Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 11
The attacks stopped. His pulse was pounding in his ears. His breath was coming out in gouts of hot steam. There wasn’t enough air. Ashok looked around, realized that all of the creatures had pulled back a few steps, as if collecting themselves. They weren’t so much as shaking, and he couldn’t tell if they were even breathing at all. Despite receiving several lethal blows, all six of them were still standing.
“They’re not dying,” Ashok stated.
“I can see that,” Devedas snapped.
Devedas had lopped one of their hands off. The severed appendage was lying in the trampled snow at his feet, blue fingers still twitching, so he kicked it away in disgust. The monster who’d lost the hand went over, picked it up, and casually stuck it inside its furs for safekeeping. Perhaps it would reattach it later somehow. Ashok really didn’t know that much about magical abominations.
“Run for the Heart. I’ll hold them off,” Devedas ordered.
Ashok didn’t dignify that with a reply. He may have been young, but he’d done nothing but train his whole life. He was a son of the highest caste, and he’d be damned if he was going to run from witchcraft. Everything has a weakness. They just had to find it.
The creatures came at them again.
A spear was flung at him. He reacted and swatted it out of the air. A moment later another almost hit Devedas in the back but Ashok barely managed to knock it aside as well. Then the axes were falling, and they seemed ever faster this time. He moved between them, stabbing and slashing. A lucky move put him beneath a swing, and Ashok responded with a draw cut so deep into the monster’s abdomen that it would have split any regular man nearly in two.
That monster calmly walked away, letting another take its place.
Ashok swung for a faceless skull, but it was mutely blocked by a raised ax. He stepped into it, and drove the tip through the space where the mouth would have been. He shoved until steel came out the back of its head and knocked its fur hood off. He shoved until the guard smacked into the stretchy membrane. It still tried to hit him, but he got his other hand up and grabbed onto the ax handle. What does it take to kill you?
Entangled, another monster stepped up to stab him. Devedas intercepted it with a swing so hard that it left the spear splintered and useless. Then Devedas shoulder checked the creature into the snow.
Everything had a weaknessâ€¦Gravity was one of them. Except for birds, but luckily they weren’t fighting birds.
“Breaking formation!” Ashok shouted. The two of them were hardly a formation, but that’s what they’d been taught to say in training when moving apart. His opponent was bigger and heavier than he was, but Ashok had driven a sword through its face, and that gave him considerable leverage. He jerked the sword to the side, twisting its head around, and then he shoved. The two of them crashed through the crowd, sliding across the snow, toward the edge of the cliff. At the last second, Ashok yanked back hard, pulling his sword free.
The creature slipped on the ice and went to its knees, but didn’t go over the edge. So Ashok kicked it in the chest and sent it rolling over the side. It disappeared in a cloud of ice crystals. He turned back just in time to catch the tip of a spear as it plunged through his thick coat. There was a flash of heat as the edge sliced through his skin. Rolling around the attack, Ashok hacked that creature in the neck. The soft flesh parted, but it still wouldn’t let go of the spear. His boots began sliding across the packed snow as it shoved him toward the edge of the cliff.
Ashok snarled and hacked it in the neck again and again. The rubbery substance came apart beneath the well-honed blade until its head parted from the neck, and hung there, attached only by a flap of skin.
It still didn’t die.
“Move right!” Devedas shouted.
Ashok didn’t hesitate. He threw his body to the side, spear still twisted through his clothing, as Devedas crashed into the monster’s back, sending it flying off the ledge and into space. The spear was yanked out, slicing a new cut across Ashok’s body, just above the first.
The remaining monsters pulled away again, observing.
Ashok could feel the blood running down his stomach. Devedas was grimacing and there was blood running down his scalp from where he’d been struck. They were both panting. He was thankful for the chance to catch his breath, what little of it was available up here.
“Two down. Four to go,” Ashok said. “Ideas?”
“Hack them to bits. Toss the bits over the side.”
He’d been hoping for something better. “Good plan.”
The monsters closed on them a third time. Either he was tiring faster than expected, or they’d grown much faster. The monsters seemed far more confident, and their weapon handling was vastly improved. There was nothing clumsy about them now. A minute of furious combat seemed to stretch on forever. Both sides fought with the savagery worthy of Senior Protectors. Ashok was only able to get in a single solid hit, slicing his blade through a few ribs before the things pulled back again. That one stood there, silently mocking him. Apparently they didn’t have lungs either.
Devedas had done better than Ashok had, and had carved a massive chunk from one of the creature’s legs. The monster was balancing itself with its spear, broken leg dangling in the snow, seemingly as calm as Ashok was. Then he looked over his shoulder to find that they’d been herded to the edge of the cliff.
“They’re toying with us,” Devedas gasped.
Sure enough, when they came for the fourth time, the creatures struck like lightning. Their strength was incredible. Too fast. Devedas legs were swept out from under him by a whirling spear shaft. The monster smoothly recovered, raised the spear, and launched it at Ashok. Devedas swung from the ground and intercepted the killing blow, saving his life again.
Ashok stabbed at that monster, but a jolt of pain ran up his arm as his sword was batted brutally aside by another. Ashok fought with all the skill and savagery he could muster, until the flat of an ax bruised his ribs and knocked the thin air from his lungs. Something else hit him on the hip, cracking bone and forcing him down. He swung for a monster’s legs, but it leapt effortlessly over the flashing blade. Nothing is that fast. Something clubbed him over the head, and by the time the lights quit flashing behind his eyes, the monster he’d attacked had stepped on his sword blade, pinning it to the ice.
It was curious. He’d always thought that at the moment of death, he’d finally know what it was like to feel fear like everyone else, but there was nothing. Ashok tried to draw his knife, but a spear head was shoved through his hood and pressed against his throat. Strange. He’d always thought that pushed to this point he’d feel something.
The cold iron departed, ripping away a bit of his skin with it. The monsters pulled back again across the small battleground of packed snow, leaving the two acolytes lying there, struggling to breathe. Devedas got to his feet first. He grabbed Ashok by the shoulder and roughly hauled him upright. One of his legs was nothing but tingling, nonresponsive pain. Involuntary tears were forming in his eyes and freezing there. He had to lean against Devedas to keep from falling over. Neither of them could stand on their own, but they both raised their swords.
The four remaining monsters silently parted to make way for another figure. This one was also dressed in thick furs, and Ashok’s first thought was that the creature’s chief had arrived to finish them. Then the newcomer pushed back his hood, revealing dark human skin rather than a stretched blue skull. “Stand down, acolytes. We start them tame for the challengers. Making it to the fourth incarnation is impressive, but I don’t believe you would last more than a few seconds of their fifth.”
Ashok recognized the speaker. He was tall and thin, but wiry strong, with graying hair and a weathered face. Ashok blinked his eyes and shook his head, but the man was still there. Are my eyes broken? He didn’t think he’d been struck in the head, or maybe the lack of air was getting to him, because Ratul, Lord Protector of the Order, couldn’t be here. Ratul had been at the base of the mountain to see them off.
“Master? Whyâ€¦How?” Devedas stammered. “How did you –”
“Silence.” Their swordmaster was known as Ratul Without Mercy, and he was more frightening than any witchcraft-fueled abominations. “You’ve kept me waiting longer than expected, but I must admit, that was an acceptable demonstration. I am not ashamed to have taught you.”
Coming from Ratul, that was an incredible compliment, and Ashok was pleased to receive it.
His companion, however, was a bit more emotional in his response. “This was part of the test? We nearly died! What kind of brain-damaged fish-eater came up with this?” Devedas shouted as he wiped the blood from his face. Then he realized how unacceptable that emotional outburst was and lowered his head. “Forgive me, Lord Protector.”
Ratul had a way of glaring with his narrow, heavy-lidded eyes that struck fear into all the acolytes capable of feeling such things. “You’re lucky, Devedas. Long ago I cursed my instructor on this very spot for the very same reason. Offense has been given, but not taken. You have faced the guardians of the Heart. Don’t worry about the two you tossed over the side. They’ll climb back up shortly. If these had been men, you might have won. Enough questions for now.” Ratul put his hood back up and began walking away. “Come with me. You have passed.”
“What about Yugantar?” Devedas looked in the direction the other acolyte had fled.
“He didn’t pass. The mountain can have him.”