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The Patriarchs were the voice of the gods themselves. They were paragons of righteousness. For one to sire a child like Mishka would be seen, at best, as an ill omen. But in these bleak and ominous times, such a progeny would cast doubt on the Patriarch's own purity. For this reason, Zhota surmised, the holy leader had finally ordered that his son be put to death. Only through the work of his mother and a few loyal servants had Mishka been spared his fate and whisked away from Ivgorod, deep into the heart of the Gorgorra.
When Zhota finished speaking, Akyev regarded him for a long moment, never arguing or questioning the story. He merely said, "You have heard only the lies that the demon has fed you."
"It is hard to fathom, I know, but I believe he is innocent."
"You believe? Would you swear on your honor as a member of our order that it is true?"
"Yes," Zhota answered, but his voice lacked conviction.
Akyev lowered his head and took a deep breath. "Then I was wrong..."
"It is as you said: nothing in the Gorgorra is—"
Akyev cut the words short with a roundhouse kick to Zhota's sternum that crushed the air from his lungs.
The world went black, and bells clanged in his head. Above the din he could hear Mishka screaming. When Zhota's vision returned, he saw Akyev looming over him, grasping the child by the hair.
"I was wrong about you," Akyev spat. "How could you have strayed so far? It was one of the Patriarchs who informed me of the demon and its deceptions! Who are you to question him?"
Zhota planted his staff in the ground and struggled to his feet as the Unyielding's words hit him. One of the Patriarchs ordered him to do this. Did the other eight not have any part in the mission?
"Kill the creature," the Unyielding commanded, "and you will be forgiven for your transgressions."
The desire to obey was oppressive. He had lived by his master's teachings for so long that defying them almost made him physically ill. Yet a voice deep inside of Zhota whispered for him to do just that; it was an intuition, a flare of insight, like those that Akyev had always told him to silence during his years of training. It went against everything he'd learned was right, but in its own unexplainable way, it shone with the light of truth.
"No... He's not..." Zhota managed to say through wheezing breaths.
His master sighed. "I held on to hope that you would be strong, that you would overcome the weaknesses within you. But you are still a boy. I have only myself to blame for your failures."
"The gods are uneasy, as you said." Zhota steeled himself for the blasphemy he was about to speak. "The Patriarch who dispatched you is no longer concerned with upholding the balance," he continued. "The demon you seek, if it exists, is out there even now
Akyev drove his knee into Zhota's stomach, and he crumpled to the ground. He looked up in time to see his master's free hand flash forward. Pain lanced through Zhota's forehead. Something warm and wet trickled into his eyes and down his nose. When Akyev drew his hand back and flicked a bloody scrap aside, Zhota realized that it was the skin where the circles of order and chaos had been tattooed on his forehead.
"You have no right to wear those holy symbols! You are not a monk... No. Return to the monastery at once and await my arrival. Your sacrilege will be brought before the Patriarch."
The Unyielding walked away, pulling Mishka after him. Zhota rose, fighting back the shame. The failures and lessons inscribed on his staff seemed to burn his hand wherever he touched them.
Rage... rage at all those times Akyev had bested him, all those times Zhota had wanted to believe in himself only to have the Unyielding belittle him, surged through his veins like fire.
He charged at Akyev, closing the distance with him, and whipped the side of his master's neck with his bo. The blow caused Zhota's arms to shudder as if he had hit solid granite. His staff buckled, and a long crack ripped up along the length of the weapon.
Akyev staggered slightly, enough for Mishka to wiggle free.
"Hide the way your mother told you!" Zhota bellowed. "Only come out when you hear her song!" Mishka stumbled away, deeper into the woods. He wouldn't get far on his own, Zhota knew.
But Akyev took the bait. He drew his scimitar and pursued, the blade shining dully in the forest gloom. Zhota drove his staff toward the Unyielding's chest. Akyev parried the assault with ease and then moved his sword in a low arc with blinding speed. Zhota planted his foot on the tree behind him and flipped over the elder monk and his attack.
The Unyielding's blade sheared the tree trunk clean through. The towering pine began to topple down into the clearing, toward the packbeast. The animal snorted and lumbered forward just as the tree's boughs raked across its back, stripping away the satchels. Zhota flinched when the pine crashed to the forest floor in a thunderous boom.
Akyev's belongings scattered in all directions. The largest of the bags tore open, and something rolled out of it on a bed of salt and herbs. It was pallid and decayed, with wispy strands of black hair.
A woman's head, the mouth stretched wide and frozen in a silent scream.
The puzzle pieces fell into place. The slaughtered caravan. The headless body. The demon.
Zhota looked at Akyev, not wanting to believe. His master was many things—perhaps the cruelest and most severe of the monks—but Zhota had never thought he could be a murderer.
He couldn't imagine the Patriarchs would condone the butchery of the caravan under any circumstances. No, this was all wrong. It was evident that Mishka's father was one of the Patriarchs pledged to chaos and that he was acting without the consent of the other rulers. Perhaps that was why he had chosen Akyev—a man who would obey without hesitation to any end asked of him.
Akyev did not give the head a second glance. His scimitar bit deep into Zhota's left bicep in a perfectly placed strike that severed the muscles in his limb. His arm went slack, and he took a few haphazard steps away from the elder monk before recovering.
Zhota swept his staff one-handed toward Akyev's head in a feint, and then he kicked at the Unyielding's gut. Akyev caught his ankle and flung him into the fallen tree.
Before Zhota could roll to safety, his master leapt forward and drove his scimitar down. Zhota lashed his staff out with his right arm to deflect the blow, but he suddenly felt helpless against the legend he faced, his mind turbulent with doubt just as it had been during training. The sword splintered his bo, but the defensive measure was enough to divert the elder monk's attack. Akyev's scimitar sliced diagonally across Zhota's chest, leaving a shallow wound
Zhota struggled to rise with his good arm, but he sank back to the ground in pain and defeat.
"You fought as I had expected, without grace or resolve," Akyev stated.
"You know the boy is not a demon," Zhota managed to say.
"I know what the Patriarch has told me. I do not question him."
"The caravan... You killed those people."
"I fulfilled my duty."
"Did it require you to hire godless men? To murder innocents?"
"The brigands were tools, just as I am an instrument of the divine ones. I would have sent them to the gods for judgment if they had delivered the demon to me. As for the others, they sheltered the creature. When I asked where it had fled, they cursed the Patriarchs. The travelers died like the dogs they were."
Akyev gestured to the severed head. "That belongs to the demoness. I took it as proof of her demise. She was the thrall of the demon-child, a whore whom the creature would send into villages to lure out new victims."
"A lie," Zhota said. "His father, the Patriarch, has turned to murder due to his fears. He believes the commoners will think him tainted, perhaps will even rise up against him, if they know he sired a deformed child. He has abandoned the system of balance to pursue his own ends."
"You will never understand what it means to follow duty," Akyev retorted. "You condemn my actions with a human heart when they are dictated by the gods. You are less than a heretic. You are a stain on my honor and that of our entire order. I will give you to the gods to be judged."
"You know he is only a boy, don't you? But you choose to ignore the truth," Zhota said as the Unyielding raised the scimitar high overhead. There was the briefest flash of uncertainty in his master's eyes.
Akyev swung his blade regardless. Time seemed to slow as the steel hurtled down... down... down. With sudden clarity, Zhota realized that it was not he who had wavered; it was Akyev. The Unyielding, in his weakness, had bent before the rising chaos and closed his eyes to truth.
Zhota prayed to the silent gods around him for strength. If there was anything innocent left in the Gorgorra, he knew that it was Mishka. Zhota focused on this one thought, reminding himself that he was acting according to the principles of balance. He quieted the fear and pain, concentrating on the surface of his right palm and willing it to be strong as he shot it up to meet the blade.
The Unyielding's scimitar crashed into his hand. The sword's weight was like an entire mountain pressing down on him. Yet the weapon's edge did not pass through Zhota's skin. He would not bend like Akyev. He would not break.
"He is just a boy," Zhota grunted through his teeth as he clenched his fingers around the sword. "You can still do what is right!"
"Silence!" the elder monk bellowed. Sweat beading on his brow, he fought to rip his scimitar free of Zhota's grasp. When he found he could not, the Unyielding leaned forward, pushing the steel against Zhota's hand.
I will not bend. I will not break.
Zhota gave a primal roar and twisted his wrist. Akyev's weapon snapped like dead wood, and the elder monk toppled at the sudden release of tension. Zhota flipped the broken blade laterally in his hand and arced it up in a tight swing, slicing through his master's neck with a cut so clean that Akyev's head stayed on his shoulders until his body slammed into the ground.