- December 4, 2022
Raydorn: The War in the Black (Chapter 35)
“The shadows surely become you, but the light certainly does not.”
Foster Lao, Wielder of Fucho and Huibao, 448 A.C.A.
There weren’t petals falling from the trees and flowing all around them when Foster Lao came to Regalic Sol. There were looks of disgust and whispers amongst what was the most talkative of patrons.
Lao paid them no mind.
He walked through their buildings, down their halls, as far as he had to go to reach the river garden. He came to face Malum, and then he would be done.
When he found Malum, the archmage, the heir, and their guards followed behind him. Malum stood on the bridge where he fought Andelyn Stella the night before. The assassin leaned against the railing, sword on his hip, dressed in only trousers and his mask, waiting for the Jitari artist.
Andelyn alone stood with him.
“Is your weapon ready?” she asked him.
“We’ll find out.”
Andy turned toward him with her arms crossed and the snidest of side eyes. “That’s not encouraging.”
“Good thing you’re just here for the money now, right?”
Andy’s mouth dropped open, but closed back up so she could bite her lip instead of his throat. “You know what, asshat, you’re right.”
Andy left him and waved him off. “Get us our money.”
No one would know but the gods… but Malum wore a smirk under that mask.
When Andy passed Foster by, she kept walking, past him, past his guards, and past the archmage… who did not deign to look upon her.
Foster turned towards his people, and nodded his head, gesturing them to take a step back. He walked up, onto the bridge, his eyes ever-watching, but not resting on Malum.
“Will Sol not watch?” he asked Malum.
“Oh, they’re watching,” the assassin assured him, “you just won’t see them.”
“Why do I believe you?”
“Because I’m stating what you already know.”
Foster Lao didn’t smirk or smile. He huffed, and walked on, overlooking the gardens of Regalic Sol. “Most Regalics are not so attuned with nature as this one is.”
“You think a token garden, as expensive as it is, makes them attuned with Gronin?”
“Hardly, they’re just more green than any other Regalic, and I’d like to have a reason to hope now and then.” Foster ran his hand over the wood of the railing, taking notice of some sword marks and shoe prints. “You must be experienced with this place to want to fight here.”
Doesn’t miss a thing, Malum thought to himself.
“The others tried to handicap me,” Foster pointed out.
“They just handicapped themselves.”
That made Foster smirk.
“You are no fool, good, I’ll have a challenge before I win, it’s just…” He looked over the garden, and the facade started to break a little. “I did not expect someplace… so plain for my final arena. I expected an audience, but I suspect we’ll never see much of ours.”
Malum began to rub his chin. “That’s right, I am the last champion, aren’t I?”
Foster’s hand stayed on the railing, running his hand against the red paint on the wood. “All the other Regalics have seen their champions rise and fall against me.”
“I don’t know if fall is the correct word, you haven’t killed any of them.”
Foster’s hand stopped in its place. “They could or would not stand back up to face me. They fell, victory does not always mean death to the enemy.”
“On that, I suppose we disagree more often than not,” Malum said, as he stepped off of the railing, and began to walk toward the middle of the bridge.
Foster’s eyes followed him, watching his every move closely. “Why did you pick someplace so…”
“Plain?” Malum finished. “Why are you asking so many questions before we fight?”
Foster moved his hand behind his back and began to walk towards the middle of the bridge, opposite Malum.
Malum’s hand rested in his other, ready to rush forward and pull his sword from its sheathe.
Foster’s rested behind him, ready to rise and remove his swords from his back.
“You seem unusual for a champion, especially a mercenary,” Foster said, waiting for a reaction, but never received one. “They all think taunting is necessary to win.”
Malum’s free hand rose to tap the mask on his face. “Eritusi did not teach of speech, she taught us of war.”
“Ah, that both explains and confuses things.”
In a flash, his swords were at his sides.
“Oh well, better to start than keep the old and aging Zhuhous waiting.”
Malum unsheathed his sword, and Foster’s eyes followed the blade like a hawk, but it wasn’t until it was in his hand that saw what it was.
Malum agreed with him in the meantime, “Might as well.”
As Malum moved to hold his sword and his striking hand toward Foster, Foster moved his sword in position to kill. “You speak casually for a man who puts his life on the line.”
“Is it though?” Malum asked, and gestured Foster forward.
Foster slowly inched towards Malum, his feet shuffled to make sure he didn’t give way to Malum’s advantage. The assassin had the high ground, but that didn’t have to stop Foster.
It was as Foster slowly moved within Malum’s range, as the assassin didn’t make a move, that Foster stopped. He looked up and down Malum’s form, but his eyes settled on his mask which was still his body.
Foster’s sword leaned down so he could peer over them to double-check his findings. To be wrong was to risk his life. His eyes searched the warrior up and down, looking for tension, sweat, and stress, something that every warrior that faced Foster had.
Foster stopped, and stood straight, for he knew that Malum did not have it. “You do not care about this battle.”
Malum only tilted his head.
Foster snorted and if flames had come out of his nostrils, it would not have been out of place. “We fight for the future of our country, we decide who leads it, and you stand there like it doesn’t matter?”
Foster swung Fuchou and Huibao.
Power flew out of both of them, and blasted a hole in the bridge. It had enough power to obliterate wood lined and supported with steel. The dust cloud that followed nearly blotted out the moonlight above them.
It was the first time Foster Lao struck to kill since the Solistan had started.
“So your patience is not so endless after all,” Foster could hear Malum say, as the assassin’s shadow appeared in shadow within the dust and smoke.
From the dust, the helm of Eritusi came first, and the voice of her sword followed. “How easy to bate now.”
Foster smirked, as his swords were dangerously lighter in his hand than when he walked onto the bridge. “The shadows surely become you,” Foster said, as he twirled his swords and moved into a fighting stance again, “but the light certainly does not.”
He slashed his swords to blow the dust away and revealed Malum’s form to be nothing more than a man’s…
… standing on the railing.
Foster arched his brow at the high-ground advantage, and that same brow narrowed.
Then Foster came at him.
Malum danced like the wind as Foster went for his feet, seeking to end the battle with a quick and simple amputation. He hopped and flipped over Foster’s swinging blades as they came for his feet, and in return, his blade came for Foster’s head, not his arms, not his hands, not even the fingers that he could normally just nick once…
He went for Foster’s head.
Foster had to cross his swords to block a blow that sought to split him in two. Before Foster could even think to throw him off, Malum put his foot on his swords and forced pressure down on Foster’s head.
Foster gasped at the audacity, and the muscles in his arms stretched as his veins pulsed.
With one fluid motion, Foster threw his arms over his head, and Malum went with them. The assassin soared through the air across the bridge, and Foster turned to follow only to be stopped dead in his tracks.
“Where did he…?” Foster asked as the assassin was nowhere to be found.
The emperor’s protector soon desired a protector of his own. He looked all around him, but all he found around him was the flicking of the moon and the tear-jerking silence of a forest with no wind or falling leaves.
A sword thrust through the floor of the bridge, just missing Foster’s foot!
Foster leaped up to avoid the sword as it was pulled down, smiling. “I see you now.”
As soon as Foster landed, he jumped again as a blade stabbed through the wood, and then Foster had to pirouette on his heel to dodge another stab from below. Back and forth, he bobbed and weaved, dancing with a sense of ballet to avoid the sword he knew he could not allow to cut him.
And with a leap and a spin, Foster came down with both swords stabbed into the bridge.
All sound stopped, and Foster waited to hear his enemy take his last breath.
As silence bellowed on, Foster was about to close his eyes in defeat.
Then the sound of footsteps on water filled him with energy.
Foster was already running towards the side of the bridge when Malum emerged from the shadows, racing away from it. “You won’t get away,” Foster said with all the calm of a storm and landed just behind Malum.
Malum booked it just that much faster towards the bamboo trees.
Foster followed him inside in a matter of moments, and Malum raised his sword with the palm of his hand behind it and cut.
In a blur of motions, three bamboo trees began to fall and Foster spun his own blades at the ready. Malum could hear the wind behind his enemy’s blades, he swung them that fast.
He proceeded to cut the trees to ribbons as Malum continued to run like a rat, and cut bamboo trees down like a sadist.
Foster appeared as one as well, with the way he cut the greenery to nothing. He looked up, and the falling tree rods slowly became the only color in front of him. Bamboo emerged from the darkness to fall upon his meager size,
They met the ground in pieces, but when no more bamboo came, he was still in darkness.
Foster looked all around him for the light that allowed him to see his hands but nothing else, not even the moon.
It was when he focused that he saw something in the distance, moving up and down, and as he focused, his eyes stretched farther than they would have before. Only then could he make out the visage of a man.
Foster Lao nearly recoiled into his stomach as he saw Malum hopping up and down through the darkness, and as the darkness peeled away, he saw the bamboo around him, the stream in front of him, and the lantern pillars on the other side of the water. He watched as Malum moved away from him, leaping between lanterns like a man with wings.
The emperor’s protector shook his head and leaped into the steam after the assassin. The water was barely higher than his shoe, but it still slowed him down just a bit so he took a minute to catch up.
Malum leaped from his tall perch and fell a distance no man should follow up with a seamless sprint. Foster looked for a sprain or a skip in his opponent’s step but found none.
Foster chased Malum with his swords flowing behind his back. They ran through the stream, and Malum lead them into the lake.
Foster slowed for a moment, expecting Malum to do so too, but the assassin never did. Just as he was about to be waste deep in water, Malum’s feet appeared to do the impossible.
Malum walked- no- ran on water.
Foster couldn’t believe it slowing as he came up to the lake. He watched Malum run away from him towards this structure, a fountain from which water flowed without disturbing the tranquility of the lake.
It was flat on top and wide enough for two.
“But how to get there…” Foster mumbled as he looked down at the ground and saw that Malum performed no miracle.
Under the water were many stepping stones, similar to his first challenge where he had to walk across the poles. In fact, the stepping stones were much bigger, and as they grew longer to deal with the lake’s elevation, they became stone poles.
Foster took off without delay, and as he did so, he found himself enamored by the moon overhead. Nylean herself shone upon them, with her shape reflecting in the water, covering almost every inch of the pool’s surface. From where Foster moved, the water appeared white, but distilled, nowhere near the hollow color that was snow.
As he moved, he noticed something float along the air, despite there being no wind.
See them, and be blinded by the unknown.
One by one, the white lines began to surround Foster before he recognized them as feathers.
The Jitari Artist lifted his gaze as he was at the foot of the large fountain, and found himself in a storm of avian hair, but no avian to be found. The only thing on the lake with him was a man atop a large fountain, blade raised, tiger palm out, and balancing on one leg. It should have been a ridiculous pose to hold, with so much weight on an appendage that was doomed to collapse…
… if not for the wings.
Flowing, gorgeous white wings came from the assassin’s back and unleashed this torrent of feathers to swarm them both.
Witness what you will never know.
As the feathers swarmed them, Foster covered his eyes and tried to bat them away, but when they creaked open again, there was nothing. No feathers, no wings, no unknown.
There was only the man and the mask waiting for him ahead.
Foster charged for it.
Malum swung down before Foster got the chance.
When Foster’s first advance was rebuked, he spun to move around the surrounding stairs that all led to the top. Again, Malum’s sword was there for his head.
Foster spun again, fighting against the current of the water as it crashed against his shins no matter where he stood on the fountain.
Clang! Clang! CLANG!
Again and again, Foster swung up, and Malum swung down. Their unmarked skin shined with the glittering specks of water being smashed between them. The forces of their blades made their bodies and the world shine with a steel sheen, and every time their swords met, they made a sound to match.
Clang! Clang! Slith! Slith! Clang!
Foster went around the fountain, he stepped back, he moved left and right, then forth again. He moved all around, but he was always swinging up, and he always failed to join Malum at the top.
Foster struck for his legs, and Malum struck for his head.
Foster struck to bring Malum down, and Malum struck to keep Foster down.
And when Fuchou deflected Malum’s blade, Huibao went for his feet. Then Malum leaped.
Malum leaped and flipped back to the other side of the fountain, and as he did, a feather flitted before Foster’s face. The protector could not turn away from it, it held his gaze for but a moment, but a moment was all Malum needed.
Before Foster could take his place atop the fountain, Malum was already off it, staring up at Foster, and slowly walking backward… yet upward.
The lake was not as flat as Foster had first surmised, but the surface of the water was somehow. It slowly rose towards the cliff where a waterfall should have been, but instead, there were stairs.
Malum slowly walked up it until Foster was looking up at him again.
The protector stood for it no more.
Foster raced down the fountain, and up the stone poles as Malum stared down at him. Foster raced up towards the assassin with one color in mind, one that would stain the pool.
Just as Malum stepped onto the stairs free of the lake, Foster swung for his feet.
Again, Malum flipped backward, using a handstand to push himself far and away from Foster.
Foster’s hands gripped his swords tightly, so tight they might bleed. “What is this?” Foster asked his opponent.
As Malum squatted down and rested his free hand against the stone, Foster could see not a drop of water dripping from him. There wasn’t even sweat.
“It is as you said, we fight for the future of our country.”
“You fight for nothing! You run!”
Foster raced towards him again, but Malum stood where he is.
“What I fight for would seem like nothing to you. I suppose it’s all nothing to you.”
Foster lifted his swords above his head, and Malum leaped at the last second. He leaped and climbed up the rock wall, narrowly avoiding Foster’s slash.
As Foster looked up, Malum had already pulled himself up to the top.
Foster’s head and heart were one in the endeavor to race up the stairs, but his legs were not. He felt no burn, no stillness in his muscles, but still, they moved slowly up the stairs.
When Foster reached the peak, he found the moon glaring at him first, and as his eyes saw over the cliff, Malum came next. He waited for him beside a pool, his sword behind his back, and his mask hiding all that his eyes sought.
Foster stared at him, seeing nothing but Malum, the moonlight shining upon his glistening skin, and the pool which reflected a visage with the wings of a dove.
But the assassin did not actually stand with wings. He actually stood with his back to the crowd, to stands full of Zhuhou, their lords, the archmage, and the boy who would be emperor.
They watched as Foster stepped into the final locale, and the boy who would not be emperor gasped.
Foster’s eyes did not drift on him.
Foster pointed one sword at Malum and questioned, “Did you want an audience for your defeat?”
“They are not here to see my fall, Lao,” Malum told him.
“You still think you defeat me? Despite all of your prancing, all of your tricks and cowardly tactics, you have not landed a single cut upon my flesh.”
From the crowd, they both heard the murmurs, but Foster’s ears sent a wave of tingling sensations through his body.
“Has he gone mad?” one said.
“Has he not seen himself?” said another.
It was the archmage, with his face complete with stone-like composure, who said, “Well, my week has officially been ruined.”
Foster’s eyes fluttered as he looked from his blade to the audience, as water dripped down his chest and into his mouth.
Except it wasn’t water.
Foster licked the side of his mouth and knew what he tasted.
Foster moved his hand towards his face until he saw that his arms were not covered in water, but the color he wished to paint the lake with was red.
This time, when Foster moved his arm toward his face, he felt the fatigue hit at once. It was as if someone set a fire in his nerves and his cartilage. It all went up like fire paper.
He fell to his knees as he soon came to realize that he was covered–not in water–but in his own blood.
“Wha… wha…” Foster Lao panted as he struggled to speak and breathe and the world began to blue. “When did you…?”
“When wasn’t I?” Malum said as he lifted up his bloody sword to admire it. “I only needed to land one cut, but what followed would only make the poison work faster.”
Foster sputtered out his words. “Work… faster?”
“Yes, the poison, in my blade, just like Siwang.”
Malum tilted his head as he looked down at Foster.
“Did you really think I would play fair?”
Foster spoke no words, his mouth hung open with silence.
“Huh,” he sputtered with a smirk, “well… I’ll be.”
Then he let go of his swords. If he weren’t breathing, he’d look like a corpse. “Get on with it.”
Foster waited for the sword to appear at his neck. As his warm blood slowly left his body through a thousand cuts, he thought he couldn’t be colder. Then he found himself in Malum’s shadow, and he realized the world could always be colder.
When Malum’s hand found itself before Foster’s face in the offering, the Jitari Artist was reminded that it can be a bit warmer too.
Foster looked up at it, struggling to pick up his head. “I thought you disagreed on sparing the enemy.”
“I said more often than not, this can be that ‘not,’” Malum said, pressing his hand closer. “Cede victory, and you may live on as a warrior for a Dynastan of Regalic Sol, it may be the only way to protect your ward.”
Foster’s wandering eye, tried to focus on the crowd of the Zhuhous watching him be cowed. He tried to find the young lord who needed him to stand up and fight.
When he managed to find the head shorter than all the rest, there was no lord standing there. Only a boy, with eyes of aghast, watching his lone lifeline in the world live or die by one choice.