Their blades flickered, meeting once, twice, with a twist and sway of their steely bodies, then they both drew back, once more taking the measure of their opponent, Nicodemus's lazy eyes meeting the steel of Solomon's.
"Not bad. You have no idea how rare you are. Most people have only a few decades of experience to draw upon, leaving them quite outclassed by myself. It's rare to meet a man like you, one gifted enough to do so much with so little."
Solomon Kane was silent, although he didn't believe the dark man's boasting. Time had taught him that knowledge came with age and experience, that was true enough. Still, at forty two years of age, he went through as much adversity as he had lived through his youth, he'd met the peak of his skill long since, and his improvements and understanding became honed in tinier, finer detail. The changes he made became increasingly minuscule with every year. He doubted that the difference of learning for a decade and a century were really all that much, if one applied themselves to the task. No, Nicodemus may have more experience, but they'd both moved long past the point where such details were telling.
Instead he takes the staff in his left hand and drives it into the earth, the point sinking easily into the soil, and lifts the tip of his blade again, still and silent. His focus was absolute, his devotion to the task unquestionable. He had every intention of killing Nicodemus, and while there was life in him nothing would deter him.
Nicodemus smiles a little, his shadow huge and indistinct in the paltry torchlight, seeming to pulse in time to some unearthly drumbeat. Then the spell is broken, and he leaps forward again in a textbook lunge, his blade whickering forward at Solomon's breast.
Every instinct - all of his carefully hoarded expertise, warned Solomon to leap backwards, or aside, or upwards, anywhere but in the attack. He disregarded it, tapping the rapier aside with a quick parry, then tore his dagger out of his sheath and drove his shoulder into Nicodemus' as he did. He caught his opponent in the center of his chest, sending him staggering back, then twisted the knife to one side and cut upwards.
With a sound of surprise Nicodemus lurched backwards, trying to reverse the angle of his flailing sword arm. But before he could, the dagger's edge had sliced through the muscle of his bicep as neatly as a wire through cheese.
There was surprisingly little blood for so significant a wound. A trickle, not the spurting river one would expect. It oozed lightly out his neatly torn flesh, then stopped abruptly, the gash pale and ghastly.
Nicodemus narrowed his eyes and stepped back smoothly, swapping hands as he did, his movements not that of the newly crippled. He was naturally right handed, but had worked hard to get ambidextrous, and was just as competent with either hand. Reversing his grip on the dagger, Solomon pressed forward, his mind full of predatory concentration.
Nicodemus lunged again, the exact same move as last time, and Solomon lunged into the blow once more, this time slashing at the pale white flesh beneath the chin. The steel connected with barely a sound.
The ancient man's eyes opened into twin circles of shock as the knife ripped upwards into the soft flesh beneath his chin. Then his mouth gaped open into an expression of perfect outrage as Solomon pulled the blade out of his throat, and left him gurgling through a death rattle. Again, there was surprising little blood, considering the severed artery and cut throat.
Solomon watched him stumble and fall with solemn silence, befitting the grim Puritan. He said no final words, sought no closure despite the five years he had spent in hunt of the Black Apostle, taking him across the world. Such was as alien to the man as the rest was. He felt a certain satisfaction, but more he was conscious of a strange feeling of futility. Somehow, it felt that no real good had been wrought, as though, afterall, his foe had escaped his just vengeance. Then he shook it off, and cleansed his sword mechanically on his tattered garments. He'd done what he came to do, and that was all, no further ceremony observed or required. He'd hack his way through the jungle, catch a merchant ship and make his way back to Europe, once more a landless wanderer. He had no need to remain in Africa any longer. Pausing a moment, he wiped the blood from his sword, and replaced it at his hip, then turned and began to walk away.
"Don't get ahead of yourself." Says the urbane voice that only recently stopped mocking him, and Solomon turns to see Nicodemus getting steadily to his feet, picking up the blade in his suddenly functional right hand, and turning to look at the puritan once more. His skin was marred and ugly where the blades had sunk into his flesh, but repairing itself by the second with a rippling movement, the skin rippling until it was clear again. "A fine start, however. You didn't even hesitate to kill me."
Kane turned, eyes wide with amazement and superstitious terror. Mind reeling, he almost dropped his sword as his flesh crawled with something akin to horror. Superstitious enough to believe in portents, curses and foul magic's in the way that others believed in ships and houses. He did not doubt his sanity, or the evidence of his perceptions. No, he had no doubt that Nicodemus had died a real death at the point of his blade, and had lived again. At some point, Nicodemus had come upon some Secret, overcoming the limitations and shackles of the flesh and allowing him to surpass Death, that oldest of enemies.
What thoughtless, timeless journeys had he taken? How had he gained this dark wisdom? Then came a clarity, lent to his subconscious mind by his hate, and he raised his blade once more. He was a moment too late.
Nicodemus' sword whipped silently forward, tearing through the leather and cotton of Solomon's clothes with an angry whine. It sent a lance of white hot pain slicing across the muscles of his midsection. "I wonder, is this the result of all you have seen, justifying my execution, or do you kill everyone who crosses your path?" Nicodemus said, his shadow spreading still further, until t seemed he stood before a wall of pure dark. "You certainly don't give the impression of a particularly tolerant fellow."
In answer, Solomon tosses aside the knife and wrapped his hand around the pistol tucked securely to his belt. Cocking it with a single, thoughtless twitch as he draws and aims it, all in the one, flowing movement, he pulls the trigger. There was a crisp detonation and pain exploded in Nicodemus' chest, as the lead ball took him clean between the third and fourth ribs. He staggered back a step, jerking and twisting, then slumped against the wall, but he didn't fall.
Nicodemus dug a finger into the hole, rooting around until he dug out the hot lead ball with a fingernail, and held it between his thumb and forefinger. He dropped it to the ground, shaking his head.
"Well that was hardly in the spirit of things, was it?" he smiles, getting back to his feet, and leveling his blade. "Now are you quite done with distractions?"
Solomon nodded once, not seeming all that surprised by the result. Having survived the blade in his throat, in his heart Solomon had begun to doubt that he truly could triumph here. "Enough. Come on then, hellspawn. Kill me if you can."
Those were fighting words, but Solomon was discomforted, He'd expected as much, but he'd wanted to confirm it, beyond any doubt. Nicodemus was immortal.
Those who dabbled in the dark arts did so at the peril of not only their immortal soul, but their very ability to reason. Those that drew upon them were twisted and corrupted, until they forgot what had driven them to this point in the first place. Nicodemus, however, was not like them.
It was all too easy to dismiss Nicodemus as a madman, but under-estimating him in such a manner was a fatal error. Nicodemus was a twisted and evil man, but not truly insane. He was all too aware of the horror and perversion of what he did, he appreciated in full that his actions were lawless and murderous, indeed, he even took a certain craftsmen's pleasure in them. That great mind, that powerful intellect had been twisted, perhaps even tainted, but it had never been broken. It was not the base cunning of a madman that had allowed him to remain at large committing his atrocities, but the wicked application of that wicked intellect. No, there was no such excuse for his all too willing seduction into the ways of evil. None at all.
Again the uncertainty wormed it's way into Solomon. He had seen what this man could do, had seen first hand the awful, devastating power at his command. There was no question that the abominations he served were all too real, and there was no question that they had bestowed their dark gifts and favor apon the man.
He had just struck him a fatal blow, he'd watched what should have been the end of him, and yet here he stood, a few droplets of blood on his otherwise pristine clothing the only sign he'd been wounded at all. Could he even die?
Solomon brought up his sword, as he saw his enemies blade flickering towards his eyes, ducking a moment too late. Another thread of agony zipped across his forehead, and a spill of hot blood ran down into his eyes.
He counterstroke, but hit only air, Nicodemus flitting to one side with the grace and finesse of a dancing instructor. With a practiced flick of his wrist, Nicodemus struck again, the blade of the rapier swishing playfully through the air. Solomon ducked aside, then tossed the knife, only for Nicodemus to skip lightly back and bat it aside with the edge of his blade.
"Come on, can't you do any better?" he asked, nipping forward to send the tip of the blade stinging across the Puritan's nose, then tapping the blade aside. A sudden whirl of blades, and then the fight settled into a rhythm.
Minutes flew by, the clang and clash of steel not diminishing. Now they stood squarely in the center of the town, Nicodemus seemingly untouched, seeming almost casual, Kane's garments red with the blood that oozed from the wounds that oozed on his breast, arm and thigh.
Nicodemus knew the wounds he had inflicted on Solomon were not deep, but even so, the steady flow of blood should have sapped some of his speed and strength. But if Kane felt the ebb of his powers, it did not show. His brooding countenance did not change expression, and he pressed the fight with the same cold fury he had exhibited from the beginning.
Both lashed against the other, their blades meeting vis-à-vis in the air, and the two strained against each other, seeming equally matched. "Come on." Nicodemus mocked, smiling at Solomon's dark countenance as though he found the whole affectation of a duel amusing, which is completely correct. "Don't tell me that's all you have. Is it? Because it's not even nearly good enough…"
Solomon Kane hit him.
Nicodemus felt as though he'd been slammed face first into a stone wall, the blow nearly taking his eye out. Blood ran from his brow into his left eye, as the socket swelled up purple and tender. Half the world blurred as he lost most of his vision from it. Nicodemus only smiled. "That's more like it."
Solomon didn't reply, stepping back a step, his sword snaking at Nicodemus once more while the momentary advantage was his. His breath came fast and his arm began to weary, though one would be hard-pressed to see the effects of exhaustion on him, he was reaching his limit, and Nicodemus could be fresh for all the discomfort he showed. Who was this man of shadow and steel who never seemed to weaken? The same thing that preserved his life seemingly preserved his body from the rigors of exhaustion.
But Solomon didn't surrender to the tolls of his body anymore then he would surrender to Nicodemus. Rallying his strength and hate, he dove forward, a sudden, unexpected attack too swift for the eye to follow, a dynamic burst of speed no man could have withstood, and Nicodemus blinked in shock as his blade was sent singing from his hand, then was sent reeling as the englishmen's rapier made a silver line in the moonlight.
Blood, just a little, bubbled from Nicodemus's throat, then was pushed aside to make way for the mocking laughter.
A slow, deadly rage surged in Solomon then – the fury of helplessness. The blood churned in his temples and his eyes smoldered with a terrible light as he eyes the Dark Apostle, his sword still planted in his chest, impaling his heart. His fingers spread and closed like claws. They were strong, those hands, men had died in their clutch. Nicodemus's slender column of a neck would snap like a rotten branch between them, and yet it would do him no good. For his enemy would not die. Kane could not even have fled had he wished – and he had never fled a single foe.
With a haughty arrogance, Nicodemus pulled the blade from him with a wet sound, and tossed it aside distastefully. "I don't think anyone's ever beaten me so decisively twice." He says, and some quality in his voice has changed. For all his civilized air, Nicodemus does not like to be thwarted or defied. "Do you think you can do it again?"
Although the night was black as pitch, Solomon could tell that dawn was not far off. It had something to do with the smell, the first faint stirrings of the ocean breeze had started to stir through the smell of blood and death. This revived him, and he straightened, hoping Nicodemus would get it over with, before his growing weakness sent him crumpling to the earth.
And the Denarian didn't disappoint. A second set of eyes opened on his forehead, glowing sickly green. They were slanted like a cats, their iris and pupils the wrong shape, and they were unreadable and emotionless. His shadow surged and gathered behind him, and then rolled forward like an oncoming tide, sweeping Solomon away.