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The royal defense army's equipment was rather bare bones; they only had a bronze helmet, a bronze breastplate and leather pauldrons, faulds, bottoms, and wristguards.
The bronze helmet, in particular, had an ancient design; it reached down to the shoulders and had a T-shaped opening at the front for the eyes, nose, and mouth.
It was rumored that there was a copper mine somewhere on the archipelago. The pirates did not manage to find any other source of metals on the islands and, given the embargos levied on them by the other nations, King Lud I was not able to provide any metal armor for his troops during his reign. The suggestion to use refined bronze for their the armor emerged only after the king's death.
Decades had passed, but given that the kingdom never faced any wars in that time, and at worst had to deal with a few slave uprisings, their equipment had never improved despite eventually having the funds for it. In the end, under the guise of 'honoring the traditions of their ancestors', they chose to simply continue using their old equipment indefinitely.
Stam brought Lorist through a dim corridor as any patrolling soldier would. In Lorist's left hand was a bronze semi-circular shield, his right held a bronze-tipped pike. Those were the standard weapons of the royal defense army. Stam, on the other hand, wore no helmet. He only had a bronze-plated vest and a longsword dangling at his waist. He explained that, since he was a regular there, there was no need for him to dress up fully. He was also carrying the same pike and shield as Lorist.
The corridor's walls ahead had two lit torches, and beyond it, two pike-and-shield-wielding guards could be seen.
"Hey, brother Stam, didn't you go back to rest already? Why are you back here?" one of them asked when they saw the two approaching.
Stam pointed at the ceiling and said, "That bastard said that we have to pay extra attention to security since we're so understaffed. They've forced us to do another round of patrols..."
The two soldiers snickered, before the one who spoke up shook his head and said, "You're starting to get singled out by that company leader more and more often, brother Stam. Why don't you transfer to another company instead?"
Stam replied nonchalantly, "Let's have this discussion some other time. Changing companies will see me being the rookie for a couple of years again."
After taking a turn, two iron gates, one behind the other, could be seen. Four soldiers stood guard between the two. However, with Stam leading him, Lorist was able to pass by them unobstructed. After going through the two gates, Lorist realized that there was a stairway that headed deeper underground.
After descending another floor, they were greeted by another twin-gate setup with four soldiers stationed in the middle. Stam once again used the excuse of being forced to go on a patrol by his superior to bring Lorist across. Beyond that was an empty hall which Stam explained to be where the slave fighters would be rewarded. They were allowed to frolic with the prostitutes here. The slaves were kept locked up two floors further down.
Lorist held onto Stam and feigned anxiety as he asked, "What's going on? Why is my young master kept locked up here? Didn't you say it was only a house arrest of sorts?"
Stam shrugged, "It wasn't my call. It's not my fault your young master got on the bad side of Blademaster Benack. Originally, he was imprisoned upstairs, but when people from your guild came to ask about him, the blademaster instructed for your young master to be sent to the lowest floor to experience some suffering. Heck, I was the one who was assigned to bring him down here."
After passing through the empty hall, they arrived at yet another guarded twin gate, beyond which lay the stairs to the lower floor. The second basement was different from the first, however. The sides of the hall were barred into separate small cells. Each individual bar was as thick as a fist. Some of the cells were empty while silhouettes could be seen in others. They all seemed to be the slave fighters of the dueling grounds.
Ten fully-armed guards walked out of another corridor further down the hall. The leader was a little surprised to see Stam and Lorist. So, he came over to ask about the situation.
Stam used the same excuse as he pointed harshly at the ceiling, causing the leader and the rest of the guards to laugh at his misfortune.
"Stop it! As if I'm not unlucky enough already. I'm going to go down for a spin before finishing up this stupid old task. I really need to go get some sleep. Won't you guys go down with me for a look?" replied he.
The leader shook his head and said, "You go down yourself, I just got back from there. Also, Blademaster Benack is down there, so you better be careful not to piss him off."
"Oh?" Stam said with surprise, "What's the blademaster doing down here so late at night?"
"He's here for the sword-training kid, obviously. I heard that someone came to look for him earlier today. The blademaster must be anxious, so he's back here to force the kid to take an oath to be his disciple," said the leader.
Stam looked at Lorist, only to see him nod slightly.
"Whatever, it's none of my business. I'm only going down there to finish up my patrol. What happens down there is none of my business," said he finally.
When they got down to the third basement, Lorist found it was far smaller than the floor above. Stam explained, "The third basement of the Dueling Grounds is used to keep the most dangerous or disobedient slaves. The security here is also the tightest. Friend, I didn't know that the blademaster would be here tonight. If you have a chance, try to convince your young master to submit for now to preserve his life.
"Blademaster Benack is one of the two blademasters guarding the dueling grounds. Not only does he have a weird temperament, he's also lustful, greedy, cruel, and petty. There was once a regiment leader that got into some kind of disagreement with him... It ended with the blademaster killing a hundred slave fighters to vent his frustration. He then reported that the slaves were revolting to justify his senseless killing and blamed the regiment leader for inadequate management. The poor man was demoted and transferred to the regiment manning the walls.
"So, whatever you do, don't be reckless in front of Blademaster Benack. Otherwise, I'm afraid you won't be able to leave here alive. If something bad happens to your young master, please endure it for now. Send some word back to your clan so that they'll send some blademasters here. If you do that, you'll be able to ask the king to sanction a duel between your blademasters and Blademaster Benack. That's the best way you can resolve the situation. Do you understand?"
Lorist nodded before Stam felt assured enough to continue leading the way.
Lorist could see a thick black rope dangling in the corner. Passing his pike in his right hand to his left, Lorist took a few steps back and took out a triple-edged blade from his waist. Infusing it with internal energy, Lorist swung his right hand lightly, throwing the blade right up and nailing it flat at the ceiling.
He then moved the pike back to his right hand before catching up to Stam, who did not appear to have noticed what Lorist had just done.
That was already the fifth triple-edged blade Lorist used to nail the black ropes unmoving on the way. Originally, Lorist did not know what the rope was for; he only realized that it was connected to a small alarm bell after he passed through the twin gate on the first basement.
If some incident happened at any of the basement floors, patrolling soldiers only had to pull on the black rope to sound the alarm on all the floors. That way, they could wait for reinforcements to hold back any slave violence or respond to any accidents swiftly.
Stam was correct about the third basement being heavily defended. Apart from the four guards at the twin gate near the stairs, there was another twin-gate crossing point further ahead also stationed with four guards. Only after they passed through the second crossing point was Lorist able to hear some echoes of conversation.
The third basement was different from the second basement in that the corridor between the two rows of cells at the side was rather wide. There were also a few rectangular-shaped pillars along the corridor. The basement was illuminated mainly by the two torches which were hung on the pillar in the middle. As they approached the center, they could hear a rough voice saying something in a mocking tone.
"Who goes there?" said a high-pitched voice. It was apparent that the speaker had heard Lorist and Stam's footsteps as they approached.
"Sir Blademaster, it is I, Stam. We've received orders from the company leader to patrol the area," announced Stam as he saluted.
Lorist mimicked his salut.
"What's wrong with Pabola? Is there really a need to be that thorough with patrols?" the man with the high-pitched voice complained.
It appeared that Pabola was the company leader's name.
"Sir Benack, I also didn't understand why the company leader had me patrol once more, but he said we should be extra careful today since the regiment is away, leaving only two squads of troops behind here. So, he said there was a need for increased security," explained Stam.
"Whatever, come over you two. You're just in time to help me out with something," the blademaster said with his sharp voice.
As Lorist moved forward along with Stam, he felt himself getting more agitated the more steps he took. He was able to see the two cells in which his soldiers and guards were kept. While he could not remember every one of their names, he did think their faces looked familiar.
By the time he arrived at the brightest part, he saw Els, Charade, Jim, Tok, Torin and some other household knights.
Charade was half naked with only short and tattered trousers to wear. His chubby figure was no more, replaced with a toughened-up build bereft of fat. Bloody lacerations could be seen all over his exposed torso. Both his hands and legs were in chains. At that moment, he was seated cross-legged right in front of the thick iron bars, staring at the glamorously-dressed old man in the middle of the hall.
Jim was seated next to Charade. However, there was a dirty bandage wrapped around his body and looked to be recovering from his injuries. Further away was Tok, Torin, and the rest.
Els, on the other hand, was in a cell adjacent to Charade's, but he was still properly dressed and was not chained up like the rest. He was currently seated with his back against the moss-covered walls. He didn't bother to look at the old fancily-dressed man in the hall.
Lorist gave the old fellow a look. The man was Blademaster Benack. Under the illumination of the torchlight, his face looked exceedingly insidious.
"Kid, I'll give you one more chance. As long as you sign this agreement and put down your fingerprint to take me as your master, I'll make sure that you end up as a gold-rank within three years. Otherwise, you can forget about leaving the dueling grounds..." said the blademaster with his raspy, high-pitched voice.
Els spat on the ground without bothering to turn his head to look the blademaster in the eye.
"Hahahaha, that kid made the right choice. Gigantic rat, you'll only be able to take him as your disciple in your dreams. Breaking through to the gold rank within three years? Hah! He would be easily able to reach that rank without your tutelage! And to think that you want him to pay you 2000 gold Fordes annually for your teachings... You're seriously blinded by money!" exclaimed a rough voice from behind Blademaster Benack.
Oh, Blademaster Benack does indeed look a little like a giant rat, given his oddly-shaped eyes...
Turning back to look, Lorist saw five to six other slaves laughing in the cell at the opposite side where the sound originated from. The chains that bound them seemed much thicker than those that bound Charade.
Blademaster Benack puffed angrily and forced himself to ignore what the slaves had said before continuing to address Els, "Kid, are you really going to be that stubborn? Fine, I will let a few of your friends here come out to die by my blade. I'll see whether you'll agree to it after I skin them alive!"
Lorist's gaze cooled as the blademaster pointed at the cell Charade and the others were in when he made his threat.
The voice from the opposite cell resounded again, "Big ol' rat, shame on you for being a blademaster who only picks on iron and silver ranks! If you dare, let me out. I'm only a gold rank, unlike brother Shuss here, let's see you take me on if you dare! Stupid rat-faced bastard!"
Benack turned back and scolded angrily, "What does this have to do with you lot? Do you want a beating?"
The slave fighters laughed mockingly and echoed, "Yeah, we'd love one! Come in, stupid rat! We're itching to be beaten!"
The blademaster was so mad that he almost seemed to fume. However, he was not able to offer any rebuttal, so he turned back to Lorist and Stam and barked, "Did you two not hear me? Get the guards to pass me the silver keys!"
Stam turned back and said, "Roger, I'm on it," before taking Lorist with him.
Along the way, Stam said, "Darn, we're rather unlucky tonight. Blademaster Benack will be torturing the slaves to vent again... We will have to clean up after him later, and trust me, it's the grossest thing you'll ever see."
Lorist asked curiously, "Who were those people who mocked the blademaster just now? Why doesn't he just vent on them?"
"Hehe, that big rat won't dare-- Oh, I meant the blademaster. Those are gold-ranked slave fighters. The one who spoke out first was a blademaster called Shuss. He's practically a living legend in the dueling grounds. Seventeen years ago, he managed to break through to become a blademaster during one of his fights. Even though the royal family attempted to recruit him, he simply refused. It's said that he was still kept at the gueling grounds so that the rank 3 blademaster of the royal family can spar and train with him," said Stam.
"But apart from Shuss, aren't the others just gold ranks? Why doesn't Benack go teach them a lesson?" asked Lorist.
Stam angled his nose up high and said, "Hmph! Would he dare? The first time Blademaster Benack wanted to punish a gold-ranked slave fighter, he ended up injured heavily himself. Even though he was rescued in the end, he lost his right ear from the gold-ranked fighter's bite. In terms of swordsmanship, Blademaster Benack definitely had the advantage. However, he still wasn't a match for slave fighters who survive on a fight-to-fight basis. Ever since then, Blademaster Benack only dares to pick on iron and silver ranks."
The two had arrived at the heavily-guarded twin gate by the time he finished. Stam told the guards that the blademaster had requested for the silver key and they handed it to him promptly, but they did not fail to add that they could not leave because they had to stand guard over there.
"Ptooey! I know you shits just don't want to help with the cleanup. Your third-rate act doesn't fool me!" snapped Stam before he took the key and turned back with Lorist.
"Go, open the three cells over there and bring a few of them to me," Blademaster Benack said while pointing at Charade, before he turned to Els and said, "Kid, let me show you how it's really done. Your stupid sparring sessions are only filled with circling around him without ever aiming for the killing blow... I'll show you what it means to deal a fatal strike! After my performance, you'll definitely be impressed by my skills and take me as master..."
"Hahaha, far from learning swordsmanship from you, I think you'll teach us how to borrow like a rat far better! That's what you're really meant for!" said a voice from the opposite cells.
The blademaster took a few deep breaths to suppress the rage in his mind before he turned to Lorist and Stam and said, "What's going on? Do what I say quick!"
Stam gulped audibly before he stammered as he pointed at Charade's cell, "Th-that time t-tehe supervisor su-suspected that those slave fi-fighters have diff-ferent statuses from normal people... Didn't h-he ask us to check up o-on their backgrounds properly first? Sir Blademaster, i-if you bring them out and kill them just like t-that, it won't be too app-propriate..."
"Background check my arse!" the blademaster exclaimed angrily, "They are going to die in the dueling grounds in a few days anyway! It's only a matter of time before he dies, so just do what I say!"
"A-alright," said Stam as he tugged on Lorist, beckoning him to head towards the cell.