Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 12

Chapter 6

Eighteen years ago

“If you’d not been here to guide us, we would’ve frozen to death before we found this entrance. The directions we were given were flawed for this last part. It would have led us to the wrong part of the summit.”

“Correct, Ashok,” Ratul said as he knocked the ice from the hidden doors. They were cut from the stone and camouflaged so well that they could have camped on them and never known. “The Heart is the most vital possession of the Order. Only those who pass the test may know the true location. It is possible that an acolyte may fail the test and flee the Order. They have already demonstrated their lack of character. They could talk. What then?”

The solution was obvious. “Execute them.”

“Easier said than done in some cases, so it is better to deceive all the acolytes. Those who pass learn the truth. Should you ever speak of what you see beyond this point, your life is forfeit. If you are ever tortured for this information, it is better that you will yourself to die rather than give it up. If you ever tell of this place, you will be hunted down by the entire Order and destroyed, for the Heart is the source of our power.”

Ratul did something with his hands, it seemed as if he were tracing invisible pictures on the stone, but whatever it was was hidden from view by his fur coat. The door should have been frozen solid, but it slid open with the grinding of stone against stone. Steep stairs led down into the mountain. Ratul started down and they followed. It was good to get out of the wind, but Ashok didn’t like how there was no visible mechanism for opening the heavy door inside. Regulated magic was legal, but he had an instinctive personal distrust of the craft. Magic was made using the leftovers of broken ancestor blades and the remaining life spark of long-dead bearers.

“From this point forward, nothing you see can ever be spoken about with anyone who is not a Protector of senior rank or higher. You have already given me your oath. Whether it be a chief judge, the highest arbiter in the Capitol, the Thakoor of your house, or if the Forgotten himself descends from the heavens in a rain of fire and asks about this place, I don’t give a damn, you will not speak with them about the Heart. Understood?”

“The Forgotten is imaginary, Lord Protector,” Ashok pointed out.

“Damn, boy, you are a literal sort. Come on.” Ratul started down the stairs.

The acolytes followed. Ashok was still having a hard time walking. His joint made a clicking noise in his pelvis with each step, and the pain was grating. The cuts on his chest burned, but the blood had dried to his undershirt enough to form a sort of giant cloth scab, so he was in no danger of bleeding to death. Devedas’ was keeping pressure on the laceration in his side, but the wound on his head was still slowly leaking through his hood. He was looking deathly pale and had vomited a few minutes before, but Ratul had denied their requests to stop long enough to tend their wounds.

Devedas slipped, stumbled down several steps, but caught himself on the wall before falling completely. Ashok grabbed him by the arm and helped him stand. Since one foot was numb, that almost caused both of them to go tumbling down the stairs. Some mighty Protectors they were.

He’d never been good at offering encouragement. “Keep going. It’s not far now,” Ashok said anyway.

“You don’t know that,” Devedas whispered.

“I can still hear you,” Ratul said from below. “Your bodies are frail. Bones break, blood spills, and the Law is deprived of yet another valuable enforcer. That’s what the Heart is for. When your own proves insufficient, it will beat on your behalf…But the boy is right, Devedas, it isn’t much farther.”

The magic door ground closed behind them, plunging them into complete darkness. Footsteps told him that Ratul was still descending. Devedas muttered something incomprehensible, and then the two of them limped along after their instructor.

The blindness was unnerving. The stairs continued. There seemed to be hundreds of them. Normally Ashok was so focused he would have counted, but now he was too tired to think. Something was making his nose itch. The mountain had been almost sterile. In comparison this placed smelled old. It was quiet except for the scrape of their boots against the stairs, their gloves along the walls, and Devedas’ labored breathing. Ashok was taking a lot of Devedas’ weight now as the older acolyte was having a hard time staying conscious. “Stay with me, brother,” Ashok pleaded as Devedas’ head wobbled around on his neck. If he went limp, they would fall. “I’m not strong enough to carry you.”

Below them, Ratul began to whistle a tune. Then his footfalls changed. He’d left the stairs and reached a level surface. That gave Ashok hope. There was some rattling of metal on metal, and then the scrape of a firestarter. Thankfully, an orange light appeared. The glow spread as Ratul took the torch and touched it to a big fire pit. Whatever was in it was dry and immediately ignited. By the time he got Devedas to the bottom the chamber was filling with light and heat. His skin prickled. They’d been cold for so long that the warm air felt like being stabbed with thousands of needles.

“Bring him this way.” Ratul ordered as he walked further inside and lit another fire pit. Ashok was having a hard time keeping up. “I was told there used to be lanterns here that never went out, but all magic breaks down eventually. The lights died generations ago, yet we make do. I sense a parable about society there.”

Ashok stepped on an uneven part of the floor, and for whatever reason, that was enough. The strength went out from his injured leg. It crumpled beneath, and the two acolytes fell down. He hit the ground with a grunt. “Oh, what now?” Ratul muttered as he came back. He roughly rolled Devedas over and lowered an ear to his chest. “Hmmm…This one is worse off than I thought. He’s bleeding to death and doesn’t have enough sense to complain about it.”

“He did complain, Lord Protector. However, you didn’t listen.”

“We’re going to have to work on that unflinching honesty of yours, Ashok.” Ratul effortlessly hoisted Devedas up and put him over one shoulder. “Wait here. I must get him to the Heart immediately.”

The master carried off the other acolyte, leaving Ashok alone.

He lay there on the hard floor for a time, flat on his back, letting his exhaustion seep from his body into the mountain. Ashok was incapable of fearing for himself, but it was interesting to discover that he could be worried about someone else’s fate. He didn’t want Devedas to die. Ashok had never had a friend before. Well, at least if you didn’t count Angruvadal, but he wasn’t sure if an ancient magical killing machine could actually be considered a friend.

The fire pits cast just enough light to see the high ceiling of the chamber. This place may have started out as a cave, but it had been worked and polished until the walls were smooth. However, there was large, rectangular, section on the wall above him that was intricately carved and casting odd shadows. It took his eyes time to adjust enough to figure out what he was looking at.

It was a map.

Ashok had seen many maps. Mindarin used them during his lessons and had several posted in the training room. He’d seen maps of house borders, of the trade routes between them, even maps of all of Lok, where great rivers were lines and cities were nothing but specks. Only this wasn’t like any map he’d seen before. He couldn’t figure out what house’s lands it was showing. Something was wrong with this one, he couldn’t place his finger on it, but the map seemed totally unfamiliar. Legal borders changed over time, but coasts and mountain ranges didn’t.