The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1) (27 page)

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
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ISIHOGO

He was in the practice yards, but the training grounds and grasslands were covered in mist. He saw no guard on the indistinct walls of the isikolo, and the sky rolled, as unsettled as the Roar. Tau looked down at himself. He was glowing and knew it wouldn’t be long. He stood, feeling relief that his swords had come with him, and he drew them, hands shaking, bile rising. He resisted the urge to expel his breath and flee this evil place. He stayed and the demons came.

The one that saw him first was monstrous. It stood half again as tall as Tau, was covered in mottled chitin, and had two long limbs tipped with pincers. It scuttled toward him on six spiny legs while chittering from a circular maw that opened and shut reflexively, displaying rings of teeth that went back into its throat.

Tau twirled his swords with a bravado he did not feel. “Come on!” he shouted, charging.

The creature skittered to a stop, pincers frozen aloft. Tau used its confusion to land the first blow. His blade slammed into the monster’s right arm and claw. It shrieked at him, withdrew the arm, and with its other pincer snapped for his neck. Tau blocked with his weak-side sword, but the creature shoved his blade back, clamping down as it did, almost catching his head. Tau drew back and pulled his sword from its grasp, using both blades to attack the monster everyplace he imagined it could be weak. He broke small pieces from its shell but managed little else.

In the distance, hidden by mist, Tau could hear an ululating call that made the hairs on his neck stand. He didn’t dare look. His courage was failing. He focused on the fight he had, frantic to get around the monster in front of him so he could face both it and the incoming other, but the pincered monster could not be beaten.

His fear grew, threatening to overcome him. He would not be able to face the demons one-on-one and it was too late to leave Isihogo by expelling his breath. The demons would tear him to pieces before he could escape that way. There was only one possible end. But he’d known that when he came.

He was going to die horribly, though knowing it and facing it were different, and in that moment, Isihogo became truly dangerous for Tau. As the demon behind him closed in and the one he faced lashed out, Tau could no longer ignore the underworld’s immense power.

He felt it all around him, and it would be a simple thing to draw it into himself. He could use it to stop them, to fight them. He could use it to blast them to pieces, to escape, to save himself. The power was there, offering itself as the pincered demon caught his strong arm and snapped the bone in two.

The pain and shock hit Tau at the same time, and without thought, he reached for Isihogo’s offering. The second demon got him before he could take it. The creature closed its jaws on the back of his neck, cracking his spine and dragging him to the ground. He fell, powerless and crippled, his body broken, his mind not far behind.

The unseen demon bit him again while the pincered monster scuttled over, one of its carapaced legs stabbing through the skin and bone of his right hip as it hurried to feed. With his spine severed, Tau could not feel the leg or his rib cage being torn open by the two demons. He could hear them, though, as they slopped up his innards and shook his body with their jostling.

When a third demon got to him, there was only room for it by his head. It bit into his cheek and jaw, its teeth slicing into him and tearing the ruined flesh from his face. That he felt, and the pain shattered him, splitting his consciousness into a thousand slivers, each one a suffering, a scourging without end. Tau’s tongue, mouth, and jaw had been torn to shreds, but as he died he found a way to scream.

He came back to the world in sections. He sensed a leg, his mouth, the beating of his heart, his eyes. His own body was disjointed, a thing apart, hard to reconcile and impossible, in those early breaths, to control. Moving from Uhmlaba to Isihogo was always hard. It incapacitated men inexperienced with it. Dying to demons was infinitely worse.

Tau opened his eyes. He was on the ground at the edge of the practice yards, moaning, rocking. No time had passed, but he had been to the underworld, fought there, almost taken its power into himself and come close to a true death. His nerves were on fire, his limbs trembled, and his mind was misery.

He tried to sit, couldn’t, and lay still, waiting for the shock to pass, the loamy ground warm against his cheek and lips. He’d soiled himself.

It was in this state of suffering and degradation that Tau knew he’d been given everything he wanted. The Goddess had answered his prayers. She’d shown him how to make one span worth a hundred, one cycle worth a lifetime.

Her gift was a generous one. If accepted, it would make him the greatest warrior in Omehi history, and all he had to do was fight and die to Isihogo’s demons over and over and over again.

COUNT

“What sme… Whassat smell?” Chinedu coughed out. “Tau, that you?”

“It’s not me,” Tau said, rolling out of his cot, eyes heavy, head heavier.

“Is that you, still in bed,” Chinedu clarified.

Tau thought he’d been able to wash himself well enough the night before. He’d been so tired, though.

“Surprised is all,” Chinedu said. “First time I’m up before you, neh?”

“It was a long night in the yards.”

“Not sure how much… how much value is in it.” Chinedu raised his hands, empty palms facing Tau. “Don’t mean anything by that. Way you fight is… is evidence enough. Just hard to see how swinging a sword at shadows helps, is all.”

“I think you’re right. I won’t stay out as late. Not if it means I’m sleeping in.”

Chinedu chuckled. “Sleeping in? Sun ain’t even up yet.” He buckled on his sword belt. “I’m… off.”

“I’ll be along in a moment,” Tau said, looking around the room filled with sleeping men. Hadith, Uduak, and Yaw were already gone. Tau rushed to catch up, trying to sort out what parts of the night had been normal nightmares and what parts were the nightmares he’d lived through. He touched his jaw and cheek. They were there and they were whole, though memory of the attack made the skin tingle.

Tau snatched up his practice swords, belt, and gambeson, which did smell like dung. He’d have to rush through the early practice, make an excuse, and wash it again. He’d have to go through the afternoon without it.

Tau strode for the barracks door, spotting the demon a breath before it could take him. With no time to yell a warning, he threw himself to the floor and rolled back to his feet, swords drawn, facing the shadows and nothing more.

“Cek! What’re you done?” asked Mavuto, still half-asleep and sitting up. “Tau?”

“Nothing,” Tau told his lanky sword brother. The demon was gone. It had never been. “It’s nothing.”

“What’s that smell?”

“What? Go back to sleep, Mavuto.”

The man grumbled, lay down, and pulled his rough blanket over his head. Tau left and went straight to the bathhouses. Practice would have to wait until he’d scrubbed his body and gambeson. He also needed a quarter span to center himself. He’d thought he’d seen a demon in the barracks.

The rest of the day fell in line with Tau’s routine. He trained hard, sparred well, ate supper at twilight, and went back to the yards alone. He was shaking when he went, because what he meant to do scared him. He wasn’t ashamed to admit that, and as the night deepened, he saw things beyond the yard, in the grasslands, crawling things, things with too many arms and legs. The hairs on his arms rose and his skin went rough, like on those Harvest nights when the air ran cool.

He cautioned himself not to overdo it. He thought to go back to bed to get proper rest. Isihogo would be there for him on the next night, or the one after that, if he needed two days to recover.

Tau wanted to believe his rationalizations more than anything, because the only other thing he could think to do was to sit at the far edge of the practice yard, farthest from the protective walls of the isikolo, where the grasslands began. The only other thing he could think to do was to sit there, slow his breathing, close his eyes, and allow his soul to slip from the world of his birth and into the world of death.

The demons came. Tau fought. They slaughtered him. Back in Uhmlaba he threw up his dinner and crouched in the grasses, heaving until he believed his seeds would come out his mouth. Throat burning from bile, he stood and took a step toward the barracks, but the night was young and would remain that way. Time was different in Isihogo.

Whimpering, cursing himself a coward, Tau sat in the grass, a step away from his spew, and let his soul fly to the prison Ananthi had wrought for Ukufa. He tasted blood. In his fear he’d bitten through his lip.

They came. He drew swords and battled them until a misstep allowed a demon to slice his leg off below the knee. He dropped to the ground and that was it. They had him and he was brutalized.

He went back. A pack of them found him and, losing his nerve, Tau dropped his swords and fled. They ran him down, the fastest of them ending Tau’s flight when it caught and tore the tendons in his calf with its hand’s-length claws. He went down and they had him. He begged and he pled. “Mercy,” he said, “Goddess’s mercy.” If they or She heard, it made no difference. He was eviscerated.

He went back. Only one found him. It was a war between them, like the stories old men told children around blistering fires meant to keep the darkness at bay.

The demon had two arms and walked on two legs. It behaved like a human, and this Tau understood. This he could fight. They roared at each other and fought bitterly, two demigods, their battle holding the fate of creation in its balance. Then the demon caught Tau across the throat, slicing him from ear to ear.

He collapsed, gulping for air and tasting copper. The demon stood over him, eyes glowing red as it watched his lifeblood pump through the trench it had carved in his neck.

Tau’s head lolled. He was dying. It hurt. It hurt so much and it hurt every time. The skin around the wound burned and he could feel his heart pounding in his chest, desperate to keep him alive. Just let me die, he thought.

He rolled his eyes to the demon’s face. It had tusks and where its nose should have been there was a slitted hole. Tau couldn’t speak but tried to goad it, tried to make it put him out of his misery. It made no move, letting him suffer, watching him bleed to death.

Tau went two more times that night but could manage no more and stumbled back to the barracks. As best he could discern, he’d been out in the practice yards for less than two spans. He had to do better, he thought. He was wasting too much time between deaths. He could fight many more battles if, after he died, he went straight back in.

The next night Tau went back and fought more often than the night before. He began keeping a count of each evening’s battles. He forced more out of each night, and his work was not done until he’d bested his previous number. He told no one what he did, but the scale noticed.

BORDERS

“Yaw, Chinedu, Hadith, you’ll spar Tau,” Jayyed ordered. It was early afternoon and the scale was in the practice yards.

“Give us Uduak,” Hadith said.

“There’s three of you. Get on.”

“Three against Tau, we’ll take Uduak,” Hadith said.

“Uduak, stay where you are,” Jayyed said. “Fight!”

Hadith sucked his teeth, pulled his sword, and waved Yaw and Chinedu forward. The two men did as they were bid but were slow about it.

Tau waited until they were three strides out of sword range to attack. He feinted at Yaw with his weak side and caught him on the temple with the strong. Yaw crumpled, his helmet tumbling across the yard. Chinedu swung hard, but Tau’s sword caught the blow and, with the pommel of his other blade, he smacked Chinedu in the back, near his spine. Chinedu fell, cursing, and Tau was already chasing a backpedaling Hadith. Tau disarmed him, tripped him, and stood over him, sword point grazing Hadith’s throat stone.

“Mercy,” Hadith grumbled.

Tau stepped back. It had gone better this time. His sword brothers had not taken on the faces of demons. That had been happening more often of late. He thought to take time away from Isihogo, to settle his mind, but brushed the unworthy idea away. It was his cowardice speaking.

“Uduak,” Jayyed said, “join Hadith, Yaw, and Chinedu. Try not to embarrass yourselves.”

Uduak stood beside Hadith, who had regained his feet. Yaw picked up his helmet, shook the dust from it, stretched his neck, and returned it to his head. Chinedu coughed.

“Fight!” Jayyed yelled.

Hadith went down first, Chinedu was next, Tau knocked Yaw unconscious, unintentionally, and then there was Uduak. He was big and he was a demon, horns on his head. Tau had to blink away the vision as they crossed blades. It happened fast. Thrust, swing, block, riposte, move, strike, strike, strike, and Uduak was down.

The big man eyed Tau. “Mercy.”

Tau sheathed his swords and stepped back. The rest of the scale was watching.

“Impossible,” muttered Anan.

Jayyed did not speak. Tau could feel the older man’s eyes on him, though. They held a question he would not ask and one Tau would not have answered. Their relationship had been strained since they’d fought.

“A circuit around the yards. Go!” Jayyed told the scale and, with some groaning, the men began to run. Tau went with the rest but saw Anan sidle over to Jayyed to speak to him.

“I know you work hard, very hard,” said Hadith, running beside Tau, “but how are you doing this?”

“Demon,” said Uduak, the word making Tau stumble.

Hadith noticed. “Tau is a demon?”

“Inside,” Uduak answered.

“That makes no sense,” said Hadith. “But I’ll be happy to see you try some of your newfound gift on the Indlovu. If we win the next skirmish, we qualify for the Queen’s Melee.”

“Another circuit!” Anan told them, receiving more groans.

“This is it. Everything!” Themba said, running up. “An Ihashe scale hasn’t placed in the Queen’s Melee since before our fathers squirted us into our mothers.”

“Too much,” grumbled Uduak.

“He’s not wrong. We can make history,” said Hadith.

“We will,” Tau said.

“One more time round,” Anan called, this time to audible curses. The aqondise glared at everyone and Tau sprinted ahead of Hadith, Uduak, and Themba. He was done talking. The next skirmish was ten days out. He would have to train harder, he thought, blinking away the demon he saw standing in the shadow of the isikolo’s closest wall.

The days that followed blurred. Tau woke, he fought, he ate, he fought, he slept, he fought, he ate, he fought, he died, he died, he died. He’d never been talkative but spoke less. He stopped shaving, growing stubble on his face and head, like a Drudge or, worse, a hedeni. His bathing habits slipped until Chinedu complained and Jayyed’s five dragged him to the baths. Tau thought that memory real, the bath, though he couldn’t swear to it.

He also saw visions with increasing frequency and worried he might be losing his mind. He couldn’t give in to that thinking. It was an excuse to avoid Isihogo. It was fear and he would not let it rule him.

The time for the next skirmish came and went. The match was postponed as initiates from both the Indlovu Citadel and Northern Ihashe Isikolo were sent to the Northern Mountains on patrol. It was beyond unusual to use initiates in actual combat against the hedeni, but they were unusual times. The hedeni were attacking with frequency and in force. It was all anyone could speak of during the evening meals. Tau let the conversations about the expanding war flow over him, the only salient detail being the postponed skirmish.

Still, he was not deaf and could not help but hear the constant chatter about the military’s recent defeats. In the Wrist, almost five hundred men lost their lives to a hedeni assault. That was an entire military wing gone, and the hedeni had, in that single push, moved the front lines of the century-and-a-half-long war deep into territory traditionally held by the Omehi.

They had attempted to push farther but General Tiwa, a commanding officer of the Bisi Rage, had split his force, sending two military dragons, almost three thousand men, to hold the line as he continued to fight in the southern passes of the Wrist.

The gossip in the mess hall was that the hedeni were starving, that they had to push into the semi-arable lands of the Wrist or die. That did not sound right to Tau. He would have asked Jayyed about it, maybe, but Jayyed was not there.

The sword master had been called away by the Guardian Council. The rest of the scale were proud of this. Their umqondisi was needed by the highest military powers of the Omehi. Perhaps, the rumors went, the Guardian Council would reinstate him as one of its permanent advisers.

Tau did not know. These things meant nothing when pitted against his need to win the next skirmish. They marched to the Crags on the morrow, and the fight would either qualify or disqualify Scale Jayyed from the Queen’s Melee. Tau had to win.

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
9.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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