- March 27, 2022
Raydorn: The War in the Black (Chapter 19)
“I’ve met old men who’ve lived longer than anyone else and haven’t learned a thing. Don’t sell ignorance short.”
– Astrid, First Disciple of Lapis, 448 A.C.A.
“Was it a mistake to leave the kids with Malum?” Quintus asked Astrid.
Oh brother, she thought to herself.
‘He has an honest concern,’ Lapis reminded her.
If he was so concerned he shouldn’t have let Malum go.
“Listen,” Astrid told Quintus, and she leaned over and rested her hand on his shoulder blade. She meant to hold his shoulder itself, but she’s too short and he’s too tall. “Malum is many things, many, many, terrible things. A harmer of children he is not.”
Quintus looked down at her as she was shrugging her shoulders at his dilemma. “I know that-”
“His dire need of a cold shower might kill a few brain cells, and he’s about as pessimistic as they come. It’s honestly not surprising that him and Andy get along.”
Quintus gave Astrid the side-eye at that. “I don’t doubt that what you say, but he has a way with people… a way of killing hope. He has so very little himself.”
Astrid shrugged nonchalantly in response. “Probably because of the dead wife.”
As nonchalantly, Quintus agreed, “Most likely…” before his mind lingered on tangential thoughts. “You know, he never does say how she died, just that he misses her.”
Astrid actually snorted, which drew Quintus’s confused eye. She asked him, “How funny would it be if she wasn’t actually dead?”
Quintus could barely hide his guilty smile. “Hmph, that would actually be hilarious.”
Astrid could hear Lapis sighing in her head.
As the bandit compound came over the hill, Astrid had begun to realize that it would be time to leave the Raze soon. And I had just been getting used to be home.
‘Did you really enjoy it here?’ Lapis asked her. ‘It seems like a hard place to be happy, but happiness is rarely about the place and more about the people, isn’t it?’
I think you answered your own question, oh wise one, Astrid joked in her mind.
‘Well, I am a god. I would be quite the failure if I had not gathered any wisdom in my long life.’
I’ve met old men who’ve lived longer than anyone else and haven’t learned a thing. Don’t sell ignorance short.
As they came closer, Astrid was able to focus her eyes and see Malum sitting on the steps with the kids. He seemed to be speaking to Penny Prim, casually ignoring the panther at her feet. It took a moment for her to realize who she thought were children were just the swirls of the wood.
‘You need glasses.’
Malum stood up and gestured back inside. “Quint, I need you to carry something, and then we’ll head out. We’re taking the bandits’ safe, better to come home with something rather than nothing.”
“We’re coming home with the children, aren’t we?” Quintus asked him as they followed him inside.
“Good point, we’re coming home with worse than nothing.” Despite Malum’s dark disposition, Quintus couldn’t help but smirk.
Penny was silent, at least to Astrid, as the girl’s eyes seemed to dart between the mercenaries.
Hardly what you expected from paid mercs, kid?
When they came into the center, all the children were huddled around the cool safe. Malum warned Quintus, “It’s not terribly light, but honestly, take care for the cold more than anything. It doesn’t make the place warm, but it’s something.”
Quintus and Astrid both laughed, before Malum turned back to look at them. He didn’t make a sound or even tilt his head. He just stared back.
“I’m sorry?” Quintus asked him, only for him to turn away, leaving Quintus to follow him confused.
Astrid and Quintus traded looks, and she just gestured him to keep going.
Astrid could see how Malum’s arms were crossed as the kids made way for Quintus, and the tall man felt the cold. “What in the…” he muttered to himself as he bent down to wrap his arms around it, only to jump back at the cold. “The fuck?”
In a monotone voice, “Such language, Quintus,” Malum mocked him.
Quintus picked up his head and stared at the assassin in utter confusion, before bending down and finding that he was not insane. The safe was quite cool to the touch, and that made it a bit easy to hold.
“I was not expecting to be refreshed,” he admitted.
“It’ll be less refreshing on the ship,” Malum said, “I locked it back up so don’t worry about is swinging open.”
With that, he turned to the children and said, “Let’s go, you already brought your things to move here, we don’t need to make any stops.”
They dipped their heads, depressed that they had to leave so soon. It was like their non-existent parents had told them they couldn’t play anymore.
As they packed themselves together, and Quintus walked down to the ground level with the safe in one arm, the three mercenaries were approached by Penny Tweed, and her panther.
“Is it true, you can train us to protect ourselves?” she asked them.
Quintus said, “Wha, what?”
Astrid was quick to say, “Yes, yes we can,” and even put a hand on the teen’s shoulder, which wasn’t that reassuring. Penny was a few inches taller than Astrid. “I’m sure Malum told you some pretty dark stuff for you to be asking this, but learning to protect yourself is not as dark and gloomy as resting-bitch-face over there will make you think.” Astrid nodded her head to Malum, who crossed his arms and huffed in response.
His little reaction got a smirk from the Penny.
Astrid turned to Penelope and gripped her by both shoulders as she assured her, “We are watched over, we have survived what others would not, and we can help you with that too.”
Malum groaned, “Oh fuck all Hedone…”
Penance tightened her bag, and muttered out loud as she led some kids to the front. “You adults talk a lot about gods. It’s almost as if you need them to make it through the day.”
Astrid turned to the next Penny, and didn’t hesitate to compliment her. “You’re a smart girl, and you’re right, most do, but Lapis will show you…”
Not only did the Pennies’ faces appear to light up, but so did the kids around them at the mention of the weather god. Ah yes, my people!
Penny Tweed seemed to try and shrug Astrid’s hands from her shoulders, but found Astrid leading her with her an arm around her instead. The Penny shook her head with a deep breath and left it as it was.
“I almost forgot,” she started to say, as she looked around to make sure all the kids were following, noticing Efi take the rear, as if corralling them. “You say you hold favor with Lapis…”
Astrid held up a finger and corrected, “I believe I said Lapis speaks to me.”
“Sure he does,” the other Penny mumbled. Penance rolled her eyes ahead of Astrid, as if the mercenary couldn’t recognize the all too familiar shake of the head.
Penny Tweed told Astrid, “Lapis is who tells us of Jia, I wanted to ask you before if you’ve heard of it, but… ”
Oh, that old legend, Astrid thought as she kept from chuckling.
‘Oh? That’s just a legend but what you spout isn’t?’
I’ve never heard the name Jia spouted from your mouth.
‘Well… listen there are a lot of things to remember on any given day.’
“Lapis told you of Jia?” Astrid asked rather rhetorically, before squeezing Penny in a sort of side hug. “He must like us Panthers, he knows we can survive his cold winds and hot rays.”
Penny Prim turned around with a look of surprise or remembrance on her face. “I… it makes sense, how you found us then,” she seemed to realize, “why you move like you’re at home, you’re like us.”
Astrid nodded her head. “I am a child of the Raze, like you.”
“Then you must have heard of Jia!”
“Jia…” Astrid repeated to herself, a term she has not used in a long time.
Honestly seemed like a redundant name.
“Jia is the place Lapis is buried,” Astrid told them, assuring them that she knew what they spoke of.
“Oh that’s nice,” Malum saif with a shake of his head as they exited the compound, “hear that kids, your sacred land is a god’s tomb.”
Astrid noticed how Penelope’s face soured at the taunt, but Astrid only squeezed her tighter. The two locked eyes as Astrid held this false smile, and this unyielding stare. She tried to communicate to her what she had come to understand since leaving the Raze.
The argument is often… just not worth it.
Rather than engage Malum, Astrid assured Penelope and the children she knew were listening that, “Jia is not as terrible as it seems, I search for it too, we can speak of it on the way home, since you’re coming with us.”
Penelope actually looked away from Astrid as soon as she said that. “You’re really going to take us now?” she asked Quintus.
“We can…” he started, but found himself without words. The Legion was lucky at least one of their number could stop and think before they spoke. “We can take you by ship, we sailed into here as far in as we could. We only need to close out our contract and then we can take you home.”
Hana revealed her little spot beside Malum, mumbling, “You mean take me back,” seemingly unafraid of him.
“No,” Malum told her, which seemed to add some energy back into her soul. “You don’t want to go back you don’t have to, but your father needs to be told what we found.”
Hana tilted her head, unsure of what the assassin meant.
With a little hint from Astrid though, “What did we find, Hana?” the little girl understood better.
Hana looked down as she thought about it.
Maybe that was a bit much to ask of her, Astrid worried. She couldn’t quite remember how old Hana was supposed to be, seven or eight.
“Tell him… tell him you found me dead. Tell him I’m gone, tell him I suffered so he hates himself as much as he hated me.”
Astrid and Quintus traded looks. Astrid tugged on the collar on her shirt and nodded to Quintus. He shook his head and she only nodded harder at him until he sighed.
“I’m… sure, we’ll think of something like that to say, but now we go.” Quintus kept walking ahead of the kids as he mutteded, “Yeah, yeah, better leave now before Lucy abandons us to the panthers.”
Penny Tweed caught up to Quintus and Astrid and asked them, “Speaking of the panthers, are there things to hunt where you live?” Quintus looked at her as if she had two heads. “You know they have to eat.”
“Uh…” Quintus mumbled in response, the idea of bringing the panthers onto the ship sounding like a terrible idea.
The teenager certainly noticed the non-answer as she put her arms behind her back and gave him a patronizing smile. “You didn’t forget about them, right?”
Slowly, Quintus felt sweat drip down his forehead as the eyes of so many children began to pierce the back of his skull. “I- uh- hmmm….”
“Can’t we bring them?” Penny asked them, pursing her lip and pouting rather than giving him the look of anger he expected.
Oh he’s done, Astrid snickered to himself until she noticed him looking to Malum who gave him an approving head nod. Then he looked to her for the same thing. Oh I’m gonna fuck this up, she thought as she nodded her head.
Together, the men said, “No,” as Astrid said, “Sure.”
Both of them immediately turned and stared at her. Honestly, what did they expect?
I told them, “We’ll talk about it on the boat,” as I waved them off as I winked at all the kids.
Malum’s mask really made it easy for him to maintain a creepy unwavering stare. “We cannot take two panthers with us.”
Penny Tweed stopped, planted her feet and whipped her arms out at Efi walking beside her. “They’re well behaved!” she said as if she was presenting the animal to him as a gift, making the animal tilt its head. “They do exactly as we say! How many animals do that?!”
“Technically a lot, they’re called people.”
Penelope glared at him as Efi seemed to catch on, and lifted her neck to saunter like a prize show animal.
Malum lifted a finger before lowering it back down. “That’s not a normal panther, that’s incredibly sus-”
Quintus interrupted him to be honest. “They’re wild animals, kids, they hunt that which lives here, they would not be happy elsewhere. You wouldn’t want them to be unhappy?”
Penny Tweed shook her head and wagged her finger, “How do you know they won’t like your home better? We live in the Raze, what animal likes that the best?”
Malum shook his head and started jabbing his finger into his palm to emphasize his point. “We’re already bringing back a lot of mouths to feed, two animals are not gonna help with that.”
Astrid shrugged and said, “What’s two more?” but did so looking at the kids who seemed to gravitate to her now.
Malum’s head tilted a bit with this twitch, like he was a twig about to snap. “Can… can you go back to not being a crazy person, for like… five more minutes?”
“No!” Astrid said as she got down to hug the panther, who only snuggled against her head in response, “not when it’s for these handsome panthers! You’re a handsome cat aren’t you?”
“Actually, Efi’s a girl,” Penelope told her.
“How can you tell?”
“No penis, what do you mean?” Penelope said which made the children snicker around her, until she turned back with a glare.
“Yeah, but they don’t have little nipples,” Astrid told them.
‘Actually, male and female cats should both have nipples,’ Lapis told her.
First off, weird that you know that, second off, that actually just makes the confusion worse.
‘They’re clearly not normal panthers, I don’t really see why none of you are taking that more seriously.’
How the fuck am I gonna prove that? I’m not a animal-al-i-gist.
You know what I meant.
“Astrid please,” Quintus seemed to beg, as if that ever got her on his side.
Astrid in turn, mimicked him, “‘Astrid please,’ that’s how you sound when you say no to cool panther pets.”
“They’re not pets,” Quintus said with a shrill snort, “and it doesn’t even sound like they’re panthers.”
Astrid snorted back, actually blowing her noise at him with her fists on her hips. When she sniffed back in, she ended up sneezing. She sounded all nasally as she tried to retort, “They obey their human owners, sounds like pets to me.”
“That’s because you are insane,” Malum told her.
“Really? I thought I was crazy? Cat crazy that is!” She turned to the kids and said, “Am I right?”
Quickly, the kids started chuckling and fighting to take her hand and walk next to her. As they did, Quintus turned to Malum with an expression as deadpanned and dower as the assassin’s mask. “The tide has changed on us.”
“No shit,” the assassin cursed, “I thought I had these kids indoctrinated.”
Quintus glared harder.
“It’s a joke, loosen up.”
Astrid started to straight up ignore Quintus and Malum, telling the kids exactly what they wanted to hear. “We can keep them on the south end of the island, they already know to bring everyone food so we can hunt fishes with them, and mermaids, and fish mermaids!”
Malum sounded strangely human when he shouted, “What the fuck are fish mermaids?”
“Language,” Quintus scolded him, which prompted a raising of the middle finger.
Astrid shook her head all confused at Malum. “Wha? Fish mermaids literally attack the Isles all the times.”
“You mean the shark mermaids?” Quintus asked, just as puzzled.
“Are sharks not fish?”
“I-I… I mean…”
“Sounds like fish mermaids to me.”
Malum tried to bring them back on topic. “Why are we talking like we’ve agreed to bring home the panthers? We have not agreed to bring home the panthers.”
The moment the kids started to look even a little bit sad, Astrid whispered to them, “Don’t worry kids, we’re bringing the panthers.”
“How does she have energy?” Quintus asked, as the bags under his eyes had bags.
Malum stood more hunched over than usual as he told him, “I can’t fathom it, she stayed up all night talking to the kids before they fell asleep. I feel like I’m gonna fall over, and I’m trained to kill people on three hours of sleep.”
“I don’t think that’s healthy for you.”
Astrid smirked a bit listening to them as they walked up towards the merchant’s house. They arrived later than they meant to after convincing Lucy to let the panthers stay on board while they were gone, and then the kids to let them be kept under the deck. It was only supposed to be while they reported back to Hana’s father, but Lucy would have been more than happy to leave them there until they starved.
Who would have thought that she was afraid of cats? Astrid figured to herself.
‘Felines are famous for their taste for seafood,’ Lapis told her.
They are? I didn’t know that.
‘That’s because you tune out anyone who talks to you about their pets.’
I don’t want to hear about someone’s pets, I just want to pet them!
‘I know, it’s a problem.’
Astrid raised her hand to knock on the door, and hesitated to look over her shoulder. The two exhausted legionnaires straightened up, knowing to expect a conversation that should be more than aggravating.
When she knocked on the door, there was a pause before the merchant called back, “Who are you looking for?”
“Whoever hired the Black Legion,” Astrid said.
The merchant called, “Come in, quickly.”
The three of them opened what was an unlocked door, though, based on the ruggedness of the place, that likely wasn’t by design.
When Astrid walked through her before, she was almost automated. She went through the motions as she waited to get back home. Now, seeing the filth and squalor of a man losing his mind in drinking and work, she can see what would make Hana so spiteful towards him.
Maybe this was because Hana left him, but even still, how much time did he spend with her when he tried to make her be what she’s not? Something tells me all his work wasn’t for her either.
The three of them entered the merchant’s office, and it was striking to Astrid how much more organized and clean it was. There was effort put into making sure everything important was away from the many bottles of alcohol.
The merchant’s had stood up to his feet as he searched their faces for anything telling him the results, but all he noticed was how childless they were. “<Did… did you find my son? Did you save Hiroshi?>” he asked him.
The three of them looked to each other. To say they discussed it wouldn’t be overstating things, it would be a straight-up lie.
So Malum answered, “<Hiroshi is dead, I’m sorry.>”
The merchant was silent, this deafening loss of self slowly carried him down in his seat.
Malum’s choice made sense, make it seem like they failed so as to avoid any questions but when Astrid looked at him as he lost all sense of self, she considered what kind of a man he would be with a chance.
“<But Hana is alive,>” Astrid told him, “<and she wants to come with us.>”
“Solicki’s dick, Astrid,” Malum cursed.
Quintus was a bit out of the loop as the conversation continued in Susannan. He asked, “What are you doing?” after hearing Malum curse.
The merchant’s shoulders tightened up a bit. “<What are you talking about? Who is this… Hana?>”
“<The daughter you rejected.>”
The merchant’s eyes that were once heartbroken and sullen, hollowed out and became devoid of emotion. “<I have no daughter,>” he said.
“<You always had one, but you tried to make her be something she’s not, she was never Hiroshi, Hiroshi is a dead name.>”
Astrid’s blood boiled watching him roll his eyes. “<I… I think I know what’s going on, this… nonsense.>” The man sat back in his chair, but life was suddenly infused back into him. He seemed to start draining it from the room, looking at things, like a portrait of his wife and child, and accoutrements around the room. They all seemed to have more life than him, so he took it from them.
He grabbed a child’s doll that he keep on his desk, a strange thing to hold onto considering what he started saying. “<Hiroshi’s always liked playing with dolls, and I thought it no harm, but then he started asking for dresses and to grow his hair long, and refusing to answer to his name. I thought the cane would set him straight, but I see I was mistaken.>”
Astrid looked for it, but Malum’s eyes found the aforementioned cane on a mantle hidden just below the family sword.
“<I did not take heartless mercenaries like yourselves to be so weak in the knees to support his foolishness.>” He tossed the doll across his desk like was waste in his hands. “<You would allow him to embarrass himself and me. How dare you.>”
“<There it is,>” Astrid muttered out the side of her mouth, “<that’s why Hana left you.>”
Malum informed him that the bandits did not come into his home like he believed. “<Hana ran away before she was caught by bandits.>”
The merchant instead chose to reiterate, “<He is no she.>”
The merchant then learned how fast Astrid was when she crossed the room and brought the invisible axehead through his desk.
The man’s chair had wheels it seemed, and they propelled him into the wall, just a foot or two behind him. He looked down in shock as his desk seemed to collapse under nothing, until it started to burn too.
There was a sheen shine in the flame, and it curved around around the sharp edges of the blade.
“<She is now,>” Astrid told him, as his eyes were enraptured by a flame that could burn him to ashes, “<and she has chosen to come with us. You have no son and daughter, Hiroshi is dead, never was, and Hana is lost to you.>”
Having had to watch the conversation go by with no idea as to what was happening, Quintus told them, “I think it is time we left, we don’t need his coin.”
“<You’re right,>” Astrid said in the wrong tongue, “<we don’t need to humor hiim anymore.>”
As soon as the legionnaires turned to walk out of his house without telling him where his son was, the merchant stood to his feet and demanded, “<You will bring me my son, kidnappers!>”
“<Oh, and who is going to make us?>” Malum taunted him immediately.
“<Do you really think I have no power to harm you? You are fugitives, you were a necessary evil, but you needed me just as much as I thought I needed you. With a word your reputation will be soured and you will have no chance of work again->”
Malum closed the distance even faster than Astrid did, and had gripped the man by the throat before hoisting him up against the wall.
Quintus turned around to stop him until Astrid held her flaming axe in his way.
The merchant’s eyes fluttered until it saw Swiang’s point less than an inch from his eye. “<This sword’s poison can take days to kill, but it is days of agony. You try to ruin our reputation, keep us from our trade, and I will come back here and to silence you forever. I will be slow, I will make it painful, and then our reputation as a legion to be feared will be fortified more than if we had completed your job.>”
Quintus slowly lowered the shaft of Astrid’s axe with two fingers as Malum was threatening the man. He calmly appeared behind the assassin as his threats reached their crescendo, and place his hand on Malum’s shoulder.
Malum looked at the hand then back to the merchant. “<Please, be that example, Quintus won’t let me otherwise.>”
“You’ve scared the man enough,” Quintus told him, “he understands that if he were to ruin us, we have nothing to lose by coming back here to make sure he suffers, or is that not what you were saying?”
This time Astrid spoke in Rayne. “He’s a merchant, a money man, what does he know of suffering if we do not teach him?”
“He knows enough… the loss of his child will teach him enough…” Quintus answered her as Malum dropped the man to the floor, where he realized how wet his pants where. “Now let’s be free of this place.”
“Agreed,” Malum said, as they walked in line with Astrid, “it ails my sensibilities.”
“This place sucks,” she said, “you can just say this place sucks.”
They walked out together, leaving the merchant wallowing there in his own filth, childless and alone with no one to blame but himself.