My ears flicked as the Raven started to wake up. It was hard to not look back at the two as Charlie spoke her first words. Jack wondered if he died but dismissed the notion himself since he knew he'd go to one of the hells. There might be a hell specifically for him, but I just let the two whisper to each other. Kobe was laying right beside me, while I sat with my legs crossed.
"That's why you shouldn't even bother doing such a thing. Don't even lie to me or joke about doing that to anyone I care about. You got very lucky I didn't feel like killing and eating any of you." I continued, explaining everything from the start for the fifth time.
Kobe let out a groan, "I get it, you're a Hive mind. I've read the manual, you don't need to explain how the connections work again." He let out a bellow, "Is Jack up yet?"
I used his complaining as an excuse to see the two kissing each other. Charlie told him how he was the only one she wanted to hear her voice. They were certainly going to spend some time alone with each other. I looked back down at Kobe as he kept laying there, his eyes closed. "They may be a few more moments. As I was saying, connections can be molded to suit the individual. You won't know it's there, and nobody else can use mind magic on you."
Kobe snorted, "You just want to take my memories, I haven't needed your damn connections before and I don't need them now." He sat up, as I spread my wings out to block his view of Jack.
I tilted my head, "You'll be getting a lot more out of it, including the information you don't know. I may have won this time, but I understand things could have gone very differently."
Kobe squinted at me, "What do you know? What do you think is important enough to make me consider joining your Hive?"
I grinned, "The patrols of the Guard, connections to certain nobles, the path the Count's army has taken thus far, and potentially survivors that have joined my side."
Kobe stroked his goatee, "That's interesting, but it doesn't make me want to join. I'm rusty, and that's the only reason you won. You can't find a good fight in the Underground these days."
"We can spar daily?" I smirked as he paused to consider it.
"Once a week is manageable, but what are you asking in return?" He raised a brow.
I shrugged, "Updates on Gray's actions and that of the Leeches. What I want is the safety of one of my personalities for lack of a better term. I realize you can't promise that, but you're clever. He just needs opportunities and guidance where you can provide it. In return, I'll tell you a secret as well."
Kobe tilted his head back as he considered my offer, "You won't tell me unless I accept. It better be worth it then." He snorted. "I'll see if I can't give you updates during our spars. What's your secret?"
I clapped my hands together, "Wonderful!" I gauged Charlie's hearing range as her ears flicked to try and eavesdrop. I leaned closer to Kobe, "I have bugs on the fields of farmlands. They are taking care of the crops and producing better harvests. Other lesser nobles have taken notice, and I am making moves to spread out. In two years I will have my Hive spread all along the space between the outer and inner walls. Do I need to tell you why that's important?"
Kobe froze, then took a deep breath. He leveled his gaze at me, "If you cause a famine, I will ruin everything you have planned. Do you understand me?"
"Of course, but you haven't made moves to secure the means of production. No one wants to become a farmer. If you manage to take out the King on your own, did you believe they would just keep working?" Jack and Charlie were approaching now, "You need to make the transition as smooth as possible, I don't want to rule over the people of Eclipse. I just want to keep my Hive safe."
Jack coughed, "What did we miss?" Charlie was clinging to his arm
Kobe looked at the man, then back at me. "You don't care who rules?" He narrowed his eyes again.
I nodded, "I'm willing to help you overthrow the King, though I will betray you if his offer is good enough. He has my daughter, which is why I'm considering it."
Jack tilted his head, "Pandora?"
I hissed at him, "She's one of two, did Gray tell you? What did he tell you?"
Jack grinned, "I'm not telling you."
Kobe rolled his eyes, "Gray told us both while we were drinking. He said it was the quickest way to piss you off, and judging by how hostile that reaction was..."
I tackled Kobe to the ground, looking down at him. My elastic chitin was creeping over my face. "I'm very protective of what's mine. I can replace the bugs, I can remake the personalities, but I can't remake my offspring." I glared at Jack when Kobe put his hands up. "If either of you tries to use my children against me, I will make your death quite painful on a scale your minds aren't prepared to comprehend. Every second you comprehend shall be stretched into centuries. You will forget what you were, who you even are. Am. I. Clear?"
Jack held his free hand up, "Got it, don't fuck with your kids. Kind of rule seven for the gang leaders."
Kobe nodded as I got off him, "Don't fuck with another gang leader's family unless you want yours fucked with." He sat back up, "So, the King has your daughter?"
I gave a curt nod, "Noted, I wouldn't mind a list of those you want to not be touched. I'll make sure the others know. I do apologize for the thing with Edna."
The Raven winced, "You didn't know better, and Gray told me the whole story. I'm upset, but as I leader I can't let it stop me from benefitting from it. I want reparations."
"Very well, ask Argus. She's the leader of the Blind Eye, tell her I sent you and that the Phalanx stands ready for glory." Argus was born from Edna's personality as a template. He might see the similarities, but it didn't matter. The best outcome was him binding with her, and merging. "You two should be able to work something out."
Kobe snorted, "She's the leader of the whores I told you about, Jack."
Jack chuckled, "Fine, but don't think I'll be bought off by a fine piece of ass." He kissed Charlie, "I only take the finest." He grinned, while Charlie slugged his arm and gave him a stern look.
I dusted off my hands, "Sounds like we have an agreement. The Wraiths, and all gangs associated with it, shall keep away from the South and North sides. Though I do have members moving through the dead-zones. Will that be an issue?"
Kobe shook his head, while Jack rolled his free arm. "The Leeches plan on moving into the dead-zone behind my territory. I'd rather not have monsters duking it out where my people might see it. I have to remind others why I should still be feared after all."
"Understood, let Argus know to contact Scix. I can't tell them to stay away, but you know the words that will get Argus to listen. Tell her Scix should hunt East to West, they should figure it out from there." Hopefully, Scix would find a set of tunnels that would allow the others to quickly move underneath the territories. "Tell her that she should provide him with bodies if he needs a new den."
Jack nodded, "Got it, now I don't know about you two but I'm starving."
Kobe's stomach growled as he bellowed out a laugh. "Same, it's a shame we have to spend an hour trekking back then another to even get some grub."
I smiled, letting out a soft sigh, "Grab some firewood, I'm going hunting. If our relationship goes well, then I'll show you where my local hive is out here. Then we can talk about you sending people to me when they need to disappear to safety." The two smirked, while Charlie flicked Jack's ear. I had no idea what that was about, but there were hungry mouths to feed. Scouts were dispatched from the node, and we broke it off from there. Minor details were hammed out while we ate.
Richard Adams (Just after Mimi left for her 'spar')
And she's gone. I held my ax at the ready, as Rex swung his around. He rolled his neck, then his shoulders. "Any nightmares?"
We had started to talk about our dreams, at least the ones we had while we slept. He told me that he was having nightmares after I told him some of mine. He took his stance a few paces away from me, a blunted ax at the ready. Rex wouldn't train with anything that wasn't a 'real' weapon. I took my stance, "Kind of... more like a memory really. I shouldn't say." It was that night I thought Oswald died in front of me.
Rex changed his stance, and I did the same. Knowing the stances were important, what worked well against this or that, how you might feint. Axes weren't the most subtle thing, but you could still block a sword with the handle. Rex slowly nodded, "You don't have to tell me, some things are better left unsaid. Everybody has secrets, the best we can do is live our life without regrets."
He adjusted his stance again, and I did the same. Rex was aggressive at first, usually stepping forward for the first strike, now he just kept going through stances until I was ready. "What about you? How are you able to smile, even after everything that happened?"
Rex let out a slow breath, "I smile, because I am alive. I know they would not have wanted me to suffer over their loss. I still see my tribe on my darkest days, my skin turning yellow. It is the mark of a coward, and I don't know how best to bring honor to them. I am not okay, but until my debt is repaid I shall search for the answers I seek."
I swallowed hard, taking a step closer. We changed a few more stances. "I still don't get it, why would running away make you a coward? Why would your tribe be upset at you for not dying with them? How can I help you?"
Rex gave me a bitter smile, "You are helping in your own way. It soothes my mind to know there is another that cares, but we are not yet close enough to be brothers at arms. Every day we fight a battle against an enemy that does not tire, whose forces swell to twice their size whenever we look away. We have a long campaign ahead of us, and every day we survive is a triumph."
"Who are we fighting? What battle?" I took another step closer, almost ready to start exchanging blows.
He twirled his ax, "A foe that occupies our very minds, one that casts doubts on our very existence. What you humans call emotions and regret, are considered fear and weakness among the tribes."
I blinked, "Emotions are bad in orc culture?"
Rex laughed, "No, it's harder to explain than that. Emotions are good, but let's use rage as an example. We get angry when we fight. A little bit of rage is good, it helps focus your weapon and hones your mind. Too much and you are blind, that's when it becomes bad. Losing yourself to the rage is a weakness because you are no longer in control of yourself. You fear the fighting that has led you to such a point, your weakness guides you."
I paused to consider what he was saying, as he took a step forward and slammed our handles together. I was pushed back by his weight, the guy putting on pounds after eating regularly. He was bulkier compared to when we first met. I slammed my handle into his after I recovered, letting him know I was ready. "So too much of something good can become bad, and you must always be in control?"
Rex smiled taking a slow sweeping strike towards my chest. He wanted me to react a certain way to his attack, and when I figured it out he'd start going faster. I took a step back, before slowly swinging at his arm. He nodded approvingly, letting the dull blade touch his forearm. "You're improving well, always consider taking movement from your opponent. If you can't dictate the flow of battle, you are to control the exchange between you and your opponent. There are times to be in control, and times to simply go with the flow. Like water, or the air."
I nodded, just barely frowning at the fact he didn't really answer my question. He moved forward, repeating the same strike but faster. I moved back, aiming for his knee this time. I didn't quite get it, but he nodded approvingly. "I kind of thought you guys didn't know how to fight defensively."
Rex raised a brow, as he took another swing and pushed me back another couple of steps. He was getting faster, but not overbearing. He wasn't quite as fast as Mimi, but he was getting better with each meal. "Knowing one's limits allows you to push them. Defensive fighting is the first thing young orcs are taught. Even if you see them take hits. If you had our regeneration, I would demand we use sharpened weapons. Everyone needs to know the limits of their own bodies."
He took another step forward, another swing that pushed me back. I was actually landing my blows with some strength behind them. I held back since we didn't want to really hurt each other. "That makes a lot of sense, actually. What if someone cuts another's throat on accident?"
Rex swung, then surprised me with a second swing that I just barely managed to block. The force forced me a couple steps to the side. "It's why we bash each other's faces. If you point something sharp there, then you have the intention. Orcs are fine if it's just a little slicing on the neck, but it is the quickest way to make us rage. I'd like to see you show me someone that 'accidentally' cuts another's throat."
He was getting into it now, taking more swings and forcing me to block and keep moving back. It felt nice to practice like this, knowing I couldn't really hurt the guy even if I connected a blow. His strength was too much, and I felt my back hit something hard. Fuck. I took my eyes off him for a second to see what I backed into, and his ax hit the spot next to my head, hard.
"Never take your eyes off your enemy, always watch your surroundings. It sounds like a paradox, doesn't it?" He smirked, as I nodded.
"That's why you were letting me block your swings!?" I felt the realization wash over me, as he winked. "I don't think I'm ready for that."
Rex chuckled, "No one is, but you need to learn. Your form is passable, and you know the stances. Don't fight like me, fight like you." He thumped his chest, "Your enemy won't wait until you're ready, and we're getting closer to my home. There may be orcs that seek to fight you, and if you want to keep the secret about your monster, you need to make them believe you can subdue her."
I winced a little, "Please don't say it like that, she's not my pet."
He pulled his ax back, keeping it by his side. "You do realize that the further south we travel, the more of a problem this will become?"
I nodded slowly, "Yeah, but I don't want to do it until we have to. Especially not while we're alone you know? It's just the three of us out here."
Rex started walking back to our starting spot, "She's using you."
I followed after him, "Yeah, but so does everyone else. That's how people are. It's one of the rules of the Underground. Everybody wants something from you. Even you are using me to pay back a debt you don't need to."
I started to continue, but Rex interrupted, "Enough. I know what you're trying to say, but there is a difference in how we do that compared to that monster." He gestured at the wagon, trying to make it sound derogatory.
"She's more than a monster though, you should know that by now." I looked at him, as he started changing stances.
Rex let out a small grunt, taking a half-step forward until I started my stances again. "She's not, you say there are monsters in the Underground that can talk. Out here, the ones that talk are the most dangerous. Monsters evolve, they transform into something more dangerous. You have no idea how many villages have fallen to wisp mothers. How many towns have succumbed to a pack of fiends. Monsters want nothing more than to eat, sleep, and make more of themselves."
"Mimi's different." I leveled my gaze at him. "You drank from the purifier, you saw how she brought food to the town. How can you still say she's just a monster? She even does the hunting for us."
Rex huffed, coming at me with his ax. "The monster doesn't care about those people. She's only doing it for you. How can you be so blind!?" He swiped at me.
I dodged, his hits carrying more force behind them now. "That's too simple an answer!" I struck his wrist but was unable to break his grip on the handle. "You talk about monsters like their beasts." He swung at me, forcing me to jump back. "Mimi's not like that, she's too smart."
Rex kicked at my chest, and I barely managed to block it, as the force made me tumble onto the ground. He kicked my ax away, pressing his ax against my neck. "If she's so smart, then why does she need you?"
I looked up at him, "She doesn't." He blinked, pulling the ax away. He offered me a hand, and I took it. "She doesn't need either of us. She's strong and clever enough to go wherever she pleases. I'm just holding her back, and if everything she did was for me, then she would have left me in the Underground. Mimi wouldn't have allowed me to come with her. Me being here, right now, it was my choice. I don't know why she lets me be selfish like this, but she allowed me to come for one reason or another."
Rex moved back to the starting spot, and I followed. "I'll ask the monster myself. Where did you even find her?"
I rubbed the back of my head, "I was chased by a fiend and almost died when she saved me." I let out a small laugh, "She was fierce and scary, but she paid attention to me. Everything I did, she was watching, she was so curious." I started doing the stances. "Mimi couldn't even talk back then, she didn't even know our language. Her name came from a misunderstanding, Mimi was the name I gave to her after her first words. I said, 'me Richard.' Then she replied, 'me, me.'" I smiled at the memory.
Rex grunted, not giving me a chance to get ready. "So, you found a monster capable of fighting a fiend, and what? Your first thought was to take her home?"
He swung, while I dodged. "Well... kind of?" Rex decked me in the face, and I stumbled back. He hit my forehead, so no bloody nose this time. "I thought she was a dark elf, and that they had bug gods. So, I thought maybe she was touched by them or something? I mean they live where the gods are. Plus it was really dark in the cave, and we only went outside at night." I blocked his next strike.
"You're an idiot." He went for another kick, but I saw it coming. I jumped out of the way, blocking as his ax went for my side.
"Guilty as charged." I smirked, "I'm not the brightest crystal, but I have my moments. I did kind of almost die, and was shellshocked. I didn't know what else to do, and well she healed me despite the blood loss. It was the best thing I could think of at the time."
He went for another punch, but I tilted my head out of the way this time. I moved back, while he talked. "So, you find a monster and immediately take it to a populated area. Do you even know what she planned on doing back then?"
I coughed, "We talked about it, she had plans to eat me. She thought all humans were called Richards, and we looked pretty weak in her eyes. I mean, we talked about it just before the exile, or maybe it was a week into it? I don't remember the exact time. I didn't know her plans back then." I barely managed to dodge the next series of blows from Rex. "By the time we made it to Eclipse she already saved me a second time."
Rex just gave me a blank look, as he took a few more swings. There was less force behind them, and he had that glint in his eye. He wasn't sure how to feel about what I was telling him. "Did the fiend come back or something?"
I shook my head, "She killed it before we left her cave. Then she kind of went dim, like she does when she pulls the wagons. Though it was different, and Fall was giving way to Winter. I just didn't see the clouds and didn't listen when she said rain was coming. She shielded me with her body and the small pile of branches I stuck against a tree. We were both cold, and she used my body heat to keep her hive warm. I got sick and she fixed that as well."
Rex just paused, scratching his head, "You've been exiled before, how have you survived? How do you miss the rain?"
I rolled my eyes, "When you spend most of your life in the Underground, you don't even know that weather is a thing. Then you spend two years above ground with soothsayers telling you how the weather will be in the morning. You kind of think it's controlled by the King. I've been exiled three times, but the first two were during the warmer months and it didn't rain once! I can figure out where I am by using the stars, but looking up at the sky and going, 'oh! looks like rain today! Might snow!' That's not my skillset!"
Rex cleared his throat, "I have no words." He rubbed his chin, "You mentioned a cave, those tend to be where you find the most dangerous monsters and beasts. How many bugs were in the cave? How many did she take to Eclipse?"
I put my ax down, "I think she said it was in the lower thousands or something. She just kind of carried it in a sack made of flesh from the fiend she killed. Mimi left everything behind, just to come with me, on the off chance that she died so her Hive might continue living. Really, I just think she was lonely. Mimi spent her entire life in the forests; hunting, eating, killing. You don't know half of the shit she's been through. She's more than a monster, and more than a person. Mimi is Mimi."
Rex tossed his sparring ax aside, putting up his dukes. I assumed my own stance, "I'll decide that myself, but you have given me much to consider. What made you decide to stay with her? What made you bond with her?" He was coming closer.
"I do my best to give everybody a chance. Sure it might bite me, but I'd rather give that chance to someone I think I can trust than let the world force me to not trust anyone at all." I landed a couple jabs on Rex's stomach, bobbing and weaving between his blows. I tried to be fancy with a knee to the stomach but hit his boys instead. I barely started to apologize, before...
"WAGH!" He decked me in the face and my world faded to black.