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Infinity Blade: Awakening (Page 13)

Siris pushed a bamboo branch out of the way, frowning. He didn’t like the idea that honor, like everything else, might have become just another tool for the Deathless. There had to be some things that were beyond their touch, didn’t there?

“Watch your step,” Isa said.

He paused, then looked to the side. The ground here had grown rocky, and was broken by cracks, each about as long as his leg. There was a pungent scent to the air and, Siris realized with surprise, heat was rising from the cracks.

“They’re all over the place out here,” Isa said. “You have to watch yourself around pools of water; some of them grow so hot, they can boil you faster than you can scream for help.”

Siris shivered, stepping away from the cracks. They continued on their way in silence for a few minutes, before Siris finally found himself asking something he’d been wondering for a while. “Isa, why do you want the Infinity Blade? Really?”

She kept walking.

“You talk about humankind fighting back,” he said. “A moment ago, you used the word ‘we.’ Half the time, you act like a freedom fighter. The other half, you act like an opportunist trying to make off with whatever wealth you can get. Which is the truth and which the mask?”

“You, with good reason, don’t trust me not to kill you in your sleep.”

“What kind of answer is that?”

“The preemptive kind. If you don’t trust me not to kill you, why would you trust any answer I give about my true motivations?”

She has a point, he thought. “Well, maybe I’m just tired of walking in silence.”

“Please tell me that doesn’t mean you’re going to start singing.”

“I happen to have a very good voice,” he said with a huff.

She cracked just a hint of a smile. After a few moments of walking through the bamboo—they were following some kind of game trail—she spoke. “Maybe I don’t know which one I am. Maybe part of me thinks we should fight back, but the rest of me thinks there’s no point. There’s no real way to stop them, so why try? Why not just take care of myself, you know?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I do know.” He stopped himself from asking the next question. And that’s why you betrayed me?

Isa started to slow.

“What?”

“This path,” she said, kneeling down and inspecting the ground. “It’s getting too wide, too regular.”

“Someone else uses it?”

“Maybe,” she said. “We’ve come to the area where villages are more common, and we just intersected with the outflow from one of the more well-traveled passes.” She stood up, then handed him the reins of the horse.

He took them, and she pushed away through the bamboo. He hesitated, then tied the horse off and followed. She raised an eyebrow at him, but didn’t send him back. They made their way toward a higher elevation, where the bamboo was thinner.

He joined her atop the rise, scanning the valley before them. It didn’t look like anything special. A wide, but shallow stream ran through the middle of it, and there were some hills along one side.

“Well?” he asked.

“If I were going to ambush travelers coming this way,” she said, pointing, “I’d do it there, where the pathway turns along with the stream toward those two lower ridges. I’d also make sure the ‘game trail’ through this area was kept well-cleared and made obvious, so that people drifted my way.”

Siris rubbed his chin.

“It’s not likely,” she said. “But I think we should go around.”

“All right,” Siris said. “Sounds good to me.”

She led the way back to the horse, then backed them up a ways before cutting around. Was this a trap? But… if it was, she wouldn’t have said anything. He’d made it abundantly clear he didn’t know much about being a woodsman.

He shook his head, joining her in front again. “Isa,” he asked, “what are the Deathless?”

“I don’t think anyone can answer that for you except the Deathless themselves. Not that people haven’t tried. In some of the world’s larger cities, I could throw a stone in any direction and have a good chance of hitting some theologian or scholar who thinks he knows the answer.”

“What do you think?”

She didn’t answer at first. “They’re gods,” she finally said. “What else would they be?”

“A god wouldn’t have fallen to my blade,” Siris said. “Even if the death wasn’t permanent. If they were really gods, no mortal could have fought one of them and won.”

She didn’t reply, though he caught her giving him a measuring glance.

“Maybe,” he said, “there’s nothing special to them other than knowledge. They know things, like how to make the rings work, like how to manipulate others.”

“And how to stop aging?” she said skeptically. “And come back to life when killed?”

“In the next town over from ours,” Siris said, “there was a very learned doctor. He was trained by a doctor before him, and that doctor by another doctor. This man could bring a mother giving birth—and the child—back from what other healers thought was fatal. Maybe it’s like that. If you have the right information, you can do what everyone else thinks is a miracle.”

“No,” Isa said softly. “There’s more to it than that. Being Deathless is about more than knowledge. I—”

She was cut off by a scream. Both of them spun toward the sound. The shouting continued, and Siris caught what might have been a call for help.

“Is that—” Siris began.

“—The place where I said there might be an ambush?” Isa said. “Yeah. Looks like someone wasn’t smart enough to go around. I advise hanging back to watch, but I suppose you’re going to want to go rush and help the fool who . . .”

Siris didn’t hear the rest of what she said, as he was already charging toward the sound.

Chapter Six

SIRIS BURST OUT onto the stony bank of the stream. He could hear splashing downriver.

There! he thought, running toward a group of daerils with pale yellow skin and bony ridges. They hooted, surrounding a solitary figure who had fallen into the shallow water while trying to cross the stream. The traveler wore a brown robe; Siris couldn’t see much of him beyond that.

Four daerils. Could he handle four at once? There was no reason to think that feral daerils would obey the Aegis code of honor. Not much choice now, he thought.

Siris spun, sweeping outward with the Infinity Blade. Bamboo rattled against itself, clattering to the ground as he cut two dozen stalks free. The clamor brought the daerils up short, and they turned on him, one sniffing the air. The poor wayfarer crawled toward shelter beside some rocks.

The four daerils prowled toward Siris. One at the front grunted something, and the others split up, moving to surround Siris. Gripping his blade, he stepped into the shallow river, the water coming up only to his calves. If he got surrounded, the splashing of those trying to come at him from behind would give vital warning.

The daerils were all of the same species. These grunted and hooted rather than speaking, though they wore crude armor and carried swords. They had hollow-looking, almost skeletal faces. He couldn’t distinguish them by their features, though the leader wore armor stained the color of blood. This one stepped into the river directly in front of Siris, and for a moment, it looked as if he might follow the ancient ideal after all.

Then the leader waved, and the other three moved into the river to attack. Rustling and hooting came through the bamboo in the distance. More were coming. Great.

Siris positioned himself, trying to watch—or at least listen for—all four. The cold mountain water was icy on his feet as it seeped through his boots. Something about his circumstances suddenly struck him as familiar.

I’ve never been in this situation before, he thought, spinning on one of the daerils that tried to come at him. The beast moved back in the water, growling.

All of Siris’s training had been focused on single duels. And yet, there was a sense of familiarity to this larger fight… as there had been in the castle, when he’d faced the two golems. There was something there, something inside of him. If he could just reach it . . .

The daerils attacked, and he shook out of the reverie. Siris jumped forward and engaged the first one to gain a second or two breather from those coming up behind.

He slammed the daeril’s sword out of the way, then rammed his weapon into its chest. Splashes behind. Siris ripped the sword free and yelled, spinning, coming down on the arm of a daeril swinging for him. The daeril’s blood was red, just like that of a person.

Keep moving, keep moving. Splashes and hoots, cries of rage and pain. A third daeril was coming at his side, where Siris had intentionally left himself open. The creature struck as Siris snapped his fingers together, summoning the God King’s shield in a flash of blue. The daeril’s eyes opened wide as its sword was blocked by the steel.

Siris shoved the beast’s weapon aside, then struck, sword through the neck.

That left Siris completely exposed from the back. There was no way to stop the fourth daeril in time. Siris spun, expecting to feel the blow at any moment.

Instead, he found the daeril splashing and flailing, a figure in a long black coat hanging onto its back, her arms around its neck in a choke hold. The daeril tried to stand, and Isa cursed, kicking at its leg and bringing them both down in a splash of water. The creature was wheezing.

“Wow,” Siris said.

“If… you’re done… admiring,” Isa said, straining, “could you please stab this thing?”

Siris leaped forward and rammed the blade down into the creature’s chest. Isa rolled free, water pouring over her as she puffed in and out. “Damn,” she said. “Those things are strong.”

Siris helped her to her feet, and she pulled off her coat—it was so wet that it flopped when she moved. She dropped it and let it float away, fishing out one of the daerils’ fallen swords. The hooting of other daerils was growing closer. A second later, eight of them broke out into the small clearing.

“Hell take us,” Siris whispered.

“I believe I warned you that this was a perfect place for an ambush,” Isa said, her teeth chattering as she raised her sword.

“You did.”

“And I believe I suggested restraint as you charged off like a fool.”

“You did.”

“Well, so long as I’m proven right, I guess I can die happy. And cursing your name, of course.”

Siris smiled wanly as the newcomers fanned out, looking at the corpses of the fallen, the blood coloring the river. One of the daerils—the one whose arm he’d cut off—had crawled to the bank. One of the newcomers killed him with a strike to the head, a sneer on his lips.

“If it turns out that guy yelling for help was just a means of drawing us in here,” Isa said, “I’m going to be really annoyed at you.”

“You aren’t now?”

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