"What?" screamed Ziaxe as his heart sunk into his stomach. He was both angry and afraid of the accusation, but also confused of how it could possibly be true. "Why should I believe that?"
"Whether you believe me or not, I speak the truth,” replied Kycan. “And I'm serious about this. All Vidians have these strange abilities. When they are about to do something with the Darkness, their eyes go as red as blood. My father served in the Battle of Berania so he knows all about the tricks of the dirty Vidians.
"I don't want you to be a threat to this glorious kingdom. My father raised me a pure-blooded Sargenian, and he always told me not to trust foreigners—especially Vidians. And I know the stories of your father being a foreigner. My father always said, 'never trust a Vidian no matter what.' So listen Ziaxe, if you do anything to disrupt the peace of this city I will personally take care of you under King Broniton's word."
Ziaxe started at the sudden threat. I can't believe this, he thought. Being accused of something because my father might not be a Sargenian! I can't believe I don't even know my true race. Would Alben know? He couldn’t believe it, being threatened openly by someone he had grown up with. It was too much for him to take. He felt something inside of him snap like a tree branch being violently broken in half.
There was a moment of silence as the others were completely still as if expecting some truth to come out from someone. Ziaxe stood up and looked at Kycan with fierce anger growing inside him. "That's it, Kycan," he said, staring maliciously into Kycan's eyes. "I challenge you to a fight."
Ziaxe heard Venna gasp, and Kron suddenly got up, alert. "Wait a minute, guys," he said, moving in between Kycan and Ziaxe. "There's no need for a fight."
Srion also came in between the two and said a little nervously, "he's right, Kycan. Besides we've known Ziaxe our whole lives. If he or his family was planning something against Berania I think it would have happened by now."
"I'm just trying to protect our city, Srion," replied Kycan. His eyes gazed angrily back at Ziaxe, his muscular figure a monstrous giant compared to Ziaxe’s lean one. "Ever since I met you, Ziaxe, back when we were all young, I had my worries of who you were. All the rumors about you having family outside the Walls were disturbing to me. I've always had a fear of the things outside these walls, I admit that, but that doesn't mean I'm afraid of you.”
He stared silently at Ziaxe for a second, his eyes unwavering as everyone held their breath waiting for something to happen. “I accept your challenge."
"All right," replied Ziaxe, feeling a grin come to his mouth. A part of him was wondering what he was thinking while the other part just wanted to fight until his last breath. "Right by the pond, with our training swords. Get ready."
Everyone seemed surprised at Ziaxe's sudden change of emotions and his urge to fight someone whom he didn’t have a good chance of beating in anything. The two challengers went apart instantly to prepare.
When he came back to the pond with his training sword in hand, he was attacked by Venna's screaming, "ZIAXE! What are you thinking?"
"What?" he replied, walking back to the pond armed with his training sword and his face showing that Venna’s words didn’t faze him. He felt as if he was dreaming with his heart pounding in fury and everything miles away. "I did what I had to do."
"Ziaxe," said Venna with a softer tone. "You didn't have to do that. Words can't hurt you, and not to be rude, but I don't think you're ready to fight Kycan."
"I don't care, Venna. He insulted my family and honor. He can't just call me a Vidian and get away with it!"
"I know that was cruel of Kycan to do, but still, Ziaxe, where is your common sense?" Poor Venna looked frightened at what was guaranteed to happen. Ziaxe knew deep down in his gut that he would have had to fight Kycan one day. He wouldn’t always be able to hide behind Kron. So he decided to make today that day to end the violent tension he had with Kycan.
And, by the way, he knew exactly where his common sense was. It was screaming at the top of its lungs inside his head, underneath the roar of his blood flowing, a small voice fighting to be heard over a violent river screaming for a fight.
He looked at Venna. It surprised him that he missed how beautiful she looked today. Her long blonde hair shined in the sunlight, and her brown eyes glistened with fear. Even when she's worried, she's beautiful, thought Ziaxe with a small grin.
A group of the other peasant teenagers of the poor district had gathered in a big circle by the stream that ran from the pond to the Eastern Wall. Ziaxe made his way through the throng of excited people who were murmuring and chattering to themselves, discussing things like the suspicions of Ziaxe's race and the chances of victory each of the combatants had. No one spoke highly of Ziaxe. Kron and Kycan stood in the middle of the circle.
Ziaxe went to stand next to Kron as Kycan was talking to a few of the teenagers in the crowd in a smug tone as if his victory was already assured. "Wow," he said drolly to his friend. "Anyone will come out for a fight. Sometimes it seems that people care more about the lives of others than their own."
"This is no time for jokes, Ziaxe," said Kron solemnly. "Now I'll just warn you that Kycan's training sword is a little mightier than yours, so watch out. I understand that you are fighting for honor and all that stuff, but don't hurt yourself too badly. Also we're pretty close to the stream so don't fall in and drown."
Ziaxe appreciated the advice even though it was not very helpful. "Do you think I have a chance?" he said with a wry face, his continuous attempt at using humor to alleviate his underlying anxiety.
Kron laughed a slightly exaggerated laugh and then returned to a straight face. "No,” he stated simply.
"Thanks," replied Ziaxe dryly.
He turned towards his opponent while Kycan was still boasting to the crowd, saying how Ziaxe is nothing compared to him. Kycan's training sword was about the same length of Ziaxe's, but it had a greater width. It looked almost brawnier than Ziaxe's, looking like a full grown tree while Ziaxe's looked like an insignificant twig. The swords symbolized their wielder he guessed, the big sword making Kycan look tall and mighty and the skinnier sword making Ziaxe look puny. They were both real training swords though, so Ziaxe thought he had just as much of a chance of beating Kycan as Kycan had of beating him.
Ziaxe looked around the crowd and saw several familiar faces including Nea, Srion, Venna, Kron and the other twelve students of Professor Alavar's class. Many of the faces looked full of excitement and enthusiasm while the faces of Ziaxe's closer friends and the others who thought this fight would end badly looked full of worry and concern.
He could not deny that he felt extremely nervous about this fight too beneath the anger he kept flowing through his veins, but he tried his hardest to hide it from the others—especially Venna. He felt as if his heart had fallen into his stomach and he might vomit at any time. His body was slightly shaky as he held his sword.
Even though the fight was about to start and he needed to be focused at every detail of an upcoming attack, he could not help but look at Venna and feeling a peace of mind at her beauty. Everything seemed to diminish in sound and vision as she was the only thing he could focus on. Venna, the angel, the Light of his life.
Kycan's sword came lunging at him suddenly. Ziaxe just luckily dodged it when he threw himself out of the daydreaming Venna caused. The crowd became completely silent as Ziaxe looked at his menacing opponent. Ziaxe jumped back out of Kycan's weapon range to regain his focus back on to the fight, to ignore all outside distractions. He raised his sword with both hands to block his enemy's oncoming attacks.
Kycan made another lunge, but Ziaxe's sword was there to block it. Kycan's mighty sword pushed down on Ziaxe's. Ziaxe had to muster all of his strength just to stay on both feet, but, with one hand on the flat of his sword and another on the hilt, he was able to push Kycan back a foot or so.
All right, thought Ziaxe, he focuses more on brute force than strategy. How can I use that to my advantage?
The strain the push had put on his arms brought a memory back to him. The day his right arm was broken. It had healed over time, but it never felt as strong as his other arm. It was his weakness that had gotten his arm broken…. His whole life was just him being weak. But how could he be strong when he was always beaten down?...
The crowd had cheered for Ziaxe's success in fighting off Kycan's blow, but the cheering quickly died down when Kycan returned with numerous attacks. Ziaxe became entangled in a continuous strike of hits, dodging and blocking blows all over, his eyes and arms dotting everywhere to catch every move.
Right when he thought his enemy might have been tiring, Kycan made one strike that hit him horizontally in the shin. He winced at the pain and tried to back away from Kycan, but instead found himself falling backwards on the damp grass by the stream until he lay flat on his back.
He cursed himself as he got back up quickly, ignoring his injury. The backside of his clothes were soaked with cold water, making it uncomfortable when he moved. If this battle was taking place with real weapons, he’d be dead. How could he be so foolish?
Once you’re weak you’re always weak….
Furiously, he attacked Kycan, giving up on all thoughts of strategy and resorting to brute force, losing himself into a senseless rage. The world seemed even more like a dream now, his heart pounding against his chest like a small bird trying to fight its way out of a cage.
Kycan looked a little surprised as he parried Ziaxe's vicious attacks, their swords moving at a rapid motion. Ziaxe hoped that he could gain an advantage over the other, but, despite his attempts, he found that Kycan was barely breaking a sweat.
How can I be so weak?!
And just like that the fiery ball of anger was growing inside him. It continued to grow as he continued to pound on Kycan’s sword, growing like a fiery sun, too hot and mighty for any mortal to control. Then when the sphere grew to be too great to control, he felt a sudden burst of energy, a sudden increase in strength. His strikes felt stronger and sturdier. He felt the way he felt when Kycan had been insulting him yesterday, the same feeling of anger and rage….
Then Ziaxe met Kycan's eyes. They showed the same emotions as before… the same fear.
He fears me because I’m strong now!
But no, he realized that something was not right.
He felt stronger and more powerful as if he had gained years of sword training in just these few minute, as if the ball of fire within him gave him energy.
They’ll never call me weak again!
As wooden swords clashed on wooden swords, Ziaxe realized his vision started to flicker as if he was about to lose consciousness. Strangely, he felt no signs of nausea or discomfort along with his vision problems or lose of balance so he continued fighting as if nothing was happening, refusing to stop the fight. He had to beat Kycan, to regain his family's honor.
Then everything was fading as if the sun had been eclipsed sending everythin into Darkness. But he continued to fight and fight and fight.
His common sense screamed even more now, that small voice that still wanted some control over the body’s actions. It was then that he had started to think he was going blind, but he noticed that he could still see the people around him. They were not the same people as before, however. Everything around him looked like a dark, shadowy, starless night, and the crowd around him became a group of faceless statues in bodies that looked like dark tattered cloaks. It was if he had entered a nightmare involuntarily.
He looked at Kycan's face but saw that he was fighting something else. He was fighting a strange creature with no eyes, nose, or mouth. Ears were still on the side of its head though, and it still had the same hair as Kycan. The faceless creature's skin was pale as snow and its fingers had long fingernails as sharp as knives as they gripped the sword.
Ziaxe was so startled he dropped his sword just as Kycan stabbed at his chest. The pain knocked him backwards to the ground, and everything slowed around him as he fell. He heard every murmur from the crowd—every gasp, every scream, every cheer. He heard the bubbling stream behind him. The world appeared to be falling away from beneath his feet.
What is going on with me?
His back slammed onto the ground. He was instantly brought back to reality, to the world of Darkness and shadows around him. His arms struggled to push himself back up, to get up before the creatures came for him, but the pain from the blow to his chest restrained him. It had knocked the breath out of him. He grasped his chest, cursing everything he could under his breath: the accursed faceless monsters, the dark world he had entered, and the monster that was Kycan hovering over him. Then he found himself cursing the unknown people in his dreams.
"Why is this happening?" he muttered to himself. "What is going on?"
He gave up the attempt to sit back up and collapsed backwards. He closed his eyes as if hoping the Darkness would go away like it was some nightmare he had to wake up from. He lay on the ground fighting against what must have been unconsciousness for a few moments. The Darkness was clouding his vision for a few more moments, but then, as he relaxed and his heartbeat began to slow, the Darkness faded, disappearing as if called back from the shadows it came from. The ball of fire was leaving. He wondered if his eyes had been red again.
Then he opened his eyes.
The Darkness was gone…. There was only Light now. The noon sun shone brightly above him, making it hard for him to keep his eyes open. He looked at the bright blue sky, wondering if the creatures were truly gone. He still sensed movement and heard noises from outside his line of vision.
Suddenly, he saw a man whose face was shadowed by the sun appear above him. "Well, Ziaxe," said Kycan's arrogant voice, "I guess that shows who the winner is."
Kycan trudged off with a few cheers from the crowd following him. Ziaxe was disappointed in himself. He was so close to winning. But he supposed he was still too weak.
As Ziaxe sighed to himself and almost lost his fight against unconsciousness as a strange weariness overcame him, he saw a woman appear above him, shining in the sunlight. Ziaxe made a small smile. Well, if it isn't the angel herself.
Venna crouched down beside Ziaxe with a traumatized face. "Ziaxe, are you okay?"
"Aye," Ziaxe struggled to say. "I'm fine."
Coming from behind Venna, Ziaxe saw Kron's shape approach as he arched his head slightly upwards. "Kron," said Venna shakily, "this doesn't look good!"
Kron crouched down next to Venna. "He looks fine, Venna." He examined Ziaxe, apparently looking for any injuries. He turned his attention to Ziaxe's face. "That was a good fight, Ziaxe. We thought you were about to beat him. I guess Kycan just got that one lucky shot at your chest. You just got to stay on your guard."
Ziaxe nodded weakly, grunting as he tried to form words.
"We better fully check out your chest though. You most likely have a bruise. I don’t think you hit your head too hard though. Can you get up?"
Ziaxe tried to push himself up, but found a burning pain around his chest and was attacked by another round of lightheadedness by the strange weariness he felt. When Ziaxe almost fell back down, Venna grabbed him and hoisted him up right.
As soon as he was in a sitting position, Ziaxe saw that there was still a small group of people left from where the crowd had stood. Srion and Nea were still there watching him from a distance with some others; apparently, the others had left with Kycan.
Kron helped Ziaxe take his tunic off to examine for injuries. When his shirt was off, Ziaxe looked down at his chest to see a large purple bruise in its center. As far as he could see, there were no cuts or blood anywhere.
"See, Venna," said Kron. "It doesn't look that bad."
Venna grimaced at the bruise. "Just go find Alavar, please. He'll know what to do."
Kron sighed loudly, feigning his annoyance at Venna’s exaggerated worry. "Okay, whatever you say." He left to search for the professor.
Venna got back up to her feet. "Stay here."
Like he had a choice.
She quickly ran to the remaining crowd and came back with a cloth and bucket of water. She dumped the cloth in the water and rinsed it. "Okay, Ziaxe, tell me if this hurts." She placed the freezing cold, wet cloth on his chest.
He flinched at the coldness. "Cold!" he nearly screamed through clenched teeth.
Venna bit her lip. "Oh… sorry, Ziaxe. This should stop any swelling though... maybe."
Ziaxe saw that Venna obviously had no medical experience. She held the cloth on his chest for a few moments. An awkward silence soon enveloped them. Venna started to hum a tune as she looked in various directions as if trying to ignore what she was doing. Ziaxe realized how odd it must be for Venna to be penetrating his personal space, and he felt his ears go red as he thought frivolous thoughts of her. He quickly got rid of them and looked down at the grass by his legs, ignoring the strange predicament they were in.
Then, the unexpected happened. He heard her voice, but it didn’t come from her. She was still looking in the distance at the pond, her lips unmoving. The voice was more like an inner thought than a spoken word as if she was speaking to him through her thoughts. Oh Ziaxe…. What am I going to do with you?
Ziaxe was so shocked he accidently shook in his spot, catching Venna’s attention. She looked at him with a raised eyebrow. "Are you okay, Ziaxe?"
"Uh… yes….” he stammered, tripping over his words as he was both confused and embarrassed. “Did you say something… before what you just said?"
She looked confused. "Uh… no…."
"Oh…." He paused, hesitant. "Okay then."
Venna turned back to the pond with a confused smile. Then he heard her voice again. You're so strange, Ziaxe… but cute. Venna smiled to herself.
Ziaxe felt uncomfortable at the apparent compliment. He tried to adjust his sitting position, but Venna stopped him saying, "What are you doing, Ziaxe?" She grabbed his shoulder, her hands like ice from the water. "You're going to hurt yourself even more," she added with a laugh.
"Sorry," he replied with a somewhat frightened face, unsure of what was happening.
She turned away again with a smile on her face. Ziaxe had no idea what he was hearing. What was she doing? Was she tricking him somehow? It was as if he was hearing her thoughts. But that was impossible. His weariness felt like he was holding up heavy weights on his shoulders.
Ziaxe began thinking of thoughts of the angel from his dream again. He smiled at the thought and stifled a laugh.
Venna looked back at him with a sweet smile. "What are you laughing about?"
"I actually don't know," he replied, bluntly.
Kron finally appeared with Professor Alavar then. That was surprisingly quick. The professor bent down on his knees on the side of Ziaxe opposite of Venna. "Oh my, Ziaxe," he said. "How did this happen?"
Kron explained everything about the fight with Kycan and the final blow to Ziaxe's chest. Like a good friend, he tried his hardest to make it look more like Kycan's fault that the fight happened than Ziaxe's.
"Oh, I see," said Alavar when the story was done. "A challenge of pride and honor. Well, I hope you all learned a lesson here. Ziaxe looks fine. He should be good after a few minutes. Nothing looks broken. You two should go home. That’s enough excitement for the day." He motioned to Kron and Venna, and they hesitantly got ready to leave. Venna gave Alavar the wet cloth and bucket when she left.
"Good-bye, Ziaxe," said Venna and Kron as they left.
"Bye," said Ziaxe as he took one last look at Venna, who smiled back at him.
When the two were out of hearing distance, Alavar said, "Okay, Ziaxe, let’s try getting you up again."
Ziaxe slowly pushed himself up onto his feet with Alavar's assistance. He got steady on his feet, ignoring his pain on his chest and his feebleness, and started walking alongside Alavar, so many thoughts plaguing his mind.