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Stories from the Verse
Verse Three, Chapter One
Chapter 124, Slade 42
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Previous chapter: Chapter 123, Hastings 42
As Slade walked to his dagger, he let go of the sword hilt and casually drew the blaster from its holster. He did not take his eye off the snake; he was waiting for it to strike.
It moved; but it wasn't coming for him. It was going for the dazed Speckles. He spun toward it and fired three times. All three shots struck the side of the beast, which pulled back, turning toward him, and bending back to strike.
Slade moved the blaster to his left hand and drew the sword with his right. He was standing over the dagger. Perhaps it was all his medieval training. The blaster was a fine weapon, but he was much better with sword and dagger, and the dagger wouldn't run out of ammo. He felt it was important that he have it, but could think of no way to recover it without dropping his guard.
"So, you're the great spirit of the mountain, are you?" he said. It occurred to him that the snake probably couldn't hear at all, and Speckles couldn't understand much of what he was saying, but it helped his focus to say it. "Let me guess. Every year the sparrow people snatch one of the parakeet people, and bring it up here to feed to you, with their prayers for a mild winter." Joe Kondor would have a field day with this, he realized--everything he believed about religion in full relief. Yet that wasn't everything. Slade knew it.
"Well," he said, "maybe there is a god of this mountain, and maybe he can give the sparrows a mild winter. But I am a warrior of Odin, a fellow soldier with Thor; and I left two of my companions behind in an effort to save this...this girl, and you can't have her."
Whether the snake could hear, or the god was listening, Slade couldn't guess. But it chose that moment to strike, and it was fast, lashing forward like the tip of a whip. But Slade was faster. Even as the open mouth reached him, a shot from his blaster broke one of its large teeth; and before it could recoil, his sword swept a huge gash across the roof of its mouth.
His opponent pulled back, eyeing him carefully. It slid more of its body into view, and moved out into the middle of the crater. Taking his chance, Slade scooped up the dagger, and dropped it in its scabbard.
"Frankly," he said, "a mild winter would be a nice thing. But your sparrow people haven't done anything but make trouble for us, and it would be worth a nasty winter just to know they were having a bad time of it."
The snake sprang forward at him again, but this time its coil was too long, and he was able to sidestep and stab his sword deeply into the snake's jaw, and out again.
Again the monster pulled back, swaying from side to side, eyeing him as if assessing what to do next. Slade took the moment to catch his breath and consider. He realized that in this fight he wasn't acting, he was reacting. Every time the snake struck, he dodged, parried, and hit back. But it was taking advantage of its size, keeping distance between them, and he had been allowing it to control the combat. It was time to go on the offensive.
He aimed the blaster at the beast's face; it immediately began moving even before he fired. It was moving to his left, and he turned with it, preferring the blunt force of the weapon to impact its head rather than its well-muscled flanks. Flinch-like jerks told him he was succeeding, and he fired again and again and again.
Then they both stopped, and Slade realized two things. The blaster was now empty, and he would have to release the sword to reload; and the snake's body, although about ten feet from him, now encircled him. The circle rapidly shrank around him.
He dropped the gun and drew the dagger; barely had it cleared the scabbard when the hard cold snakeskin found his arms, pressing them against his body. His sword was useless, its point somewhere below his knees, his wrist unable to do more than feebly swing it. He felt the breath being crushed from his chest.
He focused all of his strength on his left arm. Slowly he raised the blade in front of him, struggling against the force containing him. Words from another world came back to him; then he had shouted them, but this time he could barely gasp them out.
"By the power of Thor I smite you," he said, and finding new strength in his arm drove the tip of the dagger deep into the muscle that held him.
The wall drew back immediately; Slade fell to one knee, loudly sucking his breath back to his body. Then he stood, brandished both blades, and started marching toward his enemy's head.
The snake had had enough. It pulled away, and started to draw its body back through the narrow opening behind the table from which it had appeared. But Slade wasn't going to let it get away. Maybe there were a hundred such snakes in these mountains; maybe this was the only one. But this one would not eat a sacrifice next autumn, if he could have his say.
He sprang across to the gap, and jabbed the dagger against the stone, the tip into the skin. The rapid movement of the snake dug a deep, long gash before it could react.
Its reaction was to strike again, coiling back on itself, and opening its mouth fully. Satisfied that he had weakened the beast significantly, he took his chance, leapt into the open maw, and drove his sword through the rear of the throat, deep into the skull. Then throwing his weight against the hilt, he opened a window through which the brains of the animal began falling, and everything collapsed around him.
He crawled out between the jaws, drenched with gore and blood. He realized that he had done it, he had won the final battle, and it wasn't game over. It was victory.
Raising his sword over his head, he let out a yell that echoed through the mountains.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with five other sequential chapters of the novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #69: Novel Conclusion. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter.
As to the old stories that have long been here: