Yukiko's Journal: Entry #5
"It's been some time since the incident with the Water Reeban back on Captain Brigard's ship, but I find myself thinking back to it often. Specifically, I recall the time I had passed out, and Orrin, I presume, saved me from drowning.
Strangely, during the time I spent unconscious, I found Orrin's mind more receptive to me, and something buried within him leaked into my mind. However, I cannot make sense of what I saw. Initially I drifted through darkness, and then as what seemed to be memories settled in, I found myself watching a blur of colors mush together and listened to a collage of overwhelming noise. I think I heard a chorus of many screams, and I think I saw violence, but the memories—as well as my own recollection—were hazy at best.
When I awoke, it felt as if I had broken the surface of a cold ocean only to escape into frosted air. I didn't realize until then how terrified I had been during my slumber, only recognizing this because of the immense relief that washed over me when I woke. But it was an odd, foreign terror, as if it were detached from a cause. This by itself disturbs me, but in hindsight it disturbs me more to realize that it was Orrin's emotion. His heart had also opened to me. I pray that his terror was a recent one, perhaps fearing I had drowned, but something tells me that it was attached to those memories; those sounds.
If I trust my sorcerer's instinct, I can only assume that some part of him was reaching out for my help. How he needs help and why are questions that remain unanswered, but for now I will simply do what I can: train and protect. Hopefully the answers will surface in time."
"Leave the stuff here. Get shoes on your feet, grab a weapon if you have one, and let's go. This'll be rough, so I hope you ate."
Orrin growled lowly at this. He'd been too busy waiting for Teague's girlfriend to leave so he wouldn't interrupt the romantic moment, but now he had to go hungry. Apparently the day's training would be rough to the point every ounce of energy would help. Teague didn't object, however, and grabbed his twin machetes, whereas Orrin went for his boots. While Teague had long put his buckle sandals on and only needed his weapon, Orrin had no weapon and avoided wearing his boots whenever possible. He'd grown fond of the feel of carpet between his toes and hardwood against his heels.
Meanwhile, Yuki stood in the doorway and watched them prepare, leaning casually against the doorframe. Teague announced himself ready once he had strapped his blade onto his back, but Yuki had no visible reaction to this, neither approving nor disapproving, instead directing him to stand in the hall for a bit.
Puzzled but obedient, he did as directed. That's when she shifted from her spot, allowing the door to close behind her as she closed the space between her and Orrin. He ignored her in favor of tying off his second boot, not caring that she must've had something to say considering how she positioned herself in front of him and waited. After a mere minute of her looming over him, he sighed and gave her his attention. She smiled, but it wasn't her usual calm or confident one… it was excited and toothy.
"You've had a rough time from the start, so I thought to do something nice."
Anyone else would be as excited as her, but Orrin was not like anyone else. He narrowed his eyes in suspicion, wary about any act of good will from her, though he kept such doubts to himself for now. This sudden favor only seemed more off when she spun around to hop over to her bed, pulling out what he could only describe as a man-sized letter "t." Since he couldn't think of anything useful shaped like that, he could only see it being a massive man-sized nuisance.
Either way she returned to his side and sat down, eyeing the wrapped object happily, but then offered the present to her trainee.
"A belated birthday gift. I thought you might need it," she told him.
Startled by the gesture he received the gift humbly, although with an edge of hesitation, still unsure why she'd bought him anything since he'd been nothing but ungrateful and rebellious. And yet it incited his curiosity, no longer paying heed to her watchful eye as he pulled off the cloth, anxious to discover what this mysterious object was… but once the cloth fell, the once-concealed object glinted in the light. What was this? A spear? A hammer?
Of course, he was a bit confused by receiving such a "present" but pulled away the cloth anyway and gripped its handle in both hands to test its balance. Two thirds of its long handle was coated with textured rubber for grip, covering most of the rust colored steel that formed the weapon's handle. At the bottom the steel curved outward, curled back in, then formed a spike, whereas the very tip of it donned a long and slender knife-like blade.
And yet, this was not a spear. It took on a hammer-like quality, a curved iron hook stretching out the back while a blunt, four pronged hammer-head stretched out the other side. For some reason, the way it fit so comfortably in his hands caused his fingers to squeeze the handle, and the skillful curve and solid form of the lethal tip drew his eye along its entire surface like eye candy. As he did, he noticed runes of some sort scribed into the metal, so he slid a hand up to thumb the engravings.
Her previous excitement had receded as she took note of every reaction his body language gave away, from the almost tender touches along its metallic form to the way those auburn eyes lit up with passionate fire at the glint of honed steel.
"That's the real reason I was late last night," she confessed, almost amused with the way he snapped out of his trance. "You needed your own weapon, particularly because of the many… escapades you keep going on, wittingly or not. Now you have a real means of defending yourself."
He only glanced at his trainer before eyeing the strange weapon again, trying not to get so absorbed in its design this time, "Well… um… why this? Why not a sword or something?"
She laughed and smacked his back playfully, earning herself a weird look, "Oh, if you knew how many people had swords, you'd say they're overrated. And they are. Besides, you need to go through more training to use one properly. With this, I figured you'd have more fun and still be halfway competent wielding it."
A part of him said he should be insulted, though he wasn't sure why. Instead of fussing over poor word choice, he stood with the weapon in hand and swung it gently down, then to the side.
She couldn't resist another smile, proud of her gift-choosing skills, "It's called a Lucerne; a pole hammer. The runes are there for portability. Channel a bit of magic into the metal, and the hammer will do the rest."
He quirked a brow, asking in his expression how that worked, but she hopped to her feet and exited into the hall before he thought to ask. Stealing a quick glance to the door as it closed, he gripped the handle tighter as he focused his magic into it as directed, and like so, the handle contracted abruptly. It startled him, and he almost dropped it at how quickly the metal shortened like he thought he might unintentionally hurt himself. While the hammer's head and width didn't shrink in proportion to the length, by the time it finished it was a quarter of its original height. Now it felt more like a one-handed weapon.
It puzzled him how that worked, particularly since he'd put only a miniscule amount of energy into it before the shrinking triggered, but he shrugged it off and rested it over his shoulder as he left the room. Upon reaching Yuki and Teague at the front desk, Yuki gave him a proper sheath to put on his hip. Now the handle faced upward for easy grab. With that out of the way, the trainer led the two outside and into the crowds, though that's about when Orrin noticed something amiss.
Granted, this city had nothing on Enoss or Torna in mass, but he'd already walked through the day-lit streets once, so he knew how much space to expect. This time, however, as they traversed the sooty, smoke-damaged street, there was too much space. It seemed like half the population had decided to stay home or go on a city-wide picnic. Busy scanning for the mass of people that he assumed must've been lying in wait to stampede him, it dawned on him that his theory of a city-wide picnic wasn't a crazy idea after all. Not a five minutes after his scanning started, the street became congested, and it seemed they were gathered around one area.
"Oh good" he'd initially thought. This way it would be easier to travel about the city to wherever they need to train. They'd all be packed together here, right? Not hovering and bustling around him while they went along their way. Apparently that optimism was uncalled for because Yukiko did nothing to avoid the crowd, and in fact, seemed content going straight to the center of claustrophobia-ville.
It took a few minutes of pushing their way past the closely packed zealous loiterers, but the three managed to reach the center, landing right beside a stone platform. Atop it was a line of warriors, patiently waiting with valor twinkling in their stern visages while the announcer woman in front shouted names out to the hooting crowd.
"—Kowlie, a retired knight!" she shouted.
Not a second later, a man climbed up from the crowds grinning arrogantly, although even without the grin, his "tough-guy" strut displayed his confidence and pride like a beacon. Once in line, the announcer shouted another name, and another man rose to join the line of warriors.
Then, Orrin saw a sign… both metaphorically and literally.
Metaphorically? Fear consumed him when he, after spotting Yuki's smirk, realized these buff and experienced men were going to be those "temporary partners" she had mentioned. As for literally? A big banner draped high above the arena read "TOURNAMENT OF TEGNER" which fluttered in the breeze to flaunt in his face that his trainer had signed them up for a tournament and he had no say in the matter.
On a less serious note, he noticed that most of the contestants carried various swords. He recalled Yukiko calling swords overrated. He found himself agreeing.
It also dawned on him that this was probably why she spent so long looking for a weapon he could use. Still, he hoped to his dear Moon Goddess that they wouldn't be called, and so he waited in suspense, hoping against all hope while listening over the roar of the crowd, to make sure their names didn't come up.
"—Minise Yurio, the archer," the announcer girl shouted, watching with the crowd as a bowman rose to take his spot in line. "Orrin Wikoli, the hunter!"
Orrin stiffened at his name, eye twitching at the added title, but when his stalling caused the crowd to search the perimeters for "the hunter," Yuki gave a light push. Instantly he turned to her with terror… to which she responded to with good cheer.
"Get going or you forfeit," she encouraged.
His fear switched to a glare, "Then I forfeit! I'm not going up there!"
She only smacked him over the head and shoved him forward, "Go up there or I'll remind you what cheap soap tastes like."
Orrin growled—especially noticing that the crowds had spotted him after that shove—but then he cleared his expression and climbed onto the marble flooring. The men in the line sized him up no different than ravenous wolves might smaller animals, teeth bared in insincere smiles as he approached the line… save for two. One narrowed his eyes in barely restrained fury, and the last one in line raised an eyebrow, neither mocking nor confused. This last one in particular caught Orrin's attention since that reaction was odd and he was the only one sporting a buzz-cut, but once in line beside this mountain of a man, the stranger chuckled.
"So pipsqueak, why'd you sign up? Money for a poor family? Money for medicine? Suicidal tendencies?"
Orrin gave the man a brief side-glance, unimpressed with the subtle jab but answering anyway, "Avoiding unjust punishment."
Surprise lit the man's face but he only chuckled again, "Yer funny pipsqueak."
As a stranger situated himself beside Orrin, the announcer shouted the last name, "Last but not least! Teague Padget, the sea master! Step right up!"
Teague stepped up without pause, unlike Orrin. To a stranger he seemed calm and collected, yet Orrin could see fear and anxiety riddling his friend's eyes. The Fire blood scanned the crowd to see how the people were receiving him and, to his relief, found them even more wound up now that a Ghenyu had joined the fight. Even the buff men in line didn't sneer this time, their wolfish and calculating gazes following the Water Ghenyu as he made his way across the stage. For a brief moment, Orrin disliked his own subtle Ghenyu traits. If his blood was more pronounced like Teague, those oafs wouldn't have thought twice about showing him proper respect. He was a predator, not their prey!
Off on the sidelines, the Fire Ghenyu spotted Yuki, who looked straight at him with deep concern. Even when their eyes clicked, she did not avert her gaze, and only after a moment of staring into her eyes did she break a smile free. Even then, she turned away and disappeared into the crowd. Somehow he wanted to shout for her to come back, feeling anxious now that she was out of sight.
Before he could ease this sense of vulnerability, he found himself following the group onto a boat beside Teague who clutched to his Fire friend's vest to keep from separating while they boarded. It was a normal boat, a stark contrast compared to the cruise ship, but reserved specifically for the fighters. The ones who wished to see the tournament would have to find their own way to the show, by their own means or a commercial boat.
A few miles out into the water, all fighters remained on deck, including Teague and Orrin who did a good job of staying away from the others, although none of them seemed too friendly with one another anyway.
"I'm so nervous," Teague whimpered, balled up on the ground. His silver irises flitted back and forth between the various fighters, shuffling closer to Orrin's feet as they lounged at the far side of the deck. "I-I'm gunna be the center of attention at some point. I should forfeit the first round before... I…"
"You better not," Orrin advised. "If you forfeit, Yuki'll be pissed. Besides, think about your honor. It'd be cowardly to run away now that we've joined."
"You don't care about honor," Teague argued meekly.
The Fire Ghenyu looked down at his partner, jaw tensed in impatience, "Say that again and I'll kick you. Even if that was true, having a spine made of jellyfish is not excused."
"Hey, squirt," a deep but loud voice stated.
Teague shrunk into himself while Orrin eyed the man that had approached. Other fighters looked their way, more interested in studying than participating, so Orrin pushed them from mind, doing a mental check up on what the man could want. His double-bladed axe remained tucked away on his back and his long braided beard—which seemed to be where all the hair on his head went—reached his bare, built chest. His buff arms were folded but relaxed, and the way his armored legs were positioned showed no signs of moving anytime soon. No threat meant no reason to be defensive so Orrin, after finishing the analysis and calming down, realized this man was three feet taller than him. Maybe that was why Teague shriveled away.
The man quirked a brow, amused at Orrin's lack of intimidation, "I don't s'pose yer here by mistake. This is a tourney, not a huntin' trip."
The Fire Ghenyu narrowed his eyes wordlessly. Truly the stranger did not seek to exchange blows—not of the physical kind, and this revelation irked Orrin. He didn't even debate what to retort; this man was not worth the breath.
The returned silence dimmed the humor only briefly, at which point he laughed out, "Even if it were a huntin' trip, squirt, what'cha plannin' to hurt with that dinky hammer? Too poor to afford a real weapon?" He leaned down to be eye level, continuing the staring contest there. "Didn't cher pappy tell ye? Ya can't fight with toys."
Though it hadn't been particularly lively before, the silence grew in weight with the added eyes and unspoken expectations. Some expected the Fire blood to lean away now that the large man was close enough for their noses to brush, and some expected Orrin to do more, maybe step back, or simply flinch. Even Teague, his faithful partner, watched him in suspense, waiting for him to look away; hoping he would, in fact. Instigating bad relations so early would only be trouble…
But Orrin remained stoic. Unaffected by the close perimeters and not twitching a muscle, every bit of him was lax, if not ready to move if the man pulled a fast one. The humor in the stranger's face had long drained and instead gazed with force into the squirt's eyes, but Orrin's eyes merely reflected it back. In fact, that stoicism gradually shifted to austere, swelling pride coloring his calm features with bubbling fury.
The man peered harder, "Cat got'cher tongue, squirt?"
"Please," Orrin hissed, venom dripping with each word. "Call me that again. I still have patience left." Getting raised brows in response, Orrin's lips curled just enough for his fangs to peek out and he took hold of the sheath at his hip. "I dare you."
The amusement returned, but with it came a familiar resistance; pride. The man smiled widely, "Got a problem… squirt?"
"In fact, I do," Orrin purred.
The stranger cackled, "Enlighten me."
Keeping eye contact, he tightened his grip on the sheath, ignoring the snorts from spectators around, "You're in my face."
The runes on the Lucerne lit up, and the retracted handle stretched out with startling abruptness, its butt-end shooting straight past the stranger's head. The man saw nothing; only felt a cold sting slice his cheek before he jerked his head away from Orrin. His big hand flew up to his cheek where a fresh but shallow wound now oozed blood down the toughened skin, eyes wide as the man noticed the stubby hammer more resembled a spear. A trace of blood even dribbled down the spike on the handle.
Orrin did not smile despite the satisfaction that reaction brought, "Next time you want to call me squirt…" He gripped the hammer now, ripping it from the sheath and smashing it into the deck one-handed, a resounding crack following as the wood splintered beneath the force. His eyes narrowed. "Don't."
Silence had once more returned, the other contestants no longer cackling about his "puny hammer," and this time when the bald man broke it his voice strained to keep the same level of confidence, "Good, get cocky. Let's see how long you last in this tourney!"
He spun on his heel to leave, perhaps hoping to lessen the blow to his ego by ending it now, but Orrin simply scoffed. The stranger stalled and glanced back with an unreadable mask, but when Orrin returned the stare, the axman broke eye contact and returned to whatever part of the boat he'd originally been. Orrin hadn't responded verbally, but his message was clear enough. Nobody was fooled by the attempt to save face.
Scanning about the various faces turned his way, like a visible challenge for any one of them to come up and try to pull that stunt again, he found that most lost interest in him now that no one was confronting him, so he retracted the handle again and slid the hammer back into place. Again, he scoffed, his mood soured.
"They don't know you're a Ghenyu, do they?" Teague spoke.
Surprisingly, Teague was no longer curled or cowering, watching the way the other contestants avoided conversation and company. His question repeated in Orrin's mind as he followed the other's example, pondering the likelihood that any of them had even thought of it.
"No. I don't think they do," he answered.
After that, the waiting was as peaceful as it could get despite the looming presence of stern fighters, and yet the midday sun snuck up on them all. Around then a large islet rose over the horizon. The two Ghenyus wouldn't have noticed due to weariness forcing them into a half-sleep, except the ungraceful stomping from the other fighters jostled their sleepy haze and drew their focus to the front of the ship where they accumulated.
Curious—and a bit eager to get off the ship—they followed them to the railing to get a better look at their destination. The islet lingered before them, a towering mountain at its center and a thick all-encompassing forest swallowing up most of the visible land in swollen greenery. Even some of the mountainside didn't escape its carnivorous jaws.
After examining it, Orrin took a quiet breath, eyeing the beautiful, flourished, yet dark forest. The idea of being in the woods soothed him, but this particular place made him uneasy.
"Fine view of Ghost Woods, eh?" a man beside them asked.
The Ghenyus didn't respond immediately, Teague looking frantically from him to the forest, but Orrin raised an eyebrow, finding the stranger's excited smirk out of place.
"Ghost Woods?" the Fire Ghenyu repeated.
"Naïve, I can see. Don't you know anything about this tourney?"
"Kid," a gruffer voice interrupted. Looking back, Orrin found it was the guy with the double-bladed axe. He would have glared, but the man had sobered up from the childish hazing and seemed more focused on the forest. "This island is cursed. It tries to kill all who step foot onto its soil. Thousands have died there."
"So why is the tournament being held there if it's so dangerous?"
A fighter with a claymore and brunet curls chuckled, "The first preliminary round is spent competing in a race through the island. Don't mind me saying so, but it doesn't look good for you and your Ghenyu friend."
Orrin snorted, "We won't go down easy if that's what you're implying."
"Don't jump to conclusions." The swordsman shrugged and scratched at the fine layer of stubble on his chin, although his smirk stayed. "It's just, you're both puny in comparison, and you don't know squat about the island. Both aren't good factors."
"You're making the same mistake baldy made," the Fire blood replied with distaste. "I don't know the island, but I have more experience surviving in the wild then any of you—I can guarantee it."
The swordsman waved him off, "So you might get past the preliminaries…" His tone shifted, falling from its light-hearted humor to dark and challenging. He met Orrin's gaze with matching disdain. "Assuming your skills match up with that ego."
Orrin narrowed his eyes, "I could say the same to you, Sir Stubbles."
The swordsman snickered, and Orrin ignored him at that point. His intention had been to eye the forest while he still had a chance to, but a subtle movement caught his eye, and he realized Teague's widened eyes had been glued to Ghost Woods for quite a while already. Teague's fright glistened within plain sight, and his hands trembled.
Orrin shifted his weight to the other foot to lean closer, then flicked the back of Teague's quivering hand. It drew those silver irises to his auburn ones, and for a while they simply tried to communicate like that, Orrin sending his friend a prayer of courage and Teague attempting to decipher the message. Finally, a smile broke through the otherwise worried visage of the Water blood, and he bumped his shoulder against Orrin's in a return gesture.
Orrin looked away, feigning indifference but hiding the relief in his heart. The attempt to communicate had succeeded, reading very simply:
Flick. Stare. "Don't be scared. I'll back you up."
Smile. Bump. "I know. Thank you."
"Hello, contestants!" a fat man with a goatee exclaimed with unneeded jubilance. "Let's have quick tour around the hotel before we get started!"
Orrin blinked, "Hotel? This'll take more than a day?"
The others tossed him a weird look, but the fat man laughed, "Of course! Why? Make a date with a late night lover?"
The teasing went over Orrin's head, "No. Why are you asking about lovers?"
At that, the brunet swordsman laughed, "So defensive! What's wrong? Can't snag a chick?"
Orrin shrugged but growled, more aware of a subtle undertone to that, "No. I've never tried to 'snag a chick.' What would I do with one?"
Silence. The group of men couldn't grasp the concept of a man having no interest in finding a woman, if not to marry then just a one-time bar floozy, but little did they know that Orrin was thinking not of cute girls and bedtime fun… but baby chickens. After all, being unable to catch a mere chick would be an insult to a hunter like Orrin! Teague was the only who had a clue about Orrin's train of thought, and he politely tried not to ask Orrin for clarification or snicker under his breath. The silence ended with the swordsman muttering, "Weirdo."
Awkward cultural misunderstandings aside, the fat man continued on to guide them through the building they would sleep in, and although the long, homey halls and spacious rooms were inviting and looked comfortable, Orrin kept getting a funny feeling. What this feeling said, he wasn't sure, but he knew something was wrong… and familiar. While they moved further from the bed chambers, his brows furrowed, his heart thudding a little faster as that feeling seemingly multiplied and changed the more it grew. Excited? Nervous? Dangerous? Déjà vu?
The man showed them the kitchen, lounge, dining room, bathroom and looped back around to the bedroom they would sleep in, but Orrin paid little attention to anything but deciphering this odd unshakable knot in his gut. When he snapped out of it, he caught the tail end of the fat man's closing statement, explaining they had to be at the stadium within an hour. Where that was, Orrin didn't know, but he figured he might as well find something to eat while he had time.
However, the moment he stepped out the door a rough hand grabbed his shoulder. He stiffened and whipped his head around, then relaxed. It was the buzz-cut man who had spoken to him in the city while still in line.
"Pipsqueak, do you know what we're supposed to do during the hour?"
Orrin raised an eyebrow, "Resting?"
The guy smiled despite the exasperation that showed through, "If only. The purpose is to find the stadium. They didn't omit that detail by accident."
Groaning before he could stop himself, he slammed his head into the doorframe, his forehead connecting with a loud THWACK! Of course it didn't hurt that much. At the very least, the painful and irritated growling in his stomach was more unbearable. The friendly man slapped a hand over his own face.
"Yadda… You didn't read the manual, did you? You shoulda eaten a big breakfast."
Friendly tips, but a tad too late to make a difference. The Fire blood grew irritated with the growing list of "reasons why I don't want to be here" but forced a shrug and headed to the exit this time. And got stopped. Again. Eyebrow twitching, he turned dead eyes to the friendly fellow, only sparing him a fistful of ticked off Orrin because he'd been the only semi-friendly face besides Teague.
The fellow sensed the bad mood and smiled apologetically, "You shouldn't bring a rabbit with you. It'll get killed in no time."
Rabbit? Orrin blinked when right as he thought about her, Tigris squeaked and pressed her furry body against his neck, fuzzy ears brushing his cheek. She'd been sitting faithfully on his shoulder the entire time, hadn't she? Finally something soothed his sizzling temper, and as he returned to the room with her in his arms, he stroked her head and smiled. Once placed on one of the beds, he stroked her head a couple more times.
"Be a good girl," he told her.
She seemed to understand and laid herself down to nap.
"An animal lover, eh?" the swordsman laughed.
Orrin paused in the midst of walking to the door, tossed a cold stare, then brushed him off to continue on his way.
The brunet snorted at the blatant cold shoulder, "Just a friendly warning: don't get all cuddly with the forest animals. They're more interested in eating ya than snuggling."
Orrin clenched his jaw, avoiding direct eye contact. Something smelled like a rat, but he was sure this rat was carrying a claymore. Finally, the Fire blood continued forward, "I can take care of myself."
Once he stepped outside the room, Teague followed from a pace or two away, still nervous and especially so around the swordsman. His silver eyes met the human's chocolate brown irises, and be it a sliver of paranoia or a subtle shift in the human's expression, Teague swore he spotted malice. He averted his timid gaze at that point.
"Orrin… I'm scared," Mr. Doormat whimpered. "C-Can I stick with you?"
The Fire Ghenyu, hardly in the mood to deal with sniveling, rolled his eyes but shrugged, keeping his focus down the empty hall during the walk.
"I don't care, but there might be a rule against helping others," he pointed out. "Besides, I don't think you should stick so close all the time. Exercise some independence. Who knows? I might go the wrong way."
This answer did not soothe the Water Ghenyu's nerves, clearly visible in his pursed lips and furrowed brows. Strangely, he peeled himself from Orrin's side anyway, even releasing the other's vest as he picked up his pace. Orrin quirked a brow, noticing the shaky but deep breath his partner took.
"I-I trust you," Teague commented. "So I'll… go my own way."
Orrin could see his friend's uncertainty despite the brave words, so to remind him he had his support, Orrin planted a hand on Teague's head and ruffled the snowy hair.
"Don't worry," he reassured. "Just keep on your toes like you're hunting."
The reference to their hunting lesson had the Water Ghenyu perking up, curiosity alight despite he normally hated people messing with his hair. Even when Orrin withdrew the hand and continued the unhurried gait, Teague stared… then smiled. Orrin's hunting lesson still stuck out in his memories, and it reminded him of his gratitude for the wonderful temp-teacher. While Orrin did glance his way, he made sure the eye contact only lasted that brief moment, feeling uneasy somehow.
Perhaps he had an idea on what had dispelled Teague's gloom, or more likely, the atmosphere of this place was getting to him. When they stepped out of the building and laid eyes on the canopy of trees, he was betting it was the latter. Something about this place felt off, and even though Teague seemed enchanted by the beauty, Orrin's breath hitched in suspense and hairs stood on end. He rubbed down the Goosebumps on his arm, eyeing the eerily quiet trees. He really didn't like the feeling this place gave off.
His eyes were drawn to the three paths laid out before them when Teague got a head start and headed for the left-most path. One path turned to the right, one went left and another aimed straight ahead. All were narrow and hard to see thanks to overgrowth, but even being obscured, it seemed too easy. They were already narrow and concealed, so he could only assume they got narrower and harder to keep track of.
By the time he got anywhere with choosing a path, several of the other contestants had already passed and chosen the road they wanted. He assumed there was a trick to this so he thought, "What would I do to trick people into straying from their goal?"
"Better hurry up, pipsqueak!" the friendly man shouted back. "If too many people reach the stadium before you, you'll be eliminated!"
That helped him make up his mind, so after shouting a thank you to his newly found acquaintance, he ran to the left, but instead of following the path, he turned left again to get behind the building. Once there he ran straight into the thick trees, heading in the opposite direction.
If he'd learned one thing during the non-stop dash through the thick mess of trees, it was that if absolutely nothing happens for twenty minutes on a deadly island, something was wrong. If something was wrong in the natural world, nature itself would correct it. That said, most of the initial run consisted of domestic complaints, like quenching his thirst or getting food when he found a break, and as soon as he thought about hunting for a meal, his foot not only caught on a trip-wire, but hit it with enough force that it snapped.
At that point time passed too quick to follow with too much happening to care, so he wasn't sure how long he'd been dodging traps. Each time he avoided one, his movements to evade it invariably triggered another. When he'd snapped the wire, a wooden axe swung from its camouflage in the trees and nearly sliced him in two, and when he leapt forward to get past it, he snapped yet another trip wire, that time a barrage of spiked logs tumbling down over his head.
When he dove out of the way of a particularly gruesome death trap and rolled to his feet, the ground caved beneath his weight. Both hands flew up to snag the edge of the hole, claws generated and digging deep into the hard soil. A quick glance downward confirmed that he'd avoided being impaled several times over if only because of reflex. It didn't help his racing heart to see skeletons lying at the bottom amidst the spikes.
Pulling himself from the hole, he tried to settle his jittery body—after all, he'd caught a break from the traps and could proceed with caution, right?—but the moment he'd gotten to his knees, a heavy unhappy growl rumbled right in front of him. Alarmed and puzzled, he looked up front and found himself face to face, literally, with a big bear. The only thing was, this "bear" had a lizard tail, talons for feet, bull horns on its head and spikes running from its nose down to the tip of the tail, which, on closer inspection, more resembled a spiked mace.
Stunned into silence, all he could think was, "Nice bear?"
It only snarled in his face, drool dripping from its fangs.
He knew better than to flee a predator… but he did it anyway. He bolted ASAP, dealing with the trips as he triggered them. Regardless of the maze of projectiles and deadly steel, the bear-monster roared as it gave chase.
Minutes into it, Orrin was in the middle of ducking under a bombardment of arrows, when he peeked back to check on where the bear was. At first his heart settled seeing it had vanished, then stuttered in fright as a large roar from above caught his ear, and next he knew the large predator leapt down from a nearby tree, slashing at his back. Orrin yelped in surprise, but narrowly avoided the attack, though when the bear then launched forward to tackle, Orrin jumped high towards the next tree, grabbed a branch and swung himself upward. The bear soared past, its claws brushing the back of his vest, and Orrin, left dangling, watched as it released another trap. Spears from either side impaled the beast's torso, an agonized roar slicing the air, then subsiding into a mournful whine.
He felt a pang of pity, but considering it had been trying to eat him, he brushed it aside. While it moaned about on the ground, bleeding out, he pushed aside the hunger the scent of blood caused and climbed up onto the branch, eyeing a possible pathway he could take by tree-hopping. It was an idea the bear inspired, but if it avoided the traps by staying in the trees…
Something more perilous reared its head… or rather, its many heads. As the blood pooled, the growls and hisses of various forest animals collected around the dying beast. Many scents soon reached the Ghenyu's nose, and his eyes widened when spying more ferocious animals crawl out of hiding. All were odd and deformed, and he watched as the first one prodded the dying bear, then—deeming it too weak to defend itself—took a large chomp into its flesh.
His stomach twisted in disgust. The blood that spilled from the bite turned the display morbid, only made worse when the collecting animals then followed the lead and ravaged the bear's body. Consumed by their hunger, they didn't notice when other animals were slain by other traps, and all the while the bear screeched out in pain, struggling weakly against the dozens of carnivores tearing into its flesh. Absorbed in this sight, simply too stunned to move, Orrin never noticed the way his limbs trembled and face paled.
He knew this place had been dangerous. He knew it was strange and alien to him. But what was this? At the first sign of weakness, the other animals ganged up and ate the weakling. What kind of place was this? It served as a striking contrast to the life he led on his island, always taking care to kill the prey quickly and thoroughly to avoid causing them undue pain, and sometimes he even showed mercy, his thoughts returning to when he first found Tigris snared in his forest. She had been wounded. He had been hungry.
But he hadn't eaten her alive.
His jaw clenched, tears stinging at his eyes and rage counteracting the nausea. Without thinking, he transformed to his True Form, inhaling deep and quick simply to roar out at them, every pair of eyes turning to his fanged mouth as he used every ounce of strength and breath to empower the force behind it. The smaller, meeker animals scattered just from that, though the remaining ones lingered to size up the new predator. Claws digging into the branch and lips drawn in a wrathful snarl, his erect ears and wide cat eyes bore down on them. Any fear of their numbers was buried beneath his bubbling ire, and when only a handful of the remaining showed any hesitation to challenge him, he roared again and swiped a claw into the air, flames trailing the claw tips and shooting forward in an arch.
Screeches echoed out, the remaining scattering away from the flames and its caster, and a few beasts flailing about to put out their fur. Even when they did, they only shot Orrin a baneful hiss and skittered off. Listening as the last of the animals vanished from sight and earshot, he leapt down from the branch and approached the bear, his pity overwhelming him to the point the disfigured and partially eaten body burned itself into his mind. He could bury it at least…
It inhaled hoarsely, breath stuttering. It still lived. Orrin's ears drew back now, and against his better judgment, he walked closer to nudge its muzzle. The way its breathing paused and voice cracked, he wondered if it was trying to growl, but when it peeled its eyes open and met Orrin's, it paused its strangled growl to stare with muted puzzlement. Then it closed its eyes. It wouldn't survive another hour.
He thought to leave it there to die in peace, but already Orrin heard more paws brushing through the surroundings, even spying small beady eyes peering out at him like vultures waiting for a meal. Lips twitching, Orrin growled around at the unwanted spectators but few left.
He wasn't sure what to do. He had a time limit, but he didn't want the bear to be eaten. The only option left seemed pointless and needlessly hard, but he still pushed the blood from mind, weaseling his body beneath the beast's and hoisting it up onto his own broad back. The weight of it caused a heavy grunt from the Fire Ghenyu, but he managed to walk forward in spite of the load, the bear too large for even him but only its tail and feet dragging along the ground.
Like some sort of morbid procession, other animals trailed after him to either side and from behind. Though he knew they were just waiting for him to drop the bear for them to eat, it felt like they were seeing someone off, and for that reason Orrin restrained the Fire magic to occasional flicks when he felt they got too close.
Oddly, there were no more traps. Perhaps he'd gone through all of them or the animals were supposed to serve as the last trial, but all he knew was that he was stepping out of Ghost Woods and into a downhill marsh. Stranger yet, the animals did not follow him, stopping at the forest's edge to watch with hungry eyes as he carried off their free meal. One by one, they returned to the depths of their habitat and Orrin was left to himself, clawed feet sinking deep into the muddy terrain and mixing the mud with blood.
He found a patch of soft long grass, which waved like threads of silk in the wind, inviting him closer. There, he slid the bear from his back and rested it on the grassy patch. The beast's breathing had weakened but it still lived. Giving a gentle lick to its muzzle, he offered it a silent farewell before walking around the patch he'd made its bed.
But it whined. Its broken, miserable whimper stalled the lizard in his steps, and though he didn't look back as he debated what to do, he heard the beast shift and felt a little lick to the scales of his tail. His claws dug into the mud, heart throbbing in his chest.
He turned around and laid down beside it in the grass, resting his head on a uninjured part of its shoulder. It settled down now that he had returned and let its eyes close, nibbling idly at Orrin's tail tip. Not sure what to do, he simply waited for it to pass on. In the meantime, he tried to speak to it like he had the lost dog, the Reebans, and Tigris, asking if it had a name or if it was a girl or boy. The answers he got were short and sometimes vague since animal communication was more physical motions than vocal noises, but even though it gave no name, he found out it was female. He asked if she had cubs waiting for her. She answered no. Her den was empty.
This both relieved and saddened him to know. She'd leave no one behind, but she'd been alone in life without a chance to parent a child.
She then shifted, grunting painfully at the movement, but when Orrin looked to see what she was doing, he found her pressing her body up close to him and licking at his snout with what strength she could muster. His ears went upright and head drew back. Her breath became shallower with each passing moment, yet all he could do was stare as she grew too weak to even hold her head up, at which point she rested it over his front claws.
This time when her eyes closed, they did not open again. Halfway through a breath, she stopped moving and her loose body fell limp. The weight of her head changed—felt heavier—and all it did was leave Orrin staring at the corpse. His heart beat hard in his ribs, ears still perked and irises bearing the reflection of the body. Even when he thought to pull his claws away and get going, he couldn't find the willpower to disturb her.
Being the only beast around to mourn her passing, he rested his head over her furry and warm neck, closing his eyes before tears could form.
Struggling to breathe, Orrin's eyes opened against the water drowning him. It blurred his vision and weighed his body down despite its clarity, reducing the world to a shapeless and endless plane of dark water. No matter where he looked or how hard he struggled, he saw no end or surface to the water and made no useful movements to keep from sinking. Except, he didn't sink at all, and given that, had no means to know up from down.
As he screamed out in frustration, the noise reduced to a muffled barrage of bubbles, a familiar song saturated the area. Soft and sleepy, the melody rang out without even the slightest muffle, its lilting notes sadder than before. A light drew his attention ahead where the silhouette of a woman drew near, approaching with familiar poise and grace before reaching out for him. Once he made out the dark blue hair and cerulean eyes, he recognized the mermaid from the Silver Sciathán.
She wore the same wistful smile, but once in reach, she pulled herself closer to kiss his lips. A new breath of oxygen filled his lungs, and when she pulled away, she embraced him and swam back towards the light with him close to her body. Limp in her grasp, he let his head rest against her chest, not noticing that he had at an unknown point changed to his human form. Where was she taking him? To the surface? Was there any escape?
Just below the light, the mermaid paused to drift with him, brushing her fingers through his hair, and when he looked up, he found Yukiko's face staring back at him. Still feral and still confident, the only difference was unmistakable kindness.
"Mercy is always rewarded," she whispered. Pressing her lips to his forehead, his eyes lulled closed. "It may not be immediate, but may in fact return to you sevenfold."
She drew away and released him, and as he floated up to the surface, his eyelids drifted open. The last he saw was a beautiful smile on Yukiko's lips, green irises warm and full of love. His heart stuttered and heat rose beneath his cheeks.
His body broke the surface of the water, throwing his head back into the cooler air with a deep and desperate gasp, but the sudden jolt to his body thrust him to reality, and before he knew what had happened, he realized he'd actually never left his True Form and now laid limply on a cool rock, drenched. When had he fallen asleep?
Head whipping up, he scanned around. Back in the marsh, the high tide had returned at the oddest time of day and flooded the entire marsh with several feet of water. Last he remembered, he'd fallen asleep by the bear. His throat closed up as he scanned the ocean water for sign of the patch of grass, whispering a silent prayer for the bear. Yet he couldn't help but wonder how he'd gotten on this rock...
Movement just below his line of sight caught his eye, and all he glimpsed was a white-furred beast sinking into the water, out of sight. This puzzled more than alarmed him, his mind jumping to Teague yet not matching Teague's serpent form with that furrier, bulkier physique. Had a sea beast helped him?
He shook his head and stood up, the dream fresh in his mind. Perhaps the mermaid had come again like in his dream…
Then he remembered.
"Oh, shit!" he hollered. "The tournament!"
"The next person who arrives is the last person who'll pass this round," the fat man announced. "Assuming they show up within five minutes."
The group groaned in relief, several lounging on the grass as they waited for the next round of preliminaries to start. Teague's white head popped up from among them, worry alight.
"What about the people who don't make it?" Teague asked, scanning for Orrin amidst them despite he knew he hadn't arrived. "Do you search for them?"
The claymore wielder rolled his eyes and snorted, "They don't have time for that! Bottom line, if they don't show up within the hour, they're probably dead." Noticing Teague's jaw tighten in tension, he grinned. "Sorry. I know you liked your hunter buddy. Guess he couldn't match up to his ego after all."
Teague bit his lip and turned his head away, clutching the sides of his pants in tight fists. It hurt to think he'd lost his partner and angered him to hear some S.O.B trash talk him, though he knew he'd never have the courage to say this out loud like Orrin would.
As a result of his turned head, he spied something in the distance that the others had their back to. His head lifted, peering hard, but unable to define its shape he lifted his nose to the air and sniffed a couple times. Blood? Salt water? Animals? A distant shriek of an airborne creature reached his ear, and in response he sprung to his feet and drew a machete. A giant bat-lizard soared straight towards them, so once Teague's defensive posture caught everyone's eye, it took only a glance to figure out why. Every last one rushed to arm themselves, not needing a Ghenyu's heightened senses to know the danger approaching skyward.
Closer and zipping through the air, the beak-nosed beast shrieked again, though Teague tensed when it made eye contact with him, his body locking and sweat building on his brow. Locked on a target, it folded its wings back and dove at Teague, screaming its approach and talons reaching out to swoop up the Ghenyu, a hawk to a beached fish. The terror that seized him left him wide-eyed and breathless, on the verge of screaming his lungs out but unable to unlock his lungs even as the claws reached out from less than a meter away.
"NO! BAD BOY!" someone shouted.
A loud crack of metal against bone followed, and the creature's head jerked roughly, body swerving to the side. Teague felt the breeze as its body scarcely missed him, his fingers tight around the hilt and limbs trembling.
It hit the ground ungracefully and almost rolled over, flailing about with its tail and wings to get back on its feet. Like a turtle, it had no useful arms to pick itself up off its side, instead relying on its long neck and flailing limbs to right itself. The men would have already launched to attack it, but mostly they were stunned and confused since not a meter from the flailing scaled beast was Orrin, having rolled off its back and was barely getting around to standing up.
"Ugh," he groaned. This caught Teague's ear, the Water blood swerving around from his paralysis with relief… only to spot Orrin right as he was punching the beast in the head. It screeched in protest to the abuse, finally getting some semblance of a grip on the ground. Orrin still yelled at it despite its mouthful of fangs now snapping closed repeatedly in irritation.
"I said no eating anyone!" he scolded, punching its head again. It screeched, extra high-pitched, but Orrin simply barked right back. "Don't blame me for falling on your side! No eating means no eating! You were going to break the promise so I stopped you!"
It garbled a whine but settled down in its teeth gnashing, particularly once Orrin stroked its beak-like face. However, around then it finally got back on its feet, halfway due to Orrin's help, though it instantly whipped its head around and locked eyes with Teague again, so the Water Ghenyu squeaked and tensed. The aerial beast's eyes widened and it licked its teeth, even hobbling forward a few steps like a hungry seagull. However Orrin's hammer slammed down on its head, this time knocking the beast forward as Orrin landed from the leap. He stood between it and Teague, hammer resting on his shoulder now.
"I said no!" he scolded again.
This time it grumbled and growled in annoyance, but after staring up at Orrin and Orrin staring back down at it, the beast righted itself again and eyed Teague hungrily… then leaned down to Orrin's eye level. It made a quizzical garbled purr and Orrin smiled in response, pulling a strung up fish from his side to swing back and forth teasingly.
"You mean this?" he asked back.
Those yellow beastie eyes widened and it shifted its weight back and forth between its feet, tail swaying back and forth. It didn't growl or garble this time, its drooling lips and teeth-licking speaking well enough. Jerking it, the string securing it to his side snapped and he flung the fish high into the air. The beast lurched after it, only needing to go on its tiptoes and stretch its neck out to catch the food. It gobbled the treat down with ease, licked away the taste from its teeth, then dropped down low to get in Orrin's face again, its kid-like excitement gone.
Its eyes remained wide though, unblinking as they stared each other down a second time, both motionless, neither budging.
Its tongue flicked out and planted itself firmly over Orrin's face. Most of the spectators grimaced, but Orrin protested none of this. Though it broke the stalemate in an odd way, the beast revealed its motive for its odd behavior by licking around the Fire Ghenyu's face where traces of the bear's blood lingered. Only once it'd sniffed around for other traces of blood did it withdraw its tongue-washing and garble another quizzical purr, at which point Orrin rolled his eyes and petted its nose.
"All clean," he reassured.
Its eyes glittered and finally it started its ungraceful duck strut back towards the forest, then paused, looked back at Orrin, blinked, then ran away with the same hobble. A few more steps and it opened its wings, thrusting them down and taking off into the skies. At that point Orrin sighed and wiped his face dry using his vest.
He looked back at Teague, shrinking the hammer's handle and sheathing it, "I see you made it alright."
Teague didn't budge, save for the nod, "Y-Yeah… No traps or anything. Got here in about ten, twenty minutes. Seems I got lucky."
"God damn it. Really?" The Fire blood frowned. "I had traps galore, plus savage animals to fend off."
Teague didn't seem to know what to say, but around then Orrin noticed Teague still clutching to his sword with white knuckles. Once Orrin quirked a brow at it, the Water blood flushed red and quickly sheathed it.
"U-Um, s-so why are you all wet?" he questioned.
"Oh, um. I'm not sure." Scratching at his head, he tried not to blush in embarrassment. "I fell asleep in a swamp. When I awoke, I found it flooded and I'd been moved to higher ground."
Teague had no chance to respond with more than a dumbfounded stare before the swordsman squeaked, "You fell asleep? This is a tourney! Not some… playground!"
"Hey!" Orrin snapped. "There were circumstances! It was an accident anyway!"
The man shook his head in disbelief, brunet locks bouncing with the movement, and he approached, chest puffed and shoulders rigid. Orrin turned his body to him, sensing the malicious intent, but the friendly buzz-cut man stepped between, a hand pressed lightly to the swordsman's chest.
"Hey, does it matter? He made it within the constraints." He grinned and looked at the two Ghenyus. "I'm actually impressed! You wasted time yet got here in one piece!" He turned a meaningful gaze to the swordsman who he could feel was trembling with suppressed rage. "I think this shows his talent does match his supposed ego."
The swordsman shot a harsh glare at the friendly man but spun on his heel and paced off towards a stadium now visible from the area, its walls towering over the trees. The other contestants turned away as well to follow, but seeing even the fat announcer heading off, Orrin scanned the number of men and the surroundings. Only a quarter of the men remained.
"What about the others?" Orrin asked, bewildered.
"The rest are disqualified," the fat man answered, waving the matter off. "They're probably dead anyway."
That was it? No concern or anything? Teague spotted his partner's temper rising, so he bumped shoulders like back on the ship. Orrin frowned but listened when Teague urged him to follow along, but no later did the buzz-cut man matched his pace to Orrin's.
"I haven't told you my name yet," he began. He held out his hand. "I'm Tegmin."
Orrin gave a curt handshake, "I'm Orrin. This is Teague. Have a nice day? Good."
Tegmin raised an eyebrow but chuckled, entirely undeterred by the bad mood, "Say, why don't you tell me about that beast you were riding. Looked like you bribed it."
"I did," the Fire blood growled. "Just about any animal likes food."
Teague giggled, "Maybe those pixies tormenting you at the Silver Sciathán could'a done with some food too."
Orrin snorted, but before he retorted, he noticed Tegmin stall for a split second. He went to ask what was wrong right as he noticed any nearby contestants—including the swordsman—turn wary stares their way. Or more specifically, Orrin's way.
"Boy," the axe-wielder muttered, alarm thick in his voice. "Are you a sorcerer from the Silver Sciathán?"
Orrin sputtered at the thought, "Hell no! I wouldn't become a sorcerer if it was the last profession left. My trainer took me and Teague there for protection."
They all relaxed, relieved to know they wouldn't be facing off with a sorcerer. However, that relief vanished the moment they registered the implications.
"You're a Ghenyu too?" the swordsman shouted in horror. Without another word he swerved to the fat man, pointing an accusing finger at Orrin. "This is outrageous! Those things shouldn't be allowed to compete! One of their kind was enough!"
"Shut your hole!" Tegmin retorted. "You're just scared!"
The swordsman hissed at the opposition as he spoke, "I'm watching out for all of us! They're both unstable! Especially him!"
The pointed finger still aimed at the Fire blood clarified which one he was "worried" about. While the swordsman and Tegmin exchanged verbal blows, Orrin stood back from it, watching as both Teague and the announcer tried to intervene in the climbing argument. Being apart of this battle seemed natural to him since it was his and Teague's integrity on the line, and yet his thoughts drifted back to the boat when the axe-man had approached with snide intentions.
It was the same, he realized. This was not worth the time of day or the breath since even now he could see Tegmin's words going in one ear and out the other with this particular swordsman. Orrin was sick of his attitude, but this made it easier to see the truth. Yuki had mentioned time and time again that his rash and instinctual behavior caused trouble, and here he saw why. What good would arguing do here? Whose honor would be saved? Whose pride would be damaged?
It felt strange, realizing the meaning behind a lesson. "Mind your manners" she'd worded it, but she really meant "control yourself and think first." If he jumped in just to argue, it'd make things worse. That was how assassins came to chase him, wasn't it?
Seeing the mediating not working, Teague growing disheartened, Orrin sighed and stepped forward to pull his partner away. Not one step later, the swordsman had drawn his claymore and pointed it at Orrin's throat, both tense and furious. The arguing paused for that moment, Orrin's calm visage changed to unreadable and calculating. Teague held his breath and Tegmin tensed.
"Enough!" the fat man shouted, pushing the sword away. His jubilant disposition had soured with his temper, clearly irked that the contestant so rudely ignored all his attempts to mediate. This only deepened the swordsman's puzzled expression once the fat man positioned himself in front of Orrin firmly. "I understand why untrained Ghenyus feel threatening, but you're overreacting! I have spoken with their trainer, and she knows they are safe! So disarm yourself! Now!"
It became apparent to everyone that he either had to listen to the man or be booted from the competition, perhaps prompting the man towards obeying. Despite his reluctance, the swordsman sheathed his sword, tossing a sour glower at the Fire blood before following after his fellow contestants. At that point even the announcer strutted ahead, muttering his irritation about hot-headed contestants, but the Ghenyus and Tegmin lingered behind.
Teague breathed out, "I-I thought he was going to…"
The Fire blood watched the swordsman leave, left to ponder what would have happened if he had approached with malice as the human clearly expected; how he initially desired to. Would he have paused at pointing his sword? Or would he have swung without hesitation?
Goosebumps crawled across his skin. Slowly as these travels progressed, he was starting to understand Yukiko bit by bit.