Many hours had passed since Onyx and Nike started training, but alas, there would be no meditation tonight. The bruised and battered pair struggled to find their bearings, slipping and sliding because of fatigue. Boreit and Xilo were unrelenting. Spar session after another they tested their reflexes and durability. The Sparring Grounds was littered with cool sap clumped with dirt. Medics sat at the ready, moving in when they were needed. They looked tired, their blue eyes a testament to their energy expenditure.
Tootsie and Poppy had just arrived standing on the edge of the dirt arena by the medics. This would be the final spar session of the day and Onyx was first up. Some of his scars slowly oozed sap. He looked as if he’d been chewed, spit out, then mushed back together with saliva. Taking the center, Boreit motioned for Onyx to come forward with his hands down for a moment. Onyx stepped hesitantly, wary of any tricks that he might pull on him.
“Come, I won’t hurt you, I want you to do something for me.” Boreit said.
This was intriguing to Onyx, what did he want?
“Sir Boreit?” He sputtered through punctured lips.
Boreit rolled his shoulder with his free hand. Only slightly shorter than Onyx, he was more than his match in strength, speed, and skill. There seemed to be no limit to his energy and he was light on his feet, a trait that seemed like it would be physically impossible for his size. He was light barked, armored everywhere, and had hard rock-like features. To say he was intimidating would be an understatement. His eyes never flicked from grey and his tone was always the same.
“You will show me that power you have. I will not fight back. Your goal is to break my guard and puncture my bark. Is this clear?”
Onyx had serious reservations about tapping into his power. It seemed every time he did, someone got hurt. But, Boreit would not take silence as an answer.
“Is this clear? Your father never feared a challenge. I worry his only child lacks the metal.”
Onyx’s heart lurched at the mention of his father. Nike could sense his anger building. Xe began walking forward and was going to say something when Xilo grabbed xyr arm leading xyr away.
“You will not interfere. We will have our own dance soon.”
Everyone in the arena had vacated to a safe distance. Onyx looked around, his big red eyes darting from Boreit to everyone else.
“Young wood. It is just you and I. Had the iron been in your blood, you would have already attacked. I see no will, no fight. I see no reason other than rage, anger. What drives you? If that is all, leave my arena. I will not fight a warrior without purpose.”
Onyx grinded his teeth. Instead of unleashing his power he simply advanced on Boreit with his hands up. Boreit held guard, waiting for the punches to come. Onyx threw two to the body, two upstairs, pivoted, two more left hooks to his flank, then finished upstairs with his right and disengaged. Boreit let his guard down, disappointed.
“No iron. No fire. No purpose. The chosen can be anyone, you and your mate” Boreit pointed to Nike, “lack the will of your predecessors. Fight me! Strike me welp!” Boreit said with a surprising raise in his voice.
At the mention of Nike, Onyx’s eyes flicked from red to black then back to red. He charged Boreit, attempting to take him to the floor. Boreit stuffed the takedown, staying true to his word not to strike.
“Pathetic!” Boreit spit out as Onyx laid on the floor.
Onyx slowly got back to his feet, his wounds showing on his left side, a small amount of sap oozing out. He pounded the ground with his right hand sending shockwaves throughout the arena, then followed with the left. Boreit, puzzled by this, backed up several meters and watched intently. Onyx looked up at Boreit, his arms elbow deep in the ground.
“My parents are dead, mock them as you may. But Nike, xe is still alive.”
Onyx’s eyes went a deep black, a miasma of energy flowed through the ground consuming rock, plant, and anything else in it’s way. Boreit stood there, seemingly unfazed by the dome of death. Instead of fleeing, he put his guard up, once again ready for Onyx’s assault.
Onyx had created a forty foot crater where the sparring grounds had been. He drew his arms from the ground, his wounds completely healed as he looked over his body. Then he laughed, but it wasn’t normal. It sounded metallic and hoarse like a rusted instrument. He banged his fists together, the sound waking up hundreds of meditating Erodeseans out of their Houses. Xilo and Poppy moved fast, ordering nearby guards to set a perimeter and allow no one to pass. Tootsie and Nike looked on nervously, worried that Onyx would hurt himself once again.
Boreit never wavered. Either his bark was too thick, or the energy did not faze him. He motioned for Onyx to advance and spoke words only the two would know the meaning to.
“Come! Shape up Onyx!”
Onyx roared, got on all fours, then sprinted in Boreit’s direction. It sounded as if a battering ram had smashed a gate as they collided, bark flying in every direction. Boreit grunted as he was pushed back several feet, but still stood. Grappling, Boreit used his leverage to spin Onyx to the floor, but before he could, Onyx thrusted an arm into the ground, his sheer strength keeping him from falling. Standing, Boreit managed to get his underhooks in in an attempt to control their exchange. He tripped Onyx, throwing him down with enough force to shake the earth around them. Onyx grabbed one of Boreit’s legs with titanic force, twisting it viciously. Boreit attempted to swing his leg off by kicking it out, but couldn’t. As his grip tightened, the protective bark on Boreit’s ankle began to buckle. Onyx screamed as his own bark popped from the exertion.
Knowing that he couldn’t squeeze Boreit’s entire ankle plating, Onyx took his leg from underneath him forcing him on his back. There he transitioned to a side mount, but Boreit easily got out and faced Onyx once again. With his ankle badly damaged, Boreit couldn’t pivot. Onyx used this to his advantage, raining blows on his side, pivoting until Boreit couldn’t keep up. Two jabs to his head, then left and right hook, one more to the body, pivoted, Boreit was too slow and only managed to barely block his blows. Then, finally, Onyx tasted bark and landed a straight right to his midsection whizzing off a large section of his armor. The heavy piece of bark twisted in the air, landing with a dull thud hundreds of feet away in a crowd of onlookers. They began cheering and shouting, guards pushing them back as a stream of spectators continued to flow in.
Boreit was far from hurt. With his midplate in the crowd, he grabbed Onyx quickly to avoid any more damage. He had Onyx in a bearhug, both unable to move. Then, he spoke directly into his ear. Hearing his voice, Onyx had stopped struggling and the black energy that surrounded him had started to dissipate.
“The strength of your parents runs through you, Ironblood. I feel it in your veins, your heart, and your cold wooden spirit. I feel your parents’ death. I feel your sorrow. I feel the torture you go through everyday. I feel the scars you carve into your body. Nothing will take the pain away. You will suffer for an eternity. It is everlasting. They will stop at nothing to destroy us. The pain is your purpose. Lean into it, succumb to its embrace. Then, sleep.”
Onyx harmlessly slumped down as Boreit carefully carried his body to the floor. Medics rushed in from all sides crawling down the crater running to Onyx. They found only minor wounds and bruises and quickly carried his sleeping body out of the arena. Boreit looked down at his missing midsection plate and his mangled ankle then quietly said to himself, “Strong, frighteningly strong.”
Xilo and Nike jogged up to where Boreit was still standing. Xilo looked at his foot then asked, “Everything alright?”
Boreit nodded his head, “Everything is fine, Lady Xilo. I will now make my exit. The floor is yours.”
As Boreit left the arena, crowds outside the perimeter yelled and screamed frantically for another fight. They were in luck. Though, unbeknownst to many, save Tootsie, Boreit was healing as he left. When he did, he left little trails of grass growing in between each step. Tootsie’s eyes went white briefly, then back to green. Poppy looked over at him confused and he looked back at her scared.
“What are you looking at?”
Tootsie pointed in the direction of Boreit, but he was no longer there. The patches of grass were, but he had no way to prove that hadn’t been there in the first place. Poppy just shook her head.
“Come on, focus on the match. Let’s see how our little two-spirit handles Xilo.”
Xilo had a dull sword in one hand, as did Nike. Xe had managed to close xyr own wounds before the fight commenced, unlike Onyx who lacked the ability to do so without special means. Standing inside the crater, Xilo spoke.
“Utilize everything we have taught you. Trust your senses, use your talents.”
They bowed, took three strides backwards, then leveled their swords. The match started with Xilo lunging at incredible speed. Nike spun at the perfect moment, completely avoiding the stab while also retaliating in kind. Xilo spun as well, avoiding the blow and landing gracefully on one leg. The crowd repeatedly cheered and shouted “Xilo! Xilo! Xilo! They are too slow!” Nike, ignoring the chant, got ready for another attack.
Xilo closed the distance between the two, feinting then parrying Nike’s attack and riposting to xyr shoulder. Nike cried out in pain, barely blocking a downward slash to her head while rolling away. Xilo pursued xyr, relentlessly pouring on combos. Nike could read her every movement, but couldn’t react fast enough to make any moves of xyr own. Xilo kept pressuring, every attack calculated, exposing weaknesses in the latter’s form. Xilo thrusted to xyr abdomen, finding purchase and knocking the wind out of xyr. Nike struggled to regain xyr bearings, fending up two more blows xe had seen in advance.
Nike started to look at Xilo’s feet, where she would land, how she reacted to xyr own movement. Xe saw a feint coming, pivoted left, feinted, pivoted left and parried, riposte, then moved xyr body to avoid a thrust. Xilo was caught open as Nike threw an elbow to her face. With unimaginable speed, Xilo took the blow to the chin, rolled her head away from the worst of the strike, then kneed Nike to the abdomen. Nike could now see two or three steps ahead and checked the knee with xyr own. Falling over, xe blocked two more strikes from Xilo and in a stunning display made her backpedal by pressing xyr advance.
A brief pause in the action as both fighters reset, Xilo smiled.
“You can always know what comes next, but you can’t stop the inevitable.”
Xilo seemed to get even faster. Her movements like lightning, zipping in, out, parrying, tumbling left and right, pivots from awkward angles, stabs and slashes coming from seemingly thin air. Nike never lost step, countering and defending with ease xe fell into the flow of combat. In a spectacular display of athleticism, Nike lunged forward, had her blow parried on purpose only to take a grazing blow while tripping Xilo in the process. Careening towards the floor, Xilo pushed off with her left elbow, grabbing Nike’s blade between her calves, then twisting to disarm xyr. Nike leaped off the ground and twisted with Xilo in the air until both of them lost control and fell. Again, they reset and engaged, both determined to deal a decisive blow.
Then it happened.
Nike had dodged a swipe to xyr abdomen when xe heard an audible thump. Xilo stood in bewilderment as an Erodesean child laid before her, her little head cracked with sap pouring out.
“No… No.” Xilo slowly said as she put pressure on the wound trying to keep the girl alive. It was too late. In moments, the little girl’s eyes started to flicker, then she was gone.
“No. No!” Xilo exclaimed. Nike stepped over, yelling at the royal.
“Lady Xilo! Permission to attend to the sapling?” Nike said.
Xilo looked up at Nike not believing what she was hearing.
“Lady Xilo, I do not have much time! Permissi-”
“Permission granted.” Xilo said.
Nike hurried over, examining the little girl’s wounds.
“She has not gone to the Grand Tree just yet. Please, Lady Xilo, I will need the parents of the child. Her name is Juniper, ask for Juniper’s parents.”
Xilo ran towards the now hysterical crowd quickly snatching up a guard.
“You! Tell the guard to find me Juniper’s parents. The child who was struck. Get them out here, now!”
The guard yelled the order at the others and soon three Erodeseans were let through the perimeter and came running towards their daughter.
Nike beckoned them to come near.
One Erodesean man said as he stared at Juniper’s lifeless body.
Nike went to calm him down, “Please listen, I might be able to save her, all of you, grab my hands.”
Xilo came running back to the scene, watching Nike hold hands with the three parents. Nike instructed them to form a circle and started a low range humming. Blue energy raised from the dirt, slowly pulsing around Juniper. After three minutes of humming Nike suddenly woke from xyr trance and looked at Xilo. Like tall grass, xe swayed, barely conscious.
Xilo, seeing the struggle on the youngsters face said, “Just tell me!”
Nike’s face was drained of energy, the fatigue sapping xyr strength by the second. Xilo sprang into action flying across the crater and forcefully dragging two medics at a time and giving them orders.
They obliged and funneled their energy into Nike. Juniper’s wound started to close and soon her eyes flickered back to life. Xe stopped humming and got on all fours, clearly exhausted. The parents were completely unresponsive, but alive. They had given all they could and Nike made sure xe would not kill them in the process if xe could help it. One of the medics was critical as they led him out, quickly taking him to a medical tent.
Xilo ordered two of the medics to help Nike up and take xyr to the House.
She then knelt on one knee and picked Juniper up taking her back to the House. The crowd was a mess. Erodeseans fought guards as they tried to get a closer look at what happened. Many were beaten back as military units joined the fray, dispersing the crowds with their shields. In the chaos and clashes of civilian and military, Juniper looked up at Xilo.
Her little orange eyes scanned the Erodesean. Xilo stroked the back of her head as she briskly walked towards shelter. Then, Juniper spoke.
“I can see them.”
Xilo looked down at the little girl and asked, “See what?”
Juniper playfully said, “The dead.”