Gathering Clouds, Chapter 29

  • Chapter 29





                    ‘Apologies for the intrusion, Your Majesty.’


                    Titus woke with a strangled gasp. Grandmaster Takarro was sitting mere feet away. He rose and bowed deep as the Emperor rubbed his eyes.


                    ‘This is most irregular, old friend,’ Titus frowned as he suppressed a yawn. ‘Did none of my guards see you enter?’


                    ‘Do not be too harsh on them, Your Majesty. It would have been wise to place a bodyguard at the window as well. Are you ready to leave?’


                    ‘Now? I thought the meeting was set for ten in the morning, well after sunrise.’


                    ‘That was what we agreed in front of the Thalmor representatives, yes. They would likely have insisted on attaching a representative when the meeting took place, much like how they attached themselves to you on this visit in the first place. You would be able to speak much more freely without their presence, would you not, Your Majesty?’


                    ‘Very clever of you, Grandmaster,’ the Emperor smiled. ‘Allow me to gather my generals and advisors, and we will be with you shortly.’


                    ‘That won’t be necessary, Your Majesty. Shinobi in their quarters are rousing them as we speak.’


                    In barely half an hour they were gathered in a large stone chamber on one side of a long table, the generals clutching at their reports, a couple of Titus’ advisors rubbing sleep out of their eyes, and the Thalmor none the wiser. Twelve Shadeclaws with different coloured sashes sat on the other side of the table. The Emperor and the Grandmaster sat facing each other.


                    General Cornelius broke the news with his usual diplomatic tact.


                    ‘War is upon us,’ he said curtly. ‘We expect you to help.’


                    The Emperor winced and was about to apologise when the orange-furred advisor – Titus remembered that his name was Bengakhi – nodded and spread out a sheet of parchment.


                    ‘Very well.’ Bengakhi’s voice was low and even, almost bored. ‘How many shinobi do you need, what kind of operations do you need them to perform, and where are you sending them?’


                    Titus stared at the hulking Po’ Tun, then at the Grandmaster and the other members of the Shadeclaw Council. None of them looked surprised in the least. Most didn’t even look apprehensive.


                    ‘You’re all awfully calm.’


                    ‘Your Majesty,’ Takarro said, not unkindly. ‘We are well aware that the “peace” forged with the White-Gold Concordat is little more than a temporary reprieve. The Shadeclaws have always prided ourselves on being prepared – the Council has begun discussing and drawing up strategies for attacks on known Thalmor strongholds, and training for the kits has intensified twofold, as head instructors Mokko and Torako would tell you.’


                    ‘Still,’ one of Titus’ diplomatic advisors spoke up, twirling his waxed mustachios nervously. ‘War is war. Should we really be so… flippant about bloodshed?’


                    ‘Tsukikage does not have a civilian populace to worry about,’ Bengakhi replied, one corner of his lip twitching up. ‘Barely one hundred of our Po’ Tun are considered unfit for deployment, and they are all children. Only another hundred – perhaps two hundred – need to stay behind and act as sentinels. The remaining one thousand and five hundred shinobi are all at your disposal.’


                    The generals and advisors erupted into hushed whispers and murmurs. Even the Emperor himself felt a surge of excitement. A small Legion’s worth of Tamriel’s deadliest assassins. If we make good enough use of them, we could win this war before it ever began.


                    Takarro tapped two fingers in front of him for attention. ‘Let us first compile our information, gentlemen. I would be correct in assuming that the opposition is the Aldmeri Dominion?’


                    And so the war table began.


                    ‘Yes, but you must understand, Grandmaster Takarro, this includes not only the Summerset Isles, but Valenwood and Elsweyr as well.’


                    ‘Even if we factor in a naval approach from the Abecean Sea, the conflict seems decidedly straightforward – a single front from the South.’


                    ‘Straightforward does not always mean easy, General Tobias.’


                    ‘Perhaps not, but it simplifies preparations. We can expect Cyrodiil’s southern regions – namely Anvil, Kvatch, Skingrad, Bravil, Leyawiin and Alabaster to take the brunt of the land assault-’


                    ‘The Thalmor will likely not be taking such a direct approach. Reports from both the shinobi and our Penitus Oculatus spectres indicate that the Dominion have established a sizable military presence in at least three of the provinces not under their direct government.’


                    ‘And we allowed them to?’


                    ‘No less than six clauses in the White-Gold Concordat give them authority to mobilise and cross borders “in the interest of political stability and religious duty”-’


                    General Cornelius slammed a meaty fist onto the table. ‘With respect, Your Majesty, signing that treaty was a poorly made decision-’


                    Titus sighed. He was tired of this debate. ‘It bought us time.’


                    ‘And did time help? Very few things seem to have changed in twenty years. If anything, our position is even more untenable. The Empire is struggling financially, and in terms of military might we are still weak. Not to mention that we lost Hammerfell as a direct result of the treaty, and the support we lost among our citizens… with things in Windhelm and Markarth as they are, we risk losing Skyrim as well.’


                    ‘Black Marsh remains neutral, despite our attempts at negotiating an alliance. We could be going to war with only High Rock at our backs.’


                    ‘What of Morrowind?’


                    ‘The Grand Council and the Great Houses remain divided, and The Oblivion Crisis along with the eruption of Red Mountain have left the Dunmer weaker than ever. The Empire can no longer count on their support.’


                    ‘We need to turn our attention back to these strongholds the Thalmor have been setting up. How many of them are there, and who commands these forces? Knowing the enemy is the first step to victory.’


                    ‘If it’s knowing the enemy that we are speaking of, aren’t there more pressing concerns we need to deal with? Surely it is the Thalmor who accompanied us here who deserves our most immediate attention.’


                    ‘Yes,’ Titus said, folding his hands and looking pointedly at Takarro. ‘On that note, I’d like to move on to my first request for Tsukikage. I need a tail put on Larethor of Shimmerene. The Altmer commander is acting far too cautiously and guarded too closely. After conferring with my subordinates, I am quite certain that he has some plot in the works, be it on his own or on orders from higher up on the chain of command.’


                    ‘As you say, Your Majesty,’ Takarro nodded, stroking his whiskers. ‘I have been thinking of doing so as well. Unfortunately, the Thalmor take their security measures very seriously. The quarters we have assigned him here have been sealed with powerful magic and are under constant guard. He has also blocked his windows.’


                    ‘The Twinstinger is the commander of the Dominion’s Third Division. Two hundred of his hand-picked footmer accompanied him here. His cunning matches his depravity, and he is a formidable warrior even without soldiers at his back. Whomever you send will need to be exceptionally skilled, Grandmaster.’


                    ‘Yes,’ Takarro murmured, his eyes clouding over. ‘Tsukikage does not lack for good shinobi, but getting close to Larethor will prove challenging even for a master. I will think on this further. For now, let us turn to the topic of preparation. How much longer do you think the Empire can stave off the conflict?’


                    ‘Three years, perhaps? Five. No more than ten,’ Cornelius scowled. ‘During this time, we need to re-establish our ties with past and present allies. Tsukikage is just the first step. The situations in Morrowind and Skyrim need to be contained, and quickly. Hammerfell will prove the most difficult to sway, especially with the public denouncement we dropped on them a decade ago…’


                    After another hour of deliberation, the meeting adjourned. Tired, the Emperor allowed the entourage to leave first, then sagged in his seat for a moment before leaving.


                    ‘Are you all right, Your Majesty?’ Takarro held him by one shoulder as he peered at him.


                    ‘Yes, yes,’ Titus rubbed his eyes. ‘I’m simply fatigued. Another war… by Akatosh’s grace, we will weather this one better than we did the last.’


                    Takarro let him rest for a while longer, then led him back to his room.


                    Lencius blew on his fingers to warm them. A flurry of snow caught on his hood and he shivered, rubbing his wrists. The streets inside the shinobi village were as cold as the mountains outside, and he was beginning to regret leaving his sheepskin gloves behind, but he felt uncomfortable not being able to nock his bow at a moment’s notice. At least the walls block out most of the blasted wind.


                    ‘Lencius-dar, here!’ Someone put a hand on his shoulder and he felt a balloon of warmth expand through his body.


                    Unaka again. ‘Thank you,’ he said after his teeth stopped chattering. ‘You live like this the whole year around?’


                    ‘It gets a little colder around the winter months,’ the Po’ Tun replied cheerfully.


                    ‘And you do it without using the magic that you just cast on me,’ Lencius said in disbelief.


                    ‘You could say that, yes! But enough about life in Tsukikage, Lencius-dar – are you trying to go somewhere? The village is quite big, and it’s easy for outsiders to get lost.’


                    ‘I’m just looking around. Are there any landmarks or sights that you would recommend? This is really a very impressive city, even more so because your people managed to build it on top of a peak like this.’


                    ‘Hmm.’ Unaka tapped her chin. ‘If you’re not tired of food yet, there’s the restaurants and eateries to the west that you could try. Some shinobi run a collection of markets and shops when they’re off-duty, those are next to the restaurants. The library is to the east if you’re in the mood for books. Some sections of the armoury in the north side might be open to you as well… ah!’


                    Lencius cocked an eyebrow at her. ‘Yes?’


                    ‘Would you like to observe our kits’ training, Lencius-dar? I think there’s going to be archery sessions for Year 182 today. I’m sure Master Mokko wouldn’t mind if you showed them a trick or two.’


                    ‘That’s an excellent idea,’ Lencius said, turning to face her. ‘If we are to cooperate better with each other in the future, it would be wise to interact more and get each other’s measure. Some shinobi should come along to train with the Oculatus as well.’


                    ‘Then let’s be off!’ Unaka said brightly, leading him to the south side of the village. The shinobi instruction halls were housed in what looked like bamboo temples with boarded wooden floors. They went through a series of them – Lencius heard muffled grunts and thumps coming from some of the closed rooms they passed – and entered a large, stone-cobbled training field.


                    A tall Altmer clad in a black flowing cloak and glass armour was leaning on a pillar nearby. Five bodyguards accompanied him, each holding a shield and a spear styled similarly to his. He was watching a band of young Po’ Tun standing in formation with a bizarre smile on his face. Lencius felt his gut tighten.


                    ‘Why, hello there, spectre.’ Larethor pumped his grip on Reilanco up and down in a taunting, almost vulgar motion. ‘Join me for a chat. It’s quite entertaining, watching these little cats tug on bows taller than they are.’


                    ‘Good morning, Larethor-dar!’ Unaka bowed. ‘Please feel free to offer any insights, our kits are still learning.’


                    Lencius clenched his jaw. Stop feeding his ego.


                    He focused on the shinobi’s bows instead. They were strange, to say the least. Shaped asymmetrically and at least twice the size of a Legion archer’s longbow, the weapons seemed to require great strength to pull, yet the teenage Po’ Tun were drawing and releasing almost effortlessly. The arrows they fired were far larger than normal – they looked like small javelins.


                    Lencius squinted at the kits’ targets, an array of surprisingly lifelike dummies laid out before them in the snow. Every single body part was made to scale, including the facial features, and there were even differing heights and builds to simulate actual troops.


                    He counted both the arrows surrounding the dummies and the ones sticking out of the painted heads and chests. Not bad. Not bad at all. They’re just as good as our own archers, if not better. The veterans could outshoot them with ease, however. Still impressive, considering how young they are… and how taut their bows must be. A single, fully-drawn arrow from one of those could probably down a giant.


                    ‘Large and unwieldy,’ Larethor snorted. ‘I thought Shadeclaws were supposed to be stealthy.’


                    ‘I confess, I’m curious as to why your bows are so big as well,’ Lencius said.


                    Unaka waved a hand before continuing. Lencius heard the familiar cone of silence drop around them and nodded, understanding. No need to tell the Thalmor. Larethor merely shot them an amused glance and crossed his arms.


                    ‘We do not use bows often, especially when infiltrating enemy ranks and bases. However, when shinobi operate in larger units, there will often be some singled out to act as support, picking off lone guards or even pursuers if the situation should go wrong. These operatives do not need to worry about remaining inconspicuous or being as agile as the rest of the shinobi on their team, so they are instead assigned bows that can propel arrows across greater distances.’


                    The kits’ instructor was a stern-looking Po’ Tun with fur the shade of steel. Lencius remembered that his name was Mokko. ‘Right,’ he called as his students grouped around him. ‘Before we move on, would any of you care to demonstrate the chain-shot course for our guests?’


                    A yellow-furred kit with black tear stripes running down his cheeks raised a hand.


                    ‘Very well, Yuuzen. Go ahead.’


                    ‘Yuuzen is the best archer of his year,’ Unaka said, smiling. ‘Though I suspect even he would have much to learn from you, Lencius-dar.’


                    Mokko raised a fist and brought it down. Lencius saw a faint glow, and a single dummy sprang up much further away than the ones the kits were practicing on earlier. So they even have training courses run with magic.


                    Yuuzen nocked an arrow and brought the feathered shaft to his cheek. He breathed steadily, slowly, and brought the bow upwards first, then began tilting it to the side. Lencius nodded with approval as he saw the angle of the compensation. Very intuitive, if I’m guessing the draw weight right.


                    The kit released the bowstring. Two brief seconds later, the dummy fell over with an arrow nestled neatly between the eyes. A short distance away, another dummy popped up.


                    Yuuzen drew the bow again, releasing after another few seconds. The second dummy fell with an arrow to the chest. After another ten seconds, the third dummy tumbled to the ground as well, the fourth following a moment later. Then the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth. All shots were executed in about the same amount of time. Slow, but methodical and disciplined. The boy has potential.


                    The kit’s hand trembled as he held the tenth arrow to his cheek. His whiskers twitched, and he squinted hard as he licked his lips. Even before Yuuzen released the bowstring, Lencius could tell that he was going to miss.


                    The arrow whistled past the dummy’s neck and came to a quivering stop in the snow.


                    Lencius clapped politely along with Unaka. Larethor snorted.


                    Yuuzen turned and bowed at them, looking embarrassed. ‘Thank you, Unaka-ko, Lencius-jo,’ he said with a bright pink nose. Huh. So that’s how they blush. ‘This was a shameful display, but I don’t usually do much better. I have yet to make it past twelve shots.’


                    ‘Nine consecutive hits on targets over five hundred feet away? Shameful indeed,’ Lencius chuckled. ‘You ought to give lessons to our boys in the Legion, Yuuzen.’


                    ‘I would not dare,’ the kit said, bowing deeper. Can’t you at least try and take a compliment, lad?


                    ‘Lencius-dar is an extremely skilled archer in his own right,’ Unaka chimed in. ‘Perhaps he could show our kits how it’s done.’


                    Mokko frowned. ‘Unaka-ko, that might be going-’


                    ‘Yes,’ Larethor leered at him unpleasantly. ‘I think I’d like to see that as well.’


                    ‘Why not,’ Lencius shrugged, walking forward. ‘Lend me your bow, lad. Mine can’t shoot as far.’


                    ‘As you say, Lencius-jo,’ Yuuzen handed the polished length of wood over. ‘Please be careful, the draw weight is heavier than most Tamrielic longbows.’


                    ‘Is that so?’ Lencius gave the bowstring a small tug, then drew in a deep breath and pulled, straining. Well, damn. He’s right, this is at least three times more tense than my own bow.


                    ‘It is an honour, Lencius-do,’ Mokko bowed. ‘Would you like to test the yumi on some closer targets first?’


                    ‘No need,’ Lencius said, flexing his right arm and fitting an arrow to the string. ‘I’ve gotten used to the draw.’ Although I won’t be able to keep it up for as long as usual.


                    Mokko nodded, then motioned with his fist again. The first dummy sprang up.


                    Lencius raised the bow to shoulder height, drew, exhaled and released in one fluid motion. The dummy fell back down, an arrow sprouting from its wooden torso.


                    The second dummy rose. Lencius had already nocked another arrow, so he simply drew, exhaled and released again. The dummy fell with an arrow through the midsection.


                    The third dummy appeared. Lencius drew, exhaled and released. The dummy fell, taking an arrow through the heart.


                    Fourth dummy. Draw. Exhale. Release. Punctured the forehead.


                    Fifth. Draw. Exhale. Release. Stomach.


                    Sixth. Draw. Exhale. Release. Liver.


                    Seventh. Draw. Exhale. Release. Groin. Larethor winced.


                    Eighth. Draw. Exhale. Release. Right lung.


                    Ninth. Draw. Exhale. Release. Forehead.


                    Tenth. Draw. Exhale. Release. Right eye.


                    Eleventh. Draw exhale release. Forehead.


                    Twelfth. Draw exhale release. Thirteenth. Draw exhale release. Fourteenth. Draw exhale release. Fifteenth. Draw exhale release. Sixteenth draw exhale release seventeenth draw exhale release eighteenth draw exhale release nineteenth twentieth twenty-first twenty-second...


                    Lencius reached numbly for another arrow and nocked it. Then he realised two things. He couldn’t feel his arms, and there was no target lined up. He put the bow back down and swallowed, slowly waking from his trance. His throat was very dry.


                    Mokko picked up the bow and gave it back to Yuuzen, who was staring at him with unabashed awe along with the rest of the kits. Unaka whooped.


                    ‘Apologies, Lencius-do,’ Mokko said, bowing respectfully. ‘But you appear to have taken down all sixty of our dummies in as many seconds.’


                    Yuuzen bowed as well. Oh for the love of- stop bowing, godsdamnit. ‘That was incredible, Lencius-jo,’ he said. ‘I’ve never seen an archer manage to pace himself and yet still shoot so quickly before. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask…’


                    ‘The trick is not to hold,’ Lencius explained. ‘With repeated shots, your muscles will tire eventually no matter how well-trained or well-built you are, and the trembling will begin to throw off your aim. As I draw and release in one motion, the shaking doesn’t affect me quite as much, if at all. The drawback is, of course, that I have much less time to aim. There’s nothing wrong with the tactic taught to you by your instructors – it’s better suited for engaging enemies with greater accuracy in short bursts.’


                    Yuuzen nodded thoughtfully, and Lencius returned to the edge of the training field with his shoulders still trembling slightly. By Kynareth, that was a heavy bow. I don’t think I’ll be able to shoot at all for the rest of the day. Bah, I shouldn’t have tried to show off.


                    ‘Moving on to freeform sparring,’ Mokko called. ‘Find a partner and begin. You may use any of the mock weapons of your choice.’


                    Lencius saw Commander Larethor lean forwards, his dark eyes gleaming with interest. He followed the Altmer’s gaze to a pair that had begun duelling almost immediately. I’ve seen those two before – they were performers at the feast.


                    The black-furred zither player with a white stripe down his head and back, and the raven-haired, pale-skinned youth who recited a speech. Lencius remembered the latter especially vividly. As far as he could tell, the boy was the only person in the village who wasn’t a Po’ Tun.


                    The black-furred kit held what looked like a thin quarterstaff, whipping the six feet of polished wood around him with practiced ease. The pale boy gripped a wooden katana and was standing perfectly still with his legs slightly parted, glaring at his opponent with piercing silver eyes.


                    ‘Those two – who are they?’


                    ‘Ah, that’s Ambarro and Harrow. Quite the pair. The first is Grandmaster Takarro’s grandson. The staff he’s using is called a bo. The boy’s bit dense, but you’ll find no shinobi more spirited than him in the entire village. The second is the first elf to be trained by Shadeclaws in centuries…’ Unaka smiled and laid a hand on her own katana. ‘…and my personal student.’


                    A chill ran down Lencius’ spine as he recalled how the shinobi cut down four Justiciars with a single, blindingly fast stroke. If he’s even learned a tenth of what she knows…


                    Ambarro spun his staff around him one last time, then whirled forwards in a blur of motion. Harrow adjusted his footwork and turned to the side, deflecting the wooden tip of the bo upwards with his bokuto, then thrust under Ambarro’s arm.


                    Sliding his hand up to a wider grip on the staff, Ambarro took a step back and swept the bo downwards, and the two practice weapons produced a clean tok as they connected half a foot away from his stomach. Switching his grip to a narrow one on the staff’s base, Ambarro took another step back and swung the bo in a crescent arc from the right.


                    Sprinting forward, Harrow dropped to his knees and slid under the blow while simultaneously flicking his bokuto upwards at Ambarro’s chin. Continuing with the momentum on his swing, the black-furred kit sidestepped to the left, slid his hand back up to the middle of the staff, and brought it down towards Harrow’s head.


                    The elven boy’s eyes narrowed, and he leant so far backwards that Lencius was convinced his bones were made of putty. Harrow ended the reverse somersault with a hand on the ground, flinging himself skywards feet-first as the bo slammed into the cobblestones, cracking a layer of ice on top. Not allowing Ambarro to recover, Harrow flipped upright and launched a brutal downward slash at his exposed neck.


                    Ambarro repositioned his hands yet again and blocked, then struck back himself at Harrow’s waist.


                    Reaching out with a hand, Harrow pushed at the middle of the bo with an outstretched palm, diverting the path of the swing to the right. He reached inwards as he pushed, catching Ambarro by the forearm.


                    Gritting his teeth, the young Po’ Tun hooked Harrow’s own arm as he tucked his wrist inwards and formed a right angle with his staff, dragging him in for a knee strike to the midsection.


                    Bending almost in two and pulling his knees up to his chest, Harrow stopped the blow with the soles of his feet, then pressed two fingers together and jabbed at several seemingly random spots on Ambarro’s ribcage.


                    Flinching, Ambarro released his grip and shoved Harrow away, thumping at his chest. He spat out a pained lungful of air, then raised his staff just in time to parry a diagonal chop to his right shoulder.


                    As the pair dashed around each other and exchanged a series of increasingly rapid strikes, Lencius found his attention being drawn back to Larethor. The Twinstinger was unnaturally riveted in the fight. To his disgust, he saw a trace of saliva on the Altmer’s lower lip.


                    Then he remembered Larethor’s notoriety for bedding children, and he felt cold certainty crawl into his spine. He wants the boy. The bastard wants to…


                    Matches around them had all drawn to a close, but still Ambarro and Harrow hounded each other. The bo and bokuto swept loose snow around them into gusts of white wind, and the impact of wood on wood echoed throughout the training field.


                    Still, at a single call from Mokko, both boys stopped immediately. Superb discipline.


                    ‘Another draw,’ the instructor sighed. ‘Looks like I need to separate the two of you for next week’s sparring again. Practicing with only one opponent is folly, kits. You will become too accustomed to routine-’


                    ‘-and routine gets you killed,’ Larethor interrupted, straightening from the pillar he was leaning on. ‘Still… fancy moves you've shown off there. Gets my blood pumping.’ The Twinstinger licked his lips as he stared at Harrow. ‘Makes me want to stretch the old muscles.’


                    If Mokko was displeased at being interrupted, he did not show it. ‘If you wish to give us a demonstration, Commander Larethor, please go ahead.’


                    ‘Demonstration?’ Larethor sneered. ‘Do I look like a pet monkey to skip and dance for your amusement?’


                    Mokko bowed. ‘It was not my intention to insult-’


                    ‘Of course it wasn’t,’ Larethor laughed, patting the instructor on the head. ‘You’re all such good kitties.’


                    ‘Thank you, Commander.’


                    The cords on Lencius’ neck were standing out, and his knuckles cracked as his closed fist tightened. How can someone so strict to his students be so pliant?


                    ‘You there.’ Larethor picked up a ball-tipped practice spear the same length as Reilanco. ‘Your name is Harrow, correct?’


                    ‘I am honoured.’


                    ‘Oh, no, no, no,’ the Twinstinger simpered. ‘The… honour… is all mine. Now – shall we joust?’


                    Larethor could feel Little Sting about to burst. The petite elf was even more stunning in motion. The grace, the speed, the dancer’s flexibility, the adorable little cold smile that pinched those lips whenever he outmanoeuvred his brutish cat partner, the way the light played across the smooth, flawless skin on his cheek and the midnight sheen of his hair, flowing behind him as he moved. And how he moved!


                    I am decided, he thought as he raised the practice spear in an Altmeri salute, twirling it in a small circle above his head. You are mine, darling. Right here in your village, tonight.


                    Harrow stood straight and bowed deep – yes, show me more of that milky neck­ – then drew his wooden sword.


                    ‘I await your instruction, Larethor-do.’


                    Larethor shivered with pleasure. The boy had developed a natural Po’ Tun accent along with his sweet, lilting voice. ‘Ei awaeto yolu insutulakuzionu, Laletholu-do.’ By the Divines, he makes my name sound like music. ‘Laletholu-do’. ‘Laletholu-do’…


                    He wanted nothing more than to charge right now, pin the wanton little thing down, and begin instructing. The old soldier in him knew better, though. He’s fast and agile. Best to make him come to me.


                    So he switched to a more aggressive stance, feet spread out, centre of gravity at his waist, spear raised at an acute angle towards his opponent, and began inching slowly forwards. Stopping for a brief second, Larethor spared one last moment to appreciate those dancing silver pupils. Then he tensed his shoulders and mimed a charge.


                    Harrow took the bait, sidestepping and slashing to the side, realising too late that Larethor had shifted his footwork. Sidestepping himself, the Twinstinger brought the haft of his spear back around to his chest and thrust the tip towards his neck. Harrow’s eyes widened as his slash hit empty air, then ducked almost frantically.


                    Larethor allowed the spearhead to sail above Harrow’s head, then grabbed the haft with his left hand and smashed it into his jaw. Harrow rolled to the ground along with the blow, then continued rolling to the right, his bokuto flaring up towards the back of Larethor’s thigh. Larethor simply took one step back and thrust again at Harrow’s shoulder.


                    Harrow pressed a palm against the length of the spear and grabbed it, shunting it to the side. Larethor grinned – oh, sweetness, yes, wrap your slender fingers around the shaft – then braced his front foot against the ground, leant forward and pulled with his entire body’s weight, sending Harrow toppling back towards him and into the crook of his elbow.


                    To the boy’s credit, he never lost his cool. Bringing the bokuto upwards, he set it in front of his face as Larethor’s arm approached. The Twinstinger’s grin widened. Oh, clever.


                    Larethor turned his arm upwards and nudged Harrow’s wrists out of the way along with the wooden sword, then resumed his two-handed grip on the spear and swept twice at his feet. Harrow leapt over the haft both times, but didn’t expect Larethor’s mailed fist to suddenly come flying at his face while he was airborne.


                    Contorting his body again, Harrow slipped around the punch and slashed four times at Larethor’s left flank. The Altmer commander blocked each strike with his glass gauntlets. My, my. Stronger than he looks.


                    As he blocked Harrow’s last blow, Larethor shifted his footwork again, veering to the right and hammering down with another fist. Harrow did not face the blow directly, spinning to the side instead while launching an immediate counterattack at Larethor’s exposed chest. Very clever again, sweetness… but you’ve forgotten about the spear.


                    As Larethor completed the feint, he brought his right hand back around to the side, with his left hand delivering the haft into his main-handed grip. The Twinstinger pivoted and thrust the spear forward, powering the balled tip under Harrow’s arms and into his lower abdomen. Then he twisted and pushed.


                    Harrow flew off his feet and crumpled into a heap, the air from his lungs forced out completely. He shook as he turned himself over, reaching for his bokuto. Then Larethor crouched beside his limp form and pressed the spear against his torso.


                    He could hear the instructor – Mokko, was it? – babbling something about a good match and the values of experience, but he had other things occupying his attention.


                    Harrow didn’t seem too badly hurt, and the pain was already fading from his eyes. His hair had been loosened, and a few errant strands hung from his forehead to his brow. He was dishevelled, flushed, panting hard…


                    ‘…and absolutely beautiful,’ Larethor sighed, leaning close and feeling the gentle puffs of breath from Harrow’s lips as he cupped his soft, tender cheek with one hand, stroking it with a thumb.


                    The duel did not last long, and Lencius had no illusions about the outcome. The Twinstinger was nearing a century old; he had at least ten times Harrow’s experience. He still looked away in sympathy as Larethor rammed the practice spear straight into the young shinobi’s midsection, almost folding him in half for an instant.


                    Mokko started lecturing the kits again. Lencius frowned as he looked back at Larethor, then leapt forward indignantly as he saw the Altmer bend his head over the prone boy.


                    ‘What in Oblivion do you think you’re-’


                    ‘This was a great match,’ Larethor exclaimed loudly as he stood, drowning out Lencius’ protests. ‘I haven’t had such a good fight in a long, long time.’


                    ‘You are too kind, Commander,’ Mokko said mildly.


                    ‘This boy in particular,’ Larethor continued, blatantly ignoring the Po’ Tun. ‘Not once have I fought anyone who has… stimulated me as much as he has. He shows great potential. With some additional tutoring, he could become a true work of art! Have him report to my chambers later tonight. I would be very interested in providing… personal instruction.’


                    Lencius didn’t know whether to scoff with derision or shout in rage. This was a complete joke. You come in here, thumb your nose at their teachers, and now you expect the shinobi to just give you one of their kits? They’ve been unreasonably accommodating so far, but there is such a thing as limits.


                    Then he saw the sinister half-smile that flashed on Mokko’s normally expressionless face, and the triumphant light that began to blaze in Unaka’s eyes. And he knew.


                    ‘No,’ Lencius whispered. ‘No, you can’t. He’s just a boy, you can’t do this…’


                    Unaka cast a cone of silence again and glanced at Larethor and his bodyguards. The former was still transfixed on Harrow, and the latter hadn’t seemed to notice anything either.


                    ‘You need to understand, Lencius-dar,’ she said calmly. ‘The body of a shinobi is simply another tool. It needs to be trained, moulded, refined… and used to seize any opportunity.’


                    In the centre of the training field, Master Mokko was still smiling. ‘Of course, Commander. We will send him up with an evening meal, if you so wish. It is only proper for a student to pay proper tribute to his teacher.’


                    ‘Proper tribute…’ Larethor swallowed hard and ran his tongue over his teeth in oblivious anticipation.


                    ‘This is sick,’ Lencius hissed. ‘Wrong. You’re no better than the Twinstinger.’


                    ‘Oh,’ Unaka laughed. ‘We have never claimed to be.’













17 Comments   |   DeltaFox and 7 others like this.
  • Caladran
    Caladran   ·  January 29, 2019
    I don't know what to feel, but I want to scream and murder Larethor! He hurt Harrow. :(
  • ilanisilver
    ilanisilver   ·  March 11, 2018
    Because people call him Twinstinger, and because he’s named his penis, I swear, while reading I’m trying to picture him as an Altmer, but all I can see is a giant penis. Doing all the things. Just a penis. Well done. 
    • The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      Because people call him Twinstinger, and because he’s named his penis, I swear, while reading I’m trying to picture him as an Altmer, but all I can see is a giant penis. Doing all the things. Just a penis. Well done. 
        ·  March 12, 2018
      'Just a penis' essentially describes the good Commander's character. Excellent summary, teehehe.
  • SpookyBorn2021
    SpookyBorn2021   ·  August 20, 2017
    Uhh, I have to admit that I'm kind of... torn on the last couple chapters. I like it. I mean I definitely mostly enjoy reading it but I can't deny that the Twinstinger leaves me rather uncomfortable. But that I suppose the point, and I'm really hoping for...  more
    • The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      Uhh, I have to admit that I'm kind of... torn on the last couple chapters. I like it. I mean I definitely mostly enjoy reading it but I can't deny that the Twinstinger leaves me rather uncomfortable. But that I suppose the point, and I'm really hoping for...  more
        ·  August 20, 2017
      I did write Larethor with the intention of making readers uncomfortable. He gets... even worse next chapter, but don't worry, after that it's good old-fashioned bloodshed.
      • SpookyBorn2021
        The Sunflower Manual
        The Sunflower Manual
        The Sunflower Manual
        I did write Larethor with the intention of making readers uncomfortable. He gets... even worse next chapter, but don't worry, after that it's good old-fashioned bloodshed.
          ·  August 20, 2017
        Well, I assumed that was the case... I am rather happy to know that it involves bloodshed (hopefully lots of it). Really I I suppose I just have to say you did an excellent job writing him in general, everything from the reasons the Thalmor have allowed h...  more
  • Sotek
    Sotek   ·  April 29, 2017
    They always forget the window......
    There's nothing like a spear fight and the archery was great too. 
    The editing works well. Nice job with that. 
    • The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      They always forget the window......
      There's nothing like a spear fight and the archery was great too. 
      The editing works well. Nice job with that. 
        ·  April 29, 2017
      Thanks, Sotek-jo!

      And heh heh, yeah. An assassin could have slit the Emperor's throat right then and there.
  • Karver the Lorc
    Karver the Lorc   ·  April 10, 2017
    Great chapter, Harrow. Long-time awaited exchange between Larethor and Harrow has finally come and boy, that was good. This really shows how sick the Twinstinger is but also how damn good he is. Damn spear-users and their long reach, very tough to fight a...  more
    • The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      Karver the Lorc
      Karver the Lorc
      Karver the Lorc
      Great chapter, Harrow. Long-time awaited exchange between Larethor and Harrow has finally come and boy, that was good. This really shows how sick the Twinstinger is but also how damn good he is. Damn spear-users and their long reach, very tough to fight a...  more
        ·  April 10, 2017
      Haha, thanks. I admit, the spear-on-sword contest took some time to map out. I've seen bojutsu and sojutsu competitions before, but Western spearwork is quite new to me. Watched a few HEMA videos before I got a good mental image of how Larethor should fig...  more
      • Karver the Lorc
        Karver the Lorc
        The Sunflower Manual
        The Sunflower Manual
        The Sunflower Manual
        Haha, thanks. I admit, the spear-on-sword contest took some time to map out. I've seen bojutsu and sojutsu competitions before, but Western spearwork is quite new to me. Watched a few HEMA videos before I got a good mental image of how Larethor should fig...  more
          ·  April 10, 2017
        No fancy whirls, yeah. The spear's enormous advantage is its reach and speed, good defense, but disadvantage is that it is somewhat predictable in its offense. Most of the times it is held with one hand at the middle if the shaft and the other at the butt...  more
  • A-Pocky-Hah!
    A-Pocky-Hah!   ·  April 6, 2017
    A good and long awaited chapter, Harrow. I think my only complaint is the draw exhale release lines. In my opinion I think it's excessive and only meant to increase the word count. Reading the same lines over and over again forty-eight times can be a real...  more
    • The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      A good and long awaited chapter, Harrow. I think my only complaint is the draw exhale release lines. In my opinion I think it's excessive and only meant to increase the word count. Reading the same lines over and over again forty-eight times can be a real...  more
        ·  April 6, 2017
      Now that I read it again, it is beginning to feel that way. Made an adjustment and cut it off at the twenty-fifth shot, while also speeding up the progression of Lencius' trance. Hopefully it reads better.

      That right there is why I don't part...  more
  • The Long-Chapper
    The Long-Chapper   ·  April 5, 2017
    hehe, Gods, never, ever dictate stuff with your dick. Larethor is a dumbarse. 
  • DeltaFox
    DeltaFox   ·  April 5, 2017
    Nice chapter! :D Waited a long time to see it.
    • The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      Nice chapter! :D Waited a long time to see it.
        ·  April 5, 2017
      Thanks! Took me a while to edit...
      • DeltaFox
        The Sunflower Manual
        The Sunflower Manual
        The Sunflower Manual
        Thanks! Took me a while to edit...
          ·  April 5, 2017
        Yeah. Must have worn off that Spacebar. :)