Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 14
Ashok hesitated. From the top of the mountain he’d been able to see into the lands of several great houses. At the time he’d not realized how truly small they really were. Taking one last longing look at the map, Ashok hurried and limped after his instructor.
More torches had been lit along a corridor. It led further into the mountain. “I’m curious, Ashok. Why did you attempt the test so early?”
He was required to give only honest answers to his superiors. “I don’t think I can last another year without my sword.”
Ratul grunted. “Thought so.”
That didn’t answer whether he’d get Angruvadal back yet or not, but it wasn’t Ashok’s place to question. He would prove himself or die trying.
They entered another, smaller chamber. The room was plain, but the shape of it gave the impression it had once been used for more. There were strangely shaped alcoves all around the interior, empty now, their original purpose a mystery. Ratul gestured toward an altar in the center of the room. “Behold, the Heart of the Mountain.”
It was so black that it seemed to burn a hole in his vision. The hungry darkness seemed to absorb their torchlight. He had to turn his head a bit so that he could actually see it from the corner of his eye. The heart appeared to be a jagged, twisted mass of metal the size of a child. It was the biggest piece of black steel Ashok had ever seen, big enough to forge a dozen swords or thousands of valuable fragments. Some people had a sense for magic, and though Ashok had never been naturally gifted in that way, even he could feel the energy radiating from the Heart.
The metal device twitched. As he watched, it twitched again. It really was beating.
“This is the Order’s greatest weapon, old as your precious Angruvadal, from the time when magic was common. We’ve kept it for over a thousand years. This is what makes Protectors more than men. When you touch it, you will take part of its power with you for the rest of your days. It will sting you and infect your blood. The influence of the Heart will be yours to call upon for the rest of your life. It can make you stronger, hardier, and hone your reactions. With sufficient concentration you can direct it to empower your senses, but it can only do so much at a time. You will heal faster and even survive wounds that would be fatal to a normal man, but it will not make you immortal. An injury sufficiently devastating will still kill you. It may stay death for a time, but nothing can postpone death forever. Well, nothing legal at least.”
“I have already been touched by magic.”
“Indeed. For one such as you, the defensive power of the Heart combined with the offensive skill bestowed by your ancestor blade, I can only imagine what the Order could accomplish with such a weapon at its disposal.”
There was no better cause than justice, so Ashok didn’t mind the idea of being a weapon in its behalf. “What if I’m unworthy?”
Ratul had a laugh like a dog’s bark. “The Order decides who is worthy, and if you weren’t, I’d have had the guardians toss you off that cliff. Magic can make you tougher, but it can’t give you character. That’s why our program is so harsh. Flawed acolytes must be weeded out. The Heart does not care about birth or honor. I imagine a casteless could take from it if one was clever enough to find his way in here. Only a bearer would think of such a question. Don’t worry. It is not like Angruvadal. The Heart has no opinions of its own.”
It was not his place to disagree, but in Ashok’s experience, all black steel had ghosts inside of it. Some of them were just louder than others. He peered closer into the burning darkness. There was something wrong with the Heart. There was a weakness to it. “Lord Protector, you can see magic inside of things, can’t you?”
“I have that gift, yes.”
“How much magic is left within the Heart?”
Ratul didn’t respond. Ashok looked over to see that the master was scowling. “Less than when I first saw it for myself, but enough.”
When magic was worn too thin its container would fail. “What happens when the Heart shatters?”
“The Order will die,” Ratul said simply.
Ashok moved away from the Heart. “Then I will not use up any for myself. Save the magic for someone better.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, but that isn’t how it works. No, Ashok, this is your final test. To become full-fledged Protector the Order requires this. I’m one of the few who can see magic, which means that when you touch the Heart, I will see you for what you truly are. This is necessary, for the good of the Order and for the sanctity of the Law.”
“This is a command?”
Ashok nodded, stepped toward the Heart of black steel and placed his hands on it.
The world turned to blood.
* * *
The promotion ceremony was over. Only two acolytes had attained senior status this season, not nearly enough to make up for attrition and their dwindling numbers, but one showed great promise and far more importantly the other possessed a sword that could supposedly defeat armies. Mindarin was excited at the prospects. However, Lord Protector Ratul seemed to be in a worse mood than usual.
The Hall of the Protectors was a vast stone fortress cut from the mountainside, far too large for their dwindling numbers. Mindarin joined his commander on the balcony overlooking the empty training ground. “I’ve been told that in times past, our numbers were so great that our formations took up this whole space when they presented themselves for inspection.” Ratul snorted. “We used to be so respected that we received so many obligations that we had to turn some away. I can’t even imagine. Now we can barely fill one corner with children. So this is what it feels like to preside over a dying order…But then I wonder if it truly has to be that way.”
The acolytes were gone, allowed a few hours to celebrate some of their number successfully advancing or to mourn the one who hadn’t made it back. It was their choice. Ratul went back to staring off into space, sucking on his teeth, mulling over something.
“What troubles you?” Mindarin asked.
“That’s an unusually cryptic pronouncement. You saw something strange at the Heart, didn’t you?”
“Any other acolyte and I would have cut him down on the spot, but the Order needs that sword.” Ratul sighed. “Dark times are coming, my friend.”
Mindarin felt his hopes dashed. “Ashok then. Did you receive a prophecy?” Such a thing was rare, but not unheard of when dealing with the Heart. “Did it show you his future?”
Ratul spit over the edge and watched it fall. “Bah…I’m weary from the journey. That mountain seems taller the older I get. I don’t want to talk about it now. It’ll be dealt with in time. Good night, Mindarin.” He left the rail and began to walk away.
“Did the Heart show you the future?” Mindarin called after him.
“No.” Ratul didn’t look back. “It showed me the past.”