Hardcore: Qi Worlds

Chapter 104

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The old crone personally opened their cell, “Good to see that you are up and dressed. First, eat, then we train,” she said before walking down the corridor.

They collected their weapons and followed the old crone.

Gisael looked lithe in her leathers which hugged every contour of her body from her neck to her ankles. They were almost a second skin, one heavily covered in runes. Benzhi had instructed her armour to be made from the Gnoll Shaman’s hide, its maroon hue contrasted with her blonde hair and pale skin with a green tinge.

She wore her two ebony longswords, the leathers had been crafted into two sheaths for her swords, embedded in the hip down to her thigh.

Reyas was in her black leathers, which were similar in shape and runic patterns. The only difference was the colouring. It suited her alabaster skin and raven coloured hair.

The two women looked exotic, beautiful, and dangerous. They had shared combat experiences over the last couple of years as well as the link. Before the first battle with the Vaugend troops, they were strangers and today, they were bound sisters.

One of fire.

The other of ice.

Gisael considered things with her new perspective since losing Anastasia, Benzhi being captured and the revelation of her wind affinity. 

She was going through an evolution and every day, she identified less as a guardian and more as a member of Vanguard. So much so, that she did not consider herself a Guardian anymore. She did protect the Alpine Forest; that would never change. Nevertheless, the Vanguard was just as important as the Alpine Forest just as much as the glade and Mother were.

She would need every skerrick of cunning and luck to persevere here in the Myrkalfar domain. She needed to bend like a reed in the wind instead of being an ice queen.

She was of wind and wood.

A cool breeze surrounded her and talked to her, ‘I am yours’ it said to her.

Reyas: what are you doing?

Gisael: feeling my affinity. I am changing, growing.

Reyas: good, we need everything we can get. You don’t think they have any large cats here in this underground monstrosity, do you?

Gisael laughed. It was a rare sound these days.

They entered the cantina. Looking around, Gisael could see at least fifty full Gladiators. Judging by their armour and the fact that they were just in loincloths, they were another fifty trainees. The Gladiators consisted of all races, however, half were Myrkalfar males. Amongst the other races were grey elves, men of all different shapes and sizes, dwarves, and amongst the many exotics, there was a standout Mogui.

They all stared at the two women, while most of the men licked their lips in anticipation. 

Gisael led Reyas to the food counter. She could tell by the smell it was vegetarian; she was in luck. She just hoped the luck would continue.

She turned; their first decision was where to sit. The female Mogui was alone but everything she had been taught had told her not to trust this race. They were devious, deceitful, and their loyalty changed with the wind. Well, she was aware of her affinity for wind now.

She led Reyas to sit down with the Mogui.

This choice raised a few eyebrows but it didn’t take long for the Gladiators to go back to their conversations and meals.

“Gisael,” she said and flicked her head to her companion, “Reyas.” She said nothing else and began to pick at the spectacularly bad cooking of vegetables. The Myrkalfar were masters of qi manipulation, the curators of many rare techniques, and their cooking was shit.

The Mogui woman said nothing for half the time it took to scoop the gruel down their throats. 

“Pian,” the mogui woman finally said. Pian had white-grey hair that came down to her shoulders, her eyes were red, and her skin tone was a light red on pale skin. It was similar to Gisael’s green tinge on pale skin. Where Pian differed greatly was her horns, wings, and tail. Her wings did not look like she would ever fly; there were holes in the membrane. Her tail was similar to a scorpion’s tail and Gisael had to wonder if it held some type of poison. 

Pian was dressed in tight red leathers covering her breasts and loins. Not at all adequate for combat. She wore thigh-high red boots which did offer some protection to her legs and long red leather gloves which stretched almost all the way to her shoulders.

Strangely, she had no visible weapons although her she had sharp claws. Perhaps she used her natural weapons: her claws and tail, Gisael wondered. They would find out soon enough.

The old crone was indeed the head Gladiator trainer and she had several assistants.

Gisael and Reyas were sent for assessments by the assistants. This consisted of drills and then several spars against marginally tougher and tougher opponents. Reyas was afforded a wooden staff, while Gisael was allowed to use her wooden swords. 

Gisael did not care how they were rated, it was of no importance, and she did not have an inflated ego. She was more interested in the other gladiators, their strengths, weaknesses, styles, and abilities. 

The Mogui woman did indeed use weapons. All of them, it seemed. She was proficient in anything she deemed to pick up. Gisael was unhappy that they did not have an opportunity to spar her.

After the spars were finished, the day was complete. Gisael and Reyas had been ranked in the top ten Gladiators of the ludus. It was not surprising to them and if anything, they had held back a little. The Gladiators, with a couple of exceptions, seemed to be on a level lower than the Myrkalfar Knights. If Gisael assessed them correctly, they were on a level that would have been above hers before Benzhi’s special training that unlocked new abilities.

During the day, there was no sign or news of the Dread Lord. Gisael began to wonder if this Dread Lord died or if she was victorious. If she had run from the battle, she would have surely been back by now.

Gisael and Reyas spent a week in the ludus, biding their time, trying to gather information, and looking for weaknesses in the castle itself with the goal of escaping.

Gisael and Reyas knew that Benzhi was not near enough for them to sense him through the link or they would have been able to do so immediately upon walking through the portal. 

Gisael pined for the connection every day. She wished for it to fire up with his presence. Even if it was for a moment. Reyas could sense this from Gisael, which was fine, she was much worse. Where Gisael wanted Benzhi, Reyas needed him. It was a concern if he could not be recovered. Gisael did not want to contemplate this, but if he could not, she would lose Reyas as well.

Initially, they tried to form a relationship with a dwarf but he was very different from the Stoneskin clan so it was not possible. In fact, the dwarven gladiator would probably be delighted to inform their keepers of any plans to escape or even inquiries into Benzhi.

Against her better judgement, they formed a friendship with the Mogui. She was isolated, different, a female alone in the ludus. She was willing to exchange information and just chat about nothing. Pian did not possess much knowledge on the events of the outside world but she did tell them of the upcoming Val’Tien. A gathering of the best Gladiators in the Myrkalfar Empire. A gathering of the elite that none of the ludus had qualified for.

As soon as this event was described, Gisael knew in her heart that Benzhi would be there competing. Whether voluntarily or against his will. She just knew.

In that week, there was still no sign or news of the Dread Lord.

The old crone gladiator trainer returned to make an announcement during the mid-morning training since disappearing after breakfast.

“The Dah’Rul Clan, the Clan you all belong to, has informed me that the Dread Lord Katariz has perished during her latest slave expedition,” she began.

The old crone waited for that to sink in before continuing, “I have been tasked with selling all but the free Myrkalfar Gladiators, who will stay on and train until a new Dread Lord is ordained from the Dah’Rul Clan.” 

The free Myrkalfar Gladiators paid to be trained in the hopes of advancement, they were different from the desperate ones who were sold due to debts or just for capital for a family to survive. Of the one hundred Gladiators and Trainees, only twelve were free Myrkalfar. The rest were to be auctioned.

“It is important that you stay healthy and in top shape in order to gain the best place for yourselves. The more you are sold for means the higher your value, which grants you a higher status in your new ludus. As such, ensure that you train hard, stay healthy, and perform well during the upcoming exhibitions,” the old crone informed them.

Reyas: what does this mean?

Gisael: I am unsure, but it is an opportunity. There is a small chance our new owner is the Dread Lord from Sandstone. Or we will at least get within the vicinity of Benzhi’s link.

Reyas: all we need is the Mogui’s luck. But it is better than staying here. It is a dead end. 

During the next three days, several exhibition events took place with hundreds of Myrkalfar attending to peruse the wares and look for a bargain. Strictly speaking, Gisael and Reyas had volunteered. They were not captured, and they were not slaves. The only problem was they were not Myrkalfar. It was very rare for ones such as them to be included with the free Myrkalfar Gladiators. 

The nuances of becoming a thrall and the difference between that and being a slave were beyond Gisael. In any case, she did not care, she would not have wanted to stay here in this ludus. They would have had to escape and become fugitives in the underground realm of the Myrkalfar. At least, being sold gave them an opportunity to progress their quest without being on the run.

After the third exhibition, Reyas and Gisael were called in for an interview. A myrkalfar male and a female sat at a table, waiting for them to enter a room set aside for this purpose.

The old crone stated, “These buyers have offered to purchase you for your buyout, with the condition you answer their questions to their satisfaction. I advise you to do your best because your buyout is significant, given your exotic looks and ranking among the ludus. Now go in and do not let me down,” she finished.

Gisael wondered if the old crone profited from the sales. She probably did, given the effort she put into selling all her prized Gladiators for as much as possible.

“Gladiators,” the female Myrkalfar spoke, “Please approach. Trainer, please wait outside.” The female had white eyes, which was significantly different from most Myrkalfar as most of them had red eyes.

The female stood and began to use a qi technique. Although Gisael’s qi sight was abysmal, she could tell that the women had completed some area qi technique encompassing the entire room. What she did, Gisael had no idea.

“My name is Fain,” she introduced herself, “and this is Dyrk. We are from a coterie here within the boundaries of the House of Ileum.”

Gisael was familiar with the governing house but she did not know what a coterie was. Reyas and Gisael stood silently, they had not been asked a question yet.

“I have placed a barrier which will prevent others listening to our conversation, including using qi sense. And just in case there are any master practitioners, I have added another barrier to hide my qi techniques. So you may speak freely, you will not be overheard. Before we ask you any questions, I would like to explain why we are here and why we offered to purchase you for a buyout cost,” Fain explained.

“It has come to our attention that the one you know as Benzhi possesses an affinity to qi. The very same affinity that the Qi Sage possesses. It has also come to our attention, that you two are from his world and we have information that you are part of his warband known as the Vanguard,” Fain said. 

Gisael was concerned, this woman knew far too much. She did not need to look at Reyas, they may need to kill this pair and escape right now. Only, they were not necessarily enemies. In fact, why would she be explaining all this if she was an enemy? And, this woman had qi techniques that were far beyond her understanding.

“When the list of Gladiators which were to be auctioned was released, we checked it because we knew the Dread Lord Katariz had been to Benzhi’s world with the Dread Lord Azrul. Dyrk here recognised your race, weapons, armour, and names,” she continued.

“How?” Gisael asked a simple question.

Fain looked at Dyrk, who produced a crystal.

“Benzhi’s memories are contained within this crystal,” he stated, “I have analysed them thoroughly.”

“And how did you get that crystal with his memories?” Gisael asked through clenched teeth.

“I made it of course, I am a grandmaster wiper,” Dyrk said, unafraid.

“I am sorry, I asked the wrong question,” Gisael said, “why do you have that crystal?”

“We were hired to wipe Benzhi’s memories by Dread Lord Azrul,” he stated simply.

Reyas was about to attack the man, Gisael knew it before he finished the sentence.

Gisael: hold.

Reyas: why?

Gisael: trust me. You can always kill him later.

Reyas huffed.

Fain and Dyrk both watched them intently during this exchange.

“They have a link,” Fain said to Dyrk, “it is just like his.” She asked Gisael and Reyas, “are you linked to him?”

Gisael nodded.

Reyas hissed a warning.

“I have another question,” Gisael said. When Fain nodded, Gisael asked, “Why do you want us?”

“Because we want to protect the Second Qi Sage, once the Val’Tien is done and the Royal House of Val’Sharam works out that the affinity to qi is not a bloodline trait, then his life will most likely be forfeit or worse. We cannot afford to purchase him for three thousand qi kernels when this happens,” she said. “We want to work with you to get him away from the House of Val’Sharam and back to your world. Or to another. Anywhere where he can be safe until he grows into his powers,” she said.

“Grows?” Gisael asked. Benzhi was already incredibly powerful. He was the most adept qi user she had ever seen, with the exception of Mother and Mother was a thousand years old.

“Yes, he is but an infant in terms of his potential,” Fain replied.

“Very well, we can talk further when we are outside these walls,” Dyrk said, “they are with us now.”

He had read them that easily and was so confident he did not mind letting them know he had read them. These Myrkalfar were extremely knowledgeable qi practitioners, Gisael was beginning to see what Fain meant about potential. Her people were infants when compared to one of the four elite races.

“You should purchase Pian too,” Gisael offered, “that will make it seem like you are sourcing exotic gladiator women, rather than two thralls recently from Basal.” She did not know why she wanted to save Pian, she just had a feeling about the Mogui and what she said made sense.

Fain nodded, “We can do that, it is wise advice, thank you.” Fain scrutinized Gisael thoroughly and then she looked at Dyrk.

“She is his mentor?” Fain asked Dyrk.

He nodded. “She can be an ice cold bitch when she wants to be. But they are his memories, I am sure they are not accurate and aligned with reality,” he said, smiling sweetly at Gisael.

It made her sad that Benzhi remembered her as an ice cold bitch. She was trying to guide him and he was so…so…wild, so wild that she could not handle him. He was impetuous and impatient at times.

Reyas touched her shoulder, sensing her sadness.

Reyas: its ok, its one memory and taken out of context. He doesn’t see you like that, he loves you.

Gisael: thank you.

“Dyrk, see if you can speak to the trainer regarding the Mogui Pian. We would add her to our exotic collection for our new service we plan to offer at the Coterie,” Fain said.

“I didn’t say she was a Mogui,” Gisael said.

“I memorized the list,” Fain replied tartly, “if you are his mentor, then his training in qi is certainly lacking. No wonder he is all speed and strength and no finesse.”

Gisael did not know whether to be offended or to ignore the arrogant bitch. She opted for ignoring, she did not care enough to be offended.

“You fucking bitch, how dare you,” Reyas said, offended on her behalf, “she made it this far into your realm undetected, and she could lay you flat in an instant.”

Fain did not seem upset by her words, “Yes, but would she?”

Gisael: no.

Reyas: I want to go at her.

Gisael: we need allies and here is one handed to us.

Reyas: fuck. Later then?

Gisael: yes, later.

Fain and Dyrk concluded their business with the Dah’Rul Clan, purchasing three Gladiators: Gisael, Reyas, and Pian.

“The Val’Tien is in one week,” Fain said as they walked back to the Coterie’s abode, “that is where we will make our move.”

Chapter Notes:

Chapter 104: Captive 12

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