And here's Gareth with another combat snippet!

Steel Song
Or: The Danse Macabre

From the records of Manus Inkfingers, official scribe and aide to General Tialla Hammerblade of Karvak, dated 217 RR

"Sending a strike force was a bold move. Not like Khyber at all. Manus, if you were a betting man, would you say that they acted without orders?"

My lady, Tialla, was often given to these sorts of questions. She was always curious, despite her sole occupation being the ending of lives and the parting of property from its rightful owners in the name of Karvak. That she was beautiful was not in doubt at all; tall, regal, with long blond hair and soft blue eyes, she could have been a bard or a spy, but instead she hid her curves under armor and let her hand rest on one of the two swords at her belt, smiling a small smile. She turned and grinned widely at me.

"They're coming to take the relay codes from us. One of them is coming for me. I know. She told me."

And as if on command, the door was kicked open. In front of it was a half-elven youth, barely even a man, with a shock of short brown hair and green eyes. His body was covered in what looked like sheathed daggers, but we knew better - they were longswords, shrunk by magic and kept in astounding numbers on his person, each a trophy taken from a worthy foe.

"I got this one guys. Move on ahead!"

His voice was arrogant, cocky, but strong, and he took a step into the room with his hands empty. The young man moved with an assured grace that put into mind images of cats stalking their prey, or of the swooping dive of a dragon that has seen its foe.

"You're Tialla, right? The Lady of War and Karvek's biggest asset? I've been looking for you for a long time."

My lady laughed joyously, without a trace of irony or contempt.

"I'd expected you to be taller, Sword Saint. Aren't you supposed to be taller than a giant?"

The youth grinned impishly, "Call me Francis, ma'am, and you'll find that rumors of my god-like properties are greatly exaggerated. Who's your friend with the parchment? Some kind of scribe?"

"He is, at that, Francis. He'll not interfere."

As if by unspoken signal, Francis sprinted into the room, twin blades leaping from their sheaths into his hands. Before he'd taken two steps, the swords had left his hands, flying end over end at Tialla, and two more soon joined them. Tialla drew her own blade from its sheath, ducking low at the same time to dodge the first flying blade. She advanced, swatting another blade out of the air and rolling her shoulder pauldron forward to deflect the third. She rose, caught the fourth blade, and threw it aside in time to meet the Sword Saint's furious charge, whipping her sword in front of her in time to block a vicious double slash. The impact drove her back half a foot; clearly, the half-elf was stronger than he looked.

I have seen warriors battle for their lives before, witnessed the cautious dance that precedes the violence. There was none of that here; the Sword Saint threw himself at Tialla in a storm of steel and fury, blurring the air gray with his sheer rapidity of his strikes. Tialla gave ground before him, bringing her blade up again and again for desperate parries, letting blows through to crash painfully against the plates of her armor. A song of steel filled the air, like bells crying out in beautiful pain.

Even still, blows crept through; a slice so fast as to be barely seen clipped off the top of her ear. A crushing blow stove in the side of her breastplate, cracking a rib. She gritted her teeth through the pain, giving way slowly, letting her opponent exhaust himself.

The two of them broke apart after what felt like an age, panting and smiling goblin grins of joy and blood lust.

"You're good," the youth said eagerly. "You're damn good. I've never had a fight like this!"

"You're pretty impressive yourself, Sword Saint. Sadly, I know something you do not."

His grin widened, "Let me guess, you are not left handed?"

"No. This is not a longsword."

My lady stepped forward with a sweeping slash well short of the Sword Saint, and as her blade came around, it lengthened, becoming a slightly shortened claymore scything for his neck. With a yelp, he threw himself backwards, leaning back and throwing his momentum into a flip that took him over Tialla's next blow, an ankle swipe. He spun to the side as she whipped her claymore back and brought it crashing down. Tialla used her heavy blade like it was lighter than air, moving it without a care in the world in ways that would make a giant swordsman green with envy. The Sword Saint bent his body in increasingly astonishing ways to stay out of the path of its knife-sharp edge, keeping himself a hair's width away from a swift end.

Then he did something unexpected - he attacked, his form blurring as he shouted a command word in elven. I recognized the haste spell affecting him as he threw himself into the assault, leaping into the air for a series of spinning slashes that came down like hammer's blows on Tialla's blade. His feet hit the ground and he advanced like a metal hurricane, forcing her to block blow after blow with her wide blade.

Why do this? It wasn't getting him anywhere. Unless...

The spell wore off and my lady lashed out with her booted foot, catching the elf in the chest. He spun as he fell, his swords going flying out of his hands, and she brought her weapon up and around - only to see Francis catch himself, regain his feet, and draw a single weapon in one smooth motion. As her claymore hit the floorboards, he brought an adamantine longsword down on its blade, cracking the already weakened metal in half and spraying its shards all over the floor. His free hand reached out and drew Tialla's other blade from her sheath, and he flicked it across her throat with a backhanded slash. A neat red line appeared on her throat, which then became a rapid gush of blood. For a moment I could swear that the blade he'd done the deed with pulsed, as though breathing.

"What will you do now?"

"My job," he said with a shrug. "I have my trophy. I'm done here."

He left after that. I never saw him again.

Three Days Later, in the Sword Saint's tent

"So, soul-stealing sword, huh?"

"Soul-storing, really. I thought you might use it against me, and I figured I could be safe rather than sorry. Do you intend on killing me?"

"No way! We've got a lot to teach each other. And it's not like I can't afford the spell if I can get you on our side."

"Oh, definitely. Are you...?

"What, single? Yeah, actually. You wouldn't think it, but yeah. Want to get some drinks or something to celebrate coming back from the dead once we get back to Porthaven?"

"Sounds marvelous."