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Illyris - Part I (Chapters 1-4)

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avatar Chiaroscuro
Level 50 : Grandmaster Ladybug
Here, I present an old(er) story of mine, which I've gone back and edited/rewritten. I'll be posting the story in chapters as soon as I finish with them. This is only the first four chapters, because PMC's blog format only allows so many words.


Chapter I
A cold, gray, expanse greeted my eyes as I stared wistfully out of the window. It was one of those cloudy but rainless days, the ones that always felt like a waste. The thick, rolling clouds had blocked the sun for a few days now, and it’d been really starting to get on my nerves.

The clanging of hammers on metal behind me did nothing to alleviate my frustration. I was forced to listen as metal rods were rhythmically beaten into various shapes. A lamp post, maybe, or an axe head for our local logger. In any case, it wasn’t anything I was interested in.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of small plumes of metal shavings being tossed up from the ground as someone approached me. I looked up to see the soot-covered face of my father.

“What are you doing up there on the window ledge?” he asked. “Come and watch us work, you’re almost due to begin your apprenticeship and this’ll give you a tremendous head start.” He beckoned toward the brightly-lit blast furnaces.

I shook my head. “I just…I don’t know if I’m cut out for this,” I said hesitantly.

A frown descended over my father’s face. “Think about your future, Illyris. Your brother is depending on you. He’ll need some really well-trained smiths to work for him when he takes over the business.”

I nodded my head slowly, unconvinced. It was the most, and least, that I could do without getting yelled at. My father stood still where he was for a few seconds before letting out a huge sigh. “Illyris,” he started, softly. “You know that your archery won’t come to anything. It’s good to have it as a hobby, but you need to start thinking about your future now.”

I continued to sit in silence. Defeated, he retreated back into the shop.

Slowly, surely, I got up from my perch on the windowsill. I couldn’t sit there forever and waste the day away, and my father was clever enough to know that. I strolled over to the anvils, where my brother was pounding down a batch of small, triangular objects.

“What are you making?” I asked inquisitively. As much as I didn’t care about smithing as a process, I made an exception for my brother, who had been there supporting me for as long as I could remember.

He looked up and grinned. “Here,” he said, passing one to me from his pile of already-completed work.

It was a long, thin arrowhead, blackened by the forging process. I turned it over in my hands, marveling at how the light danced through the ridges that marked the strikes of the hammer.

“You can keep it,” he said. I smiled, closing my fist around the slightly warm metal.
I couldn’t help but think that archery was my one true passion in life. Smithing didn’t capture my attention, inspire me, captivate me the same way that an expertly crafted bow and a quiver full of arrows did. I could live without ever seeing a steel billet again. But without archery, I would have nothing.

That night, dinner was especially tense. I ate my stew in complete silence, not even looking up at the rest of the family. After what seemed like an eternity, my father finally broke the silence.

“Illyris,” he said lightly, then more firmly after I didn’t react. “Illyris.” I looked up. There was no use in trying to ignore him any longer.

“Tomorrow, Illyris, I want you with me in the shop and I want you to actually watch me and not sit on that windowsill of yours, got it? You need to learn the trade.” My mother nodded in agreement.

“We don’t want you to waste your time outside shooting your bow anymore. At this point, with your apprenticeship so close, it’s just something you’ll have to drop. You need to think about getting experience smithing so that you can apprentice in a good workshop. You’ll need it in the future to make money to support us when we’re old,” she said.

I didn’t want to be a blacksmith. To me, it seemed so boring and tedious, always beating metal to create object after object…all to what end? Just to make another? I couldn’t bring myself to waste my life on something that I had no drive to do.

After dinner, I went up to my room soundlessly. I pulled open the doors of my wardrobe and rummaged through the back until I’d found what I was looking for. My fingers wrapped themselves around the supple wood limb, tracing the length of the instrument down to the grooved, leather-wrapped handle.

I pulled the bow out of the back of my wardrobe and examined it in the dull glow of the lantern light. The varnished wood reflected the light in beautiful swirling patterns that danced up and down the length of the bow.

Setting it down on the floor and bracing it against my foot, I pulled the string taut and slipped it into the string notch, feeling the resistance of the wood as it tightened.

I easily pulled the string back to my ear. It was an old bow, and by now I’d all but completely grown out of it. I’d originally planned on scraping together enough funds to purchase another one, but that plan had pretty much gone down the drain. After miming aiming, I gently brought the string back to its resting position. I didn’t want to put too much stress on the bow when it wasn’t in use.

The door to the room suddenly clicked open. Panicking, I whipped around, trying to hide the silhouette of my bow behind my body. Luckily, the figure in the doorway was only my brother.

“Hey Illy,” he said quietly, beckoning me over. I quickly unstrung my bow and stuffed it back into my wardrobe before looking back over at my brother. In that time, he’d pulled a couple of circular objects out of his bag.

“Here, have these. I used some of my leftover money to buy these for you,” he said, presenting the objects. I grabbed one and nearly dropped it. It was heavier than it looked. The dim light from the lantern didn’t shine enough light to this side of the room, so I brought the objects where I could see them.

The concentric rings of color gave me all the information about them that I needed. I felt a smile appear on my face.

“Do you like them?” my brother asked.

I was speechless. The only thing I could do was look up and nod excitedly.

He pulled me in closer. “Mom and dad won’t let you go out during the day to go shooting, but you can use these at night when they’re asleep.”

I stood there for a while, perplexed. “How am I going to see the targets?”

My brother shrugged. “You’ll just have to make do with what you have,” he started hesitantly. “I guess maybe you can use the moonlight? I know it’s not very good but it’s something at least.”

That wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear but I knew that it was inevitably the answer I was going to get. Nevertheless, I gave my brother a big hug. He was the only one that really understood me.

“I’m gonna go try them out tonight,” I said, turning toward the door. I felt my brother’s strong grasp on my arm stopping me.

“Wait, mom and dad haven’t gone to bed yet,” he hissed.

I nodded. “It’s okay,” I replied. “Their bedroom is downstairs. I can just wait for them at the top of the stairs.” Giddy with excitement, I went back to my wardrobe and pulled the bow out, stringing it again. My brother gave me a gesture of approval and smiled as he climbed into his bed. I quickly blew the lantern out and crept into the hallways as quietly as I could.

My brother had been right. My parents were still downstairs talking. I sat down behind the railing at the top of the staircase and tried my hardest to hear what they were talking about.

“…just wasting so much time. I keep trying to tell her, but she won’t listen. We need her to be able to support us when we’re old…coming sooner than we think…” That was my mother’s voice. I’d heard her say that so many times now.

“…I keep telling her that she needs to watch more…we can’t let…run out shop alone…back problems…” I strained my ears to catch the words I was missing, but the light clinking sounds of dishes stopped me from discerning everything. Still, I’d gotten all that I needed to hear. It seemed that the only thing my father was ever concerned about was the family shop. Sure, it gave us money. But everything my brother and I were expected to do revolved around being able to run the shop when my parents got too old.

It was a fine fate for my brother, who actually liked smithing. But for me, I had broader horizons to attend to.

My parents spent the rest of the night in silence tidying up all the leftover bowls and utensils from dinner. It was so quiet that I’d almost fallen asleep where I was sitting. I jolted with a start when I finally realized that the lights downstairs had been extinguished.

I stood up silently and headed down the stairs, taking extra care not to step on the creaky spots. I’d already been caught once sneaking down the stairs several years back, and I had no intentions of doing so again. My fingers danced along the banister, feeling around for the distinctive curl that marked the bottom of the stairs.

Whereas the top floor had been adequately serviced by windows letting in the light from the full moon, the bottom floor was woefully lacking in this department. I resorted to feeling around with my arms outstretched, making sure to go slowly so that I wouldn’t crash into anything. Eventually, I made my way to the front door.

The feeling of slightly damp grass beneath my bare feet made me release a pent-up breath that I didn’t even know I’d been holding. The crisp night air was a relief to my lungs, even if it was a colder than I’d expected. Either way, I didn’t want to spend the time to grab warmer clothes.

Our house was practically at the edge of town, so I wouldn’t have to walk far to find a suitable lightly-wooded area. There were a couple of ranches scattered around the area, and I would have to be careful not to hit anyone’s animals. Not that I was such a wildly inaccurate shot; it was simply more convenient to avoid paying for property damage.

Beyond the cow fields and sparse woods lay a larger, denser forest. I might have preferred to go there, but now it was pitch black. I’d also heard stories about scary occurrences deep in the forest. I told people that I didn’t believe them, but that was only half true.

Nonetheless, I found a small grove that was open enough for the moonlight to illuminate my targets. I hung the targets on the smaller branches, then stepped back as far as I dared.

The slight click of the arrow nocking onto the bowstring was immensely satisfying. As I pulled the bow up and drew the string back, I felt a sort of calm descend over me, something I hadn’t felt in a long time. I looked down the sights of the bow, straining to see where I’d put the targets. Finally, I let go.

The arrow whizzed through the air, landing with a firm thunk about two feet below the target. The lighting made it hard to judge distances accurately.

Unfazed, I pulled another arrow out of the quiver and tried again, aiming slightly higher. Another whoosh from the arrow, but this time a clack as it grazed the bottom of the target, causing it to swing back and forth wildly. Still no hit.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, preparing mentally. I hadn’t gone shooting in a long time, and my lack of practice was showing. I pulled the bow up a third time. Steeling myself, I drew the arrow back and let fly. Thwap!

The hanging target oscillated with a definite resolve, the arrow sticking out like a triumphant badge of achievement. It wasn’t a perfect shot, by any means. But if it hadn’t been the middle of the night, I would’ve screamed out in joy.

It was extremely tedious to collect missed shots in the underbrush, so I was incredibly relieved once I began hitting the targets more often. I remained there, firing shot after shot, emptying and refilling my quiver, caught in my own blissful world.

It was sometime much later that I became acutely aware of the setting moon. I was lucky to have come to my senses earlier rather than later; my parents were always early risers, and to get home after they’d already woken up would be a difficult conversation.
After collecting all my targets, I trudged back to my house, adrenaline rushing. I quietly made my way through the door, up the stairs, and back in my room. My brother was still fast asleep. I lied down on my bed and closed my eyes, but my heart was beating too fast to let me sleep. It wasn’t until I’d calmed down much later that I slowly drifted off into a light, restless sleep.

I opened my eyes slowly, realizing how tired I was. Bright light streamed through the window, which meant that it was already at least late morning. I felt someone shaking me. As I struggled to get my bearing, the image in front of me focused enough to show my brother excitedly grabbing at my shoulder.

“What is it?” I asked incoherently.

He responded with a smile. “Here, read it!” he exclaimed, thrusting a piece of paper into my hands.

I shook my head. “Lemme sleep some more,” I said, turning over.

“No no no read it now!” he insisted, grabbing me and turning me back toward him. I looked down at the sheet of paper. “Archery contest…” I read halfheartedly. I nodded and closed my eyes again. I felt another shake on my shoulder.

“No, read the whole thing!”

I shook my head again. “Piss off, I’m tired,” I whined.

“Just do it, Illy! You’ll be super excited!” Tired of fighting back, I finally opened my eyes and say up in my bed. “Archery contest…” I started again.
“…for admission into the Academy.”

Chapter II
Every old place has a legend about its origin, a creation myth so to speak. Ironthorne Academy was no different.

It was said that the tables in the Ironthorne dining hall were made from the wood of the original grove of ironthorn trees that once stood where the school is now. It was also said that there lies a completely sealed room under the school that contains the tomb of the first headmaster, out of which sprouted an ironthorn tree. I was more inclined to believe the former than the latter.

Ironthorne was different from all the rest of the schools in the country. While other places trained people to become ministers, lawyers, doctors, or diplomats, Ironthorne was a collegium valebat, an “adventure college”, which produced state-sponsored adventurers and explorers to bring back riches and trade deals from far-off lands. It was inevitable that graduates would go into military service during times of need, so the school functioned as much as military training as it did survival and exploring.

As one could imagine, the selection process from admittance was extremely rigorous and selective. The state never needed that many adventurers; it was not uncommon for the classes to go untaught for years at a time.

Thus, it was understandable why come the day just before the tournament, I could barely think about anything else. As I stood by my father in the shop, watching him forge-weld his umpteenth billet, I couldn’t get the anticipation out of my thoughts. What my father was doing wasn’t of concern to me, anyway.

It’d been over two months since my brother had handed me that flyer. It was still stashed in our desk, somewhere below the smithing manuals and half-finished ledgers. Since then, I hadn’t gotten around to telling my parents about my decision to compete. I was afraid of how they would react; I doubted they would be happy for me, in any case. I wondered if there was a way I could sneak out to the competition without letting them know.

It would be hard, especially considering a bow is a very conspicuous object to be carrying around. Maybe I could get away with saying that I was blowing off some steam, or just wanted to take a break.

The day seemed to drag on forever. I remembered checking the clock repeatedly, slowly counting down to the time that I could finally return home. It was excruciating, waiting for what seemed like an eternity just to see that a minute had passed. All the pounding of metal, the hot furnaces, nothing helped to quell my anxiousness.

Finally, the time had come to close up shop and head home.

I bolted home, surprising my mother with the energy with which I came back. She looked up from the food that she was stewing as soon as she heard me crashing through the door. “So, how was your day? You must’ve seen something really cool today,” she said, barely able to contain the shock in her voice.

Unable to think of anything to say, I just gave a half-assed grunt, too excited to be stopped. I dashed up to my room to gather all of the things I needed for tomorrow. Arrows would be provided at the tournament site, so I only needed my bow and all the accessories that came with using it. Additionally, I packed some dried fruit strips I’d been hoarding for this moment.

Looking through my wardrobe, I noticed an object sitting in the corner. It was a small, unfinished arrowhead, bound up with some hemp cord to make a makeshift choker. I held it close to myself, closing my eyes for a moment and taking a deep breath. The cold steel of the arrowhead was calming for my frazzled nerves. I wrapped the necklace around my neck to see if it still fit; seeing that it did, I gently placed it in my bag. It would be good luck.

That night, I could barely sleep. Half of me was nervous and the other half was excited; I was tremendously anxious to go, but I knew that I’d be facing off against some of the best archers in the region, people who’d been shooting for forever and had been training since they could even hold a bow for their opportunity to enter the Academy.

It used to be the case that Academy officials would take potential applicants from within the tightly-knit community of the military, whether that be current soldiers or the relatives of soldiers. When my parents had been children, the Academy had been reformed to be open to all that passed the initial test, which was made more rigorous to cope with the inevitably larger influx of hopefuls. While others have said that it was a welcome and democratic change to the Academy, my father always maintained that it had been a political move to accommodate a youngest child within the royal court, the members of which were unlikely to have had military service.

Either way, I wanted more than anything to get into the Academy. It was there that my best chance to free myself from blacksmithing lied. I had no intentions of going into the family business; instead, I dreamed of adventuring off in faraway lands. Follow your dreams, every always told me. But my parents said it was impossible. My dreams didn’t make any money to support them.

They were wrong about that, though. If I could get into the Academy, I was sure I could support them off the commissions for adventuring. Explorers were pretty highly valued, after all. That, of course, banked on my admittance.

It was a shame that most of the people at the Academy, as far as I heard, were self-absorbed and stuck up assholes, the kind of people who judged others by their proficiency at skills. Their single-faceted mindsets annoyed me to no end. Then again, it would be the inevitable product of raising someone to be good at only one thing for his or her entire life.

With all these thoughts endlessly running through my head, it was hard to even begin to calm myself. My heart raced at the mere thought of the tournament. Eventually, however, my fatigue overcame me and I’d finally settled down enough to fall into a restless slumber.

I woke up, dazed, confused, and disoriented.

The sun was already shining through my window. I pulled myself up with a start. Was I already too late for the tournament? My heart raced in my chest as the thought passed through my head. Luckily, a quick glance at the clock dispelled my worries. I still had plenty of time.

I leaned my head back down against my pillow. I had to take care not to fall back asleep.
Doubtful thoughts began to rush through my head as I contemplated the silence around me. What would happen if I weren’t to win? I asked myself.

Then I would be relegated to a lowly life of smithing.

And if I hadn’t trained enough? I’d only had roughly two months of real preparation time, compared to some other people who’d likely been doing this for years, decades even.
I shook my head dismissively. I couldn’t let thoughts like that come over me. Back when I was young, my mother had told me before I competed in foot races that I should always tell myself that I was prepared. That I should just try my best, and that I should always be proud of that, no matter the outcome. That had to count for something, right?

Stretching with audible strain, I slid out of bed and began getting ready. It was imperative for me to get there early so that I wouldn’t miss registration. I wasn’t sure if there was an entrant cap, but I didn’t want to take my chances.

I buttoned up my jacket, buckled my belt, and fastened my arrowhead necklace. Taking a deep breath, I was about to leave when I remembered my special leather glove. Back in the day, when I was still allowed to do archery, my mother had made it for me because we couldn’t afford a pair of bracers like the professionals used. The glove had since worn considerably, especially with my rigorous use in the last two months, but it was like a panacea for my nerves, reminding me of good days gone by. I grabbed it hastily and resumed my departure.

My mother was at the table sewing what looked like the beginnings of a shirt when I descended the stairs lightly. She looked up and noticed my baggage.

“Where are you going?” she asked, voice full of suspicion.

“I’m just going out to shoot some,” I replied as nonchalantly as I could muster.

She scowled slightly. “Didn’t I tell you to stop wasting so much time on archery? You need to be making the most of your time learning how to smith properly.”

“The shop’s closed today,” I replied meekly. “So I thought, you know…”

“You should go find some of the old books your father has over there,” she said, pointing to the dusty bookshelf lining the wall. “You should know all of that.”

“Mom…” I started, but she cut me off.

“Illyris, I don’t want to hear it. You need to be reading more.”

We both remained as we were, in a silent standoff. Neither of us wanted to budge, but it was certain that one of us would have to back down first.

“I’m just going out for a little bit,” I protested, but my mother stood firm.

“You’re not going anywhere. Grab a book and get started!” she began to raise her voice. That was always an indication that stuff was about to go down.

“I…I just need a break from all this smithing stuff,” I remarked hesitantly. I knew this was a last-ditch strategy, but it had to be tried.

She shook her head in response. “What do you mean break? You already have plenty of breaks in the evenings when you don’t do anything.”

I raised my eyebrows imperceptibly in surprise. Clearly, trying to convince her wasn’t going to get me anywhere. But nothing would stop me from going to the tournament. I pursed my lips slightly and took a long, slow blink. I’d made my decision.

Without saying another word, I continued to move toward the door. As determined as I was, I still jumped when I heard my mother’s fist slam on the table.

“Get back here right now Illyris! I told you not to go out and waste your time!” she yelled. Silently, I grabbed the doorknob and turned it.

“If you leave right now then don’t ever think about coming back!”

I stopped in my tracks. This was no empty threat, I could tell by the tone of her voice. I’d been dished this threat before, but I’d never had the gall to act on it.

In retrospect, I probably should’ve thought more about it than I did. I’d said to myself that nothing would stop me from getting to the tournament. Enraged, with my mind clouded by my ambition and hubris, I took a deep breath, pushed the door open, stepped outside, and slammed it behind me.

So, this was it.

If I didn’t win the tournament, it was over for me. It became more and more evident as I walked farther away that my mother wasn’t going to burst out of the door begging for me to come back. I now had nowhere to stay, nothing to eat, and no way to support myself. A screw-up was a commitment to a life of begging, whether that meant begging to be let back into my home or begging for basic sustenance.

I couldn’t afford to think too hard about it. I needed to build my confidence for the tournament. Looking down at the flyer in my hand, I confirmed the location of the archery range and headed in the direction resolutely.

There was already a veritable throng of people at the tournament site when I arrived there. It was evident that I’d ended up not leaving as early as I’d originally imagined. With some difficulty, I managed to find my way to the registration desk. I gently set my tournament flyer down on its smooth wooden surface.

“Here to register?” the woman at the desk asked. I nodded.

I noticed her take a quick peek at the equipment I’d brought. I was hoping to get some kind of reaction, just to see what she thought my chances were, but she simply nodded and procured some paperwork for me to fill out.

“Are you missing any items?” she asked as I was scanning through the registration information.

“What do I need?” I replied. She pointed to a section of the paper I was looking at.

I mentally checked everything off. It was simple enough, just the basics. I attempted to read through the other areas of the contract as thoroughly as I could. My heart was racing and I was beginning to get butterflies in my stomach, which made it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the words.

I hastily signed the contract and got my contestant number. Feeling only partially relieved, I strolled over to the practice range to gauge the kind of competition I’d be running up against. Immediately, I regretted my decision.

Everywhere I could see, there were people showing off. In the distance, someone was shooting at a target with his eyes closed, landing every single shot. To my left, I noticed a young boy stacking arrows right on top of his previous arrows, creating small piles of split arrow shafts to either side of the bullseye. Clearly, I was way over my head in this.

As I watched for a little while longer, I was surprised to feel a light tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see a girl, roughly the same age as I was. Her dark red-brown hair fell around her shoulders in a loose ponytail, framing a pale face with full lips, an upturned nose, and strikingly bright eyes. Her stare pierced straight through me like a thousand daggers, sifting through every one of my personal thoughts and stabbing at the depths of my soul.

“Hey! I haven’t seen you around here, who are you?” she asked in a sweet but chilling voice. I shook myself from my half-trance.

“I’m Illyris,” I said, holding out my hand in greeting. When the girl didn’t shake it, I put it down awkwardly and continued. “I’m new here, I don’t usually come out here to train.”

The girl raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Really?” she said, “Not training at the only range in town? Well, you’ll have to let me know your secrets.” There was just enough of an edge to her words to make me feel uncomfortable. I laughed it off, hoping she wouldn’t press it any further. It was already abundantly clear to me that she was one of those people.

“…So who do you come from?”

That question caught me by surprise. “Who…?” I stammered out, not quite understanding what she meant.

She nodded. “Who?” she repeated. “Like your parents. Are you a military girl or…?” She trailed off, impatient for the answer.

“I’m the blacksmith’s daughter,” I replied nonchalantly, hoping to draw attention away from it. She was clearly way too obsessed with Academy culture, indoctrinated pretty much.

My plan failed. She raised her eyebrows, first in a fleeting look of disgust before settling on surprise. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she replied in a flat monotone.

“…For what?” I asked hesitantly.

“Ah, I assumed that you were participating in the competition,” the girl quipped.

Momentarily taken aback by her brashness, I quickly regained my composure. “I am,” I said quickly. The silence that followed was definitely among the most awkward I’d ever experienced.

After what seemed like an eternity, it was the girl who broke the silence. She mumbled something lightly, as if trying to lure me into getting her to repeat it.

What the hell, why not play her game and take the bait. “What was that?” I asked.

“You’re not gonna win,” she repeated, stone-cold, deadpan.

“We’ll see about that,” I replied, with a defiant half-smile on my face. Who was she to claim that something like that? I would only the relish the moment if, no when, I won more knowing that I’d proven the girl wrong.

The girl just chuckled.

The sound of a long, low horn blared across the archery range, putting a stop to all last-minute practicing and saving me from more ridicule from the girl. I was more than glad to start heading toward the announcing platform. As I turned around to leave, though, I heard her voice calling out to me again.

“Hey, I didn’t catch your name,” she piped up, tone so cheerful I could’ve almost forgotten that she’d insulted me mere moments ago.

“I’m Illyris,” I said curtly.

“Illyris, huh?” she said, pondering. After a short pause, she simply held out her hand and spoke again, soulless, disingenuous, almost malicious:

“Good luck.”

Chapter III
The opening “ceremony” of the tournament was excruciatingly boring, as they tend to be. The longer I stood among the crowd, the more aware I became of the pain in my lower legs. I figured that at the rate the event organizer was drawling on about the storied history of the Academy, they could’ve at least had the courtesy to provide chairs for us.

Nevertheless, once the oppressively long open statements had drawn to a close, the subsequent description of the events was comparatively brief. As they should have been; though some weren’t straightforward, no amount of explaining could have made them so.

The tournament was divided into different stages, in which the competitors would accrue points to be totaled at the end of the competition. The winner would be the one who earned the most points, followed by the runner-up. Both would be offered admission into the Academy, but only the winner would receive an additional bonus, according to the organizer. He didn’t reveal what said bonus was; I, along with probably many others, felt as though he was trivializing the competition by conducting it in this manner. Nonetheless, the bonus was not unappreciated.

In the first stage, we would be tested on our pure accuracy. We would be scored on our ability to hit a total of ten targets with various difficulty levels. The nature of those difficulty levels was not explained, though I could imagine that that would likely mean increased distance or maybe moving targets. I wasn’t worried about this first challenge, and it seemed that no one else was either. After all, it was just simple target shooting, something I was sure all of us had done enough of.

The second stage marked the beginning of my apprehension about my abilities to win. It was framed to be a test of our ability to shoot on the move; we would be driven along in an open carriage through a predetermined course where we would have to hit targets along the way. It sounded simple enough. I was almost completely sure that we’d all done moving target practice, myself included. However, the difference between hitting passing birds and this stage was a big one, considering we would be the ones moving in this scenario.

The third stage was the most confusing to me. The director had mentioned that it was some sort of combination of an obstacle course and target shooting; supposedly, this was a measure of both our physical ability and our shooting speed. Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so I decided just to take it as it came.

I was left with a strong sense of uncertainty about the fourth and final stage, which was, interestingly enough, a test of “unconventional circumstances”, as the director termed it. Strangely, he was uncharacteristically silent about the actual task, only giving cryptic “clues” that made little sense. It all contributed to an inescapable trivial feeling that the director was casting over the whole event. Certainly, I imagine he was trying to introduce a lighthearted tone to a very serious competition, but it was hardly befitting of such a prestigious position.

Nonetheless, as the director sent us off with a spirited “Good luck!”, mixed emotions were running through my head. I headed off toward my assigned shooting range, which was unfortunately all the way at the other end of the complex.

As everyone slowly dispersed from the gathering spot, it became readily apparent that many of the people at the attending the competition were support staff, hired by rich families to facilitate their children’s training; in fact, the number of actual competitors was reasonably low. That gave me some hope, but whether that hope would end up translating to results was to be seen. I could only pray that my current quiet confidence would last.

As I walked, I felt watched. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I felt a piercing glare drill into me, almost probing me. I was never a superstitious type, but even I was fazed by the feeling of my luck draining away from me. There was no mistaking who it was.

Finally, and fortunately, the feeling faded once I arrived at my station. It looked to be a relatively new addition to the shooting range complex. Luckily for me, it was almost completely surrounded by dense forest. It afforded me a sense of privacy and released the pressure on me; if I couldn’t see how the others were doing, I would worry less. Out of sight, out of mind.

A competition official was already at the shooting platform waiting for me as I arrived. With a single gesture, he pointed to where I should leave my stuff. As I set down my pack, I heard the rattle of arrows as the official brandished a mostly-empty quiver.

“Ready for this?” he asked, flashing a reassuring smile.

I nodded and took a deep breath. “A little nervous,” I said, “but I’ll make it through.”

The official chuckled warmly. “That’s the spirit.”

I quickly scanned the course. It was mostly what I’d expected. There were targets set up all over the place, some out in the open, some partially concealed behind obstacles, some near, some far. I made a quick mental count.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine…

“Didn’t the director say that there were going to be ten targets?” I asked, wondering if there was some mistake in the setup.

“Yes, there are ten,” the official replied.

“I only counted nine.”

The official pointed at an errant board in the middle of the range. “That obstacle right there, you can sort of see that there’s a target behind there.”

Sure enough, as I walked over to the edge of the platform and craned my neck, I saw a sliver of the edge of the target. “How am I supposed to hit that?” I asked, confused.

He shrugged. “Can’t give you that information, competition rules.”

I exhaled slowly. I’d have to wait on figuring that one out.

“Fire when ready,” the official said, readying his binoculars. I closed my eyes and took a couple breaths to calm myself, and then pulled an arrow out of the quiver. They were long arrows, slightly longer than the ones I’d been used to using. Nonetheless, that wasn’t going to be too much of an issue.

I pulled my gloves on and secured them, opening and closing my fists to reacquaint my fingers with the worn leather. Taking a deep breath, I took one of the arrows from the quiver. I nocked it and, pinching it between my fingers, I pulled the string back to my ear.

The targets were bigger than I’d been used to, but this was not issue for me. I leveled my bow at the closest target.


Releasing it, I felt my thumb jerk slightly as I followed through with the bow. That would throw it off a bit. The arrow flew in a slightly wobbly arc through the air and planted itself firmly in the target. Close, but no bulls-eye.

I took another deep breath and steeled my nerves. I could see the official looking at the target through his binoculars out of the corner of my eye.

I snatched another arrow from the quiver and pulled up the bow, making sure that I was completely steady as I aimed at another target, the furthest one. Taking one last deep breath, I held my breath to keep myself as still as possible. Satisfied, I released the arrow.

This time, there was no twitch in my thumb. The arrow flew away from me with a familiar twang and immediately imbedded itself directly in the center of target with an authoritative steadiness. A wave of excitement passed through me as I realized how good the shot was.

That one shot was the boost of confidence that I needed. The following shots were a string of successes, each one getting bolder than the others. I felt a special sense of achievement for successfully shooting through the links of a chain-link fence; there was hardly any space separating a bullseye from total failure.

Yet, as the first nine shots rounded to a close, I was left with a dilemma: the tenth shot, hidden behind the wooden board. The gaps in between the slats of the board were too small to shoot through, and even if I could’ve made the shot, there was no direct line between the shooting platform and the bulls-eye. Stumped, and seemingly out of options, I turned to the competition official.

“Are you allowed to tell me how far away the target is from the wooden board covering it?” I asked as nicely as I could.

The official paused for a while before answering. “I suppose I can, it’s about five feet.”

I nodded. Five feet meant that it was far enough away from the board that I could hit it if I theoretically curved the arrow around the board. How I was going to do that, though, was completely beyond me.

I racked my brain for ideas. For some odd reason, I seemed to remember seeing someone on the training range curving arrows, though he was curving them up after shooting them toward the ground. As far as I could tell, his arrows were nocked higher than they would have been normally. Even though I didn’t know anything about the technique, it was worth a shot anyway.

Because the wooden board reached all the way to the ground, I would have to shoot around the target on either side. It was too difficult to shoot it up and over the board, because it was close enough that I was unsure that it would even stick at such a low power.

Sighing, I nocked the last arrow from the quiver.

I pulled the arrow off to one side, surprised at the amount of tension that that created. It probably wasn’t good for my bow, so I wanted to hold it for as short of a time as possible.

I aimed the bow to where I thought would be a good height, and let fly.

The arrow seemed to shudder in the air as I let go, flying off to the left in a wild pattern. Almost immediately, it straightened itself out, flying in a beautiful arc back around to the right behind the wooden board.

I couldn’t contain my elation about the shot. My hands shot up into the air almost in their own volition, fists pumping furiously. Adrenaline rushed through my veins. After a celebratory whoop, I looked over at the official. He simply smiled, amused.

“You’re all set,” he said. “I’ll finish up here, total up the score, and you’ll be able to see them posted over by the gathering area.” He pointed back to where our opening ceremony was.

“Thank you,” I said softly as I grabbed my stuff and began the long trek back. My initial euphoria from successfully finishing the first challenge slowly but surely turned to trepidation as I got closer to the gathering area. I’d felt good about my shots; it was impossible not to. But what if the other archers had trounced even what I felt would turn out to be an outstanding score?

While we’d been away shooting, the competition organizers had set up a scoreboard in the gathering area, which was really just a large piece of wood with attached wheels that papers could be nailed to. There weren’t any score sheets up on the board yet, but I saw a couple sheets of paper being shuffled through at the registration desk.

By now, my nerves had returned. My heart was racing in my chest and I was unsure of whether or not I was feeling faint. My palms had been sweating profusely; I was wiping them off almost constantly on my clothes. My anxiety only got worse as I saw my competition official returning with my score. I wanted to see it now.

A long, low horn sound pulled me from this quasi-trance state and refocused my attention back on the scoreboard. Papers lined the board, displaying both the name and the score of the archer. I craned my neck, looking for my name. It was difficult with people on the inside of the crowd pushing their way back out. Eventually, I found myself at the front of the rapidly diminishing crowd.

The board was much more imposing up close than it’d seemed from far away. I scanned through the papers, dreading seeing myself at the bottom of the rankings. But without difficulty, I managed to find my place in the order.


I began feeling the pressure from the moment I saw my score. Sure, third was a huge accomplishment, but it wouldn’t get me admission into the Academy. I needed to catch up, and in a major way.

Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, there was only one course set up to do the second challenge. That meant that we would each do the challenge one after the other, and the course would be reset after every run. We would be going in order of our leaderboard standings. On the one hand, I was happy that I would be going near the front so I could get this run over with; even so, I disliked that I would have to wait so long afterward to know the results.

The entrance to the course looked like it had been cut like a door out of the woods. Beyond it, I could only see a short distance of dirt path before it seemed to be swallowed up by the dense mass of trees lining it. The curved branches formed a kind of tunnel, only letting though splotches of light that danced across the rough ground.

And framed by the natural scene, lining up first to tackle the course, was her.

I realized that she’d never told me her name when we’d met. Perhaps that was an accident, she just forgot in the moment; more likely, I thought, that she’d found me too lowly to introduce herself to.

I could feel my face flushing with blood as my anger welled up inside me. Calm down, I told myself in an effort to contain myself, it’s probably nothing.

It wasn’t until she disappeared on her run that I was finally able to clear my head. I closed my eyes, taking deep breaths.

It seemed to take ages for the next person to get called up to go on his run. I hadn’t seen him earlier; perhaps he’d been watching the practice area without actually shooting, like I had. Either way, I was relieved to see him start. I was next in line, so I headed over to the waiting area with my bow in hand.

“It’ll be just a moment,” the official said as I approached.

I nodded. “How long does it usually take, this run?” I pointed into the forest.

He pursed his lips. “I’d say not much longer than a couple minutes,” he remarked. “The longer part is waiting for the arrows to be collected and the course to be reset.”

I silently nodded in response. I took another deep breath in a vain attempt to calm my increasingly frazzled nerves.

Every minute that passed was excruciating. My heart was racing in my chest, to the point that I felt like I would get a heart attack if I didn’t calm down soon. My palms were sweating like nothing else; I wasn’t one to have clammy hands normally, but now it was getting to a point that wiping them off wasn’t really helping. I was just starting to feel faint when I heard the official.

“Ready to get going?” he asked, holding out a hand to pull me up from where I was slumped against the back of a bench.

I nodded slowly, grabbing his hand. I could’ve sworn I saw a momentary flash of disgust pass over his face as he pulled me up by my moist hand.

The cart wasn’t much more than a single-person wicker basket mounted atop two large wheels. I wasn’t sure what I expected, but certainly I wasn’t anticipating that it would be as shaky as it felt when I ungracefully clambered in. I looked around the inside. There wasn’t anything besides an empty quiver of arrows. Confused, I glanced over at the official.

Coincidentally, he was depositing a handful of arrows into the quiver. “One for each target,” he said nonchalantly as he dropped them off. That wasn’t many.

The driver of the cart turned back to face me. “Ready when you are!” he shouted almost gleefully. I nodded at him.

“Let’s go!”

Chapter IV
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting out of the course, but whatever it was, there was no way in the world I would’ve been prepared for what it was actually like.

The cart shot forward with a loud clatter, pitching me back from where I was standing. I felt a stab of pain shoot through my back as my shoulder blades collided with the rim of the cart. I blinked as hard as I could to fight off the dizziness that was quickly overtaking me.

Dazed and confused, I staggered back up. The road was uneven but not too bumpy; nonetheless, the speed of the cart meant that my entire body was in an almost-constant state of vibration as we sped through the forest.

For the first time, I felt like I’d regained my senses. I clambered up to a standing position, knuckles sheet-white from gripping the handrails so hard. The verdant greens of the forest shot by at breakneck pace, accompanying the wind that was buffeting my face. I squinted to help myself concentrate. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small plate. The first target!

Panicking, I grabbed at the quiver and pulled out an arrow. It seemed to take an eternity to get the arrow nocked; I fumbled with it in my fingers, constantly missing the string. By the time I’d gotten the arrow nocked, the target was already whizzing past me.

I quickly pulled back and fired at the now rapidly disappearing target. The arrow flew in what seemed to me like a light curve, overshooting the target by an embarrassing amount. I knew sort of intuitively that this was because I was moving; learning to adjust to it in my next shots was going to be difficult, though.

Before I could get myself reoriented to the situation, I saw the flash in the corner of my eye that meant that another target was coming up. I whipped around, searching with frantic eyes for the wooden circle. I grabbed another arrow from the quiver, jostling around the rest enough to spill a couple on the floor of the cart. Not wanting to lose the fallen arrows, I snatched them up in between the other fingers of my hand.

I’d always heard stories where people thought time slowed down for them. It was a way to dramatize a situation, make an ordinary story juicy and noteworthy. A myth of storytelling, so to speak. But when I felt it for myself, it was nothing like what I’d expected.

I remembered the act. I remembered nocking the first arrow in my hand, looking up at a passing target, and pulling the string back. I remembered jerking my hand to the left just before releasing when I suddenly realized I needed to compensate for the moving cart. I remembered these things, yet I didn’t remember the experience at all. It was almost as if my mind blocked out all those things the moment I came to.

Suddenly seeing my arrow embed itself into the target was both relieving and stressful. On the one hand, I’d completed the shot. On the other, I needed to complete it so many more times.

By now, the next target was already coming up. I quickly reached for the quiver again before realizing that I already had arrows lined up in my hand. Perfect.

I can’t say I was properly oriented for the rest of the run, despite apparently landing all the rest of the shots. The run passed like some sort of trance, like that feeling of sledding down the steepest hills in the entire town. I could only judge the success of my shots by the visceral reaction my body had; luckily, the wave of euphoria that rushed over me after every successful hit didn’t seem to end.

The sort of snapping point for my trance came after I’d finished with all the targets. I thrusted my hand into the quiver, eager to snag another arrow, but there was nothing left inside. Not anticipating that, I subconsciously leaned forward, reaching my arm deeper into the quiver.

And that was when we hit a bump in the road.

Truth be told, it was more of a rut than a bump. I would learn afterward that it moved the left wheel of the cart down more than a foot. At the time, however, I was in the midst of reaching down into the quiver; as a consequence, I was off-balance when the cart dipped its wheel into the rut, pitching the vehicle into an uncontrollable spin like a wrecking ball.

I felt my shoulder slam into the front of the cart, followed by a searing pain in my other arm as it was twisted by something large. There was a huge clattering as the cart ground to a halt, shredding itself and throwing splinters everywhere. I saw dirt, then sky, then dirt, then sky as I tumbled around, unable to catch myself.

Then black.

I vaguely remembered hearing voices around me, no louder than mumbles. My eyelids felt unimaginably heavy; no matter how hard I strained, I didn’t feel like I could open my eyes.

Slowly, the voices came more into focus, just as my strength was returning. I didn’t pay attention to what they were saying, preferring instead to direct my energy toward seeing what was going on. Suddenly, my eyes flew open and the outside world shone like a lighthouse directly into my face.

“She’s awake!” a voice declared from somewhere behind me.

As my eyes focused, I saw the light blue of the sky directly above me. The rough, rocky ground dug into my back, but as I squirmed to try to adjust myself, my muscles protested with sharp stabs of pain. I let out a small squeak in discomfort.

I’d been laid down on some sort of makeshift stretcher, just a small woven pallet that did nothing more than elevate me off the ground a bit. It would’ve been more useful on a cold day.

Fighting against the pain, I pushed myself up into a sitting position. Two event officials were speaking with the girl, that girl, while another one was pushing his way through the crowd that had formed, evidently looking for someone. I took a deep breath and slowly stood up. I dusted off the dirt and grass that I had picked up during my fall. Cautiously, I took a step forward.

Luckily, the crash hadn’t affected my legs much. It was only my back that hurt tremendously. I hobbled my way over to the two officials slowly, wincing with every step.

“I saw him digging at the dirt, trying to make a big dip. I’m certain it was him!” the girl was explaining to the officials.

“You’re absolutely certain?” one official asked, raising his eyebrow.

She nodded. “I bet he was trying to sabotage this poor girl who came after him!” She looked at me sympathetically. “How are you feeling? Are you better, Illyris?”

I nodded incredulously. I was surprised that she remembered my name, but I was equally surprised and a bit annoyed that she was so clearly feigning sympathy. Even as the pain was impairing my mental capabilities, I was beginning to realize that it hadn’t actually been the second-place competitor that had messed with the course.

Still, this was a competition and if she had her way, then I would be one place closer to the top. It would be more beneficial to me to just play along.

“Better, but not my best,” I managed to croak out, perhaps a little too emphatically.

A murmur passed through the assembled crowd as the official that had gone searching came back with his prize. I didn’t recognize who he’d caught, but I knew who that person was.

“It wasn’t me!” he screamed, attempting to kick himself free. The official, a heavyset, middle-aged man, unceremoniously let go of him right in front of the other officials, letting him drop to the ground in a disorganized pile. Indignantly, he stood up and dusted himself off.

“What do you have to say about your involvement in this incident?” one of the officials asked, folding her arms across her chest menacingly.

The competitor shook his head. “It wasn’t me!”

“Is that all you have to say?” The official asked, almost threatening him.

“I was over by the scoreboards talking to some of my friends after my run. I was there the entire time until just now when I was randomly manhandled up here.” I could tell from the tone of his voice he was telling the truth.

“And how come I found you in this crowd?” his captor asked.

“Who wouldn’t you find in this crowd? After…” he trailed off, waving ambiguously in my direction, “after she crashed, everybody came over here. I was just following everyone else.”

There was a momentary silence.

“Wait, wouldn’t your friends still be at the other end of the course?” I was slightly surprised to hear the girl speak up. She had a point, though.

The competitor whipped his head around to look at the girl. “They weren’t archer friends. They just came to cheer me on.”

“Can we find them in the crowd?” one of the officials shouted into the mass of people. A murmur spread through the crowd, followed by mass shuffling. Before long, two people surfaced from the sea of people and strode into the clearing where the rest of us were.

The official turned to them, a skeptical look painted on her face. “You were with this gentleman when the incident happened?”

They looked at each other and nodded sheepishly. One of them, a diminutive, mousy twig of a boy, piped up. “We were just out by the scoreboard talking, just like he said.” He gestured toward the competitor.

“Of course they would corroborate their friend’s story! That statement doesn’t prove anything.” My newfound ally gave the boy a stare so fierce he visibly flinched. Taken aback, he bowed his head in a mixture of shame and embarrassment.

“I bet it was actually you who dug the ditch!” the other competitor practically shouted, pointing his finger at my ally with piercing directness.

Unfazed, she simply shrugged. “If I had, then it would’ve affected you, not Illyris,” she replied calmly, putting her hand down gently on my shoulder. I started to recoil slightly, but that only aggravated the pain in my back.

“But…I don’t know…you could’ve dug it with some sort of timed trap!” He was letting his desperation get to him at this point, and it wasn’t doing anything to help his argument.

My ally simply raised her eyebrows in an oh, really? look.

There was silence. Finally, one of officials gestured at the man, now defiantly glaring at my ally, to leave. “Take him out of here,” she said, offhandedly.

“But wait –”

“You’re disqualified –”

“Let me –”

“– for impeding another competitor’s run. You may take your leave,” she finished emphatically. Ultimately, though he put up quite a struggle, the competitor was unable to hold off against the strength of the official that carried him in.

Of course, I knew that it hadn’t been him that had dug the trench. Without doubt, that had been the doing of that girl, that heartless girl with the cold heart and the dead stare. But now, it had been my doing too, because now I was complicit in the act.

And so ended the saga in which I became a villain of my own story.

I was taken to the medical tent for treatment. Evidently, they hadn’t been expecting someone to fall victim to a cart crash; the moment I was escorted into the tent, the attendants rushed toward me, ready to pull out the nonexistent arrow I’d been stuck with. They seemed almost disappointed that I’d shown up with nothing more than some lingering soreness.

I could already tell that I hadn’t suffered anything more than some scratches and bruises. Listening to the event officials describing to the medical team what had happened, I realized that I’d gotten off really easily for what had happened.

After a quick checkup to make sure I was still fit to compete, I was sent back out to the field. The trek back to the waiting area was a long one; I was lost halfway in my thoughts when I was interrupted by a very familiar voice.

“You’re welcome,” she said, voice as monotone as ever.

I looked up, surprised. She stood there, unfeeling as ever, staring deep into my soul with those piercing hazel eyes.

“Excuse me?” I asked incredulously.

“I said you’re welcome.”

I nodded. “Thank you,” I said quickly. Even though she’d done me a great favor, I was still apprehensive about speaking to her for too long. Something about her demeanor was incredibly off-putting.

She held out her hand. “The name’s Raetia.”

I nodded. “You remembered mine, evidently.”

She gave a small chuckle, shrill like the sound of a bird being struck with a rock. “You underestimate my abilities.”

We walked in silence together for a bit. Finally, I gathered the courage to speak up.

“Why’d you do it?” I asked. Normally, this wouldn’t have frightened me to say, but this time, my heart was already racing in my chest and the butterflies in my stomach were nearly unbearable.

She turned her head to look at me. “Because I like you, Illyris,” she said. “If I could go to the Academy with anyone, I’d go with you.”

Despite the iciness with which she said that, I felt touched. “Why’s that?” I asked, trying to hold back the smile that was tentatively forming on my face.

“Because I know I’m better than you. If we were to go together, then I would be the top archer from this region. As for him, who knows. He might pose a threat to me, but you…” she trailed off, but the implication was clear.

So much for being heartwarming.

As we approached the waiting area, we saw the crowd of people coming back our way. “They’re probably heading back to the scoreboards. I bet they’re done,” I observed.

Raetia only gave a slight nod in response, then instantly turned heel and headed back in the direction from which we came. I followed suit, briefly breaking into a small jog to catch back up to her.

Just like the last round, the scores were not yet up when we reached the area. Just like last round, the wait for them to post the standings was excruciating, both physically and mentally. Just like last time, a long, low sound pulled me out of a trance-like state like a foghorn for a lost ship. Just like last time, I scanned the scores impatiently, dreading the worst.

But this time, I was in second.

That's the end of the first four chapters, but fret not! Head over to Part II to continue reading.

5 Update Logs

Update #5 : 06/09/2018 11:15:41 amJun 9th

Chapter V was cut off, so I moved it to its own blog. Head over to Part II to continue the story!

Also, I'm entering Illyris into Muggleworthy's contest. Wish me luck!

Comments : 4

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Wow, i just wanna say how great of a writer you are! like wow, you really are fantastic! i didn't read the whole thing but i LOVE what you have! I truly think you could be a author! your amazing!
  • striker107
  • Level 23
  • Expert Blacksmith
  • April 16, 2018, 3:24 pm
Anyone else think her bow is going to break at the worst time?
  • billoxiiboy
  • Level 43
  • Master Mlem Mlem Bat
  • April 15, 2018, 5:45 am
Hey there ohhithere1543,
Great Story!! Excellent writing style! Just finished Chapter 1. Going back for chapter 2. Wow!
  • Chiaroscuro
  • Level 50
  • Grandmaster Ladybug
  • April 15, 2018, 7:02 pm

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