The Red Blade
Part Thirteen – The Dark Within
Stabbing pains lanced through Carse’s side as he ran through the city, his legs afire from fatigue and lungs rasping for air as he breathed. He pushed through the milling crowds, unconcerned about who saw him, or for any he knocked aside. At last he came to the entrance to the villa and once more his senses told him something was wrong. The gate sat part open, and yet the big black Kurushu man, Akamba, was nowhere to be seen, an unprecedented occurrence. Carse loosened the Red Blade in its scabbard and darted away from the gate itself, to a place further along the wall.
There he glanced about, to see if any where around, and if they could see him. Upon spotting none, he scaled the walls like a scampering monkey, and then dropped down the other side into the thick foliage that grew within. Drawing his sword, he crept forward towards the gate, crouched low, remaining alert as he went.
As he grew near the gate, pushing aside foliage, he began to see the bodies, of men who had been cut down in combat. They were big men, blond haired, in mail shirts and armed with broadswords. A half dozen lay dead, their blood pooling along the path. Akamba was there too, slumped up against a tree, his armour rent. His blood-stained sword lay across his lap.
Carse came up to him with a silent step, keeping his eyes alert for sign of any of the foe that still may have been around. He could detect none, hear nothing, and so he judged it safe to approach Akamba’s side. The big man’s head shifted at Carse’s approach, his eyes weakly opening.
“Go, boy,” he said, the words coming out in a whispered cough. “Go while you still can. You can do no good here.”
“What happened, Akamba?”
“We were attacked. Borovdan’s men. Came swarming in. I dealt with some, but I couldn’t stop them all. The rest continued up to the villa.”
Carse rested a hand on Akamba’s shoulder. The mail felt slick with blood beneath his hand. “I shall see to them.”
Akama coughed again, bubbles of blood on his lips. “There are too many,” he told Carse. “Too many,” he repeated one more before his spirit gave up its shell and he breathed for the last time. Carse closed the eyes of his friend with a bloodied hand. Rising to his feet, he turned to face towards the villa. He ran his hand down the length of the Red Blade, rubbing Akamba’s blood into it. He could feel the Red Blade’s hunger, and this time, rather than fighting against it, he embraced it, drank deeply of it. The fury of it flowed through his veins, and as it did, the world swam into a sharper view, the colours more vivid. A tune whistled from his lips, drawn from him, one he did not know or understand. It had dark, dissonant edges to it, fracturing the air about him. Shadows spilled in, with flashes of dark light, and in them he heard whispered words, and unheard promises of vengeance that pierced the skin to the bones.
Carse drank all the sensations in, savouring the sweet taste of them. He felt it feed him with a dark strength and intent. The Red Blade in hand, he strode forward with purpose, uncaring as to who saw him, for the fires had taken him.
Down the path he walked, until the trees broke open around him and he could see the villa before him. Two men stood outside the open doors, Borovdan’s men, standing watch. They looked up at his approach, preparing to give a warning cry but it died upon their lips, shrinking back as it did, for no more did Carse appears as he had. To them he appeared as a shadow shrouded figure of terror and despair, draining in the light around him; and in his hands their burned bright a blood red sword.
With calm fury Carse stalked upon them, subsumed with cold vengeance. They turned to flee rather than face him, yet the shadows reached out for them and tangled their limbs, impairing their movement. Then Carse descended upon them and the Red Blade flashed, blood blossoming as it drank of them deeply. The bodies fell and twitched, while about their wounds their flesh blackened.
Leaving them where they lay, Carse entered the villa that had been his home for many years, since the day Athradies had rescued him from the streets. In the entry hall another body lay, cut many times about the body, a broad pool of blood around him and sword still gripped in his hand. Ilafra had faced the foe, his swordsmanship put to the test, and not been found wanting, for other bodies lay about him. Yet, as with Akamba, numbers had told in the end and he had been cut down where he stood.
Carse knelt down in the blood alongside the man who had taught him how to wield a blade, seeing the disfigured face, the desecrated body, for the foe had not been kind to him in death. The shadows darkened around Carse, growing deeper and colder, while his eyes burned like shards of frozen ice. The seductive tones of the promises that whispered to him grew stronger yet.
A shout echoed through the room as a band of men entered, their swords red with blood. Carse raised his head towards them and eyes blazed with unrestrained fury. He stood in shadows cloaked and rose in terrible splendour. The advance of the foe halted, thrown into confusion by the nightmare that they saw before them.
“For your crimes you shall pay,” intoned Carse, and in his voice echoed hidden depths and flames. “The Red Blade comes for you, to cleanse the city in righteous fire, in blood and fury.”
Then he leapt, and carried forward on the wings of shadows he plunged into them. Like a tempest of shade and flame he took the fight to them, the sword whispering its hidden promises as it cut through the air. Backed into a corner, Borovdan’s men had naught they could do but fight, and thus, spurred on by cold terror, they threw themselves into the fray.
A blade slashed in Carse’s direction, his own meeting it with a clash of cold sparks. A riposte smoothly followed, the Red Blade sliding home between the ribs of the wielder. Blood sprayed forth as he tore his sword free, spinning lightly about to dodge another hacking strike. One glanced off his arm, another off his leg, ripping through his clothes and bringing blood seeping from the resultant gashes, yet in his wrath he barely felt them. He was death and they could not stop him. A sword sweep tore the throat from another man, sending him twisting away, clutching at the gaping wound, before his legs buckled beneath him. He toppled to the blood stained floor, thrashing for a moment before he stilled.
Back and forth the fight flowed, the shadows growing darker still with each death and the blood flowing freely, drinking it in. Man after man Carse hacked down in his terrible fury and the Red Blade sung triumphant in his ears, crooning its killing purpose. All other thoughts had gone from him bar to satiate the rage that coursed through him, to take the Red Blade into the city and purge all who stood against him.
Then the room was quiet but for the moaning of dying men. The whole of it had been painted crimson from the terrible battle hat had stalked it corners. Carse stood alone, breathing deeply, his once fine clothes in tatters, bleeding from many wounds. Only the strength of the Red Blade and the whispering darkness kept him on his feet, and it would not relinquish him until it was done with him.
“What manner of devilry is this?” a commanding voice barked from above. It came from atop the stairs that led down into the entry hall, from the upper levels of the villa. Carse turned toward the speaker, to see two men there. One was Borovdan, a man as broad as any Carse had seen, with his long beard bound in two plaits, tucked into his belt over a shirt of iron scales. He held his bloodied sword in hand, while alongside him stood the assassin from Qaiqala, seemingly unarmed, stroking at his pointed beard as he studied the scene below, of the carnage of men dismembered and bled out.
“No devilry,” the assassin said, “At least not as you understand it. It is, though, magic of a dark kind, one fed on blood and death and rage, of a kind not seen since the ancient days, since the time of the Baktheri who studied at the feet of the vile Xoacana.”
Carse raised the Red Blade before him, the sword steaming with the blood of the men it had slain. “This is a Red Blade of Ardanium, the last of its kind, which once protected the city from harm. It has returned to do so again, and you stand in its way.”
A soft laughter rose from the assassin. “Careful, boy, for you are meddling in things far beyond your knowledge and ability to contain, for the Red Blade is the source of darkness and corruption.”
“Boy?” barked Borovdan, confusion writ large across his coarse features. “This creature from the pits of the Slumbering Flame is a boy?”
“Shadow wrapped and fury fed, but yes, a boy. Come, lad, it is time to remove the shroud and reveal what hides behind it.” At that, from his lips spilt forth a soft tune, yet one of piercing notes, that brought to mind rays of sunlight that stuck golden columns through the rents in a gloomy sky. Carse felt it wash over him like a buffeting wind, and as it did, the shadow shroud tore asunder, dissipating away into the emptiness, leaving Carse to stand alone.
All that had been hidden beneath the cold fury, the pain, the weariness, the loss, bubbled back to the surface once more and for a second time Carse was struck by a buffeting, overwhelming force. The sword fell from his hands and he sunk down to his knees, his head bowed.
This time it was Borovdan who laughed; a mocking laugh. “So this is the feared Red Blade who has held the city in terror? A mere stripling youth.” He started down the stairs, lofting the sword he held. “And so will die the last of this conspiracy, by my hand. I could not have planned this any better. My competitors are all dead, and once I end this murderous reign of terror, the city will sing my praises and see me as a hero.”
Wearily Carse lifted his head and looked at the approaching man, his eyes still filled with a cold resolve, and from there on to where the assassin stood. He stood, unmoving, but for a brow he raised in Carse’s direction, as if asking a silent question. A brief shake of his head from Carse resulted in the merest of shrugs.
“The others, they are all dead?” Carse asked, voice laden with exhaustion.
“Every last one of them,” Borovdan confirmed. “Oh, they put up a fight, all except the old man. He promised only that vengeance would find me in the end, before I struck him down. It would seem that his dying wish will die with you.”
Carse leaned forward, his shaking fingers questing for the hilt of the Red Blade. A part of him loathed the need to touch it again, but through it was the only hope for vengeance for the death of his master and his friends.
As his hand closed about the Red Blade, once more the cold resolve settled upon his thoughts, while the aches of his injuries subsumed beneath the fires that coursed through him. It whispered again its deadly legacy to him, of blood and slaughter unending, yet Carse fought against it with every fibre of his being. He would not let it sweep him away, to taint him with his infernal cast. Athradies would not have wanted it, and nor was it the way to honour the dead.
Slowly he rose once more and the sword came up, levelled towards Borovdan. The man came to a halt, evidence of surprise there, but he grinned with ruthless humour.
“So the pup still has some teeth,” he exclaimed. “It shall do you no good. You can barely stand.” So saying, he leapt forward, and his leap was like a pouncing tiger, swift in its passage, and sudden, death couched in it.
Carse reacted with serene composure, and the Red Blade swept up to meet the oncoming rush. The two swords screamed as they met in a clash of sparks, the sound ripping across the souls of those who heard it.
No sooner had the blades met than the pair leapt apart, the each watching the other closely, testing resolve and ability, judging movements and skill. A feint and a thrust was met with parry and counter-thrust, blades whispering as they met and danced, none able to break through the shield of blurring iron that the other put up.
“You are good, boy, I will give you that,” Borovdan stated after they had disengaged after a quicksilver exchanges of thrusts and cuts, feints and parries, “And with training you could be better, but this ends now. Haqam!”
The assassin had watched the duel with unreadable expressions atop the stairs, and now he quirked a brow in answer to the shout. “I am here. What is it you wish?”
“Finish the boy,” Borovdan ordered, not taking his eyes from Carse. “He is, after all, the one I paid you to stop.”
“You did, did you not?” Haqam answered calmly. “And stop him I shall, yet other plans we have for the boy.”
Borovdan paused as he started to make an attack, stepping back from Carse with caution instead. “What is the meaning of that?” he demanded. “We hired you to kill this Red Blade. Or is the Brotherhood of the Song of the Night so lost to honour that they would renege on their deals? If word were to get out then your Brotherhood would be at an end.”
Haqam smiled, and in it were devious echoes. “One must be careful when dealing with the Brotherhoods, else they get exactly what they ask for, and not always what they desire. You asked us merely to stop the Red Blade, not to kill him. In normal circumstances we would have honoured your request and desire both, though this is not such a time.” Then leaping to his hand was the small crossbow he carried, the string twitching as the quarrel set in it launched. It thrummed through the air to strike Borovdan in the back of the head. Dead before he could realise it, Borovdan pitched forward to the ground, twitching for a few moments. “And nor are threats to the Brotherhood to be tolerated.”
Haqam ignored the body of Borovdan, instead taking a small quarrel and fitting it into his crossbow, his eyes upon Carse. “You are trouble, boy, no mistake about it,” he stated. “And yet in this you did not defy me. I gave you until tomorrow to consider, and tomorrow has not arrived. Nor can I fault you for the events here, for Borovdan assaulted your master and his residence against my better judgement while I was away speaking with you.”
“You were here during part of it,” Carse replied coldly. “You watched it happen and did nothing to stop it.”
“True,” Haqam admitted, before pragmatically adding, “Yet I was paid neither to take part nor to prevent it. That may sound harsh to you, but it is the manner by which the Brotherhoods operate, as you shall find out.”
“I want no part of that,” Carse told him, the Red Blade lending him defiance he would not normally have displayed.
“Is that your final answer?” Haqam asked. He made no threatening moves, nor raised his voice and did not even aim the crossbow towards Carse, and yet the manner in which he spoke punctured even Carse’s distant calm. Haqam was a man who would do what needed doing without a second thought, and would do so before Carse could do anything about it.
“I thought not,” Haqam told him, and smiled, though the smile was that of a predator, deadly, and without humour contained within.
“You spoke of the Red Blade as a construct of evil. What know you of it?” Carse demanded.
Haqam merely shrugged. “The Brotherhoods have extensive knowledge of weapons, and many there are among us with some small talent in the Mysteries, a useful tool in the hands of an assassin, as you know for yourself. We hear things, we study and we prepare. Before my coming here, I knew all that there is to know of the Red Blades, though precious little is that knowledge. Yet what there was spoke of their construct by darker hands, tempered in the blood of innocents and blessed by the Slumbering Flames. Lost they were in the fall of that ancient empire of malevolence the Baktheri founded, yet some there were that survived, and in times past they came into possession of some within Ardanium. They carried them for the best of intentions and sought to do good, and yet in the end they were twisted to the will that had been bound in the blades, with terror becoming their trademark. No mercy they showed to those they hunted. And so they were thrown down and the Red Blades taken and destroyed, except, now it would seem, for the one you carry. Your heart was good and your intentions noble, but not even that would have saved you. In time you would have succumbed to it as well.”
A scowl crossed Carse’s features. “There is no evil but that which a man carries in his hart. This,” he said, brandishing the sword, “Is but a tool, for good or for ill, as man uses it.”
Haqam smiled wryly. “You have much still to learn, boy. Normally a sword is but a sword, but that is a Red Blade. Tell me, did you not feel the bloodlust trapped within the iron, the desire to slay, to purge, to burn with fire? That is the Baktheri legacy that is bound within it. If you have but the chance, you would strike me down now and feel no remorse over my death. Do not try and deny it.”
“And if I were to try so and succeed, then what?” Carse asked. “Your Brethren would come after me and I would be forced to live in the run for the remainder of my short life.”
“If they were to suspect you were responsible, and that the contract remained unfulfilled, then it is so,” Haqam confirmed.
Carse’s head snapped up of a sudden, and his eyes had sunk into pools of tenebrous gloom, nothing but black voids being visible. “Foolish mortal,” a voice came hissing from his mouth, one of evil resonances that scraped nails across the soul of any unlucky enough to hear it speak. Haqam reacted with barely a flicker of surprise or movement, bar squeezing the trigger of the crossbow, yet quick as he moved, it did not come fast enough. As the quarrel shivered through the air, the shadows closed in around Carse, enshrouding him within. The quarrel struck, and it was like iron, rebounding from his skin to spin away through the air. More shadows swirled forth like serpents weaving across the sandy deserts, and these ensnared Haqam, twisting about his limbs and lifting him in the air to hang, suspended.
Carse glided across to him, his features contorted into something alien, and gripped with a malevolent cruelty, reflecting in the curve of his lips. Haqam made to bring forth a tune with which to fight against the hostile magic, but a mocking laugh answered, one that shattered his notes before they could form.
“You think to match your mere dabblings against me? I have scoured the Slumbering Flames for hidden secrets, journeyed into the distant Cold beyond the Never Mountains, and beheld terrors that would rend your pitiful mind into gibbering fragments. You can not hope to match me. Long have I whispered to this one as he held the Red Blade, words that came to him in dreams and deepest thoughts, bending him to my will, and I will not give him up.”
Haqam struggled against the nebulous bonds that held him tight, straining wiry muscles futilely, for they would not budge. “You are a vestige of things long gone,” he threw back at the thing within Carse through clenched teeth. “You are a memory of what was. You have no power beyond that which you feed off. Boy, I know you can still hear me. You must fight this. You are stronger than it.”
Laugher echoed through the bloodstained chamber, a chilling sound, for no sense of humanity was within it. “You can not save him, and nor can he save himself. He has the power I crave and need, and I shall not relinquish him.”
Haqam fixed a cold gaze upon Carse. “So it is power that you desire, is it? Then the boy is of no use to you. He is but a minnow in the knowledge of the Mysteries. I have more power than he without breaking a sweat.”
Carse, or the thing that had taken him, tilted his head at an angle, looking over Haqam. “Yes, I can sense the power that flows through you. You have made a fatal error, for you should not have said such things. Now I will take you and be the stronger for it.” He reached out with his hands and grasped Haqam on either side of the head. The shadows flowed down his arms and from his mouth and eyes, rolling over Haqam. The assassin twisted and writhed at its touch, his face going deathly white, yet no sound escaped from him as the shadows seeped into the pores of his skin.
Then the shadows were gone from Carse and he fell to the ground. Haqam, released from the bonds that had held him, eased back to a standing position, though hunched over.
“Stand, boy,” he hissed through tight clenched teeth, his face a rictus mask of pain and concentration. “There isn’t much time.”
Dazed, Carse rose on unsteady feet, seeing before him the assassin struggling to control the forces that roiled through him, his muscles knotting and cording along his body, veins standing out across his forehead and down his neck.
“You must kill me,” Haqam whispered, “Before it is too late. I am fighting the darkness within, but it is so very strong.”
“I can not do that,” Carse protested.
“You must! I can not hold it at bay much longer, and when I loose that fight, it will kill you and become a dark terror that will blight the land, slaying many.” He tossed back his head and gave an anguished scream, his body writhing in pain from the fight. “One last thing,” he said upon regaining some control. “The sword. The greatest evil has been purged from it and will die with me, yet a taint remains. It must be destroyed else it grows in power again. Go to Qaiqala. There is a woman there, a mystic, of the Aedring hillfolk, or so they say. She will know what to do.” He bent over double, wracked by pain. “Now, boy, now!”
Faint tendrils of shadows began to seep from Haqam’s eyes, from his mouth and nose. Carse reacted the only way he could. The Red Blade struck, piercing Haqam’s heart and killing him instantly, and with him the Soul of the Red Blade perished too.
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