Night descended over Harion. Soldiers patrolled the outskirts in anticipation of a possible threat to arise. Yet every soul within the walls was at ease beside one.
One worrisome little boy.
Shoma, eyelids clenched tight, failed to fall under the ever-blessed lull of slumber as he heeded Monterio’s words. Repeating them in his mind over and over he failed to catch a wink of sleep. The meeting was to commence soon. Under the cover of night, the vile seeds of inevitable destruction would be sown.
With a quick peek out the shutters, Shoma watched a diced-up moon set high in the inky void of the sky. A starless night, hidden behind the thin trails of clouds overhead. This night one marked in mourning, the blessed warriors up in the sky nowhere to be seen. Unable to repel the gritty splinters of unholy luminescence cast by the moon. An ornament of lies, its light not of its own but a mere interpretation of the Sun. These dull clouds drifted freely in the night sky on cool winds unscathed by the Sun’s warm touch. But the second the moon rose to reach its peak in the sky something clicked within the boy.
It was time.
Slowly shifting his body upright, Shoma crept down the stairs and out of the house. He wrapped back around the back wall of the barrack to the meeting spot set aglow by the moon’s disingenuous reflection. Within its haze, two souls made themselves known. Two children.
Monterio and Isao both stood there in composed anticipation. Isao leaned against the boarded wall while Monterio crossed his arms and gazed at the moon above.
“I enjoy the night . . . don’t you?”
“Hm?” Shoma mumbled, off-put by the statement.
Monterio snuffed out his rough smirk and smacked his lips as he set his focus on Shoma. The white tint from the moon curved around his face, now marked with an ominous halo. Shoma the victim on the receiving end of Monterio’s judgment. His worth in the balance.
Meanwhile, Isao stared from behind his gruesome master with a bulging evil eye locked onto Shoma, anticipating what he had to offer them. Like a dog on his leash, he kept his voice at a minimum. Popping his knuckles as the moment stalled. An uneasy silence brewed between them, no presence of friendship.
Only unnerving fear.
“Well?” Montreio uttered with a direct gesture of expectation.
Shoma’s face creased as he thought back through the day. His afternoon with his friends and Kiyo was fresh on his mind, yet nothing from it stood out. No obvious signs or details he could relate to Monterio, an afternoon full of demonstrations of Judo and Bujutsu that they would practice on each other. A day's worth of getting used to the forms. Preparation for their use in the real world.
But he had nothing to say. Nothing useful.
“He’s quiet,” Shoma muttered with a slight shrug.
Monterio and Isao exchanged side glances that flicked back to Shoma with a little bit of discontentment entrenched in their eyes. The silence built upon itself as each side simmered into confusion. Waiting for the other to perk up, to say something. Anything.
“That’s it?” Isao relented prissily as he thrust himself forward off the wall. A little surge of anger swirled in his chest, anxious to find a weakness for Kiyo. To earn back the respect that was snatched right out of his grasp. He marched toward Shoma to get such answers but found his path obstructed, his leash pulled.
With a slap of his open palm against Isao's chest, Monterio squandered Isao’s rage and put the aggressive boy back in his place. Stepping off to the side, he yanked Isao into a side conversation. Slick whispers drifted from Monterio’s lips into Isao’s right ear.
Left in the dark, Shoma twisted his foot into the gravel and released a hefty sigh of pent-up stress. The hollow dark craters in the moon absorbed his attention, little rocky lakes of emptiness. To him the grave signs of war from the past.
Tales old as time to the paladinians. Amaterasu known as a vengeful yet caring savior of the world.
The Paladinians her chosen people, bent on bringing her change to other domains.
“Hey,” Monterio cut in with a slight rise of eagerness within his tone.
Shoma snapped out of the trance and dropped his gaze back to Monterio with a fierce yet pensive glare. Both locked in a cold stare-down. Neither side wanted to budge an inch. Yet Shoma continued to shudder on the inside as he pictured Monterio beating Daisuke, his true feelings peeking out through subtle twitches in his face. Nervous instinctual reactions to book. A psychopath.
It was too late to run.
“You have to make him trust you? Got it?” Monterio spat out with a tilt of his head forward.
“Trust me?” Shoma questioned, a little misdirected by what Monterio meant, right pointer finger aimed at the center of his chest.
“Talk, train, eat. Do things to grow close, to get on the inside . . . to become friends.”
“Why?” Shoma asked with a wry scoff.
“Why?” Monterio let out a “Cause I’ll kill them if you don’t.”
The world fell silent, still, and deadly.
It became clear. Shoma’s life was no longer his own to care for, now a puppet for Monterio to gain information on someone he saw as a threat. A problem that would need to be dealt with for him to achieve his goal. To become a savior.
The chosen one. Many children’s names were up in the air to fulfill the prophecy. But only one was the true child of Amaterasu.
“Glad you understand your place . . . but he’ll slip up soon enough,” Monterio flicked off the end of his tongue with a gnarly grin.
“What?” Shoma asked abruptly, at a loss for Monterio’s reasoning.
Yet no response was given. Monterio only squinted at Shoma with narrowed grass-green eyes, little beady marbles that tried to contrive meaning from every inch of detail on his face. Open him up like a book and read where his loyalty truly lies. But it was useless, all Shoma ever showed was the same stone-faced expression. All his emotions were encased beneath thick tarnished layers.
“Admit what?” Shoma repeated blankly. Monterio only laughed and slipped back away from Shoma with a tilt of his head.
“Every cycle on this same turn. Meet here.” Monterio whispered on a subtle brush of wind that rolled off his shoulder as he walked past Shoma.
The words sent chills down the silent giant’s spine, his life and purpose now dangling on a string, a puppet with a tiny evil master at the reigns.
“Don’t lie to us. You know what we’ll do.” Isao grunted brutishly, bumping Shoma with his shoulder on his way out.
Undaunted by the rude gesture of an aimless threat from a lackey, Shoma blew out a timid breath and took in the moment. Head bent up toward the sky, lost in the night. Finding solace in the moon, something he never felt during the day.
Finally, in complete isolation, understanding set in of what Monterio meant. Reasons came to light for why the nighttime was revered to be used for tasks and actions the Sun should never have to witness. Gruesome and putrid things warriors would have to commit for the clan, for their people. Able to do it at night because no one was watching. There was no one awake to bear witness.
All sanctioned acts forgivable.
The whole world was put to rest, left unaware of the eyes watching them. One could do as they pleased. So why not run?
Night came to a close. All souls were put to rest as they awaited the day. The rise of another mourning blessed by the angelic rays of the Sun. A reason to grow and thrive in the world granted to them to protect. To change.
The only reason the children obeyed the influence of their ancestors. Their lives were a gift to be given back to the world that accepted them. That marked them with grand strength and wit to be developed. Trained for their glorious destiny. To one day reach the land of the skies above.
Except for Shoma. He remained for the sole purpose of his friends, past ambitions and goals lost in mind for what was at stake for his obedience. His outside appearance of a rugged muscled tree was weak at heart. Soft for those close to him. Left trembling in his restless sleep.
Terrified of Monterio. Not of him specifically, but what he could do. Would do.
Day in and day out this was their routine for the first few months of their lives.
Early mornings they awoke as the Sun shined down on them, presented with a small breakfast of bread and cooked eggs from the maidens of the temple. Eggs collected from serchins encaged beneath the prep rooms were a delicacy amongst Paladinian people.
This breed of chicken had adapted to survive the last chaotic few centuries. Its body reverted to how it was during the age of dinosaurs, with only tufts of feathers on its head and tail remaining. Bat-like wings and scaly skin overtake the plain fleshy body of the species. Heads more pensive and narrowed in, slick and bendy as if the body of a snake. Beaks laced with razor blade teeth for predator and prey alike. Taloned feet that could cleanly leave two-inch deep gashes in any that confronted the creature. Able to spot movement of any person within the night by their vertical orange pupils. A deep contrast to its ashy gray body and white feathers.
Yet it was reduced to a mere provider of food in the states for the Paladinian people. While too weak to contest against them, the docile creatures were fast enough to learn how to survive.
Robbed maidens entered the dungeons and removed all eggs from their nests. Handing them off to the chefs to prepare for the student warriors.
Morning conditioning transitioned with the elements. Moving from standard bodily exercises to the addition of battling the harshest weather conditions they could face.Traveling deep underground to submerge themselves in frigid cave waters, going hours without water in the open sun, buried alive then forced to dig their way out, and breaking their fall from various distances. Bent on breaking their bodies to open them to grow into new standards. Conditions they would have to face in their line of work.
Expectations were put on the utmost high for each and every one of them.
The eggs served with hand-kneaded bread were enough to suffice the hungry children. Only able to enjoy it momentarily as they were whisked outside to partake in the same exercises and sessions as the day before. Now, no longer an option to sit out Takeo’s one on one spars. The only way to earn a sliver of lunch was by doing so. At first.
Following a physically intense morning to condition and reshape their bodies came repetitive duals over hand combat moves. It was a way to get their muscles fine-tuned and remember every teaching instruction the day before. Paring off in twos to enact the perfected offensive strikes against each other. Each was surveyed by various Guardians and Takeo, only stepping in to discipline those out of line.
As the lowest rank in Harion, they were required to build up their bodies to the standard necessary for even being considered to hold a weapon. Something they would be tested for in their second year. In addition to their routine that would overlap with hand-to-hand combat in the afternoons. Being taught the proper usage of all weapon styles and forms, only utilizing special one-on-one sessions for their specified weapons art. Whether it be swordsmanship, archery, close-quarters blades, or any of the variety of skillful safeguards crafted on the rack they had a near-infinite gallery of options laid out in front of them.
This cycle ensued for weeks on end, ingrained into their brains to the point the children narrowed down the one-hour morning conditioning to only forty-five minutes. Three-fourths of a single turn.
Something previously unheard of. A rare occurrence led by the five prominent prospects of the house Takeo had picked out, narrowed down by their feats across training.
Throughout it all, Kiyo and Daisuke had become intertwined with the trio, growing together through the training as a group. Most of their free time, of what little they had, was spent strolling around the edges of the city wall. Unable to scale the walls like back in Nappon, there were other places to enjoy each other’s company. Practicing on spar stones or sitting on top of their house roof. Kono and Eiko quickly got close to Daisuke, who drew Kiyo into the mix.
Shoma remained at a distance from them, physically and internally. Weary of his ties to Kiyo, of what Monterio would make of situations like these. Simply listening in on their conversations with his attention honed in on the feeble boy. A child like no other.
Week in and week out, Shoma reported to Monterio and Isao in the cover of the night behind the house his findings. Little pieces of information here and there on Kiyo’s behavior. Still unable to tell more on the matter of his raw strength and skill. Kiyo’s silence was a virtue and protector of the secrets he held at heart. His past.
Overall it was more so a nervous tick created by forced isolation, but others saw him differently.
A figure to be respected more than feared. Time sure to tell where he would land within the clan’s rankings as training gradually ramped up. Weights increased, sets lengthened, laps multiplied, spars brutalized. It became a fight to survive the training. One wrong step and all could be lost. But in this house, the thirty-five children found a way to thrive. To stay sane.
Kiyo one of the few to always turn up on top. A silent leader.
The fall breeze blew in over the summer, a swift transition from months plagued with intense blistering heat whirling within the open air to a tepid warmth. Winter approached as nights became entrenched in rapid arctic winds blowing in from the dire remnants of the north. Enough of a chill to offset the natural order of weather in the area. New storms brought on by the downdraft.
Increased occurrences of acid rain and rapid thunderstorms came with the seasonal transition into winter. Plants in this barren gravel wasteland of Harion were forced to curl up beneath the surface as time waned on. The land became marked with tension, bitter anticipation for the worst of it to arrive.
Regardless, they trained. Forced out into the acid rain for single turns to build up a physical immunity to the hazardous droplets. Not to become unaffected by it, but to become numb to such minor pain. Able to focus on every single moment of a fight even in such bleak environmental situations.
To become the best.
Yet their first day of the dramatic storms came unexpectedly.
The subtle pitter-patter of the rain crowded out all other noise within Harion against the tar-coated roofs. A faint sizzle beneath the rain could be heard, the quiet burn of the noxious water against the gravel outside. Yet this storm level was not acidic enough to disintegrate them entirely, only burning the outer layer. The ground left discolored and crumbled.
Such a restful sound.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“Everyone. Outside Now.” Takeo ordered as he pounded his fist on the first-floor wall.
A bunch of young voices clamored together at the wake-up call. Irritated by its early arrival as they peered out the shutters unable to even see past the skyline. The Sun was still at rest yet they were wide awake.
“It’s too earlyyy. The Sun’s not even uppmmMhmm.” Eiko groaned, rubbing his eyes.
Yawwwwn. “Yeah . . . But we have to.” Kono muttered between gaping yawns.
Both were too dazed to see their way to the stairs as they bumped into other children on the way down. Shoma trailed right behind them with one eye peeking back at Kiyo. A slanted gaze to make sure nothing was missed.
“What could be . . . this early?” Daisuke asked with a smack of his lips, teeth biting at the early morning chill.
Daisuke glanced out the shutters and saw nothing but a thick curtain of rain douse the camp in a grayish hue. No other guardians or students were visible through the damp curtain beside the house directly across from them. Their sister group in Harion, unknown children had filed out onto the graveled earth to stand in the rain.
To endure the torture that was life.
Kiyo just kept his attention pinned on the ground, walking one step after the other behind the person in front of him. Mind interrupted from his time to mellow his nerves. His body was put on the edge as he tried to sequester the radiance. Null the heat radiating from his body.
“Kiyo. What do you think it is?” Daisuke whispered through pursed lips.
“The rain,” Kiyo said without a second thought.
Daisuke did a double take from the gloomy scenery back to Kiyo, perplexed by the connection between their orders outside and the rain itself. Only able to gaze at it longingly as they descended the stairs.
“Is this another trial? Uh-uh-uh, a surprise fight? Oo! Maybe he’ll show us how to dodge the rain.” Daisuke pondered with a giddy smile as they inched closer to the door out into the courtyard.
“No . . . it’s a test,” Kiyo muttered with a slight smirk.
Test? How? Daisuke thought as he peered around outside, only able to see some other children standing in the rain across the open square in front of the temple.
“Of what?” Daisuke said quietly as he continued to peer outside until the window ended.
“Endurance,” Kiyo said plainly.
Endurance, endurance. End—ur—ance. Still don’t know.
One by one all the children unloaded out of the front door to the small awning in front of their house. A mix of confused and sleepy faces dotted the crowd, boys and girls at a loss for the most part why they were outside this early.
“All of you. Out, now.” Takeo said sternly as he tipped his head forward at the rain.
A couple of uneasy gazes of attention followed his motion yet refused to move, or more so, were unsure if he was serious. Stuck on the fence about his command, some were fearful of the weather while others wanted clarification.
“But, the rain—”
“That’s the reason you're up. Today is one turn.” Takeo relayed with a raise of his left pinky.
A brief silence ensued between the children. Antsy to freely step out into the acid storm, their instincts cried out against the mere thought of considering the choice. This process was as much of a mental breaker as it was a physical endurance test. Meant to prepare them for any weather that may come to pass, for taking the little bit of damage and continuing to fight.
The will of a warrior.
“Out there?” A little straight white-haired girl asked with a shaky point.
“Next time a storm arrives it’ll be two,” Takeo replied raising his left ring finger.
That was all that was said.
All the children spaced themselves out and stepped into the abrasive thrashing storm. Its scratchy touch irritated their every pore as each drop slid down their bare skin. Some kids were put into a sputter as they each used different methods to cover themselves. A few boys took off their thin-laced resting shirts to cover them, others constantly rubbed at their bodies, and some just took it hoping they could outlast the rest.
It never was meant to be one turn, this time a test run to pick out the mentally inadequate from the rest. Acid rain was only such a problem in more clustered drops as this area was bone dry for storms of this proportion. Only a minor inconvenience for the first turn, but beyond that it could become detrimental and for some fatal.
A fourth of a turn passed.
“This isn’t—that bad,” Eiko spat out, swaying side to side as he tried to dodge a few drops.
“Yeah. Just a little—” Daisuke paused as a drop plopped right into his ear. “Ahh!”
The vicious sting throbbed out across the side of his head, unable to nullify it as it swirled in deeper and deeper. Cupping his ear, Daisuke kneeled against the earth.
“Daisuke, you alright?” Kono asked amidst his own efforts to block out the rain.
“Yeah. Just—in my ear. I’m fine, promise.” Daisuke said painfully as he clutched at his right ear.
“Oh come on, it’s just a little pain. Think of how our ancestors–” Eiko’s voice dropped dead as a couple of drops landed right in his mouth. Instant karma.
The level of pain skyrocketed from zero to sixty and sent Eiko into a frenzy as the shock coiled around his tongue.
“Naaaaah!” Eiko wailed as he darted toward the house.
“Ehh, I beat him, that should be enough,” Kono snickered jokingly as he followed Eiko to the house.
Little by little, the acid ate away at the children. Many were forced to dive for safety back into their homestead, sidelined beside Takeo in pure silence. Their early arrival was a sheer disappointment, but their Teacher’s focus remained locked onto the very souls able to endure the perilous wet onslaught. Those with the willpower to numb the pain, to see past it toward the dim ray of light ahead. Souls laced with potential.
Half a turn passed. Ten kids remained including Kiyo, Shoma, Monterio, Daisuke, and Isao. Three girls and two other boys were alongside them, waiting for the time to tick away, for this test to come to an end. An antsy pitter-patter of feet and shaky fists brimmed the sizzling atmosphere. Gasps of amazement collided with gritted sputters for survival. To outlast the others was to prove oneself standing within the hierarchy of the household. All it took to do so was to stand in the downpour a little longer.
One full turn.
“You're finished,” Takeo called out with a shallow nod.
At the sound of his voice, everyone darted toward the house, not taking a second to look back at the misery that laced the muddied earth. Feet dirty and flesh brittle, they all escaped the rain and took refuge under the overhang of the household. All except three.
Daisuke looked back once he reached the awning, eyes broadened by the sight of Kiyo, Shoma, and Monterio all divided beneath the drizzling rain. Speechless, a flurry of words fluttered to his mouth, all falling flat by admiration for his fellow brethren. Fists raised to his chest, Daisuke clamped his mouth shut and narrowed his gaze on Kiyo.
You can beat them. I know you can.
One and a half turns passed.
Their pale skin had become flayed, and pores opened wide by the gruesome drops from a storm that showed no interest in stopping. Clothes became tattered and stained by splotches of blood that dotted their ragged flesh. But one had reached his current limitations to the outward eye. Shoma. He shook off the fresh dew from his brow and slowly retreated to the rest of the group. Yet it wasn’t out of pain but an understanding of what was between the two left. A feud thicker than the blood boiling in their veins. One of life and death.
“This is too much of a bother. . .both of you,” Shoma muttered.
Tolerance dwindled between the children. Kiyo was used to the pain as he embraced the rain, gaze cast upward into the clustered skies. Monterio clung onto what strength remained, fingers quivering as he gritted his teeth. His skin crawled with discomfort as it raced to mend itself. Sporadic streaks of blood ran down his arm and dripped off his fingertips. He could only push himself for so long.
Kiyo, just a little longer! Daisuke celebrated in thought, able to take notice of the shivers enveloping Monterio’s body.
The longer the duel went on the more sets of eyes became pinned on the boys from across the city. Interest dug into the event sprawled out before them. Now more than just a simple endurance test, a battle for respect amongst their peers. From Takeo.
Two turns passed. Monterio couldn’t take it any longer, one stray drop into a festering gash in his arm was enough motivation to rethink this battle. Was it really worth it to win?
“Tch. I’ve seen enough.” Monterio raised his arms over his head and dashed toward the household. Left panting for fresh air as his body bled, Monterio could only look back in disdain. Lost for a reason why he lost, why Kiyo was so strong, why their resilience at face value should be side by side. But that wasn’t true, a lie Monterio found himself quick to believe. This boy, Kiyo, was something else. His determination was unlike any other. It was unnatural, and emotional.
Three turns and Kiyo continued to stand there in the rain, to let it pick away at his skin.
No one said a word as they watched. His head hung down peering into the rubble beneath him as the rain nipped at the tarnished bits of ash rock. Bits of his white hair stained scarlet as blood drizzled from his worn scalp. His arms were diced with little incisions from every raindrop that ate at his wounds. It was like watching a burn victim slowly become subdued by a fire, but it was by choice.
Kiyo didn’t make a sound. Years of enduring his torture at home, of the radiance inside him prepared his squeamish body for this torment. This was nothing. It felt. . . relaxing.
But something pricked his focus.
Picking up his gaze, Kiyo turned to face the other side of the courtyard. Stood in front of the earthen household stood another boy in the rain, one lone soul in front of his entire barracks. Obscured by the wafting drizzle, all that could be made out was a vague outline. But Kiyo could make out enough, this boy similar to himself in sorts. Fueled by something beneath the surface, they locked eyes for a split second. One look was all it took for the other boy to realize what this was; rivalry. Pearly white teeth cut through the dense raging storm, a smile that piqued Kiyo’s interest. But in the next moment, it was gone, the boy turning tail and joining his group back on dry land. Who was that boy?
Regardless, others across Harion took notice of their endurance. Takeo stared at Kiyo with a slight look of approval across his face. No present smirk creased his lips, but his eyes said it all. A strange enthusiastic intrigue wrapped around Kiyo. Mind made up on a decision he had been holding off longer than the other house head trainer.
Now assured of his decision.