We continued to plod along for a couple of hours up various hills as we started to head towards the base of a mountain. It was at this time that Zoe finally managed to rouse from her slumber. She seemed much too comfortable in Akira’s arms as her eyes flutter open and she stretches like a cat at first.
“Mun-yawn!?” She lets out a small yawn beneath her face covering before looking around and pretending to go back asleep.
“Oy! We saw you wake up!” I yell at the girl that is trying to milk every advantage she can out of the current situation.
“Shhh, I am having a great dream… a girl could get used to this… KYAA!” She tried to wave us off, as though she was royalty before she screams out loud as Akira pretends to drop her and the brief weightlessness wakes her up fully as she flails about briefly before grabbing around Akira’s neck in a vice to catch herself.
Akira lets out a chuckle as he swings her back to the ground so that she can start walking along with the rest of us. Finally free of his burden, he straightens his back and a few audible cracks are echoing from his spine.
“You better say nothing about my weight! I’m as light as a spring breeze!” Zoe says while punching Akira in the upper arm. She saw him about to make a comment as he was making too much of a show of finally being released from his heavy burden.
“Luckily, we did not decide to toss you onto the garbage heap,” I say as I try to swing her extra bag to thump her in the chest. Unfortunately, I am too tired from all the extra weight that I’ve been carrying for so long and could only have it limply swing in front of her feet where it could trip her up, however, she scoops it up without issue before humming a merry tune to herself.
“Thanks, wow, you look… super tired…” she says sheepishly while scratching her cheek in embarrassment. I’m covered in sweat in so many places from the marching with double the weight as normal. Glaring daggers is the only response I can think to return as I re-adjust to the freedom.
Akira quickly breaks off to the left side of the road, off to go get more ‘breakfast’ now that his burden is also gone. Upon returning, Akira has a tightly wrapped package which must be another ‘breakfast’.
We continue to follow the lumbering Git, the sounds of broken bones crunching stopped after the first hour and now there has only been the unsettling sound of squishing noises as the creature is still working on the Ursa. Thankfully we are proceeding at a slower rate due to the distraction in Git’s mouth and the extra weight of the creature.
Akira reaches out his hand and we all observe him create another mote of darkness at this time.
“Akira, why is it black? Mine are orange?” I ask him, trying to distract myself from the tiredness that is constantly encroaching. My feet are killing me and I want nothing more than to maybe ask to also be carried.
“Each element will have a particular color. While you only have one mana pool, there is a flavor to it. Magics that are in line with your mana will be more efficient. You would need to fight against the resistance or inefficiencies when converting one to another. Mine is black now as it has become so muddied with all elements that it darkened to its current color.” He explains as he reaches into the neckline of his armor pulling out a small clamshell of leather that he opens to extract another nine black ominous embers, to make ten in his hand.
Looking over to me with a small smile, I can see the embers reduce to black smoke that slithers to form a small ring of black smoke no bigger than my outstretched hand in front of him. I can briefly feel a bit of a push or pull on my mana wash over my inner mana world when he invokes his magic, however, it quickly passes and the three of us watch his every movement as he reaches his hand towards that circle. The circle itself is keeping pace with our constant march and is always right in front of him at the exact same distance away.
Jessica releases a small gasp as she watches what happens to his fingers and hand. Almost as though passing into a liquid, the fingers of his hand disappear. Everything that crosses the boundary of that circle disappears and instead looks as though a sheet of black smoke is trying to push the non-missing sections of his fingers out. The sheet of smoke is preventing us from seeing the insides of his fingers. He continues to reach in and his hand disappears fully and he only has what appears to be an amputated arm surrounded by that black smoke at the boundary of the smoke ring.
As he slowly retracts his hand, a pommel becomes visible and as he withdraws his arm, it is returning to our plane of existence while holding a sword.
The pommel gives way to an intricately wound hilt in black and purple leather. After his hand exits the portal, he is still drawing out a sword sheathed in a black scale scabbard. The scales have flecks of gold to them and the only decoration is a couple of black and purple tassels that appear to be ornamental or possibly used to tie the scabbard to a belt.
The ring of smoke scatters to nothing as the sword exits the ring and now Akira is holding a gorgeous sword wrapped in what could only be described as black dragon welp scales flecked in gold.
Zoe is almost beside herself in greed, not due to the sword but due to other reasons. “How big is it!?” She asks, practically drooling.
“It is considered quite rude and inappropriate for a young lady to ask such a question,” Akira says while smiling. Jessica and I start to snicker and we finally let loose into full-blown laughter which causes Zoe to blush profusely at the joke, as she shies away to reign in her merchant side.
Grabbing the sword midway down the scabbard, he turns it around and offers it to me hilt first.
I reach out and take them both out of his outstretched hand. I feel mesmerized by the blade. As my hand grips the intricate hilt that is smooth from extensive use, I feel the hooks as it reaches out for my mana to support itself. The pull is not much and if I opened my grimoire I believe I’d only see a single point of mana being taken a second. I do not generate mana nearly that fast and know that the sword would drain me dry in under a half-hour.
Testing a couple of times, I release the grip and it stops the drain while taking it up again re-establishes the constant drain. The sword itself feels rigid and yet also compliant, like a lesser version of my mana addict that has taken its final form as my grimoire.
Curiosity beckons forth to me like a siren’s call and with a small click, I start to pull the blade free of its draconic sheath. As I start to ease her out, I note that she is a gorgeous black blade with a silver set of rings or patterns within the metal. They perhaps look like rings on a tree but more fluid and sometimes like frozen wisps of smoke.
As I continue to pull the blade out I start to notice seams in the blade, like teeth perfectly fitting together along a single-sided blade, honed to a razor’s edge.
I’d seen dad’s best work, Ness, which was short for finess, and this put her to shame. Looking closer, I could swear that some of the swirls of silver might have made some crude runes on the surface of the blade segments. Freeing the sword fully from its scabbard, I cannot help but pass my fingers across this new metal that I have never seen before.
Akira saddles up beside me as he manipulates my hand to grab the hilt correctly while taking the scabbard away from me. He pushes my thumb to the side to hold the blade firmly.
“A division-sword while used regularly will be gripped like so.” He then angles the sword away from me and guides my thumb to find a latch within the guard, pulling it up until I’m holding the blade as I would a fishing rod.
With a soft click, the teeth fall away across the ground and I can see that they are all connected by black smoke. The silver patterns on the blade teeth are gone, leaving each one as black as night. I am now holding what appears to be a long black whip of sorts that could bite at something with a slight tug. She feels compliant, waiting, and draining my mana. Feeling more closely, I can certainly tell that she’s devouring close to an ember’s worth of mana a second. Releasing the latch, I feel a final tug of extra mana and the sword retracts back into a solid sword.
“Akira, I cannot accept this…” I say while trying to pass it back to him. However, he gently pushes back on the guard and returns it to me.
“I have several of them still and I cannot use any of my division-swords, as the mana draw will kill you if the blades are in my hands.” He says, sadly as a yearning to hold his companion is evident in his gaze.
“The ‘whip’ form will be something that we will not use until you can handle the blade on its own. Once you have a foundation, we can do some simple exercises to prevent you from maiming yourself or your allies.”
“You have more!? How much more?” A shameless Zoe has approached again, trying to figure out anything she can about the merchant’s wet dream of an ability or artifact that is being teased in front of her is gnawing away at her sanity.
Akira responds by only reaching into the side section of his heavier bag and from the pocket removes what I instantly recognize as a rotweed seed with three Den-izens shuffling around on top of it in search of any leaves.
Stretching out his palm face-up, I see Zoe’s sleeves flicker and the contents of Akira’s palm are gone, as though they disappeared by the devourer’s will. Chuckling to himself, he pats Zoe’s head, who is now looking down shamefully while clutching some newly acquired items to her bosom. With a face alight in red hues of embarrassment, she gives off a gentle squeak of a thank you to Akira, while continuously looking down at her feet.
“Would you like to begin to learn how to use a division-sword?” Akira asks me after he was done patting Zoe’s head like what I’d imagine a big brother would to a younger sister.
“Don’t we need to… I don’t know… stop? And be in a field?” The confusion is evident on my face as I am still struggling with the long march and sore feet.
“Many fights may require you to do so while in discomfort, hurt, or on the run. A division-sword can help you establish a domain of control to guard an area or be constantly on the move, attacking from impossible angles as you move across the battlefield while advancing or retreating.”
Turning to Jessica, Akira tries to include her into practicing as well.
“Oh, no, I’m fine I think… You two go ahead.”
“Jessica, learning to defend yourself and those around you is equally important. Simply knowing how to dodge or block could save you or a friend.” Akira urged, which finally broke Jessica’s hesitation.
“Okay, but maybe only how to dodge…” She replied.
Akira nodded while seeming eager now that he was more in his element. He went to the side of the road to find a young offshoot from a tree. Cutting and stripping it, as he used it to make several practice swings. The improvised weapon screamed as it split the air in a high pitch.
All of a sudden, I had a bad premonition of this switch and how it could possibly destroy my backside if given an opportunity. A nervous sweat was added to my already bad circumstances from the long march while carrying a pair of bags.
Nodding to himself he called Zoe over and told her to try to memorize the different sounds of a blade cutting through the air from different angles in order to potentially use them in the future instead of the devourer’s growl that she unleashed previously with all her mana.
Giving Jessica the scabbard, we proceeded to walk forward as Akira calmly instructed us in how to block, while occasionally flicking the switch in a wide arc towards either one of us, the shrill whine of the switch added a lot of motivation to blocking.
Thankfully Akira never let the switch touch our skin. We continued along the road tiring ourselves out further with the occasional back and forth of a block followed by encouragement and instruction.
Mercifully, Akira allowed us many breaks along the winding paths that were going upwards.
We occasionally had to dodge piles of rotten plant matter that would slough off a back of a wagon after being jostled or bumped. Making following the path even more treacherous.
Akira disappeared off to the side roads to either scout or take care of personal business from time to time.
Git was still chewing a fleshy sack of meat, which constantly sounded disgusting, he had no teeth and was simply sucking the lump of meat dry from wherever a bone had perforated the skin.
Akira had stopped the training sessions by midday and was now disappearing for longer and longer periods of time.
We were in the mid-afternoon, sore beyond anything I’d ever felt and Akira had been gone for the longest stint yet. The caravan rounded a corner within the ever-thickening woods when the caravan driver started to yell at Git to stop repeatedly. Looking up I noticed that the caravan driver had pulled out a small wooden shield and had it placed in front of him.
Moving to the side to peer around the wagons, I can see three ruffians blocking the way, two with bows and arrows drawn and pointed at the caravan driver.
I quickly duck behind the wagon and motion for Zoe and Jessica to follow while being quiet.
“Looks like maybe a robbery,” I say in a whisper to the two girls.
“There’s nothing to steal here though,” Jessica whispers in reply.
“Which is why we need to not reveal ourselves.” I hiss while looking for any sign of Akira.
The caravan finally comes to a stop and a sharp whistle from a ruffian cuts through the din of the forest.
“Ash! You double-crossing fucker!” The lead ruffian is yelling at our employer, who’s hiding behind his shield while trying to kick and mutter to Git to ‘eat them’ but the poor beast has his mouth full, and will probably take him an entire day to figure out how to spit something out in order to swap it with something else.
“Deckard, I don’t know what you are talking about!” The frightened caravan driver yells back, his nervousness is obvious in his voice as it catches.
“You fucking think we daft? We know you are smuggling Slak under all that garbage! You’ve been cheating us out of our cut for too long fucker!”
An arrow is loosed from one of the bowmen and a thud and cry in pain are heard. An arrow had hit the caravan driver’s shield with enough force to partially pierce it and embed itself into the bracing arm of the caravan driver who was holding it up.
“Deckard! You don’t have to do this!” He cries in protest, between cries of pain and shock.
“Not my problem, it’s yours. The boss is furious.” He says and I’m certain that is our cue to leave. I point towards the side of the road with the most trees, hoping it will be enough to block their vision of us.
Super easy they said. A known route that never has issues. Fuck all of them for setting us up! I continued to curse to myself as I started to pull the two girls behind me while keeping low and trying to peek out from behind the caravans to see if we could maybe make a break for it.
A second whistle comes from the man and I almost lose control over my bowels as I was about to peek around the wagon.
“We know you’ve always been a cheap bastard and burned bridges with every bronzer that you’ve set eyes on. When we heard you had four guards this round, we knew you were carrying the motherload. That and we sent someone into the guild to snoop on their board and we found that you’ve been skimping, requesting deadweight! Fucking brilliant if you weren’t so stupid. BOYS!”
Shit, there must be more of them in the woods around us! They also know that four guilders were accompanying him and they are not afraid of four of us.
I’m now frantically looking from side to side in the woods trying to perceive where the threat will come from.
There are sounds of crunching branches coming from our left and I quickly push Jessica and Zoe behind me.
Up near the second wagon, a form starts to trudge through the underbrush and come into view. The shadow person exits from the side making too much noise, almost being as deliberate as possible to make as much noise as is humanly possible to scare their quarry.
My heart is racing and almost stops as I see Akira step out with my father’s blade drawn, dripping in red blood. He does not look at us but keeps his attention focused on the two bowmen. Oh no! By the devourer, he’s trying to draw their attention away from us. My heart seizes at the thought and danger that we are all in, but Akira is squarely putting a target on his back with the noise he made and the sword being visibly darkened in red blood.
I slowly start to shift further away from the caravan to see what is going on, to try and gauge when there might be an opportunity for us to help or make a run for it. If Akira came from the left side with a blade darkened in blood, he must have found the ambush on that side and already dealt with it… Maybe… Or he’s drawing out the rest… I don’t know, and indecision and fear grip me.
“Fucking dammit!” The leader of the trio yells while smacking one of the bowmen who are now stuck switching between the caravan driver and the new threat that is a little further away.
“Incompetent assholes, who said they were all dead weight? Jori, peg-em good!” He said while slapping the shoulder of the guy to his right.
Jori’s eye twitches as he grits his teeth while aiming at Akira.
“Fuck you Deckard, you don’t need to say it that way.” He says as he trains the arrow on Akira who now starts walking towards the three of them.
The arrow is loosed and Akira barely does not break his stride as he dodges away from the wagon.
As though that was the cue, the caravan driver, seeing an opportunity while an arrow is no longer available and a diversion has been offered, he jumps off to the other side and uses the shield to cover his upper torso as he hits the ground running towards the woods.
After jumping down and taking only a few steps, an arrow easily pierces his thigh and brings him stumbling to the ground.
As both bowmen nock another arrow, Akira breaks into a run towards the three men.
“AHHH! NO! Deckard, we can -”
Another arrow is loosed at the two targets, causing the screaming of our requisitioner to fall silent with a resounding thud. The arrow that was targeting Akira is blocked with his left arm’s wrist guard and the trio is backing up as Akira is closing the distance as though it was nothing. I feel the tug at my mana and know that Akira is trying to be as economical as possible with the very little mana he has available.
The leader tries to draw his weapon, however that only earns him a glancing slit of a sword under his armpit rendering his sword arm useless as he falls backward onto the ground.
Akira is almost floating through the air as he glides up to the bowman, Jori, that was shooting at him and slices the drawstring of the bow before doing an almost effortless pair of insertions into the thighs of the man.
Using the falling Jori as a foothold to redirect himself, he changes direction towards the final bowman and delivers three slices to his armpits and a thigh, leaving him with only a single good appendage to use.
There is a squeak from behind me and I whip around to find a struggling Jessica caught up into a meaty hand of a man who’s missing more yellow teeth than he has. He’s grinning awkwardly at his catch having pulled down her hood.
“Hey, Deck! Can I have first go at the fairy!?” The revolting man shouts over the cries of his companions, not realizing their plight while grabbing one of Jessica’s horns and maneuvering her face to the side to see what she looks like.
Akira is too far away and Zoe is on her butt, scrambling backward, away from the assailant. There is no time to think, no time to hesitate. I take a quick couple of steps forward. My feet scream in protest at the abuse they’ve been put through over the past couple of days, however, I grit through it and grab the hilt, trying to unsheath it in a single cumbersome motion, aiming for the bastard’s elbow that is gripping Jessica’s face. Panic is all that I see in her eyes and my heart crumbles at the nightmares I know she’ll be having.
“Tut tut, a feisty dead weight are ye?” he says while backing away out of my reach and putting Jessica into the path of my amateurish upwards swing.
I cannot harm Jessica and end up doing everything I can to reign my wild swing back in, preventing me from accidentally skewering my lifelong friend.
“Hahaha! Deck this is going - AHHHHH!” He starts to laugh and smile his rotten grin. His jeering is stopped immediately as one of the horns that he had gripped snakes it’s way into the corner of his left eye, before coming out of the corner of his right eye. Using the bridge between his eyes as a leverage point to pull, Violet tries to reel the screaming man in while using the other ‘horn’ to skewer his right eye into his brain. He releases Jessica and screams as he drops and falls on top of her with a thud as he convulses for a bit before going still.
I rush over and without thinking, I skewer him through the neck and use the leverage of the blade digging in the ground to pry him off of Jessica with a kick.
Dropping the sword, I kneel and try to check the sobbing Jessica to see if she is alright.
“VIOLET! IT’S ME! Let me help!” I yell as there is a veritable angry mass off a dozen vines lashing out all around Jessica’s head.
I scoot Jessica away from the now dead man and start to rock her back and forth while shushing her as Violet calms down immediately and lets me help her master.
“Shhhhh… Shhhhh… It’s okay… It’s okay now. You’re safe now.” I say while cradling her and rocking her back and forth to comfort her and also myself. Realizing what I just said, I’m now on high alert while trying to calm her down and watching the forest for any new assailants as our lives depend on it.
I almost jump when Akira comes around the corner of the wagon.
“Is it over? Are we safe?” I ask pleadingly, as I want this to be true for Jessica’s sake. I can still hear the cries and whimpers of the men that Akira went to deal with. I’m surprised they are not dead with Akira’s past penchant for trying to kill that boy.
“They’ve been disabled and will all have problems even crawling away at present.” I try to form my question before he cuts me off as if knowing what I was going to ask.
“Why did you…”
“Your orders are absolute, I cannot kill mortal humans.” He said as self-loathing and shame covered his face at his failure to protect us. A heavy and dark atmosphere settles around the party for a while.
“What now?” Zoe asks, as we now have an unknown number of incapacitated ruffians and a dead requisitioner.
“We could finish the delivery of food and report the Slak? Maybe hand over the incapacitated people to the guards at the mines?” I ask the group, while still rocking and cradling a sobbing Jessica.
“That should be easy enough, we were supposedly close to the mines and would arrive sometime tomorrow. What is Slak?” Akira asks the group, not familiar with the term.
“It’s a drug, highly controlled by the nobility. It makes people forget the passing of time and become very compliant. A debtor could fall on hard times and be provided the option to take Slak and to them, they’d take it and instantly wake up one, five, ten, or twenty years later, debt-free and no memory of what happened. Miners are one of the most commonly used people for it, however, there are horror stories of them dying or being released to only find they are broken, missing limbs, or have a crippled body…” She told us as she became contemplative.
“Slak ought to be controlled and registered. The only reason the mines would need to smuggle Slak in would most likely be due to them having more people in need of it than the regulators know about. That means they are possibly holding people that have disappeared, been reported as dying in an accident, or keeping people beyond the end of their terms…”
Well, that sounds like a hot mess…
After we calmed down, Akira disappeared into the woods to drag out four other men who were bleeding and unconscious before tossing them onto the revolting food heaps. He added the two dead bodies, Jessica’s attacker and our requisitioner to the piles before us three girls saddled up onto Git’s back and Akira walked beside us.
It took us a long time to get Git walking, but after we finally did, our moaning, crying, and cursing caravan started to cut our way through the forest en route to the mines of Lekthar and their surrounding town.