That hostile stare was all Kiyo saw as he gazed into the many eyes of the monstrous flesh creature crouched in front of him. His body shook relentlessly, unable to move an inch in its wake. The urge to call for help, to escape the woods and save himself consumed his mind. But he couldn’t.
One look back was all it took; Daisuke was the only person he truly had. And there he lay, passed out and bleeding on the coarse gravel. Kiyo couldn’t abandon him.
“GRRRAAAAAWWWLL!” The beast roared, rearing all its fangs as blood spewed between the random assortment of ragged bones. Rows upon rows of teeth flashed to spite fear within the enemy, an instinctual behavior.
Kiyo stomped his feet firmly into the ground, gravel interwoven between his toes, and mouth seething in a bitter rage as he peeked back at his friend.
“AAAGGHHH!” Kiyo yelled back, teeth gnashing in the wind.
But what did he have to defend himself?
Fists raised, a dreadful pain flared up in Kiyo’s squeamish body. The obscene intensity depleted his energy, left swaying side to side as he tried to retain balance amidst the trembling ripples of agony that dug deep beneath his skin.
The creature circled Kiyo, preparing to attack the boy as it searched for an opening. Its massive slender talons raked through the dirt, vass torn out by the roots with every tremendous step. Jaw unhinged, its fangs scraped at the air as its slippery toxic tongue slithered in and out of the gaps between them.
Kiyo shuffled around Daisuke’s flaccid unconscious body, a weak effort at best to keep his haphazard attention locked on the beast. Every slight movement only aggravated the searing misery within that radiated through Kiyo’s pores. A visible heat wave emanated that turned his pale skin a light-feigned orange-red.
Stop it, stop it, stop it. Kiyo repeated over and over again in his head.
Within the chaos, he contrived a plan, a last-ditch effort attempt to perform something only heard of in warriors' stories. Hands balled into fists, Kiyo raised them above his formidable chest toward the Sun. His silky robe clung to his delicate pale skin, body in a frantic state as his condition worsened. Darkness snuck in around the very edges of his eyelids, and the internal lull to rest his frayed mind peaked. But he couldn’t. Not now.
Just hit it!
Kiyo’s rage masked his face as he centered his concentration on his right fist. With his stance taken for the battle about to take place, the beast followed suit as it arched its back and prepared to pounce. Its grotesque body was ready for Kiyo’s slender hands to strike, assured the boy was too weak to incite any real damage. This single jab at the monster's resilient flesh would be Kiyo’s last.
But this time was different.
In all his focus, Kiyo’s dire fever navigated from his body into his right arm. His veins were set aglow, embraced in a lively animated neon green. The dark crimson blood in his arm mixed with the new injection of radiance that was cluttered in his chest. A chemical reaction that left his right-hand sweltering, skin barely able to contain the tremendous heat. The power.
“aaaAAAGGGHH!” Kiyo screamed out, mind enveloped by the hectic moment.
The endless rage within Kiyo was only fueled by flashes of his life at home. Quick glimpses of his sessions with his father, the utter torture he endured daily. All the energy released in that second of fury transitioned into his bare-knuckle fist.
Kiyo’s body temperature skyrocketed, visible steam rising around him, his hand taking the brute force of it all. The pain was immeasurable, but he ignored it in the moment. With Daisuke’s life on the line, all else became a blur. Mind dead set on the beast.
He rushed forward, cocked his fist back, and wailed it into the teratoma. His entire life force thrown into that one punch.
Eyes gleaming an infectious yellow and hand ablaze, he remained valiant as his knuckles broke past the outer bone layer on the fleshy monster. The teratoma, unprepared for the swing, was launched back into the air the instant Kiyo’s fist buried itself within the teratoma’s flesh. Its countless eyes dilated as the blow rippled across its body, globs of flesh caught up in the impact that overwhelmed the beast.
Crrraack! Snap! Blersh!
Decimated by the unexpected vigor of the puny prey, the beast crashed to the ground against a cluster of trees thirty feet away. As the dust settled, Kiyo fell to his knees, his entire body drained of all energy. Gaze locked onto the crumpled monster left sizzling from the strike, Kiyo let a hint of joy crease his lips. He was beyond surprised at his success. He hit it.
It’s over. We can go—er!
Relief fell short as a numbness jolted up his right arm. One glance at it was enough to make Kiyo recoil. Stomach turned in knots, Kiyo watched his right-hand bubble all over. The once pale composure was charred a crispy black on the outside. Layers cracked open as blood filled in the gaps and spilled out onto the gravel.
Clutching his arm against his chest, Kiyo wrapped it in his red waistband. Tingles of pain rode down his arm as his nerves kicked back to life, unable to contain it as his hand shook fiercely.
Disheveled breaths heaved out of his lungs, mouth dry and scaly. Kiyo slumped forward and threw up an overwhelming mix of sensations that rushed through his body. His robust strength during the fight corroded in on itself in the aftermath. Now left sickly, Kiyo gasped for air, for an end to the misery that consumed his flesh.
But it wasn’t over.
On all fours, an unforeseen slash seized Kiyo and slung him into a dead wood tree. His legs took the hit as he bounced off of the tree and spiraled in the air. Plummeting down ten feet past it, he landed on top of his right arm.
Kiyo glanced back at Daisuke to see the teratoma back up as if unphased by the puncture. But all there was to show for his efforts was a small scrape on the lower chest of the creature, no damage done. He failed.
“Wait . . .” Kiyo groaned as he started to crawl towards Daisuke. But he was useless, all his energy eradicated in that one punch.
All he could do was watch and wait for his turn. His body battered and left in disarray.
The teratoma lifted Daisuke into the air and lowered him head-first into its mouth. Teeth cranking apart to reveal the atrocious bowels within. A vile stench of vinegar wafted out in the air. Tongue slithering up to Daisuke’s body, Kiyo reached out as he lay impaired on the ground. Left to watch in suffering, nerves writhing in agony.
“STOP!” Kiyo screamed at the top of his lungs as he clawed at the earth.
“Perrroo. Errroooh. Geeerrrooawl!” The teratoma moaned in agony as it stumbled back, its voice choppy and ear-piercing.
The monster reeled away from Daisuke, caught off guard by the carved bone spear that plunged deep into its brittle head. Bits of blood and gooey flesh shot out from the impact, painting the vass in a scarlet slush.
Kiyo’s attention reeled upward to where the spear came from, a ruffle of boots upon the branches of the trees stomping overhead. Their soles crunched in as the user drew near, the sound a beautiful chorus to Kiyo’s swelling red-tinted ears.
He looked up to see the swarm of warriors leaping toward him and Daisuke. The dead wood trees shook in their wake, swaying in the repugnant air. Every inch of the forest tarnished by the presence of the teratoma.
The creature broke the spear impaled in its head in two and gazed up at the squadron of warriors in the trees. A huff of aggravated airbrushed down its slimy skin, arms digging into the gravel as it reared its fangs. Splashes of blood coated the gaping hole in its head where the spear hit, yet it closed in seconds, a new lighter pink filling puffed out the grated bone shell. A fresh tumor.
“Bwwwrrrrrrrr.” The teratoma growled as it cranked open its mouth to release a foreboding screech, an attempt to cry for help.
Before the creature could muster a squeal, another spear barreled through the air into its throat. A burst of arrows right behind it, pinpoint accuracy with them as they gouged out the beast’s eyes. The entire siege of arrows at the helm of a single archer, the group's air support.
Only blood erupted from its mouth as it sputtered about. Spear having gauged it to a tree, the teratoma was left to erratically swipe its claws in the air to fend off the wave of soldiers. An overall feeble effort to defend against the barrage about to rain down hellfire from the skies.
“Keep it down! Don’t let it call for help!” A man shouted adamantly from above.
Through blood-soaked strands of hair, Kiyo gazed in wonder at the group of warriors above him, eyes navigating to a single man at the helm. His clothing differentiated from the rest, covered head to toe in black robes, and blood-stained leather encased his chest and limbs.
A Sun Kissed Veteran. The group's leader and trainer, distinguished for his years and countless kills for the clan.
Kiyo glanced at the other six soldiers that followed the man’s order. Six Sun Kissed Warriors in the flesh. Their status was evident by the emblem burned into their scarlet scarf wrapped around their forehead. A symbol of the eleven years of training they survived to get to this point. The best Nippon had to offer.
What the two boys each desired to be; one by choice, the other by force.
Cloaked in all red, dark sun-dried teratoma skin plated together by tar sheltered their vulnerabilities. A sheathed bone katana on their right side, diamond-throwing knives assorted along their crimson belts, and a poison dart tube shuffled into a sling sown to the left side of their armor. Countless weapons were uniquely hidden within their fitted kits, armed to the teeth to make them the most elite warriors.
They were born to fight. Nothing less.
“Yoshito. Take Hajime and Genki and pin it down. Kaiya cut off his legs. We can’t let this one escape like last time.” The Helio, the designated leader, of the group commanded.
“Yes, Helio!” They all shouted in unison.
Instantly three warriors dived down from the treetops and unsheathed their swords aiming at the beast below them. Each spiraled toward the creature as they dodged the flurry of attacks it launched aimlessly toward them. The teratoma trembled in panic, its bony claws deflected by the warriors’ swords as they threaded between them. Sidestepping on trees, they descended onto the beast with controlled fury.
They each spread out and buried the blade of their swords into the creature's arms and chest. Three pinpoints made it squirm for dear life, limbs trembling beneath the assault of the warriors.
The fourth warrior sped along the forest floor with her hands gripped onto the hilts of two long drawn blades. Instructions taken in stride, she slid underneath the monster and whipped out her bone katanas. Sharp enough to splice a hair in two, she cut through each of the teratoma’s knees joints without breaking a sweat.
Two strokes were all she needed to make the monster collapse upon itself. All the warriors ducked out of the way as the creature collapsed onto the ground. Defenseless.
Its grave mass sent gravel flying out from beneath it as it landed. Bones within the monster, used to absorb the blow, became fragmented within seconds. Blood oozed out as a thick sludge of grimy flesh with bits of bone and teeth spilled onto the earth.
“Bererererer. Glereff.” The teratoma grumbled out weakly as its life drained out of its body.
No mercy was shown, not a bit of remorse as the leader gave the final thrust of his fist down toward the beast. Clutched onto a tree with his left hand, he delivered the finishing order. The final blow.
“Ena, finish it off.”
“You got it, teacher Helio,” Ena responded as he threw a janky salute toward him.
The leader dropped his head into the palm of his right hand.
“Ena, for once take this seriously.” The leader sighed as he stared at Ena through the slit in his cloth headwrap.
“Teacher Takeo, I don't know what you mean?” Ena chuckled as he let go of the tree branch.
“Just—stop with the formalities,” Takeo said wearily as he slid his hand down and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“You got it.”
Ena nose-dived through the air toward the beast’s chest cavity, pulling his katana cleanly out of its sheath mid-air. The rugged edges of the spiky blade cut right through the putrid fog residing in the forest’s atmosphere. A single strike.
Kiyo watched as Ena dug his sword straight through the beast's chest, bringing its subtle jitters of what life remained in it to an end. Now nothing more than a corpse on the desolate rocky barren earth. A pulpy splatter painted the trees behind him. Its flesh became limp as its body began to decay, bones falling off of the skin like scabs off a healed wound.
The warriors all gathered around the decimated corpse, Takeo last to join them as he lunged down from the trees above. All the Sun Kissed Warriors lined up, shoulder to shoulder, directly in front of the beast. They stood by idle in patience for his next command, the next plan of action to follow up with the kill.
Well, all except Ena.
“Who are these two? I thought the grounds were supposed to be clear for the day,” Ena asked with a furrow of interest in his brow.
Crouched beside Daisuke, he flipped him over to wince back at the incisions in the boy’s chest. Daisuke’s clothes were soaked in blood, but he was still breathing. A shallow delicate air heaved in and out of his lungs.
“Ena, can you just—” Takeo paused and walked over with a pinch of nerve balled in his wrapped fist. “They weren’t supposed to be, obviously snuck out,” Takeo muttered at Ena with a smack against the back of his head.
“I said to stop-”
“Takeo, we need to get him back to Nippon. Teratoma got him across the chest.”
Takeo strolled over to Daisuke. Knelt in front of the battered child, he followed Ena’s finger aimed right at the slashes torn across Daisuke’s chest.
“Hm. Genki. Yoshito. Carry this kid back to the housing village. We’ll carry on the last bits of the inspection from here.”
“Ahhh! It's been months, Takeo. Can someone else go? Or do we even have to take them? I mean they put themselves out here. Not our fault they ran into that thing.” Genki said in an annoyed manner as he pointed at the teratoma’s corpse. Displeasure in the thought of already leaving the woods plastered itself across his face, the creases evident in his mask.
“No. Not these two,” Takeo let out bleakly as he lifted Daisuke’s right arm in the air, the boy’s carved insignia revealed to the rest of the squad. One of many marked children. Irreplaceable promises gifted to the clan from the Sun herself. To leave one to die was a crime punishable by death itself, their purpose only determined by the will of the Sun.
“Tch. Of course, they are,” Genki clicked his tongue and scoffed at the fact. “But why me?” He pleaded with a slump of his shoulders as he pointed to the rest of the group.
“Well, you are the weakest,” Jun mumbled with a weighty cough under her breath.
“What’d you say, Jun?”
“Nothing you wouldn’t know,” Jun spat directly into his face, emotionless.
“Hmph. Okay. Sorry, I can’t sit in the back and fire arrows all day.”
“At least I hit my shots.”
“Moon-worshiper,” Genki blurted out as he turned his back to her and stepped toward Daisuke.
Jun’s eyes broadened at the comment, a sacrilegious jab that went against their entire culture. A little pit of fire ignited in her toward Genki, the one who always managed to overcomplicate simple situations and tick her off. She retrieved an arrow from her quiver slung around her waist. The wooden shaft clinked against the bend of the bow as she took aim.
"You know he doesn’t mean it,” Yoshito butted in with a firm tone.
Sliding in between them, Yoshito crossed his arms and stared Jun down with an emotionless gaze. A silent moment passed between them as she struck the arrow head against Yoshito's chest. Jun tilted her head to the side and gestured for him to move, yet he refused. Yoshito was the only one capable of quelling her anger and silencing Genki’s sarcasm, his personal duty to be the divider. Their squadron's glue.
“Jun. Just put it away,” Yoshito asked wholeheartedly, eyes crystal clear of any deception.
“Fine.” Jun fiercely shoved the arrow back into the quiver and stomped off toward the teratoma.
The rest of the group huddled around Takeo as Genki and Yoshito heaved Daisuke up on Yoshito’s back. Genki trailed behind him for protection as they darted off toward the path back to the village. Toward safety.
Thank the Sun. Daisuke. We made it. Kiyo thought as he slipped away into unconsciousness.
“Now, tell me. What are you and your friend’s names?” The voice interrupted Kiyo’s sweet release into the lull of rest as he reopened his eyes to the crude world around him.
Peering up from the gravel, Kiyo locked eyes with Takeo, the only one who could explain the situation. Takeo’s invasive emerald green stare plunged into Kiyo’s mind, a slight pretentious glow in his pupils.
“Why were you both down here?” Takeo asked imperatively, his fingers wound around the hilt of his sword.
Kiyo sealed his mouth shut, unable to force himself to answer such a simple question as anxiety cramped his mind. Fear that was drawn out from what they would do to him and Daisuke. What punishment awaited them after breaking a defining law in the priest's order?
“Hey, answer me.”
Or was it that he actually couldn’t respond?
Kiyo fumbled the words in his mouth, teeth barely able to separate as dust wheezed off the brim of his lips. A haphazard breath brought on by the depletion of every ounce of strength in his body. Tapped out from the fight, Kiyo let it out as he slumped over. Fast asleep.
However, to the five warriors who stood over Kaiyo staring into the gushing wounds inscribed on his back, his blackout only sounded an alarm in their minds. That death was on its way for him.
“Shit.” Takeo mouthed under his breath as he stepped away from the unconscious boy, Kiyo’s face now obscured by the bend in his elbow. Mind tucked behind the burdensome tranquility of sleep. A cluster of pebbles scattered across the ground as Takeo lashed out, irritated by the boy's careless decision. The vow of the council for these marked children to be cared for with the highest regard. Yet against the council’s very instructions, the boys went out of their way to put themselves in harm's way, out in the woods on death's doorstep.
“Kaiya, check him out. Jin, you go report this to the chieftain. We’ll need the priestess to take a look at them.” Takeo said as he observed Kiyo’s scars a second time, pacing back over to the slain teratoma.
Takeo paced around the grounds and surveyed the woods for any movement. He took a break from the situation to get a breath of fresh air and to rethink everything they had seen. This circumstance was a rarity at best.
“Helio. What happened to this boy’s hand?” Kaiya questioned as she inspected Kiyo’s right arm.
“What about it?” Takeo asked irritably as he spun around and caught a glimpse of Kiyo’s right arm.
The smell of Kiyo’s burnt flesh made a few of the warriors gag, his decayed and crumpled skin an unholy sight. Shreds of skin broke off piece by piece, revealing Kiyo’s radiant inner layer. An array of blue juices and static pumped throughout his arm, mixing with his blood to produce a green ooze that leaked through his fragmented skin.
“What the—dear Sun,” Takeo exclaimed in pure shock, mind stunned by the gruesome sight.
“It’s—completely burnt. Like, cracking off almost.” Kiaya muttered as she covered her mouth and nose with her right arm. Trying to refrain from throwing up the morning’s coar breakfast.
They all stared at Kiyo’s arm for a few minutes longer, each under the pretense of trying to make sense of the strange scars. It wasn’t something unusual, burns were a common result of the summer months when the climate reached an all-time high. Humid enough to boil the sweat off someone's back in weaker ozone regions. Acid floods were also a common weather occurrence around that season.
But neither in summer nor the storm still on the prowl, his crusty skin only grossed and perplexed the group.
“Okay. Change of plans.” Takeo stated as he gazed at the group. Attention shifted between the billowing storm overhead, the withered teratoma corpse, and the mystery-burned child at his feet.
Putting the pieces together, a solution aspired within his strategic mind, keen to escape the dreadful conditions in one piece. Even at the cost of the scouting mission laid upon them by the chieftain. But he had to make a final decision.
“We’ll just end today’s sweep here. Hajime, mark the tree for the harvesters later.”
“Yes, Helio,” Hajime responded as he pulled out a blend of yellow dye in a leather pouch from his satchel. He climbed to the top and poured the pouch down the top of the tree, an easy identifier for a teratoma kill. Ready to be harvested.
“Everyone else. We’re heading back to the lift. It’s about to start raining anyway.”
“And this boy?” Kaiya asked through a pout that curled her lips, voice weighed down by a tinge of concern.
Takeo huffed a hefty sigh and clapped his hands on his sides, unsure how to address the boy. His condition was a question he couldn’t find an answer to himself as he stared down at the pitiful Kiyo. Customs were all he had left to fall upon, the only way to properly administer judgment upon a marked child.
“I think the High Priest would like to see both of them. Especially that boy.”