Cyril groaned as he opened his eyes, feeling a strange weight combined with a pricking feeling on his shoulders, wrists, and legs as he sat upright.
As he attempted to sit up, he felt sharp pains around his body, so he laid back down with a grunt. His stomach lurched as he looked around, finding himself in an entirely new environment than where he had been when he fell asleep the previous night. Instead of waking up on a soft bed with Snowflake in his arms, he awakened to a blindingly bright light, along with the feeling of lying on cold hard stone.
"Finally awake, huh?" scoffed an unfamiliar voice off to his right. "Took you long enough."
He tried to turn his head to get a look at who had spoken to him, but the stabbing pains in his body only got worse as he moved around. It felt as though he was wrapped up in thorns, jabbing into his skin even through his tunic and trousers.
"What's going on?" he demanded through gritted teeth.
"Calm down, Cyril," said Saiph's voice, coming from somewhere off to his left. "Moving around will only make it hurt more." She sounded like she was also in pain, and he remembered that she could feel everything that he felt—including his pain. He stopped moving immediately thereafter.
"Pick him up," said another voice. Cyril recognized the voice to be that of Lady Hjaldir. He assumed that Saiph wasn't joking about them being taken in their sleep to the Temple of Thorns after he heard her voice. He heard the sound of footsteps on stone approaching him from the side and soon looked up to see Saiph's face staring down at him.
"Sorry about this. It's probably going to hurt a bit." She then reached down and grabbed his arm, hoisting him up to his feet with horrible stabbing pains shooting all throughout both of their bodies, as they both let out matching cries of pain. Cyril didn't dare move a muscle, even though he was standing on his own two feet. He carefully held his stance, holding his breath to make sure he moved as little as possible. He looked down at himself, moving only his eyes so he wouldn't risk stabbing himself with whatever was wrapped around his body. It appeared as if there were thin metal bands wrapped around his wrists, shoulders, and lower-legs, all of them being dotted with exceedingly-sharp spikes—of which he saw a few digging painfully into his skin, but strangely drawing no blood.
He looked up to Lady Hjaldir and the other Valkyrie who stood next to her, who seemed to wield a broadsword and a small metal buckler.
"Care to explain what's going on?" Cyril asked, turning his gaze onto Saiph, who still had on an expression of pain. She shrugged her shoulders in response, nodding to the two Valkyries before them.
"Your training will begin soon," said Hjaldir. "But first you need to swear an oath."
"What kind of oath?" Cyril asked. "What am I getting myself—what are we about to get into?" He thought for a moment, then added, "And what did you do with Snowflake?"
"Listen up, Human," said the other Valkyrie. "You need to swear that you won't tell another living soul on the Surface about this training, or else you and my blade are going to have a very personal conversation."
"Easy, Freya…" Hjaldir warned. "Cyril… it's essentially what she just said. Do you accept that?" She approached him and moved her hands so they were positioned just above the metal bands over his wrists.
"I'll accept," Cyril said. "Just show me that Snowflake is okay."
Hjaldir nodded her head, placing her hands on the bands wrapped around his wrists, causing them to disappear in a flash of white light. She did the same with the rest of the bands on his body, stepping away from them once she had made the last few spiked bands disappear. He and Saiph each let out sighs of relief, finally able to move around without being met with stabbing pains all over their bodies.
He took the opportunity to take a look at his new surroundings, noticing that there wasn't too much to see apart from several stone columns sparsely surrounding them in a large circle. He could see the clear blue sky above and all around them through the large gaps between the columns, along with a few distant floating islands, but nothing much else. The other Valkyrie, apparently named Freya, reached behind her back and lifted something in front of her.
Cyril looked over to her and realized with a start that she was holding Snowflake in her arms. The little Snow Dragon yipped excitedly as she saw him, reaching her claws out in his direction and trying to wriggle out of the Valkyrie's grasp.
"CYYY!" she cried, wrenching herself out of Freya's grasp and dropping to the ground, bolting over to him and leaping up to throw her wings around him. Her tail wagged back and forth excitedly as if she hadn't seen him in days, when it had probably only been a few hours. She muttered something that sounded like "I missed you," in Dragontongue, blowing a hefty amount of chilly frostbreath in his face as she did.
I missed you too, Snowflake, he told her in Dragontongue, prying her off of him and setting her down gently on the ground, where she immediately wrapped herself around his leg. Freya scoffed, sheathing her sword into a scabbard that was attached to her hip.
"Good," Hjaldir stated, spreading her wings and turning her attention to Cyril. "We will begin Resolve immediately." He felt confused to say the least.
"Resolve?" he asked, arching his eyebrow.
"Typical," Freya muttered under her breath, earning herself a significant look from Hjaldir.
"We Valkyries, if you don't know, have a very rigorous method of training individuals to better themselves in many ways—not just in combat like some will have you believe," Hjaldir said with a nod. "You will participate in three of them today, as that is all we'll have time for under the circumstances." Freya crossed her arms to her chest.
"Resolve. Honor. Truth. I'll be surprised if you get past the first one, if I'm being honest."
"Stand down, Freya," Hjaldir stated. "I understand that you're eager for battle, but you must control yourself." She stepped forward, standing directly in front of Cyril. He had to look up if he wanted to look her in the eyes, as she towered over him. He heard Snowflake let out a frightened yelp as she hid behind him.
"So… what do I have to do?" he asked her. "Do I have to lift something three times my size? Or maybe do five laps around the place?" Hjaldir shook her head, lowering herself so she was at eye-level with him.
"Prove to me that you want this. Show me that you're willing to put yourself in danger for others. Show me that you can be trusted with the knowledge that you learn here today…"
Cyril turned to Saiph, who nodded her head reluctantly. He took a deep breath, looking Hjaldir in the eye.
"Well… the Spiteful got out of its seal because of me," he told her. "I think it should be me who puts it back inside. I suppose it would only be right."
"Go on," Hjaldir stated. He thought for a moment before continuing.
"My friends were all possessed by that horrible thing. I can't just leave them alone." He felt his heart begin to speed up as he struggled to think of more things to say that would prove that he was worthy of the Valkyrie's training.
"Is that all?" Hjaldir asked him.
"No! No…" Cyril said, trying to calm himself down. "I… I put everyone in danger." He choked on the words that he wanted to say, thinking of his friends in the monstrous claws of the Spiteful. "This is all my fault." He saw Coral, Neon, Void, Ember—all of his friend's faces in the back of his mind, all of them wearing the same blank expression with blood-red eyes. He blinked back tears.
"Too soft…" Freya spat, shaking her head.
"Silence," Hjaldir said firmly. Cyril wiped the tears from his eyes, looking at Hjaldir with a serious expression.
"Please, Hjaldir… If I don't do this, I'm afraid—" He didn't want to say this at all. He didn't even want to think about the possibility of losing them. I can't lose them. What a horrible thought… "I-I'm afraid they'll die if I don't do something." Hjaldir nodded her head, taking a step back and turning away from him, walking away from them in the direction of a gap in one of the stone columns in the distance.
"I've heard enough. Freya, prepare them for Honor." She spread her feathery wings and took off, disappearing below the raised stone floor and out of line of sight.
"Ugh," Freya scoffed. "Of course it had to be me to take care of the Human." She reached into a pack that was strapped onto her back, tossing out several pieces of leather armor. Once she had taken out enough pieces of armor so both he and Saiph could each wear a piece, Freya took the bag off and threw it forcefully into one of the columns across the way, where it landed with a thud combined with the creaking of hardened leather.
"What's Honor? I mean, I know what honor is, but…" Cyril trailed off as he saw Freya's angry expression. He stepped back to stand next to Saiph, giving her a sideways glance as the Valkyrie grabbed the pieces of leather armor and tossed them at the two.
"Honor is our fancy way of saying combat," Freya told him. "Are you going to put on that armor or are you just going to get cut like an idiot?"
Cyril bent down and picked up a pair of leather vambraces, eyeing them curiously. He had never worn real armor before—only having studied the kinds of armor that Human knights typically wore.
"Wait… combat?" he asked nervously. "As in… real combat. Like with swords and shields?"
"Yes!" Freya cried, exasperated. "What else do you think I meant?!" She drew her broadsword and pointed it at him threateningly. "Now put on the armor before I show you how it feels to get hit without it!" Saiph narrowed her eyes at Freya, gathering the pieces of leather armor on the ground and beginning to put it on.
"Just you wait, I'll show you how it feels…" she muttered under her breath as she equipped herself.
Cyril wrapped the leather vambraces around his forearms, tying them tightly around with the leather strap attached to the ends closest to his torso. He pulled on them, making sure they were secure before reaching down and picking up a pair of leather shoulder pads and putting them on. He found one last pair of leather greaves in the dwindling pile of armor as Saiph put some of the pieces on as well. Cyril fitted the greaves over his lower legs, tying them tightly so they wouldn't budge as he walked.
As he looked up from armoring himself, he saw Snowflake watching him with sparkling eyes. She reached her claw out towards him and placed it on his vambrace, poking it with an awestruck expression. He smiled, scratching her gently under her chin. As he was about to pick her up and let her ride on his back again, he heard the sound of several wings beating at once. He and Saiph both looked up and were met with at least ten new Valkyries, all of whom were wearing varying degrees of armor and carrying an assortment of weapons, some of them wearing as much as them, and others having on almost full suits of plate armor.
Hjaldir stepped forward out of the crowd of Valkyries, who all stood in a line, getting into an alert, guard-like stance with their weapons at the ready.
"The Honor session of training is about to begin. I trust you explained it to them, Freya." Freya rolled her eyes and turned to Cyril and Saiph.
"Fine," she scoffed. "You two need to defeat all ten of them in battle, and then you'll fight me. That is, if you survive the first one." She looked Cyril up and down with narrow eyes. "And no magic! Learn to fight like a real warrior, bookworm!"
"Freya," Hjaldir warned. "Watch your tongue."
"Whatever, just get it over with. I doubt they'll even make it past Brytha…" Freya said, walking over to where she'd thrown her pack against the stone column earlier. Nine of the other Valkyries walked over to stand with Freya, forming another line along the columns, leaving one nervous-looking Valkyrie standing there, who was wearing the same amount of armor as Cyril and Saiph were. She held a two-handed sword in her hands, holding it shakily as she stood in a combat-ready stance.
"Honor is simple…" Hjaldir explained, holding her arms out and enveloping the area around them in a warm pale-yellow light. Cyril felt his skin tingle, but looking down at himself revealed that nothing had changed, at least on the outside of his body. Hjaldir continued on. "You have two minutes to defeat each of my fellow Valkyries using any method available besides your magic. Announce your weapon of choice." Saiph didn't hesitate in responding like Cyril did.
"Shortsword," she called, drawing the sword that she carried on her back and holding it with her right hand.
"Wait, defeat?!" Cyril cried, his heart feeling as if it would burst out of his chest. "I don't want to kill anybody!" He shook his head, looking down to Snowflake, who whimpered as she saw his sad face. I especially don't want to do this to someone I don't know. These Valkyries haven't done anything to hurt me—why should I hurt them? He reached down and picked Snowflake up, walking over to Hjaldir and handing her over with a nervous expression on his face.
"Nobody will die," the Valkyrie reassured him. "This field of warm light will prevent you from receiving wounds to your body. You'll still feel the blows, but you won't be in any danger." Cyril nodded his head reluctantly.
"If you say so… I'll take a shortsword, please," he stated. Hjaldir held her hand out and produced a shortsword identical to Saiph's from thin air with a flash of light. It floated gently over to him and he grabbed it with his right hand, attempting to get a feel for the weapon as he returned to his Proctor's side. She gave him a serious look, putting her hand on his shoulder.
"Are you ready for this? I know you hate this kind of thing," she said in a quiet voice. Cyril took a deep breath, nodding his head.
"I need to be able to handle myself in a fight just—just in case I can't use my magic," he replied. She gave him a smile and a light shove, getting into a combat-ready stance. "Let's do this."
He swallowed his fear, readying himself for the fight ahead of them.
After a long, quiet moment, Hjaldir clapped her hands twice, signaling for them to fight. Saiph slowly approached Brytha, holding her blade out in front of her, ready to parry. Cyril followed her, inching around the Valkyrie's other side and keeping his expression neutral to hide how scared he actually felt at the moment. Saiph suddenly lunged forward, attacking with an overhead swing at Brytha that she managed to block just in the nick of time. The Valkyrie pushed her off, swinging her two-handed sword at her, most likely aiming to catch her in the side where only her tunic protected her. Cyril aimed to stab at her, but hesitated, as he couldn't find it in himself to hurt someone of whom he had no quarrel with.
His hesitation seemed to be both his and his Proctor's downfall, as Saiph was too slow to block the blow from Brytha's heavy sword, causing her to get hit right on the side, falling to the ground with a cry of pain.
Cyril felt a bright stab of pain on his side—on the exact same part of his body that Saiph had gotten hit. He stumbled backwards, clutching his side as Saiph shuffled away from Brytha on the ground. Recovering quickly, he ran at the Valkyrie, shoving her off her feet and onto the ground before she could bring her sword down on Saiph. He ignored the guilt that came with doing so, pointing his blade at Brytha as he stood over her. She held her hands up harmlessly, dropping her weapon and admitting defeat. Cyril lowered his blade, reaching his hand out for her to grab. She took his arm and he pulled her to her feet with a nod.
"Good fight," she told him as she walked over to join the other Valkyries, patting another one on the shoulder and causing her to leave the group, walking towards him and Saiph. He turned to look at his Proctor, grabbing her hand and pulling her to her feet. He checked where she had gotten hit by the heavy sword and, sure enough, there was no wound.
That's a relief, he thought. "Are you alright?" he asked her out loud.
"I'll be fine," she replied. "Don't hesitate like that next time, or else we might actually lose." She shook herself as if to try forgetting about the pain from the blow. "But… good job, I guess. Quick thinking and all." Cyril nodded his head, but was still stuck on what she'd said about failing.
"What happens then—if we fail?"
"Oh… we'll have to start all over. No matter how tired or sore we are. We'll have to keep going until we get it right, or until sundown. Whichever comes first," Saiph told him, turning to face the next Valkyrie that they had to fight. Cyril did not like the sound of that. If they didn't defeat all of the Valkyries on their first attempt, they would be in this training thing even longer than he'd originally thought.
We might not have another day before the Spiteful does something to my friends. If it thinks I'm gone, it won't need them anymore—which means it'll probably kill them. But as long as it knows I'm alive, it knows it can use them to get into my head. He let out a sigh, shaking his head and focusing on the task at hand. To think… All I wanted to do was study with the Avalians.
He looked over to the Valkyrie that was standing ahead of them. She was wearing a little more armor than Brytha had been wearing, this time having on a leather cuirass in addition to the other pieces of armor on her shoulders, forearms, and shins. She wielded a wooden heater shield and a long one-handed blade, looking more confident in herself than Brytha did. Hjaldir once again clapped her hands twice, beginning the fight.
Saiph wasted no time in dashing at the Valkyrie this time, slashing relentlessly at her, her blows all being blocked by her shield. The Valkyrie anticipated Saiph's next attack and retaliated with her shield, bashing it against her incoming blade and pushing her backward, countering with an overhead slash. Cyril bumped Saiph out of the way and caught the Valkyrie's blade on his own, using both of his hands and all of his strength to keep her at bay. Saiph rammed her weight into the Valkyrie, sending her backwards as she hid behind her shield. Cyril took a deep breath, looking to Saiph as she moved closely next to him.
"Whatever happens to one of us happens to the other," she whispered. "We'll get exhausted too quickly if we keep this up."
"What do you suppose we do instead?" he whispered back, stepping away from the Valkyrie as she approached them.
"Cyril, I've known you my whole life. I can practically read your body language like a book by now," Saiph told him. "Do your best at fending off these Valkyries, yeah? I'll tap in when I see an opening."
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Cyril asked. "I don't want to sound mean, but I just met you yesterday. I hardly know you." Saiph looked down at her feet sadly.
"I know… Just—please, trust me on this one. You're my Mage. I'm your Proctor. We have a bond that nobody else in the universe has." Cyril looked at her with wide eyes. He nodded his head slowly.
"We're going to need to be completely in sync if we're going to win these fights," Saiph told him. "Are you with me?" She held out her hand. He took her hand in his and shook it, nodding his head.
"I'm with you."
The two faced the Valkyrie together, approaching her side-by-side and ready to fight.
Cyril tightened his grip on the sword he held in his hand, swallowing his fear and charging forward. The sound of clanking blades rang continuously in the Temple of Thorns as he and his Proctor fought the Valkyries as a team, doing their best to cover each other's blind spots. The two defeated the last nine Valkyries as they learned to complement each other's style of fighting. He had somewhat learned to read Saiph's body language, able to tell how she would react to a certain attack judging by the way she stood and held her blade most of the time. As the tenth Valkyrie dropped her weapon and admitted defeat, he and Saiph gave each other a high-five as they caught their breaths before the last fight of the Honor trial. He wiped a few beads of sweat that had formed on his forehead, tightening his vambraces as he did so. He then looked at his Proctor with a smile.
"I can't believe we actually made it this far," he said, impressing even himself as he looked at the nearly-empty Temple of Thorns. The other Valkyries that they had defeated flew off shortly thereafter, most likely because their tasks had been fulfilled for the day. He never would have thought that he would be able to defeat the battle-maidens as he did, especially with this being his first time actually wielding a sword. Although, deep down he knew that it was Saiph that was enabling him to do that. She gave him confidence in himself that he didn't know he had until now.
She's like my other half, he thought. I only wish I knew she existed before.
"Let's not get too excited…" Saiph said between deep breaths. "We still have to get past Freya. Something tells me that isn't going to be as easy as the rest of the fights were."
"Easy?" Cyril said with a laugh. "That was the hardest thing I've ever done."
The unfriendly Valkyrie stood up from where she sat against one of the far columns behind Hjaldir. She picked up her blade and buckler, rolling her shoulders and putting on a serious expression as she approached Cyril and Saiph.
"This is your last trial of Honor," Freya said, narrowing her eyes at them. "And this is as far as you'll ever make it." She stood in a combat-ready stance, holding her sword at the ready. Saiph looked visibly angry, clenching her fist tightly around the grip of her sword and holding it up. Her anger began to rub off on Cyril, and he started to feel his skin prickle because of it. He put his hand on Saiph's shoulder and gave her a sincere look.
"Don't let her get into your head. Let's handle this exactly how we did the last ten times." His Proctor took a deep breath, nodding her head after a few moments.
"You're right," she said quietly. "But if it's all the same to you—let's kick her butt." Cyril smiled at her, standing in a combat-ready stance at her side.
This is it. If we don't win this fight, we'll just be undoing all of our progress that we made today, he thought, taking a deep breath and remembering why he was doing all of this in the first place. My friends are in danger. I'm doing this for them. So, for their sake, I'm going to show that Valkyrie what a Mage can do.