Renard kept a tight hand on his rapier. Despite how tense he was and how ready he was to leap forwards in a moment's notice to put a hole straight through this mystery man, the black-clad Westerner didn't bat an eye. He just stood there with a nonchalant smile, shoulders slack and arms raised slightly at his side, as if questioning Renard's open hostility.
"Talk," said Renard. "But make any funny moves, and you'll regret it."
"Great!" The man leaned forwards and extended a hand gloved in sleek black. "Let's start off with proper introductions, eh? The name's Darius Blackhand. You?"
Renard did not take the hand. "Renard. Renard Laurent."
Darius shrugged when he saw Renard refusing his handshake. He drew back his hand and held it to his chin in a gesture of wonder, stroking the faint gray patches of stubble sticking out his chin.
"Laurent, eh? Sounds like a name from the Gaulois Province, and you do fit the match. Blonde hair, pale skin, on the taller side." Darius narrowed his eyes, sizing Renard up. "But not nearly as built as the rowdy tribesmen there. Did they not feed you enough?"
"You didn't come here to make small talk, I'm sure," said Renard. "So get to the point. Why are you even here? In a country that you're at war with?"
Darius clapped his hands together. "I could ask you the exact same thing, boy. I'd heard tell of a Dominion citizen all the way down here. At first, I thought you were maybe a prisoner of war, but look at you – they've given you clothes, a roof over your head, and a beautiful lady to spend your time with. I'd even venture to go so far as to say it looks as if you've made yourself at home here."
"Ah. What a shame."
Darius shook his head with a theatrical sadness before saying, "By decree of Lucius, first emperor of his line and Kingfeller, I am obligated to search far and wide to pluck Dominion citizens out of hostile territories."
"Unfortunately, I'm not one of your citizens."
"Oh, I'm sure. Not anymore at the least. And even if you did want to came back to the fold, the emperor would have your head lopped off for being influenced by these devilish easterners." Darius folded his arms together and stepped back. "You're smart, boy. I don't know what you did that put you on the run from the Dominion, but this is an excellent hiding spot. The locals treat you well and the territory is surrounded on all sides by forests crawling with demons."
"I'm not here to hide." Renard frowned, and Darius smirked. "I'm here to fight and end this war you've been waging."
"Interesting. Quite interesting." Darius rubbed his gloved hands together, a little tic of his that seemed to come out every time he found something amusing. "Certainly, you're no weakling. I can tell from a single glance. Which does make me even more curious about why you are staying here and siding with these people, but I keep people's privacy in mind, and I respect everyone's decisions. Well, boy, let me just say that I'm looking forward to what you'll do. If you truly do want to stick your head out in the midst of this war, then I'm sure we'll cross paths again."
Darius smiled for real this time. An impossibly wide smile that seemed to reach from ear to ear. His teeth were perfect and immaculately white, but their very perfection made them feel unnatural, as if they had been manufactured, not grown.
"But I sense that when we meet again, it won't be in quite such a friendly manner."
With that, Darius turned around, slinking over to the darkest corners of the room.
"You didn't think I'd just let you leave, right?" said Renard. He poised Sovereign at Darius's back.
"Turn around and stand still. You're not going to be leaving until this sect is done with you."
Darius cackled with laughter. "My boy, my dearest boy, you must be joking?" He wiped a tear away from one of his beady little eyes. "I do not mean to boast, but my reputation as a Blackhand should precede me."
"Reputation or not, it's not going to save you."
"Oh, you think it a family name of sort? Something that will let me ransom for my life?" Darius swiveled around and ran straight into Renard. Before Renard could react, Darius had already gotten in close enough to be face to face with him. However, the odd thing was that Renard had had Sovereign pointing forward, and Darius had phased through it. Even Renard's arm was phased through Darius, as if he wasn't there at all.
"Perhaps you lost your memories when you came to this place. Perhaps that is why you also call it home." Darius stepped back, letting Sovereign's steel edge slide out of him. "Then I shall educate you again. We, the Blackhand, are the emperor's eyes and ears. We are those that crawl in the dark, in the filthiest streets, in the farthest corners of the world, turning over every single stone and brick to find even the tiniest sparks of dissent against the emperor."
Renard was on guard, stepping back with all of his instincts on alert. He started to understand how little he knew about this world. How little he knew about what lay beyond the sect's boundaries, all the wonders and powers that would oppose him.
Darius noticed Renard's tenseness and laughed. "We are phantoms, boy. No weapon will find us. No prison will hold us. No barrier will block us. Know that no matter where you run or hide or slink away to, we will always have an eye bored at your back."
Footsteps echoed from outside the room.
"Ah, it does sadden me to see our meeting cut so short," said Darius, and Renard knew then that those footsteps were from the sect, and a sense of relief washed over him.
The door burst open, and Lady Zhou came in, her breathing heavy and her eyes tired, but with White Lily still ready on her hand. Li followed behind, his bandaged arm holding his heavy saber with shaking effort.
Darius noticed Lady Zhou and bowed. "Farewell, and make sure to keep my words to heart. If you truly wish to protect this little province, then you know what to do. I am always open to negotiate."
Lady Zhou glared at Darius. "Begone."
With a sigh, Darius started to fade away, his form becoming more and more transparent.
"Mark my words, all you little people of Xia. Your Western territory has already fallen to our hands, and these forests will not keep you safe for long. War is coming, and it is not one you will win. Choose which side to tread upon wisely."
And with that, Darius disappeared.
Lady Zhou left the room, meeting an entourage of guards that were waiting right outside. "Lock the village down. Do not let anyone leave. If you find this foreigner, do not be foolish and fight. Make it a priority to alert any one of us three."
The guards, all just villagers dressed in minimal armor and wielding shoddy spears, nervously nodded. Renard heard their footsteps, erratic and heavy, scatter every which way as they left the Zhou household and secured the village.