“Again!” Master Qiangyi brought down his bamboo blade decisively, connecting with young Fabel’s skull, producing a sickening, crunching sound as it did. Blood trickled through the gaps in his head and streamed down his paling face; all Fabel saw now was white. His knees unconsciously buckled – hitting the sludge-like earth beneath him – as his back began to arch, glazed over eyes looking towards the heavens.
“Not again…” His Master stood above his dying body, pitifully staring at him as if he were a wounded stray, where killing him would be a favour.
“This is the last time I’m doing this boy.”
Master Qiangyi scoped his surroundings instantly, focusing on the dark hollows between the large trunks that were rooted into the ground around them, searching for an indication of any on-lookers that may be watching – or worse yet: spies. Fabel began to convulse violently, edging closer to the everlasting despair as he gasped for breath and choked on his own saliva.
“Tch. What a sorry state.” He paused a moment longer to ensure that truly no one was watching, and after a few seconds more, put his attention to his dying disciple.
“Well let’s be on with it then.”
He carefully placed his practice sword aside and kneeled above Fabel, raising one hand to the damaged components of his head. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on all the beauty of the world; the nature, trees and leaves, songbirds of the forest, sunrises and sunsets, shadows cast from light, and music cast from the winds. He thought of it all, mustering the entirety of his remaining energy into the palm of his hands, chanelling those thougths into it too and fusing them; giving the raw energy a purpose.
It was done. He opened his eyes and turned to retrieve his almost-murder weapon, not needing to look at Fabel’s condition for confirmation. He could feel it, or sense it more like. The boy was healed.
“What happened?” Fabel groggily came to his senses, – the Healing only strong enough to repair his physical condition – his eyes widening as he realised his failure.
“M – Master! I can still fight! I’ll try harder. I promise I’ll do it right next ti-”
“Enough. Please,” Qiangyi spoke quietly, cutting off the stuttering boy with an authoratative yet calm demeanour. “Boy. You are not good enough. To become a Breaker, you must qualify with this at least. Come back another time, you are still young.” Tears began to form in the heart broken boy’s eyes, as he attempted to stifle them, rubbing his arm across his face to dry himself. Qiangyi did feel regretful, the child had more passion than any other he had seen, and certainly the right attitude for his cause.
“Son. Listen.” Perhaps it was the use of the word ‘son’, or the softer approach Qiangyi took, but Fabel immediately stopped his crying and looked up at his Master adoringly, though still upset as if he were a puppy who had not been fed. “The Breakers have a duty. We must fulfill it.” Each word was spoken precisely and was going through careful contemplation in his mind, “The Black Mountains. We will tear them down. No. We will break them.” His emotions flared momentarily and he was forced to compose himself to set an example, “But. We can’t recruit just anyone. We need the help. But I won’t let a helpless child die on a battlefield if I can prevent it. I am a General. I understand sacrifice all too well. However, I am not ruthless. If I devalue the price of a life, then how will I face my enemies? You cannot face your enemies son, if you see an enemy in your reflection. Remember that.”
“If I don’t succeed now Master. Then what will I see in my reflection?” The boy spoke to the ground, anger welling up inside of him, trembling to keep his cool, “A useless child who couldn’t do anything meaningful in his life? An arrogant brat who hated everyone for being too weak to protect his family, but didn’t do anything himself? What am I then!?” More tears formed, but there was fury and defiance in his voice now.
“That wasn’t your fault Fabel. The Hirud -”
“But I watched them do it!” His voice echoed loud in the forest clearing, killing the peaceful atmosphere it had prior. “I hid… I bloody hid! They killed my mum.. And dad.. They, just cleaved through them.” His voice began to whimper as he relived his past. A look of pure horror engulfed his face, contorting it into an ugly shape, “Then they. Then they took my sister. And they asked her where I was.. They were looking for me! Why would they look for a weakling like me!?” He cried openly, more than Qiangyi had ever seen him do so before. The wounds were deep and still fresh. But, Qiangyi had never heard this before, the information was new: what did the Hirudoian Empire want with this scrawny little boy?
“She wouldn’t tell them!” He screamed, slamming his fists into the ground repeatedly. “I watched it Master.. I am a coward. Weak. But without this, I am nothing!”
The words rung deep in Qiangyi, tugging at his heart, resonating within his hardened soul.
“Do you mean to say that you will give your life to the cause? Are you willing to prove that?”
“I’ve no energy left to Heal you. Pick up your practice sword. I will attempt to teach you once more, from the first drill to the last. Then we will spar. Another hit like that, and you will die. There will be nothing I can do about it then, no coming back. Survive for the minute, and you will pass the assessment.” Everything was said in a matter-of-fact tone, it was black or white, live or die.
“Master?” Fabel was stunned into silence, eyes now swollen from his episode.
“Show me your spirit and fight!”
Without any more warning he swung the makeshift blade at the unsuspecting Fabel. Instinct, however, saved the boy this time, as he darted out of the way, rolled to the floor and scooped up his own blade in one movement.
“Good! Expect the unexpected! Surprise is for the weak! Nothing must catch you off guard!” At the exact end of his last word, Qiangyi drew three hidden blades from his sleeves and threw them with might, one after another from a long distance. Fabel was quick on the uptake, side stepping the first two by a razor thin margin and barely parrying the final one with a missed swing, deflected by the grip of his blade.
“Your opponent is not only a sword fighter. He is a killer. Killers kill. There are no rules! You put your life against theirs!” Qiangyi rushed forwards and entered within striking range of Fabel within a few long but swift strides.
“The opponent will not wait for you to recover! It is never just one attack!” The boy courageously took a swing, lacking the intent to kill that was required, which was ducked under easily by the Master, countered with an upward swing of his own.
Wood hit wood; he blocked it. Although the reverbration from the shock of impact tore the grip from his hand, and Fabel’s blade flew metres away from him. The blow sent him flying through the air as well, ending with a harsh thud as he inevitably came back down to earth.
“It was a good block. But your power is lacking. It is not enough.” Qiangyi stepped towards the boy solemnly, he had made the oath and would keep it. His footsteps were slow, but his resolve was clear and solid.
“You had spirit child. But this is the end.” He raised the bamboo, and looked into the eyes of his would-be soldier. Eyes that were still determined?
He brought the weapon down, when suddenly a flash of red light obscured his vision, bright and blinding. Gone in an instant; and so was Fabel. Qiangyi could still sense him though. Behind? He spun with a swing, pre-empting an attack of some sort but nothing came. What was visible, on the other hand, had Qiangyi baffled. Fabel stood at the other end of the clearing, more than fifty yards away. A distance, that was impossible to cover in that timeframe.
“Son.. What did you do?”
“I – I just rolled Master.”
“That was no mere roll… That, was a Talent.” Both the Master and disciple stood there dumbfounded, wondering what on earth had just happened. As Fabel checked over his own body to see if there were any signs of damage from what had just occurred, Qiangyi wacthed him, now seeing that there may be more to the boy than he initially thought. Was this why the Empire wanted him? What Talent was that? Those were questions for later however and as for now, the only thing that mattered was the time.
“One minute has passed.” Qiangyi raised one hand to his chest in a proper salute, “You pass. Welcome to the Breakers boy.”