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A Turned Blade
Adorjan stumbled across the cobblestones as he pushed through the mob in the streets. Fortunately, they ignored him, his lithe frame barely jostling them as he rebounded off the aggressive movements of the crowd. His sights were on the far side of the plaza, but constant obstructions restricted his path; the most average citizen a titan through his eyes. He sought a destination that would reroute his existence—the old man. The cowled savior had swooped in on the offenders after he had, once again, been beaten and robbed in the alleyway near the market. With the strongest survivors covered in muscle, the old man’s dexterity surprised him as he was lifted off the ground. Once the old man dispatched the petty thieves in a graceful dance of death, he had offered Adorjan two choices. The chance to leave the dreaded city, or to stay and prove his potential usefulness, at the side of the old man. The scales swung wildly as Adorjan made his choice.
As the moon hung suspended in the night sky midst a sea of twinkling stars, Adorjan approached the door, rapping the knocker. Harsh light washed over him as the door opened with a creak that seemed to resound in every nook and cranny of the plaza. The old man stood in the doorway, silhouette eerie against the light of the fire. Raising his finger to his lips in a gesture of silence, the old man brought him inside.
“What is your decision?” The old man asked in a deep baritone.
Adorjan responded. “Teach me to dominate this city.”
The old man nodded. He stepped towards the door opposite the entrance with smooth motions, across from where Adorjan stood. As the old man toyed with his cloak, Adorjan observed the den. A pair of plump chairs were flanked by bulky bookshelves, circling a fireplace nestled in the wall. Rows and columns of dangling herbs swung in the wind from the open door, filling the air with a delicate aroma. Adorjan forced his gaze back to the old man. He pushed back his dark robes to reveal a glistening key, which he plucked from the string around his neck and stuck in the keyhole, triggering a set of clicking sounds muted through the boreal timber. Pulling the door open, the old man motioned for him to follow. Peeking over the frame, Adorjan was surprised to find the silver glow of the moon embracing what appeared to be the outdoors. Unlike the average backyard, this enclosure was lined with multitudes of greenery. He had caught word of the industrial transformation, which according to the beggars of the street, made it nearly impossible to reserve natural scenery such as this for oneself.
“This is where we shall train.” The old man spoke. “For now, you need some rest. Come.” He led Adorjan back through the den, up a staircase into a small room.
Adorjan observed the room, which was bisected by a stout bed. Stumbling forward, the last thing he remembered was the tender embrace of the sheets and the seductive grasp of slumber.
Harsh light shone a crinkled pattern through his eyelids, signaling the arrival of morning. Adorjan forced his eyes open to an unruly sight, the blankets thrown to the side, mattress shifted nearly off the frame. As his senses registered, the aroma of meat cooking filled his nostrils. Following the scent with a hungry man’s persistence, he entered the main room, where an undetermined cut of meat rotated slowly over the crackling flames. Standing by the fire, the old man turned, and remarked, “I hope you’ve got all the sleep ya needed, because we’re not resting today.”
“Why did you want to help me?” Adorjan spoke.
The old man seemed sad for a moment, reminiscing in his mind. “When I was just a child, my existence in this empire was identical to yours; I was a bottom feeder, and I was helpless against anyone above me. I had no chance to escape, to leave, therefore I commandeered my own will to fight.” He sighed. “Any reasonable person would have left, and forged a life for themselves outside these gates.”
“I know. But I’ve been festering under the heels of the empire for too long. Besides, not all hope is lost, right?” Adorjan said, pulling the door open.
“I was a believer too, you know.” The old man sighed. “However, our old emperor died, leaving his maniacal son in power. A strange death, if you ask me. Too young for a man of his caliber. So, I started the rebellion, hoping to end this regime of evil.”
Adorjan asked, “Can this rebellion help me achieve my own goals?”
The old man smiled knowingly. “Perhaps it shall.”
Adorjan stood rapt, attention shown in his clenched knuckles. The old man had perched himself upon a rock in the space he called his “garden”.
“Look, with your body condition, your skillset might be somewhat limited. To put it bluntly, you have the worst possible body type to survive in this kind of environment. But! With this unfortunate condition comes advantages, like surprise. Who would expect such a scrawny boy to fight back?”
Adorjan listened intently, soaking in every word. The hulking forms of the people around him had caused him to hate himself, yet this man gave him hope. “Let's see, we need to find a weapon that befits you.” The old man threw up an unnoticed tarp, revealing a stockpile of blades. They ranged from gracefully long to sneakily short, all dull and rusty from disuse. A pile of silver and rust, it was unappetizing, but to Adorjan, it was a treasure trove of opportunity. Reaching deep into the assortment of weaponry, the old man pulled out a sheathed sword. Golden patterns ran along its side, and as the old man pulled it from its sheath, it seemed to ripple in the sunlight. Without warning, the old man tensed, and launched himself into a flurry of strikes, great, sweeping blows that ruffled the grass as the shimmering blade whooshed overhead. Slowing, the old man sheathed the blade and walked back over to Adorjan. Adorjan had seen this impressive display of swordsmanship once before, but still was frozen in awe.
“Here.” The old man took a sword half the length of his own from within the folds of his cloak and placed it in Adorjan’s quavering hands. Adorjan pulled it from its sheath, trembling before the blade. The edge was jagged with biserrate teeth, and made Adorjan eager to swing. He swung experimentally, losing balance and barely missing the blade, as the old man watched, amused.
They trained. They trained until he was more sweat than man, until his arms gave out, and he kneeled on the ground, arms dangling from their sockets. Adorjan had a small stature to begin with, but now he felt the weight of the world upon him, the tremendous strain on his muscle overpowering him. He collapsed on the grass, letting the sun beam comforting rays onto his drenched skin. He felt like a boulder, sinking into the earth, letting it envelop him. Insects must have traversed him multiple times, for he was covered in bites and nicks that neither hurt nor itch. He stood, his appendages no longer in pain from strenuous activity, but sore from the result of building bulk. A block of timber stood upright against the face of the wall, cuts and notches set into the fibers from the hacking of the sword. He knew the old man had brought him in with ulterior motives, but his exhausted body diverted his attention away. He picked the sword back up gingerly and went back to work on the wood, swinging as the sun fell below the horizon, and the moon led the stars across the sky in a parade that lit up the world.
Time folded itself into a neat clump of repetition, training to the cycles of night and day, falling asleep to the songs of crickets daily. It was several months before the old man interrupted his training session, bursting through the door with haste.
“Come. Now is the time to strike.” The old man offered no extended explanation as he tossed Adorjan a cloak, pulling open the door to the streets. The muffled whispers of their ruffling cloaks accompanied the ominous silence of night as they hurried toward their destination.
“Listen. Before the new emperor took over, the guardsmen traversed the city via underground passageway to avoid the crowded streets. Now, the guard sits stagnant and corrupt, but the passages lie in wait.” The old man pressed himself against the bricks of a seemingly solid wall, and motioned for Adorjan to do the same. Removing a small pocketknife, the old man slashed at the mortar between the bricks, crumbling matter falling in clumps. Pushing through the loosened bricks, the old man led Adorjan into a tunnel that headed southward steeply, aiming into the earth.
“You know, this information could have been useful when I was being hounded.” Adorjan remarked, voice resounding deep into the passage.
“Must have forgotten to mention it.” The old man responded. As he spoke, his eyes remained trained ahead, scanning. Adorjan was about to say something when the old man suddenly halted, putting his arm out.
“Here.” The old man turned left, not seeing the tunnel but visualizing it, memory stronger than eyesight. Pushing through a collection of foliage, they stepped into an open courtyard. Filled to the brim with plants and decorative sculptures, the area was luxurious beyond imagination. Adorjan knew they could have wandered into but only one place: the palace.
The ramparts stood eerily silent, devoid of occupation. Adorjan frowned. The old man had warned him about the insurmountable number of guards that usually swarmed the walls. Now, the precisely-cut stones contained only the spectre of the footsteps that once were present.
The old man tensed, face twisting in a expression of suspicion. “Stay wary, kid. Something’s up.” He motioned toward the tunnel entrance. “At the first sight of anything we can’t handle, we’re out of here. No risks can be taken. Got it?” Adorjan nodded.
They crept along the base of the ramparts, crunching through the ferns that lined the wall. As they neared the gate to the inner enclosure, the old man tossed Adorjan a circular package, a bomb. He beckoned to Adorjan, standing and breaking into a sprint. Adorjan sprang to his feet and matched the pace of the old man, training highlighting his pounding legs. For a brief moment, Adorjan pushed beyond the old man, but a wall loomed from the darkness. Skidding across the gravel, he dropped the bomb with a loud clink. The visible light of a lit torch flickered through the opening of one of the guard towers, illuminating the two. Adorjan froze in fear as the old man acted, snatching the bomb from the ground and activating it with a beep as the guards rushed out from the gateway. Chucking it to the side wall of the palace, the old man drew his sword. Adorjan broke his trance, mimicking the old man’s movement defensively. The old man charged into a platoon of guards behind them, dancing through their ranks. Adorjan held his position as a trio of attackers threw themselves at him. Grinning, he unsheathed his blade, meeting them. The first pair of lightweights posed no obstruction as he slid his sword into their chests, bringing them to another world. The third man, well armored and surrounded with an air of corpulency, carried a hefty bludgeon in one hand and a circular shield in the other. He lumbered forward, launching himself at Adorjan shield first. Jumping aside, a wide, sweeping blow made itself visible, slamming into his side. The impact would have killed him, if not for the stiff scabbard that he had tucked in his robes earlier, which audibly cracked under the impact. Still, he crumbled under the pain. The juggernaut hovered over Adorjan’s huddled form, savoring in the moment, preparing for the kill. Rolling onto his uninjured side, Adorjan thrusted his sword feebly into the giant’s exposed armpit. The behemoth dropped the bludgeon and roared, bleeding profusely from his underarm. Adorjan forced himself up, clicking the mechanism in his shoe that released a dart, lodging itself between the man’s eyes. Adorjan barely had time to watch the giant drop to the ground before the old man shouted from across the quadrangle.
Adorjan glanced around frantically, eyes coming to a halt on a contraption being rolled through the open gates. Stout and sleek like a seal, the cast-metal cannon sat atop a studded pair of wheels. Two guards scurried around behind the cannon, and another hefted an uneven cannonball into the mouth. Realizing the grim situation, Adorjan limped toward the tunnel entrance, where the old man was wildly gesturing. He forced himself further, but every step brought exponentially increasing pain, jarring him and blurring his vision. A deafening blast sent a projectile whizzing into the keystone, sending a flair of sediment into the air, sealing the tunnel with a concluding rumble. He struggled against the agony in his side that brought his conscious thought to a close as rough hands bound him and carried him off.
What was lacking in sight was wholly replaced with the continuous clanking of the rusty pipes. Adorjan could only guess the number of days he had been imprisoned in the dusky space. The man with the raspy voice would visit every day to gloat, and with him would come the dreaded whip. From down the hall, he would come to remember the crackling sound of the man testing his whip, and would steel himself in anticipation. Every day, the same questions would follow a crack:
“Where are they? How many of you are there?” And every time, he would deny the man his satisfaction of speech. But slowly, every day, every hour he stayed in this hole, his determination diminished as day after day passed without any sign of rescue. This escalated to a breaking point when one day, famished and dehydrated, his febrile mind processed that maybe, to the old man, he was expendable. The finishing blow came when the raspy voiced man remarked:
“Surprised that companion of yours hasn’t come yet. I mean, he’s practically handed you over.” At that point, it was over. The man would barely raise his whip and Adorjan offered him answers. They would dig deeper, and punish him for answers he didn’t know. He descended into darkness as time ran its course.
A few metres above, a similar predicament was in play. The guards had taken extra precaution after he had slashed through many of their rank, and bound him to the only protruding surface, a rusty pipe which ran down the wall to indeterminable places. Every time the old man pulled ferociously on his shackles, the horrendous din of metal on cobble would fill the building. One day, he made his escape after the daily interrogation. A swift strike with his hidden blade dismantled the ropes and set him free. He swept at the previously marked mortar with his knife until it loosened, allowing the bricks to slide out with a thunk. Squeezing through the opening, the old man hurried to the side of the building where he remembered the guards had spoken of.
“That kid down in the last cell? He was a fighter. I swear, he took down Marley the other week. It’s a shame he broke, like the others.”
The old man shook his head, denying his conflicting thoughts. He hurried across the lawn, toward the end cell on the lowest floor of the building. “Adorjan!” He whispered through the cracked stones. “I’m here. Let’s go!” There was no reply except for the chatter of the guards in the distance. The old man waited, but a few minutes of silence convinced him of the status of the cell. Adorjan was dead, or worse, turned against the rebellion. A clopping pattern alerted him of a platoon of guards overhead, and he scurried out of the palace.
Several years later, sweat and time had transformed scrawny limbs to burly cannons, tanned through toil under the sun. However, his face offset the visage of a shining, golden boy. A deepset scar ran along his jawbone and led to a tight-lipped smile that was one of neither passion nor happiness. A set of blades hung by his waist; a short blade with a serrated edge, and a long, narrow sword covered in golden engravings. A scabbard, beautiful in design but marred and cracked, was strapped to his back. Adorjan’s mission was to wipe out the rebel organization, which was pestering the guard. As he rounded the corner into an alleyway, he came across a young boy hunched over in the doorway. Instinct instructed him to help, yet the spectral whip flashed along his back, forcing him away. Flinching, he swatted at the boy with his blade. A lightning-quick parry flashed from the shadows, blocking the strike. A hooded figure obstructed the serrated edge from digging into the boy’s flesh, familiar robes spilling over the man’s shoes. Those robes! Irrational connections to chains and shackles drifted through his mind.
Adorjan recalled the guard’s words many years ago. Staring, just the sight of the old man burned him. The old man swung a knife, and Adorjan reacted, smacking the heel of his boot into the ground, a hidden mechanism clicking and releasing a dart that slammed into the hooded man’s stomach. The old man croaked, “They lied to you of my treachery, but I… tried...” The raspy scrabble of the jailer accompanied by white noise tainted his vision crimson as his trembling arms brought down misguided judgement. Adorjan smiled as tears ran down his cheeks, for he knew: the devil had attempted to divert him from his destiny, but in the end, he had dominated.