Just seven of us.
Such a small, insignificant number.
But we were a special group of seven. It was the night of the last full moon of the year, and we were all prepared to celebrate our coming of Age. After surviving fourteen grueling years of life, we were finally men in the eyes of our people. The clan had been celebrating since the crack of dawn with food, drink, music, dancing, games, and more. Festivity was in the atmosphere. Everyone, no matter the age, was enjoying themselves. Younger children were screaming in delight as the magicians and fire eaters performed tricks. The adolescents, children my age and older, amused themselves by competing in various contests for useless but delightful prizes. Women gossiped as they their braided long dark hair and painted various symbols of passion, strength and luck on taunt skin. The elders had gathered around the forge where they shared tales of the old days while they watched the men test their metal working skills against one another.
The parents of the seven were particularly boastful today. Each mother took painstaking care in braiding her son's hair, and the symbols they painted were as artistic as they were perfect. Later on, these ancient markings would be tattooed forever in place. Meanwhile, the fathers compared the weapons they had forged for their sons that would be given as gifts later.
But not my father. He had succumbed to poisoning two years ago. It was an accident, or murder, that had never been explained. I did not receive a weapon, our only means of protection, at sunset before the Challenge began.
It was traditional for all the young demons in my village to spend the night alone in the woods. Away from the parents that had protected us for so long, away from our clan where we left so safe. It was a test of our courage, strength, instinct, and wisdom. Rarely did a boy return without injury. Occasional, boys never returned at all. It was always tragic when someone did not survive the Challenge, but the world was a dangerous place, and the weak would only put the clan at risk. If we were to be of any use we had to prove that we could defend ourselves not only from the dangers that lurked in the wilderness, but from each other as well.
I still remember my father explaining the night of his Challenge. There had been four boys in his group. Each very strong. All likely candidates for warriors. The first night, he said, was spent in the same fashion that most Challengers spent their first night. The young men huddled together around a fire, missing their warm beds and protected homes. It was the morning after that they began to test one another, fighting and scrabbling and figuring things out. By the end of the day, they were attempting to kill one another. When the second night passed and the morning sun of the third day had returned, signaling the end of the Challenge, whoever was still alive returned home as men.
That year, only my father returned. He had single handily slaughtered every other boy.
He was feared and respected.
No one expected the same from me. I had not inherited my father's strength or size. In fact, I was considered one of the smallest males to be born to our people in many generations. It would be a miracle if I made it to sunset of the second day at all.
The others made sure I was aware of as we set up camp.
"You look like a woman, Sable. Be a woman, and cook our dinner."
"Oh, yes. It's not like you have a weapon to hunt with."
"Consider yourself lucky to be alive even now!"
I hated them all. I could feel the paint of my mother's protection charm crack and flake from my cheek as I clenched my jaws. Fighting back was not an option. I was small. Weak. Never in a million years could I overpower them. They knew that as well as I did. Biting back my anger and busying myself with building a fire was the only thing I could do. They were right, after all. I had no weapon to hunt with. My sharp nails didn't count. Their nails were just as sharp, and they had the muscle required to make them deadly. Keeping my head down and preparing the meat that someone would hopefully bring back while they explored was the safest course of action.
What a shame that they didn't all get themselves killed by a bear or while out hunting. It would have made life easier on me. Instead, after three hours of sitting in silence, hazel eyes trained on the fire I had created, I had the pleasure of skinning a young deer that Akain had caught and slaughtered with his mace.
"Would you hurry up?" He hissed, yanking my long black hair. "I'm hungry!"
I resisted the urge to snap. Letting his rude behavior spark my temper would only result in my death. "Please be patient, Akain." Dear lord, I hated how soft and light my voice sounded compared to Akain's bark. "It will be ready soon."
Why were they so excited? We were in the middle of the wilderness were monsters and demons lurked in the shadows. They should be afraid! Nervous! Huddled together! Ignorant, stupid boys. They had been raised to be fearless a little too well. They were headstrong. Rash. The rowdy boys laughing and brawling around me didn't understand the meaning of patience.
But I did. My mother had carefully painted it on the back of my left hand with a tender kiss.
I waited calmly as the venison cooked.
I watched quietly as the other six boys dug into the meat when it was ready, using their bare hands and grinning at one another.
I counted the minutes as they passed.
One, two, three...
Rem and Slak collapsed next to each other.
Axel lay convulsing on the ground, foam on his lips.
Malik was clutching at his throat in a desperate attempt to breathe.
Akain's lifeless eyes stared at me in shock.
I guess I've always had a way with poison.