The clash of metal on metal was loud and Aaron felt himself suddenly pressing back against the force of Van’s sword, holding his pistol with two hands, blocking the sword from cutting into his neck.
“I see you would rather fight then…” said Van, his muscles tense, as he held his sword firm against the black metal of the pistol.
It took a moment for Aaron to realize what had happened. He didn’t know how or when he’d grabbed the pistol or how he’d reacted to Van’s killing blow, blocking it… He couldn’t tell if it had been the curse taking him over or his own reaction. He could feel his limbs, he had control over his body… the presence of the curse was strong in the back of his mind, but it was silent for the moment.
“So are you just going to stand there? Or are you going to fight? You have five shots—use them!” commanded Van, putting more strength into his sword.
Aaron blinked, tensing his muscles and focusing his mind. He pushed off from Van’s sword, leaping back out of the way. He eyed the swordsman cautiously. Five shots, he thought. As a Protector he’d taken comfort in having the seven chambers of the cylinder filled with ammunition, but now, it brought on more of a feeling of dread. He really didn’t want to use those five shots, if he could at all manage it.
Van took his fighting stance, gripping his sword with both hands. He had a look of grim determination on his face. “Are you ready Aaron Backer?” he asked, his voice hard.
Aaron stared at him, his muscles tense, ready to move. He still wasn’t fully recovered so he didn’t know how long he would be able to last.
Suddenly Van lunged forward, coming at Aaron swinging with all his power.
Aaron saw it and dived to the side, hit the ground and rolled out of the way as Van slashed the air where he’d been.
Coming up on his feet in the center of the courtyard, Aaron held his pistol at the ready, his finger on the trigger. Van turned and lunged forward again before Aaron could take aim. Then as suddenly as Van was there coming at him, he vanished.
Aaron’s eyes went wide and he whirled around, raising his gun and pressing his hand against the barrel as Van’s sword hit it in a crushing downswing. The swordsman had side-stepped behind Aaron at the last second.
The blow sent Aaron skidding backward as the sword slid off the metal of the pistol. Aaron put one hand to the the ground to keep his balance as he skidded to a halt. Reflexes taking over he took aim and squeezed the trigger. The crack of the weapon was loud in his ears.
With a flourish, Van deflected the shot off his flat of his blade.
Aaron’s eyes went wide.
“You’re going to have to do better than that,” said Van causally. “Four shots left…”
That shot… it should have killed him… Aaron was jarred out of the blind focus of battle by the swordsman’s action. In the time that he’d been a Protector no one had ever survived a dead on shot. And this man had deflected it with ease.
Aaron blinked. The whisper hadn’t caught him nearly off-guard, but it alerted him to Van’s sudden movement. The man came at him with a with a combination of slashes, thrusts that Aaron had to dodge without warning. He was sluggish in reacting and felt the blade bit at his flesh.
Using the pistol to parry a slash, he used the momentary opening created by it to take aim and squeeze the trigger. The weapon cracked and the shot went wide as Van vanished from before him, dodging back out of the way the split second the shot ripped through the air were he’d been.
“Three shots,” he said, regaining his stance, gripping his sword with both hands.
Why, thought Aaron. Why did it tell me to live… is it… is it reacting to my own will or it’s own. I have control… yet… In all the years that he’d lived with the cruse and it’s suffocating presence, he’d never once heard it speak like that. He’d never felt so in control. The curse hadn’t reached out to take control of his actions. He was fighting by his own will… yet even in his weakened state, he could feel the power emanating from the pistol, bolstering his own abilities.
Is this what he meant… Soul Steel… is it reflecting my will to live…? Aaron didn’t know if he had a will to live after everything that he’d been through, but it what Van had said about the pistol was true, maybe, just maybe…
“Keep your focus on your opponent!” came the shout from next to him.
Aaron’s eyes went wide and he reacted, ducking, pulling the trigger and leaping away as fast as his reflexes would let him. The sword swung through the air to his left missing him by millimeters as he hit the ground rolling away, his shot knocking the blade off course enough for him to escape.
He came out of his roll into a crouch, and gripped his left shoulder with his weapon hand, still holding onto the pistol. He’d hit it hard on the ground. Thankfully he hadn’t dislocated it in his desperate dodge.
“Clever,” said Van. He stood in the spot where Aaron had been, examining his sword. “Aiming for the blade to knock my blow off course enough for you to dodge. I’m surprised you were able to do that. That would have been a killing blow had it been anyone else. Though it leaves you with two remaining shots.”
Van fixed his gaze on Aaron. “What will you do with those last two shots, Aaron Backer?”
Taking a deep breath, Aaron released his shoulder and stood. He needed to end this, but he needed more strength to do it.
Demon… kill him… live…
Aaron ignored the whisper, his mind working. Van had said something about there being a connection… Aaron didn’t know what he’d meant by it, but if there was something there, he should be able to feel it. Was it really there?
Letting out another breath, Aaron focused on the dark presence in the back of his mind. It had been slowly growing, yet it had not taken control of him.
There’s only one way to find out for sure what he was taking about… he thought. Bracing himself, he dropped his defenses as much as he dared, opening up his mind to the presence of the curse. One way or another he needed the help of the curse if he was going to survive this battle.
The presence reached out to his open mind suddenly and consumed him in a wave of agony.
Aaron heard himself cry out in pain before the world turned to black.