Raydorn: The War in the Black (Chapter 17)

“Fire is not just destruction, it is the signifier of a chemical reaction. Fire is what we get when we exert so much power that something changes on the molecular level. That is fire. Fire is change.”

– The Pennies, 448 A.C.A.

Smoke and ash seems to follow me everywhere, Malum thought to himself as he glided from the nearest cliff towards the large treehouse of scrap. He flew through more smoke, appearing like wraith and landing as silently, and ruined the silence with a bout of coughing. But this… this is getting ridiculous. To think this hellmouth was the making of Efuni.

Malum heard voices coming near, so he disappeared before their words could become clear. He stuck to the walls and stayed within the shadows of the compound. He was careful with his steps, shocked that the floor’s support was so well made that it didn’t creek under his feet.

The foundation of this place might have been here before the bandits moved in.

Then came the wailing.


The sounds of screaming and yelling cut his eardrums, but Malum wasn’t fazed. Horror comes with the job, tune it out.

Malum skulked around, the darkness of his cloak proving itself most useful as he tried to search for their target. If he were lucky, he would have been able to snatch and leave, but even as it all happened, he knew that such a thing would never be the case.

He smirked to himself as he leaped towards the ceiling, using the black cloak to cover his form. I may stick out like a sore thumb during the day, but when it counts I am invisible.

He listened to the footsteps walk under him before he came down. He proceeded to make his way closer to the yelling and screaming until the place grew quiet. That’s never a good sign.

Malum made his legs move as fast as they could without making a sound, and then the sound of drums began to start. If I’m dealing with another band of fire-worshippers, I’m slitting my wrists. 

He gripped the pommel of Siwang closer, thinking nothing of what he would do if they were hurting the child. 

His legs stopped moving once he walked into a skybox overlooking a dark room. From above, he appeared darker than the dead of night, but the rest of the room was slowly being lit by torches.

People in dark cloaks walked down the center of the room, turning and stepping out of line to make a path. I swear to god, these are fucking fire-worshippers. 

Beside the two leaders, there was something shimmering in the sparse light, with claws tapping against the wood.

When the line reached its final two, they led a significantly shorter person up a staircase lit only by their flames. Then Malum could see the beasts–the panthers that walked side-by-side with the leaders. Together, they led what could have only been a small child into the chair, before then turning to face the rest of the room.

With the child on the throne, the two who stood beside them turned to the crowd that had slowly begun to assemble in the shadows with their torches held high.

“Behold our torches!” one said, a distinctly high and feminine voice too.

Sounds… awfully young. About right for a cult, but… a cult leader?

“Behold our fire!” said the other, another woman, a voice barely an octave deeper.

Why is this not the first fire-worshipping cult I’ve seen?

“Fire is not just destruction,” continued the first, “it is the signifier of a chemical reaction.”

Alright, didn’t expect scientific accuracy here.

The other girl continued, the two now clearly speaking in turns. “Fire is what we get when we exert so much power that something changes on the molecular level.”

“That is fire.”

“Fire is change.”

“Today, we celebrate one of our own accepting herself, and beginning the start of a change long in the making.”

“Yesterday, she answered to a name that brought her pain, but today, she changes that.”

Then one-by-one, the ones in cloaks and with torches begin pulling down their hoods, and Malum leaned in close to look each of their faces only to realize that…

Wait, what?” he said out loud.

The two teenage girls beside the makeshift throne threw their torches onto pyres hidden in the dark, bringing light into the room. Then one-by-one each of the other torchbearers threw their torches on hidden pyres, revealing themselves to each be younger than the two teenagers in turn.

The bandits are… children?!

The two teenage girls threw off their cloaks to reveal their scrapwork armor, and throwing caution to the wind as they told the crowd together, “Everyone, welcome Hana!”

Then the whole room was in uproarious cheer.

Everyone threw up their hands and cheered, revealing about twenty or thirty kids altogether, cheering and throwing their fists above their heads. Then on the throne, which Malum could see was just a wooden chair with balloons, the little kid pulled down her hood. 

The one they called Hana couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, just like Malum’s target. After pushing her straight, long, black hair out of her face, she stood in the chair before the cheering crowd, all smiles.

There were tears welling in her eyes as she yelled as loud as she could, “Thank you!” 

Then they began to party, and Malum suddenly realized that all the yelling and screaming was them. 

The two girls at Hana’s side turned to her, and each took one of her hands in theirs. “Come on, Hana,” one said. Malum surmised that the teenager couldn’t be older than fourteen or fifteen at most. 

Based on her face, she’s not Susannan, but her skin is darker than Rayne person I’ve met. Is it the Raze or maybe she’s biracial?

The girl, who was a bit taller, lifted Hana up, prompting the other girl to do the same, and together they swung her back and forth, as one of the panthers ducked its head underneath her, letting them sit Hana on its back. The first girl struggled a bit, but the second clearly had a bit more muscle on her.

“Thank you, Pennies!” Hana told them both.


“Of course, Hana” the taller one said, one Malum could tell was definitely Susannan, and was darker than most too. 

Reminds me of Astrid.

The two girls named the Pennies, lifted Hana from the panther to the crowd of kids who had began to play makeshift instruments and cheer and dance. They grouped together to lift Hana over their hands, letting the laughing child learn what its like to surf a crowd.

If Malum wasn’t double-masked to breath in the Raze, someone could have seen his jaw dropping towards the floor. Dear god, what mission have I roped us into?

As he watched these children, not a single one possiblly an adult, he heard the sound of a door opening to his right. 

Instinctively, he sought for the shadows, only to realize that with all the pyres, there were not many shadows left. The kid who had walked into the room had caught him red handed.

The kid had taken a few steps before his torch revealed the face of Eritusi. Before he could make a sound, Malum snatched his breath away, grabbing the kid’s hand in his. The kid let out a silent scream, as the sound of water hit the floor.

The kid’s scream grew into a quiet whine as Malum raised his hand to the top of the burning torch, and as the kid’s eyes screamed louder and louder…

Malum put it out with the clasp of his hand.

The assassin threw the torch to the ground, and to keep the kid scared and quiet, he grabbed him by the scruff of his neck. He pulled the kid to his face, to the haunting monstrous rage of his mask, and told him, “You will tell me what goes on here.”

Malum could smell the kid’s piss after bringing him so close, and as he heard the sniffles and saw the tears on the kid’s cheek, the assassin pulled back. I didn’t need to do this, he realized.


Oh shit.

Malum slowly turned his head towards the banister of the showbox, and there he saw the other panther. 

Rookie mistake, you fool.

Uni!” the kid yelled, finally finding his voice, and Malum had a feeling he just learned the panther’s name, because it roared in response. 

It leaped for him, and Malum threw the kid back as the panther moved between him and the kid. Without doubt, as it properly positioned himself between the assassin and the kid. 

Malum knew this beast was its protector… And I just manhandled one of its cubs.

Malum unsheathed Siwang as Uni the panther snarled at him. Would the paralyzing poison even work on a cat that size? The panther was muscular, easily on the heavier scale, a couple dozen pounds more than Malum. No, it’ll do little more than stun the beast.

Malum readied his sword for the beast, expecting it to lunge for him, underestimating its intelligence. Instead, it charged to the right, to jump off the wall for Malum’s head. The assassin stumbled back trying to avoid the high swipe as the big cat narrowly slashed the top of his hood.

He could smell the gruel of its breath as it roared and snarled. 

He managed to shove it to the ground, its claw dragging across his chest, shredding his leather armor. He touched his chest, but the mark was devoid of blood. Lucky bastard I am, he thought until Uni lunged for him again.

This time Malum leaped out the showbox, but not before the panther clawed at his cloak, pulling on his neck. It shredded under their combined weight, but the tug turned him around in his fall. 

He landed on his side rather than his feet, but he rolled with it to stand back up. The screams of children surrounded him as he heard Uni hit the bottom floor with a thud. The panther was stalking him now.

“Fuck my life,” he muttered to himself as the kids backed a way from him, only the two eldest girls pushing towards them. 

Together they split the crowd, and from the shadows of the children, emerged the second.


The second panther’s growl rang through the Malum’s mind as the shorter Penny pointed at him. “Efi, eat!” she commanded it… and it was all too eager to oblige.

If I kill these things, I’m gonna be dealing with a lot of terrified children… if I can kill them.

When Efi charged at him, Uni ran at him on all fours. 

Malum sheathed his sword as he ran towards Efi. When the cat lunged for him, he jumped up, leaving a feather behind as he picked up some extra air for his flip. As he soared over the cat, he struck his hand out to give himself an added boost off the cat’s head. 

He thought he would land in the children, but he had misjudged his space. His feet hit ground before he anticipated. 

As the children ran from him, Uni came after him to succeed where its partner failed. So Malum did something drastic.

He grabbed the closest kid, and raised it to the panther.

The big cat nearly stopped its tracks, but it was seamless about it. It still climbed up the steps, up and over the kid, placing its face right next to the child. The cat let its drool fall onto him, but refused to lung and risk crushing the child that had begun to cling to its neck.

Call off the cat,” Malum told them, “I’m not here to hurt you.

“He’s a bandit!” one of the kids yelled.

“Eat him, Uni!” many others cheered the cat on.

Before more could pile on, the tallest Penny yelled, “Quiet.

Everyone was silent save for the snarling panthers. In the silence, all eyes were on Penny as she raised her finger, and made a come hither motion to the cat on Malum. “Come here, girl.”

The panther turned its head towards Penny, before wrapping its neck around the boy in Malum’s lap and bitting the neck of his shirt. Malum released the boy from his grip as the panther slowly pulled the child to safety.

As soon as Uni had pulled him away, the other Penny yelled, “Efi!

The other panther had appeared from a pure blind spot of darkness in Malum’s eye. He found the big cat’s paw on his cheek pushing his head against the ground. The cat bared its teeth against his neck as it kept him down.

He went limp. If his little experience with animals have taught him anything, its to play dead.

He heart the footsteps of boots clacking against the ground as each Penny put one foot on the platform, kneeling up and looking down over his head. 

The taller Penny grunted at him, “Talk.”

“Start with yer name,” the other finished.

“I’m Malum,” he answered honestly, trying to look away fromthe panther and its horrid breath. He struggled to grunt out, “Pleased to meet you Penny… and Penny.”

“She’s Penny Prim,” said the shorter Penny, before gesturing to herself with her thumb, “I’m Penny Tweed.”

“Will I live to learn the difference?” Malum asked.

“Maybe to be meat,” said Penny Tweed, cracking her knuckles like she was the one who would personally eat him. “The panthers like adults.”

For fucks sake, these really are a bunch of stupid kids.

“Ahh,” he said, unable to take the threats seriously from two teenager girls, “can’t say I’ve ever taken the pleasure. Prefer red meat myself.”

“What assassin cracks this many jokes?” Penny Prim asked him.

“Who said I was an assassin?”

“We’re kids, not dumb,” Penny Tweed warned him before whistling, summoning the other panther to now loom over his head.

Okay, maybe taunting them was a mistake.

“Now tell us what an assassin is doing here.”

Malum turned his head to look to Hana, inhaling a chock full of both panthers’ horrid breath. He nearly choked as he turned back to the Pennies. “Ming’s father wants him back.”

Penny Prim snapped her fingers and Efi roared in Malum’s face. “Her name’s Hana,” she corrected him.

I see that,” the assassin grunted, “my apologies, just… hard to remember new names with two panthers in my face.”

“Sucks to suck,” both Pennies said in unison.

Uh,” Malum groaned, these girls not giving him an inch, “have you ever heard of the Black Legion?”

“That sounds oddly racist,” said Penny Tweed.

“What the fuck’s a legion?”

“It’s not racist, we just like wearing black,” Malum was quick to retort, “but not the point, I’ll take that as a no.” Malum tried to take a breath, but he just inhaled more of the panther’s breath. To say he coughed was an understatement. 

“We’re… *cough* mercenaries, Mi- Hana’s father hired a couple of us to save her from the bandits that kidnapped her.”

“We already did that, so you got no reason to be here,” Penny Tweed seemed to growl, as if like her panther.

“Not quite, he also wanted us to bring her back… also how would I know that you weren’t the bandits until I got here?”

Penny Tweed stood back up, eyes on him as she tried to think of a retort. “Shut up,” she said instead.

“I thought you were interrogating me though?”

“I’m not going back!” 

Heads turned as Hana stood a head shorter than most of the kids, with her hands balled into little fists. Her eyes were wide shut as she screamed again, “I’m not going back! I hate him! I hate him! I hate him!

The panther, Efi, went to the little girl as she stood crying. The panther pushed the other kids away to coil itself around her, before pressing the top of its head into her cheek. 

Penny Tweed walked to Hana, leaving Malum to Uni and Penny Prim. She came down to give her panther a good scratch and raise her hands to Hana’s face. “No one’s going to make you go back to your dad,” she told her as she wiped the tears from the girls eyes. She held the little girl by the cheeks and promised her, before taking her into a close hug.

“Hates her dad?” Malum asked.

“Dad hated her first,” Penny Prim told him.

“I can relate to that.”

The teenager turned towards him with an arched brow. “Really?” she asked, as if it were so unbelievable.

“Do you think someone with a happy childhood becomes an assassin?”

“That’s… fair,” she scoffed as she stepped back for a moment. Malum considered that she may let the panther leave him alone, but instead, she just leaned down for his sword.

He grabbed her wrist, and he felt the panther close its mouth on his throat. It was like having several little knives pressed against his skin. I’ve been close to dying before, but this might be the closest.

“If you want the panther off you, you lose your weapon,” she told him.

Rather than fight her, he warned her, “Fair enough, but take it from the handle. The blade is poisoned.”

The girl was spooked and reached for the sword’s pommel slowly after he let her hand go. “You’re not just saying that are you?”

“Touch the blade and find out.” She stared him in the eye as if waiting for him to tell her a new truth. Instead, he taunted her. “Go on, try it, don’t kids take dares nowadays?”

“Not in the Raze,” she told him as she took the sword by its grip. She stepped back a bit before calling the panther’s name. “Uni.

The panther released his neck and stood back, its eyes on him as it moved to the girl’s size. The panther looked even larger next to her. She wasn’t short, pretty tall for her age, but the panther seemed larger than any big cat he’s seen. It was nearly 3 ft tall.

“Where do you want to go from here, big man?” she said, carefully pointing the blade his way. 

She has some brains, make me cut myself before I can get the handle. If only someone had taught her how to hold a sword first.

“If you think I’m big, you should see my friend,” Malum told her.

“You’re not alone?!” As if on cue, the panther growled at him.

“I’m not an idiot, so no, I’m not alone, and they’re going to come sooner or later.”

“Then our panthers will eat them too,” the girl threatened, and the fierce look she had on her face disappeared as Malum started laughing. 

“What’s so funny?” the other Penny asked.

Malum slow sat back up, rolling his shoulders and stretching as if he had just had a good nap. His laughing devolved to chuckles as he looked between the Pennies and the children surrounding them. 

“As an assassin, I’m trained in killing people, that’s what my sword is made for,” he explained to them, “but my friends? They’re just made for killing, and a couple of cats aren’t going to stop them.”

He could see the kids clinging closer together as the courage that came with numbers started to fade. 

Penny Tweed, with Hana trembling in her arms, glared at him with something fierce, a feeling he’s been all too used to. “Do you enjoy scaring children?”

“Hmmm,” Malum hummed as if confirming that he did. “Maybe a little, but only when I know nothing will come of it.”

“You take a lot of time to say absolutely nothing,” Penny Prim interrupted, pointing his own sword at him.

“Then I’ll say this, they may be better suited for killing cats than me, but they’re far nicer too. I don’t want to bring Hana back to her father now, and I doubt the others will either.”

Most of the kids were slow on the uptake, getting confused by what he was saying. The Pennies were not. 

“Why didn’t you lead with that?!” Penny Tweed yelled at him.

They couldn’t tell but Malum was grinning from ear to ear under that mask. 

“I like causing trouble,” he said.


“Maybe it’s just me, but you’ve seemed far more lucid on this trip,” Quintus mentioned to Astrid.

She was busy laying on her back, playing with her axe, tossing the thing in the air like a baton… which it did look like. “I don’t know what that means.”

“Lucid means-”

“I mean I don’t know what you mean by more lucid.”

“Oh, apologies,” he said, already apologetic. “You’ve… been concentrating…? Focused… you’re not speaking in verses, or trying to give prophetic advice. You’ve been very…”


He smirked in response. “Yes, lucid.

“It’s easier here in the Raze than back on the Isles.”

“Because you’re back home?”

Astrid’s smirk was not the same as Quintus’s. “Because Lapis’s guidance has never been more clear to me.”

You’ve been ignoring me for hours.

Astrid chuckled to herself, which surely made Quintus question exactly what he had just finished saying.

“Is, is that Malum?” Quintus thought out loud as he squinted at the compound, and the ladders that were being lowered to the ground.

Finally!” Astrid said as she sat up, and noticed that Malum was not coming out alone. 

I’m getting a distinct feeling that I’m not going to get to kill those people.

I would hope not, look at how small they are.

I know I was ignoring you, but I have to call you out on your bigotry. Small people can be just deadly with a knife as tall people.

I meant that they’re kids, Astrid… I meant that they’re kids.

Hmm, I’ll kill one if it’s a little shit, but like a big little shit.

I’m about to take my own name in vain, Astrid.’

While Astrid’s eyesight struggled to see so far away, she could tell that they were indeed kids by the way they wobbled. 

“Let’s move,” Astrid said, just as Quintus was about to speak.

As she started jumping down, Quintus muttered, “Alright then.

They made their way to the ground, and calmly walked their way towards each other. Astrid had to keep herself from smirking as Quintus’s slowly became horrified by the youth of these nascent children.

She was confused when he muttered, “Is that a panther?”

“Say what?” Astrid squinted as she noticed two big cats walking next to the tallest kids among the children.

When they met face-to-face, Quintus tried to contain his look of horror. Astrid on the other hand, leaned down, putting her face with biting distance of the panther’s. “Whose this cute little guy?”

“Uni,” the tallest Penny said, which made the black panther growl in Astrid’s face. 

Then Astrid growled back. “Rarrr!

The panther’s head whipped back in confusion, before looking back up at its designated Penny.

“Malum,” Quintus asked in the typical deep tone of an adult, “what… do you have… here?” 

“I’ve never seen your eyebrows emote so much,” Malum told him, which only made the tall man glare.

He stopped when he noticed the many small children looked up at him with fear, each trying to hide behind a bigger kid in front of them. 

Come on, Quint, you know how to handle children, Astrid thought, as some were already getting closer to her.

Quintus sidestepped Malum as he got down on one knee, and was still taller than most of the children. He pressed his hand to his chest and said, “Hello, I’m Quintus.”

The kids looked between each other, as if unsure of what to say in response. Before they could, one of the Pennies stepped in front of him, and he found himself looking up at her. With her arms crossed, she glared down at him, as if he were something she needed to protect the young ones from.

Quintus looked away, and stood up carefully as to not frighten anyone. Even through great effort, he couldn’t quite appear small. “I think I should have introduced myself to you first.”

The teenager, despite now looking up at him, showed little change in her eyes. She was as unafraid of him no matter how big he made himself look. Astrid would have thought her fearless if she couldn’t see the girl’s twitching finger under her arms. 

It was gesturing to something, and Astrid tried to follow it, but couldn’t. Penny was just pointing at more kids, and it wasn’t until Astrid saw the black shape move between them that she realized. 

Each of these girls has a panther, but it looks one is afraid of Quintus… that’s unfair, I’m plenty scary, it should be afraid of me too.

Astrid turned and made a face at the panther who stood by the other Penny, but it only tilted its head, utterly baffled by the person. 

You’re not going to scare anyone with just your face.

You haven’t been paying attention to me around the campfire.

The other Penny had stopped paying attention to Astrid, to bend over and pose in front of the taller Penny. She splayed her arms out, grinned with all her teeth, and announced,  “I’m Penelope Tweed!”

The other one remained rather monotone as she added, “Penance Primrose.”

Penelope wiggled her fingers before the unreactive Penance’s face, and said, “And together we are…”

The kids around them all together yelled, “The Pennies!” Well, everyone except Penance Primrose. Penelope looked around to see that the younger kids were already in higher spirts, mocking poses and attacks behind their older guardians.

Penelope took the chance to squint at Penance who only looked at out of the side of her eye. 

“It only works when you do it to,” Penelope growled at her.

Unyielding, Penance said, “No.”

“Why are you like this?!”

“It’s nice to meet you both,” Quintus told them. 

“You too,” Penelope said, recognizing how the man’s softer expression clashed with his warlike build. “You have a much nicer face than the other guy.”

“Pardon?” Malum said.

“He wears a mask,” Penance reminded Penny.

“Exactly,” Penelope agreed with the other Penelope.

“So…” Astrid mumbled as she stood back up, noticing how they were all just standing around. “It’s not a bandit camp, but still…”

Quintus nodded his head in agreement and turned to Malum to ask, “Which one’s Ming?”

“It’s Hana,” Astrid and Malum said in unison, the assassin turning towards the ax woman with his whole torso. He even uncrossed his arms in surprise. 

“How the fuck did you know that?” he asked.

She smirked. “Lapis.”

Malum was quiet for a moment, for her answer was incomprehensible to him. He slowly turned towards the children to tell them, “I forgot to warn you children… she’s nuts.”

Astrid held up one finger as she told the children, “Nuts is how he describes things he doesn’t understand.”

“You claim Lapis talks to you,” Malum countered, only to learn that this was a mistake.

At first, the kids were quiet as they started whispering the god’s name, but one by one they started to jump and shout and cheer, “Lapis?! Lapis! Lapis?!”

Even Penance who had yet to do more than move her eyes made a look of surprise. Penelope was practically jumping with the children, the two panthers nodding their heads up and down with their motion.

“Oh dear god,” Quintus whispered in utter horror, as Astrid stood grinning, fists on her hips, finally understanding just why she had been put here.

All in the plan.

Don’t speak for me.

I wasn’t speaking.

Don’t think words for me.’

Not gonna say anything?

What would I say? You lived here, you came to worship me here. In the Raze, you need a change of weather more than most, why would it be surprising that my name touches upon the lips of the people who live here?

Excuse for everything.

You’re one to talk.

“Astrid,” Quintus said her name, drawing her eye. He nodded to people now chanting the same name as her god. He mouthed to her, Find Ming.

She mouthed back, Hana. 

“Is there a little girl named Hana here?” Astrid asked the children, gaining starry eyed looks before they started to move for someone.

This little girl wore a shirt several sizes too big like a dress, and a rimless hat that nearly consumed her head. 

She’s adorable, Astrid thought, I’ll keep her.

You’re literally being paid not to.

Aaahhhhh!!!! Astrid screamed in her head as she knelt down for the little girl, who held her arm at the elbow, avoiding her eye.

“Hi, Hana, I’m Astrid.”

Hana turned her eyes up at her, as starry-eyed as the rest and asked the ax woman, “Do you really talk to Lapis?”

“I do,” Astrid answered with a swift nod of her head.

“Can you ask him why it doesn’t rain a lot here?”

That’s Efuni’s fault.

“He said that’s Efuni’s fault,” Astrid said, which made the panther Efi grunt.

“Not you!” Hana laughed as the panther came over to her, and therefore to Astrid. Neither was as fazed as Quintus whose hand gripped his chest. 

Astrid was about to give him a heart attack as she pet the panther.

“So, Hana, there’s a reason why we’re here, we were sent.”

“By Lapis?”

“No,” Astrid said with a shake of her head, as the child’s excitement immediately died. “Your dad sent us, we’re here to take you back to your dad, he’s very-”

Without much warning, Hana started swinging her fists and screaming, “Noooooo!!!” Astrid found herself wide-eyed like the panther she growled at.

Penelope stepped down to grab hold of Hana before snapping at the ax woman. “Lapis wouldn’t want her back with her father.”

She’s right, I wouldn’t.

You couldn’t have told me that?!

Penance soon found herself pulling out knives that made the adults recoil in shock. “I thought you said you wouldn’t try to take her?!” the teenager growled at them but they were too busy trying to figure out where the weapons came from.

“Hey,” Astrid said, scratching the back of her head, “I could have sworn she was weaponless.”

“I know, I thought so as well, right?” Quintus agreed with her.

Malum moved between his friends and the angry teenager, whose equally angry panther was skulking to her side. He waved his hands between them trying to assure the Pennies and the children that, “We’re not taking her to her father, Astrid just wasn’t on the up and up, you know… because I can’t telepathically tell people everything I learn as I learn it.”

Penance’s waiting snarl only tightened up as she looked between Malum and Astrid. Astrid only shook her head in assurances. I’m lost to what’s happening. I know I usually waste people’s time a lot, but I’m not about it happening to me.

I wish people could hear and judge your inner thoughts.

Well, we don’t want that, they’d think I’m insane… you know because your here.

Believe it or not, that wouldn’t be my first guess as to why.


Astrid turned to Malum and Quintus, for once actually for their opinions. “Well, what do we do now?”

Quintus shrugged and said, “Take them home with us, find another way to find some money,” as if it were so simple.

Oh, Quint. 

As much as Quintus’s kind heart could make for the best of intentions, it’s far from the most realistic. They have three different groups to feed, and adding more youngsters, is nothing but a tax. Children are not going to work, nor fight, at least not where it really counts. 

The worst thing about it, is that both the Hotun and the Icee would take in these children without hesitation, even if it is to their detriment.

You make being a kind person sound like a poor decision.

Sometimes it is.

Malum seemed to agree with Astrid’s instincts, as he spun on his heel to remind Quintus, “I’m sorry, but no. We can’t take on more mouths to feed.”

“Of course we can, we just hunt for more mermaids and such, we’ll figure it out as always.”

Astrid moaned at that idea, “Oooh, more mermaid meat.”

Everyone stared at Astrid for a moment as her fingers began to wiggle in front of her grin. The thoughts of her favorite delicacy… favorite food was overtaking all other thoughts in her head.

Quintus was the first to turn away. “What would you have us do, Malum? Leave these kids here in the Raze? Force the girl back to her father for some coin? I won’t do either.”

“Clearly, they’ve been getting along pretty fine.”

“We can also speak for ourselves too, if you care,” Penance snorted as she hid her knives again, but kept her hands on their handles.

Seriously, how did she hide those?

Quintus made the wrong move of sidestepping Malum to get down on one knee again to talk to the teenager like he did the small children.  “I know, it’s very impressive, but…” his hands reached out to her, but his fingers curled in frustration at the thoughts behind his words. “You’re children, you should not be growing up here all alone, with no one to watch over you.”

Pfft!” Penelope snorted at him crossing her arms as if to match Penance. The two stood shoulder to shoulder as some of the older kids came to the forefront behind them. “We don’t need anyone to watch over us, and we’re probably better fed than you between the tree sap and what Efi and Uni hunt.”

Quintus stared at the lot of them. At least the man can sense when he’s made a tactical error. 

He traded his sympathetic mask for a stern frown as he stood back to his feet, towering over them and their panthers. “And what if someone comes to hurt you?” he posed his question.

Malum looked Quintus up and down, taking notice of his new approach, and stepped in line. He put on his interrogation voice, and reminded Quintus, “There are the bandits they took Hana from.”

“Yes!” Quintus exclaimed, before pouncing on the detail. “If they held her for ransom, they’re going to come looking for her if they’re not coming now. We found you in a day, you think a group of killers won’t?!”

Penelope was taken aback, already on the backfoot. As she turned her head away to think, Penance showed which of them spoke before thinking more often, shouting, “We know what we’re doing!”

“Wait, actually…” Penelope stopped her before the two adults attempted to verbally tear her apart.

“Actually what?”

Penelope looked to Quintus with this sly smirk Astrid knew all too well. “You said you’re worried about what these bandits might do to us, then kill them yourselves. Then we’ll be free to be left alone.”

“Uhh,” Quintus mumbled, caught off guard by the idea of doing what he was already supposed to do.

Malum instead, said, “That’s a short-term solution at best.”

Astrid nearly stabbed them in the back with an interjection of her own. “Everything is a short-term solution in the right context. I say we do it.” Both of her compatriots gave her a side-eye for switching sides.

As if Malum didn’t change his mind half a minute ago.

“You just want to kill people,” Malum accused her.

“I… maybe… so?!” 

I hate him. I didn’t just want to kill people.

It is one of your favorite activities.

… Shut up, I can’t think of a comeback.

Comeback from what? I’m just stating a fact?!

Shut up!

Quintus continued to try the stern talking to routine, telling them, “I know you think you can survive on your own-”

Even as Penelope interrupted him, “We can.”

“-and that you can do everything on your own-”

And Penance too, “Because we do.”

“-but that’s no life for children.”

The Pennies shouted at him all together, “We’re not children!”

Quintus pointed behind them at the small kids, barely old enough to know everything there is to know about speaking. As he pointed, he put on a gravely tone, and spoke real close to the girls’ faces, “But they are, don’t they deserve more than a treehouse, panther scraps, and tree sap? Shouldn’t they be able to look at a sky that isn’t black and breath air that isn’t filled with smoke. Aren’t you all sick of wearing masks?”

There was a silence that sucked the air out of their smoke bubble, and the Pennies looked back towards their followers who stood in silence. Children are good at many things that they don’t get much credit for, but something that children have never been all that good at, is lying.

Unless your kid’s a fucking sociopath. 

The Pennies could see what their kids wanted, even if the kids didn’t want it themselves, but that didn’t mean they were suddenly going to give in to adults.

Penelope turned to Penance with a devious smile, and Penance grew one in return. The Pennies knew each other’s thoughts without speaking, but still Penelope told her, “I have an idea.”

Quintus tried to speak over them, “No, listen-” but his ire was outmatched by rage.

“No, you listen!” Penelope snapped at him, walking up to him, stabbing her finger in his barrel of a chest. The children looked up in awe, as Quintus looked down in wide-eyed shock. “You think we need more than what we have, that we’re not safe, that we should abandon everything we have an own, but I have better idea, because believe it or not, we can think for ourselves.

“What’s your plan?” Astrid asked immediately, chin on hand, eagerly awaiting what was going on in the girl’s head.

Quintus was giving her confusing looks again as Penelope turned to talk to the adult who would listen. “The bandits you’re worried about, they have a nice big ole base, one that can house all of us, with a huge storage of food, and everything we could need. We’re talking beds, new clothes, weapons… maybe even a little gold to make you all go away.”

The assassin tilted his head as if he found the teenagers more suspicious than his overly dark garb. “How do you know all this?”

Penelope arched her brow as she asked him, “You think we hang out in the treehouse all day? What kind of kiddie do you take me for?”

“A fifteen-year-old one.”

“We’re sixteen.”

Malum stood up straight as he said, “Wow.”

“No,” Quintus repeated.

“Fine, we’ll starve here then since we’ve clearly been on the precipice of death since before you got here,” Penelope mocked him before turning back to the children. She gestured them all back to their compound in the tree and the kids actually started turning around.

Oooh, the power of a good flex, Astrid laughed to herself.


Penelope Tweed turned around. 

But Malum was really talking to Quintus, who told him directly, “No,” as the assassin wagged his finger in the man’s face.

“Listen to me for a moment you dick,” Malum told him, resorting to language Quintus is not used to hearing from him. The taller man narrowed his eyes suspiciously upon the assassin. 

Quintus did not speak as Malum gestured him away. He slowly urged him from the ears of others.

Penance asked Astrid, “How do you stand men like that?”

“I don’t,” Astrid told her, “I generally ignore Malum, but he ignores me enough that he never gets offended.”

“Malum doesn’t seem half bad, it’s the other one who thinks he’s always right.”

“Oh kid,” Astrid laughed at her, “everyone does that. What do you think you’ve been doing?” Astrid had a shit-eating grin as the teenager’s face nearly twisted up in rage. “And Quintus? He’s usually not so insufferable, he just cares too much. He thinks its worth being an asshole if it means you get to live, but Malum… pretty sure Malum doesn’t give a shit.”

Once the two men in question were finally out of earshot, Malum turned to Quintus and told him, “We’re clearly getting nowhere, but if we do this, maybe they’ll trust us, maybe…”

Quintus realized immediately, “You have an idea you’re not telling me.”

“Huh…” Malum mumbled, as if disappointed that Quintus figured it out so fast. He raised his hand, as if to paint a picture, but the assassin was tongue tied. Quintus wasn’t going to just go with it. “I think I have an idea.”

Quintus guessed, “You want to scare them.”

Malum was quiet for a moment before he answered,  “…Yes.”


“With reality,” Malum said, his hand opening for Quintus to see, just before he crushed whatever metaphorical entity he thought he held, “before reality comes for them.

Quintus’s arms were still crossed over his chest. “What do you have in mind?”

“Not sure yet, but I’ll figure it out,” Malum told him, as if that would be reassuring. “Right now, we’re talking in circles, let’s step back, give ourselves some time, let Astrid kill something, and then we’ll figure something out.”

“Hmm… I swear if you-”

“I’m an assassin,” Malum told him, holding up a hand to stop Quintus from saying something beneath him, “I am not the scum of the earth, I can keep them safe, while you and Astrid can kill their enemies.”

“You…” Quintus muttered, rather confused by Malum’s plans, “you don’t want them to see?”

“There are more ways than one to convince them of what reality looks like without showing them death. Trust me…”

Quintus tilted his head as he stared into the empty face that was Malum’s mask. 

He can’t see behind it, all that monstrous power means nothing, Astrid thought to herself, watching, reading Quintus’s lips, gauging his reactions.

You seem rather unfazed that they didn’t include you in the discussion.

I didn’t need convincing like Quintus, and honestly, sitting here with the Pennies while the two grouchy men talk amongst themselves is endearing me to them. Penance is already talking to me more than any outsider  before I’m willing to bet.

Picking your battles then?

Slowly gaining the trust of a teenager is hardly a battle.

“Why the change in heart?” Quintus said, his lips moving immaculately, perfect for Astrid to read. “You didn’t want them to come along five minutes ago.”

Malum shrugged at him, appearing aloof to his fellow mercenary. “Like you do with me, I know when to give up and let you be wrong. I mean, it’s not like I can’t find my way in this world and start again after you get everyone killed. I’ll survive your mistakes.”

Rather than grow insulted and upset, Quintus smirked, as if he finally saw through Malum’s mask. “You know, you can just admit that you care rather than go on with this bad boy routine.”

“What?” Malum said, legitimately confused as Quintus left with a smirk on his face. Malum’s head slowly tilted as he watched Quintus walk away from him. “What the fuck do you people think is a bad boy?

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