Seventy-one new first-year students.
Two hundred and eighty-six new children as a whole.
Each was prepared to the best of their ability, the difference of age a small factor to be considered. Regardless, age groups were assigned for each of the four houses split into two sides for team events. One man over each age level.
Through skill or time, one could move up to the next group, could scale the ladder to reach ascension far before their peers. A system established in the early days of the new world, one Paladinians depended upon to uphold their clan and adequately fortify themselves from the foundations upward.
From the youngest nine to the eldest sixteen, those who lived through more revolutions were expected to be more capable of their own abilities. Yet time also gave way to weakness. If one didn’t meet the requirements within a certain span demotion could occur, but the most common result was complete removal from the possibility of becoming a Sun Warrior. Forced to return home to live a life of shame, of lesser potential.
The blessed Sun's birthright placed over them wasted.
That’s what was laid in front of Kiyo and Daisuke on stage. Judgment.
They both eyed the four men, intrigued by their appearance alongside the leftmost man they recognized earlier. One with pure yellow eyes that gleamed from within the all-black wrapping of their traditional trainers' gear. Similar to what students were slated to wear as well.
Out of the four, the leftmost man strolled forward to the edge of the temple grounds. With his massive bulging arms crossed over his chest, he grappled onto the scruff of his sleeves. Such a stance was careless in combat. A sign of dominance, no strength needed to be shown as he made himself defenseless on purpose. Stranded from access to any weapons strapped to his body, the time to unsheath them for combat too narrow to gain an upper footing. This man’s confidence not one to be trifled with.
The trainer took his time to eye every fresh face in the crowd. With a menacing glare, he spotted those uplifted in early check-ins with recommendations to be a possible savior by the High Priest. Blessed souls stood amongst the damned.
“Listen, and listen well. You will all be divided up into your pre-assigned houses.” The man beckoned with authority as he raised his palms into the glistening sunlight. His left hand was caked in a thick sappy coat of blood, and his right was muddied in gray-rotted earth.
“Next, everyone aged eleven to twelve, then thirteen to fourteen, and finally fifteen to sixteen.” The man continued, directing his hands to each pair of barracks down the line.
“Rightside for those of you marked with the blood of our enemies. And left side for those of you marked with the earth blessed to us by the Sun above.” The man declared jocosely, hands raised to the high noon Sun.
A moment of silence rested over the restless children. It was as if their voices had all been sucked out of their vessels. Everyone knelt their heads as the man smiled beneath his head wrapping. Customary to respect the Sun and those granted its authority whenever acknowledged. A silent break of appreciation.
“Houses move forward with age and skill. The reason you’re all even here is because of your blessings alone, granted gifts unbeknownst to other Paladinians . . .” He trailed off from the statement and fell still.
Gaze cast up toward the Sun for a moment longer, he dropped his arms and reflected his focus upon the children. A more serious wave of emotions was encrypted within his eyes. Under the chokehold of his burdensome stare, the atmosphere thickened. Sunlight washed away beneath a cluster of ash clouds. The open sincerity spread across his face lost in the wake of what was to come.
Daisuke shuddered beneath the man’s stern glare, able to discern the severity of his emotions through his bulging eyes alone. His body became entrapped in a frigid tingle that nipped at any anticipation within Daisuke, yet Kiyo remained unfazed. Already instructed by Ronin to heed every word of the opening ceremony, the silent child proceeded to listen with deep consideration and care. This whole process was essential to their destined life goal of becoming a Sun Warrior.
So Kiyo watched, and he listened.
The most important factor of Harion was the minuscule difference between life and death. Regulations.
“Let me establish the rules.” The man clasped his hands together, a thunderous clap that regained the attention of those that drifted off from the discussion.
“You cannot kill another within these walls. These are sacred grounds, not a battlefield meant for slaughter. Injury is commonplace, but murder is untouchable.” He paused his barking to let the reality of this harsh world settle in.
Mixed reactions faced him, traces of fright by the very possibility of death and others of annoyance by the prevention of even attempting such an act. They wished to display their full capability, thoughtless of how to do so even at the cost of another Paladinian’s life.
But Daisuke and Kiyo were lost for thought on the utterance of such a thing. Why was the matter even brought up in the first place?
“You will remain with your group until you leave Harion. There will be no changes . . . unless we permit it.” He said firmly with a gesture toward himself and the other head trainers.
“You can move up in rank through only two methods: developed skill and pure growth. Your group's head has the final say over said progression.”
“Last thing I will note . . . the very reason you are here is to serve the clan, not to exalt yourself. We are a body of light, not a single vessel.” The man accosted with a fierce grasp at the air in his bare palms. He cast the inference deep into all of their souls, conflictions of the past apparent in his pensive slighted gaze.
A few heads nodded and others showed signs of respect hoping to be noticed or out of fear of not doing so. Kiyo and Daisuke remained silent as they watched the man recede toward the other trainers, uncertain of what to take from his final words. Their young minds were unable to grasp the bigger picture of the situation. What it truly meant to be there.
The true cost.
The next trainer on the rightmost side stepped up to his place, arms raised and crossed at the wrists.
Without warning, he swiped his arms down to his sides, effectively concluding the ceremony. A gesture only a few understood as a couple of children raised their marks to the sky. Others soon followed suit, Kiyo and Daisuke included, as they tried to appease their instructors. An offering of their lifeblood for the Sun. A blood bond.
“You will be instructed on further training with your group back in your house.” The emerald-eyed man directed with a wave of his open palm toward the barracks.
Guardian flowed out of the temple down to the open square and surrounded the children. All graduates of Harion, clothed in all black from head to toe like the head trainers with the primary difference of their gear. Thin-cut obsidian plates meant for combat were sewn into their robes unlike the leatherbound training accustomed to trainers. Only here for protection and disputes, a means of control. They weren’t to get involved unless deemed necessary.
“Be prepared to begin tomorrow. For today, learn what we require of you, what will be expected of you, and what it means to be here.” The man finished up valiantly, voice impactful as it boomed into the children’s ears.
With that, they were finished. All four trainers walked back into the temple as the guardians opened up the pathways toward the barracks. Stationed along the cobblestone paths and at the doorways to check every child who came by. First lines of entry for each house.
One by one, the children made their way to their assigned houses. Waves of fidgety amped bodies anxious to begin their trials, to begin their ascension to becoming Sun Warriors.
Swept away by the hoard, Daisuke and Kiyo carried on with the rest of their group to the right side of the barracks. The blood houses.
Their household was represented by a massive ‘0’ carved into a high-strung teratoma skin. Baked out in the Sun, the blood-soaked wood differed from its counterpart on the other side of the graveled courtyard. It was a livelier sight in the sense. But they weren’t as down to earth as the dirt-based houses, decorated in a bleak gray shade closer to the natural appearance of dead wood. Lifeless and miry.
Walking up to the front door, Daisuke and Kiyo filed in line. Like everyone else, they remained reserved from all others as they wished to get inside and make their claim to the house. Position themselves higher in the group from the get-go.
Children were checked for their imprints and age right at the threshold. Daisuke and Kiyo scooted forward inch by inch as they waited alongside the other thirty-three fellow students. Girls and boys intermixed in the line, only separated by stairs and a creaky wooden floor beyond this point.
Of the thirty-five assigned children in Kiyo and Daisuke’s group, only nine were girls. Fair blonde and white-haired children that had been drilled from birth to serve the Sun. All were from various villages outside of Nippon, as the town was not a popular site for their appraisal. Most were inducted into becoming cherapple pickers while the men not chosen mined for obsidian or sawed lumber. Regardless, their arrival and position in the clan was their birthright, no other way around it. Lives committed to a belief bigger than their very existence
“Girls on the first floor, boys second.” A guardian repeated after every child they let into the house. His voice was drab and lackluster, every word spat out in a dry sputter of musty air.
Next in line, the right guardian latched his hands onto Daisuke’s head and peered down at the bloodied thumbprint. Leaning in to get a closer view, the man’s grayish-green eyes peered right into Daisuke’s soul.
“Name and revolutions.” He uttered beneath the black cloak wrapped around his face.
“Daisuke. Nine.” Daisuke muttered between a slight quiver in his lips.
A little spurt of anxiety rode down his leg as the man continued to stare, reading his emotions and muscles for honesty. The slightest twitch of a lie was made visible by his radiated gaze. But there was none.
Releasing his hold on Daisuke, the man pulled him forward into the house. In an instant, he was brought out of the heated late summer Sun and into the shaded mirky quarters of group 0. The foundation for marked children, where everything rudimentary was taught. Skills and tactics essential for their growth and transition over to ‘Ia’. The next housing in line.
Daisuke took his time to admire the entrance to the house. It was exactly like how the veterans described it to him. Strung up on the wooden thatched ceiling above him was a lengthy teratoma skin that stretched from wall to wall, a small flap for entry in the center. The hide was Sun dried after being rinsed in salt water pits for refinement, now discolored to a tinged golden tannish hue. The rancid smell from the kill washed out completely, for the most part.
Notches of gray silk woven rope pierced the outside edges and connected the elephantine tarp to the walls and roof. All were furnished with hand-carved and shaved deadwood, words of Amaterasu ingrained into them alongside little drawings of stars and other forlorn prophecies.
Without a second thought, Daisuke eased his way forward and moved in towards the flap separating himself from the quarters behind. Led by a flurry of questions fluttering around in his head, he grabbed onto the lathered skin to unveil the room hidden behind. Too innocent to realize what he was doing, too curious to hold himself back.
Still a child at heart and mind.
Right before the tarp could budge an inch a brush of golden hair popped through. Face to face with this spontaneous girl, Daisuke’s cheeks flushed a heated scarlet as embarrassment bubbled his skin.
“Hey.” She said squarely in a dead tone, undaunted by the minimal distance between them.
“Aaah!” Daisuke shouted as he fell backward, balance swiped out from right under his feet.
Daisuke tripped back on a loose board and landed on his butt. A sharp spike of agitation jolted up his back as he gnashed his teeth. The entire sequence flew by in seconds, but within his mind, he had endured an entire lifetime's worth of memories. His focus locked away in wonder at the brittle emotions that toppled him over so easily. Face burnt red, he withdrew from the frivolous sparking emotions to come out of it empty-handed. It was as if he forgot the langue ingrained from birth, a newborn handed a problem beyond its comprehension.
Needless to say, he was awestruck.
“Hey!” She repeated with a slightly elevated tone.
Daisuke’s attention tumbled out of his flustered trance as he locked eyes with the girl still half-hidden behind the tarp. All the pain coiled around his tailbone whisked away by the very sight of her.
Her white-golden mixed hair ran down the right side of her face, her eyes a misty glossed yellow encompassed by soft skin spotted by white freckles on her cheeks. She was a little shorter than Daisuke, yet was filled with more tenacity than any child for miles on end. To be concise: stubborn.
Silence lined the dreary air between them. A dense and claustrophobic space tied down by her unrelenting nature as she awaited Daisuke’s acknowledgment, some form of a response. Well, at least more than a dull aimless stare.
“Hey . . . my name’s—” Daisuke uttered nervously, unable to finish as she shook her head.
All it took was a single point toward the floor to clear up the situation.
“This is the girls' floor. Boys up, girls down.” She relayed with firm motions.
Daisuke didn’t know what to say. He only sat there and gawked at her, mouth gaped open, mentally absent by her presence. His childish brain was just now wrapped around the concept of a girl being in his midst, the close interaction enough to have fried his mind.
“Got it?” She added with a hearty pout.
“No, did you get it? That this is the girls' floor.”
“Uhhh—I think I do.”
“Go up then.”
“Okay . . .” Daisuke groaned frankly as he dusted off his legs.
Bashful for his new ambitious feelings, Daisuke’s entire face throbbed, wrapped in a warmth that drew sweat from his forehead. Such distant emotions overran his feeble mind, those never touched upon, or barely so, by his father. Love was not a common factor to consider in Paladinians. Most marriages were done out of respect for the heads of the family and to strengthen the family tree.
To bring about prosperity. To fulfill the prophecy. To give birth to a savior.
Not by choice.
“Daisuke, where’s . . .” Kiyo’s voice trailed off into abysmal silence.
Stepping into the room, he shivered at the sudden chill that laced the dense atmosphere. Voluntarily walking into the clash of differences in understanding struck Kiyo within an instant of his arrival. Daisuke caught up in foreign feelings while she stared him down with disdain.
Of all people, Kiyo wasn’t the most capable person to have entered their dispute.
An awkward and ominous sensation riveted his body as he stood in the doorway in silence. Trying to piece together what happened, what to do, and what Daisuke’s part in this standoff. Too many questions to bother with as he chose the easiest way out of it. Force.
“Kiyo? When—hey, hey! What are you doing?!” Daisuke yelped begrudgingly.
In one swift motion, Kiyo yanked Daisuke back upright to his feet and dragged him out of the conversation. Sliding his arms in from behind, he latched onto Daisuke’s armpits and wrung him back toward the stairs. With a bit of struggle against his hold, Kiyo shifted his clutch and dug his nails in for incentive. Clasping his hands together behind Daisuke’s neck, all motion was restricted. Daisuke’s own body held against him.
“Kiyo—ow! Stop it!” Daisuke groaned aggressively as he squirmed for unattainable freedom.
No words were uttered on Kiyo’s end, mind deadset on escaping the awkwardness brewing between them three.
“Hmm.” The girl giggled as she disappeared behind the tarp.
But not soon enough. Despair embraced Daisuke every step of the way upstairs in light of his embarrassment as he was hauled up the stairs like a slab of meat. Already killed and helpless to do anything against the one who took his life. Social homicide.
“Is she laughing? Why’d she laugh?? Kiyo!” Daisuke whined, his spur-of-the-moment feelings washed away by agitated abashment.
His efforts were useless as Kiyo hung Daisuke to dry. Navigating against Daisuke’s current, Kiyo climbed up the stairs and swiveled Daisuke side to side. Step by step, they made their way to the boys' floor of the house. The wall-bound stairwell was too wide for Daisuke to make a real effort to escape. Not like he could anyway.
Once at the top, Kiyo released his hold on Daisuke and wiped off the thin layer of grime left behind on his shirt. The salty trail a mix of the heat and Daisuke’s body's ill-sought answer for the feelings cramping up his chest.
“Kiyo, why did you—why?” Daisuke asked as he swung his hands aimlessly through the air.
Daisuke spun around to face Kiyo head-on, his face torn between confusion and the bitter emotions sweltering within his chest.
“Saving y-you,” Kiyo retorted shakily with a thump against Daisuke’s chest.
Still closed off from the public, being more reserved, Kiyo’s stutter wrapped itself around his tongue. Thoughts moved faster than he could speak as they barrelled out in a chortled mess.
Yet they were audible, loud, and aggressive.
Kiyo’s change in attitude and detrimental tone only marked two things for Daisuke, which over the years they had been friends he had come to learn. One: Kiyo was angry, a pure rarity to ever see. Or two: Kiyo was being sarcastic.
Wonder which it was?
“What?” Daisuke uttered, face twisted inward from bafflement at Kiyo’s raised temper.
“Why were y–you on the floor?” Kiyo said flagrantly.
Other boys in the room took notice of the dispute and gravitated toward it. Bored and still looking to meet people, they began circling the arguing duo. Any confrontation was an easy conversation. Those uninterested remained sat upon their flattened coar resting mats. Conversing with others in the household, groups already formed between those who met in the square and got into the barrack first.
Near the head of the stairs, the two eyed each other down. This dispute was only one of a few they had in the past, mostly before in private on the wall about something childish as going on another trek through the valley or sneaking a peek at the fighters' private duels. But this in Daisuke’s mind was something of utmost importance, the short bubble of love only grew as his temper swelled. Feelings mismanaged, to say the least.
Couldn’t be a worse time either. First day in Harion in front of the entire choir of group 0 blood boys. A disgruntled scene.
“Because I tripped. You didn’t have to pick me up.” Daisuke shot back pissily.
“N-not like you’d pick yourself up you b-b-baby.” Kiyo stuttered out.
“What? I’m not a baby. At least I don’t speak like one.”
“I said,” Daisuke growled as he stepped forward and shoved Kiyo fiercely in the chest. “At least I’m normal.”
“Don’t—shove me,” Kiyo spat out hostilely.
In a rapid motion, Kiyo shifted forward and thrust his arms into Daisuke’s chest. Unable to dodge the sudden blow, he stumbled back a few feet. Careless of his own footing, Daisuke collided with another boy on the back end of the fall. Back to back, the boy stumbled forward and grunted at the unforeseen encounter. Drawn out of the conversation he was having with others as he was jostled off balance.
“Don’t touch me.” The kid slipped out in a fearsome whisper.
A shorter boy, he slowly pivoted his focus back around to Daisuke. But Daisuke had already moved on just like that. His quick shift of attention was a mistake nonetheless. Staring daggers into his back through his blonde curled white hair hung thin cut right above his foggy green eyes, the boy swayed over toward Daisuke. Bulkier than the other children there, his face chiseled from years spent in preparation for this place.
“Didn’t mean to,” Daisuke called out as he walked back over to Kiyo without passing the boy a glance or a true word of apologetic respect.
His second mistake.
“I said—” Daisuke staggered back as the boy latched onto his shoulders. “Don’t touch me!” The kid screeched into Daisuke’s ears as he hurled Daisuke back into the floor.
The floor shook as Daisuke crumpled up in a ball. Streaks of pure agony rippled all over his body from the blind-sided strike. Kiyo stood in shock for a moment before he jumped into the fray, defense mode kicked into his mind as he sped to Daisuke’s aid.
“Stop!” Kiyo shouted, arms extended between the boy and Daisuke; a physical barrier of defense.
“Who asked you to step in?” Another voice interjected from behind.
Kiyo flinched at the grimy tone, a familiar but forgetful face attached to it. Dejection settled in, gaze locked onto none other than Isao’s menacing putrid smirk. His lime green eyes flared up with excitement, cushioned by his ever-growing grin.
“Don’t you know your place rat?” Isao chuckled as he lunged toward Kiyo.
Ooooh. A flurry of boys echoed as they watched from the sidelines of the argument, enjoying the show.
“You’re uh—just a stick,” Kiyo said bluntly.
There was no reaction in the crowd, only a couple of uneasy stares and whispers of mockery.
“Right . . . both of you are so stupid.”
Isao continued to snicker and laugh at Kiyo’s stutter, unable to notice the burning fury within Daisuke as he rose back onto his feet. Those aware took a step back out of caution. This simple misconstrued confrontation was about to escalate, Daisuke the catalyst of it all. His nose huffed out distorted breaths as the storm brewed within him. Body riveted by the sight, the sound of Isao’s insults on behalf of his friend.
“At least—” Daisuke muttered as he rose to his feet, face twisted from pent-up rage. “We’re not scared to do something!”
Daisuke charged forward and jabbed his fists into Isao’s chest, the boy just barely able to block it with his forearms and absorb the blow. Sent sliding back, his heinous sneer descended into a grueling scowl at the sight of the pipsqueak responsible. Heated embarrassment flooded his crinkled face, lost for thought at the burst of aggression.
Daisuke’s suffering was the only repeated heinous thought in Isao’s mind. His face smeared across the floorboards his way to regain his dignity. Yet before he could even step forward to fight back, Monterio flung his arm across Isao’s chest. Such a simple motion prevented him from releasing his anger, from mauling Daisuke, from feeding his inner bloodlust.
“Montiero. What—are—you—doing?” Isao said impatiently, mouth seething in a visceral rage.
“Wait,” Montiero muttered, voice light and airy.
Montiero stepped in front of Isao and glanced between Daisuke and Kiyo, a quick estimate of their abilities taken in his mind within seconds. Of their odds against him.
“You want to do something about it. Fine. Let’s do it here.” Monterio said gruffly, chin raised, lips curled in a tinge of smug distaste.
“Here? Do what here?” Daisuke asked, shoulders slight at the break in the tension.
“Fight, what else?”