Authors: Eric Van Lustbader
Borros was agitated. “What are we to do?” he asked Ronin as he stalked back and forth. “We must continue the descent. Already men from the Freehold will be searching for us.”
Ronin’s mouth moved into the semblance of a brief, chill smile. “Do you really believe that they would allow anyone onto the Surface? They must think that we shall perish out here.”
The Magic Man’s eyes darted from the cave’s opening to Ronin’s face, back again. “You do not know Freidal. Or Security. My escape—” His eyes flicked back to the cave’s mouth. “He will kill me if he catches me.” His gaze passed across Ronin’s face again like clouds across the face of the sun. “You also. If he finds me, he finds you.”
“No one is after us,” Ronin said flatly.
Borros pulled his hood up over his bald skull. “You are wrong but it makes no difference. Even if Freidal was not coming after us, we would still have no choice. We must descend to the ice sea. We cannot survive long here.”
“Better to die on the way down than here in the cave,” Ronin said sardonically.
Borros shrugged. “Are you coming?”
He did not answer immediately but walked away from the light, into the cave’s dank interior, smelling the acrid odor of raw minerals and rock dust, hearing the whistling of the wind diminish. Yet there was sound.
Far back in the cave he dimly heard the Magic Man’s strident call but he ignored it. He listened intently, moving purposefully, his pulse quickening. And now he was sure. Excitedly, he put his arms out, hands floating through the blackness, feeling along the wall like a blind man’s.
He heard Borros calling thinly again, a forlorn and lonely sound, and he went slowly forward so as not to miss it. At last he stopped, his fingers running over the metalwork he had been searching for and his heart soared because he knew now that there was after all a way down to the ice sea. He called out to Borros.
What he had thought was the soughing of the wind had in fact been the distant sound of rushing water. The wind had been in his ears for so long that it was not until he moved farther back into the cave that he had been able to pick up the subtle tonal alteration. Even so, had he not made the long descent from the Freehold to the City of Ten Thousand Paths—the flicker of G’fand’s smiling face frozen in his mind’s eye, dissolving into the bloody wreck of the Scholar’s corpse flung along the dusty cobbles of the ancient street, eyes bulging, throat torn out by the nameless towering thing that Ronin had tried twice to kill and failed, inhuman eyes like crescent moons, a chill more deadly than a coffin of ice and a power—he never would have recognized the new sound as a torrent of water pitching headlong over smooth rock down and down in a frantic cascade. He and G’fand had encountered the immense waterfall on their way to the City of Ten Thousand Paths and its reverberations had been with them for many kilometers. It was the same sound now, merely muffled by distance.
“Borros,” Ronin called again.
They were obviously far from the cataract, yet the presence of the sound was a clear indication that this cave was perhaps more than just that. Ronin believed now that they were in the outermost reaches of a tunnel. He thought of Bonneduce the Last, the small, lame man, and his companion, Hynd, a creature that was more than an animal. He and G’fand had encountered the pair in the City of Ten Thousand Paths. Bonneduce the Last had assured them that he and Hynd dwelled on the Surface but had given no indication of how they had come to the City. Could this have been his entrance and egress? Ronin was certain that it was. Given that, the cave must contain a means to descend to the ice sea.
His hand wrapped around the haft.
Borros came up then.
“I have found something,” Ronin told him. “Do you have tinder?”
The Magic Man reached into one of his pockets, produced tinder and flint. Together they lit the torch.
The flame, tiny at first, sizzled pale yellow and smoked on the damp material so that they choked and, coughing, were forced to turn their heads away. The orange light leapt and quivered and, wiping the water from their eyes, they were for the first time able to see the rough and gritty walls, black ice gleaming like obsidian in the shadowed hollows, the surface streaked ocher and green silver and pink by the exposed minerals.
Everything they needed was there, hanging by the metalwork of the torch’s niche. Long coils of rope of a peculiar material not thick but, as Ronin pulled on them, obviously more than strong enough. Beneath the ropes, small metal hammers with long heads and with these bags filled with metal spikes of unfamiliar manufacture, flattened and broader at the end through which was punched a circular hole large enough for the rope to pass through.
“And so,” said Ronin, “we descend the cliff after all.”
His head whipped up and his nostrils dilated as the smell came to him. They had worked hard, on their knees driving spikes into the rock floor of the cave just inside the mouth. They had inserted the ropes and tied double knots, leaning back and pulling hard to test the fastness of their handiwork. The small bags they had tied to their suits; the hammers dangled from their wrists by short thongs. Wrapping the ropes about their waists, they had walked to the lip of the cave. Ronin let the rope drop and his fist went to the hilt of his sword.
Before, it had been a stench when the monstrous thing came for them from out of the black shadows through the dry dust and golden dimness, its fearsome visage dominated by the glowing eyes and the curved, wicked beak. His stomach heaved at the thought of its invulnerability, the desperation of his attack as G’fand lay mutilated. The smell was like a living thing then. Now it was far off but, he surmised, reachable; it was getting stronger. He let the anger and fear mingle within him until it became rage. Adrenaline rushed through his body and he clenched his hand within the gauntlet left for him by Bonneduce the Last, cunningly made from the giant claw of one of the hideous creatures. How many of them were there? he wondered fleetingly. He began to withdraw his sword.
And felt the hand on his shoulder, heard the voice crying urgently at his side, “What are you doing? You fool, we must go now! There is no time to lose!” His hand tightened on the sword hilt. “Ronin, we must reach the ice sea!”
Instinctively he knew that Borros was correct. Their survival must come first. His battle would have to wait. And perhaps that was for the best. He wanted to be able to pick the time and the place when he would next meet the creature. But more importantly he needed more information about it if he was to have a real chance of killing it and surviving.
He let go the sword and picked up the rope, securing it once more about his waist. He nodded wordlessly to the Magic Man and they crunched backward through the snow. On the ledge the wind bit into the exposed areas of their faces as they went over the edge.
He hung suspended, dangling, the rope biting cruelly into his ankle. Momentum, he thought as warily they circled him, knowing their advantage but fearing him still. He had no weapon and of course that was the point. Because, as he had once told G’fand, learning the art of Combat meant much more than being taught to wield a sword.
His body, near naked and slick with the sweat of exertion and heat, swung along its brief orbit. Keep the body relaxed, the Salamander had told him. Work within as small a space as you feel you can allow without sacrificing the momentum provided by the orbit of the swing. You understand, Ronin, that once inertia takes over you are finished because an opponent will gut you in the time it takes you to overcome it.
Other students in the special Combat class presided over by the Salamander had attempted the
that length of rope suspended from the ceiling to which one was tied head down a meter off the floor. Four students attacked with wooden staffs the length of a man’s body. No one had survived for long. However, none of the students had been trained by the Salamander as extensively as had Ronin. And none had his skill.
Because it was so terribly difficult, the
was now used almost exclusively for punishment. Yet up here on the Salamander’s Level it had other uses.
He kept the momentum going, consciously feeding the adrenaline flowing through his body, knowing he would need all that he could produce in the coming moments. A staff came at him, whistling through the air. He twisted his shoulders and felt a burning down his back at the narrowness of the miss. The students fanned out, swinging at him again and again. He used his forearms to block the staffs, while gradually increasing the length of his arcs. Less and less, they found the need to advance toward him in order to make contact; they were too intent on the attack to take notice.
He swung, waiting for a peak, and for a lateral cut. He saw one coming from the left and he knew that it would be close because he was just at the peak of his arc and the student’s blow had to be fast or he would lose the advantage of the momentum. But the staff came at him with tremendous force and it was all right because now he was beginning to arc away from the oncoming staff, his momentum picking up, and now, instead of blocking the blow, he reached for the blurred weapon, his tightening fingers slipping along its length in the slick sweat running off him. Palms burning with the friction, a blow from another staff numbing the muscles along his back. Ignore the pain. Concentrate. He used his mounting momentum and, twisting his wrists at the last instant, wrenched the staff from the startled student.
He was moving to his right with great speed now and, taking advantage of the direction of his swing, slammed the staff into the collarbone of a student on that side. He crumpled to the floor as Ronin began to reverse his arc and caught a second adversary in the mid-section so that the student doubled over, retching and gagging.
There was only one now because the one Ronin had disarmed was forbidden to interfere once he had lost his weapon. This one was wary. He would not be trapped as his fellows had been. Ronin noted that he was concentrating on Ronin’s weapon. Then he attacked, swinging at the base of Ronin’s staff, seeking to bruise his hands. The blows were rapid-fire so that, for every one Ronin blocked, one slammed into his knuckles. They soon turned red and the first spattering of blood appeared as the skin split and tore. The student pressed his advantage, moving in, the bright blood fascinating and irresistible. His concentration narrowed.
It was then that Ronin used his free leg, slamming the sole of his boot against the side of the student’s head. The man staggered, off balance. The blow had not been hard enough to knock him down because Ronin lacked the leverage, but it was enough. The staff sang through the air, catching the student on the neck. He gasped hollowly, his face turning white and his mouth hinged open as he fell. There was only the sound of forced breathing then as Ronin dropped his staff, relaxing his body, turning slowly again in his brief orbit.
Suspended in whiteness, his breath fogging the frigid air, descending hand over hand, Borros slightly above him a meter away, Ronin recalled well the lesson of the
But now the context had altered, small patterns interlaced with other patterns until, as one steps back to view the configuration, an overall image begins to emerge, different, unexpected.
“My dear boy, of course they hate you.”
The voice was rich and vibrant but with more than a hint of effete coyness that was as disarming as it was spurious.
“It is quite understandable, really.”
The Salamander, the Senseii, the Weaponsmaster of the Freehold, stood in the doorway of Ronin’s spartan cubicle. Not much time had passed since they had cut Ronin down and told him to return to his room.
Ronin moved to stand up but a curt motion, a flash of the Salamander’s wide wrist, stopped him.
“Sit, my dear boy, by all means. You have certainly earned the privilege.” The voice flowed thickly, honeyed the air.
The Salamander, an immense figure, was garbed informally in crimson shirt, hung in layers which cunningly concealed the extent of his true bulk, jet-black leggings and high boots of the same color polished to glossy perfection. His rich black hair was swept back along his skull like the wings of some awesome predatory bird. His thick brows and high cheekbones managed in some unfathomable fashion to accentuate the large onyx eyes, oval, and as hard and opaque as stone.
He moved into the room and it seemed to shrink in size, a diminishing and insignificant background in his presence. He stared unblinkingly at Ronin.
“You are not happy here, my dear boy.” It was not a question. “Perhaps this is because you feel that you have no friends.”
“Yes,” Ronin said unknowingly. “All the students hate me.”
The Salamander looked at Ronin with a veiled gaze and smiled without warmth.
“But of course that is true and that should please you greatly. It does me.” Ronin’s face was blank with surprise but the Salamander ignored that. “You are the best, my dear boy; without question the very best student that I have trained. And now no one can touch you, not student, not Bladesman. Oh yes”—he laughed at the expression on Ronin’s face—“that is quite true. You are as far above them as I am above you.” His laughter took on a manic quality.
Ronin was acutely aware of the compliment. It puzzled rather than delighted him. The reaction was quite inexplicable.
The Salamander’s fist clenched and his rings caught the light in brief explosions of color. He bent forward slightly, his voice less oratorical now, more personal.
“They hate you, my dear boy, because you are better than they, you have the talent that they wish they possessed, and they will not rest until they best you in Combat.” His laugh was a bark of emotion. “Good! For that too serves my purpose. My Bladesmen must be the best in the Freehold.” He touched his chest, a dramatic gesture he nevertheless managed to imbue with a certain grandeur. “Am I not alone of all the Saardin, Senseii? It is honor. What do the other Saardin know of that?” His voice lowered in volume and gained in intensity. “They know only to bicker among themselves, vying for power.” He threw his head back and his eyes squeezed shut, then flew open, impaling Ronin with their implacable gaze. “They do not understand the meaning of the word ‘power.’” He stopped abruptly, realizing that he had revealed more than he had intended. “It is honor,” he said then, “that must be upheld always.” He stepped closer to Ronin. “You must understand this totally.”