Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 10

A storm forced the acolytes to take cover for a full day, huddled in a shallow cave, miserable and shivering. On the final morning they ate the last of their dried meat and washed it down with melted snow. They’d resupply from the stores at the Heart or they’d starve. Acolytes often went days without food, but it was difficult to keep moving through terrain like this and stay warm on an empty stomach. Starvation was an excellent motivator to continue plodding on.

Noon of the final day was clear and bright, so bright in fact that they all had to wear leather strips over their eyes with small cuts to see through. Glare could sunburn the eyeball, leaving them blind and helpless. Despite the sun being visible, Ashok had never been this cold before. They were nearing the peak of the tallest mountain in the nation. He had never even imagined that this kind of cold could exist, but it was worth it, because from up here it was as if he could see the entire world.

Logically, Ashok knew it wasn’t the whole world, not even but a small part of their continent of Lok, but it was still an incredible view.

“Magnificent.” Devedas paused next to him and scanned the horizon. “It’s almost enough to make you understand how the superstitious still believe in gods.”

Ashok wanted to say something, but his mouth was so dry that he had to take a drink from his canteen before he could speak. The only reason the water hadn’t completely frozen was because he kept it next to his body. He pointed toward the north. “Where the plains turn brown, that’s the beginning of the great desert of House Zarger. I bet we can almost see the Capitol from here.” Then he pointed toward the northeast, across the plains, to where another, smaller mountain range loomed. “Thao. And on the other side of those are the lands of Vadal, my house.” He slowly turned in a circle, like the hand of a clock, still pointing, naming off great house territories as he went. “Sarnobat, Kharsawan, Akershan.” He turned to the south where the mountains sloped down toward the distant sea. “Devakula.”

“Home,” Devedas agreed.

Ashok kept turning, he couldn’t actually see those distant lands, but he liked to imagine that he could. “Makao.” Then west. “Uttara, Harban.” And a full circle back to the north. “Gujara, Vokkan.”

“So you paid attention to Mindarin’s geography lecture. I’d present you with an achievement ribbon but I didn’t think to put any in my pack.”

“Don’t you understand, Devedas? All of those great houses? We’re the ones who get to maintain the peace between them.” Ashok gestured at the mighty expanse. Maybe the altitude was making him light-headed, but it was a lot to soak in. “All of this is our responsibility. Without the Law, there is no union, and without us, there would be no Law.”

“You’re a strange kid, Ashok,” Devedas said as he started marching toward the summit.

Ashok took one last look at the world before resuming his journey. It was the strongest he’d felt in days.

* * *

Of the three who remained, Yugantar, five-year acolyte, was their oldest and most experienced student. He was the proud son of a chief judge in the Capitol, from a long and accomplished lineage, so it was rather shameful when he ran away and left Ashok and Devedas to die at the hands of the monsters at the summit.

“Get back here!” Devedas shouted, but Yugantar was already fifty yards away, clumsily sliding down the rocks, panicked and trying to escape. “Coward!”

When they’d first risen out of the snow all around them, Ashok had thought that they were only men, dressed in the pelts of some white-furred animal, only as they’d gotten closer he’d realized their visible skin was the color of blue river slush. At first his tired mind thought their bodies were painted like a festival girl, but then he realized they had no faces. Their faces beneath their hoods were nothing more than a thin blue membrane stretched tight over a skull.

“Oceans!” Devedas swore.

Yugantar had been on point and seen them first. No wonder he’d run for his life.

The creatures hadn’t made a sound, but they were spreading out, forming a circle around the two acolytes. Their mouths were sealed, their teeth visible through the stretched skin. Do they eat? Or are they sustained on witchcraft? They were armed with short spears and clumsy axes. Ashok counted six of them in total. Their appearance was unnatural. Thin as untouchables, they had no meat to them, but they didn’t move like they were malnourished. They had no eyes, just round indentations in the sick fabric of their faces, but they seemed to have no problem seeing.

Strangely enough, Ashok still wasn’t afraid, though he knew he probably should have been. This was the sort of thing stories were told about to scare children, or so Ashok had been told because he really couldn’t remember his own childhood. He raised his voice and shouted, “We’re from the Protector Order on official business. It’s illegal to block our way. Move aside.”

Rather than answer, the things kept trudging through the snow toward them.

“They’re abominations,” Devedas hissed. “I don’t think they obey the Law.”

“Everything must obey or deal with the consequences. What are they?”

“I don’t know. Witchcraft! You’re the one that never forgets the lessons.” Devedas drew his sword. The blade was southern, heavy and forward curving, designed for chopping off limbs. He took one last look at their fleeing companion, probably debating if he should follow, but he turned back to the fight. “Damned idiot, Yug. There’s nothing down that mountain but starvation. We get to the Heart or we die. Get ready.”

Ashok drew his own sword. It felt clumsy in the thick fur mitten, but he was afraid to take it off because his skin would doubtlessly freeze to the handle and that would probably be worse.

They were on a rocky shelf, fifty feet wide, next to a wall of dark stone. Fallen snow was being blown about by the howling wind. As the blue-skinned monsters kept spreading out around them, Ashok realized that the leather strap protecting his eyes from the glare also took away much of his peripheral vision. They were in the shade of the rock so he tore the strap off. Much better.

The creatures were moving inward, crouched now, weapons clutched in their long blue fingers. Even with the wind, the snow here was still knee deep, so their movements were awkward and each step required them to lift their legs high to crunch back down through the hard snow. Maneuvering would be difficult. Outnumbered like this, if he and Devedas fell, they were as good as dead.

Devedas realized the same thing. “Get back to back.”

Ashok moved around him, stomping down snow, trying to make a beaten area so he could have some footing.

“Try to look intimidating.”

He wasn’t sure how to do that. Ashok was tall for his age, but didn’t feel particularly intimidating being outnumbered three to one by magical abominations. At his back, Ashok could feel Devedas shaking with nerves and anticipation. Personally, he still felt no fear. His only wish was that he had his real sword instead of this inferior thing. Angruvadal could sweep the creatures from the mountain with ease.

The monsters stopped. The acolytes were in the middle of a twenty-foot circle, hemmed in by the blue creature’s rough iron weapons. Ashok was surprised by how quiet the moment was.

Then they attacked.

The monsters didn’t communicate in any discernible way, but they moved as one. The things lurched forward. He couldn’t even call it a charge, more of a methodical approach through the deep snow, really. He’d been hoping they would clump up and get in each other’s way like a proper mob, but they were coordinated, as a few moved to attack, while the others held back, waiting for an opportunity to strike.

A spear was thrust his way. Ashok turned it aside with the flat of his blade and then countered. The creature was bigger and had far more reach, so only the tip of his sword sunk into the thing’s torso. It pulled back noiselessly. Another swung an ax at his head. Ashok parried it aside, then ran his sword down the handle, raising a cloud of splinters and then dropping one of the thing’s fingers into the snow. That one also pulled away without a sound.

The rest of them kept coming.

One creature lifted its ax overhead, almost leisurely. Ashok lunged forward to drive his blade deep into the thing’s guts. Straight and broad, his sword was designed for thrusting. A good puncture from a two-inch blade would take the fight out of any man, but the ax kept rising. Ashok turned the blade hard, ripped it out the side, and barely got out of the way as the ax was driven through the snow and into the rock below.

Snow was flying between the sharpened edges. The noise of steel striking iron reverberated off of the great stone wall. Devedas grunted as he was cut, but Ashok turned and ran that creature through the ribs before it could follow up. It put one hand on his shoulder and shoved him away. His sword came out, clean, with not a drop of blood to be seen.

The two of them were turning, meeting attack after attack. Devedas lowered his body and swung around to strike the monster closest to Ashok in the leg, while Ashok attacked over Devedas shoulder and punctured a creature’s neck.