Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 02
“A Protector? Impossible.” Another warrior, gone a bit fat, came jogging up. He was too old to hold the low rank of havildar — a leader of ten — but of course, a great house would only send the dim and disgraced from among its warrior caste to protect a cursed holding such as this. “Our house has abandoned us. We’re all going to die here. There’s no –”
The ornate armor of the Protector Order should have been a giveaway, but Ashok showed him the token of his office so there could be no question about who was now in charge. The officer’s eyes widened when he saw the silver flash in the firelight. “Take me to the sea demon,” Ashok said.
“I can’t!” the officer wailed.
Ashok couldn’t believe his ears. The Law was clear about both of their duties in this situation. “Are you disobeying my order?” His tone was cold. “Calm yourself and speak carefully before you answer.”
“No, Protector. It was…I don’t know…I saw it reach through old Ravna’s stomach, take hold of his spine, and pull his head right through his shoulders. Such a thing can’t be real! I ordered a retreat because we had to run. I had no choice.”
That babbling didn’t answer Ashok’s question. The havildar was stupid with fear. Demons could shatter even a great warrior’s courage, and he was fairly certain this man had never been counted among House Gujara’s great to begin with. “Calm yourself and tell me, where is the demon?”
The havildar cowered. “Too strong…Too much blood. I can’t…Won’t go back…”
In a time of crisis, some men might shirk their duties, but to a Protector, obedience was everything, and the Law required him to punish this demon for trespassing. He couldn’t do it if they were lollygagging around while it swam back to sea, so Ashok backhanded the warrior in the mouth hard enough to loosen a few teeth from his jaw. The officer fell in the sand, whimpering.
“We saw it in the storehouse!” interjected the young soldier before Ashok could put his boot to the havildar. He was pointing into one of the larger fires. “Past that big building there. Last I saw, the demon was heading toward the casteless quarter, that direction.”
The casteless were not people, they were property, but they looked enough like real men that the sea demon probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Ashok could only assume that non-people tasted the same as real people to a demon.
“It was huge! It had to duck to get through the big storehouse door.” The junior soldier lifted one hand as high as possible, stretching it over his head, and even stood on his toes.
The nayak was tall, nearly as tall as Ashok in fact. Even allowing for some exaggeration from the terror of seeing such a thing, that meant this demon was a big one. The larger demons that bothered to come up on shore were particularly bloodthirsty, and their raiding period could often last an entire season. If it wasn’t stopped tonight, then its rampage would continue, night after night, until it was killed or sated. It would take a few minutes for his fifty-man escort to catch up, and when they did they would be too out of breath to be immediately useful. The demon would surely sense the arrival of that many soldiers and might decide to leave. It couldn’t be allowed to escape.
“Reinforcements are coming. Tell the risaldar in charge that I’ve gone after it.”
Ashok drew the ancestor blade of Great House Vadal from the sheath on his belt. Angruvadal was eager. The sword retained the collected martial instincts of every man who had ever carried it into battle, all in a length of metal so black that it absorbed the light around it, and so sharp that it could even pierce the hide of a demon. The nayak realized what it was and took a fearful step back.
I am never alone.
* * *
The heat was so intense that it was difficult to even approach the growing fire. A black shape shot between the storehouse and a burning shack. Ashok would have followed directly, but his skin was not nearly as impervious as that of his prey. Despite the fact that they lived their lives beneath the waves, fire didn’t seem to harm demons. Ashok ran along the shore, leaping from rock to rock, looking for a path through the flames. Unclean saltwater soaked his boots, and he cursed the fools who would build a village in such a tainted place.
Most of the residents had fled or died. Now the demon was just toying with the stragglers, feasting before it returned to the depths. They’d always struck him as spiteful that way. He spotted the demon again as it leapt over a rope bridge, but then he lost it in the smoke. The air scorched his eyes as he started up a narrow ramp after it. Ashok paused to tie a scarf over the lower half of his face in a vain attempt to strain the air. It made sense that the creature would have the advantage here. Demons could breathe air or water, and in comparison to that, what trouble was smoke?
Ashok selected a path and pushed on through the maze of connected huts and scaffolding. The bridge was flimsy and rocked wildly as he ran across. He reached a solid platform and a lucky shift of the wind granted him a lungful of decent air and a clear view. A few coughing survivors pushed past him to climb down the ladders. One desperately leapt over the side to fall into the black waves. It was foolhardy to ever touch Hell, but it was shallow enough here that nothing immediately tried to devour that worker. Tonight the ocean’s nightmares were on dry land.
He had been taught that the best way to track a demon was to follow the signs of chaos. Wherever demons went, they left carnage in their wake. They were the living embodiment of destruction. Sword in hand, Ashok moved down the platform, following the trail of blood and discarded body parts. Demons never stopped moving, and they liked to carry their victim’s bodies as they bounded from place to place, gnawing on them until they found someone else to rip into. Once they’d gorged themselves, and their bellies were stuffed full, they would usually pause long enough to vomit up what they’d just eaten in order to make room for more. There was a foot, still wearing a sandal. There were several severed fingers on top of a pile of unidentifiable organs. He was on the right path.
The trail led down another narrow bridge. The cracks between the boards revealed crashing surf below. The only thing separating his body from the evil sea was some rickety stilts and rotting wood. It was strange enough to make even a man without fear pause. How could anyone, even the lowest of the low, live like this? Then the wave retreated, revealing shining sand, and his confidence returned.
This largest group of platforms was kept purposefully separate from the rest. This was the oldest and most confusing part of the village, with huts and structures haphazardly built in layers on top of each other for generations. It didn’t matter which house’s territory he was in. Casteless quarters always felt similar, giving off an air of disintegrating shoddy construction and a general filthiness. The Law mandated that the living area of the untouchables be kept separate from that of the whole men. Bits of glowing ash were falling from the dark sky, and several buildings in the casteless quarter had caught fire. Ashok took cover behind the corner of a hut and listened. Something was screeching. It was a horrible, bloodcurdling sound. He hoped the demon had attacked a piglet because that sound should not ever come out of a human throat, no matter how low in status the human might be.