- May 22, 2022
Raydorn: The War in the Black (Chapter 23)
“The best time to learn is at the point of maximum failure, so I will build you up to the highest you can go, and then tear you back down.”
– Jack Starshield, 448 A.C.A.
Once you live long enough, your brain hits a sort of maximum. Mortals die before 100, and even the few who surpass that age don’t learn enough to fill their most powerful muscle or disease empties it of its proverbial wrinkles.
Gods are ever-lasting, with brains that are less like muscles, and more like information highways. They access at the break of emotion and trauma.
The few mortals smart enough to prolong life, or cursed enough to be unwanted by death, will live long enough to the point that they forget things one should think unforgettable. They forget the names of ones considered best friends. They forget the exact circumstances around the events that shaped their lives for the centuries to come.
Some who know they are cursed and see it coming, wonder when they’ll feel it or if they already have.
Malum managed to be quiet in his nightmare. He slept in the crow’s nest of the ship, crumpled up into the wooden barrel. His back screamed for a bed, and his conscience punished them both.
He huffed as he remembered when met Hadoruto, the Dynastan of Susanna.
The dream was half a memory, through the eyes of himself, but also someone looking at him, switching between the two. The dream focused so much on the shape of Hadoruto’s face, and the scowl his attendant made while saying it. Hadoruto looked different from the others in the room. He wasn’t completely Susannan, and his name drew ire because it was not Susannan, yet he was the Dynastan… for a time.
Malum was watching himself, as he stepped up behind the master of Siwang, standing beside Hadoruto, protecting the master of the country and his throne. Malum watched as his silent step allowed him to sneak up on the obstacle to Susannan purity. The whole room who stood in agreement that Hadoruto should die cowered before a man who would have cut them down by the hundreds.
So they needed to stay silent, to act as if they didn’t notice, to ignore the presence of a man they all saw, but none heard. None of them could withstand the skill of the man who held the Jitari Blade, none could take on the master of the Jitari Arts, so they found a man who could kill him without doing either.
When the blade sank into his back, the world turned red, and it flashed red as Malum took his sword and the corpse fell to the ground.
The world surged, and lightly twisted, turning the Dynastan’s hunters into guài and mó, becoming immortal with each sink of their blade into their leader’s flesh, or so they thought.
As the deed was done, and Hadoruto’s rule was finished, the demons thought they had achieved a sort of immortality, only to realize that none of their names would be remembered. The only one who would be remembered would be the black demon who escaped with Siwang, choosing to accept the sword rather than their payment.
Malum woke halfway through the story, his eyes reliving his flight from Sicaron as a waking nightmare.
He slowly crawled out of the crow’s nest, feeling his back start to shatter from the nest he’d spent up there. Still better than sleeping below deck, he thought to himself, but his spine disagreed.
As he knelt on the ridge, he couldn’t help but look at his blade, before turning to the early sunrise.
Then he turned to climb his way down to the ship’s deck, as his thoughts were filled with nothing but Siwang.
It was the culmination of Susannan science, and now it’s mine. It combines science’s mastery over poisons, smithing, and wirework with the way they made poison bleed from the steel. If only it were true.
See, I know liars, too well. I watched Dynastan Hadoruto parade Siwang and its wielder as if it were the pride of the nation, and their ability to wage war and death. But I know death, I know Evil, and this sword is not of evil men. It was made of evil lies, and for that is why I stole it.
“Good morning, Malum.”
“Huh,” Malum gasped as he turned around with a huff. Someone had snuck up on him the moment he landed on deck.
Who could it be? Only the railing was behind me-
“Did I scare you?” Lucy said as she pulled herself over the railing, dripping wet from a morning swim.
“Scare, no, I had every belief I could kill you,” Malum told her.
“But I snuck up on you,” she said as she pointed at him, giggling to herself and mocking him as she walked to her towel.
As she dried off, she stopped and realized, “Huh, when has anyone snuck up on you?”
“More than you’d think,” the assassin admitted, “but somehow I doubt you’ll do it again.”
I won’t forget about the one person who swims in shark-infested waters.
“Sure thing dickhead,” she said as went back to drying herself off, but as she did so she kept looking over her shoulder at him, something he couldn’t help but notice. “Well?”
Malum asked back, “Well what?”
“What the fuck’s wrong? Shouldn’t you be formulating a plan of assassination or something instead of just… standing around, watching me dry off?”
“Hmph,” Malum scoffed, “I was thinking, I was not watching you.”
“The life of a widower is a lonely one isn’t it.”
Oh my god.
“You’re not just gonna run around Susanna’s capital are you?” she asked him, a logical question that left Malum rather silent.
Crossing his arms was his response.
“Oh my god, you are.”
“What makes you think I’m not prepared? What makes you think I haven’t come up with a strategy already?”
Lucy shrugged and put on her robe over her swimsuit. “I don’t know, maybe because I’ve known you for years and I’ve brought you to more assassinations than anybody else.” The way she nodded her head made the contracts they took seem so casual. Before the Black Legion collapsed, there was not one contract that didn’t end in someone’s violent end.
“So what’s wrong?”
“Why does everyone ask that like it’s your business?” Malum said to himself as he turned away from her. He heard the sound of moist flesh and found a tentacle in his way.
He slowly turned around to Lucy with her tentacle arm reaching out around him. She drew it back in as she approached him, and pointed her thumb her way.
“It’s my boat, my crew, and oh wait, my ass that gets fucked if you fuck up, you fucking dickhead.”
Lucy stood there and rested her hands on her hips as she stared at him. Things were silent between them save for the sound of water dripping from her long locks to the wooden deck.
“Did you need to say ‘fuck’ three-”
“I do what I want!” Lucy interrupted him and raised her finger to stab Malum in the chest with it. “And what I want is to know why the best assassin I know is wasting his goddamn time.”
“Hmm…” he grumbled in response, and when he didn’t have an answer, his eyes were drawn to it. “Best you know?”
He looked towards the mainland, which could be seen as a long, neverending strip of green running north and south. They had turned around the southeastern corner of the country some time ago.
“It’s… it’s been a while since I’ve been to my home.”
Lucy’s face twisted in confusion, “You’re from Susanna? Wait, I think I knew that. Wait, weren’t we here like… last week?”
Malum groaned at her constant questions. What, did she consider every part of Krone home? It needs its own map to fit every part of it.
“Yes, dumbass, I’m Susannan, and I mean back home to Sicaron, the city. I’ve been to Susanna a bunch of times in the last few years.”
“Wow, really?” Lucy asked, scratching her head, letting her earlier aggression die down. “Never had a hit job you had to do here?”
“Nope, I had other underlings for that, including the one we’re here to save.”
“Huh, well, I wouldn’t expect a warm welcome.”
Malum was silent as he slowly turned his head towards her, unnerving her when all she could see were dark black holes where his eyes should be. “No, I thought they would throw me a ‘coming home’ party, where we all get drunk and fuck whores like Andy.”
“Yeah, I think she has a problem, a whore problem, and a drinking problem,” Lucy said in all seriousness as if Malum’s comment was sent her way.
“We all have problems, if you want to talk about hers, do it with someone else.”
Malum took his chance to walk away from her when he could. There’s not a lot of places to run to on this ship. Here’s hoping she takes the hint.
He walked to the railing, and when he turned around, Lucy was walking in the other direction. When he was alone, he let his head sink into forearms, as if it was a much-needed rest for him.
“Don’t be a baby!”
“I’m just saying ‘ow,’ it’s instinctual, jerk!”
“Less talking!” Jack scolded the Pennies. “More stabbing and dodging, you can practice being distracting on your own time.”
Penelope grimaced at their teacher as he overlooked dozens of people practicing in pairs. Penance chuckled at the look on her face.
Jack walked around, being sure to check everyone’s stances and performance. He had them practicing the art of stabbing with a spear and dodging. One would practice the basic thrust he demonstrated, while the other attempted to dodge. No matter what, there was something for his students to be proud of. They get to pretend to kill their friends or pretend to not die by their hands.
Jack couldn’t have looked sourer about that, but he would try.
He watched to make sure they were performing to their best ability and to remove anyone who was getting hit too much. Sometimes you’re paired with someone faster than you. If the gap is too wide, training together does nothing. You can’t improve against someone incomprehensibly your superior, and you can’t improve against someone incomprehensibly your inferior.
He had pulled a man of the Hotun and one of the Icee, and removed them from their Black Legion partners before telling them to practice together instead. “You two should know better,” he told the legionnaires, “and you’ll jog around the ring until you’ve learned that.”
When the two hesitated, Jack’s voice dropped several octaves and developed a lot more flem. All he said was, “Now!” but that was all he needed to get them running.
They thought they could get it easy.
“You two, practice,” he said, and went back to watching over everyone else.
He began to notice that how often he was hearing the sound of wood stabbing skin. People would be going home with a lot of bruises today, but tomorrow, they would be black and blue.
“I get the sense that you are tiring!” he called out to them, which garnered a few looks and more than half stopped. “I did not order you to cease! Strike down the one in front of you!”
There were a lot more people yelling, “Ow,” and cursing out their quick-footed partners.
“You must think me cruel,” he told them as he walked, eyeing as a hawk eyes prey. “I make you fight and train for weeks, the same thing day after day, sending you home with bruises on top of bruises. For many of you, I would not be shocked to hear that your resolve is waning.
This time they did not stop moving as he talked to them.
“The best time to learn is at the point of maximum failure, so I will build you up to the highest you can go, and then tear you back down.”
Then he watched them continue unabated. He watched for the telltale signs that someone is done. He looked for the frustration, the anger, the sweat beating down their faces. He waited for their intent to grow, so he could remove them and send them to frustrate themselves in a corner with their wet anger.
Those people can come back when they dry off, he thought to himself, until his own anger grew rather wet.
It was a common occurrence to see Quintus on the sidelines, watching rather than participating, sometimes with Astrid too. They were some of the best warriors they had, they didn’t need Jack’s lessons.
But then that also means they don’t need to be here to watch.
“Your anger is wasted,” a familiar voice told him.
Jack’s head whipped around as he tried to search for it, before it started repeating the same words to him again and again.
“Your anger is wasted.”
“Your anger is wasted!”
“YOUR ANGER IS WASTED!”
“Find him,” she said, Jack’s eyes opened as he realized he had been clutching his forehead.
“Find the puer luminis,” she said, and the pressure that had wrapped itself around his mind left without a trace. There was nothing sitting on his mind anymore.
He stood up and noticed how many were staring at him now.
“People have headaches, but if you all stop again without my word, you’ll have worse than headaches.”
They got back to training, and Jack got back to acting like he was losing his mind.
“All bow their heads for his Esteemed Regency!”
The forum of houses and guilds that made Susanna the country it was, all stood as their boy regent walked to his throne, followed by his esteemed guard.
The Dynastan of Susanna had died, and his twelve-year son was the country’s leader… for the moment.
The heads of these houses and forums–the Regalics, the kings-in-waiting–raised their glasses to the boy in robes too big for him. They cheered his name as he sat in the only chair in the room.
We don’t need thrones in Susanna, we make you earn the right to sit, Hùnxiě thought as he waited by the same entrance the boy came out of.
He watched the Regalics lower their glasses as the boy sat, and knew not to resume their conversations. It was all about to begin.
The forum’s announcer told the Regalics, “All bow their heads for his Esteemed Science,” and their raised their glasses over their heads.
That’s my que.
Archmage Hùnxiě appeared from behind curtains, walking with a rather plain stance of his hands behind his back. He trained himself to appear as he does as noble men around him raise their toasts to him.
Oh yes, this is patronizing, overzealous. These men hate me, and why shouldn’t they? They covet power only I possess. None of them are my friends.
Hùnxiě walked to his side by the current regent, opposite the regent’s protector. This way, there were the three of them against everyone else. His Esteemed Regency used to sit in the center of the room, but now they’re back is to the wall.
After Hadoruto, that mistake would not be made again. I’m not sure how so many managed to be silent as the assassin crept up on a Jitari Blade. Alas, before my time.
Hùnxiě leaned down to speak into the boy’s ear. “Tempo, I must converse.”
“You are leaving?” the boy asked, looking up at Hùnxiě with open eyes that hid nothing.
He’s young, he’ll learn the game.
“Only for a drink, worry not, Foster here can protect you against everyone else in this room,” Hùnxiě assured the boy.
Well, maybe not from me.
“But who will protect you?”
“His reputation,” Foster Lao interjected, his hands on both swords, and his eyes on Hùnxiě. Even in a room full of people coveting his ward’s life, he watched Hùnxiě first.
“See how smart your protector is?” Hùnxiě told Tempo. “You’ll be fine, and I’ll be fine, I would just like a drink before it all starts. You remembered what we rehearsed right? When they ask you to give a name?”
Tempo nodded his head.
“Good,” Hùnxiě said, before turning to Foster’s looming eye, “I entrust you to him.”
“And the world to you.”
Hùnxiě smirked and bowed his head to Foster, considering the lack of a drink to raise to him. Then he found himself amongst the strays in his court.
He walked through, most trading the lusterless expression on their faces for one full of glee when they matched eyes with him. He returned it, wondering with each one just how much they fantasized about usurping him.
As I walk between these starving dogs, each one weighing the risk of biting a poisonous man… I can’t help but love it.
Hùnxiě found himself nearly alone at the bar. The idea of an open wine bar in a place where so many important people collected should seem idiotic. The idea of killing each other aside, that’s how Raydorn or Krone could eliminate their enemy’s leadership in one fell swoop.
Hùnxiě ordered his drink, and immediately dropped a small tablet into the drink, and watched it bubble and fizz.
Ah, he thought to himself as he listened to the bubbles pop for what seemed like a minute before it stopped, so much poison to kill one man… all gone.
Hùnxiě brought the glass to his lips, and found that the neutered poison added a sweet aftertaste to his preferred drink.
As the archmage set his drink down, he found his assistant at his side. “How is our prisoner doing?”
Mao bowed his head as he assured him, “Well-fed and dry-scrubbed clean as you requested.”
“Good, that will be all,” Hùnxiě dismissed the old man.
Can’t have him dying before he tells me anything.
A bit of shouting drew Hùnxiě’s eye towards the Dynastan and his throne as Foster drove back would-be sycophants vying for the boy’s favor. Hùnxiě watched them from afar as the Jitari Blade gave them nothing but stern interruptions and repeatedly bid them a good day.
The man seemed both patient and without patience to Hùnxiě. His face was hard, and his lip was a fine line so often that it seemed to jut out of his cheeks. Tempo’s father once joked that every line of Foster Lao was a pointed blade, from the gelled point to his hair, to his pointed shoes. Always ready to stab someone with something.
But he would never need to with Fuchou and Huibao on both sides of his hips. Down two Jitari Blades, Hùnxiě and the previous Dynastan were reluctant to send out anymore to the front lines. This led to Foster Lao becoming the Dynastan’s stalwart guard.
If I don’t start the ceremony now, he will be the Dynastan’s stalwart hitman too.
Hùnxiě began to clap, signifying the beginning of the end for his unchecked power. As the signifier, the others soon joined in, clapping for more than they realized.
As they clapped, they made way for Hùnxiě to stand before the chair, where he was joined on either side by Disciples of the Double-Headed goddess.
To his left, stood a man in a ceramic mask, with cream clothing to match its colors. It flowed around him as if everything else were all part of shooting star. An imitation of their All-mother’s path of peace, Aris.
To his right, stood another man, with his skin and face painted red, with a white domino mask, attached to faux white hair that flowed down his back. His leather tunic mocked red skin, and goat fur gave him the legs of an animal. An imitation of their All-mother’s path of war, Eritusi.
In tandem they spoke together, “Sol is nigh, he who hangs high, all rise and toast the dead father in the sky.”
While the others raised their drinks over their heads, Hùnxiě raised his hand towards Tempo. The boy stood slowly to his feet, and walked the two steps down to the foot of his small throne. Hùnxiě gestured for him to stop, and he stood still like stone.
You’d think he’d fidget a little.
The two Disciples of the Double-Headed goddess spoke in tandem again. They would only speak in tandem till the night was done. “Tempo Tǔdì, son of Dynastan Beijo Tǔdì, stands before the Guilds of Susanna, and asks what?”
“For a Solistan!” Tempo yelled, as if yelling were the same as commanding. The boy looked to Hùnxiě, and Hùnxiě tried to make a small lowering motion with his other against his chest. Tempo saw, and added in a lower voice, “By birthright, I claim the chance to claim the mantle of leadership.”
Hùnxiě winked at him.
“Your demand for a Solistan entails several trials, to complete them is to pay in blood. Do you understand this?” the Disciples asked him.
“I do,” Tempo assured them.
“Your demand for a Solistan entails challenges from the Guilds of Susanna. Do you understand this?” they asked him next.
“Your demand for a Solistan, should you win, will make you the Dynastan of Susanna, until the day you die in mind or heart. You will bear the responsibility of leading our nation, of deciding her fate with your victories and failures. Do you understand this?”
“Do you accept it?” they asked in turn.
Tempo hesitated. What did it mean to accept responsibility? Not only for oneself but others as well. The boy did as children do.
He lied. “I do.”
Then the Disciples asked a question to which everyone knew the answer to, and it was not ‘I do.’
“Will you be your own champion?”
“I will not.”
“Name your champion.”
Tempo Tǔdì raised his hand over his head as so many had been doing to him all night. His arm stood straight ahead of him, with his thumb out and his fingers curling into an incomplete fist. “I name Foster Lao as my champion.”
The Disciples raised their heads, and their black eyeholes seemed to stare into the unknown as if they did not know exactly who Foster Lao was. “Does Foster Lao accept his nomination?!”
“He does!” the Jitari Blade agreed, and then everyone lowered their arms, accepting fate. Who among them would defeat a master of the Jitari Arts?
“Then it shall be!” the Disciples agreed in tandem. “Tonight, the Guilds build on the chance to challenge Foster Lao, champion of sitting Dynastan, Tempo Tǔdì! In three days, he will face his first challenge.
The archmage stood in place, as Foster Lao stepped to the Disciples, and the Disciples stepped to stand around him.
The archmage did not have to look around him to know how the Regalics stared. Their fates were sealed, for there were none among them who could defeat the champion.
And as Foster Lao stared at Hùnxiě, as he received his rites, none could question who hated that fact more.