Jax sat cross-legged at the center of the bridge with his long-hafted polearm resting on his knees. Demacia had not changed much since he had last traveled this way, but that didn't surprise him. Its people zealously protected their borders, which had turned them into pretty decent fighters. Well, some of them anyway, he thought, wiping a spot of blood from the softly glowing head of the lamppost. He flicked the droplet over the parapet to the river below and reached into his robe to pull out his third hard-boiled egg of the day. Tapping it on the cobbles, he slowly peeled the shell as he heard the warriors at the end of the bridge try to decide which one of them would face him next.
Jax lifted his mask and bit into the egg. He took a deep breath, tasting sun-ripened crops on the wind and freshly turned earth from the expanse of farmland stretching to every horizon. Jax sighed; to see a realm at peace made him homesick for a land that no longer existed. He shook off the chill of memory, knowing thoughts of Icathia would only distract him. His robes were heavy, but the sun's warmth didn't reach the mottled and oddly hued skin beneath. No part of his flesh was visible, which was probably just as well. He wasn't even sure what his skin looked like anymore.
A cold wind scudded over the snowcapped mountains to the north and a distant storm disgorged rain over distant fields and settlements. Where Jax came from, there was little in the way of clouds, and even less rain. Perhaps the storm would come south and make the cobbles of the bridge slippery. That might make this more challenging for him.
It would also make things more difficult for his opponents. And perhaps that was no bad thing. After all, a warrior worthy of fighting at his side in the battles against the monsters from beyond would need to be adaptable. He heard the clatter of armor and the whisper of a blade cutting air.
"Stand and face me" ordered a powerful voice.
Jax held up a finger while he finished his egg. He licked his lips then settled his mask back over his face before looking up at the warrior standing before him. The man was powerfully built, broad of shoulder and thick of arm. Armored head to foot in gleaming warplate of burnished steel, he carried a double-edged, hand-and-a-half sword.
And looked like he knew how to use it. Jax approved.
"You seem like a man who can hew ironbirch trees all day and still have energy left for a tavern brawl" said Jax.
"I'll not waste words on you, monster" said the warrior, assuming the same fighting stance all the others had. Jax sighed, disappointed the defeat of the fifteen men before this one hadn't taught them anything.
"Monster?" he said, rising to his feet in one smooth motion. "I could show you monsters, but I fear you wouldn't live long enough to tell anyone what a real monster looks like."
He swung his lamppost around to loosen the muscles in his shoulders. Not that he needed to, but he'd been fighting, on and off, for the last four hours and it might make the man facing him feel like he at least had a chance of winning this duel.
"For Demacia!" shouted the swordsman and he attacked with the same tired, predictable strikes all the others had. The man was fast and strong enough to wield his sword in one hand. Jax swayed aside from the first blow, ducked the second and parried the third. He spun inside the swordsman's guard and hammered his elbow against the side of his helmet. The metal buckled and the man went down on one knee with a grunt of pain. Jax gave him a moment to still the ringing in his head. The man tore off his helm and dropped it to the bridge.
Blood matted the side of his head, but Jax was impressed at how the man controlled his anger. Demacians had always been sticklers for discipline, so he was glad to see that hadn't changed. The man took a steadying breath and attacked again, a series of blisteringly fast cuts that went high and low, a mixture of sweeping slashes, lighting thrusts and overhead cuts. Jax parried them all, his lamppost in constant motion as it deflected the Demacian's blade and delivered stinging, bruising ripostes to the man's arms and legs. He feinted left and hooked his lamppost around the opponent's legs, putting him flat on his back. He jabbed the butt of his post into the man's belly, doubling him up and leaving him gasping for air.
"Had enough yet?" asked Jax. "I can swap hands if it makes it easier."
"A Demacian would rather die than take succor from an enemy" said the warrior, lurching to his feet. The man's stoic facade was crumbling in the face of Jax's mockery, and when he attacked again, it was with a ferocity untempered by discipline and skill. Jax ducked a risky beheading strike and switched to a one-handed grip on his lamppost. He spun his weapon under the man's sword and rolled his wrist. The Demacian warrior's sword was wrenched from his grasp and flipped through the air. Jax caught it deftly in his free hand.
"Nice little weapon" he said, spinning the blade in a dazzling series of master fencer's strokes. "Lighter than it looks."
The Demacian drew his dagger and rushed him. Jax shook his head at his foolishness. He threw the sword from the bridge and sidestepped a series of blisteringly fast thrusts. He ducked a sweeping cut and caught a thunderous right cross in his open palm. He nodded toward the river.
"I hope you can swim" he said, and twisted his wrist, lifting the armored warrior from his feet and flipping him over the bridge's parapet. The man splashed down into the river and Jax planted his lamppost on the cobbles.
"Who's next?" he said.
"That would be me" said a woman dismounting a gray gelding at the end of the bridge. Her horse's flanks were lathered with sweat, her cloak dusty from a hard ride. She wore a silversteel breastplate, and a long-bladed sword was scabbarded at her hip.
She marched past the men at the end of the bridge and strode toward him, moving with a perfect economy of motion, utterly in balance and supremely confident in her skill. Her features were angular and patrician, framed by dark hair streaked with crimson. Her eyes were cold and unforgiving. They promised only death.
"Who are you?" asked Jax, intrigued.
"My name isof House Laurent" she said, drawing her weapon, a dueling that gleamed with a perfect edge. "And this is my bridge."
Jax grinned beneath his mask.
Finally, an opponent worth fighting!