Upturn (2008 anthology story)

“Why does it always have to be a routine duty?” Those were Jim Tantic’s last words, before the taste of steel in his mouth was replaced by that of iron, the feeling of pain in the back of his throat was replaced by one of numbness, and his difficulty breathing was replaced by a blissful emptiness.

It all started on a ceremonial detail, escorting the High Cleric to and from a new temple to give Temple’s blessing. The blessing had gone off without a hitch, and His Fathership had just left when the stranger arrived. The stranger had carried himself with the dignity of one of the Royal Guards themselves, and had been licensed by the military to hold a blade longer than an inch. When he asked to hold Jason Devar’s ceremonial saber “for nostalgia’s sake,” the friendly Lieutenant had been all too happy to oblige.

That had been Devar’s first mistake under Captain Tantic’s watch and, had he survived the next few minutes, it would have ended his career. As it were, Devar was the first to die, his heart punctured by the limited stabbing end of a blunted ceremonial saber through ceremonial armor designed with little but display in mind. By the time the stranger had pulled the saber to himself, his regal positioning lost and a combat stance assumed in its place, the situation already looked grim. Devar lay dead behind him, and Sergeant Fival fell unconscious from a blow he had sustained to the side of his helmeted head during the stranger’s retrieval of the blade.

The three remaining members of the Royal Guard had fanned out in a semi-circle, reacting too slowly to the man’s tactic of changing attack style with each opponent. While he had dispatched Lieutent Devar with the air and abruptness of an expert assassin and felled Ed Fival with a swing like a bar-room brawler, he advanced toward Corporal Krystan with the short, swift strikes of a master fencer.

Once the junior Guard had fallen to his knees, clutching his bleeding eye sockets, the enemy had pivoted on his heel, delivering the hilt of his stolen saber into the tip of Sergeant Major Erica Ovar’s nose. Watching his lover and sparring partner be dispatched so swiftly, Captain Tantic had charged. Dropping his useless saber to the ground, he drew the short-sword that his predecessors had used for centuries to execute enemies of the church, and charged.

During the last minute of his life, Tantic replayed the brief charge in his mind nearly a hundred times. He saw himself lower his head, heard his vicious roar, and felt the flat of the saber that knocked the air from his throat and changed the angle of his charge so drastically he ended up on his back. He never even made eye contact with his assailant as his second-in-command’s blade was pushed through the back of his throat and into his spine.

“Because no one but a child goes into combat aware and dies.”

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