Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 01
Son Of The Black Sword
The familiar dream was always the same. He was on his knees, wiping a stone floor clean. The rag soaked up the red puddle, a mixture of soapy water and blood. When he wrung the tattered cloth out over his washbucket it ran in pink rivulets across his hands, a child’s hands.
A noise intruded on the dream, waking him.
He moved one hand to his sword, and in the hazy moment between sleep and reality, it still seemed to be a child’s hand, dripping with watered-down blood, but the dream faded and reality returned. Now it was a man’s hand, callused by training and scarred by battle. That hand belonged to Protector of the Law, twenty-year senior Ashok Vadal, and he did not clean blood. He spilled it.
Listening carefully, Ashok decided that the noise had come from just outside his tent. A warrior had approached, then stopped there probably to gather up his courage before waking their honored guest. Ashok relaxed and released Angruvadal’s grip. Reaching for it first was an old habit. If the sword needed to be drawn, it would have told him.
The blood scrubbing dream had come to him many times before, but as usual it held no wisdom, no revelations. It meant nothing. After all, it was only a dream. It was a fabrication of the mind, not a memory. It was not real. The stifling heat was real. The moist clinging air was real. He’d been sleeping beneath hanging silks because the stinging flies that infested this region were all too real. The sweaty discomfort reminded him that he was in the wretched northern jungles of Great House Gujara, and that he’d been ordered here to kill a demon. The waking noises of the temporary camp and the unusual silence of the jungle suggested that the demon had shown itself.
The messenger hadn’t announced himself yet. Ashok was used to low-status members of the warrior caste behaving this way around him, either out of respect for his office or fear of his reputation. He’d been listening to their whispered rumors for two decades now, half of which weren’t true, and the other half exaggerated, but it was no wonder messengers were always so nervous around him. It was always best to cut through the awkward pause. “Is it time?” Ashok asked through the canvas.
“The demon has been sighted, Protector.”
“Where?” He rolled out from beneath the silks and found his clothing in the dark.
“It’s raiding a village on the coast right now.” The warrior was trying to keep the fear out of his voice, and mostly succeeding. “The messenger said it’s already slaughtered dozens!”
“So it’s close then?”
“Yes, Protector. The demon is very close.”
Good. It was too damned hot to have to chase it.
* * *
Ashok sprinted along the darkened path toward the sounds of screaming. His appointed escorts — a paltan of fifty warriors — were behind him, struggling and failing to keep up. The soldiers were on foot because horses didn’t survive for long in the humid, muddy, vine-choked, insect-infested northern peninsula of House Gujara, so their warrior caste had no cavalry tradition here. However, when it came to fighting a demon, being on foot was not a disadvantage. Horses were terrified by demons, and no matter how well trained, could not be relied upon.
Besides, for short distances such as this, Ashok could outrun a horse.
He began to encounter fleeing villagers along the path. There were a few men, women, and children of the worker caste, but most of the refugees were casteless non-people. It made sense, because only the lowest of the low would be condemned to live close to the seashore. Many of those he passed were wounded, mostly from crashing through the thorny brush, but a few were showing the blackened, bloody patches that came from simply brushing against a demon’s hide. Rub a hand against a demon one direction, it was smooth, almost soft, but run it the opposite and leave your palm behind.
There had been no time for the villagers to gather their possessions. Since the demon had struck in the middle of the night, most of the villagers weren’t even clothed, but a few of the casteless were carrying squealing pigs or squawking chickens. Non-people were pragmatic that way. As he drew closer to the village the fleeing crowd became thicker and he had to dodge between them. They were terrified, desperate to escape, but he moved through the crushing mob effortlessly, like a raindrop falling from the sky and rolling between the leaves of a tree, seeking its inevitable path. Behind him there was a great deal of shouting as the warrior caste crashed into and roughly shoved their inferiors out of their way, off the path, and into the stabbing thorn vines.
The village was close now. The breaking of wood and the crack and pop of fire could be heard over the panicked cries. The demon itself would make no sound. They never did. Ashok could smell smoke and blood and spilled bowels, but the demon itself would have no scent. It would be a swift black shadow, with claws harder than steel, a mouth full of razor teeth, and the strength of an elephant.
The orange light from several burning huts cast wild shadows through the trees. The thick jungle parted. There wasn’t much open space between the jungle and the high tide, so the ramshackle buildings had been packed tightly, practically on top of each other, and built on stilts to keep them dry above the rocky beach. Bridges constructed of wood and hemp connected the structures, and they were swaying violently as people ran across, trying to escape the spreading fires and the demon’s hunger. Beyond the village was the vast dark ocean. Nothing came from the sea except for regret, fish, and demons.
There was no sign of the demon yet, but Ashok knew it was in there somewhere. His sword could sense it as well, and Angruvadal was demanding to be drawn in order to dispense death. Not yet. Demons seemed to sense black steel, and he didn’t want to frighten the creature away. If it returned to the sea, there would be no way to follow, and he’d have to wait for another chance to catch it.
As he caught his breath, he noticed several warriors stationed at the end of the jungle path, shouting at the villagers to flee for their lives, as if the encouragement was needed. The soldiers were armed with spears and wearing the simple cloth and hide armor preferred by House Gujara, where rust was a greater enemy than actual enemies. Despite being equipped for battle and raised their entire lives to do nothing but fight, they were in no hurry to enter that burning maze to take on a demon.
“Go back the way you came! There’s a sea demon here!” a very young soldier warned when he saw Ashok emerge from the jungle. “Run away while you can.”
The firelight was flickering and unreliable, so the junior nayak had probably not realized who he was ordering around. Ashok didn’t take his warning as an insult against his courage. He entered the circle of torchlight, and when they saw his armor they shut their mouths. “Which one of you is in command?”
The soldier realized what manner of man he’s been speaking to. “Apologies, Protector! Our havildar is Virata!” It was part explanation, part summons, and then he realized that, demon incursion or not, he’d better bow to someone of such high station, so he dipped his head so fast that his padded helmet fell off into the sand. “I’ll fetch him. Havildar! A Protector is here!”