Here's the second release of a busy week for all of us involved. Sorry for it being slightly off schedule!
Blademaster Jiluet had a grim expression. He brought his two attendants Keba and Taxiwa as he followed one of the guards, Locke, down to the prison where the slaves were kept.
Nobody would be in a pleasant mood if they had to head out just as they were preparing for some pleasant times with their female slaves after a bath. The moment Locke mumbled in fear and reported the situation to the blademaster, Jiluet was so pissed that he smashed the wine-filled cup in his hand.
Ridiculous! thought the blademaster.
Even though Blademaster Benack was a rank 1 blademaster who had relied on precious medicines and supplements to attain his current strength, he was still not someone to be lightly trifled with. While it was understandable that he might not be able to fight against a desperate gold-ranked slave fighter, being defeated by three mere silver ranks and held hostage was out of this world.
Is he really sick of living?
While Blademaster Jiluet was enraged beyond comprehension, he still put on his clothes and followed the guard down to the third basement with his two attendants hurriedly. As a rank 2 blademaster assigned to watch the dueling grounds, it was his responsibility to keep the slaves under control. At the very least, Blademaster Jiluet was not someone who would skimp out on his duties for no good reason.
He had already crossed Benack off as deceased or non-functional in his mind. No matter how the situation turned out, Blademaster Benack would have to leave the dueling grounds, even if he was some distant relative of the king. Blademaster Jiluet did not wish in the slightest to clean up after Benack again.
While the Hanayabarta kingdom had many blademasters, only four served the royal family. They were rank 3 blademaster and swordsmanship instructor to King Lud III, Locksy Kabia, rank 2 blademaster Jiluet, and two other rank 1 blademasters, Viscount Sakri, leader of the guards that kept order in the capital, and Blademaster Benack who had relied on precious medicines to train.
Jiluet had always looked down on Benack because of the latter's reliance on outside sources to improve. Usually, it meant that the person in question would not be able to improve much further. Benack would stay a rank 1 blademaster for the rest of his life and would always be inferior to those of the same rank that broke through naturally.
The reason Benack, a relative of the king, was stationed at the dueling grounds, was that the king wanted him to use this chance to train his swordsmanship with the slaves so that he could be of some actual use. It was a shame that the king's effort was wasted. During Benack's first duel with a two-star-gold-ranked slave fighter, while he did manage to wound his opponent heavily, he had his ear bitten off when the slave finally managed to lock him down in close combat.
In the end, the gold-ranked slave was cut into mincemeat and fed to the magic beasts. However, Blademaster Benack, who had barely escaped with his life, never dared to use gold-ranked slaves for training ever again. He only sparred against silver or iron ranks to bolster his confidence. Jiluet had warned him before that training against someone of vastly inferior abilities was of no aid to one's swordsmanship, but Benack did not care about his advice at all and tortured the low-ranked slave fighters to death to satisfy his twisted desires.
Now that something like this happened, Benack would no longer be able to stay at the dueling grounds, even if he is shameless enough to want to, thought Jiluet gleefully.
After all, the dueling grounds used to be 'ruled' by him completely. While the arrival of a relative of the king was not a real threat to his position, he felt that the addition of another blademaster was a troublesome thing. This was especially the case with the current situation where he ended up having to clean up after the bastard.
It seemed that the two squads of soldiers had all been put on alert; there were more than 20 of them fully-armed standing at the entrance of the basement. They paid their respects to the blademaster as he arrived.
Jiluet stopped at the entrance and asked, "Where's your company leader, Pabola?"
The leader of the guards gave Locke a confused look before he replied, "I don't know. He should be down there. The only order I received was to watch the entrance and make sure nobody unrelated to this enters."
Not the slightest bit suspicious, Jiluet marched through the entrance after acknowledging the response.
The first basement was still in good order, but many of the slave servants had been roused from their sleep, standing at the sides of the halls as they chattered.
The second basement, on the other hand, was much rowdier. Many of the slave fighters knocked on their cell bars and cursed and shouted loudly. More than a hundred royal defense army guards used their whips to lash out against some of the slaves. Cries of pains, curses, and more whip cracks sounded out in response. The atmosphere sounded almost like a marketplace. Except in this marketplace, it wasn't wares that were being sold, but pain, agony, and suffering.
Jiluet snorted with dissatisfaction at the scene, but he was far too busy to bother with trivial stuff like this. As long as he finished settling matters at the third basement, he would have more than enough time to deal with the slave fighters here. At most, he just had to make examples of a few of them and the rest would stop making a fuss.
Upon entering the third basement, one could see all the guards on high alert as if their archenemy was marching right at them. Each of the cells had just over ten guards standing by them.
When they passed the last twin gate checkpoint, Blademaster Jiluet asked, "So, where the heck is Company Leader Pabola?"
The guards there did not reply and merely pointed at the depths beyond, before locking the gates up as quickly as they could.
Jiluet's attendant, Taxiwa, complained, "Why did you lock it up so quickly?! With Blademaster Jiluet here, the situation will be dealt with in no time!"
The other attendant, Keba, tugged on the former's shirt and said, "Forget it, they're just small fry. It's only their job to be cautious. Locke, lead the way forward quickly."
Locke murmured in acknowledgment before taking the torch from near the gate.
When they could see some lights in the distance, Locke said, "Sir Jiluet, it's just ahead..."
Jiluet passed Locke by and marched forward with long strides. His attendants had to scurry to keep up.
The lit area in front of them was chillingly silent. Not even the breathing of man or animal could be heard. Then suddenly, the screech of metal against metal echoed out from the darkness. A few moments passed, about enough time for a single breath to be exchanged, and the screech came again. It was steady, even methodical.
Jiluet marched on. Soon he saw a man seated like a proud lion. On his lap lay a slightly curved sword. He dragged a small stone, just about large enough to fill his palm across its blade-edge every couple of seconds. The same, desolate screech escaped into the darkness every time he did so.
Jiluet squinted. He felt as if he was being stared down by a huge beast. Stopping in his tracks, he said, "It's you, Shuss..."
Shuss, who was sharpening his blade, raised his head and said, "Hehe, you're finally here. I've waited for a good amount of time, you know. Over here, we can finally settle this fair and square."
"Over there," said Shuss as he pointed to the corner.
In the dark corner, a few completely stripped corpses could be seen. The empty expression on Benack's rat-like face as it stared at the ceiling was an obvious telltale sign of his death.
"You killed him?" murmured Jiluet.
Shuss shook his head with a smile and said, "Nope, it wasn't me. I had no hand in that stupid rat's death."
"I killed him," said a clear voice behind Jiluet.
When the blademaster and his attendants turned around, they saw the guard called Locke put the torch in a rack on one of the pillars before he removed his helmet and revealed his head of long, raven-black hair. Standing straight and proud, he no longer seemed like the cowardly guard they thought they knew.
Jiluet waved and his two attendants lunged towards Locke. The blademaster was well aware that he had fallen into a trap, but he did not panic. He believed that the only one he had to deal with was the slave blademaster Shuss. As long as he was able to deal with the man, the slave fighters' plot to entrap him would crumble under his raw might.
Just as he was about to turn his head, he caught the flash of a blade in the corner of his eye, followed by the sound of two muffled cries of death. Jiluet's expression changed. The moment he looked back, he was greeted by his two attendants, sprawled on the ground and clutching at their necks as if trying to stop their souls from leaking out of the two gashes in their throats.
"Who are you?" asked he, this time with a hint of caution in his voice.
"I am Count Norton Lorist," replied Lorist with a smile.
"So it's your house's forces that conquered Nupite?"
While Jiluet spent most of his time at the dueling grounds, he was well-informed about the kingdom's situation.
"Bingo! Too bad there's no gift for getting the correct answer," said Lorist as he gave a thumbs up.
"Why did you invade the Hanayabarta kingdom? We shouldn't have any grievances with your house," said Juliet.
"Haha, why you ask? Are you actually thick-faced enough to ask me that question? The slaver bands and slave traders of your kingdom actually dared to attack my dominion and capture our soldiers to make them slave fighters over here... More than 1300 of them were brought here, but now only 200 are left. I have come for vengeance. You will pay your debt of blood, with blood."
"So that's why you tricked me to come here? Do you think numbers will help you?" asked the blademaster as he drew his longsword.
"I tricked you to come because I actually consider your abilities to be a threat to me. Now that we're here, you won't be able to escape. I was afraid that you'd turn tail if we were out in the open. But don't worry, I won't bully you with numbers. Pick one of us to fight," said Lorist as he swung his sword casually.
"I pick you!" roared Jiluet as he launched himself towards Lorist.
His sword traced myriad slashes in the air, seemingly filling every inch of the hall with glints of his blade.
Amidst the tremolo of clashing swords, Lorist said calmly, "Haha, Shuss my friend, he came to me on his own, alright? Don't blame me for stealing your prey. Haha, you chose well..."
Yet another quick succession of clanging swords resounded before the blademaster dashed away at an awkward angle, clutching his right chest where a small cut could be seen.
Shuss looked on with disbelief. He had clearly seen Lorist not even retreating the slightest under the barrage of strikes by Jiluet. He met each and every one of the attacks with a similarly fast response of his own. Not only was Lorist able to receive the storm of strikes with relative ease, he was even able to mount a counterattack of his own and left a mark on the right side of Juliet's chest with his sword! The most peculiar thing was Lorist's arcane swordsmanship style that seemed to have a chilling aura of a snowstorm that caused Blademaster Jiluet's strikes to slow down as if the cold was robbing his strikes of their energy.
Shuss finally understood why Lorist's subordinates were unquestioningly supportive when he said that he would deal with the rank 2 blademaster himself. He had wondered whether Lorist's victory over Benack was a fluke and even tried to advise Lorist against taking on Jiluet. He suggested that he be the one to fight the blademaster instead. He really did not think that the leader of House Norton's swordsmanship would be that impressive. He was filled with admiration for a count like him that was even willing to risk himself by sneaking into the capital alone to save his subordinates.
Jiluet was completely drained after his clash. He deeply regretted not picking Shuss as his opponent instead. Even though Shuss was no doubt a rather good fighter, he was merely a rank 1 blademaster that Jiluet had fought on occasion before. Even if Shuss could stall Jiluet for a couple of hours in a fight, he did not stand a good chance of defeating him. Jiluet felt that Shuss was definitely easier to handle than Lorist. The man kept him constantly on edge. He was not someone he could escape.
"Agh!" cried the blademaster in pain as he took another cut, this time on the side of his ribcage.
Lorist smiled and said, "Not bad, you were able to receive more than 300 of my strikes. As expected of a rank 2 blademaster. You are definitely worth your weight in gold."
Jiluet on the other hand was not able to muster any energy to make a retort. He felt that his whole body, including even his blood, was slowly being frozen. It caused his movements to slow down more and more.
It was as if he could see a snowstorm before him. Each of Lorist's strikes was a gentle snowflake falling onto his body. It seemed that Lorist was not feeling the chilling cold around him. He fused perfectly with the snowflakes around him and floated about freely above the field of pure white.
"Gaaghhh..." Lorist's longsword pierced through Jiluet's throat, but at that moment, the blademaster had already lost all consciousness. His eyes rolled back into his head as he collapsed dead on the ground with a sinister smile on his face.
"Lord Locke, your swordsmanship is nothing like anything I've ever seen before. It's also rather chilly in here. Even the men around me were sneezing at the cold," said Shuss as he approached gingerly to look at the dead Jiluet.
"Well, I had the elemental advantage against him since I often train in the cold snowscape," Lorist said with a carefree tone, "Alright. Blademaster Jiluet is already dealt with. Next, we have to handle the silver and gold-ranked instructors."
Lorist's plan was simple. All he had to do was lure them down to the deepest cells underground and deal with them down there. As for the 200-odd guards, they had already been replaced by slaves who had donned their equipment before Jiluet was lured down.
Lorist had settled the biggest problem successfully himself. All he had to do next was pretend to deliver orders from Jiluet so that the gold-ranked and silver-ranked instructors would head to the third basement to 'stop the slave fighters' revolt'.
All 13 gold-ranked instructors and more than a hundred silver-ranked instructors were ambushed at the third basement. It did not take long for their corpses to litter the ground. The only thing that went wrong was the desperate struggle of one of the gold-ranked instructors that took the life of gold-ranked slave fighter Plom. Even though Lorist and Shuss were both involved in the fighting, they could only do so much and were not able to save Plom and seven other unfortunate silver-ranked slave fighters from their untimely fate.
At dawn, the dueling grounds had completely fallen into the slave fighters' hands. Lorist left the dueling grounds secretly and returned to his room at the Blood and Flame.