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Phobos VII [NaNoWriMo]

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

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  1. TrueNameArchFrenemy

    TrueNameArchFrenemy Not too sore, are you?

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    Hmm, the way that exchange about Eponine’s magic is phrased, it makes elixirs sound more like an enabler than anything like bottled spells. After all, she’s says “I’ve got to get another elixir”, but that helping people go unnoticed is “her thing”, so it sounds like the specific elixir doesn’t have an effect on what it lets you do, rather elixirs are one size fits all, and only enable magic. Doesn’t really seem to fit very well with what we’ve else we’ve seen, but that exchange indicates that is could be how they work. That, or she’s being circumspect, and the forgetting magic was hydromancy.
     
  2. Artful Lounger

    Artful Lounger Experienced.

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    It does appear that the elixirs are universal in their effects, whatever those are, rather than being a specific effect. It would also explain why things like sorcery teachers are needed. After all, if each elixir is its own bottled effect then how would you learn to use them beyond practice?

    What's a little more interesting is how its easier to obtain them than I thought. We have this woman with one, on top of that laborer with some kind of powdered version. I figured the elixir trade would be either government run or, if private, expensive enough that the average person couldn't be expected to own one. So this suggests that there's some kind of black market supplier. Whether a thief fencing stolen elixirs, a mage who can make elixirs selling them cheap because, for some reason, he can't practice his trade the way the rest of the suppliers do, or a proper supplier is selling elixirs illicitly to people who shouldn't have them.

    Or I'm completely wrong and the elixirs can be bought by anyone like a sort of expensive sports drink. Who knows.
     
  3. TrueNameArchFrenemy

    TrueNameArchFrenemy Not too sore, are you?

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    Given that we know Von Graft’s motivation is some sort of weird “I’ll train you up to assimilate you for power”, IIRC, it’s possible that Von Graft deliberately drips Elixirs “illegally” into the economy to try and sniff out the superior magical talents.
     
  4. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    You can generally assumed that nobody uses Hydromancy.

    The elixir trade is a government run industry. But that doesn't stop back alley dealers from making their own supply.

    It is also very expensive, even the back alley stuff. Tristan was hesitant to use it for a reason. Namely, he needed to make enough money from betting on himself on multiple fights to cover his loans, but he only had enough for a single attack.

    As a question for readers, how are the fights? Are they paced well enough? Too slow? Too difficult to follow? They are a pretty big component of this story, so I would hate for them to be a slog to read.
     
    TrueNameArchFrenemy likes this.
  5. vali

    vali I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    What interested me about Stas is how he seems to come from an entirely different culture. The city tends to have a more modern culture, cynical and pragmatic, while Stas comes from a culture of honor. Only a hick from the middle of nowhere would think assaulting the city guard because they won't let you back into your room is a good idea; any competent city dweller would be aware that the state can escalate further and better than you ever can, and would try some other strategy less likely to get them killed.

    The arena gladiator fight is about entertainment. The underground fight is about money. Stas seems to have come to the city with some pretty firm ideas of what gladiatorial combat is about, high-minded ideas of glory and honor and such, but everyone else he's up against is in it for the money/women/celebrity and nothing else. Winning is just a means to an end for them, not an end in and of itself like it is for Stas.

    It should be interesting seeing if/how his attitude towards the city and towards gladiatorial combat changes as things go on.
     
  6. Ladoss

    Ladoss Not too sore, are you?

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    Fights are pretty easy to follow but two of them(against Geoffrey and in bar) were fairly boring. That said it's less issue with your writing in general and more that Stas cares mostly about quality of fight and nothing else. It makes him different compared to Mikelle with whom i've not felt any sense of boredom even when things are extremely lopsided. That doesn't mean that Stas is a bad character but his singleminded focus is a bit annoying for me personally.
     
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2019
  7. VerBlinkel

    VerBlinkel Making the rounds.

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    The fights have been well written, well paced, and easy to follow, but so far they've read less like fights and more like character pieces. The most interesting thing about each fight scene is all the parts around the fight (in this chapter, as vali said, it's that there was a fight at all). If that keeps up, and we keep learning NEW things about Stas, it'll be fine. If we don't, then...well you're writing so it'll still be good, but Stas (so far) is no Mikelle.
     
  8. vali

    vali I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    I think that Stas has a power that's not all that well suited to writing interesting combat. He always does the same thing, reflects behind the person with his weapon plunging towards them. It's not clear to me if he appears behind people because that's what his power requires, or because that's the best combat move, but either way it makes for combat that's predictable and not very cinematic. Also it reminds me of that stupid meme.

    In contrast, look at the magic fights that Brandon Sanderson does. Abilities that enhance movement are common, allowing his characters to heavily interact with the environment, enter new environments, flee and pursue and so on. Knights Radiant fly and fight through wild storms and vast chasms. Mistborn race through foggy cities, with iron being critical to their success. Teleportation accomplishes the same thing, but is simple and boring. "He teleported behind the guy" x20 is just not as compelling.

    Have you read Sanderson's rules of magic? Because you should; they're quite good. That links to the first essay in the series.

    If you want good combat, you need fun and interesting combat abilities.
     
  9. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    He has done it twice, and it has already stopped working, so I don't feel that is a fair assessment.
     
  10. vali

    vali I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    I would remove or re-write this passage.

    You're jumping from intense combat to summarizing the scene then back to intense combat, and it breaks the flow and pacing of the scene. If you want to indicate the relentless nature of the watchers, there are better ways. As for Stas, his realization that he might lose is presented in a bloodless fashion. "was forced to consider that he might", look at all those qualifying words! You handle this much better later on when you say "His heart was beating out of his throat. He needed to heave, but he couldn’t let himself falter for a second, couldn’t…"
     
  11. Threadmarks: Nine
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    The bar Eponine had dragged him too was not like The Bell. It was a smaller place, even without a vomit-stained wooden stage in the center, there were less seats to be had. Only a handful of people patronized the location, sitting in their own corners, quietly enjoying their orders.

    It was quiet. It was clean. The lighting was well done, none of the dim, flickering sconces that failed to envelop all of The Bell. The customers were calm, only drinking or eating light fairs, not smoking, gambling, or carousing. And no stench of fish dominated the air.

    Perhaps it was the location, Stas considered. This bar, whose name Eponine had not mentioned and whose sign he could not make out in the dark outside, was on a proper, clean street. Despite not being in the forum, or immediately off of it, the buildings to the north were in good condition. Stas had not seen a single person begging or sleeping on the street, nor had he for quite a bit on Eponine’s quick, winding pace out of the south-west side of the city.

    There were more guards about, but Eponine had brazenly marched him past them, and the bird-masked watchers hadn’t even spared a glance. They seemed far more concerned with inspecting the cargo being drawn through streets, those horse-drawn, torch lit cairrages that never would make it anywhere through the crowds of the day.

    Stas hoped the watchers of the forum would be just as inattentive when he made his own break through it. But the forum, and the palace grounds in general were actual forbidden locations in the evening, so he couldn’t really expect it.
    Stas examined the mug in front of him. The frothing liquid within looked clean enough, but he wasn’t certain. Alcohol ruined the mind and the body, he had been regularly cautioned, and was supposed to have a sick, bitter taste besides. Stas was not keen to experience it.

    It might be terrible, he worried. Or worse, it might taste good. He had no desire to become just another fat drunkard.
    Eponine did not seem to have any similar concerns, as she had drowned her own mug quickly, ordering for herself a second one in short order. The barkeeper had not batted an eye at the speed, so he supposed it was a regular occurrence.

    A musician played in the background, a soft, gentle song that added to a calm ambiance of the place. It was a very different tone than the rest of his day had been. He might have enjoyed it, just for the contrast, if not for that ugly glass mug in front of him, and…

    “You’re from the province, Stas?” His circumstantial companion for the evening was far too talkative.

    Stas grunted, something that could vaguely be considered a yes.

    “You came through the gate then, yes? Or did you take the long way around.”

    Stas sighed. “I don’t know anyone who takes any long way around. Everyone takes the gate. And it was a long enough trip even so.”

    “What was it like?” Eponine asked, brushing her hand through her hair, looking over his shoulder for some reason.
    “Unpleasant.” He grunted, not bothering to elaborate further.

    “Just unpleasant? I’d think something as unique as the gate would leave a more impactful impression.”

    “Fine. It was dizzying, nauseating, like being dropped all ways at once. My skin has been crawling since I passed through it, days ago, and I might end up going to a physician just to make it stop. Is that a good enough impression?”

    Eponine smirked lightly. “Definitely a more honest one.” She sighed. “Even with that sterling recommendation, I still want to go. But they don’t let anyone but the wagon drivers through, so...” Sh shrugs, brushing through her hair some more. Stas wondered if it was tangled up somehow.

    Stas rolled his eyes. “Not much to see on the other side. Just acres and acres of farmland and untitled land. Eventually you might get to a village where you can be disappointed by how little happens.”

    “I take it you are from one of these little villages, then?”

    “Yes. A tiny little gladiatorial school where...”

    A mug slammed down on the table next to him, spilling some of its contents. Stas turned to see a large, pox-scarred man behind him. He was bulky, both from fat and from some muscle Stas could make out from beneath. His head was a patchwork of grey, a large-bald spot was prominent in the center.

    “Well, well, if it isn’t little Eponine,” the man swaggered, sporting an ugly grin. “What brings you to this nice place so late at night.”

    Eponine huffs, looking away. “Sanson,” she greeted dryly, not answering the question.

    “It’s been lonely here tonight. I think I’ll sit down here with you,” the man declared. He plopped himself down on the seat next to Stas. As the smell of sweat breached his nostrils, Stas was forced to reconsider his earlier declaration that the patrons here were of a cleaner sort.

    Eponine grimaced, but did not argue.

    “So,” the balding man rumbled, “who’s this here, then? Some boy toy of yours?” He jabbed his elbow into Stas.

    Stas grit his teeth.

    Eponine turned up her nose. “You can ask him yourself.”

    “Maybe I will.” Sanson proudly declared. “So, mister boy toy? Who are you? You some rich, hoity, toity patrician slumming it for the evening? Your teeth sure sparkle like one.”

    Comment made, Stas was forcibly made aware that the man’s teeth were vile, and his breath worse than his sweaty stench.

    “Hm… no. You carry yourself like a bumpkin. You’re a little old farmhand, then? Born in a manure patch?” Sanson laughed at his own joke.

    Stas clenched his fists, but held himself back. Throwing punches had already caused too much trouble this evening. He glanced at Eponine. She was looking deliberately looking away.

    “Not a farmhand.” He forced his back a growl. Calm, he reminded himself. Calm. “I’m a gladiator.”

    “Oh?” Sanson’s eyes sparkled in amusement. “A high and mighty gladiator are you? Who would have guessed. Not me. Hah.” He laughed, and grabbed a mug, and chugged it back. Stas’s mug.

    Sanson looked down at the table, and his own mug on the right, blinking. “Huh. Guess that was yours, then.” He shrugged. “Well it’s mine now!” He smiled widely, yellow teeth chattering, beady eyes gleaming, pock marks shadowed in the light. Truly, it was a repulsive visage.

    Stas might not have actually wanted the drink, but the intrusion was infuriating on principle alone. He gripped his chair tightly, teeth grit, as if to literally hold himself in place.

    His gaze turned to Eponine, who still refused to meet his gaze, or interject, or anything. Hadn’t she dragged him here?

    “You ever kill a man in those big old arenas of yours? Ever watched ‘em bleed out, begging for mercy? Ever heard the crowd roar for blood, and grant it to ‘em?” Sanson focused on him utterly, cruel eyes digging at his expression.

    He hadn’t, as a matter of fact. Not in an arena. Not in the training yards. Not by crowd or by combat. Only on that ugly wooden stage, where the smell of fish had been too distracting.

    And what would it have mattered if he had? The smug balding man would have no right to judge him.

    “Do you like watching them cry? Watching men break underneath you? That’s why you became one, isn’t it? To feel strong. To make others feel weak.”

    The words coming out of his mouth were pure, absolute nonsense. Stas felt more confusion than anger in that moment. “No?” He was too bewildered to express much more than that. “I value the competition.”

    Sanson chuckled, taking another swig of his… beer, Stas presumed, since it looked to be the same as what had been in his own mug, before Sanson had stolen it. “Oh, a real scrapper are you? Fighting the good fight? Just want to challenge yourself against whatever? Prove you aren’t a little shit?”

    Stas twitched. “What is the point of all this? Are you actually going anywhere with it?” Calm, he reminded himself. Calm. If his words sounded like a growl, that wasn’t his fault. “Or are you just drunkenly rambling?”

    “I’m just getting to know my new good friend here,” the man smiled, the expression so disingenuous Stas wondered how the man had the gall to put it on. The ugly man reached his arm around Stas’s shoulder.

    Stas grabbed it, clenching tightly. “Don’t touch me.” He warned. Try as he might, Stas did not know if he could hold himself back if Sanson pressed any further. “And we are not friends.”

    “Touchy, touchy. And a grip on you.” Sanson shook his arm, rubbing where Stas had gripped it. “Well, I’m getting to know Eponine’s new friend then.”

    “You invited yourself,” Eponine bit back.

    “Of course,” the man grinned. “Who wouldn’t want to bask in my company?” His eyes narrowed, returning to Stas. “You ever been in a real fight? Not one of your little play acts? Something that actually matters?”

    Stas turned away, seething, looking at anything but the infuriating drunkard who could not take a hint. He had promised himself he wouldn’t get angry again tonight, and yet this buffoon was making a challenge of it. Stas marveled at how the obnoxious pus stain remained so oblivious to how unwanted he was.

    He wanted nothing more than to slam the man’s head through the table, crack some mugs over his head for good measure. Anything to get the noxious waste of space to quit talking.

    Calm, he reminded himself. Calm.

    Eponine seemed to see the look in his, a disquieted expression grew on her face. “Sanson.” She spoke coolly. “Stop needling him.”

    “Needling him? Moi?” The man mocked. “I am just being friendly. Just joking around with a new pal. If he has a temper, well, that’s just his problem, not mine. What is he going to do? Kill me?”

    “Sanson. I mean it.” Her voice was stern, officious.

    Again he scoffed. He turned his attention back to Stas. “Think you could do it? Kill me? End a life without a crowd chanting your name, just because you decided you wanted me to die? Do you think you have the guts, you piece of shit?”

    Ludicrous. The pock-marked man was insane. Of that Stas was completely certain. A masochistic madman with a death wish. Stas couldn’t even begin to comprehend what Sanson was hoping to accomplish. Or even pretending to accomplish.

    The man was still sitting down, but was leaning over far. Stas noticed Sanson’s thick hand readied on his hip, fingers dancing impatiently.

    A hidden weapon? A knife or a small vial of an elixir he would imagine, as not much else could be concealed there. But the man wasn’t doing anything, just waiting, grinning savagely, his eyes locked onto Stas’s own.

    Eponine herself was reaching for her own hidden vials, or so he presumed. Her expression was angry and anxious, as her eyes darted between the two.

    Nobody else in the bar seemed to be doing anything. The bartender had made his way to the back room at some point, and the customers didn’t even seem to care. The musician kept on playing as if nothing was going on.

    The man wanted him to strike, Stas determined. Wanted to have his smug face crushed in. If Stas were to attack he would disable the man’s right arm first, prevent him from getting his weapon. Then he would be free to demolish the madman.

    Once again in the long day, Stas found himself yearning for a weapon. He would have to see about learning to hide one on him in the future, as everyone else seemed to be doing.

    But he was not going to be the one to attack here. He wouldn’t give Sanson the satisfaction. For all that this infuriating situation confused him, Stas figured that was the most spiteful option he could take.

    But if Sanson took the initiative, he would have no compunctions retaliating.

    Sanson breathed heavily, letting his putrid breath waft in the air. Then, his sadistic grin pulled back into a wide smile, and he laughed. “Hah hah hah! I’m joking. Just having a lark. And you look so serious about everything. It’s hilarious.” Sanson’s hands left his hip, away from whatever weapon that might be there, and raised them in a placating gesture. Only then could Stas relax.

    Eponine’s eye twitched. “Asshole. What the hell are you playing at?”

    “Ribbing around with your new guy. Seeing if he’ll snap. It’s all good fun.”

    “And what if he did snap, you piece of shit?”

    Sanson shrugged. “Then I’d handle him, what else?”

    The table cracked as Stas’s fist slammed into it. He swiveled on the seat to face Sanson directly, not bothering to hold back his frustrations from making themselves known in his expression. He wanted Sanson to know, wanted him to realize just how fed up he was with the provocations.

    Rather than terror, Sanson projected satisfaction. He seemed amused by the reaction more than anything else.

    “So that’s what it takes then.” The man nodded with a grin, not cowed in the slightest. “Are you hoping I’ll piss myself now? I’m not drunk enough yet for that.” He pursed his lips. “Seems like I need to fix that! Barkeep, bring me another!”
    And he got up wandering off for the barkeeper who was not present.

    Stas leveled a glare at Eponine.

    She glared back defensively. “Don’t blame me for that idiot. I’ll get you another drink.”

    “Don’t bother,” he grumbled. “How long until I can head back?”

    “The longer you wait the safer it will be.” The non-answer elicited a grunt. Eponine sighed. “Based on how they normally act when you kick the hornet’s nest, you’ll want to wait another hour at least.”

    Stas rubbed his forehead. Being up this late was already an issue. He would have trouble waking up in the morning at his usual time.

    Really, the situation was just exhausting in general. He didn’t even really feel angry any more. He had no energy to maintain that state.

    “Eponine?” A man’s voice called. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

    Eponine looked towards the entrance. “Enjolras?” Her voice was twinged with honest surprise.

    Stas examine the new arrival. He was a striking man, sharp faced, tall in stature. His hair was a silvery-blond, ruffled slightly as he had been exerting himself. But his posture was proper, and his clothing impeccable; fine yet tasteful. Far more the forum denizen than the other patrons of this part of town.

    He carried himself with confidence towards their seats.

    An ugly pocked mad this was not.

    “I was taking an evening stroll, enjoying the city. It can be quite calm at night.”

    “If you ignore all the delivery vehicles and the drunkards.”

    “If you ignore those, yes.” He offered an easy smile. “I wandered around a bit, ended up in this neighborhood and decided to stop in. Ah,” he stopped, eyes settling on Stas. “Am I interrupting? Terribly sorry for intruding like that.”

    Stas shook his head. “No. No. It’s fine.” He stood up. “You can have my seat if you wish.”

    Enjolras waved his hand. “No need. There are plenty of seats. Ah, but allow me to introduce myself. I am Enjolras Gracchus Julianus, a humble man of the city.” He held out his hand. “Might I know your name?”

    Stas clasped it easily. The man’s grip was firm and steady, but his skin was smooth. He lacked the callouses that Stas worked for.

    “Stas.” He said simply, making sure to not clench too hard. “I am a gladiator from the province.”

    “An up and coming one at that.” Eponine interjected. “I caught a few of his matches today. He was quite the dominating presence.”

    Enjolras’s eyes twinkled. “Indeed?” He released his grip and Stas let his own hand fall to the side. “If I might join you...” he waiting a moment for any interjection, before placing himself beside Eponine and across from Stas. “From the province, you said? So you have not been in this fair city long? How is it treating you?”

    “I’ve only been here a few days,” Stas admitted. “And I suppose it as been… overwhelming?” The city was a constant deluge of action and sensation. Everywhere around him people were moving, were going about their myriad of days, a hustle and bustle that the country completely lacked. He had yet to settle into a routine. “It’s a very busy place.”

    Enjolras smiled. “Busy. Yes, I’d agree. I’ve been here my whole life, grew up around it, but it is a telling descriptor.”

    A telling smell returned and Stas’s nose wrinkled in disgust. Sanson trudged back to the table, three mugs precariously held in the crook of his meaty arms. “Enjolras?” The bulky man grimaced. “The fuck are you doing here?”

    Enjolras met the accusation with a smile. “Just seeing the sights, keeping a personal eye on the comings and goings. I find it enjoyable.”

    “Feh.” Sanson sat his mugs down on the table, setting himself a few chairs down off to the side. He grabbed one and started sloshing it down.

    It was disgusting how much the man was drinking. But Stas found he preferred the annoying, consistent gulps to the man’s grating voice.

    Enjolras eyed the scene with some distaste. He glanced at the state of the table, and Stas’s lack of drink. “I see that you are dry. Why don’t I treat you to a drink, to make up for barging in?”

    Stas blinked. “There’s no need for that. You aren’t intruding.”

    “Well then, please allow me to treat because I enjoy treating new friends.”

    Stas looked down. “I would appreciate it.”

    “I can grab it for you.” Eponine stated, getting up from her seat.

    Enjolras handed her a few coins. “Thank you. Something for all three of us, please. I trust your tastes enough to know what is good.”

    Eponine nodded, and went for the bar.

    “How do you feel about the people here?” Enjolras questioned.

    “Hm?”

    “As someone from the country, you might have an insight to it. Have we been hospitable? Made a good show of ourselves?”

    “I haven’t really had the chance to speak with people much yet. I’ve mostly been interacting with my colleagues. Not much chance to talk to other people when they aren’t permitted on the palace grounds.”

    The man nodded sagely. “Indeed. You gladiators are kept somewhat isolated. It is good that you tried to come out and see the city proper.”

    “Ah, yes.” Stas replied awkwardly. He couldn’t really call this whole experience ‘good.’ “Today was my first real time out of the school. I haven’t even explored much of the estate yet, never been to the palace itself. Supposedly we’ll have a chance to attend some parties or something. In the palace proper.” ‘Hobnobbing’, Zola had called it.

    “A fine opportunity, to be sure. I’ve had the chance to visit the palace a few times. A fine wonder of architecture, a true beauty to behold. But I think there is some charm to be had from the parts of the city where people actually live as well.”
    “Looked to be falling apart in places from what I saw,” Stas muttered. Dirty, grungy, filled with refuse.

    Enjolras chuckled. “Sadly. But those sorts of things could be fixed. I like to see things as they could be before I judge them for their current, unfortunate state. I feel that every building in the city could be made as marvelous as the palace with some effort.”

    “A whole lot of effort,” Stas said, thinking of the ramshackle buildings and haphazard streets.

    “Of course, of course. But the results...”

    “Are you an architect or something?”

    “Of a sorts.” Enjolras smiled. “Perhaps a patron of the arts might be more accurate.” He paused, as if in thoughts. “An Aedile, in a sense, always in need of participants for my works. Or so I hope to be one day.”

    “How you could be, not your current, unfortunate state?” Stas echoed the words back.

    Enjolras laughed. The sound was exuberant, but not truly wild. Like his hair. “Yes, that. But if we strive earnestly, will we not one day be what we seek? Ah, it looks like Eponine is back.”

    Eponine returned with the drinks. She set them out, one by one, taking care to place Stas’s far from Sanson. “Let’s make sure he doesn’t take this one too.”

    Enjolras raised his glass. “A toast then?”

    “For what?” Stas inquired.

    Enjolras smiled. “For anything you wish for it to be. You should have something to toast for every day, if you are living life properly.”

    “So what are you toasting to?”

    “I am not sure yet. After all, the evening isn’t over yet.”

    Eponine smacked him on the back of the head lightly, but the blond man took it in stride. He turned his gaze to Eponine.
    She sighed, and lifted her glass. Her eyes turned to Stas.

    Stas shrugged and raised his own. They clanked together, spilling some froth.

    Seeing Eponine and Enjolras take a hearty drink, Stas made for one of his own.

    It was… bitter was perhaps the first word to come to mind. Dry as well. The carbonation settled uneasily on his tongue, and the drink burned against the back of his throat. His concerns about enjoying alcohol too much were completely unfounded, it seemed.

    How anyone would enjoy it, Stas could not guess. Water quenched thirst far more effectively.

    But it was no more painful that pressing oneself in the yard, so Stas could keep his distaste to himself. He drank without letting it show.

    Conversation resumed, with Enjolras making an effort to include both Eponine and Stas in its flow. It was lighthearted fair, for the most part. Inconsequential pieces of day to day life, interjected with humor and some gentle ribbing. It seemed that the two of them knew each other well. They had no trouble speaking around one another.

    Stas, for his part, enjoyed himself. Enjolras had a way of speaking that made conversation easy. He never really felt out of place, or excluded. His opinions were considered when offered, and often solicited when not. Slowly, Stas found himself forgetting his anxiety, no longer counting down the minutes until he was free.

    Even the music was more pleasant to his ear.

    Along the way, Stas made his way through two mugs of beer, as well as a small cup of sweet wine which was far more pleasing to his pallet. He found himself relaxing in a way that he had not managed for quite some time.

    The insults of the day, the provocations, were no longer as burdensome. The lightheaded sensation was a pleasant accompaniment to his drinking partners. The bitterness stopped stinging as much.

    It was fun.


    Enjolras, after wrapping up an anecdote about some childhood mischief or other, sighed and pushed back his chair. “I apologize, but it seems to have become later than I had expected. I must be going soon.”

    “Ah, has it been that long? If so I should be heading back myself.” Stas looked over at Eponine, who half shrugged, and nodded. He took that to mean enough time had passed. “Yes, I’ll be doing that.” He nodded to himself.

    “Good, good.” Enjolras nodded back. “As enjoyable as the night is, you cannot allow yourself to miss the morning by sleeping through it all. It was good to meet you, Stas.” He held out a hand. Stas grabbed it for a quick shake. “If you are amenable, I would like to meet again. There is an exclusive locale that I believe you are a good fit for.”

    “What?!” Sanson squawked, interrupting his long streak of silence. “What the fucking hell are you on about, your drunken sop?”

    Eponine growled back. “Stop projecting, you drunken cow. It’s his right to invite whoever he wants.”

    Sanson ignores Eponine, directing his ire fully at Enjolras. “Trudging in here out of the blue, interrupting my process. Just making offers to any untrustworthy shit that catches your eye! You are out of your fool mind!”

    “Of course he’s going to treat this differently. He recognizes the opportunity,” Eponine retorts. “He is not an oaf like you. A fresh gladiator, one without ties, proven and strong. And you just treat him to the regular shit, driving him off.”

    Stas blinked. The conversation was going over his head, but he recognized he was being talked about as if he weren’t there.

    “An ‘opportunity’ you say, more like ‘bait.’” The ugly man spat. “Anyone with half a brain could see its too perfect. Too many damn coincidences. But you are too greedy to recognize the bloody obvious.” Sanson turned back to Enjolras. “Trust me, Enjolras. Just let this go. Let’s wipe this last bit from his mind and move on. Everybody should forget about this.”

    The words put Stas on edge. His eyes darted from Sanson to Eponine. He knew she could manipulate memories, or so she claimed, but…

    The woman in question wasn’t even looking at him, glaring instead at Sanson. She moved to retort, but Enjolras held up a hand.

    He looked Sanson in the eye. “I understand you are just trying to be safe, but,” he turned to Stas, eyes locking onto his own, “I know when a good man stands before me.”

    Stas froze. The words, the conviction behind them, left him stunned. He found himself captured in Enjolras’s gaze, the man’s piercing silver eyes boring into his soul, leaving him naked, exposed.

    Stas did not know if he was a good man. But in that moment, he knew he wanted to be. He couldn’t allow himself to disappoint Enjolras, couldn’t betray the faith so erroneously vested into him.

    Stas diverted his eyes, unable to maintain the gaze.

    Sanson grunted, and turned aside, going back to his drinking.

    “I apologize for Sanson’s zeal.” Enjolras stated. “He means the best, even if threats come far too easily to his tongue. But, are you perhaps interested in meeting up again?”

    Stas nodded. He needed the opportunity to prove himself.

    Enjolras smiled. “Good. I am glad.” He gestured to Eponine. “We are having a meeting in one week’s time. Since the two of you seem to get along, I believe Eponine would be the best one to show you to the location.”

    “A meeting?” Stas questioned.

    Enjolras waved it off. “Don’t worry about it. It’s very informal. I can explain at the time.”

    “We can meet up here,” Eponine states. “Sometime before sunset. I’ll take you where you need to go from there.”

    Stas shrugged. The situation was confusing, but that may just be how they did things in the city.

    His response was greeted with twin smiles.

    “You’ll be good getting back now? Or will you need me to show you how to get to the forum?” Eponine asked.

    “I remember the way.” Stas stated.

    “Stay safe, then. And see you again in a week.”

    Stas waved, and, humming along to the musician, he exited the bar.
     
  12. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    It was supposed to be disassociative, a character point about how he doesn't really treat fights as more than an intellectual exercise because they don't have consequences in his mind. But if that falls flat, I will have to reconsider the effect.

    This whole exercise is unedited, so consider it very unpolished.
     
  13. VerBlinkel

    VerBlinkel Making the rounds.

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    Well Stas just got hit with some mind magic. Though given the lack of hydromancy, unless Enjolras drank it before he walked in, potentially wasting it, I don't see how.

    Unless Enjolras can use Aeromancy like Stas...
     
  14. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    I was wondering if someone would come to that conclusion.

    No, not mind magic. Just a teenager being a teenager while tipsy.
     
  15. Artful Lounger

    Artful Lounger Experienced.

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    Doesn't help much that Stas seriously lacks wisdom. Goes and wins a fight in two seconds. Okay, he needs to be taught some things. Ludo was pretty explicit about that.

    Then he goes and takes the advice of someone that he just humiliated about unsanctioned matches. He just shot this man's career in the foot and he takes advice from him to do something foolish.

    Then he not only goes to unsanctioned fights, which is certainly something Ludo would disapprove of, he risks breaking the curfew to do it. One of the big rules Ludo laid out for him. And all on the same night he just got chewed out for his dishonorable performance. Not even the sense to wait awhile for Ludo to cool off before doing something dumb.

    Then the fight with the guards. No thoughts of consequences. Okay, you ran into a dickhead guard. Couldn't go around to another entrance and try to find a guard who would listen to what he had to say?

    And then he gets roped into what appears to be either a terrorist cell or rebel faction of some sort. They seem awfully interested in the Gate. Whatever that really is.

    I'm wondering how addled his mind is from the Aeromancy and how much is just being a young kid from the sticks, but this kid needs to learn some of the facts of life. Its one thing to have more balls than brains, but Stas seems to just wander around with his head stuck up his ass giving no thought to anything beyond what's right in front of him.
     
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  16. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    For a traditional arena fighter build, Wisdom is the dump stat of choice.

    I mean, dumping strength or constitution is moronic. You need dexterity to get out of binds, and intelligence for handling the magic being thrown around.

    And how can you possibly have a career if your charisma is abysmal?

    But what could possibly go wrong if you toss your 5 in Wisdom?
     
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  17. Artful Lounger

    Artful Lounger Experienced.

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    True, but you'd think growing up on a farm or something would keep him from being completely oblivious. I think every kid learned things as basic as 'don't punch an authority figure when things don't go your way' and 'wait until your parents aren't angry about the last dumb thing you did before you go break the rules again'.

    Honestly, Stas basically has 'Mark' tattooed on his forehead at this point. I think if I tried to sell him a bridge, he'd buy it.

    Speaking of being taken for a ride, I don't think these three even offered Stas anything despite letting it slip there's something shady going on. But I guess that'll be saved for when he wanders into the second meeting and they con him into doing something illegal like case the palace or steal something. Don't bait the hook too early I guess. Especially with a fish as easy as this one.
     
  18. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    He did not grow up on a farm. He's been in some level of training since a young age. It was a very isolating experience.
     
  19. Artful Lounger

    Artful Lounger Experienced.

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    Hmm, okay so he's borderline a test tube baby. Easier to make gladiators disappear if you don't have to worry about families I guess.

    The real question is how much of all this is coincidence and how much was planned and how deep does the rabbit hole go? These guys could be anywhere from trio of local rebels to thieves guild members to interdimensional Agents of Kroll. In which case all bets are off on Hydromancy.

    Is Geoffrey in on this? Did he tell Stas to go there knowing his friends would find him there? Or was that just trying to get Stas in trouble. One way to tell will be if Stas goes back and its easy to slip in unnoticed or if people are waiting to bust him. If the former, Geoffrey is probably in on it. If the latter he was getting revenge by getting Stas in trouble. Eponine was either there by chance or gathered the info some other way.

    Only thing I'm sure of is that Ludo isn't in on it. If he was these guys would find fresh gladiators a dime a dozen.
     
  20. Threadmarks: Ten
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Stas was light on his feet on the way back to the forum. The night air felt cool on his face, a pleasant wind ruffled through his hair.

    He didn’t know what put him in such a good mood after a day like today, whether it was just having the time to reflect, the company, the beer…

    It was the beer, almost certainly. His head was buzzing with a mild headache, but the sensation was almost pleasant. He didn’t care about it. All the stress of the day was gone. He had good reason to be happy.

    He remembered the dietitian’s gruesome lecture on the effects of alcohol, but it didn’t faze him. Three drinks would hardly make a difference. Hadn’t he seen Geoffrey drinking just earlier today? And the man was a somewhat established gladiator.

    Stas paused. Perhaps Geoffrey wasn’t the best role model. It was a sobering thought. Well, not fully sobering. His good mood was too pervasive.

    He would decide if he wanted to drink when the time came. He had no need to worry right now, walking back in the dimly lit streets. The moon and the occasional street lamp provided decent enough illumination. It was ample enough to avoid the lumbering wagons delivering who knows what to who knows where and the men yelling for who knows what reason.

    In fact, why was he walking at all? Teleportation would make for faster travel.

    He could see no reason not to.

    So he reflected down the street, reflected up the alley, reflected to the rooftop, reflected across the city. He made a game of it, reflecting into the shadows and around the backs of the wagons, staying out of view of those still out at night. He reflected himself at any distance he desired, to any height, traversing the city in sharp staccato, enjoying the freedom it represented.

    He hadn’t used his magic so intensely since he had first discovered it, those months he had explored just what he could reflect and by how much.

    A roof tile he had reflected to failed to hold his weight. He slipped, stumbling off the rooftop. Another quick reflection brought him to near ground level. His back crashed against the cobblestone.

    His stomach churned. Reflecting while moving was always a massive pain on its own, to do it while falling was that much worse. Vertigo overwhelmed, the world span in place.

    He rolled to the side, in time for a bit of vomit to spew from his mouth. It smelled sweet, like the wine.

    Stas pushed himself back up to his feet, and wiped his mouth for the stray spittle. His headache pulsed from the sudden blow.

    Perhaps reflecting to and fro was not the best idea. He wasn’t in the best shape for it.

    Stas paused to settle his stomach and head. His body ached, back especially. He had though he had caught himself before the fall could do any real damage, but the soreness was pervasive.

    Parts of him he could have sworn had been untouched were also throbbing. Was this the alcohol somehow? He didn’t know.

    He had made good time so far. He would stick to walking for the rest of the way. Or at least until his head settled down.

    Taking some final deep breaths, Stas resumed his travels. He didn’t know exactly where he was right now, but he still had a good sense for the direction of the forum. Once he was there, he would be able to get to the estate, and then Ludo’s school.

    Or at least he thought he knew where he was.

    Stas considered for a moment, before deciding that possibly upsetting his stomach some more with a bit of teleportation was a fair trade for ensuring he was going in the right direction. A good rooftop would provide the necessary height for locating the forum.

    So, he found a target (ensuring it was made from a properly sturdy material this time), steeled himself, and reflected to a rooftop. Changing elevation required far more concentration, but he had nothing but time. He arrived at the edge of his view, and walked to the center of the rooftop.

    He ducked behind a chimney immediately, having caught sight of a watcher on an adjacent rooftop. While only the forum and estates were closed at night, and, according to Eponine, they wouldn’t remember anything about him, Stas had no desire to draw any additional attention to himself by being in their domain.

    Thankfully, the guard did not seem to have noticed him, focused as he was on the street bellow. Moreover, he was as close to the forum as he had thought, which explained the watcher’s presence.

    He would have to consider how to avoid them. Teleportation was a powerful tool, but he could only go so far with it, and if he ever ended up directly in a guard’s line of sight, he would be setting himself up to be recognized later, through his magic if nothing else.

    From a rooftop vantage point, he would be able to see where the bird-masked watchers were stationed or patrolling. But at the same time, he would be more likely to run into them, moving directly through their normal haunts.

    On the other hand, from the ground he might not be able to see all of them, the buildings themselves getting in the way.
    Stas resolved to take this opportunity to spot out as many as he could, before heading further in. There was not much else he could do.

    Careful of the watcher on the neighboring building, he sneaked out from behind the chimney and starting noting locations.

    He paused. On the roof across from him were two men, not one. Both wore masks but only one was beaked like a birds. The other mask was a smooth, deep blue, covering the whole face. It had some pattern on it that Stas could not make out.

    The blue masked man crept silently behind the watcher, staying in his blind spot.

    When he was close enough, he grabbed the guard by his mouth, whipped out a knife, and slit the man’s throat.

    Stas watched the guard slump silently to the roof’s floor, blood seeping from his neck.

    He also wasn’t the only one to notice, as the watcher opposite his position took ran to a bell by his post and clanged it loudly.

    The assassin did not flee from this development, as Stas might have expected. Instead he centered himself on the roof and took a fighting stance. He tossed his knife to his left hand and uncoiled a length of chain from his back, twirling it around in a confrontational manner. Stas could make out a glint of metal at the end of the swimming mass, some small hook chained to the length.

    A watcher on the roof by the assassin acted first, imbibing an elixir. He extended his cloak out like a pair of wings and leaped, gliding across the chasm between the buildings.

    The assassin swung his chain, lashing it up and out towards the gliding bird-masked guard. The guard veered upwards suddenly, as though an updraft had spawned beneath him. But the chain changed course unnaturally, its end careened for the flying guard unerringly.

    The hook at its end snatched into the guards chest and the assassin, as if he were some cruel parody fisherman, retracted his line.

    The guard was violently yanked in, limbs splayed out. Stas could see violent winds blowing in towards from the man, ruffling the guard’s clothes and distorting his skin from the pressure. But they did nothing to stop his movement at the end of the chain.

    Once the guard was within arm’s reach, the blue-masked assassin capitalized immediately and mortally, stabbing out for the man’s heart. The watcher slumped, all life leaving his limbs, even before he fell out of the sky. The assassin pressed his boot against the man’s torso and jerked at his chain, tearing the hook free. With it came cloth, hardened leather, and a chunk of flesh.

    Weapon now free, he jumped back, lashing wildly at his former position. He caught another a particularly bulky watcher across the chest, with a resounding crack that must have broken at least one rib. The guard, rather than collapse from the injury, stood strong. His skin and clothing took on a metallic tone.

    He stepped forward.

    The assassin ducked forward, twisting beneath a blast of fire that had come at him from behind. The fire smashed into the metallic watcher, seemingly to no effect. The watcher who had thrown the fire from three roofs away leaped closer, sending out another wave of fire.

    Again, the assassin avoided the attack. He whipped his chain backwards, intercepting the bolt before it could reach him, and used the same motion to bull rush the metallic guard.

    The guard planted his feet, prepared to catch the onrush, but at the last minute the assassin changed course. He careened to the side, going around the guard to the building edge.

    A guard, who had been climbing up the scaffolding and had just reached the top, found the assassin’s foot waiting for him. He was unceremoniously forced off the building, smashing into the ground below. Stunned from the impact, he had no defense when the assassin threw a dagger into his throat.

    The metallic guard made his own charge, shoulder extended into a tackle. The assassin crouched low, waiting on the balls of his feet for the attack to come.

    The desire to fight roared in the back of Stas’s mind. To join in on this brawl, to… he wasn’t actually certain which side he wanted to join. The guards had made a mess of things for him earlier today, but that was really just the one asshole. The rest were only doing their jobs, so, intellectually, he couldn’t begrudge them for it. Comparatively, this blue masked man started the fight, jumping to killing for who knows what reason.

    A criminal, to be certain. If, by some miracle he hadn’t been before the assassin certainly was now. A person who began a fight from stealth against an unaware opponent… Stas couldn’t think of that as anything but shameless. Definitely not the mark of a ‘good person.’

    He was tempted to put himself into the fray just for that. Perhaps, he mused, the guards would be willing to forgive his curfew breaking if he aided them in this. Surely an outright assassin who had already brought down two of their number was more important to them than staying out too late. He wouldn’t even have to sneak by them.

    On the other hand, joining in on a fight that was already so massively lopsided was worse than a sneak attack. It was cowardice, plain and simple. In any other situation, he would be obligated to join the assassin, the one against the unending many, simply for the principle of it. The fact he would be helping crush those smug bird-faced watchers was just a bonus.

    Stas’s heart pumped wildly, his blood all but demanding he get involved, somehow, anyhow. Against the assassin, against the guards, against all of them at once. His choler raged against the guards in particular, taking joy in their suffering, wishing to enact some vengeance.

    But he swallowed the desire. All the desires. His tempers were rash and his patience was thin, but he couldn’t let it control him. Not when it gained him nothing.

    He would not get involved, he decided. All he could do was remain, enraptured in the fight at hand, witnessing the participants, their magics, and their motions.

    When the metallic guard extended his arms in an attempt to grapple, the smaller assassin met it by careening over the bulky man. He vaulted deftly, using the force of his motion to pull the metallic man off his feet, teetering him over. In the same action, he lashed his chain whip out again, towards another guard who had climbed up the building from the other side.

    Like with the gliding watcher before, the hook on the chain snagged into the man’s chest, through his armor and flesh both.

    The man gasped, but grabbed the chain in his hand. The metal sizzled and melted, breaking the chain in twain. The assassin cursed, the first sound he had uttered in the fight. But he did not abate.

    He wrapped a length of his remaining chain around the metallic man’s throat light a garrote and pulled tight. Pivoting around and dragging the bulky man with him, he positioned himself opposite the other two guards.

    The metallic man, struggling for breath, acted as a tower shield to hide behind from the onslaught of fire that was soon upon him. The hooked man hesitated, and green mass of liquid he had been building up in his hands fell away, unwilling to fire upon his own ally.

    From how the material had so quickly corroded the assassin’s chain, Stas presumed it would do more damage to the metal-coated watcher than fire could hope to accomplish. It would explain the hesitation at least.

    The shield in question was not choking idly. The bulking man had both his meaty, metal hands grasped on the makeshift garrote. He swung around, forcing the assassin back to the side of the other guards. Under a new onslaught of flame, the assassin could not maintain the same level of pressure, multitasking as he was, and the bulky guard was able to gain ground. The metal creaked under the pressure, before snapping, chain links falling away once again, leaving the assassin with bare remnants of his weapon.

    The guard managed to swing his arm around, turning his body with him, at the assailant on his back. But it was a halfhearted effort, only serving to get the assassin to fall back without dealing any damage. With the room granted, the metallic watcher staggered, and gasped for breath.

    It was an eerie reflection of Stas’s own fight. Despite being a superior fighter, the assassin no longer had the ability to take his opponents out at this point, the other fighters preventing him from capitalizing.

    Unlike Stas, though, this man had a mask. He could retreat into the night and get manage to get away with it all.
    Assuming he could retreat.

    Surrounded on three sides by magic-wielding bird-masked watchers, the assassin did not look like he was going to be able to retreat.

    Taking a stance, and abandoning his chain for simple fisticuffs, the assassin did not look like he was even trying to retreat.

    The fire wielder, on the roof proper, engulfed his own hands in a harsh, blue fire. Smoke wafted from his extremities.

    The corrosive watcher pooled his acid between his fingers. The drips sizzled into the floor of the roof, eating away at the material.

    The metallic man cracked his knuckles and neck. None of the injuries he had obtained seemed to have any lasting impact.

    Stas held a baited breath.

    It was the fire wielder who moved first, dashing into melee range from the assassin’s rear, flaming fists striking for any bit of flesh they could reach. From the heat he could see, Stas presumed the force of the blow wouldn’t matter. Any amount of contact from the concentrated source would result in painful burns.

    The assassin twirled in place to meet his attacker, launching his own fists for the fire wielder’s elbows, sweeping the blows aside. He raised his leg up to kick out, at the expense of leaving himself open for swing from the metallic guard.

    The kick is immediately abandoned mid stretch, and the fire wielding guard, who had been bracing for impact, found himself caught unaware when the man transitioned into a grapple and throw. The assassin snatched the man’s arm and spun him around, towards the metallic man, who hesitated and diverted his strike, and past him towards the acid wielder, who was forced to abandon his own attack.

    In a confusing mass of limbs and bodies that obscured Stas’s vision, the assassin ducked between them, somehow always ready for each attack in turn, making use of his fists to ward off and deflect whatever he may. He focused his attentions on the fire wielder, staying inside the man’s step to avoid burns. The lumbering metallic man is avoided with dexterity, while the acid spewer was judiciously avoided whenever he made it close.

    The flames in the watcher’s hand sputtered out, eliciting a curse from that end. The assassin moved to capitalize but the metallic man steps in the way, shielding his ally with his bulk. Stas watched as the guard downed an elixir as quickly as he could manage.

    The assassin, in a perhaps display of foolishness, slammed his open palm into the metallic man. It had no effect, except to allow the guard to try and grab him in response. The assassin fell backwards in an awkward dodge, right towards the third guard who was fully prepared to make his mark.

    Stas watched as the assassin floundered, arms almost flailing. The watcher reached out to the man’s throat, acid dripping hungrily.

    He could see it then, from how the acid melted through the chain, that, as with the fire, a single touch was all it would take.

    Except, in a hitherto unseen show of speed, the assassin whipped around in place, and slashed out against the surprised watchers face.

    A knife slipped out of the assassin’s sleeve, and punctured the man’s throat.

    Stas may have been as shocked as the dying man in that moment. The turnabout had seemingly come from nowhere. The knife especially.

    The assassin did not leave his newest victim be, though. Rather, he reached for the bit of chain still hanging from his chest and yanked the hook free.

    The assassin twirled his very short chain, and flung it at the advancing metallic man. As with its earlier performance, the weapon curved unnaturally, the hooking twisting through the air directly for the guard’s eye.

    The metallic man screamed in pain when the hook implanted, and his cries only grew when the assassin pulled back, tearing the organ from its socket.

    Unlike his other injuries, this one brought the watcher to his knees, dry heaving. The fire wielder, stunned, barely had time to react when the assassin whipped his hook chain out. He covered his eyes with his burning hands, in an attempt to protect them. But the chain did not even reach that far.

    Instead, the assassin took advantaged of his obscured vision to toss his dagger into the man’s chest. It sunk in, through the man’s armor, sticking in place.

    The fire wielder froze up, in pain or shock it didn’t really matter at that point, and didn’t react as the assassin rushed into him.

    The blue masked assassin seized the body and flung it over his shoulders.

    A crossbow bolt sunk into its back.

    Stas nearly jumped at its entrance, only just then noticing the new watcher some roofs away, who seemed similarly shocked.

    The assassin tore his knife out of the body and tossed it off the building. If he had not died from the stab wound or the crossbow bolt, the fall would certainly have been the end of it.

    The crossbow wielder frantically attempted to load another bolt in his weapon. The assassin calmly removed a sling from his cloak, and a single stone.

    The rock crashed through the guard's bird mask before he could fire, braining him presumably.

    The assassin sighed and, knife extended, made his way calmly over to the last guard. Still staggered and preoccupied with his excess bile, metallic skin fading way to pink flesh, he offered no defense as the assassin slit his throat.

    Stas did not know what to make of the scene. The transition had been too quick for him to properly process. He half expected another contingent of guards to pop out of the woodwork, yet it seemed they were not limitless in number. Not in this part of the city, at least.

    He had definitely seen more than a dozen guards in the forum alone, and they were a constant presence around the palace estates. But if they did not communicate properly, how would those numbers know to come?

    Would they even be willing to abandon their guard posts for the assassin, when, to their minds, it should be unthinkable that some criminal manage to take out so many of them so quickly?

    For the first time in the tumultuous fight, Stas was able to make out the details of the man’s mask. It was far from the ostentatious half-masks the watchers sported, just a simple, opaque blue. Over a single eye were crude rings of color, a black circle surrounded by a light blue iris and a white sclera. Just a single, evil eye. The opposite side was a single hole, the only break in the otherwise smooth mask.

    The assassin made his way to the next corpse and reached for its bandoleer. He carefully procured the elixirs, as he had for the formerly metallic man. Then he moved to the next.

    Stas didn’t really know what he was feeling. His head was still light, and his blood still pounding.

    He reflected to the opposite roof.

    Dozens of thoughts dashed through his mind. Indignation that a coward who attacked without his opponent being aware having the gall to loot their corpses after the fact. Admiration for the skill the man had demonstrated in that hard won fight. Outrage that the man had clearly been holding back at the start, only striking truly when his opponents had fallen into a false rhythm. Envy that the assassin had managed to overcome the guard’s coordination where he himself had failed.

    A part of Sats wanting to be a good person cried to enact justice on the villain, horrified that he had just sat back and watched the murders occur.

    Another part of him just wanted to speak with the man, curiosity egging him on.

    Regardless, he was out of his hiding spot now, taking a stance, fists readied.

    “Hey!” he called. But before he could even figure out what he wanted to say, the blue masked man was dashing for him.

    Stas reflected out of the way, swinging his fist down at the assassin’s skull. But the man wasted no time being flummoxed by the disappearance and had dodged the instant Stas had disappeared.

    Stas blocked an elbow to his gut, catching it with a sweep of his arm. Stas’s follow up kick was caught by the man’s blind grab. He found himself flipped through the air, suddenly. The strength of the awkward motion surprised him, but it was not enough to throw him off his game.

    Turning the free fall into a more controlled exercise, Stas managed to land on his feet a good distance away.

    The assassin turned to face him properly, dropping his knife and chain to the ground, fists raised in kind.

    Stas grinned. He would finally have a proper fight for once. One on one against a strong opponent. It hadn’t escaped his notice that the assassin was moving more quickly than he had with the guards. It looked like he was being taken seriously, by an opponent willing to meet him on equal terms.

    His headache pounded in time with his pulse, his body felt far too warm in the night, and the nausea had not fully escaped from his stomach, but Stas felt the best he had all day.

    His opponent was light on his feet, facing him intently, but with a looseness that would allow him to pivot suddenly. He almost seemed half turned already. He would be ready for an attack to his back, so Stas would not oblige him.

    Stas took a deep breath and reflected and reflected again. It was a bit of a trick he had been working on. His body would always be mirrored when he teleported, ideal for attacking from behind, but a hindrance in other circumstances. And he could only ever reflect forward. But if he did it twice in quick succession, the first being far past his opponent, then he could end up near anywhere, facing the same location. It was difficult to manage two in quick succession, both had to be planned in advance with only the first vantage point to work with, but on a flat roof with few obstacles, it was not beyond his capabilities.

    So, in an instant, he changed positions. Not behind his opponent as the assassin would expect, but in front and…

    A jab to his stomach disrupted its uneasy state, and Stas found his vomit spewing at his the assassin’s mask.

    As far as attacks went, Stas would consider that to be a particularly shameful one. But it did succeed in forcing the assassin to abort his follow up, focusing instead on avoiding the sweet smelling bile.

    Some small bit splattered on the man’s shoulder. Most went over it.

    Stas, disoriented, abandoned his attack, opting to gain some distance while his stomach and head recovered. He took deep, steady breaths, trying to get the world to stand still again. Half a second at most, he would allow himself to waste more time.

    He was more tired than he was willing to admit. And the alcohol wasn’t doing him any favors. But he was still good to go.

    He’d gotten the man’s measure now. Fast and skilled the man may be, but Stas knew himself to be a level above him. Especially when magic was added to the equation. The assassin didn’t have allies to defend him like the watchers had. And if Stas was tired, so too must the assassin be, coming directly out of a fight as he had.

    In a fair fight like this, Stas knew he would come out on top.

    And that gut punch only made him stronger. His stomach was certainly emptied now, after two separate cleansings. He didn’t have to worry about it distracting him any more.

    So, Stas closed the distance, normally, not through magic this time, and met the assassin with an exchange of fists. The masked man weaved out of the way of his attacks, but that was fine by Stas. He just wanted to set the rhythm. He reflected to the other side, and threw his fist at the man’s back, between the shoulder blades.

    In a show of almost preternatural sense, the masked man reacted to the attack expertly. He leaned out and to the side, clamping Stat’s arm with his own. The assassin slammed his head backwards, crashing his skull into Stas’s face and, before he could react, he tossed Stas over his shoulder.

    Stas crashed into the roof face down, hard, and disoriented, his arm twisted around his back by the assassin. Then man had his knee on his back, keeping it pressed tight.

    The pressure on his arm was immense, the assassin threatening to break it implicitly. And yet he didn’t.

    Instead a tired voice spoke out from behind blue mask. “You done, brat?”

    Stas twisted his head to see far as far back as he could manage. The blank, painted eye bore into him.

    Without space, freedom of movement, or visibility past the man, Stas couldn’t reflect out of this position. Wind knocked out of him, he could barely process his state.

    The pressure on his arm increased, the pain jolted Stas back to a proper mindset.

    “I’m done.” He spoke quietly, the words a curse on his breath.

    “Don’t do anything else that’s foolish,” came the threat.

    The pressure abated. Stas’s arm fell to his side, and the knee was removed from his back.

    Stas pushed himself to his feet, rubbing his sore muscles. It would be easy to resume the fight, but that would make him no better than the assassin. “You’re not going to kill me?” Stas questioned allowed. Of course he would fight to protect himself if it came to it. That was different far different from faking a surrender to get more blows in. If a surrender didn’t mean something, then no surrender would ever mean anything.

    The assassin grunted. “I don’t make a habit of it.” He retrieved his weapons, examining the damage on the chain, before coiling the small length with the hook on it back on his back, and ignoring the other parts. He moved to another watcher’s corpse, collecting its bandoleer of elixirs.

    “It looks like you made a habit of it with those guys.”

    “Difference is, I don’t have a quarrel with you.”

    Stas quirked an eye. “So you have a quarrel with the Dominus’ lawmen?”

    The assassin did not respond, continuing his task. When he had finished, he moved to the edge of the building.

    Stas followed. “How did you know where I was going to be?”

    Again, the assassin said nothing, opting to climb down the building’s wall.

    Stas reflected to the road below, and called up to the man climbing down. “Hey, answer me. How did you know?”

    The masked man sighed. “You kept making the obvious move. Easy enough to predict.”

    Stas scoffed. “I saw where you thought I would be and went somewhere else instead, but you still caught me.”

    The assassin jumped down the last bit of wall. He grunted from the exertion. “As I said, you kept making the obvious move.”

    Stas grit his teeth. He reminded himself that the fight was over, by his own word. He wouldn’t get dragged back into it.

    The assassin rifled through the corpse on the ground, retrieving the two full elixirs vials it contained. Neither of them seemed damaged from the fall, a mark of superb glass working.

    “Aren’t you concerned more of them will come?” Stas questioned. “Why aren’t more watchers coming?”

    Again, the assassin ignored the question.

    Annoyed, Stas reflected towards the masked man. He found a knife waiting against his throat.

    “Why are you still bothering me, brat?” The assassin growled, removing the knife. “Go home.”

    “I saw your fight against the watchers.”

    “I noticed.”

    Stas blinked, filing away the detail. He continued. “You were skilled. Even with such lopsided odds, four on one, each of them with magic, you prevailed. Then, when you fought me...”

    “I swatted aside your drunken stumbling. What of it?” He walked away toward the roof with the crossbowman on it.

    Stas clenched his fists, but held steady. “I’m not the best at unarmed combat. I’m far better with a sword and shield in hand.” If he had had a sword or even just a shield, Stas knew he would have presented himself far more skillfully. Even if the assassin had kept his hooked chain. “But I am trained in it, have been training in it for a long time. And you are better than me at it. And I saw your skill with your other weapons, so it isn’t just a matter of unarmed fighting. You are a skilled fighter.”

    The assassin grabbed onto the building and began hoisting himself up. Stas realized he needed to get to the point.

    “I want you to train me.” He called.

    The assassin stopped. “What?” He stated, incredulously.

    “I want you to train me.” Stas repeated. “You have a lot of skills, and I can see them fitting well into my style. As I mentioned, by unarmed combat needs shoring up, but even your skill with a sling could be useful. I hadn’t considered it before, but it would be a good ranged addition to my repertoire, something that capitalizes on my strength more than a bow and arrow might. Really, I’m impressed by pretty much everything you demonstrated. Anything you could teach me would be helpful.”

    The assassin remained still, hanging to the wall like a spider. Eventually his words returned to him. “Why in god’s name would I teach you anything?”

    God? Stas ignored that bit, continuing forth. “Why not? I’m sure I can get Ludo to pay you for your time.” Ludo had mentioned being willing to employ trainers from the city. If the assassin showed up without his mask, he’d be just another one of those. Skilled trainers were certain to be paid handsomely.

    “I don’t need money.” He hauled himself up to the roof.

    Stas felt flummoxed, suddenly realizing he was not in much of a bargaining position. He reflected up to meet the man. “Well, what do you want then?”

    The assassin scoffed. “You don’t have anything I want.”

    “Nothing? Really? I’m sure there is something...”

    The masked man whirled in place, knife extended. He glared at Stas directly in the eye, anger pouring through the solitary hole. “Go away, brat. I’m starting to reconsider my habits.”

    Stas faltered. He could hardly get an unwilling man to train him. He didn’t really need to push so hard when he had the teacher’s back at school ready to fall back on. While he hadn’t seen them fight off a band of watchers, they were certain to be worth their positions.

    He sighed. It really was far too late. He still needed to figure out how to get through the forum and back to his room undetected.

    “Fine,” he grumbled, leaving the corpse looter to his task.

    He reflected onto another roof, to have a better view of the forum, before making his way there.

    He didn’t actually have much difficulty making his way through the forum. The watchers, while there, weren’t as omnipresent as he had expected. Perhaps the assassin was to thank for that blessing, by taking the brunt of their attention. Or perhaps they were less in force for the same reason the assassin had not expected further reprisal.

    Regardless, Stas was able to cross the forum with only a single close call from a hidden watcher who had been posted in between shops rather than on a rooftop. But no alarm was triggered, and no watcher accosted him this time.

    He made his way to the gate and, holding his breath, reflected through the bars to the other side. At this time of night there was no gate man who might catch him, but the possibility of magical defenses still concerned him. The rumored traps filling the estate wall that Alain had told him about stood far out in his mind. He was not going to risk touching the stonework if he had any say in it.

    On the other side of the wall, in the estate proper, he had little to worry about. But he did not let his guard down, reflecting between the hadges along the path, keeping an eye for anyone who might be walking the paths this evening.

    Thankfully, he did not see anyone, and was able to make it to Ludo’s school in short order. He found himself outside his room and, with great care, climbed for the window.

    With a heft, he opened the shutter and threw himself through, onto his bed below.

    The bed shuddered from the fall, and a servant sitting in his chair startled up, eyes wide.

    Stas’s own eyes matched.

    “Ah...” he spoke quietly. “I don’t suppose you could forget me climbing through the window? I would really appreciate it you didn’t mention this to Ludo...” he tried to recall the servant’s name, but it came up blank, so he just trailed off awkwardly.

    The servant shook her head. “The Lanista is already aware of your breaking curfew, Master Stas. Master Ludo posted me here to inform you to speak with him at once, when you arrived.”

    Stas bit back a curse.

    The servant bowed deferentially. “If you would follow me, Master Stas?”

    Stas debated ignoring the request, just lying in his bed and heading to sleep, perhaps pretending that he had been in his room the entire time and Ludo had just miraculously missed him. The servant would make the lie outrageous, but…

    No, Stas knew Ludo would only be more infuriated if he refused the request. So instead he meekly followed the girl towards Ludo’s personal quarters.

    Once there, the girl spoke quietly to the servant at the door, who nodded, before entering the room, closing the door behind him.

    Stas waited awkwardly. The sounds of thumping furniture and ruffled clothing escaped the room. Finally, after a good long moment, the servant opened the door again, revealing the balding master of the school.

    Ludo glared at him through his disheveled spectacles. The heavy bags under his eyes led to the fact he had been awoken mid slumber.

    Stas said nothing, waiting.

    “Well, boy?” The man huffed. “We both know what this is about. How are you going to try to defend yourself? Don’t you dare pretend you weren’t breaking curfew.”

    “I… went for a walk. Through the estate.” Stas stated slowly. “Just a night walk to clear my head. The curfew slipped my mind.”

    Ludo’s scowl deepened. “Don’t lie to me boy. Your breath reeks. You went out drinking in the city. Have the decency to admit it.”

    Stas said nothing.

    “By the Dominus! What were you thinking, you fool boy? Were you so enamored with your time in the arena that you wanted a stint among the execution too? What a way to entertain the crowds that would be, hanging by your entrails or drowning in the sands. I’m sure your status would get you some memorable method of death, because it is hardly enough to save you from it. You aren’t invincible!”

    “Nobody caught me.” Stas mustered in his defense.

    Ludo pulled at his hair. “I caught you, you imbecile. If a single watcher saw you in the forum after hours, if a single watcher saw you climbing the gate, you would be dead, do you understand? You don’t have the status to protect you from that. I don’t have the status to protect you from that,” he hissed.

    “But it didn’t happen,” Stas retorted. The worst Ludo could imagine, getting into a conflict with the watchers, had actually occurred, and he managed to get out of it fine. The danger he was spouting was entirely overblown.

    Or just partially overblown, Stas was forced to admit. It it hadn’t been for Eponine’s magic, he would not have been able to get away with it.

    “It’s not about the results,” Ludo snarled. “It’s about the actions themselves, and the person doing the actions.”

    “There’s nothing immoral about breaking a curfew. It is a worthless law.”

    “It doesn’t matter what you think of it. We suffer the laws as they are, not the laws as we want them to be. There is virtue in avoiding needless conflict, in capitulation. In obedience. Bullheaded stubbornness, arrogance, excess pride, those are what is immoral. You don’t get to write the laws, you can only follow them.”

    “And,” Ludo continued, “even beyond breaking the Princep’s law, you broke one of my rules. I gave you, what, three total? Were they so onerous that you couldn’t bear their constrictions? Feh.”

    Stas looked down.

    “Cavorting about in the city after sundown. And don’t you think I forgot about your stunt early today. Yesterday by this time of night… Did you even apologize yet, or do the words coming from my mouth mean nothing to you?”

    “I already did,” he spoke, softly, to avoid letting his anger be heard.

    “Then you went off to get drunk to celebrate. I have half a mind to confine you to your room for the next month, but I’m not going to waste any servants time babysitting you, and I’d be a fool to assume you wouldn’t just sneak out if you weren’t constantly supervised.”

    Stas grit his teeth, biting back his need to defend his honor.

    “Since you are clearly far too idle in the evenings, you will spend them in the laundry with Cassandra, doing whatever she commands of you.”

    Stas sucked in his breath. Servant work and drudgery was as painful a punishment as he might expect. “For how long?”

    “A month.” Ludo declared. “Or longer if I determine you still lack in virtue. And for that duration, you will not be permitted to employ the services of any of my instructors.”

    “What?” Stas could not hold back his outrage. “This is unacceptable.”

    Ludo glared back. “The instructors of this institution are reserved for its students. Its students obey its rules. Your own actions place your status in doubt.”

    “You can’t let me fall behind like that!” Stas growled. “I refuse to stagnate!”

    “It would be your own failing if you did. Use this time to shore up on your basics. Let the posts be your instructor, for no one else will be.”

    Stas scowled. “The damn posts are no substitute! Are you trying to sabotage my career?”

    “Are you trying to sabotage your own?” Ludo retorted. “My decision is final. You are lucky I don’t rescind your next match as well. If it didn’t cost me so much to reschedule you, it would be done.” Ludo rubbed his forehead. “Now, it is far, far too late at night. I would recommend you leave before I am tempted to extend your punishment. Cassandra will gather you tomorrow evening. If you do not cooperate, she will inform me. Do not make me call you to me again, am I understood?”

    Vile phrases begged to be released from his lips, but Stas refrained from voicing them. Barely. He nodded, not trusting his voice.

    “Good. Now go.” Ludo removed himself from the doorway and the servant closed it.

    Stas seethed. The laundry was bad enough, but it was almost fair as far as punishments went. Too harsh, in duration, but manageable in severity. He was no stranger to the sweat and bile and blood that dirtied a gladiator’s clothing.

    But being denied instruction… it was maddening. How was he to improve without teachers to lead him, to correct his mistakes? How was he to keep up with his fellows when they were given opportunities he was not? Merely practice his swings against the wooden posts, endlessly? It was laughable. Ludo had to have known that.

    For a moment he imagined taking the month with the posts and, through will alone, coming out stronger for it than any who had the proper resources, to use pure spite as his instructor. But he couldn’t even bring himself to day dream about such delusions.

    He needed instruction, somehow. He found himself regretting his failure to employ the assassin even more. Had he known the man might have been his only option, he would have tried to recruit him all the more.

    He had to figure this out. But he needed a full night’s sleep first. The servant girl was leading him back to his room, completely unnecessarily. He realized he still didn’t know her name.

    “Are you Cassandra?” he asked.

    “No, Master Stas,” she replied demurely.

    Stas turned his head to the side, embarrassed.
     
    Last edited: Oct 12, 2020
  21. Threadmarks: Eleven
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Stas swung his sword at the post, releasing a clang as wood met wood. It sent a shiver up his arm, but he held strong.

    He swung high, then low, alternating between the two, keeping his form as proper as he could manage. He swapped the sword to his off hand and repeated the process.

    Up. Down. Up. Down. Switch hands. Up. Down. Up. Down. Over and over again.

    His arms screamed at him, the weight of the iron cored wood was noticeably greater than the real swords of the arena. Perhaps pridefully, he had selected the heaviest training weapon he could find.

    His shoulders threatened to fall out of their sockets, but he persisted.

    He had been working at the damned posts for a week now, with no end to this torment in sight. The sun beat down on him, an oppressive weight heaped upon the soreness in his limbs and the monotony in his mind. Near a week, and he was no closer to finding an instructor.

    The training yards mocked him. His fellow gladiators mocked him.

    He channeled his anger into his strikes, daring the wooden posts to fall shatter with each blow.

    His body was drenched with sweat. It was getting into his eyes, burning them. Any motion to wipe them clean only made it worse.

    He didn’t notice the man behind him until he called out. “Hey, Stas.”

    Stas whipped around, letting the sword fall from his exhausted limb. “What do you want, Alain?” he managed between panted breaths.

    “Ah, Zola and I were planning on heading to the races. We were wondering if you were interested in joining us.”

    “Bah.” Stas spat, reaching down for the sword again and turning back to the post. “I need to train.”

    “You’ve been training pretty hard,” Alain mused. “I hope you aren’t wearing yourself out. It’s okay to take a break.”

    “I’m stuck on the posts, and I need to keep up.” To more than keep up, even. He needed to be better. Stronger than everyone here. Strong enough to handle everything.

    Alain hummed. “Are you sure? It would be just an afternoon. Somewhere in the shade. We’d go to the baths afterward. Exercise, relax, bathe, massage. In that order. That’s the best way for your body to improve, I’ve found. Promotes strong, lean musculature.”

    “No.” Stas grunted. He wasn’t going to waste any time. Not with somebody who had full access to the instructors he himself was denied.

    Stas paused, and turned back around. “Alain. You’ve been working with Rosa learning new sword forms, correct?”

    “Yes?” He quirks an eye. “I’ve been spending the last few mornings with her. What about it?”

    “Do you think you can pass on what you learned?”

    Alain blanched. “Ah… I’m not really the best, and I was just planning on heading out so...”

    “Anything is better than nothing. And tomorrow if not today.”

    “Look, Stas.” Alian put his hand on the back of his neck. “I’m going to be honest here. I’m not really looking to get on Ludo’s shit list. And well… helping you get around his punishment seems like an easy way to get on it.”
    Stas growled, and went back to the post.

    Alain continued. “I mean, I’d be totally up for training with you after its over, you know that, right? Helping you catch up on what you missed out on, it would only be fair. But doing it now...” he trailed off. “Stas, I don’t think this is that healthy for you. You really should take a break. Even if you don’t want to go to the race, you should drink some water, cool down a bit. Please.”

    Stas ignored him, just as he ignored the burning pain of exertion.

    “Alain, what’s taking so long?” Zola questioned as she walked into the yard.

    “I was just trying to see if Stas wanted to come, but he’s not interested.”

    “Uh huh. I can see that. But, hey, you’ll never guess who I saw walking past the school just now.”

    “Only so many people are permitted near here, Zola. It would hardly take me forever to guess them all.”

    Zola rolled her eyes. “It’s an expression, and you know it. Anyway, I happened to see Lord Galbrio walking by with the Dominus's Monk.”

    Stas paused, letting the heavy sword fall to his side.

    “Lord Galbrio? Here?” Alain questioned.

    “Well, not here, here. But walking past, we might be able to catch up to him if we move quickly.”

    Stas set the sword on the ground.

    Despite being new to the school and city in general, he had heard of the lauded lord. He was said to be a man with a great love of sport, a discerning eye who delighted in taking gladiators under his wing and raising them to the lap of luxury. Those that caught his attention found themselves fast tracked to the forefront of the games. They represented a level skill that few others could match, bolstered by resources that few others could match.

    He was the most prominent Lanista any could name.

    It was enough to garner Stas’s attention.

    “Who do you mean by ‘the Dominus’ Monk?’” he questioned.

    “Hm? You haven’t met him yet?” Zola replied. “He comes to watch us practice sometimes. Quiet man. Very creepy.”

    “He’s a mystic. The Mad Monk, they sometimes call him.” Alain explained. “They say he traveled to the east, and discovered the secrets of arcanum. He claims to be able to use magic without elixirs, but I think that’s a load of bunk. Still, the Dominus likes him. He’s part of the court, lives in the palace, advises on matters.” He shrugged. “Not much else to say about him.”

    As somebody who could use magic without elixirs, that interested him almost as much as Lord Galbrio. He found himself inordinately curious.

    “I wonder what Lord Galbrio is doing with him.” Zola pondered.

    Alain shrugged. “Well, he is part of the Dominus’ court. And nobles talk to each other about things. And both of them are interested in the games. Perhaps they are friends?”

    “Well, I just so happen to be going in the same direction as them, so I am going to rush out and listen to what they are talking about. Maybe introduce myself.” Zola declared, dashing out.

    “I don’t know if that last part is the best idea, but I am going the same way as well, so...” Alain also dashed out.

    Stas grabbed a towel and wiped as much sweat as he could manage, before heading out as well. It was fine to take a quick break, he decided.

    He caught up to Zola and Alain quickly enough, as they had stopped a good distance away from their targets. Their pace was a particularly forced level of casual, something that would allow them to listen in, while still being a polite distance away.

    Stas joined them, keeping his breath steady. The sun was still beating down and he had yet to fully recover from his workout.

    The two men ahead of them were easy to make out, distinctive and meandering on the estate’s paths, Stas couldn’t imagine Zola had been referring to anyone else. The first was an unexpectedly short man, shorter than Zola even. He wore a level of casual finery, suited for strolling far more than it would serve in a fight, garments that cloaked the smaller body with unstated elegance. The man himself sported a long, dazzling mane of blond hair, extending past his broad shoulders. In his hand was a jeweled walking stick, which his used to minor effect. It seemed to be an accessory, not a cane.

    Even from the back, the outfit stood out greatly, dazzling without reaching the point of gaudy. It simply exuded understated wealth. It was Lord Galbrio, obviously.

    The man’s companion was similarly easy to discern. Flimsy looking, ashen haired. If it weren’t for his exotic garb, some white flowing attire that wrapped around his body and a single shoulder, he might not have stood out in the slightest. As it were, Stas found his eye drawn away from the monk to the lord beside him. One demanded attention, the other… did not.

    From the description Alain had given, Stas had expected something more impressive. But the mad monk was a bit of a disappointing sight.

    From their distance, he could make out the men’s conversation, the quiet of the estate’s garden aiding immensely.

    “But that is what he says, at least.” The boisterous voice of Lord Galbrio resounds across the way. “And I suppose his golems lend credence to his claims. Fine quality, to be sure, for the ones he let us see, at least. But I can’t help but feel that Patruinus is far too insistent about the whole things. Spending too much time emphasizing his production levels, you see. No doubt hiding some weakness, in emphasizing his successes. I am concerned about some poison pill, you see. Makes me hesitate to purchase from the new batch.”

    The monk nodded. “I understand your meaning. He has been acting strangely.” The monk's voice was soft, but it carried all the same. “But you may be reading this too directly. Perhaps it is not that he is concealing weakness in his product, but rather than he wishes to shore up his reputation. He may anticipate some scandal coming to light. His daughter has been the subject of some rumors recently.”

    “Bah.” Lord Galbrio scoffs. “I don’t care what sort of debaucheries his daughter avails herself in. Children are children. It’s the industry that concerns me.”

    “Then allow me to ease your worries to that end. Know that even if Lord Patrunius fails to supply, others are waiting in the wings to take his place. I know Lord Macro has indicated interest.”

    “Macro? Hah. I shudder to think what sorts of monstrosities he would stitch together and call ‘golems.’ He’s an utter mad man.”

    “It would be impolitic of me to disparage the fine minds of the Senate,” the monk ventured. “But I will agree that Lord Macro may be better served working with his beasts. But he is merely the most prominent of names that comes to mind. Lord Vibianus too has expressed interest, though more subtly.”

    “Vibianus? Hm. His sister is a sharp sort, may have what it takes. No history of quality to back on, but I am already finding myself longing for the days of Patruinus’s grandfather. Perhaps some shuffling is due about now. If, of course, Patrunius is truly failing to meet our needs.”

    “Indeed,” the monk agreed solemnly. “Have you, perhaps, been keeping abreast of our agricultural situation?”

    “What of it?” was the gruff response.

    “Our outlying farms have been having trouble producing. Fertility is faltering again.”

    “Then we will increase imports from the province. That is what the gate is for.”

    “Yes. Though we might expect the price of grain to increase all the same.”

    “Then we send more people to the out lands to farm. The city is crowded enough as is.” He scoffed. “Did Hirtius set you up on this?”

    The monk demurred. “The Lady Hirtius has been speaking of agricultural reforms with me. She will be seeking support before the upcoming session.”

    “I’m not a farmer,” the lord grumbled. “I don’t pretend to know anything about it.”

    “But you can speak to her, let her make her case, yes?”

    “I’ll thank about it,” he mumbled, before turning around. “You three. The ones following us, are you going to introduce yourselves? Or just tiptoe around as if we do not know you are there?”

    The three gladiators looked at each other sheepishly. Zola took the initiative and tromped up closer. Stas and Alain soon followed.

    “We apologize, Lord Galbrio.” Alain offered. “We were heading the same direction, but we didn’t want to interrupt your conversation.”

    “Hmph. Well, I want to be interrupted right about now,” the lord stated. The monk didn’t seem perturbed at all by the comment.

    Now that he had a look at his face, Stas realized that lord Galbrio was far older than he assumed. While from the back he appeared youthful, the lines in his face pointed to a man past his prime. The monk also had an aged face, one dotted with a pair of spectacles.

    Both of them might be around Ludo’s age, if not older, though they held themselves better for it. A healthier lifestyle might explain the discrepancy.

    Zola bowed down deferentially. “Pleased to meet you, Lord Galbrio. I am Zola. I’ve heard many great things about you. They say you have a real eye for talent, and know the best ways for gladiators to improve.” She flattered, shamelessly.

    “People have a high opinion of me.” He smiled. “The three of you, you are from the school we passed? Luno’s school.”

    “Ludo.” The monk corrected.

    “Ludo.” the lord nodded. “I have not had the chance to meet with the man much. He moved in to the estates recently… I want to say seven years ago? Back when Thrace retired. Been in the business far longer than that, if I recall.”

    “That is correct, sir.” Alain bowed his head as well.

    “I was wondering, your lordship,” Zola ventured, “If you had any advice? For gladiators such as ourselves? The feats of your students are well known.”

    “Hmph,” the lord’s smile grew, proud and amused. “My gladiator’s feats are their own. Anything they accomplish if through their own skill. I just ensure they have what they need. But as for advice… I’m sure you know already not to slack off, and to treat your instructor’s and physician’s words with the respect they deserve. Diet and proper sleep, you should know as well. But what really sets my students apart is the refusal to be satisfied. Ambition, that’s the word. You can’t have victory without ambition.”

    Stas kept his frown back. That sort of platitude wasn’t a secret to success, just common sense. But, if Lord Galbrio did know some secret tricks, Stas doubted he would share them with anyone who asked. They would be reserved for the lord’s personal gladiators.

    Zola did not seem to mind, though. “Thank you, your lordship.” She bowed deeply. “Perhaps you might see us at one of our matches, some day. We’d be honored if you could.”

    The man grunted. “Likely as not. I do tour the arenas often, to catch sight of the talent. It’s my favorite pass time, as it were, and I’m sure you could have guessed.”

    From the smile on Zola’s face, Stas knew she took that to mean he might take her up if she proved her worth to him. Stas figured it was just a polite dismissal. People sometimes heard what they wanted to hear.

    He turned his attention to the monk, who was quietly observing.

    Stas jogged up beside the exotically adorned man and cleared his throat. It was still too parched. He should have gotten some water before he made his way here.

    The monk turned and acknowledged him.

    “I heard,” Stas began, “that you could use magic without elixirs.”

    The monk’s eyes lit up. “Indeed. You have heard correctly. Are you aware that, a thousand years ago, there were no elixirs? Nothing in those scattered histories that remain point to their existence, not in the shreds of shreds of histories in which magic is mentioned at all?”

    Stas shook his head.

    “We know magic existed, but the nature of that magic was lost.” The monk continued, in a manner akin to an oft repeated lecture. From the looks of things Lord Galbrio was already tuning him out. “In my youth, I was fascinated with the topic. To the point that I ventured out of the city, alone, beyond the out lands, to the great mountains that engulf the sky in the far east. And, hidden among the ruined temples and crumbling stone, I found what I sought. Records, treatises, meditations on that lost arcanum, untouched for ages. I spent years deciphering them, first in translating that dead language into our own, years more making sense of the words. But I was able to learn the secrets, to recreate the magic. I do not need elixirs, no. Not when I can forge my own mind and will into fuel.”

    “Can you demonstrate?” Stas inquired, intrigued.

    The monk hesitated. “Ah… my magic is not so… flamboyant. It is in mindsets and perceptions, or enhancements. Not the acts of power you may expect from the arena. Any demonstration would be subtle, or require preparation.”

    The realization was as disappointing for Stas as it was expected. The man was a charlatan, with a story designed to capture attention. Nothing he spoke of related to Stas’s own experience with elixirless magic.

    Whether the Dominus was oblivious to the monk’s lies or simply amused by them, Stas didn’t know. But the mad monk would be useless to him.

    “If you wish,” the monk continued, “I can teach you what I know. I am always looking for students so that this art will not be lost again with me.”

    Stas blanched. Even if the man was a charlatan, he was a part of the Dominus’ court. He couldn’t risk offending the man. “I don’t believe I am in the best position. I am busy training most every day, and I do not believe it would be easy to fit such lessons between my regimes. I imagine you are more looking for more scholarly individuals anyway.”

    “Hm. I believe what I know could help you in your goals more than you expect, but I will not push.” The monk stared into his eyes, in an uncomfortable manner, as though he was dissecting him in his mind. Stas suddenly realized why Zola had referred to the man as ‘creepy.’ “Perhaps in the future you will be of a more amenable mindset.”

    Stas did not think that likely. He wasn’t going to suddenly fall for a scam after catching it out.

    With Lord Galbrio not interested in helping, and the mad monk proving himself a fake, there was nothing more Stas had to gain from this.

    He would go back to training. Perhaps he would reach a point where Lord Galbrio would be interested in snagging him from Ludo, but that would only happen after a proper showing in the arena. Not by interrupting the man’s walk.

    This was not a solution to his problem, and he had been too optimistic in hoping that it would be. If he wasn’t figuring out alternate forms of improvement, he would need to do the next best thing and get back to training on his own. He couldn’t afford to fall behind.

    He sighed. “I will be heading off now.”

    Alain glanced at him. “I thought you were coming to the race with us?”

    He shook his head. “No, I was just seeing you off. I’ll be heading back to the yard now.”

    Zola frowned, but didn’t say anything.

    Alain sighed. “Alright. Well, maybe next time.”

    Stas grunted and, after showing proper respect to Lord Galbrio is requesting his leave to depart, turned back.

    Perhaps, he mused, Enjolras might know someone who could teach him. Some swordsmanship instructor or something. It was a long shot, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

    But that was in the future.

    He had taken a long enough break as is. He needed to get back to the damn posts.

    But first, he would get some water for his parched throat.
     
    Last edited: Oct 12, 2020
  22. TrueNameArchFrenemy

    TrueNameArchFrenemy Not too sore, are you?

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    So THERE is our hydromancer. At least a cut rate one, it seems.
     
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  23. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    People hear what they expect to hear.

    So quick question to readers.

    November is almost over, but I only got through... let's say a fifth of the planned story (probably even less if I am to be honest. I'll probably end up massively reducing word count when I go and edit it). I plan on finishing this story in a timely manner just to have written something that is done.

    I'm guessing based on readership that Polyhistor is more popular, but I am wonder what people's thoughts are on priorities.
     
  24. Artful Lounger

    Artful Lounger Experienced.

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    Polyhistor comes first, in my opinion. This is nice and all, but I'd value updating the Quest higher.
     
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  25. VerBlinkel

    VerBlinkel Making the rounds.

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    I enjoy this and hope you continue and finish it, but I value polyhistor more. Then probably Mole. I liked Mole quite a bit.
     
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  26. Threadmarks: Twelve
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Cassandra was a meek woman, Stas had quickly discovered. She was vastly uncomfortable being in a position of authority over him, and with him intruding on her work.

    But he had dutifully spent his evenings with her over the last week, aiding her in her tasks as he had been ordered. By this point in time she was still meek, but he thought she had managed to be a bit more relaxed around him.

    She was not one for idle conversations, and neither was he. So he believed he had manged to build a quiet rapport with her.

    It was either due to that, or her own timidity that, when he had requested leave to finish early that evening, citing exhaustion, she had granted it out of hand.

    Ludo had placed Cassandra in charge of him. He wouldn’t be able to complain if she was the one to let him off for the night.

    Stas went directly for his room, as he had claimed he would.

    He would be heading out again tonight, but this time, there would be key differences. He had a dagger hidden under his pants leg now. It was a risk, considering the blanket restriction on weaponry in the city, but one he now knew was less dangerous than being caught unarmed.

    He had a mask as well, of sorts. He had not been able to locate a real face cover in the school, but he had a piece of cloth with holes stashed in his pocket to act as an… acceptable substitute. Like the knife, he hoped it would not be necessary, but he had it all the same.

    And, most importantly, Ludo would not catch him this time. He had been practicing a trick in secret for this purpose, a remnant of a failed experiment from years before that could serve him now.

    Stas crawled under the covers of his bed, pulling them tight around himself. Then, he got back up, leaving his reflection behind.

    The lifeless image would not stand up to true scrutiny, but it could mock his sleeping form well enough. Anyone who looked in would see him in bed, as he claimed he was going to be.

    Stas reflected through the window, heading for the forum. He would need to be careful getting past the gate. It was late enough that the gate guards might ask questions.

    He casually walked through the estate garden to the gate. At this point he wasn’t breaking any rules so nobody would question his presence. As luck would happen, both of the gate guards were solidly focused on the forum and didn’t notice him behind them.

    Stas calculated his move and reflected through the gate, passed the guards and past the crowd moving to depart the forum. Among the hustle and bustle, nobody noticed his sudden appearance, and he was able to slip into the departing mass.

    He headed for the forum’s exit, towards where he remembered the meeting place to be.

    He was in good company. Throngs of people were exiting the forum with him, from the bathhouses, or the circus, or the stadiums. The flowed out of the public areas for the city at large, dispersing in near every direction at a sedate pace.

    Watchers observed the movements, their bird-masked eyes darting between the sparse masses, searching for whatever they deemed irregular.

    Stas brushed his fingers against his hidden blade, assuring himself it was still there and remained concealed. The watchers did not call him out, and he passed through without issue.

    The roads to the bar were in a better part of town than his first excursion to the city, now that it was light enough for him to make it out. But they still paled in comparison to the majesty of the estate. Drab, simple, sparse, the buildings and roads served their purpose, maintained above the point of dereliction, but only just that. The oft trod stone was worn down by the people traveling the path every evening.

    Stas saw signs of a marketplace to the side, stands being dismantled for the evening. He almost didn’t recognize it as such, compared to the opulence of the forum it blended in to the city.

    And, like the city itself, the people he saw in this direction were drab, faceless. No stone-faced men carved like mobile decorations, or palanquins carrying women and men adorned in finery. Children were huddled close to their parents, not playing freely.

    And, even here, there seemed to be idle people on the side, sprawled against the stone and brick works, with no sense of activity between them.

    Not beggars, or rather, if there were beggars in this part of the city, he couldn’t make them out. Which was a good thing, because Stas didn’t have anything to give, so any encounter would be unpleasant. But the people and city were still disappointing, far from living up to the glorious images of the city he had pictured in his youth.

    Stas ducked under the gaze of another watcher. Those men stood out properly, their elaborate garb identical no matter where in the city they may be.

    He found himself at the meeting place eventually. Strolling down the streets was a much slower process compared to reflecting across the roofs.

    He found Eponine easily, leaning against the brick wall of the bar. Or rather, she found him.

    “Stas,” she waved. “Glad to see you could come.”

    Stas grunted. He didn’t have anything else he would be doing right now. The laundry didn’t count.

    Her lip quirked up slightly, but Stas thought she seemed a bit annoyed by his lack of response.

    “Come on, then.” She grabbed his hand, pulling it. “Let’s head out.”

    “How far are we going?” Stas questioned, as he allowed her to drag him. “And where are we going?”

    “Never mind the where. It’s a good location to meet up with friends.”

    “Better than a bar?”

    She smirked. “Indeed. As for how far, well, it is bit of a walk. Across the city and a bit.”

    “Why didn’t we meet closer to there?”

    “Are you so opposed to a stroll with me? But really, where else in the city do you know? Would you honestly prefer meeting me at that sty of a bar?”

    “I know the forum, and the stadiums. They are a central location and we could have met there.”

    Eponine shook her head. “Meeting in such crowded places is a major pain. Besides, I don’t feel like attracting so much attention from the watchers.” She glanced at Stas. “After last week.” She clarified. “They say that the Dominus has eyes everywhere, but most of those eyes are pointed at the forum. Speaking of...”

    Ahead of them, on a rooftop, was a watcher, masked face locked on the street below. Stas ducked his head, keeping his eyes to the ground to avoid attracting attention to himself.

    Eponine on the other hand, started directly at the guard and waved, a smile on her face.

    Stas could not comprehend the woman’s brazen action, calling out to a guard like that. For all he knew that was one of the watchers he had fought, perhaps even the one he had knocked out.

    “Didn’t you just say you wanted to avoid attention?” he hissed.

    “Acting like you have something to hide is the easiest way to garner attention,” she whispered from behind her smile, eyes still locked on the guard. “Lucky for you, most people dip their heads, but I don’t.”

    The watcher on the roof didn’t outwardly react, but his masked gaze did fall upon Eponine for a moment. His attention turned elsewhere quickly, and Eponine stopped waving.

    “See. Nothing to it. Now, the forum is closing so we will have to take the long way around. I hope you enjoy the scenic route.”

    She pulled Stas towards an alley and fearlessly led him through.

    Stas found himself simmering with questions, but decided it would be best to save them for Enjolras. The man seemed better equipped to answer them, from how Eponine seemed to defer to him.

    So, he walked in silence, allowing Eponine to direct them through the chaotic route she had in mind. It was equal parts abandoned alleys and main roads, darting back and forth in ways that seemed to take up time more than they seemed to lead to any destination.

    Sometimes, Stas noticed a figure in the corner of his eye ahead of them, or one behind them. At first he dismissed it, but after the third time, he felt the need to voice his concern.

    “I think somebody is following us.” Not a watcher, certainly. The bird-masked watchers were very distinctive. But somebody, or a number of somebodies seemed to be tracking the two of them.

    “Hm?” Eponine glanced at him. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” she stated without a care.

    “Are you trying to lose them?” It would explain the meandering route.

    “As I said, don’t worry about it. Everything is fine.”

    Stas gave her a suspicious glance, but fell silent.

    Eponine was the one to break the silence next.

    “So, Stas. I saw your fights, and your magic, but I’ve never seen you drink an elixir. How do you manage that?”

    “I’ve seen you use magic without drinking one, when you make people ignore you,” Stas turned the question back around. “How do you manage it?”

    Eponine pointed at her mouth and pulled at her teeth. “I keep some elixir capsules hidden behind my teeth. Not enough of a dose for anything major, but it does let me use some magic without people noticing. But you’ve been teleporting. That’s not something you should be able to do without elixirs. If I didn’t see it myself, I’d assume you were constantly chugging them for the amount of magic you use.”

    Stas shrugged. “It’s not exactly a secret. I’ve just never needed elixirs for my magic. Not for as long as I can remember.”

    “Really? Elixirless magic? Like the Dominus’ Monk or the Legendary Hermit?”

    Stas shook his head. “I’ve met the Monk. He’s a fraud. Probably uses sleight of hand and prepared items to trick people. But I haven’t heard of the Legendary Hermit. Who is he?”

    “He’s an old man that people say lives outside of the city. And extremely old man. Older than the city even. Some people say he’s older than the world itself. He used to visit the city, hundreds of years ago, buy things, never speak a word. But if kids asked him to do tricks, he would humor them… summon fire and make it dance, move earth, make fountains out of water, that sort of thing. He would use magic to turn the earth into pure gold, use that to pay for things.”

    “Making gold… I’ve heard of that sort of magic.” Stas mused. Gold wasn’t a particularly useful metal, far too soft, but he knew of gladiators who could transmute substances into other metals in the arena. “But couldn’t he have used an elixir for that?”

    Eponine shook her head. “No. This was hundreds of years ago, before elixirs were even invented. Anyway, he would come every year or so, but he stopped coming decades ago for some reason. And that’s all anyone really knows about him.”

    “Hm. Maybe it’s like that, but it really sounds like elixir magic to me. Mine is… different.”

    “Different, how?”

    Stas frowned. This wasn’t something he had tried to explain before, just something he knew innately. “It’s like… elixir magic does things. Changes things. Creates things. It takes something, or makes something, and moves it. As far as I can gather, anyway, since I don’t really use it. My magic though… it just is.”

    “It’s constantly active for you?”

    “Yes, no...” putting it to words was annoyingly hard. “It’s like… the world itself. There’s a side to it, that’s… there, but nobody but me seems to notice it. A whole part of the world that mirrors everything, that is mirrors.”

    From the confusion on Eponine’s face, she didn’t seem to follow.

    Frustrated, Stas tried to continue. “Look. Everything casts a reflection, right? The reflection is there, even if you take away the mirror, because the reflection comes from the object, not the mirror.”

    Eponine frowned. “I don’t think it works like that. A reflection is light bouncing. It’s an image, not a thing.”

    Stas grit his teeth. “No. it’s… look, that part doesn’t matter. When a mirror is gone, the reflection is still there, because the object is still there.” The fact was so obvious to him, that it was difficult to explain, like water being wet. “Except, the mirror is never gone, even if you take it away, because the mirror is always there. Everywhere is a mirror, everything is a mirror. My magic just lets me see that.

    “And seeing this lets you teleport?”

    “Teleportation is not something special. It’s like sprinting, or jumping. I find the proper mirror, and then there’s my reflection, but my reflection is me, so I just have to move to take its place. If you could see the mirrors, you’d be able to do it too. It’s like… hopping left or right compared to only walking forward. I keep saying ‘see’ but it’s not my eyes. I could close my eyes and still know they are there, still find them.”

    “Hm.” Eponine pursed her lips. “I wonder if anyone else could learn how to do it.”

    “I don’t see why they wouldn’t be able to. A blind person can still walk, right?”

    “But they need a cane to do it safely.” Eponine determined. “Or else they might run into things.” She shook her head. “Maybe it would be interesting to learn in the future, but I don’t see any urgency.”

    Stas got the impression that Eponine didn’t really believe him. Things like this were why he was so hesitant to talk about his magic. People just didn’t understand facts that were so self evident to him. It hadn’t taken him years to realize other people were incapable of seeing the mirrors, not just worse at noticing them than him.

    That said, he did have to acknowledge the danger. Most mirrors reflected into strange places beyond his perception. They were like chasms in the world, great pits he did not think he would be able to climb back out of.

    “How does your magic work, then?” He asked, to shift the topic off him if for no other reason.

    “It’s like you said. Magic is creating, changing, or moving things. I move attention away from me, and change memories to suit my purposes. I found that a more worthwhile goal than learning to breathe fire.”

    “So you can completely fabricate memories?”

    “Not as such, no. Making people forget details is about the limit of things for me. My training has been to a purpose, and I never saw much need to go beyond such.”

    Stas frowned. That sounded like a weak ability, with a weak mindset to match. How would she fair if she were actually forced into a fight? Or under fire from something that didn’t have an attention to divert, like a rain of arrows? Neither of her abilities would serve her well in an arena. But he kept the thoughts to himself.

    He didn’t have much else to say at that point, and neither, it seemed, did she. So, the silence of their meandering journey resumed.

    Stas kept an eye out for glimpses of the figures following. They never really went away.
     
    Last edited: Oct 12, 2020
  27. VerBlinkel

    VerBlinkel Making the rounds.

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    Probably cute girl: Literal memory altering and perception filtering.

    Stas: That sounded like a weak ability, with a weak mindset to match. How would she fair if she were actually forced into a fight? Or under fire from something that didn’t have an attention to divert, like a rain of arrows? Neither of her abilities would serve her well in an arena. Never mind that she never goes into the arena.

    Stas...I can't help you.
    I just...you punch maniac.
     
  28. Orm Embar

    Orm Embar Refutation

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    For a someone who's a gladiator and not a charioteer, our boy Stas seems to have a one track mind.​
     
  29. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    You can consider her cute. She is conventionally attractive, and is in a position of privilege where she can take good care of herself.

    Fun fact that will probably never fit into the story at large, but remains true:
    The chariot races are just as magical as the gladiatorial combat.

    They are effectively a live action Mario Kart.
     
  30. Threadmarks: Thirteen
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Eponine lead him to a crumbling building in a decrepit part of the city Stas had not visited before. The doorway was bricked up and the windows were boarded shut. The street itself was near vacant, outside of a ragged man with bloodshot eyes who was slumped on a wall. He had a snuff box in hand, the contents half empty.

    “Here we are.”

    Stas wrinkled his nose in disgust. “This is the meeting place.” He could smell the distinct scent of piss from an alleyway adjacent to the building. He wouldn’t have been surprised if there was some vomit mixed in. “How do you even get in? Do you pry open the windows and nail them shut every time someone comes?”

    “Just watch.” Eponine waved to the scraggly man, who returned it with a nod. She then walked to a section of the building between the bricked up door and the window.

    Eponine pressed against a single brick, above a discolored one. The brick slid in and the doorway, bricks and all, popped inwards.

    The man coughed loudly, hacking bile, in time with the door opening. It completely disguised the creaks of the mechanism, which themselves were near silent.

    Eponine gestured and Stas entered the building.

    The inside was underwhelming, an unlit expanse of a single room. The ground was covered in a layer of straw, with a number of aging barrels haphazardly distributed across the space. Sacks of grain, sealed shut, lined the walls.

    Stas frowned. “Are we the first ones here?” He could hardly see how this storehouse constituted a better meeting location than the bar. That one had music. And lighting. And chairs. And didn’t smell stale.

    Eponine held up a hand to quiet him and made her way to one of the barrels. “Stand to the side a bit,” she ordered.
    Stas did so, confused as to why. Eponine placed her hand on the barrel’s side, holding it in place.

    There was a quiet rumble, and the floor near Stas’s feet dropped away slowly. From under the straw, a staircase grew, descending step by step.

    “It’s a bit of a waste of magic, if you ask me.” Eponine started. “But it does ensure a level of secrecy, and only let people we want in to get in.”

    Stas blinked. “It does look impressive.”

    Eponine let out a short, laugh. “You should see the sort of things the hob nobs get up to. Patricians just love their hidden rooms and secret compartments and magical staircases. They might even have been worth something if they didn’t immediately go around showing them all off to one another. If you go to the palace, you can probably find a dozen if you bother looking.”

    Stas didn’t imagine he would ever go to the palace and be given free reign to search for such things, but he would be on the lookout.

    Eponine took the lead again, leading him down the stairway. It was not a far distance, but without railings and straw on the floor, Stas proceeded carefully. Eponine did not have the same care.

    At the bottom of the hidden stairwell, there was a long hallway lit with some magic sconce. They traveled for perhaps five city blocks in the tunnel, well lit from the sconces, over a well paved path.

    Along the way, Stas began to be able to make out the muffled sounds of some commotion, and some subtle stanzas of music.

    He soon reached the end of the tunnel, were a thick, metal door lay. Behind it the sounds he could hear emanated strongly.

    Eponine knocked on it, three raps in quick succession, followed by two slow knocks, and finally three more.

    Stas could make out some jostling of locks. Behind him, the staircase creaked back upwards, closing the area behind him. He could make out a lever beneath the sconce. Presumably it would ressummon the stairwell.

    The door opened, revealing a weedy looking woman, and unleashing the noise. She glanced at Eponine, a neutral expression on her face. She noticed Stas, and it turned suspicious.

    “Maria.” Eponine greeted. She jutted her elbow into Stas lightly. “He’s with me.”

    Maria frowned, but stood aside, letting the two of them in.

    The… gathering area, as Stas decided it might be called, stood in stark contrast with the fake storehouse above. It was large, near the size of The Bell in the one area alone, with more doors leading of to further areas of unknown size.
    It was brightly lit, with sconces lining the sides, brightly painted walls, and comfortable furnishings.

    It was also well populated. Two or three dozen people were occupying the space, sharing drinks, speaking loudly to one another, generally treating the area the same as a bar, ignoring the fact it was located in a hidden, underground compound. There was even a bartender, polishing mugs behind a counter that guarded a large number of tankards, and a young boy darting between tables bringing the brews to the thankful men and women. A musician played a hearty tune in the corner, providing a background to the general noise.

    Their entrance drew a great deal of attention, many conversations stopping entirely, though not all. A dozen suspicious glances turned their way.

    The whole place had a different air from the other two bars he had visited. And it was not just in styles of music. The people here seemed insular, but full of camaraderie. There were no strangers here, except for himself.

    “Everyone,” Eponine announced, drawing attention from even more people. “This is Stas.”

    Years of training took over in an instant, and Stas held still and strong, to allow the people to take a look at him.

    “The gladiator?” A man to the side called, words slurred slightly.

    Eponine did not answer, looking instead towards Stas and letting him respond.

    He nodded. “Yes. I am a student of Lanista Ludo’s school and...” he found himself interrupted.

    “A gladiator!” The man cheered, raising his glass high, a few men joining in. “Come here, mister gladiator! Have a drink with me!”

    A number of suspicious glares died away, but not all of them. Most people returned to what they were doing.
    Stas glanced at Eponine, who shrugged, so he made his way to the table.

    “Hah, a bona fide gladiator joining us, who would have thought,” the drunk man cheered. “I am Lucian. This,” he reached around and grabbed the shoulder of the man next to him, “is my friend, Romeo.”

    Romeo grinned. “I hope you are good at your job, because, if you are one of us, I’ll have to bet on you every single match.”

    “Yes,” Lucian cheered. “Be kind to his wallet, please. I rely on Romeo to buy my drinks.”

    “When you cannot mooch them off of somebody else,” Romeo responded in kind, punching the man in the shoulder in jest.

    “Ah… yes,” Stas looked to Eponine confused. She smiled and waved him off. “Enjolras will explain best.”

    “Cheers to Enjolras,” Romeo declared, taking a large gulp of wine.

    “Gladiator,” Lucian slurred, “tell me, what did you think of today’s match at the Grand?”

    Stas blinked. “I didn’t catch any of them. Which do you mean?”

    “The beasts, the beasts.” He jumped. “Of course the beasts. Nothing could compare.”

    “Ah, I am a duelist, not a Venatio. I do not fight beasts.”

    Romeo snorted. “A good thing, that.”

    Stas quirked his head. “Whys it good? The Venatio are a respectable group.” It was not as glorious as fighting an intelligent opponent one on one, but Stas would not disrespect his lesser fellows who hunted dangerous beasts. The coordination their efforts required was admirable.”

    “Aye, respectable.” Romeo agreed. “But not fortunate.”

    “I suppose you hadn’t heard then.” Eponine brought herself into the conversation. “But the chimera of today’s hunt slew every single Venatio in the event.”

    Stas blanched. A single death among the hunters was a rare, but not unthinkable event. For the entire group to be slaughtered though… it was a horrifying thought.

    “Who would have thought they would live to see the day the beast won.” Lucian grinned. “The panic after was almost as fun, the beast handlers scrambling to secure the monster, the organizers running to and fro. It was the sight of a lifetime. Ah, so what do you think?”

    Stas held back his instinctual retort. The man was drunk, clearly, and had been shocked by the experience. He could not take the disrespect as intentional. “The Venatio know every hunt may be their last.” Stas spoke solemnly. “We should honor their bravery, but not mourn them unduly.”

    “Of course, of course.” Lucian repeated. “To those brave Gladiators. May their deeds be forever remembered. Let us drink in their honor!” He raised a glass, as did some nearby listeners.

    Stas wanted to correct him, that Venatio were not Gladiators, but the man likely did not care about the distinction. If enough people felt the same, they might find themselves in a world where the same man fought both beast and fellow, under the same title. In the past their had been many categories of duelist, who specialized in fighting against their own category alone, yet those had been merged under the title of Gladiator, so it was not unprecedented.

    Stas did not look forward to that perspective merger, and hoped it did not occur in his lifetime. He had no desire to fight beasts.

    “Romeo, where is Henri? Is he here yet?”

    Romeo gestured over his shoulder for one of the open doorways, where loud jeers were emanating. “He’s in the back room. With Sanson.”

    “Of course,” Eponine muttered. “Come along, Stas.”

    “Hey, let the Gladiator stay and get a drink,” Lucian cried. “Our wines are the best. Our spirits, phenomenal. Our ales… adequate.”

    Stas was not particularly interested in drinking after his experience before. The morning after had been horrifying. And he knew he wouldn’t be able to brush off every drink tonight, so he didn’t particularly want to start now.

    Even if the wine sounded tempting.

    He chose to follow the only person he knew rather than stay around with strangers. Eponine seemed to know something, so he would stick with her.

    He walked towards the back room, following Eponine. She reached the door, and stopped abruptly, staring within. When Stas reached the doorway, he fully understood why.

    Five people, four men and one woman, were circled in the room, a small, cozy little cove with a number of chairs and an ornate shield mounted prominently on the wall. In the center, standing on top of a chair was Sanson.

    Hanging from the ugly man’s hands, held aloft by ethereal thread, was a distinctively attired body.

    The corpse of the watcher danced in the air, like a marionette on strings. With a bird mask secured to its face, there was no mistaking what it was. With its throat sliced open, head bobbing up and down at the widened incision in a mockery of a mouth, their was no mistaking its status.

    It was danced around by its strings, Sanson emitting a miserable falsetto, in a mocking song, as the surrounding observers cheered and jeered at the show.

    “What the fuck is this?” Eponine growled, face curled in disgust.

    The front of the corpse’s chest was ripped open, pulled apart in a manner Stas recognized.

    “Hm?” The corpse puppet drooped as Sanson turned his attention to the door. “Ah, Eponine. What great timing. I was just showing off my new puppet.” He twitched his fingers making it flop.

    “It’s revolting. Absolutely filthy.” She spat. “Take it out of my sight.”

    Sanson chuckled cruelly. “Now, now, don’t be like that. Everyone else is having good fun, right all?”

    Two of the men cheered. The rest looked down, guilty, but Sanson didn’t seem to mind, accepting the cheers He did receive as confirmation.

    “It’s horrific! And moronic! What were you thinking, Sanson?! Killing a watcher? We can’t afford that sort of heat. How many of you just watched it happen without stopping the idiocy.”

    One of the men in the circle, a short, if handsome fellow with clean brown hair, pulled at his collar. “Erm, it’s not as bad as you think. We didn’t kill him. We know that would be stupid. We just found him like this. So… it’s fine right?”

    “And what if you were seen, dragging that corpse around, Henri? Bringing something like that to the hideout?”
    Henri shrunk in on himself at the chastisement.

    Sanson rolled his eyes. “We weren’t caught. I made sure of it. This is just some fun.”

    “It’s a waste of magic, that’s what it is. How many elixirs are you wasting for this little show.”

    Sanson grinned. “It’s not a waste if I am getting practice in. See?” The threads from his hand twitched and the body lurched forward, taking large, monstrous steps in the air. More twitches saw the body spin in place, raise and lower, and fall to the floor.

    Eponine’s eyes dashed to Stas, who was still standing in silence. “You are making a terrible impression.”

    Sanson scoffed. “He’s a Gladiator, isn’t he?” He glared at Stas. “Stuff like this is a just garden variety for those executions he attends. If he can’t stomach it, it’s not my problem.”

    Eponine clenched her first, preparing a retort, but she was interrupted by a cheerful cry of ‘Enjolras’ from the front room.

    Stas turned around and caught sight of the man in question, as he entered through the thick metal door. The mood in the meeting area seemed to change instantly. Where before there was an air of lingering suspicion, eyes following Stas as he moved, now there was a greater calm. Where there was disorderly drinking, swaying in seats, slouching in good humor, now the people sat with their backs straight, a smile on their face.

    It was fascinating to witness, this sudden transformation, from the man’s mere presence. Stas wondered if it was magic, some arcanum that made people want to pay attention to the silvery-haired man. But if it was, the effect was short lived, as people returned to their activities quickly. Enjolras seemed to be satisfied with the lot of them, easily fitting into the sense of camaraderie that infused the area. He was just well liked, so far as Stas could tell.

    Enjolras surveyed the room until he reached Stas’s eye. He smiled.

    Stas felt taken aback by the warmth directed his way. He didn’t feel like he knew the man so well, and yet he was visibly happy for his presence. The man’s eyes were as earnest as before, and Stas felt forced to avert his gaze once again in discomfort.

    Enjolras moved towards him, waving. “Stas! I’m so glad you decided to join us. Did you find your way here easily enough?” he called.

    Close enough to the doorway, Enjolras was in a position to see into the back room. He halted, and the smile vanished from his face.

    The people inside the room stilled. The puppet sagged to the floor.

    Enjolras entered the room, and pulled the door shut behind him. “Might somebody explain the meaning of this?” he asked, voice soft.

    Sanson scratched his neck. “Well, erm. We’re having a bit of fun. Henri found a dead watcher, so I thought we could have a bit of fun with it. No real harm to it. We were cautious bringing it here. Made sure nobody saw us move it about.”

    Enjolras sighed, directing his gaze to the corpse. “It is debasement. Mockery for the sake of cruelty. You know that as well as I, Sanson.”

    “It’s just a fucking watcher, Enjolras.” Sanson bit back, defensively. “It doesn’t need your sympathy.”

    “Does he not?” Enjolras questioned, looking back at Sanson. “Behind that mask is, was, a citizen. Same as you or I. He was born in this city, lived in this city, died in it. He donned his cloak not out of cruelty, or desire to oppress, but for duty, misplaced as it may be. The same as any other watcher. They are our fellows and we must understand this fact. The watchers suffer from the same ills we do, suffer the same grievances. Though we may come into conflict with them, may be forced into opposition against them, that does not change who they are. We must grant our foes respect. The respect to fight them properly, the respect to treat them properly afterwards. Lest we fail as citizens.”

    Enjolras turned to face the room. “I understand that you are angry. It is a true feeling, you have good reason to feel it. My own rage burns brightly in my chest, from dawn to dusk. But your targets have become misplaced. We should not hate our poor foes. Whether they are deceived or desperate, whether they oppress because they view it as proper or because they wish to avoid oppression, they are not the cause. They are victims. In a better world we would not come to arms.”

    The room is silent, still. Nobody gainsays him. Nobody argues back. The people are ashamed more than angry now, forced into a calm by a man they clearly respect.

    Stas watched it in rapt attention.

    Enjolras returned his focus to Sanson. “You will take him to the out lands, with all the care you took in sneaking him here. There, you will give him a proper burial. Find a gravestone, mark it as appropriate.”

    Sanson blanched. “Can’t we just dispose of him like normal? Get something out of it at least?”

    Enjolras looked down at the corpse. It was hard to tell which injuries came from the manner of death, and which came from Sanson playing around. “No. He has been defiled enough. You will treat him properly in recompense.”

    Sanson looked like he wanted to argue, almost speaking a few times, but he ultimately did not. “Fine. Best get to it then. Henri, help me out.” Sanson removed his threads and grabbed the body from under the shoulders.

    Henri grimaced, but nodded. “Fine, fine. I’ll grab the legs, I guess?” He did so, and the two of them walked out. Cries of disgust filled the bar area as they passed.

    Enjolras sighed once again. “If I might ask you all to clear the room? I wish to speak with Stas. Except for you, Eponine, please remain.”

    The others in the room left without complaint, leaving Stas and Eponine alone with Enjolras.

    He closed the door.

    Stas wrinkled his nose. He could still make out the scent of the corpse.

    “I apologize for such a display. It was badly done.”

    “Right.” Stas nodded, unsure of what to say.

    “I suppose you must have some questions.”

    Stas nodded again. “Just who are you all? I’m not stupid. I know you are some sort of gang, or criminal group. A group that is in conflict with the guard and has both the need and the resources to hide from them. But what exactly are you?”

    “Criminals? By necessity, perhaps. And only through our choice of opposition. Before I answer your question, Stas, might I turn it around? You wish to know what we are? I wish to explain what we want to be.”

    Stas blinked, unsure of what he meant.

    “I don’t mean to deflect,” Enjolras explained. “Only to provide context. I find there is value in acknowledging the differences between reality and desire, the is and the ought. The goal matters, separate from the state of things… ah but I am rambling. Stas, are you aware of the population of the city? The number of citizens that can claim residence?”

    “No?” This felt irrelevant, but Stas did not feel comfortable challenging the man on it. “I know the arenas can seat a few hundred thousand people, and that not every can find seats. So...” he made a quick guess. “Maybe eight hundred thousand in total?” That sounded like a reasonable massive number. Enough to explain the sheer number of people he had witnessed.

    Enjolras shook his head. “True numbers are hard to come by, as nobody is properly keeping an account of such things, but estimates range between four and six million.”

    That put Stas up short. “What?”

    Enjolras continued. “Though the number you came to is not inaccurate from a certain point of view. If I were ask, how many citizens are in the empire who are employed, or possess some means of income, who would be able to afford food and tickets to the bathhouses or the arenas of their own volition, then only a few hundred thousands people can meet that designation. Perhaps four in five citizens are unemployed, and rely entirely on the grain dole for survival.”
    Enjolras smiled, but it was a humorless expression. “The number of people that are both employed and have the means to enjoy the fruits of the city, the forum, the grand baths, the magic market, number only in the tens of thousands. Patricians, from whom the body of the senate is exclusively chosen, number in the thousands. And yet, in the city that holds this five million and among all the farms in the out lands, they are the only ones that own the land. They still are dwarfed by the wealth and extravagance that the one hundred members of the senate possess.”

    “It is hard to look at the world and properly determine what it should be. But when one looks at what can be, compares it to what is, and finds it so lacking. One must take a stand.” He shook his head mournfully. “Wealth, luxuries, magical trinkets, even land… those on their own can all be forgiven. But to have four million people sit idle and destitute, to fail to utilize that labor when it is clearly needed, to rob them of their dignity by keeping them as beggars to the Princeps’ teat. That is outrageous. They should be working to expand the city, employed with wages from the wealth the Senate hoards. They should be allowed farmland of their own, to work their own fields, rather than spend their lives waiting in line for their daily grain. Bread and circus keeps them suffering under the yoke, but it is an all too fragile state. If they were to miss a meal...”

    “We are a revolutionary group. We are trying to overthrow the government.” Eponine interrupted suddenly.
    Enjolras deflated, and pouted at her. “Did you have to interrupt me? I was getting there.”

    “You were taking too long,” she declared. “You can explain your manifesto at any time, but not when somebody is waiting for a straight answer.”

    Stas had to make sure he was hearing correctly. “You want to replace the Senate?”

    Eponine nodded. “The Senate, some of the Patrician class, and the Princeps too.”

    Stas nearly choked at that. “The Princeps?” It was the definition of unthinkable. The Princeps was the Princeps. There was no replacing that, no conceivable alternative for the eternal ruler of the city, the one who had founded it in the first place.

    “A daunting task, yes.” Enjolras nodded solemnly. “But the city we live in is the result of centuries of the Princeps’ rule. We have no reason to believe that replacing the Senate would be sufficient to address the issues that plague us, not when the Princeps himself established them. We feel that the citizens of the city would be better served by a different ruler, and a different government structure as well, which empowers the individual citizen to...”

    “You are getting too bogged down in the details again,” Eponine interrupted once more. “Policy particulars don’t matter right now, unless he wants to hear them. Do you have any questions about this?”

    Stas had managed to wrap his head around the idea, if only barely. He still boggled at the idea of replacing the Princeps. He did not imagine the immortal ruler would be willing to step down peacefully under any circumstances. And yet they were brushing that fact aside as if it were inconsequential. But there were more pressing questions. “Where do I fit into this?”

    Eponine jumped in to answer. “Frankly speaking, you are a gold mine of an opportunity. You can’t be oblivious to the benefits of your position. Putting aside your combat training, which, frankly speaking, is a massive boon on its own, you have the chance to achieve a level of fame and influence through your career. I don’t have to tell you how much the best gladiators are endeared by the public, up to and including members of the Senate. You can expect a level of trust and access that no one else would receive. Your school is literally located on the palace estate! Nobody else in our group is permitted past those gates.”

    “Your status as a gladiator is indeed a boon, I’ll admit.” Enjolras stated. “And the fact you were willing to get into a conflict with the watchers helped cement you in Eponine’s mind as a possible recruit. But I don’t want you to think that is all that we care about. As I said before, I do consider myself a good judge of character. And, from our conversation that night, I do, truly, feel that you are the sort of person who cares about this plight, who is motivated to act. A person who understands Justice and seeks it, even if they don’t know how. If I didn’t feel this way about you, I would not have extended this offer, no matter your status, or how much Eponine advocated.”

    Stas clenched his teeth. Again, he was being called a good person. It was a difficult compliment to accept. Eponine’s position at least made sense. Enjolras, in comparison, seemed to trust him far too much with far too little reason for comfort. It would be too easy to disappoint him.

    “Please do not feel pressured. Our goal is a dangerous and difficult one, we have no delusions about it. You should only join us if you have no reservations in your heart.”

    “What happens if I say no?”

    “Then, regrettably, Eponine would have to erase your memories of this and parts of our previous meeting, and you would be escorted out of the hideout. For both your safety and ours. I would hope we would still be able to be friends, but I will admit it would be difficult for me to find the time. The revolution consumes most of my time.”

    Stas frowned. In the scope of things, it wasn’t that bad, but having his memories removed would be irritating. Like being tricked, constantly, only with little way to discover the ploy.

    Still, it was better than the alternative. While Stas thought he might be able to fight his way out of the hideout if they resorted to lethal means, the enclosed space would make it a bit more difficult than he was comfortable with. And he didn’t particularly want to fight them all.

    Sanson would be one thing. The pox-faced man had literally asked for it. But most of the people here seemed decent enough. More than the watchers, at least.

    Even if he didn’t want to get involved, he didn’t feel a need to rat them out. But he understood they wouldn’t be able to take him at his word, as annoying as that fact was.

    “Please,” the silver eyed man stated, “ask me whatever it is you wish to help you decide. Test my virtue, and I will answer your every question.”

    His words were too earnest, like baring ones neck. He presented himself as one who had nothing to hide, demanding scrutiny as if it were desirable.

    Stas felt almost as if the man wanted him to find something wrong, so that he could correct it and grow as a person. It made him feel guilty for some reason.

    Stas swallowed, trying to determine what sort of questions he might ask.

    “You say you are a revolutionary group, but what does that mean? What do you do?”

    Enjolras nodded. “Of course. That is straight to the point. The simple answer is that we do whatever we must to advance our cause. In reality, that generally involves recruiting like-minded individuals into some capacity as allies, collecting information of all sorts, interfering with particular operations that the government undertakes, stockpiling supplies for future endeavors, and providing support to allies as best we can. Our primary goals at this time are maintaining a level of anonymity while we grow our support base, and weakening the infrastructure of the existing government so that when we have the ability to strike, we would be able to act immediately.”

    “So you are spies? Saboteurs? Assassins?”

    Eponine jumped in. “Most of our information comes from just being aware. Being in contact with people across the city, talking with them, ensuring that we know what needs to be known. We rarely break in to places to steal documents. If that counts as spying in your mind, then we are spies. Saboteurs, that’s far more accurate.” She nodded. “We make things harder for the watchers, for government agents, however we can, as subtly as we can. Delay people, break things, prevent certain information from getting around in time, stopping raids on some of our ‘allies’ as Enjolras put it. And yes, we are assassins as well.”

    Enjolras frowned. “Only rarely. And only with the greatest deliberation. Assassination is not an effective tool. Few individuals are in a position where there deaths would bring about any good, and those that are, tend to be guarded to the point that action is untenable. We are not, and will never allow ourselves to become, an organization of murderers. It is counterproductive to our goals. But we do acknowledge it is an option to be aware of.”

    “We’d probably do it more if we knew we could do it safely and stealthily.” Eponine stated. “But risk to reward currently makes it not worth it.”

    Enjolras frowned sharply, but did not disagree with the notion. “As it stands, the lives of our agents are more valuable than the deaths of our enemies. That is very unlikely to change.”

    “If you are asking what you yourself would be doing,” Eponine continued. “It would be much of the same. As a gladiator, you are in a position to learn facts that few of us would have access to. You would be able to reach individuals we wish to speak to through your potential fame and influence. And as a fighter, we would be able to count on you to lend your support in the times we need it. We try to avoid fighting directly for a variety of reasons, mostly to keep attention off us until we are ready for it. But it does happen, so combat prowess is valuable.”

    Stas nodded. It seemed like a reasonable explanation to him. “You mentioned allies a few times. Who are they?”

    Enjolras smiled, the topic clearly being one he was happier to discuss. “All sorts of people, citizens from every background and class. We search for those that can help us, for those that can be helped by us. Our goal is to spread goodwill, to create a solid base of support so that when we are able to decisively act, we will have a following. The aid that they might be able to offer for the time being is also a boon. This is where I spend most of my time. Coordinating individuals, forging contacts, expanding our presence.”

    “Normally, we wouldn’t be trying to induct you directly.” Eponine explained. “We would be trying to work with you, to garner your support, and generally befriend you without letting you know the full scope of things, as is the case with most allies. It would have been the first contact we had with somebody in your position, and it would have been valuable for that alone. But I felt it would be best to pursue your full involvement.”

    “And I agreed,” spoke Enjolras. “I am always looking to bring people directly under our banner, but it is enough of a risky proposition that we generally keep a distance. For you, though, I know it to be worth the risk. Knowing that you came here with honest intentions is already proving my thoughts true.”

    Yes, he had come with honest intentions, it was true. But Stas did not see how Enjolras could possibly make that determination. If he were a spy working for the Princeps, trained as an actor, would he not act in the same manner?
    Stas considered for a moment that Enjolras might be reading his mind in some manner. To test it, he began thinking of as many outrageous images as he could imagine. But Enjolras’s expression did not change, so he deemed it ultimately unlikely.

    Eponine, who Stas knew had magic related to the mind and the means to stealthily employ it, also did not react. So he discarded that line of thought, moving on to the next question in his mind.

    “This group of yours, where did it come from? How did it come about?”

    “It is hardly my own group. Libertas belongs to all of us, to the city itself.” Enjolras blinked. “Ah, did I not mention the name until now? Our group takes the name Libertas, after an ancient being who stood for freedom from bondage. We, like our namesake, work to that end. As for our history… we are not the first to seek revolution. The pain of the citizens existed long before us, and the will for change did not come from nowhere.”

    Enjolras gestured to the shield hanging from the wall. The shining metal gleamed in the light of the room. It looked to be quite a fine implement, a strong metal core gilded and thin layer of gold. “Do you see that shield? It is a relic we hold dear, one I was granted from my predecessor.” Enjolras took the shield off the wall and held it between his hands. “Do you have a dagger? A weapon of some sort? Ah, it doesn’t matter. Eponine, please hand him yours.”

    Eponine nodded, and retried a small blade from under her shirt. She handed it off to Stas.

    Confused, he accepted it.

    “I imagine you are quite proficient with a blade. Please strike it.”

    Stas hesitated. “Are you sure? The shield looks like it could handle it, but the gold leaf is certain to be messed up.” It would ruin the shield’s worth as a decorative piece, if he scratched off the ornamentation.
    Enjolras grinned. “Please. As hard as you can. It will be okay.”

    Frowning, Stas did as he was instructed, striking the shield with as much strength as he could muster. To his shock, the moment the blade touched the metal sheen, he felt all the force of his arm leave him. The blade slid across the shield harmlessly, not even leaving a crease in the gold.

    “This is not an ordinary shield.” Enjolras explained, a satisfied expression on his face. “It is a perfect implement, indestructible, capable of negating any attack that falls upon it. It’s creator put their heart and soul into the work, to the point of creating the absolute ideal in the form of a shield, one that would last forever, unmarred. We have had this for years, and it does not even gather dust.”

    A magic shield, Stas realized. Like Radek’s sword. He near salivated at the prospect. In a way, a shield was better than a sword. A sharp enough blade could do its duty properly, but even the best shield could be torn asunder by the strength of a blow.

    Enjolras placed the shield back on the wall. “My predecessor belonged to a different group. One that met an unfortunate end.” He sighed, mournfully. “They were a righteous group, but flawed in methodology. The mistakes they made are known to us, and we take the lesson to heart. It is perhaps as great a gift as the shield itself.

    “But with the shield came the group’s purpose, their dreams, their creed. We inherited their mission, and made it our own. The shield itself is the perfect symbol. Just as its purpose is to shield those that wield it, so too is our purpose to protect the city from its ills. Just as its magics and craft make it indestructible, so too is our will unbreakable, our passion indefatigable. Just as it does not allow itself to be marred, so too will we remain pure despite temptation and vice. Our revolution will last as long as the shield, and the shield will be eternal.”

    “Do you ever use it?” Stas inquired.

    “Of course. Sitting on a wall is of no value to a shield. But we are careful to ensure that it is used where best needed, and only when it cannot be lost.”

    Eponine smirked. “You know, if you were to join, you would probably get the chance to use it. After all, none of us are trained to use shields. You would likely be able to make the most use out of it.”

    The idea was extremely appealing. Taking something like that to the arena would make for dominating performances.
    “You got it from your predecessor group. But do you know where they got it from?” Stas asked.

    Enjolras shook his head. “Sadly, no. I would love to meet the smith talented enough to produce a soul crafted item, but we have no idea where it came from.”

    It was a pity. Stas was dearly interested in equipment from such a smith. But being able to use just the shield might be enough.

    “One last question,” Stas stated. He had already decided easily, but he needed to ask before he forgot. “If I were to join, would I have access to training?”

    Enjolras looked confused. “Training? Well, we do have some practice sessions to help people learn arcanum or dagger-play, but it is an informal thing. Anything we teach would pale in comparison to the lessons you would have access to at your school. You would be far better served attending those.”

    Stas scratched his neck, a new wave of awkwardness overwhelming him. “Aha, yes. Of course. I shouldn’t have expected otherwise.”

    Stas felt too ashamed to admit that he had lost that privilege, not when they were explicitly interested in him for his status and combat abilities.

    He would just have to find some other means of getting an instructor.

    “So,” Eponine ventured. “If that was your last question, I suppose you came to a decision.”

    Stas nodded. “I will join.”

    She smirked. Enjolras beamed. “Wonderful! I am ecstatic that you will be joining us. Come, let’s get you introduced to everyone.”

    The blond man opened the door, pulling Stas out with him. “My fellow comrades,” the man’s voice projected across the room with authority. The rowdy crowd quieted near instantly. “I would like to formally introduce our newest member, Stas!” He gestured to Stas.

    “Hah!” Lucian’s voice screamed out. “Told you! Cheers to the gladiator!” He beat his hand on this table rhythmically, joined by other soon.

    A cheer followed quickly, as even the most suspicious relaxed, the pronouncement seemingly satisfying them.

    “Come now, Stas. Allow me to introduce you to everyone. If you wish for a drink first, then, by all means, we can grab one. Our hide out is kept stocked by Agnes and Simon. They run a bar in the south side of the city.”

    “Ah...” Stas swallowed, mouth dry. “Some wine perhaps?”

    Enjolras nodded. “I remember which one you liked. I know one just like it.”

    He proceeded to behind the bar counter and procured a glass, the bar tender on duty allowing him by without a word.
    Stas found himself dragged from person to person, hearing a name, a short description, some platitudes. He had trouble keep track of the people, the faces and names blurring together more than he wished to admit.

    Thirty six people in total, not counting the two Stas had seen kicked out to dispose of the corpse, but including the young busboy and the bartender. In some ways, it was a lot of people hiding in this secret meeting spot under the city. But when one considered the goals, it seemed to be very few.

    Stas kept a lookout for a particular figure, a body shape he hoped to recognize, but none of the individuals present matched it enough to be certain. So, he decided to ask directly.

    “I ran into somebody last week, right after we met. I thought he was one of yours, but I don’t think see him here.” He had managed to keep to a single glass of wine this night, sipping the sweet liquid slowly. He refused to fall pray to the same misery of the morning after again.

    Enjolras looked up over his own cup. “Hm? I’m not sure what you mean. Recognize somebody?”

    “He wore a mask. A blue one, with the image of an eye on the right side. On my right side.” Stas explained. “I encountered him attacking some watchers, a few blocks outside of the forum.”

    “A blue mask you say?” Enjolras quirked an eye.

    “Oh, you met the Masked Man?” a woman beside him questioned.

    “Do you know him?”

    Eponine answered. “He’s a rumored figure, going back for the last couple years. A secretive figure that stalks the night, wearing a mask with an evil eye, attacking people with no rhyme or reason. Practically a myth. But it’s a useful one.”

    “Enjolras,” a man off to the side called. “Help me settle a dispute.”

    “Ah, begging your pardon,” the man got up and headed over, leaving Stas with Eponine and a few strangers.

    Stas decided against following him, opting to continue the conversation. “How so?”

    “Well, he distracts investigation. I know at least one watcher outpost that has wasted effort trying to track him down. And, despite the rumors, nobody knows anyone who’s been attacked by him. But if he is going after watchers, that would explain things.”

    At Stas’s confused expression, she explained. “The watchers never disclose losses to the public. If any of them die, they reuse to let anyone know. It’s part of what they do with their masks: prevent people from knowing how many there are, and prevent people from being able to tell which particular ones are where. We only recently managed to get a halfway decent accurate estimate of them.”

    “And how many is that?”

    “There are near about ten thousand watchers active in the city, across forty-eight headquarters. Minus the one Henri found today.”

    “Six.” Stas corrected, drawing some attention. He clarified. “Six fewer. I saw the Masked Man kill five that day. So adding in the today’s corpse makes six.” From the chest and knife wounds, Stas had a suspicion that the Masked Man had been responsible for that one as well.”

    “Making our lives easier.” The woman… Katriane was her name, he remembered, spoke lightly. “Maybe we should see about recruiting him.”

    Eponine shook her head. “Enjolras wouldn’t approve, likely. He’s still trying to get sympathizers within the watcher’s ranks. If we recruit somebody that’s been killing them long enough that there’s rumors about it, that plan would fall apart more than it already is.”

    “What’s this about it falling apart already?” A man… named either Orval or Orville questioned. “Something happened?”

    “No. Nothing happened. It’s just as much of a fool’s errand as it has been. Enjolras has been beating at it for near a year and hasn’t been making any headway. There’s better uses of his time than that.”

    “Hmph,” the man shook his head, “I think getting some insiders in the guard is more than worth the effort.”

    “Nobody is saying it wouldn’t be valuable. It’s just that it’s turning out to be far harder than we hoped. Finding a watcher who lives off their base is hard enough. Getting into contact with them to feel them out is even harder, much less actually getting them on our side.”

    Stas sipped at his wine, nursing it to last. He might need a second glass soon.

    The young boy was quick to bring him one.

    At some point into the at second glass, conversation dimmed as Enjolras stepped up onto a raised platform, drawing everyone’s attention.

    “My friends,” he announced, “I hope you have been enjoying yourselves, and that our selection has met your preferences.”

    There were a few quiet cheers of affirmation. Enjolras waited for them to die down.

    “But now it is time to get to the meat of the matter. News this month is not so grave, but neither does it represent a time to rest on our laurels. My contact informs me that the watchers plan to alter their patrol strategy significantly. The worsening of their response times, a proud statistic that demonstrates the smallest fruits of our efforts, has been noted by Commander Domitius. He has made it a priority to address this.”

    “Who’s Domitius?” Stas whispered to Eponine.

    “One of the Watcher’s five division commanders. Covers the west side of the city,” was the whispered response.

    “As such, we will be pulling back on some of our operations in the short term. Our priority will be to reestablish our knowledge of their routes and force compositions in the west, so that we may adapt our strategies. I will be seeking volunteers tonight so that we may achieve that goal. I would like to further urge caution to those that operate in the west for the time being, especially for those that rely on being unseen by the guard.”

    Stas glanced around the room, trying to gauge the response to the announcement. From the nods and shrugs, it seemed that this was an expected occurrence, something they felt qualified to deal with.

    “Secondly, my contact also informs me that the watchers are experimenting with the use of golems to supplement their forces. They will be conducting tests to determine the efficacy of the automata. Needless to say, we have no desire to see the government’s forces expand in such a way, so we will be interfering with these trials, to ensure the golems are seen as the failures we want them to be. My contact has given me the specifications of the golems, theirs known capabilities and weaknesses. Furthermore, I have received a number of possible locations for where they may be deployed for trial.”

    Enjolras held some sheets of paper aloft, clearly covered in writing, but Stas could not make out any of the words from the distance.

    People’s eyes followed the paper intently. Stas could understand why. Having written records of the matter pointed to his contact being in high places. He knew Ludo was extremely tightfisted with every sheet.

    “I will be looking for volunteers for this as well, to stage petty crimes in view of the golems and their experimenters, to interfere with their responses, and to exacerbate the weaknesses we now know exist. The initial tests will begin starting next month, so we will have time to drill and prepare before the real operation.”

    Enjolras nodded to himself. “That is all I have to announce for this meeting. If you have any matters you wish to bring to my attention, please do so now. If you wish to volunteer for either of these operations, or perhaps both, then come see me. I wish to know who will be available so we can plan more definitive action. Thank you, and remember, Libertas Perpetua!”

    The call was met with a response in kind. Stas found himself saying the words as he could.

    Enjolras climbed down off the stage, moving to a seat by the side. People already rose to speak with him.

    Stas moved to stand and join them, but Eponine grabbed his arm and held him in place, shaking her head.

    “You shouldn’t volunteer for either of those. Neither will involve fighting if everything goes well, just skulking about and aping a normal citizen. Not something you would be suited for. We have enough people who are experts at that sort of thing.”

    “But I joined up,” Stas argued. “And I want to help. Those seem to be the only options.” It wasn’t that they particularly interested him. Eponine’s explanation removed any enthusiasm he might have felt for the jobs. But he did feel obligated to do something, and Enjolras had only given him two options.

    “You’d serve us far better staying on the palace estate and listening for anything that may be important.” Eponine explained. “Or just doing whatever you normally do while keeping an ear out. You are our only real access point to that. Don’t worry. We will certainly have something for you to do that takes advantage of your skills. Just not this week.”
    Stas grunted, looking down at his glass. “Well, I still want to talk with Enjolras.”

    “He’s going to be busy the rest of the evening. Pretty much everyone here will have something to report to him, or need to say something, plus he’s going to be figuring out future operations. He’s a busy person. What did you want to talk to him about?”

    Stas could see the crowd of people around Enjolras had already gotten loud.

    “Oh. Well” Stas forced himself to consider what he might have said to the man. “I guess I was curious about his contact. If he has papers describing the golems and the planned routes, they must be high up in the guard.”

    Eponine shrugged. “I can’t help you there. I’m not certain who Enjolras’s contact is. Even he might not know, honestly, if they are meeting through intermediaries. But I doubt it is someone in the guard. Just too hard to get in contact with them. I assume it is some jealous patrician who wants to shake things up by supporting us. Might even be a sympathetic senator. As a patrician, Enjolras would have access to those sorts of people.” She takes a drink from her mug, swallowing lightly. “Whoever they are, the information has been good.”

    “He’s a patrician? He seemed to hate them.” The lecture of the make up of the city certainly left a negative impression of the group.

    “A second son of Lord Julianus He renounced the institution, and moved from the eastern quarter to be among the plebeians. But he still visits and speaks to his family and fellows when it serves his purposes. It’s not a secret.”

    Now that he was looking for it, Stas could see it easily. The man’s clothing was an order of magnitude beyond that of almost everyone else in the hideout, as was his bearing, and manner of speech. Only a few compared, including Eponine. And himself, he supposed.

    “Are you a patrician?” He asked.

    “No.” Her answer was swift and sharp. Perhaps she had a grudge.

    Not that it mattered much to him. There were no patricians in the province, only plebs. And it was an exceedingly rare day when a lord decided to become a gladiator.

    He didn’t even think that Ludo was a patrician. Nobody referred to the man as a lord of anything, despite his wealth.
    Lord Galbrio might have been the only patrician he had met, unless the Mad Monk counted, which Stas did not think he did.

    “Henri’s a patrician’s brat too.” The woman beside him claimed. “You wouldn’t know it from the way he acts, but he’s an heir even. Sanson really dug into him when he joined up. Ah, I don’t know if you met him. Sanson is the big guy that left with Henri a bit back. He focuses on… counter espionage he claims. I think he just likes needling people.”

    “I’ve met him.” Stas grunted.

    “Since you’re a gladiator, you get to live on the palace estate with all the others, right? You ever met Horatio Undaunted? What’s he like in person?”

    Stas shook his head. “I haven’t had the chance yet. I’ve only in the city for a few months. But once I meet him I can let you know.”

    Conversation stayed like that, with people dancing between topics and asking him questions on various aspects of his life. It was a nice experience, having people take an interest in him, even if he was disappointed that he could not live up to their grandiose ideals of the gladiator lifestyle.

    Not yet, at least. His career only had a single, disappointing match to its name at this point. It was only a matter of time that he would be able to rise through the ranks and stand tall. Assuming he didn’t get left behind.

    Stas found himself nursing his drink even more at the thought. He needed to do something quickly. He couldn’t let this entire month of punishment stand as wasted time.

    But the time that passed was pleasant, if not very exciting. At some point he did manage to speak with Enjolras again, but the conversation was very light, and the man had been pulled away shortly after. He didn’t actually know what he wanted to be speaking about with the charismatic man, but he did feel like Enjolras was the only person he knew in a room otherwise full of strangers. Kind strangers, to be sure. Their initial suspicion seemed to have calmed greatly over the course of the night, but still strangers.

    He managed to restrict himself to only two drinks, so he wouldn’t be in such a bad position tomorrow, he hoped. The light headed sensation he had felt after his last drinking session was far diminished, and he had no head ache brewing, so he took that as a good sign.

    Eventually, once he saw people heading out, both towards the stairway he was familiar with and through another door he presumed led to a different exit from the underground space.

    He asked Eponine about the process of leaving, on whether the lever he saw was as restrictive as the hidden barrel for who could activate it, or if there was something he was supposed to do to leave the building in a certain way, just like she had entered it.

    “I’ll show you the way out.” She stated, getting up. “Next time you come, you’ll still need me to get in. We will only be able to add you to the system when Sanson is here.”

    “How can I get in if I am dependent on meeting up with you?”

    She shrugged. “We’ll just have to meet up beforehand again. Not here, but back at The Shallow Inn. Say in two weeks from now, same time as we did today. That’s when we have our next general meeting. I’ll show you one of the other entrances, something closer to where you are. We’ll make sure that you have access after that point, so you won’t rely on me.”

    Stas nodded. “Sounds reasonable.”

    She frowned. “We’ll really need to come up with a good way to keep in contact with one another. But that isn’t something we can do right now, so...” she shrugged.

    Stas excused himself to say some measure of goodbye to Enjolras, who waved him off with a smile, repeating what Eponine had said regarding a future meet up. Other members ave their farewells to him, and he returned them as politely as he could manage.

    Eponine herself did not seem to care for such formalities, merely waving off for anyone that happened to be listening.
    She led him to the door they had entered from, and they exited the hideout.

    As it turned out, the lever was the method of getting the stairs to come back down, and Stas was able to pull the mechanism himself. It was a bit stiff in his hands, and he worried about accidentally applying too much force. But it worked.

    He went up the straw covered stairs, away from the dimly lit corridor to the pitch black store house. Eponine showed him the external mechanism, and the peephole that allowed them to see if anyone was watching for it, and they exited the building.

    “Do you know your way back from here?” Eponine inquired. “I can walk you back most of the way if you are unsure.”

    Stas shook his head. “I know which way the forum is from here. It’s that way, right?” he pointed to confirm, and Eponine nodded. “I’m good on my own, then.”

    “If you say so. Have a nice evening, Stas.”

    He nodded. “Yes… you as well.”

    The streets were dark, only infrequently lit with a handful of street lights some blocks away. A wagon stacked with crates progressed through the street before them.

    In the dim light, he could imagine it would be easy for them to miss a person and run them over.

    He looked at the woman beside him, and considered. “Do you need an escort?” After all, she was self admittedly not a fighter. He had been warned that crime was constant presence in the night. Muggers and murderers and ne'er-do-wells skulked away from the eyes of the watchers under the cover of darkness. Though, considering he had joined up with a group that opposed the watchers, Stas wondered if that made him an honorary ne'er-do-well.

    Eponine scoffed. “I really don’t have anything to worry about. I’m in less danger than you.”

    Right. Stas remembered she could keep attention off herself. She was unlikely to draw the eye of a mugger.

    He shrugged. “Fine then. See you in two weeks.”

    “Don’t keep me waiting,” she called.

    Stas didn’t think he would. He set out down the street.

    He was not heading back for the school. Not yet. The night was still young, and he needed to resolve his lack of instructor issue.

    He was going to see if he could find the Masked Man once again.
     
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