A Sanctum of Swords: A Blade Severed from its Master's Hand - Final Pre-Edit Version
The Eastern U’ral outskirts burned around Mahir–the clamor of steel on steel resounding across the steppes. Mounted nomadic warriors in iron scale barding churned the rain-soaked earth. Their bows unleashed hails of arrows into the garrison defenders, dwindling their numbers further.
The Akarian Talons readied handheld crossbows, kneeling as one unit down in the mud. He watched them keep their gazes forward, training their sights on the nearing foe.
Mahir said, “We offer another tyrant’s head on Zahira’s altar tonight. Cut them down!”
Gadara shouted. “Open fire!”
The Ashen Blades unleashed a silent hail into the storm.
Death reaped a toll on the raided village–indiscriminate in who perished by the sword or by burning flames. His sister had trained her unit well, their cohesion honed to precision. Their marksmanship struck true, unhindered by wind or rain, striking the mounted raiders in their flesh.
Several Honor Guard in Dikran’s retinue sagged in their saddles. Choking on venom, their screams carried into the storm. One after another, U’skarite warriors toppled from their horses into the crimson mire. A second volley broke the skirmish apart, the nomadic raiders breaking away to avoid the poisoned hail coming down around them.
Black Rot. A necrotic venom invented in Suann Sanctuary by the Obsidian Viper Alchemists. A weapon capable of killing the blood in a human’s veins and their muscle sinew. A rapid decay spreads through the victim until only a decrepit hole remains in the withered husk. A mere kiss from any tool, weapon, or sacrificial flesh coated in a couple drops remained the proven bane of any living creature–Demi-god and mere mortal alike.
Gadara cried out into the storm. “I should have known better than to think we’d leave these primal steppes alive.”
Mahir knew their fate far before she had. He watched the mounted raiders rally in the backfield, regrouping for another charge at the Akarian Talons. “You should have heeded my warnings. We’ve crossed a point of no return some moons ago.”
His sister ignored him to bark another command. “Reload!”
The Ashen Blades plucked steel-tipped bolts from full quivers slung over their shoulders. Quick on the draw, her unit unleashed another hail into the oncoming retinue.
Mahir counted another dozen honor guard, cut down by the Black Rot. Though their numbers withered, the honor guard pushed through the endless hail. He braced beside the Ashen Blades; the steppes trembling beneath the cavalry charge.
He said, “For what it’s worth–our reunion here on the steppes isn’t lost on me. It’s been several years since you’ve last seen your wayward, altered brother. A predictable season of solitude with the last of my kin. Rare is the Sanctum Queen’s Severed Hand who could ask for an end so cherished.”
Gadara smiled, then the expression reverted to stone. She aimed her crossbow toward the oncoming lancers. “To die so near to winter’s end… it will not be as beautiful as I hoped. Should Zahira call us home, I’d rather perish by a sword than underneath an indiscriminate stampede. You have another trick up your sleeve to even the odds?”
Mahir said, “Are you prepared to vomit again?”
Gadara grimaced. “I will choose the greater evil to live a moment longer. Get us near enough to grant our enemies the kiss of Suhari Steel.”
The sodden soil quaked underneath them, beaten like a war drum by the horde. Mahir swept an arm out–conjuring shadows on a whim. Animated by sentience, an abyss yawned open into the physical world. It closed in around them, tearing the Akarian Talons and himself out of the mortal sphere.
Returning to the Sanctuary, Mahir perceived U’ral village through a moonlit shroud. The eastern outskirts took on a ghostly aspect, the battle appearing to be fought by specters and not the men and women fighting around Mahir a moment ago. Like an undead tide, Dikran’s retinue swept where they had last seen the Ashen Blades.
He braced, unable to feel anything upon the U’skarite nobles stampeding through his disembodied soul. Nothing but the same chilling cold found throughout every corner of this dark abyss.
Mahir dispelled the sanctuary with a thought-command. Its darkness dissipated, collapsing like fallout around the Ashen Blades. A frozen drizzle pelted him through his silk robes, wind whipping around him as the storm fought the skies for dominance.
Gadara shouted a command, ushering the Akarian Talons into combat. As one, the assassins charged, their midnight robes melding with the night.
The Ashen Blades reaped their fallen foes, swords cutting limbs free from their owners. Steppe horses toppled their faces into the mire, their sliced open throats festering with poison.
Mahir spotted the Steppe Lord, a brute of a man–all raw sinew and muscle. A lamellar armor crafted from iron scales and woven into a suit protected him from thighs to throat. Royal purple silk cushioned the armor from underneath, visible around the limbs and other vulnerable gaps in the lamellar. A plumed helmet topped with wild, white-dyed horsehair weighed down on his shoulders. Black leather boots came up to the warrior king’s knees, already sullied with the blood of slain foes.
Swift, Gadara closed upon her quarry–intent on claiming the killing blow.
Dikran noticed her approach from the back of a massive ebon steed–a beast more imposing than most warriors. He swept a wicked blade ahead of him to meet Gadara’s direct assault.
Focused, Mahir summoned the sanctuary again, and entered the dark realm.. Upon entering again, an explosion of magic swept through him. An endless torrent created from the sanctuary’s morbid essence. The backlash obliterated his memories, breaking them into a faded and unchronological blur. Like tidal waves, the primal force crashed inside the mind’s boundaries, wiping his conscience until all semblance of himself ceased existing.
Forbidden magic stitched his soul back into its sentient state. The sanctuary spat him back out into the mortal sphere, between Dikran and Gadara before their blades could meet. An echo of steel blunted upon steel sang loudly upon intercepting the Steppe Lord’s fatal blow. Such a savage strike should have cut him down without effort. His physical ability had withered through the years after his Trial of Blades.
Zahira, Goddess of Sorrow, spared her child once again. A hand once severed from its mistress surged with sudden, inexplicable power. It channeled through him like adrenaline through the veins.
Surprised, Dikran retracted his blade before launching an immediate assault on Mahir. He weaved around the Black Tiger’s bone-breaking fists and sweeping cuts without effort. He retreated, stepping back beyond the warlord’s reach, when he tired. All at once, after death’s immediate threat had passed, the Sanctum Queen’s blessing emptied from his veins back into dormancy.
Gadara circled Dikran from behind–occasionally delving into the fray to attempt a mortal blow. The Black Tiger warded them both away from his person by a storm of sweeping strikes. Hesitant to commit with no clear advantage, Mahir attempted to goad the warlord instead.
Heart singing inside his chest, Mahir said, “a king seated so high on his horse proves a mastery over wind, maybe, but becomes blind with his head in the clouds. Will you keep raging at shadows you cannot appear to strike? Or is the Black Tiger of the U’skar Qi courageous enough to dismount? Would he test his skill against an assassin of the Ashen Blades?”
Dikran wheeled his brutal mount about to face him. Mahir tracked the U’skarite’s every movement, knowing his marked contract was a predator, oblivious to the fact it had become prey. Amusement glinted in the warlord’s burning gaze–confident in the face of his would-be slayer.
Dikran’s voice growled like the Lantern Beasts of the Steppes. He spoke, “Bold words for such a frail warrior–withered from some atrophic disease or some other ailment. Don’t let my words offend, when I say you appear more a cub than a challenger. You yelp with a courage born from ignorance. Not from a confidence born from strength. Stand aside, Ashen Blade, or maybe throw yourself on your sword. Both would have the same effect as you, striking at me with your weakling blade.”
He held the Steppe Lord’s apathetic stare–unphased. “A shame–I didn’t want such a noble horse’s blood on my hands. So be it then.”
Gadara leapt out of the storm, climbing up the gargantuan midnight mount’s hind legs onto its back. She pounced upon Dikran without warning, wrapping her limbs around his neck to keep balance. Clutched in her right hand, she positioned a venom laced dagger for a quick, lethal blow.
His sister possessed no god-like powers, but her combat ability rivaled Mahir without his dark powers, more than she even knew. Outsiders beyond the Southern Wastes often regarded a Su’khanites physical abilities inhuman. Something beyond the limitations of what ordinary souls could achieve with enough time, dedication, and courage to master one’s greatest fears. Children of Su’khan considered such strength of body a basic achievement, gained in adolescence to outlive imminent death.
Armored boots stamped the quagmire–approaching from behind. Mahir turned, cleaving a taut line across an U’skarite raider’s throat. Blood seeped from the wound, the Black Rot dooming the warrior to an ill-fated death.
He passed back through the gaping darkness between realities, returning to the sanctuary in a vanishing flash. Barbarous blades sliced through the empty air, harmless against his disembodied soul.
Mahir reappeared behind another pair of warriors, attempting to ambush him. He struck out; the gladius clutched between his fingers creating a two attack chain. Severed with an unnatural strength, both skulls toppled to the ruined land. Around him, he noticed a shuddering in the wind, wailing into the night.
Another half-dozen raiders attempted to surround him with fractured cohesion. Upon seeing their comrades slain with such little effort, each warrior backed up to disappear into the greater melee.
Animated, Mahir broke into a quick-paced sprint. He tore loose a sheathed dagger off an U’skarite corpse leaning back against his dead mount. In search of the Black Tiger again, the weapon flew from his hand upon finding the Steppe lord embattled with his younger sibling.
A clink of sound told him the weapon had struck true, pursued by a tiger’s ferocious roar. Mahir traced the dagger’s trajectory, finding it embedded between the warlord’s lamellar plating. Blood trickled down from the wound unsteadily.
Gadara straddled the Steppe Lord from behind, arms deadlocked around his broad throat. Dikran tried in vain to strike himself free, forcing the blade out of her hand with a savage reverse of the elbow. The warlord didn’t realize the envenomed dagger clutched like an iron vice in her other hand.
Gadara stabbed down into the Steppe Lord’s chest. Her blade thrust home, jammed beneath the iron scales, until the steel snapped clean off the hilt. She cursed. The silk underneath Dikran’s armor blunted the blow.
An arrow struck Gadara in her left shoulder, faltering her grip upon the warlord. Dikran spurred his mount into a quick gallop, freeing himself from Gadara when she could hold onto him no longer. Mahir watched her topple down the warlord’s back into the mud.
He burst into a loping run to retrieve another weapon, an elongated spear discarded on the battlefield. As Dikran maneuvered his warhorse to trample Mahir into the mud, the Ashen Blade stepped out from the warhorse’s path. He thrust the weapon from point blank range, the warhorse unable to build up to irresistible speed.
A sound born from sundered scale mail barding filled his ears, quickly followed by flesh tearing underneath the breached armor. The midnight demon staggered, galloping on until it separated clear enough from Mahir. The noble mount cried out a final time, before its collapse amid the ruined battlefield. He glimpsed the Black Tiger, pulled down into the quagmire alongside his precious mount.
He reassessed his surroundings.
Mahir breathed, smelling the scent of blackened wood and spilled blood, cleansed by the storm’s constant rainfall. He looked back to where Gadara had fallen from Dikran’s broad shoulders. She lingered in that spot still, struggling to stand out of the mud, somehow climbing back to her knees. A shaking hand clutched the feathered shaft embedded in her shoulder.
Like the Gadara he had always remembered, she refused to give voice to her pain. She left the arrow in place for someone trained in the mending art to remove it after the battle’s end.
Mahir called out to her. “Will you live!?”
Gadara noticed him shouting, craning her head toward the sound of his voice. She nodded, despite the pain of her wound clouding her eyes. She spoke, “I can still fight, but don’t count on me carrying us through this time.”
Mahir said, “Fight until the end! Another may deliver us out from our fate!”
Gadara snorted out of disbelief, but picked up a spear discarded in a steppe horse’s carcass. She twisted, rolling onto her back, ramming the spearhead through another U’skarite’s faceplate. The warrior staggered, stumbling past her before falling into the quagmire.
Mahir turned away from Gadara, sweeping the area where the Black Tiger fell with cautious eyes. Among the dead, a shadow stirred out of the gruesome sight. Animated, he pushed off the back of his heel, breaking into a loping run toward his marked target. Reaching his physical stamina’s zenith, he rushed the Black Tiger from behind, coming near enough to land a fatal thrust on his contract’s marked soul.
Without warning, Dikran’s strength returned, tearing himself free of his dead kin, piled around him in a sundered, bleeding mound. Their blades clashed once, twice, and then a third time before momentum pulled both opponents in the opposite direction. Mahir twisted around on the ball of his foot, coming to grips against his foe another time.
Dikran widened his stance, saber sweeping down from overhead to turn aside the assassin’s blade. The Black Tiger followed through with a crushing fist, gnarled knuckles striking Mahir square in the teeth. His head pitching backward, an overwhelming force rattling him down to the spine’s core. Mahir tried to stabilize, boots sliding through the mud until he lost all balance.
The Black Tiger lunged for the Severed Hand’s throat, throwing Mahir back-first into the mud. Eager to claim the kill, the Steppe Lord fell upon him. Gladius clutched tight across his chest, the Ashen Blade thrust out. Cleansed amid constant rain, the envenomed blade appeared toothless. It bit deep into Dikran’s flesh beneath the ribs, warding the Steppe Lord back by sheer pain alone–not deadly venom.
Furious, the Black Tiger struck out with all the strength given to him, meant to cave the assassin’s skull into brittle bone.
Exhausted, Mahir called upon the Sanctuary with the last of his ebbing focus. A haven of moonlit darkness stole him out of the physical world, but brought him into an unfamiliar place. All the Sanctuary appeared familiar, a second home amid a quiet dark, but the moon’s light appeared dim from where he stood. Shadows festered around him, writhing like they desired to consume him whole at a moment’s notice.
Yet Dikran’s spiritual essence never appeared out of arm’s reach–even as Mahir repositioned himself behind the Black Tiger of the U’skar Qi. He dispelled the quiet realm in a fallout of shadow. He heard the northern storm howling, pelting rain turning his skin numb from its touch.
A tranquil silence marked the end of the raid on U’ral village. All the garrison defenders lay somewhere in these eastern fields, surrounded by an endless sea of dead raiders dragged into the grave with them. Of the Black Tiger’s scouting parties, the last remaining warriors still on horseback fled heedlessly back into the eastern Steppes.
Mahir considered where he stood amid hundreds slain alongside their steeds, their corpses packed into the burned-out remains of U’ral’s eastern outskirts. The defenders had taken their due, earning respite for those survivors fleeing into the western realms. Their foes would return with the coming sunrise and find nothing but death.
He turned back toward the Black Tiger before him, the warlord still on his knees in the mud. Mahir did not need to see the spot Dikran leaned over, knowing the Steppe Lord had punched an entire crater where he had been but a moment ago.
He said, “It appears the Black Tiger’s reign ends tonight.”
Dikran sagged deeper down toward the earth until Mahir thought the warlord would topple without another breath. Yet the U’skarite King pushed himself back up, erecting his posture, though still upon his knees. “So, the serpent disguises himself behind the guise of a cub, sickened by atrophy. Yet you draw a vile strength from the poison that courses in your veins. A clever ruse, Ashen Blade–most deceitful. A golden sun blazes inside my soul. It denies me the right to ask for mercy, but the sweet kiss of an honorable death given quickly. Our gods would have it no other way.”
Mahir nodded in agreement, though he knew the Steppe Lord wouldn’t notice the gesture. He said, “A warrior king should not die on his knees, should he have the strength to stand.”
Chortling, Dikran spoke, “No, Su’khanite, he should not.”
Dikran leaped without warning, falling upon Mahir like a Black Tiger pouncing upon oblivious prey. He came at the Severed Hand with a last sweep of the wicked blade he wielded. Mahir countered in the blink of an eye, turning Dikran’s savage blow aside in a brief rain of sparks. The Black Tiger of the U’skar Qi found only the slender edge of a Suhari Blade, rammed straight through the Steppe Lord’s bellowing mouth.
Mahir, Severed Hand of the Sanctum Queen, pushed into the thrust, punching the sword through Dikran’s spine and out the other end of his skull. Gadara appeared beside him, thrusting her own blade deep through the warlord’s right eye. A pair of remaining Akarian Talons appeared behind Dikran. Karyan cleaved the upper half of the Steppe Lord’s skull clean off the corpse. Severed, the skull toppled into the patient hands of the last Ashen Blade, standing in wait for their trophy.
Alone, the Akarian Talons found themselves huddled together on a silent battlefield. Dikran’s corpse sagged back into the ruined outskirts at their feet. In silence, the Ashen Blades bowed their heads in reverence for another contract fulfilled–unwilling to break the tranquility earned upon their triumph...