Theodore watched in silence as the body was removed from the arena field by a team of spriggan. A ruddy stain was left in dirt, an imprint of a life snuffed out. He balled a fist. Gardner Feather leaned closer to him, a gentle hand at his back.
“Can you do this?” She said. “If you cannot do this, you must forfeit.”
“They’ll take your name if I do that,” he said.
“Better that I give up my name than you surrender your life for nothing.”
“Not nothing,” Theodore said. “I won’t let Beira become Fair Lady.”
Feather bowed her head. “I do not know what the Mother intends in all of this. I never presumed to want the throne, and, I think, you never thought to fight for us. I just pray we are reaching for the Fate we were meant for.”
It wasn’t a matter of prayer for Theodore. Beira was dangerous. Her grievances, valid as they were, could tear Laien apart. Her vision of the future was bloody: A great and terrible liberty. Theodore told himself faith didn’t enter the equation, but it did. There had to be another way. He needed to believe, in spite of all the strife between humans and creatures, that the grand experiment of this alliance could still work.
“When I make you Fair Lady, I need you to do everything in your power to fix the Circle,” he said. “Uphold the treaties, and make sure the sort of thing that happened to Oboe never happens again.”
“I…” It took her a moment to adjust to his certainty. “Yes. Of course.”
The gong rang. Theodore marched out onto the field, where Beira Stormbreak was waiting for him. She scraped the ground with her hoof, snorting, her body speckled by gore. The white hair on her brow was stained with Oboe’s blood from the battle before, and the wounds ripped across her flank had blackened into scabs. The composure seen at the council was gone, stripped away, revealing a hatred and anger beneath that resembled the monsters in storybooks.
Theodore held a hand to his chest to show respect. It didn’t matter what Beira looked like, and it didn’t matter that they meant to kill one another. They were both creatures, and they were both fighting for what they believed.
Snowflakes whirled around the unicorn. She eyed him, sizing him up with a crazed look. “Weak,” she said, with hungry delight.
The air turned dry and hot around them as moisture was pulled towards Beira. A flash. Spears of ice materialized, floating in front of her. Before the starting gong rang, she launched them and they sang, whistling through the air one after another. Ready, Theodore whipped out of the way of the first two and drew his sword. He knocked the last from the air and sent it cartwheeling across the arena until it burst.
Theodore allowed himself the tiniest smirk and paid for it when Beira breathed out a freezing gale of wind that lashed at him, pushing his boots back along the loose dirt and roaring through his ears. The spectators screamed as the wind blasted through the stadium and knocked them from their seats.
Fighting to keep from being thrown from his feet, Theodore pushed against the typhoon. Before he could get close enough to attack, the wind stopped without warning and he was thrown off balance. Beira charged, horn aimed at his heart. He tumbled out of the way, losing his glasses in the act but spotting an opportunity. She passed him, her flank exposed just for moment. The old screams filled his mind as he swung to carve her flesh. He faltered. His sword cut air. She escaped.
The air was now thick with fog, and his vision was a blur. Her silhouette flitted through the mist and vanished. The stadium was loud with shouts and confusion. Theodore spun, trying to spot his invisible foe by some hoofprint in the snow. It was too late. The icicle lances came singing out from the haze and forced Theodore to dodge and weave as they came from every direction. He heard each one coming, but just barely. His focus wavered, deafened by the memory of every death he had ever seen or caused. All he could do was evade, helpless, while each of Beira’s attacks came closer and closer to ending him.
This wasn’t good enough. He needed to be on the attack, but his glasses were gone and his mind was distracted. He couldn’t afford to be merciful; Beira was relentless. There was only one way to win. A knight was needed, with everything that entailed. He needed to be the bigger monster.
The mist parted. Theodore heard the gallop of hooves. Beira was invisible, but she was coming. He reminded himself that Oboe wouldn’t hesitate. Oboe would do what had to be done to protect what she cared about. He readied his sword, and before the unicorn could drive her horn into his heart he moved to one side and sliced a red streak down the length of thin air as she passed.
Beira slowed to a halt but made no sound or taunt to reward him for his cut. All he could make out was a silhouette before she disappeared back into the mist.
Theodore felt his heart race. A familiar, dark excitement lit up within him again. A thrill to fight and conquer. It frightened him as it always had, but he did not suppress it this time. If there was an evil inside him, it was needed right now. Oboe’s magic was called wicked, but she had put it to righteous purpose. If she could transform into a beast, so could he.
Peering through the fog and the roar of the crowd, Theodore caught the coppery scent of blood. He chased it, dashing across webbing frost. A new gust of wind blew to stop him, and Theodore hurled himself against it, using all his might to force a route straight to his target. He brought his sword down before he could see her, chopping gashes across her face and legs in a frenzy and driving her back.
She reared, shrieking, and pushing past his slashes she dove to plunge her horn deep into his waist. Theodore fell. His sword was knocked from his hand. Beira bore down on top of him, stomping with all her weight on his chest to crush him. The breastplate bent, squeezing the air from his lungs. Theodore’s hand found the sword. The ring on his finger clicked against the hilt. He rolled before Beira could crush him. The words of the Tall Man rang in his ears, and he pushed himself back onto his feet, feeling his life dripping down his legs. There was no pain, no old screams, just adrenaline and a need to draw more blood. He lunged to strike her, and she disappeared again.
Dazed, Theodore knew he would not survive another attack like that. He realized his mistake. There was no discipline in his attacks, no technique. Lance had taught him better than that. A knight harnessed rage and shaped it, driving it like a chariot to its purpose. Theodore took the plow stance and limped forward. The scent of her blood was masked by his own, but now the ghosts of his past were silent. He heard her hoof beats and followed.
Spears of ice whizzed out from the edges of his vision, and he batted each away and readied himself for the next. She tried to escape, growing more frantic, but he had crippled her forelegs. With each step he closed the distance between them. She caused icicles to rain down on him, stabbing his skin like needles, but he pushed through. Right when he was almost upon her, she turned invisible.
He lunged, driving his sword deep into an opponent he could not see. Beira screamed, appearing in front of him. Twisting the sword, he pulled it free. She fired a spell at his feet, sending ice creeping up his legs. Theodore hacked at her horn, it splintered and the spell wavered. With one more strike he chopped the horn off and the spell fizzled out.
His anger tensed like a taut drawn bow, aimed to kill. He loosed it. He ripped his legs free of the half-formed ice and tore into the unicorn, stabbing and hacking and ripping fast and vicious until the unicorn buckled, aimless, panicked, as he did not stop, his stances forgotten as he tore deep gashes across her flesh with fierce abandon, all sense replaced with a searing hatred for what Beira had done and meant to do.
She collapsed, thrashing against the ground. Theodore realized the grim reality of what he had done, and he found himself standing over his opponent, drenched in her blood, panting, wounded. His sword was primed to slit her throat.
Beira looked up, bathed in blood and wheezing. She was still trying. Bucking impotently, the frost melting beneath the pooling red. Pity sprang up in Theodore.
“Yield,” he said, panting, knowing that wasn’t the answer, knowing she was still too dangerous to allow to live, knowing it was already too late to save her but wanting to offer the same hand he used to pull Conrad onto his feet. “Please.”
The unicorn growled, foaming at the mouth. She spoke, a lifetime of hate dripping off two syllables.
Theodore took his sword in both hands and whispered an apology. He drove the sword across her throat and wept as he watched the last of her struggle end.