- November 6, 2021
Raydorn: The War in the Black (Chapter 10)
“You people are so rude.”
– Malum Chun, 448 A.C.A.
The boat ride back was a somber one. The Hotun had been saved from slavery in Krone, but they still couldn’t return home. Those that died in the war before their capture were still dead, and they knew not what the future would bring. It didn’t help that they were warned not to stand by the water because of shark mermaids.
Many found the warning ridiculous until the masked assassin repeated his warning without a hint of humor. It seemed true when said by someone who lacked a sense of fun, to them at least.
The son of Starshield kept his distance, in an attempt to leave the hurting people alone. It was a dull affair until they came upon the Icy Pearl Isles. It would have been a fair assessment to assume that none of the Hotun had experience with anything other than the desert that covered so much of Northern Seca.
As they sailed between the plateaus that appeared to float above the water, men, women, and children alike ran to the sides to look at the vibrant life. The tall grass was a first for most, but the trees and the vines hanging from the top of the short cliffs were a first for all.
Jack could hear them muttering and whispering the same thing over and over, “Zuri,” and Jack looked to Quintus to learn what it meant.
Quintus whispered back, “Beautiful.”
When they docked and properly beached the ship, the islanders were there to meet them. They did not share a language but the gifts of clothing, goodwill, and the affectionate love of a hug were universal.
As his people were expected by the island’s native dwellers, Alabaster came to Quintus as he and the Black Legion moved their food off the ship. Jack couldn’t understand what the older man said, and Quintus told him, “He wanted to know if all the native islanders would be this welcoming?”
“You should tell them what the Icee said when we first told them what we wanted to do. They wanted us to bring you here without question.” Jack watched as Quintus more or less told Alabaster his words and the older man seemed in tears as he clapped Quintus on the shoulder.
Quintus assured him that they could handle the food, they should go and find where they can set up camp. Better to set up tents before nightfall, for as beautiful as the Icy Pearl Isles were, they were called ‘icy’ for a reason.
Not being able to communicate with the Hotun nor the Icee himself had Jack aggravated. It had become a new task to set himself to. He saw how they quickly came to communicate through means other than language, but he set to learn them both.
As they worked to set up the tents for the Hotun, Jack was the first among the Legion to help. Then when it came to learning how to build a fire with sticks and leaves rather than flint and rocks, Jack was the first then too. When they set about finding better spots to lay their heads, Jack was there too to offer some of the spots he knew were free.
By the time they had begun thinking about dinner, Jack had yet to stop to rest, and Quintus set about asking him about that.
“Jack, Jack,” Quintus had called his name.
He looked quite spooked when Jack responded, “<Yes?>” in rather broken Uzuri, but the instinct was impressive, nonetheless.
“I-I… I came to ask if you’ve taken a moment!” Quintus nearly laughed, likely having then realized just why Jack had set himself to his tasks.
“Are you worried about me, Quint?” Jack asked, smirking as he tried closing a loop that was too high for him.
“I’d say you should feel special, but I worry about everyone,” Quintus said, as he moved to help. As usual, Jack felt small next to the man’s absurd height.
Jack had noticed, There aren’t many among the Hotun as tall as Quintus. Quintus must have what mother would call ‘good breeding.’
“Are you going to tackle Andy’s alcoholism or are we letting that one go?” Jack asked him.
“You speak as if I have not been tackling that.”
“How’s that going for you?”
“Is there anything worse than ‘nowhere?’”
Jack and Quintus laughed, forcing Jack to quite possibly take his first break since they returned back to the isles.
“It can hit like a wave,” Quintus told him.
Jack huffed and shook his head.
“What are you going to do when there are no more tents to be made and moved?” Quintus asked him.
“You’re speaking in verses, Quint.”
Quintus’s narrowed on Starshield. “You’re not working or learning how to speak to these people only because you want to understand what they’re saying. This is a great distraction that won’t last till the morning, and then you’ll have nothing.”
Jack’s mouth twisted. He must see a lot with his head held so high.
“Are you going to suggest I face my feelings again?” Jack asked him, turning his back to Quintus. He tried to shun Quintus, resembling a child as he avoided Quintus’s eye.
“Oh, that would be a waste of time, you must face yourself on your own terms, but in the meantime, I have a new distraction I wish to discuss with you.” Jack turned back towards Quintus with a peculiar face. “Come, let us walk and talk, standing on these rocks can be bad on the knees.”
As they walked through the camp, well within earshot of several people, Quintus held a strange stature next to Jack. He towered over him as he walked with his hands behind his back and a smirk on his face.
What is this man playing at? Jack wondered.
“Some of our new recruits are already wondering when we’re going to teach them how to defend themselves,” Quintus told him, and Jack’s head was already dipping in anguish, “some of the islanders too. I know a couple who were already stationed here who could use a good warmup from a well known teacher named Jack Starshield.”
“Quint,” Jack began to bemoan, “I don’t know if I can teach,” but was interrupted. This is not a place where people minded their own business. The business of one, was the business of the whole village.
One of the Hotun, asked, “<You are… > teacher,” his last word in Rayne. “<I’m not sure if I heard that right.>”
“<You did, I am, I was.>” Jack surprised the man when he responded in Uzuri, and Quintus a bit too still.
The Hotun tried to speak in Rayne just as Jack in Uzuri. “No surprise, we do tell. <Sorry, learning Rayne.>”
“<You are quick learner,>” Jack complimented him, placing a hand to his chest as he admitted, “<I am learning Hotun as well.> How did you tell, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“<You are patient, attentive, you are quick to show, and let us fail and succeed at right time and the right moment.> You teach to fight? <I would be happy to learn from you.>”
“See?” Quintus told him as if this was an easy sell.
Jack was hesitant to give Quintus or this man an answer. In a matter of seconds, he noticed that he was not just being looked upon by two men, but he had the side-eye of every Legion soldier there. The Icee and Hotun held nothing back as they openly listened.
Then Jack looked up to Quintus with his knowing and guilty eyes. The bastard knows exactly what he’s doing.
“Maybe, I just…” Jack began to say before taking a deep breath, “I’m just not there yet after…”
Quintus tried to keep him from saying no, much to Jack’s chagrin. The one-man spoke over the other as he tried to make Jack sound more non-committal than he was. “Maybe it would help, but…” then something caught his eye, “maybe later, Malum is on a tear.”
“What?” Jack said before he looked around Quintus and found Malum there. “Valhall!”
“Hah, you didn’t get me this time,” Quintus gloated.
“Alright, I will next time,” Malum said so matter of factly, making Quintus’s smirk dull, and that was before the assassin grew so serious. “We need to talk.”
This is a waste of time, Jack thought to himself but didn’t say anything. I think my is nose still sore from Andy’s elbow.
“For now, Krone is too embroiled in a war on three fronts to go after us,” Malum told the group, Quintus, Andy, Jack, Astrid, Lucy, the Icee chief Keona, the Legion fort captain, Jordan, and Basta.
Malum had crowded them around their map, under a large temp that would save them from distraction, though not from being heard. The tent would hardly silence them.
“Three fronts?” Jordan Chaxus asked. He’d been the captain who fell to his knees when Andelyn had given him the news. He’d been stationed on the Icy Pearl Isles for so long, he hadn’t seen this war coming until the Tribus Senso Eilean was agreed upon. The islands had yet to tan his pale skin but it did bleach his blonde hair.
“Krone is at war with Endica to the East as well as Susanna and Raydorn to the west,” Malum informed him.
“Soon they’ll have to pick a side or lose more of the western front,” Lucy muttered to herself, her arms crossed around her, holding tight as she stared at the map which the Kronish Empire dominated.
“No hope for your homeland?” Quintus asked her. “They may take back what the Empire stole from you.”
“Quint,” Lucy said with a hardening tone, “I haven’t been to Endica since I was a toddler. I couldn’t tell you what the place looked like.”
“I thought you were a wyvern,” Jordan muttered to himself, “are you going to run to the Krones the moment you get the chance?”
Before someone could comment on the captain’s insensitivity, Lucy sniped back, “Depends, is the birdie going to run back to Iron Rock?”
“Ergh,” Jordan grumbled, huff and puffed, before crossing his arms and muttering to himself.
Malum looked between the two of them. “Are you done? I’ve barely started.”
“Yeah, they’re done,” Andy told him.
“You people are so rude,” Malum muttered before he traced his finger from the Kronish Empire to the border between Raydorn and Susanna.
Raydorn was nearly landlocked between Krone and Susanna. It may have the Secan Sea to the south and east, but the water put so little distance between them and Krone that the Empire could invade from the east with ease. The fact that it bordered Raydorn to the north was likely the main reason why this hadn’t happened yet. It was far easier and cheaper to move troops that way. Krone was inable to move much of a fleet from the east when Sosusa controls the Canal of Shard.
The canal is the only waterway connecting the Secan Sea to the other ocean in the world. It’s the ocean that borders Seca to the east and Krone’s portion of Gronina to the south.
On the western front, Susanna bordered Raydorn to the west, and Krone bordered Susanna to the north as well. But Susanna had the Insa Ocean to the west and it controlled the mouth of the Secan Sea, which cut Raydorn off from any attempt to go around the country’s coast.
It’s amazing that these Isles have avoided the war. It would be the only place for Raydorn to set up a naval defense against Susanna, and Susanna should keep it away from Raydorn in turn. Neither has a particularly great navy, but expect that to change soon. We’ll have visitors sooner or later.
“Raydorn is currently trying to build up its forces to make a push for Helican,” Malum informed them. “The crown is desperate to assure Rayne nobility that they will gain something substantial within the year, and Helican is that. In that effort, the Pain is training more Stormguard than ever before, and Cloudtower is training more than just Stormguard with wind abilities to ride on griffins.”
“About time, Kronish dragonfire has been tearing Stormguard from their saddles for years,” Jack muttered, almost scoffing and growling at the idea. “Fucking Mightus wouldn’t hear of it, but now there’s something he wants.”
“You act like he’s the only person who behaves this way,” Astrid said. Her eyes never quite strayed away from a neat-looking denominator on the map. “You’d think being a good little noble boy would make you experienced in dealing with such people.”
“Just because I’m used to something doesn’t mean I won’t criticize it.”
“That’s fine when you have something to add, but we’re trying to get through a meeting here, m’okay?” Astrid’s little wink at him infuriated him at first, but the judging glances from around the room gave him second thoughts.
I’m… it’s me… Jack thought to himself.
Rather than get angry, he sighed and apologized to Malum. “Sorry, what… what of Susanna now, Mal?”
“Nothing,” Malum said, which turned heads, “my spy’s handler hasn’t returned any letters or updates regarding, in fact, she can’t get any word from him quite yet.”
“You think he’s been found out?” Andy asked. “I don’t know much about what Susanna does to traitors because none escape to talk about it.”
Malum didn’t respond immediately, his mask somehow making his long pauses less awkward. “Susanna’s court is much tighter than Krone’s or Raydorn’s… this wouldn’t be the first time he’s struggled to get the word out, so I’m not worried yet, he’s yet to fail me. More to the point, I actually wasn’t done talking about Raydorn yet.”
“Of course, anything else to get Jack riled up?” Lucy asked ribbing at him.
Then Malum stayed quiet for a bit.
Lucy threw her head back as she groaned, “Oh god, I was joking!”
Before Jack could say a word, Andy had slammed her hands on the table, furious that Malum would even bring it up. “No, we’re not doing this! We’re not gonna give Jack ammunition for some revenge quest.”
“What?” Jack said, his voice cracking in astonishment. “This isn’t about revenge!”
“Fine,” Lucy said with a roll of her eyes, “getting dicked down, what’s the difference?”
“Fucking Valhall you guys, this man was our strongest ally, our friend!” Jack was stabbing the table with his finger as if that made his point stronger, but he was surrounded by the apathetic stares from those who the Aurora Knight swung his sword at. “Don’t you want to know why he tried to kill us?”
“Not at the chance that he’s gonna try to kill us again!” Andy yelled at him.
Astrid has a figurine from the map in her hand as she points at Andy. “She makes a very good point, I like my head attached to my body, and that was like, the first thing he went for.” She mocked getting beheaded for effect.
Jack crossed his arms but thought better of it. I’m not here to pout and look like a child, let Andy do that.
“I can protect myself,” Jack stated instead, placing his hand on his sword.
“Maybe,” Malum cut him short, “if you were willing to go all out, but you hold back, and he doesn’t…”
“Just fucking tell me what you know and I’ll be the judge of that.”
Malum looked between Jack as he waited for an answer and Andy who was glaring and mouthing for him to not.
“All I know about the Aurora Knight,” Malum started, “is that he’s supposed to be patrolling the Susannan border… which we would be smart to avoid because if there’s any war front that was about to get worse, it’s that one.”
Jack immediately started talking to himself, tracing his finger along the border on the map. “If he’s on the border between Raydorn and Susanna, they’re not going to have him patrolling the Soday Mountains, he’d be down by the Golden Plateau.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Andy groaned, almost as if she was about to cry out of frustration.
Astrid leaned to the side and bumped her head against Malum’s arm, rather than use her arm. “Ssps,” she hissed, “what’s the Golden Plateau?”
“It’s where Jack and Andy are from, Jack’s family owns it.”
The de facto Hotun leader, Basta, took the name a bit literally. “Your family owns a plateau made of gold?”
“Uh, no, I mean, yes, sort of,” Jack said as he found himself explaining, “it’s not literally made of gold, but there is a lot of it.”
With her head still in her hands, Andy said, “It’s why he’s such a pampered piss ass.”
“Oh fuck off,” Jack ignored her and turned to the pirate. “Lucy, can you take me there on the Thassus or the Nymphus?”
Lucy tapped her pursed lips, pretending to think about it. “Uh, I could do a lot of things, not sure why I would though.”
Could someone not fuck with me today? Jack thought in response, but he also had a more literal response to her.
“So you have an excuse to sail, it’s literally your favorite thing.”
“I mean that’s true.”
Andy yelled, “Lucy!”
“Hold on,” Lucy said, holding up her hand, “I need a better deal if you find the Aurora Knight and you two make up… I get to watch.” The room seemed surprised, but not too surprised based on how fast they went from being shocked to rolling their eyes.
“Wha-what? You know what, sure, jerk off to us if you want,” Jack told her.
Lucy warned, “You’ve given me permission now.”
Quintus couldn’t help but nervously scratch at his chin, and take an absorbent amount of time stuttering before he asked, “Do you really want to?”
“It’s more about knowing that I could than that I want to,” Lucy admitted. “Sailing because I like sailing didn’t feel like enough.
“Hold on!” Andy yelled at the table, the table slowly starting to tune her out as she raised her voice louder and louder. “This is clearly a trap!”
“No, it’s not!” Jack yelled back, which everyone at the table was also growing accustomed to.
“Oh, it definitely is,” Malum asserted, “there’s no doubt that the court of Raydorn is feeding us misinformation to capture us. We’re wanted fugitives. In this case, they likely don’t even need to lie because the Aurora Knight could kill you himself.”
“It’s not just that!” Andy told them. “Jack is literally talking about going home. Not like to his homeland, but his home city, maybe even his house.”
Fuck, she’s right.
Jack started to mutter the realization Andy helped him come to. “Starshields don’t miss the chance to put up famous knights and such… stokes the ego… if he’s guarding the Golden Plateau that would be where he would stay…”
Jack thoughts couldn’t help but trail to some unsavory memories. The heroes would always regal father with their stories before mother would try to mount them on her wall.
Andy wasn’t so much talking to Jack, so much as convincing the others to tell Jack no, as if he weren’t an adult. Does she really think anyone can stop me from doing what I want to do?
“It’s clearly a trap, and not just for us, but for Jack. He knows who sits atop his household now!”
Astrid muttered to the table, “I’m assuming it’s not his father.”
Jordan confirmed, “It’s not his father.”
“Yeah, that felt too obvious.”
“His sister Diana sits at the top of Shieldhome instead of his brother,” Andy told them, before turning to Jack and asserting, “and for a reason.”
“I know what my own siblings are like, Andy, I don’t need to fear her and you don’t need to tell me about them.”
“You want to go to the one place where everyone would know your face when you’re wanted by the whole country!” That’s when Jack turned his back to her, but she kept yelling at him. “Clearly, you need to be more than told, it needs to be beaten into your dumb fucking skull!” When he flipped her off, she practically screamed, “Don’t you walk away!”
Then Quintus rested his hand on her shoulder, and the tent seemed to quiet a bit.
“Meet you by the dock in an hour, Lucy,” Jack said as he opened the tent, “after Andy has finished severely fucking off.”
Andelyn Stella watched Jack Starshield leave her behind for what was not the first time. She couldn’t help but let her head grow hot watching Malum and Lucy get ready to go with him.
Traitors, she thought to herself.
She heard the thud of Quintus’s large feet against the mud as he approached her. When he sat down, she gave him a side-eye, as she planned to give all who helped Jack pack the boat for his trip.
“Didn’t I hear you tell Malum that sometimes we have to let people do what they want to do?” he told her.
Apparently, the fucker hears everything too, she thought to herself.
“You butchered what I said… but close enough.” The irony was not lost on Andy, as she told herself all the differences between any situation with Malum and those with Jack. “I wasn’t talking about when said people were idiots attempting to get themselves killed.”
“I’m sure Malum will keep Jack alive,” Quintus assured her.
“Why is he going anyway?” Andy asked him. “I walked out before that was decided, never did get an update on that.”
“I couldn’t tell you for sure, maybe to keep Jack alive, maybe to kill Kion if they do find him… or maybe he’s just bored. Do any of us really know Malum that well?”
Andy remained silent on that point, her eyes unmoving from the ship. “Malum doesn’t get bored,” she said, monotone, as if it were an unquestionable fact.
“Would you know?”
“Not many people have been privy to the missions Malum has received and given out.”
“You were one of them?”
Andy chuckled. “Fuck no, I just used to read the letters because Harry was a slob. Malum has always had the targets scoped out before the contracts come in, sometimes months ahead of time.”
“So who would he want to kill?”
“You wouldn’t know them,” Andy said, as if that was an appropriate way to end the conversation, but as she should know, with Quintus that’s never quite true.
Quintus crossed his arms and leaned close to Andy, staring directly at her face. She turned her eyes to look at him with a bewildered look on her face. “Quint?”
“You know full well who Malum might eventually plan to kill. I’d wager it’d be Jack’s own family, his sister you spoke of earlier most likely. Why do you know so much about them? Why are you always so personally aggravated by everything Jackson does?”
Andy paused as she looked Quintus unyielding stare up and down. “A bit forward, don’t you think?”
“Beating around the bush hasn’t done much for me this week.”
Andy pushed saliva around her in her mouth as she thought about how to answer this question.
She spoke as the S.S. Nymphus departed.
“How much do you know of Raydorn’s different castes?”
Quintus gave her a slight nod. “I think I know the layout, you’re not all that different from Krone…” She gave him a scowl of her own at that. “Or so I hear…”
“You’re not wrong, Raydorn isn’t much different from Krone, but we call everything by a different name, a bit of a… kind of ‘fuck you.’”
“You’re straying from the point.”
Andy chuckled. He’s not going to let me go.
“I’m from House Stella, as you could that figure out from my last name. I’m noble-born, not a peasant, but I’m not from any of the great houses like Jack. In fact, House Stella is a part of a kind of… brigade of houses that live on the Golden Plateau. The Starshields rule from the top and the Stellas are sworn to them.”
“So… you’re family and Jack’s family are allies?”
“More than allies, we’re nearly incestuous,” Andy grumbled, her words taking Quintus aback, breaking his long-standing stare. “When House Starshield doesn’t have an alliance to make with the crown or the other great houses, the Stellas are the first ones they go to make sure their line goes on.”
Andy put on a gruff man voice and raised her shoulders to mock being broad. “‘The Stellas have been the breeding cows for Starshield men for millennia, good ole breeding bitches they are,’ or something like that. I remember hearing Jack’s father tell that to some of the other noble lords.”
“He didn’t… he didn’t actually say that, did he?” Quintus asked.
Andy didn’t even look at him. She stared at the water, unfazed. “It was worse. We’re all just things to the Starshields. Wives, bodyguards, childhood playmates, entertainment, whatever Starshields want, the rest of the alliance gives them in return for a little bit of their never-ending gold… but none more so than the Stellas.”
“Wait,” Quintus said as if he was putting two and two together. “Were… were you and Jack supposed to be…?”
Well, I’m sure that was possible, Andy thought to herself as she laughed.
“Maybe, but never got that far. I was Jack’s designated playdate, someone to entertain him, probably as a backup in case his arranged marriage fell through… but he ran away to be in the Stormguard before that could happen.”
“Oh.” Quintus must have thought he hit the nail on the head or was at least on the right track. “So, did Jack… himself ever do something to you?”
Andy shrugged. “Define ‘do something,’ if I had to define it, it was more like Jack always stood aside and allowed it. Allowed his sister to pull my hair, kick me down the slide… his father to deride me in front of my father, or vice versa… The children of their house are more shields than stars, and Jack was… and still is… always ready to be used as one.”
Andy turned to Quintus as she added, “I’m being metaphorical with the…”
Quintus waved her off, “Yeah, yeah, I figured…”
“Not with the hair though, she did that, though if she had pulled my hair now, I wouldn’t mind.”
“I get it.”
“Diana’s such a freaking bitch, but would be happy to offer my face as a seat-”
“Andy…” Quintus stopped her, “I get it… you know I don’t…”
“Why do you think I do it?” She had what could only be described as a shit-eating grin, and he chewed the inside of his mouth to keep from chuckling.
He pointed at her and said, “You are a mean one, Lady Stella.”
“Oh, you dick,” she called him as he started to get up. She reached for him as she said, “Don’t be a baby,” and grabbed hold of his trouser’s fur trim.
“Ah,” she gasped when she felt static run up her fingers, but it went deeper than a static shock.
“Andy?” she heard someone say, but that’s not what she saw.
Gone was the cliffside, and gone was Quintus. She saw a flat desert that ran for miles, with nothing around it… nothing but some big plateau in the middle of nowhere… and this strange moist feeling around her noise…
She could smell so much. The one she would never forget was a scent she would not know was named petrichor, and it hit her hardest. The scent was created by a much-needed storm bearing down on the dry desert dust, and there was nothing better…
… to distract prey.
Andy could sense her body moving without control, her arms… or legs?… they seemed to move with so much weight. She felt so slow and lumbering, as some innate sense of danger made her heart beat a hundred times faster.
She nearly broke out into a run on all fours yet didn’t fall over. It didn’t matter, the shadow had been cast over her, and she turned her head to scream.
First, Andy noticed the man who stood over twice her height, with arms and hands that appeared impossibly massive. She thought herself mad, looking up at his red eyes and this red pigment to his skin. She could barely make it out being in his shadow.
Then the second thing she noticed, before his arms came down on her, was how she squealed like a cow.
“Hah,” Andy found herself ripping her arm to her chest–her pale human arm. She would have been screaming if she had the air in her lungs to produce a sound.
And as she struggled to collect herself, dazed and confused, her heart pumped in her chest. She wasn’t listening for her, but she heard it nonetheless.
Large hands found their way on her, and Andy sought to scream but only wheezed.
“Andy?!” Quintus yelled in her face, trying to hold her still. It wasn’t until she felt him pull her away, even as she fought him, that she realized she was about to back off the edge of the plateau. It was a several-story drop that most certainly would have ended her life.
Quickly, she went from trying to fight Quintus to clinging to him, shocking him with how tightly she held onto him.
“Andy?” he said her name again. “What happened just now?” Her grip would not loosen, and her tongue had only just begun to wet itself on the moist air. She muttered, but they sounded like gasps, he could barely understand. “I don’t know,” she said once, and then again, and again, until her lungs could help her make words Quintus would hear.