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Illyris - Part II (Chapters 5-8)

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avatar Chiaroscuro
Contest Judge
Level 46 : Master Ladybug
109
This is Part II of an old(er) story of mine that I've gone back and edited/rewritten. This story is divided into parts as to not be cut off by PMC's word limit. I'll be posting this story in chapters as soon as I finish with them. If you missed Part I, you can find that here.

Enjoy!

Chapter V
Curiously, it wasn’t until long after the actual cart crash that I started to feel soreness in my shoulders, especially on the right side. I didn’t know how much it would end up affecting me, but I knew that I had to power through it. My competition, my future, my entire life depended on it. I couldn’t let something as small as a sore shoulder get in the way of my destiny.

To that effect, I was rubbing my shoulder all the way to the new course. I snuck a glance over at Raetia while this was happening, expecting to see a smug look on her face as she thought her win sealed. To my surprise, she was looking back at me, concern written all over her face. She turned her head when she noticed my gaze, returning to a now-familiar resting scowl. I chalked it up to her enthusiasm to keep me in second place and thought nothing more of it.

After an awkward pause, she finally spoke up. “Shoulder hurt, eh?”

I nodded in response.

She paused again. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” I was caught off guard by that one. Out of all people, she was probably the last person I ever expected to hear an apology from.

She took a deep breath before responding. “You know, I didn’t actually mean for it to hurt you. Falling off the cart and everything, I mean.”

I raised my eyebrows. “I don’t know how you expected for the cart to run over such a large hole and not do some damage,” I said, flashing a slight smile to signal a lighthearted jest. I hoped she wouldn’t take it as accusatory, because I knew it’d sounded like that the moment I the words came out of my mouth.

Evidently, she didn’t get my signal. Her face grew slightly pained, almost wincing at my words. “No no no that’s not what I meant,” I quickly amended, holding my hands up in a joking sign of surrender.

She nodded and smiled, but I sensed that she was still feeling anxious about it. There wasn’t much I could do about it at this point, so we just continued to walk toward the course in silence.

It soon became evident that this course was going to be the farthest of them all. At first, we marched onward in neutral monotony through open meadow; next, in puzzled apprehension through long grasses; then, in bewildered hesitance through light but densely-packed woods; and finally, in understanding dejection deeper and deeper into the forest. We were slowly making out way single-file along a narrow, rutted trail practically crawling with roots and loose sticks. At some point, it was nearly impossible to keep pushing forward; suffice it to say, only us competitors were allowed past a certain point.

We took special care stepping over exposed roots and in avoiding sharp stones. Large, imperious trees enclosed our little party as we trudged our way to the starting area. It had probably rained here in the last few days; the fallen leaves underneath my feet emitted a sickening squelch every time I stepped on them, like the offal pile behind the butcher shop. I’d been pressured into going there too many times as a child; I wasn’t particularly enamored with going back there again today.

Nonetheless, or perhaps luckily, the ground underneath our feet slowly solidified and soon we were on top of a small rocky outcropping. Just on the other side of a small drop was the river, a wide and lazily-flowing affair. Perhaps its crystal-clear water was what was keeping the trees haphazardly perched on the rocky formation alive.

It was here that I got my first sight of this supposed obstacle course that we would have to traverse.


The path ahead was littered with roots, some almost as high as my waist. Large, jagged stones blocked the way forward, and at least one fallen tree had been incorporated into the course. Curiously, there were no arrows provided at the start of the course; instead, clusters of arrows stuck out of the twisty roots all along the trail.

“What the…” I heard Raetia mutter from beside me. I simply shook my head in response.

We stopped in front of the entrance to the course. Looking around, I could see that all of the other competitors were as apprehensive as I was about the course. A man was shaking his head at the back of the crowd, and I distinctly heard multiple people cursing under their breath.

It sort of dawned on me in this moment that what the director had been describing all that time ago, during orientation, was in essence just a parkour course. I pursed my lips in disappointment; I, like many of my compatriots, had expected simply a test of our archery skills. If I’d known that there would be strenuous physical activity involved, I would’ve trained for it.

Nonetheless, I wasn’t necessarily in the worst position. Even though working in the smithy was far from freerunning, beating metal into shape was a heavily physical task, and so I was no slouch in that department. Especially compared to my beefier fellow competitors, who looked like they would have more trouble navigating the agility-based course. To say that I was feeling quietly confident would be a gross exaggeration, but I could’ve been feeling worse.

I snuck a glance over at Raetia. The lack of visible emotion on her face said to me that she was unfazed about the course ahead, but her fidgeting fingers told the exact opposite story. Her eyes darted back and forth, charting what she thought would be the best way to get through the course. It would probably be smartest for me to do the same.

I craned my neck to see down the length of the obstacle course. As I scanned the layout and looked for the optimal path, I came upon the realization that the arrows weren’t randomly placed, nor were they randomly dispersed. Instead, they’d been clumped together.

That changes things, I thought to myself. Perhaps, then, I could consider those as some sort of checkpoints to restock on arrows. With that in mind, I returned to charting out my course.

“So how are you planning on tackling this one?” Raetia’s voice interrupted my thoughts. Not that there had been that much to interrupt; I’d been staring at a single downed tree for the last half minute trying to think about the best way to scale it.

I pursed my lips and shook my head. “I’m not really sure, to be honest. It doesn’t look like there’s much organization to this course.”

“You think so?” she queried.

“I mean, in the sense that there isn’t a single route. Look,” I said as I traced out a line through the course, “you could take that one, or you could go over there and still collect all the arrows you need.”

Raetia nodded. “But you’d have to be especially nimble to take some of the best routes. And I’m not necessarily the best at that…” she trailed off. Maybe she hadn’t meant it in that way, but I’d certainly been surprised by her openness at admitting that.

I gestured around us. “I don’t think any of us are that agile.” Raetia chuckled.

It was a half-lie. It was true that I didn’t believe that anyone in this crowd could easily tackle some of the harder maneuvers; nonetheless, that wouldn’t stop me from trying.

As was the case in the previous round, we would run the obstacle course in the order that we were placed. I joined Raetia in the ready area just at the start of the course. It struck me as odd, however, that there was only a tournament official monitoring the beginning and the end of the course; the other competitors were nowhere to be seen.

Confused, I turned to the official standing at the beginning of the course. “Am I not supposed to be here right now?” I asked, worrying about breaking tournament rules.

“You’re fine,” he replied in a monotone voice.

I paused for several seconds. “Then…why isn’t everyone else here?”

“We keep them separate for reasons of fairness. We don’t let them come out here until the person before them is getting ready to go,” the official stated.

“Out here from where…?” I trailed off as I looked around for some kind of building.

“If you keep going down this trail where you came from,” the official pointed to a small dirt path that wound its way out of the forest, “there’s a little waiting area that we’ve set up. You’ll have benches to sit at while you wait for everyone to finish.”

I nodded and took another glance at the obstacles in front of us before quietly approaching Raetia. The worry on her face was evident now, from her furrowed brow and almost-imperceptible frown. I stood next to her and gave her a little pat on the back.

“Good luck,” I said, quietly but sincerely.

She nodded and flashed a genuine smile. “Good luck to you too.”


It was either with surprise or with knowing inevitability that I found myself cheering on Raetia as she sprinted off the start line. She was a fairly small woman, so she took off like an arrow from a longbow, dashing almost immediately to the first cluster of arrows. She ripped those out of the tree stump they were stuck in one by one, nailing the nearest targets without breaking a sweat.

Nonetheless, it became clear not long after that she was at a distinct disadvantage for having gone first in this round. As she ventured further down the course, I could see her looking around, trying to look for alternatives for her planned route. Her movements were getting slower, and her shots were straying farther from the target centers. It was clear that she was getting tired.

I desperately wanted to help her in some way, give her directions or calm her shaking hands or at least something to get her through the course. She’d vaulted me into second place in this competition, after all, so it frustrated me that I couldn’t do anything to return the favor. I found my heart rate shooting up, as if sharing Raetia’s fatigue and anxiousness.

A smile came to my face when Raetia finally finished the course. Even from all the way at the other side of the many obstacles, I could see the relief in her body language. Her shoulders dropped, she stood up a little taller, and she stretched her arms after she’d set down her bow on a nearby hay barrier. Still, she shook her head as she walked back to the waiting area, though I thought I saw her casting a quick look at me before disappearing from view.

As the next person emerged from that same waiting area, I tried to loosen up my arms in preparation for my run. My shoulder was still bothering me slightly, but by now I’d gotten used to the dull pain and it didn’t bother me anymore. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths, trying to prevent my rapidly-increasing heart rate from spiraling out of control.

The sound of feet shuffling through the grass nearby was my cue to reopen my eyes and focus on the challenge ahead. I grasped my bow tightly in my hands and stroked its gently curving limbs. It was too small for me at this point, but it’d been serving me well throughout the competition. I took another deep breath.

“Ready to go?” the official asked from beside me.

I nodded. “I won’t ever be readier, in any case.”

“Alright, so you can go whenever you’re ready. Give me a countdown from when you go. I’ll start the clock when you begin.” His unwavering tone didn’t do much to comfort me.

I adjusted my grip on my bow and hunkered down behind the start line. I hadn’t known about this trick before seeing Raetia do it on her run, but already I could feel the extra power I could get off the line. I took one last deep breath and scanned the obstacles in front of me, more for my own mental preparation than for any practical considerations.

“Okay…” I started, “Three…two…one…go!”


I burst off the start line, pedaling my legs and swinging my arms as fast as I could muster. My entire body was clenched as I hurtled toward the first stump.

I leaned back as far as I dared to slow myself down, sliding along the dirt and grass with both my feet and my right hand. With a single swift movement, I pushed down on the ground so that I righted myself and freed my hand to grab the three arrows sticking out at me.

Remembering the lessons that I’d learned on the previous round, which by now seemed so long ago, I grabbed all three arrows in my hand and pulled them up to the bow. One, two, three arrows fired in quick succession. Thump, thump, thump, as all three arrows buried themselves deep into the painted targets.

Hearing those satisfying noises filled me with enthusiasm, but I had no time to dwell on my past victories. The adrenaline rushed through my veins as I took off full sprint ahead.

I didn’t get very far before remembering that the next obstacle was right in front of me. I launched myself upward from the ground, then planted another foot on the rock in front of me to send myself soaring toward the solitary arrow stuck in the tree branch above.

However, my obliviousness to the obstacle meant that I was a little off course from where I wanted to be. I stretched my arm out as far as it would go, barely catching the end of arrow. Knowing that I was already not lined up to the target, I planted a foot in the trunk of the tree I was quickly hurtling toward and launched myself toward the target. I craned my neck to aim properly and fired the solitary arrow in my hand.

I didn’t have time to see if it connected because I suddenly became aware that the ground was approaching my face at an alarming pace. Thinking quickly, I ducked hard and hoped it would be enough to send me into a roll once I hit the ground.

Rolling from any position is reasonably uncomfortable, but combined with rough ground and a flying start, it was almost debilitating. Nonetheless, apart from an ungraceful yelp at the moment of contact, I focused all my energy into bursting out of the roll and onwards down the length of the course.

I slingshot myself around a jagged boulder erupting from the ground and scrambled toward the fallen tree that blocked my path. I knew from watching Raetia’s run that there were two arrows stuck to the back side of the trunk; she’d had to backtrack a little when she came to the next targets without arrows in hand.

The tree was fairly thick and still had a fair amount of branch stumps attached to it. Raetia had had undue trouble getting over it, especially considering it was pretty far off the ground. To go up and over the tree and still grab the arrows in one smooth motion would have been near impossible.

Instead, I doubled down on the approach to the tree and leaned back at the last moment, hitting the ground and sliding under the trunk. I watched in shock as one branch passed right above my face with only millimeters to spare. Had I been just a little higher from the ground, I would’ve received a nasty head injury and that would’ve been the end of my day. Miraculously, none of my clothes caught on the branch stumps either and I emerged on the other side completely unscathed.

I whipped my right hand up from the ground, clasping the two arrows as I flung myself into a standing position. I quickly dispatched of the next two targets just as I fully righted myself.

By now, I was really feeling the physical effects of the obstacle course in my muscles. As my initial rush of adrenaline gradually faded, the soreness and pain in my arms, legs, and torso was really catching up to me. Every movement became screaming agony.

The next target was straightforward, simply a running shot; it was a very welcome change from the acrobatic shots I’d been pulling for the last few targets.

The last three arrows were stuck in a large root of a massive, low-hanging tree. They were like a beacon of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Finally, the end of the round was near and then I could rest my aching body.

Buoyed by this realization, I dashed forward with all my remaining strength. My entire body screamed at me as I approached the root, my arms and legs and everything burned with the heat of a thousand forges. It was exceedingly difficult to get my body to cooperate with me in any capacity.

I knew that the last target was partially obscured behind a screen of leaves from a smaller tree. If I could launch myself upward from the root, then I could get a clear shot at that target in mid-air, saving myself precious time of not having to go out of my way to approach it. I reached down for the arrows as I jammed my foot down hard on the raised root, putting all my power into getting as much air as possible.

Perhaps it was my overzealousness at the prospect of finishing the course or something else entirely, but was suddenly confronted with a thick branch scything through the air toward me. I knew that if I just allowed myself to keep flying through the air, I would hit the branch hard and probably crack several ribs either on the branch or on the way down from it.

I had to do something fast.

I kicked my feet up as hard as I could and threw my head and arms backward. I felt a sharp, searing pain tear through my legs as the backs of my knees slammed against the tree branch, wrapping my legs around it. I swung forward with the momentum I’d kept and fired at the furthest target.

Without having time to see where my arrow had gone, I managed to release my legs from the tree and drop down toward the ground. I quickly nocked another arrow from my hand and let fly at the nearest target, which was just to my left.

The jolt of pain that shot through my leg as my feet crashed into the ground was nearly enough to end my run, but I was determined at this point. I nocked and fired the last arrow, barely able to aim through the stars I was seeing.

I swung my arms as fast as I could to build up some momentum for my legs. The finish line was so close. Just a few more steps and a late slide…

The elation of finishing the course was indescribable.

Chapter VI
I lied there on the dirt and grass, limbs splayed, unmoving, breathing heavily, trying my hardest not to pass out. I was finally finished.

The world spun around slightly as I stayed on the ground, seemingly fading in and out of focus. My entire body was burning with the effort that I’d put into the course, and finally the effects of the adrenaline had fully worn off, leaving me with just my aching muscles.

Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, it was the second time that day that I’d found myself on the brink of consciousness, flat on my back, sore and broken on the ground. I hoped that I wouldn’t make a habit out of this, because it wasn’t good for my health or wellbeing.

The strain of the completing the obstacle course had also done quite a number on my already-weak shoulder, and what was before a dull pain had come back with renewed vigor. Anything that I did to alleviate the pain only seemed to aggravate it, so I decided it would be best if I just let it heal on its own.

I slowly pushed myself up from the ground, wincing in pain as my muscles stung in protest. Slowly, stabilizing myself, I hobbled toward the waiting area.

I attempted to keep my head up high and walk smoothly as I made it back in the cool, breezy shade of the waiting area. Just as the official had said, benches were scattered about in a small clearing, roughly outlining the trampled area surrounded by dense, dark forest. Sunlight filtered through the dense canopy of leaves overhead, casting flitting specks of light dancing across the faces of my competitors; some were worried, others were excited, and yet others just seemed to be worn out.

It was in this almost fantastical environment that my eyes fell on Raetia. She stared off into the distance apprehensively, as if caught in some deep thought. Her face was still slightly red from the exertion of the obstacle course, yet she herself seemed to have physically recovered from the grueling treatment. I made a motion to go sit next to her, but I stopped myself. I didn’t want to bother her, yet I knew it would seem rude if she suddenly saw me sitting across the clearing from her. She was, after all, my only “friend” here at the tournament.

I sat down quietly next to Raetia, not speaking at first. She didn’t seem to notice my presence. “Hey, Raetia?” I asked tentatively.

She looked over at me.

“How’d you think your run went?”

She sighed deeply. “I mean, you saw it, didn’t you?”

I nodded. “I didn’t think it was that bad,” I suggested.

“I got really tired toward the end,” Raetia laughed weakly, as if attempting to point out how pathetic she felt she was. I put my hand on her back and shrugged.

“So did I,” I mentioned lightly. “I think you were unlucky that you had to go first. I actually learned a lot about the course from watching you run it.”

She chuckled. “Well, that’s good for you at least.”

“You should’ve asked them to allow you to walk through the course or something. Just so you could get the same advantage that the rest of us did,” I continued.

“Not much I can do about it now,” she said passively.

“I think you did fine anyway. I don’t think you’ll need to do anything about it.”

We fell silent. The other competitors weren’t terribly talkative either, maybe saying a few words of encouragement to each other in hushed tones, and so the clearing was filled with the sounds of leaves rustling in the wind.

“Hey, how did you your run go?” Raetia spoke up finally.

“I think it was okay. I’m pretty beat up from it though. I’ll probably have some nasty bruises in next couple days,” I responded with a chuckle.

“Is your shoulder okay?” Raetia continued.

I was surprised that she was still concerned about it. “I mean, it hurt a lot when I’d just finished my run, but I think it’s getting better now. I guess using it a bunch didn’t do me any favors, did it?”

She smiled slightly. “I suppose it wouldn’t’ve.”

If there was anywhere that I would’ve wanted to wait for the rest of the competitors to finish, this would be the place. The sounds of the nearby river were extremely calming, and the gentle splashes of water running over rocks seemed to dissolve my anxiousness regarding the tournament. For perhaps one singular moment, I felt at peace.

Of all the people to disturb my blissful peace, of course it would be Raetia. I looked over with a start as I felt her tap me on the shoulder.

“Everyone’s done, it’s time to go see the scores,” she said matter-of-factly.


If I’d expected there to be some surprise once I got to the scoreboard, or some unforeseen twist that turned the entire competition on its head, then I would’ve been deeply disappointed by the scores that greeted me. Raetia and I were first and second, as we had been before, and we were miles ahead of the person in third place. Sure, I’d caught up to her substantially with my fantastic last run, but besides that it was obvious that we would be the two victors.

As such, I felt it unnecessary to continue the tournament. We could just call it a day, I could go home early, and then I could explain to my parents that I’d been accepted to the Academy, they’d be happy for me, and then life would be great. But still, for competition purposes, the tournament had to continue.

I was not the only one to notice this. While on the way to the final round, Raetia turned to me. “I guess it’ll be you and me at the Academy this time, yea?”

I smiled and nodded. “I think we’re good to go,” I said nonchalantly.

“Feels pretty good, doesn’t it?” she commented. I simply nodded again in response.

“It’s actually kind of awkward too,” she continued.

“Why’s that?” I responded, not quite understanding where she was going with this.

“I mean, look around,” she said, discreetly gesturing to all the competitors around us. “Look how everyone is avoiding us like we’re some kind of dangerous wild animal.”

She had a point. Looking around, it seemed that everyone had formed a ring around us, keeping themselves as far away from us as possible. As I focused on individuals, it seemed that they were all avoiding my gaze, purposefully looking at the ground or forward away from me.

“That’s kind of rude,” I commented offhandedly.

Raetia nodded. She had been rude at the start of the competition, too. I wanted to tell her that, to get some sort of apology from her that would at least tell me that she acknowledged how she’d treated me this morning. However, as I continued to take peeks at her face, she showed no sign of remorse or even pensiveness. That in and of itself wasn’t out of the ordinary, so I wasn’t terribly downtrodden about it anyway.

Not long after, I began to hear a murmur coming from the front of the crowd. I craned my neck to see what was going on; clearly, they had spotted something up front. The people directly in front of me had the same idea, though, and so it was nearly impossible to discern anything from the several heads waving around in front of mine.

Finally, as the excitement subsided, I finally caught a glimpse of what lay ahead.

A large tent rose gracefully from the ground in front of me, striped black and a dull green. It stretched the length of a hall, which struck me as odd; there was clearly more than enough space to accommodate all of the competitors and spectators two or three time over. As we got closer, I also noticed those same benches in the waiting area of the last round arranged in rough lines in front of the tent. What was it for then?

Thankfully, my answer came sooner rather than later. The tournament director, who had been at the head of the group, suddenly turned around and beckoned for us to gather around him.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the final round of competition, where everything is make or break!” he boomed, though no one in the crowd seemed to share his same excitement. “What you see in front of you, or rather don’t see at all, is the course for the final round!” He broke into a fit of laughter that no one in the crowd shared.

“Inside of this tent are ten targets that you will have to shoot, similarly to the first round. The major difference here is that the tent, as you can see,” the director took a moment to jog over to the tent wall and rustle the fabric, “is completely opaque, which means that the inside is dark. And because the door will be closed as you shoot, you will be competing in the dark! Any questions?” The director stood still, at the end of a dramatic gesture he’d been making throughout his last sentence.

“Are the targets in the same locations as in the first round?” someone asked from the back of the crowd.

“They are not,” the director replied emphatically.

Then, silence. Finally, after an awkwardly long pause, the director spoke up again. “Ah, before I forget. The special prize for winning, I have it here!” He brandished a sheet of paper from his pocket with a grand flourish, waving it around as if it were the winning ticket to the lottery. “A voucher for a free, brand-new bow made by the Academy bowyer!” he boomed, looking around expectantly. There was applause, certainly, but it was hardly the thunderous cheering that he was expecting.

I think we were all just tired. Tired from all the shooting, tired of the farce, tired of waiting around for a tournament result that was pretty much already set, that had pretty much already been set the moment that that guy had been dragged out of the competition. I wasn’t going to kid myself: I was tired too.

Just like the last couple rounds, we’d be going in our placement order, which meant that I was going second. This time, there was no advantage to be had in doing so; only one person was allowed in the tent at a time, which meant that I would have to both shoot correctly and adjust to the darkness in a short span of time.

As I sat outside the tent, I was feeling quietly confident about my chances. I’d been shooting in the dark for the last few months. It was the only way I could train, after all; I should be good at this, right? Yet, I also didn’t doubt my other competitors’ training either. I was sure that they’d thought of something like this. They’d trained for years, ever since they could hold a bow, after all. I shook my head to myself.

I looked at the bow in my hand. Even though I loved this bow dearly, perhaps it was time for a new one. This one was certainly a little small, that was for sure. But its worn wooden limbs had seen me through thick and thin; the bow had been a birthday present when I’d turned thirteen, a little gift from an uncle who I hadn’t seen in a long time. It’d been there to console me when my younger sister had died; it’d been there to carry me to my first win in our neighborhood shooting contest; it’d been there through a lot.

Therefore, this tournament would be a fitting sendoff for this bow, a worthy last hurrah for a tool, no a friend, that had treated me so well over the years. That was my declaration, then. I would win this tournament, if not for myself then for my trusty bow.

A light tap on my shoulder drew me out of my thoughts. I looked over to see the white-gloved hand of an official. “You’re up,” she said lightly, beckoning for me to stand up from the bench. I rose quickly and stretched a little to ready myself.

As I approached the tent, the flap opened and Raetia strode out, flinching at the harshness of the light outside. I tried to scan her face for any indication of how she did. As always, she carried the same stoically unmoving expression, hiding everything behind an unreadable wall. Despite that, as I approached, she pursed her lips and gave a slight shrug, as if to suggest her run went less than favorably. A good chance for me, then.

“How’d it go?” I asked quickly as we passed each other.

She simply shrugged in response, but that told me all that I needed to know.


The inside of the tent was darker than I was used to, even though I’d been consistently practicing my shooting under the darkness of night. At least then, the moon still cast plenty of light, or at least enough that I could clearly see where I was shooting. Here, there was nothing.

“The platform is over here,” I heard a voice call out from the darkness. I turned my head to try to see where the sound had come from, but I couldn’t seem to make anything out in the oppressive darkness. Suddenly, I felt a pair of hands grab me by my shoulder. Instinctively, I flinched, trying to free myself.

“I’m just guiding you over,” a gentle voice said, only partially allaying the nervous adrenaline that was still coursing through my veins. Despite that, I allowed myself to be pulled along, eventually feeling the ground beneath my feet turn to wood.

“Are your eyes adjusted yet, or do you need more time?” an official said from next to me.

“Not quite yet,” I replied.

“Take your time,” she said nonchalantly.

It was somewhat surprising to me that my eyes actually did end up adjusting to the pitch blackness of the tent interior, though it wasn’t by much. I was never one for darkness; I always slept with my blinds open so that I could get some moonlight in my room at night, and I never played along with the other kids when they snuck off into the deep woods under the cover of darkness. So the haunting blackness inside the tent was like a hidden horror, the representation of all of my deepest, darkest fears. It was sticky, oozing, suffocating even.

I took a deep breath to calm myself. Stop it, I told myself, don’t let your childish fears get in the way of your dreams. I was right. There was more for me to worry about than just whatever my mind felt lurked in the dark. My career, my entire life was at stake.

Finally, knowing that I wasn’t going to adjust any more to the darkness, I grabbed an arrow from the quiver and nocked it on my second attempt. “Fire when ready,” the official beside me said.

I shook out my arms to steady myself. Taking another deep breath, I pulled up my bow and drew back the arrow. There was a rough black blob that stood out from the rest of the formless background. That must be a target.

As my rhythmic breathing calmed me down, I felt my shoulders relax. I stood a little taller, felt a little more confident, aimed a little straighter.

Suddenly, there was clarity.

Almost subconsciously, I released my fingers. I felt the pull of the string as it whipped past first one arm, then the other. I heard the thwap! of the string as it snapped back into its position. I saw the arrow disappear into the dull blackness of the tent, like some angry horsefly soaring into a moonless night. And I felt powerful.

I’d never experienced a feeling like this my entire life. Not the feeling of power, because that was not uncommon in any child’s worldview. But the blur, the lapse, the complete lack of thought during the round. I only sensed what was going on, the movements of my arms and the sounds of my arrows, my perception of my surroundings. It was all a blur, some collection of snippets of sensory information that I only just barely remembered as completing the round. At first, I was firing my first arrow off into the darkness, and before I knew it, my right hand was grasping at air in the empty quiver.

“Well done,” I heard from the official beside me. I simply nodded in response, not able to find any words. My heart was pounding in my chest, my breaths quick and shallow. How I’d worked myself into this frenzy was completely beyond me.

The sunlight blinded me as I walked out of the tent, forcing me to squint in pain and stare at the ground. Still, I managed to navigate my way over the bench where Raetia was sitting.

“Hey, how was your round?” she asked, noticing as I approached.

“To be honest, I couldn’t tell you,” I replied.

“What do you mean by that? Didn’t go well for you?”

I shook my head. “I mean, I don’t really remember anything that happened. I was in this sort of…I don’t know, I guess like a trance of sorts?”

She chuckled slightly. “I’ve done that before, I think I know what you’re talking about.”

“What about you? How did your round go?” I asked.

She half nodded, half shook her head. “It was…mixed.”

Upon hearing that, I had to use all my energy to prevent a wide grin from breaking out on my face. I had a chance, then. “How so?” I prodded.

“I’d never really shot in the dark before, so my first shots were completely off. But I really made it up in the end, so I think all in all it wasn’t too bad.”

That dealt a blow to my confidence. I’d been hoping to hear that she’d done horribly, or that she thought she would lose the lead. They were silly thoughts, I know, but I’d already set my mind on getting that new bow and now I was ready to do almost anything to get it.

Even get someone disqualified from a competition.

But no, I wasn’t so despicable. After all, Raetia had been the one that’d gotten me my chance to get into the Academy, and I wasn’t going to repay that favor by turning on her. She would be beneficial to have around.

Therefore, as we headed toward the scoreboard for the final time, I was left just hoping that my performance had been good enough to vault me over Raetia in the standings.


The tournament director’s speech was long-winded, bordering on absurd. Just as he had before, he lauded the accomplishments of the Academy, and retold the long and storied traditions of the institution. We’d all heard this before and we didn’t need to hear it again.

I looked around the crowd as the director continued to drone on and on. It was an eclectic mix of people, from young teenagers to people who had clearly lived past their prime. Some still looked around with an expression of muted wonder, while others had visages hardened from years of work. Still, it was inspiring in a way to see all of these people brought together by their shared love of our sport. For a brief second, I almost forgot that we’d been competing.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon, the director finally brandished a small sheet of paper. He unfolded it and scanned it in silence, preparing his words. Even though we’d all had almost all of our energy drained by the day’s competition, we all seemed to lean forward in unison, staring intently at the director in anticipation.

Very quickly, he announced who would be accepted to the academy. There were no surprises there. Then, just as quickly, he announced the overall champion.

Raetia turned and embraced me, rocking back and forth on her feet as she seemingly tried her hardest to squeeze the life out of me. For once, the usual scowl on her face had given way to a celebratory smile. But it was now I who had reason to scowl.

Because she had won.

Chapter VII
I had a rather pressing problem at this point. Technically, I didn’t have anywhere to live.

It was only technically because although I’d been kicked out of my home, I doubted that if I returned, my parents would turn me away. Though my mother had seemed serious about her threat, it seemed too outlandish to me for her to actually act on it in such a harsh manner. Thus, I resolved to go back, to at least break the news that I was going to the Academy. Maybe then my parents would be proud of me.

The problem was twofold: first, I had to gather some of my belongings from home and take them with me to the Academy; and secondly, the Academy residences didn’t open for another week and a half, meaning that I would have to find somewhere else to stay for some time if my parents didn’t want me back in the house.

Because the tournament had pressed on for the entire day, it was already dark by the time that I returned home. As I crept up the stone steps to the doorway with trepidation and unease, I could hear yelling inside. It was my parents.

“What do you mean, she left?” my father exclaimed, incredulous.

“I mean exactly what I said,” my mother started, defending herself. “I told her, if she wanted to step out that door, that she would have to leave and never come back. And she did it, that little brat!” I’d never heard my mother so aggravated before. I couldn’t tell just by the tone of her voice whether she was angry, disappointed, or a combination of the two.

I heard my father hit his forehead with his palm. “Why would she do something so stupid? God, some people…” he trailed off, the exasperation clear in his voice. “All I wanted was someone to help support us in the future.”

His voice quietened, dejection replacing the frustration in his tone. “I’m not getting any younger, and my arm isn’t gonna get any better. Sometimes I can’t even hit the hammer for long enough anymore to get any real work done. I really needed another hand to keep us afloat…” He fell silent, seemingly on the verge of crying.

Suddenly, I heard another voice, this one much quieter. “It’s not her fault,” my brother said meekly. It was followed by another period of silence.

“I don’t get what you mean, it wasn’t her fault. She walked out on her own accord!” My mother piped up, her annoyance clear in her voice. Whenever she started to get angry, her face would flush an aggressive shade of red. I could almost imagine it now.

“Clearly, she doesn’t enjoy smithing,” my brother retorted, “so why force her to do it so often? Just let her take a break every once in a while.”

“Nonsense!” The sheer volume of my mother’s voice struck fear in my heart, which was further compounded by the deafening crack! from her fist slamming on the table. “She won’t be able to get anywhere by taking these “breaks” all the time. She needs to commit to her work, and the sooner she learns that, the more successful she’ll be.”

“That’s ridiculous! You can’t just force someone to always be doing something they don’t want to do!” My brother protested.

“That’s enough! Go upstairs to your room. You don’t understand these things.” My mother was livid. “You can’t make any money out of archery, and what we need right now is money to support our family. She can ‘take breaks’ when we have the money!”

As I heard my brother angrily stomping up the stairs, I decided that it was probably time to put an end to the drama. I raised my hand to the wooden door and knocked firmly. The inside of the house went silent. I heard light footsteps approaching the door. Then, a click as the latch was undone. Then, a small creak as the door swung open.

My mother stood in the doorway, her slight frame not even filling up three-quarters of the entrance. Even though the light from the common room silhouetted her, the diffuse outside light cast enough of a glow on her face to reveal her beet-red visage. Her face was still slightly contorted from the yelling match, like some grotesque lacquered mask in an occult ritual.

If I’d expected some sort of relieved exclamation or warm welcome back home, then I would’ve been disappointed. Instead of a hug, or any such sort of acknowledgement, all I got was an earful from my parents.

“You have a lot of nerve to come back like that,” my mother began, seething with rage but somehow managing to keep her voice down. “You can’t just waste your time like this. Look, it’s already dark!” She pointed at the sky outside. “From now on, I expect you to study your books and going with your father to the forges to help out. No more of this archery!”

She reached out for my bow, but I managed to draw back before she could grab it. “Wait…” I started, but she cut me off.

“No, Illyris, I need you to hand it over now. Your father and I are only want the best for you, and this is getting in the way. All you ever think of is what you want to do right now, and you need to think more about your future.”

Still, I refused to hand my bow over. But my mother was resolute in her convictions as well, and with a swift movement, she’d grabbed onto the arm of my bow. Instinctively, I gave an almighty tug, trying to wrench back my bow. At the same time, she pulled hard on her side, trying to take it away from me.

Snap!

She tossed her piece on the ground irreverently, like an unusable piece of scrap steel. Nonchalantly, she brushed the remaining splinters off her palm onto the broken bow arm and folded her arms across her chest. “There. Now get to your books.”

I shook my head in disbelief. I could feel the rage building up inside me, welling up like an already-full riverbed during the spring melt, threatening to destroy everything surrounding it. But I couldn’t force myself to yell, to cause a scene like that. I just wasn’t that type of person.

“I was going to say that I got into the Academy,” I said forcefully. I reached into my pack and pulled out a stack of paperwork which I’d filled out after tournament was over.

At the mention of the Academy, my father advanced from where he was in the common room and joined my mother in the doorway. “What’d you say?” he asked warily.

“I said I got into the Academy. I’m going to the Academy.”

There was a moment of complete silence in which the world seemed to stand completely still. I stood across an ideological divide from my parents, locked in an unyielding showdown where neither party wanted to give in. We stood that way for what seemed like forever, both sides trying to guess what the other was thinking. Personally, I’d hoped for a more stunned reaction from my parents, as if I had just pulled some ace out of my sleeve, but it gave me some satisfaction that my statement had stopped them in their tracks.

Finally, my father spoke up. “You’re not going to the Academy.”

My jaw practically dropped to the ground in surprise. “Why not?” I stammered.

“We need you in the shop, Illyris,” my father said sternly. “You and your brother are our future, the future of our business. We simply can’t afford to let you run off to some faraway place to shoot some arrows and call it a day. We just can’t support ourselves that way.”

“But…you said wanted the best for me,” I protested, “and the best for me is to go to the Academy.”

“No, it isn’t. You need to think about what you’re saying. Where are you going to get money to support yourself in the future?” My father was starting to get angry. I’d heard this tirade many times before, but this time I was determined not to just back down and concede.

“I can spend all the money that I get from my pay and from doing campaigns back home. You’ll have plenty to survive on,” I insisted.

But my father refused to listen. “Illyris, you’re just thinking of what you want to do. You need to understand that you can’t just live on what you want to do. There’s no such thing as following your dreams, Illyris, and I’m amazed that you haven’t learned that yet.”

I could feel my face flushing with anger. “Can’t you see I’m not happy here? I don’t even like blacksmithing, and I’m determined not to spend the rest of my life doing it. If anything, keeping me here will drive your business into the ground faster than just letting me go!” I practically half-yelled, half-cried my words out. My eyes were starting to water, and I blinked furiously to try to clear them.

“Illyris!” My father’s voice cut through the darkness of the night like a freshly forged blade through butter. Everything went silent.

“You don’t understand, dad. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me. It’s the biggest I’ll ever get,” I pleaded.

“You have only one lifetime to live and you’re not going to waste it causing mischief with a gang of elitist eggheads. You’re going to spend it doing respectable trade work.”

I needed to find some way out of this, and fast. “I’m going to the Academy,” I stated firmly. “I’ve already submitted my paperwork.” That was a lie, but I felt that I needed some sort of leverage in this argument.

“Withdraw your paperwork. We’re keeping you here. End of story,” my father replied.

That was a blow to my confidence, but I knew that I couldn’t back down. “I’m gonna take this opportunity no matter what you say.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Illyris. Go to your room right now and have a good think about your future. And don’t come back down until you’re ready to hit the books again.” My father’s voice had gotten oddly quiet, like some snake coiling up in anticipation of a strike.

By this time, I was livid. “I. Am. Not…” I started, but I was interrupted.

My father grabbed my shoulder with a vice-like grip, attempting to wrench me into the house. Thinking quickly, I twisted my shoulder out of his grip and took off at a full sprint. I felt the current of air pass by me as he tried to grab my hand but missed by mere inches. “Illyris!” I heard him yell from behind me, voice thundering like a foghorn in the night.

But at this point, there was no louder thundering than the beat of my heart in my chest. And so I ran, away from my life as a blacksmith, away from my family, away from everything I had grown up with, everything I had, everything I knew.

Into the unknown.


Despite the shortcuts I knew that I could take from my house to the town square, I was still exhausted by the time I got even close to it. I’d been running for the entire time since I left the house, and only now did I feel safe enough to slow down to a walk. I glanced around me, looking for nothing in particular. Here, in the back alleyways near the town center, there was complete silence. Finally, I began to relax.

It never really quite set in that I’d just run away from home. The more I thought about it, expecting it to suddenly hit me like a wall of bricks, the more I thought it had been inevitable. I’d never really been good enough for my parents’ standards; then again, I was never invested in the family business as much as they wanted me to be. It felt good to be free from those constraints that my parents put me in.

However, now I was faced with a bigger problem. I still had a week to go until I was to head out to the Academy, and I had neither a place to live nor any reasonable belongings past some shooting accessories and the clothes on my back. Hell, I didn’t even have a bow at this point, nor did I have any money to buy anything new.

First, though, I had to find somewhere to stay. I knew that the best inns were near the town center; I wasn’t looking for luxury, but at least I was hoping for a place that I could stay safely. Perhaps I could convince the innkeeper to let me stay in exchange for doing work around the place. My grandparents had told me that they had done such a thing when they were traveling. I was only worried that times had changed.

The first inn that I stumbled across was a modest affair, a wattle-and-daub structure whose once-bright colors had faded with age and use. Still, anything was better than my current situation, so I made for the worn doorway underneath a sign that looked like it was ready to fall off its mounting at any time.

On my first push, the door only budged a couple inches. Undeterred, I pushed harder, using my shoulder to brace myself. The door only moved a few inches at a time, push after push, until finally it swung open with an almighty creak! I tumbled to the ground unceremoniously, losing my footing as the door finally gave way.

I jumped up from the ground quickly, dusting myself off and looking around to see if anyone had caught the commotion. Luckily, no one had seen it; unluckily, it was because no one was there to see it.

It was clear that the inn hadn’t been occupied in a long time. The entire interior was shrouded in an oppressive darkness, overbearing and sinister. Chairs that were once neatly arranged around stout tables lay scattered across the floor, broken and discarded. The dusty remains of broken bottles lined the bar, the only remains of some vicious moment in time. From all the debris scattered across the room, it was clear that the room hadn’t passed peacefully; instead, some huge fight had left it in the state that it was in now.

After attempting to pick my way through the fallen debris with varying degrees of success, I finally found myself at the foot of the stairs. But despite it being shrouded in complete darkness, it was not difficult to see the giant, gaping hole that had formed from the center section caving in. Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t squat here for fear of the glass shards dusting the entire floor. I would have to find somewhere else to live, then.

The night crowd was out in full force by the time I’d finally picked my way out of the broken inn. Whereas it’d been relatively empty when I first arrived here, the streets had by now come alive with all varieties of people. Vendors were beginning to set up for the night market, hauling crates of various goods into small stalls barely big enough to fit all of their supplies. Just on the edge of the town square, minstrels were beginning their first tunes and a storyteller was attempting to gather listeners for a heroic tale.

It was in this crowd that I found myself, looking around frantically for another inn to stay in, preferably one that hadn’t been forcibly decommissioned years ago. Here and there, there were establishments that seemed respectable enough; a closer inspection, however, always revealed a mangy shopkeeper eyeing the crowd hungrily, focusing intently on passing women.

It seemed like an eternity before I finally found something close to what I’d been looking for. It was another modest building, tucked into an unassuming corner. It was in much better shape than the previous inn from the outside, and flickering lamplight streamed out of the open windows, which at least meant that this inn was inhabited.

I strode into the door confidently, hoping that my authoritativeness and self-righteousness would deter any potentially unsavory characters from making any advances. Luckily, it seems that my precautions had been unnecessary; although the first-floor tavern was not particularly crowded, there was a certain joyous air to the establishment.

Relieved, I looked around for whoever I might be able to ask for some work here. All around me, men and women alike chattered excitedly about things ranging from their workdays to the latest gossip. I was never used to such a din of human voices, having grown accustomed to the air being filled with the sounds of metal on metal.

Still, it caught me off guard to hear a single voice above the cacophony, cutting through the noise like a heated axe through animal grease.

“Illyris!”


When Part III is released, the link will be posted here.
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Update #2 : 07/11/2018 10:07:42 pmJul 11

A new chapter, packed full of that juicy drama!
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