A night of hushed whispers and faint rumors came to an end at the break of dawn. Through slanted roof shingles overhead, stagnant rays of light beamed onto the children. The Sun’s faint touch was enough to ease their minds out of their deep slumber and awaken to meet the day. To train.
Some perked up within seconds, their internal clocks on time with the shifted solar schedule. Having properly been prepared for the years of training sanctioned, it was a stitch to adjust to the rigorous hours expected of them. Others were forced out of their dreams, drawn back into reality by the creaky footsteps that bent the floorboards around them.
But they all arose with caution cramping their actions. The fight from the night before was enough of a warning to reel back from their high expeditious egos. Regardless of the cause, all were now responsible for the behavior of the fellow members of their household. Takeo’s words put the fear of the Sun within them. Their lives were now cradled in his hands. One false move, and he could crush their opportunity within an instant. Dreams left dead and buried in the wake of the one meant to bring them prosperity.
One by one, the children in blood house 0 rubbed the weariness out of their eyes and sat patiently on their resting mats. Complete silence echoed throughout the household, everyone too afraid to make any movements that could jeopardize their future.
Despite the rush that enthralled the other children, Daisuke's focus was misplaced as he longingly stared at the empty stairwell. Face beaten in by Monterio’s chaotic fists, tufts of his white hair were stained a faded rugged ruby that clashed with his golden strands. Pain throbbed across the faint bruises that discolored his skin, marked with a distinct black ring that crowded out his left eye. Yet some considered him lucky that the swelling had already died down enough to see through his bubbled skin.
Yet with all that occurred, no tears were ever shed. The moment Daisuke got up from the mat he gave his respects to Monterio, then promptly drifted off to sleep. All the agonizing gashes that laced his gnashed cheeks were the last of his concerns, mind set on the one thing he learned from the night before. That everyone learned.
He was weak.
Treated like a child's toy, Daisuke sat there and wondered how it could have gone differently. What he should have done to subdue Monterio. Fingers grappling at his chin, he found himself lost in analyzing every angle he could fathom. Yet, at the end of every possible route he circled back to the single matter at hand: he was disgraceful.
With an agonizing groan, he buried his head into his legs and tried to block it all out. To forget.
Above the sweltering embarrassment that plagued Daisuke’s face, disappointment from the bitter loss coiled around his stomach. His father’s name had been tarnished, forsaken by such a sappy son. Just pathetic.
Daisuke leaned back on his elbows and outlined the tattered wooden roof with his eyes. Thick deadwood beams decorated with splashes of sunlight, the gray bark enchanted by the Sun’s blessed touch. A brief distraction for the miserable boy to indulge in, to alleviate his mind.
Kiyo remained slumped forward on his mat, elbows resting on his knees as he awaited Takeo’s arrival. Fists clenched, he restrained the surges of excessive energy within him. Every flare of radiance that slipped past the surface tension leaked out through a tepid yellow glow from beneath Kiyo’s eyelids. His vessel was unprepared for the strenuous levels it would have to go to refrain from unleashing it all. Yet he managed to burn off what he could, to control it.
Across the room unknowingly to Kiyo, Isao glared at him with a crinkled distaste. No scars or wounds littered Isao’s body from where Kiyo struck him on the chest. Only emotional humiliation continued to corrode him from the inside. Such a bitter flavor associated with the memory that he spat out onto the floor with a grind of his worn molars.
“Just wait . . . you waste of breath,” Isao muttered to himself. Gripping at the loose chips of wood on the floor, he tore into them with his bare stale fingers. The momentary pain was a relaxer in light of his dire bewilderment. He just couldn’t piece together what happened. His dull mind couldn’t comprehend how he lost to a kid smaller than him in two hits. Just two. Two punches were all it took to bring Isao to his knees.
“Shhhh. It’s hard enough to think with you breathing like that.” Monterio muttered from Isao’s side. Aside from the comment, Monterio calmly sat ever so still, mind put at ease as he tried to sequester the lustful rage within. Deep tepid breaths heaved in—and out. A basic decompressor could only do so much for the boy born into a blood bath. Always residing on the brink of temptation, such a thin line could only hold him back for so long.
Confrontation, bloodshed, and death were inevitable in his future.
A part of life itself.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The momentary morning peace was brought to an end.
Three pounds against the front door downstairs riveted throughout the household. All the children were yanked out of their dormant state, attention drawn away from their peers toward the cause of the noise. A summoning call. No words followed the clatter, only expectations for those who knew the guidelines. Those that knew what it meant to be there.
“It’s time!” A boy cheered in a hushed tone.
“Come on!” Another added on as he waved back to his friends.
“Eiko, get up!” Kono complained, tugging on the exhausted boy’s sleeve.
Ample bodies made their way down the stairs with haste. Within minutes, the house emptied into the open air, their faces enveloped in the Sun’s brilliance that shone down on them. Eyes warped to adjust to the drastic shift in light levels, a gradual change that came with the high rise into the morning.
All thirty-five pairs of feet halted on the smoothed gravel grounds littered with rounded cobblestone pathways between households. Ground barren of any tender green life.
Dust scattered with each step as they all filed behind each other. A controlled horde at best, all jammed against one another shoulder to shoulder as they kept their attention pinned on the man standing before them. Takeo.
Fitted out in a clean jet-black training uniform, his old shoulder patches were replaced with the emblem for the house. A bloodied 0 burnt into the roughened teratoma skin. Feet strapped within tightly wound leather jika-tabi boots.
Arms crossed in front of his chest, Takeo surveyed the crowd of children gathered in front of him. His new squad to mentor and care for for the next four years. These fresh vessels were his to mold, bend, and break.
At his side were two guardians assigned to assist in any tasks or duties Takeo designated for them. Speechless drudges. Each was a tall faceless man hidden beneath their thick teratoma blood-soaked crimson head wraps. Their competent silence the downfall of any who tried to stand against them. But for the day, they were simply delivery boys.
“What’s in their hands?” One girl whispered behind her cupped hand.
“I don’t know . . . I can’t see it.” Another responded their curious voices at a loss for what the guardians were carrying.
Hands occupied with boxes full of stacked training armor, the guardians remained perfectly still. You couldn’t pick them apart from a statue if you weren’t aware of their presence. But in their presence, a mix of confusion and anticipation enveloped the gathered children. Eyes weary and minds loosened up by the long-awaited sleep from their days on the road.
Clearing his throat, Takeo grasped their attention and gestured to himself.
“You may call me teacher. That is all.” Takeo said plainly, as he turned his head about the group.
Daisuke and Kiyo stared in silence, attentive to not miss a word of the briefing. Today the only one they would receive for a year or until they transitioned into the next rank. The pathway to becoming a Sun Warrior was rigorous and thorough. No one unworthy of the splendor that came with the blessed role in the clan would ever be allowed to ascend to the stars. To become one amongst the many who’ve died for the Sunretsu clan.
Takeo tilted his head at the two guardians beside him, hands motioning to the two wooden crates nested in their arms. His fingers were so delicate yet forceful as they cut through the air.
“Each of you will put on one of these.”
Grasped by the knot, Takeo took out a kit of training armor encased in a string-tied crate. The newly clean and sown set was on full display for all of the children, their wildest dreams coming to life right before them. Some passed disappointed glares, their egregious expectations unable to be met, while others gawked at the chance to even lay their eyes upon it. Armor handcrafted for their bodies and theirs alone.
Daisuke was one of the many who brightened up at the sight of the gear. Still restrained inside by the devastating loss to Monterio, this reintroduction was a reminder of why he was here. What he wanted to become. Able to smile past the sorrowful memory, he looked to the future.
But not everyone could do such a thing, could be so kind.
Kiyo passed a sliver of attention through his bangs toward the furnished gear. Head cleared up of the frivolous throbs of pure radiance that pricked his mind, Kiyo evaluated the circumstances surrounding him. Focus split, he mitigated between Takeo and a single person in the crowd. Monterio.
Kiyo couldn’t stand the boy. Lost for thought on how such an untameable beast could stand amongst them, Kiyo clenched his fists as the anger surmounted within. A deep dire burning gradually rose to his head. Thoughts offset by misdirected anger from Ronin, now aimed at a source to relieve it all.
The reason to do so was already provided.
Yet the same reason stood in his way. Daisuke’s joyful face brimmed ear to ear with an unnatural excitement for what was to come. Despite his loss, he was happy, he was smiling. How could someone smile after such a thing?
“It’s a marker for your house and your rank. Respect it.” Takeo announced stiffly as he put the set back in the crate.
Adjusting his shoulder armor plate, Takeo flashed the emblem for their house, a bloodied 0. The marker was one they were meant to wear with pride, to represent each other as much as themselves. Its designation served to be a road map for the path ahead. All-purpose ingrained within the fine craftsmanship that would line their toughened bodies.
“Imagine that this is your flesh and blood now, your livelihood. Take care of it and wear it with pride. To lose it is to lose your identity, as one cannot walk the earth without their skin.” Takeo continued, no hints of humor present in the smooth complexion that glazed his chiseled jaw.
“A quarter turn to change, and bring your clothes back here. You must shed the past to move forward.” He added on with a flick of his wrist toward the children. They nodded without hesitation and held out their arms for acceptance of the gracious gift bestowed upon them.
The guardians stepped forward and passed out the bundles to each of the children. Upon receiving their set, they each dashed back inside to change.
Every single hand-crafted set was the best any Paladinian could find. All teratoma leather was intertwined by thick Sun-dried coar hairs that were thinly strung. Each pair consisted of three sets: a chest and back plate connected by shoulder pads, a waistline ring of armor plates covering all four sides, and two jika-tabi teratoma boots. Beneath it, a tight coarse hand-woven silk under armor clung to their skin. It was a tender embrace, like a hug from a loved one. To wear this armor meant to accept the burden that came with it. One’s will forever bound to the Sun.
Handing off their old clothes to the guardians, they watched as the last remnants of their past lives were swiftly stuffed away into wooden crates. Who they were was no more. Stripped of the last bit of individuality, all that remained were their skills and expectations. This place was meant to draw those out into the holy light.
A site blessed by the Sun.
Takeo gazed at the group gathered before him, his steady canary gleaming eyes half pleased with what he saw; raw potential. No disorderly conduct or misbehavior was present, just the looming presence of eager eyes. Children full of enthusiasm for the day ahead.
The first of many.
“Now we begin,” Takeo declared as he turned away from the children.
The guardians followed behind him along the cobbled pathway toward the training grounds. With gradual realization, the kids broke away from the household and trudged after them. Smiles clashed with tiresome groans throughout the group. Some were still held down by the lingering exhaustion of the morning, but it mattered not. The time to shine had come.
While making their way to the far corner of the training ground, Daisuke diverted his gaze from Takeo and out to the other groups already in session. Various zones of combat lined the way to their path, from archery lanes to close-quarters hand-to-hand combat grated stone fighting squares. Wonder braced Daisuke’s face as he watched the older houses partake in drills. Eyes widened at the sight of one of the Ib, the highest training level, students as he hurled an obsidian spear straight through a massive gneiss stone pillar.
Others within their set bounds performed similar acts that could only be described as feats of magnificent strength. In the eyes of an admirable child, Daisuke gawked at his now fellow warriors in arms. Yet Kiyo instead hung his head. Perturbed as they strolled through the older houses, some of the students were previous visitors to his father’s household. A commonplace practice for new warriors to pay respects to the one held above all others in the clan.
Surrounding each combat section were gravel-filled stone pathways, the open air the only true divider. There was no need for high walls or barriers. Having been built to allow viewers from the temple to peer down and scout out promising fighters, skill alone would prevent a stray sword from slicing the wrong opponent. These potential recruits for squads spread across the clan's domain were foreseen to be those granted with such innate instincts. They were blesseds.
“Watch and listen,” Takeo called out in an elevated direct tone.
With his right hand raised, he motioned the kids forward, wagging his pointer and middle finger. His signal was directed to two boys interlocked in a spar dead ahead.
Both were Ib-level students in their final year. One was equipped with a long carved deadwood practice odachi sword. Its hilt was wrapped in thin slivers of teratoma skin. The other held two short tonfas, replacements for kunai knives, yet it mattered little. Wooden sticks in their hands were just as deadly as chiseled obsidian.
Whoosh! Dink! Tink! Tink! Tink! Whiff!
All the children watched in open-mouthed amazement as the two clashed over the worn and bloodied stone training ground. Exchanging quick swipes and jabs of their wooden equipment, they each made countless attempts to disarm the other. To find openings and weak spots within the tethered wall between the student and their blade.
Tink! Tink! Tink! Swoosh! Slash! Swoosh! Clink!
“When the time comes, you will all do the same.” Takeo relayed, his attention pinned on the fight at hand.
The boy with the tonfas dipped beneath the other’s slash through the air, closing in on a winning cut in the neck to only pull away at the last second. Cut off and forced to defend the odachi boy’s sudden rollback of his sword that tore through the space between them with such elegance. His palms strained and tinted a ragged scarlet from the sheer pressure of his movements. Redirecting the momentum of his blade, he chose defense to create an opening. To counterstrike his opponent.
Donk! Whoosh! Swoosh! Tink! Tink!
“It does not matter if you win, but how you fight.”
Whoosh! Whoosh! Clink! Tink-tink-tink-tink!
More strikes were exchanged as they danced across the platform. Like a literal play, every move was in sync and met with an equal opposing strike. Neither could break through the invisible wall set up by the other’s skill through force, yet an opening was found on one end. A way in.
The tonfa student made a risky sacrifice and used one of his short blunt sticks as a diversion. Cutting back, he cocked his arm and hurled a tonfa toward the chest of the odachi student. It was too fast to dodge, the spiraling blade closing in on the boy. Left with no other choice, the odachi boy cut upward to deflect the stick.
Tink! Swoosh-swoosh! Dink-tink! Whiff!
But that was his mistake, his falter. The tonfa student jumped on the opportunity handed to him and lunged forward. Within seconds, the gap between the two closed. A couple of yards became a few inches.
A win was in sight. The tonfa was jabbed a few mere centimeters from the odachi’s chest. One fatal hit was all it took to succeed, to claim victory.
Yet he lost, movement halted by an underhanded rotation of the odachi that plunged into the tonfa boy’s chest. He was struck, intercepted, and defeated. Odachi won.
“Remember that.” Takeo commended. Fighting at a close, Takeo continued toward their designated zone. Off to the side, the two fighters pounded their right fist into their chest, a sign of uttermost respect, a pivotal pillar of the clan. Eyes locked with each other, they took their loss and victory in an emotionless stride. There was no need for joy or anger, only acceptance.
Reaching the far most left back corner of Harion, the children arrived at the specified grounds for new years. The cleared-out gravel plot was lined with various weapons alongside weighted stones. This plain space was a foundation for the Paladinian practice to discover and designate new student’s into their specialty by the end of their first year. Learning the basic hand-to-hand techniques and building muscle was a necessary pillar to build upon.
“All of you. Line up and spread out.”
Takeo gestured to them with a dead-eyed glare, his voice sequestered until he saw to it that their formation fit his standards. The two guardians posted along the display rack of weapons kept watch over all the children from behind as Takeo led them through the motions.
“Now, do as I do. Nothing more, nothing less.” Takeo instructed attentively.
In dead silence without complaints, the children watched and obeyed every instruction put on display. It was like PE but on a severe level of speed and endurance. Partaking in numerous physical exercises, from basic push-ups to crunches, Takeo aimed to whittle away until they couldn’t bare the physical exhaustion. Repeating sets until they were done without flaw in Takeo’s eyes, a simple nod was his only signal for them to proceed.
An hour session of hands body drills went on for three. Despite being halfway through the morning, they were nowhere near finished. The end was a distant dream, a blur on the horizon.
The setup stones and pillars of varying sizes came next, each student testing their bounds and following the instructions to the t. Performed stone punches and floor presses to tear their muscles open in preparation for the weapons they would be handling.
Daisuke managed to only get as far as the fourth largest stone and pillar. His body stretched to its current limitations, a boundary that left him flustered and gasping for air. Yet he could only embrace the cynical frustration that he couldn’t push himself further. That he was weak.
Kiyo held himself back, easily lifting the third largest pillar with slowed and steady movements. Sweat sizzled from the quaint radiance emitted from his spine. Not enough to cause harm, but an irritable tingle still enveloped his worn vessel.
Finishing with a fast-paced session of laps around the entirety of Harion, the morning found its inevitable end. Passing by countless other students caught up in training, they all caught a cycle-bound glimpse of their skills, brief distractions from the intense exhaustion burdening their torn bodies. Broken down to be built back up anew. Reborn in the sun.
Circled back to their designated corner, Takeo finally tossed up his right palm to end the sprints. Ten laps ran at max capacity. Bodies tattered and sweaty, a few children wobbled side to side barely able to remain standing.
“If you're tired, eat. If not, come over here with me.” Takeo said swiftly.
Two new guardians arrived from the temple. One’s hands clutched onto two baskets of bread and cooked coar meat, while the other carried buckets of water with ladles for drinking. Setting it all down in the center of the fatigued children. It was a lure, bait for those willing to take it.
Takeo stepped up from the smothered gravel and onto smoothed stone grounds. Most combative squares were primarily used for sparing, one allotted to the new years.
A few children trotted over to Takeo and hopped up onto the sparing square. Despite being drained down to the last ounce of energy, willpower dragged their bleary corpses behind their competent leader. Each child chased after the dream they held dear since the day they could lay their eyes upon the glorious Sun herself. Kiyo was one of the many who was entrenched in this desire, more so out of personal vendetta, but all the more a childish goal. He stepped toward the stone yet found himself unable to go any further. Daisuke’s arm prevented him, his slimy skin pressed up against Kiyo’s gear.
“Daisuke. Let’s go.” Kiyo muttered in a low tone as he bat Daisuke’s arm down.
“Kiyo. Look.” Daisuke whispered nonchalantly.
Following Daisuke’s small extending finger, the two stared at Isao and Monterio caught up in a concealed conversation. Yet their attention was elsewhere, locked onto Shoma and his friends across the courtyard. The three of them were already situated away from the baskets with food in hand, their thirst quenched by hearty scoops of water from the tepid riverbed.
“What about them?” Kiyo said as he glanced back at Takeo, antsy to join the others.
“I don’t like it,” Daisuke uttered sternly.
“Just look at them. They’re planning something . . . something bad.”
Kiyo gazed at Monterio and Isao as they made their way over to the trio. Menacing sneers spread across their faces, eyes locked onto them as they cracked their knuckles.
“They’ll be fine,” Kiyo whispered.
“What? No, we can’t leave them.”
Daisuke looked back over and saw Monterio closing in, whatever was planned in his mind was close to fruition. His movements were firm and aggressive. Without warning, children were bumped out of the way as he steamrolled by. The route was laid before him, one laced with mischievousness; Daisuke could sense it. That or he was just paranoid.
“They helped me yesterday. Why can’t we do the same?” Daisuke pleaded with considerate eyes.
Stuck at a fork in the road between the two options at hand, Kiyo whisked his focus back and forth between them. Takeo or Monterio. Help others or himself, that’s all it was. But the opportunity to punish Monterio was too much to give up. Sidelining his desire to rank up, Kiyo gave into Daisuke’s boundless consideration. It’s what made him who he was.
“Fine . . . let’s help.”