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Author Topic: Charred Life (Rewritten)  (Read 1280 times)

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Offline Echo_River

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Re: Charred Life (Rewritten)
« Reply #15 on: February 09, 2020, 11:57:43 PM »
Dream II

Hey…

Darkness unfamiliar to me was a suffocating blanket. My soaked clothes weighed me down as I struggled to rise back to the surface.

Light flashed from above. I swam towards it and emerged, gasping for air.

“Xehann -!”

I had to get back. Back to the top of the cliff.

No! Don’t kid yourself.

Scrambling to the shore, I threw off some of my clothes and squeezed the water from the rest. Then I got my bearings.

Trees. Lots of foreign trees.

So many lights.

Colours in the heavens and orange spreading through the forest.

How do I get back up there?

It’s dangerous, you fool.

Another flare of light lit up the sky.

What was going on?

Why did he insist on fighting alone?

I might be small, young, inexperienced, but wasn’t there a better chance of surviving if two fought together?

There’s a better chance if we don’t go, idiot.

“Don’t die, Xehann – don’t die – ”

I struggled through the brush with wild motions.

My feet crashed into roots. Fingers scratched through plants. Branches whipped my face.

Soon, my body moved slower. Arms felt like lead.

My steps slow.

I fell to my knees.

“C’mon – c’mon – ”

You’re going to die.

“We have to help Xehann –”

We need to survive.


“He needs help!”

You can’t go back!

Yaaaaaarrrgghh!!

I pounded my fists into the ground.

If I weren’t running from danger, I’d have wiped out the trees around me. But that would only expose me. That much was ingrained into my frustrated mind.

So I let the darkness engulf me again.

And I stood up, fighting the urge to lay low.

“Screw you.”

Hide. You must hide.

“I’m going.”

Don’t go!

“Don’t die on me, Xehann.”



Chapter 10: Raven and Eono


Dave’s first week passed without further incident. Roun took Dave around the village where he got to know more about his relatives, who lived where, what they did, and how exactly they were related. The back and forth to different areas soon made him an expert of the Tiuruh’s Family area so that he could navigate without Roun’s help. He even met one of his Grand-relatives who was going to hand make his very own traditional outfit.  Going to the fire pit every night, he met more of his cousins. No one bore him ill for his misstep the first night and he made very sure not to make another.

At the randomest times, Roun would disappear. To where, Dave never got it out of him, but the others, Dae and Kon mostly, always said with disinterest he was probably roped into helping with some festival matter. Summertime was full of festival preparations apparently. Or, a more popular opinion was he avoided work by finding somewhere to hide and sleep.

Of the young girl with the mask he saw nothing.

Her knack of avoiding eyes was even more masterful than Roun’s. Dave wondered if she was sensitive to the way people looked at her. No one had told him what happened to her face, but considering her reaction to “six years ago”... responsibility fell on the war.

Taboo. The strongest taboo Dave felt was asking directly about “six years ago”. Feelings surrounding that particular time lingered strongly throughout the village. Nobody spoke about it. Not a mention, a peep, or offhand memory. It confused him. The purpose of this festival and training was to train them for war, wasn’t it? Then why would no one explain to him the origins behind it? Was he supposed to fight without an enemy in mind? He might as well be preparing to wield a blade against a dream.

As much as he wanted to know, he was afraid to ask. And so another week came...

Early morning brought yet another change to the village. A mystical green veil of light emerged with the sun and its rays created strange fractals in the air that faded in and out depending where it fell. Fresh scents graced the noses of the boys as they sprinted away through the forest, in a rush to get to practice. It lacked the warmth of the afternoon sun, full of the morning dew, but it energized them. This raw light remained over the village like a drowsy spell and kept the creatures silent except for those birds impervious to time. Whistles and trills sounded in the trees with the wind in their ears.
 
"We're gonna be late!" Roun sped over dirt paths in panicked haste.
 
“Who woke up late again?” Dave panted as his feet stumbled on the forest path. "And who told my dad we would work hard and be on time no matter what?"
           
"Iz why I asked you to wake me up," Roun returned sans guilt. He moved with familiar ease through the leafy greenery. “The first practice I bring you to and this happens…”
           
"And who wouldn't get up for a whole half hour? He's going to be mad we left late."
           
"He'd be mad if we skipped out one-hundred percent and even if we didn't tell him, Raven would, 'cause Raven has no qualms about poking old wounds and slitting open new ones."
 
"And who was fussing over their hair like a teenage girl?" Dave kept listing on. "And forgot where they put their sword? Why would you go to sleep with it anyway?"     
           
"Alright, man, I get it." The remark ruffled Roun slightly. "It's my bad. I'll make it up to you later - assuming we make it through the practice."
           
"What exactly are we going to be doing?"
           
An unexpected but timely electric tone momentarily disturbed the charm of nature from Roun’s pocket, from which he pulled out a cell phone.
           
“It’s Dae,” Roun said, glanced at the message without losing speed. “She’s asking where we are. Everyone else is already there - Oh great."
           
"Are we being minced?" Dave asked, looking worried.
           
“We're doing a survival exercise. Raven loves survival."
           
Dave gulped. "What's involved in a survival exercise?"
 
"Oh, you know, the usual you see in movies."
 
"But what -"
 
"And there's penalty involved." Roun added. "Raven always includes a penalty."
 
“Penalty? What kind of penalty?”
 
“Depends on what her mood will be when we get there – either way it won’t be nice.” Roun spoke with nervous energy. “They’re never nice. Imagine you have the power to deal out judgement, whatever judgement you want, and you know no one will object because you can just beat them down. I swear all Wardens have a sadistic alternate personality…”

"Roun? I've having second thoughts. I don't know if I feel like going..."
 
"What do you mean 'don't know'?" Roun exclaimed without stopping.
 
Dave responded reluctantly. "Can't we do training on our own like we did before? I'm still new here and I'm still getting used to things..."
 
"Don’t go getting cold feet on me now! Besides, no one’s going to call you out. They'll be too focused on practice to mind you."
 
"I mean, I would feel better if I were more acquainted with what I'm expected to do -"
 
He had no time left to say anything because Roun suddenly crouched down in the thick bushes, signalling to be silent. He squinted ahead and whispered, “Oh no, they’ve already started.”
 
“Started? I don’t hear anything,” Dave whispered back, glad for the rest, the run leaving him winded. Except for the rustling of leaves from a slight breeze, no other noises reached his ears. If everyone was already here, they were being extremely quiet and invisible.
 
His cousin turned to him, a strange conflicted look on his face, as if he were an officer giving his final orders to his last marine. “Listen, Dave, this might really suck for you as your first practice cause I should have explained it to you beforehand, but are you able to fend for yourself?”
 
Dave tilted his head sideways. “Yeah, sure.” Considering the amount of unspoken details there wasn't much else to do and push for time.
 
“Then once I finish talking, make yourself as scarce as possible. If you hear any indication of someone heading your way, hide immediately and don’t get caught. That’s all you have to do.”
 
“But what are we doing?”
 
“The scariest version of hide and seek you’ll ever play.” Roun laid a hand on Dave’s shoulder and whispered tensely. “Now hide!”
 
“But – where?” Dave asked. But Roun had literally vanished in the bushes without a sound or sayounara. A sweat drop trailed down the side of Dave's face. Left alone, the boy could only follow the instructions given to him.
 
Various trees and plant life surrounded him on all sides. They'd departed from the road to an area that looked isolated from the village. Was he supposed to hide here somewhere? Standing, he could see somewhat over the thick foliage and thought he saw a clearing a little farther away.
 
With a slow blink, he felt drawn to gaze at a tree trunk on his left, then upwards into the tree tops at a particular branch above him, and finally his eyes settled on a cluster of plants thick enough to hide a person. According to his vision, no one else was around. Yet…his pricked senses told him otherwise. All around him, his instinct told him the other children were hiding, invisible to his sight. And he was supposed to do the same.
 
“What am I hiding from though?” he wondered.
 
His question was answered in the moment. Something in the distance moved into view so gradually like a ghost. The stark blackness of it caught the eye amidst the woods. Dave froze, as shivers ran up his back at the something unknown. He'd never tried to hide in a forest before, moreover from an astral being. Actually, far as it was, he couldn’t tell what it was… until it turned to look directly at him. By then, it was too late. He had the barest glimpse of a large black bird head with painted red eyes before it turned into a black blur, cutting towards him like a blade.
 
“What is that...?" Dave puzzled obliviously. "Not another wild animal?"
 
“Dave, run! That's the Warden!” a voice to his left fairly shrieked at him, a boy's. Kon?
 
“Why didn’t you hide?” hissed someone on the right, their voice young and irate.
 
“Shut up! She’ll find us!” The third voice came from above, Dae's, he thought. All three transmitted from the spots Dave had thought someone was concealed.
 
"Warden? Did I get found already?” Riveted in place by sight of those red eyes, Dave fell in a dazed trance as the bird head swooped towards him.
 
In that five-second gap between him and the black spectre, a string of words incoherent to those in earshot burst from his lips. “I don’t know. No, but - I mean, it’s kind of hopeless now – talk about bad ideas – Look, I have no idea what I’m supposed to -” Spitting words out rapidly, Dave raised his voice to whoever was near. “Hey, am I allowed to fight back?”
 
“Yes – but don’t!” Roun’s voice, somewhere.
 
Dave staggered backwards, eyes getting wider the closer the bird, but even still he paused in that last second as if thinking, or perhaps listening to something.
 
"Run, idiot!"
 
“Okay, got it," he said, finally.
 
"Got what?" A dark and icy female voice like winter riding on the back of night asked him. The bird swooped in and a hand shot out like a bullet to grab him. Dave sprang away with rivalling quickness, surprise plain on his face.
 
"I thought -" Diving behind a tree to evade another hand, the youth realized the "bird" possessed the body of a human beneath it - or rather a human body carried a grand headdress on its shoulders in the semblance of a raven's head. "I thought this was hide and seek, not tag," he gasped tightly as the person zipped after him. Panic spurred Dave, and he escaped being caught on pure reflex. Trees on the terrain helped to keep a narrow distance away from the pursuer, but no matter where he moved she bit close to his heels.
 
"Scariest version of hide and seek? More like tag with the final boss!" Dave scampered back and forth between trees, the bird's form a shadow in his periphery.
 
Unaware of where he was going, Dave broke out of the forest straight into a clearing.

"Cret!" She'd driven him into the open with no coverage. He braked, feet slipping, and spun back around, intending to run back into the shelter of the trees only to be met with a pair of red eyes swooping towards him. He reacted by leaping sideways behind a large trunk on the border of the clearing and the eyes disappeared out of view for a second.
 
The black shadow tore apart the bushes on the other side of the tree. Dave yelped, frozen in spot as the bird jumped into the air and flipped over him. Drawing a short sword, the dark figure in the headdress barely touched ground before rushing at him. Dave backed straight into the tree and in a blink found the bare silver blade pressed against his neck.
 
"Got you." The person under the bird mask grabbed Dave by the head and held him against the trunk with no gentle hand.                         
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Dave gritted his teeth, staying as still as possible. Her grip held him solidly. It was all but he could do to keep the cold blade from slitting him. For a moment, her attention drifted away from him. She clicked her tongue and barked out at the forest, “I thought I heard a certain evasive mole…”
 
At a closer look, the large headdress consisted of the top half of a bird’s head and beak that fell over half her face, hiding her eyes and exposing a sullen scowl. Black feathers cascaded down the back their silk shine blending in with her strands of hair. It added to her height though she must have stood as tall as Dave. Her outfit differed from the other Wardens, the long black strips hovering in the breeze in a ghostly manner, and her wide sleeves worn and tattered from years of use. “Raven” suited her to a Tee.
 
“This is pretty scary,” Dave gasped.
 
The red eyes looked down at him and the woman pulled a distasteful smile. She drew his face closer to the beak of her mask. “Scary? This isn’t scary. Scary is… Looking up at your enemy and realizing they see zero value in your life.”
 
“Yeah, I got that you weren’t going to kill me.”
 
“You think I can’t kill you because we’re family?” Icy mockery laced her dark tones.

"No. You won’t kill me because my dad would definitely kill you if you did – and much sooner than a Nanrot would.”
 
The Warden said curiously, “Oh? Who’s your father?”
 
“Jaanes Tiuruh. You must be Raven.”
 
“You must be the newcomer they’ve been talking about.”
 
“Are you still serious about using that knife?”
 
The woman paused lips tight. Sensing her hesitation, Dave chuckled. “Oh right, I almost forgot. If you do decide, mind my dad would arrest you first, and then kill you.”
 
Raven smiled slowly. “Why don’t we find out if he actually will?”
 
They fortunately never found out.
 
“And in comes the hero to save the people!” Right then, a man in black stepped out of the trees like a wood spirit and dislodged Raven’s hand from Dave’s head with an obnoxious slap to her wrist. Raven whipped her blade at the man who met it with a sword of his own. The clash of their weapons rang through the clearing.
 
Tension released its hold and Dave dropped onto his bottom at the base of the tree. He put a trembling hand to his neck, relieved to find it still intact while he kept a watchful stare on the adults.
 
“Eono, what are you doing?” Raven sounded displeased.
 
The man, self-proclaimed saviour, also wore the garb of a Warden. He shrugged in response with an unnaturally wide grin on his face. “I’m here to discover your training secrets,” Eono joked. “And to give my much-needed assistance.”
 
“We don’t need an Adsoku here.”
 
“Somebody didn’t get the memo.” Eono rolled his eyes. “I didn’t volunteer to come. Chief assigned me here. Something about ‘Make sure she doesn’t traumatize the kids’ and my, was he right.”
 
Raven broke the clash, attempting to take out his legs with her blade but Eono jumped into the air with surprising lightness and sprang backwards. When Raven started after him, something rolled at her feet. Light exploded in their faces. She was suddenly ten feet away, but nothing else happened. The light was only a miniature flash strobe Eono had thrown at the ground to activate.
 
Raven scowled. “They won’t understand if you’re soft on them – what are we training them for, sports?”
 
“What are you training them for, life after death?” Eono protested. “No need to murder them. If you’re trying to kill your kids, imagine how much worse the Nanrot are! Ooo!” He waved his hands about in an exaggerated manner.
 
“What is this, good cop, bad cop?”  Dave wheezed. “The adults are like this too?”
 
“If I was going to kill him, I would’ve done so before you arrived,” Raven defended.
 
“Tut tut, Tiuruh.” The sinister smile never left the man’s face. “You shouldn’t draw your blade unless you mean to draw blood.”
 
A murderous glare seemed to emanate from the bird’s flat eyes. “I hope you won’t regret saying that. I may take you seriously.”
 
 Eono sheathed his blade. “Deal. Why don’t we finish up this game and duke it out later?”
 
“I have nothing more to say to you,” Raven seethed. She turned to face the trees. “But I would like to punch a hole in your brain and empty it of all that merciful nonsense.”
 
Eono chuckled darkly. “Likewise.” He fetched his light and flashed the beam right into the dense trees. “I found you – and you – and you!” Left and right he shone the intense blue ray. Leaves rustled as those spotted frantically ran from their hiding spots. The Warden dove after them.
 
The two adults became dark blurs zipping in and out of the forest. Shrieks and yells sounded, followed by the kids returning to the clearing after being caught. It wasn’t long before a crowd assembled where Dave had seen none.
 
“I told you we should have spread out more.” Looking miffed, Kon entered the clearing.
 
“If you’d signalled us properly, we wouldn’t have been caught.” Dae came after him.
 
Dave felt relieved to see them. “So you were hiding together.”
 
“See? Even he could tell!”
 
Another figure slipped into the clearing behind the two and Dave stared. He recognized the little girl he’d glimpsed twice yesterday.
 
“Oh, you guys haven’t met each other yet, right?” Dae said without turning around. “This is my younger sister, Shira. Dave’s our cousin, Shira.”
 
The one eye not hidden by the wooden mask glanced.
 
“Hi,” said Dave.
 
Shira nodded silently. Her expression remained neutral; however, Dave couldn’t help feeling a gloom ooze from her small detached form. Talking to her now seemed untimely.
 
“I didn’t realize there were this many,” he observed, changing the subject. “I didn’t see anyone out there.”
 
“It’s ‘cuz the Wardens know where to look,” Dae grumbled. “They know the forest too well it might as well be cheating. Better if we did it somewhere else. They say the real trick is going where they won’t look. This area is overused.”
 
“And what’s the point of this ‘exercise’?”
 
“Survival.” Kon said quietly. “How well you can stay out of sight of the enemy, elude them, sneak by them. When you want to gain in the advantage in a fight, it helps to be where you can see your opponent, but they can’t see you.”
 
Dave hung his head, putting a hand on his neck.
 
The Wardens whisked back into the clearing, heads turning. Dave thought they were counting the heads to make sure they’d gotten everyone until Eono threw his hands up.
 
“You weren’t kidding when they said you needed backup.”
 
“You volunteered,” Raven returned coldly. “I don’t need your help.”
 
“Where is this guy?”
 
“Who are they looking for?” Dave whispered to Dae.
 
“Take a guess,” Dae said. “The guy who disappears when you need him the most.”
 
Who would that be? Dave scanned the crowd as well. Then he realized there was someone he wasn’t seeing. The Wardens conferred with each other again.
 
“Do they get something if they win?” Eono asked.
 
“No penalty.”
 
“What’s the penalty?”
 
“I haven’t decided yet.”
 
About ten minutes later, the Wardens still hadn’t found their target. Raven hissed through her teeth while Eono scratched his head. The children conversed restlessly among themselves.
 
“Great practice. Someone understood the point,” Eono remarked. “Should we stop?”
 
“Betcha he ditched,” Dae said to Dave.
 
Raven growled, but nodded reluctantly. “Roun! Come out!”
 
Everyone fell silent, listening for a return call. Chirping birds filled the gap. Raven made to yell again, when the leaves finally rustled overhead. And the lanky teen climbed down from the tall trees just beside the clearing.
 
“I looked there!” Eono exclaimed.
 
“Sorry uncle,” Roun flashed a smirk as he landed. “Do I win?”
 
Raven grimaced. “Once again. Happy?”
 
“Yay.” Roun cheered lazily.
 
“This ends the exercise,” Raven called out to the rest. “Split up into pairs for sparring. Anyone found standing idle will be sent to the deep woods to pick spax-berries.” This sent a collective groan through the company followed by scurrying to find partners. The group spread out into the other clearings so that there was enough space all around.
 
“Were you up there the whole time?” Dave asked when his cousin reached them.
 
“Nope. Can’t tell you more than that.”
 
“Didn’t you leave?” Dae prodded.
 
“That would score me a penalty. You can’t make me do one-hundred push-ups.”
 
“Okay, then, what is your secret?” Dave asked.
 
“It’s not even a secret. It’s logic,” Roun insisted.
 
“Unlock the treasure box,” Dae pressured. “Master of hiding.”
 
Roun rolled his eyes. “You were on the right track earlier: hide where they won’t look. But your idea implies staying in one location. What you should be doing is… think of where they will look and constantly move within their blind spot.”
 
“When you say it like that, it sounds simple,” Dave said.
 
“It’s not that easy,” Dae retorted.
 
“It’s not?”
 
“You didn’t even get a chance to hide,” Roun pointed out.
 
“Listen to him.” Raven was suddenly standing beside them. “Because that’s the only thing he’s good at doing – running away.” She and Roun locked eyes. From the stabbing tones of her voice it didn’t sound like she was joking. “Get practicing. Roun, you’re with me.”
 
“What?!”
 
“Dae, Kon…” The bird’s eyes flicked from them to Dave. “Do something about this one. See what he can do, because he doesn’t look like much. You…” Suddenly, she looked at Shira. The girl looked down. “What are you doing here?” Shira made no reply. Raven snapped, “If you don’t intend to do anything, why don’t you get a head start ahead of the others into the forest?”
 
Dae’s eyes widened even as she bristled, her tones taut as she tried to restrain the fury in her voice. “Warden Raven, can’t you make an exception?”
 
“No, I won’t. Why should I?” Raven replied icily.
 
“Because I am Shira’s sparring partner and you can’t say no to that.” Right on cue, Eono popped up like he’d always been there. He placed his hands on his hips with a smile that clearly challenged the woman.
 
Raven growled. “Will you never quit your monkeying?”
 
“Will you never stop asking obvious questions?”
 
“If we were on the battlefield, Eono, you wouldn’t be able to help everyone that was being attacked. Your corpse would be skewered between your enemy and your best friend – useless sacrifice. Or were you planning to be a hero? Because heroes die.”
 
“There you go again with the extremist attitude. No one’s going to die. Much less Shira.” Eono gently directed the girl to the side of the clearing, away from Raven. “I mean, they’re not going to fight anyone when they’re not even Wardens yet.”



NTS: Edits and Reminders
Dream II
- Relabelled "Prologue" to "Prologue: Dream I" hence this one is "Dream II"

Chapter 10
- Changed "Janos" to "Kon".
- Added time buffer to beginning of chapter.

Considerations:
- Not sure if the transition between Chapter 9 and 10 is too abrupt.

Here I got to introduce another couple of my favourite characters ^^
Which reminds me I should probably put some of the character art here...

No one is perfect . . . that's why there's erasers and extra paper.
DA: http://neysun.deviantart.com
IG: https://www.instagram.com/neysun_hao/
SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/star-lock

Offline Echo_River

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Re: Charred Life (Rewritten)
« Reply #16 on: February 15, 2020, 06:22:02 PM »
Chapter 11: Infighting - Pt. 1

I hope Dave is getting along with the others. Dae and Kon seemed to take him well – they can take care of him. He didn’t seem to be feeling too confident though... That’s normal. It’s only the second week. I hope he doesn’t overdo himself trying to fit in –

“It’s been a while since our last bout,” Raven interrupted his thoughts. “You’d better be prepared.”

Roun tugged on his gloves, making sure they were snug. They were an old pair, the wear on the palms and knuckles showed signs that he should replace them soon. The Warden and boy occupied a training area some distance from the others, hidden by thick foliage. They could hear the clash of wooden weapons as the children commenced their training drills.

Raven paced slowly around the edge of the tree line, her bearing like a bird of prey eyeing an animal about to die. She carried, instead of the jagged short sword, a double-ended javelin, that spun like a lazy fan around her wrist.

“This is… just a practice, right?” Roun frowned.

“Nervous?”

“Isn’t that your favourite weapon?”

“Thought I’d dust her off today.”

“I’m starting to feel a little concerned.”

“Oh?”

Roun caught hint of a smile under the beak of the bird. He took careful breaths to relieve the tension in his chest as he tried to find a familiar grip on his sword.

“Let’s start.”

It began as all sparring practices did. His body acted in the routine. Study the opponent. What did he have to look for again? Find openings. Nothing would escape the bird’s eyes. Attack based on observation of consecutive moves. Then Raven flew towards him.

"Ugh!” Roun cringed at the violent vibration caused by their blades clashing. He’d always hated the feeling. The tingle shook into his bones. A familiar feeling and a not so good feeling.

Technically sword versus javelin didn’t count as fair. That was the point apparently. Raven pushed him back, pushed him aside. Not a blade tip reached him, but neither did his reach her.

Over time, Raven sped up by a notch. She swung it hard first. Then the sweeps became blurs. Their shoes dug marks through the ground. What was she getting all aggravated for?

“What’s wrong, Roun?” Raven cut in, her form barely visible behind the flurry of strikes.

“Nothing,” Roun grunted.

“You’re not focused. Where’s your mind at?”

“What? I’m trying –“

“Where are you looking? Where is your weapon pointed at?”

What was she talking about? He was fighting as usual, wasn’t he? Sure, he felt like he was dragging his body around. Morning did that to him. But for some reason, if felt like more than just grogginess.

“Where’s your fight? Is this all you’ve got?”

The mocking voice spoke over the rush of wind, clang of metal, rustle of leaves. Those sounds reminded him of that morning. His mind wandered. Would Dave be able to stand against an onslaught like this? What if he couldn’t?

That dream from this morning was really throwing him –

“Get it together, brat!”

Roun missed countering. The blade point stabbed for his eye.

“Or you’re going to die!”

Zip!

It nicked him, drawing a fine line of red. Roun swerved fast to avoid it. Raven whipped out her short blade. He tumbled into the base of a tree or else it would have slashed open his stomach. On his back, winded, he saw the next attack coming unchecked and shivers rolled through him.

“Wait, Raven –“ Roun gasped. “Stop!”

She almost didn’t. The slice passed over him and gouged an ugly crevice into the trunk of the tree. Pieces of shattered bark rained down. Raven held the end of her stance. Tight silence fell into the grove. The other children had paused their training at the yell.

Roun lay still. He couldn’t even breathe. His eyes trained unfocused on the distant forest ceiling. Cold sweat trickled down the side of his head. When he tried to speak, the only sounds were stunted gasps.

Raven slowly drew back her weapons, red bird eyes dead and emotionless.

“What…did you say?” she said in a trembling whisper.

Roun forced himself to not look at her. He lifted himself up and stared at the deep cut scarred into the tree. Numbness seeped into him. What…what was that?

“You’ve got to be joking,” Raven said, voice taut. “Did you just tell me to stop?” A harsh laugh burst from her pale lips. “You…you’re nothing but a big joke, Roun.”

“I asked you to help me train… not to kill me.”

“Haven’t I been? Every year for six years? Or was that not enough for you? No, certainly, it’s been too long, You’ve become clumsy, soft, distracted. You have no purpose – no fire – for the fight. And to think the Heiress still keeps you around.”

“That’s not true!” Roun protested, but his voice sounded hollow to himself.

“Forget about becoming a Warden, Roun,” Raven spat. “You don’t even know what you’re fighting for anymore. It’s pointless. I’m disappointed in you – this is a  waste of time.”

Roun whirled. “How would you know - ?!”

Raven grabbed his collar and slid her sword up to his throat in a flash. She wasn’t calm. He could feel the blade quaking against his neck as she drew sizzling breaths.

Because you’ve forgotten,” she said with the energy of glass about to crack. “And I haven’t. You think I would still be here if I had? Every day I wonder why it had to happen. Why do we have to fight this war? Why did my family have to die in it? Why do we let them get away with it? And here you are – leeching off your position as the ‘Heiress’ Son’. You’re not thinking about avenging that ‘friend’ of yours. You’ve gotten all comfy and cozy in your imaginary den, thinking that as long as you hide in the Heiress’ arms you won’t end up like he did. That’s how I know and that’s what you are. You’re scared and you’re useless. And that’s why I can kill you right here and you won’t do anything about it.”

The Warden pushed him aside and started to leave the clearing, walking past the still and silent children watching them. “Keep on running, Roun. You can hide forever, but that won’t change anything. Don’t ask me train with you anymore. I’m done.”

Roun wasn’t sure how long he’d been standing alone in the grove. Probably because they’d felt uneasy around him the others had left. A hard lump in his throat made it hard to swallow. He drew in a sudden breath through gritted teeth.

“What does she know?” He gripped his sword so tightly his fingers hurt. Leeching? Hiding? Running? What kind of accusations were those? “What’s her problem? So I fumbled a bit during training – big deal! You expect me to be ready when I haven’t warmed up? What do you expect? Why is she still hung up on it when it's been six years? Scared? Yeah right. Shut up. You don’t know anything - you don’t know anything - !”

He dropped his sword. A cough caught his lungs. Roun bent over, holding his chest, assailed by an abrupt pain. When it finally subsided a few seconds later, it left him panting and tired. Cret, was he getting overworked already? That didn’t make sense. Maybe the stress of the week had finally caught up to him. Roun clicked his tongue. Pathetic.

In the presence of the forest, it seemed as though the leaves rustled together. Eyes flashing, he jerked his head towards the forest behind him, shouting, “I know you’re there! Quit spying on me and come out!”

A moment of hesitation, then a Noturn wolf emerged from the bushes. It trotted up to him and tried to push its warm and fuzzy muzzle into his hand but he smacked it aside. The wolf snapped back.

“You saw all of that, didn’t you? You can’t fool me with that face. I know Uncle Jaanes sent you to spy on me. You’re always watching me and Dave. And you’re going to tell him everything that happened, is that it?”

The animal, big as it was, whined and tried to lick his face.

“Stop it, you big baby. Tattle-tale. Double-crosser.” His tone remained harsh, but his fingers started to rub the soft fur. “And then you get treats when you do a good job. Yeah, that’s all it takes to bribe you…” Roun trailed off. He gazed with blank eyes at the wolf, and it looked back, a sort of inquisitive light in its large yellow eyes. Petting the canine helped him calm down. A small smile eventually came to his face.

“Hey… thanks for covering for Dave the other time. You did good.” His hand stopped. The smile dropped. The wolf nudged his arm, seeing him despondent. Roun paused half-breath, laughed anxiously. “I’m not hiding from anything… am I?”

A wag of the tail.

“You really going to play dumb? I know you know what I’m saying.” Roun picked up his weapon and placed it in its sheath with a scowl. “Raven doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She’s too upset about what happened she doesn’t really care if I do well or not. What does she know?” He glanced at the injured wood and turned away from it quickly. “C’mon, let’s go see what Dave’s up to.”

Though he left the grove, the groove between his brows didn’t leave, nor did the heavy weight brooding in his chest.


Chapter 11: Infighting - Pt. 2

“…And then the wolf flipped him over and he got a wild scolding from the Wardens.” Dae laughed at the memory. “Lesson of the story? Don’t mess with the wolves and don’t mess with the Wardens. They’re pretty much the same.”
 
“Roun gets into a lot of trouble, doesn’t he?” Dave said with a slight smile.
 
“Dave, keep your head in the fight.” Kon tapped him on the head with his staff. “Although I think the lesson of that story is actually – don’t be Roun. Now stop braking your swings halfway and Dae, would you stop distracting us with stories? What are you doing here? Fetch your own partner.”

“Raven said we had to do something with Dave so I figured it’d be us three together.” Dae shrugged. “Should I throw rocks at the same time to see if he can block them? It won’t count as infighting.” She chuckled at her own joke.
 
Kon groaned. “Ignore her. C’mon Dave. Stick up.”
 
Dave raised the staff they had lent him. He was only partially watching his training partner, able to move in coordination with the moves by not looking directly at the other. His other eye was constantly drawn to the other training pair not too far from them. Eono had been drilling Shira in counters. The girl kept up well, able to slide by or parry when the attacks came to her right side. But when Eono swung one at her from the left, she’d misjudge the distance and miss the counter.
 
Eono feinted a stab at her left side. Shira prepared to side step and redirect it. The warden withdrew his sword, Shira mistakenly followed it, put too much force into her step and stumbled.

Dave held his breath.

“It’s okay, Shira,” Eono said.

“No, it’s not!” Shira scowled as she stood and brushed off her outfit. “There’s no point…”
 
“You’re doing fine.” The warden knelt down, taking her hands in his. “You have a handicap, fine. But it’s all there, the practice and the habit. Now it all needs to gel.”
 
The girl withdrew her hands, giving him a guarded look. “Not when there’s nothing to stick it together,” she returned sullenly.
 
Eono smiled with a soft gaze. “Let’s try again, shall we?”
 
“Fine.”
 
Kon rapped Dave’s forehead with the tip of his staff.
 
“Ow. Hey.” Dave frowned.
 
“You wouldn’t have been hit if you were looking!”
 
“Is that how you’re going to play it? Okay, I can do that too.” Dave finally focused his full attention in front of him and started spinning his staff. It was Janos’ turn to watch him – exactly what he wanted. First, he did the usual – strike here, swing there, rap tap tap against the other staff, tap dap dap away the ones Janos threw at him. Then out of the blue, Dave feinted losing his grip on his weapon and threw it into the air. Janos moved in to strike – just as Dave thought he would. But he had his cards ready. He did a backflip, surprising them, and before he landed, whipped out two throwing daggers.
 
One aimed for the forehead Kon blocked, but the other nicked his ankle. “Cret!” He yelped, hopping on one foot and shooting a glare at Dave. “You sly little – show off!”
 
Dae cracked up, smacking a tree. “Dave’s a beast!”
 
“Sorry!” Dave hurried over to him. “Are you okay? I didn’t cut anything, did I?”
 
Fortunately, it looked like he’d done the damage of a small paper cut. “You really like to throw things, don’t you?” Kon gasped. “We’re going to have to fix that habit. The point is to hold on to your weapon. What good are throwing knives when your opponent can hit you faster from a few feet away?”
 
“Still, he owned you,” Dae chortled. “You can handle a fight as well as any of us. What were you hiding your skills for?”
 
Kon sighed. “Just try to focus on what’s in front of you, Dave.”
 
“Okay,” Dave said as gravely as possible, but a soft red coloured his face. They didn’t seem to hate him after all. If he could hold his own against them, this competition didn’t seem so bad. As long as they were his opponents, anyway… “By the way, who’s that other Warden?” He sneaked another glance at the neighbouring pair.
 
The three turned their attention to Shira struggling to get in range to strike Eono. “Raven called him an Adsoku. He must be from the family that lives in the cliff on the west side of the village,” Kon surmised. “Which is weird, because we’re usually taught by Wardens within our own family.”
 
“But you know what that means?” Dae nudged Dave with her elbow. “If we cross out all the Wardens involved in the training, we can guess who’s going to be on the judge roster this year. Then you can cater your performance to please whoever’s managing the category.”
 
“That’s blatant cheating, Dae.”
 
“Nah, it ain’t. It’s conforming to the system, taking advantage of all opportunities – ”
 
“Dave, most people pass when they’re eighteen, so don’t mind this willy-nilly child and focus on getting used to the training. Passing is bonny, but performance is better.”
 
“Right…” Dave wondered how much of that was true in an actual fight. As he’d never been in an actual life or death situation, it was hard to say. “Would you have to perform your best in order to pass?”
 
Sometimes you have to pass on a horrible performance, or a dirty one.
 
“I’d like to avoid that as much as I can right now…”
 
“What’s that?” Janos said.
 
Dave smiled briefly. “Oh, nothing.”
 
“Sorry, Shira!” Eono was helping Shira up again, after who knew how many times that was now. “Maybe we should take a break?”
 
The girl kept on a steady scowl. She turned her back on him. “Whatever.”
 
“Don’t say that. I think that was still good training nonetheless. Just keep practicing, okay? I’ll just check on the others for a bit.”
 
Shira waited till the Warden was faced the other way before she whipped around, grabbed a spare staff, and whacked the back of his legs with it. Eono’s knees buckled.
 
“Shira!” Kon exclaimed, and Dae gaped in disbelief on the edge of a short laugh.
 
Putting down the staff, Shira dusted off her hands with a self-satisfied look. A short-lived triumph, as Eono recovered himself and fixed an impressed eye on her. “Okay, I’ll give that one to you. Only because you asked for it!” He picked her up like a doll and spun around in circles while laughing. “Look who’s playing dirty!”
 
“Put me down!” Shira protested.
 
“Why do you keep babying her?” A dark voice entered the grove.
 
It was as if the temperature dropped. Raven stood in the entrance of the clearing, staring coolly at them all. Eono set Shira down. The smile vanished from his face.
 
Dave watched the cousins pass tense glances at each other. Could Raven have come at a worse time? Hadn’t Roun been training with her? And was it just him, or was her mood more acidic than before?
 
“Lighten up, Raven. What’s gotten you so grumpy?” Eono seemed to have noticed it as well. Slowly, however, even the man began to exude a chilly aura.
 
“You can leave, Eono. Your soppy training will only make the kids softer.” Raven walked through. Dave stepped back, as if the gravity surrounding her would crush him. Only Eono stood his ground and watched her narrowly when she passed him.
 
“Beat them hard, and they’ll turn so brittle they’ll break,” he said quietly.
 
“If breaking them will help form a better future, I’m willing to do that.”
 
“Raven!” Eono called after her, but she kept going. He started to follow, then checked himself. “What should I…” he mumbled in undertones. Dave barely heard him. “You think so too?” Was the Warden talking to himself? Dave stared. “I’ll try and talk to her.” Without a word to the warriors in training, Eono went to seek out Raven.
 
Both adults away, the tension in the grove lifted. They could finally breathe easily. Dae sighed dramatically. “That was scary. Did you see how close Raven was to punching Eono in the face? That would not have been pretty.”
 
“As I saw it, they were already throwing punches.” Kon shook his head.
 
Dave retrieved his daggers. He paused by the edge of the clearing. Raven scared him too, for different reasons, although he couldn’t place it exactly. “Maybe ‘cause they're adults, but they’re still acting impulsively.” He shrugged his shoulders at no one in particular and was about to return to the others when a prickle in his side caught his attention. Curiously, he peered into the forest. The leaves waved for a second, as if saying “nothing out of order here”, but instinct said otherwise. Reaching out, Dave pushed aside the bushes and found a certain cousin laying on the ground, hands behind his head, eyes closed.
 
Roun frowned.
 
“Oh,” Dave said. “How long were you going to stay there?”
 
A grunt. “Until practice was over.”
 
“Roun, sleeping again?” Dae and Kon discovered them. Groaning, Roun got himself up and stepped into the clearing with a yawn. “If he’s not missing, he’s napping,” Dae told Dave.
 
“I’m conserving energy. Unlike you folks, I had an exhausting session I have no strength to spare.” Roun face his palms out.
 
“Yeah, you don’t look too good,” Dave observed.
 
“If you want, you can hightail outta here before Raven gets back,” Dae snickered.
 
“And get automatic penalty? No thanks.” Roun snorted.
 
“Well, I doubt practice will last much longer, guessing from the Wardens’ moods about now,” Kon said. “Wouldn’t do you any good to stay, I reckon.”
 
At the mention of leaving, Dave quickly turned his eyes over the clearing. To his disappointment, the one he wanted to talk to had made herself scarce. How could she secret herself away so easily? “Hey, Dae, where did you sister –“ he started to say when he suddenly felt the air around him change. It caught him mid-breath, followed by a burst of noise.
 
A howl rose over the forest. Loud and echoing, it hid the location of the animal. When it struck a high note, the howl fell slowly, gradually like a police siren. Everyone went rigid, searching the air. If Roun wasn’t awake before, now he certainly was.
 
“What is it?” What’s wrong?” Dave asked, noticing the serious looks shared by his cousins.
 
“That’s a reinforcements cry,” Kon said seriously. “It’s an emergency.”
 
Roun took one second to listen to the howl, then launched towards one of the other groves without a word. Dae tugged Dave’s arm as she passed him and they all followed.
 
Several of the others ran the other way in panic while some froze in place hesitantly. Roun sprinted through the different areas, searching for a source of trouble. It was when they neared the farthest area that they heard sounds of dry metal bouncing through the air, rapid and solid, along with loud rustling noises of feet scraping against the ground.
 
“Don’t go that way!” one tried to block them. “They’ve lost it!”
 
Roun ignored them and pushed through to the grove. The scent of blood hit their noses. They stopped in their tracks.
 
Eono and Raven whipped from side to side of the clearing like twin bullets, tearing up the ground, trying to rip each other apart. A coat of red splattered Eono’s face. His eyes were a wildfire burning through the blood. He’d drawn two swords that whistled shrilly as they combated against the whooshing double-ended javelin. Not hindering her movements in any way, Raven’s headdress and billowing clothes gave her an intimidating presence. Their strikes rang out. The children flinched with the sound of each solid impact – attacks meant to cause severe injuries. If they didn’t know any better, it would seem like a tightly choreographed action scene, so narrow where the Warden’s movements to evade and counter without taking damage.
 
“What’s going on? Why are they fighting?” Dave shrank back. He stared at Eono and almost didn’t recognize the man. The sunny pleasant disposition was replaced by a murderous aura. Was he the same man from before? To undergo such a drastic transformation, what had triggered them?
 
The leaves rustled over them. An Acor child that had been left behind dropped down from a tree and joined them, his face pale and sweaty. “Did you bring them?” he squeaked.
 
“What?” Dae blurted.
 
“The Wardens! Didn’t you hear the wolf?”
 
 “No one else is here. What the cret happened?”
 
The child drew away from the scuffle. “I don’t know. They started shouting at each other and it suddenly blew up into that!” He fled without a second thought.
 
Kon pulled them to the side. “Wait, here, I’m going to see where the Wardens are.” His eyes darted anxiously, and he left them.
 
“Should we stop them?” Dave felt ready to bolt himself.
 
“I’d rather die by falling off a cliff and then I’d rather not die, thank you,” Roun raised an eyebrow, features strained.
 
“How can you be joking at a time like this?” Dae said timorously. “I’m going to call my mom.” She pulled out her phone, but Roun grabbed her arm.
 
“Watch out!” He yanked her aside. One of Eono’s swords flew through the air and stabbed the ground where she’d been standing. The wardens fight crashed into their side of the clearing. Having unhanded one of Eono’s weapons, Raven now seemed to be dominating the duel, forcing Eono back with her wide range.
 
The moment came. Eono found himself obstructed by trees. Raven stepped forward, spinning the javelin. One end slammed his sword into the ground followed by the other stabbing into his shoulder. Eono grabbed the shaft with both hands before it could sink in deep. They could see him shaking as it took all his strength to keep it from punching a hole through him. Blood trickled from his hands. He gave a shaky smile.
 
“Skewered between my enemy and my best friend, I take it?” Eono chuckled. “But what does it matter, when there’s no difference between the two?”
 
“There is none for someone with such a weak constitution as yours,” Raven hissed. “All it leads to is sending them to an early death – I guess you wouldn’t even care if it was your own family!”
 
Eono’s smile broke. Dave froze when he saw it. With all his being he wanted to leave the clearing, but the same wild look held him still. No long did Eono seem like a man. His eyes held the soul of a rabid creature. With unexpected strength, Eono flung the blade tip from his shoulder and staggered to his feet. Raven stumbled back, mouth agape.
 
“Raven – Eono - stop!” Roun shouted.
 
For the first time, Dave saw her hesitate. Her body tensed. She held the javelin with uncertainty. Surprise stayed briefly. Raven recovered and braced herself, as if expecting something to happen. She was right.
 
It happened in a flash. Black resolution wrapped around Eono like a case. Raven attempted to pin him again. Eono darted past it with lightning steps. Before Raven could process the shift, Eono wove in and grabbed her arm.
 
Crack!
 
Dae screamed involuntarily. Roun caught himself mid-gasp, eyes wide. Dave had flinched and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he saw Raven teetering with her right arm dangling at her side in a very wrong way.
 
Except that wasn’t the end of it.
 
Without pausing, Eono snatched his sword and rushed at Raven, no recognition of family in his eyes, a ragged sneer on his face.
 
Roun cried out, “Eono – NO!”

The tip of the blade swung towards her neck –
 
And a pair of black jaws grabbed the blade, wrenching it out of the man’s hands. A gigantic black wolf exploded into the grove and bowled Eono over with a roar.
 
Several Wardens swarmed into the area. Some directed their attention Raven and others to Eono, now pinned under the growling wolf. Rave cradled her arm and sunk to her knees, any expression hidden behind her mask.
 
“Great cret…” Dae dropped to the ground in shock.
 
Stunned by the sight of wolves, Dave stared. They were twice as large as the pup, their auras fierce and unfriendly. The one holding down Eono stepped off when a man knelt beside him and Dave gave a start.
 
“It’s dad…”
 
Jaanes either ignored or hadn’t noticed them. He grabbed Eono’s arm and forced him to sit up. Eono looked without seeing, no energy in his gaze. It was as if all killing intent had evaporated. The Warden gradually returned to his senses. Blood on his hands startled him. His pupils became two frightened pinpoints. A morbid look formed on his face and his mouth dropped open.

“Dear Cretanneh…” his voice cracked. “I…what did I do?”
 
 “Eono.” Jaanes shook his shoulders, trying to get his attention. “What’s going on here?”
 
Not hearing him, Eono cradled his head in his hands. Unexpected words left his mouth. “How could you? I shouldn’t have listened – this isn’t funny – stop laughing – stop laughing!“
 
“Get it together!” Jaanes struck him and Eono saw him, bewildered. The Wardens had taken Raven away for medical help, and now he was yanked to his feet.



NTS: Edits + Considerations
Chapter 11
- Didn't have many edits this time around, surprisingly. Altered a little bit of dialogue perhaps.

Consideration
- Maybe mention that Roun had regularly practiced with Raven before?

No one is perfect . . . that's why there's erasers and extra paper.
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