- August 21, 2022
Raydorn: The War in the Black (Chapter 29)
This chapter contains scenes of torture, reader discretion is advised.
“Krone was built by false dragons.”
Emperor Caesarus of Krone, 446 A.C.A.
It had been a long time before Malum had dressed in anything that wasn’t his cloak or a disguise. If it weren’t for the spare cloaks he’d smell absolutely disgusting.
Now, after all the bathing, shampooing, conditioning, and scrubbing, his wife wouldn’t recognize his scent. If not by sight, the next best identifier was by scent, and she could tell who he was through the blood.
The soap was powerful.
Yet, when he looked in the mirror, clothed in a white mao suit, and naked hands, he still recognized himself, because the helm of Eritusi looked back.
This is the face Foster Lao will see, not today, not tomorrow, but soon. I’d better not disappoint.
“Your hair looks weird over the mask,” he heard Andy say behind him.
While she’s had to remove him of his cloak before to treat him, the last time that was necessary his hair was far shorter than it was now. Now after months on the run, his dark brown hair ran over his forehead, and would go over his right eye if his mask wasn’t in the way.
“And you look weird in a dress,” he said back.
She hadn’t brought formal wear, and even if she had… she wouldn’t have been allowed entry. A lime green qipao with an extravagant wind brush pattern was given to her instead. She fidgeted in it every time she moved.
As she stretched her arms, unable to truly stretch in the tight dress, she commented, “I was hoping to see you before you put the mask on, but I bet they bathed you in it, didn’t they?”
“You must think you know me so well.”
She smirked and assured him, “I’ll find out how ugly you are someday.”
“May it be long from now.”
Andy tapped the shoulder of his suit and complimented him, “Heh, well, jokes aside, you do look nice, finely crafted as you need to be.”
Malum’s hand went to his back where he would have grabbed at the innards of his cloak and mocked wrapping the flaps around him. “I feel far less.”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, it’s about how you look, no one cares how you feel.”
“You’re not much for comfort are you?”
“Not for any man,” she said as she snapped her fingers and beckoned him onwards, “now let’s go, the Zhuhou of Sol want to see their champion before Foster Lao defeats another. Make friends, be polite, and if they like you, we’ll get the passes into the Silver Spires we need, and we’ll be that much closer to saving your guy and getting out of here.”
Ah yes, such is the plan… for now.
“Yes, saving him is the most important thing,” Malum agreed, “best we do not forget that.”
Andy looked over her shoulder to eye him up. “If need be, I’m willing to leave the gold behind.”
“If you’re willing, I’m sure.”
At least one of us is assuming we’ll be able to.
As they were about to leave, Andy puts a hand out to stop him, and gestures for him to hand something over.
“You know.” He was unmoving under her glare.
“Malum, you can’t hide it under your cloak. If you walk around with it on your waist, people are bound to recognize it as they did at Regalic earlier. I at least have a stupid waist shawl that can hide most of it.”
Malum crossed his arms as the holes in their plan were appearing before him. “If you’re worried about that, how do you expect me to defeat Foster Lao?”
“With a normal sword,” she said, and her voice went high enough that he thought she might have been about to laugh.
She’s a manipulative, secret-keeping asshole, but she’s right. Siwang turned heads after only a quick flash, but if I walked around with it, everyone would notice.
Malum’s eyes lowered down from Andy’s face to her figure. Though they’re not going to pay attention to a sword on her. Makes sexism useful for something.
He stroked his chin as he said, “The idea of fighting Lao with Siwang doesn’t appeal to me.”
“Why not? It’s only your life.”
Malum stopped and looked down at her. “You have been hanging out with Astrid too much.”
“She’s not too bad.”
“Her humor is.”
“Just give me the sword.”
Malum didn’t hesitate much to present it to her handle first, but when she grabbed it, she didn’t pull it back. She saw something… white on the blade.
“What the fuck? Where did you go for this?” she asked as she was quick to grab and inspect it.
Malum didn’t try to snatch it or anything, he just shrugged. “There are a plethora of birds around here, how should I know?”
“Weird,” she said as she let it fall to the ground and put the sword on her hip before putting on her waist shawl that covered up the grip in its entirety. “Ready to go?”
“Long before you.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
Andy walked them through the doors of Regalic Nylenzo, letting all the other farmers at the market see her cow.
Malum could feel their looks upon him. The more that stared, the clammier his hands became. The cold air against his uncovered skin–as little of that as there was–only made it worse.
Malum had been told that it was the noble class, the Zhuhou of Regalic Sol who wanted to see their purchase, but there were more than just the Zhuhou of Sol there.
Lord Weisheng, the Zhuhou who had brokered the tremendous purchase of his services, waited for them at the edge of the railing. From there they would watch the first contest, but they would have to walk through the sea of eyes first.
Sweat ran down Malum’s neck, where his coat’s collar hid it from view. In Uzuri, he muttered behind Andy, “<“Never let it be said that Krone alone disregards the human soul.>”
Andy paused, grasping at the language before responding. “Only children believed that, Mal.”
Malum followed her in silence and as they came upon their patron, he looked into the man’s eyes and saw nothing. They feigned happiness and enjoyment when they met Andy’s.
The mask is a double-edged sword.
His wife’s words echoed through his head, ‘The more you try to hide something, the more people end up finding out. Secrets were made to be buried or killed.’
“<You’ve timed your arrival perfectly, I see,>” the Lord complimented Andy.
She gave him a slight shrug. “<I don’t know what you’re talking about.>”
“<Of course, of course… but they are talking about this behemoth of a man with his war mask and no else. That will get to Foster, which means it will get to Hùnxiě, and that’s all that matters.>”
Of course, we were fashionably late.
Malum also took a scan of the room as best he could without moving his head, to notice that he was possibly the tallest person there.
I’ve been standing next to Quintus so long, I forget my own size.
“<Pay attention, warrior,>” the Lord instructed him, as if he could see the eyes behind the mask. He pointed to the arena below the railing, for Malum to look. “<Your opponent is here, and if you are to win, if you are to live, you must master him. We have given you as much time as we could muster.>”
“<Which match will I be?>” Malum asked.
“<The last one.>”
He may not have paid for my services yet, but he and his Regalic are paying for me. The Regalics bid for the champion to challenge the Dynastan’s champion as far back as possible. The longer the Dynastan’s champion has to fight, the more they’ll be worn down, the more injured they’ll be, and the more their challengers will know about them.
As Malum saw Foster Lao walk out, he considered, Their coin may not matter.
Foster dropped his jacket from his shoulders as he unsheathed his dual dao blades. His first obstacle would be the arena. Each challenger picked their arena, something Malum had to begin considering.
This first challenger designed an arena that would have been clever against almost every other opponent. It was over a pit of spikes, and the only way to stand was by standing upon the bamboo. A single misstep could lead to death.
No doubt, this twig is hoping Foster will fall in his first step.
The challenger smirked with his qiang polearm over his shoulder. He was likely trained by the Huǒ Bào monks who used bamboo walking to master balance in body and soul. The challenger doesn’t have the soul part down.
Foster Lao walked without hesitation, and when he walked onto the bamboo, he kept pace. The challenger did not smirk anymore.
And Foster did not wait for a bell.
This monk barely twirled his polearm in time to stop the sword’s blow, and he looked to the second sword to see if there was a reaction. When there was none, the monk got his smirk back.
Foster sliced through the air, chop after chop, blocked each time. The sound clanged through the arena, and as time went on the arena began to appear more like a pit.
Chop! Champ! Chomp!
Foster’s swings were direct and true, caring nothing for theatrics as he balanced and fought the bamboo. The monk did not fight the same.
Foster went for his leg and the monk jumped and somersaulted through the air, before landing on more bamboo, with his polearm raised.
“<Impressive,>” Lord Weisheng muttered, “<maybe he will be the one you fight.>”
Malum restrained a scoff.
Andy seemingly agreed with the lord. “<Foster is at a disadvantage, correct if I’m wrong, but don’t his Jitari blades absorb and redirect energy? Perfect against most Stormguard, but a polearm? And dual-wielding is a child’s idea of strategy, he’ll never swing with the same force of two-handing one sword.>”
“<Yes, without energy his swords are nothing more than steel. it appears our champion will have to worry about distance once this monk sends the Jitari artist to the depths.>”
Lord Weisheng turned to Malum to look at the assassin’s unyielding mask. “<What do you think? You are the killer here.>”
“Hmm,” Malum hummed as he watched Foster chase the monk around the arena, the monk keeping at a distance, dodging and blocking his slices with his superior range.
Foster dove to stab at the man’s feet, and the man batted the blade away with twirl of the staff. Then came the jump, and the twirl.
The monk made a show of cutting Foster across the chest.
The audience collectively gasped as blood began to fall Foster’s tight pectorals and down his sculpted abdomen. Malum nearly missed the sound because of them, this… ringing in the air, coming form the pit.
Malum’s eyes focused on the blades, listening rather looking, and hearing a subtle… hum.
To answer the lord’s question, Malum answered, “<There is always energy.>”
The monk gestures to the cut with his weapon, mocking Foster, “<You overreach, I see what you are doing,>” just before he cuts low for Foster leg, same as the Jitari artist did to him.
Foster lifted his foot only to see the monk cut the top of the bamboo with his polearm. Instead of stepping down onto something that was there, the Jitari artist let his body go limp. He let his weight fall the other way so his back fell on the bamboo and he banged his head. He rolled back as fast as he could as the monk came at him with a flurry of blows.
As soon as Foster was on his feet, his sword raised to block one swing.
Then a follow-up from the opposite direction!
Before alternating sides with a flurry of blows.
Foster took the strikes from the wooden staff as he blocked the pointy end with his swords.
After beating on the man’s flesh the monk kicked Foster, pushing him back.
Without much warning, Malum declared, “<The challenger is already finished,>” as the monk himself still faced Foster with a smirk.
Andy arched her brow as she gestured to the arena. “<They just started> and Foster <hasn’t landed a hit yet.>”
Malum shook his head, much to her chagrin, “<He’s landed all the hits he needs.>”
The monk came at Foster again, swinging for his head, making the Jitari artist pull back his head to dodge, leaving himself open. The polearm was long, but it was not slow.
The monk immediately sent the polearm back Foster’s way with a clear opening for his leg.
Should the plan have worked, Foster would have fell to his death between the bamboo.
Foster managed to bring his swords down to block at the last minute.
He stopped the blade just as it cut into his leg.
Foster’s mouth contorted as it muffled his groans of pain, and the monk wears his smirk like its a part of his uniform.
With a nasty twist, the monk pulls back, splaying Foster’s blood across the bamboo, letting it drip down as he held his staff to his back.
“<They warned me that you’d try to end this fast,>” the monk told him, “<sorry to say I’m here to take my time.>”
“<Of course, you are,>” Foster said as he twirled his swords to return to his starting grip, and posed to be ready for when he attacked again, “<you need to put on a show so people hire you again. I only need to win.>”
The monk arched a brow. “<It’s almost as if you don’t want to have any fun.>”
Foster Lao tilted his head, muttering, “<You call this fun…?>” He stiffened before re-readying his fighting stance with a pump of his arms and a flex of his deep muscles. “<I understand now, there’s nothing behind your eyes, is there?>”
“<Wha… I thought I was fighting a warrior, not a philosopher.>” the monk said as he leaped forward to bring his polearm down on Foster’s head.
Foster dodged, making a point to let his blade clang against the poleamr. “<I only make poignant observations, something you should learn to do.>”
The monk’s staff cracked Foster across the cheek. The bruising blow was only followed by more taunts. “<What? You want to give me lessons after this is over? Doesn’t seem like I need them.>”
The monk put Foster on the defensive again, trying to wear him down by beating on him and his swords with the staff of his polearm again and again.
He moved in short bursts that Foster couldn’t match, and didn’t try to. He took the brunt of it as wood met flesh… and steel.
Foster stood and took it as his he held his swords crossed over his chest.
This is it.
“<This is already over,>” Foster told the monk and the monk laughed in his face, just before Fucho and Huibao began to glow.
The crowd that had already written Foster off, were knocked back when the twin Jitari blades let loose a kinetic blast that sent the monk flying, and sliced the tops of all the bamboo steps that were behind him.
He wasn’t even aiming for the punk. He just destroyed his footing.
Despite not being the blast’s target, the monk went flying into the pit’s edge, his back hitting it with a loud thud. He was lucky, there wasn’t a crack.
At least until he started falling.
He lost his polearm in the blast, and it only took a second for gravity to start dragging him towards the spikes at the bottom of the pit.
Before he could finish screaming, “<Someone, help me!>” Foster used Fucho to boost himself over the gap he made as he threw Huibao at the same time. As the monk’s arm began to slip off the edge, Huibao struck through the forearm, pinning the monk in place.
Foster landed with a gentle tap as his challenger was screaming in pain and calling for help. The champion of the Dynastan walked over to the monk and held Fucho to him. “<Submit and live.>”
The monk screamed at him, “<Are you kidding me?! You won! Okay?! You won! Help me!>”
Foster Lao smirked as his victory was assured, and holstered one sword to help the monk up, and take out the other sword.
As they watched Foster walk away from his first victory with minor injuries, Malum and Andy turned to each other with blank expressions.
“Well…” Andy thought to begin, “worst comes to worst he’ll spare you, but I still think you can beat him.”
“I have little doubt,” the assassin agreed.
Everyone has their favorite song, one that they could listen over and over, even from the worst bard. Once it gets stuck in your head, you’ll suffer in agony until you can hear live again. That waiting, that pain of having to wait for something you know is so perfect, and better than everything else, that if you heard it again, you would die.
For the woman standing above Lucy, who had her strapped flat on a table, Lucy was to be such a song.
Before, the woman was covered up to her neck, but now, she wore an apron atop old worn clothes that didn’t cover the mutations around her arm.
She ran her fingers across the knife, and up close Lucy could see the webbing between them. “<Have you ever wondered how Krone perfected their beastmasters? Have you ever wondered how many slaves died before you so their sorcerer and his acolytes knew your mutation would work?>”
“<I didn’t do this to you,>” Lucy told her, looking up at her, seeing the patches of scales on her arms, and these strange protusions that resembled the exoskeletons of insects on her neck.
“<I’m sure you can tell that they would test multiple beast at once, unlike with you,>” she said as she laid the blade’s point upon Lucy’s neck, pricking just a bit, to let blood trickle down.
As Lucy winced, Mutant woman, as Lucy had now named her, warned her, “<It’s going to be worse than that. Do you want to know what the lizard scales were for?>”
You’re going to tell me, Lucy thought as she tried and failed to control her breathing.
“<Some lizards can grow back body parts, and they would test this by slicing off limbs, and time how long it would take.
“<Ask me what body parts they cut off me.>”
Lucy’s lips stayed shut, and Mutant woman raised the knife to Lucy’s lips and slid it between the folds.
“<We can start up top if you like,>” watching Lucy’s gaze grow cold, unable to feel anything, not even terror or rage and at the Mutant woman’s challenge… maybe not even fear as well.
As she pulled the blade back, Lucy began to ask, “<What did they-”>
Lucy’s screams should have been heard for miles, but the butcher’s locker trapped the sounds. The square metal box kept sending her screams back at her, a careening tear through her mind.
It couldn’t have been just the sound that made Lucy’s head go mad. She had eaten, she had barely drank, and she was suffering torture upon torture. Any one of them could have been the thing that left her weak against the sound of her own screams.
“<They started with my fingers,>” Mutant woman answered as she moved Lucy’s pinkie off the table. “<Mine took a couple of minutes to grow back,>” she said as she watched Lucy’s form rip and tumble onto the table in place of blood.
Mutant woman’s eye fixated on the speed of Lucy’s healing, watching how it stitched itself together. Despite being bereft of water, Lucy still healed faster than any partial beastman Mutant woman had heard of, or so she thought…
So she tested it again.
“<Aaahhhhahahhaha… please… please stop…>” Lucy begged, crying from the pain of having all of her fingers cut off her right hand.
Mutant woman ignored her as she watched Lucy’s arm act quickly to replace it, just as fast as before.
“<They gave you everything,>” she said. “<They made us bond with filth, cold reptiles and disgusting insects, and you get this?!>”
In a rage Mutant woman raise her butcher knife and started hacking away.
Chop! Chop! Chop!
By the second Lucy had lost the will to scream, barely conscious from the pain, but her body wouldn’t let her fall unconscious. Everything was working overtime in her body to fix her open wounds. To do that, she needed to be awake, so her body filled her with adrenaline too.
Mutant woman noticed how Lucy’s eyes were glazing over, threatening to fail, but unable to. “<For us small ones you turned your back on, we have the mutations we could never turn off… but you get to… you get everything…
“<At least now you’ll get nothing good.>”
Mutant woman stood up, and left her knife on the table and turned to leave. She left the door open, letting in an unfamiliar kind of light in. A shadow moved in quickly, at least to Lucy, and soon water was being spilled over her wounds.
Lucy moaned, “<No…>”
“<It’s just water, clean water, I promise,>” said the boy who took pity on her earlier.
The water was a blessing and a curse. It kept her hydrated and able to heal as the others tried to dry her out, but it also made her conscious, able to feel the pain.
As the water flushed out her delirium, Lucy looked up to the boy and told him, “<They’ll notice the water on me.>”
“<Not with all the blood on you.>”
That feels like something I should be laughing at. I’d cry even if I could right now.
“<What’s your name?>” Lucy asked the boy. He looked down to her with a look of befuddlement. “<Allies should know each others names.>”
“Hmm, <Pareekshan, Pareekshan Karenge, but you can call me Pareek,>” he said.
Such a common name for such an uncommon kid.
Lucy muttered her thanks as the water was finished, and she sought to rest. She turned her head from him as he hid the water, but would not let her fall unconscious.
“<Is Indu your real name?>”
Lucy struggled to turn her head as she asked, “What?”
“<Is Indu the name Endica gave you, before Krone made you go by Lucy?”
“Oh… no… that…” Lucy stared at the ceiling as she thought of her birth name, her mouth twitching as she did so. “<That old name… it was… it was Saira… Indu is the label they gave us so all Krones would.>”
“<Would know what?>” Pareek asked, as if she was telling him a story.
“<That we were not born Kronish… that we were wyverns, like Piss man said… though… I do not think anyone truly is a real dragon… no one but the Last Dragon…”
“<Leave us, Pareek,>” snapped Mutant woman, as she surprised them in the doorway.
Well, Pareek turned in shock, but Lucy didn’t flinch.
What’s the point?
Mutant woman told him again, “<Leave, I’ve found a true blade to test her mutation.>”
Pareek slowly backed away as Mutant woman came back to stand over her, with a saber in her hand. “<Tell me, pirate, do you know what it feels like to be run through by a Kronish saber?>”