IV

“Only light may vanquish the terrible night.”

—Akesian Book of Mourning

Ashur awoke to the sound of whistling air. The fire had cooled to dull embers and darkness filled the hut. He could make out the faint outline of the entrance curtain flapping loosely in the night as the freezing air forced its way inside. The homely hut had taken on the quality of a tomb.

As he slumbered, Olvin snored like a wild boar, oblivious to the world around him. Ashur got up and began to stir the embers—adding small chunks of wood until the fire began to come alive once more. Its warm radiance slowly pushed out the cold and restored the hut’s welcoming ambiance. 

Ashur got up and walked to the entrance. Part of the curtain had slipped from its hook and fluttered soundlessly in the wind. As he went to reattach it, a dreadful quake caught his attention.

Off in the distance—approaching from the base of the hill—was what sounded like an avalanche; a uniform rumbling of ice and snow moving all at once. It made no sense to him.

“By Sebu’s might, what horrors come to me now?” Ashur said to himself as he peeked through the curtain, staring off into the desolate night.

At this, Olvin roused from his sleep and noticed Ashur standing in the entrance. The orange glow of the fire sent shadows dancing upon the warrior’s broad back. 

“Aye, what is it that captivates ye so?” Olvin said with a sleepy husk in his voice.

Ashur replied, “My friend, I fear I have invited death to your home.” He did not dare to look away from the scene unfolding along the snowy countryside. “Something evil comes this way. And I think not even the Gods shall protect us this night.”

The short mountain man cleared the sleep from his eyes and got to his feet with no real urgency. “Ye sure? That be a very bold statement.”

“Come look for yourself.”

Olvin walked over and Ashur stepped aside, allowing the man an unobstructed view of the great hills.

After several moments, Olvin said, “I see nothing but the Goddess Moon and the white mountains she watches over.”

“Listen.”

Few men if none possess senses as sharpened as Ashur’s. His instincts were more that of a lion than man, and his hearing was unmatched. Olvin, on the other hand, had begun to succumb to age. His senses were dull and often failed him.

“I hear nothin’ but wind.”

 “Here, give me your hand.”

With a hint of caution, Olvin extended his open hand. Ashur placed the man’s palm on the wooden frame of the entrance.

“Close your eyes.”

Olvin did as he was told.

“Don’t think. Only focus on what you feel.”

At first, all the old man could feel was the icy wind on his face. But after some time, he noticed a mild tremor vibrating through his hand and arm.

With a start, he blurted out, “To the heavens and beyond! Either the Earth is tearing itself in two or an army marches this way!”

“Is there any place to go?”

Olvin shook his head with a solemn frown. “‘fraid not. The closest village be nearly a day’s walk from here.” His frown deepened. “And that be in the best weather conditions.”

With an understanding nod, Ashur went to work putting on his armor. Then a zen calm washed over his face while he examined his weapons: he had the Zuthunian dagger with the chipped blade—which he tied to his outer thigh—one metal-plated glove that he slipped over his left hand, a knobbed club made from the root of the poisonous killstrum tree that fit snugly in his waistband, and the Bogon Slasher from his home country of Cangro. 

The slasher had always been his preferred weapon. With its sturdy blackwood handle and razor-sharp curved blade, he found it to be the perfect tool for severing his enemies’ heads from their bodies. 

“What kind of blade ye have there? Never seen one like that ‘round these parts?”

“This is the weapon of my people,” Ashur answered without looking up. 

“Not much of a reach there.” Olvin stepped closer and examined the half-crescent curve of the blade. “Perhaps a sword would be of more use to ye, no?”

“Why do you say this?” His tone carried with it a venomous bite.

Olvin took a nervous step backward. Until now, he had not noticed what a fierce presence this man possessed. “Well, I only mean that in battle, a longer blade would serve ye better, I think. Ye would have to get real close to a man to cut him with a blade curved like such.”

 Ashur began working on his headwrap, circling it first around his injured neck, then over his face and forehead leaving only his eyes uncovered. The fire’s orange and red flames flittered in his black, fathomless eyes. 

Olvin started again, “Ye would have to possess the quickness of a God to get close enough to kill a man with—”

With a sudden rush, the warrior twisted his body and sprang forward with the incredible speed of a panther. His arm shot out in a looping arc and stopped with the blade hovering mere centimeters from Olvin’s corpulent neck. A few strands of the old man’s wiry gray beard floated down past the slasher’s hilt and settled upon the soot-covered floorboards.

“Well,” Olvin gulped, “that be mighty close, I say.”

“Aye.” Ashur pulled back and sheathed his weapon into a unique holder that was slung crossbody over his back and torso. “We have little time to make our escape.”

“Should we go take a look at what comes this way?”

“We have no choice in the matter. If we don’t go, we may find ourselves standing before the flames of Hell before dawn.”

“So that is how it be, eh?”

The two men spoke no further. It was now time for action. 

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