1. Due to issues with external spam filters, QQ is currently unable to send any mail to Microsoft E-mail addresses. This includes any account at live.com, hotmail.com or msn.com. Signing up to the forum with one of these addresses will result in your verification E-mail never arriving. For best results, please use a different E-mail provider for your QQ address.
    Dismiss Notice
  2. For prospective new members, a word of warning: don't use common names like Dennis, Simon, or Kenny if you decide to create an account. Spammers have used them all before you and gotten those names flagged in the anti-spam databases. Your account registration will be rejected because of it.
    Dismiss Notice
  3. Since it has happened MULTIPLE times now, I want to be very clear about this. You do not get to abandon an account and create a new one. You do not get to pass an account to someone else and create a new one. If you do so anyway, you will be banned for creating sockpuppets.
    Dismiss Notice
  4. If you wish to change your username, please ask via conversation to tehelgee instead of asking via my profile. I'd like to not clutter it up with such requests.
    Dismiss Notice
  5. Due to the actions of particularly persistent spammers and trolls, we will be banning disposable email addresses from today onward.
    Dismiss Notice
  6. We have added another rule, please check the Rules post for more information.
    Dismiss Notice
  7. Due to some issues with Freenode, the QQ IRC Channel is moving. See here for more information.
    Dismiss Notice

Phobos VII [Complete]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by HypoSoc, Nov 3, 2019.

Loading...
  1. VerBlinkel

    VerBlinkel Getting sticky.

    Joined:
    Nov 18, 2017
    Messages:
    56
    Likes Received:
    30
    Huh, I must have missed that.
    I didn't miss that, but I figured that it was just ancient rome being ancient rome. A blood for the blood sport kind of thing.
    Can he not graft their magic to him? I get that he couldn't get their geomantic elements (because those aren't a part of a person), assuming that geomancy exists in this universe, but I'd think he could get their circuits and their will.
     
  2. Threadmarks: Twenty One
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    Stas’s rendezvous point with Phobos placed him in one of the poorer regions of the city this time. The trek, accelerated as it was through liberal application of teleportation whenever he felt it safe to apply them, did leave him with many moments with a view of the city and its denizens.

    Come to think of it, the trek he was taking was nearly identical to the one he had first followed all those months ago to The Bell. It was strange to consider that, for all that the ill advised trip had led to the largest changes in his life, he had never really gone in that direction since. And it was the catalyst to great changes, from attracting Eponine’s attention at the dirty arena of the bell, and securing it through confrontation with the Watchers at the forum’s entrance, to being introduced to Enjolras and his invitation to his resistance group due to needing to hide out for the evening. And, even his tutelage with Phobos could be traced back to being forced to stay out later at that cozy bar. The Rooster, was it? He hadn’t really been paying attention to the name at the time, for all that it was a den of first meetings.

    And considering first meetings, he never would have run into that illusive assassin if not for the odd timing of it all.
    All of this could have been missed unknowingly if he had never gone to visit The Bell. Though he had no desire to actually return to that wretched place, with its vile scent of fish and the blood and vomit of its raised platform, he did feel compelled by some measure of curiosity.

    So, as he made his way deliberately across the cobblestones, he paid extra attention to it all. And he couldn’t help but notice the change.

    The buildings were the same, obviously, both in content and dilapidation. No real damage had been done in the months since he had last visited. But at the same time, it was obvious that no repairs had been made.

    The people though… Stas had, over the course of these months visited worse parts of the city, traveled through them in parts on his way to his destinations. His recent trip to Sartre’s territory for one. That definitely qualified as one of the city’s pits. He was certain that, had there not been a criminal gang holding residence and chasing people away, there would have been more destitutes milling about than the sole homeless man they had seen sleeping in the open.

    Indeed, this region, so close to the forum if hidden from it, now seemed to qualify more as a middle class zone in Stas’s mind. Though it truly was decrepit compared to the abject splendor of the forum it so neatly contrasted against, there were shops here, houses. Bars like the Bell had money flowing through them. People here had visited the baths and the games, made a habit of entertainment, had jobs among them. Compared to the real slums of the city, the properties in this region were on the decent end of poverty.

    His trip through the area reasserted that, with every bit of the place matching up for the most part. The real difference though, was the people.

    It was hard to see in other parts of the city. Each time he visited a district it was the first time, or for the districts he saw often, like the forum or those areas that contained entrances to the Libertas hangout, he visited often enough that any change went by imperceptibly. But here, in a place where he had not visited since the start, the change was visible to his eye.

    The people were quieter in parts, more agitated in others. Even in the worse off area there had been some residual impact from the forum: people laughing, joking, commiserating. The homeless had been discussing games. Tired faces, though dirty, were backed by strong builds. The homeless had been, if not precisely healthy, in a decent enough state that it was of little note. The beggars had coins among them, feeble though they might have been.

    Now though, it was akin to some of the poorer areas he had seen. More openly drunk individuals, more arguments, more down-turned expressions. Fewer were walking about from place to place, but the crowds remained, more sedentary in location. They were thinner, in part. Not to the point of emaciation, or flesh hanging off bones, but there was less health to be seen, less strong bodies, less plumpness in the bodies of the crowd. When Stas had last visited this area, the number of people with thick stomachs were few in number, but present all the same. This time, it was an inversion. Those wasting away were the visible minority, present and strong in their representation despite not being the common state.

    A woman coughed. And, after that moment, Stas was all too aware of the number of people coughing. Pallid eyes in tired skulls slumped in the evening on their commute. In every way, it was worse.

    Perhaps it was the mad monk’s words that had primed him to be aware of these matters. But Stas could not help but see just how much hungrier the destitute looked compared to even simple months ago.

    As Stas walked past an alleyway, he was forced to recall the emaciated beggar boy who had made his post there, that pitiful freak of misshapen flesh and twisted bone that he had thrown his meagre coins at.

    He was absent. A new woman, clothes like rags upon her pale skin, had moved to occupy that alley. She had a rag placed to receive coins, few as they were.

    Stas did not want to think about what might have happened to the sickly boy. He could not imagine it being good.

    He avoided the gaze of the woman, of all the beggars in the street. His eyes were locked forward, purposeful, as he made his way to the next alleyway where he might teleport away. This sight had left him in a somber mood, considering his powerlessness.

    His mind churned back to the mad monk’s strange question. If this, in one of the better parts of the city, was not yet the suffering, but the precipice before such a disaster, then was his hasty response incorrect? If he understood the implications correctly, should famine strike, then, should the direction he had thoughtlessly advised be followed, these would be the people who died. Some, not all, would perish of starvation, before a slow relief would relieve them.

    That was not the same as someone willingly accepting the pain of the present for the victory of the future. None of these people would be making the choice. Some would simply be a sacrifice. Stas imagined if every single one of the beggars died, and their slightly better off fellows were stripped down to replace them. What would they think of the matter?

    In truth, this solidified Stas’s surety that he had no desire to be making these decisions. He was no Senator, and he now knew for certain that he never wanted to be. Someone like Enjolras would have a plan. He was intelligent enough to see the problem, charismatic enough to make allies, willful enough to see it through with the urgency required.

    If Enjolras and his like were in the Senate, Stas had no doubt that even this ‘acceptable’ situation would be bettered.
    That was the correct answer to the mad monk’s conundrum: to insist that those with the skills needed to act and the benevolence to do so properly be empowered to do so. If the Senate proved itself a failure, then the Senators needed to be replaced. No need for the poorest of the plebeians to suffer, or to accept the risk of failure. A good man wouldn’t struggle with the dilemma at all, they would simply handle it.

    Of course, even now that Stas knew this to be the proper answer, he was well aware that it remained improper to voice it. The mad monk was in the Dominus’s court, after all. So Stas did not regret his words of choice, simply his inability to answer in his own mind until now.

    As dusk fell upon the city, Stas found his way to the designated rooftop for his meeting with Phobos. Once there, he took his mask out and secured it to his face. It remained as comfortable today as it had been the day he first acquired it.
    Stas waited, as he was accustomed, keeping an eye out for his mentor. The sign came in the form of the slight creak of the roof tile behind him, quiet enough that Stas felt the minute vibration more than he heard the creak.

    He turned to face the masked man, who stopped.

    “When I said to bring a mask, I didn’t think you’d choose one so god awful gaudy,” the man grumbled.

    Stas bit back his initial response, before deciding he had no reason to hold back. “Coming from someone with your taste in masks, I’ll take it as a complement. It’s far less ugly than yours, and I assume far more comfortable besides.”

    Phobos scoffed, but did not reply outside of extending his hand in a demanding gesture.

    With well practiced ease, Stas tossed the elixirs from his bandoleer to the older man. As he did so he couldn’t help but comment. “You know those are made of human shit and corpses, right?”

    “Yeah,” Phobos caught each bottle without much fanfare, securing them on his body. “Of course I know. I’ve seen them get made. Blown up a production facility or two. And the quality ones you and the watchers use don’t have any shit in them. Other than the bits of it in the bodies they process.”

    “I don’t use them.” Stas asserted.

    “Besides the point. Why do you bring it up? Did you only just learn about it?”

    The question fealt mocking. “Should I have known about it earlier? Where would I have had the opportunity to figure it out?” Stas turned back the accusation. “And if you knew all this time, why didn’t you tell me?”

    “Because it doesn’t matter? Elixirs are elixirs. The crud that goes in them is the same regardless. Unless you are actually making the stuff, all that matters is what you can do with it. Don’t bother thinking about it too much. You can worry about it when you are in a position to do something about it, not a moment before. Until then, you have to use what you have. Feh, you think I like drinking that shit myself? Fat chance. But there’s no alternative in this twisted world, so, for as long as I’m here, I have to deal with it. Not everyone is as lucky as you.”

    From how much time Phobos spent justifying himself, Stas got the impression that the man was indeed bothered by the elixir’s nature. But there wasn’t really that much that could be done about it.

    But something stuck out in Stas’s mind. “Wait, did you say you blew up elixir production facilities?”

    “Yeah? I do have a life outside of making sure you can wipe your own ass, you know.”

    “A life that involves destroying government production facilities? No, it’s… if you are fighting the city, there are people I could get you in contact with. Individuals who might be able to help, or better direct you. People with access to resources…” Stas tried to make the pitch, but he realized that there was little he actually knew about what Phobos did in his day to day. He had sort of been assuming that Phobos was somewhat deranged, killing for the pleasure of it against targets that could fight back, or had a grudge against the officers of the law, the Dominus’s eyes and ears. It was not hard to imagine why someone would dislike the watchers.

    At the very least, Phobos acted as he did in order to stockpile elixirs. For whatever reason he might have had. Destroying a production facility was counter to that goal, compared to, say, stealing from it. But if he, like Libertas, was working to oppose the Senate's order in general, then that might explain some things about the man, his reasons, his actions. It would only make sense to try to coordinate.

    But Stas was no Enjolras. He could not grasp the goals of a man and make him understand their shared aims. He could not portray the righteousness of Enjolras’s cause, its kindness in charitable action, its potency in subversion, its efficacy in collecting information from all parts of the city and putting it to careful, surgical use. Stas could not do justice to the cause, could not make another person believe in the goals of the resistance, and the trust in its slow, steady progress. He could only fumble and flounder, and try to get the man in touch so that he would be able to work in concert, and not at cross purposes.

    It was a weak pitch, and Stas knew it well. Phobos ignored it entirely.

    “Enough of that. No point jabbering about insignificant matters. I want to get this lesson over with. You brought a mask so that proves you can at least pay some matter of attention, not fail out of the gate at least.”

    Stas huffed and said nothing.

    “Today’s lesson is a different matter, something of a more practical nature. I’ve been drilling you with exercises and thought experiments, but the only way to truly test your understanding is through experience. For this lesson, I will be giving you a task. It will be up to you to complete it as you see fit. I will offer no input nor any commentary, nor will I provide any aid but for that you explicitly request, and only for matters I feel you cannot accomplish yourself. If you request my aid for something I deem trivial, you can consider that a failure. If I am forced to intervene that will also be a failure. Do you understand?”

    This was a strange request, but it did not stray too far from the eccentricities of Phobos’s tutelage. Stas did not bother to inquire as to the consequences of failure. Phobos had shown his creativity in devising his penalties often enough. Stas had no further desire to engage in calisthenics in a horse sty, or to dodge rotten fruits on the rooftops again. The smells left a distinctly unpleasant memory already.

    Instead, he began with the obvious question. “What is the task?”

    “There is a man whose death you are going to arrange tonight, a Senator’s nephew by the name of Elagabalus. He is to be dead by midnight tonight, unless you fail.”

    Stas bristled under his mask. “I am not,” he seethed, “an assassin. I am not a killer for hire, or some lowlife thug. I am definitely not some catspaw for you to throw your work at. This is far beyond anything within the purview of any instruction. That you would even suggest such a task is beyond any gall you should dare to possess. What in your despicable mind makes you believe this is anything close to appropriate? I have half a mind to strike you down for even offering such an insult to me, scum. You seem to have forgotten yourself and your roll here, that which I pay you for.”

    Phobos’s posture was an unamused one. “Cute. Shall I consider this you choosing to fail? Taking a moral stance like this isn’t going to do anything. Elagabalus is a marked man. He will die tonight with or without your participation. That I give it to you is entirely for the benefit of your tutelage.”

    That his masked instructor was completely unperturbed by Stas’s threats gave him pause. With all their sparring, Stas knew that the older man was his superior in combat. That said, Stas could, after learning from him for so many months, put up a decent fight, ensure damage upon the man even in loss. And Phobos victory was no longer such a sure thing. That he didn’t seem to care at all about Stas’s refusal was enough to halt his building wrath.

    “What is so special about this man that he needs to die?” he chose to inquire.

    “Hmph.” Phobos exhaled sharply. “Maybe you should be asking why he deserves to live instead. Elagabalus is a predator. A sick, twisted excuse for a man who trawls the markets for the vulnerable and the desperate. He invites those that capture his fancy, women and children in poor state, back to his estate, in the guise of a benevolent host. Once there, he prevents them from leaving until he has had his sick thrills upon them, in ‘recompense’ for his hospitality. Sometimes, when the mood takes him, he does not release them. Sometimes he only releases them part by part, keeping pieces for himself to enjoy.” The voice delivering the lines was blank, all emotion erased from the pronouncement. “Elagabalus is a rapist and a murderer. He does not deserve the consideration of your morals. You should not spend any effort defending him.”
    Stas held himself still, processing the declaration. “How certain are you of this accusation?”

    “I learned of it from one of his victims. I found her after hearing about the rumors. Then I spent the last two days traipsing the estate to confirm the matter. I saw more than enough.”

    If he saw more than enough, Stas wanted to demand, then why didn’t the man do something already? If he caught Elegabalus in the act already, why didn’t he rescue the victims then and there?

    But Stas couldn’t demand such from the man. Not after lambasting him about killing. How fickle he would be to first decry a man for wishing to murder then immediately accuse them of being too slow?

    Dealing with a villain like this, if Elagabalus was as vile as Phobos claimed him to be, was a conundrum. What was a good man to do about the situation? A good man would not seek the death of a foe unnecessarily. Death was to be a proportional response to being attacked, not a goal for its own sake. To seek out and kill someone was the manner of an assassin, not that of a good man.

    But a good man wouldn’t fail to defend the victims. A good man wouldn’t watch in silence.

    “I imagine,” Stas mused aloud, “that this is not a matter the lawmen would concern themselves with?”

    In a just society, in the society that Enjolras would wish to build, it would be a simple matter. Any villain could simply be trusted to the courts, that justice would be properly applied in a good and fair manner. Society executing a criminal after proper determination is just. But a single man cannot judge and execute, they can only murder.

    “He keeps himself to plebeians. Plebeians with no wealth or means to complain at that. He is not stupid enough to target fellow Patricians, nor anyone within another Patrician’s sphere of influence. So the watchers have no reason to care.”

    Stas grit his teeth. Of course that would be the case. Perhaps if a Patrician would lodge a complaint the matter would be investigated. But the man was not only a Patrician, but a Senator’s nephew. Even a Patrician of morals would hesitate to act against them. To make an enemy of a Senator was not a light matter. Only the Dominus could act against a Senator without fearing the consequences.

    The lawmen would not solve the issue. Nor could they, in truth. So what was the remaining recourse? Did it have to be death for the villain? In truth it seemed that way. Perhaps a threat could be delivered instead, but what is the value of the threat if one did not intend to carry it out? Imprisonment was not an option. Stas did not have the resources to accomplish it, and eternal confinement was not but death writ slow. A maiming or disfiguration could not stop the matter, though castration might be of some aid. Nothing but the complete destruction of the man could prevent the murders, and anything less would see a Senator’s wrath descend upon them, expending resources to see that the individuals responsible got caught and dealt with. The watchers would have no issue seeking justice against them.

    No. Death was the proper course here, but Stas, in good conscience, could not believe it with a whole heart. He would be gladded to hear that the man had suffered an accidental fall or caught a plague, or perished in the streets under a horse-drawn cart. Certainly, if Stas ever had the fortune to face the villain Elagabalus in the arena, Stas would not hesitate to slay him immediately, in such a manner that the medics could not address. He would savor the opportunity even, enshroud himself in the justice of the act as he cut into the swine bit by bit, ensuring he suffered the pain and humiliation of every blow.

    But Elagabalus was not a gladiator to face in the sands, nor, Stas expected, a fighter at all to draw a sword against him. The difference between killing a man who had willingly stepped foot on the arena sands, willingly accepted the possibility of death in trade for potential glory, willingly set themself in competition to kill or be killed, and slaughtering a man who had not chosen the fight, was all the difference in the world.

    Elagabalus was a villain who deserved to die. Stas was certain of this. But only a villain could deliver the sentence.
    A good man was not an assassin, right? Stas could not imagine a good man who murdered. They could easily kill an enemy, could defend themselves with lethality, but a good man wouldn’t attack with intent to kill.

    But was a good man still good if they permitted an evil man to keep acting?

    This dilemma was far more concerning than the mad monk’s miserable Senate. There the right action was clear, but pathetic men made it difficult. Here, even the nature of correct action was at stake.

    Stas was not a philosopher, to ponder these questions. He was a student of the world, and looked to learn from those around him, in fighting, in acting. To answer what a man should do to be good, he only had to consider a good man, and what they would do.

    What would Enjolras do? Stas considered the silver-eyed man, and let him act in his stead. Enjolras would not hesitate to decide, his virtues apparent. Stas pictured him taking each course of action.

    Ultimately, Stas could not picture Enjolras murdering a helpless man. It was irreconcilable with everything he knew about the man. As for sitting back and letting the villain act… that also didn’t work.

    But Enjolras would not sit back. He would act, tirelessly, to fix society, to make a world where justice could be enacted. Indeed, that is what the man was doing, now and today and everyday. He worked to address not just Elagabolus but every other failure of the city, in perpetuity.

    In the end, this, like the mad monk’s conundrum, was a false dilemma, trying to force people to look at the wrong aspects of it. In the proper light, the answer was clear.

    Stas sured his resolve. “I refuse. I will not kill a man who cannot fight back. If I must fail your test, then so be it, but I will not allow myself to be a murderer. Not even for a villain like you describe.”

    Phobos stood silently for a long while. The masked man was always difficult to read, but he did not appear, to Stas’s trained eye, to be angry, precisely. Rather, he seemed to be caught in a quandary of his own.

    After a while he finally spoke. “You don’t need to be the one to stain your hands with the killing blow,” the masked man decided. “I can do so. But for this task you must do absolutely everything else. Is that acceptable to you?”

    Stas considered for a moment. Had he not just decided he would be quite happy if an accident befell Elagabalus? And had not Phobos declared that the man would die tonight regardless of Stas’s refusal. If anything, Stas was quite happy to help bring the man to justice, in any way he could provide aid. He just wouldn’t allow himself to become a murderer for it.
    Really, was there any reason not to take advantage of Phobos’s tutelage opportunity?

    Stas did not see any problem with this course whatsoever. “That is acceptable. But I will not be killing anyone in this venture. Not servants, nor guards, nor witnesses. If, as you say, I am to do absolutely everything else, then nobody else will die.”

    “It is your task to do as you see fit.” Phobos granted.

    Stas counted it as another victory. He closed his eyes in thought, as he set himself to the task in truth, considering the matter before him.

    “You mentioned that you spent two days investigating Elagabalus.” Stas began. “Might I ask you about it? Or would that be considered a failure for relying too much upon you.”

    “You can ask any questions you like, so long as they aren’t about what you should do.” Phobos answered without hesitation. “But I won’t volunteer any information you do not request.”

    For how quickly Phobos had responded, Stas knew he was on the right track for this test.

    “In that case,” Stas considered the first question. “Based on what you know of the man’s schedule, at what time can we expect him to be in bed? And can we expect that he would sleep in his own estate, or would he be visiting someone else on this day? Who else lives with the man? How often does he host visitors? Would anyone be visiting at this time?”

    “Elagabalus will be asleep within two hours time, by all expectations. He will be in his own estate tonight, as he has not received any invitations for late night parties today. Elagabalus is a bachelor. No wife, and no children other than the bastards he likely produced and abandoned. While he hosts debaucherous parties for his friends quite often, once a week at minimum, he had engaged in such only three nights before and will not be doing so today.”

    Stas nodded. “How many night guards does the man employ? How do the watcher’s patrols intersect with his estate?” He immediately corrected himself. “Actually, are you willing and able to provide a floor plan for the estate and the rooms within, including the surrounding buildings? Can you include patrol patterns upon it, should you know them?”

    Phobos nodded at each request, without a word. At the request for a flood plan, he produced a slate from somewhere on his purpose, as well as a thin piece of chalk. He began to draw, the implement flying across the blacked slate with practiced speed.

    He was quite prepared for this request. Stas knew he was asking the right questions. He would have been embarrassed otherwise. Phobos had gone over abstract scenarios in a similar vein often enough that Stas had a very good idea of the sorts of facts Phobos felt was important to consider.

    He waited for Phobos to finish the drawing, which did not require much time at all. In the fading sun, the details were quite hard to make out, but Phobos smooth, quick lines did not seem hampered by the lack of light. That he was drawing it all from memory with such confidence was impressive on its own.

    After he had finished drawing, a result that Stas was having trouble deciphering against the dark slate, Phobos procured a rod from cloak. Its resemblance to the flameless torches that lit up the resistance hideout and its tunnels was proven when it immediately emitted a soft glow. Its directed beam cast light upon the slate, and not much else.

    Stas gave Phobos an aside glance. “A slate, chalk, a magic torch, who knows how many elixirs,” he listed aloud. “I know you have weapons too, the hook and chain and some throwing knives too. Just how much are you carrying on your person, Phobos?”

    The masked man gave him what he believed to be a glare from behind the blue covering. “I don’t think that is relevant to the situation at hand.”

    Stas held up a hand. “I’m just curious. And impressed. I honestly don’t know how you can carry so much without any of it showing, or falling out, or restricting your movement. Is it arcanum that allows you to do it? Or do you simply have pockets upon pockets sewn into your clothing filled without whatever implement you feel might be of use?”

    “Not relevant, brat.” Phobos spat. “Focus on the task at hand.”

    Stas rolled his eyes, and did as instructed, focusing on the flood plan. Upon his direction, Phobos highlighted the patrol patterns, both of the guards employed in the estate, as well as the watchers that surveyed the hill upon which Elagabalus’s estate lay. Of the first, there were only four, two stationary, one patrolling within, and one patrolling without. Of the later, there were quite many. The residential area for Patricians was filled with watchers. That said, their patrols were focused more on the streets between and on more prominent individuals, rather than on within the target estate itself. But it was near certain that, should any alarm be raised, the bird-faced lawmen would be very quick to act.

    Stas further inquired about servants of the estate, of which there were many, but few would be active at night, and none had set patrol routes. He also remembered to ask about the guards of neighboring estates, a question which Stas believed Phobos had demonstrated his approval for given the special grunt of acknowledgement.

    After getting a lay of the people, Stas focused his mind on deciphering the floor plan, paying special attention to the possible entrances and egresses, as well as the location of the villain’s bedroom. He asked Phobos about the nature of the estate’s roof, and quickly dismissed it as an option. Though it would allow him to easily escape the eye of the estate’s guardsmen, it would be far too open for view by the watchers of the neighborhood. It would be preferable to only be forced to deal with the limited hired hands in their domain than to test his stealth against the full might of the Dominus’s lawmen.
    Baring that limitation in mind, Stas considered the guards themselves. He had little reason to believe that they were a threat to him. If they were prominent fighters they would not be employed as night guards for a Senator’s nephew. It was a waste of abilities. Skilled combatants would either be gladiators like himself who honed themselves in and out of the arena, bird-faced members of the watchers who trained to enforce the law, or ceremonial day guards whose prowess could garner glory and prestige for their employer. Guards on the night shift, who were not seen by guests or passersby, could not be shown off by their employers properly, wasting half of their purpose.

    So, while there was a small chance that Elagabalus had the resources to hire one of the few retired gladiators, or to take a misbegotten gladiator who found themselves in debt as a servant, they would not be protecting the man in the night. No, they would be on full display as the villain went out and about in the city and visited his fellows. Furthermore, even if Elagabalus had a gladiator guard, they would not be a proper match. A retired gladiator was, by definition, past their prime, either through injury or age. Anyone who could still compete would not have retired, neither having the permission nor the desire. And, if a current gladiator found themselves indebted to a Patrician for any reason, they would only remain such if their Lanista did not think them worth the effort of keeping. Any truly skilled gladiator in trouble would have their school rush to pay off the debt, so that they would not lose out on their training time or be prevented from competing.

    Stas amended the statement in his mind quickly. Perhaps Ludo, miserly and demanding as he was, would allow one of his gladiators to serve as a Patrician’s servant for a time, both as punishment and to reduce the strain on his coffers. But that was a moot point, as Stas had not heard of any of his fellow students being employed as a bodyguard, much less on the night shift for Elagabalus.

    Stas felt pretty safe in his assessment. He was the superior combatant to the guards in all ways that mattered. He would not be stupid about it, but any plan he devised could safely rely on defeating the four guards one on one. Perhaps even defeating them all at once if it came to it. He had been trained for group combat by Phobos.

    No, the difficulties the night guards presented were not in their combat skills, but in their ability to raise an alarm. Defeating a guard quickly and silently would be possibly, if annoying. It was not as if he could knock the men unconscious. The drastic consequences of head wounds had been drilled into him over and over again by his school. He could hardly claim to be following his mission of preserving their lives if he left them addled and half witted for life.
    So, he would have to defeat them, bind them, and gag them, and secure them, all without drawing attention from the other guards or servants. Each fight represented the possibility of an alarm being sounded. Each defeated body represented someone that could be discovered after the fact. He did not want to amuse himself with the possibility of having to silence the entire estate staff as each in turn stumbled across an ever-increasing pile of bound and gagged fellows. He would also greatly prefer to avoid dealing injury to anyone but the guards. The night guards, after all, chose their profession and were prepared for conflict. The servants were completely helpless.

    So, in summary, he wanted a route that would minimize the chance of discovery, which required careful consideration of which guards were worth subduing. Based on one of the stationary guard’s placement right at the target’s bedroom door, they would need to be handled at the very least. But Stas also needed to consider the patrolling night guard, and any servants that might possibly stumble upon the scene.

    Stas paused and inquired of the masked man if he had the tools needed to silence and hold any guards he might defeat. To Stas’s partial surprise, Phobos responded by immediately extracting a great quality of linen from his person, to a degree beyond what he had expected. His confusion for its presence abated when Stas realized that the linens were clearly meant as bandages primarily, explaining why Phobos would keep them on his person.

    There were quite a few bundles of cloth, but ultimately the amount was limited. He might, perhaps, be able to bind and gag three adult men securely with the sum of it, should he be conservative with his usage. To that end, he made sure his plan would not require the defeat of more than two guardsmen, that he might have cloth to spare should something unexpected occur.

    Stas asked a few more questions of Phobos of some minor matters, which in turn did not provide much additional information. But even just speaking aloud helped him consider matters with more prudence.
    Phobos waited patiently as he plotted, allowing Stas to take his chalk to the slate himself as he deliberated over possible moves.

    Ultimately, he determined a route, and a plan of action to follow it. He decided upon an entrance, a path to the bedroom, and a method of extracting themselves unseen. Phobos offered no comment as he did so. Stas was tempted to ask what the man thought of his plot, but he knew his teacher would simply refuse to comment upon it. So, instead he imagined himself as Phobos, offering critique to his work with a dispassionate eye, harshly judging the plan with the goal to see its failure. In turn, he offered a defense of each of the plan’s facets to the imagined teacher to the point where he believed the man would be, if not in agreement, at least satisfied that Stas had thought the matter through fully.

    There were risks, of course, but Stas would not be paralyzed by the need for perfect planning. Rather he needed to have a course he could trust and room to adapt as required.

    Satisfied, Stas declared aloud that his plan was solidified, and that he wished to carry it out in an hour’s time, so that he could be assured that even if Elagabalus had stayed awake longer than expected, he would still be deep asleep at the time they met him. Phobos offered no comment.

    When he inquired as to the directions to the man’s estate, Phobos offered counsel. And Stas took the time to determine the best way to cross the city. This was not as meticulous a plot as that of the mission itself, as the open spaces would allow Stas ample time to see and react and reflect away from any patrolling watchers. But speaking of the patrol routes with Phobos did pass the time.

    He also requested the right to use Phobos’s magic torch and was somewhat surprised to be granted it. The dim light would make the mission far more simple in the times when he needed visibility. That said, he would avoid using it too much. Light allowed one to be seen as much as it could help one see. Phobos showed him how to use it, which turned out to be as simple as pressing a switch.
     
  3. Threadmarks: Twenty Two
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    Ultimately, he decided to move after only half an hour, and not the full one, owing to the distance they needed to cross. After making a final inquiry to Phobos as being informed that he was to act as though he were alone and to not concern himself with his teacher, who assured him that he would be able to keep up and stay hidden the entire time, he set out.

    Stas reflected to another rooftop. Behind him, Phobos drank an elixir and vanished from view. Stas had seldom witnessed the man use arcanum, but this was not the first time he had seen him make use of invisibility.

    That Phobos claimed to be able to keep up with Stas’s teleportation indicated that he also had a manner of boosting his speed. Perhaps wind arcanum, or the raw reinforcement of his musculature. Either would be well in line with the sorts of magics that elixir wielders could be taught. But Stas did not discount the possibility that Phobos simply had his own bag of arcane tricks. It would be just like the man.

    So, Stas trusted that his teacher was following, and made his way with full speed and deliberation to the Patrician district within which Elagabalus resided. He kept his focus on the sources light in the city: those strategic outposts for the watchers, the horse-drawn carts that barreled through the near empty streets, and the occasional tavern that was willing to pay for lantern light that they might stay open so late. He weaved through them all, reflecting from vantage point to vantage point. No alarm was raised, no watchers investigated.

    It would have been embarrassing to be caught this far out. Stas had ample practice navigating the city by night at this point. It was only when he reached the wealthy districts with increased surveillance that there was any true chance of failure.
    Even there, Stas was able to keep his anonymity. The increased patrols only forced him to slow down greatly, so that he might make proper deliberation of every reflection to ensure he would not be caught by a surprised watcher at his destination. But his momentum continued and he found himself quickly hidden on a rooftop, overlooking Elagabalus’s estate.

    The dim outline of the decadent building matched the floorplan that Phobos drew. More than that, he was able to see the lit lantern of a patrolling guard walk its way slowly around the grounds, his path matching one of those that he had been expecting.

    Still, Stas hesitated. It would be the height of embarrassment to accidentally invade the wrong estate. And that was to say nothing of the immorality of beating up guards whose client he had no quarrel with. He wanted to be sure.

    Stas waited for a few small moments and then, when he was confident enough time had passed, called out with a soft voice to the air behind him. “This is the right place, correct?”

    Phobos’s grunt of a response proved both that it was and that the man had indeed kept up with the trek across the city.
    Stas steeled himself, and reflected away immediately before a patrolling bird-faced watcher could catch him on the rooftop. He regained a vantage point and waited for the proper time.

    Stas did not plan on confronting the outdoor guards. To dispatch one was to be forced to dispatch the other. If he incapacitated the stationary night guard, the patrolling one would notice his absence on his next circling of the grounds. And if he took care of the mobile night guard, the stationary would notice his absence when he failed to arrive in time.
    It would be better to make their way inside without either of the outdoor guards noticing. The indoor guards, in comparison, needed to be dealt with, even if it had a greater chance of being noticed by stray servants.

    So, Stas kept watch for the guard’s movement and waited for the opportune moment. As soon as the man would be out of earshot on his slow path, he found his way to one of the open windows in the servant’s section of the building and reflected through the opening.

    Once inside, he quickly and quietly moved to the main section of the estate, making sure not to wake up any of the sleeping staff. This was perhaps the most risky part of the venture. Should any servants be up and wandering their section of the estate, he would be forced to subdue them. If more than one appeared, he would have to secure additional linens from the premises in order to secure the guards, or rework his plan to not require subduing both guards.

    But Stas did not encounter any awake members of the staff in the hallway. The laundry room he found himself in was empty, as was the thin hallway that led to the estate grounds proper. With careful deliberation and occasional reflections, Stas found his way to the dining hall of the estate. He lit Phobos’s magic torch and took careful stock.

    It was egregiously opulent. Gold and gemstones and rich woods and a chandelier that twinkled in the night. Couches and tapestries deeply dyed with outrageous colors lined the room, almost haphazard in arrangement. The amount of wealth on display in this reception room was off putting. Stas wondered if the estate’s sole occupant even found the arrangement attractive, or if he simply wanted to show off all the wealth he had due to him as a relative of a Senator.

    The entire area was also coated with the pungent scent of strong soaps and perfumes. Stas did not want to consider what sort of odors said scents were being used to cover up. That he could smell so much through even his mask covering was not a good sign.

    Phobos had informed him that the man often hosted parties. Likely this room got a lot of use at such times. But he predicted it was unlikely to be frequented outside of those times. Cleaned and perfumed already as it was, a servant was unlikely to come here at night, and the night guard’s patrol pattern did not traipse through here. In total, it was a good location to stop and wait.

    Stas took a deep breath, which he immediately regretted as the perfumes assaulted his nostrils for the action, and turned off the magic torch. Then he reached for his magic.

    The patrolling guard on the outside was easy enough to handle given that Stas could take a vantage point from above to watch him pass. But indoors he could not know precisely where in his route the night guard happened to be. He would need to intercept him when he was far enough away from the bedroom door guard. He needed to know exactly where the guard was so that he could act at the right time, without being at risk of being caught,

    Reflections provided the solution, that strange aspect of his magic he had practiced, but seldom used. Reflections existed even occluded, they were not hampered by walls or indirect lines of sight. The proper mirror cast its reflection whether or not it could be seen. So Stas closed his eyes and sought the mirror that would show him what he needed, casting his gaze into the reflection of the manor that existed behind it.

    Stas’s back ached and his stomach churned. His mind’s eye scanned the infinite expanse of mirrors of the world behind the world. Searching within the building was a simple matter, and with effort he was able to discover what he was looking for.
    The guardsman was patrolling, as expected, through the house. Stas followed the reflection, moving his gaze across the infinite mirrors that he would be able to keep track of his location. And, when the backwards inverted reflection of the man entered the backwards invested room he had planned, Stas quickly reflected forth.

    His fists were flying out of his reflection before the guardsman even had a moment to realize he was under assault. His gag was secured before he could utter a word of pain, blocking any breath from escaping his lips. Stas stuck at the man’s knees and elbows with enough force to debilitate but not enough to permanently injure. The shocked man fell to the ground screaming into the gag with a pronounced muffle even as Stas worked to tie it more securely. He kept a hand around the man’s neck to secure it, so that it would not break in the sudden jerking.

    The man struggled, but Stas was stronger. More importantly Stas had denied the night guard any leverage. It was a trivial manner to keep the man’s arms and legs at bay. A well timed kick provided the pressure. A foot stomped to the ground near the man’s fingers threatened him towards compliance. Deft movement of his hands prevented the lantern the man was carrying from clanging loudly against the floor.

    From there, Stas was able to tie the guard’s hands and feet together behind his back, tight enough to deny any leverage, but with just enough looseness that the man would not suffer circulation issues. Next he ensured that the lantern would not light a fire, snuffing it out and securing it in a position where it would not be immediately noticed. Stas took a moment to ensure that the gag was not obstructing the man’s nose, so that breathing would not be a problem. After he had done so, he lifted the heavyset man up and slung him over his shoulder.

    Then he reflected.

    Months ago, Stas would never have been able to reflect something so heavy. It had been difficult enough to learn to travel with his clothes at the start, and carrying his equipment had been a great hurdle for the longest time. But Phobos had insisted that Stas practice handling heavier and heavier weights. He had practices with stacks of grain over and over again until he could seamlessly carry a mass twice his weight though the reflections with him, and be certain he was not leaving any of it behind.

    He still hit a wall when trying to teleport conscious people, some sort of roadblock that neither he, nor Phobos properly understood that was separate from the weight. But he had learned that unconscious individuals were no harder to manage than any other form of dead weight.

    An added bonus of his training was that he no longer needed to consciously consider his own equipment. Compared to the effort of moving other people, that aspect of his movement was truly mindless at this point.

    Stas brought the man back to the dining room and hid him behind the couch. It was unlikely anyone would discover him overnight. But, at the same time, he would easily be found in the morning. Stas quickly retrieved the lantern and brought it back as well.

    From there, his next step was to deal with the bedroom door guard. This would be easier and harder at the same time. Easier as Stas would not have to use his magic to locate him, and because there was one fewer guard to catch him in the act. Harder because he would not be able to sneak up on a man whose back was to the wall. He only had a small amount of time before the man realized his fellow was not making his way back.

    Stas positioned himself at a vantage point he had witnessed on Phobos’s floor plan drawing, allowing the dim light of the night guard’s lantern to verify his whereabouts.

    He took another deep breath and reflected.

    This take down was almost as clean as the last. The guard was not carrying a lantern, but rather had it propped up on a stand beside him, making for one less thing Stas needed to take care of. Stas found himself well positioned to block the man’s mouth and prevent any cry of alarm. He was able to take advantage of the man’s complete surprise to force him to the ground and tie him up just like the first. This guard was smaller and offered less of a struggle. As always, leverage won the day and Stas was able to handle the matter with ease.

    Stas took the bound and gagged man and deposited him near the other in the reception room. Then he went back for the lantern, to extinguish the fire. He really didn’t want this place to burn down accidentally.

    Stas’s heart raced, his blood beating in his throat. Everything was going to plan, but he couldn’t help but feel nervous all the same. Every moment felt like the one in which he would be discovered. It was irrational, he knew, but he felt it all the same.
    Stas steeled himself. He opened the bedroom door.

    It was dark, but he could make out the faint outlines of a large bed, and could hear the faint sounds of breathing. He did not dare to set a light, fearing it might wake up the occupant.

    He entered the room, and slowly closed the door behind him, as silently as he could imagine. He honestly didn’t know what to do at this point. The situation was far less dramatic than any he had imagined. The villain whose death he had helped plot simply lay in bed, asleep, relaxed upon a mound of pillows, beneath a luxurious blanket. The room had a pungent odor, but it was no metallic scent of blood. There was no sign of trapped victims forced to serve at the man’s sick pleasure. Nothing about this scene screamed villainy.

    It was simply a young man, perhaps only a year or two older than himself, deep asleep. Stas wondered for a moment if this was the wrong address. He also wondered if there was something else he was supposed to do now that he was upon the body. Was he supposed to approach it closer? When would Phobos declare his part complete in the task?

    Thankfully Stas was not forced to consider the matter any longer as there was a ruffling beside him. His masked teacher shimmered into view ahead of him, standing above the bed, knife extended.

    A single, short stab saw it plunge into the sleeping man’s neck, severing his spine. Phobos extracted the knife with a similarly smooth motion. He flicked the blood clean off of the weapon, and concealed it back on his person.

    Elagabalus had died in his sleep without a sound. Stas found himself watching in shock.

    Phobos turned to face him, a dispassionate face hidden behind the one-eyed mask. “Wait for me at the Trajan Bell Tower,” he commanded, voice brooking no arguments. He snatched the magic torch from Stas’s hands. “I will meet you there after I complete my business. Do not get caught.”

    Stas did not have a moment to respond before Phobos faded from view once again. The bedroom door opened behind him, no doubt allowing the man to exit. Stats himself took a moment to shake himself out of his stupor.

    Blood gushed into the rich linens of the unlit room. The smell stained the air.

    Stas clenched his teeth and turned away from the dark sight. He made his way to the door. A series of reflections saw him out of the building, away from the prying eyes of the night guards and the bird-faced watchers. Several more saw him making his way across the cirt, to the Trajan Bell Tower where his first lesson had taken place. There he ascended to the top and waited, alone but for his thoughts.

    Had he made the right decision? Was he acting as a good man should? Mere hours ago he had been certain that the difference between virtue and ill justice lay in the one wielding the knife, but after watching a sleeping man die before him, could he truly claim his innocence? For his eager participation, was that not effectively the same as being the one to make the killing blow?

    Stas had been so eager to believe Phobos’s declarations about Elagabalus’s evil deeds. Could the man have lied about it? Stas did not believe Phobos to be a liar, and he had never managed to catch the man in a true lie. But he didn’t even consider the possibility. It was not as if Stas himself had witnessed these supposed evil deeds. Nor had his trip in the man’s estate offered any evidence of vile acts. Bad taste and debaucherous impulses were not high crimes worth a blade to the neck.

    Could a villain truly sleep so peacefully? Would not their conscience make for an uneasy slumber?

    Stas pulled off his mask and stared at the metal-coated symbol on it. Did he even deserve to wear Enjolras’s gift?

    Perhaps if Stas had encountered some difficulties along the task, he would not be dwelling so greatly on this matter. But the ease of it shook him as much as the violence of Phobos’s act. He felt forced to reexamine the entire matter to determine what went wrong.

    That Phobos was not returning quickly left him to fester in his thoughts. He waited in silence as the minutes passed.

    After nearly an hour, Phobos finally arrived.

    Stas barked at him impatiently. “What business did you have that took so long?” he demanded. “Did you take the time to murder another Patrician? Perhaps the neighbors?”

    The masked man offered a blank stare. “I was searching the manor for any prisoners.”

    The bite fell away from Stas retort. “Did you find any?”

    “Three,” Phobos announced calmly. “All in a sorry state. Two of them required treatment. The third demanded a mercy killing.”

    Stas froze, not wishing to ask if Phobos had granted it.

    “My time was spent escorting them to safety. More important than humoring you, I would say.”

    Stas bit his tongue. If the man truly had prisoners at the time, if they truly needed treatment and safe escort. His doubts died in a fire of rage and righteousness.

    “I could have helped,” Stas insisted.

    Phobos shook his head. “It wasn’t part of your test. It has nothing to do with what I was training you in, so there was no point.”

    Stas felt the need to argue the point, but Phobos continued speaking. “Speaking of your test, I don’t have much to complain about your performance. You planned out the matter properly and executed it to your own specifications. As I expected, I really don’t have much more to teach you.”

    Stas blinked in confusion. “Can you really call it a proper test? It really felt too easy. Not a proper test of skills. I don’t really understand how everything went so cleanly. My plan was simple, and I was not forced to employ any particular skills to accomplish it. Surely there is a better means of testing my knowledge of your lessons.”

    “The test only felt easy to you because of your magic. For someone without access to your abilities, it would have been a far more difficult task.” Phobos retorted.

    “But does that not mean it is an improper test for myself? Should you not have told me to go about it as anyone else might, without the use of my magic?”

    Phobos shook his head. “No. There’s no point in such a test. You have your magic. You’ll always have your magic. If it were elixir magic, that would be one thing, as you are likely to be in a situation where you don’t have access to elixirs. But asking you to not use your magic is like being sent into the arena with your arms tied behind your back. There’s no value in such a display other than bragging rights.” He inhaled. “That said, you should never be relying entirely on your teleportation tricks. Knowing when to use the proper tool for the proper job is important. But there is nothing wrong with using it when it is advantageous, like in this situation.”

    Stas chewed on the thought. The logic made sense, and, honestly, he might have complained if Phobos had demanded he do the task without his magic, and he likely would have utilized much the same arguments. But he did not agree with the assessment that Phobos had nothing left to teach him. That the man could still trounce him in a spar was proof enough. Until the student fully surpassed the master there was always more to learn.

    But that was something that could be expanded at a future time. There was another matter bothering him deeply.
    “In Elagabalus’s bedroom, when you killed him, why did you not first wake him up?”

    Phobos paused. ‘Why the hell would I have done a fool thing like that?”

    Stas frowned. “So that the man might know why he was being executed? So that he might prepare to face death with open eyes? So that he could be given a moment to repent?”

    “There’s quite a few problems with that, brat.” Phobos grumbled. “The greatest of which is that it’s an unnecessary risk. If I had woken him up there was a chance that he might have raised an alarm. Or perhaps utilized some device to escape. Even wasting additional time added the risk of being found out.”

    “You could have bound and gagged him as I did the guards,” Stas offered. “Perhaps it is possible for such an implement to exist that Elagabalus could, in panic, use to save his life even file incapacitated and unable to speak. But it sounds more like you have imagined such a miraculous tool simply for the sake of argument. I don’t think you have any reason to believe that such a thing exists. It would be equally fallacious to describe a magic device that only works when the man is asleep as an argument to wake him up.” Rhetoric was one of Stas’s least favorite classes in his youth, as it had little to nothing to do with combat in the arena. But he did take some lessons from it, specifically those that would help him spot someone arguing in bad faith to try and sway him. “As to your point about additional time, it was extremely unlikely that an added minute would be the breaking point between an undetected success and a pursued failure. Perhaps if I had been sloppier in subduing the guards, or if an alarm had already been raised, I would understand the argument. But if you had chosen to wake the man up, it could have made it work.”

    Phobos glared at him from behind the mask. The painted eye blankly stared in time with his visible eye looking pointedly. “There is no value in it, for any amount of risk. Wishing to have your target witness their own death is either a mark of sadism or pointless sentimentality. Is that it, Brat? Did you want to see him cry and shit himself? To watch his eyes widen in shock as he watched his viscera fall out from his torn flesh? Does the thought of all that bring you pleasure?”
    Stas recoiled from the description. “No! I’m not a freak to take delight in the act of murder. Don’t project your own sick perversions upon me. Any suffering would be as a matter of justice, not malice. There are degrees of criminality, with degrees of punishment. From what you had described, a clean death was a lighter sentence than what the man would have been granted in a just society.”

    “Execution is for the audience.” Phobos insisted. “The pain and suffering exists for the sake of driving terror into the witnesses, and to stoke the imaginations of all who hear about it. The goal of cruel punishment, of ugly deaths, is to prevent others from repeating the crime. To the man who is dying, death is the punishment. The pain does not have a purpose, cannot serve in a lesson. It is entirely superfluous. In the same way that repentance before death is pointless. The dead do not, and cannot, care if they died in pain or died peacefully, if they died for ‘justice’ or out of simple malice. Insisting that an executed victim must know why they die, that the fault lies in them, that they must know that they are dying at all… the only value in this is assuaging your ego as the killer. Feh. I’m shocked this sort of drivel is festering in your head.”

    “If you do not see the value in justice, then why do you even care who your victims are?” Stas rebuffed. “Was it simply advantageous for you to kill this man? Were you hired to do so?”

    “The point,” Phobos stressed, “is for the victims. For the still living ones. Those living in fear, who suffer every moment they know their oppressor to be alive. The value in death is the satisfaction and serenity the action brings to those that are alive to be impacted by it. The dead victims don’t have the capacity to care.”

    “So, then, a murderer is not worth stopping because their victims can never benefit from the death? A thief or a mugger is more a criminal than an assassin?” Stas extracted the ridiculous conclusion from the nonsense. “I suppose, as a murderer yourself, you enjoy such a distinction.”

    Phobos huffed. “You are being argumentative and you know it, brat. The value in punishing a murderer is in the protection of future victims, and for all of the friends and relatives of the victim who suffered from the loss. But you are correct in that there is no value in avenging someone. Nor is there any value in ensuring the murderer experiences ‘justice’ for the crime. The dead cannot appreciate it.”

    “No.” Stas held firm to his arguments. “You are pretending that justice is some irrelevant force, that all that determines the value in an action is its impact on people. You would have justice perverted to serve the goals of your values. But justice is an end in it of itself. Avenging a person, allowing a villain to face the weight of their crimes before death… it is irrelevant that they can serve to experience it, because the actions of justice do not require such. They are still good actions.”

    There was a long pause. Stas enjoyed that the weight of his words seemed to have an impact on the man.

    “You claim you are not a murderer.” Phobos said suddenly, and with some great heat behind them. “Well, I am not a torturer. I will kill and steal and maim and destroy, but I will never, ever, inflict pain for the joy of it. Every ounce of suffering I produce is deliberate, and purposeful. There is never any purpose to prolonging the pain of a death. If a clean kill is possible, then I will make it clean. And no calls for justice will change my will of this.”

    That… there was steel to the masked man’s voice, an unshaken resolve that Stas found himself enthralled by. Stas could hear the will and anger, the vows forged and promises kept. More than anything else the man had ever spoken aloud, this declaration seemed to be the most in tune with the man’s psyche. It forced Stas to question just what he knew about the man.

    “Who are you?” he asked of the man. “You aren’t some mere assassin or thug for hire, not some serial killer or trained fighter with a petty grudge. So who are you? What are you after?”

    It was not as if Stas hadn’t wondered about it before. The eternally masked man was some small mystery in his mind. In truth, though, Stas had decided long before that the answer didn’t matter in the slightest. It did not matter if his teacher was a killer for hire or for pleasure, so long as he could serve as a teacher as Stas required. In the end, Phobos was a man with skills that he was willing to impart in exchange for the elixirs that Stas had access to. Anything beyond that hadn’t mattered in the slightest. It definitely hadn’t mattered once Stas had established that Phobos dealt in good faith.
    But now, after the test tonight and after the man’s declaration regarding morality, the basis of which the man had certainly considered before, Stas felt that the answer was beginning to matter.

    The mystery began to gnaw at him for the first time. He needed to know.

    “What sort of question is that?” was the gruff response. “Who do you think I am?”

    “I had assumed you were a former gladiator, who took up a life of crime for pleasure or thrills. Or perhaps a defector from the watchers, who took the training and used it for your own ends. I assumed you were a mercenary, or that you found satisfaction in murder. And yet you chose a target on the basis of his crimes. It could not be a matter of murder for hire. As you said, his victims were all poor and without patronage. They would not be in a position to offer you proper reward. More than that, you seem to have a code of honor. A strange one that permits murder and assassination, but it exists all the same.” Stas took a breath. “So who are you, Phobos?”

    Phobos inhaled. “Who am I? I’m simply an old man, aging night by night. I do what I must, because I can’t accept otherwise.”

    “What you must?” Stas repeated the words back as a question.

    “I made a vow, long ago,” Phobos explained, with some light tilt to his voice, “Years and years ago when I first took on this mask. I vowed that whenever I donned it, I would ensure the world would be made a better place before I was permitted to remove it. I vowed to eradicate the evils I found, that I knew must exist. I vowed to seek them out when they weren’t apparent. I vowed to use whatever means were required to see my mission through. Assassin, thief, saboteur, or even a teacher for a nosy brat, I am whatever I need to be to ensure nobody will suffer from the depredations of the strong and callous.”

    Making a declaration like that, vowing to be the defender of the weak and powerless, it was almost enough to make Stas forget. But for all that the man was speaking, of the virtues he invoked, it was the actions that made a man good or evil.
    To disparage justice, to refuse to forgo any method, to show no remorse for one’s own victims, casting their lives away from behind like a coward because you needed the elixirs they held…

    Stas respected the skills of his masked teacher. He trusted him to keep to their deals, and he believed him to be an excellent teacher enough to seek out his tutelage time and again. But Stas would never trust the virtues of the masked man. He would never be able to see him as a force of righteousness in this world. Not when there were true paragons he fell so short against.

    The nobility of the man’s mission was betrayed by the man himself, his virtues corroded by the deeds he so regularly engaged in. No wonder he wore a mask. All the better for this world to never see his ugly visage.

    In comparison to a man like Elagabalus, Phobos was without blemish. But morality did not, should not, allow for relative comparisons of that sort. A just society would not allow Phobos to engage in his mission. But at the same time, a just society would not require Phobos’s mission. Perhaps that was the simple truth of the matter.

    Regardless of anything else, Stas could not see a virtuous world be created by anyone but a virtuous man. That was the flaw in Phobos’s vow. If all men of justice were like Phobos, their work would never cease.

    But the work itself was vague, and the man’s explanation demanded further elaboration.

    “What do you need elixirs for, that you have been so willing to tutor me? And I resent the implication that acting as my teacher is in any way equivalent to slaughtering watchers for their supplies.”

    Phobos huffed sharply. “I’m not even sure why I am telling you this, but whether or not you know is inconsequential. I am stockpiling as many elixirs as I can so that I have the best shot at eliminating the greatest source of evil in this world. The Dominus.”

    “You wish to assassinate the Dominus?” After months in Libertas’s company, listening to the concept of removing the undisputed and eternal leader of the city was still a daunting concept. Even with the repeated assurances of his fellows, the self aggrandized bragging, the repeated explanations of the acts necessity, the full implications of that aspect of the plan felt like the greatest hurdle.

    And that was to merely overturn the Senate and demonstrate the replacement government to the Dominus fait accompli, using the threat of a united citizenry as bargaining power in a negotiation where the Dominus would be asked to step down or to accept a luxurious ceremonial position where he would not be required for the day to day running of the government.
    The thought of actually killing the immortal lord of the city… Phobos was far more mad than the Dominus’s monk.

    “The Dominus is a parasite.” Phobos declared. “Perhaps in a literal sense. He is an invader from another world, sucking this one dry for his own satisfaction. This city existed long before him, but he came and conquered it, and has been feasting upon it for hundreds of years now. The Dominus is the greatest evil in this world, and I am certain that is the reason I have been brought here. It is the most good I can do in this world.”

    Madness. Utter madness. “Even beyond all that… you are trying to kill the Dominus, a man renowned for his absolute mastery of arcanum, with elixirs? Are you certain you have taken your own lessons to heart? Because if I had proposed such a mind bogglingly moronic plan, I am certain you would have taken a switch to my backside.”

    “I have thought the matter through many times, Brat,” the man spat. “To a far greater degree than you have.”

    “Have you? Because it isn’t clear, since it seems you are trying to defeat the Dominus with arcanum and elixirs. If this is truly your goal, wouldn’t your time be far better spent sabotaging the Domunis’s own supply, which, I would imagine after some centuries, would be far, far greater than anything you could amass? If you could deny the Dominus access to his arcanum, and his bodyguards, and the legions of watchers he employs, then maybe your assasination would have a chance of succeeding.”

    “I can’t prevent the Dominus’s arcanum any more than I could prevent yours,” Phobos declared. “He has no need of elixirs. His magic predates them.”

    For perhaps the fifth time in this long night, Stas was forced to process some new revelation. “The Dominus has elixirless magic? The Dominus is like me?” Stas had, for the longest time, simply come to accept that his situation was unique, that he was a fluke of nature. After the false hope from the mad monk, he had accepted it as a fact. After all, if someone could use magic without elixirs, they were certain to be famous.

    But, then again, who else but the Dominus fit that description? If anyone else in this world was a fluke of nature, would it not be the immortal ruler of the city? Stas had never dreamed of comparing himself to the august man before, but it made sense in a way that nothing else did.

    Was Stas himself immortal like the city’s ruler? He was far too young to know for sure. It wasn’t like he had experience with situations where he was supposed to have died, and he was far too young to know if he would cease aging after a point. And he was not foolish enough to ever test the matter, so it might be a long, long time before he ever discovered the truth.

    Considering that matter, how was Phobos hoping to kill an immortal? Likely the elixirs were there to achieve that, as arcanum was likely the solution. He decided to ask.

    Phobos scoffed. “The Dominus is not immortal. He just won’t die of age or disease. But you are correct in that the elixirs are for that purpose. I don’t pretend that I have any chance of beating the Dominus in a straight fight, despite what you might think of me. The elixirs are necessary for a trap I am helping devise.”

    “But how do you know so much about the Dominus?” Stas asked.

    “I have a contact. Did my own digging. But never you mind that. Is your curiosity settled, Brat?”

    Did it? Phobos was definitely annoyed at this point, so Stas doubted he was willing to answer any more questions. Honestly, Stas was surprised that the man had designed to answer so many and so honestly already. Normally the man was quite taciturn or dismissive about anything that didn’t have direct relevance to his lessons. He got annoyed enough when Stas discussed anything but the lesson directly at hand, even.

    Something tonight must have shaken him in some way, to have him be so talkative. But enough had happened in the night that Stas could not determine what in particular. It might have just been the flow of the conversation.

    Except there was one matter. “Before the task, there was a matter I wished to bring up. A group of individuals that you might benefit from contacting.”

    Phobos held a hand up. “Save it, Brat. I don’t want anything to do with that sort of operation. My task is my own. I won’t get mucked up in anyone else’s fool dreams or let anyone else get mired into mine. I am not interested.”

    Stas sighed, biting back his immediate response. It was choices like this that ensured he could not see Phobos as a truly righteous individual.

    Phobos spat out a harsh breath. “We’ll meet again next week at the usual time. I’ll figure out a lesson. Something we haven’t gone over yet if I can manage. But we may see about wrapping these up soon enough. Get back to your cost bed then and get some actual sleep.”

    And with that final command, Phobos dove off the rooftop for the city below.

    Stas did not spend much time grumbling in irritation before he headed back to his school. Phobos was right about one thing. Even if this evening had not been any particular exertion, it had lasted longer than their lessons usually went. He needed to get to bed if he wanted to be in shape for sword lessons in the morning.
     
    Last edited: Nov 12, 2021
    Raron, Acronym, Mukigen and 5 others like this.
  4. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    I posted 2 chapters in a row because they were originally just one chapter before I realized just how LONG it had gotten.

    That's a bad sign for my pacing, but that's just how NaNoWriMo goes for me. As I might have mentioned before, when I go back to edit everything, I fully expect to halve the word count. But you have to have a large enough marble block before you can carve it down to the statue within.

    It is looking like I will be going into next November as well with this project, based on how many scenes are left. I think 12-15 chapters left of the story? I should get one or two done before the months end, so wrapping up will probably take a third November, for a whopping 150,000 word sluggish trek.

    I thank you all for suffering through the word vomit.
     
  5. TrueNameArchFrenemy

    TrueNameArchFrenemy I trust you know where the happy button is?

    Joined:
    Dec 5, 2015
    Messages:
    530
    Likes Received:
    1,312
    Von Graft can steal Geomantic prowess, and Aeromancy to a certain degree. The only thing he can’t steal is Hydromancy, which is too closely linked to the self/identity to be held by someone other than the originator of that “self”.

    Thats likely the only reason why the Mad Monk is alive - Von Graft can’t steal his hydromancy, and the monk is useful enough alive, that he gets to stick around.
     
  6. prandom

    prandom Definitely Trustworthy

    Joined:
    May 3, 2015
    Messages:
    2,994
    Likes Received:
    2,261
    Hmm-hmm. I must say, I’ve enjoyed the philosophical sparring in these past few chapters.
     
  7. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    I'm glad. I was worried it would come across as preachy or out of place.
     
  8. PocketRikimaru

    PocketRikimaru Versed in the lewd.

    Joined:
    Mar 4, 2018
    Messages:
    2,260
    Likes Received:
    1,335
    Umm i realized later than i should have.

    Stas' Aeromancy of Reflect also effects his mind, as he reflects about everything.
     
  9. Threadmarks: Twenty Three
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    The underground bar was in an uproar when Stas arrived. Libertas’s hideout was filled to the brim with shouting patrons. And, for once, nobody seemed to be drinking.

    “It’s the money! The money I’m telling you!” Lucian’s screeching voice raised above the din. “They are watching us, listening to us through the damned eyes carved in the coins.”

    “Shut up about the fucking money, you damn drunkard!” another one yelled. “You were his partner! Why didn’t you save him?”

    “It wasn’t Lucian’s neighborhood, you daft fool. Maybe accept fault for letting this happen.”

    “I didn’t even know about the fucking operation! If there was something going on where I could have helped, why didn’t you let me know about it, Sanson?”

    “You don’t need to know every fucking thing. The fact that everyone knows more than they should is how we got into this fucking mess!”

    In the doorway, Stas stood awkwardly, watching the roaring argument grow in shouting. Beside him Eponine, stood still, her anger visibly rising. The door closed softly behind the two of them. Maria as well seemed distraught, the older woman unsure as to how to deal with the situation.

    “How can you waste your time on that shit, Sanson, when it’s clear Romeo’s own damn incompetence is what got him caught? You’re just trying to set up your purges. How pointless, when he could be squealing even at this moment!”

    “How dare you besmirch Romeo? He’d never get himself caught for any fault of his own?!

    “Yeah? Well-”

    Whatever Odette was about to say was interrupted by Eponine’s loud, echoing scream. “Will everybody shut up!”

    Stas was not aware that Eponine’s lungs were that powerful. Her voice easily carried over everything else.

    As she commanded, the room fell silent.

    “Now,” she cast her angered gaze across the room. Many wilted under it. Others stood firm. But all remained quiet. “Will someone calmly explain what is going on?”

    Immediately, five people began shouting at once in a cacophony that defied any ability to parse the words from. Eponine’s eyebrow twitched.

    “What did I say about quiet?!” She yelled the last word at her full volume once more, shutting the rabble down once again. “Nobody is going to speak unless spoken to. Now, Henri, tell me what’s going on.”

    “Me?” Henri jumped. “I mean, I wasn’t involved. I didn’t see anything myself, I just heard it from everyone else, so I don’t know how true everything is, but…” he paused, gulped, and continued. “Romeo was on a mission to sabotage one of the new communication towers they were setting up, you know, the ones that the watchers are using to replace their bell system? But apparently somebody was there waiting for him, ready to catch him. And Romeo got captured.”

    “Captured?” Eponine inquired. “Somebody saw him get captured? Not killed outright?”

    “That’s um...” Henri gulped, “that’s what they said. The watchers subdued him, for suspected arson, right at the start, and, yeah...”

    Eponine nodded, before turning to face Stas. “Are there matches tomorrow? If so, at which arenas?”

    Stas blinked. “Yes. Both the Solar and the Stellar arenas have matches set for tomorrow at the usual times.”

    Once again, Eponine nodded, turning back to address the crowd at large. “Good. If Romeo has been captured, then he won’t be set for execution until tomorrow at the earliest. Orval, Maria taught you the eye trick, right? Grab some elixirs from the back, then go out and check the Solar and the Stellar arenas and figure out if Romeo is being held there. Make sure not to be seen. Katriane, you go and check the hippodrome just in case. If he is not in any of those cells, then we will be blessed with some additional breathing room. But, even so, we still have time.” She blinked, and glared at the crowd. “What did I just say? Hop to it, Orval! We don’t have time to waste.”

    The young man immediately jumped to his feet, running for one of the back rooms. He passed Katriane who had already begun moving from the moment her name was mentioned.

    Eponine exhaled sharply. “We will wait until Enjolras arrives to plan our next move, which will rely on Orval and Katriane’s reports. We can argue about whose fault it was when we have Romeo back in our midst. Until then, keep the arguing to a minimum. It does nothing but empower our enemies. Am I understood?”

    The crowd offered some muttered acceptance to her words, which coalesced to something more definitive under the weight of Eponine’s growing glare. The anger had evaporated, chastised into silence. But it was clear that the fear still lingered, and that uncertainty reigned.

    The situation was a vast improvement from the start, but Stas couldn’t help but feel the task was left only half done. He was no position to comment or criticize, however, as Eponine had already accomplished more than he could ever rightfully manage.

    He really didn’t have a sense of how to work a crowd, much less bring one down from such a precarious state. His lessons at the gladiator school were limited to playing to a crowd. He had learned attract attention, structure his movement to be visible and pronounced for even the spectators in the furthest reaches, and he could generally engender fervor for himself from an excited audience, assuming he followed his lessons. That sort of ability was far from Stas’s strong suit, for all that he had been tutored for it.

    Actually commanding a group of people? He would be left with his meager rhetroical abilities. He would not trust them for anything important.

    It was good, indeed, that Eponine was here to handle the matter so he was not forced to, and that there was no expectation for him to do it in any circumstances regardless. But he was still left with a sense that Enjolras would have handled the matter with far greater ability.

    “Good.” Eponine concluded after a last long glace over the crowd. “Now, trust that we will see this through. We have faced difficulties in the past and we will doubtlessly face more again in the future. But we have to trust in each other, and trust that Romeo will stay silent. We will resolve this matter, mark my words. Calm your nerves and ready yourselves as we are certain to be acting soon. Sanson, a word in the back. Stas, join us as well.”

    Stas blinked, but followed Eponine as directed. Sanson too moved for the back without complaint. The large, pockmarked man was unusually silent at that, with a dark cast to his gaze. They reached the backroom and closed the door behind them.

    As soon as it had shut them out from view, Eponine slumped over. “By the Dominus, I hate having to do Enjolras’s job. Damn it…” She rubbed her forehead, before stiffing up and directing a harsh glare to Sanson. “Why the fuck did you let everyone get so riled up?”

    “It was Enjolras’s fucking informant.” Sanson seethed, breath baited. “He was the one that told us about the communication towers. He was the one who informed us when they were setting them up. I made damned sure nobody knew about Romeo’s mission that didn’t have to, but they were there, waiting for him. That fucking backstabbing piece of shit.”

    “I don’t give a damn about who stabbed us in the back or why it happened right now. I want to know why you were letting everyone tear into each other. Why was I forced to calm everyone down, when you were there and should have been supervising?”

    “It’s a mess,” Sanson defended himself, “and it isn’t my job to clean that sort of shit up. That’s all on Enjolras. And it would have been fine waiting for him to show up to fix it if he weren’t so late today.”

    “Instead you were letting them almost come to blows. No, you weren’t just allowing it. You were pouring oil on the fire, joining in the mess, making it worse. What possesses you to be so obstinate?”

    “What possesses you to bitch about my methods? Working out who leaked is more important than anything else.”
    “I thought you said it was the informant.” Stas interjected.

    For the first time in the evening, the large man laid his beady eyes on Stas. “Aye. It was the informant, most likely. But there is always the chance it wasn’t. And there is never just one leak.” His gaze dug into Stas with an accusing glare.

    “Oh come off it, Sanson,” Eponine rolled her eyes. “Stas didn’t know anything about the communication towers or Romeo’s mission. You of all people know that he couldn’t have had anything to do with it. And we don’t even know if there was a betrayal in the first place. Romeo might have slipped, or perhaps the watchers were more alert for a different reason. But we have to get to Romeo to figure out the truth before anything else.”

    Sanson nodded. “Hmph. That I agree on. We need to know what he was forced to spill. Best case scenario, he managed to kill himself before giving anything up.”

    “You know just as well as I do that the watchers are loath to allow their prisoners to commit suicide. He wouldn’t have had the chance, even if he wanted to. But being alive means we can rescue him, perhaps, and you’ll have your chance to figure out what he admitted to. And that is what you are here for, Stas.” Eponine turned suddenly, and rummaged through a drawer for a ream of paper, a pen, and an inkwell.

    Stas stared at the implement as she thrust it into his hand. He had never used paper or ink before. He had learned writing on slate tablets and wax practice tools, or with sticks in the dirt.

    “I want you to draw out floor plans for the arena dungeons, as accurately as you can. Start with the Solar and the Stellar. We can get to the other two if we learn it is necessary.

    “Ah,” Stas hesitated a moment, “I have not toured the prison cells of the complexes, myself. I’ve only been in the designated areas. I don’t know the layouts for certain.”

    “But you know more than anyone else, so mark out what you can. Anything that you think might be useful. If you are uncertain about some bit of layout, just mark it as such. But do the best you can.”

    “Can I have some slate to start with? I’d like to work it through on something less permanent before I commit it to ink. I don’t want to waste any paper.”

    “Fine. I’m sure we have some slate and chalk somewhere.” Eponine rummaged through the chests in the room before finding some.

    Stas was far more comfortable with the chalk in his hand. He began drawing as best as he could remember. Even for the portions of the arena he hadn’t seen, he had some sense of the layout simply based on what he knew would be taking up space. The prison cells and the guard quarters were of particular importance, so he focused his mind to figuring those out. That said, he wasn’t certain where the staff supply areas began and the guard stations ended, as he had never been in any of them. But he could say where corridors led, and where it was impossible to fit more jail cells.

    After he had worked it through to his satisfaction, he made use of the offered paper. The ink made for an interesting experience, leading to some blotted lines and stained fingers. But it worked out in the end, he imagined. It should be properly legible.

    Having done this gave Stas an appreciation for Phobos’s casual ability to draw perfectly straight lines and make angles without a reference. It was difficult.

    When he had finished with his first, Eponine and Sanson looked it over, scrutinizing it for who knows what. Stas offered his own commentary.

    “The Arenas as a whole are not patrolled often,” he explained. “They tend to rely on the watchers stationed at the forum for the brunt of their guard work. The watchers don’t pay much mind to the stadiums, but they are within very easy reinforcement distance, should any alarms be raised. The only on site defenses would be the prison guards, of which there are likely to be at least four, perhaps as many as eight, given what I know of the layouts and the space for them. They aren’t built to house more than twenty prisoners, and that is at max capacity. The Grand Arena is where they have the mass incarcerations and executions, and an entire floor to hold them, or so I have heard.”

    Stas raised his ink-covered hand to his mouth as he considered the matter. “You aren’t going to have much luck sneaking by the guards… or rather, the problem is more for sneaking the prisoners out without getting caught. We would likely need to overwhelm the guards in some way, all of them, while preventing them from calling for reinforcements. Loud noises under the stadium are not audible above the ground, so they are certain to use some other means of communication with their fellows than simply ringing a bell, if it becomes necessary. I don’t know for certain where such an alarm would be held, but, it is most likely to be somewhere around here,” he gestured for a region on his drawn map. “For this arena, at least. When I draw the other one, I can show you the corresponding location, but the logic is near about the same. Any plan for rescue from these cells would need to start with dealing with all the guards on site before anything else, with a focus on preventing any alarm from being raised, which would be a difficult matter, given that there is likely to be a watcher stationed right on the alarm device, whatever it may be. They would need to be eliminated or incapacitated first, without allowing anyone else to know.”

    Both Eponine and Sanson stared at him, heads tilted in confusion.

    Eponine blinked. “I didn’t realize they taught assault planning in those gladiator schools of yours. I wouldn’t expect it from looking at you.”

    “What is that supposed to mean?” Stas groused.

    Eponine shrugged. “I figured you for more of a meathead. I mean, you have to be, for your profession. There’s more of an emphasis on smacking swords into one another than on thinking matters through.”

    “Combat is a battle of wits as much as it is a battle of might.” Stas exclaimed. “Anyone who cannot think on their feet, and who cannot properly analyze a battle and its possibilities will soon find themselves defeated by one who can.” Just because he hadn’t fully realized the sublime importance of that lesson until Phobos had drilled it into him did not make him a liar for speaking it. “And arcanum is a difficult art that requires great intellect to master. As do sword forms in their own way. We aren’t simple-minded meathead thugs.”

    Eponine waved her hand lazily in a sign of surrender. Stas decided to accept it as an unspoken apology.

    Stas continued. “But you are correct that I did not learn this at the school. This is something I picked up in my own time.” In truth, after his lessons with Phobos, Stas could not help but see the act of disseminating information and formulating a plan, be it for a fight or a rescue operation or planning a delivery route, as an integral skill for combat. But he understood that this specific case wasn’t directly relevant to gladiator work.

    “Hmph.” Sanson, who had been staring at the map since the start, huffed. “We aren’t some ramshackle operation that needs the advice of amateurs. We’ve planned matters like this before, and we know what we are doing. Don’t waste our time with ill informed analysis when you can be doing something more useful, like drawing that other map we told you to. This one is a complete waste if it turns out we aren’t storming the Solar.”

    Stas rolled his eyes, and returned to his slate, but, internally, he was pleased. If Sanson had seen any flaw in Stas’s analysis, the man would not have hesitated to call it out and drag it through the mud for his own amusement. That he hadn’t called out anything in specific, and that the ugly man seemed so annoyed in his words, almost proved that Stas was perfectly on the mark. It was proof of success, in his eyes.

    With a steady hand practiced from the first map, and with his memory jogged through that process, Stas was far more efficient in producing the second. The arrangements of the Stellar and the Solar arenas were not that different, ultimately.

    As he worked on his slate, he saw with half an eye Eponine opening the backroom door and calling for Henri, who arrived quickly.

    She shoved the first map into Henri’s hands. “Stas is making us maps of the arenas. We’d be fools if we only had one copy of them. That’s just begging for it to get ruined when we need them again. So, make some copies. And try to clear up those blotches Stas left. Make it as neat as you can without changing the information.”

    Henri nodded. “Of course. I’m happy to help.” Immediately he procured some paper and a pen and inkwell and set himself on a desk across from Stas’s position. Stas idly noticed, with some small envy, that the pen sat far more easily in Henri’s hand than his own. His motions were far swifter and with greater grace.

    Stas assuaged himself with the knowledge that Henri was a Patrician. The boy had likely spent his whole life around paper and writing, and would have far more practice in the art than Stas himself. There was a reason he was the one called in to transcribe.

    Behind them, Sanson supervised with a demanding eye, serving as an annoying distraction that Stas was forced to actively ignore. Eponine herself lounged on a couch, resting her eyes and rubbing her forehead.

    At one point, from the commotion of the bar, it was clear that Enjolras had finally arrived. Stas would have risen to greet him, but Eponine asked that he finish up first, rather than risk losing his train of thought. Stas did not agree that was a true risk, but he acknowledged that it was best to complete this task regardless. But she and Sanson did go themselves to speak with the man, Eponine with a quiet determination and Sason cursing under his breath. Perhaps it was a good thing that he was not going to witness that confrontation right now.

    It did leave Stas alone in the room with the younger man. It was somewhat awkward, but he was able to focus on the task at hand. Henri seemed to be doing the same.

    Occasionally Henri would inquire as to some sloppier notes, which Stas would provide a proper explanation for. It was not a real distraction.

    “Ah…” Henri exclaimed softly. “This is the chimera pit, then?”

    Stas nodded. “Yes. What about it?”

    “I’m just wondering. Do they keep the chimeras in the arena overnight? Or do they just bring them in the morning of the days they are fought?”

    “The monsters are transferred into the facility a day or two before they are fought.” Stas explained. “The process is laborious and time consuming, to ensure the handlers are not injured and the chimeras are not able to escape.” Stas frowned. “I’ve had to prepare for some matches with the chimeras secured nearby. Nasty things. Loud and disruptive even through the soundproofing. They smell absolutely horrendous too, and that’s just from the wafting residue from their being dragged in. I can’t imagine that a Venatio can have a working sense of smell for long, if that is what they are forced to contend with.”

    “Ah, I’ve heard about that,” Henri commented. “The smell thing, I mean. One of my father’s colleagues was trying to petition Lord Macro into doing something about his chimera’s scents, but Lord Macro was unwilling to spend the time investigating the cause of the odor, since it didn’t interest him. I think Lord Macro must be nose blind, or at least some rumors paint him as such, among other things.” Henri shook his head. “But, I’m losing track of myself. Is there a chimera hunt scheduled for tomorrow? At the Stellar or Solar arena?”

    “The Stellar never hosts chimera hunts. The facility is not built to support it.” Stas explained. “But there is supposed to be a Ventio troupe at the Solar tomorrow.” Stas paused, considering. “Are you trying to ask if there are likely to be chimera in the arena tonight? If so, and if Romeo is being held in the Solar, then the answer is yes. Why are you interested?”

    “I was just thinking,” Henri fiddled with his fingers. “If it happens that we end up attacking the Solar arena tonight, if Romeo is being held there, well… wouldn’t setting all the chimeras loose make for a great distraction?”

    Stas blanched. “Setting the chimeras loose? A distraction would be the least you could consider it. A single chimera in a controlled environment is designed to be a challenge for a well trained, well coordinated, well equipped team of Venetio, all of whom specialize in the art of beast hunting. In the confines of the area below the arena, where it could not be so easily surrounded… it could only lead to a slaughter.” Stas did not wish to imagine such a challenge. The chimeras of recent months were death on four legs. Or six legs. Or eight legs. Or a long, sinuous tail. WIthout the open space to out maneuver them, they could easily tear their way through even a veteran Venatio, much less a single man who only trained to subdue fellow humans. And that would be just the one. Venatio exhibitions often had two or three events of beast slaying to them. Letting multiple chimeras loose sounded more akin to a horror story than anything worth contemplating.

    “That’s good right? We could let them dispatch the watchers without us having to lift another finger.”

    “Yes, they would likely dispatch the watchers with ease. As well as the prisoners. And any of us that are in the vicinity. And any staff that have the misfortune to be in the area. To ignore nothing of the possibility of them escaping into the city.”

    By the Dominus, if a chimera escaped into the open city… how long would it be able to escape capture? How many thousands of people would it feast upon? In a city of millions, of winding streets and decrepit buildings, where the force of arms was concentrated only in the most well off areas, how long could a predator survive? That hand-crafted killer purpose made to fight and kill and die for the glory of the Venatio could easily find a nest somewhere in the city. It could hunt and kill until it glutted itself, day after day, and it might still never be discovered by anyone with the power to dispatch it until the day it died.

    Did chimeras even die of age, or were they immortal outside of being intentionally slain?

    Stas shook his head. “It is a terrible, terrible idea.”

    “Oh,” Henri spoke softly, head lowered from the chastisement.

    Their work continued in silence after that. After Stas had finished making the map of the Stellar arena, he took a moment to ensure that Henri did not have any questions about it. He addressed the few that came up, regarding some ambiguous marks where the ink had run together. But after Henri had assured him he had the rest of it handled, he left the matter to the younger man.

    Creaking his back to stretch from the awkward position of writing, Stas went for the backroom’s exit. From the muffled sounds, it seemed like Enjolras was addressing everyone at the moment. Opening the door and letting the unfiltered sound in confirmed it.

    “Is the situation dire?” Enjolras called from his raised platform, that same platform Stas had first seen months ago when he was introduced to the group properly. “I would be a liar if I claimed otherwise. But this is not our darkest hour, not by a long shot. It is a challenge, but not one we cannot rise to meet. A hurdle in our path, but one that we are poised to handle with grace. I am certain that, when we look back on this night, we will not remember it as one of tragedy, but of triumph! Of overcoming adversity! Of proving that the cruel grip the watchers hold upon the city is weaker than our wills.”

    The crowd is silent, listening in rapt attention. It is a far cry from the argumentative mess almost coming to blows that Stas had walked in on. Different as well from the enforced silence Eponine had demanded, stewing in anxiety and fear.

    “We must trust in Romeo, know with our full hearts that he will not allow himself to be an instrument of betrayal. And we must validate his trust in us. Do not do our fellow the disservice of imagining him crumbling under the pressure of his captors. Why would he do so? Romeo is not afraid, because he knows we will rescue him. No, like as not, Romeo is lounged up against a cell wall, enjoying a comfortable nap with an easy mind, because he knows there is no reason to worry”

    The last pronouncement is met with a small chuckle, and at least one full-blown laugh.

    From Stas’s position off to the side of everything, he could see behind the cheering crowd the door to the hideout open, revealing a panting Orval. Eponine, situated at the door, spoke with the man quickly and quietly. She then signaled to Enjolras on stage with some strange signs he did not understand. But from Enjorlas’s expression he understood them perfectly. He offered a slight nod of acknowledgment to the woman, a motion that would not have stuck out to anyone who hadn’t witnessed the exchange, before continuing his speech. Orval found a seat near the back. Most of the exchange had likely gone unnoticed.

    “So, my friends, my brothers and sisters in arms, my fellow seekers of Justice and Liberty. Do not despair. Our work is stronger than our adversity, our brotherhood inexhaustible, our will indestructible, for we have put our hearts and souls into our efforts, just as the countless men and woman had invested their own hearts and souls into this legacy of freedom. So long as we can trust in one another, we will never truly die!” Enjolras raised a hand. “We are the incarnation of Libertas, the true spirit of our city, and we will not falter!”

    His explanation rouses greater cheers. The smiles here were real, the anxieties soothed. This was Enjolras’s talent, this absolute command over all who listened, this power of engendering trust in the truth of his words. Enjolras could convey his sincerity with an ease that left Stas speechless. Those silver eyes exposed the convictions behind them, to the point one could not help but share them.

    It was like arcanum, his skill working a crowd, but Stas knew it to be masterful technique of a different sort. It was the mark of a virtuous individual, espousing honest beliefs. He was a virtuoso who turned the tide of emotions without an ounce of force. He held a personal connection with each and every one of his listeners, to the point where none had the ability to misunderstand, no one possessed the desire to look away from him.

    Eponine’s earlier flailing could no compare in the slightest. The results spoke for themselves. The woman herself had been quick to acknowledge her own shortcomings in the matter. And Sanson was not even a contender. If Enjolras was a feast to a starving mass and Eponine simple water, only capable of quelling the harshness of thirst with no address for the hunger… that left Sanson as shards of ground up glass.

    Enjolras allowed the cheering to die down before resuming. “And I have good news, my friends. Our intrepid Orval has just returned from the forum with his report. I can confirm that Romeo is indeed alive and well, and that he is being housed within the Solar Arena’s cells. We will be mounting a rescue tonight!”

    Again, the crowd roared in cheer and excitement. Any anxiety seemed to have completely evaporated. Everyone trusted, as strongly as Enjolras himself did, that their captured fellow’s rescue was guaranteed. They only needed to offer the effort and it would be rewarded.

    Enjolras did not wait for the cheering to die down entirely this time. He continued speaking even over the roar. “I will allow Sanson to see to the matter of securing volunteers. I hope you all consider the matter with all the weight and honesty it requires. But seeing all of your spirit, I trust we will have no issues.”

    Enjolras climbed down from his raised platform with a solemn nod of his head. Sanson wasted no time and rose up to take his place, bellowing to the gathered crowd. “All right, you sorry lot! We’ve got a rescue mission on our hand, and we need volunteers. The open bar is officially closed, because the only party happening is the eternal dance of kicking ass. This will involve active combat. Any coward who’s not up to the task, get the fuck out of here. Anyone who’s not got the skills for anything helpful, get the fuck out of here. I know who you are and I know what you can do, so I will personally boot your ass if you try to waste my time attempting to risk everyone else’s skins. We are taking the fight to the watchers. We don’t need to want anyone who can’t even swing a damn fist.”

    Sanson’s diatribe continued, but Stas was not paying attention. Enjolras was looking at him, his silver eyes boring into Stas’s own. The nobleman tilted his head to the side, towards the back room. Stas blinked and made a questioning gesture for the same, which was met with a steady nod.

    So Stas returned to the back room he had just exited, and was met by a look of confusion from the still working Henri.
    Enjolras entered shortly. His entrance caused Henri to stiffen in greeting. “Ah, Enjolras,” he exclaimed with halting enthusiasm. “I was just about finished with this map.”

    Enjolras cast a discerning gaze upon the map Henri was drawing out, as well as the original Stas had made. “This is the layout of the Stellar Arena, is it not?”

    Stas nodded and spoke an affirmation. “Yes.” As the word left his mouth, he was suprirsed to hear that Henri had answered simultaneously. The two glanced at one another, and Henri immediately wilted. Stas took that as agreement that he would be the one to speak.

    “Yes,” he repeated, alone this time. “It’s the Stellar’s staging area, and the cells. I drew the original from what I could remember. Henri is making a copy, cleaning it up a bit.”

    Enjolras nodded with closed eyes. “I have to thank you both, Stas, Henri. These are certain to be invaluable. Not just for tonight but for any future mission. We will likely find ourselves benefiting from this information in the days to come, even if we manage to avoid any future capture, may we be so blessed.” Enjolras moved over to the next desk, examining the other two maps. “And these would be for the Solar, then?”

    Henri nodded again, but Stas was the only one to speak aloud this time. “Yes. It was the first one we did.”

    Enjolras nodded to himself. “Excellent.” He turned to Henri. “Henri, we were able to confirm that Romeo is being held in the Solar. The map you are producing now, while of great value, is of no urgency for the moment. Feel free to take a break, if you wish.”

    Henri shook his head. “I’m almost done. I don’t mind finishing up, it’s…” he paused, and looked between Enjolras and Stas. “Oh. Oh,” he flinched a bit, raising to his feet quickly. “I’ll, um, take a break. Leave the two of you to your privacy. I can finish any time, after all…” The meek man darted to the door.

    “Have a good evening, Henri.” Enjolras called.

    “I’ll try. Ah, have a good evening, Enjolras.” Henri carefully opened the door and slipped through its gap before letting it shut behind him.

    Enjolras moved over to the maps and began to examine the layout. Stas noted, with some small annoyance, that the man’s focus was on Henri’s copy and not his own original.

    They stood in silence for a few moments. Enjolras sighed.

    “I wish to be honest with you, Stas,” Enjorlas spoke in a somber tone. “I have a great deal of trust in our comrades. They are competent, intelligent, driven, and unflinching in courage. And I have nothing but respect for what they can accomplish. But we are not fighters by trade.” His eyes locked to the pictures of the cells. He traced his fingers on the freshly dried ink. “I have no hesitation in sending them out against watchers. Our missions often put us at odds with their ilk, and we are well prepared to handle opposition. But our methods tend to distraction, evasion, escape, to taking advantage of crowds and the city-scape. We prioritizing escape over engagement, and in avoiding detection before permitting confrontation. Staging a rescue… it is not a simple matter of espionage or infiltration or sabotage, or even assassination. I cannot see this ending without direct conflict. I don’t like the look of these narrow corridors,” his fingers dragged across the paper in emphasis, “This assault upon a stronghold is a great departure from our regular operation. We are not prepared to fight in the manner required. This is something I see now will need to be rectified in the future. This will not be the last time outright combat will be required. Rather I fear it will become the norm.”

    Enjolras exhaled deeply, eyes closed. “I have made a point in my tenure to structure my command on the basis of volunteering. True volunteering, the principle that anyone may accept or refuse any mission for any reason. The burden of responsibility should never fall on the shoulders any one man or woman. If a mission would fail but for any one person, it is an unacceptable risk, a mission not worth pursuing. It would be a failure of my leadership. But it seems that for my lack of preparation, I have failed tonight.”

    He opened his eyes and caught Stas in them. The silver shimmered in the flickering light of the room’s flameless torches. “Stas, I fundamentally do not believe this rescue mission can succeed without your aid. I can foresee no option that does not involve direct confrontation with the Watchers, that would not require overpowering them at their post. It would be the height ot folly to beleive our usual tactics will be sufficient, that relying on them would not place our comrades in unacceptable risk for little chance of success. I would never force you to partake in any mission. I don’t have the right. But would ask you… no I will beg you.”

    Enjolras lowered his head deeply in a bow. “Please Stas, I beg your aid. For Romeo’s sake. For my sake. For the sake of everyone volunteering for this mission.” He bowed even deeper. “Please help up in this rescue mission.”

    The entire display was deeply uncomfortable. Enjolras was a man who should never be forced to prostrate. That Enjolras would do so for him, that he didn’t realize that he was more than happy to participate and the begging was completely unnecessary, bothered him in a way that he could not properly describe.

    It took him a moment to realize he had not spoken a response.

    “Of course,” he almost stuttered the words, but held firm. “Absolutely. You did not even have to ask. I am more than happy to lend my skill for this endeavor.”

    Enjolras smiled. It was a good, honest smile. Stas felt it burn itself into his memory. “Thank you, my friend. I do not know what I would have done without you.”

    Enjolras rose to his feet and moved to the wall of the back room, to the shield hanging on the wall. He grasped it in his hands, turned it about face, and walked it over to Stas.

    “I want you to use this,” he proclaimed, “for the rescue mission.”

    “The shield?” Stas found his words failing him. Of course it was the shield. Enjolras was perfectly clear, both in action and in words. And yet Stas couldn’t help but mindlessly speak the words dancing in his mind. He felt like an idiot.

    Enjolras nodded, ignoring the inanity of Stas’s pointless question. “Yes, the shield. It is a bullwark of justice, and wall for the innocent. It’s purpose is to defend us, and the people of this city through us. I can think of no better use than in rescuing our fellow. And I can think of no one better to wield it in this mission than you.” He passed the shield forward, outstretched for Stas’s hand. “If you are burdened with the responsibility of our purpose tonight, then I can think of no better tool to help you. Please, use it well.”

    Stas, struggling to keep his fingers from trembling, accepted the shield. His hand traced across its metal. It felt cool to the touch. Strong. Comforting. The Soul Craft weapon almost seemed to purr under his touch.

    The whole shield felt like it had a weight to it, as much as any tower shield or suit of armor. And yet it offered no strain to his arm. He strapped it to his shield arm. The strap fit perfectly, with no adjustment required.

    “We will see about supplying you with a sword as well. I cannot promise its quality will match that of the shield, or even the swords you enjoy for your matches. But it will be good, quality steel. And we have enough variety that you should be able to find one that suits you. And elixirs as well…”

    Stas interrupted him. “I don’t need elixirs.” Was Enjolras aware of the quirk in his magic, Stas wondered. It must have come up at some point.

    Enjolras nodded, not missing a beat. “Of course. We have bits of armor, something to suit you. And you are free to peruse our arsenal for anything you feel will be of aid. Whatever it takes for you to succeed.”

    Stas closed his eyes, felt that strange, comforting weight of the shield upon his limb. The reflection of the polished metal shined brightly.

    “I won’t let you down,” he declared. He vowed to validate the trust this man held for him. Tonight he would finally prove his worth.
     
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2021
    Raron, Mukigen, VerBlinkel and 4 others like this.
  10. Threadmarks: Twenty Four
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    The plan they devised was simple. It was quickly decided that a smaller number of volunteers was preferable, as stealth was of paramount importance. Like as not, they were going to be outnumbered by the on site watchers based as prison guards under the Solar arena. Any strategy to overwhelm them would require fighting from ambush. As such, there was not much value in having additional fighters. It would be better to have fewer people on hand to reduce the possibility of detection, and to make it easier to evacuate if the need arose.

    As such, the only people to actually enter the arena would be Stas himself, Eponine, Sanson, and Lucian. Their primary concern was to eliminate or incapacitate enough of the watchers within the arena that they could stage a prison break for all the would be execution victims, without allowing the alarm to be raised. Once all the prisoners have been released, they would use the chaos to escape with Romeo, making full use of Stas’s teleportation abilities.

    A second group would be working on the outside to cause a distraction, both in aid of the initial infiltration as well as to add to the chaos after the prison break occurred to ensure that the watchers couldn’t properly rally even after it became obvious. Apparently, that distraction plan involved significant arson.

    Stas had been shocked to hear of it, at first. Setting a fire in the city was a horrific risk, both deadly and damaging. While it would definitely force a response from the watchers, lest entire city districts burn down around them under their watch, the devastation would be mostly felt by innocent people who would lose their livelihoods and homes, if not their lives.

    But Enjolras had explained it, for his benefit, quickly enough. Apparently Libertas was well prepared for needing a major distraction in different parts of the city. They had purchased certain adjacent properties in different districts, with the express intention of setting them on fire at some point. At the edges of these properties they had installed fire breaks to prevent any true disaster. The only buildings in danger were the ones expressly intended to be used this way, which contained nothing of importance other than what was necessary to disguise them as real buildings in use, and were judiciously locked to prevent any homeless individuals from getting caught up in the scheme. They were also filled to the brim with flammable materials that would produce a lot of visible smoke, so as to attract a great deal of attention from the watchers.

    Moreover, the distraction team did not intend to simply set a fire and let it run free. After the arson, they would provide aid to the water trains that would form, which would indeed form as Libertas had seeded the communities with individuals who would be ready to volunteer for such, and generally work to put out the fire they themselves had set. They would, of course, only do this after they had drew enough attention from the watchers, who would come to investigate the flames and very likely provide aid in putting the fires out, depending on the district in question.
    For neighborhoods adjoining the forum, this was all but guaranteed.

    Stas honestly found the entire arson scheme to be ludicrously wasteful in terms of resources expended, but if the resistance group had the money to make such purchases and literally set fire to them, then it was their prerogative to do so. Of somewhat greater concern was the fact that each particular district, or rather, the particular set of properties within the neighborhood, could only really be used as a distraction once. But Enjolras did not hesitate in permitting their usage in this rescue attempt. Nor did anyone attempt to gainsay him.

    Stas did not put further mind to the nature of the distraction. He trusted that the Watchers patrolling the forum would be kept occupied when it was required, and that, so long as his team did not allow an alarm to be raised, they would be able to work in peace. Ideally, some of the watchers stationed in the arenas would themselves be called to investigate the fires.

    Stas only needed to concern himself with his own team’s actions, and his own actions at that. He had been given command over the four of them. The pronouncement had been met by some major grumbling by Sanson, but the facts were on his side. After all, it was safe to say that he would be doing the bulk of the work, which suited him just fine. That he be given the power to make judgments on site would only ensure that nobody would be stepping on his toes.
    According to the plan, he and Eponine would split off from Sanson and Lucian almost as soon as the four of them entered the arena. Sanson and Lucian would situate themselves at a choke point that would block the arena’s exit, where they would remain to prevent and watchers from escaping to warn of their actions. Lucian supposedly knew some arcanum that could keep the both of them hidden, while Sanson would be expected to dispatch any watchers that approached.

    Stas was not sure he trusted the disfigured man to manage that much. Ideally they would not be put to the test.
    He and Eponine, on the other hand, would immediately head for the room they believed the alarm was held. According to the plan, Stas would dispatch any watchers in the area while Eponine helped keep the attention to a minimum. From there, Eponine would remain in the room to prevent the alarm from being activated, while Stas would scour the arena, eliminating every prison guard. With Eponine guarding the alarm and Sanson and Lucian guarding the exit, in theory he would not need to worry about anyone running away or sneaking away to raise the alarm. Once the guards had all been dealt with, they would reconvene to set all the prisoners loose, signal the need for another distraction, and escape to freedom.

    All Stas had to do was defeat somewhere between four and eight trained and equipped arcanum-using combatants who specialized in working together to overcome humanoid opponents.

    He felt pretty good about his odds. With the Soul Crafted shield at his side, it wasn’t even a fair match up.
    With the plan set, there was nothing to do but see it through.

    The distraction team exited the hideout first, in different directions. They offered their well wishes as they departed. Stas accepted them with the meaning they intended. But he did not need them. He was not worried. He was more than prepared for this endeavor.

    After allowing the distraction team time to get set up, Stas Eponine, Lucian, and Sanson left for the forum. Sanson was, to his great surprise and enjoyment, perfectly silent. The surly man’s face was the picture of professional conduct. In some ways that was even more annoying than the alternative. After all, if it turned out that Sanson was perfectly capable of being quiet and on task, then that implied all the times he acted like an ass were purposeful.

    But Stas refused to be the one to break cohesion by calling him out for that. They made their way in silence across the city, traveling in as inconspicuous a manner as possible for four individuals moving together at night. Of the four, Lucian seemed to be the most affected by nerves, as could been seen by the hesitation in his movements and the shaking of his hands. But even he kept himself on task, firming up as they needed to move.

    They positioned themselves in one of the districts neighboring the stadiums, far enough away as to not attract undue Watcher attention for there mere presence. The lounged and loitered, awaiting for the plumes of smoke that would signal the start of the operation. Stas kept a special eye out for any patrolling watchers, making sure to note where they were whenever they passed.

    Even against the darkness of the night, the smoke was a great spectacle, a tower of ash that blotted out sections of the sky. Whatever was in the buildings sure managed to draw attention when burned. Lit from below by a roaring fire, the spectacle captured the eye like a demonic shroud of death. Flickering flames reached above the rooftops of the city’s uneven skyline.

    Even from this distance, he could hear the shouts, the tumult and confusion, or the city’s denizens reacting to the sudden blaze. He really hoped that the distraction team was telling the truth about it being under their complete control, because it certainly looked like a wild conflagration that would devour everything in its path.

    Stas saw a handful of watchers rushing across the roof tops for the fire. None of them even paused to look in their direction as they passed. That was a better sign as any that the distraction was working.

    Stas and his fellows put on their masks and, at his command, they all rushed for the Solar arena. Both Lucian and Eponine gulped down an elixir and began working their arcanum to do something that supposedly would make them harder to spot. Stas did not plan on relying on that alone, so he made sure they avoided the view of any Watchers he could spot. The stadiums were not guarded as fiercely as the part of the forum that was adjacent to the Palatial estate, so there were not an overwhelming number to avoid.

    They were able to reach the stadium without incident and Stas lead them to the entrance employed by the gladiators and staff, far less visible than the awe inspiring, and honestly somewhat ostentatious, entryway that admitted the citizens seeking to be part of the audience.

    They slipped in, quietly. By all accounts they managed to make it in undetected.

    They found their way to the choke point they had decided upon. The Solar arena’s layout was no so convenient that there was only one way to enter or exit the lower area. The needs of the stadiums staff and supporting workers as well as the prison itself made that infeasible. But from this position they should be able to keep track of most of them.

    It was not a fool proof choke point. If multiple watchers came and went for multiple exits, it would take more than two people to prevent determined individuals from escaping. Technically speaking, there were other exits as well. Any Watcher that needed to escape could go up the stairs to the arena itself, which were in another part of the building. From there, they could climb up the open aired structure to the audience member’s seats and leave that way. This could happen at any time without them even knowing.

    But just because it could happen didn’t mean it was likely. Their plan relied on the fact that any prison guard would have the first instinct to go to the alarm room they believed must exist. If they knew that wasn’t an option, they would go for the direct exits which could be blocked. The real failure point would be if a Watcher managed to avoid being engaged by Stas, realized the alarm room wasn’t available, and decided to break through rather than fall to Sanson and Lucian. Stas wouldn’t even let the first of those failures occur if he could help it.

    Stas gestured to Sanson and Lucian.

    “From here you should be able to see anyone that might be trying to escape with an alarm,” he restated the plan with a quiet voice to ensure it had not been forgotten in the time since they devised it. “Position yourself as well as you can so no one can get by you. Between the two of you, you should be able to monitor it properly. If you are actually forced into contact, shout for me so I can come to deal with it. The sounds from down here won’t be easily heard outside so you can be as loud as you need. The area is not that large so I will be able to arrive quickly. You would not be required to hold anyone for long, if it even comes to that.”

    Sanson grunted. “We’ve been at this far longer than you, boy. We know how to handle the fucking bird faces. Maybe you should be more concerned about yourself. If any screw ups occur, it will be on your end, not ours.”

    Stas bristled, but decided against escalating the confrontation. He would be magnanimous. “That is good to hear. Because I don’t plan on failing myself. So it seems we should expect a smooth operation.”

    And it would go smoothly. Stas would assure it. Once again, Stas found himself grateful for Phobos’s tutelage. Once again the strange lessons the man had insisted on imparting had come in use unexpectedly. Mere days ago, he had been an accomplice in the infiltration of a manor home and the assassination of a Patrician. Sneaking into the arena at night to free prisoners was only a side step from such an assault.

    It was true that the last time Stas had fought the bird-faced watchers, so many months ago, he had not acquitted himself well. But he was stronger now, better trained, better prepared. He had no drunkenness to deal with, nor a need to hold back for fear of his identity being revealed. He was the aggressor this night, not the one being sucker punched right at the start. He had a plan. And he was far, far better equipped.

    The sword in his hand felt right. The shield on his arm brought comfort.

    And more than anything, this time he had true purpose in his conflict. What could be a better ally than having Virtue and Justice on your side?

    No. Stas was not worried.

    Sanson huffed. “Get on with it, then. The fire isn’t going to last forever.”

    Sanson was not in command of the mission. He had no need or right to give orders. But once again, for the sake of civility and group cohesion, Stas weathered the insult.

    He nodded to Eponine, her face still clenched in concentration. “Let’s go.”

    They only had a general sense of where the room with the alarm would be, based on the layout of the building and the needs of the small prison. It would, quite obviously, not be in an area the regular staff would need to go through. It would be separated from the cells, by all likelihood. And, from a design standpoint, it would be near the prison area. There was no point in using up more space in the stadium’s design than necessary. Compartmentalization lead to efficiency.
    For the Solar arena, the prison area was completely separated from the Gladiator suites. Unlike in the Lunar arena Stas had first fought in, where the prisoners could be seen in their cages from the benches and every cry could disrupt a Gladiator’s concentration, in the Solar arena you might not even know they were there outside of the times they were brought out and up for the executions. The Gladiator Suites and staff areas used to store and move supplies and props took up just under one half of the great circular expanse. The prison area took up the other half. The Chimera pits served as the dividing lines between them, taking up the space in the center, surrounded by thick, metal walls, and situated so that the beasts could be lifted by a raised platform through and onto the sands of the arena.

    Stas and Eponine could somewhat fearlessly travel past all the gladiator suites, knowing they would not be heard in the prison section. They made their way to one of the doors that opened to that area.

    They situated themselves just outside it, and Stas took a deep breath. With a nod to Eponine, he creaked the door open by a crack. Hopefully Eponine’s magic would be enough to avoid the attention of any prison guards who happened to be looking in that direction. Stas didn’t really have much of a sense of what this sort of magic could or couldn’t do. According to Eponine it prevented people from looking too closely, but it wasn’t anything close to the true invisibility and inaudibility Stas had seen Phobos demonstrate. And Eponine had cautioned that it couldn’t prevent anyone from noticing anything truly obvious occurring, such as a fight happening.

    Nobody immediately shouted in alarm, so Stas pulled the door open even further, just enough that he would be able to slip through. And he did so, shield raised, braced against the unknown.

    The unknown, as it turned out, was a hallway, curving around the prison side of the Solar arena underground. Lining both sides were small rooms with heavy doors, sporting conspicuous locks. There were many doors, tightly packed together. Each one could hold but a single person, or maybe two uncomfortably, if the cells extended further back.
    Stas had, perhaps, underestimated just how many prisoners could fit into the Solar arena’s cells. He hadn’t realized that the accommodations were so cramped.

    The curved hallway blocked the view of anything further in, but Stas could easily hear it. A number of voices, in various states of despair, were shouting, clamoring for food or water, hurling insults at anything in general, protesting innocence, crying, shouting at one another to simply shut up. All of them were joining together in an ugly symphony, mixing together in echoes down the curved corridor, and all were muffled by thick prison doors. It was the regular cry of prisoners set to be executed that Stas had had the misfortune of hearing a few times before.

    Eponine, from the look of distaste in her expression, had not had the pleasure.

    Compared to the Lunar arena’s open cages with simple bars, the noise was quite muffled. It was not as unpleasant as the truly unfiltered mess. But Stas did not believe Eponine would appreciate the distinction.

    One of the voices, hurling insults of a very colorful variety that Stas had only heard uttered by Sanson before, seemed to be Romeo. It sounded quite hoarse. Likely the man had been shouting for quite some time now. Outside of them, Stas could also hear the movements of men in armor. They were far more quiet than the cries of the prisoners, but they had the advantage of not being muffled by cell doors. Those would be the prison guards, but Stas could not tell how many.
    That said, the arrangement of cells did make it easy to spot their potential target. One of the doors on the left, the one immediately next to them in fact, conspicuously had a larger gap around it than any of the cell doors, indicating that it was a room of actually breathable size. It also lacked the lock of the other doors.

    Eponine gestured to it at the same moment Stas had the realization. He offered her a nod of agreement and the two of them sneaked up to it. To their great fortune it was out of the line of sight of the other guards.

    After glancing down the corridor to ensure that none of the guards were coming down this way, he turned to Eponine and silently counted down on his fingers from three.

    She raised another elixir to her lips, all the better to reinforce her arcanum.

    When his last finger fell, Stas quickly shoved open the door.

    One of the lessons Phobos had devised for Stas, when he was focusing on improving his innate magic usage, was the ability to immediately take in a scene and reflect across it. Stas’s had originally believed he was already skilled in this technique. After all, at the time it had only taken him a few seconds to find the safest mirrors to cast himself against from among the infinite expanse. He had easily been able to walk into a new room, appraise his surroundings for obstacles, and reflect across it.

    Phobos had been unsatisfied with ‘a few seconds.’ His standards were brutal, and so were his training methods. Stas had spent hours upon hours back at the school practicing after the first lesson to ensure that Phobos would be satisfied in the next.

    As a result of that training, Stas could open a door and instantly teleport across it before he was fully cognizant of the room’s contents. This technique was put into full effect here.

    Stas barely had a moment to process before he placed himself across the sparsely furnished room. The bird-faced watcher, situated on a bench to the side of the room had even less time to react. Stas’s sword barreled for the surprised man’s neck.

    Attacking an unaware opponent was dishonorable. But Stas consoled himself with the knowledge that he was attacking a combatant whose job was to be on alert for intruders. Even if the man hadn’t specifically known he was to fight Stas, he was a prison guard with the general knowledge he might be called upon to defend at any given moment.

    It was a cold comfort, and not a perfect justification. Stas was fully aware that his actions were necessary, but they still left a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. But it perhaps explained the small bit of relief he found in what happened next.

    In either a show of astounding reflexes or pure, dumb luck, the watcher turned, catching Stas’s blade against his armored shoulder. The lethal blow was deflected in part, Stas’s position in the room not the best for adjusting the swing. He was, admittedly, not perfect in figuring out where to teleport when only given an instant to take in a scene. The attack was not fruitless, as it did cut a bloody swath across the underside of the watcher’s face. But it was not the one strike kill Stas had been expecting.

    On the one hand, Stas did feel some disappointment in the failure of his attack. On the other hand, it was a small relief that there would be some matter of fight to this, not a simple assassination of a resting prison guard. Even if it was certain to be almost nothing.

    The bird-faced watcher was clearly shocked, and his next move would clearly be to call for aid from his fellows. Stas cut it off by slamming his magic shield in the man’s face. The disorienting blow turned the attempted shout into a simple grunt of pain, and had the further effect of sending the man sprawling to the floor.

    The watcher’s eyes locked onto something behind Stas, but Stas did not make the foolish mistake of tking his attention off the man. He noted its location for the future and continues the assault. The watcher attempted to ward off his blows with his armored hands, having made the correct decision that any attempt to go for a weapon would be met with failure. It was far from enough.

    Stas cut through the prison guard, soaking his blade in the man’s dying blood. He swallowed the bile that threatened to rise in his throat.

    Eponine, coming through the doorway, watched on dispassionately.
     
    Raron, Acronym, prandom and 3 others like this.
  11. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    The above is not the end of Chapter 24, but it is the end of my 50000 words for this November. I will finish this chapter up... some time, like I did with chapter 15. Unlike with Chapter 15, there was enough written to make posting worth the effort.

    So, yeah, this was another marathon. I hope you enjoyed it. See you all next year.
     
    prandom likes this.
  12. VerBlinkel

    VerBlinkel Getting sticky.

    Joined:
    Nov 18, 2017
    Messages:
    56
    Likes Received:
    30
    I'm gonna be honest. I'll be absolutely shocked if Enjolras isn't subtly mind controlling the crap out of Stas. I will have read so many interactions and thoughts completely wrong.

    As always, your writing is a treat. Thanks for sharing.
     
  13. PocketRikimaru

    PocketRikimaru Versed in the lewd.

    Joined:
    Mar 4, 2018
    Messages:
    2,260
    Likes Received:
    1,335
  14. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    I can address this in a spoiler if you'd like. Or I can let it rest. It might change how you interpret parts of the story.
     
  15. VerBlinkel

    VerBlinkel Getting sticky.

    Joined:
    Nov 18, 2017
    Messages:
    56
    Likes Received:
    30
    I suppose I would like that. I have what I feel to be a pretty strong hypothesis for what's going on.

    I don't think mind control is inherently 'evil', especially if its being used to try to fix an otherwise unfixable situation that's horrible.

    Earlier you stated that the elixir = people thing was standard convention for this genre. If it's not too spoilery, what genre is this? Alternatively, what genre has soylent green as a convention?
     
  16. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    Everyone opens these things automatically, but actually consider if you want to be spoiled because it might impact your interpretation of events that haven't even been written yet.
    No, Enjolras isn't brainwashing Stas.

    Stas is just crushing on the man hard. He's suffering from the halo effect: because the dude gets his engine running, Stas can only see him in the best possible light.

    Not to say Enjolras isn't a decent and talented dude, but Stas places him on an unachievable pedestal because he is too fascinated by the man and refuses to acknowledge any flaws.

    Like Gatsby and Carroway.

    So, I suppose you can call it mind control, but the organic sort and not originating in Enjorlas. It's all hormones.


    But this is a background detail that I don't plan on ever directly addressing, since this isn't a romance story, but it does inform character choices in a major way.

    Double spoilered again.
    Post apocalyptic authoritarian False Utopia?

    The world that in first glance looks to be gold but on closer inspection is just a thin gold foil gilding over a mountain of shit?
     
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2020
    VerBlinkel and PocketRikimaru like this.
  17. Threadmarks: Prologue/Epilogue
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    So, as a bit of an explanation, I realized recently that, by genre conventions, the story I am writing is not supposed to be a question of "where is the plot going" but instead one of "how will it get to the ending you already know". As I don't have a good reason to defy this convention, and because in retrospect I feel it might work better for the story, what I was originally intending to have as an epilogue should instead be the prologue.

    So, I have written it up and am posting it now.

    However, I understand that the story as it is meant to be (a novel) is different from the experience of reading the story on a forum. The Prologue is very spoiler heavy, even if they are intentional spoilers. (I despise the trope of vagaries that only make sense from a Doylist perspective).

    So, if you have been enjoying that sort of story, of trying to figure out what is going on and what is happening, then I advise not reading this post until the very end, which might be this year (possible? but unlikely I'd say).

    If you do choose to read this, because this really should have been the first post, then please leave any discussion of it in spoiler tags. Thank you

    It was almost a tragedy. Despite all the destruction, all the great wonders of the city brought to rubble, the statue garden had survived unscatched. The statue garden, that stupid, ugly waste of space nobody bothered to visit, remained as stubbornly intact as himself.

    In his continued haze, Stas climbed back to the vantage point, that oft scaled monstrocity masquerading as art and sat upon it. Gazing out past the broken walls of the palatial estate from this height did nothing to reduce the misery of it all. He had no reason to expect otherwise, but still he felt a small glimmer of hope die. That smoke and ash and rubble remained all the same.

    Bereft of thought or plans, Stas sat and waited. The sounds of screams and fighting passed him by in his solitude. For how long he waited, Stas did not bother to comprehend: minutes and hours were the same in that moment. The dagger at his side remained silent with him.

    The soft sound of footsteps broke him from his morose reverie. Inhaling deeply, Stas allowed himself to fall from his perch. He landed gently, having reflected his momentum elsewhere almost without thinking. The footstep’s pace did not halt at his emergence.

    Stas found his tired eyes appraising the Mad Monk. It figured. Who else would willingly come to this grotesque place. “Hm,” Stas grunted, finding his voice still sore from the smoke, “It seems you managed to survive.”

    Stas hadn’t put much thought into the Monk’s state. That the man had lived through chaos was both surprising and not.

    More surprising than the man’s presence was his appearance. The Monk’s garb was as pristine as it had ever been, and for a moment, Stas found himself back in this very statue garden, begrudgingly speaking with the man, all those months ago.

    “Indeed,” the Monk acknowledged without surprise. “I am known to do such. Your own survival is more noteworthy. It was not I that challenged the Dominus.”

    “You know about that?” Stas found himself asking. But the explanation came to him as soon as the words left his mouth. Why had he expected Eponine to have kept his involvement secret?

    The Monk simply nodded. “I try to keep track of important matters, regardless of circumstances. Especially when they lead to circumstances such as this.” The man gestured vaguely.

    For a moment, rage overcame the morosity. “This is not my fault,” Stas hissed.

    “No, it is not.” The Mad Monk agreed. “Far too many hands were at play in this tragedy for you to claim sole moral authority over it. Nor can it be definitively stated that your actions led to a worse outcome. But they did lead to this outcome. Regardless of anything else, the Dominus was a stabilizing influence.”

    Stas’s hand traced across the smooth wood of his mask, memories of that… thing… burned into his mind. “The Dominus was a monster.”

    “Physically? Living for centuries on a dead world is not conducive to a coherent form, especially for one like yourself of the Dominus. And that is before the specifics of one’s arcanum is taken into account. Morally? I’ve had a great many disagreements with the Dominus in my tenure, but it is not my place to make judgements. I simply work with what I have towards what I view as best.”

    “And how is that working out for you? The city dead and its bloodthirsty people slaughtering one another?”

    “The situation is far from optimal; there were a number of scenarios I would have preferred, but I do not consider this a failure case. As bleak and sudden as this eruption of violence may have seemed, the suffering was… I greatly dislike the term ‘inevitable’, but it is appropriate in this juncture. The build up to this city’s death had been in the works for hundreds of years, even before its founding. Life is not sustainable on a dead world: we can only scavenge for as long as we can. And with this cataclysm, the city may yet still survive stronger and better for it. Who is to say otherwise?”

    “Didn’t you object to the Senate’s planned slaughter? Or was that just a ploy because you knew somebody might be watching?”

    “The Senate’s plan had more to do with maintenance of wealth than the health of the city. If it had been more impartially designed to a more effective end, I would not have objected.”

    The casual declaration greatly irritated Stas. Or perhaps he felt as if he was supposed to be irritated.

    “Maybe you are also a monster. Maybe I should kill you too.”

    “Perhaps,” the Mad Monk spoke as though he were commenting on the weather. “Though I don’t believe it would be of any aid to anyone. If you wish to slay monsters, one of Macro’s Chimeras has taken residence in the former southern slums. It would be a great boon to the city, as much of it remains, if it were dealt with.”

    A voice in his head that resounded like Enjolras agreed that would be a true and noble thing to do. The dagger at his side seemed to agree. He squashed that voice down hard. Stas sighed, and sat upon a marble bench. The Mad Monk took a seat across from him.

    And silence resumed.

    Eventually it was too much for Stas. “What,” he began, and stopped as he tried to figure out what he wanted to ask. He swallowed and began again. “You say something like this was inevitable, the slaughter or the chaos. What did you want to happen?”

    “‘Want’ is a strange term,” the Monk mused. “It was always a matter of mitigation. The production of food fundamentally cannot sustain the city forever. The cycles of barely sufficient growth and lengthening famines are devastating. That it can be mitigated by death is almost worse. This whole state is not desirable, but it is a fact of life,” his tone remained bland as he spoke, despite the morbidity of his statements.

    “The Lady Hirtius had a novel goal of incentivized sterilization and suicide. In the ideal case, it could have allowed for a slow, gentle euthaniasia of the city. Of the options, I found this the most agreeable. It is amusing,” the Monk adopted a small, wry grin, “that such a simple solution had not occurred to me, but Lady Hirtius was an exemplar in many ways, may she rest in peace.”

    Stas closed his eyes and exhaled. “If that’s what you wanted, why did you support Libertas? Or was somebody else Enjolras’s mysterious contact?”

    “Did you just figure that out now?” The Monk seemed amused by the comment, more than by anything else in the conversation so far. “As I said, it is a matter of mitigation. There were a number of outcomes I would have found acceptable and I worked towards all of them. The Lady Hirtius’s plan was just one of them. A more impartial decimation of the city was another. Allowing a revolutionary group to seize control of the government was a third. In the initial days of a new government, it would have been simple enough to ensure that enough enemies of the new state died to stave off the current famine, and the resulting government could be better placed to deal with the next.” The Monk’s lips turned to a frown. “I must admit I am disappointed Enjolras was unsuccessful in seizing power. I had thought him more competent than this.”

    At this Stas felt the need to laugh, “if that was your plan, it never would have worked. Libertas is the perfect revolution. It can never die, never be quashed, never end. And what is a victory but another type of ending?”

    The Mad Monk blinked. “A soul-crafted movement? Fascinating. I did not know such a thing was possible. But it would explain a great deal.” He bowed his head. “I must thank you, Stas, your insight will save me a lot of wasted effort for the challenges ahead.”

    “Challenges ahead?” Stas scoffed. “The city is dead. The gate is destroyed. People are killing each other over the last stockpiles. There is nothing to do but die.”

    “Quite a morbid assessment, but I disagree. With the reduced population from this… civil war shall we call it, the restraining factor on food is no longer production, but distribution. The labor force remaining is large enough to grow and process a new batch of crops, if the blood of the deceased can be harvested in time. If one of the current factions emerges victorious and properly puts the city to work, I imagine society will resume in as little as a year. A reborn city to last another few centuries, lacking the flaws of the old.”

    “You are Mad.” Stas huffed. “And do you expect to rule over this decrepit husk you envision? A new Dominus for a new city?”

    “Traditionally, that honor would go to the one who defeated the prior Dominus.”

    Stas gaped. “What.” The mask on his face seemed to cling tighter. The horrifying thought brought a wave of nausea from his stomach to his throat. “No. Absolutely not. I refuse.” The dagger at his side seemed to laugh.

    The Mad Monk sighed. “A pity. A strong, unifying individual with a semblance of legitimacy would have made this upcoming matter much more simple. And since Libertas is not an option as you have explained, I must select the best among the former Senatorial factions to lead. Far from ideal… Are you sure I cannot convince you otherwise?”

    Stas glared at the madman.

    “Well, I have no desire to force you. Perhaps it is for the best. I suspect the Dominus is not as lost as you might hope. Should they return in the coming years or decades, discovering someone else has taken their title would certainly enrage them.”

    Stas shook his head, the dagger at his side burning at the thought. He could feel it trying to leap to his hand. “No. Impossible,” he said, as much to it as to the man before him. “Those reflections… they’re not a good place, not something anyone can survive.” Shifting, grasping, wrong. They threatened to engulf his sight once more, aware of them as he was.

    “Hm. The Dominus has survived many things that should have killed them, in their lifetime. But I will accept your expertise on this matter.” The Mad Monk granted. “Regardless, we will be able to function without a personally powerful executive for the near future. At the very least I can comfort myself with the knowledge that there is no chance of an invasion through the gate without a presence like the Dominus to scare them off. That is perhaps greater than the boon that food deliveries would have granted.”

    “Why are you telling me this? I’ve already rejected your cursed offer. You should just leave me alone to play in your petty ruins.”

    “Have I been rambling? I apologize. These recent weeks have been quite tiring.”

    Stas did not know if he believed the man. Nothing of his appearance indicated he had been affected in the slightest.

    “That said,” the Monk continues, “the offer you have rejected was only my first. I would have you hear my second before I depart, if you would allow it.”

    Stas said nothing, but the Monk seemed to take it as permission to continue.

    “Even in a situation as chaotic as this, rumors manage to flow. It is a human point of excellence, the seeking of information. When one asks what happened to the Dominus, many names surface: The Man in the Blue Mask. The Devil Himself. Libertas Incarnate. The Champion of the People. Some even acknowledge Stas the Gladiator, though it is a less known and less popular explanation, for obvious reasons. That you have been absent this past month only exacerbates the rumors. People do love a good mystery.”

    In a past life, Stas would have bristled that he was not being recognized for his deeds. In the here and now, he found he didn’t care the slightest. “Get to the point,” he grumbled.

    “The uncertainty is useful for me, in crafting the narrative that would be most beneficial to the city. As you are not interested in stepping into the title, I would ask that you instead step away from it entirely: disappear from the story entirely so that it may best be molded unhindered.”

    The words hung in the air as Stas tasted them. His hand traced against the painted eye of his mask. A stabbing pain from the dagger jolted him from his consideration.

    Right… he had made a promise.

    “No,” he forced himself to say. “I will not die for your convenience.”

    “I would not ask you to,” the Monk rejected. “I no longer have the resources to make it worth your while. Rather, I would ask you to leave this world.”

    “The Gate is destroyed.”

    “Indeed, for good and ill. But it is not the only method of travel. The Dominus came before it existed. Others have been pulled through at times, as required. Returning you to the world of your birth is possible, if not easy. But I am willing to arrange it for you, should you accept.”

    Stas hadn’t even known to consider it; going back to the provinces, that world he had so happily escaped. That dull, boring, empty village that was so different from here.

    As if sensing his thoughts, the Mad Monk continued. “Your birth world is much bigger than the tiny corner the Dominus commanded, you should know. There are many who would happily welcome you with open arms, knowing what you have done.”

    A world… a new one or old one to explore. A new one to fail and disappoint. Did Stas have any reason to believe it would be any better?

    “Alternatively, my previous offer is still open. If you wish to join me in making the best of this dying world, I would be more than happy to have you.”

    Again, a voice much like Enjolras cajolled him, extolling the good he could do here. This time, though, the dagger at his side stayed quiet,

    In truth, he had no reason to believe the other world would be any worse. Here the dagger hummed. At least one of them had an opinion on the matter.

    And with that, the matter resolved itself in his mind.

    “Send me away, then. There is nothing for me in this miserable world.”





    Eighteen Months Before​
     
  18. VerBlinkel

    VerBlinkel Getting sticky.

    Joined:
    Nov 18, 2017
    Messages:
    56
    Likes Received:
    30
    I'll read this chapter at the end of NaNoWriMo if the story isn't done. I'm not waiting a whole year. I'm just not that patient.

    Glad to see you writing again. I've missed your stuff.
     
  19. Threadmarks: Twenty Five
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    “Hm,” she commented with a nod, “good show.”

    Stas frowned, “should we be talking?”

    Eponine shrugged. “I am still muting the sounds. With the door closed, it should be fine, as long as we aren’t shouting.”

    “I see.” Stas’s eyes fell back to the blood dripping down from the sword, the mark of his unsporting, yet effective, ambush. He suppressed a grimace at the sight. “Do you have anything for this? I’d rather not let the blade have a chance to rust.” In the arena, and on the training grounds, there would be servants to take care of such trivialities. But this was a borrowed blade from Enjolras’s armory, and he’d hate to leave it worse than when he found it.

    “Here,” Eponine tossed him some cloth from near her position, some spare bit of clothing that must have belonged to one of the guards. Stas grabbed the bundled linen and began to hesitantly wipe away the warm, red ichor.

    His companion moved to the wall behind him, and Stas turned to see a smooth metal box with an extended lever upon it in easy reach.

    “This must be the alarm,” she said.

    Stas nodded. “Yeah, it must be. One of the guards wanted to get at it, from what I saw.”

    “Do you think it is the only one?”

    Stas shrugged, and examined himself for any blood splatter that might have reached him. “I have no more an idea than you. I would hope so.” He found a bit, and dabbed it with the remainder of the cloth that wasn’t dirtied.

    “I wonder if I can disable it. Rip out the lever, perhaps?” Eponine mused. “If there is more than one alarm nearby, I won’t be able to guard both.”

    Stas shook his head. “I don’t think it is worth the risk of accidentally setting it off. I don’t think there is another guard room, no point in it since the prison is not particularly big. If there is another, it wouldn’t be as close as this one.”

    “Well, why don’t you get to it, then?” Eponine sassed. “I don’t really care to stand around here all night.”

    Stas tossed the bloody rag to the ground. “Give me a moment. That won’t be a problem, right?” He wanted his heart rate to get back to a steady rhythm before he set out again. This was far more stressful than a fight on the stands.

    “You have time but not forever. Nobody is going to barge in right now, but my arcanum is not going to last forever. I only brought so many elixirs.”

    “I don’t need long.” Stas closed his eyes and caught his breath. He inhaled and exhaled slowly. As he did so, he set his mind's eyes to the ever present mirrors about him, and observed the reflection of the hallway. The bird-faced watchers were patrolling the small corridor lackadaisical. Only two had remained, and neither of them had noticed their invasion.

    It seemed that the distraction had been extremely successful, if so few watchers remained on guard.

    “Right, I’ll be back shortly.” Stas braced himself and reflected.

    Stas swung his sword for the bird-faced watcher’s less protected nape for another sure-kill strike. Astoundingly, he missed.

    Or perhaps it was more accurate to say the watcher dodged, as a sudden movement turned the fatal blow into a shallow cut.

    Was it a preternatural instinct that saved the watcher, Stas wondered. Had he made a mistake somehow? Or was Eponine’s arcanum incomplete? Even if it prevented the arena guards from going in a particular door, would it have prevented them from noticing their missing fellows? Stas did not know the nature of the magic to make such a judgement. But it was irrelevant at this point.

    The guard’s head slammed backwards toward his own. Stas pulled back in time to avoid the brunt of the skull bash, but he did feel the impact against the mask he wore.

    His next strike was confounded as the watcher, with an agility he would have expected from a fellow gladiator, twisted in place with a leg sweep.

    Stas resisted the urge to jump over it. Such feats of acrobatics were fine for the arena with an audience, but Phobos had drilled the folly of such into his head. So instead he simply stepped backwards out of range.

    Mask to mask with the bird-faced watcher now, he could feel the weight of the guard’s glare. With a quick flick, the watcher extended a pair of thick daggers from their wrists. Stas had wondered why the guard seemed to lack a scabbard, but easily accessible blades explained it. It was a good thing they had such. If they had been forced to draw their weapons, Stas would have spent the rest of the fight preventing them from doing so, and that wouldn’t have made for a fair or satisfying bout.

    On a similar note, Stas realized the other guard was reaching for an elixir flask. He reflected quickly and found his blade easily tearing into the watcher’s flesh. It seemed this one lacked the same competence of the dagger-wielder. In some ways it was a shame, but in the scope of things, a proper fight was a one on one matter.

    As the elixir drinker crumpled to the ground, incapacitated and dying if not dead already, the first watcher stood with a loose stance, ready to pounce in any direction. They did not make the mistake of closing the distance. Stas’s inborn arcanum clearly made that a complete waste of energy. Stas was the one who decided the range. Without a horde of allies to box him in, any attempt to close or lengthen the distance was pointless.

    The move belonged to Stas at the moment, and he took a moment to consider it, that he might unnerve his tense opponent. Once again masked eyes met masked eyes as the two foes contemplated one another. Then, when Stas was ready, he reflected.

    The watcher launched themselves forward, to avoid a surprise blow from the back, but Stas had not teleported behind his foe, but instead to the side for that very reason. Any sane fighter with any experience or forethought would expect him to land behind, as it was clearly the most advantageous position. And so, they would be ready for it. Similarly, moving to the front allowed his opponent the most positional advantage, even if he caught them off guard. But the side served as a superior compromise, allowing him to strike a blow if his opponent moved forward or back.

    More than that, establishing that Stas could and would strike from places other than the back, meant his opponents would have to guard against all directions, making any attack more successful. A fight with Stas was a frustrating game where he had all the experience. And nobody was better at it than him, except, perhaps, for Phobos who had taught him the rules.

    But it seemed that this dagger-weilding watcher was a natural player as well. While the initial move clearly caught his foe by surprise, the guard had been able to twist their nearest dagger to intercept.

    It was a panicked move at an awkward angle with the added disadvantage of having no time to pick up speed. By all accounts, Stas’s strike in proper form at an advantageous angle with additional weight to his blade should have batted the flailing defence aside.

    And yet, Stas was shocked to find his own sword being forced from his grip. His arm was forced aside by the weight of the guard’s desperate blow, and his strike was abandoned, and his stance left open.

    The guard capitalized on unbalanced state, twisting to bring the other dagger to bear and strike at Stas’s open right side. He managed to catch it with his sword. This time he was prepared for the force, but it still was a struggle.

    Truly, the guard possessed monstrous strength. Stas himself was not the heaviest of strikers; brute force was not advantageous for him to pursue. But he was a gladiator who had the luxury of training every day. And yet this watcher had almost as much force to them as the most dedicated of Stas’s peers.

    Perhaps, Stas mused, he had the honor of facing a current or former gladiator. It was quite unlikely that a successful fighter would find themselves working as a simple faceless city guard. Anyone with skill as this foe clearly possessed would be patronized by a Patrician, that their fame might serve to the noble’s prestige just as much as their skill might serve to the noble’s protection. To serve underneath the arena guarding prisoners among all the other bird-faced weaklings would be an insult.

    Stas freed himself from the clash of blades, reflecting to an angle where the advantage of his shield would be evident over the double blades. His sword had superior reach, even if his foe’s daggers had more strength to them. Conventionally, his armaments had an advantage. WIth Stas’s superior skill and unique arcanum, the inevitable result of this bout was obvious. But this watcher was certainly making a fight of it.

    It was a shame Stas needed to kill this one. In different circumstances, he would have been willing to bring them before Ludo to see if they could be inducted. But Stas would not allow himself to feel pity against one who cast themselves as a dog of the Dominus and oversaw the torture of prisoners.

    Prisoners, it seemed, who seemed to be getting an idea that something was going on. The moans and screams and raspy curses were slowly being replaced by demands to know what is going on, and, with each clash of steel, a growing realization and some hesitant cheers. In this stark prison beneath the glorious sands of the arena, their fight was turning into a facsimile of a real match, complete with spectators.

    Stas’s caught another blow with Enjolras’s shield. The armor was astounding. Despite the watcher’s prodigious strength, he barely felt the impact of any blow. The shield took the force and seemed to consume it. As the short fight went on, Stas quickly realized deflecting blows with his sword was an inefficient maneuver, compared to taking advantage of the indestructible shield. His foe seemed to realize it as well, as they aimed as often as possible for the right side of Stas’s body, further from the shield, but Stas found he had an easy time maneuvering the implement to catch every blow. His training with the weapon pair certainly was a great factor, but the shield made it so easy.

    Stas was almost tempted to discard the implement, to give his foe an actual fighting shot. But the temptation was easily discarded with the thought of Enjolras’s disapproval. He would not disrespect the man’s shield or his mission by doing so. And the shield almost seemed to hum in agreement, with every blow it caught.

    It was a testament to his foe that the fight was not over yet. Though Stas had a significant upper hand, the guard was able to avoid any truly lethal blows. The nicks and scratches and exhaustion were adding up, but this fight was not so long going to have ended from that. But the rhythm was established and, so long as Stas did not make a mistake, it would be over soon. And Stas would not make a mistake.

    And that included forgetting about the other watcher, who, despite being a bloody heap on the floor, had been trying to consume an elixir. From how the dagger-wielder kept glancing over, it was clear they hoped their partner’s last gasp attempt at arcanum would be their salvation.

    A more naive Stas, had he noticed the maneuver at all, would have pulled back from the fight to finish off the elixir drinker. But, with Phobos’s training, Stas realized that without allowing his foe a possibility of victory, they might change their goal to something worse. Something like trying to escape or set off an alarm instead of trying to defeat him. So Stas pretended to be unaware of the other watcher. When they made their dying move, he would dodge or weather it, and use the opportunity of his foe’s despair to finish them off.

    “Fuck you,” a dying voice behind him rasped, blood spitting from their lips. And they tapped the floor. Stas prepared to reflect at a moment’s notice, prepared for anything. A crack emerged in the stone floor and grew quickly, not towards Stas, but instead towards the wall.

    Once there, it expanded rapidly in an explosion of debris, leaving a large hole in the thick wall. Stas did not understand the point of it all.

    “Oh, you fucking bastard!” the dagger-wielder exclaimed, much to his own confusion.

    A low, resounding rumble emerged from the hole, a scampering of feet, and a terrible, rotting smell. Stas was reminded of just what room lay on the other side of that particular wall.

    Stas was not a particular fan of the Venatio. But in the city one did not have to seek them out to be exposed to the matter. The opportunities to witness the events were many, and the hunts were a common topic of conversation, both among Libertas and from the lips of his fellow gladiators. Stas himself had witnessed three chimera hunts in his time here.

    The monsters of the arena, the chimeras varied as wildly as one could imagine. Stas had seen a snake the size of a full carriage, whose venomous fangs could melt the arena’s sands. He had seen a lumbering beast in the mocking shape of a man thrice the size, with a single, bulging eye centered in its mouthless head. He had seen a misshapen three legged shell, whose porous back housed thousands of swarming insects, each of which would attempt to drain a man dry.

    He had heard tales of elephants that crushed the earth with each step, horses that feasted on the flesh of man, and an enormous raptor that spent most of its match trying to fly from the arena to feast upon the audience. Only the arena’s shield had kept the hundred-eyed winged beast contained.

    Half the spectacle of a chimera hunt was in never knowing what would emerge from the arena’s basement. Only the madmen that created the monsters could imagine what could be next. Only the Venatio could determine how to slay them. Each was one of a kind, bound only by their hatred for all life.

    The beast that crawled out of the hole in the wall, clinging to the surface as easily as one might stand on solid ground, was no different. Onyx scales covered the entirety of its flesh, gleaming like black marble, obsidian, the jewels of the plaza market. Its round bellied torso, the size of a man on its own, was held close to the wall. It was supported by four, thick muscular legs each marked by four sinuous toes. Its tail was half again as long as its torso, whipping lazily in the air back and forth.

    And its head… with a neck like a snake but as thick as the tail, a round, scaled bulb protruded from the torso. It lacked eyes or nose or ears or any distinction of direction. Instead it was split, lengthwise and vertically, leaving four identical wedges of a mouth.

    The scaled lips peeled backwards like a flower bulb, revealing that the insides were coated with hundreds of glistening white, needle-like teeth. No tongue graced its maw as it opened wide.

    And, from this hideous opening, accompanied by a warbling of its dark throat, a high pitched sound screeched forth. Stas felt his blood boil, his veins pinch. His bones rumbled, threatening to break, and his head almost exploded from the pain of the sound alone. His stomach rebelled, from the noise, from the odor, and he found himself spewing his bile on the floor. He could not even remove his mask in time.

    Beside him, the bird-faced watcher also crumpled in on themselves, vomiting.

    Thankfully the chimera halted its scream after naught but a few moments. Its head tracked the room. Then, as quick as the lash of Phobos’s chains, its tail darted forth, spearing the crumpled corpse of the guard who released it. The body dangled on the tail, like meat on a skewer stick.

    Once more the flowered lips parted, and the beast brought the body to its maw. Razor sharp teeth scraped against the armored chest of the deceased watcher. The metal shredded under its assault, flesh and bone and viscera following suit. The four petals clamped closed around its morsel, and the body tore in half from the exertion.

    The creature’s mouth did not lend itself to efficient eating, but the beast’s enthusiasm made up for the deficiency. Gore stained its scaled lips, as more of its meal fell to the floor than made its way to the creature’s gullet. Then, with an action that proved its monstrous nature, it allowed its prey to fall entirely, no longer caring for the meat.

    Instead its head turned towards Stas and the other watcher, and the four lips opened once again.

    With the added warning this time, Stas braced himself for the ear piercing screech that followed. He reflected away, across the room, to avoid the weakness that was sure to match it.

    Once more, Stas fell to his knees from the force of the noise. This time, however, he managed to hold his vomit. Blood dripped from his nose, from this time or the last he did not know, but his blood vessels protested the screech as much as his ears. The watcher too, was laid low by the noise.

    The chimera, mid scream, launched itself from the wall towards the watcher. Thick forelegs reached out for the debilitated guard. In turn, twin daggers rose to defend them, but they were knocked aside by the chimera’s falling bulk. The monster’s tail lashed out and stabbed through Stas’s foe’s armor, and the eyeless face descended to its new prey.

    Stas did not have the presence of mind to enjoy the end of the scream, as he was met with the horrible sight of his opponent being torn apart. Like with the chimera’s previous victim, it did not seem to care to eat much of its prey. Rather it seemed content to mutilate its targets. Any meat it consumed was almost incidental.

    The chimera hunted not to eat, but to kill. It was no true animal, but a monstroisty made to murder. Its head locked onto Stas now. How, the gladiator had no idea, as it lacked eyes to see or any other visible sensory organs. But it was unerring in following his position.

    The beast launched itself, screeching once again. This time Stas found it was not as disorienting. Perhaps it was because he was getting used to the horrific noise. Or perhaps it is because the damage was already done and there was nothing left to break. His mind was a jumble, and body bruising on the inside, his muscles a spasming mess. Sick to the stomach, ears ringing painfully, and on the brink of losing consciousness, the third round of screaming only seemed to exacerbate what was already there.

    Thankful once again for Phobos’s training, Stas reflected. If his teacher had not had him practice his arcanum while drugged and damaged, he might not have been able to do so now. As it stood, he found himself by the creature’s side, avoiding the tail and head both.

    He slammed his borrowed blade into the creature’s scales with as much force as he could muster. The chimera did not buckle. His sword, however, did. The metal bent ominously, the blade ruined.

    Stas felt his stomach drop for more reasons than the screaming. The chimera loomed larger before him now. Its tail sped for his torso.

    Stas reflected away, letting his ruined blade drop to the floor. The beast twisted, finding his new position with ease. Its faceless head seemed to stare at him. Abruptly, it turned away, looking instead at one of the prison doors.

    The beast’s tail slammed through the metal, puncturing a hole the size of Stas’s fist. Its jagged mouth ripped at the perforated edges, bending the metal, forcing the hole larger and larger, metal shavings falling loudly to the floor. In a few short moments the hole was large enough for the chimera to fit its head through.

    And to Stas’s horror, that is what the monster did. The prisoner inside the tiny cell screamed in pain and terror as the scaled beast ripped through the unfortunate woman.

    Stas was left frozen in place, almost uncomprehending of the sight. He could not consider what to do. Nothing in his arsenal could harm the chimera. It had already taken his sword without any issue, and his arcanum could not provide any force. Helpless as he was, he could picture the beast breaking through cells one by one, feasting upon the prisoners he was supposed to save, before escaping to the city at large.

    But Stas was not completely without weapons. His mind turned to Enjolras’s shield on his arm. Perhaps the soul crafted item could be the lifeline. If he could turn the indestructible edge of the shield against the beast’s scales, perhaps it cut through the monster.

    As soon as the thought finished, Stas felt a sharp, painful burn from the shield. The very idea seemed to repel him, and his nausea redoubled. The shield was a shield, he knew with an excruciating jolt. To have it be anything else would be folly.

    He would have to save the prisoners some other way. He did not have much time to consider. The beast had satisfied itself on its first prisoner, and was boring into the second cell.

    Stas could not reflect inside the cells. There was far too little space for him to appear. He would need to get the doors open without magic. He scanned the room for the watchers' corpses, and was dismayed to see that their key rings had been destroyed. But those were not the only corpses available.

    Stas reflected back into the guard room, much to Eponine’s shock.

    “Stas?” she questioned. “Did…”

    “Chimera got loose!” Stas interrupted with a shout. “Stay here!” He found the key ring quickly, and ripped it from the dead watcher’s belt.

    “What…” Eponine began, but Stas did not wait for her question. He reflected back to the cells, where the chimera was devouring its second prisoner. He forced the sight from his mind, instead grabbing a key from the ring at random. He struggled to read the tiny number on it, mind a daze.

    When he managed it, Stas reflected to the equivalent cell. He forced his shaking hand to get the key in the lock, which required a few tries. Then he yanked the door open.

    The prisoner inside was near insensate: clear marks of torture line their body, as did the blood and bile from the chimera’s scream. Stas yanked them through the door.

    “Run!” he commanded. “Run for your life!”

    Stas pushed the man out, but he didn’t seem to comprehend. The chimera was upon the man in a second, ripping him to shreds with teeth and tail. Stas reflected out of the way.

    He did not allow himself to stop, getting the next key and the next cage. He opened them, one by one, as fast as he was able. “Run!” he screamed. “Scatter! It can’t get all of you, so run!”

    It was a miserable routine. Stas was able to release prisoners faster than the Chimera could devour them, but only just. As more and more prisoners escaped their cells, the more chance they had to escape as their fellows died instead as they followed his order to flee and scatter. THe chimera danced between them, killing as it desired with the ability to choose whomever it liked. Stas worked almost mindlessly, trying to blot out the death. When the last door was opened, he reflected towards the Chimera, using Enjolras’s shield to divert and delay.

    He intercepted a snap of the jaws only for another prisoner to be impaled by the tail. He blocked a pounce only to be forced to reflect away from a blow to his own person, leaving an unfortunate man to be maimed instead.

    It was gruesome. It was miserable. It was hopeless. Perhaps one in four of the prisoners made it out of the prison block. But that was a one in four that would have died had he not let them free. Stas did not have the presence of mind to note if Romeo was among them, or if his mangled corpse littered the floor like so many others.

    Stas pulled the mask away from his throat to retch. The situation was horrible, and it wasn’t even over yet. Once the Chimera left the prison block, its hunt would resume. But hopefully the wider corridors and greater number of options meant more people could survive until…

    Until what? The Chimera was loose. It wasn’t going to stop unless somebody stopped it. The prisoners he saved might all die regardless, as soon as the Chimera stopped feasting on the corpses here and entered the arena proper.

    Except… it didn’t seem to be going out, rather it was doing something that seemed to slip off of Stas’s mind.

    Stas reflected past the door he had trouble considering into the guard room where Eponine terrored in the corner and the Chimera pounced. He placed himself in front of her, shielding the woman with his entire body, Enjolras’s shield raised to protect him.

    The Chimera’s jaws clamped around the magic shield, but the tool held steady. The beast’s mouth was locked open, its head secured by Stas’s will.

    “Knife, now!” he yelled.

    Eponine, to her credit, acted immediately, not wasting time to question what happened to Stas’s own sword. She grasped for the blade she kept hidden on her person, and placed it in the gladiators awaiting hand.

    Stas took the blade and shoved it into the creature's forcefully opened maw, ignoring how the monster’s teeth scraped against his arm.

    The knife’s blade reached the back of the Chimera’s throat, meeting solid, unscaled flesh. And, like Stas’s sword before it. The knife bent.

    Stas felt despair build up inside him. It was unfair, he decried, for the inside of the beast to be as tough as the out. There were no eyes to stab, no other conspicuous openings. The monster was too strong by far. What were its crafters thinking, making its flesh so impervious. Were they trying to slaughter all the Venatio?

    The beast’s tail sped for the two of them. With his shield occupying its maw, he could not block it. If he moved the shield, the maw would tear him apart. If he teleported away, Eponine would be left to die.

    With creativity born of desperation, Stas willed a solution. Years ago he had learned how to reflect his clothes and weaponry with him. What made a person so different from the objects he grasped?

    And so, with a dear hope that he wasn’t leaving his companion to die, he grasped her tightly, and reflected outside of the guard room. To his elation, Eponine reflected with him.

    Eponine gasped, and shuddered. “That was, by far, the strangest sensation I’ve even felt.”

    “I’ve stopped noticing it,” he stated blandly, tracking the beast through reflections.

    “I didn’t know you could do that with other people.”

    Stas hadn’t known either, but he didn’t think that would be of any comfort to explain. “Don’t let go of me,” he stated instead. “So long as I am holding you, we can stay out of the Chimera’s way.”

    “My arcanum did nothing to it.” Eponine stated morosely. “Absolutely nothing. I had thought myself safe. If a Watcher came I could make them forget about me. But…” she trailed off, seeming to notice the many, many bodies for the first time. She shuddered once more. “How did it get out?”

    Stas grit his teeth. “One of the Watcher’s released it intentionally. As a dying curse perhaps. I was able to rescue a few prisoners, but…” he exhaled.

    “You can kill it, right?” Eponine asked, with a certainty to her question that Stas could not back up.

    Stas swallowed. Bravado demanded he affirm, but… “I don’t know if I can. I can defend myself against it, survive its weapons and scream, but I do not know if I can slay it. Not with my current equipment. The Chimera is designed to fight a whole squad of hunters. And I have not been trained to fight beasts.”

    “I see. Perhaps we should exit, then. We have denied the Watcher’s access to the prisoners, freed who we could. Our mission is over. We can allow the Watchers to discover and deal with the Chimera. If we are lucky, it will slaughter a good number of them before it is brought down.”

    Stas frowned. “That assumes it will be content to stay within the arena. If it escapes to the city at large… Who knows how many would die?” Stas grimaced. “Perhaps it would be best to pull the alarm ourselves, to summon the Watchers before it can escape.”

    “No.” Eponine stated firmly. “If we call the Watchers, we and the remaining prisoners would be captured. Killed. Tortured for information too. We can’t risk that.” Her expression softened. “Stas, I don’t want the Chimera to get into the city any more than you do, but if it does, it wouldn’t be your fault. The Watcher who released it would be to blame.”

    Fault? Blame? If a young girl is torn apart by a beast, would her last thoughts be about who allowed it to happen? She would be dead regardless, horrifically so.

    “If you can’t kill it,” Eponine continued gently, “then we have to flee. There is nothing else we can do.”

    Stas considered the matter. It was true, he could not kill it. Even with his arcanum and the shield, the scales were too impervious. But the Chimera had been safely encaged until the vindictive Watcher had freed it. Stas had no method of fixing the wall, but that was not the only enclosure.

    Stas resolved himself. “There’s another option,” he stated firmly. “There’s more than one Chimera enclosure. If I can get it inside one of the intact ones, it won't be able to escape.”

    Eponine frowned. “You shouldn’t risk yourself for this. There’s nothing wrong with running away.”

    Stas shook his head. “It’s not a risk. Not much of one anyway. I don’t need to defeat it, I just need to grab a hold of it. If I can reflect holding onto you, then I can do the same with it.” In his mind’s eye he could see the other enclosure. He could easily get inside of it. The only question was if he could take the monster with him. If his new ability was limited by size or weight, or if the beast makers had somehow made it immune to arcanum…

    In that case he would truly need to flee.

    “Okay,” Eponine nodded. “I trust you.”

    “Hm.” Stas nodded, and inhaled deeply, an unpleasant action considering the aroma of the place.

    Then he reflected. The Chimera lashed out instantly at his presence, its tail swiping at him, but Stas was ready to defend with Enjolras’s shield, and the blow bounced off as though it were made of feathers. He was far enough away from the beast's maw that he didn’t need to worry about it. With his free hand, he hugged himself tightly against the scaled body.

    And with a force of exertion he had not noticed for years, Stas reflected. The black-scaled lizard came with him.

    Stas nearly collapsed immediately, as he felt a substance assault his lungs, his stomach revolting. The torch light in the Chimera enclosure was much less than that outside of it, but the lighting was enough to make out the light purple haze that suffused the air. Even with his mask’s incidental protection, he could feel the dust burn his throat; he felt his body seize.

    Standing in the corner of the room, gazing at him with three, massive, bulbous, unblinking eyes, was a stout chimera. It reminded him nothing more than of the toads he had witnessed in the province alongside the ponds and riverbeds that dotted the landscape. Unlike a toad, it stood taller than him, with a gaping mouth large enough to swallow three men whole. On its back were numerous mushroom caps. With each slow, deep breath of the chimera’s vile lungs, the caps on its back released more purple haze.

    The black-scaled chimera seemed similarly impacted by the haze of spores. It seized in place, before opening its flower-lipped mouth to scream. The painful noise washed over Stas, forcing him to release the beast. And the toad chimera winced in turn.

    A large, bulging tongue covered in sacs of ooze shot out of the toad-chimera’s mouth. It snagged onto the scaled chimera, securing it tightly. And, like an angler with a fish on the line, it reeled its prey backwards towards its cavernous gullet. The lizard-like chimera was not docile, its indestructible maw tore into the other beast’s fleshy tongue, its tail raised to skewer the toad in turn.

    It seemed, for the moment, Stas was being ignored. It was a fortunate thing, too, as his muscles, assailed by spore and sound alike, failed to respond.

    Thankfully, he did not need them to reflect. He found himself back with Eponine, where the air was slightly fresher.

    “Is it done?” she inquired.

    Stas coughed, a raspy, ugly motion. But it was successful in getting the purple spores out of his lungs as much as he was able. He desperately craved water. Or even better, alcohol to burn the sensation out. When he was finally able to, he spoke. “Yes,” he croaked. “The two chimeras are fighting one another.” Which of them would emerge triumphant, he had no idea. But he could guess that neither would stop until one or the other was dead. Perhaps both.

    “Hah,” Eponine exhaled deeply. “I thought this would be a mess from the start, but I didn’t predict that it would get so bad.”

    “Everything was going perfectly until the Watcher let the Chimera loose.” Perhaps that should have been the sign things would go wrong. Romeo often claimed a winning streak was a sign of a big loss would be upcoming, just as a losing streak guaranteed a win. Stas thought that to be nonsense, but perhaps the man’s compulsive gambling had granted him a deeper insight into the world.

    Speaking of… Stas checked the reflections of the arena basement and spotted a ragged Romeo being interrogated by Sanson and an ecstatic Lucian. It seemed that their night had not been completely uneventful, as a single Watcher corpse lay beside them.

    “It seems Romeo did survive.” Stas noted for Eponine’s benefit. “He’s with Sanson and Lucian, and some of the surviving prisoners. “We should let them know that the Chimera has been dealt with.”

    “I’m tempted to let the three of them panic a bit more, but we don’t want them doing anything stupid.” Eponine agreed. “So it seems our mission tonight was a success. But it has definitely given me a new hatred for Chimeras. And a new respect for the Ventio troupes.”

    “Indeed.” Stas nodded. “I think I might wish to catch a hunt or two. Seeing the Chimeras get slaughtered would be cathartic.”

    “Can you snag me a ticket? I think I’d like to join you.”

    Stas considered for a moment. “I can try.” One of his fellow gladiators would know how to get tickets for regular audience members, he was certain. Zola sometimes went to watch from the stadium seats, though he had no idea why she would prefer it over the superior box seats they had access to as gladiators.

    “Hm. Well, let’s get out of here before something else goes wrong. Can you teleport me again? I’m pretty sure you’ve made me left-handed.”

    “Really? I didn’t know my magic could do that.”

    “I’m surprised you didn’t notice, what with all the teleporting you do.”

    “Well, I am naturally ambidextrous. And most gladiators I know train to be so if they are not.”

    “Interesting.” Eponine nodded, and extended her hand daintily. “Let us go, then. We still need to sneak the living prisoners out of here. Your work might be done for the night, but I have a good deal left to do.”

    Stas grabbed the hand. “I just want to collapse in bed and sleep for a week.”

    “And miss your next arena match? Perish the thought.”

    “Don’t remind me.” Stas reflected, and the two of them left the awful, corpse-ridden prison.
     
    Raron, prandom, VerBlinkel and 3 others like this.
  20. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    Hm... so, based on the outline, there are about 10 or so chapters left.

    I'm going to make it my goal to actually finish up the story this year. If I don't get it done during NaNoWriMo, I'll try to get it done December, as unless I fall into word bloat, it should be almost done by the end of the month.

    And man, word bloat. I feel bad subjecting you to this, because on reread it is pretty awful at times. Especially those chapters written towards the end of the month. NaNoWriMo is great at getting me to sit down and write SOMETHING, but it is terrible at getting me to write quality, since I don't give myself any time to edit.

    Once this is done, I'm going to go back and edit EVERYTHING. After all, half of writing is putting words on paper, while the other half is removing words. My target is to halve the word count in the end, so it is more reasonable (that would put it squarely in the 80-100k range). Then I will take that, and try to get it published, which I imagine will take another run of editing.

    Speaking of, does anyone know anything about publishing, whether self/independent, or going through a publisher? Any advice would be appreciated. I'm not trying to make money, per se. It's more about crossing an entry off my bucket list.
     
  21. Threadmarks: Twenty Six
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    I wasn't originally intending to put a chapter break here, but it's a scene break, so no reason not to post. My chapters have been too long anyway.

    It had been a week since the Chimera incident, and it was still leaving a mark on Stas. Whether it was from the stench or the stress or the lizard’s screeching or the toad’s spores, Stas found his stomach had never really settled from the event. A low undercurrent of nausea persisted throughout each and every day, never truly subsiding. Trying to purge his stomach did little to abate it, and any use of his arcanum only exacerbated it.

    Still, it was a manageable symptom, if one that elicited concern and frustration. He was learning to adapt to his weaker stomach, and, outside of the times he invoked his arcanum, it was easy to ignore. It hadn’t cost him his match, and that was the best judge of things. The greater concern was his arm.

    The scratches from the Chimera’s teeth were not healing properly. The scabs and scrapes had grown back smooth and shiny, almost metallic in nature. Stas did not dare imagine what sort of horrific substance could cause such a transformation. He was only glad it did not seem to be spreading.

    The problem was that it was obvious and unnatural and Stas had no good way to explain it. He had taken to keeping the arm completely concealed to avoid any questions. There was no good reason for a Gladiator such as himself to have fought a Chimera. The one time somebody had brought it up, he had claimed it was an attempt at a fashion and branding, to better show off the effects of his reflection for the audience’s enjoyment. That had been accepted well enough.

    He was getting a negative reputation with the general physician for avoiding checkups, unfortunately. But unless or until Stas actually fell ill or injured, the health professional would do no more than grumble. Perhaps Stas would allow himself to take a blow from an arcanum-wielding opponent when he next had the opportunity. Then he could blame the strange ailment on said magic. Or perhaps it would heal in time.

    Making sure to secure the wrapping, Stas headed to the cafeteria for breakfast. The morning hours were well attended by his fellows, but Stas tended to rise on the early side. He received his personal plate from the dietician and sat himself next to Alain, who was already present. Zola joined them shortly after, as did the newer gladiator, Vita, with her.

    They ate slowly, as was the custom to aid digestion. Their topics of conversation were light. But all four of them knew they were awaiting news.

    As expected, Ludo entered the cafeteria and made his way to the four of them. He was followed, as always, by a servant.

    “Alain,” he addressed the gladiator. “You have been invited to Senator Marcellus’s soiree tomorrow evening. You will be accompanying me. I recommend you forgo training today and tomorrow to ensure you are in proper shape and do not risk injury. I would also ask that you avail yourself of the baths before then. If you require formal dress, speak with Tana and she will provide you with something suitable. Or speak with the commissary for some money and purchase something for yourself from the forum today. Anything is fine as long as it is appropriate. I can trust you to not pick an outrageous garb.”

    “I have already purchased a formal gown yesterday, Lanista.” Alain spoke with a bow. The fact that Alain had been invited to the Senator’s end of month party was of no surprise to anyone. Every gladiator who was selected for a first of the month match got an invitation to the party the night before. They had all been aware of this invitation for some time now. But that was not the question on everyone else’s mind at the moment.

    “Good.” Ludo concluded with a nod, moving to leave.

    “Lanista,” Stas interrupted. “Has anyone else from the school been invited?” While it was a tradition to invite those gladiators participating in the next day’s match, that was no limitation. If anyone had managed to impress the hosting Senator, they could be invited as well. An invitation was as great a sign of acclaim as being scheduled for the first of the month. The monthly parties represented the epitome of networking opportunities for gladiators seeking to rise through the ranks. Whether one sought to change schools, was seeking better matches, or if one was looking for opportunities after retirement, the Senators and Patricians at these parties were the ones to speak to. And, at its core, the mere invitation was the sort of recognition Stas craved.

    More than that, having access to a Senator’s estate even for a single party would be a great boon for Libertas. Who knew what opportunities would be available at such an exclusive event, what sort of secrets could be discovered?

    “No.” Ludo spoke succinctly. “No other invitations were received.”

    Stas, Zola, Vita, and a number of nearby eavesdropping gladiators all deflated at that news.

    “I would not concern yourself with Patricians and their parties at this stage of your career.” Ludo advised. “It is an undesirable distraction. If you train and make a proper showing in the arena, then, as it has happened with Alain, recognition will naturally arise. It is better to focus on yourself and what you can control.”

    Stas hid a frown, opting to instead nod in an act of supplication. He had the distinct impression that a different, better Lanista would have done a better job promoting his students to the Senators. Doubtless, the Gladiator’s under Lord Galbrio’s tutelage were all invited, even the most untested. But he held his tongue.

    “Good day to you all,” Ludo concluded. “I hope your training today goes well.” And, with a final nod, Ludo exited, his servant trailing behind.

    As soon as he had left, Zola punched Alain in the shoulder. “Look at you, Alain. Getting into the big leagues. Don’t forget about all us little people when you are out there fighting the likes of Esmae and Horatio.”

    Alain rubbed the back of his head. “It’s nothing like that. My match is only against Lamorak of the Dollabella school. Only the date is anything special.”

    “Don’t count yourself short,” Stas interjected. “You have been doing well, and have been at it almost the longest. You deserve the honor.” Stas sighed. “I just wish Ludo put more effort into getting more of us better matches.”

    Zola smirked. “Are you jealous, Stas? Does the fact you were not invited make you feel bitter?”

    “You weren’t invited either, Zola.” Stas grumbled.

    Zola waved it off. “I know that. But I also know where I stand. I have no reason to feel snubbed or left out.”

    “I’m not feeling snubbed,” Stas denied. “I just think that our school should be represented more for things like this.”

    Vita jumped in. “And you happen to want to be one of those people representing our school, right?”

    What was he supposed to say to that? “Yes? Of course I would like to be invited. It’s not like I am not undefeated.”

    It was perhaps not the perfect response as it left the two girls grinning. Before they, or he, could say anything more heated, Alain spoke.

    “In truth, I wonder if I am the best choice for this match.” The gladiator gently dragged his cutlery along his almost empty plate. His eyes did not leave the plate. “Being the first one for the honor, being selected at all… for all that I have been at it longer, I am aware that you are a more spectacular fighter than myself, Stas, and with a better record as well. Perhaps the honor should have gone to you.” His words were calm, but morose.

    In truth, Stas agreed with the assessment. While he and Alain had never faced officially, he had a good grasp of the man’s abilities. Alain was strong; his cleaving swings could shatter stone and break the grip of anyone who made the mistake of blocking his two handed sword. And he was skilled; perhaps the most technically proficient fighter in the school with his weapon of choice. In a contest of grappling, the larger man would crush Stas ninety-nine times out of a hundred, and in a fight without arcanum, Stas’s senior would also be favored.

    But in a true match, there was nothing Alain would be able to do against him. The man lacked arcanum beyond strengthening himself and toughening his skin. Without range or mobility or the ability to lay traps, the man was helpless against Stas’s own abilities; his superior strength and fine skill were not sufficient to make the difference. And Alain was nominally the best in the school.

    If Stas had been permitted more prestigious matches, if Ludo advertised him more aggressively, it would have been he who received the invite, perhaps even earlier than Alain had.

    But Stas was well aware that it would be impolite to speak of such observations. And it was hardly Alain’s fault. The man’s career success did not detract from Stas’s own.

    So he shook his head. “Spectacle is hardly what matters in the arena. A good, solid technique matters a great deal more. Balance, strength, awareness… keeping yourself on top of the fight... you excel at all of these things.”

    Zola nodded in agreement. “Not every gladiator relies on arcanum in their fight. Radek Twinblade, Alexandros of the Spear… even Horatio Undaunted has been known to win matches without imbibing an elixir.”

    “So you say as the woman who relied upon Arcanum the most of all of us,” Vita mocked with a smile. Zola shoved her to the side.

    “I appreciate the sentiment, and I am aware of such matters, but I cannot help but feel nervous.”

    “You have no need to feel nervous,” Stas comforted. “No more than any other match, at least. Tristan was only granted the honor one time before and he lost then. At worst, you will prove yourself his equal by matching his record. At best, you will prove yourself to be his superior.”

    “Stas is right,” Zola slapped Alain on the back. “So relax. Enjoy your rest day and the party in your honor. I know I will.”

    “And how will you be enjoying a party you have not been invited to, Zola?” Stas inquired. “Are you planning on sneaking into a Patrician’s manner?” And, if so, would she be willing to reveal her method?

    “Sneak in? Hardly. I will simply scour the forums for some Senator’s handsome son or nephew. Those types would fall upon themselves to escort a Gladiatrix like myself. Suffering their attention is the least I can do to ensure poor Alain is not alone with all those wealthy Patricians and influential Aediles,” Zola remarked with a grin.

    With the idea introduced, Stas considered trying to do the same, but he realized he had no idea how to meet an individual with an invite, much less convince them to take him. Perhaps Enjolras, as a former Patrician, would know of a connection. Or Henri.

    “Good luck with that,” Vita offered. “I don’t think I will bother trying. Even if I did get in, I’m too early in my career to get anyone’s attention. Or to make the most of any attention I get.”

    It was a fair point. The girl only had two matches to her name at this point.

    “Anyway,” the girl continued, “Speaking of things that don’t require a super special invitation, are any of you planning on catching tomorrow’s chariot race? It's an auspicious month for the Reds.”

    Stas let out a good-natured groan as conversation reverted to the casual topic of chariot racing. It was a good diversion, at the very least, as nothing of true import ever happened in the races. They continued their meal amicably, some of the tension forgotten.

    As they were finishing their plates, a servant entered the cafeteria. It took Stas a moment to realize that she was coming for their table.

    Stas could not place the servant’s name. All he knew for sure is that she was not Cassandra. His month with the laundress was not easily forgotten.

    Alain greeted the servant with a nod, “Ophelia, do you require something of us?”

    “Yes, Master Alain.” She turned to address Stas specifically. “Master Stas, you have a visitor.”

    A visitor? From what he recalled, visitors were not permitted in the morning.

    “Who?” Stas began to question, but found the answer quickly as Eponine sauntered into the school’s cafeteria. That, he knew, was definitely not permitted.

    But from how the servant was not reacting, it was clear that the woman was making use of her arcanum to grease the wheels.

    “Stas!” Eponine greeted with a strange cheer. “It’s so good to see you.”

    “That would be her,” the servant concluded. “Have a pleasant day, Masters, Mistresses.” With a deferential bow, the servant exited the cafeteria, leaving Stas’s unauthorized guest behind with no further comment.

    “Oh?” Zola’s lips perked up. “Stas, who is this?”

    “Really, Stas? You haven’t mentioned me before?” Eponine gave a deep pout. “Are you ashamed of me?”

    Of course he hadn’t talked about her before. He had kept all of his dealings with Libertas a secret. The fact that Eponine was so brazenly making herself known was throwing him through a loop.

    Right, everyone was looking at him expectantly. “Ah. This is Eponine. She’s my…” he trailed off, not knowing how to describe the relationship. The truth was out of the question by far.

    Thankfully, Eponine opted to step in. “I’m his number one fan,” she offered. “I caught his debut match and well,” her finger brushed through her hair as she looked away. “Well, I was entranced. I had the good fortune to meet him some time afterwards and, well,” the woman gave a facile giggle. “He’s been very accommodating.”

    Stas suppressed a grimace. Being embarrassed here would only make the meeting more suspicious.

    “Oh Stas, you sly dog.” Vita grinned. “Is this where you’ve been sneaking off to in the evenings?”

    “Now, now, Vita.” Zola chastised. “I’m sure Stas has been a perfect gentleman, ‘accommodating’ this lady however she required. And I must say, he has surprisingly good taste in women to ‘accommodate’.”

    Stas could not help a blush at the implication. To his shock, Eponine blushed a deep scarlet as well. Stas was unaware she could act that well, to fake bodily reactions like that.

    “Erm,” Alain interrupted, himself blushing from the conversations. “Miss Eponine, I don’t believe you should be here right now. This is training time, and we aren’t supposed to be receiving visitors right now.”

    Eponine’s eyes widened. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize! I just needed to speak with Stas quickly. I’ll be right out of everybody’s hair as soon as that is done with. Is that alright, Stas?”

    If it was important enough that Eponine needed to seek him out, then it was worth listening to. “Fine. If it really is a short thing, let’s get some privacy.” Stas stood up and headed for the exit, Eponine following.

    “Hopefully not too short,” Vita jeered. “Make sure to ‘accommodate’ her to her satisfaction.”

    “And take proper precautions,” Zola called afterwards, “I’m too young to be an aunt.”

    “Really, you two,” Alain chastised. “You’re being very rude…”

    Stas and Eponine were out of the cafeteria before he could hear anything else. He directed them towards an isolated spot, and, after confirming there was nobody around, student or servant, he spoke.

    “What are you doing here, Eponine? Why are you risking things like this?”

    Immediately her vapid fan-girl persona dropped. “It’s fine, Stas. Everyone expects overly excited fans to try to get in. With a little bit of my arcanum, nobody is going to think anything of it. Just...” a blush, reminiscent of her earlier one, retakes her face, “don’t mention it to anyone, right? I don’t like the act any more than you do. I’m just making the most of expectations, right?”

    Stas rolled his eyes. He didn’t really know or care why Eponine cared about her act. “Fine, I won’t mention it.” It was an easy enough agreement to make. “If you are willing to waste the elixirs, there’s no real problem. What’s so important that you needed to see me? I was planning on visiting the hideout tonight.”

    “Well, I didn’t know that, and you didn’t show up yesterday, so I wanted to ensure that I saw you before it was too late. There’s a mission. Are you aware of the end of the month feast?”

    Stas blinked at the coincidence. “Yes? What about it? It happens every month.”

    “What matters is that this particular one is taking place at Marcellus’s estate, and he’s the leader of one of the major political groups in the Senate. The party represents a perfect opportunity to get an ear on what’s been happening there, and a little more on the side. And, as a gladiator, you have a perfect excuse to attend.”

    Stas exhaled deeply. “I must regretfully inform you that I was not invited. I am of no help in this matter. Perhaps in the future.”

    Eponine waved him off. “Don’t worry about it. I can get an invitation for the both of us. You’ll just be my plus one instead of the other way around. And it has to be this one. Who knows when Marcellus will be hosting again?”

    “Why me, then? Isn’t Henri a Patrician? He shouldn’t have any trouble getting an invitation to the party if you need someone else.”

    Eponine scoffed. “I can handle the spying and sabotage myself. I need someone as backup in case things go wrong. And Henri is hardly that. Plus, he’s known to shy away from things like this. If he attends, especially if he is with me, that’s going to put a lot of eyes on him. Much more than me dragging an up and coming gladiator as a date.”

    “I see.” Stas dearly hoped he would not be forced to fight inside a Senator’s mansion during a party. That seemed like a monumentally stupid idea. But he supposed he might be able to stealthily extract the two of them if it were necessary, now that he knew he could reflect with other people. “How are you going to get an invitation? Are you a Patrician, then?”

    “Don’t worry about it,” Eponine dismissed immediately.

    Stas gave her a probing glance. “I hope you aren’t planning on using your arcanum so no one questions our presence. The guards and guests at a Senator’s estate are not the sort you want to take such risks with.”

    “I’m not that reckless.” Eponine rolled her eyes. “Just make sure you have something proper to wear. We can discuss where and when to meetup at the hideout tonight.” Eponine huffed. “Goodbye, Stas.”

    And she walked away. After taking a few steps, she stopped, and turned around. Her body language changed once again, back to how she had been when she arrived. “Thank you, Stas. Goodbye. And good luck with your training.” She giggled, and scurried off.

    Stas huffed, and headed for the yard. He had some frustration to work off.
     
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2021
    Raron, prandom, VerBlinkel and 2 others like this.
  22. Threadmarks: Twenty Seven
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    Despite Eponine’s assurances, it wasn’t until she and Stas had made it inside the building that the gladiator allowed himself a sigh of relief. For all that she claimed to be able to get an invitation for the two of them, Stas hadn’t quite believed the woman. But there was no mistaking the fact that the door guard had let the two of them in without a word, no arcanum required.

    It was strange, being in the noble district once more. On the ground instead of from a vantage point. It was a different world from when he had invaded Elagabalus’s manor, not just a difference of night and day. For one, Elagabolus’s mansion was an empty place, massive and opulent, but only populated by the sadly ineffectual night guards. The manor of Marcellus, in contrast, was alive with people. Servants and visitors and onlookers seeking to catch a glimpse of the many guests. The winding trail through the gardens to the manor’s entrance was full of people.

    The Senator’s estate was far grander in size than that of a senator’s nephew. But it did not feel as massive or empty.

    The other major difference Stas noticed was the casual usage of arcanum. The foyer was brightly lit by the same sort of magic torches that Libertas used; no risk of fire from open torches or oil fumes from lanterns. A brilliant chandelier dazzled in the entryway, its lights a rainbow of colors. More than the lighting, though, were the golems. So many, many golems, lining the entryway with a bow, the stone-faced artificial servants seemed to serve no purpose other than to announce their own presence.

    Eponine pulled at Stas’s arm, interrupting his gaping. “Come on. We need to introduce ourselves to the host.”

    “And how will we find him?” Stas inquired. “I don’t even know what Senator Marcellus looks like.”

    “That’s not a problem because I do,” Eponine countered. “And he will be easy to find. Everyone needs to greet him. It’s rude and anomalous if it isn’t the first action you take. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a line of people waiting to make their introductions.” Eponine paused. “Well, there might not be a line. There is a reason I opted for us to come later.” She turned to face Stas directly. “When we get there, it’s important to wait for the host to address us first.”

    “I know that much.” Stas stated. He had been content to let Eponine plan everything about this outing. The few lessons he had taken on not embarrassing himself completely in high society were the extent of his knowledge here. Ludo wasn’t particularly keen on spending too much time on that topic, and, for once, Stas was in agreement. If it came down to the choice of hiring a swords instructor or a dedicated etiquette teacher, Stas was glad his lanista had chosen the former.

    And there would always be opportunities to learn when his career progressed,

    So Stas allowed himself to be dragged by Eponine from the foyer through the mansion, making note of the place. The magical sconces were a constant presence, making for a very bright interior, despite the lack of windows. Indeed, this mansion, like Elegabolus’s, seemed to be designed for a wasteful reliance on torches, rather than making use of windows and outdoor spaces.

    The wall was covered in a mosaic, some intricate pattern of colors quite unlike the golden leaf that covered the walls of the other manor. The statues lining the walls here were smaller, but more artfully placed. The floor was a tile pattern made of intricate marble.

    Stas caught sight of a room filled with bound paper, where a few guests seemed to be reclining and reading. A stone-faced golem filled their crystalline glasses with a dark wine. The golems were everywhere he looked, taking the place of the human servants he had come to expect. Only the visibly armed guards were human among the staff, from what he could see. Doubtless a river of elixirs were drained each day to keep this manor functional.

    Really, everything about this manor was expensive. And yet it didn’t scream opulence in the way the other manor had. It was luxury, not wasteful excess. Or at least it was crafted to appear that way.

    Eponine led him into a massive, indoor atrium. Sconces and ceiling lights of a magical nature made the public gathering space as bright as the day outside, and yet Stas wondered if it would not be sufficient to simply remove the ceiling. Here the majority of the guests mingled, either before them, or up on the balconies overlooking the space, accessible via marble stairwells.

    In the corner was a tall, blond-haired man in a brilliant white suit with golden accents, and a tall hat to match. He was flanked by a pair of golems, laughing with a man and woman before him. The man and woman left and another, older man, in wait, moved to speak with him.

    This was clearly Senator Marcellus. That Eponine was pulling him in the man’s direction only confirmed it.

    As Stas approached, he could make out the small glass spectacles on the man’s face, as well as the small, neatly trimmed triangle of blond hair on his chin. The ensemble, combined with his suit, produced a rather fobbish effect in Stas’s opinion. But he was not well read on the courtly fashions.

    The senator’s easy smile fell into a glare as the man in front of him spoke. Stas was near enough now that he could make out the other man’s words over the din of the many guests.

    “Please understand, this is not meant to be an insult.”

    “Of course it is an insult,” the Senator growled. “How can it be anything but? Even miserly Gratidianus came in person and availed himself of my hospitality for a few minutes. But Lady Hirtius sends a servant to beg off? How can I take this as anything but an insult.”

    “My Lady is feeling ill, Lord Senator. No offense is meant.”

    “Your Lady was certainly feeling well this morning on the senate floor denouncing my proposed bill. Quite a healthy rant of her.” The Senator rubbed his forehead. “By the Dominus, that woman takes everything so personally. Does she not understand that grudges of the Senate House end when one leaves the Senate House? She would turn a simple political difference into a blood feud.”

    “My Lady has no such wish…” the flustered servant stammered.

    “I will not waste more words on a mere footboy.” The senator declared. “Let Lady Hirtius know that her insult has been acknowledged, and begone from my manor.”

    The older man bowed. “Of course, Lord Senator.” He scampered away as fast as politely possible.

    Senator Marcellus took off his spectacles and rubbed his eyes, when he finished, his eyes turned towards the two of them.

    “Ah, could it be? Lady Claudia! How good to see you. I was afraid you would not receive my invitation. How is your mother doing?”

    Eponine bowed her head deferentially. “She is doing well, Senator Marcellus.”

    “Good, good. And your Grandfather? I hope he is likewise doing well after that unfortunate bit of unpleasantness? No hard feelings there?”

    “It is as you say, Senator Marcellus. Grudges of the Senate Floor should remain on the Senate Floor.”

    “Good, good. I am glad to hear it.” The foppish man beamed. “Your grandfather was something of an inspiration to me, back in the day. Hearing he is recovering well is a boon for my soul. If only others would emulate Lord Claudius and yourself.” He tutted to himself. “The Lady Hirtius could certainly learn from your virtues.”

    Taking it as an opening, Eponine inquired. “The Lady Hirtius?”

    “Oh, it’s a simple Senate matter, nothing to worry about,” the senator waved the question off. Then, immediately contradicting himself and proving that he did indeed wish to speak of it, he elaborated. “The Lady Senator and I had a disagreement today. While we can greatly appreciate my fellow Senator’s ability to identify potential problems, her ability to devise solutions leaves much to be desired. And, I hope you do not take this as me badmouthing a colleague, she tends to obsess over her particular solution, to the extreme. No need to bring the heavy hand of the state to play when a simple reduction of the grain dole would be sufficient… but I digress. Ah, I apologize for my rudeness, Lady Claudia. Would you do me the honor of introducing your escort this fine evening?”

    “Indeed,” Eponine pushed Stas forward a step. “This is Stas, a Gladiator under the tutelage of the Lanista Ludo. He has done me the honor of agreeing to escort me this evening.”

    “Ah, pleased to meet you, Lord Senator.” Stas said with a bow.

    “Ah, yes, one of Ludo’s students. Forgive me for not recognizing you. I have little time these days to make it to the games, so I must prioritize my attendance.” Intended or not, the implied insult of Stas not being important enough for Senator Marcellus to have seen was obvious to the gladiator. But Stas kept himself calm. It would do him no favors to be upset with the influential senator, either for his mission tonight or for his career at large.

    “I must admit,” the senator continued, “that I have a preference for the Venatio over the contests of Gladiators. Not to disparage the skill or your training, but there is something noble, I feel, about the triumph of man over beast.” Marcellus blinked and frowned. “When they triumph, that is. The event has turned into an unfortunate bloodbath as of late. Lord Macro does a disservice to his breeding, making such monsters.”

    With recent events, Stas couldn’t help but agree with the sentiment.

    “You will not have to worry about running into the man at this party, for sure. Ah, but the reason I bring it up is because all of tomorrow’s hunters are present. Have you ever considered becoming a beast fighter? It might do you some good to talk with them about career prospects. There is always room for more hunters.”

    Stas nodded, “ I will keep your advice in mind.” It was all he could do to avoid seething at the man.

    The foppish man grinned. “Excellent. Lady Claudia, I hope you and your escort enjoy my hospitality this evening.”

    “Thank you, Senator Marcellus. I’m sure we will.”

    “Thank you,” Stas echoed, and Eponine pulled him away.

    Behind him the conversation continued.

    “Ah, Lord Patruinus! So glad to see you! I must thank you for your wonderful gifts.”

    “Of course, Senator Marcellus. I hope they are serving you well, I spy many of them within your staff tonight” a middle aged man in simpler finery responded.

    “As always. As always. Your creations are ever the delight.”

    The din of the crowd soon overtook the voices as Eponine led Stas to an alcove. With the manor the size that it was, it was easy enough to find an inconspicuous place. When they were safely away from the Senator, and away from the direct hearing of any other guest, Eponine’s tight expression turned into one of fury. “I can’t stand rotten snakes like Marcellus. He’s the worst sort of scum, and I’ll be glad when he and his ilk are dead and rotting.”

    Stas didn’t really know what to say to that. “So… are you Lady Claudia? Or is that somebody you are pretending to be?”

    Eponine stilled. “I was born to the Cladius family, yes. But never call me that. I’m Eponine, got it?”

    “But do I need to avoid using your name here? To avoid ruining your cover?”

    Eponine rubbed her forehead. “No, Stas. That’s not something you need to worry about, and if it was I would have warned you. My name actually is Eponine.”

    The whole conversation really seemed like something she did not want to talk about. Stas opted to change the topic. “Do you think Katriane knows? About the change to the grain dole, I mean?”

    “That bit of detail Marcellus mentioned when he was prattling about how important he is?” Eponine shrugged. “I don’t know. The Senate has a habit of keeping details to itself until the very last minute. Katriane might not know of any changes until the very last second. She’d probably appreciate the heads up if she doesn’t already know.” Eponine huffed. “We were seen speaking with Marcellus, so now we need to be seen around the party. So, go and mingle with whomever, eat some food, I’ll do the same. Then, when there’s an opportunity, I’ll come get you again so we can complete the mission. Got it?”

    Stas nodded. And with that, the two of them separated. Eponine headed off towards a gaggle of Patricians she seemed to know and Stas, lacking knowledge of connections, headed towards the banquet layout.

    The food was excessive. Meats and sweets and breads and cakes and roasts and fish and fruits and many dishes Stas could not identify. The plates were crystalline and golden, chosen to accentuate the particular food spreads that lay upon it. And behind them all were stone-faced golems, ready to serve the dishes to anyone who asked.

    In truth, the food sickened Stas. It all looked far too rich, too intense. He had no doubt that his dietician would be aghast if he partook in this gluttonous fair. So Stas turned aside from the banquet with only a few choice pieces of fruit, some meagre bread slices, and a single choice cut of a sirloin that looked palatable.

    He did end up snagging a crystal goblet from one of the attending golems and enjoyed the sweet wine it poured.

    He ate quickly, off to the side, listening to the mumbled conversations around him, not really sure as to what he should be doing.

    Out of the corner of his eye, Stas spotted somebody he recognized. The Dominus’s Mad Monk was here, in his usual, plain garb, speaking with some Patrician or other. Stas turned to move away. He did not want to deal with the creepy man right now.

    Stas did spot a few gladiators he recognized. It was easy enough, as some were dressed in their arena armor, happily speaking with enthralled guests. The likes of Radek and Esmae were clear centers of attention.

    Stas moved to speak with them but stopped. In a moment of embarrassment, he considered what it would mean to talk with them here, as an inferior who failed to get invited on his own merits. The thought paralyzed him. So, he lowered his head and got himself another glass of sweetwine.

    It would be better to face them for the first time properly on the arena sands, not in this decadent manor.

    Though he did recognize another face in the crowd. Looking up at the balcony he could see Zola in conversation with two young Patrician women. Lacking any other source of direction, Stas made his way up the marble stairs towards the three of them.

    Zola caught his eye as he was ascending, and waved him over with a smile.

    “Stas,” she greeted. “I’m surprised to see you here. I hope you aren’t party crashing?”

    “I wouldn’t dare,” he replied with a frown. “Eponine was able to get an invitation and I am escorting her. We are going our own ways for the moment.” Both of the Patrician women were staring. One seemed to be giggling.

    “I would have assumed she would be hanging off of you the whole night, but it’s good to get some space.”

    “And you?” Stas questioned. “Did you manage to find a Senator’s son or nephew as you planned? If so, where is he?”

    Zola shrugged. “I’m not really sure, nor do I care. He was a bit of a boor, and I’ve found some better companions.” She gestured to the two women. “Stas, these are Ladies Tusca and Limenia, whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet this evening. Ladies, this is Stas, my junior at my school. He is famed as the Blink.”

    Stas suppressed a bristle, both at being called Zola’s junior and at the reminder of his nickname. It was a true statement of fact, after all, even if it ignored the reality that he had beaten her on the sands. Instead he bowed. “Greetings, Lady Patricians. A pleasant evening to you both.”

    The two women smiled. “A pleasure to meet you,” Limenia offered affably.

    The giggling one, Tusca, with a glass full of wine, tittered some more. “It’s always so nice to meet gladiators. Do you use two swords like the Tigress does?”

    “No,” Stas shook his head. “While I am trained in their use, I prefer to use a sword and shield on the sands. And the style I would use with them differs from Zola’s greatly. Her emphasis is on arcanum, and mine on more traditional maneuvers.”

    Tusca hung onto the words he spoke hungrily. “I see. Are there many different styles of sword fighting? Even among those that use two blades?”

    “Indeed,” he answered. Falling back to expertise was easy. “Outside of Zola’s own style, I am aware of at least three different schools of swordsmanship that rely on twin blades. Two, like Zola, make use of two equally sized blades. The third involves a longer blade and a dagger both.”

    “I see. How fascinating. If one were interested in learning a two-blade style, which would you recommend?”

    “That depends on the student, I would say. There are strengths and weaknesses of each. As a gladiator it is important to have a basic grasp of each style so as to understand how one’s opponent might respond, but to learn as a hobby, it would depend on inclination. I am sadly not a pedagogue to make that judgement by sight.”

    “I’ve seen you fight, Stas the Blink,” Limenia interrupted. “Against the Tigress and one other time. You defeated her, did you not?”

    “Ah, yes. It was a good fight,” he answered simply.

    Zola added to his answer. “He did indeed. Stas is a talented fighter, and I am blessed to share a school with him. I imagine few can respond to his Blinks. Lady Limenia, why don’t you ask Stas about the offer you brought to me?”

    “An offer?” Stas questioned.

    “Ah, yes.” Limenia nodded. “My mother runs a brewery of some renown, you see. I was hoping to offer a sponsorship to the Tigress so that it may find more success.”

    “Unfortunately,” Zola continued, “my current deals do leave me with the option of agreeing at this time. But another gladiator at our school would be a good fit. I was planning on trying to speak with Alain about it, but since you are here, that is even better.”

    “I’ve seen enough of your skill to think it a fine proposition,” Limenia spoke with a nod, “and if the Tigress is vouching for you, then I have no qualms in the slightest.”

    “It’s a great way to have some money for yourself, Stas.” Zola pressed on. “And I can vouch for the product if you haven’t had a chance to try it. Plus,” she grinned wryly, “it’d be great to have someone around the school that can supply us with good beer, if I can’t do it myself.”

    Stas swallowed and hid his excitement. “I am not against the proposition,” he stated as calmly as he could, “but I would need to know the exact details before I could give a definitive answer.” He would have to do something nice for Zola, to thank her for this opportunity. Securing a sponsorship was exactly the sort of benefit this party was supposed to give an opportunity for. But Stas’s hopes had only been idle. He hadn’t thought it to be an actual possibility.

    “Of course, I could not ask otherwise.” Limenia agreed. “My mother would be the one to speak with on this matter, but she is not in attendance this evening. If you come to our manor this week, she would gladly treat with you to discuss terms.”

    “I would like that, I think.” Stas swallowed. Honestly he had no idea how these terms were negotiated. He would need to ask Zola about it after the party. Or perhaps Enjolras would have knowledge from the other end as a former Patrician…

    Eponine was another possibility, now that it was clear she had ties to that caste as well. And, well, technically it would be Ludo’s job as Lanista to help him navigate business deals, so that was an option to pursue…

    It was an exciting prospect regardless.

    Stas cleared his throat, taking another swill of wine. “You mentioned Alain, but I haven’t seen him anywhere. Where is he?”

    “The man of the hour? He’s on the other balcony, being badgered by fans and fanatics” she pointed across the atrium to the other balcony. Stas could see a crowd of people there, one of which was probably Alain, based on the size alone. “Ludo is with him, having a miserable time as you would expect from the old bore. Geoffrey is here too.” Zola pointed down to the atrium.

    Geoffrey was easier to make out; the people around him weren’t as crowding and the angle from above was superior. He seemed to be addressing a great many of them, eliciting laughter with his quips.

    Stas noted, with no lack of jealousy, that Lord Galbrio himself was among that number. The short, elegant man smiled along with Geoffrey’s words. It was a mood dampening-sight, to see that the coward was getting the attention of as influential a Lanista as Lord Galbrio.

    Stas clenched his fists and grit his teeth without realizing it.

    “Ah, Stas,” Zola interrupted his thoughts, perhaps intentionally “perhaps you can help me. Lady Tusca here was disparaging the use of Arcanum in fights. As a fellow user of the mystical arts, perhaps you might lend your words to mine in convincing her of the merits?”

    “Oh, I didn't mean to disparage any skill,” Tusca quickly defended herself, “I just feel that it is more admirable when one strives for martial prowess of one’s own will, than relying on magic from a bottle. Of course an Arcanum user is worthy of respect, but, all else being equal, I would root for a fighter who uses fewer elixirs.” The formerly giggling girl seemed quite bashful of her opinion.

    “See, Stas?” Zola spoke with a light smile, “we have to defend our honor.”

    “I actually agree with Lady Tusca in this,” Stas rejected. “Martial prowess is a base that everyone needs. Arcanum is a powerful tool, but it isn’t a foundation in the same way.”

    All three of the women looked at him in surprise. “Really, Stas the Blink?” Zola asked. “You of all people feel that way?”

    “Most of my time in the training yard is on my physical abilities for a reason, Zola. And it’s not just because I’m limited in the number of elixirs I can procure.”

    “Alas, I have been betrayed by my own comrade,” Zola bemoaned. “Lady Limenia, I require your aid in helping defend my honor.”

    “Of course, Tigress,” the Patrician spoke the words solemnly and immediately lost it with a small fit of giggles.

    Conversation continued in that vein. It was easy to speak of things like this, related to work he knew. Stas could forget his anxiety about upcoming sponsorship negotiations, or his irritation with Geoffrey. He almost managed to forget about his mission with Eponine.

    Eventually the ladies begged off to go speak with others present, and Zola went her separate way. This left Stas to resume his wandering. He found himself in a few awkward conversations in sequence.

    Perhaps an hour passed, and Stas found himself growing more and more anxious as Eponine failed to contact him. He saw her mingling with various people, eating, putting on a show like she had when she had visited the school. But she did not reach out to contact him. He was not looking forward to having to figure out the distraction she had mentioned.

    Then, suddenly the air seemed to still and a silent bell rang through the air. Almost as one all the party-goers, Stas included, stopped. SIlence reigned as an unnatural feeling cast a blanket over all.

    The doors to the atrium opened and a large shadow emerged, with no light to justify its existence.

    Following the shadow was a large, cloaked figure, a man who’s very image cast a quiet pale over all. It was the Dominus, Stas knew without a doubt. Though he had never seen the man before, the fact seemed to engrave itself in his heart. This was the unimpeachable being that ruled, the very soul of the city and all within.

    That Horatio Undaunted, the greatest gladiator of the modern era, walked beside and behind the Dominus was an unimportant note. Everyone in the atrium fell into a deep bow, the stone-faced golems included. Stas himself was included. He could not justify avoiding the action when everyone else was doing it.

    Well, not everyone. The Mad Monk stood alone, unperturbed, offering only an incline of the head. The Dominus did not seem to care about the disrespect, ignoring the monk as his gaze passed over everyone. Senator Marcellus walked forth to offer supplication. He stood with a bow, waiting to be addressed.

    Stas felt an arm pull at him. It was Eponine.

    “Come on,” she declared, “there won’t be a better distraction than this.”

    Stas shook himself from his daze and followed her. It was true that this was a great distraction. Nobody else seemed willing to take their eyes off of the Dominus. And, from their current position, nobody would notice them slinking away.

    When they were far enough away, Stas exhaled deeply.

    “Was that your first time seeing the Dominus?” Eponine questioned.

    Stas shook his head. “I’ve seen him in his box in the arenas.”

    “That doesn’t count. Being in the same room as him is different… as you now know.”

    It was indeed. ‘Different’ was the easiest word to apply to that sensation. The closest Stas had ever felt to that moment was when the Chimera was bearing down on him. He was glad to be away from it.

    “You can get used to it, but it’s always there. I don’t know what the Dominus is, but he has that effect on people.” Eponine shook her head. “We don’t need to worry about it right now. The important thing is he’s an amazing distraction.”

    “What are we doing exactly?” Stas questioned. “Are we looking for anything specific?”

    “Senator Marcellus uses golems for almost everything.” Eponine began to explain. “He only employs humans when a golem can’t suffice, such as for his chefs and his guards. He is famous for it, as much as Patrunius is. And one of the jobs he had a golem take over was scribe. A bit of laziness on his part. Since only Senators are permitted in the chamber, most take notes for themselves if they bother at all. But Marcellus considers himself ‘above that’ type of labor.”

    Eponine led him down corridors as she spoke, keeping an eye out for any guards.

    “He brings the same golem, every time, to every single Senate meeting, where it takes notes for him on everything anyone says. We’ve had multiple people confirm that fact. I’ve taken the opportunity to locate the golem during the party.”

    “So we are going to look through its notes?”

    “Better. We are going to replace its pen with this one.” She produced a simple pen from somewhere in her dress. “It’s an arcanum construct, and it is linked to a similar one back at the hideout. Anything written down by this pen will also be written by the other.”

    Stas blinked. “So we will have a record of every single future Senate meeting until the golem breaks.” That was an astounding source of information.

    “Or until one of the most influential Senators gets thrown out of office, but that’s unlikely to happen either.” Eponine grinned. “The fop is doing us quite a bit of good for these habits. Ah, here we are.” She stopped in front of an opulent wooden door, and pressed her hand against its keyhole. There was a small flash of light that indicated arcanum use. “Here’s the study. Stand guard for me and let me know if anyone is coming. I shouldn’t be too long making the swap.”

    Stas nodded, and set himself to guard the corridor without making it obvious he was guarding the corridor. He cast his sight out, through the reflections, to see further down the hallways towards the patrolling guards and other guests.

    From what he saw, the guard was moving away. If Eponine was correct about the speed of her task, then there would be no issue.

    So he waited. And waited. And waited. And the guards he was observing completed their circuit and turned around. Stas felt his anxiety grow as the simple task seemed to be cutting it close on time. He could hear the woman’s muffled movement through the thick wooden door, but he had no indication of when she would finish.

    It was too long. He opened the door to warn Eponine.

    His eyes widened as he caught the woman tearing through some papers, ripping them apart, an enraged expression on her face.

    “What are you doing?” he seethed. “Are you trying to get us caught?”

    “Don’t question me,” she hissed. “I am not in the mood.”

    “They are going to find the papers,” Stas hissed back. “They are going to know somebody was in here.”

    “It doesn’t matter,” Eponine insisted.

    Stas closed his eyes, and exhaled. “A guard is coming.” He cast his view on Marcellus’s hired help. “I think he heard something, because he is coming straight for this room.” THe guard must have some sort of sensory arcanum, because the door should have muffled most noises.

    The rage in Eponine’s eyes drained, replaced with fear.

    “Did you make the swap?” Stas asked.

    Eponine nodded. “Yes. It’s done.”

    “Then let’s get out of here,” he moved to grab her, and set about trying to find a proper place to arrive that would be out of sight.

    Eponine dodged his grip. “No,” she insisted. “If he heard us, then finding nothing but a mess will just raise his suspicion. We can’t risk them discovering the pen.” She looked Stas straight in the eye. “I have an idea.”

    “What…” Stas was interrupted by Eponine’s lips latching onto his. In his distracted state, he failed to notice Eponine’s foot sweeping under his own.

    Stas fell to the floor, papers scattering with him as he struggled and failed to maintain balance. Eponine fell on top of him, her lips still sealed to his own. He could feel her hands gripping at his clothing, making a mess of them.

    The door to the room opened, and the guard stared at the two of them.

    Stas stared back, mind blank. He pushed Eponine off of him. The woman turned to the guard and her expression shifted into one of fear and embarrassment. Stas imagined his own might have matched, though he didn’t know if it was even possible for him to emulate the deep red blush that Eponine sported.

    “What…” the guard seemed confounded.

    “Please don’t tell anyone!” Eponine’s voice matched her face in fear and embarrassment. “We’re so sorry, we thought this place was out of the way.”

    Understanding dawned upon the guard and confusion turned into annoyance. “You shouldn’t be here,” he growled. “This is the Lord Senator’s private study.”

    “We’re so sorry, we didn’t know. We were looking for a place away from the party and the door wasn’t locked…”

    “Wasn’t locked?” That seemed to throw the guard through a loop. Irritation returned but it didn’t only seem to be directed at the two of them. “Regardless, you were somewhere you shouldn’t be and made a mess of it. The both of you are coming with me to see the Lord Senator.”

    “We can clean up the mess,” Stas offered. “Nobody needs to know, right?”

    “No. This is a Senator’s private study. He needs to be informed.” The guard huffed. “Of all the possible places the two of you could have snuck to… what’s next, an orgy in the treasury?” The man muttered to himself. “Now come along. Straighten out your clothes and make yourself presentable. We’re going to the Lord Senator.” The guard turned around, and beckoned for them to follow.

    “Should I…” Stas quietly asked, raising a fist.

    “No,” Eponine whispered quickly, but refusing to meet his eyes. “A guard disappearing is too suspicious. This is bad but manageable. We do what he says. And let me do the talking.”

    Stas grumbled but acquiesced. The two of them followed the guard back towards the indoor atrium.

    “Hm?” a voice called out as they exited the hallway. “What’s going on here?”

    “Sir,” the guard declared. “I found this pair being indiscreet in a non-public area. I need to report the matter to the host.”

    The Dominus’s Mad Monk looked over the two of them with an amused glint. “The Lord Senator is currently speaking the Dominus. This may not be the best time.”

    The guard blanched.

    “As for the two of them being indiscreet, as you put it,” the Monk continued, “that is not so unusual in events such as this. I do not believe the Lord Senator would be surprised to hear of it. Nor do I believe they are the only pair to do so at the moment.”

    “It’s a matter of where they were,” the guard continued, but the Monk interrupted.

    “I doubt it is of any true concern. Going above and beyond your duty is commendable, but in this case I do not believe it is warranted. The two have been appropriately chastised, so it is better to return to your duties.”

    The guard sighed, and turned to the two of them. “If you are looking for privacy, please make use of the bedrooms nearby. At the very least they will be more comfortable. Don’t wander around the Senator’s private wing.”

    Stas wanted to interject, but it would not be helpful.

    Eponine, blushing scarlet, bowed her head. “We will keep that in mind.”

    The guard didn’t bother responding, opting to return to his patrol.

    Stas released a sigh of relief as he departed.

    “I hope your evening is productive, Stas, Lady Eponine,” the Monk murmured with a bow of his head. “Perhaps it would be best to get back to the festivities.”

    “Perhaps,” Stas agreed. He definitely needed another drink.
     
    Raron, Acronym, prandom and 1 other person like this.
  23. Threadmarks: Twenty Eight
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    Stas settled himself in the arena’s box seat, catching the very end of the acrobatics show that had started today’s festivities. Many of his fellows were already present, taking up the box’s seats. The box was much more full than it would have been on a usual day, both for it being a first of the month spectacle and their school’s debut into the bigger leagues with Alain’s match.

    Stas’s usual seat next to Zola had been claimed by an earlier riser, so he had the choice of either sitting next to Ludo, next to Geoffrey, or taking a less optimal seat in the back. Perhaps he should have left earlier in the morning.

    He opted to sit next to the Lanista, who greeted him with a silent nod.

    “It’s a good day for a match.” Stas offered. “The sky is clear, the wind is cool and gentle. It’s pleasant all around.”

    “Hm…” the Lanista’s face was blank, his eyes affixed into the distance. Stas never really saw the man smile, even at matches. It didn’t really seem like the man enjoyed the games much, if at all. Once again Stas wondered why Ludo had made a career out of it. If anything, one would assume he would wish to pursue a life more in adherence to his temperament, such as a scholar. Or a grave digger.

    “I do not know if I agree.” Ludo spoke after a moment. “I dislike the look of the crowd today.”

    The crowd? Stas looked out to see what he might have meant. The crowd seemed as lively and happy as ever. It was clear that the acrobats had gone over well with them. With great weather and the promise of good spectacle, why wouldn’t they be joyful?

    According to Katriane, the grain dole had been temporarily halved as of this morning. But Stas could not see any impact in the crowd. The cheering waves were as exuberant as ever.

    “I’m not certain I understand what you mean,” Stas spoke.

    “Hm…” Ludo closed his eyes and sighed. “Perhaps I am overthinking matters. We will see how the match goes.”

    The acrobats had efficiently cleared the field at this point. The band quieted and the announcer stode forth.

    “Presenting!” the announcer’s voice carried far and wide, “Of the Dollabella School of the Aventine! The Mist-Cloaked Spear! Trickster of the Sands! Lamorak the Legion!” The band played in triumph as Alain’s opponent was permitted to enter the sands. He wore a set of light armor much like Stas’s own, and wielded a long, ornate spear. The crowds roared in anticipation.

    “And presenting!” the announcer continued, “Of the Ludo School of the Forum! The Giant of the Stellar! The Atlas who carries the world! Alain the Tower!”

    The far more familiar refrain of Alain’s music emerged from the bands as the man himself stepped forth. His large meat cleaver of a sword hung on his back. The cheers doubled, the shouts of “Tower” and “Alain” joined those of “Lamorak” and “Legion.” The roars of this match were greater than any other, joined by more people than Stas had otherwise seen. Such was the popularity of the monthly festivity.

    The two gladiators met in the center, speaking to one another. But their voices were inaudible. Even the most keen-eared would fail to hear them over the sounds of the crowd’s anticipation.

    The two men shook each other’s hands, to great cheer, then separated.

    The band drummed up suspense, mixing the music of the two competitors, and the crowd quieted somewhat. Alain drew his massive, oversized sword. Lamorak drew his spear.

    A signal was given, and they both moved. Alain went for his elixir, using his large sword as a shield to give him time. Lamorak instead went on the offense, charging forth to disrupt the move. The spearman was unsuccessful, as the swordsman was able to weather the initial assault and drink the magical liquid.

    Lamorak jumped backwards, as Alain grew in size to the point his oversized sword fit well in his hands. The crowd roared in approval with the use of arcanum, and the music shifted to be dominated by the heavy rhythms of Alain.

    “It’s a shame Lamorak is a spear wielder,” one of Stas’s fellows proclaimed. “Alain is at a disadvantage.”

    “Huh? Why?” Vita questioned. “I don’t see how a spear beats a sword.”

    “It’s not so much that Lamorak has an advantage as that Alain lacks one he would otherwise have.” Stas offered to explain. “Alain’s style revolves around crushing his opponent’s guard. He is very hard to block and shields are almost useless against him. But an opponent like Lamorak doesn’t rely on guarding. He instead uses his spear’s superior reach.” That said, with Alain’s size, the two had about the same reach on their weapons.

    The two fighters exchanged blows. Alain’s large size was no detriment to him, but Lamorak proved to be more nimble of the two, escaping the heavy swings of Alain’s massive blade, both those directed at himself and also those at his weapon.

    Lamorak jumped backwards in an acrobatic display to gain distance, and he imbibed his own elixir. In a flash, a cloud of mist burst forth and one Lamorak became five, standing side by side. The five of them charged forth.

    “Has anyone here fought Lamorak before, or seen him fight?” Stas inquired. “How does his Arcanum work?”

    “Lamorak’s copies are more mist than man,” a gladiator explained. “They can’t exert much force, but the tip of their spears can still make you bleed. One small hit, though, and they will dissipate.”

    “One small hit from Alain and Lamarak himself would dissipate,” another jeered.

    “True, but the problem is knowing which is which.”

    The five spearmen separated and moved to surround Alain. The giant did not remain idle, dashing to the side to avoid being surrounded. He kept all five to one side of him by movement and with his blade.

    A single Lamorak charged forth, recklessly. Alain caught him with his blade, and it burst into mist. The other Lamoraks took position around him.

    Alain blindly slammed his elbow backwards, destroying another Lamorak.

    Stas wondered if Alain had gained that instinct from spending time with him.

    “One of the bodies is disturbing the sand differently from the others.” Stas noted aloud. “That must be him.”

    “You can see that?” his fellow asked. “Well, that’s probably a feint, because Lamorak’s copies don’t make that mistake, from what I’ve heard. I wonder if Alain will fall for it.”

    Whether or not it was a feint, Alain wasn’t treating any of the Lamoraks differently, keeping a wary eye on all of them. The three remaining bodies split into seven with another burst of mist, and the music crescendoed towards the spearman’s tune.

    They coordinated, keeping the giant on his toes. They struck in time with one another whenever Alain would make the motion to swing for any of them. It was not a true stalemate, though. Every few strokes one of the spears would manage to nick into Alain’s skin, drawing a drop of blood. And, every few more strokes, Alain would manage to disperse one of the Lamoraks, only for it to be replaced.

    Stas did not know how difficult the mist copies were to produce. Nor did he know how many elixir vials Lamorak had available. Such information was necessary to judge who was actually winning this exchange. But from the perspective of the audience, it seemed that the Legion was slowly but surely slaying the Tower, one pin prick at a time.

    Perhaps this is what drove Alain to change his strategy. With a roar, Stas’s peer swung his sword not at the copy of Lamorak before him, but instead at the sand of the arena. He struck deep and heaved in a spin, sending the grains of sand outward all around him.

    Whether because the force of the strike was so intense or because the mist copies were simply that fragile, the wave of sand was able to burst every single copy of Lamorak. All of them exploded into mist. Each and every one of them.

    Alain was left completely alone, to the great confusion of the audience.

    Suddenly Lamorak emerged from the mist, spear raised. Alain reacted instantly, cutting through the spearman, who burst into mist. From behind the giant another Lamorak shimmered into view, his spear extended for Alain’s neck. The point pressed against the giant’s skin and stopped there.

    “So Lamorak learned to turn himself invisible…” one of Stas’s peers muttered. “That’s going to be irritating to fight.”

    Invisibility would explain what had transpired. The ability had completely slipped Stas’s mind, as it was quite unpopular. Arcanum that ruined the audience’s ability to enjoy the show led to a loss of fans. But for Lamorak, who could ensure there was always something to be seen with his copies, the issue was not as pronounced.

    The spear to the throat was not a true killing blow. Stas knew from experience that Alain’s larger form was more durable than normal. But the move was a finisher in its own way, and the sporting action to take at this point was concession.

    Alain, ever the good show of sportsmanship, opted to do so. He shrunk back to his regular, large form and signalled his concession.

    The crowd roared. The band played a triumphant tune. Cheers for “Lamorak” and “Legion.”

    “It was a good match,” Stas acknowledged. “Shame that Alain lost.”

    “Hmm.” Ludo murmured quietly, eyes still locked on the crowd and not the fighters.

    Alain and Lamorak accepted the roars of approval. The Aedile in his box prepared to end the match.

    Then something shifted. Or perhaps it was always that way and only now Stas was noticing.

    Stas did not know where it had begun, with the crowds it was always hard to notice such things. But at some point the cheers for Lamorak were joined by those of a darker tone. The blurry waves of happy excited faces mixed with ones of anger and a darker form of excitement. Calls for blood and death rose in a chant. A pallid wave spread across the crowd, spreading from somewhere, everywhere.

    In mere moments the same glorious crowd that enjoyed the show so greatly was now clamoring for execution.

    Stas turned to the Aedile in his box, and with horror noticed the man was hesitating on what should have been a simple decision.

    His fellow gladiators were clamoring. Ludo beside him was as stone-faced as the golems that served wine.

    The Aedile gave a signal. Lamorak bowed. Alain closed his eyes with a nod.

    A spear pierced Alain’s heart.

    The crowd roared in approval.

    Stas fell back into his seat. The box was a mess of shouting, anger. Somebody was wailing. And Ludo, damn Ludo, was as above it all as always.

    “Don’t you care?” Stas spoke, unable to keep the anger from his voice. “One of us has been killed. Do you not care?”

    Ludo turned to him, his face tired but stoic. “Do you wish for me to wail? I can assure you that mine sounds no better than anyone else’s.”

    “Alain died.” Stas seethed. “I would expect you to acknowledge the fact as is proper.”

    “The fact has been acknowledged, I can assure you. A death in a fight is to be expected. The fact that you have not prepared yourself for the possibility is a failing on your part, not mine.”

    “You don’t care, do you?” Stas accused. “We are just numbers on a ledger to you, some livestock to be managed. As long as you get the blood money for the death, this is just another transaction, so you have no reason to give a damn.”

    “I have no need for the compensation I will be granted.” Ludo claimed. “Outside of some amount to pay for the costs Alain incurred, I will be sending the majority to his mother.”

    It wasn’t the death that was so painful, Stas realized, but the injustice of it. If Alain had died respectfully, the blow would be more manageable. But the manner… dying for no reason after conceding to be a good sport.

    That Ludo refused to acknowledge the injustice was infuriating. “Alain did everything right.” Stas tried to force his words into the Lanista’s insufferable mind. “Everything. He fought well. He held himself with honor. He acknowledged his opponents skill by letting the match end on a good note. And he accepted the Aedile’s verdict without complaint. And he died anyway.”

    “Correct.” Ludo agreed. “Alain did everything right, and he died. That is the nature of a gladiator. That is the nature of life itself. You can do everything right, and you will die. You can do everything wrong, and you will still die. Death in the arena, a sudden seizure of the heart, slain by a mugger… the one constant is death. It is uncaring and ever present and beyond our control. That is why we must strive for excellence in matters that we do control.

    “Alain lived an exemplary life of virtue. We must honor and respect that by emulating his example.” Ludo spoke with a matter of finality. “Wailing and lashing out at the world accomplishes nothing. It is neither beneficial for yourself nor respectful of the deceased. Learn from Alain and be a better Gladiator for it.”

    Ludo huffed. “I understand this is your first time losing a compatriot and you are saddened by grief. As such I am being lenient with you. But if, in the future, you continue to insult me, know that I will not hold back on punishment.”

    Ludo rose and made for the box’s exit. “If you would excuse me, I need to speak with the Aedile.”

    Stas watched him leave, the cheers of the crowds ringing in his ears. The sight of their exuberance sickened him. They had just cheered for the death of an honorable man, enjoyed the spectacle of murder just the same as the executions that interspersed the fights.

    Just one smaller breakfast and they had unleashed their bloodthirst on an unworthy victim. They killed a man with their chants and they loved it.

    Stas could no longer see a glorious crowd of adoring fans. Each and every one of them were replaced by patrons of the Bell: disgusting drunks who clamored for the bile and blood of poor indebted fools. Was there ever a difference, or had he allowed the distance to paint a prettier picture?

    Stas felt the bile rise up in him as the disgust of it all.

    The black-feathered official directed his assistants to cart Alain’s body out of the arena. Something precious had been taken with it.

    Stas left the arena box. A good number of his fellows left with him.
     
    Raron, prandom, Acronym and 1 other person like this.
  24. VerBlinkel

    VerBlinkel Getting sticky.

    Joined:
    Nov 18, 2017
    Messages:
    56
    Likes Received:
    30
    Depending on what you're after, this is pretty much all you need.
    https://www.draft2digital.com/

    Even though the name implies otherwise, they also do print publications.
     
    HypoSoc likes this.
  25. Threadmarks: Twenty Nine
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    Stas found himself spending more and more time at Libertas’s hideout these days. The other ways of spending time not training had lost their appeal. And while before he had occasionally found himself chatting with Zola and Alain… that wasn’t happening anymore for obvious reasons.

    It was easier to just train, eat, and sleep. And if the school’s physician had permitted constant training, he might have indulged in that. But overexertion was a constant fear and Stas had too much time. It was better to spend the time drinking sweet wines underground than anywhere else. The resistance members could be bothersome at times, but they were different, and they would sometimes permit his silence if he insisted strongly enough. The din of the drinkers and their loud conversations were usually easy to ignore. Now marked an exception.

    “My friends!” Lucian proclaimed, having climbed up onto a table as soon as he arrived. “I have learned of a great opportunity! A noble chance to stick out blade deep into the city’s heart!”

    There were some drunken cheers and jeers at that. Lucian basked in the attention, until one member called out for him to “Get on with it!”

    “Through my glorious network of spies...”

    He was interrupted by a mocking shout from Romeo: “Yeah, Right! Stop lying, you sap.”

    “Through some gossip I happened to hear when I was making a delivery...”

    Romeo and some others with him cheered once more at that. Katriane gave the drunk man a slap on the shoulder in mild chastisement. The man had taken to drink even more after his ordeal in the arena basement. But few called him out on it.

    “As I was saying,” Lucian continued. “I have managed to learn of an opportunity! The watchers of this city have been consolidating elixirs… purchasing them from any Patrician who has got a stockpile. Apparently the going rate was shit, more of a confiscation than a buyback, but for Patricians that offered to grease the wheels… where was I going with this again? Ah, yes. There was a massive purchase of elixirs from one of my more notable clients. A truly stupendous amount. It’s all set to be delivered to the Watcher’s own stocks in two days’ time. And more than that,” Lucian placed his hand over his heart and grinned at the assembled room, “I’ve managed to discover the location of the warehouse that is going to hold it all before the transfer.”

    “Three cheers for Lucian!” Romeo shouted. “For going above and beyond his duty of ensuring we are properly stocked with wine!” Some people joined in his cheer.

    “I’m not done yet,” Lucian interjected. “I’m thinking that we should go to this warehouse and take the elixirs for ourselves. We are people of the city, are we not? So if the city is buying the elixirs from the Patricians, then why not cut out the middlemen and save those poor day laborers the work of transporting it? Better for us than in the hands of the Watchers.”

    And that was met with raucous cheer once more. Stas found himself joining them. This, at least, he could enjoy.

    One individual wasn’t having it. “Really?” Sanson bellowed. “How the fuck do you expect us to accomplish that? With only a few days’ notice? Relying on information you just happened to overhear from a Patrician? Have you got any brains in your head at all? Or have you drowned them out enjoying your own product?”

    “Oh shut up, Sanson.” Stas didn’t hide his irritation. “Patricians don’t think anything of talking. They love bragging about their importance.” At least that was the impression he had gotten from Senator Marcellus at the man’s party, which other noble attendees happily corroborated. “As for what we can accomplish with only a few days' notice… we are Libertas, aren’t we? We can abscond with every single vial if we only put in the effort. Or does anyone disagree?” Stas raised his glass high, some of the wine threatening to spill out of it from the quick motion.

    “Well said, Stas.” Enjolras rose. “We are Libertas, the soul of the city. And no mission for the benefit of the city is beyond us. If we believe this is an opportunity, and we are willing to grasp it, then it is ours for the taking.”

    “Enjolras,” Sanson’s heavy voice was soft, but it carried.

    “No, Sanson. You know just as well as I why this task could be so important.” Enjolras dismissed the ugly man’s concerns. His voice rose again, addressing the room. “But for a mission such as this, as always, we will need volunteers. Brave souls to exemplify our spirit and bring this opportunity into reality.”

    A number of voices clamored, Stas found himself among them.

    Enjolras raised a hand. “Do not rush. I don’t need your names now. Take the night to consider matters. Think about your skills and if they will match what we need. And tomorrow, when you have a clearer head, I will be happy to mark your participation.”

    Again his words were met with a cheer. It was a happy crowd tonight.

    “Stas, Sanson, if the two of you would join me?” Enjolras motioned for the back room. Stas and Sanson followed.

    When the door had closed behind them, Sanson loomed over Enjolras. “What the flying fuck, Enjolras?”

    Stas moved to intercede, but Enjolras pressed his hand on Stas’s shoulder to stop him. “Would you please be more specific, Sanson?”

    “We have a mission determination protocol for a reason, Enjolras. One, I’ll remind you, that you insisted on. Why the fuck are you gathering volunteers for the nonsence Lucian brought in?” Sanson pointed at Stas. “And why the fuck is he here?”

    Stas bristled, but the hand on his shoulder kept him grounded. If not for that, he might have thrown himself at the pox-faced pile of fat.

    “Stas is here because I trust him and because his insight is valuable.”

    The compliment produced a warm feeling in Stas. That Sanson looked like he had tasted something sour only added to the pleasantness.

    “As for why I disregarded protocol… if Eponine were present or if the timeline were longer, I would not have. But I do not believe we can afford to wait.” Enjolras turned to Stas. “My contact has informed me that the city is planning on a crackdown in the near future, to completely remove rebellious groups. Lucian learning about a stockpiling of elixirs adds veracity to that claim.”

    “The Watchers are always cracking down.” Sanson argued. “They are never not cracking down. Half the reason they exist is to provide bodies for the execution spectacles. There is nothing different about this.”

    “How strange for you to be the optimistic one, Sanson.” Enjolras grinned. “Though I hope I am wrong, my contact has yet to steer me wrong. I do fear there is a specific plan in the works, and I would much rather be proactive than reactive about it.”

    “You and your damn fucking contact…” Sanson grumbled.

    “Who is your contact?” Stas questioned.

    “I am unable to say, as I do not know myself,” Enjolras replied. “We communicate through dead drops and other forms of indirect communication. But I know they must be placed high in the Dominus’s court, a Senator perhaps. The information they provided would require access and privilege like that. I have some suspicions but...” Enjolras shook his head. “Regardless, the reason I asked for you here, Stas, is because I would like you to lead the mission.”

    Stas felt his chest tighten. “You would?”

    “I have not forgotten your success with the rescue of Romeo. Moreover, I haven’t forgotten how you helped not just in the execution, but in the planning. While we have many skilled individuals in our group, we do not have a true tactician among our number. That you can serve as such and possess great personal strength makes you the ideal candidate to lead on the ground.”

    Sanson grumbled excessively at the speech, but notably he did not actually interject.

    “This is an important mission, Stas. I feel deeply in my heart that it may make the difference between survival and extinction. If Lucian’s information is true and there is a stockpile of elixirs for the taking, it could ensure our survival for years to come, and weaken our foes immensely in the same, single stroke. I know I am asking a great deal of you, but will you do me this favor, my friend?”

    Stas swallowed, and nodded. “I will. I will do everything I can to ensure the mission goes smoothly.” Because this was something that mattered. It was something far greater than entertaining the bloodthirsty mobs in the arena stands. “It will be done, I swear.”

    Enjolras beamed. It was a gentle smile that had far too much confidence in Stas’s success. Stas would move heaven and earth to prove it correct. “I am glad I can count on you.” Enjolras moved back to the wall and grasped the indestructible shield on it. “You made great use of this last time, so I see no reason not to grant it to you once more. Ideally there would be very little conflict, but it will help you just in case.”

    Stas nodded, and Enjolras put the shield back on the wall.

    “And of course, if you need any other supplies or weaponry, please let me know. I will inform you of the mission’s volunteers tomorrow so you can properly plan. If there is anything else you need in preparation, please tell me.”

    Stas nodded. “There’s something I need to do to prepare, but I don’t need any help for it.”

    After all, Stas had sworn to do everything he could to help. And there was one particular person he would like to volunteer.




    “No,” Phobos’s response was swift and immediate.

    Stas frowned. “Why not? This is exactly the sort of thing you do. Aren’t you trying to accumulate elixirs? Keep them out of the hands of the Dominus? If anything you should be jumping for the chance to help. I’m sure it wouldn’t be an issue if you took a portion for yourself. From what I heard of the deal’s size, you’d be able to take as much as you could carry and it still wouldn’t make a dent in the total.”

    When Lucian had brought up the deal and the opportunity it represented, Phobos was the first person that sprung to mind. Stas had, after all, first met the man when he was murdering Watchers for their elixir supplies.

    “It’s an opportunity for you as much as it is for us.” Stas continued. “Think of how many patrols you would have to ambush to make up for this single operation? Of how difficult it would be to infiltrate the Watcher’s storehouses after the deal has been made and the elixirs are distributed. With how much time you are willing to spend teaching me for a few vials, I would have thought this would appeal to you immensely.”

    “Well it doesn’t.” Phobos grunted. “I said no.”

    The man could be infuriating at times. “Can you explain why? I deserve an explanation at the very least.” And any explanation the man gave would give Stas ammunition to argue. He was set on recruiting Phobos for this mission, nobody else had the experience fighting Watchers or dealing with their patrols and deployments. Stas had vowed to do his best to see the mission done and getting Phobos involved was a part of that.

    “Hm, let me think…” Phobos tilted his head to the side and placed a fist on the bottom of his strange mask. “Let’s go with no, Brat.”

    Stas grit his teeth. Phobos was not making this easy, and Stas did not know why. “What exactly about this plan is a problem for you? It can hardly be the goal. You do things like it all the time, to my knowledge. If you have an issue with the plan’s specifics, I’d be happy to involve you in the planning process.” For all that Enjolras has proclaimed Stas a tactician, he knew he did not compare to his teacher in the art. If Phobos needed to be granted some measure of command to consent to participation, Stas would swallow his pride on this matter and grant it.

    “What part of ‘no’ do you not understand, brat?”

    “Every part of it,” Stas retorted. “If you would simply give a reason, I might relent.” It was only a slight lie, as Stas did not plan on relenting. He could not conceive of a good reason for his masked teacher to reject him.

    “I have no interest in working with vainglorious fools, gangs who I’d target just as well as the Watchers, or inconsequential brats who happily jump in over their heads with no consideration for matters. I am done with that foolishness.”

    It was only for the far reaching nature of the insults that Stas did not attempt to punch the man. It was clear after a moment that Phobos was not describing Libertas per se, but rather other groups he had come into contact with. That they had left the man with such a negative opinion of their organizations was a great shame. That he painted Enjolras’s valiant collection with the same negative brush was a mistake out of ignorance, not malice.

    “You spoke to me of your vows before. Of the meaning behind your mask. How it drives you to eradicate evil, and make the city a better place for all. I imagine you have run into some fools before, but is it really so strange to imagine that others are driven by a similar creed? That they would stand together to fight the same tyranny you seek to destroy? From what I have witnessed, Libertas exemplifies the virtues of your mask better than you do.”

    “You misunderstood me, Brat.” Phobos sneered, his fingers tracing at the blue material. “This mask isn’t a sign of virtue, far from it. This mask has passed through tyrants, murderers, thieves, torturers, madmen. I wear this cursed thing not as a celebration of its history, but out of damn spite. I hate it with every fiber of my being, more than you can imagine. It represents everything wrong with the world. The only reason I wear it is because I know that the bastard I took it from would have hated every single thing I am doing with it, and that thought brings me endless joy.” The masked man turned into a deep glare. “If your group actually did exemplify this mask, I would tear their throats out one by one.”

    Phobos huffed angrily. “If you’re trying to convince me to change my mind, you’re going the wrong way about it. For the last time, brat, I work alone. End of story.”

    It was a dismissal, but Stas wasn’t done yet. If the man were completely against the proposal, he would have fled by now. Certainly Stas would have been able to catch up. His arcanum was of great value to that end, but that he wasn’t forced to chase the masked men meant reason was still an option.

    So, he accepted the man’s words and once more attempted to change tracks.

    “I find it strange,” the gladiator mused aloud. “You are willing to do many distasteful things for your goals. You have no qualms attacking from ambush, stealing, sabatorging, murdering your foes. Nothing seems to be too horrible for you to consider if you believe it will help you achieve what you believe to be good, no matter your claimed dislike for the methods. And yet, the act of coordinating seems to be a step too far.”

    Phobos stilled, and Stas knew the man was stuck on his words.

    So, he remained silent, letting the man stew. After waiting a period his rhetorical teacher would have found appropriate, he added the deadly blow. “I suppose you must care about your own pride more than your objectives.”

    “Damn you, Brat,” Phobos cursed, and Stas knew he had won the verbal spar. In some ways, his teacher had a strange pride in his own lack of pride.

    “I will let you know the time and place for meeting up before the mission when it is set.” Stas spoke definitively.

    He reflected away before Phobos could argue.
     
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2021
    Ladoss and prandom like this.
  26. Threadmarks: Thirty
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    They stood before the warehouse, ten in total. More than half of Libertas’s core group followed under Stas’s command. They had staked out the building the whole of the previous day, watching as the Patrician slowly filled it up with the merchandise. They had mapped out the location’s simple layout, as well as the surrounding blocks and the nearest guard posts. Every single person present had been made to memorize it. Two horses and carts had been surreptitiously acquired for transportation.

    The five patrolling watchers had been simple to take out. Planning and coordination had made the ambushes easy. Stas was able to use his abilities to confirm that nobody else was present in the building.

    Getting everyone here was the easy part. It was simply putting into action the preparation they had made. Loading up the carts and transporting the goods surreptitiously would be the harder part. Keeping the guard patrols from noticing their destination when they were weighed down opened up a higher level of risk.

    Stas signalled to his compatriots and entered the warehouse. His fellows followed as they were ordered. The door creaked almost silently, any noise muffled by the arcanum Libertas was employing. The light of the moon shone through the cracks of the Patrician’s warehouse, providing a dim lighting for the scene when it wasn’t interrupted by a hazy cloud.

    In the center of the building were distinctive barrels. Barrels upon barrels stacked high to reach the rafters of the building. Each was painted with the distinctive marks of the elixir factory they originated from, a mark that Stas could recognize from the secured back of his school’s commissary. Ludo’s school possessed only a single barrel from which it filled its elixir vials at a time. The entire roster of gladiators, through both fighting and training in Arcanum, only went through a single barrel a month. Libertas had two of them secreted in its hideout, and a few more barrels worth of far lower quality elixirs.

    It was an astounding sight, in the mass. Stas could scarcely comprehend the amount of magic liquid present, the volume of Arcanum that could be achieved with it all. He did not want to think about how many corpses this treasure trove was built out of.

    Stas was not alone in his stupor at the sight, but he was quick to escape it. He gestured to his band to head forth. Lucian was the first, scrambling up the stack of barrels to the top of the heap. Perhaps his familiarity with wine casks granted him the confidence to traverse them so easily. He grabbed one from the highest point and handed it down for another member to grab.

    The barrel made its way between hands, ending up in the grasp of another member, who stopped. “Isn’t this supposed to be heavier?”

    Stas felt his stomach sink. A cloud moved forth in the sky letting moonlight bask the warehouse. The shadows deepened, twisted, coiled.

    From the shadows a dozen figures emerged, then a dozen more. Shadow pooled and shadow became men, and the men wore beaked masks akin to birds.

    Two dozen watchers appeared in the warehouse in but a single moment. They arrayed themselves between Stas’s band and the door.

    Panic and cries were only exacerbated when a crossbow bolt smashed into Lucian’s chest. A second bolt from another Watcher joined the first. The man crumbled on top of the barrels, falling pitifully to the floor.

    Stas could not process it. He could barely comprehend the reality of the trap. The many, many Watchers advanced with weapons drawn. Another pair of crossbow bolts fired. This time Stas found himself moving. He didn’t need to think, his shield arm interposed itself on instinct, catching both of the bolts against its impenetrable metal sheen.

    A Watcher gurgled and fell, a throwing dagger having lodged itself in the man’s throat. More than a few of the Watchers turned in surprise looking for the source. It seemed that none considered looking for an invisible masked man in the rafters. Phobos’s fish hook caught another Watcher, forcing the guard’s crossbow to fire into the back of another guard’s leg.

    Stas was forced back into reality. Acting on ingrained training more than conscious thought, he reflected behind the throng of Watchers and slit one’s throat.

    He had allowed himself to be too surprised by the Watcher’s numbers and sudden appearance. Doing nothing would accomplish nothing. He had to treat this with the rationale it deserved. He was in charge of everyone here, after all.

    “Well?!” Stas shouted, making full use of the arena presentation voice he had been trained to use? He reflected once more before the Watchers could converge on him. “What are you sorry lots waiting for? Let’s get them!”

    Hardly an inspiring speech, but the point was not the words but the confidence. And it seemed to work as his fellows were seemingly shaken from their stupors. Maria took her own short bow from her side and launched an arrow at the mass of Watchers. It hit the man in the shoulder, puncturing through the guard’s gambeson. It was not a lethal shot by far, but it looked to be painful and debilitating. Another member of Libertas, Raoul, brought a vial of Elixir to his lips.

    A crossbow bolt flew at the elixir drinker, but Stas teleported to intercept it. And at that moment, the battle was truly on.

    Outnumbered nearly three to one, by all accounts the battle should have been a slaughter. But that simple reckoning failed to take some important factors into account. Namely, it was not actually possible for two dozen men to all attack simultaneously in the confines of the warehouse. While every Watcher possessed some form of sword or dagger for use in melee, only a limited number had a crossbow or a ranged form of arcanum. The portion was indeed significant, but it was not all of them.

    These ranged fighters were the true risk in this early stage in the battle, before the mass of Watchers could march forth into melee. With a call of direction from Stas, the few ranged fighters they had of their own, namely Phobos with his daggers and hook, Maria with her short bow, and Raoul with his arcanum that produced balls of darkness he could lob, could focus entirely on harassing the ranged fighters.

    Stas himself served to negate the Watcher’s own attacks. With Enjolras’s shield in hand and ability to teleport, he could fearlessly intercept any bolt or stream of fire. More than that, he served as an intense threat, regularly placing himself inside the Watcher’s position to make an attack. He rarely was able to replicate the success of his first kill tonight, but he did make some of them bleed, and managed to keep them from acting properly.

    As for the rest of Libertas? Stas had them throw the empty decoy barrels at the Watchers, doing whatever necessary to keep the mass of them harried and away from their position.

    It was a tough battle, but the important fact was that it was a battle. Despite the surprise and the numbers advantage, Stas found himself in a winnable position. Every moment counted, and it could slip away in an instant if Phobos, himself, or even Maria took an injury. He fought against an oncoming tide and he could do very little but try to hold it back and trust others to actually pick the Watchers off.

    Stas felt his hope growing, knowing that the flow of battle rested in his hands. He could feel and hear the morale of his compatriots growing even as the morale of the Watchers sank. It was a slow reversal of those first moments.

    Then, without true conscious understanding of why, his stomach sank once more. He felt it before he saw it, the shadows coalescing under the moonlight once more.

    Everyone, Watcher or resistance fighter froze in place as an unnatural chill blanketed the warehouse. The shadows seemed to flee from their source, long and sinuous, dancing against in spite of the moonlight.

    The pool of shadows grew deeper and taller, coalescing around a large, ornate cloak, with an imposing figure enshrouded within.

    “Lord Dominus,” a watcher spoke with a deep bow. His fellows joined him. Nobody on Stas’s side thought to take advantage of the distraction, as stunned as they were.

    Stas heard the clang of a weapon falling to the floor. He did not know who allowed it to slip from their fingers.

    “Hm…” the Dominus hummed softly to themself, dark eyes scanning the room. “So these are the mice who’ve caught themselves in our trap, are they?” The emperor’s tone is bland, their expression one of disinterest mixed with disdain. “I expected more, somehow.”

    To Stas’s shame, he was not the first to break their stupor. Rather it was Maria, the stern-faced door guard and armorer of the group who moved, raising her shortbow for the Dominus’s heart.

    The ruler of the city raised a single hand towards Maria. Before the arrow was fully loosed from its string, a burst of shadow erupted from the Dominus’s outstretched arm. It smashed into the woman, throwing her backwards. The shadows pressed Maria backwards at full speed, crushing her against the wooden frame of the warehouse wall. The wood creaked, the body snapped.

    Stas noted, with no small bit of horror, that the column of shadows the Dominus produced seemed to contain a mass of flesh, numerous in color and tone. Blinking eyes and gaping teeth hid beneath the wisps of darkness, joined by scales and fangs and ears and tumors. All of it was only visible to his mind’s eyes, as granted by Stas’s arcanum. The shadows seemed to serve as a disguise for the grotesque blob.

    The shadow-cloaked column of flesh pulled away from Maria’s body, revealing that the dead woman’s corpse was mangled and torn, as though a hundred people had taken a bite out of her. The blood splattered against the wall blended with wisps of shadow in the air.

    The flesh column fell back into the shadows, dissolving from view, and the shadows themselves faded away under the moonlight, leaving no trace. If Stas had not just seen the horrifica arcanum, he might have assumed that Maria had died with no cause. It had been so fast that anyone who had had the misfortune of blinking might have missed the whole thing.

    The Dominus lowered their arm and sighed, looking up to the patched roof of the warehouse. “DIsappointing.,” the emperor of the city rumbled. Everyone else in the building remained frozen, the weight of the ruler’s shadow pressing against them.

    “Well?” the Dominus addressed the Watchers with a bit of impatience, “get on with it already. I’m hardly going to do your jobs for you. Kill them all.”

    The Watchers jolted and, in a rush, they went back to attempting their brutal aims. The resistance fighters went back on the defense but the situation was different.

    Where before there was an effective draw between the two sides, teetering on a knife’s edge, now it was as inevitable as a slaughter. They had lost one of their most competent fighters, and one of the few ranged assets. And the Dominus’s mere presence was a rope around all their necks. Both through the unnatural sensation the emperor elicited, and the implicit threat that at any moment the immortal being could decide to join the fray if their mood desired such.

    Morale was dead, their efforts a last dying gasp and inertia more than anything born of hope. Raoul was in a useless panic, no longer even attempting to lob his arcanum. And Phobos had disappeared at some point.

    The Watchers made their way past the obstacles and set upon Stas’s fighters. The resistance members all had a bit of skill with their blades; Maria had instilled the very basics into them all. But they were no match for those that trained daily.

    Stas felt himself reflecting across the field, moving on instinct more than anything else. He could not allow himself to think, to recognize the horrific situation. He hampered the Watchers, slayed one perhaps, it was hard to tell. But his actions were insignificant.

    And through it all, the Dominus watched with a bored eye and growing impatience.

    A throwing dagger shot forth, aimed for the Dominus’s neck. The ruler’s arm shot out to catch it, their hand clasped around the blade. The Dominus frowned. “Impudence,” they growled. Their hand clenched tightly, and the metal of the dagger warped.

    Another dagger shot out from another angle. Again, the Dominus caught it without a care. This time, to the emperor’s surprise, it exploded in their hand. The Dominus staggered in place, clearly disoriented by the noise and the flash. Phobos faded into view behind the cloaked figure, a strange knife at the ready, covered with markings Stas had only seen on the arcanum toys in the market.

    Phobos slashed for the back of the Dominus’s neck, but the figure twisted into shadow. A new head with a new face emerged out of the Dominus’s neck, facing Phobos. Two new hands, cloaked in wisping shadow, sprouted forth, grasping for their masked assailant.

    Phobos abandoned his strike smoothly, dodging out of the Dominus’s new reach. A column of shadow-cloaked flesh, akin to that which slew Maria, bursts forth towards Phobos. But the masked man had clearly predicted it, moving himself out of the way even before the Dominus invoked his arcanum.

    Phobos threw a smoke bomb at the ground. In the confusion, he disappeared from view.

    “Traitors!” the Dominus seethed. “Vermin! You cannot hide from me!”

    Stas found himself greatly distracted from his fruitless skirmish with the Watchers, from the knowledge that everyone around him was dying pitifully, when a wave of shadow pooled out from the Dominus. It spread out on the floor of the warehouse, covering the surface, creeping up the walls. To Stas’s horror, he could see that the shadows were hiding a layer of flesh, covered in numerous, unblinking eyes and just as many grasping mouths, all reaching back beneath the robes of the Dominus.

    Stas dodged a swipe from a Watcher, reflecting away from the growing mass of patchwork flesh, unwilling to allow it to crawl beneath him. The Watchers too avoided the Dominus’s horrific arcanum. Smoke filled the rafters, as Phobos released his cache of bombs, removing him from sight, but the flesh and shadows creeped ever closer.

    The Dominus grinned, a cruel expression on their otherwise impassive face. “I have found you,” they announced.

    And the shadows retracted to their source, the flesh with them, having snagged their prey out of the smoke. It was dragged towards the Dominus at high speeds. But it was not Phobos.

    The Dominus frowned in confusion at the corpse of a Watcher they had caught, which was entangled by a recognizable fish hook. The strange dagger Phobos had been wielding was tied to the end of the line.

    The dagger swung forth at the end of the fishline. When it touched the emperor’s flesh, it reacted.

    A great white light, blinding in scope, shone out. A great column of pure brightness expanded outward in a wide beam towards the moon. The beam seemed to be silent beyond possibility, removing all the noise in the room. It pierced through the Dominus’s body, and expanded to engulf it and the corpse both.

    Stas stopped to gape at the sight, as did the Watchers he was wrestling with. The Arcanum in the dagger was beyond anything Stas had ever seen, and it still seemed to keep going. For fifteen whole seconds, the beam of brightness obscured the Dominus’s body. The wooden roof in its wake crumbled to nothingness, as did the floor and the earth beneath.

    When it subsided, the beam petered out, revealing the Dominus’s shorn body, gaping nothingness taking the place of more than half the emperor’s flesh. Of the Watcher’s corpse or the dagger, there was no sign, consigned to the brightness as they were. Stas did catch the glint of Phobos’s fishing hook, undamaged on the tattered ground.

    The Dominus’s flesh twisted, with no shadows to disguise it. The empty spaces were filled quickly, and the body returned to its unharmed form. Even the Dominus’s cloak seemed to patch itself together.

    “An admirable effort,” the Dominus droned. “But ultimately worthless.” The ruler of the city gave no indication that the devastating attack of arcanum had any true impact. “Tell me where you learned of such arcanum, outlaw. That form of the art is not one I have allowed to be taught. If you tell me where you learned of it, I will allow you to die swiftly.”

    Phobos did not respond, and Stas had lost track of the man.

    “Do not bother hiding, villain. I can find you easily enough.”

    Phobos jumped down from the rafters, landing before the Dominus. In his hands were two more of the strange daggers, which he brandished with obvious menace. It was a departure from the man’s normal act, revealing himself like that. Stas wondered what his teacher was thinking.

    “One might not have been enough,” Phobos growled. “But I have nine more where that came from.”

    The Dominus scoffed. “Do you take me for a fool? I can sense that those toys lack the willpower of the first. Such wasteful implements. Is that why you have been stealing my elixirs? Disgraceful.”

    A bluff… that explained Phobos’s choice of revealing himself. “Are you so certain, Dominus? The blades of an assassin can deceive the senses after all.”

    “They cannot deceive mine, you hapless fool. Do you know how many people have tried to kill me these ages? You are not nearly as threatening as you would…” the Dominus stopped and seemed to grasp something. “That mask… where did you get that mask?”

    Phobos said nothing, stepping forward instead.

    “It should not be here. This is my paradise! There is no room for such blasphemes in my world! Such mockery! This is my domain, and I will not have the line of Phobos taint it!”

    Phobos took another step forward. The Dominus almost took a step back, but they steeled themselves, rage overtaking the fear in their eyes.

    “I will slaughter you!” the Dominus screamed, and an all encompassing wall of flesh broke like a wave towards Phobos, without consideration for anything else in that direction.

    Stas reflected. He appeared behind the ruler of the city, sword drawn. His blade cut into the Dominus’s flesh, but failed to find any purchase. The skin was just too tough.

    The action did manage to distract his opponent, the wall of flesh falling aside in the moment.

    “Cockroaches,” the Dominus growled. “How are you still alive? Are my men truly so incompetant?” They swatted their arm at Stas, faster than he could raise Enjolras’s shield, and the gladiator found himself thrown to the side by the force of the casual blow.

    The Dominus was strong. Impossibly so. But the form in their attack, the stance they held themselves at, was absolutely pathetic to Stas’s trained eye. The Dominus was not a trained fighter, to have practiced the forms for weapon use or pugilism or wrestling. But they did not need to be when they overpowered anyone before them with strength and arcanum both.

    And for all the Dominus’s lack, Stas would never be able to defeat him. The immortal ruler of the city was too far beyond him, beyond anyone.

    A column of flesh, lacking the coat of shadows, rushed for Stas’s position. He raised Enjolras’s shield to defend himself. Stas did not know why. Dying felt inevitable at this point. But in some ways it felt like he would be an even greater failure if he let the shield fall without even trying.

    The attack pressed against him, but the shield held firm, catching the powerful strike. He did not know how long he could hold it, though. So he reflected away to the rafters to catch his breath. Again the action was on instinct. Perhaps it was the wrong one. It meant he was still alive to witness everything.

    The column of flesh, lacking resistance, slammed into the warehouse floor, crushing the wood. The Dominus nodded to themself in satisfaction, before turning to face Phobos again.

    “You are alone now, pretender of Phobos,” the Dominus mocked. “Doomed to die like all others of your accursed mark. How many of your name have there been now? I have not been keeping track, not after so many centuries in this world.”

    Phobos said nothing, his form resolute. The remaining bird-faced Watchers all turned to observe the scene. Everyone else in the accursed warehouse had perished.

    Phobos turned his head slightly, appraising Stas’s position with a glare. Stas did not know what it meant. Was Phobos ordering him to run away? Was he asking for Stas’s aid? Was he cursing Stas’s name for getting him involved in this terrible situation? Stas had no way to know, no way to act. His strength was leaving his body, his mind was deserting him. Instinct no longer seemed to control his body. The nightmare taking place was too much for him.

    A wave of flesh cascaded over to Phobos. He did not dodge this time, allowing it to take him. The masked man gurgled involuntarily as he was crushed, ribs cracking, spine breaking. Then, once he was truly engulfed by the flesh, Phobos took one of the daggers and stabbed it into the Dominus’s wall.

    Once more a bright light engulfed the warehouse and the Dominus with it. This time it lasted only a few seconds. The immortal ruler of the city was no less harmed by it this time.

    Phobos’s body was reduced to ash. Only the strange blue mask survived the last suicide attack.

    The Dominus huffed. “Irritating. Inconsiderate. Ruining his own body like that.” A tendril of flesh, once more covered in shadow, snatched Phobos’s mask. The tendril tossed it towards a Watcher who caught it after a moment.

    “Keep a hold of that mask,” the Dominus commanded. “I am going to mount it in my study. The current bearer was a fool, but a number of his predecessors were worthy adversaries. I will need to use a different body.”

    Stas watched as the Dominus made their way to the nearest body, that of Katriane. A tendril of flesh and shadow grabbed the woman’s corpse and brought it towards the Dominus. Then the immortal seemed to unhinge, flesh turning to a gaping maw, a mass of teeth and sinews, all hidden underneath a cloak of shadow. The monstrous figure engulfed the corpse entirely, bulging outward from the mass. Then the Dominous bubbled and bulged and shifted.

    From the shadow Katriane emerged, creaking her muscles in distaste. The expression on her lips was disturbed. “It seems these vermin have built themselves an underground hideout in the twenty second district.” Her voice sounded exactly like Katriane’s, but the tone and words would have never passed through the woman’s lips. “Raze the district to the ground. Start with the warehouses on the main street. Don’t let a single person escape.”

    The Watchers nodded, and all but the one carrying Phobos’s mask were engulfed in a wave of shadow. They faded from view just as they had arrived in the warehouse.

    Katriane’s body twisted and folded, bulging beneath a cloak of shadow, and once more the Dominus stood in her place.

    “I must remember to discipline the watch commander of the district for not catching this.” The Dominus muttered to themself. “Forcing me to graft a weakling… the rancid taste will bother me for weeks.”

    Stas could not allow himself to wait any longer. He reflected back to the warehouse floor, behind the Watcher.

    “What?” the Dominus murmured in surprise.

    He punched the man and caught Phobos’s mask when the man dropped it. Then, with a moment’s thought, he reflected to the part of the ground where it had first been destroyed to grab the fish hook. Then he teleported as far as he could manage.

    He could not allow himself to delay any further. The remaining resistance members were in danger, needed to be informed. There was a great distance to cover but he pushed himself, reflecting as fast as he was able as far as he was able across the city back to the hideout. Nothing else mattered in the moment, nothing else could compare. He had ruined everything already, and he would not accept ruining anything more.

    When he arrived at the hideout far too slowly, it was already too late. The warehouse containing the hideout was on fire. Watchers swarmed the district in numbers he had never seen them act, tearing people from their homes, slaughtering them in the street. He could see with his Arcanum-granted sight Watchers swarming through the secret entrance to the hideout below.

    Everything had fallen apart. The world went white.

    Stas clung to the mask on his face, that ornate cloth that bore the simple of freedom. He tore it off his undeserving self. He had failed, gotten everyone killed. Ruined everything.

    The shame of it burned him. It was only appropriate, indeed, that he wear the mask of a murderer instead. After all, he had managed to get all his friends killed.

    Phobos’s mask stuck to his face easily. It did not fit comfortably like the mask Enjolras had created for him. It was hard, rough, a size too big and small at once.

    The Watchers continued slaughtering the inhabitants of the district as Stas watched from above. He considered jumping down there, killing every single one until he exhausted himself fully. Dying in a fight would be honorable, in a way. He would be like all his other friends, going out fighting instead of running like a coward.

    But even that thought could not rouse him. There was no point to it. No matter how many Watchers he managed to slaughter there would be no impact. His friends would still be dead and the monster that called itself the Dominus would still rule the city. Dead or alive there was nothing for Stas. He did not deserve the facsimile of honor. He could not motivate himself to attack. He was a coward in the end.

    So Stas simply went back to Ludo’s school, back to his room. He sat in his room and stared at the wall until morning came.
     
    Raron, Paradosi and Ladoss like this.
  27. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    Any thoughts on developments? The plot density has been very high these last few chapters.
     
  28. Paradosi

    Paradosi UDW

    Joined:
    Apr 12, 2015
    Messages:
    6,619
    Likes Received:
    32,300
    Was actually writing up a response. :D

    I haven't followed the plot too closely(I'd like to read the whole shebang in one go when it's finished), but it's a treat actually seeing Von Graft in action. Definitely some The Thing vibes there.

    This bit caught my eye in particular. I mighta figured that when Von Graft assimilated(or grafted) someone, he'd take their skills as well. Muscle memory and what not. I guess it's one way to put a tamper on how broken his Aeromancy is. That or he's sandbagging.

    Say, is Charlie at all aware of Von Graft? I think you mentioned or saw someone mention that Von Graft and Kroll made some moves against one another, and that Spoiler'd bit about his childhood, but I figure the Geomancy Division while maybe not as up-to-date as Kroll's Hydromancy Divison on things would likely be aware of someone like Von Graft. But given that Charlemagne still allows himself to remain so degraded in Mind and Body(even if reversible), it goes to say he either doesn't know much or just doesn't consider him a threat.
     
  29. Ladoss

    Ladoss Not too sore, are you?

    Joined:
    May 16, 2016
    Messages:
    325
    Likes Received:
    420
    Stas really feels like Muhammad Bahl's lost brother these days. Which is not a bad thing at all, just somewhat amusing.

    Expected Phobos and Libertas members to die before this story in finished but that Dominus himself will do heavy lifting? No. That said, leaving aside Aeromancy Thinginess and all his general shittery, he was kinda bleh. Spent way too much time being a big carnivorous immortal fish in a tiny pond filled with mayflies and it shows. Maybe i'm somewhat biased or spoiled there since my standard is Academy and Dominus doesn't look that invincible or competent compared to some people there.

    Overall, you're doing a good job of hammering down how rotten and unjust the whole world is with Alain's death and all other stuff but nothing there was truly surprising. Polyhistor trains your reader to be quite numb to such things imo
     
  30. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

    Joined:
    May 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5,202
    Likes Received:
    36,121
    Yeah, I'm trying to make Von Graft feel out of place. I've deliberately made magic use clean and traditional in other parts of the story (other than the Elixir reveal, which serves at a bit of a bridge), so that Von Graft's body horror stands out as wrong.

    The Geomancy Division does indeed know about Von Graft to varying degrees. Individual houses deal with the Dominus for their own benefit. Charlemagne does not consider anyone a threat.

    I don't actually know who this is.

    That is exactly what happened.

    That is somewhat hard to show, in the scope of the novel, as the world is a deliberately created small pond, but the Dominus's strength tends towards the extreme of invincibility.

    If you want some perspective, they just no-selled an attack that was fueled by a couple thousand human sacrifices.

    Thank you. Alain's death was a pretty important in the story.

    As for not being surprising, I don't mind. I've realized over the course of writing this that shocking the reader is counterproductive to the genre. That's why I opted to position the epilogue as a prologue.
     
    Paradosi likes this.
Loading...