Hunters

“On your guard.” Captain Dart Foranger sat ready on the saddle of his lean warhorse, staring intently at the trees at the edge of the forest clearing with left hand lightly caressing the pommel of his longsword. His ride, Rose, trotted on the spot in excited anticipation, forcing Dart to keep a strong grip on her reins.

His gruff voice resounded and was that of a general’s, commanding respect and built for authority, only serving to match his defined jaw and stern face which sported a well kempt, greying beard. Long, brown, hair parted through the middle of his creased forehead with whispers of white and greys trailing through, bounded together at his neck with a neat knot from a navy band. He boasted a rigid physique with hard, bulky arms made by the Three Divine for the swinging of greater blades surely.

His ward, the youth Reese Ailborn, nocked a stonehead arrow in his curved, oaken bow, needing only a glimpse of movement before loosing it into the hearts of his enemies. Eyes as sharp as a taloned great-bird’s and blood as hot as the Pits of Ember. His nose too resembled the beaks of the long-wings, hooked sharply at the end yet bearing nostrils that seemed to be flared at all times. His short cropped hair was red, somewhere between the flames that drove him and the blood he had spilled. As loyal as a house-dog and as rabid as a wolf, Dart had kept him close like family but could never quite whip him into strict discipline; some men could not be tamed quite as so, and the captain had thought better of trying.

The ground before them trembled beneath the heavy footsteps ahead, the thunderous noise growing louder with each step, deafening him almost as it reached the last few auburn-leaved trees before the clearing they stood in. Rose reared her front legs as a threat and neighed in retort fearlessly. Suddenly, there was silence. The calm before the storm.

“Steady now girl. Keep your wits.” He pat her long, black neck, easing her mind with a few soft spoken words. As she settled down, Captain Foranger drew his behemoth-of-battered-steel from its leather scabbard and tossed the case aside, brandishing his weapon above his head, taking the stance of RockFall.
“Show yourself demon,” Reese whispered to himself, his pale skin flushed vividly scarlet as his thirst for battle took over.

He poised himself expertly and dug his remaining arrows into the soft mud – wet from rain the night before  – below him, placing them for swift loosing through covenience of position.
“Don’t dig them all in fool! You will scarcely have moment to breathe in one spot, let alone aim.” Dart kept his eyes forward, though his attention was partially divided as he adopted the two-fold gaze. His vigilance was unparalleled.
“I can handle the beast Captain.” His ward spoke casually. Reese’s lust for the hunt and kill was glazing over his eyes leaving the pounding-through of logic a difficult task.
“You know not what I. You have never faced a great tusked cat. Keep some arrows on you. Stay on your feet, and loose only at my command.” He spoke far too bluntly, even for his liking when addressing the young ward, but it still seemed to have no lasting effect as the boy mouthed a wordless reply. Anger flared through Dart at the insolence of him.
“Ailborn! You are commanded by your Captain to follow orders! You will follow them or face the consequences!” He shouted quietly, aggression without the volume, so as not to alert the fiend in cover. The youth twisted his mouth sourly as he mumbled “understood” with huge annoyance.

Still as green as a breast suckling child. Dart watched him from the corner of his eyes a moment longer to check that his orders were being followed and then directed all of his attention in front of him once he saw that they were.

Rustle.

“Do not be deceived by its size. It may look nimble and thin, but many a good men have been crushed through, beneath a single paw. It is made dense. Some sorcery of the Wretched for sure. Pray. Pray the Trinity favours us.” Reese’s face tinged with annoyance at the words, but he managed to keep himself together. This time anyways.

Rustle.

“Duck!” A dark blur shot out of the forest ahead, ripping through the air above them as they both barely managed to hit the floor in time. The gust of wind from its speed came delayed and hit them hard as they struggled to steady their footing once more. Reese was on his feet already and spinning to face the majestic enemy circulating the other side of the clearing slowly now; step by step, paw by clawed paw.

It was unlike anything the ward had ever seen before. A great cat, with the leanest muscles he had seen, so tight that the skin around them looked ready to tear. But on the side of its menacing black furred head were two ivory horns curving forwards, the size of half its body and more in front of it. The boy was surprised momentarily, perhaps even scared for a second, but then drew a smile more sickening than the beast in front of them.

“Rose! To the sides now!” The captain regained his composure and gave his orders. The horse whinnied at the prospect of being left out but then skirted away, leaving him, his ward and the beast in the playing field. Before he could formulate a plan, Reese had nocked an arrow and released it at their adversary; one, two, three and four, in the glimpse of an eye. Thud. The sound repeated three times more as the arrows found the trees behind the target, the great cat jumping left and right and forward to avoid them with ease.

“Don’t let it get close! Watch the legs. It’s movement is obvious so a dodge should be possible, even with its speed.” It snarled horribly, an ugly sound producing, loud and obnoxious. I’ll need to be fast. Pin point accurate.

“Boy! Can you lead him to me?” Dart voiced above the hideous noises the beast made.
“What do you mean?” Reese was irritated clearly, due to the fact that his arrows would not reach it.
“I mean can you force it to me?” A curved smile took hold of Reese’s face.
“Of course captain. What do you take me for?”

He grinned almost humanly at his captain though Dart had already entered his own zone. The ThunderStrike was no move of folly. Calm flooded over him as he closed his eyes, blocking them out to enhance his other, stronger senses.

Meanwhile Reese edged closer to the arrows he placed earlier and cautiously picked them up, holding ten arrows between the fingers of his right hand now. He had to wait for his captain to give the order whilst staring death in its face, as it strolled towards him. The distance was closing faster than he had anticipated and Reese nocked an arrow for defence, what pitiful defence it was. “Come on old man!” Reese thought anxiously. A little close for comfort now, it rocked the ground with each step, its small frame betraying its weight. The great-tusked-cat’s horns went past either side of Reese, brushing past his cheeks, its face edging ever closer. He could feel the stench of its boiling breath, burning his skin almost as its face reached a handspan away from his own.
“Hello friend.” The ward smiled.

“NOW!” The orders had arrived. The beast’s legs twitched and Reese jumped high, his booted feet missing the crushing stampede by an inch as the fiend launched itself at where he stood moments ago. He spun beautifully in the air, his overcloak flapping theatrically in the wind. The arrows rained down on the beast, each one systematically shot, laying down a path for it. A trap. As the tenth arrow hit true, Reese landed on the ground with a self pleased smirk.
The beast had dodged them all, straight into the path of the captain, at a momentum it could not stop in time. Swish. The sword was brought down and the beast lay in two perfect halves, either side of Dart. The sound of the cleave came seconds after.

Dart opened his eyes slowly and called for Rose, who trot back to him happily enough, a little annoyed still.
“Good work Reese. You’ve been practicing. A bowman for the Divine perhaps?” The ward stayed quiet and retrieved his arrows in a trance like manner: it took him time to leave the thrill of battle, more so than normal men.

Three more hours on this shift. The forests have been full of all sorts lately. I must let the king know.

Harris

The Drill

“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?”
“M-Master?”
“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.”