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Author Topic: Charred Life (Rewritten)  (Read 6361 times)

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Offline Echo_River

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Re: Charred Life (Rewritten)
« Reply #30 on: April 22, 2020, 01:44:31 PM »
Sounds good, Lego. My stock of chapters is running low too, so no rush.

Speaking of changes to be made, I finally went and revamped the world map of my story.
This is the current version I am working with. Based off the hazy impressions in mind, it is still a WIP as I try to iron out certain sections of the story. Not all names are set in stone. If anything, they mark rough locations of where I picture a few of the communities to be.




If you're interested in seeing what the old world looked like...
Spoiler

Personally I'm rather attached to the old layout since it has a more open feel to it, however the reason I've had to abandon it is because I basically mashed several stories onto one map. ...Yeah. And while I really liked the idea of characters from different universes possibly encountering each other, the power mechanics of each story are very different. I mean, unless I unnecessarily twist universe rules just to make it work....? X'333 Eh, nah.

Thus, new map.

That being said, I'll probably recycle parts of the old map, and you might see certain sections pop up in other stories of mine (if I ever get to working on them ahah).
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Offline Echo_River

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Re: Charred Life (Rewritten)
« Reply #31 on: April 24, 2020, 02:09:52 PM »
Edited 2020-6-21 --

Chapter 14: Opposing Sentiments

It was the third week into the summer holidays at the village. As ordered, or threatened depending on whose viewpoint you took, the three children sworn to secrecy had not let a word slip about what they witnessed at the Hall. A few days wasn’t enough to bury their questions, but there were other things to occupy their time meanwhile.

Roun had Dave accustomed to the training routine. His cousin even knew how to navigate through the forest around the Family Area on his own now. Most of the relatives were familiar with the sight of the two boys scampering in and out at the odd time. Shira was a scarce sight, but when Dave did see her, she was always by herself in the forest and would vanish soon after, like a wood spirit.
           
As a new week started, the four of them, Roun, Dave, Shira, and Dae found themselves invited for lunch on the backyard patio of one of their relatives that overlooked an extensive flower and herb garden. Sweet scents and tart aromas enticed their stomachs.

Today, Dave saw the archer’s face outside of her face covering for the first time. To his disappointment, there didn’t seem to be anything outright wrong about Dae’s mouth. It wasn’t sliced up, mutilated, or burned as his mind had imagined to fill in the blanks, but he did see obvious jagged black marks that riddled her lower face, starting from below her chin and wrinkling the surface it touched slightly.
           
Only Shira hadn’t given in to a face reveal. Sacrificing a meal to keep her mask on, the girl merely drank sweet tea through a straw that she could conveniently reach from her exposed half. Everyone seemed to be acting normal, except that it was painfully obvious that things weren’t. A heavy mood hung over them, straining their conversation.
   
It wasn’t only them. Throughout the Family Area Dave could sense the unease. You couldn’t walk somewhere without hearing the grownups mumbling worriedly amongst themselves. Warden patrol became more strict. Practices ran on without informing the children what had actually occurred between the Wardens. A suffocating cloudy yellow anxiety was brewing over the Tiuruh Family.
   
“Never in my years have I ever seen something like that happen,” his dad told him, brows drawn low. “Watch yourself, Dave. Don’t you dare get into a fight with another family.”
   
With that in mind, Dave accompanied his cousins about without the usual cheer he’d experienced in the first weeks. He glanced uneasily at his cousins’ gloomy faces now and wondered how much of the incident was on their minds. Dae being present, he wasn’t sure how much he could ask, but saying nothing would do nothing. Dave took a breath and cleared his throat delicately. “So… what happened to Warden Raven? After the… y’know…”
   
Instantly, an extra string of discomfort stretched tight over them. Shira sipped the more loudly. Dae poked vengefully at her untouched greens. Roun gobbled the last pieces of meat off his kebab before answering. “Guys, stop it.”
   
“What? I wasn’t doing anything!” Dae objected hotly.
   
“Nevermind,” Dave quickly said, his face getting warm.
   
“No, it’s fine,” Roun interjected. He set aside his empty plate. “Eono got demoted. Raven probably was too. Last I heard she’d been sent to medical. With an injury like that, she won’t be back in action for at least a month.”
   
“I couldn’t care less about Aunt Raven. She had it coming.” Dae scowled.
   
“Dae.” An elderly woman glided out from the large yurt attached to the patio and looked unhappily at the girl. “That is no way to address your elders.”

Dae’s expression dropped and she looked down. “I’m sorry, Gran.”
           
The woman’s face softened and she set a platter of food down on the table, meat skewers and rice wrapped in some sort of leaf, before sitting herself down beside Shira. She said quietly, “I can’t excuse her behaviour. She hasn’t been doing well these days. Ever since she lost her husband and child fifteen years ago, she’s never been the same. That’s what war does to a person and that’s what drives her to act the way she does. I pray that you won’t experience that misfortune. And I’d rather you not talk about sad subjects around my table. Eat up!” she added in lighter tones.

Dave had never considered that Raven had been a mother. He wasn’t going to kid himself trying to imagine what that would’ve been like. Fact was they had to face the Raven of the present. He took more blue-meat skewers with a shy, “Thanks, Gran Cera.”

The woman, though clearly much older than his father, gave him a smile he could only describe as youthful, her green eyes twinkling at him. If he had to put it in words, his Grand Aunt Cera was the forest fairy he’d been looking for in this enchanted forest. She wore a pale light green dress, with long sleeves that drifted with the breeze. Her light brown hair copied the motion, and along with her pale skin, the lady felt like she could float away at any time.  Dave and Roun had, in his first week in the village, come to her house to suit him some new clothes - a traditional outfit. Grand Aunt Cera, or Gran, as she preferred to be called, was the head seamstress of the Tiuruh Family.
Her features at first had confused Dave, since she didn’t have the black hair and brown eyes of an Acor. His cousins explained to him that she was the youngest of their grand-relatives - their great-great grandfather had married twice, his first wife having died in the war, his second wife an outsider. That melancholy-tinted past intrigued Dave. Plus her cooking rocked.
   
“How have you been faring, Dave?” Gran Cera asked.
   
Dave struggled to come with a good answer. “Okay, if you don’t include the possibility of being eaten and trampled by giant animals .”
   
Gran Cera chuckled. “I’ll give you skunk spray if it bothers you that much.”
   
“But you’d have to put up with the smell,” Roun said. “Acori skunk. Think about that.”
   
“Dave has been doing dandy in practice too,” Dae chimed in. “He might be ready for the Warden’s exam, but some of us are going to have to step up our game.”
   
“I’ve been practicing,” Roun defended. “I’m better at close combat than you are.”
           
“Perfecting weaponry doesn’t mean you know how to use them in battle,” Shira commented. “When war comes, are you going to be fighting with tools or toys?”
           
“That’s true,” Roun raised his fork emphatically. “If we were serious, we’d have killed each other already. Right now, we’re masters of blocking, dodging, and calling time out.”
Gran Cera spoke to them now with a soft but reassuring voice. “The conflict nowadays is much less violent than it used to be, and I am thankful for that. I really hope there won’t be another war.”
           
“What was it like in your day, Gran?” Dave asked.
           
The woman pursed her lips. “Dreadful. And more dreadful before that.”
           
“Deets,” Dae demanded.
   
Gran Cera sat herself down beside Shira and stroked the child’s hair. “I’m sure you know that the Nanrot have been at war with us for ages, even before your great-great grandfather. They’re a very stubborn clan, full of well-trained warriors as yourself - but crueler.” A troubled look came into her eyes. “Their art of fighting is cultivated from a very young age so that even their children are forced to fight in wars. They bring the darkness with them. Our Wardens would charge into that darkness, and after that, there was no choice. It was kill or be killed. At times, I even wondered if they were human.” She sighed, her eyes drifting up to the distant canopy of leaves in the sky. “Only because of the barrier of Universal Energy that surrounds the village that the darkness is unable to penetrate this far. Otherwise, we may have been completely slaughtered.”
             
Gran Cera’s voice fell to silence. She realized her grand-nephews and nieces had stopped eating to stare at her. Looking ‘round at their young faces, Dricera put a finger on her chin. “There’s a song I know, about it, the old days,” she said, suggestively.
           
Ears perked. Even Shira’s eyes lit with interest. “Song?”
           
“Can we hear it?” Dae leaned forward eagerly.
           
The old lady smiled with the proper amount of reluctance. “All right, then. Come by the fire.” As the elderly lady briefly reentered the house, the children moved to the fire pit off to the side of the patio, taking each their own place. Roun on the ground, Dave on a low stool, while Dae and Shira shared a log. Their great-aunt returned with a small harp in her hands and took her place on a tree stump well-worn by decades of use. She plucked the strings of the instrument carefully, hummed to find a pitch. And then she began to sing:

("Upon That Night" Soundtrack arrangement)
https://soundcloud.com/star-lock/upon-that-night

Without warning, they fell on us.
They burned our homes, and forest to the ground.
Anguished cries rose to the dark’ning sky.
Blood splattered on the ground, coated forever red.

Mother, hold me tight. Is this the last I see of you?
Father, please be safe. When will you come home again?
Sister, stay with me. I can’t bear another loss.
Brother, don’t leave us here. We may not see each other again.

Day by day, night by night,
The ones I knew became more few.
What if the only one left was me?
 
Upon that night,
We were scattered like the stars up in the sky.
All the time all we felt then was only fright.
And our children clinging to us cried out, “Why?
Mother, are we dying? When we’ve done nothing wrong?”
 
As the bodies piled high,
We cried our tears and sang our songs.
Our dear children, our lives we gave,
For you to fight, for you to live
.

A silence hung in the air after the last of the strumming faded away. Dave made an audible gulp and felt a shiver go up his back. Roun’s shoulders slowly lowered.
           
Knees drawn up, Dae rested her head on her knees. “Your voice is the best, Gran.”
           
“Thank you. It is one of my better virtues.” Gran Cera set the harp aside, a far-off look in her eyes. “Fighting? Not so much. My role was tending the wounded. I must say, the number of those easily outnumbered the warriors.”
           
“War is stupid,” Roun said.
           
The ancient feel in the air turned chilly in that moment. Dae set her feet on the ground, ready to jump up. “How dare you! How can you say that when people are dead?!”
           
“That’s exactly why,” Roun shot back. Dave gave him a startled look.
           
“For once, I agree with Roun. Thanks for lunch, Gran.” Shira slipped quietly off the chair and walked off. Gran Cera did not stop her, only watching with a sad eye.
           
“Shira!” Now Dae was up. “Nice going, Roun.”
           
Gran Cera held up her hand. “Dae, I wouldn’t be too hasty.” With a sigh, the woman took the girl’s hand in hers. “The truth of war is never a pleasant one, no matter how you look at it. Sometimes, you just have to stop back, look askance, and admit that is what is it. War never really makes sense. We all live on the same earth, why should we fight each other?”
             
Roun remained stone-faced. “People will take what they think they deserve.”
           
Dae growled. “What makes you the wise guy now?”
           
“Just starting the obvious.”
           
Looking uncomfortable, Dave tried to intervene, “It’s just because we’re human, right?”
           
Gran Cera reached for his hand as well. “Isn’t it so? But humans have a choice. At times like this, the choices they make result in sadness. Everyone is guilty of that. We must ourselves be careful that we don’t hurt others intentionally.”
           
In the pensive silence that followed, each of the children bore drawn expressions, none of them joking about fighting anymore. Gran Cera chuckled. “Come now, don’t be so drear. You’ll make my plants wither. Speaking of things I am good at, Dave, I’ve finished your outfit.”
           
The change of subject instantly lightened the mood. Dave looked up at her, his eyes brightening. “Really? When can I try it on?”

“Now.” Gran Cera rapped his head playfully. “Come inside.”
   
Once Dave and their Grand-Aunt were out of earshot, Dae turned on Roun. “Y’know, just because you're the Heiress’ son doesn’t mean you can say or do whatever you like,” she hissed, pulling her cloth mask over her mouth. “You’re never going to slide with those half-hearted efforts. You’re from the head’s family - act like it.” Dae pulled her hood up and left in a huff.
   
“You’re one to talk,” Roun muttered under his breath. “You’ve never been in a war to know what whole-hearted looks like.”
           
By the time Dave remerged, ten minutes later, he was dumbfounded to see both of his cousins had disappeared from the lunch table. Dae, he guessed, had probably gone to find her sister. For Roun to vanish without reason left Dave at a loss.
           
“He’s probably gone to walk off lunch. Follow the left path,” Gran Cera offered, beaming over her handiwork. As Dave jogged off, the woman giggled to herself. “My, I’ve outdone myself. He looks just like a young Jaanes.”
           
Taking his Gran’s direction led Dave through a trail that wound far into the property. He soon found himself in a grove of trees bearing blue flowers. Many little flowering plants spread through a circular clearing. In the middle stood a small statue of some sleeping forest animal that looked like a cross between a weasel and a dog, holding a black orb between its paws. Roun sat on a log bench near it, his hands playing with a small branch.


* * * 
     
“You look ready to enter the festival.” Roun noticed the outfit immediately. His cousin smiled awkwardly in his new clothes. Most of it was similar to Roun’s. A loose gray top with traditional stitching. Dricera had also thrown in loose-fitted pants that allowed mobility in fighting situations. Her actual work went into the extra coat on top of the basic outfit: a long brightly patterned jacket with elaborate stitchwork, wide sleeves, a cloth belt tied fancily in the middle.
           
“Not yet, please.” Dave said sheepishly.
           
“How do you feel?
           
“I feel weird.” Dave couldn’t help tugging at the fabric. “Does it suit me?”
           
“You’re an Acor. Of course, it suits you.” Roun went back to the branch in his hands, whittling one end into a point. Slowly, silence filled in between the two. In spite of the beautiful weather, Roun felt a murky gray mood settling on him. He didn’t trust himself to speak right now.
           
“Are you okay?” His cousin seemed to have picked up on it as well.
           
Roun sighed, put away his knife, and blew wood slivers off the sharpened branch. “Could be better. Talking about dead bodies would put off any Acor’s lunch.”
           
“Oh.”
           
Another awkward pause. Roun began to scratch lines into the dirt.
           
“Y’know, I’ve been wondering… is all this training really that important?” Dave asked suddenly. “There hasn’t been a conflict in a while, or so I heard. What if the other clan just gave up?”
           
Roun responded with a harsh laugh, startling his cousin. “No way. Not in a thousand years.” He glanced at Dave more apologetically. It wasn’t his cousin’s fault for thinking that way. If he had a choice, he wished he could treat the matter in the same aloof way. “It may not make sense to you, being born outside and all, but the threat is still as real as it was back then. We always have to be ready.”
           
Dave wasn’t satisfied. “We’ll never match up to the Wardens. We’d die if we were ever attacked. Why not just send us somewhere safe?”
           
“They want us to be able to protect ourselves. We never know when we might get jumped,” Roun said. At least, that’s what he continued to tell himself. As time passed however, he was starting to wonder if he hoped it would never come. It felt silly, after all the hard work the village put into the festival. Maybe he hadn’t lived long enough to predict the tides of humanity yet. The old folks sure had it hard.
           
Dave looked at him curiously, and asked cautiously, “Do you dislike the Nanrot?”
           
Repeated stabbing of the twig into the ground cut into the sudden silence, the heavy thud thud thud falling flat. Then he said something Dave had not expected.
           
“They killed my friend.”
           
Thud...thud…thud…
           
“Oh…” Dave froze. “I’m… sorry.”
           
Thud. Thud.
           
“It’s okay. It was six years ago.”
           
Thud.
           
“Six years…. Wait, you were here during the war?”
           
Snap.
           
The twig broke. Roun tossed it aside and nodded. “…it was the first time my mom brought me to the village.” His eyes wandered over the trees in the grove. He said in a soft voice, “The sky was indeed dark that night.”
           
Roun said no more after that. Dave didn’t press him.

A buzz came from his phone. “Dad’s calling me.”
   
“Better go then. Show him your new look. I’ll catch up with you later.”


* * *

Dave reached the Main House in high spirits. A number of the villagers had complimented his new outfit on the way. He couldn’t wait to show it to his dad. For once, he felt really part of the Acor, part of their life instead of being the outsider in normal clothes. The attire really was comfortable and beautiful. Standing on the porch, he could clearly sense his father standing in the hall within. He took a deep breath and opened the door.

Jaanes looked up. Dave paused on the threshold expectantly. His father stared at him.

Please, say something, Dave thought.

To his confusion, his dad only gave his usual quick smile. “Dave.”

“Dad.”

“Good to see you.”

“You too.”

“Can we talk for a moment?”

“Okay.” Dave gulped. Maybe the light from outside had made too much contrast for his outfit to be seen clearly. Inside, the lighting would be better. He followed his dad into the living room where they sat down.

Jaanes sat back, hands resting on his thighs in a rather unrelaxed manner. “How’ve you been finding the village?”
 
Dave fought the urge to squirm. Somehow his dad’s tone made him feel as if he were under interrogation. “It’s been fun, getting to know everyone, seeing the forest. It’s really cool.”

Jaanes nodded. “I’m glad to hear you’re getting used to it. I really enjoyed being here as a kid. It was never boring. We may have been fighting the Nanrot, but this place has always been a place of refuge for me.”

It was Dave’s turn to nod in silence. At this point, he realized there was something else on his father’s mind. Slowly, his hype was turning into apprehension. He doesn’t even realize I’m wearing something different. If you have something to say, just say it, please, he thought impatiently, the air starting to get on his nerves.
 
Patience. Just appreciate the art of parenting, the voice said out of nowhere.

“Be quiet. You’re not helping."

“Don’t mumble, Dave.” Jaanes aimed a look at him. “Anyway, the day the… incident happened at the training grounds, where were you?”

That apprehension transformed into a knot of dread. Dave knew exactly what day his dad was talking about. Was this about his knowing about Warden Eono? Who had told him? He’d hoped the delay in conversation meant his dad hadn’t found out, but it seemed nothing was left in the shadows very long here. “Where I was? I.. I was in the forest.”

Jaanes pursed his lips. “Listen, Dave, as much as I would encourage you to take in the full advantage of this experience, please don’t go wandering in the forest, or in places you shouldn’t be.”

Dave gave a start. “Wandering?”

“A wolf told me you went into the Deep Woods. I don’t remember giving you permission to go there. Unsupervised.”

Dave gaped. “I wasn’t wandering. I was with Shira. We were picking berries.”

“Was there a Warden or adult with you?”

“No, but -”

“Then you shouldn’t have been there. Deep Woods isn’t a playground. It’s dangerous and there are several unstable areas you could get hurt in. From now on you’re not allowed to travel outside the Family Area without proper supervision.”

“What about practices? Or the Main Hall?” Dave sputtered.

“Family Area and those areas supervised by our Wardens then. If you’d like to go anywhere else, you call me first, and I’ll let you know if you’re allowed. Do you understand?”

Dave’s face fell. “Yes… dad.”

Jaanes sighed. “I’m not meaning to ground you. The Acor village is a beautiful place. That doesn’t mean it’s entirely safe. I just want you to be careful and sensible.”

“Yeah, I understand. I’ll be careful.” Dave said in a light-hearted manner, but his insides had turned cold.

Jaanes smiled briefly. “Thanks, son.” He stood up. “You can go now. I have to get back on duty. Where’s Roun?”

“Gran Cera’s last I saw.”

“You two keep yourselves out of trouble, okay? I’ll see you later, Dave.”

“Right… see ya.”

The front door shut. Dave mulled in the few seconds of silence. Thoughts churned in his brain. His dad’s orders were to be expected and didn’t change his routine in any drastic way. Yet, the sense of being trapped rose strongly. Wearing the traditional outfit suddenly felt very silly. What had he been expecting? He clenched his fists and released a trembling breath.

To make things worse, the voice piped up without invitation. So… I guess we aren’t playing explorer anymore.

No one else in the house, Dave spoke aloud without caution. “I’m not disappointed.”

I am.

Dave frowned. Getting up, he ambled over to a mirror hanging in the hallway. His own face left him unimpressed. A normal boy in an absolutely normal situation. Or perhaps, not so normal? He leaned closer. “I’ve been wondering about this for a while, but what are you?”



“You’re not… part of me, are you?”



“You said ‘we’.”

No, I didn’t.

“You’re opposing my own decisions. I was… skeptical before, but it seems more… evident now. I thought I was just thinking to myself, but you’ve been guiding me ever since I got here, haven’t you? I mean, you did at home too, but you’re like an entirely different person here.”



“I just want to know you won’t take over my mind and make me do something bad.. Like - like you did with Warden Eono.”

That seemed to root it out. How rude! I did not do that! I’ve been trying to help you.

Dave actually smiled. “I know. Thanks.”



“So, what are you?”

This time, the silence was definite. The answer to Dave’s previous uncertainty was definite. While he had a bazillion other questions now, it could wait. Changing his focus from his dad to this mystery had calmed him down enough to avoid sulking. He sighed, now feeling uninspired.

“I need fresh air…” Dave remembered there being a garden in the backyard, a big one at that. Quickly, he went to his shared room with Roun, shed the traditional outfit, and reclaimed the comfort of a T-shirt and jogging pants. Then he ventured out back to recover peace of mind.

The garden did not disappoint. Tall hedges, various exotic flowers, and the trickle of a stream provided for a personal sanctuary. In one part was a rock garden. In another lay a large though shallow fish pond, full of colourful aquatic beings. Further on, he came across a straight path that ran under several arbours. He slowly walked through this, enjoying the natural tranquility offered to him by the flowers.
 
Somewhere, he heard the whistling of a bird. There were others chirping and peeping, but this one stood out. It kept a consistent tone, for one. Soft and soothing, it lured him down the path. He wasn’t much of a bird watcher, yet he wondered what kind of bird could make such a lulling sound. The search brought him to the end of the path.

It opened up into a spacious circle clearing, surrounded by stone walls, cobblestone laid underfoot. Dave was met by a large statue of a wolf sitting in the middle of this space, its head looming over him as it kept a vigilant eye upon the peaceful garden. Still no bird in sight though the sound seemed loudest here. Dave absently noted the construction materials laying about. Seemed they were still making additions to the already vast grounds. His eyes caught sight of several broad wooden planks propped up against the walls. For some reason, his gaze remained fixed on the unremarkable objects, right up until he was about to walk by the materials.

Stop! Don’t take another step!

Something like a shout hit his ears, not before the splintering of wood filled his ears. Dave’s feet halted with a jolt. He saw the boards topple over, missing him by a wide margin. Confused, he wondered if that was it. But the sound hadn’t stopped. The creaking was growing louder. His eyes snapped up to a movement in the distance. One of the large trees on the edge of the property was moving - getting closer - bending down.

Realization hit him when he saw, as if in slow motion, the great tree falling towards him. Instincts kicked in. Dave found himself scrambling back. He heard a whoosh. A flash of brown whizzed by his periphery. The tree crashed directly into the statue, shattering the stone into pieces, the tremor knocking Dave off his feet. Several stone shards struck him. A great wind of dust and leaves kicked up into a cloud.

The deafening boom rang through the garden, sending birds and small animals scattering in panic. Ringing in his ears, Dave lay on the ground and  trembled like a petrified animal. For a moment he lost his orientation. Blood trickled down his arm as dust clouded his vision.

Pull yourself together, Dave. Breathe.

Slowly he regained his bearings, sat up, and turned to look. There it lay, a tree the size of a house. Not a pebble remained of the statue. Dave stared in stunned silence.

The ringing subsided and he heard howling. Wolves. An alert.

His father was the first to arrive. Jaanes was at his son’s side at an instant. “Dear Cretanneh. Dave, are you okay? Great cret, you’re bleeding!”

Now he’ll never let you go out.

Dave knew his dad was genuinely worried, but all he could think about was how he’d almost gotten killed by simply stepping outside. His dad had told him to do one thing, and he’d gone and botched it. He heard himself saying, “I wasn’t going anywhere, I swear.”

His father looked at him strangely. “Calm down, Dave. Let’s get you back to the house. Get me the healer,” he yelled at one of the arriving wolves and helped Dave up.

“Wait, dad, I was just taking a stroll.”

Jaanes said firmly, “Take it easy, Dave. It’s okay. You’re in shock. You need to rest. Just stay inside, okay? Stay inside.”



For this chapter I got really into trying to make a melody for the song. I meant to make a more simple and acoustic arrangement but I couldn't find the right instruments on FL studio for it. So instead I made a more soundtrack sounding version, which was a lot of fun to do c:

If you're interested in hearing it, here's the link!
Upon That Night - https://soundcloud.com/star-lock/upon-that-night

EDIT 2020-6-21 --
After thinking it through, I've done some rewriting on this chapter to make it tie better to the previous chapters. Some changes are listed here (honestly it stills much more editing and possibly much shortening - but I'll leave it as is for now):

NTS: Edits and Changes
Chapter 14
- Included more awareness of Warden infighting around the village and tension in general
- Made some large changes to dialogue
- Changed Gran Dricera's name to Gran Cera
- Included conversation between Jaanes and Dave
- Changed falling construction material into a falling tree (yay)
« Last Edit: August 11, 2020, 10:31:02 PM by Echo_River »
No one is perfect . . . that's why there's erasers and extra paper.
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Offline Echo_River

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Re: Charred Life (Rewritten)
« Reply #32 on: May 26, 2020, 11:20:39 PM »
Dream III

Something was off.

A stench of sickness hit me like a wave.

Don’t go any farther!

My feet turned and I almost doubled back on instinct when my foot caught on something and I tripped headfirst to the ground.

Splash.

My cry of alarm fell on deaf ears.

My eyes fell upon a pair of severed feet splayed out of a bush.

My stomach revolted.

I tried to cover my mouth to stifle the rising disgust.

A rush of panic and puke spat from my mouth. Weak and shaky, I crawled my way to a tree and crumpled at its base shivering.

“I-I can’t - I just can’t -“ I cried.

It’s pointless. It’s useless.

Nineteen. I counted nineteen corpses littering the forest floor in contorted shapes.

Puddles of blood rippled in the dirt recesses.

Broken weapons.

Jagged black marks scarred the trees.

Had Xehann done all of this? Was he among the dead?

“He’s still alive,” I choked, clinging to the faintest sense of life force throbbing in the distance.

They’d sent this many after us. He’d taken out this many after us.

Why wasn’t he done yet?

There couldn’t be... there couldn’t be something he couldn’t win against? That was impossible.

He’ll take care of it. Don’t be an idiot and waste your life on this!

“No, something’s not right.”

There shouldn’t have been any hope left in me.

I felt sick. Cold. Tired.

Dread held me in the pit of my stomach.

But we weren’t dead yet. There was still hope.

I pushed myself up on shaking arms. Onto my distressed legs.

Stop! Stop it!

To the end of the trail I struggled, up against gravity and my inner screams.

When the trees parted, there I saw...


Edited 2020-6-23 --

Chapter 15: Code Silver

“Now how the cret did that happen?” At the scene of the crime tree, Warden Waron gave a low whistle. He put a hand on his hidden chin as he assessed the damage. “Snapped near the base. No obvious signs of decay. We’ll have to investigate for signs of fungal infection.” Leaping onto the now horizontal trunk, he saw just how inline the wolf statue was with the fall. “Hah! A wonder it hadn’t been crushed a long time ago. You may as well turn in your grave, dear great-great-grandfather. That or pay up and we’ll carve you a new one.”

“You are so weird,” an unimpressed female voice rose from below. “Now we have to fix up the Heiress’ garden - again. Remember the year the boars got in?”

“Or, we can leave the tree as is and design the garden around it.” Waron glanced down at the bespectacled woman. “Genius. I’ll ask her about it. Did you get a good look at the kid, O venerable healer?”

Healer Swallow sighed, exasperated. “Get off your high horse, you old birdbrain. He’s shook and rightly so. Funny how it decided to fall at that moment. Any signs of foul play?”

“None. If there was any, we’d have to catch the puppy in the act.” Waron chuckled darkly. “How much has the litter multiplied, sis?”

“Exponentially. Shall I add him to the list?”

Waron waved his approval. “A big happy family we’ve turned out to be.” He slid off the trunk, fell to the ground on his feet, and whispered into Swallow’s ear. “This might be one of those years.”

Swallow whispered back. “They wouldn’t be crazy enough to…”

“Crazy? Oh, no! Not crazy - rabid. Completely rabid.” Waron snapped his fingers at the wolves. “Sleepyheads, be on high alert. Priority is kids. Report foul play. And you -” he pointed at one specific wolf, who looked clueless at his being there, “-keep an eye on Roun.”

* * *
 
Something’s off.

Roun woke with a start. He lay for a moment, listening. In the back of his mind, he thought he’d heard an explosion. Now he realized the forest had gone quiet, disturbed from its regular rhythm. He’d dropped off in the weasel-dog statue clearing not far from the Main House. Maybe it was his sleeping position, a log for a pillow, or maybe it was the blue meat from lunch, but he felt unwell.

A sudden cough confirmed this, along with a swimming head. He fumbled for the pill bottle given to him by the healer and popped one of the small red supplements into his mouth. After a few laboured breaths, his mind cleared.
“Having a dream like that in the middle of the day... I oughta stop taking naps after lunch.” He stood in time to be presentable for the Noturn Wolf that abruptly intruded into the glade yipping and yapping.

Roun bumped its excited nose back. “Wow, slow down. What did you just say?”  As the wolf relayed the information to him, his alarm grew. “Dave? A tree? Is he okay? Nevermind. I’ll go see him myself. Take me to him.” He got on the wolf and it took off the way it came.

Roun recognized their route. “Wait. Go around,” he ordered, glimpsing his house through the trees. The sound had drawn a crowd. Many of the villagers were hanging around and he wasn’t feeling social right now. He sat low on the wolf as it stayed hidden in the trees to circle to the back. Roun gasped. “What the CRET. I thought you meant a normal sized tree, not an actual Zerakis tree. Mom is not gonna be happy…”

A distance from the scene he dismounted and crouched in the bushes to watch the activity of Wardens inspecting the fallen giant. His interest piqued as he spotted Warden Jaanes and Waron. He watched them for a few minutes, eyes sharp on their faces, their glances. The wolf prodded him with its nose. Roun got on its back once more and they took a roundabout way to the far side of the house where he entered unseen.

“You look awful. I heard what happened, but I wasn’t expecting to see you so close to death,” Roun remarked upon seeing his cousin’s pale face.

Dave was laying on the bed in their room, body straight, and hands crossed over his chest as if resigned to his fate. “If I was dead, you’d be seeing a lot more wrapping than this.” He rubbed the bandage on his arm.

Roun sat on the bedside. “Look on the bright side, you’re still alive. Can’t ask for more than that. I could even ask your dad to excuse you from practices. ”

“If I did that, I’ll be branded as the kid who not only ran from a boar, but also a tree.”

“Okay, if you insist. How did that even happen?”

Dave shrugged. “It just happened. It was almost like one of those times where you think something might happen - you expect it to happen - and then it actually does.”

“Those things don’t fall easy, I’m telling you.” Roun gestured randomly as he explained, “It’s not abnormal for trees to fall, but it’s not normal for the trees in the Zerakis forest to fall that easily. Lots of reasons it could happen though. Decay is rare. Weather doesn’t really happen, if you noticed. Age shouldn’t matter - some of these trees are well over a thousand years. Fungal infection or animals sometimes destroy the trunks, but the wolves usually pick that up early.” Roun stopped abruptly. “Unless...”

“Unless what?” Dave asked, curious.

“Nevermind. Want to check it out later?”

Dave held his hands up. “Sorry. I think I’ve had my daily dose of near death experiences. Plus, dad kinda grounded me.”

Roun stared. “What? Why?”

“Cause I went into the Deep Woods.”

“What? When?”

“I know. It was super dumb and super dangerous. It was the same day we had the incident at the training grounds. I was with Shira. We were picking berries.”

“You went without me?”

“Sorry. You were a bit busy then. I can’t go without proper supervision now. I don’t think that included you, no offense.”

Roun rolled his eyes. “Last thing I need is permission to leave my own house.”

Dave rolled his eyes. He stared at the ceiling, saying thoughtfully, “Actually… it’s kinda weird the tree fell when it did, don’t you think? It’s like it was waiting for someone to come by before it decided to fall. Hit the statue directly too.”

“Statue?”

“The wolf one near the back... Roun?” Dave started as his cousin got up suddenly and left in a hurry.

“I’mma check on something. I’ll be back later!”

“Okay. I’ll - just be - here.”

Roun was already halfway to the door. The thing that had been nagging him at the back of his mind ever since he’d woken up was clear now. A tree had almost fallen on his cousin. Cause for worry? Very much. How had the tree fallen at that exact moment? He had a premonition, a very bad one. The last cause to make something so sturdy to topple?

“Unless someone made it fall, it wouldn’t have fallen.” Roun muttered under his breath, finishing his earlier thought. “Please don’t be another of those years.”

He thought about the Warden’s Exam, that ever looming wall in the distance. There were certain calculations the Acor children made in order to assure themselves in top notch condition for the festival. There was roughly a month before the festivities. The first couple weeks were used to work on individual skills. The next couple days Roun knew would be focused on teamwork. Despite the qualms Dae had against him, he knew where he stood in the imaginary rankings, and there was a very good chance he could pass this year.

There was also the chance he wouldn’t pass. Not through the lack of effort. But by the effort of the “something off” to thwart him. He went to prove the existence of the “something off” now as he stepped outside. Waiting for him on the porch was the first clue, its tongue hanging out of its goofy face.
   
This was the Noturn wolf regularly sent to fetch him. Its constant contact with both Jaanes and Waron meant it had to know something. “Come here.” Roun directed the wolf around to the far side of the house where no one could see them, but just around the corner from where he could check on the Warden’s movements. “Sorry if I got it wrong - Were you Quo or Ayay? Quo? I get you and your litter mates mixed up sometimes. Okay, Quo, what did the wardens say about the tree? What made it fall?”
   
Quo, either conflicted or just bad at lying, made a sidelong glance before snuffing some ambiguous answer that convinced neither of them. Standing at the big wolf’s eye level, Roun took its hand in his hands and looked it in the eye. “What’d they say?”
   
Quo whined, wriggling backwards, but was unable to escape Roun’s grasp. “You know I do have the authority to make you tell me, right?” Roun said in warning tones. “Do I need to do that?” Quo shook his head. “Then, tell me.” Finally, it gave a reluctant woof. Roun let go and stamped the ground with his foot. “I knew it! I can’t believe it - the nerve of those guys. Not a year without their annoyances. But a tree? Are they nuts?”
   
Confused at the human boy’s little rage fit, Quo yapped his disagreement. Roun frowned. “Whaddya mean there weren’t any traces of human tampering? You guys didn’t detect anything beforehand. Your grandfather from one hundred years ago got busted! Why else would the wardens suspect foul play?”
   
The wolf glanced disinterestedly at the decimated statue, an action the equivalent of a human shrug. While he knew he couldn’t get close without being noticed, Roun was certain there was something up with how the tree snapped from the number of wardens present at the scene alone. Although, more here also meant fewer in other places. He could move less cautiously while their attention was distracted. Well, almost…
   
Riding Quo away from the Main House, Roun said casually, “Let me guess, they also told you to watch me, am I right?” The wolf’s bewildered yip made him chuckle. “You need to work on your acting.” Taking a deep breath, he prompted Quo into a longer stride. “Let’s go ask the competition directly.” With most of the villagers’ attention on the Main House, Roun and Quo slipped through the trees and straight out of the Tiuruh Family Area without anyone seeing them.
   
A common debate among the children was, what was the best mode of transportation to get around the village? Birdies were undoubtedly popular, but they weren’t always available and there was a limit to where they could traverse. You couldn’t bring it up a cliff for instance or jump off said cliff for that matter. Because they were old tech, they also caused worry for the older Acor. What if the Birdie broke down in the middle of the Deep Woods, stranding their grandchildren in some unknown place?
   
To Roun, the Noturn Wolves were next tier. You didn’t truly experience the forest unless you rode on one of the majestic creatures. It took a trick to stay on their backs, sure. And not everyone could handle a wild animal the size of a horse. They terrified some of the younger Acor. Roun couldn’t blame them. The adult wolves could grow to be larger than bears and with greater ferocity. Those were the ones trained to fight in the war. Nowadays they lurked beyond the fences, watching over the Deep Woods and the forests beyond that.

Roun was more acquainted with the next generation of Noturn wolves, little more than oversized dogs still learning the ropes. Quo, well, was pretty much a pup at only four years old. Perhaps the wolf felt the generation gap between himself and his predecessors too, because he got along easily with the Acor children.

At such a tender age, Quo still showed his superiority to the ancient Birdies as he moved through dense underbrush with noise little more than a light breeze rustling the leaves. His padded paws were much better suited to the terrain, treading with accustomed gracefulness. Roun felt a thrill when the wolf shot forward like a missile while dodging trees and jumping over plants. He kept one hand on Quo’s thick mane and the other on his sword to prevent it from snagging any plants. They were one with the forest, they were one with nature.

Speedy. Conveniently available. Great companions. No fuel costs. Built-in human locator. Noturn wolves were the best deal, not including when they were being stubborn or spying on you.

From the Tiuruh Family Area, Roun guided Quo onto the main road, taking the most direct route south. He turned right at the base of the hill and passed the Acori Hall. He passed the training grounds where he and his cousins usually gathered. Partway around he passed by a red archway, similar to the one marking the entrance of his family area. Beneath it stood a girl about his age, wearing a colourful robe, her hair done up in a bun. She saw him coming from afar.

They whizzed by her, not dropping pace. Very briefly, their eyes locked - recognition in his gaze - a cold perception in hers - and then she was far behind. Roun continued looking ahead.

When the scenery changed, he tensed. Quo checked his speed and whined. Stark black wood cut through the normally verdant scenery. Bit by bit the trees grew thinner and thinner. More and more they stretched up into the canopy, skinny and lonely, for no other plant life cared to grow around these trunks. When the thriving green forest transformed into rows of solemn black toothpicks, Roun knew he had reached his destination. To mark it was a black archway. To meet him was a face he’d wished he could’ve avoided all summer, but now was sneering up at him.

“Welcome to the Nioni Family Area!  I almost thought you didn’t know where we lived,” Huks remarked. “Maybe you even forgot we existed.”

“Is that what that was? A ‘just thinking of you’ note? People usually leave those on the doorstep, not in the backyard,” Roun returned coldly without dismounting.

“Whatever could he be talking about?” Huks exclaimed. A chorus of laughter responded to his exaggerated tone. “What have I done? Did I do something wrong?”

Roun glanced at the several other faces that suddenly appeared around him. “I don’t know. Have you ever heard of a giant tree that voluntarily decided to fall for no reason on someone as they were passing by?”

“I can’t say I have.” Huks’ eyes widened in surprise, but the grin on his face was wider. Quo emitted a growl as the boy leaned forward. “Let me know if you ever do, because,” - his voice dropped to a raspy whisper -  “you never will.”

At that moment, the premonition in Roun’s gut solidified into cold dread. “Something off” became “something terribly off”. Without another word, he turned Quo around to leave amidst taunting laughter.

“I hope you’re ready to play, Roun!” Huks called after him. “Because this will be the best game yet!”

“Damnit!” Roun ground his teeth, cold sweat dripping from his face. Quo hurried home, eager to get away from the exposing environment.  Roun’s hand trembled as he struggled to type a message into his phone.

This is bad. Are we really going to go through that again?

Roun sent the message with a heavy feeling in his chest.

The message read: “Code Silver. Code Silver. Risk: Critical. Full Alert. Report Tonight.”

* * *
 
Among those that gathered at the fire pit that night, some were newcomers, but the rest were long-time regulars from two years ago and back. Dae was there and so was Kon. When Roun arrived, the room went quiet and everyone looked to him with watchful eyes. Dae confronted him first. “Are you sure? And - where is Dave?”

“Left him behind. I’ll tell him later. I don’t really want to bring him into this, just like how I don’t see Shira here.” Roun counted the heads. They were twenty-four in number. It wasn’t everyone, but enough to get the message on.

“Granted he’ll probably be dragged into this if it’s an official Code Silver,” Kon pointed out. “Was it the tree?”

Roun nodded. “It was the tree.”

A buzz of surprise circled the room. Dae looked incredulous. “Seriously? How then?”

“I don’t know.” Roun yelled over the cries of disbelief. “I don’t know how they did it, but they just as well admitted it and the Wardens are looking into signs of foul play.”

That sunk into their minds, catching the attention of the most doubtful. If the Wardens suspected something that meant there was some truth to the situation.

Roun waited for the hubbub to die before he spoke. “For those that don’t know what Code Silver is… let me give you some context,” he began. “The Warden’s Exam isn’t just about passing grades and becoming a warrior for the village. Only the few exceptional are chosen from not just us, but also the Nionis, the Hakaras, and the Adsokus. It’s a competition to see whose family is the best of the Acor.” He delivered an intense stare across the room. “That usually means putting hard work into your skills. Except not everyone agrees with that… Code Silver means blades have been drawn against us. The Nionis have sent their declaration of war - they want to take us out before the festival even starts.”

“What?” someone exclaimed, probably a first-timer.

“Cull our numbers,” Kon elaborated.

“Reduce the competition,” Dae added.

“But that’s infighting!” the first-timer protested. “Why can’t we just tell the Wardens?”

“Because there’s no proof.” Roun sat down on a large rock jutting from the ground. “We know that the Nionis did something, but there’s nothing to tie the two together except for their word and their… super annoying confidence they won’t get caught. But they won’t be able to pull off everything scot-free, you’ll see. Right now we need to decide our plan of action before they strike again, cause this was only the first time.”

“I thought you had one. That’s why you called us here, isn’t it?” Dae said.

Roun eyed her. “I do, but you’re not going to like it. Let’s talk first about what we shouldn’t do.”

“Let them walk over us.”

“Get caught by the Wardens?” another suggested.

“Let our parents know,” Kon chuckled. “‘Cause we don’t need another pair of eyes on us.”

Roun rolled his eyes. “C’mon guys. Those are a given. First off - We’re not going to charge at them like mad boars.”
 
“Certainly, that would get us disqualified in no time,” Kon stated. “What idea did you have in mind, Roun?”

“Me?” Roun glanced over their expectant faces. “I don’t think we should act at all.”

“What?” Dae jumped to her feet. “That’s your plan? Do nothing?”

“Dae, do you really want a repeat of the other year?”

“At least we did something that time!”

“And we were shut down, disqualified, and punished severely,” Roun shot back. “I’m not saying we should stare into space like idiots and watch the meteors fall on us. What I’m saying is that if we went over to confront the Nionis right now, do you think they’ll just fess up and say they were the ones that tried to make a tree fall on Dave? I don’t think so!”

“I agree with Roun,” Kon spoke up. “If we act too hastily, we’d be playing right into their hand.”

“And what if someone gets hurt?” Dae demanded. “Are we just going to let them go free?”

“Do you think letting your emotions get the better of you and hurting them back will make this any better?” Roun challenged. Dae stared daggers at him but said nothing. He turned back to the rest of the anxious children. “When the Wardens catch on, it’ll be over. But I don’t want anyone taking action against the Nionis at this time, is that clear?” Roun looked around with sharp eyes until they nodded in conceding silence.

With Dae, their glares clashed, challenging each other. She broke contact first. “Fine, but you better know what you’re doing.”

Roun lowered his voice. “We’re also not going to lose to them. It’s an official Code Silver. Watch out for yourselves. I don’t know what else they might have planned but we’re not going to let them best us. If anything ‘off’ happens, let me know. Be alert and be careful.”

* * *

When Roun slipped into bed Dave was already asleep and all the better. He already felt bad for involving Dave in this mess, but as Kon said, he’d probably be dragged into it already. In a way, it was good uncle Jaanes had restricted Dave’s travels. Maybe that would prevent him from stumbling into the scuffles Roun predicted would come in the days to follow.

Or not… they came straight into our area. Nowhere is safe. But how did they do it without being detected…?

It seemed there wasn’t a way to keep Dave from experiencing the bad sides of the village. Roun sighed and just allowed the thoughts to slide from his mind. The day’s excursions had taken a toll on him. How much more tired he felt today…

He drifted off to sleep where the dreams met him. It was the same one from this afternoon. The images flashed by, repeating, dark. There were bodies on the ground and blood on his hands.

Roun awoke in the middle of the night drenched in cold sweat. Rushing to the washroom, he locked himself in before falling into a coughing fit. He spat into the sink, his hands shaking on the counter. It took several deep breaths to steady his throbbing pulse. Only exhaustion set in when he finally calmed down. A dazed expression on his face, Roun turned on the faucet and washed the dark stains into the drain.
[/font]

NTS: Edits and changes
NEW - 2020-6-23
- Replaced entire chapter with new material and rearranged a bunch of scenes to try and make it move faster
- Moved Forest training to next chapter
- Now includes
   - Warden POV
   - More wolf interaction and explanation
   - Meeting with other children (From a later chapter, moved here)
- Here's to hoping it flows better

Chapter 15:
- I know I'm going to have to do some serious editing afterwards here and possibly some rearranging
- Namely:
-- Putting first conversation in an earlier chapter maybe
-- Needs more Nioni encounters to solidify animosity between Nionis and Tiuruhs

« Last Edit: June 23, 2020, 03:41:15 PM by Echo_River »
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Re: Charred Life (Rewritten)
« Reply #33 on: July 23, 2020, 08:55:11 AM »
Chapter 14
Spoiler
1. Roun had Dave accustomed to the training routine. His cousin even knew how to navigate through the forest around the Family Area on his own now. Most of the relatives were familiar with the sight of the two boys scampering in and out at the odd time.
- A huge improvement in comparision to his first experience with the forest.

2. Shira was a scarce sight, but when Dave did see her, she was always by herself in the forest and would vanish soon after, like a wood spirit.
- Classic, mysterious Shira.

3. Only Shira hadn’t given in to a face reveal. Sacrificing a meal to keep her mask on, the girl merely drank sweet tea through a straw that she could conveniently reach from her exposed half. Everyone seemed to be acting normal, except that it was painfully obvious that things weren’t. A heavy mood hung over them, straining their conversation.
 - Awkwardness intensifies.

4. “Never in my years have I ever seen something like that happen,” his dad told him, brows drawn low. “Watch yourself, Dave. Don’t you dare get into a fight with another family.”
- Why do I have a feeling he'll get involved in one anyway haha.

5.  “So… what happened to Warden Raven? After the… y’know…”
  - Yes I want to knowww

6. “No, it’s fine,” Roun interjected. He set aside his empty plate. “Eono got demoted. Raven probably was too. Last I heard she’d been sent to medical. With an injury like that, she won’t be back in action for at least a month.”
   - Yikes, demotion from such a high position is an ouchie.

7. “I can’t excuse her behaviour. She hasn’t been doing well these days. Ever since she lost her husband and child fifteen years ago, she’s never been the same. That’s what war does to a person and that’s what drives her to act the way she does. I pray that you won’t experience that misfortune. And I’d rather you not talk about sad subjects around my table. Eat up!” she added in lighter tones.
- Yikes, I had no idea Raven went through that sort of trauma. I can't imagine her being the motherly type at all, but I guess that's exactly what happens in that sort of situation.

8. Grand Aunt Cera, or Gran, as she preferred to be called, was the head seamstress of the Tiuruh Family.
- I like her name and general vibe.

9. “How have you been faring, Dave?” Gran Cera asked.
   Dave struggled to come with a good answer. “Okay, if you don’t include the possibility of being eaten and trampled by giant animals .”
 - Hahaha.

10. “Dave has been doing dandy in practice too,” Dae chimed in. “He might be ready for the Warden’s exam, but some of us are going to have to step up our game.”
 - I'd be interested in knowing how good he's gotten

11.       
“That’s true,” Roun raised his fork emphatically. “If we were serious, we’d have killed each other already. Right now, we’re masters of blocking, dodging, and calling time out.”
- Hahaha. Dodging is pretty useful though.

12. Gran Cera sat herself down beside Shira and stroked the child’s hair. “I’m sure you know that the Nanrot have been at war with us for ages, even before your great-great grandfather. They’re a very stubborn clan, full of well-trained warriors as yourself - but crueler.” A troubled look came into her eyes. “Their art of fighting is cultivated from a very young age so that even their children are forced to fight in wars. They bring the darkness with them. Our Wardens would charge into that darkness, and after that, there was no choice. It was kill or be killed. At times, I even wondered if they were human.” She sighed, her eyes drifting up to the distant canopy of leaves in the sky. “Only because of the barrier of Universal Energy that surrounds the village that the darkness is unable to penetrate this far. Otherwise, we may have been completely slaughtered.”
- Damn, that doesn't sound fun to fight against at all.

13. 
The old lady smiled with the proper amount of reluctance. “All right, then. Come by the fire.”
- Classic grandmother move. Smooth.

14.

("Upon That Night" Soundtrack arrangement)
https://soundcloud.com/star-lock/upon-that-night

Without warning, they fell on us.
They burned our homes, and forest to the ground.
Anguished cries rose to the dark’ning sky.
Blood splattered on the ground, coated forever red.

Mother, hold me tight. Is this the last I see of you?
Father, please be safe. When will you come home again?
Sister, stay with me. I can’t bear another loss.
Brother, don’t leave us here. We may not see each other again.

Day by day, night by night,
The ones I knew became more few.
What if the only one left was me?
 
Upon that night,
We were scattered like the stars up in the sky.
All the time all we felt then was only fright.
And our children clinging to us cried out, “Why?
Mother, are we dying? When we’ve done nothing wrong?”
 
As the bodies piled high,
We cried our tears and sang our songs.
Our dear children, our lives we gave,
For you to fight, for you to live.

- That was a beautiful musical arrangement. I thought I was singing along properly but I got alost a bit here and there, that being said it's beautiful and haunting. Really works.

15.     
“Thank you. It is one of my better virtues.” Gran Cera set the harp aside, a far-off look in her eyes. “Fighting? Not so much. My role was tending the wounded. I must say, the number of those easily outnumbered the warriors.”
  - Medics are awesome. But I could never imagine having to deal with that sort of gore and pain constantly.



16.     
“War is stupid,” Roun said.
- Indeed it is.

17.           
The ancient feel in the air turned chilly in that moment. Dae set her feet on the ground, ready to jump up. “How dare you! How can you say that when people are dead?!”
           
“That’s exactly why,” Roun shot back. Dave gave him a startled look.
- Exactly.  With Roun on this one. And I don't think it's a statement that disrespects anyone who died fighting, it's more like the whole situation is totally not worth it.

18.Roun remained stone-faced. “People will take what they think they deserve.”
- An unfortunate truth.

19. In the pensive silence that followed, each of the children bore drawn expressions, none of them joking about fighting anymore. Gran Cera chuckled. “Come now, don’t be so drear. You’ll make my plants wither. Speaking of things I am good at, Dave, I’ve finished your outfit.”
- Haha Gran Cera really has grown on me. I like her character.

20. The change of subject instantly lightened the mood. Dave looked up at her, his eyes brightening. “Really? When can I try it on?”
- Yes to knew clothing!

21. “You’re one to talk,” Roun muttered under his breath. “You’ve never been in a war to know what wholef-hearted looks like.”
***whole-hearted

22. “Y’know, I’ve been wondering… is all this training really that important?” Dave asked suddenly. “There hasn’t been a conflict in a while, or so I heard. What if the other clan just gave up?”
- I am wondering what the other clan is up to. This village seems so isolated I don't even have a sense of what the entire human population is up to. Is it war time? Peace? Are there governments and stuff? Looking forward to finding out.

23. Dave wasn’t satisfied. “We’ll never match up to the Wardens. We’d die if we were ever attacked. Why not just send us somewhere safe?”
- Man makes a good point. Wardens are on a whole other level.

24. The twig broke. Roun tossed it aside and nodded. “…it was the first time my mom brought me to the village.” His eyes wandered over the trees in the grove. He said in a soft voice, “The sky was indeed dark that night.”
           
Roun said no more after that. Dave didn’t press him.
- Understandeable.

25. Jaanes sat back, hands resting on his thighs in a rather unrelaxed manner. “How’ve you been finding the village?”
 - Mysterious and dangerous haha.

26. “A wolf told me you went into the Deep Woods. I don’t remember giving you permission to go there. Unsupervised.”
- The wolves are snitches! Haha joking I love the wolves.

27. “Family Area and those areas supervised by our Wardens then. If you’d like to go anywhere else, you call me first, and I’ll let you know if you’re allowed. Do you understand?”
- Huh. Interesting. I wonder if something else is going on.

28. “You two keep yourselves out of trouble, okay? I’ll see you later, Dave.”
- Fat chance of that happening lol.

29. Dave frowned. Getting up, he ambled over to a mirror hanging in the hallway. His own face left him unimpressed. A normal boy in an absolutely normal situation. Or perhaps, not so normal? He leaned closer. “I’ve been wondering about this for a while, but what are you?”

- Nani? Is Dave talking to himself?

30. “You’re opposing my own decisions. I was… skeptical before, but it seems more… evident now. I thought I was just thinking to myself, but you’ve been guiding me ever since I got here, haven’t you? I mean, you did at home too, but you’re like an entirely different person here.”
- Oh no this can't be good.

31. It opened up into a spacious circle clearing, surrounded by stone walls, cobblestone laid underfoot. Dave was met by a large statue of a wolf sitting in the middle of this space, its head looming over him as it kept a vigilant eye upon the peaceful garden.
- Beautiful place.

32. Realization hit him when he saw, as if in slow motion, the great tree falling towards him. Instincts kicked in. Dave found himself scrambling back. He heard a whoosh. A flash of brown whizzed by his periphery. The tree crashed directly into the statue, shattering the stone into pieces, the tremor knocking Dave off his feet. Several stone shards struck him. A great wind of dust and leaves kicked up into a cloud.
- GAAAH

33. Dave knew his dad was genuinely worried, but all he could think about was how he’d almost gotten killed by simply stepping outside. His dad had told him to do one thing, and he’d gone and botched it. He heard himself saying, “I wasn’t going anywhere, I swear.”
- Son I think you're cursed or something haha.

34. Jaanes said firmly, “Take it easy, Dave. It’s okay. You’re in shock. You need to rest. Just stay inside, okay? Stay inside.”
- Something is definitely being withheld from Dave here.

On Dream III

Spoiler
dat cliffhanger. Also Xehann must've put up a good fight. RIP warrior.

Chapter 15

Spoiler
1. “Now how the cret did that happen?” At the scene of the crime tree, Warden Waron gave a low whistle. He put a hand on his hidden chin as he assessed the damage. “Snapped near the base. No obvious signs of decay. We’ll have to investigate for signs of fungal infection.”
- Suspicious as heck.

2. “None. If there was any, we’d have to catch the puppy in the act.” Waron chuckled darkly. “How much has the litter multiplied, sis?”
- I don't understand the question

3. “Having a dream like that in the middle of the day... I oughta stop taking naps after lunch.” He stood in time to be presentable for the Noturn Wolf that abruptly intruded into the glade yipping and yapping.
- No, naps are heaven. Never compromise on naps.

4. Dave was laying on the bed in their room, body straight, and hands crossed over his chest as if resigned to his fate. “If I was dead, you’d be seeing a lot more wrapping than this.” He rubbed the bandage on his arm.
- Haha.

5. “If I did that, I’ll be branded as the kid who not only ran from a boar, but also a tree.”
- Yeah that'd be a reputation killer for sure.

6. “Unless someone made it fall, it wouldn’t have fallen.” Roun muttered under his breath, finishing his earlier thought. “Please don’t be another of those years.”
- Yesss. I'm surprised the Wardens are taking such a crazy event in stride. At least Roun is smart about it.

7. Roun glanced at the several other faces that suddenly appeared around him. “I don’t know. Have you ever heard of a giant tree that voluntarily decided to fall for no reason on someone as they were passing by?”
- I haven't.

8. The message read: “Code Silver. Code Silver. Risk: Critical. Full Alert. Report Tonight.”
- Dun dun duun. Wonder what code silver is.

9. “What?” someone exclaimed, probably a first-timer.

“Cull our numbers,” Kon elaborated.

“Reduce the competition,” Dae added.

“But that’s infighting!” the first-timer protested. “Why can’t we just tell the Wardens?”

- Wow. They're willing to drop a tree on someone even.

10. “Do you think letting your emotions get the better of you and hurting them back will make this any better?” Roun challenged. Dae stared daggers at him but said nothing. He turned back to the rest of the anxious children. “When the Wardens catch on, it’ll be over. But I don’t want anyone taking action against the Nionis at this time, is that clear?” Roun looked around with sharp eyes until they nodded in conceding silence.
- Are the wardens biased or so incompetent that they wouldn't suspect the Nionis? I hope not. So far between Ravens' fight and their investigation of the tree they're really not inspiring any confidence in me. Maybe they're great fighters in a war-time situation but jeez they're doing a terrible job of being responsible haha.

11. Roun awoke in the middle of the night drenched in cold sweat. Rushing to the washroom, he locked himself in before falling into a coughing fit. He spat into the sink, his hands shaking on the counter. It took several deep breaths to steady his throbbing pulse. Only exhaustion set in when he finally calmed down. A dazed expression on his face, Roun turned on the faucet and washed the dark stains into the drain.
- I wonder how he got his sickness

- I like the rapport he's developed with Dave.
- Also I'm so looking forward to the actual festival... If trees don't end up falling on all the protagonists

Offline Echo_River

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Re: Charred Life (Rewritten)
« Reply #34 on: August 09, 2020, 11:56:21 PM »
Thanks so much for your comments and feedback lego! >w< It's been helping me think of the story from different views, especially how I might look at the future chapters.


Completely reworked the main parts of this chapter. In case anyone has read the previously titled "Sticky Situation" it is now rewritten and contains new material.

Chapter 16: The Forest Attacks

“Are you sure you’re feeling alright?” Roun asked as he pulled on his traditional jacket.

Dave slipped on a boot and shrugged. “Won’t be getting anything done if I stayed here.”

“Tree could fall on you again.”

“The house could fall on me.”

“If you insist.” Roun slung the strap of his sheath across his shoulder. “Right, let’s go.”

Early in the morning, the two of them were off to another practice. As usual, Roun had left the house somewhat behind schedule and they trekked through the dew with breakfast still fresh in their stomachs. Dave glanced at his cousin. Ever since yesterday, Roun had been oddly quiet. He looked serious. Perhaps something had happened when he went to the fire pit last night, but he hadn’t shared it with Dave yet.

He looks tired.

“Hm.”

He’s right though. All the trees in the forest could fall on us.

“We never cared about that before.” Dave whispered. “Also, would you mind talking less?”

Am I that annoying?

“Distracting. You wanted to keep this a secret. You keep secrets by not saying anything.”

Good morning to you.

“Good morning.”

“What?” Roun looked confused.

“Nothing.”

When they arrived at the training grounds, the usual crowd Tiuruh Family kids was split into four groups of four persons. Present were two Tiuruh Wardens Dave had met in previous training sessions. Warden Coyen reminded him of a sharp-eyed dog. Warden Eleyew had a longer sombre face.

“Step it up, Roun. We don’t have all day.” Crouched on a broken tree stump, Warden Coyen waved them along. “You can go over there. Dave, over there.”

Finding his group, Dave was relieved and happy to see Kon and Dae in the same team as he. The last person to complete their squad was a younger girl.

“This is my sis, Alena,” Kon introduced. “Her second year here.”

“Kon’s family aces in tracking,” Dae said. “We’ve got this covered.”

When all the groups were confirmed, Warden Eleyew began his explanation of the day’s exercise in a slow and serious manner. They were to retrieve their team’s “Object” from somewhere in the forest using the tracking and scouting skills they’d been learning. Dave’s focus soon wavered and he looked around to see who formed the other teams. Beside him, Dae was staring across the clearing. Following her gaze, he was surprised to spot Shira in the practice as well. Somewhere outside of his focus Dave heard the Warden mention something about venomous and reactive plants. He wondered if she would get along well with her group, appearing to be the youngest there. The creases on Dae’s face betrayed a similar concern.

Dave noticed more than that. Was it because of the Warden’s instruction that “anything goes if you want to devise a method to get the object” each of the teams seemed to be eyeing each other? Gestures passed behind backs. Subtle nods tracked from side to side. A few eyes met, blinked, and broke off, relaying some secret message. Was this exercise that intense or had he missed something?

“You have a time limit of one hour and a half. I’ll give you all fifteen minutes to prepare. Just remember, the last place back has to clean up the pig pens.” Warden Eleyew finished speaking, and it felt like they’d landed back into real time flow.

“Pig pens…” Dave didn’t like the sound of that. Neither did any of the others, judging by the groans and sighs. The energy on the grounds turned serious. His team gathered together to devise a plan. They were given small round wooden tokens engraved with the image of a snake, a clue for the location of their object bearing the same mark. Kon and Dae did most of the talking with a routine familiarity – detached and indifferent. Dave sensed their minds were fixated on something else. It unnerved him and from her blank face it looked like Kon’s sister had as little clue as he did on the matter.

Warden Eleyew shouted over the rising hubbub, “When the time limit is up and you aren’t back at the grove after half an hour, we will come looking for you. Did I miss anything?”

Warden Coyen smirked. “You ditch, you’re done.”

“Automatic penalty if you leave without notice,” Eleyew clarified. “That’s it. With that said, your time starts…. Now!”

The exercise began. Each team sprang into the forest. Dave followed in their haste and tasted a bad wind.
Then the children were gone. The Wardens held their breaths expectantly. Trees and plants stood in tense air. Amidst the leaves rustling in a breeze, no other sound was heard.

Eventually, Warden Coyen chuckled. “Growing up.”

Warden Eleyew sighed. “Reminds me of our younger days.”

“Hey, you hear what Waron said about the thing yesterday?”

“Yes. I’m not keen on seeing what the festival will look like if what he says is true.”

They listened to the forest sounds once more. Sitting down, Eleyew removed his watch and set it on the ground in front of him. Second by second the timer counted down.

“Hey, did you see that?”

“See what?”

Coyen was peering into the thick overgrowth. Eleyew himself saw nothing out of the ordinary.

“Nevermind,” Coyen muttered. “Just thought I saw something.” His lips curled back in an unpleasant smile. “Something we might not have put in there.”


* * *

Dave followed behind his team closely. Kon and Alena did most of the work, tracking out the least dangerous path through the trees. They winded through bushes and over tree roots, avoiding all sorts of plants bearing bright and hazardous looking stripes and spots. Always preferring to be off the ground, Dae kept up with them in the branches by jumping and swinging from tree to tree. They said nothing to each other, but Dave sensed a mutual understanding among them that they didn’t want to be the ones cleaning the pig pens.

After twenty minutes the terrain became steep. Kon led them upwards. Slightly out of breath, Dave paused to catch his breath before following them. Around them was quiet, only the rustling of leaves. He wondered if the other teams had reached their objects already. The thought prompted him to start up the hill when he stopped again. At first, he thought the frequencies in his ear had gone dead, but Dave quickly recognized the high-pitched tone cutting through the other woodland noises.

His head shot up. There was no mistaking it. It was the song of the bird he’d heard in the garden before the tree had fallen. What else made that steady lulling call? He listened hard, trying to trace its location. The longer he listened, the more it sounded like a human voice instead of an animal. Why, he could almost make out words…

“Ouch,” Dae cried out. She’d slipped on the branches and dropped to the ground ahead of him. Dave leapt over to help her up.

“Did you hear that?” he asked.

“What?” Dae dusted off her clothes.

But the sound had stopped. They caught up with the other two and continued on. It was a little later they arrived at a little glade. It was similar to the one behind Gran Cera’s house, a little  clearing filled with little blue plants, but the statue was different. This one had a lizard figure, wrapped up in vines and leaves, holding a black orb in its jaws.

“This is the place. Split up and search the area,” Kon instructed. “If it’s not here I have another place in mind.”
Not sure where to even start looking, Dave decided to check out the statue. As he got closer, he heard the whistling of the strange bird again.


* * *

Roun knew where to lead his team once they received a wolf’s image for their object’s clue. Wolves used to make their dens in this part of the forest near the fences all the way at the edge of the Family Area border. Since it was probably the furthest location out of all the objects, he’d pushed his team, another boy and two girls, along the fastest route, a stream stretching all the way to the fences, and even taking into account the weakest of their group, they got there in forty-five minutes. Immediately, they dove into searching the many large holes riddling the ground.

We’ll have to head back as soon as we find it or we might not make it back in time, Roun ran the minutes through his mind. I bet they gave us this one on purpose, cret…

“Found it!” the older boy  called out.

“Seriously? There’s no way...” Roun hurried over. There it was, a round wooden ball, about the same size as a softball, sitting in a small recess, with the wolf image carved on it. He frowned. “What the cret. That’s not a wolf den. Talk about misleading.”

“Pick it up. Let’s go,” the girl urged.

There’s no way it would be this easy…. Roun thought, then he gasped. “Wait - Don’t touch it!”

“Huh?” His teammate picked up the ball to uncover a hole.

Instantly, two long antennae poked out of it, followed by a large insect head that fit the opening exactly. The children jumped back in surprise. Seeing them, the creature pulled the rest of its long black body, the size of a rabbit, out of the hole and began chittering angrily. Out of the bushes responded a multitude of screeches as streams of giant insects shot out of their holes and swarmed towards the children.

Roun cringed. “Cret - Tunnel Ants! Run!”


* * *

“Don’t attack them!” Shira yelled unheard amidst the screaming of her team and the buzzing of bees, Zerakis bees the size of small dogs.

Retrieving their object placed thirty feet off the ground had also disturbed a bee’s nest. When the first bee appeared, her team had panicked, drew first blood, and now suffered the onslaught of the furious hive. Only because she’d remained on the ground did Shira escape notice. She wanted to help them, but that meant going towards the threat.

“This. Sucks.” Shira crouched in the bushes, trying to stay as still and calm as possible. She scowled at the frantic attempts of the others to cut the insects down. “They’re only drawing more, the idiots.”

One of the children fell from the trees with a stinger in his arm. The thick traditional clothing hadn’t been enough to deflect it. Shira’s eyes widened as she anticipated what would happen next. A mob of bees drawn by the released pheromones swooped towards the boy. He screamed. Shira shot to her feet and dove between him and the bees. Shielding him with her body, she shut her eyes tight and held her breath as the buzzing roared in her ears. She felt the wind from the wings on her cheek. Something fuzzy clipped her shoulder.

After a couple painfully tense seconds, the buzzing faded away. Shira let go of her breath and peeked at her surroundings. They were unharmed. The bees had passed them by. The insects were up in the trees again, chasing after the others. Quickly, Shira dragged him under a cover of tree roots. Then she yanked a syringe from her side pouch, popped off the cover, and jabbed the needle into the boy’s arm that was starting to turn blue. Lastly, she took a bottle from her bag and sprayed him with blue mist that smelled like glass cleaner.

“You’re fine now. I gave you the antidote. Don’t move. I’ll get the others.” Shira wiped sweat from her forehead with a grim look. She muttered dolefully, “This sucks…”

* * *

In the glade Dave’s team occupied, a giant lizard crashed through the trees at the edge of the glade just as he found their object hidden by the lizard statue. The commotion brought the rest of the team running.

Dave gaped at the creature. “What is that?” Just like the boars and wolves, the lizard itself was several times larger than your average reptile, this one easily the size of a small car. A sweet and musky odor filled the air, making him grimace. The lizard croaked loudly when it saw him. Its large angular head flipping back and forth with short abrupt movements between the surprised children.

“Blueberry pancakes - that’s a Maned Cat-Lizard!” Kon exclaimed. “I thought they were registered as hostile!”

“Hold up – hold up – hold up.” Dae shrunk herself to meld with the trees. “Then what is that thing doing here? This area should be protected by fences!”

Then how’d it get past the fence? was Dave’s thought, And if it got through, what else did?

They had little time to think when the creature lunged at them without warning. The children scattered, taking cover behind the trees. Dave peered out from behind his hiding spot. The lizard seemed to be thinking as its tongue flicked in and out.

Kon called out, “Dae - do you think this could be - ?”

Across the clearing, Dae yelled back. “There’s no way they could’ve - !”

“- But remember what Roun said?”

They were interrupted by the lizard’s croaking. When it stopped, Dae sounded apprehensive. “Kon, if this is actually that then - then something might’ve happened to the other teams too. I’m gonna find Shira!”

“Dae, don’t you dare -” Kon started, but the archer was already gone. “Dae, come back! Focus on the objective! Blast it!” His sudden movement drew the lizard’s attention. It started towards him.

“Kon, watch out,” Dave warned, darting out of his hiding place. He threw a stone at its rump but the creature didn’t even flinch. With a start he realized he heard the bird’s whistling again. A sick feeling lodged in his stomach.

“Alena, stay back!” Kon moved out of cover, intending to draw the lizard away from his sister’s position. It didn’t work. The lizard continued to slink rapidly in Alena’s direction. When the girl saw the creature coming, she screamed and ran for her brother. The lizard made a beeline for her.

In a breathless second, Dave caught a glimpse of Kon dashing back towards her, not before Kon also noticed the lizard focusing its eyes on himself. Two things happened at the same time – Kon shoved Alena out of the way and the lizard dove forward. Fast as a whip, it struck the boy full in the chest, knocking him back into a tree. Kon hit the ground limp.

Dave couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He couldn’t seem to breathe and then suddenly he was breathing hard, his heart pounding. Somehow, this feeling overshadowed his previous experiences. With the wild boar, he felt too surprised to be scared. With the berserk Wardens, he was too distant from experience to be afraid. With the falling tree, he realized for the first time he could actually die. An overwhelming sense of dread locked his muscles in place. No matter how many times it happened his reaction didn’t change. He didn’t know what to do.

Alena screamed, her shrill voice drawing Dave out of his shock and he saw the lizard turning back towards him. Its scaly skin, huge cat-like eyes, and rows of teeth looked so clear and sharp. The sweet musky smell was overpowering. He quavered.

We’re next.

“Um - uh -” Dave stumbled backwards, his eyes darting back and forth.

Why is this always happening to us?

“Speak for yourself!”

Behind the lizard, Dave saw the young girl crawling over to Kon. If the lizard turned back to them, they’d be defenseless. If it attacked him, there was no guarantee he’d survived. But… If he could keep its attention long enough on him…

You’re crazy.

“I’m out of time.” Bracing every fiber in his body, Dave snatched a dagger from his belt and threw it at the creature. A long blue thing shot out from the reptile and caught the dagger. With a whoosh and smack the lizard’s tongue retracted back into its mouth. If he had a mirror, Dave bet he would see his face turning into the same shade of blue. Meanwhile, the lizard’s body turned red as it chittered in pain. Its eyes fixed on him.

Brilliant. Self-induced death.

“I’m sorry!” Dave took off at a dead run into the trees  with the lizard hot on his heels.


* * *

The ants soon outran the children. Roun swung around, at the same time drawing his sword to slice an ant jumping at him. More followed behind it like a swift river. His team was surrounded. Everyone had drawn their weapons, attempting to cut a path through the insects. Normal ants might have scrambled away in confusion, but with increased brain size came increased intelligence. The giant ants fought like barbarians. Cutting down one meant five others to avenge it.

“There’s too many!” one of the others cried.

“Keep going!” Roun urged. His blade moved constantly, cutting easily through the soft bodies. Very slowly they pushed towards what he hoped was south. The panic-generated adrenaline gave them energy, but there were just too many targets to deal with.

From the corner of his eye, Roun saw the others struggling to keep the insects at bay. The ground was covered with dark bodies. He heard a cry and then saw one of the younger Acor children go under.

“Cret…” Roun cleared the area around him with a series of slices, jumped up, swung off a branch, and landed near the young girl, squishing an ant in the process.  “Cover my back!” he yelled at the other two. He took out a smaller dagger and started quickly but carefully stabbing the ants clinging to the child’s clothes.

Thankfully ant bites were not venomous. They were at worst as harmless as a small dog’s bite. The thick traditional clothes deterred those pincers from stabbing through but the pain of the pinch could make a grown-up keel over. At this rate, they would all go down. Roun couldn’t see a way to carry his teammate, run, and defend at the same time. The other two were wearing down, their movements slowing.

“If only I had fire. Although, Chief would kill me if I burned the forest down. Or water...” Roun yelled over the screeching insects and flashing blades, “Anyone have a tree oil spray?”

“Oonrwon Tree Oil?” the other boy gasped.

“Any! Use it!”

The Acor boy lunged for a low tree branch, kicking ants off his legs, and fished around his pouch. He pulled out a small stone spray container and started pumping down a mist of red on the insects. The second girl also pulled out a bottle that sprayed a yellow mist. They all covered their faces to avoid breathing it in. Its effects on the ants were gradual, but after a minute the insect attacks became weak, their movements scrambled, and some curled up and became still..

Roun carried the young girl over his shoulder. “Pass the spray! They’re slowing down. Make a break for it!”
His teammate tossed the bottle over while the other boy leapt  down from the tree. They rushed by Roun while he squeezed the last of the liquid out behind them to ward off as many as he could before following his teammates. Roun ran as well as he could under the extra weight. As he hoped, they hit the stream that led south back to the training grounds.

Before they had gone far, his female teammate stumbled to a halt. “Wait, I can’t - I’m tired -”

Roun skidded to a stop. “They could be still chasing us.”

“I have some tree oil left,” the other said.

“Give it here.” Roun put down the wounded child, took the bottle, and sprayed a layer himself and then all the others. “That should rid some of the scent off us. Still think fire works better. Get back to the Wardens. Don’t wait for me.” He whistled loudly before quickly wrapping the child’s wounds. A wolf jumped across the stream like it had been waiting for the call. Roun set the child on its back and directed the other girl to get on as well.

“What about you?” the other boy asked.

“I’m going to check on the other teams. You have the object right? Explain the situation to the Wardens. I’m not sure if it was them that set this up. Quo - make sure they all get back safely.”

“You don’t mean they set this up?”

“A mob of Tunnelling Ants could’ve killed a kid. It's not the style of the Wardens. Go on.” Roun signaled Quo to leave. The wolf went at a brisk walk so the boy could keep up. After they were gone, Roun breathed deeply. They’d been caught off guard. He really hadn’t thought about what the Nionis could have planned when Huks asked if he was ready to play. Roun didn’t want to play. That’s why he’d told the rest not to. “That’s what I said but… the way this is looking is scaring me.”


* * *

Shira couldn’t stop the bees from attacking the rest of her team but she could maybe stop the buzzers from outright killing them. Keeping as low in the bushes as possible, she threw daggers at the bees, pinning a few of them to trees to redirect the attention of their comrades. There were so many of them she didn’t have to be accurate. The constant buzzing made her heart beat faster.

She found her other two teammates being overwhelmed by the thick hordes. They’d survived so far by covering themselves as completely as possible. Most likely they were wearing multiple layers, but they were wearing down and couldn’t fend off everything. Shira began firing her special spray into the swarm. Her mixture, especially for bees, messed up their perception, irritated their skin, and interfered with their scents. Except she only had so much. It didn’t help that her teammates were still attacking out of fear instead of thinking. Plus she was running out of weapons to throw.

“Hey, get out of there!” Shira yelled. They couldn’t hear her. Just as she troubled over what else she could do, she got the strong sense that something was heading their way extremely fast. It came so fast that it gave Shira a little shock when it tore through the thoraxes of three bees in a row and nailed them to a tree. Three more shot through in close succession with the same result, taking the insects out by twos and trees. By then, Shira saw the familiar fletchings and nocks of the objects sticking out of the hostiles. There was only one person who would pull off something like this.

“What - ” A flicker of what could almost be described as happiness appeared on the girl’s face only to be succeeded by the sharp click of her tongue. “ - does Dae think she’s doing?”

Now the bees were in total disarray as they sought out an invisible opponent. They crowded near their dead comrades yet couldn’t find a target to distribute revenge on. The arrows continued raining in, none missing their mark. Dae was mostly likely shooting from a distance. For a moment, the air cleared up. Shira’s teammates scrambled out of the way before another wave of bees could arrive. Seeing them out of harm’s way prompted Shira to book it herself. Her sister wouldn’t stop otherwise. The wolves would find their wounded teammate later.

Shira ran without knowing which direction she went. She escaped beneath the thick foliage, using roots and broad leaves as cover. Whenever she heard the ominous buzzing, she whispered to herself, “I’m not here… I’m not here…” and the threat would miss her.

When she could neither see nor hear the bees, Shira slowed and glanced back cautiously. The regular rhythm of rustling leaves brought her relief. None followed her. She was finally in the clear. With a sigh, she turned back forward and nearly ran into someone hurrying from the other way.

Shira looked up with a start. “Dave?”

“Shira!” It was indeed Dave, looking flustered and exhausted. His face lit up when he saw her, He blurted breathlessly. “Are you okay? Where’s everyone? Hold on – we can’t stay here, the caza – I mean the lizard - cat - thing – ”

Shira regained her composure.  “I wouldn’t go that way,” she said somewhat impassively when he started past her, “I just ran from a swarm of bees. Think ‘bee’ in the sense of the Zerakis forest. What is that smell?” She glanced him up and down and noticed the Object in his hand dripping with a strange pink goo. “Oh.”

A deep-throated croak sounded from the trees. A giant red-skinned lizard broke through the bushes and spotted them. Dave made a face. “Great.”

“What are you doing?” Shira aimed a chastising glare at him.

“I don’t know - I just - had to run.”

It didn’t take Shira two eyes to assess the situation. At least this was much less trouble than those pesky insects. Very simply, she snatched the object from his hand and chucked it into the trees. Without hesitation, the lizard chased after it, causing mayhem through the bush. Soon after they heard a loud crash, as if the lizard had fallen into a pit or something.  An awkward silence followed.

“You’re welcome,” said Shira while Dave gawked. “Orosis Nectar. Lizards love it. Surprised you didn’t notice the smell. You’ve got it all over your hand.”

“Right,” Dave replied awkwardly. He noticed the gunk on his hand for the first time. Shira handed him a handkerchief from her pouch to wipe it off.

A rustling in the trees startled them and they both tensed up, but it was a human figure that ran up to them. “Thank Cretanneh you guys are still alive.”

“Roun!”

The teen looked spent and his clothes were roughed up. Roun bent over to catch his breath. “You won’t believe the chaos this has turned out to be. We need to head back before... Wait, where are your teams?”

Dave and Shira pointed in opposite directions.

“You’re a bit late,” Shira remarked.

“Did something happen? What’s going on?” Dave frowned.

“We need to talk!” shouted a fourth voice. Dae swung down from the trees with her bow strung and few arrows in her quiver remaining. She stormed up to them so out of breath she pulled down her face mask to show a dark scowl.

Roun pushed his palm towards her. “Can it wait till the training is done and we’re out of here safely? Y’know, even though we live in the forest it doesn’t mean we’re immune to its inescapable charms. Especially the ones that want to squeeze the life out of you.”

Dae smacked his hand aside. “Oh? The forest is trying to kill us, is it? May as well sue the forest for dropping a tree on Dave then! My sister was attacked by bees, Roun! Explain that.”

“You didn’t have to come,” Shira interjected.

“Wait, what is going on?” Dave repeated.

A wolf’s howl pierced through all sounds of commotion. The children listened to it rise and fall. Roun said, “Emergency signal. Everyone has to return. Training is over.”

They looked at each other. Grim. Tired. Confused.

Dave gasped. “Kon!”


NTS: Edits and Changes
Chapter 16
- Changed the whole training situation from Dave's POV to switching back and forth betwee Dave, Roun, and Shira's POV.
- Previously it was just Dave's team dealing with the lizard, but it is now changed to each team dealing with a separate issue.

- Will add more when I remember them \o/
« Last Edit: August 11, 2020, 10:30:10 PM by Echo_River »
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Re: Charred Life (Rewritten)
« Reply #35 on: September 28, 2020, 05:01:57 PM »
Hahhh.... I've been dreading these next few chapters and this part of the story for a long time. There were a lot of directions I wanted to take it, lots of scenes in my head that wanted to be in it, but it seems like it only wants to flow one way, and I can't see ahead far enough to determine which way is the best one.

So, I'm prodding myself not to worry about it and just "Write down everything that happens in the story, then in your second draft make it look like you knew what you doing all along". (Neil Gaiman) My brain hasn't seriously hasn't integrated the aspect of "edit later" yet.


Chapter 17: Close to Bursting

“So what sort of ordeal did you experience, boys?” asked the Warden in a voice tired of repeating the same thing.

“Tunneling ants, in the old wolf dens,” said Roun. “A whole colony. My teammates were all bitten. It was like the object was set up to provoke them.”

“A giant, um, Maned Cat-Lizard,” said Dave. “It came without warning and knocked Kon out.”

“Anything else?” said the Warden.

“I, er, aggravated it. And our object was soaked in Orosis Nectar, according to Shira. She threw it away. That’s how we got rid of it. Well, kind of.”

“No joke, I can still smell it. If you don’t wash it off you’ll attract more things. Ask the Healer to make a solution for you to get it off. Did you two notice anything else weird while you were in the forest?”

Roun and Dave glanced at each other. Dave opened his mouth… but then closed it and shook his head. Who would believe that a bird’s whistle could summon a giant lizard? It wasn’t like you could bag it as evidence either.

“Depends what you think is weird. I thought the whole thing was sus,” Roun said pointedly. “We never had to deal with this in previous training. What’s going on?”

The Warden cut him off quickly, “That’s what we’re looking into it. Now go get yourselves checked by the Healer.”

The boys were shooed off as the Warden went to question other children.  Roun shook his head. “There they go again, acting like they’re hiding something. If we weren’t being watched, I would have found out already. You sure you’re fine?”

Dave nodded. “Just scratches.”

They were no longer in the training area, but on the Healer’s plot in their Family Area along with a number of other children. The ones with more critical injuries were being tended to first inside the house, while the rest sat on the lawn where a couple other healers from the family flitted about, wrapping up smaller cuts and disinfecting bites. Only a handful had escaped practically unscathed, including Roun, Dave, Shira, Dae, and Alena.

When not being given medical care they were questioned by the Wardens. Once the end of practice was signalled, the adults and wolves had come in force, driving the threats away and finding all the injured. It was not hard to explain what had happened, however no one seemed to be answering the why and how it had happened. Everyone waited with bated breath for information. Dave wondered where his father was.

A healer finally attended to the boys, putting ointment on their cuts as they sat on a bench in front of the house and let the events of the morning sink in. Dave snuck a glance at his cousin. If he seemed tired before, Roun looked completely wasted now, eyes drawn and unfocused, body slumped, and breaths short.

He looks so sad to have survived, remarked the voice.

“Key word being survive,” Dave replied.

To your right.

The pointy-eared hood emerged from the Healer’s hut before Dave could figure out what the voice meant. Dae saw them instantly. She trudged over and rooted herself in front of Roun. He didn’t look up.

Dae cleared her throat. Roun frowned.

“We need to talk,” she said, eyes cold.

Roun sighed. “Later?”

Now.”

“I’ll be back,” Roun told Dave. He slowly stood up and slipped away with the archer.

“If you don’t end up falling asleep somewhere,” Dave added to himself.

99.9% chance of that happening, the voice chuckled.

“Guess we don’t have to hang around anymore either.” Dave got up and stretched, feeling sore all over his body. The ointment the healer had applied had a cooling effect to his cuts that would have been nice if he wasn’t already feeling stiff as a board. Through the window and on the lawn he saw the other kids, some resting, some looking anxious, some scared. He couldn’t place his finger on it, but instead of being relieved the danger was gone, they looked like they’d lost a soccer game, except the game was a practice. It was the same feel he’d got when everyone began the exercise so seriously only now shrouded with a thicker cloud.

As the door was open, he peeked into the house. Healer Swallow, Alena, and a woman were in the anteroom, speaking in low voices. Alena clutched the woman’s arm. Was that her mother? But Kon had said his mother disapproved of things Acor. A relative maybe? Dave strained his ears.

Swallow said, “It’ll take at least six weeks for it all to heal. Until then, he can still do regular day-to-day activities, but any training is a no-no. Unfortunately, that means he probably won’t be able to enter the Warden’s Exam at the festival… I’ve included all the information, pills, and ointments in the package…. I’ll have him brought to your house later with a Warden.”

Now that’s what I call “survived”.

“I’m glad,” Dave said. When they’d found Kon bloodied and unresponsive, he ‘d dreaded his friend and relative had died. Fortunately, because the lizard had smacked him rather than crushed him, Kon’s injuries summed up to some impressive bruises and several broken ribs. Dave was worried for him, for Alena, and was grateful nothing worse happened. If Kon had died…

Dave felt a chill. He wondered if he was going to sleep at all that night.

To your left.

Dave looked left and to be sure, his dad was coming up the path to the house with deeply furrowed brows.

“Are you okay? Let me see your face.” Jaanes pushed back his son’s hair. After checking Dave with narrowed eyes, he grunted in dissatisfaction. “You didn’t have to go to practice if you weren’t feeling well. I heard your team ran into a Maned Cat-Lizard. You didn’t do anything rash, did you?”

Dave waved him off. “I’m fine, dad. You sound like mom.”

Jaanes aimed an exasperated look at him. “Where’s Roun?”

“Somewhere.”

“When you’re done up here, I’d like you to go back to the house. There’s no practice tomorrow, so use that time to rest and don’t go anywhere you shouldn’t be. Tell that to Roun as well.”

“Can Dave come berry picking with me tomorrow afternoon at Gran Cera’s?” asked Shira.

Both father and son jumped. The girl sat on the bench beside Dave, completely nonchalant. She met his eyes briefly. Recovering from the surprise, Jaanes quickly scanned her up and down then nodded. “Shira... I think that should be okay. If you’re having dinner there, please bring Roun with you.”

“Okay.”

Jaanes squeezed Dave’s shoulder. “I’ll be helping the investigation so I won’t be back till late. Get home safe.”

The moment his dad was gone, Dave took a deep breath.

“You’re welcome,” said Shira.

“Right.” Dave sat beside her. “Your sister is talking with Roun if you’re looking for her.”

“They’re probably discussing what to do next. I wouldn’t get involved if I were you,” said Shira.

“About what?”

Shira raised an eyebrow. “About the… don’t you know?” She glanced cautiously around them as she lowered her voice.

“How to skip the next practice,” Dave guessed. When that earned him a glare, he said sheepishly, “Sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Shira clicked her tongue. “I suppose that’s one thing you don’t need to know.” She hopped off her seat. “See you tomorrow at four. We can talk more then.”

Dave got tense. “Where?”

“The berry patch behind Gran Cera’s house,” Shira said.

“Oh. I got in trouble with dad for going to the Deep Woods last time.”

“Me too.”

“Is your mom the loud terrifying type or the quiet strict type?”

Shira shook her head. “Not in trouble with mom. In trouble with Gran. She’s the quiet terrifying type.” She suddenly pinched her nose. “Your hands still stink.”


* * *

Travelling down a side trail, Roun braced himself against trees to keep himself from stumbling. His legs forgot how to support him and his feet refused to step straight.

Ahead of him, Dae walked with tense movements, the ears of her hood bobbing up and down. She held a chilling look in her eyes. One could practically see the rage oozing off her raised shoulders. Roun knew what she wanted to say and didn’t want to hear it. His tired state and the fact she wasn’t going to listen was putting him into a bad mood.

“Wait a sec, Dae, slow down.”

Dae swung around briefly, walking backwards, eyebrows raised. She pointed down. “Do you see my feet on the ground? And you’re having trouble keeping up?”

They arrived in an empty courtyard behind the houses that used to be a training area before maintenance became troublesome. It was a good place to avoid unwanted ears - most of the unwanted ears at least.

 Dae marched up to the center of the yard where the concrete blocks were broken up in several places by enormous tree roots. Roun sat down on these roots with a mind not to get up for a while. He wondered how she still had enough energy to rant after the brutal exercise. His own energy levels were so sunk he could barely think properly. 

He snapped back to her earlier comment. “Hey, not everyone is some super long-ranged lemur. I had a mob to deal with and teammates to protect. Unlike someone who abandoned theirs and escaped without a scratch.”

Dae scowled. “Say that again and I will skewer you.”

“I heard from Dave you left them. You should’ve stuck together with your team. They needed your help and Kon got hurt because of you.” The words left his mouth before he knew it.

Me?!” Dae pulled down her mask and gasped in disbelief at him. “My fault, is it? So it’s my fault everyone was going to die? That’s rich coming from you. You’re the one who told us not to get even and what has it done? Nearly gotten us killed!”

“You were supposed to work together with the others. That would’ve resulted in less casualties,” Roun retorted.

“I saved Shira!”

“We lost our best tracker!”

Dae screamed at him in a tight voice. “This isn’t about the exam anymore, Roun! Everyone was seriously hurt this time - you know this is them. They have something up their sleeves and you're letting them get away with it. Shira and the younger kids are in danger!” Her eyes glistened, her body shook. “Six weeks, broken ribs, and a giant lizard. How are you going to make that up to Kon? He can’t do the exam this year and who knows if his parents will let him come back next year. If this ever ends, are you going to tell him you did nothing to make up for his loss?”

Roun said nothing, but stared at her stricken. His mouth hung open.“Then let’s tell the Wardens,” he said blankly.

The suggestion caused Dae’s pupils to shrink into stabbing pinholes as her upper lip curled back. “Do you even hear yourself?” she said in a shaky voice.

Roun’s head throbbed. “You know the rules. If this isn’t about the exam anymore, we have no more reason to hide it. I’m not going to fight them. Let the Wardens settle this. There’s no way they haven’t caught on.”

Dae threw her hands up. “By the time they decide to do anything, no one in our family will be fit to enter anyway! We need to do something ourselves!”

“I’m standing by my decision. It’s that, or you calm down and go home and rest.”

“Or nothing,” Dae snapped. “Roun Tiuruh, I’m so done with you. I ain’t gonna promise you a thing because you can’t even seem to keep your own words. If you won’t do something to stop the Nionis, then I will,” she growled as she stalked away from the courtyard.

“Dae!” Roun rose to his feet. “Don’t do anything stupid!”

The archer didn’t turn back, her voice low and resentful in his ears. “You of all people have no right to tell me that.”

“Dae!” It was pointless. He had no energy to chase after her. Was she really going to retaliate? Would she really risk getting into trouble right after the practice? Maybe she wouldn’t. Dae was hotheaded, but she wasn’t dumb. If he knew her well, Roun figured she would wait for the best opportunity before making a move. The dangerous part was he didn’t know when that would be.

Roun pressed his hands to his head and bit his lip hard. “Dear Cretanneh... This isn’t going to end well. Quo? Quo, are you there?” The wolf poked its head into the courtyard from under a bush. So much for unwanted ears. “Will you keep an eye on Dae and make sure she doesn’t go charging into the Nionis Family Area?” Quo’s bark pitched up at the end. “I know you can’t climb trees. If anything happens, just report to the Wardens like you should and then come get me – don’t tell them I asked you to. They’d think I was planning something. ‘Kay, off you go.”

Quo and his bushy tail disappeared into the forest. Roun’s legs buckled and he fell to his knees, catching his breath. Then he fell sideways and rolled onto his back. He used an arm to block out the light from his heavy eyelids. It was so difficult to breathe all of a sudden.

“Five minutes,” he murmured. “I’m so tired…” Even the ground was a welcome mattress to his heavy limbs. He chuckled darkly to himself. “I wonder what would happen if I fell asleep and never woke up.” He tried to focus on this ridiculous thought, focus on how tired he was, focus on the sound of silence. No use. He couldn’t distract himself. Like how the curse of wanting to fall asleep only kept you awake, the more he tried to block out the thoughts, the more they sounded.

Why did she have to put it that way?

Are you going to tell him you did nothing to make up for his loss?

He pictured Kon viewing him distastefully, a betrayed look on his face. Then that face changed to another, an old and familiar face, and Roun’s eyes snapped open. A long forgotten voice rang in his head. Roun covered his ears, but could not block it out.

Are you going to tell me you did nothing to avenge me?

“Xehann,” Roun blurted.

How are you going to avenge me?

“I don’t know,” Roun said.

Have you forgotten about me?

“How can I?”

Have you forgotten the ones who killed him? How are you going to avenge me?

“I don’t know.” Roun gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut. “I don’t know if I can!”

Panic washed over Roun. A sick feeling rushed over him. He scrambled to his knees and coughed it out. Dizziness came next. He fell over again and the exhaustion finally let his eyes close in sleep.


* * *

And he was back. Dragging himself out of the water. Exhausted.

Running on the trail strewn with bodies. Panicked.
When the trees parted, there he saw…

A massive black fog. Dense and opaque as the night sky. Everything it touched turned black.

Trees were fallen. The ground was dark.

Within the fog muffled voices cried out. Muted thuds fell flat.

Roun so badly wanted to move forward.

His instincts so badly wanted him to run away.

“Xehann!” Roun cried. “Xehann, where are you!”

He heard a distant voice coming from inside the fog.

“Xehann?”

He tried to reach his hand into it, but the fog deflected him away.

The voice became an eerie ringing.

Roun covered his ears.

But the ringing grew louder and louder...


* * *

“Cret.” Roun groaned as he rolled over, feeling for his pockets. His body ached everywhere and he felt groggy. Opening his eyes a crack, he saw that the light wasn’t shining from the treetops anymore. How long had he slept? An early evening orange stole into the courtyard. Roun lifted his groggy body to sit, still patting his clothes. “Where is my phone - oh.”

His ears finally located the ringing. The buzzing phone lay beside him, held hostage in the paws of a squat but sleek-bodied brown animal that peered up at him with large dark eyes.

Squeak.

“Um, thanks.” Roun took his cellphone from its grasp, glanced at the screen, and grimaced. Five minutes had stretched into a whopping five hours. No wonder he felt drowsy. The number was Dave’s. He gave an experimental cough. Feelings of sickness gone, he cleared his throat. “Hey.”

I’ve been trying to call you. Where are you?

“Near the house. Why? Something the matter?” Roun said in alarm. His voice garbled.

Dave paused. “Were you… sleeping?

“Well. I might’ve dropped off for a bit. But, did something happen?”

No? I was just wondering where you’ve been.” Dave said with a touch of impatience. “Dad wanted us to stay at the house.”

Roun and the animal were staring evenly at each other. “Are you there right now?”

I’ve been here all afternoon. Waiting for you. Are you coming back?

“Yeah, that might have to wait. Can you come to the bridge?”

But -

“Uncle Jaanes isn’t home right?”

Said he’d be back late.

“Late means tomorrow. Meet me in twenty minutes. We’re eating out. And I have something to tell you. Oh, and wear your traditional clothes.” Roun hung up on Dave’s protests. He sighed in relief.

Beside him the animal stood up on its hind legs and squeaked again. Roun held out his hand. The animal grappled it with its two short front legs. Roun chuckled. “Well met. You’re Enn’s otter, right? What does she want?”

The otter made a series of whines and squeals to which Roun nodded with a sombre expression. He got to his feet feeling much lighter in spirit. The rest had done him good. “I thought this would happen. Lead the way,” he said.

Looking pleased, the otter squeaked again and scampered ahead at an energetic pace, glancing back every so often to make sure he was keeping up. Roun followed at a jog. He kept an eye out for the Wardens in case they were still conducting their investigations by the training areas, but it was oddly quiet. Were they done? Perhaps they were discussing the results at the Hall. As tempted as he was to look into their meeting, he knew Warden Waron wouldn’t turn a blind eye a second time.

Seeing how calm the forest was also signalled to him Dae had forestalled her earlier claim of acting out on her own. If she had done something, the wolves would have come to get him already. Dave would have told him. And the otter wouldn’t be looking so chipper. It was almost unsettling how Enn’s otter led him across the forest without him seeing a soul.

The meetup point was a bridge that crossed over a wide river southeast of the Tiuruh Family Area. On this side of the river, the giant archway in front of the bridge was dark blue. On the other side stood a red arch. Small umbrella plants and flat mushrooms grew on the riverbanks, their soft white glow spreading through the water, clearly revealing the silhouettes of fish and other aquatic creatures. Waiting for his cousin to arrive, Roun splashed the sleep from his face and was fixing his appearance when Dave showed up.

“Roun, I think we should stay at the...” Dave started when he balked. “Is that a - an otter?”

“This is Enn’s otter,” Roun introduced as he redid his ponytail. “Enn’s otter - Dave.”

The otter scurried up and grappled Dave’s ankles in greeting. Dave knelt down to pet the animal, a captivated look on his face that turned worried when he remembered where he was. “Who’s Enn?” he asked.

“She’s like me. Daughter to the Head of the Hakara Family. She’s invited us for dinner. Well - me. I think.”

Dave’s eyes widened. “Hakara Family? We’re going to their Family Area? Are we allowed?”

“Well, yeah. It’s not like the Family Areas are guarded territories. Anyone’s free to visit the other families. The only reason we haven’t is because we’ve had no time. I figured this was the best time to bring you before well… things start to happen.” Roun looked at his cousin apologetically.

Dave stood up. “So… why are you being invited?”

Roun looked away. “Business. Probably something diplomatic.” He continued hesitantly. “Listen, Dave, before we go on... I just want to say I’m sorry for all the bad stuff that’s been happening lately.”

Dave looked worried. “You did something bad recently?”

“I’ve been - well, not exactly me but - we’re kinda in a mess with the Nionis right now. They’ve been picking fights with us… now it’s just gotten out of hand. I’m telling you, because things could get really messy, even messier than this morning… I didn’t really want you to get caught up in it - and your dad would kill me if he found out - but you’re already involved, so...”

“Wait, I am?”

Roun took a breath. “You know when the tree fell in the backyard? That was the Nionis.”

Dave stared hard at him. When his cousin didn’t respond right away, Roun continued. “And the practice this morning? All the chaos with the lizard, the bees, and the ants? Kon? That was also the Nionis.”

“Okay…” Dave said slowly. “But, I haven’t seen them lately. How do you know it was them? And why would they do that?”

“That’s the thing. We don’t know or when they did it,” Roun scowled. “But it’s them. They’re the only ones that have the gall to do something like this. And we've had scuffles with them before. You remember how Huks was so quick to pick a fight with us when you came to the village? It’s a family rivalry thing. They want to be first in the Exam and so… they’re trying to pick on our family, because we have - had the most participants.”

“That’s…” Dave said thoughtfully. “The only thing that made sense so far.”

Roun couldn’t help a bitter laugh. “You’re right. And because they haven’t been caught, we can’t point them out for infighting. It’s the first time this has happened. Our family is getting hurt  and, “ - he stammered - “I don’t know what to do.”

They fell silent. Dave processed the information with an unreadable face, while Roun gazed blankly into the forest, the rushing of the river in the background.

“It’s weird,” Dave finally said. “What’s the teaching of not infighting all about if it still happens?”

Roun glanced at his cousin, confused. The words sounded strange coming from Dave, someone who hadn’t grown up with the Acor way of seeing things, but also because the words sounded off. The adults and Wardens taught against infighting because it was the problem. It was almost like Dave was saying the rule was pointless in the first place.

An impatient squeak interrupted his thoughts before Roun could place the weird feeling. Whining frantically, Enn’s otter dashed around his feet. “Sorry, buddy, we’re coming,” Roun said as he stepped onto the bridge. “Anyway, that’s the jist of it. If anything else happens in the future, that’s what’s going on. We don’t think the Nionis are done. Everyone has to be on their guard. Especially you. Apologies in advance.”

Dave shook his head doubtfully. “Does going to the Hakara Family have anything to do with this by any chance?”

Roun’s sorry look quickly turned guilty as they crossed the bridge. “Ahh… two years ago, we had a similar spat with the Nionis. We kind of thrashed the Hakara Family Area while we were at it.”


NTS

Chapter 17
- All new additions I did not think of previously.
- Unsure whether to keep Enn Hakara in or not. Consider removing if unnecessary.
- Also must include several changes to introduce Dave, Roun, and situation from the Nionis from the beginning.

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Offline Echo_River

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Re: Charred Life (Rewritten)
« Reply #36 on: November 21, 2020, 11:51:51 PM »
This past month as been a lot of thinking on revising the beginning chapters. There are a lot of little elements I'd like to add that may help the set-up better, such as introducing Huks as a major antagonist right off the bat and a more obvious impression the villagers have of Roun. I've been looking up writing things and 'Save the Cat' caught my eye. Maybe such things will help, maybe they won't. I keep telling myself I just gotta keep writing >_<

Anyway, here's the next chapter! Hope you enjoy~


Chapter 18 Shadowed Troubles

The otter led the boys over the bridge onto a clean path cutting through slender brown trees that stood in perfect rows, their white leaves spread over them. Instead of cube fixtures, lanterns hung from short poles at regular intervals lit the way. The path traversed over several glimmering streams that grew larger the further they went. Many flowers of different colours grew in the underbrush, planted among large stones, little animal statues, and miniature structures that looked like shrines.

Nervousness prevented Dave from appreciating the scenery to the fullest. If his dad returned while they were out, Jaanes would be exasperated. Plus, it didn’t feel right to be sightseeing with all the things going on.

“We should let him know,” Dave muttered worriedly.

Don’t you want to see what’s up?

Dave couldn’t deny that. “I just think… wow.” The path ended suddenly in a soft white glow. A glow that filled the air all around him and shone through the wooden boards beneath his feet. When his eyes adjusted, he saw a vast lake stretched out beneath the forest canopy and it was his first day all over again.

The lake water was clear, so clear he could see straight to the bottom, but the light caused it  to shimmer with rainbow colours across its surface. Beneath the water bioluminescent plants swayed and small creatures darted to and fro. Small spore-like light wisps danced through the air, creating a dreamy haze. Giant lily pads and flowers glided over gentle ripples. Long-legged birds waded in the water while in the distance small flocks fluttered low over the lake. Short trees also grew from the water, but nothing that rose past waist height. For the first time in a while he remembered what open space felt like. It had a very refreshing effect on the young Acor.

“Dave, over here,” Roun called. Dave reluctantly tore his eyes away from the scenery to follow his cousin. The walkway turned into a bridge running over the side of the lake, until it curved towards the middle of the lake and Dave saw the village of the Hakara Family.

There were no roads or platforms. The houses sat on top of the water, raised by wooden or stone supports and connected by wooden bridges. Each had a shallow triangle roof that curved up at its sides and was set with red tiles. The Tiuruhs lived in a close knit family community complex, the Hakaras built their dwellings a good distance from each other, sprawled throughout the lake without obscuring and scenery. It reminded Dave of high-end housing.

Roun adjusted his speed to a measured stride when they got close to the houses. Dave realized why his cousin told him to wear his traditional clothes. In this environment, outside clothes would look out of place. Out in the middle of the lake, there weren’t any side streets or back alleys to traverse. It was bridge after bridge after bridge. If he were alone, Dave knew he would get lost, but the otter moved continuously, not once hesitating a turn or split in the path.

It was all very beautiful and Dave wanted to ask questions about the details of his surroundings, but Roun moved quickly, said little, and looked tense as they followed the animal.

They were a few minutes through the area when Roun pulled back to Dave’s side. “Something’s wrong.”

Dave glanced around. “Yeah… where is everyone?” They’d seen not a soul since arriving. If the people were all inside, they were doing a wondrous job of keeping quiet.

“Do you smell that?”

Dave sniffed the air. “I smell water.”

Roun kept scanning the area. “I smell smoke.”

Smoke? There was a faint trace of it that Dave wouldn’t have noticed if Roun hadn’t pointed it out. That didn’t seem so strange. The smoke could be coming from someone’s chimney… except there was a burnt building right up ahead.

At the end of the bridge, sprawled over a larger area of water than the rest, with a redder roof than the rest, was a huge two-story house. It wasn’t the front that was burnt, but a smaller side section attached to it on the right. From the bottom up a harsh black coating encased what was left of it.  Its wooden walls were gone and the roof had collapsed. A bad feeling pushed aside his excitement when Dave saw it.

“That’s the Hakara Main House,” Roun said in a small voice.

“That looks horrible...” Dave gaped.

Roun remarked without his usual energy, “You’d think with all this water they would have figured out how to avoid fires… Hold up, we’re not going to the Main House? Hey, otter, we’re not meeting Enn at the house? Where is it going...?” Roun said in surprise when the otter suddenly changed its course, turning onto a smaller bridge to the that winded away from the middle of the lake.

It led them to a building sitting on the edge of the lake, half nestled on the shore. They saw figures moving inside. Someone was crying. As they approached, a man in a traditional black robe emerged from the door and made towards them as if to speak, but when he saw the otter, passed by with a small nod. Roun acknowledged him with a slight bow. Dave felt a strange sense of déjà vu. Then he saw the organized garden on the land, full of spicy scented herbs, and put two and two together.

“This is…the Healer’s house?” Dave said.

Roun said nothing as he looked through the open door. The otter squeaked urgently and led them around the back door of the building, connected to the land by a dirt path. On the sides of the path were smaller huts, smoke rising from each of their little chimneys. The back door opened when they approached and a young woman stepped out. At least, she looked to be older than they were. Her dark hair was bundled into a tight bun. Her dark brown eyes stared at them with a cold hard quality. She was a little taller than he, and wore a grey dress beneath a robe with long wide sleeves that was half white on one arm, red and black in the middle, and painted with teal feathers on the other sleeve. The otter scampered up to her, whining impatiently as it stood up to grapple her reaching hand.

“It’s been a while. Thank you for the invitation. I hope you and your family are well. ” Roun’s formal tone threw Dave for a loop. His cousin never even sounded so polite around his dad or Warden Waron.

“The pleasure is mine. I hope your family is well too,” the young woman replied in equally grave tones.

“This is my cousin, Dave Tiuruh. Dave, this is Enn Hakara.”

Enn bowed. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“Pleasure to meet you too,” Dave returned a little shakily.

Enn held her long white sleeve out. “Please, let us converse inside. I have prepared some refreshments.”

Roun nudged Dave at that. They followed Enn to one of the small huts near the middle of the row. The doors of the other ones were open and as they passed, Dave peeked inside. Someone was laying on a low cot, tended to by a healer sitting beside it. He wasn’t sure but he thought he saw a cast and plenty of bandages.

Entering the hut Enn brought them to, they found it cozily furnished. A single fireplace in the corner lit it. Several rush mats covered the floor. On the sides were shelves filled with small jars and containers holding many different plants and herbs.

Enn sat down on a cushion at a low table positioned in the middle of the room and gestured for them to do the same. Many little dishes covered the table, filled with pastries, fruits, and rice cakes. Dave felt a little awkward sitting on the cushion but Roun seemed at ease so he tried not to squirm too much. And his stomach warned him not to indulge too freely in front of someone so serious looking.

“What’s going on?” Roun blurted the moment he was seated, suddenly back to his normal self.

Enn also dropped the formal tone… for a more blunt one. “I should be the one asking that.”

“No, I meant, why are we at the healer’s instead of your place?”

Enn glanced slowly at their surroundings. “You’d draw too many eyes there, not to mention ears.”

“I’m sorry for being such a celebrity.”

“More like a criminal.” Enn poured roasted rice tea, lightly steeped, into Dave’s cup. “Help yourself.”

Dave hoped she meant it and reached slowly for the small purple rice balls closest to him. “Thanks for the food,” he said quietly.

Enn turned back to Roun with cold composure. “I’ll get straight to the point.”

Roun used a pair of tongs to pick up a white jelly cube. “Please do.”

“What are you going to do about the Nionis?”

“Nothing.”

Enn paused. “That’s too bad.”

The jelly slipped from the tongs with a loud plop. “I’m sorry?” Roun said.

“Let me rephrase that,” Enn stated, flicking back her sleeves to clasp her hands together on the table. “How do you intend to stop the Nionis?”

“I was assuming…” Roun slowly put the tongs down. “That you were going to warn me against crossing into Hakara property if we fought with the Nionis again.”

“I was assuming that it was bound to happen. Your run-in with Huks earlier this month is no secret. Also, I heard the Tiuruhs had problems in your practice this morning.”

Roun and Dave froze. Roun said slowly, “Why would you think the Nionis have anything to do with our practices?”

“Oh, so you thought they were involved as well,” Enn said candidly.

“That is not what I said  -”

“Tell me what happened.”

Roun sighed and scratched his head, looking somewhat reluctant to carry on this conversation. Dave put down his chopsticks. “I can tell you.”

Enn regarded him steadily. “Please do.” And she maintained an unmoving expression as he recounted the different adversities each team had encountered, not even looking surprised when he mentioned the Maned Cat-Lizard.

 When he finished Enn made a soft, “Mm.” She took a slow sip of her tea. Dave slid a few more purple rice balls onto his plate. The young woman pushed a platter of white wafer rolls towards him. “Try these. They’re my favourite.”

“We don’t know they were involved with that,” Roun said.

Enn was unwavering. “Something happened in our Area recently too. You saw the number of patients in the healer’s house? Early this morning, one of the warden candidates was nearly killed by a water buffalo. A littler later, a number of the residents, young and old, started feeling ill from contaminated water. Some think the buffalo attacked because the water made it temperamental. Some think one of our maids also became ill and accidentally started a fire in the kitchen. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt there, but our manpower has been too divided to focus on practices. Over half our family is out of commission and it all happened the same time as the incidents during your practice. It’s like someone wanted to say, ‘there’s no way we could have done it because we have an alibi’, don’t you think?”

Roun looked stunned. For a moment, he couldn’t speak. He looked down at his tea without seeing, as if there were many thoughts running through his mind.

Enn continued, “You know, we’ve always been concerned that the Nionis would turn on the other families, with what happened the first time you came here. They’ve never been the type to cooperate with others and they know that if it came to a fight, the Hakaras would side with the Heiress’ family. No evidence? Doesn’t change their reputation of repeat troublemakers. Even if they tried to deny their actions, I highly suspect them as the culprits. Or is that not what you confirmed when you paid them a visit the other day?”

“Oh, you remember that,” Roun said unhappily.

The other day? Dave wondered. When had Roun gone? He hadn’t noticed any of these things happening around him. Roun may not have wanted to get him involved in this… but this was serious stuff. He’d suspected it was no coincidence, yet realizing someone had tried to drop a tree on him on purpose… was really scary.

“If that’s the case… why don’t you just tell your suspicions to the Wardens?” Roun asked.

Enn leaned forward, her eyes boring into him. “Haven’t you noticed the wardens have been behaving strangely? They’ve been scarce. Especially concerning the Nionis, they’ve been mediocre in their attempts to investigate these recent incidents. As for the Nionis, they’ve found a way to avoid getting caught and they’re using it as much as they can.” Enn’s eyes narrowed sharply. “This isn’t the same as some prank war between you and Huks like it was before. I haven’t heard anything from the Adsoku family, but I’m sure they’re only attacking our family to divert attention away from themselves.”

“Even if the Wardens aren’t paying attention, being one the of the families nothing is happening to outta be sus,” Roun objected.

Enn shook her head. “If they can make trouble this bad for others, I’m sure creating trouble for themselves will be easy. My point is,” she said coldly, “the reason for their behaviour is because they see Huks as their leader, and Huks wants to get back at you. This isn’t about which family is the most successful in the exam. This is a survival match between you and Huks. The Nionis want to beat you, Roun.”

Roun looked displeased. “What the cret… Listen, Enn, you’re mistaken if you think I’m going to fight back like I did two years ago. That was a mistake. I promised my mom I wouldn’t start anything like that again. I’ve told the others not to retaliate and I don’t intend to either.”

“Well then, son of the heiress,” Enn said darkly, “You’re mistaken if you think this problem isn’t your responsibility. You will end up beaten. Your family can only hold out so long. What are you going to do if -”

Enn cut her sentence short. Dave looked up from his plate, wondering about the abrupt silence. The young woman held up a hand signaling to be quiet as her head turned to listen for something. Even Roun looked on the alert and shook his head when Dave glanced at him. Then, very slowly, Enn pointed up at the ceiling. The boys looked up curiously. They heard nothing, but Enn looked tense.

A laugh startled them, followed by loud creaking as something moved on the roof. For a second, Dave thought they might’ve been overheard by the Nionis. Instead, a figure in black leapt down to the threshold and drew itself up into a long robed woman with loose black hair. There was a twilight twinkle in her eyes when she turned to face them.

Enn sighed in annoyance, “Mom.

Mom?! Dave was shocked.

“Hi Aunt Imichi,” Roun said.

“When did she get up there?” Dave puzzled.

“Why are you eavesdropping?” Enn demanded.

Imichi smiled sweetly. “I’m sorry honey. I was looking for you! It took some hunting around. Then I saw you were meeting with someone. I couldn’t help being curious. It’s not often you have guests, moreover male ones. And who do I find but Ailuja’s kid! And hmm, I haven’t seen you before.”

“I’m Dave,” came the reply.

Imichi snapped her fingers. “Jaanes’ kid! You’re a funny one. Nice to meet you.”

“We’re talking,” Enn said pointedly.

“I want to talk too! I haven’t seen Roun in a while. How’s the family?”

“They’re alive,” Roun remarked.

“Mom,” Enn said again.

“Okay, okay, I’m done - for now. Just wanted to tell you I’m going to be back late today so don’t wait for me. Later, sweety!” Imichi gave a last wink to the boys before bounding away across the rocks.

Dave pointed out the door. “That’s your mom?” He was beginning to see a trend in the personalities of the Wardens.

“Yes, Warden Imichi Hakara, wife of the Hakara Head,” Enn replied somewhat sourly.

“Do you think she heard us?”

“No, fortunately she did not. I always know when my mom is nearby.” Enn tipped back her teacup with a flick of her wrist.

Ah, me too, Dave thought. It surprised him a little. He also could sense when his dad was around. Maybe it was just the guilty conscience of naughty children increasing their sensitivity to their surroundings to avoid getting caught.

He also wanted to ask if “sweety” was something her mother said ironically, but she didn’t seem like the type to take such a comment nicely.

Setting the teacup down, Enn returned to her normal icy self as she addressed Roun formally once more. “All I have left to say to you, Roun, is this - consider yourself a catalyst. As a Hakara, I have to keep my family’s stance as a holder of peace. However… If you ever decide to take action, the Hakaras will add our swords to yours, if that’s what it takes to keep peace.”

Roun switched to a polite tone. “I will consider your proposition. Thank you for having us.” They bowed to each other one more time before Roun began to rise, signalling to Dave they should leave.

Enn also rose to her feet. “And please keep this conference between us a secret.”

“Of course.”

Dave thought it a pity they couldn’t stay longer. He’d been too afraid to eat amidst the heavy atmosphere and since the refreshments were basically light snacks and not dinner, his stomach was yearning to taste more of the desserts. He glanced at Roun tentatively. His cousin caught his meaning and shook his head with a frown. It wasn’t enough to dissuade Dave. The voice of his stomach won over etiquette.

“Could I try that red one before we go?” Dave asked shyly. Roun almost facepalmed.

“The red bean pudding?” Enn, having also risen to her feet, glanced over the food that she and Roun had barely touched in their conversation. She shrugged. “You can take everything. We have more at the house.”


***

Dave had a hard time falling asleep that night. There were too many things running through his head. How Roun managed to fall off in seconds was amazing. Then again, his cousin seemed to be able to doze off anywhere. It didn’t help the voice was being a second layer of unneeded thoughts.

Don’t worry. Everything will be alright.

“It doesn’t feel alright.”

So it’s a sports competition gone awry.

“It’s not supposed to be just a competition. Dad said we’re meant to get in touch with our roots.”

Maybe this is what the roots look like.

“I thought we were supposed to be the roots of the same tree…”

Dave thought of the Hakaras, the Nionis, and the Tiuruhs. What did they think it meant to be an Acor? No one’s definition seemed to be the same. Every turn was bringing a new danger. Uneasiness over this wouldn’t leave him. Until now, everything had felt surreal. The forest. The village. Even the practices. What would happen next?

As long as you do as your dad says, your life won’t be in danger.

“My dad was the one who let me come here…”

It was well into the night when Dave finally dropped off, whispers of the voice in his ear. And he dreamed he was standing in a pitch black space, so black he thought it couldn’t be a dream. He realized he could see himself clearly if he looked at his hands. Then he was aware of another being present in the darkness. He couldn’t see them, but he knew in his mind their position. The presence felt familiar, like he’d known it for a very long time, but he couldn’t see who it was. Maybe if he went towards it…

The darkness was unyielding. Though he stepped forward, the presence remained distant. Dave reached out his hand…

“Roun.” Stretching over the gap between their beds, Dave grabbed his cousin’s shoulder and shook it. Bright light streamed through the curtains. Birds chirped loudly outside the window. “Roun, there’s someone at the door.”

Roun groaned. “What time is it?” He threw off the covers and scooted off the mattress.

“Eleven.”

“Only eleven?”

“Wonder if uncle Jaanes is back…”

“No, he’s out.”

While Roun answered the door, Dave listened from the second floor to hear what all the fuss was. It sounded like one of the Tiuruh kids. “Good morning...Sorry to disturb you. Um… about the… can we talk?” said a timid voice.

“About the wha?” Roun said sleepily.

The kid gestured. “Y’know… about....”

“Oh.” Roun’s tone turned serious as if he was fully awake now. “Did something happen?”

The boy said nervously, “No, well… it’s just…” Then both of their voices dropped and Dave heard no more.

Withdraw?” Roun suddenly exclaimed. The boy said something quickly in anxious whispers. After a pause, Roun came running back up, dashed into the bedroom, and scurried to get himself ready to go out.

“What happened?” Dave asked.

Roun whisked his hair back into a ponytail. “The remaining kids in our family want to opt out of the exam… think it’ll discourage the Nionis from making any more moves, but...based on what Enn told us last night, I don’t think it would make a difference. I’m going to talk with them.”

“You look like you’re preparing for battle,” said Dave. Roun had thrown on the type of clothes they used for practice - gloves, rugged pants, and even a couple belt pouches containing medical supplies and such, lastly grabbing his sword that he kept nearby at all times.

“Dude, don’t say that or you’ll jinx me.” Roun slung his sword strap around his chest. “When the hero says ‘I’ll definitely come back!’ you know he definitely won’t. Hold on. I just jinxed myself. ‘I definitely won’t be coming back’.”

“Alright. ‘You’ll definitely die.’ Nice knowing you.” Dave pressed his hands together and bowed.

“Now that’s just cold. ‘Not before you!’” Roun ducked out of the bedroom.

Dave followed him downstairs. “Don’t jinx me. I almost died twice already. Fine, ‘I won’t be waiting for you’.”

“Whoa! I’m not going to encounter the last boss yet. Besides, you’re going to Gran Cera’s right? I’ll meet you there for dinner. ‘Don’t save any for me’. There, that should be enough counter jinxes.” Roun tugged on his boots while the boy at the door stared at them strange.

“Now something is definitely going to happen…”

Roun saluted in farewell and left with the other Tiuruh kid. Dave stood at the door a moment to gaze at the village. How tranquil it looked, under the bright forest canopy. How quiet it was.

Maybe it’ll be a peaceful day for once?

“Don’t count on it.” Dave returned to the room and flopped on his bed. “I’m tired. Hey, you were awfully quiet last night.”

Didn’t have much to say. Besides, you seemed too focused on the others to focus on me.

“What do you think about all this?”

Me? Same thing as you.

“It’s never an informative answer with you…” Dave sighed. Seeing as there were no practices and there was a lot of time before he had to meet with Shira, he wondered if he could catch a few before lunch, but then he wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight. So he rolled off the bed and got himself ready. The state of his clothes shocked him. He washed them regularly - a habit ingrained to him by his meticulous mother - but after two weeks of practice, his pants were scuffed and shirts wearing thin from all the rough and tumble of forest travelling. He wondered if Gran Cera would be willing to mend them.

He chose the least roughed up looking clothes and gathered all his forest essentials, as recommended by the various members of the Tiuruhs: his daggers, some ointments for injuries, snacks, and newly added to the list was creature deterrent spray. Apparently it worked best on insects, but smaller animals disliked it too. It made a nice selection of stuff in his small bag.

Jaanes walked in just as Dave came down the stairs. For some reason it felt like it had been a long time since he’d seen his dad. The man’s hair was unkempt and he had dark circles around his eyes.

“Did you just…?” Dave gaped at him.

Jaanes gave a tired smile. “You caught me.”

“For real?”

“I wasn’t planning on staying out so late, but they needed me a bit more.” Jaanes kicked off his boots and made his way to the kitchen where he dug through the fridge for a drink. “Actually, I’m probably going to be… what’s this?”

Dave came into the kitchen. His dad was holding up the leftover desserts from yesterday. “Uhh…”

“Did you guys go out last night?” Jaanes said.

“We were invited,” Dave quickly replied. “By Enn Hakara.”

“Oh? That’s rare. Was it for anything special?”

Dave scrambled to gather his thoughts. Thankfully the voice supplied an answer for him that he repeated with some hesitation, “She wanted to confirm that Roun wouldn’t cause any trouble in the Hakara Family Area. Something about two years ago? They came to an agreement.”

“That’s good,” Jaanes said strongly. “Don’t get caught up in any trouble with them either, Dave. That family is one you don’t want to upset. It’d be a pity to be banned from eating their desserts. It’s their speciality, you know . I haven’t had these in a while…” While his dad breakfasted on white jelly and rice cakes Dave got himself cereal, relieved Jaanes was too tired to ask more. He would have trouble making up a more detailed excuse when Enn had asked them to keep it a secret.

“What were you saying before?” Dave asked.

Jaanes blinked sleepily. “Oh, I’m probably going to be out late again tonight. Probably.”

“Sounds a lot like your regular job. I thought this was supposed to be a summer vacay?”

Jaanes laughed. “You said it.” He sighed, rubbing his face. “Any plans today?”

Dave finished eating and washed his bowl in the sink. “Meeting Shira at Gran Cera’s.”

“Right… she asked that yesterday.” Jaanes nodded slowly. He looked at Dave with a somewhat worried smile, his eyes not really seeing his son. “Stay safe, okay?”

“I will. See you later.” Dave slipped a couple granola bars into his bag and headed out.

Jaanes waited for the door to close. Then he pushed aside the food containers and laid his head down on his aching arms. His eyelids shut heavily. How long he slept he didn’t know, only that his eyes refused to open even though he heard someone enter through the front door and come into the kitchen. The chair beside him was dragged back, sat on, and the food container resorted to again.

“Hey, I haven’t had these in a while! When did you get a chance to go to the Hakaras? Eh? No response? Man, you’re out deeper than a bear in hibernation. Or a fossil from the Zerakis Era. Does a fossil count as an animal at that point? Are you listening? Can you even hear me?”

“If you were my boss…” Jaanes murmured.

“Yes?”

“I would fire you.”

“Cretanneh forbid! I’m not even close to being an old alpha wolf you can take down. We don’t need to butt heads over this. As long as you don’t plan to sleep through the winter, that is.”

Jaanes forced himself to sit up and give his visitor a narrow look. “And whose fault would that be? Don’t try to deny it because that’s exactly why you’re here right now, isn’t it?”

The Leopard Warden was somehow stuffing purple rice balls through his scarf. “No need to bare your teeth. I’m not here to kick you out of the nest. I just need your help again tonight.”

“And there it is.” Jaanes crossed his arms. “I would fire you for overworking your employees. We’re understaffed as it is, Waron. How many of our own have we had to incarcerate? Half?”

“It’s because the herd is thin that I need your help, Jaanes. The faster we resolve this problem, the faster we can retire to our cozy dens and sleep easy. You’re the only one I can trust right now.”

Jaanes sighed. “Where is it this time?”

“Adsoku Family Area. I sent in some reinforcements from the other families, but the… rabid hawks are proving to be tough.”

“Just like Eono and Raven, huh. What has happened to the Acor?” Jaanes shook his head. “I don’t like leaving the Tiuruhs without a warden.”

Waron gobbled one more red bean pudding before getting up. “Chase two rabbits, and you’ll lose them both. Meet me where the trouble is. As soon as you can.”

Jaanes put his head down but did not sleep. It was already three in the afternoon. Not bad. Some shifts from his outside job left him with only two hours. He could take a shower and be ready to head out again in thirty. Waron was so sure they would kill two birds with one stone.

Somehow, Jaanes had a bad feeling about it all.


* * *

“So that’s what happened last night,” said Dave, tossing a small brown berry into his mouth. “I’m surprised that the other families listen to Roun.”

“You’d be surprised how much they listen to him,” Shira remarked, her mouth full of berries. “But I’m not getting involved with that mess. Nothing good’s gonna come from it.”

Four o’clock Dave arrived at Gran Cera’s and found the lady serving an afternoon snack to Shira. He joined them, of course. More than Hakara desserts, Gran Cera’s cooking was not something you passed up. So it was closer to five when the two children actually got to berry picking while the elderly lady worked on making dinner.

There was a large plot behind the seamstress's home full of various kinds of bushes bearing berries of all variety of colours. Shira led him through them, telling him about each one as they moved through the rows. Dave felt much calmer once he’d gotten into the motion of plucking berries. He took a deep breath, warm sweet scents filling his nose, and smiled as he heard the strange bird calls in the trees. It was nice, this little moment of not having to worry about running into giant animals or getting hit by people.

“They also mentioned an ‘other time’. What’s that about?”

“Hah. So Roun didn’t tell you about that either. Figures.” She talked without stopping her hands, moving among the chest-high bushes. Dave was not in danger of getting lost this time, so they talked freely. “The year you’re talking about is probably when they practically went to war with each other. Two years ago.”

“War?”

“Both families pulled off some prank stuff for a week till some of us decided to get back at them for good. Ended up trashing the Hakara Family Area and got into big trouble because of it, Roun included.”

“No wonder she was so serious about it…”

“Nah. Enn is always like that.” Shira ate a white berry. “What’s weirder is she volunteered to fight. You’d think they would steer clear of a bigger fight after what happened before, or at least solve it by themselves.”

“It looked pretty bad,” Dave said quietly, remembering the burnt house, the injured children, and felt disheartened again.

Shira inspected a light blue berry before rolling it into her basket. “I wonder what’s up with the Adsoku Family. They’ve been awfully quiet. They’re lucky, missing all the drama.”

Dave tried not to eat too many berries, but they were all so juicy and sweet. “Where do they live?”

Positioned across from him, Shira put down her basket to motion with her hands. “Imagine this is a compass. Our family is north,” - she held her hand up high - “the Nioni Family is south,” - her hand moved down - “the Hakara Family is east.” - her hand went back up diagonally to the left - “and the Adsoku Family is west.” - her hand moved horizontally to the right. She picked up her basket again. “You’ll get to each one eventually if you follow the road that goes around the main hall. Can’t miss it.”

Dave couldn’t help feel his curiosity stand up. “Any reason for the divisions? Why isn’t it just one big village?”

Shira shrugged again, tearing berries off the stems in a brusque manner. “Why does anyone get divided? I dunno. Difference of opinion probably. Different training styles. The Hakara Family is the most peaceful out of the four families.” She paused for a moment. “Their Family Area is really pretty too.” Dave nodded in agreement. He’d like to go back there again if tensions ever died down. They continued their harvest in silence for a bit, only disturbed by the occasional sound of chewing. By the time they would stop, Dave didn’t think he’d be hungry for dinner.

“This only started when Roun came to the village though,” Shira said suddenly.

Dave looked up in surprise. “What do you mean?”

Shira frowned. “You don’t know about it? When did you meet Roun?”

“Three - four years ago. Why?”

“That’s when Roun started coming to the village. The amount of things you don’t know is weird. Seriously. Just get someone to tell you everything.” Shira crouched down and stared at the bush of purple berries in front of her. “This was four years ago. It was a big thing for the Tiuruhs. It was his first time, yet he was better than everyone already. You could even say he was the best. He could’ve passed the exam if he wanted.”

“Roun? Four years… we were twelve back then. Really? That’s kinda… amazing.”

“Yeah. That’s the problem. The other families started feeling threatened and they started competing to see who could do the best.”

“But he didn’t pass.”

“I think it was because he was new and introduced as the Heiress’ son he didn’t want to cause trouble. His older sister passed the exam that year anyway.” Shira was picking berries slowly now as she reminisced. “But the other kids looked up to him after that. Three years ago they messed up with infighting and both families got disqualified. Last year was calmer. The Wardens kept a close eye on everyone. Most of the older Tiuruh and Nioni children passed. That left people like Roun, Kon, Huks, Enn as the oldest of their families currently in the village.” Shira rolled a berry between her fingers. “It’s not gonna be a good year. You should steer clear of trouble too, unless you want to get disqualified. Not that it matters. You probably wouldn’t pass this year.”

Ouch, stings much?

“Well, it is probably true,” Dave murmured. He pulled on the fruits very slowly. That frightened feeling was returning. Uneasy thoughts of a fight erupting simmered in his mind.

What will you do if it comes to that?

That was just it, he realized. He didn’t want to get involved. Fighting an animal was one thing, but fighting other people seriously still unsettled him deep down. If it did happen, he didn’t know what he would do. He wasn’t sure what he was expected to do.

His thoughts turned back to the Nionis. Enn had said they had figured a way to not get caught. Roun had said the same thing. Was it similar to hiding your presence, or being invisible? How could you get away with something with so many eyes watching you?

Something else they missed discussing with Enn came to mind. Enn had said...

“The wardens are acting weird... ” Dave meant to say to himself, but Shira overheard him.

“You noticed too?” Shira stared at him. “They’ve been really busy this summer. It’s not usually like this.”

“Why, what are they usually like?”

“Ornamental statues.” Shira said so seriously Dave laughed. “But except for those incidents we’ve been having, they’ve rarely been around. I’m staying with Gran Cera tonight because my mom is coming back late.”

What is with all these parents ‘being back late’?

“What about Dae? I haven’t seen her around lately.”

Shira shrugged. “She’s been in a bad mood ever since yesterday. She went out early today.” She walked around the bushes and placed a full basket of colourful berries beside him. “Gran is going to make pies with these for the festival. She makes the best ones and shares them with everyone in the village. I help her sometimes.”

Dave smiled. When Shira talked like this, it reassured him she had a child’s heart behind that sombre mask. He put down his basket, also full, beside her and was satisfied he had gathered as much as she did. All things considered, it’d been a productive day. No phone calls from Roun signalled things must be fine on his cousin’s end as well. Dinner smells wafted from the house.

“I’m going to check if the food is ready,” Dave told Shira.

“Bring back more baskets if it isn’t.” Shira peered at a bush in the patch. “Wait, look at this, Dave. There’s an orange berry bush here.”

Dave stepped over to take a look. “What kind of berry is that?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen this one before.”

“Is it safe?” Dave wondered. “Maybe we should ask Gran.”

“Gran Cera doesn’t grow poisonous things,” said Shira, yanking off one.

“If you say so. I’ll be back.” Dave started back to the house, wondering what they were going to eat. It smelled like grilled vegetables and meat. He loved Gran’s meat kebabs. If Roun didn’t show up on time, he really wouldn’t save any.

Dave stopped. He didn’t know why. He didn’t hear the voice. He heard only a quavering high-pitched sound, a siren’s call, growing in his ears by the second. Out of nowhere, the grip of fear held him in place as dread shot through his body.

The spell broke. Dave swung around to see Shira double over, red liquid dripping from her mouth.



NTS: Edits + Revision Considerations
2020-11-20
Chapter 18 Edits:
- Changed previous scene: random Acor girl getting poisoned switched with Shira
- New Scenes: Conversation with Enn, Roun called away, Jaanes' + Waron conversation.

Considerations:
- Huks as a major part 1 antagonist
- Scenes of the wardens and what they've been up to during the whole time so that this scene doesn't feel too out of place
- I need a more concrete goal for Roun
- Thinking that Dave's scene should begin from outside the village to introduce outside elements. maybe.
No one is perfect . . . that's why there's erasers and extra paper.
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