Here's the third release of the week, enjoy!
Lorist pushed the window of his room open lightly, confirmed that nobody was at the small alley behind the inn, before silently making his way down to the ground and disappearing into the darkness.
The buildings along the alley to the rear of the inn all had their windows closed, perhaps because the Blood and Flame was frequented by noisy patrons. Lorist looked around to see if there was anything amiss before he headed in the direction of the dueling grounds.
The royal defense army's camp was still busy. Sounds of cries and loud laughter could be heard. The Snowshame Army's slavers' and the mercenaries' partying made a mess of the camp. Countless people could be seen coming and going through the camp gates. Even the guards of the camp's gates abandoned their posts. They sat down in groups and drank, completely oblivious to the people passing through the gates.
Lorist currently donned the disguise of a haggard mercenary. Alcoholic fumes drifted up from his clothes, he had a messy head of hair, and a bottle of rough liquor dangled by his side in one of his hands. He approached the campsite gradually, mumbling and fumbling along.
One of the lookouts noticed him and walked over. His eyes were fixed on the bottle in Lorist's hand all the way.
"Hey friend, I'm sure you've had enough to drink. Are you alright?" asked the lookout.
He helped Lorist stand and reached for the bottle with his other hand simultaneously. Lorist refused to let go of the bottle, however.
"This... is to celebrate our king's retaliation... We're going to battle soon... I... I want one more bottle... Urghh..." Lorist muttered.
The lookout patted on Lorist's back and said, "Friend, if you want to puke, do it in that alley over there. I'll hold your bottle for you while you do so, alright?"
Lorist finally loosened his grip on the bottle and let the lookout leave with it. He looked quite happy that more than half the liquor had yet to be consumed.
He pushed Lorist forward.
"Quick, go on...", he said.
His focus had already left Lorist completely; he cleaned the bottle carefully before taking a swig.
Lorist slumped over to the alley beside the camp, making sure to sound like he was struggling to hold his portion of the bottle's alcohol in.
As his steps brought him to the mouth of the alley, he was shocked by what greeted him. Dozens of drunk men lay strewn about like broken teeth and the stench of vomit and bile - stained with a hint of alcohol - billowed out of its dark depths in waves like the breaths of some gigantic beast.
He pinched his nose and disappeared into the mouth. On the other end of the darkness, the dueling grounds lay and wait for him like a beast slumbering in the night. It was a large, black mass of shadow looming domineeringly in the distance. As opposed to the alcohol and vomit of the alley now behind him, it billowed the sickeningly sweet and iron-like malodor of blood. It was indeed a monster and a hungry one at that. It devoured tens of thousands of slave gladiators and spat out that stench in return.
The darkness inside growled silently as Lorist approached, at least a dozen distinct sounds of bestial hunger could be heard. The dueling grounds' main entrance was locked. Four torches gleamed like two pairs of eyes inside, illuminating the interior in a stuttering, pale yellow glow.
Two guards approached the gate, yawning incessantly. Lorist noticed their approach and quickly circled around the beast, taking care to remain hidden in the shadows. The five other entrances were completely closed off. The ground offered no way into the beast.
He spat on his hands, rubbed them together and began the arduous climb up the sides. Like a lion clawing its way up the calves of a giraffe, he made his way up the walls and arrived at the elaborately-decorated roof. His body flipped... and he was in the belly of the beast.
The arena was circled by floors of villi-esque seats. More than ten levels rose into the night sky, chaining the space above the arena. The middle of the building was the lowest, and there was a huge tower near the main entrance, which probably served as an alarm tower. Opposite it were the priority seats and cabins from where the nobility and those of status viewed the shows.
Right in the middle of the dueling grounds was the main stage, six meters below the lowest rings of villi. Unlike the stone walls that Lorist climbed on, the inner walls around the main stage were pasted with green clay like gall covering the inside of a giant stomach. It was exceedingly smooth, nothing could scale it to escape. Anyone that entered had no choice but to be digested by the carnage inside.
The main stage had a glint like a black eye staring at the poor souls about to be swallowed whole. The smell of blood dripped off it into the air as though the stage itself was made of blood. The breeze blew through the building. It screamed in terror around its interior corners and clashed metallically with walls and other obstacles.
Charade, Jim, and the other soldiers of the house were forced to fight on those grounds with other slave fighters to the death for the entertainment of their spectators. Even though the pirates had founded their own kingdom, they had passed down their savage and dehumanizing practices. They had never once viewed the slaves as fellow humans and had them fight for their lives just to humor their masters.
Since that's the case, I shouldn't have to treat them like humans either.
Lorist's eyes blooded like the stage. Death and the desire to kill beamed from them like the rays of a blood moon. Looking at his surroundings, he realized that the alarm tower was not manned, possibly because not one of the guards were willing to soak in the chilling night breeze. He hurried to the tower and with a flash of his blade, severed the cord.
Once on the ground once more, he dropped the rope to the stage. A silent alarm was useless to his enemies, and he could continue on for quite a bit of time more after being discovered without fear of reinforcements coming to his victims' aid.
Behind the alarm tower was a gate leading to the inner sections of the building. According to Tarkel, the path led to the underground sections of the dueling grounds where the slave fighters were kept. It was said that there were at least 5000 down there.
The gate was bolted shut by a huge iron rod that was chained up and locked securely. It was no obstacle to Lorist, however. Stretching out his shortsword, he circulated his internal energy and cut the chain and bolt cleanly. The gate opened with a slight creak. Lorist entered with utmost caution and closed the gate behind him. He restored the severed chain and continued on.
After walking for a few moments, Lorist arrived at a junction. He picked the left path after some deliberation but arrived at yet another three-path fork not long after.
Darn, I still haven't got underground and there are already so many splitting paths... I might get lost if I'm not careful...
Lorist put his ear to the wall. He could hear the voices of people conversing coming from the left path. Thus, he entered the tunnel, feeling the walls as he walked on in darkness. Not long after, light could be seen from the other end of the tunnel. The source was two lit torches that hung on the walls. Beyond the tunnel, two half-naked guards were rubbing their bodies with a linen cloth soaked in a basin filled with water.
"It's fine, there's no need to rub it that clean. Get some sleep, we both have shifts early in the morning," said one of the guards.
"No, that won't do. When Blademaster Benack killed and tortured that slave, some of the blood got on my neck. It feels absolutely gross. If I don't wipe this off, I won't be able to sleep soundly... Heck, I might even get nightmares," said the other.
The first guard laughed and said, "Haha, who asked you to suck up to him so much by staying so close to him? I knew that nothing good would come of it, so I chose to watch from a distance. You should know that the blademaster has a weird temperament. Even if you get on his good side, you won't benefit much."
"It's not like I want to ask a lot of him. I only need him to get a word in for me. You know I've been serving in the royal defense army for seven years. I should've been promoted to a vice squad leader long ago, but that cursed company leader kept me from doing so to let his brother-in-law climb the ranks. But his brother-in-law is a bronze rank and has three years less experience than me. He doesn't qualify," complained the guard.
"Forget it, Stam, it's your fault for antagonizing the company leader in the past. Given how petty he is, he won't let you off that easy. I heard Suraid, the one who guards the main entrance, say that someone came over during the evening to look for that sword-obsessed punk. The company leader insisted that the punk had left when they asked to see him. But Suraid says that he didn't look like the sort to give up that easily, so he might come back with a noble in a day or two for an inspection. If you leak the news, the company leader will definitely be in trouble and become the scapegoat..."
"That doesn't sound like a good idea," Stam replied, "You know that the sword-obsessed punk got the attention of Blademaster Benack, but I just don't get it... Even though he's a three-star silver rank, his comprehension abilities are lacking and he isn't ruthless enough. He never deals a killing blow to the slaves he spars with. If he's so soft, there's no way he'll be able to grasp the essence of the sword..."
"Haha..." the first guard laughed, "You don't get it. What Blademaster Benack has his eyes on is the punk's family. He comes from the Peterson Merchant Guild, one of the big-seven. If the blademaster manages to be appointed as his swordsmanship instructor, he'll definitely be paid at least two or three thousand gold Fordes a year apart from other benefits.
"Think about it, the kid spends around 30 gold Fordes a day just to come here for a spar or two. If you add the tips he gives us, his monthly spending is easily higher than a thousand gold Fordes. It's his ability to spend that much without batting an eye that caught the blademaster's attention."
Lorist surged with joy. He finally had a lead on Els's location. In the distance, the two guards finished cleaning their bodies. Right after they entered the room behind them, Stam stepped out again and mumbled something along the lines of someone snoring too loudly as he headed for another room nearby.
When the place quieted down, Lorist snuck out of the tunnel for a quick glance and realized that he was at a barracks. There were at least 70 soldiers. Lorist walked up to Stam's room and entered it.
"Who's this?" mumbled the guard.
Even though the room was not illuminated, Lorist could roughly see some ten beds. At the moment, however, only Stam was in the room.
It seems that Drei's intel is accurate, there are only 200 guards left...
Without a sound, Lorist made his way to Stam's bed with his sword drawn and pressed on the guard's neck.
With great terror, Stam muttered, "Who-who are you? Wh-what do you want?"
Lorist said, "You don't need to know who I am. I just want to know where my young master is."
"Your young master? How would I know where he is? Are you sure you have the right person?" asked Stam.
"I recognize you, you're the one who opens the gates for my young master when he comes here to spar. I also recall that he's tipped you on occasion," said Lorist.
"Oh," said Stam.
Exhaling in relief, he said, "Friend, are you the Peterson Merchant Guild's guard for the young master? You've come to the right place, but I'm not the person who can help you. It's not something you can solve either. All you can do is have a noble or blademaster from the capital come over. Your young master is indeed here, but he's caught the eye of Blademaster Benack, who wants to take him as his disciple. Your master has been refusing stubbornly so far and its infuriated the blademaster.
He's locked him up in return."
"Then why did the company leader deny that my young master was here when the people from the guild came over earlier to ask about it?" asked Lorist with a hoarse voice.
"Hey, friend, that's none of my business. All I know is that Blademaster Benack has an odd temper. If he snaps and something happens to your master, the company leader will be able to push the blame elsewhere. If somebody dies over here, all we have to do to erase any trace of it is to toss the body into the magic beast cages. No evidence will be left for anybody to place any blame," said Stam.
Given how much he hated the company leader, he took the opportunity to badmouth his superior. He understood that a young master with a personal guard secretly protecting him definitely was not someone to be trifled with.
Perhaps, this is the end of that darned bastard, and my time will come soon.
"Get dressed and bring me to my young master. I need to be sure that he's safe," Lorist said as he tapped on Stam's face with his sword, "If you help me out, our guild will definitely reward you heavily. Here's the down payment."
With a glint, Lorist brought up a torch in his hand to brighten the room. When Stam recovered from the sudden flash of light, he saw a gleaming gold Forde note falling before him.
"You have two choices. Either you bring me to see my young master and be rewarded for it, or you refuse and be silenced. I can simply find another person who's willing to cooperate. There are more than 60 people here. I'm sure one of them will help me out," whispered Lorist in a rough voice.
Stam grit his teeth and held the note in his hand.
After checking its authenticity with the light from Lorist's torch, he kissed the note and said, "As the saying goes, 'men die for money'... I'll give you a tour, but you can't remain dressed like this. The others will notice."
Lorist pointed at the bed next to him where a set of gear lay.
"I've already made preparations. I'll look no different after putting this on. This bronze helmet also has a visor that's ideal for masking my face. We'll look just like any other patrol. All I need you to do is to bring me to my young master. I only need to know that he's alive and well."