Raydorn: The War in the Black (Chapter 11)

“Behold the strongest of swords, our seat of gold.”

Lady Sarema Starshield, 3 A.C.A., the Motto of House Starshield


Lucilla asked Jack, “How long has it been since you’ve been back?” 

As he looked at his old home beset by early dusk, Jack answered, “A few years.” 

Malum asked Jack, “How long before someone tries to kill us?” 

Malum actually made Jack chuckle. “Five minutes most likely, an hour if the guards are busy.”

The Nymphus sailed smoothly towards the port before it was taken up on both sides by Rayne ships. The Nymphus had already raised its false sails, the mark of a griffin before a cloud. The sigil of House Skyhold worked well enough in any port but at Cloudtower’s, the home of House Skyhold itself. 

Lucy and her crew had stolen these sails years ago. Denizens of Cloudtower knew the changes they had made to their own flag, but soldiers guarding the docks of the Golden Plateau? Not likely. 

As was the custom, the ships sailed alongside the Nymphus to guide them into port to make sure they weren’t spies. While it was entirely possible that Susanna or Krone might try to infiltrate the port, raising the flags, showing believable papers, and presenting the goods intended for sale was enough to fool most who manned the docks. Today, the goods were mermaid meat, a rare delicacy.

Of course, Jack, Lucy, and Malum had no intention of being there when the port master walked the ship.

Before he did anything, Jack clasped his hands together, closed his eyes, and whispered a prayer. “Almulan, Mother of Light, may you watch over me and my love.”

Then he went to follow Lucy and Malum.

The three went down into the hold along with the sailing master. “Gouth,” Lucy called him, but Jack doubted that was his real name, “if you need to, use the first bag of fool’s gold to get us through, and-”

“Make sure he doesn’t know the rest of the sacks are just rocks,” he finished for her, earning him a sly smile, “I’ve pulled this con before.”

“Thank you, hopefully, we’ll be back before morning and won’t have to swim back.”

Jack looked Gouth up and down and just couldn’t place him. The gray hairs in his beard would tell me he’s far older than us, but his voice lacks that gravel old men have. 

“Like what you see?” Gouth mocked Jack, as Jack got caught staring.

“Sorry,” Jack said as he turned toward this box. 

“I thought you were here for Kion?” Lucy teased him just the same.

Jack considered trying to assure her that she has the wrong idea, but there’s no way she’d leave him be. In all honesty, what would hurt from being honest? He would be rude to someone he barely knew? Not a big deal to him.

“He looks old but sounds young, he’s strange,” Jack said, matter-of-factly.

Lucy looked at him a bit shocked. 

“You asked,” Jack said, not even turning back to hear the sailing master scoff at him. 

As Malum opened the top of this wooden box, he gestured them all into it. As Jack got in, he told Malum, “You were thinking the same thing.”

“Notice that I didn’t say it,” Malum said as he got in. 

Lucy closed the hatch as she side-eyed Jack. “Couldn’t just take the licking?” she muttered at him.

“Couldn’t just leave me alone?” Jack snapped back.

“Mr. Sensitive I see.”

“I have thick skin for what matters, why listen to childish teasing?” he told her, which turned her side-eye into a glare. “Honestly, it felt kind of freeing being honest.”

“Most people call it being a dick.”

“So?”

Malum sighed and tried to change the subject. “So how does this contraption work?” he asked.

Lucy explained as she started undoing some of the latches, “It opens a hole in the bottom for us to sneak out and swim. It slows the ship down a bit but we can drain it after docking. I have it for instances like this when I need to sneak ashore. There are quite a few ports with posters that have my face on it.”

“Hmm, actually I think I’ve been told of this,” Malum said.

“Probably, from your assassins, they’ve sneaked out of a bunch of my ships this way.”

Jack asked the important question, “How fast can you get us to the shore?”

Lucy answered with another. “Depends, how long can you hold your breath?” Then she turned open the wheel. Water rushed in to flush the three of them out. 

Is she mad?! Jack screamed in his head as he struggled to hold his breath. He had neither a mask nor was he a Beastmaster, his sight was near-blind under the night water. The only thing he knew was which way was up, but he needed to get where the other boats wouldn’t see him.

I’ll drown first, he thought and risked it by swimming towards the surface for air.

Before he could a tentacle was wrapped around his chest, pulling him back down. She’s trying to kill me! he nearly screamed out loud.

Just as his lungs felt like they were about to burst, he found someone’s lips pressed against his, breathing air into his lungs. Oh right, I’m swimming with a perve.

Jack couldn’t see it, but he felt like she was smiling as she started to swim. He assumed she had Malum too, doubting that either of them would curtail her speed by much.

It was a strange experience, being a little more than a weight that’s tugged around the water in high bursts of speed. They’d shoot forward, just nearly come to a stop, and then they were pulled along again. Jack fought to keep from opening his mouth and letting out all the air in his lungs. 

And just when he thought he couldn’t handle the constant whiplash anymore, he was flung up into the air. 

He was airborne, and had just enough time to take his first breath, but not enough to scream before he hit the dock on his back. 

Hah.” He made a shrill noise after the air was knocked from his lungs. 

Thump.

As he gasped, Malum landed perfectly in a squat, his cloak somehow able to perfectly mold to him and disguise his form. 

Then Lucy climbed onto the dock barely a moment later, just as Jack got his breath back. As they pulled him to his feet, the first thing he gasped to Lucy was, “I… hate… you.

“I hope, I’ve been really trying.”

They helped him move until they were up against a fisherman’s shack amongst other shacks, avoiding the eyes of some guards on patrol. There are not usually this many guards but this isn’t exactly peacetime either.

As they moved from the docks into the city, Jack was rather shocked by how quiet it was. It’s barely dusk, but the town’s mostly empty? Business should be finishing for the day. Has the war taken that many people to the front line, or have they been pulled back to avoid it?

As they walked, looking for a tavern to dry their feet, Jack kept looking for signs of life. Homes were clearly barred shut, candlelight only noticeable at the ends of the door when you stared closely at them. Everything seemed to be empty, free of even the local fishermen who should be stumbling their way back home after a long day. 

It’s barely dusk, where is everyone?

Jack found the small port town disturbing in its quieted state. It was never as populous or as rowdy as the capitol, but it had people. Everyone who lived here either worked in the mines, fished, or sold goods to those who do. It’s a simple way of life that kept a couple thousand people happy, and now they don’t leave their homes?

Surely, Diana didn’t let the king take all the men? Jack considered. If enough were conscripted, there wouldn’t be much of anything flowing into this town. No that can’t be it, then how could it survive? Soon it will be women and children doing all the jobs.

Jack looked up from the town and up to the aforementioned Golden Plateau. The town seemed almost like a barrier between the natural turned unnatural formation, and the salt of the sea.

“Nobody may be here,” Jack mumbled, “but at least the city still has the view.” 

“How is this a city?” Lucy asked.

“What?” 

“This isn’t a city,” Lucy continued, “there’s barely anything here, it’s just a big town.” 

Malum raised a finger as he told her, “To be a city, it must have around 1000 people per square mile.” 

“See,” Jack said, gesturing to the… city around them, “that’s easily the Golden- wait, why do you know that off the top of your head?” 

Malum shrugged underneath his cloak. “Jack, I spy, I know things, you fight, you teach things, don’t question the way things are.” 

Jack shook his head and half-turned to keep going. “Fine, still, the Golden Plateau-” 

“Not a city,” Lucy interrupted. 

Jack’s eyes narrowed on her. “He just said why it is!” 

Lucy shook her head and shrugged, “I disagree.” 

“That’s not how this works, that’s like disagreeing that 2 is bigger than 1! If you meet the requirements, it’s a city, if it doesn’t, it’s not.” 

“I disagree.” 

Jack felt like he was about to have a migraine. Not even in the city for five minutes and my head is already pulsing. “Fucking Valhallock-” 

“Am I not allowed to disagree with you?” Lucy pushed, quietly smirking under the shadow the brim of her hat cast.

“Shut up,” he said as he rubbed his temple, “shut the fuck up, why did I bring you along?” 

“You didn’t, we decided we were going.” 

Jack groaned rather loudly, “Goddess of Light, please help me.”

As he did, he craned his neck back, with his eyes tight shut, but when he opened them, he ground himself looking at the moon and the landmass that stood in front of it. If it were darker it might have looked like any other hill. But from where Jack stood, he could see what had begun to look like a mushroom held up by scaffolding. On top it, high above everyone else was Shieldhome, and that’s where they were headed.

He turned away from it, and shook his head, gaining some of the clarity his mind needed.

“Well, as sad as it is to see the place dead, at least there should be less prying eyes,” Jack commented.

“Idiot,” Malum muttered which garnered a look from Jack. When Malum didn’t immediately explain, Jack coughed which made the assassin tilt his head. “There’s nowhere else for anyone to look. We’re all anyone will be looking once one person gets a look at us.”

Lucy gestured to the alley with her thumb. “Sounds like you’re saying we should hurry, but I see is you standing around.”

“Wait,” Jack said, “were you not going to explain that to me if you didn’t press you?”

“We don’t have time for stupid questions,” Malum said to avoid the question. “Let’s go.”

Malum and Lucy hurried into the alley, and Jack followed quickly after them. “Wait, you don’t even know where you’re going!”

As he caught up he noticed how much energy he had. Normally running was not something one did in full steel armor. I’m glad I went with leather over steel armor now, why do those two run so fast?

When Jack caught up, he reminded them, “Follow me, if Kion is going to be anywhere this time of night, it’ll be Shieldhome, and I know a secret way in.”

“How?” Lucy asked.

“Did you forget that he lived there?” Malum asked her in turn.

“Not gonna lie, I did for a second.”

Jack led them to the outskirts in less than a minute. The town was far longer in length as it wrapped around the large hill the Golden Plateau sat on. It wasn’t terribly wide. 

There was a small cliffside where the rock had caved in centuries ago due to natural forces. Weeds and shrubs covered it, and when Jack found it, he smirked for all he was worth. “I see they didn’t cover it up. Diana must like having this little escape plan should she need it.”

Malum and Lucy soon learned what Jack was talking about as he pulled the weeds aside. They followed him into the dark until they heard a click and clack that preceded a little light appearing in their faces.

Lucy was spooked, but Malum was unmoving. The little spark crystal Jack held in his hand revealed another shrub which he pulled aside to reveal a little hole. “It leads to the tunnels towards the Golden Plateau, which can lead us right into the basement of Shieldhome.”

“It seems like a glaring weakness in Shieldhome’s security,” Malum pointed out.

“Not when only the Starshield kids know about it… and some family friends, I guess.” Jack started counting all the people who knew about it as he squatted down to enter. Lucy and Malum traded glances before following him.

Jack shook his head and gestured them along. “It’s safe if you’re worried. All the Starshield kids know the way underground, we used to play in the tunnels on Almulan’s day, when all the miners were gone, and play hide and seek.” 

“In the dark?” Malum questioned, the idea sounding incredibly dangerous. 

Lucy shrugged as if it made sense to her. “Well, kids are pretty fucking stupid, makes sense.” 

Jack sighed. It’s always more annoying when the uninformed mock what you’re talking about. “It’s not that dark, we have glowing crystals that light the way. You’ll see, they’re up further ahead.”

“Jack, I noticed something,” Malum said, garnering a look from Jack over the shoulder, “you know who else knows about this tunnel?” 

“I just said.”

“Your sister, you dummy,” Lucy said, “she’s a Starshield too, and if you know she knows its here, then she knows you know it’s here, and if she knows you know then she knows to have a trap waiting for us.”

Jack stopped for a moment, considering it. “We should be able to take whoever my sister employs. Outside of Kion, who we’re looking for, the only people I would have worried about fighting were Black Legion, and that’s us.”

Malum ran his hand against the dry and dusty cave, finding it to be basically like any other cave. As soon as he was able to stand up, he asked Jack, “Don’t you think we should worry about Stormguard?”

Jack hesitated for a moment, before continuing down the tunnel. “House Starshield doesn’t consort with Stormguard.”

Lucy pursed her brow and pointed out, “Weren’t you a Stormguard?”

Malum told her, “You just answered your own question.”

“Oh.”

Jack seemed almost grave, but he made a loud hum as he realized where they had walked into, or thought he did. 

Schiff.

Whoa!” Jack yelled as he almost fell.

Pfft.

Jack looked over the drop. It wasn’t long, that would have been better, given him the time to use his Iligsia. The drop was only a story, and at the bottom were sharp rocks which would have cracked his head open, or worse. 

When Malum pulled Jack up, he was a bit dazed and turned to the assassin in bewilderment. “You… you saved me.”

“Why… why would I let you die?” Malum asked, even more bewildered than Jack.

“Aw, you two are cute,” Lucy mocked them as she turned her arm into a tentacle, and let it slither across the ground, finding a safe path. “Go ahead, boys, don’t step on my arm.”

“Really? I thought that’s what we were supposed to do,” Jack said as he held the light crystal ahead of him. Lucy stuck her tongue out at him, and he did the same in turn.

Ughhh,” Malum sighed. 

As Jack walked through the tunnels, he didn’t find himself looking for monsters in the corners of his eyes. This was all familiar territory. Living above the mine meant that as a kid he wanted to venture through it, and being that his family-owned everything, that meant he could. Once you own something, it’s hard to fear it, at least as an unknowing child.

Feels like home already.

“Valhall, this takes me back,” Jack sighed to himself, remembering simpler times. “This reminds me of the time Andy got lost down here. Miners found her the next morning, my mother was furious. We stopped taking the Stellas down here after that.” 

As she followed from the back, Lucy leaned her head past Malum to look at Jack. She arched her brow as she asked Jack, “Are you… are you talking about our Andy?” 

“No,” Malum muttered under his breath, “he’s talking about Andy Flynn, who else would he be talking about?” 

“Fuck off.” 

Alright,” Jack grunted back. 

“Not you!” Lucy yelled at him next. “Are you telling me that you and Andy grew up together?” 

“Yes, her family house is in an alliance with mine. We’re practically cousins, her twin brother is married to my little sister.” 

“Pretty sure that makes you co-sibling-in-laws,” Malum mutters. 

“No, well, yeah, I don’t know what that means really, but like Starshields have married Stellas and other alliance houses all the time. Andy and I are probably like second or third cousins too.” 

“You mean second cousins or cousins first removed,” Malum corrected.

Lucy’s nose scrunched as she asked, “Why is that part you’re hung up on rather than the fact that Andy and Jack are cousins, and their siblings are fucking?” 

Oh, I didn’t need that connection to be made today.

An ill-feeling runs through Jack’s body, making him squirm a bit.  “Please don’t put it like that, also, we’re almost there so we should be quiet.” 

“I’ll be quiet when I want to.” 

Malum remarked, “Honestly, marrying your second or first removed cousin isn’t the biggest deal in terms of DNA. Not to mention, noble types are usually gross fucks, so I’m just used to it.” 

Jack looked over his shoulder at the two of them. “You guys know I’m right here and I’m a noble, right?” 

Lucy shrugged. “We get it, you fuck your cousin, big deal.” 

“I… I do not fuck my cousin, you-” Jack stammered as they came upon what lied directly beneath Shieldhome. 

Jack didn’t need his light crystal anymore, because the tunnel opened into a cavern full of them. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, in all the same colors of the Iligsia that power Stormguard. The stark whites and deep shades of ocean blue outnumbered the fiery reds, letting the otherwise sharp crystals bewonder even Malum. 

For Malum and Lucy, It was like looking up at the night sky and seeing the stars, but instead of feeling so far away, the stars were just out of arms reach. The oasis of the gods lied before them, close enough to touch.

Yes, this is home, Jack thought to himself.

Malum and Lucy looked all around them, barely paying attention to the path’s constraints. 

Lucy held her hand to her mouth as everywhere she looked, she saw a different shaped crystal that shined like a ruby or a gem and glowed with power. 

Malum asked Jack, “Are these the crystals that lit the coliseum?”

“Yup,” Jack confirmed, “we don’t just mine the plateau for gold, though there’s a lot of that. There are tons of minerals and metals we use. As we go deeper and deeper into the Golden Plateau, the more we find. We haven’t tried mining down yet.”

“How come we don’t see these everywhere?” Lucy asked, before noticing Jack walking ahead of them.

“We’re still trying to figure out the whole… exploding-on-contact-with-alcohol problem. Even something that uses a little bit, like a kitchen, runs the risk of an explosion so… can’t exactly sell them yet,” Jack answered as they slowly caught up to him. 

“Well, I hope you figure it out,” Lucy said before catching herself, “did I just root for capitalism?”

“A little bit,” Jack teased her.

“Well, it’s gotta do one thing right eventually.”

As they approached the ladder up and into his home, it was clear to Malum and Lucy that Jack had never taken the moment to really stop and bask at their surroundings, and wasn’t going to. He had seen this place a hundred times. It was a welcoming place but far from awe-inspiring to him now. 

 “Let’s go,” Jack said as he started climbing and Malum and Lucy soon followed him. This was when he began to hurry, feeling antsy just as everything seemed to be just ahead of him.

Kion, I’m coming, he told himself as he climbed, letting the long time spent climbing pass on by. With thoughts of Kion, came thoughts of all that was once good in his life. The happy times he had growing up, when Andy didn’t hate him, his family was intact, and he was free to find his own fate. The slow descent his life would take was not at the forefront of his thoughts. Not as he climbed…

… and not as he opened the hatch.

Almulan, Mother of Light, may you watch over me and my love.

He climbed up first into a dark room. He was first hit with the smell of wine and alcohol hitting his nostrils hard. I’m not Andy, but that smell is… inviting.

As Malum and Lucy stood to their feet, Jack walked towards the center of the small room where he could reach up and find one of the two large crystals to tap. An easy way to illuminate the room.

“Welcome to my home’s basement…” he said as he reached for the crystal, but before he could, another crystal lit up.

Suddenly, the shroud of the dark abandoned them, and he looked over at the door, just a hop away from him. There stood two guards, one with his hand on the other big crystal in the room, and the other with bread in his mouth.

“Shit,” Jack cursed.

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