Lodaris carefully set a slate shingle into place and paused, look down to compare it to those already in place in the roof. The building that he was working on had once been a training dojo for the islandâ€™s militia, but increased isolation coupled with a population that wasnâ€™t growing had caused the military to shrink, and the building had been first used as a general garden, and then finally abandoned. It had been over sixty years since it had seen use in a military capacity, and another thirty since it had been kept in any real state of repair. Fortunately, the island rarely saw serious storms, and the building had been well-made, so Lodaris hadnâ€™t expected that it would take more than minor effort to convert it into a training dojo for his own purposes. In practice, five days later, it was becoming increasingly clear that he had underestimated it.
â€œYou know, I could have a dozen zombie labourers down here in about ten minutes.â€ Lodaris closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, then looked down into the wide courtyard. Once made up of tightly packed cobblestones, it was now filled with weeds, and someone had planted a tree in one corner that had grown and cast shade over several feet of dirt and grass. Alina was lying under the tree, dozing, while Steel watched Lodarisâ€™s efforts with an annoyingly critical eye.
â€œFor the last time, I donâ€™t want labourers.â€ Lodaris stopped working entirely to crouch on the edge of the building, looking down at the Abyssal. â€œThe construction and repair of a dojo is a sacred affair. The Essence of oneâ€™s soul is a part of the process, a dedication to the power of the spirit. There is no room for labourers who will not be part of the spiritual process of training.â€
Steel looked over the shingles Lodaris had placed. â€œIâ€™m guessing rain is part of the spiritual process of training?â€ When Lodaris glared at him, he shrugged. â€œIâ€™m just saying, you are undeniably an extremely skilled and presumably wise warrior and monk, but you suck as a carpenter.â€
â€œAs opposed to zombies.â€
Lodaris sighed, shaking his head, and returned to work. â€œIf it rains within the dojo, the students will patch the leaks. Part of training is learning that all tasks have a purpose. Those without discipline have no place learning the martial arts.â€
â€œMm-hmm.â€ Steel shook his head slowly. â€œThe sad thing? This still sounds better than my own martial arts training.â€
Lodaris nearly dropped the slate he was holding. Turning incredulously, he looked Steel up and down. â€œYOU trained in the martial arts?â€
â€œWell, yeah.â€ Steel shrugged. â€œAs an Abyssal of the Dusk Caste, Iâ€™ll have you know that Iâ€™m naturally gifted in all forms of death-dealing. Weapons, martial arts, bowmanship, mass combatâ€¦ you name it, I can kill with it.â€
â€œYou trained. In the martial arts.â€ Lodaris spoke again.
â€œDonâ€™t have to sound so surprised.â€ Crossing his arms across his chest, Steel regarded Lodaris stonily. â€œI happen to be an adept of the Laughing Wounds style, thank you.â€
â€œSounds delightful.â€ Recovering his composure, Lodaris returned to work.
â€œOh, yeah. Laugh a minute, if youâ€™ll forgive the pun.â€ Steel leaned against the wall. â€œThe core of the styleâ€™s teachings is the interrelation of pain and pleasure until we associate the one with the other. In theory, practitioners of Laughing Wounds enjoy being injured, and thus are fearless in combat.â€
â€œThat explains so much about you.â€
â€œI think I will choose to be offended by that.â€ Steel still had his arms crossed, but he grinned up at Lodarisâ€™s back. â€œI mean, you are speaking as a member of the religion that subjects their monks to increasing doses of fire in order to teach â€“ what? Restraint?â€
â€œEndurance.â€ Lodarisâ€™s voice was flat. â€œThere is a difference between accepting injury and inviting it. We teach the former. The latter is a dangerous path to tread.â€
â€œYeah, I know. I thrive on danger.â€ Steel grinned, and shrugged. He opened his mouth to continue, but whatever he was about to say was washed out by a sudden scream of terror from under the tree. Spinning, Steel dashes towards Alina, who was suddenly thrashing in her sleep, as Lodaris leapt from the roof of the building into the courtyard. He reached down to shake her awake. â€œHey, Breezy! Wake up, youâ€™re having some â€“ woah!â€
Steel somersaulted backwards as Alina vaulted awake, her chakram materializing in her hand, swinging wildly up at his arm. â€œYOU WONâ€™T SKIN ME!!â€ As Steel landed on his feet, his sais flipping into his hands, she looked around wildly.
â€œEasy, girl, I wasnâ€™t planning to.â€ Steel kept his voice light, but shifted into a combat stance. Lodaris, approaching from behind, narrowed his eyes as he regarded the two. For a moment, Alina stared around the courtyard as though she didnâ€™t know where she was, and then she twisted her wrist and the chakram vanished. Steel sighed softly and slid his sais back into their sheathes.
â€œWhat did you dream?â€ Lodaris kept his voice low, and Steel raised an eyebrow at him. Alina shook her head, holding it with one hand.
â€œThe acid sea, pouring from the mountains. So much pain, I donâ€™tâ€¦â€ She stopped, and looked up, suddenly desperate. â€œWe have to get to the Shogunate base.â€
â€œWe were going to. Day after tomorrow.â€ Steelâ€™s voice was confused, and he looked between Lodaris and Alina. â€œAnyone care to explain this?â€
â€œWe have to go now! It might already be too late!â€ Steelâ€™s eyebrows both rose at that pronouncement, as Alina started across the courtyard. â€œTheyâ€™re coming for it!â€
â€œWait.â€ Lodaris stepped in front of Alina. â€œWe will gather supplies, and then leave at once. And you can tell us what so frightened you.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know, exactly. But weâ€™ll know soon.â€ Alina shuddered, looking towards the mountain. â€œThere are Lintha coming here, and their leader is something dark and terrible. I donâ€™t know what, exactly. Some sort of monster, wearing his brotherâ€™s skin as armour. It wasâ€¦ horrible.â€
â€œAlright, then.â€ Steel smiled. â€œI can get behind this. Lintha-killing, and all. Just one little question before we get going.â€
â€œYes?â€ Looking clearly impatient, Alina looked back towards him.
â€œWhatâ€™s all this stuff about your dreams?â€