A Bereaver

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Taryn is a spoiled young boy who runs away after witnessing the murder of his mother. He soon finds himself joining a deadly organization of thieves. Things begin to spiral into chaos as betrayal and massive controversies come to light. Taryn then finds himself fighting for not only his life, but the lives of entire kingdoms.

Fantasy / Adventure
Age Rating:

A Bereaver's Rising

The red-bearded man ran through the woods dodging limbs and branches like arms trying to grab him. He came to a steep slope from which he could not see the bottom. Cursing and yelling echoed from behind as another rush of fear overtook him. The man jumped down the hill, rolling and smashing into a number of trees. He rolled out onto a stone road with broken bones and bruises as he came face to face with one of those he was trying to evade.

“Now, why do you have to run off like that?” asked the pale, black-eyed man with a wolf symbol on his chest. The pale man rubbed his scraggy black hair and had an annoyed look on his face. “It makes our job that much harder.”

“I don’t have nothing!” yelled the bearded man. “You already took my credits. Please, leave me be. I beg of you!”

Two figures dressed similar to the pale man appeared out of the woods. They wore red leather cloaks which had imprints of a dog on the front. “Let me gut him!” the bigger red cloaked figure roared. The top of his head was bald but a line of long blonde hair stretched from ear to ear about the length of his shoulders. “Let me do it for making us run so damn much,” the man was panting and resting on his knees.

“You are out of shape, Gharak,” said the other smaller cloaked figure. He had short brown hair and big lips to complement his pudgy face. “If you didn’t eat and drink so much you wouldn’t be sucking on air like someone punched you in the stomach,” the figured laughed in a high pitched tone.

Gharak snorted, “Oh yeah, Drotan? You pig-looking shit! Say that again!”

“I’ll kill you, you bastard!” bawled Drotan while tugging at his belt.

The pale faced man shook his head, “So bothersome.” He walked forward and stopped between the two arguing men. “You both are annoying and require too much of my effort. Shut up or I’ll kill you both.” Both men immediately stopped yelling and stood silent. He then turned to the old man still cowering in fear on the stone road. Followed by the other two red cloaks, the pale faced man approached the old man and knelt down.

“Please…let me go. I can get you more money. A lot more money, I swear it. Please mister red wolf,” the elderly man sniffled with tears running down his cheeks. The pale faced man leaned closer and wiped one of the tears on his index finger. He looked at it, licked it, and then smiled.

“So you know who we are?” the red wolf asked.

The old man nodded.

“Then you know we can’t let you go.” The pale man stood up and stared at the old man. In an instant, the pale man drew out a metallic looking handle which spurted out a blast of green light. He slung the green light toward the old man and it struck through his chest. Blood splattered across the stone and filed between the cracks to form uneven red rivers. The pale faced man pulled the green light out of the old man’s chest and pointed it at his dogs, “I don’t want anymore annoyances from you two. We are already behind schedule and if you keep chasing these peasants we will never make it to Bridgeflat.” The green light dissipated as he walked into the woods with Gharak and Drotan following him in silence.

“Okay, now connect that one to that one,” ordered the heavy set woman. Taryn connected the blue lines to the red lines on the digital console and his hand was shocked. He quickly drew it back and loosely waved it around trying to diminish the pain. His short, parted black hair swayed from side to side with the movement of his hand. “Good job!” excitedly clapped the woman. Her name was Sher’Anda and she was one of the ten maids Taryn’s family employed. Unlike the other maids, Sher’Anda was a dark skinned woman who had a playful knack of teaching Taryn how to hack certain systems in his parents’ house. “Now let’s go watch the show!”

Taryn ran out of the basement room, up the stairs, and through a few long hallways to take position in the middle of the grand hall. Originally meant to illuminate the house with a static yellow glow, the lights around the grand hall rapidly changed in color. The golden chandeliers shot a variety of colors across the tall stained glass windows to cause Taryn’s shadow to dance along the floor. Sher’Anda poked her head around one of the corners of the grand hall and whispered in a low voice, “Taryn, that’s enough, get back here!” The boy skipped through the sporadically moving lights until he met up with the maid. “Now I’ve got to show you how to turn it off before your parents get back or I could get into some damn fine trouble.”

“SHER’ANDA! Are you and Taryn screwing with the system again!” yelled a maid from an adjacent room where the kitchen was located.

“Shit, let’s go!” squealed Sher’Anda playfully. Taryn giggled as he followed Sher’Anda back down to the power room and followed her instructions to return the lights to normal. Though Taryn was only sixteen, he had become quite skilled at hacking different electrical systems, thanks to his mischievous maid. Taking another stinging spark to the hand, Taryn returned the digital lines to their original positions and walked to the kitchen with Sher’Anda.

About five minutes later, Taryn’s parents entered the front door of the grand hall. His father was a bald, medium-sized man with a brown goatee connecting to his neck. He wore his usual white formal shirt with collars that stuck up to his chin and a brown overcoat hanging to his legs. Taryn’s mother was a skinny, fair skinned woman showing short blonde hair and incredible hazel eyes. She wore a beautiful purple dress with a medium V-cut from the chest to the neck. He had the same eyes as his mother but he did not share the deep color she had. He ran to them and jumped into his mother’s arms. “Where did you go?” he eagerly asked as his played with his mother’s new bracelet. His mother laughed while his dad portrayed the same solemn look he always did.

“Stop toying with that, Taryn. Show some maturity, you are sixteen.” Taryn’s dad shook his head and rigidly made his way across the diamond patterned floor of the grand hall toward the kitchen. Before he opened the swinging the doors, he looked up to a light flickering on the ceiling. Taryn’s dad glanced at Taryn, then back at the light, “Where is Sher’Anda?”

“She is in the kitchen,” Taryn replied in a nervous tone.

His dad entered the kitchen where six maids worked diligently, preparing grained bread stuff with juicy boar meat and wet green herbs picked from the garden in the back. “Sher’Anda, I require a word with you,” he ordered. The large maid wobbled into the grand hall. Taryn’s father turned with his arms folded, “Have you and Taryn been hacking my systems again?”

Without stuttering Sher’Anda replied, “Yes sir, mister Ardaughris. I apologize for the excitement; young mister Taryn does love to know about systems and I find myself weak against his persuasions.”

Ardaughris stared at Taryn, then back at Sher’Anda, “You will stop spending personal time with my son, understood. I have enough to worry about; I don’t need my son becoming a hooligan. That is all.” The maid slightly bowed and returned to the kitchen. Once she disappeared behind the swinging doors, Taryn’s father turned to his son, “You will stop all of these playful acts immediately. It is time to grow up and be responsible.”

Taryn’s mother stepped toward her husband, “Daryn, aren’t you being a little harsh on him. He was just having fun.” Taryn found it funny she called his father by his first name. She was the only person he knew that ever did.

“The time for fun and games is over, Orara. If he is going to take over my business one day, he needs to grow up. Now…” Ardaughris turned to Taryn, “You and your mother need to go to the market. Here are some credits. We would have already gone but a meeting came up and I have to pick up some files here before going to the factory.” Taryn accepted the thin metallic card before his father walked through a door at the back of the grand hall.

It was mid day and the sun was occasionally blocked by scattered clouds. Taryn easily motioned the wheel of his parents’ hovercraft as it glided around the winding path leading from their home. He looked back to see the gigantic three-story mansion with smooth brown balconies on every room and four large columns marking the entrance to the grand hall. The seemingly endless sea of turquoise was the only view from the front of the mansion. Taryn continued down the only path to and from their home until the hovercraft came to the market. Taryn exited the oval based craft once it was completely grounded and tied the rear hook to a steel post. The craft was smooth and black with a single fin jutting out from the back which held the two energy engines. They lived in a town called Bridgeflat, which is located in the small region of Southbridge. The region was called Southbridge because it was one of two regions that were closest to the land bridge in their realm, Peakwall.

The market of Bridgeflat was always an impressive sight. Not only because of the hundreds of small tradeshops scattered about, but because of the rare view. The entire market was located on a sizeable plateau that overlooked the south sea. You could travel to any end of the marketplace and be standing at the edge of the plateau looking over hundreds of miles of land or sea, depending on which side you traveled to. Taryn walked with his mother through the marketplace examining the long tradeshops. They were no more than two stories tall but long enough to be three stories horizontally. The smaller tradeshops were setup around the edges of the street to acquire the most profit. The tallest building in the town was the region hall which rested above the market, and even above Taryn’s home, on a section of land obtruding from the plateau. The sides of the building were smooth and windowless except for the back wall which possessed a large stained-glass window picturing the many forms of the sea. He wasn’t sure what the region hall was exactly used for, but he knew his father spent more time there nowadays than his business.

It was hot and humid, which Taryn normally did not mind except he was required by his father to wear formal clothes whenever he traveled outside the mansion. His formal clothes consisted of a white wool shirt with ridiculously big collars and leather pants that tore at his legs like small bugs biting him. After a mere five minutes of walking, Taryn could not stand it anymore, “Mother, can I please remove these clothes? They are driving me insane. I don’t even want these stupid clothes.”

Looking on him with easy eyes, she replied, “Taryn, you should feel blessed to have such fine things. Not everyone is as fortunate as we are.” Taryn pouted and continued by his mother for a few more feet. Another elaborate tug at his collar had no effect on his mother, save for the laugh. As they proceeded through the market, Taryn ran from tradeshop to tradeshop begging his mother to buy certain gifts. With a swipe of the metallic card, credits were exchanged for the items until Taryn’s arms were full of not only his personal items, but the items required by his father. The items were piled so high in his arms Taryn could not see where he was walking. “We have one more stop then we are done,” she informed.

They stopped back in the middle of the market and Taryn slowly put down the items to rest while his mother purchased the items. She returned in what seemed like an instant, giving Taryn no time to rest. “Let’s go see your father, shall we?” asked his mother. No answer was given by Taryn; his mother simply walked in the direction of his father’s business. Daryn Ardaughris was the president of Lasesystems, the region leading systems company. His company built systems for anyone and anything. If someone needed a light system or security system connected to their house, they came to Ardaughris. Systems are what connected everything in the world. Lasesystems had been incredibly busy as of the past year because of the tense relationship between Peakwall and Trispike, a southern realm which held a grudge against Peakwall ever since the last Great War. Bridgeflat was an important part of Peakwall because of Lasesystems’ ability to make weapon systems.

Taryn and his mother entered their hovercraft with all of their items squeezed in the little trunk behind the driver and passenger. A short five minute drive put them next to Lasesystems. It was a massive facility situated just below region hall on the right of the road. Taryn and his mother entered the noisy facility and were greeted by many happy faces. Taryn knew all the workers and they were nice to him. It had not been a minute till his father approached them from the side and the workers’ happy demeanor quickly faded while they scattered back to work. “What are you two doing here?” asked Ardaughris.

“We just wanted to see you honey,” responded Orara with a warming smile.

For a brief moment, Taryn swore he saw his father smile, but once his father locked eyes with the hovercraft through the open door behind them, the smile was lost. “I see you have been out gifting yourself,” he said in a condescending tone. Taryn didn’t reply. His father sighed and looked at his wife, “I must get back to work. The capital is requiring me to double our production because of the recent raids on supply caravans. I should be home in time for dinner so make sure everything is warm.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek and pulled Taryn towards the hovercraft. “Orara,” Ardaughris called out, “If you would, could you please pick up one more item from the market?” She gracefully returned to him and received an envelope.

Taryn grounded the hovercraft in the same spot as before and accompanied his mother through the marketplace. The sun was almost setting below the plateau, but not quite, which caused the shadows of buildings and people to stretch into each other. An orange glow floated around the city as the sun gave its last look of the day on Bridgeflat. While Taryn’s mother was talking to the shopkeeper, a feeling hit Taryn’s entire body. It was a feeling that made him and his surroundings move in slow motion. His mother turned to him and gave a peculiar face; a face he had never seen her make before. Then, it happened. In a bright flash, Taryn, along with everyone and everything around him, was sent flying into the air by a violent force. The noise and force were simultaneous causing Taryn to flip through the air wildly until slamming hard on the ground. Briefly deaf and concussed, he managed to one throbbing knee. He could not feel it, but he saw through his blurry haze the blood trickling down his shoulders. For some time, Taryn felt nothing. He pulled his legs forward, through the thick dust and blurry sunlight. Eventually, Taryn fell to his knees and the pain finally made its way in.

“Ahhhh!” he yelled out in a screeching voice. The pain was excruciating but warm, probably because of the blood. Taryn tried to his feet but the pain snapped at his knees. He fell back down in agony and let out a horrific scream before leaning on the side of a torn post. Following the debris of destroyed tradeshops to one side of the street, Taryn was able to make his way through the dust filled market. All of sudden, a terrible feeling hit him; where was his mother? Without thinking, Taryn limped back into the dust and debris. “Mom!” he yelled desperately. “Mom! Mom! Mom!” The shouts became increasingly more desperate.

Tears began to stream down Taryn’s face as he continued to call out. Other screams and yells started to join his in the dust, augmenting his fear. He was on the verge of breaking down into uncontrollable sobbing until a voice broke through the air, “Taryn!”

“Mom!” he yelled back. “Where are you?”

“Here!” she replied.

Taryn continued to call out to his mom until they finally met in a hug amid the dust. “Are you okay?” he asked worriedly.

“I’m fine, we need to get out of here. Oh, no you’re hurt!” his mother gasped when she obtained a better view of him.

“Wah?!” he exclaimed while touching his head. His hand was drenched in blood which caused him to scream.

“It’s okay. Just hold still honey,” his mother said as she tore a piece of her dress off and wrapped it around his head. “See, all better.”

Taryn rested some of his weight on his mother’s light shoulders. He was a medium built boy so he worried his weight would be too much for his mother to carry, but she carried him perfectly fine. They had just cleared the dust when three figures, bearing the region guards’ uniforms stood in front of them. They each had white vertical stripes falling over their shoulders and a black outline of mountains on their chests. Each had a metallic hilt and blaster attached to their belt.

“Help us, please,” begged Taryn.

The middle figure, supporting a gray beard and wrinkled face, cocked his flat head. The other two along his sides concealed their faces through round metallic helmets. The middle figure motioned for the other two to follow him. They passed by Taryn and his mother as if they were ghosts. “Please…” pleaded Taryn’s mother. Still no response.

In a fit of random rage, Taryn grabbed at one of the figures, “Hey!” Taryn was kicked in the head and sent to the ground before the three guards sprinted into the dust. Taryn stood up bleeding from the mouth. He slowly continued with his mother toward their hovercraft. Buildings all around them were blown open and lights from all the different systems within those buildings were illuminating the newly arrived night. Strange buzzing sounds echoed through the air along with an occasional burst of random green light. More yells erupted, but these were different. These yells seemed angry.

They finally reached the hovercraft and as Taryn helped his mother into the vehicle, three region guards ran out from the dust carrying large leather bags. These guards were not the same ones he met before because their builds were different. One guard looked over at Taryn, then back at his comrades. He said something to them and they changed their course towards Taryn and his mother. Taryn walked forwards a bit to intercept the guards but was greeted by a green light rushing to his head. He fell to the ground, barely missing the light. Two of the guards jumped into the hovercraft while pulling out Taryn’s mother. “Hey!” he yelled as he got to his feet. The third guard stood in front of Taryn holding a metallic hilt with a green light emitting from the top. It was a system sword. A common weapon among guards but he had never seen one in person. It could slice through human flesh like butter. “Let her go!” He angrily commanded. The guard in front of him laughed as the other two guards yanked his mother out of the hovercraft and threw her to the ground. Taryn charged at the guard which caused a flurry of green lights to swirl around him and, in an instant, blood splattered the ground.

“Taryn!” cried his mother.

“M…mom?” he stuttered. Deep cuts and gashes now occupied his back and chest. Blood was seeping into his clothes so much that it turned them a dark burgundy color. The guard pulled the sword back to his shoulder signaling his last attack. Taryn’s last thoughts were of his mother and how he wished to protect her.

Then, there was a flash of green light.

Blood splashed on Taryn’s face. He wiped the red from his eyes and his vision became clear. Before him stood his mother, smiling at him like she always did. The boy looked down and saw the green system sword sticking out of her chest. A sinking feeling cratered in his chest; like a hole had swallowed everything inside his body. Taryn stood there, motionless and in shock. “Mom…,” he stuttered again.

“It’s okay, Taryn,” she whispered, still smiling as blood dribbled down the sides of her mouth. Suddenly, the guard kicked Taryn’s mother and sent her tumbling into him.

Taryn’s mother slammed into him with such force that knocked the wind from his chest. He slowly looked over at his mother, who was twitching face down in the dirt. He scrambled to his knees and gently lifted his mother’s head, “No! No! No!” Tears mixed with the blood on his face as he held onto his mother. “Hang on mom! I’ll get you out of here!” he sobbed. A shadow appeared through the lights of the few systems remaining in the town and hovered over Taryn. A joyous smile slipped out of the shadowed face looming over them. An apparent crack in one of the guard’s teeth stood out and demanded attention.

In an animalistic, deep growl, the guard spoke, “Such a pleasure. Such a pleasure gutting little shits like you.” He raised his sword in the night sky but as he brought the green light down, another green light struck one of the guards next to the hovercraft. The shadowy guards turned towards the dust filled town and were unexpectedly bombarded by rays of light. The guard with the cracked tooth rolled behind a large rock while his companion was ravaged by penetrating green lines. He hit the ground in a smoking and bloody heap. Guards walked from the center of town with metallic pistols and rifles drawn. These guards were smaller and the night did not hide their faces. The guard with the cracked tooth ran from behind the rock and around the corner with a trail of green streaks nipping at his heels.

Taryn looked down at his mother and clenched her hand. She still had the smile on her face even as the blood rolled down her chin. “Taryn…” she struggled with her words.

“Stop talking mom, I’ll help you. We can get you help and fix you right up,” Taryn tried to lift his mother up but he couldn’t even lift himself to his feet.

“It’s okay sweetie,” she responded softly, “You need to take care of your father for me. Can you do that?”

“Me? Mom, Dad hates me. He thinks I’m not good for anything. Besides, he doesn’t need anyone to take care of him.”

His mother’s smile grew, “He will now. You have to be strong and take care of him.” She pointed at the hovercraft behind him, “The item your father wanted us to get is still in the hovercraft. Please, take it to him. I love you, Taryn.” She kissed his forehead, leaving a bloody lip outline, before her head fell backwards and body went limp.

Taryn sat there, still clutching his mother, unaware of what had just happened. It was like he was waiting for her to wake up. He lightly shook her. Then more vigorously. Eventually, Taryn was shaking his mother’s entire body in an attempt to wake her from the eternal sleep. The guards that chased away their attackers stood over him, watching the boy with sad, pitiful eyes. After a minute of more shaking, Taryn laid his mother down. He had a blank expression as two guards picked the boy up by the arms and carefully dragged him to the hovercraft. There he saw the package his father had asked his mother to pick up. An anger and rage filled him. Feelings he never knew existed in him rose to the surface. It was because of him she died. He ran off with the item towards the hill that led home.

Taryn was barely able to push open the heavy wooden doors. Bleeding, bruised, and broken, he stumbled into the grand hall. The door to the kitchen swung open to reveal Sher’Anda in a tight white apron with a stunned expression. “Taryn!” she screamed. She ran to the boy just as he hit the floor from exhaustion. Sher’Anda and another maid pulled Taryn to the kitchen and place him on a bread covered table. The smell of bread and flower almost masked the smell of blood seeping throughout the room. Maids frantically ran back and forth with bandages or needles. Sharp pains jolted Taryn at different limbs. “Give him some brown drink!” ordered Sher’Anda. One maid uncorked a brown vase-like bottle and poured a liquid down Taryn’s throat. The burning sensation and numbness came upon him quickly, causing the boy to black out.

An hour later, Taryn awoke, feeling heavy-headed and goofy. He stumbled out of his room with blurred vision. He hugged the slender stone railing while he descended the stairs from the third story and after another treacherous descent, Taryn finally entered the grand hall. Maids were mopping a trail of blood starting from the entrance and ending at the kitchen. Taryn’s eyes wandered around the room until they fell on Sher’Anda, talking with a group of men. They were all guards, except for one. The man Taryn’s eyes last locked onto, his father. He was holding the item he asked his wife to pick up. His father said only one thing when he saw his son, “Why, Taryn?”

The pain was immediate and straight. The sinking feeling reappeared in Taryn’s chest but it was bigger and stronger than before. He braced himself on the railing. No one in the room but Taryn knew what his father meant by the statement. It was the way he said it and the way his father looked when he said it. The sinking feeling pulled Taryn to the cold stone steps. There was nothing to stop the pain or the struggle. It all came at once; pain, fear, hatred, furry, sadness, loneliness, hopelessness. All of them, crashing into Taryn, forcing his body and soul to take them. Taryn’s chest became heavier with each passing second. It was too much. He had to escape or he would be crushed.

“Taryn?” asked Sher’Anda staring at him, curiously. He looked at her with different eyes; eyes that scared her. Taryn walked down the stairs, stopped next to his father, and peered into his brown eyes. He continued through the large empty room until Sher’Anda called out, “Taryn, where are you going?” He looked back at her with his unfamiliar eyes and said nothing. Taryn limped out of the grand hall and away from his home without looking back.

Six months later

Taryn sat at the wet, dirty bar waiting for his next cup of ale. His head slightly bobbed over the bar and almost feel into the soggy bread that was scattered on top. His hair had grown long and unkempt while a light stubble grew from Taryn’s cheeks to his chin. He stared at his soiled hands and then, all of a sudden, a picture flashed through his head. Taryn shook his head and drank a healthy gulp. The picture flashed again and Taryn stared off into the bar, recalling the picture that continuously flashed in his head; the picture of the dead guard lying on the ground and Taryn’s hands covered in blood. He closed his eyes and let the memory run through his head.

It was only a few minutes till Taryn could not run any farther. His injuries from the attack on the market were aching and some even still bleeding. He could hear Sher’Anda’s voice echo through the air beckoning him to return home, but he could not. Not after the attack, not after his mother died, and not after his father looked at him like that. Taryn ran till his legs became tired; which placed him near the market. He walked through the rubble and blinking light systems with a rage slowly building in him. Eventually, he came to a gunsmith store that was still intact. Taryn walked through the open doorway and approached the purple glowing counter. Through the purple glow, he gazed upon many diverse guns, each with a steep price. The clerk walked out from a backroom and lazily rested one arm on the counter. The clerk had short gray hair and a thick mustache. “Surry, we ayer claosed,” the clerk said in a mumbling accent.

Taryn looked around the counters throughout the shop, each giving off a different color of light. “I need a gun,” Taryn returned coldly.

“I sayed we ayer claosed,” the clerk returned.

Taryn’s eyes narrowed, “I’ll pay you whatever you want. Just give me a gun.”

“What’re yur crudits?” asked the gray man as he eyed the boy.

Taryn pulled out the metallic card, “Enough.” One gun in particular caught his eye; a newer system pistol with a custom neon-yellow stock and double-trigger. Taryn stopped and looked at the gunsmith, “I’ll take that one.”

The man pulled out the gun and carefully laid it on the counter. “This a newer gun. Mure poweuful and mure expensuve,” he said still eyeing the boy. Taryn handed him the credit tag without taking his eyes off the gun. The rage began to build faster in his stomach. The gunsmith stumbled to a backroom, made some noises, and stumbled back out with a smile on his face like he just saw a beautiful woman, “Will thut be all?”

“I need ammo too.”

The gunsmith nodded and placed a yellow-rectangular box next to the pistol, “Anythung else?” Taryn shook his head.

Taryn walked out of the shop and into a heavy rainstorm. Without thought or reason he trudged towards the smoking battleground. He aimlessly walked around the debris and wreckage until he came upon a guard moving some rubble. The rage moved up from his stomach and into his chest where the sinking feeling disappeared. When he loaded the gun, a buzz sound broke the silence and had the guard spin around to face Taryn. Eye to eye, the two gazed at one another; one full of fear and the other full of rage. Taryn lifted the pistol, squeezed the trigger, and released a blast of yellow light.

He snapped back from the memory to clenched hands. He wondered how he got here; how his life had changed so drastically. Thinking back on the memory, Taryn knew that somewhere inside him it was his fault, but where? Was it when his mother died, or before? His mind raced through the questions and thoughts trying to search out an answer. It wasn’t until the barman slid another beer towards Taryn and said, “Before I give you another one, I need you to pay your current tab.”

Taryn looked curiously at the barman, “That doesn’t make any sense. Why do I have to pay now to keep being served? I have a tab open.”

“Either pay or get out!” roared the aged and bald-headed barman. Taryn shrugged and handed him a credit tag. The barman scanned the tag, waited a few moments, and slammed it on the bar in front of him. “This is why I wanted you to pay! Shits like you come in, drink, and leave without paying. There is no money on this damn tag!”

Taryn knew he would eventually run out of credits, but not this soon. He glanced around the room until he spotted his victim. “Okay, I’ll get you your credits. Just hold on.” He drunkenly approached a group of men and one woman playing a card game. Taryn goofily smiled and fell down next to them.

“What the hell?” exclaimed one of the men as he rose from his chair. As some of the men helped the drunken boy to his feet, Taryn slyly placed a small black chip on the closest credit tab on the table. They shoved him away and continued their game. Taryn lifted himself to the bar, placed a small black chip on his credit tag, and began fiddling around with a small black object he pulled out of his pocket. After a minute of pressing buttons, he handed the tag back to the barman.

The barman scanned the tag and looked at Taryn with a perplexed look. “How did you get those credits?”

Taryn smirked as the barman handed him back the credit tag, “I borrowed them.” He opened the door and walked into the night just as a fight broke from the poker table. The air was cold and caused Taryn to lift his dirty coat closer to his head. All the systems in the small town were shut off except for the bar he just left and a single inn resting on the corner of the road. Taryn treaded through the muddy road and entered the inn. He rented a room and started a warm bath after removing his clothes. The scars over his body glistened a shade of red as the dim yellow lights flickered around the room.

“Interesting scars you have there,” uttered a voice from a dark corner of the room. Taryn snapped around and dove for his pants without a second thought. He rummaged through them only to find nothing. “Looking for this?” asked the figure waving Taryn’s system pistol. “This is quite an impressive gun. Tier 2 from the look of it.”

“Who the hell are you?” shouted Taryn nervously.

“Just someone who has taken an interest in your talents.”

“My talents? What are you talking about?”

The figure laughed in the darkness, “I was at the bar when you hacked that man’s credit tag. That was a nice piece of work.” Taryn slowly sat on the bed, his whole body flexed like he was going to be attacked at any moment. The figure stood up and walked into the flickering light. A wolf symbol was outlined on his red leather chest and partially covered by the blood red cloak hiding his head. Taryn could not recall why the stranger’s clothes were so recognizable. Eventuall,y he remembered being told about men dressing in red leather and bearing animal symbols; but where? “I have a proposition for you,” the man said letting down his hood. His face was chizzled and thin. Cold grey eyes peered past the tips of his red highlighted hair.

Intrigued at what the stranger wanted with him, Taryn decided to ascertain the contents of the proposition, “Go on.”

“Judging by your reaction I assume you do not know what I am, so let me inform you,” the grey eyed man said as he slowly paced around. “I am part of a unique organization which takes part in certain…” he stopped and glanced at the dirty boy, “activities that provide much wealth and freedom. Your talents would go well in our organization. If you wish it, you may become wealthier than you have ever imagined.”

There was silence for few moments, the dirty and half-drunk boy cocked his head slightly. The offer was tempting but something did not sit well with Taryn. “What’s the catch?” he asked apprehensively.

“Catch? There is no catch. You offer your services to us and in return, you will become rich. No catch.”

Looking to the floor and rubbing his chin, the boy pondered the stranger’s request. It’s not like Taryn was living an extravagant life. He was becoming weary of traveling from town to town and credit stealing drunkards to just get by for the day. He stood up, approached the man, and stuck out an open hand, “Why the hell not.”

The man smiled and met the boy’s hand with his own, “Welcome to the Bereavers.” As soon as the stranger revealed the organization’s name, Taryn’s eyes widened. That was why the attire was so familiar. He remembered stories of a group of thieves and murderers who wore red leather stitched with animals. Now, Taryn wasgoing to become one of them. “Get some rest tonight. Tomorrow we travel.” The Bereaver walked towards the wooden door and stopped before opening it, “By the way, what is your name?”

“Taryn,” he responded with a tight throat.

“Well Taryn, don’t even think about running off. I promise I’ll find you and beat you to a pulp before dragging you back.”

“Okay…” Taryn said with a nervous shuffle.

“I am Red Wolf Touriq,” the grey-eyed man smiled as he opened the door and casually strolled down the dimly lit hallway.

The next morning, Taryn stumbled into the dirty brown and white bathroom to wash his face. Nightmares that regularly visited him in his sleep made their horrific appearance; but that wasn’t why he stayed awake. Usually, the nightmares consisted of Taryn’s mother smiling at him and being suddenly penetrated with a green sword. After blood covered her whole body, she would fall to the ground and the blood would change into the guard he killed in cold blood. If he got a drunk enough, the nightmares would not wake him. However, it was the deal with the Bereaver that kept him awake.

A knock at the door startled him. He cracked the door open to see the Bereaver leaning next to a wall. “Taryn, gather yourself and meet me outside. And hurry it up.”

Taryn hoped the previous night was just a dream, but it wasn’t. The deal with the Bereaver was made and now must be kept. After a few minutes of scrounging around, Taryn walked down the stairs through the empty inn and outside into the sun. “You look like shit. Compose yourself or I will not walk next to you,” Touriq said making a disgruntled face. Before they started walking he tightened his cloak to cover the wolf on his chest. Taryn followed the Bereaver down the road and toward the broken metal gate at the end of town. A stoutly built woman with small breasts stood in front of the gate. When they approached her she suddenly struck Taryn in the stomach.

“Tisha, we talked about this,” the Bereaver said shaking his head.

“I don’t give a damn! He stole my credits!” the woman exclaimed.

On his knees and gasping for breath, Taryn mumbled, “What?”

“You stole my credits last night you little shit!” she repeated.

Touriq helped the boy to his feet. “The credits you stole last night were Tisha’s. Like you she will also be joining the Bereavers.” He turned to the woman, “I said I’ll reimburse you for the credits so leave him alone.” Touriq started walking but suddenly stopped and turned around, “We haven’t eaten yet, have we?”

“No,” replied Taryn still trying to neaten his appearance.

Through Touriq’s red tipped hair, a smile could be seen slowly creeping its way up his face. “I’m going to give you a little test. Just to be sure you are as good as I think you are. You see that bread stand over there?” Taryn nodded. “I am going to walk over and take some bread off the counter. I want you to create a distraction for the vendor using your hacking skills.”

“What if I can’t distract him?” the boy asked.

With a queer and joyous smile, the Bereaver responded, “I’ll kill him. But don’t worry, I’ll walk slow.” As soon as he started his slow walk, Taryn sprinted to the outside wall of the shop. He stuck his head around the corner and scanned the area for anything he could use as a distraction. There was nothing; only bread and a tag scanner. The Bereaver was slowly approaching the shop and his eyes never left Taryn.

“Think! Think damnit!” he said banging his head against the shop wall. The red wolf was getting closer to his prey and there was nothing close by to distract the bread vendor. Frantically scanning the entire town now, an idea popped into Taryn’s head. He dashed away from the shop and in the direction of the town bank. He looked back to see Touriq untying his cloak, allowing the red wolf to come out. He pulled out a familiar yellow gun and glanced at the frenzied boy. “Shit!” yelled Taryn pulling out a small black object. After punching a few buttons, he ran inside the bank, looked up, and tossed a small black square onto a metallic rod sticking out from the ceiling. Falling out of the bank door and hitting the ground, he swiped his fingers across the black object and punched a few buttons. Swipe after swipe danced upon the black object until he succeeded. An alarm blew through the air which was then followed by a wave of water pouring out of the bank. Spectators ran towards the bank as sirens went off. Taryn looked over at the Bereaver, who was starring at him with a strange smile, and shook his head. The bread vendor was looking over at the bank, but not moving. Touriq calmly grabbed a piece of bread off the counter and raised the gun. The shop keeper turned away from the bank and faced the Bereaver. With some swipes and a few touches, the fire prevention rod in the corner of the shop spewed out a rush of water that slammed into the bread vendor, knocking him unconscious. The red wolf looked at the boy and hid himself in his cloak once again.

“I must say, that was some show,” Touriq said kneeling next to the boy still lying on the ground. “You set off every fire protection system in the town. There are going to be a lot of upset people.” Taryn, still short of breath, stood up and rested on his knees. “Let me ask you something, why didn’t you just use the fire protection rod in the shop? Why use the bank’s and why set them all off?”

After finally catching his breath, the dirty and sweaty boy answered, “I set off all them because if I were to just set off that single shop system, the entire town would probably come see what’s going on. The last thing we needed is all the attention on that bread shop. I couldn’t use the bread shop’s fire protection system because small towns like this have all of their systems based out of one or two major buildings; a bank is usually one of those buildings. If I needed to hack something in this town, I would have to hack the bank or some other major building. So I did.”

Touriq plopped a soggy loaf of bread on Taryn’s chest, “I must say. You have impressed. I am no expert in hacking, but I imagine it is quite difficult to hack an entire town’s fire protection system in such a short amount of time. How long was it? Ten seconds?”

The boy wiped himself off, “seven.”

“Seven?!” exclaimed the Bereaver. “Then, when you fell to the ground, that’s when you hacked the entire system?” More sounds boomed through the sky. Small, single columns of blue light shot vertically into the air and were getting closer. “Time to go,” Touriq yanked Taryn to his feet and towards the gate where a hoverbike was tied up.

Black metal helmets were shoved into Taryn’s and Tisha’s arms. “What’s this for?” Tisha asked.

“Put it on. You can’t know where we’re going.” Taryn put on the helmet but was not yet on the bike. He felt around with his hands and spun in circles until he tripped over a rock and fell to the ground. He stood up and grabbed two soft mounds. Immediately, a hard slap sent Taryn tumbling into the dirt.

“Don’t ever touch those!” Tisha yelled.

Touriq sighed before pulling the dizzy boy to the backseat of the hoverbike and propelling down the stone road. It seemed like they had been driving for days but because of the blacked out helmet Taryn had no idea how long they had actually been traveling. An unending gust of wind rushed around him and toyed with his clothes. Occasionally, the boy would drift asleep against Tisha’s back and would instantly be woken by an elbow to the head. Eventually, Taryn felt the bike slow down and quickly come to a stop.

“We are staying here for the night,” Touriq said as he removed their helmets.

Multiple, two-story shacks formed a semicircle against the tree line and slim bridges connected the roofs of the shacks like a spider web. There were few people walking about but most seemed to be in the tavern at the back. It was the only three-story building and emitted the most light and sound.

“Where are we?” asked Tisha.

“Nowhere,” the wolf replied. “Just follow me and don’t talk to anyone.”

They followed Touriq into the tavern and stood by him in silence as he purchased a single room. The tavern was more long than wide and had to sets of stairs against each wall. A stone hearth took the center of the room and was surrounded by groups of raggedy men. Once Touriq received the key, they hastily walked up the closest stairs. Their room was on the third floor at the far end of the hall. When Taryn and Tisha entered the room, the Bereaver closed the door and dimmed the yellow system light hanging from the ceiling.

Tisha gazed around the room, “There is only one bed. Where are we supposed to sleep?”

“The floor,” Touriq said bluntly.

“You’re kidding…” she snorted.

The wolf tossed a few pillars at her feet. “No, and I don’t want you two making any trouble. I am not a babysitter so you are free to do as you wish…but if I hear of any ruckus caused by either of you there will be severe consequences, understood?”

Tisha kicked a pillow before answering, “Fine.”

Touriq’s grey eyes then moved to Taryn. “Yeah,” the boy quickly replied.

“Good. Well, I’m going out. I’ll see you both in the morning.”

When the Bereaver left, Tisha and Taryn stood in the room for a minute. “Well I’m not going to stand here all night. Let’s get a drink,” she declared before kicking another pillow. Taryn shrugged and followed her out the room.

The bar was less lively with only a few patrons still huddled around the hearth. Tisha shoved Taryn to the bar and ordered him to pay for her drinks. He didn’t argue considering he stole her credits. After receiving their ales, the two sat in silence for a good while. Feeling awkward, Taryn tried to start up a conversation.

“So, how did you and Touriq meet?” he asked.

“Don’t talk to me. I just want to drink in silence,” she snapped.

Taryn’s eyes fell to his mug, “Oh, okay.” After a minute, his eyes wandered back to Tisha. He noticed a scar peeking out from under her hair next to her eye. She saw him staring and quickly turned towards him.

“The hell are you looking at?”

“N…nothing,” he stuttered.

Taryn’s eyes returned to his ale until he heard an irritated sigh. “Fine damnit! I’ll talk! Just stop looking like a beaten puppy. You can ask me one question…just one.”

Two questions immediately popped into Taryn’s head. He weighed which one could possibly make for a better story. Tisha let out another angry sigh that rushed his decision and had him ask the question he decided against.

“How did you get that scar?”

Taryn’s face was shocked but not nearly as shocked as Tisha’s. In a matter of seconds, her face went from shock, to angry, and then to defeated. She took a deep gulp followed by a deep breath. “My father was a drunk bastard. Ever since I was born he kept telling mom and I that I was no good. He said he would rather have a son or a daughter…but not a child that looked like both. Every chance he got he put me to the floor. Mom had to always step in and stop him from going too far. But one night he came home more drunk and belligerent than usual, probably because the dumbass lost his job.” She stopped for a moment. Taryn could see her hands shaking. He knew that type of shaking. It was a shaking that only happened when he thought about his father. “He came home and had a go at me. I was older and more filled out then. I could take on any of the boys in town with a single arm…so I fought back.” A deformed smiled crawled its way on her face. “I was beating the shit out of him. It got to the point that I pulled a butcher’s knife out. This whole time mom was trying to pull us apart. My father slung her against the wall and grabbed his own knife. I lunged at him and swung the knife. When I wiped the blood from eyes I saw my mother standing between us with my knife sticking out from her neck. She fell so hard…The next thing I remember is a roar and a cold pain stretching down the side of my head. When the bastard tried to attack me again I punched him in the nose, stole his knife, and stabbed him in the side of the head.”

She looked in silence at her mug. The silence made Taryn uncomfortable so he tried to continue the conversation. “What happened after that?”

Tisha shot him an angry look, “I said one damn question! Just be quiet and drink your ale!” Taryn could see her eyes trembling as they fell back to her mug.

He took a deep breath and said, “My mother was killed right in front of me. When she died I felt alone. I couldn’t face my father so I ran.”

Tisha’s eyes slid towards Taryn, “And it feels like you’re still running…”

He nodded and the two continued to drink until the barkeep began turning off the lights.

The next morning Taryn and Tisha woke before Touriq and made their way to the bar. After a serving of hot ham and bread, they started joking with each other about their messy appearances. Touriq stumbled towards them, seemingly still drunk, and ordered two servings of roasted deer meet. The Bereaver ate his meal while paying no attention to their chuckling. Once finished, he mumbled for them to follow him out the bar. They apprehensively put their helmets over their heads and sat on the hover bike. Taryn could feel the bike wobble and sway down the road but he wasn’t scared because of Tisha’s arms wrapped tightly around him.Eventually, echoes from the roar of the bike bounced off walls which must have been in close proximity. The wind was still constant, but less toying. A small warmth hit Taryn’s body every few meters. After a minute of driving in this new area, Taryn guessed they must be in some sort of cave or underground passage. The bike slowed down even more causing the wind to completely stop playing with the boy’s clothes. After a number of slow turns, the bike stopped.

Touriq pulled them off the bike and forced them to their knees. A large flame consumed the front of Taryn’s body in heat. Touriq removed their helmets and placed a hand on their shoulders.

“Touriq…what is the meaning of this?” asked a low, slow voice. Taryn’s sight was still adjusting and he could only see blurry figures. There were ten figures, kneeling in the sand just like him. He could hear murmuring and movement in the surrounding darkness.

“I have two more recruits,” replied Touriq.

“You brought your recruit two days ago along with everyone else. You can’t just bring new recruits whenever you want. And stop riding your damn hover bike down here drunk. You damn near crashed it into a wall again,” retorted another voice from the darkness.

Taryn felt the hand on his shoulder tighten, “I am aware of the rules. But I think we should make an exception for these two.”

More whispering and murmuring filled the black around them. “Why is that?” asked the low voice.

“Because, I believe I have found a fox and a magna hack.” Taryn could feel eyes falling on him.

“Hahaha, a magna hack? Have you lost your mind, Red Wolf Touriq? We have had only one magna hack in our region since our founding fifty years ago,” laughed a high pitched voice.

“Regardless,” Touriq continued, “I want them in the trials.”

After a moment of silence, the low voice spoke, “Very well.” A tall Bereaver walked into the middle of the circle, he had a wolf stitched to his red chest and wore a wooden wolf mask. The wood on the mask was twisted in some parts and the teeth curved inward. Rubies took the place of eyes and glistened in the flames of the fire. “My new recruits, you all have been handpicked by certain Bereavers who believe you have the potential to be part of our brotherhood. You will be severely tested in the coming weeks and those of you that pass will be deemed worthy of joining our ranks. Good luck to you all.” The man raised his hands, “Bereavers, join me!”

In unison, the voices in the darkness recited,

“In the darkness we play our role,

Accepting penalties against our soul.

As long as I’m an animal, I will not yield,

Bereavers! It is time to steal!”

Orange lights lit the darkness like stars in a night sky. Taryn looked up and saw red cloaks lining the edges of cliffs and wooden bridges. He was in a massive open cave with wooden structures and buildings floating in the air. Bridges connected the structures to each other and to the walls of the huge cave. The bottom area, where he and Touriq were, was floored with sand and a large rock wall cut it in half. Many of the red cloaks disappeared a few seconds after the lights drove the darkness away. Only Touriq and a hand full of other Bereavers bearing the wolf symbol stayed. The masked Bereaver put his arms down and clasped his hands together, “Now, to my red wolves that have recruits. Be sure you explain what is necessary. These people are not accustomed to our ways. Tonight, show your recruits to their beds and make sure they are well rested. Tomorrow, they will know Bereavers.”

Touriq lifted the boy and others to their feet before escorting them to a yellow elevator connected to the rock wall. When Taryn entered the elevator he asked, “So, what are these trials like?”

The Bereaver’s eyes shifted towards him and then forward, “They are… stressful.”

“Oh,” replied the boy as the elevator began its’ ascent. After a few seconds of silence, “You are going to train me, right?”

Touriq made an annoyed sigh, “You can say that.”

The elevator then stopped. “What do you mean by that?” asked Taryn nervously. The red wolf, without answering, strolled out of the elevator and into the main hall of the building. It was completely dark and empty. “Touriq, what did you mean by that?” he asked again. Still not responding, the red wolf led him through a dark hall and up some wooden staircases until they stopped in front of a wooden door.

“This is your room, for now. Get some rest. You have a busy day tomorrow.”

“Touriq?” repeated Taryn.

The Bereaver turned to start back down the hallway but stopped and shifted his head so one grey eye was looking at the boy. Strands of red hair fell in front of his face, “Your questions will be answered tomorrow. Get some rest.”

The next morning, Taryn and the other recruits were summoned to the same location as the previous night. One Bereaver strutted around the sand in a small circle. He was bald, wrinkled, and tall.“Welcome, my young recruits. I am your instructor, Red Wolf Zakil, and today you will begin your training in hopes of becoming a Bereaver. You have already been through the pre-selection process,” the man gave Taryn an evil stare, “Well, most of you have. You will start your training with the Bereaver who brought you here. I will be analyzing and examining your potential throughout your training. Now, since you all are in the same recruiting group, introduce yourselves and state your professions.”

Only four recruits looked older than Taryn. The first recruit to speak up was a slender and tall man with short blonde hair, “My name is Oldith and I used to be a gunsmith.” Once Oldith finished, he awkwardly shuffled his feet and looked around at the other recruits.

The instructor stepped forward, “Come on you cowards!”

Another inept minute passed before the recruits started to reveal their identities. There were two ex-soldiers, Draur and Asnyer, who were both long haired and muscular; a short, pudgy, and curly-headed boy named Ormul who was the son of a respectable wrist lancer; a male thief, Jeoldkim, bore a heavy black goatee and short, pointed hair. There were two females amongst the recruits; Tisha and Lyridia, who was a beautiful tan-skinned woman. Lyridia was a thief and fugitive from her region. A large boy then stepped forward with messy brown hair that shot out in different directions and a small head which sat atop broad shoulders. “My…my…name,” he stuttered. “My…name is…Onum!” he smiled excitedly and looked around at the other recruits before stepping back.

The oldest recruit, and probably the oldest person even among the Bereavers, advanced a few feet forwards. He was tall, extremely muscular, and black skinned with a grey stubble covering his cheeks. “I am Whetherran the third and,” he paused for a second before continuing, “and I am an ex-captain of the capital.” The face of the instructor was more awkward than the silence that took the entire room. A captain of the capital was an incredibly high ranking and powerful position.

Seeing the unpleasant look on the ex-captain’s face, Taryn stepped forward to cut the awkwardness, “My name is Taryn and I guess I am a hacker.” He could feel all the eyes suddenly shift to him. Zakil’s awkward face did not change as his head turned to the boy.

“A hacker? And your Bereaver is Red Wolf Touriq?” the instructor asked.

Taryn nodded.

“Ah, that would explain you being here. Good luck training with that wolf. Now that all you have been introduced, I will show you the two areas where your training and tests will be held.” Zakil led the recruits to an area not far from where they were standing. Ten tall torches formed a sizable circle in the sand. He explained that the area in the circle was for training and their final test in combat. “Take a good look, recruits. You will spend much time in this circle. Respect and understand it well.” They all stood in silence for a few moments as the instructor closed his eyes and bowed his head.

Asyner leaned closed to Draur, “What the hell is going on?”

“I didn’t give you permission to speak!” yelled Zakil, his eyes snapping open.

“Calm down old man,” replied Asyner.

In an instant, the instructor drew a system dagger and stabbed the guard in his shoulder. “Show respect, you arrogant rat.” Asyner fell to the ground screaming out curses and moans of pain. “Pick him up and follow me to the next area.” Draur lifted his fellow guard up and escorted him behind the line of recruits. He muttered more swears and threats against Zakil as Draur slowly shuffled him through the deep sand. Lyridia laughed in a condescending tone to Asyner’s face before she caught up with the rest of the group. Zakil strutted to the cave entrance and into an open area. He stopped and turned to the recruits, “This will be your other training area and where the second final test will be held.”

Ormul scratched his curly head, “Um…..what training is this? I don’t see anything.”

Zakil smirked and simply pointed a finger to the sky. In unison, the recruits looked up to a small wooden platform hanging from a tree. A red blur jumped from the platform to a tree branch some yards away and faced the recruits. It was a Bereaver with a fox on its chest. “Keep an eye on her, if you can. This will be your final test when the time comes.” He nodded to the red fox and she jumped from branch to branch with lightning speed. Taryn lost track of her after the third jump.

Ormul’s mouth was wide open, “You are kidding, right? You can’t seriously expect all of us to do that.”

The instructor gave the pudgy boy a mulish look, “Yes, we do.” Zakil led the recruits back to the cave entrance and stopped, “You all now know what you need to master. Your recruiting Bereaver will be waiting on you in your quarters. They will train you, but it’s up to you to accept what is given, good luck.” He walked into the cave entrance and disappeared into the darkness.

Taryn traversed down the steep cave with Tisha and into the main lodge of the hideout. They walked down the long hallway to a door emitting a yellow light. Inside the room, Touriq sat backwards in chair half-covered in shadows while juggling a system sword hilt. He motioned them to enter and sit in one of the four wooden chairs lined to the side. After a minute, Ormul entered the room and sat in the chair at the opposite end of Taryn’s. They stared at one another for a few seconds, then back at Touriq. Another minute went by before Lyridia came into the room and quietly sat in the last chair. The Red Wolf stopped juggling his sword and cocked his head at the four recruits; his gaze shifted from Ormul, to Lyridia to Tisha and then stopped on Taryn.

“Do you know why you are here?” he asked, slowly tilting his head back towards Ormul.

“Uh…what?” the pudgy boy replied.

“Do you know why you are here?” Touriq asked in a softer but darker tone.

“Uh…because I don’t have anywhere else to go really,” Ormul was sweating profusely.

The Red Wolf gradually took his eyes away from the frightened boy and placed them upon Lyridia, “You?”

She quickly responded, “I want to be rich and I’ve heard you Bereavers can make that happen.”

“That depends,” Touriq uttered.

“Depends on what?” Lyridia asked coarsely.

He smiled, “On what your perspective of rich.” Lyridia had barely opened her mouth before the wolf made a silence gesture. She started to open her mouth again but immediately stopped when she saw Touriq’s stare. His eyes softened as they slid to Tisha, “How about you?”

The broad shouldered woman leaned back and crossed her arms, “Unfortunately I’m in the same boat as the pudgy kid.”

“Hey!” exclaimed Ormul.

Touriq gave another silence gesture. “Is that all Tisha?”

She stared at him while lightly fidgeting in her chair, “Y…yeah.”

Finally, the wolf’s eyes locked onto Taryn’s. The boy met his eyes through the shadows. He could only see a faint light being mirrored off of Touriq’s eyes which allowed him to know exactly where he was looking. In truth, Taryn did not know why he was there. He knew he was being tested and he knew that everyone had given acceptable answers; but they were only acceptable. Shifting his eyes to the ground and then back at the Red Wolf’s, Taryn replied, “I don’t know.”

Lyridia and Ormul glanced at one another before staring back at Touriq. The Bereaver leaned his head back, stretched his arms, and in a light, carefree tone announced, “Well, that is all I wanted to know. Unpack, look around, do whatever you want today. Tomorrow we train at dawn.” Without another word, Touriq shuffled out of the room leaving the four recruits with confused expressions and a blinking system lamp.

After a minute, Lyridia stood up and walked towards the door. “Where are you going?” Ormul asked.

“It’s still early, I’m going to get a drink,” she responded before quickly exiting the room. Taryn, Tisha, and Ormul followed her to the main hall where they discovered many Bereavers laughing and drinking. Bones of a giant bird creature hung from the ceiling and were fitted with red lights. Taryn spotted some other recruits across the room surrounded by cheering red cloaks and giant mugs of alcohol. Lyridia approached the barkeep with the two boys at her heels and ordered a mug. “Stop following me!” she spat at them before walking away. Ormul hobbled away leaving Taryn alone with the barkeep.

He looked around the bar for Tisha and finally found her sitting at a table with other new recruits. Before Taryn could make his way to her, a shadow passed by the corner of his eye. Leaning with his back against the bar, a pale faced man sighed, “Long day, recruit?” The boy turned to the Bereaver, who had unkempt black hair and bore a wolf on his chest. “What’s your name?” the wolf asked.

“Taryn,” he replied.

The pale faced man looked over at him for the first time since they started talking, “Taryn? You are Touriq’s hacker, yes?” The boy nodded. With a smile, the man tilted his body so that it rested on Taryn’s shoulder. “Interesting. Let me ask you something, do you know the difference between a killer and a Bereaver?” The pale faced man cocked his head and braced himself against the bar instead of relying on Taryn’s shoulder.

“Um….” Taryn tried to by more time for an answer. Sweat started to form in the boy’s hands as he became more nervous by the second. Was he going to be constantly tested? Just as Taryn was going to give a reply, a mug flew over them and shattered against the wall behind the barkeep. Four Bereavers with dog symbols on their chest were violently wrestling in the middle of the main hall.

The pale faced man shook his head as he lazily made his way to the fighting. He grabbed two of the fighters and tossed them effortlessly across the room while the other two stood up. “Go back to your wolf before I make you both bitches.” After the two men in front of him swiftly ran out of the room, the wolf turned to the fighters he tossed. “And you two will be punished for having me intervene.”

Terrified, Gharak begged, “Please, please Red Wolf Draecher, they started it.”

“So I’ll finish it,” the pale faced man stomped on Gharak’s leg, breaking it in multiple places. The wolf looked at his other, uninjured dog, “Come here, Drotan.” The man sulked towards Draecher with his head lowered. “You need punishment as well.”

“Yes sir,” replied Drotan. The Red Wolf slung out a system dagger and stabbed it in his subordinate’s thigh. Grimacing with pain but making no sound or attempt at retaliation, Drotan groped his opened leg and reached for a dirty wash rag on a nearby table. After a few seconds, drinking and boisterous laughter filled the room once again.

Draecher grabbed two mugs from a table as he made his walked back to Taryn. He handed the boy a mug, “Sorry about that. Can never control those damn dogs. So, what’s your story?” Taryn’s body was trembling. There were too many thoughts racing through his head to clearly answer the question. The man’s perturbed presence was like a noxious gas choking his brain. Draecher finished his ale in four gulps and leaned uncomfortably close to him. His eyes were blank and seemed to peer straight through the boy, “Hmmm, maybe another time then.” The pale faced Bereaver grabbed another mug and strolled towards a table at the back of the room. Taryn sat at the table with Tisha and the other recruits but said nothing because throughout the entire night his eyes were stuck on the pale faced Bereaver sitting at the back of the room.

The next morning, Taryn, Tisha, Lyridia, and Ormul met Touriq next to the circle of torches at the bottom of the cave. Other recruits huddle in separate circles around the floor with their recruiting Bereaver. A hooded figure stood next to Touriq wearing a Red Fox on their chest. “Welcome my recruits, to your first day of training. This is where you will be training in combat. Now, before we begin, I would like to introduce you all to someone who will be helping you train.” The figure removed their hood to let long brunette hair fall past their shoulders. A beautiful, thin face with mesmerizing amethyst colored eyes stared back at Taryn. Touriq walked next to her and smirked, “This is Red Fox Aylahora. You may just call her Ayla. You will train with system swords set on stun. One at a time, I want you to attack Ayla.”

Without hesitation, Lyridia grabbed the system sword from Touriq’s hand and stepped in front of the fox. The women glared at one another for a bit until Lyridia dashed at Ayla with multiple strikes. The Red Fox dodged all the attacks by leaning smoothly out of the way. An angry and out of breath Lyridia charged again but was struck in her gut. Touriq dragged a gasping Lyridia outside of the ring while Ormul shuffled to the center. The chubby boy activated his sword and inched his way toward Ayla. Before the recruit could even raise his sword, the fox slammed hers into his crotch, causing him to hit the sand in a curled position. Tisha stepped forward as Touriq dragged another recruit from the circle. The skirmish between the women was surprisingly even. Even with Tisha being much larger than Ayla, the fox was able to shove the recruit all around the circle. It wasn’t until Tisha clipped the Bereaver on the ear that everyone watching realized Ayla was not even trying. In a short but controlled fit of anger, the fox slammed her sword into the recruit’s throat and followed up with a leg sweep. Tisha hit the sand gasping for air. When Touriq tried to help her out of the ring, his hand was slapped away. She wobbled to her legs, turned to the fox, and nodded before placing the system sword into Taryn’s hands.

“You must be the hacker,” Ayla said. Surprised at her sudden comment, the boy could only nod. Her eyes dimmed causing Taryn to become apprehensive. In that instant, time seemed to stop as he lost sight of her in an explosion of sand. Ducking to his left side, Ayla struck the recruit hard in the gut. He fell to one knee coughing and hurting. The fox was standing above him, calm and collected. She leaned close to his ear. Her smell was intoxicating; even through the pain in his stomach Taryn could almost feel her lips touch his skin, “You don’t belong here.” The recruit looked up at the fox as he tried to stand up. Her look struck him in the chest. It was a familiar look that he hated; a look that pulled his stomach down and burned his chest. She slammed the sword on his back causing him to fall to one knee again. Taryn forced himself up a second time which only resulted in Ayla dropping her sword on his back a third time. This process continued a couple more times until Tisha stumbled between them. Ayla started to charge but was stopped when Touriq entered the circle. He looked at the fox and then at the other groups training in the area who were staring at the situation.

“That is enough, Ayla,” Touriq turned to the boy with a surprised expression. Burned and bruised lines patterned Taryn’s back like someone had used a fiery whip. Touriq yanked Ayla to the side and turned to his recruits, “Lyridia, you spar with Ormul. Tisha, you will spar with Taryn.” He gave his fox an angry stare as she left the cave.

A couple hours of slow sparring went by with Touriq occasionally correcting someone’s stance or angle of attack. Taryn’s arms and legs were sorer than they had ever been in his life. Eventually, the wolf stopped the sparring and announced, “That is enough sword training for today. Let’s move on to your next training.” With the help of Tisha, Taryn slowly shifted his feet as Touriq led them outside the cave and to the area with enormous trees. Ayla was standing atop a high wooden platform connecting to one of the trees. The Red Wolf halted the group just before the tree, “This will be your second training area. The goal is to traverse from that wooden platform to the next using the trees. Ayla will demonstrate.” Once the fox left the wooden platform, Taryn could only see a red blur skip across the high tree branches.

“Heh, this will be easy,” boasted Lyridia leaping on the ladder. “I used to do shit like this all the time.”

Ormul, on the other hand, was shaking nervously. The fat boy took a few steps back before Touriq grabbed him by the arm and tossed him towards the ladder. Taryn sluggishly approached the ladder and started to lethargically climb behind Ormul until a hand on his waist stopped him.

“Are you okay to try this?” Tisha asked.

He smiled, “There’s only one way to find out.”

She shrugged, “Okay, it’s your funeral.”

By the time they reached the top, Lyridia had already jumped off the platform and successfully reached a branch. Then she made another successful jump, followed by another, until her seventh jump where she fell and hit the thin floor of leaves at the bottom. Concussed and bleeding, she rolled away from the leaves and stayed on the ground next to Touriq and Ayla. Ormul didn’t even make the first jump and smacked the leaves with his fat belly. Taryn was still grimacing in pain from the beating he endured from Ayla, but he was set on making it as far as possible. His first jump was successful. Cautiously, the boy soared to the tree branches until he saw the seventh branch. The distance to the seventh branch was an impossible distance from any surrounding trees. Taryn looked down at Ayla and thinned his eyes; he would make it, just to spite her. He jumped, reached, and felt his fingernails scratch the side of the limb. The air rushed at his body and provided a few seconds of comfort before a vast amount of pain struck his chest. Rolling out from the leaves, Taryn found himself next to Lyridia and Ormul, both in the same position. A few seconds later, Tisha joined them.

“Again,” Touriq shook his head. The recruits attempted the jumping course for a few more hours until they could barely move. “That will be all for today. Prepare your bodies and minds for these training exercises…because we will do them multiple times every day. Ayla, please help them back to the main hall, I have a meeting to attend,” Touriq nodded to his fox and recruits as he turned away. The Red Fox led the recruits back to the cave and into the noisy bar. Lyridia and Tisha strolled up to a crowded table while Ormul sat alone at the bar. Taryn limped back to this room and started a hot bath. He painfully removed his shirt and shoes to find two of his toes bent completely sideways. Grinding his teeth, Taryn snapped his toes back into place with a short yell.

A knock at the door forced him to hop on one foot across the room. Astounded, he wobbled backwards to let Ayla into the barely lit room. She wore a thin, low-cut black dress with gold markings at the shoulders and waist. Her hair was curled around her ears and the same intoxicating smell that Taryn encountered earlier filled the room. Though her dress and smell tried to grab the boy’s attention, it was the fox’s amethyst eyes that took a firm hold on him. The way that Ayla’s dress and hair were worn caused her deep violet eyes to radiate the room. He gazed at her in silence until his injured foot touched the bed next to him and caused a slight pain to snap him out of his daze. “What do you want?” Taryn asked in a low tone.

“I came here to talk to you,” she replied.

The face he saw earlier on her did not appear, but the vision was still fresh in his mind, “About what?” He muttered as he walked to the washroom and to turn the water off.

Ayla’s eyes lowered a bit after seeing the markings on the boy’s back, “You need much training to pass the tests. The time you will spend each day with Red Wolf Touriq will not be enough for you to pass. I will train you during your free time.”

Taryn turned and stepped closer to her, “Why do you want to help me? Or do you just want another opportunity to beat me down?”

The fox grabbed the recruit’s arm and twisted it, forcing him face first on the bed. “I am offering my help so you won’t die! Don’t be such a child and accept it. You will die if you don’t.”“Okay, okay,” quickly replied Taryn. Ayla let go of his arm so he could sit up, “I still don’t understand why you are personally helping me. What about Tisha, Lyridia, and Ormul? Why aren’t you personally training them?”

“Red Wolf Touriq believes you can become our new magna hack.” Her eyes fell to the floor for a brief second. Though it was brief, Taryn could tell she was thinking about something unpleasant. “Which means you will be taking an additional test after the others; a test which is much more difficult. No one has told you yet about the severity of failing any of these tests. I want to make sure you…and Touriq’s other recruits don’t fail.” She walked towards the door and opened it, “And because you are different. You will see why when the time comes. Now, I must accompany Red Wolf Touriq to a party for all the high ranking animals. Get some rest Taryn, tomorrow I begin to save your life.”

Over the next number of weeks, Taryn, Tisha, Lyridia, and Ormul went through stressful training sessions with Touriq and Ayla. The recruits ended each day with bandages or ice cloths placed on their newly acquired wounds. Taryn’s body suffered a much heavier toll as he spent extra time with Ayla after the initial training sessions. All the recruits’ training began at the end of a light summer and consisted through a windy fall. Taryn showed progress in his sword skills as he could hold his own against Tisha and beat Ormul, most of the time. However, like the leaves of fall, the recruits constantly fell to the ground in the branch jumping training. The Branches, which was the nickname everyone gave the course, was designed to fail unworthy recruits, according to Touriq. Uncountable broken bones and dislocated sockets made the training even harder as the recruits’ injuries mounted. Taryn was not as worried about his injuries as he was his feelings for Ayla. With the amount of time they had been spending together the boy expected some feeling, but nothing as strong as what he actually felt. He would occasionally talk with her in the main hall and she would introduce him to other Bereavers, but no affection was given from either side. He was being torn apart, inside and out. With three weeks left before the final tests, Touriq called a meeting on the sandy cave bottom with his recruits.

“You have all been training hard the past couple weeks and I appreciate your effort. Now, you will train alone and focus on what you consider your weaknesses. No recruiting Bereaver will be available for counsel but you may ask a non-recruiting Bereaver for help. My last suggestion as your recruiting Bereaver: practice branch jumping as much as possible. The combat test will be a light skirmish with a current low ranking Bereaver but the branch jumping test… will be a skirmish against yourself. Good luck and I will meet you all in three weeks.” The red wolf nodded to his recruits before facing Taryn, “Follow me.” The boy shifted his eyes to Ayla as he followed Touriq’s footsteps in the sand. He was led right outside The Branches where three other Bereavers stood. As Touriq and Ayla approached the other Bereavers, a shock hit them both like someone had just jumped on their shoulders. They fell to one knee and lowered their heads.

“Ah, Taryn, welcome welcome. I hope you remember me, I am Red Wolf Zakil,” said the light-skinned wolf as he frantically shook the boy’s hand. “This is Red Fox Zacherial,” he said pointed to his left. The fox showed brown skin and a blonde goatee covering a horizontal scar across his chin. “And this is Red Lion Esserad.” The recruit stood in front of the lion, briefly stunned. He knew little about the hierarchy of the Bereavers, but he knew the lion was the leader. The lion’s orange eyes were emotionless and steady. He seemed to be sizing up the boy; studying his nature. Esserad was a large, bald man fitted with broad shoulders and black stubble down his neck. “The reason we are here is too make sure you understand the information we are about to tell you will never find another person’s ears except for other Bereavers.” Zakil’s eyes dimmed, “We will kill you if your mouth becomes too reckless with our secrets. Do you understand?”

Taryn gulped, “Yes…yes sir!”

“Good! Now, if it pleases the red lion, I will explain to you the meaning behind our animals and why you are before us,” Zakil bowed his head slightly while still being able to look at the unblinking lion, who simply nodded. “Pay close attention and remember everything I say, for this is our structure.” The Bereaver paused like he was waiting for Taryn to brace himself. “You have seen many different animals stitched on our chests. Our system consists of six animals, each representing a position of power and responsibility. The first and lowest animal is the pup. The pup is the animal given to all new Bereavers. You will not see many pups in our hideout because pups spend most of their time in the field acquiring wealth for our organization. Second is the dog, which is given to Bereavers that accumulate a certain amount of gold or perform outstanding tasks. The majority of our Bereavers are dogs and, like pups, spend most of their time out in the world. Third is the fox. Foxes are a rare animal which I will explain after I’m finished with the rest of the animals. Next are wolves who are the backbone of Bereavers. Wolves are leaders and will obtain a group of lesser animals to serve them. Finally, there is the lion.” Zakil subtly glanced at Esserad before continuing, “The lion is the leader and all orders are given by them.” The wolf briefly stopped and cleared his throat, “Now, allow me to explain…”

“Wait…” interrupted Taryn without thinking. Touriq and Ayla looked at him with stunned faces.

“What is it?” asked Zakil in an unfriendly manner.

“You said six…” the recruit moved his eyes to the lion then back to the wolf. “You said there were six animals…you only mentioned five.”

Zakil’s eyes narrowed as his head turned to Esserad. The eyes of the lion looked unfavorably upon the Bereaver as he stepped forward. “Yes, there are six,” Esserad confirmed in a surprisingly high pitched voice. “You have a curious mouth. Not many recruits ask about the sixth animal. The sixth animal is called The Alpha. The Alpha is the leader of all Bereavers.”

“All Bereavers?” asked Taryn.

“This will be explained to you if you pass the final tests. Zakil, continue,” the lion quickly ordered.

“Y….Yes Red Lion Esserad.” The recruit did not ask anymore questions about The Alpha as he quickly diverted his eyes away from the lion to the wolf. “As I said earlier, I will now explain the position of the fox in our organization. A fox is a rare position that is given to Bereavers that have…unique skills. Any animal may become a fox as long as they pass their skill test. You are here before us because Red Wolf Touriq believes you have the skills necessary to become a fox.” Taryn glanced back at his recruiting Bereaver for a moment before Zakil continued his explanation. “Your ‘fox test’ is for the position of a magna hack. You will take the same combat test but a different second test. It is required in our organization to ask the recruit if they accept this ‘unique’ final test because it is extremely difficult and most do not pass. Before you answer, I must also ask if you are aware of the consequences if a recruit fails any of the tests?”

Taryn glanced at Touriq, “No.”

Zakil gave a sigh and stared angrily at Touriq, “This is not the first time Red Wolf Touriq has refused to inform his recruits about the cost of failure. So you are aware that any recruit who fails either test will be killed?”

The boy’s face went pale. Now he knew what Ayla meant when she said her training would save his life. At no point did Touriq tell him, or his fellow recruits, that failing a test would result in death.

“Do you accept?” Esserad uttered.

Taryn looked to the ground as thoughts flooded his head. Could he refuse? What would happen if he said no? If he left where would he go, what would he do? He wouldn’t return home. Would he meander from town to town stealing credits for the rest of his life? For a few seconds, thoughts of doubt slid through his mind. Images of his father suddenly flashed through his thoughts. Death would be better than seeing that look again. It was time to leave it all behind…or die trying. The recruit clenched his fists and lifted his eyes, “I accept.”

Zakil glanced at Esserad, who gave a small nod. The lion approached Ayla, “You know the test he must take. If he fails, you and Touriq will bear the burden.” She made a face Taryn had never seen from her. It was a face that caused a heavy feeling in his gut and made him uneasy. The lion did not wait for a response as he walked back to the cave with Zakil at his heels.

Once the two left, Touriq and Ayla stood up. “That was unprecedented,” Touriq said. “I don’t ever recall the lion taking a personal interest in a recruit. Ayla, we have much work to do. I suggest we start his training immediately. Explain the test to him and then we will start.”

“Yes sir,” she replied. The violet eyed fox led Taryn onto the floor of The Branches and raised her finger to one of the starting trees. “Do you see that black box dangling from the tree?”

He looked at the tree and could just barely spot a small black box hiding amongst the tree’s shadows, “Yes.” Ayla’s finger moved from the tree and began a zigzag pattern as she walked along the course on the ground. Once Taryn noticed the second black box, he knew what the test entailed. “Shit…I am in trouble.”

She stopped tracing the course and turned to him, “You understand then? Why there has only been one magna hacker in our section since we were founded. This course is not designed to be passed.”

“How many?” Taryn asked while closing his eyes.

“Ten. That is the number of boxes you must hack and the minutes you have to complete the test. However, you may only touch nine branches.”

The boy’s eyes shot open in disbelief, “What! That is insane; there is no way anyone can do that! The Branch course alone takes ten minutes and that’s without hacking.” He sat on the ground with a lazy thump and dragged his hands across the wet leaves, “I assume the hacking increases in difficulty with each successive box, right?”

Ayla knelt next to Taryn and gently whispered, “Yes...now you see why I was training you in your free time. You have to improve the most and master your skills quicker than any other recruit. So get up and start working.” Her voice had a stern tone. He looked up at her and saw the face. The face he fought against. The face she would occasionally portray throughout their previous training. The face his father scorched into his mind. She yanked the recruit to his feet and nodded to Touriq, who then unpacked a bag filled with multiple tools. The fox turned Taryn towards her, “First, we must master The Branches like no one else.”

The boy goofily swayed on the wooden platform as he tried to maintain his balance. Ayla held his back to steady him as he approached the edge. “Are these weighted boots necessary?” he asked. “I can barely lift my feet.”

“If you want to pass the test then you must drastically increase your speed on The Branches. This is the best way to do that. Now, go!” she ordered as she shoved him off. The recruit jumped not even two feet from the platform before the weighted boots made him drop like a boulder off a cliff.

He flung his head up through the fall colored leaves with a smirk, “Well, at least I can’t get any worse, right?” Red Wolf Touriq shook his head and joined in with Taryn’s laughing. The boy looked up at Ayla and another heavy feeling dropped in his gut.

Taryn entered the Bereavers’ main hall and softly leaned against the rotted bar. He had spent the entire afternoon training with weighted boots on The Branches and his body showed the results. Black and blue spots dotted the boy’s skin like a disease. He ordered a beer while eavesdropping on a conversation between Whetherran and Jeoldkim, who were leaning against the same bar. “The sword test seems easy enough, it’s the jumping course that has me concerned,” uttered the ex-captain in his low, scratchy voice.

“Neither test concerns me,” replied Jeoldkim.

“That’s because you are a thief and live on roofs and treetops,” exclaimed Whetherran sloshing his huge mug around in the air.

“Good evening, recruits,” said a lazy voice. The three recruits cocked their heads to the right to see Red Wolf Draecher staring at the ceiling. “You all look quite rested, except for you, young Taryn. Is Touriq’s training too stressful?”

The boy painfully took a sip of his beer, “It’s more Ayla’s training than Touriq’s.”

“Ah!” The sudden noise caused the recruits to jump away from the pale faced Bereaver. “So, that’s how it is? Interesting, expected, but still interesting none the less. A little advice to you recruits; if you become one of us, be on the lookout for weeds.”

Whetherran wiped his mouth, “The hell are you talking about?”

“Weeds…” answered the wolf touching the floor. “You know, weeds are clever and deceitful things. You don’t notice a weed until the sprout appears from the ground, but by then it is too late; it has already spread throughout the ground and dug its roots into others. If a weed goes unchecked, who knows how far it will spread. They are quite dangerous…always be on the lookout.” The Bereaver chugged his beer and waved his fingers goodbye, “Toodles. You recruits be safe and remember, watch out for the weeds.” Draecher walked by an arm wrestling Gharak and tapped him on the shoulder. Immediately, Gharak slammed the head of his opponent on the table and exited behind his wolf.

That night, Taryn dreamt of a rainy night filled with smoke and debris. Lights flashed around him as screams filled the moist air. A yellow light flared away the screams and smoke, but left a figure standing in front of him. The light exploded again and the figure fell into Taryn; it was the guard he killed so many years ago. A cauterized hole stood out on the guard’s chest until another yellow flash caused his face to briefly disappear. Once the light subsided, his mother rested lifelessly in his arms. A final burst of yellow light caused him to quickly rouse. He was sweating and shaking so uncontrollably that he fell to the floor when he stood up. That was the first time he had ever dreamt that nightmare…and it worried him.

Ayla and Touriq met Taryn early in the morning at The Branches. He spent hours attempting the course with the weighted boots and only showed irritatingly slow progression. Failure after failure, the red wolf shook his head in disappointment while the fox either slapped the recruit with a stun sword or threw him to the ground. At midday, the three took a break and ate honey roasted chicken in silence. Touriq finished his meal and began rumbling around in a bag of equipment. He pulled out a strange looking sword hilt and tossed it at Taryn.

Ayla flung her head around, “You can’t be serious! It is too early to start that training!”

“We don’t have time. We have to double the training if he is going to stand a chance. Finish your meals, it is time to show Taryn how he will hack the boxes,” said the red wolf.

Taryn and Ayla met Touriq in the middle of the leaf bed once they finished their meals. Ayla took the sword hilt from the boy and walked some yards away from him. “This looks like an average sword hilt, doesn’t it?” she asked.

“Yeah, I guess so,” he replied.

“This system sword is different from others,” she explained while flipping the hilt in her hand. “As you have seen, the black boxes throughout the course are difficult distances away from each other. In order to pass the test, you must learn how to use a unique weapon.” She gazed into the metallic hilt with wobbling amethyst eyes, “This sword is specifically tailored to a hacker. Let me show you.” With a push of a button, the pointed pommel fell to the ground with a long black chord connected to it. The fox grabbed some of the chord and began twirling it around like a dance. She spun the chord faster and faster until it was launched between Taryn and Touriq to splinter a tree stump. “This system sword has a hacking chord connected to the pommel which will allow the wielder to hack any system the pommel penetrates.” She picked up a wristband containing a digital screen. “This is what you will use in the test. Once the pommel is connected to the box use the wristpad to hack it.”

Ayla hesitantly put the hilt into the recruit’s hands. He studied it over and released the chord in order to twirl it around. The pommel slapped the boy in the arm causing a significant stream of blood to roll down his arm. “This is not a toy, Taryn. This is a serious weapon. Though it is used for hacking, the chord and pommel are just as dangerous as the energy sword that comes from the hilt. This will be your most difficult training. Mastering what is called an Oegas Sword. Now, follow my movements.” Ayla had a rope tied to a wooden stick to take place of the Oegas Sword she gave to the recruit. She danced with circles and spins while keeping the string straight and under control. Leaves formed a brown and yellow sphere around her as the chord continued to dance. Taryn could not swing the chord for more than five seconds without cutting himself by the pommel or entangling his limbs. Hours went by as he tried to mimic the fox’s movements. Taryn’s training from that morning had already drained most of his energy. He had no control over the Oegas chord and was literally spinning in lopsided circles. The chord wrapped around his legs, forcing the boy to face plant into the leaves.

“Get up!” ordered Ayla.

Taryn looked at her and saw the face. “I need rest. My body won’t function anymore.”

“Shut up and get up! Do you want to pass this test or not!” Her face was unwavering.

“What if I don’t give a damn!” he yelled without really thinking. The fox stomped to the boy and beat her stick on his shoulder. Taryn grabbed the stick on its second strike and threw Ayla off the leaf bed to the hard ground. “What the hell is your problem?” he roared. “Why do you even help me if you hate me so much? Just tell me, what is wrong with you?”

The fox drew out a system dagger, “You have no idea what you are talking about so shut your damn mouth!” She charged and slung her dagger at him, barely missing his arm. Taryn grabbed her wrist to force the dagger down before she elbowed him in the eye and followed with a swipe to cut his chest.

“Ayla! That is enough!” roared Touriq as he ran towards the fight.

The fox pointed the dagger at Taryn’s eyes. He noticed that her face had changed from before. It was the face that forced a heavy drop in the boy’s chest; a face of pain. “You…have no idea…what you are talking about,” tears formed in the corner of her eyes. Taryn had never seen that side of her and it scared him.

“Ayla! Stop it! Go get a drink or something, that is all for today,” commanded the red wolf pushing her away from the recruit. As she exited The Branches, Touriq helped Taryn to his feet, “I’m sorry about that.”

“Touriq, what was that all about? I have never seen her like that.”

“Oh, nothing to worry about. Women can be overly emotional sometimes, right? Don’t concern yourself with it, just be here bright and early tomorrow.” Taryn shambled towards the cave until the wolf whistled, causing him to turn around, “Hey, good job today. Keep it up and we will make history.” The boy nodded and continued toward the dark cave.

Taryn slept surprisingly easy through the night and woke up feeling rejuvenated. He met Red Wolf Touriq and began his branch jumping. Ayla made no appearance throughout the morning or during lunch. A worry plagued him so much that he completely blocked out the red wolf’s question. “Taryn!” Touriq exclaimed.


“Are you ready to continue your Oegas training?”

The boy mechanically nodded and pulled out the hilt. Hours went by as Touriq coached his recruit on how to keep the chord straight and moving. Shockingly, he progressed a great deal by the end of the day; allowing him to keep the chord tight at high speeds. The wolf happily slapped his recruit on the back after he told him to get some rest. The next two weeks went like that day; Taryn and Touriq training all day with no sign of Ayla. There would be an occasional interruption since other recruits needed to practice on The Branches, but while they practiced Taryn was on the ground with his Oegas sword. Every night, he would go to the main hall and have a few drinks with Tisha or Ormul while scouting the room for Ayla. He never saw her. It was like she never existed. There was only more week of training left and Touriq emphasized that the last week is the hardest because recruits have to put everything together or they will fail.

“Okay, Taryn. No more weight boots and no more Oegas training sessions. From now on, our training will be practicing the actual test. We aren’t allowed to know the hacking formats but use your imagination. All I want you to do is to practice hitting the boxes as fast as you can and completing the course.” Touriq pulled out a clock and set a timer. “Ten minutes is all you have. Begin on my call.” Taryn’s body got low against the wooden the platform like an animal ready to pounce. His muscles tensed and eyes focused on his first target. “Go!”

It was so fast that Taryn had no time to realize how easy branch jumping had become. He landed on his first branch and began twirling the black chord of the Oegas sword. Like lightning, the pommel penetrated the first box permitting Taryn to pretend he was hacking an easy format. The next jump was just as easy at the first but the position of the box required slightly more concentration. Taryn successfully completed six jumps and six pretend hacks. On the seventh jump, there was only one branch within jumping distance and it was in an awkward position. The recruit’s leap was not accurate enough which sent him tumbling to the leaf bed.

“Shit!” complained the boy, slamming his fists in the leaves.

“That is not good enough. You have to concentrate more. Again!” the red wolf said assuming his position on the ground. After hours of attempts, Taryn found himself hitting a wall at the seventh jump. Frustrated, he sat in the leaf bed and stared up at the trees, cursing them under his breath. “That is enough, let’s take a break,” said Touriq as sat down. The boy laid back in the leaves and lost himself in high trees. Everything was peaceful until someone threw a bundle of wet leaves on his face.

“What the hell?” Taryn whined with his hands scrapping at his tongue. “My mouth was wide open!”

“What have you been teaching this boy?” asked a familiar voice.

Taryn’s body turned around to see Ayla and her beautiful violet eyes smirking at him. “Ayla!” the boy exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”

“She came to finish your training,” Touriq said standing up. “I have taken you as far as I can. She is here to help you finish. Now, shall we get started?” They nodded and climbed to the start of the course.

Before Taryn started the course, Ayla stopped him and placed a black glove in his right hand, “What is this?”

“This is a specially made glove to help you handle the pommel chord. It will prevent the chord from slipping through or cutting your hands,” she responded with a subtle smirk. The boy looked down at her right hand and saw she wore a similar glove only it was silver colored and looked heavier. A symbol was portrayed on top of her glove that Taryn grabbed and slowly lifted. For him, it was an intimate moment since most of the time they had touched it was usually Ayla beating him to a pulp. After a second of silence, the fox pushed her hand down and turned to the edge of the platform with a twitch on the side of her mouth. “First, watch me. Then try to follow.”

She spun the Oegas chord in her hand to an incredible speed before lunging off the platform past the first branch. Just as Ayla started falling, she threw the pommel at a branch in between the first and second boxes. With one stout yank, she swung herself under the branch until her body became completely upside down and adjacent to it. The fox let go of the chord in one hand while still holding the hilt in another, allowing her to steady herself when she landed. As soon as she stood up, she seized the chord again to spin it a few times around her shoulder until it was taught and then jerked it in front of her, causing the pommel to leave the branch. With another heave, Ayla slung the pommel to the first box behind her, pretended to hack it on her invisible wrist computer, and then spun twice to wrap the chord around her body to force it taught. The fox jumped in the air a few feet with one knee bent to her chest and as she came down, the foot on her bent leg slammed into the chord causing it to break away from the box at a high speed towards her. She whirled around in the same direction of the pommel and grabbed it with her glove hand. Performing one spin, stopping, and then twirling the chord in her hand, Ayla increased the speed of the pommel before releasing it at the second box in front of her a few trees away. The fox retrieved her pommel and looked back at an astonished Taryn. She branch jumped back to him with a smirk.

“How…in the hell…did you do that?” the boy could barely get the words out.

“The objective of the test is to hack all ten boxes within a specific time and with your body only touching a certain amount of trees, right? I simply skipped the first few branches most would jump to in order to hit the first box. By saving that jump, you will have an extra jump to spare closer to the end, which you will absolutely need.” Ayla placed her hand on his Oegas hilt, “Don’t be afraid to use it as more than just a weapon. This tool can be your greatest strength.”

Clapping below caused them to look down. “Well done, Ayla! It seems you have not lost your touch with an Oegas Sword. Good luck, I leave him in your hands, Red Branch Dancer,” Touriq said in a playful manner as he casually strode back to the cave entrance.

“Red Branch Dancer? Is he talking to you?” asked Taryn.

“We should continue training. You need to learn the specific branches to land. Follow me.”

Taryn and Ayla trained non-stop for the next five days. He would train with his Oegas Sword early in the morning for a couple of hours until Ayla ordered him to the course. The fox made no faces at him. She merely gave him advice and showed him how to advance from one branch to the other in a way that he would greatly reduce his time. Whenever the two came close, a silent moment would occur followed by a convenient interruption by Touriq or Ayla turning away. By the fifth day, Taryn knew exactly what branches to try and land on; the only problem was the seventh and eighth boxes. They were in such awkward and difficult positions that he would be forced to attempt a flying connect, which was one of the hardest maneuvers for a magna hacker. Taryn had never successfully completed the seventh and eighth jumps consecutively. He could only train with the boxes one at a time. The final tests for the recruits were being held the next day. He only had one more day of training to master the hacker test.

A thud blew the leaves in the air to form falling brown and yellow stars. Taryn stood up with a disgruntled look on his face, “Bitch!” he cursed at the boxes above him. “There has to be another path or way to connect to those boxes.”

“This isn’t supposed to be easy. You have to focus on the box and be sure your pommel speed is high or else it will not penetrate it.”

“I know I know…I’ve heard all this a thousand times, Ayla. It’s easier said than done,” the recruit rolled out of the leaf bed in a playful manner.

The fox walked up to the recruit and shoved him hard, “Is this a game to you? Do you want to fail? Do you want to leave everything and everyone behind?” Her face had changed for the first time since she started retraining the boy.

“What the hell? What are you talking about? Leave everyone behind?” Taryn scratched his head in confusion.

Ayla fell to her knees on the verge of tears, “I can’t take this anymore, I just can’t!”

The boy joined her on his knees and put his arms around her, “I don’t know what’s wrong but you can tell me, Ayla.” Without saying a word, she placed her Oegas Sword in his hands and leaned her forehead against his chest. She then stood up and left Taryn on his knees.

Before he could run after her, Touriq appeared from around the corner, “How’s it going…”The red wolf glanced at Ayla and then at the Oegas Sword in the boy’s hands. “Oh, I see. I thought she was over that. No worries, you just need to concentrate on tomorrow. Now, it is tradition for all the recruits to be interviewed by a senior wolf the night before the tests. You, however, will not be interviewed by a wolf,” the Bereaver stopped for a second, “You will be interviewed by the red lion.” Taryn was speechless. Fear and honor mixed together to result in a tightness in his chest. “This is a rare opportunity, Taryn. The interview is just as important as the tests. If a Bereaver does not deem you worthy, then you fail immediately. I can only give this advice: be honest. If you lie, he will know and that will be the end.” The Bereaver placed his hand on the boy’s shoulders, “It has been a fun and interesting time with you, Taryn. This might be the last time we see each other. I hope to see you in red soon.” Just as quickly as he appeared, Touriq vanished around the corner without a sound.

That night, all the recruits gathered in the main hall for a magnificent feast. A long table in the middle of the room was topped with huge plates of chicken, turkey, and pork. Bread, vegetable, and fruit trays were scattered about the table in an unorganized style. Taryn sat down with the others and thought how nice it was to not have the bantering or fighting which usually occurred. Dim blue lights flickered around the room painting everyone’s face in an azure shadow. Once the last of the recruits sat down, they all quickly dug into the loaded plates and wine bottles. Taryn looked around and noticed a few of his fellow recruits were missing. Before he could ask, Tisha’s wine glass crashed against the old wooden table.

“Where are Draur and Oldith?” she asked with a hiccup.

A few of them looked over to Asnyer who clenched his fork, “Draur and Oldith are dead. Red Wolf Nedarim didn’t think they could hack it.”

“What!” exclaimed Tisha.

“Yeah, our recruiting Bereaver didn’t mention that if you fail you are killed on the spot. I can understand why that gunsmith died, but Draur was doing fine,” the ex-soldier slammed his fists on the table. “It’s such bullshit! We have been training our asses off and they can just kill us whenever they want!”

“That’s why their numbers are the way they are,” Jeoldkim announced in his calm voice. “The Bereavers do not take every slob that takes their tests.”

“Shut the hell up, Jeoldkim! Draur was not a slob!” Asnyer stood up with his dinner knife held like a dagger.

Before a fight broke out, Lyridia turned her head towards an unsuspecting Taryn and asked, “So what have they been making you do, Taryn?” Everyone stopped and gazed at the boy who had just stuffed his face with salted turkey. He froze and moved his eyes around the table. “They have you doing some special training since you are a hacker, right? Because they think you are so much better than us?”

The boy finally swallowed his food, “No….no, that’s not it. I just have to take a different test, that’s all.” His face lowered to his plate and Lyridia’s eyes softened on him as the recruits leaned in to the boy. “I’m sure some of you know what I’m talking about. Someone else here must also be attempting a fox test…”

At first, no one answered. Taryn sat in awkward silence until Tisha finally spoke up. “I am. Touriq thinks my sword skills are good enough to become a combat fox. So I’ll have to fight a skilled wolf.” She smiled at Taryn, “Apparently none of the other recruits are quite as good as me.”

“Oh shut your mouth,” Asyner spat. “I’m plenty much better than you with a sword.”

Tisha winked at Taryn before turning to Asyner, “Really? Is that why your recruiting Bereaver spends all his time with Jeold?”

“Say that again!” the ex-guard roared.

Asyner stood from his seat and was shaking a fist until Zakil’s voiced silenced the room. “Recruits! You have all trained and prepared vigorously for the tests tomorrow. This feast is to show our appreciation of your hard work. A tradition we have in the Bereavers is that each recruit is interviewed by a senior wolf the night before the tests. This interview is a test of your mind and perspective on our society.” Red cloaks emerged around the room in a circle. “I will call your names followed by a senior wolf. When the wolf raises their hand please go stand beside them.” The Bereaver rattled off each recruit’s name, except for Taryn’s. He sat alone at the table. Scared, the boy nervously scanned the room for some explanation. His gaze fell to Tisha who gave a concerned look. “Taryn, you are requested in the lion’s den. Follow me,” announced Zakil.

They walked through wide halls Taryn had never seen. Eventually, they came upon a staircase lit with green lights and sculptures of lions sat atop posts at different sections. At the top of the stairs was a single black door with white animal drawings. Zakil opened the door, let the recruit inside, and shut it without a word. The room was massive with elegant lion paintings and dim red lights highlighting walls. A figure stood on the balcony across the room with their back to Taryn. “Come enjoy the view recruit,” the Red Lion said in his unique high pitched voice. Taryn cautiously approached and, after a seemingly endless walk, joined Esserad on the edge of the balcony overlooking the cave. “Tell me your story…” he demanded.

“My story?” replied the boy with a puzzled look.

“Yes, your story.”

Taryn paused and thought about his response. “I grew up in Southbridge with my parents. My family…” he thought for a moment. “Were red herb farmers. It was a meager lifestyle but we made it work,” the recruit stopped as he examined Esserad’s expression; he showed none. “My mother was killed when our town was raided and I decided to leave. Red Wolf Touriq found me and brought me here.”

The lion continued to stare off the balcony with a blank face until he cocked his head to the side, “Your father…” Taryn’s palms began to sweat. “Why didn’t you stay with him?”

The boy took a deep breath, “My father always looked on me as a burden. No matter what I did it wasn’t good enough. He blamed me for everything…even my mother’s death. I couldn’t live with someone who looked at me the way he did.”

“Was it?” asked Esserad finally facing the recruit.

“Was what?”

“Was your mother’s death your fault?”

A deep lump moved its way up Taryn’s chest and to his head. The most basic and prominent question about that night had never entered his head. Wide-eyed and speechless, the boy’s hands started noticeably shaking. “I never…”

“Come sit down inside. I’d like to talk about something else.” With no more discussion, Esserad walked into the red lit room and sat next to a bottle of wine. “Why are you here?” he asked before reaching for the wine. Taryn paid no attention to the question because he was still trying to unravel the lion’s previous statement about his mother. The question was repeated and ultimately reached his ears.

“Why am I here?” the boy restated. “I honestly don’t know and haven’t thought about it. I guess I’m here to find a sense of purpose; a reason to continue...”

“Pick one,” Esserad bluntly interrupted. The recruit stared at the lion with a bewildered face. “Every Bereaver here has their own reasons to be here, each just as justifiable as another. Just pick one of the socially acceptable and superficial reasons for your existence.” Silence filled the room again as Taryn tried to unravel the lion’s words. It wasn’t till Esserad sighed that forced the recruit into a panic state.

“What are your reasons to be here?” the question accidently slipped out of the boy’s mouth.

An eerie smile spread across the Bereaver’s face, “My reasons? Interesting…I have never been asked of my reasons. I shall tell you and, depending on your response, will decide whether or not to kill you.” Taryn gulped back his large cup of wine with his hands still trembling. “My reasons to be here are quite simple, unlike yours. I am here for power and freedom. You see, I did not have your luxuries where I was raised. I was born in The Fallen Colony.”

Taryn’s mouth dropped, “You…are from The Fallen Colony? My father made sys…herbs for them. Were they really a slave colony that burned down in a revolution?”

The lion’s smile showed his teeth through the red lights, “Indeed, I was a slave my whole life without power or freedom. But one day, I decided to take them! Tell me recruit, what is the relationship between freedom and power?” Esserad did not wait for a reply, “Power is the freedom to impose your will on others and freedom is the power to do as you will. As I’ve learned, you must take and seize your own power and your own freedom. I have seen kings fall and peasants rise. I have seen people take what littlefreedom they have and use it to seize power. I have seen people take what little power they have and seize freedom. I believe if one wills it enough, they can become a king. If they have the determination and the courage, anyone can obtain the power of freedom. So tell me, Taryn, are you a king or a peasant?”

The answer was obvious to him, at first. As he thought about the lion’s question, heremembered what Touriq told him; answer honestly. “I am no peasant…and I am no king. I don’t know what I am but I think the Bereavers can help me determine that.”

Esserad lunged forward and grabbed him by the back of the head. The lion’s grip was tight and steady. Did Taryn give a wrong answer? Was Esserad going to stab him in the throat? Taryn could only tense his body and prepare to fight for his life.“I see the potential. I see the possibilities. I can see you atop a throne and I can see you groveling in the mud. I believe in the former and I hope to gaze upon your reign someday. Will it prosper or be burned to the ground? I guess we will see. Good luck tomorrow.” The man released Taryn’s head, helped him to his feet, and walked towards the door. “Before you go, let me ask you one more question,” the lion looked down at the recruit’s hands, “Red Fox Ayla is training you to pass the magna hack test?” The boy nodded. “Has anyone told you why she is so odd around you?” He took the boy’s silence as an answer, “Haven’t you wondered how she knows so much about the test, yet she is not our magna hack? Isn’t curious why she treats you the way she does?” These were questions Taryn had wondered about for a long time but never sought the answers. “It’s because of our first magna hack. He became quite fond of Ayla and taught her everything he knew. They eventually became lovers.”

The recruit’s heart sank, “What happened to him?”

Esserad opened the black door and walked with Taryn to the start of the descending staircase, “Our first magna hack joined us ten years ago at the age of eighteen. He died during a night patrol and she never got over it.” Everything was made clear. That was the reason Ayla acted the way she did when training him for the test. “She gave you her Oegas Sword, yes?” Taryn’s nod made the lion’s smile grow even more, “Funny things, Oegas Swords, not many people know the chord connected to the weapon is capable of converting energy into itself.” He began to leisurely close the door, “Sleep on your thoughts and rest your body; the tests will arrive before you know.” Taryn stepped out the door into the green lights and started down the stairs.

The next morning, Taryn scanned the circle of Bereavers around the recruits for Ayla. They were all next to the fighting circle waiting for Zakil to start the first test. The Bereaver entered the fighting circle with a system pad. “On this list,” the wolf started, “are paired names of recruits with wolves. When I call your names, please enter the circle. The first match will be a fox test consisting of Tisha and Red Wolf Lyeus.” Tisha entered the circle after her paired Bereaver, a tall man with blone buzzed hair and gloves on his hands. “The first test for all the recruits,” Zakil held up a single bell tied to a string, “is to take this bell from your paired Bereaver. The bell will be tied to their belt and can only be removed by the recruit. All weapons will be set to stun. You will have five minutes at which if you do not acquire the bell in the allotted time, the weapons will be taken off stun and you will fight for your life against the Bereaver. It would be wise to acquire the bell since the Bereavers will not be trying as hard as they would if they were trying to kill you. Believe me, they will try to kill you immediately when the time is up.” Fear and murmurs spread throughout the recruits as did laughter and smiles throughout the surrounding Bereavers. Tisha smiled at Taryn who could only return a nervous nod. “Ready….” Tisha slung out her system sword while Lyeus stood with his arms crossed. “Go!”

One blow was all it took for the wolf to incapacitate Tisha for an entire minute. When Tisha could finally stand she coughed up blood and placed a hand over her stomach. The wolf smiled and taunted the recruit to charge. Tisha attacked with fierce strikes that only hit air, but when Lyeus attempted another counter attack she blocked his blow and kicked him in the head. As the Bereaver fell to one knee, she rushed at his belt but the angry wolf punched her hard in the breast. Again, Tisha hit the sand with no quick recovery. Charge after charge she tried swiping the bell from Lyeus’ belt. Every time she failed and was rewarded with a hard jab to one of her breasts.

“One minute!” exclaimed Zakil.

The recruit dragged her hands through the sand as her legs found their balance. No one expected the Bereavers to go on the offensive since all they had to do is defend the bell. Lyeus waited as his opponent stood to attempt another charge. Her first strike missed the wolf’s body completely, causing a loss of balance and another fall to the sand. It was hard for Taryn to watch and the silence around the circle didn’t help ease the apprehensive feeling crawling up the back of his neck. He could feel his body inching forwards. He wanted to jump in the circle. He wanted to tackle or hold down her opponent. He just wanted to do something. Tisha finally returned to her feet again and propelled a lazy lunge at the wolf.

“Time’s up!” And with Zakil’s announcement, Lyeus spun around the recruit’s attack and decapitated her with one swift blow.

Taryn couldn’t process what happened. He stood there, staring at Tisha’s motionless body. When Bereavers entered the ring and started dragging her corpse away, the gravity of the situation hit him in the chest like one of Ayla’s practice swords. Taryn took a few dazed steps forward until Lyridia grabbed his arm.

“The hell are you doing?” she asked.

“Wha…what happened? Why is Tisha…” he took a few more steps.

Lyridia held Taryn back until the boy fell to his knees in shock. He slowly grabbed at the sand and watched as one of his closest friend’s was dragged from the bloody ring.

Zakil announced the next pairing, “Lyridia and Red Wolf Ieni.” Low murmurs seeped throughout the Bereavers as a dirty orange haired woman entered the circle. She had brown teeth and a crooked smile. When Tisha’s body was finally removed and Lyridia entered the circle, the wolf let out a few barks followed by a sinister laugh.

“I can’t wait to rip your legs apart and have fun with your corpse little girl,” Ieni grinned. Lyridia took her stance with a serious demeanor.

“Begin!” yelled Zakil which sparked a flurry of attacks by both women. Ieni slowly pushed Lyridia back until the recruit rolled to her side and took the Bereaver’s legs out. While the wolf squirmed on the ground, Lyridia dove for the bell only to have her hand grabbed by the Bereaver. The wolf smiled and snapped the recruit’s hand completely backwards. With a horrific scream, Lyridia fell to her knees grasping a dangling hand. “Two minutes!” proclaimed Zakil wincing at the sight.

“I told you, little girl,” Ieni said clutching Lyridia’s hair, “I am going to rip your pretty body apart from top to bottom.” She then struck the hilt of her sword against the recruit’s cheek causing her to hit the ground with blood rushing from the mouth. “You think you are so pretty…hehehe, I’ll put you down a few pedestals,” the wolf picked Lyridia up by the hair once more and slung her sword at the recruit’s neck. A cloud of sand blew into Ieni’s eyes just as she swung, blinding her, “You bitch!”

The bells on the Bereaver’s belt rung and as she turned around a fist slammed into her nose. Ieni wiped her sandy eyes and bloody nose to see Lyridia standing over her, dangling the bells in a taunt, “At least I have pedestals you ugly rat.”

The wolf swiftly stood up and drew out a dagger, “I’ll kill you!”

Ieni didn’t take a single step before Zakil had his yellow system sword inches away from the dirty woman’s neck, “We will keep our traditions as they have always been. You will respect them or lose your head, understand Red Wolf Ieni?” She irritably nodded and stormed out of the circle. “Recruit Lyridia has passed,” Zakil stated aloud as Bereavers took her away to look after her wounds. As she passed by Taryn, she nodded at him with a subtle grin. “Next, Asnyer and Red Wolf Belrad.”

The duel between Asnyer and Belrad, a skinny mustached man, lasted longer than Taryn expected. The two men traded blows until the recruit’s sword landed hard on the wolf’s ear, causing him to be disoriented. During that state, the recruit easily grabbed the bells and passed the test. The following duels seemed to surprise the observing Bereavers. Ormul went up against a brown skinned wolf with a large scar across his nose called Quortar. The heavy set boy surprised everyone when two wrist blades shot out from his hands. An even more of a surprise was how he would block and counter every attack thrown by the Bereaver. Ormul sliced the bells off of Quortar’s belt and obtained them with little more than a bruise on his shoulder. Onum’s duel against a small female wolf was one of the more bloody duels because the Bereaver was too quick for the recruit to catch. She caused multiple bruises on the large and slow minded boy which had no effect. In the last few seconds, Onum threw his sword so hard that when it hit the wolf, it knocked her completely unconscious; giving him the victory. Whetherran had an intense duel against an opponent using an axe system weapon. The ex-captain could not block the overwhelming blows and simply had to use his newly acquired agility to dodge the attacks. After a few minutes, the Bereaver wore himself out, giving the recruit an opportunity to go on the offensive and obtain the bells. Jeoldkim’s duel was over in the first minute because of his incredible speed. He took all his opponent’s bells without even being touched.

“Now, time for our final combat test. Taryn and…” the wolf double-checked the system pad in his hand. He leaned over to the fox next to him and tried to whisper, “I was unaware that he was able to become a test wolf. Is this correct?” The fox scanned the pad and shrugged.

“You have to stick to tradition!” a Bereaver yelled from the crowd.

“Yeah, you can’t change it!” agreed another.

“Shut the hell up!” Zakil roared. “I know our traditions better then anyone here. We were just checking the names.” He paused for a second before continuing, “Taryn and...Red Wolf Draecher, please enter the circle.” The boy had never heard a place as quiet as when he stepped into the circle. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a figure run through the group of Bereavers in front of him. A face with bright purple eyes appeared from behind the Bereavers. Ayla looked at Taryn with frightened eyes and mouthed some unrecognizable words. Confused, the boy only gave her a smile as his opponent walked into the circle.

“My my…isn’t this a surprise. I never expected for my name to actually be called,” the wolf sent Taryn a mischievous smile. “Have you found any yet?” he asked.

“Any what?”

“Any weeds of course!” The recruit gave no response and could only watch as Draecher began lazily stretching his arms. “Well no matter, shall we see how far they’ve spread?”

Taryn looked down at the spot where Tisha had been killed and an intense heat spread across his chest. An indescribable rage rushed through his body. He had no idea what the wolf was babbling about and he didn’t care. The only thing Taryn cared about was getting revenge. He glanced at Ayla again but with a different face. A face that caused her to look confused rather then scared. There was some commotion near Zakil that caught Taryn’s attention. As bodies moved out of the way, he eventually saw who caused the ruckus. Touriq was frantically arguing with Zakil and the adjacent fox.

“That is enough, Red Wolf Touriq! Our traditions can not and will not be overruled,” Zakil pronounced as he waved him away. Touriq glanced to Taryn with a face the boy had never seen from him. It was a face of dread. But like Ayla, when Touriq saw Taryn’s enraged face he immediately stopped trying to persuade Zakil.

“So….” Taryn’s gaze returned to the pale faced wolf. “Before we begin I think I should tell you; I am a lazy person and don’t like to waste my energy on things that disinterest me. So, when I say I plan on spending my time and energy on you, you can understand it is a privilege, yes?” The recruit gave no answer as Draecher licked his hilt with a disturbing smile, “Don’t worry my dear recruit, I shall take good care of your blood...”

“Shut the fuck up!” Taryn roared.

Stunned, Draecher stopped talking and gawked at the boy.

Zakil raised his hand, “Ready?” Taryn gave one last look at Ayla who was covering her mouth with both hands. “Begin!”

It was instant. Like lightning in a thunderstorm; there was a flash, then thunder. Taryn barely managed to block the Bereaver’s attack which made a loud boom and sent him a few feet in the air. The boy stood up and took his stance with trembling hands. Red Wolf Draecher still had a disturbing smile as he juggled his sword from hand to hand. “How about I spice things up a bit?” the pale faced man asked, “I’ll only use my weak hand, how does that sound?” Taryn didn’t respond and only shifted his weight to his back foot for a more defensive position. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’” the wolf stopped juggling his sword and when it landed in his left hand, he charged at the recruit with the same lightning speed as before. Strike after strike skimmed the boy’s skin as he could only dodge or block. Taryn rolled behind him and blocked the wolf’s overhead attack. The recruit jumped and spun in the air with his sword held out, slapping Draecher in the face. Blood dribbled down the mouth of the Bereaver and he wiped the blood with his hands, “Hahaha, magnificent!” His voice was wild and terrifying, like Taryn had just released some other side of him. “Yes, yes! Let’s keep going! I want to continue and see more! More of the red!” The wolf rushed at him again except with a speed much greater than before.

“What!” Taryn shouted as an energy blade slammed into his shoulder. The recruit could not even see the Bereaver’s movements; only a blur and flash. A blow to the leg was followed by another to the head, forcing him to one knee. Taryn slung his sword through empty air in desperation. Multiple strikes beat on the boy until he was laid out on the red sand.

Draecher frowned, “Such a shame, I was hoping for something more.”

“I kill you…” the recruit pushed himself up with wobbly legs. “I swear on my life I’m going to rip your whole damn body apart.” The wolf gave an enormous smile and performed a little dance with his feet. He dashed at the boy again and just as he was a couple yards from him, Taryn threw his left arm towards the Bereaver. If Draecher had not seen the glare of fire off the metallic pommel and adjusted his charge, it would have undoubtedly struck his face. Instead, the pommel took off a portion of the wolf’s ear before it smashed into a cave wall made clear by dodging spectators. After Taryn’s pale faced opponent felt the missing section of his ear, his eyes widened with an even more crazed look.

“Yes! Go for more! You want more red, don’t you? Let’s have it!” the Bereaver screamed and threw his sword at the boy who rolled away from it.

“Two minutes!” announced Zakil as Draecher rushed at the recruit with a different metallic hilt in his left hand.

“Blood will flow!” yelled the Bereaver as an energy scythe erupted from his hilt and missed Taryn’s arm by inches. Another swipe nicked the boy’s torso, slicing a thin red line through his shirt. A small blood stain rolled down his shirt and through his pants.

“Stop! He is using a lethal weapon!” Touriq yelled.

“Quiet Red Wolf Touriq. Even a weapon set on stun can cause a tiny cut,” Red Fox Zacherial announced.

Before anyone could respond, Draecher charged again. Taryn yanked his pommel from the wall in time to keep the Bereaver at bay with dazzling and dangerous spins. The wolf could not get close as the chord and pommel spun around the recruit like a protective barrier. Occasionally, the boy would sling the pommel at his opponent like a whip. Draecher walked around Taryn until he saw an opening to jump in and attack. The two continued this dance until they both charged at one another with flurries of attacks that favored the red wolf. Once they separated, everyone watching could finally see what was going on.

The recruit had multiple gashes and cuts over his body which alarmed Zakil, “Red Wolf Draecher! Why is your weapon cutting?”

The pale Bereaver smiled silently.

“Stop this, Zakil!” Ayla cried out.

The crazed wolf charged at Taryn again who slung his chord around his own shoulder as he dodged the wolf’s attacks. He jumped in the air horizontally and spun while releasing the chord from his shoulder causing a chorded wheel to force his opponent back. Taryn then stomped on the taut chord to send it flying back to himself. He caught the chord, while keeping it spinning, and slung it at the wolf. The pommel missed and slammed into the cave wall behind his opponent. Draecher laughed and shook his head as he stared at the tight chord beside him, which was slightly moving. He looked up to see Taryn flying at him. The recruit’s fist slammed into the wolf’s nose, breaking it and sending him to the ground. Taryn then pulled the pommel from the wall, spun the chord around his body a few times before flinging it into the opposite wall. With one giant tug, he launched himself towards his opponent and as he passed over him, grabbed at the wolf’s belt. The Bereaver gave a frantic swipe as Taryn flew over him.

The red wolf stood up with a smile and prepared another attack until Zakil intervened. “That is enough, Red Wolf Draecher! Your weapon is not set on stun and that is not part of our traditions.” He paid no attention and rushed towards the boy. The wolf suddenly stopped charging once he saw the item dangling from Taryn’s raised fingers. Zakil quickly put his hands in the air as he walked between the two, “The duel is over. The recruit wins.” Taryn threw the bells on the ground and limped out of the circle.

“Recruit…” Red Wolf Draecher called out. The boy twisted his head around and returned a heated glance. “I look forward to more of your blood,” the pale faced man licked his bloody hands and shuffled out of the circle.

Zakil followed his fellow wolf out of the circle after making an announcement, “That is all for today’s tests. Tomorrow is the branch jumping tests. Bereavers, continue your duties; recruits, ice your wounds and rest your bodies.”

Taryn walked behind one of the numerous boulders laying about the sandy floor. He fell to his knees in pain and exhaustion. Other recruits were helped to the stairs or elevator by their recruiting Bereavers. He tried to stand but the stinging across his body impeded him from moving. It wasn’t until a familiar hand fell on his shoulder that he looked up from the sand.

“Time to rest,” said a smooth voice. Taryn saw the two, bright amethyst eyes but did not feel better. “Lean on me, we need to get you to your room.” They gradually traveled to the elevator and up to the main hall with little words spoken. Ayla guided the boy to his room and sat him on the unmade bed. “I’ll run a hot soil bath to help with your wounds,” she turned on the water and added bags of different colored dirt from her cloak. “Your wounds won’t fully heal by tomorrow, but this should be enough for you to pass the test. If…” a heavy hand unexpectedly dropped on her shoulder.

“Why?” Taryn asked. “Why did they have to kill her?”

Ayla grimaced, “It is unfortunate but it is also our ways. You must understand this eventually. It is best not to develop feelings with other Bereavers. The quicker you come to terms with this, the better.”

“Then why are you helping me?” he asked.

The fox stood up and brushed by him into the room, “I’ve spent time training you. Touriq and I want you to pass or else we’ll look bad to the others. That’s it.” Taryn followed her into the room and held her arm which caused her to yank it away from him. “What the hell? Don’t touch me!” she shouted in a strange tone. Again, the recruit reached for her but was slapped away, “Stop it!” Her voice was shaky as she backed away.

“I know, Ayla…”

She cleared her throat and responded in her usual confident voice, “Know….know what?”

“I know about you and the previous magna hack.” Taryn had never seen her violet eyes so wide or her face so shocked. She tried speaking but no words came out; only low whimpers found their way out into the air. “It’s okay,” the boy smiled, “I understand what it’s like. You don’t have to say anything; just know that I won’t fail.”

“I don’t know what you are getting at but clearly your feelings are making you confused. You lost someone you care about and I’m sorry…but you have to keep going.”

Taryn grabbed at her hand and was slapped again, “I won’t fail.”

Ayla backed away, “Good…”

Again, he reached for her hand, “Ayla, I won’t fail.”

“Stop saying that!” she yelled, but this time her head was lowered and voice shaky.

“Ayla…look at me.” She was barely able to raise her head. “I won’t fail.”

Tears formed at the edge of Ayla’s beautiful eyes, “That’s… what he said…” Taryn held her arm, but this time she didn’t pull away. The fox placed her hand on top of his and sniffled. Taryn didn’t say anything; he didn’t need to. When Ayla was finally able to speak, she whispered in his ear, “I came to warn you. The last box in the hacker test is triple Ridient layered. I don’t know how he did it, but I wanted you to know. Throughout the time I spent with him, he never mentioned nor did I ask how he hacked the last box. No one knows how he did it.” Ayla pulled out a black metallic glove with a symbol on top similar to the one she had and put it on top of his hand, “This was his. The day he died…” she stopped and bit her lip, “the day he died, he left this to me. He said it was a reminder to him, but ever since he found me he didn’t need it anymore. I don’t know what this mean to you but it might help. Good luck, Taryn.” The fox pulled herself away and left the recruit in the middle of his room staring at the black glove resting on top of his hands.

As Ayla closed the door to Taryn’s room, she caught a figure out of the corner of her eye leaning against the wall. The figure left the wall and walked beside her as she passed by. “You warned him, didn’t you?” Touriq asked.


Touriq shook his head, “You know that is against the rules. You could be severely punished for that.”

The fox gave him a sharp look, “I’m aware but you know the odds of him completing the hacker test. He needs all the help he can get.”

“The odds are ten to one, based on the betting going around. But do you honestly think warning him about the last box is going to help? Only one person has been able to hack it and he never spoke of how he did it. So how does warning Taryn help?” Ayla bit her lip and looked away from her wolf. “Do you feel for him? If he actually does pass, will you try again?”

Ayla looked him directly in eyes, “It doesn’t matter if he passes or not. It will end up the same.”

“Is that what you are afraid of my dear fox? Have you forgotten the symbol on your gloves?” Her body stiffened. “Seems like you are afraid,” Touriq stopped walking, “Don’t give up yet. I’ve got a feeling about this boy…as do you.” The red wolf then disappeared into the dark corridor while holding up a fist.

Red Wolf Zakil quieted the crowd of Bereavers and recruits. “Welcome to your second test! Today, you all will be tested on branch jumping. You will have fifteen minutes to complete the course. Like yesterday, if you run out of time or fall you will instantly be killed. Understand?” Silence fell over the recruits. “Well then, when I call out your name climb the platform and wait for my signal to begin the test.” He swiped through the digital pad in his hands, “First up is Asyner.”

“What the hell?” exclaimed Asyner.

“Dead man walking,” yelled Lyridia.

“Shut up bitch!” he growled.

Surprisingly, Asyner completed the course with minutes to spare. He walked past Lyridia with a cocky smile. She readied a playful slap but Zakil interrupted, “Next is Jeoldkim.” Taryn watched the other recruits go through The Branches with success. Ormul, Onum, and Whetherran all struggled but still finished while Jeoldkim and Lyridia, even with a cast on her hand, completed the test with plenty of time to spare. Once the recruits finished, Zakil made another announcement, “Well done, recruits. You have all passed the tests and will go through an initiation ceremony tomorrow.” He looked to Taryn who was sitting on a rock, “Taryn, you have a different final test.” Everyone’s eyes fell to the boy, “You will take the fox hacker test tomorrow. I would like to remind all Bereavers that we have only had one magna hack since our founding fifty years ago. I would encourage all to attend the test as history could be made.” Zakil’s eyes stopped wandering through the spectators and were the last to fall on him, “Get some rest recruit. Tomorrow, you can make history.”

A knock at the door woke Taryn from a deep sleep, “Taryn, it’s Lyridia, open the damn door!”

“What is it?” he muttered with a yawn.

He opened the door to Lyridia goofily motioning him to hurry with her broken hand, “I figured today will probably be your last so I want to treat you to your last meal.”

“Thanks a lot,” he said sarcastically. “Let me grab a clean shirt. Can’t die looking like slob.” For the first time in a long time, Taryn saw Lyridia laugh.

After throwing on a light cloth shirt, Taryn made his way to the door until the black glove Ayla gave him caught his attention. He stared at it a long while before putting it in his back pocket. Once he entered the main hall, all the Bereavers stopped eating their meals and looked at him. Taryn and Lyridia were the only recruits in the main hall until she left him just as he sat down. He watched her exit and Zakil enter with a smile on his face. “My brothers!” announced the wolf, “Today, we have a very special test. For those of you unaware, we have a recruit attempting the hacker test.” He put out his arm towards Taryn, forcing all eyes to fall on him again. “We will be gathering at The Branches in a few minutes. Taryn, bide your time with your meal and thoughts, there is no rush for you. Everyone else, hurry up!”

Slowly, red animals filed out of the room in odd numbered groups leaving only Zakil and two other Bereavers. “I must say, I am truly surprised you have made it this far, Taryn,” Touriq said folding his arms. “You have people relying on you; don’t let us down.” Ayla’s violet eyes did not leave the floor as Touriq continued talking about how important it was for Taryn to pass the test. He didn’t care about the wolf’s reasons; the only reason that drove the recruit was to stay alive because if Taryn failed, just like all the other tests, he would be killed.

“Follow me,” ordered Zakil leading the three out of the main hall and towards The Branches. Ayla never once lifted her eyes from the ground as they traveled to the cave exit and through the thin wooded path leading to the branch jumping course. He stopped staring at her and followed her eyes to the ground.

As they walked, the scene of Tisha being killed flashed through his head. Taryn immediately stopped. Touriq and Ayla turned around to see him shaking and sweating. “Taryn? What’s wrong?” Touriq asked.

“I…I don’t know if I can do this,” the boy mumbled.

“What did he say?” Zakil asked while approaching them.

Touriq quickly jolted around and escorted Zakil in the other direction, “Everything is fine! Just some last minute strategy with Ayla.” When Zakil turned back, Touriq looked at Ayla and motioned his head towards Taryn.

“Taryn, what’s wrong?” she asked.

He shook his head, “I guess the possibility of actually dying has finally hit me. I mean, look at what happened to Tisha. One second she is here and the next she is gone.”

“You didn’t have a problem with the combat test,” Ayla responded.

Taryn closed his heads, “I was just angry. I was caught in the moment and wasn’t thinking. It’s like…it’s like everything up till now has been surreal and now I’ve been tossed back down to reality. Think about it Ayla, there is a high chance of me dying here.”

She squeezed his arm, “Listen to me, you have been training, preparing, to pass this test. You can do this. Stick to the branches we practiced and concentrate when you are hacking. Touriq and I believe in you…just believe in yourself.”

Taryn opened his eyes continued with Ayla along the path. Just before they entered the course area, the purple-eyed fox stopped and grabbed Taryn’s hand. She looked at him with a comfortable face. He smiled, cupped her hand with both of his, and nodded before he followed the wolves onto the course. “Bereavers!” proclaimed Zakil, “Today, recruit Taryn is attempting to become our second magna hack. In accordance with our traditions, he must finish the course in ten minutes and hack all ten boxes while only touching nine branches. Taryn, please step to the platform and wait for my signal.”

The boy slowed his breathing as he climbed the ladder leading to the starting platform. Below, dots of red were spread like stars glowing in the forest. Taryn’s feet draped over the wooden edge and he bent his knees as low as possible. He closed his eyes and put on his Oegas glove once he saw Zakil raise a system pistol to the sky. Standing perfectly still, Taryn couldn’t help but feel like the blackness lasted for days. Then, just as he was getting used to the calm darkness, a shot broke the air.

Just as he had practiced, the course started with the recruit performing the first jump flawlessly. He flipped onto the first branch, slung his pommel and hacked the first box with ease. With a practiced yank, Taryn spun the chord around his shoulder a few times and a then released it with an increased speed into the second branch. In order for Taryn to get the second and third boxes, he needed to swing from the second branch to the third. The jump was easy and he hacked the boxes in little time. He made a lengthy branch jump to his specific fifth branch which allowed easy access to the fifth and six boxes. Taryn spent more time on the sixth box than he wanted because he encountered a hacking format he had never seen before. Sliding and motioning his fingers in an orchestrated dance on his wrist-pad, the recruit eventually hacked the troublesome box.

“Five minutes!” yelled Zakil.

After a routine swing to a sixth branch, Taryn took in deep breaths and stretched his arms. The seventh box had the hardest location and posed the biggest threat to success. The box was barely sticking out of a hole inside a tree. If Taryn isn’t accurate, he might hit the tree, but if he does not throw the pommel hard enough, it won’t connect to the box. What worried him most about the seventh box was that it required a flying connection hack, which required the recruit to connect to the box without touching the tree and successfully hack it while swinging. Taryn spun the chord in his right hand till an incredible speed was obtained. After one last deep breath, he jumped beside the tree, turning his body so the speed of the chord would stay high, and threw his right arm backwards, sending the pommel crashing into the box. With little time to react, he immediately began hacking on his wrist-pad as he swung on the chord. Taryn approached the peak of the swing still hacking the box. Right as he started to fall, he completed the hack and spun his body as hard as he could to jerk the pommel out of the box. The recruit tossed the pommel to the seventh branch but noticed something was wrong. He was swinging way too fast which caused him to over shoot his scheduled seventh branch. In a desperate attempt, Taryn connected to a random branch and tried to make his way to the eighth branch. Unfortunately, his speed was still too fast and he was approaching a narrow gap of two horizontal branches. Just a few yards away from the gap, he pulled up on the chord and shifted his body horizontally. The recruit’s body barely squeezed through the gap and he flicked his chord in a way that it followed the same way. Now, Taryn was free falling with no time to use his chord for a swing. He reached out with both arms for any branch sticking out from the eighth tree. His chest slammed into a small branch jutting out just the right distance.

“Taryn!” cried out Ayla running under the tree.

“I’m fine,” he replied lifting himself onto the branch. A pain hit him in the chest causing the recruit to breathe heavily. Taryn touched the left side of his chest and pulled away a warm red hand. He looked down and saw a small pointed knot sticking out of the branch covered in blood. He couldn’t worry about the small hole in his chest; he had to finish the test.

“Four minutes!” Zakil shouted.

The recruit painfully spun the chord and flung it at the eighth box directly across from him. A quick hack was followed by an excruciating swing to the ninth branch. The ninth box, being farther away than the previous ones, required a great amount of strength which caused the blood from Taryn’s wound to pour down his chest. He hacked the ninth box and, with a bloody swing, landed on a wooden platform at the bottom of the course floor with the tenth box.

“Three minutes!” Zakil announced.

Exhausted and bleeding heavily, Taryn spun the Oegas chord in his hand and launched it at the final box. A loud metal clink sound rang through the trees as the pommel bounced to the ground. The recruit pulled the pommel back with a perplexed look. Again, he slung the chord and again, it harmlessly bounced off of the box. Taryn performed a swift walk around the large box to exam its structure. After a few more attempts, the boy sat down with a heavy thud and clenched the wound in his chest. “How am I supposed to hack this box if I can’t break the outer layer?” he said aloud. Taryn searched his mind for any hint at the answer to his predicament. A small memory eventually caught his attention; the interview between him and Esserad. It was an odd idea to him, but he had no other options. The recruit spun the chord in his right hand and pulled the hilt with his left a short distance to create a small section of chord between the two hands. All of a sudden, the green energy sword shot from the hilt. Keeping the middle section stiff, Taryn slowly touched the system sword onto the chord. A green light began to fill the chord with an increasing intensity. The warm pressure built up in the recruit’s right hand to a point that caused a cold pain. Taryn continued spinning the chord, which looked like a dull green wheel, even after his glove ripped to pieces from the heat. Blood dripped from his hand before he sent the pommel towards the box. The pommel slammed through the outer box wall triggering gasps from numerous red cloaks. The recruit gave a light tug on the chord and lowered his head before viciously wrenching the pommel out of the box.

“Wha…why did he do that?” Touriq asked.

The lion looked at Ayla with a smirk on his face, “You see it too, yes?” Her eyes narrowed. “His pommel did not penetrate all three layers and without his glove, there is no way for him to hold the chord,” Esserad stated in his high-pitched voice. “It seems we will not have a second magna hack, how unfortunate.”

Taryn began whispering to himself in a low and angry tone, “I’m not giving up…not after all this.” He started spinning the chord again only to drop it after a few seconds. His right hand was badly cut and burned. Still not admitting defeat, the recruit wiped his bloody hand on the back of his pants. An odd shape made him search his back pocket. Taryn pulled out the object and smiled.

“What is that?” Touriq asked aloud.

The red lion and fox stared at the object in Taryn’s hand. “That looks like…” started Esserad.

His glove!” exclaimed Ayla.

The recruit pulled the thicker metallic glove on his hand and picked up his Oegas chord. Tarn repeated the same steps as before but grimaced when he tried to keep the speed of his spinning high. Though he could not feel the heat from chord, the injuries already inflicted on his hand were causing a great amount of pain. The green light filling the chord became brighter as he continued to hold the system sword on the small section. Eventually, the light became so bright that no one could look at the neon green wheel spinning in Taryn’s hand.

“Very impressive,” Esserad remarked.

The recruit let out a short roar before greatly increasing the speed of his spinning. He then used all of his body to throw the pommel at the box. A loud crash was followed by the retraction noise of Taryn’s energy sword. He gave a tug and sighed with relief before flipping out his wrist pad.

“One minute!” Zakil informed the boy.

Taryn’s fingers started dancing on his pad, “Shit!” He realized he was hacking an eight diamond format system, which was quite difficult to do even without a time restraint. His fingers have never moved so fast in his life; he was pulling, circling, spreading, and shaping as fast as possible. Everything was going smoothly until something during the hack caused Taryn to stop.

“Now comes the last hacking test,” Esserad said while folding his arms.

“What?” Ayla asked.

The lion answered the fox without looking away, “This hacker test is meant to test the physical and mental capabilities of potential hackers. The physical test one can train for, but the mental test is something one cannot train for. This is a true test to see if one can be a magna hack or not. It is simply…an instinct test.” Ayala looked back at Taryn whose eyes were frantically scanning the wrist pad. “Right now, he is going through certain formulas and calculations to determine what steps he should take next. What he doesn’t realize is that there is no calculation or formula for the next step. He is staring at a randomly changing octagonial line hack and the only way to pass it is to use what hacking instincts he has to predict the formation of the lines. Very few hackers have the instincts to navigate this hack.” Esserad stopped and glanced at Ayla, “As you could guess, our previous magna hack had such instincts.”

Sweat dropped from Taryn’s forehead onto his fingers as they hovered over the wrist pad. He had narrowed his thoughts down to two possible formations. Both had an equal chance of being correct, which made Taryn’s dilemma even more stressful.

“Ten seconds, recruit!” yelled Zakil with urgency.

Taryn’s eyes went back and forth trying to pick a formation. He suddenly motioned his fingers to the left side of the pad and drew two of them together to form a ‘L.’ He spread them apart again and added a third finger to form the points on a triangle.

“Five seconds!” the wolf cried.

Taryn turned his three fingers in a semi-circle to the right and brought them together. A small circle appeared in the middle of the screen which he immediately pushed. The thick door of the box cracked open and when the recruit opened it, he found a red cloak folded up on the bottom bearing a fox symbol.

Zakil was stunned for a minute before he announced to all, “My fellow Bereavers,” the wolf was slow in his words, “Please welcome our new brother and Magna hack, Red Fox Taryn.” Cheers were tossed around as Bereavers congratulated their new fox. Ayla ran up to him with a smile and kept her head low to hide her watery eyes. Touriq shook hands and accepted numerous compliments for training such a fine recruit. With all the noise and boisterous behavior, no one noticed Taryn when his knees fell to a large pool of blood on the ground. Ayla called for help while covering the small hole in his chest. A few Bereavers escorted the injured boy to the medical quarters in the main hall where the head medic tended to his wounds.

Taryn woke up the next day feeling numb in the body and stiff at the limbs. He wandered out of his room to find Ayla and Touriq drinking outside his door. The fox walked to the boy and examined his stature, “You look well. How are you feeling?”

“A little sore. So what’s next? Are all the test done?”

The wolf gave a faint glance to his fox before answering, “Next is the initiation ceremony. We usually hold the ceremony the day all tests are completed but Red Lion Esserad postponed the ceremony till tonight so you may recover from your injuries. Continue to rest and Ayla will acquire you when it is time.” Touriq patted Taryn on the shoulder and nodded to Ayla. She smiled at the boy before following the wolf down the long and dark hall.

A few hours later, after a relaxing nap and bath, a knock at the magna hack’s door startled him from a daydream. He opened the door to Ayla’s bright amethyst eyes comfortably staring at him. She walked in and delicately placed a red satchel on Taryn’s bed, “I washed and folded your new cloak. Touriq wants you to represent him in a high manner and you can’t do that with dirty clothes.” She unpacked the red cloak and brushed the fox embroidered on the front. “The hard part is over now. After tonight, you will be one of us,” Ayla made her way to the door but was stopped by a hand clenching her wrist.

“Ayla…thank you,” Taryn said. “Thank you for everything. Without you…”

“It’s nothing,” she interrupted as her free hand fell onto his, “All the other recruits are waiting in the main hall. Join them when you are clothed.” His fellow fox playfully shoved him back and closed the door after she left.

Taryn unfolded the cloak and studied over the fox symbol. For the first time since he arrived, a wave of relief rushed over him. He made it. Taryn survived the Bereavers’ tests and was now one of them. Being so close to the end, his mind subconsciously brought up memories of the beginning. Tisha’s face rushed through his head. He placed the cloak down before sinking to his knees. Tears formed in the corner of his eyes but refused to fall. The time he spent with her flew around his mind like pictures caught in a storm. Then, Taryn lost control of his thoughts. More memories flooded in, but this time they were of his mother. The tears, like his memories, broke through their dam and hit him all at once. Taryn sobbed over the cloak until everything was out. After minutes of uncontrollable weeping, he eventually composed himself enough to put on the cloak and stagger out of the room.

Taryn joined his fellow recruits in the main hall who all wore red cloaks with pup symbols. “Well, look here. It’s Red Fox Taryn,” Lyridia declared in an almost sarcastic tone.

“How’s your hand, Lyridia?” he asked.

“Fine,” she shortly replied as an awkward silence fell upon them.

The other recruits continued to talk amongst themselves until Red Wolf Zakil entered the room. He gestured for them to follow him down a steep, stone staircase. At the bottom, they passed through two large wooden doors which led into a huge coliseum shaped room. Bereavers stood around the circular seating with the red lion standing at the bottom. Zakil lined the recruits into a semicircle and positioned himself adjacent to the lion. “Recruits!” shouted the wolf. “You have all passed the tests required to become part of our society. Now, you will receive the mark that binds you to all Bereavers. This mark is now your identity. For your clothes can be torn and your riches stolen, but the mark is forever.”

“Forever the mark!” the Bereavers replied in unison.

A silver brand was brought out to Zakil and, judging by the solid red color of the symbol, Taryn guessed it was extremely hot. The wolf announced the name of a recruit one at a time and ordered them to their knees. A fox standing some feet away approached the recruit and held their shirt open above the right chest. Zakil slowly pushed the brand to the recruit’s bare chest and right before it touched he stated, “Forever the mark!” He shoved the brand on the skin and held it for a few seconds. Most of the recruits made a low grumble, except for Ormul who had a high-pitched squeal which caused a few laughs around the room.

Taryn grit his teeth as the cold heat seared his skin. Zakil nodded which signaled him to stand up but before he returned to his spot Esserad put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and whispered, “Well done. Now let’s see how far you can climb.”

“Let us welcome our new Bereavers!” Zakil said while opening his arms.

In unison, the surrounding Bereavers sang:

“In the darkness we play our role,

Accepting the penalties against our soul.

As long as I’m an animal, I will not yield,

Bereavers! It is time to steal!”

For the next few minutes, chaos erupted in the area with Bereavers pulling and grabbing at their new members. Ayla, Zakil, and some other animals formed a mob around Taryn which then moved outside the cave. Once outside, the Bereavers around the new magna hack climbed up trees and began branch jumping to the north. “This is it,” Ayla told him before pulling her hood over her head. “Your final test, Red Fox Taryn. It is not an official test; more a right of passage…your first bereave.”

She jumped and followed the other Bereavers with Taryn closely behind. After some minutes of branch jumping, they caught up with the rest of their group. A family caravan of four hovercarts filled with linens and cloths lethargically tottered along a dirt path. Zakil hopped next to the hacker, “Okay, Red Fox Taryn, time to put your hacking skills to use. Hack the last hovercart and shut it down. Once the others stop to investigate, hack the front one.” The boy stood up and swung his Oegas chord till the last hovercart came into view. The pommel penetrated the craft and within a minute Taryn had it motionless in the middle of the dirt road. With a few jumps, the hacker assumed a good position near the front where he launched the pommel again and hacked the first hovercart. As soon as the first vehicle hit the ground, Bereavers jumped out of the trees and began ransacking the carts. Men leaped out of the crafts with pistols or metal pipes while the women ran off into the woods. Clusters of system swords and blood smashed together as the traders were brutally killed. Taryn walked about the turmoil with a blank face. He did not understand what was happening. One trader charged at Ayla swinging a pipe that was blocked numerous times by her system daggers. She cut his hand off and stabbed him through the jaw.

“Papa!” yelled a voice behind her as a pipe crashed on the side of Ayla’s head. A young blonde girl dropped the pipe and ran through the trees just as Taryn rushed to his fox.

“You have to go get her,” she said rubbing her head. He nodded before sprinting into the heavy forest. He was easily able to catch up to the girl with his branch jumping. He threw his Oegas chord at his prey and pierced her right shoulder, allowing him to yank her backwards. A green light erupted from Taryn’s hilt as he marched towards the sobbing girl. The eyes that stared back at the new Bereaver struck him. He tried to press his sword forward but her eyes and face would not allow it. His limbs shook furiously as he closed his eyes.

“Ah! Good job, Red Fox Taryn!” a voice cried out from behind. Four Bereavers, three dogs and one wolf, landed behind him with smiles. “Finish her off so we can go to the next.” Taryn began to sweat and his throat tightened as more red cloaks landed behind him.

“Well, go on,” encouraged one.

“Yeah, come on,” said another.

“Red Fox Taryn, what is going on here?” The hacker knew by the voice that Red Wolf Zakil had just arrived.

“He was just about to kill this one,” clapped a dog.

Zakil’s steady eyes moved from the boy, to the girl, and then back again. “Go ahead,” the wolf commanded with unwavering eyes.

Taryn was sweating profusely and nearly dropped his Oegas sword because of his body’s intense trembling. He could feel the eyes behind him push his sword closer to the girl, but his arms would not obey. Zakil squared himself to the fox and started to speak until a dash blew by both of them. A dagger entered the girl’s chest with a spurt of blood hitting Taryn in the face. The figure stood up and put down their hood.

“What the hell are you doing, Ayla?” roared Zakil.

“That bitch was mine. She clocked me upside the head and I owed her. I would have caught her myself but was too dizzy from the blow. I had Taryn catch her for me. The night is still fresh; he will have plenty of time to bereave. Let’s keep moving,” the fox said motioning to all the Bereavers. Once they were left alone, her violet eyes fell onto Taryn like a ton of bricks. “What the hell was that?” He didn’t answer. He simply stood there, unable to look at her. “You have to understand, you are a Bereaver. You have to bereave. They will kill you if you don’t follow the rules. Do you understand, Taryn?”

His eyes found the bloody body of the girl, “Yeah, I understand.” Ayla nodded before jumping into the trees. Taryn stood there, staring at the girl’s lifeless body, until his fellow fox called out to him from the shadows. The two branch jumped for some time trying to find their other Bereavers.

A light caught Ayla’s eye and she immediately stopped on the next branch. “Stop!” she whispered. With light jumps and soft landings, the two foxes skated across branches till the light came into view. A small caravan of large hovercrafts was making its way through a hidden path in the forest. “We aren’t supposed to go this far out in the forest. The red lion’s orders,” she said while scanning the caravan. She turned to Taryn with a smile, “Screw it, let’s go.”

“If you say so,” Taryn replied making his way over to another branch where he pulled out his pommel. He connected to the last vehicle and begun hacking while Ayla leaped behind it. Eventually, Taryn finished hacking and read the information on his wristpad just as the back door of the craft creaked open. “What…the…hell?” Taryn mumbled as he read over the information. “Ayla! Get out of there, NOW!” he yelled.

The back door fell to the ground revealing ten armed soldiers staring at her. In less than a second, she jumped to the side, avoiding dozens of green energy blasts. Taryn retracted his pommel and used it to enter the fray. Green lights flew around the area, missing the Bereavers by inches. The other hovercrafts emptied their cargo of soldiers adding another twenty enemies to the battle. The magna hack slung his Oegas chord around, slicing and incapacitating whoever it hit. He wrapped it around one enemy’s neck and slung him into an oncoming group while using his system sword to block incoming attacks. Ayla’s attacks were more brutal and purposeful. She would cut legs and hands off to minimize the enemy’s capabilities while also going for killing blows. After ten minutes, the caravan was red and the ground covered in bodies. Taryn had not killed a single person, unlike the amethyst-eyed fox who approached the only conscious soldier left. She kicked him to his back and held one of her daggers close to an ear. Surprisingly, the soldier was laughing.

“Is something funny?” Ayla asked, slightly cutting his ear.

The soldier finished laughing, “You have no idea…what you are doing….do you?” The Bereavers looked at one another with confused faces. “You…stupid shits! Lord Rhaserum the Second will not take this lightly. You broke the arrangement, now you will pay!”

“Lord Rhaserum the Second….the lord of Trispike? What arrangement are you talking about?” asked Taryn.

“The Bereavers give us free passage through the forest while we support your raids on Peakwall’s outskirts…do none of you know about this?” the soldier’s face filled with fear.

“Now we do,” Ayla said before slicing his throat. Taryn gave her an evil look which prompted a response, “We had to kill him…he would have told his superiors what happened here and we need to figure out what is going on in silence.”

Taryn stood up, “We need to be careful. If what he said is true then a Bereaver is making deals behind our backs. Let’s go back to the hideout, we can talk about this later.” They grabbed some credit slips off the soldiers to show for their spoils before returning home.

Most of the Bereavers were already back and eating dinner when the two foxes walked in the main hall. Taryn and Ayla said nothing as they sat down to enjoy their honey coated chicken with rice. Everyone fell silent once Esserad entered and stood at the front of the hall. “My brothers and sisters, it has been a glorious time for us. Not only has our organization’s wealth doubled, but we have acquired an extremely gifted number of new members, including a second magna hack. I feel the upcoming times will be even better than the current,” his gaze fell to Taryn, “as long as everyone knows their place. Now drink, eat, and live to your heart’s content!”

Cheering and rough play exploded throughout the room. Taryn stood up and leaned to his right, “We have to talk about what happened. Meet in my room late tonight,” Taryn told Ayla. Just as he made his way towards the exit, a voice beckoned him back.

“Magna hack Taryn! Come here, I want you to meet someone!” Red Wolf Touriq was slightly drunk and lazily leaning on a gigantic wolf still wearing a hood. “Red Fox and magna hack Taryn, I would like you to meet Red Wolf Khormack.” The massive wolf let down his hood and smiled. Taryn instantly froze in shock. “He is a huge fan of hacking,” continued Touriq without noticing the boy’s expression.

Khormack extended a giant sized hand, “Nice to meet ya, magna hack.” Portraying an evil smile, he turned to his fellow wolf and laughed. The only thing Taryn could focus on was the missing tooth in Khormack’s smile. It was a smile that had burned a place in Taryn’s mind since that day. He grabbed at his Oegas sword but before he unleashed the blade, Ayla held his arm back.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Taryn’s body was on fire but he could not loose his arm from her. He looked at Khormack and gritted his teeth. In a low growl, the boy whispered, “He killed my mother….”

In shock, Ayla’s grip loosened allowing Taryn to break away and charge at the smile that has haunted him for all these years.

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