“Now?” Daisuke asked imperatively with broadened confusion, his sudden rush of rage simmering beneath misunderstanding.
Kiyo stood in silence and peered back and forth between Isao and Monterio. These two newfound enemies were obstacles that needed to be leveled. Simple roadblocks on Kiyo and Daisuke’s path to success. Yet the depth of the entire situation flew right over his head, a social cue amidst his selective focus. This fight was more important in the eyes of others than to the boys themselves.
Status and dignity of the masses reigned over individual strength. It was a way of life, of maintaining your position within society. What good is power if you have no control?
“When else?” Isao instigated as he stepped toward the duo with a hearty chuckle.
Hovering over Daisuke, Isao masked his face with exaggerated disgust that creased his lips with a twisted scowl. Winces of fear pulsed within his chest, yet it made him all the more amped to throw the first punch. Ready to fight the boy who disrespected him, to further lift his own name and gain the respect of his group. An easy fight.
But the sudden request came as unexpected, a small quarrel with his friend blown out of proportion. Daisuke was speechless. Now face to face with one boy a head above his and another a head shorter but lined with compacted muscular strength. A hefty pristine close combat fighter in the making.
“Well. I—” Daisuke uttered nervously, unable to even finish his sentence as the crowd pressed closer from growing interest.
Within seconds, all four boys were surrounded in the spur of the moment. Lost in the motions as they moved away from the open stairwell to the center of the room. There wasn’t a single pair of eyes in that matted quarters that weren’t pinned on them four. A ring of attention formed for one purpose: bloodshed.
“Kiyo . . . how did we get here?” Daisuke whispered amongst the twenty-one pairs of eyes locked onto them.
Twenty-one beady yellow and green-eyed marked children had traveled from all around the clan’s domain for ever-blessed training. Their first day would come to a close with this childish face-off. They stood in anticipated silence, breath withheld as they waited for the first punch to be thrown.
All except one boy joined in the horde. Sat in the back right corner on his resting mat, eyes closed and body still, concentrating. Careless toward whatever quarrel was taking place.
Kiyo just shrugged his shoulders, both too young to understand what Isao and Monterio were that they weren’t. Competitive. That and they were both equally agonistic at heart, brought up to always be prepared for a fight presented before them.
Their villages in the western region of the clan’s domain resided closer to enemy territory. The Confines. This was a place where it was more common of a threat to run into a soliun instead of a teratoma. Yet that made it all the worse. Soliuns and Paladinians were long-grown bottom-feeder species enemies. Each race were bitter rivals for the territory, yet while peace had been established between the two bordering domains, skirmishes were a common occurrence.
On the left side of the room, Isao and Monterio hostilely gnashed at an awkward Kiyo and Daisuke on the right, both of whom didn’t want to fight for different reasons. Daisuke saw it as a meaningless situation, a civil dispute thrown out of hand. Kiyo’s reasoning was entirely misplaced. His only restraint was the potential aftermath, afraid to hurt either of them as he saw himself unfit to restrain the holy radiance within him.
But what choice did they have?
“So? We fighting or are you just gonna—”
“Yes.” Kiyo cut in, Isao’s words left to dry in the stagnant air. A moment of understanding passed, gazes tossed back and forth for the initiation to being.
“Alright. To make it fair, we’ll do it one on one . . . each.” Monterio said cockily as he glanced between the opposing duo.
Daisuke and Kiyo passed each other a quick accepting gaze and looked back over to Monterio. Minds already made up.
“Deal.” Kiyo agreed in a scruff puff of head air that snaked out between the gaps of his teeth.
Daisuke nodded and attempted to cool his nerves, his body still slightly quivering from an uneasy swarm of stress in his chest. Fret was the first thing that came to his mind. Not convinced enough in himself to beat either of them, that he was weak. But it didn’t matter.
The weak were always the first to go.
“Ooookaaaay, I want you first.” Monterio pointed squarely at Daisuke with an etched smirk.
The choice was a simple one in Monterio’s mind, his target an easy way to exalt his status within the household. Traditionally the strongest was the most prevalent target in Paladinian culture. Yet Monterio navigated away from Kiyo out of conviction from an odd discomfort that curled around his stomach. The boy’s presence one disturbing enough to make Monterio double down and pick the easier fight between the two. This day a chance to see what made Kiyo formidable.
“Finally . . . been wanting to get you back for earlier,” Isao muttered with a slam of his right fist into his left palm. Grinding at his calloused skin with his knuckles, the cocky boy flicked up his chin and peered down at his opponent. A fear tactic many simpletons used on prey.
But it was pointless.
Kiyo locked eyes with Isao through his bangs to get another good look. His silver mustard yellow tipped hair, the signs of a child bred through many generations for this exact place, the dilution of their people’s white golden hair a marker of his heightened genetics. One of this Sun lighted breeds was born to fight, kill, and advance their culture.
Something Paladinians simply referred to as those born in a midday storm. Being when the Sun’s rays shined down through the ash clouds and created a glistening silver lining around the specified child. A foretold story of gifts handed upon them by the Sun herself. Born protectors.
“I said us first, Isao,” Monterio uttered, tilting his head toward Daisuke.
Isao clicked his tongue and backed off with raised hands. He knew his place in the chain of command, not one to break it so easily.
While the four boys prepped themselves, debates and bets filled the hushed air around them. Lots were cast as Daisuke and Monterio stepped closer toward the center of the room. Five feet were all that remained.
Eiko, Kono, and Shoma watched with deep interest as the two boys drew near. Each gasped in awe at the fight to come. Eiko, a white-headed child with small touches of gold on the end of his pony-tail bunned head held up by dried coar hair rope, smiled with untouchable glee.
Kono stood beside him, his face lined with bittersweet interest. The thin blonde-haired boy with little strands of white roots on the top of his head wasn’t keen on fighting. His butterscotch yellow glossy eyes stared bullets from the curvature of his rounded face.
Through a side glanced stare, Eiko leaned in closer to Kono. Eyes still locked on to the fight about to ensue.
“Who you got, Kono?” Eiko muttered behind the back of his hand.
“Ehhh, the short one. You?” Kono relayed with a hesitant point at Monterio.
“Really? The short one?”
“I got a feeling. That look in his eye says it all.”
“Yeah, it’ll say a lot when he hits the floor.” Eiko huffed out a wry laugh.
“Just watch,” Kono cut back with a shoulder shove.
Eiko shook his head and glanced back at the boy behind him with a curious glare. The third part of the sequestered watching party.
Taller than the other two, his lanky body rained over the rest of the crowd. Emotions remained hidden beneath his sunken grayish-dark green eyes that peered out from his long unkempt white hair, scattered with golden strands. Such a sullen soul had little to say, much less express.
This fight was nothing but meaningless.
“What about you, Shoma?” Eiko piped up with an irritating tap of his finger.
“What?” Shoma grunted.
“To be honest, not even a fair fight. I mean that guy’s a squatter no doubt.”
“Hey!” Kono squealed dismally in a knee-jerk reaction.
Insulted on Monterio’s behalf, being he was his pick, Kono shoved back against a wildly laughing Eiko. The boy brushed it off with a wry grin, overly confident in his choice as he watched Daisuke roll back his shoulders. His hard-earned muscles from his years spent with Botan training in preparation for this very reason. Well, part of the reason.
Silence fell between them as Kono and Eiko awaited Shoma’s response. Other quiet chatter persisted around them, just idle background noise in the wait for the fight.
Shoma took a long hardy gaze between Monterio and Daisuke.
“Him.” Shom motioned toward Monterio with a slight head tilt.
“Ha! Shoma agrees with me,” Kono said triumphantly, arms crossed over his chest as he passed a celebratory stare at Eiko.
“Whatever, my guy still wins easily,” Eiko muttered with an overconfident grin.
The three fell silent and set their focus back on the two fighters. Eyes peeled, anticipation brimmed within the eighteen pairs of eyes on the sidelines beside them.
“You ready?” Monterio cocked his arms back and posted them in front of his face.
A spiral of green radiance warped his eyes, the faint glow Daisuke from behind his fists, primed and ready. In a single fluid motion, he reeled them back into a zenkutsu dachi stance; legs spread wide and arms flipped over with his fists clenched.
Daisuke sucked in a tight breath and shifted into his opening stance. Arms held bent at the elbows and hands spread out, aimed at Monterio.
“More than you.” Daisuke let out between composed breaths.
It was time. The boys crowded in together, flicking their focus from one fighter to the other as they transitioned out of their opening stance. Unsteady breathes and whispers all that laced the musty upstairs. You could hear the dust cut through the very air they exhaled.
Too tense to breathe.
The intertwined fighters waited on either end, circling the edge of the crowd. Preying on the other, they searched for an opening, an upper hand.
Beads of sweat rolled down Daisuke’s forehead and glistened beneath the blue luminescence of glowstones hung from the blood-dyed deadwood log-crossed roof. The boys’ pale faces gleamed beneath the light, a mesh of yellow and green marbled stares locked onto Daisuke’s every movement.
All put on edge, eyes forced open by excitement. Antsy for it begin.
Without warning, Daisuke lunged forward. He sent in a fierce left strike, aiming to latch onto Monterio’s forearm. Daisuke’s efforts were blocked as Monterio ducked Daisuke’s left arm and fired a firm jab into Daisuke’s ribs.
The first punch landed.
Ohhhh! The spectators called out in low gentle voices, a burst of whispers conspiring alongside them.
Daisuke winced at a sudden flare of ravenous pain. A sputter of spit spewed out into the air between them. Breath was knocked out with it from Monterio’s successful strike. The impact of his right fist into the left side of Daisuke’s rib cage was much heavier than expected. Monterio’s sheer size a blatant lie for the capability within him.
Daisuke took in the blow and spun off to the right, arms positioned across his body to prevent further damage. Yet Monterio only saw exposure, weakness left unattended.
Low to the ground, Monterio swerved forward and thrust his left fist into Daisuke’s lower back. The jab propelled Daisuke toward the crowd that grabbed onto him to only toss him back into the ring. Fate decided within seconds.
Back upright, Daisuke took a second to compose himself. But his urge to fight staggered as he jerked out of focus by the face six feet across from him. An unexpected expression that warped his opponent’s face. No anger, disgust, or agitation was to be seen.
Monterio was smiling. He was happy.
Fists still clutched tight, the boy’s eyes overflowed with radiant joy, amped up to continue the confrontation. A dire bloodlust craving to be quenched filled his young mind, one that had only been accelerated by his people back home. His father trained him more for combat with people than beasts of nature.
“Come at me. For real this time.” Monterio egged on with a grinning nod.
No words to retort Monterio’s mockery came to Daisuke’s mind, only the deep inhale of fresh air. His body was already feeling the wear and tear, yet Daisuke persisted. Now able to unleash himself as emotions swelled within his head and boiled beneath the surface.
In the fight, he found purpose, the will to win.
Three hits, that’s it. I can do this, I can do this, I can— Daisuke repeated within his head as air cycled through his lungs.
He was done being insulted.
Daisuke lunged forward and went in with a heavy cross-stomach-level punch. Monterio saw it coming and prepared to block, yet found himself uprooted by a change-up. Daisuke bent his arm back and swung a right elbow in Monterio’s jaw, backing it up with a sudden low right kick into the left side of Monterio’s ribs. He hit him. The contact was enough to draw out a sliver of hope, a weary smirk creasing Daisuke’s lips.
But it faded beneath his analysis of the damage done. There was none.
Monterio didn’t even flinch.
The pain came secondary, barely even noticed within Monterio’s mind. His entire body embraced in a somber numbness, Monterio was able to hone in his focus on his next move. Grasping onto Daisuke’s leg, Monterio twisted it and slammed him back onto the ground. Body overtaken by Monterio’s pure strength.
The floorboards shook beneath Daisuke’s fall, all the boys stunned by the sight. Concern rose within Kiyo as he watched his friend grit his teeth, clenched upon the building rage within.
Back to the floor, Daisuke recoiled at the surge of pain running down his spine. Too distracted by the deafening prick he put himself at risk for what came next. Unprepared for Monterio’s fist that plunged into his stomach.
Daisuke’s lungs deflated instantly, left gasping for air to only have the opportunity taken away as Monterio jumped on top of him.
Sat on his stomach, Monterio rammed his fists into Daisuke’s head. Bouncing against the floorboard amidst the internal daze, Daisuke sifted through to regain composure. Drawing back in on the situation, Daisuke fell to drastic measures and railed his knees into Monterio’s back. The impact was enough to stun him for a moment, which Daisuke utilized as he lifted his top half upward and fired off multiple side back fists into Monterio’s head.
But it didn’t matter.
It only took one dodge and the opening was granted. Monterio took advantage of the mental discombobulation and grabbed onto Daisuke’s right arm. Slamming it down across Daisuke’s chest, Monterio pinned the boy down. Legs immobilized by Monterio as he spread out his stance to lock down Daisuke’s knees.
It was a slaughter.
Punch after punch was thrown into Daisuke’s head. Monterio used his left arm in a constant cycle of long-winded jabs that only grew in strength with each blow. Blood surfaced and swelled on Daisuke’s face, his pale skin cracking as a gash opened across his cheek.
He won. Monterio won. A couple of voices muttered around the circle.
“Told you,” Kono said jocularly.
“Shut up.” Eiko shot back with an eye roll.
The boys around the fight recognized the clear winner and congratulated Monterio. But he didn’t stop. His gnarly fist continued to wail against Daisuke’s head and chest. He was helpless, incapable of stopping every rigorous jab that broke through his hazy defense.
“Okay, Monterio, we get it you won.”
“Hey stop. It’s over.”
A couple of kids contested and yanked at the boy to end the bashing, let Daisuke get up, and prevent the worst from happening. But Monterio refused. He resisted their efforts. Daisuke was put on the brink of consciousness as his head rolled side to side after each new strike.
Blood was all Monterio saw with each gruesome splatter that painted the scene. Overcome with murderous joy, his teeth grated each other from the frenzy that consumed his mind. But then it shrunk. Whisked away by a sudden hold against his brutality. A horrific presence.
Monterio glanced back over his shoulder and spotted the source. Locking eyes, Monterio didn’t hesitate to lower his fist. His inner rage dwindled in the face of instinctual fear that left his body shaking. It was like his life flashed before his very eyes, brought on by the beast that could claim his life on a whim.
No kindness was present in his darkened eyes, body ever so still as he crept forward into the ring. All voices fell silent as Kiyo stretched out and grasped onto Monterio’s shoulder. A burst of heat passed from Kiyo to Monterio’s skin burning the exposed flesh. Monterio didn’t react, he only narrowed his gaze and gritted his teeth.
“It’s over,” Kiyo uttered coldly with a vigorous stare.
The words rippled through Monterio and snapped him out of the blind vicious rage. Recoiling off of Daisuke, he nodded and bumped into Kiyo as he exited the ring. The boys made an opening for him as he walked off to his resting mat.
“Fine . . . I was bored now anyway,” Monterio said through the gaps in his teeth, legs criss-cross on the mat.
Everyone else remained entrapped in a moment of pure horrified awe. Hands shook, eyes peeled, and hearts raced at the sudden turn of events. Such a strong-willed fighter that could take their life at a moment’s notice. It was terrifying.
All waivered to cut the tension and resume the match, all except Isao.
“Let’s get this over with, c’mon,” Isao said cockily as he waved his hand toward Kiyo.
Kiyo didn’t even bother with a response. He only bent down and helped drag Daisuke out of the ring to a mat nearby. Kono, Eika, and Shoma moved forward and aided in shifting him through the stiffened crowd. Still conscious, Daisuke twitched at each bump along the way as he gasped for air.
“Hey,” Isao called out from the ring.
Kiyo spun back around with a dead-eyed stare, body tense, left in a heated rage by the state of his friend. Isao showed little remorse as he chuckled in Kiyo’s face, nearly laughing at him.
“Our turn, remember? Or are you scared?” Isao taunted with a squinted humorous glare.
Arm’s primed at his waist, he awaited Kiyo’s strike, aiming to latch onto and disable him within a moment's notice. To impress everyone.
Kiyo didn’t even prepare himself or form a proper stance. He sauntered back over to the ring and let it close around him. Fight engaged. Arms held up high to his blank emotionless face, he wound his fingers into a tight grip. Focused on his hands alone, careless of the opponent in front of him.
He planned to make this quick.
“Be ready, I was the best back home for a reason—”
There was no time to speak.
Within an instant, Kiyo shifted across the circle and struck Isao in the chest. Isao tried to absorb the blows to no avail as the strike radiated across his body.
Two punches. Two hits. Two surges of agony.
That’s all it took to make Isao collapse onto the ground. Isao couldn’t even manage to finish his sentence as he struggled to grasp what shred of life remained. Rolling over, he planted himself on his hand and knees to prepare for what came next. Vomit.
Throwup spiraled up out of his mouth onto the wooden boards beneath them, his body held up on all fours.
“Ewww!” A few girls below shrieked as the vomit rained on the lower floor.
A few boys laughed, some recoiled, and others checked on the losers.
Kiyo only watched from afar.
No emotion, sympathy, or joy was present on his face. Content with how he did, that it didn’t go too far. His fists were already beginning to dispel a fickle radiance. Heat waves encompassing the flow of concentrated radiation in Kiyo’s fists managed enough to not burn his skin. And not kill Isao of course.
No congratulations or timid whispers filled the air, only split confusion. Not a single word was uttered. Complete bafflement.
“What is this?” A sudden voice called out from the stairs.
All heads turned to see one of the four trainers from the ceremony standing at the top of the stairwell. Two pure yellow eyes surveyed them, judging their every move.
“Really? Here and now?” The trainer questioned, acknowledging the bloody Daisuke and still vomiting Isao, both writhing in agony.
The trainer could only shake his head in disappointment. With a thorough glance around the room, it was easy to find the two who were responsible. Kiyo still stood over Isao, no care apparent in his untouched face. And Monterio, just sitting alone, isolated in the middle of the room. Knuckles soiled with traces of blood.
Gradually the rest of the boys retreated to their mats. A few continued to help Isao, and the same three boys aided Daisuke as he recovered.
Descending back down the stairs, the trainer passed one gander around and made his judgment call.
“I will give you a pass . . . for now.”
All the children froze, wide-eyed, taken aback by his unforeseen words. Left stranded in thought, they were unaware of what came next. The expected wise words foretold at the ceremony were nowhere present in his tone, leaving them distressed and at a loss.
“Tomorrow we begin, so act like it.” The trainer barked with a thrust of his fist against the wall.
With a quick menacing glare, he stomped back downstairs and out of the house. Moving with purpose, the boys either found it time to lay down for the night or commence in idle conversation. Discussions over what just happened broke out within isolated groups, a means to talk to others present. Within it all, they still hoped to gain allies early on.
But Kiyo and Daisuke were distracted by another matter. By that man, the trainer.
Face finally exposed to the tepid glowstone blue lights they were finally able to recognize him. That face was ingrained in their brains from a single event years ago. One of the warriors that saved them from the woods; the very leader of the squad: Takeo.
Now he had become their house’s trainer.
The one who would bring them to salvation.