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Chapter 1

Nineteen years ago

One was sixteen years old. The other only twelve. They were best friends, brothers, but not by blood. In a moment, they would duel. More than likely, one of them would die.

“I beg you, Devedas, do not go through with this.”

“Can’t you see? I’ve got no choice, Ashok!” the older of them shouted. “I have to try.”

Bound by Law and tradition, Ashok couldn’t walk away either. As the chosen bearer of mighty Angruvadal, he was obligated to accept all challengers, just in case the powerful ancestor blade might find someone more worthy to wield it.

How could Angruvadal not choose Devedas over him? Devedas was the best of them, stronger, smarter, and more dedicated than any of the other acolytes. He had climbed to the top of the Protector’s brutal program. Officially, all were equal in status, but Devedas was the son of a Thakoor and had been raised expecting to someday rule a great house. He was superior to Ashok in every way but one.

Ashok had Angruvadal.

The mighty black steel blade of Great House Vadal had been kept from him the entire time he had been in training. The master would allow Ashok no magical edge over the other boys, so Angruvadal had been taken away. A normal man could not understand what it was like to be a bearer. It wasn’t just his sword that had been lost, but it was as if part of himself had been locked away in that cold vault. For two long years he had suffered, incomplete.

Except now their trial was passed. They had crossed glaciers and fought ancient automatons. All the others had turned back as failures. Three had pressed on. Yugantar had given into fear and fled. He was certainly dead now, his body frozen up there forever. Only Ashok and Devedas had fought on. They had reached the highest peak and touched the Heart of the Mountain. Ashok was the youngest to ever do so in the entire history of the Order. They were no longer acolytes, but full members of the Protector Order, with all its accompanying status, privilege, and responsibilities.

It was one of the greatest achievements a Law-abiding man could ever hope for, yet the joy he had felt at attaining senior rank was nothing compared to getting his sword back. The normally dour masters had allowed their trainees to freely celebrate the advancement of two of their own, or to mourn the one they’d lost. All the acolytes, even the failures, were allowed all the meat and wine they desired. A rare treat indeed.

Except their celebration had quickly turned ugly.

It was plain that bitterness had consumed Devedas when he had seen the legendary Angruvadal riding upon its bearer’s hip. He’d claimed it was unfair that Ashok should have such an honor, and not him. When the ancestor blade of Great House Dev had shattered in his father’s hands, it had taken with it his inheritance and all his family’s dignity. Ashok had tried to deflect, to once again say that it was not his choice to make, but the sword’s. Only Devedas had grown increasingly jealous as the night went on. Though they’d trained together, fought together, undertaken the trial together, and nearly died upon the mountain together, none of that mattered in the moment, because Devedas’ one weakness was his pride.

Accusations had been made. Youthful foolishness had led to anger. Ashok had tried to turn aside his brother’s wrath. They were both tired. It had been a long journey down the mountain. Only Devedas had not relented. He had goaded Ashok to this point. Words had been spoken which could not be retracted.

“You are the closest friend I’ve ever had,” Ashok told him truthfully. “Please do not make me kill you.”

As the son of a bearer, Devedas understood the rules. A duel to see if a challenger was worthy to claim an ancestor blade did not need to be to the death, but it often was, because by their very nature black steel blades were very unforgiving.

“Better to try and fail than be a coward and never know.”

The two stood in the middle of the practice field, dusted white with snow, surrounded by a circle of nervous Protectors, young and old, from the most recently obligated acolyte, to twenty-year senior, Mindarin, who had been one of their instructors.

That most experienced Protector was furious. “You should stop this foolishness at once. The Order is too small in number as it is. You’re both valuable assets, better spent in defense of the Law. However a duel ends, the Order will be weaker for it.”

“Do you order me to stand down?” Devedas asked.

Mindarin shook his head. “You know I cannot. Your actions, though wasteful and stupid, are entirely legal. The bearer cannot deny you, and the challenger cannot be denied.”

“Forgive me, honored teacher, for you know what I must do.” It obviously pained Devedas to disappoint Mindarin, because he had been the acolytes’ kindest instructor, teaching by word and example. Which was much preferred by all of them to Master Ratul’s methods, which consisted of beatings and hunger.

A man of reason rather than passion, Mindarin did not give up so easily. “Listen to me, Devedas. Your father is dead. Your house has fallen. Claiming a new sword will not bring either back. Let them go. Your life has been obligated to the Order. This is your family now.” He gestured at the acolytes who were anxiously watching to see which of their friends would die.

“You know I love them and the Order both.”

“Yet you cannot be fully committed until you put the Order first. Great House Dev is no more. You were my best student, yet the one lesson I could never get to stick with you is that you cannot reclaim old glories. Sometimes the past is best forgotten.”

Ashok found that to be a curious sentiment, coming from the Protector who had been responsible for teaching them about history. The approved parts of history at least.

“I respect your wisdom, Mindarin, but I can’t accept it. I was raised to be the Thakoor of a great house, with a black steel blade as my birthright.”

“What’s done is done, young Devedas.”

Devedas met Ashok’s gaze and gave him a sad smile. “I have to try.”

“So be it then. I wash my hands of this. Angruvadal will decide which of you to deprive the Order of…Karno, summon the master,” Mindarin snapped at one of the youngest acolytes, who immediately ran off to warn Ratul that his two newest senior ranks were about to kill each other.

The two of them squared off, ten paces between them. The circle of Protectors backed up to give them space, for even the ones who had not seen an ancestor blade in action knew of their deadly reputation. It was not unheard of for one of the angry things to remove the limb from a curious bystander.

Ashok found it very lonely inside the circle.

The crowd did not cheer for either of them. There were no favorites here. A natural leader, who honestly cared for the well-being of the other acolytes, Devedas was beloved by all. Ashok had been seen as a young upstart at first, because he had arrived already gifted with one of the most powerful artifacts in the world. Except he had gone on to win their respect by being the most dedicated among them.

He tried one last time to get his brother to see reason. “The Law requires me to do my best. I will hold nothing back.”

It was a grave warning, for though they had sparred against each other hundreds of times now, and Devedas—being bigger, stronger, and faster—almost always won, those victories were against Ashok alone. When you fought a bearer, you fought against the combined instinct of every man who had ever carried that sword into battle. A part of each of its prior bearers lived on in the black steel, as would a fragment of Ashok, as long as Angruvadal survived. It was one of the only forms of immortality in a world where the Law declared there was no existence beyond this life.

“Everyone knows you always do precisely what the Law says, little brother.” Devedas gave him a sad smile. “It’s why it’s impossible to hate you.”

Ashok could not feel fear like everyone else, but he could understand it well enough in principle. He could see that Devedas was afraid—as any sane man would be to face an ancestor blade—yet he was committed.

“Know that if it was my decision, I would do my best to defeat you, but I would try to spare your life. Only I do not think Angruvadal understands moderation.”

Devedas simply nodded. It was good that he was willing to accept death. Ashok suspected that such acceptance was necessary in order to win Angruvadal’s approval. Ashok did not want to die, but if he did, at least this way Angruvadal would have a worthy new bearer.

“Offense has been taken!” Devedas shouted so that all could hear the official challenge.

“Offense has been given.” Ashok did not think it had, but tradition demanded he accept.

The duel began, not in a sudden burst of movement, but in absolute stillness.

The opponents watched each other, waiting.

Then Devedas shifted his weight, ever so slightly, boots crunching into the snow and gravel beneath. His strong hand moved slowly, until it was poised just over the hilt of his sword.

Ashok’s hand hovered over Angruvadal. It had been two years since he had drawn the sword, but ancestor blades never lost their edge. Black steel did not rust. It was alive. And hungry. He could feel the hum of angry energy prickling through his palm. The sword wanted to know who needed to be killed.

Please have mercy on him, Angruvadal. I think this one will accomplish great things for the Law. Ashok tried his best to make his will known to his sword, but it remained a mystery if Angruvadal understood, or cared. And he is my friend.

There was some movement at the edge of the circle. As if from a great distance he heard someone say that Master Ratul had arrived, but Ashok’s focus was entirely upon the duel.

It was cold. Thick blood made for slow hands.

The wind blew. A little eddy of snow swirled between them.

Devedas’ finger twitched.


Another involuntary twitch.

Forty generations of bearers were with Ashok. They knew exactly what would happen, they’d seen the gathering of strength, the tensing of muscle, and the sudden explosive movement thousands of times, and all of that instinct was there for the taking. It was as if there were ghosts in the black steel, always whispering.

Though legally his to use, such an advantage seemed dishonorable. If his brother was willing to die in order to test his commitment, then so was Ashok.

No, Angruvadal. I will do this myself.

The whispers stopped. There was only the wind and the wait.

Ashok thought of nothing. There would be only action and reaction.

Devedas moved.

Eye-searing Angruvadal was in Ashok’s hand, so fast it was like he’d willed the black steel into being.

They struck at the same time.

They had the same sword master, which was more important than them having different fathers. There were names for the stances and techniques they used, but in the instant, they simply were. It was the purest moment of Ashok’s life.

There was a flash of black as the two opponents crossed.

Anyone else in the world, and Devedas surely would have been the victor. Except Angruvadal would not be choosing a new bearer tonight.

Ashok swept past Devedas, sword still rising past the cut. He saw the look on his other brothers’ faces, awestruck, for they’d never seen any living thing move that fast. Protector Mindarin gaped in surprise, but Master Ratul just watched him, bemused, something calculating and cruel in his dark eyes.

As Devedas fell, the normal world came rushing back.

His opponent was down.

Ashok realized the others wanted to rush and help their fallen, but they didn’t dare step into the circle as long as fearsome Angruvadal was free. Offense had been claimed. Ashok was within his legal rights to finish his challenger. But the Law was wise. Allowed was not mandatory. He looked at Angruvadal. It was somehow clean of blood, as if Angruvadal was too proud to be stained. He thanked his sword, then sheathed it, declaring the conflict over.

Ratul nodded, and that was all the instruction the acolytes needed to run over to the injured Devedas. Ashok followed them.

There was blood all over the snow. Devedas’ handsome face had been sliced wide open from his chin to his right eye. Luckily the eye was still in one piece. Though the pain had to be terrible, and black steel wounds were said to burn like the sun, Devedas did not scream. Instead he ground his teeth together—Ashok could tell because they were visible through the hole in his cheek—and the only sound that escaped was the pained growl of a wounded animal. Yet Ashok could see the terrible agony in his brother’s eyes. Not of the lacerated flesh alone, no…for though Angruvadal had spared his life it had killed his dreams.

Ashok had no dreams, only duty. Now he supposed, they were the same.

It was a good thing they had just completed their trial and touched the Heart of the Mountain, for its healing magic would save Devedas. Otherwise a wound like that would probably become infected and be the death of a normal man. The magic they had in their blood now would help him heal. Ashok was thankful for that.

“Lucky for you Angruvadal was in a kind mood and didn’t remove your fool head from your stiff neck,” Lord Protector Ratul said as he walked over to assess the terrible injury. He looked down at all the blood and sighed. “I swear your ambition is going to be the death of me someday, Devedas. I hope you learned a valuable lesson today.”

Eyes wide and filled with agony, Devedas managed to nod his head yes.

“Good…Carry him to the surgeon.”

But Devedas surprised even the master as he shoved the helping hands away and struggled up under his own power. Even though there was a dangling gap through the side of his face, he managed to say something that sounded like, “I’ll make it myself.”

“Indeed,” Ratul muttered, so low that only nearby Ashok could hear. “So that’s the lesson you choose to learn.”

Ashok had never felt more alive, and he owed that to Devedas.

“I am honored to call you my brother.” And according to the traditions of Great House Vadal, Ashok gave the deepest, most respectful bow possible, exposing the back of his neck as a sign of trust, and held it a long time as a show of admiration.

When he raised his eyes, Devedas was staggering away, leaving behind a trail of red footprints in the snow.

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