose slightly, making her tilt and shift to keep balanced. “This was a good thing we did.”
“You’re not angry?”
“No.” He finished eating and held her delicate ankles to his chest like the straps of a pack. “The night is here, now, and we have much of it. I agree, let’s go home.”
Though Juxxa could not see it, Minah beamed at hearing her father agree to, rather than simply allow, one of her ideas. Then she heard a strange pitch in the air, far above them, and she clambered down as gracefully as possible.
“What’s wrong?” Juxxa asked.
“Some kind of noise. Don’t you hear it?”
“…now I do, yes.”
The noise grew and descended. Something was plummeting, shredding the wind even harder than when he had tested the magic sword. Juxxa stood up and watched the black sky.
He had to move—and so did his daughter. He dragged her out of the spell-created hole in the wall to escape what seemed like a giant arrow falling from above. The sudden sinking, retraction, and burst behind them sent them flying. His nose crumpled against soft brick, and his body stopped.
The spell is gone.
The ringing in Juxxa’s ears gave way to the crackling of flames that dotted the blast radius, and Minah was already on her feet, staring at the burning crater.
“Oh no,” Minah whispered. Blood pooled down toward the bottom of what had once been the blacksmith’s home.
Once he was standing again, Juxxa could see the crater’s center. In it was a blinding white seed, bigger than a coffin and made of something metallic—only metal didn’t produce pure daylight. The object suddenly split open lengthways, one side opening on invisible hinges. There was a man inside, lying with his weapon across the length of him.
With one leg over the seed coffin, its light draining by the moment, Juxxa got a better look at the man’s face: square and stout, with a very familiar, thick brow. Once the visitor was standing at full height and looking up at them, he realized it was the guard captain, Reginald, the competitor in the one good fight he had in the arena before the madness with Kaj and Kimora.
Reginald wore the same leather armor of an arena combatant from that day, but this time it was Juxxa who wielded a great sword. The guard captain’s new weapon was a pearl-white maul, on a handle even taller than himself. The weapon, just like the falling seed its user came from, was made of that first shining, now merely white material that did not come across as wood, bone, metal, or anything else of this world.
“How are you still alive?” Juxxa asked, wiping blood from above his lips.
Reginald charged up the rubble, his giant war hammer low and ready for an upward swipe.
“Minah, get back!” Juxxa had his blade ready, and despite everything, wanted to do the poor old blacksmith proud. Yet as his enemy approached, he felt an unwavering sickness and loss of balance, like he was suddenly poisoned with bad wine. The gleam of the hammer’s head told him to block.
Unnaturally good at parrying a foe’s swipes. That was what the old man had said. So when Juxxa brought the blade to the end of the shaft in order to deflect the much heavier weapon and get in a stab, he did not expect his sword to shatter like glass.
Then his arm broke, and he fell to his right, his forehead smashing into the ground. As he heard Minah shriek, “Papa!” through the air, his foot faintly tapped the ground, and then his head again, twisting his neck. He was tumbling like a dead leaf in the wind from the impact, and now held not even the pommel or bits of broken metal. Somehow, that had broken, too.
He stopped, finally, face down, unarmed, and with his arm a crushed purple mass right before the elbow.
“Now for you,” he heard Reginald say. It was several houses away, and yet it was louder to him than the impact of Reginald’s weapon.