She walked out of the room, tears still pouring down her face. It was her fault, all her fault, that no one had come back. She had been the one to convince them. She told them it would be an adventure. Then she had backed out; she had been too scared to go. Her brother, her sister, her parents went on while she stayed home awaiting their return. No bodies were ever found.
She had lost everything that day, and now had to turn to the one person she had sworn to never turn to. She despised herself every day for having to turn to him. She hadn’t seen him since her parents had told him to get out of the house. They had shouted at him that he was a traitor and he was no son of theirs. She had been a mere eight-year-old, and had watched the scene through the crack in the door. She watched the feet storm around the small room as if in some strange ethereal dance.
She turned, her tangled black hair whipping and almost hitting him in the face. He took a step back and she gave a small nod in apology.
“You forgot this,” he handed her a crisp white envelope and she tried not to let her fear at this trivial mistake show.
“Thank you.” Her small, but crisp voice rang through the silent hallway. She tried to sound as though she didn’t care, as though she had no feelings. She tried to hide all her emotions, and for a moment, it was as though the crack in her heart that had started when her brother left had broken completely. A moment later it was gone and the man looking at her had to wonder if it had been there at all.
It was as though, for a split second, she actually had traces of humanity left in her. Traces that were otherwise abolished or concealed. Then it was gone, as swiftly as it had come. The shivering man walked back into his office and to the mounds of new, but not entirely unexpected, paperwork that lay before him.
The girl turned and ran her finger over the large scar on her shoulder, then on the smaller ones that dotted both of her arms. A sign of triumph, of success, of bravery. To her, they meant none of that. They were a sign of the cowardice she had shown on one day, and how one small act was all it took to change everything.
She was trying hard to not let the tears show. She wiped them away one more time, adjusted her tank top, and walked through the front doors. She stared at the way people walked away from her. She couldn’t understand why, then she remembered about the large scar that ran in a crescent from eye to lip. It was supposed to show her bravery. She had gotten it from the latest fight and knew it had been broadcasted everywhere. Warrior battles often were. She tried to ignore the stares of gross fascination from linguists, mages, and artisans, as she walked through the heavily populated streets to the train. She pressed her living sector and waited for a purple train to take her away from all the staring eyes and abruptly self-conscious people. Where she was going, no one would look twice at her. She would be just another monotone face in the crowd, and those who did recognize her would know better than to stare.
She turned and saw Dane standing next to her. She shoved the dagger, which had been drawn out of instinct, back into her boot and glared at him. He creased his eyebrows slightly, making the scar that ran across his forehead crease. The center of the scab peeled off, making a drop of blood run down his face.
“You know, if you keep doing that, that wound will never heal,” she responded in a hushed voice. He glared at her before doing it again.
“How’d today go?”
“You mean terrible?”
“Obviously,” she replied sarcastically. Dane was one of three who could detect the fear and anxiety that still traced her voice and he knew instantly why.
“You know, you could have picked another sponsor. I’m sure they’d be lining up to be with you.” Dane’s tone was kind and consoling, but she could sense the hidden bitterness behind those words. He had wanted so badly to be first, he had been born for it. His family had trained him and even at age seven, he had been ranked first even before the ten-year-old recruits.
“Actually, no one else wanted me, thought the battles were all staged.”
“What?” Dane’s voice sounded shocked which barely concealed his savage pleasure at her being turned away.
“He blackmailed them all, I expect, so they’ll have to go with the next best, which just so happens to be you.” Her voice was listless, hopeless, and defeated. A tone no warrior with any pride would ever use. Dane was shocked at the way she gave up. He didn’t know her past. Didn’t know why the girl dreaded being anywhere close to her new sponsor. All he knew was that he could have a chance at beating his best friend.
He stared at her as she responded with a weak nod, then looked out to the dead grass and fallen trees that accompanied every train ride.
The sky was a strange greenish yellow color today. It had changed slightly from the green-grey that it had been for the last few weeks. She stared at it for awhile, watching the swirling clouds and flashing sun. In between two clouds, she could just make out the exploding star in the distance.
She remembered sitting up on the roof with her brother and sister. A single tear slipped out of her eye and dropped onto the floor. Dane looked at her, but didn’t move. He knew better than to move.
She brushed past the others, ignoring their shouts of indignation. She didn’t care what they thought; they all knew she could beat them to an inch of their life if she wanted to.
“Bye then.” Dane’s voice was a forced monotone that she knew all too well.
They are watching us, always, and we can’t help you although we wish we could, was what she forced into her mind, as she fought to keep another wave of tears back.
“Bye,” she said, choked up, then ran back towards her house. She couldn’t believe that she was crying in public. The last time she had done that was when she was eight. When she learned the price of her cowardice.
She sprinted past people, turning one way and another. They all had some marks on them, at least one mark that showed they were warriors. They got their first on the day they were taken from their families. At age eight, a person is deemed whether they are to stay with their family and be trained, or if they are to be ripped away screaming and become a warrior or a chieftain. As a warrior, you are trained rigorously, without rest, to become the perfect soldier, to think of no one. They are human after all, so society accepts they can not be perfect. So, they must only be imperfect with other warriors. No artisans, linguists, mages, and most importantly, no chieftains can see them weak. As for chieftains training, everyone would rather be a warrior, even if it means certain death.
The girl lay on her bed, thinking about her family. They knew something. She had decided that, who had told the government that they knew? The answer came to her lips effortlessly, the person she despised the most, the person she had sworn never to talk to again, the person who was now her sponsor. Him… she couldn’t think about him anymore. She couldn’t go back to who she — who they both used to be.
She jumped up abruptly and the unsturdy building shook with her. Below, she heard the sounds of startled warriors jumping to their feet as well. She had shown so much weakness that, had she not been the best fighter in Umber, she would have been eradicated. Glancing in the mirror, she stood shocked at her face, it was white with streaks of red showing where her red tears had fallen.
Her eyes were a bloodshot blue, and her black hair was lying knotted and messy but almost perfectly straight. With her blood red lips she looked like a vampire. Letting out a soft laugh at the thought of vampires, she grabbed her washing basin. Her face returned to its usual pale white and her eyes were already shifting back to its dark swirling purple.
She stared into her own eyes and felt as though she was being transported to another place. A place where she would be safe. A place where she could be happy. A place where she could do whatever she wanted. The thought of safety was so comforting that she started smiling. Then she realized it was all fake. She was not safe. They saw everything, heard everything, knew what everyone was thinking. The illusion of safety was all it ever would be, an illusion. Even her closest friends couldn’t be trusted. They had all been trained with one instinct burned into every sinew of every muscle, of every cell, of every bone in their bodies survival of the fittest.
She walked out, sword swinging menacingly on her hip and watched as warriors nodded to her, acknowledging her record time to return to unfeeling. It was a bit of a game between them, who could recover the fastest after a weakening. She smirked to herself, she had beat her own record by 13 minutes.
“Warriors!” They all turned as one to see a mage standing in the center of the commons. It was a grassy field where the warriors practiced in their free time. A mage had set up an enchantment where anyone who died on the field would resurrect a few minutes later. She grinned faintly to herself, this would be interesting.
“At the end of this week, we are starting the Tournament.”
Murmurs of excitement rippled throughout the commons. The Tournament happens once every four years. During the Tournament warriors take longer to come back the more they are killed during the games. If you are killed too many times, you never come back. It removes the weakest, leaving only the strongest alive.
The girl smirked and snorted softly to herself. She planned to win to prove she wasn’t weak, to prove the death of her family made her stronger, not weaker. To prove that she was stronger than who she used to be.