Upon the next morning, their cell lay filled with nothing but awkward silence.
Luna dressed and peered at Raven. “Can you get out?”
Of course, I’m such an idiot! She approached him to examine the irons. The shackles themselves had no unlockable mechanisms, but the chains attached to them did. She picked the locks, freeing him. He stretched.
With a satisfied smile, she rolled her hair around her finger as heat filled her in awkward places. He’s tall. She forced the thought out of her head. “We need to go practice!”
Raven followed her, wearing a mysterious smile on his face. In the bloody light of the dawn, the arena complex lay empty, as if abandoned by time itself. The armory door was unlocked, inviting them in. Racks filled with all sorts of weapons and armor stood scattered across the room, most of them sprinkled in dust.
They grabbed a few pairs of practice swords, shields and armor and headed to the main arena. The carnage of the yesterday’s match was now lost to the past, washed away by Stallington’s slaves. As Luna entered the grass-covered ring, the realization of how massive the tribunes appeared from down below filled her with awe.
The pair of wooden longswords served them well as they engaged in a warm-up spar.
Steps echoed from the gate, soon followed by Prince Stallington and a dozen guards. He pierced them both with a sharp look. “What’s the meaning of this?”
Luna froze, realizing she would be the one to bear the blame for this. Her mind started racing, searching for an excuse to use, one good enough to let her keep the job, realizing she had no backup plan or money for another attempt.
Raven smiled. “Hello, Jonathan.”
The tone and smile made Luna’s skin crawl. Stallington’s guards turned pale and cowered.
Yet the prince stood calm, undisturbed. “Was that an attempt to intimidate me?”
“Ah, well,” the prince said in a conversational tone, “I suppose you could do with some practice since you failed to leave unharmed from your last match. To prepare for the tournament, is there anything you two would desire?”
Raven looked at Luna.
I’m saved! The boulder rolled off from her heart, allowing her to breathe. She cleared her throat. “Morning and evening food service straight to our room, lunch brought here into the arena, lavender soap and bath supply for Raven and we need a place to train, in private.” She signaled Raven to add something.
“Food for Nibbles.”
Stallington smiled. “All right. I will allow you to use the arena for practice until the qualifiers start. Once they do, I shall have my men prepare you a suitable room within the complex.”
Raven arched an eyebrow toward Luna, the unsaid now what? shone in his eyes.
Luna smiled at Stallington. “Sounds good.”
“Excellent.” The prince spun on his heel and left, his guards trailing behind him.
Unable to shake the feeling the prince was merely toying with them, Luna readied her practice sword and spun to face Raven. “Alright! Let’s spar more seriously.”
He took his stance, his shield in front of him and his blade pointing over it.
For the next hour, she kept attacking while he dodged or parried her every strike.
Is he playing games with me? Luna growled. “Fight me for real!”
He sighed. “Sorry, but don’t want to kill you.”
Anger flared within her, searing and bright. “I can take a hit! Now move!”
He did not. She attacked him with a furious barrage of blows, but he stuck to mere parrying.
Luna stopped the flurry of strikes. “Fine! Watch this and tell no one!” She drew two of her real daggers, gritted her teeth not to shout in pain, and stabbed the blades into both of her own eyes. With a scream of pain, she plucked the eyes out. In her sockets, a new pair of eyeballs remade themselves within a moment. She arched an eyebrow at Raven. “So?”
He stared at her, mouth gaping.
She clicked her tongue. “I will heal out of any wound, so stop treating me like a little girl.”
For the next hour, they sparred as before while he weaved an occasional attack into his otherwise defensive form.
Yet Luna could not shake the strange feeling creeping up her spine. Every time she thought she could strike him, he moved with unnatural swiftness, a blur across her vision. He stilled after each display of speed and continued as if nothing had happened.
She remained silent for a while, but the specter of unease only grew stronger. “I’ve had enough!” she shouted. “Hit me the strongest you can.”
“Don’t want to hurt you.”
“I already showed you I would heal.”
He shook his head.
Luna sneered. “How do you expect this to lead to anything? How am I supposed to fight with you when I don’t know how fast and strong you are? You are sabotaging this!” And making me feel inferior!
Raven sighed. “Will hit you once.”
Luna charged toward him, planted her foot in the ground and lunged at his right side. He parried the blow but, in a movement too swift for her to follow, he sunk his sword into her chest, piercing all the way through her.
She leapt back, her wound closing. A sense of dread filled her veins, grabbing her heart with an icy grip. “What the hell was that? I’m not this easy to hit!”
He smiled. “Your fighting style relies too much on your regeneration and the toughness of your bones and muscles.”
She stared at him, gaping. “How can you tell that so fast?”
He sat down by the wall, sagging against the stone. “It’s what I do.”
She narrowed her eyes. “How long have you been fighting in the arena?”
He shrugged. “Time has little meaning in here.”
“How many winters have you seen since they brought you here?”
“I guess… sixteen?”
She shook her head. “We will be together a lot, but I don’t know how to make friends with people and neither do you, so how about we tell each other the story of how we got here?”
Raven gazed upon the sky as if he were to read from it. “First thing I remember from my life is being shackled while standing in a long queue of prisoners.
“When my turn came, a large man stared down at me. ‘Name and age, kid.’
“I knew neither. He tried again, but I did not have the answer.
“‘Meh, black hair… I will write you down as Raven, age six.’
“They brought me in a cell with ten other men.
“Ever since then, I have been living in the complex and fighting in the arena.”
Luna sat down next to him. “Have you ever been without shackles?”
Okay, in retrospect, my childhood wasn’t so bad, and I need to apologize to James. “What’s the thing you enjoy the most?”
“Nibbles’ company. From my work… I guess battling mercenaries. They come to fight by their own will, have a plan and are not afraid of dying.”
What did I expect? “What do you like the least?”
“Killing animals. They never deserve death, and I hate to watch the fear in them as they see their end has arrived.”
She made a mental note not to eat animals in front of him, for she was sure he would love how she breaks their legs and devours them when they are still alive. “I barely remember my parents and never found what their names were. My only memory of them is how we traveled through a forest. They were merchants, I guess, as I remember myself sitting on a merchant wagon. Then it came, a blur of fur, claws, and teeth. The creature broke apart the cart, tore people to shreds and then stood before me. I didn’t reach up to its knees.
“The beast picked me up with its claws, threw me to the air and opened its jaw to gulp me down like a cherry. I fell into its mouth, impaling myself on the teeth of its bottom jaw. I screamed in pain but saw the top jaw and the rest of the head wasn’t there. In its place was but a fountain of blood. The monster collapsed and I with it. Above me stood a man, tall with deathly gray skin and shining blue eyes.
“‘Tough luck, kid,’ he said before he spun around and left. I was so angry I kept crawling through the forest, following his scent or what I thought it was. I don’t know how long it took. I only remember the pure anger and agony.
“Suddenly, he stood above me once more. ‘Refusing to die?’
“His voice was alluring like the full moon while he was as terrifying as darkness itself. Next thing I remember is that I was lying in bed, covered by dry blood with remainders of a corpse by my side and the man towering above me.” Luna took a pause. “That was James.”
The beast within her grunted into her mind. ‘Why do you always mention how James killed me and not the part where he put my soul into you so you would live?’
Because I wish you never existed. She raised her chin, banishing the beast from her thoughts.
Raven smiled. “Sounds like a good man.”
Luna laughed. “When I recovered enough to walk, he took me outside, saying ‘Kid, I know nothing about raising children, so the only thing I can teach you is to become me.’
“I giggled, and he kicked me so hard all bones in my body broke. I regenerated. He did it again and kept going until my regeneration ran out. Then he fed me, and we started over the next day.”
Raven stared at her, his face but a mask of disgust.
“Only years later I realized this was the only way I could grow because my regeneration keeps me the same. We were doing this for most of my life, and when I grew older, he taught me how to wear a uniform, hunt, fight, utilize aether, escape from chains, pick locks, deploy armies, dance and hundreds of other things I don’t think I will ever use.” Luna smiled, her eyes unfocused as if gazing into the past. “And then he took me to his friend, Jean Pierre, who employed me in his smithy and James left without as much as saying goodbye.” She sighed. “At least he made me strong, or so I thought before you stabbed me like it was nothing. How the hell did you do that?”
Raven returned her smile. “Why can’t I shake the feeling you will not believe me if I say I used strengthening?”
Luna smirked. “Of course not. Strengthening is the most basic manifestation of aether, which almost everyone can do. I have fought that dozens of times, so I am sure my bones are tougher than steel and thus no blade can slice through them. But you did.”
Raven nodded. “Not going to tell you what my aether does.”
Luna shook her head. “Let’s give each other the general idea of what aether manifestation we wield. It can’t work otherwise.” She showed him her hand and made her fingertips extend into vicious claws. “I call mine shifting.”
Raven raised an eyebrow. “How much can you shift?”
“Hands and mouth… I fail at everything other than strengthening.”
“And the regeneration?”
Luna did her best to hide the smile creeping up her face, for he apparently did not notice her lie. “That happens by itself. But it drains my strength, so getting wounded too heavily throws me into backlash like every other aether wielder.”
Raven’s smile lost its joy. “I use my aether to temporarily change any aspect of the world around me.”
After taking a short pause to absorb it, Luna narrowed her eyes. “Can you show me an example?”
“Throw a dagger at the wall.”
Luna did as he said. When the dagger hit the stone, its blade shattered as if it was made of glass. She stared at the pieces, frozen. In disbelief, she lifted a shard of the broken dagger’s blade. The steel was cold and ordinary. The three thousand wins assigned to his name stopped feeling as an exaggeration. She gulped. While she doubted he could do this to an item filled by aether or a person with aether defenses like she kept when fighting, this was not from the realm of what she considered possible. Until now. “Okay, I guess we should get back to practicing.”
Raven rose. “Have an idea. To train, we both strengthen the swords to the limit. Should help us both.”
An uneasy thought crept into her mind. She skipped the better half of her power when describing her manifestation and the idea of Raven doing the same did not bring her peace. If this was the weaker, the less important part of his strength, then she was sure she never wanted to face the stronger half. She forced out a weak smile. “Sure. That sounds like fun.”
They trained for the rest of the day and went back to sleep in their cell.
A jolt of pain from the side of her head woke Luna up. She shook her head, throwing away Nibbles, who was biting her earlobe. She glared at the rat. “I will give you a bite, you little shit!” She reached after him but froze mid-movement.
He sat sagged against the wall in a pool of his own blood, cracked stone behind him.
“Raven?” She leapt out of her bed to rush to him. “Wake up!”
He didn’t move.
If he dies, I will be bear the blame and become a wanted outcast! Panic flooded her veins. Shit! She grabbed him by the shoulders and lifted him up. Luna dragged him through the compound, cursing at every step, wishing she knew how to carry him not to hurt him further.
As fast as she could, she brought him to the Healer’s Quarters and kicked the door open, not bothering to check whether it was locked. The rooms lay empty. Luna took a deep breath to shout. “We need help here, now!”
A sleepy voice sounded from a side room. “Is someone there?”
Luna carried Raven toward the origin of the sound.
The door opened, and a middle-aged woman with long, ginger hair stood behind them. She gawked at the blood that covered Luna. “Oh my God, what happened to you?”
“Not me! Him!”
The woman turned pale as she focused her eyes on Raven.
Together, they dragged him to her small infirmary. Flowers besieged the room that featured a narrow bed in the middle with stools and tables scattered by the green-painted walls. The woman poured a yellow-brown liquid over him and worked her aether, running her elegant fingers around his body, tracing invisible symbols.
Luna sat down by the side, petrified. She tried to pivot her thoughts to what happened and to what excuse she would use if Stallington wanted to cast her out for this. Not that he would have been wrong to do so, for she was sure it was, at least indirectly, her fault. Whenever something terrible occurred near her presence, it was always because of her. She dropped her head by his on the bed and squeezed his hand tightly. “Will he be alright?”
She sighed. “I don’t know. He lost a lot of blood, his spine and most ribs are broken while his skull is almost smashed.”
I am so sorry, Raven. Please don’t die on me. The cell was much better than being a criminal hunted by monster hunters. She turned to the woman, forcing her mind away from the exile from this region that was on its way. “Sorry, I’m Luna.”
“Samantha,” she said and then worked for many long hours before she finally succumbed to her exhaustion and dropped herself onto a stool.
In the meantime, Luna’s mind ran through all the possible escape paths, and plans were she to be blamed for this. No matter how much she analyzed her options, her only hope was to run back to Jean Pierre and beg him to accept her back to the smithy while paying off her bounty. Tears nearly shot into her eyes while the embarrassment twisted her insides at the mere thought of having to do this, but she saw no other options.
With her last bits of hope, Luna turned to Samantha. “Were you able to heal him?”
“Likely. I have seen him get out of worse wounds. I will go make ointments and tea.” Samantha rose to her feet after a short break.
Luna exhaled, trying not to tear up from the relief. “Is there any way I can help?”
“Stay here with him. He needs a friend more than anything,” she said with a smile. Luna had no answer.
Raven’s eyes opened. He cleared his throat before he said, “Morning.”
Luna leapt on him for a hug.
Raven groaned in pain as she did.
I’m so sorry! Luna detached to step back.
He smiled. “Still a little weak.”
She wanted to smack him but stopped herself. Fool…
They spent the morning there. Luna helped Samantha wash the blood off him and put healing ointments onto the wounds. Raven kept saying he was okay, but he had no real chance against them both. He wanted to go back to the cell, but Samantha denied him every time, insisting he wasn’t going anywhere other than to another bed.
I can do that. Luna opened the door and almost stumbled into Prince Stallington. She slid to the side, making space for him to enter while trying to appear as invisible as she could, praying he wouldn’t point the accusing finger at her.
He measured Raven with a cold stare. “You lost a fight?”
Raven turned his gaze to the ground. “Kind of.”
Stallington scoffed. “Pathetic.” He turned to Samantha. “Make sure he recovers.”
She bowed. “Your Highness.”
The prince spun on his heel and left.
All of Luna’s muscles unclenched, and as she exhaled, a wave of tiredness hit her so strongly she nearly fainted. She waited for a few minutes before she dared exit and search the complex for an available bed. She soon found an unoccupied room from which she borrowed a bed. She pushed it to their cell, snarling away anyone who tried to help her.
At least this much I can do for him. After arranging the bed inside their place, Luna washed the blood off the cracked wall and the ground.
She realized Nibbles was sitting on the table, watching her. “Sorry about yesterday.”
He squeaked in approval.
This rat is too smart. As she went to make her own bed and change herself from the bloodied nightgown, she saw a black wooden case hidden beneath her duvet, one decorated with carvings and a red ribbon. Luna ripped the bow apart, opened the case and gasped at the contents. Inside was a thin, double-edged longsword with a black blade covered by runes. She lifted the weapon, amazed at how weightless it was. At the bottom of the wooden case lay a note with a text scribbled on it:
‘If he tries something on you, stab him with it. James.’
Her eyes filled with tears. He remembered. She remembered too. Today was eleven years away from when she first met James. My birthday… and he almost killed Raven for stabbing me. That soulless idiot…
As her memory flared, she examined the sword. The runes were ancient, the metal unlike any she had ever seen while strange leather wrapped the hilt. She couldn’t assign it to any creature or animal she knew. At the cross guard, she found a small symbol of a rose. She knew this sword. James’s house had a wall displaying weapons, and this weapon hung at its center.
She stared at the blade for a long while, digging through her memory.
‘I want that one,’ little Luna pointed at the thin, black sword hanging on the wall.
James sighed. ‘You are not ready for it, Lunariel Laen’Ash, I’ve told you for a hundred times already.’
‘I don’t like that name! Give me another!’
James ignored her.
‘It sounds awkward! Everyone will laugh at me!’
He shrugged. ‘Nobody laughs at me.’
Luna paused. ‘That’s another reason why I can’t have it. I am not of your blood and nothing like you! There is no way anyone would ever believe it.’
‘That is not for you to decide,’ he said, ‘for one day, I will pass the sword of our bloodline to you. If it accepts you, you are worthy of bearing the name of Laen’Ash, and you will carry our legacy as the next of the forsaken roses wherever the road takes you.’
‘What if it doesn’t? What road?’
‘The road of your life. If it doesn’t accept you, then you will die, and I will retrieve it.’
Luna clicked her tongue. ‘I don’t want it, and I’m not walking on some stupid road!’
‘You are not ready, anyway.’ James smiled and kicked her in the chest so hard her body flew out of the house and almost shattered when she hit the tree outside. ‘Time to get back to training.’
As the memory dissipated, she knew what it meant.
Thank you, James, for everything. Luna turned the blade around and ran it through her own heart.
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