Black Steel — by Martin Hooijmans & Lars de Ruyter
‘Black Steel’ is the second installment of a short story trilogy. The first part, ‘The Forge’, was published on February 17, and may be read here.
Lines of soldiers overlooked the vast battlefield, all gazes aimed at the black tent pitched right in the center. Strange runes were scattered across its fabric, which seemed to emit faint, incomprehensible whispers. Brons had arrived the night before, attracted by the rumors of an unbeaten champion whose loyalty was staked each day. For months the aging warrior had been on the road, but his gut told him this was it.
“That’s a strange sword, sir,” said the field commander assigned to Brons. He was a young man eager to prove himself, especially to one donning the colors of the King’s Guard.
Brons drew his sword, steel as black as night itself. The smith, Alexander, had called it a Wishblade. Plunged into a God’s heart, it would absorb a fragment of the deity’s soul and grant its wielder one wish. One wish that would let Brons claim the life of his King. “I acquired this on one of my journeys,” he said. “It has served me well.”
The commander nodded, then jerked his head towards the tent. “It’s beginning.”
A man had emerged from the tent, a champion in every aspect. Each bit of his body bulked with muscle, his hair was long and wild and two massive battle axes were slung across his back. Any normal man would have trouble wielding one of them, but this man looked like it would require no effort to swing them both. He looked around expectantly, then spoke with a voice like a storm. “Who is deserving of my loyalty today?”
Loud cheers rose from both sides, but not from Brons. He was deep in thought. “What happens now?” he asked the commander.
“One man from each army approaches the tent,” the commander said. “Under the watchful eye of Stin, the champion, they fight a duel to the death. Stin will join the army that wins, but only for a day.”
“You sacrifice good men for one day of loyalty?”
“Believe me, it’s worth it. You haven’t seen this man fight.”
As predicted, two stout men from both armies stepped forward and made their way to the center, cheered on by their comrades. Brons stepped forward as well, laying a hand on the soldier’s shoulder. “Let me fight today,” he said. Upon recognizing one of the King’s Guard, he bowed and retreated back to the masses. Brons once more drew his blade, regarding his approaching foe, identifying his weaknesses. He was a master at this, and had never entered into a duel without knowing how it would progress, and how it would end.
“My honor,” his opponent said, raising his sword. He was a brute, and from a stance like that would strike hard, hoping to kill or at least stagger. It could be effective in an actual battle. In this duel, it would prove fatal for him.
“My honor,” Brons said, and paced forward, feigning a strike. His opponent reacted, crying out in rage and sending his sword in a powerful downward arc. Brons nimbly sidestepped the attack and slit the man’s throat with an effortless swipe of his blade. It was over before it had properly begun.
Deafening cries rose out from both sides, and Stin stepped forward. Brons scanned his every move, already looking for an opening. He found none.
“Beautiful,” Stin said, a horrible smile splitting his face. He raised his hand, and all went silent. Brons could suddenly make out the whispers rising from the runes. They were prayers. Prayers filled with a desire to hurt, to kill. All doubt disappeared. This was the man Brons had been tracking. This was his God.
“Cold and calculated,” Stin said. “You bear the mark of a true warrior. You shall have my loyalty. Today.”
“That is not why I am here,” Brons said.
A look of mild surprise came upon the God’s face. “Then why are you here, warrior?”
Brons raised his sword, its blackness absorbing all light touching it. He was ready. His name would become legend. “Pyrri,” he said, then raised his voice into a shout, “fallen God, I have come here with the purpose and the means to end you!”
A look of genuine fear appeared on the God’s face. His axes seemed to spring into his hands, and came at Brons with dazzling speed. He was just able to jump back, then roll out of the way of the next swing. Pyrri was a blur, caught in a fierce momentum, carrying such force and speed that Brons could not find an opening. One thrust was all it would take. One swift thrust at the heart, but for the time being dodging for his life was all he could do.
“How!” Pyrri screamed. “How did you know! Who are you, mortal!” He lashed out with a well-timed kick that caught Brons in the chest, throwing him out of conscious for just a moment. When he came to, a crimson red pulsed through his eyelids, and opening them revealed the interior of Pyrri’s lair. It was empty, except for a large crystal on a pedestal in the center, glowing the color of blood. The whispers were no longer whispers, but screams of agony and despair that resonated from this artifact. Whatever it was, Brons wanted it shattered.
He got up as Pyrri stormed into the tent, raising his axes for the final blow, his lips mouthing a ferocious “No!” at his foe’s intent. Brons’ blade shattered the crystal, and the warrior braced himself for the incoming attack.
The screaming stopped. The tent went dark. Pyrri staggered, suddenly unable to lift his weapons, and crashed into the dirt, among the remnants of his strength.
Brons towered over the weakened God. He didn’t waste any time, any words. The Wishblade found its mark. Pyrri wailed as his immortal soul was absorbed, then was no more. The God had forever departed this world.
Brons’ eyes grew large, as he held up the blade. Dark red runes danced across its surface, and spoke to him, pleaded with him to make his wish. It did not need to ask. Brons’ wish required no thought, no hesitation. When he spoke, it was in a clear, triumphant voice.
“Let me overthrow my King.”
The third and final part of this trilogy will be published on March 3.
Illustration by: Lars de Ruyter