“At every full moon, all boys of 18 years will venture into the Shadow Forest, where they must survive for 18 days, one day for each year of their life. Mysterious and dangerous creatures lurk within the trees, some so hideous they are said to blind those who look upon them.
“The only way to survive is to tame one, to train it to protect you, and to earn its loyalty so it is never a threat to you. Very few manage to tame creatures, and even fewer tame one strong enough to keep them alive for 18 days.
“Most of you have heard tales of The Master. The Master is dangerous and is to be killed immediately if seen. Creatures will follow his every command and you will be killed if the Master finds you.
“After 18 days, you will be taken out of the Shadow Forest, dead or alive. If you are alive then you will receive wealth beyond anything you could ever imagine, if you are dead then your family will receive one year’s worth of rations.
“If you refuse to participate in the Taming Game, you will receive neither wealth nor will your family receive rations and you will remain in the slums of the kingdom for the rest of your life.
“Now it is time to choose, when your surname is called, you will step into the circle and either spill your blood or lose your ring.”
I let out a relieved sigh as the old man finally finishes his speech. He repeats the same thing every full moon, word for word.
His voice is raspy and he constantly wheezes when he talks. He is over 75 years old, I am still not sure how he hasn’t died yet as nobody in this kingdom lives past 40.
Most don’t even make it past 18, but those who do have creatures of all sorts at their side. The old man has a brown bird perched atop his walking stick, its eyes are a bloody red and its grey beak is serrated like the blade of a knife. It is the size of an eagle and keeps a cautious eye over all who approach the old man.
I remember vaguely that the creature is called a Kraveign, one of the most mysterious that has ever come out of the Shadow Forest. No one knows what it does or how it protected the old man during his Taming Game, probably because no one is brave enough to ask with the creature always at his side.
I watch as many boys have their surnames called and step into the circle of stones. Almost all immediately slide a knife across their palm, and let their blood drip into the bowl the old man holds.
One boy drops his family ring into the bowl and shouts erupt from the crowd watching. Insults are thrown, harsh enough that he starts to sob loudly and I mutter a curse under my breath.
The old man dips his fingers into the bowl of blood and paints a mark onto the boy’s forehead. He suddenly runs into the crowd, no doubt to escape the embarrassment and shame of refusing to participate in the Taming Game.
“Lance!” I hear and walk up to the old man, grabbing a knife from my boot and sliding it across my hand. I wince slightly at the painful sting before allowing my blood to drip into the bowl. I watch as it mixes with the other boys’ blood before pushing through the crowd.
I get many slaps on my back and words of praise but I ignore it, only concerned on making it though the mass of people. I finally break through to the other side of the crowd and glance around at the empty streets.
The ceremony is held in the heart of the kingdom, and nearly everyone attends. I walk along a wide street of white stone, following the other boys to a large building.
I walk through the wooden door and gape at the inside. Weapons cover the walls, swords, axes, bows, whips, and dozens more I can’t even name. There is a man in the center of the room with a grey Saimich sitting proudly at his side.
I stare in amazement at the Saimich. I have heard stories of the creature, but have never seen one in person. It looks like a large cat at first, but if you look closer you can see that its fur is actually made of thousands of tiny, barbed spikes. Its tail swishes back and forth and its yellow eyes dart around with an alertness that is almost frightening.
The man beside it is well-built and his skin is littered with jagged scars. The worst is a claw mark running from his ear to the corner of his mouth. His lips seem to be set in a permanent grimace as he looks at us through narrowed eyes.
The room slowly fills with boys and I suddenly realize how strangely quiet they all are.
“Each of you will choose one weapon to bring into the Forest. You will train with it for the three days before the Taming Game begins.
“This will be the only thing you may bring into the Forest with you so choose wisely, your life will depend on it,” he tells us in a low, rumbling voice that sounds almost like a growl.
Nearly all the boys immediately rush forward to snatch the biggest axe or sword they can find. I look around the wall much more calmly before grinning and walking towards the bows.
I find a nice one made from carved maple wood and lift it off the wall to test it out. It is very light but still resilient.
My fingers wrap around the smooth grip of the bow and I place my fingers along the drawstring.
“Careful, the draw weight on that bow is 150 pounds,” the man says, walking to my side.
“I’ve practiced on a 160 that my father made for me. I think I can handle this one,” I snort, pulling back the string with ease.
“Impressive, well you are going to need some high quality arrows if you are going to use a bow. For example, these are the best for hunting small animals, but these are great for killing much larger prey. They each have different benefits and consequences but it depends on what you think would work best for you,” he explains, showing me the different arrows available.
I look through all of them several times before deciding on a quiver of red arrows. They are very durable and have razor sharp, barbed heads that can cut through nearly anything. I sling the quiver over my shoulder with my bow beside it.
“You may all return home now. In three days you must be at the entrance to the Shadow Forest by sunrise or you will be considered a deserter,” the man warns, opening the doors to let us exit the armory.
I watch as some boys run home with excited smiles while others look almost nauseous. I walk down the stone path that runs through the kingdom, starting at my village and ending at the entrance to the castle.
There is a massive wall that surrounds the entire kingdom, and the slums where I live are right at the edge. The houses are made of stone that crumbles and wood that splinters, and they are more like shacks than anything.
All the men and women that are outside, are covered in a layer of dirt and wear torn, ragged clothes. Children run around, the youngest ones are completely naked but don’t even seem to notice it.
I shake my head and smile in amusement at two boys chasing each other with stick swords. I hear my name called and look up to see my mother waving at me from where she is tending her garden.
I jog up to her and pull her into a tight embrace. She buries her face in my shoulder, wetting my shirt with salty tears.
“Mom, why are you crying?” I ask, pulling away to look at her face.
“Because I don’t want you to end up like my brother, or your father,” she says and I sigh.
“I will be fine. I have been training since I was 12, I have a great bow and my hunting skills are the best in the kingdom,” I reassure her, putting my hands on either side of her face.
“I am still worried, you’ve heard the stories. Maybe you can handle the creatures but what about the Master?” She mutters quietly.
“Mom, I will be fine. Okay?”
“Okay,” she sighs and I give her a small smile.
“Where is Kyza?” I ask and she shrugs.
“I don’t know, I went to wake her up this morning but she was gone and hasn’t come back since. She was pretty upset yesterday when she found out that you are participating in the Taming Game.” I sigh and run a hand through my hair in frustration.
“I’ll go find her, she is probably just hunting or something,” I mutter and give my mother a quick kiss on the cheek before leaving her to finish her gardening.
I head towards the wall, about a five minute walk from my house. It stands several dozen feet high with small drainage tunnels for when the summer rains come.
Each tunnel is blocked by thick iron bars, too close together for even most animals to fit through. I walk along the wall until I find a tunnel that is hidden by a massive bush.
I crawl behind it and twist one of the bars until I can remove it. My sister Kyza had somehow managed to loosen the bar a couple years ago and planted the bush to cover it.
My breath catches in my throat as I squeeze through the gap, barely making it through. I twist the bar back into place and crawl through the tunnel until I reach the forest on the other side.
The kingdom is completely surrounded by an enormous forest that stretches for hundreds of miles.
It is separated into two forests, the Shadow Forest, and the Cloud Forest. The Cloud Forest is right outside the wall and merges into the Shadow Forest, but the boundary is very clear to see.
We use the Cloud Forest for hunting, as there are only normal animals inside and no creatures from the Shadow Forest have ever been spotted in it.
I remove the bow from my shoulder and notch an arrow as I enter the forest. Colorful leaves crunch under my boots as I move through the trees.
I walk for about a mile before spotting a small wooden house in the canopy of a big oak tree. I see a shadow in the tiny window and smile a little.
I find a rock under the leaves and throw it at the window. It hits the wood underneath with a loud thud.
The shadow suddenly vanishes but nobody descends from the house, making my eyebrows furrow in confusion. I walk up to the tree and peer up at the door that appears to be locked tight.
“Kyza?” I call but there is no answer. I suddenly feel something sharp pressing against my neck and my eyes widen in fear.
I put my hands up in surrender quickly and turn to look behind me but the sharp point of a blade presses further into my skin. I look forward again and swallow hard.
“Please don’t kill me,” I plead as the blade starts to cut into my skin. I feel wetness trickle down from my neck and close my eyes.
This is how I am going to die, not by a vicious creature in the Dark Forest or by the Master. I am going to die in the Cloud Forest, the forest that is supposed to be safe. How ironic.