Raydorn: The War in the Black (Chapter 18)

“There is law even in the jungle.”

– Malum Chum, 448 A.C.A.

It was a strange sight to see a teenage girl on the back of a wild cat. Panthers weren’t supposed be big enough to support someone’s weight, and they’re certainly not supposed to let people ride them.

People in general aren’t supposed to be chased by bandits either. Yet, both are happening, and neither seemed very upset by it. 

Penance Primrose seemed to delight in it, laughing up a storm as the bandits chased after her, calling her names, swearing vengeance upon her.

She did light their clothes on fire.

If there’s one thing that could get a bunch of jaded men angry, it’s a kid getting the best of them. It’s even worse if its a girl. Astrid stressed this part of the plan to Penance, just so the girl felt even more excited about it.

It helped her get them even angrier to. She raised one of their undergarments above her head on a stick, like it were a flag. As she taunted the men, she heard several claim, “That’s my underpants!

“Pretty sure you’re not supposed to share underpants!” Penance mocked them. If Astrid had to bet, she would guess that the girl hadn’t smiled and grinned like that in years.

She kept grinning as she led them deeper in to the canyon, but she grew a bit worried. Uni wasn’t going to carry her forever. There were pretty deep into the canyon, and nothing had happened. The typically stoic Penny had begun to form lines of stress on her head.

But as tends to happen, our nerves get the better us just before we learn that we had nothing to worry about.

Hehe,” sounded a sinister giggle. That’s when fire lit up the molten tree that hung over the canon. Next to no one heard it, and they didn’t see it either. They only heard what followed.


There was a peculiar sound that followed Astrid’s use of her ax. Kan Bujian’s invisible axehead was usually transparent, hiding its length, but this time it was so bright that it blinded anyone who looked at it.

Save for the wielder, of course.

It made itself known with the explosion Astrid created. She sent forth this ball of fire with a swing of the burning axe, and it disintegrated the base of the molten tree that loomed over the canyon… and the bandits.

And so falls the sun’s head!” Astrid sang from the corners of the canyon as it all came down.

The molten tree fell first, and when it hit the earth, volcanic ash and pollen swallowed up the bandits. Then came the rocks from the avalanche, that crushed many of those who weren’t busy dying in the smoke. The rocks blocked off escape.

Penance Primrose turned back to look at the carnage, grinning to herself as if she didn’t have the simplest role in the plan. She watched as the bandits she had been hiding from for so long choked on air even through their masks. She watched as many yelled and screamed as they were being crushed.

And that grin of her shook, as if not as certain as she wished.

Then fire came down.


The fire moved like water, washing over the stones. The dozens who had abandoned their own for dead had already run far enough to be safe, but most weren’t. Astrid took no prisoners, and in her effort, Penance saw the nature of the fire she liked to preach so much about. Words naturally felt cheap next to the real thing.

Quintus and Astrid stood atop what remained of the broken tree trunk, several stories up. Quintus watched with an empty look, surely to engrain this into his memory. What a simple mission this was supposed to be.

Astrid’s eyes wandered, and caught sight of bandits running back the way they came. “It seems like a few end up on the other side of the avalanche, they’re going to head back to base,” she told him.

Quintus asked, “How many?” without looking at her.

“About a dozen.”

“Hmph,” Quintus grumbled as he reached for his knobkerrie, “Malum will handle them.” Astrid couldn’t help but grin as Quintus leaped off the branch and fell down into the fire. 

The flames will try, but they can not swallow up that man, Astrid thought, before realizing, I’m gonna have to take the long way down, aren’t I?

You should have jumped on his back, the fire wouldn’t have bothered you,’ Lapis told her.

You know, you’ve had this real problem where you tell me useful things AFTER I can’t do them anymore.

Gods do not give the answers to people’s problems without asking.

But you just told me one!

It’s not answer to your problem anymore, is it? Now, its just hindsight.

Astrid groaned to herself as she turned back to try and get down into the action as fast as she could. And I’m the one who actually wanted to kill people today!

You should see a shrink about that.

What’s a shrink?

Penance’s grin wasn’t plastered on her face anymore. The wailing of men dying of suffocation was enough to make her question their violence, but the sound of men burning was a far worse revelation. 

Now she knew the scent of burning men, and she would never forget.

Few in that canon didn’t wince as piercing, gabbled wails flooded their eardrums. It was hard not to turn and stare at the unnatural blaze, the heat being more than hot, but attractive. The fire of Kan Bujian, the axe of the Sun, beckoned them.

If only the lust of rage and revenge weren’t stronger.

The bandits who had narrowly escaped the avalanche and fire, stood covered in soot and dirt. Yet, they still stood with weapons and legs capable of moving. So they took their first steps towards the brat who led their small minds into the obvious trap. 

Penance and her panther struggled to turn back, as if forgetting their strength. Though, if they had tried to run again, they would not have seen it.

The bandits heard it thought, the sound of crackling flames slowly burning small wounds into the man’s skin. Wounds that would heal faster than they came. 

Penance gasped, and the bandits turned to see the dark shadow approaching them from the fire. They began to shake as a man larger than they’ve ever seen before walked out. The flames followed him as if reaching out to kiss his skin, and some managed to cling onto him for dear life.

Then he raised his knobkerrie, and showed them its inflamed ballpoint, a weapon of hell.



The first one he struck died from the force almost instantly, lucky enough to avoid the pain of fire.

The second who tried to swing his blade at Quintus, was not so lucky. Quintus crushed his intestines with direct blow to the gut. He made the man throw up his lunch before his clothes caught on fire. Quintus turned to the next man as the last still laid on the ground, gasping for air. 

Quintus loomed over them as he did most men, but they seemed even smaller as he brought his knobkerrie down on them one-by-one. He almost seemed lost in the task of batting away the lesser creatures.

He didn’t notice the one that had drawn his bow. He took aim of Quintus’s head, and he let it go.

Quintus turned to see the arrow as it headed for his eye.


Fire flew by Quintus’s face, cutting the arrow, and hitting another man behind Quintus. The fast-moving fireball lit him on fire so fast, one would have thought he was covered in oil.

The bowman turned towards the sound of giggles that soon followed. He readied another bolt and let loose towards it, only to see a small woman duck underneath. 

Astrid had that mad grin on her face, but it didn’t make the bowman freeze. The bowman knew there was still distance between them. He readied another arrow as Astrid came running at him. 

All the bowman saw in her hand was this silver rod, not something that could kill. He noticed how strangely she held it before her face, as he let loose an arrow.


It deflected, seemingly off her face by where he was standing, but no face makes the sound of metal when struck, and no face deflects arrows.

Astrid let her rod rest toward the ground, and seemingly from nothing, sparks began to form as she closed the distance. She ran along the cliff side to leap up and come down with her rod raised.

The bowman had never readied and let out such an accurate shot so fast. It would have been something to commend if he had lived.

Astrid had swung her rod, the bowman’s eyes telling him that she swung too early. She should have missed, but instead the arrow was cut perfectly in half, and vaporized a second later. The bowman didn’t even get the chance to grow a look of horror before something he couldn’t see cleaved through his bow and his shoulder. In fact, it cleaved him completely in two.

Kan Bujian’s invisible ax head hit the ground before Astrid’s feet did, its heat allowing it to sink into the rock. Its place was so tight and secure, that Astrid was still held aloft in the air for a few seconds before she made the blade shrink. The ax’s blade didn’t make any sign that it had shrunk, Astrid just suddenly stopped floating and twirled her rod like it weighed nothing.

The most unconventional of the Jitari Blades might have been Kan Bujian, with its invisible ax head, and shape changing steel. Only some with the necessary awareness of touch and positioning could wield it without cutting themselves. Good depth perception would have made Astrid the perfect wielder, but one can’t have everything.

Astrid then wasted little time before leaping to the ground and joining the fray alongside Quintus. With so many against the just the two of them, it looked like a slaughter, but of the team one would least expect.

As Quintus destroyed men with his monstrous strength, and Astrid cut them down with a blade they couldn’t see, Penance began to shake atop Uni. She had talked down to them, thought herself capable compared to them, but if they wanted to… she would be nothing but easy to dispatch.

The panther Uni proved far more clever than his master when in a state of terror. He turned and began to climb up the cliffside, to go around the chaos with Penance on his back, clinging to his neck. 

“Hehehe.” Astrid’s giggling was getting impetuous, drawing out the worst frown Quintus could muster as each and every bandit failed to land a blow on him.

“This plan is stupid,” he muttered under his breath, like he were over a decade younger than he was. 

“It’s genius,” Astrid said, grinning as she slew another man. 

“It’s just a battle royale,” he said back, between the loud cracks of his knobkerrie. 

Astrid turned to him, all smiles and giggles as she leaned in close to his face, interrupting him mid-swing, “Battle royales are fun!” 

The ax woman continued to giggle and twiddle her thumbs in anticipation, as a bandit came up behind her. Quintus had called her name, but she had ducked at just the right time, and countered with a fiery attack of her ax.

If you didn’t light it on fire every now and then, I bet the bandits would be able to make out its shape with all the blood it would have on it.

Its what people call strategy, heavenly master.

I think you mean tactics.

Who cares? 

Her thought process was interrupted by the sight of Quintus hitting one man in the chin, taking off his jaw, and then hitting the man again in the shoulder when he didn’t fall. She was close to enamoured at the sight of him beating on the man whose spine held him aloft after he was dead.

After the man fell, the rise and fall of Quintus’s chest was visible to Astrid. He’s losing it, and her thoughts were proven correct as Quintus let a man run him through. 

Astrid didn’t scream or twitch in fear. Her expression hardened, not at all surprised by the fact that Quintus barely seemed to notice the man.

“We’re going to terrify the children,” Quintus grumbled half-heartedly, stuck in his own head, before he looked at the man who stabbed a sword through him.

Before Quintus could take him out, his attacker was reduced to ash along with his weapon, and Astrid landed on his back like some sort of monkey. 

“They’ll think its awesome,” she told him, as she leaped off of him to bring her ax down on someone else. 

“How could you possibly know that?” he asked.

As she removed her blade from the man’s head, she turned back and asked, “How can you possibly know they’ll be scared?” 

Quintus turned and glared at Astrid as if she was mad for asking such a legitimate question. He was taken aback by the serious look she had on her face. 

Astrid was like that, she would all giggles and mad smiles one moment, and lucid sternness the next.

 Quintus looked away, out at the canyon in front of them and the little killbox they had made. At this point, several bandits had begun to grow some sense, far too late. As they turned to run, a fireball passed between them, one Astrid threw with the swing of her axe. It hit the ground and exploded into a wall of fire.

It was a weak flame they could have ran through with little harm, but they didn’t know that. They believe they were trapped, and Quintus could see that hope dying in their eyes.

“This would scare me,” Quintus admitted to Astrid, as he knocked man down with a small swipe of his knobkerrie, “and I had killed men with my hands before I was Penny’s age.” 

“Which one?” Astrid asked.

Quintus eyes fluttered and found himself turning to look at Astrid’s rather mute expression. “I…” he stumbled as she seemed rather confident in the normalcy of her question. “Honestly, I thought they were about the same age.” 

“Penny Prim is the older one,” she said, looking away to go away the bandits who were now trying to keep away. 

This is starting to feel like tag, and I’m the hunter.

What do you think tag is?’ Lapis questioned her. A lot of people were questioning her thought process today. 

“Why is this…” Quintus began to say, but he stopped himself, as if knowing better. “How do you figure?” 

Astrid started mocking the Pennies as she hunted each and every bandit with a bloody grin, making big grand gestures with her hands as she talked through her kills. “Penny Prim may be her name, but she’s not so prim. She’s all in, she has this little smirk she gets at the idea of violence.” Astrid glanced up and notice how said Penny retreated on her panther. “At least, she does when its through her panther. Now, Penny Tweed, she smiles, she’s faking it, because Prim protects her.” 

“That could just mean Prim is braver, more like you.” 

Astrid shook her head at him, dodging defensive blows wit her eyes nearly closed. How could he understand? His hell was so different from the Raze. Hells are not made the same. 

“If you’re braver, you’re older when you’re in the Raze.” 

“You’re equating bravery for wisdom, but fools can be brave.” 

Astrid’s laugh was more than a little condescending in how it sounded. “No, you’re equating bravery for brazenness. If you’re a fool, you’re not brave, but they appear the same.” 

My my,” Quintus mumbled as he found himself rubbing his skull, “you are confusing when you think deeply.” 

“Want me to dumb it down for you?” she offered. 

A bandit nearly caught Quintus with his guard down, but Quintus grabbed his head, his limb moving like a lightning bolt. Then he lifted the manup and slammed him down on his head. “Never,” he answered Astrid as if he had not killed a man in way few men will ever be killed, “being confused is my problem, you’re not a teacher.” 

Astrid smirked a little, and even gave the big-bodied man a friendly punch on the arm as she dashed past him. “You don’t know that, I could be trying to teach you something!” 

“Hmph,” Quintus chuckled, a silly grin forming across his face, missing what she has done for him in his moment of anxiety. “Maybe you should leave the teaching to Jack and your weather god then. I’d hardly consider a battlefield the best place to learn a lesson.” 

“Funny, I would,” she said, and chopped off a man’s head as he went to his knees. Whether he was falling or going to beg was anyone’s guess. She wasn’t going to give him the chance.

Then she turned around, ready to take on the next, and noticed that there were none left.

“Oh,” she muttered.

“Disappointed?!” Quintus mocked her. “This was enough killing to deeply dissatisfied me for a year. You should be more than fulfilled.”

“Those who want for things, want more than those who want to be without.”

“I can’t say we’re not a walking example of that,” Quintus admitted as Astrid stalked the bodies of the bandits they killed, looking to be sure there were none left alive.

I found one!” Astrid called out as she raised her ax all the way behind her head, and brought it down on a dying man’s back with all her strength.

“Astrid,” she heard Quintus call her name, expecting a lecture on her cruelty. She turned to face his hard expression, and thought that was definitely what she was going to get.

“You know, don’t you?” he asked her.

Astrid tilted her head.

He gestured to the place on his abdomen where he was stabbed by the bandit, where there was no wound anymore. “You know why I heal.”

Astrid smirked.

She raised her hand to her temple, and tapped her head as she told him, “You can’t hide from the eyes of god… or their chosen disciple.”

“But I could kill them.”

“But you wouldn’t… so I won’t tell.”

Quintus leaned back, and Astrid realized for the first time how that he was towering over her without even standing up straight. Then she realized how low his head can go when he bowed his head to her. “Thank you, my friend.”

Astrid nodded, and turned away, confusing Quintus, but only for a moment. Astrid was back to double-checking the bodies. She hesitated once Lapis started talking to himself. It was a rare occurrence, but she did her best to not interrupt him when he did.

‘How unlucky these men are that the Legion sent you three. You are warriors, you are leaders, but you are not generals. Jack and Andelyn, they know strategy, they know techniques to divide and conquer beyond smoke. Lucilla likely knows more than you three considering she built and led a fleet. 

‘You only led a cult, Quintus doesn’t lead, and Malum is an assassin. None of you are particularly well suited to warfare. This means that when confronted with a situation like this… 

Astrid found herself looking at the bodies as he spoke.

‘… you don’t know how to take prisoners. You only slaughter.’ 

“It’s good that we’re really good at then,” Astrid muttered quietly. 

Lapis seemed to agree. ‘Yes, yes it is.’


Malum went on ahead into the compound. It was almost deja vu as he skulked through the shadows. This time when he grabbed a bandit, he made sure they weren’t more children. 

When he filled the man with horror with the look of his mask, he found what he was looking for. 

At some point, Malum switched out the paralyzation poison for fast acting death. It had been a while since he had used the sword as it was known for. He would nick them, usually aiming for the neck so they would be silent, and then the blade’s venom would spread through their veins in a matter of seconds. Some would die before they hit the ground. 

The compound itself was in chaos, several men able to scream out before they died, but the place had so few in number that they couldn’t react in time. Had Astrid or Quintus been there, most of the bandits would have seen their killer head on, but Malum assured that they nearly each one of them died alone in the dark.

The compound itself was about the same as the children’s treehouse in size. I have doubts that these bandits or the children were the original creator of these places. They may have finished these compounds, but their foundations were well crafted and designed. They keep the smoke from the outside out, and trap cold air inside… well enough I guess.

This place can’t really be described as cold.

Sometimes I really hate that I wear all black.

Malum told the children to wait until the screaming stopped, and then to wait five minutes before coming in to make sure the screaming didn’t start again. It gave him the time he needed.

As was the cardinal rule, people always stored the important things at the middle, on the top, or at the bottom of a base. Malum bet it was the middle. 

Got it on my first guess.

There was a vault in the giant hall, with scratches and peeled paint around it. It was clear that it wasn’t originally there, that the bandits who called him it home had moved it there. 

First thing he noticed, was that there was a refreshing coolness to the air. Malum stopped where he was to feel it. It was colder on the open sea, but after being in the Raze for just the day, cool air felt like a long lost memory. 

There are more reasons than I was told for why the kids wanted to live here.

As Malum stepped through dirty dishes and sleepings bags, he had to assume this was the living space too. He made his way to the vault, as he did, he noticed how much colder the room was getting. 

When he knelt down besides the shoulder height vault, he wasn’t surprised by the frost on it. He started to fiddle with the dial on the lock. It took a few minutes, enough that he began to wonder where the children were before it opened. 

“You’re shitting me,” he cursed to himself. He cursed not because of the two bars of gold that would make this mission worth the trip, nor the stockpile of food that would feed the kids for a week. 

He saw the finger that was bigger than his arm, sat upright, giving off a cold force which made the vault an excellent freezer. There was no doubt it was a finger, with the fingernail pointed right at him. 

“I guess it could be a toe, not that that would be any less disgusting,” he told himself. Why do I have the distinct feeling that the Pennies knew all about this?

Before he could set himself to ask them, he heard the indiscriminate yelling of children, and the sound of a roaring panther. It would be my luck that the panther turns on them on my watch. 

He hurried out of the compound’s main base and towards the closest the exit. It wasn’t on the ground floor, but as soon as he got to the balcony he saw the problem.

It seemed that the bandits who escaped Astrid and Quintus early on had finally made it back. A small group of them, less than ten, but they were dangerous to a bunch of kids whose only protector was a panther and a gangly teenager with a makeshift club. 

Efi moved back and forth, snarling at the bandits as they inched closer. It tried to protect everyone against all the bandits, and it would fail to do so because of it.

A bandit dash and took a swing with his machete, leaving a flesh wound that gained him a snarl. The animal wasn’t done fighting, but the attack spurned on the others. Another went for the cut, cutting a deep gash in the animal’s arm as it sank its teeth into a man’s forearm.

The cat pulled the man to the ground, and as more came to stab it, Penny Tweed grew a back bone. She came at the bandits with her club, and she was quickly backhanded. As she hit the ground, there was a momentary glint in the cat’s eye that Malum passed off as blood. It wasn’t.

In the panther was something unnatural as it looked up at a bandit about to chop its head off.


Before he could, he was swallowed up by this black mass that scared most of the bandits. The gust of wind that followed sent several down on their backs, and some of those scurrying in fear on the ground. 

The black mass stood up, casting an inhuman shadow over several of them. It seemed to have no arms, legs or form. It was a thing that had only a hood and face, one they recognized.

The wrath of war,” one whispered.

Eritusi’s curse,” whispered another.

They didn’t get any more chances to whisper before Efi sank her teeth into the bandit she already had in her mouth. 

The screaming of the panther’s victim drew the eye of many a bandit, and that’s when Malum struck. They barely had a chance to register before they realized he was just a man who knew how to trick the eye.

He cut one’s throat with a swipe of the sword. Didn’t even need the blade’s poison. 

He swiped at the second, who tried to backup, and earned a cut on the arm. They gasped in pain before gasping in horror as they felt their throat fill with the foam that would choke him.

Two more came at him, and wrapped his cloak around him again. He hid his body to keep the bandits from knowing where he would move and how he would bend. He appeared inhuman in his form before he revealed his arm again, his steel moving in a flash. The bandit didn’t even realized his throat had been slit before he was coughing up blood.

The second looked at his fallen friend then back to Malum, and the mask of war that stared into his soul.


Before he knew it, Efi jumped on his back, taking him to the ground where she ripped out the back of his neck, and began to rip off parts of his flesh to eat. 

“Hmm,” Malum mumbled, “I can’t imagine its good that it likes the taste of people.”

“They’re getting away!” yelled one of the children, with several screaming alone with them.

Malum turned his head as two began to run up the hill they came, too busy with their heads in the dirt or looking back to him to notice what’s ahead of them.

They heard Uni’s growl as the panther was coming down. 

They looked up in horror, and the sight of the girl on the beast’s back certainly put the fear of the gods in them. 

Together, Penny Prim jumped off her panther’s back and soon her beast lunged too. Malum couldn’t tell who was more feral as they each collided with their own bandit. Penny knocked into hers, sending him rolling down the hill head over ass as she managed to roll on her side. 

Uni’s whole body was hitting the ground but the animal didn’t seem to care as it tore into its bandit. 

The cat had killed its prey before they stopped rolling, and stopped to devour it. Penny was less lucky, or lucky enough. 

As the man started to crawl away, struggling to his feet, Penny Prim roared like her cat. She was quick to her feet, and picked her makeshift blade of scrap off the ground. She took it and had it over her head as she started running. 

She hit the man in the back once with the blade, her roaring and his screaming getting all mixed up before she hit him again. 

Then again. 

On the third time, his screams turned to gurgles, and there was no more roaring. Then she raised her weapon for a fourth time.


A hand kept her from swinging again.

“You’ll break your weapon hitting someone whose already dead,” the assassin told her, letting her go when she tore her arm away. 

Malum couldn’t know for sure if she had heard the children screaming, or Efi’s pained whines, or if she needed anything at all to be so vicious. He only knew one thing. She has potential.

Malum turned his back to her as he approached Penny Tweed and the kids trying wrap makeshift bandages around the now strangely docile Efi. He walked past them with his cloaked wrapped around his shoulders, and told them, “She’ll live, bandage her when we’re inside, you’ll just get dust and dirt in the wound.”

“Dirt can help,” Penny said. 

“Not in the Raze, it won’t.”

Malum didn’t pay much more attention to them as they followed him into the compound to safety. He was far more concerned with questioning them as to the contents of the vault.

As they entered the main room, he heard the kids ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ over what might be their first experience with the cold. Most of them had no idea what to do with it, stopping and trying to rub themselves warm. Some of them wanted more but not all.

What was unfamiliar wasn’t always welcome, even if it was good for them.

Though Malum did chuckle at a couple of the smaller kids who tried shucking clothes off to get rid of the cold, only to realize their mistake.

Malum arched a brow especially as he noticed the panthers actively pulling the clothes back down over the children’s heads, as if they knew they would get cold. I’m going to go out a limb there and say that those aren’t normal cats. 

As he approached the vault, he rested his hand on it. This conversation is going to be a pain in the ass, isn’t it? Of course it is, everyone’s a liar and kids more so than adults. Adults are just better at it, as easy to break as they may be.

I’ve always found that confusing. An adult who stays awake and grinds his teeth through torture will give me viable information before a kid whose too busy crying or fainting to think actually will.

Clang. Cling. 

You’ve got to be kidding me, Malum turned around as he found himself facing a small army of children with spears and knives. They probably picked up the spears, but those knives tied together with string, scrap metal, and stupidity are all theirs.

As the two Pennies walked to the forefront with their panthers, Malum considered killing the four of them. With the poison it would be quick, I’d catch a few licks from the cats but they would die foaming at the mouth along with their owners. Then the all the little rat bastards would follow suit. Hana’s the only one worth money.

Malum turned his head away with a hint of shame at the thought.

Penny Tweed was the one who made him the offer. “We’re not like the other bandits, we respect people who help us out whether they know it or not,” she said, as she made an offering gesture with her hands, only adding to the condescension Malum felt from her. “Leave, take your friends, take the gold bars, swear to never come back, and we won’t kill you.”

“Kill me?” Malum asked with a nod of his head. He looked to all the children standing behind the Pennies, children of nearly all ages between five and fifteen, all shaking with weapons in their hands. “No, I don’t think these kids are going to kill me.”

“No, their weapons are for protection, maybe to give you a nice cut in between the bites Efi and Uni will take out of you.”

Malum’s hand went to his mouth as if to stop himself, but he couldn’t. He bent his head back and let out a full-on laugh. 

It made both the Pennies hesitate to give the order to their panthers, and made the kids all shake so much that some of their weapons rattled.

Malum was snorting and holding his stomach by the time he was done, even banging his hand on the metal vault. Slowly, he quieted to match their unyielding and vacant stares. 

“I haven’t had a good laugh like that in a long time,” he admitted.

“It can be your last,” Penny Prim warned.

“No, no it won’t be,” he assured her as he took a step down and sat on the steps, looking down at all of them. He was being mighty brave, with his sword being nearly impossible to pull out if the panthers attacked him together. 

“I know what it’s like not to trust authority, to live by your own rules, your own laws, but…” he gestured to the world around, the never-ending blaze outside of this compound, “a place like the Pantherlands, a desolate wasteland full reavers is the only place where you have to live without rules. It’s not a place you can survive, not really. Your heart may beat, you may yet walk, talk, and laugh, but that is not truly living.” 

Penny Prim questioned, “You really think we intend to stay here our whole lives? There’s more gold for us around here, for our travels to a place where we can really be free!” 

They have no idea how much gold is actually worth, do they?

The children then began to chant behind the Pennies. “Jia!” It’s this word that threw Malum off guard as he struggled to place it.

“We’ll find our place where we can be us and be free of the adults who think they can save us,” Penny Tweed threw in, amping up the children, getting them to stop in motion, like they were some sort of assembly, “we’ve had enough of adults who think they can-!” 

“You little fools,” Malum laughed again. He knew plain old words would be drowned out, but laughter? It would get under their skin. “What…” he said with a dismissive wave of the hand, “do you think you’ll get to this… Jia and then you’ll be free little kids forever? Everywhere else has rules, because everywhere else has life. There is law even in the jungle, and you will be expected to follow them, as kids now and adults when you grow up.” 

The small little child, the newest of the bunch that was Malum’s whole reason for coming there, pushed forward out of the crowd. Hana stomped up the stairs, pulling up the shirt that was big enough to be a dress, and raised her fist at the assassin and his scary mask.

“Nuh-uh,” she told him. 

There was a smirk hiding behind that scary mask of his. “Uh huh,” he said with a nod of his head, “you think there’s a place in this world where you’ll stop aging? You think the gods above or below would allow some dirty abandoned children to live forever? They barely tolerate each other, you’d be an affront to them.”

“How would you know?!” Penny Tweed yelled at him, speaking with her whole chest. “Who made you so smart? You don’t know everything!” 

“I don’t need to, but I know enough.” 

Prove it,” Penny Prim challenged him, and with that challenged came the panther’s growl. 

Malum looked around the children who stared at him. Like any adult, they expected everyone else to be a liar, untrustworthy, willing to do or say anything to feel right. Yet, adults like that couldn’t stand together. They would always question and doubt and tear each other down. They would rather destroy everything and anything they hold dear rather than take the risk that they were wrong.

Adults could never stand so close to each other as these children do.

“Alright,” Malum said, as he revealed his arm from underneath his cloak, and brought his hand to the sleeve on his forearm, and pulled it down.

There were no gasps, just a bunch of eyes looking at all the scars. There were scars from twisted bruises, diseased skin, fungal infections, and cigarette blunts. Each child could recognize one or another kind of scar that matched one they had themselves. 

Malum reached over and showed much the same on his other arm. He even goes so far as to twist a bit, and show them a bit of his back, where a belt had struck him many a time with the buckle’s end.

“I was an orphan in the streets of Etta, a small town much farther west, on the water. I was an orphan child of Susanna too once, I wanted to be a child forever, and do you know what happened?” 

Malum put his shirt down. 

“Evil found me. That’s what Evil does. Evil preys on the weak, those who can’t defend themselves, and it is not some force you can avoid. Evil is everywhere, in everyone. Evil is the absence of good, not a force against it, and in a place like this, like the Raze which is worse than the poor town I grew up in…” Malum trailed off as he noticed the children still staring between the scars he was showing them. He pulled down his sleeves as he took a deep breath. “It will swallow you before you ever get the chance to leave. 

“Tell me, do you know why the bandits who attacked you today do not attack Taiyang, or the other bandit groups? Do you know why they were more than happy to kidnap Hana and murder you? Because you’re weak, you can’t defend yourselves, and the world preys on you. The fact that two of mine can defeat what you all together could not, proves you are weak. The fact that you do not know for sure that you can defeat me as I stand alone, proves you are weak.” 

Malum stood up to his feet, and once again he was no longer a man, but a phantom looking down on them. He was this inhuman judge who weighed their worth. “You will not live to find your Jia if such garbage exists. There are few choices, and only one that is good.” 

There was was this red tint to the light that seemed to bend around him, something that made the children think they were hallucinating, and stepped back from him. 

“What choice is that, devil?” Penance Primrose said in fear as she backed up, and children backed up with her, her panther hiding against her leg.

“Devil…” Malum repeated as the light seemed to go back to normal and the children questioned their eyes. “Yes, that is how you should know me, and this devil is the only good choice you have. I can teach you to survive, I can take you to teachers who will make you strong, ally yourself to the devil and the devil will not set his hounds on you, you will be the hounds. You hate the world that shunned you, you hate that which has abandoned you, well I come from a place full of people who feel the same,” and Malum struck out his open hand, to slowly close into a fist and galvanize their deep-rooted fury, “and we are happy train you for the best revenge.” 

“What’s that?” small little Hana asked, as she remained alone standing up to him, looking up at him, unable to give into fear. He couldn’t be all that scary to her. 

Malum looked down at Hana, and bent to her level to answer, “Living well, those who hate you, and those you hate, cannot defeat you when you live well and better than them. The others among my band will be kind to you, they will care for you, coddle you, and if you want it, they make you able enough to survive, but I will make you strong.” 

“And if the answer is no?” one Penny dared to ask. 

Malum turned his head and looked past the youngest and bravest of these children. “Then you will die,” he told the Pennies plainly, “and I will live on as I did yesterday, but with more gold. 

“Make your choice, you have until the nice adults come to rescue you, the ones who would coddle you are done saving you.”

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