“Lord Norton, please head up. Teacher arrived early,” said Bolyde with utmost respect as he saluted Lorist.

The other disciples spread out and surrounded the mountain. They appeared to be guarding the surroundings so nobody would interrupt the duel.

Lorist nodded. He turned to Reidy and Jinolio.

“Stay here, or go back if you want.”

Reidy glanced at Bolyde.

“We’ll wait here, Teacher. We pray for your victory.”

Lorist waved them off and dismounted before climbing the mountains.

This mountain had no path to the peak. The lower half had some greenery, mainly shrubs and grass, but the upper half was bare. It stood far from the coast and there were little in the way of prevailing winds, so no moisture was blown up it to wet the top. Only the hardiest of plants broke rock here and there.

The peak was a single, solid mass of gray rock. Lorist kicked up from a hole in the mountain and impaled a ledge with his sword before flipping off and ascending further. He peaked several flips later. The top was leveled, about a hundred meters square. A few hairline cracks danced like lightning in the shifting light, but the surface was stable. A few boulders lay on this surface, but not enough to severely hinder movement.

Lorist wondered where his opponent was. Had he not come early? Wind suddenly rose from behind him, lifting his cape and making it flap about aimlessly. He turned around and saw the battlefield stretched out from the bottom of the mountain to Bluwek. The two sides, like two blobs, covered two sides of the flatlands below. He felt like he should hear horns blaring and officers barking orders, but the sounds were long washed out by the time the wind reached him.

As he perked his ears to see if he could hear any lingering noise of the war beneath, he heard a gentle flutter behind him. He turned his gaze and saw the old swordsaint lumbering his way up the last couple of meters of slope. His face was slightly flush and his breathing heavier than would be expected of a swordsaint.

“When you are as old as me, your bones don’t hold up as well as they used to. Apologies for showing you such a sight, Your Grace,” the old man said shamelessly, bowing slightly, “Greetings Duke Norton. I am grateful for your acceptance. Looks like this old man won’t have to lose face.”

How odd. What was the old man up to? Why was he being so polite? Was he not an arrogant fool?

“Umm...” Lorist opened his mouth to speak, but the old man’s name escaped him. That Count Kris-whatsisname introduced him as Master Ma-something-ut...

He couldn’t be bothered to trawl the name up from his memory.

“Can we get going?” he snapped, unsheathing his sword.

The sooner he could finish, the sooner he could return to the battlefield. He was anxious. His plans were thorough, but he could not afford to be absent if something untoward happened.

The old man just shrugged and sat down.

“No rush. Let’s rest for a bit. I’m old. I’m not nearly as energetic as you. You can at least give this old man some time to catch his breath, can’t you?”

Lorist stared at the old man, speechless.

What the hell? Is this his house?! He even dares sit down! He’s not worried I’ll strike him like this at all?!

Then again, they were fifteen meters apart. Even if he dashed at full speed, the old man would still have enough time to react.

Whatever, just rest if you need it so badly. There’s no point in rushing. Shoved his sword into the stone and returned his attention to the battlefield.

From this vantage point, Falik Plains looked like a large chessboard, but the Union occupied two-thirds of it. Little squared of men checkered the landscape all the way to the horizon. The squares closest to his forces had been whittled down and were just small, scattered dots. He could just barely make out clumps where large numbers of men had died together, and a few pebble like dots sat scattered between them, probably shield carts of one kind or another.

“You seem rather confident in your forces. Is that why you’re fighting the battle on the same day as our duel? Where do you get that confidence? The Union is advancing very well. Your men are well-trained, but they’re completely outnumbered.”

“Had enough rest? Then let’s fight.”

“Anxious to get to join the battle?”

Lorist didn’t answer, but his face betrayed him.

The old swordsaint chortled.

“Frien-- Lord Norton. It’s true I challenged you to a duel, but the truth is I don’t want to fight you.”

“Then why’d you challenge me?”

The old man tapped the rock beside him.

“Do you know why I thanked you for accepting?”

Lorist shook his head.

Since you asked for a beating, I’ll give you want. I was having trouble finding you but now you’ve come to me. I should be the thankful one. With you out of the picture the Union will crumble. Why would I not grab such a chance?"

“You haven’t been a swordsaint for long, so you probably don’t know much about our way of doing things. But you’ll learn in good time.”

“What does that have to duel with our duel? Weren’t we both heavily injured in our last fight? You challenged me after you recovered because you want to get payback, right? I didn’t get enough in our last fight, so I want to fight you again.”

The old man burst into a short bout of laughter.

“I didn’t issue the challenge with the intention to fight. I know taking you on will be torturous and I’ll probably be just as badly injured as before. My old bones can’t take it anymore. Everyone knows about our last fight. If I didn’t challenge you they’d think I was afraid of you and I’d lose most of the respect and reputation I’ve earned. I had to challenge you to preserve my honor.”

“I’m a swordsaint, one of just a handful on the continent. We have transcended the ruling classes. Nobody dares offend us. Even in wars we don’t have to fight. We prefer it that way since we’d rather not fight and kill one another. There are few enough of us already, no need to lower that number ourselves. We don’t care which of us is considered the strongest. I doubt anyone would have a problem with you being put at the top of our rankings. You’re welcome to it. You’re a noble as well as a swordsaint, the rest of us are commoners. We may have high statuses, but they’re symbolic only. We have no real power.

“We’re seen as these sages, divorced of the mundane world, our only pursuit perfection of our cultivation. We are respected and stand equal even to kings and emperors in the eyes of the people, but we have no authority. We only fight to preserve our reputation so we can hold on to what little freedom and influence we have. That’s why I challenged you.

“Challenges are usually accepted as easily as this one. Most of the time a lot of conditions are negotiated first. We don’t face each other often as a result. Most fights are spars between friendly swordsaints. I am grateful that you accepted my challenge without a fuss. I will repay this favor.”

Lorist finally understood what was going on. The swordsaint wanted to put up a facade of a duel for the rest of the world to preserve his honor, but in reality he just wanted to chat. Even if he returned without a scratch, he could claim to have fought Lorist to a draw. It was far better than having to escape injury-ridden. And, given his status, there would be no need to try so hard on behalf of the Union, anyway.

Lorist was different. Like the old man had said, Lorist was a noble as well as a swordsaint. He had a domain and millions of people depending on him. He could not sit by like a detached bystander and just watch the fight play out either way. He had to make sure his forces won.

He prepared to leave.

“Let’s not be hasty now,” the old man hastened to stop him.

Lorist frowned and clutched his sword.

“You want to stop me?”

“You’re a swordsaint. Why bother with such petty things? We must not be too involved in the world of mortals. Even if you’re a duke, you can’t lead every charge, can you? You must be confident in your forces being able to win in your absence, otherwise you wouldn’t have set the battle on the same day as our duel. Why not watch it from here? We might be powerful, but swordsaints can’t single-handedly change the outcomes of battles such as these.”

“Did you make a deal with the Union concerning me?”

The old man nodded shamelessly.

“I cannot let you take part in the battle, so I cannot let you descend the mountain until the battle is over. Besides, a duel between swordsaints cannot end this quickly. No one will believe we’ve fought.”

“Oh really?” Lorist’s glare froze. “Do you really think you can keep me here?”

“I admit I’m not your match. But stopping you from leaving is not the same as winning the fight. I have several strategies to lock you down on this peak even if I can’t win. I’d prefer not to have to fight you, however. There’s no point in us being enemies.”

“So what did they promise you?”

“The duchy of Walinya. Well, they didn’t offer it to me, I demanded it. It’s one of the smaller duchies south of the Union, near Jigda. It used to be a protectorate of Kalia. It’s about the same size as one of your empire’s provinces.”

“Are you sure the Union will really give it to you?”

“They won’t dare lie to a swordsaint. As long as I keep you here until the battle ends and I’m not badly injured, they’ll give it to me. They’d like nothing more than for the two of us to fight one another until we’re just barely still alive.”

“Hey, old man,” Lorist interjected, “even if you get Walinya, aren’t you afraid the swordsaints from the Romon and Khawistan will come after you? I heard they chased you out of Kalia by working together.”

Lorist suddenly felt a desire to gossip. He had nothing better to do up here, so why not?

“Hehe. Kalia wasn’t ruined because I was chased out of the kingdom. It was ruined because I and the king had irreconcilable differences. I would have liked to kill the old bastard, but I couldn’t if I wanted to preserve my reputation, so for years I’d just sequestered myself away and ignored the king. The two empires didn’t dare make a move as long as I was in the kingdom, though. One day I received a letter from the two empire’s swordsaints saying they’d been asked to work together to chase me out of the kingdom or kill me so the two empires could split it up. It was the perfect excuse to get out, so I played along and pretended to be chased out of the kingdom by the two after a serious fight.”

“Being a swordsaint comes with a lot of annoying shackles. I realized when I first came across you and learned you were both a swordsaint and a noble that I can only really be free if I am both a noble and a swordsaint. So I demanded land and a title in exchange for keeping you out of the fight.”

A loud, sky-shattering rumble burst up the mountain from the lands below. A line of smoke rose up from Lorist’s forces, and towers of smoke rose from semi-random positions on the Union’s side. Their formations instantly crumbled. Soon after a soft blur of cries and wails clawed its way through the air to the peak.

Lorist finally breathed again and sat down.

“Don’t you still want to go back to the battlefield?”

“The battle’s over. The Union lost. I don’t need to go back in a hurry anymore.”

“How?!”

The old man jumped up and stared at the battlefield. Smoke covered most of it, but he could just make out the Union’s side retreating like ants on a table after someone hit it. The enemy side’s formation was also breaking up like a flood as it rushed over the battlefield, chasing the retreating Union.

“Gah!” cried the old man suddenly. He drew his sword and slashed the rock closest to him.

“The heck are you up to?” asked Lorist.

“Quick, help me. Leave a few sword marks on the rocks over there. This is the sacred ground of a swordsaint duel. We must leave some signs of the intense battle. You take that side, I’ll take this one, we can swap once we’re done.”