Darkening Sky, Chapter 14

  • Chapter 14

     

     

     

     

                    ‘Senior in the room! All rise – bow!’

     

                    ‘At ease,’ Harrow called, evening up a stack of papers as he stepped onto the dais. ‘You may sit.’

     

                    His charges sat down, barely making any noise. More than satisfactory for kits at seven to eight years of age. Their training was proceeding well.

     

                    ‘I believe I’ve met some of you already, but as it is only proper – my name is Harrow, Year One-Eight-Two Number Seven. Master Torako is busy doing independent research right now, so I will be standing in for your lectures until lunch.’ Harrow felt a twinge of shame. If he hadn’t been so openly eager about the Yamayubi Raizuki, he was certain that Torako wouldn’t be flinging himself into researching lightning magic just to keep him from killing himself.

     

                    Even so, Torako’s concern for him set him at ease. I can always rely on Master. The thought was warm and comforting.

     

                    He cleared his throat. ‘I hope you’ve all had a productive training session earlier? Some of you don’t look that tired…’

     

                    ‘We’ve been working hard, Master Harrow!’ The loud announcement came from a lively kit sitting in the front row. Kyuna, he recalled. Year 192 Number Six, brown eyes, red pelt. Tiny even for her age.

     

                    ‘There’s really no need to call me “Master”. “-jo” is fine.’ Harrow shot a glance at the schedule, plopped neatly at the top of his stack. ‘Hmm. All right, everyone, go and fetch an upper torso model. Your homeroom exercise for this morning is throatcutting.’

     

                    ‘Yes, sir!’

     

                    The kits hustled towards the back of the classroom and picked out their models. They were essentially dummies that had been cut off from the chest down, sharing the same precise anatomical detail of standard Tsukikage practice targets. Harrow picked one out himself and produced a wooden training kunai.

     

                    ‘Blades out,’ he called as the class settled back in. ‘You should have done this many times already, but just as a formality – observe.’

     

                    He slid the kunai under the model’s jaw. ‘Blade perpendicular to forearm, edge at acute angle to skin. Hand,’ he raised his hand for show and slowly wrapped it around his target’s mouth. ‘Around the lips, tight, sealing off air. Fingers down, point of leverage: chin. Tilt the head back to expose more of the throat. Execute.’

     

                    The kits followed his motion as closely as they could.

     

                    ‘Adequate!’ Harrow said. ‘Now remember the mantra. Short fast strokes. Short fast strokes. Saw past the tissue; open the windpipe. Remember to start from here – who remembers what this is called?’

     

                    ‘Duh cawotid artewy!’

     

                    ‘Correct, Nara. And why is it important?’

     

                    ‘It brings blood to the head, so cutting it stops the head from working!’

     

                    ‘The brain, Koichi, remember the distinction. Organs come first.’

     

                    ‘Harrow-jo, I have a question.’

     

                    ‘Kotaro, yes? You may ask.’

     

                    ‘The older kits say that all shinobi can cut throats with one big slash! Why can’t we do the same?’

     

                    ‘Basics first,’ Harrow cautioned. ‘You haven’t taken the Pale Flask yet and your physical strength is still low. You have all been to cadaver examination sessions and dissections already – remember that although the throat is indeed a weak point of the body, cartilage and even just flesh in general is a bit tougher than you might initially assume. If you can’t even saw open a neck properly, what hope do you have of slitting throats with one slash? Short fast strokes now, big slashes and more advanced cuts later.’

     

                    ‘As you say, Harrow-jo!’

     

                    ‘Any further questions? No? Then repeat the motion for five minutes, all. Starting now.’

     

                    ‘Yes, sir!’

     

                    Harrow walked around the room in a circle, observing the sixteen kits of the class and correcting their postures. ‘Keep your wrist steady – Nara, be careful with that grip, you could end up cutting your fingers – do calm down, Aika, the exercise is throatcutting, not complete decapitation. All right, everyone, swap hands!’

     

                    When the exercise ended, Harrow had the kits return the models to the shelf at the back of the classroom.

     

                    ‘Well done, all. Now, your first lecture today is military history. Master Torako tells me that your progress has been fast, having covered both early and late Merethic as well as most of the First Era. As per his notes, today we will be…’ – he examined the next page in the stack to confirm – ‘…continuing your exploration of Akavir during the Twenty-Seventh Century. Aha, this topic ought to be of great interest to you all. Textbooks out, please, and turn to the chapter “Shinobi of the Twenty-Seventh Century” – page three hundred and ninety-four.’

     

                    As the kits sat down in front of their desks and brought out their books, Harrow opened his as well. Hmm, they’re using a newer edition of First Era Warfare – I wonder if the instructors have made any substantial changes.

     

                    ‘As Master Torako has already explained in previous lectures,’ Harrow read from the notes. ‘Shinobi of First Era Akavir were vastly different from us Tsukikage shinobi of modern times – so different, in fact, that the word has entirely different connotations. And what did shinobi mean back then?’

     

                    Kyuna raised her hand. ‘Scout!’

     

                    ‘It would be a little more historically accurate to say ‘spy’, but that aside, yes. Shinobi did act as scouts, and the deployment of shinobi was central to the battlefield tactics of the warlords and generals of the different Akaviri nations. With this in mind – who were the ancient shinobi?’

     

                    ‘Everyone and anyone could have been one,’ Kotaro called. ‘From peasants to mercenaries to samurai to the actual specially trained shinobi.’

     

                    ‘Correct – “shinobi” was more of a title back then, referring to anyone who engaged in espionage. There were Tsaesci and Tang Mo and Po’ Tun shinobi and records indicate even the Kamal had their own shinobi. Why wouldn’t they? Anyone who spied and gathered intelligence was a shinobi in those times, and the Kamal were a military force to be reckoned with. Excellent reference to the individuals who did specialise in the shinobi arts, Kotaro, I see you’ve been reading ahead. Yes, there were manuals and guidelines for shinobi, and the many, many instructors teaching them eventually formed shinobi villages for the express purpose of raising specialised operatives. These are our precursors. Most of the skills they passed down are still used by Tsukikage operatives today, involving the techniques of silent movement, concealment, and other skills of stealth.’

     

                    ‘Harrow-jo, what about combat techniques?’

     

                    ‘The shinobi of old were not the prominent killers that we are today. Even for us, the combat techniques that we use are an amalgamation of everything our instructors found useful in history. A shinobi in ancient times might not have been someone capable of fighting at all, and the ones who did come from a variety of different backgrounds, which means they practiced a variety of different fighting styles. Shinobi who were samurai, for example, would have fought as other samurai did, with katana and shuriken. We ourselves owe our particular set of skills to our being descendants of a single shinobi contingent – the assassination specialists who would go on to become Furiya-ri’s Shadeclaws. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. The Akaviri invasion of Tamriel won’t be covered until the end of your year. Returning to the Twenty-Seventh Century…’

     

                    The history lecture lasted one and a half hours, which was followed by a short recess and then an equally long lesson on arithmetic. At their age, the kits were beginning their training in the use of abacuses, and the click-clack of the wooden counting beads filled the room as Harrow presented the class with a set of moderately difficult mathematical problems. Arithmetic wasn’t just important because of its applications in military strategy, but also because it helped future Shadeclaws adopt the identity of storeowners, clerks, and – most regularly – Khajiit caravan merchants.

     

                    ‘The final question is a scenario: You are the captain of a unit assigned to infiltrate a fort and your cell is currently in the midst of performing reconnaissance. The fort is traditional Imperial concentric and the outer walls are perfectly rectangular apart from two drum towers protruding from the western and the eastern walls. The drum towers are perfect semicircles with a radius of one hundred feet. As you eavesdrop on the guards, you find out that the merlons on the battlements are exactly four feet wide and spaced exactly two feet apart from each other. Your teammates scatter and return, reporting that there are one hundred and sixty merlons on the west wall and two hundred merlons on the north wall. What is the perimeter of the fort? Pass your work to the front when you are done.’

     

                    The scenario is utter nonsense and the exact measurements of the perimeter is almost entirely irrelevant to the mission, Harrow thought, mildly amused. Well, it’s still important to cultivate a sense of arithmetic and geometric literacy for young shinobi-in-training.

     

                    ‘Ah, all done? Very good.’ He collected the stacks on each front desk and bowed lightly. ‘You may break for lunch a few minutes early.’

     

                    Year 192 rose and bowed deep, then filed out the door in a line. Harrow sat down and looked over their calculations. Mistakes were few and far between. Quick and efficient, he nodded to himself. Master Torako should be proud. The new generation will be fine additions to the ranks.

     

                    He marked the kits’ classwork and left the training halls, heading out into the village. It was noon now and the sun was glaring brightly overhead in a cloudless sky. For Harrow it was almost warm. It was a little improper, but he pulled on his tunic and loosened his collar to two inches below his neck, letting the chill air of Mount Furiya cool his throat. He caught a snowflake on his finger and let it melt, content. Teaching had been a surprisingly fulfilling experience. I belong here, he thought, flooding a little with satisfaction.

     

                    A few of the younger kits looked at him curiously as they passed each other. Harrow inclined his head at them and they bowed hastily in return. I am likely the first non-Po’ Tun that our children have ever seen in their lives. It was a strange thought.

     

                    The village was seeing quite a bit of increased activity as the year drew to a close. Most everyone was coming back for the New Year’s Festival, and Harrow recognised a few acquaintances on his way back to his chambers. Haruka waved at him from across a wide street and he bowed in reply. Madam Nightshade looked as well-groomed as ever. Harrow wondered how her brothel was doing – presumably quite well if she was willing to leave it for a full month. Working at the Bouquet had been an enlightening experience, and he was glad Haruka was able to come home for New Year’s.

     

                    Harrow reached his block in the living quarters and leapt up to the first floor, where his room was. He pushed the door open and frowned. There were crumbs scattered across the floor. He took off his boots and entered, sweeping up the crumbs with a broom and pan. A note had been pinned to his wall with a shuriken. The handwriting was a messy scrawl – unmistakable.

     

                    Harrow,

     

                    I stopped by to return the Vivec poetry collection you ‘lent’ me last week (you always read such boring stuff, I mean, really, and then you just had to force it on me too) but you weren’t here so I just put it back on your bookshelf.

     

                    P.S. I ate some of your rice crackers. Did you make them yourself? They were delicioussssss. Thanks a bunch.

     

                    A smiley face was drawn at the very bottom, complete with whiskers.

     

                    Irritated, Harrow let his cheeks puff out as he checked his pantry. Ambarro had left him exactly four rice crackers. Glowering, he checked his bookshelf next. Ah, of course. He whisked the book out of where Ambarro had slipped it and placed it back on the lower shelf. Then he sat down at his desk, dipped his stylus into his inkpot and whipped out a sheaf of paper.

     

                    Dunce –

     

                    I shouldn’t have expected you to appreciate the subtlety of Vivec’s compositions, but could you at the very least have put it back in the proper alphabetical order? Fear not, this will be my last attempt to get you to read anything other than the latest High Rock pulp novels. The library truly is wasted on you.

     

                    P.S. At least you have a miniscule amount of good taste. Yes, I made them myself.

     

                    P.P.S. ‘Some of it’! You took sixteen out of twenty; just say that you ate almost all of the blasted crackers instead of giving me false hope that you showed some restraint for once. I can make more if you promise to share them with Diia.

     

                    P.P.P.S. Please for the love of Furiya stop messing up this room. I only got it three months ago after a one-and-a-half-year queue and the last thing I need is you coming in here scattering crumbs all over the place and putting holes in my wall. Like with this shuriken here.

     

                    He yanked the dart out of the wall, took the note, streaked towards Ambarro’s room, went inside – it wasn’t as messy as it used to be thanks to Diia – and nailed his message right above the cot with the shuriken. Then he went back to his own room to make lunch.

     

                    His larder was still half stocked. Harrow extracted a large section of pork belly and thawed it out with a brief stream of magic. Before he shut the larder, he ducked his head in and checked the lining of the frost runes carved inside. Still intact and still flush with magicka. He ducked back out, sharpened a knife, and cut up the pork belly into four big slices. Then he went back to the pantry for rice.

     

                    The room was conveniently positioned right outside one of the mountain springs that ran through the village. Harrow lowered a bucket from a rope, drew from it, washed some rice, poured it into a bamboo steamer, plopped it on top of a grated pot with the appropriate amount of water and set it on the slab of reactive stone that Tsukikage residents used as stoves. He touched the bottom with a finger and fed it with another stream of magic. The water was boiling in one minute. As the rice began to cook, Harrow drew another bucket of water, fried up sesame oil, flour and curry powder into a sauce, and began to stew the pork belly slices in a second pot. As the stew began to bubble he gave it a stir, then peeled, cubed and dropped a potato into the mix.

     

                    When the curry was done, he poured it over the rice and garnished with a sprinkling of diced scallions. He packed two servings into lacquered bento boxes, sealed them tight with twine, and left his chambers.

     

                    His room was on the southeastern block of the Tsukikage living quarters, placing him closer to the library and the training area. It took him only ten minutes at a brisk walk to reach Torako’s office, and he’d stopped for a moment to buy a bamboo chute of soymilk from a nearby vendor’s cart – there were a great deal more of them now that over half of the village population was already home.

     

                    Harrow could hear Torako flipping pages and muttering calculations to himself from outside the office. He knocked. His master was at the door immediately.

     

                    ‘Afternoon, kit,’ Torako said cheerfully, even though he looked just a little bit more unkempt than usual. He gestured towards a table and produced a spare mat. ‘There you go. I could smell the curry through the window; it was beginning to drive me mad. I’ll get some chopsticks... Ah, you brought a chute of tonyu too, lovely. Here, use these cups.’

     

                    ‘Of course, Master.’ Harrow knelt on the mat and sat the lunchboxes on the table, then poured the soymilk into the cups and slid one forward to where Torako had sat cross-legged. ‘Since the New Year’s Festival is approaching, I thought I’d splurge a little and use some pork belly from the village imports. Cheydinhal hog.’

     

                    ‘No complaints here,’ Torako laughed, raising his chopsticks as he popped the lid off his meal, inhaling the steam with a sigh. ‘I haven’t had pork in two months and Cheydinhal hog is one of the Gourmet’s choices for braising and stewing, according to their latest cookbook.’

     

                    Harrow’s lips twitched. ‘You’ve been reading the Gourmet’s works?’

     

                    ‘Well, yes. Now that I think of it, didn’t you meet them personally during one of your missions to High Rock last year? Mmph. This tenderness is something else. I know whose food stall I’ll be visiting the most during the Festival.’

     

                    ‘Thank you very much, Master. If you must know, I did chance upon the Gourmet during my assignment to Shornhelm.’ Harrow picked up a mouthful of curry and rice with his chopsticks and slipped it between his lips.

     

                    ‘As I recall, that was to gather intelligence on the band of wizards in the King’s court. You infiltrated the castle as the saucier for the second kitchen,’ Torako took a draught of soymilk and continued. ‘Did you actually speak with the Gourmet directly? I was under the impression that only very few know of their identity… come to think of it, they’re far more obscure than we are.’

     

                    ‘No, I didn’t have the chance to speak with the man personally.’ Harrow nibbled at a chunk of pork, then dabbed delicately at his mouth with a handkerchief and sipped at his cup. ‘I did observe a strangely well-dressed Orc leaving the first kitchen through the back door stuffing a chef’s hat and apron into his pack, and the sous-chef was clutching at a newly signed copy of Uncommon Taste. The ink on the signature was fresh.’

     

                    ‘I see. A pity that you couldn’t meet directly. From what I’m tasting right now, I doubt even Bengakhi-ra has anything left to teach you.’

     

                    ‘You flatter me, Master…’

     

                    ‘No,’ Torako munched on a strip of perfectly glazed fat and meat. He swallowed. ‘Aaah. No, I don’t believe I do. If you are to further advance your skills in this field, then you will need training from the leading experts in Breton haute-cuisine.’

     

                    ‘Unless I’m aiming to disguise myself as the head chef of major noblemen, Master, I’m not sure my time permits-’

     

                    ‘Well,’ Torako’s eyes twinkled. ‘It’s as much for your village comrades as it is for your own missions, no? You wouldn’t want to deprive us of the opportunity to enjoy the best food in Tamriel from the comfort of home, would you?’

     

                    ‘Ah-’ Harrow was at a temporary loss for words.

     

                    ‘Only joking, dear boy.’

     

                    Harrow allowed himself a small chuckle. ‘Very good, Master.’

     

                    They finished their meal making similar small talk. Then, as Torako drained the last of his drink, Harrow finally broached the question.

     

                    ‘Master, have you made any further progress on refining the Raizuki?’

     

                    Torako huffed. ‘Only very little.’

     

                    ‘Even just a little, sir-’

     

                    ‘Harrow, even if I manage to devise some method to take away the spell’s surefire penalty of death – which I have not – testing it will be a severe risk. A bolt of true lightning is pure and absolute destruction. To channel that amount of energy, even with magicka, through living flesh… well, it’s a suicide technique for a reason. There has been a total of fourteen master shinobi who have used the spell throughout our two millennia of history. Without fail, all fourteen eliminated their target but also killed themselves instantly.’

     

                    ‘Master,’ Harrow murmured. ‘Let me help. I am greatly invested in your efforts as well.’

     

                    Torako bit his lip. ‘A week ago I would have refused, but – the more I examine our records, the more intense my desire to make this spell safe to use. Something of this offensive capability… very well.’

     

                    ‘Master!’ Harrow said happily.

     

                    ‘I’m done repeating myself about the need to be careful,’ Torako smiled. ‘As the two only shinobi in the village capable of using the Finger of the Mountain, we are uniquely qualified.’ His face sobered quickly enough. ‘Even then, however – our knowledge of lightning and electricity remains woefully lacking, and we require nothing less than total understanding if we are to perfect the Yamayubi Raizuki. The amount of research we need to perform will be staggering. I hope you are prepared.’

     

                    ‘Always, Master.’

     

                    ‘Good. We will begin,’ Torako raised a finger. ‘After New Year’s. All of us have been working ceaselessly throughout the year, both on our own ends and our collaboration with the Imperial war machine. A week or so of rest and relaxation would help us refocus.’

     

                    ‘Not even a little bit of reading, Master?’

     

                    ‘Stop sounding so crestfallen,’ Torako swatted his student playfully on the head. ‘Now go on, off with you, and start drawing up recipes for the Festival. I expect nothing but excellence from your stall.’

     

                    ‘Yes, sir.’ Harrow tried his best not to sound glum, packing up his lunchboxes in silence.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

Comments

2 Comments   |   A-Pocky-Hah! and 2 others like this.
  • The Long-Chapper
    The Long-Chapper   ·  Fri at 12:25 PM
    Haha, assassination for babies! Love it, they can't even speak correctly yet, but dang nabbit, they will slash throats properly! I enjoyed the conversation between Torako and Harrow. Nummy food, made me hungry for curry.  It is nice to see a chapter ...  more
  • ilanisilver
    ilanisilver   ·  Thu at 1:12 PM
    it's unspeakably chilling, reading about those babies learning how to slit a throat. you mentioned something last time when we were talking about the previous chapter, about the satisfaction of rooting for an antagonist (galathil). it IS nice, having a mu...  more