Trial by Fire

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King’s Folly

Week one was purely conditioning. It is believed that in order to train for combat, the mind, body, and spirit must be balanced. If not, you are just another soldier, meat fodder, a puppet. Onyx and Nike’s guardians were not out to create dutiful drones. They weren’t concerned with instant obedience to orders. Their mission was clear: prepare the gifted to lead the next generation. Hone their strengths, translate weakness into growth. It wouldn’t be easy.

It took a month just to train Poppy and Xilo in their own duties as royal guardians. Denisun was strict, but the two had surely been through worse. Before they left, Tulip requested an audience with the two, alone. They met off sight, in the wilderness of the Crystal Forest. Many miles from any civilization.

They had arrived at the designated location: a burned out tree in a small clearing, 75 miles north of Kilo Castle. Tulip was nowhere to be found. Xilo beat back branches as they emerged through the brush. It was light out, the warmth shining down on the two giving them a reassuring feeling. Trees hundreds of feet tall block out most of the sun making the bark of anyone feel as brittle and cold as raw iron. Stretching their limbs out both Erodeseans scanned their surroundings.

The grass was still wet with morning dew, the ground beneath firm underfoot. In the air hung the songs of a myriad of birds, chirping amongst a war of mating and battles for food. The snorting of a boar could be heard in the distance as it ate one of the many mushroom caps that spread themselves across the forest floor. The wind, ever present, swirled, giving the clearing an eerie feeling.

The two walked towards the burnt tree eager to set their weary bodies to rest. The tree had once been grand, one of the biggest of its kind, but still much smaller than the Grand Tree in Eromosa. All that was left was an enormous stump. Flowers and a variety of insects called this niche environment their home. Poppy took a seat on one large root that protruded out of the ground motioning for Xilo to join her.

“I think I’ll walk around a bit. We’ve been moving for 75 miles, I can stop my legs, not the spirit.”

Poppy’s green eyes rolled around her sockets as Xilo went to investigate their surroundings. Poppy stretched her legs out, her bark creaking as the stress of the journey finally set in. She grabbed two flowers from nearby plucking them from the moist stump. Slowly, the once vibrant flowers decayed until there was nothing but dust. She only needed a bit of energy and would not overdo it. She plucked a few more and once her needs were met she stopped and looked up towards the sky. Cooped up in Kilo Castle, they were unable to observe the beauty of the outdoors for too long. The hike took another three days, all of which included no access to the sky. Poppy thought to herself how ironic it was that she has spent her life in nature and yet always felt as if she was in a box. She remarked on how scary it must be to be human, with their cities made of steel and stone. She shuddered as she thought of it.

Xilo was nervous. During the entire trek, she kept thinking: why? Why was Tulip making them come all the way out here? Was it a test? She shook her head as she tripped over a rogue vine. It couldn't be a test, this was light, especially for career soldiers. Xilo made sure that she was within ear and eyeshot of Poppy. She would not let herself become prey to an ambush, or at the very least they could see one coming. She always kept a focus of energy on Poppy, if it was upset in the slightest she would know.

After some time had passed, Xilo joined Poppy by the root. Poppy had been singing a song, her voice a smooth melody in the wind. Xilo smiled as she sat down and chimed in as well, though her voice was not so easy on the ears. Regardless, Poppy carried on, her pink eyes staring at the face of her partner. As they sang, the spirit of the forest shifted as the two vampires let energy loose into the wind. The birds who were once maddeningly chirping now made low humming noises in their throats. For a moment, time ceased and all there was was birdsong, the dance of the wind, and the company of two. As their song came to a close, Xilo leaned in close to Poppy and spoke in a low whisper.

“I will never get tired of your singing.”

Poppy giggled while putting a hand behind Xilo’s neck pushing her closer. Her lips to her ear, Poppy whispered, “If only you didn’t sing back.” Xilo playfully pushed Poppy and despite the gentle push she slid backwards toppling over the root she was sitting on. As she was falling, Xilo tried her best to grab her but only ended up scrambling to find her balance as she fell as well.

On top of her, Xilo stared deep into Poppy’s eyes. Not wasting a moment they kissed each other, soft plush lips met each other with passion. With two hands on her head Xilo kissed her deeper, their tongues gently danced as they caressed. Then, Poppy suddenly froze up, which prompted Xilo to stop, her hands on either side of Poppy’s head.

“What? Why are you alw-”

Then Poppy pointed upwards as the lithe figure of Tulip slowly walking towards the two. Xilo shot upwards, immediately apologizing to the princess. Poppy dusted herself off and stood at attention next to Xilo. Tulip waved for Xilo to be quiet and sat in the grass nearby.

“Relax. Sit down.”

The pair sat, eagerly eyeing the princess. Since she had come back to Kilo, Tulip had never changed back to her benign form. She was still the towering nightmare that unnerved any who talked to her. Her energy was playful, yet dangerous and unreadable. Today, it seemed she was in a good mood. She smiled as she spoke, the grin reaching just too far across her face.

“That’s the second time I’ve caught my new royals in forbidden romance. You two are really bound by the spirit, as Denisun says.”

Xilo stayed emotionless and silent, trying not to display any weakness that the princess could exploit. By contrast, Poppy was looking at Tulip, studying her.

“I can sense everything. Feel your thoughts. I implore you to calm your spirits. Had I meant ill, I wouldn’t have taken you so far to do so. One of you fears the unknown, the other, resigned to their fate, why?” Tulip cocked her head to the side as she asked the question.

Xilo relaxed as she answered.

“Princess, it was my fear that there would be a small chance we would be executed here, far away from the eyes of any spies or observers. I cannot speak for Poppy, but she must be dealing with this differently.”

Poppy nodded her head.

“Yes Princess, this is true.”

Tulip’s yellow eyes brightened as she grinned and said “I had thought about that actually.”

Both Erodeseans tensed as the words dripped out of her mouth.

“Let me explain. Would you like to hear a story?” Tulip said as her bark seemed to move around her body like lava. On closer inspection, Poppy noticed that her bark was moving, but how she didn’t know. Noticing Poppy’s gaze and Xilo’s quietness, Tulip continued.

“Of course you do. Years ago, it was by chance that I happened upon your records. The heroes of Ginn, holding off hundreds of Lunu in the forest, dashing in and out causing disarray in the enemies ranks. Your first great feat together.” Tulip moved her long arms in either direction in slashing motions.

“You disregarded orders, and while the people hailed you as champions, your commander, Lord Yehts, was writing up insubordination documents. As you remember, it was at the behest of an anonymous member of my staff that you not be charged.”

Poppy and Xilo stayed silent as Tulip continued.

“In the Great Plains your unit consisting of veterans was almost completely destroyed in an ambush by humans from a neighboring tribe. Having barely survived the encounter and with your team leader killed in action you were of two of six remaining scouts. Instead of coming home and living to fight another day, you plotted revenge on your enemies. If I am correct, which I most likely am, the six of you killed three hundred…” Tulip shook her head as she spoke “three hundred women, men, and children. No one was spared. You took the bodies of your comrades back and claimed you were ambushed and that was that. Well, the truth but not the whole truth, right? There were unsubstantiated claims that some Erodeseans had eliminated an entire tribe of humans in the south, but with no evidence most chalked that up to human infighting.”

Poppy and Xilo’s eyes flickered white then went back to green.

“After your excursion in the south, you were sacked and relegated to advanced guard detail at Wenshe. That did not stop you two from getting into trouble though. The infamous ‘Demon Daughters’ broke enough bark in the taverns of Asora and Corinth to confirm any rumors of your celebrity. This isn’t to say you weren’t effective. I have read many reports regarding your cleanup of our perimeter, the forests of Wenshe are safer than they have ever been. You are fortunate that your skill, status, and station keep others from exposing your taboo relationship.”

Tulip looked to both Erodeseans squinting her eyes.

“Your time on the plains must have made you more human. Interesting.”

Tulip grabbed a mass of grass turning it to dust.

“In truth, your special circumstance makes you perfect candidates to be guardians. You add notoriety to my two prodigies. You have a name, adequate abilities, but the temperament of a human bar-bum. This is as much a chance for you to grow as it is for them.”

Tulip stood, her body an emaciated mass of moving wooden flesh. Poppy and Xilo had no idea what to think of her form. Was she just old and the forest had come to reclaim her? Does the living ecosystem inside her body serve some sort of regenerative purpose? Whatever it was, it was uncomfortable to look at. With every passing day, Tulip’s professorial facade seemed to be just a passing memory as the real ancient being was being revealed. Even though her appearance had changed dramatically, Tulip was still very much the bookworm she had always been. Her selection of guardians was evidence of that.

“Now I’ll ask you two, sixteen years of service in the Enforcers, with seven of those years as part of the scout advanced team, who was always by your side?”

Poppy and Xilo looked at each other, shaking their heads. Tulip crossed her arms then smiled. After a few seconds Poppy screamed.

“Boreit!”

Xilo shook her head “No way, he wasn’t with us at-” Poppy interrupted Xilo.

“Xilo, hold on. Remember when I tell you I’m feeling something? Something that is there but not quite there?”

Xilo’s eyes lit orange.

“No…”

Poppy nodded, both clearly spooked.

Tulip pursed her lips, then spoke.

“In the Battle of Feron Lake, you two fought to the twig. Your tenacity, your spirit and want for survival drove you far into the enemy's ranks. There, you took command of a platoon of swordsmen, their commander having been mortally wounded and their sergeant in full panic; our southern line had all but deteriorated. Fearlessly, you two launched yourselves at the enemy slashing at shields, stomping on feet, crushing their weak spots. Seeing your valor and determination, those around you rallied back into the fray. In the midst of mangled bodies and torn limbs you bored through a hole in their formation, tossing soldiers in every direction, branches, dirt, stones exploding with reckless abandon.” Tulip created an apparition showing the pair their handiwork.

“Now tell me, then, what happened?”

As Xilo went to speak a familiar feeling began creeping into her consciousness. Poppy noticed this as well and they both slowly turned around to find Boreit, his hulking figure emerging from the dirt within the stump. Flowers and small rodents ran away as he stood to full height. His eyes a calm grey, he began to speak.

“The two enforcers had rallied their allies and gained the upper hand. In full retreat, our Rema chased after the cowards, capturing as many Lunu as they could. While this was happening, Yule, a member of the Lunu’s Circle, readied a great arrow. A small outpost in Rema territory, Feron Lake was nothing to the Lunu. This was a hit, capturing the location was a bonus. Poppy and Xilo, ‘Demon Daughters’ of Wenshe. That was their target. You’d been wreaking havoc and fear across the west for years, the Circle had decided that your death was necessary.”

Boreit suddenly stopped talking then Tulip picked up the conversation.

“In the library of Osk University, days before Yule would arrive at Feron Lake, I and other ranking Circle members caught wind of your death notice. So I sent my son to investigate.”

Boreit spoke once again.

“And so I did.” Poppy and Xilo looked quickly between the two, not quite believing what was being said.

“Right as Yule released her great arrow I crashed into the tree she had been in. It made her miss, in the chaos you must have never noticed. Days later, I introduced myself as Boreit, new addition to the scouts, but I had always been there.”

With Xilo’s mouth agape in disbelief Poppy asked, “We should be dead… many times, is that right?”

Boreit nodded his head, grey eyes portraying no emotion.

“To your credit, I only had to intervene twice.”

“And, you are the princess’s son?” Xilo quickly said.

Boreit nodded yet again.

Xilo shook her head “The Calphites yo-”

Boreit finished her sentence “I was there.”

The pair took a moment before Poppy asked, “How long? How long were you shadowing us?”

Boreit moved his head, shaking the dirt off. He then walked over to one end of the stump and sat.

“My mother had assigned me to gather information on a Nami informant in our scout regiment. Rithlus was his name.”

At the mention of the informant's name, Xilo and Poppy made a face that translated into contempt. They had sheltered with the enemy, that was detestable to them.

“While I built a case on the pretender I was busy attempting to find his contact in a small lodge that housed your squad at the time. While I was there, I witnessed… unbecoming behavior of a scout enforcer?”

Xilo suppressed a laugh.

“After I was done disposing of Rithlus and exposing his contact, I had extra time. Loose ends had been singed, the objective was completed and I was to stay in the field for possible reassignment. I had the time, so I spent it building a case on you two. I studied your habits, training, and conduct. I wanted to know if I needed to intervene. Cut the infection before it gets too deep. Once I had finished my investigation I sent a courier with details to command at Wenshe for your reassignment. Weeks later, while in the field I was pulled away and assigned back to your unit with specific instructions to shadow and ‘conduct an investigation into the status of Scout Enforcers, Poppy and Xilo.’ It would be weeks until I realized that the order had come from my mother herself.”

Tulip stood up.

“Your unconventional methods are highly useful. Your courage and loyalty to each other is something that even some elderbloods haven’t mastered. Your disobedience to authority and willingness to experiment with different strategies led to a successful guerilla campaign in the west, despite leadership saying a victory would be impossible. Your nonchalant attitude and unprofessionalism both disgusts and impresses me. The taverns in Asora sing of your triumphs, those in Corinth drink burnsoup to your to accomplishments. Kilo would rather you die. The paperwork on you two is a hassle, I’m sure you understand.But we need heroe and we need them alive.”

Tulip said the last words as she looked at Boreit. She leaned in closer to Poppy and Xilo looking at them both. The pair could see the insects moving around her body. A small bird, no bigger than a sapling's finger landed on top of her head picking at a caterpillar. In seconds, the bird was reduced to nothing but cinders. Realizing was this meant, Poppy and Xilo kept stoic.

“I did what my father could not. I will create a dynasty that spans beyond the Crystal Forest. You play my game and you will always win. Go against the grain, and I assure you, you will lose. The next few years will decide the fate of our race. The next few decades will cement our legacies. If there are no questions, Boreit will brief you on the finer details of your assignment.”

To Tulip’s surprise, Poppy raised her hand to eagerly ask a question.

“Yes?” She asked.

Poppy couldn’t find the words to say what she needed to, but Tulip smiled and motioned to the ground beneath the stump.

“Yes, he is down there. And no, he is not getting back up.” Tulip said as she walked away.

Boreit got down from his perch on the stump and gently put two massive hands on each of the two Erodesean’s shoulders.

“Now, let’s get to it.”
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